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The Dread Wolf's Heart

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The breach closed. The orb fell, empty, from her grasp.

She rounded on Corypheus.

Anger sang in her veins. So much. So much, and yet it was cold, like metal shards in her heart. All the suffering this creature had caused. The deaths at the conclave. The Templars. The Grey Wardens. Red Lyrium and its madness. Every child killed by a demon freed through the rifts, every villager kidnapped to be fed to the lyrium mines, the ancient elves and the Temple of Mythal – even the orb, silent on the ground, a piece of the past sullied and shattered by Corypheus’ greed.

She reached out, intent on tearing him from existence itself. How do you even know you can? a voice in the back of her mind wondered, incredulous; the young elf who could still scarcely believe any of this was happening, the simple hunter from the Free Marches. But she knew. It seemed so simple right then, so clear.

“No!” Corypheus bellowed, and reached back, a split second of familiar magic flying from his hand. Magic she had not seen since Redcliff.

Time magic.

Clarity hit her, for one pure second, and she realized her mistake. Of course he would not let it end here. Of course he would, at the moment of defeat, risk tearing the world apart to preserve himself; he had been ready to do just that with the breach. Of course his sheer egotism would not allow him to use it until the last possible instant.

Shit, she thought, in the moment of revelation, and twisted her fingers sharply to try and finish him off before…

Rift magic met Time magic.

A clash of bright green light and purple-black void. Corypheus’ body split and crackled and burned, and the wave of magic washed over her, consumed her in turn. It felt like being pulled in a thousand directions at once, and she wondered if she had done to herself what she did to her enemy; if the rift had won and taken them both in the process.

Voices shouted in alarm.

There was enough of her left to turn, barely, to see him standing there, by the shattered remnants of the orb. His eyes were wide with horror. He started towards her, hand reaching, as if he could have ever possibly pulled her from such danger.

No, don’t come close!

It didn’t matter, then, that he left her. That his explanations for it would never come. If this was to be her end, she would look at him, one last time. She would keep him safe.

“Solas,” she whispered, not even sure he could hear her over the roar of the magic. The pain was getting lesser; but she had the terrible suspicion that if she looked down, she would see it was because parts of her were simply gone, consumed in the maelstrom. "Ar lath ma.”

He was moving too close, more panic than she had ever seen on him before written across his expression.

“Vhenan!”

She wrenched, with what little hold she could get on the anchor, and pulled herself and the spell and all that she could away from him. Away from everyone.

The Fade opened around her, spirits shrieking.

Green light turned to black.

Her thoughts scattered, and she was gone.

 

~

 

She woke.

That… was a surprise.

Stone walls stretched around her. Skyhold? She blinked, and sat up carefully. It felt strange. Not pained, which was another surprise, but… hazy. It took her a while to focus enough to look at herself. But she wasn’t lying on the ground, as she would have expected upon suddenly waking from unconsciousness. It appeared she was… standing?

That wasn’t even close to the strangest thing, though somehow it was what she noticed first. Perhaps because the rest was even harder to wrap her disjointed thoughts around.

Slowly, she lifted a hand, and stared through it.

The light pierced the hazy outline of what should be flesh. Instead she looked like a wraith, green and pale, barely visible even to herself. Only the mark remained strong; but it didn’t look like a mark, anymore. It was more like a small green sun instead, caught in vague cage of her palm.

Was she a ghost, then?

Was this death?

She looked around, and drew some small comfort from the familiar walls. It was Skyhold, she realized. But comfort fled, the more she looked. She was in main hall, and yet there was no one else there. Something terrible seemed to have happened. The throne was gone, the tapestries in rags, debris and dirt strewn everywhere. The light was sickly yellow, rather than the warm golden of true sunlight.

It looked like Skyhold as they first found it, she realized. Or, not exactly like that, but in a similar enough state of disrepair and neglect.

Tentatively, she moved forward. Drifted. Her motion was somewhere between gliding and walking. The air felt thick, almost like water.

“What’s going on?” she wondered. The words echoed off into silence.

It wasn’t until she passed through the main doors – right through, in fact, it tingled slightly – and looked up to see a twisted sky, full of floating islands and the distant outline of the Black City, that she started to piece together something of an answer.

The Fade.

Of course. Skyhold was well, she told herself. She was only in a shadow of it, an echo in the Fade.

She was a spirit, then? Maybe… something like what Justinia was? That would make sense, she supposed. It wasn’t precisely a comforting thought, but at least it gave her some understanding of events to cling to. And things were quiet. There didn’t seem to be any other spirits around. No fear demons or monsters.

She explored, quietly, trying to absorb her new reality. The shape of Skyhold around her was remarkably complete. Remarkably present, if ruined, neglected. She wondered why. Was it just a memory, of how it once was? Maybe even her own memory?

Solas would know.

She stilled.

Solas. The others. Did they make it out? Her eyes swept across the hold, almost as if she expected them to come walking through the gates, bedraggled but alive; but of course, this was the Fade. Unless things went very wrong, they wouldn’t be here.

But there must be some way for her to find out, mustn’t there? Some echo of the battle that she could reach, perhaps. Or a dreaming mage she could find and ask. If this facsimile of Skyhold was somehow tied to the real one, then there should have been plenty of mages close by.

The peculiarity of Skyhold’s emptiness suddenly occured to her, then. There should have been much more going on around her. They had mage allies, and the Eluvian; they made huge political decisions, and practiced strange spells, and had Cole and Solas and Morrigan all drawing attention from the Fade at Skyhold. This place should have been full of spirits, dreaming mages, echoes, and memories.

But then she thought of the spell she dragged into the Fade with her, in an effort to save her companions. The shrieking spirits she’d heard. Were they all killed? That was an unpleasant prospect. Or perhaps – hopefully – they’d merely fled, and would be back once they realized the danger had passed.

If it had, actually, passed.

She looked down at the anchor, still burning in her. Following her even unto death, apparently.

Answers. She needed to know. Were they alright?

“First things first,” she told herself, trying to ground her rising distress with the cadence of a voice in her ears. Even if it was only her own. “Familiarize yourself with the terrain.”

That thought in mind, she set out to explore.

 

~

 

It was hard for her to say how much time passed as she drifted in the Fade ruins of Skyhold. Instead of mountains beyond the bridge, she found sharp drops into sudden blackness, expanses that made her feel uneasy if she looked at them for too long. The courtyard was filled with tiny golden lights, like fireflies, that tingled when she touched them, and helped chase away some of her fear.

Up on the battlements she could see something shimmering. A barrier of some kind? She had no idea what it was, anyway, but it didn’t seem threatening. Morrigan had once told her that Skyhold had old protections on it. Perhaps those manifested somehow in the Fade.

The workshop was full of glittering, silver crystals. The tavern was empty, rundown, but very warm for some reason. She found she could open doors, if she preferred, though it took concentration. But it was less also markedly less disconcerting than just passing through walls.

It took her a little while to work up the nerve to open the tower door. That was a habitual hesitation, she supposed, one she had developed ever since Solas had taken her to Crestwood. Often she went in through other doors, avoiding the entryway to the base level. He’s not there, she reminded herself. Based on what she had seen, his murals would be gone, too.

Or he would be there, walking in dreams, in which case, she very much needed to go into the tower and had no business delaying it at all, because that might finally get her some answers. Whatever else lay between them, he wouldn’t be indifferent to her plight.

So saying to herself, she opened the door.

And froze.

For the first second, all she could feel was deep incomprehension, as her mind refused to accept what her eyes were, inexplicably, seeing.

The floor of the tower was cavernous as ever. Gone were the library and the rookery above. Instead, only blackness stretched there, deep and dark, but she scarcely noticed that. Circular bare walls stretched around, as they had when she had first seen it almost a year ago and wondered what the big, round room was meant to be for.

In the middle of the chamber, on a pedestal, sat an Eluvian. Unlike the one Morrigan had shown her, it was cracked. No pieces were missing, but the glass was splintered, as if a heavy fist had struck the very center of it at some point.

But she scarcely noticed that, either.

Curled behind the mirror, big enough to almost take up the entire room, a many-eyed wolf slumbered. Its dark fur rose and fell with every breath it took. Between its front paws lay a familiar orb, still and silent.

Fen’Harel, her thoughts whispered.

Slowly, she backed out of the room, and shut the door again.

 

~

 

So.

Problems. 

Problem number one – she was trapped in the Fade, in Skyhold, and there didn’t appear to be any way for her to leave either. Not the Fade, and not Skyhold-in-the-Fade.

Problem number two – she apparently had no body.

Problem number three – the Dread Wolf was sleeping in her former lover’s room. Cuddled up with two ancient elven artifacts of immense power, one of which looked like a direct copy of the thing that had almost torn the world apart in Corypheus’ hands.

She lined those issues up carefully next to the ‘mysteries’ accruing in her thoughts.

Mystery number one – why were there no spirits or demons or anything else around?

Mystery number two – why was Skyhold-in-the-Fade apparently cut off from the rest of it, to the point that she could find no way to leave?

Mystery number three – why was the fucking Dread Wolf napping in the tower?

Dealing with one of those issues, she decided, was a little more urgent than the others. If this version of Skyhold was connected to the other, then the Dread Wolf’s presence here could be a huge potential danger to the people back in the real world. Especially the mages.

Especially the mages who liked to wander around the Fade.

Another sweep of the grounds turned up no more unexpected nightmares from elven lore, thankfully, and no new exits – unfortunately. She supposed she could try and open up a rift, but…

Dread Wolf.

Right there.

Visions of a great black wolf leaping through a tear in the Veil to start gleefully mauling the inhabitants of Skyhold danced through her mind.

Yeah, no, she decided.

But that left her few other avenues of exploration, except, of course, to go back to the tower and see if it offered any possible explanations for its unexpected occupant. Or her situation.

You fought a darkspawn magister, she told herself, as she paused outside of the door. What’s one more myth?

Slowly, she slipped through the wood – quieter than trying to open it – and back into the tower room.

It looked precisely as it did when she left it. Staring at the strange tableau for the second time, she could still scarcely believe it. Which was probably a bit ridiculous of her. After all the Fade-walking, the time travel, the encountering of ancient elves and temples and Mythal, why not stumble upon the Dread Wolf?

Because it’s supposed to be over, she admitted to herself, as she watched the steady rise and fall of the beast’s back. Things at least should have had the decency to start making sense after I died.

For a few moments, she simply lingered, and stared.

The Dread Wolf was massive, and she easily counted far too many eyelids. But sleeping, he looked surprisingly like… well, like a wolf. The sharp claws were attached to fuzzy paws, the tooth-filled muzzle sported a black button nose, the long head was topped with a pair of triangular ears, resting flat against his skull. The tail which swept across the other side of the room looked thick and warm.

Somehow, when she’d imagined him in the past, she’d focused more on the claws and less on the… fluff.

Shaking the thought away, she peered instead at the Eluvian, and then the orb.

A foci, Solas had called the one Corypheus held. A way of channeling the power of the ancient elves, sometimes associated with certain gods. Was that one Fen’Harel’s, then? It would make sense, she supposed, for him to want to hang on to it. Especially if it was capable of the same levels of destruction as the other one had been. Fen’Harel was reputedly malicious, but not ‘destroy all of creation’ malicious. Burn all of your toys, after all, and you’d have nothing left to play with.

She waited. Some part of her half expected him to wake at any moment, bracing herself for what might come.

But the wolf just kept on sleeping. Peacefully. As if he had every right to be exactly where he was.

After a while she left to go and try to explore more of the Fade. When that search came up fruitless again, she returned, and finally summoned up the courage to move further into the room.

Up, over her head, the darkness she’d thought was absolute held a single pinprick of light. It drifted down from the center of the tower ceiling, and caught on the Eluvian, where it traced odd, twisting patterns in the glass.

She raised her hand to them, cautiously. The anchor cast its own light – it was probably what was giving her spectral form that weird green tint, come to think of it – and that light trickled, like water, through the broken cracks. Highlighting each one.

But it didn’t leap to life. Of course. She didn’t have a key, and even if she did, this one was clearly broken. But who had put it there, she wondered? Had someone moved Morrigan’s in the real Skyhold? And shattered it? Why?

No answers magically came to her.

With a sigh, she retreated again.

So it went. Time passed, as she searched fruitlessly for either an escape route or some kind of answer. Inevitably she would return to Fen’Harel, if only because he was the most interesting and worrying thing in the place. And each time she returned, her frustration and growing desperation made her bolder.

Finally, she squared her shoulders, and made her way close enough to pluck the orb from between his paws.

The anchor sang as she had held it, just as it had done when she had torn the other one from Corypheu’s grasp. Something flooded through her, a surge of energy that seemed to ground her, miraculously, smoothing out some of the tattered edges of her spectral form and calming the disjointed echoes in her thoughts.

Oh.”

The breath came from her, then. Not just an echo of a sigh, but almost a real one. When she looked down at herself, she wasn’t suddenly back in her old body. Sadly. But she was less faded. The anchor was a little brighter, the round edges of it crisper, and that crispness extended to the rest of her, offering her more detail and solidity. She could feel more.

When she looked up, six eyes slit open, red as rubies, and stared at her.

She froze.

The Dread Wolf blinked. Then he sniffed, once.

She braced herself for anything; a lunge, a growl, a swipe from one paw.

Fen’Harel sneezed.

She was clear across the other side of the tower, clutching the orb to her, before she realized it wasn’t actually an attack. Her whole being thrummed, but the Dread Wolf only looked at her, blinking again. Fighting back sleep, she realized.

A sound rumbled from his huge throat, but it was no aggressive snarl or menacing growl. It was, if anything, a sleepy sort of grumble. The tip of a pink tongue flicked out, briefly, and then Fen’Harel yawned.

His teeth were definitely sharp. That was almost alarming again, at least, until he closed his eyes and started sniffing at his paws. Right where the orb had been. He sneezed a second time – more of a snuffle, really – and then looked at her again, squinting at the orb.

She followed his gaze.

The Dread Wolf began to rise. She readied herself to flee – and then the big head dropped back onto the floor. The front paws twitched, stretched a little. The tail flicked. Six eyes fixed on her, almost… beseeching? And then the tower filled with another sleepy grumble followed by a whine.

A whine.

For one blinding instant she was reminded of nothing so much as a teenager who didn’t want to get up.

She gaped as Fen’Harel ineffectually stretched his front paws and flicked his ears and licked at the roof of his mouth.

“…You, Dread Wolf, have been grossly misrepresented,” she couldn’t help but notice.

“Mrr?” the Dread Wolf of legend replied, blearily.

Seriously? Seriously?

Trickster god, she reminded herself. Maybe he’s luring you into a false sense of security.

He looked at the orb again, and another grumble came through, and one of the Dread Wolf’s front paws stretched forward. But it was like he just couldn’t get himself to wake up. He whined and shifted and his eyelids drooped, for several long moments, before he blinked them open again and gave her a look that pretty much screamed ‘why are you doing this to me?’

It occurred to her that she should probably be taking the orb and running. But to what end, she wondered? Maybe she could get out of the Fade with it. Or at least Skyhold-in-the-Fade. But then what? Would Fen’Harel follow her? And how would she keep such a thing safe, and out of dangerous hands like Corypheus’, when she was little more than a ghost herself?

No. That wouldn’t work.

If she was learning anything through all of this, it was that she really didn’t know anything, at all. That all of her assumptions, that all of the stories she knew, were probably misinformed at best and outright lies at worst. So who was she to start stealing things she barely understood?

On purpose, anyway.

After a moment’s more hesitation, she took a step forward, and reluctantly lowered the orb to the ground.

Then she rolled it across the tower floor, back towards Fen’Harel.

It bumped him on the nose.

He scrunched his muzzle, then sniffed at the orb. With a satisfied grumble he nudged it back between his paws, and then rested his head over top of them, and blinked at her.

“Ir abelas, Fen’Harel,” she offered.

Slowly, the wolf inched his massive head a bit closer to her. He sniffed, again, the brows furrowing over his many eyes.

“V’ran… sa… lan’alaan?”

The voice which trembled out of the Dread Wolf’s muzzle sounded dim and befuddled, raspy with long disuse. His accent was strange, and the words slurred, but she guessed he was asking how she had found him. Maybe.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I didn’t… I shouldn’t have disturbed you.”

When she looked back up, the Dread Wolf was once again fast asleep.

 

~

 

Time marched on. Fen’Harel slept as if he’d never woken. Eventually, lacking other recourses and no longer quite so terrified of the Dread Wolf (who occasionally snored), she attempted to open a rift – only to find that the energy fizzled out and dispersed across the distant barrier in the sky, crackling green for one instant, then sinking into the stones of the keep, and trailing through the ground, up through her spectral form and back into the anchor.

Well. That was thoroughly useless.

Underneath her frustration and her concern for what was going on the real world, sheer boredom was beginning to mount. She didn’t seem to need to sleep anymore, and she had no idea how much time was passing. It felt like an eternity, but it could have only been a day or so.

In an effort to stave off madness, she found herself cleaning up Skyhold. Or attempting to, at least. Opening doors was one thing. Moving stuff around was another. The Fade usually reacted to people’s expectations, but here, things seemed a little more… rigid. It was a mixed blessing; on the one hand it meant that nothing really seemed to reshape itself, which didn’t help with the boredom. On the other, at least it meant that when she mustered up the strength to move a piece of debris or rearrange a room, stuff stayed where she put it.

Her strength, she found, was a more subjective thing. When her mood was relatively good and her determination high, she could shift beams and stones that would have required entire teams of men in the real world. But when frustration or sorrow or melancholy overtook her, then even opening a door took extraordinary effort.

Unfortunately, she was melancholic more often than not.

The mystery, at least, provided a diversion for her mind. Corypheus had used his orb to create the anchor. She supposed that could explain how she’d ended up like this. If all the remaining foci were somehow connected, perhaps the anchor had pulled her towards another one when she’d tried to stifle the explosion in the Fade. And maybe this place only looked like Skyhold because she had influenced it, somehow.

She hoped that was the case, in fact. Any other answers for why the Dread Wolf was slumbering in the empty ruins of her home didn’t exactly seem promising.

Focusing on that was better than wondering about other things. Like whether or not her friends had survived. Whether they were mourning her. Or if, perhaps, they were looking for her… though they probably thought she was simply gone. It was what she had expected herself.

When she had cleaned everything she could, she set her mind to trying to repair things, instead.

The ruins didn’t have much to offer in the way of tools, but she found that by lifting a few bricks into the holes in the walls, and nudging them with some pointed expectations, they affixed themselves back in place as if they remembered being whole as well as broken. The most frustrating thing was when she accidentally took a place from the wrong part of the hold, and spent too much time trying to get it to ‘remember’ belonging to a spot it didn’t. Then it wouldn’t work at all.

Broken chairs and tattered tapestries could remember, too, if she hung them up or slid the pieces together, and tried to ‘help’. That took longer. She didn’t exactly know what the furniture and decorations were supposed to look like when they weren’t ruined – that was comforting; they weren’t the pieces her own people had put in after Haven – but if she focused on what, generally, such things were meant to be like, they started figuring it out themselves.

The Skyhold which gradually emerged under her hands was familiar, but not. The bricks were meant to be coated, she discovered; gleaming white that shone like a beacon on the other walls, bright and vibrant colours on the inner ones, marked with looping runes. She happened upon the revelation by chance, looping a finger across the faded rune marks on a single brick while thinking about the colour of a summer sky, and watching as blue followed her touch.

She drifted through the keep, then, touching bricks, focusing on all the possible colours they could be, waiting for the right one to happen. She couldn’t quite manage to float high or fly, for some reason – not for lack of trying – and so she climbed, instead, edging her way up and down every wall and ceiling she could find.

The ceilings! Tile mosaics that sprung to life, depicting different skies; autumn twilight and winter mornings, storms over the coast, and constellations, and swooping dragons and griffons and hawks.

Sometimes she went to sit in the courtyard garden, trailing dirt between her fingers until it began to sprout vivid green grass. She coaxed weathered plant pots and fountains back together, and watched the little golden fireflies hum around her, as if pleased.

And then, after she had finished scaling the ceiling to breathe some more life into Cullen’s room, she came back to find a fruit tree growing in the garden. Seemingly out of nowhere.

After that, Skyhold began to change seemingly on its own.

Great banners burst from the walls, emerald and vivid against the tumultuous skies of the Fade. The golden fireflies spread, and wispy white and blue butterflies joined them, flitting through the front courtyard, where statues of regal-looking figures sprung up, and flowering bushes began to bloom. The air changed. Sometimes a breeze would flutter past her, a little icy, just like in the mountains. Sometimes silvery flecks of almost-snow would fall.

At times she would venture back into the tower room. She peered at the Eluvian often, wishing she could find some piece of inspiration that would tell her how to fix it. Maybe letting Morrigan drink from the Well had been a mistake after all. She was almost certain that the Eluvian was probably the only way out of this place.

But as she returned, time and again, she noticed that the tiny pinprick of light at the top of the tower was getting bigger.

Fen’Harel slept. After the first time she accidentally stepped on his tail and he didn’t even twitch, she let herself get a bit bolder, looking him over with some curiosity. She touched the fur on the tip of his tail and peered at his eyes, and eventually even hefted up one of his paws to measure his massive claws, and lifted his lips to get another look at his teeth.

Good to have some idea of what she was up against, after all, if he did suddenly wake up and decide to make a meal of her. He was supposed to eat spirits, in the tales.

Based on what she had discovered of the accuracy of her people’s perceptions so far, though, that probably meant he loved spirits to bits and pieces and would never, ever harm them.

On one melancholy visit, she circled him, around the base of the tower; looking at the bare walls that should brightly display Solas’ murals. She wondered if they could be coaxed into changing, too, if she focused on making them. She wondered if unfamiliar murals would spread of their own accord someday. Her thoughts drifted into memory, a pale hand placing a brush in hers.

“Add to it,” he’d encouraged.

“I’m not much of an artist,” she’d replied, nevertheless warmed by his proximity, by the offer.

“It need not be complex. But I would like it if there was something by you in this,” he’d told her. “Please.”

There was no possible way for her to turn down that request, and so she made the attempt, trying to copy his style of thick lines and simple shapes. Just a small arrow, in the end, but he had nevertheless smiled sincerely at her contribution.

A pang of longing shot through her, so sharp it made her hand waver. It wasn’t the first, by any means. Often, when she drifted past the places where her friends and companions should be, a wave of longing and loneliness would wash over her. It was frightening to think that this might be it for her. Trapped in the Fade, with only the echo of her home and the slumbering Dread Wolf to keep her company.

But there was always that extra pang when she missed Solas. A sharper edge of longing.

She didn’t touch the tower walls.

 

~

 

As the light at the top of the Dread Wolf’s tower grew, she found herself wondering what would happen when it filled the entire room.

 

~

 

She was in the garden, trying to convince green leaves to turn to autumn gold, when the air shimmered overhead.

Her eyes flew up to the barrier, and she stilled, shocked and hopeful as it flickered. She waited, hoping it might fall, that if it fell she might at last be able to leave the hold – but then it steadied, again, and her hope dimmed.

Still. That had to be something.

Fen’Harel, she thought, and before she could talk herself out of it she was racing for the tower.

Someone was standing in the main hall.

She faltered, caught entirely aback by the sight, and twice over when she recognized who it was.

“Mythal.”

The woman looked more or less as she had before, in her elaborate armour, with her hair curled up and her face marked by age. She was staring up at the ceilings, eyes roaming across them, until they snapped down and stared at her. And through her, it felt, though all things considered that was a legitimate option. They flitted to the anchor in her hand and roved across her spectral form.

“And what,” Mythal said, very softly. “Are you?”

She supposed she didn’t look very recognizable.

“I’m the Inquisitor,” she admitted.

“Inquisitor?” Mythal murmured. “A spirit of curiosity, perhaps? But no, you are no spirit, are you? Not in truth. There is… something else in there. Pieces. A patchwork thing, too many conflicting magics, parts strewn together like wreckage in a storm. How did you get into this place?” she wondered, and then lifted her eyes to the keep again. “This is your doing, isn’t it?”

She honestly had no idea what to make of that reaction.

“Yes,” she admitted, shooting for the simplest response. “I woke up here.”

Mythal strode towards her, still looking at everything else until she was directly before her, and then she looked her over once more, eyes catching on the anchor.

“He is more than I thought, if he marked you in his sleep,” she declared. “But you have claimed it for your own, haven’t you? And he let you. How unexpected.”

“I… what?” she finally asked.

“When last I visited this place, it was a ruin. An empty dream. There should be none here but Fen’Harel,” Mythal informed her, which didn’t exactly explain much. “And yet, I arrive, expecting to find him waking, and here I find you instead; and a lavish fortress, fit to welcome any visiting dignitary.”

“Does this Skyhold connect to the one in the real world?” she couldn’t help but ask.

“It should connect to nothing but memories,” Mythal replied.

Well. That was a relief, at least. She probably didn’t have to worry about the Dread Wolf waking up inside the Inquisition’s headquarters, then, if nothing else.

“Do you know, did my people survive the battle there?” she pressed.

Mythal tilted her head slightly.

“Which people and which battle, I wonder? There have been so many,” the dead goddess mused, as if it shouldn’t be obvious.

Before she could attempt to further cut through the cryptic shenanigans, however, a low rumble shook through the keep. It was similar to the sounds Fen’Harel had made when she’d woken him, but deeper and louder, and it made the air tremble.

“Ah. And there you are, old friend,” Mythal said, and strode towards the tower door.

After a moment of deliberation, she followed. Morrigan’s mother would probably warn her if she was at risk for being eaten on sight.

When she walked into the tower, it was to find Mythal kneeling next to the Dread Wolf’s head, while he stared at her with his slit red eyes.

Grumbling, again.

“You are too weak for it,” Mythal said, with surprising gentleness. “Try on something smaller, to start with.”

Fen’Harel grumbled.

“No. This is the common tongue, now. Let the words sink in, so you will find their meaning.”

The Dread Wolf exhaled, and then began to glow, light eating up his body, turning to wisps that drifted off until it re-solidified as something much closer in size to an actual wolf.

It made the chamber seem cavernous, empty without all of his bulk to fill it up.

“Good,” Mythal said. “You have slept many years, my friend. By the reckoning of the calendars they use now, the year is 9:32. No, I won’t clarify that; you can find out how much it translates to yourself. Concentrate.”

9:32? As in nine three two, not nine four two?

She had begun to suspect that she’d spent years in the Fade; but even in this place she hadn’t thought they would be running backwards.

Realization hit her like a bucket of ice water. Of course. Corypheus’ spell. Why hadn’t she considered that factor before? He’d been trying to escape; going back would make sense. Ten years, that would give him a healthy head start, wouldn’t it?

Her gaze drifted towards the orb, still nestled in front of the now-much-smaller Fen’Harel. If that was so, then perhaps she hadn’t been drawn towards another foci at all. Perhaps she had been drawn to the same one, the one it always had been, just before it was in Corypheus’ hands.

The Dread Wolf’s foci.

Oh, Creators.

No. It was probably better not to invoke them. Especially not the two closest at hand.

They were looking at her, she realized. Or, well, they were for a little bit – about two seconds later, Fen’Harel’s eyes drooped again, and his head fell onto Mythal’s lap.

“Did he fall asleep again?” she blurted. Because that was obviously the best thing to focus on right then.

Mythal raised an eyebrow at her.

“Did you attempt to wake him before now?”

“I did wake him,” she admitted. “He kind of a flailed around unhappily for a while and then went back to sleep.”

Mythal stared at her. Then she threw back her head, and let out a hearty laugh. One of her hands gently patted the wolf’s neck.

“Oh, to have seen that!” she declared. “He was probably trying to chase you. You took the orb, didn’t you? And he tried to reclaim it, in that giant form of his, with scarcely enough strength to open his eyes. He could not have hoped to stop you. Yet it’s still here.”

Mythal looked at her, shrewdly.

“You gave it back,” she deduced.

“I did. Only now I’m not sure if I should have.”

“Only now?” the goddess wondered.

She hesitated. What to say? What to explain? This Mythal didn’t know her. Would she even believe the truth? Should she be trusted with it, besides? She seemed… fond of Fen’Harel, so there was another old legend for the trash heap, and Fen’Harel’s foci had somehow ended up in the hands of Corypheus and nearly destroyed the world.

Yet. She definitely hadn’t sided with Corypheus, when it came to it. And what else could she do, to stop the mad procession of events to come, when she was little more than a ghost in a ruin? But it could be thwarted, she realized. With a year’s knowledge, they had stopped Corypheus before he could tear the world apart. With an even better head start, perhaps she could stop him before he even began at all.

“In ten years, that orb will almost destroy the world,” she admitted.

“Interesting,” Mythal replied. “And so specific! How could you know that, I wonder?”

“Because I lived it. A darkspawn magister named Corypheus broke free of his ancient prison. He attacked a conclave organized by the Divine Justinia, wielding that orb. He wanted to make something, some kind of key. By chance, I stole it from him. We used it to undo his efforts, but in our last battle, he attempted to go back in time, to start over I think. I tried to destroy him in the same moment. And then I woke here, like this. In the past.”

Mythal didn’t look disbelieving. That was something, she supposed.

“You did not even know it was the past until I mentioned the date, did you?” she wondered.

“No.”

After a moment of contemplation, the old woman reached over, and plucked up the orb. Fen’Harel stirred a little, but she soothed him with apparent ease.

“He will not be strong enough for it, yet. That will frustrate him,” she said, quietly, as if whispering to herself. “Especially when he truly experiences what’s become of the world. How long would it take him, on his own? Waiting? A hundred years, at least. He would not abide resting on his laurels for that long. Oh no, not the Dread Wolf. Too clever by half. Far too much like the girl, that way.”

“What?” she wondered.

Mythal sighed, sadly, and looked at Fen’Harel with pity in her eyes.

“Such noble intentions. But he will blame himself. He always does.” She eased him from her lap, and then stood and walked over. When she was only a few paces away, she gestured towards the foci.

“Did he tell you how this ‘Corypheus’ came by his orb?”

“Who? Fen’Harel?” She blinked. “I never met him before.”

Mythal smirked.

“Oh, I doubt that.”

“I’m pretty sure I would remember meeting the Dread Wolf.”

“You probably do,” the goddess informed her. “You just don’t realize who was in the sheep’s clothing. He would not have been far. Not unless he was slain. Possible, I suppose, but I would bet on that one’s survival through almost anything.”

“Well…” she hesitated, some uncomfortable thought itching at the back of her mind. But before she could grasp it, it was gone. “No one told me how Corypheus got the orb, either way.”

“Pity.”

Mythal tossed the orb, then. Just threw it, like it was a child’s ball. She caught it without thinking, half by reaching but also, in part, by using the anchor, guiding it when it seemed it might go too far so that it rested safely in her hands, instead. There was a soft flash, and she felt that strange surge again. Solid and steadying. Around her, the colours of the Fade brightened.

“Why does it do that?” she wondered.

“You are connected to it. I thought it was to him, directly, but perhaps not,” Mythal informed her. “It lends credence to your claims. As does their sheer absurdity. Lies must make sense. The truth has no such pithy limitations upon it.”

“That doesn’t really clear a whole lot up for me,” she admitted.

“I will help you,” Mythal decided.

Well. That was something, then.

“Good. Because I’m not sure I can do much. Not like this, anyway.”

The goddess raised a hand to her chin.

“And what state are you in, I wonder?” she murmured. “No mere ghost or wraith, surely. Your body is gone, yet the power remains. You should be little more than loose threads, tethered to a shining shard, but you aren’t. You speak sensibly. You remember. You have exerted enough will upon this place to change it, which means you have enough to spare. That power is you and you are it, threading through one another, claiming…” Mythal paused, as if something had occurred to her. Her eyes went up. “Oh.”

“What?” she wondered.

“How unlike him.”

“What’s unlike who?”

Mythal chuckled, and shook her head.

“You must have been something to behold. Or perhaps he was simply that starved. It is a lonely world out there. It will be cold to him.”

“You have completely lost me,” she admitted.

“I was not the one who left you in the dark, child,” Mythal declared.

“And I suppose it would kill you to strike a match?”

The goddess tossed her head back and laughed, again.

“I have struck many,” she said. “But you will not see until it is plainly before you, I suspect. Still. It may be what spares us, in the end.”

She sighed, and decided to give up on her quest for clarification. It was probably better just to let the woman talk and then try to sift through the enigmas in the aftermath. Attempting to get a straight answer just seemed to backfire.

“So what will you do, then?” she wondered.

“Me?” Mythal replied. “There is little I can do.”

The urge to throw her arms into the air was very, very powerful.

She resisted. Barely.

“You said you would help!”

“Help and action are not necessarily entwined,” Mythal replied. “But I will set you on the path. The orb you hold is locked. Our dear Dread Wolf will seek to open it. It will make him reckless. Reckless enough to place it in unworthy hands, perhaps. Yet, within you is a key. I should think the solution obvious.”

“I can… unlock it?” she surmises, looking down at the orb. It didn’t seem ‘locked’ to her, but then, it didn’t look like it had when Corypheus had used it, either. Spinning and pulsing with power. And it didn’t feel like it had when she held it up to the breach.

“As you are now? No. But you may give him hope. It is only the desperate wolf who hunts incautiously.”

She was getting the hang of things, she thought. That almost made sense. It was like talking to Sera, in a way – there was definitely some genuine insight there, just hiding behind what Varric would doubtless term ‘all that Grade A bullshit’.

“So if Fen’Harel thinks I’m the answer to unlocking the orb, he won’t go looking for someone else to do it?” she summarized.

“That is worth hoping for, isn’t it?” Mythal mused. She glanced back at the slumbering subject of their conversation. “I had intended to stay, to make certain of his adjustments. But now, I think, I shall leave him in your hands awhile. Do not be surprised if he sleeps often, yet, and drifts. One would not expect so long a rest to leave only more exhaustion in its wake, but life does resent living up to expectations.”

“You’re leaving?” she blurted. “But…”

“Do you fear the Dread Wolf, my dear?” Mythal wondered. “Do you think he will snap at your heels, or swallow your spirit, or corrupt your pure heart?”

She looked at the wolf. His smaller form only had two eyes. If she didn’t know better, she might even mistake him for an ordinary animal. And so much of what she had thought was the truth had proven to be so very, very wrong instead. She remembered warm light and soft hands on her face.

Ar lasa mala revas.

“I don’t know anything about him,” she admitted. “Except that he apparently hates mornings. I’m… wary, I suppose.”

Mythal smiled. It was a little kinder than her previous smiles. Strange.

“It is his orb which has given you that mark. You share a scent with him, now, and wolves do not hunt their own pack.”

“So you don’t think he’ll hurt me?”

“That he will not tear with claws or rend with teeth, I would guarantee,” Mythal replied. “Beyond that? I make no promises.”

Fair enough. She didn’t presume that she could stop Mythal herself from doing what she pleased, anyway. She inclined her head, and let her pass, before a thought occurred to her; surging up like an unexpected tide.

“Wait!”

Mythal paused.

“Corypheus. If this is 9:32, then he hasn’t woken yet. A champion, named Hawke, who lives in Kirkwall, and a dwarf named Varric Tethras, will be drawn to his prison. Hawke’s father set the wards that are keeping Corypheus in place. You could warn them…”

“To what end, I wonder?” Mythal replied. “Some paths of fate cannot be avoided forever. Where one door closes, another may blow open. Interfere with Corypheus’ plans now, and you may find yourself facing the same adversary with an agenda you have no foreknowledge of later on down the road. Would it be worth that cost, to try and spare these people the hardship of waking him?”

She hesitated.

“I’m not sure,” she admitted at length. “But I suppose it’s not my decision. There’s little I could do to warn them, as I am now. So the choice is yours.”

Mythal raised an eyebrow at her.

“You are abandoning the matter to my discretion?”

She shrugged.

“Unless we’re supposed to be pretending that I have any control over what you do, it is at your discretion,” she pointed out.

“No beseeching, then? No appeals to my better nature? To compassion?” Mythal wondered.

It was her turn to raise an eyebrow. Though she wasn’t entirely certain if said eyebrow was actually visible. What little she had seen of her own features lacked distinction.

“I’m not asking for favours,” she says. “I’m suggesting possible courses of action as an ally. If you are approaching this differently, then let’s get that out of the way right now. No boon of Mythal ever came without a cost. I do not intend to blindly incur debts.”

Mythal tilted her head, and regarded her as if she’d just spontaneously changed shape. She resisted the urge to look down and check. They were in the Fade, after all.

“Of course. Not another hero, not another champion. The world is overripe with them, falling heavy from the trees,” she murmured. “Other gaps must be filled. Inquisitor, you said? A title with ominous weight. Those who seek answers must be careful not to deny painful truths.”

This again. Was it a godly thing, she wondered? Running off on tangents? Probably. The elderly tended to ramble.

“I won’t ask if we understand one another, because I’m fairly sure I’d need a few more centuries to start figuring you out. But are we in agreement over what’s going on?” she asked.

Mythal grinned.

“I am beginning to see how you must have eaten him alive,” she declared. Which was both disturbing and nonsensical. The effect was probably deliberate. But then Mythal sobered.

“Yes. For now, we are in agreement,” she confirmed.

“Let me know if that changes,” she requested – for the sake of being thorough, if nothing else.

“I doubt you could fail to notice if it did,” Mythal assured her.

Then she strode away, leaving the Fade once again bereft of everything except for herself and a sleeping wolf.

 

~

 

As warned, Fen’Harel slept a lot, and deeply. After Mythal left, she approached him again. The empty tower floor had seemed well-suited to housing a giant, slumbering monster. But a normal-ish-sized wolf looked strangely vulnerable in its wealth of empty space and hard surfaces.

After several moments of internal deliberation, she carried him – and the orb – off to the bed chamber instead. It wasn’t as if she could make use of the soft sheets and blankets, after all. She deposited him there, along with his foci, and then left to go and see if the barrier around the fortress was still up.

It was. She narrowed her eyes, raised a hand, and attempted to open another rift. Once again, the magic dispersed, breaking apart and then rushing back to her. But the sky trembled, where before it had only remained still.

That was… something, at least.

The stalemate of her new existence had finally been broken, it seemed. And the situation wasn’t even one she’d expected. It was a relief, in a lot of ways, but it begged several obvious questions as well. Like, what to make of having another version of herself running around in the real world, somewhere? What events could she – or should she – try to influence? Keeping the orb away from Corypheus was only the most obvious step. Corypheus was a problem in and of himself (again), there was the matter of the war between the mages and the templars (again), and there were dozens of smaller tragedies to consider…

And none of it was really within her means to influence, anymore. Even if she wasn’t trapped, she was a spirit – or something like one – and the Inquisition had yet to form.

Still. It was hard to set aside the feeling that she could just walk into the War Room and find her advisors waiting, the map laid out, ready with suggestions and arguments and updates. Her thoughts drew her there, until she found herself standing in front of the Fade Keep’s bare table. It looked a little more solid than usual. Probably some residual affect from her having picked up Fen’Harel’s foci again.

The golden wisps drifted gently through the room. A few passed through her, warm where they touched.

She tried to imagine what the others would say, if they were there to advise her.

Leliana would agree with Mythal’s caution. Change too many things, and they would lose the advantage of knowing what was going to happen before it happened. She would want to be precise. Surgical. Pick crucial events and alter them to more favourable outcomes, leave aside anything that wasn’t a necessity. Watch from the shadows, and wait to strike.

Cullen would point out that none of it mattered when she was stuck in the Fade and incapable of influencing things herself, especially if her chief and only ally so far was Mythal. Their priority would need to be getting her out, first. And probably getting the orb away from Fen’Harel and into ‘safer’ hands, though whose hands those might be, he likely couldn’t say. Destroy it, he might suggest. Remove the threat of it once and for all.

Josephine would point out that she should probably do something about Fen’Harel. Talk to him, she would suggest. Preferably while he was still groggy and sleep-addled and unlikely to pose much of a threat. It was possible that most, if not all, of their troubles could be resolved if she could somehow safely enlist his help. If nothing else, speaking to him would give them some idea of where he stood in this whole mess.

Morrigan would focus on the Eluvian. Where it might lead, how she might fix it, what it was even doing there in the first place. Surely such a mirror, placed next to a slumbering god, would hold significant importance, she would muse. And it was a way out. Though whether it would take her any place more helpful than the Fade was another question entirely.

Then they would turn to her. Waiting for her to decide which move they should make first. Which approach to take.

She turned, left the empty table, and went back to the chambers where she’d left Fen’Harel sleeping.

The wolf was curled around the orb, on top of the covers of the lavish four-post bed. She assumed he was sleeping, still, but when she turned to leave again, his eyes opened. Slowly. With a grumbling growl he stretched out his front paws.

She couldn’t help it. She snorted in amusement.

“Awake yet?” she wondered.

Fen’Harel rumbled out a response to her, in his raspy, strange voice, that seemed to strain its way unnaturally out of his wolf’s maw.

“I’m pretty sure that was supposed to be ancient elvish, but I have no idea what you actually said,” she confessed.

Fen’Harel yawned, his jaw cracking, and then he scowled at the top of the bed for several seconds.

“Who… you are?” he rumbled out, as if he was consulting some invisible translator.

She hesitated.

“That’s a little complicated,” she admitted.

Fen’Harel took a moment to absorb what she’d said, and then gave her a look that conveyed a surprising amount of annoyance.

“Clear? Explain?” he requested, stumbling at little in his obvious quest to find the right word.

“Maybe when you’re a little more coherent?” she suggested.

He huffed, and then flopped his head back down onto the mattress.

“Fine,” he growled.

“Is there anything I can do to help you?” she wondered, moving closer, finding it difficult to muster up even a little wariness at that point.

Fen’Harel sniffed at her, as he had done before, when he’d been enormous. He grumbled something in the ancient tongue again – she assumed; it was more grumble than words, as far she could tell – and then glared at the anchor.

“It’s part of the long story,” she told him.

“Tell,” he beseeched. “Sit. Tell.”

But he was already drifting back off, and by the time she took another step closer, his eyes were shut again.

“It would have made a poor bedtime story anyway,” she murmured, and after a minute, left him be instead.

 

~

 

The next time Fen’Harel awoke, she was standing on the bedroom balcony, staring at the barrier. Through the shimmer, the shifting expanse of the Fade looked… increasingly violent. Almost like storm clouds were brewing. She wondered if it had anything to do with the barrier’s weakening. Or, perhaps, with the coming strife that was building between the mages and Templars, out in the real world.

No sound alerted her to the Dread Wolf’s presence. Only a black shape in the corner of her eye, walking up beside her, managed to, and she nearly leapt over the railing in reflexive alarm.

Fen’Harel cocked his head at her.

“Ir abelas,” he growled. “I… frighten?”

“You just startled me,” she corrected, which was true enough. She’d been alone for long enough that almost anything bigger than a butterfly, moving of its own accord, probably would have gotten the same response. Or at least, she told herself that. “Are you properly awake now?”

Fen’Harel looked out at the Fade, sitting heavily onto the balcony beside her.

“Yes,” he pronounced, determinedly.

Some of her scepticism must have shown, because he glanced at her, and then huffed.

“For time. Now. For time… is being? No. For the time being,” he managed, and for some reason, when his voice gained a note of clarity, something uneasy twisted in her chest. But she wasn’t quite sure why. He seemed only pleased at having managed to find the right sentence.

Stop being superstitious, she told herself. Too many tales of the Dread Wolf and his malice in her head, she supposed.

“Well done,” she commended.

He snorted again.

“Story. Now. Please,” he requested.

She let out a surprised chuckle at the ‘please’. So polite! Wouldn’t the Keeper have been surprised to learn how well-mannered the Dread Wolf was. Or maybe not, given his reputation as a trickster.

He didn’t look too keen about getting laughed at, however, so she reeled herself back in. It seemed ill-advised to turn her gaze away from the Dread Wolf, but she did, anyway, looking back out towards the sky. It was easier to gather her thoughts when an ancient legend wasn’t groggily staring her down.

What to tell him? She didn’t suppose there was much point in telling Mythal and then keeping secrets for him in turn. From what she’d seen, they were fairly close.

Best just… do it, then.

“I’m from the future. Ten years into the future,” she began.

When she glanced towards him, he was still looking at her expectantly.

“It started with a conclave, in a place called Haven…”

The story flowed, surprisingly easy in some places, unsurprisingly rocky in others. The basics – the war between the mages and Templars, the destruction of the conclave, her survival, time travel and Corypheus’ mad plan and the Grey Warden’s desperation, those were simple, if often horrific, to relay. Skyhold was harder. Her people, her friends and followers, were harder.

Solas was hard. But she found she couldn’t tell the tale without him, not entirely. He was as firmly woven into it as the anchor, it seemed.

“And then I woke here, ten years in the past,” she concluded. “I had no idea what had happened until Mythal came.”

Fen’Harel was lying on the balcony by then, drooping, slightly, but making a point to keep his head up so she wouldn’t think he was falling asleep and stop narrating. When she finished, he stared at her for a long, long moment. Long enough to make her feel strangely self-conscious and a little wary.

Then a torrent of words flew out of him, barked and growled and bitten off, utterly incomprehensible and barely recognizable as any form of elvish at all. She took a step back, with growing alarm, some part of her hindbrain entirely convinced that he was trying to put some ancient curse on her even though she knew enough about magic to know it wouldn’t really look like a flurry of angry gibberish if he was.

But the Dread Wolf only ranted until he apparently ran out of steam, and then just slumped, heavily, as if all of his scant energy had fled him all at once.

“I… my apologies,” he managed, coherently.

She realized she was practically plastered against the side of the balcony. Fen’Harel seemed to notice, too, as his exhausted posture took on an extra note of remorse.

“What was all that?” she wondered.

“Not for you. Me,” he explained. “Abelas. Apologies.”

She swallowed.

“So… you believe me then?”

Fen’Harel looked up at her, and for just half a second, her heart stuttered to a stop.

“Yes,” he rasped.

Then he passed right out.

 

~

 

The next time Fen’Harel woke, she was in the courtyard. Some new, twisting vines had climbed their way into existence, crawling along the walls towards the gates. She was examining them – mostly for a lack of anything more interesting to do – when she heard the very distinctive sound of paws treading over packed earth.

Which was strange, given how silently the Dread Wolf had moved before, but at least it gave her some forewarning of his approach. By the time he had reached her side, she was ready for him.

“I slept in a memory of a ruin,” he told her, the words coming much more easily, it seemed, though his voice was still odd. “Is this how you restored it?”

She stared at him, once again unsettled by something she couldn’t quite pin down.

“If you’re asking whether this version of Skyhold looks like the one we reclaimed in the future, I must admit our real-world efforts produced somewhat less… lavish results.”

“Of course,” Fen’Harel replied, and if he was disappointed, it didn’t show.

“How long have you been asleep for?” she wondered.

“Long,” he said. “But I have dreamed of what has passed.”

“How does one dream while they are in the Fade?” she asked. The question came almost automatically, flowing naturally from her curiosity, and she realized she’d forgotten to how to be cautious about asking after the Fade at some point in recent history. Foolish of her; not everyone was free-handed with such information. She needed to remember who she was speaking to.

But if Fen’Harel minded, it didn’t show.

“In pieces,” he replied. “Wandering. Indistinct. Whispers. Carried through memories and shards of old power, half-heard songs and invocations.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry,” she nonetheless offered.

“Don’t apologize,” he told her. “You have not trespassed. Andaran atish’an. You are welcome here. I have been a poor host, I should have said so before.”

“You’ve had a lot to deal with since you woke up,” she pardoned him.

“And it is only my own fault, for badgering you for answers. I should apologize for that as well. The mystery you presented was… slightly more compelling than my better judgement,” he confessed. “I appreciate your forthrightness. I am aware of my reputation among your people.”

Right. Invocations. She supposed if he heard any of those, he would have to be.

“My people have tried to rebuild our history and culture out of many broken pieces,” she felt compelled to explain. “We’ve accumulated a lot of ‘creative’ interpretations along the way. It would be unfair of me to judge you by fables and folktales.”

The Dread Wolf regarded her curiously.

“But is there some fear, all the same?” he wondered. “Some hesitation? Do you not worry that I am being deceptive?”

The polite thing to do would probably be to say ‘no’.

“A little,” she admitted, instead. “I don’t know how Corypheus came by your foci. I don’t know what your intentions are, either, now that you’re awake. But so far you’ve been less cryptic than Mythal. I’ll give you that, at least.”

“I suppose I haven’t given you much to go off of yet,” Fen’Harel conceded. “You have told me your tale, but I have done little more than listen in return.”

“And angrily rant in ancient elvish,” she reminded him.

He gave her a wry look.

“And angrily rant in elvish,” he confirmed.

“What were you saying, anyway?” she wondered.

“I… would prefer not to repeat it, if it’s all the same to you.”

“That bad?”

“In dreams, I have witnessed the many ill consequences of my misjudgments,” Fen’Harel told her. “And then I woke, and was treated to a summation of what can only be several spectacular misjudgements to come. Let us say, it was not the best news to wake up to.”

That was good, she decided, with a surge of optimism. If he was upset, then at least it probably meant that he hadn’t been plotting with Corypheus all along.

In his regular-wolf-sized form, Fen’Harel was quite low to the ground. Without really thinking about it, she knelt in front of him, the better to look at him straight-on. He blinked at her. These eyes weren’t red, she noticed, for the first time. They were blue, or perhaps grey – in the light of the Fade it was a little hard to tell.

“What I told you can be prevented, at least,” she pointed out.

The Dread Wolf sighed.

“Not all of it,” he replied. “No matter what is prevented, you will still be here. Like this. Whatever you have become, I have no words for it, no knowledge of how to reverse it. Even if everything goes perfectly from here on out – and it never does – you will have paid the cost of my mistakes. I am sorry, for that.”

She bowed her head. Some part of her, she realized, had been hoping he might somehow be able to do just that. Ever since she had guessed that it was probably his orb which had placed the anchor in her hand. Or perhaps even before that, when she had picked it up and noticed its effect on her.

“I chose my own path. If we can stop all of that suffering before it happens, then I won’t regret it,” she decided.

What was it Leliana had said, when she had spoken to her about her last time traveling efforts? ‘One small life for a chance to change the past is a bargain’? Something like that, she thought. It was true, anyway.

But Fen’Harel looked, if anything, even more miserable.

“So it goes; the powerful err, and the virtuous pay in blood for their misdeeds,” he said.

She wondered what she could say. That she would ever need to comfort the Dread Wolf over the state of her own existence wasn’t a twist in fate that she’d ever foreseen.

Probably, she needed to learn to stop being surprised.

“Well, it’s hardly going to be a disaster on the same level when the powerless screw up, is it?” she settled on saying, trying to lighten the mood. “And it could be worse. At least you’ve turned out to be a pretty decent conversationalist, when you’re not half asleep and trying to learn a new language.” And even then, she thought, you were still amusing.

“Ha! And here she comforts the Dread Wolf who doomed her!” Fen’Harel exclaimed, disbelieving.

“I only try to speak plainly to someone who, technically, hasn’t done anything at all to me yet,” she corrected. “I could scarcely punish you for what another version of yourself might have done.” She inclined her head, thoughtfully. “Do you have any idea what that could have been, by the way? Mythal seemed convinced that you had gone to Corypheus for help in ‘unlocking’ your orb. I think. She was a little hard to follow.”

Fen’Harel growled, but more at the empty air than at her.

“She may be right,” he conceded.

“Oh. Well. On the bright side, if she is, then the solution may be as simple as you not going to him for help,” she suggested. “At least that’s pretty easy to avoid.”

“It may be,” Fen’Harel conceded. There was frustration in his tone, though. Enough to make her uneasy.

“What’s so important about unlocking it anyway?” she wondered. “What do you need it for?”

The Dread Wolf stared at her for long enough that she was starting to worry that she’d asked the wrong thing.

Then he stood, and she half expected him to just leave.

“Come with me,” he said, instead.

He led her back inside the keep, through the tower doorway, and into the wide space where she’d first found him. The Eluvian was still in its place. The orb wasn’t there. A little worrisome; she didn’t know what he’d done with it, but it was probably in the upstairs chambers.

Fen’Harel walked until he was directly in front of the mirror. Then he sat, his back to her.

“In your tale, you spoke briefly of an Eluvian,” he said.

“I did.”

“What do you know of them?”

“Very little,” she admitted. “Only what Morrigan saw fit to share with me. I know they were used by the ancient elves to travel places. I know that they can open a gateway to a crossroads place, and to the Fade, and to… other worlds. Ostensibly.”

“Yes,” Fen’Harel confirmed. “In days long, long past, the Eluvian were integral to the People’s daily lives. Open the right path, and you could step halfway across the world. No roads connected the great cities of Elvhenan. They weren’t needed. Eluvians the size of fortress gateways could take whole caravans from snowy mountain peaks to sprawling jungles in minutes. Sacred mirrors in temples permitted petitioners to come and commit to their contemplations. And some led to the homes of those they worshipped.”

“Like the Temple of Mythal?” she wondered.

“No,” Fen’Harel replied. “I speak of places neither in the waking world nor the Fade. Dwellings where beings of incredible power were able to reside. The ‘gods’ came and went as freely as anyone else, and always, where their footsteps tread in the mortal world, the tremors shook the foundations of The People’s lives.”

She could not help but think of Solas, and for a moment. It was because they were in the tower, she told herself, and discussing Elvhenan.

“So, then… this Eluvian leads to one of those places?” she guessed.

Fen’Harel bowed his head.

“Yes,” he replied.

Old stories nudged at her mind. So unreliable, and yet…

“My people have a story,” she began, tentatively. “They say the Dread Wolf tricked the gods and the Forgotten Ones into retreating to the heavens and the abyss, and then sealed them all away.”

The implied question hung between them for several long moments.

“It was war,” he then said, softly. “War between beings of incredible power. What you call gods, and Forgotten Ones. I was a diplomat of sorts, by that point. Kin to one side, but respected enough by the other. I walked between both groups, searching for a means to bring peace, to end the conflict. But nothing I did ever seemed to matter. Not diplomacy, not violence, not guile – always, the fighting began again. It trickled down and swept through all levels of existence. The People warred. Those they worshipped warred. The lines of elvhen society grew ever more rigid and harsh, sacrifices offered to try and buy enough power, enough strength, to finally claim victory for one side or another.”

She remembered Abelas, in the temple, scoffing at ‘elven history’ and telling her that it was the elves who had caused their own downfall, long before the shemlen came to wreak their own havoc on their remains.

“So you sealed them away,” she surmised.

“Mythal was slain,” he informed her. “The rage over her death was profound. I feared the world would not survive that breaking point, when all the wrath of the mighty would finally flood unheeded over the earth. So. Yes. I tricked them. I convinced both sides that I had finally thrown my lot in with them entirely, and that they should withdraw to muster their forces for a final assault while I sabotaged the other side, and then I sealed the Eluvians.” He looked up at the mirror. “All of them.”

“I’m sorry,” she offered.

A harsh bark, like a laugh, escaped him.

“I confess to the destruction of Elvhenan, and receive condolences!” he exclaimed. “What are you? Did you merge with that spirit of compassion you mentioned somewhere in your journeys?”

She scrunched up her face at the prospect of doing anything even remotely associated with the word ‘merging’ with Cole.

“Locking everyone in their rooms doesn’t sound like it would be worse than letting the gods rain fire and destruction on the world,” she defended.

“Were you not listening? There were no roads. I closed every Eluvian. Every city in Elvhenan was built to live in a place of beauty. Resources could be carried anywhere. But when the pathways were shut, suddenly whole settlements were left with nothing to sustain them. Trade halted. Desert cities could no longer find water. Wheat fields were often half a continent away from the ranches where their crop was used. Whole kingdoms, perched on solitary islands, had no ships. Do you know how many starved? Stranded? How many peoples were lost to infighting and disease and desperation and cannibalism as the mirrors stayed silent and their resources ran dry?”

She lowered her head. The pain in his voice almost seemed to shake the chamber around them.

“Did you realize that would happen, when you were doing it?” she wondered.

“Yes. I realized,” he confirmed.

An impossible decision, she thought. Let the gods wage their war, and risk the decimation of the world, or seal them away, but ensure the deaths of anyone unable to sustain themselves.

Fen’Harel let out a breath.

“I told myself, the cost would be great either way. But perhaps without the influence of our pettiness, The People would recover, and grow into something free of strife. Surely, without the demands of worshipping us, without the costs of our battles, or the effort to emulate us, they would never fight. They would never harm one another. We were leading them astray, I thought. Without us, they would be better off.”

She couldn’t help it. She snorted.

“It was foolish,” the Dread Wolf agreed.

“To be fair, most people think the gods are above pettiness themselves,” she defended.

It was Fen’Harel’s turn to snort.

“No, that disease seems to permeate all groups,” he confirmed. “Mythal knew better than I. A shade of her found me, after I had done it. It took all of my strength to close the doors. I was spent; I half thought I would fade away, in grief if not exhaustion. ‘Oh, Fen’Harel, what have you done?’ she asked me. ‘I have put your children to bed, Mother,’ I replied.”

“And then… what? You came here and went to sleep?” she wondered.

“Not at first,” he admitted. “When I had recovered some strength, I tried to help mitigate the damage I had caused. I was, perhaps, too forthright in explaining what I had done. The People did not appreciate being cut off from their gods and from one another. My… help, was not well-received.”

“I suppose that’s where the stories come from?”

“Possibly. There were already quite a few who disliked me for my role in the war,” Fen’Harel said. “Though it would be inaccurate to deny a sudden upswing in tales of my malice and cruelty during that time.”

“But you still tried to help?”

“Of course. I had stranded them. I had stranded everyone. Who was there to help, if not me? Mythal was barely more than a whisper, and all others were gone.” He sighed. “I should have been more cautious, however. I was used to the impunity of being a god. Respected. Revered. And feared.”

“Wait, let me guess – some group of people got it into their heads that if they killed you, it would undo what you had done and open the Eluvians again?” she asked.

Fen’Harel chuckled.

“How old are you?” he asked.

She blinked at the non-sequitur.

“Twenty-six,” she answered.

The Dread Wolf laughed again.

“Thousands of years I lived among The People, and I never anticipated such actions from them,” he mused. “Barely a quarter of a hundred, and she can figure it out in under a minute. Yet I thought myself so wise.”

“Well, I’m sort of coming from a ground-up perspective, here,” she pointed out.

“You are too kind,” he said, and made it sound like a genuine criticism. “But, yes. They tried to slay me. They were not the last to try it, either. Still. I thought it was me. That my presence was causing more harm than good, creating more strife. So I retreated. I resolved to sleep until my strength had gathered enough that I might open the Eluvians again. Then I would see what The People had made of the world. If it was, as I’d hoped, a place of peace and prosperity, then Mythal and I would both fade utterly, at last, and leave things be.”

“Well. That didn’t happen,” she noted.

“It did not,” Fen’Harel wryly agreed. “In dreams I glimpsed the fruits of my labours. They were bitter.”

The urge to offer him some form of comfort again was surprisingly strong. She had to force herself to bite it back. Perhaps it was because they were connected, somehow, through the orb, she thought. She certainly felt connected to him. Strangely so.

In front of the Eluvian, the wolf straightened.

“The orb is a focal point for my power,” he explained. “On my own, it will still take me a long, long time to recover what strength that calamity cost me. With it, that time is lessened considerably. The world has… well. Things are not right. What you call the Blight, and the darkspawn… something has gone horribly wrong, somewhere in all of this. I must open the gateway again. I must pray that my kin have found a way to resolve their differences, that they can help or be helped. But to even open this Eluvian, I will need enough power to unlock the orb. Then I can sacrifice it, once it has been repaired, and restore the gateway.”

Carefully, she turned his words over in her mind.

Was he saying that he wanted to bring back the old elven gods?

Yes. Yes he was.

“You realize that’s… probably going to be a massive disaster, right?” she asked.

He growled.

“As if there has not been only one disaster after another since all of this began!” he snapped out, at the end of it, biting off the words. Rising to his feet, he began to pace around the room. “I never intended this suffering. I never did! My choice was wrong. I should not have sealed the others away. All of that pain, theirs and The People’s and even my own, was for nothing.”

The despair in his last word made her heart twist.

“And if they come pouring out into the world, mad as hell and demanding your head on a spike?” she wondered.

“At this point? They may have it, if it will appease them,” Fen’Harel claimed. “Perhaps my head will finally be of some use.”

“No!” she snapped, with a viciousness that surprised them both. Something crackled around her, briefly, a flare of energy – there and then gone again.

The Dread Wolf stopped pacing, and stared at her.

She blinked.

“I mean…” she began, awkwardly. “You had to make a choice. If you’d chosen differently, maybe things would be better. Or maybe they’d be worse. You can’t know that. What happened afterwards wasn’t all your fault. People are accountable for their own choices in how they react to things, too.”

“I…” Fen’Harel began, and then stopped, obviously a little bit lost as to how to respond.

“Besides,” she said, before the awkwardness could drag itself out any longer. “If we’re talking about blights and darkspawn and corruption, I would be cautious about opening any doors without knowing for certain what was waiting behind them.”

“I do not wish for their suffering any more than I do the suffering of others!” Fen’Harel replied, successfully recovering from his surprise. “If something has happened to them, I must discover it.”

“If something’s happened to them, all sealed away as they are, then they’ve done it to themselves just as surely as we have made our own bed back in our world,” she pointed out. “It’s not your fault, Fen’Harel.”

The look of surprise came back. But then the wolf’s eyes narrowed, and he scoffed.

“And if you had sealed your friends and loved ones away from the world, only to watch it fall to ruin, and hear dark whispers of their fates – would you feel the same?” he wondered.

She faltered at the thought.

“No,” she conceded.

Fen’Harel let out a gusty breath.

“The longer this goes on, the more there is lost,” he said, and began his pacing again. “I must unlock the orb as quickly as possible.”

“Act in haste, repent at leisure,” she replied. Where had she heard that before? Cassandra, probably. It sounded like something someone would have said to her at some point, which she likely would have repeated with dry self-deprecation after rushing headlong into a total disaster.

Fen’Harel slunk around the Eluvian.

“I have not suddenly forgotten your warnings,” he informed her. “But neither can I abandon my goal.”

There would be no guarantee of safety, then, she realized. The right thing to do would probably be to destroy the orb. Remove the threat of Corypheus ever using it, once and for all. But what would her clan say to that, she wondered? To see her arguing against freeing their gods?

Oh, who was she kidding? Keeper Deshanna would faint stone dead just to know she was talking to the Dread Wolf. They’d probably ban her from ever returning just out of fear that she might bring him to their camp grounds.

If she wasn’t already a disembodied, temporally displaced spirit in the Fade, anyway.

That line of thought wasn’t very helpful.

Her mind wandered back to what Fen’Harel had said earlier, instead, when he’d asked how she would feel if she had locked away the people she loved, and watched everything fall to ruin. She remembered the wrench she’d felt when she sealed the rift behind them after they had lost Hawke in the Fade – that little voice in the back of her mind, wondering if Hawke might not survive or escape, knowing that by closing the rift she was sealing the champion’s fate.

And that was just one person. One person she hardly knew.

“I need to think about this,” she decided.

“You don’t. Not truly,” Fen’Harel informed her. “The choice is mine, and I have already made it.”

“Well then I still need to think about whether or not I’m going to help!” she snapped.

Once again, it seemed, she had surprised the Dread Wolf.

“Help?” he asked.

“Mythal thinks I might be able to unlock the orb. Or assist in unlocking the orb,” she explained.

“Oh,” Fen’Harel said. He looked at the anchor, tilting his head. “I had not even considered that.” He sounded surprised at himself.

“I’m connected to it. Somehow,” she admitted.

“…Somehow,” the Dread Wolf agreed.

“Does it make sense to you?” she wondered. “No one in my time could really figure out what Corypheus wanted to make, or what it… became when I ‘claimed’ it. Or whatever I did. Even Solas had never seen anything like it before.”

“I fear my insight will not be greater than his,” he replied, looking aside. “Whatever Corypheus was attempting, he must have been approaching it from an angle that escapes me. Perhaps if I saw what he was trying to create before it became so… interwoven with you, I could say more. But whatever he was making, the end result is something else.”

She tried not to be too disappointed.

Failed, mostly.

“I wish I knew what it was. What it’s done to me,” she admitted, lifting her hand to look at the object in question. When she had first woken up with it, it had been terrifying. A sparking, consuming, glowing magical scar that convulsed with pain every time the Breach expanded. And even after it had settled, it glowed sometimes at night, keeping her awake unless she tucked it under the blankets, and always jarring the bones of her arm whenever she used it to seal a rift.

It had only begun to ease up at all after Haven was destroyed.

Or, no, that wasn’t quite right, she supposed. It had felt different when she’d first gone to distract Corypheus as well.

A memory flashed in her mind’s eye. Her heart hammering in her chest as she prepared to go out, to leave the safety of the chantry, in an effort to buy Cullen the time to get everyone through the tunnels. She had been trying to focus on the task, and not her incredibly low odds of surviving it.

Solas had stopped her, before she left.

“Herald,” he’d said.

“I hate that title. But right now I almost hope it’s true,” she’d blurted.

He’d regarded her solemnly, no reproach in his gaze or disappointment at her lapse in nerve, and then extended his hand. As if to shake. As if to shake her marked hand, which was odd, as most avoided it, but then Solas was odd in general anyway. His grip had been warm and firm. Then it had tingled and glowed with a flare of magic.

“A healing spell. To keep you steady,” he had said, fingers tightening briefly. “I will go with you as far as I can.”

I wish I could have had more time to get to know you, she’d thought.

“Ma serannas. If all were as brave as you, Solas, it would be a brighter world,” she’d replied, dwelling for a moment on the man before her, the apostate who had risked his freedom to try and help strangers who threatened to cage him for it.

“I believe that line would be more appropriate coming from me,” he had told her, and then let go. The warmth of his hand had seemed to linger, the pain in her arm significantly less. She had smiled, a little shaky with the rush of nerves for what was to come, and then they had been out of time for any more attempted farewells – a shame, but in that moment she had thought to herself that she was glad it was Solas she had spoken to.

She shook the memory away, and tried to shake the melancholy pang that came with it, as well.

Fen’Harel was moving closer, she realized. The wolf strode up until he was directly in front of her, and then sat, and peered at her. Not only at the anchor, but at the rest of her, too, the shadowy shape of her, green and hollow.

“What it would have become in Corypheus’ hands, I cannot say,” he told her. “I suspect, even if he had kept it, it would not have worked as well for him as he might have intended. It is a piece of my power, channeled through the foci. Such a feat should not have been possible. In the days of Elvhenan, in the height of its glory, my kinsmen would sometimes bestow such shards of themselves upon their most favoured champions. Only their most beloved ones, those they intended to lift up by their side, and keep there forever, even beyond the typical longevity of The People. It was a rare event.”

Her jaw dropped.

“Uh,” she managed.

“But that was only ever done… in person, not through a foci,” he continued. “And such shards remained a part of their originator. They could be revoked at any time, if it came to it. What has been done to you…”

“Corypheus said that I had ‘spoiled it with my stumbling’. That it couldn’t be taken away without killing me,” she recalled. The words came out a little flat, most of her feeling rather distant with shock.

“That is true, in a sense, though I would not phrase it in such a way,” Fen’Harel confirmed. “Whatever Corypheus did to draw that shard of power through the foci distorted it. When it came into contact with you, it must have been further changed. And at some point…”

She waited for him to continue. And waited.

“At some point?” she finally prompted.

Fen’Harel let out a gusty sigh, and grumbled a word she did not recognize.

“At some point, the power was released to you. That was what allowed you to claim it for your own. Now, what it is, what it has done, is even harder to define. It would have been noteworthy even before your physical form was destroyed. The shape of your power resembles what I would bestow, were I to ever bestow such a thing. But I do not own it. It will not answer to me.”

“I suppose Corypheus wouldn’t have wanted it to,” she mused.

“He would not have had any say,” Fen’Harel informed her. “For my power to become divorced from me, I must relinquish it, freely. How he pulled it from the foci is a mystery, but even so it would still have been mine. I have no idea what would have come of his subsequent attempts to manipulate it.”

“Fire, death, destruction, and holes in the fabric of the universe,” she suggested. Then she shook her head. “But how could you release it to me? I never met you before I came here.”

“…It is most mysterious,” Fen’Harel agreed, turning away and walking back towards the Eluvian.

“Perhaps you were watching from a distance?” she suggested. “But then why wouldn’t you simply reclaim your power? Why give it to me?”

The wolf’s ears drooped, and his shoulders sagged. Tired again, probably.

“Fen’Harel?”

“I do not understand what Corypheus did. If you were using that power to try and repair the damage to the Veil, perhaps I feared that reclaiming it would erase his alterations, and leave the world without the only tool capable of closing the rifts,” he suggested.

“But that’s not all of it,” she guessed. “You’re holding something back.”

What was it about this tower, she wondered, that everyone who spent any great length of time in it seemed so fond of obfuscating?

“Yes, I am,” he admitted.

“What is it?” she pressed. “Please. Just tell me.

“It is not easily explained,” he insisted. “I must have time to consider how to do so. I will tell you – I swear it. But… at the moment, I cannot fathom how to even begin. I can scarcely wrap my own head around it.”

Well. She supposed they were discussing a lot of insanely complex magical concepts in a language he’d only learned – somehow – a very short while ago.

“Take your time, then,” she agreed. “But I’m holding you to your word.”

She wasn’t even sure why she suddenly felt so adamant about that. Fen’Harel had been nothing but straightforward with her, so far. In fact, it was almost surprising how easy it was to take him at face value. She should have been more wary. Even while trying to keep an open mind, she would have expected her instincts to rebel against simply taking him at his word.

But she didn’t think he was lying. Even if that was foolish, she just… didn’t.

“I must sleep again, now,” Fen’Harel announced.

He moved towards the door.

“Rest well,” she offered, tentatively.

He paused, inclined his head, and then left her with the Eluvian and her thoughts.

 

~

 

May the Dread Wolf never catch your scent.

She turned the old warning over in her head. The phrase was a common enough parting that, many times, she never even considered what it was actually supposed to mean. In common terms it was simply a hope that ill-fortune wouldn’t find someone. When she’d been small, though, she had always pictured a massive beast, slinking around the dark parts of the forest, nose to the ground as it sought unwary elves for its breakfast.

She had done more than let him catch her scent, though. By far. But had it brought her any ill-fortune, she wondered? Obviously the Breach and Corypheus and what had happened because of them were terrible, but for her, personally, it was… more complicated. She’d been uprooted. Thrust into the center of things, turned into a shemlen figurehead, and ultimately left in this strange and lonely state.

And yet.

The anchor had saved her from death at the conclave. It had saved her again, she suspected, when Corypheus’ spell had thrust her into the past. It had made her a target, but it had also given her the means to fight. To help. To do things and see things that she never would have been able to otherwise.

After a few moments, she shook the thoughts loose, and let them go. There wasn’t any point in dwelling on the oddity of her situation. She’d already learned that lesson, although her definition of ‘oddity’ kept getting strained past the point of breaking.

The problem, she supposed, was that part of her couldn’t stop thinking about things in terms of the stories she’d grown up on. And in those stories, the Dread Wolf was a trickster and deceitful and malicious, whereas the other gods were largely benevolent. So on the one hand, by the logic of those stories, she shouldn’t help Fen’Harel – but on the other hand, she should do everything she could to free the gods from their prison.

It was ridiculous. And pointless. The stories were just that; stories. Whatever kernels of truth they held had long ago been buried and turned over and misplaced by the passage of time and the destruction of elvhen history. They were less than useless to her now; she would likely be better off, in fact, if she’d never heard them to being with – at least so far as this particular situation was concerned.

In the garden around her, a few brightly glowing butterflies winged past. She watched them for a moment, and then closed her eyes, and imagined she was in another Skyhold.

“What do you think?” she asked the empty air.

He’s right about one thing, Varric’s voice drifted to her. Stories always change with each retelling. You can’t rely on what you think you know about any of this. There’s no way to tell where all the creative edits have been put into place. You want my advice? Stick with your gut. But maybe don’t rush into waking up any angry gods without at least a solid back-up plan.

Oh, please, Vivienne interjected. A trickster plays tricks, does he not? This ‘Dread Wolf’ of yours, whatever he truly is, has a reputation for a reason. Don’t fall for his ploys. Take the orb and destroy it before it has a chance to unleash chaos onto the world. You can’t just throw the world into disarray because you feel sorry for him.

I agree, Cassandra chimed in. The orb poses too much of a risk. And I don’t like the sounds of this plan to resurrect these so-called elven ‘gods’. Perhaps they are benevolent. But if they are not? If they are wrathful? You could create a disaster even worse than anything the Breach has caused.

It’s probably demons, or monsters, yeah? Sera agreed. I’m not much for this ‘elfy magic’ business. And that wolf makes me twitchy. Sure, he’s all nice and friendly when he’s small enough to get his arse kicked, but what about when he’s back to being a giant… six-eyed… freaky thing with jaws big enough to bite your head off? Bet he’s not so chummy then.

I wouldn’t say no to trying to fight him, Iron Bull interjected. Anything else…? Too weird.

If we assume he’s telling the truth, then he’s trying to make up for past mistakes, Blackwell offered. But that’s a pretty big ‘if’. And besides, just because he’s trying to make amends doesn’t mean he’s going about it the right way. Seems to me like he’s more on the verge of repeating history, but in the opposite direction.

How dreary of you all, Dorian declared. But I have to say, I don’t see much appeal to this whole ‘wake the elven gods’ plan, either. Though that could just be self-preservation talking. I’ll be the first to admit that my homeland isn’t perfect, but I’d rather not see it go up in a column of smoke thanks to vengeful elven deities who might just be a teensie bit upset over certain parts of our history.

I think you should help, Cole said. It’s not right to be left and locked away and forgotten forever. Nobody deserves that.

She opened her eyes, and blinked, as the air in the garden seemed to shimmer around for a few seconds. When it passed, she looked up towards the barrier. It looked… thinner, she thought. Her gaze trailed back to the anchor, but after a moment, she decided not to try it. There was too much to sort out, yet. She hadn’t really made up her mind about anything.

With a sigh of resignation, she continued her internal deliberations.

 

~

 

Fen’Harel found her on the battlements.

He approached with the orb in his mouth, claws clicking over the stone, and when she glanced at him, he set it by her feet.

It glowed, slightly.

“It reacts so strongly…” he marvelled.

“Mythal said it was because the anchor came from it,” she replied.

“You are connected to it,” Fen’Harel confirmed. “For good or ill. I suspect you could destroy it, if you wished. I might not even be strong enough to stop you.”

She paused. Her eyes flit over a few the deep, dark voids beyond Skyhold’s walls, resting instead on an arc of white lightning that split the sky in the distance.

“I won’t destroy it,” she said. A moment ago, she hadn’t even been certain that that was something she had decided. But then, she wasn’t even sure she’d ever seriously entertained the idea of doing so, either.

“Do not mistake this for disapproval, by any means, but… why not?” the Dread Wolf wondered. “Why didn’t you destroy it earlier, for that matter? It would be the simplest way of preventing the future you fear from coming to pass.”

She folded her arms, tight against the twisting feeling suddenly working its way through her chest. How unfair; if she was going to be incorporeal, you’d think the universe could at least do her the favour of letting her numb such feelings.

“I promised someone I would try and preserve it,” she admitted.

“Surely not anyone who would actually recall such a promise,” Fen’Harel pointed out.

“Are you trying to change my mind?”

“Not in the least,” he assured her, emphatically. “I am trying to understand it! You would risk letting everything you fear come to pass in order to keep your word to someone who has no means of holding you to it?”

Her jaw clenched.

“If it comes to it, I will do what I must. But in the meanwhile, yes, I will keep my promise,” she snapped. “I’ll do my best. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t know. I didn’t make that promise to impress him; I made it because it meant something to him. And if he was here, it would still mean something to him. Or it would come to again. However it’s supposed to work with time travel.”

“You…” Fen’Harel trailed off. “Who did you promise?” he wondered.

“Solas,” she answered, shortly.

“Ah.”

The Dread Wolf went uncommonly quiet. She looked back over at him, half expecting to see him sleeping again, only find him staring at the battlement’s stones. The ones beneath him were the colour of sand, warm even under the sickly light around them.

“You’ve mentioned that name before,” Fen’Harel said. “The one who helped you find Skyhold. The mage.”

“Yes.”

“You were… close?”

“Why do you ask?” she snapped. Maybe a little harshly. She let out a breath. “Ir abelas; I didn’t mean to be rude. Yes. We were close.”

The silence which fell between them was awkward and unreasonably tense. Strange, she thought. It was easier to listen to him talking about the gods. But then, that was his past. This was hers, unsettling as it was to think that it was truly all behind her, now. Part of her kept waiting to see if she could go back, she realized. Part of her kept expecting some portal to open, for Dorian to stick his head through it and shout ‘aha!’ at the sight of her.

Though it was more likely he’d scream in horror and demand to know what the hell had happened to her body.

It got blown up, Dorian, she thought, and then snorted at herself.

“Foolish,” Fen’Harel whispered.

“What?” she asked, drawn back out of her imaginings.

The Dread Wolf shifted slightly, ears flicking back.

“That was… not a wise time to attempt a romantic pursuit,” he informed her.

Anger, hot and heady, burst in her chest, chasing a familiar frustration that she had expected to have dredged up in her again.

“Oh, well, thank you for that unnecessary bit of condescension,” she snapped, and turned to walk away, ready to be done with the entire conversation. He toe nudged the orb as she did, and the air around them rippled, briefly.

“You are so beautiful.”

She froze, shocked still, as the voice drifted through the ether. Then she whipped around, searching, even though she knew it couldn’t be…

A pair of indistinct figures shimmered in the air. Illusions of the Fade. Like the vision of Divine Justinia, but more clouded, their features almost impossible to see. They were twined together. Intimately. But then one pulled back, suddenly stiff, suddenly cold.

“And I am sorry. I have distracted you from your duties. It will never happen again.”

“Solas…”

With a curse she lashed out, not even entirely certain what she was doing, only knowing that she did not want to hear this. Not again. The anchor rippled and the orb whirred, and the air around them seemed to constrict as the vision was destroyed. The figures vanished into wisps and dust, quiet memory once more.

Her damnable heart fractured just a bit more.

She couldn’t bring herself to look at Fen’Harel, to risk seeing either pity or approval some smug ‘I told you so’ in the wolf’s gaze.

Head down, she stormed away.

 

~

 

The content of them aside, she supposed it was interesting that the orb had helped manifest one of her memories in the Fade.

If that was even what had happened. She only thought of it once she had calmed down, standing in the War Room, perched on one end of the empty table as she watched distant shapes shifting through the stained glass windows. Of course, memories in the Fade weren’t at all uncommon, but none had happened to her yet here. She supposed it had something to do with the barrier.

But maybe it was something to do with her nature, instead. After all, she wasn’t really a spirit or an elf or living or dead, as far as she could tell. The orb made her feel more… real. So maybe it let the Fade react to her presence more, too.

She never thought she’d ever gain so much firsthand insight into Cole’s state of being.

It’s like a dream, she decided. Like I’m just dreaming.

Longing swept over her. She wanted to wake. She wanted to eat, to drink, to tire, to feel the weather change, to look up and see the sun. She wanted to roam. To camp. To sit around a fire and listen to the chatter, to walk with Josephine while she ranted about the latest diplomatic mishap, to watch Cullen put his people through their drills, to walk into the tower and hear Leliana’s messenger birds in the rafters. She wanted to hear minstrels in the tavern, to fight bandits on the road, to stand on the Storm Coast and watch the sea try to swallow the earth. Let the spray hit her face.

She wanted to feel warm lips against hers, warm arms around her, soft fabric beneath her fingers and softer whispers in her ears.

Was this what demons felt, she wondered? It was easy to see how such a longing, left to fester unappeased, could twist almost anyone into monster.

The thought made her shudder.

Claws clicked across the floor outside of the chamber door. Fen’Harel had finished his nap, then. They came to a stop outside, and then paused.

When the door didn’t open of its own accord, she eventually stood, and went to it herself.

The Dread Wolf was sitting on the other side.

“You can open doors,” she noted.

“Of course,” he replied. “The lack of opposable thumbs is something of a hindrance, but less so in the Fade. May I come in?”

She shrugged, and stepped aside, gesturing towards the interior of the War Room.

“You can go wherever you please, I expect,” she said.

“It has occurred to me that I should attempt to afford you more courtesy,” Fen’Harel replied. “It is not my place to pry where I am unwelcome. For all the strangeness of our circumstances, we are, after all, only just acquainted.”

“You’ve shown me plenty of courtesy,” she assured him. “Much more than I would have expected.”

He raised a brow at her. An interesting expression, on a wolf.

“Knowing what I do of what the average Dalish would expect of me, that’s a rather low bar to set,” he replied.

“How do you know? Just… through dreams?” she wondered, leaving the door open. It wasn’t as if anyone else could come and walk in on their conversation, after all.

“More or less. It isn’t the same as actually being present, but there are places – shrines, old battlefields, ruins where the Veil is thin – where one dreaming from the Fade might find the real world not so far away,” he explained. “And some spirits, ancient and enduring, have been known to whisper to me in my sleep. A spirit of wisdom has often kept me company. She has recounted much knowledge to me, as she accumulated it.”

“Huh,” she said, suddenly uneasy again. “Spirits of wisdom are rare.”

“They are, at that,” Fen’Harel agreed.

“Solas knew one. She perished, though. A group of fool mages tried to bind her into fighting for them, and twisted her nature into that of a demon. We managed to free her, but the strain was too much, and she didn’t last long after,” she admitted. “It was cruel.”

Fen’Harel’s eyes narrowed.

“Mages?” he asked. “What mages?”

She shrugged.

“Apostates fleeing the war, I suppose. We didn’t precisely take down their names before Solas…” she trailed off, and shrugged again.

“Spirits of wisdom are rare, as you said,” the Dread Wolf replied. “I would hate to see even one suffer, let alone perish. Perhaps, if we are vigilant, we might be able to prevent such a thing from happening again.”

“If I could just get out of the Fade,” she grumbled, clenching her hands in frustration. “There is so much I want to try and prevent! To help stop before it even begins!”

“I’m afraid that, even if you could leave right this moment, it would do you little good as you are,” he pointed out.

She dropped her hands and sighed.

“I know,” she admitted. “No body. At best, people would assume I was a ghost.”

“And I a wild beast,” Fen’Harel added. “My strength is returning more slowly than I would like. I’ve never been so weak before. It is… unsettling. The wards around this place are beginning to fail, and when they do, it will no longer be safe here.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Have you not noticed? There are no spirits here,” he pointed out.

“I did notice that, in fact. I assumed the giant barrier was keeping them out.”

“It is,” Fen’Harel agreed. “But once it is gone, this place will no longer be an island within the Fade. Spirits both benign and malevolent will be drawn here. Most will be harmless, but some will be tempted by the power they can sense – in the orb, in the Eluvian, and in both of us as well.”

She looked at him in horror, and just a hint of relief. The latter mostly for the prospect of finally getting out, at least.

“So what do we do?” she wondered.

“That… is a very good question,” he replied. “Hopefully Mythal will return before circumstances become truly dire.”

Mythal must have stayed the whole while last time. There would have been no one else to look over Fen’Harel while he recovered, she realized. Her presence had changed that – what an unpleasant surprise.

“You know Mythal is… slightly unhinged, right?” she checked.

“Death does not tend to promote mental coherence,” Fen’Harel conceded.

“So what’s our back-up plan?”

The Dread Wolf considered that, tail swishing a little across the stone floor as he thought.

“Skyhold itself will draw the most notice; the falling of the wards and the pristine nature of this place, steeped in memory, will make it like a beacon. We will have to flee. There is little any spirit could do to the Eluvian, broken as it already is, but the pair of us and the orb would be different stories. In a purely pragmatic world, it would be wise of us to split up, to further evade notice. But in this instance, I wouldn’t recommend it. You are new to this existence, and I am exhausted of the vast majority of my strength. We are both easy targets,” He huffed. “If I could only accelerate this recovery somehow, it wouldn’t be an issue.”

“Yeah, that’s frustrating for you, I know, but how about we steer away from thoughts along the lines of ‘if only I could do something to get more power in a hurry!’ from here on out,” she suggested. “Especially while we’re in the Fade.”

Fen’Harel slumped just a bit, adopting an expression perilously close to embarrassment.

“Point taken,” he conceded.

Then he glanced up at her, considering.

“You know, if you could unlock the orb, we might be able to repair the Eluvian and open it,” he suggested. “We could easily avoid trouble, then.”

“Because walking in on a bunch of ancient elven gods – that’s safer than dealing with some spirits?” she replied, radiating scepticism.

“We wouldn’t go there first,” he protested. “All Eluvian open to the crossroads, and thence to other planes. You would be safe there.”

“Until the gods came pouring out into it,” she mused.

“They would have no reason to concern themselves with you,” Fen’Harel informed her.

She stared at him. Then she lifted her hand, and waved the anchor a little.

“Oh, no, I’m only branded with the mark of the Dread Wolf who sealed them all away in the form of a mysterious magical object they’ve never seen the likes of before. I’m sure they wouldn’t pay me the least bit of mind,” she countered. “How did you describe them before? Petty, wasn’t it?”

Fen’Harel blinked.

Then he cursed.

It surprised a snort out of her.

“That surprisingly valid concern aside, we could at least proceed to the crossroads,” he suggested. “I would figure out something after that. I am certain.”

“Forgive me if I don’t have a lot of faith in your patience and self-restraint at the moment,” she replied.

“I… cannot even say that is unfair, which, let me assure you, is infuriating,” he admitted. “At one point in time I was capable of waiting decades just to watch a single flower bloom and wither before my eyes.”

“But now you feel like you’re out of time?” she guessed

“It did not seem a waste, back then,” the Dread Wolf muttered. “It did not seem as if each second that passed added to the weight of my misdeeds.”

“Rushing is likely to create more problems than it solves,” she pointed out.

“I am aware of that,” he groused back at her.

She raised her hands, anchor gleaming.

“And yet…?”

He sighed.

“It has been so long. Part of me just wants it to be over, at last, one way or another,” he confessed.

“That’s not urgency, then,” she informed him. “That’s exhaustion. You still need more rest. We can discuss things once you’re not falling asleep every five minutes.”

“And if the wards break before then?” he wondered.

“I’ll think of something,” she promised.

 

~

 

I’ll think of something, she scoffed at herself, later, sat upon the balcony outside of the bed chamber while the Dread Wolf slept. Curled around his foci. The urge to get up and touch it again was surprisingly strong, but she resisted, and tried to think instead.

She didn’t want to go too far, now that she knew the barrier could drop at a moment’s notice.

There had to be a way for Fen’Harel, at least, to get back into the waking world. If not, she wasn’t sure how the orb might have gotten there. But he probably wasn’t strong enough yet. She wondered how fast he could move, if he really needed to. She wondered how fast she could, come to it. And how fast would the rest of the Fade come pouring in once the barrier was gone? Would it be like the Red Templars marching on Haven, a massive force banging at their doorstep? Or would it be a trickle, like the refugees fleeing the war, coming in fits and starts?

The barrier crackled, and she jumped, and then glared at it. But it was only another fluctuation.

A rift, she decided. If it came to it, she could try to open a rift. It would probably work once the barrier was down. She had no idea what she would become, out of the Fade – if she would look like the spirits that occasionally crossed through, or if she would warp and twist like a demon. But Fen’Harel, at least, could escape, and hopefully keep the orb safe.

Putting your faith in the Dread Wolf, she thought. That sounds like the start of a cautionary tale.

The Dread Wolf in question huffed in his sleep, and then let out an irritated grumble.

Waking up again, she realized.

After a great deal of shifting and grumbling and some stretching, Fen’Harel flopped off of the bed and landed on the floor with an ineloquent thud. Then he growled, muttered a curse, and shook his head.

“Are you always this terrible at waking up?” she wondered.

His head whipped up, surprised, but he seemed to calm somewhat when he caught sight of her. Which was strange because, honestly, she kind of thought that her voice was infinitely less unsettling than her appearance, all things considered.

“No,” he protested. “Not this terrible. Usually.”

“But still somewhat terrible?”

“It is disorienting,” he confessed. “In dreams, everything… flows. Waking is like being stuffed back into a box that’s several sizes too small.”

“I can see where that would be unpleasant,” she noted.

“It is revolting,” Fen’Harel insisted, taking a few steps forward, until he was sitting across from her. “I can scarcely imagine how much worse it’s going to be outside of the Fade, where everything is so much more unyielding.”

“Not looking forward to leaving?” she wondered.

“I would leave this instant if I could only manage it,” he replied. “I have been here more than long enough. But that doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to the inevitable consequences of going somewhere else.”

“I see.”

They sat in silence, for a while. Fen’Harel turned his head to look at the barrier, beyond the balcony. She stared at him, almost idly, comparing his smaller form to the giant one she’d first found slumbering in the tower.

If she’d seen a wolf like him on a hunt back home, she wouldn’t have been worried. He looked tired, but also healthy – an ideal combination for an elf hoping to avoid confrontation. Such a wolf would have no reason to risk dangerous prey, to go after the halla or try and stalk the clan, and his health would be a good indicator that prey in the area was plentiful.

“I miss it,” she confessed.

He looked at her, questioningly.

“Being solid. Unyielding,” she elaborated. “I miss being able to touch things and have them feel real.

Fen’Heral was quiet for a moment. She didn’t suppose there was much he could say to that, though. It was probably foolish to even mention it. When he turned and headed back towards the bed, she didn’t think much of it, assuming the conversation was simply over.

But then he came back, carrying the orb in his mouth. He dropped it into her lap.

The crackling rush came again, and before she could ask him what he was doing – if he was being that impatient about getting her to unlock it again – he nudged her hand with his nose.

It felt warm. A little damp. Almost perfect, as if she was sitting on an actual balcony, with an actual wolf.

Her breath caught, and before she could stop herself, she ran a hand over top of Fen’Harel’s skull. His fur was soft. She could feel the individual strands underneath her fingertips, like the lining of a winter cloak.

“There,” the Dread Wolf said, and then sat down against her side.

“You don’t mind?” she wondered, almost snatching her hand back as she suddenly remembered where she was and who he was.

“If I minded, I wouldn’t have done it,” he said, reasonably. “You may continue to pet me.”

He glanced up at her, a hint of wry humour in his voice.

“Oh, well, if I may,” she replied, and rolled her eyes.

But she took him up on the offer, stroking one hand carefully down the back of his neck and across his back. She expected it to be a bit like hugging Cole – pleasant, but destined to last only a moment before he pulled away in either boredom or discomfort.

Fen’Harel flopped his head onto her knee, closed his eyes, and let out a heavy sigh.

She paused, half a second, before she kept going. After a while she grew bold enough to press her knuckles behind his ears, and when he pushed back into the touch, to gently scratch there. She ran her fingers through the thickest fur of his neck and over the bump of his shoulders, until the tentative pats resembled something closer to a casual grooming.

After a while she began to suspect that he’d fallen asleep again. But when her hand finally stilled, he opened his eyes.

They regarded one another silently for a moment. She supposed it should be awkward; she’d just been petting him after all, which, when she thought about it, was bizarre. Even if a wolf was rather close to a dog, Fen’Harel was very far away from both, no matter how he appeared.

“What were you like, before all of this?” he wondered, not bothering to move his head from her knee.

“How do you mean?” she asked.

“Did the anchor change you?”

She raised an eyebrow, and glanced pointedly down at her still-decidedly-incorporeal form.

“I mean in spirit,” Fen’Harel clarified. “Your personality, your nature. Did it… reshape who you were? Make you think about things or react to things in a way that you wouldn’t have before?”

Unease, and a strong sense of déjà vu, trickled down her spine. She tried to shake it off.

“No,” she replied, resolutely.

“You sound so sure.”

“You’re not the first person to ask me that. I’ve had to consider it before,” she admitted.

He fell silent again, for a long while. She didn’t go back to petting him, but she let him stay where he was, and rested her hand on his back. Weird, she thought. This is weird.

The weirdest part, she decided, was that it didn’t feel weird at all.

“Strange,” Fen’Harel eventually rumbled, as if he was reading her mind.

Could he do that?

Probably not.

“Are you referring to this in particular, or just commenting on the universe at large?” she wondered.

He huffed.

“Both, perhaps.” At last, he sat up, and shook himself out a little. He didn’t leave, however. Instead he settled back down, facing towards her. Scrutinizing her again.

“What?” she asked.

“It cannot have been random. I must have chosen you, intentionally. I like to think I would not be so cruel as to foist a burden onto you while you were completely unaware of it, yet you claim that I never once revealed myself to you,” he said.

“I’m not sure I’m following,” she admitted.

“It’s simple. If you received the anchor purely by chance, the likelihood that you would be the kind of person who could carry it well – the kind of person who could handle the myriad situations you have described – is extremely low. Most people would not take well to your situation,” Fen’Harel reasoned. “So it stands to reason that it was not chance. But I… I am not that cruel. Am I?”

Oh.

This.

“It was chance,” she assured him. “I was in the right place at the right time.”

“Are you certain?” he wondered.

“Yes,” she said, firmly. “You weren’t there any more than Andraste was. I heard shouting, I heard a woman calling for help, and I went to see what had gone wrong.”

“And any random servant, any diplomat or attendant, could not have done the same?” he wondered.

“Well, I was spying in a corridor I wasn’t supposed to be in,” she admitted. “I imagine Corypheus disposed of most of the servants or anyone else he found there before they got started.”

“And no one prompted you to go there?” Fen’Harel pressed. “Not mysterious strangers, or… friends?”

“No. I snuck in through the servants’ entrance and saw some of the Templar delegation approaching. I was afraid they’d notice me, so I went in the opposite direction and down the nearest stairway. I wasn’t even sure where to start looking for information, so I decided to just keep going that way, and see what I could find.”

“And you found an ancient magister darkspawn trying to sacrifice the chantry’s Divine to the Dread Wolf’s foci?” Fen’Harel concluded.

“And then I robbed him,” she agreed, raising the hand with the anchor in it and pointedly wiggling her fingers.

He huffed out a laugh.

“That is impossible,” he said.

“Strong words, coming from an ancient elven legend. I’m a time-traveling ghost with a magical key in my hand, and the idea that I accidentally walked in on someone – that’s what you can’t get past?” she wondered.

“I suppose I just cannot believe the good fortune that it was someone like you, and not someone a little less well-intentioned,” he admitted.

“So you approve of me?” she prodded, attempting to lighten the tone.

“Of your circumstances? Not at all,” Fen’Harel replied, going sharper instead. “It is to my good fortune that you were not the sort who might kill me in my sleep. But that simply means you are all the more undeserving of such a grim fate. If I had intentionally done this to you, without even offering the courtesy of an explanation… I would no longer trust anything about myself.”

“That’s surprising,” she admitted.

“Why? Because I am the Dread Wolf?”

“Because most people just stop at ‘I’m glad it was someone like you’,” she explained. And as she said it, she realized it was something that had hurt her, a little bit. Just a little. That everyone was so busy being happy that she wasn’t a raving lunatic or an utter incompetent that no one seemed to mind if she suffered for it.

You’re being unfair, she told herself. It was meant well, when people spoke so highly of her. And what else could they offer, really, except for their approval? Everyone had been suffering, and in danger. She probably wouldn’t have done any different in their shoes. Condolences and commiseration could have waited until after the danger had passed, and there was time to breathe. If they ever really needed to come at all.

They couldn’t have known she’d have to start all over again, from an even more precarious position than a prison cell.

“Most people are intolerable,” the Dread Wolf informed her.

She grinned.

“And yet, you’ve apparently tried to preserve us,” she noted.

“I said they were intolerable, not that they all deserved to suffer and die,” he replied, a touch reproachfully.

“Fair point.”

With a huff, Fen’Harel stood again. She half expected him to reclaim the orb, but instead he leapt back onto the bed without bothering. She stood, a little reluctantly, and went to return it to him herself.

“You may keep that, for now,” he informed her, casually, as if he was talking about a quill or a pair of scissors, and not a repository for his immense powers.

She looked down at herself, at the realness it coaxed out of her. Perhaps he was only hoping to encourage her to unlock it. Maybe he thought she might even do it by accident.

“Thank you,” she nevertheless replied.

Fen’Harel inclined his head, once, and then curled up to resume his recovery.

She walked back onto the balcony, orb tucked underneath one arm, and ran her fingers across the smooth surface of the railing for a while.

 

~

 

Time passed, in whatever way it did in the Fade. When Fen’Harel was awake, he was usually with her – though sometimes he went off on his own, too, walking the battlements or wandering through the keep, the gardens and courtyards, watching the wisps and peering at the tapestries.

“It is not precisely as it ever really was,” he informed her. “But memory is always imprecise.”

The comment filled her with that same peculiar discomfort again, the feeling that there was something about Fen’Harel – not something untrustworthy, per se, but something that she didn’t want to look fully in the face, either.

He was an ancient god. That was probably normal.

“Could you tell I was here, while you were sleeping?” she wondered. “I mean, before I woke you up that time.”

“Yes,” he admitted. “It was incredibly frustrating. You were a mystery. In many ways-”

“I still am,” she finished, hastily cutting him off.  “I know. Could you tell the hold was changing? I mostly did it to stave off boredom.”

“Somewhat,” he confirmed. “I couldn’t appreciate the full effect until I was awake, however.”

She asked him about the coated bricks, then, and the murals, until she began to feel at ease again.

In return, Fen’Harel often asked her about the world that was waiting beyond their little corner of the Fade. He already knew a lot, she found, but history flowed quickly in his mind, and it was only the big events that really stuck out. He knew there’d been a blight very recently, for example, but he also seemed to think that the war between Ferelden and Orlais had happened less than five minutes before it.

She filled in what she could, sharing events yet-to-come as easily as those gone by. It made her grateful for Josephine pressing all of those shemlen history books into her arms, insisting she become acquainted with the basics so she didn’t embarrass herself in diplomatic meetings. And then, of course, Dorian had found her in the library, tsk’d under his breath, and promptly added three more books to the pile and thrown one over the tower railing.

Solas had not been impressed by having it thud down onto the floor scant feet in front of him.

Conversations of history and society and geography, borders and cultures and religions, eventually diverted themselves onto more personal subjects again, however.

“What are you, though?” she couldn’t help but wonder on one occasion, after he had explained some of the runed to her, in the chambers where Cullen’s office used to be.

“You’re asking if I’m really a god?” Fen’Harel replied, slinking around a silvery birch desk that was nothing like the heavy Fereldan piece she associated with the room. Sometimes it got a little bit thicker or darker, in the corner of her eye, as if it was attempting to compromise.

“I’m pretty sure you’re not,” she admitted. Unless we’re straining the definition of ‘god’ to the point of breaking, a memory whispered – but it stayed inside of her head, at least.

“No,” the Dread Wolf agreed. “We had gods of our own, in ages long past. Whether or not they were real, I can’t say; they were something more in keeping with the chantry’s Maker than with Dalish folklore.”

“So what are you, then?” she repeated.

“There is no appropriate term for it, not anymore,” he said.

“Were you a regular wolf, once?” she wondered. “Or an elf? A spirit?”

“Not as you’d consider them,” he replied. “The People, as they once were, would be difficult to recognize compared to what they have become. Within them was a significant divide of upper and lower castes, those meant to live, and those meant to serve. And what I was born as would be another step further removed from that, even.”

“And you and Mythal are all that’s left of that ‘step removed’?” she wondered. “Everyone else was sealed away?”

“So far as I know,” he confirmed.

“So the Dalish mistook you for gods,” she concluded, a little glumly.

Fen’Harel laughed.

“No, your culture need not take the blame for that,” he told her. “We were worshipped long before then. The nebulous concept of distant, unseen forces at work can often be less compelling than a living, breathing being of considerable power. Particularly when certain beings of said power see any acknowledgement of a higher one as a personal insult.”

“Your people disapproved of other religions?” she surmised.

“I once saw a temple to the unseen gods razed to the ground,” he replied. “Followers flogged until they either repented or died. The survivors’ faces were branded in favour of Andruil, lest their new devotion be doubted, and the upper-caste elves who ‘rescued’ them kindly forgave their misguided sins.”

She thought of the Temple of Mythal, and the ancient elves there, dying in droves to protect the Well of Sorrows.

She did not think of light spilling over her face, tingling as magic erased what had once been written on her skin.

“We have been enduring such things for a very, very long time,” she murmured. “It is a bitterness to know we once perpetrated it as well.”

“The upper-castes of Elvhenan would have considered themselves to be as separate from the lower-castes as different species,” Fen’Harel told her. “And even the lower-castes would likely look upon modern elves as something utterly different from them. A pair of pointed ears does not a people make.”

Again, she thought of Abelas, and the Temple of Mythal.

“They were a lot taller,” she recalled.

Fen’Harel barked out a laugh, surprised. He kept laughing, until she couldn’t help but join in, and he was left leaning against the desk, shaking with mirth.

When he finished, he let out a heavy breath.

“Yes, lethallan. They were taller,” he agreed.

 

~

 

When the wards fell, the barrier didn’t break gently or slowly. It didn’t flicker out or simply die off.

It shattered, like a drum struck by lightning.

 

~

Chapter Text

 

 

“Oh, Fenedhis,” she swore, as she was knocked back and sent spinning through a nearby wall. It was possibly not the best choice of curses, all things considered, but Fen’Harel was off examining his Eluvian with the orb and not near enough to hear it, anyway.

That was a problem on its own, though.

The rest of the Fade came rushing in; not like the Templar armies at Haven, but like a dam bursting. Skyhold splintered and distorted, the walls shifting, the air burning as the wisps fled and echoes poured into the silence. Something roared. The air turned oppressive, and she could hear the sounds of battles raging, the din clanging between her ears. It was like standing in the path of an opening rift.

The slope is too steep, the rift too far, the demons too clever, flitting around them like the dolls in Val Royeaux’s puppet shows. She takes a step to steady herself and the ground beneath her freezes, and she skids, crashing, tumbling off of the hill. She falls into the rift; it’s not big enough for her to pass through, thank the Creators, but the energy burns like knives in her chest and steals her breath. She tries to close it but it won’t give way. Something is coming through, and she can see it, distorted face and reaching arms and it’s too close, too, too close and she drops her bow and reaches for her knives, shoves one into the gaping maw before it can close around her face. Screaming. Teeth on metal. Rocks at her back and claws on her arms, tearing at leather, and then-

A wolf howled.

She reached for her knives, and was cutting through the creature in front of her before she even remembered that she didn’t have knives. Except that she did. Not the knives she usually carried for close-quarters fighting, with their sturdy bone hilts and whisper-sharp edges, but a pair of ragged shards more like broken glass than proper weapons.

Right. Because it was the Fade, probably.

No point in looking a gift horse in the mouth. The spirit that was attacking her dispersed, alarmed, and she flung herself through the shifting keep with a sudden burst of energy.

Adamant fortress is burning, and there are demons everywhere, wardens and Inquisition soldiers at each other’s throats as the air trembles with the heat of the flames. The scent of blood is thick enough to make her want to gag. Glass-eyed mages stare through her as their staves summon new horrors, and she leaps aside, barely quick enough to avoid a bolt of flame aimed straight for her head…

No. She was not at Adamant. Adamant had not happened yet, and perhaps never would. There was no fire.

No fire, but ice instead. Snow. The wind howls, cold. She can’t feel the pain so well anymore, but that’s less of a relief than it could be. Her arm hangs loose at her side, broken, her left leg drags as she forces herself through the endless expanse. Just a little bit further, she tells herself. It has to be just a little bit further. The wind howls. The wolves howl.

No. She had no body, so it would be pretty damn hard for her to have a broken arm and a limp, now wouldn’t it?

She is melting, dying, tearing apart, fading away. Her flesh and bone alike is being eaten to nothing, and she can see the horror on his face, but she cannot erase it. There is no time left and it is so bitter to know how they have spent the last of it…

“No.”

The air shattered, and she felt like she was falling, until she at last came to a halt on the tower floor.

Fen’Harel sat before her, low to the ground, as if bowing under some invisible weight. As she recovered more of her senses, she watched him shake – trying to throw something off. The air around them trembled, more shadows and whispers and something edging along the corners of her vision.

They move to brand their new captive, but they find that their tools will not pierce his skin. They blunder harmlessly overtop, soft no matter how many times the needles are changed. He thinks it clever of himself, a fine trick, until the priest pulls out a blade that is all too sharp, and slits the slave’s throat instead. “He was unworthy.”

That… wasn’t her memory. Or nightmare, even.

“Fen’Harel?” she asked, hurrying towards him.

He presses a hand to the glass and feels nothing. No warmth. No light. The way is locked, with all of the others behind it, and he is on the wrong side. It is done. He presses harder, until his hand hurts, until he gives in to his burning grief and slams a fist against it instead. Glass cracks. His knuckles bleed. He sucks in mouthfuls of air like a man drowning. He has done it. He has done it. His last trick, oh, his last, it’s so funny, he fooled them all and now he is alone, and the laughter that escapes him is harsh and desperate and hysterical as he falls to his knees…

She reached him at last, and grasped the fur at his neck, giving him a firm shake. The orb was between his paws. That was a relief.

“It’s the Fade, Fen’Harel,” she told him. “The spirits. Don’t get swept away.”

He looked up at her, then, but his eyes were distant and unseeing.

The island city, the gleaming gem of a thousand waves, towers that rise like spun glass in the middle of the sea, that are made to catch the sunlight and radiate all of the colours of down – and it is dead. Blood in the streets, silence in the air. He finds the last of them locked in the palace chamber, pale and nearly starved, but they are eating. The seas here are barren, the ships too small to reach the fishing grounds. There is no more food. What are they eating…?

Oh, no.

“Fen’Harel,” she repeated. When he didn’t respond, she reached for the orb.

That got him to move, at least.

It probably would have been better if he hadn’t clamped his teeth onto her arm, though.

They are gone they are gone what has he done what has he done it is all wrong he must wake them they are sleeping only sleeping aren’t they oh what has he done he must wake them he cannot lose any more he cannot he will be alone always alone he will die alone the last one and he cannot-

The bite hurt, but not too badly, the pain more of a reflexive expectation than a real thing. The light from the anchor spilled over Fen’Harel’s long face. It made him look vicious and wild, like the malevolent creature he was supposed to be, glinting off his teeth and catching in the whites of his eyes.

She flexed her hand, and wondered what would happen if she tried to open a rift right then and there. It would probably be painful and dangerous. And where would it drop them? For all she knew it could be straight into the middle of Val Royeaux’s market, or a Circle tower library, or some tiny village schoolhouse. They could drag demons straight towards innocents.

Something was creeping down her spine. Slinking heavy and low and familiar, the press of fear, and oh, she had hoped to never feel it like that again.

A skittering shadow raced across the far wall of the tower.

Something flew at her back, and she twisted around, fist curling through the air her blade cut into the black body of an over-sized spider. It shrieked.

Blood began to seep from the walls.

“Ah,” a voice whispered. “And what lovely prey have we found here?”

The shadows on the floor began to open up. Dark things scuttled through. With a wrench she freed her arm from the Dread Wolf’s mouth, and drew a bow she didn’t have. It curled into existence anyway, like smoke against her fingertips, and when she loosed an arrow it burst into sparks against the body of one of the creatures.

“Dread Wolf!” she snarled, as she notched another, reaching reflexively to draw from a quiver that didn’t exist. It still produced an arrow, anyway. But it was useless. Fen’Harel was wallowing. The ease with which he’d been overcome took her aback, and she couldn’t say whether or not he was just that terrible at dealing with spirits or if it had more to do with his lingering exhaustion, but ultimately, it didn’t make much difference.

No matter what you do, you will only make things worse. No matter how hard you try, you will only fail. The world will not get better. The suffering will not abate. Kill a tyrant and yet another will take his place. Free his slaves and they will starve to death. All of your sacrifices will be swallowed by the void, only so that it might hungrily demand more. You are nothing but futile suffering and inevitable silence.

“He never really loved you,” the Demon of Fear crooned, sounding much too close for comfort. She lined up another shot. “He pitied you. Took you for an ignorant, savage fool. But how could he refuse you? You, the Dread Inquisitor, and he, a mere apostate. You held his freedom, his very life in your hands. It only took him so long to try and muster up the courage to refuse you. He wanted to, the entire time you were foisting your attentions upon him.”

“Creatures like you always seem to enjoy the sound of your own voices too much,” she noted.

“You are a feast. Every layer of you offers something new to savour,” the demon whispered back, greedily. “I will peel you apart, and treasure each morsel.”

“Right. When the demons start to get unnervingly sexual, that’s usually a good sign it’s time to go,” she decided.

The creature chuckled. It echoed in the chamber around them. She reached out with the anchor, and curled her fingers, twisting her hand as though to open an invisible jar. The shadows were growing, swelling, grasping claws and twisting limbs. The rift opened slowly, a thin trail of light, until it split wide like an overburdened seam.

There was no more time for gentleness. She grabbed Fen’Harel around the back, one arm tight around him, and snatched up the orb with her free hand.

He struggled. Of course he did. Teeth and claws, like a real wolf taken by surprise, trying to get loose. It was harder to ignore with the orb in her grasp, making her more solid, more aware of the muscles straining at her arms and the claws kicking at her legs.

It wasn’t a coherent assault, at least. He was mostly rending at the air. She held on, grip tight in his fur as she flung them both through the rift.

It was like jumping straight into the path of a dragon’s breath attack.

She released Fen’Harel the second they were through, unable to do anything else, and tumbled to the ground, weighted and hot and crackling with painful energy. A dozen shards of earth seemed to crash into her at once. The orb dropped from her grasp, as if it suddenly weighed a thousand pounds. She gasped, sucking in ragged breaths – it felt like she couldn’t get any air but it shouldn’t matter because she had no lungs but it didn’t seem like the universe cared and she was probably going to die.

She barely noticed Fen’Harel staggering to his feet, shaking himself off.

He lunged.

Not towards her, but to the reaching, grasping creatures that were starting to follow them through the rift.

“Close it!” he snarled.

Right. Right, she had to close the rift. She could do that.

She lifted her arm but it felt so heavy, it was like trying to drag it through a vat of tar. Fen’Harel was fighting the demons with tooth and claw, and she had no weapons again. The knives of glass and the bow of air were gone. Even if they weren’t, she didn’t think she could manage to get off a single shot. Not like this.

“Quickly!” the Dread Wolf insisted.

I’m trying, you ass! she thought back, but her anger at least gave her a burst of strength.

She got her hand up.

Energy surged and for one terrifying moment she was absolutely certain that the energy was her, that she was pouring herself straight back into the Fade, that she was going to tear herself apart again and finally die for good. The roar in her ears was like a hurricane.

Then the rift closed. The surge ended, and she let out a sob of relief, dropping her arm and staring up at the sun overhead.

Blessed, blessed silence.

Paws crunched over dead grass.

Fen’Harel peered down at her.

He was bleeding, she realized. Gashes on his sides and a few scratches on his legs. The remains of a pair of demons were slowly dispersing into vapour behind him.

“Be calm,” he said, panting. “Do not panic.”

“What, like you did?” she wondered. His expression fell, and she almost immediately felt like a heel. That was a low blow. But it still felt like a giant was sitting on her and trying to suffocate her, so her mood wasn’t the best it had ever been.

“Did I hurt you?” he asked.

“I can’t even tell,” she admitted. “Where are we?”

“Out of the Fade,” Fen’Harel assured her, dragging his gaze away from her to take in their surroundings instead.

Probably not the Val Royeaux market, at least. Just going off of all the trees.

“The Veil is thin here. Old ruins are scattered nearby. And a hut. I think… yes, Mythal was here, for a time. There is a trace of her touch upon things.”

“People?” she checked.

“If any were here recently, they must have fled,” he replied.

“Demon?”

“Still in the Fade,” he confirmed.

“Oh good,” she replied, and wondered why it felt like the ground was trying to swallow her whole.

Fen’Harel looked back towards her. After a moment he shifted, and then slumped onto the ground, just barely touching the side of her shoulder with the length of one paw. It felt strange. Like he was there but also not, like he was barely out of range of some key perception of hers, but the distraction made it easier to breathe.

Eventually, she mustered up enough energy to look down at herself.

Covered in… branches?

“What.”

Fen’Harel lifted his head from where he’d been sluggishly licking at his wounds, and blinked at her. Then he followed the line of her gaze.

“That which lacks form, but is accustomed to it, will often attempt to approximate one in places where bodies exist as more than a mere manifestation of memory or willpower,” the Dread Wolf explained. “In lieu of a convenient empty vessel, you appear to have used what this forest had to offer.”

“Is that why I feel like I weigh ten thousand pounds?” she wondered.

“Probably,” he replied. “Give it time. You will adjust.”

“Ugh,” she protested.

He wasn’t wrong, though. By the time the sun began to shift lower in the sky, she found she could move again, and the feeling of suffocation eased enough that it was only a little unnerving, instead of, say, outright terrifying.

Getting up was an interesting process.

The branches she had subconsciously shoved onto herself were pressed flat and thinly interwoven, like sylvanwood, but the process had left them cracked and broken because they definitely were not actual sylvanwood. Shards of bark and stray leaves covered over the worse of the openings. It looked like she was wearing a strange kind of armour. Much of her was still visible underneath – for a given value of ‘visible’, anyway. She was significantly more transparent than she had been in the Fade, barely there apart from the glow of the anchor.

When she’d finished her personal inspection, she turned to Fen’Harel again.

“Are you alright?” she wondered. His wounds looked superficial, but he was lying still, the orb on one side, herself on the other.

“They haven’t healed yet,” the Dread Wolf noted, glaring at a particular scratch on one paw.

“If you’re healing at a normal rate, you’ll be waiting for some time,” she informed him.

“How tedious,” he replied. “Weaker and weaker still.” He sighed, and looked towards her. “I should apologize. That was poorly done of me. And now, it seems, I owe you my life. Or at the very least, my freedom from the Fear demon. Not to mention the preservation of the orb.”

“I hate that demon,” she muttered. “I wasn’t about to let it keep you.”

Fen’Harel cocked his head at her.

“You believe that was the same as the one you encountered in the other timeline?” he wondered.

She paused, and reconsidered. It was certainly a Fear demon, but she could admit she had little enough experience with them that she wasn’t expert at telling individuals apart.

“Maybe not,” she conceded. “It was just as unpleasant, though, so I don’t think I’ll start giving it the benefit of the doubt.”

“Fair enough. It was not one of the more appealing spirits we could have encountered,” the Dread Wolf agreed.

“I’m… surprised it got to you, to be honest,” she admitted. When she gestured towards him, the movement distracted her – the strangeness of her new form was going to take some getting used to. Again.

“If it had attacked while I was sleeping, it would have been a simple thing to evade,” Fen’Harel replied. “But I am still unaccustomed to the restrictions of wakefulness. Even in the Fade. The shape of ideas is different, the impact of pain and emotion much more pronounced.” He sounded annoyed at himself.

“You’re saying it was harder to deal with because you were awake?” she asked. “I would have thought a sleeping target would be more vulnerable, not less.”

“In this world, certainly,” Fen’Harel conceded. “A sleeping target has their mind elsewhere. But in the Fade, it is all perception. I have become accustomed to perceiving things a certain way. The change in that is like… new armour,” he suggested. “Too stiff, not yet worn in by familiar motions, the bend of a knee or the turn of a shoulder. I must adjust.”

She gave him a wry look, and then glanced down at herself.

“Seems that makes two of us. Again.”

“Indeed. I do not feel… well,” the Dread Wolf admitted.

“You just got mauled by demons,” she pointed out. “You’re hurt. Probably tired. Maybe hungry, or thirsty. If you need such things?”

“I do,” he confirmed. “Though it has been a long, long time since that was last true.”

She took stock of the area they’d landed in again. As she turned, the bits of forest debris wrapped all about her made tiny little sounds – creaks and groans, like aravels in the wind. At least it wasn’t an unpleasant noise.

The forest was quiet. There, she spied the hut Fen’Harel had mentioned – it looked abandoned and overgrown, moss hanging over the doorway and plants encroaching on the foundations. Between the tries she could just make out the familiar angles of distant stonework, too geometric for natural formations. The ruins, then. They were in Ferelden, she realized, in or near the Hinterlands; the specific location was unfamiliar, but the general area wasn’t. A few hints of the recent Blight could be spied here and there – dead plants and burned patches of earth, bonfire ashes peppered with bits of darkspawn weaponry.

“So. What now?” she wondered.

“I should sleep again, I think,” Fen’Harel replied. “I am exhausted.”

She raised an eyebrow at him.

“You want to sleep, in the middle of a strange forest, with an ancient magical artifact of immense power, where anything could happen upon us?” she asked incredulously.

“No,” he replied. “I want to sleep. The rest of it I could do without.”

She let out a frustrated breath. But Fen’Harel was clearly flagging, and she could only just barely move around herself. Their options were decidedly limited.

“To the hut, then,” she decided. “At least it’s not right out in the open.”

“I doubt Mythal will mind if we intrude upon her hospitality,” Fen’Harel agreed.

He bent, and picked up the orb with his mouth, and then set a slow, staggering pace. Which was just about all she could manage, anyway. Each step felt like she was dragging a barrel of rocks along with it.

“Wood should not be this heavy,” she complained.

“You are lifting it through force of will in a world designed to be unyielding,” Fen’Harel replied. “The effort is not being placed upon your muscles. You have none. It is being placed upon your mind.”

“So I should think harder?” she wondered.

“If it helps.”

It probably couldn’t hurt to try.

Gradually, her steps became easier. But by the time they reached the hut, she was still exhausted. She had to wrench on the door to get it open, which was no small feat all things considered, and their prize was a musty interior that smelled of rot.

“I preferred the Fade,” Fen’Harel declared.

“Go take your nap, then,” she told him, and finally sank to the floor by the doorway. Her legs creaked and bent oddly, pieces warping around one another before they settled again.

The Dread Wolf dropped his foci into her lap.

They both stared at it for a moment. It whirred, gently, and then went still. The effect was much less pronounced than it had been in the Fade. But the anchor shone brightly for a moment, and the weight of her new ‘body’ felt ever-so-slightly more uncomfortable. Foreign.

“I think you should keep it with you,” she requested. “It’s making me itch.”

“Hmm,” he replied. But he picked it back up again without any fuss, and then went to settle into one of the less offensive corners of the hut.

All things considered, he then fell asleep with an ease that was nearly offensive.

For several moments she drifted as well, exhausted but not tired, seeking some form of respite but incapable of falling asleep herself. Not that she tried very hard. They weren’t exactly in the most secure of locations.

Gradually, she began to feel a little bit better. No less strange, but somewhat stronger. A breeze drifted through the hut door. Something – a nest of mice, by the sounds of it – rustled underneath the abandoned bed. Birds began to resume their songs outside. A raven cawed. An ant trundled across the dirt.

She was in the world again.

If she didn’t look at herself, she could almost enjoy it.

 

~

 

When Fen’Harel began to snore, she eased herself onto her feet again, and took a few tentative steps back outside of the hut. The sky was turning purple, the sun settling down for the night. It made the glow coming off of the anchor more pronounced. She sucked in a deep breath. The wooden shards on her chest expanded and fell, and the breeze washed through her, cooling and strangely calming as well.

Carefully, she raised her hands – curls of bark around her fingers, thick leaves on her palms – and touched her face. She could feel it, her fingers on her face and her faces on her fingers, but it was like she was wearing heavy gloves. The wood curved around the back of her skull, came briefly onto her cheeks, and then halted along the faint outline of her jaw. A piece fell down what would be the bridge of her nose, and that was it. The rest was open to the world.

She wondered what it looked like.

Alarming, probably.

Setting vanity aside, she opted to focus on moving. Without straying far she took several steps, and lifted her arms, working her way carefully through several battle stances and a few dance poses as she tested her range of motion.

It seemed she could move almost any which way she liked, although the effort still left her feeling weak, like a child recovering from a heavy fever.

When she had exhausted herself again, she sank back down into the hut’s doorway, and tried to think.

Crunch went the leaf litter, in the shadows behind the hut.

She stilled, and listened, wondering if it was an animal. There was no way anything could fail to spot her, glowing as she was.

“Lady?” a voice gasped.

She turned towards it. There, just behind the hut, was a man. Shemlen. But… odd. He was tall and scarred and dressed as a barbarian, with a brace of rabbits thrown over one shoulder, and a beard that would have impressed Blackwall. His eyes were wrong. They caught the light from her and reflected it back, like an elf’s or a wolf’s.

Shemlen eyes didn’t do that. Not even those with elven blood.

He also wasn’t running from her in fear. Or attacking her. Which seemed normal, for half a second, until she remembered what she looked like.

Tentatively, the man took a step forward.

“Lady, is it you?” he wondered.

“No,” she replied, because if nothing else, she was pretty sure she’d never met this man before, and couldn’t be whatever ‘lady’ he was referring to.

He stopped, and looked at her again.

“No,” he agreed, and in a move swift enough to impress her, he dropped into a fighting stance and pulled the hunting knife from his belt. “No, she left, as she wished to. What are you, then? A demon?”

“No,” she repeated.

“Is that all you can say?” he asked. Or snapped, more like. There was something of teeth and rage about him, lurking on the edges.

“I… wasn’t expecting to have to explain myself, yet,” she admitted. “I’m not sure how to.”

The shemlen paused, tense, but staying where he was. She decided to hold pretty still herself. The tension in the air was thick.

“Were you summoned? Bound?” he wondered. “Are the elves trying to resume their Keeper’s work?”

“Keeper? Which Keeper?” she asked.

“Zathrian,” the shemlen replied. “He had an apprentice, I believe. She didn’t seem the sort to resume what was ended, but maybe I misjudged her. Immortality can be a compelling prospect. Vengeance, too.”

Zathrian. She knew that name… oh. The Keeper who had died to cure the curse of lycanthropy that had werewolves plaguing his clan. The one who had reputedly regained the fabled immortality of the ancient elves. That story had always sat strangely with her, especially as she learned more about the gaps in Dalish knowledge.

Regardless, the shemlen before her was probably one of those who had been freed from the curse, then. That would explain the physical oddities… though it begged certain ominous questions about Zathrian.

“My story is far stranger than you’d guess,” she assured him. “But I mean you no harm.”

He didn’t put down the knife.

She wasn’t terribly surprised.

“I don’t care much for evasive answers,” he informed her.

“Then ask better questions,” a voice growled out from inside the hut.

She turned, slightly, surprised to see a relatively coherent Fen’Harel come slinking out into the twilight. The shemlen startled, but only briefly.

“A… talking wolf?” he gaped. “Not a werewolf, but a wolf that speaks?”

Fen’Harel tsk’d.

“Does it seem so unbelievable?” he wondered. “Surely you have encountered stranger things before?”

“To be fair, it took me about three world-shattering revelations to stop being surprised by random weird things,” she interjected.

“I suppose there is still room in all of us for a shock or two. So long as the conditions are right,” Fen’Harel conceded, with a wry look towards her.

The shemlen glanced between them.

“A forest spirit and a talking wolf,” he said. “You are a mirror of things we had thought to put behind us. I want no part of it.”

“We’re not here for you,” she assured him.

“Then who?” the shemlen demanded. “You can’t try to tell me this has nothing to do with us. Whatever creature you are, whatever that is, whatever you’re doing and whoever’s behind it, I’d be a fool to think it was something innocent, or unconnected to us. We won’t be cursed again.” He shifted on his feet, and held his knife a little tighter.

Fen’Harel looked unimpressed.

“The world has a plentiful supply of wolves and spirits alike,” the Dread Wolf informed him. “More than most have had nothing to do with you, I would assume. They are content to go about their own business, just as we are.”

“So you’re saying, you being here, like this, where we are – that’s a coincidence?” the shemlen countered.

“Perhaps it’s good fortune, instead?” she suggested. “I doubt many people would have taken the time to speak to us before they either attacked or fled. If you could help us...”

“Help you?” the shemlen asked, incredulously. “I would sooner flee than risk involving myself with such madness!”

“We really don’t mean you any harm,” she assured him.

Fen’Harel scoffed.

“As if he cares,” he said. “Look at him. He is a wild man, with no regard for such simple things as courtesy. I would no sooner expect consideration from a mountain lion.”

The shemlen narrowed his eyes.

“Wild, yes. Perhaps I am at that. But I am not without my manners,” he insisted.

“Manners of… some fashion, I suppose. Some pithy little barrier between your humanity and the pull of the beast, a thin line to help you sleep at night. Nothing truly significant to anyone else, I don’t think,” the Dread Wolf countered.

Fen’Harel,” she hissed. She had guessed at what game he was trying to play, but it was still not very kind, especially considering that their very existence had probably scared ten years off of the shemlen’s life.

The man glowered at the wolf.

“What are you asking for?” he demanded. “I’ve had manners enough not to kill you on sight. That’s better than what most ‘civilized’ folk would offer.”

“I am asking that you think twice before you assume such hostile suspicion towards us. Put your weapon away, and speak like a man, not a cornered animal,” Fen’Harel replied.

“That’s not necessary,” she assured the shemlen. “Keep your knife, if you prefer. I’ve no intention of harming you, and unless you mean to attack us, you won’t have any need to use it. But I understand it can be easier to talk, sometimes, when there’s a blade close at hand.”

The man hesitated, clearly debating with himself. After a moment, he relaxed his stance somewhat. But he kept hold of his knife.

“What, then?” he asked, tersely.

“Where, exactly, are we?” she wondered. “And what’s the date?”

The shemlen’s brows went up.

“You don’t know where you are?”

“In Ferelden?” she guessed.

He nodded, slowly, gaze flitting frequently between the two of them, as if he wasn’t sure who he should watch more.

“Aye, Ferelden,” he confirmed. “I’m not much for calendars. It’s been two weeks since the last full moon, though. If that helps.”

“Do you know the year?” she checked.

“Nine thirty-four,” he replied.

Thirty-four?

She stared incredulously at Fen’Harel.

“You were napping on and off for two years?” she demanded. “That took two years?”

Fen’Harel blinked at her.

“I suppose that would seem like a lot of time to you,” he mused.

Mentally, she began to calculate. Ten years she’d gone back from a point one year after the conclave was destroyed, so that had been nine years she’d had to stop it – presuming she hadn’t spent an inordinate length of time in the Fade before Mythal arrived, which wasn’t actually guaranteed – and then Fen’Harel’s drowsiness had apparently eaten two of those.

Seven years. They had seven years.

Why did that not feel like enough time, somehow?

“What?” the shemlen asked, bewildered.

“It’s… complicated,” she replied.

“I’m not simple, you know,” he insisted.

“If you truly do not wish to involve yourself in our affairs, I would recommend against pursuing this line of questioning,” Fen’Harel advised him.

His mouth clamped shut.

“Right,” he decided. “You’re in the Korcari Wilds, not far off from Ostagar.”

She wanted to throw her hands up in the air.

“So far south? Wonderful. And well after anything we might be able to help with here has already happened,” she groused. Then she sighed, which made her creak a little, and sent a few stray grass blades whirling around her feet.

The shemlen took a step back.

“Help?” he asked, warily.

“We might have helped with the Blight, I suppose, if all of this had been just a little more timely,” she suggested.

“More likely, we might have gotten eaten by darkspawn,” Fen’Harel countered. “There’s no point in dwelling on it now.”

It could be her imagination, but he seemed to be a lot more irritable than usual.

“The Blight? That was years ago,” the shemlen replied.

“Obviously,” Fen’Harel snapped.

Yeah, definitely irritable. Of course, he was still injured. And he’d probably been woken prematurely from his rest. And he’d confirmed that he needed food, and water, but he hadn’t had either since they’d suddenly come tumbling out of the Fade.

“My apologies,” she said, when the man tensed as the Dread Wolf’s tone. “My friend here injured himself fighting demons, and it’s been a long time since he had any food or drink. It’s making him short-tempered.”

“This is not short-tempered,” Fen’Harel grumbled under his breath.

The shemlen glanced between them again, and then carefully took off the brace of rabbits he was carrying, and cut one from it. He tossed it to her feet, and then, thinking again, unslung a water flask from his hip and did the same with it as well.

“There,” he said. “I’ve done my good deed. If you’ve any civility in you, you’ll leave these parts and me and mine alone. These wilds have seen enough darkness to last an age.”

“Thank you,” she replied, sincerely.

Fen’Harel looked at the offerings.

“Yes,” he agreed. “Thank you. We will not trouble your people. You have our word.”

The man nodded, curtly, and then shifted briefly on his feet – turning as if to leave, and then stopping himself mid-step.

“I recognize that name. Fen’Harel,” he said. “The Dalish fear it. They used to curse at us with it.”

Fen’Harel stiffened.

“Do you mean them any harm?” the shemlen asked. “Because… well, what they did was wrong. But they paid for it, too. And we did our own share of wrong. If you’ve come to put some kind of punishment on them, I wouldn’t bother.”

“What did they do that was wrong?” she wondered.

“You mean you don’t know?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“Then I won’t tell you,” he decided, squaring his shoulders a little. “Just… if you mean them harm. Reconsider. The Blight, and what came before, was harm enough for us all.”

“We mean no harm,” Fen’Harel assured him.

That seemed to satisfy him, and with a curt nod and a swift step, the man left.

She watched him until he was long out of sight or range of her hearing. Fen’Harel nudged at the rabbit with his nose, and then the flask. He sighed.

“I don’t suppose we could cook it?” he wondered, glancing at his paws.

“Not a fan of raw game?” she asked, a little distractedly.

“No,” he confirmed. “Though it’ll be easier to stomach in this form, at least.”

“I imagine it would be barely a mouthful to your other one,” she replied.

Fen’Harel looked confused, for a second.

“Barely a… oh. Yes. That other form,” he said.

She probably would have noticed the incongruity a bit more if she hadn’t been busy wondering what the shemlen had been talking about. The conflict between the clan and the werewolves? But where had her people erred in that? So far as she knew, they’d been victimized, and then ultimately helpful.

Unless, it seemed, they were content not only to misinterpret history, but to also rewrite it as it happened anew.

Well, there wasn’t much point on dwelling on it, she supposed. Shaking her head, she bent down and picked up the flask. It was a shame about the rabbit. No tools and limited dexterity meant she’d be harder pressed to get into it than a wolf, even though she could have easily cleaned and cooked it under normal circumstances. At least she could unscrew the lid of the flask, and tilt it enough for Fen’Harel to drink.

As soon as the first touch of water hit his tongue, the Dread Wolf drank greedily. She had to pull back herself to keep him from half-drowning.

“I had forgotten,” he rasped, once she did, his eyes a little wide. “I am so thirsty.”

He turned to the rabbit, then, and without any further ado, began to tear into it.

With the definite feeling that he wouldn’t want her to have watched, afterwards, she averted her gaze. It landed on a well by the hut instead, and she wandered over to see if it was dry.

When she had finished, and managed to refill the water flask, she returned to find that the rabbit was little more than cracked bones and fur.

“That was not enough,” Fen’Harel informed her.

“If I had a bow, I could hunt,” she bemoaned.

I can hunt,” Fen’Harel assured her, ears pricking, eyes sharp. He glanced back towards her. “Watch the orb,” he said, and before she could even reply, he was gone.

She glanced at the patch of undergrowth he’d disappeared into.

“What are the odds he’s going to completely botch this?” she wondered.

On the one hand, he was a wolf, in a forest. Not a bad combination. On the other hand…

“Yeah. Pretty high.”

Quick as she could, she went back to the hut, and retrieved the orb from where he’d left it.

Then she followed after him.

 

~

 

Fen’Harel was surprisingly fast, considering he was still injured.

Though the fact that she was still quite slow may have contributed to that perception.

She eventually managed to follow his tracks to a stream, where he was finishing off what appeared to have been a squirrel, back before it met the Dread Wolf’s jaws. He was panting and covered in mud and a few twigs and one of his gashes was sluggishly bleeding again.

“You will scare off the prey,” he informed her, when she came into view.

She cast a sceptical eye towards his squirrel.

“Sure,” she replied.

The orb was making her glow even more than usual, though. Night had fallen completely by then, and she was like a signal fire, reflected in the stream. A few moths had started following her at some point. They kept trying to fly under her armour. It was… pretty unnerving.

Momentarily content that Fen’Harel wasn’t about to pop up and run off again just yet, she crouched down by the water’s edge, and stared.

It wasn’t very fast-moving, but still rapid enough that her reflection was blurry. Distorted. Little more than glowing light and dark shadows. She reached a hand out and let the water pass through her fingers. It rippled a little, and she was reminded of the rift near Crestwood. Under the lake.

Something nipped at one of her fingertips, and without really thinking she snapped her hand closed and grasped it.

“Huh,” she said, as she lifted up a fair-sized catfish.

Fen’Harel looked almost offended.

“How did you do that?” he asked.

“Just luck,” she said, and put the fish out of its misery before tossing it towards him. It was probably a testament to how hungry he still was that he didn’t comment any further before he started to devour it.

After another two fish had been caught, however, he started to get suspicious.

“Are you luring them?” he wondered.

“Maybe? I don’t know. It could be the light. Or the moths,” she mused. “They seem a little stunned.”

That appeared to be the end of her winning streak, however, as the next fish was fast enough to avoid capture, and no more approached her dangling fingers afterwards. With a shrug, she straightened up again, checking that the orb was firmly ensconced at her side.

Fen’Harel looked at himself, bleeding, muddy, and with a muzzle covered in bits of fur and fish and blood.

“This is disgusting,” he declared, and then plunged halfway into the stream.

“You’re going to be cold,” she informed him, when he re-emerged, sputtering.

“Ah,” he replied. “I had forgotten about that.”

A few minutes later, he was shivering on the bank and looking like he deeply regretted everything.

“We need to get to the Free Marches,” she informed him. “I don’t know when exactly Corypheus escaped. I wish I’d asked. But Varric and Hawke will definitely know if they’ve encountered him or not.”

“And how do you propose we speak to them?” Fen’Harel wondered.

Right. They were a talking wolf and a… something. Not the most approachable individuals.

“…Carefully?” she suggested.

“Allow me to make a counter-proposal,” the Dread Wolf suggested, and then shuddered. “Ugh,” he complained, voice dipping off into a low whine. “How long is this supposed to last for?”

“Takes two years to nap, can’t stand five seconds of being damp,” she muttered. “It will last until you dry off or warm up,” she then replied, more clearly.

He let out an aggravated sigh.

“I am… unaccustomed to this,” he admitted.

“I know. Just, take it easy,” she suggested. “Give yourself some time to adjust.”

“And give you the same time, I suppose,” he replied, shaking his head. “I apologize. Running off was inconsiderate of me.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “But since you didn’t plummet over any ravines or get mauled by any bears, I’ll forgive you.”

“Most kind of you,” he declared, with a note of good humour. After a second, then, he stood, and walked until he could sit beside her at the bank of the stream.

“Do I put off any heat?” she wondered. She didn’t feel particularly warm, but sometimes the mark had, after she used it enough times in a row.

“A little,” Fen’Harel replied.

“You’re welcome to it, unless the bark is too uncomfortable,” she informed him.

He looked up at her, and then leaned against her.

For a long moment they simple sat, words forgotten until at last his shivering began to abate.

“What were you going to suggest?” she asked him, then.

He blinked up at her.

“Hmm?”

“Are you falling asleep again?”

“I cannot help feeling tired!” he protested. “I tire so easily…”

She sighed, and with some care, draped an arm over his back.

“How are we going to manage this?” she wondered. “At this rate, we may as well just head for Haven and meet Corypheus there.” Except, of course, he wouldn’t be going there without the orb. Probably. Unless he found another one, somehow, which was likely giving him more credit than he was due. The Elder One was a creature of excessive conceit, not competence.

“Help me unlock the orb,” Fen’Harel said, quietly. “Corypheus will scarcely matter once we do.”

“Because we’ll have found a newer, even bigger calamity to unleash onto the world?” she asked.

“Because the ones your people worship will not suffer a creature like him,” he replied. He turned to look up at her, lit softly in the dark. “This world is plagued. You must see it. As time passes, the shadows only grow longer, and the weapons to fight it diminish. What is served by keeping the doorways closed? By abandoning hope in favour of a stable, downward constant?”

“How do you know it won’t make things even worse?” she countered. “You think you made a mistake. But what if this doesn’t fix it? What if it’s actually just making the same mistake all over again?”

Fen’Harel fell silent for long enough that she began to suspect he’d fallen asleep. When he spoke, his voice was very soft, but clear enough that she found it disquieting.

“I do not know what else I can do,” he admitted.

Well, now.

There was a feeling she was all too intimate with.

She tilted her head up. The sky was overcast, the night dark. She remembered lifting a sword up high in Skyhold, before the assembled survivors of Haven. So laughable. She didn’t even know how to wield something like that. It had seemed strangely appropriate, though, considering she was taking on a role she felt keenly unsuited for as well.

The potential fallout for her failure as Inquisitor was massive. The shemlen who held her in cultish esteem could all too easily turn vicious if they thought their faith was misplaced. She had become, all at once, a representative of the Dalish and of elves in general, and her people would face both the benefits and the backlash of her decisions.

It had seemed like a terrible thing to allow, a horrifying risk to take all on her own. But she had not known what else she could do.

Action is not always preferable to inaction, a memory whispered to her.

“What if you did nothing?” she wondered.

Fen’Harel went silent for a while again.

“There is a pattern to events,” he replied, at length. “A downward trajectory that becomes immediately apparent when one knows what to look for. The world is… deteriorating. If I do nothing, then that will likely continue. My kin will remain abandoned. I suppose it is possible that some other solution may arise, from some other source. But I cannot expect that, or rely upon it.”

“So you have to try?” she concluded. “To save them, and hope you aren’t condemning everyone else in the process?”

“Yes,” he agreed.

After a moment, she reached down, and shifted the orb thoughtfully into one hand.

It was a very beautiful thing, in its own way. She’d never really appreciated that. However it had been crafted, it obviously been done so with an eye for aesthetics. Or perhaps the aesthetics were a side-effect; a natural result of how such magic worked, just as agelessness had once been a natural side-effect to being an elf.

“What were they like?” she wondered.

Fen’Harel closed his eyes.

“…Hollow,” he replied.

She blinked down at him.

“That’s not exactly a compelling description,” she noted.

“No,” he agreed, with a huff of breath. “I likely should have listed some of their more flattering traits, to help convince you. I could tell you of their grace, or strength, or overwhelming capacity for love. How fierce they were. All of them could hold grudges towards one another that lasted centuries, but buried underneath that, they never truly forgot what once bound them together, either. They were like poetry, breathed into life. They were each like the sea. They could storm and swallow cities whole in an instant, but they were beautiful, and gave as much as they took.”

“Yes, that would have been more what I was expecting,” she agreed, caught momentarily by the emotion in his voice, the wistful longing and weary nostalgia.

“The world was slower, back then. Much slower,” Fen’Harel continued. “But time still passed. Elgar’nan showed the first signs of it. Mythal, as well. One might spend ten years watching a flower bloom, one might seek out a new flower afterwards and repeat the process, over and over again, but eventually, there will be no new flowers to witness. The blooming grows stale. Novelty dies, and as the years drag by they begin to feel more like a burden than a blessing. There is nothing new to see, only constant variations on the same old themes. No more surprises.”

“So, they were bored?” she surmised.

“Some,” he replied. “It manifested differently, to be honest. Boredom was common. Frustration as well. Apathy was the most prevalent, however. Sometimes I think the war carried on as perpetually as it did mostly because it was something to have feelings about, when other distractions fell short.”

“What about you?” she wondered. “Were you apathetic?”

He snorted.

“No.”

“Then what?” she pressed.

“I… was younger,” he conceded. “I didn’t understand it very well, back then. But I thought the best solution was change. If the world changed more, if it wasn’t so sedate, then it would be harder to become accustomed to it.”

‘Back then’, he said. She regarded him, considering.

“Do you understand it better now?” she wondered.

“I believe so?” he replied, surprisingly tentative. “Seeing the same patterns in history, watching the same mistakes happen, is wearying. But I still haven’t seen enough to claim that I have seen it all. Perhaps I am still too young. Or perhaps I wasn’t entirely wrong; perhaps things have changed frequently enough, even if they don’t change entirely, that the variations can still arrest my attention.”

“I’m glad,” she murmured, without really thinking about it.

He blinked up at her.

“What?” he asked.

“I mean…” she hesitated, uncertain herself. “It sounds like a sad state of being.”

“It is,” he agreed.

“Wouldn’t it be kinder to just… let them sleep, then?” she couldn’t help but wonder. If living had grown so tiresome – and she could see how immortality might wear thin after a while – then why not? Eternal slumber seemed like a very ‘last resort’ sort of option, but if death would never come naturally, then it might be a mercy.

“Perhaps. If they had chosen such a fate themselves,” Fen’Harel replied. “But for all their growing apathy, they did not. I made the choice for them. And the world has changed enough, it could be able to surprise them again. Though, most of those surprises would likely be unpleasant.”

She looked back at the orb.

“It feels like a disaster in the making,” she admitted. “When the Old Gods of the Tevinter Imperium wake up, they scour the land as archdemons. Your friends don’t sound like they were the best of gods even when Arlathan still stood.”

“Trying to hold someone to the standard of godhood is inevitably going to produce disappointing results,” Fen’Harel replied. “Do not think of them as gods, if it helps. They never were. Think of them as ancient beings who have been imprisoned for longer than they deserve.”

“And has it actually been longer than they deserve?” she wondered. “What are the conditions of this prison? What were the worst of their crimes?”

The Dread Wolf blinked.

“Are you asking sincerely?” he wondered.

“Of course!” she replied. “I was Inquisitor. I sat on a throne in Skyhold’s main hall. Criminals would be brought before me for judgement. You don’t pass judgement without first hearing about the crimes, and the reasons behind them, and any reparations that have already been made.”

Blackwall came to mind, along with the familiar twist of pain at what had been brought to light about him.

Fen’Harel huffed at her.

“You are serious,” he realized.

“Should I not be?” she asked, a little incredulously.

“No, you should,” he readily agreed. “It is only… they would never recognize your right to judge them. So I suppose it comes as a surprise to realize that you are actually in a position to do so.”

“And the picture you paint of them becomes ever more flattering,” she mused.

“I will not lie to you about them,” Fen’Harel declared, with sudden severity. “I may struggle to speak of some truths, but I… I do not believe you deserve lies.”

A strange sort of tension settled between them. She felt like she was sitting on a knife’s edge, suddenly. Like the stream in front of them was suddenly a raging river, threatening to flood and swallow them whole.

The conversation died. What should have been an opening to more answers instead sealed itself up, and neither of them spoke another word until Fen’Harel’s breaths turned deep and even against her. After a while she placed the orb between his paws again, and that made the world a little easier to bear. It wasn’t the best place to set up camp, perhaps, but it felt safe and quiet enough.

The glen in Crestwood had felt like that. Not sensible, but still safe. She had thrown Solas sceptical glances the whole trek out to it, wondering aloud if he’d been asking Iron Bull for dating advice, if they were supposed to fight wyverns together in some sort of ancient bonding ritual he’d seen in a dream, and other such things that made him chuckle and sigh at her.

Broken hearts were painful, she’d learned, shortly thereafter. The poets made it sound like death. It certainly felt like a grievous injury.

By the time the sky began to brighten, she had managed to chase the memory away. Her melancholy remained, however, and when Fen’Harel woke, she was examining the orb again.

He shifted blearily, resting his head on her knee and blinking up at her.

“Good morning,” she greeted.

He replied. Not intelligibly, though. Then he rolled away from her, stretched dramatically, and sneezed.

And sneezed again.

No. It is even worse now. Why?” he groaned.

“You slept on a river bank. Wet. That’s not generally a good idea,” she informed him.

“Ugh,” he replied, and then glowered at his scabbed-over scratches. “Still?!” he demanded of them, perilously close to outrage.

“They don’t look infected, at least,” she optimistically informed him.

Fen’Harel kept scowling at them, though, a picture of canine displeasure, bedraggled and unmoved. After a minute a soft glow washed over him, a ripple of familiar magic that reduced the scabs to soft pink lines.

“Much better,” he declared.

She gaped at him.

“You can cast spells?” she demanded.

“It is a different manner of magic from what I’m accustomed to, more ineloquent, but it will have to suffice,” he replied, examining himself again. He sounded a lot more clear-headed and alert.

Then he looked back up at her.

“What?” he wondered.

“Nothing,” she replied, shaking her head at herself. “I don’t know why I’m surprised.”

They let the matter drop. After all, it wasn’t as if she had any objections to magic in and of itself.

“I still want to head north,” she said, instead. Perhaps it would be pointless, and certainly dangerous, especially as they were. But it still seemed better than sitting around the woods and debating.

Fen’Harel only nodded, however, and didn’t bring up the orb again.

“As good a direction as any, I suppose,” he conceded.

The effect was somewhat ruined by the rumbling of his stomach.

“How often is this going to keep happening?” he muttered, glaring at himself disdainfully.

Her laugh surprised them both.

 

~

 

Their trek through the wilderness could have been worse, she supposed.

There could have been rifts.

Or soldiers.

As it was, it was mostly a lot of dirt and bugs and wildlife, watching Fen’Harel work out the ups and down of hunting his own dinner, and trying to keep going in the right direction. We didn’t pay Harding enough, she thought on one memorable occasion, when they managed to somehow strand themselves in the bottom of a ravine.

“We’ll have to backtrack,” Fen’Harel sighed.

She glared at the craggy earthen slope in front of her, thought something unfairly disparaging about the landscape, and then in a burst of pure pigheaded stubbornness, lifted both Fen’Harel and the orb under one arm, and started climbing.

It was a testament to how much better she was getting at navigating the ins-and-outs of her new existence that she managed to pull it off.

When she lowered the Dread Wolf back down on top of the slope, he shook himself off, and gave her a look.

“Well,” he said. “That was… odd.”

“Also expedient!” she replied. “I need to not move until the world stops spinning, now.”

He snorted at her.

“Really?” she asked, leaning back onto the grass. “You’re going to disdain my five minute break, Ser Two-Years-Napping?”

“Are you ever going to stop bringing that up?” he wondered.

“Two. Years.”

“That is not a considerable length of time. Which, I should mention, passes differently in the Fade. And also, I was awake as much as I could be,” he insisted.

“If it really bothers you, I’ll stop,” she offered, a little worried by his tone.

He sat down next to her and sighed.

“No,” he said. “That is not the real issue. I am irritable.”

“Hungry again?” she guessed.

“Mmm,” he replied. “Hunting takes more energy than I expected, and yields inconsistent results. These woods are not rich in game.”

“Everything’s still recovering from the Blight,” she pointed out. “Darkspawn don’t leave much untainted.”

“True. Not terribly helpful, but true,” he replied, and then left her with the orb to go and see if he might not have some better luck.

They carried on, afterwards, occasionally making their way across hunters’ trails or within view of roads. The scant signs of civilization made it easier to navigate, and find landmarks. Though there was risk inherent, as well, as evidenced when some poor peasant caught sight of them, and fled as if his life depended upon it.

And shemlen travelers weren’t the only faces in the woodlands.

Twice, they spotted Dalish scouts at a distance. The first came to her attention by luck. Fen’Harel sniffed the second one out. Both, unfortunately, noticed them in return, and fled as swiftly as the peasant had.

“At least they aren’t attacking us,” she mused.

“A small mercy,” Fen’Harel agreed.

As it happened their unlucky streak wasn’t broken by some bold adventurer or frightened scout, but by a bear.

The beast was young, ragged, and unhealthy, likely run out of the better hunting grounds by more experienced rivals. It rushed them, all at once, and the ensuing fight was bloody and unpleasant, as Fen’Harel and the bear used teeth and claws, and she used fists and feet. It ended with a fresh gash down the Dread Wolf’s side, and a branch lodged into the bear’s ribcage, her arms trembling with the effort of putting it there.

Her wooden armour took a beating from the fight. Gradually, however, she seemed to accumulate enough bits and pieces from whatever was around them to repair the damage. The torn leaves on the palms of her hands were replaced with moss from a nearby boulder. Some young green vines wrapped their way around the cracks in her legs.

“Are you doing that intentionally?” Fen’Harel wondered.

“No,” she admitted.

“Remarkable,” he decided.

Then he devoured most of the bear.

The subject of the orb did not come up again until they happened upon a ruined tower, close to twilight. The wind had kicked up and the sky was threatening rain, so any sign of shelter was a welcome one. While Fen’Harel explored the ground level, she felt a sudden interest in heading upwards.

Without really thinking about it, she followed the instinct, carefully climbing over rotted steps until she reached a balcony. In amidst a few abandoned chests, she found a familiar sight.

The elven artifact looked as most did – a globe, pinned between several geometric pieces, and placed into a stand.

She stared at it for a long moment. Long enough that she was still staring when Fen’Harel came to find her.

“I felt it,” she said, quietly.

The Dread Wolf sat next to her, and curiously followed her line of sight. He stiffened.

“Impossible. It is broken,” he said.

“No it’s not,” she replied, and then she reached for it, twisted the side pieces as Solas had once showed her, and watched as it burst into radiant life.

It felt like turning on a switch inside of herself, as well, and she gasped; it created a surge, just like the one she’d felt when she’d first picked up the Dread Wolf’s foci. When it passed, she felt stronger. Lighter. Like she could run or jump or climb with ease, now.

She turned to Fen’Harel, a question on her lips.

It died when she saw his expression.

“No,” he said, horrified. “That is not possible.”

“Solas could sense them…” she began.

I should sense them!” he snapped. “They are meant to…” he trailed off, abruptly, and glanced towards her.

“Meant to?” she prompted.

The glow of the artifact cast shadows upon his face.

“I should sense them,” he repeated. “But I did not detect it here at all. Even now, I can see it, but I cannot feel it. It makes no sense.”

“I can feel it. I never used to be able to, though. Perhaps this one is… different?” she suggested.

“Perhaps,” Fen’Harel replied. But he sounded more unnerved than convinced.

They left the artifact at the top of the tower, and made their way back down to the ground, after a while. Fen’Harel took his orb and placed it in the middle of the room. She thought of Skyhold, and his massive form filling up the whole space, as he sat in front of his foci and stared at it.

After about twenty minutes of that, she gave up on trying to guess what he was up to.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I can sense it,” he said. “But so faintly. Is it because I am weak, or am I weak because the connection is so faint?” he wondered.

“Does it make such a difference?” she wondered.

“Yes. No. Perhaps,” he sighed, and slumped, nudging the orb with his nose. “I do not know. Nothing makes sense anymore.”

“What, because you didn’t sniff out one measly artifact?” she wondered. “The Inquisition found at least a couple dozen of them. I’m sure you’ll get the next one.”

He stared at her.

“What?” she wondered.

“Dozens?” he asked. “You activated dozens of these?”

“Solas thought they would strengthen the Veil, and help discourage spirits from passing through,” she explained, hesitantly.

Fen’Harel made a pained sound and closed his eyes, and muttered something in ancient elvish.

“I didn’t understand that,” she admitted. “Was he wrong?”

The Dread Wolf shuddered.

“No,” he replied. “Not technically.”

She narrowed her eyes.

“But that isn’t all that they do, is it? Or it isn’t their main purpose,” she surmised. “Activating it felt like touching the orb. Are they… foci?”

“Not nearly,” Fen”Harel assured her. “They are more like beacons. In the days of Elvhenan they were attuned to this world, and to others. Not the Fade, however. They were considered amplifiers for the prayers of the faithful. In reality, they were more like convenient storehouses of power, easy to access in moments of necessity. Or to utterly destroy, should an entire city merit swift execution.”

Her face fell. He had been expanding upon the actions of the ‘gods’ over the course of their trek, and every new piece of information seemed like a terrible cocktail of wonder and depravity.

“They wouldn’t have anywhere near enough energy for that now,” he assured her. “And they would strengthen the Veil, in the sense that they would amplify the connection to other pathways instead. A creative half-truth.”

“We didn’t know that,” she defended.

Fen’Harel looked at her.

The discomfort in the air was palpable.

“Well, does it really matter how it worked?” she wondered, scrambling away from it.

The Dread Wolf rose to his feet, and began to pace.

“I suppose not, if it helped impede the Breach either way,” he conceded. “But what power was stored in the artifact should have come to me, once it was activated in my proximity. It did not.”

“It went to me,” she realized.

“Did it ever do so before?” he wondered, halting.

“No,” she assured him.

With a frustrated huff, he resumed his pacing.

“It recognized you first. Why? The anchor? But if it is the anchor, then others should have done the same thing in your own timeline. Am I simply too weak still?” He growled. “All the more reason to need that extra strength, then. How infuriating.”

“Those with the greatest need are often afforded the least relief,” she mused. That was one of Keeper Deshanna’s favourite ways to scold the world when she was faced with unfairness.

“You stole what should have been mine,” Fen’Harel said.

She didn’t care very much for the tone of his voice.

He looked at her, and she stared steadily back at him. He wasn’t the first to accuse her of being an unwitting thief, after all, though somehow she’d come to expect better of him.

His gaze dropped first.

“That was an unworthy accusation,” he admitted.

“Yes. It was,” she agreed.

Then she stood, and walked from the tower and into the rain.

Part of her thought it might be a fine idea to just keep walking. To let the world hang itself, abandon Fen’Harel, forget about Corypheus and simply disappear. Go and open a rift somewhere, and return to the Fade. Drift like a ghost. Perhaps bury herself in her own memories, where she could carefully edit out the painful bits, and only relive happiness and laughter.

It was dark by the time a bedraggled wolf came to sit beside her.

“I met this Avvar warrior, once,” she said. “He joined the Inquisition to try and stop the rifts in order to heal his goddess, his Lady of the Skies. And I thought to myself, here this man sees calamity and he assumes his goddess is being attacked. On the other hand, there was a cult of shemlen in the Hinterlands who firmly believed that their Maker was behind the Breach. They saw calamity and assumed their god was the reason for it. Either way, they assumed some kind of divine involvement. Even Corypheus began the whole mess because he was trying to meet his gods.”

Fen’Harel remained silent.

“I never thought it was our gods, either way,” she admitted. “I never really believed our gods existed, as a matter of fact. Not as more than stories and culture, or bits of history, anyway. I never really feared or revered them. I used to let Inquisition soldiers set up camp around your statues, in fact. I knew the Dalish wouldn’t camp in such spaces, and they were often safe and quiet. We could all sleep soundly with the Dread Wolf in our midst.”

She sighed. The rain fell through the cracks in her armour, little flecks of water that felt almost like a drink as they swept through her form.

“I didn’t believe. Corypheus took me for a rival and the shemlen took me for a Herald, but I never wanted this!” she snapped, suddenly furious.

A few of the raindrops sizzled before she calmed down again.

“If I could give it back to you…”

“No,” Fen’Harel finally said. He sounded resolute.

She glanced over to him; he was looking at her, in return.

“There are no rifts or breaches to close. Once Corypheus is dealt with, there won’t be the threat of them, either,” she reasoned. “If this power is yours, then-”

“I released it to you,” he interrupted. “Besides which, the anchor may be the only thing permitting you to exist as you do.”

She shrugged.

“You released it to me in another life. You don’t even know what your reasons for it were. You certainly didn’t seem to know what to expect from it in this timeline. And anyway, I hardly plan to remain like this forever. What kind of an existence would that be?” she reasoned. “The truth is, I’ve already lost my life. The people who would miss me either don’t know me anymore, or they know another version of me. My body’s gone. Skyhold’s an abandoned ruin again. The Inquisition doesn’t exist and might not ever exist. What is there left for me, except to try and protect everyone one last time?”

There was silence, for a time. Rain on wood and fur. Fen’Harel was swiftly soaked, but he didn’t move.

“Is it so terrible, your existence now?” he wondered.

She stared down at herself. Lifted her arms, and looked through the gaps, the places where flesh should be, but wasn’t. The raindrops bouncing eerily off the interior of her chest and stomach.

“Maybe if I’d… stayed,” she mused. “If… maybe if we could’ve…” she trailed off, and laughed at herself. “Maybe he would’ve been happier with me as a spirit!” she exclaimed, and then shook her head, and laughed at herself again. “No. That was unkind to him.  I apologize, lethallin. It’s not terrible. I’m not sure how long I could endure it for, but it’s not quite a torment, yet.”

Fen’Harel gave her a sorrowful look. Doubtless the rain was contributing to the expression.

“What were you like, when you were alive?” he wondered.

She shrugged.

“I was an elf. Just an elf,” she replied. “Though I have it on good authority that I was graceful.”

“It must be difficult, then, to be so clumsy now,” he reasoned. “I understand that. In my youth, I was so swift, few save the wind could catch me. Now I slog along through the mud, and even a simple walk seems to tire me. It is not an easy change. But you have made it easier.”

She blinked at him.

“Me?”

He inclined his head.

“Just so. You have given me a mystery, which is compelling enough. But more than that, you have been a friend. I had forgotten…” he trailed off, and then exhaled.

“You aren’t what I expected either,” she admitted.

He chuckled.

“Not enough tearing at your heels and cursing your people?” he suggested.

“Naturally. But it’s not just a lack of malice. You’ve been kind,” she replied. “Kindness is an often underrated quality.”

“I wasn’t kind today,” he reminded her.

“Not before, no. But nobody’s perfect.”

He snorted. Then he peered up at her face, gaze intent for a long, quiet while.

“I can almost see it,” he said, after a moment. “The rain scatters over your cheeks, instead of falling through. I can almost see your face.”

She was momentarily robbed of words.

She found her smile before she rediscovered them – tentative, small, but true.

Fen’Harel settled at her side again, and turned away from her.

“I will not take it back, even if you would relinquish it eagerly,” he announced. “If this existence becomes unbearable, we will fashion you another. Somehow. There are ways, I am certain. And before you worry, no, such things need not be objectionable. In the meanwhile, we shall go north, to the Waking Sea and your enemy beyond, and I will try to keep in mind that pettiness and a lust for power are troublesome traits to indulge in.”

She closed her eyes, and then inclined her head.

“Alright,” she agreed.

A wet cheek brushed against her arm.

“You should get out of the rain,” she told him.

“It’s not entirely unpleasant,” he replied. “But as you wish.”

He stood, and she watched him return to the ruined tower, and its relative shelter.

At least, she thought, I’m not alone.

If there was ever something worth thanking any kind of deity for, it was that.

 

~

 

By the time they reached the coast, they still hadn’t devised a solution to the whole ‘talking-wolf-and-tree-person’ dilemma. It made their prospects of securing transportation fairly slim. The waters were exceptionally stormy; she had assumed it was summer, but a particularly warm autumn was seeming likelier and likelier.

“I doubt we could swim it,” Fen’Harel dryly observed, as they took shelter in a shallow cave. They had been scouring the coast for any hint of easy passage – namely, smugglers. But the tide was up, waves crashing, spraying the coast and dragging anything too close to shore back to the depths with each new roaring charge. Only madmen would be out on those waters.

I might be able to,” she mused. “Mind over matter and all.”

“That is a terrible idea,” he informed her.

“We’ll call it Plan B, then,” she replied. “I don’t suppose you have any useful secret knowledge about ship building?”

“Sadly, no.”

The waves crashed so loudly that it was almost impossible to hear for a minute, then. The wind tossed the sea spray up to them. Despite everything, she took a moment to appreciate it. If she closed her eyes she could almost pretend it was just another expedition.

“There is another option,” Fen’Harel informed her.

She shook the moment off, and glanced towards him.

“Hmm?”

The Dread Wolf pawed absently at the dirt by his feet.

“I may be able to assume another form,” he said.

“The giant one?” she wondered. Possibly better for swimming, but not by much. She supposed they could terrorize someone into loaning them the use of a boat with it, but that seemed like it would be unnecessarily cruel, and also asking for trouble.

“No. Something a little more… sociable. Better for things like securing passage,” Fen’Harel explained, without looking at her. “You didn’t think I spent all of my time on four legs, did you? I cannot take on any shape, of course, but the shape of an elf is one I have known since the beginning.”

She took a second to process that, and thought of the ancient elves, with their lofty physical heights and their long, angular frames.

“Would you pass for a normal elf?” she wondered.

“Normal is relative, but I could qualify as ‘unremarkable’,” he replied. “I can make alterations to the form. Little things. Height, weight, hair. It takes some concentration, and much more effort, but it’s not beyond me.”

Straightening a little, she turned more fully towards him.

“Alright,” she declared. “Let’s see it, then.”

“Ah,” Fen’Harel sighed. “And there we hit our first complication. Such a transformation requires power. Most of mine was spent in giving me this shape, after I first awoke. To change it again, I will have to be stronger. Particularly if I want to remain conscious afterwards.”

She made a face.

“Yes, staying awake – that would be good,” she conceded. Then she sighed. “It’s always coming down to more power with you.”

“I have scarcely any. It is impossible to work with such limited stores,” he replied, a little defensively.

“Technically, you’re a mage,” she pointed out. “That’s often considered the most power any person should naturally expect to have.”

Fen’Harel looked like he’d just bitten into a lemon.

“Regardless,” he said. “It is not enough. So either we wait for my strength to return naturally – which it will not do with any haste – or we start looking for other means of augmenting it.”

“‘Other means’ like friendly ancient darkspawn magisters?” she asked, folding her arms.

Fen’Harel lifted his chin slightly.

“If that is how you feel, then we shall wait,” he declared. “For years. During which Corypheus will escape, and begin his plots all over again. Even without the orb, I imagine he will prove troublesome and destructive.”

She narrowed her eyes at him.

“Or…” he suggested, and then nudged the orb pointedly into her side.

“Oh as if you could actually wait that long!” she snapped, rolling the orb back towards him.

“I can be patient!” Fen’Harel insisted.

“You’re being impatient right now!” she pointed out.

“Well what would you suggest we do?” he countered. “We have come here, all the way to the coast, and somehow I doubt sitting by the shore until the waves grow bold enough to swallow us whole will present any further solutions to the problem of crossing the sea.”

He was right. Which was probably the most insufferable thing about the whole situation.

The only other idea that was occurring to her was opening another rift. They could walk into the Fade, and cross the sea through it, and then exit the other side. But that was probably an even worse idea than simply trying to swim.

And that was leaving aside the problem of what to do when they were in the Free Marches. They couldn’t exactly waltz into Kirkwall as they were.

“Fine,” she grit out. “I think I know where a couple of those artifacts are. If they’re still in the places where they were. Will be. There’s one behind a waterfall, anyway,” she managed, waving one hand awkwardly through the air.

“That won’t work if the power goes to you instead,” Fen’Harel pointed out. “But it is worth looking into.”

They waited until the sea’s rages had died down enough to exit their shelter, then, and set out for the river. The foul weather had chased most of the usual wildlife into their dens and burrows, though they managed to inadvertently terrify some poor fisherman, who had decided to brave the river instead of the sea, it seemed. He fled, invoking Andraste.

“Am I really that terrifying?” she wondered, as the wind lashed the rain sideways.

“Perhaps it is me?” Fen’Harel suggested.

“You just look like a wolf. That’s not frightening,” she replied.

“Many people are frightened by wolves,” he insisted.

“Not to the point of invoking their gods and fleeing at the sight of one,” she pointed out.

“Fair point,” he conceded.

Finding the waterfall was more difficult than it should have been, but the roar of the storm disguised the crash of the falls, and the river had flooded in enough places that following it directly was a challenge. When they finally reached the cave, it was to discover that a mother bear and two cubs had taken shelter there.

“When did bears become so prevalent?” Fen’Harel wondered, once they had retreated to reassess the situation.

“We can wait until the storm’s passed, and they leave,” she suggested.

“I would prefer that to violence,” he agreed.

So decided, they set out to find some other temporary form of shelter. By the time they found something remotely suitable, Fen’Harel was shivering, his stomach rumbling, his coat soaked through and ears drooping. He curled in on himself in the driest spot he could find, and she left him with the orb.

“I’ll find something for you,” she promised.

It took a while. The wind whistled when it passed through her, which acted as a fair warning to most would-be prey; but hunkered down in their burrows, some had nowhere to flee. She found a couple of nugs, hiding by the river banks, swiftly twisted their necks and carried them back with her. The shelter where she’d left Fen’Harel was little more than an alcove in an outcropping of rocks.

A figure was standing outside of it.

She paused, taken aback; and then her gaze immediately flew to the drawn bow, the shaking arms. The girl was Dalish. Inexperience, she thought. Her hold was good but her stance was off. The wind had blown her hood from her face, revealing the dark lines of her vallaslin. She had her back to the woods.

Fen’Harel said something to her, but the wind swept most of the words away. The girl replied, sharp, defiant, and the bowstring went taught. Fear spiked through her. At that range, even an amateur could scarcely miss.

“Mana, Da’len!” she snapped, in the sharp tone of a head hunter, one that broke no disobedience lest a hunt go badly awry.

The girl froze out of reflex, and in the time it took her to recover, she had gotten close enough to wrench the bow from her grip.

Wide, terrified brown eyes stared up at her. The young hunter scrambled backwards with a cry, reaching for her knives.

“She will not hurt you,” Fen’Harel informed her.

“Creators, save me,” the hunter breathed, and to her credit managed to keep on her feet.

Maybe it had been a little bit hasty to just… grab the bow like that. Having an arrow pointing at Fen’Harel had made her twitchy.

“He’s right. I’m not going to hurt you,” she insisted.

“Help! Alenada! Mela!” the hunter cried, but the storm swallowed most of it, and her voice had no chance of carrying far. She seemed to realize it, too, as a moment later, a sharp knife was thrown with admirable accuracy, and launched itself straight into the wood over her lungs. Or where her lungs would be, if she still had them.

“Nice throw,” she complimented, and pulled it out.

“Da’len, cease your panicking,” Fen’Harel advised. “At this rate you are accomplishing little more than arming your foe.”

The hunter’s expression crumpled, and she looked like she was staring her doom in the face.

It felt like a punch to the gut, being looked at that way by one of her own people. By someone barely out of childhood.

“Ir abelas,” she said, gently, and shifted the knife so she was holding it by the blade. She extended the handle in offering towards the hunter. “You may try again, if you wish, but it won’t accomplish much. Still, throw as many knives at me as you like. It doesn’t hurt me.”

Fen’Harel made a sound of disapproval that was audible even over the wind.

“That is impolite of her, and you are not a pincushion,” he insisted.

“What did you even do to startle her so?” she wondered.

“I advised her against approaching any further,” he replied. “In hindsight, speaking was probably unwise.”

She sighed.

“Oh well done, Fen’Ha…” she caught herself, staring at the wide-eyed hunter, and suddenly recalled that identify her companion by name was highly unlikely to make the situation any less tense. “Fen. Fen’Hafen,” she stuttered.

A quick glance towards the Dread Wolf revealed him looking deeply unimpressed.

Her clever ruse didn’t seem to catch, sadly.

“Fen’Harel?!” the hunter gasped, and at the last the strength in her legs seemed to flee her. “Mythal preserve me!”

“No, no,” she insisted. “Not Fen’Harel. Definitely not. This is Fen’Hafen,” she insisted.

“Do not call me that,” Fen’Harel requested, in a tone of long-sufferance.

“Friendly Fen’Hafen, the Wolf of… Good Tidings?” she suggested. No one seemed convinced. “Okay that didn’t work,” she conceded. “Fine, yes, he’s Fen’Harel. But don’t be afraid. He’s not even remotely scary.”

“Under the right circumstances I can be quite terrifying,” Fen’Harel insisted.

“Not helping,” she informed him.

The hunter was praying by then.

“Falon’Din guide my soul. Don’t let it fall into the jaws of the Dread Wolf. May my steps lead me safely to the Beyond, may the wolf lose my scent and not devour my spirit whole, and never find my clan…”

After a moment of consideration, she opted to keep the knife. This was one of those situations that could probably sour into some kind of panicked suicide if it went south enough.

“Oh for – I do not eat spirits!” Fen’Harel protested. His tone only seemed to terrify the hunter further, however.

“He really doesn’t,” she offered. “I mean, look at me – or don’t, that seems to alarm you – but clearly I look like a sort of a spirit, right? And he hasn’t eaten me.”

Fen’Harel sighed.

“We should go,” he declared. “She will not listen, and there will be others looking for her soon.”

One more try, she decided, kneeling down.

“Hamin, da’len. The Dread Wolf won’t hunt you. Your scent will be lost in the rain,” she promised.

Finally, the hunter looked up. Her vallaslin was still new, she realized; slightly red and angry at the edges. It made her heart clench in remorse.

She still took the bow and knife with her when they left, however, heading up towards the nearest usable river crossing, and then over to the other side.

It was wet going, and the opposite bank offered even less in the way of shelter. They had to trek far before they finally found a shack, recently abandoned by the looks of it. Riskier than what they’d normally take, but by then Fen’Harel was so exhausted he’d relented enough to let her carry him. And her arms, though steady, were not the most comfortable of places, and didn’t afford much shelter from the rain.

Even using the knife to skin and clean the nugs for him did very little to lighten his mood. He ate, ravenous, and then almost immediately fell into an exhausted sleep again.

Outside, the storm didn’t let up.

If anything, it worsened.

The little shack strained under the force of the winds, leaking through all four corners. There was only a small hearth. Fen’Harel lit it with a wordless spell, but it swiftly burnt itself down to embers, and there was nothing more to feed it that wasn’t sopping wet. Even she was starting to feel the oppressive misery of it all.

Morning came and went, and came and went again, and still the skies raged and the Waking Sea frothed and the river roared. Sometimes, when she ventured out, she found herself sincerely worried that the wind would sweep her wooden armour away, and carry the rest of her off into the thundering clouds.

Finally, in the dead of night, the rain stopped.

By morning the wind had died down, and the skies – though not quite clear – were brighter than before. She roused Fen’Harel at dawn, ignored his protests, and all but dragged him to the waterfall cave.

The mother bear and her cubs had left, likely eager to find food while the weather permitted. Not far in, she felt the same interest in moving further inside that had propelled her up the tower ruin.

“Do you feel it?” she asked Fen’Harel.

He sat at the cave entrance, and cocked his head to one side.

“…Yes? Faintly?” he mused.

“How far should I go?” she wondered. “Just to discourage it latching onto me instead, if at all possible. I don’t want to leave you; those bears could come back.”

“Keep within sight of the waterfall, perhaps?” he suggested, more focused on finding the artifact.

With a nod, she set the orb down in the cave with him, and left him to it.

Outside, she discovered the mother bear’s tracks, and on a whim decided to follow them a ways. It might be useful to know where she’d gone. She stopped when she was a fair ways from the cave, and looked back, trying to remember how deep it went.

A dog’s bark ripped her attention away again.

“Oh shit,” she swore, as she heard another one. Coming from the same direction as the shack they’d vacated, by the sounds of it.

Those were generally not fond of wolves.

Maybe they’ll find the bear first, she hoped, and started back as swiftly as she could.

Fen’Harel met her at the entrance, coat bloody and teeth stained with ichor.

“There are giant spiders lurking in there,” he informed her.

“There are hounds barking out here,” she replied.

He stared at her.

“Right. Back in with the spiders it is,” he declared, and started to turn around.

“So we can get cornered?” she demanded, halting him, wondering if he’d even managed to find the artifact.

“We’re easy targets in the open,” he pointed out. “If we’re lucky, their masters will decide the notorious spider-bear-cave isn’t worth the trouble.”

“But-”

A bark, too close for comfort, cut her off. It was followed almost immediately by a familiar, sharp whistling sound, and then she jerked as something thudded into her back. A quick glance over her shoulder revealed the fletching of an arrow. At the banks of the flooded river, a group had gathered.

Another arrow flew, and struck the back of her head. It made her vision go strange for a minute.

“Back in the cave,” she agreed, and Fen’Harel snatched up the orb and darted ahead of her, a shadow in the gloom.

She followed only a short ways, before turning back towards the river. Two, five, seven… seven figures, she counted, and at least two dogs. Probably more. Perhaps they’d notice the hut the two of them had sheltered in growing strangely in the night. Perhaps the Dalish passing through the area were more free with their warnings than most. The party was shemlen, armed with swords as well as bows, but they didn’t look terribly well-coordinated. Locals, then. Used to handling stray bandits and occasional rogue animal.

“What are you doing?” Fen’Harel asked.

“I might be able to scare them off,” she reasoned.

The Dread Wolf paused, considering.

“If they’re locals, I doubt they’ve seen the likes of you before,” he agreed. “But that could just make them panic.”

They were approaching with obvious caution. That was a good sign.

Quickly, she glanced around the cave. It was big. Bigger than she recalled, in fact, open to the sky in places, with enough twists and turns to hide a few clever animals.

“Take the orb and hide,” she instructed him. “If it doesn’t work, I’ll lead them off. Then you can slip away.”

“What? No,” he objected. “That is absurd. We will fair better in a fight together. Besides which, their hounds will simply track me if I flee. Those creatures are infuriatingly impossible to deter.”

“I’ll take care of it. Just trust me,” she asked, looking towards him, briefly. He was bleeding again.

“I…”

“You’re flesh and blood,” she reminded him, softer than before. “I’m not.”

Then there was no more time to argue.

Whirling about, she marched out of the cave’s entrance, and didn’t look back to see if Fen’Harel was being sensible. She put on her best Commanding Stride, the one reserved for hostile enemy warriors, the one that made even a tiny elven woman look like the kind of person you needed to get out of the way for. Quickly.

Another arrow whistled by, shot wide. She glanced towards it, and then back at the band of assailants.

“Leave,” she said, as loudly and clearly as she could manage.

It echoed.

The assailants stopped in their tracks. Uneasy glances were exchanged all around.

Sell it, she told herself, and raised the hand with the anchor in it. Slowly, like a mage casting a spell. She thought of Vivienne, of her pointed gestures, calculated to convey messages as much as create magic. Disdain. Approval. Threat. She focused, and the anchor gleamed bright – not enough to create a rift, but perfect for making a point.

“Leave, now, and no harm will come to you,” she declared.

Green light reflected off the slick stone and rushing water. Overhead and in the distance, a thematically appropriate bit of thunder rumbled. She really couldn’t have asked for a better stage to bluff on.

The shemlen seemed suitably intimidated.

Unfortunately, the mabari was not.

 

~

 

Mabari jaws were strong.

Some Bann or another had made a gift of one of the hounds to the Inquisition, at one point. Josephine had loved the animal, slobbering and all, but some of the bloom had come off the rose when it started chewing on the furniture. The breed was rumoured to form ‘bonds’ with worthy owners, or something along those lines; it hadn’t shown her much more than casual indifference, however.

Solas had locked the tower against it.

“I am allergic,” he declared. “Besides which, there are delicate materials in here. No one wants that animal running rampant through the library, I am certain.”

Leliana, on a rare trip down from her rafters, had smiled.

“Our Solas is afraid of dogs, it seems,” she’d noted.

“It is not fear. It is understandable precaution,” he’d objected.

“I have experience with such animals. Leave it to me, and he will be out from under foot,” the spymaster simply said, ignoring his objections and carrying on. Like usual, really.

The next day, the mabari was happily ensconced with the Chargers. It had taken an immediate liking to Krem, who pretended to be more begrudging about the situation than he was, and was usually off with the mercenary band on some job or another. She remember, though, watching Bull toss a heavy wooden tankard to the dog, like it was a chew toy. Those jaws had splintered it wide open.

The hound that rushed her at the cave mouth was similarly endowed.

It clamped down on the side of her leg, like a vice, and her primary sentiment was one of surprise as it wrenched her sideways. Just like the tankard, the wood between its jaws split. She stumbled downwards, reflexively tried to catch herself, and pressed the anchor to the beast.

It yelped in pain as the active energy came in contact with its flesh. The second hound wasn’t a mabari, it seemed, but it came at her with similar ferocity. Sharp, gnashing teeth poised for her neck.

Of course, there was no jugular for it to tear at, and it wound up slamming into her like a battering ram in its quest for one. The impact and her shattered leg were more than enough to throw her completely off balance; it was all she could do to take both beasts with her as they fell, and hit the river.

The flooding, raging river.

It was impossible to hear anything over the roar of water in her ears. Around her, through her, it pulled and wrenched, ripped and tore. It burned like ice and refused to let up. She couldn’t breathe again, couldn’t stop moving. She was shattering. Smooth pebbles from the riverbed caught around her, weighed her down. The anchor glowed and it was a force of will not to open, to the let the swift currents carry her to an exit instead. It was like falling off of Adamant fortress again. The same surge of panic.

She clamped down on it, and let herself sink instead.

It felt like the whole river was pressing down on her.

At some point, she became aware of the sensation of the water moving through her while she stayed in place. She tried to see, but all she could make out were blurred shapes and shadows. The roar of the river was a constant din inside of her head. Her head, which she could barely lift.

Her arms wouldn’t come up, either. Nor her legs. She’d been pinned to the bottom of the river, somehow.

Lovely, she thought. And those shemlen were still up there, possibly with more dogs, and possibly preparing to attack Fen’Harel. Then they’d get their hands on the orb. Probably sell it, because what else would peasant fishermen do with a strange elven artifact? It’d wind up in the hands of some Orlesian collector and then, most likely, Corypheus would catch wind of it and track it down and tear open the sky and they’d all be doomed.

In short: she needed to get up.

With monumental effort, she forced herself onto her hands and knees. The river pulled at her. It felt like it was chipping bits off of her, only to sweep more back into place a moment later. She could see green.

She was well and truly sick of that colour, to be honest.

Slowly, slowly, she picked a direction – hoping it was towards one bank or the other – and began to crawl.

She’d spent at least two years in the Fade with Fen’Harel, but crawling out of the river felt like it took ten times as long as that. It was painful. Or something a lot like painful.

Somehow, when she at last began to break towards the surface, it got even harder. Only once her vision cleared did she begin to understand why.

She was covered in rocks. Heavy, smooth stones from the bottom of the river. The ordeal must have smashed off most of her wooden armour; unconsciously, she’d replaced it with what was at hand. And what couldn’t be so easily swept off of her by a strong current.

Like some kind of primitive golem, she tugged herself onto the bank, and collapsed in a heap.

The earth dented.

A sound of pure distress escaped her, before she swallowed it back. Too heavy. It had been bad in the river but it was worse in the mud. She needed to get the stones off of her, replace them with something lighter, but they were everywhere, on her hands and head and chest. She could scarcely lift her fingers.

The sky was darkening overhead. How long had it been, since she’d fallen?

Had Fen’Harel gotten away?

Something moved in the corner of her vision.

A familiar elven face, marked with fresh vallaslin, peered warily down at her.

She stared back.

“Da’len,” she greeted. Her voice sounded strained, and a little watery.

The hunter’s eyes widened, and she hurried back. Or at least, that was what it sounded like. Moving her head to the side was a trial she couldn’t quite meet just yet.

There was a long enough stretch of silence that she was mostly convinced the girl had fled, until she crept ever-so-slightly back into sight again.

Something tapped at the side of her head. Hesitantly. Like a stick, perhaps, in the hand of a curious-but-wary young hunter.

“You… you are the spirit from before,” the hunter said, unsteadily. “Where is my bow?!”

Her bow…? Oh.

Back at the cave, probably.

“Help me, and I’ll show you,” she suggested.

“I won’t make any deals,” the hunter insisted. “The Keeper doesn’t believe me, she says the storm addled my wits, but I know what I saw. And heard. I need my bow back. Alenada keeps making fun of me for losing it and making up stories.”

She let out a grinding breath.

“You’d risk the Dread Wolf to stop some teasing?” she asked. “You’re bolder than I thought.”

“W-where is he?” the hunter wondered.

That was the question, wasn’t it?

“Not here,” she said.

The tapping resumed, briefly.

“Why are you like this?” the hunter wondered. “You were different, before.”

“I fell in the river and my armour was torn. It tried to fix itself, but it had to use rocks instead of branches. They don’t work too well for this kind of thing,” she admitted.

“That… that sounds like a fable,” the hunter informed her.

“It does, doesn’t it?” she agreed.

The eyes that came into her line of vision, that locked with her own, were still wide, but less fearful.

“How did you end up in the river?” the girl wondered.

“Why don’t we play a game?” she suggested. “Every time I answer a question, you take one of the rocks off of me, and replace it was something else. A twig, or leaf, or piece of bark. How does that sound?”

The hunter considered her offer.

“It, um, it sounds dangerous,” she eventually decided. “If I take enough of the rocks off of you then what’s to stop you from attacking me?”

“Did I attack you before?”

“Well… no.”

“Why should I attack you now, then?”

It was possibly not the most foolproof of arguments, but after a while, the hunter gave in.

“How did you end up in the river?” she asked again.

“Two hounds jumped at me,” she replied. “One at my leg and the other at my throat. I lost my balance, and we all fell.”

The hunter shifted closer, quickly, and lifted something from her chest. She couldn’t quite see it, but she felt it wrench away with an almost-painful sting, and heard it land. A moment later, a leaf was lifted into view. At her nod, it was lightly dropped onto the open space.

“What are you?” the hunter asked.

“That, I don’t know,” she admitted.

“If you don’t answer, I won’t take a stone,” the girl insisted.

“I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”

“But… but, how could you not know?”

She let out a heavy breath. It felt like she was being slowly ground into dust.

“Pick an easier question?” she pleaded.

There was a pause.

“You speak elvish,” the hunter noted. “Were you an elf, once?”

“Yes,” she said.

“What happened to you, then? Did the Dread Wolf take you?”

“The rock?” she asked, trying not to plead, and after a moment, another one was yanked away. It didn’t feel like it accomplished much, but it couldn’t possibly make it worse.

“I suppose, in a sense, he did,” she answered, afterwards. The third rock was little more than a pebble.

“That wasn’t much of an answer,” the hunter informed her.

“You have as many potential questions as I have rocks,” she replied. “Feel free to ask another, if you want some clarification.”

“Did the Dread Wolf capture you?”

“No.”

Rip. Plunk.

“Why were you with him, then?”

“We’re traveling together.”

Rip. Plunk.

“What for?”

“He wants my help, and I want his.”

Rip. Plunk.

“With what? Causing trouble?”

“Depends on how you look at it. Even in our stories, he’s not all bad,” she pointed out.

The hunter hesitated, and then pulled off another stone. It was a little easier to breathe. Of course, breathing at all was just a matter of perception, but she’d take it.

“You were Dalish?” the girl wondered. A lot of her fear was gone. She was still tense, but it wasn’t terror anymore.

“City elves don’t speak very much elvish, in general,” she replied.

“I haven’t met many flat-ears.”

Another stone went.

“They don’t care to be called that.”

The hunter shrugged.

“What happened to you?”

“I died,” she admitted.

Rip. Plunk.

“So you’re… a ghost, then? Trapped on the wrong side?”

“Something like that.”

Rip. Plunk.

“Not a normal ghost, though.”

“No. But if you ask me what I am again, I’m afraid you’ll get the same answer as before.”

Rip. Plunk.

“So what does the Dread Wolf want, anyway?” the hunter wondered. She was taking stones from different places, now. Her eyes kept drifting to the mostly-empty spaces left behind.

“He wants to change things,” she admitted. “Again.”

The fingers reaching for their next stone paused, and the girl looked at her again for one long, long moment. Her hand trembled a little.

“Change them how?”

She considered her answer carefully.

“He wants to restore what’s been lost,” she settled on, at length.

“What did he lose?” the hunter wondered.

“Elvhenan,” she replied.

The girl snorted.

“That’s what we lost,” she corrected.

“We never had it in the first place. Elvhenan fell long before we were born. It’s a legend. We think of a place where all of The People lived in harmony, where we were immortal, and didn’t know suffering, where there were no shemlen and so, we assume, no slavery or corruption. It’s not something we’ve lost. It’s a dream of something we might find,” she said, heavily. It still ached, to know how mistaken that beautiful picture was – but less than before, she realized.

Elvhenan – or the picture of the real Elvhenan that Fen’Harel had painted for her – was a disappointment. Fen’Harel had hoped that future elves would find peace without the gods to influence them towards cruelty, and the Dalish assumed that past elves had known peace without the shemlen to steal it from them.

Both assumptions failed to treat The People as just that; people. But the dream, of one day achieving the peace that had so far never actually existed… that was worth holding onto, maybe.

“If the Dread Wolf loved Elvhenan so much, why would he have locked the gods away?” the hunter wondered, radiating wariness and scepticism.

“I didn’t say he loved it. I said he lost it,” she replied.

Being annoyingly cryptic was actually kind of fun, she mused, when she wasn’t the one on the receiving end.

“Whatever he’s told you, he’s probably lying,” the hunter knowledgably informed her. “And anyone who willingly keeps company with the Dread Wolf must be a fool or a traitor. Especially if you were one of us, once. You should know better.”

“Nothing quite like good old fashioned Dalish condescension,” she replied, wryly. It had a slightly different flavour from chantry condescension, she thought. Or qunari condescension. There was probably a wholly unique dwarven variety out there somewhere, too. Everybody got their very own special kind.

“I’m not being condescending!” the hunter insisted. “I’m telling you the truth! Maybe it’s been so long since the last time you saw it, you’ve forgotten what it looks like.”

She laughed. The sound was strained, and it didn’t do much for the crushing feeling in her chest, but she couldn’t help it.

“You’re telling me what you believe. That’s not necessarily ‘the truth’,” she pointed out. The truth. What a terrible, terrible thing it tended to be. Hardly anyone ever liked it once they got it, or even just got a hint that it wasn’t what they’d hoped for. Seekers and Magisters and elvhen lore, wasted lives, pointless sacrifices, a Divine instead of Andraste, a lying murderer instead of a noble warden.

“I won’t be swayed by you,” the hunter informed her. “Or by him, either.” She paused, and her eyes went hard. “I won’t fail this test.”

“This is a test?” she wondered.

“There is always a test.”

Reaching over, the hunter lifted up one of the stones she’d taken, and put it back. It didn’t quite mesh into place again, but she could still feel the weight of it.

“Please don’t do that,” she asked.

Wordlessly, the hunter picked up another rock, and repeated the process. Again and again, until she was adding more than had been there in the first place.

“Da’len. Stop.”

“I will trap you,” the hunter vowed. “And you won’t be able to spread the Dread Wolf’s lies for him, or sway anyone else to his cause. I’ll bring the others back here, and they’ll see what you are, and the Keeper will fuse all the stone and bury you here, where you can’t do any more harm.”

This wasn’t going how she’d hoped.

It would just figure that the girl would find her spine at the worst possible time and in the worst possible way.

The hunter dropped a particularly large rock onto her face, then, and sank in a little. It felt like she was being smothered and punched in the mouth all at once. It was unbearable. She struggled, pressed, tried to muster enough coherence to will her way around it but she was starting to panic.

“Casting stones, child?” a woman’s voice asked, quietly.

She couldn’t see her, but she recognized it just the same. Hope flared briefly enough to chase back the worst edge of her distress.

“Who are you?” the hunter demanded, and by the sounds of it, scrambled to her feet.

“I think the more pressing question at the moment is, who are you?” Mythal replied. “The hero of a fable, rightly outsmarting the wicked Dread Wolf? A hunter, unable to resist the lure of easy prey? Or a child, plucking the wings off a stranded fly?”

“I-I won’t be fooled!”

Mythal laughed.

“Ah, to be young and righteous,” she mused. “So eager to cast judgement. Close your ears, then. Close your eyes, and run away for good measure! Your test is over, now, one way or the other.”

There was a shift, a pause, then the sound of rapid footsteps. Just when she was beginning to wonder whether or not Mythal planned on leaving her as she was – and honestly, she couldn’t have discounted the possibility – there was a flash and a rush of air, and abruptly, the worst of the weight was gone.

“Ma serannas,” she gasped. It was possibly one of the most sincere bit of thanks she’d ever given. If she was indebted to the woman for her help, then she supposed she’d just have to pay for it.

“You seem to draw misfortunes as honey draws flies,” Mythal mused.

“A friend of mine once told me my luck was so bad, it could only be divine intervention,” she replied, as she tried to regain her equilibrium. There was still a lot of rock on her. And quite a few opens spaces where rock used to be, which made her something feel something like nausea and dizziness, for some reason.

“A rare insight.”

“Have you seen Fen’Harel?” she asked, rising slowly to her feet. The dizziness worsened.

“Many times. But you mean recently, and in this place, I suppose.”

“Yeah.”

“You’ve worked the Dread Wolf up into a storm to rival these coasts,” Mythal informed her. “Demanding answers of spirits by night and trekking across the riverbeds by day. And he was being so quiet! I followed the ripples here, and found what he is seeking before I found him. Fortuitous for everyone involved, – you were not faring well, and the little hunter would have fared worse, I think, had he discovered her game.”

Oh no. How long had she spent on the bottom of the river?

“Where is he?” she wondered. “Is he alright?”

“He lives. More than that, I cannot say,” Mythal admitted.

Still, it wasn’t the worst possible starting point.

“We should find him,” he decided. “And you should tell us what you’ve been up to, while we were apparently spending years in the Fade.”

A wolf’s howl broke through the air.

She hastened in the direction of it, without really thinking, forcing her mostly-stone legs to move with stubborn insistence. It was only after a few minutes of walking that she thought to check and see if Mythal was coming along.

The woman trailed behind her, somehow moving even slower than she, yet with no lack of power in her stride.

“We were attacked; he could be injured,” she said, and found herself wishing, for one incongruous moment, that she could howl back.

“It’s possible. There are few misfortune holds dearer to its heart,” Mythal conceded.

It took most of her focus to keep moving, then. She accumulated a few new pieces of ‘armour’ as they went, but though they eased some of her visceral discomfort, they added to the weight of things. It was like starting over again, and she balked at it. At all of the setbacks she’d encountered, really.

The surge of annoyance buoyed her until they reached a passage of worn, ancient steps. Remnants of the dwarven ruins. Her steps clattered on them, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that he heard them coming.

“Lethallan!”

Her heart stopped. She’d never heard him use that tone of voice before. For half a second, she thought…

No, of course not. It was Fen’Harel, standing, apparently unhurt, at the top of stone staircase.

He took them down, two at a time, until he was directly in front of her.

She sagged in relief.

“And here we all are, safe and sound,” Mythal declared.

“Where were you? What happened?” Fen’Harel asked. “I searched the river banks, but found nothing. I was half convinced you had gone back to the Fade…”

“And you hounded your way through it, almost like the terror you used to be,” Mythal interjected, before she could reply.

Fen’Harel growled.

“The terror I used to be would not have been cowering in a cave while beasts-

“Alright, hey,” she interjected. “Let’s not go there, shall we? The only reason you got cave-cowering duty in the first place is because I was the one who could fall in the river and come back out again. And here I am, so it worked out.”

The Dread Wolf didn’t look convinced.

“…I may have tried to make a new body out of rocks and ended up sinking to the bottom, but these are the sorts of things that you laugh about later.”

“You were gone for three days,” Fen’Harel informed her.

“Damn. I was hoping it was a lot less time than that.”

Mythal watched their exchange with a definite air of indulgence.

“I seem to recall a young wolf who once trapped himself beneath a waterfall,” she said.

Fen’Harel’s gaze snapped over to her.

“You misremember, I am certain,” he said, a little sharply.

The dead goddess laughed at him.

“You have kept your pride, I see. I had begun to wonder if you would abandon it entirely.”

“I am not that wise. I may never be,” he admitted.

“Pride has its place,” Mythal assured him. “If nothing else, you wear it well.”

“Wait,” she interrupted. “Back up. You got trapped under a waterfall?”

“No,” Fen’Harel instantly replied. “Regardless, we have much more important things to discuss. Particularly since Mythal is here now.” He turned, then, and headed back towards a small grove of trees, where he’d left the orb and what seemed to be a few more accumulated objects. Including water flask, some arrows, and the bow and knife she’d claimed from the young hunter.

“How did you get all of that here by yourself?” she wondered.

“Pride,” Mythal replied for him, and at her questioning glance, smirked.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

She sank, heavily, into the middle of Fen’Harel’s informal campsite.

For a few moments she drifted, and waited for the exhaustion to pass.

“You resemble the bottom of a ditch,” Fen’Harel informed her.

She gave him a black look.

“Is that important enough to be discussed right now?” she wondered.

“Possibly,” he replied. “You are clearly having… difficulties.”

Lifting one heavy arm, she waved him off. Or attempted to. What should have been a full hand motion was instead more of a sluggish nudge.

“Later. I want to hear what Mythal has to say,” she insisted. She didn’t trust the woman not to disappear on them at a moment’s notice. There was a decided impatience to her – though she couldn’t have said where she got that impression. Nothing in her body language gave it away.

“Now that is a refreshing attitude,” Mythal declared. She didn’t look particularly pleased, however.  Her gaze swept over the nearby trees, and then landed on her, golden and far-seeing. Very different from Morrigan’s, she thought, for all their physical similarities. Mythal did little searching with her gaze.

Or maybe it was less that, and more that she was rarely surprised by anything her searches uncovered.

“More has changed than you might guess,” the goddess informed her. “I found a prison. Warded. No weakening in it, no fracture, and yet nothing inside. An empty box.”

It took her a minute to process that.

“Corypheus’ prison?” she asked.

“So it would seem. Few other places would be suitable for holding the creature you described.”

Dread began to coil in her, slick and cold.

“He’s not there?”

“The wardens guard an empty cell,” Mythal confirmed.

“Hawke and Varric?” she wondered.

“As I said, the wards remain. But what they were caging has slipped through, as if the laws which once contained it have ceased to apply. Or the prisoner somehow devised a means of circumventing them.”

Oh no.

It couldn’t be.

Never say never, she chastised herself. How could she have been stupid enough to assume that Corypheus had been destroyed? She hadn’t been destroyed, for all that her body had disintegrated. Granted, killing the archdemon was supposed to rob Corypheus of his ability to hop between forms, but who even knew how the rules would change when time travel and rift magic got involved?

“He came back,” she realized. “He came back, too.”

And all that time she’d been trapped, all that time she’d wasted, he’d been spending out there in the world.

He’d gotten his head start after all.

“He has been quiet,” Mythal informed her. “Wherever he lurks, it has been in shadow.”

What could he do? Her clan. He could go after her clan. He may have already; few outside of the Dalish would note the death of a clan. It happened, sadly all too often. He could target members of the Inquisition. How much mind had he paid to them? Not much, beyond her, she thought. He was too lofty to make note of the names of her people. They weren’t what he considered a threat.

But she could be wrong.

“He may be weak,” Fen’Harel suggested. “Where would he go to find strength?”

Where?

Red lyrium. The mines the Templars had built wouldn’t be an option yet, he’d need to go back to the original source. That meant…

“Valammar,” she realized. “That’s where the first red lyrium deposit was found, under Kirkwall. If he needs power, then…” she stopped as another terrible thought occurred to her. “The Well of Sorrows.”

Fen’Harel, who knew the whole story, caught on quickly. Mythal wasn’t far behind him, though. The pair of them locked gazes for a moment.

“Could he make it past the protections?” Fen’Harel wondered.

“He did last time,” she pointed out. “Destroyed one body and took another. But he was strong, then, and had the orb with him. I’m not sure if he could accomplish it as he is.”

To her surprise, Mythal smiled, as if suddenly amused.

“Let him have it, if it please him.”

“What?” she asked.

“What?” Fen’Harel echoed.

“The Well is best left undisturbed. But all things must come to their end. Perhaps this Corypheus possesses enough strength of will to corrupt it, and claim the knowledge within for himself. Or perhaps he is weaker than he believes. It would be interesting to see what hold the geas would place upon him,” the goddess mused. “Or if this magister is a match for it.”

She stared at Mythal, flabbergasted.

“I sent an army to stop that last time!” she protested. “And you’re telling me we should have let him drink?”

“Did you ask my opinion?” Mythal wondered.

“No. But the elves! The ancient elves guarding it,” she insisted. “They seemed pretty convinced that he shouldn’t have it.”

The smile fell from Mythal’s face, and she let out a heavy breath.

“They do their duty well. Only the worthy may drink. Some will follow rules past reason. Some devotions run deeper than sense.”

“They are slaves. Devotion has been branded upon them,” Fen’Harel noted.

“They put it aside, once. They left. They could leave again,” she insisted. Abelas, walking uncertainly into a new world. That wasn’t something she wanted to undo, she thought. Giving them a chance. Setting them free.

“It bears consideration,” Mythal conceded. “And investigation, perhaps. If Corypheus lurks at the borders of my temple, he will find more than wilderness waiting for him.”

Raising a hand, the old witch tapped her chin.

“Yes. More indeed. I will leave you to this, then.”

Fen’Harel let out a sound of protest.

“You have only just come! Surely you cannot mean to go now?”

“And why not?” Mythal asked, raising a brow at him. “You have your companion returned to you, as well as your pride, and a hunt to begin. And I alone possess the wings to fly swiftly from this place. Would you have me stay, and recount tales of your misspent youth instead?”

“You make an excellent point,” Fen’Harel immediately backpedaled. “Safe journey.”

“I wouldn’t mind that,” she interjected.

Mythal smiled at her, a little.

“I believe you would not, at that,” the goddess declared. “But you wish a different fate for the elves of the temple than the one that has been bestowed. If it is to change, then I must go.”

“Then go,” she conceded.

As Mythal turned to leave, however, she found her voice again.

“Don’t let Corypheus drink,” she asked.

The goddess paused.

“We’ve lost so much. Maybe some of it deserves to stay buried, but there are those among my people who would throw themselves through raging blizzards and relentless flames to try and scoop up the barest ashes of what is in that Well. If Corypheus takes it… even if it defeats him…” she sighed. “I can’t help but ask. Don’t let him drink.”

Mythal turned, and regarded her steadily for a moment.

“And would you brave raging blizzards and relentless flames for such ashes?” the goddess wondered.

She hesitated.

“For their own sake…? No,” she admitted. “For what they would mean to others? In a heartbeat.”

Mythal raised only a single eyebrow at her, before turning away again.

Then golden light ate her form, and a low wind kicked up. She felt a jolt of reflexive alarm at the sight of a High Dragon, before the goddess took to the skies, and was gone.

Fen’Harel was silent, for a time.

The quiet let her unfurl the full horror of what they had discovered. She sagged further under the new weight of it, filled with fears that couldn’t be quieted. Where was he? What was he doing? What had he already done?

The Dread Wolf settled across from her.

“Do not despair. The sky is whole, and the orb is with us,” he reminded her.

“What if he’s gone after them?” she wondered. “The Inquisition. We made no secret of who our members were. Or what if he’s gone after my clan? Or both? Or anyone else, for that matter?”

Fen’Harel considered her.

“Then it is done,” he replied. “And you could not have stopped him.”

She stared at him. The voice of experience, really.

Terrible, terrible experience.

It didn’t help much.

“We need to keep the orb out of his hands, no matter what,” she decided. “I’ll scour the ruins for signs of him. You should stay here, and make sure it stays safe.”

“No,” Fen’Harel replied.

She waited.

After a moment, she nudged him, gently, with the back of her hand.

“That’s it? Just ‘no’?” she asked. “Not going to justify your refusal?”

“I need justify nothing. It is my foci, and my form. I will risk both as I see fit,” he replied.

“And risk the world along with them,” she pointed out.

“If one of us is more suited to remaining at a safe distance, at the moment, I should think it is you,” Fen’Harel informed her. “I have regained a certain level of power. You, on the other hand, are a mess.”

“Yes, ‘bottom of a ditch’, you mentioned,” she grumbled.

“Not only that. Though you lack a body, you may still suffer trauma,” he insisted. “Suffer enough, and there is no telling what might happen. We still do not know for certain what you are. Are you vulnerable to the same variety of corruption as spirits? If your form is fractured, will you return to the Fade? Will you dissipate, and be lost forever? I cannot say. Can you?”

She considered that for a moment.

“No,” she admitted. “But you’re not indestructible either. Are you?”

Fen’Harel sighed.

“No,” he conceded.

Rain began to fall. A few droplets, mostly blowing sideways. The exposed parts of her spirit form began to mist gently into the weather.

“Wait here,” Fen’Harel requested, abruptly.

It was easy enough to oblige him, in all honesty. She’d rather avoid moving at all for the foreseeable future, if she could.

Gradually, a sound drew her attention. A glance over revealed that the Dread Wolf had produced a sack from a hollowed log between several trees. As she watched, he pulled it completely free, and then dragged it over to where she was sitting.

It was simple burlap, tied tightly at the top. She gave him a questioning glance.

“After you fell into the river, I dispatched some of the villagers who were bold enough to enter the cave,” he explained. “I stripped them of anything useful afterwards. Some of it might be more suitable for you than sticks and stones.”

Blinking, she looked back at the sack.

How had he tied it…?

Well. That probably wasn’t important. With sluggish hands she opened it. There was some clothing, a couple of pairs of boots, a small knife, a few stray pieces of leather armour that looked as though it had seen better days, some fur-lined gloves… macabre, especially with the bloodstains, but beggars could hardly be choosers.

“I wish I’d been able to scare them off,” she admitted. “You weren’t hurt, were you?”

“No,” he assured her.

She turned a contemplative gaze towards one of the gloves. Her blocky, pebble-filled fingers would never fit inside. With some care, she began to pull out the stones in her right hand. The more she removed, the more disoriented she felt, however. The outline of her fingers became increasingly wisp-ish and blurred.

It felt wrong, it hurt, and she almost stopped several times before she finally removed all but a few stones around her knuckles and one in her palm, and then yanked the glove into place.

The effect was almost instantaneous.

Her discomfort and disorientation, the nausea-like feeling, reduced dramatically. She flexed her fingers, and it was almost like she was just wearing a glove, as she would have before. The worn leather crinkled, the digits moved precisely. It was far easier to maneuver than her other hand, and so despite the unease of the process, she almost immediately began to remove stones from it, in turn.

Fen’Harel remained close but quiet for the long, arduous process which followed, as she removed various bits of debris from herself and replaced them with more suitable pieces as swiftly as possible. Some stones and stray things she left in place, if they weren’t too heavy and if they fit inside the clothing. She was almost expecting to look something like a scarecrow when it was finished, ill-fitted pieces strung over a lumpy frame, but the ether of her body eagerly filled out the articles of clothing, wrapping loose pieces tightly around itself, rounding into the curves of shoulders and hips as it approximated the form it thought it should be contained in.

There were no hats or helmets, so for the finish, she fashioned herself a makeshift hood from the fabric of a spare shirt. It clung eagerly to the back of her skull, and a few strategically placed strips helped outline her face.

The end result would never have passed for human up-close. But the thick fabric impeded most of the glowing, and she suspected she would be much less alarming at a distance.

And it felt so much better.

She stood with enough ease that she almost fell over, lighter than she’d been since they left the Fade.

“Oh, I can move!” she sighed.

She stretched her arms and stretched her legs, felt nearly normal, let out a breath and watched her chest rise and fall without having to stare through parts of it. She paced her way through several battle stances and dance steps, with far more success than she had managed so far, and had energy enough to spare for a cartwheel afterwards.

Only when she landed did she begin to feel the subtle edge of any sort of exhaustion creep back up on her.

Sinking to the ground, she looked over the Fen’Harel, who was watching her in return.

“Ma serannas. That was brilliant thinking,” she informed him.

The Dread Wolf inclined his head.

“You were right,” he decided. “You are graceful.”

 

~

 

She wished she’d remembered Valammar sooner, to be honest. It was a path to Kirkwall, after all. Though, the more she considered it, successfully making it across the sea via an underground tunnel system full of darkspawn seemed about as likely as riding there on the back of a griffon.

There were probably tunnels on the coast that connected to the same Deep Roads network, but she was hardly equipped to recognize them, and most had likely been destroyed by cave-ins and collapses and not yet excavated.

Which meant trekking all the way back to the Hinterlands, and getting in through the entrance there.

Which also meant that coming out to the coast in the first place had been a complete and utter waste of time.

In all honesty, actually being able to move was the only thing keeping her spirits high.

Move, and hunt, and not necessarily incite a panic at a distance. Any stray scout or traveller spying them through the trees was more likely to mistake them for a hunter and hound than a spirit-creature and a wolf. It worked well enough that she almost forgot about the entire conversation they’d had regarding Fen’Harel’s ability to change form.

It occurred to her again while she was, at his polite request, cooking a hare he’d caught. The foul weather had finally stopped following them from the coast, and gloved hands were much better at things like setting fires and skinning catches, which the Dread Wolf vastly preferred to raw meals.

She wondered if he couldn’t just do such things himself, now, though.

“You retrieved the energy from the artifact in the waterfall cave, didn’t you?” she recalled.

Fen’Harel, who had been in the midst of some absent-minded stargazing, glanced at her and nodded.

“I did.”

“Does that mean you can transform again?”

A long pause followed her question. When she looked over towards him again, his eyes were fixed rather stiffly upwards.

Very, very slowly, he tilted his head down again, and stared at her.

“Yes,” he admitted, as though the word was a heavy burden.

His strange turn of mood was making her uneasy.

“So then, what’s wrong?” she wondered.

“There is something…” he trailed off, and sighed.

“Whatever it is, just get it out,” she suggested. “I can’t help if I don’t know what it is.”

Fen’Harel let out a pained laugh.

Whatever was bothering him was really bothering him. After a second, she decided to give him time to compose his thoughts, and turned back to the task at hand. The familiar motions did little to ease her own disquiet, however. That knife-edge feeling of anticipation was back, and it was unpleasant.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought it up?” she suggested, more to herself than to him.

“Why shouldn’t you have?” Fen’Harel replied, a mirror of her own internal response to herself.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “Why don’t you tell me?”

Quiet steps padded towards her, but the Dread Wolf didn’t speak as he settled at her side. She finished the hare and gave it to him, an odd remnant of something like hunger twisting in her own stomach. She missed eating, she supposed. But she couldn’t anymore, and so she only averted her gaze as Fen’Harel devoured his meal, slightly less voracious than was typical.

When he was done another long silence stretched between them. She wanted to reach out and break it, cut through it or shatter it somehow, but every time she tried to find the right words they seemed to flee.

Fen’Harel, she suspected, was in much the same state.

“Clothing,” he said at last.

She blinked at him.

“What?”

“I require clothing,” the Dread Wolf declared. “You have used most of what we found, and the weather is turning colder. Elves are not as suited to the elements as wolves.”

“No, they aren’t,” she agreed, a little bemusedly. It couldn’t possibly have been something as simple as that, to bother him so much. And she recalled that Morrigan had never had a problem with clothes and transformations. But perhaps Fen’Harel was different.

And it seemed easier, for a moment, just to let it go. Put it off.

Get clothes, and then get answers.

The next morning she found that same sense of dread and anticipation that she’d felt the first time she’d tried to seal the Breach was thrumming in her chest, twisting behind cloth and leather and making her antsy. She kept pace with Fen’Harel, and they made good time.

Two days later, the feeling persisted as they passed by the far borders of a small village.

“I could sneak around after dark, see if there’s anything left on the clothes lines,” she suggested.

“It is a small village,” Fen’Harel replied. “To steal from them would be a cruelty, and our need is not yet urgent.”

Well. She could hardly argue with that.

They pressed on, empty-handed.

By the time they reached the entrance to Valammar, they hadn’t come across any further opportunities. And then she had to try and recall where exactly the way in was, which shouldn’t have been difficult, except that the last time she’d been there she’d been focused on Varric and Bianca and Venatori plots and Grey Wardens and how many people they’d need to clear out and destroy all of the red lyrium they could and… well. There had been a lot on her mind, was the point.

Of course, once they actually found the place, it was riddled with giant spider nests and deepstalkers.

No immediate signs of darkspawn, at least.

“It does not appear as though anyone has been here for some time,” Fen’Harel noted, as they made their way into the gloom.

“Corypheus probably would have used an entrance in the Free Marches,” she reasoned. Hopefully, not at the same time as Varric’s expedition.

But Fen’Harel was right. No dwarves had cleared this thaig recently. The pathways were unsteady, and strewn with debris. Her first thought was to go and get Josephine to send a letter to her dwarven contacts and see if they could get people to help clear it out, but of course, that wasn’t an option anymore.

Darkness became a problem. An old torch solved it, for a time, until they could no longer feed it. Then she peeled back some of her clothing, instead, letting the glow off of the anchor illuminate their path.

What they could see of the ruin looked vaguely familiar to her, of course, but not in any particularly helpful way. The doors Bianca had installed weren’t there, and in their place were long, dark tunnels that stretched into ominous silence.

They paused at the mouth of one.

“So,” Fen’Harel said, very quietly.

His voice echoed all the same.

“What do we do?” he continued, at an even lower volume. “Press on, and hope that neither darkspawn nor cave-in does us in? Or find another path?”

She half expected him to nudge the orb meaningfully in her direction. After all, it was looking more and more like the only meaningful way she could keep it from Corypheus would be to use it for what Fen’Harel wanted.

But he didn’t. He only sat, and waited for her verdict.

“I was hoping there would be some sign of him,” she admitted.

“Then let us search a little longer,” Fen’Harel suggested, to her surprise. “In this darkness, we may have easily overlooked something.”

They scoured the thaig as best they could then, eyes peeled in narrow passageways and at the mouth of long, yawning drops to the vastness below.

It was amazing, sometimes, to think of what such places must have looked like in their glory. The dwarves may not have been any more flawless a society than ancient Elvhenan or Tevinter, but what they had lost to the darkspawn was by no means insignificant, either.

Although it probably would have been better, in the long run, if they hadn’t built a remarkable network of massive tunnels for every wretched creature in Thedas to use as their own personal roadway and hiding spot.

A glint of something metal, the wrong texture for the usual material of the roads, caught her eye.

It was on a ledge next to a sharp drop-off, not far from the massive, broken bridge that crumbled into the depths. With some care, she began to climb down.

“What is it?” Fen’Harel wondered.

“I’m not sure,” she replied.

Only when she was closer did the light spilling from her reveal a darkspawn.

Dead, thankfully, though she drew a knife without thinking twice. Black ichor pooled around the Hurlock corpse; dried, but relatively recent. Its neck had been slashed.

“Someone was here not too long ago,” she reasoned.

“Corypheus?” Fen’Harel suggested. “But why would he be killing darkspawn?”

“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “He could possess them, but he never seemed to command them. Not like an archdemon. We assumed it wasn’t one of his capabilities, mostly just because otherwise there should have been another Blight.”

The Dread Wolf followed her down, and made his own examination of the corpse. She moved off a ways as he did, and found another. Throat cut, as well.

“There are more,” she realized.

More, and more, until in a fit of morbid curiosity she took off her left glove, ignoring the discomfort long enough to illuminate at least a dozen corpses before she tugged it back on.

“All slashed at the throat. A ritual, not a fight,” Fen’Harel decided.

“A ritual on a ledge next to a giant hole in the ground,” she mused. “Someone was in a hurry.”

“Corypheus, then?”

She paused, and peered over the edge of the ledge, to the deep, black abyss beneath.

“This is strange,” she noted.

Fen’Harel stiffened beside her.

“Turn left,” he requested.

She complied, angling the light in a new direction, and was taken aback herself.

In the center of the darkspawn corpse pile, several broken pieces were scattered. Not armour. Statuary. Familiar statuary, the rounded center and geometric corners blasted apart from one another, yet still recognizable for what they were.

One of the elven artifacts.

“What did he do?” she wondered, more alarmed than she would have expected by the sight.

Fen’Harel’s eyes swept over the darkspawn corpses, narrow and furious.

“He attempted to seize the power inside of the artifact,” he reasoned. “But there would have been nothing to attract it to him. He would have had to create a connection, a harmony between himself and the artifact.”

“The darkspawn taint,” she realized. “He was trying to… to spread it to an object? Would that even be possible?”

“Who knows? On the subject of darkspawn, I can offer only speculation.”

Carefully, she picked her way through the corpses, and retrieved the broken pieces of the artifact. They felt empty, spent, a little leaden in her grip, but they didn’t invoke that same sickly feeling as darkspawn did.

“I don’t think it worked,” she said, and carried the remnants back to Fen’Harel.

“Likely not. If the process destroyed the vessel, then the power inside would have dispersed,” he agreed, though he took a moment to examine the pieces for himself.

They found nothing else in the darkness of the thaig, and by silent, mutual agreement, abandoned it for the starlight outside again. Fen’Harel was exhausted by then, and slept as soon as they had made something approaching camp, curled tightly around his foci as if he sought to protect it.

She kept one of the pieces from the shattered artifact. A small square shape, dull and lifeless, but something to flit between her fingers just the same.

Why go after the artifacts, she wondered? Perhaps he had been expecting Fen’Harel to approach him again, with the orb. He likely didn’t know she had traveled back as well, or where she’d managed to end up when she did. Maybe he was trying to attract the Dread Wolf’s attention.

Or perhaps he was trying to perfect his failed experiment from the conclave. Find a way to remake it on a smaller scale, before he made his second attempt at it. Probably in hopes of ensuring that no further ‘interruptions’ could derail his grand design.

There were other artifacts in the region. She knew the locations of most of them. But running from one to the next, hoping to catch up with Corypheus, was a terrible plan.

They had, she determined, reached the extent of what they could do on their own. Even if Mythal hadn’t left for the Arbor Wilds, she was barely suitable as a contact to the wider world. They needed more eyes, they needed to know what rumours were flying around. Corypheus could be subtle, in that he didn’t always have to look like a massive hovering corpse, but even so, if he wanted better access to the resources out there then he would need people.

Grey Wardens, most likely.

The best way to thwart him wouldn’t be to scurry after his shadow, it would be to cut him off at the pass. To have any hope of doing that, they would need to make contact with the wardens. Fortunately she knew of at least one warden who hadn’t fallen to Corypheus’ influence. But he was… highly unlikely to listen to a glowing set of armour.

An elf would have more luck. Even a mysteriously wolfish one.

Time for delaying his transformation was up, she realized.

Her gaze turned towards the slumbering Fen’Harel, not far from her side.

She reached out a hand, and gently ran it over the tops of his shoulders, and wondered why it felt like something was about to die.

 

~

 

A low hissing before dawn caught her attention. Three darkspawn had wandered up from the depths of the cavern. She drew them away from Fen’Harel and the orb and slew them before he woke – or so she thought, until she turned to find that he had followed her.

“Good,” she decided, cleaning off her daggers. “This will give us a premise to make contact with the wardens.”

“We’re making contact with the wardens?” Fen’Harel asked.

“If Corypheus has gathered enough strength to reach the surface, his next goal will be to gather people. Unless he wants to do all of his dirty work in person, which, given his egotism, doesn’t seem all that likely,” she reasoned.

“And he can control wardens,” the Dread Wolf concluded. “I do not suppose they would accept an anonymous tip?”

“That seems a little insufficient for the circumstances.”

“Unsurprising, if inconvenient,” he grumbled.

But where to head, she wondered? There was Adamant, but that was all the way off in the Western Approach. The wardens had a base in Amaranthine. Considerably more promising, geographically speaking, though she had some vague recollections of a horrific disaster befalling it. Possibly that had already happened, though.

There was also an office in Denerim, established after the Blight. She made some mental estimates. That was even closer, but much more heavily populated. Still, Amaranthine wasn’t exactly a peasant’s hovel itself.

“We could head for Denerim, or Amaranthine, to try and make contact with them,” she said aloud. “Fortunately, we at least know the location of a cave full of darkspawn. That gives us a reasonable excuse for wanting to approach the wardens.”

“And then what?” Fen’Harel wondered. “Corypheus’ prison still stands, even if he is not inside it. Will they take our word on his escape?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “Wardens have less of a reputation for turning away help that comes from… unusual sources, when compared to most orders. It’s not like we’re going to the Templars here. At the very least, we can try and get some feel for what’s going on with them. Corypheus had wardens helping him as early as the conclave. He may already have several under his thrall.” She considered. “Or… working with him willingly, even. I don’t really know all of what happened between him and the order.”

“On the other hand, it is likely he will be searching for elven artifacts,” Fen’Harel countered. “If we were to seek them out ourselves, and secure them before he could…”

“There are dozens of them. And those are just the ones I actually know about. There could be dozens more that we never found,” she pointed out. “If we make contact with the wardens, if we could get them to listen, somehow, we could have allies. The wardens can conscript help from anyone in Thedas when it comes to fighting the darkspawn. Corypheus is a darkspawn. We could have people to collect the artifacts, we could have resources to actually investigate Kirkwall, or even simply warn people about the dangers of red lyrium.”

“Or we could carry the orb straight to his followers,” Fen’Harel replied.

“We won’t tell them about the orb,” she decided.

“But Corypheus knows of its existence. And if he controls them…”

She let out an aggravated sigh.

“Then what?” she demanded, frustration leaking into her tone. “We wander around the wilderness, making contact with no one, gathering artifacts and hoping that Corypheus doesn’t wreak havoc somewhere else in the meanwhile?”

Fen’Harel looked away.

“The orb-”

“I don’t know how to unlock it!” she snapped. “What I do know is that he is out there, right now, and if we don’t stop him then people will die!”

“Act in haste, repent at leisure,” Fen’Harel reminded her.

It brought her up short.

She looked over at him, and sagged, minutely.

“Why?” she found herself wondering. “Why would you have ever given the orb to him? A voracious, near-sighted fool who would consume whatever power he could and destroy whatever power he couldn’t. How was that supposed to end in anything other than disaster?”

“I cannot pretend I understand my mindset from that timeline,” Fen’Harel replied. “Not… entirely. But if Corypheus is as you say, then likely, I underestimated him. Most creatures of his ilk destroy themselves long before they become a threat of this magnitude.”

“Giving power to someone like Corypheus seems like the most dangerous thing anyone could do with it,” she pointed out.

“Power is at its most dangerous in the hands of organizations,” the Dread Wolf countered. “That is how, more often than not, it is passed on to the undeserving, and twists away from its true purpose. Creatures like Corypheus, that will not share power, necessarily limit what damage they can do. Kill them, or remove them from their seat of strength, and their threat is ended. Corypheus cannot endure beyond himself.”

“Do you really think it’s that simple?” she wondered, sceptically, with an uneasy sense of déjà vu.

“I am not saying it was not a foolish act on my part,” Fen’Harel replied. “Only that this is likely where my thinking lay.”

“Even people like Corypheus will inspire people to imitate them, if nothing else,” she pointed out.

“Sadly true,” he agreed. “I can only speculate at my thoughts, either way. In this time, I awoke to you, and to the full knowledge of the threat he posed. In another time, that was not so.”

She breathed out, heavily, and shook her head.

“I know. It’s not fair to expect you to have answers for a set of circumstances neither of us know much about. I just…” she trailed off, trying to grasp at the incoherent unease that had been shadowing her, sitting at the edges of her distress and urgency over Corypheus. “I know you’re keeping something from me.”

Fen’Harel dropped his head.

Then he nodded, once, in confirmation.

“It is nothing to do with Corypheus, or the orb, or my quest,” he promised her.

“It’s personal?” she guessed. She meant her tone to be a little light, a little teasing. Instead it came out unsteady, almost hurt.

The Dread Wolf looked back up at her, and for a moment, he seemed strangely lost. There was something else in his gaze, something like longing, something that made her heart twist and reminded her of all the breaks that had been put in it.

For an instant, she was certain that he was about to tell her.

Then he turned aside, and the moment was gone.

“We will go to Denerim,” he declared. “And I will tell you everything. But let us travel a few more days as we have been, while we can. Please.”

She opened her mouth to protest, to demand an answer, to ask what new further secret could possibly threaten the peace between them when she’d already accepted his role in the calamity that destroyed her life…

“Alright,” she agreed, instead.

 

~

 

Travel was trickier, once they were no longer cleaving quite so closely to the wilderness. Though Denerim had been an ally of the Inquisition, she had never chanced to visit it herself. The easiest way to reach it was to follow the roads, but that was also the easiest way to draw notice.

She found herself wishing she’d spontaneously develop Cole’s ability to pass virtually unseen. She was fairly adept at moving silently and without notice when she put effort into it, like most good hunters, but most of the tricks she knew relied somewhat on the idea that the person using them wouldn’t be glowing.

They had their first brush with bandits at a crossroads beyond Redcliffe. Real bandits, not mercenaries; raggedy figures, thin, made desperate by the winter, clutching makeshift weapons and mugging more often than murdering. As soon as they got a good look at her they fled their camp, leaving behind most of their ill-gotten goods.

It was a meager boon, but among the items left behind were several changes of clothing, and some decent boots, and food. She gathered up as much as they could easily take with them, while Fen’Harel sniffed through the campsite, and managed to uncover a buried cache of coins – not much more than a handful – next to a burnt old tree stump.

He dug it up, and they took it, too. It could only help, once they reached Denerim.

They spoke little, at first, though gradually they began to find their rhythm again. Fen’Harel inconsistently so. At times he kept noticeably close. He would match her pace and walk beside her. When they rested, he would rest next to her. When night fell, he would all but sleep in her lap. She supposed the growing cold could be to blame, but then there were moments when his mood would suddenly turn distant, and he would put more space between them. Never discourteously, but always with a very deliberate air.

It was so painfully familiar a pattern that she found she couldn’t bear it for long.

“Stop,” she finally told him, after he had come close and then skittered away, putting pointed distance between them only to slink back at nightfall.

The command came out a little more harshly than she expected.

Fen’Harel stopped, and looked at her as though in anticipation of a falling axe.

She sighed.

“Whatever it is,” she said. “Either come close, or keep away. You can’t just…” she trailed off, and laced her fingers together, and anxious gesture she’d thought incorporiality had cured her of. Apparently not.

He waited.

“Do you find me unsettling?” she wondered.

Fen’Harel blinked, as if that wasn’t at all what he’d been expecting her to say.

It wasn’t what she’d been expecting to say, either, but as soon as the question occurred to her, it seemed like such an obvious possibility she was surprised that she hadn’t considered it before.

“I do not find your physical form unnerving,” he informed her.

“That’s not what I asked.”

He stared at her. Pale eyes in the dark.

“Unsettling is… not the word I would use. But I suppose it could apply, in a sense.”

She let out such a gusty sigh, it felt as if she was trying to fly out of her armour through her hood.

“In a sense, in a way, in a manner of speaking,” she mocked. “Terms you use when you want to say something without simply saying it. It’s like I’m back at the Orlesian court, listening to everyone talking in metaphors and backhanded compliments and everything except plain speech.”

Fen’Harel raised a brow at her.

“I did not realize you held tact in such disdain,” he replied.

“Tact. I see,” she mused. “So what is it that you don’t think you can say to my face without being tactless?”

The Dread Wolf opened his mouth, and then closed it again.

“You baited me on purpose,” he realized, though he sounded more impressed than outraged.

“Yes,” she confirmed.

 It made her think of a cool night, a breeze on her face, and a warm hand settling against her back. Come, before the band stops playing, dance with me!

She looked down at the grass beneath her, and tried to bury the unprompted memory. But it lingered. Stepping on the balcony at the Winter Palace, relishing the feeling of triumph, relieved that the ordeal was over and willing to celebrate their hard-won success. Happy to leave the court and its intrigues behind.

Intrigues were not limited to royal courts, however.

“It is not you,” Fen’Harel said, and that, at least, drew her away from the Winter Palace again. “It is what I did, in another time. And what I did not do.”

“With the orb?” she wondered.

“With you,” he corrected. “I… I will tell you a story,” he then decided.

It didn’t feel like he was clumsily attempting to change topics, and so after a moment, she nodded. He settled across from her. The embers of the campfire they’d set smoldered, and chased off the worst of the chill in the air.

The Dread Wolf looked, for a moment, as old as he was.

“You know Ghilan’nain?” he asked.

“By reputation only,” she replied, and he snorted, and some of the gravity left him.

“A beautiful maiden of silvery-white hair, able to take the form of a halla. Even now, that is remembered,” he mused. “She was elvhen when I first met her. Her name was different. Her family had served Sylaise for generations. When Sylaise angered Andruil through some petty spat, it was deemed appropriate that she offer a sacrifice. One of great weight. Ghilan’nain was chosen, as her beauty and grace were renowned, and her family was held in high esteem. She was no slave.”

“So even the highborn elves could be sacrificed?” she asked.

“Rarely, but yes,” Fen’Harel confirmed. “Only if one of us were to demand it. Often such ‘sacrifices’ were not killed, per se, but Andruil was known for her preference towards bloodshed. Ghilan’nain was not expected to survive.”

“This is very interesting, but I don’t really see where we’re going here,” she admitted.

“We’ll get there,” he assured her. “I was among those gathered to witness Andruil’s acceptance of the sacrifice. A great party was thrown to honour Ghilan’nain’s family and acknowledge their contribution to the proceedings.”

“That… sounds horrifying,” she decided.

“On the surface, I doubt anyone would have taken it for anything more than just another celebration,” Fen’Harel replied. “Many of Ghilan’nain’s relatives were quite pleased. Her being chosen was confirmation of their significance in the highest ranks of elvhen society. Though, her parents did seem rather… subdued. The halls were filled with the festivities for an entire year. It was meant to be an opportunity to say farewells, in addition to everything else. But Ghilan’nain spent every night all but glued to Andruil’s side.”

She considered that, knowing what little she did about Ghilan’nain’s inevitable fate.

“She won her over, then? So she wouldn’t be killed?”

“That is what I thought as well!” Fen’Harel replied. “The woman was charm personified, and unlike most of us, she seemed to delight in Andruil’s long-winded tales of the hunt. No one could sincerely listen to three hundred stories about how to track the same stag over and over with genuine relish, I thought. When Andruil declined to kill her, and instead demanded only her eternal devotions, I applauded her impressive manipulation.”

“It saved her life.”

“It did. But it did not end there,” Fen’Harel continued. “I extended Ghilan’nain my compliments on her remarkable effort, and she denied any insincerity on her part. Not that this was surprising; she would not want word to get back to Andruil that her devotion was anything less than pure. But she said to me that she had simply resolved to spend the last of her life with the most enthralling person at the party. That this happened to be Andruil, she insisted, was purely coincidental.”

“That’s a pretty big coincidence.”

Fen’Harel laughed.

“You are not one to talk,” he declared. “However, I shared your scepticism. That Ghilan’nain proved exceptional in her commitments to her new patron did not surprise anyone. That Andruil swiftly became enthralled with her, in return, was also unsurprising. Such fancies were not uncommon.”

“They became lovers, then?”

“I assumed as much. Andruil enjoyed hunting her bedmates just as she enjoyed hunting her prey, but Ghilan’nain was different. There could be no pursuit for a prize already owned. Their infatuation did not end, then, with a glorious capture or successful escape. It continued apace for a surprising length of time, even by our standards. Ghilan’nain was highest among Andruil’s favoured, and her devotion was unwavering. I kept waiting for Andruil to lose interest, or for Ghilan’nain to misstep at last, but that was not what happened.”

He paused.

Curiosity at the true story had crept over a great deal of her annoyance, and she found herself eager to hear the rest of it.

“In the Dalish tales, Ghilan’nain had Andruil curse a hunter for killing a hawk,” she prompted.

“Andruil only cared if someone killed her prey before she might,” Fen’Harel replied. “There was a hunter, but he, too, was a follower of Andruil’s. Among her most favoured. Of course, not the most favoured, for none could hope to surpass Ghilan’nain by then. In truth, what she was went well beyond the status of any follower. Andruil confided in her things that, I suspect, no one else had ever heard. Or ever shall. But I digress; not everyone realized that attempting to compete with Ghilan’nain for Andruil’s eye was destined to end in failure.”

“So he tried, and it backfired?”

“In essence. In her more sociable years, Andruil would throw Great Hunts. Usually to celebrate some new thing she’d managed to kill. Drunk on her success, she would send her hunters off into the wilds. Whoever returned with the most impressive prey would be bestowed riches, favour, and accolades. One hunt, I managed to convince her to let a slave join in the pursuit. I bet her that he would bring back trophies to match those of all her most esteemed champions. The slave had a gift; a talent for mimicry. He imitated the trophies of every one of her champions precisely. She was forced to concede the bet, and grant him his freedom.”

“Clever,” she complimented.

“Yes. I was quite pleased, until one of her champions sought to avenge her honour by claiming the man’s head.”

She winced.

Fen’Harel let out a heavy breath.

“But that is another story,” he decided. “Though she had not been raised to them, Ghilan’nain took to the great hunts well. She always placed respectably high, if she did not win. The favoured hunter, who sought to surpass her, believed this aptitude to be the key to her place in Andruil’s heart. He came to me, and asked how he might best Ghilan’nain in the hunt.”

“He came to you?” she asked.

“Such was what people often came to me for,” he replied. “Where they could not find a straight path forward, they would look to Fen’Harel to divine the twists and turns. I told him that, if he wished to beat Ghilan’nain, he would need to claim a prize worthy of Andruil herself. Not one of the usual beasts of the hunt, but something tremendous enough that the goddess would have hunted it in person if given the chance.”

“But he couldn’t beat Ghilan’nain,” she pointed out. “You said she didn’t always win the hunts anyway, and they weren’t the real reason Andruil favoured her.”

“True,” Fen’Harel replied. “But he did not ask me if his plan was foolish or not. He asked me how it might be accomplished. So when the great hunt came, he sought a beast worthy of his patron. It was an impressive feat, in truth. The creature he slew… you would not see the likes of it now. It would have been only a small hunt to Andruil, but to him, it nearly claimed his life. And then, he presented his prize.”

“And Andruil was furious,” she guessed.

Fen’Harel inclined his head.

“Just so. The hunter had taken prey worthy of her. That he had done it in her name meant nothing to her. But she could not denounce him when he had, in truth, broken no rule of the hunt. By pure technicality he won, but the favour he sought was denied to him forever.”

“I bet he took it well.”

The Dread Wolf chuckled.

“Not in the least, of course. Surprisingly, he did not blame me for his failure. Alas, neither did he see the flaw in the entirety of his plan. The hunt which had cost him his heart’s desire had been too great for him to regret it. Instead, he blamed Ghilan’nain, and came to believe that she had cursed him. Day by day and year by year, he fell further from Andruil’s sight, and his resentment grew. Finally, he resolved to kill Ghilan’nain in secret, thinking this would remove his curse and allow him to regain his favour. He asked me where he might find Ghilan’nain alone, to commit to this deed, and I told him. And then I went to Andruil’s other hunters, and advised them of his intentions.”

She raised her eyebrows at him.

“You told him?” she asked.

He shrugged.

“If I had not, he would have discovered another means of getting what he wanted. And this way, I could tell the other hunters precisely where he would be, right when he meant to commit his crime. They would catch him in the act. Or so was my thinking. The hunters delayed, sceptical of my claims. By the time they at last arrived, he was locked in combat with Ghilan’nain, who was mortally wounded.”

“Well that didn’t work out,” she noted.

“No,” he agreed. “Andruil’s subsequent fury was unsurprising. But her grief… that was new. I expected her to kill the one who had dared raise a hand to Ghilan’nain. Instead, she fell by her side, as if all that held her up had suddenly been swept away. She barely paid the transgressor any mind. All of her was consumed with Ghilan’nain. I had never seen the likes of it in her before, or since. The two of them were sequestered together. When they emerged, part of Andruil’s power rested within her beloved. She called it the gift of her heart. Ma vhenan, Ghilan’nain, she said, and that was the first time Ghilan’nain’s new name was spoken.”

A sheet of ice dropped over her. Her mind went curiously blank, and suddenly, she felt as if she was watching the rest of the tale unfold from a great distance.

Fen’Harel continued, oblivious to the abrupt shift in mood. His gaze was fixed upon the moon.

“It was the first time such a thing had happened in a very, very long while. Of course, they ripped the hunter to shreds once it was convenient, and hung his dismembered corpse up as a warning. I did not fully understand it, at the time. I did not see how Andruil, who so easily viewed even the grandest of creatures as little more than quarry, could feel something so profound for Ghilan’nain that she would give of herself to preserve her.”

He paused, and then sighed.

“I would never have done such a thing myself. Not for lack of fondness, but to twist the very nature of another being, just to keep them by my side… I could not imagine it. What came of such an act, I thought, would always be different from what lived before it. More than Ghilan’nain’s name was changed by her ascension. She grew restless, where before she had always known contentment. She wandered further and further across the world, and through pathways unseen, seeking something no one else could name. There was a part of Andruil within her, and so the likeness between them grew more and more pronounced.”

He looked back at her, at last.

“That was why I asked if you had changed,” he admitted. “But what piece of me is within you is different. It is yours as well, and I think… I hope, I was wrong, when I believed Ghilan’nain to have favoured Andruil for the sake of survival. Perhaps she truly did find those terrible stories delightful. Perhaps there is some thread of fate that grants us the mercy, sometimes, of meeting precisely who we need, right when we need them the most.”

She closed her eyes, and listened to his voice.

His voice.

Not the raspy wolf’s tone, but the cadence, the almost lyrical way he wove his sentences together. The wistful longing he was capable of. The bright flashes of frustration, or disapproval. It felt like something was trying to burn its way out of her, through the ice that had fallen, and she couldn’t… she couldn’t… It didn’t have to mean anything, it was only an endearment…

“Ma vhenan,” she whispered, in anguish.

Fen’Harel’s eyes widened.

Eyes she knew.

Eyes she’d always known.

No, no, no, please no.

“…Solas?” she asked.

A silence that felt like it had swallowed the whole world fell.

Then a low wind rustled. It smelled strongly of the forest. Swirls of darkness ate up the wolf before her, until his outline was gone, and then the shape of it changed and he was not a wolf at all.

He was pale, and bald, and he was right; his clothing was unacceptable. Not because it wasn’t there, but because it was far too fine. Rich blacks and intricate embroidery, a silk undershirt and a high collar that all screamed ‘wealthy person of influence’ far more than ‘nondescript aposate’.

A wolf’s jawbone hung from a fine chain around his neck.

A face she knew – she knew – stared back at her.

I am the fool of my tale, she realized. I am the fool who fell for the Dread Wolf’s lie.

“I am sorry,” he said, in that voice, and it almost undid her.

There was no shock in her, she realized. No surprise. It was as if some horrible suspicion she’d had all along had simply been confirmed. She was truly, truly the fool, not because she couldn’t have seen it, but because she had refused to. Mythal had been correct. She had denied it until it was plainly before her, until she couldn’t anymore.

He had deceived her only because she’d wanted to be deceived.

All along, Solas had given Corypheus the orb.

Solas had… had…

And Fen’Harel had known. Because they were the same. One and the same. 

Pride. He had regained his pride.

The sound of pure misery which escaped her was almost as difficult to hear as it was to make.

“Lethallan, you must calm down,” Solas said, but in Fen’Harel’s voice, and when she looked at him his expression was heavy with concern. And green. Very green, so strongly lit it was almost like dawn had come.

And that, of course, was precisely when the Templars found them.

 

~

 

She almost didn’t notice the peculiar heaviness of a suppressing field being thrown over them. They didn’t tend to do a lot to her, for obvious reasons, though there was a recognizable sensation to them nevertheless.

As it was, she registered it, registered the threat and Solas and Templars and before she thought about it she was up, bow drawn, arrows singing and voices shouting.

Four. There were four – no, five. Their archer tried to move without notice, but it was too bright for him, the shadows lit with an emerald gleam. One of the warriors charged her, a cry to his Maker on his lips. There was no red upon him. No ruby marks through the slats of his helmet. He died easily, an arrow piercing the gap at his neck, blood spurting darkly as he fell.

One of his fellows slammed into her from the side, shield-first, and it felt like she was shattering for a moment, like all the pieces of clothing and armour that clung to her were liable to go flying in all directions.

She used the strange momentum, somehow, twisted and then she was behind him. He hands gripped around his helmet and snap, he was down, too. The magical suppression went with him.

Three arrows, sharp and quiet, flew by her.

But he wasn’t where they landed, and in a flash a streak of ice consumed the archer and locked him into place.

She went for the remaining Templars before they could weigh down the air again, her thoughts strangely empty, consumed by the strange roar inside of her. Knives availed where arrows did not, finding the soft spots, pouring blood onto her gloves as she reached longer than she should. One down, and then the last crashed into her just as a spell struck him.

Ice and blood and a strange, sliding sound as a broadsword pierced through the armour she was wearing, and the ether beneath, and clean through to the other side.

It shouldn’t have hurt.

Raindrops never hurt.

The blade burned like it was made of fire. Intent or memory or expectation, perhaps, she didn’t know why, she could scarcely think of it, but he slumped, dead weight pressing down and it was still burning inside of her, pinning her to the ground like a needle through an ant.

Then Solas was there, swiftly freeing her.

“Lethallan,” he said.

Why was he calling her that?

Oh. Right. They broke up.

Or… no, that wasn’t the reason.

What was going on?

Why was everything so green?

Was there a rift nearby?

No, there were Templars. She needed to stop them, quickly, because she only had Solas with her and Solas was a mage, except he wasn’t a mage, he was a wolf, but the wolf was a mage, too, so maybe it still counted…

“Listen to me,” Solas asked. “Look up at the sky. Focus on the stars. Be calm. It is over, and you are safe. Be only calm.”

She couldn’t be calm. It was too green, and the sword in her gut still burned, even though it was gone, even though it shouldn’t have burned in the first place because she had rocks in her hands and branches in her legs and they felt fine, no body, she had no body because she had died, and found Fen’Harel, but the wolf was gone and Solas was there, and this was not Solas, it was Fen’Harel…

“It was a lie.”

The words escaped her, like a whisper that seemed to come from around her as well as inside her.

“No,” Solas said. “It was not a lie. That is not a lie I would tell. Not to anyone, but least of all to you.”

“You kept it from me,” she accused.

“Yes. I did.”

“Both times. Both times you kept it from me.

“If you would like, the next instance of time travel you indulge in, you may keep as many secrets from me as you see fit,” Solas told her. “Only you must calm down and focus on something. You are burning too brightly. You are stretched too thin. You will break, and I do not know what will happen if you do. I suspect rips in the fabric of the Veil, at the very least.”

No, no, no ripping up the Veil. That wouldn’t do.

She looked up towards the stars.

They were a little hard to see, past all the green. Gradually, it got easier. Clearer. The little pinpicks brightened and the night darkened, and she folded back into herself, until her chest was a steady rise and fall, and the roar in her ears was quieter.

Carefully, she sat up.

She didn’t look at him.

They sat in profound silence until she felt the wisp of a breeze. Shadows accumulated in the corner of her vision, and when they cleared, she knew he was a wolf again.

When she found her voice, it drifted, cool and distant, up from her chest.

“Someone must have sent word to the chantry about an abomination of some kind in the area,” she said.

“Or they were drawn from the road by the light,” he replied, in his wolf’s voice.

“Either way, we shouldn’t stay here.”

“…Agreed.”

Brusquely, she stripped the Templars of anything useful, and then, upon consideration, arranged them into respectful rows. They had attacked, and she had never been fond of their order. Templars were dangerous to clans. Samson’s machinations had done nothing to improve her opinion of them, but even so, it seemed wrong to simply leave them without a care. Especially as she couldn’t send anyone to return their remains to their family, or the chantry.

Fen’Harel returned his orb to their travel sack, and she threw in her additions, and they made their way in silence, until the sun had risen and almost set again, and the Dread Wolf had begun to stagger and stumble.

Then she tied the travel sack to her waist, and stopped, and lifted him up.

“You do not have to-”

“We need to keep going,” she said, tersely.

He fell silent, and after a time, it seemed, he fell asleep as well.

Hadn’t she told him, before, that she didn’t want to hold him accountable for actions he hadn’t actually taken?

But he had hidden it from her again. Only, in reverse. Instead of Solas being Fen’Harel, Fen’Harel had been Solas.

She wasn’t certain which hurt more, actually. Solas had begun his lie before she even met him, and, she could admit, it wasn’t something easily owned up to.

Fen’Harel had kept it from her, specifically. But he had also, ultimately, admitted the truth.

Solas hadn’t. She wondered if he’d meant to, in Crestwood. In the glen. With the Fade strong around them. Had he planned to transform, she wondered? To really show her? Would he have been strong enough to do it?

With all the artifacts they’d found…

The artifacts.

She almost dropped Fen’Harel.

How many more lies and half-truths had he told her? Sheep’s clothing, indeed! Had he laughed at her, that first time, when she had kissed him in the Fade? And then again, on the balcony, grasping his elbow. Had he considered how much more pliable it would make her, if he accepted her pursuit? Much more likely to just hand over the orb, if she ever got her hands on it? To answer his requests, when he sent them?

Who else would she give an ancient elvhen artifact to, after all, if not her beloved elven Fade expert?

Fen’Harel stirred in her grasp.

“You are glowing too brightly,” he informed her.

She looked, and saw that it was true. And she could feel it, as well, that rippling pain, as if something in her simply wanted to fly apart.

“My apologies. I’ll attempt to contain myself a little better,” she replied.

For a moment it seemed like he meant to say more. But then he only subsided, and at length, drifted off again.

She turned her gaze upwards, and tried to think of the stars instead.

She was very good at not thinking about this, she noticed. Possibly because she’d been getting practice at it before she’d even realized what it was that she wasn’t thinking about.

By the time they reached Denerim – or, rather, the woodlands closest to – she had settled into a sort of focused numbness.

They found an empty cave in one of the Blight-scarred regions, all ash and bone and large, black circles where nothing living trod. Fen’Harel went in with their gear, and Solas came out, poker-faced and clad in a peasant’s outfit.

Any suggestions or advice she’d meant to impart died at the sight of him, in full daylight, along with any last lingering hope that she’d somehow been mistaken. He stopped in front of her, and they regarded one another as if separated by a massive chasm.

Slowly, Solas extended his foci to her.

She had not touched it, since that night. She had almost expected him to insist on taking it with him, but he relinquished it without hesitation, and squared his shoulders once it was within her grasp.

“Dareth shiral,” he said. She could not follow him any closer to the city.

He would be alone. In Denerim. A city not particularly renowned for its kindly treatment of elves.

She remained silent, standing, holding the orb until he was gone, and long out of her sight.

 

~

 

Waiting was unquestionably a special kind of hell.

She spent a lot of it actually just sort of standing in place.

A bird landed on her at one point.

That summoned the mental image of Cassandra, marching over to her and grabbing her by the shoulders. Giving her one of those firm full-body shakes that could set her teeth rattling.

“What are you doing?” she would demand. “Standing there? Corypheus is still a threat. What are you accomplishing, staring off into the distance, slowly becoming a statue? You are the one who must stop him. You are the one who can stop him.”

She tried to think of a rebuttal, but mostly all she could picture was hugging the woman and weeping into her shoulder in a grossly undignified fashion that would be guaranteed to unnerve her.

Imaginary Cassandra was right, though. She might be stuck waiting, but she didn’t have to do it idly.

Although what else she could do, all things considered, was a little up in the air. Fen… Solas… was supposed to take no more than five days. That was accounting for the travel time, the possibility that it would take him a while to actually make contact with the wardens, and some leeway for him to see what he could find.

They had not discussed what she should do if he failed to come back.

She wasn’t quite sure what her reaction to that would be, in fact.

But it was time enough for her to scout the woodland, at least. Look for any signs of trouble, or, if she was particularly fortunate, Corypheus might be camped out in the bushes somewhere nearby, sinisterly rubbing his hands together and muttering his evil plans under his breath.

She began a sweep of the area.

It wasn’t terribly large, and had obviously been hit hard by the Blight. The farmlands surrounding it were still recovering as well, from what she could see. There was virtually no game. Most of the animals were small – birds, bugs, a few rats or mice. What water she found was stagnant and dark.

It was worse than she’d seen of most of Ferelden, but then again, the darkspawn army had marched on Denerim. In made sense that the surrounding environs paid a heavy cost for that.

Eventually she did find active farmland, though. The trees parts and the scarred earth gave way to green shoots; some plant that seemed at least marginally resistant to taint, and was replaced by the true crops slightly further afield. A buffer, then. Clever.

There were, she noticed, other little signs of the world reclaiming itself from disaster. Some of the burnt patches were starting to recover. Fresh seedlings had been planted in the less affected areas, to help heal the scarred ground. She even found a beehive, snugly nestled in a surviving tree.

Blight bees. Now there was a terrible thought.

But the hive was fine, healthy, and she let herself marvel at the tenacity of the world. It was under constant attack, it seemed, and yet it survived. Recovered. Caught its breath, if only just in time for the next fight.

She left the bees to themselves.

On her third day of wandering, she found a tainted well that hadn’t been attended to. She carved a warning into the lid.

Such thrilling achievements for the betterment of the world.

By the time the fifth day came, she had done precious little save wander and pointedly Not Think of Things. But she felt calmer, and when she heard approaching footsteps, her most prominent sentiment was relief.

Solas looked none the worse for his venture into the city. He had acquired a staff at some point, and elven shoes to replace the boots they’d scavenged, and what looked like travel rations. He was otherwise much the same as when he’d left; straight-faced and painful to behold.

“The wardens are looking into the entrance to Valammar,” he replied. “I mentioned my suspicions about the ritual, but in all likelihood, I fear they’ll do little more than seal the tunnels. The two humans stationed at the outpost seemed disinclined to take me seriously. But apart from some thinly-veiled condescension, they did not appear out-of-sorts. And, fortunately, they were not the only wardens in Denerim.”

“You made a contact?” she wondered.

He inclined his head.

“A visiting warden, from Amaranthine,” he replied. “A dwarven woman by the name of Sigrun. She had come to oversee the transference of some items into a storage depot in the city.”

“And she took you a little more seriously?”

“Indeed. She took me entirely seriously. Particularly when I took care to mention having witnessed, despite all common knowledge being to the contrary, a darkspawn that could speak,” he explained. “Apparently, your Corypheus is not the only such creature to have emerged in recent memory. She all but interrogated me. I… may have mentioned that, in fact, it was my spirit friend who had seen the most of him.”

She startled.

“You told her about me?”

“She mentioned dealings with friendly spirits in the past,” he replied. “And it seemed the only lead I could find. I doubt she is either enthralled by Corypheus or otherwise in association with him. Her hatred of darkspawn is profound, and from what you described, if Corypheus were to adopt a false identity it would… likely not be hers.”

“So what did this Sigrun say, then?” she wondered.

“She would like to meet you,” he explained.

At the return of her startled look, he hastened to reassure her.

“I did not bring her. She is waiting at a farmstead not far from here. You may decide for yourself if you’re willing to speak with her; if not, I shall send her on her way,” he promised.

“If she didn’t just follow you,” she retorted, checking the woods behind him, overcome with a surprisingly deep unease.

This was a good development.

But meeting with a Grey Warden, under the circumstances…

“She did not strike me as a particularly stealthy individual,” Solas insisted.

Neither did Sera, she thought, and searched the area with the eyes of someone who knew how to follow unseen.

When one wasn’t glowing.

She found a particularly likely-looking boulder, but before she rounded it, a woman emerged from behind it of her own volition.

She was clad in Grey Warden armour, purposefully dulled to limit its shine, with a dark tattoo on her face, and her hair tied tightly back. Her hands came up. There was an ease to her countenance that belied either extreme confidence with her situation, or extreme indifference to her fate.

“Alright,” she said. “You got me, Ghostie. You’re a sharper tack than your bald friend, I’ll give you that.”

Solas looked a little affronted.

“You’re Sigrun?” she asked.

“The one and only. Not that I’m that famous outside of Amaranthine. And even there, it’s more of a general Grey Warden-y thing than a You-in-Particular thing,” the dwarven woman replied.

“You can move silently. In that,” Solas noted, with a pointed glance to her armour. “Perhaps I did not give the Grey Wardens enough credit.”

“Well. You did meet two of our more ass-facey representatives first,” Sigrun said. “That’s the thing about taking anybody who’s good at fighting darkspawn. Sometimes you get the Hero of Ferelden, aaaand sometimes you get that one drunk who’s only good for hitting things. It’s a delicate balance.”

“If only more skewed towards the heroic end,” Solas mused.

“For fighting darkspawn?” Sigrun replied. “Nah. Trust me. It’s better not to throw people you’d like to see stick around at that problem.”

“An excellent point,” he conceded.

Sigrun turned her attention back towards her, then, eyeing her speculatively.

“No corpse?” the dwarf asked.

“Um,” she eloquently replied.

“I mean, I thought you guys needed… bodies. Like, sometimes rotting bodies but still. Bodies. Skeletons, at least. Maybe a floating skull. Ooh! That would be creepy.”

“My friend is unique,” Solas interjected.

“Yeah. So are my friends,” Sigrun replied. “That doesn’t mean they get to break all the rules for… actually, you know what? Nevermind. That was almost a horrible lie. Special spirit friend. Gotcha. As long as you’re not a darkspawn, you’re not my job.”

“That’s… comforting,” she decided.

“But you do have information on darkspawn, and that’s what I need,” Sigrun continued. Then she glanced at Solas. “From what I overheard, you actually know way more than you let on.”

Solas shrugged.

“I said what I could without revealing too much about my friend,” he declared, unapologetic.

“Right,” the dwarven warden conceded. “So who – or what – is a Corypheus? Because that sounds kind of like one of those diseases that everyone’s heard about but no one’s sure if it’s the one with the boils or the one that makes your bits fall off. Or both.”

There were worse types to try and reason with, she supposed.

“He’s an ancient Tevinter magister. Or a darkspawn that thinks he’s one,” she replied. “The wardens built a prison to contain him in the Free Marches ages ago. The prison is still in place, but he isn’t. He can speak. At length. And like an archdemon, he can transfer himself between blighted bodies. Destroy one, and he’ll possess another. Wardens included. He wants to become a god, and he’s interested in anything that will help him breach his way into the Fade.”

Sigrun stared at her.

Then she let out a long, low whistle.

“Okay. That sounded made-up.”

“It is no fiction,” Solas declared.

“Yeah. That would actually be easy, so of course you’re telling the truth,” Sigrun replied. “I’m still going to have to verify this, though. If it’s real then it’s at least a little above my paygrade. And Nathaniel’s paygrade. And Stroud’s paygrade. We’ll probably have to send one of those fancy letters to Weisshaupt and get one of those ‘wow that sounds awful good luck with that’ style replies and solve the whole disaster ourselves anyway, though.”

The dwarf turned shrewd eyes back towards her.

“How did you find out about this, anyway?” she wondered.

Maybe telling the entire truth wasn’t the best idea.

Believability was stretching pretty thin as it was.

“I met him,” she settled on saying.

“And killed him?” Sigrun asked, raising an eyebrow.

“How’d you figure that part out?”

“Because you know what happens to him when he dies,” the warden replied. “So I’m guessing either he is very forthcoming about himself, or you got a demonstration.”

“Alright. Yes,” she confirmed. “I killed him.”

“How?”

Solas glanced towards her.

“I tore him apart with magic,” she admitted.

Sigrun took a slight step back.

“You can do that?”

She thought of Dagna, who would have said the exact same thing but taken a step forward, instead, and shrugged.

“I don’t make a habit of it,” she replied. “Anyway. The most insidious thing that you need to know about Corypheus is that he can hide. He can take over a Grey Warden’s mind, and live inside of their body. Maybe for years. What’s more, if he allies himself with demons, he can control entire hosts of mage wardens.”

Sigrun blinked. Then she shook her head. Then she ran a hand across her face.

“Are you trying to describe one of my worst nightmares? Because that would be pretty high on the list.”

“Have you noticed any suspicious behaviour among your fellow wardens of late?” Solas asked.

“We’re wardens,” Sigrun replied. “I know it’s not exactly part of the public image, but ‘suspicious behaviour’ is not at all uncommon. Like, here,” she said, and handed Solas a small coin purse they’d scavenged in their travels. The one he’d taken to Denerim with him.

“You picked my pocket,” he realized, with a note of deep disgust that seemed to be directed mostly at himself.

“Sorry. Habit. Illustrates my point, though.”

“Corypheus has a very distinctive personality,” she interjected, quickly. “I doubt he could hide it particularly well, or for very long. He’ll speak with excessive confidence. Give orders more often than he makes requests, and react poorly to arguments or failure. And he’ll ignore people once he’s done with them. He won’t make friends.”

“You just described basically half the wardens from Orlais,” Sigrun replied.

“What an inspiring organization,” Solas muttered.

“Don’t be sore. Here, I’ll even give you your knife back,” the dwarven warden offered, and extended a small, familiar-looking blade towards him, handle-first.

Solas let out a defeated sigh and accepted it.

“He might have allies from Tevinter,” she continued. “I’m not certain.”

Sigrun ran a hand down the side of her face again.

“If this is true, it’s big,” she decided. “I’m gonna need the whole story, and other people are going to have to hear it. You should come back with me to Amaranthine.”

“There are too many wardens in Amaranthine,” Solas declared, addressing her more than Sigrun. “If Corypheus does have a foothold among them, going there could tip our hand. It wouldn’t take much for him to deduce that you’re here, and interfering with his plans.”

And that we have the orb, was left unsaid, but implied by a glance towards their gear.

“We can be subtle,” Sigrun replied. Then she glanced at her. “Well. Glowing’s kind of noticeable, I guess. And the floaty-bits where your elbows are, those stand out. Oh! We could cover you in bandages and pretend you’re the victim of some kind of horrible strain of blight!”

She blinked.

“Would that even work?”

“Absolutely!” Sigrun assured her. “Nobody gets close to infected people, not if they can help it, and nobody would be suspicious of a Grey Warden for investigating that kind of thing. We’re supposed to!”

“It still seems a grave risk,” Solas insisted. But Sigrun was already unslinging a pack from her shoulders.

“What better option do we have?” she wondered, quietly.

He didn’t reply.

A few minutes later, Sigrun was rolling bandages around every visible gap on her person. The dwarven warden didn’t hesitate, much, but she was also careful not to actually touch any part of her unless absolutely necessary.

Fortunately, the bandages were mostly willing to stay in place of their own accord. They were thick enough to block the light when layered, and the only real problem came when they reached her eyes. They were as transparent and prone to glowing as the rest of her, but covering them definitely resulted in blindness.

“You are not truly seeing with your eyes,” Solas informed her. “Covering them should have no effect on your vision, unless you permit it to.”

“Well it does. Sorry I’m not excelling at mind-over-matter at the moment,” she tersely informed him.

“Makes sense to me,” Sigrun offered. “Cover eyes, can’t see. Pretty standard.”

“That is because your eyes are flesh and blood. If they were to no longer exist, where and how you saw would only be limited by your own perceptions of the process.”

“Then it’s a shame I seem to have very limited perceptiveness,” she said.

The words fell like stone weights.

After a minute, Sigrun cleared her throat.

“We’ll cover your eyes when we get to the city gates,” the warden suggested. “Your friend can guide you, then. I’ll just tell everybody they’re seeping infected pus or something. Stuff like that tends to shut down questions pretty fast.”

“Pus-seeping blight victim. That’s going to be a fun role,” she decided.

“Don’t play it up too much,” Sigrun warned. “We don’t want any fussy nobles kicking us out of the city for fear of catching it, after all.”

“So no fake vomit?”

“That would be funny! But no. Not a good idea.”

Once she was deemed sufficiently not-glowing, they made their way out of the woodlands and back onto the main roads, which were fairly well-trafficked. It was strange, being out in the open and among people again. Stranger still to keep her head down and shuffle along. She’d never quite lost her unease at being on large shemlen roads, even after joining the Inquisition.

The city itself was far worse. The smell was almost an entity in and of itself. Val Royeaux covered most of its stench with heavy perfumes – which, in her opinion, were not much better, but it did give the markets a rather… distinctive atmosphere. Skyhold was open enough that the winds usually chased the worst scents off into the mountains. But Denerim, a mass of bodies and tight walls and narrow streets buried under frequent rains, smelled like rot and dog and waste.

She covered her eyes, and then hesitated.

Holding hands… no.

She took Solas by the elbow instead.

That… wasn’t a whole lot better.

Don’t think about it, she told herself. The last thing they needed was for her to light up like a signal flare right at the gates.

It could be anyone’s elbow, when she couldn’t see the owner.

“Okay, I mean, I know you’re supposed to have a horrible disease, but maybe don’t stand that far apart,” Sigrun suggested.

“It's not a problem,” Solas immediately replied.

“Is she liable to explode or something? Because you should have told me that before you let me wrap her up, if that’s the case,” the warden asked.

With a resolute internal sigh, she moved marginally closer.

At last Sigrun deemed them sufficient, and led them further into the cluster of sounds and smells. A dog barked. Some people murmured, and kept their distance. Solas was rigid as a board, but did not hesitate to warn her of obstacles, and kept a steady pace. They followed their warden contact until the streets grew less ragged, and the sounds of voices less frequent, and even the smell decreased.

It was clear they were entering some finer part of the city.

“Wait here,” Sigrun requested. “I’ve gotta finish up at the offices, and then requisition us a cart. That’ll make the trip a whole lot easier.”

They were abandoned to the city, then.

Just sort of standing there.

Which she was doing a lot of, lately.

“You may let go, if it makes you more comfortable,” Solas offered. “I will not leave.”

She thought about it. But if she let go, she’d just have to take his arm again as soon as they needed to move.

“It’s fine,” she told him.

It wasn’t, in fact, but she could pretend. Not about them. Not anymore. But that it didn’t matter. That she could lie about, for the time being.

She focused on what she could hear, then, instead of everything else. Voices shouting, calling out to another. A noblewoman was yelling something about bread to one of her servants. A father was chastising his son for an impetuous purchase at the market. A child’s voice, high-pitched and insistent, demanded to be picked up.

“…said his name was Larius, got no record of him but records are shit anyway…”

She stiffened.

She knew that name.

Where did she know that name…?

“You don’t just come back from your Calling.”

“He claims it was a ‘false alarm’. Now there’s a thought to keep you up at night.”

Memory flashed. Bianca, in Valammar. She’d gone to a Grey Warden named Larius.

“That’s him,” she whispered, sharp and fierce.

“Who?” Solas asked.

“Larius. They’re talking about a Grey Warden named Larius, that’s Corypheus,” she declared.

“You are certain?”

“Without a doubt.”

His hand touched hers at his arm.

“Stay here and keep listening,” he asked. “I shall inform Sigrun.”

“Alright,” she agreed, and let him go.

A moment later, she heard the sound of footsteps approaching. Too heavy for an elf’s. They came up alongside her, and then stopped at a polite distance.

“Poor creature,” an unfamiliar voice drawled. “They say you’ve got the blight.”

A feeling washed over her like every single hair on her body standing on end.

“Terrible strain. From what the dwarf described, I’m amazed you’re still standing. But she claims it’s not like what she’s seen before. You caught it near Redcliffe, I understand?”

She could probably kill him, right where he stood. But if she did that then he’d likely just transfer himself to another Grey Warden. Perhaps even Sigrun. Trapping him would be better, but harder. If she just started fighting a warden in the streets of Denerim, there would be little question of where public support would lean.

That left her with the old standby – keep him talking.

“Are you a Grey Warden?” she asked, and realized her error only a second too late to prevent it.

Her voice.

Corypheus knew her voice.

“You!”

The shout seemed to echo through the streets around them, booming and furious, and she wrenched the bandages off of her eyes and moved, lunging for him as he made to draw his blade. She found herself staring down a human warden, clearly in his declining years, but with some obvious effort on his part to mask the signs of it. The signs of aging, she would assume, except that up close she could see the telltale black veins here and there, the hollowness in his cheeks that implied a deeper level of decay.

His glared back at her, narrow-eyed and furious as she struggled with him, fighting to keep his sword arm down.

Rage boiled through her, fed by everything she had endured because of him, and she could not have supressed it for all the world. She grasped him with the anchor and wrenched. Green light spilled over them. There was a sickening crack as the air warped, and one of his arms broke.

“You,” she snarled at him. “I will rip you apart.”

She took him by the neck.

“Help!” he cried, and it surprised her enough that her grip slackened, just for half a second. It was enough of an opening for him to get in a blow to her head; it hurt, but it wasn’t enough to deter her.

“Help!” he continued. “Abomination! Abomination in the streets!”

“The would-be god pleas again?” she asked.

“Let the puppets dance on their strings,” he replied. “Your pawns defeated mine once. But in the end, I will not be denied my destiny, thief.”

“Your only destiny is to die until death sticks,” she retorted.

Corypheus’ borrowed face contorted into terrible rage, fingers sharpening into claws as he tore at her, and successfully threw her off for a moment.

She recovered swiftly, drawing a knife and lunging back, but by then he had his sword in hand. Steel clashed against steel. There were voices calling out, but she ignored them, and soon enough they were drowned out by the roaring in her head.

Corypheus’ blade cut through her armor, bit into her arm as if he meant to cleave the anchor from her. She struck out as well, and her aim proved truer; the point of her knife sliced clean through the flesh of his neck, spilling black blood down the gleaming front of his armour.

He coughed, wretchedly, and slumped.

On the ground, he looked at her with smug amusement. She had killed him, but accomplished nothing. She had killed him, but only given him another avenue by which to escape. And he knew it; even with his pride burned by yet another loss, he was slipping through the cracks once again.

“No.”

She reached out and closed a fist around his bloodied neck.

Something slammed into her. A warden’s shield. There were shouts, and a blade pierced her back, and magic crackled in the air, but she did not let go.

He would not run again.

The anchor gleamed, the air shrieked, and they were gone.

 

~

 

She’d forgotten about the orb.

In all fairness, she’d forgotten about everything except for Corypheus for a little while there.

She certainly hadn’t meant to bring it.

Particularly since she hadn’t consciously thought about where they were even going. Or that they were even going anywhere. But she had torn them somewhere, that was for certain, and it didn’t feel like the Fade.

There was darkness. Not total, but deep, and clutching; grasping at her with fingers like knives. Hissing in discordant song. Something pale was strung up before her; a corpse of a man with hollow eyes, a man with Corypheus’ face, bound in cords of blackness, flayed and wretched. A river of dark blood ran from him, and stretched seamlessly into shadow.

Above them both, a single star shone, silver and green and gold and red. It was the only comfort in anything, and it was almost as distressing as not.

The grasping claws reached for it.

The light roared and trembled by turns.

The orb. The orb was the star.

Something had gripped her hand, holding the anchor with greedy fingers, tearing and ripping and trying to swallow. A slick tongue that couldn’t catch on the bright surface, teeth that sank through ether but chipped on the light.

Pulling it free felt like dragging it through a sheath of razors.

What she lifted was barely an arm anymore, shattered wisps and tattered edges. But the anchor gleamed. She turned it upwards. To the orb, to the star, whirling in the blackness.

“Come,” she called.

“It is mine,” a voice roared, loud as a dragon’s breath in her ears.

She had fought dragons, though. They were mighty beasts, but beasts all the same, and they didn’t frighten her.

“Come to me,” she called again.

The light grew brighter.

“It is mine, it is mine, the power belongs to me! I am a god! I am the only true god this world can ever know!” the voice continued, raging like a child, and the corpse in front of her shuddered. The hollow eyes turned towards her, black as the shadows around them. Empty, and long dead.

“Please!”

The orb dropped into her palm.

It felt like catching the sun.

Then something tore into her, like a storm, rage and despair and purest hatred. It ate through the flayed man and ripped her to shreds, and she curled around the orb as pieces of her were torn away. It flared in angry red, whirling and crackling in return. And then it seemed that she was only the barest point of light, the anchor and a heartbeat gripping a single, flickering sphere.

But the storm could rage no more.

The barest shade of something lingered, where the flayed corpse had been. A faded memory, staring upwards.

“Dumat,” it whispered. “Save me.”

Then it was gone.

The darkness remained. Like a sickness poured over her, and it sang.

Why always singing? she wondered.

There’d been another song. Strange. Voices in the snow, knees bent, promises of the dawn. But that song had words. This one didn’t. It climbed and clawed and tried, oh how it tried, but there was nothing for it to grasp anymore. Just the light, and it couldn’t make the light into dark without putting it out. But it wanted the light. It wanted the light to sing with it.

If it would not, then it would be crushed. It would be devoured. It would sing or it would die.

She couldn’t leave the light in the dark.

She had to open the way.

But the way would let the dark out, too, wouldn’t it?

It has already been set loose, some stray thought told her, a last echo of something not herself.

She opened the door and she was the door, and she was a shard in the night, a star, the orb in her arms, falling together and as one as the darkness burst across the sky, black veins that spread from a black city.

They fell, further and further, but not far enough. Not fast enough. There were shapes and echoes, things that reached for her, called to her, in voices she recognized but could not name. She needed another door, another escape route, yet the green light was dwindling. If she tore through again, it would die.

She would die.

But the silver star, the orb, that was important. She could not let it fall. It would land in the wrong hands, and then the sky would scream and suffer.

Open, she thought. Open the way.

The orb spun, gleaming, light spilling golden instead of green. Something unlocked, unfolded, like a blooming flower, and for one instant she saw what it was meant to be. What it should have always been, but could never have endured as; beauty and warmth and most especially, hope. Hope against all darkness and blood-soaked despair and defeat.

She laughed. Oh, how crudely it had been used – by her and by the dark creature, and perhaps even by the wolf. She could not help but reach for it, and it called back to her. Recognized her. For a moment, she thought it might consume her, in gentle light instead of ravenous shadow.

But the darkness reached, too, and so she mustered what strength she had left and pushed against the pull, another doorway torn open and the golden light sent spiralling through.

It was all she had left.

A current rose, and swept up the last emerald ember of her.

It was like being in the river again. But she wasn’t heavy. She was light, still light itself, and it felt like she could drift forever, and it would be fine. There would be no singing, or grasping, no shadows, or bent knees, or broken insides.

No laughter. No friendships. No love.

The current twisted; redirected, pulled elsewhere.

Trees rose up around her. The light of her reflected off of a shallow pool. Halla grazed in the distance, amidst leaves that were autumn red and summer green by turns.

A woman stood at the center. She looked familiar. There was vallaslin on her face, and a bow in her hands. She was trying to restring it. Poorly. Her fingers kept stumbling, and she would sigh, and start over again, each time with waning patience.

“What are you?” the woman wondered.

“Light,” she answered, in the same voice.

The woman stood up, and then vanished. So did the trees and the pool and the halla.

The current swept her up anew. Yet it seemed not long at all before she found the same woman again, dangling her feet over the edge of a mountain, joking and chatting with indistinct shades.

“Look at that star!” she exclaimed, and pointed towards her.

But then she was gone again, only to be found once more, slipping between rows of needle-sharp trees, hunting something unseen. The woman notched an arrow, and she drifted close, trying to catch sight of her quarry.

The shot went wide.

“You distracted me,” the woman accused.

“Sorry,” she replied.

“It’s alright. I can’t even remember what it was.”

It wasn’t too much of a surprise when she vanished again.

And so it went, on and on, the strange woman disappearing and reappearing in seemingly rapid succession, until at last she came upon her standing in the middle of a quiet grove, and it appeared that she’d been waiting.

“Keeper Deshanna thinks you’re a spirit who’s taken an interest in me,” the woman said.

“I am a light,” she reiterated.

“A spirit of light with a curiosity streak?” the woman guessed.

“No. Not a spirit. I broke, and now I’m just light,” she tried to explain.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said. She sounded sad.

“It’s alright. I saved it. I hope. I was already dead, anyway. I just hadn’t gone.”

“Can you go now?” the woman wondered. “To the other side?”

“No,” she replied.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you have a grave?” the woman asked. “Or do you know where your body fell? If I could see you at peace, I would.”

“No. No body. But…” she trailed off, trying to catch something that hadn’t been swept away. “There was someone. I wanted… something.”

“That’s wonderfully specific.”

The woman blinked, then, and was gone again.

But the glade remained.

She drifted through it, and it changed, slowly, darkening to night, trees falling back in exchange for stone walls that glittered and gleamed.

Almost as soon as she’d left, the woman seemed to return.

She walked forward, and turned, slowly, taking in the changes that had been made.

 “I’ve never seen this place before. Is it real?” the woman asked her. “I mean, I know I’m dreaming. But is there a place like this?”

“There was a wyvern in it.”

The woman paused.

“Did it kill you?” she wondered.

“No. I killed it. But it should be alive again.”

“That’s… not usually how death works,” the woman noted.

“Not death. Time,” she explained. “It was all undone.”

“Oh, of course. It makes perfect sense now.”

“It doesn’t. But that never stops anything.”

The woman looked at the walls, at the sky, even at the grass and the water in the pond. Then she strode forward, and peered into the light.

“Why are you interested in me?” she wondered. “I don’t have any magic.”

“You look familiar.”

The woman pulled back, and regarded her for a moment longer, and then was gone again.

She left, too, back to drifting, until inevitably they were pulled together once more, under the bows of interwoven trees, next to creaking aravels and a glittering stream.

The woman stared at her, and then moved forward, and after only a moment’s hesitation, reached a hand towards her.

She pulled away, just a little.

“There’s no turning back,” she warned.

The woman paused.

“Turning back from what, exactly?” she wondered.

“From anything. Even when it’s undone, it still happened. Even if it’s only a memory, or a dream, it’s still real.”

The woman searched her with her eyes; though she only hope to see just what was there, a glimmer of light, no bigger than her palm.

Then she reached out, and brushed her fingers to her.

The woman touched her and she touched the light and she was the woman and the woman was her.

It was less dramatic than it could have been. A breath, a swallowed scream, and then her eyes flew open. For a solid minute she was awash in the most intense sense of vertigo she’d ever felt in her life. Lives. No, it was probably just one, she decided, even if it had just… folded in on itself.

Sort of.

Memories burned their way across the inside of her skull, overlapping perfectly until they abruptly didn’t. She patted herself down, feeling solid arms, legs. The vallasin on her face. Her actual face. She scrambled out of her tent, nearly bringing it down in the process, and turned her gaze up to the moonlight, greedily sucking in mouthfuls of air as if it had been years since she'd tasted it.

It was raining. The droplets bounced off of her skin, most of it bared in her nightclothes, and she laughed at them. She looked at her hands.

She looked at the mark, gleaming on her palm.

When Keeper Deshanna found her an hour later, she was lying on the ground, hand pressed tightly to her own heartbeat, soaked through and weeping uncontrollably.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Keeper Deshanna was understandably alarmed by her behaviour.

Particularly when she launched to her feet and demanded the date from her.

“No, wait,” she said, immediately retracting the question. “It’s Bloomingtide, 9:35. I remember! Oh no 9:35, it’s been a year.”

Keeper Deshanna blinked.

“Da’len?” the older woman asked, gently.

“I have to go,” she decided. “I have to go – shit, a year, what happened. Shit. Shit, shit, where did I even send it, oh no. Oh, what even was that. Shit. Corypheus! Did I… well, maybe I… um…” she trailed off as she realized that a few other members of the clan were emerging from their tents, wearing various expressions of concern and annoyance.

It was the middle of the night, after all.

And she was raving. A little.

“Da’len, perhaps you should come with me to my tent, and tell me what has distressed you so,” Keeper Deshanna suggested, taking a cautious step towards her.

“I’m sorry, Keeper, but I have to go. I have to find him,” she insisted.

“Find who?”

“The Dr… err…” she took one look at Deshanna’s face, and suddenly caught up with herself. “…uummm… sss?”

The Keeper raised her brows at her.

“The drums?”

“That is… definitely what I said,” she agreed.

And she was still crying, too, which might not have been obvious in the rain, except that she was making those godawful gasping hiccup noises in between frantic spiels of nonsense.

But it was a little hard to care, really, when she was flesh and blood again, when she felt solid and whole, like herself.

She let out a breath and wiped a hand across her brow. Her thoughts were still a little disjointed, mostly disorientation centered around her recent memories. Which made sense. She saw herself interacting in stereo; in one moment, both the light and the woman. She could recall worrying about strange dreams as well as the disjointed process of drifting in the Fade, simultaneously.

And there was a weird mental lurch that came from disconnected time. Yesterday, she had gone hunting and helped repair a few broken traps and fixed a broken segment of the halla pen. But that was also something she had done years ago, long enough ago to have all but forgotten the specifics of such an innocuous day, and the disparity was definitely unnerving.

She was herself. She had found herself, her other self, and for a second she was afraid she’d erased that person, somehow. Except that they were the same person. So it was probably more like she’d picked up her extra memories from the Fade, except that light hadn’t just been memories – in fact, it hadn’t remembered much at all until they’d merged – and it wasn’t gone, it hadn’t lacked a sense of being and it wasn’t a different being.

Maybe it was like Flemeth and Mythal. She is me, I am her, as much as a heart beating in a chest.

Disorientation wasn’t even the most pressing issue, though.

Like, for example, there was what even happened.

“Da’len,” the Keeper asked her again, speaking much as she might to a wounded animal. “Was it the dreams?”

“Yes,” she admitted, before she could think better of it. “Uh. But it’s not…” she trailed off. Keeper Deshanna was a shrewd woman, and kind, but very much the sort to take any grand claims about things like time travel, ancient gods, or talking ancient darkspawn with an understandable grain of salt. Despite her role she’d always been more pragmatist than mystic. Although, a more traditional Keeper probably wouldn’t have availed her any better, really.

Which was a shame, because if there was one thing she desperately wanted right then, it was someone else to try and help her sort out the mess in her head.

“What did you say to it?” Deshanna asked, trying to catch her eye.

“I… said I wanted to help it,” she replied. “I need to go, Keeper. I should… do that.”

Oh, great.

Great job.

That was really compelling stuff right there. Not at all ominous or bizarre.

Deshanna narrowed her eyes at her.

“Let me see your hand, da’len,” she demanded.

The tension in the air was thickening by the second.

“It’s alright,” she insisted, backing slowly away. “I just have to leave. Now. I’m sorry.”

The Keeper’s expression went sharp and she knew she’d blown it, and before she could think twice, she bolted.

“Catch her!” Deshanna called, and the ground at her feet glowed, briefly. Roots snaked towards her, intent on tripping her up, but she leapt over them, almost giddy again at the sensation of her own muscles working.

A few of the clan’s more alert hunters and warriors were swift to follow, but they weren’t expecting her to move as she did. She’d always been fast, always been strong, but being the Inquisitor had demanded more of her than anything before it. She twisted out of reach, ignored the calling voices, raced downhill and then doubled back and headed up, straight past the camp again, slowing only to silence her footsteps and keep to the shadows instead.

Only once she was confident that she’d put enough distance between herself and the campsite did she stop, panting, and wince at the strain. She’d used her muscles in ways she remembered, but had never really pushed this version of her body to before.

That could have gone better, she decided.

Better than fleeing into the woods in nothing but your nightclothes while the whole clan probably thinks you’re possessed?

Yes, better than that, she thought, and then wondered if it was weird to be having a conversation with herself.

Am I possessed?

No.

Well would I know if I was?

According to Varric? Yes.

Okay. So I’m not possessed then.

Or if I am I’m possessing myself, so it evens out in the end.

She sighed, and slumped against a nearby tree, rough bark against her shoulders.

Oh this is so much better than being incorporeal.

No, she needed to focus. Lifting her hands, she ran them down her face, and then stared at the mark again. The anchor.

She’d… done something to him.

Dragged him into the Fade, or, not the Fade. Maybe somewhere else. One of those other worlds that Morrigan had described, perhaps. Only she’d brought the orb along with them. Not her finest moment. And there’d been shadows, and that… thing. Corypheus? It seemed like it had been Corypheus, at least in part. It had wanted the orb. She’d stopped it, somehow, or maybe the orb had, and then she’d taken them into the Fade.

And then…

Where did she send it? To Fen’Harel? Just… through the first rift she could open? Not that she’d had much choice, but still, she was pretty sure she’d unlocked it first and while in the moment it had been astounding, with the benefit of hindsight, just opening up a giant reserve of ancient godly power and then flinging it out into the world had probably not been wise.

Had Fen’Harel found it? Had he used it?

If so, she didn’t recall anything in the year that indicated he had. No great elvhen resurgence, no whispers of the gods returning, no fire and wrath raining from the skies. Maybe it hadn’t worked. Or…

A disturbing thought occurred to her.

Maybe Fen’Harel hadn’t made it out of Denerim.

A strange elven apostate, bringing a mysterious creature into the city, just in time for it to have an explosive fight with an apparent Grey Warden? They could have killed him for that. If whatever kind of rift she’d managed to open hadn’t done enough damage to itself. She couldn’t recall any word of a particular disaster in Denerim, but they were in the Free Marches, and not all news of the shemlen reached her clan.

Had she even accomplished anything? Was Corypheus destroyed?

Or no, that could be too optimistic of her. Maybe she would never really be able to just assume he was gone. Not until she knew, but she wasn’t even sure how she could know.

So the orb had been open and then gone who-knew-where, and Corypheus was possibly still out there, and… the Dread Wolf was possibly dead.

So it was entirely possible she’d just managed to make things infinitely worse.

She clenched her hands into fists, felt the anchor pulse.

Would she know, if he’d died? The anchor was made from his power, and it was supposed to be… in the story he’d implied it was a… connection, but he hadn’t given it to her willingly. And he’d ‘released’ it to her. And Corypheus had made it weird besides. So perhaps not. Or perhaps she couldn’t have noticed it as she was, before, just a gleaming light caught in the currents of the Fade.

It’s not important, she told herself. What’s important is finding the orb and Corypheus, if he’s still out there.

The sentiment rang hollow, though.

Don’t think about it, she told herself. But then, why shouldn’t she? What else did she have to think about right that minute, in the night, in the rain, with nothing but the trees for company? She wasn’t going to glow brightly enough to attract Templars, this time. She wasn’t just stray threads of intent, impossibly woven together anymore.

Closing her eyes, she sank down at the roots of the tree.

For all she knew, Fen’Harel could be dead, and any chance of… of anything, of understanding, of closure, of reconciliation, could be gone with him.

That was a hard thought to swallow.

Almost as hard as the realization that Solas, the Solas she’d kissed and danced with and held, was definitely beyond her reach forever. He was the same as Fen’Harel, and yet he wasn’t. He’d lived years of a different life, made different choices, woken to the world under different circumstances. She’d never be able to confront him about his lies. She’d never be able to shout at him about giving the orb to Corypheus. She’d never be able to look him in the eye, and ask him if any of it, ever, had been real.

He was a question she’d never truly be able to answer.

And there was nothing for it. She could sit and despair, she could try and mull over what had passed between them, she could hope, but it wouldn’t change anything. The only answers she could find were her own, and… she wasn’t sure of them.

She looked at the mark.

It didn’t hurt. It didn’t make her skin crawl. It didn’t feel like anything less than something that was hers, not anymore. She could have turned away from that light. Instead, she took it back, not knowing what it was but knowing she didn’t want to abandon it.

Not the most informed choice she’d ever made in her life, but genuine enough. Just like walking down that corridor at the conclave. A person only made decisions based on what little they knew, and sometimes the consequences were impossible to predict… and sometimes the same decisions would have to be made all over again. Mistakes included.

In one future, she’d found a bleak world in its death throws. She’d watched him die.

In another, she’d stemmed the tide only so that he could watch her die in turn.

If he didn’t live in this one, she thought, she might just have to try again.

But in the meantime, the tree roots were uncomfortable, and she was getting cold.

The great Inquisitor, shivering in the forest like a lost fawn, she thought to herself, and forced her way back on to her feet. One slight inconvenience of having a body again; it didn’t appreciate being mistreated or left to the elements.

Which left her with few options, going forward. They were at one of the more remote campsites, not too far from Sundermount. Normally the clan would have headed straight on for the mountain path by now, but there was another clan that had set up a semi-permanent residence in that area. Deshanna and the hahrens had decided that they would reroute and keep their distance. Keeper lore taught that the mountain was home to a demon, and they feared that some of the other clan’s mages may have been taken by it, if they were lingering there for so long.

There was little other reason to. The hunting grounds around the mountain were only good during the spring, and it was too close to Kirkwall and its over-zealous Templars for comfort.

9:35, that was… before the mage rebellion, but after the qunari invasion, wasn’t it? Something happened this year, though, something sticking at the back of her memory and…

9:35 was the year mentioned in his list of crimes, the one in which Thom Rainier had sent his men to kill Callier and his family. All the way over in Orlais. It may have already happened, though she couldn’t do much about it either way at the moment. That was a depressing realization.

She tried to shake it off.

The mountain offered a possibility. If she could make it to the Sundermount campsite, she could probably solicit the clan there for some help without arousing too much suspicion. Now that she had her thoughts relatively together, anyway. And provided that they weren’t all horrifying abominations, which, she was fairly was not the case. There’d been a Dalish character in Varric’s book… Merrill. She seemed to recall that the clan was lingering because of her, though whether or not that was true was anyone’s guess, Varric’s storytelling being what it was.

She thought she could recall something about an ancient elven treasure, too, but that was also potentially fiction. Or maybe another artifact. Those tended to be heavy, though, and clans often left behind things that weighed down the aravels too much – even precious things, sometimes.

But then, perhaps that was why they were lingering.

Squinting in the dark, she tried to get her bearings again. It wouldn’t be the most dignified approach, turning up at another clan’s campsite, barely clad and probably filthy by then, but she doubted she’d be able to sneak back to her own people and tent. They’d be too alert for signs of her, now.

She also wouldn’t be able to linger long at Sundermount. There was a chance Deshanna would send scouts there, suspicions or no; to look for her, but also to warn the other clan of her. If she’d been possessed, courtesy would demand they take the risk.

Of course she wasn’t possessed, but with a strange magic glowing on her hand and her recent freak out fresh in everyone’s minds, no one would believe that. Especially since she couldn’t really offer the truth as a more plausible explanation.

With a profound sigh that managed to convey how very little she was looking forward to the near future, she set out.

The novelty of having a real body was definitely worn a little thin by unpleasant realities like ‘exhaustion’ and ‘hunger’ and ‘cold’. She moved too quickly, until she remembered to pace herself, and branches snagged on her bare skin and left stinging pain in their wake, as the earth turned steep and stony.

By time the sky was beginning to brighten, she hadn’t crossed half as much ground as she’d expected to.

The rain stopped, though. Everything cleared, and she could still see the stars around grasping tree branches and shadowy boulders.

It was midday before she spied any of the other clan’s scouts; and they, her.

“Andaran atish’an,” a pair greeted her, with more concern than wariness in their countenances.

“Aneth ara,” she replied, with a gusty sigh of relief, keeping her marked hand on her side in a gesture of exhaustion that conveniently disguised any oddities. “People! Thank goodness. I thought I’d completely lost my bearings.”

The scouts glanced at one another. Neither so much as twitched towards their weapons, and they didn’t look even remotely out-of-sorts or possessed, either.

“How did you come to be in such a state, lethallan?” one of them asked her.

“It’s my own fool fault,” she replied. “One of our da’len made her first successful hunt, and we were celebrating the achievement. I drank too much and got it into my head that it would be a fine idea to try and climb the mountain.” She smiled, wryly. “Possibly I should have put on more clothes before I set off and passed out in the woods.”

“You’re lucky to be alive!” one of the scouts told her. “Ir abelas, we had no idea another clan was so close by. We would have sent you word about the area. It’s not safe here.”

“We only arrived a short time ago,” she replied. “What’s the danger?”

“Better to ask what isn’t,” the other scout replied. “Come. Our campsite’s not far. We can give you something better to wear and some water, if nothing else.”

“Ma serannas,” she accepted, with unfeigned gratitude.

The scouts seemed to think she was a bit of an idiot, but that meant they’d taken her story at face value, so it wasn’t a problem.

The campsite was one she’d been to a few times before, though obviously with her own clan. The signs of hard living were evident to eyes which knew what to look for – there were few pelts being cured, a lot of the storage bins looked empty, and what food people seemed to have around looked like it was being stretched as far as possible. It was good it was spring; that was, if they hadn’t already over-hunted the region to the point of foolishness, anyway.

She turned down the food they offered to her, begging off on the grounds of a nauseating hangover – unwise, perhaps, but she couldn’t bring herself to accept it, especially under false pretenses.

The spare set of clothing and the water she took eagerly, however.

Keeper Marethari was older and smaller than Deshanna, and regarded her with more wariness than the scouts.

“It was unwise to wander so far from your kin in this place,” the Keeper asserted. “There has been much strife. Raiders, bandits, undead, Templars and corrupted mages from the city – I would not recommend your clan linger here for long.”

She raised an eyebrow at that.

“Yet your clan lingers,” she noted.

“We have business that ties us here,” Marethari conceded.

Curiosity was starting to get the better of her.

“What business?” she wondered. “What could be enough to keep a clan here in such dire circumstances?”

But Marethari only shook her head.

“It is bad enough that we have become involved. I will drag no more of our people into it,” she insisted.

And it was just about all the woman would say on the subject. She gave it up, not willing to linger and try to pry at the truth. Her own people would still be looking for her, probably, and every minute she dallied was a bad idea.

“My clan will be searching for me; I should get back to them,” she declared, at last. “Ma serannas, your aid has been most appreciated.”

Marethari inclined her head.

“We will send one of our hunters with you, to see you safely back.”

“You needn’t bother,” she declined. “Now that I know where I am, I know the way. Whatever you’re doing must be important. I won’t deprive of one of your own, even for a little while.”

“It is no trouble,” Marethari insisted. “Every path on the mountain is dangerous. Courtesy demands that we cannot send you off unarmed and alone.”

She sighed.

“I will be honest with you, Keeper. My people have been here longer than I let on,” she offered, thinking quickly. “Rumours have spread that your clan has lingered too long in this place, in the shadow of a demon. Anyone you send with me might not receive the… warmest of welcomes.”

It was perilously close to slandering her own clan, but it had the benefit of being true, at least.

Marethari stared at her a moment, and then looked away.

“I see.”

The awkwardness in the air was palpable.

“I’ll go now,” she offered, standing. But Marethari raised a hand to halt her.

“This does not change the truth, that we cannot send you off as such,” the Keeper insisted.

“I survived one night. I can manage a walk back,” she insisted. The words fell on deaf ears, however, and she weighing her odds of successfully bolting again – not as good, in broad daylight – before she realized that the woman was trying to hand her a bow and quiver.

She hesitated.

“Such things are not in scarce supply,” Marethari assured her. “The hunting in the region may be inconsistent, but it has not dulled our fletchers’ skills. Take the gift, in repayment for your honestly, da’len.”

She reached out and accepted it, though, with a nod of thanks.

“I won’t forget your generosity, Keeper,” she promised.

“We are all one people. We must never forget that,” Marethari replied.

The parting words stuck with her as she left with as much haste as she could inconspicuously manage.

Elves were not all one people, though. They never had been, it seemed. The elves in the cities were not the elves in rural arlings and countrysides, the elves of Orlais were not the elves of Ferelden or Antiva, the elves of the Circle towers were not the Firsts and Keepers of the Dales, and within the Dalish, one clan could differ wildly from the next. The ancient elves of their ancestry were not unified at all.

And the lines which separated people even by race weren’t always so stark – a serving caste dwarf in Orzammar had more in common with a servant elf in Orlais than either would have with the nobles living in the same city. They were all ‘one people’, but what did that mean? That courtesies extended to poor Dalish elves found wandering in the woods ought not to be extended to non-Dalish elves? Or non-elves?

Or that a pair of pointed ears could somehow nullify the vast oceans of difference that existed between one elf and the next?

You know that’s not what she meant, she chastised herself.

True enough. Marethari meant that people should look after one another, in essence, and that, at least, was hard to disagree with.

Surprisingly, it was easier to focus on the possible implications of the divisions within elven society than try to figure out what she was supposed to do next.

She put some healthy distance between herself and the mountain camp, and the trails back to her own clan’s campsite, before she realized she was heading, by necessity, towards Kirkwall.

The City of Chains. She’d crossed the Waking Sea at last, she realized, although that was counterproductive; once again, it lay between her and the place she needed to be. Though she didn’t know how much she could accomplish by, say, returning to Denerim, or heading for Amaranthine. Sigrun might be able to offer her information, at least. If she wasn’t dead or hostile after whatever had happened.

On the other hand, she knew someone on this side of the sea who was very good at gathering information. Though Varric had no idea who she was, and no reason to help her.

That bit of logic notwithstanding, if she had to rely on the good graces of any of her former companions, she could do much worse than Varric Tethras. And… Kirkwall was a turning point for the mage rebellion. Perhaps there was something to be done for it. Something less calamitous. If nothing else, it was sitting over top of the source of Thedas’ red lyrium troubles, and there would be information there.

And boats.

And opportunity, perhaps.

Had the qunari invasion already happened? Yes, she thought, though probably not too long ago.

Tilting her head towards the sky, she let out a breath.

This… was going to be interesting.

 

~

 

Descriptions of Kirkwall didn’t really prepare for the reality of Kirkwall, she decided.

Especially not the statues.

The giant, gleaming statues of suffering slaves. They were more visible from the docks, she supposed, but she could still see them as she approached from the mountain roads. The fact that no one had ever stopped and gone ‘you know what? Instead of maintaining the massive statues of emaciated prisoners trapped in eternal agony, why don’t we just rip them down and melt them?’ probably said all that anyone ever needed to say about Kirkwall.

It was made of stone, and sharp. Everything seemed to come to a point for no readily discernable reason. She’d seen the place at a distance before, of course – but up close, the air was oppressive, and sun baked the heavy walls and cracked ground, rising in waves that must have been lethal at the height of summer.

A Templar stopped her at one of the gates.

“State your business,” he asked, looking her over. His mouth crooked downwards, though whether it was disdain at the sight of her or just his natural expression was hard to say.

“I’m looking for a friend of mine, a Master Varric Tethras,” she replied.

“Travel papers?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Are those required?” she wondered.

He scoffed.

“Course they are. The city’s taken on enough riffraff in the past few years to float a barge on, and that’s without every Maker-damned mage trying to sneak out through the sewers,” he declared. “Anyone travelling in or out of the city requires special dispensation. You either need a merchant’s license, a writ of permission from a high-ranking citizen, proof of residence, or special dispensation from either Knight Commander Meredith or Knight Captain Cullen.”

“Cullen?” she blurted.

“Yes,” the Templar replied, giving her an odd look, and speaking more deliberately. “The Knight Captain.”

Of course, Cullen would be in Kirkwall, too. She’d almost forgotten.

“May I speak with the Knight Captain?” she asked.

The Templar scoffed again.

“He’s a busy man,” he said. “I’m not dragging him down here for some dirty knife-eared bint to screech at.”

She’d almost forgotten how pleasant shemlen could be when they didn’t have any incentive to treat her respectfully. Biting down on the urge to feed the man his own tongue, she nodded at him, and headed back the way she’d come.

Talking to Cullen probably wouldn’t have done her any good anyway. He didn’t know her, and from what she’d managed to glean of the man’s past, he hadn’t been at his noblest during his service with Kirkwall’s Templars.

That left her with only one obvious alternative.

It took her the better part of the rest of the day to scale the walls around what must have been Hightown. They were steep, hard stone, but overgrown in a lot of places. Much more of a workout than clambering up trellises in the Winter Palace had been, but the view of the mountains and sea from the top of the walls was breathtaking.

She could almost see why people might actually want to live in Kirkwall, right then.

The giant statues were still there, after all.

Getting down was actually harder than going up; she’d chosen to hike around this part of the city because the mountains reached closest to the walls, and there were places where gradual inclines and sharp outcroppings almost kissed them.

But on the other side there were only buildings and some perilously weak-looking vines. She made it onto the rooftops, but trying to avoid notice was a challenge, and the manors themselves offered precious few foot or handholds.

The architecture was strange, even for the Free Marches.

She made it into an alleyway between two manor houses, however, and paused to catch her breath. It was slightly cooler in the shade. Her heart was hammering at her ribcage and there was sweat pouring off of her brow, and her skin was tingling. She might have mistaken it for just another sign of exhaustion, except that it was a particular tingle, and one that she recognized.

The Veil was thin in Kirkwall.

Maybe even thinner than it had been in Crestwood. She almost felt like she should start checking around for rifts.

A reflexive look at her mark revealed it was behaving itself, however, not sparking or radiating light all over the place. It did itch, a little, as if it knew as well as she did that the Fade was close by. But after a minute, she adjusted to the sensation.

When she could breathe evenly again, she slipped out of the alleyway and onto the streets.

It was difficult to walk in shadow, but though she drew a few curious glances, no one seemed particularly alarmed at having an armed elf wandering about what was clearly the wealthy district. Still. She made her way out of it as quickly as she could, before anyone decided to break the pattern and alert the guard.

Hightown, as it turned out, was separated from the rest of the city by several massive staircases.

Unsurprisingly, they didn’t seem to be in heavy use by any of the wealthier citizens.

Servants slogged up and down them, mostly quiet, focused, keeping their heads down. The exception were the Tranquil; she counted at least six in her descent, all heading upwards, burdened with parcels and unnervingly blank expressions that they tended to keep dead ahead. Either way there was a disquieting lack of chatter or conversation.

More of the appalling statuary lined the stairways. The ones closest to the top of the climb weren’t so bad, resembling most of the ‘proud, important people’ types of carvings that shemlen and dwarves seemed to favour. But the further down she went, the more that changed. Gradually, the figures became more hunched, more haggard, raising their hands in supplication towards their better-ranking fellows, until at last they were gaunt and on their knees.

It was only once she reached the bottom of her climb that she appreciated the full intent of the architecture. Looking up, Hightown seemed gleaming and unreachable, the ‘noble’ statues towering easily over their hopeless fellows.

The shift into Lowtown was dramatic. The air was heavier, dustier, the streets dirty and crowded. The message was clear; you on the bottom are so far from the top, even trying to get there will probably kill you first.

Yet, Lowtown was somehow less skin-crawling, for all of that.

Possibly just because there were fewer statues.

And the greater diversity of people. More elves, more dwarves, more men and woman clad in the styles she’d come to associate with Ferelden. The markets were humbler but overflowing with a bizarre range of goods. Surprising goods, too – books and enchanted baubles and strange carvings. She spied something written in elvish, and a tome that looked suspiciously similar to one that Dorian had kept in a locked case in the library at Skyhold.

It was holding up one end of a merchant’s cart.

Under normal circumstances she would have lingered, but the evening was closing in and she was tired and sore and not at all convinced that spending the night in the city would be safer than spending it out in the wilderness.

In point of fact, she was almost entirely sure it wasn’t.

So she stopped at the first likely-looking dwarven merchant she found.

He glanced her up and down, let out a derisive ‘tch’, and proceeded to ignore her.

“I’m looking for Varric Tethras,” she informed him.

That actually got his attention back, though not much of it.

“Everyone knows where to find Varric. Hanged Man,” he said. “You going to buy something, or just eat up space?”

“I’ll move. Just tell me where the ‘Hanged Man’ is,” she replied.

He grunted, and then gestured vaguely down the street.

As directions went they weren’t the best, but fortunately, the Hanged Man had very… distinctive signage.

It was crowded; patrons filing in, most of them dirty and weary and obviously at the end of very long days. There were grumblings about fire damage and work on the docks and split beams falling and killing three men, and yet, the workers all seemed quick to remind themselves that they at least had work, which spoke of long years of desperation and empty stomachs and idleness that was even more dire than miserable working conditions.

There weren’t many elven patrons, but even so, no one paid her much mind - yet again - as she pushed her way through the crowds, and made her way over to the bar. It was a flood of activity, but somehow the barkeep’s eyes found hers.

“Varric Tethras?” she asked.

“His editor send you?” the barkeep wondered.

She shook her head.

A hand pointed the way, and she followed it until she reached a section of the tavern that was quieter than the rest.

Varric was sitting at a table, tapping the handle of a tankard with one finger as his quill scratched along a sheet of parchment. For a second, she could almost see Skyhold; the dwarf in question poised over his desk, the noisy throng behind her actually the milling crowd of a large group of delegates come to arrange some alliance or another. She’d always marvelled at Varric’s ability to disappear into his world of paper and words even when he was surrounded by noise and movement.

He was writing – not a letter or bill, but fiction, she realized. He always had a particular look for that. When he was doing fiction he stared straight down, never glanced up, kept on going and only came up once he’d finished or someone demanded his attention. Usually he blinked a few times, as if he’d become so fixated on the words he was writing that he’d forgotten to do that recently.

Despite everything, she found herself waiting, lingering by one of the tavern’s beams as his quill moved, scritch, scritch, scratch, faster than anyone else she’d ever seen do it. Except maybe Josephine.

They’d never raced at it. That was almost a shame.

“Be with you in a minute, Daisy,” he said, after several long minutes had already passed.

“Alright. But don’t call me Daisy,” she replied.

He looked up, and blinked.

She grinned.

“Oh,” he said. “Sorry. Your footsteps are light; I mistook you for a friend of mine.”

She wondered if he’d ever made that mistake at Skyhold – heard her coming, half expected someone else, and then looked up and remembered that he was far from home and familiar faces.

“What can I do for you?” he asked, straightening his papers and discreetly angling a stray piece of parchment so that the words he’d just been writing weren’t easily read.

She didn’t try to peer at them anyway. That was a good way to get an elbow to the gut.

“I…” she trailed off, suddenly realizing that he hadn’t really thought things through beyond the notion that if she found Varric, he’d probably be willing to help her.

But there she was, in front of him, with him looking expectantly towards her, and suddenly she was just drawing a complete blank. It was the first time she’d met anyone from ‘before’ since she’d come back, apart from Solas, who was too complicated to count, and she realized that some part of her – despite all logic and sense – still expected to be recognized.

The reality left a peculiar spike of pain wedged in her chest.

“I have a story,” she finally managed to say.

Varric raised an eyebrow at her.

“Most people do,” he replied.

But after a second, he gestured to the chair across from him.

“It’s far-fetched,” she warned him, as she sank into it, trying not to show how grateful she was for the respite.

“How far-fetched are we talking?” he wondered.

“Improbable coincidences, impossible secrets, world-shaking disasters, strange magic, and time travel. Among other things,” she confessed.

“Sounds pretty crowded. You don’t want to go too overboard, you’ll lose your audience if they don’t find it at least a little plausible,” he warned her.

“I’m afraid that plausibility is a weak point of mine.”

Varric leaned back, and regarded her thoughtfully for a moment. Then, despite the massive crowd in the tavern, he somehow managed to flag down one of the serving women.

“Two ales,” he asked.

“Just one. I’ve no coin,” she corrected.

“Two,” he insisted. “Any story that promises all that is worth a drink, at least.”

She inclined her head, gratefully, and they lapsed into silence until the ales arrives. Varric didn’t press her for anything until after she’d taken a drink. Then he tented his hands together.

“So. Let’s hear it,” he asked.

Where to start?

She mulled it over for a moment, and then took a breath.

“Our stage is set in 9:41 Dragon. The Divine has called for a conclave between the leaders of the chantry, the mages, and the Templars, in an effort to resolve a vicious war that has been waging. The meeting takes place in Ferelden, at the Temple of Sacred Ashes.”

“Hmm,” Varric mused. “Usually you want to avoid setting a story so narrowly into the future. It tends to put an expiration date on your work. When 9:41 rolls around and there’s no conclave, the readers can get annoyed.”

“It’s alright,” she replied. “I told you there was time travel, didn’t I?”

He inclined his head.

“You did. Okay, criticism rescinded for the time being.”

“Thank you.”

She took another sip of her ale, and then carefully resumed her narrative.

“Of course, also in attendance at the conclave were several spies from various factions around Thedas.”

“Naturally. What’s a story without a few spies?”

“Security was terrible,” she assured him. “Of course, with the Templars rebelling, the chantry couldn’t exactly rely on its usual enforcers. The Seeker had to make do with a lot of hasty recruitments and substitutions. Most of them did their jobs well, but being brand new to them, a few holes in the net were inevitable.”

“The Seeker?” Varric asked.

“One of the key players in the tale. You see, the Divine knew that there was only a slim chance that the mages and the Templars would actually be able to resolve things at the conclave. That was her hope – not the likeliest outcome. So, she had a backup plan, which she had only shared with her Seeker and Spymaster; the formation of an Inquisition, a new arm of the chantry to replace the Templars, investigate sources of dissent, and forcibly resolve the war.”

“Sounds controversial.”

“Absolutely. The Seeker had been looking high and low for a figure of prominent enough renown that they could serve as head of the Inquisition with as few objections as possible,” she explained. “First, she tried to find that Hero of Ferelden. When that search came up empty, she went looking for… other champions. She didn’t find one, although she did manage to kidnap a very charming dwarf somewhere along the way.”

Varric raised an eyebrow at her, but said nothing.

She carried on.

“The Seeker was still seeking when the Divine’s conclave began. It was intended to last for months, if need be. It didn’t even make it a single day.”

“With all those spies and mages and Templars, I’m not surprised.”

“It exploded,” she informed him. “A massive blast that took out the entire temple, and ripped a hole in the sky. The Breach. It had been torn into the Veil, a rift bigger than the sun, a perpetual storm that ripped other, smaller openings to the Fade throughout Thedas.”

“…Okay, now I’m surprised,” Varric conceded. “The explosion I get, but the rest of it seems like an awful lot of drama just to blow some people up.”

“Blowing people up was the incidental part,” she assured him.

He nodded, as if he’d almost expected that, and gestured for her to continue.

“There was only one survivor at the conclave – a single spy, who fell out of one of the rifts. The Seeker’s forces watched her fall out of the Fade, only to pass unconscious. A strange green mark was seared into one of her hands.”

“I like that,” Varric informed her. “That’s got style.”

“Thank you,” she replied. “It was killing her, though. Every time the Breach in the sky expanded, so did the mark. The two were connected. The Seeker had her locked up, even unconscious as she was. An apostate, who heard about the calamity, approached the forces gathering at Haven. He was unique. A master of his own dreams, and an expert in the Fade. He offered to help solve the mystery of the Breach and the prisoner’s mark, and, desperate as things were, the Seeker could only accept.”

Varric gave her another odd look, but didn’t interrupt.

“He theorized that the mark could help control the Breach. When the prisoner woke up, the Seeker demanded her help, and, since there was a giant hole eating the sky and spitting demons everywhere, she agreed to give it. Together they fought their way through to the front lines of the fighting, until they reached a rift that had opened up. The apostate and the charming dwarf were fighting off the creatures that kept pouring out of it. Quickly, the apostate grabbed the prisoner’s hand and propelled it towards the rift, and it closed.”

“Just like that?” Varric wondered.

“Well. I mean. There was a lot of light and crackling and it hurt like hell, but yes, just like that,” she agreed.

“Hmm.”

“At the time, most everyone was too relieved to have something that worked to care much about where it came from. The Seeker, the Prisoner, the Apostate, and the Dwarf all fought their way back to the scene of the first explosion, to try and close the Breach. It didn’t work, and the effort nearly killed the prisoner, but the Breach stopped expanding. And so did the mark.”

“Of course. It would have been too easy if they just fixed it on the first try.”

“Yes. Fortunately, they also found evidence that the prisoner was not responsible for the explosion at the blast site. The thin Veil allowed memories from the Fade to drift forward. Some creature had tried to sacrifice the Divine as part of a ritual. The Prisoner had only interrupted it.”

“That’s some rough luck.”

“It meant she was still alive. The Apostate theorized that with more power, they could succeed at closing the Breach if they tried again. But in the meantime, the nearest rifts had been sealed, and the area around Haven had been secured. With most of the chantry’s leadership dead, the Seeker called for the formation of the Inquisition – not to deal with the mages and the Templars, but to investigate the murder of the Divine and the destruction of the conclave.”

“And let me guess – the first order of business was recruiting all those helpful people who’d been so useful in the disaster?”

“Of course. The Prisoner could hardly decline, the Apostate had already volunteered himself, and the Dwarf was far too good of a person to turn his back on an impending apocalypse, even if he’d been dragged there in irons. People whispered that the Prisoner had been sent by Andraste to save everyone from the Breach.”

“I’m starting to think that the entire purpose of this tale is to scandalous as many chantry mothers as possible,” Varric informed her.

She couldn’t help but laugh.

“Wait until we get to the part where a mage from Tevinter saves everyone,” she advised.

He shook his head at her.

“I don’t know whether to applaud your nerve or bolt for the door right now.”

“Maybe just drink your ale and listen to the rest of it,” she requested.

After a second, he took her advice, and gestured for her to continue.

“Well. More power for closing the Breach had an obvious solution – mages. Of course, most of them were rebelling and fighting Templars. The newly-formed Inquisition headed to Val Royeaux to try and gain the support of the chantry, where they found the chantry denouncing them as heretics, and the Lord Seeker behaving like a self-absorbed tit. The only upshot of it all was that the leader of the mage rebellion approached them in secret, and invited them to come and discuss an alliance at Redcliffe.”

“An Inquisition initially intended to end a war between mages and Templars, relying on the good graces of rebel mages to stop an even bigger disaster?” Varric mused. “I like it.”

“So did the Prisoner. Of course, not everyone else agreed. Certain parties suggested that going to the Templars for help would be wiser, though after the Lord Seeker, that notion seemed far-fetched in more ways than one. So, everyone set out for Redcliffe, only to discover themselves knee-deep in another bizarre mess. There was a rift outside of Redcliffe that was creating strange distortions in time.”

“And now we get to the time travel.”

“Yes. You see, it turns out that a Tevinter magister had an experimental spell that was capable of sending people through time. He had used it to arrive at Redcliffe almost immediately after the explosion of the conclave, and took advantage of the ensuing panic to strike a bargain with the mages there. The mages pledged themselves to him, and Tevinter would protect them. Or so he claimed.”

“Of all the things to use time travel for…”

“I know! But the magic was unpredictable. I think he’d tried to use it for other things in the past, but it had never worked. It probably only worked that particular time because he’d been aided by the Creature, the one who killed the Divine. Anyway, long story short, the Magister’s former apprentice had gotten wind of what he was up to, and warned the Inquisition. He went along with the Prisoner to confront the Magister, who tried to use his magic to blast them both out of existence.”

“I can hear the evil cackling right now.”

“That particular magister was more for dramatic scowling, really. Anyway, the Good Tevinter intervened, and though the spell hit them, it ended up sending both he and the Prisoner a year into the future instead of erasing them from existence.”

“Wait, let me guess – things were ugly.”

“Things were ugly,” she agreed. “The world had become a dark place. The Breach had swallowed the sky. Prisoners were being fed to massive veins of red lyrium. They found…” she trailed off as Varric nearly fell out of his chair.

“Red lyrium!?” he demanded, lowering his voice and glancing towards the noisy tavern. “How do you know about that stuff? What do you know about that stuff? Is this about Bartrand?”

“No,” she replied. Right. She’d forgotten just how little-known red lyrium was before everything had gone sideways. And especially before Varric had published his Tale of the Champion. “Although I guess you should know that Knight Commander Meredith has the idol now.”

Varric stared at her in horror.

“The Knight Commander?”

“Yes.”

“The Knight Commander who is currently trying to rule Kirkwall with an iron fist, the mage-hating, blood-magic obsessed militant who actually intimidates me even more than the Guard Captain does has the make-people-go-crazy-and-chop-them-into-little-pieces red lyrium idol that Bartrand stole?”

“Yes.”

She took another swig of ale.

“Shit,” Varric swore. “How can you know about that…? And of course this happens while Hawke’s out of the city.”

“Hawke’s out of the city?” she repeated.

“Up a mountain and down a mineshaft about a week’s trip from here,” he replied. “Won’t be back for days, at least. Maker. And here I was glad that I didn’t have to go along.”

“Hmm. Well. You’ll probably be fine waiting that long,” she mused. “Just out of curiosity – you found red lyrium in the dwarven thaig during your expedition, right?”

He blinked at her.

“…Yeah,” he conceded, as though he wasn’t quite sure how wary he should be.

“My condolences. I was kind of hoping he’d have used it all up before you got there, or something.”

Varric’s eyes narrowed.

“Who?” he asked.

“The Creature. The one that killed the Divine. The one that started this whole mess.”

She drank her ale, and for half a second, she was pretty sure she was about to get kicked out of the Hanged Man.

Then Varric waved the serving woman back over.

“We’re going to need something stronger than ale,” he decided.

 

~

 

She got through basic descriptions of Haven, and Skyhold, of Adamant and the Winter Palace. She reached the point of her death and stalled, and eventually explained about Fen’Harel, but left off the part where he was also the Apostate of her tale.

Varric listened, and drank, and listened, and invited her to drink along with him, until the candles were burned down and the tavern was almost empty, and the sky outside was pitch black.

Her voice felt thick and her limbs were heavy by the time she through. She wasn’t drunk, though with the way her skin was buzzing, either she was close to it or the Veil was thinning out nearby.

“…and then the Inquisitor walked into the tavern, and started talking to a dwarf who looked an awful lot like the one who’d been her friend,” she concluded.

Varric, who was slumped over onto his elbows, stared at her for a long while.

“You weren’t kidding about that weak point of yours,” he finally muttered.

She glanced around the tavern. The servers had retired for the evening. So had the barkeep. Most of the lights were out. She could hear someone moving in one of the back rooms, well out of sight.

Slowly, she raised her marked hand, and wiggled her fingers.

Emerald gleamed.

Varric stared at it.

“…Shit.”

He lowered his head onto the table with an anti-climactic thunk.

“I could be lying,” she consoled him. “I mean, I could just be some weirdo with a glowing hand who made all the rest of it up.”

“Why don’t I believe that?” Varric wondered. It sounded like he was genuinely asking himself, too, with enough bitterness in his voice that she almost regretted walking into the Hanged Man at all. It wasn’t fair. He blamed himself for everything connected to the red lyrium, he always had, but there was no way anyone could have known what would come of it.

“It’s not your fault, you know,” she found herself saying.

“Of course it’s not my fault,” he agreed. “How could it be my fault?”

She looked at him.

He swore, and buried his face in his hands.

“The expedition was my project. I recruited Hawke, I dragged everyone down there, and for what? Money? I already had money. I knew it was a risky venture. Giant hole full of darkspawn and tunnel collapses and death. Yeah, great idea, Varric, let’s drag everyone down there!”

“You didn’t invent red lyrium,” she informed him. It felt like she’d been wanting to point that out to him for a long time, she realized.

“No. I just get to be credited with discovering the stuff.”

“If not you, then someone else would have, someday.”

Varric looked up at her.

“If it hadn’t been me, then it wouldn’t have to be my friends who keep paying the price for it,” he replied, bitter and self-recriminating and more than a little drunk. Then he let out a gusty sigh. “Enough of this shit. You’re crazy and I’m drunk. Simplest explanations out there.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t actually mean to… I just, I’d wondered if you might be able to tell me anything about what happened in Denerim, after… things happened.”

“I can’t think of anything big enough to have made news all the way to the Free Marches,” Varric replied. “Sorry.”

She tried not to let her disappointment show too strongly. If it hadn’t made news then maybe, maybe, that was a good sign. Maybe it meant barely anything at all had happened.

Or maybe it just meant that apostates got cut down often enough that no one really found it noteworthy anymore.

“It was a long shot anyway,” she conceded, and began levering herself out of the chair. She was almost to the tavern door before he stopped her.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“I… haven’t decided yet,” she admitted. “But-”

“You’re not going out there,” he told her. “Lowtown at night’s no place to walk alone. Shit, Hightown isn’t. Even Hawke doesn’t do it.”

“I think I’ll survive.”

“Don’t be stupid. There are rooms here. I can put you up for one night, at least.”

“Are you sure you want to?” she asked, wryly.

“Look, even if you are nuts, Daisy’d never forgive me for letting one of her people just stroll off into Kirkwall after dark so she can get her throat cut,” he replied. “We can talk about it more in the morning. Once the hangover’s worn off. Or not. We could not talk about it ever again, that would be fine too.”

“Whichever you prefer,” she promised him.

He sighed.

“Shit.”

That ended up being his last word of the night. Even when she thanked him for the room, he only waved her off, and went to sit and stare into the fire. It made her gut twist, knowing she’d robbed him of any contentment he might have been enjoying earlier in the evening.

She was exhausted, though, so she didn’t wallow long. As soon as her body hit the bed it was as though everything, all the running and climbing and hiking and talking, the sheer weight of it all crashed into her, and she was out like a light.

She dreamed.

It… wasn’t pleasant.

The Fade plucked at memories, prying them open with sharp fingers. Long shadows stretched around her. Whispers she could only just hear, but never clearly enough to understand, trailed after her. There were things. Rivers of blood. Cries of pain. Bodies fixed, like statues, in poses of agony – like the corpses at the Temple of Sacred Ashes, burnt and burning, trapped forever in anguish. The stench of rotting blood was so strong it was overpowering.

Trying to push through it didn’t help much. The Fade presented only with twisted mockeries of Kirkwall, interwoven with horrors from her own life. She found dismembered Grey Wardens, strung up on posts, and Templars devouring shards of red lyrium until it pierced through their bodies, and the faces of friends screaming from the shadows.

When she woke, she had to lay still for a long while, breathing in and out and waiting for the tremors of nausea to pass.

By the time she emerged from the room, it looked like it was well into the morning.

Varric waved her over to him as soon as he spotted her.

“Sleep well?” he asked.

“Not… exactly,” she admitted.

“I suppose I can’t pretend I did any better myself,” Varric replied. “Look. I’ve been thinking about what you said.”

“I don’t suppose it came across as any more plausible in the bright light of day,” she mused.

“Sunlight in Kirkwall might not have the same sobering effect it does everywhere else,” he countered. “A lot of your story sounds like nonsense, it’s true, but I’ve seen enough nonsense in the past few years to not just dismiss it out of hand. I don’t know, some of it might be true. All of it might be true, but I don’t think I can brace myself enough for that idea.”

“Varric, it’s alright,” she assured him. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have put any of this on you. All things considered, you’ve been very kind.”

He stared at her, brows furrowed, and then ran a hand down the side of his face.

“Shit,” he said.

“I can go now,” she offered.  

“Go where?” he wondered. “You’re flat broke, you’re an elf, you’ve got a weird magic-y… thing on your hand, and you’re in Kirkwall. You won’t last five minutes. Which reminds me.” He reached over to the table, and produced a pair of worn, leather gloves.

Which he promptly shoved at her.

“Cover that thing up,” he advised.

She didn’t need to be told twice. The gloves were a bit big, but better than bare-handed – it would make using the bow Marethari had given her significantly easier as well.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Don’t thank me yet. We’re going to go see a friend of mine,” he insisted. “Someone who can maybe tell me whether or not that thing on your hand is what you say it is.”

One of the mages, then. She nodded in easy agreement – if Fen’Harel hadn’t had much of a clue about what the anchor was, it wasn’t likely that someone else would be able to figure it out. But objecting would just make it look like she had something to hide, and with no idea of what to try next, it was probably wiser to go along with him.

The city wasn’t any more pleasant in the morning, she found.

Varric navigated with a lot more ease than she’d managed, however, taking shortcuts and turning down streets she might not have even realized they were there, until they’d passed through most of Lowtown, it seemed, and the buildings somehow got even worse; more cracked and crumbling, falling into disrepair. A few were covered in colourful paints, however. An obvious attempt to defy the depressing atmosphere.

She recognized some of the patterns, but it didn’t really click until they came to a small square that was most noticeable for its possession of a single, massive tree.

They were in the alienage, she realized.

A few of the elves gave her curious looks or even outright stared, though an equal number ignored both her and Varric.

They walked until they reached a cluster of houses, old, cramped, and unpainted, except for one of the doors, which was covered in looping green spirals and scrawls. Varric knocked on an unpainted door, waited, and then knocked again. When there was no response, he sighed and went and knocked on the painted one instead.

“Just one moment!” a female voice called, lilting with the same accent that had been common to the clan camped at Sundermount. There was the sound of something bumping and possibly a large object being shoved to one side, and then the door opened.

The young woman behind it wore delicate vallaslin, and had dark hair and large eyes.

“Oh! Hello, Varric,” the woman greeted, though she threw a curious glance her own way.

“Morning, Daisy. Sorry to bother you, but you do know where Chuckles has wandered off to lately?”

For one second, she almost didn’t process what exactly Varric had said.

Then she did.

Her heart stopped.

The woman at the door ran a hand through her hair.

“Is he not at home? I suppose he went to the clinic, then. Or maybe for a walk. Or he’s sleeping, did you open the door? Sometimes he sleeps through things,” she informed them, and then walked gracefully over to the door Varric had first knocked on, and pushed it open with little ado. She stuck her head inside for a second, then leaned back out.

“Oh, no, he isn’t there,” Daisy confirmed. “Did you want me to come along and help find him?”

“Well, if we’re going to Darktown, the more the merrier,” Varric replied, with a sigh.

“I’ll get my things!” Daisy turned back towards her house, but then she stopped and whirled around again, fingers at her mouth. “Oh, that was so rude of me! I forgot to introduce myself. Aneth ara! I’m Merrill. Are you a friend of Varric’s?”

It took her a minute to find her voice.

“…Yes,” she managed. Her mouth was very dry.

Varric gave her an odd look, and then cleared his throat.

“We just need to get something sorted out,” he said.

Daisy – Merrill – nodded, as if that was a perfectly normal exchange. Then she darted back into her house, and re-emerged wearing an elaborate scarf and carrying a beautifully carved staff.

“Are you from the Free Marches?” Merrill asked her, as soon as they set out again. “Only my clan’s not originally from here, we used to travel around Ferelden. Though I suppose they’ve been here for long enough now that they might have become familiar with some of the other Marcher clans. They’re camped at the mountain. Still.” The last word was said with something between worry and exasperation.

“I’m from Clan Lavellan,” she conceded.

“Clan Sabrae. Andaran atish’an, lethallan,” Merrill happily chirped. “It’s been so long since I spoke with a Dalish elf who didn’t shout at me!”

Her eyebrows went up.

“Not that they should shout at me. Or at least, I don’t think so. Obviously they disagree,” Merrill went on. “You’re being very quiet. Oh! They didn’t tell you about me, did they? Because it’s not true, what they say. You don’t have to be afraid of me. I promise.”

The young woman looked so alarmed at the prospect that she couldn’t help but reassure her.

“I’m not afraid of you, no, I’m just… did you say Chuckles?” she asked Varric.

“Varric gives people nicknames,” Merrill assured her. “I quite like them. They’re friendly.”

Deep breath.

“Is ‘Chuckles’ by any chance actually named Solas?” she wondered, and they both stopped and looked at her.

“How did you guess that?” Merrill wondered.

Varric looked only slightly less surprised. He sighed, and ran his hands down his face again.

“Shit,” he said. “This just keeps getting better and better.”

It felt, very much, like someone had just punched her insides. And yet, once again – the most prominent emotion she could name was simply relief.

He wasn’t dead.

She had no idea what the hell he was doing, but he wasn’t dead.

Merrill glanced back and forth between them.

“What’s going on? Or is that nosy of me?”

“It’s… complicated,” Varric admitted.

“Do you know Solas?” Merrill asked her. “He didn’t seem to know many people when he arrived, but I suppose everyone knows at least someone. Someone who isn’t a spirit, anyway. He knows a lot of someones who are spirits.”

“I know him,” she admitted.

Varric gave her a shrewd look.

“But does he know you?” he wondered.

“Well of course he does,” Merrill interjected. “It doesn’t make any sense otherwise. Unless she’d been spying on him. Are you a spy?”

“Uh… actually, I was, once,” she admitted, hoping rather vainly that it might steer the conversation in a different direction.

“Oh! That sounds exciting!” Merrill decided. “Is it actually anything like in Varric’s books? Because you wouldn’t think so but sometimes he gets a surprising amount right.”

Varric coughed.

“Thanks, Daisy.”

“You’re welcome, Varric.”

She cleared her throat.

“It was just one job, for my clan,” she admitted. “I don’t think it normally goes the way it did for me.”

“Your clan sends spies?” Merrill asked her. “Who do they spy on?”

“Humans, mostly. Only when it seems like they might be doing something that will affect us, and there’s no easier way of getting information.”

“Actually, that sounds like a clever idea,” Merrill decided.

“I’m… glad you approve?”

The young woman treated her to a sunny smile, and she found herself wondering why, exactly, people had decided she deserved to be shouted at. Certainly, a lot of Dalish were more prone to the solemnity and severity that a hard, wilderness lifestyle encouraged, but usually that just meant that the people who could maintain their optimism were all the more precious for it.

“Too many clans get so stuck in their routines that they never consider trying anything different,” Merrill continued. Then she abruptly directed the conversation backwards again. “Did you meet Solas by spying on him? But why would you spy on another elf? Not that Solas isn’t interesting enough to be worth spying on, probably. He knows a lot of things. He’s even helped me… well, he’s helped me. He’s very nice, even if he’s very rude, too.”

She couldn’t help it. She snorted.

“Did he go off about the Dalish?” she wondered.

“Yes!” Merrill assured her. “I was just asking him some questions and I suppose I made an assumption he didn’t like. I think he was trying very hard not to be cruel about it, though. I mean he’s much better at that than some of my friends. But he was still very rude.”

“That sounds like him,” she decided, unable to keep a certain degree of conflicting emotion out of her voice.

The conversation tapered off, then, as Merrill took a look at her and seemed to decide to leave it be for a little while. Varric led them back through Lowtown, and downwards, in the direction of Hightown. But they didn’t make for the massive staircases; instead they veered into a passageway that led underneath them, and into one of the worst-smelling places she’d ever been in her life.

If Kirkwall’s Lowtown was impoverished, its Darktown was barely one step away from a graveyard.

There wasn’t even the slightest pretense that anyone in charge of the city cared about the place. Piles of refuse lined every corner in the dingy dark, and people and animals alike scurried through the shadows. There were bloodstains and… other stains, and some of the beggars lining the pathways were so still that she was convinced many of them were corpses that no one had bothered to move.

Down and around they went, until at last they came to a door that Varric knocked on six times, in quick succession.

A slot at the top opened, and a reedy-looking boy peered through.

“Guard Captain wit’ ya?” he asked.

“No, you don’t have to hide whatever you’d want her to pretend she didn’t see,” Varric replied.

The door opened. Not to building, but to another passageway. The boy let them through and then shut and bolted it behind them. The floor and walls were covered in bloodstains, old and new, scratch marks and scorch marks, but someone had written the word ‘Clinic’ in surprisingly neat black letters on one wall.

Varric led them over to the far end of the tunnel, and then pushed through a pair of flimsy wooden doors.

Finally, they came to a decently-sized space lined with cots and beds. It wasn’t what she would call ideal, but it was probably the least horrible place she’d seen in Darktown, for all that there was a pile of blood-soaked sheets and bandages in one corner of the room.

A pair of voices were arguing.

One of them was familiar, and she stopped in her tracks, and closed her eyes for a moment because he wasn’t dead. He really wasn’t dead. Part of her would have been shocked beyond belief if he had been, but he wasn’t, and if nothing else, she could appreciate that.

“…our lives like they are worthless!” the unfamiliar voice shouted.

“Did you hear me refute that?” Solas asked.

“You haven’t been here long enough. You’re still trying to be reasonable. We’ve all tried that. But that just makes it easier for them to march right over us.”

“I am aware. All I would suggest is…”

Solas trailed off, as their arrival was finally noticed.

She stared at him.

He looked more or less like what she remembered. His clothing leaned somewhat more towards Marcher styles than Ferelden, lighter and looser in the sleeves to accommodate the warmer climate, but the concept was more or less the same. His jawbone necklace had been restrung from leather cords in place of elaborate chain, and he held an unfamiliar staff, one which looked humble enough save for the beautifully interwoven branching at the top, which successfully gave the piece a very ceremonial quality.

There was no sign of the orb.

Solas looked at Varric, first – likely because he’d taken the lead into the room. Then he glanced at Merrill, and then over towards her. His expression remained mostly neutral.

She was surprised, until it suddenly struck her:

He had no idea what she looked like.

For the first and likely only time, right then, the shoe was on the other foot, and she was the one disguised from him.

It was an interesting phase of their relationship that lasted approximately two seconds.

“Hello, Solas,” she said.

The neutrality vanished; recognition and pure shock replaced it.

“What…” the scruffy human standing next to Solas – whom she had paid appallingly little mind, but in fairness, she was rather distracted – began, before trailing off.

Everyone was silent for one long, uncomfortable moment.

Solas’ gaze flit over her, less as if he was looking for something and more as if he was trying to see all of it, or maybe make sense of the whole picture. He took one tentative step forward, and in his expression she could see it written, plainly – he’d thought she was gone forever. He’d never expected to see her again.

And whatever else was true, that had hurt him.

“Ir tel’him,” she told him, pulling off one of her gloves and showing him the marked hand.

She wasn’t sure what kind of reaction she was expecting; relief, anger, perhaps an urgent demand to know where the orb was.

She wasn’t expecting him to cross the room in several swift strides and clutch her to him.

She stiffened in surprise, and he let go and put about a foot of space between them almost straight away; though he stared at her face with an expression she couldn’t make heads or tails of.

“Um,” the strange man said. “I take it you two know one another?”

“I have no idea what’s going on, but it seems very romantic,” Merrill decided.

“Well shit,” Varric said.

“What happened?” Solas finally asked her, as if he hadn’t heard any of them. “You had him, and then… I thought you’d been destroyed.”

“I know, I’m… not really sure what I did,” she admitted.

The line between his brows deepened.

“We need to talk,” he decided. Then he looked around, as if he’d suddenly remembered where he was. “Not here.”

The scruffy man threw his hands up in the air.

“Could you at least share with the rest of the class what in the Maker’s name is going on?” he requested. “Who’s she? And why does she tingle?”

In unison, everyone turned to stare at him.

“Not like that!” he blurted, and made a peculiar wiggly-fingered gesture with his hand. “Like… you know. Magic.”

“Blondie, stop digging yourself deeper,” Varric advised.

‘Blondie’ – who looked like he hadn’t slept in a week or eaten in twice as long – made a sound of protest, and then squinted at her.

“Definitely not here,” Solas decided. He looked vaguely horrified; it was bizarrely similar to the expression Josephine wore whenever an important dignitary walked into a room that Sera was occupying.

But then he looked back at her, and it fell into something that made her fool heart twist.

Varric cleared his throat.

“So I take it you’re the Apostate?” he asked.

Merrill threw him a confused glance.

“Well of course he’s an apostate. Technically we’re all apostates. Except for you, of course.”

“I’m not an apostate,” she asserted.

Merrill looked surprised.

“Really? But you couldn’t possibly be a Circle mage.”

“She is no mage,” Solas declared.

“Well of course she’s a mage,” Merrill countered. “She’s all covered in magic, isn’t she?”

Anders gestured towards her.

“That’s what I meant,” he insisted.

“No, what you said was sleazy and a bit awkward,” Merrill assured him.

“The blood mage does not get to throw stones!” Anders retorted.

“Yes, say that a little more loudly, please, I’m not sure if all of Darktown heard you,” Merrill shot back, though she seemed more irritated than alarmed.

Varric raised his hands, and clapped them together, once.

“Okay!” he said. Then he pointed towards her and Solas. “You, and you, come with me.” He pointed at Merrill and Anders. “You and you, stay here and fight about blood magic until you’re both blue in the face. That should keep you occupied.”

“Now you’ve done it. Varric’s being assertive,” Merrill said.

“And he hates that!” Varric himself added, before herding them back out into the entryway passage. He tossed the boy at the door a coin and told him to go make himself busy for half an hour, and the child scurried off without another word.

Solas waved a hand at the door, and the air shimmered, briefly, before a slightly muffled feeling enveloped the three of them.

“She told you,” he surmised.

Varric stared at the both of them, and then pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a pitiable sound.

“It’s true?” he demanded. “The – the time travel and the giant hole in the sky and the elven magic bullshit?”

“And the darkspawn magister, the giant fear demon, and the mage-templar war,” she added.

He waved a hand.

“That stuff I can believe,” he assured her. Then he paused. “Maybe not so much the magister. And you’re…” Varric looked at Solas, then trailed off awkwardly. “You’re the apostate from her story. The Fade expert. I thought it sounded familiar, but if you know her…”

Oh, come on, Varric couldn’t just put it together on his own. Please. Especially not after about five minutes.

“That’s gotta be awkward when Daisy keeps asking you to take all her enemies,” Varric suggested.

Solas sighed.

“You told him that?” he asked her.

She glared at him.

“I did not tell him that you were the Dread Wolf, no. I didn’t even tell him the apostate in my story was the Dread Wolf. I had no idea you were here,” she snapped.

He backpedaled immediately.

“Of course. Varric is very… that is to say, he would have no unfair personal bias to impede him in making certain connections.”

Varric looked between them, eyebrows raised.

“So wait, you didn’t know he was…?”

“Let’s not go there,” she suggested.

“Yeah, I… that’s… I’m not touching that one,” he decided. “So. This is very weird.”

“Do you need a minute?” she asked him.

“To process this? Give me a decade or two and I’m sure it’ll sink in,” Varric replied. “Although that explains how Chuckles here became a walking historical lexicon. I always thought ‘I found it in the Fade’ had the whiff of bullshit.”

“It is not impossible to find such information there, if one knows how to look for it,” Solas insisted.

“Okay, but there’s ‘hey, look at this neat thing I found’ and then there’s giving Daisy step-by-step instructions for her questionable home project,” Varric countered.

“Ugh,” she groaned. “Can we not do the ‘what technically counts as a lie’ argument?”

Both men fell silent.

The discomfort in the air was so thick she could have cut through it.

“Do you know what happened to the orb?” she finally asked Solas.

He blinked at her.

“I did not even know what became of you,” he replied, and his hands clenched. “I had assumed both of you were lost.”

Oh, perfect. So it was still out there, somewhere, unlocked and probably on the verge of causing yet another disaster. Except for this round it got be her fault instead of his.

Varric glanced between them, and then sighed.

“I’ll step out,” he offered. “If anyone comes through to use the clinic, I’ll knock.”

Then he slipped through the far door, and closed it behind him.

Solas stared at her.

“What happened?” he asked.

“I’m not sure,” she repeated. She had to look away from him, then, to think back to what had happened. Denerim. Corypheus. What followed.

“You had him,” Solas prompted. “You cut his throat. The other wardens attempted to interrupt, but then, you opened a rift – or something like a rift – and were gone. Simply gone. The air shattered, and the way closed behind you.”

He was radiating tension.

She wasn’t sure she was any better off herself.

“We went… somewhere,” she admitted.

“I assumed that much.”

“Are you going to be snide every time I try and get my thoughts together?” she asked. “Because what followed wasn’t precisely normal! Even taking into account my new standard for that!”

Any hint of impatience about him dropped like a stone. He looked stricken.

“Ir abelas,” he offered, and then added an incomprehensible string of elvish.

“I didn’t understand that,” she said, annoyed.

“It was a full apology,” he explained. “Though not a formal one. That would require at least a day. Traditionally more, but you do not know the proper rites to extend the process. I could teach them to you, however.”

If he’d been facetious, she would have slapped him right then. But he was serious.

“I think if I were to demand a day-long apology every time you made a smart comment, we’d never get anything else done,” she pointed out.

“It was not only for the comment,” he informed her.

“I know,” she admitted.

Then she looked at him.

He was Solas. Perhaps not the version she remembered most, but he was also Fen’Harel – which was more or less the whole problem – and she hadn’t forgiven him, she didn’t think. But she could forgive him. And also herself, perhaps. What that meant, and what it would entail, was more complex; yet, in the simplicity of the moment, she was glad to be in his company again. In her own body. In something approaching a real life again.

She reached out, grasped his arm, and tugged him into an embrace.

It was his turn to stiffen.

She pulled back, not ever intending the gesture to last for very long. It was only supposed to be a moment. A moment of weakness, maybe, or a moment of indulgence.

Then his arms came around her, and she had almost forgotten what this felt like. How he was warm and uncommonly broad and surprisingly eager, for all his reluctance. He smelled of sweat and grime instead of paint or parchment, or the smoke from a camping fire, or a wolf’s muddied pelt.  And, admittedly, the Darktown tunnel around them left a lot to be desired by way of atmosphere.

But she gripped him back and leaned into him, closed her eyes and simply breathed for a moment.

“I did not know how to admit to it,” he told her. “It was such a disarming thing to be confronted with you. And then, time passed, and the longer it went on for, the harder it became. The more fearful I was of the consequences. I was a coward. I am often a coward; that, at least, the tales got right. I have been afraid for so long that I can no longer recall what it is like not to feel it, constantly. The Dread Wolf. The dread is my own.”

Her breath escaped her in a rush.

“I’m afraid, too,” she admitted. “I keep getting shattered into pieces. You’re him but you’re not him, you’re you from a different time, and I don’t know what to do with that. I know I said I couldn’t hold what you haven’t actually done against you. But there are a dozen questions I need to ask, and you can’t even answer them.” Pulling away, she looked at him again. His expression was pained; was the same as the one she’d seen in the glen, before he’d turned away.

“You… he broke my heart,” she told him.

He closed his eyes. But words seemed to have abandoned him.

After a second, she pulled away entirely, and sucked in a breath. She felt rattled. That wasn’t what she’d expected, although, once again, she wasn’t sure what she had been expecting.

Another second, and then she cleared her throat.

“I took Corypheus somewhere,” she began. “I don’t know where. It was like the Fade, but different. It was dark. There were shadows, but they weren’t just… shadows. It seemed like they were alive, somehow. Corypheus was there as well. He looked different. Like a corpse, I suppose. Maybe it was his original body? I’m not sure. I brought the orb, but not intentionally. I hadn’t even been thinking of it.”

She glanced at him. He was listening, an unreadable expression on his face.

“The shadows wanted the orb. They were… singing.” She made a face. “It wasn’t pleasant. I managed to call the orb to me, I didn’t want them to get it, and then they attacked. I didn’t fare so well. But Corypheus died, I think. Or his body there was destroyed. Then I opened a rift, and then we were in the Fade. The orb and I, I mean. It was…” she trailed off, folding her arms, remembered that strange, dream-like experience. “There wasn’t a lot of me left. The shadows followed us. I wanted to try and open a rift, I think, to get the orb out of the Fade so they wouldn’t catch it. But.”

Solas waited. She tried a long while to muster her coherence. When she looked at him again, he only inclined his head in an invitation for her to continue. His expression was rather deliberately placid, she thought. A veneer that wasn’t quite holding up as well as usual.

“I think I unlocked it,” she admitted.

Shock, again.

“How?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I was trying to open a rift, but I opened it instead. I wasn’t precisely coherent,” she informed him. “It was beautiful, though. It… I sent it away, after. I don’t know where. I was just trying to keep it from the shadows, it was all I could do. And then I drifted, until I found myself. When I woke up my clan was near Sundermount. So I came here. I thought Varric might help me.”

Solas swore, and then sighed.

“That is better and worse than anything I would have guessed,” he admitted.

“I think it seems pretty dire,” she replied. “The orb’s unlocked, neither of us knows where it went, and Corypheus is potentially still out there. But even if he isn’t, there are still plenty of terrible places for the orb to have wound up.”

“Perhaps. An intent to send it somewhere safe could have resulted in any number of destinations, determined either by the orb or by you yourself, or even by the impressions of the Fade,” Solas mused.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve endangered everything, just because I was too focused on making sure Corypheus didn’t escape.”

“Self-recrimination can wait until we know whether or not it is even merited,” he insisted. “You unlocked it. You sent it somewhere safe. Until further notice, so far as I am concerned, I am in your debt.”

“And if it turns out it’s fallen into the wrong hands?” she wondered. “Or that I’ve destroyed it instead?”

“Then I will forgive you,” he promised, with shocking ease.

She stared at him.

“Just like that?” she asked.

“I have already forgiven you,” he admitted. “In much of this, we are both out of our depth. I have made many calamitous errors. My quest itself holds the potential for many more. We do what we can, with the tools we have, to try and preserve the parts of the world that we believe are worth saving. That was what you did, when you fought Corypheus. I find no fault in that.”

She looked at his face, at his eyes – colour of the sky – and a broken laugh escaped her. She turned it into a breath, and then pressed the back of her hand to her forehead.

“Well,” she said, clearing her throat a little. “That’s my end of it done, then.”

Solas straightened, and folded his hands behind his back.

“And now we come to mine,” he agreed. “After you vanished, the wardens and the Denerim city guard attempted to kill me. Fortunately, Sigrun proved even more sympathetic than I might have expected – she immediately conscripted me, which momentarily halted efforts to claim my head.”

She winced.

He carried on, heedless.

“Of course, I had no intention of actually becoming a Grey Warden. I was forced to flee her company before we reached Amaranthine. Unfortunate, as the wardens were my best chance of discovering Corypheus, and, hopefully, you as well. But I believed that the Fade offered another avenue of pursuit. I transformed, and retreated to the wilderness for several weeks.”

“And napped?” she guessed.

He gave her a wry look. One corner of his mouth twitched.

“And slept,” he corrected. “Though all I could find were remnants. Of you.” His expression twisted, the brief trace of mirth wiped away. “When a spirit perishes, such remains are often all that is left. I had no recourse but to assume that Corypheus had slain you and claimed the orb.”

That explained why he was taking her version of events surprisingly well, at least.

She glanced at the tunnel walls around them.

“And then you came to Kirkwall?” she asked. “Why?”

His expression twisted, yet again, and remained fixed in distaste. He looked like someone had just poured a quart of tea down his throat.

“Valammar,” he admitted. “It seemed likely that Corypheus would seek to regain access to the thaig at some point. It also shares proximity with his former prison, has for its champion a person whose blood was, at least once, used to seal him away, and is a turning point of the rebellion that will lead to the conclave he assaults. It seemed to offer the best possible avenues for countering his plans.”

He glanced back at the clinic doorway.

“This place is wrong,” he confided in her.

“I noticed,” she admitted.

“There is so much… I scarcely know where to begin. The Veil is thin, but it is far more than that. I have not encountered a single friendly spirit since I arrived here. Even the aggressive spirits are distorted, however. It is as if proximity to this place twists everything around it,” he explained.

“Corypheus was imprisoned nearby for a very long time. And there’s been a vein of red lyrium beneath it for even longer, maybe. I can’t imagine those things would promote a healthy environment,” she admitted.

“They certainly could not have helped,” he agreed. “But whatever the initial cause, the damage now appears self-sustaining. Nothing remains restrained in Kirkwall. A tiny fear becomes a persistent phobia. An aggressive impulse turns into a vicious attack. A mild preoccupation becomes a fixed obsession. It is like a funnel which transforms suffering into power, but only the sort of power which must, inevitably, lead back into more suffering. And it all feeds… something. Some remnant, long forgotten. Perhaps even dead.”

She stared.

After a minute, all she could think to do was let out a single long, low whistle.

“I have no idea why Varric ever missed this place,” she decided.

Solas snorted.

“There are glimmers,” he conceded. “The corruption is pervasive, but not absolute. For a born storyteller, the light of hope and the rare virtues of decent people must shine all the brighter against the backdrop of despair.”

“Just the same, I think I’m going to attribute it to his creative memory,” she declared. Then she tilted her head at him. He was staring at her face again. It must be novel, she supposed, for him to speak to her when she actually had one.

Or perhaps it was the vallaslin.

She cleared her throat.

“So you’ve befriend Hawke, then?” she surmised.

“Yes, though I have spent more time with Anders, in truth,” he admitted. “And Merrill. There is more you should know, but I suspect if we tarry any longer, they will come after us.”

He had a point. She nodded in concession, and after a moment longer of awkward staring, he removed whatever muffling spell he’d dropped around them. In unspoken agreement, she moved to one door to retrieve Varric, while he headed back towards the clinic.

As soon as he opened the door, the sound of arguing voices reached her.

“-not using blood magic for that!” Anders was saying.

“It’s fine, don’t be such a baby, it’s only a little – oh, hello, Solas! Are you finished with your secret conversation?”

When she went to let Varric back in, she found him leaning politely against the opposite wall.

“Am I supposed to believe you spent the whole time there?” she wondered.

“I spent the whole time with my ear to the keyhole, of course,” he admitted. “But even the strongest will to eavesdrop can’t counter magic.”

They regrouped in the clinic, but somehow, the perpetual atmosphere of death and illness didn’t seem to appeal to anyone in particular, and after Anders checked on one of the few warm bodies occupying the clinic’s bed, Varric began ushering them back out of Darktown, through the streets, and to the Hanged Man once more.

“Of course. The gossipy tavern. The perfect place for delicate conversations,” Solas mused, as they crossed the threshold.

“As soon as you tell someone you overheard something in the Hanged Man, everyone knows it’s bullshit,” Varric assured him.

Only a few tables in the tavern had been filled. The scent of food had her stomach rumbling. She wondered if it would be possible to get out of the city and back, to hunt. But Merrill’s clan had significantly reduced the game in the region; she supposed she would have to rely on Varric’s charity again, if he was willing to give it. And he probably was.

The idea still sent a bolt of shame through her.

But when they took a table, Varric promptly declared that lunch was his treat, and bought for the whole table.

She shot him a grateful glance, all the same, and when the food arrived, did her best not to fall on it ravenously.

It was possible she failed at that.

Fortunately, Anders was apparently as underfed as he looked, and did just as bad a job of disguising it; so at least she wasn’t the only one at the table eating as though it was the end of a hard winter.

“So, Solas,” Merrill said. “Are you going to tell us about anything, or are we supposed to start making guesses? Because that could be fun.”

No answer.

She glanced up, just in time to see Solas look away from her.

“You may guess,” he suggested.

“Oh, come on,” Anders protested. “I have important things to do, I can’t spend all day sitting at this table and listening to you say ‘maaaybe’ in eighteen different ways.”

She almost choked on a piece of bread.

“Then I shall reserve myself to simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers,” Solas offers. “Would that suffice?”

“Oh, how fun! I’m going to guess that you were both lovers,” Merrill suggested.

“Yes, and no,” Solas replied.

Anders sent her a beseeching look. It was surprisingly effective, given his general scruffiness and disarray, and the fact that she’d only met him a few minutes ago.

“Please, strange Dalish woman, save us,” he requested.

She laughed, and took pity.

“I’m a time travelling ghost who’s possessing my own body and Solas is an ancient being disguising his true identity by making himself slightly shorter,” she declared.

Anders leaned back in his chair and sighed.

“Damn,” he said. “Usually the puppy eyes work so well on women.”

“You’re losing your touch, Blondie,” Varric informed him. “Too much time spent provoking the Templars, not enough spent bathing.”

“Ha ha. As if Templars need provoking,” Anders retorted.

“I don’t understand, how could that be yes and no at the same time?” Merrill asked. Her eyes widened slightly. “Unless you really are a time traveller?”

“Don’t be stupid, Merrill, she was joking,” Anders insisted, rolling his eyes.

“I don’t see how it’s stupid. It explains Solas’ answer,” Merrill replied.

“It’s stupid because time travel isn’t real.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Because it’s obvious!”

“Okay,” Varric broke in. “Glowbug over here is an old friend of Chuckles’. It’s complicated. She’s got a thing on her hand that’s made of magic. Don’t ask how she got it, I’ve called dibs on the story rights. If you want to discuss the particulars of the bedroom activities they may or may not have gotten up to in the past you can do it when I’m not around.”

“But normally you love gossiping about everyone’s love life, Varric,” Merrill noted.

“I’ll make an exception for Chuckles,” he replied.

Merrill shrugged, and then straightened in her chair and did a little bounce.

“So. What brings you to Kirkwall, then?” the young woman asked, looking right at her.

“I came to ask Varric for a favour,” she replied.

“And how do you know Varric?”

“We met in the future.”

Merrill nodded, while Anders made a noise of disgust.

What is on your hand and how did it get there?” he asked her. “And can I look at it?”

She shifted uncomfortably.

“I’d prefer not to say,” she admitted. “But you can look at it.”

She slid her glove off, again, and extended her palm towards the mage. Solas was sat between them, and he watched Anders as Anders peered at the mark. It was behaving itself at the moment, only just visible, shining a little bit when she tilted her hand.

“It’s… not a spirit. Or demon. Or blood magic,” he observed.

“How would you know if it’s blood magic or not? You only recognize the obvious kinds. Let me see!” Merrill requested, peering over from her side of the table. Obligingly, she moved her hand towards her.

“It’s pretty!”

“Uh, thank you,” she replied.

“And you’re right, Anders, it isn’t blood magic. Or at least not any sort I’ve ever seen.”

“It is old magic,” Solas informed them. “And that is all that can truly be said of it.”

“Which means he doesn’t know, either,” Anders decided.

“Does it hurt?” Merrill wondered.

“No,” she said. “It used to. But not anymore.”

The questions about the mark subsided, then, as it became apparent that neither she nor Solas would offer any more details about it. Eventually Anders left to return to his clinic, and Merrill said something about checking in with Hawke’s household servants and vanished as well, leaving only herself, Solas, and Varric.

“Should I ask what you plan on doing now?” Varric wondered. “Or am I better off not knowing?”

She glanced at Solas.

“We haven’t really discussed it,” she admitted.

“We have to find the orb, at least,” he declared. “And I have heard nothing more from Mythal since we last saw her. If that persists, we may need to seek her out ourselves.”

“Okay, but do you even know where to start with that stuff?” Varric asked.

“We know where Mythal last planned to be,” Solas replied.

Varric raised an eyebrow at him.

“In the Arbor Wilds? The ancient, overgrown forest of death?” he guessed.

“It’s actually very beautiful,” she said. She would have preferred it to Kirkwall at the moment, to be honest. Red Templars and angry jungle beasts and possessed Grey Wardens and all.

“Okay. The scenic ancient overgrown forest of death,” Varric amended. Then he sighed, and shook his head. “Must be an elf thing. Look, if what you told me really is true, then the shit is going to hit the fan in this city. My home. A lot of innocent people stand to suffer.”

“Innocent people suffer right this instant,” Solas informed him. “The Gallows and Darktown and even Lowtown around us brim to overflowing with it.”

“And you’re just going to leave?” Varric asked.

“No,” Solas said.

“No,” she said, almost precisely at the same time.

They glanced at one another.

Varric blinked.

“…Huh. Well that’s good, then,” he replied. “Slightly creepy, but good.”

Solas took a breath.

“There is too much here to leave yet. Merrill’s Eluvian was tainted with the darkspawn blight. Until I understand how or why that came to be, or reach an impasse with it, it would be prudent to stay,” he explained.

She stared at him.

“Merrill has an Eluvian?” she asked. “Wait. How was it tainted? I thought the darkspawn taint only affected living things.”

“That is precisely what I wish to know,’ Solas replied.

“Don’t either of you think the answer is kind of obvious?” Varric wandered.

They both looked at him questioningly.

He sighed, and rubbed at the back of his head.

“Look. I know neither of you are exactly big on chantry lore. I’m pretty sure a lot of it’s either embellished or just plain made-up myself. But it’s not a secret that the story goes: the darkspawn taint came from a bunch of magisters trying to find the Maker. The way you tell it, at least one of these magisters wasn’t looking for the Maker at all, though – he was looking for his god. The Old Gods,” Varric reasoned. “Now we’ve got a bunch of beings that ancient cultures held up as gods, being sealed away. And we’ve got a bunch of ancient ‘gods’ turning up as dragons to lead the darkspawn during blights. So it seems to me like wherever it is you put these gods… that’s where the darkspawn are coming from, too.”

Solas was quiet.

“The other Eluvian showed no signs of taint,” he said.

“But it was broken before you went to sleep,” she pointed out. Then she sighed. “Morrigan’s worked, though. And there were no darkspawn on the other side. Just the crossroads.”

“I know it’s not a happy answer,” Varric said. “But have you considered that what you want to save might already be lost?”

“…I have,” Solas admitted.

She glanced towards him, and then at Varric, who was looking down.

“For now, it’s only one theory,” she pointed out. “One way or another, I think it’s worth looking into. And until we have some better idea of where the orb might be, there’s no point in just wandering around, hoping it falls into our laps. It’s as likely to do that here as anywhere else.”

“Agreed,” Solas decided.

Varric looked between them, and then slumped a little.

“Well if either of you could see your way towards helping with that whole ‘Knight Commander in possession of notoriously crazy-making evil object’ issue that you brought to my attention, I’d appreciate it,” he mentioned. “And Blondie’s thing. Shit.”

“We can… figure it out, I’m sure,” she assured him.

Solas glanced at her, but said nothing.

 

~

 

By some stray, unspoken agreement, they left the Hanged Man together.

“I should show you something,” he decided.

“What?” she wondered. His expression was very intent.

“The Gallows,” he informed her.

“Oh, that sounds fun,” she quipped, but didn’t object.

They made the trip more or less in silence. It wasn’t quite the uneasy silence that endured between them before, of unanswered questions and guilt and unspoken accusations. Some of that was still there, of course, but mostly it was just the quiet of uncertainty.

It felt a little surreal to be walking side by side with him again, both of them in elven bodies. She realized that though she could remember walking with him many times, for him, the experience was relatively new. For most of the time they’d been together, she’d been made of light and he’d been covered in fur.

Which put a strange question into her head.

“Why are you bald?” she asked him.

He did something very nearly like a double-take.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Idle curiosity,” she admitted. “Wolves are very furry creatures, but as an elf, you have nearly no hair. Is it by preference?”

He blinked, and then shrugged.

“I used to favour rather elaborate hairstyles with a flair for the dramatic,” he admitted. “But such things require maintenance. They tend to be memorable. Given my current circumstances, both attributes are impractical.”

“So it was all or nothing?” she asked.

“I suppose I still have a flair for the dramatic,” he admitted. “Baldness may be more innocuous and easy to maintain, but it still produces a rather distinctive effect.”

“It does,” she conceded.

He glanced at her.

“Do you dislike it?” he wondered.

She blinked at him.

“No,” she said. “Not at all. It suits you.”

He smiled.

“And you are suited to yourself,” he informed her.

“What?” she asked, and he looked for a moment like he’d just swallowed his own tongue.

“By which I meant to say, your appearance fits your personality very well,” he amended. “Surprisingly so, in fact.”

“Oh. Thank you?”

Honestly, she reminded herself, both of them were supposed to be better with words than either of them seemed to be managing. Not that she’d had the greatest track record of late, but still. That was just embarrassing.

The scent of saltwater hit them strongly as they drew closer to the seaward side of the city. The Gallows themselves looked every inch the prison they were built to be; she could see not even a cursory attempt to disguise their purpose, or to pretend that the Circle living there wasn’t meant to be penned in like slaves.

She had never understood the chantry’s approach to mages, and never pretended to. But all things considered, she couldn’t manage to image that even Vivienne would find something to approve of in Kirkwall’s… unambiguous take on the situation.

“Why is it like this?” she couldn’t help but wonder, staring, once again, at the statues.

“There is no satisfactory answer for that question, I fear,” Solas informed her. “There are reasons. But nothing can truly justify what is unjustifiable.”

Of course he hated it, she mused. It was utter antithesis to him; the imprisonment, the fear, the rampant disregard for what affect all of it was having on the city, the Veil, even the Fade beyond it.

Inside the Gallows was much worse.

She’d never seen so many Tranquil before in her life. And more than a few had come to the Inquisition along with Fiona and the mages.

But in the Gallows courtyard, she counted more than a dozen before she stopped counting. It wasn’t only the unnerving abundance of Tranquil, either. The very air itself seemed to carry an oppressive quality. She spotted a few children. None of them were playing. One mage she saw had her face turned up to the sky and tears streaming down her cheeks, as if it had been a long, long time since she’d felt the sea breeze.

Two Templars were watching her.

The Templars themselves were… unnerving. She could have chalked that up to her history with people in the uniform, but given the atmosphere, it probably wasn’t wholly to blame. They were all tensed; all watching the mages. Most with fear, but some with a chilling kind of eagerness, as if waiting with baited breath for whatever might happen.

And then she saw Cullen.

The man had looked exhausted for as long as she’d known him. At first she’d chalked it up to the explosion, and then to lyrium withdrawal. But apparently, that had been a marked improvement for him. It took her several glances to even realize why her gaze kept turning back to that particular Templar. There were shadows under his eyes, an etched line between his brows, a veritable wall of stubble on his cheeks. She finally understood why Varric called him ‘Curly’ – his hair, greasy and cropped closer to his head than usual, formed tight curls.

He was scowling, arms folded, watching the mages until he glanced in their direction; and then he narrowed his eyes at Solas.

“Knight Captain,” Solas acknowledged, neutrally.

“Do I know you?” Cullen asked, and for one strange moment, she almost thought he was asking her.

But no; he was addressing Solas. His gaze flitted over her, locked onto the bow at her back, and then turned away dismissively.

“You may have seen me around a time or two, with the city’s champion,” Solas replied.

Cullen scowled.

“Have a care while you’re in the Gallows,” he advised. “Especially when the champion isn’t in the city to protect us all. Mages are a danger.”

She gaped at him.

“C – was that a threat, ‘Knight Captain’?!” she asked.

Both men looked at her in surprise.

“It was a warning,” Cullen said, recovering quickly.

Sure it was. Just what are you even doing? Have you taken a look around lately?” she demanded, which earned her a glare. It was probably unwise of her, but even under the circumstances, she couldn’t find it in herself to be afraid of a man she’d once seen streak away from a bad hand of cards. “Standing here making pithy remarks to strangers while your men terrorize their charges? Look at you. When was the last time you slept? How can you make decisions, how can you hope to do anything when the lyrium is probably the only thing keeping you on your feet? How are you supposed to recognize that half your men are looking at the mages the way a fox looks at a fat chicken? Or do you recognize it already? Don’t tell me you’re honestly standing here and letting that continue?”

By the time she finished, Cullen looked like he wasn’t sure whether he was confused or furious.

Solas snapped his fingers.

“Cullen,” he said, as if he had just realized something.

That seemed to confuse the Knight Captain even more.

When he finally recovered, his expression settled into one of supreme irritation.

“I take it you’re new to Kirkwall,” he said. “If you think you’ve seen objectionable behaviour from the Templars stationed here, you may file a report.”

She stared at him.

Then she gestured towards the courtyard.

“Alright, here’s my report – everything I have seen since we got here,” she declared.

Cullen blinked at her, and then redirected his glare towards Solas.

“You are lucky your friend is speaking to me. Make such remarks to the wrong Templar, and you will not enjoy the results.”

Solas stared placidly back at him.

“I believe you have just reinforced her point, Knight Captain,” he replied.

Was he seriously talking about her to Solas? While she was standing right there?

The man hadn’t been lying when he’d said his behaviour was pretty shameful back in his Templar days, had he?

“What are you doing?” she asked him again, because she honestly couldn’t figure it out.

Solas took her arm.

“I believe we have been here long enough,” he declared.

“I believe so as well,” Cullen agreed, prickly and defensive, and still scarcely looking at her.

Reluctantly, she let Solas steer her away. If they hadn’t been in the middle of a mage prison she might not have, but some of the Templars were staring in their direction, and she reminded herself that she didn’t have any authority to challenge them. All she had was a bow and a few arrows.

“That was interesting,” Solas informed her, once they were clear. “Unwise, perhaps. But interesting.”

“He told me he wasn’t proud of his past. But to see him just standing there, while his men…” she trailed off, then ran her hands down her face. “He wasn’t a bad commander.”

“It seems that was a learning process,” Solas replied.

She let out a breath.

“Trying to pick a fight with him probably wasn’t smart, all things considered,” she admitted.

“It was not quite so dangerous as you might expect,” he assured her. “The chantry preaches fear of magic, both to mages themselves, and to the Templars. It works to their advantage in most things, except in the matter of apostates; most Templars are accustomed to dealing with Circle mages, trained in patterns they recognize, with chantry-sanctioned tools and spells. They might become abominations, but spirits are predictable. Apostates, on the other hand, are complete unknowns. Especially elven apostates, who may know ancient magics, forbidden arts, and other dark and dangerous crafts.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“So you’re saying they’re afraid of you?”

“The worst among them would not dare a real fight with an unknown mage,” Solas confirmed. “Any organization which places one group entirely at the mercy of the other is likely to attract predators to their ranks, and most predators shy away from conflict with anything that might actually injure them.”

“And we’re back on the inherent evils of organizations,” she noted, though she didn’t disagree with his assessment.

Solas inclined his head.

“I have seen too many fall to corruption,” he admitted. “But for the Templars? It is inevitable. They are taught to fear, and then given power over the ones who represent that fear. Leashed to it all with a painful addiction, and told that this is necessary because of the weakness of other people. I cannot imagine a better means of ensuring abuse.”

“I’ve seen what it leads to. I never really saw what came before,” she admitted.

They made their way back to Lowtown’s streets, and then on back to the massive staircases leading up to Hightown, high against the day’s fading light.

“One more stop,” Solas requested.

Her gaze drifted up the massive stairwell.

“Damn,” she sighed, as they began to climb.

It was much worse going up than coming down. Even the improved scenery felt more like an insult, really, when she knew what it was lording over.

They wound through relatively cleaner streets, past servants and nobles, through to yet more stairs and then a particularly opulent manor, decorated with chantry banners. The doors were closed, and somewhat heavy; but Solas pushed them open without hesitation.

It was only then that she realized the building was the chantry.

Inside, more massive statues awaited. Some poured incense into the room from high overhead. Red candles burned, and high windows illuminated a figure of Andraste that towered over virtually everything else.

There was no other artwork to be seen, however. Apart from the chantry banners, the walls were unnervingly bare, cold stone. She had seen wealthy chantries before; chantries lined with murals, carvings, stained glass and tapestries. They had made her somewhat uncomfortable, though she had, at least, been able to appreciate some of the beauty in the work.

The disquiet of Kirkwall’s chantry was on a whole new level.

More than the décor, however, she was struck by its emptiness.

She had never been particularly taken with the religion. But if she had found a favourable aspect to it, then it was in its capacity for charity. The shemlen saw their chantries as places of refuge, and sanctuary, and most of them seemed to at least attempt to live up to those expectations. She was accustomed to seeing orphans, beggars, and cripples among the devotees of a chantry.

But all she saw in the Kirkwall chantry were men and woman clad in ceremonial garb, tending the incense and speaking to one another in hushed whispers. There wasn’t even the cursory figure by the door, repeating some verse or another. There was no sense of welcome to unsolicited visitors; barely even one of restrained tolerance.

“This is a very strange chantry,” she murmured.

“Is it?” Solas wondered. “I had thought they might all be like this.”

At the click of approaching footsteps, they both turned.

She had to blink a few times just to make certain she was seeing things correctly.

The shiniest shemlen she had ever seen in her life approached them. The man was clad in so much gleaming white armour, she suspected even Dorian and Vivienne would have been impressed. Even apart from that, he possessed a certain quality, like a painting come to life. His eyes were bright, his skin was dark, his features well-sculpted. He recalled to her mind some of the eager second-son recruits who had joined the ranks of the Inquisition, subsequent to their victory at the Winter Palace. The ones who turned up in gleaming, ceremonial armour, and talked a lot about their top-notch training, and complained a lot about the cold weather.

But even among them he would have stood out, she suspected.

“Solas!” the man greeted, with a lilting accent. “What brings you here? Have you finally seen the light?”

The slight tightening of the muscles around Solas’ eyes assured the world that he most certainly had not.

“Merely introducing my friend to the wonders of Kirkwall,” he replied.

“I shall take it as a compliment to the chantry, then, that you consider us a worthy wonder,” the man decided. Then he turned to her, and offered her a polite tilt of his head. “Be welcome in the house of the Maker.”

“Thank you,” she replied, with another glance around. “It doesn’t seem many else are taking you up on that welcome, at the moment.”

“Services are at dawn, and open to any of the public three days of the week,” the man – a brother of some sort, she assumed – informed her. Then he stared at her face a moment, and blinked. “Forgive me. I’ve never met a Dalish convert before.”

She laughed, once.

“And you haven’t yet,” she said.

“But have you heard the chant?” he asked her. “If you attend a service, I guarantee you will not regret it. The words resonate as no others can.”

“’Though I am flesh, your light is ever-present. And those I have called, they remember, and they shall endure’,” she recited. “I’ve heard quite a bit of your chant. There are some interesting turns of phrase, though many of them sour quickly once you’ve heard the same disinterested devotee repeat them over and over again.”

Far from being discouraged by her familiarity, however, the chantry brother seemed delighted.

“Well, now you must come!” he insisted. “To have a Dalish perspective on the chant would be a rare opportunity! I’ve asked Merrill in the past, but I’m afraid she’s never shown much interest.”

“Thank you. But I’ve had my fill of chantry services for one lifetime, I think,” she replied.

“But surely you must have an interest if-”

“Sebastian,” Solas interjected. “Pace yourself, at least. My friend will be staying awhile. You will have other chances to try and win your betting pool with the sisters.”

Sebastian? Sebastian Vael?

“For the last time, there is no such betting pool, and I do not gamble. Particularly not in matters of faith,” Sebastian insisted, with all the sincerity of a man who really, really wanted to.

Why did she keep meeting people like this?

She threw Solas a questioning glance, but he was still focused on trying to run Sebastian off.

“I am curious about something,” she admitted.

The prince of Starkhaven positively lit up.

“I am always happy to answer questions of faith,” he assured her.

“This may disappoint you, then. But why is your chantry so empty?”

He blinked at her, and then glanced uncertainly towards Solas. Who, of course, offered him absolutely nothing in the way of assistance.

“As I said, services are at dawn,” he replied.

“Yes, but – is it always this quiet when there is no service?” she clarified.

Sebastian looked confused.

“Well. People do come to pray, or seek guidance, but sadly not often as they perhaps should.”

“And charity?” she prompted. “Where are the orphans, the unwell?”

Understanding dawned on the man’s face.

“Ah, you’re used to rural chantries,” he declared. “Often in small settlements, the chantry is the sturdiest building for miles, and best suited to protect the weak and helpless. In a city like Kirkwall, however, there are sturdy walls all around. The chantry extends its charity beyond itself instead, reserving the actual building here for ceremonies and devotees. It is often too difficult for the poor or sickly to reach the upper levels of Hightown, so we must go to them.”

“I believe I saw this work myself the other day; a sister in Lowtown, seeking donations,” Solas interjected.

His tone wasn’t lost on Sebastian.

“Donations to be distributed throughout Darktown, no doubt,” he countered.

She had seen no chantry robes in Darktown; looking at the gleaming statues and red, red banners all around them, she got the distinct impression that wasn’t just a fluke, either.

“Do not let Solas sour you on us too quickly,” Sebastian requested. “Attend a service. Just one! It will be worth your time.”

“I’ll consider it,” she promised.

On the whole, however, she found herself more than a little eager to leave.

Sebastian left them, and they didn’t linger.

“You’re right,” she told him. “This whole city really is wrong.”

“Corruption happens readily enough on its own. In a place such as this? Anyone who attempts to swim against the tide is bound to be swept under,” he agreed.

“You could have made that point in Lowtown,” she mentioned.

“I could have; but it would not have illustrated the dilemma I believe we are faced with,” he countered.

They made their way towards the staircases again, and she sighed as they started the trek back down.

Hightown’s servants, she suspected, could probably kick like mules.

“You want Kirkwall’s chantry to get blown up,” she guessed.

“Perhaps,” Solas conceded. “Rebellion is inevitable. Indeed, it is merited. But more than that, whatever Kirkwall’s suffering is feeding, it sits at the top of the city. The head of the beast, so to speak. The rivers of blood run upwards and sustain… a remnant. To change that, to have any hope of breaking the cycle, the head must be severed.”

“And the head is the chantry?” she asked.

“In truth, it is probably all of Hightown,” he admitted.

She stopped, and looked at him.

“We are not blowing up all of Hightown.”

“I did not suggest that,” he insisted. “Though it could work.”

“Alright, but could something else work?” she wondered.

“Possibly. Nothing I have been able to discover so far.”

“Wonderful.”

They made their way down to one of the flatter, resting layers of the staircase. A couple of dwarves had decided to take a break there, before their final push. She could scarcely blame them. The steps weren’t tall, but neither did they seem to be built with short legs in mind.

As they passed by, one of the dwarves – a blond youth – whipped his heard around and stared at them.

“Enchantment?” he asked.

“Good evening, Sandal. Bodahn,” Solas replied, with nods in their direction.

“Good evening, Master Solas,” the older dwarf, Bodahn it seemed, replied. “Enjoying a stroll with your lovely companion?”

“Indeed,” Solas said. “The air in the city is slightly less horrific than usual this evening.”

“It’s the mountain breeze. Cleans out some of the fumes,” Bodahn agreed.

Sandal, however, was staring straight at her hand.

“Enchantment…” he said again, and tilted his head, squinting as though he could see the mark through her glove.

Bodahn clapped him on the back.

“Now, now, lad! You forgot to say hello!” he chided, gently.

Bright blue eyes darted up to her face, and then back to her hand.

“Hello,” Sandal murmured.

“A pleasure to meet you,” she replied.

His curious stare followed them all the way down the next flight.

“Hawke’s enchanter,” Solas explained. “A gifted child. Strangely so.”

“He could see the mark,” she surmised.

“I suspect he sees that and more. Were he better at giving voice to his observations, I would ask his opinion on it in a heartbeat,” he admitted. “It may still be a good idea even so. But another day, perhaps.”

She shot a glance up to the darkening sky.

“I hear Kirkwall’s not very friendly at night.”

“No,” he agreed.

Once they were back in Lowtown, she didn’t really think about where they were going until they’d both come to a stop outside of a ramshackle alienage house.

“So…” she trailed off.

He turned, abruptly.

“I can purchase you a room at the Hanged Man,” he offered.

With a glance towards him, she leaned forward, and pushed open the door.

It was a… humble space. Little more than a room and a bed and a washing basin. Not any worse than anything they’d shared out in the wilderness, but that had been different. Only one of them had needed to sleep, and neither of them had been particularly attractive.

There was certainly a level of appeal in taking him up on his offer. On the other hand, she was fairly sure he had little enough coin, and – well. They’d managed with worse.

“I’ll take the floor,” she decided.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Of course he didn’t just let her take the floor. That would have been simple, and sensible.

They argued about the matter until some unknown neighbour threw a bottle at them, and then by mutual agreement they both closed the door and went inside. She expected they would argue more. But Solas only lit a small lamp, stared awkwardly at her, and then, without any further ado, turned into a wolf.

She blinked at him.

“There,” he said. “You may take the bed, and I shall take the floor. I can sleep on it like this with far less discomfort than you can.”

“I’m Dalish. I’ve slept on rocks,” she insisted.

“Allow me to be a slightly better host than a mountainside,” he requested, already curling up on the room’s lone, threadbare rug.

With a deep internal sigh she decided she was too exhausted to keep arguing about it, and gave up.

His bed smelled like him.

She didn’t suppose he got a lot of opportunities to wash his sheets. If she’d been less tired she might have been unsettled, but as it was, she barely had time to notice before she stretched and let out a heavy breath and gave up on consciousness for another day.

Almost as soon as her eyes were closed, a hand reached out and caught hold of hers.

She blinked, and looked over at Solas.

“I thought we were sleeping?” she asked, dreamy and befuddled.

He smiled.

“We are.”

“Oh. Right.”

Dreaming. The Fade. They both glanced down at their joined hands.

“I suppose I should let go now,” he mused.

She shrugged, and tightened her fingers around him a little bit.

“I don’t mind.”

She didn’t, either, though it occurred to her that she should probably be at least slightly uncomfortable. The Fade sometimes played havoc with inhibitions – like making an impulsive kiss, or touching a strange talking light, seem like a good idea – but holding hands, she supposed, didn’t hurt anything. And it would make it harder to lose track of him.

He stared at her face, eyes tracking all over her features.

“You keep looking at me,” she noted. “Is it the vallaslin?”

He hesitated.

“No. Yes. Partly,” he admitted. “I didn’t consider… I knew you were Dalish, of course, and that the Dalish wear such markings, but I had not contemplated the full implications of those things. But that is not why…”

He trailed off.

She waited.

“I am fascinated by the sight of you,” he admitted, at last.

“Fascinated?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“That may be an inadequate word for the sentiment,” he admitted. “In elvish I would use ilthal, which fits only slightly better.”

“And what does ‘ilthal’ mean?” she wondered.

“The closest translation would be ‘fascinated’,” he replied, a glimmer in his eye.

She reached up and smacked the side of his arm with her free hand.

“I probably should’ve expected that.”

“Probably.”

Well, he was fascinated with her face. Fair enough. She’d pretty much been fascinated with the whole of him from the word ‘go’. Or the moment an unfamiliar elf grabbed her hand and shoved at a giant rip in the fabric of the universe, anyway.

They were both pretty good at dramatic introductions.

Something moved in the corner of her eye, and she turned to regard the Fade around them. It was clearer than it had been the night before; likely because she was with Solas. They were in the alienage. Or, some approximation of it. Petrified roots curled through the door to the house, and outside the massive tree was a single point of struggling beauty against a backdrop of ash and fire.

It was a losing battle. A sickly green mist clung to it, and seemed to leech the life from it.

“Well, this is charming as ever,” she observed.

“I could try and shape something a bit less unpleasant,” Solas offered. “But I had thought to introduce you to someone.”

“A spirit?” she guessed. “But you said there were no friendly ones around.”

“I did. This spirit is not quite a spirit any longer, however,” he explained.

“Then what is it?”

“Complicated.”

They walked carefully out of the dream-shadow of his little house, hands joined, and he began leading her through drifting pathways of varying levels of unpleasantness. Somewhere much further off, there was a shriek, and the ground trembled.

“Does anyone in Kirkwall ever get a decent night’s sleep?” she wondered.

“Likely none of the mages do,” Solas replied. “Though some might manage it, with luck or aid. The Fade reflects what is around it, but even here, it might find purchase in more pleasant memories and associations from time to time. And of course, the dwarven residents are not bothered by such things. Not in terms of a night’s rest, at least.”

They passed a perpetually burning sword, impaled in the stony ground. Blood flowed from the opening beneath it, as though gushing out of a fresh wound.

“And no one ever thinks to themselves ‘this is a tiny bit peculiar’?” she asked.

“I imagine many do. But what then? The only ones who might investigate such matters are mages, and they will never be afforded the trust to actually attempt to repair this,” he explained. “More likely, they will be blamed for the problem in the first place.”

She fell silent, thinking of the Inquisition’s mage allies. So many had always been painfully eager to prove themselves virtuous. Different. Even Dorian and Vivienne had been like that. And even Solas had opted to loudly declare that he did not practice blood magic where half of Skyhold would be sure to hear him, never mind that he’d confided to her that he didn’t consider the practice inherently evil.

She opened her mouth to say something – possibly to despair of the universe in general – and an itchy sense of unease washed over her.

They both paused.

“Did you feel that?” she asked.

“Yes,” he confirmed. “We have caught the attention of a spirit.”

“Probably by talking too loudly,” she suggested, and unconsciously tightened her hold on him.

After a beat, he started walking again. She kept pace with him, casting her eyes about for any sign of impending attack.

“Don’t be alarmed; we are not truly here,” he reminded her. “Spirits can affect the Fade as they please, but we are not quite so malleable ourselves.”

As if on cue, however, the path at their feet began to twist sharply downwards. Something shattered nearby, like glass breaking. It was followed by a low-pitched cry. She looked for the source, but couldn’t see anything apart from warped streets and tumultuous skies.

They passed a row of spikes. A bloody mess was impaled on each one.

It took her a moment to recognize the corpses as skinned wolves.

She darted a glance towards Solas.

“What is it?” she wondered.

“A straggler, pulling at what threads it can catch,” he replied.

They passed a lot of doorways, then. All of them were open, until they got close enough to begin to see what might be behind them; then they would slam shut, loudly, and without fail. Broken mirrors and glass shards were cast about everywhere. But she found herself more irritated than intimidated.

“If this is another Fear demon, I’m going to kill it,” she declared.

“That would be interesting to see, considering we are dreaming,” Solas replied. “But this has the flavour of Disdain more than Fear.”

“I’ve never heard of a spirit of Disdain,” she admitted.

“They are not terribly uncommon, but they are easy to mistake for other kinds,” he explained.

She had no reason to doubt him, but when they rounded the corner to see Skyhold’s throne, dismembered and tattered and covered in refuse, she suspected he might be correct.

“So is it disdaining us, or trying to manifest what it thinks we disdain?” she wondered.

“Both, perhaps. It may also be encouraging us to disdain it, in which case it is succeeding."

Their path split into burning chantry banners and blackened tree branches, and beautiful spheres which crumbled into crystalline dust. At one point it completely closed off, blocked by a wall of Orlesian masks, painted in fresh vallaslin designs that dripped wet blood onto the ground.

Solas’ jaw tightened, minutely, and then he turned and waved a hand and there was an opening that hadn’t been there before. They went through.

As they passed beneath the archway, she saw something scuttle in behind them, just over top of her head. Fatter and rounder than a spider, without as many limbs, but quick just the same.

With a fluidity of motion she never would have been able to manage in the real world, she let go of Solas’ hand, drew her bow, knocked an arrow, and fired.

She struck only wisps.

Something laughed at her.

“This thing is annoying,” she decided, sheathing her bow and retaking Solas’ hand.

“Best to ignore it,” he advised. “Though that is often easier said than done. Come. It will leave us, after a point.”

That point turned out to be after it made them hike across a path strewn with broken war horns and ancient elven corpses, some of which were propped up on massive hart skeletons, clad in ridiculous finery. Their faces were bleached-white skulls with sunken black eyes that tracked them as they made their way to the other side.

“Are these things going to get up and fight us?” she wondered.

“Don’t give it ideas,” Solas advised.

The parade of corpses stayed where they were put, however, and then at last they came to a point where it seemed the demon had, indeed, given up on them. The path trailed up into stone walls, old and strangely overgrown, and then sank into a place that reminded her uncomfortably of the Fallow Mire.

It was bright, though. Almost sunny. Small huts and cottages were half sinking into a swampy quagmire, but that was actually an improvement on all the spikes and blood and mocking skulls and things.

And yet, most of it was contained within weird corridors and pathways that reminded her of Darktown.

“Why is there a swamp in Kirkwall?” she wondered.

“He finds it familiar,” Solas replied.

“Who?”

Instead of an answer, however, she was treated to a sudden flash of light. A sound like thunder crackled through the air, and the aftermath tasted like magic.

Past a turn in one of the Darktown corridors, they found two figures, locked in combat.

One she recognized instantly as a Rage demon.

The other was harder to place. For half a second she thought it was Anders. And then she wondered where she’d even come by that impression. The figure was clad in odd armour, sturdy-looking but cracked with veins of blue, as if enchanted. In one hand he carried a bladed staff, and in the other, a shield. He battered his opponent, every so often breaking the air with a spell, or lashing out with the blade end of his staff. He must have been very strong, but he was thin, and gaunt, and wiry; with eyes that glowed from a face that did, on second glance, very strongly resemble Anders’.

The Rage demon didn’t last much longer. As it fell, her thoughts drifted suddenly to the Tale of the Champion, and she went stock-still in realization.

“Justice?” she wondered, shooting Solas a questioning glance.

“Justice, and Vengeance,” he informed her. “An odd spirit of Judgement, all in all.”

“I prefer to go by Justice,” the figure replied, resettling the shield on his arm. His voice was deep, authoritative, and not at all like Anders’. He looked up at them, first at Solas, and then over to her.

“You have brought a mage?” he asked.

“I’m not a mage,” she replied. “I’m something different.”

“A trait you and Justice have in common,” Solas informed her. “Like you, he is something I have never seen before.”

She blinked at him.

“Forgive me, but, I thought he was a spirit? Possessing Anders?”

“You are not the only one,” Justice informed her. He began walking away, then, and they both had to hurry after him to have any hope of keeping up. His stride was purposeful.

“Justice was a spirit, at least so far as I can tell,” Solas began to explain. “He spent a great many years attempting to free a village which had been trapped by a wicked creature. The Grey Wardens were pulled into the fight as well, and in the aftermath, he was expelled from the Fade. Like you, the first thing his spirit did upon moving between worlds was attempt to acquire a form. Unlike you, Justice had access to a readily available Grey Warden corpse.”

“Kristoff,” Justice boomed from ahead of them.

“So he was like Cole, then,” she mused. “He took an empty body.”

Justice stopped, and turned to face her.

“You have met another like that?” he asked. Some of the severity of his expression gave way, a bit, and a tentative sort of curiosity made its way through.

“Yes,” she admitted. “A spirit of Compassion. But… he isn’t around.”

“Did he die?” Justice asked, bluntly.

“No.”

“Hmph.”

Turning, the spirit resumed his steady march.

“Where are we going?” she wondered.

“There are creatures threatening the mages from the Fade,” Justice replied. “Tempting them with offers grown from their desperation. I will vanquish them.”

“When I arrived in Kirkwall, I encountered Justice and Anders in the Fade,” Solas informed her. “Twisted together. Anders had made Justice an offer while he was in Kristoff’s body, back when they both served the wardens. They had agreed to help one another, as friends, but they were… ill-suited to their arrangement.”

“It was Anders’ fault,” Justice asserted.

“An over-simplification,” Solas chided him.

“You were possessing him? And it was his fault?” she asked, a little bewildered by the entire scenario. If that was the case, where was the Anders she’d met earlier in the day?

“No. I did not take his mind from him,” Justice replied.

“And therein lies the oddity,” Solas declared. “Arrangements between spirits and complimentary individuals are not unheard of, of course. But Justice had already been changed by his time as Kristoff. Most spirits either join with individuals whose nature is in harmony with their own, or they override their host’s mind, and often become twisted into what is more commonly recognized as abominations.”

“Anders offered me a place with him in the name of friendship. To betray that would have been unjust,” Justice replied.

“And in most cases, that should have simply twisted you further on your path to becoming Vengeance, and done nothing to spare Anders,” Solas asserted. Then he turned to her, eyes lit with interest. “Yet, by virtue of his time spent as Kristoff, I suspect, Justice had already begun to develop a sense of self beyond his drives as a spirit. Those, in turn, allowed him to cleave to the identity he most desired; that of Justice, rather than Vengeance.”

“…Alright,” she agreed.

“But he still became Vengeance,” Solas declared.

Justice grunted.

“Which means what, precisely?” she wondered, and under other circumstances, she might have laughed as she realized she’d walked right into that question. He got that look in his eye, and she knew he would be able to discuss this topic for days if permitted.

“Justice and Vengeance are both spirits of a similar spectrum,” he began to explain. “What a spirit becomes when it is changed or corrupted is not random. A spirit of Wisdom may become a demon of Pride, as the fault in Wisdom is to think itself complete, but it will never become a demon of Rage, because Rage is too short-sighted and antithetical to what Wisdom requires. But once a spirit makes a shift down to a different point on a particular trajectory, that is what it becomes. If Wisdom becomes Pride, it may revert to Wisdom again; it will not, however, be Wisdom and Pride at the same time, because-”

“Humans have many motivations. Spirits do not,” Justice butted in. “I am a spirit with many motivations. This makes me unique.”

Solas shot him a brief look of irritation at being interrupted.

“One would hesitate to deem them ‘many’,” he replied. “But yes. Most spirits of Justice must simply discern whatever is most just for any given situation, and achieve it. Justice, however, may choose to be just – or to be vengeful. Among other things.”

“I may be Mercy, as well,” Justice informed her.

“But where does Anders fit in?” she wondered.

“With me,” Justice explained.

Solas cleared his throat.

“The dilemma which Anders presented was what forced Justice to… evolve,” he explained. “They were locked in a perpetual struggle, influencing one another, bound to one another, but also fighting the very nature of what they had done to one another. They were attempting to remain separate individuals whilst being interwoven within the same form. It was extraordinary.”

“It was exhausting,” Justice corrected. “Anders did not understand.”

“Neither did you,” Solas pointed out.

“No. I did not,” the spirit agreed.

The conversation ground to a halt, then, as they reached a paved city street, strewn with cages. A few spirits lingered in the air, and hissed from the darkness.

“DEMONS!” Justice bellowed, slamming his staff against his shield. “Come forth and face Justice!”

She scrambled to draw her bow, then, and a fight was upon them. The air crackled. Justice fought like a mage and a warrior and a terrifying hurricane all at once. She loosed arrows from an infinite quiver, and felt a familiar wash of magic as Solas cast spells as well. It was surprisingly easy to fall into formation; Justice at the forefront, the two of them picking off what demons rushed in from the sides.

When the fight was finished, Justice slammed the butt of his staff into the ground, and the air trembled, briefly.

“They will not return for some time,” he declared.

“What did you do?” she wondered.

“I have warned them. They will remember that I am here, and that I defend the mages,” Justice explained.

“You defend their dreams?” she guessed.

“I repel the demons that would stalk them,” he declared. “Now I am able to.”

Raising an eyebrow, she shot a questioning glance at Solas.

He shrugged.

“How do you think I became so ingratiated with these people?” he asked. “I could not simply leave them to suffer. Sooner or later, the dam would burst, and either Anders or Justice would be destroyed. Or rendered so unrecognizable as to equal the same thing.”

“Then, you separated them?” she guessed. “Took Justice out of Anders’ body?”

“No,” Justice said.

“Their combined purpose was too strong a tether for that,” Solas admitted. “And they were already so interwoven, a clean split would have been difficult enough on its own. I offered a different means of escape.”

“When Anders wakes, I sleep in his mind. When he sleeps, I wake to the Fade,” Justice explained. “I no longer have to weigh his decisions, and he no longer has to fight my impulses. We share only our strengths and common purpose. We do not speak; we do not argue. We simply are.”

She stared at the figure of Justice, with his bright eyes and strange features and lingering impression of Anders about him.

“So you are… part of Anders, and a spirit, and many spirits all at once?” she summarized.

“Yes. And no,” Justice replied. “I am not many disparate pieces floating in one shell. Not any longer. I am a whole thing. It is simply a thing which lacks a sufficient label.”

“And so he goes by Justice,” Solas concluded, leaning slightly against his staff.

“Because Justice is what you were originally?” she asked.

Justice frowned, slightly, and then shrugged. It was a surprisingly human gesture.

“Because it is what I have been called by the people who attempted to help me. By my friends,” he asserted.

“That makes sense to me,” she assured him.

“Of course. People in your world are not named for their purpose,” he agreed.

Then he turned and started stalking off again, the intent look returning to his features. She made to follow him, but Solas grasped her hand and stalled her.

“He will be chasing demons until dawn,” he informed her. “Are you certain you wish to follow him? Now that you’ve been introduced, we may take a break.”

“Will he be alright?” she wondered.

“Any demon strong enough to pose a true challenge to him is likely canny enough to avoid him, as well. Generally, there is little for spirits to gain from in-fighting.” he replied.

“That’s not what I meant.”

Solas met her gaze, and sighed.

“What would you have me say?” he wondered. “I have never met his like before. He is no simple spirit, but no man, either. I cannot be any more certain of his strange fate than I am of yours.”

The admission clearly vexed him, and his mentioning of her own state came as a surprise. She’d stopped thinking of herself as being a strange creature when she’d rejoined her body.

But she supposed, if she really considered it, that she hadn’t stopped being bizarre just because her bizarreness was contained by a physical form again. The anchor was still with her, after all. If she was killed, would she even die? Or would she simply go back to the way she’d been before?

It was still an unknown, she realized.

Though, on the other hand, death was always something of an unknown.

“At least you helped,” she concluded.

“I did what I could,” he agreed. “I hope it is enough.”

She sighed, and then took a step back.

“Come on,” she decided. “Let’s fight demons. It’s been a while for me.”

He stared at her a moment.

Then he shook his head, ruefully.

“As you wish.”

 

~

 

She woke first, when it came to it. The sight of a Despair demon dissipated before her eyes, and she blinked them open to the sight of rotted walls and sunlight seeping in through the cracks around Solas’ door.

Solas himself was still curled up where she’d left him, snoring slightly.

She sat up, rubbed the sleep from her eyes, and set about discovering where she might access some water or locate an outhouse. Merrill was up and outside, and readily showed her what little the alienage had to offer, helpfully explaining the differences between how a lot of it worked and what a Dalish might be used to.

When she returned with a basin dish full of water, Solas was beginning to blink himself awake. He stared muzzily at her for a moment, then stood, stretched, and leaned over to sniff at her.

She raised an eyebrow at him. Apparently still not great at waking up.

“Good morning,” she greeted.

He transformed back, then, a brief flare of magic and whirling wind that almost blew the shoddy little door open again.

“Good morning,” Solas replied, carefully straightening himself out. He left then, and she took the opportunity to wash her face.

When he returned, he was carrying two hot rolls and a small packet of what seemed to be fish jerky. Half of the package and one of the rolls were promptly thrust in her direction.

She accepted them with only a slight twinge of discomfort.

“Thank you.”

Solas shook his head.

“If we are to remain in Kirkwall, it may take some time for you to establish yourself. In the meanwhile, I will do no less for you than you have already done for me,” he insisted.

“I could sneak back out of the city,” she suggested. “There’s not much left towards the mountains, but I’m sure I could find something, maybe if I kept to the coast…”

“If you like. Though I suspect there are better uses of our time here,” Solas replied.

That was a fair point, she supposed. What those ‘better uses’ actually were was still up in the air, as Kirkwall seemed to be a rat’s nest of problems, and that was before she even began contemplating that state of the Deep Roads.

They passed the rest of the early morning mostly in silence, then. The night time frigidity clung to the alienage, but by the time they emerged in earnest, the sun was baking it away from the dirt and stone.

“Come, I have something to show you,” Solas said.

“Is it in Hightown again?” she wondered, stretching the kinks out of her shoulders.

He snorted.

“Not quite so far.”

That turned out to be an understatement, as they only got to Merrill’s door before stopping. Solas rapped a polite knock, and again there were the sounds of scrambling.

“Coming! Ouch. Coming!”

Finally the painted green surface flew open, and Merrill greeted them both with a smile.

“Good morning, Merrill. Might we see the Eluvian?” Solas requested.

Merrill’s eyes darted towards her, nervously, and her smile faltered a little. She fidgeted with the edge of the scarf she was wearing.

“Oh. You… you told her about it, then?” she asked, as though she was bracing herself for something unpleasant.

“Of course. She has seen them before, after all,” Solas assured her.

The change in Merrill’s demeanour was almost immediate. Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped a little and she turned her gaze entirely away from Solas.

“You have? Where? Were they broken? Did any of them work? Does your Keeper know?” the young woman asked, all in a rush, looking for a moment as if she wanted nothing more than to pick her up and shake the answers out.

“Um. One of them worked,” she admitted. Actually, both had worked, though it was difficult to think of the Eluvian in the Temple of Mythal as anything except broken, just like the rest of it all.

“Where is it?” Merrill demanded. “Can you take me to it? Can I see it?”

“I don’t know where it is now,” she admitted. “The woman who had it tends to keep her own counsel a lot.”

“What woman?”

“Merrill,” Solas interjected. “Perhaps we might discuss this inside?”

Merrill blinked at him, and then leapt back, leaving the doorway wide open.

“Of course, I’m so sorry, I’m being terribly rude. Please come in. I’ll get us something to drink.”

Merrill’s home, as it happened, was slightly bigger than Solas’, in that it actually had two rooms. There also seemed to be a bit of a rat problem, judging by the teeth marks on the feet of most of the furniture. Solas directed her towards the second room, which was occupied almost entirely by the most out-of-place Eluvian she’d seen in her life.

And it was a strange one even besides location.

The frame was huge, twisting around the glass and even wrapping in front of it, like serpentine tree branches. A leaping halla was carved at the top, and the metal was golden and cold. It looked nothing like a doorway.

At her questioning glance, Solas inclined his head in agreement. Yes, it was strange.

Like everything else in Kirkwall.

Merrill returned with three mugs full of a rich, dark liquid that she mistook for tea, until it burned nearly as badly as one of Bull’s drinks.

“Holy Mother of Halla,” she coughed.

Their hostess giggled at her.

“Do you like it? Isabela gave me three cases of it before she left,” Merrill informed her. Then she sighed, “I miss her. I hope she comes back soon.”

Solas discreetly emptied his mug down one of the gaps in the floorboards.

Then he trailed one hand over the glass in the mirror.

“Merrill’s Eluvian was tainted,” he reminded her, as she braced herself for another sip of her beverage.

Given the subject of their discussion, alcohol might not be a completely bad idea.

“Was?” she asked, around a cough.

“I cleansed it,” Merrill informed her. “With blood magic.”

The young woman looked like she was bracing herself again.

She blinked at her.

“You can cleanse the taint with blood magic? And it works?” she demanded.

“Well. Yes. I mean, it worked on the mirror. I don’t think it would work on living things. Or, well, it probably would work on living things, but I don’t think they’d be living anymore afterwards,” Merrill explained, and relaxed a bit more. “You’re not going to shout at me?”

“Why would I shout at you?” she wondered.

“Because my whole clan thinks I’ve gone mad because of this!” Merrill insisted. “The Keeper says the Eluvian is evil and that no good will come from trying to restore it. She warned the rest of them off of me. They can barely stand to look at me now, but they won’t just leave, either.”

That sounded… horrible.

Though she didn’t suppose she’d be able to expect a very warm welcome from her own clan either, now.

“If it’s not tainted anymore, I’m not sure I see why it’s dangerous,” she admitted. It being tainted at all was definitely concerning.

Merrill threw her hands up into the air.

“Ma serannas! Finally! I was beginning to despair of any of our people ever seeing sense! Your clan must be more reasonable than mine.”

“Ahhh…” she hedged, and took another drink. Not that she wished to disparage her clan, or knew precisely how they’d react to Merrill’s project, but they would probably be more than a little wary of it as well.

“…Oh,” Merrill realized.

Solas cleared his throat.

“The Eluvian has been repaired,” he informed her. “It lacks only a key.”

“Before Solas came I didn’t even know it needed a key,” Merrill admitted. “I wish I could see the Fade the way he does. It probably would have been much less of a… struggle, if I could.”

On impulse, she took a step forward, and reached a hand towards the glass.

The anchor crackled.

Merrill jumped, and even Solas blinked at the reaction.

It felt strange. She could feel Kirkwall’s thin Veil prickling at her skin, could feel something very, very close, like a rift that hadn’t been sealed yet but wasn’t open, either, twisting emerald and bright through the air. But there was only smooth glass; glass which held no reflection, save a vague twisting of the light.

“Can you open it?” Merrill asked. “Is that a key? Is that why you have it?”

It was, in fact, a key. Though not normally one which reacted to mirrors.

A suspicion formed in her mind.

“This Eluvian doesn’t lead to the Crossroads,” she guessed. “It opens to the Fade.”

“That is a possibility,” Solas agreed.

“So then, if we opened it, we could look into the Fade?” Merrill asked. “We could see things clearly, not just in dreams?”

“You don’t see through Eluvians,” she corrected. “You walk through them.”

“What?” Merrill glared at Solas. “You never told me that!”

He folded his arms behind his back.

“You asked if I knew how to repair it. Not if I knew what it did,” he countered.

“It’s like talking to a spirit sometimes,” Merrill muttered, though her aggravation seemed to be short-lived. “That’s even more amazing, though. If it’s true. Did you walk through one, then? Where did you go? Creators, did you go into the Fade?”

She had to try not to flinch at the invocation.

“There’s a place called the Crossroads,” she hedged. “Or, that’s what it was renamed. I don’t know what the ancients called it.” Solas probably did, she realized, though she opted not to mention that. “It’s not the Fade. It’s… quiet. The Eluvians are connected to one another through the pathways there. And to other places, as well.”

“What other places?” Merrill wondered.

“I’m not really sure,” she admitted.

Merrill took a step towards the mirror, then, her eyes roving over her work, before she turned back towards them. Her timidity had vanished. For a moment she looked every inch a Keeper – albeit a young one – ready to accept the burdens of her role.

“I want to know everything. The whole story, and every bit of knowledge you have.”

She glanced at Solas.

“How much did you tell her?” she wondered.

“Only what she needed to repair the Eluvian,” he admitted.

Merrill’s determined expression faltered, a little bit.

“How could you know so much and not have shared it before?” the almost-Keeper wondered. “We… we scramble for scraps of history, tiny little pieces of what we haven’t lost. We used to be an empire, we used to be immortal, and now, we’re just… surviving. Barely. There’s so much magic, so much knowledge, so many things that make up who are and were wrenched away from us. I don’t see how either of you can simply sit on what you know, but you, you’re Dalish – you know your duty to the People.”

Merrill stared at her with just a hint of accusation, but it still felt like it had shaken the floor out from beneath her feet.

Solas scoffed.

“Because the Dalish take so well to being told they’re wrong,” he sneered. “What you demand of her would brand her a heretic, as surely as your attempts have done the same to you. As surely as every Dalish Keeper has run me from their dreams. Few share your desire for the truth; and even you, I think, would balk at the ugliness of it.”

Merrill folded her arms and glared at him.

“I don’t hide from unpleasant truths. I don’t look away from dangerous things, either.”

A pang of longing, surprisingly strong, washed through her. To have someone – one of her own people – who understood, who knew, and believed, and could perhaps help unwind the twisted knot of confusion in her heart. Or even simply share it, and the puzzle of the Creators and the orb and whether or not to wake what lay sleeping.

She glanced at Solas.

Fen’Harel.

“What if I told you that everything was wrong?” she wondered. “That Elvhenan was nothing like you picture it. That the Creators are not what you think they are. That our own ancestors would call us ‘shemlen’ and look down on us in disgust.”

She remember Abelas, towering, disdainful.

“How could you know that?” Merrill wondered. “The Fade is filled with memories of the past, but memories distort over time. Anything you know could be just as much of a lie or a misconception as it could be the truth.”

“Because I met them,” she admitted.

Merrill blinked, and then took a cautious step back.

“Are you – are you really a time-traveller?”

Solas sighed.

“Are we going to tell everyone?” he asked her.

“No,” she replied, a little irritated. “But you started this. I’m surprised you didn’t tell her more yourself, you never hesitated to tell me just how wrong elven history is.”

“You are different,” he informed her.

“Even when I wasn’t,” she insisted.

He caught her eye, and raised a brow.

“You have always been different,” he declared.

She opened her mouth, meaning to clarify that she was talking about the other timeline, but then it occurred to her that that was what he meant, and she closed it again.

Right. Solas had never known her before the anchor had burned itself to her. Not in any lifetime.

“Do we need more alcohol?” Merrill wondered. “I have something harder, if you like.”

“Maybe after,” she suggested.

Solas shook his head, and turned, and stalked into the other room.

“Is he an ancient elf?” Merrill wondered. “Because that would explain a lot.”

“He’s… complicated,” she admitted.

They followed him out, then, and after a few seconds of awkward shuffling and rearranging of odd bits of junk, Merrill ushered them both to a small table in one corner of the main room. There were only two chairs, but Solas seemed content to stand in the corner behind her, leaning on his staff and looking pessimistic.

“You can leave, if you’re that bothered by this,” she informed him.

He raised an eyebrow.

“Abandon you with the very Dalish, very talented blood mage whilst you tear apart the cornerstones of your culture for her?” he asked. “No.”

Merrill looked wounded.

“I wouldn’t hurt her, even if I thought she was telling lies and being cruel for no reason.”

“Alright,” she interrupted. “It’s fine. I just have to figure out where to begin.”

“You’re a time traveller,” Merrill prompted. “You went back and met some ancient elves, and probably one of them was Solas, except then you went forward and had sex with him in the future before you came back here and so it’s very awkward.”

She blinked.

Solas made a peculiar sound.

“Is that not right?” Merrill asked.

She cleared her throat, and shifted in her seat.

“I met the ancient elves at the Temple of Mythal,” she clarified. “Not in the past. The temple was in the Arbor Wilds. The elves there had been sleeping since long ago, only waking to defend it from intruders.”

Merrill gaped.

“And it’s still there?”

“Possibly? Myth… uh, someone went to check on them, last I’d heard, but whether or not she was successful, I don’t know,” she admitted.

“That’s… amazing,” Merrill decided. “The things they could tell us! What were they like? Did they only speak elvish? What did they wear? What did they say?”

She let out a heavy breath.

“Well,” she began. “They were very tall.”

Solas huffed.

“I’m beginning to suspect you have a height fixation,” he informed her.

She turned in her chair to glare at him.

“They were huge,” she insisted. “It probably didn’t help that Abelas kept standing on high things as well. And looking down at us. Metaphorically as well as physically.”

“Abelas was one of the ancient elves?” Merrill asked. “That’s not a very cheerful name.”

“No. But it suited him,” she assured her.

“Oh, how sad.”

“Pretty much.” She sighed. “They were slaves.”

Merrill’s features twisted in confusion.

“Then, they weren’t really that ancient? They were from after the fall?”

“No. They were slaves kept by other elves,” she explained. “Tevinter didn’t destroy Arlathan. The ancient elves warred among themselves, just as the gods did. They took slaves. They made sacrifices. The vallaslin…” she trailed off, staring at the swirls written on Merrill’s expectant face.

One of her hands trailed up to her own markings.

“They were slave markings, once. The elves at the temple wore Mythal’s.”

Merrill mirrored her gesture, brow still knit. She shook her head.

“No, that’s not right,” she insisted. “Vallaslin honours the Creators. If they were slave markings, why would we keep them?”

“Because, thanks to the structure of their society, most of the upper caste elves lived in beautiful places that were the death of them,” Solas interjected. “Those that did survive later fell to the humans, who killed off the ruling competition and claimed their slaves for their own. Some of them kept the practice of decorating their property with pretty markings alive for a time, but eventually it fell out of favour, until it came to the point that later generations only remembered the marks as something that pre-dated their enslavement at the hands of humans.”

Merrill shook her head again.

“But they represent the Creators. That’s what the patterns mean. Who would mark their slaves with the symbols of their gods?”

“What does the Chantry brand their Tranquil with?” Solas returned. “All upper caste elves were pledged to the service of a ‘Creator’. Their slaves were marked to honour their patron. Any who marked slaves for themselves would be seen as an upstart, one who did not feel beholden to the authority of their ‘betters’, and they would not last long.”

Merrill pursed her lips, pale and increasingly irritated.

“No. It’s wrong. The Creators helped The People, that was what made them different from the Forgotten Ones.”

“What made them different was that some of their followers survived,” Solas refuted.

“And this is what Abelas told you?” Merrill asked, sending her a surprisingly sharp look.

“Some of it,” she replied. “I probably shouldn’t have opened with the slavery stuff. They had light-up ritual tiles. Those were nice.”

Merrill stood up, and started to pace.

“Some of it. What exactly did he say?”

“He said… that the ancient elves destroyed their own civilization with war. And that Mythal had been killed, rather than sealed away, but that the Dread Wolf hadn’t done it,” she admitted.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Merrill wondered. “How can you kill a god?”

“Mythal was not a god,” Solas declared.

“I need to see this temple. I need to meet these elves, this Abelas,” Merrill decided.

“To what end?” Solas asked her.

“To what…? The truth!” Merrill insisted. “I need to know. Everything. What’s really true or what you might have gotten wrong or whether or not it’s all a trick, whether these ‘tall’ elves might be lying or distorting things for some reason, or if they aren’t, what that even means for us. I can’t just take your word for something like this! You don’t even like the Dalish!”

She balked.

“Hey!”

“Not you,” Merrill assured her. “I mean him. But obviously also you, a little, because you clearly believe him.”

“I believe him because he tells the truth,” she insisted. “He just doesn’t always tell all of it.”

“And what if he’s wrong?” Merrill demanded. “Are we supposed to just uproot everything we ever thought we knew because you two say so?”

“No one’s asking you to do that,” she pointed out.

This was a bad idea. She was Dalish enough that the truth had hurt her, but she’d never been a First, never been expected to become a Keeper. To her, the stories were just that – stories. They were not things she had dedicated her life to preserving, not something she’d ever been tasked with passing on or figuring out.

How many Keepers, she wondered, found themselves confronted with fragments of the past – with things like a broken Eluvian – and an expectant clan, brimming with the hope that this piece might grant them some greater understanding of themselves. How many Keepers simply had to muddle through with their best guess, put on a brave face and pretend they knew everything?

Because the truth was out of their grasp. And even if it hadn’t been, how did you inspire a clan with stories of how horrible everyone once was? ‘Yes, da’len, Elvhenan was beautiful, but you probably would have been a slave there, too’. That would be no comfort on the hard nights, when food was scarce and the weather cold, and the hunters hadn’t been back for days.

Merrill stopped, and slumped, running a hand across her face.

“Do you have any proof? Anything that says that what you’re telling me isn’t just another story?”

She leaned back in her chair, and thought.

“No,” Solas said, into the lull. “You asked for the answers we had, and she is giving them to you. But they are not what you wish to hear or think you already know, and like so many others, you reject them. You brand the voice which offers truth a silver-tongued liar.”

And there was the other part of it; the part where Fen’Harel was a monster to her people. How many had he met, in waking and in his long sleep, who had turned aside what information he offered? There was hurt underneath his accusation. Deep enough that he couldn’t quite manage to cover it up with the bite of his tone.

“You’re asking a lot,” Merrill pointed out.

We did not ask for this. You did,” Solas countered.

An awkward silence fell. Merrill dipped her head, and ran her hands over her eyes.

“Ir abelas. You’re right. I did ask you. I don’t know why I’m so shocked.”

“Because it’s shocking?” she suggested.

“There is that,” Merrill conceded, with a small laugh. “And that’s not even all of it, is it? But I still don’t know if any of it’s true… especially if you can’t prove it. But then again, I may as well hear it. It’s a Keeper’s duty to preserve the past. If there’s even a chance that you’re right…”

“It doesn’t change that much,” she found herself saying.

“It would change everything!” Merrill insisted.

She thought of the Well of Sorrows. Merrill was very much the kind of elf that she wasn’t, she suspected; the kind who’d brave any danger for just a glimpse of that knowledge, and what it represented.

“Would it?” she wondered, sincerely. “It changes the history we don’t know, the lore and legends we got wrong. But it doesn’t change what we do know. Our battles and struggles, and freedom, and fight. The Keepers make it sound like the only history we have was buried with Arlathan, sometimes, but that’s not true. Elven history never stopped being made. We’ve fought our own battles, and won our own freedoms. We’re more than just the broken pieces of something that used to be. We’re something ourselves.”

The room fell silent again.

Slowly, Merrill slipped back into her chair, her expression schooled into something focused and intent.

“Tell me.”

“Solas could tell you more,” she admitted.

Merrill glanced at the man in question, who was staring at them, eyes distant and expression unreadable.

“Ir abelas, hahren. You helped me repair the Eluvian, and never asked for anything in return. I’ve been rude and ungrateful and – and suspicious. Oh, Creators, I’ve been acting like the Keeper!” the poor young woman declared, running a hand through her hair.

She winced in sympathy.

“No more of that!” Merrill decided. “You’ll both tell me, whatever you’re willing to tell me, and I’ll be grateful to hear it. Please.”

Magic words, she thought, and looked over at Solas. Who was defrosting considerably.

He inclined his head.

But he didn’t offer anything more, and so, after a moment, she took a breath and started over.

“The gods were at war, and The People followed their example…” she began

Merrill listened as she went through what little knew of their ancient history, of Fen’Harel and Mythal and the Eluvians; mostly things which Solas had told her. She didn’t mention Flemeth or Solas himself, or even how, precisely, she’d come by the knowledge. After that first surge of denial and demands for proof, Merrill didn’t ask.

She did ask about the temple, though, at great length, demanding details on the artwork and the rituals and the ancient elves themselves. So she talked about the mosaics, and the statues, and the singing stones beneath her feet, and the odd gleam of Abelas’ eyes.

“Did you feel very small?” Merrill wondered. “I think I would have felt very small.”

Had she felt small?

“A little, I suppose.”

The first look of derision Abelas had given her… yes, that had been unnerving. That had made her feel small. When she had cared to imagine her ancestors, she had pictured people like herself, mostly. People who would smile on her. People who would weep for the struggles of the Dalish and admire what they had accomplished.

Not people who would look at her like a filthy – but perhaps somewhat clever – dog.

But then…

“Mostly I felt bad for them, though,” she admitted. “I don’t think they thought very much of me, but I couldn’t exactly admire them in return. They were trapped there, protecting the temple, but for nothing. Either someone would drink from the Well or it would be destroyed. It couldn’t have endured forever, and neither could they. They could have left. They could have taken its knowledge for themselves and tried to make something of it. Instead they slept and waited, inevitably, to fail.”

“They were trying to preserve it. What was left of Mythal,” Merrill mused, though she looked quite sad, as well. “But you’re right. Preserving knowledge that no one can ever share… that’s not preserving anything. Not really. It’s just a pool, just sitting there, lost in the jungle.”

Was that a light in her eyes?

Yes, that was definitely a light in her eyes.

“Would you seek it out, da’len?” Solas wondered, speaking up for the first time.

Merrill looked at him. Her chin jutted, just a tiny bit defiant.

“And if I would?”

“Then you invite unprecedented peril into your life,” he cautioned.

“Oh, I’ve already done that before,” Merrill decided, with a dismissive wave of her hand. “’Unprecedented peril’ is basically Tuesday now. Especially when Hawke’s around.”

That reaction surprised a laugh out of her. Not even a tiny giggle, but a startled sound that she had to cover up, and which shook through her shoulders instead. Merrill grinned at her, tentatively, and Solas let out something halfway between a chuckle and a snort.

“If you honestly set out to find a pond full of voices in a temple in the middle of a deadly jungle, I’ll have to conclude that telling you all of this was a bad idea,” she warned.

Merrill’s expression drooped a little, but the light didn’t leave her eyes.

“Well. It would certainly prove you right. Or wrong. And if it’s true… then that Well is worth more than any Eluvian. Not just to the Dalish, but to all elves, everywhere. It’s all of our history, isn’t it?”

Solas shook his head, more in exasperation than reproach.

“Better you than some,” he determined. “Mythal would like you, I think.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Merrill decided. “I still believe in the Creators. Whatever else might be true, whether it’s a misunderstanding or… or they faltered, they are my gods. My people’s gods. I have faith in them.”

“Admirable. But foolish,” Solas informed her.

“That’s just your opinion,” Merrill replied.

This was a bad idea, wasn’t it?

“The matter of the Well aside, we’ve still got the mystery of this one Eluvian to solve,” she pointed out. “Like how it became tainted in the first place.”

Slowly, Merrill and Solas looked away from the stare-off with one another.

“If it’s connected to the Fade, maybe the darkspawn found it on that side,” Merrill suggested. “They do happen in the Fade. I suppose they could dream. Do you think you could spread the taint through a dream? There’s a scary thought.”

“I have seen the taint in the Fade as well,” Solas agreed. “Though whether it is a reflection of the real world, mimicking the same effects, or actually the same disease, I cannot say. The Fade is too malleable to make judging such things easy.”

She glanced down at her mark.

“And if we opened it?” she wondered. “Would spirits come pouring through?”

“It… could only open to another Eluvian,” Solas replied. “If it does not open to the Crossroads. Likely, then, it is attuned to a specific counterpart that is physically within the Fade. The danger in opening it would depend entirely on where that counterpart is, and what is around it. The Fade being what it is, that could be anywhere.”

She raised an eyebrow at him, recalling at least one other Eluvian within the Fade.

“Could it be…?”

He glanced at her, and shook his head, slightly.

“What?” Merrill asked, glancing between them.

“Nothing,” she replied. “So, then, unless we can figure out where the other mirror is, we have no idea what opening it could unleash. There could be a Fear demon sitting on it for all we know.”

Merrill fidgeted with the edge of her scarf.

“I wonder if… but, no it couldn’t be. But he knew so much. But he’s very old, and you can learn all sorts of things in the Fade… but it would rather explain some things…”

“Did you have a thought, Merrill?” Solas wondered.

“Yes. I don’t know if it’s a good one, but it’s definitely a thought. There was… um,” Merrill paused, and glanced towards her. “How do you feel about spirits?”

She blinked at the odd question.

“Mostly cautious. It depends on the spirit,” she admitted.

“That’s a good attitude!” Merrill complimented. “Spirits are just… spirits. They just do spirit-y things. So long as you know what to look out for, they’re really not all that dangerous. You can learn a lot from them.”

She glanced at Solas.

“Yes…?” she confirmed.

“Well,” Merrill carried on. “The thing is, there’s this… demon. On Sundermount. And I may have… gotten it to teach me blood magic and the way to purify the mirror in the first place.”

“Ah,” Solas said, comprehension dawning. “And you suspect the demon may have earned its expertise by possessing the other Eluvian.”

“It would explain why it was awfully keen to help,” Merrill conceded.

“What kind of demon is it?” she wondered.

“Pride. I think.”

“A spirit of Pride could be drawn to such an endeavour simply on its own merits,” Solas mused.

“Perhaps Justice could learn more?” she suggested.

“I would not send him alone for such a mission. The spirit may know more about how the Eluvian came to be corrupted, and that is a question I would like answered,” he replied. “But it is not a bad idea.”

“If he’d even help. He’s not very fond of me,” Merrill added.

“He will help. This is a mission against a demon. We need not mention your involvement at all,” Solas assured her.

Without really thinking about it, she stood, and rapped her knuckles once against the top of the table.

“So this is our plan, then? We go into the Fade, meet with Justice, and interrogate a Pride demon on a mountain?” she asked. “Should we tell Anders?”

“Anders doesn’t like me very much either,” Merrill mentioned.

“Technically, it shouldn’t be required. Ethically, I will leave the decision to you,” Solas replied. “If we are to enter the Fade with more consciousness and coordination than normal, I will need to prepare a ritual.”

“Do it,” she decided, and then realized that had come out a little War Table-y. Merrill and Solas both blinked at her. “I mean, that sounds like the best course of action to me,” she amended.

“Maybe we should wait until Hawke gets back,” Merrill suggested. “Sometimes going into the Fade doesn’t… work out.”

“If we run into trouble, we can retreat, right?” she asked Solas.

“Waking may be more difficult with the ritual involved, but I know wards that can help with that,” he assured her.

“Then I don’t think we need Hawke just yet,” she decided.

Taking Hawke into the Fade again.

Yeah, no. She’d really rather not. With her luck she’d spend the entire time trying and failing to suppress memories from the last time that had happened, and the Fade would pick up on all the wrong ones and wouldn’t that just be a complete mess.

“Alright,” Merrill agreed. Then she glanced down, fidgeting a little. “Ma serannas. I’ve only just met you and – and insulted you a little, I know, but the Eluvian means a lot to me. Even if everything you’ve said is true… it’s still history. Our history. It matters.”

“I know it does,” she agreed.

When they left Merrill’s little house behind, however, she was a tangled knot of mixed feelings on the subject. Her mind drifted to Mythal, and the temple, and the woman’s long absence. She wondered what she had done. If she had succeeded, or what success might even look like.

She found herself staring around the alienage, suddenly at something of a loss.

“If you wake up the others,” she asked, quietly, “what will they make of us?”

Solas was silent, standing at her shoulder for a moment. She stared at the massive tree, painted, reaching green branches around tattered brown buildings.

“I could say it would depend on which one you ask, and that would be true,” he finally told her. “I could say that time may have changed them in innumerable ways for which I cannot possibly account, and that would also be true.”

“But?” she prodded.

“But…” he trailed off, and sighed. “They will think you are very small.”

Somehow, she got the impression he wasn’t referring to her height.

“Do you think we’re very small?” she wondered, finally turning to look at him.

He was frowning, brows knit. Looking at her face first, and then her eyes.

“I know better. Though sometimes, I forget what that must entail,” he admitted.

She could accept that answer.

With a sigh, she reached over, and threaded her hand into his elbow. He seemed surprised at the touch, but didn’t pull away, or gently remove her, or clear his throat to imply that she should back up a little.

What are you doing? she asked herself.

Nothing smart, probably.

“So. What do you need for this ritual?” she asked.

“A few things. Shall we go to the market?” he suggested.

“Unless you have anything more urgent to show me.”

“Nothing that’s occurring to me,” he assured her, and then he smiled at her, as if she had done something bewildering but delightful.

Perhaps she had.

 

~

 

The Lowtown market wasn’t any less interesting the second time around.

Haggling was an art form she’d witnessed before but was unaccustomed to herself. As a hunter she had been expected to provide goods for the clan; trading them with other clans or with traveling merchants hadn’t been one of her responsibilities.

Josephine was an excellent negotiator, of course, but on the road, most of their dealings with traders had been handled by Varric or Vivienne, sometimes Blackwall, and on a few memorable occasions, Solas and Sera. The latter two generally only butting in when they smelled a scam in the making.

Sera would always burst forward with a flurry of motion, a finger to the merchant’s chest and a sneer on her lips. You’re wanting to get what for this shite rubbish?!

Solas, on the other hand, would begin asking questions.

The more questions he asked, the more whoever they were dealing with tended to start sweating.

Once or twice, when the swindler was particularly adept, he would get that odd, predatory gleam in his eye. She loved when that happened, if only because he usually followed up his inevitable victory with a spring in his step or a whistle on his lips. A smile at the least, and sometimes he’d get bold, then, and steal a kiss or two when no one was watching.

Lowtown’s market sent Solas straight into that exact kind of mood.

Some of the merchants were clearly familiar with him. Some even seemed to have arguments readily prepared. Costs of ingredients and how some things were just so hard to get and prepare and came from so very far away came up a lot.

Solas dismantled them.

She could see the wolf in him, she thought; knowing what it was. The angle of his jaw, the odd sharpness to his canines, the way he had two smiles – one which meant what most smiles meant, and one which was more like a baring of teeth. The latter only seemed to make an appearance when someone was being particularly belligerent.

Or if the term ‘knife-ear’ came up a few times too often, as though he was trying to make a subtle point about where the knives on his person might actually be.

As fascinating as he was to watch, however, she had only so much interest to spare for the price of wyvern bone powder, and so after a while she left him to wander.

A few pickpockets tried their hand at her, but of course she didn’t have anything to offer; most of them were young, anyway, so she didn’t bother trying to catch their fingers. They scampered away as soon as they realized their rotten luck, swift as little shadows.

“You there,” one of the shemlen merchants called to her. “You a Dalish, yeah?”

He had the look of a Fereldan about him; mostly in the tattoos. She nodded, because it was fairly obvious, and the merchant started waving her over.

His cart was loaded down with curiosities, mostly. Knick-knacks and jewellery, preserved nug feet and a couple of halla carvings. The sorts of things scavengers tended to dredge up out of abandoned houses or campsites, or even ruins.

“You with them up on the mountain?” the merchant asked her.

“No,” she admitted. “My clan’s further afield.”

“Perfect. Listen, you get anything to sell, I’ll give you good coin on it,” the merchant informed her, to her surprise; she’d more expected some kind of sales pitch, perhaps for one of the carvings.

“Better’n they’ll give you in the Gallows, and you won’t have to deal with no Tranquil or Templars breathing down your neck,” he continued.

“They buy from Dalish in the Gallows?” she asked.

He snorted, and waved a hand dismissively.

“Maker, they’ll buy anything that’ll look fancy with a rune on it these days. But they’ll leave you scraping the bottom of the barrel. Nobody’ll offer a better price than me, nobody’s got my contacts to sell to,” he promised her. “Up in HIghtown, the lord-to-do’s give a fair price for ‘exotic’ goods. You give me something I can tell ‘em a real live wild elf made, and you won’t go wrong. Steady business.”

Well, that was an opportunity at least. Provided it wasn’t some kind of set-up, though she didn’t see how, yet.

“I’ll keep it in mind,” she promised.

“You can find me here, most days,” he informed her.

She nodded in thanks, and turned to go, and nearly bowled over someone standing behind her.

Catching herself, she blinked down and half expected to see another pickpocket.

But the blond head topped a body that was too sturdy of frame for a child, and the peculiar blue eyes that peered up at her were ones she’d seen before.

“Enchantment,” Sandal greeted, staring at her hand.

“Good day, Sandal,” she replied, with a quick glance around. “Is your father with you?”

“No,” he informed her.

“You haven’t wandered off, have you?” she wondered.

“No. Market day!” he declared, happily.

His enthusiasm drew a smile out of her.

A wisp of a girl approached them, then, a young elf with a large basket and a pair of the widest eyes she’d ever seen. Those eyes flitted to her, traced over the markings on her face, and then dropped hastily.

“I’m sorry. Is-is he bothering you?” the girl asked. “He doesn’t mean any harm.”

“No, no, it’s alright,” she assured her.

“Orana!” Sandal greeted, cheerily. “Enchantment!”

“I should find my friend,” she decided. “It was nice seeing you again, Sandal.”

Sandal blinked at her, his smile widening. But when she turned to go, he reached out and caught her hand. Not ungently; but enough to stop her. The girl, Orana, gasped, and immediately ducked into a bow. But Sandal only stared intently at her palm for several minutes, as if he was quite easily examining the anchor under her glove.

Then he looked back up at her.

“Enchantment?”

“Um. Yes?” she hazarded. “I suppose, in a manner of speaking, it’s a sort of enchantment.”

He beamed, and let go of her, and clapped his hands together.

“Enchantment!”

“Mistress, please forgive the transgression!” Orana begged her. She was reminded uncomfortably of some of the elves back in Haven; the servants who’d flinched and jumped and only ever stolen glances at her, though whether it was because she was the ‘Herald’ or because she was Dalish, or both, she couldn’t say.

“It’s forgiven,” she promised. “No harm done.”

Reaching over, she patted Sandal on the shoulder, and then looked around to see where Solas had gotten to.

She found him haggling at a stall one over from where she’d left him, several new purchases wrapped and tucked under one arm.

Though he didn’t break stride in his conversation, he moved the parcels from one side of his to the other; leaving the arm facing her empty, even though it meant his other side was overburdened with both his staff and his purchases.

A streak of mischief flared up in her.

“That looks uncomfortable,” she noted. “Here, let me take those.”

“That isn’t necessary,” he assured her.

“It’s no trouble,” she insisted, and claimed the parcels from him. They were more bulk than weight, anyway, and she’d handled magical ingredients often enough to know how not to jostle them.

Once she’d settled them at her own side, she reached over and took his arm again.

Her lips twitched.

He sighed; though it seemed the sigh couldn’t decide whether it was exasperated or appeased.

In truth, though, beyond any other considerations, she knew that Solas was rarely touched by anyone. And with the situation with her clan as it was, there weren’t many people she could turn to for contact, either. All knotty issues of past and present relationships aside, there was something unfailingly reassuring about the point of contact.

Just like it had been in the Fade, and just like it had been when he was a wolf.

It seemed this merchant held the last parcel they needed. Once a price had been agreed upon and goods had exchanged hands, they returned to the alienage.

“So,” she began. “What exactly did we get and what, precisely, do we need to do with it all?”

“Most people dream without much coherence,” Solas explained. “That is one reason why dreaming can lower inhibitions.” His gaze flitted towards her hand in the crook of his arm. “It is also why the Fade can seem markedly different from one dreamer to the next, and why few non-mages can meet one another there. In the Fade, a dreamer who is not a mage is as vague and undefined as a formless spirit is in this world. And even mages tend to possess little more in the way of coherence.”

“You do,” she noted.

“I am different,” he reminded her.

“I know, but is it just part of your nature to be different, or is it because you’ve had a lot of time to practice?” she wondered.

He considered that, tilting his head slightly.

“Honestly, I cannot say,” he admitted. “When I was actually young, the Veil was the barest of curtains. If it had been as it is now, I have no idea whether my interactions with the Fade would be the same.”

“If so much of it’s based on perception, then probably not,” she mused.

He shrugged.

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. You are closer than most to matching me there; though I suppose the question remains as to whether that is because of your unique nature, or because you have been encouraged by experience to perceive things differently. And whether or not there is much distinction between those points.”

She thought back to the first time she had met Solas in the Fade.

They had walked through Haven, somehow unburied from the avalanche. That had seemed strange to her, but she hadn’t been able to grasp the thought of why. Some part of her had thought it entirely normal to walk through Haven with Solas. They’d done it before. It was a sturdier sense of normalcy than any thought of Corypheus, at least.

And of course, she’d kissed him.

She’d been wanting to for a while by then, truth be told. She just hadn’t been sure how to build up to it. ‘Hey, so, you kind of saved my life and you’re remarkably handsome and you keep helping me and I was just wondering what your mouth might taste like’?

Of course, at the time she hadn’t known that some large percentage of his helpfulness could be attributed to guilt.

How much of it was guilt this time around, too, she wondered?

It took her a second to realize that Solas was still talking.

“…should help make things more focused,” he concluded, glancing towards her.

“I apologize, you lost me,” she confessed. “What will make things more focused?”

“The ritual,” he said, frowning a little. “It will allow me to draw more of your consistent focus, and Merrill’s, deliberately into the Fade. That part is simple enough, in fact; the wards to wake us in case of trouble are much more complex.”

“You mean it’s not as simple as just getting them to make a really loud noise?” she asked, gently releasing his arm.

“In a sense. Ensuring that the wards will trigger under the appropriate circumstance is the real issue. Is something wrong?” he wondered.

“No. I just… it’s me, not you,” she assured him. “I should go.”

His frown deepened as she handed him back his parcels.

“Go where?” he asked.

She fished around for an adequate excuse.

“Anders,” she settled. “If we’re going to take Justice into danger, we should at least let him know. You said I should decide on that; well, I’ve decided.” That she had decided just that second probably didn’t merit mentioning. She would have made the same choice eventually, anyway.

“It’s unwise to traverse Darktown alone, even in daylight,” Solas replied. “Give me a moment and I will accompany you.”

“It’s fine,” she insisted. “I know how to defend myself. Obviously. Just, work on the setting up what you need to.”

“Did I say something wrong?” he wondered.

“No,” she told him, firmly. “I need to clear my head. That’s all. I’ll be back.”

She left him, then, and focused on making her way through Lowtown’s streets.

It took longer without a guide, but she had a good memory, and for all its faults Kirkwall at least offered plenty of distinctive landmarks. She found an entrance to Darktown, and it was precisely as unpleasant as she recalled.

There wasn’t even the faintest glimpse of authority, and she was actively looking for it then. No chantry sisters, no guards, not even any Templars. All things considered they might have done more harm than good, but it was clear that Darktown had more or less been abandoned to its miserable self.

The exception to the rule seemed to be the clinic.

It was more crowded than it had been last time. Instead of the boy and the closed door, the entrance to the exterior corridor was wide open, and there were two armed women on either side of it. Lean and hard-faced, but one of them left their post to help a limping man navigate the tunnel, and neither of them gave her more than a glance.

The tunnel itself was lined with a few miserable-looking souls, some hastily bandaged, clutching injuries. Most of them looked like labourers. Something had happened at the docks again, she guessed, some accident, though it didn’t say much for Kirkwall that so many of the injured apparently had no better recourse than crawling into Darktown to get help from an apostate’s slum clinic.

Inside the actual clinic, it was chaos. She was reminded vividly of the field medic tents she’d been in, the scent of blood and the rush of movement, the cries of panic and pain.

Anders was at the center of it, hands glowing, calling out instructions to the people who were assisting him. Those came in all stripes, it seemed – a few elves, some kids and teenagers, an elderly woman, a pair of middle-aged men. One or two even seemed to have a bit of magical talent about them, though they used it sparingly.

Most, though, just tied bandages and splinted broken bones, helped hold people down when they needed holding down and kept anyone from jumping the queue, and shoved things into Anders’ hands when he shouted for them.

The elderly woman, stern-faced, stopped her at the door and gave her a quick once-over.

“Back of the line if you’re walking.”

“Can I help?” she asked. Obviously, Anders wouldn’t be available for conversation for a while.

“Experience?” the old woman asked her, briskly.

“Hunting, battlegrounds. I know how to stitch a wound and wrap a bandage and I’m not squeamish,” she offered.

Without any further ado she was pulled into the current of the chaos, then, first to help staunch the bleeding of a woman with a mangled arm, and then, once it was clear that she wasn’t overselling herself, she was pushed out into the tunnel with instructions to make sure no one died or lost any more bits of themselves while they were waiting for Anders.

It wasn’t precisely her area of expertise, but all of the more qualified hands were busy, and most of the injured parties themselves seemed to know less than nothing about dealing with their wounds. One man had a chunk of wood the size of her fist lodged in his shoulder. He kept asking her to help him pull it out.

“If I do that, you’ll probably bleed to death,” she informed him. “You ever seen a man hit with an arrow? You don’t pull it out until you’re ready to deal with the blood.”

One of the first things Keeper Deshanna used to drill into the hunters’ heads; if something happened, you got back to her, and then you got it dealt with.

“What’s a fuckin’ knife-ear know? It ain’t an arrow,” he grumbled, but stopped trying to paw at it and make it worse, at least.

She left him to wrap up his neighbour’s head wound.

From the somewhat less hostile wounded, she gathered that there’d been a scaffolding collapse at the docks. Most of the workers at the top had crashed into the water, which had been fine for the ones who could swim (and a few who were fished out all the same), but everyone underneath had hit stone or timber or both. No one could quite seem to agree on the death count; she heard as low as seven and as high as twenty.

“Docks’re cursed now,” one of the workers solemnly informed her, as she tied a tourniquet over his knee. “It’s the ghost of the Mad Ox.”

“I’m almost positive that a qunari’s ghost would be a spit in the ocean as far as Kirkwall’s concerned,” she assured him.

“What?” he asked.

“Never mind. Try not to move around a lot.”

At some point she was yanked back into the clinic proper to help stitch a gash on a man who needed holding down for it. There was no anaesthetic left to go around, it seemed, the mages were spread too thin already to cast the spell for it. She worked as fast as she could, trying not to mangle the job as the flesh she was working twisted beneath the needle.

It was ugly going.

Then it was back out into the tunnel, and things got even more chaotic as six more patients arrived, most of them barely alive and being carted between two or more of their fellows.

“Carta thugs have been waylaying others on the way,” one of the less-injured parties informed the women at the door. “They know the champion’s not in the city.”

“Take my post a bit. I’ll grab some more warm bodies for the tunnel further up,” she requested, and then took off.

The other guard turned a speculative glance in her direction, then, as she floundered in the face of injuries which went well beyond her means.

“You know how to use that bow?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” she confirmed.

“Good. Stay close, then.”

She did, though it didn’t seem to come to anything, and she had her hands full just trying to keep anyone she could from bleeding out for as long as possible.

At least it was, if nothing else, a very thorough distraction.

She was starting to worry about the amount of magic still being used in the clinic proper, however. That kind of sustained casting was exhausting. Even lyrium potions only went so far, and she wasn’t sure how steady a supply of those the clinic even had.

When Solas turned up, she didn’t think twice about pushing him in the general direction of Anders.

“Go, help, before he passes out,” she requested.

The urgency must have carried through, because he only squeezed her arm, once, reassuringly, and then did as she asked.

Gradually, after that, they started moving out more people than they were getting in. Some were arranged onto cots in the far corner of the clinic, but others were deemed suitable to return home, and were taken, limping or carried, back through the tunnels. Her task changed from emergency medic to bodyguard, and she was given an excellent chance to become familiar with at least half a dozen ways out of Darktown as she escorted some of the injured back up to the comparative luxury of Lowtown.

For some reason, no one opted to challenge the grim-faced Dalish elf, armed and covered head to toe in other people’s blood.

When she returned from her last escort, the old woman who’d recruited her in the first place handed her a basin of relatively clear water and a cloth.

“Clean up. We pay in broth. Nothing fancy, but it’ll keep you from starving,” she was informed.

“I don’t need it. But thank you.”

The old woman nodded.

“Good on you, then. We don’t forget who helps around here.”

She did her best, then, to get the blood off of her gear. There was a lot of it, and the little basin was scarcely up to the task, but she was well-versed in the practice, at least. When she’d done the best she was going to manage, she went and found Anders and Solas.

Anders was slumped against one of the clinic walls, dead asleep.

Solas was propped up next to him, arms folded, staff at his side.

“You were gone for hours,” he informed her.

She blinked at him.

Then she gestured pointedly at the obvious remnants of ‘obvious emergency’ still blatantly scattered all around them.

He sighed, and ran a hand across his brow.

“I realize the delay was unintentional, but… venturing into Darktown alone is still unwise. I should have accompanied you. Or at the very least, suggested that you clear your head in a less volatile location.”

She snorted.

“You showed up eventually anyway. And it worked. Although I didn’t get much of a chance to talk to Anders.”

The mage in question let out a quiet snore.

“We should, perhaps, delay our expedition anyway,” Solas suggested. “Spirits can prey all too easily upon the wrong emotions. This venture is dangerous enough, but if there is something particularly disquieting to you about it, it will take full advantage of that fact.”

She paused, and then raised an eyebrow at him.

“If we’re supposed to work out all of our emotional issues before we try this, we’ll never get around to it,” she pointed out.

All would be over-ambitious,” he conceded.

She stared at him. He had that stubborn set to his jaw. She was used to associating that with him being closed-off, secretive, backing up. It had become a nearly-permanent feature of his after Crestwood, that and the little muscle which tightened whenever she even tried to… to…

But he wasn’t backing up. He was stepping forward. Metaphorically; he hadn’t actually moved away from the wall, Anders would probably topple over if he did.

There were no more secrets but there were still a lot of questions, she supposed. For both of them, probably.

“Alright,” she decided. “But I’m not talking this out with half of Kirkwall’s traumatically injured labour force listening in.”

“Fair enough.”

There wasn’t a single spare cot, mattress, blanket or pillow in the clinic, but there was, apparently, a tunnel that connected to Hawke’s Hightown manor just beyond it. Solas assured her that they’d be welcome there, under the circumstances, and so between the two of them they managed to lug Anders into the passageway, and then up what felt like thousands of stairs, and past a few locked doors. They found the key for one of them in Anders’ pockets, but the other two required some creativity on her part.

She was decidedly nervous about emerging into the Champion of Kirkwall’s cellar, still not-insignificantly-covered in blood and carting an unconscious mage around, but judging by the fully-supplied wash basin, bag of non-perishable foodstuffs, and cot by the door, it wasn’t an entirely unprecedented experience.

They dumped Anders on the cot and took advantage of the wash basin themselves, and then left the way they’d come, re-sealing the doors behind them. It wasn’t exactly a scenic route, by any means, but she still found she preferred it to the massive Staircase of Oppression.

By the time they made it back to the alienage, however, they were both utterly exhausted. They didn’t even bother to speak enough to establish that they weren’t going to speak yet. She removed as much of her clothing as reasonably possible, barely noting the runes he’d drawn on his walls, and then stared when he propped himself up on the floor.

“No wolf?” she finally asked.

“Too tired,” he informed her.

With a tremendous sigh she gathered the blankets off his bed. Her arms almost felt like they were made of stone again.

“What are you doing?” he wondered.

“You’re not going to sleep on the bed. I’m not going to sleep on the bed. We’re going to sleep on the floor,” she coherently informed him, before dumping the blankets onto him.

It was a trick she’d used before in spaces where the ground was stony and the air was cold; get a blanket, get a friend, prop yourselves up with one another and let the trapped body heat do the rest. Not the most comfortable, but better than sleeping on the rug with no fur.

“You may sleep in the bed,” Solas informed her.

“Nope,” she declared, and rearranged things until they were satisfactory.

Exhausted as she was, she fell asleep almost as soon as she’d slumped against him.

She dreamed of odd things, for a while. Spikes and flames and blood, qunari horns lodged in flesh, needles threading themselves through her fingers. Nothing pleasant. Not until she felt a certain tug, and then pale hands took her own. The needles vanished, their bloodied holes closing at a touch.

She glanced up.

And then blinked.

It was Solas, but… not quite.

He was tall. Very tall. Built like the ancient elves had been, lean and clad in his dark finery, with a wolf’s fur mantle thrown over his shoulders, and a matching headdress casting most of his features into shadow. Long, narrow braids of hair trailed over his shoulders. The fabric he was wearing shimmered like water in places.

His face was the same, though. Eyes, too.

He smiled at her.

“Now you have seen all of my guises,” he informed her.

She reached out and plucked up one of his braids.

“You weren’t kidding about the hair.”

He laughed, and helped her to her feet.

They were in a room. Not a particularly colourful one; a window let in some ambiguous light, and there was a table and chair set, but that was about it. It was still a vast improvement over Kirkwall’s other dream locales, however.

Solas – or Fen’Harel, she thought, given that this form was to his usual one what the many-eyed beast was to the regular wolf – fairly towered over her. She blinked up at him, and tried to imagine a world where he fit in. Because there was no place she had seen in Thedas that would suit the man in front of her right now.

“No commentary on my height?” he wondered.

“How’s the weather up there?” she asked.

He grinned.

“Not significantly different, I don’t think. Let me check.”

He shimmered, briefly, and then he looked normal once again. Mantle, hair, and finery all wisped off into the Fade, and left behind a more reasonably-sized and modestly clad elf.

“There,” he declared. “Precisely the same. Just as I suspected.”

She shook her head at him.

“That was ridiculous,” she accused.

“Such strange preferences you have. General consensus was once that I was quite fetching in that form,” he told her.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were fishing for compliments,” she replied, raising her eyebrows at him and tutting in mock disapproval.

They were standing very close, she realized, then. She still had to tilt to look up at him. If she nudged forward just a bit, she’d bump into his chest. He was looking straight back at her, eyes fixed on her face again. Then his gaze trailed, briefly, to her lips.

She stepped back, and turned away.

“Sorry,” she said.

“No. I should apologize. I overstepped,” he replied.

“I…” she let out a huff of air, planted her hands on her hips. “The first time I kissed you was in the Fade,” she admitted.

Was she really going to talk about this?

Well. There probably wouldn’t be a better place.

Solas was quiet. She glanced towards him, but his expression was hard to read.

“It’s strange to say it like that, because I haven’t actually kissed you at all,” she admitted. “It must be strange to hear it, too. I… pursued you. I wanted to. You were more reluctant. I won you over, I suppose. I kissed you first, and then I kept catching you whenever you tried to bow out or back down, and… I don’t know. I knew there was something, but I really… I thought maybe I could offer enough that whatever it was wouldn’t matter, in the end.”

She was twisting her fingers together again. She stopped, and stared down at her hands.

“One night you took me to a glen where the Veil was thin. You told me, you wanted me to know the truth. And you told me about vallaslin.” Reaching up, she traced the markings in question. “You said you knew a spell to remove it. I asked you to cast it. I knew what it meant, how other Dalish would see it, but… I was tired of having everything turn out to be wrong. I was tired of feeling as though I had been deceived. So you cast the spell, and you told me I was free. And then you left me.”

It felt a little different, dredging up that familiar pain this time, somehow. Less like she was feeling it all over again, and more like she was turning it over in her hands, running her fingers across all the dents and cracks.

“You wouldn’t tell me why. I was hurt, and angry, and afraid that I’d run you into a corner somehow, or done something wrong without realizing it, but all you would say was that it was your mistake. As if I didn’t have any stake in it. All that time I spent activating artifacts and trying to figure out what Corypheus was doing with the orb and closing rifts and wondering why the man I’d loved had suddenly gone cold to me, and I… I can’t even yell at you for it, because you didn’t do it! I can’t shake the answers out of you because they aren’t there.”

She sighed, and was appalled when it came out more like a sob. A frustrated curse escaped her, and when she looked at Solas again, he still had that unreadable expression on his face.

“I know it’s strange,” she reiterated. “I don’t know why you accepted my pursuit in the first place. I don’t expect you to just have those kinds of feelings for me because you seemed to, once. It’s just difficult because sometimes I don’t know if – if I can… because I still, but you aren’t – but you are…” she trailed off, caught between aggravation and embarrassment and sorrow, and ran a hand down the side of her face.

“I’m your friend. That hasn’t changed,” she decided. “I just need to work the rest of it out, I suppose.”

The quiet stretched on for a moment. She couldn’t really tell if she’d just cleared the air between them, or sent them spiralling into a pit of eternal awkwardness.

“It is very vexing,” Solas finally said. “I want to kill myself. By which I mean, my other self. Who is still me. That ass. I want to kill him.”

His vehemence startled a shocked laugh out of her.

“I rather liked him, you know,” she admitted. “That was sort of the whole issue there.”

They fell silent again.

“I told you I was a coward,” he finally said. “I will not excuse it, but… the Dalish do not view me favourably. And that is even without the matter of the orb. If I told you some of it, I would have to tell you all of it. Perhaps I thought you would reject my true identity. Perhaps I thought you would try and stop me. Perhaps I thought that meant I would have to fight you. Or perhaps I believed I could keep you safe, somehow, in ignorance. I wish I could tell you precisely what it was. But I can tell you that if I found your advances in any way objectionable, I never would have accepted them.”

She finally looked over at him again.

He looked… gutted, was the only word for it. He wasn’t fighting it, either. He wasn’t packing it all back up to put behind a mask of politeness or indifference.

“I cannot imagine objecting to them,” he confessed. “I cannot imagine that I was anything other than a witless fool who was completely taken with you, and made, per usual, a complete mess of the entire situation.”

The bitter loathing in his tone, the bite to it, took her aback.

“Don’t,” she said, and it seemed to surprise them both. But then she rallied. “I didn’t fall in love with you just for your cheekbones or your pretty eyes, you know. You weren’t without your redeeming qualities.”

Solas stared at her. His expression cleared, some, and he took a tentative step closer.

“Are they, perhaps, qualities which I still seem to possess? Even knowing what you know now?” he wondered.

She considered that.

Truthfulness had taken something of a hit, obviously, though he still struck her as more honest than not, funnily enough. Kindness, yes, that hadn’t vanished into the ether. That burning distaste for corruption and mistreatment was vital as ever. Wit and humour and intelligence also remained. Though those all felt like insufficient parts of a whole she had difficulty describing.

“Yes,” she decided. “They’re all still there.”

He pressed a hand to his face, and she wasn’t sure if it was in distress or relief.

“Could you forgive me, do you think?” he wondered, then, eyes hidden from her.

She sighed.

And there it was.

“I already have,” she admitted. “Really, at this point, I just want to know. And also yell a bit.”

A choked sound escaped him, but then his lips quirked, as if he couldn’t quite decide whether to laugh or scream.

“You may yell as much as you like,” he informed her.

“It’s not the same if you didn’t actually do what I’m yelling at you for,” she said.

“You could pretend,” he suggested. “I hear I even possess a very striking resemblance to your previous lover. Just imagine that I am him.”

She snorted. Then she chuckled. Then somehow they were both laughing like fools, even though that was terrible and not actually all that funny, and at some point either she’d grabbed him or he’d grabbed her because his chest was rumbling against her and she had her chin on his shoulder, and maybe she wasn’t laughing, exactly. Or just laughing, anyway.

“You absolute bastard, you broke my heart miles away from Skyhold. I had to hike home in utter misery, and then when I got there all anyone could do what ask what had happened to my face," she finally gasped.

“That is terrible,” Solas replied, a little hysterically. “I was a tit.”

The petty insult startled another laugh out of her.

“You did it before we went off to fight Corypheus. You said you wouldn’t distract me anymore. It was the most distracting thing you ever could have possibly done, it was such a self-defeating premise I still can’t believe that was the line you went with.”

“That – yes, that is astonishingly flimsy,” he agreed.

“When you told me to use my pain as a tool in the fight, I almost slapped you,” she confessed.

“You should have. You still can,” he offered.

She tightened her grip on him.

“Don’t be stupid. If I couldn’t bring myself to do it then, I definitely won’t do it now.”

“We are in the Fade. It won’t actually do me any harm,” he pointed out.

She calmed down a bit, and let out a long breath.

“No,” she said. “I don’t want to hit you. I don’t want you hurt, I don’t want you suffering, I don’t want you always paying for all of these mistakes that you made or think you made or might have made in another life that I erased with time travel.”

He shuddered in her arms.

“They are all still my mistakes,” he whispered.

“Perhaps. But sometimes you just have to move on,” she told him. “Sometimes you make the wrong call. Sometimes you’re fine and other people aren’t. Sometimes doing what you can to fix it isn’t the same as punishing yourself for it.”

She pulled back a little, moved to pat his shoulder but somehow ended up with her hand resting over top of his heart instead.

“I’m not going to hit you,” she concluded.

He gave her that gutted look again.

“The remnant,” he said.

She blinked.

“Huh?”

“What Kirkwall feeds. The broken thing, barely there but still consuming,” he said. “I think I know what it is.”

“Okay,” she replied. “Not quite sure why we’re talking about that right now, but okay.”

Solas took her by both hands.

“At the very least, I can try and stop myself making all of the same mistakes over and over again,” he said. “Here is a mistake I am not making again – I am telling you everything. The remnant… I don’t want to destroy it. Not yet. I need to speak to it. I believe it may be what is left of Dumat.”

Corypheus’ patron. The archdemon of the First Blight. The Tevinter Old God of Silence.

She had to take a minute to process that. As well as the abrupt shift in mood it brought on.

Gently, she disentangled her hands from his.

“Why do you think it’s Dumat, and why would you want to speak to it even if it is?” she wondered. “Whatever is under Kirkwall is definitely evil. I mean that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” he agreed. “And I know of no ‘Dumat’ nor any God of Silence from the days of Elvhenan. But Tevinter stole much from elvhen culture and renamed it, reshaped it to suit them better. It is possible that what they call ‘Dumat’ is one I would know by a different name. This – all of this – the darkspawn, Corypheus, the changes in the world, if any being can tell us what is going on, it may be this one. This is where Dumat’s priest was imprisoned, this is the source of red lyrium, this is a focal point, and all of the signs I have discovered since I came here have led to the same answer. It is Dumat.”

She remembered that lone figure in the dark, calling that name.

Fading out, like a whisper.

Into silence.

“You want to speak to this thing, when every indication we have is that this being is a corrupting, evil influence? When we don’t even know if it is Dumat, but if it is, that just makes it worse?” she confirmed.

“It is dangerous, I know,” he admitted. “But apart from blowing up Hightown it may actually be the only way to resolve the situation here. If we can draw the remnant out, and discover what it is – whether it is Dumat and if it is Dumat, what Dumat is – we could discover how to destroy it. Along with countless other hidden truths. We could discover what the blight really is, we could discover what may have happened to my kin, and with those discoveries, we could learn how to fight the problems that are slowly destroying this world.”

He was pleading with her, trying to make her see it how he saw it. And she did. He wasn’t wrong.

“How do we keep this from blowing up in our faces?” she wondered, folding her arms and running a finger along her temple. “Because I’m hearing ‘let’s wake up something that is definitely, if nothing else, very extremely evil and chat with it’ and that’s… concerning.”

“I do not know,” he admitted.

She closed her eyes.

“Moments like these make me wish there was actually a higher power I felt comfortable invoking,” she informed him.

“You could always imagine one. In my experience, it amounts to much the same thing,” he informed her.

She reached over, grabbed him by the shoulders, and gave him a very firm shake.

“Not helping.”

“No, I suppose not.”

“Solas, we need a better plan than ‘let’s just wake it up and hope for the best’,” she decided.

“Yes,” he agreed. “At this point, I am not even entirely certain how to go about the ‘waking’ part. It may not yet be coherent enough to communicate. That was why I said nothing before; it seemed pointless to concern you if the matter ultimately came to nothing.”

“Well. I’m very glad you turned that thinking around,” she said. “Because if I’d had to fish you out of Dumat’s jaws after you tumbled your way into them, you would be asking me to put you back before long.”

His expression softened, somewhat, and she realized she was still holding on to his arms.

“But you would fish me out, wouldn’t you?” he asked her.

“Yes,” she admitted.

“And you would want to forgive me, wouldn’t you?”

“…Yes. But don’t think that’s permission to keep secrets and twist my trust,” she warned.

He leaned forward, and her breath caught in her throat as he tipped his forehead against hers, his soft exhalation ghosting across her cheek.

“Never, ma vhenan,” he promised.

She sucked in a shocked breath, and opened her eyes to the darkness of the alienage house.

For one disoriented moment she had no idea where she was or what she’d been doing. It didn’t last long, thankfully, and she sighed, and winced as she shifted slightly. She was warm enough but the floor was hard, and Solas was a solid block of heat right at her side, which had begun to itch.

Wide awake, she gently eased her way onto her feet. Her muscles protested; every inch of her was sore, still, and she didn’t go far, only reaching the door and sticking her head out to try and catch some fresh air.

‘Fresh’ was a relative term in Kirkwall’s alienage. She got air, at least.

After a few minutes she heard a shuffling. A shadow passed over her shoulder.

“Should I not have used that endearment?” Solas asked, voice rough.

“It’s not that,” she assured him. “I just didn’t expect it.”

She turned, and faced him. He was blinking a little, awake but just barely, a blanket thrown over his shoulders and a concerned frown twisting his mouth.

It seemed the simplest thing, to lean over and press a kiss to it.

He was soft and warm, pliant with sleepiness and surprise.

When she pulled back he blinked again, at her face and then at her mouth. He raised a hand and cupped her cheek, and ran his thumb against her bottom lip, as if making certain it was actually there before he leaned forward and returned the gesture; a soft, simple kiss.

No tongue. But it still made her stomach flip.

When he straightened away, he only looked marginally more awake.

“Do you really think my eyes are pretty?” he asked.

She huffed, and stole some of the blanket around him by leaning into him.

“That’s what you’re hanging onto? We’re not talking about Dumat anymore?” she wondered.

“We may speak about that as much as you like. Though, preferably where half the alienage can’t overhear,” he replied, leaning his head against hers again.

“But half the alienage can hear about your pretty, pretty eyes?” she asked.

“Twice as pretty as I’d thought. I shall have to remember that,” he said, and then inhaled, deeply, as if they weren’t up to their noses in his musty blankets.

“Maybe I should write you poetry,” she suggested. “Solas, beloved, whose eyes are so pretty, like a very pretty thing, just so pretty you wouldn’t even believe it, sometimes it’s like they hold the whole sky or something equally symbolic.”

His shoulders shook, and he grinned against her temple.

“Pure artistry,” he complimented. “Your ancestors would be stunned into awed silence if they’d witnessed that.”

“Perhaps they’d weep?” she suggested.

“Definitely, they would weep,” he agreed.

“Keeper Deshanna will be so pleased to know that all those times she told me I was making my forebears cry, she was absolutely correct.”

Solas laughed. She loved that sound; and she decided to let herself love that sound. Bask in it, a little bit. Somehow she managed to steer him towards the bed, but when she nudged him down his lips twisted into a grin, and he pulled her down with him, and engulfing her in the blanket.

Then he sighed, and settled against her.

She waited, pulse thumping. But when neither of them made any further moves, she glanced back at him.

He smiled at her.

“Sleep?” he suggested.

“Just sleep?” she wondered.

“We are exhausted,” he informed her. “And in this life, at least, I am not an insatiable beast. Nor am I that presumptuous.”

“Eventually you’re going to have to stop being mad at yourself,” she pointed out. But she also relaxed; she hadn’t even realized that she’d been tensed. It was only… well. There was moving fast, and then there was moving too fast.

“I imagine if I disassociate myself from the alternate timeline fervently enough, I can maintain a complex resentment indefinitely,” he countered. “In fact, I could probably do it even without the disassociation.”

“Oooh, that sounds healthy.”

“It could be. The situation is rather unprecedented. Who can really say what qualifies as a healthy reaction to it?”

She gave him a sceptical look, and he relented.

“Tomorrow, I will attempt a more positive outlook. Tonight, I will disparage your former lover, and gloat at his memory that you are now in my arms, safe and relatively sound. Even if your former lover is technically also me.”

“Hmm,” she mused. “That means I’m technically safe and sound in his arms, too. I don’t know if the gloating will work.”

“It will work because we are now ignoring technicalities,” he informed her.

“Ah. I see. Gloat away, then.”

“Thank you.”

He sighed, and sank against the mattress, and finally she relaxed and rearranged herself a little more comfortably beside him.

When she drifted into sleep again, she dreamt only of quiet, peaceful things.

 

 

Chapter Text

She woke crammed against the wall, with her face essentially in Solas’ armpit and one of his knees digging into her.

There had been more dignified mornings in her life, but all she could manage for it was a smile and some careful rearranging so the knee wasn’t bothering her and her head was on his chest instead. The tiny little bed definitely wasn’t built with pairs in mind, but it didn’t feel as though she’d suffered too badly for it.

For a few minutes she just absorbed the rise and fall of Solas’ chest, and listened to his heartbeat.

Then she got up.

There was… a lot to consider.

She took the time to do it, leaning against the wall, staring alternately at Solas’ sleeping and face, and at the light spilling in through the cracks around his door. It was becoming clear what trajectory they were on, she thought. In a strange way, Kirkwall almost felt like a reflection of all Thedas; a funnel poised over a gaping maw.

Recent history had not been kind. Wars, Blights, and of course, the lingering potential for the Breach. It was easy to believe that the Dread Wolf was entirely correct, and everything was on a steady, downward decline towards ever-increasing catastrophe. One near-apocalypse in every generation was a source of concern; several within a decade of one another?

That was more than just a bad sign.

Something had to be attempted. The source of the problem had to be uncovered, if it was going to be stopped. Solas spoke of world-changing events, and those were frightening. Part of her wanted nothing more than to stop what disasters she knew about, leave everything else be, cross her fingers and hope for the best. But Corypheus had never been the whole problem. He had been a symptom.

The orb had never been the problem, either.

The darkness, the shadow she’d fled from in the Fade, back before she’d found herself again… maybe that was only a symptom, too.

But then that begged the question as what was the actual cause.

Are we really going to do this? she wondered.

Perhaps there was some solution she couldn’t yet see. Something that would solve all the world’s troubles with a minimum of risk or cost.

Yes, and perhaps it’ll start raining cookies and free kittens, she thought with a deep mental sigh. Of course there wasn’t. There was only danger and the unknown and one desperate path towards possibly stopping it, or maybe just making it worse instead.

Her eyes drifted down to her mark.

Kirkwall first, she decided. The rest of it, later.

Big problems were often best tackled by breaking them down into smaller chunks, after all.

That in mind, she dressed, and set about getting ready for the day. When Solas woke he stared at her for a moment, then walked over and murmured something incomprehensible at her before slumping against her back and inhaling.

“You keep sniffing me,” she noticed.

“Hmm,” he replied.

“Do I smell strange?”

“No.”

“Do I smell good?” she asked, slightly incredulous. After all, between the scant bathing facilities and the running around and sweating and sleeping in his unwashed blankets, she wasn’t exactly exuding roses and lavender.

He laughed, a little. When she turned to glance at him, there was definitely a little more colour in his cheeks than usual.

“Perhaps,” he said.

Perhaps I smell good?”

She raised an eyebrow at him, and to her surprise he leaned down and pressed a quick kiss to her lips. Smiling.

“Perhaps you smell good,” he murmured in agreement.

She blinked at him, and then snorted.

“I think I’ll ask again when you’re actually awake.”

“If you like,” he replied, and leaned forward with another, slightly exaggerated inhalation until she laughed and pushed him back.

It reminded her of when she’d first woken him, though, that giant wolf sleeping in the Fade. He’d tried to smell her then, too. Maybe it’s his drowsiness, she mused. Wolves could track things by their scent, after all. Half awake, perhaps it was easier for him to make sense of the world with his nose than with his eyes or ears. Even in his elven form.

Not that it was terribly important, she supposed.

Merrill wasn’t in her house when they set out. The door was locked and barricaded and there was a little sign on the front, warning people not to try and break in because something terrible would happen to them if they did.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Solas said, and turned and headed back inside of his house. She watched curiously as he lifted up a set of floorboards underneath the bed, and retrieved two small boxes from within.

When he returned, she gave him a questioning look.

“There are few potion sellers I barter with for coin,” he explained. “Nothing too dangerous. Some remedies for sea sickness, insomnia, contraceptives and the like. I finished these the day you arrived, but somehow I managed to forget all about them. My buyer will be annoyed, she expected them yesterday.”

He smiled at her, ruefully.

She peered at the boxes, spying the carefully packed glass bottles within.

“Do you always hide them?” she wondered.

“Thieves are abundant here. Though oddly reluctant to steal from me. Still, I try not to make myself an appealing target, just the same,” he replied. “Would you object to accompanying me to the market place again?”

“Not at all,” she agreed, and took one of the boxes from him.

As they walked, she asked him questions about the potions he made, and about his other means of procuring coin. She mentioned the merchant she’d encountered the other day, the one who’d been asking after ‘Dalish crafts’, and he confirmed the man as being fairly genuine.

“I confess, I bartered him a few ‘elven’ items in my early days – useless trinkets, one and all,” Solas told her.

“I can carve,” she admitted.

It earned her an interested glance.

“Really?” he asked. “Can you paint?”

“Not very well. Though, someone taught me a few tricks,” she replied, waiting for the familiar pang in her chest. It still came, but it was markedly less painful than usual.

“I’ve always enjoyed painting,” he confessed.

“I know. You’re very good at it.”

He paused, considering for a moment.

“Do you play any instruments?” he then asked her, gently nudging them away from that topic.

“No,” she said, and then amended. “Unless we’re counting the occasional hand drum. But not since I was a child. What about you?”

“Several. Many of which are no longer in use,” he replied. “The fundamentals can often translate between certain instruments, however, even when the specifics have changed. But I was never considered to be more than mediocre by the standards of my teachers.”

“Oh?”

“I have a poor ear, apparently.”

She gave him a sceptical look.

“Or, it is possible that I spent most of my lessons sabotaging my fellow students, rather than paying attention to my instructors,” he admitted. “That was… long ago. Somehow, in all that followed, I never precisely reapplied myself to musical pursuits.”

“You don’t like music?” she wondered.

“On the contrary. I adore it,” he declared.

“But not as a personal endeavour?”

He considered that.

“Music is fleeting. A note is played, and then it is gone. If written, a song may live for as long as a story, but there is no permanency to sound itself. I find it simultaneously liberating to experience, and unsatisfying to create,” he admitted. “Nothing lasts forever, of course. Yet I am inevitably bereft at the end of a song.”

“Even cheerful ones? What about bawdy tavern songs, do they leave you bereft?” she suggested, bumping his arm with hers.

“Ah, those. I believe I heard an interesting one of those in the Hanged Man recently,” he mused. “Something about a noble woman who’d lost her slipper.”

“Do I want to hear it?”

“If you do, you will have to find someone else to sing it for you,” he informed her.

“But I bet you have a lovely voice,” she teased.

He smiled, and tilted his head thoughtfully.

“Singing was once considered a vital component to any courtship,” he informed her. “One was not serious in their attentions until they had composed and performed at least three ballads on the virtues of their intended, and one more on the perilous woes of being without them.”

She snorted.

“So, what? Would I be expected to stand beneath your balcony one evening and belt out a tune to let you know I was interested?” she wondered.

“Now that would be most scandalous,” Solas informed her. “A private performance! It would imply that you were attempting to win me over without consideration for my family’s approval.”

“Hmm. I’d dare that,” she ventured.

“I can scarcely imagine the lyrics you might devise,” he replied.

“Ohhh, my beloved’s eyes, they hold the skies, I’d cross oceans just to see them,” she belted out, and grinned at his wide-eyed shock. “And I’d walk a thousand miles just for his smiles, wade cursed marshes to be with him. I’d fight dragons for a single tooth, and thread it on a chain; and hang it ‘round his lovely neck, and carve in it my name.”

They drew a few curious glances from some of the elves in the alienage. One or two even smiled.

And Solas’ cheeks were a little pinker than usual.

“Did you come up with that on the spot?” he asked her.

“I confess, I may have modified an existing tune,” she admitted. “But give me some time and I’m certain I could whip something better up.”

“That shouldn’t be necessary,” he assured her. But the corners of his mouth were curved upwards, and it seemed he couldn’t quite force them back down again.

She hummed at him the rest of the way to the market, occasionally interspersing the tune of ‘There Once Was An Old Sailor From Rivain’ with lyrical compliments to his finer qualities. By the time they reached his apparent seller, he had succeeded into schooling his expression into something almost convincingly put-upon.

The seller in question was an impressively lovely woman, who grinned at the two of them like the cat who’d caught the canary.

“Solas! I was expecting you yesterday, my dear,” the woman chimed.

“I apologize; I was delayed,” Solas replied.

“I delayed him,” she immediately interjected. “Don’t blame him in the slightest. If there’s anything I can do to make amends, please let me know.”

“Never fear, darling. I’m a romantic at heart. All’s forgiven, this time,” the woman assured her, with a wink, before retrieving Solas’ payment and unburdening the boxes of potions from them both.

Once their hands were free, he almost immediately claimed one of hers.

“Do you suppose Anders is still sleeping in Hawke’s cellar?” she wondered.

“Given the state of him, I would not expect him to wake for most of the day unless disturbed,” Solas replied.

“Maybe we can catch him there, then,” she suggested.

They opted to approach the champion’s estate via more conventional means, and headed for Hightown, and its own lofty markets. The trip robbed her of the joviality required to keep singing, however, and they lapsed into silence.

When they reached Hawke’s home, Bodahn greeted them by the door, and, upon learning the reason for their visit, ushered them into the house.

“I’m afraid no one’s been to the cellar yet,” the friendly dwarf informed them. “I’ll just pop down and check if he’s there, shall I?”

“Sorry for the trouble,” she offered.

“Oh, it’s no trouble, no trouble at all,” he assured her. “I’ll have Orana set out some tea.”

They were led to a small dining area, then. The non-cellar, non-tunnel parts of Hawke’s estate were warmly decorated in rich reds and heavy woods. But the structure of the place seemed, at times, to be at odds with the contents of it; there were mismatched knickknacks and odd trophies littered about. Weapons, but also tiny plant pots and spare bits of parchment, a sort of tentative untidiness that made her think the estate’s chief resident harbored a secret desire for escape.

Orana – the girl from yesterday’s market – showed up very shortly, and even braved a few comments about the weather while serving them tea, before rapidly retreating.

“The champion has a peculiar household,” she noted.

“It is a status borne with sufferance,” Solas replied. “Hawke is the sort who demands it be made unconventional to even be tolerable.”

A thought occurred to her, as she sniffed at the tea she’d been offered. It smelled like what Dorian used to drink; a spicy blend that took well to added sweetness.

“Was that you were like, back in the day?” she wondered. “Bearing your status with sufferance?” It was something she could relate to, she supposed.

“Not like this,” he replied, turning his own nose up at his cup. “I maintained no household. My preference was to drift as a guest between others’ holdings, offering my services until I became unwelcome, and then moving on.”

“How Dalish of you,” she noted.

He blinked.

“It was not precisely the hardship of wilderness living,” he informed her.

“Still. To have moved from place to place like that, you must have kept very few belongings,” she reasoned.

“I had places that were mine. Not households. But a realm, a space,” he insisted.

“Dalish have storage places too,” she admitted. “Mostly we keep things that are too heavy or valuable to risk journeying with in them. Or emergency supplies, sometimes. There are three that I know about. Two are caves, one’s a ruin. The Keeper has to open it, it’s sealed with magic.”

“Hidden Dalish treasure troves? That sounds like something the humans would imagine,” he declared.

She shrugged.

“I don’t know that they would find their contents all that valuable. Though I don’t doubt they’d still clean them out, just the same,” she replied.

A scuffling of shoes drew their attention, then.

“Here we are, Messere Anders,” Bodahn announced.

Anders shuffled in and all but fell into one of the seats, looking half-dead and even less awake than Solas generally managed to in the morning.

He stared at Solas, and then blinked at her. And then blinked again.

“Oh. Glowy-hand,” he declared, waving vaguely at her in recognition.

“Good morning,” she greeted.

Solas immediately deposited his tea cup in front of Anders, and set about filling up a third cup with milk and honey instead.

Anders downed the tea with little preamble or hesitation. Then he tipped back in his chair and squinted at the ceiling.

“How did I get here?” he asked, bewildered.

“We brought you,” Solas informed him. “You were unconscious.”

“Oh,” Anders replied.

“There was a rush at the clinic,” she helpfully added.

Anders’ eyes widened.

“The clinic!” he exclaimed, almost leaping out of his seat. He grabbed two seed cakes from off the table, promptly stuffed them into his pockets, and then started to dash from the room.

“Hold on!” she called after him. “We need to talk to you!”

“We can talk on the way. There are patients, I have to do follow-ups, Maker, how long did I sleep for?” he asked, not breaking stride.

“A night,” Solas informed him, sipping his milk.

Anders looked aghast.

“A whole one?” he blurted, and then shook his head.

“You were in no fit state to do otherwise,” Solas called after him, as he seemed set on crossing the manor as quickly as possible. She kept pace, marveling at the man’s strange, erratic energy.

“We were wondering if we could take Justice to go and fight a demon on Sundermount,” she finally just asked, as it didn’t seem as though he had any intention of slowing down.

That got him to pause, for a moment.

“You know about Justice?” he asked.

“Solas told me,” she admitted.

Anders turned and headed back to the tea room.

She followed him again.

“Why would you tell her that?!” he demanded, angrily. “That is not the kind of thing you’re supposed to just tell people! Without my permission!”

“She is trustworthy,” Solas assured him.

“That is absolutely not the point! You don’t get to decide who to tell my secrets to, you – you agh! You’re insufferable, I cannot believe this!” Anders snapped, running his hands over his hair and clutching briefly at his scruffy ponytail.

“I won’t tell anyone,” she assured him.

He glanced at her, and then threw his arms up in the air.

“Well I guess I don’t have much hope but to trust you on that!” he said, with a gusty sigh. “And I still need to get back to the clinic, and – wait, there’s a demon on Sundermount? Where all those elves are camped out?”

“Obviously, a matter of some concern,” Solas replied, taking another sip of his milk.

Anders stared between them for a minute, then sighed heavily and shrugged.

“Fine,” he said. “Please don’t get him killed. I have no idea what will happen to me if you do.”

“You will probably also die,” Solas informed him.

“What fun,” Anders deadpanned. Then he turned and faced her. “You. You helped yesterday, at the clinic. You were decent,” he recalled.

“Yes?” she hazarded.

“I guess I should thank you for that, seeing as how you also hold my fate in your hands,” he grumbled.

“If it is any consolation,” Solas interjected, “she knows my secret as well.”

Anders’ expression sharpened, abruptly. He stared at Solas for a second and then turned back to her, his eyes darting briefly towards her marked hand.

“What’s his secret?” he asked her.

She raised an eyebrow at him.

“Is this some kind of test to see whether or not I’m any good at keeping secrets? Because it’s pretty flimsy, if so,” she informed him.

“No, it’s not a test. Fair’s fair,” Anders replied. “I’ve been ridiculously curious about this traitorous blabbermouth ever since he turned up on our doorstep. He told you my secret, now you tell me his.”

To her surprise, he seemed totally serious.

“Fine. He’s ticklish under his left elbow,” she replied.

Anders made a face at her.

“Oh no, I am betrayed, how could you?” Solas dryly intoned at his cup, to her absolute delight. She grinned at him, while Anders groaned and muttered something deprecating under his breath.

“Okay, you two having a ‘thing’ does not mean she is qualified to keep my secrets!” the man snapped.

“You know how I am,” she said to Solas. “Just rushing off to tell everyone everything. What did you expect?”

Still grinning, she sauntered over to him, drawn in by the flicker of relief in his eyes.

“You do tell far too many people far too many things, in the interest of fairness,” he informed her. Then he reached out and caught her hand.

“It’s only in the interest of fairness that I do it, though,” she returned.

“Very well. I suppose I shall forgive you,” he allowed, lips quirking, right before he pressed a kiss to the back of her glove.

Anders threw his hands up into the air and made a sound of disgust.

“I give up,” he decided. “I’m going back to the clinic. Try not to reveal my deepest darkest secrets to any more of your lovers while I’m gone.”

Anders stomped off, and so missed the arch look that Solas sent at his back.

She snorted.

“Alright, come clean,” she said. “How many lovers do you have hiding around Kirkwall? A dozen? Two dozen?”

Solas glanced back up at her.

“Three, naturally. But now that you are here, I shall send them all letters of condolences,” he declared, though he seemed a little unnerved for the jest.

“Is there someone else?” she wondered, with just the barest stirrings of unease.

“No,” he assured her. “It is only… there was a time when that implication would not have been absurd.”

Up went her eyebrows.

“So those beds you travelled between weren’t always empty?” she surmised, without accusation. It was a little surprising, perhaps, but she didn’t feel any put off over the thought of it. Then again, perhaps it would be stranger still to be upset over dalliances long, long past.

Though she couldn’t deny some curiosity. For some reason, she hadn’t ever taken the time to consider his past relationships. Possibly because Solas had, at first, seemed like the type to have very few, if any at all.

“They were not. Though, I would rather not go into the details here,” he replied, and she glanced at the room around them.

“Want to stuff a few seed cakes in our pockets and run out?” she suggested.

“After all the trouble Orana went to?” he replied. “At least we should finish our tea.”

She snorted.

“You mean my tea and your milk.”

“Tea is-”

“Revolting?” she suggested.

“I would say so, yes.”

With a soft smile she retook her seat and sipped hers, feeling a bite of nostalgia at the familiar collection of flavours. Getting supplies to Skyhold had often been a complex and tumultuous affair. Oftentimes shipments were delayed by inclement weather, or lost traders. Many of the Inquisition’s notable members had tried their hardest to acquire certain goods, however, with the end result being that sometimes a box of standard green leaf tea or grain would take ages to arrive, forcing everyone to make do with whatever exotic alternatives actually happened to actually be in supply.

“You are smiling,” Solas noted.

“Reminiscing,” she informed him. He raised an eyebrow.

“That does not typically make you smile,” he told her.

She shrugged.

“I was just thinking about Skyhold,” she admitted.

“In the Fade?” he wondered.

“Before,” she clarified. “We used to get this tea, sometimes. It’s Tevene.”

“I am shocked. It does not appear to be elvish at all,” Solas replied, peering at her cup.

She chuckled.

“Oh, there’s probably some stolen craft in how they grind the leaves or grow the plants,” she decided.

“What a relief. For a moment, I thought I might actually have to credit Tevinter for your smile,” he replied.

“Considering it was an altus who helped pioneer the magic that brought me here, you may, in fact, have to credit Tevinter with all of this happening in the first place,” she informed him.

He made a face.

“How… unappealing,” he declared.

She grinned, and finished her tea.

 

~

 

Most of the rest of the day passed in errands and preparations for the evening, then. At one point they made their way to the Hanged Man, where Varric waffled between trying to pretend everything was normal and asking her pointed questions about the future. He confessed to trying to find a way to pry the red lyrium idol out of Meredith’s possession.

“Templars are easy to bribe,” he informed her. “The chantry doesn’t like them living too large, but most have relatives to support, and a fair few are, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about a minimalist lifestyle. But no one wants to risk Meredith’s ire.”

“She had the idol made into a sword, somehow,” she explained. “At some point she would have to turn it over to a smith for that, wouldn’t she?”

“If she hasn’t already done it. Still, that’s helpful,” Varric mused. “Gives me something to watch out for.”

The door to the tavern opened, then. A dark-skinned woman, lovely but oddly dressed, walked in with body language that spoke of confidence, and a darting expression that implied this confidence was not entirely genuine.

Varric sighed.

“Hawke’s not here, Rivaini,” he announced.

“I don’t care,” the woman immediately replied, though the tension around her eyes vanished. Her gaze drifted over to Solas, and she grinned.

“Egghead, you’re in the tavern!” Rivaini declared. “Have you finally given in to your true nature and come to live a life of sin with the rest of us?”

“Not quite,” Solas dryly replied.

“Wait,” the woman said, spotting her at last. “You’re Dalish! Don’t tell me one of Merrill’s people finally stopped being terrified of her long enough to come visit?”

“Actually, she’s an old friend of Chuckles’,” Varric declared.

Rivaini snorted.

“You’re joking. She hardly looks old enough to have an old friend,” the woman declared. “Solas, what did you do? Did you trade some artifact or another to Merrill’s clan for an elven bride? Because if you were that lonely, you know-”

“No! Of course not!” Solas sharply refuted.

For her own part, she just rolled her eyes.

“Dalish don’t do that,” she explained, reasonably.

“Wait, then you actually know him?” Rivaini replied, raising an eyebrow. “Do you know where he comes from? Because our leading theory is that he popped up out of the Fade one morning, like some sort of elven spring flower.”

“He comes from a village,” she said, trying not to laugh.

“Oh, don’t tell me you’re just going to repeat all of his lines,” the woman complained.

“Of course I am.”

Rivaini tsk’d in disappointment.

Fine. If no wide-eyed elven maids need rescuing from arranged marriages, or care to share any interesting secrets, then I’m off to get drunk.”

“Hawke’s not due back until the end of the week,” Varric informed her. “Feel free to pace yourself.”

The woman raised a hand and waved a finger towards him as she made her way to the bar.

They made their own polite exit, then, and she grinned at Solas once they were clear of the door.

“Elven spring flower?” she repeated.

“Please do not work that into a song,” he requested.

“I think that’s a bridge too far even for me,” she agreed. “Then again-”

He cut her off with a quick kiss. And then another, until they both remembered they were standing outside of the Hanged Man, and made their way back to the alienage instead.

Merrill had returned from wherever she’d gone off to in the first place, it seemed, and was waiting for them when they got back.

“What rhymes with ‘flower’?” she asked the former First, before anything else could be said.

Merrill blinked.

“Power. Dour. Sour.”

“Hmm. Applicable, but I don’t think they’d suit the mood I’m going for,” she replied.

Solas sighed.

“Tower?” Merrill hopefully offered.

“I think maybe I’ll take pity on him instead,” she decided.

“Oh, that’s good of you,” Merrill complimented. “I assume. Are we doing the ritual tonight? Only I thought it would be last night but it wasn’t.”

“Yes, we’ll do it tonight,” she agreed. “We couldn’t manage to ask Anders in time yesterday.”

“I heard about the docks. That was awful, they keep having just one accident after the next,” Merrill replied.

“Well, if there’s actually a curse, having one less demon around can’t hurt,” she suggested.

“Oh, I hope it helps. That would be a nice side-effect. Much better than a terrible side-effect, though those do seem a lot more common.”

“Don’t I know it,” she agreed.

Solas checked some of the runes in Merrill’s house, then – they were perfect, apparently – but withdrew back to his own for casting. She closed the door behind them, leaving Merrill to cast in her own home, and watched as he worked his hands in fluid motions that made the runes on the walls flare.

There was no pretense of ‘normal’ casting, she realized. He didn’t bother with his staff, or with the sorts of dramatic flourishes or earth-pounding that most mages employed. He only moved his hands, as if the magic was lying all around him, and only needed a tiny bit of direction to do what was required.

Occasionally, the magic did seem a bit reluctant to respond, however.

But all thoughts or questions of his casting technique were chased out of her head when he began to hum.

She was pleased to discover that she’d been correct; his voice was quite lovely.

At first she wasn’t entirely sure that he even realized he was doing it. The tune wasn’t familiar, but she’d been singing at him for a large portion of the day, and people often hummed when performing artful tasks. Magic certainly seemed like an art, at the moment.

But then the last rune flared, and he turned to her, and finished out his song with a string of elvish lyrics.

“That was lovely,” she complimented. “Though you don’t actually have to serenade me.”

He smiled a little ruefully.

“It would be fitting if I did things properly for once,” he informed her. Then he seemed reconsider. “Not that we have been doing things properly up until this point. If you were a high born elvhen lady, your reputation would be in tatters.”

“Oh no, not my reputation, however will I survive the disapproval of a bunch of dead slavers? The shame. What if I’d been on a somewhat lower rung of the caste system?” she suggested, and it didn’t escape her notice that his eyes drifted over her vallaslin.

“Then I would be expected to do as I pleased, and you would be expected to show gratitude for every scrap of attention I deigned to bestow – no matter how unwelcome,” he replied. His tone hardened, and his mouth twisted.

The mood in the room plummeted considerably.

“I see we’ve hit a raw nerve,” she noted, quietly.

“When I was younger, I was indiscriminate, at times,” he confessed. “I showed interest in people I had an interest in. If they seemed receptive, then that was that. It did not take me long to realize that slaves were not permitted to decline. Fortunately. The first I attempted to bed burst into terrified tears almost as soon as we passed the barrier of words,” he explained, guilt heavy in his tone. “I asked why she had implied a welcome where there was none, and… well. The obvious was brought to my attention. I was on the highest rung and she the lowest. So, I stopped, and sent her home, and thought myself very compassionate when I made the decision to never take a slave into my bed.”

He scoffed.

“That seems like a fairly good judgement call to me,” she informed him.

“Ah, but you see, the truth was, even the upper caste elves could not actually refuse me,” he replied. “They had more leeway to imply that my attentions were, perhaps, unwelcome, but unless they were favoured by one of my peers, or belonged to a family of considerable influence, an outright refusal was considered ‘unwise’.”

“I cannot imagine you would pursue someone who implied they weren’t interested,” she informed him.

“Can you not?” he replied. “The challenge of reluctant, yet enticing prey? I thought such games quite typical sport, until I became the target of them.”

His tone was unsettling.

“Someone unwelcome pursued you?” she asked.

“When I was young and brash and full of fight, yes,” he replied. “I drew Andruil’s eye, and that of Anaris.”

“Anaris?”

The name didn’t sound familiar.

“One of the others,” Solas informed her. “There is a tale that yet lingers of it, I believe, though of course the details are inaccurate. Andruil pursued me as she pursued most hunts; with the intention of inevitable conquest. No peer of mine had ever turned such an eye my way, prior to that,” he explained. “She was persistent. Even for me, outright refusal was costly, but not unattainable. Then Anaris entered the picture. I suspect, primarily, it was to win a victory out from under Andruil. Yet his pursuit was even more difficult to rebuff. My refusal of Andruil was, at least, an internal matter. Turning down Anaris risked outraging his kin as well.”

Carefully, she moved closer. Solas’ shoulders had straightened, tight, and he was staring at one of the runes on the wall.

“What did you do?” she asked.

“I managed to convince Andruil that Anaris was only pursuing me because he wished for her attention; and then I convinced Anaris that Andruil held a hidden passion for him,” he replied. “When they attempted to murder one another, I escaped, and made myself scarce for a great deal of time.”

“They tried to murder one another?” she asked, surprised. “I expected you to tell me they fell into bed with one another.”

“They may have, at some point,” he conceded. “I did not inquire as to the details of how the fight ended.”

He sighed.

“But I was forced to realize that if it was so difficult for me to refuse Andruil or Anaris, then… well. Once again, the obvious was clarified,” he admitted. “I told myself that it was only how the world worked, for a time. Sex was simply another tool in the machinations of society. And then I resolved to only take lovers who pursued me, first. By shocking coincidence, my love life proceeded to grind to a dramatic halt.”

“No one pursued you?” she asked, incredulously.

“Andruil and Anaris gave up. None of my other peers showed an interest, and none of The People dared be so bold with me,” he replied. “A few offered to exchange favours in return for my help, but when I asked only for the usual tributes, none pressed the matter.”

She didn’t know what to say. Among the clans, there were individuals with authority, but not even the Keeper’s authority was above questioning. Not in Clan Lavellan, anyway. Human society was a different matter, of course, and she’d heard plenty of stories of nobles abusing their power over low born humans and elves. Most of them seemed to know full well that their targets were in no place to refuse them; most seemed to consider it their due.

Josephine had always been disgusted with such antics, though. She had been the one to caution her that her role as Inquisitor put her in a position of authority, and that she would have to be careful not to unwittingly abuse it.

“People will fear refusing you, at times,” Josephine had taken care to explain, knowing she would have little familiarity with such things. “That can work to our advantage. But if you wish them to know that there will not be retribution for requests denied, there will be times when you have to explicitly tell them so. And even then, some may assume you are using double-speak to imply the opposite. Clarity is of the utmost importance. Make certain they understand your meaning.”

The advice had been sorely needed by her, as she could never have really anticipated all the strange ways in which people reacted to those in power.

“You know you can refuse me at any time, don’t you?” she asked Solas.

He looked at her, surprised.

“I do,” he assured her. Then he paused. “You know the same?”

“I’ve never doubted it,” she promised.

Striding forward, she brushed a hand against his cheek.

“You know that when Dalish receive our vallaslin, we’re not supposed to cry out? Or show any signs of pain?” she asked. He nodded, though he didn’t look pleased.

“That, too, has carried over,” he informed her.

 “Well. The first time I received my marks, I cried out. The Keeper stopped the ceremony, and I had to spend two weeks running around with a ridiculous squiggle, right here,” she reached up and touched the first line, “before she would let me try again. And then the next time, do you know what happened?”

“You bore your suffering in silence?” he suggested.

“No. I did it again,” she admitted. “And the Keeper stopped it again, and I was informed that until I could make it all the way through without cracking, I’d have to deal with wearing unfinished marks and being a laughing stock. I had to wait a whole month before my third try.”

“You would have been killed,” he informed her, pained, and she assumed he was referring to what would have happened to her in Elvhenan.

“My life wasn’t in danger, and I knew it,” she reminded him. “The point is, even though I learned how to deal with pain without making any noise about it, I know I can cry out. It might be embarrassing, but I knew all along that if I cried out it would stop; and on some level, I wanted it to stop. I was eager to be respected as an adult. But I wasn’t really ready, either. That’s what the ceremony is for, now. It’s not a demand that we suffer in silence. It’s a test to see if we can bear the pains of adulthood, or if we still need to be sheltered by those in the clan who are stronger.”

She cleared her throat, and shook her head. She had forgotten a lot of that, in leaving. In discovering that so much of what they thought was true was mistaken.

“Anyway,” she carried on. “There was no knife at my throat then. There isn’t one now. If I want things to stop, I can stop them. Even if it’s awkward. That isn’t the same as knowing that if I don’t do something, it will get me killed. Or get someone else killed.”

She made to step back, but he caught her hands.

He stared at her for a long moment. Then he turned over her marked palm, and contemplated the anchor. He traced the line of it with his thumb. She could feel his touch vividly on her skin, and then more faintly over the opening, a ghost of when she’d been – well, a ghost.

“Dalish exchange courting gifts, do they not?” he asked her.

She smiled.

“Sometimes. It’s pretty common, but not always necessary. If there’s a marriage between clans, usually the clans will exchange gifts. One elf will be leaving to go and live with the other clan, so sometimes there’s a dowry, to help support them, or if they’re a very talented at some craft, the clan they’re joining will offer something to make up for the loss of their skills,” she explained. “That’s what we say, anyway. Usually who gives a gift and who receives it has more to do with which clan is better off.”

“And if there is no exchange of gifts?” he wondered. “How else do you court?”

“We talk,” she replied. “We go for walks. We trade kisses and act like lovestruck fools and ignore the hahrens when they tell us to slow down and be more sensible.”

“So it seems we lack only the element of the disapproving elders,” he mused.

“I could probably go find some,” she suggested. “We’re in an alienage; there must be one or two around.”

“Perhaps we may safely do without them, for the time being,” he suggested, and then leaned in and pressed a kiss to her lips.

Just when he was about to pull back she caught him, wrapping her arms around his neck and sweeping her tongue past his lips. A shock of heat shot through her. His hands settled on her waist as she stole the breath from him, before he eagerly returned her advance.

At some point he bumped against one of the room’s walls. The rune behind him flashed, and they both blinked and finally pulled apart.

Solas smiled at her, and swept a hand down the side of her cheek.

“Vhenan,” he said.

As if by request, her own heart did a little flip.

“If we keep this up, we’re going to leave Merrill in the lurch again,” she pointed out.

“Tempting. But unfair,” he conceded.

Reluctantly, she backed away from him, and they got ready to sleep instead.

It was an… interesting effort.

In unspoken agreement they both climbed into the bed, but it was different than the night before. Some (doomed) attempt was made to put space between the both of them, before they both realized that simply wasn’t possible, and ended up twined together anyway.

It wasn’t at all unpleasant, but she found herself lying awake for several long moments, not exhausted enough to just drop off. Terribly aware of all the places where they were pressed together.

He was very warm.

She sighed, and then started to hum.

It was an old tune. Not a tavern song. One from her childhood, a lullaby that threaded through trees and aravels and smoky campfires, cold winter nights when the ground was hard but the people were warm. It had been a long time since she’d thought of it. But it felt like it had been at the back of her mind all day, too.

When she finally drifted off, she opened her eyes to find herself sitting on the same bed, in the same spot.

Only a dreamy distortion to the walls gave away the fact that she was in the Fade.

Carefully, she made her way to her feet, and out through the open door.

She found Merrill waiting by the alienage tree, perched on its over-sized roots, her staff resting loosely in one hand.

“Aneth ara!” the young woman greeted. “What took you so long? Or shouldn’t I ask?”

“Is Solas here?” she wondered.

“I haven’t seen him yet,” Merrill replied. “I suppose, now that you’re here, it won’t take him too much longer.”

They waited, expectantly, but it took a surprising stretch of time before he finally turned up, drifting into the alienage, staff in hand. She took the time to check her own weapons. Rather than the simple bow she had in the real world, she found her glass-sharp knives and wispy Fade arrows were slung about her person instead.

Merrill examined them curiously as well.

“How are you making those, if you’re not a mage?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “They’re just – there.”

“There is no reason for the Fade to react differently to mages than non-mages,” Solas informed them both. “It is only expectation that creates results. The difference lies in that mages may influence the other side of the Veil, as well.”

“I’m not sure I believe that, entirely,” Merrill informed him. “Mages have a connection to the Fade that’s different.”

“They expect to,” Solas simply replied.

“As interesting as this is, are we going to have to hike all the way out of Kirkwall and up Sundermount?” she interrupted. “Because we should get a move on, if that’s the case.”

“We will take shortcuts,” he assured her.

Merrill’s expression turned determined.

“Let’s go find Justice, then.”

They set out into the shifting landscape of the Fade, then, down ever-changing tunnels that gleamed with unknown crystals, and spirits that flitted and skittered away. She marked the difference in the experience for herself. It was closer to being there in person, but still dramatically different, as well. She would hesitate to define it as ‘clearer’ than dreaming. In point of fact, it was almost more distant; she was more aware that this was not really her body, that she once again in a spectral form, even if that same form could now do a better job of imitating the body she’d left sleeping in the alienage.

They found Justice with far less interference from any other residents of the Fade than before, at least. The strange spirit looked more vivid to her eye, but otherwise unchanged from the last time she’d seen him.

“Justice,” Solas greeted.

The spirit swept his gaze over them, then levelled his staff at Merrill.

“You’ve brought the Blood Mage,” he noted.

Merrill sighed.

“Yes, hello to you as well. Please don’t attack me. It would be rather inconvenient and waste a lot of time.”

“Leave, then,” Justice asked.

“We are here to make a request,” she interjected. “There is a demon on Sundermount. A very old demon. We believe it may be in possession of a dangerous artifact. Or may know something of importance about one.”

Justice regarded her steadily for a moment.

“You wish my help in battling this demon?” he guessed.

“If you would offer it,” she replied.

He lowered his bladed staff, and the air cracked around him, once.

“Very well,” he agreed.

She raised an eyebrow, and glanced at Solas.

“I told you he would be amenable to the idea,” Solas simply replied.

Justice seemed almost eager at the prospect; he fairly crackled with energy, though he put a good deal of distance between himself and Merrill. Solas claimed the lead of their expedition, however, guiding them through odd drifts and passages that led between towering walls and blood-soaked monuments.

And spikes. Lots and lots of spikes.

She found herself positioned between Merrill and Justice, a sort of unofficial buffer as Merrill occasionally made some comment or other, and Justice occasionally replied with an aggressive comment about her weakness and lack of moral fortitude.

“You really don’t like blood magic,” she noted, after the third such incident.

“It is evil,” Justice informed her.

“It’s not any different from any other magic!” Merrill insisted, finally at the end of her considerable tether, it seemed. “It’s just magic, it’s just how you use it! I’m not slitting people’s throats or murdering their pets!”

“Yet,” Justice intoned.

“You think it’s inevitable that blood mages will become corrupt?” she wondered.

“It is the course of that path,” he informed her. “Any who follow it long enough must reach its end.”

“If one perceives only a single path, that is true,” Solas interjected.

“And now we’re going to spend the next two hours talking about ‘perceptions’,” Merrill intoned. “Not that that can’t be interesting, but can we just change the subject? Please?”

“What would you prefer to talk about, then, Merrill?” she asked, taking pity.

“I don’t know. Something cheerful. What’s everyone’s favourite sort of animal?” the former First suggested.

“I like wolves,” she declared, just to watch Solas twitch.

Not that it was necessarily a lie.

“I am partial to wolves as well,” Solas replied. He didn’t twitch, though. In fact he sounded quite pleased with himself.

“Really? Not dogs? I prefer dogs,” Merrill offered. “Hawke has a dog. He’s lovely, and very smart.”

“Cats are best,” Justice declared, with the sort of finality that implied this judgement was absolute.

It seemed an odd thing for him to have developed a strong opinion on. Though, she wasn’t entirely sure that he was capable of developing any other kind of opinion on things.

“Why cats?” she wondered.

“They are fluffy and purr and do not require captivity to sustain themselves, but may freely choose human companionship,” Justice informed her.

“Well. I can’t refute that,” she agreed.

“Some cats are not fluffy,” Justice informed her. “I have heard only tales of them. But perhaps they possess a spirit of fluffiness, even so.”

“That’s… I’m sure they have their finer qualities, if nothing else,” she suggested.

“One of the noblewomen in Hightown has a dog that’s nothing but fluff,” Merrill offered. “I know because I was crossing through her garden and it tried to chase me. It was adorable. Not terribly friendly, though.”

“Orlesian nobles keep dogs like that,” she recalled. “One woman I met carried two of them with her in bags at all times. I felt sorry for the poor things, it didn’t seem like they got much chance to run around.”

“You should have freed them,” Justice informed her.

“I’m not precisely sure they would have survived in the wild,” she admitted.

“It is a travesty, to think such creatures used to be wolves,” Solas interjected.

“Wait. You’ve been to Orlais?” Merrill asked. “That’s exciting. Is it as strange as everyone’s always saying?”

“Yes.”

Merrill asked her more questions about Orlais, then, but her mind was stuck on Solas’ comment. Wolves that had become dogs. She wondered if that was how he saw the changes and gradations among elves. Given his opinion on hounds, it was an unnerving notion. Though, she realized, not a new one. Many among the Dalish seemed to think that way – that their people were like wolves, wild and free and dangerous, while elves living among humans had allowed themselves to be tamed, and made obedient.

When she realized the direction of her thoughts, she sent a quick glance around to make certain the spirit of Disdain hadn’t returned again.

Most things seemed to be giving them a wide berth, however. Or, rather, they seemed to be giving Justice a wide berth. They made their way through shadowed places and over shattered planes until they reached a tower, massive, wrapped in winding black chains that cracked the walls and seeped, like tree roots, into the earth below.

“What is that?” she wondered.

“Sundermount,” Solas informed her.

“Pride sits at the top,” Merrill asserted.

“Of course it does,” she replied.

Justice didn’t hesitate at the climb; the rest of them followed a little more sedately.

“Naturally, I meant the spirit. Not you, Solas. Even if your names mean the same thing,” Merrill carried on.

“So I gathered,” Solas replied.

“It’s a somewhat odd name. Were you named for the city? Or were your parents just hoping you would be proud of your heritage? Or bring pride to your family?”

“It is a name I chose for myself,” he told her.

“Oh. Why? What was wrong with your other name?”

“My childhood name did not suit me once I was grown,” he said, simply.

She wondered if his childhood name had been ‘Fen’Harel’. That seemed a little odd. Though, ‘wolf trickster’ wasn’t necessarily inappropriate without certain connotations that hadn’t existed before he created them.

“So you picked a new name that fit better? And it was ‘pride’? Actually, that was quite self-aware of you. Not very flattering, though,” Merrill concluded.

“I had hoped it would serve as a personal reminder of my past folly,” Solas admitted. “Yet, it seems only to have become an increasingly apt label.”

“Of course,” Justice declared. “You have let it define you. How could you cease to be Pride, when Pride was given all the power to shape your identity?”

Solas went quiet.

She glanced towards him, concerned; but he looked more contemplative than anything else.

“I don’t think pride is all bad,” she suggested. “Taking pride in the right things can give you the strength to defend them.”

“That’s true,” Merrill agreed.

“I am aware of Dalish opinions on pride. They are a culturally defining trait,” Solas informed them, though if he was attempting to sound disdainful, he fell a little short in her opinion.

She still rolled her eyes at him.

By the time they reached the top of the tower, she was beginning to feel tired.

Not physically tired, of course, but tired in the way that she used to feel it, that sort of nagging mental exhaustion for which inactivity and quiet was the only respite.

It seemed she wasn’t the only one, as the others paused, too, rallying themselves. Even Justice. The top of the tower was a flat platform, wrapped in strange currents of energy, with spiked claws set around a chained, black throne. A twisted statue – of course – rested behind it, squat and leering.

“Well, lovely. Can anyone see the demon?” she asked.

“It is here,” Justice informed her.

There was a great, gut-wrenching roar, and something dark smacked straight into him, then, and knocked him straight back off the tower.

“Oh shit,” was all she managed, before she leapt aside, barely evading a second blow that had been meant for her.

Something laughed at them. A low, rumbling chuckle.

“Now why would anyone bring that miserable creature to my prison?” a low, deep, but feminine voice purred at them. “And what is this? A thing that carries old, old magic. My, my, my. What offenses you bring to me, Little Keeper. After all I’ve done.”

A form solidified, then. Perched upon the throne. A monstrous shape of great height, with sharp teeth and many eyes.

“Where’s the other Eluvian?” Merrill asked it.

Discreetly, she peered down the side of the tower.

Justice seemed to be climbing his way back up.

Well, that was a relief. A massive inconvenience, but it could’ve been worse.

“Questions, questions,” the Pride demon replied.

“Questions which only you know the answer to,” Solas smoothly interjected.

“Indeed,” the demon agreed. “My knowledge is vast.”

“No wonder you have such a tremendous prison,” he continued. “Surely nothing else could have held you. I have never before met a spirit of Pride who merited such an elaborate cage. It is a testament to how dangerous you truly are.”

The demon turned its eyes towards him.

“I suppose it is, at that,” it agreed. “But you have built more impressive jails, still. Have you not?”

She darted a glance towards Merrill, who looked confused.

“I have tricked and trapped,” Solas carried on, neutrally. “That is not the same as this. For all that you are restrained, you are restrained within a testament to your greatness. This tower. These chains. Nothing less could hold you, and nothing less could prove how fearsome you truly are.”

“Flatterer,” the demon declared, raising one clawed hand, and flexing its fingers. “I am Pride, not Vanity. This prison is a testament to my jailer alone. I languish here, when I could offer so much more, to so many more, were I free.”

“Prove it,” Merrill suggested. “Tell us where the other Eluvian is.”

Pride laughed.

“What would that prove?” it demanded. “That I was a fool? No. I will give you nothing. Sooner or later, you will open the way yourself, and then he will free me.”

“Who?” she asked.

“One who waits,” Pride replied.

“And what if we freed you?” Solas asked.

The many eyes turned back to him.

“Set me free, and I will give you anything,” the demon promised. “I will give you power. I will give you knowledge. Let me join with you, and I will guide you to greatness. The Little Keeper would be a fine hostess, but you and I could revive more than just the ashes of an empire. We could truly restore what has been lost.”

“Solas,” Merrill warned.

Solas raised a hand.

“I am not interested in joining with you,” he replied. “None here will carry you across the Veil. But we could release you into the Fade. You would be free.”

“Not enough,” Pride declared.

Solas inclined his head.

“I suppose it would be more difficult for you to discover how to gain a foothold on your own. Perhaps it is best for you to wait for your other benefactor’s pity to release you,” he mused.

“Pity?” the demon asked. “No. That half-mad creature would do it unawares, crushing this prison in his waking throws. And then I would be free to take his mind. Or what’s left of it. His power would suit me nearly as much as yours.”

“Does it mean a mage?” Merrill wondered. “But it’s been imprisoned for centuries. At least. Anyone who sealed it away would be long dead.”

 “It’s not talking about a mage,” she murmured, realization sweeping over her.

“Dumat,” Solas concluded.

“An old name,” the demon mused. “But there are older names still, are there not?”

“What older names?” Solas demanded. “What is Dumat?”

The demon laughed.

“The only way you learn that is if you accept my offer,” it declared.

She looked towards Solas, and to her shock, he seemed to waver.

“Solas!” she snapped.

He turned conflicted eyes towards her.

“Vhenan, I must know-”

“You don’t even know that it knows!” she reminded him.

He let out a soft curse, and she turned her gaze back towards the demon. It was big; she’d fought bigger.

“I am no mere mage,” he whispered to her. “There is a chance I could overwhelm it, and take what it knows. I have done it before.”

“’Before’ as in, when you had nigh-on godly powers ‘before’?” she hissed.

“Even now, I may still be the stronger one,” he insisted.

“What did he say?” Merrill asked.

“He said ‘I am very susceptible to Pride’,” she replied, and then drew her bow, and aimed for the demon’s eyes.

With a roar of outrage, the creature charged towards her again.

Fortunately, that was right about when Justice got back to the top of the tower.

He was ready for it that time.

Two crackling storms met, the demon rending the air with shocks that rushed through her, while Justice struck against them in a wave of blue and white fire.

“DIE, FIEND!” he bellowed.

She knocked another flurry of arrows, and Merrill swept her staff. The tower roof cracked, blackened vines reaching up to catch at Pride’s legs. The demon roared and swept spiked arms through the air; they cut like blades, breaking it free, and then it was massive.

And not like the Pride demons she’d fought before, which had been huge enough. No, the shape the creature took was grasped claws and watching eyes and power, surging, rippling through them with sharp spikes of pain that reminded her of dying.

She thought, for one alarming moment, that they had lost Solas. But then a wash of familiar magic swept over her, and the pain lessened; a barrier washed over her. It eased the disorientation, let her focus again.

Drawing her Fade shard daggers, she aimed her ire at the nearest solid-looking part of the creature, and lashed out.

The air around her felt like it was breaking.

It was hard to keep track of the whole fight, then. There were sparks and shouts and at one point she crashed into Merrill, and the blows against Pride felt like trying to cleave through solid rock, at times. But no one else was pitched off the tower, at least, and Justice burned like a beacon at the center of it all. It reminded her of Anders again, somehow, of the man who had stood with glowing hands in the middle of a clinic, the eye of the storm.

Then a half a dozen claws pierced through his armour, and he fell.

“No!” Merrill cried.

A barrier, blinding white, shimmered to life over the crumpled spirit.

The claws scraped at it, and it wouldn’t hold, she knew. It was going to break. Justice was bleeding blue light onto the fracture tower roof. Solas was on one knee, and Merrill’s arms were shaking as she held her staff against a blow.

In the heat of a battle almost lost, she felt a sudden surge of awareness.

She was light.

The anchor surged, and suddenly everything was bathed in green.

Everything just sort of paused. Demon, Spirit, mages, all of them glanced towards her, but her thoughts were sharp and focused as she loosed an arrow. Only, quite suddenly, it was a dozen arrows, and they burned like Veilfire.

The demon howled in outrage, ignoring the barrier over Justice to turn its claws on her. She swept between them, but it was a vicious dance, as she turned from one only to face another, and then another. Finally, a grasping fist closed over her head, sharp claws digging into the back of her skull as it began to crush.

She reached up and dragged her daggers through it, magic sparking in the air.

But it was Justice’s bladed staff that finally snapped through the hideous statue in the middle of the roof, with a crack like thunder.

The grip on her vanished, and she tumbled ungently downwards, the world spinning and burning until she gasped and flailed out of bed with a shock.

There was a horrible, lurching moment of intense disorientation. Her skin burned and there was a light flashing somewhere – not green, thankfully – and it felt like she was too big and too small at the same time. She stumbled, coordination shot to hell as she tried to fit herself together (again, dammit), and then she was violently emptying her stomach onto the floor.

Eventually, the disorientation eased, and she closed her eyes and waited for the room to stop spinning.

When she opened them again, she patted herself down.

Arms – check. Legs – check. Face – check. Mark – check.

All still present and accounted for and not suddenly made out of twigs or nothing.

“Well,” she said, mostly just to hear her own voice. “That was terrifying.”

A sharp inhalation from the bed drew her gaze over towards it.

Solas’ arms snapped out, reaching to both sides of the mattress, and then he whipped up, moving faster than she’d ever seen him do upon immediately waking.

When he spotted her, he stumbled out of bed, nearly stepped in her vomit, and then proceeded to look her over in much the same fashion she’d just looked herself over. Somewhere in the midst of it she suspected he casted a spell, as her skin tingled, and not in the fun way.

“Stop, stop,” she finally asked him, catching his hand. “I’m fine.”

“What did you do?” he asked her. “You were-”

“I don’t know!” she snapped. “What makes you think I know?! I don’t know! This shit just keeps happening! I just didn’t want the Pride demon to kill Justice and take you. You were going to let the Pride demon take you!”

Recalling that, she reached out, and grabbed the front of his shirt, and shook it.

“I was not going to let the Pride demon take me,” he insisted.

“Yes you were you – you – you’re supposed to be good with spirits, what even was that?!” she demanded.

“It was only a thought. A misguided one, admittedly. I would have abandoned it once it became apparent how truly massive the creature was,” he told her.

She looked him in the eye.

“Bull. Shit. You almost got played by a Pride demon,” she told him, plainly.

He stared back at her a moment, and then slumped, and closed his eyes.

“Truly?” he asked, though it didn’t seem as though he was asking her. “Yes, you are right.”

They were quiet for a minute.

“Why?” she finally asked him.

“I do not think I realized just how desperate I am,” he admitted.

“Over Dumat?” she wondered.

“Over all of it,” he clarified. “It was so simple. I would wake them. I would face their wrath. And then, they would repair what has been broken; or they would bring about a final end to things. But now… I cannot abide the thought of disaster. For all its failings, there are still things in this world worth preserving. Hope springs eternal. And what if they turn their wrath on you, as well? What if there is no wrath, but only some dark fate they have already met, some madness that will only be permitted to spill into the world if they wake? I cannot set aside this mission. But I cannot risk opening the way without knowing what is behind it.”

She stared at him.

With a sigh, she pulled at his shirt, and yanked him into her arms.

“Never do that again,” she instructed.

“No,” he promised.

“We will find a way. We will find a way that works and does not involve hastily made deals with ancient demons.”

“If such a way exists.”

She smacked his shoulder, lightly.

“I just turned myself into… something. And did… things. Look, the point is, you don’t know everything, I don’t know everything, but both of us know that was a terrible idea, so let’s just focus on not letting desperation kill our common sense.”

His arms tightened around her.

“You terrified me,” he admitted.

She slumped into him.

“Oh, good. So that’s both of us, then.”

“You looked like you did before. And then you vanished. Again. I wasn’t certain if you’d woken, or…”

“I woke,” she assured him. “I felt like someone put me back in upside-down, but I woke.”

“The wards activated,” he realized. Loosening his hold a little, he leaned back, and examined the walls. They’d stopped glowing, at least.

“Is it supposed to feel like that? Because some warning would have been nice,” she decided.

“No. You defied your form, within the Fade. You broke your shape and abandoned the pretense of a physical body. It made you stronger, and more malleable, but waking would have been a shock. Your mind hadn’t recalled your body before it was forced back into it,” he reasoned.

“Sounds about right,” she agreed, recalling the unpleasant sensations.

Then she recalled the whole reason it had happened in the first place.

“Justice!” she exclaimed.

“He is a spirit,” Solas assured her. “Anders will likely wake with a splitting headache, but neither have suffered irreparably.”

“And the demon?”

“Greatly diminished,” he pronounced. “And still imprisoned. It will take years for it to regain any semblance of strength.”

She stilled for a moment. Then she reached up, and took his face, and made him look at her again. She searched his eyes, searched for any sign, any hint of wrongness.

He seemed a bit bemused by her intent stare, at first.

Then he realized what she was looking for.

“I did not let it in,” he assured her.

“Really?” she asked. “You didn’t think ‘now that this thing is conveniently weakened, I am absolutely convinced that I can overpower it with my personal magnificence and steal all of its knowledge’?”

“No,” he told her, irritated. “That was not my state of mind upon realizing that you had vanished into thin air again. My thoughts were for you. You could not possibly have done more to distract me from any notion of my duty.”

She froze.

He froze.

Her heart plummeted like a stone into her stomach.

She stared at him, and shook her head, as if that could help.

“That was what you meant,” she realized. “You never thought you were distracting me from my fight. You thought I was a distraction.”

He took a step back, and she felt cold, and almost certain that the next thing he said would be ruinous. His expression was one she knew. Bitter sorrow, sudden and fierce regret. She braced herself.

“Then I was a fool,” he said.

She blinked.

He sighed.

“Perhaps you are a distraction. But you have also kept me from disaster. I had no right, none at all, to act as if you have been a liability,” he declared. “Not even in a passing moment of frustration.”

“A passing moment?” she asked, quietly.

“And some poorly chosen words,” he confirmed.

She realized how exhausted she felt, then. Grey morning light was seeping into the room; they’d technically slept the night away, and yet, she was worn down to her bones. Solas didn’t look much better off, truth be told. Apparently the benefits of sleep were easily done away with by the stress of battling an ancient demon.

That was right about the time that the door burst open, and Merrill rushed in.

“Elgar’nan! What happened? What were you going on about with the demon? And – and what did you do?” the young woman exclaimed, gesturing oddly towards her. Then she looked down, and spotted the puddle of vomit on the floor. “Oh. I’ll get a bucket, stay right there.”

Merrill dashed back out, then, and was barely gone it seemed before she returned, and promptly thrust a bucket of water and a rag into Solas’ hands.

“Talk,” Merrill then instructed her.

Instead of complying, she raised her marked hand.

“It’s to do with this,” she said. “I’m special, so on and so forth. Solas fell for the demon.”

Leaning her head against the wall, she glanced over, and noted that he was dutifully mopping up her vomit.

The Dread Wolf was cleaning up her puke.

Sometimes, it just paid to realize that her life was very strange.

“I suffered a momentary lapse in better judgement,” Solas insisted.

“What is Dumat?” Merrill asked, very clearly, with the air of someone who was getting tired of everyone else’s random idiocy.

“That’s what we want to know. Weren’t you listening?” she asked.

“Yes, but you already knew something about it. I know the name comes from an archdemon. The one that died during the First Blight. But it can’t be the archdemon because the archdemon is dead. Isn’t it?”

She shrugged.

“Your guess is as good as ours.”

Merrill folded her arms.

“Alright. But you were the ones who said the name, not the demon. So what’s going on?”

“Okay,” she sighed. “Basically, Kirkwall is a stew pot of suffering and evil, and we think Dumat might be the one sitting down to the table. Does that make sense?”

“No,” Merrill informed her. “Why do you think a dead archdemon wants to eat Kirkwall?”

“Signs,” she said.

“Signs.”

“Yes. I don’t know. Maybe? Look, it involves… things.”

Merrill lifted her hands, and ran them down her face.

“I think I know what Hawke feels like whenever we talk about elven magic now.”

“It seemed fairly clear to me,” Solas interjected. “Merrill. Your Eluvian opens to the resting place of whatever remains of a Tevinter Old God, attempting to regenerate itself within the Fade by feeding off of the chaos and suffering that runs rampant through Kirkwall. The very mouth of madness itself. Congratulations.”

Merrill stared at the ceiling. “That’s just… wonderful. Of course. Of course that’s where it goes. Oh, I can just here the Keeper now! ‘I told you so, Merrill’!”

She shrugged.

“It won’t be a problem if we can figure out how to deal with Dumat.”

Slowly, Merrill nodded.

“Well we should do that, shouldn’t we? We’ll need Hawke. And… probably everyone else, too. Maybe some Grey Wardens. Do you think we should tell the Grey Wardens?”

“We are definitely not telling the Grey Wardens,” Solas informed her.

“I suppose we have Anders, anyway,” Merrill conceded.

“Anders…? Oh, right. He’s a Grey Warden, isn’t he? Wow. That man’s life is a mess,” she mused. The room was starting to get a bit tilt-y. “I think I actually need to sleep,” she realized.

“Undoubtedly,” Solas agreed.

That was when a strange surge of energy, like a wet blanket, fell over them.

She stiffened.

So did Merrill and Solas, all three of them at once recognizing the dampening field that had just been dropped over their heads.

“Run,” she said, but the air was already filling with the sounds of heavy, armoured footfalls.

“Quickly,” Merrill called. “Follow me.”

They scrambled out of Solas’ house, and Merrill dashed towards a narrow side alley, barely big enough for Solas to fit, and then clambered, nimble as a bird, up onto the rooftops. They followed – or meant to.

“Knight Captain! Down the alley!” someone shouted, and then a hand closed around Solas’ arm and yanked him backwards.

“No!”

It was too narrow for her to draw her bow. With a curse she thrust herself after him, even as he flicked his wrist and smashed the reaching Templer’s hand into the hard alley wall behind them. But then there was the sound of metal scraping, and he gasped as a blade slipped by his neck.

For one terrible moment she thought his throat had been cut. And it had been, but not slit; the blade ran down the side of his neck, and sent rivulets of blood dripping into his collar.

“We surrender!” she shouted. “Sheath your blade!”

“Not likely!” the Templar spat back. “Keep your hands still, and move slowly.”

There was the whistling sound of an arrow, then, and a cry of pain.

Merrill.

She had to bite back the urge to scream; could only follow as they were pulled from the alley, as the blade at Solas’ neck bit a little deeper with every wrong move, and her pulse was thundering in her ears as they came out into the open.

At least a dozen Templars had filled the alienage, she counted at a glance. There were likely far more that she couldn’t see. Doors had been thrown open and elves were in the streets, parents clutching children and family huddled together around their painted tree, watching with frightened or angry eyes.

And at the head of the mess stood Cullen.

Logically, it wasn’t a betrayal. But it had the sting of one just the same.

“This was not what I meant when I advised you to be more proactive, Knight Captain,” she said.

Something very hard struck her against the back of the head.

“Enough!” Cullen snapped. “Someone get the runaway off of the roof. We are here for the apostates, only. They are a danger, to the alienage, and to the city at large.”

Someone from the crowd spat at him.

It struck the step next to his boot.

Cullen’s expression faltered, somewhat, but he ignored the gesture, while she blinked back stars.

“I will go quietly,” Solas declared. “My friend is no apostate.”

“That will be for us to determine,” Cullen informed him.

Blinking back the stars that the blow to her head had sparked, she did another headcount, but they were still disgustingly outnumbered. Even if they hadn’t been exhausted, she would have been hesitant to challenge such a force with only Solas by her side.

There was a clambering sound behind them, then, and a Templar descended, half-carrying her injured quarry.

“Merrill!” she exclaimed.

An arrow protruded from the young woman’s thigh. They looked at one another, and she could see Merrill as weighed their odds, and came to the same conclusion that she had; even with blood magic, even if all three of them had been prepared, there were too many Templars, and only one of their trio fought without spells.

“None of us are mages,” she tried. “We’re just Dalish. It’s a cultural thing.”

“We have numerous reports to the contrary,” Cullen informed her.

Their wrists were bound, then. Even Merrill’s. She internally cursed her own lack of gloves when the Templar who’d grabbed her yanked at her hands, and then gasped, threw her to the ground, and drew a blade.

“Hold!” Cullen shouted.

“It’s got something in its hand!” the Templar declared.

“Relinquish whatever you are holding,” Cullen instructed her.

“It isn’t ‘in my hand’, it’s in – look, it’s in the flesh of my palm,” she explained. “I’d show you but that would require raising my hands, and I suspect I’d take an arrow to the eye for that.”

There was a pause. Then Cullen strode towards her, waving off the Templar who had been attempting to tie her up, and grabbed her hand himself. He stared at it a moment.

“What is it?” he asked her.

“Old elven magic,” she informed him. “What else would it be?”

“The mark of a demon. An abomination,” he suggested.

“I’m not possessed,” she replied, staring at his bruised eyes. “Though I could almost believe you are.”

His expression flickered, disquieted, and then he gripped her wrist, firmly, and tied her hands himself.

“Enchanted bindings,” he said. She didn’t realize it was a request until another Templar handed him a heavy set of bracelets, and he wound them over the ropes.

It didn’t feel as though they accomplished very much, though.

They were made to wait on their knees – except for Merrill, who was at least permitted the reprieve of lying down – as the Templars finished ransacking the alienage. Then they were hauled out and off towards the Gallows, and not just the three of them, either. Two more elves were dragged along. Both looked terrified, and neither particularly screamed ‘apostate mage’ to her.

So, probably they wouldn’t be much use in a fight.

As they were dragged through the Gallows courtyard, what few Circle mages were outside stopped, and watched them with pitying eyes.

Not a great sign, really.

They were dumped into a set of cramped, windowless cells, then. One apiece, despite protestations.

“At least let me see to their injuries!” she protested.

“Our medic will tend to them,” Cullen informed her.

She looked him in the eye again, primarily because he seemed to find it unnerving, and when he was unnerved he seemed slightly more like a tired human and slightly less like the walking dead.

“I just want you to know that I am very, very disappointed in you,” she informed him.

“You – what – why should I care?” he asked, taken aback.

“Very disappointed,” she reiterated.

He scowled, and shut the cell door, leaving her hands bound.

The contents of the cell appeared to consist of a bench and a bucket. She sat for a bit, until her latest bout of dizziness passed, and then she tried calling for the others. There was no response, though an attempt to thump at the wall beside her produced a dull thump back. Whether it was Solas or Merrill, she wasn’t sure; she’d been hurried into her cell first.

Had this happened in the other timeline, she wondered? Had Merrill simply managed to escape the raid, by virtue of moving more swiftly without the two of them to slow her down? Or perhaps by not being there at all?

Had the ritual finally drawn too much attention for the Templars to ignore? Had they finally outgrown the wariness which Solas had described to the point where they felt confidant coming after elven apostates? In great force, at least?

Or was this her doing? Had that one conversation with Cullen tipped him over some unseen edge?

Was there even any point in wondering?

She sat in the dark until at last the cell door was thrown open again, and she was hauled out by two helmed Templars. A quick glance at least revealed that Solas’ neck had been bandaged, and Merrill’s leg as well.

They were herded along a narrow corridor. The exterior of the Gallows may have been an exercise in intimidation tactics, but the interior was cramped and claustrophobic, every space divided into the smallest portions imaginable. The better to stack people upon one another, presumably. The largest room she saw was the one they were eventually thrust into, the three of them – the other two elves had vanished at some point.

It was cold, and mostly empty but for the posts in the walls, clearly designed to have held shackles.

How decorative, she thought, but the quip didn’t get past her lips. They were left with unfamiliar Templars. There was no sign of Cullen, and when the door opened again, it was a stern-faced woman with cold eyes who walked into the room.

She stopped in front of them, and looked them each over in turn.

“Apostates. Blood mages. Thinking you can operate with impunity in my city,” she began. “I am Knight Commander Meredith, and your crimes. End. Here.”

An infamous name. The way Varric had described Meredith, she had always pictured someone more armour than person. It was a little strangely satisfying to realize that perception was absolutely, one hundred percent correct. Though the wavy blonde hair was a bit of a surprise.

“My friend is no mage,” Solas said, speaking very clearly and very carefully.

“No?” Meredith asked, and without waiting for an answer, she drew the sword at her side. It was plain steel, but it still glided neatly through the air before it came to rest at her neck. “If she is no mage then the only explanation for the magic in her flesh is that she is an abomination. Shall I do her a mercy, and end her suffering now?”

“No!” Merrill cried.

She glanced down the flat of the blade. It was polished to enough of a shine that she could see her own reflection in it.

Possibly, if she flung herself backwards, she could buy herself four, maybe five more seconds of life.

 “…If the choice is between ‘mage’ or ‘corpse’, then my friend is a mage,” Solas said, voice low and deep with contempt.

With a slight nod of satisfaction, Meredith withdrew her blade; though she did not sheath it.

The woman paced before them, and it was very startlingly clear that she quite enjoyed being where she was – in the center of a room full of people she had control over.

“It is an unfortunate situation you find yourselves in,” the Knight Commander informed them. “Not only mages, but elven mages. Not only elven mages, but dangerous, wild elves. The Champion has led you to believe that you are under some kind of protection. But Hawke is mistaken. Everything in this city falls under my command. I would be well within my rights to kill you all now – but I am not without pity.”

“You want something,” she surmised.

“Certain people have been poking their noses where they don’t belong. Certain people who have ties to the city’s over-ambitious Champion. Petty thieves who seek to subvert my authority and hinder my effectiveness,” Meredith informed them. “I will ask this only once – where is it?”

She straightened in realization.

Varric had done it; he’d gotten the idol. They weren’t the only ones who had been busy during the night.

Merrill looked confused, for a moment. But then her eyes hardened, and her mouth tightened into a firm line.

Solas was poker-faced and silent.

Meredith regarded them all.

“This one knows,” the Knight Commander decided, gesturing towards her. “Tranquility will loosen her tongue, and spare the city from the dangers of her magic. Execute the other two. They are known blood mages.”

“Touch them, and I blow the entire Gallows to pieces,” she warned. Her voice rang through the room like a shot.

Meredith treated her to a skeptical glare.

“You are bound and contained. How, precisely, would you propose to ‘blow us to pieces’?”

She lifted her hands, and let the anchor surge; her mark crackled. Meredith lifted her sword, eyes widening at the obvious display of magic, but then paused, uncertain of how to approach it. They were facing one another. Any move the Knight Commander made towards her would, by necessity, bring her closer to the mark.

“Solas was right. You have no idea what this is,” she said. They fear unknown magic, she reminded herself. “You know Circle magics well enough. But you know nothing of the Dalish. Less than nothing. Either you let us go, and I let you live, or you carry through with your plan, and we all go down together. A cautionary tale for future Templars to look back on.”

Not that the woman wouldn’t become that all on her own.

Meredith stared at her.

She’d seen cowards and bullies and fanatics before. She’d seen the look in the Knight Commander’s eyes only once before, however. It was a sort of drive, an obsession of self that pushed a person to climb, half out of mad fear, and half out of a desperate need to control the uncontrollable.

Meredith would try and cleave the mark from her hand before she surrendered any ounce of her authority.

In an instant, she saw that.

It left her with only on remaining option.

She opened a rift.

The air rippled and then burst, green light breaking it open. She’d never done it so deliberately from this side before, not from whole cloth. The sensation was different. It felt like she was tethered to an invisible blade, sharper than anything, narrow enough to slice between worlds.

But the end result was also much tidier than the random rifts which the Breach had created. It was shaped like an arched doorway, smooth-edged and barely crackling.

Every Templar in the room – Knight Commander included – leapt back, as each simultaneously decided, for a split second, that they were actually going to be blown up.

Still, two were blocking the door. There’d be no chance of making it past them. Not unarmed and tied up.

She glanced at Solas, and knew he’d realized the same thing.

Only one way out.

“Follow us!” she cried to Merrill, and flung herself into the rift.

 

~

 

The Fade was only slightly less disorienting in person when she knew it was coming.

They fell upwards, twisting around one another, and then down and sideways until at last they struck ground. She managed to land beneath Merrill, which, considering Merrill was the one with the arrow wound, was probably for the best. And also had the added bonus of confirmed that Merrill had followed them.

Solas hit the dirt alongside her, wincing at the impact. A splash of red bloomed on the bandage at his neck.

“What… what was that?” Merrill asked, staring with wide eyes. “Where are we…? Oh, Creators. It can’t be. I know where we are.”

“Don’t panic,” she advised.

“This is all wrong,” Merrill told her. “You did this. How did you do this? We’re here – we’re really here. With our bodies and everything.”

“It is still the Fade, bodies or no. Be calm, or you will draw the notice of spirits,” Solas warned.

Merrill closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath. And then, apparently realizing she was lying on top of an elf she’d only met a few days ago, tried to scramble away a little too swiftly, and ended up tumbling sideways and clutching at her leg.

“Oh, this is a bad dream. This is a very bad dream. First the Templars and now this and please, please tell me we’re still dreaming. We have to be dreaming. We’re in the Fade, and if you’re in the Fade, you’re dreaming, aren’t you?”

“Please don’t have a mental collapse,” she asked.

Merrill blinked at her, and then stared at her hand.

“What are you?” her fellow Dalish asked, with just a hint of fear.

“Exhausted,” she said.

Her gaze drifted over the Fade’s skies, then, searching for any hint of the rift she’d opened. But there was none. It seemed to have closed behind them, just like at Adamant.

Unlike at Adamant, however, there was no second rift waiting for them in the distance. If they were going to get out again, she’d have to open up another one. A daunting prospect. And not one she could attempt at their current location; not without dumping them straight back into the Gallows, anyway, which obviously wasn’t a great plan.

She turned her head, and examined the island they’d landed on. It was small. Little more than a floating rock, really, slowly spinning its way through dark spaces. Solas stood, and walked to the edge. He looked horrifically vulnerable, clad only in light clothing, his hands bound. But his expression was intent.

“We must find safer ground, insofar as that’s possible. Preferably outside of Kirkwall,” he decided.

“Well. We know what Sundermount looks like in the Fade,” she reminded him. “Pride’s prison will be fairly unchanging, won’t it?”

“It will,” he agreed. “But Sundermount is also the next most likely place for the Templars to begin searching for us.”

“The clan?” Merrill asked, horrified. “No. We have to warn them!”

“We are barely in any fit state to survive at the moment, let alone deliver warnings. You can scarcely walk and all three of us are exhausted,” Solas pointed out.

Merrill’s face fell. But then her expression hardened again, determined.

“I’ll crawl if I have to.”

She sucked in a deep breath. The taste of the air reminded her of the Western Approach.

“Let’s at least get these bindings off. It’s going to be bad enough trying to deal with this without our hands literally tied,” she decided, and shuffled herself into a sitting position. Solas obligingly approached, and she began working at tugging the knots around his wrist free.

It was slow going with her own hands impeded, but eventually she managed it. By the time all three of them were unbound, a narrow bridge had formed, connecting their tiny island to the seething mass that was Kirkwall-in-the-Fade. A few curious spirits were already drifting through, eager to investigate the new development.

“We should move quickly,” she decided. “Try and get some distance between ourselves and the Gallows. Then I can open another rift, and we can go from there.”

“Lingering would be unwise,” Solas agreed.

“I don’t suppose there’s much else we can do, for now,” Merrill reluctantly conceded.

They managed to get her suspended between the two of them, then. The narrow bridge was barely wide enough for them to walk three across, and it sloped steeply downwards, as though intentionally trying to make the process as difficult as possible.

One of the curious spirits drifted in front of them, a vision of gnashing teeth until Solas flicked his wrist and a small burst of flame sent it scurrying away again.

That worked for the moment. But there would be more dangerous things waiting for them, she knew.

At the end of the bridge they reached an expanse of twisting, darkened tunnels, lined with edges and bars and sharp spikes. Above them all, shadowy statues loomed. Or at least, they looked like statues. When she glanced away from them, and back again, they seemed to have moved.

And there were spirits.

Lots of them.

They crawled and flew, whispered and jeered, reached out and flitted away and shadowed their footsteps, some nearly as insubstantial as air, others as menacing and solid as the walls around them.

The first attack came swiftly, and from behind.

Something sharp raked across the back of her shoulders, and she staggered forward, almost letting go of Merrill. Solas’ arm snapped out and the spirit whirled away, hissing, only to flank them and launch another attack.

Merrill whispered something, and a shard of red broke through the bandage on her injured leg; it burst around them, a brief spray of blood that ignited, and then shimmered into a barrier. The spirit burned against it, and dissipated.

“I don’t think I can do that too many more times,” Merrill declared, leaning more heavily against them.

“This is not sustainable; we need either to draw less attention, or find a way to rejuvenate ourselves,” Solas agreed.

“Do you have any suggestions on either front?” she wondered.

“Infuriatingly few,” he admitted. “We are here, in the flesh. That will draw notice no matter what we do. And we are exhausted, but there is no safe harbour where we might rest. The Fade sometimes offers unexpected sources of power. But I suspect in this place, such things will be long drained empty.”

“What about perception? Mind over matter?” she suggested, even as she tried desperately to think of a workable solution.

“If you can perceive our way out of this, vhenan, I will never stop kissing you,” he promised.

“That’s a good incentive,” she complimented. “Now I just might have to.”

“I feel incredibly awkward being in the middle now,” Merrill informed them.

The tunnel ahead of them closed off, then, narrowing further and further until it came to an unpassable point. They’d have to backtrack to another branching point, unless they could fix it.

It’s the Fade, she told herself. You can change it.

But it wasn’t as simple as just wishing for it to be different, or even expecting it to be different. When she’d rebuilt Skyhold around a sleeping Fen’Harel, success had been made both of her own will, but also of the memories inherent to the place. And it was simple, because there weren’t hundreds or thousands of other wills, other dreamers, other memories and expectations affecting everything at the same time.

But the thing most shaping Kirkwall, especially in the Fade, was its nature as a siphon.

Flow with the current, she realized, and it would swallow them whole. Go against it, and they’d be struggling upstream until they escaped its range.

There was no way for them to escape without slogging their way through. Any easy route would just funnel them deeper in with the spirits and energy being consumed.

But perhaps, then, it was a choice between trying to tackle those forces, or breaking their way through unpassable terrain.

“Should we go back?” Merrill wondered.

“No,” she decided, and then carefully shifted her over to Solas.

Then she started pulling at segments of the wall in front of them.

At first it was like scraping at stone. But she focused, and gradually it began to crumble, until it came away in clumps and clods like loose dirt. The whole thing almost collapsed, after that, but Merrill and Solas had caught on, and together managed to convince the roof that it was made of sturdier stuff.

They dug until the second attack came.

The ground trembled, briefly, and then winding tendrils began to clutch at their legs, rising up through blackened cracks in the floor.

They broke through to the other side of the tunnel and struggled free, and she slashed a hand down and almost wept one of her Fade shard daggers appeared in it, and burned through the tendril with a scent like oil and fire. She helped free the others and Solas lifted Merrill, and they ran, suddenly pelting through a cavernous stone chamber.

“Find the hardest way out of here and that’s the one we’re taking,” she declared.

“On purpose?” Merrill asked, as something roared behind them.

“Upwards,” Solas suggested, not even bothering to question it. “There are pillars; we climb.”

Climbing – yes, that definitely would be the hardest.

There were, indeed, several pillars lining the chamber they’d burst into. They were slick with something that looked like filthy water. Most of it dripped down and pooled in the center of the room. She ignored it as best she could, and instead started using her dagger to break handholds into the driest sections of stone.

To her surprise, Merrill did a more than passable job of pulling herself up with just two hands and one leg.

They reached the top of the pillars only to find themselves at the mouth of a wide, dark lake.

It was still as death, and spread out from the base of a sheer wall. Chained figures hung from the surface, shadows that burned and billowed in shrieking winds.

“Are we still taking the hardest route?” Merrill asked, quietly, as her gaze drifted to the top of the wall. “Because I think I know what it is.”

She stared at the unnervingly still waters.

“We need a boat,” she decided, and then scanned the shore.

There was a boat. There had to be a boat. She was going to find a boat.

She found a raft, barely big enough for the three of them to perch on without sinking it, and an oar. The planks of the thing looked like they’d been inlaid with bones and teeth.

“Everybody on board the Death Raft,” she instructed.

“I don’t trust it. It feels like it’s just going to wait until we’re in the middle of the lake and then tip us over,” Merrill admitted, even as she got onto it.

“If you expect it to, then it almost certainly will,” Solas pointed out.

She opted to just focus on rowing.

They got to the middle of the lake before the Death Raft lurched and dumped them overboard.

All three of them hit the water with force, and struggled up, gasping. The water itself felt strange around them, slick but not actually wet, and hollow, as if it was water as imagined by someone who had somehow managed to never actually encounter the real thing.

“Really, Merrill?” Solas snapped, once they’d all manage to orient themselves at the surface.

“Sorry,” Merrill said.

“In fairness, I think we were all expecting that,” she pointed out, trying to ignore the way several droplets of ‘water’ were scuttling down her forehead.

The previously still surface began to move, then, suddenly and somehow developing a current that pushed them away from the massive wall.

By unspoken agreement, they all began to swim against it.

Literally swimming against the current.

That one was probably her fault.

Merrill was the first to falter before they reached the wall, the pain catching up with her. They had to take turns helping her along, and by the time they reached their target, her muscles were screaming and her nerves were on end, and every tremor in the water felt like it was grating at her bones.

The wall offered no reprieve. It was sheer, undented, and the current was strongest at its base. She managed to strike at it with one of her daggers, but the rebounded in futility, both the first time and on every subsequent attempt.

After her fourth failure, Solas passed Merrill towards her.

“A moment,” he requested.

Then he swam forward and pressed his hands against the stony surface.

It took her a while to realize what he was doing. For several long minutes it didn’t seem like anything was happening, except that Solas was struggling to stay in place, eyes closed as he, seemingly did his best to push against the wall.

But then she realized that the segment of wall beneath the water line was dipping inward.

Smoothly, gradually, the dip became more pronounced. Like erosion, she realized. It took a while, but far less time than the real thing, of course, and then at last a hole opened at the bottom of the wall. First small, then larger and larger, just like digging the tunnel.

As soon as it was big enough, they swam through.

They got another heavy landing on the other side. The breath was knocked from her lungs and there was a strange flash in the air around them as the pseudo-water that followed them in turned to vapour and dust. She turned, and checked Solas, and then Merrill. The three of them were all sprawled, panting and exhausted.

“That was inspired,” she told Solas.

“Thank you,” he replied. “I may never move again.”

She flailed a hand towards him, though honestly she wasn’t sure if it was an attempt to move herself or just an attempt to agree.

They were still in the Fade, however.

Turning her head, she tried to take stock of where they’d landed. It was a room, by the looks of it. Not a vast chamber, like the last, but something made of grey slate stone and filled with hazy, blue lit air. Carved faces leered at them from the walls. For some reason she thought of the Deep Roads, even though she’d never seen anything like those carvings in them.

Perhaps it was the unnerving feeling that they were underneath something.

There were no spirits that she could see, though. No impending doom or death or encroaching darkness or anything sufficiently alarming.

So, possibly the best kind of place they could hope for, given the circumstances.

For a long while the only sound in the room was three sets of lungs, breathing heavily.

Then there was a low scraping noise.

The path Solas had opened had just closed behind them, she realized.

“Ominous,” she observed.

Still not ominous enough to make moving seem like a necessity, though. She kept her eyes open, and listened to the sound of her own breaths, and the others’.

Only when a fourth set of lungs seemed to join the proceedings did she finally sit up.

The room looked empty, but the twisted carvings seemed to follow her movement with their eyes.

“Okay, time to go,” she decided.

“Can we leave the Fade yet?” Merrill asked. “I think I’d rather hike to Sundermount in the real world, at this rate.”

“I have no idea if we have escaped the Gallows or not,” Solas informed them.

Neither did she, and she had a feeling that wherever they’d managed to land themselves, opening a rift at the moment would be a very, very bad idea.

Up. They’d gone up. Against the current, but…

Hightown was technically ‘up’ as well.

The head of the beast.

“I think maybe we did this entirely wrong,” she confessed.

“In this case, I do not think there was a ‘right’ direction to take,” Solas said, quietly.

She turned and looked at him dead-on.

“You said ‘climb’. You – Solas, honestly, are you trying to get us to him? Now?”

He frowned at her.

“You think I would do that? We are exhausted, unarmed. Even I am not that foolish,” he insisted, and she pressed her palms to the backs of her eyelids.

“Are we talking about Dumat again?” Merrill wondered.

“Yes,” she admitted.

“If Solas is going to try and feed us to an archdemon, the least he can do is say so.”

“I am not feeding anyone to anything,” Solas insisted.

She sighed, and managed to reach over and pat his arm.

“I know.”

He looked down.

“This may be a path for which I can only see one destination, however,” he admitted. Then he squared his shoulders, and looked back at her.

“Leave me,” he said.

She stared at him.

“What?” Merrill asked. “Why in Mythal’s name would we do that? If anyone should get left behind it’s probably me, I’m the one who’s slowing everyone else down.”

Solas shook his head.

“Will or no, it is likely I am drawing us towards the goal I have been seeking. Let me face it alone. There is no reason for you to be put in danger as well,” he said, answering Merrill’s question. But his gaze was focused on her own face as he spoke. “If the two of you set out without me, you will have more success, unconfused by my own influence.”

“Don’t be stupid,” she told him.

“I am entirely serious.”

“That’s what’s stupid about it!” she insisted, voice rising. “I mean, really? Right path. Wrong path. At this point, do you honestly believe there is any path I wouldn’t face for you?”

He looked at her like she’d just punched the air out of his lungs.

“I’m sorry, Merrill. I realize you’ve sort of been dragged into this mess," she added.

“Yes, I’m very offended to have been rescued from certain death at the hands of the Templars,” Merrill dryly replied. “Even if it came to a vote I’d rather we didn’t split up anyway. This is all very strange and confusing and I’m sure I don’t understand half of what’s really going on, but if Solas is subconsciously turning us around in circles or something, well, we still outnumber him. So as long as you and I focus very hard on getting out of Kirkwall it should be fine. And he's really quite a skilled mage, so I'd prefer he stayed just the same. It's no good heading in the right direction if we just get our faces bitten off by a Rage demon at some point.”

She gestured gratefully towards Merrill.

“There. You’re outnumbered and outvoted,” she declared.

He seemed to be at something of a loss for words.

With a satisfied nod, she turned, and started helping Merrill back onto her feet.

“Okay, Merrill. What do you think the hardest way out of the creepy room full of leering carved faces is?” she asked.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

After a brief conference, it was agreed that the hardest way to get out of the room full of creepy leering carvings was to try and go through the walls.

Of course, this was agreed upon largely because no one wanted to touch any of the carvings. Or get too close to them. She tried firing arrows at them, but it had only made them blink. Which… didn’t help.

Daggers were next. She steeled her nerves, and stepped towards one of the carvings. The mouth was gaping open, curled into either a grimace or a grin, and the dark spaces inside of the warped slate looked far too deep.

“Perhaps-” Solas began, and then immediately swallowed whatever that idea had been. “Never mind.”

“Go sit in the middle of the room and don’t touch anything,” Merrill advised him.

To her surprise he actually took that suggestion, more or less, and wordlessly moved to stand a little further from the walls.

Practical.

But not exactly reassuring.

Angling the edge of her dagger, she found the seam of the wall tile, and attempted to pry the whole thing off. The blade scraped free a few times before it finally found purchase, and she tried to focus her thoughts on simple stone and mortar walls, bricks and mosaics and ordinary things.

The carved tile snapped off of the wall, and shattered at her feet.

Something exhaled into her ears.

She leapt back as a gust of air shot by her, not quick enough to avoid it, entirely. The stench of rot and sickness washed over the room, and for a second there was only a black, square hole, a blank space in the midst of all the other watching faces.

Then a large, clawed arm reached through it.

“Oh dear,” Merrill whispered.

“New plan – run for it,” she decided, as Solas swept back in to help take Merrill’s weight.

Desperate, heaving breaths filled the air as the arm began to strike at the rest of the wall, shattering pieces of the carvings and easily knocking more tiles loose.

They didn’t stick around to see how well it was succeeding. Instead they struggled towards the room’s only exit, as fast as they could manage. The arched doorway was wreathed in cold flame, and led to a set of steep, crumbling steps, too narrow for them to go three across and nigh-infinite so far as they could tell. Solas took Merrill again. The steps were high, and broken in places. The wide openings stretched down into the dark.

They climbed in a desperate hurry. It might have taken hours, or only minutes. The doorway was far behind them by the time she peered through one of the holes in the staircase, and saw something move beneath them.

“Don’t look down,” she advised.

“I looked down,” Merrill confessed, with deep regret. “Oh, Mythal preserve us.”

“I wouldn’t object to that,” she replied.

“Nor I,” Solas agreed.

They both paused a moment and waited to see.

“She – she won’t actually come in person,” Merrill said, glancing uncertainly between them.

“Right. Yeah. Of course not,” she agreed, and they resumed fleeing for their lives.

A few steps further, she finally placed a boot down and felt the step beneath it being to crumble in response. She staggered away in time, narrowly avoiding another gap.

The whole stair almost went, and they held their breaths, watching as the last piece tumbled into the dark.

When a long moment passed and nothing further seemed to move, she dared another step. Her foot passed over the open shadow, and breeze blew past her ankle.

“Think sturdy thoughts,” Merrill whispered.

She did.

The next step held. She waited while Solas and Merrill crossed it, reached out and gripped Solas by the sleeve until they managed to get a little further, and her heart steadied some.

Then she moved ahead, testing each step as she went.

She was four steps higher than Solas and Merrill when another one crumbled. Braced for it, she moved hastily out of the way. The whole of it went, and that was bad enough, but then the stairs kept breaking apart. In a sudden flurry the ones below it began to go as well, as if she’d hit the trigger for some kind of trap.

Solas veered into the wall, down and away but he couldn’t possibly move fast enough.

There was one horrible moment where he had only a scant sliver of floor left, and she tried desperately to convince herself it would hold.

He threw Merrill towards her, over the opening, a crash of limbs and pain and scrambling to catch, hold, find steady ground.

Then he dropped.

“No, no, no, no!” she cried, dropping Merrill onto the step behind her and lunging for where Solas had been.

Pale fingers clutched at the edge of still-crumbling steps. She reached for them, one of her legs flailing out over another gap as her fingers scrambled over his, clutching his wrists as the chunk of step he was holding onto gave out, and then it was a tremendous lurch as all his weight was suddenly placed on her arms. Dragging her down, until Merrill’s arms came tight about her waist.

They dangled over the shadows.

Something exhaled.

Something gleamed, like sharp teeth, in the darkness below Solas’ legs.

The muscles in her arms burned, her entire top half hanging over the edge with him.

There was no way she’d be able to get his full weight and her own back up.

No, no, this is the Fade, she told herself. He doesn’t have to weight anything. He doesn’t weigh anything. He doesn’t weigh anything.

His wrists were slipping.

“Vhenan,” he said, very softly.

“Shut up and float!” she snapped.

He looked at her a second.

“Don’t you dare,” she told him, the words straining out of her.

There was a flash of light; a flare of magic. He surged upwards, briefly, and she pulled as hard as she could, Merrill’s arms straining as she helped. Her heart hammered in her chest, and she repeated it over and over to herself, Solas was light as a feather, his bones were hollow, he was made of dust and snowflakes and magic, and she was strong. Her limbs were wooden. They felt no strain.

She got most of herself back up, and then his arms, in turn.

A surge of relief washed over her.

Then a massive, clawed hand reached up, and closed around his chest.

And pulled.

His wrists were yanked out of her hands.

Her palms burned and she reached for him, flailed for him, watched as he fell and tried to follow after.

There was a snap and a flash and her arms struck solid stone instead.

The staircase stretched beneath them. It was whole and sturdy, as though a thousand years of decay had been wiped clean.

“No, no, no.”

She scratched at it, drew one of her daggers and scraped and even stabbed at it, willing it to break. It was dust and it would break and she was going to kill this thing

“Lethallan, stop!” Merrill snapped.

It sounded like she’d been shouting at her for a while.

But the hand that closed over her fist was gentle. Painted nails resting lightly over top her fingers, which were bruised and bloodied and she’d cut her palm, somehow.

She looked at Merrill. There was a roaring in her ears, but it wouldn’t help. It couldn’t help.

“The opening downstairs,” Merrill said, very carefully and clearly. “We can get to it through there.”

It took her a half second to process what she was saying.

Her eyes whipped down the staircase. They’d have to go back down.

Her arms still burned; but she got Merrill to her feet and they staggered down as fast as they could, the stairs, at least, easier to traverse the second time around. Merrill planted one arm against the wall and didn’t complain, even though she’d gone ashen grey and her free hand was fixed against her leg.

Common sense kicked in once they reached the bottom of the steps.

“Stay here,” she said.

Merrill shook her head.

“It could just open up the floor and take me anyway.”

That was… a fair point.

The room was different than they’d left it. The carvings had rearranged themselves, closing the gap in the wall. And they’d acquired reaching hands, at some point.

She drew her dagger and cut the nearest one off; it sparked where it hit the blade, and left behind a fine blue mist.

Then she fell upon the large tile behind it.

“It could be a Fear demon,” Merrill suggested. “This is all very terrifying, so that would fit.”

The carving smashed into the ground at her feet. A block of solid darkness greeted them.

Something howled.

She thrust herself through the opening, heart suddenly racing.

The air snapped around her and there was a sudden rush, and when her feet landed, they hit something sharp. The darkness dissolved. She actually to blink back at the brightness for a moment, as everything changed all at once. Shadow gave way to silvery light, like the gleam of a full moon, and her breath stuttered in her chest for a moment as she found herself standing in an open field.

At the far edges, the space was lined with reaching trees that wove their branches together, tighter and tighter until they knotted in with one another at the very center of the sky. From that point dangled a strange fleshy sack, which seemed to be the source of the light.

The ground she landed on looked like grass, but it was red, and sharp as needles.

She turned, and saw wide open space behind her; the same as was in front.

The opening was gone, and there was no sign of Merrill.

She tried to draw her bow. But it was gone. Her daggers, too.

In absence of them, she could only ball her fists and straighten her shoulders.

“Alright demon. Where are they?” she called.

Her voice echoed, up and up, and then seemed to be swallowed.

There was no answer.

Carefully, she stepped forward, angling her foot so that she pressed down on the sides of the grass instead of the tops. It helped, a little. She made her way across the field, alert for any glimpse of movement, any sign that the ground was about to give in or the sky was about to fall.

“Don’t you want to bargain with me?” she asked. “I could offer quite a bit. More than either of the others could. Give them back unharmed, and we’ll talk.”

Every word she spoke seemed to only get louder, though. Even the quiet that followed seemed to get louder. She could hear every crunch of her steps. Every rustle of fabric. The beat of her own heart. The pulse in her own temples.

She stumbled, clumsy and drowning, and the gasp of pain that escaped her as her knee hit the ground rang like an explosion.

For a moment she knelt, and held her breath, as still as possible and trying to swallow every sound she could, to just steal back a second of silence.

But it only got worse.

Pressing her hands to her ears did nothing, only added to the roar of the blood pounding beneath her skin. She still tried it, tried to sink into that roar if nothing else, and then she became aware of another sound, lying underneath it all. A whisper; a rush, like some distant, wending river.

Like a far-off song.

She lifted her head, and the in the fleshy sack above a pair of slit-shaped pupils stared back.

Silence dropped like a blanket; like a boon.

The surge of relief she felt was visceral, at first. But short-lived. She pushed her way back to her feet, and realized she could hear nothing at all, now. Not the grass, not the fabric of her clothes, not her breaths, and not even her own voice when she tried to call out.

Trembling a little, she kept her gaze fixed on the eyes above her.

If this thing was trying to drive her mad, it had a pretty routine set up for it.

The thought turned her blood to ice. It had Solas, and possibly Merrill. They had to be somewhere, there had to be some means of breaking whatever control it had, whatever was allowing it to erase her weapons, warp her perceptions, and shape this place to its preference. She swallowed down another cry, just so she wouldn’t have to deal with the unnerving sensation of not hearing it, and pressed on towards the borders.

Maybe she could climb up and just – just beat that thing senseless with her fists.

The very thought was exhausting.

She walked, and she walked. She cut her feet on the grass and sucked in a hissed breath, and heard it, heard the sound of it rise as the air slid through her teeth and knew the sound was coming back again.

It was worse the second time around, even when she braced for it.

She crammed her hands against her ears and forced herself to keep walking, but no matter how far she went the border never seemed any closer. Her blood slid over the grass and vanished, too, and that was probably not good, she decided.

When she fell again, she just sort of… toppled.

Stop it! she thought. Or perhaps said aloud. Her head was ringing and she could hear it again, distantly, underneath everything. She could hear it and the light in her quailed.

The silence returned.

A heavy breath that she couldn’t hear escaped her.

The grass dug into her back, and her marked hand slid from her face, and was cut open on the ground. Her blood trickled down over the faint green line.

She could open a rift. She could escape.

Her brows knit.

That was a ridiculous thought. This was a terrible place to try, and besides, she wasn’t leaving without the others.

But she could. She could escape. Go get help, and come back again. It might be her only way out.

Carefully, she sat up.

That thought felt… strange.

“It won’t work,” she said. Or perhaps shouted. She couldn’t hear the words, either way.

The sound came back, and she staggered onto her feet.

“I’m not letting you out of here!” she called. “You can try all you like, but you don’t get anything until you give me my friends back!”

Her own voice was a shriek. It rang over the field, and she forced herself to walk again.

Then she stopped.

No.

She could keep walking forever, and it would never let her get anywhere.

There was no solution. She could resist until she withered and died and she would still be trapped, a spirit again, but still entirely capable of doing what it wanted. Eventually, she would give in. Eventually, in desperation, she’d break.

Turning back around, she stared up at the eyes that were watching her, letting her anger take over as the sounds beat relentlessly at her.

It wanted a rift?

She could give it one.

Not a very big one, though.

The tiniest pinprick.

Just enough to start tearing it into pieces.

She raised her hand, and the anchor crackled. It sounded like a thunderstorm right in front of her face. She flinched, and twisted her wrist, flicked the tiniest warp in the air until suddenly there was only screaming.

The ground bucked beneath her feet and the cage of branches trembled. Then it all shattered like glass, and was gone.

The light died.

A large, clawed hand closed over her arm. It wrenched her upwards.

In the glimmering green glow of the anchor, she saw the outline of a familiar face; though it was barely more than a skull. Sunken eye sockets and bone-white limbs, tattered lips over a mouth full of ragged teeth.

For all his many, many faults, Corypheus had always been aware of himself.

Whatever was gripping her shared some scant resemblance to him. But that awareness was gone.

The creature tilted its head, and then opened its mouth. Wide and wider, and then it leaned in and she felt its breath on her throat.

Something slammed into it with enough force to knock her loose.

She dropped like a stone. The air filled with the sounds of snapping jaws and cracking bone, a vicious snarl that had her turning, searching, until she spotted six scarlet eyes, gleaming and huge.

The Dread Wolf dashed towards her, and gathered her up in his jaws, and took off like a shot.

It was very damp.

Hot breath and enormous teeth and she wasn’t sure if she was relieved or worried because how and what the hell but at some point, at least, she patted him. Or tried to.

They scrambled up a ledge, somewhere, and the Dread Wolf turned a massive shoulder to something like a wall, and they crashed through. The air was in chaos. The ground kept vanishing beneath their feet as they leapt, up and down, over and across whistling voids and blood-soaked chasms, until at last they landed on barren – but mercifully plentiful – ground.

The Dread Wolf stumbled, staggered, and finally stopped.

He opened his mouth and she rolled free. It was a force of will to get to her knees, then.

His enormous muzzle was in front of her.

She put a hand to it.

“Ma serannas.”

He slumped sideways, eyes closing.

It was only at that point that she realized that Merrill was on his back; mostly because she fell off.

Merrill.

On the Dread Wolf’s back.

That was a slightly less pressing issue than the heavy rise and fall of his chest, though, and the way his eyes had fallen shut.

“Change back,” she told him, through her own laboured breaths. “Quickly.”

He shuddered.

The air shook, and then, blessedly, he did it. The Dread Wolf’s form vanished in a flurry of wind and shadow and left Solas behind, pale and bloodied.

His eyes were shut. They didn’t open when she gathered him up and pulled half of him into her lap. But he was breathing. She searched for his pulse and pressed a kiss to his forehead, and closed her eyes for just a second, clutching him tightly as she dared.

“Ar lath ma,” she told him.

A tentative touch to her shoulder brought her back to the matters at hand.

She looked over at Merrill, who was lying on the ground, her fingertips barely brushing her, as though she half expected to lose the hand she’d reached out with. She looked terrified. When she spoke, her voice shook.

“Can we leave now?”

She stared at the place where they’d landed. Another island, rolling through the chaos. There was no hint of where it might be, but there were no spirits around, just yet – though that could change quickly – and nothing to indicate any obvious danger.

Probably the best chance they were going to get.

She opened the rift, and Merrill crawled while she dragged Solas. They passed through, and came out to green tree branches and bright sunlight. She closed the way behind them a wave of her fist that sparked once, and complied.

Then she fell back against dirt and grass that, at least, didn’t slice her open.

She only looked up when she heard the sound of heavy footfalls.

A figure peered down at them, cast in shadow by the sun, which at first made them utterly impossible to recognize.

Until they spoke.

“This isn’t going to have an explanation that I’ll like, is it?” Hawke asked.

 

~

 

It was midday when they landed – though whether it was the same day was a little more up in the air – but, given their injuries and relative exhaustion, Hawke deemed it necessary to set up camp. Fortunately, the spot they’d landed in was fairly suitable. One of Hawke’s companions, a tattooed elf who looked deeply suspicious of absolutely everything, helped her move Solas, while Hawke treated Merrill’s injuries.

The other companion was a mabari, who, thankfully, seemed content to stay at his owner’s heels.

Merrill remained unnervingly quiet, though she seemed at least a little bit relieved to have found a friendly face, and let the mabari lick her cheek.

Solas, on the other hand, remained unconscious.

Not that she was terribly surprised. So far as she knew, he hadn’t gathered much power in her absence, and that form was too massive for him to sustain. And that was without even considering the exhausted state he’d already been in.

Still, she kept one eye on the steady rise and fall of his chest.

He had a few new injuries. His shirtsleeves were torn and there were defensive wounds on his arms, and some scorch marks on his clothing, as if he’d been casting spells at a close range. Which was probably the case. A bruise the size of a fist had blossomed on one side of his face. It looked painful.

Not that she was a whole lot better off.

Wounds were bandaged and health tonics were freely passed around; a generosity she appreciated, even though the little vial she downed didn’t do much for her exhaustion. It eased her various aches and pains, at least.

The tattooed elf handed it to her. Proximity to him made her teeth itch, for some reason.

Some stray thought nagged at the back of her mind.

Tattoo. Elf. Hawke. Varric’s book.

Oh.

Probably he was Fenris, then. The former slave, with the lyrium tattoos.

She filed that thought away, along with the knowledge that this meant he was quite dangerous. Of course, most of Hawke’s friends were, if sensationalist Dwarven novels could be believed.

For his part, Fenris regarded her much in the same way she’d seen other people regard venomous snakes. All things being fair, though, the only person he didn’t seem to regard that way was Hawke, who was busy trying to wrangle an explanation out of Merrill.

“Let’s start with the bit where you and Solas and whoever-that-is fell out of the sky,” the champion suggested.

“We… were in the Fade,” Merrill admitted.

“What? Physically?” Hawke asked.

Merrill glanced towards her and then away again, warily, and she let out a heavy breath.

“It was me,” she admitted, though somehow even just lifting her hand to display the mark seemed like too much effort. “I can open the Veil. I had to. The Templars were going to kill them.”

“Templars?” Hawke asked.

“The Knight Commander raided the alienage,” Merrill explained. “I think she – she was angry with you? She wanted to know where something was. Or perhaps just make a point.”

The look on Hawke’s face was probably best described as ‘thunderous’.

“That woman. Can’t spare a single bloody Templar to deal with Tevinter slavers or serial killing maleficarum, but of course, raiding the alienage because of some perceived slight against her, that seems perfectly reasonable,” the champion groused. “If the city is on fire again when we get back, so help me…”

“What manner of mage are you?” Fenris interjected. His gaze was fixed on her, with deep suspicion.

“The kind where you’re not a mage, you’ve just had something magical done to you,” she replied, and finally managed to get her hand up.

Sunlight caught on the seam of the mark. It was dull, almost as tired as she was, it seemed; but it still reflected green.

There was a pause.

“Huh,” Hawke finally said. “And you can – you can go into the Fade with that? Like the magisters in chantry lore? The ones who spread the blight all over Thedas and damned themselves in the eyes of the Maker and all those other cheerful things?”

“Pretty much.”

“Well. Fantastic.”

Kirkwall’s premier hero did not look thrilled.

Fenris looked massively disquieted as well, and put a little more distance between them; it seemed pretty clear to her, then, that the camp was divided into distinct halves. Herself and Solas on one side, Hawke, Merrill, Fenris and the dog on the other.

It didn’t feel particularly safe or secure, but there wasn’t a lot she could do about it, either. At the rate she was going, even remaining upright was a monumental effort.

“I guess this is what Varric was talking about,” Hawke finally mused.

“Varric?” she asked, and almost looked for the dwarf in question, before she realized that was kind of absurd.

“A friend of mine. I got a message from him, recently, telling me there was something very strange going on and that I should cut my trip short, if I could.”

“Probably he meant this, yes,” she agreed.

Merrill leaned against Hawke, then, slumping in sheer exhaustion, and further questions were momentarily set aside. She checked on Solas again. The little camp felt strangely vulnerable there was little way to know how Merrill would react to what had happened, Hawke didn’t know her as anything other than a peculiar elf, and Fenris seemed potentially hostile.

But it was better than the Fade, and Hawke didn’t seem the type to cut people’s throats while they were sleeping.

She kept close to Solas even so when she finally – finally – let exhaustion claim her.

Just in case.

Her eyes slipped shut.

Black and reaching, claws tearing, white bone and red flesh, open the way, open the way, OPEN THE WAY.

She gasped and woke with a violent flail, cold terror rushing down her spine. On the other side of the camp, Hawke jumped a bit.

Blinking, she stared at nothing for a moment while her heart beat a frantic tempo in her chest. It didn’t seem as though more than a minute had passed. The Fade, she realized. That thing is still…

She looked at Solas.

Still sleeping.

Oh, no.

Reaching over, she gave him a firm shake. Nothing. She called his name. Nothing, again. She grabbed some water from the center of the camp and splashed it on his face, and nothing, still.

“What’s wrong?” Hawke asked her.

“We have to wake him,” she insisted.

When it seemed clear she could manage no more, the champion retrieved another vial of tonic, and helped her pour some down Solas’ throat.

They waited.

And waited.

“That should’ve worked,” Hawke finally said. “Anders makes these. They can even wake mages from their Harrowings.”

Dammit.

With a curse she lay down next to him again. The world was spinning.

Hawke peered down at the both of them.

“What’s the matter with him?”

She let out a heavy breath.

“I don’t know. But something’s wrong,” she explained, helpfully.

There didn’t seem to be much else anyone could try to do it about it, though.

Apart from one obvious option.

When she fell asleep again, she was almost ready for it.

Her dreams were a disjointed sea of nightmares, difficult to either grasp or evade. It was nowhere near the coherence of being in the Fade with Solas. It may have even been less coherent than her normal sleep used to be. It felt like something was reaching for her, but she was too insubstantial for it to grasp. So it called to her, instead, but the words were less words than some disjointed scrambling of intent; cajoling tainted with malevolence.

She tried to find Solas, but finding anything in that mess was impossible.

It meant that she slept fitfully, though, despite her body’s persistent desire for rest. Every so often she’d blink awake, only to drift back into the chaos again.

By the time the camp as a whole was roused, Solas still wouldn’t wake.

Hawke was adamant that they get to Kirkwall sooner rather than later, however, so Fenris was once again conscripted to carry Solas, whilst Hawke took Merrill. She herself was left to carry Fenris’ pack and sword, which was ludicrously heavy and – after a quick check – in fact taller than she was.

Bull would have loved the thing.

She stayed close to Fenris, despite the way he inexplicably grated on some ill-defined nerve of hers, too uneasy to leave him unsupervised with an unconscious Solas at his mercy.

Neither of them said much, at first.

For their first break, Fenris essentially dropped Solas onto her and stalked off without a word.

When he came back to resume their journey, however, he spoke.

“What was done to you?” he asked, and gestured to her hand.

She stared at it, and then at him, and then shrugged.

“I interrupted a ritual,” she said. “Touched something I wasn’t supposed to, and got an unexpected new set of abilities and an angry magister on my tail.”

Of course, she realized then, if Varric’s story was accurate with regards to him, Fenris probably knew a thing or two about that.

But he only seemed more unsettled when he swept Solas up again.

Hawke tried talking with her, next.

“You’re Dalish, aren’t you?” the champion asked. “What were you doing in the alienage?”

“I know Solas. I was there with him,” she admitted.

Merrill gave her a strange look then, long and hard, and she let herself fall back a step behind Fenris; she could still see him clearly enough, though he didn’t seem too pleased at having her at his back. She kept to his side, out of courtesy, and stayed well within his peripheral vision.

By the time Kirkwall was in sight, it was late. They set up camp, again, and she longed for her bow, for a hunt, for a simple task that could be easily accomplished. Not that she felt much like running around. It was more in the spirit of the thing.

The air turned cool and they set up a fire, let Solas rest close to it and tried giving him more tonic again. Once again, it didn’t seem to do much of anything.

Merrill, surprisingly, was the one who started the next round of questions and answers.

“He turned into a wolf,” the young Dalish said, staring at Solas’ prone form.

Everyone just sort of paused.

“In the Fade,” Merrill continued. “He said I shouldn’t be afraid, and then he turned into… a wolf. A very large wolf. I was terrified. And he said if I didn’t grab hold of him then he would leave me behind, and I would die.”

There was another long stretch of silence.

“I assume you grabbed hold of him, then?” Fenris suggested.

“Yes. I thought he was the Dread Wolf. I thought he’d snap me in half with his jaws if I didn’t do what he said,” Merrill admitted.

Across the fire, they looked at one another, and there was a question in her eyes. And steel there, too, creeping up behind the mess of shock and uncertainty and pain that had stolen away most of her focus.

Deadly steel.

“He’s a shapeshifter,” she declared, not looking away.

Hawke raised an eyebrow.

“Like Flemeth?”

“Asha’bellanar,” Merrill murmured, and glanced at Hawke. “You said she turned into a dragon.”

“I did, because she did. Believe me. Riding on the back of a dragon is not a forgettable experience,” the champion declared.

“He doesn’t do it very often,” she explained. “It’s tiring. Especially for anything big. I’m surprised he even attempted it.”

“After you walked through the wall, it closed behind you,” Merrill carefully explained. “I tried to follow, but I don’t think I went to the same place that you did. I found Solas, fighting some kind of demon. We drove it off, and then started looking for you. The longer it took, the more agitated he got. I was worried he was going to do something foolish. And then we saw you.”

She raised her eyebrows in surprise.

“I didn’t see you,” she admitted. “Not until you rescued me, anyway.”

“You were in the ceiling,” Merrill told her. “Up above, through all this red haze. It looked like you were shouting. That was when Solas… changed. You fell, and everything shattered, and I think the demon tried to grab you. I know Solas picked you up in his jaws, like he was going to eat you, but then he carried us out instead.”

“It’s a frightening form,” she conceded. Less so when you’d seen it sneeze, perhaps.

“Why does it look like the Dread Wolf?” Merrill asked her.

She saw something familiar in the other woman, then. The obvious question, with an equally obvious answer; but it was too preposterous to think that Solas and Fen’Harel were one and the same. It was too absurd to imagine that the supreme villain of Dalish mythology scrunched his nose when he drank tea and wore soft sweaters and hid from dogs.

“He thinks Dalish superstition is ridiculous,” she said.

Which was technically true.

Just, utterly unrelated.

“So he thought it would be a good idea to scare ten years off of my life in the middle of the Fade?” Merrill asked, with obvious irritation; though it was clear she was willing to latch onto the offered out.

“He hardly had the time to be choosy. He likes wolves,” she replied, and then shrugged. “He knows the form, and he needed something large. It’s not like he can turn into a dragon.”

He’d said she’d seen all of his guises, after all.

“It’s not right,” Merrill insisted.

“A joke in poor taste?” Hawke suggested.

“If he’d turned into that shape when I wasn’t injured and exhausted, I would have tried to take his head clean off. A Keeper’s duty is to protect The People from the Dread Wolf. I might not be a First anymore, but I still remember my responsibilities. Fen’Harel should not be made light of,” Merrill asserted.

“There are more dangerous creatures in this world than wolves,” she asserted. “Dread or otherwise.”

An odd tension hung in the air.

Fenris, surprisingly enough, broke it.

“You mentioned a magister,” he said, directing the comment towards her, though his gaze stayed fixed on the fire.

“I did,” she confirmed.

“What magister?”

“I doubt you’d know him. There’s not much left of him anymore,” she replied.

“You’re not from Tevinter. You are no escaped slave,” he asserted.

“No,” she agreed.

“I know of magisters,” he told her, then. “And magic. They make dangerous things.”

She turned, and regarded him. Covered in his strange vallaslin, with his shock of white hair and his dark brows, and the massive blade at his side. He could reach through the Fade. She could rip it open. In the back of her mind, she could almost hear Dorian wondering what would happen if they ever shook hands.

Probably they’d implode the Veil or something.

“Is there anyone here who isn’t dangerous?” she asked.

Silence.

“There we go, then,” she decided, and slumped back down on the ground.

The mabari made it a point to try and investigate her, at that point. She offered him a pat on the head. He wandered off shortly after, though he gave Solas a tentative sniff – at a distance. In the end he settled down next to Merrill, slobbery head resting on her uninjured thigh.

She tried to brace herself for when sleep came again, but of course, that wasn’t precisely how falling asleep worked.

The dreams were much the same, though she retained enough coherence to call for Solas, intermittently. The only problem was that she could never seem to remember what name she was supposed to use. Somehow, it all ended up coming out as disjointed, mournful howls instead.

They weren’t answered.

The next morning, there were other travellers packed along the road. When they saw Hawke, they cried out, the way people had sometimes cried out to her as Inquisitor.

“Champion! Thank the Maker!”

“Champion, it’s the city!”

The distress in the air was palpable.

Hawke braved their entreaties, and they learned that Kirkwall had been thrust into chaos. Of the overt kind, not the perpetual sort.

One alarmed man, with the general look of a trader about him, took on the role of spokesman for the fairly large group of travellers behind him.

“It started with the alienage, Serah Hawke,” he said. “Templars went and raided the knife ears. Took a handful of ‘em, I think. The elves weren’t too pleased ‘til they got a few back, but then – no one knows for sure. Word went around that there was some kind of escape. Knight Commander sent her people everywhere, started turning over houses, went into the Hanged Man and tried to arrest everyone for being conspirators. The Guard Captain told her what-for, then, and the Grand Cleric came and calmed things down. Thought that’d be the end of it, but a few days ago, the nobles came runnin’ out of Hightown like rats out of a sinking ship. Chantry’s shut tight, and word’s gone around that it’s foul magic, and folk are whispering that the Knight Commander’ll put in for the Rite of Annulment.”

“What? What kind of magic?” Hawke asked, sharply.

“Don’t know,” the man admitted. “Demons, I suppose. Demons in the chantry – never thought I’d see it. Never thought I’d leave Kirkwall, either, but it’s too much, Serah. I was lucky enough to live through the qunari. I’ll not press my luck again.”

“I won’t ask you to,” Hawke assured him.

They set off down the road again. Most of the people fleeing the city looked to have some means about them – enough wealth to survive travelling. There were very few poor; they wouldn’t have as much luck, even with disaster hanging over their heads. No supplies to survive a trip on.

After they’d passed the bulk of one crowd, Hawke convinced one of the fleeing citizens to loan them the use of a cart, and go back with them a ways. It made the trip quicker, not having to support Merrill and a still-sleeping Solas.

Nevertheless, passing back through the city’s walls seemed like a daunting prospect. Especially with Templars watching the roads.

“They won’t take us with Hawke here,” Merrill told her.

She cast an eye towards Solas, and didn’t feel reassured.

But there wasn’t much she could do. She could scarcely make off with him into the wilderness, and even if she could, whatever had happened in Kirkwall was probably their fault. She flexed her marked hand, and thought of the creature she’d seen. Before whatever… whatever demon had taken Corypheus’ face, or stray remnant had found her. The thing that had wanted her to open the way.

And she had.

The tiniest one.

It should have done nothing but damage it, rend it, but…

Where had it opened?

Oh please don’t let the answer be what I think it is, she wished, fiercely.

What had she been thinking? Had she gone mad? Opening even the tiniest rift from the Fade, with no idea what was on the other side?

Oh no.

As it turned out, when they got to the city gates, they weren’t being guarded by Templars at all. The figures waiting there were clad in the orange flags of the City Guard. When they spotted their party, they began to wave, and one of them even dashed over.

“Champion!” she called. “Guard Captain’s got Lowtown, they’re holed up in the Hanged Man. Templars said they were taking care of Hightown, but things keep coming out of it. You’d best hurry! Captain said to holler if we saw you!”

“Shit,” Hawke said. “This just keeps getting better and better.”

They managed to make their way through Lowtown. Past the lines of evacuees, the streets were noticeably quiet; doors barred and windows boarded up, dust blowing down the empty roadways. They reached the Hanged Man without incident, and the contrast was remarkable as Hawke threw open the doors to a din of arguing and activity.

A formidable-looking redhead stood at the center of it, along with a rail-thin hahren who screamed ‘Keeper’ to her subconscious, despite his lack of vallaslin. Varric was there, and Anders, too, as well as Sebastian and ‘Rivaini’ – who was probably Isabela, come to think of it – and quite a few guards, and not very many actual patrons, it seemed.

“The Templars have clearly failed,” the hahren was saying. “Whatever they’ve done, it’s only made the problem worse.”

“And you think sending in mages will make it better?” the redheaded woman demanded. “Just throw more magic at this?”

“At least let us out of the Gallows! If we’re cornered in there it will be a death sentence for our children and elderly.”

“Just what the hell is going on?” Hawke interrupted, and the relief in the room was palpable as everyone turned and realized just who had arrived.

It was impressive. She wondered if she’d ever had that effect on such a large group of people. Usually responses to the Inquisitor had tended to be a little more… mixed.

“I told you this whole place would go to shit soon as you turned your back,” Varric said, successfully breaking the moment.

“Hawke! Thank the Maker,” the redhead – in a fancy guard uniform, so probably Aveline, then – declared, and then all but dragged the city’s champion over to the table where everyone with any scrap of authority seemed to be conferring. Hawke transferred Merrill’s weight hastily over to her.

Varric spotted the rest of them, and squared them away in a less hectic part of the tavern. He waved over Anders, who took one look at their injuries, swore, and downed a lyrium potion.

“What happened to Chuckles?” Varric asked.

“He won’t wake,” she admitted. There was a tremor in her voice that she couldn’t quite bite back.

Anders turned his attention to the most dire need at that comment, peeling open Solas’s eyelids. He whispered something under his breath, and his fingertips lit up with crackling white and blue. His brows knit in consternation, and then he tried a different spell.

“How did he lose consciousness?” he asked.

“He passed out in the Fade,” she admitted.

Anders looked up at her, bewildered.

“We were in the Fade, physically, yes. Our bodies. He passed out. He’s slept in the Fade before and been fine,” she snapped, throwing an arm up into the air. “And I can’t find him when I dream! I don’t know, there’s something – there’s… it’s all wrong…”

A hand came up to grasp her elbow.

She looked down at Varric.

“Deep breaths, Glowbug,” he told her. “Blondie’s the best. He’ll figure it out.”

Anders didn’t look like he had quite so much faith in his abilities, but after a moment his mouth thinned into a tight line, and tried a different spell.

She let out a breath, and forced herself to calm down and think.

“What happened in Hightown?” she asked Varric.

“Sounds like something out of your story,” he admitted. “Some green light lit up in the chantry. People started going crazy. That’s the most I’ve gotten about it. Choir Boy tried to fight his way back up there, said he saw a lot of abominations. Maybe a few possessed Templars.”

No, no, no.

They’d been in the chantry.

Dumat. The God of Silence.

All the sounds, ringing in her ears, vanishing the moment later. Open the way. Something that lived in pieces, like Corypheus; something that couldn’t be torn apart, because letting the slightest bit of it out was letting the slightest bit of it loose.

And if that rift was still open…

“I have to go,” she said.

Varric frowned.

“We’ll make a plan,” he told her. “Don’t go haring off on your own, that’s just a good way to get yourself killed.”

She shook her head.

“Look after Solas. Don’t leave Merrill alone with him,” she insisted.

“Wait a minute-”

She put a hand on his shoulder, and squeezed, and for just a second she pretended that he was the Varric who remembered her; the friend she’d made in Haven.

Then she headed back towards the tavern door, past the planning table, where heads were lowered and Hawke was standing in the spot she herself would have been occupying, once upon a time.

“-tunnels from Darktown,” Hawke was saying. “We go up, through my manor. It’ll be easier than fighting our way over the stairs. The mages can help hold Lowtown, and hopefully take down anything too big for the guard to handle.”

“Once again, my people will be happy to help defend the city,” the hahren assured her.

“We don’t know what state Darktown is in-” Aveline began arguing, as she passed through the door.

The tunnels.

Not a bad idea.

She made a hasty detour to the alienage, and to her relief found that the Templars had left her bow and quiver in Solas’ house. No one emerged from their barred doors as she set out again. She didn’t blame them.

Even Darktown was quiet, some of the passages sealed, the clinic barricaded. Most of the population couldn’t exactly afford the security of a locked door, and so people were also huddled together, waiting anxiously in dark corners and alcoves. Waiting for whatever was destroying Hightown to sweep through and come for them, too.

This was her fault.

She squared her shoulders, and made for Hawke’s cellar.

The long climb reminded her that she still hadn’t entirely recovered from her previous ordeal. She pressed on, working the doors open until at last she reached the one that led to the champion’s estate. It was blocked, she found, barricaded too heavily to shoulder open.

“Hello?” she tried calling. “Is anyone on the other side?”

There was a slight shuffle, and a scraping sound.

“Who’s there?” Bodahn’s voice rang out, sharp with suspicion.

“Bodahn! It’s me! Solas’ friend!” she said.

“You haven’t got any demons with you, have you?” Bodahn asked.

“No,” she assured him. “None have reached Darktown yet. And Hawke’s on the way, along with some others, I think. They’ll want to use the passage.”

There was another pause, and then some more scuffling and scraping, and finally the door was opened and she found herself ushered hastily into the cellar. Bodahn and Sandal were there, and so was Orana; all of them sound, if obviously frightened.

“If I were you, I’d head for Lowtown,” she advised.

“We didn’t dare risk the tunnel when we didn’t know the state of the city,” Bodahn informed her. “There’ve been creatures pouring out of the chantry. The Templars have barricaded themselves up in the Viscount’s keep, but it seems they’re fighting one another as much as the demons.”

“Oh, joy,” she replied.

“I wouldn’t go out there,” he warned. “The streets are in no fit state for anyone.”

“That’s why I have to go,” she declared.

It sounded positively heroic. But it was just a fact. Other people could fight their way to the chantry, could kill as many demons as they liked, but unless she closed that rift, there’d always be more pouring in.

A hand tugging gently at her elbow caught her attention. She looked over at Sandal, who raised a hand, and pressed a stone-carved rune into her marked palm.

“Enchantment,” he said. And then he threw his head back, and did a fair imitation of a wolf.

Her eyes widened.

She looked at the rune in question. It was unfamiliar, but green, and it warmed at her touch.

“You… are really something else,” she told him.

“That’s what the Hero of Ferelden used to say about him,” Bodahn said, fondly.

Shaking her head, she pocketed the unexpected gift.

“I expect Hawke will be along shortly, unless there’s a change of plan,” she assured them, and even Orana’s nerves seemed a bit eased. Then she headed for the door up. Sandal helped her tug a large set of barrels that had been pushed in front of it off to one side, and then pulled it back into place behind her.

“Good luck,” he whispered, very softly, before pushing the door closed.

Despite all of the barricading, the interior of the manor seemed largely undisturbed, and she suspected that the household had retreated the cellar more as a precaution than necessity. Once she got to the front door, however, it was easy to see why. The streets of Hightown were a mess, demons roaming in a way that reminded her so sharply of the Breach that she felt compelled to look up and make sure it hadn’t suddenly reappeared.

She avoided the creatures as much as possible, moving quickly, using her arrows sparingly. Eventually she clambered up onto the balconies when she realized a fair number of them were close enough to jump between.

It didn’t take long for her to reach the sounds of active fighting.

The Templars did, indeed, seem to be holding ground around a large building that must have been the viscount’s keep, and fighting among themselves in addition to fending off the uncoordinated attacks of the demons in the streets.

Someone was bellowing about the Maker, somewhere.

It was all strangely nostalgic, in the worst possible way.

She left them too it and made for the chantry, pausing only when she spied a certain Knight Captain being overrun.

Dammit.

Two carefully placed shots and the Rage demon charging him finally went down, dispersing into embers. She grabbed a shortsword off a fallen Templar – a little unwieldly, but not too heavy for her style – and cut through a Terror demon before it could leap, dragging the blade across twisted flesh.

She had to turn and meet the Knight Captain’s sword, then, before he could cut her down.

“You!” Cullen exclaimed, looking deeply, deeply confused, and also like he was very angry about being deeply confused.

“Did you just try to kill me?” she asked.

“This strange magic is your doing!” he accused.

“I’m fighting demons for you and you’re trying to kill me? Really? This is just sad, Rutherford.”

“Stop whatever foul spell you’ve cast on the chantry!”

“Alright,” she agreed.

He blinked.

“I… what?” he demanded.

“Alright, Cullen. I will go to the chantry and try to fix this,” she assured him. “Hawke is bringing people up through the tunnels in Darktown, they’ll probably come out at the champion’s estate. The mages and the guards are rallying at the entrance to Hightown. The big ugly staircases? If you clear a path between Hawke’s estate and the viscount’s keep you might be able to get people out through the tunnels. Join up with the fighting at the staircases and you might be able to fortify Lowtown and actually keep this from spreading.”

He blinked at her.

“The mages?” he asked. “Maker’s breath, the last thing we need is for them to join in this chaos!”

“You’re in no position to turn down help. Why are the Templars fighting one another?” she demanded.

His expression twisted.

You compromised the Knight Commander!” he accused. “She has been raving since the chantry fell, and demons take the misguided souls who follow her, and the bodies of those who have fallen. There is no end to it!” His expression faltered, somewhat. “It is happening all over again…”

“I’m flattered that you think I have infinite powers, but mind control isn’t actually something I can do,” she informed him.

He hardly looked convinced. Still, as long as he didn’t try to hack her head off, it probably wasn’t of too much concern. For the moment.

A Despair demon whirled out of the shadows, then, and she took the opportunity to disengage from the Knight Captain, retrieving a usable arrow from the remains of the Rage demon and firing it into the creature. By the time Cullen was finishing it off, she was away, heading for the chantry once more.

The building was, of course, crawling with enemies.

The front doors were flung wide open, demons pouring out in numbers that utterly defied the tiny little rift she had made. Emerald light gleamed in the courtyard, wavering where the Veil was thin. She scaled the rooftops and then paused a moment, utterly taken aback. It had not been that large. Nowhere near that large.

Something had expanded it.

Damn, damn, damn.

The demons seemed low, and so she kept high, scurrying over stone rooftops and darting over top archways until she reached a narrow chantry window, barely big enough for her to squeeze through. Quietly as she could manage, she knocked the glass out, and then eased her way inside.

Her skin tingled.

The air smelled like iron.

It didn’t take long to find out why.

On the main floor of the chantry, the corpses of at least a dozen chantry sisters were laid out, circling around the entryway and placed on the dais in some morbid mimicry of a sunburst. Blood was spattered along the walls and sank into the deep red carpets, like rivers of shadow. In the middle of the circle stood the Knight Commander and staring up at the statue of Andraste.

Above the statue’s heart, the rift shone, and twisted, and cast tendrils throughout the room from which demons sprang forth. But it was… wrong. It trembled, as if something large was trying to get through, and yet whatever it was never quite seemed to resolve.

“Maker,” Meredith said. “Maker, I hear your voice.”

The rift shuddered, and the anchor flared.

“As you bid,” the woman promised, and then left the chantry to go and do whatever presumably depraved thing the giant glowing light had told her to. Or led her to believe it had told her to.

Wonderful.

She crept along the upper balconies until she was close enough to feel the distortions from the rift. Definitely much bigger than she’d made, or meant to make. Then she hesitated. It was still rippling, straining, something trying to pass through from the other side. There was no way to close it until that stopped.

Presumably, it was Dumat.

Presumably, it would only stop once he got out.

That… no. That wasn’t a good idea.

She’d just have to try, then.

Raising her hand, she let anchor surge, and reached for the rift. The air cracked and her hand flared so brightly she had to blink back stars, and something roared, thus killing any hope she had of remaining inconspicuous.

And then something pulled.

It was a sensation she’d felt only once before, when Corypheus had tried to reclaim the anchor from her at Haven. Only this time it felt like the whole of her was being wrenched at, as if the Fade was reaching back and trying to rip her skeleton out, and setting fire to it at the same time. The gleaming emerald light turned white at the edges, and blood seeped from her palm.

She tried to cut it off, but whatever had her wouldn’t let go.

Only one choice left, then.

She curled her hand, as if clutching something in return, and yanked back.

You are not stronger than me, she thought. You are a remnant. I’m not. You’re a dead thing. I’m not. This is mine, and my hold is better than yours.

Was it really, though?

She was an elf. Just an elf. Not even one of the ancients – she was a remnant, too. Another tattered thing, another dead thing, even if she’d found a way to live again.

The Dread Wolf might have relinquished this shard of power to her, but before that, Corypheus had changed it. And neither of them knew how, or to what true end. Was it hers? Was she not a thief, a mistake, an inept fool, staggering in the dark, meddling with powers she scarcely understood?

She clenched her teeth, and held her ground.

My people are not a remnant.

No?

Fast and fleeting lives, struggling to simply survive more often than not. But to what end? So that the next generation could carry on the struggle, living under the heels of other races, foraging for scraps of an empire that, for all its supposed grandeur, had all but been erased?

What was the point? She was an ant, flailing at the Heavens; and the Heavens did not care.

She let out a breath, and half-hysterical laugh.

That sounds like Corypheus, she thought. Is there still something of him left, or did he learn how to make awful speeches from you?

The air shuddered. A demon tried to close in, she thought, but a stray tendril of the storming rift burnt it to ashes, first.

She was going to burn apart, just like that. She’d finally gotten her body back, and she was going to lose it again. And then how would she stand her ground, when she had no feet to stand on anymore? How would she fight, when she was just a wisp on the air, when she was the very energy that had been made in tribute to him?

How would she save the wolf’s mind after he’d swallowed them both?

Her heart stilled.

It was that moment, again. That moment when she’d been battling Corypheus, and he’d cast his spell, and there had only been one recourse to protect the people she cared about.

Reaching into her pocket with her free hand, she grasped the rune which Sandal had given her. Whatever did, she hoped, fervently, it could help, because it was the only thing she had left.

The stone burned at her palm for a moment, flared, and then everything, all of it, went rushing through to the other side.

To whatever other side could be reached.

The hold on her reversed, panic and confusion and how and some frantic attempt to escape as the rift churned and the chantry walls turned to mist and smoke. He tried to break free. She clutched at him until she couldn’t anymore, and then she stumbled to her knees.

When she looked up, she was struck by a wave of disorientation.

The world had become layered.

She could see the chantry, and its horrific scenery. And she could see the Fade, and its leering carvings, and its chaotic skies, burning through the roof of the building. She could see stairs that sank below floors and pits that hovered in walls, ripples where the rift reached, not bright ribbons of light anymore, but clear, as if they were the only points undivided.

Spirits drifted by, and twisted from one layer to another. In the center of it all, at the rift, darkness swelled and distorted, trying to get back to the opening it had been wrenched from. Before she could think twice, she reached out, and with a vicious flick of her wrist, sealed the opening shut.

Then she gaped down at the rune.

Holy shit.

“Holy shit,” she said out loud, for good measure.

Something roared in absolute fury, and charged her.

Clawed arms and that damn face again, and with a jolt of alarm she was sent flying off of the balcony; but she fell slowly, despite the height, and when she crashed to the ground it wasn’t much of a jolt. She evaded raking claws and drew her blade, and only realized it wasn’t the short sword she’d grabbed after she’d carved a path across Corypheus’ open ribs.

It was her Fade shard dagger.

Holy shit.

Not that there was time to dwell on it. She cut him off of her and he staggered back, and then charged again, mindless as most darkspawn tended to be. A blow to her shoulder knocked her down, and then clear through the chantry floor and into the basement.

She landed in a pool of blood, deep enough to drown in.

With a gasp she broke through the surface, struggling upwards, staring for a moment at the ordinary crates and storage boxes that were sitting innocuously amidst the red lake. Then Corypheus clawed at her, raking the flesh across her shoulder, and she kicked out at him and swam; over at first, but then down, trying to get beneath him, to cleave at him where he might not reach her.

Through the haze of red, she saw something else, though.

A figure, chained to the ground. Wounded. Struggling. Sending fresh currents of blood into the pool around them.

Solas.

She gasped, and the taste of copper filled her mouth.

Corypheus bite down on her arm.

Recovering her senses, she thrust her dagger through his skull, and wrenched her way free, her flesh tearing at his teeth. With a surge of hatred, she drew her second blade, and cut his throat. Again, and then again, until his neck was little more than a tattered thread, and his claws had pierced her shoulder. But she could scarcely feel the pain.

She kicked him away, left him writhing as she swam towards the bottom, and gasped impossible, copper-tasting breaths of blood.

When she reached Solas, she clutched at the chains, and then took his face between her hands.

“Solas?” she called. “Fen’Harel?”

He stared at her in shock.

“Ma vhenan.”

“How do I break them?” she asked.

Something rammed into her, and with a curse she whirled, ignoring the fresh pain in her ribs as Corypheus’ tattered corpse charged her again

Again.

Again with this creature.

She caught the arm that reached for her and wrenched at it, and what ensued was, perhaps, the ugliest fight of her life, as she cleaved and kicked and tore, and was torn at in return, frantic and furious and left only with the recourse of cutting bits from this relentless corpse until there were none left that could move.

Then she grasped her daggers and cut at the chains holding Solas, too, until they shattered into sparks and dust.

He gaped at her.

“How…?”

His hands reached for her, but then, like a whisper, he was gone.

No.

No, where did he go?

She turned, searching, but then the chains she’d broken snapped up and wrapped around her. Grasping. They dragged her down until her back hit the floor. Somewhere up above she heard the sounds of battle, cutting blades and roaring demons, and the air tremored with the spark of magic. Through the basement, the red pool, she saw Hawke and Hawke’s companions burst into the chantry.

It was, for a second, a strangely captivating sight. Merrill was on her feet again, and when she cast a spell, the magic looked… whole. Connected to her. Like flares of thought given form, bursting from her staff and drawing from her figure, written in strokes of light and shadow that wove through both layers of the world. Fenris’ marks shone, crisp and clear, and when he reached through a demon, his arm seemed as clear as the tendrils of the rift.

Then the floor swallowed her, and the scene vanished.

She landed in a dark room.

Across from her sat a single, silvery-gold mirror.

An Eluvian.

The chains weighed her down so that she could not cut them. They were cold, and very heavy, and yet, by dint of monumental effort, it seemed she could move, still. As if they could only hold part of her. She staggered to her feet, and raised her hands, searching for a way out.

The light of the anchor caught in the gleam of a massive draconic eye, and she fell back.

Slowly, the darkness shifted.

She turned her head, and in the faint light she caught the edge of a long tail, and the tip of folded wings, and the point of a curved horn. Big. Bigger than any she’d seen before. Her stilled for a moment, and her mind blanked in a second of pure, primal fear, as all hope of bravery or bravado was erased in the face of the sudden certainty that she was very, very small.

Yes.

She was very, very small.

The beast moved slowly, almost invisible in the blackness but for the gleam of a sharp tooth, the glare of a golden eye. It wound around her, tighter and tighter, and forcing her closer to the Eluvian. It seemed to eat the light being cast, letting it flare only in brief glimpses before stealing it away, and the chains dragged at her.

They were going to try again.

Open.

The.

Way.

The chains scraped at the base of the Eluvian, and she glanced up at the smooth, strange glass. Her mark flared, briefly.

No.

She could open either way she liked, though. She could tear the Veil; or she could activate the Eluvian. Surely he was too large to fit through the frame. A great, slow dragon, massive enough to swallow her whole, if he pleased. And he might just give that a try, if she didn’t cooperate. Considering she’d so rudely rescinded that favour she’d done him in the Fade, before he could make full use of it.

Well.

Maybe she’d have to find out what the inside of the dragon looked like, then.

Dark, probably.

And damp.

Soft, too. Maybe she’d take her daggers with her. Maybe she’d find out how much effort it took to cut a dead god open from the inside. It probably wouldn’t kill him, but it certainly seemed like it might set his recovery back just a bit.

Maybe they were going about things the wrong way.

There was no reason for them to be at odds with one another. Not necessarily. Corypheus had been her enemy, yes, but he’d exhausted his usefulness. And spirit. There wasn’t anything left of him, really. Just tattered threads tied to some scant bit of power. She’d been his rival, and at every turn, she had beaten him. But what was the prize? An uncertain existence in a broken world?

Or a chance for something more?

Could she understand?

He was song, once.

The People sang for him and sang with him. Music, yes, but also the songs of life; laughter and cries and whispered prayers, chants and screams and beating hearts, every rhythm, every breath. He lived for the promise of sound. Birds in their trees, rivers streaming over rocky falls, wind howling through empty chasms.

But the sounds grew stale.

He knew. He knew; silence must come. Silence must come, for he could find no more joy in sound.

The wolf closed the door, and he was content. The plan had worked; the mother’s death had bought them an ending. He slept. He waited.

But the silence would not come.

Deep below, he heard them singing. Old ones, vast ones, singing to their children, always singing, stealing the silence. Twisted, it all twisted, and he hated them. He hated the thieves of silence. Like a knife, he slipped into their dreams, and tried to steal from them their voices. Cut the tether. No more children, no more song.

Red, blood and screaming. It couldn’t feel its children. It couldn’t feel its kin. It had never been alone before, it sang out but nothing answered. It would not be silent. It reached, twisted, begged for help; found blackened shadow and poured its song into it. It will never stop singing, no. It took all the others, swallowed them, fed them its blood and ate their flesh.

It was his fault.

The singing will never stop, now, not until there is nothing left to hear it.

He could offer mercy. Mercy as he had shown to her, against the noise. Let them all be dragged to silence. Let the world go dark. Let the song stop, at last, and there would be peace. She could help him bring peace.

Could she understand?

No.

Not at all.

If he wanted silence so badly, why not simply find it in death? Why kill the songs and the singers, why linger, why cause suffering, why work so hard to return to a world that was filled with unwelcome songs?

What made her think that death would offer silence?

Open the way, Herald. Help me, and in the quiet, I will raise you to the stars. You will never die. You will never tire. And I will love you above all else that has ever been, or ever will be.

As he once loved song?

“Wow. How could I possibly resist,” she intoned, and the chains wrenched at her, driving her into the ground.

She swore, but the curse fell soundlessly from her lips.

Dammit. Not this again.

Why couldn’t he just stab out his eardrums or something?

As if he heard with a physical form. As if sound was not woven into his very being.

Well, in that case, even if he killed everything and stopped everything he would probably still hear something. Even if it was just himself. Even if it was just a thought, was a thought all that different from a sound? Was he really that foolish?

There would still be sound, yes. But there would also be silence. She did not understand.

No, she really did not.

And she was starting to think she didn’t want to, either.

A massive eye peered down at her.

She was suffering under the delusion that he could be stopped. He could not. He could only be delayed. If she had thought Corypheus competent at enduring, she had no idea what he was capable of. Her choices were not between helping him or dying nobly to thwart him. They were between earning his favour or earning his ire.

And his ire would not fall only upon her.

He could see them all. All the flickering little flames of life that she treasured. He would snuff them out, one by one.

But he’d do that anyway, if his plans succeeded.

There was no if. His plans would succeed. Did she want to help him, and raise herself to a point where she could, in turn, help those for whom she cared? Or did she want to ensure that when he came for them, they met only the worst of fates?

What?

No third option?

She lashed out and sank her dagger into the gleaming eye.

Light burst from the mirror at her back.

What?

She hadn’t opened it!

Her heart hammered in panic but before she could turn, something grabbed her, arms that snatched her up – chains and all – and then pulled her through, whispering silver strands flying past her eyes. A dark shape lunged after them, but a voice shouted and the glass shattered into the face of Dumat, breaking in their wake.

In the bright space between, she thought she saw, for a moment, everything.

A thousand skies, a thousand suns, mountains and forests and oceans and stars and burning fires and cities, spires and caverns and voids, dying husks and new growth, and vast expanses where nothing at all ever changed. It was too much. Far, far too much, but it was only an instant.

Then it slipped away, and she knew she’d never quite grasp it again.

Which she was absolutely fine with.

They tumbled onto wooden floors. The air snapped, and it felt like her spirit had just let out a heavy breath after a long time spent holding it in. But when she blinked her eyes open, there was just one layer to the world. Worn walls, and rat-marked bed posts, and the chains were gone. Arms were holding her so tightly it hurt.

Before she could rightly make sense of anything else, a familiar hand reached out, and a wash of energy slammed into the Eluvian. The glass cracked into what seemed like hundreds of pieces, and tumbled from the frame.

She sucked in one breath, and then another, and then turned back to see Solas, glaring murder at the shards.

Solas.

Awake.

Pissed off as hell, it seemed, and also crushing her, but all she could do was sag.

“Merrill’s going to be upset,” she said.

He sucked in a breath and loosened his hold on her, only to bury his face at her neck and inhale deeply.

She returned the embrace; ran a hand down the back of his head, and gripped his shoulder with another, content to wait for her heart to stop hammering at her ribcage. She was bloodied and bruised and she never, ever wanted to move again, if it meant she could hold on to the illusion, the feeling that, for the moment, she was safe.

They were both safe.

 

~

 

They parted when Solas put a hand wrong on her shoulder and she flinched, and suddenly that seemed like the cue for every single one of her injuries to viciously remind her of their existence.

“Ow,” she managed.

They staggered back onto their feet – mindful of the floor that was now covered in broken glass – and she let herself look at him, let herself make sure he was sound. Despite Anders’ tending there were some superficial injuries still on him, and he looked like a strong breeze could knock him over, exhaustion still written on his features. But otherwise, he seemed fine.

There was blood on his clothes, but that was probably hers.

Yeah, definitely hers, if the way he was looking at her was any indication. A wash of blue light fell over her, soothing, and some of her pain dimmed.

She caught his hand.

“You’ll pass out,” she warned.

His expression settled into an angry sort of determination, and he cast again.

At the third casting, the worst of her injuries closed, and he almost fell face-first into the floor full of glass shards.

She caught him, and somehow managed to get him out of Merrill’s house and into his own before he collapsed onto his bed in a miserable heap.

“I will not be this weak,” he hissed at the blankets.

“Are you kidding?” she asked him. “We’ve fought an ancient Pride demon, fought Templars, fought more demons, fought bloody Corypheus again, and fought Dumat, all in the span of a few days. You’ve turned into a giant wolf and activated an Eluvian and been imprisoned in the Fade and you – you wouldn’t wake up. You’re not weak. I’m not weak. You’re fine. I’m fine. Don’t go to sleep,” she asked. It was possibly she lost her train of thought towards the end.

Solas turned his head and looked at her.

“Vhenan,” he said, gently.

“You wouldn’t wake up,” she repeated, swaying a little on her feet. “What if he finds you again? Don’t go to sleep.”

“I will not sleep. I will only rest,” he promised her. Then he sighed, monumentally. “You should find a healer.”

“There’s probably a call going around for my head by now,” she admitted.

His gaze focused a little.

“The Knight Commander?” he asked.

“I may have accidentally opened a rift to the chantry while were in the Fade and launched the city into chaos,” she admitted.

He stared at her.

“Also, Merrill is definitely going to want us both dead when she sees what you did to her Eluvian,” she added.

It was almost funny, really, except that it wasn’t. At all. An ugly laugh escaped her, and she sank down to the floor next to the bed. Or meant to; Solas reached for her and somehow she ended up on the mattress instead, sitting upright, blood still sluggishly leaking from one of the gashes on her shoulder as hot tears started to spill out of the corners of her eyes.

Solas managed to get himself upright, in turn, and pressed a hand to her cheek, and coaxed her until she was leaning against him.

“It is alright, vhenan,” he said. “Just let me rest a while, and I will help you myself. We will stay here until nightfall. The circumstances are not so dire.”

“I’m a mess, I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“We are both a mess,” he admitted.

And she could feel him trembling, slightly, too. She closed her eyes and wondered how many people were dead. And Dumat was still there, too. Probably furious, with a face full of Eluvian shards. Maybe they would have been better off if they had blown up Hightown.

Which didn’t even touch upon the topic of what Dumat really was. Or seemed to be.

“Who was the God of Songs?” she asked, into the silence between them.

“…Geldauran,” Solas told her.

“What was he like?”

There was a pause. Then Solas shifted slightly and pressed his lips against her temple.

“Quiet. That might seem strange, but his love was for listening as much as composing. When he spoke, the rhythm of his words moved like poetry. When he sang, all ears would be arrested with the sound, until the song was finished. If he had ever deigned to teach me music, I might have learned it better. But he was other, and the tensions of the time would not have permitted it.”

“Did you know him well?” she wondered.

“Better than some,” he admitted. “When I was younger I thought, perhaps, that we were kindred spirits. As it turned out, we were not.”

“You sound very sure of that.”

“I once saw one of his servants offend him,” Solas explained. “The end result firmly established our dissimilarities.”

She let out a heavy breath.

They settled into the stillness of ache and exhaustion. Gradually, tremblings eased and tears dried, and she pulled out the rune that Sandal had given to her, and let it warm her palm.

“Is it him?” Solas finally asked her.

“He said he was the God of Songs, once,” she told him. “And now he wants nothing but silence. I think he killed Mythal. I think he thought that being sealed away would give him what he wanted, but it didn’t. I’m pretty sure his next plan is to try just killing everyone.”

A moment passed. When Solas didn’t respond, she pulled back a bit, and looked at him.

He looked old, all at once.

Not old as in tired – though there was that – but old as in ancient, as in a being who had seen much and done much and remembered much, and rarely lived by halves. She’d never been prone to forgetting that he was old, per se. Even when she hadn’t realized the full extent of it, it had always been apparent that he had a fair amount of time under his belt.

This was different. This was time’s weight, and all its misery, she thought.

And then, with almost shocking swiftness, it was anger.

She watched as his jaw tightened, and his brows fell, and his nostrils flared, briefly. She saw the wolf in him; the snarl just beneath his lips.

Then he closed his eyes and ran his hands down his face. The anger didn’t altogether leave, but it eased, some, backing away into a more generalized kind of misery again.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

He looked at her for long enough that she began to worry.

Just when she was about to ask, he reached out, cupped her face, and let loose with the most unintelligible string of ancient elvish she’d hear from his thus far. The only words she recognized were ‘vhenan’ and ‘Fen’Harel’.

She resigned herself to having to ask for a translation again, mostly still too happy that he was awake and talking to be even remotely annoyed, and when he finished, she leaned forward and pressed her lips to his.

He returned her kiss, and then sighed, and slumped against the wall.

“Translation, please,” she requested, threading their fingers together.

“It does not translate well,” he told her.

“Alright. I will accept an approximation.”

He huffed, and closed his eyes.

“Technically, I declared that I will cut the tongue from any mouth which slanders you, and burn any house which denies you hospitality, and challenge any of my kin who would deem you unworthy, and slay any who tried to claim you as tribute, and other similar things in that vein. In spirit, it means your apologies are unnecessary.”

“That was a very long way of saying that,” she noted.

“In Elvhenan, it would have held additional connotations,” he replied.

“Such as?”

He lifted their joined hands and kissed the backs of her knuckles.

“Congratulations. You are now, officially, of the highest caste in a dead society,” he informed her.

“You promoted me to high born elf?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.

“No,” he said. “The highest.”

It took her a moment to catch his meaning, and when she did, she could only blink.

“You promoted me to god?”

“From a certain point of view. And only informally; we would need someone else to recognize it or lose a fight with me over it before it was considered official.”

She almost laughed at the absurdity, but the noise came out choked instead.

“I’d make a pretty poor god,” she informed him. God of what, even? Terrible luck? Glowy green light? Ending up inconveniently in the Fade? Or was that last one stepping on Falon’Din’s toes?

“Numerous sources would claim the same of me, so perhaps it is only appropriate,” he said. “Still. So far, you have done better than most.”

“I just got half of Hightown killed,” she reminded him. Any trace of joviality fled her, on that note. A great number of those people had probably died in the other timeline, too, in the chantry explosion, but that didn’t exactly make it better. If nothing else, her foolishness had robbed them of years they might have otherwise had.

He looked at her, understanding in his gaze.

“I’ve made decisions that have gotten people killed before,” she admitted. On battlefields. In the War Room. Somehow, familiarity with the sinking dread, the overwhelming guilt, didn’t really make it easier to bear.

“I have found nothing to cure that kind of wound,” Solas told her. “I wish I could tell you differently. But I stand by my claim.”

She sighed, and left it be. He was right; nothing really fixed that kind of mistake. She couldn’t raise the dead. She could, potentially, go back in time, but that would probably cause more issues than it would solve, and she’d have to hunt down Dorian and figure out the logistics and… no, it wasn’t really an option.

“You saved me,” Solas informed her, softly.

“You saved me twice,” she countered. “And let Merrill see you. I told her you were a shapeshifter, by the way.”

“Technically true,” he replied, approvingly.

“She wanted to believe it.”

“She may want to believe differently, when she realizes I have just shattered years of her life’s work,” he mused.

“I’ll protect you,” she promised.

His eyes slit open, a little, and turned towards her.

“I know,” he said, seriously.

She leaned back at little. When she looked at him again, his eyes were closed. His breathing was deep and even. For a moment she was worried that he’d fallen asleep, but when she tried to take her hand back, he gave her fingers a light squeeze before letting go.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, she let herself relax, and tried to figure out what exactly they were supposed to do next.

 

~

 

It became apparent that they’d both fallen asleep when she opened her eyes to the sight of a completely different room.

Solas was sitting in front of her, occupying one of two plain armchairs. A quick look around revealed that the room was completely closed-off. There were no doors or windows, though there was a hearth, and a small table in one corner.

“Are we…?”

“It should be safe,” he assured her. “We are pocketed apart from everything else at the moment. Simply done in this case, so it should be easy to notice the introduction of any unwelcome parties from the Fade.”

“And in the real world?” she asked.

“If the condition of the city is as dire as you say, we should have a few hours, at least, before anyone thinks to start poking through the alienage home of an unconscious apostate,” he reasoned. “Either way, we can do little more without true rest.”

Carefully, she took the chair across from him.

He had a point, she supposed, though she was still concerned. Too much running and fighting and making mistakes of late.

“The matter of what to do next is before us,” Solas pointed out, folding his hands together.

“I know.”

“We will have to leave the city, as soon as we are able. It may be that they will not execute you on the spot, but I would not risk it to chance.”

“I would prefer to keep my head where it is,” she agreed. “But Dumat is still a problem.”

“True,” he conceded.

“I suppose we could recover, make a plan, and try and kill him in the Fade,” she suggested.

“Injuring, defeating, or escaping him is one matter. Killing him outright is another,” Solas explained. “Such a strong energy can be dispersed. But it will regenerate. It may not be the same – when spirits die, they do not recall what they are. When Mythal died, she lost her body, and her mind was altered. But I doubt such changes would improve Dumat.”

“So what, then? We can’t simply leave him. Sooner or later he’ll get out,” she reasoned.

“Kirkwall is not his cage. It is his sanctuary,” Solas asserted. “The Veil and his own lack of strength keep him contained. But he remains here by choice.”

“Right. Free meals,” she recalled, raising a hand to rub at one of her temples.

“That may change, now,” Solas warned. “With the Eluvian destroyed, you are the key to his escape. He will try to find you again. In dreams, certainly, but he will watching for you to open rifts as well.”

She thought of the rune Sandal had given her, and an approximation of it appeared in her hand.

“When I was in the chantry, I tried to close the rift,” she explained. “Something big was blocking it. Fighting me. Dumat, I suppose. Sandal gave me this rune. It let me… I think I was in the Fade and not in the Fade at the same time.”

Solas extended a hand, and she dropped it into his palm.

He frowned at it for a moment, tracing the lines of it with his finger.

“I am not well-versed in Dwarven rune making. Nor will I pretend a great understanding of Sandal’s talent. But I believe this enhances what the anchor is already capable of,” he said, and then handed it back to her. She let it vanish into the folds of her pocket.

“You were using it when you found me,” he surmised.

“Yes,” she confirmed.

“You looked different,” he informed her. “As though you were lit from within. A side-effect, I imagine. To exist on both sides of the Veil at once… that is remarkable. It is more remarkable that you survived. Was it painful?”

She considered that.

“No. Not until I started actually getting hit, anyway.”

“Even more remarkable. I would recommend caution, however,” he decided. “Long-term effects could be detrimental. Even apart from that, it seems Dumat is capable of affecting you in that state. Dreams offer the barrier of insubstantiality. Walking both sides of the Veil at once likely offers all the same dangers as being physically within the Fade, however.”

“It’s not something I’d do for fun. Though, it was interesting to see,” she admitted.

His eyes lit up, just a little.

“Tell me?” he requested.

“Of course.”

She described the experience to him, then, lingering on the strange clarity of the rifts, and the sight of Merrill’s spells, and Fenris’ abilities. He listened with rapt interest. Eventually they drifted to other topics, straying away from the plans that, she suspected, neither of them knew how to make. Though she got the impression that Solas was working himself up to something. Or considering it, at least.

Waking came with little fanfare. One moment she was sitting in her chair, and the next she was propped up on Solas’ mattress, her back killing her, the gash marks on her arm throbbing with the warning signs of infection.

A quick glance outside revealed the alienage to be still and silent in the early light. Quietly, she retrieved a pale of water, and was in the process of cleaning out her injuries when Solas woke.

He examined them himself and made unhappy half-awake noises, and cast another three healing spells before he seemed satisfied.

“You’re going to waste all of your energy again,” she warned him.

“I am not so weak,” he insisted, which seemed to be becoming some kind of sticking point for him.

Then he sniffed her again.

With a fond sigh, she leaned over, and deliberately inhaled by the skin of his neck. He smelled like sweat and dried blood and himself, which wasn’t awful, but was also entirely predictable.

He huffed at her in return.

“My heart mocks me.”

“Your heart teases slightly, at best,” she corrected.

Setting into the city was a cautious endeavour, then. The alienage was not well-situated for an easy exit from the walls, and many of the streets were still blocked off. They slipped into Lowtown without incident, but the first gate they found was guarded and surprisingly crowded – mostly with people making their way back into the city, it seemed.

“I know of a tunnel through Darktown,” Solas suggested.

“Might be our best shot,” she agreed. Being able to pass unnoticed was an advantage elves only had when people were not, specifically, looking for elves, and it was one she’d only ever been able to inconsistently take advantage of anyway.

They turned away from the gate, and she nearly walked into the breastplate of the guard standing behind them.

Casting her eyes upward, she was greeted with, in fact, the sight of the Guard Captain.

“Aveline,” Solas greeted, politely, as if they’d just bumped into one another on the street.

“You,” Aveline said, eyes narrowing. “You’re the marked apostate.”

“I have been marked? For what?” he asked.

“Not you. Her,” the Guard Captain clarified, keeping her eyes on both of them.

How did someone that formidable move quietly? Even Cassandra tended to make more noise than not, and she was a notably slighter model of human.

“Then you must be mistaken. My friend is not a mage,” Solas corrected, still keeping his polite, friendly tone.

Aveline sighed.

“There’s no reason to make this any harder than it needs to be,” she said.

“I was not aware I was being particularly difficult. Forgive me; you know I always cooperate with the guard whenever possible,” Solas said, with a slight inclination of his head.

“I have to take her in, Solas,” the Guard Captain resolutely declared.

“I confess, I am perplexed. You are looking for a marked apostate. But you have found a marked woman and an apostate. Clearly, there has been some miscommunication somewhere. Perhaps you might approach us again later, once the matter is more opaque?” he suggested.

“I’m sorry, Solas. But your known acquaintance matches the description I was given, by Hawke and by the Templars,” Aveline insisted.

“And to whom would you be turning her over, Guard Captain?” he asked. “The Champion or the Templars?”

“Pending an investigation, she will be kept by the guard.”

Aveline did not look precisely apologetic, but she did vaguely sympathetic. She wondered who had said what about her to garner this sort of treatment.

“And if the Knight Commander kicks up a fuss?” Solas asked.

The question earned him an odd look.

“Knight Commander Meredith is dead,” she said. “Knight Captain Cullen is managing the Templars at the moment, and he has his hands full.”

“Ah. I suppose the Grand Cleric is no longer with us, either?”

“No,” Aveline confirmed.

“Which means the authority in this city is currently divided between Knight Captain, Guard Captain, Champion, and First Enchanter,” Solas surmised. “Very well. We shall accompany you to the keep.”

“It’s not a request,” the Guard Captain reminded him.

“Of course not. But surely you do not object to civil compliance?” he replied.

“There’s no reason for you to come, Solas. You’re not currently in trouble for anything.”

“Not even for escaping from the Gallows? Knight Captain Cullen is far more lenient than his track record has led me to believe.”

Aveline narrowed her eyes at him.

“Why do I get the feeling this is going to be nothing but a headache?”

“I have no idea where you would garner such a premonition, Guard Captain,” Solas earnestly replied.

For her own part, she could only watch the strange interplay with fascination. For all that this was obviously not the best outcome, she didn’t feel particularly alarmed when Aveline began to lead her away.

And then, as soon as the woman’s back was turned, Solas waved a hand. The air shimmered, and the Guard Captain blinked and stopped in her tracks.

“We have five minutes, perhaps less,” Solas informed her, taking her by the arm and leading her at a run down a side alley.

“What was that?” she wondered.

“Befuddlement spell, I suppose you could call it. Technically not chantry approved, but not blood magic, either. It only causes momentary disorientation,” he explained.

“And all that talk?” she asked him, as they rounded the nearest corner and pelted down the first Darktown entrance they found.

“Oh. That. I only wanted to know what the state of the city’s leadership was,” he informed her.

“Planning to play politics in the near future?” she wondered.

“Not the near future. But it often pays to be aware of how the balance of power has shifted,” Solas replied, opening a nearby hatch that she’d nearly gone past in the shadows, and gesturing down it. It was dank and slimy, but, if nothing else, unoccupied.

The same could not be said for the rest of Darktown. A lot of the larger passageways were more cramped than usual. It seemed a sizeable percentage of Lowtown had been ousted. Possibly by fleeing nobles, possibly through voluntary exile to a place that was, at least, further from Hightown’s chaos.

There were also, in a rare change of pace, Templars.

And they were checking every elf they passed.

“It seems your former Commander is a quick study after all,” Solas noted.

“In the most inconvenient ways,” she agreed.

Still, Templars were conspicuous, and absolutely no one in Darktown seemed particularly keen to help them. Some of the tunnels had been sealed shut, too. They reached one of them, and Solas knocked a deliberate pattern on it. It wasn’t the way to the clinic, not that she recalled, but she recognized the boy who opened it, and when they followed it down they came to another space full of cots and refuse and a very clinic-y disarray. It looked like it had been set up recently; not far from where the other clinic had been, but down a different set of tunnels, it seemed.

Anders wasn’t there.

But a few of the people she’d met during the accident at the docks were, including the stern-faced woman who’d offered her broth.

“Thought we might see you,” the woman said, upon spotting them.

“We have need of the tunnels,” Solas declared.

With a nod, she motioned for them to follow her, and led them through another well-hidden doorway and then down towards a hatch, which led into dank, overgrown, watery darkness. There were even a few mushrooms growing on the walls, though it looked as though someone had been regularly harvesting them.

The woman handed them a single lantern and a small packet of travel bread.

“Right. Just follow the way until you reach the first branching point. The handprint’s your marker. If something happens to your light, you can feel it, just keep your palm pressed to the wall. When you’ve reached the ladder, that’s it. You’ll be out on the coast. Keep your eyes peeled for slavers and raiders.”

“Thank you,” Solas replied.

A satisfied nod was the only response they got; but it seemed to be the only one needed.

They climbed their way down. She took the lantern. The ground was slippery, damp over stone, but there was plenty of air.

Still, it was cramped, and reminded her uncomfortably of the Deep Roads, and of the Fade in places, too. At parts it was too narrow for them to walk side by side, and in other parts it was so wet they risked the lantern getting flooded. At the worst point they were wading through putrid water up to their waists, and trying not to notice all of the things they were likely floating in it.

And then they got their first breath of a sea breeze, and something in her unclenched, just a little.

They dragged their way up a rickety ladder and out into the sunlight.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The weather around the Waking Sea didn’t seem to improve much from the other side of it, though what storminess there was never quite reached the same crescendo it had the last time. Rain fell in fits and starts and the waters were choppy, but shelter wasn’t too hard to find, and the winds seemed content to torment the sea and the edges of the coastline, and further inland, left them alone.

They made for Ostwick. She was on sturdier ground for traveling in this region, at least, especially when they found their first Dalish trail sign. It may even have been one which her own clan had placed, but there were few signs of recent use on the forest pathways.

Solas watched her chart their course with interest.

She supposed, coming from a culture with no roads, that seeing how elves navigated long trips was probably at least a little novel.

Still, they didn’t have much in the way of supplies. It was wet going and after the first night of fitful rain and wary dreaming, Solas dropped his coat over her shoulders, and took on his normal wolf’s form. It helped, a bit, and the next night, he curled up with her, and his fur helped stave off the cold.

It got her thinking, though. About disguises. Word would spread through the Free Marches. Not necessarily quickly, and the city states were disparate enough that there would be no guarantee that anyone in Ostwick would have an interest in capturing a fugitive from Kirkwall. But the incident had been in the chantry, and the chantry was another matter entirely.

And then, too, it was possible her own people would have spread warnings about her.

The matter plucked at her mind long after dark.

When she finally drifted off, Solas was waiting for her, in their innocuous little dream room.

“Troubles sleeping?” he asked.

“Just thinking,” she replied.

“There is much to consider,” he conceded, and moved over to one wall of the room. He flicked his wrist and a piece of charcoal obligingly appeared in it, and he began to sketch along the barren surface.

She claimed one of the chairs for herself, and watched him awhile. The muscles of his back moved with every broad stroke he placed, shifting beneath his clothing, and though it was a dream, the charcoal stained his fingers as leaping halla appeared across the wall.

It seemed a good substitution for actually shaping the Fade too much, and risking Dumat’s attentions. An outlet, she supposed, for all that creativity of his.

“I think you should take my vallaslin,” she said.

He paused, arm outstretched to the tip of a woven antler.

“Why?” he asked, and turned to regard her; more with frank curiosity than anything else.

“People will be looking for a Dalish elf, and an apostate,” she told him. “Everyone knows you recognize Dalish by their tattoos. It seems the obvious disguise.”

“The markings are important to you,” he countered, with a politeness that told her that he was trying to keep his own opinions on the matter off to one side.

“I asked you to take them once before,” she reminded him.

“I was under the impression that your feelings on that subject may have changed.”

Had they?

Yes, she supposed they had.

Back before, she had been upset. Frustrated. Not rushed or pressured, really, but certainly fed up with the perceived failings of her people. Time and distance and the opportunity to reflect had resolved some of that pain, and the vallaslin no longer felt like a mockery.

She’d found herself again, and she’d remembered, then, things that she’d forgotten before.

Important things.

But still, she couldn’t quite escape the revelation of what the blood writing had started out as, either. And it… felt strange, she supposed, to have markings on her face that paid tribute to a Creator she no longer saw as a god, or a symbol of faith, or even a necessarily worthy part of elven heritage. She didn’t regret the choice she’d made the first time.

“I think I’d like to replace it,” she decided, though she hadn’t really considered the prospect of replacing it at all until that very moment.

Solas clearly hadn’t been expecting that answer, either.

“Replace it with what?” he wondered.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “All vallaslin is supposed to be a tribute to the Creators, but some do design their own patterns. Usually they mix markings, so it’s a tribute to more than one god, if they feel drawn towards several in equal measure. That’s especially common among Keepers. In my case… I think I’d like to make something new. Still blood writing, but, not a tribute to any faith. More a tribute to my people, perhaps.”

“You would mark yourself anew for them?” Solas asked.

“The Dalish took something that was once about enslavement, and made it about freedom instead,” she mused. “Those who fought to live freely, they chose to mark their faces, not because they wanted to go back to being slaves of Elvhenan instead of Tevinter, but because they wanted to write their defiance into their skin. We have survived so much. Even ourselves. That seems worth honouring to me.”

Solas was quiet for a moment.

She let out a breath, and shrugged.

“I know you feel differently. You see the marks, and they mean something else to you,” she conceded.

“I see your face,” he told her. “But yes. I also see the marks, and to me they are unjust. They are a reminder of past cruelties, and crimes, and their meaning. I detest that they should be on any face, and at times, the sight of them on yours” he trailed off, and closed his eyes, and straightened his shoulders slightly. “I try to remind myself that the circumstances are different. What I know intellectually does not always resonate on an emotional level, however,” he admitted.

“Would it bother you? If you removed them, and I marked myself again?”

She wasn’t sure it would change her decision if it did. When he’d first dropped the ugly truth of it onto her, she hadn’t expected that he would have deep personal associations with it, for all that he’d seemed to have strong feelings on the subject. He seemed to have strong feelings on most subjects.

He considered his answer with obvious care.

“I doubt a new pattern would be enough to rid my mind of the obvious associations. But that is irrelevant; I can find no fault in your sentiments. Nor would I presume to have any say in what you do with your own skin. That would undermine your freedom more thoroughly than any markings you placed upon it,” he finally declared.

She smiled a little.

“I wasn’t attempting to hand the decision over to you,” she assured him.

“I would be horrified if you did.”

Setting aside his charcoal, he took the chair across from her.

“I will cast the spell, if you still wish it when you wake. And I will continue to adore your face – marked, unmarked, or marked again, whatever you choose,” he told her, letting his eyes roam over the features in question.

She regarded him in return. Wondered what he might look like with markings of his own. No set pattern would suit him; even if he’d been born Dalish, she thought, he’d have balked at the connotations involved. Most vallaslin was delicate. But his paintings were bold – thick lines and solid shapes. Something like that, then, she supposed. It would be painful, but he would manage. And the statement would be very clear. Freedom, writ large.

But most of Solas didn’t suit the image of the Dalish, and in the end she couldn’t quite picture it. She’d seen him as an ancient elf and a wolf and a Dread Wolf, and yet, that little change was somehow just beyond her imagination.

She liked his face as it was, though. Even when she’d first seen it, it had been difficult to note its lack of markings, though that was often the first thing she used to notice about non-Dalish elves. There was too much else to see in it, she supposed.

“I adore your face, too,” she told him. “All your faces, in fact.”

The compliment put a little more colour into the subject of her scrutiny.

“I could hardly fault you some lingering trepidation for some of my forms,” he replied.

“Red eyes are pretty, too. And there are more of them for me to sing terrible songs about,” she said.

He stared at her a moment, and then shook his head.

“You would sing the virtues of a form feared by all your kin?” he asked.

“I’ll write ballads about you pulling me out of the Fade and looking gallant and keeling over dramatically at the finish,” she threatened. “I’ll even find some willing minstrel to help provide accompanying music. Don’t test me.”

“I would not dare,” he promised, as the corners of his mouth curled upwards.

“Lots of things rhyme with ‘red’. And I could compare them to gem stones! Six gleaming rubies, bright treasures of my hero’s eyes-”

He swept forward and stole a kiss, and took most of her breath with it, as well.

When he leaned back, she raised an eyebrow.

“If that’s how you plan on interrupting me every time, I’ll never stop,” she warned.

“Why did I ever mention the topic?” he bemoaned, unconvincingly.

“As if you don’t enjoy it,” she scoffed. Then she took his chin in her hand, and held him still as she returned his kiss, soft and gentle and only reluctantly withdrawn from.

“You have caught me out. I do enjoy it,” he confessed, voice low, and it sent a little tremor through her. He hummed. A song with a lilting rhythm, that seemed to lift them both up without any conscious decision to stand.

Solas took a step back, and offered her his hand, in a pose she recognized; a clear invitation to dance.

She hesitated only a moment before accepting.

But when they began to move, it was not in the stiff, formal styles of an Orlesian ballroom. As pleasant as that dance had been, it had been meant to match its music. Solas’ hummed tune was a lighter sound, and it begged freer movement, fluid steps and gentler holds. She smiled, positive they were butchering any form they were supposed to have, and equally positive that neither of them cared.

Then the walls trembled.

They stilled.

Silence fell.

She woke to skies that were still dark, and gave Solas’ fur a shake, until he turned his head and huffed a breath against her cheek.

“Was that Dumat?” she wondered.

“I should have known better than to sing,” he confirmed, apologetic.

“I was enjoying that,” she lamented.

“Perhaps we can repeat the experience outside of the Fade,” he suggested.

“At some point,” she agreed.

It would be hard to dance with a humming wolf in the middle of the forest, however, so it would have to be put aside. When she fell asleep again, the little dream room had changed, slightly. Solas set about painting the floors, and she managed to conjure a map of the Free Marches from her memory, and alternated between charting their route and watching him work.

When they woke, he spent half the day still as a wolf, until the trees began to thin and they came upon long stretches of farmland. Then he wordlessly shifted back; safe as an elf than a wolf so close to shemlen farmers.

By the time they were within view of Ostwick, she’d made up her mind about at least one thing.

“Do it,” she requested.

For a moment he stared at her, then he inclined his head, and led her to a sheltered copse of slender trees.

He bid her kneel, and traced his hands over her face. To her surprise, he touched her, first, gentle fingers running across her temples and cheekbones before he swept his hands back, and sent the glow of spellwork cascading up from her chin.

It tingled, but was as painless as she recalled.

The first time she’d touched her unmarked face – something she hadn’t been able to do since she was a teenager – it had been so odd. Sensitive and smooth and a little dreamlike, perhaps.

Compared to the other changes her form had gone through, however, the second time felt only like a trade of clothes.

But the rush of the magic and the intent look on Solas’ face were the same.

“Ar lasa mala revas,” he said again.

“You are free,” she finished for him.

He regarded her carefully. Trees around them, but the sun was rising in the sky, far brighter than the moon had been. There was no weak Veil, no wyvern’s den, no shadowed night cast all around them. Nothing to obscure the features of her face. He saw her, and she saw him.

“You…” he began, then seemed to reconsider. “I am not free. Not from my duty. But you, you may choose. You may always choose. To stay or to go, to aid me of your own will, to simply bear witness to my efforts, or to condemn them outright. Even to oppose them, though I would beg you not to. All paths are open to you. If need be, I will help you find a way to evade Dumat, and you may turn from this – all of this – forever.”

She blinked.

“I’ve always been making my own choices, Solas,” she reminded him.

“I know,” he replied. “Though at times I scarcely believe it.”

“You think I’m being influenced?”

“I think you are amazing. I would mistake you for a dream, but I could never have dreamt you,” he corrected.

“Careful, emma lath. Talk like that and you’ll send me swooning through the trees like some fanciful elven stereotype,” she warned, the endearment falling carelessly from her lips.

Solas chuckled in surprise.

“We could make a game of it, ma vhenan. See how many fanciful elven stereotypes the both of us live up to in a week,” he suggested.

“And how would we determine the ‘winner’ of that sort of game? Would the honour go to whoever managed to be the most painfully elven, or whoever managed to hold on to their dignity the longest?” she wondered, and accepted his hand as they rose to their feet.

“A good question. One could make a case for either prospect,” Solas informed her, no longer quite so melancholy. “On the one hand, awarding the prize to whoever conformed to the most fanciful stereotypes would certainly encourage us both to indulge in them, and likely make a more dynamic game. On the other hand, resistance and an external motivation to cleave to dignity might make the game more of a challenge, as we would be driven to tempt the competition into pitfalls and lure them towards failure. Either prospect has its appeal.”

“There would be a prize?” she asked.

“Of course! What point in playing if there is nothing to be gained?”

“But I’m just a poor wanderer,” she pointed out, teasing, and couldn’t resist taking a step closer, and looping her arms around his neck. “What could I possibly have to offer?”

Solas looked her over. There was very definitely a gleam in his eye.

“I would accept a kiss,” he declared.

“And would you offer a kiss yourself?” she wondered.

“That seems only fair.”

“Perhaps I shall steal my prize, then, and forgo the competition altogether,” she suggested.

“How unsporting,” he replied.

She honestly wasn’t sure which of them moved first, in the end.

The air was damp and a little too cold, but he was warm, and she curled her fingers into his vest as he pressed his tongue past her lips. Heat flared, but was short-lived, mostly because they couldn’t escape the fact that it was a fairly uncomfortable morning and they lacked even the simple shelter of a tent.

Solas framed her face with his hands, and offered another brief kiss before they withdrew.

“You have your disguise. And now for mine,” he declared.

“I didn’t know you were planning one for yourself,” she replied, curious.

“I would not trust most humans to understand the distinctions between elves well enough to leave it all to your lack of vallaslin,” he explained. Then he straightened, slightly, eyes slipping shut as he drew in a breath. The air darkened and trembled, a little, as though he meant to become a wolf. But it did not go so far, and when the energy resolved, he was shorter than before, and narrower, with a head full of plain brown hair.

He looked, in other words, far more average. The sort of elf no one would even glance twice at in a human city. His clothes fell a little more loosely on him, and gave him an air of frailty, though what muscles were visible still appeared to be wiry and firm.

She let out a surprised laugh, and clapped a hand over her mouth.

Solas sighed.

He looked down at himself with an expression that implied he’d just been drenched in something unpleasant.

Though, she thought, he was still strikingly handsome. A little smaller and thinner, and the hair he’d chosen didn’t do him many favours, but it curled endearingly at the edges, and his face hadn’t changed much – if at all.

“Subtle,” she complimented.

“In many ways, such alterations are far more complex than simply changing to an entirely different shape,” he admitted.

“I’m impressed.”

He gave her a wry look.

“It’s a good idea!” she assured him. “And you’re still handsome, if you were worried.”

“Naturally. I have changed neither my eyes nor my cheekbones,” he replied. Then he slumped, a little, and she recognized the telltale signs of too much energy spent in too short a time frame.

She sat beside him while he rested.

After a minute, she raised her hand and tried to measure their new differences in height.

When he realized what she was doing, Solas rolled his eyes heavenward.

“Truly, vhenan?”

“I’m just trying to note the difference so the next time I kiss you, I don’t miss,” she assured him. Then she leaned over and pressed her lips to the space between his eyebrows. “See? I missed.”

He laughed, a single bark of surprise, and she grinned and kissed his forehead.

“Oh no, still off,” she sighed.

“Likely because you went even higher,” he informed her.

“Good point.”

She kissed the bridge of his nose, and then his cheek, until he finally gave in and caught her lips himself.

“You are ridiculous,” he declared.

“I know.”

When they set out, though, she found that she kept glancing towards him, his profile catching strangely in the corner of her eye. He moved awkwardly for a while, until he seemed to adjust to all the slight differences in himself; more quickly than most would have, she suspected. It reminded her of the time Sera had moved everything in her room just two inches to the left.

After a few hours of stumbling over rough farmer’s trails, they dared to venture onto the main roads. Though they veered off again when they came to a small woodland, and she spotted several quail. She managed to catch enough of the birds to make a hearty meal of, with a few more left besides for trading.

By the time they reached Ostwick, they looked like nothing so much as another pair of bedraggled city elves, fleeing the latest chaos in Kirkwall.

There was a line at the gates, but though the wait was long, in the end they passed through without much fuss. Ostwick shared Kirkwall’s obvious ties to Tevinter architecture – the same high stone buildings and apparent love of staircases and paved streets, but there, the similarities ended.

The city boasted massive double walls. Where Kirkwall had been tiered, Ostwick was ringed – within the outer walls were the poor districts, the alienage and the slums. The inner walls seemed to be the more contained and secured. The guards posted at them vetted travellers more thoroughly, and the only elves allowed through had the look of servants to them.

Above the inner wall, she could see white spires gleaming, like swords thrust towards the heavens.

Ostwick’s impoverished Outer Ring area wasn’t precisely pleasant, but given the conspicuous lack of traumatic statuary, it seemed a vast improvement over most of Kirkwall.

There was also more of a ‘Fereldan’ quality to the place. Kirkwall had its refugees, of course, and it seemed Ostwick did as well, but in the latter’s case, there was less of an obvious cultural divide. The styles of clothing were less notably similar, and a few of the slum walls sported mabari carvings, and there were more dogs about.

Solas passed them, stiffly, and a few growled his way in return. But that seemed to be the extent of the hostilities.

The alienage was a cluster of ramshackle buildings, not far from the Outer Ring market. There were a few stone homes that had clearly been built with the founding of the city, or shortly thereafter. But most were wooden, stacked up along the walls, piled atop one another and connected by ladders in a haphazard conglomeration that looked like it was one ill-advised fire or unfriendly windstorm away from becoming a death trap.

The tree at the center of it all was gorgeous, however, healthy and green and wider around than many of the houses. Paper lanterns were strung in its branches.

An elderly woman, tiny and shorter than even she was, stopped them as they took stock of the place.

“Kirkwall?” the woman asked.

“What?” she asked.

“Come from Kirkwall with the others? We’ve a space set up. It’s only temporary. There’s a fee, but it’ll buy you a dry spot to sleep for a week.”

“How much?” Solas asked.

It turned out to be too much, in her opinion, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. The coin bought them a small room in the most unsteady-looking part of the alienage. It was fairly clean, even if they did have to share it with several others. One look at the city told them that most inns and other establishments would be just as overrun, and at least the alienage offered the relative security of being surrounded by other elves.

There was little privacy, though, or comfort, so they didn’t linger in the place. It was somewhere to sleep, not somewhere to stay.

They took to the marketplace, next, and bartered her quails for a scant few coppers. Mindful of the offers she’d received in Kirkwall, she kept one eye peeled for any merchants selling trinkets or ‘Dalish’ wares, and made note of them.

Her coppers bought them some bread, and a small knife, and when they stopped to rest she scavenged some scrap wood out of the alienage’s rubbish pile. They took an open space near the giant tree, and she set about the carving.

“What is the fascination with these trees?” Solas wondered. “I have never quite figured it out.”

Vhenadahl, that was what it was called, she thought.

“They are symbols of Arlathan, I think,” she told him, and paused to blow a shaving off of her project. A hart, she thought. Ambitious, given how long it had been since she’d carved anything, but the piece she had was a good shape for it.

“I do not see how a tree should symbolize Arlathan,” he admitted.

She shrugged.

“Neither do I, truth be told. I think most city elves have forgotten as well, though this one is beautiful.”

“It is,” he agreed. “Most I have seen have not been so well-tended.”

“They clear the air. And they can live a long, long while,” she mused.

“An homage to lost immortality?” he suggested.

She considered that, and shrugged.

“Perhaps. Or perhaps it is more that a tree can survive through generations. Parents and grandparents. Great-grandparents. When it’s hard to hold on to history, and you’re too poor for heirlooms, I imagine a living thing you can touch, that your forebears also touched, might have special appeal.”

So it went with some of the statues at Dalish campsites, anyway. Keeper Deshanna had always been good at explaining that sort of thing.

Solas blinked, and looked back towards the tree, thoughtful.

He reached out a hand, and brushed careful fingers along the painted bark.

A few of the local elves passed by them, then, talking among themselves as she carefully whittled out the body of her hart.

“-saying it was an elf who did up Kirkwall this time!” one of them said, and she paused to listen.

“I heard the Templars raided their alienage, and one of the mages living there summoned an army of demons right in the middle of Hightown in revenge. Killed all the nobles, flat out.”

Far from sounding appalled, the tone of the conversation appeared strangely enthralled.

“I heard it was a Dalish elf they’d taken from the wild, and she called on her gods to rescue her, and cursed the chantry with strange magic.”

“Oh, go pull the other leg on that one.”

“It’s true! My cousin says all the elves the Templars took were Dalish witches!”

Solas followed the gossipers with his eyes until they’d gone past, and then he carefully withdrew his hand from the tree.

“It seems you have inspired some excitement,” he observed.

“What else is new?” she wondered, turning her attentions back to getting her cheap little knife to move smoothly through the scrap of wood. A fresh pang of guilt ran through her.

At some point Solas stood up and began to wander again, examining the alienage, even occasionally conversing with its occupants. She watched him a bit, but it was clear he didn’t intend to go far, and so she left him to it.

Once her hart had taken shape, she gave it a once-over, and then carefully began to outline a tiny pattern of vines over top its limbs, spiralling up to its antlers, which required the most care. She left space for an artfully placed rune, should the item find appeal with enchanters, and took a second to admire the finished piece. Not her best, but not bad for a first outing in… well, several years, or several months, depending on how she wanted to reckon it.

It made her think of Blackwall, carving in the stables. A toy griffon.

A pair of little watching eyes caught her attention, and she glanced over to see a small girl, all knees and ears, it seemed, peering at her from another bench around the tree.

She smiled.

“Da’len,” she greeted, before she remembered that she was pretending not to be Dalish.

The girl just grinned back, though, wide and gap-toothed, and took her acknowledgement as an invitation to come closer.

“What is it?” the child asked, peering at her carving.

“It is a hart,” she explained. “When Tevinter first began sacking the old elven cities, our people fled on the backs of steeds like this. They carried us as far as they could. A hart is not like a horse; you can’t really tame it. You have to befriend it, instead. But once you do, you will always be safe upon its back, because a horse will carry its rider even to death, but a hart will decide when it’s rider is being foolish, and save you both instead.”

The girl sucked in a deep breath, and then let it whistle back out through the gap in her teeth. She stared at the carving in fascination.

“Are they fast?”

Very fast,” she promised. “I have ridden them. They’re taller than halla, and trumpet when they run.”

“What’s a halla?”

She blinked, taken aback before she remembered, of course, that this elven child wasn’t Dalish, and wouldn’t have any reason to know.

“Do you know deer?” she asked.

The girl nodded.

“Halla are like deer made of silver and starlight. The elven knights of old used to ride them, and the Dalish use them to pull their aravels through the wilds.”

“Elven knights?” the child wondered, and laughed. “Elves aren’t knights!”

“Oh, elves have been knights,” she promised. “Not the way humans are. Not all clunking armour and service to a lord. Elven knights swear themselves to the people. They used to wear armour made of a special kind of bark, strong as steel, but light as a feather. It was so they could move quickly, just like the halla. Blurs on the battlefields.”

The wide eyes grew wider and wider.

“Is it a story?” the girl wondered.

“It is history,” she promised.

After a moment, she extended the hart, then, carefully placing it in small brown hands.

The girl traced her fingers over the carved vines, and poked the points of the antlers, and smoothed her thumb over the tail. Then her skinny arms extended towards her, offering it back.

“Keep it,” she decided. “Maybe someday, you’ll ride one, too.”

With a giddy laugh, the child thanked her, and then dashed off.

Solas’ shadow dropped over her shoulder.

“She will likely sell it herself, you know,” he pointed out.

She glanced up at him.

“That’s not a bad thing, if it keeps her fed,” she replied.

He blinked, as if that wasn’t the response he’d been expecting. But it was true enough. Not all treasures were meant to be kept, after all.

Reaching up, she caught his hand, and squeezed.

“It’s alright. It was mostly for practice, anyway.”

“If that is your practice, then you are more skilled than I thought.”

“I’m not sure if I should be flattered at your opinion of my carving, or insulted at your lack of faith in my talents,” she teased, and let him help her stand.

“Be flattered,” he requested.

“If you insist.”

She smiled, and pocketed her new carving knife.

 

~

 

The retired to their small room and its snoring occupants, and she looked at him for a moment before shoving their bedrolls together. He said nothing on it, and when they laid down, she put an arm around him, and adjusted to the new weight of him; narrow shoulders and brown curls that tickled her skin.

In the Fade, he looked like his usual self, however.

“Does it take any energy to change your shape in dreams?” she wondered.

“So little as to be negligible,” he replied.

“Would we have more of an advantage fighting Dumat like this, then?” she reasoned, wandering over to the small table in the corner of the room. There was a block of wood and a knife waiting for her on it. With a small smile, she claimed them both, and took a seat.

Practice, practice.

“I have been considering that,” Solas informed her, dropping into the chair on the other side of the table. There was an odd tone in his voice. She glanced at him.

“And?” she prompted.

“A battle in dreams would afford us a few advantages, but it would be nigh impossible for us to actually destroy him that way. Physically entering the Fade to confront him is riskier, and it would be difficult for us to ascertain whether or not we had successfully destroyed him, even if we seemed to all but obliterate him. The smallest remnant could continue to regrow,” he explained.

“But you have another idea,” she guessed.

“I do,” he conceded, and then paused.

Oh.

Damn.

She wasn’t going to like this idea, was she?

“Solas…”

“Dumat’s soul – Geldauran’s soul – is the problem,” he said. “It is the fragment from which he is sustained. It holds his power. But there is a way for that power to be transferred. I could take his soul, absorb it, and overwhelm it with my own.”

She stared at him.

“That is the worst idea you have ever had,” she informed him.

“It would deal with two problems at once. Dumat’s power would become mine, and his threat would be ended,” he insisted.

It took a force of monumental will not to throw her block of wood at him.

“Alright,” she said, setting it back down on the table instead. “First of all, the last time you met Dumat, you were certainly not overwhelming him. Secondly, he tainted the Eluvian. He could taint you, as well. Thirdly, I have been up close and personal with this thing. I have heard him in my thoughts, Solas, as if they were my own thoughts. If he overwhelms you…”

“I know,” he assured her. “It would be disastrous. That is why I believe we should look for more artifacts first.”

She stared at him.

“If I can gain more power – power enough to match him – then I will win,” he insisted. “He is broken. I am whole. Adding his power to mine would finally give me the strength to act. I would be able to cast spells of actual significance. We could find the orb. I could become strong enough to rival the others when they woke, I could protect… what is worth protecting.”

She continued to stare at him.

Then she let out a heavy breath, and ran her hands down her face.

“And the taint?” she asked. “Do you have any thoughts on that?”

“A soul cannot be tainted. So long as we are cautious, it should be fine. And there are purification spells we could cast upon the remnant, if they would assuage your concerns,” he offered.

Slowly, she leaned back, and nodded.

“Yes. This is… definitely the worst idea you have ever had,” she decided.

“Vhenan-”

“One thing goes wrong, Solas, just one, and you let Dumat out, and give him your power,” she snapped. “Your body. And even if you don’t, what does absorbing him do to you? His personality, his thoughts, his memories, his terrifying sound aversion, where do they go? Don’t try and tell me they’d just flitter off into the void.”

“They would be there,” he conceded. “They would be quieted.”

“Quieted. Quiet enough to whisper?” she wondered. “Quiet enough to twist through the back of your mind, and coax your thoughts a certain way, until suddenly you’re thinking that maybe the best way to avoid feeling bereft at the end of a song is to make sure no one ever sings one in the first place?”

He frowned at her.

“No.”

“He’s the God of Silence, Solas. I think he’s pretty well mastered ‘quiet’,” she replied.

For a moment they regarded one another, tense and still, and then he sighed.

“I understand your trepidation,” he said. “I understand your fear of him, and your fear for me. But unless you can propose something better, I do not see what else we can do.”

“To start with, we can abstain from giving our enemies an open door into our souls,” she replied. “It’s fairly easy, because it requires inaction more than anything else.”

“And do what about Dumat?” he countered.

“Not eat him,” she snapped.

“It is unlike you to be this unreasonable,” Solas declared, and he was scowling in earnest by then.

Leaning forward, she propped her elbows onto the table, and dropped her face into her hands.

He was serious, she knew. He would do it. That edge of desperation that had drawn him towards the Pride demon hadn’t faded, for all that he’d intellectually understood the folly.

“And what if I took his soul?” she wondered.

Solas balked.

“No,” he immediately replied, shaking his head. “It would not work. You have no experience in such matters, and you are far younger than he is. He would consume you from the inside out.”

She looked up from her hands, and stared at him again.

After a moment, he let out another sigh.

“It is not the same for me,” he insisted.

“This isn’t even a demon, Solas,” she replied, severely. “He’s older than you, too. And you can call him a remnant, and maybe he is, but if it comes down to willpower… you’re conflicted. He isn’t. You have doubts. He doesn’t.”

That actually seemed to get through. Solas paused, and turned his gaze towards the walls instead, folding his hands together. They were quiet for a moment, as he either turned her point over in his mind or attempted to come up with a better argument to convince her, and she wondered if there was a way to just maybe… light part of the Fade on fire. Just, whoosh, perpetual flames, eating Dumat forever.

Probably had a downside she couldn’t see.

“Maybe if we found Mythal,” she suggested.

“Mythal would want to take his power for herself,” Solas told her.

She looked at him, and raised her arm, and made a vague gesture which even she wasn’t certain meant anything coherent.

“Why?” she wondered. “What is so appealing about this prospect?”

“There are few other sources of power left in this world that are as pure as that energy,” Solas explained.

Closing her eyes, she rapped her knuckles against the top of the table.

“How many artifacts would it take to equal it?” she wondered.

“I doubt there are enough remaining,” he mused.

They lapsed into silence again.

“I don’t understand,” she admitted. “No matter how much power it is, it’s worthless if it comes attached to him. You’d ruin yourself.”

“It would not be so dire,” he assured her, and reaching out, took her hands in his own. He traced the length of her fingers, laced them with his, looked down as if the simple shape of them was of deep interest.

“It’s your soul,” she said. It felt like such an obvious thing to have to remind someone of that.

He squeezed her, gently.

“And it would still be afterwards. I would place him in a cage within myself. It would not be like Flemeth and Mythal, or you and yourself, or even Anders and Justice. All that he was would be subdued, and appropriately silenced, and kept apart from the rest of me until it faded,” he explained.

She tilted her head until she caught his eye, and made him look at her again.

“So you would enslave him?” she asked.

He paused, again.

“I would imprison him.”

“You would take his power, but deny his will. You’d use him, against his consent, use his very soul,” she pressed.

“Suddenly you are concerned for his well-being?” Solas wondered, raising his eyebrows at her.

“Not his. Yours.”

Gently, she disentangled her hands from his.

“It solves so much,” he insisted.

“It’s a trap,” she assured him. “Anything that seems to neatly solve all of your problems while allowing your enemy past your defences is definitely a trap.”

Closing his eyes, he ran his fingers across his brows, and briefly pinched the bridge of his nose.

“A trap can be turned against the ones who set it,” he proposed.

“Your soul isn’t worth wagering on that.”

“Vhenan…”

“Solas.”

He looked at her.

“It’s not worth it,” she told him.

For a moment, she thought he might continue to argue the point. He drew in a breath, but then he only let it out again. His eyes traced over her features, and his expression turned towards affection. Something warm and a little rueful.

“I am weak,” he decided.

She honestly wasn’t sure if he meant that in terms of actual strength, in terms of his emotional resolve against her, or in terms of his temptation to seize even the most inadvisable sources of power at hand. Or perhaps all three.

“So be weak,” she suggested, and brought him up short in surprise.

After a moment, he shook his head.

“That is not a luxury I can afford.”

“Why not?” she wondered. “I’m here. When you’re weak, I can be strong for you. It’s alright.”

His brows knit, and he went quiet, again. After a few minutes, she stood up, and walked over to the side of his chair. Cupping his cheek in her hand, she leaned down and kissed his temple.

He tilted his head up, and then in one surprising movement pulled her down into his lap, and buried his face against her neck. Her heart skipped a beat, and her legs craned awkwardly over the side of the chair as he crushed her to him, and breathed her in.

“Ma vhenan,” he said. “How did I ever survive without you?”

“Against all odds?” she suggested.

He huffed out a broken laugh.

Reaching up, she ran a hand over his head, and let her palm rest against the back of his neck.

“Just because you can see a path that might work doesn’t mean you have to walk down it,” she reminded him. “Your soul is precious. You are precious. Even if we have to simply cage him, or fight him again and again until we find a better solution, there’s no reason not to just keep looking. You’ll get stronger, and we’ll find the orb, and we’ll handle everything along the way like sensible adults who remember the first rule of dealing with spirits, which is ‘don’t let them possess you’.”

“Sensible adults?” he asked, wryly.

She squeezed the back of his neck, gently.

“We can pretend,” she assured him.

He breathed her in again, and then caught her marked hand and pulled it between them. He stared at it a moment, tracing his thumb across her palm before he lifted it to his mouth, and pressed a kiss there. Then he folded it into his own.

Bringing their joined hands to her own lips, she planted a kiss of her own on the backs of his knuckles.

“Come on,” she decided, and stood, pulling him up along with her as well. “Do you carve?”

“I am familiar with the craft,” he confirmed.

“Show me what you know,” she requested. “Tell me how you learned.”

He shook his head, obviously aware of her blatant attempt to distract him; but he still accepted the block of wood and the knife when she shoved them at him, and he didn’t resist when she dragged him towards a comfortable-looking rug that had appeared in another corner of the room, and bid him sit on the floor with her, instead of at the table.

“I was instructed in most arts as a youth. Though, the carving tools were different,” he explained, and with a flick of his wrist, the knife in his hand changed shape, turned into something thin and elegant and fiercely sharp. “The wood, as well…”

She watched as he changed the block in his hand, then, turning the wood silver-grey and light, and listened as he peeled away the layers of it, explaining that a true carver found the shape a piece wanted to be, and simply removed the excess until the true form was revealed. She leaned against his shoulder, and watched a dragon begin to form. And when he’d finished, she took it from his hands and replaced it with a piece of charcoal, and bid him draw with her instead.

Her own clumsy attempts looked rough and amateurish next to his, but she tried, sketching out figures for her clan and for the Inquisition, letting Solas tut and rearrange her hold on her own piece of charcoal, and demonstrate how he was getting his lines to flow without breaking.

Before they woke she caught his face in her stained hands, and laughed at the prints she left behind.

In the dawn light, of course, she woke to a face that was perfectly clean, and haloed in curls. She ran her fingers through it until he blinked open his eyes, pressing into his warmth as a cold draft pressed at her back.

On a whim, she leaned forward and kissed his fluttering eyelashes.

He let out a sleepy huff and flopped halfway on top of her, and buried his nose against her collarbone.

It made her very… aware of their closeness.

On the other side of the room, one of the other occupants let out a tremendous snore.

She sighed and ran her fingers across Solas’ scalp, pressing his new hair between her fingers until the needs of the day began to press against her, and she tried to get up.

‘Tried’ being the operative word.

“Emma lath, let me go,” she whispered into the angle of her ear.

He grumbled something unintelligible at her. It sounded like a mangled mix of common and elvish, and was mumbled just above her heartbeat. It was punctuated at the finish with a very distinctive ‘no’.

She shook with silent laughter.

It earned her a sleepy grin that curled up his lips to reveal the tip of a white canine.

Eventually, she managed to get free, and coaxed him into waking as well.

Upon consideration, they opted to venture out of the city walls again, and she sought out the materials to fletch fresh arrows, and set about hunting. They spoke little, though it was clear they were both thinking a great deal. Solas shadowed her as she searched for tracks and slipped quietly between rocky outcropping and trees. In the distance, the sea shone beneath cold sunlight, a startlingly brilliant hue of deep blue, rolling beneath a clear sky.

Luck was with her when she spotted the outline of a pair of antlers, and she raised a hand reflexively, halting Solas as a large elk lowered its head to the ground. She breathed slowly as she notched an arrow, and took her time, lining her shot up with as much care as possible.

It was a clean kill.

She pumped a fist into the air, and whirled around, grabbed Solas by the collar and kissed him soundly.

He laughed at her.

“A fine shot,” he complimented.

“You will lament my aim when you’re helping me carry it back,” she warned.

The elk was even bigger than she thought, in fact, and even when she’d quartered it Solas had to cast a spell to lighten the burden halfway back to Ostwick.

But the butcher in the marketplace offered them ludicrously little for the meat, even when faced with Solas’ stony disapproval and her own scowls, and after a moment’s thought, she packed the kill back up again, and carried it into the alienage instead. The antlers she set aside for carving, and some of the bones as well, and Solas watched her curiously as she set up a fire pit in one of the unpaved patches of ground well away from the potential kindling of the houses, and a safe distance from the vhenadahl.

He wasn’t the only one. Some of the alienage elves gathered as well, inquisitive and a bit wary.

After a few minutes, she noticed a familiar wide-eyed child peering over her shoulder.

“What are you doing?” the girl asked.

“I’m cooking the meat so it won’t spoil too quickly,” she replied.

“Where did you get so much meat?”

She smiled.

“Hunting, of course, da’len.”

Considering, she reached into her pocket, and pulled free a single copper. The child’s eyes fixed on it immediately.

“I need long sticks of wood, and charcoal if you can find it. Want to go scavenging for me?”

Without another word the girl snatched the copper and dashed off, and scant minutes later she was back, and brandishing a broken plank of timber that was as long as her arm.

“Like this?”

“Yes, more like it, if you can manage,” she agreed, and the approval earned her a wide grin.

By the time the afternoon was in swing, the alienage was full of the scent of roasting meat, and the curious onlookers had increased several times over. Solas stood at her back like a sentinel, arms folded behind him, watching the crowd as the crowd watched her.

The old woman who’d first approached them when they’d entered the alienage approached them again, as she carefully turned the meat, trying to keep the heat even. She had her sleeves rolled tightly around her biceps, and the fire was hot on her face.

“Food is scarce, these days,” the old woman told her. “With the influx of people fleeing from Kirkwall again. The market prices have left most hungry.”

“The hunting in the region isn’t bad,” she replied.

“You are… skilled, then?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” she confirmed, because it was true.

But she could take a hint, and her every instinct was screaming towards it besides, and so when the meat had browned and the juices were running clear, she began to carve it, and handed pieces of it out to the waiting crowd. The girl who had helped her got the first packet, and the old woman looked at her with relieved eyes, and helped keep the rest orderly.

Solas stared at her, and she handed him their own share and kissed his cheek.

“Still Dalish,” she whispered to him. “Marks or no.”

Feeding people was what hunters were supposed to do, after all.

He sighed, fondly.

As large as it was, the elk vanished quickly, until even the bones had been thrown to the stray dogs that had gathered as well. It wasn’t enough to feed the whole alienage, by far, and when a few stragglers showed up and were forced to leave empty-handed, for a moment, she was afraid there would be anger.

Instead, there were questions.

“Where did you learn to hunt?”

“Where did you find that elk?”

“Is that pit safe?”

“Will there be more again tomorrow?”

She blinked at the last, and looked down to see that the little girl had returned, and was peering up at her inquisitively.

“Perhaps,” she replied.

When the child had run off again, she gathered up her antlers and remaining bones, and set about cleaning them for carving at one of the benches around the vhenadahl.

Solas watched her a moment.

Then he cast his gaze around the alienage, as if he was trying to see something, as if it was a puzzle that was slowly beginning to come together. He sat down next to her.

“We cannot stay in Ostwick,” he declared.

“Of course not,” she replied, glancing curiously at him. “But we don’t have the means for a long trip, yet, or even much of an idea of where else to go. Unless you’ve come up with something slightly better than last night’s suggestion?”

“No,” he admitted. “Regardless of that idea’s dismissal, I would still like to find more artifacts.”

“Hmm,” she replied, turning an antler over in her hands, and thinking. “That’s fine. I don’t know of any specific ones in the region, but we can ask around, see if there are any ruins nearby.”

He inclined his head, and after a moment, drew his own pocket knife, and claimed one of the bones she was working on for himself.

By evening they’d accumulated a small pile of ‘elven’ trinkets, and fetched a bit more coin from the marketplace.

When they slept, she dreamed up another map, and set it onto the table in front of herself.

“We’ll head for Orlais, I suppose, and see if we can’t find Mythal. Do you think Dumat will follow us that far?” she wondered.

Solas was quiet, and contemplative, but he nodded.

“It would be no great distance to him in the Fade.”

A thought occurred to her.

“Is he a danger to Ostwick?” she wondered. “Or its mages?”

“The general ambiance of the Fade may suffer for his presence, and some spirits might flee,” Solas mused. “But Ostwick will not suit him as Kirkwall does. Not without a considerable length of time spent influencing it, at least; and even then, this city was not built to suit his needs. I would not worry yet.”

“That’s a relief, I suppose.”

She tried to recall what the general price of a ship’s ticket was, then, and only looked up when Solas settled into the chair across from her.

“The rumours of what happened in Kirkwall seem to be inciting great interest among Ostwick’s elves,” he mused.

“Demons popping up in the middle of a chantry and slaughtering everyone tends to do that,” she replied, as she wondered whether it wouldn’t be better to go by land through Nevarra. Longer, certainly, and the Arbor Wilds were far south, and with their luck they’d probably get there and find that Mythal was nowhere to be seen.

“True enough,” Solas agreed. “In the timeline you described to me, that chantry’s destruction sparked the rebellion of Kirkwall’s mages. But now the winds have changed. Kirkwall’s Templars have been beheaded, and its mages rise in prominence. And the elves speak of one of their own, spilling the blood of nobles in a notoriously corrupt city.”

“The mages will probably still rebel,” she assured him. “Kirkwall was a tipping point, but it was far from the only factor.”

“That rebellion is inevitable,” he confirmed. “The question for it is ‘when’, not ‘if’. But I find my interest turns, now, towards the spark which has been ignited.”

She glanced up at him.

“If you’re being literal, I closed that rift,” she reminded him.

He smiled.

“I am not being literal, vhenan. Templars raid an alienage; elves wreak havoc in a wealthy district with strange magic. Tensions always resting below the surface have begun to rise. They could simply dissipate again. Or they could continue to rise. Or they could break. The chantry and nobility sit comfortably in power, but their thrones cast long shadows over mages and elves alike.”

She stilled, and her gut twisted unpleasantly.

“You think they’ll lash out at the elves?” she wondered. “For what I did?”

Solas folded his hands together.

“Perhaps,” he mused. “Tightening the leash certainly seems to be their instinct. But there is a new fear there, now. The upper caste has come to expect wholesale slaughter of mages and elves as the primary result of civil unrest. Unfamiliar magic changes that equation. Raid an alienage now, and perhaps the chantry mothers and noble houses will find themselves facing down an army of demons. It gives one… pause, does it not?”

There was a glint in his eye, and he tapped the tips of his fingers together.

“I hadn’t considered that,” she admitted.

“A single incident can create trepidation. Where and how it will grow, or if it will, is not yet apparent. If the focus will remain divided between elves and mages or shift onto one group over the other is also unclear. It may lead only to special condemnation of elven mages,” he reasoned. “But some will look at this and see opportunity. A chance to stand, and watch the sword hovering over them hesitate to swing, for fear of the repercussions.”

“You think there will be an uprising,” she realized.

“I think there is the opportunity for one.”

Or just for slaughter, she thought. Elves were grossly outnumbered by humans, after all, which had always been the biggest problem. Fear didn’t just make people hesitate. It often made them act – usually foolishly, and often with violence.

“I’m not going to be opening any rifts in the near future. Definitely not in any chantry’s,” she pointed out.

“No,” he agreed. “Once the upper castes begin to suspect that the incident will not be repeated, their trepidation will turn to anger and outrage over having been made to doubt the security of their own position. That will likely be the point when they lash out.”

Pressing a hand to her forehead, she moved away from the table, and began to pace.

“Of course, their lashing out may be what stokes the flames yet further,” Solas reasoned.

“It’s a fire that’s burned before,” she replied. “There have been rebellions. Riots. It usually ends in blood-soaked alienages and soldiers killing any Dalish they come across.”

“Much of that is owed to the lack of unifying forces among elves, and the way different groups have scattered across Thedas. If a rebellion is to become a revolution, it must be organized,” he mused. “There must be leaders. Generals. Coordinated strikes. Allies. A plan for what can be achieved, contingencies for failure, and safe ground that can be held.”

Like the Inquisition, she supposed. Only, where the Inquisition had been able to pull its resources from supporters among the nobility and the chantry, and other people already in power, as well as the rebel mages, a rebellion would have to draw itself from the ground up. It would be reliant on people who were already suffering from a lack of resources.

Of course, people themselves were often the greatest resource any institution could ask for. People were what made opportunities, after all.

“If the mages and the elves worked together, that would be something,” she mused.

Solas inclined his head.

“An interesting proposition,” he replied. “Of course, elves – particularly those living in human cities – have been raised on the chantry’s doctrines regarding magic, and many human mages will see themselves as inherently superior to their elven allies, and may demand privileged treatment over them. Especially those from noble families. Any such alliance would require careful mediation.”

“True. Though there would be upsides as well. Humans and elves are often raised side-by-side in Circles, and Dalish have less stigma against mages than most,” she reasoned.

“Finesse would also be required for handling interactions between the Dalish and non-Dalish elves, to make certain disparate religious beliefs and cultural expectations did not clash too harshly,” Solas pointed out.

Pausing, she glanced at him.

“Where are you going with this?” she wondered.

He regarded her for a moment, and then shrugged.

“Nowhere, perhaps. It is only interesting to consider.”

Interesting. Worrying, more like. She could see the opportunity he was referring to, but in all likelihood, her mistake in Kirkwall would just end in more innocent blood being spilled, unless something happened to ease the tensions.

She glanced down at her mark.

“What if I turned myself in?” she wondered.

Solas froze, and then scowled.

“Then they will try to execute you, as an example, and I will absorb Dumat’s soul and stop them,” he declared, very simply and succinctly, and in such a way that made all of the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end for some reason.

“Alright then,” she replied. “No martyring myself. Understood.”

“Excellent.”

He smiled, but she could feel his disapproval of her entire train of through hanging in the air.

She sighed, and slumped a little.

“I don’t want to be responsible for any more death,” she admitted.

His voice, when he replied, was gentler.

“I know,” he said. “Truth be told, neither do I.”

Her eyes slid shut, and when she opened them again, she woke to their darkened room. For several minutes she lay in the dark, listening to Solas’ breaths and wondering why there were no easy answers or simple solutions in all of Thedas.

When she drifted back off to sleep, she was greeted with the sight of her beloved, up to his elbows in an unexpected pile of muck.

“Have you ever made pottery?” he asked.

“That wasn’t one of the crafts I was taught, no,” she admitted.

“Then I’ll show you,” he offered, with a grin.

 

~

 

The hunting around Ostwick remained plentiful. Most of the humans derived their goods from the farms and from fishing boats; tall, slender things that waved back and forth when they were docked. Though nothing quite rivalled the first elk, she found herself spending most mornings venturing off into the wilds, bow in hand, and returning with as much game as she could carry. Solas generally accompanied her for much of the trip, though he often veered off on his own, as well, following promising footpaths and rumours of wrecked and ruined places.

Once or twice he uncovered a few things worth selling, though no artifacts helpfully dumped themselves into his lap.

When they returned she would set up the fire pit, which, as days passed, had more space cleared for it, and a border set up unbidden around it, and tended to always be well-stocked by the time she returned. Her little friend was joined by other children, who seemed somehow to know whenever she arrived back at the alienage, and watched and waited and hopped on their heels, and a gaggle of teenagers, who asked questions about hunting and shooting, and sometimes even asked to help clean her kills.

Furs, skins, and anything that could be sold on its own or made into trinkets, she kept for herself. Flesh was cooked, and passed around, and by their fourth day in Ostwick, the whole thing was more or less an organized event. The scent of roasting meat would fill the alienage in the afternoons, and the old woman whom the other elves called ‘the’ hahren would take food for the ill or injured or infirm, leaving out bowls that were to be filled, while the rest was then passed to whoever happened to line up in time to get some.

Not everyone in the alienage cared to partake, of course, but even those who showed no interest started turning up after a while, bringing offerings of bread or vegetables or homemade alcohol that set her eyes watering.

For his part, Solas sold whatever they could sell, and kept track of the rumours, and news of Kirkwall and word about the region.

On their fifth day, he brought her a bounty notice. The Prince of Starkhaven had put out a sizeable price for the capture or death of a Dalish woman with a marked hand, responsible for the devastation of Kirkwall’s chantry and the murder of Grand Cleric Elthina. The notice offered a large reward for her capture, and an only slightly smaller reward for her head.

“I didn’t kill the Grand Cleric,” she objected. “Not in person, anyway.”

“I am offended at my own lack of inclusion,” Solas declared. “Am I not also on the run? Aiding and abetting your escape?”

“It’s a travesty. You deserve more credit,” she agreed.

It was hard to feel too alarmed. The drawing and description provided weren’t very good.

Still, she mused, they had almost been a week in Ostwick, and had had no luck in discovering any artifacts or suddenly divining a viable plan for dealing with Dumat, or figuring out where to find the orb. It would soon be time for them to move on.

On the sixth day, she’d had less luck than usual, and returned only with a pair of nugs and a small goat she’d only just managed to spot on her return trip. It was later than she generally was, and she was setting up the fire pit when one of the children raced up and grabbed her sleeve.

“Hunter, shems is comin’!” the child informed her, before racing off again, heading for the hahren’s house.

She blinked, and then, after a second, returned to her work. Solas had gone off to the marketplace, burdened with a few potions he’d managed to concoct the night before.

Tension swept through the alienage like a wave. Since she’d settled into a hunter’s rhythm, the crowd had taken to gathering later, when people knew the food was closer to being ready. Some lingered from the start – those who wanted to make absolutely certain they got something – but the hahren chased them off if she deemed them too greedy or intrusive.

But she’d barely started on the goat when she became aware of people gathering. Not the usual children and beggars, either, but some of the more able-bodied men and women. Ones who didn’t often take from the fire pit. They were tensed, like strings, and she set aside her carving knife when she heard the beginnings of a commotion at the end of the street.

“-not welcome here! This is our alienage!” someone shouted.

“We just want to see what all the fuss is about!” a deeper, slightly raspy voice slurred. “You knifeys, livin’ it up, havin’ a party every day now! Where’s our bloody fucking celebration, eh?”

She rounded the top of the worn alienage stairs, and found the source of the disturbance.

It was a drunken gang of shemlen. Eight, she counted. Mostly men. They weren’t finely dressed, most of them looked like they’d been drinking rotgut since dawn and the rolled themselves through a few alleys on their way down the street.

“What’s the trouble?” she asked.

The elf who’d shouted before looked at her. He was young, probably just a bit younger than she was, with a fresh scar across his chin and dark hair tied tight across his scalp.

“We have one place in this city that’s ours,” he snapped. “The shems won’t leave well enough alone.”

The shemlen drunks were belligerent, she could see, and the elves – especially the younger adults – were sharpening into defensive hostility. It was a bad combination. The humans were too accustomed to being deferred to by elves, and probably too inebriated as well, to recognize the threat in the air.

She took a moment to assess, and then let out a gusty sigh.

“Alright. C’mon. How drunk are you people?” she asked. “You think you came to a party? Looks like you already had one.”

There was some grumbling, disjointed and not too clear.

“We’re hungry!” one of the men shouted. “Where’s the free food, eh?”

“Coming. With all this noise, you’ve interrupted the cooking,” she explained.

Hunter,” the scarred man protested.

“Look at them,” she said. “They’re not well-off. They’re just poor drunks. We can be charitable.”

One of the drunks leered.

“Bet you’re real char’table,” he said.

“And they have no coordination, so if any of them tries anything, we’ll just feed them their own tongues instead,” she added, dryly.

The last thing they needed was a fight. A fight would become a riot, and a riot would escalate things, and there wasn’t a chance she could keep herself from getting involved, and then Solas would be involved, and…

She’d rather they didn’t have to flee another city.

The drunks were grudgingly allowed to proceed towards the fire pit, and the tension in the air took on an added quality of resignation. She caught sight of adults ferrying the children back inside, and then she returned to the matter of the goat, as the drunks stumbled around and made inappropriate comments and complained of boredom.

“You’ve got a fine arse for an’elf,” one of them informed her.

Then his eyes rolled into his skull and he keeled over sideways. The only clue she had that he hadn’t passed out of his own doing was the brief flash, one that could have just been the light reflecting off of her knife.

She looked over her shoulder to see that Solas had returned.

In a state of great irritation.

After a second, his features smoothed out a little.

“I see you have acquired a slightly more… colourful crowd this evening,” he observed.

“It seemed preferable to letting them get killed,” she explained.

Solas glanced the new arrivals over.

“Are you certain about that?” he wondered.

“For the moment,” she decided. “Though I wouldn’t object to seeing all of them pass out in gradual succession before they tried anything worse.”

“Noted,” he replied.

By tremendous coincidence, most of the shemlen did pass out, then, keeling over a few minutes apart from one another; slumping down, falling off of benches, and in one memorable case, keeling over almost straight into the fire pit mid-sentence.

She glanced at Solas.

“Whoops,” he intoned, unapologetically.

Tragically, the last one was down for the count well before the food was ready. So sad. No free food for the rowdy drunks.

“Where can we drag them?” she wondered.

“Over the side of the docks?” Solas suggested.

“Don’t be ridiculous, the docks are halfway across the city,” she pointed out.

The hahren intervened, then, and some volunteers were conscripted to move the unconscious shemlen over to a convenient out-of-the-way corner.

Things settled some after that, though not quite to the normal levels of joviality. There were grumblings and tension, even when the children eventually re-emerged, and the food was passed out. Most attempts to lighten the mood fell flat, and she found herself looking at the adults, at the youths on the cusp of adulthood, at the anger and frustration in their faces.

It had become a good thing, what started with that elk. The fire pit and the food and the community, the scent of cooking and the excuse to gather.

It had become a good thing, and elves weren’t supposed to have good things. So it seemed to occur to the shemlen that they ought to come and take it for themselves, and it seemed to occur to the elves that they would lose it, sooner or later. And the world would make sense again. Abysmal, depressing sense.

By the time the sky was dark, the shemlen were starting to stir again. Some of the locals were lighting the lanterns in the vhenadahl, as she sat with Solas, watching the men slowly stumble to their feet. There were grumblings and a few impotent shouts, but nothing worse than that before they all stumbled off, back to their homes and hangovers.

“Did ancient elves get drunk and behave like idiots?” she wondered.

“Of course,” Solas replied. “Not always simultaneously, either.”

With a grin, she knocked her shoulder into his.

Then she sighed, and turned her gaze towards the lanterns.

“Does it always take death to change the world?” she wondered.

He was quiet for a while.

“In my experience, yes,” he finally answered.

The glow of the lanterns caught in the vhenadahl’s leaves. In the dim light, the alienage didn’t look nearly so bad. In fact, it looked almost like a forest, the rickety buildings stretching up like a treeline towards the purple sky.

After a moment, Solas began to hum.

She glanced at him in surprise. But he only kept is gaze forward, humming a lilting tune that made her think of wind over rivers.

Rising to her feet, she stood in front of him, and with a smile ducked into a half bow and extended her hand in invitation.

Solas accepted, humming all the while as she pulled him to his feet, and they resumed their long interrupted dance.

As a distraction, it was more than fair. They spun and swayed, until the sky was less purple than black, and she couldn’t keep her feet anymore. Finally she stumbled, and he caught her, nearly stumbling himself and laughing, and then wrapping his arms around her and whirling around, once.

“Ma vhenan,” he breathed.

She smiled, and kissed him soundly, and once they finally retired for the night, she was the first to fall asleep.

That was a mistake.

Bloodied chains wrapped around her, and she fell, a clamour in her ears so loud that it hurt and she gasped and woke up again.

“Shit,” she swore.

Solas blinked, and smoothed a hand down the side of her face.

“Apologies,” he murmured.

She huffed.

“Not your fault.”

When she fell asleep again, the dream room, Solas, and relative safety, were waiting for her.

 

~

 

The next morning was chaos.

She woke to the sounds of shouting, and was out of their room like a shot.

She was blinking, bow in hand, registering the source of the conflict before she was entirely sure of what she was seeing. The group of shemlen were back. Or, some of them. There were more, but she only recognized about three from the day before; the rest looked like different people. A few of them were armed.

“Give us our fucking coin back!” one of the men insisted.

The scarred elf from the day before was at the forefront of those squaring off with the group.

“We didn’t take your money, shem,” he insisted, voice dripping contempt.

The man sneered at him, red-faced, furious.

“Thought it was a good trick, huh? Let the humans come in, all nice and cozy, and then drug us and steal our coin purses? Rat fucking bastard knife-ears, we’ll gut the lot of you-”

A fist flew before she could even blink, and the shemlen went down, nose a bloodied fountain. He howled, and it was like a thread had snapped. One of the men had a club, and he slammed it so hard against the scarred elf’s head that there was no hope his neck didn’t break.

She saw red, and without even thinking, put an arrow through the shemlen wielding the club. It struck his throat with a whistling thud, and his eyes widened for a second as he wavered, backwards, reaching for the arrow shaft before he fell.

Some of the rabble fled then, clearly unprepared for the sudden, lethal bloodshed.

Some didn’t.

Another of the shemlen struck out at the nearest elf with a knife, and she got a clean shot straight through his eye, and his friend dropped the plank he’d brought, ashen-faced, and bolted when he saw where she was aiming next.

That finally did it.

The others fled, too, and though some of the elves tried to follow, their more sensible fellows caught them before they could. There was shouting and screaming, and three bodies bleeding onto the ground, the second man she’d shot twitching in his death throws, and the first finally suffocating on his own blood. The young elf’s head was twisted and his eyes were blank.

Shit, shit, shit.

Solas closed a hand around her elbow, and she nearly jerked out of her skin.

She looked at him, opened her mouth to speak and then closed it again. Cleared her throat.

“I shot them,” she admitted.

More people were dead and she’d gone and made herself a criminal again, and her blood was boiling.

“We should leave. Now,” he advised.

“What about the alienage?” she wondered, as he started to pull her away.

“The men are poor, likely not influential. One elf is dead as well. If we run, the focus will be on us as fugitives, and not the people here,” he explained, quickly.

“Maybe if tensions weren’t already high-”

“There is nothing for that, and they will not be lowered by your arrest,” Solas reasoned, and that had the bitter taste of truth to it.

Elves were beginning to cluster around the bodies, by then, and they almost ran straight into several who had gathered behind them. She stared at them and they looked at her, faces that had become somewhat familiar, gathered around the fire pit.

“Hurry,” one of them finally said, stepping aside. “When the guard gets word of a death they’ll close the gates and lock us in. Depending how loud that rabble was when they were heading down, they might already be expecting this.”

And had done nothing to prevent it, if that was the case. Fantastic.

She nodded her thanks, and they pressed through.

No one tried to stop them. Until they actually reached the exit, and she spied the guards filing down the street. In a blink she shoved Solas through the nearest open doorway and crammed herself in behind him, and they listened to the clanking of the guards’ boots until they’d passed.

When she glanced around to see where they were, she realized it was a small house. A middle-aged woman was watching them, eyes wide; one of the ones who often gave her bread in exchange for packets of meat. After they’d finished staring at one another in awkward surprise, she pressed a finger to her lips.

The woman nodded, and then leaned to peer out of the window beside her. A moment later, she brought her head back in, and shook it.

Not clear.

It stayed that way, through the muffled sound of raised voices, and then a horrendous groaning noise.

By the time they were able to emerge back onto the street, the alienage had been blocked off, and the air was tight with turmoil.

There were crowds gathered at the vhenadahl. Solas kept close, watching, and she listened to the raised voices, the anger, thick and sharp and building by the minute. She was almost surprised there wasn’t more fear, or shock.

The hahren stood up on one of the benches, a stern shape outlined by the painted trunk at her back, and called for quiet.

She held the old woman’s eye a moment.

“Most of us saw it,” the hahren then said, looking back out over the crowd. “The shemlen came with weapons. We did them no harm last night. They were looking for a fight, and they got one. Poor Joden’s dead, too young by far. He threw the first punch and he more than paid for it. We’re none of us in the wrong here.”

“Like they’ll care,” someone in the crowd shouted. “Two shems are dead. They’ll take twenty of us and call it justice.”

Murmurs of agreement and fear followed.

“I killed the humans,” she said.

Solas was tense at her elbow.

“I know, child,” the hahren said. “It doesn’t matter. They’ll hang you, but that won’t be the end of it. It never is. If we hold our ground and give nothing away, the weight of their ire will fall on all of us, and it’s easier to carry like that. We’ve sturdy shoulders.”

And to think, most of her people believed the elves in human cities were weak.

Wrong again, she decided.

“They will lock us in until they’ve deemed us sufficiently cowed,” the hahren continued. “A few days, maybe a week at the outside. Maker knows they won’t want to be without people to wash their floors and cook their food for any longer than that.”

There was a murmur of agreement from the crowd, and though the anger was still palpable, some of the tension eased.

“We’ll do what we can for Joden’s family. Our thoughts are better turned to the grieving, now. The man who killed him is dead. Let that be the end of it, for us.”

The old woman climbed back down off of her bench, and the crowd burst into talk again, breaking off into clusters as the people began to react and plan on how to survive the lock-in with only what was in the alienage, and what to do for Joden’s funeral, and things that made it increasingly obvious that this was far from an unprecedented incident for Ostwick’s elves.

“We should try and find another way out,” Solas told her.

From the way the elves were talking, she highly doubted there was one. But they searched, anyway, because maybe there was something that could be managed with a little magic or luck or skill.

But the main entranced to the alienage was an impassible, massive door, surrounded by walls too steep and high to scale. There were no tunnels or other exits, and even the drains were all too small.

By evening they gave up. The alienage was crowded and unhappy. There was no food for the fire pit, though they had some set aside in their travel stores. She started rationing it out to last as long as possible. They sat in their little rented room, which was empty of its other occupants, and thus afforded them more privacy than most anywhere else for the time being.

“I shouldn’t have killed them,” she decided. “I should have aimed differently. Wounded instead.”

“You think that would have made the situation better?” Solas wondered.

“Maybe.”

“Or perhaps you would just be left with two angry, injured humans to cause yet more trouble once their wounds had healed,” he suggested.

Pausing, she clenched her hand, and then resumed her sorting.

“The elder was correct,” Solas continued. “The humans came here armed with more than simple accusations. When meeting violence with retaliation merits punishment, the problem is larger than any individual conflict. It is not that you killed the humans. It is that, as soon as those humans arrived, there was no way to avoid suffering for the elves. The game is rigged.”

“It’s not a game,” she reminded him, tersely.

He placed a hand on her shoulder.

“I know.”

She cursed, and then sighed, and ran a hand over her eyes.

Perhaps things would calm down.

Perhaps it wouldn’t get any further.

And then what? People would just carry on, waiting for the next time someone found a good excuse to come and try to spill their blood again? They didn’t deserve to live like that. No one did. It was the way of the world, but… the world had changed before.

Why couldn’t it ever change into something better?

“Vhenan-” Solas began, but he was cut off by the sounds of yet another commotion.

Glancing at one another, she hastily repacked their bag of supplies, and they headed out again.

The crowds had milled towards one of the western walls of the alienage. They were looking upwards, and it took her a moment to realize why. A group of shemlen had scaled the wall from the opposite side. There were six of them. Furious. One of them, an older gentleman with grey hair, was speaking. But it was difficult to hear his voice. The wind was against him.

“Can you hear him?” she asked Solas.

“Somewhat,” he replied. “I believe that man is the father of one of the men you killed.”

Damn, damn, damn.

“This isn’t going to go well, is it?”

“It is possible he will merely shout,” Solas replied.

There was a pause, punctuated by more muffled shouting. Under different circumstances, it might have been amusing. As it was, she curled her fingers around her bow.

Solas’ eyes widened.

“Shoot them!” he exclaimed.

She saw what had prompted that reaction almost as soon as she raised her bow, as five of the men gathered reached behind them, and produced flaming jars from some source on the other side of the wall. Her arrows knocked two of them back, thudding into their shoulders with the wet impact of metal against flesh. One fell off the wall. The other dropped his jar onto himself, by accident, and screamed as he was promptly engulfed by flames.

The other three dropped their jars onto the rooftops, and then all four were scrambling down and away, cursing as another of her arrows barely missed one.

The stacked, wooden buildings of the alienage ignited in a rush of flame that began to immediately roar across the rooftops. Furious red and hot. Whatever accelerant the shemlen had used set it to eating through the wood in seconds.

“Shit,” she swore.

Panic struck the crowds. She grabbed Solas and dragged him sideways to avoid a small stampede of elves, fleeing backwards, instinctively rushing away from the flames. But he was moving as well, staff raised, and a moment later the air around him rippled and a sheet of ice spread over the rooftops that were not already burning.

“That will slow it down,” he said, before he began casting again, and dropped another sheet of ice on top of the fire itself.

Some of the flames dimmed, but they were already moving downwards, eating away at the buildings below.

There were screams.

With a curse she launched herself towards the walkways.

She wasn’t the only one, either. As some of the crowd was fleeing, others were rushing forward. Elves were hastily exiting their burning homes, falling off of ledges and climbing out of windows, and others were reaching to help. She caught a teenage boy as he stumbled off of one of the higher walkways, then hurried up it herself to help a family that was dangerously close to the center of the inferno.

The air around the fire tingled, magic mixed with smoke, and she almost slipped on a patch of ice before she grabbed an elderly man’s hands, and helped him while an unfamiliar woman pulled a child through a half-broken doorway.

Others came with buckets, then, flinging water to help the job of Solas’ ice. They had to fall back a bit when the walkways began collapsing. She put her foot through a weakened floorboard and almost fell through, but two other elves caught her arms and hauled her back.

By the time the flames had finally been put out, there was a blackened hole in the alienage. It had consumed several whole houses, and half of the rooftops, dipping down to where it had managed to eat the walkways and homes below, leaving skeletal frames and charred timbers.

Then began the frantic work of looking for people who hadn’t made it out.

A few were found straight away, badly burned, but still breathing. Some were pulled out of collapsed parts of the alienage, coughing, calling for help.

Then came the bodies.

Burnt. Bloodied. Still. Four adults, one teenager, two little forms she didn’t recognize, and then a third that sucked all the air out of her lungs.

The girl.

A woman clutched her, inconsolable, but the tiny form had fallen through a collapsing floor, eaten by flame and drowned by smoke. She was broken and still.

No.

Oh no.

“Da’len,” she whispered.

She stared, consumed by a moment of denial, waiting for the girl to open her eyes, to cough or to move. And when she didn’t, something cold and hard settled in her gut. Like the ice on the rooftops. There was roar in her ears, the dimmed only when fingers reached out and brushed her own.

Sucking in a ragged breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, she turned and looked at Solas.

His expression was drawn, hints of exhaustion around his eyes. People were still moving. The world was still moving. Helping the injured, trying to shore up parts of the alienage to keep it from collapsing, checking the wreckage for yet more bodies. There were headcounts and cries of relief and dismay, and above all of it, burning like the fire, was anger.

“Solas,” she said.

“Are you hurt?” he asked her, and his touch moved to her cheek, skittering close to something that stung. A scrape she hadn’t realized she’d gotten.

“No,” she told him. “Go help, if you can. Please.”

He regarded her for a moment, and then inclined his head, once, and turned towards the injured.

After a second, she shook her head, and went to see what she could do as well.

By the time the last of the embers had died down, two more were dead from their injuries, and most of the alienage was clustered around the vhenadahl. Solas was slumped against her, tired. No one had made a comment about his magic. A few elves seemed to be keeping their distance, but most appeared not to care. Someone had even scrounged up a tiny vial of lyrium potion from somewhere. She didn’t know who. They’d rolled it over from the midst of the crowd.

Solas had examined it, deemed it acceptable, and downed it with some relief.

She was a little surprised when she heard soft footsteps, and looked up and saw the hahren standing over them.

When the old woman opened her mouth, she was half expecting condemnation, or maybe a request that she turn herself in after all, or that Solas take himself to the Circle, perhaps.

“This isn’t the first time our alienage has burned,” the hahren said.

She stared.

And her gut churned.

And her blood boiled.

The hahren looked at Solas, and then back to her.

“When I was young, the Teyrn was a cruel sort. Lock-ins weren’t uncommon. One evening, a fire started. That time, I think, it was more for sport than anything else. Thirty elves died in the flames. Lots of the buildings went. It was much worse than this,” the old woman carried on explaining. “The second time was when I was grown. They did it to teach us a lesson, then. There had been some riots, unrest. They locked us in. The Teyrn denied telling the guard to set the flames afterwards, of course. Said it was our own fault for lighting cook fires where we oughtn’t.”

She closed her eyes.

“Ir abelas.”

“What?” the hahren asked.

“She sends you her sorrow,” Solas replied. “You have mine, as well.”

“Keep it for now,” the old woman advised. “I told myself if those fools ever lit another flame in this alienage, we’d teach them what-for at last. I was a bit more spry then. But I keep my promises.”

Solas looked intrigued.

“What did you have in mind?” he wondered.

“There are gates,” the old woman said. “Three on the Inner Wall, one over near the Outer Ring market. They’re to keep us safe in case the ox men get any funny ideas, so they say, but the way I see it, that’s what they say about the alienage gate, too. Only it’s seen more use than most.”

She blinked, wondering at the apparent change in topic, and then it clicked.

“You want to lock in the shemlen?” she asked.

“Tempted to set ‘em on fire, too, but we won’t go that far,” the hahren confirmed.

“Indefinitely?” Solas wondered. “Fire might be kinder if you intend to starve them.”

The old woman scoffed.

“As if it’d work that long. Marcher cities might not love one another, but the others would never stand for elves running amok. We’d have soldiers on our doorstep soon enough. No, we’re just going to turn the table, a little.”

“They’ll be furious when you finally release them,” she pointed out.

“And most of us will be gone,” the hahren asserted. “Much as we’ve had folks fleeing here from Kirkwall, it works in reverse, too. That city’s always in a state, but there’s homes sitting empty, by all accounts.”

“Not to mention change in the air,” Solas reasoned.

“Your people could survive the trip?” she pressed.

“It gives us better odds than staying here and waiting for the next fire,” the old woman declared.

Turning a little, she looked at Solas.

He looked back at her, one brow raised.

“Alright,” she decided. “We’ll help.”

 

~

 

In amidst the efforts to recover from the fire, several of the alienage elves retrieved a few spare ladders. They were lashed together, then, and leaned up onto the lowest segment of the wall, just behind the gate. It wasn’t the sturdiest of arrangements, but they were light-footed, and quick, and no hesitated on the climb up.

After nightfall, she and Solas went, along with twelve other elves from the alienage; most of them young, with hard rage in their eyes and soot stains still on their clothes.

Up on top of the walls there were guard barracks. But there’d no alarm at the fire, and no sign of anyone coming to help, or even investigate. If she’d had doubts before, that was the last straw. Under the cover of darkness they crept along the top of the wall. The other elves moves as if they knew the by memory. She But it was a wide enough path that even she and Solas didn’t have much trouble.

They reached the first guard outpost, and heard the sound of voices. Two night watchmen, chatting among themselves. Their arrival hadn’t been noted; nor, it seemed, even remotely expected.

One of the others drew a knife.

“Solas?” she asked, quietly.

He cast, instead, and with a brief flash of light, the voices died. There were two solid thumps as the bodies fell over.

One of the twelve whistled.

“Useful shit,” he concluded.

They made for the market, then, without any further incident.

“Should we just close it now?” another of the group asked, and it was clear they’d made plans and practiced routes, but never really thought about implementation before.

“We leave two here,” she advised. “And then two at the next gate, and two the next, and so on. Lay low. Solas can give a signal, and then we can close them all at once. Otherwise someone might notice, and stop us.”

Solas nodded approval, and the other elves swiftly agreed with the idea. The gate gears were above a guard house, but it was quiet, and looked empty.

They set out for the next gate, then, crossing over to the top of the Inner Wall. Down below the wealthier districts of the city were lit with soft lanterns, whose amber glow caught in patterns etched into the paved stone streets. The tallest spires looked both beautiful and eerie, shards of moonlight ringing the center of the city.

Their numbers diminished as they moved from one gate, to the next, and finally there were four of them to come to the last gate.

This one led to the docks, and it was almost dawn by the time they reached it. Its mechanisms were, by far, the largest, and she was very glad to have separated everyone by two’s and no greater number when she saw them, because she wasn’t sure a single one of them could have turned the gears. The guard outpost near to them was also considerably busier, though mostly at the ground level. Only a couple of watchmen were stationed at the top.

She could smell the sea air. It soothed some of the roughness in her throat.

Solas took care of the watchmen on top of the wall, and that was when things finally went wrong.

One of the watchmen veered towards the side right before the spell hit him, and instead of slumping forwards or backwards or in pretty much any useful direction, he plummeted straight over the open side of his post. She saw it happening almost in slow motion, and reached for him, but too late.

There was a damning clatter where he hit the ground.

A moment later, an alarm went up.

“Send the signal!” she told Solas, and then gestured towards the gate’s gears, and the remaining four elves. They took the hint and started cranking, even as the guard began to respond, and headed for the ladders.

She drew her blades, and met them at the top, disarming the first and knocking him down into his fellows. New ladders were raised; a flash of magic lit them aflame, and she felt Solas at her back as she thwarted the next attempt to climb.

There were more ways up elsewhere, however, and soon heavy boots were clamouring over from a different section of the wall.

The time for half measures had ended.

She cut down the next guard to meet her, slicing cleanly through his throat, hot blood spattering over her arm as she whirled to face the others, and Solas took the ladders she couldn’t cut, blocked a sharp blow from a quick climber with his staff and then knocked the guard back down with concussive force. She smelled magic and iron as she took down another, one dagger skittering over chainmail before the other struck true, and narrowly missed an arrow aimed for her.

It bounced off the wall next to her head, and she yanked Solas back, pulling him out of the torchlight ringing the walls and into the cover of shadow.

Finally, behind them, there was a heavy and resounding slam as the gate closed.

Then shrieking clanks and groans as their fellows did their level best to completely ruin the mechanism. It looked like they knew where to hit it, too, and a pair of them made off with fairly large pieces as they pelted into a retreat.

Some of the guard followed, but didn’t seem particularly quick or well-trained. The bowmen were more of a problem, and she drew her own to take them out first, squinting against the darkness as arrows whistled through the air.

Her aim proved truer.

“Will they head for the alienage?” she wondered.

“Too hard to get there over the walls,” one of the others replied.

And, true enough, once they started reaching narrow crossings and small dips that needed to be jumped, the guards stopped their pursuit. They made for the alienage gate, and arrived to find that the others had already returned, and cranked it open. Alarms were clamouring, but the few city residents who weren’t shut in didn’t seem eager to respond to them.

“Thank the Maker!” one of the youths called. “We weren’t sure you’d make it!”

“Had to kill some guards,” she said, with a wince of distaste.

“We lit a few fires in the Inner Market. Hoped it might get them off you, if it came to it. Not any houses, though, just carts,” the young man explained.

“We lit some fires, too,” a girl from the other group admitted.

“Did everyone light fires?” Solas wondered.

Only one of the groups didn’t nod.

“That wasn’t actually part of the plan,” she mentioned.

“Yeah, well. We didn’t burn down any houses with babies in them,” the girl said.

Any further criticisms she might have made died instantly in her throat.

As the sky lightened, the bustle in the alienage had taken on a new tone. Carts had been acquired, from somewhere, and were filled with injured and elderly and young children, and goods, and though the elves were clearly tired, there was a sense of urgency that was keeping everyone moving. The paper lanterns had been taken from the vhenadahl, and so had several branches, she saw.

The Keeper – no, right, the hahren approached them, then. Many of the able-bodied elves had armed themselves with makeshift weapons, clearly ready if any of the shemlen tried to give them further trouble, and the old woman herself had a large knife strapped to her belt.

“You’ll come with us?” the hahren asked.

“No,” she replied, apologetically.

The answer only merited a nod, however, as if it had been entirely expected.

There was… something.

She could feel it in the air. Expectation, and eyes looking at her, and looking at Solas. A question hovering, perhaps. They should turn and go, get out before the rest of the city circumvented their gates or scaled their walls.

The hahren handed her something.

It was the hart she had carved, she realized. There was chalk on it. Tiny marks to colour it white and black, in places, and a crude drawing of a saddle.

She was speechless for several long seconds.

Then, with care, she tucked it under her arm, and peeled the glove off of her marked hand.

She lifted it, letting it flare just enough to send emerald light reflecting through the alienage, feeling the ripples in the Fade. Eyes turned their way. It was a terrible impulse, she thought. There was a bounty on her head, and no reason why at least someone, somewhere in all of this wouldn't want desperately to claim it.

But it felt like, inexplicably, like the right thing to do.

Eyes turned their way, until it felt like the whole alienage was looking at her.

Even Solas seemed surprised.

Words from a memory rose up to her lips.

“There is a place,” she said, and swallowed, and began again. “There is a place that waits for a force to hold it. When I claim it, you’ll know. You’ll be welcome, if you come. The world has to change.”

The crowds were quiet.

She slipped the glove back on.

“It was you,” the hahren said, as taken aback as anyone else. “In Kirkwall? You called the demons?”

After a moment, she inclined her head.

The old woman looked at her with a light in her eye.

“Reckon the world’s already changing.”

“Of that, there is no doubt,” Solas assured her.

They left, then, before they could test how well the good will of the community would really hold up against Sebastian’s bounty offer. Back out onto the road, swiftly, and then off it again as they veered from the main paths, and only rounded back, at her request, the watch the alienage elves begin their journey towards Kirkwall.

“You have begun it, then,” Solas mused.

“Haven’t you been implying I should?” she wondered.

“I find myself torn, as a matter of fact,” he admitted. “You are the obvious choice to lead such an uprising. Yet, my own concerns must lie beyond the interests of the downtrodden, for now. And I find I am selfish; I do not wish to share your attentions.”

She reached over and took his hand.

“Don’t worry, emma lath. I haven’t forgotten you,” she assured him.

“I am glad to hear it,” a third voice, familiar, interjected.

Almost in unison, she and Solas turned towards the trees behind them.

There, half in shadow and half in dawn’s light, was Mythal.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Mythal looked at Solas, and grinned.

There was a snap in the air, a sudden whirl of shape-changing energy, and when it dispersed Solas was notably taller and balder than he had been a second ago.

And, given the amount of spellcasting he’d already done that evening, just about ready to keel over into her, by the looks of it. She kept hold of his hand and tried to steady him a little, and for one second almost thought he was going to drop to his knees and completely ruin… whatever effect he’d been hoping to achieve.

“The humble look suits you,” Mythal said.

“It was necessary,” Solas replied, a little clipped.

She rolled her eyes at him, and then cleared her throat.

“Andaran atish’an, Mythal,” she greeted.

“Always so pleasant to be politely greeted,” the old goddess replied. “It seems you have resolved the awkward situation of being incorporeal. And so quickly! How impressive. But then, the young do tend to recover better than most.”

“I’m very self-possessed when I want to be,” she quipped.

It earned her a smirk.

Solas let her go to fold his hands behind his back, obviously trying to pretend he wasn’t the least little bit unsteady.

“We were becoming concerned by your absence,” he admitted.

“Were we?” Mythal asked, eyebrows lifting. “I am touched. But you needn’t have bothered with worry. The stage is being set, and there are many doors to be opened, and roads to be cleared. I haven’t been this busy in an age.”

“And what, precisely, have you been so busy with?” she wondered.

“As I said. Opening doors and clearing roads. And cleaning house, of course. You will be pleased to know that several of my servants have been dismissed from their duties,” Mythal replied.

“The temple?”

“I have done what I can,” the old goddess confirmed.

“Which means you have come to us now for a reason,” Solas interjected.

Mythal clucked her tongue at him.

“So presumptuous! Perhaps I am here on my own business, and merely stopped to say hello to an old friend?”

“So far as I know, we share the same business,” he replied.

Taking a few steps forward, Mythal chuckled.

“So far as you know.”

She sighed.

“Oh, good. I was just thinking things weren’t already ominous enough. Vague statements about double-dealings are just what we need,” she said.

The goddess waved a hand in acknowledgement.

“Not all my business is shared business, but that does not make it ominous. Yet, as it stands, what has brought me here is almost certainly connected to you, so that is all beside the point.”

Solas looked like something had just occurred to him.

“You have heard the stirrings?” he guessed.

Mythal laughed out right.

Stirrings? Had you banged a war drum by my ears, you could not have been louder. The Fade shudders around you. The dragon below the city clips at your heels, the predator scenting opportunity and danger alike. He has finally revealed himself.”

“Dumat,” she realized.

Mythal inclined her head.

“It has been a long time since last I hunted,” the old goddess asserted, eyes gleaming intently.

It occurred to her, then, what Solas had told her before; that Mythal would want to ‘consume’ Dumat’s soul just as much as he did.

She groaned.

“No,” she said. “Tell me he was wrong, and you have more sense than that?”

“Do I strike you as the sensible type, child?” Mythal wondered, amused.

Letting out a sharp curse, she turned, and stalked off a few steps. A breeze kicked up around her ankles, carrying dust from the road, and making the grass sway. She had to take a minute to suppress the urge to strangle one of her people’s most revered deities.

Not quite the reunion news she’d hoped for.

And the hart carving was still tucked under one of her arms, a heavy reminder that disaster was never far away.

“It seems you have lost track of something,” Mythal said to Solas.

Solas raised an eyebrow and glanced in her direction.

“She is only a few feet away; hardly cause for concern,” he dryly replied.

“Ha! Oh, that is entertaining!” the goddess declared. “No. I refer to your foci, Dread Wolf. Though it seems you have found a suitable distraction from the pain of that loss.”

“Ah. Yes. The orb was… misplaced,” Solas confirmed, shifting uncomfortably.

“How careless,” Mythal tutted.

“I sent it somewhere safe,” she interjected. “I just don’t know where that was.”

Shifting a glance towards her, the goddess tapped her chin.

“Curious. Have you some instinct for discovering safety? Some hitherto unremarked upon sense of it in the world? Perhaps you are tied to such secret and steadfast places, to know of them without knowing how?”

“No,” she replied, a little curtly.

“Then it stands to reason that you do know where it is,” Mythal concluded.

“I’m not lying,” she insisted.

“No. Not lying, that’s true. Mistaken. Lost in too many layers, too many possibilities. So many pictures and the world grows clouded; the paints mix and muddy and the colours all turn black.”

“You are implying that the orb has been sent to a place she already knows; a location she would be familiar enough with to deem ‘safe’,” Solas clarified.

Oh.

She paused, considering.

What places did she think of as ‘safe’? Precious few. There were the clan’s troves, perhaps, but those never seemed particularly safe to her; it was always a surprise to visit them and find them undisturbed. Campsites were more or less the same. Places were perilous, in general. With the possible exception of…

…There is a place that waits.

“Skyhold,” she realized.

Two sets of curious eyes turn towards her.

She shifted, slightly, and then shrugged.

“It fits. And it would explain why no one’s found it. It’s on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. I mean, if I did send it somewhere that some part of me thought of as safe… that would probably be it.”

Once the realization had come, she was actually a little annoyed with herself for not thinking of it sooner.

“It seems we have our next destination, then,” Solas decided. He seemed almost pleased. Well, it was good news, she supposed.

Mythal tilted her head, apparently satisfied that the question had been answered.

“Not quite next,” the old goddess declared. “I would not recommend dragging your stalker into the ambience of your foci. We must deal with him first.”

She let out a heavy breath.

“Taking his power is a terrible idea,” she asserted.

“Are you so knowledgeable in such matters?” Mythal asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I don’t have to be. I’m not getting lost in the particulars, here. You’re, no offense, already a little disjointed, and this… this thing is not unsubtle. It’s poison,” she insisted. “Drinking poison is unwise.”

“Oh, child. We have all drunk poison. Sometimes it is the only way to cultivate an immunity,” Mythal replied. “Drink of the blood of the enemy, and gain his strength. Hunters eat the flesh of their quarry. Grey Wardens take on the taint of the Blight. Sometimes, taking an enemy into yourself is the only way to overcome them.”

“And sometimes it’s the best way to become them,” she countered.

“True enough,” Mythal conceded. “I am prepared to take that risk. For vengeance’s sake, I would swallow this beast whole.”

There was a flinty look in the golden eyes, hard and fierce, like a predatory bird. Like a dragon.

It was obvious there’d be no dissuading the woman.

“Then we fight him,” Solas concluded. “And… you take his strength.”

He sighed.

She glanced over at him, but his expression was fixed, unreadable.

“You needn’t trouble yourself. It is remnant not to be underestimated, but he will not best me again,” Mythal replied.

“I will not let you face him alone,” Solas insisted.

She watched as the two of them exchanged unreadable glances for a moment. Then Mythal nodded, as apparently some sort of agreement was reached.

It left her feeling frustratingly out of the loop.

“There is a place. A ruin, in the Green Dales of southern Antiva,” Mythal said. “Ward stones still protect what waits there, hoping to be reclaimed. I will take you there, and return once you have prepared for what is to come.”

“A wellspring?” Solas asked.

“Just so,” Mythal agreed.

He sighed heavily; it seemed like he couldn’t decide whether he was relieved or resigned.

“What?” she wondered.

“A source of power,” Solas informed her. “If we are to battle Geldauran’s remnant, we should be at our best.”

She was liking this plan less and less by the minute.

Her disapproval must have shown, because Solas looked at her, then, and hesitated.

“I will not ask you to participate, vhenan. I know your objections,” he said.

She raised an eyebrow at him and folded her arms.

“And how exactly are you getting into the Fade without me?”

It was Mythal who answered, with amusement.

“There are ways beyond you,” the goddess informed her.

“Of course there are,” she muttered. The whole insane plan would have been a lot easier for her to veto if they’d needed her to open the door for them. “Fine. It’s an alliance. I’m out-voted. We’ll do it your way. But there’s no chance I’m sitting the fight out.”

Maybe the opportunity would present itself and she could just destroy the wretched creature before either one of them could stop her.

It was worth trying, anyway.

With a gesture, Mythal began beckoning them further away from the city, then. Solas walked with care and a slightly wavering step until she just sighed and shoved herself up under his arm, and made him put some of his weight on her.

It was a little harder than it would have been if he hadn’t recently added several pounds of weight to himself.

Of course, if he hadn’t done that, it probably wouldn’t even be necessary in the first place.

“You are ridiculous,” she informed him.

“I know,” he replied.

When Mythal had deemed them far enough out  – though not so far as to go completely unseen by the city’s denizens, she noted – the old woman summoned a whirlwind of golden light, that ate her form and left behind a massive, scaled dragon.

“This is going to be awkward, isn’t it?” she guessed.

“Almost certainly,” Solas confirmed.

The dragon snorted, and then reached for them.

It was a forced effort to resist the instinct to try to stab the clawed hands that closed around her and Solas. The hold that closed around her was careful, but not precisely gentle, and when Mythal flapped her wings and lifted off, all the air was momentarily sucked out of her lungs. Dragon claws were not soft, and her weight pressed uncomfortably against them in places.

Plus, she was pretty sure it looked ridiculous; and the faster they flew, the colder it got, and the harder it was to breathe.

Looking down was also unnerving. Strangely, even more unnerving than falling in the Fade. It wasn’t like staring off the edge of the mountain. There was nothing at all solid beneath them, and as Ostwick’s spires and farmlands grew smaller and further away, she found herself suddenly aware of the fact that she was very fragile and that the distant ground was very, very hard.

It was a lurch of fear that she’d felt only once before, at Adamant, and not a sensation she cared for.

Looking at Solas didn’t help. It just made her imagine him plummeting downwards, too.

So she looked up at Mythal, instead, and counted dragon scales as the massive wings pumped, and the daylight grew brighter.

By the time they took their first break, her chest was aching, and she almost wanted to kiss the ground.

Mythal dumped them in a clearing on top of several cliffs, and then took off again in the direction of a herd of wild goats.

Solas slumped next to her, and for several minutes they simply sat there, enjoying the sensation of breathing without interruption and not having any open air dangling below their legs.

“I hate flying,” she decided.

“I have never been partial to it either,” Solas concurred. “Though it can be expedient.”

He looked ashen and exhausted and she wasn’t really surprised when, after a minute, he just gave up and lay down.

She nudged him enough to pry the pack off his shoulders, and untied his water flask and made him drink just in case he passed out. Then she gulped down a few mouthfuls herself, skin tingling with the memory of the wind and the exhaustion of a night spent running atop Ostwick’s walls, and the kind of rush that only came from being awake against all better sense and judgement.

“We’re flying on a dragon to Antiva,” she said.

Solas reached over and patted her knee.

“Being carried by a dragon. Technically,” he corrected.

She made a face.

“That makes me think we’re going to get dumped into a nest of dragonlings and eaten at the end of it,” she protested.

“Well. It is Mythal,” he mused.

“If I have to pull you out of a dragon’s nest, Solas, I’m never letting you live it down,” she warned. “I might not let you live this down as it is. I find the prospect of letting Mythal eat Dumat is only slightly less abhorrent than letting you try.”

“We are not actually ‘eating’ him. You do know this, yes?”

He turned and cracked open one eye to look at her.

She raised an eyebrow in return.

“I’m trying to make it sound as unappealing as possible,” she informed him.

“You are succeeding,” he informed her.

Then he let out a gusty breath, and went quiet.

After a moment of watching him, she dug some food out of the pack, and then closed it back up. She put his share into his front pocket and then tucked into hers, watching the goats flee Mythal as she swooped and dove and snapped them up in her jaws, and then tore into them until she was apparently satisfied.

Somehow, when they took off again, Solas actually managed to sleep through a good portion of the flight.

She actually found herself staring at him in amazement, as the wind whipped around them and he leaned uncomfortably between the dragon’s talons, limp as a rag doll. When they took their next break she actually shook him awoke in concern, but apart from being sore and groggy, he seemed fine.

“How did you sleep through that?” she asked him.

He blinked at her.

“Why would I wish to be awake for it?” he wondered.

“You wouldn’t, but I’m not asking why, I’m asking how.”

“I simply slept. What more is there to it?”

“The howling wind and intense discomfort don’t keep you awake?”

“Not particularly.”

“Well now I’m just impressed.”

“Thank you.”

Mythal watched them with one large golden eye while she rested, and managed, for a dragon, to very successfully project an aura of amusement.

It took them days to reach the Green Dales, and by the time they did, she was all but kissing the ground whenever they landed. All of her was sore, and cold, and stiff, and Solas wasn’t much better off. They were as wind bitten as if they’d spent too much time standing on the highest points of Skyhold with their arms flung wide.

Mythal dropped them in a clearing, ringed by thick trees and marked by Dalish statues, and Solas ran healing spells over the both of them until she could flex her fingers without pain.

Then, at last, the dragon which had carried them turned back into the silver-haired witch of legend.

“Ma serannas,” she said. Grudgingly.

Mythal stretched her arms and her neck, and otherwise ignored them both for a moment. She stared at the shadows between the trees. There didn’t seem to anything, and the campsite around them didn’t show any signs of recent use.

“The ruin is to the east,” Mythal informed them. “Once you crest the hill and break through the thickest of the wood, you shall see what remains of its once-proud towers. I will return for you in several days.”

“Where are you going now?” Solas asked.

“There are other long-forgotten places here. Some doors still remain to be opened,” Mythal replied.

Then she stalked off between the trees, and was soon enough gone from sight.

“Is she impatient, or does she just dislike company?” she couldn’t help but wonder.

“I cannot say,” Solas admitted. “Death has changed her. Perhaps it is only that she sees too many things, now, to easily ignore one in favour of the other.”

Setting the puzzle of Mythal aside, she took another look around the campsite. A proper one. There were only a few statues, cracked and apparently ill-kept. The clans of Antiva lived hard lives. By reputation they were more insular and aggressive than most, and prone to banditry, but how much of that was true and how much of it was shemlen propaganda was difficult to say. None had ever been present at any Arlathvhen she’d been to.

In the growth near the tree line she managed to uncover a broken aravel, left abandoned rather than repaired for some reason. The canvas was heavily damaged, but as long as there was no rain, would still offer shade and some protection from the wind. She dug out a likely site for it and starting setting it up as best she could. The ruins might be near, but walking into them without taking at least a little time to recover from the journey seemed extremely unwise.

Solas watched her work a moment, before rising and offering his help. Between the two of them, they managed to erect a sad, slightly saggy, but ultimately functional shelter.

“Excellent,” she declared, and then all but collapsed inside of it.

“I shall set up wards,” Solas decided.

She hummed and tried to make herself comfortable, resisting the temptation to fall asleep until he’d returned, and stretched out beside her. She had no desire to bump into Dumat, dream or no, and it wouldn’t be very restful anyway.

They managed to sleep peacefully, and deeply enough that even the dream room seemed slow and quiet and drowsy, and when they finally woke she felt… not quite refreshed, but almost like a reasonably alert and coherent individual again.

It was afternoon when they rested and early morning when they made for the ruins, and whatever ‘wellspring’ was supposedly inside them. At the first glance of the towers, she knew it was a ruin, in earnest, and not any hidden temple like Mythal’s. The white stone was worn to grey and overgrown, and it took them an hour of searching just to find a decent entrance, and the one they did find was half caved-in and needed to be carefully dug out.

Inside there was gloom, and a few faint traces of animal activity. Some stray rodent bones that a predator had left behind. They headed further in, and further, until they almost ran out of the dim light from the entrance. There were no sconces she could see, Veilfire or otherwise.

At last they came to what seemed to be a dead end; a wall adorned with painted tiles, and the symbol of a wolf.

Solas pressed a hand to it, and the wolf glowed, and the wall slid away to reveal another passage; far more untouched than the one they’d come in by.

“This place was yours, wasn’t it?” she realized.

“It was,” he confirmed. “I am surprised to see it has survived so well. Most such places were ransacked and destroyed after I closed the Eluvians.”

“Could anyone else get inside?” she wondered, thinking of the passage he had opened.

“With enough dedication, anything is possible,” he reasoned.

There was light in the new tunnel. Not flickering like fire, but glowing, almost like the luminescence of mushrooms. They headed towards the source of it, and she peered at the walls as they did. The bricks were coated and painted, like those in the Skyhold of the Fade, and further down they gave way to faded murals that had withstood the passage of time.

Most seemed to depict water, of some kind. Oceans or lakes. The borders were trees, with deep roots that sank towards the floor, and then across it, weaving together in artful patterns that left footstep-sized spaces. Moons rose over chopping waves and elves frolicked in calm seas, and giant beasts leapt over blue horizons. Along the ceiling, however, she spied the shadowed shape of a great wolf, passing through it all.

The anchor felt strong, pulsing in her palm.

“Is this like your Well of Sorrows?” she wondered, tracing all the outlines she could see. They needed more light; she was sure there were fainter parts of the murals that she was missing out on.

“No. This is no temple, and holds nothing of any followers or tributes, or blood sacrifices made,” Solas informed her, quiet and a little subdued. “It was a hiding place for myself alone. The power that accumulated here did so naturally, gathering from my presence, and imbuing the waters below the earth.”

A wistful expression took his face, and he reached over and pressed the tips of his fingers to the painted outline of a dancing figure.

She gave him a moment.

Slowly, he withdrew his touch.

“Could anything dangerous be here?” she wondered.

“It seems to have remained sealed,” he mused, glancing around them again. “There may be spirits, perhaps. But I do not think so.”

When they reached the end of the corridor, the source of the light became apparent.

A large, open chamber waited for them. Murals were spread across every wall, threaded through with luminous plants; vines that had clearly been planted to grow amidst carved paths, deliberately placed amidst the artwork. The blossoms of the vines were glowing.

They had clearly overgrown, in fact, and were running rampant over the murals and floors and ceiling in places, choking a few pillars at the sides of the room, reaching roots towards a carved pool in the middle of it.

Where the Well of Sorrows had been dark and filled with the whisperings of intent, however, this pool was clear. Through the glowing light she could see straight to the bottom, where smooth tiles had been placed. A stone fountain had been carved in the center; more abstract shape than anything else, and it seemed some of the vines had choked it. No water poured from the spouts.

A few stray wisps of light drifted around it. It took her a moment to realize they were wisps, and not petals falling from the ceiling – though there were several of those, as well. Both seemed to dissolve when they hit the surface of the water.

She could feel it. It was a strikingly familiar kind of energy. Like the orb.

And like Solas, perhaps.

“Should I leave?” she wondered, when she could finally bring herself to stop gaping at it all.

Solas looked over it himself, but his expression was less sorrowful than she’d expected. He seemed, if anything, surprised.

“That shouldn’t be necessary,” he decided, and then began to strip.

She’d seen him change before, of course, but she wasn’t entirely certain if this was the appropriate context to stand there and watch him. So after a second she turned her gaze back towards the murals instead.

Stepping carefully around the vines, she moved closer, eyes trailing over the shapes of yet more sea monsters, and tiny figures, and what seemed to be creative depictions of spirits, and smoothly painted fish caught in the mouths of hungry wolves. One segment of the wall appeared to be entirely done in scales, until she looked up, and followed it across the ceiling, and realized it swept down the opposite wall and ended in a fierce, serpentine head.

“Are these creatures all real?” she wondered, glance flitting back towards Solas in time to see pale skin sink into the pool.

“So far as I know. Some may be lost to time, now,” he replied.

The water swirled around him, rippling strangely, and he closed his eyes.

She felt the air surge.

It was like the first drink of water after a long, long thirst. It washed through her, and the anchor pulsed, and she worried for a moment that things had gone wrong. She looked at Solas; but he seemed utterly unperturbed, and when a light flashed, and cleared, the wisps were gone.

He smiled in satisfaction.

“I think I got some of that,” she confessed.

“Most likely,” he agreed, without any hint of remorse.

Her eyebrows went up, but he only smiled at her, face lit by the room’s gentle glow.

“Is that it, then?” she wondered.

Solas regarded her for a moment, and then looked at the pool around him.

“The water is warm,” he informed her. “If you would, perhaps, care to join me? It should be safe now.”

“Was it not safe before?”

“Only in the sense that the power within it may have liked you a little too much,” he replied. “Not that I would fault its taste.”

“Flatterer.”

Her eyes drifted over the clear waters.

Well, why not? It had been a long time since she’d had the chance to swim. Or to soak, for that matter. Scrubbing with a basin could never really compare to the sensation of being completely submerged. After a second, she reached for the fastenings on her clothes.

She felt his eyes on her as she stripped her first layer off, and then hesitated only half a second before following it with the next, until she was clad in just her skin.

Carefully stepping around the vines again, she walked to the edge of the pool, and slipped in.

It was warm. Not much warmer than room temperature, but just enough to avoid being uncomfortable. The bottom was smooth, scattered with only a few broken tiles and pieces of debris, and her skin tingled very faintly, echoes of its power still shuddering through it here and there. It hadn’t evaporated like the Well of Sorrows had.

“Shouldn’t the water be gone?” she wondered.

“Why?” Solas replied, and then seemed to realize the answer himself. “Ah! No. The Well of Sorrows has no true water in itself. The ‘water’ is thought. Will. Memory. This pool contained only ambient energy, it was not comprised of it,” he explained.

“You must have spent a lot of time here, then,” she mused, cupping a handful. A falling petal, glowing softly, landed atop it. It didn’t dissolve, not even when she tipped it back into the pool at large.

“It is one of the places where I slept when I was wearied and vulnerable,” Solas admitted. “It was once Mythal’s. When I was very young, she gave it to me as a sanctuary. My first. Over the ages I found and built less other boltholes, and almost forgot it. The last time I came here was shortly after she perished. It was a mess. Overgrown and in complete disrepair. Worse than it looks now, in fact. I repaired it, and repainted the murals, while I agonized over what to do.”

He fell silent.

For a moment, she simply regarded him. The glow on his skin and the water at his chest, the way the light and shadows played across his features. For all that he had regained some measure of power, he looked painfully flesh and blood, skin and muscle and bone. Overwhelmed by the weight of too many bad memories.

Then she looked away, to the painted walls.

“It could be restored again,” she mused. “We could do it ourselves, one day. Or we could get help. I can’t speak for the clans of Antiva, but a lot of my people would be eager to see this place. It’s a sanctuary. We treasure those.”

“I… do not think I could share it with them,” Solas admitted.

She inclined her head, accepting that.

“Thank you for sharing it with me, then,” she said.

“Andaran atish’an,” he replied, softly.

She sighed, and sank a little lower into the pool, and then ducked beneath the surface.

When she emerged again, Solas looked no less solemn. After a moment of contemplation, she moved her arms through the water, and sent a wave splashing towards him. He blinked as it drenched his eyebrows.

“Is there just the pool here?” she wondered. “No hidden treasure troves or other, even more secret chambers?”

“No. Only this,” he confirmed. “There was more above ground, once, but it has not survived so well.”

“Shall we investigate it anyway?” she wondered.

“At some point, certainly,” he agreed.

Then he reached out, and splashed her back.

The water crested high enough to go over her head, rushing past her face and breaking on the stone edge of the pool behind her. She sputtered a little and laughed, wiping it from her nose, and looking up to see something far more mischievous and pleased in Solas’ eyes.

He smiled, and for half a second she forgot how to breathe.

“Vhenan’ara. Come here?” she asked, reaching towards him.

He moved as if the invitation was all he had been waiting for.

 

~

 

The ruins above the sanctuary were interesting, when they finally got around to investigating them. The day had turned hot, but a gentle breeze wound through the fallen stonework and eased some of the strain. Most of what they found was collapsed and more or less useless. There was still the foundation for a fair-sized structure, but no possible means of transporting the necessary tools or materials through the wilderness around them.

They did find some traps, though, set along the perimeter of the structure, and a small shrine settled next to a collapsed pillar. It looked like a grave marker for a Keeper who had died. No one had tended it recently, but it hadn’t been abandoned, she didn’t think. The overgrowth was too sparse for that.

Carefully, she cleaned it herself. There were some brightly coloured flowers growing off the trunks of several nearby trees. She collected them, with care; they were unfamiliar, so she didn’t touch them with her bare hands, but they looked vibrant and appropriate settled next to the shrine.

As she finished paying her respects, Solas discovered a narrow ladder, propped up against one of the few walls that was still standing. He scaled it, and she watched him stand against the horizon, and peer around before returning to her.

“There was an Eluvian here, once, but it is gone,” he informed her.

“I’m sorry.”

He shook his head.

“The odds of discovering it were low. I will take what we have gotten so far, and be glad of it.”

She nodded, and with one last glance, left the Keeper’s shrine be.

“We might as well stay here until Mythal gets back,” she reasoned. “There could be more to find, and it’s better shelter than the campsite.”

Solas inclined his head in agreement.

“I will meditate. There is still some power lingering here; it may come to me, if I call it just so,” he replied.

“Then I’m for hunting,” she decided. “I’ve no idea what the Antivan wilds have to offer.” She waggled her eyebrows, honestly a little excited by the prospect, and still giddy from the rush of energy in the sanctuary.

“Take care,” he requested.

She smiled, and leaned in to kiss the corner of his mouth. And then to kiss him full-on, soundly.

“Naturally.”

His eyes followed her into the trees.

Trails were not hard to find, she discovered. There were some animal, and some obviously Dalish. The hunting signs she discovered were unfamiliar, but close enough to what she was accustomed to that it didn’t take her long to decipher their general code anyway. They looked old, but not too old. A clan regularly passed through here on their migration, she decided.

The likeliest prey looked to be wild boar. Always an animal that merited caution. Anything less than a kill shot could mean an enraged beast goring a hunter to death; their hides were too thick and their bones too dense, and Antivan boars seemed, if anything, to be even more massive than the larger wild pigs of the Free Marches. Even a well-aimed shot might not guarantee success.

At least they didn’t have nug feet.

She spied several of the massive creatures, but took her time in choosing her quarry. It was only herself and Solas; too large an animal would be a risk and also, potentially, a waste.

Besides which, some of those boars had scars on their hides that clearly spoke of other, failed efforts to hunt them.

At last she found her target, a younger animal, a little slow and a little over-fed on the ripe fruits that had dropped from a small wild orchard. She climbed a sturdy tree within range, first, and then waited, arrow notched until the beast finally moved just so and gave her a clear shot to its lungs, in the soft flesh by the joint of its legs.

It wasn’t the quickest death, which she regretted; but it was still quick.

When the beast dropped so did she, lowering herself from her perch and moving to inspect her kill.

A sense of eyes on the back of her neck crawled up her spine, and she paused, halfway there.

When she turned, there was an arrow fixed on her; a stern face, written with vallaslin, watching from another tree. Her gaze flit across the likeliest perches, and she spotted two more hunters, similarly armed and aiming.

Carefully, she raised her hands.

“Andaran atish’an,” she offered.

The hunter paused, and then spoke; voice lilting in a lyrical accent that matched Josephine’s, but in words that were clearly not common.

“I’m afraid I don’t speak Antivan,” she confessed.

There were glances exchanged.

“Garas quenathra?” the spokesman than tried, in slightly shaky and tentative elvish.

Why are you here?

“Ir abelas. Ar eth atisha,” she tried. That was mangled enough that Solas probably would have cringed, but she was fairly certain it got her point across; she wasn’t a threat, and hadn’t meant any harm.

The arrow lowered, and the lead hunter snapped at something at one of his fellows.

One of the other figures she’d spotted dropped, and went for her kill.

“Oh, come on,” she asked. “Seriously? Andra… um… ma andra…”

“Ven lasa,” the spokesman said.

Leave.

Oh, well. Great.

A spark of her temper flared as the unfamiliar hunter gathered up her boar. That was her kill; she would have shared, if they’d cared to ask, but it was hers just the shame.

“Venavis,” she declared, and swiftly drew, the motion fluid and faster even than she expected.

The point of her arrow lined up perfectly with the lead hunter’s eye.

He and the others had lowered their bows, and couldn’t raise them again quickly enough before she snapped a warning, and they stilled. Most of them were younger, she noted; not young, but close enough to her own age. Many of them bore scars. The leader, she noticed, was missing the tips of his ears.

Her temper faltered.

The game was good in the region; there would be other boars.

After a moment, she lowered her bow again; though she kept her arrow knocked.

“Ma enansal,” she decided, nodding towards the hunter who had moved to retrieve her kill. They could have it as a gift, then.

There was no thanks, of course, and the tension remained sharp as she backed away, carefully. She was almost clear when she heard the familiar twang of a bowstring, and something slammed into her back.

She’d been shot by arrows before.

It was never a pleasant experience. First there was the force; if armour stopped it, then that was the end of it. A bruising mark, a missed step. But she was wearing no armour, and so then came the pain, as her body realized that it had been pierced by the metal arrowhead. Her back burned and she looked down and shit, shit, it hadn’t gone through.

She staggered, sucked in a sharp breath and them immediately regretted it, terrified that her expanding lungs would puncture themselves on the arrowhead. But they didn’t seem to.

There was some sharp conversing behind her, and some dim part of her mind registered that they probably hadn’t meant to shoot her in the back. Probably. She’d been around enough young hunters, and been one herself, and though it was hard to appreciate past the searing pain, the incident had the feel of a really unfortunate misfire than a genuine effort to kill her.

Particularly since it wasn’t being followed up by any further attacks.

Her first, decidedly disjointed thought was to just keep moving. Carefully. The arrow was in her back. Your legs are fine, she told herself, and took one step, and then another, and tripped in her disorientation and landed face-first onto the ground.

Well. Shit.

She became aware of footsteps, and a stern face peering down at her with an expression that was… reluctantly approaching ‘rueful’.

Hands reached for her and no, no, that was the wrong, angle, shit, the arrowhead moved in her flesh and she couldn’t quite bite back her cry of pain as she dragged up onto her feet again.

“Belas,” the lead hunter said, brusquely.

“Sorry?” she parroted back at him, fending off a rush of nausea. “I think a shot in the back at least merits an ‘ir abelas’, don’t you?”

Some of that must have carried through, because one corner of his mouth twitched. Or maybe she hallucinated that.

The hunters examined her arrow wound, and after a while it became apparent that they meant to shuffle her off somewhere. Personally, she would have vastly preferred to just limp off and find Solas, but there wasn’t really much of a choice, so she just hoped that they weren’t planning on dumping her in a river or off the side of a cliff somewhere.

Staggering through an unfamiliar forest with an arrow sticking out of her back was not an experience she would care to recommend. It wasn’t ‘staggering through a snowstorm after Haven’ levels of bad, but it still ranked as fantastically awful.

She kept her feet, though, and grit her teeth, trying to move as little as possible as warm blood trickled down her back, and her shoulder burned like it was on fire. Eventually they came to a grove of trees with branches overgrown by hanging vines, green and thick enough to fall like sheets, and when they passed through them, a Dalish camp was on the other side.

Not the one Mythal had left them at. That one must have been deemed unsuitable for some reason, and replaced; likely, it had grown too small. The camp she was led to was of a healthy size, though it had only recently been cleared. There were still fresh-cut stumps littering it in places, and partially carved stone markers, waiting to become proper statues.

And their aravels came in a broader range of colours than she’d ever seen before, blues and greens and even one in vivid red, with faded, golden animal skulls patterned across it.

That was new.

The campsite was fairly active when they arrived, but most everyone stopped to stare at them as she was prodded along. An elderly man, bald and scarred, with Elgar’nan’s vallasin written large across his face and a staff that might have passed more for a halberd if not for the lyrium inlaid into it, approached them. He spoke with the head hunter, and then gestured towards one of the blue aravels.

Then he brusquely checked her over, speaking in Antivan, though whether it was to her or to the hunters or even to himself was a little hard to tell. After a minute he gestured, and two of the hunters came and held her arms. The arrowhead in her jostled with a bolt of pain as a hand closed around the shaft.

Shit.

Shit, shit, shit.

With a gut-wrenched yank the arrow was pulled free. No through-and-through, so she’d got the delight of feeling the metal rip her flesh even more badly than it had going in, and no surgeon, it seemed, so they’d just yanked the damn thing out. She cried out and cursed as her back exploded in pain. A wash of healing magic fell over her, but it was barely potent enough to dull the sensation. Or even to stop much of the blood trickling down her back.

Spots danced across her vision.

The Keeper snapped something, and someone handed him a knife. A whispered spell and the blade grew red-hot, and…

Oh no.

One of the hunters finally gave her something to bite down on as the blade was pressed against her still-bleeding wound.

She was treated to a moment of searing agony and the scent of her own flesh burning, and the spots became a blanket of darkness.

For a moment, she forgot why passing out would not be a relief.

Then her mind was swept into the Fade.

Black jaws closed around her, sharp points piercing, bile dripping from curved teeth and burning where it touched her. For a moment she struggled, purely in panic; then she remembered that she was light, and burst free, tumbling away from the snapping jaws.

She sank; she fell.

A scarred eye gleamed at her from the darkness. Her ears rang.

Something crashed against her, heavy and suffocating. It wrapped around her torso, like Mythal’s claws, and squeezed.

She was only unconscious. She wasn’t really there. He didn’t really have her, and once she woke up, it would be over.

If she woke up.

She drew in ragged breaths and tried to clear her mind, her thoughts, tried to focus past the fear and the sensations. She was light. She burned, emerald flames licking in the darkness, strong enough to tear through him, strong enough to tear him apart if she just used-

Oh, shit.

No, absolutely not, there would be no more rifts opening, thanks for the idea.

Something flung her, wide, arcing through the air and she crashed into shattered spikes and cutting glass. Most of it hit her back, echoing her pain from the real world until she wrenched herself free, and drew her draggers. They were longer and sharper than she recalled, with jagged teeth that promised to not simply cut, but to rip and tear as well.

She waited.

Her heart bet louder, and louder in her ears.

Oh, he waited to play that game again, did he? Well that went both ways.

She opened her mouth, and began to sing.

It was difficult. She kept forgetting the lyrics, belting out tavern tunes and lullabies and things she’d made up, and when the words slipped away from her thoughts she just hummed and blurted nonsense sounds, until the cacophony was so deafening that she was sure she couldn’t take it much longer.

At some point the singing devolved into simple screaming; noise for the sake of making noise, shaking through her, shattering the air.

She woke on her stomach, gasping, terrified until she felt the wash of familiar magic on her. The mark was gleaming, and someone was kneeling in front of her, close enough to touch. Her back felt like it was on fire.

The magic eased the flames.

“It’s alright, vhenan,” Solas’ voice soothed. His hands caught her as she attempted to scramble upwards, until at last she took a breath, and calmed.

“Solas? Shit,” she swore as she recalled where she was and what was happening, and was treated to a fresh was of confusion as she looked up and realize they were still in the blue aravel. Only Solas had found her, somehow, and was healing her. And had woken her, probably.

“What happened?” she wondered.

“You were shot and apprehended by your barbaric kinsmen,” he informed her.

She groaned.

“Not barbaric. Standoffish,” she insisted.

“You have an arrow wound. In your back. I am not feeling charitable in my choice of descriptive terms,” Solas informed her.

“It was an accident.”

He sighed.

“So they said as well. Ir abelas, vhenan; my nerves are frayed.”

A slight check revealed that her wound had gone from ‘searing agony’ to ‘unpleasant ache’ in the past few minutes, so she reached for him, grabbing the nearest thing she could reach – his knee, it turned out – until he helped her sit up, and gripped her tight for a moment, inhaling deeply at her temple.

“I’m fine,” she promised.

He exhaled, and closed his eyes, eyelashes brushing against her skin.

“It was just a flesh wound, anyway,” she insisted, trying to lighten the mood.

He ran a hand over the healing injury in question, and sent another wash of magic over her. It tingled. When he was finished, he didn’t look tired at all, either.

The perks of visiting his sanctuary, she supposed.

“It was a mess,” he informed her.

“I don’t think healing is their Keeper’s specialty,” she replied. “Speaking of which – did they just… let you in here? How did you even find me?”

“You were screaming in the Fade,” he informed her. “I followed the sound. When I found the camp, I requested that they take me to you, and they did.”

“Surprisingly accommodating of them,” she mused.

“I was compelling,” he replied.

She huffed.

“Compelling how?” she wondered.

“I can be intimidating, when I so choose. And when my power allows for it,” Solas explained. Reasonably.

Vaguely.

Pulling back a little, she gave him a look.

“What did you do?”

“What do you imagine?” he wondered. “That I raced into the camp in some monstrous, lupine form, angrily shouting in elvish and threatening to eviscerate anyone who failed to comply? A romantic image, certainly, but I am hardly given to such foolish theatrics. I merely established that I was a mage of some skill, and that denying my request would be far more inconvenient than accommodating it.”

Well, fair enough, she supposed. He was generally sensible and thoughtful enough.

“No damage done?” she asked.

“None,” he assured her.

She sighed.

“Well. Ma serannas, then. You’ve come to my rescue again.”

He leaned in and stole a kiss for his reward, and then helped her to her feet.

When they emerged from the aravel, the campsite was very quiet.

“We should go, and trouble them no further,” Solas decided.

Probably the sensible thing to do. Yet, she hesitated.

Ever since she’d fled from her own clan, she’d had, at best, awkward dealings with the Dalish. It was beginning to form a pattern. Perhaps not a surprising one, given the company she kept, but one which she didn’t care for all the same.

“Maybe we don’t have to leave on bad terms,” she suggested. “We should speak to their Keeper.”

“Ah,” Solas replied.

She glanced at him.

“What ‘ah’?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Only that I do not relish the prospect of dallying here.”

Slowly, she raised an eyebrow at him.

But he didn’t offer anything more, and after a moment she set out through the camp. Most of the people seemed to be keeping inside their aravels, watching from a distance, and giving them an obviously wide berth. There were a few scouts and hunters that she spied along the edges of the camp, armed but very definitely not aiming their weapons anywhere near either herself or Solas.

Everyone seemed either nervous or terrified.

They found the Keeper near some of the unfinished statues. The old man clutched his staff when they approached, and shifted uncomfortably.

“Aneth ara. Ma serannas, ma melava halani,” she offered, in thanks for his efforts to help her; which was what those had been, despite the fact that one of his clan had shot her in the first place.

“Ir abelas, we did not mean to cause the harm we did, and deeply regret it,” the Keeper replied, in richly accented but nevertheless solid common. “The one who fired the shot is da’len, not even wearing vallaslin yet. He should not have been with the hunters. The error was mine, in letting him go.”

“It’s alright, Keeper. Even seasoned hunters make mistakes,” she assured him.

“Then you are not wrathful?” the old man asked, and some of the lines of tension around his eyes eased a bit.

“I’ve had better hunting trips, but I don’t plan on holding it against you,” she promised.

The breath the keeper let out was enough to make him sag.

“Ma serannas,” he said. Then he gestured, sharply, and two of the hunters she recognized approached. A cleaned and prepared boar carcass was suspended between them.

“We prepared your kill for you, as an apology for our transgressions,” the Keeper explained.

“It was a gift,” she assured him. Maybe not as freely given as she might have liked, but freely given in the end, all the same.

The Keeper looked suddenly uncertain. He darted a glance towards Solas, but Solas’ expression was only neutral and placid, perhaps a little expectant.

“A gift given before you were injured. We cannot take it from you now, when you may need it to sustain you,” the Keeper finally settled on replying.

“Solas is a good healer. I’ll recover swiftly,” she assured him. “Keep the boar. Feed your people. I’m sorry this misunderstanding happened between us.”

“We are most sorry for it as well,” the old man swiftly agreed.

She hesitated, considering.

“If… we may be friendly, while we stay in the area, I would like that,” she suggested. “My face is unmarked, but I grew up among Dalish. And I know very little about Antivan Dalish. I would be interested in conversing more with you and your clan.”

The Keeper glanced at Solas, again, and then shifted. It was clear he wasn’t precisely struck on the idea.

She pulled back, and offered him a smile.

“Perhaps not,” she conceded.

“No!” the man blurted, raising a hand slightly. “We would prefer to be friendly. So long as you bring no harm to us, and ask no questions that might endanger us, we would be pleased to accommodate you.”

“Thank you,” she replied, sincerely, and respectfully inclined her head.

As soon as they left the campsite, she levelled Solas with a flat look.

“Vhenan?” he asked.

Solas,” she said.

“It is possible I was somewhat overbearing in my initial interactions with the clan,” he eventually admitted.

“They were terrified!”

“Alarmed, certainly. But it worked, and I did them no harm,” he insisted.

“What did you even do? Start flinging lightning around?” she asked.

“Nothing so dramatic. I took no pleasure in intimidating them, I assure you. But it was necessary.”

She looked at him, and then sighed, and opted to let it go. It wasn’t as if she herself wouldn’t have turned into an unholy terror if a band of strangers had shot him, after all. She wasn’t in much of a position to start throwing stones, considering what had happened when Dumat took him.

Her thoughts soured on that note. Her brief stint with independent unconsciousness had reminded her precisely how overwhelming that ‘remnant’ could be.

Their conversation fell quite as they returned to the ruins. A couple of scouts attempted to tail them, she noted. Solas probably noticed as well, but neither of them did anything to lose or dissuade them. If they were going to be ‘friendly’, then it only made sense for them to know where they were.

The scouts certainly couldn’t follow them into the sanctuary, anyway. Especially not when Solas closed the doorway behind them.

“Solas…”

He looked at her questioningly as she trailed off.

“Are you in pain?” he wondered.

“No,” she replied. “It’s just that I saw him, again. I really don’t think we should let Mythal take him.”

He regarded her solemnly for a moment, and then looked off, towards the painted walls.

“I agree,” he said.

She blinked in surprise.

“I thought you were in favour of it?”

“There is little that can be done to discourage her in this,” he explained. “She may delay acting, out of caution, but she will not be able to suffer Geldauran indefinitely. And you and I cannot endure his stalking us through the Fade indefinitely, either. But you are correct in that he is strong, and no doubt insidious. Mythal is a fracture. Her nature is fractured, and has been since her death. I have little hope that she could actually overwhelm him.”

“Then why did you agree to help her?” she wondered, with a rising sense of unease.

“With or without help, she would battle him. Just as she said. But if I am there, when opportunity presents itself…” he trailed off.

Her eyes widened.

“No.”

“I am the best candidate, willing and whole. I am not broken, vhenan!” he insisted.

“And I would like to keep you that way!” she snapped back.

He closed his eyes, and exhaled, but didn’t pull away when she reached for his hands.

“Ar lath ma,” she said, fiercely.

His hands tightened around hers, and his eyes snapped back open.

For a moment they simply stared at one another, lost at their impasse. She looked at him and felt the frustration building inside her, burning up along with fear. It was all just so big. Why did it have to be so huge? She had bows and knives and even strange magic at her disposal, and yet all of it seemed inadequate to the task of protecting him.

“You’re going to do it,” she realized. “You’re going to do it because you can’t stop Mythal from doing it, and if she does it then she’s just going to lose. You want the power but you’d let that go for me. But you can’t let this go. I can’t even let this go, because if Dumat overwhelms Mythal, then he’s free! Then he’s flying around Thedas as an angry dragon god again, trying to obliterate everything!”

Solas was quiet.

She choked back a scream; let him go and almost hit the wall behind her, before she pulled back her fist and curled her arms around herself instead.

“You can’t, you can’t…”

“Telanadas,” Solas said, gently.

“No. That’s right,” she decided. “It’s not inevitable, because I am going to kill that thing. I am going to destroy every last piece of it. He won’t touch you.”

“Vhenan-”

“Open the door,” she asked.

He raised his eyebrows at her.

“Surely you realize you cannot face him alone,” he insisted.

“I know that,” she agreed. “I won’t try. But I want to speak with the clan.”

“Now? We have only just left them,” he pointed out.

“Solas. Open the door,” she asked again.

He stared at her a moment, and then did.

Of course, he followed her out, as well.

“You frighten them; stay here, please,” she requested.

“Are you going to do something reckless?” he asked.

“No.”

He didn’t look convinced.

“Last time you were alone with them, they shot you,” he reminded her.

“You know they won’t do it again,” she countered. “Just let me do what I can. Please, emma lath.”

After a moment, he relented, and let out a heavy breath. Then his lips thinned, and he held up a hand in an obvious request that she wait a moment. As she watched, he disappeared back into the sanctuary. But he wasn’t gone long. When he emerged again, he was carrying something in his hand. One of the small tiles from the bottom of the pool, it looked like. He opened his palm and made a strange gesture, and the tile drifted into the air, and for a moment, gleamed like a star.

Then it dropped back into his palm.

“Carry this,” he requested. “It is a locator spell. I would rather not have to chase your screams again.”

She accepted the tile, and when it fell into her palm, realized it wasn’t from the bottom of the pool at all, but from the walls. It was painted, with the tiniest eye resting in the center of it.

“Did you just enchant it?” she wondered.

“In a manner of speaking. There are several ways to imbue an item with magic. This is no elaborate craft, but the stones of this place are already receptive to my spells,” he explained. “It should last a few years, at least.”

It was a shame she couldn’t give him something similar in return.

“If it will ease your worries, I’ll keep it close,” she assured him, instead, and slipped the tile into her pocket. Then she brushed his cheek, and felt her resolve grow even fiercer.

“Sadly, I can offer you little to ease your own worries,” he replied, with a small frown.

She paused for a moment, touching his warm skin, the ache from her wound weaving into the ache in her chest.

“Promise me that if we get the chance, you’ll help me destroy him,” she requested.

He regarded her solemnly, his eyes fixed on her eyes, before they flit across her face, taking in the whole sight of her, it seemed.

“I promise,” he agreed.

“Ma serannas.”

She kissed him, gently, and then set out again.

 

~

 

The clan wasn’t precisely thrilled to see her show up again so soon, but they did seem to relax a little when they realized that Solas wasn’t with her.

Without the distraction of a painful injury, and the subsequent chaos, she noticed even more details about them, and their camp. They used comparatively little wood; most of it was taken up by the aravels, it seemed, or used in tools. What trinkets she saw actually seemed to be made of coloured glass instead. There was only one fire pit. Someone had gathered a considerable amount of vegetation from the wild orchards and the undergrowth, and embers were burning around what appeared to be a very large clay oven.

“Is the whole boar in there?” she wondered.

“Yes,” the Keeper told her, coming to stand a polite distance at her side. “You are welcome to join us for the meal, of course.”

“Thank you. But I actually wanted to ask you about something,” she admitted.

He inclined his head in an invitation for her to continue.

“Your people have probably told you about the ruins where Solas and I are staying. I was wondering if there were any more nearby,” she explained. “In particular, I wanted to know if your people  have ever seen a certain kind of artifact. It would be heavy, and round, and about this big.” Stretching her arms, she demonstrated the size.

The Keeper pursed his lips.

“We have seen such things,” he admitted.

“Where?”

“Past the border where the green lands end. To the north, in the desert,” he explained. “Sulenaris can draw you a map. She is my First, and has a deft hand.”

“I appreciate that.”

The Keeper turned to leave. But then he paused, head tilting a moment, and moved to face her instead.

“Will you destroy these artifacts?” he wondered.

“What? No!” she replied, taken aback.

“I meant no offense,” he assured her. “Forgive my suspicion. Shemlen bandits and even flat ears are a constant trial to us. Poachers raid our territories readily, and it is not only for the animals. The ruins you have claimed were once replete with treasures. But we could not protect them. Over time, scavengers and would-be ‘admirers’ of ‘ancient elven craft’ have stripped them bare. In the desert, all that remains are things too heavy to be easily carried off. But in time, even they may vanish, worn down by the hot winds if not taken by thieving hands.”

“Ir abelas. I will not take the artifacts away,” she promised.

The Keeper looked at her a moment, and then huffed an awkward laugh.

“It would be a sight to see, a tiny thing like you trying to cart them across the sand,” he mused. “How is your back?”

“Sore,” she admitted.

“The company you keep, it must see a lot of injury,” the Keeper suggested.

Before she could try and puzzle out just what he’d meant by that, he turned again, and left her.

It wasn’t long before the promised Sulenaris approached her. Though not elderly, the woman was clearly on the other side of middle-age. Her skin was worn by sunlight, and her hair was shorn short, and close inspection revealed that her right eye was false; glass, it seemed.

The woman gestured her towards an orange aravel, with an open front, and a table with a few scraps of parchment weighted down on it by empty glass jars.

“How do you carry so many heavy things with you when you travel?” she couldn’t help but wonder. Individually, little things like glass jars weren’t much; but it added up. That was why her own clan had always preferred light, wooden things, wherever possible. The lighter the wood, the better.

“My father knows spells,” Sulenaris brusquely informed her. “They work for when we move through wooded places. It’s easier in the desert. Wheels move smoothly, and we stretch the canvases on the aravels to catch the wind, and help. The halla don’t like it so much out there, though. Too many hungry predators.”

“You’re the Keeper’s daughter as well as his First?” she asked, surprised. Not that it was impossible, but even with the tendency of magic to flow through bloodlines, it managed to be a bit uncommon.

“I’m his First because I’m his daughter,” Sulenaris admitted. “My father’s the only mage left in the clan. Templars killed his last two apprentices, and he’s getting on in years. Even if one of the da’len shows talent, or some flat ear mage manages to find their way to us without getting killed, they’ll need to be taught. So he’s been passing on everything he can to me. I don’t have the talent, but I can still hold on to the knowledge.”

“And none of the other clans nearby have any Seconds to spare?” she wondered.

Sulenaris shrugged.

“It’s been years since we’ve seen another clan. Dalish from the Free Marches don’t usually see much appeal in ranging this far north, and the deserts show no signs of our kin. For all we know, we’re the last Dalish in Antiva.”

She sucked in a horrified breath.

“I’m sorry,” she offered.

“I hope it is not true. But… it wouldn’t be a surprise if it was,” Sulenaris admitted.

Then she reached over to the table, rummaging through a few layers of parchment until she’d found one that seemed to suit her. A few quick and impressively fluid motions later, and she’d outlined a small segment of the Green Dales, and the desert beyond.

“Not much grows past the border. The cliffs can offer some shade, but it’s open ground for about a mile until you hit the ruins. Sometimes, the dead walk through the stretch. We’ve left the spirits there be. It keeps the shemlen away,” the First warned.

“Thank you,” she said, and accepted the parchment when it was thrust towards her.

“Just remember that we helped you,” Sulenaris requested.

Then the older woman stalked off, tense and clearly relieved to be done with her.

She stared around the aravel a moment longer. Then she folded and pocketed her simple little map, and headed back out into the camp. With a nod towards the Keeper, she left to return to Solas. It would probably be wiser to wait until tomorrow to try for the desert. Her back was still sore, and if there were predatory animals, spirits, and undead to worry about, it probably wouldn’t do if she was flinching every time she drew her bow.

Instead she picked her way through the unfamiliar foliage, gathering up a few materials to fletch some more arrows. When she got back to the ruin, Solas was standing at one of the highest points; face towards the wind, and hands behind his back.

She scaled the ladder up towards him, and unslung her pack. Wordlessly, she offered him some of their travel rations, and after he accepted, she shoved a dry piece of travel bread into her own mouth, and got to work on her arrows.

After a few minutes, he dropped down next to her, and started to help.

“How do you destroy something like Dumat?” she wondered, keeping her eyes fixed on her task.

Solas took a minute to answer her.

“The only way I know of is to obliterate him through sheer force,” he finally admitted. “Shatter him into many pieces, and then find each of those pieces, and shatter them again, and again, until there is nothing left. A daunting prospect. It would take overwhelming power to do it swiftly, and the longer the process takes, the likelier it becomes that some stray part of him will whisk itself away.”

“There must be an easier way,” she mused. “It can’t just be brute force or nothing.”

“If there is, I do not know of it,” Solas admitted.

She contemplated the matter for a long moment.

“How does he remember who he is?” she wondered.

“It is part of the essence of his being,” he replied, clearly a little surprised by the question.

“But when spirits are shattered, they forget. And spirits aren’t so different from souls, are they? So why does he remember?”

And why do I? she suddenly wondered, unsettled by the thought. After all, she had been broken. If not when she’d first defeated Corypheus, then certainly the second time, when the orb had been unlocked.

“That is an astute question. I do not know what causes the difference,” Solas admitted. “It may simply be a fundamental aspect of our souls. Perhaps we are tethered too tightly to our memories, or they occupy a different part of being, not easily separated from the core of our power and longevity.”

“If you took his soul, would you get his memories?” she asked.

“Actually… no,” he said. “I would be able to communicate with him, but I would not necessarily know all that he knew. Or vice versa.”

“So there is some distinction between himself and his power, then,” she reasoned.

“Perhaps.”

Their conversation tapered off, again, as she found herself thinking. Would taking away Dumat’s memories essentially kill him? Would it erase his sense of purpose? Would it be like separating a mage from their emotions and rendering them Tranquil? But emotions weren’t memories. Everything was connected, but distinct, too. Tranquility severed a mage’s connection to the Fade and robbed them of emotion. Yet, dwarves definitely felt emotions, but had no connection to the Fade. Spirits reformed without memories. But immortal souls carried their memories with them, drifting along until they had the strength to become something like themselves again.

She remembered the Fade, after she’d unlocked the orb. Drifting. The sense that she could go… somewhere. It was hard to place her mind back into that state of being, but, she recalled holding on through a force of will. A decision. She’d wanted something badly enough to stay, and for some reason, the universe had let her.

There had to be an answer in there, somewhere.

Trying to find it was giving her a headache, though.

“Okay, well, if nothing else, we can always keep beating him to a pulp as ‘Plan A’,” she reasoned.

“With Mythal’s help, and my increased strength, our odds of accomplishing it have improved,” he agreed. “Though they are still low.”

Her hands faltered, for a moment.

“Emma lath…”

“Have faith,” he requested, quietly.

She looked at him, at last, and found that his eyes were already on her.

“I’ve never been particularly good at faith,” she admitted. “But trust is another matter.” Setting aside the arrow she was working on, she reached into her pocket, and pulled out the map Sulenaris had drawn for her.

Curious, Solas accepted it.

“There’s a ruin out in the desert. According to the Keeper, there might be an artifact or two there,” she supplied. “I sort of planned to just try and take what was in it myself. Thought maybe if I were stronger, too, I could seize an opportunity in the fight and end Dumat before he got his claws in either you or Mythal. But, it’s not really my power to take.” She sighed, and shook her head at herself. “You said you would try and destroy him. I trust you. If the artifacts have any power in them, you should take it.”

Solas stared at the little map quietly for a moment.

Then he handed it back to her.

“Your first instinct was correct; you should take their power yourself,” he said.

She gave him a questioning look.

“Why?” she wondered. “I don’t even know what good it will do me, when it comes down to. I’m no mage, and the anchor only does so much.”

He looked away from her again, out towards the horizon.

“Perhaps. But if things do go wrong, it may aid you in escaping,” he reasoned. “In surviving.”

She followed the line of his gaze. The skies were clear. Only a few clouds drifted through them, small but lovely. After a moment she let out a breath and leaned into his side.

He curled an arm around her, and leaned towards her in return.

“Ar lath ma,” he said.

She crushed him closer to herself, and buried her face against him, soaking in the warmth and the scent of him, as her heart thundered in her chest. Words escaped her, for the moment, so she just held him and wished, for a moment, that their lives were somewhat closer to ordinary.

Just slightly more manageable.

At least she could say it was her own choices that had brought her into the thick of things. Not even any accident of birth. Only one decision made after another.

And another.

With a sigh and a slightly rueful smile, she pulled away from him.

“I’m far too taken with touching you,” she informed him.

He chuckled, delighted.

“You may indulge yourself as you please,” he assured her.

A memory slipped by, of a sleepy wolf dropping his orb into her lap, and informing her that she had permission to pet him. It was strange to think whole years had passed since then. Stranger still to think that he had barely known her, when she had met him, in a way, long before then.

Another timeline. Another lifetime.

She frowned, wondering.

“Do you think you would have absorbed Dumat in the other timeline?” she asked.

Solas contemplated the question, adjusting swiftly to the change in mood.

“It is difficult to say. Given the opportunity, I imagine I would have. But events in Kirkwall proceeded differently, and I do not know what state either Dumat or myself would have been in,” he reasoned. “But if I did, clearly it did not destroy me. That is a reassuring thought.”

She nodded in agreement, though in truth, it did very little to ease her worry.

The evening air turned hot before it began to drop towards cold, then, and so they retreated back into the sanctuary, and Solas described some of the creatures depicted in his murals to her until they fell asleep, twined together. She listened to his breathing for a long moment, and counted his heartbeats until she drifted off, and joined him in dreams.

She woke first, grinning and shaking him back to the world so that he could open the doorway for her, and let her out to try and gather them some breakfast that would suit them better than trail rations. Dawn didn’t inch across the sky so much as burst upon it, to a clamour of birdsong and biting insects.

It was beautiful, but she really could have done without the insects.

Her search turned up some fruit she tentatively recognized from some of Jospehine’s shipments. It had been dried, then, but it looked fine enough on the vine, and when she tasted a sliver it wasn’t bitter on her tongue. She collected a few.

When she returned to the ruins, she was surprised to see a figure standing by the shrine.

It took her a moment to recognize the old Keeper. He was more bowed over than usual, head bent, staff at his back instead of his side.

“Andaran atish’an,” she greeted.

He startled.

“Oh. You are still here,” he noted. “I had thought, perhaps, you would make for the desert. Forgive my intrusion.”

She shook her head.

“If anything, the intrusion was mine.”

Shifting slightly, the Keeper gestured to the shrine.

“You put the flowers here?” he asked.

She nodded.

“It seemed like it had been a while since it had been tended. I wasn’t sure when anyone would get back to it,” she explained.

“I appreciate it,” he replied. “My clan lives easiest at this campsite, but we cannot stay over long. It would be too tempting to over-hunt the area. There used to be a most beautiful oasis in the desert, practically a forest unto itself, but that was its fate. We take care to make sure the mistake is not repeated here, but it takes us far away, at times, looking for resources.”

“Why not go south?” she wondered.

He shrugged.

“The mountains make it difficult. Surely you noticed, coming up?”

“It’s… possible I took an atypical route,” she conceded.

The Keeper looked momentarily unsettled, as if he had forgotten something unpleasant, and then been reminded of it. He laughed, and shook his head.

“Well. Whatever the route, the south is not for us anyway. We have ceded too much land to the shemlen as it is. If we go to the Free Marches, sooner or later, we will be Marcher Dalish, and there will be no Antivan Dalish left,” he explained. “No one will keep our ways here when we are gone.”

When, he said.

As if all the clan had to look forward to was a slow march to inevitable decline.

She offered him one of the fruits she’d gathered.

“Breakfast?” she suggested.

Tentatively, he accepted it.

“Who’s shrine is it?” she wondered, taking a seat on the pillar.

The Keeper began peeling the fruit she’d handed him. She watched how he did it, and tried to copy the technique herself.

“My mother’s,” he admitted. “She was Keeper before me.”

“Becoming a family tradition,” she noted.

He laughed.

“Yes, Sulenaris would have made a good Keeper, if the gods had seen fit to put her on that path. At this rate she’ll be doing the job herself anyway, magic or no. She reminds me of her grandmother.” The old man sighed. “She’s already older than her grandmother ever managed to be, though. Strange to think of.”

“Your mother died young?” she wondered.

The Keeper shook his head.

“Not young. I was nineteen. Thought myself a grown man, marked and ready to take on the world. I led raids on the shemlen. Used my magic to burn caravans and rob traders. I was a terrible First. I didn’t care about stories or history or heritage. I wanted blood,” he bitterly reminisced.

“I’m guessing you got it?” she suggested.

“More than enough,” he agreed. “But it has never stopped spilling. Some local lord hired mercenaries to deal with the ‘pests’ in the wilds after we robbed him one too many times. We came back to the camp, and… well. I never was much good at healing.”

“Ir abelas,” she offered.

Raising a weathered hand, he waved her off.

“It has been a long time. We killed the mercenaries. We killed many more besides just them, too, but, there are always more shemlen.”

There wasn’t much she could say to that. She closed her eyes, and saw Ostwick’s alienage burning; a still little body clutched in grieving arms.

“People can only do so much when they’re so divided,” she mused. “Elves in the cities. Elves in the wilds. Little pockets, everywhere. It makes it easier to survive, and impossible to thrive.”

“And all too easy to over-hunt us,” the Keeper wryly agreed.

She finally got the peel off of her fruit, and popped an experimental piece into her mouth. Not bad. Surprisingly bland, actually.

The Keeper shook his head, and glanced at her.

“May I ask, where is your friend?” he wondered.

“Probably still sleeping,” she replied.

He nodded.

“You know what company you keep, yes?” he asked.

She gave him a brief, assessing look.

“He told you?” she wondered.

That would certainly explain why the entire clan was terrified of him.

The Keeper laughed uncomfortably.

“He did not keep it a secret,” the old man admitted.

She sighed, and then shrugged.

“The stories are misleading,” she promised. “He won’t actually hurt you or your people.”

“Can you promise that?” he wondered. He looked wary, but also sincerely curious, as if the prospect itself was a novelty.

“I can promise he won’t make any moves against you,” she offered.

The Keeper looked at her for a long moment, and then tilted his head.

“Ma serannas, da’len. I wonder what story you have walked out of, that the Dread Wolf calls you his ‘heart’,” he replied.

“A strange one,” she admitted.

He nodded, accepting that for an answer. Then he fell silent, and she let him return to his contemplations of the shrine until he left of his own accord. When he was gone, she headed back to the sanctuary, and found that the door was open, and the Dread Wolf of legend was propped up against a bare patch of wall beside it, hands tucked into his armpits as he dozed.

She nudged him awake and handed him what was left of the fruit.

He stared at it, blearily, as if he wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be.

His nose twitched.

“Want to come to the desert with me?” she asked.

After a moment, he blinked, and then nodded, and began tentatively peeling his fruit.

She leaned down to press a kiss to the top of his head before she left him to it.

By the time they set out he was fully lucid, and even a little cheerful. They made their way across the hunting trails, through the thickest segments of trees and small, blooming wildflowers until the greenery begin to thin, and by mid-morning she was staring back at what looked for all the world like a line of emerald drawn against a massive expanse of red-gold sand.

“Wow,” she breathed.

It was like the Western Approach, she supposed, though the air felt different. But the beauty was the same; harsh and still, with the promise of relentless sun and suffocating winds.

They followed the landmarks on Sulenaris’ map, making tracks through to a pair of massive, sand-scored cliffs that howled when the wind passed through them. They reached the edge of them before the afternoon, but stopped there to wait out the hottest part of the day, and to eat and drink. She was quiet. Her mind was still turning over matters of Fade and spirits and memory, wondering if she even had a chance of solving such a puzzle when her grasp on magic was tenuous and purely theoretical.

What she wouldn’t give for Dorian or Vivienne and their insights.

Though, if even Solas didn’t know, perhaps her best hope lay in the fact that she wasn’t an expert. Sometimes outsiders could see what insiders might miss.

When the heat finally downgraded from ‘unlivable’ to ‘stifling’, they set out across the open expanse. The ruins they’d been aiming for loomed ahead, a faded yellow against the horizon. She was beginning to think that they might reach them without incident, when she spotted the first walking corpse.

It was a shambling figure, standing stark against the desert, clad in tattered clothes and equally tattered skin. Its breath wheezed in its lungs as it stood against the wind.

The creature had barely started towards them before Solas waved a hand and set it aflame.

“Precisely how powerful are you, now?” she wondered.

“I am approaching something akin to being comfortable,” he informed her.

She drew her bow, and gentle tapped the side of his leg with it.

“Which means…?”

“Which means we will have to encounter considerable difficulties before I become too tired to make the trip back,” he replied.

“Good to know.”

The next few corpses were no more intimidating than the last. Eerie, yes, but most of them seemed to have been more or less mummified by the heat and the dry air, so at least they didn’t carry any bog-like stench or bloating with them.

Just thinking of Crestwood made her grateful for that.

The trend changed once they reached the ruins proper. Her skin tingled, and the anchor surged, recognizing the thinning of the Veil. The parts of the structure that were left standing cast long shadows over the sand, and the entrances vanished into gloom.

As if on cue, a pair of long, armoured hands extended from one of the openings, and a revenant emerged; weathered skin pulled tight across grinning bones, the air shuddering where it moved.

Wonderful,” she declared, and aimed to cripple it.

“I thought you enjoyed battling malevolent spirits,” Solas quipped, as he dropped a barrier over them, and then sent a bolt of flame rocketing towards their target.

“Not when it’s this hot out I don’t.”

The revenant alone wasn’t too much of a problem, but then more walking corpses joined the skirmish, and it became more a challenged of tracking targets than worrying about their individual danger. By the time the last creature fell she was sweating and hot and itching underneath her clothes, and her back was aching.

Solas pressed a hand between her shoulder blades, and a wash of magic eased it. When she glanced up at him he looked hot and a little ruffled, but otherwise fine.

Looked like he hadn’t been exaggerating.

Good.

Inside the ruin, the hazards of a building in disrepair seemed more the more pressing danger than the few undead stragglers that crawled out of the shadows. She felt a pull of interest, and they found an artifact half-buried in the midst of a collapsed wall.

They dug it out, and then, to her amazement, discovered another one on the floor above it.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen two this close together before,” she mused.

“Likely, one was brought here from elsewhere at some point,” Solas replied. “Perhaps even from my sanctuary.”

That made sense. She nodded, reached for one, and then hesitated.

“You’re sure about this, emma lath?” she asked, just in case.

“I will leave you to it,” he declared, and strode back out into the sunlight.

Carefully, she activated the pieces in front of her. They flared to life, and the surge of energy coursed through her, tingling and vibrant and strange. She felt, for a moment, like everything was sharper. Like she could feel more of it all. The beads of sweat on the back of her neck, and the fabric of her clothes against her skin, the air pooling in and out of her lungs. She could see more, not just as if there was more light in the gloom, but as if the darkness had yielded more shapes and patterns and colours.

The Veil shifted, the Fade grew more distant. It was as if an eye she hadn’t quite realized was on the back of her neck had been pushed further away.

Then the sensations dulled, and she settled back into something that felt a little more normal.

She emerged to find Solas waiting.

“I trust it went well?” he asked.

“I almost don’t want to leave,” she confessed. “I didn’t realize that I could sort of… feel him nearby, until he was further away.”

“I did not wish to draw your notice to it,” he admitted, somewhat apologetically.

“No, that was a good call. It’ll be creepier now that I’m aware of it,” she decided.

“We may linger, if you wish,” he suggested. “Though deserts tend to become more active at nightfall, and I do not know what dangers this one holds.”

“It’s alright. We’ll have to leave sooner or later,” she reasoned.

Besides which, creepy Fade stalkers or not, the idea of the sanctuary and its pool was vastly more appealing than the prospect of the desert and its dust. At least at the moment, anyway.

She checked a few of the corpses to see if they had anything useful about themselves – none did, save her own arrows, many of which she managed to retrieve – and then they were picking their way back across the expanse. The top of Solas’ head was beginning to turn shiny with sunburn; but he ran a wash of magic over it, and the reddening skin calmed again.

“You’re good at that,” she noted.

“Healing?” he asked, and when she nodded, he shrugged. “I am decent at it. But under the circumstances, it has suddenly become immensely useful. And compared to modern standards, I am exemplary, I suppose.”

“You do it a little differently from some others I’ve seen. Could you teach it?” she wondered.

He glanced at her.

“You mean, could I help your new Keeper friend learn how to avoid butchering the next wounded stranger to get dragged into his campsite?” he clarified.

“Does that sound terrible to you?”

He sighed.

“I would be delighted to share my knowledge, if he is willing to listen and learn. Otherwise… there is nothing quite so infuriating as speaking into deaf ears,” he insisted.

“We can at least see if he’ll try,” she suggested.

“I suppose. Since we are here. And since it might help,” he conceded.

With a grin, she caught his hand, and squeezed it once.

“Ma serannas, my exemplary love,” she breathed, beaming.

He stared at her, and his own mouth curved upwards. Then he laughed at her, and looked away, and she let him go. It was too hot for much contact, really.

They made it to the cliffs again, and that was when the air began to change.

She paused, and Solas followed suit only a step later, and they both listened as the wind turned strange. After a moment the source of the disturbance became apparent, as they heard the distinctive clap and snap of the air breaking around distant, massive wings.

Leathery wings.

“Mythal said several days, didn’t she?” she checked.

Up high overhead, a massive dragon, sleek and red, veered across the sky.

“That is not Mythal,” Solas observed.

They watched as the great beast cleaved through the sky. It let out a tremendous roar, and then dropped into the desert at the top of the cliffs. There was the distinctive sound of an animal in distress, and then of flesh, rending and tearing.

She glanced at Solas, who glanced back.

Slowly, they moved further towards the wall of the cliff, and began making their way along as quietly as possible.

Eventually the dragon took off again, and they froze, until the ground rumbled with the sounds of it landing once more, further away than it had been.

“Shit,” she said.

“That is not good,” Solas observed. “Dragons are an incredible strain on natural resources. This region is already taxed by the presence of the Dalish and humans alike. If the dragon nests here, it will change the terrain to suit it, and hunt until there is no more prey left to fill its belly.”

“Shit,” she repeated.

“It may move on of its own accord,” he suggested.

She looked at him.

“No, you are correct; given our luck, that is exceedingly unlikely,” he conceded, with an exasperated sigh.

Oh, she did not want to fight a dragon.

She did not want to fight a dragon.

“We’re going to have to fight the dragon,” she said.

“Mythal can fight the dragon. She will likely find it amusing,” Solas suggested.

“She’s still days off, and she’ll probably refuse to do it or make into some convoluted exchange of debts, and in the meantime it’s going to be a disaster,” she countered.

Solas looked at her, and then off towards the horizon. Then he sighed.

“Fine. We will fight the dragon,” he relented.

“What I wouldn’t give for Iron Bull; at least someone would be happy right now,” she groused, not terribly satisfied despite winning the argument.

They made it back to the shocking line of green with no further draconic interruptions, although occasionally the creature’s wings could be heard in the distance, snapping through the air. She wasn’t entirely surprised when they arrived back at the ruins to find Sulenaris and several hunters waiting for them.

“Is this your doing?” the First snapped, her voice angry with fear.

“You mean the dragon?” she guessed.

A terse nod confirmed it.

“No. We’ll take care of it, though.”

That seemed to give Sulenaris some pause. She blinked, and glanced uncertainly between them.

“And what would this service cost?”

“Nothing,” Solas assured her.

If anything, that just seemed to unnerve Sulenaris even more. But then the Antivan First rallied, straightening her shoulders and lifting her chin, slightly.

“The beast is your business, then?”

“It is now,” she offered. “Though perhaps it would be wise for your clan to post look-outs, just in case it gets too close. We’ll have better luck hunting it after dark, when it’s cold, and too dark for it to see far.”

Sulenaris stared at her a moment, and then inclined her head.

“We would do that anyway. It is a dragon, and we are not fools,” the First declared.

“Have any of your people fought dragons before?” she wondered.

It earned her a disbelieving laugh.

“No, none of us have cared to try our hands at becoming toothpicks before,” Sulenaris said.

“Probably wise,” Solas commended.

It seemed to make the hunters a little uncomfortable. She supposed compliments from the Dread Wolf were a mixed bag when you weren’t used to them.

But Sulenaris only inclined her head, and then sighed, and ran a hand across her face.

“My father wanted me to extend an invitation for you to join our camp, for now. With the dragon and all,” the woman said, clearly thrilled to deliver the message.

Solas looked at her.

On the one hand, they’d probably make the Dalish incredibly uncomfortable just by being there. There was a chance the scouts and hunters would spend as much time trying to watch the Dread Wolf in their midst as keeping an eye on the skies, which was a distraction they couldn’t really afford. Then again. They might keep an eye out for the Dread Wolf anyway; at least knowing where he was meant he wouldn’t come slinking out of the shadows unexpectedly.

And if the dragon did get too, close they would be right there.

“We accept your invitation. Ma serannas,” she replied, with a respectful half bow.

“First of my clan, and I just invited the fucking Dread Wolf right into our campsite. Well done, father,” Sulenaris grumbled. Solas raised an eyebrow, but thankfully, declined to rise to the bait.

The hunters looked like they were on the very cusp of panicking, after all.

They made their way to the Dalish camp, where the Keeper greeted them with offers of food and water, and managed to be relatively at ease with her as he feigned something less than sincere discomfort around Solas.

But the atmosphere at the camp had tensed exponentially, and considering what it had been like during her last visits, that was saying something. So they kept to the outskirts, resting and trying to recover until the sun had set, and the air had cooled, and the sky was lit by the moon and stars.

Tracking would be the difficult part, she decided. The lookouts reported seeing it over the cliffs again, however, so hopefully it was still there.

As they were leaving, the old Keeper approached them.

“I will come with you,” he said.

“Is that wise, Keeper?” she wondered.

“No,” he replied, plainly. “But the both of you are still only two. And it is a very big dragon. And my healing spells may not be much to speak of, but it is because my talents lie elsewhere. If you fail, and die, that leaves us with a dragon and only our own selves to face it. So I will come, to try and make certain you succeed.”

Sulenaris, who was within earshot, scowled and strode over.

“Father.”

“Sula, my dear-”

“You are our Keeper. If you get eaten by a dragon, we may as well all follow you,” the First snapped.

“That is not true. I am old anyway. Dying fighting a dragon is an interesting way to go!” the Keeper insisted.

It didn’t seem to win over his daughter’s opinion.

“If you go, I go,” Sulenaris insisted.

“Now that is foolish. You are the clan’s First. If the dragon eats us all, who will look after everyone?” the old man reasoned.

“The gods,” the woman deadpanned, folding her arms.

One of the hunters interjected then. She looked over to see that it was the lead hunter from her mishap before. There was brief, flurried exchange of Antivan, during which several more hunters and warriors joined in the conversation. Eventually it escalated to the point of shouting and gesturing and rants that seemed like they would be barely intelligible even if she did understand the language.

The end result was that she and Solas trekked out into the desert with the Keeper, Sulenaris, the lead hunter, three more hunters, and two warriors besides.

It was the single biggest unit she’d ever taken for the express purpose of killing a dragon, and she said as much.

“How many dragons have you killed?” Sulenaris wondered.

“A few,” she hedged.

Solas looked curious as well.

“How many is a ‘few’?” he asked.

“You don’t already know?” the Keeper interjected.

“I was not with her then,” Solas explained.

“You have a friend who is a god and you go killing dragons without him?” Sulenaris checked.

“Well, he was with me… in spirit…” she hedged. “It’s complicated. Let’s just try and get everyone out of this alive.”

Though getting out of it alive was looking considerably more likely as their search turned up nothing but empty desert. The Keeper lit a light in his staff, and Solas matched it; twin stars that matched the pale moonlight from above.

It was the Keeper who spotted it, in the end.

The old man stopped in his tracks and gestured to a bump on the horizon.

“There is no hill there,” he asserted.

Taking a moment, she considered their options.

The hunters and their bows would be hard-pressed to aim with much accuracy in the dark. They could light the battlefield; that would likely make it harder for the dragon to see them in the shadows beyond, and make it an easier target, so long as it stayed put.

Of course, it was a dragon, so it wouldn’t stay put. Not unless someone kept its interest fixed in place.

She ran her gaze over their party.

Two mages, four hunters, two warriors armed with wicked-looking blades but no shields or substantial armour, Sulenaris, who was carrying knives, and herself.

“Alright,” she said, and whether it was because no one else was where to start or because her dragon-fighting credentials had already been discussed, everyone looked to her. “Solas will lay a ring of light down around the dragon. I will try and keep it within the ring and focused on me. You three,” she gestured to the warriors and Sulenaris. “You’re the mages’ bodyguards. If the beast breaks free and goes after them, you distract it until they can get out of range. It won’t fly high in the dark. Hunters, the weak points are its eyes, the inside of its mouth, and its neck. You can aim for the wings as well, that might cripple it, but only if you get a good shot. Otherwise you’ll just waste arrows…”

She dropped every piece of advice she could think of as they stood in the shadow of the false hill, until at last there didn’t seem to be anything more to say, with Sulenaris occasionally translating pertinent bits for the rest of the group.

Solas looked at her, and she held his gaze a moment.

“Think you’ll be able to walk back from this?” she asked.

“So long as you do not injure yourself too grievously, and tax my healing to the limit,” he replied.

She inclined her head, and gestured, and was a little surprised when everyone took up their positions with no complaint.

Slowly, she crept towards the beast, until she could hear the sounds of it breathing. She allowed herself a moment of regret. It would not be a swift death, it never was, with dragons. But it would definitely be as fast she could make it.

Then Solas brought his ring of light to life around the slumbering creature, and its eyes opened, reptilian and furious, and there was no time to focus on anything other than the fight.

Constant motion was the name of the game.

The movement kept the dragon focused on her and kept her from getting caught in its jaws in the meantime. The beast reared, roaring, and then lunged for her. She stole herself and leapt aside, light on her feet, daggers in her hands but there wasn’t a good opening for her to use them. Her heat pounded in her chest as she dodged snapping jaws that reminded her of nightmares.

But if she got caught here, there’d be no waking to another body.

Magic crackled in the air and arrows sang, and there was danger in that, too, in moving too quickly and running into an ally’s teeth instead. Her daggers came in handy whenever the beast looked up, taking an interest in the figures assailing it from the darkness; a quick slash to its throat brought it hissing back towards her.

Then it opened its mouth, and spat a beam of electrified flame at her.

A stream of invectives escaped her as she threw herself out of the path of its breath. The air burned and a barrier snapped up around her, and when one of her legs caught the tail end of the blast, it was only enough to send her flying instead of igniting.

But the dragon seemed to think that had handily dealt with her, and it beat its wings; the air pushed her down and stole the breath from her lungs for a moment, as it attempted to rise out of the ring of light, and into the night sky overhead.

Oh no you don’t, she thought, staggering back onto her feet. Her leg protested as she launched herself at the beast’s flank, daggers digging into its scales just before it managed to get out of range. It swept a limb towards her and knocked her away, though, and then it was up in the darkness and she was the one being blind by the bright glow of magic around her.

It didn’t come as much of a surprise when the dragon spat another ball of flame in her direction.

But it shrieked, then, as vicious arrows of lightning slammed into its wings. The magic was brutal and intense and unfamiliar; the Keeper’s, then. It grounded the beast, as the light around her vanished, and then sprang up again beneath it’s fallen form.

She sprinted past the hunters as she tried to reach her quarry, and was surprised to see Sulenaris keeping pace with her.

A quick glance confirmed that the Keeper was still standing, so she didn’t bother to ask as she launched herself at the dragon anew, and found the other woman beside her.

It was somewhat easier to keep the dragon distracted with two targets instead of one, she could admit.

And it was Sulenaris who struck the killing blow, in the end, stabbing through the dragon’s throat with enough strength to put her arm into it as well. A burst of magic flared from the wound, one last chance at a breath attack, or perhaps simply a reflex of its death throws. It burned up the First’s arm before she could be pulled away, and left the scent of charred flesh behind.

In the end, Solas had to reserve his most potent healing spell for that injury; the rest of them had fared quite well.

There were a few more burns to go around and she’d definitely done a number on her leg, but nothing seemed to be broken, and everyone was whole and not even particularly bloodied.

Once he was sure Sulenaris would be fine, the Keeper went and stood at the head of the dragon’s skull, and looked the whole beast over. The last traces of Solas’ light spell were fading of their own accord; wisps that vanished back onto the other side of the Veil.

“Blood of the creators,” the old man whispered. “We killed a dragon.

He said something in Antivan, then, and it was like a tide broke over the group, and the hunters and warriors began swearing and striking one another’s shoulders and wandering over to examine parts of the corpse.

“There is so much we can do with this,” the Keeper eventually mused. “Sula, go back to the camp and fetch as many aravels as we can spare. And some axes. We might need to cut this thing up if we have any hope of getting it all back.”

“I am not leaving you in the dark with a dead dragon, you crazy old man,” Sulenaris replied.

“How is this crazy? Have you ever eaten dragon meat? I wager it is delicious,” the Keeper countered.

She opted to interject then.

“It rots too fast,” she said. “By the time it gets back to camp, it’ll be vile. But the bones and skin and scales are all useful, and it’s probably got an entire armoury in its stomach, depending on who it ate recently.”

Both the Keeper and Sulenaris looked moderately intrigued by her last claim.

In the end, she and Solas and one of the warriors stayed behind with the Keeper to help carve up the corpse, while the rest went back for the aravels. By the time they got back she was elbow-deep in dragon blood, and Solas was finally starting to look a little wearied, and the Keeper was dozing next to the beast’s massive horns.

He woke to cast the charms to lighten the cargo for them, though. All tolled it took three trips to get the whole corpse dismembered and dragged back. By then she was exhausted, and covered in gore.

There was no tidy way to get at a dragon’s stomach.

Solas wrinkled his nose at her, but wisely refrained from commenting.

It was dawn by the time they returned to the Dalish camp, and she was offered a bucket of water to wash with and another pale to drink from, as all around the elves turned over the horns and bones and teeth, and made something of a ceremony out of cutting open the massive stomach, which was mostly full of more bones and some goat horns and a fully-armoured skeleton that seemed to morbidly delight all of the children.

In the end they slept the morning away in a far corner of the camp, and while they dreamed, Solas painted a mural of tiny figures battling a beast half made out of storms and fire, while she sat at the desk and sketched out a series of patterns and whorls and invariably threw them all away.

When she woke, the camp looked like the aftermath of a tremendous party. Apparently alcohol had entered into the proceedings at some point while she hadn’t been paying attention. Both of the warriors that had accompanied them were sprawled over benches in the middle of the camp, and one unfamiliar but intrepid soul had wrapped herself in a spare sheet of canvas and was sleeping right beside the dragon’s skull.

Sulenaris and the Keeper were both still resting, so she ended up conversing with the other members of the clan through broken elvish until Solas woke up and came to stand at her elbow, at which point they all very swiftly dispersed.

“I suppose we should leave, so you can stop frightening them all,” she mused, as he stared blearily down at himself and sneezed.

Terrifying, she thought fondly.

“Very well,” he agreed.

By the time they got back to the ruins he wasn’t much more coherent, and in the end they spent the majority of the day and subsequent night resting, and talking, and in her own case, at least, turning over and over the question of Dumat and Geldauran and Mythal and souls and spirits and magic, until she couldn’t think about it anymore. At which point she would sketch patterns in the sand, and wish she’d been born with more of an artist’s eye.

Solas could have devised something more easily, she was sure. But she couldn’t ask him to help with it. He’d never feel comfortable designing vallaslin for her, no matter how she herself thought of it.

It was, all in all, an exercise in supreme frustration.

The next morning, she woke early to find the Keeper standing by the shrine again.

He looked like he’d rested well, and when she approached, he inclined his head towards her.

“I came to offer thanks, on behalf of my clan, for the dragon. We are dragon slayers now. It is quite a novelty,” he said. He was carrying a basket, she saw, and when she approached, he offered it to her.

“What’s this?” she wondered.

“Tribute, for the Dread Wolf. He likes flowers, yes? I hope that is correct, anyway. It is what my mother taught me.” the Keeper explained.

Taking the cloth off the top of the basket, she found that it was, in fact, filled to bursting with colourful blossoms. Red, yellow, orange, purple, and blue. Some were as big as her open hand.

“They’re beautiful,” she complimented, for lack of a better response.

The Keeper nodded.

“I always thought it was strange, that the Dread Wolf’s tribute would be flowers. But almost anyone can find flowers, can’t they?”

“Yes,” she agreed, with a smile. “They can. Just like how almost anyone can listen. I wonder if you would listen to him?”

“Listening to the Dread Wolf is not a pastime which recommends itself,” the Keeper replied. But he seemed more contemplative than outright wary.

“Not by reputation, no,” she agreed.

Reaching into the basket, she turned one of the flowers over between her fingers. The Keeper pressed a hand to his forehead, ran it across his scalp, and then sighed.

“I will listen.” he finally declared.

Her smile widened.

“Ma serannas,” she said, and then gently dropped the blossom she’d been playing with to raise her marked hand. The Keeper stared at the soft green light, while her own mind turned over matters of rebellion and revolution, and a lone clan dying by inches in the desert.

“What is it?” he wondered.

“The result of my choices,” she admitted. “One day we’re all going to have to make a choice. We can’t keep going as we are. So, we’ll have to decide what we’re willing to become. What changes we’re willing to make, and what voices we’re willing to listen to, and what part of our lives we can sacrifice for the future.”

After a moment, the old man turned his gaze from the mark to her face, and she let her hand fall back towards the basket.

“I would like a day when there is less blood,” he admitted.

She let out what felt like the heaviest breath of her life.

“So would I.”

When the Keeper left, she took the basket with her back to the sanctuary. Solas mostly seemed baffled when she showed it to him.

“Tribute from the Dalish,” she informed him.

“Oh,” he said, with a note of exasperation. “I do not require it.”

He blinked at her and she took advantage of his grogginess to tuck a flower with a long enough stem behind his ear.

The rest she scattered across the top of the pool. They looked pleasant, floating there amidst the glowing petals, pulling colours from the murals on the walls.

“Sometimes it just means ‘thank you’, emma lath,” she told him.

He stared at her a moment, and then plucked the flower off his ear, and looked at it.

And smiled.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Over the course of the next two days, the Keeper came and went from the ruins, and spoke with Solas. Sometimes she listened to their conversations, which were interesting, but mostly about magic. Sometimes she hunted, with permission from the clan. Sometimes the clan’s hunters went with her, shadowing her, speaking quiet elvish and watching her the way that the Inquisition soldiers used to.

On the third day, leather wings beat against the sky again, and Mythal returned.

“We should leave the clan a note, so that they aren’t worried that there’s another dragon in the area,” she reasoned, and when Solas only nodded, did exactly that; they left it tucked in with the offerings at the shrine. Then they sealed the sanctuary, and went to meet the old goddess at the abandoned campsite.

Her sense of dread grew with every step.

For all her efforts to devise some cunning plan, in the end, all she had come up with was what she’d had before – some slim hope that they would simply destroy Dumat, and that destroying him would be the end of it.

Then they could go to Skyhold and deal with the thorny issue of what to do with the orb, with at least one less problem hanging over their heads.

Mythal was waiting for them in the campsite when they arrived.

“You have been busy,” the dead goddess observed.

“I assume you haven’t exactly been sitting on your thumbs either,” she replied.

“Indeed not.”

They regarded one another quietly for a moment, a strange tension lying thick in the air. Then Mythal smiled, and glowed golden and bright, until the light ate her up and replaced her form with that of a dragon again.

“More flying. Wonderful,” she groaned.

“It is preferable to remaining here. I would not wish to fight Dumat so close to the camp,” Solas reasoned.

Yeah, that… didn’t really help her unease, considering how little she wanted to fight Dumat at all.

But it was a fair point, so she was compliant when Mythal closed one clawed hand around her, and they lifted off again. It was precisely as pleasant as she recalled, the air slamming into her as they ascended, sharp claws uncomfortable at her back.

They glided over the tops of the tallest trees, and then only a little higher before evening out. Mythal headed towards the desert. Despite the discomfort, the dragon above her was a strangely arresting sight against the backdrop of blue sky and burning sun. It made her scales gleam with every rich shade of colour in them, a vibrant contrast to the dragon they’d fought in the dark.

They flew far from the cliffs and ruins that Sulenaris’ map had led them to, even past brightly-coloured shemlen caravans, and places where the desert evened out into obvious pathways and road markers. Some of the people they passed obviously panicked by the sight of them. She wondered if Mythal was startling them on purpose, just for her own amusement.

Eventually, they reached a point where she looked out, and in the distance she saw a city.

Her first thought was that the descriptions were very accurate – from afar, Antiva City looked like a jewel. Its buildings gleamed in the sunlight, and the waters at the coast were the most beautiful blue-green, making the whole picture look like something that wouldn’t be out of place dangling from the neck of some beautiful noble.

Then Mythal veered away, back into the wilds, and didn’t stop until they’d reached another set of ruins.

This one was clustered in a small mountain range, and it was bigger than either the ruins in the Dales or the ruins in the desert had been. Shattered stone pillars reached up towards the sky, and a pair of halla stood guard at the entrance, their graceful forms diminished by the small pieces that had worn away or broken off over the years. There was little more than scrub growing around the rubble, and what was left of the walls was scant enough that she could easily see over top of them all, even when she was dropped onto her feet.

She took a moment to get her bearings back.

“Where are we?” she wondered, then.

Mythal landed, but didn’t revert to her other shape.

“Old ground,” the dragon rumbled, in a voice that made her bones tremble.

Solas looked around, frowning.

“This was Andruil’s, once,” he noted.

“A hunter’s trap,” Mythal confirmed. “Old, but still serviceable. There is a net here that may be cast.”

“By Andruil, perhaps. Not by us,” Solas protested.

But then Mythal raised her head, and roared, and for a moment every stone in the place gleamed and sparked with runes that fizzled, and then died in the air.

All of the hairs at the back of her neck stood up.

“You forget to whom you speak,” Mythal chided. Then the old goddess – who seemed very convincing as a goddess, in that moment – turned her draconic eyes towards her. Predatory and expectant. There was an animalistic quality to her that she had never really seen before; an excitement that reminded her of Solas’ long-ago excitement at the Winter Palace. On Solas, it had been intriguing. On a massive many-horned dragon, it was decidedly more intimidating.

“What?” she wondered, clipped, fingers itching for her dagger.

“You are the one the remnant follows,” Mythal asserted. “Yours is the key which might free him from his cage. You will call him here.”

“Now?”

Hesitating, she looked to Solas.

He stared at her a moment, and then took in a long breath, and let it out again.

“It is the best battleground we could hope for,” he decided.

“But you don’t like it,” she observed.

“I had thought we might fight him on Mythal’s ground. Or my own. Andruil is sleeping and sealed, any power this place still has will be inconsistent, at best,” he explained. “But it is more suited to this type of fight.”

“So you want me to just open a rift, and we head through as fast as we can?” she checked.

“We?” Mythal asked, with a