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Skin to Bone, Steel to Rust

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Defeat tastes like bitter tea, soft cheese, and freshly baked bread.

Solas does not allow his eyes to wander as he sips the drink he is cordially given by the Tainted thrall. He detests tea, something that he has never made a secret of, but he will drink the offending substance when there is great need. And if there were ever a moment he needed to be awake and alert, it is now, when he is deep within the stronghold of his most bitter enemy.

He can scarcely believe he is in the heart of the Black City.

When he was captured, he fully expected to be executed or tortured. Neither happens. Instead, he is brought to a room that closely resembles a chamber he once resided in when he still lived in Arlathan—something that exists only in the remnants of the Fade now—and is given food and drink. For once, Solas is not certain if it is the Fade conforming to his memories—after all, the Black City is partially enshrouded in the Fade—but Solas believes it is merely another way for his captor to taunt him.

Solas touches the pendant on his chest, a strange black gem that glows almost ethereally. It seems to be the only thing stopping him from becoming Tainted. Just before he was brought into the City, he was given the crystal and was told to keep it around his neck. He cannot decipher the magic used to craft it, though he has turned it over in his hands and tried everything he knows. He feels disgust and guilt at his fascination.

He keeps his head down, refusing to make eye contact with the elven thralls in the room, wondering where it all went wrong.

Solas has only managed to tear down a portion of the Veil when it started.

It looked like a regular Blight, and while problematic, it did not send any warning bells into Solas’ mind. He was there when Archdemon Razikale was struck down by the Grey Wardens, and he, along with everyone else, breathed a sigh of relief as the light that heralds an Old God’s defeat shined brightly across the battlefield. He was also there when a booming shout echoed, “SLEN TIID VO!”

The very words rattled him to the core, the immense power in the spell making him double over for a moment. The cheers of victory turned into confusion, then immense terror when Razikale’s bones started shifting, and his flesh was knit. In the span of a few minutes, Archdemon Razikale was reformed, and he razed Ostagar, as Urthemiel had done in the previous Blight. Another Shout was heard, the same powerful voice calling out, “VULON REL UTH!”

Nothing happened at first, but then, there was a roar of another dragon in the distance. Solas already called the retreat, and so he and his elven agents watched in the distance as Archdemon Lusacan descended upon the armies of Ferelden and Orlais, and those who answered the Grey Warden’s calls for help. With grim determination, he turned away, and resolved to find answers to his questions.

Months passed, and he was still no closer to discovering how Razikale and Lusacan seemed to rise whenever they were struck down.

Ferelden was the first to fall. His agents reported that the death of the King was made a spectacle. By whom, they did not know. His death was stretched over a period of a month and a half, where he was tortured and made an example to all those who defied the will of the Archdemons. The remains of the Inquisition were leveled along with the mountains in the Frostbacks.

Orlais fell next. Both Razikale and Lusacan crushed the Grand Cathedral underneath their feet. Divine Victoria was last seen protecting a child from the Archdemon’s fire, her shield raised high. Val Royeaux, once the cultural center of Orlais, became little more than a smoking crater. Jader was reduced to nothing but broken bodies strewn across the plains.

Then, the whispers began. A mysterious black figure in the middle of the battlefield. A dark creature that harnessed ancient spells that baffled even the most learned Tevinter Magisters.

In the Free Marches, there was an ominous laugh as fire, lightning, and earth, rained from the heavens and turned everything into ash.

They heard stories come in from the Anderfels; a thick, purple fog enveloped the entire battlefield, sapping the energy from the men fighting and leaving them as empty husks on the ground.

An entire mountain was flattened in Rivain; rumor has it, that it was a loud, booming shout that was the cause.

Tevinter became the last bastion of hope in the continent. In a shocking display of unity, they opened their borders to everyone, a direct order from Archon Dorian Pavus.

Even more shocking, Solas joined them.

He held no love for the Tevinter Imperium, they stood for everything that Solas found revolting in humanity. But unending Blights made for strange bedfellows.

Together with the greatest minds of Tevinter, Solas developed a way to hide from the enemy. They used a version of the Lyrium Wells in Amgarrak to guard their resistance bases. Strewn across the Imperium, Nevarra, and Antiva, their bases were set in different levels of the Fade, and could not be touched by darkspawn once the wells were activated, becoming partially ethereal.

In their small resistance pockets, they tried to develop better Joining potions for Grey Wardens, ones that would increase their chances of survival, while tapping into the strength of the Taint. Blood magic was a staple now; no one batted an eye as they experimented with dead humans, elves, dwarves, qunari, even darkspawn—anything that could give them an edge over the Archdemons.

They looked into the mysterious dark figure, and were met with dead end after dead end. They theorized that he was another of the magisters who entered the Fade, like Corypheus. But it did not explain his strength and power, which exceed even that of Solas’. Every strike team they sent to kill the man never returned.

A whisper of a rumor reached them—a third Archdemon named Stormcrown.

It did not sound like the name of a dragon, but Dorian did not dismiss it. The entire Blight double-event was unprecedented, and everything could be of use.

It is Fiona, the old Grand Enchanter, who suggested using the Evanuris as a means to defeat the Archdemons. They argued about it, loudly and violently, but Solas eventually relented. He is powerful, but he cannot defeat these two Archdemons on his own. The combined might of the Evanuris would be more than enough to vanquish the two, as long as there were Grey Wardens in the area. But as he accessed the pocket of the Fade he had trapped the Evanuris in, he found it…empty. They were not freed, of that Solas is certain, but they had been displaced.

They recalculated and planned around this new problem.

It was not until Morrigan, along with her now-grown son Kieran, arrived in the Tevinter Imperium that they were able to craft a new plan to enact. She told them the story of Kieran, who was conceived as a vessel that held Urthemiel’s soul, and that Mythal had been able to absorb the soul into herself. Everyone looked to Solas as she said it, and while he would not have normally agreed, these were extenuating circumstances.

They split their team, part of their force made noise in Minrathous, attracting the eye of Lusacan and the dark creature. The others headed for Nevarra, where they knew Razikale had roosted.

They made a stand in Nevarra City, near the Grand Necropolis; Dorian and his fellow necromancers took advantage of the numerous dead to craft them an army. They succeeded in felling Razikale, and Solas performed the spell, absorbing the soul of the Old God into him.

Solas did not expect what happened next.

A shadowy portal opened beside them, and the dark figure strode out. All of them stared in horror as he drew his longsword. He fixated on Solas, and spoke in a furious, powerful voice, “Return Vokunvulnah’s soul. It is mine.

“Are you talking about Razikale?” Dorian demanded. For a moment, Solas admired his ally’s strength and bravery.

“Razikale,” the dark figure said it slowly, as if testing the name on his lips. “A made-up name for lower beings who cannot speak Dovahzul. I am his thuri. Return his soul to me.

It was there that something clicked in Solas’ mind. This was Stormcrown, the commander of the Archdemons; this was not a battle they could win. He called for a retreat, but Stormcrown’s voice boomed from behind him, and whatever it was, not even his strongest barrier could stop it.

Vokunvulnah, ZIIL LOS DII DU!”

He remembers screaming, it was the worst pain he had ever felt in his life. Razikale’s soul was ripped forcibly from his body, and it flew from his chest and into Stormcrown. The dark creature seemed to grow in size as it absorbed Razikale’s soul.

Solas does not know what happens to the rest of the rebels, since he fainted from exhaustion. When he gained consciousness, he was already at the entrance to the Black City.

Ma’tarlan Fen’Harel, sathan garas i em.” A lilting voice interrupts his wandering thoughts. The elven thrall is back, asking him to follow her; perhaps he is to walk to his execution. He nods as he stands and follows her.

They walk at a steady pace. The Black City is not gruesome, nor decaying, as the stories of the Chantry say. It is opulent, even if everything around them was the color of ebony, and the walls and beams were painted in shades of grey. Its architecture is a strange mixture of Ancient Elven, Tevinter, and Orlesian in its grandiose design, with hints of Ferelden in its sturdiness. It could almost be called beautiful, were it not for the evidence of the Taint that spread throughout the castle. All around, it coats every surface; it hangs heavy around the air, swirling around, making it difficult to breathe. As they pass through a roofless hall, he hears the roar of a dragon and when he looks up, he sees Razikale flying above the City, reformed and alive.

So it was all for naught, he thinks listlessly as he follows the thrall. His chest still aches from the separation of Razikale’s soul.

He is brought to a massive hall, a throne room, his mind supplies, as his eyes flit around the chamber, taking in all the details. There is a stairway in the middle of the room, leading up to a pedestal where a lone figure is sprawled gracefully in his seat.

Upon the Black Throne is the mastermind and leader of the Sixth, and Last Blight, Archdemon Stormcrown.

He does not look like an Archdemon.

For one, he is not a dragon. He is an elf, though he is not similar to any elf Solas has ever seen in his life. He towers over all elves, and most humans as well, and his skin is of a golden hue. His eyes, as he peers almost lazily down at Solas, are amber.

In contrast to his light-touched skin, his armor is black as night, with spikes protruding from his pauldrons, curving upwards in a mocking approximation of dragon wings. Atop his brow sits a circlet, almost invisible as it blends in with his long, blonde hair.

Stormcrown does not look Tainted, but Solas knows that looks can be deceiving. This elf could not have commanded the Archdemons and the hordes of darkspawn without being able to master the Taint himself. He radiates immense power. There is a faint sound of humming, as if the air itself is charged with magic.

Stormcrown spreads his arms as if in welcome. “Andaran ati’shan, Fen’Harel.”

Solas clenches his jaw at the mockery of his language, but he inclines his head in greeting.

“Welcome to the Black City! I trust you are enjoying your stay.” He stands up from his throne and slowly makes his way down the steps.

“It has exceeded my expectations.” Solas says wryly.

Stormcrown smiles at him, there is none of the fury that Solas has glimpsed from earlier. “I am delighted to hear it. Shall I give you the tour?” he asks, though they both know he cannot refuse.

Solas nods with a tight smile.

A dark, smoke-like substance wafts around their feet as they stroll across the hall and pass through a tall archway.

His captor is silent as he leads Solas up the stairs. The elf can hear the sounds of clashing blades and inhuman shrieks and growls as they climb. They pass through a doorway that opens to a large balcony overlooking what seemed to be the training grounds. Stormcrown stops and leans on the ledge, observing Solas as he gets his first glimpse of the Archdemon’s army.

He refuses to gasp, so he settles for a surprised exhale.

There are four dragons. Solas recognizes Razikale and Lusacan as they perch upon the large stone structures opposite their balcony. There are two other unknown dragons, both Tainted as well. Occasionally, the rust-colored dragon moves his head, and the darkspawn will move in tandem. It seems to be some sort of training exercise, where both dragons are commanding one group of darkspawn each.

“You already know Vokunvulnah and Vulonreluth,” Stormcrown nods towards Razikale and Lusacan. “I have yet to introduce this world to Odahviing and Durnehviir.”

Solas realizes he is being baited, but he is too curious not to give in. “You said Razikale and Lusacan were used for those who did not speak Dovahzul.”

Stormcrown’s lips curl into a smile. “Geh. Dovahzul, the language of dragons.”

He is patient, so he silently waits for the explanation; Stormcrown humors him.

Vokunvulnah, the one you call Razikale,” he says. “Shadow-Dark-Fury. Vulonreluth, ‘Night, Dominate, Command’, Odahviing, ‘Snow, Hunter, Wing’, and Durnehviir, ‘Curse, Never, Dying.’”

“Are their names always made up of three words?” Solas attempts to make his tone sound uninterested. From Stormcrown’s expression, he has failed spectacularly.

The golden elf hums. “I have never met a dragon who did not have three words to his name.” Then he opens his mouth, “Konahrik! Meyz wah zu!”

Immediately, all the dragons’ heads snap up to look at Stormcrown. The two drop down from their perch and make their way over to Stormcrown and Solas. The two also stop their exercises, sweep aside the darkspawn around them and flank Razikale and Lusacan. In unison, they bow their heads, and speak in a rumbling voice, “Thuri.

There is a self-satisfied smile on Stormcrown’s face as he watches Solas’ reaction.

“So, gaining mastery over the Taint has given you power over these Archdemons?” he asks mildly.

The other elf laughs as if Solas has said something incredibly ridiculous.

“Come,” he says instead. “I have more to show you.”

They leave the balcony, and Solas cannot help but take another look at Stormcrown’s army. Four dragons. With just two, Stormcrown has all but taken over Thedas. How much more destruction is he looking to inflict upon the world? What was is it that he sought to do?

“What do you seek to accomplish?” Solas voices his question as he is led to another section of the Black City.

“You cannot tell?” he asks. “I wish to conquer. To remake this world to my liking.”

“Why?” Solas manages to say, aghast at the simplicity of Stormcrown’s motivations.

“Why not?” Stormcrown counters. “The world is in desperate need of reform. You thought it yourself, did you not? Or did you simply mean you were the only one allowed to reshape it?”

Solas reels back, as if he has been slapped. “I did not seek to reshape the world! I sought only to save my people!”

Stormcrown lets out a cold laugh. “You tell yourself such pretty lies, Dread Wolf. It is no wonder the Elvhen people called you the Trickster and Deceiver.”

“I am neither Trickster nor Deceiver.” He says in clipped tones.

“Oh?” the golden elf asks in a deceptively mild tone. “You promised them paradise and yet, here they are in the wretched Black City.”

Solas’ lips flatten into a thin line.

“Do you want to see them?” Stormcrown tilts his head to the side, as a predator would watch his prey.

“What?” he asks in surprise.

“Your people.”

“What do you mean?”

Stormcrown gestures towards the door. As soon as it has opened, Solas is assaulted with the smell of death and decay, and the sounds of agony and torture. The door must have had a silencing spell on it.

Solas freezes at the doorway.

“Look at what has become of your people, Fen’Harel.” Stormcrown says softly, pushing him forward. Solas, stumbles and clutches at the ledge for support. In a fit of stubbornness, he obstinately looks away from the scene below them.

Stormcrown tuts. “That won’t do, at all.” He forcefully grabs Solas’ chin, and shoves his face down, digging his clawed gloves into the elf’s cheeks. “Look!” he growls.

Blood drips down Solas’ cheeks as he gazes upon the remnants of his people. His heart cries out at the sight.

I have failed you, he howls in his mind. I have failed you.

There were hundreds of his people in the hall below them. They were trapped with darkspawn and ghouls, and were given tools and weapons, some means to survive. At the far end of the hall, darkspawn are forcing tainted flesh down the throats of some elven women.

“Oh, they’ve managed to capture some of the females,” Stormcrown says in mild interest. “It will be interesting to see their transformation into broodmothers.”

“Why?” Solas chokes out as he watches one elf cut down by a Shriek.

“Do you not find it fascinating? The lengths that mortals will go, to survive? Look over there…Why, I believe they are attempting to bargain with the darkspawn!”

Solas wants to throw up. He cannot look away from the grisly scene below them. He spots one of his agents, Anoriel in the crowd. Their eyes lock, and the other elf’s eyes fill with hope.

“How touching,” Stormcrown whispers in his ear. Solas is unsurprised that he notices Anoriel staring at them. “He thinks you are here to save him.”

Stormcrown tightens his grip on Solas’ cheeks. “How does it feel to know that you have failed your people? How does it feel to have so much power and still be utterly powerless?”

Solas is shaking with rage and helplessness.

Hin rahgot los brit.” Stormcrown hisses. “Your rage is beautiful.

“You have made your point.” Solas bites out.

“Have I?” Stormcrown says in a wondering tone, but he lets Solas go. The elf refuses to wipe the blood from his cheeks, the cuts throbbing in concert with his rapid heartbeat.

“Come.” The golden elf turns, and strides out the hall.

Solas, the coward that he is, does not look back at Anoriel. Perhaps it is his imagination, but he can hear the anguished and betrayed scream rip from the Anoriel’s throat.

He is silent with fury as he follows Stormcrown. They make their way back to the throne room; it seems the tour is over.

“Why am I here?” Solas growls.

“I thought I was giving you a tour?” he asks in feigned innocence.

“No, why am I here? Why have you brought me to the Black City, when all your other enemies have been tortured for information or executed?” Solas asks angrily.

Stormcrown’s smile widens into something truly frightening. “Why, I thought you would like to see what you have made possible?”

Solas stops in his tracks, and he stares at the elf before him. “What do you mean?”

“Can it be?” he says in a mocking tone. “The Great, Omnipotent Fen’Harel does not know how I came to be here?”

Solas stays silent, waiting for Stormcrown to continue.

“Where I come from,” he says, “They called me Dovahkiin, or Dragonborn, a mortal born with the soul of a dragon.”

Stormcrown looks contemplative as he stares at the empty throne above them.

“Before that, I was Nafarion Areleth, an Altmer from the Summerset Isles. I came into my Dragon inheritance in my 336th year on Nirn, when Alduin the World Eater returned. Rok wo bahlok wah diivon fin lein, he who hungers to swallow the world.” He adds in a whisper, lost in thought. “As foretold by the Kel, the Elder Scrolls, I stopped my dragon brother from destroying Nirn. I fulfilled my purpose, but I felt restless.

“Thousands of years passed, I saw empires rise and fall, and I have experienced everything that Nirn had to offer, so I immersed myself in Shadow Magic.”

“Shadow Magic?” Solas asks, his curiosity overshadowing his disgust for the elf.

Vomindok. Unknowable…a very obscure, but powerful branch of magic,” his voice gains a lyrical quality, as if he were spinning a story. “It allows one to transcend the very fabric of time and space. And with enough power, it can even form bridges to different worlds.”

Solas’ breath catches as the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. Stormcrown has the soul of a dragon…an Old God. He must have been Tainted when he arrived in Thedas through his Shadow Magic. But how?

“I saw this world, and I observed it for years, wishing to reach out, but unable to cross. There was a barrier enveloping the world, and not even with the souls of a hundred dragons in me could I traverse it.”

Solas freezes in sudden understanding. No, he thinks. It cannot be.

“But then, the unthinkable happened.” Stormcrown looks at him, his eyes dancing in pleasure. “A section of the Veil collapsed. I reached out, only intending to test the waters, but I was…sucked in, to put simply. And when I woke, I found myself in the Black City.”

“The Taint,” Stormcrown licks his lips as if he could taste it in the air. “It transformed me. I was already powerful, but with the Taint in me, I became unstoppable.”

What he unknowingly unleashed on the world…this is much worse than what he had done with Corypheus. Solas only manages to stop the bitter laugh from leaving his lips. Is his entire existence simply one colossal mistake after another? It is difficult not to blame himself. If he’d only listened to the Inquisitor, given up his foolish dream of restoring the elves…

As Stormcrown starts on the steps to his throne, he looks back and beckons to Solas. The elf gives him a startled look before he follows. There is a counter to the side of the throne filled with black gems similar to the one dangling on his chest.

“I watched you,” Stormcrown turns toward Solas. “In the Fade. Here in the Black City, the spirits pressed upon me and provided me glimpses of what happened.” He stalks forward. “I saw you create the Veil and trap the elven rulers. I saw you create a network of elven spies to do your bidding around Thedas. I saw your drive, your passion, your power.” He stops when he is inches from Solas. “And I wanted to conquer you.”

Solas snarls, all fury, as his magic thrums beneath his skin. He prepares to strike, but Stormcrown raises a hand, and suddenly, the crystal on his chest pulses, and his strength is sapped immediately. He gasps as he feels his magic wane.

“What have you done to me?” he asks in shock. It is akin to a Holy Smite from a templar, except, he has not just been sapped of his mana, he has been fully cut off from the Fade, like a Tranquil.

Stormcrown grins. He reaches out, places a hand on the black gem dangling from Solas’ neck, and caresses it almost gently.

“Partial soul entrapment,” he says nonchalantly, as if he were discussing the weather. “I have fractured your soul and sent a part of it into this black soul gem.”

Solas feels unbalanced. He has never known life without magic, and he is ashamed to say he trembles slightly at the thought.

“Do not feel bad, my dear Fen’Harel.” Stormcrown mocks, and he gestures to the row of black soul gems arranged on the counter. “You can keep your kin company.”

“My…kin?” he dares to ask.

A vicious smile appears on the golden elf’s face. He picks up one of the larger gems and holds it up against the light. “Why…I believe this one is, what is he called? Elgar’nan?” He chuckles as Solas pales. “His soul is strong; he will power many enchantments in my City for years to come.” Solas’ eyes sweep over the entire row of gems and he feels bile in his throat.

“Come now,” Stormcrown sighs. “You cannot possibly be upset about this. You sealed them in the Fade for years…I simply moved them.”

“Your depravity knows no bounds.” Solas snaps. “You have destroyed the entirety of Thedas. You have brought every empire to its knees. You are in command of the largest army of darkspawn, and all these dragons follow your every command. When will it be enough?”

“Enough?” he asks hungrily. “Never. Not until the entire world submits to my Thu’um. Until every man, woman, and child knows my name. Zu’u Dovahkiin!” he Shouts, and his last statement is punctuated by the rumbling of thunder.

“You are insane.” Solas breathes. “The corruption of the Taint has spread to your mind! I had thought—”

“The Taint?” Stormcrown laughs, interrupting him. “The Taint is nothing but a tool, a powerful tool, this is true, but a tool, nonetheless. The Taint has not corrupted my mind, my dear Fen’Harel.” He approaches Solas and traces the wounds on his cheeks, and the elf flinches despite himself.

“The Dragon blood bids me to command, to rule, to conquer.” Stormcrown seizes Solas’ cheeks and gazes at him cruelly. “Who am I to go against the nature of the dovah?” When he is finally released, Solas takes a deep breath, utterly appalled at this golden elf—this monster masquerading as a mortal.

Stormcrown closes his eyes as he takes a seat on his Black Throne, looking at peace.

“And when I grow tired of this world, I shall swallow it whole, as my Brother failed to do in Mundus. I shall finish what he started. And you,” his piercing gaze meets Solas’, “will be at my side, watching it all fall into pieces, knowing it was you who made it all possible.”

Solas can do nothing as the soul gem pulses, binding his magic. As he looks up at the Archdemon on the throne, he shivers. He has never done so before, but he imagines this is what it feels like to be stared down by a dragon.