Justice in Surrender: Chapter 17

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It seemed logical, Tobias supposed, that two chief components of Feynriel’s nightmare should be pride and desire. He was, after all, a young lad, and of an age to be keenly shackled by such impulses… though the boy’s most closely guarded yearning was nothing like what Tobias expected.

This whole ‘stepping through doors and losing myself’ thing is getting seriously old. And why have I got tits? Oh, Maker, no….

He had taken Arianni’s form, and the dream placed him between Feynriel and his father, the mostly absent Antivan merchant. The demon impersonating Vincento was doing a good job of it, Tobias had to admit, and spun out wonderful-sounding futures, in which Feynriel would travel with him, help manage the business, and have the wealth to do whatever he pleased.

I can’t wait, Father!” Feynriel exclaimed happily, clutching a pen between forefinger and thumb as he sat at a writing desk in the comfortable little shop the demon had created. “It’ll be perfect.”

His gaze fell on Tobias, despite the best efforts of the demon leaning over his shoulder, and he frowned slightly.

Will Mother be coming with us?”

The demon glared at Tobias, and he shrugged laconically, too tired of this whole charade to do much more than note that the creature’s soulless black eyes suited the image of Vincento rather well.

Your mother never loved you,” it growled. “She wanted to keep us apart. She didn’t want us to be happy. She wants you to go back to the alienage… and you know how you hated it there.”

Feynriel looked confused. “Mother?”

Ugh. I will never be able to get the image of him calling me that out of my head. This is worse than that time me and Carv tried smoking cloutweed….

I think you should go with your father,” he said, wincing as Arianni’s voice spilled from him. “You always wanted to know him better, didn’t you?”

Yes,” the boy said doubtfully. “I did. But… Father… why did you never write?”

The demon clapped him affectionately on the back. “Well, I did, my boy! Many times. If your mother kept the letters from you, I can’t be responsible. I told you… she is a bitter, bitter woman. She never wanted—”

No,” Feynriel said dreamily. “She wrote to you, but you never wrote back.”

Clever boy, Tobias thought. Perhaps Feynriel was stronger than Keeper Marethari had given him credit for; even if he wasn’t aware of it, part of him was sniffing out the weakness in the dream, and starting to turn it back on the demon.

The creature narrowed its eyes, and the jolly, smiling false face flickered a little.

Ah, but I was travelling,” it said, waving a hand evasively. “The life of a merchant is not an easy one. But, come… practice your letters. See how good you are getting?”

The walls of the shop began to waver slightly. Tobias eyed the changes curiously. A weaker dream, or a weaker demon? There didn’t seem to be as many hangers-on gathered here, eager for the creature’s crumbs. Maybe the earlier battles had scattered them… or maybe this particular demon disliked competition more intensely.

It snarled soundlessly at him over Feynriel’s head.

Tobias edged forwards, feeling distinctly uncomfortable in, once again, the wrong body and the wrong clothes.

Your mother loves you, Feynriel,” he said, drawing closer with each step. “The Dalish love you. Ask your father where he was when the slavers took you. Did he come for you then? Did he come to see you were all right?”

I was away!” the Vincento-shade snapped. “It was impossible. I… sent a letter. A… gift.”

No, you didn’t,” Feynriel said mildly, frowning slightly. “It was Serah Hawke who saved me from the slavers. And… and you would never even have talked to me if it wasn’t for him, would you?”

That’s not your father, Feynriel,” Tobias murmured. “And you know it, don’t you? You know you’re dreaming.”

The demon scowled at him. “Bitch!”

Tobias wrinkled his nose, briefly intrigued by the feel of a different face, and different muscles, even if none of it was real. “Now, dear,” he said, briefly enjoying the lilt of Arianni’s voice, “not in front of the child.”

The world pitched and spun again, and Tobias decided he really, truly missed the dependable aspects of the mortal world. Particularly those nice, comforting things like up, down, and sideways. Directions you could trust, instead of all this wild thrashing, and the feeling of reality bucking about like an angry donkey.

The room dissipated around them, and Feynriel faded before he could so much as grab at the boy, which was frustrating. Just as before, the vision the demon had made faded, and Tobias found himself back on sandy stone—equally unreal, but slightly more familiar—with Justice and Aveline close by. The spirit was already shifting into a defensive stance, power flaring through the shell of Anders’ flesh.

Hawke!” Aveline started forwards. “What—?”

He shook his head and turned from her, still disorientated by the unnerving shifting of his body back into its usual form.

This isn’t over yet,” Tobias said, nodding at the demon that had unveiled itself before him.

It had taken the basic shape of a woman, but paid little heed to the technicalities. He raised an eyebrow.

Nice tits,” he said, surveying the voluptuous, purple-hued flesh, the gold-tipped talons, and the jewels spilling over the creature’s bare skin like a wave of molten metal, “but really not my thing.”

The demon bared its teeth angrily, fixing him with a gaze of livid fire, though the voice that purred in his mind was smooth and gentle, like a tart’s well-modulated murmurs.

It is just as well. His desires were so… boring.”

The creature tilted its head to one side, full lips framing the words at an odd, distorted tempo. The voice was beautiful, Tobias realised, though he’d known it would be. He’d expected it; expected this whole rush of sudden want and yearning, because it was the way these things worked… and it seemed so odd that something so very perfect could offer anything shy of bliss.

Just like the Harimann place. Great. I was almost running out of nightmare fuel.

The approval of an absent father,” the demon said sardonically, “and a mother’s love? Pfft. No… no fun at all. But, I wonder, what ache throbs deepest within you?”

It began to draw closer, the words spooling out like caresses, and Tobias took a step back.

Hands off,” he warned, as the feel of the demon’s presence licked at him.

He was prepared—well-practiced, even, after the creatures of pride and sloth, and the repeated skirmishes the Fade had held for them—but he was tired, and the demon did have power… power which you crave, don’t you? Because power makes it all so much easier. And you want an easy life, I know. Poor thing. So much running, so much hiding… so much loss.

Tobias gritted his teeth. He half-expected to see his own family: Bethany and Carver at each other’s throats again, Leandra in silk and pearls, and Malcolm, risen from the dead and reunited with them all. A little cottage, like the place they’d lived in Lothering. Some nondescript, dull village, full of small perfections and the solace of security.

But the past is the past, isn’t it? You know that. Besides, you seek something new. Something brighter… something better.

He winced. He didn’t want to see. He didn’t want to feel it; to have that small part of him believe it was true, or that it could be true, but it was so terribly hard to resist.

Gold is pretty, but its glimmer doesn’t last. Still, coin feeds the world, doesn’t it? All your fun, all your little toys… fine wines, good whiskey, nice clothes. You know how good you look in deerhide, don’t you? Supple, smooth leather against your skin, the warm burn of liquid amber on your tongue, and a pair of strong hands against your flesh. Life is good when simple things please you, yes? Yessss. And it’s so easy to have all that you could possibly desire….

Tobias braced himself. He knew what would come next. He hated himself for it: this weakness, his predictable vulnerability, and the fact he almost wanted the demon to tempt him with it, no matter the falsehoods and the lies.

He held his breath, and opened the window, allowing the sweet spring air to fill the room. There was still a chill to it, but the sun had long since burned the frost away, and the cottage could do with an airing. Perhaps, after breakfast, it would be worth throwing on a thick cloak and wandering into town. The first imports of the season would be filtering down from Denerim, and it was early enough in the week that there might even be fresh fish on the stalls.

He stretched, luxuriating in every tiny pop and crack of his muscles, and grinned as he glanced over his shoulder at the rumpled bed. Anders was still snoring lightly, not much visible of him beneath the blankets except for a mop of blond hair and part of one shoulder. He shifted and mumbled at the draught from the window, and Tobias smiled as he passed the bottom of the bed, watching him drift into wakefulness.

Mmm…. What are you doing up?”

Getting breakfast,” he said as Anders sat up, scratching at his head and stifling a yawn. “Probably.”

Probably?”

Well, it is chilly.”

Anders smiled that lazy, wicked smile of his, all sleep-smutted warm skin and bleary, honey-dark eyes. “True. You should come and warm up. Probably.”

Tobias grinned playfully. “Probably,” he agreed, slipping back into their bed, and into his lover’s comfortable embrace.

Anders pressed a soft kiss to his forehead, then pulled back to look at him, his smile growing hazy and small. Tobias’ fingertips traced the line of his unshaven jaw, and they drew close, happily tangled in each other. Outside the window, birds sang. Anders smelled of warm spice and sleepy musk, and his laughter rippled across the blankets like the rustle of silk. The pillow felt cool beneath Tobias’ cheek, especially compared to the heat of the lips on his neck, and there was the distinct possibility of protracted, lazy lovemaking in the imminent future, leading to a late breakfast and a dearth of fresh fish… probably. Not that it mattered. It was just the two of them, after all. No one else, unless they chose to visit friends or family: they lived free of intrusion and interruption. Completely free. Theirs was a peaceful, quiet life, set back even from the rest of the village. No demands, no responsibilities… no pressing urgency to do anything but what they chose. And, right now, Tobias chose to—

Fuck off!” he yelped, lurching away from the creature, panting hard and fighting the fantasy.

The images fled from his head with painful speed, leaving behind the cold ache of a warm embrace suddenly lost, a flame abruptly snuffed out, and Tobias stifled a whimper.

The demon merely smiled.

You would do well not to underestimate me,” it said smoothly. “But know this: if you take away my pets, I’ll take away yours.”

Tobias glanced behind him at Anders—Justice—and Aveline, just as the demon extended one graceful hand towards her. It wasn’t real. It messed with a person’s mind, that was all… and it stays in your mind, right? They don’t see it. They don’t see my dream, and I can’t see… oh, shit. This is going to be Merrill all over again, isn’t it?

Your noble knight,” the demon cooed, its gold-tipped fingers tracing a suggestive spiral through the air. “What would she do to reclaim what she has lost?”

Don’t listen to it, Aveline,” Tobias warned, aware of the shake in his voice, and attempting to conquer it.

He turned to her, just in time to see the ashy pallor of her skin, and the slackness of her mouth. It was as if she’d—

seen a ghost.

There wasn’t much ethereal about the figure that emerged from behind the demon. The creature raised an arm, like a dancer introducing a new step, and he moved forwards, his gait easy and natural, his armour clinking gently.

Tears glimmered in Aveline’s eyes. “Wesley?”

He looked a damn sight better than he had the last time Tobias had seen him. No terrible injury, no darkspawn corruption; a tall, broad, handsome man with piercing blue eyes and a head of glossy black hair. His templar armour caught the reflections of the demon’s fire-chased skin, but he seemed real, and vital, and… alive.

The demon sighed, and it sounded more like a breath of triumph than the sad sympathy it seemed to be aiming for.

You spent your whole life trying to be the chevalier your father wanted, but the one thing you chose for yourself, and the darkspawn took him. That’s not fair, is it?”

The words swaddled themselves in the air, the atmosphere thick and unyielding as Wesley and Aveline stared at each other.

Tobias inhaled sharply. Quite apart from the fact of the demon’s presence, everything he’d ever heard in a chantry or had read to him from Leandra’s prayer books told him what he was seeing couldn’t be true. The dead might pass through the Fade, but they went to the Maker’s side… didn’t they? Unquiet spirits might linger, perhaps, and Wesley had died a horrible death.

Tobias knew that; he’d pushed the knife in himself.

He blinked, struggling to hold onto the reminder that this wasn’t real. It was a demon’s trick, a manipulation of the Fade just like the dreams that tapped into Feynriel’s power. A mage might be blinkered by their own mind, but this was just a coarse attempt at fooling Aveline with something obvious, something as physical as this realm could be… and she wouldn’t fall for that.

The trouble was, as he looked at her, Tobias could see the pain and the yearning in her eyes. She wanted to believe it, and that was the danger.

He opened his mouth to snap a warning at her, try to pull her from this path, but there were no words. His tongue felt dry and thick, and it somehow seemed wrong to come between them. That was a stupid thought, and Tobias flinched from it, forcing himself back to that moment on the scorched, Blight-scoured plain south of Lothering, when Wesley lay dying and they’d had no time to spare for him.

He remembered the resistance of weakened flesh beneath his blade, and the look on Aveline’s face as she’d knelt by her husband’s side, clutching his hand and holding his breastplate up, baring the place for Tobias to strike.

Now, there was no blame or recrimination in Wesley’s face; just love, and the sweet sadness of longing.

Is it you?” Aveline murmured, making Tobias feel like an interloper.

Wesley nodded, catching her hand against his breastplate. “I’ve been waiting for you, love.”

Tobias felt his upper lip curling into a sneer. He glanced at Justice, who was staring haughtily at the demon, and wondered fleetingly what the spirit made of this scene. Power crackled around him, but the opaque blue that obscured Anders’ eyes—together with Justice’s rather inexpert management of human expressions—made it almost impossible to guess what he really thought.

Not much help, then. There’s a shocker.

Aveline.” Tobias raised his voice above the shade—vision, phantasm, whatever he was—of Wesley and his soft murmurs, and folded his arms. “You don’t really believe this, do you? It’s a demon. A demon in Wesley’s skin, but—”

She blinked and shot him an unfocused, confused look. Tobias sighed inwardly. It was all there in her face, in just that one small moment: the difference between knowing a thing to be false, and yet believing in it. Wanting to believe, he supposed.

Wesley touched her shoulder and, at once, Aveline snapped back to face him.

All your doubts started when we met this apostate, didn’t they?” he murmured, jerking his head towards Tobias. “It’s his fault, love. All of it.”

Uh-oh….

The creature is trying to turn you, woman,” Justice intoned. “This is not real. Hawke killed your husband. You know this.”

Tobias winced. Yes. Thanks. That’s… that’s incredibly helpful. Thanks a lot.

It was on a par with how foul Anders had been to Aveline when they first met. As soon as he’d discovered her husband was a templar, it was wall-to-wall sarcasm and crude, catty jokes about sex games and the impact of pious chastity on the libido. Tobias had been forced to take the healer aside and explain the story of the flight from Ferelden, and the precise circumstances of Wesley’s demise, but it hadn’t helped much. He had to admit, Anders had a decidedly nasty streak to his nature… quite apart from Justice’s total obliviousness.

If it hadn’t been for him,” Wesley said quietly, taking Aveline’s hand in his, “we’d have made it out alive. We’d have been free, my darling. Kill him. Kill him now, and everything we lost will be restored.”

Tobias scowled. “Oh, come on, Aveline! You’re not seriously going to fall for this?”

She wasn’t listening. She raised her hand, touched her husband’s cheek… and the broken, agonised look on her face speared Tobias’ chest like a blade.

It is not the form she wants,” the demon said, smug and sinuous, buzzing in his ear like a moth. “It is redemption.”

Tobias spun, glaring at the creature as its little puppet-shade danced, drawing Aveline close. She breathed a long sigh, the subtle tracks of tears wetting her cheeks.

I failed you, Wesley,” she murmured. “I failed myself. If that moment could only be changed….”

A moment was a moment, of course. Wherever it came, whatever it meant; this one slotted into place with an almost audible click of precision, and Tobias swore under his breath. He’d lost her, and the demon had won.

I told you, didn’t I?” The creature chuckled, its ripe, warm laughter rippling through the air like wine. “You want me, you come through her!”

The world shifted and pitched again, a blinding flash of light marking the place where Aveline’s dream was stolen from her, and with it her sentience. She was a puppet, a blind and unknowing weapon as she slashed and pummelled, a blow from her shield sending Tobias sprawling, scudding along the stones. He heard his name, called in a yelp of alarm that sounded strange wrapped in the timbre of Justice’s voice. A bolt of magical energy burst in front of him, sending splatters of blue searing his vision, and the roar of fire that rose up, defending him from Aveline and her possessor, reduced everything to shadows and neon-traced echoes of shapes.

He spat, tasting blood, and staggered to his feet, weighing back into the fight as Aveline swung at Justice’s head. She was easy enough to dodge if you were quick, but she was nimble, and she never seemed to make the same mistake twice… or to tire. The demon itself didn’t make anything easier. It seemed to treat the whole thing like entertainment, laughing shrilly as it rained vicious attacks on them, a never-ending whirl of spite and sparks.

Tobias fought until the weariness dragged in his bones like lead, his fingers shaking and his vision blurred. They came then… the keening, prickling feel of a hundred lesser spirits and demons, snuffling inquisitively at these traces of life, and power. He held firm, ignoring their whispers and their constant probing, but wondered what would happen if the fight lasted until he couldn’t resist anymore. Would he die here, and cease to exist beyond this place? Or would he be aware of lingering, even as his body withered, his soul lost in the changing paths of the Fade? Maybe he’d become an abomination, and Fenris or Varric—or maybe Marethari herself—would end him neatly on the floor of the aravel.

He didn’t realise what was happening at first, when Justice grabbed him by the back of his jerkin, and virtually flung him to the ground. Then, Tobias felt it: a great rise of magic, stronger than the demon’s power, and stronger than all the things it had done to Aveline. It was wider than the sky, deeper than the ocean, and more terrible than the most violent fire. He kept his head down—a part of him amazed at the fact that, though this was the Fade, the dust and grit of the flagstones below him had coated his chin and lips—and then there was the weight of another body above him, shielding him, and the scent of elfroot, soot, and singed feathers invaded Tobias’ nose.

He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, and tried not to hear Aveline scream. It was over quickly, and drowned out by the noise the demon made as Justice destroyed it—pretty damn effectively, judging by the sounds Tobias heard—but it lingered in his mind.

Would she wake? He wondered. He hoped so. She wouldn’t be Tranquil, the way he feared Merrill must be, if she’d woken at all, but what did a death in the Fade do to someone who wasn’t a mage? Would she go through the rest of her life never dreaming, never feeling, never truly living?

Tobias felt the weight lift off him, and he pushed himself up on his hands and knees, spitting and cursing. It all felt so bloody real, right down to the gritty, scraped elbows and the throbbing joints, and he began to question all the things the Chantry taught. Maybe thinking of the Fade as a dream—as the seat of all dreams—was wrong. Maybe it was more real than the mortal world, or almost so, and he couldn’t help thinking of something Merrill had once said, about how the Dalish saw the Beyond as simply another country, where the dreamers were guests, and the spirits natives, with a culture and society of their own.

I’m so sorry, Merrill….

He staggered to his feet, glancing suspiciously at the blasted landscape. There was no sign of the battle; no sign of Aveline, or the demon. The stones seemed weaker, blurrier… as if Feynriel’s dream was fracturing even further, allowing the raw Fade to seep in between the cracks. It shrouded everything, made it feel clouded and thick, until each breath seemed to ache with the feel of a thousand spirits sighing into it.

Tobias shuddered, then flinched at the feel of a warm hand on his arm. He looked up, and found Justice staring at him in apparent confusion. The long, pale, calloused fingers gripping his arm twitched lightly, and then withdrew, Anders’ hand falling loosely to his side, and those crackling, livid cerulean eyes unreadable shells in a face that seemed so painfully unfamiliar.

Thanks,” Tobias managed hoarsely.

Justice nodded, seeming to regain some measure of confidence. “We must find the boy. He will be at the centre of this place; the centre of his dream.”

Right.” Tobias watched unenthusiastically as the spirit headed off with that awkward, determined stride, and wished fervently that he’d stayed in bed that morning. “And then there were two,” he muttered to himself, rubbing his dusty, grit-coated elbow, and following in Justice’s wake.

He was right, of course. They found Feynriel deep in what would have been The Gallows’ central tower, pacing relentlessly amid the shivering ghosts of a wide chamber, its walls already fraying into nothingness.

The boy turned at their approach, his blond braid swinging wildly as he shook his head, throwing his hands up to protect himself as he caught sight of Justice.

No! No more demons!”

Justice flared brightly, a scowl creasing Anders’ face. “I am no demon, boy! How dare—”

It’s all right,” Tobias said quickly, holding up a hand. “Justice, I’ll… well, just let me talk to him, all right?”

The spirit didn’t look pleased, but he acquiesced. He stood, still scowling, like some sort of watchdog as Tobias stepped towards the boy, one hand extended.

Feynriel?”

Don’t come any closer! Please!”

It’s all right.” Tobias stopped, waiting for the boy to calm. “You know me, don’t you? You recognise me?”

Feynriel shook his head again, his pale eyes wide. “S-Serah Hawke… but I can’t be sure. I can’t be sure of anything. Please… I can’t spend another moment in this place! All I hear is screaming. Everywhere, the nightmares of people dying, fleeing, gnawing their own arms off trying to escape….” He hugged his arms around his middle, hunching over as he stared at the ground. “It’s a world of monsters,” he murmured, “and they all want me. You have to help me escape. Help me die.”

Tobias recoiled. It had been one thing to promise Marethari he would do this, but it was quite another to have the prospect face him so baldly. And yet, his fingers went of their own accord to the dagger at his belt, and its smooth, braided hilt seemed somehow even more solid, more comforting, despite the flickering breath of the Fade around him.

Do it,” Feynriel whispered, one hand fumbling with the neck of his shirt, pulling the laces loose to expose the pale arrow of his throat. His eyes were wide and staring, round as marbles, and his whole body seemed to shake. “Kill me.”

Tobias hesitated, frowning. “If I kill you here, I only destroy your mind. You’d become Tranquil.”

Feynriel blinked rapidly, his hand relaxing and his long fingers curling themselves around his throat. “I was afraid of that for so long,” he said, almost thoughtfully. “I can’t even remember why.”

Slowly, Tobias’ fingers moved away from his blade.

No. You don’t have to let this consume you, Feynriel. What you can do is special. Dreamers like you… they control the Fade, and the dreams of people in it. Look at this.” He nodded at the vaulted chamber in which they stood; cracked and dissipating now, but still very real, and enormous, bigger and more detailed than the finest public rooms of the viscount’s palace. “You’re doing this. All of it. You have so much more power than you realise. And you’re so much stronger. You saw through the demons, didn’t you?”

Feynriel looked frightened and taut, as if he wanted to flee. Not much point, of course, Tobias thought; not many places you can run from yourself.

I see why the Chantry fears us,” the boy murmured. “I’ve heard tales of magisters who stalked their enemies and used their own dreams to destroy them.”

Out there, in the wild places of the Fade, things stirred. More spirits and demons alike were moving, scenting the dreamer. Tobias wasn’t sure how long they’d have before something else rose to try and claim Feynriel for itself… and he doubted he had enough strength left to defend him.

Then be different,” he said quietly. “Make your own path.”

I….” Feynriel shook his head, but he seemed less frightened, less unsure. “I think you’re right. I must master it, find someone to study under. The Dalish do not have what I need. Perhaps… Tevinter?”

Tobias shrugged. “Perhaps.”

He felt a slight bristling along his spine, as if Justice’s circumspection at the idea had actual, physical weight, but the spirit said nothing, and Tobias fought the urge to glance over his shoulder.

Yes.” Feynriel nodded slowly, and seemed to brighten. “Yes…. The Fade feels different now. I see the stitches, the seams holding it together. I feel as if I could wake at any moment. There is a way out. I see it!”

He smiled, bright and beautiful, and lifted his hand, as if he was touching the air itself. Tobias shivered at the feel of the power that rippled over him, around him… through everything. The dream of the chamber flickered, then faded like ragged tails of smoke chasing across the sky and, as a pale glow suffused the place Feynriel stood, Tobias squinted and turned his head. He made out the shadow of a shape; of the boy just… moving through the very fibre of the Fade, like he was part of it, like he was making his own doorways in the world.

Then, as the light faded, Feynriel was gone, and the chamber was gone, and Tobias found himself standing alone in the blank, desolate plains of the Fade.

Only… not quite alone.

He turned, every inch of him aching with exhaustion and the long-suppressed panic of fighting for his life, which now finally threaded through his flesh like cold rain, and he drank in the sight of the figure standing nearby. Tobias sighed, because even squinting really hard didn’t completely obliterate the veins of crackling fire and the glowing, inhuman eyes, and he wished he’d never let Anders do this. He wished… well, a lot of things, he supposed. And, as Justice strode over to him, announcing that their work was done and Hawke, weakened as he was, should be returned at once to the mortal realm, Tobias found his chest tight and sore, his mind full of hazy, half-lingering dreams, and his body trying to collapse under him.

Leaving was almost like falling asleep, but not quite.

Tobias awoke in the aravel with a start, his vision spotted with white and blue, and his gut heaving. He clenched his teeth, groaned, and shut his eyes, lying still until the dizziness started to pass.

The smell of Marethari’s herbs lay thick and heavy on the air, and the whole room seemed to hum with the song of lyrium. Something cool and wet touched his forehead, and he cranked an eye open, gazing up into the keeper’s solemn, lined face.

The boy lives,” she said softly, wiping the washcloth she held over his cheek. “You appear to have accomplished something I did not truly believe possible, Serah Hawke.”

Oh.” Tobias’ eyes started to close again, just as his stomach heaved anew. “Good. Um, does anyone have a—?”

Bucket,” Marethari supplemented calmly, helping him sit up enough to make use of the receptacle someone shoved in front of him.

Tobias spat, coughed, retched again, and gratefully accepted the cup of water the keeper passed him. He blinked, growing gradually aware of the flurry of activity around him. Three elves he hadn’t seen before—all women, about Arianni’s age—were flitting about the aravel, all laden with cloths and bowls. One of them removed the bucket and handed him a fresh washcloth, and as Tobias followed their movements, he saw Feynriel sitting up in the bed, Arianni cupping his face in her hands and thoroughly getting in the way of the women’s tending to the boy.

Tobias glanced down at the floorboards. The chalk circle was smudged, the need for the binding rite obviously now lessened, and he frowned as he looked at the places Merrill, Aveline, and Anders had occupied. There was no sign of Varric or Fenris either, and he looked nervously at Marethari, afraid to ask what had happened.

Your friends awoke a time ago,” she said gently. “They are well, and waiting for you. We have set aside a tent for you, just outside, by the fire. You’ll be too tired to return to the city tonight… and we owe you at least a little hospitality.”

Tobias nodded groggily. “Thank you. Uh. Is…? I mean, are they…?” He stopped, and frowned, unsure how to say it. “Merrill?”

My First is fine,” Marethari said, a touch of acid in her words. “As are they all. You did not harm her. If anything, perhaps what happened has helped her realise we are none of us immune from the temptations of demons.”

Mm.” Tobias grunted, and took another crack at sitting up. “Apparently not. Still, no lasting damage?”

Marethari shook her head. “She is resting. You should join them. Do the same. We will look after Feynriel and, in the morning, plans will begin for his future.”

Tobias straightened laboriously, waiting for the floorboards to stop spinning beneath him. He frowned at the keeper. “He needs help if he’s to control this. I might know some people—or know someone who knows some people,” he corrected, “who can get him somewhere that can happen. Will he be all right for now?”

She narrowed her eyes, giving him a strange, serious look. “I believe so. You think Tevinter is his best hope? I had… entertained that notion.”

I think it’s worth a shot,” Tobias said guardedly.

In truth, after what he’d heard about the Imperium, he didn’t much like the idea of sending anyone there but, if it meant Feynriel had a chance at life… well, there was no mandate demanding he become a power-hungry blood-magic-wielding magister, was there?

We just won’t mention it to Fenris. It’ll be fine.

He took his leave of Marethari, and slipped from the aravel before Arianni managed to tear herself away from her son’s bedside and intercept him.

Just as the keeper had said, a hazel bender tent had been set up for Tobias and his companions: a three-sided canvas shelter near the great fire. It loomed between the aravels like a pale sail, a beacon in the night, and he made for it on tottering, unsteady legs.

Hawke.”

Tobias blinked. He hadn’t noticed Varric standing near the side of the tent, apparently enjoying the night air.

Varric,” he returned quietly.

The camp seemed much emptier than it had when they arrived, though it was hard to know whether that was because it was late, or because the excitement they’d caused was over.

The dwarf looked thoughtfully at him, eyes glittering in the thin threads of firelight.

That was some creepy-ass shit you pulled back there. You know that, right?”

Tobias shrugged and grinned mirthlessly. “Mm-hm.”

You look terrible.”

I’ve felt better,” he admitted. “But we did it. The boy’s safe, at least for now.”

Varric nodded slowly. “Huh. You realise I’m going to want to hear all the details when you’re rested, right? It’d make great material. No?” He chuckled as Tobias grimaced. “All right. Go on… go rest. You look beat. Oh, Fenris left, by the way. I guess he wanted to brood somewhere in private… or maybe avoid the questions about his, uh, expertise with lyrium.”

Tobias hesitated. The night’s coolness prickled against his arms, and the memory of the elf surged behind his eyes: standing there with a lyrium potion in his hands, his whole body alight like some slender ghost, raw with terrible power. He shuddered.

I bet. And Merrill?”

Sleeping.” Varric glanced reflexively at the tent, his features lanced with a brief moment of surprisingly tender concern. “Daisy looked pretty rough herself. Blondie, uh, gave her a little something to help her rest. Aveline too,” he added, waving his thick fingers in an approximation of the ‘Sparklefingers’ gesture that Anders sometimes used.

Tobias smiled thinly, recalling the banter and the hilarity of the tavern, and all that business with nicknames.

Right. And you…?”

Varric flexed his shoulders, somewhere beneath the thick leather of his coat. Bianca, cradled in the harness he wore across his back, creaked softly as if joining in the conversation, and he smiled.

Eh, we’re going to take the air a little while longer,” he said quietly, glancing at the darkened shapes of the camp, and the shadows lengthening away from the beacon of the fire. “Between you and me, I don’t feel much like sleeping right now. Not here, anyway.”

Tobias understood that, if nothing else. He nodded, and clapped Varric on the shoulder, hoping his unspoken gratitude was plain enough. The dwarf snorted gruffly, and he supposed that was all the answer he could hope for.

Inside the dim, grainy, blue-grey dimness of the tent, bedrolls had been laid out. Merrill and Aveline occupied two, both sleeping that deep, unmoving sleep of the magically assisted. Thin bands of light glimmered palely across both their brows, and soft echoes of firelight caught against the packed dirt that floored the tent. A further two empty bedrolls lay beside a pile of stuffed sacks, and a fifth sat next to that, with Anders perched cross-legged on it, watching the women sleep. He looked up as Tobias entered, and gave him a small smile.

The shadows painted wide planes across his face, gouging out every hollow and sharpening every angle, making him look tired, as if the skin was stretched too thinly across his bones. All the same, Tobias caught his breath, and they watched each other for a moment, the quiet of the tent almost oppressive. After what felt like an age, he cleared his throat, and padded over to the unoccupied bedroll, lowering himself awkwardly to the rough fabric, and taking the woollen blanket that had been laid atop it in his fingers.

Good to see you, er, back to your old self,” Tobias said, fiddling with the selvedge of the blanket, because it was easier than actually looking Anders in the eye.

The healer snorted softly. “Mm. Well, I did say I wasn’t sure what would happen.”

Do you remember it?”

The air inside the tent was cool, but not as cold as outside. It felt thick and strained, and the feel of the sleep spell Anders had left on Merrill and Aveline seemed to prickle at Tobias’ flesh, like the distant song of lyrium that had perfumed the Fade.

Mostly,” Anders said, sounding a trifle doubtful. “It’s… odd. Are you—?”

Knackered,” Tobias said shortly, slouching back against the pile of sacks behind him.

They seemed to be filled with straw, presumably for use as extra padding against the chill.

Anders smiled tightly. “I know how you feel. Do you want me to…?”

He wriggled his fingers half-heartedly, though he looked too tired to heal a grazed knee, never mind the pounding agony and thudding fatigue searing Tobias’ flesh.

No.” Tobias shook his head as emphatically as he had the energy for. “Thanks, but no. No more magic. Not now.”

He glanced sidelong again at the women, frowning slightly. It was probably good for them both to rest. There were things there that needed to be talked about, however unappealing the prospect. Tobias’ gaze lingered on Aveline’s tall, broad form, her body somehow no less powerful at rest, without the heavy breastplate, arm- and shin-guards she wore. It was hard to forget her striking him down, even if none of it had been—

real? Or was it? How do we even judge whether the Fade or the mortal realm is truer? Maybe they’re two sides of the same thing; maybe this is the pale reflection of the Fade.

I don’t know. I don’t even want to know. I just want… I want to sleep.

He sighed, aware of the rustle of cloth and feathers as Anders moved beside him. His coat was damp from the night air and the dew, and it had started to give off that familiar wet-dog aroma.

Rest, then,” Anders suggested, as he leaned back on his hands, stretching his legs out in front of him, slouchy boots spattered with a generous layer of Sundermount mud and grit. “Sleep, if you can. You’ll feel better.”

Tobias snorted. “Huh. More Fade? Not sure I’m ready for that.”

It’s different when you’re dreaming. You know that. Anyway, you’re in safe hands.”

Am I?”

He turned his head, finding Anders—that whole other bedroll, in fact—a little closer than he’d expected. The slim dapplings of firelight that reached into the shelter lent just a hint of colour to the blue-washed dimness, but Anders’ face still looked pale enough to be ghostly, his eyes two dark, shadowed sockets in a haggard skull.

Maker’s arse… I’m supposed to sleep here, next to you?

I think so.” Anders shrugged. “I don’t see any demons sneaking past this close to Justice, anyway.”

Tobias winced. “Mm. He does seem to have an aversion to them, doesn’t he? Still, I guess I’ll take that in the comforting way I’m going to pretend you meant it.”

Anders smiled; a real, genuine one this time, and the light caught softly at the movement of his mouth. Tobias looked away, speared suddenly by the cold places dreams had left inside him.

He relaxed, as far as he could, and they sat in silence, side by side. Tobias watched the reflected firelight catching on the compacted dirt at the mouth of the tent, and allowed its dancing light to lull him, until his breathing slowed and sleep began to cradle him gently. The very last thing he was aware of—before falling into a blissfully dream-free slumber—was his head slipping to the side, and the coarse, springy feel of feathers prickling his cheek.

He didn’t give it much thought, and fell asleep wondering why the pillow in his room smelled of elfroot, soot, and old tallow grease and why that seemed so very comforting.

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Chapter 18
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