Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Sixteen

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It was a relief to shuck off at least some of my armour and, as I fumbled with buckles and strappings, my aching muscles and weak, sore hands protesting every movement, I thought wistfully of the little wooden tub before our fire back home, filled with hot water and with half a cake of soap sitting beside it. Father always used to let me take first dip, and Shianni and Soris would often come round to take their turns for bathing night. I could almost hear my cousin’s laughter, and see the firelight glimmering on her red hair.

They wouldn’t ever leave me, I thought. Those memories. All I had left of home, and so I wrapped them up and hid them away, and let the chilly night air and the smell of the trees and the hillsides seep back in around me. Cold comfort, but safer than allowing myself to wander too long in might-have-beens.

After I’d tidied myself up as best I could, I ducked out from my tent again, respectable and relatively clean in breeches and padded jack. The others were starting to gather near the fire; I saw Alistair there, along with Zevran, and Levi, still talking animatedly. Maethor and Sandal were curled up together, basking in the warmth of the flames and, as I watched them, I almost missed the heavy footfalls behind me that spoke of another’s approach.

I turned, and nodded respectfully at Sten. He just glowered down at me, and I wondered what I’d done wrong in his eyes this time.

He’d obviously been cleaning himself up too, though being dressed in the ragged clothes he’d had since Lothering didn’t make him any less intimidating. The evening was overcast, and the thin shreds of light that seeped through the clouds—the moon must already have risen, I supposed—touched his braids in a strangely sharp way, making them look clean and white as fish bones, highlighted against the breadth of his dark shape.

“You look like a woman,” he said shortly.

I glanced reflexively at my jack and breeches. I didn’t… not any kind of woman we had where I was from, anyway. He might have meant it relatively, perhaps, only I didn’t think my appearance of femininity had really increased over the past couple of days.

“Er… thank you?” I hazarded.

Sten did not look amused. He folded his arms across his chest, the movement slow and decisive, like the turning of a millwheel.

“You are a Grey Warden. It follows that you cannot be a woman.”

I frowned. “I don’t think that’s true. The order allows women, just like the army does. In fact—”

“Women are priests, artisans, shopkeepers, or farmers,” he said, blunt as a whetstone, his voice low and his tone brooking no argument of any kind. “They don’t fight.”

My frown deepened. Was he suggesting I had been a hindrance at the Peak? I distinctly recalled doing quite a lot of fighting, and doing it well—at least given the fact I’d never had the formal combat training he, or Alistair, or even Zevran or Leliana had received. It raised my hackles to think I was being told otherwise. However, if I had learned one thing since having the qunari travelling with us, it was that outright argument got one nowhere with him.

So, I just cocked my head to the side and listened, waiting for whatever it was Sten intended to say. His glower shifted like the grating movement of a rock face, and became a full-blown scowl.

“It makes no sense for women to wish to be men.”

Ah. I started to see what he meant, and I crossed my arms, mirroring his gesture, my feet planted firmly apart.

“Then women cannot fight, because only men fight? It’s their role, and theirs alone?”

“Exactly.”

I nodded thoughtfully. “But don’t any of the qunari ever want to change their lot in life? Choose something different?”

Those violet eyes narrowed, but Sten answered almost at once, as if the question was ridiculous enough to need virtually no thought.

“Why? A person is born: qunari, or human, or elven, or dwarf. He doesn’t choose that. The size of his hands, whether he is clever or foolish, the land he comes from, the colour of his hair. These are beyond his control. We do not choose, we simply are.”

A soft breeze rippled through the trees that shielded our camp, and I thought I heard the suggestion of night birds rustling among them. The smell of pines and bracken made the air seem sharp and crisp… with maybe just a hint of coming frost.

“Isn’t it what you make of it that matters?” I asked, genuinely curious to know how Sten’s people thought in that respect. “I mean, plenty of people change their lives. Look at Levi: his family was nobility once, and now he’s a trader, but he’s done everything he could to assist the Grey Wardens.”

Not the brightest example I could have chosen, I supposed, but I knew why I’d thought of it.

We can do it a different way. We can be different.

Sten made a small, irritated noise in the back of his throat.

“This is what is wrong with this country,” he grumbled. “No one has a place here. Your farmers wish to be merchants. The merchants dream of being nobles, and the nobles become warriors. No one is content to be who they are.”

“But it is possible to change,” I insisted. “If—”

Sten shook his head, apparently immovable on this point. “It accomplishes nothing. The farmer who buys a shop is never a merchant. He is always a farmer-turned-merchant. He carries his old life with him as a turtle carries its shell.”

I frowned, still rather unused to Sten’s moments of poetic clarity, and struggled to find a suitable response on the same level. At that moment, too, the thought of a warm shell, carried around everywhere I went, and into which I could retreat and hide, seemed rather pleasing.

“But….” I bit my lip thoughtfully. “The turtle’s shell makes him stronger.”

I looked up at the qunari, pleased with myself for my concise and sensible argument, only to find him studying me with something that might have approached curiosity. He lofted one pale brow, those vibrant eyes glimmering softly in the dimness.

“Does it? It is also his weakness. If he stumbles and falls, it pins him on his back.”

“Oh.” I deflated a bit, and my arms drooped to my sides. “I… well, yes, I suppose that’s true.”

If it had been anyone else, I’d have thought Sten looked momentarily smug.

“No.” He shook his head. “It is better to armour yourself with no more than what you need. One life, one duty.”

I said nothing. I was horribly afraid that he was right.

~o~O~o~

Bodahn had pulled out all the stops for supper: vegetable stew with dried mushrooms and a few shreds of real beef, and bread, and a couple of skins of sweet wine. He didn’t even ask us for payment… although I did notice Levi exchanging plenty of quiet murmurs with the dwarf. I wasn’t sure exactly how deep their intentions to throw their lots in with the Grey Wardens ran—or whether it was still a current plan, given everything we’d seen at the Peak—but I suspected they’d both already sketched out plenty of potentials for profit.

Maybe they’d thought, when they found us, we’d have been a proper detachment of the order, laden with men and camp followers who needed tradesmen to keep them supplied. I almost smiled at the image as I sat down beside Wynne, lowering myself carefully to one of the three flaky, lichen-peppered bits of fallen tree that had been dragged up to the fire.

“Sore?” she asked, smiling gently at me.

I winced, and nodded. “Mm. And you? Are you all right, after…?”

Her fall. I didn’t really want to voice it, because it would sound like I was questioning her capability, and I’d always been brought up to not be rude to my elders. Anyway, I hadn’t seen the collapse itself. For all I knew, she’d just tripped. However, I had seen how worried Alistair looked as he helped her to her feet. Despite all the things he did for Wynne that he seemed to think no one noticed—like carrying half her gear, or complaining about being tired, when he could see she was and yet would never have mentioned it, so that we stopped for the break she evidently needed—I doubted his concern was misplaced.

Her sharp, clear blue eyes—undimmed, even after that endless, aching, pig of a day—seemed to harden a little, though it didn’t last long, and she glanced at the fire, stretching out her hands to warm from the flames.

“I’m fine, my dear. But thank you.”

I frowned. “You, um, took quite a nasty fall.”

Bodahn was making passes with the soup pot, ladle clanging loudly, and the clatter of bowls and grumbling stomachs drowned out much opportunity I had to make myself heard.

Wynne shook her head. “It was nothing, really. I thought, for a moment… but it doesn’t matter. I’m all right.”

Thought what?

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” I pressed, as the proximity of dinner began to distract my faithless flesh, suddenly much more drawn to the prospect of eating than asking questions.

Wynne flashed me a rather sharp little smile. “Thank you, dear. Your kindness certainly warms my rickety old bones.”

I shut up and ate after that, put firmly in my place.

It was no great hardship, however; we hadn’t eaten so well since the night Zevran first joined us, and broke the ice on that uncomfortable gathering with cheese and fresh bread. There is definitely something about spending several hours fighting for one’s life in an apparently inescapable fortress of death that whets, hones and otherwise transforms the appetite into an insatiable creature.

As I hunched over my bowl, manners forgotten, shovelling sodden bits of bread into my mouth with my fingers, I caught Alistair watching me from across the fire. He smiled, and I remembered that joke of his about Grey Wardens suddenly sprouting huge appetites… wolfing down dinners, gravy all over the face, and so forth.

Are you calling me a pig?

I chewed, swallowed, and grinned at the memory as I looked away, letting my gaze rest in the depths of the fire. It warmed the night—colder, now, as the year turned, with the promise of blustery winds and frosts on the way—and pushed back the shadows, and I was grateful for that.

~o~O~o~

After we’d eaten, we sat around the fire a little longer, all full-bellied and perhaps too drawn to the soothing lull of the flames to move. Leliana shivered, and peered up at the inky trees.

“Ooh, it is a dark night. You know, on nights like this, stories are often the best comfort.”

“Story!” Sandal echoed happily from his scrape beside the fire, where he was cuddled up with Maethor, the mabari busily licking every trace of stew from his hands.

Leliana smiled. “Quite so. I think it would be only right to tell a story of the Grey Wardens… but I don’t know any Fereldan ones. Only the tales of Ayesleigh, and the elven Warden, Garahel.”

I didn’t quite manage to stop myself from wincing. The Ballad of Ayesleigh was, given the current improbability of the task before us, far too depressing. Oh, heroic deaths and sacrifice were all very well, if someone was left at the end of it to make sure the final victory was established… but we were light on numbers to start with, and it was my feeling that no one needed to listen to a song about the glorious dead rising. We’d had enough walking bones for one day, and I had heard enough about Garahel to last me a good few months… even if a lot of the things had been drawn out of my own head.

Probably because of that, in fact.

“I have one,” Wynne said, weighing in before the bard could break out any ancient heroic epitaphs. “A story of the Grey Wardens of old.”

Leliana beamed. “You do? Oh, I would love to hear it, Wynne!”

“Story,” Sandal added encouragingly, apparently oblivious to Bodahn shushing him.

Morrigan snorted contemptuously. “You do not think we have all endured quite enough of the Grey Wardens’ hubris for one day, old woman?”

Wynne brushed her hands over her knees primly and ignored the witch, instead glancing at the rest of us assembled around the fire.

“Shall I tell it?”

“Go on, Wynne,” Leliana implored. “Please. There are so many wonderful old tales about the order. I should like very much to hear a Fereldan one.”

“Indeed,” Zevran chipped in, “we are intrigued.”

He was sprawled across a dry patch of grass in front of one of the logs, basking in the firelight like a cat. Alistair glanced at him, then briefly at me, and I smiled faintly at the sardonic look on his face.

Still, neither of us were going to interrupt Wynne if she wanted to share this particular tale, so we stayed quiet.

“Well,” she began, “I’m sure all of us recall the legends of that noble, heroic order. It was said that watching the Wardens ride in on their white griffons was enough to rouse a weary heart, and put the dance back into the step of an old man. The Grey Wardens were powerful—”

“Griffons!” Sandal erupted, clapped his hands.

Alistair grinned and shifted, stretching his legs out in the fire’s warmth. “When I was at the compound at Denerim, there were loads of tapestries with griffons on. Great big ones.”

The boy’s eyes widened to saucers, and his mouth bowed around an awed ‘ooh’. I couldn’t help thinking of all the griffon motifs at the Peak, on those carved fireplaces and tattered hangings, like faded remnants of glory that held a totally different meaning from that they might once have had.

I pushed the thoughts away. They didn’t help and, anyway, if meanings could change once, they could change again. We could change them.

“Griffons?” Sandal looked pleadingly at Wynne, and she smiled indulgently.

“Yes, yes… there are griffons in the story. Now, listen. The Grey Wardens were very powerful then—both respected and feared in equal measure—and yet they brought hope to the common people. This was a long time ago, when a terrible Blight had ravaged the land for many months. The armies of all the great kings had amassed for one last stand, knowing they must face the threat before them, or perish in the attempt.”

Well, this was cheery. I shifted my position slightly, the fire warming my sore knees and aching feet. All gathered around it like this, the way we were, the press of our bodies gave up an overwhelming smell of hot leather and unwashed flesh. I wondered idly where we might find some small stream or brook. There had to be at least one somewhere in the foothills and, if the Dalish were nomads, the way the stories said, then they probably planned their movements around… water.

I foundered a bit on that thought, as the realisation struck me that, with the Peak behind us, we should be focusing again on finding the Dalish. After what had happened to Zevran, I wasn’t even sure we should risking heading into the forest at all—and there was Arl Eamon’s sickness to consider, and the importance of tracking Brother Genitivi before his trail turned cold—but… well, the Dalish were legendary, as much in terms of skill as their actual existence.

It was a quandary, and I didn’t really listen that closely to Wynne’s story.

“As the sun burst through the clouds that boiled and churned in the dark sky above,” she was saying, her hands spread wide as if to mimic the scene she spoke of, just as Leliana did when she told her tales, “it illuminated a vast seething horde of darkspawn, with the archdemon at its head. And it was then—when courage seemed to fail, and all lost to death and despair—that the Grey Wardens came. They arrived with the beating of wings like mighty war drums—”

“Griffons!” cried Sandal, clapping his hands.

Alistair snorted and collapsed into ill-disguised giggles.

“—and stood before the armies of men. Yes, griffons,” Wynne said, just a trifle impatiently. “Great, big, white ones, with wings as broad as a mighty tree is tall, and beaks sharp as blades. Their huge talons tore at the ground, and their fiery eyes struck fear into all who saw them. Now, hush.”

Sandal stared, wide-eyed and fascinated, his mouth hanging open.

I thought for a moment—strangely so, perhaps—of Duncan, and the symbol he’d borne on his surcoat. The griffon to me, then, was a strange beast, a thing of fantasies and nonsense. I didn’t understand what it symbolised, either at the Peak, or to the idea of the Wardens generally. In time, I would learn. I would hear old stories, and have ancient truths explained to me that made clear so many layers of things—meanings etched so deep into the years that they remained only as snatched pieces of legend, whispers of myths and tales.

The griffon, part eagle and part lion, combines the power to rise above the world of men with the strength and wisdom to protect them. It is fire and air, valour and insight, vigilance and vengeance.

At the time, I saw only Sandal’s wide, innocent eyes, and heard the stirring yet bleak words of Wynne’s story, and it seemed to me that, no matter whether they made old men dance or inspired legions of soldiers, there were probably better things in the world to be than a Grey Warden.

“Grim and fearless, the Grey Wardens marched forth, ever between the men and the encroaching darkspawn.” Wynne’s eyes shone in the firelight, and it looked as if she truly believed in the heroism she was describing… or, perhaps, that she believed we needed to believe it. “They formed a shield of their own bodies and held that line until the archdemon was dead and the last darkspawn lay trampled in the dirt. And then, demanding neither reward nor recognition for their sacrifice, the Grey Wardens simply departed.”

Without a hot bath, a decent meal, or a new pair of boots. And definitely without a nice, long rest in a proper bed….

I bit down on those snide little thoughts. After all, legends were legends, and we were us—and legends didn’t need to sleep.

Wynne sat back, her hands on her knees, and did one of those dramatic pauses that made me think she really had been learning from Leliana.

“So, what happened then?” Alistair asked, cocking his head to the side.

His voice seemed carefully neutral, and I couldn’t make out whether he was hiding conflicted reactions to the story, or just not taking it very seriously.

“Ah,” Wynne said, nodding sagely. “When the clouds finally rolled back and the sun shone full upon the blighted ground, the great kings knew that they had lost no men, and none of their blood had been spilled.”

The fire crackled, and Zevran leaned forwards to prod at the logs with a stick.Sparkspopped from the mantle of ash, and spiralled lazily upwards in the warm air, like tiny glowing stars in the night.

I frowned, not really meaning to speak aloud, though the words slipped out all the same. “Surely everybody takes losses in war? Wouldn’t—”

“I don’t think this story is about a specific battle,” Alistair said, eyeing Wynne speculatively as the flamelight painted shadows on his face, and turned his hair to dusk-smeared gold.

She smiled fondly. “Very observant. No… this is a tale about no battle the Grey Wardens have fought, and yet about them all. They have always defended us from the darkspawn, taking losses so we do not have to. People may have forgotten over the centuries, but nothing has changed. I think, especially tonight, that is something important upon which to reflect… and something that is worthy of honour.”

Morrigan scoffed, muttered something about ‘sanctimonious waffle’, and declared that she was retiring for the night.

Leliana yawned, and agreed it was getting late, but she thanked Wynne effusively for the story, and bade the rest of us a very pretty goodnight as Morrigan stalked away into the shadows.

“Come along, my boy,” Bodahn said, raising Sandal from his seat by the fire. “Best get you to bed as well.”

Sandal made the sleepy yet resentful ‘do I have to?’ face that even I recognised from my own childhood, and sloped off to bed down on the wagon.

“Goodnight,” he said, when prompted, and smiled at the recognition of receiving a handful of goodnights in return.

Maethor watched the boy go, then looked up at me and whined. I leaned over to scratch him behind the ears.

“You can’t keep him,” I said quietly. “And he can’t come with us. It’d be too dangerous.”

The hound huffed, and then licked my hand. I smiled as I stood, wiping my hand absently on my breeches.

“Soppy creature. Go on, then.”

He wagged his stumpy tail and, scrambling up on those over-sized paws, trotted off happily towards the wagon to accompany his favourite dwarf to his bedroll.

~o~O~o~

The clouds seemed to have trailed away, like the clouds in Wynne’s tale, and the moon was bright as a silver piece and white as new linen, set into a black, smooth sky against which the stars seemed to spin in place, so strong was their light.

When I was little, Mother used to point up through the patchwork of washing lines, walls, towers and ramparts, to our ragged little swatch of alienage sky, and name the stars for me. I recalled snatches of the stories she’d attached to them—there were lovers, torn apart and waiting for their reunion in the heavens, wild chariots, and the souls of dragons and heroes, placed forever in the cold darkness—but not the stories themselves, not fully, and I mourned that loss. It felt like letting her down.

The others had all retired, or near enough, and I was by my tent, which lay furthest from the wagon, the heavy darkness of the trees closing in on my right-hand side. Familiar footfalls behind me made me turn, and I found Alistair approaching. Clad in that worn-out broadcloth shirt of his, and the breeches he wore under his armour, he looked tired and probably about as sore as I felt, if not more so.

His tent was the other side of Leliana’s, two along from mine, so I assumed he wanted to ask me something… probably about the Peak, or when we should head out in the morning, not that I’d given it any proper thought. I hadn’t really considered anything past actual sleep and much-needed rest.

“So, what did you think of Wynne’s story?”

His voice was hushed and, as he drew nearer, I could see the dark circles that had settled in under his eyes. The moonlight seemed harsher on him than it ever had before, or perhaps it just washed away the deceits of the firelight.

The fire still smouldered at the centre of the camp, banked down for the night, laden with ash and the mumble of embers. I glanced over to it as I shrugged, looking for a way around admitting I’d been unsettled by Wynne’s words.

“It was very… uh, mythic.”

Alistair smiled. “Wasn’t it? ‘We are the guardians of men, beholden to the greater good; however mighty our power, it confines us, for we must exist to serve, united by duty, lest our strength become the grip of tyranny.’”

I raised my eyebrows. “Very good. What’s that from?”

He shrugged. “Oh, some book or other. Just something Duncan said to me, not long after my Joining, about what being a Grey Warden meant. How it was a burden, yet also a blessing, if you chose to see it that way.”

“Hmm.”

At that moment, I could have felt more blessed. I understood what he meant, though, and naturally I wasn’t about to argue with any pearls of wisdom that had dropped fromDuncan’s lips.

I looked curiously at Alistair, wondering what had brought on this sudden philosophical moment, and what had motivated him to share it with me.

“You never met them all, did you?” he asked. “At Ostagar. The other Wardens.”

I shook my head. Duncan had said I would, after the battle. I’d been heartened by the look of warmth that touched his face when he said it… back when I’d thought I was going to be part of something, that I might belong.

“Well, they were quite a group,” Alistair said, with the hint of a wistful smile. “An extended family, almost, seeing as how we were all cut off from our former lives. And we… you know, we laughed more than you’d think. That sounds strange, I suppose, but—”

“No.” I shook my head. “That’s what you do with family.”

He blinked, and there was a deepness in his eyes that seemed to have been put there by more than just the moonlight.

I folded my arms across my chest. I was tired beyond all belief, but if he needed to talk, the least I could do was make it easier for him. Alistair deserved that much, plus it would mean I could turn in sooner. Anyway, he’d virtually never spoken of the other Wardens before, and I was a little curious.

“So, were there many women?”

Strange thing to ask, I thought, almost as soon as I’d said it. I supposed I was looking for traces of myself in his memories; someone I could identify with being, as if I had really belonged among the camaraderie of Ostagar. Maybe I was a bit jealous.

Alistair wrinkled his nose. “No, none. Not while I was there, at least. There were some portraits at the compound: former Wardens who were, well, female. Sort of. Very, uh… formidable. Not like— er, I mean….”

“Not like me?” I supplemented dryly.

He smirked a bit, but looked rather chastened. “Um. No.”

I snorted, though I was too aware of my own failings to be properly offended. Alistair had let slip once before how he hadn’t thought I’d survive the Joining, scrappy little slip of a thing as I’d been the first time we met. How had he put it? Armour falling off me, face all bruised… I’d been just as surprised I made it through as he had.

“All right, then,” I said, tilting my chin. “How about elves? Any elves?”

That seemed to be firmer footing. Alistair nodded dubiously.

“Well, er… yes, just one. A man named Tarimel. He kept to himself, mostly. I got the impression that his life before the Grey Wardens wasn’t particularly pleasant, but I don’t know any more than that. Thinking about it, I don’t even know where he was from,” he added, a frown passing over his brow. He blinked hurriedly. “Anyway, the point is, I… I was thinking. They were good men. I didn’t know them for long, but it was long enough to see that.”

The light fingers of a night breeze rippled through the trees, and plucked at the canvas of my tent. It rustled a little and, as I turned my head, my breath misted on the air.

That was what we had to take from Soldier’s Peak, I supposed: the fact that we were all just people. All of us, capable of good and evil, right and wrong. Whatever the Wardens had turned to in the past—dark magic, the tyranny of military rule, or even the secrets that kept recruits like me green and stupid until long after our time—they could be changed. And they had to be, if we were going to complete the task before us… something we had no hope of doing without the help of every ally we could get our hands on.

“You were right,” Alistair said softly. “What you said at the Peak. You weren’t just talking me down. I-I mean, you were, and it really did help, but—”

He took a step towards me, then stopped abruptly, his words falling over themselves, and we both smiled with a similar kind of awkwardness.

“Thanks.” The heat of a blush began to prickle at the base of my neck, and I looked away, embarrassed.

“I mean it,” he said softly. “And… um… I mean— I wanted to thank you. And to, er—” He broke off, clearing his throat in a terribly self-conscious way, simultaneously trying to be quiet and trying to get out whatever the words were that were in danger of choking him.

I hugged my arms around my middle, rubbing a little warmth into myself, and peering at him in confusion. “What?”

A graduated wash of pink had begun to bloom on his cheeks, and was making its way up to meet with the reddening of his ears.

“I wanted to say something else, but I don’t know if it’s… I mean, if—”

Alistair bit his lip, looking baffled and bemused and, oddly, I thought, nervous. I didn’t know why that should be, and I wanted him to know he could talk to me, if he needed, or if he wanted to, but then he took a breath, and charged on with words that came out in a hushed, stumbling rush.

“If I don’t, though, if I never said— I… oh, damn.” He lifted a hand and scratched at the back of his neck. “Um, look, it… I know it probably does sound strange, considering we haven’t really known each other for very long—and m-maybe it is because we’ve gone through all this together, and Maker knows I couldn’t have done it alone—but, er… I… I mean, I’ve come to, uh… to care for you. A great deal.”

He swallowed heavily and looked at his boots. A sudden, steep, and insurmountably difficult chasm of silence seemed to yawn between us. I drew in a long, soft breath, but the cold air gave me no feeling of realness or stability. Perhaps I’d heard wrong. Perhaps he hadn’t meant… what I thought he’d meant. Only, it sounded like he had, and that was impossible. I’d lost my mind, evidently, and drifted into dreams.

Maker, I’m supposed to say something, aren’t I?

I opened my mouth, but he raised his head and looked at me then, imploring and hopeful. Heat washed over my face, and yet I couldn’t quite manage to look away.

“I’m, um… I’m probably fooling myself,” Alistair said, his voice low and a touch husky. “Or imagining things. That is, I know you probably— I mean, I remember what you said, about all the things that happened to you before you… well, before Duncan… um, you know. I didn’t forget about that, and I… I understand how you must, uh, think of… of… well, men. Human men, I mean, and….”

There was a moment of not-quite-silence, but nothing could be truly quiet while my pulse was thudding like that in my ears, and while I was so very aware of Alistair’s rapid breathing, and the sheer solidity of his presence. We were little more than a foot apart, and I could smell the leather polish and grease on him, and all those mingled scents of sweat and grime and flesh that were so very human… and yet that I barely noticed anymore.

I realised what he was talking about, and the shame washed over me in a torrent. Of all the stupid things I’d ever said, it had to be this! Those cast-off words when I told him of Shianni and Vaughan; how he’d ruined her, and how, to us, a woman allowing herself to be touched by a human, even when it wasn’t rape, wasn’t right, or proper—or clean.

It’s dirty to go with shems.

How had I said that? Why? Why had I been such a fool?

I bit my lip, and Alistair peered tentatively at me from under his lashes.

“I just… thought I should tell you. That’s all. I, uh, I don’t suppose you would, would you, anyway? Care about a-a human man, I mean, in that sort of—”

“I don’t think of you that way,” I blurted.

“Er… oh.”

His shoulders slumped and his face stiffened, expression shifting from apprehension to crushed embarrassment as I realised how my words sounded.

Stupid, stupid, stupid….

I wanted to kick myself, but the blood was rushing too hard and too fast for me to even breathe, let alone move. I swallowed, my tongue clumsy and my pulse skittering like a rat.

“I mean….” I started, but I didn’t know what to say.

If he’d just stop looking at me like that, I thought perhaps I’d have a chance, but it all felt so very impossible. All those things that had been drilled into me from my earliest years seemed distant and nebulous now. The world was different, and I was different, and there was nothing to hold onto, except for hope… and the tangled shreds of guilt that were wound around me.

“I….”

I didn’t want to hurt him. And I did care, didn’t I? However much I’d tried not to admit to myself, it was true. I liked him, trusted him, admired him… but what that really meant, what it became in the seclusion of an honest heart, I was suddenly so afraid to confront.

In that moment, something inside me pitched, and all I could think of was what Father would say if he could see me now. An avalanche of terror, remorse, regret, and sadness hit me, muddled up with the absurd desire to laugh.

“I’m sorry,” Alistair murmured. “I shouldn’t have—”

“No,” I said quickly, looking up at him. The awkward mix of confusion and embarrassment on his face stung me badly, and I wanted to… Maker’s blood, what did I want? To comfort him? Touch him? Everything was so much more complicated. I shook my head. “It’s not that. I don’t think of you as human,” I murmured. “I think of you as you.”

“Oh,” he breathed. It was less a word than a soft exhalation, a murmur of hope in the darkness.

Heat crawled up the back of my neck and prickled again at my cheeks. I looked away, burying my gaze in the cool, shadow-speckled grass. The blush had me on its horns now, though I wasn’t alone. Between us, we were probably generating enough heat to outdo a bonfire.

“And I do,” I whispered, my voice barely scraping the air as I stared at the scrubby, muddy ground. “I… I care for you, Alistair. Very much.”

“Oh?”

A smile pulled at my lips as I heard the exultation and disbelief seeping through that small, single sound. I glanced shyly at him, afraid of what this new confession meant—what it would mean, when there was this great, dark threat hanging above us, and this was hardly the most sane or sensible thing to be discussing—but just looking at him made me feel a little better.

“So, you…? Really?” Alistair grinned, not so much a smile as a great crashing rush of relief and joy sweeping over his face like a tide demolishing a breakwater. “You see, I didn’t know that. But that… that is very good to know.”

My smile widened too. He still looked haggard and tired under the moon’s bright glare, and we were both still grimy and unwashed, worn down with fighting and travelling, but his eyes shone and, to me, he could not have been more handsome. I let myself think it, admit it openly for the first time and even celebrate it. This man, whose opinion and friendship had come to mean so much… he cared for me. I almost wanted to mouth the words, as if that might make them real, but before I could, I realised what this shy, self-conscious smiling thing was going to become.

Alistair and I drew closer, slowly and clumsily. It was coming, I knew. And I wanted it, despite the dizziness and the dry mouth and the sweating palms and the thin, bright streak of panic collapsing in on itself like a streaming star in the darkness of my head. It was infinitesimally slow, and so awkward, both of us leaning into the other, yet neither quite making the final movement. I closed my eyes. Then, after too many long, dusty seconds, breath held and heart thudding, it was real.

Alistair’s lips were dry and rough, but gentle, as if he thought I’d break. The pressure of the kiss was light, yet it lingered: a bond as strong as steel and as weightless as air. His fingertips grazed my cheek, chasing a shiver through my flesh, and I leant into the contact, my hands clenching on the threadbare fabric of his shirt. The kiss deepened, which I don’t think either of us really expected. It just… happened, and he tasted like warm sunlight on furs, and fresh bread. When we parted, I was blushing and breathless, and I couldn’t quite stop the embarrassing trembling.

He looked shyly at me, his face an endearing mix of hazy, smug glee and tentative anxiety.

“That… that wasn’t too soon, was it?”

The air seemed to shake a little between us. I’d never wanted anyone like this—certainly no one like him—and it scared me. It felt as if I was holding onto him just to stop myself from falling over, but the warmth of his proximity, his scent, made me dizzier than ever. I smiled, feeling the tendrils of this unfamiliar, yet not unpleasant, confusion unwinding lazily through me.

“Well, I-I don’t know,” I said, affecting seriousness, albeit not very hard. “I think I might need more testing to be sure.”

“Oh?” Alistair grinned, his smile washed through with relief and affection. “I’ll have to arrange that, then, won’t I?”

I didn’t leave it up to him. A gentle rock on the balls of my feet, and I pressed my mouth to his again, seeking the comfort of his acceptance… and rewarded with so much more.

“Maker’s breath,” he murmured appreciatively, his thumb gently stroking the line of my jaw as we parted once more.

The corners of his eyes crinkled a bit as he smiled at me, and if I could have blushed any more, I probably would have. I still didn’t know whether it was a good idea or not but, just maybe, there was room amid all that strife and darkness for one small light.

Somewhere high up in the trees, something moved, and an owl’s call fluttered through the branches.

We broke apart, and Alistair cleared his throat awkwardly.

“Uh….”

“I should….” I gestured vaguely over my shoulder, towards my tent, then blushed a bit more at the realisation of what I was pointing at. “Um. And, er, you should… uh.”

“Yes. Right.” He pushed his fingers through his hair and looked embarrassed. “Er, well, then. Um, goodnight.”

It was late, and cold, and yet I didn’t really want to move away from him.

I smiled. “Goodnight.”

We looked at each other for a moment that felt so very long, and the smiles widened out into soft, stifled laughter. Alistair sloped reluctantly off to his tent, and I crawled into mine, where I bunched myself up beneath the blankets, and listened to the canvas rustle in the breeze.

The air felt cold on my face, and I realised I was still smiling. I closed my eyes, and the tiredness came winding its way back. Sleep took me quickly, and it wasn’t to be an easy rest. There were dreams that night—black, heavy, painful ones, filled with the hum of darkspawn and the taunts of guilt and memories—but, in those few precious moments between waking and sleeping, life felt beautiful.

~o~O~o~

When morning came, I woke to the quiet buzz of voices. On emerging from my tent, I found it was Levi and Bodahn, standing near the dwarf’s cart and engaged in earnest conversation. Levi was gesticulating in the air, a bright-eyed look on his face that reminded me of an over-eager ferret, and Bodahn had a small tally-stick in his hand. He kept nodding and counting notches against the thing, and an inexplicable sense of unease assailed me.

I heard Maethor bark and looked round, smiling as I saw him playing fetch with Sandal. The hound was wagging his stumpy tail so hard his entire back end was shaking, and the boy looked just as happy. I hated to think that, soon, we’d be back on the road again, and I’d have to split them up.

Well, there wasn’t much call for a merchant where we were headed, was there?

“Morning, sleepy!”

I screwed up my nose at the sound of Alistair’s voice, turning to see him in breeches and shirtsleeves with a skillet in his hand, heading towards the fire that was burning at the centre of the camp.

He grinned at me. “Breakfast? You’ll never guess what Bodahn had squirreled away. Eggs.”

My stomach rumbled traitorously, then my head caught up and I blinked awkwardly at him, suddenly extremely aware of the night before… and of that kiss.

Alistair evidently recalled it as well, because his ears turned slightly pink as he held my gaze, then he looked at his feet and waved the skillet aimlessly.

“Um… anyway, I-I thought you’d want breakfast, and… uh. Yes.”

“Thank you,” I said softly. “I do.”

He looked up, all big, boyish eyes and broad shoulders, and smiled, and I found myself recalling in acute detail the warmth of his arms and the taste of his lips. Had either of us been a little more experienced in the arts and games of attraction, we might have taken the opportunity to indulge in some kind of teasing, playful banter about hunger and appetites that would have made Zevran proud.

As it was, I started to blush, and so did Alistair, and then we both grinned at each other in a kind of shared, guilty, happy embarrassment.

I headed over to the fire, where most of the others were already gathered. Zevran smiled at me in such a way as to make me wonder if he’d been eavesdropping, but I dismissed it as part of his usual manner, and told myself sternly that there really were more immediate things to focus on.

Alistair cooked breakfast. Scrambled eggs and fried bread turned out to be one thing he couldn’t mess up—at least not irreparably—and he seemed very cheerful. I tried to keep my smiles to myself, and concentrated on smoothing out the wrinkles of embarrassment that still clung to me.

We ate, and everyone seemed better for the rest.

Levi and Bodahn announced their intentions to mount and equip an expedition to fully reclaim Soldier’s Peak, utilising the manpower and expertise of assorted Warden sympathisers. If the trader was to be believed, it seemed there was quite a network of people loyal to the idea of the order, and I supposed we hadDuncanto thank for that, and his role in returning the Wardens to Ferelden.

“There’s plenty of people my family knows,” Levi said. “Plenty who’s faithful to the Wardens, and ’ave been for years, not to mention those who don’t support the regent. Given a good few weeks, now them demons are gone, we can clean the place up, clear out everything salvageable from the old armoury and that, and really see about pressing the old place into service again.”

Alistair grimaced. “Do we really want to attract that much attention?”

Morrigan snorted. She seemed much improved, though she still looked paler than usual and a bit battered… but then that was true of all of us.

“Loghain will already know you are on the move. It is merely a matter of controlling how much he knows.”

“Morrigan has a point,” Wynne admitted, giving the witch a sidelong look. “Word of what happened at the Circle Tower will no doubt have reached him by now, no matter how discreet Irving and Greagoir have been in pledging their support to you. Not to mention, if there is as much unrest as it seems, civil war may be inevitable.”

I frowned. I wanted to believe that was a matter for Loghain and the Bannorn, and that all we needed to worry about was the Blight, but I had the feeling it wasn’t going to be that simple.

Sten, seated to the far side of the fire like some kind of immovable monolith, made a small growl at the back of his throat. He’d been silent up until then, and I glanced curiously at him.

“If a leader loses the loyalty of the people,” he said, gazing steadily into the fire, “they will flock to whoever is not him. Your cause will become theirs, whether they believe in it or not. You would do well to use that.”

“We’re not here to raise a rebellion,” I began, but even I could hear the lack of conviction in my voice.

We needed the Bannorn. We needed the network of sympathisers and supporters Levi spoke of… and we needed to use the resources we had carefully. Possibilities, odds, and chances all weighed up in my head, crowding out the little bits of room I’d left for optimism.

“Hm.” Alistair looked archly at the qunari. “That’s an interesting strategy, anyway.”

Sten shrugged, his face impassive. “It is what your kind do. They know no better. They have no certainty, know no place of their own. My people would respond differently.”

“Oh?”

“I’m sure they would,” I said hurriedly, raising my voice just enough to disrupt any potential baiting, and giving Alistair a warning glance. I meant it to be stern, but I suspected it wasn’t, and I cleared my throat. “But we don’t have the luxury of the entire antaam at our disposal. Unfortunately. And the Peak itself has stayed hidden for a long time.” I looked at Levi, rather hoping he might back me up with some practical observations. “Maybe, if you’re right, it can be brought back into use, as a staging post for people prepared to help us, if nothing else.”

“Oh, it’ll be more than that,” the trader said enthusiastically. “We already know there’s plenty there worth salvaging. You mark my words, Warden: next time you see the place, you’ll hardly recognise it!”

I forced a smile. Maybe he was right. Zevran had certainly picked up a few curios from his scavenging—enough baubles and saleable trinkets to convince anyone the Peak was worth further investigation, now it was safe to do so. He’d struck a deal with Bodahn on a couple of silver goblets that I knew about… there was probably a lot more secreted away that I didn’t know of, but I wasn’t going to pry.

A fat, curved piece of branch Leliana had been using earlier to coax the fire into life lay at my feet. I picked it up, and gazed thoughtfully at the mottled stripes of colour on the bark, and how they faded down into the blackened tip. My fingers traced the rough patches of lichen and aged wood.

“Maybe, when we pass back by Lake Calenhad, we can send word to the Magi. They have scholars and, if they can spare them, they can make a start on those libraries. That, and make sure everything’s… properly dealt with,” I said vaguely, not really wanting to revisit the practicalities of demons and foul magic.

“Much appreciated.” Levi nodded, his expression turning a little sombre. “That’s what Duncan thought, you know. All the knowledge the Wardens had back then; all that culture and history, what had to be brought back…. ‘We are but temp’ry keepers of our wisdom,’ he said to me.” He shook his head. “I’m glad you fulfilled his promise.”

A faintly awkward silence fell, and for a moment it almost felt as if man’s ghost itself was whispering around the edges of the camp.

I cleared my throat. “I’m sorry we can’t stay to see the work start on the Peak. And… thank you. Thank you both,” I added, glancing at Bodahn. “We didn’t know there were already people out there ready to listen to Grey Wardens.”

“Oh, we are. We are indeed,” the dwarf said suavely, giving me a big smile from behind his beard.

A little way away, Sandal was off again, playing happily with Maethor. I returned Bodahn’s smile, though I still wasn’t sure whether his involvement was more to do with profit or politics.

I weighted the bit of branch in my hand, and prodded at the fire. It was a nice morning, with golden light streaming into the clearing, picking at the mica in the hillsides, and making the tufts of grass on them into delicate cobwebs that wafted gently in the breeze. Against the brightness, the flames seemed diaphanous, like they didn’t really belong.

Leliana shifted, stretching out her long, leather-clad legs. Apart from during our trip into Denerim—which I would rather have forgotten completely, had I been able to—she hadn’t changed back into her Chantry robes since Redcliffe, and yet she still managed to look unmistakeably feminine. Now, the sunlight caught on the red of her hair, and made a dozen different colours glimmer in it. She wrinkled her nose, those clear blue eyes narrowed against the sun as she squinted at me.

“So… what happens now?”

I shrugged, and gave the fire another, rather more savage poke. “We have two choices, I guess. We try to find the Dalish, or give them up as a lost cause and start back towards Redcliffe and Lake Calenhad. There’s the good brother to follow up on still.”

She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “It will take, what, at least another two or three weeks to get back to Redcliffe, no?”

Alistair exhaled uneasily. “I hope Arl Eamon’s no worse. I don’t like this whole Brother-Genitivi-being-missing business. If we could just have found him, then—”

“We would already know he is nothing more than a fool intent on chasing after the bones of a madwoman,” Morrigan drawled, her voice sharp and hard, “and he will be of no use to your dying arl.”

“He’s not dying!” Alistair snapped. “They said… the mages said… magical healing can sustain him. It’s just—”

Not enough to bring him back. He didn’t say it, and fell to scowling at the fire instead. I suspected, like me, part of him didn’t believe we’d find the brother, and the whole exercise was simply a political one; shoring up the support we would need to extract from either Isolde or Teagan—depending on who took control of Eamon’s estates, as regent or successor—with the balm of having at least tried to help the arl.

Or perhaps Alistair didn’t think that at all. Maybe all his thoughts were for his guardian, the man for whom he still had all that loyalty and affection. I wasn’t sure, and it didn’t help to be so suddenly reminded of the ties Alistair had to… well, to the Guerrins and more.

A human, and not just any human. Son of a king, and raised in a castle… what do you get yourself into, girl?

“He will be well cared for,” Wynne said smoothly. “You know that, Alistair. Even if the healing cannot continue indefinitely.”

His scowl deepened, the edges of it scored with discomfort. “Maybe we should turn and head for the lake, then?” He raised his head, casting a glance around the group for support before he looked at me. “I mean, if Genitivi’s missing, we have to follow up on his trail before it goes cold, right?”

I suppressed a smile. That train of thought was familiar… and yet it was also mired in a little bit of annoyance. I coughed gently.

“The Dalish will be moving too. And we’re already within a couple of days of the pass. If we don’t try to find them now, chances are we won’t find them at all.”

Alistair frowned. “Yes, but—”

“We need allies, don’t we?” I raised my brows, trying hard not to think of this as another moment when the needs of some human nobleman—even one potentially on his deathbed—were put above my people. “I say we give it a shot. Just a day, maybe two, to find some trace of them in the forest. We know they were here, and recently… but if there’s nothing, then they’ve probably already moved on. But we won’t know until we look.”

Alistair opened his mouth, probably already framing an argument, but he didn’t push the point. He just shrugged, albeit with rather poor grace.

“Fine.”

“Does anyone disagree, then?” I asked, glancing around at my assembled companions. “Any other ideas?”

Wynne shook her head. “An admirable plan… although I wonder if your timing might not be a tad optimistic.”

“Wynne has a point,” Leliana added. “The Brecilian Forest is enormous. Not to mention the legends that—”

“Ooh! Ooh!” Alistair held his hands up, palms out. “Don’t tell me! Horrific battles, death, mayhem and occult destruction, with a side order of demonic pandemonium. Am I getting warm?”

“Not to mention the trees,” Zevran added dryly, flexing the arm that had been so badly injured and, though now largely healed, did still bear a thin, white scar. “With the groping and the rending? Really, it was like being back in a cheap Nevarran tavern.”

I smiled, despite myself, and shook my head. Zevran caught my eye, and gave me a disarmingly suave smile.

“Nevertheless, if it is what you desire, fair Warden, I shall run headlong into the branches of death.”

“We can only hope,” Morrigan muttered.

“Thank you.” Ignoring her, I nodded at Zev, and then turned my attention to Sten. “What’s your opinion, Sten?”

Those unsettlingly bright violet eyes surveyed me critically.

“It is a matter of weighing gain against risk. I have heard stories of the Dalish elves. There are no better archers among humans, no warriors more vicious and skilled. Secure their help and, should they provide sufficient numbers, you may have less chance of failing quite so spectacularly.”

I grinned widely. “Then I’m taking that as a vote of confidence. Thank you.”

The qunari’s face remained as impassive as ever, though the breath he exhaled was eloquent.

“You may take it however it pleases you.”

So, there we had it. A slightly ragged consensus, but it was enough.

We would, we decided, spent a few more hours at rest before pulling up camp, bidding our farewells to Levi, Bodahn and Sandal, and heading north to the pass that led into the neck of the Brecilian Forest. Alistair—though clearly still not quite at one with my decision—unfurled the map, and there was some checking of distances and discussion of potential routes. The majority of it passed over my head, though I could at least distinguish the part of the map that marked out the forest.

It was a huge, sprawling thing, like an ink stain, but cut through with dozens of little ragged lines that I supposed were meant to represent the trees. There seemed to be no indications of terrain or landmarks. Just ‘here be forest’, which wasn’t comforting.

Still, a grain of excitement bloomed in me. I thought of the arrowhead Wynne had found: real, tangible, recent evidence of the Dalish. Wild elves…. They had never been anything more than stories to me, but oh, such wonderful stories! All those tales of Arlathan and Halamshiral, of the Emerald Knights, and our beautiful, immortal ancestors.

When, a little aftermidday, we shouldered our gear and began to head for the road, I couldn’t deny I was eager to see where the journey took us.

Perhaps I was naïve enough to believe in stories. Perhaps I was simply optimistic.

Either way, I had no idea what would lay ahead.

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On to Volume 4: Waking in Shadows
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Fifteen

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Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
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It took a while to recover from that fight, and I knew the whole expedition itself would leave its marks on us… very definitively so, in Morrigan’s case.

She had me worried for a while, lying there still and deathly white as Wynne worked healing and cleansing magics around her head, and Levi and I took turns following instructions to clean, compress, and bandage the wound through which Avernus had drawn so much of her blood. Maethor came to lie beside her head, nose on his paws as he whined quizzically.

“She’ll do better once we get her back to camp,” Wynne said, and fatigue made her voice sound thin and old. “But she’s not ready to move yet.”

“How long?” I asked, not wanting to rush the mage, but not wanting to face the thought of spending the night at the Peak, either.

Wynne shook her head. “Not too long.” She glanced up at the others, all still strewn around the chamber in various stages of dishevelled recuperation. “Best to give them time, too, don’t you think?”

A small frown squeezed my brow. I didn’t understand at first, but slowly the realisation kicked in. She meant me to step up, I thought… to be a leader, instead of merely stumbling along at the front.

Awkwardly, I rose to my feet and, brushing my palms together—palms that were smeared with Morrigan’s blood, and my blood, and the detritus of Maker alone knew how many demons—cleared my throat.

“Uh… she’ll live. She’s… going to be all right, but we need a little more time to get her ready to move. We should check the pyres, set anything else that needs to burn, and make one last pass to see if there’s anything worth taking with us.”

Zevran, leaning against the chamber’s far wall, bruised and bloodied and looking thoroughly disgruntled, nodded. “There were some valuable paintings in the keep, although they will not be easy to move. A few books that may have worth… and the armoury may have something intact. Also, a place like this? They will have a cache somewhere. The Commander’s private chamber, I expect. I can check.”

“Fine,” I said, determined not to speculate on how he knew the things he knew, or how experienced he was at judging the worth of an object… and finding somewhere to fence it.

Sten took the task of the pyres, and removing the more fleshly remains that still littered the chamber. I winced and looked away as he passed, the reek of the abomination’s corpse a fetid reminder of how things might have ended differently.

Alistair frowned, evidently trying to hold onto a thought long enough to express it with any kind of coherence. He still looked a little groggy, and he’d refused any magical healing, so Wynne had enough strength to tend to Morrigan. I was very tempted to tell him I was going to relay that information to her when she woke up, but I’d so far resisted.

“What about downstairs?” he asked, as Sten’s weight made the treads creak into the stillness. “The mage’s… things?”

I frowned at the reference to Avernus’ notes, and those so-called experiments of his. It still didn’t seem real. That the Grey Wardens had raised rebellion and courted noble factions in a war was one thing, but blood magic, and all the filth that followed it? I couldn’t accept that.

Or, at least, I didn’t want to.

“Burn them,” I said, after a moment. “No, wait…. I— I don’t know.”

Alistair gave me a look that felt like it was tinged with disappointment. I was sure I’d fallen short of those shining ideals of his, and that he thought I was a breath away from condoning the evil that it seemed the Wardens here had fallen into, but then he nodded sadly.

“You’re right. We should look through them first. Whatever he was involved in, whatever happened… there are centuries of Grey Warden knowledge in this place.” He rose to his feet, still limping, though not as badly, and gave me a thin smile. “I’ll go and take a look. If anyone hears me screaming, come and get me before my eyes drop out, all right?”

I half-expected Leliana to go with him, but she didn’t. She stayed, and took over Levi’s portion of the wound dressing, which he was only too grateful to yield to her.

“Maker’s breath,” the trader muttered, looking down at himself. “I shall be glad when we get back to camp and there’s a bit of a clean up to be had!”

“Agreed,” I said, as I helped Wynne bring the edges of a makeshift bandage around Morrigan’s waist, and the realisation of that—that we had survived, and there was, out there, away from the fortress, a wagon with all our goods on it, and a campfire burning in the dusk—was something potent to cling to indeed.

We had Morrigan’s torso stripped for ease of dressing the wounds, though the nature of her robes meant they hadn’t required much removal, and her modesty was still as protected as it ever was.

All the same, I was fairly sure she was going to be cross when she woke, if for no reason other than the damage to her oh-so-artfully tattered clothes.

As we finished the task and Wynne’s healing began to make those shadowy lines beneath her skin recede, a little colour started to return to Morrigan’s flesh, in place of those black cobwebs and that sickly pallor.

Slowly, her greasy, darkened eyelids began to open, and a sliver of that familiar golden gaze swept the chamber, and lit upon me.

“Wh—” she began, her lips flexing around the dry husks of words.

Wynne put a hand on her shoulder to stop her from trying to sit up, and Morrigan glared at the mage.

“Is it dead?” she croaked. “It must be, else you would not live. Ughhh… there is a foul taste on my tongue. And why am I undressed?”

Wynne gave the witch a tired smile. “You are not. Not much less than usual, anyway. Be still a little longer, then be careful when you do move. You will need more healing. I believe you know why.”

Morrigan let her head drop back against the floorboards, her eyes drooping to half-closed slits. She raised a hand to her face, those long, pale fingers skimming her loosened hair and sweat-stained skin, and bared her teeth in a sneer.

“I am a mess.” Her glare fell on Levi this time. “Go away, little man. There is no more of me for you to see.”

He didn’t need telling twice, and scampered off as she turned her attention to Maethor, who was still laying close by, watching her with his deep, dark, intelligent eyes. He pricked up his ears, wrinkled snout quivering as he scented the air.

Morrigan scowled. “At least that explains the smell. Wretched hound.”

He wagged his tail and made a happy little canine groan, deep in his chest. Leliana tutted reprovingly.

“It’s nice to see you feeling more like your old self, Morrigan.”

The witch gave her a look of pure venom, but she just smiled sweetly. As Morrigan’s golden eyes turned to me, I braced myself for the inevitable cat-swipe, and supposed at least a bit of vitriol proved she was alive.

She sniffed, and fixed me with an inscrutable stare. Her eyes were flat and hard as two sovereigns, and yet I had the feeling that it was less a glare of reproach than a protective shield.

“You… were not as slow to react as you might have been,” Morrigan said grudgingly. “Though you could have moved more quickly. Was it not evident the mage was demon-bound?”

I wasn’t sure whether that was an accusation or a thank you. Either way, it stung a little because, yes, in retrospect it was easy to see. I should have seen it. I should have acted differently, chosen differently… fought differently.

Everything, in a perfect world, would have been different.

“The Veil is closed.” I bit my lip, and shrugged. “He’s dead, you’re alive… thanks to Wynne. We’ll talk more of it later, if you want. When you’re stronger.”

It would probably have been impossible to have annoyed Morrigan more unless I’d claimed her survival was a miracle of Andraste. Still, it did her good to have something to gnash her teeth over and fight against. She and Alistair were more alike than they knew, I thought.

I excused myself and said I should round everyone up before we began to head back to camp. Leliana and Wynne were fully occupied with their recalcitrant patient, but Maethor padded down the stairway after me, down into the long, low chamber that was full of the debris of Avernus’ century of madness.

It was easy to write it off like that, of course. Easy to throw up one’s hands in horror and denounce everything that had happened here, or say that Sophia Dryden and her men had been heretics, aberrations… that they were not what we were, or what we stood for.

As my footsteps echoed on the winding, narrow stairs, and the shadows of the tower parted before me, darkness yielding to the soft, crowded glow of torches and candlelight, I knew it wasn’t that simple. We’d seen evidence of what had happened here, what Arland’s men had done… and I knew all too well what depths the caprices and cruelties of nobles could hold. Perhaps he had been a monster. Perhaps their cause had been righteous.

Perhaps, sometimes, ordinary people needed somewhere to turn; someone who would go beyond what was normal, or maybe even what was right, in order to set the balance of the world back to where it had to be.

Maybe, I thought, when it came to matters of justice and survival, the ends could justify the means.

I wasn’t sure I believed that. I wasn’t sure what I believed, as I stood in that chamber, and shivered to think of the things that had happened there.

The twisted and broken bits of detritus I’d noticed before—a cage, a wrenched piece of metal—now seemed to have much darker significance. Ugly possibilities smouldered in the candlelight, and even the piles of scrolls and books seemed to mock me.

I wanted to talk to Alistair, but he wasn’t there. I frowned, taking in the scattering of books on the worktable, and the candle that had been moved from its previous position, and decided he’d obviously had as much of the mage’s scribblings as he could stand.

I sighed, and headed for the stairs.

Outside the tower, the whole of the Peak seemed to smell of ashes. Fleetingly, I did wonder whether the pyre smoke would give away the fortress’ position, but it seemed unlikely anyone we’d rather didn’t know about the place would see it. The shield of the Southrons had stood Soldier’s Peak in good stead for centuries, and if even King Maric’s rebel forces hadn’t found it….

And, on that thought, I faltered, and not just because thinking of Maric the Saviour—our great king, our idol, our lost and lamented lord—felt very different these days.

Maybe they had found it, and deemed it unusable. Maybe they’d known about it, and thought—rightly enough—that it was haunted, or cursed, or whatever other manner of label normal people affixed to places like this. I smiled grimly to myself. Back home, we had only ever talked about magic and demons in hushed whispers, and I thought fondly of the old folk who would spit at the mention, because we propped ourselves up with our superstitions.

It seemed unreal that I should already have seen so much that I’d never even thought possible… that the insane should so fast be becoming normal to me. Of course, I’d always thought darkspawn were nothing but a myth, a thing muttered about to frighten children, so I supposed I shouldn’t complain.

There was no one to complain to, anyway, and no choice but to buck up and get on with it. At least, I thought bitterly, my background had prepared me for that.

I hurried across the cracked and weed-strewn courtyard, as flakes of ash floated on the dusk-leavened air like flurries of grey snow.

~o~O~o~

I found Alistair at the southwest rampart, looking down across the ridge we’d had to scramble over to get here. The first of the evening was drawing in, the light growing soft and heavy, although there wasn’t much of a view to start with, except for trees, loose scree slopes and hills, and the winding pass edged with the broken reminders of masonry. There was a statue nearby, covered with moss and some kind of yellowish-green creeper. It seemed to be a man in heavy armour… the Warden-Commander’s armour, I saw as I drew nearer. His gauntlets rested on a huge sword, and if his face hadn’t been covered with vegetation, he’d have been staring down over the gates like an eternal sentinel.

“Asturian,” Alistair said, without turning around. “There’s a plaque at the bottom.”

I peered at the statue’s worn base, and made out an engraved piece of marble beneath the twisted strands of the creeper. The script was archaic, rather formal, and I probably couldn’t have read it if I’d tried.

“Oh.”

A frown pinched my brow as I looked at my friend. His shield and sword were slung across his back, the harness looking a little the worse for wear, and his armour was filthy, caked with blood and grime. With his helmet off, I could see the tidemark of dirt on the back of his neck, and the greasiness of his short-cropped hair. His shoulders were slumped, his head slightly bent, and his whole posture seemed tired and defeated.

“Alistair?”

I stepped forwards, my boots crunching a little on the dirt and debris. He turned, and it hurt to see that he looked just the way he had in the Wilds, reeling with shock and grief and loss.

Oh, I felt it too: every hope, every belief or shred of knowledge I’d thought I had about what we were meant to be, torn down and turned inside out. For Alistair, though… well, I wasn’t sure. At least, before Duncan recruited me, I’d had a life that was mine, and that I loved. If you prised the Grey Wardens from Alistair, what had he left?

“We’ll be heading back to camp soon,” I said softly. “Morrigan’s awake. And complaining.”

He nodded absently, a faint smile flickering over his face. “Mm. She’ll be fine, then.”

“Looks like it,” I agreed, and there was a tense moment of silence that, another time, might have been filled with his dark, trenchant observations about maleficarum and apostates.

He didn’t say anything, though. I knew I ought to ask him about the mage’s writings. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to know.

Alistair frowned, and looked back out over the pass, his eyes narrowed. As he exhaled, his breath coiled on the cooling air, and he bit his lip thoughtfully.

“They were all about blood. What… he was doing. Experiments. On the people trapped here after the siege, and on Arland’s men. Torturing them, trying to…. The ones that weren’t Grey Wardens died quickly, but those who had the taint resisted demons better. It confuses them, I think, from what I could make out.”

I winced. The words left him like tiny, hard pebbles spat out onto the earth, like just talking about it made him feel dirty.

“He seemed to be under the impression that the way the taint… changes us,” Alistair said slowly, still squinting out at the hillside, “can be harnessed, and not just for sensing darkspawn.”

My feet scuffed the mossy ground as I stepped closer, coming to stand beside him. I leaned my arms on the rough, worn stonework of the rampart, and realised just how much my body ached… and just how much there was that was foreign, beating in my veins.

“Well,” I said, wetting my lower lip, though my tongue felt dry, and I could still taste ashes on the air, “we know it does change you.”

He grunted, and I thought of how hard he’d tried to be kind when he broke the news to me, told me those things that new recruits were meant to hear gently. The spectre of my early death didn’t seem so bad at that moment, and I supposed that was one thing to be said for facing peril at every turn, the way we seemed to be fated to do. Thirty years or thirty days: it didn’t matter, when I was getting so very used to looking down the wrong end of a blade at unexpected moments.

“It’s different, though,” Alistair said, a strained rasp on the air.

We’d missed the sunset. There was no puffy, gilded rank of rose and golden clouds, no veins of purple threading through the deepening sky. It was just an overcast, dim, and rather clammy evening.

“He wrote that the Wardens he…. That they resisted the demons, and that the blood magic he used made them stronger, made them capable of withstanding the taint’s other effects. For a time, anyway.”

I suppressed a shudder, and frowned down at the stone blocks of the rampart beneath my fingers.

“That’s how he stayed alive so long?”

Moss and thin, tiny-leaved creepers swathed the stone, and I picked half-heartedly at the weeds, until their juice bled onto the fingertips of my glove. Beneath the plant life, the bones of the fortress were solid enough. The stones were still intact, and still solid, whatever had grown over them. If all that could be cleared away, like the briars and corpseweed that had choked the courtyards, maybe the Peak could be brought back to its old glory… or had the roots gone too deep to be pulled up without damaging anything?

I thought fleetingly of the vhenadahl, standing at the centre of the alienage and spreading out with roots and branches alike, holding us all cupped in its shadows. The roots used to break up from beneath the packed dirt in the square sometimes, make it crack and split open, and there always seemed to be some slight meaning in that; the roots of our old ways, our traditions, easing their way into unexpected corners of life.

Father used to say, when there was last a purge, the soldiers tried to burn the tree. It had survived… and I wondered if it still stood.

“I think so.” Alistair nodded. “He used the taint to feed off the demons, even after he couldn’t control them any longer. It’s blood magic, but— I don’t know. I couldn’t make out a lot of it, but it makes me wonder… I mean, the Joining… what if that’s—?”

His voice dropped to a whisper, and I didn’t want to think about it any more than he did. All of us, when we drank from that cup: unknowing collaborators, unwilling victims…. For a moment, I could feel the coolness of chased silver beneath my fingers, and I shook my head slowly.

“No. At Ostagar, the Circle mages were involved in preparing the ritual, weren’t they? I remember Duncan saying something about that. They wouldn’t have—”

“Oh, right, and there were no blood mages in the Circle Tower,” Alistair said mordantly.

I shot him a sidelong glance. I was prepared to be the punching bag for his disillusionment, if he needed it, but he was already pulling back on that bitter frown. A muscle twitched in his jaw, and he looked guiltily at me.

“Sorry. It’s just… I can’t believe Warden-Commander Dryden allowed it to happen. I mean, this whole place, it’s not what I expected. Asturian,” he added, with a glance over his shoulder, as if the statue behind us might really be able to overhear, “building this whole— well, it’s like a fortified town.”

I didn’t really understand the undercurrent of outrage in Alistair’s voice, and I shrugged.

“Armies need food. Soldiers need rest. If there were going to be any number of Wardens here… recruits, training grounds, then—”

“I know, I know.” Alistair shook his head irritably. “It’s not that so much as…. Ugh, it’s hard to explain. You know what they say about Weisshaupt, don’t you?”

I gave him a blank look and cleared my throat. “Really only what Duncan told me. Maybe a few stories: fortress of white rock, deep in the Anderfels, home of hard-bitten, heroic warriors who conquered the First Blight. That’s about it.”

Alistair exhaled sharply and stared out at the darkening pass again, chewing the inside of his cheek. I got the feeling my ignorance was a bit of a trial… and also that his studies of history were probably more in-depth than any of us—especially Morrigan—gave him credit for.

“Some people say,” he said softly, as I watched the shadows play along the outline of his profile, “that the Grey Wardens effectively rule there, that over the centuries they’ve grown… accustomed to the power that the threat of Blights gives them.”

Oh.

I suspected I could see the direction this was heading in, but I didn’t say anything. Alistair spoke quietly, turning wistfully solemn as he touched recollections he’d evidently held close for some time.

“Duncan told me that, not long after my Joining. He said power can corrupt all men, and that it’s only by remembering our true purpose that we avoid falling to the shadow of greed. All this….” He glanced back over his shoulder, towards the courtyards, the keep and the towers that rose up behind us, black against the softening sky. “We’re not meant to be rulers, not meant to have a part in nobles’ squabbles, or… or any of that. What Commander Dryden did—what she allowed to be done here—I never thought it could happen in Ferelden.”

The silence that lapped at the edges of his words was deep and thick, and I wasn’t sure how to fill it. Nothing would come remotely close to holding a candle to any words of Duncan’s, anyway, no matter what I said.

“They believed they were doing the right thing,” I hazarded. “At the time. Maybe that’s all anyone can say.”

“Nothing excuses the things they did,” Alistair muttered. “Nothing—”

“I know,” I said quietly. “But—”

“I mean, raising a rebellion against the king… even if he was a tyrant.” His voice started to rise in pitch as the memories of Duncan subsided; or maybe it was those memories that made him sound so petulant and outraged. “It’s completely against everything the Grey Wardens have ever stood for! It’s—”

“Not that different to what we plan on doing to Loghain.”

Whoops.

I all but clapped a hand over my mouth. Stupid…. I hadn’t meant to say it aloud; it just slipped out, and Alistair gave me a look of sour reproach, as if my words were a betrayal. I stood my ground, though, refusing to blush, or wince, or look away, even though I might have wished I hadn’t said it.

He sighed heavily, his reprove fading to a tired kind of resignation.

“Hmm. Can’t say I’d thought of it that way… but I suppose you have a point.” He shrugged despondently. “Maybe Commander Dryden and her mage were right. Maybe that’s really what ‘whatever it takes’ means.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it. You don’t really think that, do you? You think Duncan thought that, when he agreed to come back here?”

It was a low blow, but the man’s name had been bandied around anyway, even if using it the way I did felt like invoking some kind of sacred word.

“No.” Alistair shook his head. “I don’t know. I just….”

“I know,” I said soothingly. “Still, there is another way to look at it.”

“Oh?”

He raised his brows, as if daring me to say something that made any of this all right, though he looked too tired to really care much for an argument. The dull thread of a breeze, laden with pyre ash and the staleness of decay, drifted across the stones, and it ruffled my lank, unwashed hair.

We all needed the filth of that place scrubbed away.

“What happened here resulted in the Grey Wardens being banished for decades,” I said, tilting my head and waiting for Alistair to meet my eye. “What Duncan was doing was bringing them back. New… better. Cleaner. If you and I are the only ones left, we don’t have to be like Dryden’s people were. We can do it a different way. We can be different.”

Alistair blinked, and the shadows that clung to his face seemed to soften.

“Duncan would have wanted that,” I said quietly. “Don’t you think?”

He swallowed, and nodded. “Mm-hm.”

“Well, then.” I squeezed out a small, tired smile. “Come on. We should head back while there’s still light to see by.”

Alistair nodded glumly, and then shot me a small, shy look.

“Thank you.”

I frowned. “Why?”

“For talking me down. Again.” The corner of his lips twitched into a self-deprecating little smirk. “Guess I can always count on you for that, can’t I?”

“Always.” My smile widened a bit. “I mean, not everyone can be good with witty one-liners, after all. Has to be something I’m good for.”

He snorted and, as he turned, heading back towards the centre of the fortress, he passed close to me, and his hand landed heavily—warmly—on my shoulder. It was only a small, fleeting contact, but it felt real.

~o~O~o~

So, it was over. Soldier’s Peak, for good or ill, was free of demons, abominations, horrors, and walking dead. Avernus—whatever he had been—was gone, and it was as if a cloud had begun to lift from the fortress, allowing the thinning evening light to touch the stones for the first time in a century.

Unfortunately, the place was a complete mess, and Maker alone knew what it would take to get the place serviceable again. We were patched up and ready to leave, but the Peak itself was far from healed. The grittiness of pyre smoke still stained the air, and there was much to be cleared away… there were possibilities, though, however narrow and tenuous they seemed. I clung to that thought, and the hope that, maybe, it made everything we’d gone through worthwhile.

As we left the fortress behind us, making our weary progress back towards the scree slopes and dusk-cloaked foothills of the Southrons, Levi was already talking excitedly about bringing the forge back into use. His cousin, the master smith, had been looking for somewhere to set up shop, and it seemed he had a wide-ranging, sprawling family that could be pressed into service in re-establishing the Peak… or so he said.

I was amazed, after everything he’d seen there, that he was prepared to countenance the idea but, when I expressed my surprise, he just sucked his teeth and said ‘needs must in times like these, Warden’. I suspected there was more to it than that, but I was too tired to ask any more questions.

It felt like a longer walk back than it had on the way out. We could, I suppose, have stayed at the Peak overnight, and passed a few hours’ rest somewhere with a roof, which would have been quite a change. Unsurprisingly, though, no one suggested it.

It was late when we scrambled back through the ridges and scree-slopes, and made our return to the camp. Bodahn welcomed us effusively, and Maethor bounded right up to Sandal and licked the boy’s face in between excited woofs.

“Ooh! Smelly doggy!” Sandal observed, though he ruffled the dog’s ears and giggled.

I thought ruefully of Father, fussing every time we played with a stray dog in the alienage, in case someone got bitten or the creature had some kind of disease. Not that Maethor would have ever been anything but gentle with the boy… it was just the amount of dried blood caking his fur, and no doubt the tang of it still on his breath, that I worried about. It didn’t seem to bother Sandal, though, so I let them be.

We fell back to our normal routines with strange ease, given everything that had passed. Sten went to gather wood to bank up the fire, which Wynne insisted Morrigan settle in front of while her rough and ready bandages were inspected—she had walked back unaided, healed enough to stand, though she looked terrible—and Leliana went to help prepare supper.

Bodahn bustled and clucked like a mother hen, emptying out all the medical supplies and potentially useful bits and pieces he had on his cart, while Levi recounted the bones of what had happened.

I had no wish to hear it again, so I decided to make a quick round and see how our various injured parties were doing.

Zevran was emerging from his tent as I crossed the camp, dressed in loose breeches and a linen shirt the colour of clotted cream. He had a thick brown cloak over one arm, and was muttering to himself as, head cocked to the side, he refastened the thin braid drawn from his temple, and looped it to the back of his head. Most of the blood had brushed out of his hair, by the look of it, and he’d managed a wipe down with a cloth, though water was not as plentiful as any of us needed it to be. The scrapes and swellings on his face spoke of bruises to come tomorrow, but I supposed I didn’t look any better.

“Ah.” He nodded graciously to me. “Our victorious battle maiden approaches.”

I pulled a face. “Just wanted to see if you were all right.”

He arched his back slightly, like a cat stretching itself out, his hands pressed to the curve of his waist, and wrinkled his nose.

“Mmm… I have survived worse. But, I admit,” he added, peering up with distaste at the foothills and stands of scrubby trees fringing our camp, “not usually in such cold, harsh climates.”

I chuckled, thinking of the chilly southern winds that had torn through Ostagar and the Korcari Wilds. We weren’t far enough down country now for anything like that kind of cold dankness, but there was, of course, all the promise of a freezing, wet, muddy Fereldan winter on the way.

“Don’t like Fereldan weather, then?” I teased, arching a brow.

Zevran shrugged. “This is a fine country, with its dogs and its mud,” he said mildly, those amber eyes hooded as he gazed at me. “And, yes, the people are spirited… even if they can’t tell the difference between an assassin and a mere killer.”

“But you miss Antiva,” I suggested, choosing to let the jibe slide.

He smiled, and it was the worn, weary smile of Zevran actually finding something amusing, instead of that pretty, predatory curve he used when he was teasing. It passed quickly, but it was nice to see it.

“Antiva is… substantially warmer,” he admitted, shaking out the cloak he’d been carrying and draping it around his shoulders. “‘It rains often, but the flowers are always in bloom,’ as the saying goes.”

I glanced at the workmanship of his cloak. The leather fastenings and neatly sewn lining indicated quality, like the rest of his gear—even his tent was nicer than the ones we’d been given when we left Redcliffe—but I couldn’t make up my mind as to whether I thought he’d bought the things he owned, or stolen them.

“Hmm. And so are the assassins, right?”

He laughed softly—an almost disparaging sound—and tutted as he shook his head.

“My, such cynicism in one of such youth! Ah! Every land has its assassins. Some are simply more open about their business than others, no?”

I wondered if, in Antiva, an elf striding around in ornately tooled armour and carrying as intricate a collection of weapons as Zevran did was a common sight. I didn’t really like to ask, as I suspected it was a Crow thing, not an elven thing… and, that being the case, very few people who actually saw said elf got much opportunity to reflect on it afterwards.

It was almost easy to forget how lucky we’d been. More so, how lucky I had been. An inch either way, and the man I was standing and talking to could have been my murderer.

My gut told me to believe in the vow of fealty Zevran had given me—and, Maker knew, he’d risked his life since for me, and for Wynne, and that should mean something—but it was still hard to adjust.

Zevran seemed to pick up on the unease of my thoughtful silence, for he drew the laces of his cloak tight with a flourish, and took a deep breath, as if savouring some distant recollection.

“Hmm. You know what is most odd? We speak of my homeland, and for all its wine and its dark-haired beauties and lillo flutes of the minstrels… I miss the leather the most.”

“Oh?” I peered warily at him. “Wait, is that some kind of euphemism?”

Well, you never did know with Zevran.

“Ah, very good!” He gave a warm, throaty laugh, and amusement danced in those amber eyes. “It may as well be, I suppose… but not this once, no. I mean the smell. You see, for years I lived in a tiny apartment nearAntivaCity’s leather-making district, in a building where the Crows stored their youngest recruits. Packed us in like crates, in fact.”

I nodded, the distant glistening of realisation pricking at the edges of my mind. ‘Poor as a chantry mouse’ was the way he’d described it, wasn’t it? All the money, the wealth and the favours… they went to the Crows, not the assassin himself. He was an expendable commodity, and I supposed, when you boiled it down, for all Zevran’s expansive charm, his bright and glittering life was just another kind of servitude.

I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

“There was a tannery back home,” I said, stumbling a bit over an effort at commonalities. “Near the east gate. Stank something awful, especially when the sun hit the vats.”

Zevran smiled. “True, it is a… piquant odour, yes? Still, I grew accustomed to the stench, even though the humans complained of it constantly. To this day, the smell of fresh leather is what reminds me most of home, more than anything else.”

He was still smiling, still keeping things light and simple, though I heard the subtle ache in his voice. Heard it, and knew it, right down to the bone. I wondered if it was the blows to the head that had inspired him to share this little revelation… or maybe I was just scalded into thinking that way by how easy it was to feel that we shared something then; that he understood.

“You sound as if you’ve been away from home forever,” I said quietly.

He shrugged. “It’s not so long. But I had never left Antiva before, and… yes, I suppose it is the thought of never returning which makes me think of it so often.”

Over by the fire, Wynne had finally finished with Morrigan, much to the witch’s loudly exclaimed relief. I knew, if I glanced over my shoulder, I’d see them all there, painted in the flickering orange and gold of the firelight, with the wagon’s bulk a comfortable backdrop between our little sanctuary and the shadows beyond.

Zevran looked steadily at me, the dark curves of his tattoos shading one cheek, and the thin lines of bloodied wounds, healing to scabs already, marking the planes of forehead and his other cheekbone. Neither side of that mirrored image, though, detracted from the cool amber of his eyes, and all the ruthless assessment in them.

It was, I supposed, useless to pretend.

“Mm.” I blinked, looking down as I scuffed my boot in the dirt, dampened with the evening dew. “Knowing it isn’t there to go back to is hard. That everything is… gone. Still,” I added, raising my head with a sniff. “You can go back, can’t you? Some time.”

“Maybe,” he said doubtfully. “If I was to evade the Crows. But… who knows, eh? I suppose this teaches us to live in the moment, as they say.”

I smiled weakly. A small condolence, and a fairly empty one, at that. Not that I should have expected much different from someone like him, who’d never had the luxury of family, and had been so dismissive of our alienages.

Zevran smirked, and shook his head, as if recalling something amusing.

“You know,” he said, with the faint air of conspiracy, “before I left, I was tempted to spend what little coin I possessed on a pair of boots I spotted in a store window. Finest Antivan leather, perfect craftsmanship…. I thought to myself, ‘Ah, Zevran, you can buy them when you return as a reward for a job well done!’ Of course, I was a fool to leave them.”

He shook his head again, ruefully this time, and I was fairly sure that impulse shopping sprees weren’t what most people meant by living in the moment, but I was distracted from saying so.

“Hmm.” I narrowed my eyes. “If I remember correctly, the job was killing me, wasn’t it?”

Zevran looked very briefly chastened—although not seriously so—then flashed me a pearly smile. “You are not going to keep bringing this up, are you? Honestly, one little flesh wound between friends… but, yes, that was it. More the fool I, no? Both for leaving the boots, and assuming so formidable a woman as yourself would be so easily dispatched.”

And there he was, playing again, all swaddled up in a clean shirt and a thick cloak, with that droll little curl to the corner of his mouth, like a smile kept in waiting, just as easy to unsheathe as one of his daggers. If it hadn’t been for the points on his ears, I’d have thought he looked like some kind of merchant prince.

“Still, such is life,” he said, with a languorous flex of his shoulders, too sinuous to be a shrug. “One simply never knows what is to come next. How could I have suspected I would end up defeated by a beautiful Grey Warden, a woman who then spares my life? I could not.”

Well, I hadn’t been expecting that one, even if the shine in his eyes told me not to take it seriously.

“Beau—?” I snorted, not even dignifying the word with a proper repetition.

Zevran glanced unashamedly at my figure, still clad as I was in muddy, blood-spattered leathers, with ash and grease plastering my hair to the back of my neck and my face. His gaze travelled slowly over me, toe to… well, what little bosom I had, and his lips pursed into a considering pout.

“You have your charms, my dear. And, well, there is a great deal to be said for a woman who looks as if she doesn’t mind messing up her hair a little, no?”

I stared at him, trying desperately to think of some snappy retort before the blush that threatened to crest my cheeks actually did so. It was not a battle I was likely to win.

“That,” he went on, evidently enjoying himself, “and the rather charming aura of… innocence you exude. Deadly and demure. It is a fascinating combination. ”

“I…. You— I mean, that’s not—”

There had been wittier rejoinders in the history of conversation. Zevran just laughed throatily, and the blush crashed over me, roasting me shamelessly upon its open coals. I wouldn’t have minded the flirtation—we’d had enough cheeky sods among the boys back home—but it was the sense that he was playing with me that left me confused and slightly irritated… largely because I got the feeling that, for him, the game had very different rules.

I mumbled some sort of excuse and stomped off in the direction of my tent, grateful for the night’s cool darkness. The smell of stew was beginning to tug at the air and, as I crossed the camp, I passed Alistair, apparently en route to coming to find me. He stopped, blinked a bit, and looked faintly embarrassed before heading back towards the fire.

Maker only knew what he thought Zevran had said to me.

 
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Volume 3: Chapter Sixteen
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Fourteen

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What we found at the top of the tower was not the simple eyrie I’d expected, not the cocoon of a long-desiccated creature, drawing dead glories around itself as a magpie hoards tin treasures.

The old Warden mage, Avernus, was alive. He was alive, and still working.

His laboratory, if that was what it was, had definitely seen better days. It was a large, long, stone-walled chamber with dusty floorboards and a low, wood-beamed ceiling. Everything stank of decay and damp and, everywhere I looked, the entire length of the room, there were piles of books, scrolls, and the detritus of experimentation. Broken glass, pieces of piping, twisted and shorn off bits of metal, flasks, retorts and Maker alone knew what else littered  the floor and numerous tables alike. The whole place had a thick, stilted feel to the air, as if it was greasy with time too stagnant to pass, and prickling with coarse, tense energy.

Candlelight pooled on the rough floorboards, spilling from a few large iron sconces at the chamber’s far end, and it threw into ghoulish, fragmented relief the robed figure hunched busily over a long, low workbench.

I heard a tremulous gasp, and glanced at Levi in time to see him cross his heart, working the sign of the Maker repeatedly on the fingers of his left hand.

Wynne shot me a guarded look past the trader, her face hard and her eyes narrowed. I knew what she meant. This was the epicentre of everything, the eye of the swelling power she and Morrigan had felt… and the ‘gate’ that the Warden archives seemed to have spoken of, perhaps. The tear in the Veil, and the portal through which all the demons we had encountered had poured.

The figure at the far end of the chamber—swathed in a threadbare robe that shimmered in the candlelight, his bald head bent over his books—seemed to pause briefly, but he didn’t look up, and didn’t even seem to acknowledge our presence. It came as a shock to me, when he spoke, to find he sounded so natural, so unlike a demon.

“Yes, yes, I hear you,” the mage muttered, his voice echoing against the stone walls. It sounded thin and aged, but without the reediness of an old man, and a scholar’s impatience for the inconveniences of mortal flesh dripped from the words. “Well, you can all wait there for a minute. Don’t disrupt my concentration.”

His shadow stretched up against the wall as he moved, vast and attenuated, and I found my gaze roving the room, trying to understand the complex shapes of discarded equipment. Pushed behind one set of broken shelves, I was sure there was something that resembled a cage. Beside me, Maethor shifted his weight and whined quietly.

To my right, Alistair let out a soft, two-toned whistle between his teeth that said ‘Uh-oh: crazy’, and I was inclined to agree with him.

The mage looked up then, pale and bulbous eyes staring out from a face that—even from that distance—I could see was haggard and thin, stretched like paper over old bones.

“So,” he said, with a trace of smug triumph, “someone has come. Good. There are more of you than I expected.”

Expected?

I didn’t like the sound of that at all but, as I struggled to find some kind of rejoinder other than vague disbelief, he reached for a gnarled, twisted wooden staff that leant on the workbench, and began to make his way towards us.

The taps of the stave echoed on the boards, and the whole room seemed to adjust itself around him somehow, as if this act of movement was an unusual thing. I found myself wondering how he lived up here—if he truly lived, in the sense of the word I was used to. What about water, or food? We’d seen nothing, surely, that could sustain life in this place. Not healthy life, anyway.

My back itched, and the closer the mage hobbled, the more I wanted to turn and run.

“Hm,” he murmured, grunting with effort at every swing of his staff, every step of those withered limbs. “Yes… even now the demons seek to replenish their numbers. I feel it. But, you are to be thanked for this welcome, yet temporary imbalance, aren’t you?”

I opened my mouth—to say what, I wasn’t entirely sure—but Levi got there before me.

“You’re him, aren’t you?” he breathed, his eyes wide. “The Warden mage, Avernus. But… you’re still alive? How—”

The candles guttered as Avernus drew nearer, the thump-tick of his staff and his aged body an odd, uneven rhythm that was strangely hypnotic. A few white, grizzled whiskers clung to his thin face, his robes a stained and dishevelled mess, threadbare and clearly hanging from a frame that was little more than bones. He gave a short, dry husk of a chuckle, bitterly resigned.

“Only just. Oh, yes, I have learned plenty of tricks to extend my life. Magic has taken, and yet given much back to me; such is the way of things. It is not indefinite, however. I do not have long… but long enough for this, perhaps.”

Those bright, pale blue eyes, almost like swollen things framed by rough, rheumy lids, swivelled as his gaze took all of us in, one by one. There were still several feet between us and the mage, and I tried not to quaver beneath his scrutiny, though it left me desperate to take my skin off and wash it from the inside. He seemed to stare right through me, to… what had the demon that possessed Sophia Dryden said?

See memories, taste thoughts and hidden places.

It was as if there was nothing sacred to me left, and it frightened me.

Avernus stared at Alistair, head slightly tilted, and he seemed to be considering something.

“Wardens,” he said at last. “You… and the elf.”

Alistair glanced at me. We both knew, I think, how the old mage could tell. The taint sang out, I supposed, and I had never felt so corrupted before, so allied to the filth that ran through this place.

“Why are you here?” Avernus snapped suddenly, leaning heavily on his staff, as if the effort of speech was a terrible one. “What is your intent?”

“To recover the Peak for the Grey Wardens,” Alistair said smartly, the trace of a heel-click almost echoing off the words.

Duncan would have been proud of him, I thought.

Avernus smiled, and it was a strangely hypnotic thing to watch, like brittle, crumpled paper being rolled back, or paint flaking from a door. He had few teeth left, and the ones that did remain were little more than yellow-brown stumps.

“An admirable goal,” he said, moving towards us again with those pinched, hobbling steps. He seemed to be strung together by sheer determination. “But in order to achieve that, the demons must be cut off forever. What you must do is—”

Something about that figure bearing down on us that way made my stomach curdle, and I tensed reflexively. Maybe it was the surfeit of demons and walking corpses; maybe it was the smell of stagnation and decay that clung to everything here. Either way, my hand clenched on the hilt of the dagger at my belt, and my stance tensed.

“Wait. You stay where you are until we have some answers.”

He looked affronted at that, and I supposed offending an ancient and powerful mage was probably a very stupid thing to do.

In any case, the demon that tried to deal with us had wanted this man dead. The archives claimed he was responsible for establishing the gate that was keeping the creatures back. Those were distinct points in his favour… but if those same archives were to be believed—if I could believe anything in this treacherous place, where memory and fiction were so wound into history that they made one great skein of impossibilities—then this was the man who had sundered the Veil in the first place.

I felt the gazes of my companions upon me, most of them probably thinking the very same thing. I could positively taste Sten’s discomfort; he wanted to tear down the entire tower and every living thing this side of the foothills, just to safeguard it from the corruption of magic. Leliana—despite her tendencies towards compassion and tolerance—would quite probably have concurred, given the way she was looking so utterly appalled. Even Morrigan seemed reticent, skulking at the back of the group like she didn’t want to be noticed.

Avernus tipped his head again, looking positively skeletal, like some parody of a bird.

“Answers? To what questions, I wonder? You play for time we do not have, girl.”

I squared my shoulders. “Then I’ll ask quickly. What happened here?”

He gave a dismissive shrug, like the rustle of wind through dead trees. “Hah… you know enough, and what use would storytelling serve? We fought against a tyrant, but Arland is long dead, as are all our noble co-conspirators, and even the grand rebellion itself. Sophia’s corpse may walk and talk, but she too is no more.”

So, he’d known about the creature that had possessed Commander Dryden. My revulsion seemed a little more justified, and my fingers rested on the leather of my belt, just beside my dagger’s hilt.

Behind me, Zevran stifled a quiet cough and a muttered contribution.

Certe, she doesn’t walk any longer….”

I heard Wynne hush him, but the only reaction from Avernus seemed to be a slight curl of those dry, withered lips.

“The Grey Wardens are meant to stand apart from politics,” I said doubtfully, aware of the warning glance Alistair flashed me. “It’s not—”

The mage shook his head. “You wouldn’t understand. Huh, you should. You’re young… you’re so young, both of you,” he added, looking at my comrade. “We were young, too. Impassioned, angry…. So full of vigour, then. So blind to consequences. We thought we were saving the world. That bastard, Arland, ruled with fear and poison, pitting noble against noble in his treachery. He would have destroyed Ferelden. We thought him a monster, gathered allies to rebel… and we’d have taken him, if that lickspittle Cousland hadn’t betrayed us.”

Levi frowned, and I heard the breath catch in his throat as he almost spoke, almost darting after those lost threads of his family’s past. The mage saw it, I thought, that pale gaze darting to the trader, and there was something of a satisfied hunter in him… the smile that comes when a trap has been sprung.

“He claimed he could not condone what we did for the greater good,” Avernus said, watching Levi’s reactions. “But what are a few little nudges, a few mouths quieted, against toppling a monster? If Sophia had let me do more, perhaps things would have been different. She understood the need to delve into the darkness, of course.”

And there was the bait, disappearing even before I could blink, straight into Levi’s eager maw.

“My great-great grandmother would never have stood for blood magic!”

Avernus inclined his head. “Ah. So, you are a Dryden? I wondered. The cosmos indeed has a curious sense of humour. She was the best of us, you know. Brave, charismatic, fiery… utterly devoted to the fight. But still we lost. Still, no matter. The toll of years has erased our failure, hasn’t it?” He leaned again on the staff, and sighed, and it seemed to me he was trying a little too hard to cut the figure of a gaunt old man. He shook his head ruefully. “It seemed so pressing then, but the kingdom lives on.”

“Not through everything,” I said darkly.

Did he even know about the Blight? Did he feel it? He must do; he was a Grey Warden, like us, and his connection to the darkspawn had been allowed more than a century to mature… which brought home the single question I had been too afraid to voice, even in my own head.

Why was this man, not just still alive, but not yet overpowered by the taint?

I suspected Alistair had been asking himself the same question, but neither of us dared speak it. There was too obvious an answer: Avernus was steeped in blood magic, and if blood magic could halt, or at least slow the progress of the corruption….

I forced myself not to think of it, not to even entertain the temptations of thoughts. It was the same as the keep: the whispers of possibilities brushed across my mind with the tremulous glimmer of silver-gilt armour and pristine legends, and I couldn’t bear it.

Avernus squinted at me. “Oh? So, there is some peril, some terrible crisis. Of course. There always is. But what I have been part of—the things I have seen and learned—they are so much more.

He was so dismissive that I wanted to argue, to protest about the threat of the Blight, and everything that loomed ahead of us, and yet I doubted he’d even have listened. Maybe he wasn’t capable of it anymore.

“But you are a blood mage,” Alistair said bluntly, finding his voice at last. “Aren’t you? We saw the archives, the records of what you did. The demons—”

Avernus sneered. “Oh, for pity’s sake…. You would waste time on indignation and horror? Yes, I summoned the demons. The first of them, anyway… dozens of them, and all called by my hand. It took months to prepare the summoning circles.”

He sounded almost wistful, and I heard the distaste rolling off the grunt that Sten gave.

“The bas saarebas takes pride in its own folly,” he grumbled. “Kill it and be done.”

I winced. If the mage was as powerful as Morrigan’s warnings suggested—and if he really was all that was standing between us and yet more bloody demons—risking confrontation seemed like a bad idea.

Luckily, perhaps, Avernus simply smiled mirthlessly.

“Folly? Your mercenary may be correct, Warden.”

Ouch. It might the first thing it was natural to assume upon seeing a qunari travelling with humans, but Sten’s disapproval felt almost solid, like ice weighing down the air.

Avernus seemed oblivious, however, and continued addressing Alistair, the way people normally did when they said ‘Warden’.

“Still, it was a triumph of demonic lore. My triumph. Of course, with so many variables, I suppose calculation errors were inevitable. I was so close… so very close. From the moment our battle was lost, I dedicated myself to trying to correct my miscalculations.”

“‘Miscalculations’?” Alistair echoed, appalled. “That’s what you call all this?”

The old mage shrugged. “The Grey Wardens have always acted by one tent: any means necessary. What I did, I did for our cause, and my only regret is that it failed.”

Things were souring, and getting us nowhere. I looked nervously around the room, trying to see some hint of whatever might be holding the demons back. I had no idea what a tear in the Veil looked like, if it was visible to the eye… or if could even be mended, come to that. Maybe the mage himself was the key: a twisted vessel holding a gateway instead of a soul.

“Please….” Leliana stepped forwards, her voice scored with a heartfelt entreaty. “You must see that this is wrong. All the evil that has been done to this place—there has to be a way to repair the damage.”

She had the right notion, though I could have wished she’d worded it differently. Avernus sneered bitterly.

“Oh? Evil, is it? And who draws this line of what is safe, proper, or moral? The Chantry? Bah! Nothing but corrupt, mundane, pathetic fools.” He curled back those dry, thin lips in a snarling grimace. “Sophia understood. There is so much power… so much potential! Such knowledge, just waiting to be harvested. The Grey Wardens could have led the way… rediscovered the secrets of ancient Tevinter.”

My stomach clenched on a knot of dread. A century with nothing but demons for company was more than enough to drive anyone insane, but the way Avernus talked felt like it harboured a darker, deeper-bred madness. I didn’t want to think of the words I’d heard Duncan use… whatever it takes. But did defeating the darkspawn mean having to become them?

Leliana blanched, but it was Alistair who spoke, his customary sarcasm not doing much to disguise the sour anger running beneath the words.

“You remember how that ended, right? The Black City? Darkspawn?”

The old man shook his head impatiently. “Lies! Chantry lies told to subjugate the mages… to keep them docile.”

Maker’s breath, he sounded like Morrigan. I resisted the urge to glance over my shoulder at the witch, almost curious at how quiet she was in Avernus’ presence. At the chamber’s far end, his few fat candles—and I didn’t want to know what they were made from, I decided—guttered, and the shadows jumped on the walls.

“You cannot know the Chantry is wrong,” Leliana protested.

“And how do you know they are right?” Avernus retorted. “Their faith would have you swallow a great deal for small comfort. No, child… I have stared into the Void. I have held a dozen demons at my hand, and—”

The knots of fear and greasy discomfort that plagued me swelled into anger and irritation. If this kept on, we would be here another hundred years arguing, and the demons would regroup… swarm the whole fortress around us.

“What’s done is done,” I said sharply, sliding my words between them like a blade. “Now, we’ve been cutting down corpses and demons all day… is there a way to seal what the Wardens did, or not?”

Tension creaked in the air. Avernus turned those pale, staring eyes on me, and there seemed to be a glimmer of triumph in his face. Revulsion inched down my spine.

“There is,” he said, his voice quiet, almost wheedling. “I believe there is. I could not do it alone, but you… the both of you… yes.” He glanced at Alistair, then back at me, and I did not like the hunger in those pale eyes. “Blood magic comes from demons. You know this, yes? Naturally, my binding circle can only contain them up to a point. All this time, I have done what I can, yet they were always able to counter every scrap of lore I knew. But the darkspawn taint… that is alien to them. And it has power. Oh… such power as you cannot imagine!”

His gaze seared into me, as if he could weigh and test every part of my soul with just that look, and I felt as if the taint within me was responding, rising up like a black tide and withering my flesh like rot creeping across an apple.

I told myself I was being stupid, that it was just tiredness—and the admittedly creepy figure of a crazy old man at the top of a demon-plagued tower—that had me spooked, but Avernus had struck right at my heart.

Though I hadn’t then begun to think of it so, the way I’d felt at Ostagar had started to creep back into my mind. Cast adrift from home and family, and sent into the Wilds with Alistair, Jory, and Daveth, I’d thought then that was to be my new life, my new comrades… my new family. They would never have replaced the people I’d loved, but it was belonging, of a kind, and I would have clutched at it if it had lasted longer.

With Denerim behind us, the alienage purged, and me convinced that everyone I’d ever known was dead, all I had left was the Wardens, my companions… my one, single comrade in the order, and my purpose.

Everything in me rebelled at this shrunken, faded maleficar, his demons and his whispers of dark power. I’d wanted to believe in heroes—maybe even believe that, somehow, we could stop the Blight—and it sickened me to face such a tarnished reality.

“What power?” Alistair demanded. “What are you talking about?”

I blinked. His voice was hushed and hoarse, and I felt a fool for getting tangled in my own revulsion, when I knew the Wardens had meant everything to him. They had been his family, his vocation… and every word from Avernus’ mouth must be like a direct desecration of Duncan’s memory.

The old mage grimaced. “I… discovered it in the months after the siege. There were few of us left, and hope soon dwindled. My research had already hinted at great possibilities… the blood, you know. There is so much power in blood, and what we do—the Joining, the taint—ah!”

Those pale eyes shone with a look of nostalgic pride, and I felt sick.

“The taint can do so much more than allow us to sense darkspawn—that is a mere triviality. Here, in this room, I have uncovered so much…! There must be sacrifices, of course, but then they are always required, are they not? The subjects would have perished sooner or later anyway, and—”

Alistair winced. “You experimented on the people trapped here?”

“It was necessary.” The mage shrugged. “It was vital… and the few meagre years of life they would have spent trapped in this tower were nothing compared to the greater goal. We have always embraced that tenet, yes? Whatever it takesss. I gave their deaths meaning.”

That soft, menacing sibilant clawed at my ears. I didn’t know if anyone else had heard it, if I was going mad… and yet who could have remained here as long as Avernus, in the ravaged wasteland between demons and the taint, and been left untouched by either?

“I have made mistakes. I admit that,” he said, his voice dropping to a coarse, strained whisper. “But you can help me undo the greatest damage I did to this place. I know how to unbind it, how to unravel the sssummoning circles and seal the Veil… cast these things back to the Fade, and leave the Peak safe again. With that done, I shall give you the knowledge you seek… show you the secrets I have learned, yes? The Wardens shall be more powerful than ever. You shall have your prize, win your battles… and I shall atone for my sin. What do you say?”

His head was tilted to the side, withered hands clinging to his staff, and he was at once grotesque and terrifying, every inch of him crackling with the suggestion of power. I looked at Wynne—aware of how quiet she, like Morrigan, had remained—and found her pale and tight-lipped, those clear, bright eyes fixed on Avernus like two chips of sapphire, hard and glittering.

The witch herself spoke then, the sound of her footsteps and her black iron staff echoing on the boards as she moved forwards. Her gaze never left Avernus’ face, her body held taut and upright as she skirted the group, and she reminded me of nothing so much as a cat spoiling for a fight.

He watched her intently and, though I had no magical bone in my body, and precious little experience around the stuff, I could have sworn I felt sparks dancing on the air.

“This is your one chance to banish the demons from the Peak,” she said, her voice a sharp curve, ringing with flint-like hardness. “He speaks the truth there, but—”

“Kill the creature and have done,” Sten repeated, though without any trace of impatience; just as if he was explaining a simple concept to a small child. “It cannot be trusted.”

Avernus gave no indication of having even heard him. He just kept staring at Morrigan, and the air kept feeling thicker.

Alistair shifted uncomfortably, his boots scuffing against the dusty boards.

“What you’re proposing sounds like more blood magic,” he said, his words traced with scorn. “I don’t know if we want any involvement in that. I certainly don’t.”

He glanced at me then, and I supposed he expected me to back him up. I wanted to. Part of me wanted to run the old mage through where he stood, then turn tail and get out of that place while there was still light to see by.

My fingers twitched on my belt, seeking the comfort of my knife’s worn hilt.

“What would you have us do? What is it you needed to wait for?”

Avernus’ lips spread into a dry, thin smile. “Ah… warriors,” he murmured. “You have shown your prowess to come this far. Some have tried… none survived. As I unbind the circles, there will be wave upon wave of demons. I cannot perform the rituals without someone to protect me. Cut down the creatures, give me time, and it shall all be done.”

Alistair made a small, discomfited noise in the back of his throat. “Huh. Well, we are good at killings things, aren’t we?”

I wrinkled my nose and shot him a semi-disapproving look.

“The rituals need no blood,” Avernus added, and there seemed to be a touch of wheedling in his voice. “Or, if you prefer, leave now, and allow this place to crumble to dust. But, when I am gone, I cannot guarantee my spells will hold. Of course, that may well not be your concern….”

Lovely. So, we were to choose between aiding the blood mage and throwing ourselves at pack after pack of demons, or fleeing and waiting to see if they overwhelmed the valley before the darkspawn arrived, or whether the horde would get here first.

The weariness of being confronted with an impossible choice coursed through me, and I sighed.

“All right. You’ve made your point.”

~o~O~o~

We followed him right up to the highest point of the tower. I suppose I’d expected some great, melodramatic scene in a vast chamber, like at the Circle Tower, with occult runes and glowing glyphs of warding, and all kinds of magical paraphernalia.

What we got, however, was a long, low room right in the attics, obviously once used as a supply store. Dusty crates, sacks, and boxes were pushed back against the walls, and the atmosphere was heavy, greasy and thick. Energy crackled on the air, and I heard Wynne gasp softly as she mounted the stairs behind me.

“Here,” Avernus wheezed, hobbling to the mid-point of the room, the single torch he’d brought with him flaring brightly in one crabbed hand.

He set in an iron sconce on the wall, and began fumbling about in a bag that lay near one of the crates, eventually drawing out candles that he proceeded to light from the guttering flame.

At first, I didn’t see anything special about the chamber; just the bare stone of the tower’s outer wall, and swathes of cobwebs hanging down from the rafters like silken ropes. The mage was scrubbing one slipper-shod foot at the floor, though, as he began setting out the candles, and as my gaze followed the action, I could make out countless tightly scrawled sigils, drawn in chalk on the rough boards. There definitely were warding glyphs, then, and runes and symbols and Maker alone knew what else… but so many that they were indecipherable, and apparently virtually ingrained into the wood.

The rustle of cloth and feathers at my shoulder announced Morrigan slinking forwards, and she seemed fascinated.

“Most impressive,” she murmured, taking care neither to step on nor smudge any of the hundreds of intricate, bisecting lines and curves. “Some of these I have never even seen in books.”

I took Alistair’s muttered ‘huh’ to be an observation of the fact that suggested she was familiar with more than just the basic principles of demons, necromancy, and all those other things the Chantry frowned so very heavily upon, but didn’t comment. Personally, I doubted very much that anyone growing up under Flemeth’s aegis would have escaped such knowledge, but that didn’t help me feel any more comfortable with it.

“You will assist me,” Avernus said, reaching out and gripping her wrist. “Stand here. You know the principles of Lividius’ Vetito Arcana?”

Morrigan stiffened at his touch, and I was faintly surprised to see her obey, after a very brief moment’s hesitation.

“Well enough,” she said, slipping into the position Avernus indicated.

He waved at the centre of the floor, where I could see what looked like a break in the chalk markings. The more I stared, they seemed to take on a fluid, sinuous set of shapes, like circles interconnected with one another, but tied together by great snakes of runes and symbols. The lines wound over and around each other, but it was possible to begin seeing distinct areas within them, worn into the wood and shrouded with years of dust. It looked like some parts had been retouched over time, and I was put in mind of a painter, never happy with his work and always altering tiny details.

Was that what Avernus had been doing here? It gave me indescribable shivers to think of the old man scrabbling around this musty floor, his wizened body contorted as he strained to reach the most intricate glyphs.

“There.” He pointed to the gap I’d identified in the markings. “Quickly, now… they will feel it, and they will attempt to resist. Be ready.”

Fear congealed in the pit of my stomach, leaden and wet. It seemed so ridiculous to be walking into this, and though I told myself we had no choice, my feet were still unwilling to move.

It was Sten who took up position first, striding across the floor with a muttered string of resentful words half-hidden under his breath, and his massive greatsword drawn. Alistair fell to giving out truncated shorthands of command, and I was grateful for how easy it was to follow his voice.

We’d fought together often enough, all of us, to know how this needed to work, but never had we stood united, preparing to face an enemy without knowing from where it would come. My pulse hammered, my eyes stinging with the effort of staring into every dark corner and firelit shadow.

We were back to back, all of us, a rough circle within the mage’s ritual space. To my left, Wynne was breathing heavily, her eyes fixed on Morrigan and Avernus.

“I do not like this,” she murmured, perhaps more to herself than me, though I grunted in assent.

Behind me, I could hear the whispered tail of a prayer from Leliana and, to my right, Zevran was deathly still and silent, yet poised like a snake. Levi stood in the far corner of the chamber, by the stairway, pressed up against the stones and whimpering, his face pale and waxy. I remember thinking it was brave of him not to run and—as Avernus began to chant in that low, rasping tone—for some reason I thought of my cousin Soris, who I’d considered braver than me ever since he showed up in the middle of Arl Urien’s estate with a sword in his hand that he didn’t know how to use.

The first demon came then, and I didn’t even see where it sprang from.

A mage once told me that the Veil is not a static, unchanging thing, not a barrier or a boundary, but merely a way of thinking. To cross it is, some say, no more than a matter of opening one’s eyes. The Chantry would disagree, but that is not surprising, because it would mean accepting the idea that demons and spirits—and even the souls of dreamers—are around us always, and that, just maybe, our mortal state was never the pinnacle of the Maker’s creation, or even His intent.

I wouldn’t profess an opinion, but at that moment I would have believed it.

The creature seemed to come tearing out of the air itself, and I wondered what I’d expected: some kind of obvious portal, something that actually looked like a gateway, perhaps. It would have been easier… but then anything would have been easier than this monster of cold shadows and draining, hideous darkness.

It was a whirlwind of screaming, sucking violence, and trying to strike at it was like hitting loose sand. Wynne cast a bolt of magic directed squarely at the centre of its shifting, billowing form, and it seemed to weaken the demon. Lightning arced above my head—Morrigan, I assumed—and the sound of Avernus’ rough chanting tore at the swirl of weakness that seemed to envelop me.

The things didn’t even have the decency to come one at a time. No sooner had we started to get the measure of the first demon than there were shades everywhere, and then the roaring, terrible heat of a rage demon, fire raining down through the darkness.

I fought as best as I could, taking up a stance slightly in front of Wynne, and deafened to most of the terror of the battle’s noise by the rushes and ripping sounds of her spells shooting past me. I had my two daggers in hand, twin blades too often scything through bodies that hadn’t enough form to be hurt by them.

Oh, some of the things we could kill. They came through, seeking and probing for a way to clothe themselves in flesh, and as they began to pull energy around themselves—our energy, and that of the hundreds of years’ worth of dead banked up in this place—we cut them down, and heard them shriek and howl.

Stories I’d read as a child, those tales from the books Father never approved of and Mother said weren’t real anyway, drifted back through my mind. Naïve princesses courted by demons in disguise, then dragged away to prisons in the Fade, or travellers beguiled by wraiths and spirits, only to die beside their fires, wasting away into the mist… those things seemed more real now than I’d ever believed they could.

We fought, shoulder to shoulder, back to back, blades and bodies in constant motion. Maethor was a ceaseless force, darting between the spiralling forms and, I thought, possibly the least touched by them. Wave after wave of the creatures broke through, but gradually I felt things begin to change. The summoning circles Avernus had spoken of were to be unwound, one by one, and as the first and then the second were unravelled by his rituals—dark light and ancient, terrible words that cut through the air above my head—the demons redoubled their efforts. They were fighting for their very survival, for everything they craved and pursued, but so were we.

They struck at us with all the weapons they had. They took forms that were calculated to terrify—towering pillars of boiling flesh, enormous maws gaping with teeth, giant spiders and scorpions and Maker alone knew what else—or took no forms at all, and simply seeped into the air around us until only magic could tackle them.

By turns, we were fighting tooth and nail for our lives against vicious, terrible foes, and then relegated to almost standing around doing nothing, while Wynne or Morrigan was forced to unleash a violent burst of energy.

It seemed to go on forever. We were all tiring—more so than normal with the demons’ unnatural weakening of both flesh and spirit—and I was terrified that we would either fail before Avernus’ ritual was done, or that we would grow so weak that we could not fend them off. I had no desire to be forced to fight the possessed body of someone I called a companion, nor to lose myself to that fate… or the possibility of finding myself trapped in the Fade again.

It was probably that which gave me the impetus to keep going, and the same might have been true for Alistair and Leliana. Zevran, I worried for; I could see him weakening, his injured arm evidently causing him great pain, and more than twice he overextended himself, almost making foolish errors that could easily have cost him dearly.

Still, we were making progress, however slow it seemed. With three of the five circles unbound, Sten now held one side of the chamber, benefiting from the opportunity to swing his sword as it was meant. He was unstoppable, shifting in seamless arcs between stances, his blade only outmanoeuvred by his anger at the very nature of these creatures.

Light echoed off the stonework, and the crackle of magical energy dispersing against the walls made it through my fuzzy head like a sound heard underwater. My vision was blurred, and bright spots danced in front of my eyes, the heat of yet another rage demon searing my skin. Wynne flung an ice spell at it, though her aim was weak, and the spell itself seemed incomplete. I moved to strike at the part of the thing that was fire turned to solid ice, but it wasn’t entirely frozen, and a fist that might as well have been made of molten rock smashed into my arm, sending one of my daggers spinning.

I cussed, brought the second blade around, and managed to catch a fissure in the boiling, hissing ice that was already turning back to flame. The thing stank like a swamp in high summer, that smell of burning gas and stagnant death, and it howled as it flew at us again. I yelled, its proximity scalding my skin, and struck blindly, only dimly aware of the shades that were diving and swirling around us like vultures. I thought I heard Alistair cry out, and then there was another tremendous flash, and it seemed that the fourth circle was undone.

We were nearly there… so very nearly there. Pain burst in every muscle I possessed, and yet I was hardly aware of it. As the rage demon finally fell to Wynne’s attack, my attention was focused on the next wave of the creatures, and the taste of victory that was so close, bursting like the promise of ripe fruit on my tongue.

It was as the last shade fell, in a howl of dark claws and fury, that I heard Morrigan scream. It was a sound I hadn’t thought she was capable of making—a raw, tearing peal of pain, and true fear.

I spun, in time to see her doubling over, Avernus’ palm splayed on her bare shoulder. Light pooled around them—a vivid, burning corona of ice-blue and purple—and yet darkness seemed to be spreading beneath her pale skin. It was like the sickness that comes in those taken by the darkspawn taint, but it was moving faster… he was making it move faster. He must have been; I could see the wetness of a bloodstain seeping across the front of her robes, and the coiling, liquid tendrils of the blood itself rising from the wound, feeding his power.

The mage was draining her, and from the look on his face—contorted so far past anything resembling human it was as if he’d never been a man at all—he was relishing every second of it.

I ducked beneath Sten’s outstretched arm as the qunari surged forwards, throwing his weight at the demon. The hiss of contact and the ragged, dark smell of burning flesh assailed me, and something like black, feathered wings seemed to be above us. Another wraith of some kind, I supposed, but bigger than the other shades. I felt cold, and the room pitched and lurched around me, a grainy kind of bitterness filling my mouth and nose, like flakes of ash in the air.

Maethor broke from the melee and bounded ahead of me, and I heard Zevran’s rough, gasping breaths at my side. We reached Avernus as the mabari jumped, his trap-like jaws open in a great, fierce snarl, and I registered only that Zev was bleeding as he lunged in front of me, a whirl of steel, golden skin, and scarlet-streaked hair.

Morrigan dropped to the ground, a discarded and broken doll slipping from the mage’s grasp, the black wetness of a bloody wound spreading across her stomach. I grabbed the shoulders of her robes, my fingers locked on coarse, greasy cloth and the cool, ruffled edges of feathers as I dragged her to the side of the chamber. She was heavy, an unmoving, unresponsive weight, and those webbed dark lines spread beneath her skin, mottling the pale flesh. The scream of rage Avernus gave tore through the air above me and, as Levi darted from his place of relative safety behind the boxes and helped me pull Morrigan back, he stared at me with wide, terrified eyes.

“He’s gone mad!”

“No,” I managed, the taste of blood welling behind my lips, “not ‘gone’.”

That left the trader bug-eyed and confused, but there wasn’t time to explain. I left Morrigan’s body in his care, making sure he applied pressure to the wound across her front, and darted back to the fight.

Avernus had already begun to change.

He’d straightened up, staff discarded, but it didn’t end there. He was growing, shifting, his flesh rearranging itself as I stared. Boiling masses of it spilled forth, as if his skin was going to burst, yet his body did not rupture. He just… changed, and I cursed myself for being so blind, so stupid, and so eager to embrace the word of a man who I’d believed was a Grey Warden, as if that meant there was no way he could have been an abomination.

I saw Sten turn, and the moment of shock that lit those bright, violet eyes gave way to sudden, terrible anger, as if the creature Avernus had become offended him right to the very core. He roared, and charged as Zevran went skidding along the boards, the ritual chalk marks and scrawled runes now irreparably smudged. I saw Zev getting up, spitting and swearing in Antivan, and ran for the back of the abomination, already drawing my sword.

Wynne was virtually invisible inside a swirling storm of light and energy. Magic cracked and broke in waves against the walls, and I realised she was trying to complete the unbinding of the last circle herself. We had to give her that time.

I swung my blade at the nearest bit of the abomination I could reach. What had been identifiable as a man was now a raging tower of flesh, the dark flights of the demons’ power surging around him, and every inch of him subsumed in masses of raw, weltering meat. The tattered rags of Avernus’ robes hung from the creature, and I saw Maethor brushed away by one huge, clawed arm. The hound yelped, colliding with one of the shades still roiling in the centre of the chamber, where Alistair and Leliana were trying to provide Wynne with enough cover to seal the fifth circle.

My sword met the resistance of flesh and muscle, and the stench of decay and stale blood washed over me, mixed with the stink of sweat and terror. I could hear Alistair yelling at the demon he was fighting to just shut up and die, his voice broken through with exhausted desperation, and I knew we couldn’t hold out much longer. Whether this had been a trap or a disaster didn’t matter… just that it ended.

Zevran seemed to echo my sentiments as he launched himself at the abomination again, ducking and twisting to avoid the vile, crackling ball of dark lightning that swelled between its talons, then arced out, scorching the floor.

Muori, figlio di puttana bastardo!” he swore, his poisoned blades raking twin paths down the creature’s chest.

Its back bowed, and it roared, only for Sten to bring his sword down in a great sweep that should have cleaved it in two, and yet barely seemed to stun the thing. I drove my blade into what would have been its spine, and those great, shiny pustules of amorphous flesh, bursting from within the ruined rags of robes, oozed with dark, stinking liquid, like blood that had long been tainted and congealed.

Bile rose in my throat as the smell lodged itself deep in my lungs. I knew that wasn’t how my own blood looked—Maker knew I was shedding enough of it at that point to be intimately familiar with its colour and consistency—but the sight of that foul stuff still seemed to burn into me, to whisper things of my future… and of the Grey Wardens’ secrets, long past.

I swung again, stabbed again, landing blow after blow alongside Zevran and Sten. Whether the magebane was beginning to work, or whether we had simply sustained a long enough assault to finally be having an effect, I wasn’t sure, but the abomination seemed to be weakening.

Where Avernus’ face had been, there was now a mottled, disfigured and distended growth of flesh, like a twisted rope of skin encircling the creature’s head. It should have rendered it blind, yet the rheumy, red-hawed orb of one eye was still visible, rolling madly in a withered socket as a mouth with little left in the way of lips opened in an endless scream, showing yellowed stumps of teeth. One claw-tipped hand reached out, catching at Zevran and—from the way the breath choked in his throat, his body suddenly turning taut—I knew the creature was trying to take control of him, using the same vile magic it had drawn on Morrigan’s power, and that of all these demons, to summon.

Its raw, visceral growls seemed to whet the air’s edges, and as Maethor and I were both summarily blown back by a blast of magical energy that knocked the wind from me, even Sten was momentarily unfooted. All the while, Zevran struggled in its grasp, and I was sure we would lose him, perhaps as we had already lost Morrigan.

I heard Wynne’s voice cutting through the rancid, crowded air then, intoning words whose shapes were ancient and alien to me… and yet familiar.

The Litany of Adralla.

I’d forgotten about it, but she’d learned the spell back in the Circle Tower, and it was just as effective against the blood magic of this abomination as it had been against Uldred.

The creature howled and thrashed, but let Zevran go, relinquishing the control it had been trying to force into his mind. Sten took advantage of its confusion, cannoning into the corrupted, mutated body and sending it sprawling into the ranks of old crates and boxes at the edge of the chamber. We piled after it, as eye-bruising flashes of light and the sound of magic breaking in arcs lit the rafters. On its back, all flesh and black blood, and the soiled tatters of ancient silk, the abomination hissed and tried to summon one last, vicious spell. A crusted, swollen eye stared at me from above that lipless, snarling maw, and I drove my sword down into its head, all my weight behind the movement. I felt the crack of bone, the pressure of resistance, and the struggles of the creature scything its way through the last of its tricks for survival. Blood seeped around my blade, thick and viscous and dark, and a high-pitching keening filled my ears, the air like wet sand on my skin, the smells of death, heat, and corruption choking me.

Finally, it was still. My head echoed with light and noise, the sound of my breathing ragged and harsh. My sword hung heavily in my fingers as I pulled it from the abomination’s corpse, and that thick, dark blood eased greasily down the blade’s gully.

I swallowed the bitter taste of copper and death, and looked blearily up at Sten. He was grimy with ash and streaked with gore, his white braids thickly fringed with dirt, although he already seemed to be regaining his composure. I envied him that ability to move so swiftly between the vivid whirl of violence and that calm, almost philosophical demeanour of his.

“It would have been well if it had been done quicker,” he observed, looking down at the remains of the abomination.

I nodded uncertainly. “Maybe.”

Perhaps he was right, but perhaps not. It hardly seemed to matter whether Avernus had meant to use us as pawns—to bring the demons to the gate, feed off them as we cut them down, and then erupt into this monster and feed off us just as easily—or whether it had been accidental and he had simply, finally, lost control after a century of solitude and the slow poisoning of the taint, together with all that forbidden knowledge.

All the same, I couldn’t help thinking of Uldred, and what he’d said about mages shedding their larval forms… becoming something greater, something glorious. There seemed to be no glory in this. None at all.

Zevran appeared to share my sentiments. He stood close by, panting and muttering to himself, his lips curled into a sneer of distaste. Blood marked one side of his face, a strange mirror to the tattoos that hugged his other cheek, and a wound on his forehead had allowed a tide of red to seep into his pale hair.

Pezzo di cazzo brutto stronzo… cazzo di merda…,” he grumbled as he eyed the mutated corpse, spitting on the floorboards and then pressing the back of his hand to his mouth. “Ahi, la mia faccia! Merda, che fanno male….

I hadn’t the faintest idea what it meant, but it sounded like an education.

Zevran caught my eye, and gave me a look that would probably have been a weak smile if he hadn’t been so busy being sore and covered in blood.

“I am all right,” he assured me, lowering his hand. “And you?”

I nodded again, surprised by how well I’d actually survived the fight. We had faced scores of demons, shades, wraiths and assorted horrors I wasn’t even sure there were names for, not to mention the blood mage abomination, and all I had to show for it was a mixed set of contusions, flesh wounds and scrapes.

The small pulse of triumph I felt at that dissipated immediately as my fuzzy, worn-out mind returned to Morrigan.

Behind the makeshift barricade of crates and boxes, Levi was still crouched over her pale form. He’d stripped to his shirtsleeves and covered her with his jerkin, his hand still pressing down on the wound to her stomach. He looked up as I approached, his eyes pools of terrified awe and his face clammy.

“Warden! I never…. Maker, that was… well, I thought we was all done for!”

I looked down at Morrigan’s unmoving form. She seemed smaller somehow, her robes spilling out in darkness around her; eyes closed and mouth slack. The swoops and scars of shadow she painted herself with were unevenly worn off, with smudges at her lips and creases ingrained along her eyelids. That delicate, elaborate knot of hair had begun to unravel, and a few coarse, dark strands clung to her cheeks. Her skin had a greasy, waxy sheen, but the threads of corruption I had seen so vividly beneath her flesh had subsided, and now seemed nothing more than shadows running the length of her arms and throat.

I frowned. “Is she…?”

“Still breathing,” Levi said quietly. “I think.”

“Right.” I turned, and forced unwilling, wobbly legs to push me to the centre of the chamber, the tip of my still-bloody sword scraping against the floor as I stumbled. “Wynne?”

She was half-kneeling amid the mess of blurred, scuffed chalk markings.

Alistair was by her side, supporting her arm, and his white-faced look of concern had me worried. Wynne waved her free hand dismissively, as if to say she was all right, but even from where I stood I could see her fingers tremble. Her eyes were half-closed, and her skin was pale to the point of greyness, her whole body bent and stooped.

“I… I just fell,” she protested. “That’s all. Clumsy old fool. Not as young as I was, I admit.”

They were empty platitudes, and I saw Leliana shoot me a steel-eyed look from behind the mage’s head. She was bloodied too, as was Alistair, and I noticed the way he was limping, though I knew it would have been pointless to mention it while he was so clearly worried about Wynne.

“Can you…?” I hated to ask it of her, but I pointed hopelessly at where Morrigan lay. “I-I don’t know what he did, but—”

Wynne nodded grimly and, with a reassuring pat of Alistair’s hand, she relieved herself of his support and went to kneel beside Levi, peeling back the jerkin to examine the witch’s wounds.

From the look on her face, it wasn’t good news.

“Blood magic,” Alistair muttered bitterly, shaking his head. “You know, if I’d taken my vows… they teach templars to counter spells, t-to… cleanse….” He gesticulated vaguely, swaying a little, and frowned. “I could have… couldn’t I? I should’ve… thing….”

I closed my eyes for a moment. Sodding man couldn’t hear an ant sneeze without blaming himself for giving it a cold.

“You fought bravely, Alistair,” Leliana said, taking his arm and guiding him towards the edge of the chamber. “Don’t allow yourself to think anything different. Now, you should take the weight off that leg, don’t you agree?”

“Huh?” He peered down at himself, as if apparently only just remembering that the limb was attached to him, and winced. “Oh. Ow. Yes, I do feel a bit… light-headed, actually. Think I’ll just… um.”

Leliana propped him on a crate and started rummaging through the meagre pouches and supply bags she had hung about herself, doubtless searching for any bandages and wound balms left over after the day’s exertions. He gazed gratefully at her, and a sudden leaden feeling grasped my stomach, twisting and pinching.

I bit the inside of my cheek, swallowed the stupid impulses, and went to see if I could help Wynne.

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Volume 3: Chapter Fifteen
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Thirteen

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My companions, I suspected, thought I was being sentimental, or that I’d been swayed by all those ruined dregs of Grey Warden history. Wynne, quite possibly, thought I was possessed.

I plucked at her sleeve as we straightened out the Warden-Commander’s quarters, picking through the worst of the mess for anything resembling useful information.

“Wynne?”

She looked up from what had been Sophia’s desk, still clutching a sheaf of old scraps of parchment… letters, by the looks of it, crusted with grubby traces of wax seals and written in old, archaic hands.

“Are you all right, my dear?”

I nodded, and edged around the desk so I could talk more quietly to her. Alistair and Sten were removing the old Warden-Commander’s body, still encased in that heavy, liveried armour, and my stomach revolted as I watched Zevran stroll nonchalantly after them, carrying Sophia’s rotten, desiccated head in his one good hand. The dry traces of bile rose on the back of my tongue, and I swallowed hard.

“Mm-hm. The… the demon, though. Why did it…? I mean, why was I…? I thought it was only mages who… you know.”

Wynne smiled thinly, those clear blue eyes ringed with tiredness. “It’s not weakness, if that’s what you’re thinking. Ordinarily, yes, demons only interact with us from within the Fade. To you, it would be little more than a bad dream; but, to a mage, it is a far more dangerous thing.”

“But….” I frowned, confused. “I wasn’t dreaming. We weren’t—”

She shook her head. “Indeed, it isn’t always so. The tearing of the Veil—and whatever else the Grey Wardens did here—has made more things possible than it should have. That creature sensed you,” she added, those long, tough fingers closing gently upon the bundle of papers as she looked solemnly at me, “and it saw your determination. It saw you are the one who leads us. That is what made you a target. Not weakness.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that. Part of me was convinced it was a lie, a sop to stop me feeling too sorry for myself. The rest of me was just flat-out terrified.

I nodded slowly. “Right. Um… thank you?”

Wynne smiled again, more warmly this time, though the fatigue still hung heavily on her face.

“Believe it or not, it is a compliment. Although, after this, I confess… I am not eager to see what awaits us in that tower.”

I grimaced. “Me neither. She… it… wanted us to kill the mage. The one that tore the Veil in the first place, but he can’t still be alive, can he? Not after all this time?”

The reasonable assumption—that we had another shrivelled, demon-inhabited corpse to look forward to—fringed my words, and Wynne didn’t say anything to disabuse me. She shook her head, her lips pressed tightly together, and lowered her gaze to the papers she still held.

“I don’t know.”

It wasn’t much of a comfort.

~o~O~o~

Little by little, we began to piece things together. The papers from Sophia’s desk included letters—fragile, old, and difficult to read, but clues all the same—from several banns who had suffered under King Arland’s reign.

One, a Bann Mathuin Wulff, had written in desperation, begging for help after the king blotted out an entire noble line in retribution for what he called treason. If Wulff was to be believed, the arl in question had done nothing more than question the king’s spending on his household’s Wintersend festivities, but there were other papers too… and they suggested there had been rebellion brewing in the Bannorn long before Arland turned on the Wardens, and Sophia Dryden dragged them into the mess.

“If Duncan was here….” Alistair began wistfully, but he never finished the sentence, and just let it trail off to an empty, sore silence before he shrugged abruptly. “Well, he’s not, is he? I don’t know what’s for the best. Maybe, if we can make contact with the Wardens in Orlais, or the Free Marches or something, we could start making sense of all this.”

Morrigan snorted. She had picked through a few of the bodies with desultory interest, but not helped much with the clean-up or investigation. Now, she was leaning against the wall, next to one of the cobweb-strewn oil paintings, which apparently showed the Peak in its glory days. All I could see through the thick layers of grime was shadows and the suggestion of stonework.

“Surely you have more immediate concerns than this? Look around you. This place is dead, a ruin. Of what possible use is it now?”

I straightened up from the pile of greasy bones I was shifting. She had a point, but she was still talking about Grey Warden history, about our losses and failings and, no matter how distant they were, Alistair still felt that keenly.

He set his jaw and I flattered myself that I knew what he was thinking, that I could see the outrage and irritation in his eyes, behind the fatigue and weariness. Someone had to step in between them again, I thought. Despite their carping and sniping keeping him sane—keeping him focused on the present when it would have been so much easier to fold beneath the weight of grief and impossibility—we didn’t need the kind of ructions Morrigan could cause right now.

“What’s left intact is sturdy,” I said, glancing at the chamber’s thick stone walls. “Fair enough, it’s a mess but—if it can be purged—this could be a safe place when the horde comes.”

Sten grunted disapprovingly, his presence a dark bulk by the doorway. He smelled of the sour, gritty pyre smoke that was now billowing in the Peak’s foregate. We’d hauled the bodies up, like we did with darkspawn, and set them burning, thanks to Wynne’s magefire, and maybe it wasn’t a good idea to send up a signal that would be visible to whatever was loitering in the rest of the fortress… but, whatever was waiting for us, I supposed we’d already given away our presence.

At that moment, Sten’s virtually tangible disapproval was far more of a worry, and I shot him a questioning look.

“This will be no shelter,” he said darkly, “even if you intend to hide.”

“I didn’t say me,” I retorted, fatigue dimming my sense of diplomacy. “There are villages out there, past the foothills. Farmsteads, trading posts… people who won’t know about it all until it’s too late, if Loghain has his way, and people who won’t be able to get to Denerim. Anyway, I thought part of the Grey Wardens’ duty was to protect people against the Blight.”

“Your duty is to end it.” Sten didn’t snap. He didn’t need to. He just stood there, massive and implacable, and made me feel a complete idiot with his unnervingly bright, unblinking stare. “The peasants will rebuild.”

I opened my mouth, prepared to argue. After all, most of my life had been spent two rungs lower than peasantry… I didn’t like the thought of abandoning people to the ravages of the darkspawn horde if there was something we could offer to help them.

It was a stupid thought, though; a stupid idea. One glance around me was enough to confirm that, so I squared my shoulders and tried to pretend I just wasn’t dignifying the qunari with a response.

“Let’s just get a move on, shall we?”

Morrigan pushed lazily away from the wall and rolled her neck, as if she was stretching out the kinks after a doze.

“Indeed. ’Twould seem pointless to quarrel over niceties before the battle is won. Besides, you may all be dead long before the archdemon even bothers to emerge.”

Alistair snorted. “‘We’ might be? Huh. If I go, I’m taking you with me.”

The smile she shot him was mirthless yet cruel and, for the briefest of moments, I was reminded of the decorative string of limpet shells that had hung in Alarith’s shop and fascinated me when I was a child. Shiny, hard, white things, threaded onto rough string. Just a docker’s trinket, made from washed-up discards, but they seemed so exotic and alien then.

I shook my head. “Come on. Let’s go.”

~o~O~o~

We didn’t encounter any more walking dead, or demons, or any other inexplicable horrors as we left the keep and—leaving the central courtyard to the flames and gritty, swirling flakes of ash—pressed deeper into the fortress, and towards the mage tower that lay at its far side.

There were plenty of other buildings: kennels, stables, and what had probably once been a convivial little tavern, albeit unofficial. The amount of broken pottery and smashed furniture suggested as much, though it had all been dragged into barricades that had since been pulled apart, or perhaps burned into one of the many ashy smears that marked the boards.

I thought of what Alistair had said, about it seeming as if Asturian had wanted to make a city of this place, and it felt very wrong to see somewhere that had clearly been so full of life reduced to these befouled ruins. The second tower I’d seen from the keep, that stood to the right of the mage’s eyrie, proved to be nothing more than a crumbled stump, choked up with weeds and fallen masonry. It looked so terribly sad, like the hunched figure of a beggar or a broken statue.

Behind me, I heard Leliana muttering another prayer, the sounds of piety snatched between clenched teeth, and I glanced at Levi. The trader looked pale and clammy, stray wisps of hair clinging to his face as his gaze darted nervously to and from every stone.

“You all right, Levi?”

He looked at me with a mix of relief and sheer terror, and he stumbled, slack-mouthed, over the assurances he wanted to give.

“Oh, y-yes. Yes, Warden, thank you. I-I’m… fine.”

He clearly wasn’t, but I didn’t press the point.

Warden. Huh….

It felt much less strange than it had to hear myself addressed that way. I didn’t contemplate it particularly—not just then—but perhaps my back did straighten a little as I walked ahead, picking my way over the broken masonry and swathes of corpseweed.

To me, the mage tower didn’t look much different from the rest of the Peak: just another broken tooth in a corroded jaw, a husk of a thing in stone and rotten timber, standing forgotten at the far end of the fortress. Yet, as we approached it, Morrigan’s steps slowed, and I heard the tip of her iron staff dragging on the ground. I turned, and saw the witch hanging back, looking positively recalcitrant. Those golden eyes were narrowed to slits, her head tipped up as she stared up at the tower.

Ahead of her, Wynne and Alistair both paused and glanced back.

“What’s the matter?” he sneered. “Scared? What happened to ‘this must be ended properly’, hmm?”

Wynne tutted, perhaps readying a reproach, but Morrigan was already glaring sourly at him.

“You are supposed to be a templar, are you not?” she asked sharply, the tautness in her voice only a thin cloak over what sounded horribly like nervousness. “I thought they taught you to sense magic. And you…! You, old woman, who profess to be a powerful mage… surely you are as blind as you are weak.”

Wynne’s face hardened, though she didn’t rise to the insult. It seemed clear that Morrigan’s viciousness was that of a cornered animal, and that made me uneasy. I hadn’t seen her so reluctant to face anything before. At my side, Maethor growled softly, wet nose nudging against my palm. My fingers curled reflexively around his muzzle, and his hot breath seemed like the only thing that was honest and real in this cobwebbed, forgotten place.

“What is it, Morrigan?” I asked, trying to keep my voice even. “More demons? After Soph— after the last one,” I corrected, out of feeling for Levi, who was loitering behind Leliana, looking pallid and terrified, “we know what to expect. We can be prepared. We can—”

She gave me a look of pure venom, the thin light making her skin look ashy and unhealthy. It must have already been heading towards late afternoon; we’d spent the best part of the day picking through the bones of this place, and there would still be much to do before we could take our rest.

Zevran prowled at the back of the group, scuffing at the undergrowth that scrambled over the broken masonry littering the ground. He’d shucked off his sling, and had that small vial of magebane in his fingers again, frowning as he dripped the liquid along the edge of his blade. He peered at me with one eyebrow raised, but said nothing.

“Huh.” Morrigan scoffed, taking a step backwards and sending a challenging glare around us all. “None of you, then? You are fools, every last one of you!”

She was starting to scare me. Wynne cleared her throat and, when she spoke, steel lingered beneath the conciliatory tone in her voice.

“This is certainly a place of great power. It… may be possible that this is the point at which the Veil was torn, in which case—”

“You can expect more than a dried-up corpse shambling around an empty chamber.” Morrigan grimaced. “I feel it. Great power… but it is unclear.”

She turned that piercing scowl back to Wynne, and the mage winced as she inclined her head.

“Yes,” she admitted, glancing at the rest of us. “There are strong enchantments on this place. Very strong. It is as if something—someone—has gone to great lengths to ensure that whatever is within this tower remains, I don’t know… obscured.”

I frowned. That didn’t sound good—and it didn’t sound like the sort of thing a demon trapped in a decomposing corpse was capable of, either.

Bound,” Morrigan corrected darkly.

I couldn’t help thinking of the creatures of fire—the rage demons—or the sloth demon that had ensnared us all, back in the Circle Tower. I had no desire to run the risk of losing myself in the Fade again… no desire at all.

Alistair wrinkled his nose. “Blood magic,” he muttered bitterly. “It just never ends well. Had you noticed?”

The corner of Wynne’s mouth twitched. “Indeed. We shall have to be careful.”

Morrigan muttered under her breath, but didn’t argue. I surveyed the rank of tense, white faces. It would have been easier if there had been some tangible sense of foreboding… even scavenger birds circling the tops of the walls would have been something, but there wasn’t even a crow in sight. All there was between us and the tower—the den of the Grey Warden maleficarum, as if such a thing actually seemed possible, despite what we’d learned—was a deathly, terrible silence.

“All right. Let’s work out how we’re getting in.”

There were two entrances to the tower that we found. The first was at the foot of it, overgrown and blocked by fallen stones and a remarkably well-preserved, entirely intact door, all thick oak and wrought iron. To begin with, it wouldn’t budge, but as the second seemed to be a long-decayed bridge connecting one of the upper floors to the first of the fortress’ outer walls, we decided ground level was the distinctly safer option.

Forcing the warped wood to give way fell to Sten and—as he grunted and strained at the door, shifting the masonry and cracking the old timbers—I squinted up at the great, black shadow of the tower. Like the rest of the Peak, its glory days must have been wonderful. Beneath my feet, the corpseweed and moss shielded paving stones that would have sparkled in the sunlight… and it looked as if there might even have been a well, horse troughs, and some kind of pleasant little courtyard between this and the back end of the farthest barracks.

It made too many ill memories surface, however; too many dark associations. I struggled not to think of the Circle of Magi, with its grim hallways and blood-soaked floors, or of Ishal, where it had, perhaps, all begun.

Where we first failed Cailan, and Duncan….

Silly thoughts, I told myself. If Loghain had betrayed the king, then he’d chosen his course long before the battle started, not at the point that beacon was delayed, and he would have to answer for if— no, when this was all over.

Somehow, it was so much easier to cling to the image of Loghain the traitor, rather than admit the perilous tremble of the ground beneath my feet. The Grey Wardens who failed to light the beacon in time… who betrayed the king. The order who summoned demons, and rose up against monarchs. Rebels, outlaws, and necromancers….

“What are you thinking?”

I flinched and caught my breath as the words, and the soft clink of armour fitments, announced Alistair’s presence at my shoulder. The sunlight was growing watery and, when I glanced at him, it seemed that the smudges of shadow it threw over his reddened skin were ground in like ash. He hadn’t been badly burned by the demons—none of us had—but, for a moment, I thought I should have made sure Wynne had healed every last bruise, chap and scrape before we set foot out of the keep. Could she do that? I wondered. I wasn’t even sure magic could take away every hurt. Maybe we were all meant to be left with some scars, lasting or temporary.

I blinked, and flashed Alistair a small, tight smile.

“Oh, you know… just that there always seems to be something bad at the top of a tower. You’d think people would learn to stop building them.”

He grinned wearily. “Mm. Or at least put in some sort of ramp. I’m not looking forward to the stairs. There’s always so many stairs.”

I chuckled; he did, too, and the sound was warm and familiar. Odd, I supposed, how he could be so vindictive with Morrigan, and yet so kind to me. Of course, she had been tormenting him ever since the Wilds, but… all the same, it made me think.

When Shianni and I were young—little more than children poised on the cusp of girlhood—Mother had warned both of us about the danger in the kindness of humans, and how it was not to be trusted. Especially not the men.

I hadn’t really understood at the time.

Now, as I watched the sunlight lance at the gold in Alistair’s hair, and those hazel eyes crinkle through the grime, it was hard to deny how grateful I was for his presence, his kindness, and his friendship. And yet, sneaking back through the mists of memory, I remembered the hard-fought battle at Redcliffe Castle, and how I’d choked Bann Teagan unconscious after—in his wild possession—he’d attacked me. I remembered how, as I was gasping and spitting blood and teeth, Alistair had shoved me aside to get to the bann’s prone form, and the recollection of the hardness in his voice as he demanded to know what I’d done sent a small spear of discomfort down my spine.

Oh, we’d all changed since then, though. I knew that.

Everything had changed.

I glanced over to the foot of the tower as, with one last grunt and something that sounded like a qunari swearword, Sten managed to get the door open.

Morrigan rose from the piece of broken masonry she’d been sitting on, the feathers at her shoulders ruffling.

“Marvellous. Into the creature’s den, then, yes?”

Sarcasm dripped from her voice. Beside me, Alistair snorted.

“Got over your nerves, have you? And here I was, about to offer to be a gentleman and go first.”

“Do so,” she sneered, glaring at him. “If we are lucky, perhaps there will be traps, still in working order.”

As a group, we had started to filter uneasily towards the dark hole in the stonework, as if it held some kind of magnetic pull. Zevran was closest, already peering into the ruptured doorway. He sniffed, and pulled a face.

“Unlikely, I think. This whole place smells rotten.”

“Careful,” Morrigan warned. “That may just be Alistair.”

He scoffed witheringly. “Oh, yes! Stink jokes. Great. It’s like being back at the monastery….”

“Well, if the boot fits—”

I winced. It was like children… the high, nervous chatter of children trying to disguise their fears. Glancing to my right, I saw Levi wetting his lips, and he gave me a shaky smile, the look on his face one third curiosity and two thirds terror.

“Are they, uh, always…?” he asked, nodding towards Alistair and Morrigan.

“Always,” I said quietly. “You learn to block it out after a while.”

The trader’s smile widened, but he didn’t look much more comfortable. I arched a brow.

“Would you prefer to wait out here? I could leave the hound to guard you.”

Maethor whined quizzically and cocked his ears—mabaris evidently did understand almost every word—but Levi shook his head vigorously.

“Oh, no! No, Warden… I don’t know what might be in there, fair enough, but I don’t reckon much on chickening out now.” He puffed out his scrawny chest, then blinked and deflated a little. “Or on staying out here if you’re all in there, to be honest.”

I smiled. “Fair enough.”

~o~O~o~

Wynne conjured a small orb of light in her palm, and tossed it into the air like a ball. It stayed there, hovering and moving in a lazy circle around her head, and cast a pale, eerie light on the stones as we ventured inside. For all the tension that led up to our entering the tower, however, the first few rooms we found were a complete anticlimax.

All we found were old supply rooms, bare but for a few dusty crates and rotted sacks, and what had once been service quarters, housing kitchens, wood store, and a small scullery. There was a strong smell of stagnancy and decay, but no sign of anything demonic… or even faintly magical. Still, just one glance at Morrigan had me right on edge; her face was tight and mask-like, those golden eyes wide and alert, like a cat, and her lips drawn into a thin line as we poked through the dust and grime. I looked at Wynne, and saw the same wary trepidation. The orb circling her head cast dancing planes of light over her cheeks, and I nearly flinched at the creak of Sten testing his weight on the staircase that led to the next floor.

“Hmph.” He grunted as the half-rotted treads protested loudly. “Have care. The stone is sound, but the boards are not.”

Zevran smiled mirthlessly as he paced delicately past the qunari, his feet barely making the stairs groan. “Ah, it’s not so bad. You see? Light as feathers, my friend. You know, I once had a dancing teacher who said that most of life is learning how to be light on your feet.”

Alistair furrowed his brow as, in single file, we began to edge up the treacherous staircase. “The Crows give all their assassins dance lessons, do they?”

Even from my position at the back of the group, tailing Levi and with Maethor padding warily beside me, I could positively hear Zevran smirk.

“Did I say I took lessons? I merely said I—”

“What? Oh! Er… right.”

Alistair blushed so hard we almost didn’t need Wynne’s light. The Antivan chuckled to himself, and we processed ever upwards to an orchestra of creaks and groans from the stairway. As Sten had observed, the supports—in fact, most of the tower’s basic structure—was fine, but the wooden treads were another matter. It was the damp, I supposed. Left untended for more than a century, and at the mercy of the traditional cold, wet Fereldan winters, it was small wonder the timbers were so far gone. And at least it wasn’t darkspawn corruption… or the boiling, foul messes of flesh we’d seen in the Circle Tower.

Of course, the apparent quiet was false.

The first creature ripped out from a side-chamber, no sooner than we’d begun investigating the second floor. A shade: the things that were as close to the natural form of demons as it was possible to be in the mortal realm.

It caught at Leliana first. I heard her scream in the split-second I was turning at the sound of movement, and then everything became jumbled and confused. There was just the roar of the thing, and coldness scything through me, part terror and part a strange, physical sensation, like the world was closing in around me and bringing with it only blood and pain.

This was much bigger than the ones in the commander’s quarters; more like the things we’d encountered at Redcliffe. I remembered the words of the blood mage, Jowan, about not letting them see you… and the way they were supposed to feed on mortal souls.

We splintered, endeavouring to confuse the target, and Sten gave a deafening shout in his own tongue. The shade reared up, all swirling blackness and cruel talons, with not so much a face at its heart but a wizened shroud of shadows and vileness. It gave an unearthly, rattling wheeze, like the death-gasp of an old man, and I was readying to strike at it when a blast of ice and magic seared everything in front of me, and left blue spots dancing across my vision.

I swore, staggered back, and heard rather than saw Sten bringing his massive blade in an arc that connected with the demon forcefully enough to shatter its frozen form. A horrible shriek rent the air, and unexpectedly solid blocks of ice scudded across the floor—and, in one case, hit me in the shin.

It was over quickly. To an outsider, it might have looked like efficiency, like a well-honed team acting as one. In truth, we had been taken by surprise, and it could easily have gone badly.

Leliana was clutching her arm, blood welling from beneath the bands of her leather bracer and, as Wynne went to heal her, I was aware of Alistair cussing and wincing.

“…even look where you’re— ow! No, don’t touch it!”

Morrigan scowled. “You are a child. It will wear off in but a moment.”

He looked hopelessly at me. “She froze my hand. My actual hand. Look!”

He was right. The gloved fingers clenched around his sword were blue and frosted with ice—as was the blade itself. I’d never seen anything like it and, though I should probably have been making sympathetic noises, I couldn’t help my fascination. Morrigan tutted irritably.

“Honestly, such fuss. If you were not in the way when I cast the spell—”

“Well, if you ever actually looked where you were throwing your… your fireballs and whatnot—”

“Oh?” Her glower deepened even further. “Perhaps you would like me to throw one now? That should warm you up most effectively.”

Alistair drew breath, undoubtedly to keep arguing, but his hand was already beginning to defrost. I winced as I watched the arcane ice yield, like the fastest winter thaw speeded up, and remembered the pain of winter mornings as a child; playing in the snow, only to come back indoors to the agonising heat of a warm room.

Alistair’s sword clattered to the ground, and he yelped.

“Ow! Owww….”

He clutched at the hand, eyes watering as he struggled to bend his fingers, flexing them through the pain. The ice had melted, but as I stooped to pick up his sword for him, I saw it wasn’t wet, the way it should have been. It was only slightly damp at the hilt, as if the ice didn’t turn to proper water, but seared away into nothingness, like mist.

“Here.” I held the blade out, pommel first. “All right?”

Alistair nodded, clenching and unclenching his fingers. “Thanks. Is Leliana…?”

He glanced over to where Wynne had now finished healing the bard’s arm, and I went over to investigate, while he pulled off his glove and made a show of inspecting the possible frostbite on his hand, much to Morrigan’s annoyance.

Leliana was fine, though a little sore. Wynne assured me it was nothing but a flesh wound and, privately, I was thankful that demons didn’t spread corruption the way darkspawn did. Everyone else seemed all right; Sten was waiting by the staircase, and I wasn’t sure whether I was getting better at judging qunari body language, or if his posture really did scream impatience.

“We should move,” I said, taking a quick visual inventory of the rest of the group. “Levi? Zevran?”

The trader was looking distinctly queasy again, but nodded and stumbled forwards, peering in alarm at the detritus of battle that still littered the floor. Maethor groaned softly and padded at Levi’s side, nudging his nose into the man’s hand. I smiled to myself, aware of how much the hound’s comfort helped at times like these.

Zevran was the last to file towards the stairs, and he seemed to be tucking something into a pouch at his belt. I raised my brows enquiringly, but he just gave me a small, suave smile.

“Find something interesting?”

“Merely trifles, my dear. Merely trifles.”

“Hm.” I narrowed my eyes as he slipped by me, that scent of leather and oil, tainted with sweat and blood, rising from his golden hair. “Portable ones with a good resale value, I trust.”

Zevran chuckled throatily. “Ah, meraviglioso… so, we are more alike than you think, eh?”

I snorted, and cast one last look around the shattered chamber. It had been some sort of common room once, I thought. Beneath the rot, cobwebs and broken furniture, there seemed to be the traces of old chairs, tables, and maybe even the sorts of curios mages collected around themselves. Zev had a point. It made sense to lift anything valuable that might be worth selling next time we needed to barter for supplies, but this place was so entrenched in filth that I wasn’t sure I wanted to dirty my hands with it… and that, I told myself, was where the Antivan and I were very firmly different.

~o~O~o~

Things did not improve as we ascended. Alistair observed wryly that this did indeed seem to the case with towers: the more stairs, the more problems, and it all got worse with every floor.

“…abominations, and bits of… yuck all over the place,” he was saying, in response to Zevran having enquired about the Circle Tower. “And there was a sloth demon. They try to trick you… get inside your head. We’ll have to watch out for that,” he added, the levity of sarcasm dropping from his voice and his face growing taut as, I assumed, he remembered the dreams of the Fade.

I remembered them, too: his, and Wynne’s, and Leliana’s, and my own. They had added weight now, with all the sore, bitter truths of Denerim behind us. I supposed the only time my father would live would be in my dreams, and as for Alistair’s hopes of an accepting, loving family… well, they were as good as ashes. I wondered, if something like the sloth demon assailed us again, whether it would be easier to resist. Maybe, or maybe this made us more vulnerable, and we would fall as easy prey to the seductions of dreams.

There wasn’t much opportunity to dwell on the thoughts. We found more shades roaming the damp, empty upper floors, more wraiths and terrible, bone-chilling creatures that swooped straight at the soul, staring with dead, eyeless faces and rending with claws of black steel.

I didn’t understand how—if they were truly demons—they could be so physical, so distinctly of the mortal plane. I clung, then, to the ideas the Chantry taught: that the Fade was a land of dreams, and that the reality we experienced in our waking hours was the one that mattered.

As Wynne had already tried to tell me, it wasn’t true. It isn’t. Not always. The lines that blur the two things are shifting, ever leaching like the mixing of ink into water. Demons, spirits, dreamers… they all gather reality around them like dust, and there is far more to fear than the simple possession of corpses by creatures from beyond the Veil.

By the time we had fought our way to the very top of the tower—that curious kind of eyrie where, in their natural habitats, mages seem to prefer to make their homes—all of us were bruised and bloody, but Wynne and Morrigan had, by far, given the most. They both looked exhausted, and yet neither complained or asked to rest; if anything, they appeared to be trying to outdo each other over who could press hardest or go longest. They certainly shared a grim kind of determination, all set mouths and flint-hard eyes, wordless and pale as energy flared around them in great, crackling arcs.

If I hadn’t been so busy trying to stay alive, I’d have noted with amusement how well they worked together, despite all their differences.

At the Circle Tower, the uppermost floor had been given over to the Harrowing Chamber, and I remembered all too well its high, vaulted ceilings, and the huge, empty spaces that echoed with the screams of abominations. Here, though, there was no such showpiece. The Grey Wardens had evidently had no need of one and, like the rest of the tower, this floor seemed broken up into storage chambers, sleeping quarters, and rooms that had once heaved with books and trinkets. Everything was wrecked now… and I could see that it was less to do with the unforgiving Fereldan winters, as I had first thought, and more the constant passes of a century of demons, their whole beings centred on rage and destruction. It was a wonder the damn place was still standing at all.

“Look at this,” Alistair said, nudging a partly charred book with his boot. “These are records of some kind, I think. Notes, or… something.”

We were standing in a dim, low-ceilinged chamber. The only light apart from Wynne’s orb came from a narrow window, little more than an arrow slit in the thick stone wall. Overhead, heavy wooden beams lousy with worm were hung with cobwebs, and the smell of decay seemed to be in everything. These chambers had been laboratories once, probably: the rat holes of men of learning. There was a long, low bench near where Alistair stood and, behind him, a rank of shelves. They all seemed less disturbed than the furniture in the lower chambers, still covered with long-discarded drifts of brittle paper and yellowed books, and we hadn’t encountered anything unpleasant since the floor below.

I glanced at Wynne, and found her looking tight-lipped and cautious.

“Let me see that,” she murmured, moving stiffly to Alistair’s side.

We had yet to encounter any trace of the old Warden mage—or his demon-possessed corpse, or any permutation of animated bones—and I supposed Wynne’s trepidation was something we all shared. Everything could still get worse, after all. Perhaps not the most optimistic view to cultivate, but definitely plausible.

I followed her, peering down curiously at the book Alistair had found. It was huge, like one of the massive, illuminated volumes of the Chant and collected sermons I’d seen priests read from on the lecterns in Denerim’s cathedral. It wasn’t filled with jewel-like colours and marvellous words, though, but page after fragile page of discoloured writing. Much of it was illegible—certainly to me—and the paper held several unpleasant-looking stains, but the letters I could make out looked terse and clinical, as if the writer had squeezed everything they wanted to say into some kind of condensed shorthand.

Wynne’s brow furrowed. “They are notes. Notes from someone’s experiments, or… I don’t know. It mentions tests, and here there is a complaint of ‘a deficiency of subjects; only three are left’.”

Her hand hovered over the book, but she seemed unwilling to touch it. I wasn’t surprised. Alistair curled his lip.

“Left after what? And what was whoever wrote this testing? And on who?”

“Blood,” Wynne murmured, her finger tracing a path above a word I could see repeated over and over again across the pages. “‘Blood… and energy’.”

Levi shuddered. “Andraste’s oath… I wish I’d never come here. On the Maker’s sigh, I wish I hadn’t. I’m sorry for dragging all of you into this, I truly am. If I’d ever known—”

“Ugh!” Morrigan sneered. “Will you cease your complaints, you wretched little man? We are here, and regretting it is both useless and foolish. I say finish this, take what may be of value, and leave this place to continue crumbling into the earth.”

The trader’s mouth snapped shut, and he stared at the witch in bug-eyed terror. I supposed I should have said something, but Morrigan had worked too hard and too long for me to reprimand her then… particularly, I suspected, if I wanted to continue living with all my fingers and toes.

“We could,” Zevran chipped in helpfully, “simply leave now, of course. I mean, we have been fortunate so far, yes? We are all still standing, no one has succumbed to horrific visions or demonic possession… this could, if you permit me, be perceived as a victory. So, you know, we could—”

“This must end.”

Sten’s words descended over the burgeoning discussion like a rockfall. He stood near the chamber’s far door, peering down what I had taken to be a corridor that, if this floor was like the others, probably led to two more rooms, most likely either libraries or some other kind of laboratory.

He turned, and his face was set into a scowl of implacable determination. Those white braids, smutted with soot and speckled by ash, hung over the shoulder of his makeshift armour, their colour a sharp contrast to the dark, oiled leather and metal rings of Owen’s handiwork.

“This whole place is an aberration,” he growled. “Let it be brought down.”

I recalled our last night in Redcliffe, and how we had all sat in the tavern, doused in celebration and pickled in cheap, watered beer. Sten had given me a curious insight into qunari views on magic then… he’d called it perversion, horror; a sword with no hilt.

As a fish stranded by the tide knows the air, or a drowning man knows the sea, so does a mage know magic.

The words had stayed with me, and not just because I had been so surprised that our taciturn companion could have such a poetic turn of phrase when he did speak.

I’d always been a little afraid of magic. We all were, where I came from, because we didn’t understand it, and it wasn’t a part of our lives the way things like expensive healers and gaudy enchanted trinkets were for humans. The only ways we encountered it were through the occasional mage-child born to elves, who was always ripped away from her family by templars—like the girl whose family lived upstairs from us when I was small had been—or through some scabbed, desperate runaway who might pass by the alienage, hoping for protection from family and old friends. The templars always came for them too, as I remembered.

Still, everything I’d seen, everything I’d learned… everything I owed my life to, a dozen times over and more… I couldn’t dismiss that. Besides, the demon that had possessed Sophia Dryden had tried to barter for the destruction of this tower, and whatever secrets it held. What guarantee did I have that, if we did what Sten wanted and just destroyed everything we found, we wouldn’t find ourselves knee-deep in more demons?

And yet, if the Wardens had done something that had torn the Veil….

I sighed, and moved away from Alistair and Wynne, into the bare-boarded space at the centre of the room.

“I’m not leaving,” I said, glancing around my rag-tag, battered little group. “Not until this is finished. But it’s Grey Warden business. Whatever’s left of the mage, whatever happened here—I want answers.”

We pushed on, down the eerie, echoing stretch of the corridor, and at every shadow I expected more demons, though nothing leapt out of the darkness.

“It ain’t ’alf gone quiet,” Levi murmured, his voice a breathless tremor.

I thought at the time that, for a man such as him to have come this far with us, he was either much braver than he gave himself credit for, or hiding a much more colourful past than he pretended.

“Not far now,” Wynne said quietly, her gaze fixed on the end of the hallway.

I wondered what she meant, but then we followed the curve in the corridor, hugging the outline of the tower itself, and I saw what looked like candlelight spilling onto the stones from an open doorway.

There was another chamber up ahead… and I had never known walking corpses to use candles.

———————————
Volume 3: Chapter Fourteen
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Twelve

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The keep had evidently once been busy. We found officers’ quarters, storerooms and larger spaces, their original use unclear, but their final use all too obvious. The siege had seen people camped together, pressed cheek-by-jowl as they awaited the end. In what had probably been a great hall—a meeting place, or maybe somewhere for guests—we found more bones… including those of a child, perhaps less than ten years of age. Old canvas and leather packs and cots had rotted to the floor, and the great carved faces of statues—Grey Wardens of legend, I assumed, from their heraldry and fearsome dignity—looked down impassively at the scene.

“Maker, look at that!” Levi exclaimed, approaching a dim, battered painting that hung between two of the statues. “That’s her, that is! Sophia Dryden herself.”

I glanced over. There wasn’t much of a family resemblance. I saw, picked out in oils dulled with years and dust, a stern-looking woman with black hair and a face like a cobbler’s lathe, all flat planes and uncompromising hardness. She wore armour like that of the statues—huge and ornate, and probably mostly ceremonial—and seemed to be glaring out of the canvas as if she disapproved of the world that had come about around her.

Yes… I supposed it could be the face of a Grey Warden who’d turned to forbidden magic, seduced by the idea of being able to control something so dark.

“Strange,” Morrigan said archly, tilting her head as she peered at the portrait. “She does not look a fool.”

Levi turned to face her, mouth open, presumably about to defend his family’s honour, but shut it again without saying a word. Of course, those golden, cat-like eyes could do that to a person.

Still, I couldn’t help it: I wanted to be angry. I wanted to be angry with the order, with the old tyrant, Arland, with the bloodshed and the evil, and everything else… and yet it didn’t quite happen. It felt too much like walking on ground that, if not hallowed, was marked as something other, something set aside. There were too many graves beneath my feet for my judgement alone to change them.

One of the statues caught my eye, too. I supposed, back in Warden-Commander Asturian’s time, this chamber would have been one of those impressive public spaces, meant to dazzle and awe guests—which probably meant we were nearing the Commander’s chambers. I could just imagine those granted an audience with the leader of the Wardens being made to wait here, under the gaze of these disdainful marble gods. It didn’t seem like something Duncan would ever have done in his role as Commander, and I supposed that marked out how much things had changed in the time the Grey Wardens had been banished… and how different things had been since we returned.

“It’s Garahel,” Alistair said, noticing me staring at the statue. “The Warden who slew the last archdemon. He was—”

“Elven.” I nodded absently. “I know.”

The thing had to be at least six feet high: taller than Garahel himself would have been, and definitely much taller than me. It was beautifully carved, with attention to detail on all the buckles and plates of his wide, expansive suit of armour. A griffon, rampant, was picked out on his chest, while his hands leaned on the pommel of a vast longsword. The visor of his helmet was pushed back, displaying a face too perfectly carved to possibly resemble anyone real—the eyes didn’t even have pupils, and no elf I’d ever seen had such wide cheekbones, or such a square, human jaw. The helmet itself, though… that would have been a piece of work. The statue showed it cut high, specially made to allow room for proper ears, and Garahel’s jutted proudly from the sculpted metal, proclaiming his blood, his identity, in a way I’d never seen, or ever thought to see.

A statue of an elf. An actual memorial, a mark of honour… a tribute to an elven Warden, who had possessed power and influence, and before whom the leaders of men had bowed. The legions of darkspawn had broken beneath him, and an archdemon fallen at his blade.

kaelee ai benfotus victus….

I caught my breath, the blood rushing in my ears, and the room seemed to pitch a little around me.

The others were moving on, heading towards—

The Commander’s quarters.

—the second door on the right. I frowned at their backs as they walked ahead of me. How did I know that? And the… the voice. The whispering….

There was a narrow corridor between the room we’d just left and the one we meant to enter… the only room on this floor whose ancient, virtually petrified door remained intact, and closed.

Morrigan’s fingers tightened on the neck of her staff as she raised it defensively, held in two hands before her.

“There,” she said. “In there.”

An atmosphere of intense anticipation settled over us all, and I wished there was more space. Being within close range of Morrigan when she got the scent of blood in her nostrils was frequently painful, not to mention the possibilities of all those elbows and pommels I was just at the right height to catch.

The intense anticipation wasn’t the only thing, however. Whispers filled my head: that voice that did not have the form of a voice returned to hiss into my ears, and murmurs seeped from the stones like grease.

sythan net bekon….

They changed, shifted in the air, and became words that buzzed behind my eyes.

so much ssssuffering… and yessss, blood. Ssso much… blood….

The smell of was in my nose, in the back of my throat—old meat and green copper, the bitter tang of flesh and fury—and I all but gagged.

“C-can’t anyone else hear that?” I blurted, as Sten gave the solid door a shove.

As the wood gave way, the whispers grew in pitch, squealing and vibrating inside my skull. I locked gazes with Wynne, and saw the alarm on her face, those clear blue eyes so much harder than I’d seen them… at least since the Circle Tower.

The whispers were a roar now, and I was amazed none of my companions could hear, or smell, or… they were somewhere else, somewhere through thick, heavy water, somewhere through the rushing in my pounding head. I could see them receding—Sten, Alistair, Leliana, Levi, Morrigan and Zevran, all filing through that door—and Wynne, in front of me, her hand gripping my shoulder.

I felt it, I realised. Felt her pulling me back, the strength of her power…. I felt that—and I felt the ringing, open-palmed slap she landed across my cheek.

“Ow!”

“Never let them in,” she hissed. “Never!”

I put my hand to my face, the world reeling about me in a mess of smeared stone and streaked light. What in the Maker’s name had—

“Move,” Wynne urged, shoving me between the shoulder blades with surprising force. “If it is you that creature seeks to parley with, let us have this over.”

My jaw was still throbbing. “Wh…? I don’t understand what—”

She just shoved me again and, Maethor growling in a low rumble at my heels, I found myself pushed into what had once been the Warden-Commander’s privy chambers.

It must have been beautiful, once.

It must have been luxurious, grand, impressive… a room of dark wooden furniture and an enormous desk with a gigantic silver inkwell on it, and paintings hanging on the walls. There was a fireplace like the one in the library, either side of it held up by two carved griffons… but there was nothing but ash in the grate, and nothing but rot and decay in place of the ornate luxury. In the corner, a greatsword almost as tall as me stood on an ancient iron frame. Cobwebs thronged it, but I could make out the intricate detailing on the hilt, and the glint of jewels set into the tang and crossguards.

The smell of death, that sickly bouquet of flesh and dusky, must-rimed stagnation, choked me. The room’s shadows ran long and deep, the only light cast by two small windows at the top of the far wall, little more than arrow slits punched into the stone. It was like a tomb: an oppressive, dusty, stinking tomb… and, like most tombs, it was not empty.

The figure that stood between the great carved fireplace and the heavy desk was human, or at least ostensibly so.

It appeared to be a woman, tall and broad, with dark hair hanging to her shoulders in stringy hanks. She was heavily armoured in plate liveried with silver and dark blue, and the light caught at the ornate edging on the immense, collared pauldrons.

She did not turn at once, but tilted her head to the side as if she had heard our arrival, and was considering how worthy we were of her attention. At my side, Maethor put his ears back, flat to his skull, and bared his teeth. A low growl brewed in his throat.

We all knew what this creature was… but it didn’t make the knowing any easier.

I expected to hear the demon-whispers in my head again—this thing, this creature, tasting my mind and reaching out to me. Why me? I wondered. Was I weaker, easier to break than the others?

I felt the murmurs stir, the faint hiss of a word outlined against my mind, and I closed the thoughts off, determined to meet this threat head-on, and in a world of flesh, not dreams.

The… whatever-she-was… the corpse, the puppet, the thing that, so many years ago, had been Sophia Dryden—and yes, she was recognisable from her portrait in the hall, up there among those other heroes—turned slowly and jerkily towards us. Its head hung low, as if it was an effort for the creature to sustain lifting it, and the wet-looking hair (not damp, I could see now, but thick with grease and rot, like frayed rope coated with fat) hung around a face certainly ravaged by death, but better preserved than anything ought to be after a century of decay.

The eyes had turned to milky, sightless orbs, sunken and grotesque, while the flesh and muscle that held the lower jaw in place was rotted, slack… even the skin itself seemed to be barely stringing the creature together, a bloody mess of withered, white puckers and dark, decayed lesions. A demon’s powers might do much to keep a corpse together enough to walk, I supposed, but it could not completely halt the natural order of things. At least, not forever.

There was a whimper somewhere to my left, and I was aware of Levi clutching a hand to his mouth, clamping down on the obvious urge to gag. I couldn’t blame him.

The creature’s slack jaw dropped a little further open, and a creaking rush of air sounded, as if the thing was wheezing a death rattle. I’d heard the noises the corpses at Redcliffe made: snarls, groans and wordless, angry cries of anguish. The dead didn’t talk… but the cleverer kind of demon did.

The voice that left Warden-Commander Dryden’s body echoed and buzzed behind my eyes. It felt like the throb of swarming hornets, or the vicious hum of darkspawn, and I wanted to claw my own skull open, just to make it stop.

“Step no further, ssstrangerss. You enter my place now.”

The words came out thin and metallic, cloyed with a hushed kind of wheeziness… a slight echo that lingered beyond them, like two voices in one, two planes of existence colliding.

That was exactly what it was, I supposed: a demon, unleashed and hungry for a mortal life, trapped in a decaying prison of flesh that could neither feel nor grow. Not that it was easy to find sympathy for the creature.

“We talk.”

Its lips—or what was left of them—didn’t move quite in time with the words. Gums and skin had peeled back, shrinking from what teeth remained in its head and giving them an elongated, fang-like appearance. A dark, clotted, bloody wound, not unlike the withered lesions I’d seen on darkspawn flesh, took up part of the thing’s left cheek, and its head swayed slowly from side to side as it formed the right mouth-shapes for speaking.

Maethor lunged forwards, claws scraping on the stones, his teeth bared as he barked and growled ferociously.

The demon wearing Sophia’s body hissed, and raised one heavy gauntlet, twisting that dead, rotten face away. Was that fear, I wondered, or anxiety over possible damage to its host? How in the Maker’s name did we kill this thing anyway? There was no recourse to the Circle Tower here, no lyrium and no rituals… would destroying the body be enough? It worked with the skeletons, at least enough to dissipate their power, but this… this was a stronger, darker creature completely.

My mind ran on apace, thoughts splintering like a school of fish while my gut clenched and my pulse hummed.

The demon turned those milky, crusted eyes on me, the lolling head stooped and nodding as it retreated further behind the desk, its body as hunched as anything wearing that massive armour could have been.

“Get the annoyance away from me! This one would sssspeak with you.”

I held out two fingers, and Maethor backed down, though he still stood by my side, foursquare and hackles raised, teeth bared and every muscle bunched in preparation for a killing leap.

The thick, tainted air hung heavy with tension, and I could hear Levi’s ragged breathing.

“Wh-who— what is that?” he stammered.

The rotten, withered head tilted slightly, and that blackened jaw opened, the remnants of lips parted like fetid slugs around the words.

“This one is the Dryden. Commander. Sophia. All thesssse things.”

I didn’t want to look away—didn’t want to risk taking my attention from the creature for a moment—but I could feel Levi’s terror and confusion. I doubted he’d ever seen anything like this before. Technically, neither had I, but it was hardly the time to debate specifics… although it might have been worth a small wager on whether or not the creature actually smelled worse than the darkspawn.

“M-my great-great-grandmother’s dead,” Levi managed. “I don’t know what you are—”

There was something awful about that unblinking stare, like the deathly opalescence of a mirror caught at midnight, or the opaque eyes of a roasted fish, burst and bubbling. The way it tilted that sagging, broken head, birdlike and almost delicate, contrasted horribly with the ugly, crooked movements of its face.

“This one hasss tasted her memoriesss,” it said, with something unpleasantly like a hungry leer, leaning forward and placing Sophia’s gauntlet-covered hands on the desk. “Ssseen her thoughts and hidden placesss. But she is food for this one. No more, no less.”

The thin threads of light that pierced the room picked out every lesion, every ragged, rotten scar. The stink of death and sulphur assailed me, and bile rose in the back of my throat.

I had to turn my head away, gulping at the hope of air I knew wouldn’t be any fresher, and I could see the faces of my companions, ashen and staring. The fingers of Leliana’s left hand were at her throat, touching the symbol of Andraste she wore, as a silent prayer moved on her lips. Zevran was beside her, his face blank but his eyes two burning coals, seeking weaknesses and weighing chances. Wynne and Morrigan, both tight-lipped, stood near the door like twin watchmen, the tension evident in every muscle, while Alistair already had his sword drawn, the blade held low but ready. Revulsion etched every line of his face, and it was the same outrage I saw flash in Sten’s vivid, angry eyes as he looked at me, not even acknowledging the presence of the creature before us.

“The Qun is clear in the matter of demons,” he said stiffly. “They must be destroyed, quickly and efficiently. Enough talk.”

He had a point… not that I was in any kind of rush to fight the thing. We might have outnumbered it, but I had no idea what it could do. I opened my mouth, but my head felt full and fuzzy, and the words lay thick on my tongue.

At my side, Maethor growled. The demon leaned further forwards, the greasy remnants of hair hanging from its peeling scalp, its whole manner that of some ingratiating, horrific reptile. Its head swayed from side to side as it spoke, and that keening buzz, that incipient murmur, grated in my ears.

“Sssstrike this one down now, more will come. Ssso many here in thisss place. Make deal, you thwart many of my kind. This one can help you do that. This one will explain, yessss?”

Alistair curled his lip. “Do we really want to hear this? I didn’t think we were in the business of making deals with demons.”

I shook my head. We weren’t. I wasn’t… and yet my head was laden with pictures and thoughts that didn’t feel right. Elven Wardens, in sleek, silver armour, and whispers of power and gold.

The creature fixed me once more with those dead eyes, and its crabbed, wheezing, two-toned voice scraped against the inside of my skull.

“The Soldier’s Peak trapsss me. All of ussss. We came at the mage’s summon, and he bindsss us here. Already you end many of my kind to get thisss far. There are others. Othersss from which this one keeps you safe. This one commands you are not to be touched… because thisss one would propose a deal. Choose this one, or many of my kind.”

The blackened lips peeled back into a hideous parody of a grin, and my gut lurched. Alistair let out a cough of incredulous disgust.

“Huh. Really? We’re meant to trust a demon’s word, are we?”

I couldn’t tear my gaze from the demon as it straightened up, preening in the rotted, stinking body it wore, befouling that venerable armour with its filthy, tainted flesh. If that was true—if it alone could keep back more of its kind, like starving dogs snarling at each over a bone—how powerful must it be?

It spread Sophia’s hands humbly, and looked up with those dead eyes, the curled grin of its ragged mouth deepening.

“Could this one ssstand against such mighty foe? Sssee how easssily you cut down my brethren, yesss? This one would be a fool to cross you. Lisssten… then ssstrike this one down, if the termsss are unacceptable.”

That awful, ingratiating whine in its voice made me feel dirty, and the stench of death and empty years seemed to cling to my skin, clogging my throat.

“What do you want?” I heard myself ask, the voice a rough, hoarse whisper, barely mine.

I knew the others wouldn’t approve. I was sure I heard Wynne’s reproachful intake of breath. Any of them would have been brave and noble and simply batted away the idea of striking bargains with demons. But I wasn’t them… I was tired, and sore, and afraid of choosing an evil we couldn’t fight over one we might just be able to handle.

The demon leered at me.

“This one sees ssso many tantalising places in the Dryden’s memoriesss,” it said, with an air almost of triumph, its dead stare sickeningly compelling. “This one would see the world for herself. Sssee, roam… feed. If you kill the mage, break the tower, this one will ssseal the Veil. No more demons, no more enemies. Your Peak, all sssafe. Then you let this one go into the world. Yes?”

The silence in the chamber was deafening. I could barely breathe. Thoughts roared in my mind—memories that weren’t even my own, and the suffocating drawl of these long-dead Wardens and their tainted sanctity. I could hear the clang of metal on pitted metal, the steel-song of blades and the thuds of bodies falling… the cries and shouts of men as the battle fell away around them, and left only the demons.

…we would have sssstood until the last, never sssurrendered, never danced the jig on Arland’sss gallowsss….

The Dryden—the thing that was no longer Sophia, that brave and brilliant commander, that warrior who had held her men to the same tough standards she set for herself, and whose bullish, single-minded determination had been her downfall—purred behind my eyes.

Soft, insidious things caressed my mind.

The Warden… it knowsss, yes? It understands. Feelss the weight of command. Knowsss the blood, the sssacrifice of war. Needsss thisss power, yes?

Silver armour glimmered like a fish, slipping quickly through the thoughts that were mine, and yet not mine. A sword, streaked with black, filthy ichor, scythed through the dark, and above everything came that insistent, grinding hum.

So bright, so brave, so sssstrong….

Maethor growled, spittle flying from the white bars of his teeth, and lunged forwards again, loosing another deep, fierce bark.

The hound’s voice cut through the lies. I shook my head, shook the thoughts away… and the shade, the imagining of Garahel flittered into nothingness, lost and broken into pieces against the shadows that flooded back in. There was nothing then but fear, doubt and uncertainty… and anger. Violent, bloody anger, channelled into searing fury. How dare this thing try to blind me? How dare it reach into my mind? And how could I allow it?

I scowled at the creature before us as I reached for my dagger. “That mabari is smarter than you are, demon. We don’t deal with your kind. You die. Now.”

The creature’s wasted, putrid face contorted; blackened, tooth-filled mouth and bloody, grey skin stretched around a snarl of rage.

“Fool!”

It flung itself to the side, exhibiting far more speed and agility than Sophia’s long-dead flesh should have had, and seized the greatsword from its stand. Somehow, I supposed I should have expected that.

The huge blade arced through the air before me, tearing through the dimness and cloaked with the demon’s scream of rage. I jumped back, caught off-guard by its swiftness and the sheer weight of that weapon, and I felt it then… not the things the demon had tried to blind me with, but the things it had been keeping back.

A light—a burst of fire or something, I didn’t see what—erupted at my left, in the fireplace, and there was a noise like the tumble of burning bricks. Heat rolled over me, and there was the roar of flames. The demon propelled Sophia’s body towards me and I ducked and twisted, throwing myself out of the way as Sten met the blow with an almighty clash of his two-handed blade.

The heavy wood of the Warden-Commander’s desk pressed into the small of my back and, in one jumbled, insane moment, I saw what looked like a creature made of fire bloom forth from the fireplace. It burned—real fire, real flames—yet it was contained, as if it was not just in the form of fire, but truly made from it. The thing had no head, no mouth or face, yet it seemed to cry out, its roar that of blind rage and the howl of vicious flames.

I didn’t even see Morrigan, but then a blast of ice cut down the centre of the room, steam billowing where it met the fire-creature. It seemed to slow it, though it didn’t stop the thing entirely. I had no time to stare, however: Sophia came staggering back under the weight of Sten’s next blow, and one heavily plated elbow almost smashed me in the face. I tried to grab on, holding the demon from getting two hands back on that massive blade, and—in my usual, not-so-classic manner of battle—landed a good, hard kick in the back of the creature’s knees.

Of course, when the opponent is already dead, targeting tender areas is not much use.

In any case, she flung me aside, the stench of decomposed flesh choking me even as one gauntleted fist met the bridge of my nose. Pain seared through my skull and stars flashed before my eyes. I staggered sideways, aware of Alistair’s bellow of alarm as I hit the wall. I could just make him out by the door… trying to hold it shut.

Oh, crap.

Tasting blood, I drew my second dagger—the room was already quite full enough with swords—and tried to take stock.

At Redcliffe, we’d dispatched the undead by removing their heads. That worked. It was permanent. It had seemed to work just as well with the corpses we’d encountered in the foregate, though the whole fortress was so riddled with demons and spirits that Maker alone knew whether the bastards actually stayed dead.

That aside, Sophia was too heavily armoured to make decapitation a simple option, and I didn’t know what one did with demons made entirely of fire. I saw Wynne and Morrigan tackling that creature, I thought, but the steam and flames and magical energy—rending the room with its bright crashes and that hot, searing smelled that itched right at the back of my throat, even through this accursed stink of death—blurred my vision.

I heard Maethor yelp, and my heart leapt in panic, but I couldn’t see him. There was nothing to do but lunge back at the Sophia-creature, dancing and twisting and trying to stay out of the way of that sword of hers while I looked for a weakness in the armour.

She was a match for Sten. That terrified me.

Up until that moment, every time I’d seen him fight he’d seemed to scythe through enemies like corn… but now that dark, graven face was set into a grimace of effort, bright eyes narrowed and white braids swinging wildly. The two of them were pressed close, blade to blade, his physical strength against the demon’s unnatural prowess. I saw that blotched, blackened face open in a vile and hateful scream, and plunged the first of my daggers into the join at the back of its breastplate, just beneath the arm.

It was enough to distract the demon, but not much more. It broke from Sten and, as I ducked away, trying to lead it, he was able to land a blow across its back. That greasy, rope-like hair caught against the ravaged, pitted flesh of its sunken face, and yet it swung again with such dexterity, such quickness… I barely had time to take a breath before I had to dart out of range again.

I should have looked more closely at where I stepped. The mages’ spells burned a path across the floor, and I stumbled as the edge of what felt like a wall of water hit me. It was something arcane, some kind of magic that, later, I would learn was tied to the school of spirit.

At the time, all I knew was that it sucked the air from my lungs and left me light-headed and then I was staring into the very core of the thing made of flames, and I felt its rage burning right to the centre of my soul.

It swung at me with some kind of appendage that might loosely have been termed an arm, and I leapt back, the heat bursting over me, fit to roast me through my leathers. There was another flash, a smell like warm bread and copper, and the thing roared. It seemed weakened, though… much like our defences.

The door to the Commander’s quarters did not hold, and I saw with horror that more walking dead had swarmed their way up to us. Maker knew where they’d sprung from… whether the demon had been holding them back, like it said, or commanding them the way we’d seen the creature that had possessed Connor do in Redcliffe. Maybe they’d been following us like hounds on a blood-scent since the moment we stepped through the gates.

It didn’t matter. What was undeniable was the numbers: long-dead Wardens and king’s men alike, bones discoloured and bedraggled with moss and corpseweed, their rag-tag armour hanging from them as—weapons clenched in fleshless fingers—they tore their way through the door. There was no way we could cut through that volume of the creatures… but there was no escape, either.

I gripped my blades, and launched myself back into the fray, prepared to go down fighting.

It was more a brawl than a battle; though the chamber was large, it was a mess of scuffling bodies, no space for form or elegance. Between the flares of magic and the flames of demons, I saw snatches and impressions of what was happening, burned against my eyes like the still frames of a sky riven by lightning.

Alistair was trying to hold the corpses at the door, but the choke point couldn’t keep them off forever. More of the things poured through, and his sword glanced and sang off bone and armour. The mages’ bolts and blasts still ripped the air, but there was more magic at play than that. Not all the walking dead were warriors.

I saw ragged, decayed swatches of fabric clinging to one of the things and, at first, thought it must have been a woman… until venomous, violent magic burst from its withered hands, fingers like dead twigs scribing foul glyphs in the air. The mage-corpse looked better preserved than the others. I found myself wondering if some of the Grey Wardens’ mages hadn’t offered themselves over to the demons, trying to deal their way out of certain death. Had Sophia herself done that? Or had the thing that drove her now only taken her flesh once she was dead?

If it had seen her memories, absorbed her mind that way… she must have been alive, mustn’t she? Alive, and either willing to trade her soul, or too weak to stop the possession.

The thoughts tore at me, maddening impressions of half-answered trailing questions and horrible, horrible possibilities, and they muddied themselves in the fighting. I caught sight of Zevran—his sling pushed back to free both arms, though the injured one was distinctly weaker—sinuously dancing his way past the corpse’s spell, even as Alistair flung his shield up to block the rain of dark fire, and plunging that poisoned blade into the core of its body. The thing squealed, hunched, lashed out… but could not stop the next blow that separated its head from its body.

It fell, though its place was taken by more of the things, and I saw Leliana and Zevran pirouette and dive between the creatures, aiming endless solid and efficient strikes. They had a mutual grace, a shared gift with steel and unnerving accuracy that saw them tear down three corpses apiece in quick succession before something rotten and stinking thudded into me and I lost sight of them again, preoccupied with my own dead flesh to rend.

The Sophia-creature had almost forced Sten to his knees as I fought my way back to the edge of the room. I couldn’t see Maethor, and I feared the worst until, with a snarl and an unholy stench of singed fur, the mabari leapt and thudded into that blue-and-silver breastplate, jarring the demon back. It screamed—an ethereal, awful, wheezing cry like the hissing scurry of roaches—and as the hound was flung aside, I saw not only the blood that streaked his coat, but the portion of the corpse’s slack, withered jaw he’d taken with him.

I pushed forwards, aiming my dagger for the unprotected panel of its neck, thinking perhaps I could get myself onto its back and gain better access from there. It turned, dead eyes staring wildly from a torn, ravaged face, the few yellowed stumps of teeth that were left protruded like barbs around a sickening, black maw… no mouth, no lower part of the face left. Nothing but malice and madness.

I leapt—well, flung myself—too close to the thing for its greatsword to do me any harm, and my momentum was just enough to unsteady it. Sten stuck out a leg, tripped the creature, and I fell with it to the ground, choked and swallowed whole in a fetid fug of putrescent death and smoke. It screamed, flailed, fought me every inch of the way. One hard, gauntleted hand connected with my face, but even as blood filled my mouth and stars burst in front of my eyes, I held fast to its greasy, brittle hair, my blade chewing at the desiccated gristle of its throat.

Those whispers, those words that had no form and yet spoke of everything—wealth, power, peace, victory… the smiling faces of family, and even the imagined arms of a lover—clawed at my mind. The true extent of the demon’s power, even tainted with that insane desperation, was frightening. If it had tried to trick us, the way the sloth demon in the Circle Tower had, I knew we’d all have been lost. Instead, it had assumed I would choose to make a deal… and I didn’t know whether that meant it had underestimated me, or simply been too arrogant.

It made one last effort, clinging violently to the body it had inhabited for so long and trying to shake me off. One gauntleted hand connected with my temple, jarring me just enough to dislodge my grip. The creature managed to get one metal-laced hand around my throat and then we were struggling, somewhere beneath the forest of fire and legs, and the chaos of the fighting blossoming all around us. I punched, kicked, gouged and stabbed, one dagger long since scudded across the floor and the other clutched for dear life in fingers I could no longer feel. It threw me off, and I skidded along the slick, filthy floor, cracking the back of my head on the great dark wooden desk.

The creature began to rear up, intent on ending me, and never saw Sten’s sword coming. The massive pauldrons of the Warden-Commander’s armour protected it from swipes and cuts, but not thrusts. In the brief moment before self-preservation encouraged me to roll out of the way, I saw the hideous grimace of surprise on the withered, ragged face as the qunari’s immense blade punctured the back of its neck and exited cleanly through the front.

The scrape of metal on metal echoed in my ears, then Sten put his foot on the body’s back, bracing it as he freed his sword, yanking the last bloody scraps of gristle and tissue free. The head was finally off, and he growled a single word as he tossed it aside, allowing Warden-Commander Dryden’s body to slump to rest at last.

“Parshaara.”

With that, Sten spun, his form perfect, and broke the skeletal corpse of a Grey Warden into two neat pieces. I spat a mouthful of bloody saliva onto the floor, forced myself upright on watery legs, and reached for my sword.

A column of flame seared the chamber, the whole place reeking of magic and death, and Morrigan’s ice blasts belched out steam as yet more demons met their match. Did they die eternally, or were they just sent back to the Fade? I wondered, but such questions were best left for another time. I just hacked at the first corpse that lurched towards me, a shapeless yell of desperate fury wrenched from my throat.

I can’t say how long we fought, or how many. The demon that had so long ago taken Warden-Commander Dryden had indeed been powerful, and in its wake awful things surged… not just the endless waves of walking dead—the small, weak demons, by comparison, blindly butting at the mortal world like sightless pups to a teat—but shades, and creatures of fire.

We fought, and held, and the bones mounted up at our feet. After far too long, it was finished, and the roaring in my ears seemed disorientating against the sudden hush.

Cautiously, we began to still, to take stock and gauge the chamber and the hallways beyond. Could it really be over, or was this just a brief respite?

Yet, nothing else came. No more strangled wheezing of rotted bones, no more wraiths and horrors. Panting and sore, we began to breathe again. Hands on my knees, I doubled over, bursts of light dancing in front of my eyes, and fought the urge to retch.

“Everyone alive?” I managed.

There was a chorus of assent, and a weak whimper from Maethor. That got me straightened up, and limping across to check on the hound. He was wounded, a deep gash running the length of his shoulder, along with several smaller scrapes to his nose and flank.

“Here.” Wynne winced as she made her way over. “I can help.”

She reached out a hand and, as she touched his brindled coat, the hound growled softly. I cupped his heavy head in my hands, catching the liquid brown eyes with mine.

“It’s all right,” I promised. “If I can take magical healing, so can you.”

Maethor whined quizzically, then yelped as the mage’s power began to flow, coursing over his wounds. It hurt—I knew from experience that this rough and ready kind of healing did—but he didn’t try to bite or scramble away. I ruffled his ears when Wynne finished, and smiled my thanks.

“Good boy. Thank you, Wynne.”

“My pleasure,” she said graciously, though she looked thoroughly exhausted.

Levi—quite sensibly, I thought, though he seemed to feel embarrassed by it—had been hiding under one of the largest, sturdiest tables he could find. He ventured out, looking pale and terrified, and kept making the sign of the Holy Flame over his chest, again and again, like he’d forgotten what his hand was doing.

“M-Maker’s balls,” he murmured, staring at the mess. “I-I never… what…?”

“Rage demons,” Alistair said, from the doorway. “The… things, with the fire. I’d never seen one close up before. Hall’s clear,” he added, scrubbing the back of his wrist across his forehead. “The other things—the things that weren’t corpses—were what we call shades. Demons in their natural form, if you like.”

“Sweet Andraste….” The trader’s mouth wobbled, that wide-eyed gaze scouring every inch of the room, as if more unspeakable horrors might burst from some corner we’d missed. “Are they all—?”

“No idea,” Alistair said, in a tone that would have been acidly cheerful if he hadn’t sounded so tired. “But, right now, things have stopped hitting me. I’m happy.”

He didn’t look it, or sound it, and as he limped over to where I stood, gazing down at the decayed remains of the very late Warden-Commander Dryden, I could see his face was reddened, and his eyebrows slightly singed.

“Are you all right?” I asked softly.

The others were taking a breather. Wynne and Morrigan sat side-by-side on the table Levi had lately been hiding under, and even Sten was leaning against the far wall.

Alistair nodded, but he didn’t look it. He looked bloody, filthy and weary… and shaken, which I wasn’t quite so used to seeing.

“I’m fine,” he said, uncertainty clouding his eyes. “Just… they were all Wardens once, or most of them. And as for her….”

He glanced at Sophia’s headless, crumpled corpse, and then looked at me with an expression of terrible sadness.

“I know,” I said. “It’s not… I mean….”

“Yeah.”

I wished I could think of something slightly more inspiring to say, some way of encouraging us to push forwards, but I was empty and wrung dry. Alistair pulled off his splinted glove, raised his bare hand and, before I realised what he was doing, swiped his thumb across my upper lip. I started at the touch—unexpected, and oddly intimate—and he smiled awkwardly.

“Bloody nose,” he explained. “It doesn’t look broken, though. So, y’know, that’s one good thing.”

I blinked. My blood was indeed smeared over his skin and, now I had time to think about it, my entire face hurt like stink. I sniffed experimentally, tasted blood and soot, and grimaced.

“Yuck,” I said, pressing a tentative finger and thumb to the bridge of my nose, and wincing as I gave it a small pinch. “And ow. You’re right… it’s fine.”

“Good.”

Alistair wiped his hand absently on his leg, while I dabbed at my lip and nose with the back of my knuckle, and sniffed again as I peered down at Sophia.

“How old d’you think that armour is?”

Alistair blew a long breath out between his teeth. “Centuries. It’s symbolic, isn’t it? The Warden-Commander’s armour, with the griffons and… well, it’s in most of those portraits, in the great hall.”

“Mm-hm,” I said thoughtfully. “This… or armour very like it.”

I squinted at the back of my hand, streaked with the blood now crusting on my nose, and scrubbed it against my hip. My leathers were filthy enough for it not to matter.

Alistair narrowed his eyes. “Why?”

“Jus’ thinking.” I shrugged. “I mean, technically, you’re—”

“Wait, what? No! No-ooo… no.” He backed up a couple of paces hurriedly, raising his hands. “Uh-uh. I’m not the one in charge here. And, anyway, you can’t possibly be thinking what it sounded like you were thinking.”

I had to smile at the tone of sheer panic in his voice. From a purely technical perspective, it was true… if we were indeed the only Grey Wardens left in Ferelden, he ought to be Warden-Commander now. He had been Duncan’s protégé, not me, he was the senior recruit… and he was looking at me with a curious mix of abject horror, terror, suspicion, and stubbornness.

Alistair squinted accusingly at me. “You’re not, are you?”

I raised my brows, affecting as much innocence as I could with a patchily bleeding nose and an eye that felt as if it would be puffed up like a mushroom by the morning.

“What?”

“We’re not taking the armour. We’re just not. Even if we could get the stuff off her, I don’t want to think about what’s in there. I mean… yuck! Secondly, it feels disrespectful, and—”

“It wouldn’t fit,” I pointed out, allowing myself a brief grin. “Not unless we had a blacksmith on hand to, er, buff out the bumps.”

It was gratifying to watch Alistair’s cheeks start to turn pink, even under the slight scalding he’d had from the rage demon. He cleared his throat.

“Yes, well, it wouldn’t exactly….”

“And it’s disrespectful,” I added in agreement, at which he looked relieved. “And icky.”

“And icky,” he echoed with a slight smirk. “Yes, all right. Good. I’m glad we concur.”

I smiled, and after a few moments we both sniggered. It seemed odd, in a way, to be choking down fits of the giggles while we stood ankle-deep in corpses, but the elation and hysteria of finding yourself alive after a fight that should really have killed you will do that to a person.

Had we decided to go with Levi alone to investigate the Peak, or had I elected to split the group again and leave Zevran to rest his wounded arm, or Morrigan to stew in her usual grumpy fugue, I felt sure things would have ended differently.

And yet… they weren’t over. Far from it.

I sobered as my thoughts turned to what lay beyond the foregate. As I turned to survey my companions, Morrigan caught my eye. She looked thin and fatigued, her pallid skin waxy and dull, but that golden gaze was still keen.

“The mage tower,” she said, her voice a blade of black slate, filled with an oddly angry tone. “This must be ended properly.”

I nodded. “Let’s catch our breath, then… yes. Whatever happened here—whether it can be repaired or not—we should find the answers there.”

Zevran, kneeling on the floor to allow Leliana to rebind his arm, gave a small and eloquent sniff.

“Ah, yes. Answers. Have we decided, then, whether it is sensible to ask the questions?”

I shook my head. “We can’t walk away. I mean, if the Veil was torn by the Wardens, then… well, there’s a way to mend it, isn’t there?”

My gaze turned to Morrigan and Wynne. The witch just gave me a withering look, as if she couldn’t care less whether I thought this our responsibility or not, and Wynne had a strange, inward sort of expression.

“It may be,” she said, eventually. “And, at the very least, we should try.”

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Volume 3: Chapter Thirteen
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Eleven

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We spent the next morning scrambling, as predicted, through gravel-strewn pathways overgrown with brambles, buckthorns and straggly, thin gorse bushes that scratched and snared any unwary foot or leg.

There was a cut through the hills, a pathway after whose midpoint the wagon would no longer pass. We made a camp in the bare hollow of the hillsides, and left Bodahn and Sandal there. Morrigan had been keeping up a litany of complaint about the whole endeavour but—when I suggested that, if she didn’t like it, she and anyone else who wanted could stay back with them—she just shook her head grimly and muttered about us needing all the help we could get.

I should have known that she sensed something powerful hidden among the bones of the land.

Soldier’s Peak had been built, apparently, after the Second Blight, around the middle of the Glory Age. Between them, Leliana and Levi had two equally flowery versions of the story, and by mid-morning I’d heard enough of it to last me several months.

The Grey Wardens had been heroes in the minds of the people, the defeat of the Archdemon Zazikel still a clarion in Ferelden’s fresh history, a raw memory at whose wounds no one begrudged throwing gold or tithes. The Warden-Commander of the day, Gaspar Asturian, had used that wealth to build a fortress that would be more than a centre of command; a place for Wardens to live, train, recruit… and watch.

So it had been, until the tyrant, King Arland, turned on the Grey Wardens and laid siege to the Peak and, when he banished the order from Ferelden, Asturian’s legacy—and his beautiful dream—lay as ashes amongst all the things we had forgotten.

I still reckoned that, if we found the place at all, it would be crawling with bandits, or possibly Loghain’s soldiers.

It was heading onto midday when we stumbled onto the first block of masonry. Zevran found it. He still had his arm in the sling—not, he said, that it mattered. He’d assured me he was still perfectly capable of providing us with assistance… or picking up any pretty little trinkets that might have been left lying around after all these centuries. I’d scoffed, but admitted he had a point. We needed money if we were to keep clothes on our backs and food in our bellies, let alone contemplate the prospect of raising an army against Loghain, and we couldn’t afford to be too picky about where the gold came from.

“A-ha!” he exclaimed, kicking what looked to me like yet another bloody gorse bush.

Now he was back in his light, ornate, leg-baring armour, I could see the bloody bandage that wrapped his left thigh. The thin, autumnal sunlight that lanced down the hard, dank hillsides picked at the curlicues on his chestpiece, and made the gold braids in his hair dance. Not for the first time, I thought that it was less like having a Crow hopping after us than a peacock.

“What?” Alistair asked wearily, squinting up at the ridge before us.

It looked like there must once have been a path here, cut through the rock. A roadway of sorts, perhaps, though long since lost to the barren, hilly ground.

“Look. Under here.” Zevran crouched and, with his good hand, began to tug back the gorse. He cursed under his breath in Antivan but, after a few moments’ work, revealed part of a carved pedestal. He rose to his feet, stood back, and pointed. “There. You see? I think a statue guarded this way once. We are on the right track, no?”

Wynne peered over his shoulder.

“That does look like an inscription,” she admitted, bending for a closer look, her lips moving as she tried to decipher the worn lettering. “…villi—? No. ‘In vigilance’… something… I can’t see what—”

I shot Alistair a wary look, and watched the muscles clench in his jaw.

“Sounds about right,” he said.

“Then we go on.” I nodded to the ridge. “Levi?”

The trader scurried forwards, leather bags and map-rolls hanging off him like a pack mule. He had one of the parchments in his hands, and kept holding it up to the light, as if he could match the squiggles and symbols to the peaks around us.

“Oh, yes. Definitely this way,” he said, striding on ahead, full of self-assurance and a kind of puppyish enthusiasm.

From the back of the group, Morrigan gave a loud and weary sigh.

We headed on and, as Sten passed me, his heavy, chain-laced boots clinked slightly on the packed earth. He grumbled something in his own tongue that, though I didn’t have the first understanding of qunari language, I could guess was probably obscene.

~o~O~o~

Whatever else we might discover about Soldier’s Peak, I was starting to doubt it would be overrun by anyone. It was just too far out of the way, and too damned difficult to get to. It could only have been worse, I decided, if we’d had to slog through miles of underground tunnels to reach its supposed location… although Levi did say there had been rumours of such a maze. Mines, apparently, which the Wardens had laid claim to, and which had once provided a healthy income for the fortress.

“Oh, everything I’ve read says they collapsed years ago, mind,” the trader said, still horribly cheerful as we climbed up yet another ridge.

There was definitely something here. We’d seen more traces of old statuary, more hints of old paths worn away by the years. Once, the Grey Wardens’ presence must have been all over these hills.

“Just as well, I suppose,” Alistair said dryly, pausing to wipe the sweat from his brow with the back of one gloved hand. “We know what tends to come out of tunnels, don’t we?”

Levi looked confused. I grimaced.

“Darkspawn,” I explained, at which he visibly paled. “They break up from under the ground, swarm all over the place.”

The trader made a holy sign with the fingers of his left hand. “Maker’s breath!”

“Don’t worry,” I said, sounding a great deal more confident than I felt. “I don’t sense anything. Alistair?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. Not here, at least.”

As if to mark the words, a murky cloud passed over the weak sun, momentarily dimming the light. Alistair’s wry smile didn’t seem to do much to appease Levi’s concern, and the trader widened his eyes.

“G-Grey Wardens can… sense the ’spawn?”

“But apparently very little else,” Morrigan said darkly, her black iron staff striking the ground with small, dry pits as she stalked up to where we stood, glaring at the ridge beyond as if it might dare to defy her. “You do not feel it?”

“Oh, there she goes,” Alistair said, addressing the world at large as he rolled his eyes skywards. “Drama, gloom, and depression. And I was having such a nice day.”

“Hmph.” Morrigan hunched her shoulders, looking for all the world like an ill-tempered raven. “They do say ignorance is bliss, don’t they?”

I sighed. It was like trying to make two small children behave properly at a wedding.

“What did you mean, Morrigan? Feel what?”

The witch glared at me as if I was an idiot, but it was Wynne who spoke up.

“She’s right. Things feel… strange. I fear whatever happened in this place may have weakened the Veil. We should be careful.”

Levi blinked, evidently confused again. “The… the Veil? W-what…?”

“Demons,” Alistair said wearily, surveying the hillside spread out behind us. “Maybe walking dead if we’re really lucky. D’you think there’ll be walking dead? Or d’you think they’d be too, I don’t know, bony? It’s been a long time since the Peak was inhabited. Maybe walking skeletons. Or—”

“Alistair,” Wynne warned, as Levi looked fit to soil his smallclothes.

“I was just wondering,” he protested, as we set off again. “Would skeletons walk? Or would they shamble? Sort of like… urrrrggghhhh…. Only they wouldn’t have any fleshy bits left to make noises with, so probably—”

“Alistair!”

“Sorry.”

We hiked on in silence for a while, that sense of unease brewing. I remembered all too well the perils of the Circle Tower, and the horrors we’d seen at Redcliffe, and began to think I’d probably have preferred a confrontation with bandits or the Teyrn’s men.

Our first sight of the Peak came as we crested the next ridge. The hills cut away sharply, into what must once have been an impressive approach, though it was now choked with fallen stones, the detritus of landslips and the ravages of time. An incline led up towards the ruin of a gatehouse, and a great portcullis long decayed. Beyond that, the shapes of towers could be made out, like blunted nails scraping across the sky.

It was impressive, yes, and far more than I’d thought we’d find—the place looked huge, more like a walled town than just a simple keep—but there was something painfully sad about the state of it, those fallen stones and long-crumbled walls; a forgotten tomb, choked with thorns.

“Well! There she is, after all.” Levi let out a low whistle between his teeth. “Maker’s breath… what a fortress!”

Beside me, Sten shifted uneasily, a growl escaping his throat.

“We shall see. There are too many hills. It is not an ideally defensible position, and is gone to such ruin it may collapse at any moment.”

“True,” Alistair chipped in with cheerful sarcasm. “But, apart from that, doesn’t it look nice and homey?”

Leliana’s mouth tightened as she looked up at the ruins, and I could have sworn I saw tears well briefly in her eyes.

“It just seems so sad,” she said quietly. “And to think of all those people who died here….”

“Huh.” Morrigan snorted and pulled her cloak tightly around herself, the feathers rustling crisply at her shoulders. “I say again: you are all fools. Let the dead lie undisturbed.”

Alistair grinned. “Oooh… anyone would think you were scared!”

She glared at him and pulled back her lip, baring those small, white teeth, but the damage was already done. I’d never known Morrigan to seem this apprehensive before, and a glance at Wynne confirmed that the older mage felt it too; whatever was hiding there, it was going to be more than bandits.

Even Maethor was hanging back, sitting at my heels, ears cocked as he let out small puffs of breath, each one marked with an almost inaudible whine.

I sighed. Well, no turning back now and, anyway, it wasn’t as if anything was ever easy, was it?

~o~O~o~

It was quiet as we descended the ridge, scrambled up the incline, and entered the gates of Soldier’s Peak. Far too quiet. The whole place seemed dead, desiccated… there were no birds, no vermin, and not even any audible insects making their homes in the buckthorns and brambles that cloaked the stones. Even the vegetation itself seemed strangely dry and static, as brittle as kindling.

The air felt cold, too: more so than just the chill of the coming winter on the breeze. I half-expected ice to crunch beneath my boots, but my steps met only worn and mossy flagstones, their surfaces chased with the creeping tendrils of some tiny-leaved green plant that gave off a strong, musty smell when crushed underfoot.

“Corpseweed,” Morrigan observed, looking down at where I was standing.

I wrinkled my nose. “What?”

“It grows in the Wilds, too. Where dead things decay, and bones lay unburied.”

“Ugh.” I stepped aside hurriedly, and a shiver ran down my spine like cold rain.

With the gates and the broken teeth of the portcullis at our backs, flanked by twin gatehouses set into the main wall, we found ourselves in a wide space… the foregate that came before the keep, I supposed. It curved slightly, bending around the ruined stump of a tower and a clutch of smaller buildings that must once have been thriving, busy places; stables, quartermaster’s stores, perhaps even an armoury or something.

“Looks like a forge in there,” Levi said, straying away from our little knot, and peering into one of the wrecked husks. “Cor… the things my cousin Mikhael could do with a beast like that! He’s quite the craftsman, you know.”

I held out a warning hand. “Don’t go far. I think we should be careful to stay together.”

Levi blinked nervously and, nodding, began to skitter back towards us. As he did so, his foot caught in one of the thorn bushes, and he almost stumbled. A metallic noise sounded against the stones, and he stared down at the ground in front of him.

“Oh… oh, Maker….”

Scudding ahead of his foot, and coming to rest against a rope of twisted roots and corpseweed, was a tarnished helmet, with the Grey Wardens’ griffon emblazoned on it. From beneath the rusted-open visor, a skull—weathered and pitted to a dull, brownish-yellow, its lower jaw long since gone, along with most of its teeth—stared up at us. I thought Levi was going to be sick.

“Well,” Alistair said thoughtfully, gazing down at the remains, “at least it doesn’t seem to be moving of its accord.”

Levi whimpered, and hopped into line, tucked between Zevran and Sten.

I frowned at the skull, and delicately picked my way across the plantlife. Sure enough, the rest of a body could be made out under the shroud of buckthorn and decay; little more than hints of century-old armour, and the possibility of a blade resting at the warrior’s side, but they were there.

“Hmm. This is odd, no?”

I looked up, and found Zevran peering in consideration at the remains of the Grey Warden. I raised my brows.

“Well, clearly no one bothered to loot the dead,” he said coolly. “These weapons, the armour… think how much all of this would be worth, yes? And, though some of the buildings seem to have been burned, this is no deliberate, wholesale destruction.”

The thought of stripping the bodies, practical though it was—and despite everything I’d had to do already in my short time on the road—revolted me, and I grimaced. Perhaps it was seeing the Wardens’ crest on that helmet that did it, but it just seemed dirtier somehow, and I didn’t want to give the prospect a moment’s credence.

“You’d have done it differently, then?” I snapped.

That golden-brown gaze passed lightly over me, and I felt foolish. Zev just shrugged.

“I am simply saying I find it… peculiar.”

He had a point, loath as I was to admit it: there was something odd about how intact the remains were. Clearly, no predators had been in this place to pull the corpses apart and carry them off, and if both attackers and defenders had fallen so suddenly that the battlefield had never been cleared… well, it must have been a real massacre.

“I think we should keep moving,” Alistair said, peering across the foregate. “Looks like the keep is this way. Those two long bits, over there—just under where those crenellations are—that’s probably the barracks. There’ll be a chapel, a mess hall, latrines and bathhouse… training arena and range, and… what?”

He looked mildly embarrassed as he realised the others were staring, and lowered the hand with which he was gesticulating across the vista.

“It’s a lot like the templar compound, all right? And the base in Denerim, although this is on a much bigger scale…. It’s like Asturian wanted to build a whole city or something.”

There was a note of awe in his voice, I realised, and a touch of melancholy. Of course, I’d never known the other Grey Wardens, never had the experiences he had, or seen the places we were supposed to call home. I had no idea what our fortresses were meant to be like, or how it felt to belong in one.

Still, we had no time to waste lapsing into grief.

As I turned to head towards the great, jagged shape of the keep, Maethor hung back, his muzzle low to the ground and his hackles up. He growled—a short, sharp, fierce warning—and his gaze seemed to be fixed on the gap between the two long buildings Alistair had pointed out.

“Wh—?”

I saw nothing there, but the enquiry died on my lips as I noticed the look on Morrigan’s face. Her eyes were wide, unblinking… hard as sovereigns, and her skin seemed even paler than usual. She, too, stared at the barracks, and I saw her chest rise and fall with short, shallow breaths.

“Over there,” Wynne said softly. “Many. They hunger, but it is blind hunger… madness. We must—”

“Too late,” Morrigan murmured. “They feel us.”

Levi let out a whimper, and I saw the weeds and buckthorns move.

“Oh, look,” Alistair said dryly, drawing his sword. “Isn’t that interesting? They don’t shamble, after all.”

He was right. Walking dead… different to the things we’d seen at Redcliffe, but no less grotesque. They poured out of the ruins like rats, seeming to come from every possible cranny and gap, and they were horrific. Those ancient, discoloured bones moved in parodies of life, jerking and lurching, some with desiccated scraps of flesh clinging to them, others with the remnants of armour trailing from their ravaged bodies.

They had been Wardens, once. Wardens, and king’s men alike, prey for the demonkin, and now their prisons.

Morrigan raised her staff as we tightened our ranks, and I pulled a gibbering Levi to my side and shoved him behind me.

“If you were going to start being right about things, Alistair,” the witch grumbled, “you could have picked one of many more pleasant topics.”

He grinned mirthlessly as the creatures advanced, those ghastly, loping paces covering the ground far more quickly than they looked capable of doing.

“You did say I was right, though. Just then. We all heard you.”

“Huh.” Morrigan curled her lip. “Let us hope you live to enjoy it.”

The feathers twirled on the neck of her staff as she lifted it, and a burst of ice tore through the air. It struck the first of the things, riming it with frost, and billowed out before the next two. The spell seemed to slow them, and I wondered how dead flesh—or, in this case, bones—which could neither see nor feel, could be weakened.

Behind me, Zevran swore fluidly in Antivan.

“More,” he barked. “Coming from behind the keep. They’re everywhere.”

The breath sat high and fast in the top of my chest, pulse skittering and dread chasing a cold line down my back.

“We hold,” Alistair said firmly. “Better to let them get closer than break ranks too early. We’ll be swamped in no time.”

Morrigan shot another bolt of ice at the creatures that were now two-thirds of the way across the foregate. One jolted at the knees, like its foot was stuck behind it and, for a moment, I thought it would fall. It just kept jerking itself forwards, uneven yet unstoppable, and I heard Levi whimper.

It would have been easier if they’d been louder. If there could have been the snarling and the cries of battle, the viciousness and the growls of challenge… anything more than that thick, terrible quiet, broken only by the clinks of worn and tarnished metal. I hated the silence. The whole place seemed dead with it, and these… things… unnerved me to the point I could even begin to miss fighting darkspawn.

“Divide and conquer, then?” Alistair asked.

Sten nodded, the tip of his greatsword out before him, balanced on the stones. It seemed almost like peaceful repose, yet I knew his guard positions, and I could see the tension bunching in his arms and shoulders. In the blink of a fractured moment, he would lunge, and swing, and heads would roll.

We held the line until the last possible breath, and then carnage broke loose.

Sten took the first rush, hiking forwards with a great bellow and scything through the shrivelled, mail-draped bodies. Four of them swarmed him like flies, nothing to them but the desire to claw, rend, and kill. Only completely breaking the bones apart stopped them… hacking them to pieces so that, hostless and disorientated, the demons left their dry, rotten shells, and the last link between flesh and Fade could be cut.

It was dirty, long work. Morrigan held one side of the line, dealing out ice and that dark, sucking kind of magic that I would learn later was called entropy. I covered Sten, catching anything that either escaped his reach or splintered away from the fight. My sword gripped tight in sweating hands, I hacked and cut and smashed until every muscle screamed for mercy. Sightless faces and reeking, stale, filthy bones ripped at me—such hatred, their malice ground to a keen edge over the years, even the demons’ desire to taste the mortal realm shrivelled away in the madness of dead prisons.

Behind me, Wynne held back the advancing wave with a wall of fire—I felt the heat of it, a swelling, oppressive pressure across my shoulders—while Leliana and Zevran slipped and twirled between the bodies, striking with deft efficiency, and Maethor proved a formidable guard for Levi. Alistair’s sword always seemed to be where it was needed, and if those long-possessed bones flung themselves at us with blind hatred, knowing nothing but the jealous urge to blot out the life they so hungered for, then there was nothing to him but ruthless, efficient violence, and the determination to stand between us and the corrupted spirits.

It was only as they were struck down that they broke that eerie silence. As decrepit heads were severed from crumbling spines, there were roars and shrieks and unearthly howls that seemed to twist the very air.

At last, it came to an end. We were still standing, and there were no more bones walking.

I stood over a pile of rusted scraps of armour and dry, discoloured remains, little more than bare bones draped in the remnants of mail, or rattling in filthy, tarnished plate. There’d been, what, twenty or thirty? I felt as if I should be covered with blood but, save for a few scrapes and cuts where a dirty blade or shrivelled hand had caught, all that marked me was sweat, grime, and the smell of ancient death.

A glance at my companions confirmed everyone was all right. Tired, sore, maybe a little shaken… but all right, with the possible exception of Levi. Maethor, having dutifully protected the trader, was sniffing the now-lifeless bones with trepidation, and an expression that suggested he was debating whether giving them a damn good chew was sufficient retribution, or whether he had at last encountered something he didn’t want to eat.

Levi, meanwhile, scrambled across to the husk of the old forge, and started throwing up.

I looked at Zevran, his arm still bound in the sling, and raised my brows. He caught my eye and shrugged, tossing me a cavalier smile.

“I believe I told you, yes? This, it is nothing. As a matter of fact,” he added, his grin widening, “some of my most memorable moments have occurred when I had at least one arm tied behind my back.”

Leliana coughed, Morrigan rolled her eyes… and I thought he meant boasting about being able to win duels or something. My brow furrowed.

“Huh? You’d need one hand free to hold your sword, wouldn’t you?”

Zevran gave me a look of curious surprise, then let out a throaty, honey-smooth laugh, accompanied by a few smirks and snorts from the others. As a red-eyed, pale and rather tottery Levi sloped back apologetically to join us, only Sten, Alistair, and I were looking blank… and the qunari’s impassiveness was more to do with impatience.

“We shouldn’t linger,” Wynne said, as the chuckles died away. “There will likely be more.”

Levi was staring in horror at the dismantled bodies on the ground.

“W-what I don’t understand,” he began, his voice a shadow of its customary chipper tones, “is why some of ’em were… alive… an-and some of ’em are just… b-bones.”

“It’s not life,” Wynne said gently, laying her hand on the man’s arm. “What you saw were demons… weak, angry spirits who seek to possess mortals. If they are not able to do that, they may prey upon the dead, where the memory of life clings on. The things you saw had mostly likely been wandering this place since your great-great-grandmother’s time, driven mad by the corpses they inhabited decaying around them.”

Levi’s mouth bowed and he looked as if, had there been anything left in his stomach, it probably wouldn’t have stayed there.

“Urrr,” he said plaintively. “Poor buggers.”

It wasn’t my first thought after fighting off a pack of them, but I could see his point. It had settled on the others, too… Alistair especially.

“We should do something,” he said, his voice tinged with that slight huskiness I remembered from the Wilds: the raw edges of grief and outraged loss. “When we’re sure everything’s safe, we should… well, we have to give their memories some kind of respect. Whatever happened here, those things were still men once. Wardens. That deserves to be acknowledged.”

I knew, even without looking at him, the hard and bitter lines that would be marking his face. He wasn’t like me. His oath burned brightly in his heart, and he saw a brother in every one of these piles of bones.

Maker… for all I knew, he saw Duncan.

I nodded. “We will. Once we’ve cleared the keep and the foregate, and taken a look at those two towers to the rear. I don’t think we’re close to being done here yet.”

Those words were truer than I’d hoped.

~o~O~o~

The doors to the keep had once been massive, oak-timbered things, hard as stone and bound with great bands of iron. For having endured more than a century of neglect, they’d stood up well, although they had clearly been breached during Arland’s siege. They hung, broken, cracked like the lids of sarcophagi and, stepping through them into the musty darkness of that stone tomb, I had the most horrible sense of walking on unquiet graves.

The first chamber we entered was large, square, stone-built, and had a small dais to the far end, the remains of a broken barricade piled up around it… evidence of a retreat, I supposed. Beyond that, two doors led off, both hanging, cracked, from their hinges. The tattered, rotten shreds of tapestries clung to the walls, and I thought I made out the glimpses of Grey Warden heraldry on the muted scraps. Dilapidated stone benches, decorated with the remnants of bold, ornate carvings, fringed the walls, beneath the stylised sculptures of knights and Wardens that sat in the alcoves. It must have been an impressive room, once. Now, though, thick swathes of cobwebs hung from the vaulted ceiling and stretched from the high, heavy beams all the way into the corners, and the whole place stank of death and sickly, yet strangely static, decay.

I was aware of Morrigan pacing the boundaries of the room, as if she could sniff out dark magic in the very stones. Maethor had been sticking to my side like glue, and he butted his wet nose into my palm, whining softly. A sharp line of brindled fur stood raised from the back of his skull all the way to the base of that stubby tail, which was clamped firmly down. I scratched his ears absently, trying to give him what little assurance I could… although I suspected I was being a fool not to listen to the hound’s judgement.

Something was very, very wrong within these walls.

“Look at this,” Leliana said. She stood over by the doors, peering at a mouldy, ragged poster she’d found on the wall. “It says ‘Statement of Defiance’.”

“Defiance?” Alistair echoed. “What…?”

Her slender fingers traced the faded words, her brow creasing as she tried to read what little was left.

“I’m not sure. It says, ‘On these grounds, the… the virtuous stood against a tyrant. They stood defiant and they stood for—’ What’s that? Oh, I see. ‘They stood for freedom. And—’ Oh.” Her mouth bowed in dismay. “‘And they died.’” Leliana glanced sadly at me, clearly moved by what she’d read. “It looks as if the last Grey Wardens who were left defending the Peak signed it. There were many names here, but I can’t read them. Too much has been lost.”

She touched the paper reverently, evidently wishing she could pick out the names, but it seemed as if they—along with all those anonymous bones we’d scattered—were destined to remain unclaimed.

I wondered at that. It was part of being a Grey Warden, wasn’t it? Giving up our families when we joined, turning our backs on links with our old lives. It was what we were required to do. We lived in service, brethren united in a single common goal, and when we died, who remembered us? Who did we ever leave behind except other empty souls with no destiny but lonely death, either in some fleeting battle, or in the darkness of the Deep Roads?

“They were so brave,” Levi said wistfully, glancing around the ruined hall. “And my great-great-grandmother stood with them, led them… right to the end.”

His gaze clouded, but he didn’t put words to the thought I supposed he must be having. Would we find the bones of Sophia herself?

We moved briskly through the rest of the keep’s lower floor. There were smaller rooms off the main, public area; wardrooms, guards’ chambers and the like, I supposed. I didn’t really know much about the business of running a place like this.

Wynne and Morrigan both seemed wary… nervous, even, though neither of them would commit to saying what they felt. Most of the rooms we investigated contained little but bones and broken, rotten pieces of furniture, but in one of the small side-chambers, we found a wealth of documents. I was ready to pass on, thinking that reams of dusty, worm-eaten paper couldn’t tell us anything important, but Wynne wanted to look.

“These are treasurer’s records,” she said, skimming carefully through the rolls. “There are plans here… details of expenses…. This will all be very useful, if you are to press the Peak back into service.”

“Hm.”

I tried to sound positive, but just looking at the amount of work that needed to be done—not counting shovelling up the dead and trying to get the smell of a century’s decomposition out of the stones—had already convinced me the fortress held more problems than answers. If the worst came to the worst, perhaps a few hundred people could hole up here, but there were too many breaches in the outer wall for it to provide much protection, especially against darkspawn… or even a civil war, if it really came to that.

I shook the thoughts away. We didn’t know that would happen. If we could just have whoever ended up in charge of Redcliffe in our corner—whether it was Arl Eamon, Lady Isolde, or Bann Teagan—there was a chance we could force Loghain to accept the Orlesian Grey Wardens who must still be waiting across the border. I believed that wholeheartedly… clung to the belief, perhaps, in spite of logic and good sense.

“They say this whole place went up in record time,” Levi offered conversationally. He stood by the door, rubbing his arm in a slightly nervous manner, as if he might have expected monsters to burst out of the walls. “Ten years was all it took, first off. That Asturian… he knew what he wanted and how to get it, and no mistake!”

“It looks,” Wynne added, sifting through the papers, “as if some of the last Wardens here—in your great-great-grandmother’s time—were investigating the possibility of catacombs… secret passageways that Commander Asturian had built. There are mentions here to something written by his successor, Commander Halwic. If we had a little more time, I could perhaps see what—”

“Maybe later,” I said, glancing back into the shadowed halls of the keep. “I don’t know if I’m the only one, but I don’t feel safe here yet.”

She nodded, and gingerly lifted a few parchments from the table, sliding them between the leaves of a handy account book for preservation before she secreted them in one of her numerous leather bags.

We pressed on and found, deeper into the keep, that although there were fewer bones and signs of struggle, there was no less a sense of discomfort.

Much of the building remained untouched: mildewy and stagnant, but still with its carved doorways and great, looming statues. There were stone staircases, atrophied scraps of tapestries probably once decorated with griffons and thread of gold, and Alistair started getting the kind of look on his face that suggested he was holding his breath in the presence of heroes.

“There is something dark within this place,” Morrigan said, as we climbed the stairway. “Be on your guard.”

I said nothing. On my guard? I didn’t even like putting my palm on the handrail, afraid that the stone was going to turn to slimy, dead flesh beneath my touch.

“Oh, good,” Alistair said dryly, squinting into the shadows. “More walking dead, do we think? That’d be a little predictable.”

“I don’t know,” Wynne said, from the back of the group. “But I feel it more strongly than ever here. There are… things that should not be present. Things that have no place this side of the Veil.”

“More d-demons?” Levi quavered.

If he bunched up any closer behind Sten, I suspected the qunari would lose patience and lob him over the banister.

“Then we will outmatch them,” he said, though it sounded like a bitter challenge rather than optimism.

Alistair snorted. “Yes, if we get the chance. Unless we’re outnumbered by more walking corpses first. I mean, think about it. How many people d’you think were here when Arland’s men attacked? Two, three hundred? More? What if—”

Leliana tutted reproachfully and elbowed him in the ribs and, reluctantly, he shut up. It was a good point, though. For all we knew, there could be countless more demon-inhabited corpses awaiting us… not to mention whatever else had managed to crawl across the ruptured Veil.

I shuddered. As we reached the upper floor, the air felt colder than ever. Zevran butted up behind me, fiddling with something propped between his chest and the arm still bound in the sling. He glanced up at me and smiled absently.

“Ah, good. Be an angel and hold this for me, yes? Don’t get it on your skin,” he added, pushing a small stone bottle into my fingers.

It stank—an awful bitter, greasy smell—and I winced as I saw he’d been applying the liquid to the blade of one of his daggers. I frowned.

“Wh—?”

“Just a little edge,” Zevran said cryptically, balancing the dagger lightly between two fingers as he stoppered the bottle and, taking it from me, slipped it back into his scrip.

He didn’t sheathe the blade, I noticed, and it glimmered dully… and seemed somehow more threatening. I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination, or if a faint blue glow really chased along the steel.

I arched a brow. “Poison?”

He smiled again, and it was the sharp, empty smile of a weapon primed, or a predator preparing to strike. Morrigan, standing stiffly by one of the doors that led off this wide, windowless corridor, sniffed and then curled her lip.

“Magebane? Why do I fail to be surprised you carry such filth with you?”

Zevran simply shrugged, and gave her another of those paper-thin, glittering smiles. She scoffed, raised a hand, and let a gout of blue light flare in it, illuminating the hallway.

“Just so long as you are aware: come near me with that and you will regret it. This I promise you, elf.”

He affected a look of incredulous innocence. “As if I would even contemplate such a deed, o magical temptress.”

Morrigan sneered, and Sten grumbled something under his breath as he stepped forwards, heading on into the next room, evidently impatient and eager to finish clearing the keep.

I couldn’t say I blamed him.

The first room we came to was a library. Somehow, I hadn’t expected Soldier’s Peak to have one, but there it was, and it was… vast. Shelves lined the walls, stretching up to the ceiling and crammed with books, scrolls and thick, leather-bound archive volumes. They were immense, and the musty, dank smell of old paper hit me like the heat from a bread oven. I coughed, wincing as I looked at the piles of tomes.

The fighting had evidently not come this far up the keep… or, at least, not as chaotically as below. There was still order here; an eerie kind of order, as if, beneath the thick layers of dust and grime, the books had been neatly put into place by someone who might walk back in at any second. Most of them, anyway. One pile lay sprawled haphazardly on the floor, opposite the fireplace, which was framed by two marble griffons. There looked to be a few scorch marks on the ground, and one of the volumes was open.

Wynne crossed tentatively towards it, and prodded at the pile with her foot. A dry, desiccated quill pen slipped from the pages, and rolled twice when it hit the floor. She frowned and, slowly, lowered herself to a crouch to get a better look at the book.

I found myself tensing, as if some hideous demonic creature might suddenly burst from the pages. Stupid, I told myself… wasn’t it?

All the same, my left hand on the pommel of my dagger, my right itching for the comfort of a sword hilt, I crossed the library’s stone floor and stood behind her, watching as her fingers carefully, tenderly, brushed the dust from the vellum. Leliana wandered over too, her appetite for tales and history obviously whetted. The book had been badly burned at some point, and had since been subjected to the ravages of damp and rot, but it looked as if it would be possible for them to make out a few passages.

“The archivists,” Wynne said quietly. “They were recording everything… right until the end.”

It seemed to me that there were probably more important things to do when besieged, but I couldn’t deny this would be useful to us. Levi scurried at once to Wynne’s side, hopeful of finding some mention of Sophia’s heroism, and I peered up at the endless tiers of books, rising above me like some kind of paper cathedral.

The dusty floorboards creaked, and I flinched.

“What are you thinking?”

Alistair’s voice, and his apparent materialisation at my shoulder, were both a little unexpected. He shot me a small, encouraging smile, and I could see the muddy uncertainty in his eyes; he didn’t like any of this any more than I did.

I cleared my throat.

“Um. It’s, er, a lot of books. Records… Grey Warden history, maybe.” I rubbed awkwardly at the back of my neck, and shrugged. “There could be a lot here we don’t know. Things we’ll need to know if—”

“Yeah.” Alistair nodded, but didn’t look awfully happy about it. “Maybe there’ll be something here that explains the Joining, or how to actually fight an archdemon.”

“Mm-hm.” I smiled mirthlessly. “‘Ending a Blight in Six Easy Lessons’.”

He snorted. “Ooh, yes. D’you think there’s a card catalogue?”

I shook my head, the laughter forgotten. Whatever treasures were in this library, they were buried deep. We hadn’t the time to work through so much information, even if it was the sort of thing Grey Wardens kept on their shelves.

Wynne’s sudden inhalation of breath caught both our attention, and I looked up to see Levi leap back from the book as if he’d been as badly singed as some of its pages. And that did finally strike me as strange… why should those papers on the floor be damaged, when this room—with all its flammable paper and wood—had not been gutted by fire?

I didn’t pause to think it over fully, more worried by what had startled Wynne and the trader. Leliana still knelt in front of the book, but her head was bowed, her hand pressed to her mouth.

“Maker’s breath, no….” Levi moaned. “I-I can’t believe it!”

“What?” Alistair demanded. “What is it?”

Wynne shook her head, her mouth a tight line. “Even as King Arland’s men were beating on the doors, the Wardens’ archivists wrote the truth, crabbed into the margins of this book. It was a brave thing to do.”

“They were using blood magic!” Levi protested, his voice rising in pitch and colour beginning to burn in those pasty cheeks. “That’s what… wossname… tore the Veil! The Grey Wardens was using blood magic to overthrow the king!”

His words seemed to find a hollow chink of silence, and filled it completely.

The accusation seemed wild, impossible, unbelievable… and yet it explained a great deal. The things Morrigan and Wynne spoke of feeling, the walking corpses with the ravening souls of demons within them, and the way this whole place seemed caught outside of time, decayed and yet unchanging….

I didn’t believe it. I didn’t want to, but—

“‘It was never our place to oppose kings and princes,’” Wynne read, her fingers moving delicately under the words, trying to pare away the dust of years, and the unpalatable truth. “‘Commander Dryden took her rebellion too far. Now, those who refused to stand idly by while a tyrant bled his people die, not at his hands, but by the madness we have wrought ourselves.’”

Alistair’s face darkened. “Now just a minute—”

“It’s true.” Leliana rose from the book, her hand on Wynne’s shoulder. “This account speaks of the Grey Wardens conspiring with the nobles who opposed King Arland. He did not turn on them; they struck the first blow. And they resorted to… terrible things.”

He stared as if she’d just ripped the very breath of life out of him.

I stepped forward before we had an argument on our hands. “What does the book say? Exactly?”

Wynne glanced at Alistair before she looked at me, tight-lipped. I took another step, and my boots echoed on the worn boards. I wanted her to see me, not him, and know that my questions were the ones she had to answer. If Alistair chose this of all moments to decide he’d rather lead than follow then so be it, but unless he did, I remained in charge.

Wynne blinked, and the corners of her mouth turned down a little, as if she was reluctant to voice anything.

“It is… unclear. If it wasn’t so badly burned, then perhaps— There was a siege of many months. These people were starving, diseased… see, here, there is a name. A mage.” Her fingers traced between the words once more, the pages dark with charring and age. “‘The Commander demanded more than Avernus could control. The rituals went wrong; blood spilled and summonings splintered. He sundered the Veil, and doomed us all. We only pray the gate holds, and this evil remains shackled. Let our fate be a lesson: our vigilance was not enough.’”

Wynne’s low, precise tones whispered into silence against the walls, though echoes seemed to linger there… murmurs and voices of things I couldn’t possibly be hearing. I gritted my teeth, trying to drive them away, but it was like an itch beneath my skin.

“Blood magic,” Levi muttered mournfully. “This… this is not what I was hoping to find.”

Morrigan scoffed. She was prowling between the shelves, her staff ticking on the stones, and looked as ill at ease as I’d ever seen her. I wondered if she’d felt that whispering too, but I didn’t want to mention it, in case it was just me.

“It sounds as if they were desperate,” Zevran said, eyeing the doorway. “Very desperate.”

The trader wrinkled his nose miserably. “We-ell, still… I’d hoped my family was better than that.”

“Yes.” The fitments on Alistair’s armour clinked as, abruptly, he turned and stalked to the far door, pressing on into the rest of this floor. “I expect so.”

I stifled a sigh of frustration and, turning to the others, gestured after him.

“All right, let’s move. Maker only knows what we might still find. Wynne? What did it mean, ‘the gate’?”

The mage looked uncertainly at me as she rose to her feet, but it was Morrigan who cut across her with a reply.

“Those who believe they can summon and control demons may attempt to bind them. If that is what this fool did, it is possible he may have used the same rituals to chain the creatures to this place. If so, it has worked… at least to a degree.”

By which she meant we weren’t currently standing in a pit of boiling flesh and the sky hadn’t cracked in two, I assumed. I curled my lip.

“Lovely.”

I stood back and counted the whole group through the doorway, waiting to be the last out of the archive room. I cast one final look around it before I turned and left, and those still, silent walls of knowledge, arching up into the cobwebbed, dust-choked rafters, made me shudder.

The voice came then; just a whisper on the stones that I could almost believe I hadn’t heard.

…nelatep obresooth sythan net bekon….

It was a dark, silent breath, a sound that slithered right into the centre of my mind, and grated out words that weren’t like any tongue I thought could possibly exist. Misshapen, ugly, sinister… they were to speech what darkspawn were to men, and I was suddenly consumed by the thought that it would be that—not demons, not shades, not anything like the secret, Fade-wrought horrors of Redcliffe—but the rage of the Black City itself that would pour out on us.

I blinked, forcing myself to think clear, sensible thoughts, and I pushed on after the others.

Who knew what else might be hiding in this place.

———————————
Volume 3: Chapter Twelve
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Ten

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Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
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Alistair and Levi had been poring over the maps for ages. I gave up trying to take an interest in our projected route when it became apparent that what I thought was the symbol for a landmark peak in the Southrons was actually Highever.

I left them to it and went to help with packing the wagon. We had decided to leave in no great hurry, despite the fact that this detour was unplanned and, as I was still partially convinced, a delay we could ill afford. I’d made my decision, though, and I couldn’t back away from it now without looking like a fool or, perhaps worse, seeming weak and foolish.

In any case, the prospect of Soldier’s Peak—a whole base, and a symbol of security we might so desperately need—was enticing, added to the fact that, after the chaos of Denerim and Zevran’s injury, none of us were in much of a state to throw ourselves at the forest.

It called out to me from beyond the pass, all the same. The wind that rustled through the trees seemed to speak of Emerald Knights, and all the wondrous, beautiful things I thought the Dalish were. I wondered if we’d ever find them, or if we’d even manage to come back once the Peak had been inspected. Perhaps we’d find ourselves pushing on in the search for the Urn. The part of me that was still doused in alienage bitterness suspected that would be true; wasn’t it always elven matters that got brushed aside when some shem noble snapped his fingers?

Of course, I felt guilty for thinking of Arl Eamon like that, even briefly. And, in any case, there was no time to dwell on things.

Once we were fully loaded up, we set off, a more conspicuous baggage train than we’d been before now. Bodahn’s cart—which, I found, was positively stuffed full of goods—was a useful way of carrying our gear, and would speed us up considerably, especially as Zevran and Wynne were able to ride in amongst the bundles and crates.

She said she was fine, no matter her years, or the blows she’d taken in the Brecilian Forest, but the resentment she showed at being fussed over wasn’t strong enough to really make me believe it.

Zevran, too, was oddly quiet, not that I was surprised. Earlier that morning, I’d helped Wynne change the dressings on his arm, and my stomach had twisted at the sight of the messy, ragged joins in that smooth, tanned flesh. It had evidently been a close call, and though Wynne’s healing magic sped the recovery considerably, he’d not had sufficient aid quickly enough to properly avert the damage. I hadn’t even been there, and yet the guilt of that clung to me like wet rags. This man who’d made his oath to me—overly theatrical though that moment had been—had run close to being killed protecting people I called companions. I felt responsible.

Still, for a silver lining, I supposed what had happened meant we couldn’t doubt that oath of his anymore. Or could we?

Naturally, Zevran made light of the injury and, as I had wiped and washed and rolled bandages, and Wynne had murmured incantations, he’d kept saying how it was merely a scratch and he’d had far worse during his years in Antiva. The Crow initiation alone, he told us through gritted teeth, was painful enough to ensure only the hardiest recruits survived.

I didn’t doubt it.

Now, as the wagon’s axles rumbled and the oxen trudged onwards, Zevran sprawled among the bundles in the back like a cat. Thin, autumnal sunlight gilded his pale hair, and he had his face tipped back and his eyes partially closed. In pointed contrast, Wynne sat neatly on one of Bodahn’s tight-lashed crates, her elbows and knees tucked in and a small frown on her face as she read one of the books we’d lifted from Brother Genitivi’s house.

I’d had a look at them. Heavy stuff. I didn’t really understand what they were about… oh, the words made sense, individually, but not once they all got together in sentences and ganged up on me. The high-flown erudition of history scholars had never had much place in the alienage. I’d been lucky to know my letters as well as I did, and for Mother to take the time to teach me to appreciate the stories that she’d read.

Zevran opened one eye lazily and peered down at me.

“Why don’t you come up here, hm? There’s room, and you’ll spare your feet.”

Alistair, heading us up a few strides ahead of the oxen, glanced over his shoulder. I thought he was going to make some kind of crack about soldiers who didn’t know how to route march, but he looked rather tight-lipped.

I was walking a little behind the cart—and to the left, about level with the wheel, but away enough to avoid being splattered with too much mud—and felt surprisingly relieved to be back in my leathers. Valora’s brown dress lay neatly folded at the bottom of my pack once more, and I didn’t miss it the way I’d thought I would.

I shook my head as I looked up Zevran. “I’m fine. Feet are a lot better, actually.”

It was true. The various balms I’d used had healed up the worst of the sores and blisters, and having boots that fitted reasonably well definitely helped. Alistair had joked about how I’d eventually develop proper soldier’s feet, tough as old hide and smelly as rotten cheese, and that was a measure of the way our little band had been growing closer, I supposed.

Zevran sighed. “Ah, well. Pity. A journey is always more enjoyable with congenial company.”

He was clearly feeling better enough to flirt. That was a good sign… possibly.

I grinned. “You already have Wynne up there with you.”

The mage looked up sharply from her reading. “Don’t encourage him. If I hear one more remark about my bosom, I will not be held responsible for my actions.”

There was a strangled cough from Alistair, but Zevran just smiled.

“All I said was that it was a magnificent bosom… and it is. A bounteous feat of womanly virtue, which has held up surprisingly well in someone of your years, and—”

I snorted, despite myself, as Wynne slipped her finger between the pages of the book to mark her place, and fetched him a swift, efficient thump on the leg with it, before demurely returning to her reading.

Zevran winced, lips moulded around an ‘o’ of imperfect agony. The way his eyes watered suggested there was some bruising, or perhaps a light wound, in the area Wynne had so surgically targeted.

He blinked, and shook his head before shooting me a sly smile. “You see this, Warden? Such grace and poise! Ah, and with such a bosom!”

Wynne scowled. “I’m old enough to be your mother, maybe even your grandmother.”

I bit my lip, trying to keep a lid on the giggles bubbling up within me as Zevran shrugged.

“What? I like women with a little experience. Or a lot. A lot is good, yes?”

Wynne sighed in exasperation and dropped the book to her lap.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake. Please, just… come and sit between us. I don’t know if I trust myself enough.”

She looked pleadingly at me and, against most of my better judgement, I nodded, and clambered up onto the creaking flatbed of the cart.

It was a pleasant enough way to ride; sheer luxury, really, next to the endless walking, and the ground here was not that easy underfoot, a mix of shale and grit along with the mud. Having forsaken the road, we were clinging to the edge of the Southrons themselves, looking for the so-called pass or path that was marked on Levi’s map. He said he knew how to get there, and that it would be simply a matter of finding the right way, then probably cutting through several decades of abandoned brush… unless the Peak had been overrun by bandits or squatters, of course. The thought had crossed my mind, just one of many.

I still wasn’t sure about the wisdom of thinking we could even try to reclaim a Grey Warden base within so short a distance of Denerim. If the Peak was where Levi said, it would be little more than four days from the city, and I couldn’t believe Loghain wouldn’t know of it. Alistair reasoned it was unlikely, if even the Wardens had all but forgotten about it, but I remained uneasy. What if we got there and found it was all a trap?

It didn’t bear thinking about and, I supposed, we had to take risks if we were to reap rewards. There was, in our current situation, no other alternative.

So, I sat among the packed crates and barrels, and watched Maethor snuffling his way along the front of the group, ahead of the oxen. Bodahn and Sandal sat up front, with Levi alongside, while Morrigan did her usual trick of distancing herself slightly from the group, keeping easy pace at the right of the beasts. Leliana and Sten were to the left, him with that mighty, ground-eating stride that made it look as if he was able to walk all day without tiring—which I’d long suspected he could—and her, still in her Chantry robes, seeming the vision of a misplaced missionary wandering the countryside. Alistair looked much more comfortable at being back in his armour, shield slung across his back, and I thought what a sight we would have been for anyone we might have met on the road.

“So,” Morrigan said after a while, breaking the uneasy quiet that the unfamiliarity of our new companions had left hanging in the air, “about your trip into Denerim?”

She cast an imperious glance at Alistair across the oxen’s white, swaying backs, and he groaned.

“You don’t really want to ask about that, do you?”

It was something we’d been over already before we broke camp, summarising for Bodahn and Levi and, in my case, avoiding as much detail as possible. It was too late, though; the majority of the story was already out.

“You met with that sister of yours?” Morrigan enquired delicately, her voice a thin blade of black slate, applied with the precision of a butcher’s knife.

“Half-sister, ye-es,” Alistair said, the words swathed with clear discomfort.

I wished there was some way I could distract her—he didn’t need the whole thing dredged up again—but she was like a cat with a new piece of prey to play with, and I doubted she’d give it up any time soon.

“And she did not fall upon your neck, weeping with joy to discover you?”

Overhead, the clouds were thin, grey streaks across the pale blue sky, like torn lace overlaying watered silk. The cart’s axles rumbled, and I noticed Wynne look up from her book, distaste bowing her lips.

“No,” Alistair said dispassionately, staring fixedly ahead. “No, she didn’t.”

“My, my.” Morrigan gave a small, brittle chuckle. “How surprising!”

A slight greasy taint seemed to smear the air, then Alistair sniffed philosophically.

“Yes, well, I think you’d have liked her. You’d have a lot in common.”

His words clanged across the leaden atmosphere, the insult barely concealed. Morrigan arched her thin brows, the widening of those ochre-gold eyes intensified by the swoops of shadow across her face.

“Oh?” she said icily. “Indeed. And yet you gave her money. A great deal of money, in comparison to what—”

“Yes.”

His tone was brusque; we had already imparted this news, and going over it again wasn’t going to make anyone approve of the decision any more. From the look on her face when Alistair had admitted it last night, even Wynne thought we’d been too generous… especially given the two sovereigns she’d had to pay the wise woman who set Zevran’s arm.

Morrigan’s lips tightened. “One simply wonders—”

“I expect you do,” Alistair said shortly. “But then that’s the difference between us, isn’t it?”

She stopped mid-word, her mouth still framing a protest. I had to stifle a smile, and wondered if it was very wrong for pride to well up in me the way it did.

Still, the witch wasn’t going to let him get away without a parting shot.

“Sometimes,” she snapped, “I wonder at the difference between you and a toadstool.”

Alistair continued to stare at the horizon, but with a very self-satisfied grin.

The silence seeped back in, though, and I sought to fill it, a little afraid of the way the quiet was broken by nothing but the cart’s creaking and the occasional rattle of birds in the trees.

I glanced at Zevran, somewhat unnerved to find him already looking at me, those golden-brown eyes calmly alert, his face serene.

He arched one pale brow. “Mm?”

Back ho— back in the alienage, we’d had our share of cheeky boys. When you lived that close to filth, and when so many were forced to confront the ugly sides of physicality, or seek refuge in the joyous ones, then despite all our standards, morals, and rigid constraints—or maybe even because of them—there were bound to be rebels. I remembered them as the boys with short-razored hair, defying convention with skull-close crops, delicately feathered around their ears, or spiked up at the front, spotless tunics with gaudy embroidery, and cocky walks. They’d gather outside Alarith’s in the evenings, and knock back jars of ale while they whistled at the girls, or they’d sneak out and blow a week’s wages apiece at one of the marketside taverns, and reel home singing and puking in the small hours.

They were the boys Father warned me about… but they were nothing like Zevran.

Oh, he had the looks. The hair, the clothes, the luxury—more of everything than we’d ever had where I grew up—but there was something altogether different behind it. Nothing about him screamed of hunger, for a start, or even of the kind of cruel and petty violence we saw in those who sought a life outside the alienage, and found it only in crime.

Zevran simply was as he was, and yet a fine, dark, silken presence pooled beneath that carefully constructed image. I could feel it, somehow. He was cultured, and dangerous, and I’d never encountered that combination before.

It scared me.

My gaze fell to the tattoo that hugged his cheek: those oddly curving lines that seemed just as shadowy and sinuous as he did.

“I w-was wondering something,” I said tentatively. “About what you said before.”

“Oh?” He smirked softly. “This should be good.”

“The Crows,” I persisted, unabashed, and earned myself another raised eyebrow from him. “The initiation you spoke of. Do they really…?”

Zevran’s lips twitched almost imperceptibly. In context, it might have been the equivalent of a hearty laugh; I wasn’t sure.

“Ah, yes. It’s all true. The beatings, the endurance of terrible pain. How else would they foster the proper… competitive attitude in young apprentices?”

I wanted to believe he was joking, but I doubted it. I wrinkled my nose.

“Rewarding the survivors,” I observed darkly. “Hm.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad.” He shifted his position against the crates as the wagon pitched a little over the rutted ground. “If you do poorly in your training, you die. Simple. And it’s no great loss to the Crows. They buy all their assassins on the slave market: young, and cheap, and they raise them to know nothing but murder.”

He kept fixed, even eye contact with me as he spoke, as nonchalantly as if we were discussing nothing more than the weather. I regretted having tried to ask in the first place. He was testing me, waiting for a rise of shocked reaction, but I didn’t yield that easily.

“That system really works, does it?”

Wynne had looked up from the book again, those sharp blue eyes darting between us, her lips tight and the hint of disapproval lingering in her face. I knew the Circle kept its mages sheltered from the world, but I suspected Wynne had experienced much more of life than she let on, and I doubted she could really be so naïve.

Zevran gave a lackadaisical shrug and tilted his head to the side, regarding me coolly as a small smile touched the corner of his lips.

“Should it not? You compete against your fellow assassins. Fail, and die. Survive, and you may be rightly proud of it. Besides, in Antiva, being a Crow gets you respect.”

He’d kept himself so calm, so nonchalant, yet his eyes hardened just a little on that last word, the thick burrs and lilts of his accent spitting it from his mouth like a crisp, dangerous thing.

“I’m sure it does,” I said carefully.

Wynne looked silently appalled. I wasn’t sure if any of the others were listening in. They could probably hear us, although Sandal had started to hum quietly, swinging his feet as he sat on the top of the driver’s box.

Ahead of us, a rabbit dashed from the brush. Maethor bounded after it, but it was too quick, and he lost it under a thorn bush.

“Oh, shame!” Alistair exclaimed. “That could have been dinner.”

Morrigan made a tart comment about charred meat and limited culinary repertoires, but I was watching Zevran as he nodded slowly.

“It does,” he said, his words soft and slightly sinister. “It gets you wealth. It gets you women, men… whatever you might fancy. But it means doing what is expected of you, always. And it means being expendable.”

That light, tawny gaze held mine, and I found myself wondering how much he knew about the people he’d been contracted to kill. Did he know about the oaths Grey Wardens swore? Or did Loghain, for that matter?

Did he know about what we did—what we took into ourselves, a sacrifice to corruption—and how we were given to the Blight, tied to the darkspawn, in order to be their destruction?

I shivered a little, though the breeze was not that cold. In some ways, we were more alike than I felt comfortable admitting.

Zevran shrugged again, indolent and easy, and gave me a rueful smile.

“It is a cage, if a gilded one. Pretty, but confining. As for what it takes to get there… eh, quite frankly, the truth is that all being an assassin requires is a desire to kill people for a living. It’s surprising how well you can do in such a field, especially within an organisation such as the Crows.”

He made it sound simple, matter-of-fact… and I very nearly nodded in agreement. Wynne gave a small scoff of disgust as she lowered her book and glared at him.

“You sound as if you actually enjoyed it!”

“And why not?” He turned those heavy-lidded eyes to her, and raised his brows. “There were many things to enjoy about being a Crow in Antiva, my dear Wynne. Respect, fear… a certain degree of exemption from the law. There were many—how would you say?—little perks. As for the killing part, well… some people simply need assassinating. Or do you disagree?”

The mage blustered, a dozen different reproaches apparently struggling to escape her thin lips. I couldn’t tell if Zev was winding her up or not, yet when he glanced back at me—encouragement to come and help him play at baiting his prey—I saw something deathly serious in his face. My mind passed back through the months as if they were water, and I remembered the taste of blood in my mouth, and the feel of sweat burning in my eyes as I stood over Vaughan Kendalls’ corpse.

A part of me was convinced Zevran had seen it; that somehow he could look into my eyes and read the memories, know all the secrets. I hated the thought… almost as much as I hated the memories.

“The thing is,” he said easily, as if merely confiding a preference for a certain type of cheese, “I often find myself the instrument of fate, ending a life for one necessity or another. I console myself with the notion that most of them had it coming. As far as enjoying the act of killing itself, why not? There is a certain artistry to the deed, the pleasure of sinking your blade into their flesh and knowing that their life is in your hands.”

His gaze bored into me and, though Wynne had finally found her voice and was—rather shrilly, it had to be admitted—demanding to know if he actually understood that murder was wrong, I barely heard her.

There was a blood-slicked floor beneath my feet, and I felt the hilt of a borrowed sword in my hand, the resistance of flesh yielding to the path of vengeance I twisted through it.

I remembered pale green eyes turned to weeping, bloodshot slits as the face of a monster became the face of a puling, crying child. I’d made that bastard scream, and my only regret before we left the arl’s estate had been not having the time or skill to take his balls, and being forced to let him die a complete man, whimpering and squealing in the mess of his own blood and piss.

Zevran looked steadily at me, and I knew he saw it. He saw every dirty, stained, crumpled piece of my soul.

“Naturally,” he said brightly, with a quick glance at Wynne, “there were many things about being a Crow that were not enjoyable. But… honestly? I can’t say it was entirely unpleasant.”

“That is appalling,” Wynne grumbled. “You don’t even seem to have a grain of remorse!”

The corner of Zevran’s lips curled again; that little whisper of a smile that was all at once lazily sensual and oddly cynical. It made me feel unpleasantly exposed, and I wished I’d stuck with walking behind the cart.

He winked at me then. Maker’s truth: an actual conspiratorial wink.

“You know,” he said, turning to Wynne, “you are right. Now that I think about it, you are right about everything. I am a terrible person. Please… I wish to cry. May I rest my head on your bosom?”

I clapped a hand over my mouth to try and stop the snort of laughter, but it was useless, no matter how heartfelt Wynne’s growl of frustration was. She brought the book down again sharply on his leg, but I suspected—in the greater scheme of things—Zevran didn’t mind enduring a little pain for a moment as well worth it as that.

~o~O~o~

It was almost sundown when we broke for camp. There had been a little consternation to do with maps and the geography of the hills; we were pushing deeper into the Southrons now, and whether Levi was right about the fortress being hidden within them or not, there was an increasing danger of getting horribly lost and spending the rest of the Blight looking for a way out.

The trader assured us—in his customary nervous, faintly oily way—that the maps were correct, and we’d hit Soldier’s Peak the next morning, if we were lucky. Sten did that soft growl in the back of his throat thing, and managed to intimate very successfully by so doing that, if we were not lucky, someone was going to get their arms ripped off.

Still, all things considered, I had to admit that there had been many worse nights. The tang of frost was on the air, but our fire burned big and bright, and Bodahn had a plentiful array of supplies. He even took the opportunity to try and sell us some of his manifold wares—and the dwarf seemed to have absolutely everything, from cheap jewellery to well-made shoes and second-hand weapons. I didn’t want to think about what had happened to the people who’d owned them firsthand.

Morrigan, of course, felt compelled to point out how broke we were, on account of certain people ‘frittering’ our money away, but all in all the evening was pleasant. It was rather nice to have the security of the hills ranging up around us, like the solid embrace of some protective fortification.

I thought so, anyway, until Leliana drifted into one of her stories, and began recounting the tale of the Rebel Queen’s campaign against the Orlesians, and how Maric the Saviour and the rebel army had come out of the bones of the land to overthrow the usurper-tyrant, Meghren.

It surprised me a little that she should take such pleasure in that story, but I supposed a bard knew when a tale’s core merits outweighed its social and political sensitivities. Everyone sat, enraptured, as Leliana wove the tale, and I wondered if any of them even remembered that several of the key players—not least bloody Loghain Mac Tir—were the reason we were in our current mess.

One look at Sandal’s face, though, mouth hanging open and pale eyes big as saucers as he leaned forwards, legs crossed and hands clenched in the dirt, told me no one needed to hear my complaints. I slipped quietly away from the fire… just as Alistair had done, rather than listen to the saga of his father’s heroics.

I had some thought about going to my tent, maybe cleaning my weapons or buffing my boots a bit, when I saw Alistair’s familiar shape—smaller, without the armour, stripped down to that over-mended, comfortable shirt—outlined on the other side of the canvas peaks. He seemed to be looking away into the blank eyes of the hills, as if he could sense something in their blind nooks and crannies. I really, really hoped it wasn’t darkspawn… but then I’d have felt too, wouldn’t I?

I supposed so, though it was hard to know what I felt a lot of the time. He turned and smiled at me, and I couldn’t help noticing the way his thumb was working at the worry token on his left forefinger.

“All right?” he asked.

“Mm-hm.” I nodded, and it was only partially a lie. I glanced back past the bulk of the wagon, towards the fire. “Didn’t need to hear that one, then?”

Alistair grimaced. “Not really. You?”

“No. It’s a good story, but… no.”

The dusk skimmed shadows across everything, the last light of the day glancing oddly off the small white stones in the dirt. The closer we got to scrambling in amongst the peaks themselves, the more the earth seemed sown with hardness, as if Leliana’s tales were true, and the Southrons were bursting up out of the land like teeth, as proud and fierce as the rebels who’d once owned them.

I frowned. “If the rebel army was here during the uprising, wouldn’t they—?”

“I thought that.” Alistair nodded sagely. “I suppose, either Levi’s right and the Peak is so well hidden they never found it, or they did, and it was useless.”

Just a ruin… a hollowed out husk of a thing. Yes, that would about suit our luck, wouldn’t it?

I winced. “Seems logical. I just don’t know if any of this is… well, you know.”

“I know.” He began to cross the few feet of dirt that separated us, his face strangely hopeful in the gloom. “It’s the right thing, though. I’m sure of that. If Duncan believed it… a-and more than that, if we can do this for the Grey Wardens, then….”

The words trailed off, and I felt the strength of the belief behind them. Alistair rubbed at his worry token again—full-scale, with the fingers of the other hand this time, not just his left thumb. Something serious was bothering him, I decided. I wished I had his faith in the order; that I’d had the chance to see something perfect and beautiful and heroic in it before I joined.

“I just hope whatever we find will be helpful,” I said, gazing down at those strong, square hands of his, and the winking disc of gold. “Maybe we’re about due some good luck.”

Alistair snorted softly. “Yeah… maybe.”

I glanced towards my tent. “Um. I-I should, uh—”

“Wait.”

The word was a quick gulp, and it pinned me to the spot, though I didn’t quite understand why, or how.

“Yes?”

“Er… I… I just wanted to say something.” Alistair cleared his throat awkwardly. “I mean… um.”

“Something wrong?” I prompted.

“What? No… no, it’s not that.” He looked over my shoulder, down towards the fire, as if satisfying himself that we weren’t going to be overheard. “No, it’s just that I really appreciate what you did, that’s all. In Denerim.”

I blinked, not wanting the reminders and already beginning to turn away, but he stepped closer and, for a moment, I thought he’d reach out and take my arm to stop me. I looked up, and found him a little closer than I’d expected.

He smelled… well, human, that clean scent of apples and green wood that was somehow him overlaid with the sweat and grime of travel. I smelled nerves on him, too, and I didn’t know why.

“Oh. I—”

“You didn’t have to do it,” Alistair went on stubbornly, refusing to let me brush him off. “But you took me to find my sister, and… and you were there to talk me down after we left. I appreciate that.”

My lips moved soundlessly. I wanted to say that it was nothing, but that wouldn’t really have been true. Meeting Goldanna, however badly it had turned out, had meant a great deal to him, and we both knew how much.

Alistair frowned and stared at the dirt, a mix of regret and embarrassment colouring his face.

I managed a weak smile. “Really, it was—”

“No, you’re… you’re a true friend,” he said quietly, raising his gaze to mine. “I just wanted to tell you that.”

I said nothing for a moment, my mouth dry and my lips parched. The cold night air nipped at my cheeks, and I realised how hot they felt in comparison.

“Well,” I murmured, despite the way my voice seemed to want to stick in my throat, “we’re in this together, aren’t we?”

Alistair smiled, and the warmth of it flooded his eyes. The dusk-bathed dimness made him look younger… boyish, almost. I didn’t want to remember as vividly as I did how—by the impenetrable alienage walls, raw with all we’d learned there—I had wept on his chest, and how I’d wanted him to hold me, even as his hands rested tentatively on my shoulders, trying to convey comfort without touch. That respectful distance he had always left between us—never pressing an advantage, never assuming a permission—filled me with gratitude, and yet I wanted to rip it all away.

I swallowed heavily, unaccustomed to feeling like this. Ashamed and a little angry at myself, I wanted to get away, yet my feet were leaden.

“That we are,” Alistair agreed. “And… you know I have your back, right?”

I nodded, and the smile I gave him in return was wide—wider than my usual fare, because I forgot all about the chips and the missing tooth, until the cool air touched the bare socket of my gum. The grin wiped from my face, I looked down at the earth, the blue-tinged light making those little white pebbles seem opalescent amid the dark soil and tufts of black grass.

“’ppreciate it,” I murmured.

“Mm. Bet you’ll miss it when it’s all over, though, won’t you?”

I looked up, an incredulous frown already creasing my brow. That light, sarcastic tone leavened his words, like he wanted to detach himself from all the seriousness. His thumb was working at the worry token again, threatening to polish away the runes.

You know… the endless route marches, the brushes with death, the constant battles with the whole Blight looming over us… all that?”

It seemed a rather optimistic thing to say, given the current state of our rag-tag war effort. We had no idea just what, in real and practical terms, ending the Blight would actually involve, never mind being bold enough to assume we’d all be alive to see it.

That thought slipped quickly through my head, like a fish slicing beneath dark water, and it left ripples of fear behind it. Just thinking about it—about any of us falling in battle—chilled my flesh, but I couldn’t escape the sudden images that speared my mind.

Blood on blond hair, hazel eyes staring blankly into oblivion…. My throat clenched convulsively, and I fixed my gaze on Alistair, as if I needed to prove to myself that he was still there. He raised his eyebrows, and I forced out a small, dry laugh.

“Huh… why, will you?”

He gave me an odd sort of half-smile, his face a little distant, as if he was trying to remember the punchline of a particularly good joke. Then he blinked, and puffed out his lips.

“Pfft, definitely! I tear up just thinking about it. I mean, there’ll be no more running for our lives. No more darkspawn and—” He paused to groan theatrically. “—oh! No more camping in the middle of nowhere!”

I chuckled, and he scuffed at the grass with the side of his boot, his smile gradually fading.

“I suppose what I mean to say is, um… well, I know it… might sound strange—”

He broke off, raising his head abruptly at the same moment I turned, my hand automatically flying to the hilt of my dagger. Movement to the left of us made me flinch, my heart thudding dully against my ribs in that stupid, breathless moment.

It was only Sandal.

The boy stood near the back of the wagon, his mouth slightly open and eyes wide. He looked at us solemnly, and then glanced towards the rise of the hills.

“The big castle’s scary,” he confided, in those ethereal child-like tones.

“What big castle?” Alistair asked, his brow furrowed.

He was too brisk with the lad, and Sandal shook his head; either a refusal to impart a secret, or an admission that he lacked the words. I couldn’t be sure.

“Where is the castle, Sandal?” I asked, taking a soft step towards him. “Do you mean Soldier’s Peak?”

He raised a hand and pointed at the hills. Northeast, I noticed, like Levi’s interpretation of the maps said.

“Over there.” Sandal’s pale, pudgy face creased into a frown. “I don’t like it.”

I wanted to ask what he meant—whether it was the Peak he spoke of, and how he knew he didn’t like it—but Bodahn’s voice cut across the night, calling his son.

“Ah, there you are,” the dwarf said, relieved, as he emerged from behind the wagon.

Sandal looked at his father blankly. I supposed there must be an acknowledgement of recognition there, but I couldn’t see it.

“Come along now, my boy,” Bodahn said smoothly, putting an arm around his shoulders. “You leave the Grey Wardens to their business. Mighty important task it is they’ve got, and we’ve the cart to see to. I hope he’s been no trouble,” he added, glancing at us.

“Of course not,” I said, dredging up a smile. “In fact—”

“Well, good night to you, then.” Bodahn squeezed the boy’s shoulders, and began to lead him away.

Alistair and I echoed our goodnights. I wondered if the merchant had overheard us, and if there was some reason he felt that Sandal should not be questioned.

As they retreated out of earshot, Alistair shot me a wary look.

“What was that about?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know, but somehow it doesn’t fill me with confidence.”

“I know exactly what you mean. Well… I, er, suppose… um. Better get some rest.” He gestured vaguely in the direction of his tent, his arm swinging loosely, and cleared his throat. “Sleep, and all that. ’Night, then.”

“Goodnight,” I said, slightly puzzled as I watched him take his leave.

He never had told me what he was going to say.

———————————
Volume 3: Chapter Eleven
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Nine

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Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
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Maethor bore me to the muddy ground as I ran to meet the wagon, his stubby tail wagging enthusiastically and his enormous jaws wide open, great strings of slobber flying with every delighted lick.

“Wh… what…?” I managed, trying to peer over the hound to see what was going on, albeit with limited success.

The cart stilled at the mouth of the pass, and the heavy pair of oxen pulling it nodded their heads, breath steaming as they grunted at the night air. Thick candles in glass lanterns were set atop the driver’s box, where a dwarf with a neatly braided beard and a heavily embroidered tunic sat holding the whip. He looked past me and smiled genially at Alistair.

“You’re the Grey Warden, then, ser?”

His voice was rather high and sharp, marked with a born salesman’s easy charm, and an accent that I couldn’t quite place.

“Er…,” Alistair began, as two familiar figures dismounted from the back of the cart.

I began to tense. We’d worked very hard at not identifying ourselves as Wardens, and my first thought was this was some kind of trap, some kind of—

“Yes,” Morrigan announced, her air of weary resignation not quite covering the flash of relief in her face as she surveyed the three of us. “These are they. The suspicious, dim-witted one… and the elf.”

Maethor got off me and sat by my side, tongue lolling from between the white bars of his teeth as Morrigan gave me a look that wasn’t entirely disparaging.

“Nice to see you too,” I managed, clambering to my feet and brushing myself off, still decidedly wary. “What…?”

Sten stood at her shoulder, his impressive bulk outlined with the stains of thin moonlight glimmering on his custom-built armour. His expression was as inscrutable as ever, heavy brows drawn tight over those glittering violet eyes.

“Where’s Wynne?” Alistair demanded. “And Zevran? And who’s—”

Maethor barked, wagged his tail again, and capered off to the back end of the wagon. I could see another man disembarking, giving his hand to assist Wynne down, and there seemed to be two more figures climbing out from among the packed crates, bundles and barrels… another dwarf, and the slim, golden-haired outline of Zevran. Relief washed through me, but it was still heavily rimed with uncertainty.

Someone,” Morrigan said coldly, folding her arms across her bosom, “required urgent healing of a standard the old woman was not able to provide.”

“Healing?” Dread lurched in my gut. “What…?”

Wynne glared at the witch and, behind her, I saw Zevran smile sheepishly as he got down from the wagon and stepped—or, rather, limped—forwards. One arm was tightly bound in a sling, and his showy, leg-baring armour was gone, replaced by a simple linen shirt and rough, rather tatty breeches. He shrugged nonchalantly, and didn’t quite manage to hide the wince of pain the action evoked.

“You Fereldans,” he sneered. “You have such a distaste for civilisation, you cannot be content with bandits in your forests. Even the trees themselves must be bloodthirsty. It is quite simply ridiculous.”

My incomprehension reached such dizzying new heights that I decided the stresses of the day must finally have driven me mad. I stared blankly at him.

“You got into a fight with a tree?” Alistair snorted. “What? You fell out of it? Or—”

“No,” Sten said shortly, the syllable rolling across the conversation like a boulder. He gave a sound like a small growl at the back of his throat, as if he disapproved strongly of what he was about to say, and wished that his disapproval alone was enough to change its reality. “The forest. Its trees have… life. Of a kind. Some are possessed. They strike without warning, and with great anger.”

Beside me, Leliana gasped softly. I glanced at her in surprise, amazed I could have forgotten how soundlessly she moved.

“Oh… I had always wondered if it was truly so. They say the Brecilian Forest has seen so much death that the Veil itself is drawn thin there. I had heard tales of it being haunted, but—” She put a hand to her mouth as she surveyed Zevran’s wounds. “You poor thing. Were you badly hurt?”

He smirked. “I survived. But, if you are concerned, I am sure I will need my dressings changed….”

“He is fine,” Morrigan cut in. “He is still speaking. Incessantly, I might add.”

She glowered, and his smile widened. For all her show of annoyance, it looked to me as if there was a note of relief, or maybe even pride, in those golden eyes, and I wondered exactly what had happened. Zevran wasn’t clumsy by nature, after all.

Yet, as I glanced at the crowded merchant’s wagon, the two dwarves, and the other man who had alighted, distinct unease settled over me. They appeared to be doing their best to ignore the conversation—doing everything but whistling nonchalantly and staring at the sky—and yet it remained that our band had been reunited in the presence of strangers… and strangers that it seemed we owed a debt to, at that.

The notion worried me, and I shivered as a cold night breeze slipped through the grass. A little way into the pass, set back from sight of the road, our campfire was still burning. I wasn’t sure whether it was safe to head back there.

“I’m afraid we were a little slow off the mark,” Wynne said, by way of explanation. “Or, I was. My reflexes may not be all they once were… but, without Zevran, the rest of me would be a little less intact, too.”

I felt my eyebrows climb incredulously and, as I opened my mouth to ask what she meant, Alistair took the words right out of it.

“Wait, what? Hold on… you were injured trying to help—”

Zevran shrugged, affecting uncharacteristic modesty, and said nothing.

“None of us expected the attack,” Morrigan snapped. “We were less than half a morning’s journey into the forest when it happened. And, as much as it pains me to admit, the assassin probably saved our lives. However, his wounds were more than I knew how to heal, and the old woman was of little use, so—”

“Wynne, are you all right?” Alistair asked at once, to which the mage smiled and nodded.

“I was winded, that’s all. I’m much better now. Really.”

She looked tired, I noticed; even more so than the rest of us. It had probably been worse than she was prepared to confess, especially given the tautness in Morrigan’s face. For her, I suspected that whatever had happened had been tantamount to a failure… and she didn’t react well to that.

“—as I was saying,” she said crisply, narrowing those golden eyes, “we were forced to retreat in search of aid. We were… extremely fortunate to encounter it.”

Morrigan glanced towards the cart, arms still tightly folded across her chest. The dwarven driver set aside his whip and climbed down from his perch, striding forwards with a confidence that—never having met any of his kind before—I found odd in someone even shorter than me.

“Bodahn Feddic’s my name,” he announced cheerfully, grinning first at Alistair, and then me. “Merchant and entrepreneur. This is my boy, Sandal. Say hello to the Grey Wardens, Sandal.”

He held out his arm, looking to the shadowy figure of the other dwarf, who was loitering beside the cart. He came slumping forwards, and I gathered from his broad, clear, moon-like face that he was what Father would have called simple… and what mostly everyone else in the alienage would have called backward. The daughter of one of the dockhands who lived in the same tenement as Soris had been that way. Sweet girl, as I recalled; until she ended up with a round-eared baby she didn’t understand how she’d come by, and her father tried to hide her shame by keeping both of them locked indoors.

I blinked away the recollection, and the painful thoughts that swallowed it, and did my best to smile at the young, blond dwarven boy, with those peculiarly pale, bright eyes. He twisted his thick fingers together, his lips moulded into a coil of uncertainty as he stared up at Alistair, then glanced at me.

“Hello,” he said, very deliberately, and began to blush.

“Hello, Sandal,” I said, as kindly as I could manage. “Um…?”

Maethor gave one of those talkative canine grunts and bounded away from my side, lolloping over to the boy. Sandal’s face split into an immense grin and—from the way he fell to his knees, fussing the mabari and chuckling happily at the enthusiastic licks to his cheeks he received in return—I guessed he and the hound had already started forging a bond.

“And this,” Bodahn added, before I had a chance to form a full question, “is my business associate, Levi Dryden.”

The other man was a thin-faced human in a worn but well-tailored jerkin, a good linen shirt, and wide cloth trousers. A heavy belt at his waist, hung with tallies and scrips, marked him out as a merchant, and his light brown hair was pinned in a loop at the back of his neck, with two thin braids hanging at his temples. He came forwards nervously, and looked between Alistair and me with a smile so ingratiating as to be oily.

“My pleasure, ser… and, um, miss.”

I nodded at him, and shot Alistair a perplexed glance. He rubbed a weary hand over his forehead, and looked about as confused as I felt.

“Yes, hello. Er, look, I’m sure we’re all very grateful, but… what exactly—?”

“We met them on the West Road,” Wynne explained. “They were looking for you. For the Grey Wardens.”

Alarm bells had already been ringing in my ears… and yet these people didn’t seem like bounty hunters.

“That’s right,” Levi Dryden assured, beaming awkwardly. “And, lemme tell you, you’re ’ard people to find. There’s been rumours ever since Ostagar that some of you got away, but… no, where are my manners? We should make camp for the night, shouldn’t we? Plenty of time to talk, and I expect your friend needs rest.”

His weaselly glance flickered to Zevran, who held up his one unbound hand.

“Please. I’ve been worse. Although, for what it’s worth, I can assure you these gentlemen seem honest enough.”

There was a beat of hesitation in the air, the damp and the dark drawing in all around us, caught as we were between the mountains and the forest. I let a sigh leak from me, part defeat and part some small, secret hope that maybe this insanity was a good thing in disguise. We were due some luck, weren’t we?

“I… I suppose we should thank you for your help,” I said, looking from Dryden to the dwarf. “We have a fire, just up the ridge. And the rest of our gear….”

Bodahn smiled broadly at me. “All on the cart,” he said, and I got the oddest feeling that, somehow, it was going to cost us money. “Much obliged, I’m sure. Much obliged. Right, then! Come along, Sandal, look lively… let’s get settled, shall we?”

Before I knew it, I was jumping back out of the way, and the ox-cart was rumbling past, up to the mouth of the pass. We’d suddenly swelled from a party of three to eleven, and the babble of voices and movement on the air seemed loud and chaotic.

Still, there wasn’t much to do but follow on. The tents were already being unloaded, and the fire stoked up… and no matter how screamingly strange it felt, I had to admit I was curious.

~o~O~o~

It had been a long, strange day, and it got stranger.

We gathered around the fire, sitting in the lee of the wagon, tents lazily pitched for the bare minimum of shelter on what promised, for once, to be a dry night. There were good, solid rations—fairly fresh bread, salt meat, cheese, and skins of water and wine—that paled what we’d stolen from Brother Genitivi’s house into insignificance, and so much to talk about.

The full story of Zevran’s injury would, I suspected, develop into a heavily embroidered anecdote with successive tellings. The arm now bound into a sling had been ripped open, the bleeding heavy and uncontrolled. Wynne, knocked out by the first blow of the tree-spirit, or demon, or whatever it was we were to call them—and, honestly, the whole concept of mobile, violent trees was definitely something I was still adjusting to—had been in no state to stem or treat the wound. Between them, Sten, Maethor, and Morrigan had vanquished the… thing… but they’d been forced to collect the wounded and flee back through the pass in search of help.

It had been sheer good luck that, as they stumbled back to the road, they’d met Bodahn and Levi’s wagon. The merchants had offered aid, and healing potions, and even taken them to a bone-setter half a day south-east of the city, which was where they’d been returning from at the late hour we’d seen them arrive.

It all seemed far too fortunate to me, and far too like coincidence—not something we could afford to trust—but as Levi Dryden took over the tale, I had to admit he sounded very genuine. There was a certain greasy, panicked honesty to the man that was difficult to ignore.

They’d been on our tails for nearly a week, he said. Come all the way from the west, originally, up past the Frostbacks, and had been meaning to head to Ostagar, before they caught the news of the massacre.

“What business did you have there?” Alistair asked warily.

“Wee-eell,” Levi said, leaning forwards and warming his palms over the fire, “I was meant to see a friend of mine.Duncan. I’m sure you knew him, seeing as how he was the leader of—”

“Yes. I knew Duncan.” Alistair’s voice fell heavily across the merchant’s words and, as he nodded briefly at me, I saw the pained look in his eyes. “We both did. He… he was my mentor.”

Levi’s face softened. “Ah. I’m sorry. What happened down there… it was a tragedy, it was.”

“Yes,” Alistair said tightly. “It was.”

The firelight daubed shadows across his face, and the civilian clothes that he still wore, suddenly so at odds with the way his posture had stiffened, his back ram-rod straight and his shoulders tense.

I cleared my throat. “How did you know Duncan, if you don’t my asking?”

Levi blinked, and seemed to brighten. “Oh, we went years back, we did. I done a lot of trading with the Wardens… well, all around, really. Levi of the Coins, they call me. Heh… Levi the Trader.”

He flashed that obsequious grin again, and rubbed his palms against his knees, glancing at his gathered audience.

On the other side of the fire, Sandal, the dwarven boy, was sitting on the ground with Maethor. He had his arms around the mabari’s neck, giggling quietly while his father sank a skin of wine. The rest of our companions were sitting close by, all of us drawn around the flames like moths, and it was strangely convivial. Even Sten and Morrigan had stayed at the centre of the makeshift camp, instead of withdrawing to their respective corners at the first opportunity.

I tried to smile encouragingly, and nodded. “Yes?”

Levi coughed. “We-ell… it’s a bit of a tale, to be honest, but I was there when the Grey Wardens come back to Ferelden, I was. I… well, I was one of the ones what spoke out on your order’s behalf. There were a lot of us, but… yes, I was there.”

He licked his lips nervously, that thin, ferret-like face lit with the glow of remembered pride.

Alistair frowned incredulously. “What, when King Maric rescinded Arland’s decree?”

Levi nodded, and I must have looked nonplussed, because he took pity on me and added an explanation.

“First Grey Wardens in Ferelden for a century, they were. After Maric, Andraste bless him, freed us from the Orlesians, the Wardens begged to meet with him—some internal business or other—and there was a mess of us sympathisers who spoke out. Well… Teyrn Loghain was dead set against having them set foot across the border—”

“No surprises there,” Alistair muttered, at which the trader grinned.

“—being foreign and all, but the king was a fair-minded man, and he let them in. So, I was there when Commander Genevieve presented herself to the king. Proudest day of my life, that was.”

His narrow chest puffed up, eyes shining, and I tried to picture the events he spoke of. It all seemed a very long way off; those twining complexities of politics and legality that had never had a place in my life.

I frowned. “So… that’s when you met Duncan?”

Levi nodded. “Yep. Over twenty years ago, now.”

About the time Duncan had tried to recruit my mother, then. The thought reared up, unbidden, and I had to bite down hard on it, pushing it back into the dark, alongside all the more recent horrors I needed to hide there. Levi took a slug from a skin of wine Wynne passed along to him, and laughed as he lowered it from his lips.

“Hah… ’course, Duncan was a bit of a scamp back then, would you believe.”

Well, that was an unexpected description. I glanced at Alistair, expecting him to be shocked, or possibly offended, and was surprised to see him just smiling into the fire, as if some tender memory had been touched.

Levi shook his head fondly. “We were of an age, and we struck up a friendship. ’Course, the king himself went with the Wardens on their mysterious business. Then, when he returned, he repealed King Arland’s ban on the order, and the Wardens came back to Ferelden for good.”

“One wonders,” Morrigan said archly, from her position opposite us, glowering across the flames, “what they did to get themselves expelled in the first place.”

I was surprised at her taking an interest in the tale, even if it was to poke fun. Alistair opened his mouth, presumably to tell her to shut up, but Levi appeared to have hit his stride, and answered fluidly.

“We-ell… can’t rightly say, really, can you? Some reckon it’s because the Wardens had become terribly unpopular, just soaking up tithes and not doing a bleeding thing for the kingdom.” He sniffed, and cast a look around the camp. “’Course, I say that’s bollocks, as recent events have shown.”

Alistair, who’d just taken a swig from the wine skin, coughed, and Levi grinned.

“Oh, yeah… we ’eard, on our travels, what you done at Redcliffe, and all about how the Circle of Magi stands behind the Wardens. There’s rumours flying from the Bannorn to Amaranthine about how the Grey Wardens have survived, and shall bring an end to the Blight, whatever Teyrn Loghain says. Make no mistake,” he added, leaning in to the fire, his face earnest and oddly intense, “there’s plenty who’ll come to your banner, right enough. The Grey Wardens have loyal supporters, all through Ferelden.”

A sense of faint dizziness tugged at me, like I was standing on a high parapet, peering over the edge at some great plain laid out below me, and not knowing what was about to come charging across it. It felt very odd, and very uncomfortable, to be on the receiving end of those words, fine and grand though they might have been.

I looked at Alistair, rather hoping he might handle this one. The wine skin hung slackly in his fingers, and a mildly stunned expression had settled on his face, coupled with an uncertain awkwardness.

“Er… right,” he said, fumbling a bit with the wine skin as he passed along to me, and shooting me a pleading look that left me no other option but to smile at Levi, and incline my head.

“Thank you.” I nodded to the trader, who beamed expectantly, and a sea of dread lapped within me.

I didn’t like the undercurrent that clung to this story of his: the twenty-year-old revolution of a visionary, a king whose blood ran in the veins of the man sitting beside me. Whether Alistair liked it or not—whether anyone knew it or not—he united both the Theirin line and the myth of the Grey Wardens… and if it did come to civil war, that was a potent weapon for us. He might not have wanted the truth broadcast, and I certainly had no intention of making it public, but even then I wondered if we’d have a choice. Levi had already mentioned rumours and, however much I still clung to the hope that we would be able to make Loghain see the Blight’s true threat, and avoid unnecessary bloodshed, I was uneasy about what might lie ahead.

What unsettled me most, I think, was the fire and pride in the man’s eyes. When he looked at us—when he looked at Alistair—he saw memories of heroes… and that struck me as dangerous.

“So.” I cleared my throat, because evidently no one else was going to ask the relevant questions. “When you were heading to Ostagar, to meet Duncan… what exactly…?”

I glanced across the fire at Bodahn, who had been quiet all through Levi’s tale, and now smiled cheerfully at me.

“Oh, we joined up on the road, miss,” he said, with a nod at Sandal. “The boy and I left Orzammar behind us, didn’t we? That’s where we’re from originally. Heard a great many tales about the Grey Wardens there, that’s true…. When I heard Master Dryden was trying to make his way to the king’s camp, well, I thought to myself, it was our duty to combine our efforts.”

His smile widened, small blue eyes glittering in that broad, ruddy face, his braided beard resting like laurels against his chest. He was lying. If I’d had to put money on it, I’d have said he was running from something, but I didn’t know enough to guess what, and the time wasn’t right to ask. Besides, at that point, Sandal looked up very gravely, and nodded.

“We left Orzammar,” he said, apparently with great deliberation.

Bodahn chuckled indulgently. “That’s right! That’s right, my boy. Maybe one day we’ll see it again.”

Sandal didn’t seem to have an opinion on that; he just went back to stroking Maethor’s ears. I watched the hound’s stubby tail wag happily, and wished—not for the first time—that I could take such simple joy in life, moment by moment.

“Truth of the matter was,” Levi said carefully, weighing his words, “I had a favour to ask of Duncan. Something we’d talked about before, like.”

I blinked. Somehow, that didn’t seem remotely surprising.

“A favour?” Alistair echoed. “What kind of favour?”

The trader gave us another ferrety grin. “We-ell… my family, y’see… bit of a chequered past. Been looked at for some years with an element of disdain.”

“Oh?”

I heard the note of sarcasm in Alistair’s tone, but I wasn’t sure if Levi did; he was already embarking on the tale of his forebears. The man could evidently talk the hind leg off a donkey, or any other given pack animal.

“My great-great-grandmother, Sophia Dryden, was the Warden-Commander of Ferelden, back when the Wardens were known as freeloaders. So, when King Arland banished the order, he took all of House Dryden’s land and titles.” Levi wrinkled his nose, jutting his chin forwards as he frowned into the fire. “’Course, when he died, there was a huge civil war. Lot of papers lost, things destroyed and all turned around…. We rebuilt, became merchants. Us Drydens are tough, you see? And we never lost our pride.”

I rubbed my fingers along my arm, suddenly feeling the night’s chill through the thin cloth of my dress. There was something horribly familiar about those words—that stubborn, indomitable refusal to give in, to cease clinging to the wreckage of a name, an identity. I couldn’t help thinking of Goldanna, and how much a vision of home she’d seemed to me, with all her tired bitterness and worn-down spite.

We weren’t so different, my people and the shems. Not so different as I’d thought, or been told, or grown up believing we were… and it was the hardest time possible to reflect on that fact.

“So,” Alistair said, prodding the trader gently back to his original point, “what was this favour you asked of Duncan?”

Levi gave him a look of surprisingly guileless innocence.

“Well, the truth, ser. That… and maybe a little give-and-take.”

I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of that, but he carried on before I had a chance to comment.

“See, the old Grey Warden base, Soldier’s Peak, it’s been lost for years… since my great-great-grandmother’s time. The family always thought Sophia died there, when King Arland’s men laid siege to the place, but we never had no proof. Well, it’s taken me years, but certain, er, maps have come into my possession—rare as hen’s teeth, you understand, yes?—and I think I’ve plotted out a route to the Peak. I think there’s a chance to reclaim it for the Wardens. That’s what Duncan and I meant to do… what I knew I had to bring to you, when I ’eard there was Wardens what had survived Ostagar.”

The fire crackled, but the air had grown still. Everyone seemed to be watching Levi and Alistair, listening to this staggering droplet of news. I furrowed my brow.

“A… a Grey Warden base?” I asked. “I thought there was nothing in Ferelden, except the compound in Denerim.”

Alistair shook his head. “That’s what I thought. I’ve never heard of… well, we wouldn’t have, if it was ‘lost’, would we?”

He shot Levi a highly suspicious glance, and I couldn’t blame him at all for being wary. Still… a base. A vestige of the Wardens’ power from a century ago. Chances were, even if it existed and this wasn’t all some elaborate kind of trap, that the place would be nothing more than a decayed ruin. Even so, there might be something worth salvaging, mightn’t there?

I thought of the overgrown, ruined tower from which we’d been sent to retrieve the Grey Warden treaties, back in the Korcari Wilds. It felt like a lifetime ago. Was that all that remained for us to rely on? Broken bits of history, old seals and musty parchment, and abandoned forts that had long been forgotten?

Alistair narrowed his eyes. “Where exactly is this base?”

Levi grinned. “Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s close by. No more than a few days’ travel. It’s deep in the hills, see; protected by ’em. The story in my family goes that there’s tunnels leading right up under the fortress. It’s taken a long while, but the maps I have show the way. So, it’s like I said toDuncan… the Wardens can reclaim their base, and us Drydens can have our history back, maybe learn the truth about old Sophia. Sounds like a fair deal, doesn’t it?”

Alistair didn’t look entirely convinced, but I could already see the sense of obligation crawling over his face.

“And Duncan promised you this, did he?” he asked doubtfully

I stifled a sigh. If Levi had made him believe Duncan had promised him a banquet of queen cakes and fairy dust, all served on a magic toadstool, Alistair would have been determined to see it through.

Still, I couldn’t deny that my curiosity had been piqued. Not to mention the fact that it could genuinely be a useful opportunity. I shot a look at Bodahn, who returned it with a cheerful smile.

“It’s quite the story, isn’t it? I know! Moved, I was, when Master Dryden first told me. I said to myself, ‘Bodahn, this is an offer you can’t afford to refuse’. Why, offering my goods and services to the Grey Wardens themselves… seems a national duty, doesn’t it?”

I squeezed a smile from unwilling lips. It seemed unlikely that was what had really seen these two merchants join forces, but I wasn’t about to argue. I could feel the weight of Alistair’s gaze on me, even as I cast a look at the rest of our companions, and found every bloody one of them studiously inspecting their feet, or their fingernails, or the damn grass.

“What do you think?” Alistair murmured, as quietly as the total lack of privacy here allowed.

I didn’t know. We still had the Dalish to find—if that was even possible, without being ripped to shreds by demon trees. Then there was the issue of the Urn; whether we should follow up the lead we’d been fed about Lake Calenhad, or just return to Redcliffe and beg for troops and a diplomatic intervention in Denerim. The possibilities—endless actions I didn’t know how to second-guess—piled up ahead of me, and I could see myself too easily paralysed by fear, too anxious to choose any single course.

I looked at him, my heart sinking at the sight of that eager, uncertain, open face, hazel eyes clouded with indecision in the firelight.

“If Duncan thought it was a good idea,” he began, faltering a little over the name, as if it still hurt to say it.

It probably did, I supposed. I sighed, and nodded.

“He has a point. If it’s still there, and useable… I mean, it’s not like we’re overwhelmed with supplies or facilities. This could give us an advantage.”

Alistair looked heartened, like he’d been hoping I might say that.

“Exactly. I think we should… I mean, if you think—”

I rubbed a hand over my forehead. I was so tired of decisions, and I wondered at how quickly he’d shaken that mantle of responsibility he’d begun to take on in Denerim.

“All right,” I said briskly. “Yes.”

Levi was watching us intently. He must have been able to hear, I guessed, but he pretended he hadn’t.

“We’ll help you,” I said, louder, for clarity’s sake.

“Are you mad?” Morrigan demanded. “Do we not have enough—”

“I think,” I snapped, “we can all agree that, the way things are going, we need as much weight behind us as we can get. If Soldier’s Peak can be brought back into service, it gives us somewhere to centre whatever forces we muster… some kind of focus. We need that presence if we’re to make Loghain back down. Besides, if it was something Duncan believed was right….”

I didn’t need to finish the sentence, wretched as I felt for invoking his name.

We were all tired; I saw the ripples of discomfort on their faces. In daylight, with sleep behind us, I would probably have had an argument on my hands but, right then, I had an advantage and I pressed it.

“A thousand blessings upon you, Warden!” Levi exclaimed, grinning broadly. “I’ll show you the maps. Two days, I think, at most. Why, with luck, it could be even less. Oh, this… I can’t tell you what this means….”

I smiled tightly, and suggested we all get some rest.

~o~O~o~

And so it was decided. I wasn’t sure it was a good decision, but I was too tired and too raw to worry about it anymore.

With politely bade goodnights, eyes baggy and yawns no longer stifled, everyone splintered off to their respective tents and shelters. The moon was up, the dapplings of cloud chasing its face as night’s chariot raced across the sky… or so that story of Mother’s used to say.

I didn’t want to think about her, or the purge, or the boy we’d murdered in Genitivi’s house, or Father and Shianni and Soris and… there was too much and, no matter how tired I felt, the unfamiliarity of our company put a barrier between me and sleep.

I excused myself, muttering something about standing watch, and began to move a little way from the body of the camp, straying from the warmth of the fire. Maethor had made himself a scrape outside Bodahn and Sandal’s tent, and he looked up at me, ears cocked. I shook my head, and he laid his muzzle down on his paws, watching me. He was the reason, up until now, we hadn’t bothered much with a rota of watches. Very little got past the mabari, and we’d not run into much trouble on the road.

That, I suspected, was going to change. We were lurching towards a precipice, and it was beginning to have less and less to do with the Blight. There would be a war, unless we could stop it, and I didn’t see how that could happen. I didn’t see we had the slightest chance of standing against the Blight, either… but I couldn’t let myself give in to those thoughts. I knew that much.

I took a long breath, pulling the night air into my body as if I could shed my flesh and fly away on it, and it was cold. The smell of the trees, and the oxen tethered over by the cart, the fire, and the sparse, rough dew-laden grass caught at my nose, filling my mouth and lungs. My eyes stung, and I realised I was shaking. I blinked, hating the wetness on my cheeks.

“Meri?”

Alistair’s voice, behind me. I’d thought he’d already turned in and, because I couldn’t stand the thought of crying in front of him again, I raised my hand and, without turning, waved dismissively. The sides of the pass, cut deep into the hills and cloaked with trees, rose up around us, and I pushed further into the shadows they cast.

I heard his footsteps, as if he meant to follow, but he didn’t. There was a rustle of fabric, then Wynne’s voice, hushed and almost too soft to hear.

“Is she all right?”

My mouth crumpled as I struggled to hold in a sob, and I sat heavily on a small tussock, clinging desperately to the pretence of being on watch, and hardly daring to breathe in case my shoulders shook.

“I hope so,” I heard Alistair say doubtfully, lowering his voice. “Denerim… wasn’t good.”

They moved away, their voices too soft for me to hear. I didn’t know if he was telling her about it… about the alienage, and how what I’d done had left the way open for my whole world to burn. Probably. I was glad of that, in a way. I could be angry at him for telling, and anger was a bright thread to hold onto, somewhere in the seeping, uncontrollable mist of fear and grief.

Slowly, my breathing calmed, and the boiling sobs throttled in me gave way to sane tears. I let them come, and let myself grieve for people it was easier to assume were dead.

It’s a mess in there.

Perhaps it was better if they were. Maybe better that than the horror of what had happened; the disease and hunger, the rapes and violence, and the fury of those left who would know that, in the absence of his daughter the criminal, it was Cyrion Tabris they should blame.

I sighed and wiped my face on the sleeve of Valora’s brown dress. Well, it was done now.

The wounds wouldn’t close any time soon, but my mourning had to end, or at least be put back until I had the time to grieve.

I sniffed wetly, and heard the soft tread of feet behind me, the air traced with the light delicacy of lavender and white soap. A mirthless smile bent my lips, and I knew I should have expected it.

“Feeling better?” Wynne asked gently.

I looked over my shoulder, and found her proffering a clean linen handkerchief, originally white but faded to a dull grey. I took it with a weak smile of thanks, blew my nose, and shook my head ruefully.

“Not yet. I’m trying.”

With a small grunt of effort, the mage lowered herself to the ground beside me, and folded her hands demurely into her lap. She peered out into the darkness while I wiped my eyes, and seemed to be watching the shadows shift.

“Alistair told me about what happened,” she said, after a moment. “What Loghain has done to the alienage. I wanted to say how sorry I am.”

I nodded, not entirely trusting myself to speak, and wondering just how much he had said. I wasn’t angry anymore; wasn’t anything except wrung out and confused. I scrubbed Wynne’s damp hanky over my cheeks, and the night air felt chilly on my salt-hot skin.

“Truly,” she said, “it sickens and saddens me to hear what men in power inflict on those whom they ought to serve and protect.”

I cleared my throat, and looked at her in slight confusion as I refolded the soggy handkerchief. Generally, very few people thought elves merited protection.

“Did… did he tell you how Duncan conscripted me?”

I assumed he had, but Wynne shook her head, and shot me a look I didn’t fully understand, hardness lingering in those clear blue eyes.

“No,” she said consideringly. “He did not. Zevran… mentioned a few things.”

Well, that wasn’t surprising. I snorted.

“Huh. I murdered the arl of Denerim’s son.”

The words didn’t have so much weight to them now. Too much blood had flowed, washing away the awe-struck horror I’d once felt at repeating them. Besides, guilt bound me to the confession, pure and simple, although not without the bitterness of justification.

“He… he and his men,” I said softly, tasting the words, feeling the metallic darkness of them against my mouth, “between them, they killed my friend, and the man I was meant to marry, and they raped my cousin.”

I glanced at Wynne, and took no pleasure, no deep-seated gratification, in the way her face stiffened and blanched. She didn’t look shocked, I noted, and she nodded, very slowly.

“I see.”

Perhaps Zevran had already furnished them with the story; the blood-soaked bride, tearing her way through the arl’s palace with vengeance dripping from her stolen sword. Oh, yes… suitably melodramatic, I supposed. Maybe that was the way they were telling it in some corners of Denerim. Maybe the other version—where Soris and I were cast as outlaws, intent on robbery and violence, and Lord Vaughan had died a hero in defence of his father’s estate—was more popular.

If I was Loghain, I thought, I’d push that one. A city as tense as Denerim needed scapegoats, and knife-ears usually did well enough for that.

“I shouldn’t have done it.” I scuffed my boot against a tuft of grass that had done nothing to warrant such rough treatment. “That day, we should… we should just have gone with them and, I don’t know… done what they wanted. Even if— I mean, I should have known what we’d bring down.”

Wynne said nothing, as was her talent. Somehow, her silence drew the words from me, and I couldn’t spool them back in.

“I should never have… I mean, all right, I didn’t know Duncan was going to conscript me. I didn’t have a choice, fair enough, but… I abandoned them. All of them, and now—”

I broke off, embarrassed and aware of the futility in my words. There was no changing anything now, no going back.

No turning back.

Duncan had said that so many times, hadn’t he? I wondered if I’d really understood it back at Ostagar, before the Joining… or if I understood it even now.

Wynne sighed quietly, and stared up at the trees.

“You know,” she said, “I have heard stories that some templars who hunt maleficarum do not end the hunt with a clean death. That they subject the victim to countless… abuses and indignities before they finish it.”

I blinked. Was that supposed to be comparable, or make me feel better somehow?

She shrugged. “It is just a rumour. It is not something they speak of willingly, if at all, and especially not to mages.”

I passed her handkerchief back, a little apologetic about the dampness. She took it with those lean, strong fingers, and tucked it away into a pouch at her belt.

“I suppose,” I said warily, “that even if you know something is wrong, it’s not always possible to challenge it without causing more harm.”

“Maybe.”

Her voice was neutral, and I couldn’t tell if she agreed or not. I frowned, and reached for the slippery tail of some small truth, floundering a little as it tried to escape me.

“You just have to try and do the right thing, then. Not just what’s right for you, but… something bigger. That’s the only way you’re not blinded by yourself. Right?”

Wynne continued to stare straight ahead, but inclined her head a little.

“Mm.”

It was infuriating. I wanted her to tell me things as they were, to give me words of comfort and wisdom, if she was going to lead me towards philosophy.

“That’s what being a Grey Warden is, isn’t it?”

It seemed logical. I hoped it was; it was all I had left to throw myself into. Not to mention the issue of duty, that yawned before me—before all of us, I supposed—and threatened to swallow us whole before the Blight was ended.

Wynne glanced at me, her face a little softer than before.

“I think so. Ultimately, being a Grey Warden is about serving others, serving all people, whether elves or dwarves or men. Protecting them,” she added tentatively.

I scoffed. “I don’t have the best record there.”

“Tch, nonsense.” Her lips twitched impatiently, but warmth touched her eyes. “Think of it this way: if you live apart from others, your actions affect only you. But if you have power, influence and strength, your every action will be as a drop of water in a clear, still pond. The drop causes ripples, and ripples spread. How far they will go, and how wide will they become? How will they affect the pond?”

I frowned, utterly lost. I could think of nothing but the standpipes by the privies back home, and the pools of stagnant, fetid water that collected on the uneven ground when it rained heavily. There were always stray dogs drinking there, and children stamping in the water, pushing and shoving and laughing.

I shook my head—trying to dislodge the memories, to make everything a little bit clearer—and peered out at the treeline that fringed the pass.

“Do you think they’re out there?” I asked. “The Dalish, I mean.”

Wynne said nothing at first, but reached into one of the various pouches at her belt. She drew out something small, and held it out to me on the flat of her palm. I squinted. It looked like an arrowhead, with perhaps two inches of broken shaft still attached. The head itself was knapped flint, polished and so delicate it almost looked like glass. It had been set into the wooden shaft using some kind of hide thong, and the work was more precise than any I’d seen… although admittedly my experience was limited.

“I found this just before our little fracas earlier. It is of Dalish make, and looks fairly new, wouldn’t you say?”

I nodded, gingerly running a finger along the length of the tiny flint blade. It was wickedly keen, and she was right; it showed no sign of having been buried or decayed.

“They’re there,” Wynne said, tucking the find back into her pouch. “It will simply be a matter of finding them… and being careful over how we do it. I confess, I did not think so many of the legends about this place could be true. There are powerful, wild magics here.”

I didn’t doubt it. My brow furrowed again.

“You think we should focus on finding the Dalish, or the Urn, and not go chasing off after whatever mad tale some incredibly convenient merchant springs up with?”

Wynne smiled, and the dark ripple of a breeze whispered through the grass. My body longed for a bed, and sleep, even if my mind refused to quiet.

“I think I trust your decisions, my dear,” she said. “After all, someone has to make them.”

I stared. That was possibly the least helpful thing anyone could have said… and she bloody well knew it.

With a small shiver, Wynne hunched her shoulders and, hands pressed to her knees, began to rise.

“Ooh, it’s late. And chilly. I think I will retire… and you may want to do the same. Even Grey Wardens need their rest.”

She slipped me a wry little smile, self-aware enough of her mother hen status to make those small jokes.

“Wynne?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Hm?”

“Thank you.”

The mage smiled again—broader this time, though a trifle sad—and inclined her head. She turned and headed back to the centre of camp, and her tent.

I watched her go and, with a sigh, supposed I might as well go to bed too. Everyone else had, and it wasn’t as if there was much of the night left during which we could be surprised by anything.

Once I was under the blankets, listening to the dim chorus of other people’s snoring, farting, and rustling, the full force of tiredness hit. My eyes were too heavy to keep open, and the grainy blur of canvas soon faded to blackness as sleep stole swiftly over me, replacing the burden of responsibility with the yoke of my ever-present dreams.

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Volume 3: Chapter Ten
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