The setting sun bled light on the jawbone of the mountains. Above, in the dark dome of sky, inky clouds hid the stars from sight. The evening crept along on quiet feet, cloaked in deep hues of purple and of gray. A wolf's howl echoed from the hills beyond and lanterns flickered to life in the huts of a small village at the river's edge. This village was too small to have a name; its lights too few against the night's darkness. Under the eaves of one outlying shed, a solitary figure stood, alone. He dressed in well-worn, oft-patched traveler's clothes. A hood hid his pale face in shadows deep and he leaned on a simple, wooden staff while his eyes searched the distant mountain range. His pose was that of an old, weary man. But his eyes shone intense as a youth's, or grey thunderclouds, full of banked lightning. For a single moment, the world lay calm. The sun rested upon the distant peaks, a summit made of star. Then it, as well, winked out of sight, and all the sky grew dim. And then - because of pride - the world was changed. Green light exploded into the heavens. A cloud of ash and snow burst from the peaks. A roar like thunder rumbled through the night. A raven shrieked into the sky and all the villagers stumbled out of their homes. They looked at one another in alarm, and one by one, their fearful gazes rose up from the ground to settle on the sky. A green light now gleamed over the mountains; a glowing whirlpool tethered hill and sky. And all the clouds of heaven spun around in a vortex of rock, magic, and breach. None of the villagers understood it, but the solitary wanderer did. He felt the magic roll through like a fog, as though a layer of the Veil was peeled back and other magics came bubbling up. The hooded one felt all this in his mind, felt how the poison flowed from that far sky. The Veil began to twist and shift and tear. But none of the villagers noticed this. They stood and pointed, whispering their way from 'what?' and 'how?' to 'conclave' and 'magic.' The hooded one, however, strode forward, staff ready, magic glowing in his palms. "Away with you!" the mage cried to the crowd. "You all must flee this place, or else perish!" The stranger's warning came to late. For then green light shattered the night and demons burst from a rift in the worlds themselves and poured a host of demons right into their midst. The demons screamed from throats that had not breathed the heavy pressure of the air before, they clawed with hands that knew not weight nor touch and snapped with mouths that longed to taste real flesh. The wiser villagers turned and fled, then, but the the duller ones just stood there, slack-jawed. And in the center of the startled town, the rift writhed like a body with fever. In their madness, the demons threw themselves at the nearest living beings: a man who stared at the rift one moment too long, a woman who had been pushed to the ground. The shades killed a farmer for having breath; and gutted the midwife for her heartbeat. Then the creatures moved on, their rage undimmed. The hooded figure alone held his ground. He raised his hands and a flash of lightning snapped out into the air. A demon fell. The mage then swung his staff. A shade drew back but not so fast as to escape the blade. The creature's malformed body fell to earth as nothing more than a heap of dark rags. The mage fought on, with spells and with his staff. And yet for all the magic that he cast he could not close the tear between the worlds. Again his staff he swung. Again the mage struck down a creature from beyond the Veil. There was a shriek, a grunt, and then -- nothing. The only sound that now remained was the faint crackle of energy that came from the still-glowing and still-pulsing green rift. In the quiet, the mage raised both his hands. Magic shimmered between his open palms, and he swept his arms wide, as if swimming through the ocean. But still the rift remained, twisting upon itself in sickly shades of glowing green and gold. The mage cursed then, his words ancient, elvish. He tried again. Again, nothing happened. "What is that thing?" The mage turned to find that a few townsfolk had not fled from the rift. Those few now stood, watching him warily. The mage now frowned. He had not planned for scrutiny. He said: "It feels as though this opens to the Fade." His voice was low and regal as a lord's. "The Fade?" one fellow repeated, scowling. "Like in the Chant?" another person asked. "The Fade is nothing like your Chant declares," the mage replied, and managed not to sneer. "But yes, that is explanation enough. I cannot say how this door has opened, nor can I seem to close it on my own. But more wraiths will undoubtedly appear. You may fight on, against the endless shades, or you may flee this place. The choice is yours." At this pronouncement, the gathered townsfolk looked at one another quite nervously. Being farmers, they were used to grim news, but were accustomed to weather and wolves, not dealing with magic and demonspawn. There was a pause, then a large fellow spoke. "How would you all know that?" he asked the mage. "How do we know you didn't make that thing?" He pointed at the still-flickering rift. "Maybe you're an apostate what summoned those demons to scare us. Maybe you'll just rob us blind the moment we run from here." The mage did not bother to hide his ire. "Your paltry gold means naught to one like me. I only care that this tear will not close. I will attempt to shut this rift once more, but then..." "But then?" a villager asked him. The mage did not get a chance to answer. For then what looked like glowing vines unfurled out of the rift, and the ground boiled beneath. "Fight now or run!" the hooded figure cried. He readied his staff and his magic, too, not caring what choice the villagers made. Before him, the rift burst open again, and demons poured forth from the world of dreams. One of the demons reached out a long arm and sliced the mage with its razor-sharp claws. The wound went deep, through skin and muscle, too, and nearly down to bone. The mage ground out an ancient curse at the hot, burning pain. And yet, the mage fought on. The night grew dark, and soon the only light came from the rift and flashes of the mage's own lightning. A demon might have gotten past the mage and attacked the townsfolk - he did not know. And then, at last, the rift fell silent, still. No demons came, but the air remained torn. The mage reached out his hands. Again, he tried to mend the tear. And yet again, he failed. This was not right, he thought, desperately. This was like holding a cloud in his fist: his hand might close on air yet never grasp anything of substance. The Veil had gone all frayed along the edges of the rift. The mage looked at his hands in frustration, then let them drop. His arm felt pain. He winced. He tore away the bloodied sleeve and cast a simple healing spell upon himself. Then he looked to the village behind him. The huts were still, and all the windows dark. It seemed all of the villagers had fled. The mage sighed then, and reached up to his hood. He pushed it back, and let the cool night air rest upon his bald head and pointed ears. This rift naught was but a vein, Solas thought. He turned his head to face the distant sky. But that breach there - that was the glowing heart of all this wrong - of all this mystery. And with that thought in mind, Solas set out into the night, into green-shadowed gloom. The distant breach flickered as his beacon. Behind him, the rift crackled and it pulsed, but he found he could not concern himself with any threats that might yet linger here. The breach over Haven must be closed soon else all the world - and all the Fade - would break.
Cassandra’s heart hammered. The wind rushed by her ears as she dashed up the hill toward the Penitent’s Crossing.
She should not have left Justinia alone, Cassandra told herself. That thought pounded through her mind with every footfall. She should have protested more. She should have insisted upon doing a bodyguard’s duty, insisted on accompanying the Divine to the Conclave. All this week, Cassandra had felt misgivings about these peace talks. Now, it seemed her instincts had been correct. But Cassandra took no pleasure from being right. If anything, it made her regret that much sharper.
As she approached the bridge, two soldiers materialized out of the shadows. Their eyes were wide with fear, and they looked at her as if she were a lifeline.
“What do we do?” one of them asked, while the other interrupted, saying, “What is that thing?”
Cassandra looked in the direction that the second fellow pointed. She shook her head, not quite knowing what to say. She had heard the blast, had seen the glow in the sky. Now she could now see a finger of light, pointing directly down at the Conclave. And more than that, as a Seeker, she felt a lingering trace of magic flowing from that direction. She didn’t know what that meant, exactly. All she knew for certain was that she had to reach Justina as quickly as possible.
“What should we do?” one of the soldiers asked her. “Do we still guard the bridge, or should we go up? Or…?”
Whatever orders the fellow might have invented for himself, he was cut off by a sudden flash of light. A ball of green fire came crashing down like a falling star. It smashed into the hill opposite the bridge, dropping rock and snow all over the path. Then, to Cassandra’s shock, demons climbed out of the debris.
“Hold this position!” she shouted to the soldiers. She drew her sword and readied her shield, then ran toward the creatures.
They met in the center of the bridge, with a clash of metal and bone. Cassandra struck at the first demon where its knobby head met its spindly neck, and severed the appendage from its shoulders. The next one clawed at her - Cassandra bashed the thing with her shield, then lunged forward, stabbing it right where a heart should be. The demon shrieked in pain, and Cassandra thrust her sword upward. The ghostly body dissolved along the blade in a puff of ash and screamed itself away.
Cassandra took a breath, stopping just long enough to wonder how these demons had fallen out of the sky in the first place. Then, from across the bridge, a whole crowd of demons flew at her.
Instinct and fury drove Cassandra’s sword as she fought them back. A shield bash stunned the first shade, a following slice beheaded it. Cassandra turned and slashed at a second creature, kicked a third, then stabbed it through whatever it had that passed as a face. But there were too many of them, and as Cassandra lunged at a fourth shade, a wraith flew and clawed at her face from behind.
Cassandra shouted loudly, more from anger than from pain. Blood streamed from her brow as she wrenched away. She tried to angle herself so that she could see all the creatures at once. As she did so, she realized her disadvantage. These things could fly, while she was stuck on the narrow bridge. Cassandra tried to fall back, but the demons were circling her now. She was fenced in, Void take it all. Still, she narrowed her eyes, determined to break through.
Just then, one of the demons screamed in agony. It clawed at the arrow that had sunk into its single eye socket. A second arrow caught the thing in the throat, and the demon fell in a heap of smoking rags. In that moment, someone shouted at Cassandra from behind.
Cassandra was not one for taking orders, and certainly not on the field of battle. Instead, she turned and glared at the person who’d dared to try and command her. Then her eyes widened in surprise.
“Robert!” she shouted. She didn’t even realize she’d remembered his name until it had left her lips.
He had his bow at the ready, loaded with several arrows. As he drew the string to his cheek, Cassandra dropped to the ground. At the same moment, a volley went whistling over her head. The arrows skewered the remaining demons. The creatures stumbled back in a chorus of screams. Cassandra shot to her feet, her sword slicing them up in precise, swift strokes. The remaining demons fell.
Then, mercifully, there was silence. Cassandra heard her own breaths, ragged and short. Behind her, Robert breathed just as heavily.
“Are you alright?” He came striding up to her, bow in hand.
“Yes,” Cassandra said, curtly. In the greenish light, Robert looked different than before. It was strange to think that this was the same young man who had flirted with her just this afternoon. That seemed like it had happened a lifetime ago.
Robert yanked something out of his pocket and shoved it against Cassandra’s forehead. A moment later, she realized it was a handkerchief. The gesture struck her as quite bizarre. Her small injury hardly mattered, not when the entire sky was torn.
“Don’t,” Cassandra said, drawing away.
“But you’re bleeding,” Robert replied. Still, he led his hand drop. He looked down at his handkerchief then reached out and tucked it into her belt.
“Wha–?” Cassandra blinked at him.
“In case you need it later,” he explained. “So what now?” he said, nodding up the path. “We look for survivors, right?”
“I will look for survivors,” Cassandra told him. “You stay here. Make sure those things don’t reach the village.”
“To the Void with that,” Robert shot back. “I’m coming with you.”
“I move faster alone,” Cassandra told him. Looking over her shoulder, she saw that soldiers from Haven were now pouring out onto the bridge. They carried swords and torches. In the middle of this mob, she spied Commander Cullen.
“Secure the crossing,” she heard Cullen shout. “Keran, get your men ready to press forward to the next bridge. No,” he snapped, turning to someone behind him, “I will not charge blindly up the mountain into a bunch of demons. We’ll retake the path steadily, one choke point at a time.”
Cassandra’s jaw set. Cullen might be willing to move forward in waves, his soldiers slowly advancing up the hill, but she did not have time for that. She was not a foot soldier, but the bodyguard of the Divine. And right now, Justinia…
Oh Maker. She couldn’t even let herself finish that thought. She had to get to the temple as quickly as possible.
Without a word, Cassandra took off running. Robert gave a cry of alarm. She felt, rather than saw, his movement as he reached out after her. But Cassandra was already gone. She tore across the bridge, clambered up the pile of snow and rock that now blocked the path, and slid down the other side. She charged up the hill, the weird green light casting odd shadows on the path all around her.
Just then, another ball of green fire crashed into the path ahead. A moment later, another pair of demons slid down the hill toward her. Cassandra raised her shield and ran toward them, ramming into the first demon with as much speed as she could. She sliced its arm off, then turned to take on the second demon. But at that moment, a third creature rose right out of the ground behind her. Cassandra had one second to register its presence before an arrow pierced it. The thing screamed, then slithered back into the snow, leaving only an oily residue behind. Cassandra dispatched the other demons, then whirled back around. Behind her, lit by torchlight from the bridge, she saw Robert standing on the top of the rock slide.
“Go on!” he shouted, drawing another arrow from his quiver. “I’ll cover you.”
Cassandra nodded to him. In spite of everything - the situation, her fear for Justinia, even her duty - she felt her heart melt just a little. Then, the green pillar of light began to pulse in the sky. More meteors of fire rained down on the hills ahead. If she was not mistaken, that meant a whole host of demons now stood between her and the Temple of Sacred Ashes.
Leliana slashed her dagger across the demon’s throat. She did not flinch as pungent purple blood spattered her face. Instead, she turned, and in one swift movement, sheathed her dagger at her back and drew an arrow. She nocked it to her bow, then let it fly. The last of the wraiths fell with a scream, its glowing residue flickering out harmlessly onto the snow.
Leliana gave one small, short exhalation, trying to calm herself. Her heart beat furiously as she stood on this snowy ridge. Below her lay the Temple of Sacred Ashes - or rather, what was left of it.
Leliana stared in disbelief. The temple was completely destroyed. In her mind, she could still picture it. She remembered how it had looked when she and the Hero of Ferelden first walked to this place - before the banners and bridges and pilgrims and paved paths. She could still picture all the maps in her mind - maps that she had helped draw. She could imagine every mine, every passage and every approach. And yet, for all that, her memories were all that was left of the place.
One moment, there had been a holy site. Now, there was a mass grave. The summit looked as if someone had dropped a stone into a pool of tar, and the resulting splash had frozen in black rock. Leliana felt as though her insides were similarly altered. Her heart felt as destroyed as the temple, her mind a blank of roaring, screaming terror that echoed the cries of the demons she’d just fought.
The Conclave was gone. There was no way - no possible way that Justina could have survived that.
Justinia, Leliana thought, her steps growing faster and faster as she hurried down the hill. With Justinia gone, the Chantry had lost its leader. And Leliana had lost everything. The woman had been her mother, her mentor, her light in the shadows when there was no hope.
And yet, as one part of Leliana’s mind wailed in grief, the colder, harder part calculated what needed to be done next. There was little hope of finding Justinia’s remains. Indeed it seemed that all the delegates were to be forever enshrined in the ashes of the temple itself.
But there was still reason to search this space, Leliana thought. Though she could not bring Justinia back, she could still visit revenge upon the Divine’s killer. And there was no doubt in her mind that someone had murdered Justina. This could be no accident. Magic as strong as this did not come about by chance.
Leliana reached the temple a moment later. She climbed from a snowbank onto one of the blasted walls, then gazed down at the ruined courtyard. Pushing aside her grief, she tried to look at the remains of the building with an discerning eye. The blasted stone glowed green in places, then occasionally glowed red. In the shadows of encroaching night, Leliana saw creatures sliding around the empty space - demons, shades, wraiths - the bottom-dwellers of the Fade.
Leliana sat quietly on the wall, considering her options. But before she could think what to do next, she saw another movement. A figure charged into the courtyard, snarling in an oddly familiar way. Leliana knew who it was at once. Cassandra Pentaghast threw herself against the mass of demons, her sword and shield flashing in dim light.
Well then, Leliana thought. It seemed that both the Left and Right Hands had rushed here to serve the Divine. And it seemed that they had both arrived too late. As much as Leliana would like to savor the bitter irony, it was time to join Cassandra in this fight.
Leliana quickly fitted an arrow to her bow and started firing off shots. Cassandra did not look up, not even when one of Leliana’s arrows went whistling right by her ear. Clearly, Leliana thought, the woman was in too rare a fury to care.
Within a minute or two, the demons in the courtyard were dead. Cassandra charged on toward the center of the temple, apparently not caring how many demons might lurk in the great pit there.
“Cassandra, wait!” Leliana cried.
Cassandra stopped, turning around in surprise.
Leliana dropped down from the wall, then stalked forward gracefully. The Seeker stomped across the empty space to meet her.
“What are you doing here? I thought…” Cassandra frowned over her shoulder into the darkness. “Where’s Robert?”
“Who is Robert?” Leliana asked.
Cassandra frowned. “I must have lost him. I hope he…” She shook her head, then pointed to the temple.
“I can’t consider that. We must find Justinia.”
“She’s dead,” Leliana said, her voice flat. Still, her heart ached to speak the words aloud.
“She might be…” Cassandra began.
“She’s dead, Cassandra,” Leliana said. As if to emphasize this, the green pillar pulsed, its light flickering weirdly over their faces.
“You’re a Seeker,” Leliana said, more softly. “You can sense the lyrium in a person’s veins. You can sense their life-blood. Surely you know that we are the only living people in this place.”
Cassandra said nothing, but from the despair that filled her eyes, Leliana knew her words had rung true.
“Then…” Cassandra said, slowly. “Then we must stop that breach in the sky.” Each word sounded like it was dragged from her. “It is raining demons on the valley.” She took a breath, then added, “I believe it opens to the Fade. That is what it feels like: a door into the world of demons.”
“Maker save us,” Leliana murmured, though that assessment echoed what she had suspected as well.
“May He save us all,” Cassandra murmured.
“We must protect Haven,” Leliana said, decisively. “It is what Justinia would have wanted.”
“Cullen is protecting Haven,” Cassandra said, waving a hand at the direction she had come from. “He and his soldiers are securing the path as we speak.”
“Then we must carry out Justinia’s wishes.” Leliana said, looking to Cassandra.
“Those wishes died with her!” Cassandra cried. “The Conclave, the clerics, everyone who might have brought peace - they were all here.”
“The Chantry is more than its leaders,” Leliana replied.
“It is no less than its leaders, either,” Cassandra shot back. “Our religion has no head now, Leliana. We have no heart, either. You and I are hands with no body.”
“You really must work on your metaphors, Cassandra,” Leliana said, dryly.
“I am not joking!” Cassandra snapped.
“Neither am I,” Leliana replied. “We are hands, so we must protect and shield. We will fall back, we will regroup, and we will do as Justinia wished, but first…”
At that moment, the breach began to flicker, and Leliana looked up at it with narrowed eyes.
“First?” Cassandra prompted.
“First,” Leliana said, as she drew an arrow to her bow, “We must survive this night.”
Beside her, Cassandra nodded grimly, and readied her bloodied sword.
The Void take athletic women, Robert thought in annoyance. And why in the Void had he assumed that he could keep up with a Seeker?
Robert might have longer legs, but clearly his training left something to be desired. Whatever that woman did to keep herself battle-ready, it was impressive. Cassandra had charged up a snowy hill, stopping only to mow down demons in her path. Robert had helped her with the first few, but then he’d fallen behind.
He’d had to fight through a few demons on his own - that had been a dicey prospect, what with the ice and the steep cliffs and him with a bow. He really hated fighting at close quarters. Fighting in the dark and against screaming demons was even worse. Then Robert had come around a corner and found that the next bridge in the path had been blasted right down the middle. Cassandra was nowhere in sight.
Blight it all, Robert thought, spinning in place. What was he supposed to do now? Down the valley, he saw torches, like so many glowing ants. The lights steadily swarmed up the hill, keeping to the known paths.
Well, he wasn’t about to join that lot, Robert thought. Let someone else worry about barricades and bridges. Robert was more concerned with survivors. If Kate had died in that blast…
No, Robert thought, turning to look back up at the torn sky. He had to believe that she was still alive. She couldn’t have been at the center of that explosion. He wouldn’t believe that she was. Surely she had wandered out into the snow to look at the view. That’s what Kate would have done. And so she was probably out here, fighting demons like the clever little mage that she was. All Robert had to do was find her. Then they’d head down to the tavern, warm up with a pint and some meat pies, have a laugh, and let someone else sort out this mess.
Alright, so that plan had some problems. For one thing, Robert didn’t know if Kate knew how to fight. He had only ever seen her do parlor tricks at family salons. But no, surely she could turn that ice magic of hers to good use. She was in the snow, right? Surely that would help. He hoped it would help. He hoped she could survive this.
Please, Maker, let Katie survive this.
Robert glared at the broken bridge before him, as if its damage was a personal affront. Then he took off down the path to the left. There was a little courtyard here, a guardhouse, and a gate. The space was empty, the far gate closed. Robert hurried to the gate, and to his relief, he found that it was open. He pushed through the heavy door, then let it slam behind him. In the dim light from the breach, Robert found himself on a snowy path.
He also found he was no longer alone.
There, at a short distance, stood a few men in armor. It was hard to see them in gathering gloom. That was surely why his eyes were playing tricks on him. Because for a moment, Robert thought that one of the men had glowing red veins along his skin. And it almost looked like that other one was pointing a blade in Robert’s direction.
Before Robert could react to that, one of the men turned to him. Out of the darkness, Robert heard a familiar voice.
“Don’t worry. He’s one of us.”
“Freddy?” Robert breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank the Maker. If you survived… Oh, sweet Andraste, have you seen Kate? I was on my way up to the temple, but I lost my escort, as it were.”
As he spoke, Robert enthusiastically rushed forward, not stopping to notice the way Freddy’s posture remained rigid, nor the way that his armored companions circled in around Robert. In fact, Robert didn’t realize what was going on until Freddy turned lazily and stared at him.
Robert staggered to a stop.
Freddy had red eyes. And they were glowing. In the dark. That…wasn’t right. Demons and a hole in the sky weren’t right, either. But this - this really wasn’t right.
“Freddy?” In that moment, Robert was startled stupid, completely unable to think.
“Hullo, Trevelyan,” Freddy replied, softly. “Will you be joining us now?”
“Uh, nooo,” Robert said, slowly, backing away. “Look, I don’t mean to be rude and run off on you, but I really need to find Kate…”
“Kate’s dead,” Freddy said, his voice little more than a whisper. “They’re all dead.”
“You can’t know that,” Robert said, even as he feared it might be true. “Someone might have made it out. You did, right?”
“We weren’t in the temple,” Freddy said. “We were here, watching. And we saw how it will be.” Freddy turned to Robert with a weird sort of smile. “His power is great. The Lord Seeker will be pleased.”
Robert had no idea what that meant, nor did he have time to ask. Someone grabbed Robert’s throat from behind. Robert tried to pull away, but someone pinned his arms. Robert couldn’t move. He had no idea who this person was behind him, but the fellow was surely as strong as a wyvern.
“What in the Void?” Robert managed, before the hand at his throat began to squeeze.
“Oh, don’t worry, Trevelyan,” Freddy said, stalking over to Robert and looking up into his face. “After all, templars take care of their own.”
The world dimmed, and the last things Robert saw were Freddy’s glowing red eyes, and the torn sky behind him. Then night fell on his vision, and everything went dark.