Kate felt like the top of her head was being ripped away. She would have suspected all her hair was being torn out, only the sensation went deeper than the scalp. It was as if something had gotten its claws into her mind and was pulling her thoughts out by the roots. Even as she ran, even as her arms pumped the air and her boots scrambled for purchase on the slippery stones underfoot, she could not seem to outrun the sensation that her brain was under attack.
What was this, Kate wondered? Each breath hurt, as if the air was too thick for her throat, yet too thin to fill her lungs. And still she ran on, desperate to escape. There seemed to be no end to the maze of rock and pools of water. Everything here felt inverted, like the knotted, trailing threads on the back of a tapestry. Kate wondered if the world would ever again feel solid and smooth.
Kate slipped and stumbled to her knees. She was so weary that she had half a mind to stop, to allow herself to be consumed by the thing that pursued her. But when she looked back over her shoulder…
Kate swallowed, then instantly shot forward. The thing behind her was nightmarish, and she desperately ran on through two narrow pillars of stone. A great slope appeared before her, and Kate ran for it. She hurried up the steps, then slowed as the incline grew ever steeper. Soon it seemed that she was climbing straight up, and when she looked back over her shoulder…
It was a demon, surely. Or maybe it was a demon made of demons. But even as Kate spied a claw here, a tentacle there, she couldn’t quite see the thing properly. Other visions flitted across her mind, visions that felt like they were being ripped right out of her memory. She saw a door blasting open, saw a grasping hand and tendrils of magic. Kate remembered a glowing ball that looked like a miniature star, and then Kate saw red eyes that were filled with nothing but pain and disappointment and hate.
In the vision, those burning eyes promised vengeance. And Kate’s entire body seemed to freeze in response. It was as if one of the demon’s tentacles had finally wound its way into her mind and was drawing her back into the abyss. Kate’s fingers loosened and she let go of the ledge.
Just before she fell, a glowing figure reached out and caught her. The shining fingers gripped Kate’s left hand. The sudden jolt of pain in her palm broke through the numbness that had threatened to claim her. At the same moment, light shot from her fingers and the darkness ripped open, revealing dawn sky and ebony stone. This, Kate realized, was her way out.
Bright arms shoved her toward the tear. The world grew more solid around her, and just as the massive shadow reached for her, Kate threw herself into the gap.
There was a moment when Kate hung in the in-between. She was on both sides of the tapestry at once: both in and out, both real and dream. Her body felt torn between the two, her mind screamed as the demon raked its claws through her memories one last time. Kate felt her heart slam in her chest, felt as though her lungs were collapsing.
But then, as she fell forward into the real world once more, she heard a voice whisper from out of dreams:
“Have hope, child.”
Kate fell to her knees.
She now found herself surrounded by blasted stone and ash. People moved in the distance - they had swords and they came toward her. Kate tried to back away, but she found she could not move. Her body felt too heavy, and the air felt too cold. As she knelt there, one more memory slipped from Kate’s mind. She could no longer recall where she’d just been. Her mind felt as empty as an overturned bowl. Fear remained, but not the reasons for that fear.
That frightened Kate even more. Panic clawed at her body from the inside out, and Kate could think of nothing to calm herself. She had heard people speak facetiously of being scared to death. Right now, that seemed a very real possibility.
As her gaze went unfocused, Kate stared up into the sky. The dome was a pale blue as the dawn crept in, and Kate’s eyes fell on a single star, winking at the edge of the horizon. Her vision seemed to tunnel in until only that star remained. There had been another light, Kate thought, desperately. That light had looked like a woman, and she had reached out to Kate. She had said something, too. She had given Kate a weapon to fight back the against the darkness.
Only now Kate could not remember what it was. Fear and exhaustion claimed her, and the star disappeared from her sight.
Cullen had been just as shocked and horrified as everyone else when the Conclave had exploded. But he knew he could not allow his fear to show. His soldiers needed to see that their leaders were united and courageous. Kirkwall had taught him that much. And since Leliana and Cassandra had not yet moved beyond their bickering to a plan, Cullen was moving forward on his own as best he could. Having secured the Pilgrim’s Path, he and his men were attempting to reclaim the Temple of Sacred Ashes.
Thus far, it was a losing venture.
The good news was that the demons from the rifts were mostly wraiths and shades. They were easy enough to kill, if one had a good sword arm and approached them cautiously. The bad news was that they appeared to be endless.
Cullen slashed at the wraith before him. The creature screamed at him with an amorphous mouth, then lashed out with a spindly arm. Cullen dodged the attack, then followed through with a swing that cleaved the wraith in two. A demon to Cullen’s left charged just then. Cullen blocked it with his shield, then carved it up with two swift strokes to its torso. The creature fell apart in a puff of ash, and that was the last of this lot.
Cullen straightened, taking a moment to breathe. A short distance away, he saw Morris. The man was standing in a pile of gore and rags, looking around for another demon to demolish with his greatsword.
Behold the prodigy that was Morris, Cullen thought wryly. The man was a bit off, but there was no one with a more single-minded focus for fighting. Truth be told, Cullen had often wondered if the one was the cause of the other. Either way, Morris had single-handedly killed as many demons as the rest of the recruits. It was moments like this that Cullen remembered why he put up with the man.
Morris shouldered his sword and wandered over to Cullen. He didn’t look tired, in spite of having fought demons all night long. If anything, he looked a bit bored.
“That’s the last of them, ser,” Morris said.
“For now,” Cullen replied.
As he spoke, Cullen looked around to assess the damage. It appeared that all his soldiers were still standing. But at this rate, Cullen would lose his people to exhaustion soon enough. They needed to set up a rotation for getting some sleep, and soon. Leliana might want to investigate the temple, but clearly that would have to wait. Cullen and his men could not very well search for answers in the rubble when they were being attacked by demons every few minutes.
As if there was anything here to find, Cullen thought with a snort. This pit was full of nothing but dust and debris and weirdly glowing stones. There was nothing here worth salvaging. The blast had scoured absolutely everything.
It was definitely time for a retreat, Cullen thought. This was pointless, and he wasn’t about to lose more men just because Leliana wanted to poke around in the ashes. They needed to give the soldiers a rest first. She could look for answers later.
But before he could call a retreat, the breach crackled again. The green pillar of light shivered, and Cullen bit back a curse.
Not again, he thought. They’d just finished with two waves of demons. He turned just in time to see the rift at the base of the breach sputter and split open. The men down on the temple floor shouted in alarm, backing away.
And then, so quickly that Cullen almost missed it, something fell out of the rift.
A hand appeared in the air, followed by an arm, a shoulder, then a flash of orange and suddenly an entire body came tumbling out onto the temple floor. It landed in an ash-colored heap on the ground and the rift above snapped shut. The breach fell still, and the entire temple was now quiet.
Cullen stared for just a moment, expecting the rift to open again, expecting the lump of rags to rise up with a roar and take on the form of a demon. But neither of those things happened. There was just silence. The soldiers slowly circled around the body, their swords at the ready.
“Hold!” Cullen shouted to them.
He ran to the nearby slope of rubble that he and the men had been using as a ramp down into the pit. Cullen scrambled down the incline, landed in a stutter-step at the bottom, recovered himself and hurried forward into the temple. Sword and shield still in hand, he waved his men back, and stepped closer to whatever it was that had just fallen out of the breach. In the shadows cast by the pre-dawn light, the thing appeared to be a lumpy green blanket.
Yet even that was alarming, Cullen thought. Everything else in this place was burned and blasted and blackened. This clump of cloth and metal appeared as out of place as a puddle in a desert.
“Did you see it, ser?” one of the soldiers asked Cullen. “It just fell out of the breach.”
“I saw it,” Cullen replied, warily. “Did any demons appear?”
”‘This one ain’t a demon,” another soldier put in. This fellow dragged his sword along the ground, and Cullen glared at him for being so careless. “This one’s a boy. And there was somethin’ in the rift behind him. Looked like a woman.”
“A woman?” Cullen asked. That seemed unlikely. A desire demon, no doubt. Cullen shuddered at the thought.
“I saw her, too,” the first soldier put in, hesitantly. “She was all glowing and…”
“Shapely-like,” dragging-sword interrupted.
Yes, definitely a desire demon, Cullen thought.
“Shapely?” one of the other soldier said, looking appalled.
“Yeah, you know,” dragging-sword said. “All…” He made a curving motion with his free hand. Cullen rolled his eyes.
“She looked like an grand cleric, yeh sick sod,” another soldier put in. “Had a miter on, like the priestesses wore.”
“Like Andraste wore,” the first soldier added, reverently.
Or maybe it wasn’t a desire demon, Cullen thought. It would be hard to mistake a desire demon for the Bride of the Maker. The nipple chains rather gave them away.
“So there was a woman in the breach and now we have a boy here,” Cullen said, trying to return them to the point at hand.
“Yes, ser,” the first soldier nodded. “Dunno how anyone could have survived being in there. That’s all demons, it is.”
“Indeed,” Cullen muttered, darkly.
He glanced up at the rift above. It pulsed green, and through it, Cullen spied the broken statue of Andraste - the only part of the temple not entirely destroyed. Her shattered stone body pointed to the sky, and her head floated in the air, gazing down at Cullen with blank stone eyes.
Cullen’s mouth set in a grim line. This was a new twist to an endless nightmare. And like all unexpected magical occurrences, Cullen didn’t like it at all. He waved his sword at the men and raised his shield.
“Get back, all of you,” Cullen commanded. His voice was hard as flint, and the men obeyed at once. Well, all except dragging-sword.
“It’s just one skinny boy,” the man muttered, rolling his eyes.
Cullen spared the fellow a withering glance.
“It fell out of the Fade,” Cullen said, his voice cold as stone. “Maker only knows what this is.”
“Oh,” the man mumbled. “Right.” He finally raised his sword.
Cautiously, Cullen took a step forward. The body looked like a pile of rags, propped up in a vaguely human shape. It could also be an elf, Cullen supposed. Or might be a spindly abomination ready to tear into all of them. But rather than terrify his men with that thought, Cullen motioned for reinforcements.
“Archers at the ready,” he shouted over his shoulder. “Morris?”
“Here, ser,” the man replied, taking a step forward. Cullen gave Morris a short nod. Though Morris currently looked a bit distracted, Cullen trusted that Morris’ instincts would take over if the rags suddenly jumped up and attacked. Cullen cautiously approached the body, his sword and shield at guard.
Cullen set up a mental guard as well. He and his men had been tripping over corpses at every turn. If this was a survivor - though Maker only knew how that was possible - then he was probably marred beyond all recognition. And if this was something else - some trick of the Fade - it might look even more terrifying. Either way, Cullen figured, this was going to be a grisly sight.
Cullen reached the body, then raised his foot and kicked it over with his heel. The pile of rags tumbled over, taking on a human shape as it fell. A long arm flopped out, palm down on the stones, and a sleeping face turned toward Cullen, framed by a halo of red-gold hair.
Cullen’s lips parted slightly.
This was not what he had expected. And he wasn’t certain if that was a good thing, or if it was infinitely worse.
“That ain’t a boy,” one of the soldiers murmured. “That’s a woman, sure.”
“Well her hair was so short,” dragging-sword grumbled. “Didn’t see it for more than a second.”
“Is she a mage or a templar?” one of the other soldiers asked. “She ain’t a grand cleric, that’s for sure.”
“Enough,” Cullen snapped, cutting them off. There was silence for a moment, and then Morris loudly announced:
“She’s a mage.”
Everyone turned around and stared at him, even Cullen. Morris just shrugged.
“Well she is,” he said. “See all that ginger hair?”
Cullen’s did his best to suppress an irritated groan. “Her hair color does not make her a mage, Morris.”
“It’s not just her hair, ser,” Morris said. “It’s the magic on her. Can’t you feel it?”
Cullen frowned. No, he could not sense any magic on the woman. And so far as he knew, neither could Morris. The man hadn’t known that Hawke was a mage, for Andraste’s sake. Some templars - and some Seekers - had that gift, but Cullen did not. Like most templars, he relied on observation to root out apostates. And right now, as he studied the survivor, he couldn’t tell what she was.
Her gear was like that of a traveler or a mercenary, but she appeared unarmed: no sword, no bow, no staff, not even a dagger. In fact, she appeared a stranger to travel or battle. She had a - Cullen wanted to call it a ‘soft’ sort of look. Though she was dusty, she was well-groomed. On the whole, she brought to Cullen’s mind the old Ferelden fairytale: the one where a princess went off to fight a sorcerer, then got enchanted and slept for a thousand years.
Of course, Cullen thought, this princess looked as if her sleep was less than restful. As he took a step closer, he could now see that sweat trickled down the sides of her face and the hair at her brow was plastered to her forehead. She frowned, twitching in sleep, and her eyes flickered behind her lids as if she were watching a nightmare. Added to that, her breaths were shallow, and her hand kept opening and closing, clawing at the stones.
And for just a moment, in spite of the danger, in spite of the strange circumstances, in spite of his cautious nature, Cullen felt a flicker of sympathy for the woman. He had spent enough time trapped inside of nightmares to recognize what they looked like from the outside. She was clearly suffering, and he had half a mind to try and gently wake her. But then another thought intruded, a warning from years ago:
Do not be fooled by a sweet face, Knight-Commander Meredith had once told him. The more you are tempted to trust magic and those who use it, the more you must resist the lure. A demon always lurks nearby. Remember that.
Ironic advice, Cullen thought. In the end, Meredith herself had fallen to the demons of paranoia and rage. And while the former Knight-Commander of Kirkwall could not remotely be described as ‘sweet’, she had been charismatic enough to deceive Cullen and so many others.
“You there,” Cullen said, pointing at a wiry-looking soldier. “Hurry back to the forward camp. There’s a big fellow there. Double the size of you. Get him up here at once. We need him to carry this woman down to Haven.”
“You mean Brooke, ser?” the woman replied.
“More like a river,” Cullen muttered to himself. “Yes, Brooke. That’s the one. Get him up here at once. Tell them to send word ahead to the Haven. We need a healer for this woman.”
“Yes, ser,” the woman replied. “Brooke and healers, ser.” With that, she saluted and hurried off. Cullen thought for a moment, then shouted after her:
“And bring shackles!” he yelled. “Or rope!”
“Yes, ser!” the woman shouted back. She ran up a nearby slope, headed for the temple doors.
“Rope, ser?” one of the other soldiers asked, worriedly. “You think she’s dangerous?”
“She is a mage,” Morris pointed out.
“It’s nothing to do with mages,” Cullen replied, half to himself. “I assume everyone is dangerous.” Cullen then frowned, for he had not meant to say that aloud.
Just then, the breach above began to crackle and shift. The air suddenly felt charged both with magic, and with the sudden tension that came from knowing that another attack was imminent.
Void take it, Cullen thought. He couldn’t believe he’d gotten so distracted by this survivor that he’d let his guard down. His men were too close to the breach, not at all in ideal fighting formation. Scowling, Cullen shouted orders as quickly as he could:
“Swordsmen, create a barrier. Archers, back to your vantage points. Morris, help me defend her.” He nodded down at the body.
“Right,” Morris said. He wandered toward Cullen as casually as if he were on his way to dinner. But before Cullen and Morris could take up a defensive position, something very odd happened.
The rift flared and shifted. It was a familiar sight, for it had been doing that all night. And every time before this, that was the bubble before the dam burst, the warning before demons came pouring into the world.
But this time, when the rift expanded, something answered it. The survivor’s left hand shot up as if someone had yanked her wrist into the air. A bolt of electricity fired from her palm to the rift above. Green lightning flickered from the rift to the hand and back. The woman’s body bowed with pain and she screamed aloud.
Cullen stepped forward in alarm, but then he froze, unsure how to help. The woman’s cry was drowned out by the answering crackle from the rift. Then the rift seemed to snap down upon itself. It formed a crystalline mass in the air, pulsed once, and then fell still. Instead of a horde of demons appearing in the temple, there was now an eerie silence.
Cullen looked around in surprise. His soldiers stood near, their weapons at guard. They, too, looked similarly astonished.
Cullen looked back to the survivor, not quite sure if what he’d seen had actually happened. It had all flashed by so quickly, he now felt as though he’d missed it. But no, the woman’s left hand was now facing up, and over her palm danced a brilliant green light.
What in the Void had just happened, Cullen wondered? Had this woman just reached into the rift somehow? And if so, what did that mean? Mostly likely, Cullen thought, bitterly, it meant she was the one who created the damned thing. And yet, as her eyes flickered and her head rolled to one side, Cullen could not help but feel concern for her. After all, who in the Void would inflict a spell like that upon themselves? What kind of abomination would allow it’s host body to take that much damage?
For as Cullen drew near to the body, he now saw that the woman’s breathing had grown shallower, her skin even more clammy and pale. Upon that open hand, the light flickered away, revealing a hideous burn. The skin had broken open in a long slash that looked vaguely like a mouth, and a thin line of crimson trickled along one slim finger. As Cullen watched, a single drop of blood dropped from the woman’s neat fingernail and into the ash of the temple floor.
“Maker,” he murmured.
Then, with a scowl, Cullen momentarily gave in to temptation. Or he gave in to compassion - he wasn’t sure which. At the moment, they felt an awful lot alike.
Cullen set down his shield and sliced into the skirt of his tunic with his sword. He ripped off a swath of fabric, rolled it into a makeshift bandage and knelt by the woman’s side. He carefully bound the woman’s hand, all the while sneaking glances at her face to make sure she wasn’t about to attack him. His task done, Cullen tucked the ruined end of his shirt back into his belt. So much for the fancy sunburst on his clothes, he thought. Well, at least he would be able to move more easily without something around his knees to trip him up.
That task done, Cullen retrieved shield and stood. He then realized that all of his men were watching him very closely.
“Can’t leave a body bleeding this close to a rift,” he said, gruffly, jerking his chin at the survivor. “That’s just asking the demons to try and cross over.”
The soldiers accepted this explanation without question, nodding their heads knowingly. Well, all except Morris, who was tracing designs in the ash at his feet with the tip of his greatsword.
Just then, Cullen spotted Brooke and the female soldier approaching. Cullen let out a short sigh of relief.
“There you are,” he said to them both. “Get this woman down to Cassandra at once.”
“Yes, ser,” the woman said. “And we sent word ahead for the healers, ser.”
“Good,” Cullen nodded. He then frowned as the woman walked up to him and held out a pair of shackles.
“Get on with it,” he said, nodding at the survivor.
“Oh,” the woman said, nervously. “Well, I was hoping you - er, someone else, rather, would, uh…” She glanced at the fallen body and then back at Cullen. He just raised a brow at her.
“I don’t want to touch it,” the woman said in a half-whisper. “They’re already talking about how that’s the one what did it.”
Of course they were, Cullen thought, rolling his eyes. The soldiers were terrible gossips. At this rate, the tale would be in Haven before the survivor was. The woman would be condemned before she even woke.
“Oh for Andraste’s sake,” he grumbled.
Cullen snatched the shackles out of the woman’s hands with a withering glare, then strode over to the survivor. He felt a bit like a bully as he knelt and rolled the woman onto her stomach and drew her hands behind her back. From here, he could see the pulse in her neck was hammering, as though her heart was racing. At this rate, Cullen thought, she might not last the day.
He forced himself not to worry about that as he bound her hands, but when he waved Brooke over, he told the man:
“Be gentle with her. Once that woman wakes up, she may be able to give us a better picture of what happened here.”
If she wakes up, he added, to himself. He did not like that ‘if’ at all. They needed answers, and this wounded woman - this potentially dangerous, potentially murderous woman - was their only lead. Cullen allowed himself one last glance at the survivor’s pale face, then helped Brooke haul her up. Hanging over the big man’s shoulder like that, she looked like a pile of rags again. Cullen frowned at that, then grabbed the hood of the woman’s jacket and pulled it over her head, shielding her face and covering her red hair.
“Keep this quiet if you can,” he told the woman soldier. “And you two,” he added, waving to two of the other men, “go with them. We need this woman alive. Take her to Haven, and protect her if you must. Hurry now.”
The soldiers saluted. Brooke started off with surprising speed for such a large man. On his shoulder, the prisoner looked very thin in comparison.
Cullen watched them for a moment, then shook himself and waved at his men.
“Fall back,” he said. “We need to get to the forward camp and set up a rotation schedule. You all need some sleep.”
The men actually smiled at this, the first such expression Cullen had seen on their faces since the explosion.
“And you!” Cullen shouted at dragging-sword as they started to walk away. “Keep your sword up. You’re dulling the edge.”
“Yes, ser,” the man replied, sheepishly, but he still seemed pleased by the idea of getting out of the pit. Cullen looked around, then began to follow his men. Morris fell into step beside him.
“But we need her to close the other rifts,” Morris said, as if suddenly noticing the absence of the survivor.
Cullen did a double-take. “Close the rifts?” he repeated. “What are you talking about?”
“She kept more demons from coming out of the rift,” Morris said. He almost sounded disappointed by the fact.
“I don’t think that was her doing,” Cullen said, doubtfully. “More likely the rift was doing something odd. Besides,” he added, “if you want to fight demons, I’m sure we’ll be facing more of them soon enough.”
“But if the mage didn’t close the rift, then what happened to her hand?” Morris asked.
“No idea,” Cullen admitted. “Hopefully she can give us the answer to that.”
“She might only give you more questions,” Morris observed.
Cullen frowned. That almost sounded profound. And if Morris was beginning to sound insightful, then clearly Cullen needed some sleep.
“I hope she didn’t do it,” Morris added as they reached the slope leading up to the temple doors.
“What we hope is hardly relevant,” Cullen replied, as they began to climb. But Cullen also hoped that the woman hadn’t done this. For one thing, Cullen didn’t like the idea that his momentary act of compassion had been directed at the Divine’s murderer.
“She’s pretty for a mage though, don’t you think?” Morris said, waving up at the temple doors. Just then, Brooke was carrying the mage away, and she looked like the proverbial sack of potatoes slung over his shoulder.
“No,” Cullen said. His lips thinned, and he leveled a cutting gaze in Morris’ direction.
“No she’s not pretty, or no she’s not a mage?” Morris wanted to know.
“No,” Cullen answered, and he left it at that.