Cassandra hauled the prisoner off the ground for the third time in as many minutes. This was slowing them down considerably, she thought. They had to reach the forward camp quickly, and the prisoner kept stumbling as if she were drunk.
Cassandra steadied the woman on her feet, then noticed that the woman’s face was pinched with pain, the fingers of her left hand clenched into a fist. At the sight, Cassandra felt a stab of pity. Pity was a most unwelcome sensation. The prisoner was supposed to be the villain here. She was supposed to have answers about the Conclave explosion, at the very least. But instead, the prisoner claimed not to remember a thing. She acted as lost and confused as Cassandra felt.
Cassandra had not believed the mage at first. She had been convinced the prisoner was lying. But either the mage was the best actress that Cassandra had ever met, or she was genuinely horrified at the news that the Conclave had been destroyed. The prisoner had certainly agreed to help quickly enough. That alone had made Cassandra trust her - a little. A very little.
“Are you alright?” Cassandra said, gruffly, as she hauled the woman onto her feet. The mage nodded, her eyes squeezing shut.
“Kate,” she said.
“What?” Cassandra asked.
“Kate,” the woman repeated. “Please, call me Kate.”
“This is hardly the time or place for introductions,” Cassandra replied, frowning. “Besides, we know who you are, Trevelyan.”
The day they’d found the prisoner, Cassandra had gone and pored over the lists of the delegates. The final page had jogged Cassandra’s memory. She’d taken the news to Leliana and Josephine at once. Their prisoner was none other than the last-minute addition from Ostwick: the one who had bristled at being called a Loyalist.
The others had not reacted as Cassandra had wished. Josephine had insisted that the Trevelyans were a pious, honorable family. Furthermore, Josephine had met Lady Trevelyan at a party once and had been impressed by the young lady’s manners. She did not think a Trevelyan could be behind all this. Leliana was less inclined to be swayed by noble connections, but she too was reluctant to condemn the woman.
“The guilty often have an escape route,” the spymaster had insisted. “The ones left to rot in prison are usually innocent.”
As for Cullen, he could not be bothered to leave his post at the forward camp to weigh in on the discussion. Cassandra had sent him the details in a letter. To the missive, Cullen had sent back a short note:
Speculations are useless. Let’s focus on survival first - for us and the prisoner.
They still needed the prisoner to survive, Cassandra thought, and the woman was in pretty bad shape. She was pale, swaying on her feet, and she looked as if she might faint at any moment. As Cassandra watched, the mage flexed her fingers.
“Sorry,” she muttered.
“Will you be able to make it up the hill, or will we need to carry you?” Cassandra asked.
“I think I can walk it off,” the prisoner said.
“I can’t have you falling off the side of the mountain,” Cassandra told her. “It’s a long way down.”
“Falling…” The prisoner blinked. “Robert said the same,” she murmured.
“Robert?” Cassandra repeated.
The name evoked a memory that Cassandra had set aside: a young man helping her in the dead of night, a young man that Cassandra had subsequently lost sight of.
“Wait!” the prisoner went on, “Robert can vouch for me.” She looked back over her shoulder. “He was in Haven. If we find him…”
“Robert?” Cassandra repeated again. Was it the same Robert? The name was common enough.
“Robert Trevelyan,” the prisoner explained. “He’s my cousin. He came with me to the Conclave. He was supposed to wait in the tavern.”
“Is your cousin tall?” Cassandra asked. “Golden eyes, dark complexion?”
“That’s him!” Kate nodded eagerly. “Can I speak to him? Where is he?”
Cassandra stiffened. So it was the same Robert.
“Was he part of the plan?” Cassandra asked archly. “A ruse sent to distract me?”
“Distract you?” Kate looked utterly confused.
“I have not seen Robert in days,” Cassandra said, feeling a pang in her chest even as she spoke the words. “If he is your accomplice, perhaps he ran off to save himself.”
At least, Cassandra hoped he had run off. She didn’t want to consider the possibility that he was dead.
“Accomplice?” Kate repeated. “No! He’s just my cousin. And he would never run from a battle. He’s too… Oh Maker,” she said, growing even more pale. “Maybe the demons…”
Cassandra’s jaw hardened. She, too, had worried for Robert, but she barely knew the fellow. She had only spent a few minutes flirting with him before the whole world had fallen apart. And now she could not afford any further distraction.
“If he is fighting, then he is likely with Cullen,” Cassandra said, though she doubted it.
“Who is Cullen?” Kate asked.
“The commander of our forces - at the forward camp.”
“So, the way we’re going,” Kate said. She looked a bit more steady on her feet, and Cassandra waved her on. The mage set out along the path, her steps growing more sure.
That was good, Cassandra thought. The mage was clearly motivated to find her cousin. As they climbed, the mage’s breathing grew more ragged. Between steps, she suddenly added, “And what about Coll?”
That name sounded familiar, but Cassandra could not think why.
“My friend,” Kate said. “She’s a Dalish - well, looks like a Dalish, anyhow, and sometimes she gets into, um, trouble.”
Cassandra’s eyes narrowed. “Does she have dark hair, dark tattoos, and a very, shall we say, colorful way of speaking?”
“Then she’s alright?” Kate asked, hopefully.
Cassandra ground her teeth together. “I should have known,” she said.
“Oh, Maker, what did she do?” Kate asked, nervously. “Please, Coll doesn’t mean it. She has a tendency to speak without thinking.”
“Oh, she kept her mouth shut most admirably,” Cassandra said, dryly. “We’ll deal with the breach, then I’ll deal with your friend.”
The mage’s eyes went wide, and she looked appalled. “Please don’t hurt Coll,” she said, nearly begging now. “Do what you like to me, but don’t hurt her. Coll had nothing to do with this. I swear.”
“I thought you didn’t remember what happened,” Cassandra said.
“I don’t!” Kate exclaimed. “I remember talking to you at the bridge, and I remember walking along this path. But after that, it’s all a blank.” The mage shook her head, then added:
“Coll didn’t even want to come to Haven. And me, I just wanted…” She shook her head. “I don’t know what I wanted. But it wasn’t this.”
Cassandra pressed her lips together. For the past two days, she had been utterly convinced that Katerina Trevelyan of Ostwick was a murderer and a terrorist. Now, she wasn’t so sure.
Cassandra liked it better when she was certain. But then, she thought, she liked it best when she was correct. And right now, Cassandra wasn’t sure what was true.
“We should move on,” Cassandra said. “If… or rather, when you return, you may be present when I detain your friend for questioning. It’s for her own safety,” she added, when the mage looked like she’d protest. “If they think she’s an associate of yours, she may be in danger.”
“Oh,” Kate said softly. “I didn’t think of that. Is Robert in danger?”
“I don’t know,” Cassandra said. “We can look for him later. But first, we must close the sky. None of this matters if we cannot survive the day.”
“Has the fighting been very bad then?” the mage asked. She spoke softly, and sympathetically. For some reason, this annoyed Cassandra. Her teeth clicked together and she looked away sharply.
“Worse,” she said. “And the people need someone to blame.”
“Meaning me,” the mage said. Cassandra turned and stared at her.
“Just so,” she said, and then she walked on.
Usually, Kate ignored it when people gossiped about her. The Circle mages sometimes whispered about how she was a pampered aristocrat, given all sorts of special treatment because of her social station. As for the nobility, Kate had never yet attended a gathering where her magic was not referenced in some way. Sometimes people inquired about it in a polite, if ignorant way. Most of the time, however, the nobility looked down their nose at Kate with a sneer. They were never open about it, of course. The Trevelyans were too important for that kind of snub. Kate’s aunts had always encouraged her to brush off any slights. The appearance of sensitivity was the ultimate show of weakness, they reminded her. Gossip couldn’t harm her unless she allowed it to.
However, in this case, gossip might literally kill her. The people of Haven had apparently conferred on the matter while Kate slept, and had concluded that she was guilty of murder. And not just any murder: they thought Kate had killed the Divine.
Not only that, but Kate was suspected of causing an explosion that killed every attendee of the Conclave, of ripping a hole in the sky, opening a gateway to the Fade, flooding the world with demons, and causing the mage-templar war to renew again in earnest.
Most damning of all, Kate had somehow survived when so many others had died. That was the reason Cassandra thought Kate was guilty: Kate had fallen out of the Fade with this blazing mark on her hand and she was alive.
Kate had to admit she probably would have thought the same in Cassandra’s place. But she knew herself, and she knew she hadn’t done these things. At least, she didn’t think she had.
Oh, Maker, she thought as they passed a corpse in the snow. What if I did?
No, Kate thought. She hadn’t. She wouldn’t. Whatever happened must have been an accident.
But Kate couldn’t remember what had happened. Looking back over her memories of the Conclave was like trying to read a partially burnt page. The remaining words and letters made little sense out of context. Kate remembered a woman, but the woman had glowed. That couldn’t be right. There had also been screaming. Maybe. Kate couldn’t quite remember now, and it physically hurt to try and recall anything more. It was like reaching for something that wasn’t there, and brushing her fingers along sharp needles instead.
Could she have been possessed, Kate wondered? The thought left her feeling even more shaken. If she had been possessed, perhaps she had done this Veil-tearing thing at a demon’s behest.
But Kate certainly didn’t feel possessed. Wouldn’t she be able to sense an extra passenger inside? Right now, Kate most just felt achy and confused and fearful - and also rather hungry. Besides, Kate thought, she wasn’t a powerful enough mage to tear open the Veil all by herself, even if a demon had forced her to do so. The magic involved in the explosion must have come from some other source. So maybe there had been some fight in the Conclave and she had been caught in the middle. Maybe someone summoned some magic and…
Oh, Kate stop, she told herself as they neared the next bridge. She wanted these questions answered, but now was clearly not the time for speculation. The immediate problem was the breach. Kate needed to close the hole in the Veil, then find Robert and Coll and the others. And hopefully, Kate’s captors would be so grateful for her help that they would let her go. Or maybe they would be grateful enough not to hang her without a trial. And not to torture her. That would be good. That would be very good.
Though really, Kate thought, even if she did die, she had to see this done. As a mage, she knew very well what lurked in the Fade. There were beautiful, helpful spirits there, but they rarely crossed over from the other side. It was the demons who sought entry into this world. The bodies on the path were proof enough of that. Kate had to get that breach closed, if she possibly could.
They came to the stone bridge. Beyond, in the distance, Kate saw the remains of the Temple of Sacred Ashes. At least, that’s what she thought it was. It didn’t look like any sort of temple. Instead, the ruin reminded Kate of the Black City.
Kate shivered. Where had that thought come from?
“Move along,” Seeker Cassandra snapped at her. Kate fell in line behind the woman, looking nervously at the breach ahead. The pillar of light was enormous, and Kate felt her heart stutter within her.
It occurred to Kate that the Seeker - that everyone in Haven - had no clue what if this would work. They were grasping at straws. And Kate was the proverbial last straw.
But before Kate could take the metaphor any further, a blob of green came flying out of the sky. It smashed into the bridge before them. The ground under her feet dropped away, there was the sound of screams, and Kate pitched forward into nothing.
Cullen slashed at the demon before him. He didn’t flinch when its blood sprayed over the top of his shield and across his face. The thing shrieked - an almost human sound from a truly inhuman body - and then it fell.
Cullen rolled his shoulders back. His arms ached. His every nerve felt pulled tight, but there was nothing to do but grit his teeth and prepare himself for the next wave.
How many days had they been at this? Three? Four? It hardly mattered now. With the prisoner unresponsive and rifts pouring demons all along the Pilgrim’s Path, they’d be routed soon enough. Cullen had stationed himself at the rift in the temple courtyard. Rylen had the one at the other end of the forward camp, and no one had heard from the soldiers at the old gatehouse since morning. They were probably dead, Cullen thought grimly. All of them would be dead soon, if something didn’t change.
Cullen shoved that thought aside. He might fear this was the end - for himself, for his men, possibly for the world - but he could not show that fear. He turned his attention to the remaining soldiers, making a quick assessment of the casualties. That was two down, one wounded. Cullen sighed in resignation and started toward the wounded man. As he did so, a female soldier came running through the doorway that led down to the forward camp.
“Ser!” the woman shouted. Cullen held up a hand to stall her while he dealt with the wounded soldier.
“Get this fellow to the healers,” he said to a soldier standing nearby.
“Already been to the healers twice,” the wounded man said, gritting his teeth. “The Dalish told me if I came back again, she was going to smack me upside the head.”
Cullen frowned at that. In addition to all the other supplies they lacked, it seemed Haven was also short on healers with any bedside manners.
“Count yourself lucky to be alive,” Cullen told the lad. To another waiting soldier, Cullen said, “Wake Morris. It’s time for him to take a turn at the demons again.”
It was truly a testament to how brutal this fight was that even Morris had flagged at last. Cullen wished he could let the fellow rest longer, but they would need the reinforcement. Cullen then turned his attention back to the messenger.
“What’s the situation?” he asked her.
“They need you to retake the temple, ser,” she said, pointing back through the doorway from which she’d come. “Lady Cassandra wants the way cleared.”
Cullen cocked his head to one side and scowled at her. “What?”
“They want you to retake the temple,” the woman repeated, a little more nervously this time.
“What do they think we’ve been doing?” he snapped. He then let out a huff when the woman blanched.
“Look,” he said, trying to even his tone a bit, “I have no idea what the center of the temple looks like. We’ve barely kept this rift contained. Leliana’s scouts went to take a look from the other side, but unless they’ve reported in…”
“They’re missing, ser,” the woman said.
Cullen shook his head. “My men can’t hold the temple,” he told the soldier. “They’re exhausted.”
“But they need it cleared at once,” the woman pressed. “They have the prisoner just down the hill, and she…”
“The prisoner woke?” Cullen said, his head snapping up. “Did she talk?”
“She doesn’t remember anything,” the woman replied.
Cullen’s lips set in a thin line. “Of course not,” he murmured.
That was entirely too convenient. Still, at least the prisoner was alive and awake. The truth would come to light, even if they had to extract it from her. It was an unpleasant thought, but desperate times and all that.
“They need the way cleared,” the woman continued. “Lady Cassandra and Leliana think the woman may be able to close the breach.”
“May be?” Cullen raised his brow. “They’re asking me to risk my men on a maybe?”
“I…well…” the woman flinched. “They did say if she tries to close the breach, it might kill her instead.”
Cullen gritted his teeth. Wonderful. The woman remembered nothing. She might be able to close the breach. Or maybe she’d just die.
But then Cullen remembered how the survivor’s hand had reacted to the breach just days ago. Maybe she could close it. He hoped she could, anyhow.
“Send word back that we’ll do it,” he told the messenger. He looked up and spotted Morris, who wandered through the doorway with his greatsword on his shoulder. Morris looked around, yawned, and then asked:
“More demons, ser?”
Only Morris could be this calm after everything that had happened, Cullen thought. Or maybe the man was just too tired to care.
“Seems so,” Cullen said. “We need to clear the way…”
But he didn’t get to finish this thought. For at the same moment, the rift in the courtyard sparked and shivered. A moment later, more demons jumped up from the ground. They were the big kinds, too: demons of terror and despair.
Fitting, Cullen thought. And with a shout, he and Morris threw themselves into battle once more.
Well, Kate thought, as she rolled to a stop. She had hit rock bottom. Or ice bottom. Or whatever. She now lay on her face on a frozen river, and before her, Seeker Cassandra ran off to fight a demon that had come crashing down out of the sky.
Kate couldn’t quite believe it. That thing was a demon. She hadn’t seen demons since…
Well, since the battle at Ostwick, she supposed, but before that, the last time she’d seen one was during her Harrowing. Now there was a memory. Kate didn’t see how things could get much worse than this.
But then, just to prove her wrong, a second demon bubbled out of the very ice, right in front of Kate’s face.
Well, Kate thought, apparently it could get worse. Thank the Maker that she was a mage. At moments like this, she was glad that she was a living weapon. Kate reached for the Fade…
And she came back hissing and cursing, the mark on her hand sparking wildly.
“What the Void?”
Kate tried to cast a spell as the demon slid toward her. But she couldn’t seem to grab hold of the Fade at all. It was like trying to channel water through a pipe, only to have it spurt out every which way. But the demon was still coming for her, and as it closed in, Kate threw her hands in front of her face.
A flash of fire went up from her open palms. The demon shrunk back, then began bobbing away from her, burning as it went. Kate blinked after it in surprise.
Fire? She nearly laughed. Maker’s breath. She hadn’t cast a fire spell since she was an apprentice. In fact, that was the first spell she’d learned in class. Kate had quickly decided that ice suited her much better and never looked back. But apparently she was back to the basics.
Back to the basics?
Kate held out a hand, and after a moment’s concentration, lightning shot from her palm. It was a weak bolt, for most of the power from the Fade bled into the air around her. The bolt however, skewered the fleeing demon. Kate smiled in triumph. At least, she smiled until the demon spun around and charged her.
Oh, well, that was a bit stupid, Kate thought. She should have just let the thing run away. But then something caught her eye.
Over in the wreckage of the bridge, lay a staff. Kate couldn’t believe her eyes. It was a staff, just lying there.
Well, Kate thought. That’s convenient.
She lunged for the staff and reached it just a moment before the demon got to her. She turned around and focused her will. The staff required no charge from the Fade. Rather, it channeled Kate’s innate power and shot out a bolt of ice.
It was a very weak bolt of ice, however. Evidently, there was a reason this staff had been abandoned.
The demon shrieked, more annoyed than damaged by the feeble blast. The creature slashed at her, and Kate barely got the end of the staff up in time to clumsily block the blow. She then tried to conjure up another bolt from the staff, but this one was even weaker than before. She was quite literally throwing snowballs at an attacking demon. It was ludicrous, really.
Damn it, Kate thought. This staff was a piece of junk. Of course, Kate had never practiced with staffs much, anyway. Ostwick mages only dusted off their staffs for ceremonial occasions. Staffs could be quite powerful in the right hands, but they required a great deal of attunement. There were also some fancy twirling techniques that had come out of Kirkwall - these apparently increased the power of the weapon. But Kate had only practiced the old-school style: aiming the stick at a target and coaxing a blast of elemental damage from the tip.
Evidently, Kate’s point-and-poke technique was somewhat lacking.
The demon lunged at Kate. She stupidly screamed and tried to block with the staff again. At the same time, a sword punched through the demon’s chest. The demon clenched its hands and wailed, then blew away as if a wind had carried it off. Kate found herself staring at Seeker Cassandra. The woman’s eyes were fierce, and she held up her shield and sword.
“Thank you,” Kate breathed. “That was…”
“Drop your weapon,” the Seeker snarled at her. “Now!”
Kate blinked, startled by the fury in the Seeker’s voice, as well as by the absurdity of the demand. Did the woman think Kate intended to use this staff on her? Clearly the Seeker had missed the snowball-versus-demon fight just now.
“Drop it!” the Seeker snapped again.
“Dropping it,” Kate said. She gingerly set the staff down on the ice and stood up with her hands in clear sight. The Seeker’s eyes narrowed. Kate licked her lips.
“But,” Kate added, nervously, “My magic seems to be a bit, er, off. I can’t cast spells very well at present…”
“You do not need to cast anything,” Cassandra told her. “And you do not need a weapon.”
Kate gave a spurt of hysterical laughter, then quickly caught herself when the Seeker frowned. “I, um…” she stopped there, then said, as politely as she could:
“Very well. If you think you can get me up to the breach in one piece, I trust you to do so.”
Kate didn’t trust the Seeker, but she also didn’t have much of a choice. Kate folded her hands and waited for Cassandra to say something. There was a long pause, and then the Seeker sighed.
“Fine,” Cassandra muttered. “Take the staff.”
“Oh,” Kate blinked. “Well, if you’re sure…”
“I’m not sure,” Cassandra muttered. “But we need to reach the breach. Avoid fighting if you can. I do not want to lose another Trevelyan on this mountain.”
“What did you say?” Kate asked.
“Nothing,” the woman snarled. “Just stay behind me and let me be your shield.”
Now that seemed a sound strategy.
“Gladly,” Kate replied, and she followed the Seeker up the hill.
There was no good strategy for holding the temple, Cullen reflected. For every demon they killed, another took its place. It wouldn’t be long now, Cullen thought. Either the prisoner would arrive, or they would all die waiting for her.
Looking up, Cullen saw a demon closing in on Morris. Morris didn’t seem to notice. Maybe he was too tired to notice. They were all too tired. As Cullen ran for his fellow soldier, the ground began to bubble like hot tar. Before Cullen could cross the battlefield, a demon jumped out of the earth before him, knocking Cullen onto his back. For a moment, Cullen’s vision went fuzzy, and all he could see was a gaping mouth full of teeth.
He tried to rise, but spindly arms held him fast. He tried to raise his shield, his sword - nothing. Cullen kicked, and the sole of his foot connected with the solid underbelly of the demon. It made a crunching sound, as if he had stepped on a large insect. The thing stumbled back, screaming, but at the same moment, another demon appeared behind it.
Too many, Cullen thought. Too many demons, and too few soldiers. Cullen had lost sight of Morris, and was now fighting on his own. He clambered to his feet, then heard a shriek behind him.
That made three demons, Cullen realized. Three demons against Cullen alone. The third demon then leaped out of the ground, it knocked Cullen onto his face. As the ground came rushing toward him, Cullen realized this might well be the end.
This wasn’t a temple, Kate thought, as she came running through the door to the courtyard. This was a grave. There were bodies everywhere in the rubble, indistinguishable except for their gear. She saw leather scout armor here, heavy armor there, even the blue-and-silver stripes of a Grey Warden.
Maker, let Robert be alive, Kate silently prayed. But she couldn’t stop and look for him now. The breach loomed ahead, larger and louder than ever. She realized now that it made a sort of roaring sound, like the sea. She’d heard it far off, but thought it was the general rumble of battle, or maybe just her ears ringing.
Now, however, she could tell it was the breach. The thing cast a sickly glow over all the battlefield before them. A rift in the center of the courtyard sparked and shone. There were a great many demons, but Kate only spotted two soldiers left standing. They were overwhelmed, she realized.
Beside her, Kate’s companions seemed to realize this as well. Though Kate had only just met this elf and dwarf on her way up the mountain, she was already inclined to rely on them. There was nothing like the prospect of sudden death to forge alliances.
“Ah, shit!” Varric Tethras said, “That’s Curly in there.”
Kate had no idea who ‘Curly’ was, but when Cassandra shouted, “Hurry!” Kate didn’t hesitate. Kate charged with the others. But then Kate saw a blond soldier fall as a demon sprang up behind him. He needed help immediately, Kate thought, and the others wouldn’t reach him in time.
She needed her magic, Kate realized. She couldn’t simply rely on the soldiers to protect her, not when the soldiers themselves needed help.
Steeling herself against the pain, Kate reached for the Fade. This time, she did not reach out as if to grab a fistful of the Veil with grasping fingers. She imagined herself sliding her hand into cool water. With the mark to channel it, the merest touch of magic was enough, Kate realized. Her eyes snapped open, and she concentrated her attention on the point just beyond the rift.
Kate shot forward, the world around her blurring as she stepped through the Fade to the other side of the field. She shot past Cassandra, past Solas and Varric, right toward the mass of demons. But instead of stopping, Kate shot right through their bodies. Kate skidded to a stop just past the rift, then lost her balance and fell forward onto her hands and knees. She looked over her shoulder to find that the demons had all frozen to ice behind her.
Kate laughed in triumph. Now that was more like her old magic. It seemed this mark wasn’t preventing her from casting spells, but it needed a bit of work to channel energy properly. Kate rose to her feet, reached for the Veil again…
And this time she came back with nothing it at all. It seemed she had entirely exhausted her ability to reach for the Fade, at least for now. She only had a little energy left inside of her, enough for possibly a low-level spell or two. She hoped that would suffice.
Then again, Kate thought, it seemed her help was no longer needed. Before her, the fallen soldier lunged to his feet, smashing into the frozen demons with a fury.
Kate blinked. Well, that was impressive.
On the other end of the courtyard, Cassandra fought like a fire, dancing and turning in entirely unexpected ways. But this fellow, with his shining armor and golden hair, reminded Kate of a rock slide. There was no stopping him once he got moving.
Even so, Kate saw that the man was still fighting alone. Behind him, a green, ghostlike shape dove out of the sky.
“Watch out!” she shouted. At the same moment, she reached out her hand. A feeble blast of fire shot from her fingers. The flare passed right before the soldier’s face. He lurched back with a start as the spell hit the creature. Then turned his startled gaze to Kate. His eyes widened, and his mouth dropped open a little.
“You!” he cried.
Cullen just stared for a moment, completely stunned. First his eyebrows had nearly been singed off, and now he found himself gazing at the mage who had cast the wild spell.
It was the prisoner, or survivor, or whatever she was. A moment before, she’d gone flying into the demons, chilling the air and turning everything to ice. He hadn’t gotten a good look at her then. He’d been more concerned with killing those demons. But with them dead and the wraith temporarily stunned, Cullen allowed himself a moment.
The woman wore the same tattered armor as before, and had the same short, fire-red hair. If that wasn’t enough to identify her, her left hand sparked with green light. Cullen had bandaged that hand just days before.
The woman’s eyes went wide and she pointed.
“Behind you!” she shouted.
Cullen spun around as the wraith charged him a second time. He blocked it with his shield, then slashed it in two. At the same time, he felt a barrier spell wash over him.
Well, that was more helpful than the careless fireballs, Cullen thought wryly. Though the mage’s first spell had been most helpful of all. Cullen wasn’t fond of battles where magic was involved, truth be told. Spells were notoriously unpredictable. But in this case, he’d take all the help he could get.
“Freeze them again!” Cullen ordered the mage.
“I can’t,” the mage shouted back. She didn’t bother to explain why, and there wasn’t time anyhow. The final terror demon charged at Cullen from across the field. He managed to block it in time, and the barrier spell kept off the worst of it’s slashing claws. The mage cast another spell - a feeble blast of lightning that stunned the demon for a split second before it recovered itself. Cullen fought on, and with three more strikes, the demon was dead. Cullen looked up to see that Cassandra was helping Morris to his feet. Varric looked around for more demons to kill, and the bald elf was staring intently at the rift, his eyes narrowed.
At that same moment, rift had begun to spark once more.
Not again, Cullen thought, wearily. He was tired of this fighting. But at least they had greater numbers on their side now.
“Close the rift!” the bald elf shouted from across the field.
I’d like to, Cullen was about to shout back, when the most astonishing thing happened. The prisoner ran forward and held out her glowing hand.
Cullen blinked. Days before, he’d seen this, where green lightning went sparking from her hand into the rift. But this time, the woman wasn’t unconscious. The mage held hand up to the sky, her face scrunched in concentration. The light coursed from her hand to the rift and back again, her arm quivering with the strain of it. Then with one great yank, she pulled her hand back. A burst of light filled the air, and she stumbled to one knee. When the light dimmed and the booming sound faded, Cullen found himself staring at her.
The prisoner had sealed the rift.
Cullen shook his head. She had sealed the rift.
Cullen’s chest seemed to lighten, as if his armor was no longer so heavy. He hardly dared to hope, but it seemed the tide had turned. Maker be praised, he thought. They might actually live through this.
Kate swallowed and sat back on her heels. Kneeling on the stones, she grabbed her left wrist with her right hand and flexed her fingers.
Maker, she hoped she lived through this. Each time she closed a rift, she felt like her heart was going to explode from the strain.
The first rift they had encountered had been the worst. Along the path, she and Cassandra had stumbled upon a battle. There had been demons pouring out of a rift, just as Cassandra had said. Cassandra and Kate helped kill the demons - or rather, Kate had mostly cowered and tried to cast a feeble spell or two and Cassandra had fought like a whirlwind. Then, just as the battle ended, a bald elf had suddenly grabbed Kate by the wrist. He had held up her hand, and green lightning had gone shooting from Kate’s palm into the rift. Kate had felt like her arm was going to burn off. She had tried to pull away, but the elf was surprisingly strong. And then, when Kate had been sure she could endure the pain no longer, the rift had snapped shut. It was like a kernel of corn popping, only in the reverse. One moment, there had been this puffy, exploded thing in the sky, and then it had snapped up into itself and disappeared entirely.
This rift had done the same. That was good, Kate told herself. However, it had hurt much worse than the last rift, and that was rather bad. Kate held out her hand to survey the damage done. It looked as though a giant ember had landed in the center of her palm and charred the skin. When all this was done - assuming she survived - she was going to have quite the scar.
Just then, a boot appeared before Kate. It was joined by another boot a moment later. They were big boots, Kate thought. She lifted her head.
The boots belonged to the golden-haired soldier. He gazed down at her, his grim face splashed with blood. His eyes were red-rimmed and wary, and up close, he looked even more tall and broad-shouldered than from across the battlefield. Contributing to the general impression of being massive and armored and dangerous, the man wore a fur mantle about his shoulders. He looked a bit like a bear, Kate thought. A grumpy bear, she realized, for he frowned at her in a most intimidating way.
“Hello,” Kate said, nervously. When the bear-like soldier said nothing, she quickly added, “I’m sorry. Too much fire and not enough ice. My spells are a little off right now. I think it’s the mark.”
The man’s brows drew together slightly. Kate realized she was babbling and shut her mouth at once. She tried to stand, but found her feet were still unsteady.
“It’s fine,” the bear-soldier said, his voice so low that Kate almost missed it. “Anyhow, we lived.”
“For now,” Kate reminded him.
The man’s lips thinned. “Indeed,” he said. Then he held his hand out to her.
Kate hesitated, but then her manners kicked in and she took his right hand with her left. The soldier hauled her to her feet, but no sooner had he done so than her palm sparked and flashed. It was a good thing that the bear-soldier was wearing gloves, Kate supposed, or he might have been burned as well. He dropped Kate’s hand at once. For her part, Kate barely managed to keep from swearing aloud. She bit her lip and flexed her fingers instead.
“That got worse,” the bear-soldier observed, nodding at her hand.
Before Kate could ask him what he meant, Cassandra came striding over.
“Commander Cullen,” the Seeker said, nodding curtly.
“Lady Cassandra,” the soldier returned. “You managed to close the rift. Well done.”
Cassandra gave a sigh and waved a hand at Kate.
“That was the prisoner’s doing,” the Seeker said. “She is the one with the mark.”
Yes, well obviously, Cullen thought. He had meant ‘you’ in the plural sense. Clearly the mage had closed the rift, but Cassandra had managed to get the woman on her feet and helping.
It really was remarkable, Cullen thought, staring again at the mage. The last time he’d seen the prisoner, she’d been dirty and pale and nearly dead. She was still dirty and pale - possibly more so than before. Her face was spattered with blood and she looked like she was ready to fall to her knees again. In that respect, she hadn’t changed much in three days. And yet, there was something entirely different about her now.
It was her eyes, Cullen thought. They were open for a start. Rather than looking like a corpse, she now looked quite vibrantly alive. Further, she behaved like a soldier awaiting orders: cautious, yet alert. Accordingly, Cullen’s esteem of her rose a notch. Few mages would willingly throw themselves into a battle with demons. Cullen supposed time would tell if she was truly on their side.
Enough of that, Cullen thought, drawing himself up stiffly. He didn’t have time to evaluate the prisoner’s abilities or intentions. If she lived to close the breach, then they’d have plenty of time to figure her out.
Kate tried not to flinch or blush as the soldier stared at her. No doubt the man was imagining a noose around her neck, just like everyone else in Haven.
“So you’re the prisoner,” the bear-soldier said after a moment. Kate wasn’t sure if he was talking mostly to himself, or actually trying to address her, but she responded anyway.
“Kate,” she said, politely as she could. “Please call me ‘Kate.’”
The soldier just blinked at her, his face impassive.
“Though ‘the prisoner’ works as well,” Kate muttered.
She immediately regretted her flippant words. Kate cleared her throat and attempted a more civil tone.
“I suppose introductions can wait until later,” she said. “We need to deal with that first.” She nodded at the breach, but the soldier’s eyes did not leave her face.
“I understand you remember nothing of the explosion,” he said, his voice stern. Kate guessed he didn’t believe her any more than anyone else had.
“I don’t,” she sighed. “I’m very sorry. I wish I did.”
“Hmm,” the bear-soldier said, his eyes narrowing. “Well, have a care in there. The last thing we need is for you to get possessed.”
Kate only just managed to keep herself from rolling her eyes. What the average soldier knew about possession could fit into a thimble, she thought in annoyance.
“Thank you for your concern, ser,” she replied in clipped tones, “but I believe I’ll be fine.”
The bear-soldier looked even more displeased than before.
“If I had a sovereign for every time I heard a mage say that,” he muttered. But then Solas cut in:
“The mark she bears will keep demons at bay,” the elf said. “It will repel attacks upon her mind. You need not fear that she will be possessed.”
The bear-soldier’s stern gaze shifted from Kate to the elf. Cassandra also looked doubtful.
“Are you sure about that?” the Seeker asked.
“I am,” Solas replied.
“Well,” Kate said, sarcastically. “That’s good news. So if I die, it’ll be from the mark and not possession.”
“Silver linings,” the bear-soldier agreed, dryly.
Kate nearly laughed aloud. It was hardly the time or place for such dark humor, but somehow, it helped. And maybe it was her imagination, but the man’s face now didn’t look so grim. It wasn’t anything like a smile. But now he didn’t look quite so much like a bear, either.
Cullen almost chuckled at the mage’s words. Gallows humor and all that. Of course, he didn’t actually laugh. It was hard to find the situation amusing when they had lost so many. At that thought, Cullen felt his heart sink again. No, there was nothing funny about this situation at all.
“We lost hundreds of people on this mountain,” Cullen told them - all of them, for he felt Varric ought to know it, too. “A dozen of my soldiers died just this morning, retaking the temple. If you want to make their sacrifice worthwhile, then seal that breach.”
Varric nodded solemnly, as did Cassandra. The bald elf made no movement whatsoever. The mage, however, glanced around the courtyard, then turned back to Cullen with a frown. And in her eyes, Cullen now saw sorrow and something else - sympathy, perhaps?
“For your soldiers then,” the prisoner said.
Cullen nodded. The thought occurred to him that if this worked, if the mage could seal the breach, then his remaining soldiers could finally rest. For that reason alone, he hoped she would succeed.
“For our soldiers,” he agreed.