Dorian Pavus folded his arms over his chest and surveyed the now-quiet canyon. Nothing like a timely rescue to make a lasting impression, he thought with a smirk. Right now, several of the soldiers were staring at him in awe. Dorian couldn’t entirely blame them. He’d always had a flair for dramatic entrances.
Minutes ago, Dorian and the Herald of Andraste had been stumbling along some Maker-forsaken ‘short cut’ through the woods. Then, just when Dorian was sure they were lost, they came upon a waterfall - and a rift. There had been scouts and soldiers and even mercenaries there, all flagging under the assault of the demons. Dorian had introduced himself to the Inquisition by shooting fire from his fingertips, and scorching up the biggest demon in a flash of flame. The Herald and her entourage had joined the fray, and within minutes, the fight was over.
Not a bad bit of work for an afternoon, really. Now if only the Herald could get that rift to stay shut.
Dorian turned to find the woman was still struggling with what appeared to be a green bolt of lightning stuck to a ruptured balloon. He strolled over to her, as the other soldiers and scouts and even mercenaries rushed about, tending to the wounded.
“Having trouble with that?” Dorian called to the Herald.
“Not…no,” she said, her words punctuated by a wince. “It’s shut. Just not…closing. But I’ve…got it.”
Dorian chuckled at her singular focus. Good girl, that Herald of Andraste. Absurd title they’d bestowed upon her, but for a southern Circle mage, Dorian rather liked her.
She certainly wasn’t what he had expected. Dorian had heard tales of a mighty woman with flaming hair, who spewed heretical poison from her lips. He’d heard her power as an enchantress was matched only by the aura of mystery about her. The rumors weren’t even close to true, Dorian thought with a chuckle. The Herald of Andraste looked more like a Ferelden dairy maid than a mage.
Why, just this afternoon, the Herald and her friends had helped an elven healer relocate from Redcliffe village to the Crossroads. There they had been: the Herald and her bodyguard and all her entourage, carrying trunks and bags and carpets like common furniture removers! The audacity of it amazed Dorian. If any mage in the Imperium had a mark like the Herald’s, they’d be plotting world domination even now. The Herald, on the other hand, had stood in a crofter’s hut, asking an elven peasant where to put the jars of elfroot. Dorian had watched her from the doorway, chuckling. The Herald of Andraste, serving the people. What would these southerners think of next?
Of course, Dorian could now admit that he’d spent much of his afternoon observing another member of the Inquisition altogether. Meeting the Herald had been his primary object in coming to Redcliffe. But the moment he set eyes on that bodyguard of hers, well, it was rather hard to look away.
That might be because the fellow took up a great deal of space, Dorian mused. But he filled that space well, with all that imposing muscle. Dorian would have said the fellow was attractive, if he wasn’t so surly. The giant had taken one look at Dorian and said:
“Watch out. The pretty ones are the worst.”
That was flattering in a way, Dorian supposed. Mildly insulting, too, but what could one expect from a qunari?
As Dorian scanned the battlefield, he spotted the giant standing by the stream, his arms folded, his massive body splattered with blood. A human with short, brown hair sat at his feet in the grass. As Dorian watched, the qunari said something and waved a massive hand. The human frowned and responded with what looked like a rude gesture. The giant threw his head back and laughed. His chest shook and his throat worked, his voice rumbling the very earth beneath Dorian’s feet.
Avanna, Dorian thought, glancing away. Was it warm down here by this stream? He must have overheated himself with those fire spells.
“Oi! Vint!” a voice startled Dorian from his reverie. “We got injured soldiers, we do. Will yeh be helpin’ with the healin’ or be just standin’ there?”
Dorian raised a brow at the Dalish elf. Her name was…ah, what was it now? Coll, wasn’t it?
“Help with the healing?” he repeated.
What a strange notion. In Tevinter, there were always designated healers within a unit of soldiers. After a skirmish, the healers tended the wounded while the battle mages kept watch for any further threats. But Dorian supposed he wasn’t in Tevinter anymore, was he?
“You’ve heard of healin’, surely,” Coll said. “Tis’ like blood magic, only in reverse.”
Dorian grinned at her jab. In the space of one hour, Dorian had determined that Coll was the sort who insulted her friends and ignored her rivals. Her enemies, she dismembered. Thus, Dorian felt quite flattered by her sneering remark.
“Yes, I know how to heal,” Dorian told her.
He just wasn’t terribly talented at it, though he wasn’t about to admit it. He could cast barriers like anything, but the repairing of existing wounds was a tricky business. It took Dorian a great deal of concentration, and he had to do it in close proximity to the patient. The healing of an entire party in the heat of battle? That was left best for the experts - or those well-favored by the Fade spirits.
But if healing was on the docket for today, Dorian supposed he’d better get to it. Dorian just wasn’t sure which of these wounded soldiers would accept aid from a Tevinter mage. Always an awkward situation when the patient would rather bleed out than take their medicine.
“See to them shems there,” Coll said. She pointed over Dorian’s shoulder. He turned to see two soldiers kneeling beside a third.
Then Dorian heard Coll gasp. Dorian turned back around to find the elf sprinting across the field.
“Ach! Krem!” she cried. “I thought yeh said yeh were fine!”
“I am fine, Dalish,” the young man replied. It seemed that Krem was the young soldier sitting by the qunari. As Dorian watched the lad tried to stand, but fell backward onto his rear.
“Sit yer tanned arse down, boyo!” Coll told him, pointing at the ground. “Let me see to yeh proper.”
“I’m fine,” the soldier said again, but he gave in. Dorian didn’t blame the lad in the slightest. That Coll was a firestorm. At Krem’s side, the qunari chuckled when Coll came over and started fussing.
Then the qunari looked up, saw Dorian staring, and his one good eye narrowed.
Dorian turned away at once. He quickly headed toward the ‘shems’ that Coll had pointed out. In the center of the group was a young woman with short, brownish hair. Beside that woman knelt a female archer, whose face was half-concealed by a hood. With them knelt a devastatingly handsome man. He had golden, curling hair and deep brown eyes and…
And a dull-colored fur collar about his…what was that? A robe? A mantle? Really, Dorian thought with a snort. The mages with their feathers, the soldiers with their furs. One would think all southerners took their fashion cues from a barnyard.
In addition to this unfortunate outfit, the man’s eyebrow was split in half, as if by a claw-scratch. That would leave a nasty scar if not tended to quickly, and in the interest of artistry as well as medical necessity, Dorian planned to see to it. There were so few examples of near-perfect male beauty in the world as it was. It would be a pity to waste one.
“Hullo,” Dorian said cheerfully, dropping to his heels beside the bleeding man and his female companions. “My name’s Dorian, and I’ll be your healer this afternoon. Who’s first?”
Dorian held up his glowing hands and gave the man a winning smile. The handsome fellow frowned in return, his bleeding brow furrowing.
Such a typical response from southerners, Dorian thought with a sigh.
“I won’t touch you,” Dorian assured the man. “Just a bit of heat and light and…”
“Heal Ruvena first, would you?” the man said, jerking his head at the brunette. “She took an ice shard through the thigh.”
Dorian looked down to see that this was true. The young woman had an icicle the size of a small sword sticking out of her flesh. The man had torn off a length of his red cloth mantle and was holding it to her leg as a makeshift bandage.
Dorian considered the injury. It wasn’t entirely beyond his ability, but it wouldn’t be easy to heal. The ice had staunched the flow of blood, but the moment Dorian melted it, the girl would risk bleeding out. He’d have to do this quickly.
Quick healings were rarely gentle. This was going to sting. Ah well. The woman was a soldier, right? They were trained for stamina.
Dorian waved the man aside, then reached for power from the Fade. He drew enough energy to channel two spells - one to warm and one to heal.
And then, Dorian quite forgot the battlefield entirely in his concentration. As Dorian let his hand hover over the woman’s leg, he could feel the subtle ease of melting water, the opposing tug of sinews knit and torn veins rejoined. The woman hissed and winced as he did this. But a minute later, Dorian was done. He opened his eyes, let his hands drop, and nodded to the woman in satisfaction.
“It’ll hold,” Dorian said. “Though you’ll need to be careful with it. You can walk, but no running or leaping about. It could split open from the inside, cause internal bleeding. Nasty way to go. “
“I…” the young woman stared for a moment, then suddenly beamed.
“Thank you,” she breathed. “I thought that was the end of me for sure.”
Oh dear, Dorian thought. He knew that look. The girl regarded him as though he’d sprouted wings, the better to fly to the Maker’s side.
“You’re one of the rebel mages, aren’t you?” the young brunette asked, still starry-eyed.
“Too well dressed,” the hooded woman said, automatically. She narrowed her eyes at Dorian, as if trying to scry all his secrets with a single look.
“I am not a rebel,” Dorian told them all. “I’m a death-mage from the Tevinter Imperium. Dorian Pavus. Pleased to meet you.”
Dorian held out his hand in greeting. And as he expected, that wiped the dazed smile off of the brunette’s face. It completely shocked the blond man as well. As for the hooded archer, she didn’t bat an eyelash. If anything, she looked…smug?
“Tevinter?” The man scowled. But, oddly enough, he scowled at the archer, not at Dorian.
“I…I should probably get back to camp,” Ruvena said, looking quite shaken. She rose quickly for despite her injury, and began to hobble away.
There you are, Dorian thought. Soldierly stamina. Also, southern prejudice. Both were as reliable as the sunrise.
Meanwhile, the other two patients seemed to have forgotten that Dorian was even there.
“You knew,” the soldier was saying to the hooded archer. “Somehow you knew, Leliana.”
“You should let him fix your eyebrow, Cullen,” Leliana replied, Orlesian accent all but purring in satisfaction.
“You knew,” the man named Cullen said again.
“Of course I knew,” she shrugged.
“What is a Tevinter mage doing here?” Cullen demanded.
Cullen addressed this to the hooded Leliana, so naturally, Dorian interrupted to speak for himself.
“Oh, you know, the usual,” he said, buffing his nails on his robes. “Betraying my country. Stopping the cult that’s come to destroy your Herald. Also, demonstrating style whilst doing all of the above.”
Cullen turned his head. He stared at Dorian. He blinked once. Then he closed his eyes and pinched his nose with his thumb and forefinger.
“Maker’s breath,” he muttered. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
“Not at all,” Dorian replied gamely. “I have an excellent sense of style. Now let me see to your brow, ser. You don’t want a brow-scar to go with the one on your lip.”
Then again, Dorian mused, that lip-scar looked so nice on him, perhaps the man should have another to match.
“Hold off,” Cullen said, waving Dorian away. “A cult is threatening Kate now?” He looked up sharply, and searched the battlefield until he spotted the Herald. As soon as his eyes landed on her, a very strange expression crossed his face.
‘Kate’ was it, Dorian mused? He supposed the Herald had introduced herself as such. Still, it seemed a very informal way to address Andraste’s chosen.
“A cult is threatening Kate?” Cullen said again, turning back to Leliana in accusation, “And you didn’t think to warn her? To warn me?”
“I heard nothing about a cult,” Leliana said. She seemed a bit put out by that. “I heard only that Tevinter agents were in Redcliffe. My scouts sent ravens the moment the village gates were open. I came at once.”
“You could have sent a raven somewhere along the way,” Cullen persisted.
“I had not yet confirmed the rumors,” Leliana replied.
“Consider me your confirmation,” Dorian grinned at them both. “Ser, your brow, if you please.”
When Dorian reached for him, the stubborn man again waved Dorian off.
“Heal Leliana first,” he said. “A demon tore right through her armor.”
“Good Maker,” Dorian blinked. And so it had. Leliana had been hiding the gash with the long end of her hood-cloth.
“I’ve had worse,” Leliana told them.
Dorian believed her. Still…
“You could get poisoned from that,” he told her.
“Exactly,” Cullen agreed. “Let him heal you already.”
“You’re one to talk,” Leliana said. “Look at your face.”
“This is a scratch,” Cullen said.
“So’s this,” Leliana replied.
“Oh, for the Maker’s sake, will you two sit still and take your medicine?” Dorian said.
And though both the archer and the soldier grumbled, they finally gave in. They both took their turns letting Dorian heal them. Cullen winced and frowned throughout the ordeal, then pressed his fingers to his temples as soon as Dorian had done.
Dorian offered to heal the man’s headache, but got a glare as a reply. So he turned his attention to the archer, Leliana. She did not move throughout the healing. She was as impassive as a statue of Andraste, and just as coolly beautiful.
Dorian had just finished healing them when a great BOOM sounded through the air. He and his patients whipped their heads around to see the rift burst away into nothing. And at the same time, half-muffled by the sound of the explosion, the Herald gave a cry of pain and yanked her hands to her chest.
“Kate!” The templar scrambled to his feet and dashed to her. Dorian and Leliana chased after him. Dorian realized that most of the battlefield had emptied by now. The few stragglers climbing up the hill stopped and looked back down at the gorge in alarm.
“I’m fine!” Kate shouted up at all of them. Her smile was both bright and brittle. “Rift shut. Demons gone. See you back at camp!”
Her smile faded as Cullen and Dorian and Leliana reached her side. She clutched her hands together, and said, far more weakly this time:
“You’re bleeding,” Cullen said in reply. He reached for her hands, but she just drew them closer to her chest.
“Maker, are you all so stubborn about healing?” Dorian wanted to know.
For he could see blood dripping through the Herald’s fingers. Meanwhile, the mark was spitting and hissing in her hand like a feral cat.
“It’s not that,” Kate replied. “The mark went all…strange. I don’t want it to hurt you if you touch it.”
This she said to Cullen, and Dorian again noticed that strange, fleeting expression cross his face.
“How has the mark gone strange, madam Herald?” a new voice asked.
It was the bald elf, the one whose name Dorian hadn’t bothered to learn. The elf gazed at the mark with mild curiosity. Dorian began to wonder if that bland expression was the only one the elf possessed. It matched his single set of bland clothes, Dorian supposed.
“I’m not quite sure, Solas,” Kate told the elf. “The mark didn’t catch right this time. It’s like the key has bent.”
The elf reached out and Kate placed her marked hand in his palm. Dorian let out a low whistle.
“Maker’s breath!” Cullen exclaimed.
“It hurts,” the Herald admitted. She said this and wrinkled her nose, as if disappointed to find that she felt pain.
“This is no simple cut,” was the elf’s contribution.
That was an understatement, Dorian thought. The center of Kate’s palm was a mess of charred flesh. It looked as though her skin had been sliced to the bone with lightning.
“You held onto the rift through all that?” Dorian asked, feeling rather amazed at her fortitude. She had struck him as a rather willowy thing, and not very hardy.
“It never occurred to you to let go for a moment?” Dorian asked. “Get a better grip on it?”
“And let more demons onto the field? Not a chance.” Kate snorted, though whether this was with derision or discomfort, Dorian could not say.
“How many did we lose, Cullen?” Kate went on, before anyone could ask her more about her hand.
“Two,” he replied automatically.
“Not bad,” Dorian said. “Non-mages against demons? Usually that’s a massacre.”
“We lost two,” Cullen told him. He glared as he said it.
And evidently Dorian had misunderstood the importance of these foot soldiers. He wiped the smile off of his face.
“Condolences,” he said, instead. Cullen nodded, accepting the apology.
“Take them to your side, oh Maker,” Leliana said. It took Dorian a moment to realize she’d lapsed into prayer. “Let not your servants be cursed to wander the twisting paths of the Fade alone.”
Kate murmured, “So let it be,” and Cullen nodded in grave assent. The elf, however, ignored this religious moment entirely.
“It seems the mark is shifted now,” he said. “It’s like a bone that’s out of joint. It strains against the Veil.”
“It worked fine in the Chantry,” Dorian told the fellow.
“It didn’t, actually,” Kate said. “It…tugged.”
“It tugged? Tugged how?” Solas wanted to know.
“It pulled at the mark,” Kate said. “And then my hand started to tingle. And look: the mark is hovering over my hand again, just like it did that first day.”
“How fascinating,” Dorian murmured.
And it was, really. This magic was unlike anything he had ever seen. If he was understanding this right, that glowing mark was part physical, part spirit, and entirely unique. Truthfully, that elf there was a remarkably talented mage to be healing around the mark as he was just now.
The Herald hissed in a breath as the elf turned his attention to the worst cut. But all she said was, “That stings.”
“Apologies,” the elf said mildly. “There now. The skin is healed, but the mark may still tear. I would suggest caution.”
“As if any of us were being reckless to start,” Cullen muttered. He pinched the bridge of his nose again. “So now we can’t use the mark…”
“We most certainly can,” Kate told him. “I’ll just need a healer ready.”
“True,” Dorian agreed. “All the more reason to secure the aid of the mage rebellion.”
Cullen looked up at that. “Haven’t you done that already? You were in town for two days.”
“Yes, about that,” Kate made a face and looked at the ground. She obviously didn’t want to be the one to pass on the bad news, so Dorian took it upon himself to do it for her. He was always ready to be helpful like that.
“The rebel mages pledged themselves as slaves to the Tevinter Imperium,” Dorian said. “We’ll have to break their contract in order to free them.”
Cullen stared at Dorian for a moment, then at Kate, then over at Leliana for a spell. Then his entire face contorted and he fairly exploded with:
Kate pinched her forehead, as if Cullen’s headache was catching.
“I know,” she sighed. “Believe me. I know.”
“Tevinter?” Cullen’s expression of astonishment was swiftly transforming to one of fury.
“It’s a long story,” Kate began.
“Actually, it’s a short story,” Dorian corrected. “You see, when Alexius cast his time spell…”
Dorian trailed off, a thought suddenly occurring to him.
“His what spell?” Cullen asked, frowning.
“Ah-ha!” Dorian cried. “That’s it!” He stabbed his finger into the air in triumph.
“What’s it?” Leliana asked him.
“The reason Kate’s mark got all pulled out of joint,” Dorian said. “Oh, you don’t mind if I call you ‘Kate,’ do you? Simple and classic. Suits you so well. Anyways, it’s that rift. The one in the Chantry. That’s what did it.”
“Did what?” Kate asked, confused.
“Shifted the mark,” Dorian told her. “Back in time.”
There was a long pause in which Cullen and Leliana just stared at him. Why did they look so surprised, Dorian wondered? Hadn’t they heard about the time-traveling cultists?
Ah, no. His mistake. They hadn’t yet.
Kate had, however. She exclaimed, “Oh, of course!” and at her side, the elf nodded with understanding.
“That is a possibility, Herald,” Solas agreed. “That time-scarred rift has warped the mark itself, causing it to revert. Thus now, the mark is newly formed. It’s falling into place.”
“So the mark got turned back to the way it was?” Kate looked down at her hand in wonder. “It does feel like the first day. Is that even possible?”
“I don’t see why not,” Dorian said. “Makes perfect sense to me.”
“It doesn’t make much sense to me,” Cullen said.
“We’d better get the mages on our side, and quickly, too,” Dorian told Kate, speaking right over Cullen. “The sooner we deal with Alexius and his time-magic cult, the better.”
“Time magic?” Cullen repeated. “First the rebels have joined Tevinter and now there’s time magic?”
“Time-altering magic, I should say,” Dorian told him. “Sending people forward and back in time, causing lasting damage to the fabric of the universe. That sort of thing.”
“I…” Cullen just closed his eyes. “I don’t think I quite believe that.”
“Give it a moment,” Dorian advised him. “The concept will grow on you. Like a fungus.”
“I found it hard to believe as well,” Kate told Cullen. “I always thought time travel only existed in stories. I never thought it was a real thing.”
“Oh, it’s real,” Dorian replied. “Or, it’s real now. Before this point, it was just theory. We couldn’t get the spell to work.”
“We?” Cullen asked. “You caused all this?”
“Not all of this, no,” Dorian said. “But the bit I’m responsible for, I’m here to remedy. Oh, don’t look at me like that. It wasn’t like Alexius and I were trying and send ourselves back in time and stop the rebellion in the south or re-establish the days of the Seven Magisters or anything like that. Re-live the Tevinter glory days? How dreary!”
“Then what did you intend, Altus?” Solas asked. His voice had taken on a surly edge.
“We were just thinking of what one could do if one used the Fade as a sort of portal through time and space. The trouble was, the spell we worked out required catapulting oneself through the Fade physically. But without resorting to a great deal of blood sacrifice, we weren’t about to harness that kind of power. But then,” he grinned at Kate, “quite suddenly, the power was there for the taking.”
“The breach,” she said.
“Precisely,” Dorian nodded. “Blew up your Divine and gave Alexius the power to muck about with time, too.”
“So Alexius is to blame for Justinia’s death?” Leliana demanded. Her eyes had gone hard as flint.
“Oh, no,” Dorian shook his head. “Alexius doesn’t have power enough to open the Veil. He just managed to piggy-back our spell off of the breach’s power. Or, well, that’s as near as I can figure. It’s how I would have gotten our spell to work, if I had that focusing amulet. Wonder if Alexius has still got that thing? Suppose he must have…”
“So this Magister Alexius can enter the Fade?” Cullen asked. He didn’t look very happy about that thought.
“Not ‘enter,’” Dorian corrected. “Alexius used the residual energy from the breach to sling-shot himself through the Fade, traveling across space, and also back in time. He landed just after the blast occurred. Used my spell, too. That’ll teach me to share findings before I’ve published…”
“That’s preposterous,” Cullen said. “You can’t change the past.”
“Not the long past, no,” Dorian agreed, “Alexius can’t go back any further in time than the formation of the portal - er, breach. One can’t step into a tunnel at a point before it begins, after all.”
“I’m confused,” Cullen said, and it looked like the forehead pinching was about to begin again. Solas also looked troubled. Leliana, however, looked angry.
“So Alexius came to Redcliffe weeks ago?” she asked, her eyes flashing fire. “My scouts never reported it.”
“Nor my soldiers,” Cullen agreed, looking equally put out.
“But they couldn’t have!” Kate cried. Her face brightened. Dorian recognized it as the unmistakable smile of a scholar who has just made a breakthrough.
“Don’t you see?” she said. “Your scouts never reported Alexius’ arrival, because they never saw it. Technically, he isn’t here yet. He’s still in Tevinter.”
Cullen and Leliana stared at her, but Dorian smiled with pride.
“Exactly,” he said. Nice to see that she followed the path of time-logic at last.
“Alexius traveled through time and space to get here,” Kate went on. “He landed here in Ferelden, arriving right after the breach was formed. Probably landed in the woods outside of Redcliffe, come to think of it.”
“Most likely,” Dorian agreed. “The Veil has a funny feeling there.”
“It does,” Kate agreed. “So the Inquisition scouts never saw him because he arrived before the Inquisition was even formed. By the time we sent scouts to the Hinterlands, he’d already snuck into Redcliffe, closed the gates on us, frightened Fiona with stories of the war…”
“Very likely,” Dorian nodded.
“I wonder,” Kate said, her eyes going wide. “Fiona said she had visions of the future. Could Alexius have shown her the actual future?”
“Possibly,” Dorian said. “Redcliffe is close to the breach. He might not be able to send people forward easily, but maybe to draw a window onto the future? Yes, he might be able to do that.”
“This is madness,” Cullen said, shaking his head.
“But it’s consistent madness,” Leliana observed.
“And then Fiona,” Kate went on, still thinking. “She…went to Val Royeaux? Or some version of her went to Val Royeaux? And another version stayed here? Or.. Oh, Maker, this is the part where I get confused again.”
“I never stopped being confused,” Cullen muttered.
“If we deal with Alexius here, does he not get the chance to come here again?” Kate mused. “Or is there another version of him that’s still coming later?”
“He sent himself back,” Dorian reasoned. “So the one-and-only Alexius is sitting in Redcliffe castle. If we deal with him, then we deal with the entire problem.”
“But the second Fiona, the one who went to Val Royeaux - what happened to her? Was she destroyed or something? Or did she merge back in with the one in Redcliffe…?” Kate trailed off and shook her head. “No. See, this is where I get lost again. Lydia used to say that time-travel was a logical impossibility due to all the inherent contradictions. I’m inclined to agree with her.”
“As am I,” Cullen grumbled. “The far more likely explanation is that Alexius got past our scouts somehow and that someone mistook some other elf for Fiona in Val Royeaux.”
“You doubt my people?” Leliana asked him, frowning.
“I spoke to Fiona, Cullen,” Kate told him. “Both in Val Royeaux and here. And they were like two different people. When it comes down to it, this time travel theory almost makes sense. Almost.”
“Time travel makes sense?” Cullen asked her. “No it doesn’t. This whole thing is… Well, it’s…” But Cullen couldn’t seem to come up with an appropriate explanation for what this whole thing was. So instead, he pressed his fingers to his temples.
“Maker, not today,” he muttered.
“Is there a better day for magic to obliterate your preconceptions about the immutability of time and space?” Dorian asked, his lips curling in a sardonic smile. “Tuesday, perhaps?”
Cullen shot Dorian a glance as if to say, “Don’t start with me.” It was a look Dorian was well familiar with, having received it many times throughout his life. He just laughed.
“It does take some practice, wrapping one’s mind around the concepts of travel through both time and space,” Dorian agreed. “Time appears to march at such a steady pace. Takes a bit of work to follow in its paces when it crawls or runs - or even jumps! My own mind has become delightfully flexible in recent years, thanks to my studies.”
Dorian was dimly aware that someone was walking up behind him, but when the rumbling voice spoke, Dorian jumped. He hadn’t realized the qunari had returned to eavesdrop on them all. He also found that the qunari now stood far too close to Dorian. It made a body feel very…warm.
“Enough about your flexibility, Vint,” the qunari said. And it might have been Dorian’s imagination, but the giant’s nostrils flared a bit as he spoke. “We need to get to work if we’re going to stop this Alexius asshole.”
“That was what we were discussing,” Dorian said. “But you’re welcome to join us, I suppose.”
“While you were all here chattering,” the giant went on, as if Dorian had not spoken. “I got our people settled back to camp. The bodies, too.”
“Oh,” Cullen looked quite chagrined by this news. “I didn’t mean to leave that to you, Iron Bull. I didn’t even notice…” He winced again, pressed a finger to his temple and said, “Thank you.”
Iron Bull, Dorian thought, snorting to himself. What a fitting name for the horned brute. It was strong, solid, and so blatant. Just like that roughly-hewn face and all those…muscles.
Dorian shook his head hard, only to find the Bull was speaking again.
“You were busy with bigger problems, commander” the Bull was saying to Cullen. “I get it. And hey - nice work holding up against that rift. You trained your guys well.”
“Thank you, Bull,” Cullen said. “Nice work on the rescue.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” the qunari replied with a grin. Dorian found himself quite annoyed at being left out of this praise-party. He’d helped, too. And so had the Herald, come to that.
But Dorian kept these petulant thoughts to himself. Instead, he folded his arms over his chest. This seemed to draw the Iron Bull’s notice at last. The giant stared right down the front of Dorian’s armor.
“So, Vint,” the giant said, as he ogled Dorian’s pectoral muscles. “Any insight on how to stop your boss?”
“He’s not my…” Dorian began irritably. “Alexius is a former teacher. And the answer to your question is quite obvious. Alexius has the rebel mages in thrall, and he’s blatantly misusing a spell that could destroy the fabric of time itself and worst of all, he’s threatened dear little Kate here.”
She gave him a wry smile, and Dorian grinned.
“So given all of Alexius’ crimes together, clearly…” Dorian paused here for dramatic effect.
“He’s got to go,” the Bull concluded.
Dorian scowled to find the giant had beaten him to the punchline.
“Go?” Cullen asked. “As in evict him or kill him? Either will prove difficult, if not impossible.”
And of course, Cullen addressed that question at the qunari and not at Dorian. How very annoying.
“We have to try,” Kate said. “Alexius landed an entire Tevinter cult on our doorstep. That’s a declaration of war, surely.”
“Against Ferelden, maybe, not us,” Cullen countered.
“Aren’t you Ferelden?” Kate wanted to know.
“Yes, and I’m not fighting Ferelden’s wars without a Ferelden army at my back.”
“Alexius enslaved the entire rebellion, Cullen.”
“Yeah, and they asked for it,” the Blatant Bull put in. When Kate scowled at him, the giant just shrugged. “What? They did.”
“Yes, but they were desperate,” Kate said. “And they were tricked. Or as good as tricked. Either way, we need to stop Alexius.”
“Hear, hear,” Dorian agreed.
“Alexius wants to kill you,” Bull told her.
“We don’t know that for sure,” Kate said.
“Alright then, he wants to keep you alive,” Bull said. “And with Vints, that’s usually worse than getting killed straight off.”
“We need the templars,” Cullen cut in. “Now more than ever.”
“What are the templars going to do?” Kate asked him. “Take a week or more getting here? And then what? They’ll likely slaughter the rebels along with the magisters.”
“Or take everyone back to your Circles,” Dorian agreed.
“They can help us,” Cullen said. “They can keep you safe…”
“Keep me safe?” Kate said, incredulous. “Even if they were willing to, what will happen to the rebel mages?”
“If we go after the templars now, we’ll have a bloodbath on our hands,” Leliana agreed.
“Exactly,” Kate replied. “We need to deal with the mages - the Inquisition and no one else. The Lord Seeker isn’t going to help us end this peacefully.”
“I was rather thinking of leaving him out of it,” Cullen replied. “We need his templars, not his by-your-leave.”
“What?” Leliana said. “Steal the templars out from under the Lord Seeker? And how do you propose to do that when we have nothing to bargain with?”
“And how long would it take to bargain?” Kate added. “In the meantime, these cultists will take over the Hinterlands and all our work here will be lost. All these refugees…”
“So you want the Inquisition to take on Tevinter cultists all by ourselves?” Cullen turned on her with a frown. “I lost two good recruits to a rift just now. And you’re asking me to risk these people against the entire mage rebellion? In a fight we can well avoid?”
Kate opened her mouth, but Cullen spoke over her.
“If this Tevinter cult is in Redcliffe, then we are already outplayed,” Cullen told her. “Perhaps you’re not familiar with that arling, but if Alexius retreats to the castle…”
“He has,” Bull put in flatly.
“Well then,” Cullen huffed. “That settles it. That castle has never been breached in the entire history of Ferelden.”
Dorian stifled a laugh. The commander said that so absolutely, as if Ferelden’s history signified anything. This country was a babe in arms compared with the venerable old age of Tevinter.
“The castle has never been breached, no,” Leliana agreed. “But,” she added with a smile. “It has been infiltrated.”
“Infiltrated?” Cullen asked. “When? There’s no record of that.”
Leliana grinned. “Well, Amell and I were too busy to keep records in those days.”
To Dorian’s surprise, Cullen blushed bright red and that and simply said, “Ah.” Kate looked from Leliana to Cullen in confusion.
“This will be child’s play by comparison,” Leliana went on.
“Infiltrating the castle is a lovely idea,” Dorian said, agreeably. “It’s got that whole cloak-and-dagger thing going on. I like that.”
“You don’t strike me as being one for stealth, Vint,” Bull said, glaring down at Dorian with his good eye.
“I could say the same for you, Bull,” Dorian replied.
“So we sneak into the castle and…what?” Kate asked. “Assassinate Alexius?”
“An unfortunate thought,” Dorian said, frowning. “But probably for the best.”
“Are you hearing yourselves?” Cullen asked them all. “Yesterday morning we sent aid to the mages, and now you’re planning an assassination!”
“All in a day’s work,” Leliana said in a sing-song voice.
“We need the templars,” Cullen insisted. “At least as backup.”
“The templars won’t help,” Kate said, sounding exasperated now. “We need to deal with this immediately.”
“We can do it tonight,” Leliana said.
“Tonight?” Cullen repeated.
“We need a distraction while I get my people into place.” Leliana thought a moment, then nodded at Kate and said, “We can use you.”
“Me?” Kate blinked.
“No,” Cullen scowled.
“Pity it can’t be me,” Dorian said. “I’m quite good at distracting people.”
“I’ll just bet,” Bull grumbled. It may have been Dorian’s imagination, but the giant seemed to be looking at Dorian’s rear end.
“I’ll do it,” Kate said. “Alexius already asked me to join him at the castle…”
“Ah, yes of course,” Dorian agreed. “The whole teatime-turned-into-attempted-murder. Very popular in Tevinter. Full points for style.”
“No,” Cullen said again. “It’s too dangerous. There has to be another way.”
“I’ll be fine, Cullen,” Kate told him. “This will be just like the mire. Trust the people you’re working with, remember?”
“No,” Cullen said, slicing his hand through the air. “If we lose the mark, we lose our only chance of closing the breach. I won’t allow it.”
“The mark?” Kate repeated. “Well. Glad to know I…” But she said that softly and then her voice trailed away and Cullen did not hear. Nor did he seem to notice when a hurt expression fell over her face and she looked away.
“I don’t see we have much choice,” Leliana said. Cullen appeared to have heard that.
“Tactically, this is a disaster,” Cullen he told the spymaster.
Kate lifted her chin and squared her shoulders. It might have been a trick of the light, but Dorian thought he saw a fine frost on her skin.
“Perhaps we should discuss this at camp?” she asked crisply. “I think we could all use a few minutes to think through our options.”
“Very well,” Cullen grumbled, but Kate didn’t seem to be waiting for his answer. She had already turned on her heel and was headed up the hill.
“The Herald is right,” Leliana said. “Let us table this discussion until we reach camp.”
“Don’t you mean bale the discussion?” Dorian chuckled.
When Leliana frowned at him, he added, “Because you’re using bales instead of…” He stopped there and shook his head. “Never mind.”
“That’s terrible,” Bull said.
“Everyone’s a critic,” Dorian sighed.
“This is insane,” Cullen grumbled to himself as he and Leliana started to walk away. “And this ringing in my head isn’t helping.”
“It will work out, commander,” Leliana told him. “History has a way of repeating itself, after all.”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” the man muttered. He hunched his furry shoulders and wandered after the archer-woman. Dorian watched them leave, caught between amusement and disbelief.
So these were the heretical leaders of the dreaded Inquisition? These people were nowhere near as organized as they were reported to be. Nor did they have a clear plan to take over the Chantry, the world, or even Ferelden. In fact, they seemed to be struggling to take on the simplest of goals: getting the breach closed and keeping their Herald alive in the process. Yet for all their obvious foibles, Dorian rather liked them. True, they bickered and argued, but they did so like…family.
A lower-born family, obviously, Dorian amended. No altus-class family would dare to be as honest and considerate as this lot. It would be far too plebeian.
It was then that Dorian realized that the bald elf had disappeared. Dorian now stood alone in the gorge with the Iron Bull. The cool stream burbled along behind them, and the setting sun cast a rosy glow all about them. In the evening light, the Iron Bull’s skin was more pink than gray, all slicked with sweat and blood.
“So, Vint…” Bull began.
“The name is Altus Dorian Pavus,” Dorian said, using his formal title.
“The boss is my responsibility, Vint,” the qunari said, laying special emphasis on that word. “Get her killed…”
“And you’ll do nasty things to me?” Dorian raised a brow. “What a pity. I would have hoped you were clever enough to come up with an original threat. But then, the qunari do everything by the book, don’t they?”
“Oh, I’m a very creative person,” Bull replied, “But you didn’t let me finish my threat. Guess you’ll never know what I had planned for you.” His craggy face split into a wide grin, and he winked at Dorian.
For one brief, disarming moment, Dorian just stared, utterly transfixed. That smile made the giant appear canny and clever and good-humored all at once. That was more appealing to Dorian than any amount of sweat-slicked muscle. Dorian jerked his gaze away and resisted the urge to tug at his collar.
“I’ve got my eye on you, Vint,” the qunari warned.
“Enjoy the view,” Dorian replied, as carelessly as he could. Then he quickly walked away.
It turned out that the qunari was quite the literalist. For as Dorian headed up the hill, he felt Bull’s gaze upon him the entire way, hot as the Tevinter sun.
“You know,” Robert said, looking out at the sunset. “I never thought of myself as being a particularly fastidious man. But this camping-out business is almost as bad as the dungeon.”
“This isn’t a camp,” Cole told him. “It’s a ruin.”
And so it was. This cottage was a ruin just like all the other crumbling buildings they’d passed. Robert had been on the run for only one afternoon, and already he was tired of the Ferelden landscape.
Still, Robert thought, the day could have gone worse. He could have been recaptured. As it was, getting out the castle had been absurdly easy. Robert had wanted to steal a horse, but Cole had warned him not to. What was it the lad had said? “Envy will eat it.”
Robert had thought that was a better argument for taking the poor beasts out of the demon’s reach, but Cole was most insistent. So instead, they had walked up to the front gate on foot. Then, they waited.
Cole and Robert had been standing there for only a minute or so when the large gates had opened. Robert had stepped forward to run through, but Cole had held him back. It was a good thing, too. At that moment, a man had ridden into the courtyard, his horse covered with lash-marks and heaving from exertion. It was a cruel way to treat an animal, Robert had thought, but then he had gotten a good look at the rider. It seemed the rider was more beast than his mount, really.
The new arrival to the fortress had been as pale as the underbelly of a blighted dwarf. His dark hair had hung lank about his face, his eyes were bloodshot, and he glowed slightly. Or that may have been the effect of all those red crystals set into his armor. Robert had thought that the man had looked like he had one foot in the grave.
“He does,” Cole had whispered, shrinking back in fear. Robert had decided that the boy knew what he was talking about. When the man spoke, his voice had been as rough as his looks.
“Where’s Denam?” the man had demanded. “Has he got ‘em all changed yet?”
“Who are you, sirrah?” one of the gate-guards had asked. But his companion guard was a little better informed.
“Samson? But that’s impossible. You were disgraced and left to rot in Kirkwall.”
Oh, well done, Robert had thought, rolling his eyes. Really. Did that guard have a death wish? Anyone could see this fellow was trouble.
As if to prove Robert’s point, the armored man had sneered and said, “It’s General Samson now. And you’ll see how far I’ve risen in the ranks when the Master arrives.”
What a bastard, Robert had thought. This Samson sounded just like Freddy: a little man hiding in too-big armor.
And yet, Samson’s arrival had provided the perfect diversion for Robert’s escape. That was the other failing of gate-guards. They were so easily distracted.
“Yes,” Cole had said, as if he could sense Robert’s eagerness. “We should go now.”
And so they had. Robert and the spirit-boy had run for the gates, and not a single head had turned at their passing. They had slipped out of the gatehouse just as the portcullis had come crashing down behind them. They had dashed for the trees and no one had sounded the alarm. And from there, Robert and Cole had put as much distance between themselves and the fortress as they could.
Robert now looked down at his muddy boots, and considered how much further they still had to go.
“You know,” Robert mused, “When I get to Haven, the first thing I’m going to do is take a bath. I’ve never been so filthy.”
“You should warn Haven of the danger first,” Cole advised him.
“Well, yes, obviously,” Robert agreed. “But after that.”
“You should let Cassandra know you’re alive.”
“Ah,” Robert grinned, even though it made his bruised face hurt. “Good thought. I look forward to that. Though I should like to be clean before I see her.”
“And you should tell them about the red…”
“Yes, yes,” Robert waved these considerations away. “After all the truly important things are done, I will take a bath.”
“I’ve never had a bath,” Cole said. “I wonder what they’re like.”
“I’m sure we can get you one in Haven,” Robert told him. “But just to be clear, you’ll need to leave me alone while I take mine. I’m most grateful for your help these past few days, but I must draw the line of privacy somewhere.”
“Privacy?” Cole repeated. He said it as though the word were a strange garment he was trying on, and he couldn’t tell the neck-hole from the arm-holes.
“Nevermind,” Robert sighed.
The sun sank low over the forest, and Robert gazed out of the ruin. From here, the bare hillside appeared an island in a lake of forest. The peaks of the pine trees swayed like waves in the breeze. Robert wanted to imagine that the templar fortress was a sunken ship beneath those waters, never to be seen again. He supposed that made his ruin a lighthouse, the shelter for a lone rogue on the run.
“Not a lighthouse,” Cole told Robert. “This was a windmill.”
“Was it now?” Robert asked. That Cole had listened in on Robert’s thoughts did not startle Robert anymore.
“Turning air into work,” Cole murmured. “Turning work into food. It’s like magic that doesn’t need the Fade.”
“Good old-fashioned peasant technology,” Robert said, patting the stone wall affectionately. “What will they think of next?”
“The other windmill is ruined, too,” Cole told Robert in a whisper, as if imparting some great secret.
“Is it now?” Robert whispered back, just to be conversational. Cole nodded emphatically.
“The left hand reaches for the door in the rubble. She thinks of the ride she took upon the sails. Those were softer times. Everything that came after was harder. Except the lover with eyes like water.”
“Like water, were they?” he asked Cole. Even if he couldn’t follow all of Cole’s ramblings, Robert figured he should at least be polite and formulate replies. “They must have been blue eyes then? Or wet eyes? She had hayfever? Allergies?”
“He knows she’s more than a tool for turning the sky,” Cole told Robert, sadly. “But the demon’s scream still echoes around in his skull. He couldn’t hear her hurt over the howling in his head.”
“A pity for him, then,” Robert said, not really sure what domestic dispute Cole was on about just now. “In my experience, when a man annoys a woman, it doesn’t really matter how he did it. There will be the Void to pay regardless.”
“She felt the lonely cold,” Coll said. “But she kept the frost in this time. She was proud of that.”
“Bully for her,” Robert said. “Now, Cole, I have a riddle for you: when the tall archer’s belly grumbles, the pale boy finds him food…where?”
“That’s not a riddle,” Cole said, cocking his head to one side.
“You’re right,” Robert nodded. “That’s me saying I’m ravenous and haven’t seen a bit of game out here all day.”
“The animals stayed away when the templars arrived.”
“And thus nature shows more sense than men,” Robert sighed. “Any idea where we can find food?” He supposed he ought to have stolen more from the larder after all.
“Barris has food,” Cole suggested.
“I am not going back,” Robert said, stiffening.
“Pride pocketed, practical and prone. He doesn’t realize what it means to carry the red.”
More Cole-speak, Robert thought, gritting his teeth. If he could turn nonsense words into food, he’d have plenty to eat.
“At least tell me that we’re not far from a city or a village,” Robert pressed. “Could we steal a pie from a window sill or something? Maker, I’d stoop to that tired gimmick if only to fill my belly.”
“We’re miles and miles away from anywhere,” Cole answered. “It’s safer here.”
“So we’re safe and yet starving,” Robert grumbled. “Marvelous.”
“You don’t think it’s marvelous. You think it’s terrible. Why do you say something that means the opposite of what you mean?”
“Because sarcastic humor is very effective at fending off fear and anger,” Robert said.
“The templars should have used that rather than lyrium,” Cole said.
“Ha!” Robert laughed. “Yes, true. Only the Chantry can’t control sarcasm. It’s a notoriously volatile substance. Always poking holes in pomp and circumstance. Anyhow, didn’t you say there was going to be a map at this ruin? You did say that, didn’t you? Or was that a metaphor for something else?”
“It wasn’t a metaphor.”
“Where’s the map, then?” Robert waved a hand. “Unless there’s a secret chamber or something, I’m not seeing anything but stones and rotting timbers.”
“The map isn’t here yet,” Cole replied.
“The map is not here yet,” Robert repeated. “So you can predict the future, now? That’s a useful spirit trick.”
“No one can predict the future,” Cole told him. “Not mortals. Not spirits. Not even the ones who wear the names of gods.”
“Then I don’t see how…” Robert trailed off suddenly, for just then, he heard a sound out in the forest. It was the familiar clank of plate armor.
Robert was on his feet like a shot. He nocked an arrow to the string and crossed to the hole in the wall that opened onto the empty hilltop. Just then, a familiar face appeared over the rise.
“Barris?” Robert said, almost dropping his arrow in surprise. He then recovered himself and raised his bow.
“I won’t go back,” he told the templar. “I don’t care how many men you have coming, I’ll take as many as I can with me before I go. You with me, Cole?”
“No,” Cole said, softly. “I won’t hurt Barris.”
“Spoil-sport,” Robert scowled.
“Stand down,” Barris called back. He held his hands up, though Robert spotted a shield at his back and a sword at his side. “It’s just me. I came alone.”
“How do I know that?” Robert asked, his good eye narrowing in suspicion.
“He’s telling the truth,” Cole said. “He didn’t know who else to trust.”
“Oh, in that case,” Robert said, letting his bow drop at once. “Welcome aboard, Barris.”
The sight of Robert with a bow hadn’t startled Barris. But this sudden change in Robert’s demeanor did. Barris paused, frowning as he studied the ruin.
“Is it here?” he asked. “The, um, spirit? Is that why you changed your mind so suddenly?”
“Cole is quite convincing,” Robert told him. “And he’s been right so far. Well, the bits where I understand him, he’s been right.”
“And he’s here?” Barris wanted to know.
“He’s up there.” Robert pointed. Cole had materialized on one of the crumbling walls, his feet dangling down. He looked quite pleased that he’d gotten the two men safely to the hilltop.
“I really should get him some better shoes,” Robert said. “Looks like he’s got elven boats on his feet. And how about you?” he added, turning to Barris. “You sure you don’t have anyone following you?”
“Quite sure,” Barris had reached the open hole in the wall now and looked in. “I slipped away in the chaos after Samson arrived.”
“We saw him come in the gate,” Robert said. “Nasty piece of work, that one.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Barris said. “I…” He stopped there, then frowned.
“Maker, I don’t know quite how to do this, Trevelyan.”
“It’s Robert,” Robert corrected. “And what is it you’re having trouble with? Stepping into the building? Put one foot in first, then the other…”
“No, not that,” Barris shook his head. “I don’t know how to, well, join you. After everything that happened back there…”
Robert cocked his head to one side. “Cole is right. You’re really not the type to be working a torture chamber.”
“I… Thank you?”
“You’re welcome,” Robert said pleasantly. “And Cole said you’d have food with you. I do hope he was right about that.”
“He was,” Barris said, looking up at the walls. “I have some food. What little I could gather.”
“Then give me food and all is forgiven,” Robert told him. “Add in some ale and I’ll even consider you a friend.”
Barris chuckled at that.
“No ale I’m afraid, but I’ll gladly buy you one the next chance I have.”
“Done then,” Robert said, holding his hand out. Barris shook it. Above their heads, Cole kicked his feet against the wall and grinned.
“You’re far more forgiving than I would have been in your shoes,” Barris said as he settled down in one corner and drew off his pack.
“I’m the better man,” Robert replied easily, settling back into his makeshift chair in the other corner. “Always have been. Oh, now that I think on it, you probably have maps, too.”
“No maps,” Barris said, but before Robert could glance accusingly at Cole, the man added, “But I’m as good as a map, I suppose. I was born in the next holding over. I know these parts like the back of my hand.”
Robert looked up to find Cole smiling.
“You said you can’t predict the future,” Robert said, “But this was pretty close.”
“Future?” Barris asked.
“I hear people,” Cole told Robert.
“Hear, predict,” Robert said. “Virtually the same thing in this case.”
“Oh, you’re talking to the, um…thing,” Barris turned back to his pack.
“I wish I understood people so well as Cole does,” Robert said to the room more generally. “I certainly underestimated Freddy.”
“What happened with Freddy?” Barris asked, cautiously. “I mean, obviously, the dungeon, was, um…” He cleared his throat. “Why were you down there?”
“Oh, that’s a long story,” Robert said. “No, actually, it’s a short story. Freddy is a tit and I hate him. Stuck me in that cell for… Well, I don’t rightly know. How long has it been since the Conclave exploded?”
Barris paused with his hand in his pack. “That was well over a month ago.”
“A month?” Robert gaped. “Maker’s breath that’s a long time. I hope she hasn’t forgotten me.”
“What’s that?” Barris asked.
“Oh, nothing. Just wondering whether Seeker Cass… I say! What in the Maker’s name is that?”
For just then, Barris pulled something out of his pack. It was a small vial, like the kind used for lyrium. Only this one glowed red.
Robert shuddered at once. In a flash, Cole disappeared from the top of the wall and reappeared at Robert’s back, huddling behind Robert’s broad shoulders
“Is that…?” Robert began in disbelief.
“Blighted, bleeding, broken, bent,” Cole murmured, eyes wide. “Tunnels, tainted turns, tried and torn and trailing.”
“And now you’ve sent Cole into a panic,” Robert said, angrily. “What do you mean, bringing that rubbish here?”
“The vial you gave me wasn’t very much,” Barris explained.
“You polished it off already?” Robert gaped at him.
“I was nearly two days overdue for a draught,” Barris returned.
“So you used it all?” Robert scowled. “Maker’s breath.”
“It’s a long way to the Frostbacks,” Barris went on. “You expect me to make that trip without anything to sustain me? I needed it all. And I needed to bring something along too, even if it is the low-quality stuff.”
“Low quality?” Robert snorted. “That’s one way to put it. Sort of like calling poison ‘low quality wine.’”
“I need it,” Barris said, firmly.
“It’s upsetting Cole,” Robert said. But Barris couldn’t see the lad, and so he couldn’t see the fear in Cole’s eyes.
“I’ll put it in my pocket,” Barris said, sliding it into a pouch that hung from his armor. “There, is that better?”
Robert glanced over his shoulder. “How about it, Cole?”
“Don’t let him take it,” Cole whispered.
“Of course not,” Robert agreed. Though how Robert was to come between a templar and his lyrium, he had no clue.
“What’s for dinner then?” Robert asked brightly, hoping to change the subject.
“Just bread and cheese,” Barris said, looking back into the pack. “You didn’t leave much in the larder.”
“No, I didn’t did I?” Robert chuckled.
Barris shook his head and frowned. Then he produced a loaf of bread from his pack. This was followed by a hunk of cheese, and the templar broke them in half and handed them over.
“Maker bless every path you walk upon, friend,” Robert said, cradling the food in his hands as though it was a priceless treasure.
“It’s the least I can do,” Barris said.
“Not the least,” Robert said, around a mouthful of bread. “But it’s a good start.”
“Don’t let him take the red,” Cole said, once again sitting high above their heads. “Don’t let it grow his insides out.”
Barris and Robert ate in silence. Meanwhile, the sun sank low over the wood and a few faint stars winked out of the purpling sky. The wind whistled over the ruin, sweet and pine-scented at first, but then it’s smell began to change. Robert sniffed the air and caught a whiff of something sour. It was like rotted meat.
All of a sudden, Cole shot to his feet. He stood on the wall, balancing on his tip-toes.
“What?” Robert said, standing as well. Robert spoke around a mouthful of food, and Barris looked up at him in confusion.
“He’s coming,” Cole whispered.
Robert grabbed his bow at once. Barris stiffened and dropped his hunk of bread.
“What is it?” Barris asked, reaching for his sword.
“I don’t know,” Robert replied. “I smell…”
“Something foul,” Barris finished for him, sniffing the air as well. “Wild beasts?”
“I saw no tracks in the woods,” Robert said.
“Nor did I,” Barris agreed.
The two of them stood at the threshold of the cottage, looking out of the crumbling wall and over the hillside. Robert had his bow, Barris shield and sword.
“Cole?” Robert asked the boy. “What can you see?”
“A lot,” the boy replied.
“Alright,” Robert snorted, kicking himself for not being more specific. “But what’s out there? What are we smelling?”
“Grabbing, grasping, greedy,” Cole murmured. He stepped off of the wall, and his second step landed on the ground as if he’d stepped down from a stair, not an eight-foot drop. “He hurt and haunted and hated you. But Samson doesn’t need his face. Now you’re his only way out.”
“No,” Robert said, fiercely, even as fear coursed through him. “Not now. Not when I just got free.”
“What did Cole say?” Barris asked, evidently alarmed by Robert’s reaction.
“It’s Envy,” Robert said placing the arrow to the bowstring. Though a single arrow didn’t seem much good against a demon, Robert thought.
“Envy?” Barris repeated. “As in an envy demon? Maker’s breath. The Chantry teaches that they hide in plain sight, stealing the lives of…”
“The Lord Seeker,” Robert said, flatly. “Cole told me he’s been impersonating the Lord Seeker.”
“The Lord Seeker?” Barris’ eyes flashed. “That villain,” Barris hissed. “And I allowed him to shame me for my disbelief.”
Just then, a shrill cry rent the air - a scream from the forest that chilled Robert’s blood.
“I won’t let him in,” Robert said, half to himself. “I will not let that monster into my head again.”
“You can resist him,” Cole said, softly. Robert turned to find the boy right beside him. “Envy knows you can.”
Robert didn’t find that particularly comforting. The past few times he ‘resisted’ Envy, he spent weeks trapped in dreams to do it. At Robert’s side, Barris stepped over the low wall of the cottage and out onto the hillside.
“Come on,” he said. “We don’t want to be trapped in here when it comes.”
“We should run,” Robert suggested.
“We can’t leave a demon to roam these woods,” Barris replied over his shoulder. “We must find it and kill it.” He continued out over the grass, a lone soldier against the sunset-reddened sky.
“Must we?” Robert said through gritted teeth. What a very templar sort of thing to say. Against a demon, an archer would be of limited use. Robert would much rather flee to Haven than stand and fight.
But before Robert could say anything more, Cole gasped. Robert turned to find the boy staring in the other direction - to the west. His eyes were wide, his pale face a mask of fear. Cole began to shake, until his head was waving back and forth wildly.
“No,” he whispered. “No, no, no!”
“What?” Robert demanded, alarmed at the boy’s reaction. Barris hadn’t noticed of course, and was striding off in the other direction.
“Not dimmed,” Cole murmured, wringing his hands. “Not diminished, not darkened. But gone as if the light never was. The anchor’s tie is cut. The sky is loosed.”
Robert looked up. He saw nothing overhead but a few winking stars.
“Cole,” he said, looking down, sharply. “We have an Envy demon coming. Remember him? Envy?” Cole looked at Robert in astonishment, as if he’d forgotten Robert was there.
“Envy?” Cole murmured.
“That’s right. Envy. Ennnnnvy,” he drew the word out, as one might do when teaching a child. “And Barris and I need your help.”
“No way to help now,” Cole whimpered. “Nothing to keep it all from pouring over, waves over the dam, following me into this world.” He stared at Robert, and then, in a very small, strained voice, he said:
Just then, a scream rent the air, high and shrill. Robert whirled around. There was no mistaking that sound. He’d heard it time and again when he managed to push the Envy demon from his mind. It had echoed off the stones of the dungeon. Right now, Robert felt the weight of all that dark fortress pressing down upon him.
“No light, no key, no anchor,” Cole whispered, his words a mere rasp after the demon’s scream. “Now there is no Haven.”
“Cole!” Robert shouted into the boy’s face, but it was too late.
For this time, when the scream echoed over the hillside, it was accompanied by the sound of breaking branches and heavy footfalls. At a distance, Barris shouted in alarm. And Robert spun around to get his first look at Envy’s true form. Robert’s jaw dropped open.
“That’s Envy?” he gaped.
The creature looked like a galloping pile of penises and elbows. And to think, that thing had been in his head. What a disturbing thought.
Envy screamed, causing it’s penisy face to contort around a mouthful of sharp teeth. Good Maker above, Robert thought. No wonder the thing went about stealing other people’s faces. Even someone as ugly as the Lord Seeker was an improvement over that.
Robert now realized that he’d left Barris to face the demon alone. The templar’s earlier bravado faded when faced with Envy’s size. The creature was as large as a wyvern, though much more spindly. Barris stared up at it in horror, then took a step back, and another step back, and another. The demon laughed, or at least, Robert thought that was the sound coming out of it’s maw. Barris stiffened, and for a moment, Robert almost thought the creature was speaking to Barris, though Robert couldn’t hear any words.
Then, suddenly, Barris stabbed the tip of his sword into the ground. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the vial of red lyrium. Robert couldn’t tell which was more shocking - that Barris would treat a sword that way, or that he would stop for a tipple at a time like this.
Barris drank the lyrium and the Envy demon watched. Or not ‘watched’, exactly. Envy had no eyes, so Robert supposed it was listening or waiting instead. But the moment Barris dropped the empty vial to the ground, it chuffed, the smaller claws of it’s upper arms curling in glee.
Robert decided he’d had enough of all this templar idiocy and demonic posturing.
“Come on, Cole!” he shouted, and for his own part, Robert fitted an arrow to his bow and let it fly.
The arrow shot by Barris, and sunk into one of Envy’s clawing arms. The demon screamed and reared, Barris snagged his sword and charged.
And Cole did nothing. As Robert fitted another arrow to his string, as Envy dodged and Barris attacked, Cole just stood there, rubbing the thumb of his right hand into the palm of his left - over and over and over again.
“Cole!” Robert shouted, now on his third arrow, and yet Envy hadn’t flagged a bit under the assault. “Help us!”
But Cole said nothing. And in that moment Barris froze. He came up on his tip-toes as if a string had hauled him upward from the top of his head. His sword and shield fell from his hands, and then, quite suddenly, he dropped flat onto his face. Envy disappeared with a shriek, and Robert and Cole were left alone on the sunset-red hillside.
“No!” Robert shouted. He shot forward, but already he knew it was hopeless. When he reached Barris’ side, the templar was twitching, his eyelids fluttering as if he were caught in a nightmare.
“You fool,” Robert hissed. Though he wasn’t sure if he was calling Barris a fool, or if the fool was Robert himself. Of course Envy would try for Barris’ face. And Robert hadn’t protected the templar in the slightest. Now the demon had him. It was only a matter of time before the templar rose as an abomination.
Or wait, Robert wondered. Could templars abominate? That was something Kate would know, but Robert certainly didn’t. And now he was stuck on this hillside with a twitching templar and a trembling spirit. For at Robert’s side, Cole did nothing but wring his pale hands.
“He needed more time,” the spirit whispered, looking down at Barris in despair. “She needed more time. All of them. All of us. We all needed more time.”