“The templar took Robert’s head with one stroke.”
Leliana pointed at the executioner’s block. It stood in the center of Redcliffe’s courtyard, stained black with the blood of too many victims to count. Kate could not stand to look at it. Instead, she turned to her companions, her eyes welling with tears. The Nightingale’s eyes glittered glacial blue in her blight-ruined face. By contrast, Cassandra’s red-glowing eyes were full of grief, though she did not weep.
“There was nothing we could do,” Cassandra said. “Nothing I could do. Robert fell and…”
But the Seeker did not seem to be able to say anything else. She turned sharply away. Kate could not even begin to comfort her, not when she was feeling so desolate herself.
“The templar glowed,” Leliana went on, her soft accent doing nothing to gentle her words. “We never saw his face in all that red. He brought Robert to Alexius, turned him over for torture.”
“Maker’s breath,” Kate murmured. Tears burned at the corners of Kate’s eyes, and she felt her throat grow tight. But she refused to cry in front of Leliana. The Nightingale did not appreciate pity, Kate had found. She sought only to undo what had been done here.
“I saw it all from my cell there,” Leliana went on. “That was before the dungeons, before they put in the blight into me. That was before the red lyrium filled the whole castle.”
“And the templar was glowing red, too?” Dorian asked. “Did he bring the lyrium into the castle, I wonder?”
“Perhaps,” Leliana said. She shrugged, as if the details of these things no longer mattered to her. From a few feet away, Kate heard Cassandra take a deep, shuddering breath.
Kate felt similarly winded. She couldn’t take in any of this. Forget the theory of time-travel. The journey itself had bent Kate’s mind to the point of breaking. If this future truly came to pass, if this world was what awaited them should Kate fail….
Andraste save us. A single tear tracked down Kate’s cheek.
Just an hour ago by Kate’s reckoning, she and Dorian had been savoring their victory over Alexius. Leliana’s plan to infiltrate the castle had gone off without a hitch. The scouts had taken out Alexius’ guards, Kate and Dorian had demanded that he surrender the mages…
But Alexius did not surrender. Instead, he had drawn a simple amulet from his coat. And with it, he had sent Kate and Dorian forward into the future.
The future was a terrible sight. The world Kate had known was now a ruined shell of its former self. Kate could feel it in the very air around her. The red lyrium gave off a faint sound - like the scraping of nails on a classroom chalkboard. The Veil was in shreds, and the nearness of the Fade sent a shiver up Kate’s spine. It was like every bit of arcane energy in the world had turned to poison. Without the mark, the breach roared overhead, filling the entire sky.
If we lose the mark, we lose our only chance of closing the breach.
The words echoed through Kate’s mind, and another tear tracked down her cheek. When Cullen had said that, Kate had felt quite stung by the words. She wasn’t some ancient artifact, some ring or sword from out of a legend. The mark was attached to her, but it didn’t define her. Or so she thought then. Because now she could see that Cullen was right. By risking the mark, she had risked the entire world. She was the mark now. And if she had to sacrifice herself to keep this future from happening, then she would. Her life was a small price to pay. She only hoped she could get back to the past in order to make that transaction. The bargain held no meaning in this dark future.
“We have to get back,” Kate murmured.
“Obviously,” Dorian replied. “That was the first item on the agenda, wasn’t it?”
“Agenda,” Kate murmured, blinking away another tear.
Yes, an agenda was exactly what she needed. She felt overwhelmed by grief and fear and guilt. She needed to center herself. She needed to outline the big picture and the small details so that she did not forget them. If she did get back to the future, she would need to remember as much as she could. Kate reached for the book she kept attached to her belt, and drew it out.
“Not exactly the time and place for journaling, is it?” Dorian asked with a frown. “We need to keep moving.”
Kate ignored him. Instead, she wrote:
Item one: return to past.
“Yes, well, obviously,” Dorian said, reading over her shoulder. “Don’t you think we could do that rather than writing about it?” Kate ignored him and scribbled on:
Item two: Robert.
“Robert?” Dorian asked.
“He’s alive,” Kate said, and suddenly it felt like the one light in all this shadow. “My cousin is alive.”
“Not now,” Leliana said, flatly.
“No, not now,” Kate agreed. “But if Alexius executed him in the past year, then he was alive a year ago. I can still save him.”
“Save him?” Cassandra said. Her eyes glowed fiercely in her blood-stained face. “Then that means…”
“That we can save you, too,” Dorian explained, patiently. “And we will. I promise.”
“Yes, I understood that part,” Cassandra said irritably, but Kate was still writing as quickly as she could.
Item three: Emp killed. Dem. army. R.lyr. everywhr.
This was short hand for ‘Empress of Orlais killed by assassins,’ ‘demon army ravaged Thedas’, and ‘red lyrium everywhere.’ That was not clear to Dorian however, for he frowned over her shoulder.
“Is that going to make any sense to you when you get back? Are you even going to be able to read your own handwriting at the rate you’re going?”
Item four: mark Cullen.
She meant ‘Cullen was right about the mark’. But apparently that meaning wasn’t clear to the others. For Leliana laughed then, a cold, hollow sound more like a cough from ruined lungs.
“Cullen was marked,” Leliana said, darkly. “Alexius saw to that.”
“What do you mean?” Kate asked, looking up from her writing.
“Cullen attacked Redcliffe castle again and again,” Cassandra explained. “Maker only knows what he and Josephine were thinking. The Inquisition fell in the attempt to free us.”
“But it’s impossible to take this castle,” Kate protested. “Cullen knew that. Why would he risk our people for a lost cause?”
“What else could he do?” Leliana said. “He had to get you out.”
“But we weren’t here,” Dorian pointed out.
“He didn’t know that,” Cassandra said, scowling. “How could he?”
“And what could he do without the mark?” Leliana added.
What indeed, Kate wondered? She willed herself not to start crying again. She willed herself not to think of the soldiers and Cullen, fighting on in a hopeless battle for this place.
“After the fourth assault, he got careless,” Leliana went on, coldly. “He always led his men from the middle. Never stayed far enough away from the fray. But that time, he came to the front lines. Alexius caught him. You can still see the last of him there.”
Leliana pointed at the gates, and Kate now realized that what she had discounted as general rubbish and debris was, in fact, bodies. There were corpses strewn all through the courtyard, in various states of decay. But one body was lanced on a pike. The face had long since rotted away, and the fur-and-scarlet mantle was a dingy, water-logged gray. But a clump of hair stuck to the skull, the golden waves a flag of surrender upon the battlements.
Kate’s lost the battle with her tears. They spilled over in one great, gasping sob.
“Good gracious!” Dorian exclaimed in alarm. “Oh, I say, Kate.”
But Kate couldn’t answer him. All she managed was to sputter and gasp out even more tears.
“They hung him there so we all would behave like that,” Cassandra said. “They wanted us to see him and despair.”
“And it worked,” Leliana said.
Kate found she couldn’t speak at all, could barely move. Seeing Cullen like that - it was wrong, all wrong. Cullen was too strong to die, too stubborn. Kate was the frail mage with the mark. She supposed somewhere, deep down, she had assumed that if anyone was to die for the Inquisition’s cause, it would be her.
No more death, Kate thought, desperately. There had been too much of it. She was determined to prevent as much of it as she could. And she would start with Cullen. She would go back, she would save him, and everything would be right again.
Please Maker, let it be right again.
Kate desperately wiped away her tears and croaked, “We need to go.”
“We do,” Leliana agreed coldly. “We must get you back to the past as quickly as possible.”
“And save Robert,” Cassandra agreed. And because Kate was so distraught, she did not consider this remark as strange in any way.
”‘Back to the past,’” Dorian repeated in amusement. “You’re both taking this in stride.”
“When the choice lies between action and death, I know my mind,” Cassandra said.
“Good point,” Dorian agreed. “And you’re quite right. The sooner we get back, the sooner we undo this mess.”
“You say that so easily,” Leliana said, bitterly. “To you, this is all a game. Or a joke.”
“This is no game to us,” Kate said, looking Leliana right in the eye. “We’re going to go back and set this right, or die trying.”
“How easily you make that promise now,” a new voice mused. “Yet how far will you go to see it done?”
Solas turned to Kate then, his eyes glowing red in his corpse-like face. Since they had found him in the dungeons, he had said little. Kate had suspected it was grief or lyrium which kept him silent. Or perhaps torment had muted him, just as it had brought out a raging fury in Leliana.
“We’ll go as far as is needed,” Dorian told the elf. “We’re rather talking about the end of the world here, or didn’t you notice?”
“I notice that it’s nothing to you both,” Solas said, staring at Dorian without blinking. “This blighted world is just a swift nightmare, a vision that will pass when once you wake. And yet, it was our plan that dealt this blow.”
“What do you mean it was our plan’s fault?” Dorian bristled. “Our plan went off without a hitch. Leliana got into the castle - sorry how that ended for you by the way - and the rest of us caught Alexius fair and square. The only bit we didn’t count on was him casting that spell so recklessly.”
“Just as I said,” Solas murmured. “‘Twas we who dealt this blow.”
“Then we’ll fix it, Solas,” Kate told him. “I promise. We’ll make sure none of this will come to pass.”
Solas stared at Kate for a moment, his eyes glowing a deeper red.
“If only there were tunnels further back,” he said, so softly Kate almost missed it. “But let us seek the portal that we know.”
“Agreed,” Cassandra said. “We have our plan. Let us do it.”
“We are already dead,” Leliana agreed. “But we will make sure that you live, Herald. And that you return to stop this.”
Kate couldn’t answer that pledge. Leliana had always struck Kate as unfriendly - Solas, too. But now she realized that what they both lacked in warmth, they more than made up for in conviction. As for Cassandra, the Seeker was already adjusting her sword and shield.
“Let’s go,” she said.
Kate just nodded, again unable to speak. She would return to the past, Kate promised herself, and in doing so, she would save everyone she had failed. She would save Leliana and Solas, and Cassandra and Cullen and Robert, too. She would save them or die trying.
Finding her voice at last, Kate lifted her head. “Onward, then,” she said.
“Backward, really, when you think about it,” Dorian chuckled.
Kate could not entirely appreciate his humor, though she guessed he joked to keep fear at bay. So she nodded and answered, softly:
“It seems that backward is the only way.”
“Indeed,” Solas murmured. “Backward is now the only road.”