“That’s Envy?” Robert gaped.
And to think, that penisy-elbowy thing had been in his head. What a disturbing thought.
Envy screamed, causing its gruesome 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.
And yet, even as he thought that, Robert found Envy’s true face was…familiar. It was as if Robert had seen it before - thought this before. But he couldn’t have, could he? Certainly not. This was the first time he’d seen Envy in the flesh - wasn’t it?
“She’s back,” Cole gasped. He looked up from his clasped hands, and his pimply face broke into a wide grin. “She came back!“
“Good for her,” Robert snapped, over Envy’s screams. “Come on! We need to help Barris.”
And with that, Robert did a very stupid thing. He ran to join Barris. It was madness, clearly. An archer was no good in a close-quarters fight. But along with this strange sense of deja vu, he felt he needed to save Barris from this attack - even if that meant an archer guarded a knight.
An archer guarding a knight? Insanity. And yet, Robert’s long legs quickly ate up the distance of the hillside. He reached Barris just as the Envy demon reared. Barris took a step back, and then another, and another. And then, to Robert’s horror - but not surprise - Barris stabbed his sword into the ground and reached for his pocket. Robert knew exactly what Barris was reaching for. Even though Robert couldn’t say how he knew, he knew.
Robert sprinted the last few feet to Barris’s side. He snatched the vial of red lyrium from Barris’ fingers, then chucked the vial into the air. It sailed overhead, catching the last of the sun’s light, then hit the ground and shattered on a rock. A foul, brimstone sort of smell filled the air.
Robert breathed a sigh of relief. Barris blinked once. Then he whirled on Robert in a fury.
“What are you doing?” Barris cried. “I needed that to face the demon!”
“Speaking of facing demons,” Robert said, looking over Barris’ shoulder. “Duck!”
Robert dropped to the ground just as Envy’s large, clawed hand began to fall. Barris, however, did not flinch. He just turned and stared as Envy drew near. And then, quite suddenly, Envy vanished. Barris dropped to his knees beside Robert. The templar’s mouth dropped open and his eyes rolled back into his head.
“Damn it all!” Robert shouted. He grabbed Barris by the shoulders and shook him, but the man did not respond. His head lolled to one side, his sword fell from his grip.
“Stupid, stupid!” Robert said, letting Barris drop to the ground. Robert hadn’t quite decided if that ‘stupid’ was meant to describe Barris or himself, but he figured it would do for either of them. He then looked up to find Cole standing there, dual knives in his hands.
“Where in the Void were you just now?” Robert snapped at the boy.
“Watching,” Cole said, cocking his head to one side.
“Ugh,” Robert groaned.
“Barris is possessed, in case you hadn’t noticed,” Robert snapped at Cole. He grabbed an arrow and fitted it to his bow. “Do you want me to kill him before he succumbs to Envy, or will you do it?”
“Give him a moment,” Cole said. He spoke mildly, as if he and Robert were sitting down to tea, not discussing the mercy-killing of a templar. “He just needed a clear head. You gave him that.”
Cole nodded at the spot where the lyrium vial had landed. Already, the grass was dead.
“That’ll leave a mark.”
“This hillside will be forever haunted,” Cole agreed sadly.
“So?” Robert said, wrinkling his nose. “Which one of us kills Barris? I suppose we could draw straws.”
“He has time this time,” Cole replied, calmly.
Whatever that meant, Robert thought. But before Robert could aim his bow at Barris’ throat, the templar’s eyes snapped open wide. And at the same moment, something came lurching out of Barri’s chest - a sort of oily ghost that looked a great deal like Barris himself. The ghost stumbled to its shadowy knees, its glowing yellow eyes downcast. With a roar, the real Barris surged to his feet.
“Get out of my head!” Barris cried. He reached for his shield and sword, but then froze. For as Robert and Barris looked on, the ghostly shape of Envy began to twist, shift, grow taller and broader and took on color and solidity. Now they were staring at a dark-skinned man with deep brown eyes, clad in the finery of a Ferelden lord.
“Wilhem?” Barris gaped.
Envy’s borrowed face grinned. The mouth shifted strangely, as if the demon couldn’t quite keep up its impersonation.
“Hello little brother,” the demon said, though he spoke in a more human-like voice. Barris paused, his arm slackened, but Robert still saw Envy in this form. The hands of this lord were claws, and they curled.
“Get back!” Robert shouted, drawing another arrow and letting it fly. At the same moment, Envy lunged at Barris. Robert’s arrow pushed the creature off-balance, slightly. It stumbled to the side, its borrowed face fading to shadow for a moment before Envy got it back in place.
“Do not mock me!” Barris shouted. His eyes flashed fire, and he bashed Envy back before slashing at the creature. But the demon was far too quick. It whirled around behind Barris, sinking its clawed hands into his shoulder and throat.
“No!” Robert shouted. He drew another arrow, but didn’t dare loose it. The way Envy had it’s arms around Barris, Robert was just as likely to hit the templar as the demon.
“Do you think you can escape so easily?” the demon hissed in Barris’ ear. “I saw your mind. I know your measure. You want his life, don’t you? You want the castle, the lands, the woman…”
“Shut. Up.” Barris choked out each word, even as the demon squeezed at his throat.
“Get off him!” Cole shouted, launching himself at the Envy demon from behind. But two ghostly arms bent backward from the demon’s back. One slashed at Cole and missed, but the other connected, sending the boy flying.
“Cole!” Robert cried, taking a step forward. The Envy-brother turned and snarled at Robert, fangs lengthening in its mouth. But with this distraction, Barris struck. He snapped his head back, slamming his skull into his ‘brother’s’ nose. The demon howled, and that was all the opening Robert needed. He loosed his arrow into ‘Wilhem’s’ eye. Envy screamed and released its grip on Barris.
Barris whirled around, bashing the face that looked so like his own. Then he slashed downward with his sword, but the blade did not connect. For Envy slithered out from under him, quick as thought, and launched itself at Robert. Robert had his arrow ready though, and he aimed it upward as Envy leaped into the air…
And then Robert faltered.
For it was Cassandra who flew at him. It was Cassandra who landed right upon Robert’s chest and knocked him to the ground. And it was Cassandra who held a blade to Robert’s throat. One of her eyes glared at him. The other eye had an arrow shaft sticking out of it.
“Maker’s breath!” Robert hissed. For even though Robert knew it wasn’t really Cassandra, that he hadn’t actually put her eye out, it was still a horrible sight.
“You once resisted me in this guise,” the false-Cassandra purred, drawing a finger along Robert’s cheek. “But see how easily you fall now?”
Robert shuddered at that touch, and his heart begin to pound. For he could see fangs behind those lips, and everything about this felt wrong. And yet, with Cassandra’s destroyed face before him, he couldn’t seem to move.
“Can’t move?” Cassandra chuckled, “Well then. This is the tack I should have taken with you from the start….”
A knife blade burst through the center of Cassandra’s smooth throat. Robert felt his stomach turn, felt the cold slice of fear. Even though he knew this was a rescue, it felt like a betrayal. When he looked up and saw Cole there, another blade poised above Cassandra’s head, Robert could not help but shout:
But then Barris was by Cole’s side and Cassandra leaped away…
And then it wasn’t Cassandra. Now it was some boy who looked a great deal like Cole. Only the boy had fire in his hands and threw the flames at Barris. Barris blocked this with his shield, and Robert shook himself.
Not Cassandra, he told himself, clambering onto his hands and knees and looking for his arrows. That’s not Cassandra. Or that boy. Or Freddy Stanhope….
Wait, Freddy Stanhope? Robert’s brows snapped together and he snagged a fallen arrow from the ground.
“Wrong choice, demon!” Robert shouted, drawing the arrow to full draw. “That’s a face I’ll gladly shoot full of arrows.”
It seemed Barris felt similarly. He roared with fury at the sight of Freddy and threw himself at the Envy demon. And so they fought on, Cole and Barris with blades, Robert scrabbling for arrows and launching them into the fray. All the while, Envy whirled about, claws flashing, faces shifting and snarling. There was the Lord Seeker for a moment, then a woman with kind eyes. Barris stumbled at that, but Robert shot her in the temple. And then, to Robert’s shock, there was Kate.
She was a savaged mess, this Kate. The arrow in her eye dripped with blood, and cuts lashed her face. She snapped her hands into the air, and lightning began to crackle around her.
“You wouldn’t hurt me, would you cousin?” Kate taunted. “Not the Herald. Not the only person in the world whom you count as a friend–”
This last word was cut short by an arrow. Robert shot the barb right into the creature’s open mouth. It pierced the soft palate and speared through the head and out the other side. The false-Kate choked once, its one whole eye filled with tears of betrayal.
“Don’t look at me like that Envy,” Robert scoffed. “For your information, Kate casts ice.”
The false-Kate’s lips trembled around the arrow’s shaft. Then Barris sliced her head off with one stroke. Kate fell, but it was Envy who landed upon the ground. Robert looked down at the fallen demon in disgust.
“Looks like a pile of… Never mind.”
Robert decided he didn’t need to complete that thought. It didn’t matter anyhow. A moment later, Envy disappeared in a cloud of ash, and Robert and Cole and Barris were left standing there.
“Well done, Barris,” Robert said, nodding at the templar. “Well done, Cole.”
“That was…” Barris shivered and looked down at his bloodied sword. “I don’t know what came over me at the beginning there.”
“Envy,” Robert replied. “But he’s gone now. Oh, and look at that. All the arrows I put into him got left behind in a neat pile. Convenient, that.” Robert began to gather them up.
“While we were fighting,” Barris said, slowly. “I thought I saw… I mean, there were moments when I caught a flash of another person with us.”
Robert looked up at once. Cole stood there smiling.
“That was him, wasn’t it?” Barris asked Robert.
“Well then,” Robert chuckled. “It seems you’re losing some of that templar-polish after all, Barris. Well done, you.”
Barris tried to grin, but failed. “Maker’s breath,” he said with a shudder. “This is too much for me. Can we move on? Tonight, I mean. I don’t want to stay here.”
Robert looked at the spot in the distance where the red lyrium had already scorched the grass. While he didn’t much like the idea of traveling by night, he entirely agreed.
“Cole?” he asked the boy.
“Rows of soldiers march into a darkened hall. The banner of the white tower upon red rock flies from the battlements. The noble scholar learned manners fit for royalty. She’s glad of the lessons now.”
“What does he say?” Barris asked Robert.
“Damned if I know,” Robert shrugged.
“The mother knows her son’s face, but he doesn’t know hers. Time lost and tales told and all is twisted with shame. But he has a kingly heart. He tried to help her.”
“Right then,” Robert said, looking off to the west. “Let’s go.”
Cole blinked at last and smiled. It was a wide smile, a hopeful smile.
“They were offered freedom,” he said. “They will seek Haven.”
“Seek Haven, is it?” Robert asked. “Good for them. Looks like we’ll have allies when we get to where we’re going,” he added this for Barris’ benefit.
“What allies?” Barris asked, as he wiped and sheathed his sword.
“I’ve no idea,” Robert replied. “But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say not the templars.” He smiled at that thought.
“Come on then,” he told the spirit and the templar. “Let’s get going. We have a long ways yet to Haven.”
I miss Haven, Kate thought.
It was a strange thought, really. She hadn’t been to the pilgrim village in nearly a month. The time she had spent in Haven hadn’t been exactly comfortable. She’d been unconscious, a prisoner, fighting demons, and making speeches. None of that had been pleasant. And yet, Kate recalled the peace she had felt there, if only for a moment. She dearly wished she could find that kind of quiet and peace again.
Kate slipped out of the doors and into the Redcliffe courtyard, but that was no good. There was no executioner’s stone here, stained black with blood. There was no red lyrium growing in the cracks of the cobble stones. There was no pike on the gates with Cullen’s torn body upon it.
Kate swallowed hard. She felt she ought to offer some prayer of thanks to the Maker, rejoicing for her return to this untouched time. But instead, she felt cold and angry. That world in the future had been real, and a real Leliana and real Cullen and so many other real people had died. Even now, Kate thought she could smell smoke and the brimstone-scent of red lyrium upon her clothes. She still felt her hands shaking, felt her mind frozen and fractured by all those faces of death. So many people had died. They died because she’d left them without finishing her task. They’d died because she failed.
Kate continued on through the torch-lit courtyard, out through the gates and the portcullis, and onto the long bridge that led from the castle back to the village. Kate walked about halfway out, until the torches of Redcliffe were faint. There, she stopped and looked up.
The stars were out. There had been no stars in the Fade-filled future. There, the sky was sickly green at all hours. There, the Veil was shredded and torn. But here - Kate breathed in one great, deep breath - here, the Veil was solid and secure. The world was as it had been.
This didn’t seem real, Kate thought, numbly. It was like all this was happening to someone else - some other version of Kate. Some other Kate had managed to fight her way back to the present. Some other Kate had spoken with Ferelden royalty just now, used their Trevelyan-taught manners and charm to defuse the tension of the situation. And some other, more leader-like woman had turned to Grand Enchanter Fiona and graciously offered the woman freedom and an alliance with the Inquisition. Someone else must have done it. For as it was, Kate - this Kate - felt tired and timid. Present-Kate felt like she was inside of her own body, watching someone else speak from her mouth and move her arms. Present-Kate wore a mask of bravery, and didn’t dare take it off.
Present-Kate also had a lot of work to do. With that thought, Kate drew out her journal from her belt. Holding up her glowing mark for light, she read the words:
Item one: return to past.
Well, Kate thought, she’d taken care of that. She drew out her stub of pencil and crossed it off the list. How strange, she thought, to write something in the future and take care of it in the past. It was entirely backward to the way lists were supposed to work.
Kate didn’t quite register the voices at first. But when one shouted her name, she looked up at last. There were people with torches, moving about the battlements and in the courtyard. They were looking for her.
Of course they were looking for her, Kate thought. Rather, they were looking for the mark. And she must deliver it to them.
“Here!” she called back. She was surprised to find her voice was clear and calm. She started back for the gates, even as two figures with torches came striding out to meet her. As they neared, Kate faltered a step, then came to a stop.
It was Cullen. And Leliana.
Maker save her. The last she’d seen of these two, they were ruined corpses. Now, here they were, filled with life once again. Kate swiped at her eyes, torn by grief and gratitude alike. For as she watched them approach, she felt as if she were watching ghosts - or angelic spirits. Cullen and Leliana - and Cassandra and Solas, too - had all died to save her. Or they would die to save her, given the need. It was a very strange thing, Kate mused, when she knew the measure of their courage and conviction better than they did. She knew they would never give up, never admit defeat. She knew that they would see the world restored to peace or die in the attempt. And as they drew near, Kate felt more awed than she had in the presence of the king and queen. This was true royalty.
“Maker’s breath, Kate! What were you thinking?”
The ferocity of Cullen’s words made Kate start, as if he’d just thrown cold water into her face.
“I beg your pardon?” she asked in reply. The words came out polite and distant, as they had with the king.
“You set the mages loose without oversight!” Cullen snapped, waving a hand back at the castle. “We’ll be swimming in abominations by week’s end.”
“Oh,” Kate said, softly. “That.”
“Yes, that,” Cullen said. “I can’t believe you forgot so quickly. They have not forgotten. Fiona was dancing a little jig as we walked out the door.”
“I don’t think Fiona would ever dance a jig, commander,” Leliana said easily. “The allamonde, maybe. A waltz if you gave her some wine.”
Cullen huffed, folding his arms over his chest. He looked as annoyed, Kate thought. She could understand that. But she wasn’t about to apologize for her decision. She knew what happened in a future where she failed. Cullen did not.
“We needed the mages,” Kate said, simply. Cullen snorted and shook his head.
“She’s right, Cullen,” Leliana said. Her voice was not soothing, but smug. “Even better, mages are now so desperate to please us, they won’t dare step a foot out of line.”
“It’s not the mages I’m worried about,” Cullen scowled. “It’s the demons. Did you not even think to consult us before offering Fiona such a bargain?” He glared at Kate once again.
“I did,” Kate replied, surprised again that her tone was so even. “Briefly. But I didn’t have time to set up a war-bale and schedule a meeting.”
Leliana chuckled. “This isn’t a joke,” Cullen frowned at her.
“No,” Kate agreed, solemnly. “No, it’s not.”
Her seriousness seemed to disturb Cullen, for he frowned at her. Evidently, he’d expected more argument than this. Kate supposed she ought to explain everything to him, but found she didn’t have the strength. After all that had happened this night - in future nights - she scarcely had the strength to stand.
“You’ll be happy to know,” Leliana cut in, “That I attempted to smooth things over with Alistair just now. And don’t worry, Cullen. He has never stayed angry for long. In fact, I’ve only seen him really angry once, and that was… Well, it was worse than this. By the time he’s back to Denerim, he’ll calm down and offer us a show of support. You’ll see.”
Cullen rolled his eyes. “Upsetting the king of Ferelden,” he muttered. “There’s another thing we can add to our lengthy list of mistakes.”
“You’re just upset because Alistair didn’t even remember you,” Leliana told Cullen.
“I didn’t expect him to,” Cullen returned. “He’s three years older than me and he was the templar class clown to boot. He spent more of his time in detention than he ever did at his studies.”
“And you probably spent all of your free time alone in the library,” Leliana teased.
Cullen did not deny it. Instead he stiffened, and held his torch a little higher.
“So what now?” he demanded of Kate.
“We take the mark back to Haven,” she replied. “Take me back to Haven, that is. And I try to fix…everything.”
Cullen’s brows drew together. He opened his mouth, but seemed to hesitate on what to say.
“Something happened in there,” he said at last. “There was a blast and a light from the windows. Then we heard sounds of battle. And Dorian said something about experimental magic? They didn’t try blood magic on you, did they?”
Kate gave a desperate sort of laugh. No, it had not been blood magic, exactly, but something far worse. Yet as Cullen’s eyes searched Kate’s face, the torchlight flickered over his features. For the briefest moment, the shadows darkened, and Kate no longer saw Cullen there. She saw a skeleton with a pathetic crown of golden curls, still clinging to the rotting skin. When she looked at Leliana, she saw a ghoulish face, staring at her from under a blood-stained hood.
Kate squeezed her eyes shut and turned her face away. But she did not cry. Instead, she just felt empty.
“Kate?” she heard Cullen say.
“No,” she forced herself to answer. “Not blood magic.”
Kate took a breath, then another and another. She opened her eyes and found herself looking out into the night. The lights of Redcliffe village glowed in the distance.
“Please don’t ask me what happened,” she said. Her voice was little more than a whisper. Kate cleared her throat and tried again.
“I’ll write it down,” she said. “I’ll submit a proper report for the Inquisition’s records and you may read it. But please don’t ask me to speak of it aloud. I don’t think I could.”
She looked up at them, and found Cullen and Leliana both gazing at her with concern. She’d seen a similar expression on Cullen after they had defeated Widris in the mire. He looked ready to reach for her again, but Kate prayed he wouldn’t. If he did, she would probably break down sobbing.
It was strange, however, to see such kindness from Leliana. Until now, Kate had thought the Nightingale capable of nothing but hard decisions and harder feelings. Now, they woman’s eyes were as gentle as her voice.
“We can talk about it later,” Leliana said, reaching out and patting Kate on the arm.
“We really ought to discuss things now. Like how we’re going to get the mages up to Haven,” Cullen said, though he sounded reluctant to bring up such concerns. “And where we’re going to put them all. And how we’ll protect them from demons. The logistics alone…” He trailed off into a mutter and pressed his thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose.
“Nevermind,” he muttered, half to himself. “I’ll deal with it.”
It suddenly occurred to Kate that she wasn’t the only one who felt tired and split in two. Cullen looked exhausted as well. That thought anchored her to the present like nothing else could. She had lost the Cullen and Leliana of the future, but these two people were here with her now. And Kate meant to look after them as best she could.
“You haven’t slept, have you?” Kate asked them.
“Not yet,” Leliana admitted.
“No,” Cullen said, sighing. “When would we have?”
“Then you should get some rest,” Kate told them. “Get some rest, and we’ll work this out in the morning.”
“The soldiers…” Cullen began.
“Aren’t going to benefit from a commander who’s too tired to make good decisions,” Kate warned him. The image flashed through her mind of rotten fur and torn clothes, and she pushed it aside. She focused instead on the live, haggard face before her. On an impulse, Kate reached out and lightly touched Cullen’s arm.
Kate regretted the intimacy at once. For even though she was wearing gloves and he was wearing metal braces, she felt a shock course through her. He was alive, this Cullen - alive and well and it seemed wrong to reach for him when she’d lost another man just like him.
Kate dropped her hand, utterly flustered, and mumbled: “Just get some rest. You need it. We all need it.”
She turned to walk away, keen to get some distance between herself and the uncomfortable feelings that were fluttering around inside her.
“And what will you be doing?” Leliana called after her.
“I,” Kate answered over her shoulder, “will be making more lists.”