“That was a dragon,” Coll said, leaning heavily against the Chantry door. “That was a dragon.”
“Yes,” Cassandra replied, tersely. “We saw it.”
“But why a dragon?” Coll wanted to know, her eyes wide and wild.
Kate had no answer to that. Even if she could think of something, she wouldn’t have been able to speak. She was still trying to catch her breath. They had run through Haven just now, desperate to reach the Chantry. But now this refuge seemed a very small and fragile. A dragon was out there - a great sinewy shape swooping about on ragged wings. Surely it could crush this place as easily as it had smashed that burning trebuchet.
“I once saw an Archdemon in the Fade,” Cole intoned. “It looked like that. Bones and blight, fire and fear.”
“Was the shittiest-looking dragon I’ve ever seen,” Bull grumbled, as if this was a personal affront.
Cullen stood beside Kate, gasping for breath, his right arm hanging limply at his side. He now took a few steps into the Chantry, then stopped.
“Where is everyone?” he demanded.
Kate, too, stared. For the Chantry was almost entirely empty. Kate’s mouth dropped open as fear and sorrow threatened to bury her.
“Didn’t anyone make it?” Kate asked desperately, her voice echoing through the empty space. “I thought everyone was hiding in here. I thought…”
“I sent them on,” a voice replied.
A figure strode up out of the darkness and into the circle of light cast by the torches and the prayer-candles. It was Leliana, with Keran and Morris by her side.
“Haven is evacuating as we speak,” the Nightingale said, her voice cool and stern.
“The wounded are slowing us down, ser,” Keran said, speaking to Cullen. “Ruvena and Rylen are doing what they can to hurry them, but we need more time.”
“Hurry them where?” Cullen demanded. “Evacuating where?”
“Into the mountains,” Leliana said, pointing to the door to the crypts. “There is a passageway. A long tunnel - part of a former mine complex. It leads from the Chantry’s crypts to the summer path - an old pilgrim road.”
“There was a passageway out of the Chantry itself and you never thought to tell me?” Cullen asked, scowling at her. “Maker’s breath, Leliana! I thought we agreed to share intelligence!”
“Chancellor Roderick knew about it as well,” Leliana said defensively. “He thought he was the only one who…” She broke off there and shook her head. “You’re right, commander. I ought to have said something. But the Hero of Ferelden and I once explored these hills and–” She sighed and shrugged. “I am a woman fond of secrets,” she said, softly.
“Ah,” Cullen said, as if that explained it. To Kate, it didn’t. Not at all.
“So the people of Haven have gotten away?” Kate asked, wanting to be clear on this point.
“Only a short distance, but yes,” Leliana replied. “Along with all the supplies we could salvage. My scouts went on ahead to find us a place to hide. There isn’t much up in the mountains though. Just snow and storm.”
“The templars will just follow us,” Robert rasped, clutching at his side. “They’ll pick us off even as we escape.”
“Where are my guys?” Bull wanted to know. The qunari had been bent double, gasping for breath as he listened to all this. Now he straightened. “Are the Chargers up that way?” he asked, pointing to the crypts.
“Yes,” Leliana nodded. “If you could position them at the end of the tunnel, maybe you could hold the templars off…”
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinkin’,” Bull told her. He hurried off toward the door.
“We should go as well,” Cassandra said, looking worriedly at Robert. “You need a healer.”
“We’d do better to stand and fight,” Robert said. He tried reaching for another arrow, but his fingers missed entirely and he came up with empty air.
Kate shook her head in worry. Robert seemed barely able to stand, which meant Coll’s healing magic hadn’t taken root. That happened sometimes, Kate thought, if someone was badly fatigued and wounded both. Robert would be lucky if he could climb the hills, much less make it through another battle.
And what of everyone else, Kate thought? As she looked around the empty Chantry, Kate pictured the faces of all the people who had retreated to this place - Sera and Varric and Dorian and more. But how many more lay dead out there in the snow? Kate had seen dozens of corpses: mages and soldiers alike, torn apart by blade and claw. Just how much death was this mountain going to see before the end of this year, she wondered? Haven had become a mass grave. And still those templars would fight on - killing every last member of the Inquisition if they could.
“He doesn’t care about the Inquisition,” a cool, calm voice said. “The Elder One only wants you.”
Kate looked up with a start to find Cole staring at her. “Me?” she asked, pointing a finger at herself.
“What?” Cullen started, taking a step forward as if to place himself between Cole and Kate. “Why does the Elder One want her?”
“Here we go again…” Robert muttered.
“The mark marks her,” Cole said, softly. “The Elder One sees it from afar, tries to pull its power into his own hands. He’ll break Haven to get it.”
Robert blinked. “I say, Cole. That actually made sense.”
“Insofar as anything in this night makes sense,” Cullen grumbled.
“But why?” Kate asked. “What does the Elder One have to do with the mark? Did he make it? Did he put this on me?”
“Reaching for the door,” Cole murmured. “Green light, screams, the desperate move of a dying woman. The warriors should have warded, not watched. It wasn’t bravery, but reaction.”
“And there he goes again,” Robert sighed.
“Sure ‘twas nice getting sense out of ‘im while it lasted,” Coll agreed.
Kate frowned. For a moment there, Cole’s words illuminated the dark corners of her memory. Kate recalled screams at the Conclave, and green light and something about a woman. But even as she groped for recollection, the memory faded into the shadows. Kate was left standing in the chantry, with little more light than those of the braziers and prayer candles. And yet, the way forward seemed clear as sunlit day:
There could be no escape for Kate. Not tonight. Not from Haven.
Kate looked up from her hand, and her eyes rested on Cullen. He met her gaze, and it seemed he had come to the same conclusion as she. His eyes widened at once and he shook his head.
“There must be another way,” he said.
“Cullen, if he’s targeting me…”
“No,” he said again. “Look you…” here he turned to Cole. “Demon, er… boy…”
“Compassion,” the boy replied.
Cullen stopped short at that, blinking.
“I prefer Cole,” Cole added.
“Are you certain that the Elder One is after Kate?” Cullen asked.
“Yes,” Cole replied. “And you believe me.”
Whether he believed Cole or not, Cullen shook his head. “Into the passages,” he commanded, pointing to the crypts. “All of you. Set yourselves at the end of the tunnel with the Bull’s Chargers and be ready to make a stand there.”
“Quickly everyone!” Kate called out. She, however, did not move.
“I meant you, too, Kate,” Cullen said, his voice low and urgent. Kate ignored him.
“Robert, you go first. Cassandra, can you help him to a healer?”
“Of course,” the Seeker replied. She drew Robert’s arm across her shoulder, helping him limp away.
“Are you certain, Herald?” Leliana asked, her lips set in a thin line. It seemed the Nightingale had also caught on to Kate’s plan. Unlike Cullen, however, Leliana clearly wasn’t about to fight Kate on it.
“Yes,” Kate told her. “And you, Cole,” she added, turning to the spirit.
“You need help,” the boy replied.
“I think I may be beyond it,” Kate replied, attempting to smile. “Go help the refugees. They need compassion more than anyone.”
“That’s why they came,” Cole told her, and then he turned abruptly away.
“Kate…” Cullen began again.
Just then, the dragon roared outside, and the sound rattled through the Chantry. The mark on Kate’s hand sparked once more, tugging toward the closed doors like it was trying to slip away into the night. Gritting her teeth, Kate turned to Coll.
“Go on, Coll,” she said. “Robert will need a healer.”
Coll shook her head and glared at Kate with bloodshot eyes. “Oh feck no,” the elf growled in a low, raspy voice. “Don’t try this shite on me.”
“Get going,” Kate insisted, reaching for her friend.
“Feck you!” Coll snapped, shaking Kate off. “Feck both of you!” she added, scowling at Cullen. “You gobshite coward of a templar. I would have thought you’d stand by her, but you’re as henshite as a wee boy.”
Cullen blanched at this, and Kate frowned. “Be fair, Coll,” Kate said. “Cullen has to go with the Inquisition. The remaining troops need him if they’re to have any chance at all.”
“That’s true,” Keran said, solemnly.
“I– Yes, but…” Cullen frowned, seeming to struggle for words. “But Kate, without the mark–”
“She ain’t the mark!” Coll shouted, waving her arms wide. “She’s Kate! Yeh great feck of a– Ma nuvenin tel ash! You don’t deserve her! And you!” she snapped, rounding on Kate. “You self-sacrificin’ eejit and martyr-whore! You stay right where you are, Kate. Oi, Morris,” she added, looking over Kate’s shoulder. “Get some fighters back in here. If Kate goes down, we’re all goin’ with her.”
“Disregard that order,” Kate said firmly, when Morris looked like he might follow it.
“Don’ do this, Kate,” Coll said. She almost sounded like she was begging now.
“What else can we do?” Kate asked her, weakly.
Kate meant it with all her heart. With the refugees escaping into the hills and and a dragon pawing around outside, what else could Kate do but stand her ground? What else could she do but allow her friends to escape?
Cullen opened his mouth, then closed it. His brows drew together, and his fingers twitched at his side. He wished he could draw his sword, fight back against this entire situation with strength of will alone. But Cullen knew one man would not be enough to stop the templars and their Elder One. His entire fledging army had not been enough. Now the only hope Haven had of survival was to leave Kate behind.
“There’s no time to argue,” Kate said, pointing at the door to the crypts. “Please Cullen, for my sake. Regroup and fight against the Elder One.”
“Maybe we could surprise it,” Cullen said, hardly knowing what he was saying. “Maybe we can find a way…”
“I’m not watching you die again, Cullen,” Kate said sharply. “Or you,” she told Coll. “In the future, I watched people die. I watched the world die. I’m not going through that again.”
“So you’re askin’ us teh watch you die?” Coll asked.
“No,” Kate said. “I’m asking you to get out of here and remember me. I’m asking for you to make it count.”
As if anyone could possibly forget her, Cullen thought. She looked so brave in that moment. Her eyes were like those of a soldier who knows she is heading into her final battle. Cullen had seen such a look many times in his life. He was certain he’d shown that same grim determination a time or two himself. But to see it on Kate’s face seemed entirely wrong.
“I will not leave yeh, Kate,” Coll said, fiercely. “Yeh can order these shems about if yeh like. But not me. Never me.”
Tears welled in Kate’s eyes and she nodded.
“Alright then,” she said, her voice breaking.
“Alright then,” Coll agreed.
“Kate…” Cullen began, but he could say nothing more. The loyalty and bravery of these two women astonished him. It shamed him. He wished he could offer Kate a similar show of courage and friendship. But he had his duty. He had to retreat. And he had never resented his position as commander until now.
“But what happens when they templars overrun the Chantry?” Morris wanted to know. He asked this as if it was an academic question, not a matter of life and death. “If those templars break in here, they’ll just kill you and come up the tunnel, won’t they?”
“Then Kate and me’ll blast ‘em,” Coll said confidently. “Bring the Chantry down on top of us. Bury yer escape passage in rubble.”
“Holy Maker,” Cullen murmured, an image flashing in his mind of broken bodies crushed by stone. He shook his head hard to clear it of that thought.
“A sacrifice like that will solve nothing,” a mild voice put in, “It sounds like a blood-mage’s plan, Colleen.”
Out of the shadows came Solas. His face glowed slightly in the light of the prayer candles. Why the elf had stayed behind, Cullen could not say. But aside from the way his ears twitched when the dragon roared again, Solas seemed quite calm.
“Have you got a better idea?” Coll snapped at the elf.
“I would suggest we flee the other way,” Solas said, pointing at the doors, in the direction of the lake beyond. “The Herald moves quickly with her magics.”
“What, you mean my Fade-step spell?” Kate said. “But I can’t keep that up for very long.”
“No, but it would get you away from here,” Solas replied.
“I’m not running to save my own skin,” Kate said, sternly. “Besides, I can die in here as easily as out by the lake.”
“It may be the only way to save your friends,” Solas urged her. “Flee far from here.”
“Wait,” Cullen said, holding up a hand. For an idea had occurred to him - a wild and reckless plan that might still result in Kate’s death. But if there was any chance it could work - any at all - that had to be better than leaving her here as bait to distract the dragon.
“We have the last trebuchet,” Cullen told them.
“Aw feck you and yer trebuchets, templar!” Coll groaned, leaning her head back against the door. “What? One fecked-up battle ‘round a siege engine weren’t enough for you? Yeh want us to try another one?”
“Yes,” Kate said, eagerly. “We can bury the town, possibly the dragon, too. The people will get away…”
“What?” Keran frowned. “Use the trebuchet on the mountain?”
“Exactly,” Cullen said, nodding eagerly. “Morris, you set the trebuchet last. What’s the trajectory?”
“Hmm?” Morris had been humming a lilting tune to himself, and now looked up in surprise.
“The northwest trebuchet,” Cullen said again, striving for patience. “What did you set it for?”
“West-by-north,” Morris replied. “Two-hundred-eighty degrees by the compass, forty-five degrees incline to the release.”
Cullen blinked. “Maker’s breath, Morris,” he gaped. “Did you know we’d need it set like that?”
“Like what?” Morris asked. He went back to his humming.
Alright, Cullen thought. Evidently Morris wasn’t precognizant that they would need the trebuchet set to those specifications. Still, that was exactly the right path to send a missile into the mountain. It was either a very good bit of luck, or perhaps the Maker was working through Morris’ oddities. Stranger things had happened, surely.
“Is the trebuchet loaded?” Cullen asked.
“No ser,” Morris broke off humming his song, and looked alarmed at the thought. “If it was loaded and went off in that direction, it might set off an avalanche. That would be dangerous, ser.” Cullen ignored this and turned to Kate.
“Those templars are still out there,” Cullen told Kate. “You may have to fight through them to get to the trebuchet.”
“Not a problem,” Coll said confidently. “Sure but she’ll have me with ‘er.”
“I’ll go too, ser,” Keran said, raising his hand.
“Me too,” Morris agreed, though Cullen wondered if the man really knew what he was signing on for. Still, if anyone could clear a path through the templars, it was Morris. Cullen now wished he had more soldiers to send with Kate. It was too late to call up the passage for some now.
“And I will go as well,” Solas announced.
“Aw feck, really?” Coll asked him, incredulous. “Sure, there’s the end of that party,” she grumbled.
“But if you do this, you all may get buried with me,” Kate said, frowning at the lot of them.
“Not necessarily,” Cullen said, urgently. “Kate, listen. The trebuchet’s firing mechanism is the same as the one on the other machine. Remember how you set it off from a distance? Do you think you could do that again? From even further away, perhaps?”
Kate’s eyes sparked with hope, and Cullen felt an answering spark in his own chest.
“Maybe,” she said. “And if everyone ran on ahead and then I Fade-stepped quickly away… Yes. Yes, I think this could work. We could all get back to the Chantry in time.”
Now when Kate looked toward the doors, it was with determination, not resignation. Cullen found the crushing weight in his chest lightened every so slightly.
“Oh feck me,” Coll said, looking around in surprise. “Are we gonna actually live through this then? And after I was getting all my prayers to Mythal in order, too.”
“It seems you do not need them yet, Colleen,” Solas said, dryly.
Cullen disagreed with that. It seemed prayers were very much needed at present. For even though this plan offered Kate a chance, it wasn’t much of a chance. It was still madness, Cullen thought, but it was madness with some design. He just hoped it would be enough to save her.
This was a wild plan, Kate thought, but she liked it far better than the alternative. Compared with certain death, most-probable-death sounded vastly appealing. And surely the death of five people was far better than the death of hundreds. If Kate played her cards right, it might result in the death of only one. Or perhaps even none.
“Are we ready then?” Kate asked everyone.
“Sure, why not,” Coll said with a one-shouldered shrug. “Always figured I’d go real spectacular-like. Comes of bein’ Dalish.”
“So you believe all Dalish meet bad ends?” Solas asked, raising a brow.
“Don’ put words in me mouth, elf,” Coll replied irritably. “I’m jes sayin’ that if now’s me time to die, I’d rather go in battle under the open sky, not hidin’ in a shem Chantry like a feck.”
Solas tipped his head to one side, his mouth curving in a very slight smile.
“You have a free heart, Colleen Lavellen,” he murmured.
“What’s it to you, chancer?” Coll wanted to know.
Just then, a BOOM echoed down the hall and the entire building shook. Several ceiling tiles fell into the hall, knocking over a brazier onto the stone floor. Everyone jumped.
“An’ there’s the dragon tryin’ teh claw us out o’ here,” Coll announced. “Best get going.”
“Lyrium,” Keran said, his face pale and his voice shaking. “You mages will need it. You can have mine.”
He reached into his pockets and drew out a few vials. Cullen frowned as Kate took two of the vials for herself, Solas took one, and Coll grabbed a vial and tossed it back in one gulp.
“Ah!” she said, smacking her lips. “Ta kindly, lad. That puts a spring in me step. Feel like I could set the world on fire. An’ maybe I will.”
Kate said nothing as she tucked the lyrium in her pocket. If she was lucky, she would use this to fuel her last, desperate Fade-step run back to the Chantry, and if not…
If not, then she would die. But really, Kate told herself, she had been living on borrowed time for a while now. She survived the Conclave, the Breach-closing, and numerous battles. Perhaps she had been spared before so that she could sacrifice herself now. She only prayed she had the courage to see this through.
“I’ll send up a flare,” Cullen said, and his voice sounded unsteady. “When I’ve reached the end of the passage, I’ll signal you. So you know we’ve made it beyond the tree line.”
“Always with the flares,” Kate said,. “Just don’t put them in your corset, alright?”
Cullen gave a short laugh at that, and Kate felt glad this was the way they’d say goodbye. And if she ever saw him again…
Kate looked over at Cullen, then realized her mistake. The commander was gazing at her with a strange expression. Kate wasn’t sure if that was hope or pride or pain in his eyes, but she couldn’t look at it for long. It was far too intense. Kate turned instead to the doors.
“Go with the Maker, Cullen,” Kate said, not daring to look at him again. “Coll, get ready to cover me.”
“Go with the Maker,” Cullen murmured behind Kate’s back. Another smash rocked the Chantry and Kate gripped her staff more tightly. Kate heard the sound of heavy boots as Cullen dashed away for the tunnels. She heard clunking sounds as more tiles fell from the ceiling.
“Let’s go then, Kate-lass,” Coll said, gathering fire into her palms. “Let’s do this.”
Kate yanked the Chantry doors open.
This was wrong, Cullen thought, even as he raced down the darkened passage. He wove through groups of huddling refugees, rudely pushed aside both mages and soldiers, the sick and the wounded with no more than a curt word.
“Move!” he snapped at them. Time and again, he said that same word: “Move!”
He said it to himself as much as them. He had to keep running, even though his right arm was burning with pain, even though this felt wrong. This night had gone all wrong.
Somewhere down in that town, Kate was fighting for a chance - just a chance - to save all these people. To save him. She might be dead already, Cullen thought wildly. She might be dying. And he had offered her nothing - nothing more than a mad plan, nothing more than the lives of Keran and Morris…
Maker forgive him. He’d probably sent them all to their deaths.
“Probably,” a voice said at his ear. “Maybe.”
Cullen ran on, ignoring Cole.
“Shadows closing in,” the spirit continued in his light, soft voice. Somehow, he kept pace with Cullen easily. “Grasping claws, twirling blades. Root and rock and fire and ice and screams. Keran fights on, arrow in his leg, pain in his side. If he dies here, who will tell his sister?”
“You are not helping, demon,” Cullen snapped.
Cullen picked up speed, now dodging his way past a… druffalo? How in the Maker’s name had a druffalo fit through the Chantry? He cast a curious glance at the elf leading the beast, then decided he did not care. He had to hurry.
“She sees snowflakes on dead eyes,” the boy said, his voice sing-song by Cullen’s ear. “It reminds her of raindrops on broken fingers. Cold and alone when it came time to die. Under waves and gasping for breath. But everyone dies. She said that, only an hour ago: ‘Everyone dies.’ She just wanted the story to go on a little longer.”
“Not now,” Cullen said through gritted teeth.
Maker save him, if Kate was dying, if she was already dead…
He couldn’t think that. Couldn’t allow himself to think that.
“She’s not dead yet,” Cole said.
“That,” Cullen snapped, “Is the only update I wish to hear from you, demon.”
“She doesn’t blame you,” Cole said, seeming to float now at Cullen’s side. “She wanted you to go. She wanted you to live.”
That didn’t make Cullen feel any better either. In fact, it almost made him stumble. Only habit and duty kept Cullen steady on his feet. The spirit seemed to sense this, because Cole then said, softly:
“There is still hope. There is always hope.”
Was there? Cullen wanted to ask. At this point, the plan seemed less like a mission, and more like choosing the location of their respective graves. Right now, Cullen felt he was at the wrong location, running in the wrong direction.
“She’d want you to run faster,” Cole murmured by his ear.
Cullen knew this was true. So he raced on, up that long, dark tunnel.
“Fenharel feck the ones what made up this shite way o’ lobbin’ rocks around!” Coll shouted. “Why can’t a body just use magic teh tear down a mountain?”
“Short of resorting to blood spells, Colleen, the Veil will not permit…” Solas began.
“Feckin’ shut it, you!” Coll shouted back. “That were a rhetorical question.”
“Both of you, stop arguing and pull this wheel!” Kate cried. On this side of the trebuchet, she and Coll, Solas and Keran were all tugging desperately at the wheel. On the other side, it was Morris alone. It seemed the man was as strong as Bull.
“Almost there,” Keran grunted.
“This would have gone a lot faster if the red shiny men left us alone,” Morris said, calmly. He nodded absently at the myriad red templar corpses piled up around the trebuchet. At the same time, the beam clunked into place. Kate lunged for the lever and set it.
“There!” she cried in satisfaction. “Alright everyone, back to the Chantry. I’ll stay here and set off the trebuchet when I get the signal.”
“Pfft, feck no,” Coll said, wiping her hands off on her trousers. “We’re stayin’ with yeh until that flare goes up.”
“Coll, we said…”
“You said,” the elf replied. “But we’re out-votin’ yeh.”
Keran gave Kate an apologetic look and Morris picked at his teeth. Overhead, another shriek went up from the dragon, and Kate scowled at them all.
“We don’t have time to argue,” she said.
“No, we don’t,” Coll agreed, glancing up at the sky nervously. “An’ if yer templar doesn’t hurry up now, we may not have time teh fire this thing off, neither.”
“Coll…” Kate began, but then the dragon’s scream came nearer.
“Sure, but that’s our sign,” Coll said. “Fire it now, Kate, and we’ll all go together.”
“No, Coll,” Kate shouted. “I’m waiting for Cullen’s signal. And you need to run for the Chantry. Just get moving and I’ll be right behind you.”
“There’s no way I’m leavin’…” Coll began, but then her eyes went wide.
Kate had no time to react. A shadow fell over them. The silver light of the moon was snuffed out, and there was a scream. The sound pierced the air, tearing at Kate’s ears, carrying echoes of a shrill, rasping song.
Then Kate went flying through the air.
Fire rushed past her, wings flapped over her. She sailed in space, hit her shoulder, thudded her knee, then snapped her head so hard that stars sparked across her vision. Kate felt a slap across her face, cold and hard as if she’d belly-flopped onto ice. Kate turned her head to one side, found the wind had been knocked out of her. She tried to breathe, rasped, and then coughed blood out onto the snow.
“Coll…” she croaked. She squinted, trying to bring the world into focus. A short distance beyond, Coll lay on the ground - unmoving.
“Coll!” Kate cried as she struggled to stand. Her knee hurt like the Void itself, and judging from the pain in her mouth, she’d bitten her tongue. She spat out some more blood, scrambled toward her friend…
A wall of flame erupted between Kate and her friend. Kate gasped, staggering back at once.
“Coll!” she cried again, then: “Solas! Morris!”
“We’re here Herald!” she heard Solas’ voice cry. It came from beyond the flames.
“Herald!” Kate heard someone shout behind her.
She whirled around and saw Keran lying a short distance from her. His leg stuck out at an odd angle, and he was struggling to stand. Beside him, the trebuchet was still intact, still loaded and ready to fire. But Keran was pointing at something - something walking right through the far circle of dragon fire.
At first it looked like the figure of a man, but then Kate realized it was too tall, too spindly, too wrong to be a man. That was no templar, Kate thought, no ally either. And if her mark was acting like this, then that must be…
The Elder One, Kate thought.
“Morris!” she shouted, “Solas! I– Ahh!”
Kate cried out, gripping her wrist. For the mark suddenly sparked with green light, and pain - sharp, scorching pain - coursed through her palm, up her fingers and into her shoulders and neck. It was like nothing Kate had ever known before. She felt as if her every vein was lit with fire.
“Are you alright, Mage Kate?” she heard Morris call. “I’m trying to find a way through the fire, but it’s too high.”
“Don’t be a fool!” Kate heard Solas cry. “That’s Void-fire!”
Kate had no idea what that meant, nor could she think what to do. As it was, Kate could scarcely stand. She was bent double, crippled by the anguish in her hand - her stupid hand. And all the while, that unnatural figure of the Elder One stalked closer through the flames.
“Get out of here!” Kate cried, gasping for breath. She hoped Morris and Solas could heard her above the flames. “Get Coll out of here! Get her to the Chantry! Get going!” Her voice echoed hysterically into the night.
“But what about you?” Kate heard Morris call back.
“That’s an order!” she all but screamed.
She prayed he followed it. Kate prayed that Coll was not dead already, prayed that Solas and Morris could fight their way through the remaining templars that prowled through the town and that they would escape through the Chantry. All these prayers went through Kate’s head as a sort of desperate, unspoken wish.
Then Kate heard a scream.
She lifted her head, watched the scene unfold through the tears in her eyes. Keran was dangling five feet up in the air, held aloft by that… thing. The Elder One had Keran in one hand, it’s palm splayed over his chest and it’s long, spindly fingers curled over Keran’s shoulders. Keran struggled in it’s grip for a moment, his sword falling ineffectually on the creature’s arm. Then Keran gave up any hope of escape. As Kate watched, the brave soldier shot both of his hands up to the sky.
Kate gasped before the Holy Smite struck. A shard of hot-white lightning slammed down into both knight and giant, and a BOOM echoed out into the night. But when the light had faded, Keran lay limp in the giant’s grip and the creature was still standing.
The Elder One tossed Keran to one side as if the man were nothing more than a rag doll. The knight’s body hit the trebuchet and fell heavily down upon the platform, his forgotten sword clattering out of his grip and landing useless upon the frame. Then the Elder One turned it’s eyes to Kate.
Kate shot out her right hand for the lever. She didn’t have time to think, didn’t have time to wait for a flare or proof Coll had survived or anything. She was certain she would die, and was just as certain she needed to take this creature down with her.
But Kate had not been so certain of her magic. And before she could summon enough energy to force the lever down, she was yanked off of her feet.
Kate’s left hand shot forward, the mark dragging her off balance. She fell to her knees, cried out for the pain that shot through her leg and arm both. When Kate’s looked up through her tears, she found that the mark no longer glowed green, but red. It spat and flickered and flared, bright as the fire around her. And then Kate realized something other than flame was circling her. The dragon itself pawed along the ground behind her, like a great cat eying a tiny treat. It’s tail flicked, scarcely missing the trebuchet. And all the while, the weird, twisted figure of the Elder One stalked ever closer.
Kate heard the voice more in her mind than from her ears. The words had a strange echo to them, as if they came from across a long distance, and distorted with a crackle. A moment later, she realized it was a spell - a very crude translation spell, the like of which she’d only seen demonstrated in the Circle as a curiosity. It was so oddly out of place, this bit of magic lore on a battlefield. But at the same time, the tearing in her hand was sharper, as the mark shifted and flickered, fighting with her skin and bone. Kate’s eyes swam with tears, and she could see little more of her attacker than an ever growing column of dark against flame.
“No more shall you toy with forces beyond your ken. No more shall mortals like yourself interrupt the will of gods.
“Gods?” Kate managed, struggling to see through her tears. “Is that what you imagine you are?”
Kate supposed that if the Elder One was a god, she ought not antagonize it. But Kate believed in no God but the Maker, and this murderer struck her as insufferably arrogant. Perhaps she might distract it long enough to get her right hand free and summon her magic. If nothing else, Kate thought, she’d die as feistily as Coll had planned to.
“Know me,” the creature rumbled in that odd, carrying voice. “Know what you have pretended to be.“
And when the creature stepped closer, Kate nearly forgot her purpose in her sudden fear. For the face that glared down at Kate was like nothing she’d ever seen. There was red lyrium sticking out of it, but it wasn’t like the templars’ face. Maybe it had once been human - a giant human, maybe. But now it was man-like and yet much like the drawings of darkspawn she’d seen in tomes at the Circle library. Or no, Kate thought, her eyes going wide. It looked just like the stained glass window in the Chantry - the one that depicted a magister of old - the corrupt mages that had broken into the Golden City itself.
“Exalt the Elder One,” the creature demanded, towering over Kate. “Exalt the will that is… Corypheus.
“Who in the hell is Corypheus, ser?”
Rylen huffed out this question as he ran, torch held aloft, the tunnel’s damp dripping down over him.
“No idea,” Cullen replied, as he rushed up the passage. All around, people had stopped to listen to that strange voice, a voice carried by magic and power.
If Cullen could believe what he was hearing - and he wasn’t sure that he did believe it - then this was the voice of the Elder One. This was the voice of Corypheus.
And what kind of a name was that, he wanted to know?
Cullen dodged around an old woman, a mage, and nearly knocked over a child. He felt panic rise within him, knowing that Kate was down there, knowing that voice might be echoing from somewhere near her, might even be speaking to her. Cullen had not heard Kate’s voice, of course. That thing was carrying on a one-sided conversation even as he dashed up the tunnel with Rylen at his side.
“You resist,” the magical voice now said. It sounded disappointed and resigned. “You will always resist.”
“Damn right we will,” Rylen muttered.
Cullen quite agreed, but he didn’t think much of the chances of anyone who resisted a being with this kind of power. Because whatever else this Elder One was, it held magic beyond anything Cullen had ever encountered To cast a vocal spell like this, so carelessly, with such lazy disregard for the power spent to uphold it, Cullen could only imagine that the Elder One had magic to spare. Was it a demon, he wondered? A mage? Or perhaps, he thought with a shudder, it was an abomination - a powerful combination of mage and demon both.
And if Kate was down there in Haven with that thing…
“Out of the way!” Cullen thundered into the tunnel. He had shouted similar orders half a dozen times already, but now the urgency in his voice made everyone jump. As people flattened themselves against the walls, Cullen barreled on, panting now for climbing, with Rylen trailing behind him. Then, mercifully, Cullen spotted it at last: the faintest glimmer of moonlight at the end of the tunnel. He ran for it now, his lung nearly bursting for the strain.
Kate had to be somewhere else in Haven, Cullen thought. That thing was attacking someone else. Coll maybe? Coll was the resisting type. And while Cullen didn’t wish the elf ill, he felt much better imagining that it was the Dalish down there, mouthing off to an abomination.
But Kate would resist as well, wouldn’t she? Cullen thought. Though quieter than her friend, Kate was no less stubborn in her own way, no less a warrior.
And then, as he dashed out into the cold and snow, Cullen heard the words he’d feared:
“This is your fault, Herald.”
Cullen stumbled as he came to a halt, as much as from shock as fatigue. Kate was down there. She was down there in the hands of the Elder One, enduring Maker only knew what torments. He imagined Kate, pinned under the magic of a mad-man, slowly dying as a monster shocked her with pain again and a again…
Cullen felt bile rise in his throat. His own body felt a similar pain, his own back and bowed as he remembered. But even as he thought this, even as his own nightmares threatened to engulf him, Cullen fought them back. He fought them back as he had done a thousand times before. And this time, he had further reason to return to reality. He had a job to do here, a job to carry out. It was possible that Kate was waiting on his signal. It was not likely, of course. But she might be. Cullen had to cling to that duty, had to cling to his half of their mad plan. It was the only thing currently giving him purpose.
Cullen forced his mind back to the present. He whirled around, quickly taking stock of the landscape around him. Snow fell in large, heavy flakes this high up in the hills, and a long line of refugees trudged onward into the wind and dark. Nearby, Bull and the Chargers stood with weapons ready.
And behind Cullen, far away in the distance, Haven was little more than a few orange lights in a sea of inky dark. From here, Cullen could almost imagine that those were bonfires down there - not houses burning. He could almost pretend that the Satinalia celebrations were in full swing, and that Kate stood down there in safety - talking about novels as firelight glinted upon her hair.
“You interrupted a ritual years in the planning,” the horrible voice spoke, startling Cullen anew. “And instead of dying, you stole the Anchor’s purpose.”
“Are you hearing this?” a voice put in. Cullen turned to find Dorian standing there, staring at Haven with wide eyes.
“Yeah, Vint,” Bull grumbled. “We’re hearing it. We shouldn’t be hearing that shithead from this distance. But we’re hearing him all the same.”
“I do not know how you survived,” the voice went on. “That mark was crafted to assault the very heavens. And you would use it to undo my work! The gall!“
“Arsewipe!” another voice spoke - a very nervous looking Sera, who was chewing her fingernails. “Pisser. People who use say ‘The gall!’ are always pissers. People who gloat that long are arsewipes and pissers. Wish I could stick an arrow in his throat.”
“I once breached the Fade in the name of another,” the voice went on, tempting Sera’s ire further. “I once served the Old God, Dumat, and sought to claim the Golden Throne for him. But no more. I serve no master but myself.”
Cullen had meant to return to his purpose. These words made him stop in shock. Beside him, Dorian gasped, and Bull looked murderous.
“What the shit?” the qunari growled.
“Is he claiming to be a magister?” Dorian asked, incredulous. “An actual magister? Like the old ones? The original ones?”
“The ones that brought the Blight,” Cullen murmured. He shook his head, then whirled around. He had meant to check the area, to see if they were above the tree line. He’d meant to see if all the refugees were safely up the hill, out of the tunnels and so on. But none of this seemed to matter now.
One of the magisters had come for Kate.
One of the magisters.
“Rylen!” Cullen called, turning quickly to the captain. “Flares!”
“Flares, ser?” the captain blanched. “But why…?”
“The Herald is waiting for a signal,” Cullen said, holding out his hand. “I need a flare.”
“What is the signal for?” Sera wanted to know.
“I shall return to the Fade under no banner but my own,” the chill voice echoed out into the night. “And you, gnat, shall give me the means to do it. Beg that I succeed, for I have seen the throne of the gods, and it was empty.”
“That’s wrong, right?” Sera said, her voice thin and afraid. “The Golden City empty. He hasn’t been there. He doesn’t know. Can’t have been there.”
“He’s trying to use the mark to open the Fade again?” Dorian wondered aloud. “You’d think the first attempt would have put him off to it.”
“And you wonder why everyone hates mages and Vints,” Bull said, his voice low and angry. “‘Cept you, Krem.”
“Right now I’m kind of hating Vints myself, chief,” Krem replied.
“Oh yes, please,” Dorian said, sarcastically. “Do tar all of Tevinter with the same brush.”
Cullen ignored them. He frantically tried to get the flint to spark, but his hands were shaking too badly to even hold the rocks. He brushed away Rylen’s attempt to help, then finally manage to catch the flare’s fuse. A moment later, however, it flickered out, too damp to light.
“Sorry ser,” Rylen grumbled, fumbling about in his pockets for another. “With the celebrations and all, I wasn’t thinking we’d need…”
“What are you trying to do?” Dorian demanded, noticing their struggle at last.
Cullen couldn’t bring himself to explain that he was only doing what Kate had asked of him: helping to save Haven, helping to make her sacrifice count. So though his stomach churned, though the words felt like vomit coming from his mouth, Cullen pointed at the sky and said:
“Send up a flare. Tell Kate to fire the trebuchet.”
Silence answered him. The Chargers stared at Cullen in horror. Dorian’s wide eyes went even wider. Bull growled low in his throat and muttered, “Damn it, boss.” Rylen just looked away, as if he couldn’t even meet Cullen’s eyes anymore.
Cullen said nothing. He couldn’t endure their emotion now, not when he felt such much emotion on his own. Right now, the dominant emotion was impotent anger. He wished he could fly back down the mountain and tear that Elder One apart.
But he couldn’t. Instead, he could only light a flare and hope that Kate had the courage and strength left to die.
He blinked back a sudden surge of tears and gritted his teeth.
“Flares,” he said, coldly. “A signal. Anything?”
“Will a burst of magic do?” Dorian asked, his voice tight. There was a wealth of understanding in his words. There was so much understanding that Cullen couldn’t look at him.
“Bright as you can make it,” Cullen said, softly. “Maybe more than one. She might be…”
“Busy?” Dorian replied, and his easy tone did nothing to hide the tension in his voice. “Right. I’ll send one now and another in a minute.”
“Thank you, Dorian,” Cullen whispered.
Cullen didn’t look up as Dorian shot magic into the sky. He didn’t look up as red light glowed all around, and as murmuring refugees filed past them into the cold and Sera muttered a string of curses and Bull added in a few of his own.
Instead, Cullen gazed steadily down at Haven, waiting for a sign, for a response, for anything at all. But nothing came. The little lights continued to glow in the dark - all that was left of a village he briefly called home, all that was left of the life he’d briefly shared with the Herald.
This was not happening, Kate thought. This could not be happening.
Dying? She’d been prepared for dying. A templar blade to the gut had always been a likely death for her, considering that she was a mage. Suffocating under a blanket of snow? Kate would not have predicted such an end, but that death would be curiously fitting. The ice mage buried deep in her element? It was ironic - poetic, even. Kate could have laughed at that.
She was about to be killed by a Tevinter magister - one of the originators of the blight, one of the mages that had turned magic as evil as magic could get. This bastard was the reason people locked up mages in the first place. He was the cautionary tale the templars used every time mages began to talk about freedom.
Kate had already been inclined to hate the Elder One, but now she really hated the Elder One.
If only she could fight him, Kate thought, wildly. Not that she was likely to win, but she would liked to have fought back all the same. As it was, the Elder One - Corypheus, as he called himself - was monologuing like a villain straight out of a Tethras novel. Meanwhile, Kate was was crawling on all fours, clutching at her wrist. Pain coursed through her, bright and sharp and unnatural. Kate felt as though she would faint away from the intensity of it. She struggled for consciousness, struggled to stand, struggled to raise her head damn it. Kate was certain Cullen must have sent his flare by now. He was probably wondering what Void she was doing down here. It wasn’t as if there was anyone left in town to witness this mad interchange between her and the Elder One.
Strangest of all, Kate thought, was the way her mark seemed to respond to Corypheus’ call. No, she realized a moment later - it did not respond to Corypheus himself. Rather, it seemed connected to the orb in Corypheus’ hand. A thin line of light ran from that metal sphere to the mark and back again, as if the Anchor were a yo-yo at the end of a string. And every time that band of red pulsed, Kate felt the pain redouble.
More than pain, Kate now felt her will weaken. In a haze, Kate felt that her body was bending to this creature’s will - and that her mind was following suit. She seemed to hear a song - harsh and strong and wild. It reminded her of the sound of the templars, marching through the halls - of doors slamming at the end of corridors - of all things remote and stern and powerful.
Then, quite suddenly, there was silence again.
The silence was worse. Kate wanted that song. She needed that song from before. She closed her eyes so that she could hear it, let her breaths slow, let her shoulders relax. If only she went still, she thought, she could hear it one last time. She needn’t fight the Elder One anymore. He had the song. And the song… The song would be enough…
Kate would never know where she found the courage to fight back. Maybe it was that something reminded her of Coll. Maybe that was why, as her breaths faded and her head bowed, Kate thought she heard a different tune. She thought she heard a soft, lilting tune - like one of Nightingale’s hymns, or one of the Dalish airs that Coll sang to herself when she thought no one was listening. It wasn’t the Chant, though. It was too melancholy for that - an old, ancient sort of song about loss and hope and home. For a moment, Kate thought she heard all her friends singing it - Cullen and Robert and Coll and all of them together.
All Kate later remembered was this: In one moment, her mind was blank, empty of all sound. In the next, she felt like music burst through her, bold as magic itself. Kate felt like she had a fever. She felt like she’d been plunged into icy water. She felt laughter behind her lips and tears filled her eyes and Kate felt certain she’d done all this before.
Her eyes snapped open, and Kate yanked her left hand to her chest.
The mark snapped. Kate heard the audible crack of it - like when a broken bone is shoved roughly back into place. Kate screamed with pain clutching at her wrist even more tightly. But when she looked down, the mark glowed green again. More than that, it glowed brighter than ever, set right in the center of her palm. For a moment, all her veins glowed green too - right through her skin, all the way up her arm. Then Kate focused hard, and squeezed her hand shut. The light went out - because she wanted it to.
She’d controlled the mark.
She had controlled the mark. Kate stretched her fingers, and the mark began to hum. She shut her fingers, and the mark flickered out. In discovering this mastery, Kate was so surprised she did nothing for a moment. She just stared, elated, at her hand. And that almost killed her.
With a snarl and two steps, Corypheus swooped over her. The thing hauled Kate up by her left arm, dragging her up until she was face to ruined face with the monster. Kate shouted in alarm, even as she heard the weird, magic voice scream:
“The Anchor is permanent. You have spoiled it with your stumbling!“
“You spoiled it with your own stupid stumbling!” Kate shouted back, too angry to be circumspect. “If you hadn’t picked this fight in the first place, none of this would have happened!”
She broke off there, for from this vantage, for just a moment, she thought she saw a lone figure staring up at her. For just the briefest moment, Kate thought she had seen Solas beyond that wall of flame - staring at her with a solemn, wondering expression. But when she looked again, all she saw was a lone dog running away through Haven, dodging the marauding templars it made off toward the Chantry.
“So be it,” the Elder One said, shaking her so hard her head snapped back. “I will begin again.“
With that, Corypheus tossed Kate aside, tossed her just as roughly as he had tossed Keran. Kate felt herself go flying, feet up, arms out, completely helpless. Then something smacked her back, and she fell heavily onto her face. Her forehead smacked the wood frame of the trebuchet, and the world around her began to dim.
The lever… Kate thought, fighting to stay conscious. She had to get to the lever. And the flare. Had Cullen sent the flare?
Kate looked up into the darkness, searching for light. There were no stars up there to orient her, no Alindra’s River to band the earth, no constellations to guide or remind of old stories. Even the breach seemed to have gone dark beside the fires of Haven. Kate’s vision swam as she gazed up at the moonlit mountains.
But then, so small Kate almost missed it, she saw something. It was movement rather than the light, and by the time she’d spotted the spark of red, it was gone.
Was that the flare, she wondered? Had she seen it, or imagined it?
Did it matter? Kate supposed it didn’t matter. She was the only person left alive down here - aside from the red templars now prowling onto the battlefield, surrounding the Elder One like blighted hyenas around a blighted lion. Keran lay dead at Kate’s feet, his sword loose in his grip. Kate didn’t know why, but she picked it up. Her own staff had been lost Maker only knew where out on that battlefield. With her other hand, Kate gripped the frame of the trebuchet, clambered up it as an infant struggles to stand. Behind her, the darkspawn-demon that was Corypheus watched her with pitiless eyes.
“Look at this,” he said. “The interloper, the mistake, thinks to rise again.”
“Rise again,” Kate murmured, speaking more to the siege machine than to the magister. “That’s right. That’s what I’m good at. That’s all I’ve ever been good at.”
Hadn’t Kate proved that throughout her life? She wasn’t the strongest or the bravest. She had fallen short so many times. But she always got up. And if this was the last time Kate stood before falling forever, then so be it. She would die standing.
“That’s what mortals do, you know,” Kate said, turning and pointing her sword at the Elder One. “Mortals stand up again. We stand up to tyrants like you.”
With that, Kate grabbed the trebuchet’s lever and shoved it down.
The trebuchet made a tremendous WHOOSH, shuddering so hard Kate almost lost her footing. The payload went winging out into the night, and for a moment, both darkspawn-demon and dragon turned to watch it. Kate watched it stupidly as well, too tired to do anything else. She watched it fly, watched it fade away. Then watched in satisfied amazement as a blur of white BOOMED out of the hill and began to fall toward the town, gathering size, gathering speed…
“Oh shit,” Kate muttered, eyes wide.
The Elder One - Corypheus - seemed to realize the danger at the same time as she. It turned to her, reached out the orb in its hand, but this time, the mark stayed with Kate. The dragon shrieked, the Elder One reached out it’s spindly hand for her, and Kate turned and ran.
Actually, she didn’t run. She couldn’t have run with her knee like that, even if she’d tried. But Kate gathered all her magic and shot herself into the night, Fade-Stepping further and faster than she’d ever done before. She could hear the avalanche behind her, heard its roar like the waves of the sea and it terrified her. She came to a rest quite suddenly on a rock, slid a distance on the snow, then turned around to survey the damage. The dragon was pumping the air with its great wings. Something long and tall was gathered under it, clutched carefully in its claws. Judging from the glowing dot that thing held, it seemed the Elder One had escaped as well.
“Blast!” Kate gasped, but then she turned as the roar of the avalanche grew closer again. The snow was still coming, smashing down trees, burying houses, and Kate shot herself again into the fade. But she was slower this time, the snows gained on her, the roaring was at her back, and she came sliding to the end of her magic, she realized she didn’t have enough energy to outrun the snow, didn’t even know where she’d landed, and Maker help her, Kate thought, Maker help her but she hoped that the others had survived. Then she saw something approaching quickly - a dark hole in the ground with broken boards all around it, like a mouth with long, wooden teeth.
Kate tried to slow herself, tried to stop, but her magic gave out at the same time she reached the pit. She scrabbled at the icy boards, her fingers finding nothing to hold to, feet slipping away from under her. Then Kate was falling, tumbling into darkness. The air grew cold around her, wind whistled by her ears. She landed heavily, her head sit something hard and for a moment, Kate saw stars. They were the real stars, too - far away overhead, in the circle of sky at the top of the hole she’d fallen into. For a moment Kate heard it - the last line of that lyrical, beautiful song. Then darkness covered the stars, darkness covered Kate’s vision. She let her head drop to the stone and there was silence.
It was far too quiet. Cullen heard nothing over the falling snow - not wind, not the creak of trees. Even the last of the refugees walked silently from the tunnel out into the hills. They shot nervous glances over at Cullen and the Chargers, put their heads together as they looked back down at what had once been Haven. But if they whispered together about what had just happened, Cullen did not hear them.
A minute ago, there had been a tremor as the missile hit the hillside. Though it hit a good quarter mile away from this spot, everyone had jumped at the impact. Then the hillside had sloughed away in a great roar, growing every louder as it tumbled down to bury the town.
Now, Cullen saw only a silvery sea of cloud below. He did not know how long it would take for the snow to settle. He did not know how long the survivors would take to reach them.
He did not know if there were, in fact, any survivors.
“Do you think she…?” Dorian began.
“I don’t know,” Cullen said. He shook himself, taking refuge in action.
“You’d best get going,” he told the waiting crowd. “Follow the others.”
“Yeah,” Bull said, “But what about…”
“Go on,” Cullen said, shortly. “I’ll hold this position.”
And I’ll wait for Kate, he thought, but he didn’t say that. If he acknowledged the hope, Cullen also had to acknowledge the despair:
Kate probably wasn’t coming. She probably hadn’t escaped.
“I ought to stay, at least,” Dorian said. “If she– If they need a healer…”
As Dorian spoke, two figured emerged from the tunnel. It was Cassandra and Robert, and Cullen’s stomach dropped as he recalled that these two were the first he’d passed on his dash up the hillside. That meant they were the last of the escapees. The Seeker walked slowly, and Robert was stumbling so badly he could scarcely remain upright.
“Stop,” the young man whispered, blinking up at the stars. “Cassandra, we need to stop. We need to wait for Katie.”
“I don’t think she…” Cassandra began. Cullen shook his head. Cassandra looked up at the hillside, saw the evidence of what had just happened to Haven. She snapped her mouth shut, clearly unwilling to be the one to break the news to Robert.
“We should go,” she said, instead. Her voice shook as she spoke. Cullen turned to Dorian and pointed a gloved finger at Robert.
“This is Kate’s cousin, Robert,” Cullen told the mage. “If anyone needs healing, it’s him. See him up the hill and make sure he gets some rest. Sera, go with them. Bull, Chargers - all of you as well.”
Cullen hated his own voice just then, hated how dead it sounded. But there was nothing else to do except give orders. Kate would have wanted Robert to live, Cullen told himself. She would not want everyone standing about in the cold, risking frostbite for her sake.
“On you go,” Cullen said, pointing up the hill. “That’s an order,” he added, sharply.
Everyone began filing away without looking at Cullen. Sera muttered, “Jackboot,” as a parting shot, but no one else acknowledged him. Cullen stood there, fingers twitching, feeling ever more desperate as he gazed out into the night. He ought to start walking as well, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do so. Instead, he began running calculations in his head. After all, he thought, if Kate had run at a good clip from the trebuchet to the Chantry, then perhaps…
As if his math had summoned them, Cullen heard footsteps in the passage, and the clanking of heavy armor. Cullen started forward eagerly, the others turned to watch. A moment later, Morris burst out into the night. He carried someone upon his back, legs dangling down, arms limp. A step behind Morris came Solas, his face grim, his eyes wild.
“Maker’s breath,” Cullen gasped, his chest swelling with hope. “You made it. She made it. You…” Morris set down his burden in the snow.
It was not Kate, but Coll. Solas dropped to his knees, began running glowing hands over the Dalish elf’s brow and neck. In the light of his magic, her tattoos seemed to glow faintly.
“She is fading,” Solas said, his voice catching a little. “I’ll give her what healing I can to stabilize her wounds, but we need to get her to shelter soon. Iron Bull,” Solas asked, looking up. “Can you carry Colleen?”
“Sure,” the giant said, striding forward and lifting Coll as if she weighed no more than a child. “But what about boss?”
“She told me to run,” Morris huffed. He was bent at the waist, breathing heavily. His brows were knitted in an expression of deep concern. “She told me to run,” he said again, chewing his lip. “And I think that was right. But I wanted to stay, ser. I wanted to stay, but she told me to go. She told me to save Coll.”
“And Kate?” Cullen asked, though his voice felt strangled. “Keran?”
“We could not reach them, Commander Cullen,” Solas said. “Not through the wall of blood-summoned Void-fire. I fear that Keran fell at once and Kate…” His eyes flashed with both fury and sorrow. “She lived at least long enough to save us.”
“What’s going on?” Robert asked from a short distance away. “What did he say about Kate? Maker, my ears are ringing, like I hear this song…”
“Come on, then Kate’s cousin,” Dorian said, turning back to Robert with false cheer. He drew Robert’s arm over his shoulder, so that both the mage and Cassandra were like crutches for Robert to lean on. “Off we go. Healing and walking. Always a tricky thing to manage at the same time. My, but you are a tall one, aren’t you?”
Cullen scarcely heard them leaving. He was dimly aware of the figures trailing off into the night. Morris and Solas followed Bull, who carried Colleen. Sera walked with the Chargers. Cassandra and Dorian and Robert were now a blur in the heavily falling snow. Still Cullen remained on the hillside, his hands shaking, felt his head pounding. It felt like withdrawal, Cullen mused, except he managed to stay upright.
They had survived, Cullen thought, dully. Thanks to Kate and Keran, they had survived.
He had survived.
Cullen had survived and his friends had died.
Wave after wave of guilt crashed down upon Cullen. It was an avalanche on the inside, burying him in cold grief. The tangled-up thing in his chest was buried under the onslaught. For how many times had this happened? How many times had he been left at the end of a battle, left to remember the dead, left to find purpose and meaning all on his own? And how could he have lost Kate like that, anyhow, Cullen asked himself. He had only just found her - and now to loose her?
Cullen felt too numb to analyze these thoughts. Sorrow howled through his mind, chill as the wind that blew all around him. Cullen blinked his eyes against a swirl of snow, and when he looked again, he found he was not alone after all. Cole remained nearby, looking up at Cullen from under his ridiculous hat.
“Is she buried?” Cullen asked the spirit.
“Yes?” the boy spoke as if it were a question.
Cullen felt his throat grow tight.
“She was the Herald,” Cole said. Again, the words were almost an inquiry.
“She was more than that,” Cullen whispered.
The words seemed to wake up something within him. His buried, tangled-up heart constricted, pressed so hard against his ribcage that Cullen felt his bones were cracking. Kate had been more than the mark, he thought. She’d become more to him than a symbol of hope or an unexpected ally or even a friend. She was - she had been - more.
Cullen just hadn’t understood that until now.
“You regret it,” the spirit of compassion observed. “You know you did the right thing, but you regret it.”
Then he made himself turn away from Haven. He made himself place one foot in front of the other. He made him do this again - and again - and again.
Step by frozen step, Cullen forced himself away from Haven - away from Kate - and trudged off into the mountains.