Clash

Part 2, Chapter 17 of Daughters of Andraste

Too loud, Kate thought. The courtyard was too loud. As she knelt at Cullen’s side, she listened for his voice, listened for his breath. But she couldn’t hear him over all the other sounds. Thunder rolled overhead and the supply horses came clop-clopping into the courtyard, and all the remaining soldiers - all five of them - were murmuring and rustling and trying to get a look at Cullen:

“What happened?”

“What was that?”

“Is he dead?”

“Is he dying?”

“No,” Kate said, firmly. “No, he is not dying.”

Oh Maker, please don’t let him die, Kate silently prayed.

Because it certainly looked as if he might. Cullen lay there, unmoving, except for the quivering of his fingers and his lips. His veins were turning dark purple and his face was turning blue. Was he even breathing?

Maker help!

Kate tried to summon up some healing magic, but found she had no mana left within her. She tried to draw energy from the Fade, but the mark started sputtering. Kate felt she was scattering energy rather than pulling it toward her. Blast it!

“I need a healer!” Kate shouted, her voice going shrill with panic. “Ella! And Dorian! No, Dorian’s asleep. Someone wake Dorian! Wake Rion, too. Just… any mage! Philip! Give the supplies to Lysette. And Lysette, I need you to… Oh my Maker, there’s still a siege on…”

That last sentence was uttered as a whimper of frustration. Kate’s head was spinning, and her thoughts were scattering. Cullen stared into the sky, unblinking, as raindrops splashed down upon his face. Kate leaned over him, doing her best to block the rain.

“What did that spell do to you?” Kate murmured, her brows drawing together.

Cullen did not answer.

“Too bad we can’t ask the mage who cast it,” Ella snarled, dropping down on Cullen’s opposite side.

“Why?” Kate asked, looking up. “Did he…”

“Dead,” Ella said, nodding past Kate’s shoulder. Kate turned and saw for herself. The mage lay dead upon the cobblestones. His hood had fallen back, and his long, grey hair was slicked with rainwater and mud. Two arrows stuck from his chest and blood dripped from his lips.

“Fool scouts,” Ella said, clapping her hands together so that blue sparks flew from them. “Should have asked questions first and maimed later. Now we don’t know what spell that was.”

Kate opened her mouth, but then stopped herself. She had a suspicion about that spell, and she didn’t like that suspicion at all.

“Just get him breathing,” she said. “Please,” she added, as an afterthought. Kate tugged off her gloves and put her hands on either side of Cullen’s neck. She tried to to listen for the lyrium in his veins, but could summon up no energy for the protocols. Ella placed her now-glowing hands upon Cullen’s chest. And Philip, who had come trotting over, looked down at this operation with a frown.

“I, um… I’m here,” he said. “But I don’t know how to heal. My Circle rebelled before I could learn.”

“Then wake up Dorian,” Ella told him, curtly.

“No,” Kate said, glancing around. “No, let Brooke handle that.” The big fellow was already crouched over Dorian, shaking the sleeping mage as best he could. “Go get the other mages. They went with Charter. Be careful!” she added, as Philip went running off. Kate turned back to Cullen to find that Ella had a steady stream of healing magic pouring into him. Ella’s face was lit by the glow, as was all the area around Cullen. Together, they looked like a pocket of hearthfire against the driving backdrop of the rain.

Kate felt a sudden wave of envy. She wished she could be the one to help Cullen right now, but Kate had never been good at healing spells. Convincing the body to speed up its natural regeneration took tremendous amounts of bold, direct energy. Kate’s magics had always been subtler, more shifting. She’d never had the aptitude for healing. If only she could help in some other way.

“Elfroot!” Kate cried, reaching for her potion belt. “Do you think…?”

“He’s not even breathing,” Ella pointed out, before she could finish. “Pouring a potion down his throat isn’t going to help.”

“Right,” Kate said, wincing. She supposed that meant that the elfroot pellets wouldn’t help, either. If Cullen couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t chew up a pill. Besides, those pellets were preventative, not a cure.

Healing magic it is, then.

Kate turned back to Cullen. He was so blue now that Kate’s heart lurched in her chest. She reached for the Fade, grabbing what little energy she could. It felt like trying to grab a fish in a pond. Kate got hold of a tiny stream of mana, sent the energy flowing into Cullen. She tried to send it to his lungs, tried to envision his chest filling with air. Compared with the magic coming out of Ella, Kate’s power was a feeble trickle. Still, she did what she could.

“Breathe,” Kate said. “Come on, Cullen. Breathe.”

Cullen continued to stare up at the sky. His skin was now going grey.

“Come on, Cullen,” Kate said, her eyes growing clouded with tears. The mark on her hand started sparking wildly.

“Like pouring water down a dry well,” Ella grunted. “He’s not…”

“Huhh!” Cullen lips opened on a wheezing gasp. Kate gasped as well, nearly laughing with relief.

“Cullen!” she cried, placing her hand on the side of his face. “Cullen, are you alright?”

But Cullen still did not answer. His breaths came in ragged pants. His face flushed red from an influx of air. His eyes remained unblinking, and his arms still hung limp at his side.

“Cullen,” Kate said, looking down into his eyes. “Cullen, can you hear us?”

Cullen continued to stare. It’s like he isn’t even in there, Kate thought in a panic.

“What the Void is wrong with him?” Ella wanted to know. “He’s soaking up magic like anything, but there’s no wound. No wound that I can find, anyhow. It’s not a Paralysis spell, though. Maybe it’s some Horror variant?”

Kate shook her head. By now, her previous suspicion had blossomed into conviction.

“It was Clash,” she said.

“Clash?” Ella repeated. “What, Mana Clash?”

“That’s what it looked like,” Kate said. “That’s what it felt like,” she added in a mutter.

“But no one uses that spell anymore!” Ella protested. “Besides, it doesn’t work on templars.”

“It shouldn’t have,” Kate agreed. “Clashing exploits weaknesses in Fade-resonant, mana-based casting. Attacks bio-nodes with a burst of opposing energy. Like one tide crashing into another. Flatlines stored energies, causes burn damage to the nerves, kills spirits outright. It’s an endgame move in mage duels - or it was. But when barriers were perfected in 9:32, mages became resistant to Mana Clash and other draining techniques. Everyone made a shift to grounded casting frequencies, and…”

Kate broke off when she realized that she was nervously lapsing into lecture. Ella was looking at Kate with a dubious expression.

“Never mind,” Kate said. “The point is, I doubt that mage was thinking clearly when he cast it. Likely an old reflex.”

“But it worked,” Ella pointed out.

“It worked,” Kate agreed. She reached for the buckles to Cullen’s breastplate. So long as she couldn’t gather any mana, she might as well get this extra armor out of the way.

“And it shouldn’t have,” Ella said, light still streaming from her fingers. “So what happened?”

“I don’t know,” Kate said. Her fingers fumbled on the straps of Cullen’s armor. “I’m guessing his nodes flipped polarity just enough that the Clash found a Fade-resonant foothold in him? At least I think so. But I don’t know. I really don’t know.” Kate tugged Cullen’s breastplate loose and threw the armor aside with a clank.

“Okay, I didn’t understand that,” Ella said, “But if you’ve got some idea as to how to heal him, Inquisitor, you’d better do it fast. I can’t keep pouring magic into him forever. I’m already half out.”

“Right,” Kate said, nodding. “Right.”

She looked around the courtyard, trying to think of some way to fix this disaster. Lysette was over by the horses, rummaging around in the packs. Brooke still hadn’t woken Dorian or Rion, and Philip had long since left the courtyard. The remaining scout stood at her post, keeping watch for bandits - or pretending to. In truth, she was nervously glancing over at Cullen, as if she didn’t expect him to last another minute. Kate felt her stomach drop.

Maker help me, she thought, desperately. I don’t know what to do!

“I got it!” Kate heard someone shout. It was Lysette. The captain came running over with a pouch in her hands.

“Took me a moment,” she said, “but I found it.” She dropped to Cullen’s side and held something out to Kate. It was a small bottle, filled with blue, glowing liquid.

“Lyrium,” Ella breathed. “Good idea. Might be hard to get him to swallow, but…”

NO!” Kate shouted.

Ella and Lysette looked up in surprise.

“Don’t give him lyrium,” Kate said, shaking her head. “Try something else.”

What else?” Ella cried, sounding both exhausted and panicked. “I’ve been healing all this while! There’s been no change!”

“With all due respect, ma’am,” Lysette put in, “When a templar is down…”

“Cullen’s not a templar…” Kate began.

“But he was,” Ella interrupted. “And even if Philip gets back here and every mage pours magic into him, it won’t help. His wound isn’t physical, Inquisitor.”

“I know,” Kate agreed. “It’s magical.”

“So give him the lyrium already!” Ella cried. “Pour it into him and hope something takes!”

Lysette held the vial out. As the bottle passed over Cullen’s face, Kate thought she saw his eyes widen in panic. Or maybe she was imagining it.

Kate snatched the vial away. Lysette looked up at her in shock. Ella cried, “Hey!” but Kate just took a breath and said:

“Cullen quit lyrium.”

A pause met this announcement. Then:

“What??”

“Wait. What?

Sorry Cullen, Kate thought with a wince. But now’s not the time for secrets.

“He quit lyrium,” she said again. “But we can still use this draught,” she added. “Once Ella runs out of mana…”

“Wait,” Lysette interrupted, holding up a hand. “He quit lyrium? The commander quit lyrium?”

“Stupid risk!” Ella said at the same time. “Why would you let him take such a stupid risk?”

“There was no ‘letting’ about it,” Kate said, looking from one woman to the other. “He made the choice himself, eight months ago. He told me about it just last week.”

“Eight months!” Lysette was gaping now. “But templars can’t… They don’t… Not for eight months!”

“Well that’s what’s wrong with him, isn’t it?” Ella asked, cutting right over Lysette. “Going without lyrium for that long? Maker’s breath, just give him a draught already!”

“No!” Kate cried, clutching the vial to her chest. “At this point, the lyrium is more likely to poison him than heal him! I mean, yes, most of his nodes are still Fade-dissonant, but many are in an advanced state of decay, and some have reversed polarity. So either the Clash shifted his resonant wave pattern or flattened it, or set him vibrating in some non-standard way! And I’d try to fix it if I could, but right now I can’t even get enough energy gathered to complete a basic scan of his nodic system!”

“Uh… I didn’t understand any of that. Did you understand any of that?” Lysette looked to Ella, and Ella shook her head.

“I understood it,” a voice drawled. Dorian stumbled over to them, leaning heavily on Brooke. “Dorian!” Kate cried.

“What she was saying,” Dorian yawned, “is that our dear commander… is… zzzzzz….”

Dorian’s head nodded forward. His body followed, and he nearly pitched face first onto the stones. Brooke caught Dorian with a ‘Oops!’, and gently set Dorian down on the ground. Dorian rolled onto his back and resumed snoring.

“He’s still sleeped?” Lysette frowned.

“I said I was sorry,” Ella grumbled.

But Kate was looking elsewhere. “Watch out!” she cried. “Cullen’s turning blue again!

“Ah, dammit!” Ella cried. She flicked her fingers out, sending more healing magic into Cullen. “Huuhhhhh!” Cullen gasped out at once. He resumed his raspy wheezing.

“Be careful with him!” Kate shouted at Ella.

“Hey!” Ella snapped back. “You try making someone else’s body function for them!”

“You’re right,” Kate said, shaking her head. “You’re right. Sorry. I’m just…”

Kate trailed off there. She had to do something - something that wasn’t more healing. Ella’s magic wasn’t working, they couldn’t give Cullen lyrium, so that left… what? Kate was certain something was wrong with Cullen’s nodes, but she couldn’t think what it was.

Better find out, and quickly, too.

“May I have this for myself?” Kate asked, holding up the bottle of lyrium.

“Sure,” Lysette replied. “But don’t you think…?”

“Get one for Ella, too,” Kate told her. Then Kate pulled the cork out of the bottle and tipped the contents into her mouth.

The lyrium hit her tongue like a storm: all coiled energy and sparking shocks of song. Kate let the worst of the draught rumble through her, then seized hold of the power roaring through her veins. With trembling fingers, Kate tugged off Cullen’s glove, and took his bare hand in hers. Then she placed her other hand on the side of Cullen’s neck. She could feel Cullen’s pulse hammering away. It was like he was running a race, rather than lying still.

“Just like the protocols, okay?” Then Kate closed her eyes and reached into the Fade.

Or rather, Kate dove into the Fade. It was like plunging herself into cold, dark waves. Cullen’s body jerked in response, and Ella said, “Whoa! What are you doing?” but all this came as if from a long way off. Kate was now somewhere else entirely, searching along Cullen’s nerve endings. It was rather like running her fingers along the strings of a harp, Kate thought. Only where she’d strummed before, she now poked and plucked rather hastily. She looked for magic, looked for a still-vibrating node, but she found…

Nothing.

It was entirely quiet in here. Kate felt another wave of panic - waves upon waves now - but she forced her hysteria back. Surely Cullen had some song in here, she told herself. It wasn’t as if a single mana clash could blow out his entire nodic system. At least, Kate hoped it couldn’t. And his bio-nodes should be able to regenerate energy, at least a little. So where was the hum, Kate wondered? Where had the energy gone?

Another frequency, maybe.

Kate dove deeper. She sank into a churning sort of place, where the energies of the Fade tumbled and crashed like an undertow. Only instead of pulling Kate down, the energies tried to send her up, back to the real world. Kate fought to remain in that place, fought to listen for Cullen’s lyrium song and …

There!

It was more like a gurgle, like water swirling down a drain. Kate tried to listen more closely, tried to make sense of what she was hearing, but now the churning of the Fade caught hold of Kate at last. The magics flung her away. She came up from the Fade-waters breathing hard, nearly all her energy spent.

“Pah,” she gasped. Kate opened her eyes to find Ella and Lysette staring at her. Ella held an empty vial, and renewed light flowed from her fingers. Even Dorian was awake, though Brooke was holding him upright in a seated position.

“What did you do?” Dorian asked. He sounded dazed as he squinted at Kate. His hair was all rumpled and sticking every which way. “What did you doooo…”

Dorian dropped off again, his head slumping onto Brooke’s shoulder.

“Wake up, Sparkles,” Ella groaned. “You need to take your turn.”

“What did you do?” Lysette asked Kate.

“Lyrium protocols,” Kate wheezed. Maker, it felt like she had swallowed a lung full of water.

“Didn’t look like any protocol I’ve ever seen,” Lysette said. “Not even when Coll was working the infirmary.”

“I’ve had… To modify them,” Kate panted.

“You were glowing there for a minute,” Ella told her.

“I was?” Kate blinked. “Cullen never mentioned that. And I’ve been checking his lyrium levels every night.”

“Ohhhhhhh?” Dorian perked up and blinked at Kate sleepily. “So that’s why the two of you…” Scout Brooke elbowed Dorian in the ribs, and Dorian fell promptly back to sleep.

“Never mind him,” Ella said. “What’s wrong with the commander?”

“Still not sure,” Kate said. “I found the hum though. It’s low. Low tide. All drainy.” She shook her head, feeling as if she had water in her ears as well as her lungs.

“Drainy?” Ella repeated.

“Shifted all wrong. And churning under. Pulling. Maybe if we infuse him with healing magic, the nodes will…”

“What do you think I’ve been doing?” Ella cried. “I mean… Look, Inquisitor, I don’t mean to be rude, but we need to change tactics. I’m pouring magic into him, and nothing’s stitching itself back up. It’s like…”

“All that magic is bleeding away into the Fade,” Kate finished for her.

“Right,” Ella agreed, sounding irritated. “So how do we heal for it?”

“I don’t know,” Kate said. To her own ears, it sounded like a whine. “His node system was messy before, but now he’s all knotted in on himself. The polarity is all twisted up in a kind of nodic vortex and…” Kate broke off when Ella began to frown.

“He’s funneling magic into the Fade,” Kate said, deciding to simplify it. “Like the Clash blew a hole inside of him.”

“So I should stop casting,” Ella said.

“No!” Kate cried. “No, if it wasn’t taking your magic, it would be taking Cullen’s life force instead.”

“Oh shit,” Ella hissed. “So I’m keeping the commander from being sucked dry by the Fade? No pressure, right?”

“Maybe I should get some more lyrium for the both of you,” Lysette said. The captain had been listening to all of this with wide eyes, but now she stood and ran for the pack horses.

“Okay,” Ella said, taking a breath. “This is… Great. This is great. So now what? How do we plug a Fade-hole?”

“I… don’t know?” Kate winced. “I’m not really a healer, and I…”

Kate stopped there. True, she wasn’t a healer. But healing magic wasn’t helping. Even if they’d had Coll here (Maker, Kate thought. What I wouldn’t give to have Coll here!), it might not have been enough. Coll was just very precise in the application of her healing energies - it allowed her to bring people back from the brink of death. But Cullen’s injury was lyrium-node and Fade-based. No physically-based healing could solve this.

Maybe a spirit healer? Kate wondered.

Only they didn’t have a spirit-healer on their team. Such healers were rare, and most died in the mage rebellion. But then, spirit healers weren’t, properly speaking, ‘healers.’ They didn’t use magic to knit bone and vein back together. Rather, they drew spirits across the Veil, and commanded those spirits to do complex spells for them. They were summoners, really, though the Chantry had never condemned them as such. Spirit healers were too valuable for censure, which just went to show that…

Wait.

A thought occurred to Kate, so wild and improbable that for a moment, she just stared dazedly into the rain. Why had it never occurred to her…?

But no, Kate stopped herself at once. It was madness. Absolute madness. The tests weren’t complete. The research was nowhere near as conclusive as it ought to be. Her mark was ruining her connection to the Fade, she hadn’t been able to cast properly in months, and if Coll was here, she would say…

Actually, Coll would say to go for it. Ella was quickly losing power, and Cullen hadn’t blinked in what? Five minutes?

Kate-lass, if there was ever a time to try…

“Right,” Kate breathed.

“Right what?” Ella wanted to know. “What are you thinking?”

“Something insane,” Kate replied. “Can you hold him steady for a while?”

“What do you think I’ve been doing?” Ella asked. “But yeah,” she sighed. “I can give you… Two minutes? Unless the sleepy-headed Sparkler there wakes up and give me a break.”

“Two minutes is all I need,” Kate said.

Kate reached out, brushed her marked hand along the side of Cullen’s face. She took his hand with her right hand, gave Cullen one last look – she hoped it wasn’t her last look at him – then closed her eyes.

And she sank.

It was like the first time she’d done this, on that cold, lonely night. The fall was just as terrifying, the landing just as shocking. Kate plunged deep into the Fade. It felt like ice water down here, along with all those horrible memories of ‘It’s done!’ and ‘Oh Maker, this was so stupid! Why did I…?’

Kate searched around in the Fade, like swirling her arms through dark water. It had to be here - they had to be here. They were always nearby, right on the other side of the Veil. They’d brought her power for years, had kept energy always within her reach. Kate could sense the mark frightening them away - it had been scaring them off ever since she’d first gotten it. But she just had to convince them, Kate realized now. She just had to let them know that she was still the same person. She was still Kate, and some part of her would always be that lost, laughing girl she’d been back when she’d gained their trust, back before she even knew what they were.

I know you’re near… Kate thought. It’s still me. Still me.

And as she cast about in this deep, strange part of her consciousness – or of the Fade, or of her magic, or whatever this place was – Kate could sense her mark as a bright green storm. It cut and flickered and shocked everything around it. She imagined they were still out there, but afraid to come close. If only she could see them…

There! A whisper. A movement. They were here.

It’s me, Kate thought. In the real world, she might have moved her lips around the words. She might have even said it. She didn’t really know. But she was certain she saw them. Only the mark… Damn mark! The mark on her hand shivered in a different vibration. It was too bright, too loud, too like a scream of pain. It was the wrong sort of sound entirely.

Have to shift it, Kate thought. She didn’t know how to shift it, but surely willpower had to be the key. Will was the key to everything in the Fade. She just had to visualize it.

Kate floated there, fighting with the mark. And as she did so, Kate became dimly aware that people were crowding around her in the real world. There were soldiers out there - she heard Iron Bull’s voice and Barris as well. She heard the ‘caw’ of a raven, heard a rumble in the crowd and heard Varric say, “Well shit. You have good timing.” Kate sensed that another mage knelt at Cullen’s side and took Ella’s place. Then there was a sudden surge in healing magic. This new blast was bright and bold as a trumpet. Kate saw at once where the lyrium was seeping through. She could see it like a golden wave, churning and swirling away. And the drain it was swirling out of…

It wasn’t a single hole, but a long, many-branched crevasse. It reminded Kate of the drawings she’d once seen of the Deep Roads. But where fissures in the rock opened onto long lakes of lava, this ravine was spirit in nature, and it bottomed out into the Fade. The broken bit of lyrium near Cullen’s spine formed a long oubliette, and the rest of the spirit-ravine likewise drew in all of the newcomer’s healing magic.

Now I know what needs healing, Kate thought. She just needed them to see it, too.

Kate turned her attention to the mark upon her hand. She imagined uncurling it, imagined it as a fist that she was opening up finger by finger. The mark fought her every step of the way. It tried to remain all knotted in the Fade, but Kate gently, carefully pushed at it. It needed to be less hard, Kate thought. It needed to be more accepting. It needed to be less like a scream and more… More like laughter. They liked laughter best, Kate knew.

Slowly, finally, Kate felt the mark unbend. It lay still, lay waiting.

Kate waited as well, both hopeful and desperate.

It’s me, she thought again.

And they drew near.

They came crowding around Kate in the Fade. To her consciousness they were like dust motes in a sunbeam - the moment you looked at one, it was gone. But if she let her mind go unfocused, she could see the cloud of them.

Please help, Kate called to them. She might have been speaking aloud, but she didn’t care. I never asked anything of you before. I just wanted to understand you. But please… Please help.

And they did. As always, Fade energy swirled around them, thick and easy to gather. Kate drew some of that energy into her, used it fill her depleted reserves. (Thank you, she thought.) And then she pointed at the chasm within Cullen. Well, she didn’t point at it, but she directed her consciousness to it.

Here, she thought. And then, Please?

They floated for a moment around her, seemed to hover over her shoulder. The whole world went bright around Kate. She felt heat blast her face, heard a gasp from somewhere outside of herself. Then, one little dust-mote went floating down into that long chasm, then another, then another, and soon all of them were filling that deep space inside of Cullen. There was a moment where Kate sensed the far end of that ravine was still open to the Fade, and then, swiftly as shutting a book, the other end closed tight. The branchy chasm had a bedrock floor once again.

Now that his body wasn’t leeching power, Cullen swiftly filled with healing. Like a rising tide, healing magic flooded him, golden-bright and hot to the touch. The dust-like motes scattered before it; Cullen’s body began to heave. Kate heard a shout and gasps and a yell. She began to rise out of this deep Fade-space at once. And as she ascended, Kate sent a thought back into the Fade:

Thank you! Thank you so much!

Then Kate was up again, gasping out a breath in the real world. She turned her attention to Cullen.

He was breathing. His eyes were rapidly blinking, his gaze darting this way and that, as if he couldn’t figure out where he was or what was happening to him. Kate thought she’d heard him before, but right now, he was not speaking. He looked too shocked to speak. And little wonder. His body was aglow from within, as if he had sunbeams underneath his skin. The entire crowd around them had backed away, all except Dorian, who sat looking on in amazement. Lysette was on her knees, her hands clasped in prayer. Ella was gaping. Iron Bull’s expression was… fearful? Varric looked as though you could have pushed him over with a feather. And the mage kneeling opposite Cullen - the one who’d taken over for Ella and poured all the healing magic into Cullen - she was grinning as if this was the most entertaining show she’d ever seen.

“Wow,” she said. “That was neat.” She elbowed Varric in the side, then pointed to Kate. “You said this was your leadery-person?”

“The Herald of Andraste,” Lysette murmured reverently. “Healing with holy fire.”

“Yeah,” the mage continued to grin. “I see the fire.”

It was then that Kate noticed the fire. She was on fire, or rather, a glowing light had encompassed her, as well. The Fade-magics flickered over her skin, like a thousand candle flames.

“It’s a miracle,” Lysette breathed.

“It’s freaky,” Iron Bull muttered.

“It’s a form of summoning.” Dorian blinked sleepily. “How are you doing that if you’re not…” He yawned. “A blood mage?”

“No,” the healer-mage said. “I was watching it from the other side of the Veil. It wasn’t summoning. Not even spirit healing. More like… Some kind of Fade-based energy transference? Only you started off with a flicker of spirit-shit inside of you. It’s like you’re some kind of abomination, only… you’re not. What are you?”

Kate froze at the question. She now took in the woman’s appearance – dark hair cut bluntly across her forehead, elaborate, spiky armor, and at her side, what looked to be a massive poleaxe. Most curious of all, Plucky sat perched upon the woman’s shoulder, as if the bird had become part of the woman’s massive fur ruff. But while Plucky seemed quite familiar with this healer, Kate did not recognize the woman at all.

“Who are y…?” Kate began, but she didn’t get further than that. For in that moment, Cullen lurched to his feet with a roar.

“Get them off of me!” he cried. “Get them out of me!”

Cullen stood there, chest heaving, and his eyes settled on Kate. He stared down at her as she knelt there, and his expression was one of horror and accusation.

“What have you done?”

“I…” Kate opened her mouth to explain, but Cullen was already turning away. He took two steps toward the blasted-open wall, then fell to his knees and vomited on the cobblestones.

“Cullen!” Kate cried, even as one of the scouts reached for him - “Commander!” - but Cullen was back on his feet. He looked to the exit - blocked by a crowd of concerned soldiers and scouts and the pack horses as well. Then he turned around - his boot slipped in the puddle of puke and he nearly fell - and he ran the other way.

“Cullen!” Kate cried again. She rose and ran for him, but Cullen wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and dashed for the storage room. He got to the door a moment before Kate did, stumbled into the doorframe with a groan, then staggered inside and slammed the door in Kate’s face.

Kate jerked her head back. She’d nearly gotten her nose squashed. She stood there, staring at the door, absolutely stunned.

Did I do something wrong? was her first thought.

At least he’s alive, was the next.

For now, was the third. But he was vomiting. That’s not good. And then…

Everyone’s staring! Kate realized with a start.

And so they were. Kate turned to find that everyone in the keep was gaping at her. Even Plucky appeared shocked.

“Secure the keep,” Kate said, in a clear, ringing voice. Even if she felt like her world had exploded around her just now, she might as well act like everything was normal. “Please secure the keep,” she added, automatically. “We need to barricade the wall, get the supplies situated, and… And the corpses. Please burn the corpses.”

“Inquisitor?” Varric called. “Are you…?”

“Please excuse me,” Kate said, not even really hearing him. “I need to, um…”

She didn’t finish that thought. Instead, Kate turned to the storeroom and shoved the door open. It was a mess inside: all broken barrels and garbage. Cullen was nowhere in sight. But the wall opposite stuck out at a strange angle - or no, it was a door made up with a false front, so that it blended in with the stones. This was their hidden passage, Kate realized. Within, a stairway wound up into darkness. Kate went running for the passage, and so she missed it when the strange new healing mage said:

“Wow. Look at that. Curly hasn’t changed one bit. Oh, by the way, Leadery-Person, I never got to introduce myself. I’m Haw…”

But Kate was gone, dashing up the passage in search of Cullen.