Author's Note: I am so, so sorry. I got so many PMs asking about where I was and whether I was going to finish this. ;-; I promise, I will. I have about ten chapters written after this one and everything.
However, due to how sporadically I've been able to work on this story between real life and other projects, I've come to a decision: I am officially putting this story on hiatus. Not indefinitely! I am still working on it, I promise. But I want to make sure that the next time I update, I can do so in a way that is satisfying and worth the wait.
In other words: the next time you see this updated, it will be because I've finished it. At that point, updates will come hard and fast, just like they did for ARLD back in the day.
So if anyone is still hanging onto this story (or hoping for an Inquisition sequel, which is in the works, but can't happen until this one is finished), hang on a bit longer! I can't say how long this is going to take to finish. Maybe another two years. But it will be finished. Until then, thank you for your still reading (either this series or this note), you are awesome and I thank you for letting me share my silly little stories with you. :)
As they took the ferry from the Gallows back to Kirkwall proper, Kazar realized that he should pick up the Arulin'Holm to bring back to the clan, and begged Hawke to take a quick detour to the Alienage. Hawke thought it a splendid idea, since this would let them update Arianni on their progress.
"Communication with my clients is important for maintaining a professional demeanor," she said, and Kazar would have bet his staff that the phrase came from Varric.
Merrill thrummed with nervous energy as they descended into the Alienage, and, sure enough, Arianni was hovering near the vhenedahl. When she spotted Hawke, it was probably only some hard-bred Dalish dignity that stopped her from running to the human.
"Did you get in? Did you see him? Is he all right?" Arianni's eyes flickered around, resting a second longer on Merrill and Kazar, but then returned to Hawke.
"He'll be fine," Hawke said with utmost confidence. "I wheedled the problem out of the Templars, and now I'm taking care of it."
The mother bowed her head. "Thank you. I don't know how to repay you for this."
Kazar excused himself before it got too sappy, heading toward his little apartment. A glance back, however, made him pause.
Merrill looked like a trapped animal. She huddled by Hawke's side, tight with tension while her eyes flickered from Hawke to her own door. She looked nervous… no, more than that. Anxious, and angry, and fearful all at the same time. But that didn't make sense. She'd gone out with Hawke who-knew-how-many times. Why would she…
Kazar stepped back to the group and grabbed Merrill by the arm. When Aveline cast them a curious glance, he muttered something about needing help with something, then tugged the other elf away, back toward his house.
After a few steps, she pulled away and followed him on her own. "Kazar, what is it? What do you need help with?"
"Nothing. That was a lie." Still, as he climbed onto the walkway, she followed all the way through his broken doorway.
Only once inside, in relative privacy, did he turn to regard her. Merrill watched him with wide green eyes.
"You don't have to come with," he blurted, then winced. That was the exact opposite of why he was even in Kirkwall. But still, something about her posture out in the square had just sent needles straight up his spine.
"Hawke's going to want me to," Merrill said, and she didn't sound excited about the prospect.
"And you do everything Hawke tells you to?"
"Well, not everything." She chewed her lip, and Kazar knew exactly what she was thinking about. "But still, she's my friend, and so if she wants me to come with her to Sundermount, then that is where I am going." Her head drooped. "Even if it means that everyone will give me that look again."
Yeah, he knew what look she was talking about. The one that all the mages and Templars in the Palace District had given him, right after he'd blasted the archdemon out of the air. The one that the clan had given him, right before he'd left. The one that said, "You're a monster." He was more than passing familiar with that look.
Slowly, he shook his head. "You're not ready."
"Not… ready?" Her brows lowered quizzically. "Not ready for what?"
"To go back." He could see that now. She was still stubbornly clinging to something that was very dangerous and still completely blind to what it was doing to everyone. For some reason, Kazar keenly wanted her to walk back into that clan with her head on straight and a smile on her face. He wanted them to be able to welcome her back, and for her to feel welcome. "You need more time to find your path."
Her quizzical look quirked, and then she raised a hand to her mouth and let out a snuffle-squeak that Kazar realized was a badly arrested giggle.
"Sorry," she said sheepishly. "It's just, you sounded so much like the Keeper just now."
He blinked and replayed the words he'd said, then snorted incredulously. She was right.
"Still, I think you have a point," she sighed. "When I go back, I want to show them what I've worked so hard for. That it's safe, and that it was worth everything to bring a piece of our history back."
"And I want to show them that you've come to your senses," Kazar said, daring her to argue with him.
She didn't argue, just smiled a chirpy little smile. "It'll be a contest, then. May the best elf win?"
He snuffed a laugh. "Or the most stubborn."
"I am told I'm quite good at digging my heels in, you know."
There were footsteps on the wooden walkway outside, and then Hawke poked her head through the doorway. "There you are. You two ready to go?"
The two elves exchanged a glance. Then, Merrill turned and squared her shoulders. "Hawke. Abelas, but I will not be going with you to Sundermount."
The human blinked. "Okay." And that was that. She turned to Kazar. "You coming?"
"You still want me?"
She shrugged. "Why not? It's certainly better than wandering the slopes of Sundermount looking for the camp. I get so lost up there without a guide."
"That is true," Merrill said to Kazar. "She gets distracted by every cave and ruin, and then before you know it she's wandered so far off the path that we're on a different mountain."
"That's only happened, like, four times."
"Once, she got lost out there with Varric for three days. It's one of the reasons he hates going outside Kirkwall with her."
Kazar couldn't help but laugh at that mental image of the usually charming, well-groomed dwarf slogging through the forests of the coastal region. "He probably had a beard by the time he came back."
"Ugh," Hawke gave an exaggerated shudder. "Don't remind me. I'll never be the same after seeing as much hair on his chin as on his chest." She turned and headed back toward the square, and Kazar found himself glancing at Merrill.
She smiled, and so he grabbed up his staff and then turned to follow Hawke.
It was only as the party was leaving the city through the east gates that Kazar realized that he'd forgotten to grab the Arulin'Holm.
As the trees gave way to mountain scrub and the Dalish trail markers started indicating the perimeter of camp patrols, Kazar heard the distinctive sound of scout birdcalls. One to their left, then another from behind them. The scouts were signaling that they'd detected signs of passage.
Hawke, Aveline, and a somewhat reluctant Varric paused, looking around nervously. Kazar, however, let out a call of his own, identifying him as a member of the clan heading into camp. Then, he waited.
A moment later, there was a rustling in the scrub to his left, and Terath emerged. As soon as he saw Kazar, he scowled. "You have a lot of nerve, harellan."
Fenarel stepped out of the ruins on the opposite side of path with bow raised. He lowered it when he saw Kazar, but didn't put it away. "What are you doing here?"
His companions' eyebrows all rose in unison. Yeah, he should probably have warned them about the possibility of a hostile reception.
"Hawke would like to meet with Marethari." He motioned toward the human.
Terath's dark eyes narrowed. "Last time she was here, four of us died."
Fenarel gave his scouting partner a flat look. "That wasn't her doing and you know it."
"Right." Terath glared at Kazar. "It's on the pariah you left to join."
"I don't have time for this," Kazar snapped and started back up the path. It wasn't like he didn't know the way into camp; they could hardly stop him.
Sure enough, the two elven men exchanged a glance and then disappeared off either side of the path. Whether to shadow them or run ahead to alert the camp, Kazar didn't care.
Once the elves were out of sight, Varric said, "Well, that was interesting. Is there something you want to tell us, Sparky?"
Kazar didn't turn to look at them as he stomped his way up the path. "I may have… gotten into a massive argument with the Keeper before I left. That's kind of a big no-no among the Dalish."
Hawke gave a low whistle. "What about?"
"The clan. It's… kind of a Dalish thing. You guys don't need to worry about it."
"Anything we can do to help?"
That made him pause, and, after a beat, he turned to regard Hawke. Her expression showed no sarcasm or falsehood.
"You really mean that, don't you?"
"That I want to help? Of course." She shrugged. "It's pretty much what I do."
It… couldn't be as simple as that. Then again, he really had no idea what this Hawke woman actually did. As in, for a living.
He sighed. "If you really want to help," he said. "Then you need to help me convince Merrill to give up on the mirror. She might actually listen to you."
Hawke shook her head. "I've been trying. I've used every trick in my book, and, believe me, I've got a big book of tricks."
"Can I see this book?" Aveline said, eyeing Hawke with a small smile. "Reading it might help me get an upper hand on you for once."
"Not the point, Aveline," Hawke said. "Anyway, if there's anyone's book of tricks you should read, it's Varric's."
Said dwarf only smiled enigmatically. "And who ever said I would be foolish enough to write them down?"
It… helped, having banter like this. It eased his nerves over seeing the Keeper again. Because if anyone would be able to weather a storm of angry Dalish, it was Hawke and her companions.
His step fell lighter as he turned and headed back toward the camp. Past the ruins, around a cluster of rocks… the guards at the primary entrance were waiting for him expectantly, and nodded him through.
The camp hadn't changed at all… which was a silly thought, because of course it hadn't. Why would it change in a few weeks when it hadn't for three years? There was the bonfire, and the Keeper's aravel, and Master Ilen's workstation…
Marethari stepped forward to greet them, breaking out of a cluster of hahren near the bonfire. "Welcome back, Hawke," she said in that ponderous way of hers. "What returns you to our camp?" Her gaze, however, lingered on Kazar, an assessing eye running up and down his form as if to make sure he was still in one piece. Kazar wasn't sure whether to be annoyed or comforted by it.
"Mage problems," Hawke said.
"Not Merrill, I hope?"
"Not more than the usual. As a matter of fact, I'm here at the behest of a different exile from your clan."
The Keeper's eyes immediately went to Kazar, filled with concern. He shook his head. "Not me. Arianni."
"Ah." It was more of a breath than an actual sound.
"Not sure whether you're up on the gossip, but she's got a half-human son," Hawke said. "A son who is a mage. He's apparently gotten himself stuck asleep somehow and the Templars have no idea why or how to wake him up. The Circle mages aren't much help either, so we were wondering if you knew any way to help the sprout. Being as you are all versed in ancient magics and whatnot."
Marethari hummed. "It is true that I may know of a ritual that might aid you… but it is not our custom to extend such magic to those who have turned from the Way."
"But she is one of your people," Hawke said, that conviction of hers oozing out of her voice. "We know you still care about every member of your clan, no matter what they've done."
And, once again, Marethari's eyes flickered to Kazar, and he felt a lump rising in his throat. Slowly, she smiled warmly and nodded. "That, I do."
She raised a hand and turned back to Hawke. "I will help Arianni's son as best as I am able. It will not be easy, however. To view the dreams of one gifted with magic, one must join them in the Beyond. Only there may you confront what might be ailing them."
"Yeah," Hawke said. "Your apprentice mentioned something like that." She jerked her thumb at Kazar.
"Ah, of course." Marethari nodded to him. "You may find the experience similar to the ritual used during your Fade-walk, da'len."
Hawke's eyebrows shot to her hairline. Kazar shifted under her stare.
Marethari, of course, noticed. "Now then. Come, da'len, to help me gather the supplies for the spell."
Kazar was happy to escape from the combined scrutiny of Hawke and Aveline (Varric's gaze was not the least bit scrutinizing, and how was that somehow worse?).
Marethari headed toward her aravel. As she ducked inside, she said, "You have not told them." It was not a question.
"Hawke is a Templar sympathizer." Kazar replied, following her in.
And then Marethari turned that look upon him, and what had seemed an entirely reasonable argument ten minutes ago was somehow turned into the misled ramblings of a naïve child.
"Hawke is a good woman, da'len."
"Maybe so. But that doesn't change the fact that she habitually turns apostates into the Circle."
"And yet, she has not done so with Merrill."
"Yeah, well. Merrill's just a special case. As usual." Kazar kicked at the aravel's back wheel, even as Marethari opened a hatch in the back of her wagon and began digging through it.
The silence stretched out for a few long minutes while Marethari passed off bundles of herbs, ink, and candles to him. He became increasingly aware of the fact that, last time he'd seen her, he'd kind of blamed her of everything wrong with the clan and then stormed off.
Even now, he wasn't sure how much of that had been anger and how much he had actually meant.
"Do you remember, da'len," the Keeper said gently, breaking the silence, "what I said to you of Meila shortly after you arrived here?"
Kazar tried to recall… but his memory was far more dedicated to smacking him upside the head with all his stupid past mistakes. "Not really, no."
"I said to you that Meila Mahariel had a shell, and how good it was to see her emerge from it." She straightened from her digging and pinned Kazar with a tired, sad old stare. "In the intervening time, I have observed that you have a shell as well."
He snorted incredulously. "No, I'm pretty sure what I have is the exact opposite of that. Everyone knows what I'm feeling, if only because frothing rages are pretty damn hard to miss."
"A different kind of defense, true… but it is still a defense, child."
He shook his head, not sure where she was going with this.
"I have observed, da'len, that you are very slow to trust, and quick to retract it again when you feel threatened. There have been times when I wondered whether even I hold your trust."
"Of course you do!" he blurted, stunned that she would even think that. "You saved me! You took me into your clan when you had every reason not to!"
"And yet, when one of my failings threatened Mahariel…" She let it hang, and he couldn't deny the implication.
"I'm sorry," he said instead. "For those things I said."
"But you meant them."
He swallowed. "I did."
She stepped forward, setting a cool hand on his shoulder. "I am not angry with you, da'len. Merely saddened that your path has diverged so soon after meeting ours."
"Diverged for the sake of the clan." He pulled away, because he did mean what he'd said. "I promise, I'm going to bring Merrill back. And then, we'll be able to leave this awful place. No more Varterral, or demons up on the hill, and whatever else is affecting everything…"
That, for the first time, seemed to alarm her. "Else?"
"The other day, one of the mages down in Kirkwall said something. About how there's something about Kirkwall… something that's corrupting everything." He paused, seeing her expression fall. "That's… not true, is it?"
"I am afraid that it is." She turned away and gently closed the compartment she had been rifling through. "I have sensed… a presence. Ancient and dark. It sleeps, for now… and I fear to think what might happen were it to awaken."
"What is it?"
"I do not know."
And that, more than anything, profoundly terrified Kazar. An ancient magic that Marethari did not know?
She continued, "It is one of the reasons I cannot leave Merrill where she is. Were this any other city, I would be happy to trust her to the hands of someone as capable as Hawke. However, this, I cannot leave her to." The Keeper's eyes were sad, almost pleading. "I must ask that you watch out for her, da'len, but that you also watch out for yourself. You are as at risk as Merrill is."
"No," he said. "I'm worse."
Again, Marethari reached out go rest a hand on his shoulder and this time Kazar didn't shake her off. "You are strong, da'len. If you keep your resolve and learn to trust those around you, you will prevail."
"Again with the trust thing…"
He took a breath. "Together we are stronger than one."
"Meant to indicate the combined strength of the People, true… but I believe that you will agree that even small, diverse groups, when working together, can accomplish great things."
Like how three humans, three elves, and two dwarves stopped a Blight.
Kazar nodded and fell quiet. Marethari smiled and headed out of the aravel. Kazar followed at a slower rate.
She headed toward Master Ilen's station, but Kazar stopped, noticing a familiar head of beaded red hair talking to Hawke. It released something coiled up inside of him to see Meila up and about, but something else tightened as he noticed the change in her silhouette.
When Kazar had first met the Dalish elf back in Ostagar, she had been standing straight and proud, defying the humans around her to think her weak despite her smaller size and, oh yeah, the fact that one of her legs had been torn open by a boar and that she also had the darkspawn Taint inside her. Couldn't be weak in front of shemlen.
Now, however, she leaned heavily on a crutch tucked under one arm. Her bad leg was splinted and dangling uselessly between her functioning leg and the crutch. The crutch itself was a little rough yet—obviously still in progress—but looked to be strong and stable. Kazar would have bet his savings that it was ironwood. Kazar had to fight back a wave of bitterness that this had happened to her, hands down the strongest and most independent person he had ever met (after myself, whispered his demon half, but he waved that away).
He approached slowly, making as little noise on the packed earth as possible, but Meila was, as ever, uncannily aware of her surroundings. She turned as he drew up behind her.
"Da'lethallin, are you all right?"
"Am I…" Okay that was more of a squeak than actual words. He swallowed and tried again. "Am I all right? How can you ask if I'm all right?! What about you?"
From up close, she looked thin and had dark circles under her eyes. "I have been safe in camp." She offered him a quirk of the lips, nearly a smile, and that settled his nerves. "Marethari would not let harm come to me. It is you who left the security of the clan." Her smile dropped. "Is it true? You left to bring Merrill back?"
"I have to. If I don't, the clan dies."
"That is reasoning worthy of a future Keeper, even if the methods may be a bit unconventional."
"I'm a flat-ear," he snorted. "I'm allowed to break tradition."
She pulled him into a hug, and he found himself allowing it. He'd… missed her. Kind of a lot, actually. Was this what it was like to have a sister?
"Almost brings a tear to the eye, doesn't it?" Varric's voice said, and Kazar pulled back awkwardly.
The three of them were watching unashamedly. Hawke, in particular, had her hands on her hips and regarded Kazar with an expectant expression.
Trust them, Marethari had said. With a mental sigh. Kazar turned to face them. "I can explain."
"Oh, please do," Hawke said. "See, with the teams I've been on, I have a policy of not withholding mission-critical information, but maybe it works differently with you."
"It was blood magic, all right?"
That was enough to make her pause, at least.
"A friend of mine knew this blood magic ritual that could send mages into particular spots in the Fade. We used it twice to defeat demons who had attached themselves to certain mages during the Blight. "
"Now hold on," Varric said. "Are you saying that you know a cure for abominations?" Aveline's brows lowered and Hawke's eyes widened.
"It's not a cure," he said quickly. "It only worked completely for one of them, and that was under very specific circumstances."
"What circumstances?" Aveline asked.
"He wasn't a complete abomination yet. The demon had been holding back for some reason. This meant he was still whole in the Fade, and I was able to… chase the demon off."
Yeah, 'chase' was a generous term for what had really happened.
"What happened," Hawke said slowly, "to the one that didn't work?"
Meila's presence was steady at his back. "He was too far gone to fix. The demon got chased out, but… the mage stayed broken. Tainted by parts of the demon that had become too entwined with him to separate." He found himself staring at his toes. "It's the insidious thing about abominations, how the demon mixes with the mage, becoming one being with all the strengths and weaknesses of both. Once they're one… they can never really be two again."
Hawke was exchanging looks with her companions, something like sadness in her eyes. Then, she sighed and rolled her eyes upward. "Well, a woman can hope."
Varric patted her on the back. "We'll find a way, Hawke." There was something going on that Kazar wasn't aware of, but it seemed far too private for him to pry, even if he'd wanted to.
Aveline was the first to turn her attention back to him. "So. Your friend used blood magic on you, and you did not wish us to know. That is why you did not tell us about this ritual."
"Uh… not exactly." He glanced at Meila. She watched him guardedly, and he knew she would jump in if this went badly. "Yeah, part of it is that it was blood magic, and that is just an all-over terrible idea, especially if there's an alternative. The other part is that…" Kazar swallowed. "…I could kind of perform it? If it came to that? And I'd really, really rather not have that temptation on the table."
He could see Hawke subtly shifting her stance to be ready to attack. "You're a blood mage."
"Reformed." Both Hawke and Aveline watched him as one would a wild animal. Varric, on the other hand, was nodding to himself. Figures. "I haven't used it since the Blight but… once you've used it, it just kind of… sticks. This heavy thing in your soul."
Aveline tilted her head in thought. "That is why you followed Merrill to Kirkwall. Because you saw yourself in her."
He nodded, relieved that one of them understood, at least. "No one knows better than me what she's going through. If I can just stop her from making the same mistakes I did…" He sighed and rolled his eyes. "Of course, I didn't factor in how ridiculously stubborn Dalish elves are."
"It is not a fault, da'lethallin," Meila said, sounding amused.
"Huh." Hawke ran a hand through her hair. "Well, I'm not going to turn down the extra help knocking some sense into Merrill… but you're sure you won't buckle and give into temptation?"
It was an opening, and he was happy to take it. "I've resisted for three years, and a change in scenery isn't going to change that." He smirked. "Like I said, Dalish elves are ridiculously stubborn."
Meila wanted to join them on their journey to Kirkwall, but a disapproving word from the Keeper, citing Meila's need to rest and recover, made her reluctantly concede. She obviously wasn't happy about it, her jaw a hard line as she joined the rest of the clan in bidding the Keeper safe journey.
Marethari brought a handful of hunters with her. Kazar avoided the Dalish escort, well aware of the wary glances they kept sending his way. Like him, they didn't seem sure of where he stood in the clan either.
As such, the group got quite a few stares as they entered the city, what with the disconcerting number of well-armed elves. Kazar was convinced that Hawke brought them in through a Hightown entrance on purpose, just to unsettle people, and the thought made him stifle laughter into his sleeve. When Varric shared a wink with him, he knew his assumption wasn't far off.
Their reception in the alienage was, of course, much warmer. The city elves recognized the vallaslin of the Dalish and seemed to instinctively know just who the old woman walking next to Hawke was. Kazar saw a number of elves bow their heads reverently, and it filled him with Pride to be at her shoulder.
Merrill was, of course, nowhere to be seen.
Hahren Esterel and Arianni met them under the branches of the vhenedahl.
"Welcome, Keeper," said the hahren. "You honor us with your presence."
"Thank you for coming, Keeper," Arianni added.
"Of course, child," Marethari said, her slow, lyrical voice carrying around the central square. "I know a way to aid your son, Arianni. Take my First and clear a space in your home. His childhood possessions there will anchor him for what needs to be done."
Arianni nodded and turned to head into her home near the stairs. Kazar fell into step behind her. He did a few breathing exercises to calm the continuing swell of Pride over the fact that Marethari still referred to him as her First.
Arianni's home was simple, as all Alienage homes were. Hers were decorated with delicately carved wooden furniture, and herbal candles, and hangings that Kazar recognized as depictions of the Creators. She had certainly left the Dalish… but lost to the Way? Most certainly not.
He helped her move her furniture, clearing a space on the floor. Marethari hadn't given him much by way of instruction, but he was surprised to find that he could pretty much guess where all the pieces went, just by what they were using and his past experience with her old magics. It was a far cry from being able to perform such things himself, but he was caught off guard by the evidence that he had learned a thing or two about Dalish magic in his time with the clan.
"Thank you for doing this," Arianni said as they moved her table aside. "I know you owe my son and myself nothing."
"Nah, you warned me about the Templar raid. This is the least I can do."
Arianni smiled, and when he directed her to grab a bowl, she did so. Meanwhile, he pulled the herbs Marethari had given him out of his bag.
"Hawke explained what has happened," she said. "That he has fallen into a long nightmare."
"Yeah. It happens, sometimes, with mages. Don't worry… the fact that he hasn't woken up and started spitting demonic sparks is a good sign. He'll be fine."
"And if there is anyone who can save him, it will be Hawke."
She delved into a chest and took out a bundle of simple wooden toys… a carved horse, a pair of soldiers… a dragon that, when you moved it around, flapped its wings. She set them carefully on the table.
Kazar said, "Everyone here puts a lot of stock in her capabilities, don't they?"
She nodded. "She has earned it." She turned to him. "She saved my son once before, when he ran afoul of slavers a few years back."
"There were." Arianni fixed him with a steady look. "Hawke has made a world of difference to this city. Before she arrived, it was a terrifying place to raise my son, with the gangs and the criminals showing no fear of attacking an elf in broad daylight. But now... they hide in the dark corners, whispering to themselves about how Hawke will come for them like a vengeful spirit in the night."
Kazar snorted, because he could kind of imagine that happening.
"That is why, whatever Hawke deems necessary to save my Feynriel, I will do. I trust her."
Kazar nodded and finished setting up.
Marethari entered a few minutes later. Then, at a more subdued pace, Hawke followed, with Aveline and Varric still at her heels. She seemed deep in thought, and Kazar wondered what had happened.
Hawke glanced up at him. "You remember how you said you were good at resisting temptation?"
"You ready to put your money where your mouth is?"
"I'm not really sure what you mean."
"The Keeper said this ritual can take up to four people. The way I figure it, who better to show us how it works than someone who's done it before?"
"…you'd trust a blood mage? In the Fade?"
She shrugged. "If you're as in control as you say, sure." She grinned, flashing her teeth. "Of course, if it turns out you're not so trustworthy, we'll just cut you into tiny pieces and give it to the demons in offering."
That was… surprisingly comforting. Kazar glanced at Marethari, who said, "Be mindful, child. The Beyond has a way of revealing us as we truly are."
He nodded, understanding her warning. Still, if the world seemed so set on having him work with this woman…