And then, of course, the end of the world happened.
―Justin Cronin, The Twelve
There was nothing before the darkness, only the nightmare creatures which chased her through it. Other less tangible forms writhed in the unfathomable black and watched her with silent, burning eyes.
A thick fog pressed in from every direction, disorienting her senses and choking the breath out of her lungs. The ground beneath her was nothing but loose rock and shale, and any sight of the landscape around her was lost in the impenetrable darkness. Each incline sent her tumbling and clawing for purchase. The nightmares were never far behind, grasping and clawing at her feet.
Time felt beyond her; she could not say how long she ran, or why she never tired.
Her mind was blank, filled only with fear and darkness. She couldn't remember being a person. She couldn't remember a time before this, couldn't remember the how or the why or the what — only the darkness, and the things lurking within it.
She could only run, or be consumed.
And then, out of nothingness, the light reached for her.
Pain knotted in her shoulder and hip, where she lay on cold stone.
Consciousness ebbed and flowed from her, like an errant tide, bringing nothing with it but disorientation and fear.
Her arms were held away from her by a weight she could not lift. She flexed her fingers slowly.
She was acutely aware of a presence moving beside her, before she was rolled to lay flat on her back. A hand moved beneath her neck and lifted, just enough to elevate her head. Her eyelids were heavy with too much sleep, and she tried to blink away the bleariness to no avail. There was a light somewhere, low and flickering, and it stung at her sight. She couldn't make out anything in the blur of darkness and the too-bright, but for the barely discernible shape of someone sitting over her.
Something cold pressed against her mouth.
"Drink," a voice coaxed, in a tone so low and distant that it could have been a dream.
She felt the water trickle into her mouth, but she could not swallow it. Her throat felt too thick, too dry. She choked and coughed and turned her head away.
Why are you trying to drown me?
Her accusation caught in her throat, and all that she could manage was a strangled sound of protest.
The room began to spin and lurch around her, and the figure gave no answer as she sank back down into the nightmare ebb of inexplicable terrors.
She was lost again to the darkness, running through an unfathomable landscape with nameless horrors at her heels. Further and further, until the landscape shifted upward in an endless incline.
The abominations had taken the shape of massive arachnids, chittering and screeching and almost upon her.
She scrambled frantically, toward the one fixed point of hope in the dark ahead of her — a figure clothed in light, reaching for her.
She threw herself forward, hand outstretched in desperation.
It took hold, and then the whole world split open around her.
Tephra woke with a jolt.
Darkness and silence pressed in around her.
Her mind felt fragmented, as she reached for the nearest memory and found nothing but the empty space where something had been hollowed out. Her head throbbed. She focused instead on the most immediate available information to her ― the heavy, cold grasp of metal at her wrists; the raw ache of hunger in the pit of her stomach; abject thirst.
She had been taken prisoner, but ― why? And by whom?
From the ache in her bones, and by the measure of her bodily needs, she could only that she'd been unconscious for several days, at the very least.
Rolling from her side, stiff and cold, Tephra sat slowly and stared at the barred shackles that had been placed on her. It did not take long for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, and despite her disorientation, she took stock of her surroundings.
The room was larger than a standard prison cell, but aside from the stonework and pillars, it was free of any furnishings. There wasn't even a cot for sleeping.
It took considerable effort to get to her feet.
The muscles in her legs cramped and tightened with each movement, and her joints ached something awful.
It came as no surprise that she'd been stripped of her armor and weapons. They'd at least left her the coat she wore, had even gone so far to put it back on her after removing her armor. Yet even with it on, the chill of the prison had settled deep in her bones.
There was no sign of her traveling pack, either.
A sudden panic gripped her, as she brought her hands up to her chest. The manacles made using them awkward and clumsy. She felt underneath her coat, down beneath her shirt. When her fingers found the small object resting against her sternum, she felt a sudden wash of relief. Her captors hadn't bothered to take it. Though, truly, why would they bother with it? It wasn't a weapon or anything of value, at least not to them, but to her it was priceless.
Tephra ran her fingertips over the familiar curl of the shell; the movement was soothing, and steadied her nerves and focused her mind.
She stepped lightly toward the far wall, where the moonlight shone in through small barred windows. She took great care to move silently, as there were certainly guards posted outside the cell. She did not care to rouse their attention before she could figure out an escape.
The windows were almost out of reach, but when she stood on the balls of her feet she could reach the windowsill. It took great effort to pull herself up far enough to grab the bars which prevented escape. Tephra hung there in a crouch, boots braced against the wall, scanning what little she could see outside the window. The cell was located in the basement of a building that overlooked a small town, which was largely dark but for scattered campfires and the torch lights of patrolling templars in the darkness.
Where had she been taken?
Tephra reached back before the nothing in her memory, and was met with sudden clarity.
She had studied various maps of the areas surrounding the Temple of Sacred Ashes, in the event that she needed to flee for any reason. She was in no danger for being mistaken for a mage, but there were always reasons to be found by the humans for detaining elves.
There were numerous townships and farmlands in the foothills of the Frostbacks, in the vicinity of the temple. She could have been taken to any one of them, for all it mattered. They were all human settlements, and deeply Andrastian. If they believed she killed the Divine, nothing she could say in her defense would matter. She was foreigner with no proof of Ferelden or Orlesian citizenship, and her ears alone were enough to condemn her to most humans.
Everything had been so much simpler, before she'd been recruited for this mission. The memories washed back with ease, as the fog of incapacitation lifted.
She'd been sleeping in a mossy tree when the fledgling scouts found her.
They had just been youths — skinny little reeds with bows and swords, playing at adulthood. They'd tossed crabapples up at her until she woke, and informed her that she was being summoned to the Keeper, who in turn sent her away on a mission to surveil the historical meeting between templar and mage forces seeking a resolution ― an end to the conflict. She'd been specifically chosen for her penchant for not being found, unless she meant to be.
She remembered it all ― leaving her clan for Ostwick, and taking the ferry to Highever. She'd never crossed the Waking Sea before, but the sight of the dark waters and the sea birds only reminded her of him. She remembered how anxious she'd been in the human cities before finally disappearing off into the Coastlands. She remembered how elated and excited she had been to be traveling across Ferelden, without having ever stepped foot in the country before. She had largely avoided conflict, and the trip had been remarkably peaceful. There had even been time for leisurely study along the way — documenting unfamiliar plants, as well as ones related to those she was familiar with, and collecting the seeds of useful edibles for medicinal and agricultural uses later. She remembered it all — the weeks of traveling, of sleeping in trees and caves and ruins. All of it, right up to the clever perch she'd found overlooking the Temple of Sacred Ashes, as she watched the forces march in.
After that, it was as though a void had swallowed up the rest of her recent memories.
The straining ache of her upper body pulled Tephra out of her thoughts, and she let herself down to the floor slowly.
There was no way she could fit through the narrow windows, even if she could somehow dislodge the bars. Not without breaking bones to ease her passage, at least.
She turned her attention to examining the rest of her cell, for anything that might aid her escape. She'd only taken a few steps when an odd pressure in her left palm caught her attention.
Tephra flexed the hand and studied it closely, but could see no wound, no bruising, nothing to explain the sudden discomfort. When she turned her palm, there was, suddenly, something ― almost like a trick of the light.
A shimmering seam that ran from the crux of her middle and ring finger clear across to her wrist.
It was so faint, she was certain that her eyes were playing tricks on her.
The pressure subsided for a moment, before it flared again, more strongly. The muscles seemed to twist upon themselves, like a cramp. She swallowed a hiss of pain as she made a fist.
When her hand erupted into green fire, Tephra screamed.
Panicked, she scrambled backward and fell against the wall. She sank to the floor as she shook her arm wildly, trying to put the fire out.
After a moment, it sputtered and snuffed out. She was shocked to find the skin unburnt.
The seam remained, and the shimmering was more pronounced. Like iridescent, glowing ink stained across her skin. When she rubbed at it with her thumb, it did not rub away. It was magic, of some form—but she was no mage.
So then where had it come from?
As she gaped at her hand, there was a scrape of metal at the door. A small window opened, and light pooled in around the shape of someone's head.
"She's awake," a gruff voice stated, before the metal panel shut again with a resounding snap.
Moments later, the door opened and two guards entered. She grimaced at the sudden brightness of their torches, and brought her hands up defensively. The green fire dancing across her hand shivered, and snuffed out. The brief sight of it caused the men to fall back a step. They were human, wary and haggard, and their uniforms identified them as chantry men — templars.
What was she doing in a chantry prison cell?
"I can't believe this knife-ear bitch killed the Divine," one guard remarked, almost lazily.
The other man growled, "She killed them all." He spat at her. "Mage and templar alike."
A strange ringing started in her ears as cold disbelief washed over her.
Did they mean the Conclave? She'd been sent to observe, not to interfere ― let alone kill anyone. How could they possibly think she had anything to do with whatever happened?
What had happened, and why couldn't she remember any of it?
More templars idled at the door, craning to get a look at her. The looked at her with a mix of morbid curiosity and disgust, and their silence offered no clarification.
They separated suddenly, making way for the Knight-Commander. She knew enough of templars to recognize the difference in their uniforms and ranks. He was a tall, sturdy man with hard eyes. He regarded her impassively, before saying, "Have word sent to Seeker Pentaghast."
"The Seeker's a day out, evacuating the farmlands. What are we supposed to do with her until then?"
"Keep your distance," the Knight-Commander replied simply, as if the answer were self-evident. "Maker only knows what she's capable of."
The guard who'd spit at her scoffed, "She's in irons, sir. I'd sooner start breaking her in for the spymaster."
The other guard laughed, and asked, "And who will keep your wife warm at night after we scrape up what's left of you off the floor, Karsten?"
Tephra struggled to pull herself forward off the wall and onto her knees. She tried to speak but her throat was raw with thirst, and all she managed was a dry rasp.
"Someone get her some fucking water," the Knight-Commander barked. "Everyone else, out. Show's over."
Tephra tried once more to ask what had happened, but her voice caught in her throat. She'd only begun to cough when the Knight-Commander rounded on her and slammed an armor-bound fist into the side of her head. It sent her sprawling to the floor. The heavy manacles impeded her ability to catch herself, so her shoulder took the brunt of the fall. She stayed where she fell, bent over herself, shoulder and head resting on the floor. She swallowed the sounds of her pain and let it turn to cold fury in the pit of her stomach.
"Keep silent, demon. Or I will let them have you," the Knight-Commander growled, before turning on his heel and exiting the cell. The others followed suit, and the heavy door slammed behind them.
As if in response, the mark on her hand flared to life. A sudden burst of crackling energy sprang from her palm. It danced like verdant fire, but did not burn the skin. The pain came from somewhere deeper, as though it nested in the marrow of her bones. Again, the terrified screams tore themselves from her throat.
A guard banged on the door, and shouted, "Keep it down!"
The sound of her horror died in her throat, leaving only the rawness of thirst. The magic sparked and danced in her palm, before slipping away again to hide inside her hand. She could still feel it there, unseen ― a deep, pulsing ache. She could only wonder at what had happened, and what was continuing to happen to her as the magic burned inside her palm.
When she got to her feet, there was a disturbance at the door. Voices argued loudly, but even though she strained her ears, she could not discern its nature through the thick metal and stone that lay between. She turned away from it, and busied herself with walking the perimeter of the cell.
There had to be something — anything.
No space was inescapable. Not to her.
As she walked, she worried at the manacles, straining and tugging and curling her wrists to scratch at the metal uselessly. It accomplished nothing, but to leave marks and raw rings on her wrists.
Tephra lost count of how many times she circled the room in a slow orbit, searching every crevice for a means of escape. She scrabbled against the stone, finding purchase in the smallest of cracks to lift herself, to search each dark corner, and yet found nothing. No loose stones or bars, no little rabbit holes to wriggle through. All she managed to gain from her efforts was a collection of bruises and scrapes.
The door gave a jolt as the lock unlatched.
Tephra dropped down from the windows. She'd been pulling at the bars again, trying to pry them loose. She moved to stand in the center of the cell and waited. There was nothing to do, nowhere to hide; all she could do was wait for an opportunity to present itself.
The door swung open and the one called Karsten sauntered in. He was young and lanky, with a mess of red hair falling out from beneath his helmet. He gave her a smug smile as he stepped toward her with a large flagon of water. He held it out to her almost casually. "Thirsty, are we?"
Tephra kept her silence, and watched him warily.
With a slow turn of his wrist, he upended the flagon and let the water splatter across the floor. "Go ahead, then," he sneered, and gestured at the puddle. "Isn't that how your kind likes it? All natural-like?"
Karsten gave a bark of laughter and turned on his heel, and left her there. The door shut loudly, before the silence settled in again.
Tephra pridefully ignored the water despite her thirst, and moved back to the windows. She was too tired to try the bars again.
The light in her hand shimmered and pulsed and ached. The mark ran the length of her palm, but the light came from within and shone through both sides of her hand. Mirrored, marked through, as though a splinter of magic had somehow embedded itself inside of her. And with each throbbing ache, it seemed to grow brighter, and wider.
Whatever happened, it's because of this.
The thought shivered through her mind coldly.
In a sudden burst of anger, Tephra slammed the cursed hand against the wall. And then again. In her anger, she felt nothing until the fourth strike. Then the pain came crashing over her senses, as she sank down against the wall. It throbbed fiercely, but she did not cry out. Instead, a strange calmness settled over her.
It was the obvious means of escape, but she could not use it in her current condition — not well enough, at least. She needed to recoup enough strength to last however long it took for her to find her way outside of the prison, as well as to flee the town unnoticed. For that, she needed to rest, however much she could on the freezing stone floor.
In the mean time, she listened. Between the long stretches of silences, she could hear the movements of the guards ― when they changed shifts, when and where they patrolled, how often they stopped and idled outside her door at any given time.
She rested against the wall with her knees drawn to her chest, and put a hand to her sternum. It was nothing more than a moon snail shell tethered on a leather cord; they hadn't taken it from her when they stripped her armor. Perhaps they hadn't even noticed it. She ran her finger along the curl of it repetitively, and was calmed by the movement.
It was a small source of comfort amidst everything.
When she finally drifted to sleep with her head laid down on her knees, she dreamt of him.
He'd always been so small and always running ahead of her. She had always been cautious for the both of them, so it gave him the freedom to be fearless. She had been too young to see the danger in it, and there had been no one else to teach them otherwise.
But this time was different.
The woods were dark, almost sinister. A deep, tenebrous fog was rolling in. The boy darted ahead, losing himself among the looming trees. Tephra gave chase, but the grass soon gave way to shale, and the trees fell away into darkness.
He was gone, and in his absence the nightmares returned to give chase.
Solas had to admit that there was a certain elegance in failing so spectacularly.
The resulting spiral of events had happened so quickly that it had been impossible to personally intervene. He had anticipated that the magister's methods in unlocking the orb might result in a few regrettable sacrifices — specifically, his own. Perhaps even a good portion of his followers, which would have made retrieving it once more that much simpler.
He had not anticipated the events at the Conclave. The destruction and loss of life had been far beyond his expectations.
And, yet ― what happened, happened.
Despite his predictions, the Elder One endured. His agents had sighted the magister's retreat after the initial explosion, but how he'd managed to avoid obliteration still eluded Solas.
Had the Elder One intended to bind the Anchor to one of his own, or to himself? Had he meant to catastrophically damage the Veil, or was it a byproduct of a design gone terribly wrong? Had he simply meant to enter the Fade himself, and if so, for what purpose?
There was much left to speculation in the absence of crucial information.
Desperation had driven him to act with haste in choosing the magister to open his orb, knowing it would still be a considerable amount of time until he'd have the strength to do it himself, all while the quickened world hastened on to its inevitable end. There was precious little left to save now, as it were, and less than so if he waited and did not act — if any at all.
He had been aware of the Venatori before waking, as well as their enigmatic leader who called himself the "Elder One". But it was only after waking that he'd allowed the cult to stumble upon his Orb, when it became clear that he was too weak to unlock it himself. There was no certainty that the magister would be strong enough to, either, but the possibility of success — and his own desperation — was enough for him to allow the attempt. It had been a surprisingly easy endeavor for his agents, as the Elder One was already seeking texts and artifacts pertaining to the Veil, and magic which could theoretically manipulate it and allow passage through it. Whispered rumors of the Orb and its power had been enough to bait the Venatori into a frenzy, and send them searching for it.
The Orb, however, had been fashioned for him, and no other.
It could, theoretically, be unlocked and manipulated by another — with enough magic and hubris, just about anything could be.
He'd followed the Venatori's studies and experiments as closely as he could, scouring their minds and memories while they slept. While the Elder One's dreaming mind eluded him — he expected the magister concocted sleeping draughts to block his dreaming from prying spirits — Solas still learned much from his followers. When they eventually settled on a ritual involving sacrifice to unlock the Orb, he knew that casualties were to be expected.
But something had gone awry during the ritual — the culmination of which had resulted in a catastrophic explosion which had torn the sky open, causing spirits to tumble out of the Fade. Torn viciously from their peaceful existence, and fatally drawn through the Veil. The ones which did not die outright from shock were inevitably corrupted by the trauma of the event.
The sudden influx of demons kept the humans scrambling and disoriented. The explosion from the Breach had decimated the Temple of Sacred Ashes and battered surrounding villages, which resulted in the deaths of not only thousandsof templars and mages and civilians, but also a widely revered religious figurehead. The death of Divine Justinia was already causing an almost immediate destabilization of power and unrest in Thedas, as word continued to spread.
If the Breach could not be stabilized, the world would fall.
He had not meant for this outcome, but those deaths were laid at his feet all the same.
And the poor fool who'd happened to receive the Anchor had survived ― not only the process of being marked with a power not meant for them, but also somehow managed to survive being pulled physically into the Fade and then out once more. Survived, only to be arrested and left to languish in a chantry cell, in a township on the edge of rioting. None of the people here had any idea what had happened, only that something had, and the only survivor of the event had done the impossible — had walked the Fade, and survived.
It was no surprise that they would blame her, and the people were all but screaming for her blood.
Physical beings were not adapted to existing — let alone surviving — in the Fade, as it was now. If demons did not claim them, or the physical hazards of traversing the landscape, dehydration or starvation certainly would. Just as it was for spirits, being drawn through the Veil was often enough to kill them outright. And yet, for three days she had endured, clinging to what life remained in her. It was remarkable that she'd survived at all, but he was not optimistic her luck would last much longer.
She had regained consciousness, but for a moment, and even that fleeting hope had snatched itself away when she choked on the water he'd given her before passing out once more. And then she was gone again, lost to nightmares, her mind stuck on a loop of her last moments in the Fade.
During that time, the mark seared further and further up her palm, deeper into her being. Born of the orb, the Anchor was his own power singing back to him. A vein of light that ran like a scar across her skin — a hole torn through her being, much like the hole torn through the sky. As the Breach cracked wider, so did the mark. At this pace, it would not take long for her to succumb.
No matter how much magic he poured into it to slow its progression, she would not wake. And in his current weakened state, he could not reclaim the mark from her any more than he'd been capable of unlocking his own damnable orb. The magic ― his magic ― was attempting to merge with her spirit, as it was meant to with his. Any further attempt to unbind the Anchor would certainly result in her immediate death.
One more to add to the many in his wake, but there was no time now for him to dwell on his regrets — let alone the death of a lesser being.
Still, there was no precedent for this.
Spirits he might have consulted on the matter had fled outright in the wake of the Breach, and no matter how many times he studied the mark, any possible solution not resulting in her death eluded him. His only tenuous hypothesis was that if he could manage to stabilize the Breach, then perhaps the Anchor as well would become stable. Though at best, she would only have a fistful of time left ― a year, perhaps two. If she survived, though, he could make use of the Anchor while she lived and guide her in sealing rifts and repairing the Breach, and buy himself time to regain his strength to reclaim it safely.
But no matter the route; in the end, she would die. It was an unavoidable truth; none could bear the Anchor and live.
A slow arrow, indeed.
He knew nothing of her beyond her inevitable fate. As far as he could surmise, she was of no particular importance, or prestige. She'd simply stumbled into something beyond herself, and she would die for it without ever knowing why.
She was simply another regrettable footnote in a long list of transgressions tied into a design that was beyond his failing. If he could restore the world and its people to what it was, to what it should be — then perhaps he could find, in some way, some sense of redemption. Perhaps not peace, but something close enough.
There was no path, but forward.
His agents had spotted her when she drew near the Conclave, despite however unseen she had thought herself to be. At the time, he had not thought intervention necessary. He'd simply found himself amused that she had been curious enough to spy on the matters at hand, being seemingly unaffiliated to either of the attending forces. He'd been surprised that she had been there at all, given that the Dalish cared little for worldly affairs outside their own clans. A curiosity at best, and dismissed easily. His focus had been entirely on the events unfolding, as he prepared himself to claim his power once more. But after the explosion, after the sky tore open, his agents heard talk of a woman walking out of the Fade and being arrested by the chantry. The sole survivor, and the only witness to the events that had unfolded there.
A Dalish elf, of course.
The irony that he'd dismissed the anamolous nature of her prescence there, and her resulting significance, was not lost on him
Approaching the chantry had been a risk, but there were no alternatives. He'd surrendered his staff and offered his services, and in exchange the Seeker had permitted him access to the woman.
However, it was conditional access and he'd yet to provide results. The woman remained unconscious, despite his efforts, and for it the Seeker grew more suspicious of him and his true agenda.
At times, her face contorted, pulling at the vallaslin that marked her forehead, and he could sense the nightmares which plagued her. As though she were stuck there, in the Fade, repeating the events of what happened before she tumbled out and into the custody of the Haven chantry. He could not pull her from her nightmares, but he did what he could to stem their tide when her heart rate grew too erratic. The magic he poured into her would calm her, for a time.
The vallaslin on her forehead marked her for Ghilan'nain. A deliberate choice, perhaps, in that the woman favored the common artistic depiction of the goddess with her thick white hair and coltish figure — an aesthetic which reflected the Evanuris's favor for the halla. Few remained who remembered the false god's true face, and how none of the art came close to conveying her true nature. In modern artwork, she was placid and benevolent. Meek, even. A laughable notion, given that he'd personally watched the terrors born of the Evanuris's frighteningly inventive mind.
No, the woman's face was her own. In that regard, she looked nothing like Ghilan'nain.
Still, however far-removed and diminished the link, it still surprised him how much she and her kind resembled the People. Smaller, more wiry, but with a striking face that was at once familiar and other. Lovely, even, but marked nonetheless ― a Dalish woman.
The word sat uncomfortably in his mouth, sour and sharp, like bile. He'd had long-since had his fill of the Dalish.
Still, he could not help but feel for her. She had not asked for fate to intervene so unkindly. Though as to why she had been at the Conclave in the first place remained a mystery. Perhaps she'd been sent by her Keeper, or perhaps she'd just been curious. Given the current situation, he found it unlikely that he would ever find out the truth.
He'd all but given up when she finally stirred, hours before daybreak on the third day.
He had already gathered his gear and extinguished most of the candles that he'd been allowed to bring into the cell when that small movement of her hands froze him in place. He'd drawn her up from the floor and put a flagon of water to her mouth. He could just barely make out her face in the dark, but he could see the questions swimming in her dark eyes. She had shown not simply consciousness, but awareness — and then she had turned her face away, coughing as she refused the water.
A minor setback, but it had been enough to set him off to go prepare healing salves, to promote wakefulness and alertness.
She would live, and that simple fact gave him hope.
On his return, while crossing the courtyard, he'd heard her screams. He had nearly dropped the bag of supplies in his haste to reenter the chantry, only to find one too many templars idling outside the cell. They barred his entry and informed him that he'd done his job ― the prisoner lived. He was no longer needed to tend to her. He'd attempted to reason with them — however sharply — but it had not swayed them. Keeper Pentaghast was away from Haven, and in her absence the templars grew restless and would not heed him despite having been ordered to do so in regards to his patient. Fighting them would have accomplished little, and fleeing with her in her current state would have surely hastened her death.
He had no choice but to leave her there, for the time being.
"Well, aren't you the chatty sort?"
Solas cradled a mug of hot ale between his hands, enjoying its warmth, if not its contents. He was not in the mood for even casual inebriation. The dwarf ― Varric Tethras ― had ordered it for him as a consolation. He wasn't sure how long he'd lapsed into silence, having been so consumed with the matters at hand. Solas cleared his throat, "Forgive me, Master Tethras. It has been some time since I have been in a tavern. My manners have escaped me."
"Don't worry, Chuckles. I've no doubt Cassandra's hauling ass back here as we speak. You'll be able to play healer again soon enough," the dwarf said, while scribbling furiously in a leather-bound book.
"If she survives that long, perhaps," Solas remarked.
There was a long pause from the dwarf, before he asked, "So, you just happened to be in the area when all of this went down?"
Solas lifted his gaze from his neglected drink to regard the dwarf seated across from him. Despite his amiable disposition, Varric's eyes were sharp as a hawk's, and equally shrewd.
"Sky tears open, demons fall out ― and then a Fade expert just happens to show up on the chantry's doorstep?" Varric closed the book he'd been writing in, and folded his arms over it. "A bit too good to be true, wouldn't you say?"
"I would say it was fortuitous, myself," Solas replied, unfazed by the dwarf's scrutiny. "I imagine it does seem rather suspect, but as I've said before ― I was simply curious to see the outcome of the negotiations. Apostate that I am, you can appreciate that I had a vested interest in the outcome."
Varric gave a gravelly laugh, "True enough."
There was a sudden commotion at the back of the tavern.
"Now what in the void is this shit? Are you serious?"
Solas turned in his chair to see the tavern keeper berating a pair of templar soldiers. The wiry old man crossed his arms tightly across his chest, as he frowned at the younger men.
"Commander's orders, Vern," one said, almost apologetically. "Don't worry, we'll bring your buckets back soon."
The old man threw his hands up in vexation before going and retrieving a stack of large metal buckets from the storage room behind his bar. As he handed them off to the soldiers, he asked, "What's he got you poor sods doing, scrubbing floors again?"
The pair divided the buckets among themselves, as the first soldier replied offhandedly, "It's the prisoner. Says she's refusing water."
The other soldier sniggered, "Karsten means to make her drink."
The first soldier shot the other a dirty look, before saying, "Don't mind him, Vern. We'll get your buckets back to you in a few hours."
"That doesn't sound good," Varric remarked, under his breath.
Solas watched the soldiers leave the tavern with the empty buckets. A cold dread settled in the pit of his stomach. "No, it does not," he agreed.
He stood, and followed after.
"Get her up."
Tephra jolted awake as she was pulled bodily to her feet. She was dragged before the Knight-Commander, who was regarding her dispassionately.
Karsten was at his side, speaking hastily, "I'm telling you, sir. She refused to drink. She knocked the pitcher right out of my hands."
She frowned sharply at the lying templar, who in return afforded her a cruel smile.
"It serves nothing if she dies on us before Seeker Pentaghast returns," the Knight-Commander sighed. With a dismissive wave of his armored hand, he added, "Make her drink, then— however you must."
The hands holding her captive tightened as she was forced to her knees. Dread sat heavy in her stomach
"I'm leaving it in your hands, Karsten. Chastise her if you must, but keep her alive," the Knight-Commander ordered, clearly disinterested in handling the matter himself.
As the higher-ranked templar exited the cell, the others closed in around her, forming a loose circle. Dread clutched tightly in her chest, as she defiantly kept her face still and free of fear.
Karsten gave a short, sharp whistle. Two of the guards peeled off and exited the cell, before quickly returning with heavy buckets in tow. Water sloshed from them with each step. After they set them down, the left to retrieve more.
"Let's show this knife-ear bitch how we treat prisoners who refuse our hospitality," Karsten said, pulling a dark bit of cloth from a pocket in his uniform.
Tephra knew immediately what the templars meant to do to her. She'd heard of this technique before.
She got her feet under her and kicked off the ground, and threw her weight back against the men behind her. She snapped the back of her head into his face, who cried out in pain as her skull smashed into his nose. He released his hold on her, cursing and stumbling to the side as he grasped at his bleeding nose. She didn't give the other one time to react. She brought her elbow up into the soft underside of his neck, which had been left unguarded. One swift strike to the apple of throat sent him buckling to the ground, coughing and gagging.
Her freedom was short-lived.
Tephra had just begun to spin on her heel for the door when an arm went around her neck, pulling her off balance and choking the breath out of her until she began to go limp. The guard shoved her back down to her knees, and knelt behind her. He released her long enough to pull her arms back by the biceps, so that her forearms were pinned to her chest by the manacles. His knee dug into her spine as he forced her to arch her torso, as another templar knelt and shoved a hood over head. The movement forced her head to snap back, and the templar's grip held her there no matter how she struggled.
Before she could utter a sound of protest, they began pouring water over her head in a slow and steady stream.
Panic set in immediately.
At first, she held her breath as long as she could as she shook her head, trying to move her face away from the water, but another pair of hands took hold of her by the jaw and the back of her head to keep her still. What little she could struggle was useless, as they held her effectively in place.
And the water kept coming.
Her lungs began to burn, until she could no longer stop herself. She gasped and immediately started choking as water entered her lungs. Their laughter was distant over the din of her own heartbeat crashing in her ears. The sense of terror and panic that swelled over her was absolute.
The water stopped suddenly and the hood was yanked off her head. Tephra sputtered and coughed violently, retching water. Her chest burned as she strained to get air into her lungs with ragged breaths.
"Looks like she still ain't drinking," one of the templars observed, in a mocking tone. "She's still spitting it out."
Had they all gone insane?
Tephra's eyes darted between the soldiers, looking for ― what? There wasn't a shred of remorse or pity to be found between them. At best, there was apathy. At worst ― outright glee.
Karsten squatted before he, smiling in an almost friendly fashion as he asked, "Do we need to go again, or are you gonna play nice?"
She spat in his face.
The guard holding her jaw let go just in time to avoid Karsten's armored fist. It slammed into her mouth and she felt the bottom lip split. She refused to cry out in pain, and simply spat blood on the floor.
The hood snapped over her head again.
As she struggled, the guard behind her threw his arm around her neck again and pulled tight. She had just enough time to take a breath before the water came again. She tried to hold her breath, but she was already weakening. Her legs kicked uselessly against the stone floor.
This is what he felt when he died, she thought, dimly.
Was this how she was going to die, too?
Solas came to a skidding halt outside the prison cell where the Dalish woman was being kept. The door was open and the cell was filled with chantry men.
They were grouped around her, hooting with laughter. A hood had been placed over her head. One soldier held the woman captive in a chokehold, while another slowly poured a bucket of water over her head. Two of the buckets had already been emptied. The woman's legs kicked wildly against the stone floor.
"What is the meaning of this?!"
His outburst cut through the room effectively.
Most of the men staggered back from the restrained woman, as if they'd been caught like naughty children picking on a small animal. The soldier holding the bucket dropped it; it landed in a crash, spilling its contents unceremoniously. Another guard pulled the hood off the woman, before backing away from her sheepishly.
She coughed violently, struggling to catch her breath. The soldier crouched behind her did not release his hold on her, and kept her locked in a chokehold. Her large, dark eyes bore into Solas ― a silent plea for help.
"You've done your job, apostate," one of the templars barked. Young, red-haired ― human. This one was clearly the instigator of this act of abuse, the one named Karsten. "Unless you prefer to be in irons as well, you'd do well to remember that you've been dismissed until further notice."
"If you kill her, you will have doomed us all," Solas warned, attempting to appeal to their base survival instincts. "Surely you are not that foolish!"
Hypothesizing to the Seeker of what the mark on the prisoner's hand could accomplish — knowing full well the Anchor's purpose — had been the only thing keeping the humans from killing the elf outright. He reminded the humans of it often, no matter how uncertain he was that she would survive long enough to try — or that she would be capable of using the Anchor at all.
"Get him out of here!"
Several of the men moved to intervene, but were stopped short when another soldier came running down the long hall, shouting, "Seeker Pentaghast has returned!"
Relief washed through him. However suspicious she was of him, what short time he'd spent with the Seeker had assured him that she was level-headed and practical when it came to the prisoner.
"Shall we greet her together, then?" Solas asked, his tone whetted to a deadly edge. "I'm sure the Seeker awaits a detailed report on the prisoner's well-being."
The soldier's face went as red as his hair. "Everyone out! Back to your posts!" he barked.
The chantry men filed out past Solas. None of them would meet his gaze.
The woman remained on her knees on the floor, hunched over, soaked and shaking. Her dark eyes were furious. Blood ran in a stark line from her mouth, down over her throat.
Before he could say a word to her, the prison door was slammed shut by Karsten. He stepped between Solas and the door, and warned, "You're done here, apostate. Leave now, or you will be forcibly removed."
"You will be held accountable for your actions here," Solas assured. If not by the Chantry itself, some other means would surely present itself.
"Keep pissing in the wind, knife-ear," the soldier spat, and shoved past him.
Swallowing his fury, Solas followed the soldiers out of the prison. There was nothing he could do for her, just now. But the Seeker was here now, nothing would happen to the woman on her watch — of that, he was reasonably certain.
Outside of the chantry, a light sunshower had begun to fall. A good portion of the chantry soldiers had already made contact with the Seeker. Townspeople cluttered together in groups at a distance, spectating and speculating among themselves. Their anger and fear was palpable. The Seeker was flanked by her spymaster, and the ex-templar who Pentaghast had appointed as Commander of her personal forces.
As he approached, Solas caught the tail-end of one soldier's scrambling answers to whatever probing question the Seeker had posed.
"―hasn't disclosed any information about herself, or why she was at the temple." The soldier shifted from one leg to the other, nervously.
"We've had a hell of a time just keeping her alive. She's practically feral. She's been refusing to drink water," Karsten added.
Anger flashed in him. The image of the soldiers mistreating the prisoner was seared fresh in his mind ― her furious eyes. The fear that'd radiated from her had washed over him in waves. He knew nothing of her, and yet in that moment he knew that drowning was a deeply rooted, primal fear of hers. That it was tied to something she'd experienced in the past and that it had marked her for life. After such treatment, the odds of gaining her trust and cooperation seemed an insurmountable task — if not entirely impossible.
"Of course she has," Solas spoke up sharply behind them. "Did you expect forcing it upon her would procure a different outcome?"
"What would you have us do? Let her die of thirst? She wouldn't even take it from you, elf," the red-haired soldier snapped. Despite his anger, the soldier lacked his previous boldness of using knife-ear, at least in the Seeker's presence.
Solas bristled, straightening to his full height over the shorter man, "Drowning her is not―"
Cassandra Pentaghast's voice cracked like a whip. Her face was tight with irritation, as she said, "I was told she was unharmed."
"She became combative," the red-haired soldier replied, almost sheepishly.
"Most would, after such poor treatment," Solas remarked, sharply.
Karsten withered under Seeker Pentaghast's hard stare, and averted his gaze. "Commander Cullen, if you would."
The Commander seized the man by the collar of his armor and hauled him bodily away, reciting a litany of Andrastian and templar vows on the decent and humane treatment of people in their charge.
Cassandra turned her attention back to him, and said, "Another rift has opened, just beyond the hunting cabins to the west. I was told of it upon arrival. A squadron has been sent ahead, but I am sure they will have need your assistance."
"Of course," Solas replied, automatically.
He could not press the issue of the prisoner's wellbeing, not with the immediate threat of a rift. She was awake and alive; that would have to do, for now.
Varric Tethras stood not far off, thick arms folded tight against his chest as he watched the entirety of the exchange unfold.
"Varric will accompany you. I have already arranged for both of your weapons to be released to you at the gates," the Seeker added. It was clear she meant to be rid of them so that she could focus on interrogating the prisoner.
Without further word, Pentaghast and the spymaster left him there and entered the chantry. The other templars milling about began to depart, as well as the villagers.
"Well, that was entertaining," the dwarf piped up beside him.
Solas had not noticed his approach.
Varric gave him an uneasy look, "Do I even want to know what they were doing to her?"
"I believe the humans refer to it simply as water torture," he replied.
"You can't discount the creativity humans have when it comes to shit like that," the dwarf remarked, his tone edged with disgust. The dwarf gave rough sigh as he peered at the small, barred windows that lined the chantry foundation. He gave a short huff, and asked, "So is she, then?"
Solas shot the dwarf a curious glance. "Is she what, Master Tethras?"
As if summoned, there was movement at one of the windows.
Two small hands stretched between the bars, reaching for the rain. Despite the distance, Solas could see the state of her hands. The manacles had ravaged her wrists in her struggles to free herself. And the hand that held the mark was swollen, bruised and bleeding.
Had the templars done that to her, or had she done it to herself in an attempt to remove the mark?
The hands retreated, cupped together with rainwater.
A small act of defiance.
Solas felt an odd thrill of admiration. It stirred from some deep corner of his sleeping self, that had not been moved to that particular feeling in a long time.
"Perhaps she is," he replied, amused.
"Well, we got orders, Chuckles," Varric said, motioning toward the small group of soldiers awaiting them.
Solas followed. An odd optimism had bloomed in the pit of his gut, and he stepped lighter than he had in days.
Varric shot him a curious glance, "Do you really think she can close it? In her state? Or at all?"
"We must keep hope, Master Tethras," Solas replied.
Author's Notes: This chapter was gratuitously long and fixated on the imprisonment of the future Inquisitor because, well, I am a glutton for that sort of thing. Also, I think it a shame that we didn't see more of it to begin with in the game.
This fic will follow the general plot of DA:I, but with some departures from canon, as well as tweaked dialogue in many places to avoid monotony or to (hopefully) improve the syntax. Chapters containing mature themes will be marked as such as they come.