It has come to seem there is no perfect ending.
Indeed, there are infinite endings.
Or perhaps, once one begins,
there are only endings.
—Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night
Stillness settled over Haven when the horns fell silent, and confusion quickly followed. If there were any indication as to what had prompted the warning to be sounded, it was not immediately clear to her. In the absence of clarity, the uneasy feeling that had nested in her stomach all evening intensified.
Eyes locked at the horizon beyond the gates, Tephra said, "Whatever happens, Solas — don't die."
He moved to stand beside her once more, following her gaze, "I would appreciate if you would do the same."
As the horns sounded once more — a final warning for whatever was coming — Tephra reached to grasp the collar of his jerkin. Her hand fisted there in the fabric, and trembled.
A cold terror seized her, as she recalled the magister's words.
"Have a care, Herald. Gods do not fall graciously."
She knew in that moment that the Elder One had finally come for her — for them all — and for the first time in years, she felt that singular fear that belonged to the possibility of losing those who had become close to her.
She had already lost him once, in some form, in that aborted future; she would not lose him here.
Tephra shifted closer and pulled Solas down to meet her, forehead to forehead. The end of his nose brushed hers, as she reiterated, "Don't die."
As others began to rush from the chantry to see what was happening, she pushed Solas from her path and headed for the gates. A strange sort of calm settled over her as crossed the courtyard. She motioned at one of the soldiers, and barked, "Get those kids in the chantry, now!"
They wouldn't have sounded the horns this many times if it wasn't serious.
Many of her companions joined her on the way to the gates, as well as her advisers. Civilians milled and idled in the streets, muttering to one another nervously as she and other soldiers continued on to the gates. Each anxious gaze she met forced her to keep her face still and calm. It would be worse if they panicked, and there were too many children amongst them that would end up trampled in the resulting hysteria.
She found the Commander at the gates, shouting orders to the soldiers who'd assembled there. Nearly half of them were out of armor and scrambling to pull on what they'd managed to grab before scrambling to the gates. She was certain that more of them were still drunk from the festivities.
This will not end well, she thought, grimly.
For once, she was grateful that she wasn't inebriated, nor that she had changed out of her armor.
The Seeker's voice sounded strangely tinny.
"We're under attack," he informed, in a grave tone.
"Are any of our people still out there?"
"Civilians, no," Cullen replied. "We have scouts at numerous outlying locations, but none have made recent contact. It is likely they are captured, or dead."
"That would explain why I received no ravens warning of the enemy's approach," Leliana mused darkly.
"Only one watch guard has reported in, as well," the Commander continued. "There's a massive force, the bulk of which is descending over the mountain."
"Under what banner?" Lady Montilyet asked.
She balked. "None?!"
Tephra turned to Solas, who was once again at her side, "The Elder One?"
"Presumably," he replied.
An unseen force crashed against the barred gates.
"Well, at least they've knocked first," Dorian muttered, with grim amusement.
All around her, weapons were unsheathed. Light flashed beneath the gates — magic, or perhaps simply torchlight? — and the gates crashed once more. A force seemed to strain against it, nearly bending the thick metal bars which held them shut.
Her heart seemed to pound in her throat as she stepped closer.
"I can't come in unless you open!" someone pleaded, from beyond the gates.
Tephra's heart sank at how young he sounded, and how afraid. He could have been one of the scouts, or from one of the outlying farms, or anyone's son. He did not sound like the enemy. She rushed to unbar the gates before anyone could stop her, though none did. Several soldiers helped to raise the heavy bars, before pulling the gates open to let her through.
She was greeted by the sight of an approaching soldier, clad in unfamiliar armor. He staggered heavily toward her, before slumping to his knees and falling face-first into the snow.
At once, she was aware of the young man occupying the space where the soldier had been. Suddenly there, as though he hadn't been just before. Blinked into reality, like the wick of a candle flickering to life in the dark. A ragged thing, brandishing bloodied daggers, and a ponderously oversized—
She remembered him from the mass funeral that was held, after their caravan had been attacked by bandits on the road from the Crossroads back when Solas had been gravely injured.
It seemed a lifetime ago.
When the soldier moved to intercept the young man, Tephra stopped them with a gesture.
Not a ghost, then, if her people could see him just as she could. Then how come no one else had before?
She regarded the young man with sharp curiosity.
What is he?
"I'm Cole," he answered, as though he could divine her thoughts.
The brim of his ridiculous hat lifted, briefly, and pale eyes met hers. A soft, fleeting gesture, before urgency took hold of him and he entreated, "I came to warn you. To help!" He reached, but did not touch her as he emphasized, "People are coming to hurt you. The templars have come to kill you."
Commander Rutherford reacted as though Cole had meant to harm her, and moved to intercept, but she stayed the Commander with a touch to the arm.
Sword half-drawn, Rutherford obediently shoved it back into the hilt. Vexed, he turned to her, "Is this the Order's response to our talks with the mages? Attacking blindly?"
He seemed to be asking himself more than her, ruminating on the possibility aloud.
"The red templars went to the Elder One," Cole clarified, and once more stepped close. "You know him? He knows you. You took his mages."
He stepped away to point beyond the proving grounds, high up in the hills at the base of the mountain. It was too far to see much beyond the light of torches moving between the trees.
The Commander used a spyglass to see what she could not, and cursed beneath his breath.
"Someone you know?" she jested.
"One of my own, in another life," Cullen admitted, grimly.
"Standing beside your Elder One. Maker's Breath, it's—" The Commander lowered his spyglass, at a loss for words. There was naked fear in the man's eyes when he looked at her.
"A fool if it thinks we'll surrender peacefully," she offered, hoping to banish his doubt, which she understandably shared.
"He's very angry that you took his mages," the strange young man mused, behind her.
"Imagine what he'll be when they decimate his forces," she retorted, as though the Elder One could hear her challenge himself.
"Save it for the battlefield," the Commander advised. "Haven is no fortress. If we are to withstand this monster, we must control the battle to come."
Panic clutched at her chest as she thought of how many among their forces in Haven were non-combatants. She turned back to her people, "Leliana, the civilians need to be evacuated to safety."
"There is only one road out of Haven," Leliana reminded. She clasped her hands tightly behind her back, "At best, we might retreat into the chantry for safety until the fighting is over."
Tephra thought of the apostates who'd locked themselves inside their cabin for safety, and how the templars had sealed them in and set it on fire.
"We haven't the men to match theirs," Blackwall stated, flatly. "We'll be slaughtered before the sun rises."
Leliana fixed him with a cold look, "Then what would you suggest we do?"
"Retreat to the chantry," Tephra cut the man off, before the two of them could further argue and waste what precious time they had left before the enemy arrived. "We can use the trebuchets to take out what we can of the army, before they draw close."
The Commander nodded in agreement, "If we can trigger an avalanche, perhaps we can take more than few down before they reach us. We may yet survive the night."
"Cassandra, Varric, Solas — with me," she directed, before doubt could creep in. She had no idea what she was doing, or how they would do this — but a strange sense of momentum built as she continued, "The rest of you sweep the town and see that no civilian is left behind."
"If you think I'm letting you go out there without me, you're sorely mistaken," Dorian protested. "Not that our apostate friend here isn't a capable mage, of course."
"Fine," Tephra huffed. "The rest of you, go. Save those you can. We'll buy you time."
Cassandra met her gaze, "And then?"
I have no fucking idea.
"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," she managed.
This is not going to end well.
She turned to the rank of soldiers, "Now whose got a fucking bow I could borrow? Arrows, also, would be preferable."
They'd brought the mountain down on the encroaching army, effectively burying a portion of the opposition forces beneath rock and snow, and stalling the rest from immediate approach. All around him, the soldiers cheered. The Herald stood ahead, unmoving, as she watched clouds of frost and rockdust settle over the now-silent foothills.
It seemed, for all of one breathless moment, a victory — until the roar of a dragon tore through the fragile facade of salvation.
Many took to their knees, rendered boneless with terror. Even he was not immune to the sudden, visceral fear which seized them all as he fell back several paces and braced himself for whatever may come. There was no time to worry for the others, only a mere moment for pure self-preservation. He rooted his staff to the ground, and threw up a quick barrier spell.
The trebuchet exploded in a shower of flaming debris, and the shock wave threw many of those around him to the ground. A soldier rolled and kicked beside him, tangled in a burning cloak. Solas blanketed him with a lesser frost spell to snuff the fire out.
His attention quickly shifted to locating the Herald among those who'd fallen. Relief washed over him at the sight of Cassandra hauling the elf to her feet, and brushing cinders from her coat. She did not appear to be injured.
Overhead, the beast circled wide and headed once more towards them. As it neared, a horrible realization dawned on him.
It wasn't simply a dragon, not by any means they would know it as.
One of his own, once. In another life — in another world. Attendant to one of their most elevated. Twisted and blighted beyond its nature, rendered unrecognizable, and bound to the whim of this Elder One.
As the archdemon arced overhead, sending a stream of fire along the southern gates, Solas held his ground behind the barrier he'd cast to get a better look at it. Flaming debris showered over him as the dragon passed by, but the barrier held.
It had every appearance of an archdemon — of an Old God — but he did not have the strength to confirm it, nor to determine which of his previous kin it might have belonged to. The beast moved onward, turning its attention to Haven, sending massive gouts of flame down onto the buildings below.
Solas turned back to his companions, who he'd briefly forgotten in the chaos of the archdemon's arrival. All of them were on their feet, but for the Herald. She was sitting on her knees, staring at the burning remains of the trebuchet.
"A dragon," she tittered. "Why wouldn't there be a dragon?"
"This is not the time to lose our shit, Snowflake," Varric advised, hauling the elf up by her coat.
"A dragon," she repeated, standing on wobbly legs and drawing the word out to highlight her disbelief.
"We can't face it here," the Seeker advised.
She was the only one among them that was not visibly shaken. Unsurprising, given that she was descended from renowned dragon-hunters.
"Today is well beyond making sense," Dorian declared, breathless and shaken. "But that is a marvelous idea. The leaving part."
The Seeker shoved Tephra in the direction of the gates, spurring her into motion. However startled she was by the dragon, she was at least unharmed from the last skirmish.
He'd also managed to avoid injury while assisting in readying and defending the trebuchets, despite how distracted he was with the Herald's confession still ringing through his head. And even that — being confronted with his own self denouncing the carefully laid path of his mission, centuries in the making — had been crudely shoved aside in his mind by Compassion itself waltzing through the gates of Haven and declaring its intent to help.
A spirit made flesh — in this stolid world, cut off from the Fade. Not a simple possession, but having actually taken a body. Not impossible, but vastly improbable. Very few spirits had willingly crossed into the world after the Veil rose, and fewer still had taken bodies.
He'd even taken a name for himself.
And now, an archdemon had been loosed upon them all.
For that, he really could not fault the Herald for laughing.
What else could possibly happen before the night's end?
At the gates, they were met by the Commander. Regardless of what he thought of the Templar Order as whole, Solas had to admit that the man was particularly effective at keeping his soldiers from panicking. Most of the soldiers were medics, including one of his agents — Kazem. The Herald's companions had also regrouped there, with several of the refugees in tow.
"Seeker, did you see—"
"All of Haven has seen, Commander," Cassandra replied, flatly.
Varric gave a huff, as he moved to sit and rest on the stone steps leading up into Haven proper, "The fires are a bit hard to miss, Curly."
Blackwall eyed the dwarf with a salty expression, "Are we sitting now? Is that the plan?"
"Relax," Varric griped. "I'm just catching my breath."
"Why are there still civilians in the streets?" the Herald demanded, taking notice of the haggard-faced civilians idling amongst her companions.
The Iron Bull gave a dismissive snort, "Kind of hard to get them to safety when we're ass-deep in templars, Boss."
"Then we'll sweep the town again," she replied, simply. "No one gets left behind."
Admirable, but ultimately foolish. Haven was on the cusp of being overrun, and with the archdemon hard at work reducing what remained to ash and rubble, there would be precious little to save.
And the cost?
He watched her brush sweat-soaked hair from her face, as she watched the rest of them with an expression that brooked no further argument. It was that — that fierce empathy for the fate of others, even in the face of her own peril — which had long-since secured his attention, his respect, and his foolish heart.
She would throw herself headlong into the abyss if it meant to save an innocent, but it was not just her life on the line.
The Anchor glimmered and sparked in her hand, roused by the fighting and the frantic pacing of her heart.
It was not just her life at peril, but also any hope for a future — for anyone.
"We have yet to address what we'll do once we've tucked everyone all neatly inside the chantry," Dorian mused. "You know, beyond simply serving ourselves up on a platter for the Elder One."
Sera gave a derisive snort, "That shit's a bit fish-in-a-barrel, isn't it?"
The Herald looked between them with a sharp look of impatience, "Have either of you got a plan? Have any of you?" When none of them could muster a proper solution, she continued, "Blackwall, take Varric and Dorian and sweep the eastern streets."
Before Dorian could form a protest, she held up a hand to cut him off as she continued, "We're splitting into three groups. We've only got three mages, and the town is on fire. We're not arguing this point."
"Fair enough," he conceded, with a sigh.
The Herald turned to the others, and continued with a growing air of confidence, "Bull, you've got Vivienne and Sera. Take the main street. And remember to check everything — tents, wagons, everywhere. Children hide when they're scared."
A black-haired medic spoke up, "And us? What would you have of us?"
"Head straight for the chantry, and take these people with you," she ordered, gesturing at the refugees amongst them. "We're going to need all the medics we've got, if we survive this. See to the wounded there, until further notice."
The medic ducked his head, "Yes, ma'am."
It was the first time she'd spoken to them as a leader — as their Herald—and not with her previous resentment or reluctance. The steel and steadiness in her voice had an immediate effect on all of them, himself included. Though haggard and exhausted, the soldiers and their companions alike stood straighter, heartened by her show of strength and resolve.
However reluctant she had been to be their Herald, to be given the mantle of a leader — he found that in that moment, she wore it well.
"You heard the Herald — all of you back to the chantry!" The Commander turned to Cassandra, and said, "Keep our Herald safe."
"Until my last breath," the Seeker assured.
Cassandra did not see the tight, complicated look which Tephra shot her. By the time she readied her shield and sword, the moment had passed and the Herald's face had smoothed back into one of focus and determination.
As the groups began to depart, the Commander shouted, "If those bastards mean to take us all, the least we can do is make them work for it!"
Solas fell into step beside the Herald, as they followed Cassandra down the western road. For the moment, there was nothing but the distant clamor of chaos and the crunch of snow and gravel beneath her boots.
The precarious nature of their current situation set his head and his heart into a constant skirmish between reason and emotion. He could have choked on all of the things he wanted to say to her, in the event that he would not be able to later. Yet he remained silent, content with comforting presence of her at his side.
"I told them they'd be safe here," she said, quietly, as they walked.
Briefly, he thought of all those who had come to him for refuge, for safety, for freedom — and how utterly he'd failed them, in the end.
"It wasn't a lie," he assured.
Her brows knit together as she glanced at him, "Wasn't it, though?"
She looked ahead once more, as they carefully skirted the burning rubble of a cabin. The Seeker made quick work of checking the interior of the premises, while Solas chose to follow Tephra around the perimeter, checking behind various crates and storage barrels.
Having found no one hiding back there, the Herald stopped and braced herself against the rear wall of the cabin, as though staggered by an unseen weight.
"All these people," she said, knuckles gone white as her hand fisted against the wall. "I don't even know their names, or their faces. They wanted to make things right, they wanted a better life for their children. I brought them here. I said I would keep them safe. And now they're dying or dead because of me."
Solas put his staff down to lean against the crates stacked against the cabin. He then stepped close to her, gut gripped with a familiar grief, "You can have all of the best intentions and give all that you have to give for them, and still fail. That does not mean it was a lie because you couldn't keep your word. That is just life."
Her dark eyes softened, as she reached for his hand.
It was a halting, hesitant gesture as her fingertips skimmed the back of his hand, before retreating.
Solas caught hold of her in a gentle clasp to reclaim that precious, fleeting point of contact.
"Templars! Coming over the gate!"
When Tephra moved to leave, he grasped at her arm with a sudden, startling urgency.
"Do not take any unnecessary risks. Please — stay close." His throat tightened, choking on sentiment, as Solas hastily added, "To my barriers."
"I don't mean to die today, Solas," she replied with a grin, before pulling free and slipping the bow off her shoulder.
With that, she bounded off to rejoin their companions out on the street.
Solas followed after, reclaiming his staff from where he'd left it standing against the crates. When he rounded the corner, he had all of a second to process the sight of a blighted templar swinging a sword at him — his mana surged, but half a breath too late.
He felt the bite of the blade skim the arm he'd brought up defensively, just before his spell blasted the templar off her feet. He staggered, clutching at his torn sleeve, which was quickly soaking with blood.
The Herald was on the woman who'd wounded him moments after she hit the ground. She straddled the templar and grappled with her, before prying the woman's dagger free and shoving it hilt-deep into her eye.
The sounds of her agony were silenced when Tephra wrenched the dagger in a sickening twist.
Solas ignored the pain in his arm as he worked another spell, as he hurled a rain of fire down upon the templars charging Cassandra. The Seeker had been unaware of their advance, as she'd been preoccupied with driving back another, ramming him into the cabin wall with her shield. Several strikes of her armored fist rendered the man's face to a bloody ruin.
With Varric and Tephra dispatching the last of them, Solas staggered to a crouch. He laid his staff down, before carefully peeling back his sleeve to get a better look at his wound.
"How bad is it?"
Cassandra knelt beside him, surveying the bloody gash with a critical eye.
There was no time for proper sutures. His hand burst alight, and he drew the fire across the wound to cauterize it. Solas grit his teeth, swallowing back all but a hiss of pain.
"It is nothing, now," Solas replied, as he worked his sleeve back down and reclaimed his staff.
The Seeker offered a hand, and he let her haul him to his feet.
"A little help here!"
His attention shifted beyond the corpses of their enemies, to where Varric was struggling with the Herald.
He had her by the arm, boots slipping in the icy gravel as he attempted to keep her from rushing headlong into one of the cabins which lined the street. It was entirely engulfed, and a portion of it had already collapsed. Still, entering it would have been certain death, even with magic to carve a path through the fire. The building was likely to come down any moment.
Tephra shot the dwarf an accusatory look when he wouldn't release his hold of her, before turning to Cassandra, "There's children in there!"
The Seeker looked to the burning cabin, before looking to him.
He was the only one capable of clearing a path through the fire, after all.
"Solas, please. They're in there," Tephra entreated. "I heard them calling out."
Solas strained his ears, but heard nothing but the roar of the fire and the cracking of burning wood. He met her gaze once more, "You're certain?"
"Enough to bet my life on it."
Why were mortals so terribly hasty to throw away their own precarious lives? One would think the finite nature of their existence would endow them with a greater sense of self-preservation.
Still, the lengths to which some of them went to preserve the lives of others — even strangers — would never cease to stagger him. By all rights, the transient nature of their own mortality should have made them more hesitant to risk it — and far choosier about the circumstances in which they might offer it up for another's life.
The Herald seemed to sense his disapproval, as she pleaded, "Sathan, ma halani — please, trust me on this."
Of course he trusted her.
She'd held his very own life in her hand, once, and kept him from slipping away to the Void.
"Ma nuvenin," he responded. "But then we move for the chantry."
"Your word, Herald," Solas interjected, in a firm tone.
"You have it," she snapped in desperation, and thrust a hand towards the fire. "Now do it!"
It was a fool's errand, but at least he'd prevented her from simply barreling inside as she had in the Hinterlands.
He took a moment to gauge the cabin's structural stability and pool his mana. Using cold-based spells ran the risk of thermal shock, which could cause enough vibrational force to bring the cabin down. Creating a controlled vacuum would be an effective means of snuffing the fire out, with little direct force inflicted upon the structure. However, if there were actually any people inside—
Frustrated and flustered, Solas conjured a freezing spell and blanketed the cabin. It took all of his concentration to ensure that the spell snapped over the structure as a whole, all at once, and froze it solid before the shock could cause a collapse.
The Seeker unshouldered her shield and let it fall to the ground, before heading towards the cabin. When Tephra moved to follow, Cassandra rounded on her, "You will wait here."
She stalked back towards Varric, who made no pretense of wishing to set foot inside the cabin.
Solas followed after the Seeker, who was already carefully picking her way through the frozen debris and into the cabin. Inside, much of what remained was still simmering, as he only endeavored to freeze the outer structure. An attempt at rescue would have been futile if he'd inadvertently frozen any potential survivors.
Several of the beams in the roof had come down, one of which had blocked off the main entrance. Those that remained, creaked and groaned under the weight of the ice.
"We would do well not to linger inside," he warned, stepping lightly over the charred remains of a chair. "The structure will not hold for long."
As if to accentuate his point, water had begun to run off the frozen roof overhead as the interior of the cabin remained a choking oven of heat. Despite the light radiating from innumerable charred surfaces, the smoke made it difficult to see.
Solas conjured an orb of veilfire to illuminate their path.
They found nothing in the main quarters of the cabin. All that remained was a small bedroom at the rear. When they drew close, they were greeted by the sight of two charred corpses, which lay at the bottom of the door. One over the other, having succumbed to the smoke.
The armor identified them as Inquisition — as their own.
"Perhaps we are too late," the Seeker mused, crouching to retrieve the identification tags which all of the soldiers and scouts wore.
"It seems they were attempting to open the door," Solas observed, gesturing at the pry marks in the frame. The knob glistened with frost, and when he put a hand to the door — which was hardly burnt at all — the door was cold.
It was not a result of his own spell.
Had one of the apostates hidden themselves inside?
Cassandra stood, tucking the tags away in a pocket, before readying herself to kick it in.
"A moment, Seeker," Solas urged, before summoning a barrier around them.
If she brought the cabin down on them, he would prefer to avoid being crushed. He nodded at Cassandra once he was finished.
One heavy kick shattered the jamb and sent the door swinging inward, hanging off a single hinge.
A thick layer of smoke billowed out, obscuring any sign of survivors. The room was small, and hardly furnished. There were few places anyone could have been hiding that wouldn't have been immediately obvious.
"Come out!" the Seeker called, as she held an arm to her face to avoid the smoke.
Nothing in the room moved, but the smoke.
A fool's errand.
"It is safe now," Solas clarified, when no response came.
A head popped up from behind the bed in the far corner.
The girl stood, peering at him blearily through the dissipating smoke.
He'd almost dismissed the Herald's claims outright, simply because the risk far outweighed any possible good that might have come of it.
And he would have been wrong.
Audra gave a tired, dimpled smile as she moved around the bed. She was all but shaking from relief.
More children began to stand, and followed after her. Covered in soot and soaked from ice-melt, shivering in their coats despite the heat of the cabin.
It took all of a glance around the room to know that the girl had consistently practiced her magic since that day he'd advised her on how to better focus her mana. She had taken his advice to heart and built upon it, and with that she had kept her friends safe by keeping the fire from advancing into the room. But there were no windows in the room, and had he not intervened, the smoke would have choked out whatever remained of the air and claimed their lives.
It was a strange thing, the sudden weight in his chest.
She looked up at him, wiping at the soot on her face with blistered fingers. "We were hiding from the dragon, but then the fire — it was everywhere. I tried to keep it back, Mister Solas. But then the beams came down, and I didn't — I couldn't—"
Solas calmed her by laying his hand atop her head, and assured, "You did well, Audra."
Cassandra began to herd the children out the door, as she urged, "Come — it isn't safe here."
As he walked amongst the children, he was struck once more by the finite nature of mortals — of how their lives were gossamer stretched across the void, and so easily torn from the mortal coil.
Solas worked to maintain the barrier over the children and Cassandra, as well as himself, as they backtracked out of the cabin. He wasn't entirely surprised to see the Herald waiting for them, idling just inside despite the Seeker's insistence that she wait outside for her own safety.
Cassandra merely huffed in irritation, "Help me get them out."
The two women worked to lift the smaller children up over the rubble, handing them off to Varric. Cassandra helped the last child climb over, who was limping from a leg injury. Tephra followed after, but stopped atop the rubble to turn and offer her hand to assist him.
He took it, and let her haul him up alongside her.
She squeezed his hand, briefly, as she said, "Thank you for trusting me."
"That was never in question," he assured, his hold on her lingering as long as she allowed it.
Her hand slipped from his as she departed to follow after the Seeker, and left him feeling bereft.
Haven continued to fall all around them as they ushered the children out of the cabin to safety.
But what was safety? A few more moments here in the waking world, before their short lives were snuffed out by another means? And the Herald—
Ahead of him, gently handling the children as she aided them in climbing down the rubble. With a tenderness she hoarded to herself, except with little ones.
He knew with startling clarity that the loss of her would have been the loss of his very own heart.
Somewhere along the way, the two of them had become entangled — had become inseparable to him.
That sudden realization left him shaken and stunned, as he climbed down to the street below.
He could not lose her, and each moment they lingered felt as though poised on an abyss with no certainty of survival in sight. It took all of his self-control to remain with his companions, and to not simply abscond with the Herald and order a retreat of his own agents. He was caught in the flux between trusting her to surmount the unbelievable odds stacked against her to survive this attack and the certainty of fleeing.
Still, he could not abandon those of Haven to such a horrible end. But this wasn't an event he could watch from a safe distance, such as he could in the Fade of events long since passed. There was no means of going over each mistake, or exhausting each possible outcome, before acting. There was no time to calculate each plausible risk, nor time to form contingencies to account for each hypothetical variable or outcome.
He could only face what came, in the moment it happened, and hope for the best. Could only place his trust in her, and those around him, to survive this.
It was a mad hope — betting against insurmountable odds — but with the Herald leading them, it was almost easy to believe that they would survive this.
And for her, he would stay and face whatever may come.
Most of the children of were unharmed, but for a few. One of the older girls had a penetrative wound that had been crudely bandaged by cloth torn from her own cloak. Cassandra carried one on her hip, who was disoriented from a head wound.
And one little boy sat in the snow, dazed and silent, with grievous burns to his face. He stared at nothing, with wide eyes.
Whatever was left in her to feel grief, or despair, abandoned her.
All that remained was rage.
There was no mercy in her for those who would attack children.
She scooped him up into her arms, and followed after the others along the road to the chantry.
They found the courtyard littered with the dead.
The heavy fall of ash and snow made it difficult to tell the templars from their own people, save for the ghastly red eruptions of blighted lyrium jutting from their bodies. Far behind, she could hear the dragon clattering across rooftops, busy at its terrible work in reducing the town to burning ruins.
Chancellor Roderick stood at the entrance of the chantry, clutching his stomach as he ushered the last of the survivors inside. His robes were soaked in so much blood that she wasn't certain how he was still standing.
As she neared the entrance, she handed the boy in her arms off to an awaiting medic, "Please see to him — it's urgent."
"We'll do what we can, my lady," the medic assured, before carrying the boy inside.
Tephra stopped at the door, to look back out over the town.
This place was a shelter, and now it is a grave.
Was there anyone living left out there?
The young man, who named himself Cole, stepped quietly beside her and followed her gaze. "There is no one else," he said.
She needed certainty.
"I can't hear the dead. Only the red templars remain," he assured.
"Then we must shut the doors," the Chancellor urged, as he moved from where he leaned against the wall.
Tephra averted her gaze from the bloodstain he'd left there.
As Roderick made his way inside, his legs buckled from beneath him. Cole moved in an unearthly manner — one moment beside her, the next catching the wounded man in his arms and helping him to a nearby chair.
She found herself gaping at the youth, with a strange mix of awe and nostalgia.
"He tried to stop a templar. The blade went deep," Cole informed. "He's going to die."
"What a charming boy," Roderick mused, with a breathless laugh.
It was strange, the feeling in her chest, when she looked at him. A strange stitch between her ribs, at once familiar and forgotten.
Tephra reached to lift the brim of his hat, ever so slightly, as she asked, "We've met, haven't we?"
Sullen eyes met hers, as he fidgeted with his fingers, "Yes?"
He didn't look much older than what her brother would have been, if he'd lived.
She thought of the night she'd seen him here in Haven, when they were burning their dead.
He followed from the fire. That is what he'd said to her that night, and when he disappeared she had thought she was losing her mind.
But here he was, as real as anyone around her.
"You've been following me," she stated, not unkindly. "Why?"
His gaze was lost beneath the fall of his pale blond hair, as he lilted, "You help people. You made them safe when they would have died. I want to do that. I can help."
"Then stay, and help us," she replied, without an ounce of doubt shadowing her decision.
When she turned, she found that Solas was watching her with a strange expression — as he often did — but she was too exhausted to decipher whether it was approval or disapproval she saw there in the guarded calm of his expression.
Instead, she turned her focus to his bloodied, torn sleeve. When she reached for his arm, he offered it with no resistance. She peeled back the fabric and was greeted by the sight of a thick cautery mark running off-center along his outer forearm. He'd effectively stopped the bleeding, but there was still risk for infection.
"You're off to a bad start with the whole not-dying thing," she noted, inspecting his cauterization work.
"You say as though you did not just attempt to throw yourself upon a pyre," he replied, dryly.
Tephra shifted her backpack to one shoulder, and sorted through one of the smaller pockets until she found a small jar of wound-cleaning salve. "A cabin isn't a pyre," she countered, as she applied a generous layer of the salve to the entirety of the burn.
"Not traditionally, no," Solas conceded, with muted amusement.
When she finished cleaning the wound, she wound a clean bandage around his forearm and tied it firmly. "That'll have to do for now."
He fixed her with a shuttered gaze, as he inclined his head, "Ma serranas, Herald."
Whatever that look was supposed to impart, she didn't have the time to interpret it as the Commander charged towards her with an air of urgency.
"Herald, our position is not good," Cullen informed, in a grave tone. "That dragon stole back any time you might have bought us. There has been no communication, no demands. Only advance after advance."
Cole spoke up, from where he crouched beside the Chancellor's chair, "I've seen an archdemon. I was in the Fade, but it looked like that."
"I don't care what it looks like!" the Commander snapped in frustration, before turning his attention back to her. "It's cut a path for that army, and they'll kill everyone in Haven."
"The Elder One doesn't care about the village," Cole continued, in earnest. "He only wants the Herald."
Of course he has.
Why would it be anything less?
The mark in her hand flickered erratically, restless in her palm.
She looked to Cole, "Will it save our people, if I gave myself over to him?"
Many of her companions and advisers spoke at once, but the strange young man cut them off into silence.
"It won't," he replied. "He wants to kill you. No one else matters, but he'll crush them, kill them anyway." Vehemently, he added, "I don't like him."
"You don't like—" Cullen pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed in exasperation, before turning his focus back to her, "Herald, there are no tactics to make this survivable. The only thing that slowed them was the avalanche. We could turn the remaining trebuchets, and cause one more slide."
Tephra frowned, "We're already overrun. To hit the army, we'd—"
Bury the town.
"We're dying, but we can decide how," Cullen advised. "Many don't get that choice."
Stricken, she looked beyond them and towards the milling crowds of civilians packed further into the chantry. Many of them were young, not much more than youths.
When did they take in so many children?
She clutched at her coat, seeking the shell that hung there. How had she ever believed that she could keep them safe?
"Chancellor Roderick can help," Cole informed, breaking the heavy silence which had fallen. "He wants to say it before he dies."
"There is a path," the man informed, in a breathless tone. His face had gone deathly pale, and it seemed by sheer will alone that he remained conscious. "You wouldn't know it unless you'd made the summer pilgrimage — as I have. They can escape."
The Chancellor's focus was on her as he struggled to bring himself to his feet, aided by Cole, "She must have shown me. Andraste must have shown me so I could tell you. It was whim that I walked the path. I did not mean to start — it was overgrown, forgotten. Now, with so many in the Conclave dead, to be the only one who remembers — I don't know, Herald. If this simple memory can save us, this could be more than mere accident." He searched her face as though he were only now seeing her for the first time. Regret etched heavy lines in his own, as he said, "You could be more."
It was a better chance than anything she could have hoped for.
It was better than waiting to die, huddled together in the chantry.
She turned to the Commander once more, "What about it, Cullen? Will it work?"
"Possibly, if he shows us the path," he answered, in a cautious tone. He regarded her with a tight expression, as he asked, "But what of your escape?"
The hall was eerily silent, and the many faces of the civilians and soldiers, her companions and advisers were turned to her.
They are my clan now.
The thought came suddenly to her, heavy and unbidden.
Whatever she'd been before the Conclave, whatever her life had been — it was over. It was still a part of her, a part of her identity, but these people were her people now.
They had become hers the moment she'd decided that no one would ever lay hand on them again.
"The Elder One came for me, but I don't intend to make it easy for him," Tephra assured, forcing an air of confidence that she didn't feel.
The decision was hers to make, and it was the first she'd made for herself since this whole mess had started.
It was a means of wresting back control over her own fate, even if it likely meant her end.
"Perhaps you will surprise it," the Commander offered, with a hopefulness that didn't quite reach his eyes. "If anyone can find a way, it would be you."
There was a strange tension in her gut as she purposefully avoided the gazes of her companions and turned to Josephine, "We have no time to prepare. We take what carry, and leave the rest. Whatever provisions are here in the chantry will have to do for now."
The Antivan woman regarded her with a practiced calm, however it was frayed at the edges and cracked her voice, as she noted, "Perhaps the outlying farms remain untouched. There will be horses, druffalo, supplies. We will send scouting parties ahead to retrieve them."
"Take care of them," she bid, in a tone far too steady as the tension in her gut was quickly turning to a torrent of emotion.
Josephine frowned, "This is not—" She topped herself just as quickly as her anger came, and sighed, "I will."
Tephra did not watch her go.
If she stopped to look back in this moment, or the next — or all that followed after until the end — she was certain she would lose her nerve.
Roderick was leaning heavily on Cole, as the youth helped him along. He stopped long enough, to catch the sleeve of her coat, "Herald, if you are meant for this, if the Inquisition is meant for this — I pray for you."
The Commander returned with a small group of soldiers. They were armed, and armored.
She knew even before she asked, yet she persisted, "What's all this?"
"Volunteers," Cullen replied. "They'll escort you, and load the trebuchet."
Among them was a medic, whom she recognized as the Dalish elf from the Anderfels — Kazem.
If the others were going to survive, they would need every healer available to them, mage or non-mage.
"Not the medic. Send him with the others," she instructed.
Whatever meager confidence the Commander had regained for her survival, drained from his face as he asked, "You're certain?"
"If I get to the point where I need a medic, then I've already lost," Tephra mused, with dark humor. "There's no use wasting two lives for one."
Kazem stepped forward, "If you'll forgive the insubordination, I'm good for more than just stitching wounds." As though to accentuate his point, his hands moved to rest on the hilts of the twin short swords hanging from his belt.
They were marvels of Dalish craftsmanship, unmistakably of the Anderfels clans, and she regretted that she had no time to inspect them closer.
And having one of her own with her, at the end, was a strange comfort.
"If you insist," she conceded. "Vir suledin sa'vunin."
"Vir suledin sa'vunin," he agreed.
"All you have to do is keep the Elder One's attention until we're above the tree line," Cullen explained.
"Oh, is that all?" she jested, grimly.
"If we are to have a chance — if you are to have a chance — let that thing hear you."
When the Commander turned to go, she grasped his arm and urged, "Make it count. Get them safe."
With a solemn nod, he assured, "With my life, Herald."
As the soldiers ushered civilians and refugees back toward the other end of the chantry, her companions idled.
They mean to go with me.
Tephra shook her head, and gestured for them to follow the others, "No, you're all going with them."
"Like hell I am," Dorian snapped, with enough outrage to send her back a step in surprise. His wounded gaze darted away and he gave a short, sharp sigh. With that, all of his anger deflated, as he simply said, "You cannot ask me to leave you to face that maniac alone."
She wanted them safe, and away from whatever was coming.
"I can, and I am. I trust you to keep them safe," Tephra replied, keeping her tone steady and firm.
"And who will keep you safe? If you die—"
"I know how important the mark is," she bit back, in a bruised tone.
"The Void take your fucking mark!" Dorian took hold of her then, first cupping her elbows, then moving to take her hands into his own. "If you die, I'll have lost a dear friend and be left alone here with the lot of them, and that just won't do."
Tephra wanted to deck him for making her heart seize with such affection. Instead, she pulled away, as though burned.
Dorian cleared his throat as he regained his composure, before giving her a devil-may-care smile, "And really, an archdemon? Rather droll, don't you think? Considering we've traveled through time — twice. This Elder One has to work a bit harder to impress me."
Cassandra unshouldered her shield, and drew her sword, "And how do you mean to turn the trebuchet on your own without help?"
They had been forced to take turns turning the wheel crank of the trebuchets, given the chaotic nature of the fighting. She was half-certain the crank on her trebuchet had been rusty.
It hadn't been that difficult. She'd got the job done, in the end.
Tephra scowled, "Well, I'd—"
Cassandra slammed the flat of her sword against her shield, "And who is to keep your enemies off your back while you do it?"
Her mouth opened, then shut once more.
She was furious, but the woman was right.
With the soldiers loading the payload, and her turning the crank, it left no one to actually fend off an attack.
"No worries, Boss. We'll keep the buzzards off your back," Bull assured, hefting his massive greatsword over a shoulder.
Blackwall followed the Seeker's lead, as he hefted his shield from where he'd left it sitting against a pillar, "Time to be big fucking heroes and all that, right?"
There was a distant ringing in her ears, as everything began to slip from her control.
And when had she'd grown so arrogant as to think it was ever within her control? The world did not bother to deal in subtleties with her, and all of the lessons she'd learned in her life had come at brutal cost. One of her earliest lessons had been that death was an errant, unpredictable guest for which she could never prepare for.
Tephra knew by their expressions that they were coming with her, and nothing she could say would deter them.
She'd killed a world to keep them safe, but now that didn't matter anymore. They would follow her into the end of this mess, and she couldn't stop them.
"Do you recall what I told you, back at the chateau?" Vivienne asked, as walked past her towards the door. Her perfume smelled of flowers for which Tephra had no name for. "I do not mean to die meekly, my dear. I mean to meet my enemy, face to face. I am the one who decides my fate — however it ends."
Sera bumped her shoulder into her own as she passed, and offered a forced grin, "Whatever happens, we go down fighting, yeah? I'm not stopping even if I run out of arrows."
"I ran out of arrows making them pay."
The memory was a dagger, straight to her lung.
"Chin up, Snowflake. It's only a dragon," Varric deadpanned.
"And an army," Bull mused.
"And whatever the friggin' hell that Elder Fuck is," Sera grumbled, as she snagged extra arrows from a passing soldier.
It took considerable effort to block out the memory of their words, and yet still they found their way back to her in this world.
"Whatever comes, we're with you, Herald," Cassandra assured, waiting at the door for her.
Echoes from a dead world.
"Be strong for us, Herald. Whatever comes, you will not face it alone."
And once more, at the end, she found that she wasn't.
She had wanted to send them away, to keep them safe, and yet a part of her was grateful that she didn't have to go back out there alone.
Still, out of all of them, she had wanted to send Solas away. To conjure up some excuse to force him to leave with the rest, to ensure his survival. But he was too perceptive to fall for any ruse she might weave, and too stubborn to politely indulge her.
When she turned her gaze to his, she knew without a doubt that he would follow her into the catastrophe awaiting them outside the chantry.
Solas said nothing, only watched her with a tight expression, brows knitted with concern, and yet his words were with her still.
"I am with you until the end. In this world, and the next."
She felt at once a great sense of tenderness, and useless futile anger.
I should have told him, she thought to herself, bitterly.
If she survived, she would.
If he survived—
Tephra moved to step close to the Seeker, close enough to speak without the others hearing, "Whatever happens, get them out safe. The Elder One is only here for me, and I won't have anyone else dying because of it.
Cassandra frowned, "I gave my word that I would not abandon you. Not even at the end."
Tephra clasped the woman's arm, and hoped that she sounded more reassuring than she felt, "This is not the end, and I don't mean to die today."
"No one ever does," Cassandra informed. "Yet death comes for us all in the end."
Tephra's grip on the woman's arm tightened. "I mean it, Cassandra. If things go sideways, you get them out safe. Do it for me."
There was a tense moment of silence, before the Seeker conceded, "As you command, Herald."
When she moved for the door, the soldiers idling there moved to open the heavy doors to let her pass. Cold night air scoured her face, heavy with the scent of ash.
Whatever was waiting for her out there, she knew that she wouldn't face it alone.
If this was truly the end, whatever came for them, she would make it count.
She did not look back as she said, "If I don't get another chance to say this, I want you all to know that I'm glad that I've met all of you. It's been an honor."
Tephra did not wait for her companions to respond as she headed back out into the fray.
It should not have surprised her that the red templars would have taken the remaining trebuchet, not after such an effective first blow. Reinforcements flooded the choke point behind them, which had been hastily erected in the road by the soldiers whose bodies now littered the platform the trebuchet stood on.
The sudden influx forced a split amongst them as most of her companions turned back to meet the rush of enemies surging in from behind, while the rest rushed the platform to reclaim the trebuchet.
Tephra ducked down at the base of the platform, and put her back to the structure. She emptied her quiver and quickly jammed her remaining arrows into the snow in a haphazard row at her side.
Her hands were shaking as she readied an arrow, and scanned the chaos for a target.
When was the last time she'd eaten a proper meal? All she could recall of late was the abundance of mead available to her upon request.
Knuckles-white, she loosed.
The arrow skimmed her target and glanced uselessly off of the templar's armor.
She snatched another arrow up from the snow, and nocked. Ignoring the burn of sweat and ash in her sight, she let her focus whittle the world away to nothing but what lay beyond the tip of her arrow.
When an unguarded throat presented itself, she let the arrow fly.
The templar stumbled, sputtering red as he sank to his knees.
The Iron Bull turned mid-sweep with his great ax, with far more grace and ease than anyone his size should have, and cut the templar down where he sat in the snow. A single blow frenzied blow from the qunari and the templar's chest was completely caved in. Bull jerked his weapon free of broken armor and shattered ribs, before spinning off back into the fray and cutting down anything in his path.
Above her, she could hear the clanking of metal as the trebuchet was slowly moved into position. If one of her companions was able to work the crank, it surely meant that the platform had been cleared of enemies. A small relief, but the others were cornered at the chokepoint by a fresh wave of red templars.
Everything around her was pounding. Swords on swords, spell against spell. Her heart in her chest, and the blood in her head. A messy, arrhythmic din that seemed to grip every inch of her sweaty, aching body.
She wanted a drink.
She wanted ten drinks.
In fact, at that particular moment, she could probably have drunk every damned beer in the town, and still had room for a swift whisky after.
But such things would have to wait. Right now, all there was for her to focus on was to fight — to survive.
The bellow of the archdemon tore through her entire being.
Tephra fumbled the arrow she was nocking, as her attention was immediately drawn to the sky.
The stream of dragonfire beelined for the barrels of pitch stacked near the trebuchet, which burst upon contact.
Fire consumed everything in her sight.
She scrambled back against the base of the platform, and clambered on all fours as she tried to escape the blistering heat. The sudden white-hot pain of cinders burrowing through her coat and armor sent her rolling in the snow in an attempt to extinguish it.
Others were jumping from the platform, and from what she could see from where she lay in the snow a good portion of the structure had been set ablaze. The trebuchet was untouched by the archdemon's fire, but it would not remain so for long.
As the others scrambled to rejoin and aid their companions, Cassandra stooped to yank Tephra up from the snow by the collar of her coat, "Hurry! Before it comes back!"
The red templars were forcing her companions back through the choke point, and away from the trebuchet. The road behind them was empty.
If they fled now, they might be able to make it out before the mountain came down.
She pushed at the Seeker, "Go — get them out!"
"Someone has to fire the trebuchet," she reminded, in earnest. In her peripheral, Tephra could see the archdemon circling and moving to descend once more. "If the army remains, no one is safe."
The hard line of Cassandra's brow softened, as comprehension set in. She clasped Tephra's arm tightly, as she said, "May you act with the Maker's favor and walk into darkness, unafraid."
Tephra put her free hand to the woman's shoulder, and assured, "I'll find another way out when it's done."
The Seeker gave a sharp nod, as she regained her composure and shifted her focus to the task at hand. She took off after the others without a single glance back.
The others were too busy with the templars to realize she wasn't coming, and she could only put her faith in Cassandra to see that they would retreat without her when they finally did. She tried to find him among the press of her companions ringed by attacking templars, if only to meet his gaze, but she couldn't find him amongst the clamor.
She shook away the strange sense of loss, as she assured herself that this wasn't the end. That all she needed to do was to launch the payload, and then haul ass out of Haven. She would regroup with her people.
She would see him again.
All she needed to do was to launch the payload, and then haul ass out of Haven.
As she made her way up the stairs of the platform, she stopped to check the bodies for any weapon she could use, as her bow had been lost to her in the mad scramble to avoid the fire. Finding nothing but too-heavy swords and maces, she continued up to the trebuchet.
Halfway up, she stooped over a dead red templar. When she tugged his coat open to check for a dagger at his belt, the man gave a ragged gasp and grabbed hold of her. Eyes rolled back and gurgling blood, the man held to her like a vice as she tried to grapple free. Her foot slipped on the icy step beneath her and she felt the white-hot jab of pain as her ankle twisted. The sudden lurch of her body sent them both tumbling down the steps in a heap.
Overhead, the bellow of the archdemon signaled its return.
Panic flared through her as she thought of her companions, still locked in combat at the chokepoint.
As she struggled to release herself from the dying man's grip, she realized that he wasn't attacking her, simply pulling her close as he rasped incoherently. Tephra stilled, heart hammering in her ears and she leaned closer to catch what he was trying to say.
His wounds were mortal, but his death was a lingering one.
Mercy, she agreed, and slipped his dagger through the hollow of his throat.
Tephra pulled herself free and staggered to her feet, shaking and stumbling and she reoriented herself. The world was burning around her as she looked for her companions, only to see the dragon swoop low and its fire burning a path straight for them.
The barriers rose — magic from different sources weaving together in blues and silvers and shimmering lavender — just as the group of swarming templars around them were engulfed. The bodies blackened to ash before they hit the ground.
For one staggered moment, she could see them huddled inside — safe, untouched by the fire — before the barriers shattered.
The shockwave of displaced magic took her off her feet and sent her tumbling through the air. She landed in a bone-jarring heap, head snapping back against the gravel.
Her sight washed white, and the rushing in her ears was the same as when she was under the water, reaching for her brother.
For a moment, she could see him there just beyond her reach.
Tephra groaned as she rolled onto her side, and the world came rushing back to her. All the white slipped away, and there was only fire.
And beyond it, a being beyond comprehension, striding towards her in no hurried fashion — striding as one who belabored themself a god would.
Whatever he'd been before, he was monstrous now. Skeletal and wraith-like and twisted to a staggering height, he was an amalgam of red lyrium and blighted flesh.
As she struggled to her feet, the dragon came thundering in behind her. She stumbled back from the creature as it came skidding to a halt in the ash and snow. She instinctively raised her hands, for all the good it served. Its glimmering red eyes fixed on the mark in her hand, burning through the leather of her glove. It trumpeted its outrage that she bore the mark its master sought, and stalked closer as though it meant to take it back itself.
She felt a strange rush of air energy push at her, as the air around her was displaced. The dragon stilled, and her attention shifted back to its master.
The flesh of his face, twisted by red lyrium, twisted further as he sneered, "Pretender. You toy with forces beyond your ken no more."
It took all of her strength to keep her voice steady, "Whatever you are, I'm not afraid."
"Words mortals often hurl at the darkness. Once, they were mine," the Elder One mused. "They are always lies."
She wasn't sure that anything like him could have ever been anything like her. The thought that a person could be twisted so beyond what they once were sent ice running through her blood.
As he stepped closer, he continued, "Know me. Know what you have pretended to be. Exalt the Elder One — the will that is Corypheus." He raised one long arm to point threateningly at her, "You will kneel."
Everything from the moment she first woke shivering in the prison cell beneath Haven's chantry, from the Breach to the ruined future, from every inch gained with the closing of a rift to every staggering loss — all of it led her here.
Whatever her fear, the words of her people came back to her in that moment when her own words failed her.
We are the Dalish — keepers of the lost lore, walkers of the lonely path.
We are the last elvhen. Never again shall we submit.
She met his gaze with the steel of her own, "Never."
It was only when she finally spoke that she noticed the silence which had fallen over Haven.
Standing in the shadow of the last standing trebuchet, cornered in by the dragon's fire burning a tight wreath around them, she knew that there was nothing left beyond the flames but the dead.
"It matters not whether you kneel in life — or death," the Elder One informed, as he brandished a strange orb from the depths of his tattered robes. Deep grooves ran in lines and whorls across its surface, and in the creature's hand it sparked with strange red magic.
Distantly, she recalled tatters of Solas's words, speaking of such an artifact.
So that is where the mark originated, Tephra mused. She idly wondered if she would live to report the information to anyone.
The would-be god continued, as the red energy began to crackle and arc through the air as the magic flared, "I am here for the Anchor. The process of removing it begins now."
When the Elder One thrust his free hand towards her, the mark in her hand burst to life with an intensity that knifed its way through the entirety of her being and brought her shamefully to her knees. Red energy snaked the length of her arm and cinched like a vice.
Through the din of agony rushing through her ears, she heard him continue on as though he spoke not for her, but for some other — or perhaps, he simply spoke to his own ego, as she was in no position to appreciate his soliloquy.
"It is your fault, Herald. You interrupted a ritual years in the planning, and instead of dying you stole its purpose. I do not know how you survived, but what marks you as "touched", what you flail at rifts, I crafted to assault the very heavens. And you used the Anchor to undo my work — the gall!"
She could barely focus on anything outside the pain, as she demanded, "What is this fucking thing meant to do?!"
But she already knew the answer, didn't she?
She had seen it in that terrible dead future.
"It is supposed to bring certainty where there is none. For you, the certainty that I would always come for it."
Her vision blurred as the pain crescendoed. She felt a violent tug through her being, as it seemed the Elder One meant to tear the mark from her even if it broke every last bone in her body.
And then all at once, it ceased.
The mark remained, burning in the cradle of her hand.
The Elder One was on her before her senses fully returned to her. He grabbed her wrist with crushing force and lifted her into the air as though she were nothing but a ragdoll, and brought her face close to his as he set off on another tirade, "I once breached the Fade in the name of another, to serve the Old Gods of the Empire in person. I found only chaos and corruption. Dead whispers."
Her shoulder burned as the muscles strained to support the weight of her own body, as she struggled to follow Corypheus's rant.
Breached the Fade?
She knew of no event in history like the Breach. Had he meant on a smaller scale? Had he used that strange orb, or a different means of magic?
"For a thousand years I was confused. No more. I have gathered the will the return under no name but my own. To champion withered Tevinter and correct this blighted world."
Despite the precarious nature of her situation and the dismal odds of surviving it, her mind continued to latch onto each scrap of information the twisted creature gave. Anything that might be of use to her people.
"Beg that I succeed," the Elder One advised as he drew her closer, arm coiled with tension as his grip tightened. "For I have seen the throne of the gods, and it was empty."
And then with a bone-snapping ferocity, he hurled her through the air. She felt something give in her shoulder with an unsettling snap, just before her body slammed into the framework of the trebuchet. Her head snapped against the wood just above her ear, and she felt the hot rush of blood down the side of her neck.
Dazed, she struggled to her feet, clutching at her shoulder. Her legs shook with effort, as what little remained of her strength dwindled and died.
"The anchor is permanent," he surmised. As he began toward her, the dragon drew in beside him, lurking ever closer. "You have spoilt it with your stumbling. So be it. I will begin again, find another way to give this world the nation — and god — it requires."
His demented grandstanding was little more than a load of piss, as none of it mattered anymore.
The Breach was closed.
He had tried, and failed, to take the Anchor.
As she rested against the guardrail beside the crank wheel, the realization hit her.
If she died, then it would die with her.
A sudden, faint glimmer caught her eye.
Beyond the monstrosity and his dragon, far beyond what was left of the walls of Haven, a single flare took flight and burned a slow path through the night sky.
A ragged sigh tore itself free of her, and her sight blurred as relief washed over her.
It was done.
The people of Haven were safe beyond the trees in the foothills of the mountain, out of the path of the trebuchet.
"And you," the Elder One hissed — a fricative sound, like sandpaper rustling against itself — as he seized her by the throat and crushed her against the railing behind her. "I will not suffer even an unknowing rival. You must die."
She clawed ineffectually at the flesh of his hand with gloved hands. She felt her throat begin to close and panic creep in, but she pushed it away as she calmed herself.
They are safe, she reminded herself.
He was safe.
Tephra braced a boot against the crank wheel, and shifted her hip to brace her body against the railing for maximum leverage.
"You first," she rasped, and kicked with all her strength.
As gears and pulleys began to click and clank around them, Corypheus released her as realization set in.
Above them, the trebuchet loosed its payload.
The Elder One made a sound of disgust, as he was forced to retreat. He mounted the dragon, and took flight.
The mountain wouldn't claim him, but it would claim what remained of his army that still lurked in Haven and its environs.
There was nothing left to do, but to run.
It seemed such a futile thing to do, as nowhere in Haven would be safe from the impending deluge of snow and rock.
Yet still, she ran.
It was an entirely primal response — an unthinking, automatic function of self-preservation, however fruitless. The way a body forced itself to gasp for air just before death, even though the spirit had passed.
There was a gut-wrenching clamor behind her and the world seemed to break and shatter beneath the weight of the avalanche, but she dared not look back. She launched herself free of the platform where the trebuchet sat, just as the deafening roar of impact filled her ears. She tumbled blindly, and felt her body propelled through shattering planks, as snow and dirt choked her senses.
The world went black as she felt herself driven down into the earth, buried beneath the mountain she'd brought down.
Author's Notes: Forgive the heavy usage of in-game dialogue, but given that this is a critical part of the plot, it remains included. Also, apologies with the slowness of updating. I'm back to full-time work, so I have precious little free time to write.
There is much meta and in-game lore surrounding the true nature of the Old Ones, (and the Forgotten Ones), which I'm taking some liberties with. A particular banter between Solas and Cassandra on Cory's dragon/archedemons adds to my suspicion, as well. This will be furthered explored and expanded on in the future.
Vir suledin sa'vunin. — May we endure one more day. (Possibly, I'm taking liberties with the language here.)
p.s. I'm thirsty for feedback, y'all. Like that thing I did in that one scene? Did I get something terribly wrong about x/y/z? Feel free to tell me all about it.