Chapter 74: Recruiting

"How do I let you talk me into this shit?!" Varric shouts in my ear, clinging tightly to my waist.

My only response is to let out a whoop of excitement, leaning down further over Serenade's back as she races above the snow-covered rock formations of Emprise du Lion. The high dragon's young ones are old enough now to fend for themselves, and she readily agreed to help us. Miracle and Nimbus are already on their way to Skyhold. My dragon army is nearly complete; we just have a couple of more stops to make.

Varric grunts, and settles in closer, the touch of his chest against my back spreading an entirely different sort of warmth through me, but I push the thought aside. There's too much work to be done right now to worry about lovemaking. Even though he's quite good at it. I shush my inner beast and focus instead on where we're going.

"I know the camp is around here somewhere," I yell over the sound of the rushing wind.

Looking down, I see red lyrium continuing to spread and that sickened feeling returns. Enormous crystalline clusters jut upwards, covering entire hillsides in some places. I think about how Lucis is encouraging this madness, and I'm suddenly glad Tenebris punched him. I wish he were here so I could do the same myself right now. How can he possibly believe he's doing the right thing? It's clear that even if Corypheus is stopped and the lyrium stops spreading, the land here won't recover for a very long time.

"There!" Varric announces, pointing ahead to our left, and I convey the message to Serenade, who heads in that direction.

I chuckle a little to myself as the Inquisition soldiers scatter and reach for weapons as the dragon swoops down overhead. One individual steps forward, however, and I'm impressed with his bravery.That must be the one in charge...wait, I recognize him. It's one of the guards from Suledin Keep. He smiles in greeting.

"Dragon Girl, you gave us quite a scare!" he shouts as we land, a welcoming smile pinned to his face.

Varric and I dismount, with a little help from Serenade, and I turn back to look up at the dragon.

"Thank you, Serenade," I tell her in Draconic. "You will find the others I told you about back at Skyhold. Do you understand how to get there?"

"I do," she answers with a dip of her massive head.

"Good. We will conclude our business and join you there as soon as we can." I smile at her. "Together, victory is inevitable."

"And then we will dance on the corpses of your enemies," she responds. Her lips pull back from her teeth in a motion that I almost want to describe as a smile. I take a step back, bowing my own head in parting. With a few beats of her wings that send snow flying in all directions, Serenade lifts off the ground and heads back east.

When I turn back I find Varric already engaged in conversation with the man who had stepped forward earlier, and I approach them, catching part of their conversation.

"...and they're all nesting," the guard finishes explaining, and that one phrase makes my shoulders tense up.

"Wait, say that part again," I instruct.

Varric looks over at me, his brow twitching the only indication of his worry. "You heard him. Three. All nesting."

Stars, why can't anything ever be easy? "No matter," I say, trying to sound hopeful. I take a deep breath. "I'll convince them anyway."

"'Course you will." Varric flashes a grin at me and my heart catches.

The captain, however, doesn't seem impressed with my confidence. "We should send some of our men with you, but I don't know how many I can spare."

"We will go with you," an Orlesian voice sounds, and I'm shocked to see Frederic of Serault standing in the snow, with the elven researcher, Minaeve, at his side.

I can't keep the smile from my face as I greet both of them. "What are you doing here? I thought you'd be with the troops, or back in Skyhold by now."

"The same thing you are, I imagine," Minaeve states, as though it were obvious. "We came for the dragons."

I look at her, then Frederic. Evidently, Frederic had been successful in persuading Minaeve that live dragons are more valuable than dead specimen.

He continues, "I would not pass up the opportunity to observe nesting behavior by not just one, but three different species." I can hear the enthusiasm in his voice, even if I can't see his face behind the mask. "It is a shame, though," he continues, "I have not yet had another opportunity to practice my Draconic with a high dragon."

"You shouldn't try. If these are nesting, then they'll be more aggressive. But you've seen them?" I clarify. "You said they were different species?"

"Just so, I have personally observed two of the three, at least: a Hivernal and a Kaltenzhan, both cold types. We do know the last is a fire-breather, but I know not what species. It flew over in ze night, but I could not get a good look at it." As he finishes, he points to a section of the crumbling houses on the far side of the small settlement, now burned, still smoldering, with small wisps of smoke rising from the debris.

I glance over my shoulder to the sheer drop-off not far away, the gap spanned by a stone bridge. There's no sign of the dragons from this distance, but looking at the landscape, this could be difficult. Steep hills and rocks create narrow corridors - a perfect funnel for a flame jet to blast through. Or, if we get trapped by the edge of the cliff, it will leave us with a decision of death by angry dragon, or by a long fall to the chasm floor below. Either way, I am not looking forward to this.

"Well, only one way to find out," I declare, and turn back to my companions. "Captain, I don't need many of your men. Either this goes well, and I bring us back three dragons, or…" I look at Varric, Frederic and Minaeve, "None of us are coming back at all, and you'll need your men here to fight them when they eventually come. Two or three ought to round out my team just fine."

"Simmons," the captain barks, looking to his right. A young man with short blonde hair that couldn't have been more than twenty snaps to attention. "You'll be going with Ferox and her team. Berran, you too."

Berran is a bit older, with a dark beard, and his hair pulled back at the nape of his neck. He's handsome, and reminds me a little of Blackwall. I smile, and he returns a wary smile of his own. I know he's probably thinking he was just handed a suicide mission, but I'm going to do my best to see this man safely returned to camp.

Varric and I already have our provisions, but we watch as the others quickly grab what they need. Varric says nothing, just runs a soothing hand over Bianca, a motion I've seen more times than I can count. After a few minutes, our group assembles at the start of the bridge before heading east. When we get halfway across, I realize the canyon is larger than I had anticipated. Looking down makes me a bit dizzy.

I walk with my staff at the ready, and I'm surprised to see Minaeve carrying one as well. I know she was an apprentice before the events at the Conclave, but I've never seen her perform magic before. I fall back to talk to her.

Her pretty brows knit together as she sees me approaching. "Yes, I'm carrying a staff," she says defensively.

I smile. "You never finished your Circle training, correct?"

"That's right."

"I could help you learn, you know. I helped the other mages before, when they were training."

"I don't like using magic for fighting. I'm not good at it, anyway," Minaeve protests.

"Why are you carrying a staff, then?"

"Because it's better than being without it."

Fair enough, I think, and let the matter drop. If she wants lessons, I've made it clear that the door is open.

As we near the far side, there is no roar of a dragon to greet us, no beating of wings warning us of an impending attack. The area is for the awful hum from the red lyrium nearby. No, wait, there is something. I listen harder, and hear a bubbling sound. Hot springs? That would account for the high level of fog this side of the bridge. Heated pockets might also explain why three adult dragons - usually in direct competition with each other - would settle in one place.

"Firefly," Varric's sound sounds, breaking my reverie as he comes to walk beside me. "There's something you're not saying again. Cold dragons means cold magic, right?"

I turn to look at him, and I see the concern in his brow.

He hesitates. "When you did that back at Mythal's temple...look, just tell me this is different, and we're going to be laughing over ales when this is all over."

I pause, allowing some of the others to pass so that we can have privacy to talk. Once we're a the back of the group, I give him my most reassuring smile and take a deep breath. "I know I scared you back then, and I'm sorry," I tell him. "But Corypheus isn't here this time, so there's no risk of him getting to me right now. And if he shows up, you know where I'll go first."

"To Cinder in the Hissing Wastes," he responds.

I nod. "Right. I won't go to the Black City. I promise. For better or worse, my future lies with you , Varric." I reach out to take his hand, but the sound of someone clearing their throat draws my attention back to our companions and I miss his reaction. I grasp Varric's warm, strong hand anyway, and we walk hand-in-hand forward into the snowy area at the end of the bridge.

The path leads to an iron gate set in a stone doorway. I peer ahead, and I can make out what looks like a arena on the hill in front of us, with white pillars rising proudly out of the rock, topped with arches in a repeating pattern. It speaks of older times. I struggle to remember this part of the world, and what this arena might have once been used for, but I find I have no memory of this place. Perhaps it was after we left, and I had no reason to view it in the Watcher's Well, or perhaps the snow and the red lyrium have changed the landscape so much that I no longer recognize it. Either way, it remains impressive.

A screech sounds above, and over the top ledge of the arena I catch a glimpse of a scaly, blue-gray wing. Dragon, I nearly sing to myself, so happy to have located the first one. I put a hand out to stop the others, pointing to the top ledge. We wait, and again, the wing appears, before moving out of view.

"Which one is it?" Berran asks from behind me, his voice deep and gravelly.

I hesitate, and Frederic speaks, instead. "it's the Hivernal, the smaller of the two cold dragons. I would recognize the stocky build and coloring anywhere."

Simmons looks to Berran for orders, and Berran looks at me. "You, Dragon Girl, what's our approach?"

I think for a moment before speaking. "We need to know the layout up there. It's best if I can observe for a minute. We'll approach quietly. It's best if I go alone first, with the rest of you at the ready."

The blonde solder, Simmons, hunches in obvious relief - a telltale sign of his inexperience. Berran is more reserved, of course, but even his brow wrinkles in confusion. "Alone? Are you sure that's wise?"

"Just let her work," Varric comments with a smirk, and I immediately grin. His faith in me brings back the excitement of meeting more dragons again. "They don't call her Dragon Girl for nothing," he adds.

The six of us creep up the stairs nearly silently, but we don't really have to bother as the crashing noises from the dragon above cover any sounds we're making - even with two soldiers in full armor. It could be the dragon is already aware that we're here, but I decide on caution as my best course of action, and, my heart hammering in my chest both with anticipation and apprehension, I lift my head above the threshold.

I'm struck with how small she is compared to some of the others. In general, fire dragons are the largest, and lightning dragons are the leanest and most nimble. Cold dragons are smaller in size, but make up for it by being compact. This one is no exception, but she still seems smaller than others of her breed. Dense muscles ripple under her deep blue scaly hide. The Hivernal spreads her powerful wings, over the far edge, as she had before, and I see the nest she is guarding, hidden under a rocky outcropping near the edge. Then it hits me: there are no drakes. There should have been at least one in the area, if this dragon has eggs in that nest. Ordinarily there would be several, working together to guard her and the nest during this time.

I see her swivel her head my direction, and I duck back down into the stairwell. I gesture for the others to descend a bit, and once out of earshot, I fill them in on what I saw.

"She's alone, guarding her nest. That means she has laid her eggs, but it makes no sense. There are no drakes."

Minaeve frowns. "Usually when a nesting dragon is killed, there are also remains of drakes to be examined. It is unusual."

"Perhaps 'zey are already dead?" Frederic comments. "Nesting dragons can become aggressive, no?"

"Yeah," I reply, "but I didn't see any bodies either. Just the remains of prey animals." I think for a moment. "Maybe it's the other dragons in close proximity, I don't know. Anyway, I have an idea." I smile nod my head, and Varric groans.

"I've come to hate that expression, Firefly." He grunts. "What's the plan?"

"With as desperate as she is, a fight is likely," I admit. "The problem will be getting me close enough. She's pacing the far corner where the nest is. I'm going to try to approach her calmly, but… just make sure Bianca is ready."

Ignoring his resigned look and tightened grip on his beloved crossbow, as well as the apprehension on the faces of the others, I focus only on my own intentions. Cold and ice. Breathe in the frigid air, feel it bite your lungs. Chill...stillness, the empty silence. When I open my eyes again, it's with the steely reserve of the cold. A fine mist floats around me, ice crystals catching the light as I ascend, and step out to face the dragon.