Ilona could taste her own blood.
Grinding the soft flesh of her bottom lip between her teeth, she shifted her weight on her feet, her hands still held in mid-air. Each surface in the small room was illuminated by the pale sage glyph that seemed to paint the floor. From the ceiling to the walls to the stone floors, every inch not hidden in shadow was swathed with the glow. Each axle of the small wheel glittered in the darkness, the slender lines only broken by the tall, gangly form that lay atop it.
The muscles in her arms were burning. The nonexistent flames licked beneath her skin from shoulder to fingertips, but she refused to let fatigue stop her. After so many months of almost constant fighting, she knew she had it within herself to hold out a few minutes more. It was painful, but she'd fight tooth and nail through it in order to give him whatever time he needed.
For weeks, she'd spent much of her free time assuaging the men and women who fought by her side. She helped Anders relieve himself of the indignant Ser Rylock. The discovery of a crypt beneath the Keep led to her placing the ancestral Howe bow into the hands of an awestruck Nathaniel. Everything she did, she did it to keep morale high, working herself above and beyond the call of duty as she had during the Blight. Every one of them deserved to have whatever help they needed.
The being lying on the floor at her feet was no different.
As she once overheard him say, his inhabiting Kristoff's body slowed down the process of decomposition. Still, in the weeks she'd known him, the form had aged considerably. His skin was paper-thin and slowly becoming leathery in texture. Without blood enough to bring warmth to the flesh, it was devoid of all color save the violet bruises that clung to the bags beneath his eyes and the hollows of his cheeks. His lips had nearly diminished to nothing.
Yet, despite the state of him, he looked almost peaceful lying on the floor as he was. It was as if the spirit had finally found some way to leave the Warden's body, allowing the bones to fall as they wished in a true final resting place. In some small way, things were as they appeared. This was Ilona's attempt at helping Justice in a way she couldn't with Kristoff's wife.
While a powerful mage, there were certain limitations to what she was capable of accomplishing. Grief was far beyond the tips of her fingers, just as untouchable as it was inconsolable. When mixed with anger, it was even more so.
However, with the aid of lyrium and a culmination of all her knowledge, she was able to find the spirit some reprieve. At first, he'd expressed some hesitation. There was much to be done, after all, and the safety of thousands upon thousands of people rested upon her capable shoulders. But she'd pressed on and insisted and swore that her concentration would remain mostly on the task at hand.
This was an outstretched palm, an appeal of friendship, a desire to ease the spirit's mind in order to help him. In the days that followed, Ilona was often found pouring over whatever tomes she could find, eagerly scribbling at page after page of vellum. Her time was split between finding some way to give Justice whatever time he needed in the Fade and dealing with the responsibility of being the Arlessa of Amaranthine.
When she was presented to the nobles with various ink stains spotting her robes, her short chop of brown hair mussed, they tittered to themselves, entirely unimpressed by the young woman's state despite how capable she'd proven herself to be. While Velanna claimed their petty approval wasn't worth the spit their servants used to shine their armor, the Warden-Commander kept her lips sealed shut. She knew otherwise. If they did not trust her to lead them, her leadership would be compromised, and that was the very last thing she wanted.
The moment she was allowed leave, she turned on her heel and made her way back to the Keep's extensive study, returning to the pile of old books that littered the table. Sometimes Anders would keep her company, flipping through the pages with care, pointing out a line from a recipe or a stanza from a canto she hadn't seen before.
She was often encouraged to work until her fingers ached and cuts all but bled ink while still in the Tower, and it was little more than this sanctioned stubbornness mixed with luck that had her finish the spell. Luckily, that same luck did not run out.
A little practiced charm was on her side when she spoke with the spirit, presenting him with the written incantation and a direct description of the glyph he would find himself lying prone within. She wasn't sure if it was actually the smile or his own innate curiosity that pulled an agreement out of him, but she was pleased with herself nevertheless.
Ilona shook her head in an attempt to focus. Her hands had slowly begun to droop, the glyph flickering beneath Justice as her mana continued its slow drain. Come on, she thought to herself, fingers splaying wider as the sage light flared, Just a while longer.
"A while longer" could not have ended soon enough. By now, there was a tension building between her shoulders that was threatening her stability. Her arms felt as though they'd been dipped into lye. The arches of her feet protested every lingering second she stood there. Her chin quavered before she snatched her lip back between her teeth, biting down without a care to keep it from shaking again.
Suddenly, the glyph blinked out of existence. With its sudden disappearance came an onslaught of shadow, and she gave a quiet curse as she moved towards the bedside table. Her hands settled upon the roughly hewn wood, moving about without a shred of grace as she searched blindly for the candle that had so far eluded her.
There was a quiet, but ultimately familiar groan from behind her, followed by a shuffling and the creaking of wooden blanks.
When he did not speak, a worried crease formed between Ilona's brows. Lifting the candlestick from the small table, she extended an index toward where she assumed the wick stood out of the wax. A tiny tendril of orange licked from the tip of her finger, but it was gone before it was able to light the candle. She repeated herself twice, only to find that she was too drained to even manage the smallest of spells.
Setting the candlestick down, she turned to where she thought Justice stood. The window was perched high on the wall, and on any other night, the moon would have filled his chamber with a beautiful glow. Tonight, however, the clouds were thick with even more impending rain, casting a massive shadow over the Keep. Still, as her eyes adjusted, she was able to make out the spirit's form by a sliver of pale blue that shaded the side of his face.
For what felt like a small eternity, neither of them moved or spoke.
A wave of fatigue rolled over her as she struggled to pull herself up into a standing position, and she swayed forward on her feet, uttering a quiet rush of breath. Turning, she placed herself down on the bed pushed against the far wall. She should sleep. Maker, how wonderful it would feel to actually sleep.
Scrubbing a hand over her features, she offered him a small smile, though she knew he could not see it. "How was it?" Her voice was feeble and nearly breathless from exhaustion, but her curiosity would not allow her to rest until it was satisfied. "Was it everything you remembered?"
A single, softly-spoken word had never wounded her pride like that before. She was used to being told "no." As a child raised within the walls of the Circle, it was one of the phrases she heard most often and with increasing frequency as she grew older. But after so much work, so many hours spent reading until her eyes crossed... She looked up at his shadowed form with an expression of utter confusion. "What?" she asked him, unable to keep the trembling question at bay.
"I'm sorry." His tone, while as robust as ever, hinted towards actual remorse. "That... that sounded ungrateful of me. I apologize."
Ilona shook her head. "There's no need to apologize, but an explanation would be nice."
The spirit hesitated. He could sense the words forming against the still-unfamiliar tongue in his mouth, but they did not pass his lips for all his uncertainty. Why had he been so unfulfilled? Why had the Fade felt so unwelcoming? Why had it felt so odd, so uncomfortable, and why did waking to this form feel so... right? To actually ponder such questions was unsettling in the very least. For such a long time, he knew exactly where he belonged and what was to be asked of him, but this living world steadily filled him with conflicting sensations, feelings that he knew were dangerous.
He placed himself down on the bed beside her. Between the form's uncomfortably tight muscles and his own rising annoyance with himself, Ilona could nearly feel the indecision coming off of him in waves. "It is difficult to explain," he began. She couldn't be bothered to count how often she heard that phrase. So often she was met with those who couldn't properly word their problems or their thanks. It was then that she often placed a hand on their forearm for encouragement, but she did not know how he would react to such a thing.
"I remembered there being... more." Whatever he momentarily lacked in eloquence, he made up for in the sheer emotion behind his words. She could sense it all – disappointment, confusion, sadness. All of them were lined with such a thin layer of anger she could scarcely hear it. This worried her, but not nearly as much as it worried him. "Is that -" he paused, brow creasing as his fingers clenched over the side of the mattress. "Is that to be expected?"
Ilona gave a quiet, "huh," of contemplation. She was no spirit. She wasn't aware of what it was like to spend more than a scant few hours within the Fade. What would it feel like to live there for ages? In the short time she'd been trapped there by the sloth demon, she'd promised herself never to look into the Fade for longer than was necessary. "I," she murmured, "I'm not sure." Her thoughts ran in circles around her head, tossing questions from one side to the other, none of them entirely clear due to her energy deprived state. "I understand what you're saying, yes, but I'm not sure if it's normal. I don't have much room for comparison."
Justice merely nodded, his chin sunk low. He wanted nothing more than to have the answers, for things to once more be as simple as they always had been. But as these words culminated on the roof of his mouth, he silenced them. Such experiences he'd had since arriving in this world of the living he'd not sacrifice for anything. Even the questions that haunted him were worth what he found.
"I lived in the Tower my whole life," Ilona murmured suddenly, pulling Justice out of his introverted state, "I never questioned anything. It was my home, not a prison as some other mages saw it." How she was teased for it, too. Between Jalil Surana and Jowan, she'd had her share of "friendly tormenters," ones who found pleasure in badgering her constantly and calling her "enchanter's pet" and "Missus Irving" behind her back. She smiled to herself. At the time, the memories were nothing more than little frustrations. Now they were precious things she held close. "It wasn't until I left that I realized how little it really had for me... Does that make sense?"
"An inspired answer, Ilona." The shade of awe in his voice pulled the curl at the corner of her mouth even farther and etched a dimple in her cheek. No matter what, having people look to her for answers would always take her unaware, but never so much as when she actually imparted some sliver of helpful advice. "I've spent so much of my time here wondering how and when I will return." There was a subtle lilt in his voice that sounded like contemplation. "I have not questioned whether or not I wish to."
Ilona tilted her head to look at him. Even in the dark with only that same sliver of blue light to aid her sight, she could see enough of his face to find that he was entirely genuine. She also found that he was wringing his hands in his lap, an odd gesture he must have picked up from her some time ago.
"I've heard you and Nathaniel talk about that a few times," she replied simply.
"Ah, yes. We have. Nathaniel seems to believe I could inhabit the body of a living person, should I have their consent."
The mage bit down on her bottom lips. "And what say you? Would you ever be willing to do that?"
Justice stared down at the hands before him. He unlaced his fingers and ran his knuckles over the back of his other hand. Leathery and dry, peeling, and as pallid as ever. Each touch was a reminder that his body was not his. It belonged to another man, a dead man. "Yes." The word was hardly more than a whisper, yet it held the same inner strength she'd come to equate with the spirit. "Aura deserves to lay her husband to rest."
Ilona did not speak. He did not expect words from her; she'd given him more than enough in these past weeks. While he did not expect advice or an agreement, he did not expect action, either. He could hear sound of her robes rustling around her feet as she pulled one of her legs onto the bed, turning just far enough so she could look at him; he could feel her eyes, could feel her rest a hand along his arm, and could feel the warmth that seemed to spread from her palm, into the body's weary bones.
"If I am able to find someone who could use my help, someone who is not afraid of what I offer, I would be willing to go through with it. Much thought has brought me to this conclusion." He paused, "Perhaps then Velanna would not constantly ask me if I could use the help of her poultices."
Despite how sombre the previous moment was, Ilona found herself ravaging her bottom lip to stifle the laugh that bubbled within her. She failed, letting loose a quiet titter, her hand leaving his arm to cover her mouth. "She's only trying to help," she was quick to mention, as if an apology to the elven mage. "Though I would warn you to stay clear of Anders once you're within a living body. He'd no doubt see just how many whore houses he could take you to before you turn into a demon."
Justice nearly recoiled at the idea, but he collected himself, choosing instead to ignore the comment. He knew she meant no harm by it; it was merely her attempt at a joker. It was one he didn't find humorous, but he could tell by how she said it that it was meant as such.
"There is a verse in that book I gave you." There was a softness in Ilona's voice that surprised him. "You've no doubt read it." He knew the one. She'd left a slip of dyed lambskin to mark the page, and he'd often returned to that verse for two reasons. The first was that she pointed the poem out to him, and the second being how clearly it rang with truth. "I have spent many years within the Fade," she began, fingering the hem of her sleeve as she strained to remember the words exactly, "Though I do find peace inside these illusory walls, against the color of life do they pale."
"For when I wake from my otherworldly sleep, I return to you beyond the Veil," he finished.
The mage gave a small nod. So he had read it. Maybe that was one of the reasons why he'd been so receptive to the idea of staying lately. Was she to blame for his uncertainty? "You have friends here, Justice. Something to come back to. Maybe that's why returning to where you were before isn't the same."
"You are correct, of course," he said simply. He was always amazed by the wisdom this human possessed. She was so young, much younger than most of those he'd come into contact with, and yet she had a strength of spirit that mirrored a woman three times her age. Perhaps that is why everyone looked to her so willingly. "Thank you, Ilona. You have given me clarity I never expected to have."
"Friends," she reminded him, "don't require thanks."
Justice murmured a small acceptance of the notion. "Then I thank you for being a friend." The word still felt odd on his tongue, but the sentiment was not lost on him nor was the concept. "You have done well by me, by everyone here." He took a moment to consider the words that would follow. He did not wish to offend her by intruding. But when she did not so much as move from the place on the bed, he was able to continue. "But, I wonder, who is it that would send you into the Fade?"
She knew the question was not one to be taken literally, and yet she was quick to reply, "I could send myself into the sodding Fade if I had the energy."
"That is not what I meant by my question," was Justice's reply.
Ilona felt a dull pang in the center of her chest brought forth by how crestfallen he sounded. "I know, I know. I'm sorry." Bringing her hand up to her mouth, she chewed absently on the nail of her thumb. "I'm just not used to answering those kinds of questions about myself. I'm usually the one asking them."
"I did not wish to pry..."
"No, I know," she sighed, letting her hand fall down onto her lap. "I know many who would send me to the Fade." She trailed off, brows knitting. She thought of Zevran, all the way in Antiva, of Sten and of Leliana and Alistair. Her thoughts moved to Anders, to Nathaniel and to Sigrun and to the spirit sitting so close to her now. She was truly lucky. Despite everything she'd seen and everything she'd been forced into, knowing that she'd met so many wonderful people along the way was consolation enough. "And I would wake up for every single one of them."
She smiled to herself. Without so much as a word, Ilona leaned over and slid a careful arm around his shoulder. She pulled herself close, her fingers settling between his shoulder blades. He did not return the embrace. He did not lift her into his arms. He did not kiss her soundly or give her a beautifully worded confession. But even with her senses dulled from exhaustion, she could feel him drift towards her, and that was enough.
When she spoke, her voice was little more than a whisper. "Including you."
A/N: And so ends my first attempt at writing Justice! I must admit that it was a challenge, though a very fun one. I've also grown more than a little attached to Ilona and the spirit himself in the process. So, what do you think? I've an idea to take this into a multi-chaptered story (which would include Anders and Sigrun and some of our old friends), but I'm a bit iffy on whether or not I should go through with it. I'd love to hear what you think!