A/N: I was pleasantly surprised to get some requests to continue this. Not that I wasn't going to, but I've been sidetracked by my other stories.
I did go back to the beginning and just had to cringe at how... crude my writing was, way back when. I'm glad I eliminated the paranthesis action notices early on at least.
Chapter 69: Ghostly Favors
There was something particularly frustrating about having a perpetually open web of wounds just waiting to make blood sprout from your arm and chest. Especially when those wounds tended to flare with pain and bleed whenever you allowed your emotions any degree of freedom, however small. Even if you merely "wished" or "hoped" for it to get better. It was like the whole situation had been designed with the express purpose of making life more painful the more optimistic you tried to be.
A final "gift" on the part of the Desire Demon Bitch that Theron had exorcised. Granted, Raonar admitted that the way he'd forced a temporary empathy link with Vartag could have been done without. But how was he to know he had a demon stowaway just waiting for him to force a greater link to the Fade than normal? A link big enough to allow his connection to Honor's realm to be disrupted by the right application of spiritual pressure?
He'd been so enraged and focused on Vartag at the time that he hadn't even sensed the tampering to his link with the metaphysical. He even did the same to Faren before he got his reason punched back into him, but by then it was too late. The demon had already torn him from the connection with his spirit partner, and was actively pulling more magical power in an effort to overwhelm him and take his body for herself.
Raonar himself didn't really understand what happened afterwards. He knew what Alim and Theron had done, but he still didn't know what his "inner world" was any more than all the previous times he went there. The fact that no one else had something similar was suspicious. The fact he could practically pull energy from the Fade and store it in that other place made him think it might not be an "inner" world at all. And what Theron had said, of it being one of two different afterlives, made him think it wasn't actually a metaphor. Dwarves believed they had a different fate after death than the rest of Thedas. Maybe it was actually true, but he could go to his little, isolated corner without dying all the way? After all, he'd essentially been living with one leg in the grave for years, ever since that expedition in the Deep Roads that nearly ended in disaster. Arguably had ended in disaster, for him at least.
He'd done a lot of thinking on the matter over the past few weeks. There wasn't much else to do when he had to keep to himself the way he'd been. He'd managed to at least find a way to numb the general pain, but it meant keeping at least three fourths of his attention devoted to that alone. The rest kept trying to puzzle what it all meant. Well, when he wasn't consciously suppressing his desire to start yelling at the others to stop treading on eggshells. Not that his somber mood and great difficulty to sleep helped matters.
It would have been easier to handle if his situation didn't impact everyone else emotionally so severely. How ironic, that the moment he actually started to behave like Grey Wardens are known to (grim and taciturn) everything began to ever so steadily fall apart.
It was taunting him. For crying out loud, he'd put active effort into preventing some crippling injury, fatality or other personal "situation" from ruining morale, whether it happened to him or one of the others. It was the whole point of having more than one close friend among the other wardens and companions.
Clearly, that measure had been an abject failure.
By the time they reached Haven, things had piled up enough to make him doubt he'd last long before snapping at everyone, tell them to get over it since it was frustrating to be the only one who had, even if it didn't look like it.
Ancestors below, it was like living in a world made of angst!
Some nights he really missed his dog.
Then Faren had almost strangled a kid to death.
Raonar had known the younger dwarf was depressed, but the depth of his downward spiral had been jarring to see. It was part of why the noble didn't behave any more rudely towards that spirit guardian that lacked all concept of boundaries. Even if the source was indiscrete and presumptuous, he was glad to finally learn why Faren had fallen so low. Even though he'd vastly underestimated the seriousness of the situation, it was important to know.
During the whole "gauntlet" he'd mostly been running through the motions while trying to come up with a way to help his blood-brother climb out from the pit of despair he'd fallen into.
In hindsight, he should have known that something would happen that would completely derail his train of thought.
Raonar Aeducan stared at the specter before him. Assuming he even was one. He looked almost physical. Dressed in fine silks and velvet with a mail undershirt as was traditional for their family. Neatly groomed. And, most importantly, painfully alive against the backdrop of pure white that was the round shell surrounding them both. It was ice, Raonar knew, but it had its own light. It made it seem like they stood in the middle of an endless white void, even though the space couldn't have been more than a few meters across. And despite not wearing anything on his upper body, he felt no cold, nor did he bear any burns from the fire he'd been standing in until mere minutes before.
The Prince of Orzammar irately wondered, at the back of his mind, if the Temple they were in was actively trying to distract him from important matters. You know, matters concerning the living instead of the newly dead.
There was only one way he could open the discussion when looked at it like that. The white dwarf's eyes became chips of ice, cold, unlike the unnatural shell enclosing them on all sides. His tone was harsher than the misty peaks they'd braved to reach the apex of that place. "Figures it would be you."
The apparition grimaced at the frigidity of his voice. "You never were very easy to surprise." He did manage to meet his eyes at least. "Though I may still manage to do it by the end of this."
"Don't hold your breath," Raonar said coldly. "Not that it would do much good as you are now. Except perhaps to spare me from having the tripe you lived by being spat in my face a second time."
The other winced but didn't offer a retort.
There really was no point to this. Not when the wounds were still so raw. And he didn't mean the physical ones. "Why are you here, Bhelen?"
The one so identified smiled wryly. "Not 'how' am I here?"
"Oh please," Raonar scoffed. "On the list of weird things that have happened to me, this doesn't even rank among the top three." His heart flared but he ignored it, choosing to glare at the ghost of his brother instead. "Not that I have it in me to care at this point. And we don't need to look outside this icy cage to find the reason for that."
Bhelen Aeducan braved his searing glare for a few moments, before his gaze lowered in what looked suspiciously like shame.
It was honestly surprising, but not enough to divert his attention from the initial question. "Why are you here Bhelen? Are you here to rub it in my face that all my grand schemes were for naught? Will you once more say my ideals are naïve? I doubt this allegedly well-meaning gauntlet would allow so-called outside interference just so a ghost can spout the venom it didn't quite manage to spit out completely during its life. But I wouldn't put it past the old you to pull something like this."
His brother looked up and met his gaze again. It was almost stoic, but he'd never quite mastered the look even when he was alive.
Somehow, it made it all seem more real than ever. And it only brought more anger to the fore. "Are you even alone? Is father waiting somewhere in the stoneworks to take his turn and say how disappointed he is in me for not doing what he thought was best?" Raonar's eyes roamed over his younger brother, taking in the slight twitch in his hands he belatedly suppressed by crossing them behind his back. "Probably not, since you and he would not see eye to eye. After all, what he thought was 'best' consisted of tossing you and Trian away like so much trash. Trash like the dregs you consorted with up until the very end."
Bhelen shut his eyes but continued to bear his words.
It made the wound in his chest throb painfully, and he dared not look down to see if his bare torso was caked in blood. His left hand clenched into a fist despite the way his wrist seared. "Or are you here so I can unload my supposed lifetime of bottled wrath on you? Is this meant make it up to me for the venom you sprayed at me and so many others? Unbelievable…" Raonar breathed with a shake of his head. "This isn't about me at all, is it?"
Bhelen looked up sharply, appearing honestly confused.
"If this place can look deep inside me like the Guardian claims, it knows that I have no wrath bottled up anywhere. Certainly none that I would specifically want to subject you to. So why would you…" His voice caught in his throat as the ugly realization reared its head. Something, revulsion or horror, must have shown on his face because his younger brother couldn't bear to look at him anymore. "Is this supposed to be some twisted form of penance for you?"
The silence was answer enough.
Oh Ancestors…. "So that's it, then." Raonar laughed bitterly. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised." The derision was mostly aimed at himself, but Bhelen warily looked at his face regardless. "No matter how you hid it, you always did live by the idea that the whole world revolved around you. Why should things be different just because you're dead now?"
Bhelen winced and opened his mouth to say something, but reconsidered. His shoulders sank and his face twisted in what seemed like pain as he looked to the side.
"Or at least that's what I would say…" Raonar didn't even try to mask the pain in his voice anymore. "If I was the kind of brother you expected to face here." The barely alive dwarf knew his smile probably looked sickly, but it was the only one he had now. "Do you still think so little of me?"
The younger Aeducan looked pained and off-balance as their eyes met. Startled, almost.
"Oh, my brother…" The older one lamented. "I was ready to die for you," he said, just shy of sounding desperate. "Does that not mean anything? Even now?"
Bhelen looked completely thrown off by the question. "Of course it does! But it's not-"
"Does it really? Because I'm having trouble seeing it." The older one sighed. "Sometimes I just don't get you at all, Bhelen. I don't understand how you came to believe what you believed of me. What you still believe…" He shook his head, dropped his head to make it easier to rub his forehead, and fell silent.
Neither said anything for a time.
"What happened, Bhelen?" Raonar wearily looked up. "What happened to us? Because I really don't know for sure anymore. Or was it just simple jealousy?"
"What then? Was it my escapade with the army? Was it the schism between me and Trian that came after? I know I didn't really succeed in preventing you from being forced into the position of middleman between Trian and I, but at least I tried my best! Or did your betrayal spring from even further back? Was it mother's death? Had you been contemplating a takeover sooner than even that? Do you even know where it all began at this point?"
"I suppose it no longer matters," the white one said heavily. "You're dead." Bhelen flinched at the flat, matter-of-fact tone. "Father's dead. I'm more than half-way there. And Trian has little now to make his continued existence a 'living' instead of mere survival. Orzammar is the only one that came out of this marginally healthier. But success built on abuse of authority and the exile of citizens isn't much likelier to last long than if it had been built on bloodshed. In the end, everybody lost."
The younger prince swallowed (how odd for the dead to do such a thing). "Well, it doesn't have to be that way."
"It's kind of late for you to start to play a different tune now, brother." The one so called reacted with apprehension at the sharper tone. "Or is that why you're here? To show that my words and actions did, finally, reach you? Did you seek to become the one that would restore my hope? By coming around to my point of view at last? Hate to break it to you, but the fact it was difficult enough to demand that you die before it happened doesn't exactly fill me with confidence!"
"Well, for someone who's supposed to be emotionally reserved, your tongue sure is as sharp as it ever was." Bhelen sounded sullen, almost.
"I don't understand why you, of all people, would be complaining about it," Raonar shot back, no more mercifully than before. "It's not like I ever turned my sharp tongue on you. At least not before you proceeded to stab everyone who loved you in the back. And even then I was mostly putting on airs for the benefit of our oblivious audience."
The younger dwarf took a deep breath and released it. Was he getting frustrated? "You know, this would have been easier if you just did the normal thing and took this opportunity to really vent instead of shattering my world view once more." His posture slackened somewhat, and so did his tone. "Then again, the right thing to do is never the easy one."
That made even less sense than everything else Bhelen had said previously. Bhelen, who must have realized something was wrong because he looked up from where he was looking at the exile's chest wound.
Raonar couldn't believe what he'd just heard. Well, he could. But he'd honestly expected more sense from this particular brother. "Did you seriously just say that?" His open stigmata flared wholly as his emotions came more and more freely, but he couldn't hold back his disbelief. "To choose between what is right and what is easy… Please tell me you didn't live your whole life by that adage!"
His younger brother opened his mouth, then shut it.
"Oh Stone below!" Raonar palmed his face. "And here I'd thought there could not be a situation where I'd wish for something at the expense of things making sense." He let his right hand fall slack to his side. "Bhelen, would it not have been easy to put your foot down early on? Instead of being weighed down by the unfair and unhealthy responsibility? Would it not have been easy to refuse to play the middleman to us? Instead of fostering resentment for so many years? Would it not have been easy to just back out if you were so reluctant to take a side?"
Bhelen stepped back and turned away, starting to pace across the endless white.
"Would it not have been easy to outline your political agenda openly from the beginning? Instead of hiding that you even had any opinion on how things were run? Wouldn't it have been easy to push it forward normally? Instead of playing the incompetent and unassuming third child? Because you essentially gave yourself your own issues that way you know." Bhelen flinched and stopped pacing, turned away from him. "If your act wasn't so convincing that father bought it, you wouldn't have developed that bizarre combination of inferiority/superiority complex that ruined our family and pretty much everything else."
"And what chances did I have?" The younger one turned and snapped back. "What were the odds of anything going my way when you would have been there, doing everything twice as well?"
"Ah, and so we reach the crux of the matter." With his returning calm, the throbbing injuries started to ease as well. "Was my so-called agenda so revolting to you?" Bhelen started pacing again. "I really don't understand you. All I did was lobby for a more open mind and a real form of meritocracy. The only reason you'd be against that was if you really did have more problems than your daddy issues. I suppose it really would be naïve to hope that you didn't, in fact, enjoy being a cutthroat. Are you telling me you really were a sadist?"
An answer almost came.
But the white warden cut him off. "Be careful how you answer." His voice was again as cold as when their conversation started. "I know about the man you sent into the Aeducan Thaig just before my expedition there. I know how it ended for him. I know the reward you gave him in exchange for clearing the way for you to set your trail of clues. Not that I ever even paid attention to them, since the shield found in the mausoleum was a third-rate decoy." Frandlin Ivo was the one who'd actually found out about the matter. Bhelen hired a dwarf commoner to head into the Thaig and confirm the location of the Shield of Aeducan. And after the man managed to find what he thought was the correct relic, and actually beat a Golem (admittedly, an old, worn down one), Bhelen had him fatally stabbed from behind by the drunkard that had accompanied the guy inside. A drunkard who was secretly on his payroll.
And to add insult to injury, Bhelen had been a smug, self-important asshole the entire time.
He may as well inform his disbelieving sibling of how he'd learned about it. "Orson Haver quite readily spilled his guts under Frandlin's interrogation." Raonar never actually asked what methods he used, and whatever they were Orson probably deserved what he got. "Though I do wonder why you approached it the way you did. You hired that commonner to venture in, and when he was done you first tried to kill the poor hired hand openly. When you and your cronies lost, you offered him safe passage to the surface. And only after he refused the deal you told Orson to kill him. Even for you, that was pointlessly convoluted. Did you do it because you wanted to see if the man would choose to save his own skin, confirming your view of how the common dwarf was? Didn't quite work out, did it? Though I suppose you would have gotten your wish-fulfillment from so easily eliminating someone who represented my world view."
Bhelen muttered something under his breath.
"I'm afraid I didn't really understand that," Raonar said dryly. "I don't speak 'mumble.' By the Stone, Bhelen, you're dead not de-aged! Show some forthrightness for once."
This time, the younger brother rubbed his forehead. "I said I never believed you were being honest in your views and behavior."
"Ah." It figured. Not that it actually explained why he treated the situation of the Ruined Thaig incursion the way he had, though in a way it did confirm his suspicions. "You assumed I was as duplicitous as you." A twinge. "No matter how counterproductive and ultimately pointless it would have turned out." A flinch. "You believed that I was making backdoor deals and spreading my influence through blackmail and intimidation, like you were."
Bhelen stopped pacing again, with his back turned to him.
"Because Stone forbid you even consider the possibility of anyone being honest about anything." Raonar's eyes narrowed. "Or was it because it was me? Did you assume my sneakiness in absconding with the Deep Road expedition extended to everything else I did? No, that would have actually made some sense." The exiled prince beheld his dead brother. "You were already developing that bizarre complex, weren't you? Your superiority complex made you think only your methods could work. So you couldn't even fathom I wasn't using the same means to achieve my growing popularity. And my continued success combined with father's own stupidity gave birth to your inferiority issues. Which you then used as an excuse to engineer the fall of our entire family, just so you could finally settle on one of the two."
The younger dwarf's shoulders slumped and he turned to face his elder again. "Or you're just overanalyzing things."
"Maybe I am," was the flat rejoinder. "But I doubt it. And that only brings us back to the previous question: would it not have been easy to just accept that I wasn't being duplicitous at all? Instead of, well, everything else? I admit I added to the problem when I decided against confronting you, against telling you I knew what you were up to behind our backs. But my one unfortunate decision doesn't really justify all of yours. Would all those alternative choices not have been so much easier? Or did you completely lack the ability to fathom that things could be both easy and right at once?"
Raonar could only feel a growing sense of horror. Before, it had just been a passing thought, but now... "By the Paragons… Did you really live your days thinking the two were mutually exclusive?" The disbelief was coming back, hard. It made his heart wound blaze in agony. Enough that he forcefully expunged the emotion from his mind. His face settled into the blank mask that he had worn for the past few weeks. "Well, I suppose you at least managed to surprise me, as you said you would by the end of this. Well done." The weary prince heaved a great breath. "I'm going to strangle whoever said you had to 'choose between what is right and what is easy' as though there was no way for it to be both."
"Who was it?'
Bhelen was suspiciously silent on the matter.
"I can just deduce it if it will make you feel better."
"Come now. Even if you did miraculously grow a conscience at long last, are you going to waste it on the person who basically ruined things so massively? Or is it because…" Oh. Oh no. "You're embarrassed…." A twitch, but it was enough. "Aeducan's beard! Please tell me it wasn't father who said it!"
The younger man looked as uncomfortable as Raonar had ever seen him. "Okay, I won't tell you."
"Oh for crying out loud!" The warden exploded, giving in to the urge to drop his face in both hands. "Bhelen... You based your entire morality on the words of that man! The man you were convinced had engineered his own brother's murder in order to get the throne!" The elder brother let his arms fall and glared at his sibling. "How the hell did that ever come across as a good idea!?"
Bhelen Aeducan cringed like he'd never cringed before. "Well, no need to put it quite like that…"
"There was no need for a lot of things to happen, little brother." It wasn't an accusation. Not really. How pathetic they were, both of them. The first thing they managed to do together in years was commiserate. And they had to speak in blindingly vague terms to jut to pull off even that much.
Not to mention that one of them had to die in order for it to even become possible. It was pitiable.
"Why are you here Bhelen? Is it just to see me repeat myself as I ask that, over and over?"
The other dwarf huffed. "Well… I was prepared to explain myself, acknowledge my faults and slowly build up to the point where I'd ask your forgiveness for… well, things. But as you've so clearly demonstrated you already know everything, and then some, so I suppose that's a bit redundant."
The White Commander was not quite able to repress a snort. "You and Trian are so much alike." Really, no reason for Bhelen to look that bewildered. Or really, insulted? "You're both arrogant bastards. You both put the throne above everything else. You both were jealous of me. You both planned to kill me." That grimace again. "And you both ask forgiveness for things when it's far, far too late." Bhelen's head dropped. "I prepared myself for the worst when I first learned of your backroom dealings. But even as I contemplated what other things you might do in the future, it didn't make me love you any less. So I forgave you in advance."
The look on Bhelen's face when he looked up was downright bizarre. An odd mix of bafflement and incredulous gratitude. "That… That makes no sense!"
"To you, maybe. But whether I forgave you or not didn't really help you at all, did it? Things still ended up the way they did. No matter how above consequences you thought you were, you clearly were not. As for me, well…" Raonar shrugged. "Why let those misgivings fester? It would have made it hard for me to do the best I could to make things turn out for the better. And when that failed, I didn't have any resentment that would bubble and boil over, tainting my purpose or crippling my resolve." He contemplated the increasingly skeptical brother and sighed. "I basically died in the Deep Roads, Bhelen. Even after coming back, I'd been tainted by the Darkspawn corruption. My deal with a Fade spirit postponed my demise, but the idea I might just drop dead at any time never really went away. I couldn't really fool myself into thinking I could actually do more good than harm by taking over. Especially since the incident rendered me sterile, so I'd have never had an heir to pass my ideals onto. So I funneled the flames of my prestige to become a more enticing target than the two of you, since I couldn't do anything for and by myself. Not with the danger of failing to live long enough to make it worth it. And I was never going to do it at your or Trian's expense anyway."
There was an odd look on Bhelen's face. "You… you can't father children?" By the Paragons, he sounded so surprised… Oh. He never did inform anyone of that, did he? Bhelen rallied himself though. "… And now?"
Raonar blinked. "Do you have to ask that?" Seriously, his state did spell things out for itself.
"What if that wasn't an issue though?" Bhelen lifted his right hand. There was ash floating just outside his grasp, an amorphous mass. "If you were whole again, what would you do?"
The white prince stared at the other. "Does it matter?" His gaze sharpened and cooled. "Is that why you came? Are you going to make getting the ash conditional on whether or not you agree with my plans, if any?"
Bhelen groaned and palmed his face with his other hand, like Raonar had done earlier. "No! It was just a question!" The younger prince made a vague, frustrated noise in the bottom of his throat. "You know, for someone who knows me so well you seem to have taken my actions completely the wrong way."
"Well, you or whoever, whatever enabled this is the reason we've even come to this misintepretable situation. After all, you could have just waited until I got a pinch of the ashes and healed the mess my body has turned into, since you're implying it would work." The warden shifted his weight. "Yet, you enclosed us in ice and initiated this confrontation. Instead of, I don't know, waiting for me to not have this gaping stigmata anymore before having this heart-to-ghost talk. Yes, how could this possibly be taken the wrong way?"
Bhelen stared, struck speechless by the sarcasm, though fortunately not forever. "… Okay, I admit there's definitely cause enough to interpret things that way." He looked uncomfortable as he studied the wounds for a moment. "Is the pain really so bad? You seemed to not be bothered by them, so I just assumed…"
"That they didn't hurt." Raonar shook his head. "If only I were so lucky."
"… Now I feel like a bronto's ass."
"As well you should."
They stood awkwardly, ashes swirling lazily about Bhelen's fingers as his hand hung at his side.
"Right," Bhelen cleared his throat and hesitantly approached. "I suppose I should-"
Emboldened by the approval, backhanded as it was, the third prince closed in until he was within arm's distance. He made as if to reach towards the main injury. His movements were painstakingly slow, and it seemed as though he expected Raonar to lash out or otherwise halt him. And when it didn't happen, he pulled his hand away and just looked at his brother in amazement. "You're really willing to let me do this?"
It was a good question, the white prince supposed. After all, there was no guarantee that Bhelen wouldn't just reach into his chest and crush his heart in his fist or something along those lines. You could never be sure how corporeal spirits could become. It really would be wiser to just take the ash and administer it himself. It made the older dwarf smile sadly. "After everything that happened… If this is just a trick on your part to lash out at me from beyond the grave, then there really isn't much hope for anything."
Bhelen shook his head slowly in wonder, but said nothing more. Instead, took a deep breath and reached forward.
Only to suddenly stop ten inches from the wound in Raonar's heart. A momentary twitch on his face was all the indication that something unexpected had happened, but it soon became clear what it was. There, sticking out of his heart was a long, ten-inch thorn, blood-soaked and sinister. Just like it looked in the Land of Mirrored Water.
It made the white prince frown. "Of course it wouldn't be that eas-"
Bhelen scowled and abruptly pushed his hand forward. A hiss of pain was all that came from his mouth as the thorn speared his palm and came out the other side. There was no blood, but something like red fog began to stream out of the soul wound.
Raonar's whole body stiffened with the jolt of pain that blossomed in his hand. His right hand that had no injury to speak of.
"Seems that bitch left more than just a memento," Bhelen grunted as he pushed his hand even further under his brother's shocked eyes. "I suppose it… serves me right though." Fingers finally brushed against the older one's skin. "I always did overcomplicate things. At least this time I don't need to put in the effort to do it myself."
A wound-covered arm lashed up to grasp at Bhelen's forearm, but it was too late. With a final push, the third prince's hand finally sunk into the cursed torso all the way to the wrist. Like passing through the surface of water. Ash swirled around his limb but ever so steadily sunk in after the appendage, slipping inside through the gaps in the skin and flesh.
The white one gasped at the foreign sensation, and the spike of pain that shot up his uninjured arm. Then his left and his whole chest flared with blinding pain, making him see white, and he cursed that desire demon for leaving this last present. For somehow making it so that an empathic link would be established even here.
He felt his balance wavering, his body jerking back in an instinctive attempt to free himself, but somehow his brother's other hand came around him and held him around the back of the neck. It almost made him strike out blindly, but then Bhelen was leaning his forehead against his, and he went rigid despite the tremors running through him, keeping his eyes shut pain, physical and not.
The agony in his hand broke, then faded until it was a dull ache. The psychic… no, psychosomatic link was still strong, but the pain was dulling. He could feel the spike get thinner, retract, ungrow if the word even existed, until it was no longer there at all.
Bhelen sighed in relief. Raonar could feel his breath on his chin, breaking on his beard and dispersing. The fingers on the skin of his neck were warm and half-callused, as if he'd tried to take up weapons fighting but only did it part-time. It was like he'd never died at all. "Okay…" the youngest breathed. "Okay, that was nasty." The feel of the foreign hand around his heart eased, but didn't go away. Only moved, slowly, upward and to the left. His half-solid sibling slowly dragged his hand through every space that had been gouged by that she-beast all those weeks before.
It was a peculiar feeling, like a troop of snowy snails trailing through his bones, muscles and blood vessels, little by little by little. From his chest to his shoulder, then down his arm, forearm and further.
All came to a head when Bhelen's hand finally found its way to his wrist, and slowly slipped out of him. Raonar breathed deeply a few times, reveling in the ability to do it painlessly, before he opened his eyes. Bhelen was literally hanging off him, left hand on his shoulder, keeping himself upright. And the fingers of his right hand were wound around a familiar crown, skin and muscle scratched and skewered by the thorns that jotted out of it, every which way.
His brown-haired head was bowed low, breath coming in and out in tight, shivering gusts. "Whew… that was… unpleasant." He didn't look up, choosing to stare at the crown of thorns instead. He didn't even seem to realize he was leaning into his older sibling. "How did you even bear living with this in you..." He looked up at last. "How were you even standing, never mind walking and fighting?"
The White Commander produced the first real grin he'd shown in weeks. "By being pigheaded, how else?"
Bhelen Aeducan couldn't hold in his laughter. It was a short, choked thing, but it was there. "Fine, don't answer." Not that it lasted for long. His mood went somber as he looked at his right hand again. And the way the thorns seemed to shimmer and grow. Slowly, but still grow and twist, as if they were getting ready to knit around him and through his body, like they'd done to Raonar himself. "I'm about to learn on my own anyway."
With that, the Aeducan thirdborn moved away and, after taking a deep breath to steel his nerves, did one last pull.
Bhelen looked down, baffled.
Raonar frankly didn't understand why Bhelen would be so surprised that he wouldn't just let go of the thing. "Really, little brother. I put so much effort into getting you to get over yourself, and you think I'd just let you 'nobly' take my burden upon yourself and have all the effort wasted?"
The younger prince gaped, speechless.
"I am grateful though," he went on, glibly basking in the sight of his sputtering brother as the previously writhing crown went completely still. "I couldn't do this while it was skewering me all over, since I couldn't tell where the boundaries of the field should be. Not to mention the spikes seems to grow and detract constantly. And pulling on more than the tiniest bit of energy inevitably made the mess hurt like a bitch. Now, though…" Silver eyes pinned the sight of the thorny crown in place, and a forcefield bubble sprung around it. It forced Bhelen's grip open and off. Then grew further, until the circle became a ball. "Now I can see it."
No one had ever gotten around to asking just what he'd fooled Pride into handing him back in the Deep Roads. What knowledge. And he hadn't called attention to it, nor had he exhibited any ability that would bring it up. But that didn't mean it wasn't there. The full understanding of how the Fade worked, at least from a Demon's perspective.
Fade spirits were odd things. They didn't spring from wisps or anything like that. More like they congregated, solidified from huge masses of psychic emissions. They consolidated from concepts, feelings and values that were in synch. They didn't grow, not really. They only became more focused, until they settled on a sort of self-definition, an identity based on a core idea.
Sentience, however, was never absent. It was there, albeit at times distracted or slumbering, from the very beginning. It was that sentience that chose what the identity should be. Like a seamstress that weaved a tapestry on a loom, with qualities, goals and concepts used as the threads.
Demons differed in that they didn't start out with sentience. Wisps were mindless things, formless animals in a way. Sentience only emerged once a cesspool of human emotions, dreams and thoughts became sufficiently dense. Although if Theron was to be believed, their sentience wasn't actually real. More like a parody of the real thing, since they were, ultimately, slaves to the core emotion that spawned them. Like a fungus with the semblance of free thought.
Intelligence was plain to see on everything from desire demon up though. And the Pride demon the Deep Roads had not been a demon at all, originally. It was an old mage, a Dreamer from a previous age, who had taken a similar role and behavior as a Pride Demon, though some would call it a fall.
There was no better source for knowledge of how the Fade worked. Just because Raonar had had to deal with other things after the "deal" he'd weaseled out of didn't mean he just let the knowledge lie unused in the recesses of his mind.
He'd already turned his Fade connection from an unstable breach to a nice, steady funnel by the time they'd returned to Orzammar. He wondered how many Exalted Marches the Chantry would launch if they learned he'd basically turned himself into a mage. And a Dreamer Mage at that. He didn't plan on learning normal magic spells (dwarves could already duplicate most basic effects through lyrium-etched runes anyway), and he doubted he could recreate the process. But who knew what could happen decades in the future? Besides, he wasn't the first spirit warrior either.
Now he was going to use that knowledge to undo a forced possession. Or the remains of one. Theron had curbed most of it already, but that annoying little crown of thorns would do perfectly for his first experiment.
White light began to shine from the White Commander's eyes. From everywhere on him in fact. The round field encased the crown completely, and kept it suspended as the abused hand finally detached from it, pulled away until it hovered just outside the sphere of shimmering force. It had been the first expression of that desire demon's infestation of his body, and it would be the last.
A tilt of the prince's head heralded the start of the regression. The thorns all began to retract at once, though some broke off and turned to dust, then even that disappeared. Soon the vine was smooth, though still black and red, with sickly green all over. Even that didn't last, though. Like time moving backwards, it, too, shriveled and receded, until there was only one thing left. A seed, black with flecks of brown.
Raonar Aeducan lifted his hand, palm upwards, and the small, thumb-sized seed hovered above it. And with a final statement of will, he laid his Claim upon it. "It almost doesn't look ugly. Almost."
Two feet from him, Bhelen stood, wide-eyed and frozen in what looked suspiciously like fascination.
The White prince looked from him to the pesky little kernel and decided on something mischievous. "I think I'll keep it." And just like that, the oval, pointy thing sunk into his palm and disappeared. "You never know when it might be useful. After all, it gave me trouble."
Bhelen shook his head in wonder. "Sometimes I still ask myself if the world will survive your ego, big brother."
"Oh, it's not the world you should be worried about."
Companionable. That's what the silence between them was. It was surreal, to have it finally happen. Even if it was, technically, a dream, in a sense. Speaking of which. "Where are we really, Bhelen?"
The dwarf thus named did his best to look innocent.
"Admittedly, I never even felt the transition, which is remarkable. It's also why I'm sure it wasn't you who did it. So, when was it?" No answer, not that he expected one. "When you first reached for me? It would coincide with the thorns first manifesting, but that can't be it. It was before then, wasn't it? After all," he gestured at the white encasing them. "There shouldn't have been enough room for you to pace that much, but you made quite a show of it too. By the way, didn't you use to hate hearing me or Trian talk so much?"
The younger dwarf looked as annoyed as the second son had ever seen him. "I think I remember why…"
The White Commander closed his eyes and spread his senses. Well, that wasn't quite true. It wasn't just senses anymore. With what he understood now, he realized the body was only a part of the man. Or, well, dwarf in his case. His psychic "body" could be manipulated independently if he knew how, and with the right application of attention, understanding and will, everything within the confines of his psychic "body" could become an extension of his physical one.
It took but a moment to get the confirmation of where he was, and a simple vibration through the shell hiding them shattered it. Another bit of focus and it was all gone, like so much dust in the wind, leaving the two of them standing on the floating marble platform at the center of the Land of Peaks and Rivers.
In front of him, Bhelen sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Ruin the mystery, why don't you. You can never help yourself, can you?"
"I'm surprised you can even be here," Raonar mused as he absently materialized a white, all-encompassing mantle around his shoulders. "This is the Fade, you know. And I do believe I have definite proof that we Dwarves have a different place to go after death. A different place where our extraplanar minds are anchored for that matter.
"I figured as much," the self-deprecating expression on the dwarf's face was odd to see. "To be honest, I'm not sure I'd have been allowed passage there."
Raonar said nothing. Technically, he wasn't sure he was allowed passage there either. And he had a theory that it wasn't him that created the Land of Mirrored Water, but whoever lived there, beyond his Sky. Maybe the Ancestors themselves had decided he should be cut off from the rest, at least until he died properly. He suppressed a snort at the thought.
It did beg the question of why the Archdemon could find him there, though. Maybe it was the dragon the Ancestors wanted to keep out, so they made the place look and behave like any other Fade realm to confuse it. Since the sentience and intelligence of the old god was shoddy at best, no matter the upgrade, it probably worked.
Raonar wondered what would have happened if he'd come to this realization before he stabbed the dragon with a section of his mind. Or whatever that place was.
He internally grimaced. If that stray thought had been among the ones absorbed by the Archdemon during that internal battle mess that Sten saved him from, things might have gotten nasty in a totally new way.
"So," Raonar brought his thoughts back on track. "I'm guessing Honor somehow got a hold of you while I was ever so dramatically failing to keep you alive?"
"Got it in one."
The sky of the realm was the same grey-green hue it always seemed to be. The White Commander wondered why Honor didn't change it to something less aesthetically offensive. As a matter of fact, that gave him an idea. Looking around as if he was randomly inspecting the place, he expanded his "self" until it covered the entire area. He hadn't been sure he could reach so far (it was as big as a mountain cluster after all), but then again the concepts of "time" and "distance" were always dodgy in the plane of make-believe. Very briefly, to make sure Bhelen didn't notice what he was doing, he glanced at the horizon and concentrated.
The sky above the distant mountain turned brilliant blue for less than an instant.
The smile slowly spread on the dwarven prince's face. At least if he died and was rejected by the Ancestors for some reason, he knew he could make a place for himself here. It wouldn't happen if he did the whole Archdemon slaying, since his spirit at the dragon's would destroy each other, but if he somehow got himself killed before then…
He turned around to watch his younger brother, then strode forward and pulled him into a hug before he could so much as yelp.
And bless the lad, he was short enough to let him lay his chin on his head. Had he made himself grow a bit taller on reflex? Oh well, not that it was important. Oh, and apparently Bhelen was sputtering something or mumbling in his shirt. "Oh come now," his embrace became firmer. "I did say I've wanted to do this for years. Unless you have something more important to do."
The token struggles ceased. Moreover, the embrace was actually returned. Raonar had to strain his ears to make out what his sibling was muttering. "Well, the plan was for me to stall you until Honor does whatever he wants to do down there. But it's pretty clear now that you'll probably see right through me if I tried that."
"I see…" He didn't break away. "Well, I think you're doing a decent job, for what it's worth."
"Just so we're clear, I think you're being embarrassing."
"Comes with being the older brother. Even you should know that."
Bhelen mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like "glad I'm not alive anymore if you planned to put me through this in public."
The little sneak.
Well, that only made him more resolved to do what he'd been planning to do next. "Bhelen."
The wariness in the answer made Raonar grin ferally. "Do try not to scream too much."
Raonar laughed freely as he willed the marble beneath their feet to suddenly disappear, sending them plummeting right into the dark abyss of the circular waterfall. Bhelen screamed from the surprise for a while, before swallowing and cutting himself off from further embarrassment. Not that it made him cling to him any less. Clearly, his little brother hadn't had time to acclimatize himself with the sheer subjectivity of "natural" Fade phenomena. Like, say, gravity.
Or instant changes of perception, for that matter.
He sensed the barrier around his body well before he struck it. Well, barrier wasn't quite the word he should have used. More like someone had taken over his body while he was away, and trying to barge it would not have gone over well, for either of them, or his body itself, for that matter.
He adjusted his perception of his conceptual representation and easily slid around his physical component. Soon, he was standing, hovering almost, within the confines of the ice sphere that had grown around him from the fire in the Hall of Ashes. A foot away was his body. His twitching, mist-shrouded body. There were lacerations all over it, as if he'd gone through the death of a thousand cuts. Or maybe his blood had decided to just explode out of him for some reason. The amount of it covering the inner part of the shell they were in gave a fair bit of credence to the theory.
At least his body didn't look too undignified, lying there, on its back.
It was then that Bhelen gracelessly crashed next to him and rolled to a stop, cursing up a storm, until, when he finally pushed himself to his feet, he concluded his litany by glaring at him and yelling "I hate you SO MUCH!"
"Because letting that gnarled crown skewer you all over as it grew through your soul and destroyed everything you were would have been so much better." The only reason it hadn't happened to him was because Theron had done… whatever he'd done. "Besides, can you even crash? How are you interacting with this physical shell anyway? You're a ghost!"
Bhelen scowled and crossed his arms. "Well, I'm sure I have no idea. After all, I'm just a ghost!"
"And you are both exceedingly noisy." Both dwarves turned their attention to the shifting mass of white that emerged from the prone form of the Grey Warden at their feet. "Performing magical interventions bordering on miraculous is not exactly simple to accomplish, you know."
"Honor," Raonar said evenly. "You engineered for my soul to be pulled away from my body without my permission. You employed deceit against an ally to achieve your purpose. Not exactly very honorable was it?"
The vaguely humanoid mass of light did not detach from the still glowing and rapidly healing body below. "And you used blackmail to force a deal whose benefits towards myself far exceeded those towards you." Honor was getting really good at expressing emotion, Raonar noted with some grudging approval. Despite the thousand-voices-in-one routine he had going. Even sarcasm. "And when the unfortunate causes for that situation were finally dealt with, you still did not allow for a more equitable relationship to be established. Not very honorable now was it?"
Sometimes, Raonar didn't know if he should love or hate this game of debates that spirits liked to play. The one where they explained their reasoning by saying how it "fit" their "virtue." Even though it was mostly just for amusement. After a point, none of the real spirits could be called spirits of "Honor" or "Valor" or "Duty" or whatever else. Because to understand and outpicture a virtue, you automatically had to possess all the others. You couldn't be honorable without "knowledge" of morals, tactics and fair play. Or, really, general knowledge. You couldn't be honorable without "wisdom" which was needed to know how knowledge should be applied, or, really, what fair play even was. Conversely, you couldn't know what "wisdom" was without "knowledge." And you couldn't be "valorous" if you didn't have "honor." They all looped together, really. The qualities were all interconnected and inalienable.
The spirits that best understood and internalized this were the ones truly worthy of being called representations of the best that any sentient life had to offer. The Zenith of the Fade.
Raonar considered himself extremely lucky that the Spirit he dealt with was one of them. Didn't mean he found the association daunting though. "And what, exactly, are you doing to me?"
"Only what I would have started to work on after that Joining of yours if I had been allowed to. Alas, you insisted on us never sharing the same space, for fear of you warping me." It wasn't clear if Honor was being defensive or dismissive. Or was he frustrated? "Ultimately, this darkspawn taint is fairly straightforward. Certainly, it is a persistent and presumptuous thing. It not only acts like a poison, but it mutates the body little by little. Fortunately, the little access I've had to you was enough to ensure you body's rate of regeneration was superior to that of the mutation. The Lifegiver and that signet ring of yours also helped. I can confidently say that your slow progression into a ghoul was halted months ago."
The dwarf noble stared, speechless himself for once. To the point where he didn't even notice the smugness on Bhelen's face at actually being witness to it.
"Okay…" The prince said in a daze, though he wasn't really listening. "And all this blood?"
The spirit looked like a cape hanging from a silver mask now, and the bottom seam was like mist and white fire. "Oh, that was just me expelling the remaining taint from you. I could have done it by now, or taught you to do it, bit by bit, if our collaboration had been closer, but since it was not," he didn't even mask his aggravation, "I exploited whatever chances I was provided. And the opportunity provided by this place, where the Veil is thin enough for me to temporarily manifest, even if I had lacked the link to you, was one I refused to let go to waste. Normally, it would have taken months to reverse the mutation you had begun to undergo, but the Ashes of Andraste really do have miraculous healing properties."
The dwarf warden almost asked why the spirit never actually brought any of these possibilities up, but he stopped himself. Looking back, the way he spurned Honor's honest offer for help probably didn't go over very well. This was just great. He'd been put through what he himself had put Trian through, more or less, and he apparently deserved it too. Lovely!
Looks like the way he himself tended to run roughshod over everyone else while enacting a plan, however brilliant, had rubbed off on Honor. And, apparently, so had his attitude. "You may praise my genius now," the thousand-in-one voice said blandly.
"Or express your undying gratitude, as honor would dictate."
"Gratitude?!" The noble sputtered. "How the hell am I supposed to sense darkspawn now? Or kill the Archdemon?! Or anything!"
"Please," the amorphous light waved his concerns away as irrelevant. While lacking actual limbs. Somehow. "Do you take me for a second-rate amateur? All your Grey Warden 'abilities' come from the tiny figment of the previous Archdemon's soul that the Joining concoction contained. Or, more specifically, the psychic link it has with the darkspawn gestalt. Whether or not your own spirit is strong enough to assimilate it instead of being destroyed by it determines your survival at the joining. And the reason you can even permanently destroy an Archdemon is your spirit. Having assimilated the shard of the old god, it constantly grows by syphoning fade energy and the shards of the same old god's soul that pervade the fade everywhere. Historically, Archdemons always explode in a great blast of light, yes? That is because their spirits clash with the piece of the previous one and end up destroyed. I suspect that the reaction causes an abrupt recovery on the Grey Warden's part of all the previous archdemon's soul pieces that are still in the Fade, somehow. Otherwise, I doubt there would be enough in the slayer to actually match the enormity of the Archdemon's essence. Or perhaps it is a defense mechanism inherent in old god spirits, to draw on raw Fade power and magnify one's essence as part of a simple instinct of self-preservation when faced with such an overwhelming metaphysical force. The small part of it in the Grey Warden may, in fact, do something of that sort. Although it does beg the question of how the first Archdemon, Dumat, was slain."
There was a long silence.
"And you're still doing… whatever. How long is the rest going to take?"
"Longer than the time we have if we keep talking." The prince's eye twitched. Who, exactly, had it been that had gone on a tangent no more than a few minutes before? "Fortunately, I do not need to throw in a solution for that, since the Gauntlet saw fit to provide me with the perfect distraction."
"What distraction?" Raonar looked at Bhelen suspiciously.
To which his brother started to say something, but stopped, widened his eyes at something behind him and blinked, lifting his hands to ward off ire that might not exist. "Oh no. My part in this is over, and no offense but I don't really feel up to being present for what's coming next." With quick steps, he closed in and reached forward, turned Raonar's closest palm upward and dropped a pendant on it. Then, without further ado, he turned on his heel and disappeared in a cloud of white fog. By that point, Honor had already sunk back into the inert body on the floor.
Not that the Warden was looking at him anymore. His sight was captivated by that round, coin-sized medallion that looked like a mirror on both sides. "What was that about?" he muttered to himself, holding it up for inspection. He saw himself perfectly in it, as well as a blurry form in the background, even though there shouldn't have been anything there but white ice.
Wondering if he was falling for the oldest trick in the book, he made to turn around.
Only to stop mid-motion two arms wrapped around his middle from behind, and a painfully familiar voice spoke from right behind him. "He could have told you, but why ruin the surprise?"
His entire body went rigid, like the oldest, hardest granite the dwarves had ever discovered. His breath caught in his chest and he refused to look anywhere other than forward.
"… Not quite the reaction I was hoping for."
"I… I'm afraid to turn around in case you're not really there."
"Ah. Well, I think we can work our way up to it."
Gwenith Cousland wished she'd brought along a deck of cards or, well, anything that could help pass the time. The first ten minutes of the wait hadn't been so bad, since the sight of the large sphere of ice surrounded and engulfed by a huge, unpassable field of ever-burning flames was fascinating to see. But she got bored of it soon enough. And with the Guardian having mysteriously disappeared when she wasn't looking, she didn't have anyone to shoot questions at either. Well, no one who had any more answers than she did.
So she leaned against the wall and waited. She would have crossed her arms, but her armor didn't allow for that much range of movement. One of the disadvantages of it being a full set of plates. Still, at least she could take solace in the fact that Sophia Dryden had had good taste in equipment.
The whole temple, or whatever it was, felt odd to her. The murkiness that seemed to weigh down the cultist-infested caverns below was absent, but she could still feel it, far below, near the edge of her perception. Pressing ineffectually against the cleansing emanations of the mountain peak they were in. This sense had been steadily growing over the past couple of months. At first she thought it was just an offshoot of the Templar awareness, but she eventually dismissed the thought.
She'd tried to learn some of the Templar skills from Alistair, but she never managed to get anything down for some reason. The best she pulled off was finally gaining a sixth sense of sorts, but it was unlike anything she'd ever heard or read about. She could feel how the world shifted and strained whenever a spell was cast, or whenever something else involving the Fade happened, but from what she'd been told she should actually be able to feel magic, like a spray of water on bare skin, or something of the sort.
It wasn't like that for her at all. And it wasn't telepathy either. She just got a knowing of how the world responded to... anything unusual. It was like she could somehow feel the quality of… well, the air around her, the entire area surrounding her, and when the quality changed. It wasn't the same as sensing magic being cast though. Like a spray of cool rain. She felt the underlying consequences, rather than the molding of the mana, or whatever it was called, that heralded the obvious fireballs or lightning strikes.
Ever since Gwen's sense settled into a constant element of her thoughts instead of a fickle, not-always-there part of her, she had been able to feel it. There was always a field around that dwarf. Initially, it was fluctuating, like a broken dam. As if the Veil had sprung a leak and he was just carrying it around. The razor waves of force he could use in attacks came about as a result of his focus. He literally decided that the energy pouring in from the Fade had that shape, this direction and that velocity, and the Fade obliged.
The "leak" seemed to get calmer and calmer, though not at all weaker, over the many days, to the point where he could control it and even expand it outside his body a short distance. Force fields were the result, though he still seemed unable to control things enough for magic to "take" to him properly. Healing spells failed because it wasn't possible to pour magic into him, since the amount that always poured out was... not larger, exactly, but too rushed for the weave of magic to maintain its "shape." It was fortunate the magic only collapsed instead of going wilder, like with elemental weapon enchantments. The runes absorbed power as a matter of course.
Gwen would have honestly been content if things didn't change too much from that state of affairs. But they took a turn for the decidedly bizarre after the incident with the Fade Beast in Ortan Thaig. In a matter of days, the outpour tapered off to a slow leak, then it just stopped. It still flared from time to time, and felt alien when it did (later, she deduced it was the Demon Bitch testing the waters, so to speak). But for the most part, the Warden Commander had something else about him after that. Like a field that filled his surroundings with something indeterminable. Where the Veil between the world and the Fade simply… was not. It was as if his spirit was too large for his body so he filled it with the world around him.
It was what allowed her to realize that what Raonar was doing wasn't magic, exactly. She couldn't put things in the same words that someone like Alim or Wynne would. It was as if he weaved the threads of the Fade and real world together to the point where the effect imposed on the make-believe world of the Fade manifested in the physical, because there was no distinction between the two on those occasions.
It was a scary power. Good thing the way he "claimed" the world around him didn't seem to work on things with their own minds. Not unless he put his own soul on the line.
All those ideas stayed on the back burner after the disaster in the Assembly Hall and after. By the time they left Orzammar, he was keeping his reach to himself, never more than an inch or two from his body. As if he'd crumpled his Spirit into a tight bundle for the sake of everyone else. The few occasions when an occurrence distracted him, the field practically exploded. And where before he could control when his spirit pressed down on everyone else's, whatever that Demon Bitch had done to him made the painful feedback stay always on somehow.
Gwen idly wondered if there was some higher authority up there somewhere, some Fate that was throwing things at them. Even if their actions happened of their own independent will, a lot of things had piled up, lots of "consequences" and "effects." Not the least of which being that everyone in their little Grey Warden group (except her, she thought with an internal scowl), had become some sort of weird superhuman. Kallian was a super sensor that could see a few moments into the future (at least when it came to darkspawn), Faren was immune to magic (and could nullify enchantments within a few centimeters of his skin), Alistair was somehow a Templar without the use of lyrium, Theron had turned into some kind of unflappable avatar for what used to be an entire civilization…
Raonar could crush someone's soul with the weight of his own, or wrench the life out of someone like the reavers they'd fought on the way up the mountain.
And Alim was closer to a war god than anything. Oh, and did she mention that the elf had gained a similar ability to render the Veil irrelevant after the fiasco in Orzammar? And that he could do everything a level of magnitude better than Raonar did? How she wasn't at all worried by any of that, she didn't know. Objectively speaking, it was frankly terrifying. The young woman had actually talked to the elf and Wynne about the things she sensed. To her surprise, only Alim had a similar ability, and he'd only gained it after temporarily holding Raonar's Fade link. She had no idea what that meant for her. Absolute discernment, he'd called it. A fancy name for something even he didn't fully understand.
Before her ruminations could continue, Gwen saw it. The flames filling the chamber surged, almost blocking the icy sphere from sight, before they steadily settled and began to go out. The blaze decreased in size and pulled back on itself, away from the walls. Soon enough, the wall of fire was no longer. Only the pyre at the center, wreathing a hard sphere of ice that was beginning to steam.
Then, like the hatching of an egg, it cracked.
Gwenith Cousland didn't always like this sense of hers, since it was quite distracting during battle. But in situations like this one, she definitely didn't mind possessing it. She would have called it a shift, but it wouldn't have been right. The Hall of Ashes seemed to fill, somehow, with something that she'd felt many times before, but always seemed to catch her unaware. With each new crack in the ice, and each billow of steam from where the fire now melted it, more and more of the one within spilled out.
She watched with interest the way the sphere finally broke. It was an odd process, like everything else that had happened up there. The base came apart first, hard ice chunks breaking off and wobbling away on their curved sides, followed by more and more pieces. The shell was literally crumbling from down up, as if it was hanging upside down, its top stuck to some invisible hook. But the pieces never piled up because they evaporated before they could even properly melt into puddles.
The top eventually suffered the same as the rest, though it seemed to miss the Warden as it fell. And there he was, still turned away from them, but straight-backed and no longer tense. A crumpled roll of blood-soaked bandages dropped from his perfectly healthy left hand, catching fire as it settled in the single flame remaining, conveniently located right next to him. He slowly tipped his head upwards and took a long, deep, painless, unworried breath, then let it out at its own pace. A sigh of relief that had been an unattainable luxury for him for so many days.
The spirit of that troublesome dwarf of theirs was spread out, free and serene, for the first time in weeks. And instead of the painful twinges that had become so familiar to them all, there was only the relief, something resembling the thrill of recovering from an extended convalescence. It felt like someone stretching the kinks out of their back, and the knots out of their muscles, after being immobilized and bedridden for months.
Gwen looked across the room, where Alim had taken position, leaning against a wall much like her. Their eyes met, and she knew he'd felt what she had, as none others in their Company or the rest of the world could.
Then Raonar Aeducan held out his right arm, and Gwen felt as his will clamped down upon the space within his field of influence. Momentarily, the whole view seemed to blur slightly, like she was watching it through the haze of a bonfire even though no fire existed anymore. The equipment he'd stored on the altar shuddered and lifted into the air, then shot towards him. His armor flew unerringly and wrapped around his body, piece by piece. His boots and gauntlets slipped over his feet and hands as if the wind itself and gravity were his squires. Belts tied themselves and fastened each brace and plate into its proper place, until the only thing missing from the picture was the Shield of Aeducan.
Too bad it had been left behind in the Orzammar Royal Palace, Gwen internally snorted as she beheld the White Commander, adjusting the belt of his sword across his chest. He stood tall like the King he consistently avoided becoming. Then he turned around and, with a familiar grin, spoke. "I think Operation Brotherhood Raised to Minus One is ready to resume, don't you?"
There was silence.
It was long and tense.
"Oh wait," he said as if he was just remembering something he didn't consider all that important. "I'm supposed to apologize for being so hard to deal with, aren't I?"
Gwen glanced over everyone present and, other than Morrigan's understated exasperation and Alim's fond and relieved but not at all impressed gaze, everyone seemed uncertain about how to respond. Whether or not they should really believe the guy was back to normal. Gwen could feel a general buildup of joy coming on among the others. Any moment now, someone would-
"The way you guys insisted to participate in the angst fest is all on you though."
-and so it was that the bubbling joy was instantly curbed by the faintest wisps of incredulous outrage. Wynne blinked at his nerve, Leliana gaped, Alistair palmed his face, Oghren snorted and Kallian shook her head as though she'd expected something like that. For her part, Gwen wondered what Shale, Zevran and Sten would have had to say if they hadn't been left behind to keep an eye on Faren for them.
For now, though, the young woman didn't mind contributing to the shift in mood. After all, that remark couldn't go without at least one flat stare.
She was marginally gratified to see him falter when he noticed it. "Wow, tough crowd…"
The White Commander groaned in despair and seemed to sag at the lack of reaction. His shoulders slumped and his head dropped into his hands. "Stone below, the emotions! They're so… not." There was a sniff. "I want my dog."
In hindsight, it wasn't so astonishing that Alistair chose that, of all moments, to snicker and bend over in hysterical laughter.