Chapter 68: Ascent through Snow and Stone

"-. .-"

It was almost time. Just ten more minutes before he'd go in and undoubtedly flummox at least half the deshyrs gathered. And strangely, he did not feel anxious at all. He had gone over what he wanted to say several times, and he honestly did not think he could word it all any better. If Gorim had been still in the city, he would have run the thing by him first. Certainly, the man would protest and try to talk him out of it for two hours, but after seeing the pointlessness of it he would have to do as he asked.

Lifting himself from his chair, Trian Aeducan surveyed the preparation room. Dwarves loved their luxury, but the logistics of making private waiting quarters in the Assembly building for each and every noble house would have been a nightmare when Orzammar was designed and carved, especially since the architects would have had to account for the number possibly growing, and the place wasn't even the capital. That meant that only the steward and, of course, the King (and by extension the royal family) had private chambers like the one he was in now.

He did not know what to feel about this being the last time he would be in there. On the one hand, as he would need to continue representing Aeducan in the Assembly, he would sometimes need to come early, and there was recess to consider too. Having to share the presence of anyone else who came earlier than the appointed meeting time, in the waiting hall instead of here, would no doubt be annoying. On the other hand, a well-placed glare here and there should spare him most unneeded attention. And it was not as though he overmuch enjoyed being all alone in that lofty room. Normally, his second, a friend and maybe a family member or two who weren't directly involved with the assembly would come along with the King, if they wanted and were not busy with their own duties.

Obviously, there were none to be had for him at this point. He knew it was dangerous walking alone, but he didn't know anyone available he'd trust at his back that was still in Orzammar.

The dwarf prince glanced at the large clock across the room, and then pulled out his mechanical pocket watch to double check the time. As he expected, the large pendulum chronograph was a couple of minutes behind. While the craftsmen who built it obviously took care in their work, they paid more attention to the looks than the inner workings, hence the need for a servant to tune it periodically. The ones who designed the one in his hand, a device which had been a gift to his mother from their father, had followed a different set of rules.

"It's so you no longer have 'losing yourself in your sculpting' as an excuse to be late to supper." That was what his king-father had told his mother, before launching into an explanation about how the watch, made from a bunch of different materials, was a purely mechanical masterpiece with nary an enchantment, and which didn't need to be turned, ever, due to it being able to somehow rewind its internal springs by just reacting to movement, such as being jostled around in the owner's pocket, however slightly.

Trian returned the watch to the pocket where the silver chain was sticking out of and let his wistful smile fade, only now realizing he'd gained that expression at some point. After that, he reviewed his prepared words one last time and left the room, absently rolling the parchment. He would read it one last time and burn it in the fire of one of the candles flanking the main chamber doors.

After less than a minute of walking, he nodded and smiled at the guards, amused by their bemused looks at being acknowledged, and how they hesitantly nodded back and murmured "Good day to you, your highness." He supposed it was a surprise just to see him there again, after so many days where he all but disappeared beneath the city.

Trian was just about to hold the parchment above the candle fire when a call made him stop. "Wait!" Well, that was a somewhat familiar voice. Turning around, he saw Frandlin Ivo sprinting for him. And Trian would not have realized it was him if he hadn't heard him speak. Well, more like wheeze out the word.

The young Ivo scion staggered to a halt in front of him and, after failing to knit two words together, bent over with his hands on his knees and started gasping. The prince looked on in mild shock, not noticing the guards staring much the same way. Frandlin had obviously dressed in a hurry and hadn't even combed his hair properly, not to mention he wasn't clad formally in the least. But why was he there? Not to attend the meeting, surely. Some time after he took the reins, he had his House pulled out of the Assembly list until he finished "internal reorganization" which, coincidentally (or really, probably not coincidentally at all), satisfied those still in the council wary of house Ivo for its part in that huge mess.

As if to answer his question, the haggard man held out a piece of paper, still not trying to stand up straight.

Mindful of the diminishing time left, Trian skimmed through it and bit back a groan. Al of a sudden, revealing his plan to Harrowmont and, at his insistence, Dulin Forender, didn't seem like such a good idea. Pyral had sent Frandlin this message, pleading with him to "do something."

"I am not changing my mind now," Trian said more firmly that he felt, rolling the paper. Secretly, he was worried. He had a nagging fear that this one person, who'd managed to totally pull the wool over Bhelen's eyes all those months, would have what it took to talk him around. He didn't want to give him the chance, and he thanked the Stone for not having the time to listen before the meeting started. "Though I am sorry you had to sprint all this way for nothing."

"Not nothing," Frandlin finally straightened and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. "And I am not going to try to change your mind, but... can I ask a favor my lord?"

"..." The Aeducan heir really did not know how to answer.

"I'll take that as a yes," Frandlin said seriously. "Can I read what you're going to say?"

Silence. How on earth did he know he would have it written down? And on his person no less.

"My lord, even if you weren't holding your prepared speech, which you were going to burn just now, in your right hand..." Trian winced at his foolishness "I'd have asked the same. Stone knows your br... Prince Bhelen complained about your habit of always writing things down often enough." There was more silence. "He said it made it impossible to actually convince you that you were supposed to or had decided to do or say certain things. I am guessing you haven't kicked the habit?"

Trian grimaced and, before dragging the talk too long, figured he probably would agree to the request eventually, so he spared himself the effort and handed it over, restraining a gape at how quickly the man read it and started shaking his head.

"I should have gotten here sooner and caught you before leaving your rooms." Fradlin clicked his tongue. A pen was in his hand as if by magic and, before anyone knew it, he'd grabbed a guard by the shoulder and spun him around to use his plate-protected back as a makeshift desk. "Contrary to what some may think, it is, in fact, perfectly possible to be blunt while not talking yourself into a corner. And though I admire your honesty and frankness, it needn't come at the cost of anything else, nor do they have to make you vulnerable."

Trian Aeducan just stared at Frandlin, occasionally exchanging baffled looks with the guard-turned-desk. Even as he spoke, Frandlin scribbled and scribbled.

Before Trian knew it, the parchment was being shoved in his face, and he had to jerk his head out of its daze. He was skeptical when he took it, but he went over it anyway. Some parts of it were crossed out, others modified to say the exact same thing but with a different wording. Absently, he realized all the changes were in bright red, but he couldn't bring himself to ask why Frandlin was carrying around a red pen, or if he only brought it this once, foreseeing the situation. Or how he even got red ink fluid enough to work in those particular pens. Weren't they still just prototypes?

Though Trian didn't see it, Ivo, from his perfect view of his flabbergasted look, nodded resolutely once he saw that he realized he wasn't there to stop him, despite what Harrowmont's letter asked. "That last bit is very important, alright my lord? Do not, in any way or for any reason, utter the words "renounce" or "give up" or anything of the sort. It must be 'not actively pursue.' I'm serious." When Trian didn't react, he Frandlin grabbed him by the chain mail-covered arms, below the gold pauldrons, and shook him once. "I mean it, your highness. Screw up any one of the other parts, but not that one."

"I'm not about to screw up anything!" Trian shot back indignantly, half-heartedly stepping out of the grip. "Not this time..." It wasn't meant to be heard, but Frandlin did. Fortunately, the two guards were too shocked at seeing the crown prince being so roughly handled that they didn't hear what Trian said.

"Right," Frandlin nodded stiffly once more. "I will be waiting just outside."

The other dwarf didn't get a chance to say anything more. Frandlin turned around and purposefully strode away, leaving him and the two dumbstruck guards behind. No "by your leave", no nothing.

There were still a few minutes left before he had to go in. Trian Aeducan looked at the doors for a moment, knowing he could either go in right now and do what he planned, or linger outside and go over his horribly defaced notes. Stone, there was so much red on there now...

Without second-guessing his choice even once, he chose the latter.

"-. .-"

Excerpt from Journal of Senior Enchanter Wynne

25 Eluviesta, 9:31 Dragon: The Frostback Mountains are proving taller and vaster than I imagined. When we reached Haven, and then left it (a couple of days ago), I honestly did not think we would have to stop and set up camp even once. If not for scholar Genitivi, we might have even managed to make our way to the temple without stopping. As it is, we've had to camp for the night twice. The first time, we were not we able to rest very well, anxious as we were that cultists would descend from the mountain to check on the village, and why it hadn't sent anyone else up there in over a week. I suppose it is possible that there is another route to and from the village, but I doubt it.

Genitivi insisted on coming with us. Maybe I should not have been so quick to heal that foot of his. He might have been less nagging that way. On that note, I'm honestly surprised Alim agreed to let him tag along instead of sending him to Redcliffe, or all the way back home in Denerim for that matter, Especially since he figured out the use of that key medallion on his own, much to the scholar's chagrin.

I think it was because Theron didn't predict anything ominous. Though I am skeptical about him having somehow become magical all of a sudden, quite a few of the others think he's turned into some sort of prophet. When Alim glanced at him and only got an indifferent shrug concerning the Genitivi's request, he must have assumed that his presence wouldn't make much of a difference. It definitely wasn't as strange as Theron saying it was fine leaving that only child in the village behind, to "think things over."

I doubt the child will spend much time away from the ashes of that mass pyre we built for the dead cultists.

I'm sure Alim is at least mildly annoyed now. Genitivi barely stayed silent during our trek, when the wind wasn't howling in his face at least, and yet managed to somehow tread the thin line between almost too much and too much. He's kept his questions constant, but avoided dangerous topics and timed his queries and tangents in such a way that he stayed just under the annoyance level where one of the others would have snapped and done something to shut him up. And the way he gets "distracted" sometimes when tensions is high.

I solemnly swear that I refuse to believe any of this is coincidence.

Then again, I suppose scholars need to be sly in order to wheedle answers from others and manage to not get killed for being aggravating.

But I digress.

We actually would have reached the Temple today, but Theron piped up (a rare thing nowadays) and said it would be unwise to venture inside after nightfall, or without being at full strength. So here we are, on the side of the ridge, outside the gale's path. We chose the spot with the most concealment, that we could find, but we can still see some of the structure from here. Most of the temple seems to have been carved out into the mountain itself, but some parts are visible, on the side facing the west. It is a tall thing. There cannot have been a way, other than magic, for those windows, those glass panes to have been built so large. I think they're over 70 meters tall. And the wall is all one piece, not superimposed blocks of stone.

Theron has been staring in its direction for over an hour. I'd have told him to get behind some cover, or in a tent, or at least smokeless pit where we placed our runed disk, since the wind and cold couldn't be good for him... But it's like none of those things are even touching him. His bearskin cloak barely flutters.

What does he see, I wonder...

"-. .-"

"This... is it?"

Alstair didn't need to fall back on his Warden or Templar senses to know that everyone stopped climbing the stairs immediately. The perfect balance between incredulousness and outrage was barely discernible in Alim's voice, from where he led them all, right next to Genitivi. To anyone else, his remark would have sounded like any casual observation.

Which was probably why Genitivi climbed the last steps and stopped in front of the large door, not noticing the apprehension in Alim's voice or the reason behind it. "Yes, this is it! Now I just need to remember how this medallion has to be manipulated..." As the man began to slide and rotate the sections of the pendant, Alistair worriedly met Gwen's eyes from where she stood right next to him. They didn't know what had put Alim on edge, but they could guess very well.

The scholar, naturally, just babbled on. "There! A key to open the way! There are very few keys like this left in the world, but I have seen some. Once you find the right combination, it just... feels right. It's difficult to explain..." He didn't appear to notice that it wasn't awe or curiosity that kept his escorts from speaking. After a bit more fiddling, he finally seemed to decide on a shape. "There... We should be able to find a place to insert this..."

"THAT...Is IT?"

Genitivi finally seemed to be startled out of his trance. After almost dropping the pendant, he warily turned to look at the fuming elf mage. "Pardon...?"

"This door is made of wood! Wood!" The mage waved an arm somewhat sharply in its direction. "Granted, there is a metal skeleton of sorts, but still! It's wood! I can just blow it apart!" To prove his point, he hit the midsection with the lower end of his staff, rending it into several pieces with a loud, resounding crack. The explosion made the scholar cower in fright and shield his face with both arms as dust and ice dust blew out and inwards. "You're telling me that we had to put up with two delays and your annoying, incessant questions because the door your special key opens is made of wood?"

Alistair winced in sympathy, not just for the man but for his own ears, which didn't take kindly to having to register the echoing blast that reverberated through the immense hall that was found beyond the now empty archway. His eardrums still thrummed, the whine of the air and ice-topped stone still singing in his head.

Distantly, he wondered what Alim's reaction would have been if the door was one of those magic-nullifying ones.

The scholar kept looking from the pendant in his hands to the shattered entrance with startled and at once sorrowful eyes. He was clearly trying not to cry. It would have been moving or amusing if their task wasn't so urgent. "You... How could you damage such an important piece of history..?"

Dear lord, the normally level-headed elf was ranting. "Oh, I'd much rather damage something els-" Alistair wouldn't have noticed it if it hadn't passed half an inch from his neck. An arrow whisked through the air, narrowly avoiding them all and disappearing beyond the door. Even before he tracked its path with his vision, he heard something shatter like glass in mid-air. When he finally saw what it was, the acid had already splattered on the ground, several yards from the door they were fighting over. The ice was steaming and the stone below was dissolving because of it.

"Perhaps we can pick this matter up later," Theron blandly suggested from the rear of the group.

Alistair moved to the front, shield already out. They'd made sure to enter the structure with their strongest equipment already on, which included the full bucket Templar helmet, whose face section he'd only just lowered. He had to turn his head more than normal to see everything, since visibility with that thing on wasn't the best. Not counting the one that had already died (Theron's arrow had somehow found his throat even though it had been mainly aimed at the airborne acid flask), there were five armored men charging them from the front.

They were surprisingly far away. It made the Templar marvel at how big that room was if they had to cover such a distance. The hall was like a cathedral, over eighty meters tall and just as wide, but longer, much longer. long enough that the far end wasn't even visible because of the fog, fog inside a building, and the light that streamed through the thick but clear, pure glass covering the immense windows on the right.

Had he the time, he would have looked at his reflection in the stalagmites of frozen water as he met the sword of the big, burly man head-on. He knew better though, so he just pivoted his shield to the side, diverting the strike and shoving the man with his shoulder. The pauldron was of the larger sort and caught the man in the face, taking advantage of the fact that it was open.

Teeth broke under the hit.

He only worried about what was in front. Despite the group assault, they still had the advantage of numbers, not to mention skill. The time it took for the brutes to reach them had been more than enough for them to form up. The attackers were vicious, yes, but they did not expect such a large force, and their brutality and fiendish powers weren't enough to give them the advantage.

No magic was used, beyond the weapon sharpening spell that Alim sometimes cast. There was no need for anything drastic against that small vanguard, and though the noise made when ruining the door had been loud, it could not have carried beyond that chamber, so whoever else was in the Temple probably hadn't been alerted to their arrival, assuming the ones they'd just defeated hadn't sent anyone off to warn the others.

"No warning was dispatched," Alim confirmed his thoughts, turning his glowing eyes from the spiteful gaze of the last fighter, whose life finally expired after the elf got the information he wanted straight from his mind. "Though the images I saw did tell me there are some cultists in the adjoining tunnels. Apparently, there are some living quarters and a small library on this level. No one more dangerous than what we faced in the village though."

The sound of something shattering on the ground made them all whirl around. They got to see Genitivi hiding behind a pedestal located next to one of the tall spires that held the roof aloft. "I'm a friendly! A friendly!" He squeaked. An ancient vase lay in pieces on the ice-covered floor.

"Friendly is such a relative term," Alim answered flatly. "And yet none of its meanings describe my state of mind at the moment."

"Alim..." Hearing Raonar talk was unusual these days, so they paid attention. "Calm down, will you?" The dwarf hadn't joined the battle, and neither had Faren or the mages besides Alim. Even Shale was only now making her way through the entrance. "You're broadcasting and it's giving me a migraine."

Alistair looked back at the elf and saw him grimace as if he'd just swallowed something bitter. Being reprimanded for taking his ager on someone who didn't deserve it could have done nothing less. He could understand his mood though. They'd always intended to come up here as fast as possible, because no one knew how long their former commander was going to last. Having Genitivi delay their arrival by two days, and badgering them with questions during the climb, had annoyed them all to some extent. Nevertheless, the human fighter was taken aback at just how much Alim had taken offense to that.

Then there was the dwarf not wanting to be used as an excuse for rage or whatever. Besides, Alistair thought, Alim had to know that blowing the door apart would be unwise. He could have just lifted it off its hinges, or destroyed it more silently.

Then again, that would not have changed the fact that Genitivi delayed them for nothing.

Further discussion and contemplation was interrupted when the side-doors bust open and plainly-dressed malefikarum and dragon cultists poured in and started gathering flames and screaming things.

Genitivi eeped.

Alistair sighed.

"-. .-"

"You asked, so I'm telling you. Don't go. The stories talk of the riches, but never the names, never where they supposedly spent their wealth. I heard the same tales as a lad in Denerim, felt the same pull, but it's a lie, son. They may paint a trail, but once you're on it, does it lead to the beast or back to you?"

It was a letter from a father to his son. One that had never been heeded, though it was interesting that the lad had kept it on him. "That sounds creepy," Alistair said.

Gwen 'hmmed' as she looked from the letter to the body of the adventurer they'd been led to by Theron's wolf. The cold had preserved it remarkably well, but it was still desiccated. The armor looked decent enough though.

"Weird," Oghren said. "How come all these freaks around here never did anything about the body? They live right next door..."

Literally, Alistair thought.

"And how is it that they allowed him free passage up to this point?" Leliana ventured. They'd found the young man's remains in the second tunnel they'd explored, and there were two rooms on the side of the corridor, not unpopulated. Before their arrival.

"There is no sign of physical harm on the corpse," Sten droned. "We can assume the shades we just fought are the ones responsible for his death, rather than the cultists."

"We don't have time to dwell on this right now," Alim said. He stopped himself from continuing when Raonar walked up to him and handed him a pile of papers before going to the dead adventurer and beginning to basically loot him. "These are the letter and notes from that nervous man in Orzammar..." the elf realized. "Wait, you don't think..."

As if on cue, the dwarf prince pulled a larger roll of paper from under the cuirass of the dead traveler. It was surprisingly clean of dust. The dwarf spread the paper and read it for a while before going to Alim and handing it to him. Alistair felt some relief at that. If there were still happenings that could lead Raonar to take any sort of initiative, it was a good thing.

"Mentions of riders, strange apparitions, implication of strange behavior in acquaintances..." the elf trailed off. "This must be another poor soul that fell to whatever evil spooked that last one. But how could Fade shades be involved...?"

"Sounds to me like our quest of great importance just intersected with another quest of great importance," Alistair drawled. "Only this second quest of great importance has no takers at the moment."

"We cannot exactly do anything about it at this point in time," Theron ended the discussion, casually taking off on a stroll through the corridor, back to the main hall. "Our current goal has yet to be reached, and it waits for us above."

They left Genitivi with only Anor the wolf for company. If they'd brought their pack mule along, they'd have left it there as well, but they'd left it back at the village, believing the climb would be too hard for the animal, which it had, in fact, been. Alim considered leaving Shale behind, despite his misgivings with the man, but Theron said the wolf would be enough and that no harm would come to the scholar regardless. Alistair didn't question how he presumably knew that. No one except Oghren seemed to really. Faren looked like he'd sink into the ground and disappear, as always, but it was clear he'd be going along wherever they went, even if he refused to look anyone in the eye.

Worry for him took away whatever enthusiasm Alistair might have had at staring at the magnificence of the main temple hall as they directed their steps towards the large, semicircular staircase at the far end. At the upper end was a large, round receptacle filled with dead coal. It was about twice as wide as a well, and they'd already learned from some of the ritual scrolls they salvaged that they would have to light some special ashes there if they wanted the door to open.

Rather than blasting the double door open like before, Alim did the so-called ritual this time around. Against all logic, the ashes burst into brilliant flames when thrown into the large brazier. "Stay sharp, I sense something beyond. Something inhuman like I've never detected before."

"Mee too," Alistair admitted, tapping the front of his helmet closed. "I doubt it'll be as dangerous as what we battled in the Deep Roads though."

"Don't jinx us!" Kallian hissed at him.

Glad that his helmet was down and hiding his sheepishness, Alistair warily prepared to go through, right after Shale and followed by everyone else, with heavyweight fighters essentially surrounding the mages and archers on all sides. At least, that was their normal plan in such a situation. Alas, they were not given a chance to act it out.

By the time everyone had formed up and turned towards the door, Theron was already there, with his hand on the handle. "I suggest holding your breath." And he just threw the large door open and marched in like he owned the place.

"For the love of-!" the bastard prince growled, rushing after him as well as the armor let him. Annoyance almost spilled into words, but he stumbled to a halt and yelped when the lid of a ceramic urn flew up, pushed by a dark cloud. Instinctively bringing his shield up to bear, he barely took in his surroundings as he tried to keep track of what was happening. Sparse light filtered in through the ice up on the wall, giving shape to the partially caved-in room.

It became dimmer and dimmer as black ash kept pouring out of the urn on the pedestal in the middle. The rush of sound drowned out the gasps and shouts of surprise from behind. Alistair forgot to hold his breath, but he also forgot to breathe in.

Though not for long. "What are you doing! Get out of there!"

Theron just stood as the cloud of ash billowed and spun around him, making as if to swallow him whole. Templar sixth sense felt spellfire being readied, but a gesture from Theron, who still did not turn towards them, was followed by the channeling fading to a steady hum. Soon enough, two more sources joined the first, but they did not go past the stage of a warning.

The newborn cyclone completely stopped when the lid of the urn clattered to the floor, not denting in the least. When it finished rolling and came to a complete halt, the ash resumed its spin, not making Theron's cloak shift in the least this time around, and there was a shift, and a pillar formed. Cinders joined the black, twisted as ash regressed, against all logic, into sparks and kindling. Soot came together and, soon enough, there was something hideous and dangerous standing in front of the Dalish hunter. Taller than a man, even when hunched, it had two squinted , orbless eyes. Long, skeletal arms prodded the air, and its mouth...

It was hideous, like two long saws made of lit coal, they spiraled around a central axis. Teeth of burning embers separated the world from a living furnace.

Alistair didn't know what it was, only that it looked like a flaming mouth with arms and razor teeth that had been stretched and spun around on its axis. The ash wraith, or whatever it was that floated before them, looked like a mouth that was trying to take a bit out of everywhere and in all directions at once.

Chocked coughs snapped the templar from his daze. He did not turn around, his fighting methods were too ingrained to allow such a thing, but his ears told him some of the others forgot about the no breathing order.

"Ash wraiths," Theron intoned, locked in a staredown with the strange apparition. "Followers of Andraste that decided to partake in a ritual of cremation, in honor of the way she died, and leave the spirits behind to guard this place. This was Magorian once, one of the priests of this 'Maker' you humans keep going on about." Alistair figured that was who the statue right in the middle of the room represented.

Before anyone could ask what in the world had just happened, how he knew that and whether or not they would have to fight, the red and smoking ashes of the wraith went out, the creature burst into cloud again and cycloned off, slamming the other doorway open and disappearing down the corridor.

"We will not be disturbed by the wraiths," Theron said, bland voice perfectly in place, walking back to his place in formation as if he hadn't just done something completely bizarre and scary beyond all reason.

"No, this won't be just another of your weird stunts!" Gwen snapped in annoyance. Her voice was muffled by her own helmet, Alistair noted, but was no less pleasant. "What just happened?"

"The ash wraith recognized me and allowed us passage," Theron drawled as if it was the most regular occurrence ever.

Silence.

"Can you elaborate?" Gwen hissed through her teeth.

"I understand!" Zevran snapped his fingers, grabbing any and all attention still available. "Last night you were staring at the temple for a long time, my friend, and no blinking was involved. Might I assume you were... what do you call it anyhow? Dreamwalking?"

"No," Alim cut in. "That is an act by which a mage visits the dreams of others. What Theron has been doing lately is called remote spiritual projection." He let that sink in for a while. "So, you somehow persuaded these.. guardians to let us pass freely?"

"Or perhaps you were only out for a walk?" Zevran spoke again. "You can be invisible doing that, no? Hmm," the elf was leering. "I knew you had it in you my friend!"

"Oh for Maker's mercy, Zevran, what are you saying now?" Leliana muttered.

"What? You cannot tell me it hasn't crossed your minds! Invisible, immaterial. He can go anywhere, watch anything. How many of the cultists so far were women? Although I have nothing against men... And we did pass through some bedrooms-"

Leliana palmed her face.

"It's not going to work," Alim sighed, oddly calm. "No matter how much you imply Theron uses his ability to watch people undress or do... whatever else.. you will never coax a reaction out of him, so we will never know."

Zevran smirked and Alistair gaped, thankful that his helmet hid it. No one had missed the use of "we" instead of "you" in that sentence.

"At any rate," Alim cleared his throat loudly. "I sense no living beings until one two levels above, so I assume we only have to keep an eye out for traps. There is no telling where the rest of the cult is, so we should still be careful not to draw everyone and everything on our heads at once. I strongly suspect there are more dragonkin ahead as well."

The group advanced steadily, making conversation that did not have anything to do with Theron's people-watching hobby that may or may not exist. It was actually a serious enough topic, namely whether or not the presence of dragon spawn suggested a real, live dragon somewhere in the area. Soon enough, people started to speculate that they were the brood of the dragon that went on a rampage at the end of the Orlais-Ferelden war.

Alistair did his best to keep up with and participate in the muttered conversation, but the helmet didn't help his hearing. By the time, they passed several turns and walked through a bunch of rooms, he was wishing there was some way to teleport sound so he could hear things from a distance.

Finally, when the main topic of conversation became potential high dragon confrontations and how to best kill one, they had reached what was obviously the antechamber to another large hall. The statue of a beautiful woman was in the very center, nothing like dwarven sculptures. It was lifelike, and the name plate, though weathered, was well kept. Say whatever about the cultists, they channeled their fanaticism well into tasks.

"You know I always wondered if Andraste really was as beautiful as the legends say," the Templar found himself saying. "Maybe she was ugly. Maybe she had buck teeth."

"What?" Leliana was in full religious zeal. "How can you possibly imply such a thing! The Maker himself deemed her worthy of him, for her beauty, wisdom and strength!"

"Oh lighten up my dear," Zevran chimed with a leer. "Although come to think of it, I do like seeing knickers get in a twist-ow!" He rubbed his shoulder. Alistair was actually surprised he didn't dodge Kallian's jab. The elf probably didn't expect her to do that, since she was usually more lighthearted. And she used to be, before the past couple of weeks.

A side-glance netted a glimpse of Faren looking pointedly away, and Alistair knew, somehow, that it wasn't jealousy he was seeing. He would have said something else, but something at the edge of his awareness diverted his attention. "Someone is casting." A pause. "Or, more specifically, readying a spell for whoever is bound to go through the final door first."

"Hmm," Alim seemed to feel the same, and more. He turned to Morrigan. "Any ideas for scouting ahead unseen? Something small enough to slip through the cracks in the wall or beneath the door? Other than a mouse I mean."

"Perhaps," the witch considered. After a moment, she nodded to herself and yellow light enveloped her. Human form melted into something else, smaller and smaller, until the light died down. Alistair found himself staring at the strangest lizard he'd ever seen. And he kept staring as the lizard began to look at everyone at once. Its eyes didn't even need to move in concert with one another. It was bizarre.

The templar did a double take when an absurdly long tongue flicked out of the lizard's mouth and snatched a crawler out of the shadows.

Oghren stared. "The sod is that supposed to be?"

The small lizard locked one eye on the dwarf, as if glaring in disgust at his lack of education and crass manner. The other eye darted around seemingly at random. Then, it went on the move, the strangest walk Alistair had ever witnessed, though the real shocker came when the thing faded from sight almost completely, even before it reached the small space beneath the door.

Yet there was one person staring even more fixedly at the spot Morrigan had just vacated. "Blasted witch." Sten, of all people, growled. Even before Alistair registered his own shock, Sten frowned. "Rainbow Shades. Those chameleons aren't found anywhere south of Seheron. The climate isn't mild enough..." The emotionless mask fell back into place. "It seems we have not been watchful enough of our own lands if such creatures can roam free enough to learn that form." Alistair just knew that "creatures" meant Morrigan and her kind, not the animal.

The following wait was nerve-racking.

"Why not just turn into a fly or something?" Kallian blurted at some point.

No one had an answer. Also, people were starting to get antsy. Alistair figured the enemies on the other side were just as unnerved by the wait. He really hoped the cultists would lose patience first and charge through the doorway. The hallway they were in was just broad and tall enough to move freely but narrow enough that there would be no danger of getting swarmed. Of course, this was the cultists' turf, so they obviously knew this as well.

Eventually, though Alistair didn't know exactly how much time later, Morrigan returned and, upon resuming her form, began to give a surprisingly detailed report. Alistair only made sure to remember the bare facts. Lots or pressure plates apparently, fire/arrow shooting mechanisms in the walls, about a dozen cultists, some five foot-tall dragonspawn. Basically everything needed for a serious fight.

"I can set a forcefield in front of the door for whoever goes first, but I won't be able to sustain a sharpening field on the weapons at the same time," Alim's gaze swep over them. "Heavy fighters up front as usual. Leliana and Theron can do suppressing fire while Morrigan and Wynne distract them. We'll need someone to get rid of their heavy hitters though... I suppose Morrigan could sneak up there somehow and weave some spider web? Pick them off one by one?"

"The roof of the cavern is too high up," the witch shot that idea down. "Also, it isn't very dark, due to the lyrium. They would notice."

"I'll do it," Faren cut in. Alistair looked at him oddly, as did the others. "You said magic casters are gonna be there right? I'm best then. Just keep the archers off me."

Though his behavior over the past weeks made them worried, his suggestion made sense, as did Theron's decision to be part of the first to go in, since he would perform suppressing fire while the forcefield deflected enemy arrows. The move would allow the rest to move forward, set off or disarm the traps and, eventually, engage the cultists up close.

So Alim calmly blew the door in, kicking up lots of dust as he did. The noise was nerve-shattering, but they had been prepared for it. Their opposition was surprised. They couldn't not be when the door hurtled through the air, covering a distance of 10 meters before smashing into the closest cultist, a heavily armored, burly man and leaving him a broken wretch on the dirty floor. His and the others' screams were all the wardens needed to capitalize on.

The seconds the enemies took to recover from their shock and loose their arrows was enough for Alim to erect a dome of force, wide enough to let them all pile into the room (half-cavern really, Alistair noted idly). As soon as he was in and got a good view of his opposition, the templar started to twitch. He wanted to charge in and bash those bastards, but he couldn't afford to. He had to follow the plan instead, so he waited, trying not to twitch too obviously when arrows struck the shimmering wall ten inches in front of his face, leaving ripples in the air, until those overgrown lizards moved close enough.

Given Alim's past feats, Alistair knew the elf would be able to keep everything out of that forcefield for a long while, but that wasn't what they were aiming for. So when the first of the dragonspawn reared on its hind legs and made as if to hurl and claw at the field, it actually met no resistance and slipped through, stumbling, right into cutting distance. First kill was his, Alistair thought grimly as a second fanged snout met his shield, but he didn't retaliate. He just wrenched his sword out of the neck of his first kill and swung wide to the right, leaving a deep gash through the chest of a third, five-foot tall beast, the followed with a bash of his shield, just a moment after a breath of ice froze it solid.

Congealed flesh and bone shattered under his hit. Damn, that bitch Morrigan at least had good timing. Looking to his left, he had to give credit to Raonar too. Even without using his shield, or anything in his left arm at all, he'd made short work of that blue-green reptile before it could try to eat him again.

"Why can't I just go there and crush them all?" Shale whined from the back. At least that's what it sounded like, but Alistair couldn't be sure as he braced himself against the bite of yet another drake. He thought he heart Sten grunt in agreement, and Alim scoff, but he didn't pay them any mind. He pushed the offending beast head aside and he creature strafed, single-minded in its bloodthirst, but Gwen decapitated it before it did anything else. Even now, she refused to wear a helm, the human prince noted, pleased by the view. And her greatsword, Yusaris was gleaming. Slaying dragons, this was what it was meant to do.

Before he could snap out of his thoughts and berate himself for not paying attention to what he should be focused on, his sword caught fire. Alistair almost screamed and dropped it before he noticed Gwen's was the same. And so was Raonar's. Damned witch, Alistair cursed as he less than gracefully hacked at another incoming lizard. Maker forbid that Morrigan activate that spell before the fight instead of giving him a heart attack like that.

He would have laughed at Sten's chagrined face (that man really hated magic), but he had to turn serious again as Duncan's sword met another blade at last. The templar barely suppressed a grunt. Those reavers sure packed a whallop, and man, were they ugly when they snarled like that. And their eyes burned red, like hell's fire, and were giving him a headache. He could feel something trying to tear at him from the inside the more he returned that glare.

Which was why he wasted no time before smashing the edge of his shield into the side of the bastard's head. The helmet cut the damage in half, but the ear-wing fell off it and the human staggered slightly, not much but enough to give Alistair the leeway he needed to move his sword arm again.

Too close for a proper swing, he rammed his knuckles right into the offender's windpipe, and nicked the throat with the pommel of his sword hilt for good measure, choking him. Another shield bash to the face almost made the cultist fall on his back, and Alistair was glad when it failed but sent his helmet flying. It let him make the return swing and slam into the enemy temple so hard that the skull cracked and crushed the brain beneath.

For a time it went like that. Alistair was, even now after months of travels, amazed they were pulling off a coordinated attack. He knew from his teachings and experience that battles were almost always chaotic messes where everyone lost sight of everyone else almost immediately after the fight started. And yet here they were, cutting enemies down left and right, steadily moving forward. They had to, otherwise the corpses would have piled on top of each other. They were definitely many enough, and the lizard creatures sure could bleed.

That was when the fighting broke off and the cultists pulled back. Only some straggler drakes stayed and attacked, only to meet the same fate as the others. Alistair used the respite to catalogue his injuries They weren't many, miraculously enough. His side was bruised and his left shoulder ached, but there wasn't anything besides that, other than labored breathing and the certainty that he would be sore all over after this.

Alistair also noticed, with some surprise, that the cultists dragged a couple of their wounded back with them. It was really a shock after seeing the ones back at the village sacrifice them for blood magic spells. "Oh, Andraste's flaming knickers!" He shouted when two of the ones that hung back stabbed said fallen fighters in the heart. Why did he have to tempt fate?

"Stop them from casting!" Kallian shouted.

Almost immediately Theron abandoned his current target and sent an arrow, while Morrigan sent some sort of mental wave, but a reaver jumped in front of the former and the latter failed to affect the two malefikarum, even though the half dozen remaining fighters clawed at their heads in pain or fear. And then a third mage joined their chants and raised their arms to cast together.

"Come around!" Alim shouted, reducing the range of his dome as he did. No sooner had he done it that the three enemy mages finished chanting some obscure language and sent a giant wave of fire straight at them.

It smashed into the forcefield and struggled, but when it failed to breach it exploded, poured out in all direction and then ignited the air itself, grumbling and rumbling, flushing the air inward, rushing like a cyclone eager to swallow them all. Alistair held his breath and gulped. That looked nasty.

Two mintutes in, it wasn't showing signs of stopping. "Okay, now what?"

"We wait it out...?" Zevran ventured. He'd been annoyed at first, at not being a major part of the fight, but now he looked glad to be safely inside Alim's field.

The black magician clicked his tongue in annoyance. "And you wonder why I went for blood magic," he shot at Wynne, who didn't grace that with a reply. "They're pretty good, but, fortunately, I'm-" a screech like a thousand birds chirping at once broke through his words and a bolt of thunder smashed into the field, catching them all unprepared. The dome collapsed with a gong and dozens of electrical arks flashed and streaked through the air, cracking the stone and searing their bones. Alistair heard screams and realized some were his.

He was face-down on the ground, he realized, and he only twitched when he tried to move. Then there was pain, then fire and he couldn't breathe. He pulled his eyelids open and saw smoldering embers through the eye slit of his helmet, then electricity passed through his body again, making him writhe and cry out yet again. He didn't know how he managed to stay conscious, but he did. His vision was blurred, but he still saw the red streaked with violet and white, then only white as a forcefield glided over him again, pushing the heat and storm away.

It should have taken minutes for his body to move properly again, but the familiar blue mist of healing enveloped him, and he felt better. Well enough to drag himself to his feet and manage not to stagger too obviously. Wearily he looked up. There was an ominous but entrancing spectacle of red and purple, white and blue as fire and lighting mixed right outside of the precarious force wall, and the atmosphere, such as it was, screeched at them hatefully. Only the constant hum of Wynne's healing aura made him feel well enough to go on.

"As I was saying," Alim huffed. Alistair turned to look at him, dimly realizing that was the most tired he'd ever seen or heard him during a fight, and his hair hung a bit awkwardly, filled with static like the rest of him. Energy arcs glided over him from time to time. Mercifully, his long hair wasn't standing on end. He was slouched, both hands holding onto his large staff. The bottom of it had cracked the stone floor where it had been smashed through at some point. Drake and human blood pooler around it, shimmering slightly, and Alistair realized it was the blood that powered the new dome around them. "They're pretty good, but I'm better."

The templar would have scoffed if he wasn't still trembling. Looking around, he saw the others in similar situations. Raonar was on one knee a few feet from him, Gwen was leaning on Yusaris, Zevran was unashamedly lying on his back without even bothering to try and stand. Wynne was moving from a disoriented, sitting Kallian to whoever was closest. Theron was the only one that seemed completely unbothered by what had just happened. He wasn't even singed, what the hell?

Well, the elf wasn't the only one unbothered. Shale was just fine too, and she was just about to say something sarcastic. Alistair could see it on her face, even made of stone as it was, but she didn't get around to it. With rush of air, the fire outside the shield began to settle down. It allowed for some new visibility, but it only revealed more problems. "Oh oh..." He heard Alim quip, and he agreed. He didn't know what was coming, but he could feel the magic and it was bad news.

The flaming storm collapsed completely, but the lightning tempest remained, and then the malefikarum on the other side of the cavernous chamber summoned snow and ice and sent it out.

"Venhedis!" Alim snarled in Arcanum as the magic smashed into his dome again. "Vishante kaffar!" He swore again, and Alistair barely heard him over the noise. The spell was ice, it was storm, and it mixed with the lighting and went from bad to worse. "Those morons!"

Alistair privately agreed. "Marvelous!" He stepped back as the forcefield contracted again, pulling an equally stupefied Gwen with him. The spells reacted and swirled around each other, merging and ascending into a typhoon of unleashed rage.

"I thought you were the only one who could do this!" Alistair's head snapped to the left where the outraged cry came from, barely audible over the mayhem of the maelstrom. He thought it was Raonar for a second but he seemed as stoic as ever. Faren was the one that said it, but what did he mean?

"What, you think I just came up with every spell combination of mass destruction on my own?" Surana snapped back irritably. Alistair didn't get worried easily, but when he saw the sweat pouring off Alim of all people, it was more than enough. "Come closer together, I can't sustain such a wide field! And if they also know how to fuel this magic after the casting, it would be a bad idea to try to outlast them."

Everyone scrambled to do as told, still unable to tear their eyes away from the maelstrom of pure, raw energy in whose maw they were located. "Maybe we should retreat to the hallway!" The human prince suggested, hoping someone heard him.

"Door caved in while you were writing on the ground," Theron calmly answered. How the Dalish elf held onto that serene exterior even in these situations, the human had no idea.

"This whole place is going to cave in if this thing last much longer!" Kallian said, her voice a bit hoarse.

"Oh, it's not caving in yet!" Alim said through gritted teeth. Then he smirked maliciously. "But it will. I'm pissed off now. Shale!" The golem twitched. "You're up!" And the dark wizard produced a certain orb from his robes. Alistair had no idea where it was stored until then but recognized it. The globe Alim made back at the Circle Tower, from Raonar's wild magic and Owain's ashes. "Just like we practiced during the night watches."

Before anyone could ask what he meant, Shale took the orb, closed her left fist around it and closed her eyes. No sooner had she done that that the orange crystals in her arms and back glimmered, then flashed then burst into flames more than they ever would have on their own, until the Golem was surrounded in fire entirely. "Right side of the room then?"

"That's where Morrigan said the traps were most harmless, for you anyway," Alim answered.

It was then that the templar prince noticed something critical. "Wait... where is Morrigan?"

There was a pause, though no silence.

Zevran tsked. "Damned woman went off on her own again."

"Yes, she did," Alim said tightly.

"Perfect!" Alistair seethed, drowning in his own river of sarcasm.

"Later!" The black mage shouted lifting his staff in the air with both arms a second time. "Shale, when I smash this against the ground again, go and knock some heads!

"Oh, I'll be glad to!"

The crimson orb of demon blood at the head of the staff lit up. "Everyone out of my way and try not to fall too hard!" And before Alistair could ask what he meant, everyone dropped to the ground except him, Wynne and Gwen.

And that they did it proved a very good idea a moment later.

The ground shook with the weight of the elf's magic, and it didn't stop. A tremor passed through the stone and threw the templar and Gwen off their feet. They fell down, gasping, but the earthquake only grew, rumbling even worse than the storm of fire they'd just survived. Looking wildly around, the man saw Theron and a shining Wynne the only ones still standing, other than Alim himself.

It was then that there was a change in the atmosphere. The magical storm around them thinned. The cultist mages had no way to focus on the spell with Shale closing in on them, and there was definitely a problem with all the clicks, snaps and hisses that went off at once.

Alim's earthquake set off each and every trap in that area.

"Whoa!" Alistair couldn't help it. He ducked and brought his sword and shield over his head, even though he was perfectly safe in the dome. Hundreds of arrows streaked through the air, flames poured from the walls and pillars, grease and some sort of flammable glue poured from beneath the pressure plates on the ground, only to catch fire a moment later. Flaming runes glowed on the walls, columns and floors, sending tongues of embers everywhere, and through it all the storm kept howling, despite thinning.

It was then that Alistair saw what was happening ahead, where Shale was swinging and smashing everything near her. Reavers were hacking at her, doing little damage, and a dozen of those "baby" dragons swarmed her, but it was all just a diversion, to allow the blood mages to escape. Forgetting his embarrassing posture, the man shot to his feet. "We have to take them down! Don't let them cast anything else!"

"Theron, Leliana, you two-"

"Faren!" Kallian yelled.

"What?" Alim floundered, following her gaze. "Oh for the love of!"

The dwarf took off, rippling through the forcefield as though it wasn't even there, and rolled out of the way of a volley of trap arrows. The earthquake faded, but didn't disappear. It didn't stop him though. The rogue charged right through the magical fire spouting all over the place and even the constant arcs of lightning were nothing to him. Alistair would have watched in awe if what Faren had just done wasn't the stupidest thing anyone could have possibly done in that situation. Was that guy suicidal?

It only took one rash action to completely destroy the cohesion of a group during a battle, and that was precisely what Faren accomplished. Raonar, of all people, charged after him, cutting a path through the forcefield with just a swing of his sword. Somehow. "The hell!" of all the times to succeed in using his unnatural powers, this was among the worst.

"By the stars!" Alim yelled. "Those two... That's it, everyone charge! Just stay out of that disaster area!"

The magical storm had finally passed and the field collapsed. Alistair made two steps and staggered, gasping to breathe. The air that hit him was hot and thin, and the amount of static energy still in the air made him shiver and his hair stand on end. Biting back a curse, he willed himself to focus and chose the path of least resistance. Ergo, where Shale had stomped her way through. And yet he wavered again when a familiar phantom pain flared through him. He knew what this feeling meant, like having a heart attack and an arm mangled at once.

Adrenaline flooded him, and Alistair saw then that Faren had been set upon by two drakes that were lying in wait. He saw that two of the mages, having retreated under the cover of their cohort, were casting some sort of ice spell, and that Shale was the target. The templar noticed in worry that there was a whole bunch of those dragons left, and that they were behind a rock outcropping that Faren could not see beyond. Their handlers were stiff with anticipation. A classic ambush. "Oh shit!"

There was nothing outwardly visible as the cursed dwarf stuck his left arm forward, but the wave of pain that washed over him was definitely noticeable. Even when it was aimed at something else, and so far away, Alistair still winced. But he couldn't deny that it was satisfying to see those blood mages cry out and fall to their knees as the spells exploded in their faces. He almost absentmindedly drove Duncan's sword through the side of a cultist by the time the aura of pain shut down. Gwen was with him now, Sten on his other side and Oghren with Zevran just ahead, although when those two had gotten there he had no idea.

As far as chaos went, this mess wasn't the worst he could imagine. "Oh bollocks!" He just had to tempt fate again didn't he?

As he'd noticed before, Faren hadn't seen the half dozen drakes on the other side of the rock outcropping, at the mouth of that particular tunnel. He also hadn't seen the two fighters handling them. Tamers, no doubt. Alistair thought of shouting a warning, but there was too much noise. And gods, Faren was so fast, he was already there, taking them all on as if he didn't care for his safety at all. One moment he was in the air, then he stomped on the head of a lizard and used it as leverage to jump high enough to slit the throat of a human. A drake bit his calf as soon as he landed in a crouch on the ground, but he slashed at is mouth and then sunk one of his chained daggers into its head, killing it too.

Which was when there was a crack in the stone above. "Maker's balls." Oh yes, Alim had actually started a cave-in. Wonderful. "Look out above!" He bellowed as loud as he could.

The noise of stone cracking and falling was so ominous that everyone stopped what they were doing and watched in horrified fascination cracks began to fill the cave roof. Several large ones congregated as the rock went taut.

A huge stalactite broke and began its lethal descent as the earth itself groaned. Everyone watched, except the remaining cultist, who turned tail and fled up the tunnel. And Faren, who jumped on the back of the dragonling nearest and stabbed deep, with both his knives, right above the shoulder blades.

It was one of those rare cases when he missed vital or incapacitating areas, and it was a very big mistake.

The drake screeched, breaking everyone out of their trances just as the stalactite met the ground and kicked up an immense cloud of filth. The animal's cry was a keening, horrid sound, worse than any of the other lizards had made that day, which was the only reason the smash of the huge piece of rock didn't completely drown it out. And then It panicked and ran up the tunnel, with Faren still stuck to it. The dwarf tried to slide off, but his grip was loose and a dagger got stuck where it had been driven through the creature's hide. The chain between it and the other knife curled around his wrist in a knot.

Faren Brosca barely had time to cry out in surprise when he hit the ground and struck a few rocks, before he hit his head on a particularly nasty stone and fell silent as the crazed creature dragged him through dirt and dust until they were both out of sight.

"Goddammit!" Raonar cursed and followed as fast as he could.

"Of all the stupid things!" Alim snapped at no one, taking his anger out on the last moving enemy. "So much for planning! Don't you all just stand there! After them!" Almost before he was finished, he became a bat and flew in pursuit.

"Just like that?" Alistair blurted. "That's suicide!"

"For once we agree," Sten grunted.

But Shale was already running up the tunnel., Oghren on her heels, holding his huge, bloodied axe like it weighed nothing. "Don't just stand there!" He yelled over his shoulder. "Cave-in, remember!?"

"..."

Suddenly, the pandemonium that Shale's stomping footsteps had drowned out was howling around them again. "OHSHI-" Suddenly he was thrown off his feet, a boulder impacting the place he'd just stood in. He hit the ground with a choked grunt, Gwen and Kallian on each side. It was a testament to the direness of the situation that Zevran didn't comment on the inappropriateness, or rather appeal, of the scene. He just pulled Kallian up and dragged her off, expecting the other two to follow.

Thirty seconds later they were stumbling after the others when something clicked in Alistair's head and he stopped in horrified realization. "Wait! Where are Theron and Wynne?"

"-. .-"

Any other person would have been cross with those two dwarves for running ahead like that, or being dragged off and following, respectively. Truly, most on his side were clearly feeling that way.

Zevran Arainai was different. He was an assassin, which meant that he was all about sneaking and taking his targets out from behind, preferably without anyone knowing he was ever there. That was why he did not exactly feel annoyed at Raonar charging ahead. The dwarf was a perfect distraction. Oh, Zevran was worried, definitely, and while Faren had pissed him off royally over the past month, he was worried about him too, and about what him dying would do to a certain blonde elf.

It was for this reason that he chose not to pick out the most appealing targets and, instead, shadow those two as soon as hell broke loose. He'd found the perfect way too.

As soon as the cave-in happened and he helped Kallian get out of the dogpile, he melted into the shadows and the cloud of dust that got kicked up by the tremors and collapsing stones. A mask kept the thinned and hot air breathable, earplugs removed the distraction of hearing. Normally he would rely heavily on his hearing, but the amount of noise was a liability here, so he settled for his eyes.

His eyesight was better than most, and his need for spatial awareness made sure he memorized where he was as soon as he entered a new area. It was for that reason that he knew of the hollowed-out sections of the cavern ahead. He'd noticed the existence of those terraces as soon as Alim blasted the door, so that's where he went. Higher ground was a great advantage in his profession.

Having memorized the layout of the floor and walls, he managed to run through the thick cloud of debris and make a running leap up the wall. He did it blindly but succeeded. By the time the second piece of cave ceiling came down and rocked the earth again, he was already there, four meters higher than everyone else. He ignored the air buffet that hit him from behind and made his cloak flap. He was more interested in the drakes hanging from the ceiling, writhing, trapped in thick spider web. Two were already wrapped in cocoons and three more were struggling, snapping and hissing at the giant spider that had spun it.

So that was where Morrigan had gone. She'd eliminated a good chunk of the number of potential ambushers alone. Zevran worried he was losing his edge if that witch spotted this danger before he did, but then he remembered she'd scouted ahead as a chameleon, so she must have known of them since that time. It did raise the question of why she didn't include them in her report though.

The far end of the terrace, if it could even be called that, was still a ways of, but Zevran could guess that the fight hadn't moved that far, even without relying on his hearing. Crouching, he snuck up to the ledge and looked down. His eyebrows shot to his hairline and he was hard-pressed not to gape at what he saw.

Raonar loved Faren like a sibling. That was a given. Hell, he cared for them all. Zevran argued against believing that for a while, a very lengthy period of time, but he'd been with this motley group for even longer and even his ability to stay in denial wasn't immeasurable.

But this...

Faren was unconscious near the wall, chain still around his wrist, but the drake that had dragged him off was dead, lying in a growing pool of its own blood, its severed head a couple of feet away. Also dead were another three. And the two handlers. And one of the heavily-armored reinforcements that had come down, despite the dust cloud that got kicked up by the ongoing cave-in behind them all. Normally, it would make for a sorry sight, even despite all that. Backed against the wall, with just Faren's unconscious form between him and the rock, Raonar looked very much like a cornered animal. Five more dearly beloved baby dragons were closing in on him, hissing and snapping at the air.

And oh, there goes another dragon.

This was his chance, Zevran thought. Maybe he could... but why weren't those reavers approaching? No matter, the Antivan figured. Easier for him if they waited. Now if he could just get a bit closer-

The elf flinched back as soon as he moved forward. Suddenly, he knew the reason the humans weren't approaching. There were no more archers, thankfully, but the others there... Even they dared not close in, and for good reason. Raonar had let loose. Zevran didn't believe in the Maker, but dear lord, how was that dwarf still standing? Now that he looked more closely, he could see the red haze leeching out of the man. He almost felt sorry for the drakes. Almost.

He blinked, and the dwarf had already cut the air. A swipe of his arm brought his sword in an arc, tip rending the ground apart and shearing through the air with a stiff, oblique cut. Metal went through nothing, then a drake foreleg, then its throat, and the movement stopped but instead of an injured dragon there were two bloody chunks of flesh and bone, halves of an overgrown lizard wrenched apart and sailing through the air because of a gust of wind, and smearing the ground with a sickening lurch.

Zevran fell on his backside, phantom pain spiking momentarily as the invisible force traveled further, to and through one of the enemy fighters and severing his left arm from below the shoulder.

It was then that Zevran understood, he couldn't interfere in that mess. Not directly. In order to properly aim his knives and flasks, he would need to get closer, but if he got closer he would succumb to that painful aura, and he would be no help.

Then, finally, the bat became elf again, and the others caught up and started to help, but even they could not get very close. Four more of those wretched beasts jumped down from the terrace opposite Zevran's position, cutting the group off. But the assassin knew even they would not get close, unless their name was Alim Surana. Leliana was good with that bow though.

No way to help there then. Zevran backed off, closer to the rear wall. It cost him the view of the fight, but removing the earplugs let him make out the noises now, and the phantom pain was duller at this distance. He could use the respite to move further, scout ahead. Morrigan was still busy securing her "meal." Zevran didn't know if the witch ever actually indulged in feeding, or any other urges, while she was a beast, and he didn't really care as long as he or the others didn't come to harm. Information was needed and useful though, so he moved.

When he finally reached the far ledge and peered down and around the proverbial corner, his mouth fell open. The area was huge, larger and brighter than the one they'd just escaped. And there was an altar there. Like a pyramid. Crow's feathers! What in the world did they stumble into? And what was that man doing? Praying? Meditating?

The build suggested an elf. The ears confirmed it beyond doubt. Male. He was sitting cross-legged in front of a crackling flame, as though he was completely deaf or oblivious to the battle happening less than a few hundred feet away. Not to mention the cave-in that had happened down the tunnel.

Zevran was too far away to attack from there, but maybe-

The helmet next to the man flew in his hand. Zevran tensed, watching him put it on. Had the arrogant twit finally realized that all that racked was, perish the thought, a cause of concern? Perhaps he should give him a prize-

Zevran Arainai barely had time to yelp and throw himself to the floor when the enemy did what he'd only ever seen one other person do. Past observations were the only reason he didn't just stand there and take the razor wind as it rent the air apart and cleanly left a cut in the rock wall he'd been leaning against. Right, definitely not competing for points that one, although he would have stood a good chance at winning. That sword looked sharp, and that attack... Only Raonar was supposed to be able to do that.

Assassin skills were drilled into you over years of practice in the form or trainers randomly attacking you, even in your sleep. Not bothering to ask himself why making a leap of faith was the right thing to do, he did it, dove over the ledge. A bolt of lightning struck the place where he'd been lying just moments before.

With the grace of a cat, he flipped through the air and landed on his feet, letting inertia take him into a roll. As soon as he stopped, he ignored the bruised shoulder and dove again, escaping another bolt of lightning and taking cover behind a stone column. What in the nine hells were stone columns doing there? They were holding nothing up. They were just four, arranged in a square around that building-sized pedestal for the worship of the damned.

Good thing they were tough. "Come now!" He called out, trying to buy enough time to think of a plan. "Surely we can at least introduce ourselves before having a falling out like this!"

He must have sounded more sarcastic that he intended because the column he was leaning against started rattling. In surprise, he staggered away. Only experience made sure he didn't get distracted by it, which was the only reason he saw the elf, even with his heavy metal armor and Dar'Misaan, hovering thirty feet above him.

The next five minutes were all a blur, spend dodging, rolling out of the way of sky cutters, lighting and fire, cursing up a storm in four different languages and wondering what the hell a mage was doing in warrior armor and blasting him from the sky. Figuratively speaking.

At one point, he managed to scrape enough time to hurl an acid flask and a fire bomb at the floating bastard, but they exploded against a forcefield and did no damage.

Then, finally, he couldn't completely dodge a blast of concussive force, and he felt something hard hit him in the back and the head. Correction, he'd hit the cave wall. Again. And the floating bastard was getting ready to swing his sword and probably cut him in half. Well, many tried before. Someone was bound to succeed at some point.

Then came a red and white blur, and the floating bastard's sword was stopped by another. There was a dwarf right in front of him and punching the elf in the face so hard that his helmet flew off and sent him falling. Both crashed to the ground with a meaty thud and rattle some seconds later.

Zevran tried to stand, but his vision swam. He managed to stagger to his feet though, and he blinked the yellow spots away, little by little. By the time his eyes recovered and he wasn't hearing things funny anymore, those two had managed to stand up and start fighting again. Dimly Zevran heard the others fighting behind him, but he wasn't concerned. What did concern him was how tired Raonar looked.

The dwarf and elf fought for a minute, one's fatigue taking the edge of his fighting skill. A couple of times the elf tried to back up and cast a spell, but Raonar flared, red dancing over him, and the spellcasting was broken. Swords clashed once, twice, three times, but when it looked like Raonar would finally score a hit, he was just too slow to take advantage of a breach in the other's guard and he missed, leaving just a scrape on the red steel armor. Zevran wondered why he swayed, but then he noticed the blood dripping from the fighter's left gauntlet, tight as it was curled around the sword hilt.

The noble stumbled, but recovered in time to parry away a chop aimed at the top of his head. They broke off, and the elf feinted, but Raonar saw through it and blocked the sword when it was a hair's breath from his neck. He pushed, the other pushed too, and they stayed locked like that for a minute, both swords slowly getting brighter, and Zevran could feel the phantom pain slowly starting to take him over as the dwarf's field extended with each moment.

The elf's face was visible now, so his grimace was plain to see. But he was a blood mage, like the others, so pain was a familiar thing. Even then, however, there wasn't an explanation for the smirk that flickered on his face when he broke the bladelock.

Zevran watched horrified as he got the answer to the question of why he made that face.

Breaking the hold, the armored mage performed an arching move and made to slash his opponent from hip to shoulder. Raonar was surprisingly steady and blocked the blow expertly.

Or tried.

The elf's curved sword changed from bright to iridescently transparent in but a moment, and it passed through Maric's unshielded blade like it wasn't even there, and then ignored the cuirass and chain mail themselves.

Time seemed to stop as the grey warden gasped and went rigid, then staggered back two steps, clawing at his intact chest plate with his left hand, smearing it with the blood dripping from it. Whatever that strike had done wasn't visible, but that only made it more dangerous, going cleanly through his midsection and torso, just like those ghosts at the Anvil of the Void.

The enemy mage grinned maliciously through his gritted teeth. No doubt he'd have followed with a fatal strike, but he, too, had to catch his breath. By the time he'd done that, Raonar had fallen to his knees, breathing shallowly and rapidly, gaze unfocused and facing the ground.

The Antivan moved then, two throwing knives and a miasmic flask in quick succession. That bastard would learn to not give enemies enough time to drink healing potions. Zevran was still dizzy and hurt, which was why the two knives missed, barely, but the third item was tossed at the ground, so it shattered easily enough. The assassin cursed his swimming head for that poor performance. The cloud of narcotic smoke barely engulfed the bastard, although it did make him back off and stumble away, covering his face with his palm. At least the fumes had affected him enough to make him forget he had the magic needed to clear the air.

He had one of two options. Try to drag Raonar away or kill that poor excuse for an elf. It was an easy choice. Raonar was a lot of things, but definitely not light enough for someone like him to just up and carry off.

Adrenaline surged at the thought, and Zevran sprinted, right through the cloud of dazing black fog. He held his breath and was satisfied to see the shock on that gaunt face when he leapt and appeared in the air right in front of him, like a wraith from hell. The Antivan was satisfied when he nailed him with a kick right in the face, and the knife he always carried in a wrist holster was in his hand immediately, going through the chain mail and the crook of that armored elbow a second later.

With a cry of pain, the enemy dropped that cursed sword and tried to pull away, but Zevran wouldn't budge. Unfortunately, the bastard remembered he was a mage, so he released a howl of distress and blasted him head over heels with an uncontrolled wave of energy. It was strong, but messy enough to let the assassin decide how and when to fall, so Zevran did a barrel roll and strafed to the left, pelting the cultist with whatever he had left as he closed the distance again.

He was almost on him, when the elf got back to his senses and kicked off the ground, taking to the air once again. Zevran Arainai cursed, and cursed again when the once again floating bastard reached out and summoned his discarded weapon.

The single-edged, curved Dar'MIsaan flew to his hand.

Only to be blasted out of his grip by a hissing, white bolt of kinetic force just as his fingers slipped around its handle. The sword then hurtled, a less than graceful arc ending with it pinned into the ground.

Alim wasn't playing games. He didn't care he still had his staff in his right hand, and his silver wand still aimed at the floating bastard. He didn't mind the power boost that came with then. No sooner had his disarming spell finished that he jabbed the staff at the other elven mage.

Lightning and thunder rent the atmosphere apart, burning the air and smashing into a hastily erected dome of force, bringing it down instantly. The floating bastard was startled, eyes wide, but then he just snarled and clawed at his own face, blood seeping, staining his cheeks and chin. It was the only exposed spot on his body he could draw blood from. An arrow hit his midsection, one of Leliana's if Zevran saw things right, and made him gasp, but the blood mage just glared harder and drew even more blood power.

It was the first time any of the Wardens and their companions had seen anyone matching Alim Surana in terms of sheer power.

But the black warden had a shield of his own, and he didn't waste time just hovering around. As soon as the electrical strike found him, he flew to the side and send a huge wave of fire forward. The flames were like the head of a roaring lion as they grew to immense size. A pair of jaws opened and made to swallow the enemy, but a startled gasp was followed by a blast of air strong enough to break the form apart and cause the flames to waver.

Twisters usually reach downward, from the sky towards the earth, but this one was unnatural, like a tunnel rending the atmosphere to pieces with a screeching wail. For a moment, it looked like Alim wasn't going to do anything, but he jabbed his staff forward again, right through the middle of the horizontal vortex and caught it. Zevran was no mage but even he knew it took a lot to take control of the magic of another, especially while also sustaining red hot flames through sheer force of will.

It was amazing. Even as Alim acted as though he was tossing forward a fishing rod, the spell fight as just stunning. This was the first time anyone fought with Alim on anything approaching equal terms.

Although "equal" was loosely used. Very loosely, as it turned out.

The tornado was like a cannon in Alim's hands, and the cannon was reversed, air mixing with the fire and resulting in a smoldering, angry vortex that sent the other elven mage flying backwards until he slammed into one of the four large columns with a pained yelp.

Alim didn't wait. He didn't ask for a name or give any praise, or monologuing like a fictional villain that is too stupid to live. By the time the floating bastard finally crashed to the ground (and somehow pulled himself to his feet), the black magician was already walking to him, wand tip glowing gold and red.

With a swish it became a whip, a real whip of fire. One swing severed the right forearm, another cut off his left leg from below the knee and after the wailing, battered form of the blood mage pushed itself up after falling and writing in a painful heap, the whip of flame snapped around his neck.

Zevran watched distractedly, leaning against a boulder, as the mage jerked his arm back and the head of the no longer floating bastard fell on the floor with a wet thump, rolling a few times before it stopped. There was surprisingly little blood, since the "wounds" were partly cauterized.

"Get Wynne over here!"

Zevran heard the started responses, the panicked exclamations of Leliana, Alistair and Gwen who were the only ones still standing properly. His head was pounding and he felt like his limbs weighed a ton. Then he almost slapped himself and pulled out another vial of healing potion and drunk it down.

Coming to his senses, he finally barely registered when Alistair said he didn't see Theron and Wynne following them up the tunnel.

Zevran's blood went cold and he sprinted after them, even though he wasn't in a condition to move, despite the healing poultice. He passed Sten, who was sitting and leaning against a rock, humans and dragonspawn littering the ground around him. He ran past a still unconscious dwarf warden and eventually turned the last bend. Whatever he expected, a distinct lack of pile of rocks was not it.

Oh, there were definitely more boulders and cracked spots of stone floor there, especially those two huge stalactites that he'd seen falling earlier, but that was the full extent of the damage. If anything, the cave seemed brighter.

That thought made him look up, and he couldn't help but gasp at the sight. Cracks littered the cave ceiling, and any sane person would say it shouldn't stay intact, but there it was. Lyrium veins covered it almost completely, and more of them had grown through the many disjoined section of the mountain, with white, teal and deep blue hues mixing like the roots of a tree. Motes of light constantly broke off from them, like snow on a particularly pleasant winter afternoon. And there was a hum. It felt good, and safe somehow.

"Wynne is unconscious behind that rock."

Zevran yelped and spun around in shock, feeling as though his heart was coming out through his throat. Distantly he noticed Alistair and Gwen also snap out of awed dazes similar to his own. "I imagine she is who you came running here for?"

Zevran stared. "Well, you too..." A pause. "You did that didn't you," he said, voice totally flat, unlike his arm that wildly gestured at the scene above.

Theron shrugged, seemingly oblivious to the frantic search efforts of the two humans.

"Okay... How?" Zevran breathed.

Another shrug. "I asked nicely."

"-. .-"

Excerpt from Journal of Senior Enchanter Wynne

26 Eluviesta, 9:31 Dragon: Well, we're all fine. Somehow. Theron wouldn't tell us exactly how he "asked nicely" of the lyrium to just grow like that, like tree roots, and reinforce the top of the cave. I am especially embarrassed because I missed the chance to see it happen by getting knocked out by a rock to the head. Of course, had I stayed lucid I would have followed the others in their mad dash, so the point is probably moot.

But this is becoming a drawn-out egress.

For such a large skirmish and a narrowly-avoided disaster, we managed to survive the battle relatively intact. Faren hit his head pretty badly, but we are more worried about his refusal to interact with us, and how he seems to glare at people when they try to engage him in conversation. I'm surprised Kallian didn't try to bring him to task and ask him if he's suicidal. Perhaps she, like the rest of us, fears the answer.

Raonar managed to get hurt again. The blood in his left gauntlet came from his curse wounds. His chest and left arm started bleeding profusely once he released his pent-up rage and field of pain. The hit inflicted by that arcane warrior, as Alim called him, did not help matters. It did not cut anything, but it did make his flesh and bone freeze, just like in the deep roads, and inflicted phantom pain like his own as well. Fortunately, he was able to stay conscious and I managed to heal him as well as could be expected. He's been a bit unsteady on his feet since then, but he hasn't complained. He never does.

Everyone else had the normal kind of injuries, which I was able to heal fully. Alim even recharged some of my energy afterwards, like Raonar did a few times in the past, before ending up like he is now. I sometimes envy the sort of connection he has to the fade, the connection he gained after harboring that crack between worlds, however briefly. I even feel the spirit inside me wistfully thinking of the Fade, and how it will never return there. Alim and Raonar told me, quite some time ago, that they, or rather Raonar, would be able to act as a conduit and allow the spirit to return home if it wished. So far, it has refused, not wanting to let my life expire, even though I technically died once already.

At any rate, everyone was mostly fine after the ordeal, compared to previous encounters.

It was part of the reason why I consented to move on as Theron suggested. The issue of camping there was brought up. I believe Alim and Morrigan were interested in using those dragon eggs for experiments, but Theron said we wouldn't be able to carry anything with us anyway, so we should move on and, once we are done with the place, send a message to Levi and the golems at Soldier's Peak to make a trip to the temple later and salvage everything they can.

Theron also said that we had just enough energy to climb to the top of the temple and deal with everything on the way. Gwen was the only one who tried to wheedle an answer from him on how he knew this, but the others didn't bother after the cave-in preventive measure he somehow took.

I almost wish I questioned him myself. The remaining part of our "exploration" was hardly straightforward.

We eventually reached the top "chamber" of the cavern system, where the leader of the cult and his inner circle were. Brother Kolgrim was his name. As soon as he saw us, he started raving about the sacrilege of our presence, and how we wronged Andraste reborn (which, apparently, is a high dragon) and how unworthy we were for daring to kill her children (the dragon brood). But then he got the idea that we would be interested in joining the cult for some reason.

The man must have been addled. Or maybe he felt that he needed new recruits as soon as possible, seeing as how we killed most of them on our way up. He offered us "power" if we agreed to taint the Sacred Ashes of the real Andraste and "free her reborn spirit from the last shackles to her previous life" which are supposedly located in an Urn at the end of a different temple section right at the top of the mountain. All we would have had to do was take some of the high dragon's blood (which I am unsure how Kolgrim got) and empty it in the urn.

What happened next was shocking. Theron took over the conversation and with everyone so gobsmacked at seeing him, of all people, take such an initiative, they didn't intervene much, even when Theron demanded proof that they could really provide what they promised. Somehow, Kolgrim agreed to let one of us sample the "gifts" this reborn Andraste has to offer before asking us to decide anything.

I think Gwen was going to volunteer. She may not show it much, but I know for certain she feels awkward being the only Grey Warden without some kind of unusual ability. Theron, however, decided, decided that Kallian should do it, and she agreed with a shrug.

A vial of wyvern blood was taken to the pyramid where we fought the arcane warrior. Kolgrim performed some kind of blood magic ritual by which he summoned the assistance of some form of demon and suffused the blood with their special knowledge. I blanched at that, and I am sure I wasn't the only uneasy person there, but we didn't interrupt. Kolgrim then said he could make more infused wyvern blood if we agreed to defile the Sacred Ashes of Andraste (wyvern is the stage between dragonling and drake apparently).

Kalian eventually drank the sinister concoction after Theron said nothing bad would come of it. I have no idea why everyone seems to keen to believe him. There wasn't even an argument. The elf somehow just persuaded everyone to do what he said without much complaint.

And then he turned to the cultists, drew his bow faster that I thought possible and killed three before anyone had a chance to figure out what was happening. Theron then waited for Alistair to take out Kolgrim and for the others to make short work of the remaining three. It was all so anticlimactic that I didn't have to do anything.

Then Theron said we may as well rest, which is why I am only now making this entry in my journal. Kallian said she doesn't feel that different, although she did experience a sort of hot sensation in her stomach for a while after drinking the blood. I believe she will feel a burning sensation in her whole body before everything settles, then we can figure out what that blood did to her, and how it will react with Avernus' research.

Just one more day of being a Grey Warden I suppose.

"-. .-"

It was truly surprising that he'd settled into his new role so well, Alim Surana mused. Then again, most it wasn't really his doing. It was a combination of his tenure being expected to be temporary, and, more importantly, Raonar bluntly passing his duties on. Most of the "management" he did not even have to think about. The group's routine had been well entrenched well before they even went to Orzammar, and everyone was self-sufficient so there really wasn't much he had to do to keep things moving smoothly.

Alim supposed that it helped cement everyone's acceptance of his new post when he went all supernatural and saved Raonar from the brink of death. And the previous times that happened. Still, since then, he'd been waiting for the other shoe to drop. The near cave-in almost made him think he was in the clear, but Alim now realized that this latest development was going to be the turning point in his career as Grey Warden Division Commander.

"Okay..." Zevran drawled from somewhere behind and to the right. "I will just point out that the cave-in did not happen and we managed to clear up the debris downstairs easily enough. Therefore, we can still retreat and look for the elves instead." There was a pause. "Any time now."

"Oh hush you," Kallian hissed. "You'll draw its attention."

"Oh I sincerely doubt that," the assassin said airily. "After all, if our dear golem did not warrant attention with her glorious stomps, there is little chance of my whispering getting through."

"We really should do something about that by the way," Gwen agreed, shockingly enough.

Alim absently waved a hand as he stared at the dragon.

"Hey!" Shale protested, indignant. Obviously, she did not appreciate the new "boots" made of soft clay. Too bad, the mage thought. At least she'd be less noisy on her feet now.

The huge high dragon that was snoozing on top of the cliff across from the plateau. Alim had nearly started blasting it with lightning when it soared from behind the peak ahead, but the beast just landed up there on its... perch he supposed, and went to sleep. It was probably used to human presence if it actually let cultists worship it and tame her young. There was no other reason he could see for their presence to be overlooked that way.

"That is an Atashi," Sten noted, probably to himself, although Alim could detect a faint nuance of reverence in his voice. "I never thought I would see one here."

"At last, an enemy worthy of Oghren. Wait till the guys at Tapsters hear about this!"

Alim wondered if Oghren was ever going to get over his denial. It seemed to be a shifting thing, like a pendulum. Sometimes the dwarf would brood over his life, clearly realizing he was now an outcast, a surface dwarf, and that he could never go back to Orzammar. Other times, like now, he acted as though everything in his life was as he wanted it. It was the most straightforward of bravado he'd ever seen, and the most poignant too.

Alim would have pondered the issue of him actually caring about the dwarf if Theron didn't distract him by suddenly starting forward in a steady trot. "Come then, before the creature awakens."

He stared.

But chose not to comment. Ducking his head briefly in fond exasperation, he followed at a steady pace. Sometimes he felt like he wasn't actually leading at all. Of course, since much of the rest of the time he felt like a fraud, he didn't mind as much as he would have otherwise.

He did walk past Theron to take the leading position though. To curb Sten's snide remarks about showing weakness if nothing else.

The area was strange. If he didn't know better, he would have considered it the crater of a dormant volcano. The remnants of a temple invalidated that notion though, as did the halls and tunnels they'd ascended through.

The oddest thing was the sulfur pit. Or rather pond. There seemed to be a path leading to an ornate door in the rock. On one side was the fuming sulfur. It was probably where the dragon relieved itself, since there clearly was some sort of construction there before. Some of the foundation was still there. On the other side of the "path" was a somewhat more intact ruin, though it wasn't saying much.

The group advanced warily, but they managed to arrive on the other side without arousing the attention of the dragon. Alim really wasn't sure what to do about it. They did have Kolgrim's horn that was used to summon it. Gwen had it. Killing it would yield some valuable resources: dragon scales and blood. Theron said he would skin the drakes once they were done with their main business, but the scales of a real dragon would be an even better treat. And the blood. Forget blood magic (even if he could probably bring down the Circle Tower with an ounce of it alone), the potential for runecrafting was immense. Caridin would probably dance in joy, and Sandal would join him.

Now that would be a sight.

On the other hand, it was a bloody high dragon. One of those things, maybe this very specimen, had decimated the entire Orlesian army during the last battle of Ferelden's rebellion. It was the main reason why Ferelden won its independence. Alim wasn't entirely sure they would be able to kill it without taking casualties, if they could at all. Engaging it would demand that they somehow make Raonar stay out of the fight at the very least. Maybe Faren too.

Faren. That boy was becoming an issue. He'd never acted as reckless as he did during the fight of the previous day. Alim knew what he was going through, though he'd said nothing. He knew the dwarf would not be receptive to any words on the matter. He himself had not been... and with the reason for his grief so close, the problem was on standby. Stuck. If Raonar had died, well, the issue would have been easy enough: survivor's guilt mixed with feelings of heavy responsibility. A horrible state of mind to be in, but one that could have been dealt with. There would have been the possibility for closure. As long as that noble was still on the edge, well, there wasn't much chance for Faren's mind to change its track.

Not for the first time, Alim hoped the Ashes were the miracle they were looking for.

They were almost at the door now. The mountaintop felt oddly welcoming and rose high on both sides. It felt like walking through a deep canyon, however short. The dragon was high up on the right, very close he knew. They would probably have to engage it if only to make sure it was safe for future expeditions in the area. Or maybe Theron would pull the ability to speak to dragons out of his backside? Ask it nicely to leave them alone and maybe not attack future pilgrims either?

Alim almost snorted at the thought, though he didn't think it was a completely impossible scenario. Best not give the Dalish hunter, or whatever he was now, any ideas.

"Well, here we are." If Andraste's Ashes were anywhere, it was somewhere beyond that door.

"Aw, come on!" Oghren whined. "You really gonna pass up on the chance to fight a freakin' dragon? We can take it! Right?" The dwarf looked at Gwen and Alistair for support. "Right? Come on, don't go all pansy on me now!"

"Much as I hate to say it, I agree with our diminutive friend in that we have a good shot," Zevran cut in, much to everyone's obvious surprise. Maybe the two were finally getting over their differences. "I strongly believe the poor thing would keel over because of Oghren's smell alone." Or not.

"Part of the Oghren experience!" He puffed his chest. "None can withstand it!"

"Later perhaps," Alim told them.

After some grumbling, they finally entered. Shale sighed in relief when the clay boots were dispelled. "Let us avoid that trick in the future, yes?"

It proved to be much like one of the corridors in the main temple complex, though a bit dingier. At least the liken was of the phosphorescent variety.

The scarce vegetation and fungi didn't hold anyone's attention for long though. They quickly became more interested in the... man... that was waiting for them in an antechamber, standing guard in front of a doorway. Alim felt energy rolling off of him, but he didn't actually feel alive. Not like everyone else did. There was something distinctly unusual about him, and the black magician got the solution to his dilemma when he saw the distinct lack of a shadow, despite the light of two torches on the wall behind him, and the light coming from the lyrium in the walls.

A spirit of some sort then. A warrior, by the looks of it. The armor he wore was well made. silverite if his eyes didn't deceive him. And that helmet, with griffon wings, looked both like and unlike the ones worn by the cultists they fought on the way up. Instead of red or brown, it was silver-white, with runes etched in gold.

He decided to speak first. "So, the reason Kolgrim and his sycophants weren't able to approach this place is a spirit guardian."

"I bid you welcome, Pilgrim." Definitely a spirit. Nothing else had a reverberating voice, unless they were Raonar in a particularly solemn mood. And he didn't count. The... man's... eyes roamed over them, and stopped when they found Theron. The guardian just stared at the elf for a time, and Theron stared right back.

"Who are you?" Gwen asked, breaking the tension.

The man spoke slowly, as if to accommodate the echo his words transmitted. "I am the Guardian of the Urn of Sacred Ashes. I have waited years for this."

"Huh?" Was Alistair's intelligent response. "What do you mean, for this?"

"You are the first to arrive in a very long time. It has been my duty, my life, to protect the Urn and prepare the way for the faithful that wish to revere Andraste," the words rolled off his tongue like waves upon a shore. "For years beyond counting have I been here, and shall I remain until my task is done, and the Imperium has crumbled beneath the sea."

"He sounds just like that petrified oracle in the Circle Tower vault," Alistair noted.

"Who are the men that have taken over the rest of the temple?" Gwen asked.

"When my brethren an I carried the Ashes from Tevinter to this sanctuary, to safeguard them, we swore a vow to forever revere Andraste and her memory... I have watched generations of my brethren take up the mantle of their fathers. For centuries they did this, unwavering, joyful in their appointed task. But now they have lost their way... They have forgotten Andraste, and their promise."

"Wonderful," Morrigan muttered, not caring if anyone heard her. "We ask a question and he gives us a history lesson."

"So," Gwen hastily cut off any retort to that before it could start. "The dragon is not Andraste reborn then."

"No. Our Andraste has gone to the Maker's side. She will not return. The dragon is a fearsome creature, an alternative to the absent Maker and her silent Andraste. A true believe would not require audacious displays of power."

But some displays of power that are not audacious wouldn't hurt, Alim thought. He'd never commented on the whole Maker dogma really, much to Leliana's chagrin, but that didn't mean he didn't have an opinion. "So how did the belief spread to the rest of the followers?"

"It began with the ancestors of the one known as Kolgrim. He saw himself as a new prophet, preaching the rebirth. Some disagreed... I heard their cries of pain and loss, which were quickly silenced."

The mage was struck by how honestly grief-stricken the lonely ghost sounded. Or was he really a ghost? He seemed solid enough... "And you? Who exactly are you?"

"I am all that remains of the first disciples." Strangely, he did not sound prideful at all. There was an odd serenity in his every word. "I swore to protect the ashes for as long as I lived, and I have lived a very long time."

"You knew Andraste..." Leliana breathed. "You were a first disciple... You actually lived in her time... Were in her presence!"

"Did anyone truly know her, save but the Maker? I cannot express in words my love for Andraste. You must seek her out on your own. Everyone must. Just like she sought herself and the Maker. She would often spend weeks meditating, often without food or water."

That wasn't so amazing, Alim figured. With his grasp of magic, he could easily last for as long. He had a feeling Raonar was doing it too, without realizing it, and eating just out of habit.

"I get the distinct feeling that if we asked him what he could tell us about the Urn of Sacred Ashes, he would tell us that we already know it contains the ashes of the prophet Andraste and that there isn't much else to tell..." Alistair was definitely in his element. He'd turned sounding sarcastic into an art form.

"Maybe we should not waste time then," Sten grunted.

"Right," Alim cleared his throat. "So how do we get to the Urn then? I am assuming it has something to do with that nice door behind you."

The guardian seemed to stare right into him. "You have come to honor Andraste, and you shall, if you prove yourself worthy."

Gwen groaned. "Let me guess. We have to run a gauntlet of some sort? An obstacle course? Maybe join hands and dance around a bonfire to show unity and love for all life? Even if we don't want the ashes for ourselves, which we kind of do, but that's besides the point?"

"The reason does not matter. You must prove yourselves worthy, and it is not my place to decide your worthiness." Alim almost asked how much killing every cultist in the complex below them affected their "worthiness" but restrained himself. "The Gauntlet does that. If you are deemed worthy, you will see the Ashes, and be allowed to take a small pinch of the Ashes for yourself. If not..."

Very ominous. Alim debated the worth of challenging the guardian's conviction that he would be able to enact retribution if the situation called for it. "So what is the Gauntlet then?"

"The Gauntlet tells apart the true pilgrims from the false. You will undergo four tests of faith, and we shall see how your souls fare. I can see clearly that you will not choose against undergoing it, see your belief that you will be capable of just blasting through the Gauntlet if all else fails." Alarms started blaring in Alim's head and his expression quickly became guarded. "I advise against it. Also, there is something I must ask before you proceed."

Alim knew this wasn't something he would like. He was already uneasy enough. If this thing could read into him, he was doing it in a completely different manner from the telepathy or blood magic he was acquainted with.

"I see that the path that brought you here was not easy... There is suffering in your past. Your suffering and the suffering of others..." The elf almost snapped at him to keep quiet. That happened so long ago, it didn't matter anymore. "...And yet you are not here for yourself at all, are you?"

"We seek the ashes to heal a noble man," Gwen answered in his stead.

But the immortal would not take his eyes off him. Alim would have been unnerved, being quite a bit shorter, but he just returned his stare.

Surprisingly, the Guardian broke the staredown first, turning to Gwen who had spoken. "Some of you might be, yes, but that was never the main reason." He locked on Alim again. "And for you it was never a reason at all. You used to be guarded. You shielded yourself from the world, and the world from you. You knew this. Never one to lie to yourself. And then you met someone similar, and consciously lowered that guard, only to have everything play out again, only with different actors."

The dark wizard felt something wake up inside him, something he rarely unleashed, but he reined it in. He could feel the stares of everyone on him now.

"You do not have the excuses of before." Somehow, the dispassionate tone, not judgmental at all, made Alim even angrier. Feelings, someone's deepest secrets, their identity shouldn't be bared this way. No one should be capable of dragging it out and dissecting it openly on a whim, and in front of so many people. "Not the lack of years or understanding. You cannot blame anything on innocence and lack of power or knowledge this time around."

The elf almost lashed out, but he somehow knew that it would make no difference, and he suddenly didn't care who knew this anymore.

"Despite your great might and arcane knowledge, you still were unable to save your friend. Even after tearing his soul out of him and taking his power, you did nothing but delay the outcome. It was a third party..." And here, the immortal's eyes turned to Theron for a moment "...that, in the end, accomplished what you could not."

Alim forced himself not to look at Raonar. He didn't know what he'd see.

"Do you believe you failed your friend? Just like you did Ma-?"

"Stop it right there!" Dust and cobwebs shook as magic stretched the air. "How dare you..." Alim was livid. He didn't know why he hadn't blasted that apparition yet. If his magic worked on demons and other ghosts, it should work on this thing as well.

"The Gauntlet will shape itself according to your soul," the spirit said. "You must bare it before Andraste and the Maker in order to be judged fairly."

"Well then I will answer by saying that it is none of your business!"

"Then what of the others?" Those eyes swept over the group again. Alim was struck by how... bright and white they were, with the faintest hint of cyan blue... Just like Raonar's...

... Gods above!

The man either did not read his inner feeling anymore or ignored them. "The elder mage," Wynne was under scrutiny now. "Ever the advisor, ready with a word of wisdom. Do you worry that you spout only platitudes? Burned into your mind in the distant past? Perhaps you are just a tool, used to spread the word of the Circle. Does doubt ever chip away at your truths?"

Wynne seemed ready for the question. "You frame the statement in the form of a question. Yet you already know our answers." The woman was incredibly calm, as if this was a truth she'd accepted, or was ready to accept. "Yes, I do doubt at times, more often that I would have a year ago. Only the fools are completely certain of themselves."

"Well, that was a surprising admission," Morrigan said.

"Ah, the witch, daughter of Flemeth." The human, or former human, regarded her as intensely as the rest. "Always repeating the-"

"Begone, spirit!" The woman snapped, crossing her arms. "Whatever message you want to impart will be of no consequence. Turn your gaze on someone else. I will not play your game."

A sigh. "As you wish," his eyes found Zevran. "The assassin. May have died at your hands, but is there one kill you regret above all others?"

"Right!" Zevran cut him off in a hurry. "How do you know about that?"

"I know much. It is given to me to know, as part of my role. The question remains, do you regret?"

"Let's do this quick, shall we? The answer is yes. Move on."

"Very well." Leliana got her turn. "The sister. Why do you claim that the Maker speaks to you, when all know that the Maker has left? He spoke only to Andraste. Do you consider yourself her equal?"

"I never said that!" Her outrage was plain to see. "I-"

"In Orlais you were someone. In Lothering, you feared you would lose yourself and become a drab sister, and disappear. When you brothers and sisters of the cloister criticized you for your beliefs, you were hurt, but you also reveled in it... It made you special. You enjoyed the attention, even if it was negative."

The bard was momentarily speechless. "You're saying I... I-I made everything up for the attention?" She sputtered. "I did not! I know what I believe!"

But the apparition moved to the next person. "The lady of Highever. The jewel of your family. Forced to flee and abandon your family to a horrible fate. Do you believe you should have stayed behind rather than flee? Did you fail your parents by not staying to fight with them?"

Silence.

And then a reply, in a voice so low Alim would have missed it if everyone wasn't keeping silent. "I'll pass on giving an answer." He glare could melt rock

"Thank heavens," Shale piped up. "Bad enough that the contemplation of past mistakes seems to be a constant preoccupation of the religious mind. If you all start on it we'll be here all day."

"Yes, is there any religion that does not thrive on guilt, like a glutton at his lunch? " Morrigan was being particularly scornful today. "No? I thought not."

"And now the self-flagellation?" Zevran asked. "That is what comes next in these things, no?"

"Alas, those words are truer than you realize," the man said mournfully, looking at Raonar for the first time. "The dwarf, prince, outcast, returning hero, paragon of your kind. The pilgrim on whose behalf you are all truly here." His gaze swept over them all before settling on the blank-faced dwarf noble once again. "Your curse may as well be self-inflicted punishment. You are not subjecting yourself to this constant burning pain purposefully, but neither do you feel it is undeserved."

Alim waited. Nothing. Not even the slightest hint of ghostly pain. Either Raonar was controlling himself better than ever or he wasn't being affected by the intrusiveness of that man at all.

"Your actions affect so many others than yourself. Your machinations exposed the seedy underbelly of your society, but they also led to the death of nearly your entire family. Do you believe you've failed your brother? Do you believe you've failed your father?"

Raonar snorted. "That was such a predictable thing to ask. If that's all you can think of, then I am afraid your insight could use some polishing."

"Well said," Shale chimed.

"Ah, Shale, the stone giant" the unnamed man moved to his next target like he expected Raonar to say that. He even transmitted some sort of admiration somehow. "I sense the faintest hint of a soul, dormant for so long, now awake."

"Good for you!" Shale said mock-jovially.

"That you exist and walk and are is a testament of your will and courage... And with your awakening you are gaining the realization of all you have lost. You have my respect."

"Is that ghost hitting on her?"

Alim almost choked. Trust Oghren to say something like that.

"Ah the dwarf." Alim was sure Oghren was regretting speaking up. "You left your home and came to the surface, knowing that-"

"Why don't I save you some time!" The black magician couldn't help but twist and look at him in surprise. "Yes! I wish I could have saved my family from Branka. I wish I'd been a better mate. Maybe she'd have stayed home with a belly full of baby Oghren and never gone for the Anvil. Maybe I failed her. And yes, I came to the surface because I'm barely a dwarf anymore. May family's dead. My honor as a warrior long gone. I've lost my caste and my house, and I've got nothing else to lose."

Alim stared in shock. If there was anyone he expected to spill their heart out like that, Oghren Kondrat wasn't it. Maybe it had to do with the fact that the fighter had run out of ale days ago and was more or less sober now, and, by extension, more annoyed and likely to lose his temper and start ranting. Somehow, though, Alim doubted it was that simple.

Seeing Oghren looking pointedly away, the mage turned to the front again, catching a glimpse of Raonar staring at the other warrior with a thoughtful frown.

"Such similar feelings you all bear." The guardian briefly examined everyone else. "Sten, the kossith commander of the Qunari legions, regretting the murder of those who nursed him back to health. Painting such a gruesome picture of the Qunari in these foreign lands. Alistair, the bastard prince that feels he should not have left the side of his mentor when the darkspawn attacked, that he should have died instead."

"Right, like we need our survivor's guilt pointed out to us," Tabris hissed.

"Indeed, the elf from Denerim. You know well what you feel, but it is not all survivor's guilt. By the time you reached Shianni she was ravaged, broken. If only you'd been faster you could have prevented her fate. Do you believe you failed her?"

"This interrogation is getting old," the blonde elf sighed. "Also, it's not exactly intrusive enough. Shouldn't you be saying something about Nelaros while you're at it? He died rescuing me you know. Soris too, why not, he ended up in prison after that whole mess."

"I will take that statement in the spirit it is given," the ghost bowed its head slightly.

"Yes, you do that. Now if you don't mind?"

"Indeed, there is just one more question that needs to be asked." Finally, the guardian moved his eyes to the right, where Faren had all but disappeared behind Sten and Shale. "The dwarf pauper." Sten and Shale obligingly moved aside. "The one whose feelings are easily the most tremulous."

"I'll skip on this, thanks." The redhead said shortly, face shrouded in the shadow of his dark hood.

But it was not to be. "Out of everyone here, you are the one that benefited the most from recruitment and suffered, outwardly, the least since then. Yet different is the cause for your feelings of guilt and self-loathing, and they are the greatest among everyone here. Sizzling, tightening like a noose around your heart. You humiliated Bhelen's lackey before leaving the dwarven city behind. You humiliated him again when you went back-"

"-Shut UP!-"

"-both times for your own satisfaction. And now you feel responsible for his actions. If only you hadn't done those things, he would not have been mad enough with grief and rage to infiltrate the gathering. If only you hadn't been so selfish and stupid, Bhelen would still be alive and your brother in all but blood would not-"

A gleaming knife cut through the air and went straight through the guardian's forehead, meeting no resistance and leaving a faint shimmer before striking the wall behind him with a dull clang.

The ensuing silence was deep and thick. No one moved. Few looked anywhere except Faren's hunched form, that seemed to shrink with every moment.

Without even looking at the weapon he'd thrown, the rogue turned on his heel and, after bumping into Gwen, marched back the way they'd come. Everyone looked at him until he was out and slammed the door shut.

"Well, that went well..." Zevran eventually ventured.

"The Gauntlet has heard your answers." The guardian's eyes locked on Raonar's for a time. Alim got a clear look at them both. The color of the iris was identical. "And so have those beyond it. Once the door is open and the path has been traveled, step through the fire and do not fight what comes."

The man turned and walked through the door which obligingly opened by itself and shut on its own after he was gone from sight.

"Right," Alim coughed. "Shale, Zevran... I'm going to ask you to say behind with Faren, and make sure he doesn't do something stupid." The other two agreed without too much fuss and left. "Kallian, you could stay too I suppose."

"No... No, I'll come to the Ashes too."

The black magician caught an unspoken conversation between Raonar and Sten, which resulted in the latter nodding his assent and staying behind as well.

"Right then. I suppose off we go."

"Wait!" Oghren was outraged and glaring at Theron Mahariel. "Why didn't he chew you out?"

The Dalish hunter shrugged. "I have no issues in need of sorting." And he walked through the door like the owned the place. Again.

"-. .-"

It almost fooled him into thinking it would be a sensible test, this obstacle course. The first room was a test of wits, where they had to answer eight riddles posed by specters of people from Andraste's time. There was Andraste's mother Brona (answer: dreams), lady-in-waiting Ealisay (a tune), Thane Shartan the elf leader (home), Lady Vasilia-wife to Andraste's enemy, Archon Hessarian (vengeance), General Maferath-Andraste's mortal husdband (jealousy), Disciple Havard (the mountains), Disciple Cathaire (hunger) and even Archon Hessarian himself (mercy).

The second trial was basically an all-out brawl against spectral versions of themselves. It was more annoying than dangerous, since the room was rather cramped, but they got through easily enough. Oghren seemed to take it as a personal insult that anyone would dare copy him in any way, shape or form.

The third trial was stupid in Alim's opinion. Oh, it was brilliantly designed. The magic and enchantments involved in creating that seemingly bottomless pit were incredibly advanced. Not to mention the way the platforms above it became more and more solid based on pressure plates and their combinations. And how anyone who fell in the abyss found themselves tossed back at the entrance was pure gold.

It was the core concept that irked the magus. The whole idea was for a group of four people (no clue was given as to why that number was chosen) to step on the pressure plates around the abyss and make the bridge solid and passable one section at a time.

Needless to say, Alim just flew over the thing and set off the enchantment that made the entire bridge usable, so no brains were fried during the passing of the test.

Which led him to this situation.

Alim stared. He couldn't believe his eyes. He'd looked for him so long. He'd long ago lost count of how many hours he spent roaming the Fade, trying to find him, and now...

"You really should let it go you know."

An illusion. That was the only explanation. A phantom conjured from the shadows of his thoughts. The mountain, this whole place was messing with his head.

"I suppose that's true, in a sense," the boy said, guessing, or rather seeing his mind. "There is only one true ghost waiting to show itself here, and it is not me. This is an echo. I am an echo, brought to life by this place. You should welcome it, you know? Few ever get the chance to face their so-called demons this way."

The black magician was frozen on the spot. The skinny frame, the red hair, those brown eyes, the high cheekbones. Every detail was as it was the last time he saw him. Even the smoldered clothes, and the three holes in the shirt. The tear in his right sleeve. "... Marion?"

"To an extent," the young elfling smiled. "I am the Marion you remember. The one you saw in your dreams for months, before you learned to always be in control when in the fade. The one whose death you blamed on yourself for years."

"... I knew I should have blasted that pompous know-it-all guardian ghost when I had the chance."

The boy pouted. "And here I thought you'd be glad to see me."

"Glad? Glad for to be subjected to this travesty!" The floor cracked under his anger. "I made my peace with your passing years ago! What gives this place the right to dredge up those memories again?"

"And what makes you think it doesn't have your permission?" The boy wasn't Marion. It couldn't be, no matter what it looked like. Its words were those of an ancient mind. "Look deeper. You may have dealt with the guilt, but in many ways my murder still rules your life. Everything that happens you analyze by using that horrible night as a lens. Even your friend's near death you are looking at in comparison to mine."

The words were like a bludgeon. Merciless in their determination to hammer the point across.

"You may feel vulnerable, but that's not really the problem here. What you are really doing is surrendering to self-pity. What you feel is frustration over not being powerful enough, or well enough versed in obscure lore to solve all the problems that show up! Isn't it enough that you saved his hide several times already? Did it ever occur to you that maybe, just this once, this is not your problem? Seriously! Get over yourself you arrogant moron!"

Alim stood there, stunned.

Then he blinked. Once. Twice.

Then he couldn't help it. He bowled over laughing until he was too tired to go on.

"There we go!" the Marion-shade grinned like a loon. "Mission accomplished!"

At last, the mage was able to straighten up and realize he was all alone with the shade, and had been for some time.

"This is a spiritual meeting. Private. The others are facing their own shortcomings and will be judged accordingly." Well, that explained things. It also made him feel a bit better knowing that he wasn't the only one being subjected to this torture. "I myself cannot stay long. I've done what I came here to do."

"Wait!" Alim didn't know why he was so desperate to know, but he felt compelled to ask. "I know this isn't really..." How could he phrase it? "Is Marion... Are you... alright where you are now?"

For a moment, the young elf looked like the young boy he was supposed to be, beaming in happiness for being asked. "Yes, the people here are really nice, but not offense, I really hope not to see you get here for a very long time."

"... No promises I suppose."

The young boy smiled sadly. "Yes. No more promises."

No promises. "He really is like you in that way, you know?"

"I know." The ghost began to fade. "You're the last of us still alive Al. Live well and long. And don't be afraid to tell your story when the time comes."

"Hopefully it never will..."

The boy smirked as he disappeared, his last words echoing in the empty room. "Oh it will. Believe me, it will."

Perfect. That, strangely enough, did not feel reassuring at all.

Alim Surana wondered if he would ever understand what had just happened. This was unlike any phenomenon he'd seen before, although he supposed there was some resemblance to the "memories" in the deep roads, and the ghost fighters at the Anvil.

Shaking himself, the mage finally walked through the final door. He found himself in a room that was larger than most of the others. Lyrium lined the walls, and there were some large roots of it sticking out from the walls and ceiling. Only Raonar and Theron were already there, but they had not advanced more than two meters. The reason being a large wall of fire that prevented anyone from approaching the urn at the base of Andraste's statue.

"What kept you in that empty room for so long?" Raonar asked.

Alim welcomed his curiosity but was also bemused by it. "What, am I the only one here that had a spiritual visitor?"

"Yes actually."

Alim stared at Theron.

"As I said, I have no issues in need of resolution. As for Raonar, this place did not conjure any sort of shade for him because it would have been of little help."

"Would someone explain what you are talking about?" The dwarf sounded annoyed. Alim thought it strange that he didn't guess what the matter was. He was probably keeping most of his mind on his cursed wounds and preventing another painful outburst.

Alim sighed. "Apparently, this place likes to torment pilgrims with visions of the past, even summoning ghosts to lecture them on proper psychological stances."

"Oh."

There was silence, if one didn't count the constant crackle of the flame wall.

"So what's with the fire wall?" Alim finally asked, though he had an idea.

"Oh, just another riddle." Theron answered idly. "Raonar should go ahead and do what it said. No need to wait for everyone to come through. They will be a while, right Guardian?"

"Indeed."

Alim almost jumped out of his skin. He didn't see or feel when the man appeared next to the entrance.

Raonar looked like he wanted to say something but shook his head and approached the altar, or whatever it was. "Cast off the trappings of worldly life and cloak yourself in the goodness of spirit. King and slave, lord and beggar, be born anew in the Maker's sight."

There was a pause.

"O, I am so not going to do what this says."

Alim could feel a headache coming. "Look, if you want, we'll turn around..." But he trailed off when he saw that Raonar was already taking his equipment off. "Huh?" His sword and gauntlets were already on the floor. Alim finally saw that the dwarf's left hand was caked in dry blood, but didn't comment. He just watched as the rest of his armor joined the cuirass.

Soon enough, the noble was barefoot and had only his grey pants and shirt on. He seemed to debate for a moment, but then, carefully, started to pull his shirt off as well. The elf saw that he was being careful not to jostle his left arm or chest too much, but said nothing.

"Right, this should do it."

"Wait. Are you sure you shouldn't-"

"I am not stripping naked for this. I may as well take off all my bandages too if that's the case. Besides, this is obviously a ploy to see if we know better than approaching the urn while heavily armed, like war bringers, rather than pious followers of the faith. If this Maker and human paragon are so incompetent that this spirit fire ends up mistaking a pair of pants for a set of war gear, then there's probably nothing real about the miraculous healing powers of the Ashes anyway."

Silence.

Surana sent Theron a pleading look, but the latter pretended not to see him. Bizarrely, the guardian of the Gauntlet made no sort of observation either.

"Well, here we go." Raonar murmured, stepping into the flames.

One would think that people would make a run for it, to clear the flaming wall as quickly as possible. Not Raonar though. He calmly stepped forward and waited.

He didn't start howling in agony.

Alim released a breath he didn't remember drawing in. So the spell didn't mind the clothing. Either that, or Raonar was shielding himself somehow.

The flames flared.

The wall retracted from the walls, but the flames did not go out. The fire closed in on the former white commander, encasing him in a ring of fire. Then again, that wasn't a correct assessment. There was no flame-less space at the center. It was more of a disk of flames that had enshrouded him from all sides.

The fire flared again. Then a third time. Red and orange mixed with yellow and white. The lyrium on the walls began to hum loud enough to overtake the roar of the conflagration. And then it burst.

Waves of white mist buffeted the room. The flames calmed, but did not go out, and there was something new in the chamber now. A formless mass of silver fog, floating just above the urn holding Andraste's remains.

Alim knew, then, that this was the one real ghost that this place was waiting to summon.

A pinch of ashes fell through the dispenser at the foot of the urn, but it did not meet the floor. It hovered, enveloped by the mass of white as the spirit descended.

"So this is the change..." Alim almost missed it, but the shock of who expressed such surprise jarred him out of his awe.

"What do you mean? he asked the guardian. "Isn't this supposed to happen?"

"The Gauntlet itself has not changed, in essence..." The man looked as though he couldn't decide if he should be awed or outraged. "But it is malleable, to an extent. The order of the trials has shifted, and even an outside interference has been accepted."

"It is out of all our hands now," Theron said calmly from where he was leaning against the wall.

Alim turned back to the scene in time to see the white soul float straight at the white commander and stop. It grew, then, and began to take a shape, but the identity of the apparition never became known to them.

Before it solidified properly, the flames turned white and flowed as one, consolidating in a globe three meters across that hid them from sight altogether.

Then the flames went out, and left only a globe of opaque ice behind.

It was only when Gwen finally came through the door ten minutes later that the silence was broken. "Hey, what's wrong with you three?" She then saw what they were staring at. "What's that?"

"That would be our commander," Theron answered.

Our commander Alim mused. Theron must be predicting something again. He hopes he was.

"Oh," was all that Gwen was willing to say on the matter. "Now what?"

"Now..." Alim struggled for an answer but eventually chose the one least likely to prompt an interrogation. "Now we wait."