Summary: The origin of one m!Surana becomes something of an AU retelling of the entire Mage Origin story, still hopefully fitting pleasantly into canon. Dorian Surana, Sibyl Amell, and Jowan have been close friends since childhood, and each accept the other without question. But when Dorian's self-absorbed penchant for templar chasing gets out of hand, it sets in motion a devastating turn of events for the trio of friends, from which even he may not emerge unscathed.
Characters: Male Surana Warden. AU female Amell. Cullen. Jowan. Lily. Semi-OC templar. Various other Circle Tower affiliates. Alistair, Zevran, and Wynne also each play their part.
Warnings: Rated M for safety (language, allusions to rape/abuse of a minor character, and everyone's generally crappy mood). Major spoilers for the main game, and especially anything related to the Circle Tower, obviously. Oh, and if you don't like slash, this is your final heads up.
Disclaimer: As always, Dragon Age isn't mine, I just love it a lot. Verses from the Chant were taken off the DAWiki.
A/N: Maker's breath… this fic started off as simply my m!Surana in the pre-game origin, and sort of got out of hand from there; it overlaps with Questions some, but hopefully not too much.
So pretty much, my Warden got in my head, and so did this idea, and they wouldn't let me go… so I wrote the fic. Part of me keeps saying, "Psh, no one is interested in this!" But, since it's about 50-75% written anyway, there's no harm in posting, yes? Hopefully there are indeed redeemable qualities, in both Warden as well as fic. Okay, I've babbled enough. Here we go…
I. ESCAPE ARTISTRY
All things in this world are finite.
What one man gains, another has lost.
Lothering, 9:30 Dragon
"Tower first," the new Grey Warden said, his tone almost cavalier, as if he didn't truly care. But the words had come too quickly for it to have been nothing more than an offhand suggestion.
They stopped at the edge of the crumbling bridge to look intently at the small village that stretched out before them, already teeming with refugees. The Warden had to admit it was a little bit amusing that the entire fate of Ferelden had been left in the hands of two mages and an ex-templar, not to mention the two most junior Grey Wardens in the entire country. Less amusing was that they actually did need to talk strategy—but really, with a group like theirs, where else could they go first but the Circle Tower?
The irony of rushing back there so soon after leaving did not escape him. Clearly, the Maker had a point He wanted to make here. Perhaps: I don't like it when little mages get set free.
At some point in his musing, he realized that Lothering would be the first real, civilized village that he would ever visit—his first true impression of the Fereldan society to which he supposedly belonged—and shortly it would all be destroyed utterly by darkspawn.
Fate could certainly be fickle, to say the least.
"You know," Alistair began thoughtfully, standing to the Warden's left as they shared the view. "Redcliffe is on the way to the Circle Tower from here. I know the arl will believe us. He has to."
"If this Loghain is your enemy, I say take him out first and be done with him. Then you may gather your allies in peace," Morrigan cut in with the sneer that she seemed to reserve specifically for responding to Alistair. It wouldn't have bothered the Warden so much if Alistair had actually said anything over the long walk between the Korcari Wilds and Lothering besides "These bushes are thick," "So many people have died," and "Look, it's that mabari from the camp."
As it was, she was really being kind of a bitch. Alistair might have almost been a templar, but he was surprisingly tolerable, and even templars got upset when everyone they knew died all at once. Or at least the Warden considered his recent melancholy to be within the range of reasonable reactions for normal people, but perhaps it was different in the Wilds. As far as his own feelings went, he was just glad to be both outside the Tower and still alive.
Honestly, imminent darkspawn invasion felt like a minor obstacle in comparison to what he had overcome when Duncan had conscripted him, and it was probably time to properly gloat. By now, the Knight-Commander might have almost gotten over his timely departure, and that just wouldn't do.
And so, accordingly…
"Yes, Tower first," the Warden said again, his tone noticeably more upbeat than it had been previously, but it was as if he had hardly registered either of his companion's suggestions. He did give Alistair a sympathetic smile, though, before taking the first few steps into the village.
Alistair shrugged and followed without any protest, content that their plan of action had been chosen (just having one was the important thing, really), while Morrigan trailed after them both with a tiny snort of disapproval.
Kinloch Hold, Circle of Magi, 9:30 Dragon
Some months previously…
Jowan had been skulking around too much lately, but it seemed to be getting worse now that she had passed her Harrowing. He was always beginning sentences that never seemed to have an end, forming half-thoughts and speaking in cryptic, malformed, uneasy phrases like, "What would you do if I—" and "Sibyl, you've always been a friend and—"
Then he would stop, his mouth still partially open, and blush. And no matter how much coaxing Sibyl Amell tried, she could not get the end of those sentences out of him.
He was also in the Chantry a lot. Praying, she guessed, except Jowan wasn't the religious type and he really just seemed to be staring into space, his eyes vaguely focused on the brunette Chantry initiate who tended to the chapel and recited the Chant in the evenings.
He had even stopped talking about the mysterious girl he had fallen for—Lillian? Lila?—maybe that was it. Maybe they had broken up. Sibyl thought that she really should talk to him about it, comfort him, since his other friends seemed less than inclined to be sympathetic. When Dorian Surana had suggested over breakfast one morning that this mysterious girl wasn't even real, Jowan hadn't even had the energy to get defensive. He had just stared into his porridge like a little boy lost as the color rose in his cheeks.
But Sibyl had always believed him. That way he used to smile, every time he mentioned her—Jowan couldn't fake that feeling, that utter starry-eyed infatuation. It was something Dorian wouldn't understand, but she knew it well enough.
Dorian himself was the one taking up all her time, with his overwrought dramatics about his own impending Harrowing. It was his way of deflecting—he was terrified, if not of the test itself, then of the implications of becoming a full Circle mage with his phylactery shipped off to some stronghold in Denerim, locked away just as he feared he would be for the rest of his life. Dorian was afraid of very little, and ashamed of even less, but she knew that he would never admit how much the idea of pitting young apprentices against demons on pain of death bothered him.
It was probably as close as he ever got to having any actual moral principles these days, so she suffered his complaints in support of what masqueraded for his conscience, if nothing else.
He would make a perfect Libertarian someday. Some of the enchanters had been chatting her up recently, ever since her Harrowing—one an Aequitarian, another a Loyalist. And as strong as the push was to affiliate herself, she just wanted to stay out of it. She had heard the whispers in the corridors, the heated fights in the Great Hall, and knew firsthand how unpleasant politics in the Tower could be. Dorian probably wouldn't join a fraternity, either, though—if there was anything he hated more than being under the thumb of the Chantry, it was having to lift himself out of his comfortable haze of apathy to actually do something other than stir up trouble like a bored schoolboy.
Well. Jowan was the real issue now. And as soon as she could assign Dorian's attention away from taking his mounting anxiety out on her—perhaps by informing one of their old teachers that he hadn't even studied for all of five collective minutes since his Harrowing date had been set—she would find Jowan, and sort him out.
It was as good a plan as any.
Sibyl managed to corner them both—the enchanter and Dorian—in the back section of the library before slipping away, unnoticed in the heat of the argument. The sound of the older woman's voice was still clearly audible from the hall as she yelled about the necessity of correct preparation for entering the Fade and accused Dorian of "flouncing about as if he thought Andraste herself was going to deign to preserve his conceited arse." He was stuck trying to deflect her tirade with desperate placations of "yes-ma'am, no-ma'am, so-can-I-go-now-ma'am," to very little avail.
Satisfied that he would be occupied for awhile, she let out a sigh of relief and turned to start down the hallway. She hardly made it three paces away when Jowan seemed to materialize before her, stepping out from a nearby alcove and taking a fierce hold on her arm. She only barely managed to hold back her shriek of surprise, but quickly forgave him when she heard the waver of fear in his voice.
"Can we talk now? Please?"
"Actually, you couldn't have picked a better time," she answered as he tugged her further along down the hallway. "Care to explain why you're going to such an effort to make yourself seem extra sketchy of late?"
"It's important," he said under his breath. "We need to go somewhere private."
"I have Dorian incapacitated for at least ten minutes, if that's what you're worried about," she assured him with a smile.
"I—okay," he sighed, taking a wary glance up and down the corridor to make sure there was no one nearby who might hear. "I suppose there's nowhere all that much better to go, is there?"
"What is it, Jowan?" she asked. "You've been upset for weeks. Unusually upset."
"Because it's the worst thing that could happen," he said, swallowing painfully, and Sibyl took a deep breath. Whatever it was he had been holding back, it was about to come spilling out in all its painful truth. "They're going to make me Tranquil. Uldred—he didn't turn me in, exactly, but he planted some evidence before he left with the army… and now… Greagoir thinks I'm too much of a risk and wants to have me made Tranquil."
"Jowan, this is—how do you know this?" Sibyl asked, her voice immediately dropping almost below a whisper. It just wasn't safe to speak very loudly or openly about what Senior Enchanter Uldred was or was not up to, even with him gone to Ostagar. And if he had chosen to target Jowan, then she feared he may have little hope. Mages and apprentices who Uldred accused of dabbling in blood magic were almost always executed or made Tranquil very shortly afterwards.
She reached out to touch his shoulder, but he pulled away.
"I… it's Lily. She's an initiate. She's the woman I've been talking about all this time," Jowan confessed. "She saw the papers on the Knight-Commander's desk. She believes that it's just rumors."
"An initiate?" Sibyl repeated, aghast. And she had thought things couldn't get much worse, or more complicated. "Jowan. You've been seeing an initiate for all of this time? That's your secret? Maker help us, I knew Dorian would rub off on you eventually."
"It's not like that—I love her! And our relationship is hardly the worst trouble I'm in anymore," he hissed back, taking a step away from her and burying his face in his hands. "I know it would destroy her if she thought that I've done blood magic, but I'd do anything for her, and she doesn't have to—I just want to do what's best for us. You believe me, don't you?"
Sibyl sighed heavily and pursed her lips. "Of course I believe you. But I don't see how that's going to be of any help."
"You're a Harrowed mage now," he said. "You can get supplies from the stockroom to help Lily and I break into the repository and destroy my phylactery. Then we can escape together, move to some remote village in the middle of nowhere, and never be heard from again or cause trouble for anyone. I promise."
"Jowan…" she began. What he was asking put her in great personal danger, even after he was gone. And that was assuming that they succeeded and he really would be able to escape without being caught—a huge if, considering Jowan's track record. Still, she would have considered that an acceptable risk to take to help him, but he was also asking her to betray the Circle—and that was something she could not do. "You can't be asking me this."
"Why not, Sib?" he asked desperately, the childhood nickname clawing at her conscience like a taunt. Jowan took two shaky steps forward and placed his hands on her shoulders, pleading. "You're my only chance. You're all Lily and I have. You have to help us."
"I—I can't… you can't ask me to do this. Do not ask me to do this," she whispered with more conviction than she felt, squirming uncomfortably in his grasp. Her chest squeezed painfully with guilt as she spoke, her mind racing even as she refused, trying to come up with a better solution than… what he wanted. There was always another way. She could speak to the First Enchanter, tell him the truth. Get him to change his mind. Anything.
"This is… this is an opportunity Dorian would jump at," she told him carefully, after a moment's thought. "Please. Ask him instead."
"He hasn't been Harrowed yet," Jowan argued. "We haven't much time, Sib. I am begging youto help me."
"He will be soon," Sibyl said apologetically. Yes. She had to believe that this was the right choice, even as Jowan was staring back at her in utter disbelief. She squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed, her mouth uncomfortably dry. "I won't help you go against the Circle anymore. Ask Dorian."
"Ask me what?"
The sounds of the enchanter's heated lecture had faded into silence not too long ago, and apparently the third member of their trio had been quicker to extract himself from chastisement than Sibyl had thought he would be. At least it gave her an easy way to avoid the look of betrayal growing in Jowan's eyes.
She immediately felt relaxed at the sound of the elf's familiar voice, and she could sense his curiosity even before she turned and saw the intrigued grin on his face. He closed the door to the library behind him with one last look of nervousness at the enchanter still pacing within, before turning back to his friends with a casual little shrug.
"I can't, Jowan," she said with finality, pulling herself away from him. She had to bite down hard on her lower lip to keep herself from saying anything stupid as the hurt and panic clouded his features. It would have been better if he had gotten angry or yelled—Jowan always had to be the polite one. "We'll fix this. Dorian will help you."
"I will?" the elf asked again, raising his eyebrows and giving them both a bemused look. She only smiled politely in response, but Jowan looked as if he had been kicked in the stomach.
"But he's not—I can't believe you're just going to say no—"
When he looked to Sibyl, his mouth hanging slightly open—dumbstruck and speechless—she hung her head and stared at her feet, unwilling to meet his eyes. He glanced, desperately, to Dorian, who gazed back at him with his usual pleasantly unperturbed, but interested, expression. Sibyl expected that Jowan would explain everything then. The rumors of Jowan's involvement in blood magic wouldn't faze Dorian, the fact of Jowan's involvement with a Chantry initiate would probably delight him, and absolutely nothing caught the elf's attention more readily than a good plan to undermine both the Circle and the templars. It wouldn't even take convincing to get him to break a few rules to help Jowan escape the Tower. Even if Sibyl had been reluctant, Dorian was a sure thing.
Instead, Jowan took off down the hallway without uttering another word, leaving Sibyl to deal with the curiosity that this spectacle had undoubtedly caused in Dorian's mind. He seemed to take a lack of explanation exceptionally well, however.
"I imagine I'll be finding out what that was all about soon, then?" he asked. "You know how much I love anticipation."
"Oh, you'll enjoy this one, I promise," Sibyl told him, rubbing her eyes warily. He leaned in and threw an arm around her shoulders casually, directing her down the hallway in the opposite direction of the one Jowan had sprinted off in.
"I await the reveal with bated breath," he assured her. "Now, as for you and me, we need to discuss how I am going to punish you for setting Enchanter Deidre on me. I was lucky to get out of there with my life and my eardrums still intact. She's worse than Senior Enchanter Wynne with the lecturing!"
Sibyl allowed herself a soft chuckle and leaned into him. She let him talk, his words washing over her like a familiar blanket, and she was content to be sucked back into a world of less devastating worries, at least for now.
Kinloch Hold, Circle of Magi, 9:28 Dragon
A couple of years before…
Perhaps it was pointless to go into specifics and try to pinpoint when everything had begun to spiral so hopelessly out of control. It likely had been that way ever since he had been plucked from the Denerim Alienage as an infant, after all, and that was an event of which he had no recollection.
Surely there must have been some point in his life that he had not felt so powerless. But if there was such a time, even at some carefree point in his childhood, then it, too, was long forgotten.
Dorian saw his confinement as an apprentice of the Circle as a horrible inconvenience of circumstance, one that left him utterly without control of everything a person should have control of: his movements, his right to privacy, his life's direction. All waylaid and subjugated by a Chantry who judged mages not for who they were, but what they were in danger of becoming.
There were those that had escaped. One mage was on at least his sixth or seventh attempt, and Dorian held him particularly in high regard for how loudly the Knight-Commander screamed each time he found the mage mysteriously gone once again. But his own efforts to break free had largely failed miserably, and the act of trying to run away and instead being caught actually did more to sap his will than just staying where he was did. At least then he could tell himself that he was only biding his time, waiting for the right opportunity to fall into his lap so he could snatch it and finally be free.
So instead of hatching escape schemes, he opted to simply… float along. He glided from lesson to lesson with an easy smile, and passed from the company of apprentice to fellow-disgruntled-apprentice at what felt like his slightest whim. He slipped between enchanter and mage in the corridors, endeavoring to avoid the glare of the templars whenever possible and searching for ways to exploit their watchfulness to their disadvantage when it was not.
Distractions were the key to happiness, and as full of books as the Tower was, lessons were not nearly distraction enough.
Nighttime was often when it all broke down with startling clarity: he would lie motionless in the dark, Jowan curled slightly on his side in the next bed, Sibyl sleeping soundly in the girls' dormitory down the hall, and hundreds of his fellows lying in slumber across the entirety of Kinloch Hold, each one of them under the ever-present scrutiny of Chantry watch.
Even when he slept, he couldn't be trusted to be alone—so how could he even close his eyes?
That was when he would slip out of bed and tear through the hallways under the cloak of darkness, memorizing the route of each templar's patrol and circumventing them all on his passage upwards, covering flights upon flights of stairs, climbing to the highest reaches of the Tower and not stopping even then, until he had made it onto the very top of the Hold itself.
Standing on the roof in the open air, it was always cold, and there always seemed to be a chill. Perhaps it was the altitude, or a breeze coming in from the lake, but the feeling was magnificent all the same.
The view wasn't particularly spectacular. In most directions there was nothing to be seen but the waters of Lake Calenhad stretching out into the horizon, and to the east, there was only the rundown tavern on the other side of the shore—but that was what Dorian loved to stare at most.
Beyond that pathetic hovel, beyond the trees it was safely nestled between, there was something. He would stand as close to the edge as he dared, trying to wrap his head around the idea that there was an entire world out there that he could hardly even imagine from the confines of the Circle Tower. And when that thought became too much to bear—when he found himself considering that perhaps it wasn't too far to just leap and allow the Maker to decide whether he should be allowed to swim to freedom—he took a step back and simply stretched out on the ground and stared into the sky.
For that entire boundless expanse of stars existed an opposite and equally unfathomable stretch of earth. For every constellation he picked out, there was a nation to visit, a city to discover. For every star, there was a person he would never meet.
On the nights that he could not sleep he stayed there instead, atop his prison since he could not get outside of it. He watched the stars until the sky began to glow with orange and pink and the sun finally peeked out from behind the trees, shining down upon the ugly tavern.
Sunrises could make anything beautiful.
They were almost as glorious as the sound of yelling that inevitably began to drift up from Tower below him—templars calling to each other, yelling that an apprentice had gone missing, that little elven son-of-a-bitch has done it again.
He would just lie on his back and stare at the sky, letting the feeling of power wash over him, knowing that they would fret and scream and fear that one of their mages had gotten loose for as long as he stayed up there: silent and in control.
His moment could not last for too long—he didn't want to be found—and he would invariably climb down, somehow heavier than when he had made his ascent, no longer floating along but dragging his feet, weighted down like a criminal brought before his lord for sentencing.
But always he managed to slip back among the others, usually grabbing a pitcher of water and smiling pleasantly when the templars demanded to know, where had he been? He would raise the jug innocently and explain he had simply been thirsty and they must have missed him as he made his way to the kitchens for a drink.
Not a single one of them ever believed it—but nor could they prove his lie.
And just for a moment, the weight would lift once again.
But sneaking out of bed, trysts in the corridors, sending templars on wild goose chases for forbidden magic and hidden passages that had never existed—that was all too easy. It was low stakes gambling, the punishment he risked far too banal to make the payoff of getting away with it particularly thrilling.
When you had nothing to lose, it was hard not to lust for the highest staked games where you stood to gain everything. Not to mention that the lower his odds were, the more he had to rely on his own wit and the less he could count on chance to get him through.
That was exhilaration. Therein lay the opportunity.
One of the girls he was seeing had an eye for templars.
She was a few years older than he was, fast approaching her Harrowing, and he wasn't really sure what her deal was—they didn't talk much outside of negotiating the most interesting spot to have sex in. Conversations often consisted of a series of more and more precarious locations until one of them backed down, too embarrassed to proceed with the other's suggestion. The winner didn't get anything other than the momentary bragging rights of being the most unscrupulous, but the payoff was always more than adequate for both of them.
But of course, it was still an ultimately safe game, as losing was nearly impossible. If they weren't found, they had still had sex. And if they were discovered—she loved that even more, when the templars found them in compromising positions.
Dorian found that he preferred being used for her purposes immensely to being used by the either the Circle or the Chantry.
There was one templar in particular she was after. She would forfeit their exchanges as soon as Dorian mentioned any spot that was near this templar's post, and it was like she lived to see the self-righteous blush that rose in his cheeks whenever he stumbled into them—mages were allowed to have dalliances with each other, even if it was discouraged, though they were supposed to at least be discreet about it. She savored the way he always swallowed thickly before stammering out his orders for them to find somewhere less brazen, his eyes lingering too long on the exposed skin of her leg or the sight of a bare nipple.
She called him her mark. Like she was an assassin and he the newly condemned.
It was only a matter of time before he caved, she would tell him, her laugh throaty and mirthless. She had long hair, strawberry-blonde, and clear, watery blue eyes. Whenever they made eye contact, it was like facing two mirrors towards each other; a bottomless pit staring into another bottomless pit.
Her arms were covered in scars. Some were new, an angry red, and others were clearly older—years older—some pink and smooth, others white and puckered. There were scars on her inner thighs. Her stomach. Her breasts.
He never asked. He either already knew or didn't want to. She had mentioned something, once, muttered something about a senior enchanter and his lessons before collapsing into his arms in a trembling heap.
There had been no escalating exchange of locations that night. No tears, either, and no sex. Only those clear, blank eyes.
He hadn't asked. Hadn't wanted to know.
She tried to throw herself out of the window on the highest floor of the Tower shortly afterwards, but her templar-mark had caught her and pulled her back before she could make the jump. When she told him she hadn't been trying to escape, by some miracle, he believed her.
She had been smiling the next time they met, glowing with an uncharacteristically relaxed air of satisfaction. She wouldn't say why, but Dorian knew.
He understood that—the game she played with her templar—but he didn't get the rest of it, didn't get suicide. Even among the malcontents, it seemed he was the outsider. He enjoyed being alive far too much to kill himself, and the indignity of allowing himself to die without any clear memories of anything outside of the Circle Tower seemed entirely unappealing.
He wasn't the problem, everyone else was. And he was going to fight them all until he felt it was fixed, and enjoy every Maker-damned minute of it just to spite them.
Maybe it was because Jowan and Sibyl were so startlingly normal. Neither of them minded their lives in the Tower so much—Jowan especially had told him it was a vast improvement on the very little he remembered of his mother. Maybe they were his lifeline tethering him back into the calmer, more pleasant life of most Circle apprentices. Maybe they kept him from falling away completely into the darkness his strawberry-blonde embodied. At least when he laughed with them, it felt genuine, and not like a futile grasp for a sense of control that stayed defiantly out of reach.
And anyway, he and Sibyl were also First Enchanter Irving's star pupils. She fit the role far better than he did, with all her obvious sweetness and loyalty to the Circle, but the First Enchanter's interest in his talent was still one more golden opportunity to exploit and revel in, so he had no complaints.
With his two closest friends at his sides during lessons, he could distract himself by mastering the one thing he did have complete control over: his worth as a mage. He could complete exercises and show off for his teachers, delighting in their uneasy praise and the knowledge that they were always wondering with some anxiety exactly what he would choose to do with his talent.
After lessons, he found other ways to occupy himself and stave off the creeping feeling that he was trapped. It worked well enough, and seemed to stem the tide of ever-present helplessness he felt looming over him. And one day, it wasn't his strawberry-blonde friend's templar who found them in a dark, underused corner of an upper level corridor.
It was another templar entirely, one he had only seen but never spoken to: quiet, brooding, clearly unhappy with his lot. He had even been stationed at the Tower for some time… everything she had told him would make a templar all the easier to reel in, to chip away at his willpower, to break.
When the templar stumbled upon that afternoon's hiding spot and saw her—that glorious body, that silky, shining hair flowing down her back in breathtaking waves—his eyes passed over her without incident, as if she wasn't even there.
Instead, the templar's eyes met with Dorian's, almost as if by accident. And then the man had blushed like a second day recruit, unable to look away.
Thus ends part one (of roughly ten). Reviews are loved. Reviewers are loved even more. (Especially you constructive criticism types, so don't hold back!) As always, thanks for reading!