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The Names We're Given
Chapter 13: To Walk Away
by Dreamer In Silico
Slowly, other voices filtered into her awareness.
"I was trying to get the Litany up to the top of the Tower, but… I was trapped here, like you."
" 'Tis clear this is a demon's creation – why do you not seek it out to defeat it?" Morrigan. The thought came unhindered by the fog that had shrouded her memories with the demon-Giselle around; it seemed she had won free… of one prison, at least.
"I couldn't get to the center! I know this is maintained by a demon of Sloth, but it has other servants that guard the way, and I'm… getting weaker." This voice was male, human, and familiar… and he'd mentioned the Litany, so it had to be Niall.
"Have you seen any others like us?" Morrigan prodded, impatient.
"No, you're the first, and you must not have been here long. You look more real than anything else I've seen."
Mei blinked her eyes open, sending gathered tears to course down her cheeks. Everything hurt, but at least she knew what was going on; that subliminal unease that had dogged her in the fantasy-nightmare had been banished along with the false trappings of happiness. It was strangely comforting to know she had work to do.
Focus on getting out of here.
Coughing slightly at the taste of unharnessed magic in the 'air,' she called out, "Morrigan?"
There was no crunch of footsteps on the strange, amorphous ground, but she could feel the other mage approaching from the ripples her power made in the stuff of the Fade. "Oh, wonderful – I am glad someone else had the sense to get out. I suppose you were caught in some sort of impossible dream as well?"
Mei pushed herself up slowly, turning to face her companion. "Yes." She shuddered slightly. "You were alone in yours?"
The witch nodded her affirmative, arms crossed over her chest and eyes darting about in what Mei understood to be a mixture of trepidation and annoyance. " 'Tis reasonable to assume the others are in similar predicaments, then. I – "
"…Mei?" Niall had finally moved to follow Morrigan, and his already-large eyes were like saucers in his amazement.
Mei sighed. "Yes, yes, it's me. Before you ask, it's a long story, but I'm here to save the Circle. The details aren't important. We were looking for you when we ran into that… thing. How long have you been stuck here?"
He still looked slightly dazed as he answered. "I… I'm really not sure. Too long, I'm afraid; I can feel myself, well… fading." He laughed weakly. "You'll need to defeat the demon and get out as quickly as possible."
"Why ever would you say that?" Morrigan asked, voice dripping sarcasm. "I was thinking 'twould be a lovely place to rest for a few days, a few weeks…"
"Charming friend you've got here," Niall said to Mei with the ghost of a wry smile.
Ignoring both of them, Mei took stock of her surroundings, not that there was much to see. They were on the same sort of shrouded path with crumbling imprints of places and objects that made no coherent sense that she recalled from her Harrowing; this was the malleable, raw Fade, the underpinnings of whatever else the demon had constructed to keep – and feed on, mustn't forget that – its prisoners. Niall's statement had been overly-obvious, but his urgency had merit. Mei suspected that her old colleague wouldn't have enough of his life force left to wake up even if they were to escape this very moment. It was a shame – he had always been a good sort, if a bit bland – but there was no time for preemptive lamentation.
"Right then," Mei began, drawing Morrigan's attention back to her. "Morrigan, I'm betting that if the others are stuck in anything like I was, they haven't realized it's a dream. We should be able to snap them out of it, if we can find their prisons."
"You propose we split up to do so?"
"Yes… yes, I think so. Obvious or not, Niall's got a point – we need to get moving, and we've got five people to find. Niall, if you don't think you can do the same, could you wait here and send anyone else who might break free on their own to help?"
"Of – of course," the timid man answered.
"Let us be off, then," said Morrigan, turning on her heel to leave the 'island' without ceremony.
Not all that long ago, Mei had treasured her affinity for the Fade. Whereas other apprentices had spoken of it with a frightened hush and studied Chantry texts on meditation to corral the dreaming mind, she had wandered its mercurial twists with brazen curiosity – in the Tower, it was the only place she knew freedom. After Giselle had been killed, those vivid dreams had become a curse, taunting her with her love and then replaying Giselle's death in ever more awful permutations.
Now, Mei felt an odd sort of settling in her mind as she moved through the disjointed dreamscape, dodging ghostly soldiers and shifting her form at will to move past barriers. It was as if the trap she had just escaped had been placed in a drawer on top of every other horrific dream-memory about Giselle, and the drawer closed, at long last. She knew what was inside it – she suspected she could never forget, even were she to try – but for the first time since everything had fallen to pieces, the images were not climbing out to chase her.
Relief was an odd emotion to be feeling while still quite trapped in a demon's Fade realm and her body languished in a tower held under a two-pronged siege, but there it was, nonetheless.
At length, the character of the Fade around her changed – or more precisely (as it had been changing constantly), it changed to something with a hint of familiarity. There was a sweet smell that was not quite apple, and it took Mei several long moments to place it. Eglantine. The rose had grown abundantly in the modest gardens at the base of the Tower. With the scent came a feeling, or perhaps an image: the sense of a wild-growing briar carefully pruned and coaxed and herded into following the orderly lines of a trellis.
The Tower had had such a thing, yes, though the groundskeepers had always cursed its unruly nature… and yet, the association was not quite right. The scent recalled those gardens, but that was not where it belonged.
Just what – who – it belonged to became readily apparent when the path Mei followed spiraled at last into a dead end.
"Blessed art thou, who exist in the sight of the Maker. Blessed art thou, who seek his forgiveness." Leliana knelt at the feet of what appeared to be a Revered Mother, her head bowed as she murmured words of the Chant. She spoke in Fereldan, which seemed slightly odd, but it made some sense considering they had found her in the Lothering Chantry. Mei could see and feel the suggestion of a Chantry building around them – a flicker of a candle here, a whiff of incense there – but she suspected that the bard perceived that they were truly in one, much as Mei had thought herself in a Dalish camp.
Though uncertain whether she would be heard through the trappings of the dream, Mei called out to her. "Leliana! Can you hear me?"
Leliana looked up, disoriented, but her eyes did focus on Mei. "Of course I can. What… what are you doing here? I thought you had rejoined the Dalish."
"Young woman, you are being very rude, to interrupt Sister Leliana's meditations!" came the querulous voice of the 'Revered Mother.' Mei ignored her, thinking furiously. Should she go the direct route and tell Leliana that she was trapped in a demon's construct? Or would it be better to let her see the inconsistency herself?
"I… I came because we still need your help," she answered, making a snap decision. It was true enough, at any rate.
Leliana frowned. "Surely there are others… I do the work of the Maker here… I have peace. It is all I've wanted since… since as long as I can remember."
The simulacrum of a priestess smiled approvingly, but it rang just slightly false to Mei's ear; she knew Leliana was devout, but the errant lay sister had always shown a propensity for a more active (and less objectionable) sort of faith. Mei cast her voice to reproach. "That doesn't sound like the woman I knew, the woman who had a mission and believed in deeds rather than words."
"My work… that work is done," Leliana protested, though obviously disconcerted.
"Yes, child, you have the right of it," her demon crooned. "The Maker needs you here now, to use your beautiful voice in His service. Tell your uncouth friend to show herself out."
Mei snorted in derision. "When a child is starving, can you feed him with the Chant?"
"I – "
"When a woman lies dying, do you wail to the Maker, or do you go find a mage who can heal her? Is it more important that the Maker hear his pretty words over and over, or that something gets done?" She demanded.
"Child, come with me. Let us leave this disturbance… I told you that you would have peace here, and I mean to honor that," the demon said, glaring daggers at Mei.
Leliana was blinking, though, and rising to her feet. "No…. No, Revered Mother, there is no need. My friend speaks wisely. I don't know why I thought to stay here instead of using my skills in the world."
The demon continued to play its role to try to persuade her, but Mei was starting to hear the echo in its voice that said it was close to breaking character. "Sister Leliana, you have taken vows to serve me, and I command – "
But the bard's eyes sharpened, completely rejecting this new tactic. "I have not, and were I to take any vows, they would not be to you. Let's go, Mei."
The demon-priestess shrieked her rage and sprang for her retreating captive, but Mei was ready with a bolt of frost, and she and Leliana retreated together. There was no great difficulty in escaping the physical boundaries of the nightmare, which surprised Mei at first, but made sense when she considered that she was a mage and had known the Chantry was a fiction from the outset.
It really was a fascinating phenomenon, and entirely unfair that she did not have time to reflect on it further.
Leliana had been jumpy as they had found their way out of her prison, but adapted quickly to the shifting unreality of the Fade and had willingly gone off alone to help speed the search for the others. Niall reported that he had seen Morrigan leading a 'strapping young warrior' by his post, which news despite the situation nearly had Mei in giggles. Better her than me.
Mei eventually found herself on another half-sensed trail toward what she assumed was another trapped companion, this one shifting and elusive in nature, but with a common thread all the same. There was steel and blood and leather, all harsh angles and unyielding surfaces with eyes watching from the shadows, and a fluid feeling like silk running beneath it – sometimes strong, sometimes barely there, sometimes completely obscured.
As she formed her guess of whose trail she followed, Mei wondered what hers would have been like to an outsider. Would a non-mage feel the subtle ways the Fade changed to show the imprint of the mind it encased? It might be worthwhile to ask Leliana about her favorite flowers later, if we all make it out. When we all make it out.
It was not much longer before her guess was confirmed. The light dimmed and warmed, as if to suggest torches in a small room, and she could hear voices in a foreign tongue that took her a moment to place. Antivan.
Shit. If she had to deal with one of her friends' native tongues, she would have far preferred that it had been Orlesian – she was not comfortable in it, by any means, but at least she could have gotten by.
Zevran was bound to a rack, spread-eagled and sweating as two tanned men – a human and an elf – taunted him. He was silent save for the occasional ragged breath, his eyes half-closed in concentration. Mei bit her lip, uncertain how to approach, but fighting a wave of anger that demanded she broke him out immediately.
His tormenters paid her no heed as she cautiously approached. "Zevran?"
The golden eyes blinked open, then stared. "…Rinna?" he gasped. "¿Por qué estás aquí?"
Who is Rinna? Mei frowned. She couldn't very well play the role, whoever he thought she was, since she could not reply in Antivan.
"You! Woman!" The 'human' tormenter had turned to yell at her, his voice thickly accented, but apparently the demon was perfectly happy to speak Fereldan for her benefit. "This is a private initiation! Remove yourself immediately."
Zevran was muttering under his breath, shaking his head weakly. "No sé… pero ella está muerta…"
"Zevran!" Mei called. "Do you know me? I'm Mei, the Grey Warden."
"Cease your caterwauling, wench," spat the other elf. "He must pass his initiation or he will never become a Crow."
Mei elected to go the direct route. "Zevran, you already passed your initiation. You were a Crow, one of the best – " she did not know why she added that embellishment, but he was a vain enough creature that it surely could not hurt – "but you left them to join my party against the Blight."
One of the men backhanded Zevran across the face. "She's going to get you killed, pretty little Zevran."
The assassin was glaring at her, now. " Yo seré un Cuervo!"
She was pretty sure she recognized 'Crow' in that, at least. "You were! But now you're with me. You don't have to live through this again; you've already won the fight. You took a contract on Alistair's and my lives in Ferelden. Do you not remember?"
Though glazed, his eyes seemed to focus on her, truly, for the first time, with none of the shock present from before. "Sí… yes. Yes, my Grey Warden, I remember," he said, sounding suddenly very weary. "Do I dream, then?"
That got his captors' attention. "You have failed, Zevran. You and the woman will both die, with your heads presented to the Masters!" Both of them drew daggers and turned toward Mei, but she leapt out of the way and caught them with a blast of ice. One took the full brunt of it and died in the snap-freeze, but the other was not so easily deterred – he continued coming toward her, but her swords were already in her hands, taking advantage of his sluggish state to dart in and open his throat. It was almost ludicrous how easily they were defeated, but much like Leliana's demon, they were probably weakened by their prisoner's lucidity. Phantasmal teeth could bite – Mei knew that well – but only as hard as they could convince you they could.
Zevran was quiet as she cut off his ropes, only speaking again once he was on the ground and chafing the circulation back into his limbs. "Well, that is a memory I had not thought to revisit," he said, voice forced to lightness.
"So I should think," Mei answered cautiously. She wanted to ask about it, but knew she probably shouldn't.
He looked at her shrewdly, all the same, sensing the questions she held back. "As a Crow one is required to withstand great pain and privation. They… make sure of it, in their recruits. Now, the question is, who did I offend so much that I should have to relive that ever-so-vivid time of my life?"
Mei gave a dry chuckle, relieved that he could push it aside so apparently easily. "A sloth demon, or so the theory goes. It trapped each of us in a dream it thought we would want to believe. Morrigan and I were able to break out of our own, and we split up to find the rest of you."
"Ahh. That makes a certain degree of sense, then. I was convinced that I had to prove myself, and any attempt to think otherwise felt dangerous. They kill the ones who do not pass the trials, you see."
"Sounds familiar," she muttered.
Running his hands over his armor to check sheaths and pouches almost absently, he jerked his head toward the direction Mei had entered from. "Shall we be rid of this place, then? I do not know much of the Fade, but it seemed as if you simply walked in…"
"Yes, now that you know what it was, we can leave," she said, nodding and leading the way out of the patch of Fade that made up the torture chamber. When whole minutes passed without so much as an offhand quip from the assassin, Mei glanced over at him, where he walked a half-pace behind her shoulder. He had been staring intently ahead as if to look through the Fade itself, though he quickly turned to focus on her when her movement betrayed her attention.
"It's hard to just walk away from, isn't it?" she asked quietly.
He raised an eyebrow. "Difficult, to walk away from something unpleasant? This is a strange idea you have." There was a pause before he spoke again, false levity dropped. "And strange though it may be… yes. It is difficult. From what I have seen of you, you have experienced this as well, yes?"
"Oh yes…" Mei wanted to ask more pointed questions to find out who it was he had mistaken her for, but the deeply personal nature of her own nightmare cage made her hold her tongue. Zevran did not deserve prying any more than she would welcome such, had another member of their party fished her out of the memory of Giselle.
They continued in silence through the labyrinthine paths of the raw Fade to rejoin the others, and Mei fervently hoped that Morrigan had succeeded in freeing the rest of them so they could face the true demon at last.
A/N: I swear I'm not dead; I just hate this time of year with every fiber of my being. Doesn't matter what's going on, it seems - spring semester never fails to trample me. I can't promise the next few chapters will be fast in coming, but I can promise that I have the will to work on them.