The world lurched nauseatingly, and reality seemed to splinter like shards of glass. Then there was a rush of cool air, and then darkness.
When the world had righted itself, it was definitely not the world Finn had just been in. He had been in the Fade twice before, enough to recognize it. During his Harrowing it had been small and contained, like an arena. Then when the sloth demon had attacked the Circle during the Blight, the Fade had twisted and changed to suit the nightmares of those trapped in it.
This time though, it was strangely purposeless. Blank. As if it knew it was transitory.
The ground was made of packed grey dust, and more grime choked the air. Outcroppings of stone peaked seemingly at random on the flat plain. A dull light illuminated the landscape, although no source was visible.
In front of him, though, was a light. It was small and bright, and shone like a pale blue star. Beyond it was another, and then another, forming a path through the endless haze. Finn was suddenly reminded of the Lights of Arlathan, guiding the Warden and Ariane and himself through the underground ruins. It had been seven years ago, or was it eight now? It felt longer. Like it had happened to someone else.
Mouse had promised him a pathway to the Warden. He had kept his promise. All of his promises. Finn just hadn't listened right.
The portal was still open behind him. His first instinct was to go back through it, to go get Ariane. She wasn't there, though. It was just a monster in her body, and he was the one who had put it there.
The lights grew brighter, pulsing slightly as though inviting him to follow. Was the Warden really there? At the end of the lights, waiting to fix everything like a forgiving parent? Finn instinctively took a step forward, then halted.
It didn't matter whether the Warden was there or not. No one could fix his mistake.
His face was still wet with tears. The grit in the air was sticking to his clothes, mixing with Ariane's blood. He wiped his eyes with the back of his dirty sleeve.
There was something on the ground, he realized vaguely, as the wind picked up. Markings of some sort in the soft dirt. He knelt down.
Footprints. Smaller than his, and smaller than a demons would surely be. Someone else was here.
Ariane wasn't in her body. She had to be somewhere though, because she had reappeared for that brief moment, when he had threatened the demon. She had to be somewhere, and maybe – just maybe – she was here.
Finn stood slowly. Something was tingling in his fingers and his jaw, clearing his head. It took a moment to recognize it as hope.
The lights were there, stretching off into the distance. At the end might be another world, or a demon trick, or the real Warden waiting to be found.
The footprints led off towards the left, out into the emptiness of the Fade. Finn started walking. The lights vanished behind him, and he picked up his pace.
Ariane took a deep breath and tried to assess her surroundings. She was sitting down, which was good. Her legs felt like they were made of grass.
She could remember being at the mirror. That was a start. She was at the mirror in Kirkwall and then something had happened. A sudden pain, like a needle pressing into her skull. She had tried to cry out, but her mouth hadn't answered. Then, there had been blackness, and a sickening drop in the pit of her stomach.
For a moment, she had felt like she was back. Ariane frowned and tried to remember. She had been in the house in Kirkwall again, but dizzy and sick, and…
Blood. There had been blood everywhere. And Finn and been there, more frightened and angry than she had ever seen him. There had been a moment, one awful moment where she had realized what had happened to her, and what was pushing her out of her body and into the blackness. Then she had fallen again, and now she was here.
In front of her was... nothing. Flat grey fog. She narrowed her eyes, and a dreary landscape came into focus. It was a flat plain, filled with dark uncertain shapes. A throbbing pain set in behind her eyes, and she focused on the sky instead. It was a mass of shifting clouds.
To her right was more of the same. And to her right, standing awkwardly a few meters away, was Finn.
She smiled sleepily. 'Hey.'
He raised his hand halfway, as though about to wave, then let it fall to his side. 'Hi.'
'Is this the Fade?' She gestured at the swirling fog. 'I never thought I'd see it.'
'Well, you have.' He seemed to be having trouble raising his head. 'When you dream. This is the unaffected form, though.'
She squinted into the mist. It was dull and grimy looking. The rock formations twisted unnaturally, and in the distance were tall black spires that could have been buildings or mountains. The air was thick with dust and the weight of age. Voices whispered at the edge of her hearing, but when she tried to make out the words they fell silent.
Her dreams were definitely better than this.
'Not all it's cracked up to be, is it?'
'Enh.' He shrugged. 'Not really.'
She tried to focus on him, but it was strangely hard. He looked terrible, which at least made sense. If the way she felt was any indicator, she probably looked worse. She felt solid though, whereas Finn looked strangely undefined. Like his outlines were uncertain.
'You're not real, are you?' she asked, mind clearing suddenly. 'You're much too shiny.' He had the same indistinct blurriness as the rest of the Fade. 'I've died and I'm dreaming about you.' Vaguely she wondered why dream-Finn looked like such a wreck. Why couldn't she have dreamed about one of their better times together? The Fade was proving to be inconsiderate as well as monochrome.
'What?' He looked appalled at the idea. 'No! I'm real. I came through the mirror and I heard you and...' His eyes widened as something dawned on him. 'Oh hell. I didn't even think of that. Are you not real? I made you up, didn't I. Bloody typical Fade. Stupid fluidly responsive- what?'
Ariane hadn't even realized she was smiling. 'You're you.' She closed her eyes to consider the possibilities. 'Are you dead? I will absolutely murder you if you are.'
'No.' He frowned. 'I don't think so. I went through the mirror.'
'Really?' The mirror had been flat and blank when she had seen it. And then she hadn't seen much of anything, and now all she could see was the Fade. It was hard to imagine it leading anywhere. It also hurt to think Finn had left her there, dead or not. She wouldn't have left him.
'Well. You sort of shoved me.' He swallowed hard. 'Or not you, I guess.'
'I'm not dead yet, then.' Or her body wasn't. Since she wasn't in it, it was hard to say what she qualified as. Was hearing a demon was running around in her body an improvement on having bled to death?
'I...' He swallowed again, and the blurry light of the Fade flickered. 'Sorry. I'm so sorry. I thought it would be me.' He clamped his eyes shut, as though waiting for a blow.
Ariane scowled. 'Then I really would have been angry.'
Finn raised his eyes to look at her in confusion. 'You mean you're not angry now?'
'Oh.' He sat down heavily next to her. 'Yeah. That makes a lot more sense.'
'That was just...' She inhaled slowly, trying to choose which grievance to air first. There was the part where he'd tried to outthink a spirit, generally known by all to be a terrible idea. Then there was the fact that he'd risked her life, and Dog's, in the process. Worse was the thought that he'd assumed the result would be his own death, not thinking about how his martyrdom would affect his family or his friends. Or her.
The biggest thing though, the one that made her stomach feel sick and empty when she thought about it, was that he hadn't trusted her. 'Why didn't you tell me?' she asked, trying and failing to keep her voice steady.
'I thought...' His voice trailed off. 'I don't know. I'm so sorry.'
Ariane sighed, pulling up her knees. 'I'm more pissed at the other one though.' If she was dying, she didn't want to spend her last few minutes fighting. 'And you look like you've got yelling at you covered,' she added.
'Yes.' He nodded fervently, looking pale and miserable. 'Trust me. '
He fell silent, and Ariane rested her chin on her knees. The Fade wasn't cold, but something about it made her feel as though she should be shivering. She cast around for something to focus on, finally giving up and watching the empty air. No sky here. Ariane had prepared herself for the idea of dying long ago. She had guarded against carelessness, and kept herself aware of every danger she understood. She hadn't expected to die like this.
'Say something,' she said finally, when she couldn't stand the silence any more.
'I don't think I like this Eluvian as much as the other one.'
Ariane blinked, then smiled crookedly. 'Opening ancient interdimensional portals. One more thing that looked way easier when Cousland did it.'
The Warden would have come through here, she realized. On his journey, with his true love; the journey she had invented and embellished in her head as a picture of what heroes did. It sounded so stupid now. 'He's dead, isn't he?' Her voice broke, and her eyes started to sting. 'We were never going to find him.'
Tears started spilling over onto her cheeks. Finn tentatively put a hand on her arm and she buried her face in his shoulder. 'Hey, hey,' he whispered, stroking her hair. 'Shh.'
She inhaled slowly, closing her eyes. It was no use being angry with the Warden. He hadn't asked her to look for him. 'He was just a person.'
'I guess so. Like us.'
Ariane opened her eyes halfway, then closed them again when the grey sky of the Fade lurched sideways. 'Stop moving!' She opened her eyes again, and the fog pulsed and swirled. 'I am so sick of all this magic bullshit! No offence,' she added to Finn, who was looking even guiltier. 'Can I just stab something? Please? And not you,' she interrupted before he could volunteer, 'something I actually hate.'
She paused, chewing her fingernail thoughtfully. The... thing in her body was what humans would call a demon. The Dalish thought of all spirits as the same, but both societies agreed on where they came from. 'Hey, demons live in the Fade, right?'
'Yes. Right.' Finn nodded slowly. Some colour came back into his face. 'When they're not in people's bodies.'
'So it could still be here.' Ariane tested the hilt of her longsword. It felt real enough. Hitting something before she died for good would... well, if not improve matters, at least make her feel better.
Finn was ignoring her, looking at something far away. 'There was a little boy.' He looped one of her braids around and around his finger, chewing his lip. 'At the Tower.'
'I'm guessing there were several.' Gently she untangled his hand from her hair. It was starting to pull.
'No, I mean... He had been possessed. He was the Arl of Redcliffe's son. Then he wasn't. Possessed, he was still the Arl of Redcliffe's son. Although I guess he lost the title, since he was a mage.' Finn much more animated now, if a lot less sensible. Ariane wasn't sure if it was an improvement.
'But he was okay,' Finn went on without stopping for air. 'Because they killed the demon in the Fade. Like in a Harrowing. '
Killing a demon in the Fade sounded good. 'Harrowing?' Ariane asked.
Finn shrugged. 'Sort of a test. We're not allowed to talk about it.' He paused, then blushed. 'I guess that's kind of a null point now, isn't it? They make you fight a demon in the Fade. That's where I met...' His voice trailed off.
Ariane closed her eyes and tried to remember what she had seen before blacking out. All she could think of was darkness, and a sensation of falling. Or being pushed. 'What is it?'
'Pride demon.' Finn avoided her gaze, dropping his eyes to the ground. 'Mouse.'
First name terms? She didn't like that. She could stand the idea of Finn doing something rash, but this kind of premeditated lying was harder to get her head around. She tried to focus on her new enemy instead. Whether they were different than Fade spirits or not, Ariane knew demons varied in power and ability. 'Are they hard to kill?'
Finn nodded gloomily, and she sighed. 'Well, it's not as if I have any consequences for losing.'
'That's what I was trying to say.' Finn sat up straighter, fidgeting with his sleeves. 'I think maybe... if we kill it...'
Understanding dawned on her. 'I could get my body back.' Ariane stood up abruptly, ignoring the wave of dizziness that flooded her head. She looked around. Somewhere in this landscape was the thing which had stolen her life from her. And she wasn't done with her life yet. Setting her jaw, she started walking.
'Wait!' She turned. Finn had stood up, and was watching her leave. Something crumpled in her heart, and she had to struggle to keep her face still. Was he going to try to stop her?
He pointed back the way he'd come, down an identical grey cliff. 'I think it's that way.'
Slowly, she smiled, and started walking. He followed.
'So what do you want to do after this?'
'Huh?' Finn started, stumbling over a rock. She estimated they'd been walking through the Fade for about twenty minutes, although it was impossible to tell from the light. Sometimes Ariane thought she saw the sun, glowing from behind the fog with a strange, heavy yellow light. Every now and then outcroppings of rocks glowed blue, as if shot with luminescent veins. The scenery all looked the same to her, but Finn seemed to know where he was going.
Now she was starting to feel a strange pressure in her ears, as though she were underwater. They were close.
'After we've killed the demon,' Ariane explained. Her boots had turned grey with dirt. It was thick and flaked away like ash. Her eyes itched and her throat felt gummy. Maybe talking would help.
Finn smiled, slowly. 'Oh, you mean the heroic aftermath bit.'
Ariane hefted her short sword, feeling the balance. 'I know we were going to save the world with the power of friendship,' she said, frowning at the blade, 'but I thought maybe we could take a break first. Catch up a bit.'
Although she tried to keep her tone light, her throat contracted involuntarily. This could easily be the last conversation they had. Two nights ago she had been wondering how the hell she had thought it was a good idea to sleep with Finn. Now she was wondering she had only slept with him twice. Why had she wasted so much time being scared?
'Should walk the dog,' Finn pointed out.
'Need to do laundry too,' Ariane said, wrinkling her nose at the dirt that streaked her armour. 'How do you think demons react to swords?'
Finn seemed to consider the question. 'Much the same as everyone else, I'd guess. I think most things are allergic to swords.'
The blade on her short sword was chipped. She remembered chipping it – she had missed a blow at a stray darkspawn and wound up hitting a boulder. The swords didn't just look like hers, they were hers. 'If this is the Fade, how are these here?'
'You assumed they would be.'
So her whole body was just a construction. 'Hells. Wish I'd assumed myself three feet taller too.' Mentally she ran through their combat abilities. Did they even have anything that could defeat a demon? 'Can I actually see you cast a fireball now?'
'Um. I think they're resistant to fire,' Finn said, looking guilty. 'I could do one anyways, though. If you want.'
Ariane winced. 'Resistant? Crap. Better not, then.'
The air was humming now, and her ears were ringing. Something was starting to come into focus, a grey smear against the blank horizon. As she walked, the smear solidified into a shape. A lone figure, standing in a clearing surrounded by boulders. The pounding in her head suddenly made sense. The demon.
Quickly, she leaned over and pressed her mouth against Finn's. He flinched, then slowly relaxed and put his arms around her. She sighed and kissed him again, running her hand through his hair.
When she pulled away, he was looking at her in bewilderment. 'Why?'
'I wasn't sure if I'd get another shot.'
The demon was not what Ariane had expected. It looked human, to begin with. She knew demons could disguise themselves, but she had never pictured them human. The demon was male, tall but slender. It was dressed in neat mage's robes and had a pleasant, unassuming face.
'You've gone the wrong way.' It didn't sound malicious. It looked mildly confused, as though she were a small child who had wandered into the wrong tent. For some reason this infuriated Ariane more. Monsters were meant to look like monsters. Too many wore innocent faces already. This one could have the decency to look like what she already knew it was.
'Everything important was back here,' Finn croaked. Somehow now that they had found the demon Finn looked even worse. His eyes were glazed and a manic edge had come into his voice. Under his long sleeves, her hands were balled into fists.
The demon looked briefly confused. Its eyes lighted on her and its expression shifted to surprise. 'You're still up and about, then? You're tougher than you look.'
At least someone had finally noticed her. She didn't bother answering. Instead, she drew her swords, testing the grip in her hands. They certainly felt like her real swords. She must have done a good job imagining them. Maybe if she lived she could be an imaginary weaponsmith.
The demon watched her impassively. 'That's a poor plan.'
Ariane ignored it. The swords felt all right, but her head still hurt terribly. She was glad to know she was still tied to her body, but the ensuing knifelike pain behind her eyes was very inconvenient. This would have to be over quickly. She would never last through a long fight.
'Really,' the demon said, lowering its voice condescendingly. 'You'll only upset your-'
She saw her chance and charged. As fast as she could, she brought her longsword up to meet the demon's arm. The steel bit into his sleeve and sunk into the flesh of his left arm. Thick, blackish blood oozed slowly from the tear in the fabric.
In her moment of exultation, she didn't even see the demon move. His backhand slammed into her like a wall. She felt her nose crunch as the demon's hand connected with her face, sending her sprawling backwards onto the gravel. Something tore in her shoulder as it connected with the hard ground. Before she could cry out, her head hit the stone with a crack.
Blackness filled her vision, followed by dancing spots of colour. Her side burned as if on fire, sending waves of pain through her body. That didn't make sense, though. The demon hadn't hit her on that side. She pushed against the ground with her palms.
Not ground, floor. Wooden floor. She could feel splinters digging into her hands.
Her eyes felt sealed shut. Slowly, painfully, she forced them open. Dog stared back at her. His teeth were bared.
'Hey,' she croaked. Her mouth felt like sandpaper. She tried to push herself up, but the floor was slick with blood. Her blood.
Dog watched her warily. Behind him, she could see the Eluvian crackling with energy. Its pale light flickered over the drab wooden walls. She was back in the blood mage's house in Kirkwall. Back in her own body.
'It's me, boy,' she rasped. Her mouth tasted of bile and tin. He sniffed her sticky red hand suspiciously. Slowly, the mistrust in his brown eyes faded.
The world lurched. Ariane's stomach churned as she pitched forwards into darkness. Was this what blood loss was supposed to feel like? She couldn't remember anything like this when she had been injured before.
A moment later she was on her back, staring at a swirling orange-grey sky. The pain in her side was almost gone, with only the memory of it remaining. Her head, on the other hand, hurt like a bitch.
'Ariane!' Finn was yelling. His hysterical voice sounded strangely far off. 'Are you okay? Don't die again!'
'Wasn't planning on it,' she answered. The sarcasm was slightly undermined by the tremor in her voice. She had been back in her body. She was sure of it. What had happened?
The demon was examining his arm. His silvery sleeve was stained black, and more fluid was dripping on the ground. 'That hurt,' he told Ariane, looking faintly put out. He cocked his head to the side thoughtfully. 'You're rather good to have done that without magic.'
Ariane pulled herself to her feet, ignoring the thudding pain in her shoulder. 'Is that even possible?' she called to Finn, who was looking aghast. 'I'm not in my body. How exactly can I still scrape my knees?' She watched the demon out of the corner of her eye as she adjusted her armour. He looked so slight, but obviously he was stronger than any normal person. Not he, she reminded herself, it.
Finn actually seemed to be seriously considering the question. 'I suppose it's the same reason you look like you think you do. But then why does it still hurt even after you acknowledge it's not real? I wish I could...' His voice trailed off.
Ariane hoisted her sword again. Her right side was a mass of pain. She wouldn't be able to get much force behind that blade, and considering her full strength had barely scratched this thing, she would need it.
'I'm not entirely sure what you're trying to accomplish,' the demon told her, sounding profoundly pessimistic. Behind it, Finn seemed to be trying to mouth something to her. It looked like 'please'. Ariane frowned.
'I mean,' the demon continued, 'imagine you could force me to leave. You're dying. What would you even do?' Behind it, Finn rubbed his arms theatrically, then appeared to mime being a statue.
It clicked. Freeze. Ariane casually sidled to the right. 'Dying or not, I'd still rather not share.' She just needed to get her good arm close to it. Just like with the bandits. Had it only been a few weeks ago?
'How narrow minded of you.'
It had very pale eyes, she noticed, paler than she had seen on any real human. They looked unnatural in its pleasant, forgettable face. The effect was somehow more sinister than if its whole appearance had been monstrous.
'You're Ariane,' it said appraisingly. 'I've heard a lot about you. That one,' it rolled its eyes at Finn, who had thankfully stopped miming signals at her, 'calls me Mouse.' It scanned her disapprovingly. 'How did things work out between you two? I am curious.'
She tried to ignore it. It doesn't want us working together, she reminded herself. The thought of Finn talking to a demon still made her head ache. Get through this, she told herself. Worry later.
'I'll admit, I'd pictured you a bit taller,' it went on. 'Especially since-'
Ariane felt the freeze spell before she saw it. Instinctively, she jerked her head back, away from the blast of biting cold. The demon roared in surprise and pain.
Frost stung her eyelids, making her eyelashes cling to each other. Through watering eyes she could see glittering ice coating Mouse's arm, freezing it mid-swing. Veins stood out black and frozen on the side of the creature's neck. Shifting her weight, Ariane slashed at the demon's side. Her head was still ringing but her mind felt wonderfully clear. Finally, something she understood.
At the last moment, she twisted her sword to the side. The flat of the blade struck the demon's shoulder with an echoing crack. Instantly, the demon's whole arm shattered into a thousand glittering fragments.
Her heart leapt with triumph. It took her a moment to realize that Mouse hadn't made a sound. It was examining the stump of its arm with an expression of offended disbelief. It looked up at her, and something unpleasant slithered behind its eyes.
'Really,' it said. Its shadow grew longer and longer, as the demon's small frame began to grow. 'This was never necessary.'
Oh, gods, Ariane thought. What the hell did I just do?
Update at last! Unfortunately, two days late and not very thoroughly edited. I have a new computer now but am still in the process of switching my files over, so this update may be rife with typos. If you spot any, please let me know!
Thank you so much to everyone who reviewed the last chapter! It was the biggest response I've ever received and I really appreciated it. If anyone has any advice or suggestions, please feel free to tell me!
I had a bit of a hard time digging up a thorough version of how demonic possession works in the Codex, so I'm basing this on the bit with Connor in Dragon Age: Origins. I may have made some dire mistake somewhere, so if anyone can correct my canon please do :) It would be sad for the story, but informative and helpful for me.
Once again, thank you so much for reading!