Alternative Origins Chapter Thirty-Two
Note. This scene was very nearly cut, and gives one of the supporting cast disproportionate screentime; nevertheless, this plot is on the dependency list for DA: Inquisition. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if it was worth their time.
Wynne and Anora and Leliana are dealing with Loghain and with the templars. If I’m any guess, it’s holy orders for the man: the kingdom is his life’s work, and I’d give odds that there is absolutely no way that Anora will stand for sending him into exile.
And Alistair, of course, is busy with affairs of state. I’m not avoiding him because I don’t want to see him. I’m avoiding him because what we really don’t need is rumours. I don’t even need Leliana to translate this one. I need to stay as far away from him as I possibly can till we’re safely in the field – there can’t be even the shadow of the sniff of a hint that either she or I have any influence on him at all. Once the banns have dispersed to their people, once they’ve taken away the news of the new king and queen, the show’s over. But until that point, it’s got to be very clear that all that being a Warden is to him, is a stepping stone to the throne. Not to mention that there can’t be anything putting him him too, uh, close to any woman – any person, for that matter – apart from Anora. Five minutes with me and him in the same room, in the sight of anyone with eyes to see, and the Queen’s faction decide that their lady’s honour is more important than everyone’s lives and all our good work starts to come apart.
So as I come back to Arl Eamon’s estate it’s perfectly understandable that I’m under a bit of a black cloud. Hardly even notice that Morrigan’s following until we get inside and she clears her throat like she wants something, and I look at her as if to say, what, and she asks if I have a little time for her right now.
And okay. The black cloud will wait. Morrigan’s self-control is pretty good, but she can’t fool me that she’s troubled. We find a room that nobody’s using and she takes a chair so I don’t have to look up at her, and she looks at me like she doesn’t know where to start, so I’m about to, and then she speaks.
“I have… discovered a few things.” Still looking really uncomfortable. Like she’s itching somewhere behind her eyes where she can’t scratch it. “You know that I drew a little of your blood, to study the curse on it?”
“I remember. You’re done?”
Her hands are clasped in her lap.”As ‘done’ as I am like to get. I have – you know the story of the man who wished to know it all, and the moral that there is such a thing as too much knowledge?” She bites her lip. “I have learned… things that are not kind to the memory, Kallian. Secrets. I need to share some of them, for the good of my heart. I need to share others, for duty’s sake.”
“Duty?” I spread my hands. “You sure you don’t want Wynne, for this?”
She nods, a quick nervous motion. “I need to tell someone who is not habituated to magic. I need to know what they will make you think. And if I were to confide in Leliana, she would be judgemental; I suspect I would not survive the experience. Please?”
I nod. “Say it.”
Deep breath, then the words all come out at once. “I’m not human, I’m not a person at all, my mother is probably an abomination, I have an idea for some magic that means a Warden doesn’t have to die but it’s extremely morally dubious and you are probably going to hit me.”
Blink. “Not much, then.”
She catches her breath with a noise that isn’t actually a laugh, it just sounds a little like it. “No. Hardly anything at all, see?”
And screw it. I owe her. I take her hand in mine and I come sit next to her and I look her in the eye a moment. “You won’t find me treating you worse ’cause you aren’t one of them. Now you start wherever you want and say whatever you want and take your time. Right?”
Morrigan nods slowly, breaks eye contact. “Um, so. I was looking at your blood, and I was using mine for comparison. And it wasn’t working, so I brought in Wynne to have a second opinion, and, well. If you are cursed – and you are – then I am cursed.”
“You’d know, if you’d become a Warden.” I look away at nothing. “It’s not a thing you forget doing, shall I say.”
“No, quite. And my memory is quite reliable. Extremely so, in fact, up to an age that I believe must be about six years: before that, nothing, not even jumbled images. It is as if my memory simply came into existence, one day, and before that there is nothing at all. So it must have been before that day that I was, ah, ‘cursed’. And yet your blood and mine, they both have magic in them and to roughly the same extent and even a vaguely similar aim. You are connected to the archdemon, to the darkspawn. If you are too close when the archdemon loses its body, it will end up trying to take yours. And then the curse will activate, as you have been told. Death and glory. Riordan’s testimony is likely quite accurate.”
“And I?” She shivers. “I am connected to a creature similar in nature, a powerful and ancient spirit bound loosely to a Gifted body – and not its first, I’d wager. A creature that remains free of death in the way a bird remains free of the ground, let us say: with a little work. When its body becomes useless to it, it merely moves to a pre-prepared receptacle.”
I squeeze her hand and she squeezes back.
“It is worse than you are thinking. You see – shapeshifting, in a mage, it is a very bad sign. In the Fade it is one thing – to dream that one is a bird, a horse, a marmot, that is one thing. But to wake and discover that one is such a thing?” She shakes her head. “It is one thing to wish that one’s back were straighter, one’s buttocks firmer, one’s skin clearer. It is quite another to wish that one were a fox, and then to wish again that one were a human, and get both correct. You notice that I shift my shape without a spell. And yet in fifty years of working with every talented young person who comes through the door of the only Circle Tower in the kingdom, Wynne has seen not a single individual with what I grew up believing was a native talent, not an acquired one.”
“So you’re special?”
She frowns. “I had Wynne observe my shapeshifting very, very closely. And while my taking of another shape is a spell like any other – resuming my own is not. All I do, apparently, is remove my spell – it feels like I am changing my shape, but all that is happening is that another working, temporarily suspended, is asserting itself.” And she closes her eyes. “The spell in question is the one that says that I have a body at all. Yes. There is blood in me, bone and sinew, breath, life-energy, the stuff of blood-magic. And after twelve to eighteen years of consisting, it is used to my shape, it behaves very nearly like a human body. But it isn’t one. I’m not a human, Kallian. I have most in common with the dwarven golems that we saw – except, of course, that I am flesh and blood where they are stone and lyrium. I have a mind, yes, but not a soul; the only thing that keeps me human is a… curse. If there is a Maker, if he has a plan, I’m not part of it, because I was not made by him any more than the darkspawn were.” She spits the words out as if eager to be rid of the bitter taste of them.
“But Flemeth sent you with us. Isn’t that dangerous for her?”
“Safe and useless are very similar words.” She bites her lip again, and this time her teeth break the skin. “I have a number of deep-seated, unexamined desires, things I’d always considered to be part of me, which were most likely instilled rather than inherent. The first, physical perfection. I eat well, I avoid idleness, I remain immaculate, using magic to do this if I must; I keep myself in the peak of health and fitness. The second, sheer power – I accumulate it wherever I can, I suspect that this is the root of my fascination with wealth and luxury. The third, self-preservation. Have you ever seen me take a risk? In other words, I want to make myself the perfect host.” The corners of her eyes are shining a little in the light. “And one day, Flemeth’s body will die through accident or misadventure. And I will cease. Unless I do something about it.”
I put an arm about her like I’d do with Shani, even if she is nigh twice my cousin’s size, and I suddenly find that she has buried her face in my shoulder. I don’t know how long the two of us sit like that. It’s probably only a few minutes. She isn’t crying, not really. But she’s shaking, and her breathing is uneven, and she’s holding on tight like I might go away.
Eventually her shoulders stop shaking and she recovers herself and lets go of me and I take my arm back. And she’s not blotchy at all, or red-eyed, no sign of her distress, no sign at all. Not even in her voice. “So. That… is a matter for another day. My self-preservation instinct has been… eroded, shall we say, by travelling with you; my mother is unlikely to die before you bring the archdemon to battle, and that is what I really wish to discuss.”
“You said something about Wardens.”
“I did.” She takes a deep breath. “Given, given what I accidentally witnessed the other day, I think you will find my words offensive at first sight. Please don’t become violent? I don’t mean to offend.”
“Given… ?” I frown, confused. “You’ve my word, Morrigan. I won’t read anything into what you say that ain’t there.”
She raises her eyebrows. “I didn’t ask for an oath, but I thank you all the same. I… A Warden doesn’t have to die. I think that Leliana would say that the Maker put this in my path to find. Or kill me. She might kill me. That is why I am confiding in you, because the worst you’d do would be to cause me transient suffering, and now you have given your word not to.” Deep breath. “I can neutralise the archdemon.”
I look at her blankly for an instant. “Without fighting.”
“Without the death of a Warden.” Her eyes are intent. “In magic, knowledge truly is power. Having discovered what I am, how I was… probably created, I can replicate the process. A life-essence linked to the archdemon, a spell-pattern I can create, some of my own essence in place of an amount of lyrium the kingdom doesn’t have, and I would have made a thing which could trap such a soul.”
“Trap it?” Dubious expression.
She nods. “Like a Warden does, right before their curse eventuates.”
I frown. “Go on. What sort of thing would this trap be? How permanent?”
“Well, until it had sprung, it would be inside me. I’d just need line of sight – the curse is designed to work without a Gifted One throwing all their will behind it. And once I had the thing? Without further work, that alone would be insufficient. The archdemon would be trapped inside my body. Not in the sense of a spirit possession; more in the sense of a… bodily organ with no function.” She shrugs. “It would be trapped powerless in my body until I died and it rotted along with the rest of me, at which point it would be released. Not terribly useful, beyond that I could arrange for Grey Wardens to be there. But I can do better.”
“This is the bit I’m not going to like?”
“Among others.” She swallows hard. “The thing would be alive, anyway; I could… create a living creature, much like myself, and given that it would be at my mercy magically speaking, I’d have a deal of control. It would be roughly human in the way that I am; it would remember as much of being an archdemon as I remember of being a… spell.” She shows her teeth. “And having no reason to maintain its link to the darkspawn, of course, it would not. The link would wither and die without use. And in the fullness of time, my daughter would grow old and die and pass beyond never knowing what she had been.”
“And if it didn’t work? If it retained its mind? If the link did not break?”
“It can’t retain its mind. It could retain the link. Grow up with the kind of terrifying nightmares you have, the whispers in the back of the head. But there would be a solution, of course, albeit one that would require us to cause a death: the Joining of the Grey Wardens would be instantly fatal to it.”
I blink. “And this would work.”
“If you can start it all by killing the archdemon’s body.”
“And if I can’t, no plan will work.”
“Exactly. I have studied the Commandments of the Maker; this is blood magic, but technically speaking blood magic is not maleficent unless a human is affected, and one would not be. The only physical suffering would be to me – and I am not a person – and to the archdemon.”
“You’re more of a person than some of the bluest blooded nobles I’ve met, Morrigan.”
She makes a quiet huffing noise in the back of her throat. “Thank you, but let’s not argue that. If you prefer, I’m quite prepared – just as you are – not to count the personal cost of all of this.”
“Fine.” I narrow my eyes. “So where’s the bit you thought would drive me into a rage?”
She says it quickly. “The bit I said in mage-babble such that you wouldn’t be enraged before I’d finished. The bit where I need cursed life-essence.”
“You want more blood? How much are we talking?”
Her eyes widen. “Um. I… suppose I… it must be…no. To cobble together a self-sustaining source of life-energy requires enough energy to, well, live on its own. For your suggestion to work, we would need approximately six pints of blood, specifically the blood of elven women, more than half of it yours. And the process would be… More akin to the dark rituals of Leliana’s imagination than I am comfortable with, quite apart from the fact that it would be the most unpleasant thing that you or I have ever experienced.” She blinks at me. “Or I could simply not attempt to transfer such a great amount of life-force but rather just… create some. To order, so to speak. With the right properties.”
She goes quite scarlet. “Kallian Dener, are you telling me that I need to explain to you where new life usually comes from?”
There’s this moment where I don’t know what she’s talking about. Then there’s this moment where I do know what she’s – you know what, she can’t be – did she seriously just say what I thought she said?
“I am to infer from your expression that I was right to ask you not to beome violent.”
“Don’t change the subject.” I deliberately unclench my fists, slowly, fold my hands over one another. “Your plan. Is to lie with a man and by blood magic conceive a thing which is not a child. To be present for the death of the archdemon and to somehow draw it away from the Warden who would kill it and be killed by it, and to trap it inside yourself. As a child. Who you will bear and raise knowing that that child’s death is the most important thing you will ever do.”
“Succinct. Yes. Um. But not just… any man?”
I blink. “No.” My voice just about manages not to squeak.
She nods. “Riordan, quite apart from being more than twice my age, would be unconvinceable. But Alistair…”
“Would also be unconvinceable.”
“Ah. But if only there were a thing that he desperately -”
“Don’t you dare finish that sentence.” The words escape me in an arrowflight and I close my eyes and tighten one hand on the other till I hear the joints click. “Yes. Yes, you were right to ask me not to be violent. Morrigan, you were about to suggest taking my shape and going to him, like it was a fairy-tale.” Open my eyes. Stare at her. She doesn’t respond. “Weren’t you?”
My tone of voice makes her physically flinch. Lips still sealed, she nods slowly.
“You’re aware of what that would do. To him. To me. You’re aware that there’s a word for someone who does that sort of thing.”
“Yes. Yes, I am. I am quite aware that what I am talking about is a breach of a great number of moral boundaries. It damages me, and you, and him.” Her mouth is a flat line. “But all of the suffering in it is transitory. Nothing permanent is done to anybody but me, and I am reconciled to it; regardless, I am told that motherhood is supposed to be a good thing. We do not destroy the archdemon by violence. We destroy it by creating life, by redeeming it. And nobody has their soul burned to ash on a bloody funeral pyre.” She shows her teeth. “How much transitory suffering would balance that?”
“You know that you said that Leliana would judge you for telling her this?”
“Now who’s changing the subject – Yes?”
“You were right. And Wynne would caution you to tell nobody else and probably not to dream of it either. A-and I?” I shake my head. “I can see what you are trying to do. You see that there’s two chances in three that this kills a friend of yours. And you are my friend, Morrigan, shem or not. And I’ve got barely more friends in this world than you have. And if we live through this, then it’s my turn to help you. Against your mother. You understand what I’m saying?”
“I think I do.”
“Right. So understand this.” Quiet voice, measured tone. “If the archdemon dies and I feel it go away, and Riordan and Alistair and I are all still alive, then I give you my word as a Warden that I will kill you myself.”
She puts her hand over her mouth. “You, you would…?”
“There’s so much wrong in this that I don’t have words. You’re talking about lying to every person of good morals we have because you already know they wouldn’t go for it. Maker’s sake, you’re talking about lying to Alistair because you know he won’t go for it-”
“Yes. The end result is good, but the means are not. I know that as well as you do. I came to you because you are the only person I can trust for good advice who I can trust not to think less of me for asking it.”
I hold my tongue until I think that I can say something civil. She’s searching my face for some kind of answer, for reassurance that I’m not mortally offended. I’m the only one in the whole world she could come to – I fly off the handle at her and anything might happen. Finally I open my mouth. “Morrigan, I understand. Or I think I do. And I know damn well that you could’ve done this without my knowledge and the first I’d have known is when it all went wrong, but you came to me about it because it’s the decent thing to do even if you’re planning to ignore my advice. That said?” I hold her eyes. “You were looking for a price we’re happy paying. This ain’t one. There’s my advice.”
And abruptly she puts her head on one side. “Let me put it another way. I know you are prepared to give your life, Kallian. But are you prepared to give his?”
I take a moment and bite off the retort about her changing the subject. Deep breath. “You dare say that.”
“Does it make you uncomfortable?”
“Aye, it does, and you know why. If you’re trying to get me angry-”
She’s leaning towards me a little, invading my personal space. “It is just that when he joined the Wardens, there was no Blight.”
“But we’ve made our peace with that, he and I-”
Her eyes are fixed on mine. “Asked him, have you?”
“Morrigan, stop it.”
“Attack the questioner rather than the question, will you? Most unsporting. Arem’t you scared of standing there helpless, watching him -”
Unthinking I hit back at her. “Who am I talking to right now? Still even you in there?”
And her eyes go so wide that I can see white all around them and she goes dead pale, and then my ears pop and all the shutters on the windows rattle and the floor creaks – she half-stands out of the chair, spreads her hands ungainly like she’s finding her balance, turns a full circle of the room still staring, muttering to herself, doesn’t hear me say her name –
Meets my eyes again. I’ve stood, but that’s all. She’s breathing quick and shallow and her hands are shaking as she lowers them and her eyes are leaving the slightest green afterimage behind them. “…Oh, gods,” she says, her voice hollow. “No, Kallian, it’s me.” She takes a deep breath, half talking to herself. “It’s me. You once gave me advice in a trap in the Fade, and I looked like a big cat at the time – name something I said to you?”
“You said I was half in and half out.” I don’t offer her a hand because in her position I surely wouldn’t want one. “You all right?”
She nods carefully. “The puppet just caught a really good sight of a string.”
Blink. “You want to say that again in a way that doesn’t make me wonder if the answer’s no?”
She giggles, very slightest trace of hysteria, covers her mouth. “No, Kallian, I am not ‘all right’. I am apparently making earth-shaking decisions under the influence of spells I didn’t know existed until I started poking myself with needles. I am apparently planning to behave like your stereotypical wicked witch of the stories. The plan would give me control over how much power? And I can be trusted how far?” Her hands are still shaking.
“You came to me,” I say. Not a trace of the pity she don’t want. “You stopped yourself. It’s not about trust.”
She looks me in the eye. “It’s simply that it is a bad plan.”
“Just a bad idea. Everyone has ’em.”
She makes a noise that was probably an attempt at a snort of laughter. “Most people aren’t physically capable of having ideas this bad. Thank you, Kallian. I don’t know exactly what I’d have done if you hadn’t been here. But I don’t think we would have liked the result.”
“Any time, my friend.” I give her just the corner of a smile and I see those words, my friend, hit home like I’d intended. She is. She has been. Maybe she needs a little support. “Just, well. As little as possible? You scared me bad tonight.”
“I scared myself, as well.” She bows her head to me. And she bids me good-night and she leaves, and I really seriously have a think about the part of that plan that involved someone who looks like me finding out where my knight is sleeping tonight, because she’s absolutely right about what would happen next.
And then I close my door and damn well lock it.