Fear and Surprise, Chapter Thirty-Two

by artrald

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*

And the Voice of the Maker shook the Fade
Saying: In My image I have wrought
My firstborn. You have been given dominion
Over all that exists. By your will
All things are done.
Yet you do nothing.
The realm I have given you
Is formless, ever-changing.

And He knew his work had turned amiss.

So the Maker turned from his firstborn
And took from the Fade
A measure of its living flesh
And placed it apart from the Spirits, and spoke to it, saying:
Here, I decree
Opposition in all things:
For earth, sky
For winter, summer
For darkness, Light.
By My Will alone is Balance sundered
And the world given new life.

Threnodies 5: 4-5, Chant of Light
attributed to Andraste, Bride of the Maker
translated from the original Tevene

*

It was in a perfectly natural way that I came across a door, a door in the middle of nowhere free-standing, and now I come to mention it, it was a door in a wall. Cheap thing, wooden handle. Unremarkable. I turned, I pulled. Right-handed, of course.

A richly appointed room the far side. Fine furniture, polished floor, paintings and hangings, the style faintly foreign. A man sat in a chair at the far end, middle-aged, olive-skinned, glossy dark ringlets of hair, silk satin shirt strained by his paunch, giving off the greatest air of wealth. To either side of him a tall young man, well dressed, heavily muscled, each wearing a rapier – bodyguards. And before him, her hands clasped behind her back like she did when she was trying to keep a lid on something, was –

“Josephine!” I started forward across the room. Got two steps before something stopped me, soft but immovable, like a curtain that wouldn’t stretch or move aside. She was wearing what she’d been wearing on the retreat from Haven, a woollen dress you’d have called serviceable rather than decorative, and her hands were quite bare of rings and even her makeup was basic. She was dressed like a citywoman, not a noble, and not even a rich citywoman. The impression was only broken by the blood that dripped in continuous runnels from the fingers of her left hand and left a trail of bright little drops on the floor.

And of course she couldn’t hear me.

She was speaking Antivan, and it was natural that I could understand her. “My lord’s offer is both kind and generous.” It was only because I knew her that I knew it was lies, every word. “You have seen the plight of my family,and your intent is good-hearted and open-handed.” She swallowed. “A-and yet am I promised to another, my lord. My word is already given. I cannot do as you wish. Ask something else.”

I pushed on the invisible wall. It didn’t give.

“I’m afraid, my dear, that I can’t accommodate you.” The corpulent man’s voice was nasal and horrid. “I require an heir. You require an income.” He spread his hands. “And the man of whom you speak is dead. He fell from a castle.”

“They never found the body, my lord.” Maker’s sweet Bride, she thought that was a lie as well.

“Commoners and lesser men disappear every day, Lady Montilyet. Most of them are never found: are they, too, alive?” An expansive shrug. “Regardless, it hardly matters; you may add it to my offer. An additional two hundred nobles should compensate.”

“A thousand at least, my lord. He was a nobleman in his own right and I give up the possibility of receiving an estate from him.” She said the words like they’d rotted in her mouth. But I recognised this with a lurch of my stomach. The situation was all different, but it was literally no different from when we would scuffle over coin the rich young men scattered for us in the mud. The big man had meant it as an insult, to offer money for her honour. It was an insult. But she’d baited it out of him, and he wouldn’t back it out now he’d said it, and money is money.

“Five hundred at most,” he said, and smiled to himself. “You cannot possibly mean to add half again to your price.”

“Eight hundred, my lord.” Tears sparkled unshed in her eyes. If she hadn’t showed that it hurt her, to haggle over my metaphorical corpse, this would entertain him less, and so there would be less money. Dignity is for rich people.

“Seven is acceptable.” He smiled, too widely. A demon’s smile. Slowly he was getting wider, oilier, more gross. Perception twisted. I don’t know what she thought she could see.

I tried to reach out but the invisible curtain was in the way. I called her name but the invisible curtain was in the way. Threw my shoulder against it and it didn’t move. She couldn’t even see the light I was shedding.

“Done.” She spat the word out of her mouth.

“Then come here, my dear.” His mouth went literally from ear to ear. He’d the proportions of a dwarf, now, a dwarf the height of a man, five feet across the shoulders. He patted his lap.

She sat down, and I could see her shivering.

I hammered on the wall between us with both fists. Nothing. I pushed with my open left hand. Ugly green scar fading in the air, but nothing gave. The demon smoothed a strand of hair out of Josephine’s face and she flinched.

What was it Solas had said?

I pulled my knife with my left hand. Got a firm grip. The demon was opening its mouth, far far too wide. It had put a hand on the back of her head. I sank the blade into the hardened air: it went in about an inch and stuck. I put my weight on it and it moved.

Her scream hit me in the gut. The demon had opened its maw more than a foot wide, was pulling her head inexorably down toward it. The rest of the place was disintegrating back into the stuff of dream, as if a change of scene and backdrop. I pushed harder. The blade sank in up to its hilt. I pulled downward, used my weight. She was sobbing, struggling, fighting it now – I pulled harder –

I’d succeeded in making a tiny hole. The sounds inside became louder. “Josephine!” I cried. “Josephine! Wake up!”

The demon froze. I saw its eyes turn to me.

And Josephine let out a loud gasp like she’d just that instant woken from sleep. An instant later, steel flashed. I hadn’t even seen that knife about her. The creature hissed and pushed and she was sent sprawling, dripping blood that disappeared as it fell. As she stood she was wearing the travelling clothes we’d been in at Haven, she was drawing her narrow elegant sword, she was raising the glittering blade before her and looking down its length at the demon.

“Get away from me,” she said, and her voice shook with revulsion.

And in return it only smiled, and stood, and rested its hands on the bodyguards to either side, and they melted into its gross bulky mass and when that was done it was holding a long jagged weapon in either massive hand: and it kicked its chair almost daintily out of the way, and said, simply, “No.”

She levelled her sword, the dagger still in her other hand, and met its eyes as she took a short careful step away from it. Her breathing was ragged but her hands were steady.

And I’d made a hole in the barrier, maybe four foot long, like a slit in a tent. Didn’t think for an instant about getting her out. This was about getting in. I pushed. I pushed through.

I caught my foot in the damn thing and ended up collapsing heroically on the floor on my face.

The demon turned with a snarl that might have been “Mine!” and it went for me. Josephine lunged at it with a cry; she drew blood, a deep puncture that it ignored completely. Its blade came down and I rolled, tried to roll to my feet like a proper knight, got my sword tangled and flopped without dignity on the floor. And it brought its other blade down and I lost an inch of hair.

“Leave him alone!” She stabbed the demon again, going accurately for the back of the knee: it hissed like a kettle and the stroke that would’ve been quite bad for me went wide. I rolled away again.

And it turned. Discarded one of its swords, stepped quickly forward – she stabbed it in the belly – it grabbed her wrist and simply lifted her hand off her sword and she cried out in pain.

And I got up off the floor and I drew. Harsh language hadn’t worked. I didn’t bother talking. Focused on its back.

It pushed forwards, pushed her back against the wall by her wrist. She put a long bleeding slice in its arm with her dagger: it grabbed her other wrist and she screamed and kicked it in the midsection.

And my sword whistled in the air and opened the thing’s back from shoulder to hip.

It howled. Dropped Josephine against the wall and rounded on me – its sword wriggled on the ground and leapt to its hand –

But I was already moving. I slashed a long clean slice in the demon’s belly with a draw-cut, and without bothering to see if it was still moving I put the sword’s point up through the bottom of its jaw and it came out of the back of its head.

It fell on top of me.

It fell on top of me and Josephine and me combined couldn’t lift it and I eventually squeezed myself out from under it, crushed half to death and panting and cursing the very concept of inconsiderate bloody corpses, and she pretty much collapsed to the floor next to me shivering.

I put my arm around her. Simple human contact. Reassure me she was actually there.

“You are literally covered in demon slime,” was the first thing she said to me.

“So are you.”

“I know.” Her voice was hoarse with screaming, numb with shock. “It’s all in my hair.”

“Fashionable.”

“What?”

“Fashionable.” I looked at her deadpan. “The Herald of Andraste and the Antivan ambassador are both doing it. We’ll make such an impression.”

“I know!” Sudden giggles bubbled up from nowhere. “It’ll be the talk of the court!” She laughed. I laughed. “People will be lining up! What did you do with your hair? How did you get it like that?” Not what you’d call healthy laughter, really, sat together on the floor of her nightmare with my arm round her. She scooped up a handful of ick and dumped it on my head and we laughed until the tears came and when it was over she had her face buried in my neck.

*

“What are we doing here, Harry?” Josephine’s voice was very quiet and she was holding on like she was worried she’d fly away.

“Better than hitting the ground, I thought.”

Mi hacedor,” she whispered. We were still sitting with our backs to the slowly disintegrating body of the demon I’d killed in what had been her nightmare. She showed no sign of letting me go. “Where are we?”

“The Fade.”

She gulped. “So, so we’re sleeping? Our bodies lying there at the bottom of that cliff still, and our souls sitting here covered in – this – mierda?”

“No.” I held her. “No, as far as I know, these are our bodies right here.”

Her eyebrows went right up. “But I – but this was a dream. A bad dream. And if you hadn’t woken me up -” She closed her eyes, screwed them shut.

“It’s all right.” Sounded weak as hell. “Half of everything there was an illusion, or at least it went away when I made a hole in the nightmare and woke you up.”

“Half of everything apart from the main event.” She looked up at me. “So if I hadn’t woken up, I’d have still been devoured, just in a little more of a – I mean – curse it, Harry, why were we even falling off that damned hill? Why come to Adamant? Why did we think we could take on all of this?” She sniffed. “Why didn’t we just – just go home? Isn’t this what templars and mages and Seekers are for?”

“Personally?” I shook my head. “Two beautiful and terrifying ladies would’ve each individually hunted me down and set me on fire.”

“Two?” She forced a little life back into her voice. “Have you been holding out on me, my lord Trevelyan?”

I snorted. “Well, you know how it is. Cassandra hasn’t actually had to repeat that threat since Haven.”

“And am I truly so terrifying?” She regarded me a moment, cold and bedraggled, varicoloured slime dripping from her chin and caked in her matted hair. “Did you wake up in a room much like this, perhaps, with demon-me looking down on you with weight of crushing disapproval?”

“Nothing so elaborate. I just – landed. Been here before. Same thing happened as the first time, with the hill and the spiders, except there was nobody there to help me.”

“You have a halo, you know.” She poked at it experimentally and her fingers glowed for a moment as she drew them back. “I think perhaps you are supposed to be the help. How did you find me?”

I shrugged. “Chose a way to go and went that way. Went straight to you.”

“That does sound like magic to me.” A sudden thought struck her, and she blinked wetly. “The others. The rest of them, the people that were falling with us. I don’t suppose you remember who…?”

I shook my head. “I’ve got a graze on my arm in the shape of your fingers: supposed that meant you were here. That’s all I had to go on.”

“You were in the lead. Beside me were the two elves, and I’m pretty sure Krem was right behind me, would’ve been too close to pull back. Don’t know about the others.”

“Five of us, then, at least.”

“Three people still out there, then, and worse off than us, most like. Come on.” She unwound her arms from me and stood, a little unsteadily. “Is this more like a tale or a dream, do you suppose?”

“I’m sorry?”

“In a tale, I’d know where to go next, I’d be the next stepping stone in your quest. In a dream, of course, it all revolves around you.”

“You mean it doesn’t?” I got my arse off the ground and my head took the opportunity to remind me what a vast and terrible distance that was. “Do you have a feeling you know where to go next?”

She frowned. Got a cloth out of a belt pouch and wiped her face; walked over businesslike and did mine. “Not a clue. You?”

No, no I didn’t. I nodded along the line on the ground that had been the wall of the nightmare. “That way.”

“Mm.” She bent down for her sword. I took the handle of mine, put my foot on the demon’s head, pulled it out. It came easily. “You picked that at random.”

“I did.” I wiped the blade, put it away. “Shall we?”

*

Once upon a time there was a princess called Serafine and she lived in an ivory tower.

Once upon a time there was a princess called Serafine and she lived in an ivory tower with a bar on the door and a high tiny window and a slot for food and the food hadn’t come and the food hadn’t come and she was hungry, she was so hungry, and she asked the slot pretty-please if she could have some food and it smiled and all that came out was cockroaches and filth.

And she was dirty and the cockroaches made her sick and she couldn’t get clean because there was a roof on the tower and there was no water and she asked the door pretty-please if she could go out to wash her hands and her face and to get the sick off her pretty princess dress and the door said she was a bad princess and couldn’t have any more pretty princess dresses and couldn’t go out and couldn’t get clean and she cried.

And she cried and the window the high window said come to me, come to me, only climb and you can come out, and she turned to it and jumped and fell and put her fingers in the tiny little cracks in the wall and tried to climb but it was so far, it was forever, but she climbed, and she was so very small and it was so very far, but she climbed, and she climbed, and she climbed, and eventually she put her hand up and pulled herself up and looked into the endless screaming welter and waste of the sky of the Fade and blood wept from her eyes and her mouth and she slipped her hands slipped in blood and she fell backward –

A hand, a woman’s firm hand gripped her wrist and lifted her weeping up and through the window and strong arms set her down on solid ground.

And everything was wrong –

Lethallan.” The voice was like the hands, firm and strong and sure. “Lethallan. Come back to yourself, dammit. Ain’t dreaming, no more’n I am. It’s magic, coz. Open your eyes.”

And Serafine woke and remembered her name was Jenny.

Her eyes were sticky. There was all blood all down her face like she’d been weeping it, her mouth was full of the taste of it. She shivered with the cold. They were standing on sharp loose grey slate scree. The tip of her tower stuck up out of the ground. And the other woman – well, looking at her said why this was a hero of legend. Her armour literally shone around the edges; her sword over her back was like a tongue of fire or sharpened blood-red light; she was in her element here in a way she hadn’t been at Skyhold.

Kallian Dener smiled as if to meet someone in nightmare was an everyday thing. “You yourself now, coz?”

Jenny nodded jerkily. “Dreaming. A nightmare.”

Kallian made a face. “Your second’s true, but not your first. It’s the Fade we’re in, for sure, but the only people who share dreams for true are mages and people being messed with by demons.”

“The Herald.” Deep breath and she got herself level and steady. “Last I remember we was right behind him. Falling, like. Then this. Where’s he?”

Kallian cast a look around. “This place is proper vast. Woke up in a nightmare of my own, but things have tried to trap me like that before.” She snorted. “I got out, came looking.”

Serannas, ‘thallan.” She said the mangled elvish like it was a formal vote of thanks. “So what now?”

“We search. Something brought us here, it can take us back.” Kallian looked out at the horizon. “Keep your eyes down, though. I’m fine, kind-of – my curse, see? – but I came on you staring at the sky and bleedin’ at the eyes.”

“Aye.” Jenny wiped her face with her hands and they came away sticky; she wiped them on her breeches. “Herald must be here, he was right in front when we fell. He’ll not last on his own.”

“Right.” Kallian cocked her head listening. “I hear nobody on the wind, I smell nothing but us and this place. So he’s down or across the wind, or many miles toward it. Pick one?”

“Downwind.” It was coming back to her that she was dressed proper, a warrior, not a little shem. She bent her bow and strung it.

*

“Question for you, if it’s all the same. As we go.”

“Speak it.” Kallian dusted her hands, didn’t shorten her long ground-eating stride.

“Tell me the rest, ‘thallan?”

Kallian blinked. “Scuse me?”

“You were forewarned. About all this. I mean, your words ain’t lies, I’m sure. But there’s more you ain’t said. I reckon you were prepared.” Jenny’s voice was deceptively casual. “D’you mind telling?”

A pause. Kallian frowned: then she shook her head to herself. “I suppose I shouldn’t be so very surprised that Red Jenny reads people like chanters read books. Yes, I was – well – forewarned is wrong. If I’d known I was going to wake up in the Fade if I followed you, I’d’ve swapped places with a mage and you’d all be safe and home by now, wouldn’t I?” She pursed her lips for a moment before going on. “But yeah. I know more than I said. I was expecting nightmares.”

Jenny didn’t even bother trying to talk about perhaps maybe warning people – “Anything any use for me to know right now?”

A tight nod. “Fear. Everything around here is fear, name and nature. It was -” she swallowed hard – “Called for. Invited, what’s the word. Summoned.

“The dragon, right? One of your ancient foes? Summon it and kill it?” Jenny snorted. “That went well.”

“No,” said Kallian, and without rancour. “Our ancient foes can’t be summoned. If they could be, if any power could’ve, the darkspawn would’ve done it the first time there was a Blight. They ate enough of the world, that first time. No – we were -” She gave Jenny a serious look. “You are Red Jenny, right?”

“I am today.” The old proper answer to that question.

“Fine. I want your word on this, coz, ’cause these are expensive words to people like your Leliana Nightingale, these are words to cut a throat. This ain’t the Maid telling Red Jenny, it’s Kallian telling -”

“Serafine.” The name came out like a fish on a hook. “Je me dirtherai, Kallian. Your words end with me.”

“By which you meant ‘emma dirthan da‘, do you?” The two elves regarded one another for a silent moment. “All right.” Kallian pursed her lips as they walked, searching for the words. “The Wardens have a problem.”

“No shit. Did the dragon coming out of your castle not-”

Kallian frowned. “Another problem. Bigger. Same size as the Inquisition’s hole in the sky, I figure.” And as Jenny pulled a face, she went on quickly – “For true. We’re – it’s like -” She bit her lip. “Fine. We’re dying. Every Warden knows, one day our curse will come to collect. Snap, like an empty mousetrap, see? Snap. Dead, mouse or no. You know when it’s coming. The spawn, the darkspawn in the back of your head, they get louder. You’ve always felt their feelings, heard their thoughts. Now you hear their voices.” She stared out at the horizon. “Comes for us all. Sign of age. Known as the Calling. You hear ’em singing? You make your peace, you say your goodbyes, you give your best sword away to your prentice and see if someone fits your good armour. You put on a novice’s gear, the cheap stuff, no sense wasting the good. And you go.” Her voice rasped. “You go to the Deep Roads and you find yourself a better death than -” bitter twist to her mouth – “snap.”

“Well,” said Jenny quietly. “That’s a thing. New, is it, this Calling? To tell me the tale now?”

“No. No, it’s been there forever.” Kallian swallowed. “And the time of my Calling came this winter, with the first snow.”

‘Thallan, I’m sorry. I-”

“Not finished,” she said grimly. “I got myself up out of my bed and went to break my fast in our refectory, thinkin’ all the way who took up my post when I was gone, if I’d got ’em ready. I went to my second, a dwarf, name of Sigrun, and I said it was time for her to take up my sword. And she was at the table cryin’ already.” Kallian’s words choked off in her throat. She tried again. “And we went to find the third, and he was standin’ on the top of the walls wonderin’ if it wouldn’t be quicker. And I called us all together, I rang the bell. And in like two or three days we found that every Warden, every single Warden in Ferelden and Orlais and Tevinter had heard it same time I did. Couldn’t get anything out of Weishaupt at all. Nevarra had already gone underground, their mages told us. Free Marches signed up for a war, I’m told. Decided they’d die with glory and in the light.”

“Shit.”

“Aye.”

“Uh. How long?”

Kallian shrugged. “Nobody knows. We held a conclave, everyone we could, in a dream a lot like this. Nevarra said we could still do it. We could find the tombs of the archdemons, we know they’re below the Deep Roads. We could crack ’em open and kill the whoresons dead. Lot of people said yes. Hells, I did.” She was silent for a while. “Because if it was all of us – and it surely looked like – then this was the last generation of Wardens. To make a Warden needs fresh Warden blood. We don’t know how to make more of us without starting with one of us.”

“You tried, you know, just making some new Wardens to take it on?”

“Snap,” she said flatly. “Right there and then.”

Jenny’s eyes widened. “Shit.”

Aye.” Kallian was silent a moment. “So there are the stakes. Orlais said it was madness, just to try digging like darkspawn, that it was suicide. That they’d look for a way to end the Calling instead. Tevinter sided with them, they always had a lot of mages. That was three month ago.”

“They found something.”

“Tevinter found someone. The Venatori something-something. Couldn’t fix the Calling.” And she showed her teeth. “Did have another solution. They could make something that could definitely for-sure find the archdemons under the ground. Track them like a bloodhound. Dig like a mole. Ancient magic, something they’d dug up. Blood magic, spirit magic – red lyrium – bad stuff in spades. But Commander Clarel said it’d work, and she should know, bad stuff is what she does. I was outvoted. The Wardens said we’d do it. Clarel said she’d lead it. Everyone said the Maker must’ve sent them.”

“More like the other thing,” said Jenny carefully.

“‘swhat I said. Clarel said that if I wanted to fuck off and die, she wasn’t stopping me. I went back to my people, pissed off and ready to kill the whole world. We’d no plan but to find the recruiters, the Wardens on circuit, all the poor bastards who woke up in the wilderness one morning and didn’t know it was just them. No idea what we’ll do together, but I was not about to leave the kids I trained to die alone in the dark.” The sharp scree stones crunched under their feet. “Morrigan found me down there – she and I are friends of old. You know the rest.”

“So, uh. From there to dragon?”

Kallian threw up her hands. “Hell if I know, lethallan. The thing that they were after was a fear demon. Yes, a massive one, but nothing more than just a-a nightmare.”

“And a dragon’s your darkest fear?”

Kallian shook her head a little too fast. “I’ve literally got a dragon’s head mounted in the hall back at Amranth. But you could be right. If enough people there – it wasn’t just a dragon the thing was shaped as. It was an archdemon, the first archdemon. Very specific thing, but I recognised every single feature from the old books. Dead longer than Orlais has existed, like, dead-dead, no comin’ back. Damned odd thing to think of as your darkest fear, I’d have thought.”

“Mystery. Fine.” Jenny snorted. “But tell me. The Calling, you can hear it, you can still hear it?”

“I can.” She shivered. “Yeah. I’m fucked. Either way, I’m still fucked, and next Blight, so are we all, but – shit. We get stuck in here, we’re more fucked. Come on.”

*

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