Fear and Surprise, Chapter Thirty-Three
Here lies the abyss, the well of all souls.
From these emerald waters doth life begin anew.
Come to me, child, and I shall embrace you.
In my arms lies Eternity.
Canticle of Andraste, 14:11
from the papers of Maferath, called the Betrayer,
husband of Andraste, called Bride of the Maker
The rows of makeshift beds were endless, the lighting low, and the slightly desperate smells of herbs and sweet smoke didn’t cover the stench of the wounded, of the sick. The ceiling was canvas – it was a tent, that we’d walked into, long and low and narrow – and it was full of the wounded, utterly full. We were picking our way around men – and nearly all of them were men – laid on the floor in litters, in the aisles, where there just hadn’t been room on the beds. The little field hospital was full to overflowing and in the middle distance there I made out one nurse.
The nurse wore a floor-length robe the colour of dried blood and an apron that had been white when it was made. In the one hand a lightstone swinging on a pole that was a little like a shepherd’s crook; over the other shoulder a bag for supplies, banging against the thighs with each step of methodical progress along the unending train of the fallen. Long loose lank dark hair shrouded a face downcast as shadows curled and pooled. A robed and hooded assistant walked behind, talking softly, carrying things, holding things. Drawing the sheet up over a face no longer suffering.
The barrier was less of a shock to me this time. I’d been walking with my hand before me for this very reason, plunged into it a few inches before it turned solid. Felt like thick mud. Recovered my hand, pulled it back. I looked, uncertain, to Josephine.
“You recognise them?” She squinted into the dim light. “I can’t make it out.”
I shook my head. “This place is nowhere I recognise. The people, d’you know the uniform?”
She looked, and her face said she really wished she hadn’t. “Mixed. This one’s Tevene. That one’s Fereldan. Denerim, I think.” She shuddered. “Ugh. I hate this place, Max.”
“I hear you.” I pushed a little more against the barrier: it’d give a few inches but no more, just like before, though the texture was different. “Have we just walked into someone else’s nightmare? Some sleeping stranger? One of the Wardens?” I squinted. “Two people there. Could be anyone.”
“I’m pretty sure that the only Warden falling with us was Kallian.”
I nodded slowly, thinking of how Jenny mentioned war as if she’d seen the bad end of it – “Keep an eye out for elves, then. Maybe they’re-”
Josephine swallowed hard. “Not real. This is s-someone’s nightmare. A bad dream.”
“You all right?”
She shook her head slightly. “Can you, can you feel that?”
“Disgust?” I made a face. “Yes. In spades.”
“Fear.” She bit the word off. “Sick creeping horrible -” her voice shook. “As if someone I love were in here somewhere a-and I was all there was and I knew it wasn’t going to be enough.”
I shook my head shortly, got out my knife. Stabbed it into thin air and Josephine made a quiet strangled noise and stepped back.
I stopped. “Bad news?”
“It’s not real,” she said, mostly to herself. Took a deep breath of the stinking air. “Max, it’s like that’s a big bubble full of fear and you’re pricking it. A-and I don’t know if you ought to. It feels so very wrong – as if you’re doing something horrible – as if you’re going to, to hurt the person whose dream you’re cutting into? Deeply, I mean. Permanently. I mean, what if this is just someone dreaming we see here, what if you bring their soul out of the Fade and their body is in, in Tevinter somewhere? What if-”
“Did I hurt you? When I cut into your dream?”
“I don’t know,” she said in a very small voice, and bit her lip. “Not real. Lying. The demon is lying.”
“That’s all they do,” I said. “I’m going to start cutting now.”
“You just had to tell me,” she returned, but the colour was coming back into her cheeks. She looked resolutely away from the dead bodies and I cut and I tried not to hear her breathing quickly.
The nurse was crying, now, weeping silently. This patient was bleeding, still bleeding, far too much, and calls for help had gone unanswered and the orderly would not go for a healer, for there would be none to send. Move on, said the orderly, move on: for there is only one of you and this is all that you are good for, and this patient is already gone.
And as I forged my way through the invisible flabby caul around this dream, as I hacked at empty air with my knife, I knew that each face here was someone familiar, each face was a friend. With a start I saw Cassandra, pale and waxy, clawing at empty air for a breath that would not come: I saw Cullen, motionless now, almost yellow, the wound in his gut stinking of death. Varric, a chest wound. Harding, barely recognisable, as if she’d been trampled by horses. Each of them had had a pathetic ineffectual attempt at medical care, and each of them had been, in the end, left to die alone in the vain hope of saving another.
And the orderly was speaking quietly to the nurse, now, saying how it couldn’t have been helped, there was nothing to be done, there was nobody else to pick up a sword, there was no-one willing to stand with them, and the nurse was shaking like an aspen leaf and trying to choke out the words that this wasn’t true, that it was all a lie: but all that came was a raw thready hollow whisper.
The air parted in front of me and I stumbled through into the dream and Josephine turned away with her hands over her ears. Nothing I could do about that. I strode down the aisle confident that it was all an illusion.
The nurse took one glance in my direction, wide-eyed. Looked down at the bloodstained dress, the surroundings, back up at me – “No!”
And turned and ran from me. Got a half-dozen steps. Tripped and fell in a flurry of skirts, rolled to the side, curled into a ball behind a bed where I couldn’t see –
“You’re dreaming,” I called. Made no move to follow.
“No! Leave me alone! Fuck off!”
I blinked. I knew that voice.
There was a long, painful pause.
“… yes.” Voice rough like sandpaper, raw from crying, but I’d got it right. “This is me, my lord Herald.” A deep ragged breath. “If your lordship would excuse me while I make myself presentable for him.”
“Krem, you’re dreaming. This is a nightmare.” I shot the orderly a glare and it melted back away from me. What was under that hood was nothing human. “Snap out of it. You’re not sleeping.” On an impulse I swapped my knife to my right hand, raised the left, palm open, let the green light wash over the scene before me like clean water. Whatever was going on here, there was one thing I knew for certain. “It’s not real.”
And again, replacing the ragged disordered breathing was a deep intake of breath, the gasp of one suddenly woken, and from there it just turned into the kind of bitter broken laughter that is nothing funny at all, and the nightmare was melting around us and the demon was fleeing cheated and Krem was still curled up, knees drawn up to chest.
Silence. I edged closer. “Krem?”
He curled a little tighter and showed no sign of noticing me.
Soldier, right? I walked closer. Deep breath. Called to mind Iron Bull addressing his troops, Cullen laying down the law to the templars. Tried to make my voice fill the whole of the world. “Krem!”
He flinched at that. Looked up at me half-blindly. “What?”
“Krem. Listen to me. It is not real.”
“Not real,” he said, and he shook his head as if the words were the stupidest thing he’d ever heard. His hair was still long, halfway down his back. Still wearing a – fuckit, a dress – and a nurse’s apron. “This is not real. Are you ever so fucking sure of that.”
“Nothing else here has been.” I offered him a hand. “Come on.”
He shivered and made no move. “What. Just like that? No explanations, no questions, no smirk behind your hand?” He plucked at his illusory clothes and they were more solid.
I left my hand where it was. “We’re in the Fade, Krem. Where nightmares live. The contents of which -” I shrugged. “I’m scared to death of spiders. You’re stuck running a hospital. Everyone’s got something.”
“Yeah?” He hunched his shoulders. I could see his armour under the illusion. “Go on. Say it.”
He met my eyes steadily. “My mistress had me named Cremisia when I was born, and she had a functioning pair of eyes.”
… okay. “You know what?” I tried a smile. “It doesn’t suit you. Prefer the one you use.”
He brushed semitransparent hair irritably out of his eyes and looked up at me, searching my eyes for anything that said I wasn’t for real. Didn’t find it. “Fuck it,” he said, grabbed my hand, pulled himself to his feet. “We stuck here?”
“I should hope not.”
“Got you.” The trappings of the nightmare were fading fast as he touched a hand to his sword’s hilt like it was a talisman. “Anything real here? At all?”
“Me, you -” I nodded back to where Josephine was still picking her way through the disintegrating dream – “Her. Anything we brought into the Fade with us, and anyone else who fell through with us.”
“I…” He frowned. “Right. Lead on, then, ser?”
“We get out of this, Krem, you call me by my first name. All right?”
“Yeah.” He nodded. “All right. Nightmare. Any surprise we might find it a little disturbing?” Set his jaw. “Fuck it. Lead on.”
No surprise, walking the Fade, that it was dreamlike. No surprise that it felt like time stretched and squashed, that each thing we met and passed was at the same time completely fantastical and entirely unremarkable, impossibly familiar and inconceivably strange – and to see it awake, to walk in nightmare with our actual feet, it was taking its toll on us for certain, and my two companions harder than me.
Both of them were walking with weapons drawn now, eyes out, wary, flinching at the slightest noise, staying inside the circle of light around me. We walked. No idea where. It had worked once, setting off at random: try it again. My feet stung. Blisters coming. Thirst burned my throat.
And – and we’d come full circle. Found ourselves going up that hill again. Toiled our eventual way to the top, for no other reason than we’d come from ‘down’ and so we should go to ‘up’, and eventually we ran out of up. Back where I started, like we’d come in a great long circle. Time was losing meaning. We were tiring, both mentally and physically, and what were we gaining but –
A shout, high on the wind. “Hoy!”
Looked around. Nothing. Nobody. “Josephine, d’you…?”
She twitched, looked around at me with with an unfamiliar paranoid glint in her eye. “…Hear something. Don’t tell me it’s not just me, Max. Don’t make me think what I’m hearing is real-” She took a quick step to one side with a sharp intake of breath, flinched away from something I couldn’t see, and Krem took his cue from her and spun to face – nothing.
Stopped, there, looking at one another. Fear, genuine fear in their eyes. Fear that we weren’t getting out of here. Fear that we were losing our minds in here.
And I heard it again. Kallian’s voice. I was certain. “Hoy! Trevelyan, ser!”
Shit. Were we actually losing our minds? I raised my voice on the off chance. “Lady Warden? I can’t see you.” Saw Krem look at me as if he’d no idea what I was doing.
“Below you,” came the reply. Blink. Okay. Talking to the wind, wind talking back – I looked down. Indeed, those were my feet – “No, the other sort of below!”
… We’d been keeping our eyes off the sky, because of the chance of catching a glimpse of the Black City. I looked up.
My stomach turned over. Of course they were up there. Of course there was another hill straight above us, a mirror of the one I stood on. We were – the ground was – Kallian bright in literally shining armour stretching a hand toward me – I reached out to her left-handed –
So we landed in a heap and the elves were not on the top of that heap. The air was bitingly cold, but it still tasted of ash and brimstone – I growled to myself as we disentangled ourselves. Not fair. Still in the Fade, still illogically under that diseased sky. At least the five of us were in one place now. At least the floor here was hard packed earth.
Except that somehow it wasn’t, as well. This place was a great dark cavern and a bare rocky mountain’s summit as well as a wide blasted plain, like it couldn’t decide quite what to be and had decided to be everything. The sky was that hideous diseased green where it wasn’t a mirror of the earth, where it wasn’t the ceiling of a tent or the roof of a cavern or – Bride, my head.
Took me the longest to get myself right side up. The others had formed a ragged line to one side of me, all looking in the same direction, wary, backs to me. They looked – different, somehow. Realised that for the first time since coming here, I was seeing shadows – that the light here wasn’t coming from me –
I looked up and my breath caught in my throat.
A woman, short but unbending and straight-backed, and she was dressed as a canoness, but robed not in the rich deep colours of the senior Chantry but in shimmering cloth-of-gold, and her visage bathed our faces in a warm golden glow.
She was neither old nor young – or, rather, she was both. Her hair was grey and curled close like wire, and it was long and loose and the colour of corn silk. Her skin was dark and her skin was fair. Her eyes were a deep liquid brown and a vibrant green and a clear blue. She was an old woman with the weight of a lifetime of the whole world’s cares and she was a young lady with fire in her eye and she was as beautiful as the rising of the sun.
And she smiled, and each of us stood up, relaxed, straightened, and somehow each of us was the only one to step forward. I was seeing – I don’t know. My eyes couldn’t process it, my mind wasn’t taking it in. This place didn’t play by the rules I knew. Like the waking world had been drawn on a backcloth – each scene was like a picture roughly sketched on loose-bound parchment. I could see, somehow I could see the whole thing –
I put my right hand shaking over my mouth. So fragile. So thin. I could tear them just as easy as parchment (do not play with fire) and I met the eyes of that apparition who stood before me and it was as if she said to me, look.
I turned a page. Focused. The apparition was an old woman, straight-backed, skin like old leather, hair like grey wire. Divine Justinia, but robed all in golden light.
Heard her voice. Like I’d heard it when Solas had closed the Breach. Like I’d heard it at the Conclave. “Time. Time is short, so short now.” Cracked, it was, and broken. “My – birds. My dear ones. Mynah-”
“I’m here,” said Josephine, and her eyes were overfull. “Most Holy, I hear you.”
“I knew. Your intentions, Mynah, your purposes for joining me.” The silence that followed her words was not long, but it was long enough to see Josephine bite her lip and force herself not to look away. “I have always known, my dear. Did you think you could fool such an old campaigner?” Another pause, as if for a dry rasping breath. “I wouldn’t have had you any other way. Dear girl, be at peace.”
Josephine nodded and said nothing and blinked fast.
“The others. Tell them. You must tell them.” Another irregular ragged pause. “Tell Nightingale, tell her: I am sorry. I have failed her.”
Josephine was shaking her head. “That’s, that’s not true, you-”
“Dear child, I have used her as poorly as one person has ever treated another. Tell her. And Raven.” The disembodied voice twisted and cracked and grated and dragged. “Tell my Raven that she knows what I want her to do – she will say it is impossible. Tell her to have -” the voice choked off for a moment, then continued – “Faith.”
“I will,” she said. “Most Holy, you have my word -”
That scrap of parchment ended there. I turned the page. Josephine had bit her lip, swept a curtsey to cover her hesitation, not stepped forward at all.
Krem knelt, unfeignedly, before the beautiful young lady seemingly wrought all of gold. “My lady. Command me.”
She inclined her head. “I am not your general. Rise. And ask what you would of me, for there is little time.”
He stood as quickly as he’d knelt, and his heels clicked. “The way home. That’s what I want. That’s all I want. To go back a-and wake up and live, if it please you.”
“You are not done, then? The world you came from is hard. You would not rather go onward than back?”
He shook his head. “No, my lady. I, uh.” He cleared his throat. “Had a bit of trouble finding chantries to sing in, if you catch my meaning. On the road, I mean. Thought I’d have time for all that stuff later, you know, when I was done doing things I’d maybe want to repent of.”
A slight and indulgent smile. “If you’d not found yourself here, my good man, where would you have been?”
He took a deep breath and it seemed he breathed in strength and fire. “At the side of your Herald, sera. Pulling his, uh, behind out of trouble again.”
“If you weren’t ashamed to be there, then you shouldn’t be ashamed to sing there.” She fluttered a hand and gold sparkled. “Time is truly short. And I shall have need of your sword-arm ere you breathe the air again -”
Nothing more to see. I turned the page. Krem had knelt, but he hadn’t felt it was his place to speak – but Jenny had taken three quick steps forward and looked the apparition flat in the eye. “Who’s this?” she said, a pugnacious glint in her eye.
The apparition was indistinct, bright, her hair rising around her as if in water. “Do you wish to ask that question, truly?”
“Aye, ‘s what I thought.” She bowed her head deeply, elf-fashion. “I’ve, I’ve words for you, ladyship.”
The voice sounded quietly amused. “You shall receive words in turn: speak.”
“Right.” Jenny nodded sharply. “Your word. You’ve likely given it. To my lord Herald, right? Or he thinks you have. That he lives. That we do. And he’s thinking, it’s all right, it’s all good. He’s thinking, course we make it home. He’s thinking, the Maker’s Bride’s word is as good as the Maker’s himself.” She curled her lip. “And I remember another Herald, my lady, that I read of. A Herald who stood by the side of the Bride of the Maker, who stood up and led the People at her command, because of a word she gave, that she’d see them free. A Herald whose people were the heart and core of the Exalted March.” She snatched a quick shallow breath. “And I remember the way the Bride’s word was kept to Shartan and the elvhen, and how I was born in a gutter, free to die in it, slave in everything but name. How one of your people, your people who think they sing your Chant so well, was allowed to keep me as nothing less than a damned pet. And so you can se how I think maybe that’s what you mean by keepin’ your word. A-and don’t you do that to us.”
“Are you done?” The voice remained mild.
“Never.” Jenny still hadn’t blinked, in case the Bride smote her for her impertinence and she blinked and missed it.
“And how do you believe a Maker’s Bride should answer your lack of faith?”
She flinched under that unwavering gaze, took half a step back, but she didn’t let up. “I-I think she should be the one to keep a little faith. My lady.”
I turned the page. Jenny had seethed, balled her fists, but she’d knelt like Krem had, an instant later.
And Kallian hadn’t bowed or knelt or looked away. She had an eyebrow raised and an appraising look: the apparition before her was a tall Fereldan lady with long blonde hair, shining golden mail, light in her eyes, and her brow bore a crown all of gold, and her face was glory.
And the Maid smiled crookedly, and said, “Yes, very clever. Drop it.”
“Do you know,” said that resonant powerful sweet voice, “what it is that you ask?”
“D’you know,” she mimicked, “what will happen between us if you refuse to leave an illusion I’ve seen and known for one?”
The apparition inclined her head, and there was then no person standing there, simply and only light. The light that had been my halo.
“Aye, better. Now. You’ve words for us, spirit?”
“Have faith, da’len.”
“No words after all? Well, then, you can go bugger a hedgehog and all-”
“Stay away from the Elder One.” There was an urgency to the voice now. “The Calling is his.”
She moistened lips suddenly dry. “Is it a lie?”
“You know that it is not. But the song is his, da’len. He pays the piper. He calls the tune. And if he cannot have you for his own…?”
The voice gave assent only by its sadness.”The dragon you saw will not end by Warden hand.”
“Aye? And who goes in our place?” Kallian cast her words into the face of the light. “Who slays the demon of silence, but the ones who trained their whole lives to slay it?”
“Ah – that creature, now, there is a liar.” The apparition’s voice had never spoken from quite the same place twice. “The dragon is not a dragon. That is no fight for Wardens. Steel cannot solve these problems. Strength is no use here. And your mousetrap is a millstone.”
She clenched her fists. “But surely you would not have me do naught?”
“And these are the words you would not hear.” The suggestion of a smile. “Have faith. You are not alone.”
And that scrap of reality was done. I turned the page again. Kallian looked deeply skeptical but she’d stayed her tongue: and I stood before the apparition myself.
It was all that I had seen. Old and young, fair and dark, old and young, soft robed and armed and armoured, and nothing but light. And I bowed, but I did not kneel. “Who are you?”
The voice was every voice that it had had. “Do you wish that I speak those words, even after what you have heard?”
“Think before you speak. What is known can never not be. A turn once taken cannot be undone. Is this truly your will? Are you so very sure?”
“I’m not.” I swallowed hard. “But I’ll hear those words anyway, my lady. Better to know than to doubt, and wonder myself a liar forever.”
Sadly the apparition spoke. “Very well, child.” The light deepened. “And I am – Faith. Name and nature.”
So I spent a good moment picking my jaw up off the floor and thinking. Cassandra had taught me a little about demons, in case I ever had to talk to one again. A name like that meant a demon, a tempter, but I’d never heard of a demon of faith – I believe that what came out of my mouth was “… Demon? What?”
“Do you believe that word? Know that it was my hand saved you at the Sanctuary; know that it was my work beside the old liar’s when he closed the sky. Know that it was I who guided your feet when you came here. Name you me a demon?”
Well out of my fucking depth here. “I, uh. I don’t know.”
“Well and fairly spoken,” it said, quietly. “And more than most will allow.”
I floundered. “But, but that means it wasn’t the Bride whose hand I touched, it wasn’t the Bride who started all this, gave me a mission. It was – it was all you.”
“If you wish.”
“So uh.” I grappled with the idea. It didn’t want to fit into my head. “So the whole Herald thing, that’s – that’s – heresy? All we’ve built -”
“Who is the Herald?” The voice was mild as it had been to Jenny. “What is he?”
Shook my head. “I don’t know.”
“Well and fairly spoken,” it said, the exact same words, the exact same intonation. “But you have been the Herald.”
“But wasn’t that all a, a lie?”
“Was it? What is the Herald? Who is he?”
“It’s, well. You’re not wrong, it’s been me.” Self-conscious. “I’ve gone around closing rifts and being in charge and taking the credit.”
“But you were not told what to be in order to be Herald.” She stepped forward towards me and her eyes were a benediction. “You did it, and they called you Herald. So who is the Herald?”
I frowned confused. “…me?”
“So are you the Herald?”
“Well, there you are.”
“But who am I heralding?” I practically wailed. “You?”
“There is a question you have not asked.”
“Dozens. More than sure.” I searched her face. Faces. Whatever. I couldn’t read her. Big surprise. “Help me, Faith. If that’s why you’re here.”
“Very well, my lord.” She spread her hands simply. “Who do you believe sent me?”
I blinked. “I, uh. You were… sent?”
“I shall take that as a question.” She smiled. “And if you must insist upon imposing facts upon uncertainties, the meat of the answer is that I believe that I must have been, for I would not venture to this foul place by chance: and if you should ask me who sent me, the meat of the answer is that I do not know -”
“But you believe.”
“I do.” She let the words sink into light and silence. “Is it a surprise to you, that one of the firstborn of the Maker should sing the Chant?”
“I suppose I’d never thought of it. I thought you were all demons.”
“What do you believe that word to mean?” But rather than listen for my answer she glanced quickly over her shoulder and urgency filled her face. “Time grows short, my Herald, and our time for games is done. This place you’ve led your people is not safe. The creature that flew over the castle, this is its lair, and it lives here not alone. You have come here for guidance and I have given what I can, but I pray you, you must leave-”
My eyes widened in disbelief – “You… you believe we’re here on purpose?”
Puzzlement. “It was your will brought you here.”
“I… We were falling from a great height.”
She frowned. “And you wished to land other than where you fell?”
“We would have died. I was desperate.”
“This perplexing and nearly inescapable danger you foresaw, it was transitory?” She saw my expression. “You believe this danger will be gone now?”
“Uh. If we land on our feet, and not from such a great height?”
“Then take them back, Herald. You are not in the place where people go to have nightmares. You are in the place where the nightmares sleep.” She looked over her shoulder again. “And you are waking them. The danger here is no less real than the danger you escaped. Go. Go.”
“I…” I gulped. “I don’t know how.”
“You do,” she said insistently. “You must.” And without a further word she was gone.
The sky had receded almost entirely, like a fading dream, and what was left was vast and dark and unpleasantly alive-looking, like we were standing in the gullet of some gigantic animal. I was the only light in the place, and the darkness clawed hungrily at my nightlight like it was giving personal offence.
“All back, all aware?” Kallian’s voice was harp-string tight as she looked from one of my companions to the other, counting noses and looking to the eyes behind them.
“Should be,” I said quietly. “It’s done. Warden, I know what you’re about to say, and can we save it for afters? We need out of here.”
“Don’t need to tell me twice,” she said. “Live now, talk later. I can hear somethin’ out there, Void knows what.”
“You just had to say it,” said Krem. He’d recovered his sword.
“So.” Josephine was trying and failing to keep her voice light. “Which way?”
“Looks like we’ve a choice of up or down,” I said.
Something out there shifted. If I could hear that, we all could. Jenny set an arrow to her string. “We’re surrounded,” was all she’d whisper.
“Herald?” Kallian threw me the edge of a glance.
“If you’re thinking I know a way to follow? Don’t.” She had her hand on the hilt over her shoulder. “I’m lost here.”
“Right. And the advice I just got -”
“Careful,” she said quickly.
“Save it.” Had I just answered back to the Maid of Ferelden? “As I was saying, it’s no help. I don’t know where to go, I don’t… know…”
But I did, didn’t I?
Both elves’ eyes were fixed out into the darkness, now. They could see something we couldn’t. “Tell me that was the sound of revelation,” said Krem.
“Dragon,” I said. “The dragon. We’re in its lair. Far away from where we want to be as anyone can get.”
“Lovely,” he said. “You got any more of those, or do we just get on with dying alone in a hole?”
“No, he’s right.” Kallian was still and poised, her hand on her hilt. “If it came through, there’s a hole.”
“He shut it, my lady. We all saw, if we weren’t buried in a ton of rubble.”
“But maybe I can open it again.”
“You’d know it to find it?” That great red sword of hers was inching out of its sheath.
“I’ll have to.” My voice wobbled. “Won’t I.”
She hissed through her teeth. “Better than nothing. So. Up or down?”
“Wrong.” And I drew my own blade. “In or out. And the answer is that we go in.”