Fear and Surprise, Chapter Thirty-Nine
Happy new year.
The worst part of the battle of the Arbor Wilds was the sheer blind wastefulness of it all, the feeling that one was a passive and helpless participant in an atrocity of someone else’s making. The darkspawn of the Blight, at least, you had no certain knowledge where they had come from, and they looked like the beasts they were. There was no danger of the mental slip between ‘enemy’ and ‘person’ that stays the blade and cuts the wielder. But the red templars, and their conscripts, from a distance especially they looked very much like the people we grew up among, more even than the undead did. And we all knew that their masters had slain them already, that all we were doing was a mercy, and it was less of a solace than you might expect.
But we fought regardless, and we slew regardless, and though our blades grew notched and our armour battered and our arms heavy as lead, we did not give ground. The foe threw themselves at us in their legions: they thought to stuff our mouths with their dead and drown us in their blood. Seeker Cassandra at our centre was the bright pole star we all followed, and I was and am honoured to be able to call myself her shield-bearer. Without her power, without her light, without her example at our head, we’d not have had the stomach, we’d not have had the fortitude. They sing of our battle; they sing of our stand; they sing of how five hundred stood off ten thousand, though I have no idea whatever of how ‘they’ numbered our foes, for we did not.
And raise your voice with them if you may, for those who stood with me that day deserve your honour. But you must forgive them if they will not sing with you.
Collected Testimonies of the Heroes of the Inquisition
published Tethras and Sons, Kirkwall
Lightning struck the ground between us and them, thick around as an oak tree, and the world went suddenly and violently mad. Shards of broken mosaic swooped and dipped like a flock of starlings. Wind swirled and rain fell, the ground shook and strange lights flickered as dust and smoke rose; where the attractive young woman called Morrigan had been, there was briefly a shape that I’d last seen in the darker corners of the Fade; and my feeling for what was real and what wasn’t was telling me that the only thing around here that was even close to familiar reality was Varric.
So I cowered behind him as stones flew overhead and Dorian seemed to be playing catch with two of the three singers, catch with balls of stinking multicoloured fire. I saw one of the Venatori mages throw a cage of screaming light at what seemed to me to be an innocuous little bush, saw Jenny spin out of its path at the last second, roll to her feet, and draw and loose an arrow quick as throwing a stone. I saw the mage literally blow the arrow out of the air with a puff of her cheeks. And then I saw something that had never been human erupt up behind her and pull her struggling down into water I’d have sworn was four inches deep.
And in the middle of it all were Corypheus and Solas, and if I’d doubted the elf’s nature before, that doubt was entirely banished as he faced down the ancient horror entirely by himself. Neither of them blinked, neither of them looked aside, and indeed they hardly moved: little flickers and flashes of the fingers or the eyes were enough, think of a staring contest and a duel of tongue-twisters and the eye of a swirling storm. Solas was brightness, order, moonlight, steady tones, the feeling of a great silver bell’s ringing: Corypheus was blood, chaos, dark clouds, silence, the fickle movement of dark waters. Nothing could approach the two of them. One of the soldiers went for Dorian and Varric shot him in the eye, and Dorian threw him at Corypheus with a backhand: some invisible force sent the flying body spiralling a hundred yards into the air like an autumn leaf, and Varric swore violently.
And the worst bit was, I was almost certain that Solas had miscalculated. The ghost of a frown showed upon his face, the tiniest bead of sweat. The eye of the storm was the tiniest bit closer to him than to Corypheus. And I remembered Solas’ confident statement that he could handle the bastard should they meet, and I remembered Dorian’s airy assertion that mortal mages could surround Corypheus and drag him down like dogs on a bear, and I looked at the expression on Dorian’s face and I firmly resolved not to shit myself.
And all of a sudden the last of the other Venatori mages let out a horrible scream and went limp. It turned out that the tall and disturbing shadows behind him had been nothing but Morrigan, and she pulled a cupped hand out of the gushing wound in his back and let the dead body collapse. She was literally soaked, her hair matted, breathing hard, and in the unnatural moonlight the blood she was covered in was black. Dorian swayed suddenly, and I caught him before he could fall over; he leant on me like a dead weight. And Jenny detached herself from the shadows to come and join us, looking up at the two of them still fighting with something like awe in her eyes. Her mouth moved and I didn’t catch it.
“Not that simple, old girl, I’m afraid.” Dorian’s voice cut through the wall of noise like a sharp blade. “Those wards would knock an arrow aside without conscious effort, even. Was thinking the two of us could take some of the strain in there, but-” He wobbled, leaned on me a little harder for a moment. “Fucksticks, he’s stopped Solas’ ears. We can’t coordinate. We step in there, anything might happen. Morrigan?”
She turned cat’s eyes on the fighters. “Solas is… not winning, Corypheus simply has more power. The orb of thorns, I’ve…” Her voice faltered. “I have never seen its like. With such are mountains raised and valleys riven, a-and your trust is flattering; yes, I’ve fought things like this before, but -” she bit her lip – “Not like this. Not fairly. Freshly rested and on the best day of my life, I would not even slow him down.”
I opened my hand, pulsing fitfully green with my heartbeat. “Anything you think I…?”
“Oh, you could certainly make things ten times worse.” Dorian closed my hand with hasty fingers. “But we want the bugger to have less power, not more.”
Varric nodded grimly. “Hold that thought.”
“I’m afraid a crossbow bolt, even yours -”
The dwarf shook his head. Pulled a curved blade from his belt. “A dwarf with a bad attitude is nearly as good as a Templar, so they always do say.”
Morrigan frowned. “You are aware what this will likely do to you, even if it should somehow succeed.”
“My will’s with Josephine.” He took the moment to lay down his crossbow. “Last chance to tell me I’m an idiot.”
“You’re an idiot, old boy.” Dorian coughed, and there was blood coming from his nose. “Doesn’t make you wrong.”
“Uh-huh. This works, I want a statue.” He straightened, closed his eyes for a long moment, then opened them with a hard bottomless stare. “Maker, though the darkness comes upon me, I shall embrace the light. I shall weather the storm.” And he started walking towards Corypheus, short strides lengthening as he accelerated, the Chant growing on his lips. And he lowered his head and ran straight into the maelstrom of power, blade held low.
A number of things happened at once.
Both heads snapped around, as if at a loud unpleasant noise.
Corypheus gestured, a wide powerful backhand, and Varric was struck by an invisible force and thrown tumbling to the side like a broken toy.
Solas snarled and flicked both his hands forward, a spear of green light striking straight for Corypheus’ heart.
And the orb of thorns around Corypheus’ neck pulsed wetly, and that spear of light was caught by the thorns and twisted and sucked within and swallowed entire.
And Corypheus smiled a crooked smile, and said a word that hit the air like a hammer.
And Solas’ body came apart into tatters of shadow and ancient bone.
Morrigan vanished. Literally in that same instant she simply disappeared in a puff of smoke, and if the rest of us could’ve done the same we likely would. Dorian stepped up because what else was he going to do, and Corypheus faced him with the expression of a lecturer watching a pupil accidentally making the most basic of errors. “For Felix,” Dorian said. “For Felix, you mouldy bastard.”
And Dorian’s bright flash of a strike was just simply not strong enough, and the ancient horror just simply ignored it. No need for subtlety, not with Dorian so visibly exhausted and terrified. Corypheus walked straight up to Dorian, passing through the exhausted young man’s frantic wards like they weren’t there, and and punched him unscientifically on the point of the chin: he crumpled.
And then there were two.
Jenny was beside me, coiled, crouched, bright blades bare, but I couldn’t let her stand forward for me. I knew how this went, from here. I looked down to her. “It’s all right,” I said, though my voice didn’t sound it. “This is what has to be. Go.”
“I won’t,” she hissed.
“Someone has to tell the story.” I looked up at Corypheus and met his eyes. “Go.”
“Still spouting this rubbish? I’m disappointed.” Corypheus snorted. “You’ve got a short memory, boy.”
“As have you, old man.” I stepped forward, just a little, just enough to tell Jenny she should be getting away from me. “For she who trusts in the Maker, fire is her water. As the moth sees the flame-”
A pained expression. “How many times do I have to keep telling you bloody people?” Above him, in the unnatural night sky of this place, it was as if the stars were going out. “Your notional deity does not exist. If ever he did, he left his creation a thousand years before ever your people put stone on stone.” The light that suffused the place was dimming, concentrating around him. “I have personally visited his golden palace: I have personally sat my arse upon his empty throne. The Maker is gone.”
“And how did that little jaunt work out for you?” I smiled. “Monarch of all you survey for the last ten thousand years, I expect. I mean, certainly I grew up hearing all about your story. How did it go again?” It was like madness. It was like when I stood up to Cassandra in the great hall of Skyhold. “Bodies thus maimed and distorted / That none should see them /And know them for human? Ring any bells?”
He gestured and the world blossomed into unnatural silence. Above us I noticed that the moon, the unnatural moon where by rights the sun should have been, was waning. “Your ignorance would almost be amusing, if it wasn’t so very irritating.”
“I try my best.” Winning smile. The one that I was pretty sure always used to make Cassandra want to punch me. “You won’t get away with this, you know.”
He scoffed. “This isn’t a tavern tale, boy, or even one of the god-tales of those pathetic shadows that claim to be elves. You physically cannot understand what it is that I am doing here.” Around and behind him the light continued to fade. “The only one of you that might have – the one who caused me trouble before – is now nothing but literal dust and ashes. And so blithely and blindly you trust in – what? Your absent Maker? The one who’s led you so well so far?”
“Actually, ser?” I kept up the grin. “No. No, this one’s nothing to do with him upstairs. I’m looking right at the source of our victory.”
“And you’re too arrogant to see past the end of your own misshapen nose. And you’re going to die.”
“To what? The templars?” He shook his head. “It may have escaped your notice, but mortality became irrelevant to me quite some little while ago now.” A sigh. “Next I believe you are due to tell me that though you might fall by my hand, a thousand others will rise-”
And I couldn’t help myself. I laughed in his face. I think it was that or literally crap myself. A muscle worked in his jaw; anger descended over him like a coarse veil, and he surged forward –
Of course I stabbed my sword at him. I mean, it shattered. But it was the principle of the thing. He grabbed my hand, just like he had before, lifted till I was forced to drop the broken hilt. Smiled at me, briefly. “Oh,” he said softly. “Did you perhaps think that I’d be shocked a second time? Or that wielding our connection as some kind of weapon would damage me?” A snort. “Perhaps if you’d taken the hint, boy, abandoned this foolish insistence on a long-dead god and taught yourself to be my rival. But, of course, I’ve had three thousand years’ practice at being me.”
I was still laughing. “Maker’s Breath,” I managed, “you’re stupid.”
Yes, as it happens.
I was trying the one weapon I had left.
I was trying to provoke him.
And it didn’t work.
He frowned. Funny look at me. At Jenny, still backing away from us. Back at me, at my hand. Confusion. Surprise. Shock.
And then his face twisted into a sudden mask of terrible, terrible rage, and he screamed at me, sheer inchoate fury and frustration, and threw me violently to the floor in a tangled heap. I banged my head, saw stars, tried muzzily to peel myself off the floor. Looked right up into a visage that no one had ever seen and lived to tell the tale.
Looked right up in time to see the return of the iron self-control of one of the greatest mages ever to have walked the soil of Thedas.
“Clever,” he rasped. “Very, very clever.” And then he snorted. “But it’s amazing what you can live through.”
And it wasn’t funny. But by this point all I could do was laugh, feebly, hysterically, painfully.
And the echoes of that laugh were a little louder than I’d imagined, a little deeper. And it sounded just slightly as if maybe the echo had fangs. And it was quite, quite dark now. So dark that I could hardly see anything but the faint radiance that outlined Corypheus. And the moon had gone entirely. And my mouth moved by itself. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, it is.”
And the echo of that was not my voice at all.
Corypheus’ eyes widened. He stumbled backward three or four steps. Sucked a deep wheezing breath suddenly into his ancient lungs. The light around him focused onto his fingers in a single blazing blinding point and he flicked his hand and a flash of light struck out in all directions and the darkness devoured it as the fanged unnatural laughter echoed. He clasped a shaking hand to the orb of thorns.
And all of an instant something moved behind and below him and the point of a sword erupted from the hollow of his neck in a fountain of foulness.
A perfect instant of utter, shocked silence.
And then the cloud broke. It wasn’t darkness, it was cloud. It had just been dark clouds. And a single shaft of sunlight came through and found the body as it choked and bubbled and drowned and collapsed, and the figure that had stabbed it rolled smoothly to his feet and strode over to me, tearing off his Tevene helm with one hand and offering the other.
“Hawke?” I leant heavily on him and he didn’t so much as wobble. “Maker’s Bride, man, we thought you’d disappeared.”
“Occupational hazard,” he grinned, and bright teeth flashed. “Glad I thought to tag along, there. Bloody hells, that was a close one. You all-”
“Morrigan?” I called. She unfolded herself a little unsteadily from behind somewhere she utterly couldn’t have been hiding; her expression and body language said that we weren’t out of the woods yet. “Varric?” The dwarf, face down in an ornamental border, waved a woozy hand as he pulled himself upright.
Hawke bent down over Dorian as the thunder echoed again. Looked like rain up there. “This one’s out cold. Broken jaw, looks like.” He straightened. “Bloody sorry about the elf, there. Bastard thing was two feet too far, and I didn’t want to risk it all on a shot for the heart when I didn’t know it’d work.” He shook his head sadly. “Right in front of me, and I-”
Thunder again. Right overhead.
Hawke saw my expression. He turned.
The creature standing there leaning nonchalantly on a staff looked a lot like Solas. Same diminutive height, same hairless scalp, same thin pinched ageless face.
Usually, though, Solas dressed like a peasant in nettle-green. And his clothes didn’t seem to be made of living, twining smoke and shadow even a little bit, and his staff was metal and glass and not what seemed to be sheer congealed shadow, and he didn’t usually have visible fangs – so, well. Perhaps it was.
“Just out of interest, and for posterity,” he said, and the voice was right. His eyes were a wolf’s amber. “Did either of the two of you – humans -” and the way that he said that word, it was a swearword – “have the slightest idea what it was that you were trying to do there?”
I’d seen him first: I recovered first. “One weapon left. I didn’t reckon I was subtle enough to wield it myself.”
Sardonic smile. “I see. And you?” He directed the force of his gaze onto Hawke.
“Saving the life of Andraste’s Herald,” the man said smoothly. “Which is exactly what I-”
Thunder right overhead, and it was a word, and the word was “Fool!” Solas showed his teeth, and there were more of them than there should be and there were fangs. “Blundering idiot knowless – Do you understand? Do you know how long it took me to set that up? Do you know what you have – just -” He turned away with a violent noise of frustration.
“I suppose you’ll say you had him just where you wanted him,” Hawke said with a raised eyebrow.
“Was that not utterly clear?” Solas spun back to face Hawke with an expression of sheer incredulity. “His head was literally in my mouth! What part of ‘Corypheus was being actually devoured by shadow’ did you miss?”
“Uh. Was this some signal you’d prearranged? Because your people didn’t look very-”
“Of course not! Corypheus can sense emotion, you utter – blithering -” A hiss of frustration. “Your words fail me. Bad man comes here, and this place is a good trap. I trap bad man? Bad man lives here in small box till sky falls and earth is all dust!” His eyes narrowed. “So. I set the trap. Bad man walk in, trap goes ‘snap’, so far so good. Then?” He pointed dramatically to me and I restrained the urge to flinch. “He tells bad man why bad man no win ever.” And the finger swung around to point at Hawke. “And you get scared, kill bad man, trap is poof! No more!” He shook his head. “You see, now? Bad man no win, yes, of course: bad man very dumb, me not so much. But now he knows! And though he will not win, he can make us lose too! He can make it all come down! And now? He will!”
“A-and just maybe, if you’d, I don’t know, told me?” Hawke spread his hands. “You think I’m an expert in the god-tales of the elvish keepers, that I’ll just know that ‘the moon being literally devoured by unholy darkness’ is a good sign?”
“Unholy…” Solas was reduced for an instant to speechlessness. “And as for you!” He rounded on me. “You are perfectly and entirely aware that I had promised your lady that I would make best effort to see you alive. Why on earth you should take that moment to stop believing in-”
“You died!” I protested. “Like, right in front of me!”
He turned on me a disappointed patronising eye. “As if I had not told you explicitly in words that I knew that orb backward and forward! And you expected it to break me? Have you not learned by now that if I say a thing is true, it is? You’d guessed at who I was, what I was. Had you thought that perhaps ‘immortal’ meant that it was in fact possible for me to die?”
Hawke nodded to the corpse of Corypheus. “So what’s he?”
Solas turned, slowly, and his tone became a patronising sing-song. “Oh, shall I tell you? Once a long time ago there were some bad men. They were priests. They went to their fanes and broke their own rules as hard as they could, made holes in the air like rifts. They went with a lot of slaves to the First Place, in the sky of the Fade, and broke down the door with blood and the Gift. They were on the hunt for their gods, to eat them. They could not find them.” His shadow was unfolding and expanding behind him as he spoke. “They could not find them, for their gods had fought the elf gods and lost, a long time before.” He tapped the body with his staff. “This one here was their boss. He came down like a dead star. Your lot caught him, and when he could not die they put him in a box.” And pinpricks of amber light blossomed in Solas’ dark eyes. “Till some fool let him out. Then just now, I made him a new box. And some fool let him out. Again. Had you not learned yet that he can’t die?”
Hawke flushed. “So what you’re saying is, this is all my fault?”
“You think it’s not?” Solas scowled. “Tell me, young man. The red stone they use to do so much that is wrong. You know where it’s from?”
“Oh, now.” Hawke spread his hands. “That one’s not fair. Red lyrium is created by draining a lot of blood unwillingly and dumping it over the victim’s head while speaking words of-”
“And where do the words come from?”
“You’re clearly going to tell me.”
Solas cast a glance sidelong. “Varric.”
The dwarf ran a hand through his hair. “Uh. Carta. The words came from dwarvish black marketeers, who got them from a mage they hired to investigate the properties of this stuff they were being sold at what everyone knew was below cost.” He sounded wretched. “By my brother. And you know where he got it.”
“So in short, Hawke?” Solas met the human’s eyes implacably. “Yes. It is your fault. And at some point one must ask, yes?” His shadow was vast, and never mind that the sun was high. “At some point it makes no odds whose side you think you’ve been on. Will you pay for your crimes?”
Hawke didn’t back down. “So, what. You want me to fall on my sword, is that it? I save the Herald’s life and you’re standing here like I should’ve lain there and made like I wasn’t there?”
“What I’m saying, you colossal puling idiot, is kneel down or die standing.” And Solas’ shadow moved forward, slowly, as if it was being cast from some giant four-legged creature stalking forward towards the human –
It was Jenny. She’d stepped between them, arms spread, looking at Solas. “Vir atishan, ser, and ain’t you spittin’ on it?”
“Oh?” The shadow paused, as if the great beast had paused to look down at the little elf and catch her scent. “The laws of the Dalish are really quite proverbially nothing to do with me, little one – and have you not made your choice to live under the humans’ Chant instead?”
“Aye?” She was shaking. “Well, that can be as it may, right? B-but. ‘Vengeance is mine and alone for me, says Mythal, for my eye is sharp and my reach is long.’ That about right? ‘So for all the time you live under my shield you live in the way of peace, and fight today’s battle and not yesterday’s: and your vengeance leave for me and for me alone.’” Jenny indicated the temple around them with a sweep of her hand. “And aren’t we in her very house, and you’ll break that law for one worthless shem?”
“You have no idea what it is that you just said, little one.” His voice was like ice cracking.
“Sure you’re the judge of that, ser.” And she stared at him.
And he stared back. And she held his eyes. And then he looked down, and the shadow had just been a cloud past the sun, and that alien titanic rage was gone as swiftly as it came. “Go,” he said, and the killing coldness was gone from his voice, and all that was left there was a simple weariness. “Tell Cassandra. Corypheus met us and was… repulsed. He won’t return here.”
“And in honour you’ll see that we’ve no further problem here, hahren, aye?”
Solas gave a crooked self-deprecating edge of a smile. “‘Ma dirþ da, ða’len.”
She went a bright speechless red and physically took a faltering step away from him. Swallowed hard. “We, we’d best be off, then.” Bowed her head to him, deep. Beckoned shortly, peremptorily to Hawke. And fled without raising her eyes.