Fear & Surprise, Chapter Forty-One

by artrald

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*

Then did I see the world spread before me,
Sky-reaching mountains arrayed as a crown,
Kingdoms like jewels, glistering gemstones
Strung ‘cross the earth as a necklace of pearl.
“All this is yours,” spake the World-Maker.
“Join Me in heaven and sorrow no more.”

“World-making Glory,” I cried out in sorrow,
“How shall your children apology make?
We have forgotten, in ignorance stumbling,
Only a Light in this darken’d time breaks.
Call to Your children, teach us Your greatness.
What has been forgotten has not yet been lost.”

Long was his silence, before it was broken.
“For you, song-weaver, once more I will try.
To My children venture, carrying wisdom,
If they but listen, then I shall return.”

Canticle of Andraste
first stanza, verses 10-12
Chant of Light

*

Exhausted and shaking, just about not falling off, I’d barely got down from my horse when a faded blue blur resolved herself into Josephine with warm arms around my neck. I mean, a fellow could get used to this. Eventually she’d calmed down long enough that we could look one another in the eye, though it was fairly clear I wasn’t being let go. “So, uh.” I looked into her eyes and tried not to sink. “Miss me?”

“A little, perhaps,” she said. “Max, it looked like the sky itself fell in on that temple. Hawke said something about a duel of archmages-”

My eyes widened. “Is he still around?”

“Nn-no,” she replied, drawing the syllable out. “He said something about having done enough now, and stole a horse. What happened in there? You still have everyone you went in with?”

And she winced at my expression. “We do, yes, some definition of ‘everyone’. Morrigan is in Vivienne’s care right now, and, well, I’ll tell you if she’s all right when we find out what wakes up. The temple’s not a danger any more. We won the day, but he got away – When’s the war council?”

“Tomorrow. Morning, if we can.”

I frowned. “By then, the Elder One could be-”

“Max,” she said, and she was holding both my hands. “The Red Templars’ reinforcements turned up before ours did, and only thank the Maker that the dragon hove off when our mages stung it. Cassandra carried Blackwall as far as the healers’ station and then fell on top of him in a heap. Cullen is alive, but Vivienne is worried about that. Bull and Krem are hale, but the Chargers will only be good to go anywhere tomorrow because our mages are breaking Circle rules about the use of lyrium in healing. Our Templars were -” she pursed her lips – “Mauled. Everyone did us proud, and we didn’t give one damned inch, but I mean it when I say that half your war council isn’t functional enough to talk to.”

“Right.” That vertiginous feeling, I supposed it was the feeling of being in charge. They’d done that to give us a chance and we’d blown it. Deep breath. “Solas reckons we succeeded in backing the Elder One into a corner, and creatures with their foot in a trap do stupid things. Thinks we’ve swapped one apocalyptic danger for another.”

“And can it wait until morning?”

I bit my lip. “It had better, hadn’t it?”

“All right.” She squeezed my hands. “Jenny insists she’s all right to help you with your armour. Would my lord consent to join me for dinner?”

And I knew an order when I heard one.

*

“Here?” The voice, that’s what I knew first. It belonged to Morrigan: clear, firm, high, with that incongruous trace of a rural Fereldan accent. “You want to have this out before an audience?”

“You’re a smart girl.” That was Solas, a resonant tenor with an untraceable burr to it that I used to suppose was Dalish. “Guess.”

I opened my eyes. I was sitting, yes, in the big chair in Skyhold. Before me, as if I were holding court, stood the two of them; Solas looked like nothing so much as a puppet being operated by a giant and shadowy thing, while Morrigan was dressed as a fine Orlesian lady, mask and all. I was frozen. I could not move; I could not speak. I could see, I could hear, and that was more than enough.

“Fine, then.” She strode quickly across the hall until she was looking down at him from a distance of a couple of feet; she tore off her mask so she could look him in the eye. “How does it go? Fuck you. And fuck the ego you rode in on, you treacherous, backstabbing, overweening excuse for the feculent products of a diseased pigsty. It was not just that you set me up, you verminous offpsring of a rat and a cockroach, you delivered me on a silver platter: and when it looked like she was going to refuse to bite, you shoved me down her throat with both hands and a bargepole.”

Solas raised an eyebrow, and his shadow behind him deepened. “Did I truly sever our deal, yours and mine? Do you not feel repaid for what you have done, both for the comparatively minor favour of finding me the Maid of Ferelden and the somewhat larger matter that you defied my will?”

She slapped him.

The outline of her hand was red on his cheek and he touched it tentatively with a fingertip: then he met her eyes. “I would advise you,” he said in a voice as cold as bitter winter’s night, “not to do that again.”

So the second blow was with the back of her hand and it took him off his feet.

He rose, and I’d seen that terrible light in his eye once before, and it was when he’d told a man to kneel down or die standing. And Morrigan met his eyes coolly, and she smiled, just faintly, and she said, “Try me.”

And behind her the sun rose, and the light came in through the windows of the great hall, and all the shadows fled: and Solas was the one to look away.

“It worked, then,” he said, and there was a wary note to his voice.

“‘It worked, then’. As if you were speaking of a simply mechanistic… transaction, rather than the calculated violation of a trust you have never deserved.” She cast a glance in my direction. “He uses people,” she said to me. “Anybody younger than he is fair game, or anyone who infringes upon that pride of his, or anyone who must rely on him – He truly was my master, you know, at least briefly. Promised to me that he would teach me secrets, sight unseen, if I’d accept his teaching on that basis.”

“And do you feel that you have not learned secrets?” Here in the dream he had long, sharp teeth. Wolf’s teeth. “D’you not feel that you have gained, and immeasurably so, that you do and say what you have done tonight? And – remind me – who was it you are in the middle of blaming for that?”

Her eyes were hard. “My name, Solas, is Morrigan. I am the daughter of Flemeth of the Long Years, the storied witch of the Korcari Wilds. I may call none father; by magic was I conceived and made, by blood-magic, and for – or so I have spent half my life believing – one single purpose alone. For the Witch of the Wilds is immortal, but the core of her is human, and will not sustain the ravages of time unmarked. Lest she become a twisted being such as Corypheus, she must shed it periodically, like a snake her skin. And then she takes up a new body – a body brought to maturity and strength by a caretaker, the Morrigan. Yes?”

“By all means, don’t let me stop your words.”

“So it’s known to some that in allowing me to travel and train beside the Maid of Ferelden, my mother mis-stepped.” She was pacing, now. “The Maid and I tracked Flemeth down in her own Wilds, and with speed and cunning and luck we slew her, and that should have made an end; but of course it was not, for one does not live for eternity if one is so easily felled, and she was reborn with the aid of the Dalish archmage Merrill Kirker and the human troublemaker Hawke. And I have been hiding from her ever since.”

“In a hole which you left because I pointed out the stupidity of hiding from such an individual without planning for what to do when you can hide no longer; yes.”

“Except, of course, that I fled into the waiting arms of none other than -” She opened her mouth; her lips seemed to frame a word that was not the elf’s name. But she did not say it. “Him before me. Who as payment for my insolence, kept indeed his word that he would not sell me to my mother.” She growled the words between gritted teeth. “For he simply gave me away. For nothing. Because if knowledge is power, then secrets are weapons, and gaps in your knowledge are weaknesses in your armour – and the one crucial secret that I did not know was simply this.” Her eyes were a little too bright. “The Witch of the Wilds, the Lady of the Long Years, my mother, is none other than the one known to the elves as the Lady of the Moon, the Keeper of Justice, She Who Takes Vengeance, Mythal of the Shield.”

There was a moment’s pause, and Solas gestured to Morrigan to go on. “Yes?” he said. “And? You expect this to shock me, that I have done that which you most feared, that you confront me with it? Am I in fact not speaking, to all intents and purposes, with Mythal? With a part of Mythal’s soul in a body Mythal grew for herself, now come at last into her power?”

And Morrigan shook her head. “You never did have children, Solas. In all your years, in all your workings – you never created life from out of yourself, did you? You never looked down at it and saw it smile. As I said: gaps in your knowledge are weaknesses in your armour, flaws in all plans you can make. Cracks in the eluvi’an, as your saying goes. And there is something for which you did not allow.” She had the expression of the game-player in the instant before she collects the pot. “Every single thing you said concerning the properties of the creature you are speaking to was true: and yet, and yet indeed. Simple possession was never my mother’s plan for me, not since I demonstrated such unexpected competence as a creature in my own right. You have not rejuvenated an old god, Solas. You have witnessed the birth of a new one.”

Solas blinked. Blinked again. Tilted his head, exactly like Jenny would do when curious. Frowned. “Ah,” he said. “Well, then. That – has – likely torn it entirely.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I might have conceived of a dislike for you personally, my good man, and with some reason, but I’m not an utter imbecile. You and I may have started our relationship with a quarrel, but I do happen also to live in this world we are trying to safeguard.”

“And much help a half-trained apprentice will be, even one with a newly found and unlooked-for birthright that she’s no idea how to use. If it was simply power I lacked, dear girl-”

And the eastern wall of the great hall simply – one instant it was there, and the next it was nothing but motes of dust on the breeze. And the sunlight filled all that I could see, and Morrigan wore it like a cloak, and Solas was the thinnest of silhouettes, the shadow of a pole at noon. And the young lady tilted her head, slowly, and her eyes bored into him, and she said it again. “Try me.”

And I woke with a loud coarse cry and then had to spend a good while telling various guards that I was absolutely fine.

*

“So you are telling me you let him slip.” Cassandra pinched the bridge of her nose. “I suppose that you are aware how much we-”

“I did not let him do anything.” Solas’ tone was more penetrating than loud. “The humans lost their nerve.”

“Perhaps,” Dorian growled, “if we had known that your ideal picture of success looked exactly like everyone having their posteriors handed to them in a hat? That would have been nice. Perhaps we’d be celebrating victory as we speak.”

“You were welcome to join us on the front line instead,” said Blackwall, a bandage still tight in place around his head. “Perhaps you could have talked some Venatori to death.”

“Gentlemen, princess, please.” Morrigan shot them all what was supposed to be a quelling glare. “We have only limited time, here, and no reason at all to manufacture new quarrels-”

“And who are you?” Nightingale rounded on the witch. “I hope that I am not the only one here who has noticed that either you have served a dozen years at White Spire overnight, or you are not the woman who stood with me against the Blight?”

“Solas,” said Vivienne, an eyebrow arched. “Do please tell me that you can vouch that this is the same person you brought to us as an apprentice?”

“Not without more deception,” said Dorian darkly.

And Morrigan frowned, and Solas’ eyes didn’t leave hers as he spoke. “I am afraid that Dorian is, broadly, correct.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” I brought my right hand down on the table with a crash and it didn’t matter that I’d raised my voice, and just for a moment everyone shut their mouth. “D’you imagine that Corypheus is sitting on a nice little portable throne somewhere quailing into his morning gruel at the thought of us arguing? No. No, he isn’t. He’s laughing his misshapen tod off. Yes: this is a tent full of natural enemies. No: we won’t be pursuing that right now. I vouch for Morrigan personally.”

“Maxwell,” said Cassandra carefully, “you probably cannot see what many of us can. This woman is not -”

“Solas?” I cut her off. “Why, at heart, did you arrange for Morrigan to change as she has done?”

“The answer you want, out of all those possible?” He folded his arms. “Because our options begin to boil down just to brute force, and we needed a battle-mage with a little more muscle than me.”

The eyes of everyone in the room tracked to the witch. She shrugged. “Solas repulsed the Elder One once, but the dragon will be at his side when we meet again, or he’s an idiot. Two on one is unjust and unfair.”

“So,” I said. “Yes, it would have been nice to have known this plan beforehand, but here we are. I say again: what next?”

“The Elder One wasn’t just repulsed; he was balked.” Solas leaned on the end of the map table. “His plan, such as it was, was ruined. He will have changed his tack completely.”

Cassandra frowned. “Can this be turned to our advantage?”

“Well, it is better than our having entirely failed. He has learned of our efforts to counteract his magics; I won’t go into detail here, but in barely escaping us at the temple he discovered that what he was trying simply will not work.” He made a face. “My best guess is that, backed into a corner, he will set out to break as much as he can. His demon allies – the dragon and its ilk – still get what they want if that happens. And it is one of the few things he will believe he has the power to accomplish.”

“Does he?” Nightingale finished replacing the red pin in the temple of Mythal with a black one. “His forces were decimated, and your tone suggests more than simply engaging in a little burning and pillage, no?”

The elf nodded. “What he did at the Sanctuary of the Ashes was by accident. The same thing could be done on purpose. It would take all that he had to do it – but with little left to lose, it isn’t inconceivable.”

“So how do we stop him? What do we do with this information?”

“Well, there is the problem.” Solas looked down. “Our foe is immortal. The artifact that he will try to use to break the world open, the orb of thorns, it is bound to his soul: when he dies and rises anew, it goes with him. Toe to toe, I have fought him to a standstill, once. The quick unstoppable strikes that Templars can make are useless against an immortal foe: and what he escaped at the temple will not work again.”

“We know where he will be, at least,” said Morrigan. “The artifact can only be used in places of power, and this is not a land our enemy is familiar with, not since the Chantry has put so much effort into levelling it. He knows we seek him, and does not know we have few tricks left to us. And he knows of one place of power for sure: and furthermore, he knows that defenders are not there.” She reached out and tapped the pin on the map. The very first place that Nightingale had marked. “Solas and Dorian and I have until we reach Skyhold to come up with a way to stop the Elder One. This will end where it all began.”

*

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