Fear & Surprise, Chapter Forty-Two

by artrald

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*

North with all haste rode the Six and the Herald:
North and to Haven in Andraste’s name.

Raven Cassandra, noble and unbending,
Beside her Thom Blackwall, a life’s debt unpaid,
Jenny, Red Jenny, the blade in the shadows,
Dorian Pavus the master of lore,
Solas, the ancient, the keeper of secrets,
Morrigan, witch of the wilds and the ways:

With them rode Power and with them rode Hope,
Mounted on Swiftness and Purpose were they.
And there by their side was the Bride’s only Herald,
Solemn of countenance, constant as day.

The tale of the Herald would end where it started:
There above Haven where Sanctuary lay.
The tomb of His Bride all defiled and broken
Would now by the Truth of the Maker be cleansed.

Canticle of the Herald
fifth stanza, verses 1-8
Chant of Light

*

The camp was a mess. I mean, we’d won. I’m sure the red templars’ camp looked a dozen times worse. But a forced march by magic doesn’t exactly make for an orderly set of supply lines: exactly who were we loading onto horses and barreling halfway across Orlais only to stop a couple of miles short and pitch a few hundred tents?

We didn’t have the luxury of waiting, though. Got the feeling that if Solas had thought he could have done it himself, he’d’ve been gone last night, probably sprouted wings and flew or something. Didn’t even wait for what we had to be packed up, not after that council of war. Those of us who needed such things could make do with our saddlebags. The army could follow at their own pace: we’d go faster with just the half-dozen of us, on the way back to Haven, and rough it for the couple of nights we needed –

Josephine caught up with me as I was doing up the last strap. I opened my mouth for an apology, to point out that I’d have been finding her to say goodbye just as soon as I was sure I wouldn’t be holding everyone up –

She took the bag out of my hand and dropped it on the ground and stopped the whole world.

Her right hand holding the back of my head, the left grabbing my tunic, pulling me against her like she’d never see me again and like nothing else mattered, and at least that last was true. Nobody else existed. Certainly not the wolf-whistles from the Chargers. I couldn’t tell you how long we spent on our first kiss. I could tell you that that’s how long ‘forever’ takes.

Look, not to brag. I know perfectly well that it could have been almost absolutely anyone who’d had my unbelievable fortune and misfortune. That she’d made me for this part from the moment she’d realised what it could mean for her, made me like a sculptress with a block of marble. But it wasn’t anyone else. It was me. And in the moment our lips parted, her eyes said that a deal was a deal, and she didn’t regret a scrap of it.

I started to choke out her name and she silenced me with a smile that took my breath and danced with it. “Max,” she breathed, “come back to me.”

“I did give you my word,” I managed. “Don’t know if I keep it. I don’t know if that’s how this ends.”

“I know,” she said, a little more firmly, her hand still flat on my chest. “But your promises are not what this is about.” And she trailed a finger down my cheek. “You’re not a stupid fellow. You’ll figure it out.”

“I love you, Josephine.” It said itself. Everyone heard me. Had I thought to first say that with Krem in the middle distance joking about how badly he’d get it for throwing a bucket of water?

“Josie,” she said, with the slightest air of triumph. “I’m relatively certain we can bear the familiarity. Go,” she said, and her smile didn’t quite stop my heart, “my lord.” And somehow she’d picked up my pack and it was in my hands. “And I shall see you in Skyhold.”

It wasn’t until that night that I realised that she’d slipped a folded piece of paper inside my tunic. I read it in moonlight with the unromantic excuse of a call of nature. Didn’t smile. Didn’t do anything . Dropped it in the trench and shat on it. Bet that part never goes in the Chant.

*

There was only one road from Orlais to Ferelden that didn’t involve a three-hundred-mile detour up and around the Frostbacks. Only one route you could take soldiers or wagons quickly and in number, and it was our high mountain pass, it was Skyhold. So riding north with all the speed the mages could lend us, we thought to find the castle either under siege or more likely with a large army-shaped hole through it – but we didn’t. It was fine. It was unmolested. Those commanding walls were completely unmarrred. No giant misshapen bastards seen, no legions of red-eyed slavering psychopaths, no ser: quiet, really, it had been.

Well, now we mentioned it, there had been a drake on the northern horizon. Couple of nights ago. Even odds we’d be too late. But, you know, the world hadn’t ended yet, so down the hill to Haven it was.

And it wasn’t that the arrogant bastard hadn’t bothered to bring an army. He’d left one there, you see, in the ruins of the village at the foot of the mountain. The remains of the army he’d brought, the ones Vivienne had brought down the mountain on, and the vermin that had come to claim their share as it was uncovered by spring’s thaw. What was it we always said, about rifts and corpses? About rifts and animals? So all Corypheus had needed to do was leave us a nice little present of a couple of dozen rifts, and it was as good as if we were facing that army in life. Counting wasn’t my strong suit, but those muck-drenched broken rotting bodies in their rusted armour – there could have been a good couple of thousand, and that was before counting the hideous misshapen things that once were rats and ravens.

And against that we bore three swords, three mages’ staves and a bow: but at least we were on home ground. The walking dead weren’t exactly the type to know the terrain and take advantage. Meanwhile, I’d run every path up and down that hill well enough to know them by heart, and Cassandra could navigate this holy place with her eyes closed, and she and any one of our mages could tell the enemy’s numbers and disposition even through the driving rain.

Because, yes, it was raining again. Clouds were gathering, and their pattern was so familiar to me that it took Morrigan to point out that that great spiral was unnatural. The storm would only get worse, said she, and Solas’ teeth showed as he said we should be thankful for small mercies.

But none of the mages would spare the power to keep the rain off us, even as Dorian spun himself armour of sparkling light and Solas cloaked himself in crawling shadow, and the rain seemed to pass through Morrigan as if she was not there. Blackwall caught my expression and touched his knuckle to the brim of his helmet, half in salute, half as if to say that at least we were wearing hats. And Jenny quoted the Chant, because of course she did.

(To she who trusts in the Maker, fire is her water.)

We moved out. Cassandra in the lead, Blackwall on her right hand, me on her left. Jenny putting arrows in anything that looked too much to handle; Dorian measuring his strength out expertly, making sure they didn’t get up again when we put them down, and the other two mages keeping themselves in wary reserve, watching the weeping sky for dark wings.

(As the moth sees light and goes towards the flame,
She should see Fire and go towards Light.)

The water rattled off our armour and turned the steps into miniature cascades; a grudging couple of words from Morrigan and our footing was firm and steady even on rain-slick stone. The blade was light in my hands. The enemy were relentless but they weren’t anything worse than I’d met before; Krem’s patient lessons had stuck. And Cassandra and Blackwall fought like two halves of the same person, because here in battle when nothing else mattered they could be together.

(Those who oppose thee shall know the wrath of Heaven.)

Their numbers didn’t matter. Forward we went. Another rift, and we pushed forward: Dorian ventured some real power, igniting our blades with a terrible light that the demons seemed actually to fear, and before it faded I was stood beneath it. Reach, grab, pain, twist, pull, and this lot of corpses dropped motionless as the demons that rode them were suddenly hauled back into the Fade. By now it was as natural as swinging a sword. It hardly even registered that this was the same place as the first time I’d ever done this. Mud was falling from my armour in frozen flakes. Forward was uphill. Suited me.

(Field and forest shall burn.)

They blocked the great stair, three walking corpses on every step, and Cassandra and Blackwall gritted their teeth. The spell that makes someone tireless, it’s bad for their health: it takes years off their life, it’s as big and obvious as a storm of fireballs to any mages watching, and a simple disjunction will knock the target instantly senseless. You don’t use it without good reason, and even though this counted, Dorian decided there was an easier option.

(The seas shall rise and devour them.)

The mage stepped forward, spun his staff, held it there in the air before him, and the howling storm before us was bent to his hand, each raindrop freezing as it struck until the stair was blocked not by ravening monsters but by icy statues. And every step we took, I realised, Dorian was changing the words of the spell’s breathless litany, brow furrowed and eyes flickering back and forth in concentration, cutting a space out in which we could walk unmolested even as he leaned grey-faced on my arm. And without pause we took advantage, and Morrigan’s spell kept our tread safe and sure; our footsteps were dry for the instant before the downpour reclaimed them.

(The wind shall tear their nations from the face of the earth.)

When it happened, it was too fast even for me to duck. A shadow, half-seen above us in the unnatural storm. The crack of a pair of great wings. A sensation of terrible claws descending, almost too quickly even to catch a glimpse. And Solas had a hand raised with the blurring speed of his kind and the stooping dragon rebounded from us as if it had struck solid stone: and he and Morrigan didn’t even trade a glance. One moment she was beside us; the next there was a gust of heat like the opening of an oven door, a sensation of glorious plumage of every colour and none, and there was a second shape rising into the storm like an arrow, and the fake dragon screamed.

(Lightning shall strike down upon their insolence.)

We couldn’t see the duel too clearly as we climbed. By this point I was half-carrying Dorian, but his blizzard was still doing its job and it still wasn’t freezing us. The thing that Morrigan had become was smaller than the dragon’s stolen shape, and fast as heat-haze across the plain, and she was no less crafty than her enemy in the air: abruptly it changed its tack, dropping all pretense that it had ever been a dragon, spinning from shape to shape to find a thing that she could not harm, taking shapes out of nightmare and myth and things never imagined outside the depths of the Fade.

But if it thought to overcome the witch in a contest of imagination, it was sorely mistaken. It bit her, to find that it had bitten razors; it burned her, to find that she was fire itself. It shrank, to find she hunted it; it grew enormous and she blasted it contemptuously with a Circle spell for banishing bad dreams. It grabbed her and she was not solid: it tried to pull away and it was she who had hold of it.

And it changed tactics again: if it couldn’t kill her, perhaps it could split her off from us at least. It folded its wings, suddenly stopped trying to fly, and it simply fell; and she fell with it, and we lost sight of the pair of them.

(And they shall cry out to their false gods for salvation and hear only silence.)

We were thirty yards from the summit when Dorian finally tripped over his tonguetwisting spell. His legs faltered along with his voice and he and I nearly went over backwards; the air filled immediately with the high sharp sounds of splintering ice, as the frozen corpses we’d been picking our way around started immediately to tear themselves free of his failing grip. Cassandra yelled to run and there was nothing for it but to do just that; I dragged Dorian a couple of heavy steps upward before Blackwall came up under Dorian’s other arm and we bulled him up the slope before the demons could get their act in gear. Cassandra before us clearing our path, barging the things out of the way while they were still partially trapped in ice; Jenny behind us trying to slow them down, hoping that demons needed hamstrings too.

We hit the top of the stairs and Blackwall basically dumped Dorian on me and spun to join Cassandra and Jenny. They knew their business – get me and the mages to the top, keep us as unmolested as they could. If we could solve this, they lived: as Varric would say, happy thoughts, Max. Suppose it wasn’t that surprising that the three people I could see weighed more on my shoulders than all the people I couldn’t.

The place was just as my mind’s eye recalled. Ruined walls by turns smashed and melted, cracked ground baked to pottery and glass and drenched by this overwhelming unnatural rain. The sensation of walking on thousands of graves. I took the lead now. Dorian leaned on his staff like an old man. And the sensation was growing that Solas’ body was nothing but a simple puppet moved by some great dark entity that masqueraded as his shadow.

The centre, the great shallow bowl that once had been filled with snow, the rain was turning into an ankle-deep lake. Morrigan’s spell on our boots was fading; the water wouldn’t come within a yard of Dorian, Solas barely seemed to notice it, and apparently I had to lump it and wade. But that was the last of my concerns right now.

(Maker, my enemies are abundant.)

Around the tall, dark, lopsided figure in the centre of the basin, the water bubbled and steamed. Strange and fascinating patterns came and went from moment to moment, curling steaming lines like red-hot wires lashing back and forth in the water, almost forming familiar shapes, almost making words I nearly recognised. A finger of twisting cloud reached down from the storm above him, the Maker’s world itself complaining at his magic. The orb of thorns around his neck was dripping like a heart freshly carved from a sacrifice. And as he turned to face the three of us there was the same feeling I’d had the last time I was here. That the world was a picture painted on thin cloth, that if I reached out my hand it’d tear right across.

(Many are those who rise up against me.)

And just like before, when I’d met the spirit of faith, everything threatened to come apart into different leaves and it wasn’t clear what was happening and what was imagination. I levelled my sword and didn’t and stepped forward and hid behind Solas and spoke fearlessly and couldn’t marshal my disobedient mouth into opening. Dorian downed a flask of lyrium he was carrying and he struck without warning and he cautiously erected defensive wardings and he turned abruptly on his heel and went to join our rearguard. And Solas –

uh.

The rest of the world was darkness and every part of it was something that Solas might have done. Each one was just a spell, just a bit of magic I wouldn’t be surprised to see from any mage. Each one on its own wasn’t over imaginative. But it was like he didn’t know what Corypheus would do, so he tried doing everything at once to see what would work.

(But my faith sustains me.)

Corypheus raised a hairless eyebrow and showed misshapen teeth, and stretched forth a finger and all of the possibilities flaked away save one. He’d been given a choice, I realised: Solas had wordlessly given him the choice of how this would start. And he’d chosen to parley.

(I shall not fear the legion should they set themselves against me.)

“Welcome, friends,” he said, without the slightest trace of warmth. “Do come in; take a pew, if there’s one left. How are you today? Have you come far?”

“Fine, thanks. And not awfully far,” I said, not moving, not blinking too much. The water would slow down any attempt I made to rush him and the footing on the smooth ground wasn’t great. “How’s the blasphemous magic?”

“Oh, fine, fine.” A smirk. “I did notice power walking here with you. Not yours, though, I feel. Do tell me that is because you have hidden your light in hope to take me by surprise, rather than because you refused to take it up? Do tell me this encounter will be more interesting than our last?”

The Maker is my strength.” Still a large part of me that didn’t believe it was me saying these words. Felt unreal, and not just because of the magic. “Blessed are those who, who stand before the corrupt and the wicked and do not falter. Blessed are the righteous, the lights in the shadow.

In their blood the Maker’s will is written,” said Dorian drily. “Give it up, old man. Literally a knife to your throat here.” (And mine, Dorian. Way to make a body feel useful.)

“Is there?” The monster cocked his head. “Well, of course you teach your people not to value the one thing of value they actually have. What do you offer me in exchange, Dorian? What do I gain, for the loss of this little working of mine? What is your offer?”

“Continued existence,” he said. (Solas. Solas, as far as I could tell, had vanished.) “The traditional bargain of a magister’s duel I offer you. Bow to us and be bound, and you’ll endure and may perform such work as you’re able. It is always preferable to live than not to.”

“Oh, how generous.” The words dripped scorn. “To live for another heartbeat, another instant. You know, of course, what he has done to me. That while your little slave there breathes, I do, and no longer. You truly believe I’ll come meekly, and settle for t some paltry two-score years as your pet?”

“Rather than die here and now?” Dorian smiled thinly. “Of course you will. Better any scrap of existence, no matter how poor, that’s the point.”

“Do you know what a false dichotomy is, Dorian Pavus?” The ancient creature looked away from us, up at the sky, and I saw Dorian’s quick abortive defensive gesture as if he expected an attack from any movement. “It isn’t a question of live or don’t.” A smile, he had, or I think it was supposed to be. “What’s the phrase from your Chant? There was no word for earth or heaven, for sea or sky? Dear boy, I only have a knife to my throat as long as that phrase has any sense to it.”

“…Bring it all down,” said Dorian, hollowly. “You truly mean to rend the Veil entirely.”

“Do try to keep up,” he snapped, but Dorian shook his head.

“First rule of vevilosarics, ser. There is a line between the conventionally impossible and the completely nonsensical. You are sitting on the branch you intend to saw off. Do you truly have any expectation that having broken the line between dream and not, that you yourself will remain unbroken?”

“Unbroken?” Corypheus snorted. “Not at all. But you said it yourself, didn’t you? Ever it is preferable to continue than not to.”

And Dorian’s eyes widened, and in the next instant killing golden fire had gathered to his hand: and that fire wasn’t for Corypheus.

It was for me.

But the blow didn’t land. That one strike, that one instant, and Corypheus had crossed the space between us, the patterns under his feet shifting to make him their centre wherever he went: and he’d caught the lance of Dorian’s spell seemingly casually in one hand. “I do hope,” he said to me over his shoulder, “that the two of you have talked this over. Expecting this, were you, young man?”

So, you know. I hit him with my sword.

I’d had it balanced casually over my right shoulder. Put my left hand on the pommel for leverage and unwound in a horizontal cut at elbow height. Just like cutting at a pell. He wasn’t trying to dodge. The blade whistled. I put my whole body into the blow and my blade was sharp as a chisel and I caught him right on the elbow. The sword was still moving when it grated on his spine; I took my left hand off the pommel, put it on his back and pushed with the tainted hand, and –

He reached up with his other hand and tore a hole in the sky.

But no. That hadn’t happened at all. He’d done that before we even started to talk to one another and suddenly demons were everywhere –

no, wait. I started talking, some flavour of bollocks not unlike what Dorian (would have) opened with, and Dorian stabbed me, physically stabbed me in the back with a stiletto, and –

Or was it that we’d started talking like civilised people and right in the middle of a sentence Dorian had said a word that sounded like a mountain falling and the ancient horror had simply come apart like rotten cloth in a high wind –

The real duel was on, and immediately it was clear that Dorian and I were out of our depth. Standing on the sidelines of a fight like this, back in the old elvish ruin, I’d thought the difference between Dorian and Solas had been simple power. But standing here in the middle of it? No. No, the difference was knowledge, was experience.

This was an intellectual challenge. A thousand things could happen, a hundred thousand. Every choice had consequences, every decision spawned a hundred more. Every spell has a dozen counterspells, and every one of those has a dozen more, and so on, and so on forever. The reason Corypheus’ magic always seemed to work is that he always picked a future in which his opponent had guessed wrong. It was how the Venatori had got their people across the sea and to Redcliffe exactly on time. It was how they always had seemed to be where we weren’t.

And then here where everything was so nearly broken, it wasn’t the case that one reality was real and one was not. Any of them could be happening. In a very real sense, all of them were. And Dorian and I were pieces in this game simply by virtue of lack of experience, while Solas and Corypheus were players. How could we even fight something like that? Did Solas just expect us to be the best game-pieces that we could?

Corypheus’ hand had gone to the orb of thorns. That happened everywhere. That was his handle on all the different possibilities. It sat on the world like a stone on a rubber sheet and held all the futures together, and he turned it this way and that as he considered the path of least resistance, and every movement he made with it felt like sandpaper and salted razors over the palm of my left hand.

And it came to me that if Corypheus was the centre, Solas was the horizon. They’d defined everything worthwhile around here as being part of their struggle, and then Corypheus had asked for Solas’ next move and Solas had made every single conceivable move at the same time, and he’d laughed. And because I was linked to that bloody orb I could see it all, see what the two of them saw.

No wonder they were insane. I closed my eyes, screwed them shut. Didn’t help. I could still see it all laid out. There was a moment, few minutes’ time, where Morrigan would return from having torn the great fear-demon to shreds, where Solas could finally reveal his true understanding of the orb and they’d crush their foe like hammer and anvil: but there were a thousand ways Corypheus could triumph before then, a thousand ways he could remove the concept of victory from the dictionary before we could win.

And Solas spun ever more webs and loops of decisions and improbabilities, dancing ever on before Corypheus’ slow and creeping advance of counterspells and solutions. Now at last Solas began inserting himself into these futures, appearing from nowhere, taking a dozen different shapes, drawing on magics I was pretty sure we didn’t even have names for. The terrible knowledge that Solas only had this chance because my death meant Corypheus’ destruction. The sick feeling of knowing that it was Solas’ blade arrowing for my heart and Corypheus turning every blow. The slowly mounting fear that I could see Solas pushing harder and harder but I couldn’t see him winning.

But in magic, knowledge is literally power. And Morrigan had sent Josie a dream while she was distracting Solas with that little show of strength. And Josie had slipped a tiny scrap of parchment inside my tunic when she’d kissed me. And this wasn’t part of Corypheus’ plan or Solas’s. All it had said was, Morrigan says the orb of thorns is itself a rift.

And in every potential world what I did was the same, as the two players thought of me only as a playing piece. In every world I reached out my hand. Some of them I was burned and bleeding and ravaged, some of them I stood alone on a blasted plain as Corypheus laughed at a broken sky, some of them I was meant to be swinging a sword or putting a steel toecap somewhere unsporting or turning a clever phrase – it didn’t matter. I stopped what I was doing and in every single one I reached out my hand. Pushed it towards Corypheus like through treacle. Grabbed the orb, and an unearthly frost instantly covered my arm to the elbow. Twisted it out of his hand. Pulled it back towards me, and the chain around his neck broke, and for an instant I held it all in the palm of my hand and thought was erased and I could see everything.

And by complete reflex – just as I’d done every time I closed every rift I’d ever met – I opened my hand. And the orb dropped, discarded, unthinkingly thrown away.

The orb struck the surface of the water and it dissolved like a drop of ink.

My ears rang with tangled echoes. Corypheus shouting wordlessly and somehow in that moment powerless to do anything. Solas snarling for me to stop, to think, that I didn’t know what I was doing, a dozen other arguments overlaid one on top of the other. But none of that had actually happened.

What had happened, what had really happened, what everyone would remember at the end of the day was really quite simple. Dorian and Solas and Corypheus had duelled, and half-ignored I’d walked straight up to the ancient horror, pulled the orb out of his hand and smashed it.

And Solas had seen the thing leave my hand, and he’d let out an inarticulate shout and sped suddenly after it, artifice and power cast to the wind, a helter-skelter run ending in a headlong dive that finished a good seven feet too short, and the orb had smashed on the ground and Corypheus had folded up and collapsed like a dead body. And Solas tumbled to a soaking heap in the water and the clouds overhead were suddenly nothing but clouds.

And I didn’t have a brand on my palm any more.

*

The rifts had closed. The walking dead had fallen where they stood. I doubt anyone in the world cared the excuse Cassandra and Blackwall had for the fact they were leaning on one another and holding tight. Jenny, ashen and limping, was gleaning back her arrows and cursing all humans for accepting victory too quick. And I couldn’t see Morrigan at all.

Solas’ shoulders were shaking, his face only about an inch out of the water, and I couldn’t tell if he was crying or laughing or panting or what, as the pale, exhausted Dorian backed off raising his hands. He wasn’t going near that.

I took a halting step in the elf’s direction. Guess it was my responsibility. Guess I owed him that much. He heard the splash of my footstep and looked up and what was etched into the lines of that ancient face was a bitterness deeper and older than nations: but he was laughing. Laughing at himself, at Corypheus, at me, at the sky that showed not the tiniest scar of what had happened, at the beating rain, and it was the utter opposite of mirth. He pushed himself up off the ground, and his simple robe was plastered to his thin frame with muddy water.

“Well, Herald,” he said, and his smile was ghastly. “I suppose they do say that the time of my kind is over.” He gestured vaguely at the spot where the orb had fallen, at the motionless body of Corypheus. “D’you deem this sufficiently ‘over’ for your purposes? Shall you finish the task, and sink that sword of yours into my heart as well?” He shook his head, looking down at the place where the orb had disappeared. “I suppose there’s no point asking you how I failed, and where? How it was that I did not demonstrate sufficiently that your cause was my cause?”

I shook my head. “The Inquisition’s cause was your cause. That was never in doubt.” I cleared my throat. “Fen’Harel.”

He closed his eyes, then, a long moment. “Truly?” Pinched the bridge of his nose. “The slanders of a generation of elves who lived and died before first your ancestors’ grandfathers’ myths were told, still enough to turn friends against me after a millennium and change? Was that all that it was?”

“I’m pretty sure that if I accuse you of being a liar I’ll be wrong,” I said. “Doubtless you could say that in today’s world you are nobody much, simply a practiced magician with some very old knowledge. Doubtless you truly aren’t Dalish, if for no other reason than that there were no Dalish when you were born. Doubtless someone somewhere even named you Solas once. But truth and honesty aren’t the same thing, are they?”

“Oh, what was I to say?” Disgust in his voice, a teacher met with a trivial and stupid question. “Hello, there, Lady Cassandra, I’m the Dread Wolf: you know, the one the elves refuse to worship? Anyhow, I live in this world too, so what say we forget the part where you’re against everything I’m for and the feeling is mutual, and let’s work on patching this hole in the sky?” He opened his eyes, and his pupils reflected the light. “Don’t worry, my lady, upon my storied honour we’ll part as friends when this is done.”

“How about, I don’t know.” I met his gaze levelly. Felt like staring down an animal. “Maybe that you knew what was being done, and how, and why? Maybe that you knew what was up there? Maybe that the orb was yours?”

“Indeed?” He snorted. “I could even have pretended that it had been stolen.” My eyebrows flew up at that one, and he gave a crooked smile. “Yes, Herald. I allowed the Venatori to find the Orb; I allowed them to give it to Corypheus. While all of this-” he flicked his eyes up at where the hole in the sky had been – “was a miscalculation…”

“You can say that again.”

“You don’t understand.” He uncoiled himself, got to his feet. His skin and his clothes were shedding the water like oilcloth. “D’you remember when I swore and tore up all my notes, that first day when I fixed the brand onto your palm so it couldn’t devour your soul? It was the realisation that I’d overestimated the Venatori. I hadn’t expected them to balls it up quite so spectacularly; I’d been working on the assumption that I was the one who’d failed.”

I frowned. “But Corypheus. Was he not the real danger?”

“That fossil? A pattern of a mind, a few disintegrating memories wrapped around an ancient frame too decrepit to bear it? No match for me, not when he’d so obligingly put his head in my jaws.” He rolled back his shoulders. “I’d have brought his little cult to justice, of course – waste not, want not, no point antagonising one of the world’s great powers. But that matters little, now.” He curled his lip. “Thanks to you, my friend, my worries this evening look more like ‘where to find my next meal’ than ‘how to safely contain Orlais’.”

“All because Corypheus couldn’t keep hold of your Orb.” I shook my head. “So, uh. If you don’t mind me asking…?”

“Is he dead? Are you about to be dragged screaming into oblivion?” Solas raised an eyebrow. “What part of ‘immortal’ is it that you people lack the ability to grasp? No, he’s still in there.” A nod to the twisted corpse. It hardly looked like it had ever been alive. “If I were you, I’d build an elaborate tomb, full of traps and deathless guardians, beneath your nigh-unassailable castle. Get dwarves in to build you a proper sarcophagus: their locks last at least the century you’d need. Seal the door with lyrium and get the new Divine to bless it when they elect one.” His teeth flashed. “Meanwhile, dump Corypheus’ body in your midden and be done with the damned thing. Yes, he’ll live while you do; you needn’t care about hastening that end. He can’t be summoned while he has a body; he can’t be revived unless he’s retrieved.”

“I… see.” Deep breath. “So. What, uh. What now?”

“For my part?” Solas shrugged. “I had Divine Justinia killed by Tevinter catspaws in a bid to regain glories lost; my failure, however much that was your fault, endangered the entire world in ways you simply aren’t qualified to comprehend. I’ve stabilised the situation, and as a side-effect all of my catspaws shall very soon be dead.” He straightened, a glint in his eye. “If honour demands I die for that? If your story demands a villain? I’ll invite you to recall the definition of the word immortal.”

“What are you suggesting? A duel of honour? I win and you go away, come back in another age when the world isn’t full of obstreperous buggers with insufficient respect?”

He snorted. “Does this look like a fairy-tale to you, Maxwell?”

“A serving-man come from rags to riches, ends a titanic battle between the last god of the elves and the creator of the darkspawn, by putting an end to a power man wasn’t meant to have.” I shrugged. “You tell me.”

There was no trace of humour in the smile. “So, what? Shall we set one another riddles, after the fashion of my homeland, or cross steel after the fashion of yours perhaps? I win, and your people take my orders for your lifetime?”

“Fuck that.” I spread my hands. “Solas, I owe you. All else aside, I owe you. You have saved my life. You may never have been honest with me, but you have looked after me. You have taught me. You led us to Skyhold. You offered to help me run away, to stop being the Herald -”

“Because your dying free in obscure poverty would have served my purposes as well as anything else -”

“Whatever. Whatever your motives.” I put my sword away, slamming it into its sheath with a decided finality. “You say this is all your fault, Solas?” I shook my head. “You know best. But simply it’s this.” A nod to the mummified Corypheus. “He’s brought down. The sky is closed. The orb is gone, and the rifts are closing. The tale, if tale it is? It’s over. And I, for one, am looking forward to riding home in glory to the happy ending I don’t deserve. We never see one another again.”

He folded his arms. “So you’d call us well quit for that? A life’s debt, against your forbearance?”

“They’re always saying that the holy warriors hold their lives cheap,” I quipped. “We’ve been friends, Solas, or as close as. One day you might need something from me, and whether I owe you it or not will not be on my mind as I see if I can do it. One day I might be desperate and call upon a dread wolf that I knew once, and the balance of our mutual accounting will not be on your mind as you decide to listen or not.” I looked him in the eye, then I looked down at his feet as an elf would. “Can we leave it at that?”

And for answer, a cloud passed before the sun, and quick paws splashed through the water, and that was the last time that ever I saw him.

*

So I did just as I said. I rode home. The manservant turned master rode to the castle of the Maker’s Inquisition and from life into history, or that’s how it sometimes feels.

Yes, I ‘got the girl’, if you must – more to the point, she got me. The only man who’d ever do my Josie as a husband was the one she’d made out of whole cloth: if I hadn’t existed, she’d have had to invent me. The men who laughed behind their hands at someone finally being dumb enough to marry the Montilyet debts, were abruptly silenced when they realised just how lucrative it was to trade on the shortest route from the dwarvish capital to the west; it was amazing how much of the resultant politics were taken on by my good lady and silently disappeared in a haze of politeness, numbers and perfectly legal backroom deals.

Our life has been all the sweeter that we know very well that we made it ourselves. “Let the storytellers keep their tales of romance,” as Josie had wont to say: “give me an asset over an ornament any day.” Though it can’t have hurt that a man who can’t believe his luck makes for a husband who’d put his eye out rather than let it stray.

The Inquisition, formed to solve the crisis of the War of Apostasy, stayed around for the rebuilding. The mages refused to go back in their cages and the templars were broken: the Chantry made the mess my problem, and it’ll be a life’s work to solve. Love to say I had a solution. But I guess I don’t have a war, and I guess that’s more than the last lot could say. The whole bloody lot of ’em are flying my flag till we can figure out a way to stop them trying to murder one another the moment our putative back’s turned, and I put Vivienne on working out how that could happen.

And yes, there’s a Canticle of the Herald, people writing down anything that I said if they feel it was particularly good: and once the hideous embarrassment passed, I gave up keeping count of how much of the Canticle is made up of things my wife thinks would be expedient for people to learn by heart. Would the Maker have put me in her hands if that wan’t what He intended?

Dorian, he went back to Tevinter. He’d been Gereon Alexius’ apprentice once, and an apprentice is nearly as good as a child by their lights: everyone who could have owned his bond was dead, and he stood to inherit quite an amount, at least to hear his opinion of the law. I suppose we’ll see.

Blackwall and Cullen stayed on as the first two knights of the Inquisition proper. I offered Krem his spurs as captain of my guard, but he said he’d a prior loyalty and anyway his parents were married: I asked Iron Bull, but he just laughed and called me a cheapskate.

Varric, I opened my mouth to offer a position in the Inquisition, and Josie smoothly took over. Turns out that the Inquisition’s gratitude stretches to a bag of gold and fulsome thanks; meanwhile our personal gratitude appears to involve everyone concerned making a large amount of money in some complicated fashion. Who am I to complain?

Cassandra left. Being in the same castle as Blackwall was killing her, and the Chantry was choosing a new Divine and wanted her say. Last I heard they’d been arguing for five years; someone even mentioned Cassandra’s name, they say, and I like to think she considered it even as she shot them down. Nobody would ever be sensible enough to elect a high priestess who cared more for the Maker’s people than the Chant they sang.

Leliana – Nightingale – well, officially she accepted a minor title, stayed on as maid of honour to my wife. To be perfectly honest, I let them get on with the spy business and trust them to get me involved when it needs it. Someone tried to do away with them both, once – I found out the next day, when she gave me a stack of outraged and condemnatory letters to sign. The only piece of any of the assassins anyone ever found was the head that they sent with the letter to their employer.

Red Jenny made me swear two things before she went on her way: that she’d not be forgotten in the Canticle, and that I’d keep my clumping toes proper careful like a noble ought. I swore on the Maker’s Bride and on the Dread Wolf, and she went very still and said she hoped I meant that. I did. The terror of the Orlesian nobility went back to her terrorism, and occasionally we’d get polite little tipoffs from anonymous elves asking for convenient witnesses at particular places and times, and it was always nice to see whose plans we’d completely unweave by turning up and being honest and observant.

And one summer evening as my wife and I took wine on the balcony of Skyhold, great glorious wings caught the light just for an instant as their owner played with the wind in the lee of a distant peak. And whatever she was doing, I wished the Morrigan well, and prayed we’d never need to know what it was.

And my daughter shall be three years old in a month’s time. And her name is Justinia.

fin.