Saturday, 14 October 2017

Chapter Twenty: Pride and Shame, A Dragon Age fanfic

Chapter Twenty

Reflection

Templars grew up with fear. Fear of the Maker, fear of their commanding officer and above all, fear of mages. Alistair had often thought that this fear was indoctrinated into them. Fear made men do things they might not otherwise. Fear of the Maker made them stop questioning Chantry dogma. Fear of their commanding officers made them obey orders without question. The fear of mages was something more insidious though. It made a Templar not just afraid, but angry, angry that such creatures existed, angry that a puny human or elf in colourful robes was an object to be feared, and when men (or women – there was typically one female Templar recruit for every three males) were angry, they could be brought to do things they would not, otherwise. So Alistair had seen his former comrades cut down those he thought were innocents, mistreat men and women older than their parents because they had the curse of magic and guzzle down quantities of lyrium surely even they knew were dangerous because they thought it gave them an advantage over their 'enemies'.

When he had been recruited to the Wardens, days before he was to take his vows, he had found himself questioning some of those fears. The Grey Wardens of Ferelden had no mages before Neria joined, but in his time with Duncan, they had been visited by a two Orlesian mages for training in how to combat darkspawn Emissaries. They were funny, hard-drinking, gruff men, who made a few jokes on his Templar origins and then proceeded to engage in the fighting exercises as they did with all the others. Bereft of the fear of Templar control, the Orlesians had nonetheless been surprisingly normal. And Alistair, never the most devout of acolytes, and with a healthy scepticism for some of the things his commanding officer, Ser Patrec, used to say, had begun to lose his fear of mages as well. After all, they were human too, and until and unless they gave in to blood magic, they were no different from any other warrior, enemy or ally.

Blood magic, though. That, he knew he was right to fear. Mages who used the power of their own blood to augment their magical core did not necessarily become more powerful than those who did not resort to such means, but that was because it was usually only weak mages who resorted to it. Weak or strong, once blood magic was in the picture, demonic possession usually followed. All magic relied on the mage's ability to access and control the Fade. It was the use of blood – your own or another's – to fuel spells, however that led to disruptions in the Fade on a scale that let demons enter the mage's mind. The Fade demons whispered to the blood mage, tempting them with visions of power and glory, until the mage went mad or succumbed. And those who did succumb were the abominations – living mages possessed by demons, their power multiplied. In minutes, such a mage would transform physically, becoming a grotesque creature with nary a vestige of its human host, terrorizing whole villages and sometimes an entire region for years and even decades until a hero emerged who could fight and kill it.

These were no fairytales learned on his mother's knee – not that he had ever had a mother.

These were facts.

So when Alistair watched Neria unleash spells at a speed he had not seen her accomplish before; when he saw her execute cold spells and entropic spells nearly as well as her fire magic, he faltered, not knowing whom he was fighting alongside. Neria had not transformed physically, of course. She was the dark-skinned beauty she always had been, but her eyes shone with a different light now, and she seemed to dance more than run or walk. Whatever had happened in the Fade after Alistair had found himself back in his own, real-world body, it was not in the nature of demonic possession – yet.

She was bent over the dead body of another mage, a lanky fellow with stringy brown hair and rifled through the corpse's possessions. Biscuit sniffed a bloodstain on the tapestry on the wall. Wynne tugged at a locked cupboard. And Alistair watched, wondering if he would someday have to try to kill the woman he had come to admire so much.

"I've found it," she declared, breaking him out of his reverie.

"What?" he asked.

"The Litany of Adralla."

"And what is that supposed to be?"

"A series of chants that ward off forced demonic possession," Wynne spoke up. "It could save a few lives at least. We have been discussing the likely sequence of events that led to this situation. I was there at the meeting of the Mages' Council where Uldred tried to convince the Tower to side with Teyrn Loghain. When I countered him and he realised the majority would side with the Wardens and not with the traitor, the blood mages burst in on us. There was chaos then, spells flying around, and I got away – but I think I saw enough to know that Uldred – isn't Uldred anymore."

Neria led them towards the staircase as they spoke. Alistair nodded, but found himself wondering whether Neria was Neria either.

#

"Are you happy?"

"I think so."

"You think so?"

"Yes, yes I am happy."

"I am not forcing you to say anything, love."

Neria blinked. She was still unused to that word. She sat by the edge of a pool, her feet dipped in the crystal-clear water. Yavanna lay in the water, opposite her, lying on her stomach, a hand on her chin. They were the only creatures now alive in Sloth's domain. Or Yavanna's, rather, she supposed, now that Sloth was gone. Her back hurt where it had been broken. Her flank throbbed where the gash left by her wound was beginning to close. Her cheek hurt less, but she could see her disfigured face in a light reflection in the pool.

"So – what am I now? Your slave? Do you control me?" she asked finally.

The demon's eyes, a deep, dark purple, stared up into hers.

"Do you feel enslaved?"

"Not – conventionally, no. But I cannot leave if I wish, can I?"

Yavanna pulled herself to her hooved feet and sat down next to Neria.

"You were as good as dead," she whispered. "In the Fade, that is. Had I allowed you to return to your world, your injuries would have killed you in seconds. Here, you still had a chance. But it will take a long time for you to be whole again, and in that time you would have wasted away on the other side. But by letting me in – you get to live, don't you see? You get to continue your battles against the darkspawn. To stop the Blight."

"I never told you any of that," said Neria.

"I know, nonetheless," Yavanna responded. "And you know why I do. Don't act the child, Neria. You know that if you did not accept me, you would be going mad right now. Instead you fight better than ever, you think clearer than before."

"Do I? Or have you clouded my mind to make me believe so?"

"No, I know there are those of us who do that, but with you I wouldn't."

"Why am I privileged?"

"Because others want what they cannot get. The Templar seeks a family, the mage seeks acceptance, the commoner wants to be a Lord, the Lord wants to be a King. You – want what you have. To live, to fight, to fuck."

"And what do you want?"

"Me? To experience that with you. You and I will be happy here, Neria, and when you are healed, we will explore each other – and our limits. But in your world your actions will be dictated by your will.”

"So I am to believe you seek nothing of me?"

Yavanna hesitated. With a gentle touch on Neria's mutilated cheek, she turned her face towards herself, and leaned in, kissing the mage's lips lightly.

"I'll want you to keep me entertained, love. Here, when you are whole again, there, whenever you have the opportunity. Not that you normally turn down opportunities for bodily pleasure, do you?"

"No," she had to admit.

"And the day may come when some other demon thinks this realm of ours is easy pickings. Another Sloth, mayhaps, or a Pride demon. When it happens, I will need you to stand by me."

"That I will gladly do."

"That's all I ask."

"No more? No 'Oops, I lied' moment later? No talking to me while I'm having dinner? No making me do things I otherwise wouldn't? No attempt at world domination?"

Yavanna laughed.

"Other demons want to dominate the world, perhaps. Those that do not have enough joy in the Fade. And once I might have felt the same. Not now. And no, I will only talk to you here, in this form. In the other place, I only seek to experience what it is to be a human through you. Call on my powers if you need them – you already know to harness my energy and my spells. You may find other powers. More interesting ones. I would envy a man who gets to have you now."

Neria smiled.

"I wouldn't. I don't know about demons of the Fade, but the men of Thedas can find that my demands far exceed their supply."

They laughed together then, mage and demon, before Neria put up an arm around Yavanna's shoulder and pulled her into another kiss, a longer one this time. But her back gave out again, in a sharp, shooting pain that made her close her eyes and push herself away.

"Rest, my love," said Yavanna. "You know you need to. You have to battle Uldred soon."

She felt her eyes closing. There was no night or day in the Fade, but rest she could have now, safe and protected. At least, Yavanna's tired, broken lover could. The Neria who was whole and healthy had much fighting ahead of her.

"Who controls Uldred?" she whispered, half-asleep.

"Pride. One of the pride demons. And he will try to convert you, too."

"Can I defeat him?"

"Yes, we can," said Yavanna, the faintest hint of admonition in her voice.

"Good," Neria murmured, drifting away. "I'll need a man after. I mean, we will."

#

"Is that…?"

"Looks like him, doesn't it?"

"You know the lad."

They had entered the landing that led to the Harrowing Chamber. It had taken them time to cut through the demons and crazed mages and Templars, but they had made it. Only a door remained between them and facing down Uldred – and whatever possessed him.

But there, kneeling by the stairs, was Cullen, with his blonde hair and little stubble of a moustache and his handsome, if naïve face, hemmed into what looked like a magical cage. His face was twisted, as though with unutterable pain.

She smiled at him. Though she had never bedded Cullen, it had not been for lack of trying. He was a devout Templar, the sort who would never break his vows, but that had only made it all the more of a challenge for her. She had played the coquette to perfection, a shy coquette at that, rather than the more brazen face she put forth to others. It was not until Alistair had mentioned it that she had realised how far the young Templar had fallen for her act.

Neria suddenly felt a pang of something she normally did not feel – regret. She darted forward, wanting to disrupt the cage and take him in her arms, and to say sorry, to apologise for everything she had done to him, the way she had tempted him from his vows and tested his faith.

"This trick again?" his voice, sharp and curt, made her stop where she stood. "I know what you are. It won't work. I will stay strong..."

"Cullen!" she said, her voice a mixture of anguish and regret. "Don't you recognize me?"

"Only too well... how far they must have delved into my thoughts...," if Cullen was speaking to her, she could not tell. He still knelt, he still rocked on his feet, hands clasped, as she had seen the devout kneel before the Maker's icon in the Chantry.

"The boy is exhausted. And this cage... I've never seen anything like it. Rest easy... help is here," said Wynne, as she and Alistair joined Neria. Biscuit was taking a circuit of the landing, sniffing for potential threats.

"Enough visions. If anything in you is human... kill me now and stop this game," Cullen's voice reeked of desperation.

"He's delirious. He's been tortured... and has probably been denied food and water. I can tell. Here, I have a skin of…" Alistair's voice trailed off.

"Don't touch me! Stay away! Sifting through my thoughts... tempting me with the one thing I always wanted but could never have... Using my shame against me... my ill advised infatuation with her... a mage, of all things. I am so tired of these cruel jokes... these tricks... these..."

"Stop it. You're embarrassing me," muttered Neria, blushing.

"As if we didn't know who he was talking about," said Alistair drily.

"Silence... I'll not listen to anything you say. Now begone! Still here? But that's always worked before," said Cullen, now looking up and widening his eyes with bewilderment. "I close my eyes, but you are still here when I open them."

"Makes you wish you hadn't said those things, doesn't it?" she said gently, wanting to reach out and touch him. The cage held firm, though, its energy countering hers.

"I am beyond caring what you think," said Cullen, between clenched teeth, "The Maker knows my sin, and I pray that he will forgive me."

"I'm sorry if I ever led you on. It would never have worked," Neria said, holding out her hand. "Wynne, can we take this cage down?"

"It was the foolish fancy of a naive boy. I know better now," said Cullen, turning his head away.

"Yes, but it will cost us time and energy," said Wynne. "Neither of which I think we have in abundance."

"Why have you returned to the tower? How did you survive?" he asked sharply.

"Is it so surprising that I've returned? This was my home," she answered, sadness in her voice.

"As it was mine. And look what they've done to it. They deserve to die. Uldred most of all."

"I have defeated everything in my way. Now it's Uldred's turn," she stated, her voice flat.

"Good...kill Uldred. Kill them all for what they've done. They caged us like animals... looked for ways to break us. I'm the only one left...They turned some into...monsters. And there was nothing I could do," Cullen's anger was palpable; his fists clenched now, his eyes red.

"Uldred will pay for what he's done, Cullen," she said. "You must stay strong."

"And to think I once thought we were too hard on you," he muttered. Neria shuddered. He spoke as much from hatred now as anger. How much of it was directed at her? She did not know.

"We're not all evil, Cullen," she managed to say.

"Only mages have that much power at their fingertips. Only mages are so susceptible to the infernal whisperings of the demons," Cullen's voice now came forth in an angry rasp.

"This is a discussion for another time!" said Wynne, impatiently looking at the door that led to the Harrowing chamber. "Irving and the other mages who fought Uldred. Where are they?"

"What others? What are you talking about?" asked Cullen, his neck snapping to face the old mage.

"The ones who resisted, Cullen. I'm sure most of them did. I know my comrades," said Neria.

"They are in the Harrowing Chamber. The sounds coming out from there... oh, Maker..."

"We must hurry. They are in grave danger, I am sure of it," said Wynne.

"You can't save them. You don't know what they've become," Cullen said, clasping his hands in prayer again.

Neria smiled, a little wistfully. ‘What have I become, Yavanna?’ she thought.

"And you do?" she asked, kneeling in turn, turning her clear green eyes upon him, her stare intense, questioning.

"They've been surrounded b-by blood mages whose wicked fingers snake into your mind and corrupt your thoughts," Cullen stammered.

"And you would want them killed just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time?" Neria asked. "Maybe you would want me dead too, once it was done?"

"You have to end it, now, before it's too late!" was the shrieking response of the boy who had once been so in love with her. "And you too! Alistair, you know what you have to do!"

"His hatred of mages is so intense," said Alistair, coolly.

"It stems from matters deeper than what he saw here," muttered Neria, getting back to her feet. "I want to save everyone who can possibly be saved."

"Thank you. I knew you would make a rational decision," said Wynne.

"Rational? How is this rational? Do you understand the danger?" Cullen's voice was a scream now.

"Neria, come on. We need to go – we have to fight Uldred and - "

"Cullen," said Neria, holding Wynne's arm. "I do not want the blood of innocents on my hands. Try to understand this, Cullen, please do."

"You understand what you must do. Go, then. Why talk to me?" he answered.

Neria bit her lower lip. Walking up to the force cage, she held out her right hand. As it passed through the magical barrier, she felt a sharp, sudden surge of pain. Gritting her teeth, she allowed the sensation to pass through her, a tingling – no, an opening of the nerve-endings, passing through her, from her skull to her toes. Her staff fell from her hand. Biscuit leaped towards her, just before she pulled her hand away.

"What do you think you were doing, girl?" said Wynne, pulling Neria to face her. "Are you suicidal?"

"No, I needed to know how the cage works. It's entropy, powered by blood magic."

They don't need to know how you know that, she told herself. Or that Yavanna extracted a price in kisses for the knowledge. She smiled a little. It had hurt, but it had been nice to be kissed like that.

"Don't bother about me," said Cullen. "Your duty lies in the Harrowing Chamber. I will be free when you kill the mage whose blood cast this spell. Uldred."

"It works both ways. Wynne, I need you to cast a healing spell on me. Starting…now."

It took them a minute and a half. Neria's focus was as sharp as Alistair's sword, focusing a blast of flame at the base of the cage, increasing the intensity every moment until she knew she was nearly at half of her full powers. Then she let go, releasing all her energy into the flames, blasting apart rock, wood and metal. Wynne was thrown to the ground, and Biscuit hid his face under his paws. Alistair fell back against the rounded wall, but kept his feet on the ground.

When the smoke cleared, Cullen stood before her, cowering. The flames were gone, dismissed the moment the stones had cracked around the cage. Neria helped Wynne to her feet. Alistair, still silent, walked alongside them. The cage remained, but by breaking apart the floor, she had engendered a gap in its magical bars big enough for Cullen to comfortably come through.

"Why?" asked Cullen, whimpering.

"Not for you," she said, not without a touch of disdain, as she stepped over some stony debris.

"Are you all right?" Alistair asked.

"I'm tired, and I need to recover, but we need to kill Uldred now," answered Neria.

"I was asking Wynne," said Alistair, stepping forward.

"I am fine, young man. Let us get this over with."

Neria stepped first into the Harrowing Chamber. It was at the top of the tower, large, high-walled, and in all ways imposing, with its massive lyrium basin in the centre and the runes engraved in the stone. This was the heart of the Tower, its magical base, its centre of power. And today, it stood desecrated. She saw the signs of corruption all around, the hanging entrails, the stench of dead flesh, the monstrous protrusions from the walls and floor. Mages, dead or dying, were lying on the floor or thrown against pillars, hands and feet bound. They seemed to be sleeping with their eyes open, the minds wandering in the Fade. Only mages could be tortured thus, only here, in the Harrowing Chamber, with its mystic runes and lyrium stock, could so many mages be pushed into such a state together.

Neria spotted Irving, blood smearing his hair and beard, but apparently alive. She saw Uldred, bald head, hooked nose, glaring at her in silence.

She grinned, baring her sharp teeth.

"Hello, baldy. Been a while," she said.

The older mage's eyes widened.

"You! The Warden bitch," he said.

"Me! The Warden bitch," agreed Neria. "And you, the blood mage and Loghain lickspittle."

"You revile the power it gives me? Strange, you never seemed too steeped in Chantry dogma. I thought you would make a fine blood mage."

"Blood magic is for the weak and stupid," said Neria, languidly examining her nails. "The sort of person who would waste his life blood on imprisoning a Templar in a magical cage when he should have just killed him off. The sort of person who would invade his victim's deepest thoughts to use the image and memory of someone he loved against him. And for what? A few laughs, I guess. Maker, you Pride demons really have a bad sense of humour."

"Ah yes, it was you, wasn't it? So did you have a splendid reunion with your lover?"

"I had a lot of lovers, Uldred. Cullen wasn't one. But yes, it was nice. Alistair, where's Cullen?"

Alistair kept his eyes on Uldred, but walked backwards a few steps and called out the Templar's name. Cullen limped in on unsteady legs, unarmed but with fists clenched.

"How did he…" and for the first time, the mage who had become an abomination showed fear.

"Biscuits," said Neria.

Uldred had time to wonder what magical biscuits had released Cullen before the weight of the mabari hound brought him to the floor.

His response was quick, a stunning spell left Biscuit paralyzed, but Neria had shot off her own cold spell at him. Slowed down, Uldred nevertheless fired back a fire spell at her, but she had an arcane shield up in time.

"Fool! You cannot defeat me," he said, and with arms raised, began to chant a spell. Neria attacked him with a Cone of Cold, but the older mage had a deflecting shield up.

Wynne attacked too, but with the same result. Even Alistair could not bring a Holy Smite to bear on Uldred as he continued to chant.

"What's he doing?" asked Neria.

"Turning them! That's what he does. He's turned them all, I warned you," said Cullen.

"Oh yes, should've known. Baldy! I killed a dozen of your blood mage lackeys getting here. You think this is going to hurt me?" she shouted.

Uldred continued to chant.

"Wynne, break his barrier," Neria said, her voice in its battle command mode now, crisp and clear. "And give the Litany to Cullen. He's going to save the mages, whether he wants to or not."

Wynne flung the scroll at Cullen and began to attack Uldred's shield. Neria quietly drank a vial of lyrium potion. Cullen, she realized, was still silent.

"Cullen, chant the Litany, you fool!"

Before her, the effects of Uldred's spell were apparent. One of the catatonic mages began to jerk to life. Neria recognized him as Benard, a reedy man of about forty, who she recalled was unusually well-endowed for his frame.

"What's the use? See how they turn into abominations. See how they let the demons take them. Slay the mage, if you're so concerned," Cullen grunted.

The reality was that Benard was surrounded in the Fade, of course, and Uldred's chants were summoning more and more demons to attack him. If Benard lost the fight in the Fade, his body would be possessed in this world.

"Alistair, try to revive Biscuit," Neria said. Darting over to where the scroll lay, she picked it up and began to read. Andralla had been Orlesian, a bard who had survived and defeated an ambush by a cabal of demons, and had penned down the song she had used to combat them. It was repetitive but powerful, and though Neria's understanding of Orlesian was limited, she could speak the words well enough.

She could see the impact on Benard, the conflict going on in his mind seeming to play out before her. Does this affect you? she wondered, and smiled a little when the answer was Only makes me love you more.

Uldred's face reddened as his spell took longer than he had expected. Wynne was battering him with arcane bolts, and Neria could tell his shield was faltering. Biscuit had recovered from the paralysis spell, and now crouched, ready to pounce.

Benard seemed to be slipping back into a stupor. Neria cast aside the Litany and struck, tearing down Uldred's shield with a focused lightning spell. Wynne dropped back, her magical energy near-exhausted. Uldred broke off his spell and raised his staff, trying to summon a spell of his own, when Biscuit brought him down, teeth biting down on his staff hand. As the blood mage's staff fell from his hand, Alistair brought his sword down, piercing through his robe and stomach. Uldred struggled, trying to shake off the hound, but Alistair raised his sword again and brought it down upon his neck. As the blood gushed to the floor, Neria held her staff tight.

"Back, Biscuit! Back!"

The mabari stepped back reluctantly, with many a longing stare back at the bloody pool forming beside Uldred's body.

"Coming back, you reckon?" said Alistair.

"Pride demon. They always do," replied Neria.

"You would know," agreed Alistair.

"If the demon was truly dead, the mages would revive, Alistair," said Neria.

It took a while. Only the still-unseeing, wide-open eyes of the mages, and Irving, her mentor in particular, prevented Neria from breathing a sigh of relief. But when it did, it was sickening. Uldred skin rent itself, blood pouring from the tears, and then the monster stood, a giant fifteen-foot beast, horned and ugly and yet unlike any ogre they had slain. It was a deep, dark red in colour, teeth bared and claws clenched.

"Alistair, Cullen, smite!" she called.

Only the Warden responded.

The demon was stunned for only a few seconds, though. Not enough for Neria to build up a blizzard or an inferno. Cursing, she hurled a fireball its way. The demon seemed to absorb it into its skin and then bared its teeth again. It pointed at a mage – Rybald, small fellow, small between the legs too – and the process began again, the attempt to make another abomination.

Neria began her chanting, repeating the words of the litany, the Orlesian rolling off her tongue. Alistair and Biscuit led the fight against the demon, while Wynne, visibly tiring, concentrated on healing them. Neria looked upon Cullen, her eyes blazing. If he would chant the words, she could join the fight, and then they stood a chance, but the fool only stood, staring dumbly.

She kept Rybald from being possessed, but neither Alistair nor Biscuit was making any significant impact on the demon. The stalemate continued as the moments passed. Neria could see Biscuit, his body battered but his eyes still gleaming, leaping up and biting at the creature's thighs, and Alistair hacking at its feet, until it finally roared and attacked them. With its attention distracted, she threw the Litany to the floor and joined the fray, directing a flame blast at its horned head.

It roared again, and with a sweep of its massive hands, threw Alistair crashing into the wall. Neria sent a healing spell at her comrade, and then ducked out of the way of a crushing blow directed at her. Biscuit managed to leap onto the creature's shoulder as it bent low to clutch at Neria, and sank his teeth into its neck. Neria threw a vial of lyrium potion at Wynne, hoping the old lady still had the reflexes to catch it.

Biscuit's teeth were deep into Pride's flesh now and as it writhed and screamed, its attention distracted from her, Neria saw her moment. Anchoring her feet firmly to ground, she raised her arms and began to cast.

It wasn't until the fires of the Inferno began to gather in a cloud above them, she realized that Biscuit was still on Pride's shoulder.

"Biscuit, down," she screamed.

The first licks of flame began to rain down upon the demon, scorching it's chest and feet.

"Biscuit," she pleaded.

The demon danced, its feet only hitting scorched stone.

"Wynne, Alistair!" she pleaded, tears running down her face.

Pride was on his knees, boils opening up on his skin, his face on fire, but Biscuit, now motionless, still stuck to him.

It was Alistair who ran, armour and all, teeth gritted, limping, into the flames. It was Alistair who brought Biscuit out through the subsiding fires. It was Alistair into whose arms she threw herself and whose face she kissed.

His armour was burning hot, but the heat never bothered her anyway. His face was covered in soot, but she did not care. He could barely hold her, but she held him instead. He had saved the dog she loved, and as she covered his face with kisses, she wondered if he would ever love anybody, if cynical, wise-cracking Alistair would ever fall in love, if it would be Leliana – it could scarcely be Morrigan, and certainly not Neria herself, but then why was she kissing him like this, lips on lips, like she had never kissed anyone before?

He pushed her away, his failing strength still enough to send her sprawling.

If she was hurt, she did not show it.

Irving stirred first. Then they all did, one by one. Alistair went around the room, cutting their bonds. Wynne hovered around healing one and all. Neria concentrated on Biscuit's injuries. His fur was in bad shape and a part of his ear was torn off. Two of his legs were broken, and she guessed, some ribs too. As the brave war-dog whimpered, his head in her lap, she stroked his neck and cast the healing spell the best she could.

Irving thanked her, but she hardly listened. Wynne spoke to the First Enchanter, telling him to meet Gregoir, and he went. Wynne followed. The other mages thanked her too, but she paid them little heed. When all were gone, and all that was left was the stench, the dead, Alistair and Cullen, she stirred.

"Thank you, Alistair," she said.

"He is one of us," said Alistair curtly. "You enchanted my armour to resist flame yourself. It had to be me. And it had to be done. He's too valuable."

"Thank you all the same," she repeated.

"What do we do with him?" Alistair pointed to Cullen, who sat now, on the floor.

"Come, Cullen," said Neria. "Follow us."

They descended the staircases downwards, floor by floor, retracing the steps they had taken on their journey up. The bodies of demons and mages they had killed still littered the floor. She had half a mind to burn it all, but did not stop to do it. Let the mages handle it when she was gone. Once or twice she nearly gagged as she looked upon her own handiwork – a half-melted corpse that had once been an Elf like herself. Bloody chunks of ice melting slowly on a tapestried carpet.

But they made it down at last. She was tired and light-headed. Irving argued with Gregoir, and then with Wynne; she heard Cullen denounce her and every mage alive; she heard Irving thank her and Alistair and promise the assistance of the Tower in the fight against the Darkspawn.

She smiled vaguely, and held Wynne's arm as they left the Tower. As they rowed across the boat, she told Wynne about Leliana, and how much she owed her, and how much she cared for her.

When they entered The Spoiled Princess, they found Morrigan sitting alone in the tavern, quaffing what looked so much like blood, it could only be wine.

"She's holding on," the woods-witch said, fixing her yellow eyes on Neria. "But unless the old one with you is as good as my mother, I wouldn't bet on her survival."

"You'll be surprised, young lady," was all Wynne said, before Alistair led her upstairs.

Morrigan and Neria sat in silence for what seemed like hours. When she saw the tavern's hourglass indicate three past midnight, she slipped away and dipped into the Lake. A bath was refreshing, and as she cast her spells, warming the water around her naked body, she thought about whether Leliana would live to see the morning. And then, Neria found herself doing something she had not in a long, long time.

She prayed to the Maker.