They were stranded on an island.
In hindsight, Harvey wasn't sure why it surprised him, considering the archipelagos splattered across the green sky. He was led along the path between petrified trees, and when the ledge refused to disappear from view after a few minutes his perspective just shifted, like patterns in the grass become a coiled snake when you know what to look for. He realized the view wouldn't differ much no matter where he ended up.
"A flying boat would've been great," he muttered.
"Nothing, I was just talking to myself."
This place was alien, and yet pretended to be familiar. It troubled him. Like the aforementioned trees--which Harvey called the giant appendages sprouting from the ground purely for familiarity's sake--they were more akin to monstrous mushrooms, their forms too crude to pass for regular plants. He scratched one in passing, the surface crumbling into small chunks beneath his fingernail, more clay than bark. A brief glance up the leathery canopies revealed they were unrefined, like his room. Maybe some beginner sculptor thought they were good enough, or maybe he was wrong entirely, and they were simply a reflection of something he didn't recognize.
The noble quickened his pace to catch up to his new acquaintance. Beneath his feet, small tumbles of seaweed, these quite lifelike, swayed lightly in a breeze Harvey for the life of him couldn't pick up. He had a childish thought the shrubs thought they were underwater--the Tower was, no matter how you look at it, standing in the middle of a lake. And considering the ever-present green glow, the underwater analogy wasn't the most off the mark comparison he could've come up with. Things always became a little distorted and unreal when you dove under the surface with your eyes open. It felt like that.
He would've been ecstatic, under different circumstances, to explore this place.
Harvey missed a step, feeling a sudden brush against the top of his head. He swatted like a maniac, on reflex, turning around at least two times, before the small globe of light came into view. The rogue stopped abruptly and stared--out of every possible pest with a stinger attached, this wasn't even on the list. The entity was floating a few feet above his head, just beyond his reach, as if enjoying his stumbling. Before he could do anything else, it flew down merrily--perhaps encouraged by the lack of frantic waving, performed a few circles inches away from his dumbfounded face, and then darted towards the space between the trees, waiting for him to follow.
"What was that?" Harvey rasped. He'd just been spooked by a glorified lighting bug.
"Pay it no mind. If you don't give them attention, they won't bother you.” The mage halted in his way and was watching the whole ordeal quite passively.
"Oh." The rogue straightened his cloak, scraping for the last bits of his dignity. "A demon, then?" It lingered in the clearing, waiting. Not a huge thing made out of flames or shadows like in the Circle... still, appearances could be deceiving.
"A wisp. Some would call them spirits. These simple ones can be ambiguous, and it's hard to say what they want. They could lead you on a fruitless goose-chase. Or burn your robes.” If the two examples were a part of his personal experience, the mage's expression didn't show.
I see. Harvey looked at the mage, then at the wisp, then at his weapons, sighed, and sheathed the daggers he'd been holding the whole time. If the man wished him harm, pushing the rogue off the edge would have been ridiculously easy on more than one occasion.
"Harvey Cousland.” He introduced himself, hoping it would make up for those few steps in etiquette he let himself skip earlier. He could bear to trust one person.
"My name is Niall.”
"Niall.” The rogue perked up, memory stirring. "You're the mage Owain was talking about!”
There was a moment of pause when the mage considered the familiar name. "I suppose he would mention me. He did us a favor with the Litany, " His eyes unfocused, angling downward. "I'm afraid he'd have been disappointed if he knew our attempt ended like this. But I'm glad he found a way to survive still."
He didn't sound uplifted, Harvey noticed... But maybe not in an uncaring way. More like it didn't seem to break through the tiredness in his voice. As the mage turned around to carry on with their way, the rogue gave him a proper look-over.
Harvey described the man as pale before. Only now he noticed the paleness went beyond the man's complexion, sipping into his robes. As if he spent too much time soaking inside a basin, the hot water bleaching out the brightest colors. It made the rogue drop the attention from his surroundings and eye himself for a change. Do I also look like that? Like I'm not real? But quick inspection revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Hesitantly, Harvey again took out one of his daggers and pricked his forearm. A few droplets of blood made their way through the cut.
Ouch. Well, with that out of the way, there was one more thing bothering him. He caught up to the man, this time walking side by side, as much as narrow paths let him.
"This demon, Sloth Demon as you called it...if our, uh, bodies--" he tried to wrap his head around the concept -- "are still in the tower, why hasn't it killed us yet?” Harvey had the faintest recollection of the creature his guide has mentioned. Grotesque, hungry. Why keep them alive for so long?
"The Fade is the place of the mind,” Niall explained, not taking his eyes off the path. "Time holds less sway here than it does in the real world. I know it couldn't have been more than a few days, maybe hours even, and yet I've been wandering this dreamscape for ages.” This time tiredness rolled off of him in waves. If he just stopped and laid down this very moment, Harvey wouldn't have been surprised. But Niall kept walking. " And it will take some time until it feeds."
The rogue shuddered.
"Come, the place I've told you about isn't far, just beyond the portal.” And he was telling the truth. Not another minute had passed before they made a turn, revealing a shimmering door of purple fog. Niall beckoned in Harvey's direction and then went into it, disappearing. A few seconds later the rogue saw the mage standing on the smaller--in comparison--island, the rock floating twenty or thirty feet away from the edge.
Alright then. He approached the fog, first putting his hand in to see what it would do. No effect... it seemed it was all or nothing. He shook his head - this place was too bizarre. He swallowed hard, stopping himself from closing his eyes, and marched right forward.
A rush of movement came over him, just like before. But it was swifter this time, and before he knew it he was walking out of the twin door, right next to Niall. "I need to... sit down." His stomach was doing flip-flops.
"Help yourself. It can be a bit disorienting at first."
Harvey took the time to force his stomach to settle. In the meantime the mage started puttering around in a manner not unlike a host trying to manage the clutter in front of an unexpected guest. Fumbling with various scrolls and books scattered aimlessly on the ground was the most human thing Harvey has seen the mage do so far. More at ease--and when the world was again completely still--the rogue focused his attention on the place itself.
The space was small, smaller than he anticipated. But it made for a decent hideout, in a sense. Four giant tree-mushrooms sprouted near the edge, obscuring the view from the outside. A comfortable chair stood beneath one of them, accompanied by a few candles burning with a dim light. Cozy. There wasn't much space to move around, even though Niall was creating more by the second. Pieces of alien architecture mashed together with more organic pieces of scenery, the most notable of them being a tall pillar standing more or less at the center of it all. It had three sides, each adorned with a window starting at the height of Harvey's waist. There was nothing particularly impressive about those windows, overlooking the fact that sculpting window frames on a piece of rock didn't give much of a thrilling view.
What Harvey cared more about was the fact that other than him and the mage, there was no other soul in sight.
"I'm sorry, when you mentioned other dreamers, I thought... Never mind." He made a needless assumption. Hope was always the sharpest of tools to faceplant into.
Niall's shoulders slumped visibly, but he continued gathering books and putting them neatly on two piles, sorted by whatever criteria the mage deemed appropriate. "Here? No. I can only offer you a place to talk in peace."
"I didn't mean to..."
"No, your question is valid. I'm afraid I could never get quite in contact with other dreamers, at least not with those who didn't lose their mind. A certain number of blood mages was trapped here, by chance perhaps. I can't imagine the demon would discriminate. They didn't take it too well."
I can imagine. Harvey made himself more comfortable. "You make it sound as if there were a lot of people on this island, and I'm yet to see any. Are they hiding? If my companions are here somewhere, I should find them."
"Not here," Niall shook his head. "We're on the outskirts of the raw Fade, the border of the demon's domain. No particular dreamer influences this place."
The rogue again couldn't quite keep up. "I don't understand. You're implying there's much more to it."
"Not implying, I've been there." The mage pointed a finger towards the sky above. Harvey's eyes followed, unwillingly, knowing what Niall was about to show him. Islands, so many islands.
"So there is a boat."
Harvey shook his head in apology and also gestured upward. "Nothing...I'm just trying to wrap my head around...all of this." Being stuck in an endless loop of fixing your clothing sounded almost appealing compared to the overwhelming endeavor presented in front of him. "I'm unsure where to even start."
"You came here because you wanted answers, didn't you?"
Harvey brushed his hand against his cheek, the coarse stubble a reminder that he needed a shave if he ever got out of here, then made a wide gesture encompassing everything around him. "Let's assume that I have no idea about any of this." Niall gave him a straightforward nod which stung more than Harvey was willing to admit. No sugarcoating it. "How does one escape being trapped in the Fade?"
"By killing the demon that trapped you there." The last books joined the pile with a loud thud.
"So depressingly infeasible."
The rogue waited for Niall to elaborate, but after a few moments it became clear it wasn't going to happen. He scratched his head. "Surely between the two of us we could at least reach my friends, and then we would be five strong, not two," he prodded, the outline of a plan already forming in his head. He'd killed demons before, they weren't invincible, even if this particular one proved tougher than average. "I don't know how useful my own talents will be here, but they're quite capable." Even Amell...if you remembered to keep out of her aim.
A lone finger directed towards the sky somehow managed to compress enough bitterness the rogue fell silent. "It's not the question of killing Sloth, it's a question of getting to it."
He continued, voice hollow. "I promised you answers, and I'll do what I can. But don't ask me to go out there again. I did my part and I failed miserably. I've had...enough." There was a pause where the mage again started to fumble about, even though there wasn't any way of making the place more tidy than it already was. He returned to the books, one of the piles he constructed earlier....and started deconstructing it, setting another pile a few feet to the left of the first one. He spent at least two minutes pacing back and forth, seemingly arguing with himself, words too quiet for Harvey to pick up.
The rogue briefly estimated the time it would take him to get back to the shimmering door, if necessary. Always know your exits. But he understood he'd somehow upset the man, so he gave Niall the time to arrange everything in order again, be it here or in his own head.
He still needed answers, and when it finally seemed the mage forgot he was even there, Harvey delicately cleared his throat, enough for Niall to hear, but hopefully not loud enough to startle the mage. The man didn't look in his direction, but the next few words mumbled under breath were loud and clear. "Boat. Boats." With a short stroke of lucidity, Niall nodded towards the windowed pillar in the center of the island. "If you wish to travel between the islands, you should look for panels like this one."
"Panel?" The rogue shot a questioning look towards the pillar, then again towards his new troubling acquaintance for confirmation. But the man was again paying attention elsewhere.
Small steps. Harvey got to his feet and almost reverently circled the tall structure, not sure what he was even trying to accomplish. It was a piece of the Circle Tower lost amidst the amorphous surroundings... or maybe something much older than that. The stonework wasn't what he'd particularly paid attention to while trying to make his way through the demon infested Circle, so he wasn't the best person to compare. But if it was supposed to work as a gateway, like the portals he encountered so far, he took a wild guess he'd have to go through the window frame. Still, the lack of a purple fog or any other magical shine inside them indicated it was perhaps inactive. Or closed? His hand touched the solid stone behind one, making it clear the only thing he'd acquire by trying to pass through was a concussion. He gave the stone a light tap for a good measure. Nothing. With a sigh, he inspected the frames instead. There were symbols carved into the stone, but every time he tried to focus on one, it escaped his field of vision, and forcing his eyes only resulted in a mild pain behind his temples.
Fine, I give up. "How do you make it work?"
"You can't. You won't. It used to, but it doesn't work anymore." Niall cast the pillar an offended glance. "But believe me, it's for the better."
Harvey took a deep breath and leaned against the pillar, forehead touching the cold surface. "How so?" He started to notice a recurring pattern with Niall's answers, each and every one of them being more or less roundabout version of a 'no'.
"You''ll see that this part of the Fade is welcoming in comparison to the rest. It's not so bad here. You don't have to worry about sleeping or eating, and the demons don't chase you beyond the portals. But you won't accomplish anything from this side. You don't want to go there. Maybe someone on the other island will find a way, but from here...it's impossible."
The rogue was suddenly getting tired of this conversation. Friend, the blood mages aren't the only ones who went bad in the head. "So you won't help me?"
Harvey felt, rather than saw Niall shaking his head. "I told you it wouldn't make any difference."
It was the tone that did it. Next thing he knew Harvey was holding the mage by the robes--not because he felt like the man was lying, it seemed like he believed every word that he spoke. But the young noble wholeheartedly wished to shake some semblance of will back into the mage, snap him out of singing the never-changing tune. But he just held for now. No shaking.
"This panel, it worked before," he said, calmly. "Do you know what you'd have to do to fix it?"
"No, and I don't want to." Niall avoided his gaze. "I'm so tired of trying."
Was he serious?! Harvey tightened his grip on the mage's robes, expecting resistance--if not a stream of fire to melt his face off--but Niall went limp and sunk to his knees. The rogue let go, startled, afraid he unwittingly managed to hurt him after all--that and the man's full weight was too much for his arms to handle. He tried to wrap his head around this person. "So you sit here and wait...for the end?"
"The promise this door brings, it's all a lie," Niall hissed through clenched teeth. "You don't know what it's like out there, inside the demon's maze... endless corridors, holes too small to crawl through, doors like iron slabs, walls of fire. It's impossible. I've tried so many times. Something always blocking my way, mocking my effort, I couldn't move forward." He was babbling now, sentences merging into one illegible mess when he described hurdles too terrible to not be a simple exaggeration or misunderstanding. And yet with every word the man became smaller and more pathetic, colors bleaching out of his being, until he was reduced to a hopeless husk shaking on the ground.
"What can you do in the face of such adversity? Nothing,” he whispered finally, heavy head disappearing in his hands.
Harvey took a step back in... fear. Maybe disgust. But the mage appeared like he could crumble, and Harvey, as angry as he was, didn't wish to be the cause of it. He was wrong, he read the man wrong. He thought the mage felt relief at finding a kindred soul, but that was only some sort of unnatural apathy, a strange sickness, most likely brought on by this place. It's not fair, it should've been me. I should be the one on the floor crying how terrible all of this is. The worst thing was he could imagine joining Niall if he stayed here for much longer. It's going to be me, if I don't get out of here. Despair was crawling down his spine, inviting him to give in.
He shook it off. "Look, alright, I won't make you do anything. You don't have to go anywhere, are you listening?”
The shaking became more subdued.
"I'm going to go now, look for my companions. We were captured together, they can't be too far away," he declared with more confidence than he actually felt, seeing as he was basing that assumption on absolutely nothing. He didn't care. Maybe it was silly, running as deep as a childish defiance against someone who decided something just couldn't be done. But no giving up yet. "Two more questions and I won't bother you. A pillar like this one, a working one, is there another one on this island somewhere?"
An initial shake of the head, pause, then a small shrug.
Eh, good enough. "You mentioned other dreamers. The people I traveled with, there is a chance you saw them... have you seen a tall man, about my age, short hair the color of wheat? His name is Alistair.” Niall shook his head. Harvey then described Amell and Wynne in similar fashion, and got the same reaction, more or less. The mage shrunk even more--if that was possible--at the mention of the senior enchanter. Before he could stop himself, the rogue went on. "Have you seen an older man, gray hair, but still holding up like he was twenty years younger. He was wearing plate armor, with laurel patterns on it…. and …"
Niall shook his head.
Harvey combed fingers through his hair, unable to hide disappointment. Well, it's not like I was expecting any different.
Niall was still on the ground, when he left.
Warm light poured through the crack in the door to give the room a cozy yellow tint, and the echo of a minstrel's song dammed only by the occasional eruption of laughter and familiar voices imposed a happy rhythm onto his fingers. His family and the guests were having fun, and the atmosphere felt quite contagious. As little as Harvey cared for parties, his mother took pride in her preparations, and if it mattered to her, that was a good enough reason for it to matter to him.
A particularly loud gale of laughter followed by a few shouts caused him to cock a curious ear -- it sounded like Fergus had had enough ale at this point, and should probably slow down soon. Harvey smirked slightly at the thought. Oriana would see to it that he did. There was something genuinely scary in how an otherwise delicate woman could be when she put her foot down. Or was it simply Fergus not wanting to deal with a seething wife in the aftermath? The rogue shook his head and turned back to fixing up his shirt. The joys of marriage, I suppose. The short pause was distracting enough for the two ribbons adorning the upper part of the garment to fall away untied, yet again.
"You've got to be kidding me." Harvey cursed halfheartedly, his hand reaching to comb through his hair, before he remembered he shouldn't make a mess of it. How annoying. But there might be a silver lining to this embarrassment - the story of how he got held up by a shirt would earn him a few laughs if nothing else. There was no rush. He wasn't a guest of honor or anything, just showing his face would be enough for the celebration. What he liked the most were the quiet moments of getting ready, a deep breath before plunging into a crowd of people. Prolonging it felt nice.
Over, under, pull it tight,
Make a bow, Pull it through to do it right.
The rhyme danced in his head as well as silky strings at his fingertips, and the cloth twisted and turned, starting to make sense only to present him with another knot or two. The huge silver mirror in front of him proved to be of no help, surprisingly -- watching the reflection's hands move swiftly only confused Harvey even further. Like a game he used to play as a child, he remembered suddenly -- all children played it at one point or another -- the goal of it was to catch your reflection red-handed, spot it doing something it wasn't supposed to do. He never did... Oh, he lied about it for sure, other children liked to boast, and he couldn't have had been worse.
That was the one time Nan got so worked up when she found out, she didn't even bother with the willow rod. In a child's memory, the old bony hand smacking against his sore backside stung even worse than a wooden branch. Strange happenings and tales of shadows in the mirror were the mages' curse, and a noble boy should know better than to spout such nonsense, Andraste bless us all, there is no magic in this family and there never will be.
Over, under, pull it tight,
Make a bow, Pull it through to do it right.
The strings untangled...
"Do you need any help with that?”
The rogue flinched, surprise stiffening his shoulders, and let go of the fabric. But the voice was a familiar one, and even before he could give it a name, the only reminder of the sudden spook left was the downright displeased expression of his reflection. Harvey turned it into a polite smile as best he could.
"I didn't hear you come in." The tone was supposed to carry the slightest note of accusation, what came out instead could make a herd of spooked critters proud. Crimson warmed the young noble's cheeks. Really, even after all these years.
"I thought you might need assistance,” his father responded.
The crimson became even more intense as Harvey's hands grabbed the dangling strings in defiance. Was he really taking so long, that the man of the castle in person had to come and get him? A guard with a word to make haste would have sufficed in this situation. You don't have to herd me like a Druffalo, you know I will go.
"I-I'm finishing up.” He hated himself for the stutter. Really, all he wanted was a few more moments of peace and quiet, was that so much to ask? "With all the guests, I'm sure you have other things to attend to.” As he said it, the candles in the room flickered in the draft, in agreement. Just leave.
"Not at the moment.” It was the way he said it. It tugged on the tiniest part of his soul, where all children knew they should listen to their parents. Harvey took a breath.
He'd glanced in the older man's direction before, in passing -- as not to be rude-- but now Harvey took the time to turn away from the mirror. Bryce Cousland was standing in the middle of the room, left hand at his side, the right one slightly extended in an encouraging gesture. The festive armor might have been overdoing it, but there was a crooked smile on his face, the kind that brought out the crow's feet around the eyes, and not a shadow of the expected scorn was found in his features. His father's presence was eclipsing, even in the dim candlelight. Like he was the only thing of importance in the whole room. Harvey couldn't look away, the most peculiar bump in his throat.
Your father is trying. It's what Mother said, over and over.
"Ah...alright," the rogue hesitated. It was confusing, his father's...smile was confusing. What am I doing? As much as he'd love to prove he could take care of himself, there was no use in being stubborn. Didn't he bury the brat a long time ago? I was...over this. Just months...years ago. The passage of time suddenly became too slippery to grasp.
"Sorry, I just don't feel like myself today," he admitted slowly, trying to shake away the cobwebs in his head. He was certain just a moment ago, now not so much. Maybe he really could use some help after all... Harvey nodded awkwardly and accepted the invitation. The first two steps were the hardest, but it got easier the closer he got to his father, finally meeting the older Cousland in the middle of the room.
He straightened his back while the older man's hands tugged on the shirt, letting his mind wander. Not knowing where to put his eyes, they lingered on his father's armor and the greenish-purple reflections dancing on the well polished surface. Then he glanced towards the door, the crack just about as wide as it was before. The music was still there, but it seemed muted.
"You are doing well, all things considered," his father broke the silence.
That put him right back on alert. Harvey's eyes darted right up, matching his father's. To achieve this feat he had to look a few inches above the eye level. Up, always up. He took more after his mother and bitterly gave up on that final growth spurt.
Bryce Cousland was being sincere, as far as he could tell. He held the gaze for the few seconds needed for confirmation before again wandering away into safety. Harvey tugged on one of the sleeves. This was getting weird. "I reckon you don't mean the shirt?"
"I do not." There was warmth in his father's tone.
The young noble wracked his brain in search of anything he might have done lately to make his father proud. Nothing came to mind. On the other hand, there was nothing that would leave him overly disappointed, a fine balance that brought Harvey the least amount of attention. The way he preferred it.
"But,” Bryce Cousland changed the subject, "it's a fine shirt. I don't remember you wearing it before.”
"This?" Harvey gestured towards his clothes. "It's Antivan...it was a gift from Oriana.” It came out more like an excuse, not an emphasis on the shirt's quality. He couldn't help it, his sister in law presented him with this particular garment a few years ago, and he had a sneaking suspicion the original owner was supposed to be Fergus. But as his brother grew more barrel-chested in that period, the measurements the seamstress received no longer applied after a few months. As for Harvey, it proved mostly loose, but he could pull it off as a tunic with a help of a belt. It wouldn't be his first choice. Or second for that matter. The thing had...frills. Laced with golden thread.
Harvey's mouth babbled, eased by the more trivial subject. "I put it on the bottom of a chest and forgot about it. Or pretended to forget about it," he admitted, not feeling particularly apologetic. There will be no judgment on this particular issue. A complete lack of appreciation for frivolities ran deep in the blood of Fereldan men, and the Cousland family was no exception.
"The next time I took it out," the words came out in a rush now, like a dirty secret shared by a ten year old. "It turned out the moths ate it. Not much left of it."
The world held its breath as the memory surfaced, not quite sure how to fit together with the rest of the pieces. For Harvey, he vividly remembered the strange mixture of shame and relief as he recalled flames licking the ornate fabric. He burned what was left of the shirt on one of his hikes around the Coastlands, just a stupid kid disposing of evidence. Oriana asked him once about the gift, and he told her he couldn't find it. Lying should have not have been that easy.
So he couldn't be standing here wearing it, because it got ruined, and...it was ruined. I avoided that mountain pass for two seasons after that. As if someone were to jump out of the bushes to call me a little lying shit.
As if someone removed blinds form his eyes, it hit him. All of this, all of it was wrong.
Harvey was standing alone in the dark chamber, the crack in the door suddenly a gateway to darkness. The voices and music had gone away, as had his father. Where was his father?
"He died." Harvey swallowed bile that suddenly rose in his throat, he had to say it out loud or else he'd go mad. The rogue's hand reached out for the empty space where the older Cousland was standing only a few moments ago, catching air. This is insane...
Memories returned like links in a chain: Highever, The Grey Wardens, Lothering, and then ...the Circle Tower, one tragedy after the next. They were supposed to recruit mages to their cause and found out the place needed their help instead. Or was that also a figment of his imagination... it sounded like a tale passed around in a tavern, one that granted you more drinks, and not necessarily much credit.
But he was already pacing around the room, soaking up the details. Trying to remember. Yes, there were other people with him, they reached Kinloch Hold and were making their way through the tower. They encountered a monster on the third floor–a demon? Harvey remembered the strongest compulsion to fall asleep. There was a thud of several bodies hitting the stone pavement. This he was sure of.
What the hell was wrong with this place --the room looked like his, but in the barest sense of the word. The layout was spot on, but like they say, devil lies in the details. Like walls for example, he could count all the stones making up the walls if he tried, right up until the point they reached the corners, where they melded into one grey mass -- as if the architect wasn't sure how they connected in reality. On a hunch, Harvey covered the short distance between him and the bed and pulled on the sheets -- they were stuck in place, for show only.
"How are you supposed to sleep, then?” he asked no one in particular.
Hysterical laughter--which barely registered as his own--filled the room, but he was already inspecting the bookcase, the piece of furniture that shouldn't be here in the first place. All books in the castle belonged in the library, and old Aldous would rather go completely bald than let them out of his sight, where he could take care of them properly. Harvey didn't recognize any of the titles, but he guessed Arcane Theory vol. I and Basics of Entropy belonged in the Circle Tower, where in some weird sense he still resided. And also–-the rogue crouched down to confirm his suspicion–-the bookcase itself was crooked, floating a few inches above ground.
"You messed it up!” he shouted, livid. If that... thing was going to try and mess with his mind, it could at least do it right.
He pulled at the old tomes, wanting to see them scatter on the floor, deny this mockery. They gave him no such satisfaction. Stuck in place like the sheets on the bed, they could very well have been carved from the shelves themselves.
This was too much, the room was spinning and Harvey couldn't breathe. Fake, it was all fake. Panicking, he reached for the doorknob and swung open the door leading towards the hall. And halted.
He was standing at the edge of darkness, one step forward and he'd fall into nothing. A few heartbeats passed. Harvey slowly, gingerly closed the door, it obliged with a quiet creak. He leaned his forehead against the wooden surface, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Enough. He had to get out of here.
But maybe not through the door.
This was a prison cell...designed not to look like a prison cell, it dawned on him. Who needs bars and locks if the prisoner didn't want to leave. Or if they didn't realize they even should leave. He could've been fumbling with that damn shirt for Maker knows how long and it never occurred to him to question it. How long have I been here? And if this was a prison, where was his jailer? Father's serene smile flashed through his mind, and the rogue clenched his teeth, trying not to think about it.
The rogue tensed. No more, please. I've had enough.
The sound was coming from behind him. Harvey swallowed hard and spun around, dreading the noise that could have been in other circumstances made by a rodent. Knowing that it won't be. Illuminated in the grey glow of a window–-another inconsistency-–was the free standing mirror, as tall as he was, bound in a dark wooden frame. The same one he'd been standing in front of enthralled just a couple of minutes ago. The rogue couldn't quite make all of it from this angle, so he took a step toward it. And then another.
His reflection greeted him. And one could say it was to be expected, he was gazing at the surface, and his reflection should be doing the same. Only it wasn't doing so at all, it was standing as he was when he was first trying to fix up the shirt. His look-alike was scratching at the surface, his face contorted by hatred, he looked more like a creature than a man. Like a thin spider trying to get out of a glass jar, and succeeding. One of its hands found a foothold, fingers reaching beyond the surface, right into the room where the rogue was. It caught his eyes and it sent him a bloodthirsty, inhuman grin.
Harvey was yelling as he grabbed at the mirror, he kept yelling as he dragged it towards the door and pushed it into the gaping darkness. He was still yelling as he ran the other direction, towards the window, and hauled himself through it, the thought of checking where it led dismissed. Anything was better than this room.
He felt his body fall, movement accompanied by a deafening whoosh of wind in his ears. He didn't bother counting after he reached ten. It's too long, I've been falling for too long. I'm dead. Eyes closed, he braced for impact, long forgotten snippets of the Chant racing through his mind, "when hope has abandoned me, I still see the stars...I cannot see the path, perhaps there is only the abyss...". It will hurt, but hopefully not for too long. If this is how my life ends, it's... disappointing. I never did anything. I never wanted to do anything. But somehow, in this moment, he regretted.
The awaited impact never came. One moment Harvey was falling, the next one ground was pushing uncomfortably against his shoulder blades. The rogue waited for what seemed like ages before he carefully flexed his hands, then feet, certain the agony was just around the corner. Nothing, no pain. Only then did he dare to open his eyes. A little blurry, they focused on a lone figure in robes leaning over him.
A split second and Harvey was back on his feet, familiar daggers in hands, heart racing. He was wearing armor again. He backed away until he reached a ten foot distance between himself and the newcomer. The other man made no move, friendly or otherwise.
"Who are you....” the rogue trailed off. He world spun.
Islands cruised lazily on the sickly green sky. Some were the size of rocks sprinkling the Coastland shore, a few the size of mountains, they filled the vast space right to the horizon, unconcerned by gravity. Some of them were close enough the rogue could make out the outline of structures of some sort, others were too far to discern any details. The landscape was jagged and barren... And in the middle of it all, there was an Island. There was a City. And he knew what it was, he'd read about it. He mindlessly parroted verses about it in the family chapel in the Cousland Castle. Skin me alive, there is actually some truth in the Chant.
Harvey gaped at the spectacle, daggers in hands hanging loosely on both of his sides, forgotten.
"I really should've taken the door.”
A few painfully long moments passed before the newcomer brought him back to reality.
"You're not, you're not one of the demons inhabiting this place...”
Harvey was shaking his head before the man finished the sentence. He turned towards the stranger, daggers still at the ready. "Are you?” The view in the distance, he didn't want to think about it. The man before him... was at least comprehensible. He looked human, as much as it was worth here.
The stranger shook his head as well, thoughtful. "You're the same as me, I suppose. Locked away in this place.” He was a mage, or at least he looked like one, with dark hair and a plain face Harvey wouldn't remember if he saw it in a crowd. The man relaxed a bit as he spoke, a survivor finding his kin.
Harvey mirrored the gesture as a small concession, his shoulders slumping slightly, but he wasn't sheathing his weapons-- and visibly let it show he wasn't planning to yet. Fool me once...
"Are we dead, then?" He asked, only half-stalling. He felt the ground beneath his feet, he was talking... and yet... with the Black City hovering in the distance, Harvey couldn't be certain of anything at the moment.
"Dead?" The noble wasn't expecting the mage to look him up and down with scrutiny, but the man did exactly that, searching for whatever signs there were to find. He even took a step towards the rogue, as if to get a better look, to which Harvey held up one of his daggers.
"Forgive me if I want you to stay over there, for now." He apologized. "No hard feelings."
"No hard feelings." The mage echoed softly. "I don't know you, either... And no,” he replied finally. "This place hasn't left its mark on you yet, you haven't been here for too long. I don't think you're dead.”
"Well, good." Was the only reply Harvey could come up with. What do you even say to that.
Then came a longer pause while the man moved on to studying Harvey's features. "I don't recognize you. It means the worst has already happened, doesn't it?" His voice grew progressively more quiet as he spoke. "The demons were freed from the Circle to prey on the people? I thought the templars for sure would...” The rest was unintelligible.
Harvey tilted his head, unsure what the man was talking about. No, that's wrong. He bit his lip... revealing what he knew wouldn't change anything. "The last I remember, we were still in the Tower. I'm a... Grey Warden.” The title rolled off his tongue with difficulty, and Harvey realized it had to be the first time he used it to describe himself. It felt like it belonged to someone else. "I...we came to the Circle to enlist the mages' help, originally. Because of the Blight. My companion, a mage from this Circle, she was Conscripted at the same time that I was. She thought this would be the best place to start gathering allies.”
The mage's eyes narrowed, but he finally nodded, thoughtful. "There were rumors the Wardens conscripted one of the freshly Harrowed mages." He admitted. "But the Tower had seen better days."
"Yes, we were trying to make our way through to the source of it all. And then I ended up here, I don't completely remember how.” The world will go on without you. The words were like honey to Harvey's ears.
"I see." The mage looked deep in thought. "Then we share a lot in common.” The good news didn't seem to lighten his spirits, as if the worst case scenario was only a matter of time. "Welcome to the Fade," he said finally. "Congratulations on escaping your personal Nightmare. As much as it's worth." The tone wasn't mocking, just strangely defeated.
Harvey once again took in great mountains of rock high up in the sky. They said the dwarves living underground were afraid of the sky falling on their heads. Now he could relate. "I don't really feel like congratulations are in order. This is the Fade, then? How is this even...?” Everybody knew about the Fade...it's just not something you thought about everyday. For the place of dreams, being here felt no different from being awake.
"You're not here, not really. Your mind was trapped here by the Sloth Demon.” The stranger looked around, wary. "Like the rest of us. At least the part of it that dreams, I believe."
The rogue nodded, pretending he had more than a vague idea of what the mage was talking about. Yet, strangely, he took it as a good sign. Everything made sense in his fake room before he came to his senses, even meaningless tasks that would get you nowhere. This was not the same. Confusion meant he was thinking properly.
Whatever the mage saw lurking in the shadows, it spooked him. "I...It's too dangerous to stay here in the open. We should go. Come with me... Or don't." He hesitated. "I'll tell you what I know, but it won't make any difference."
Then he turned around and left, too hastily to spare a second glance.
Wait. Are my companions here? Wait. Harvey wanted to call after him, but common sense told him to keep it down. He looked around, spotting a bit of movement somewhere beyond the tall stone formations. Goddammit, I swear, if this is a trap... But a pale mage who was happy to keep his distance was a serious step down from his previous experience. And he was the only one who could help Harvey to make sense of this place.
The rogue cursed under breath and followed, taking long and possibly quiet strides to catch up.