I don’t think I can top Alistair’s dream. But hopefully this works as the key pivot point it is supposed to be.
The Assassin’s Dream
The Fade grew darker; the road narrowed, hemmed in by tall hills thick with black trees. Flagstones emerged from the dust of the road, and just like that, Bannon and Niall found themselves in a dank stone corridor. With another hasty wish of good luck, the mouse bailed out to hide in a chink in the wall. Bannon was overcome by the irrational feeling that the toy horse might be trampled and smashed if he left it in the middle of the corridor, so he parked it against the wall.
Bannon checked his weapons, loosening the blades in their scabbards. He had to wonder what kind of alluring fantasy this was– the grim basement, or dungeon?– was a far cry from Alistair’s sunny farmstead. Muffled sounds became audible: the groan and creak of strained timbers, distant cries, the crack of a whip. Yeah, definitely a dungeon.
Torchlight spilled from a doorway up ahead. A deep rumbling, like a heavy cart rolling down the street, emanated from there as well.
Bannon rounded the doorway and froze at the strange tableau he encountered within. Zevran was stretched taut on the rack, wearing only a breechclout. His bronze skin glistened with sweat. Two of the ugliest elves Bannon had ever seen stood on either side of the rack. Their teeth were too big for their mouths, and their tiny eyes glinted like river stones. Dalish facial tattoos covered their brows and cheeks.
The one on the closer side of the rack was turning the crank. Wood thunked against wood as it tightened its victim another notch. “Oh, I think I saw him flinch that time,” the elf sneered. It wasn’t in the Antivan accent, but rather the gutter-drawl usually heard down on the docks. “He won’t last two more turns.”
“We are going to break you, easy,” the other one replied. He raised a flogger and brought it cracking down across Zevran’s chest. The assassin remained silent, his teeth clenched, but his muscles tightened ever so slightly. “Hah!” his torturer cried. “That was definitely a flinch!”
“Time for another turn,” his companion gloated. He rolled the wheel, and the ropes creaked. Zevran’s arms drew tighter, the corded muscle standing out in sharp relief. Sweat poured from his brow, but he uttered not a sound.
Bannon drew his weapons. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he yelled. He stalked forward, blades at the ready.
Zevran lifted his head, his eyes opening. They lit with a glimmer of hope, but then widened in… fear?
The two Dalish turned, smirking without concern. “What’s this?” the near one asked. “You have a friend?” He twisted the word like a vile insult.
“No,” Zevran grated out.
“Looks like he wants to escape,” the elf with the flogger taunted. “You want to be rescued?”
“No!” Zevran glared at Bannon. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to get you out.” Bannon came to the side of the rack. The Dalish there merely stepped back to let him move closer to Zevran’s side.
“He’ll never go with you,” the demon sneered.
“Leave me!” Zevran snapped.
“You are no ‘friend’ to me,” he snarled, clearly using the twisted definition of the word. “I will become a Crow.”
“Zevran, what the hell? What do you mean you don’t want to escape?” Bannon said with a frown. “I thought you wanted to be free of the Crows.”
Zevran slitted his eyes. “No, I….” He squeezed them shut again as another wave of pain tremored his stretched body. “This is the initiation to the Crows. If I survive, I become one of them.” He took a shuddering breath.
The elf with the flogger rested his free hand on Zevran’s chest. He pinched the nipple between his finger and thumb and began twisting it in idle cruelty. “I think he wants to take you away, little fledgling.”
“No!” Zevran’s eyes popped open. “Leave! I cannot fail this test!”
Bannon’s heart sank. This was how the demons would keep him trapped here? Not with visions of riches and fame, or happiness and love? “This is your greatest desire?” he asked, his mouth dry. To be a Crow assassin, not to escape them! After all this time, Bannon had started to fall for all the bullshit of wanting to be free of them. The bastard was just biding his time, waiting for a choice moment to stab them in the back! “You want to be a Crow this badly?”
“I want to live!” Zevran whimpered quietly in the back of his throat. “I… must. Must endure. Failure is death.” He closed his eyes, lost once more to the pain.
Bannon looked around at the dungeon. This was hardly the pampered treatment Zevran had alluded to. Could it be a fake dream construct? But no. The details were too real: the foetid mold that clung to the damp mortar cracks, the iron tang of blood, the acrid stench of piss. The demons had taken this scene directly from Zevran’s mind, from his memories, not imagination.
When Zevran had spoken offhandedly about his enslavement, Bannon had imagined cells where they were locked at night, shackles, a whipping if one were disobedient. Not this, this forge where spirits were hammered down into bare, blackened souls, twisted into whatever shape the masters desired.
The pieces began to fall into place. Zevran didn’t want to become a Crow, it was simply the only choice he’d had if he wanted to survive. He was caught in this cycle of obedience or death.
Suddenly all of Zevran’s flippant jokes about being a slave didn’t seem so funny. Bannon literally hurt, a pang in his chest, to see his fellow elf treated with such callous and calculated cruelty. No more. Bannon would set him free. “I’ll get you out of this,” he said.
“Failure is death,” the demon with the whip intoned. He opened his mouth, revealing his large, sharpened yellow teeth. He bent to lick at Zevran’s nipple with a slimy purple tongue; drew his lips back to bite…. Bannon stuck his dagger against the demon’s throat until he backed off. “Your friend doesn’t want you to succeed,” the demon elf simpered.
“You’ll never win,” the other demon sneered. He leaned on the wheel, rolling it another notch.
Bannon could hear the dull crunch of bone pulling out of joint in Zevran’s shoulders, the popping in his spine. He pointed his sword at the demon. “Leave it!” The bastard only smirked.
“Let them.” Zevran’s voice grew tight as he strangled down the screams inside him. “I… cannot… fail!”
“Zevran, listen to me,” Bannon said, leaning over him, keeping one blade pointed at each demon. “You already passed this test. You became a Crow years ago, remember?”
Zevran’s panicked eyes opened in momentary confusion. Bannon figured now was the perfect time for some self-aggrandizing bullshit. “You’re the greatest assassin in Antiva! In fact, you had to go all the way to Ferelden and hunt Grey Wardens to find a challenge for your skills.”
“Warden?” Zevran struggled to remember through the haze of pain.
“Yes. These are demons of the Fade,” Bannon told him quickly. “They’re trying to keep you trapped. Come with me; I can free you!”
Zevran’s eyes flew wide, and hope flooded back into them. “Bannon!”
“Failure is death!” the demons hissed in warning.
“Not to a free man!” Bannon shouted as he brought his sword down, severing the ropes that held Zevran’s wrists.
“You failed your Test!” the demons shrieked. “Now you will die!”
The elf next to Bannon produced a pair of swords from somewhere and began battering at him in a flurry of blows. Bannon staggered under the onslaught. He hadn’t finished freeing Zevran! “Niall! Help!”
He didn’t know if the rodent heard him or not, or just ignored him, but no help came from that quarter. He deflected blades left and right and figured this guy had to get tired soon! But he forgot he was fighting a demon.
It began to get past his guard, slicing at his bracers, slashing across his chest. Bannon jumped back, and it came on, snarling like a dog, strings of saliva hanging from its big teeth. Bannon slammed into the wall. Now there was nowhere else to retreat.
Zevran found his hands free as the Warden cut the ropes. His spine, hips, and shoulders screamed in pain as they snapped back into place. He ignored it. After all, it was only pain.
The Crow at his side lashed out with the flogger as he tried to sit up. Hooked barbs cut into Zevran’s skin, ripping him open with dozens of tiny little bites. He ignored this too, and reached for the whip. He let it coil tightly around his arm, digging in its spurs, then he yanked the demon closer.
“You will never escape your fate,” the creature hissed.
“I don’t need to escape it,” Zevran fired back arrogantly. “I make my own.” With his free hand, he snatched a knife from the Crow’s belt, flipped it, and threw it across the room. It nailed the Warden’s opponent in the neck.
That maneuver caused him to twist, to leave his back exposed to the demon elf beside him. It snarled and released the flogger, then drew a sword and swung it full force. Zevran grunted in pain, nearly doubling over, but he forced out a callous laugh. “I can tell you’re not a real Crow,” he sneered. A true Crow would have stabbed, punched straight up under the ribs and into the heart. The stupid demon’s blow was hard and gouged a deep cut in Zevran’s back, but most of the force was absorbed by his spine and shoulder blades.
He gripped the handle of the flogger that was still entwined with his arm and lashed out as he straightened. The hard wood caught the demon in the temple with a loud CRACK, and the thing was momentarily stunned. Zevran relieved it of another belt knife, then grabbed the belt and hauled the demon towards himself. It stumbled forward, and he buried the knife in its throat.
Bannon was sure the demon was about to simultaneously decapitate and gut him, when a knife appeared in its neck in a spray of dark red blood. Not one to let an opportunity pass, Bannon thrust with his own blades as the demon reared back with a gurgling shriek. He rode it to the floor, planted a knee across its hips, and stabbed it repeatedly, punching through the leather armor as hard as he could. It thrashed and shrieked and died. Messily.
Bannon staggered up, yanking his blades free, and crossed back to the rack. Zevran was covered in more blood than he was. The assassin had managed to free himself from the ankle cuffs. He turned and hopped lightly off the bed of the rack, but Bannon saw the stiffness in the movement, the hurriedly-masked wince in Zevran’s face.
“Are you all right?”
“Of course!” Zevran grinned, his tone and demeanor as nonchalant as always. “Nothing like a good racking to get one limbered up, hm? Oh, this is handy,” he said in bemused surprise to find his armor and weapons once more on him. They were still bloody, though.
Well, his penchant for bullshit wasn’t damaged. Bannon actually felt relieved. “At least it was only two demons,” he said. “I was expecting to have to fight through a bevy of wenches in an Antivan whorehouse.” He reached out and gripped Zevran’s arm, turning serious. He had to make sure. “And how is it I find you here, dreaming of being a Crow instead of being free of them?”
“Being free is my greatest desire,” Zevran insisted. His expression weakened a moment and he hung his head. “It… is also my greatest fear. All my life I have been taught– trained– to fear the Crow Masters. That those who fled, those who escaped, were to be hunted down mercilessly.” His amber eyes canted up towards Bannon. “Not killed, but brought back, alive. The killing of them….” He looked away. “That takes longer.” He paused a moment, lost in thought. He swallowed, coming to a decision to say one more thing. “I… I have been a slave all my life. I don’t know how to be free.”
“I’ll show you,” Bannon said, just as quietly, with a firm squeeze to Zevran’s arm. “Just stick by me.”
The Antivan looked at him, his eyes soft for a moment, before he recovered his hard, impervious mien. “Well, of course. I did pledge my oath, no?”
“Not that; I mean now.” Bannon kept his tone light to match Zevran’s. “When I rescued Alistair, he vanished. So don’t wake up.”
“But we are awake, no?”
Bannon tipped his head and led the assassin towards the hall. “No, this is the Fade. Our bodies are asleep somewhere in the real world. Niall! Where are you?”
The two went out the door and found the mouse sitting on the little toy horse. “I’m right here, waiting.”
“What waiting? Didn’t you hear me call for help?”
“I don’t know what you expect me to do.”
Zevran started laughing. “Now I know I am dreaming! You’re arguing with a mouse!”
Bannon shot him a look, and noticed with shock that the assassin was fading. “No, Zevran! Stay here, I need you!”
“But I am here?” The pale translucent ghost of Zevran looked around in confusion. “Where have you…?” His voice faded out as he disappeared.
Bannon yelled, “The Litany of Adaia is in the back of the mage’s belt!” He could only hope the assassin heard him, wherever he was.
“It’s the ‘Litany of Adralla,'” Niall said.
“He knows what I meant. If he heard me. Damn, I hope they’re all right.” The Fade around him began to fade from a hallway back to a road. Slowly, around the edges, as if trying to fool him.
“If we hurry, they’ll be fine,” the mouse assured him.
“If you’d help, this would go faster,” Bannon argued back. He bent to pick up the string, but didn’t start off yet.
“What do you want me to do? I’m a mouse!”
“You’re a mage! Or so you keep telling me.”
“I can’t do magic while I’m a mouse,” Niall growled. “Have you ever seen a mouse do magic?”
“Mice don’t talk either. Mages talk.”
Bannon thought he had the mouse-mage, there. Niall dry-washed his paws in agitated thought. “I… well… I don’t have a staff. I can’t do magic without a staff, now, can I?”
That was ridiculous, but the rodent wasn’t going to get away with it. Bannon fished around in his pouches and came up with his dad’s skeleton key. “Here, here’s your staff.”
“But-but– it’s metal!” The mouse waved his paws in negation. “Metal is not good when casting lightning. Or especially when having lighting cast on one. No, no; it must be wood. A proper blackthorne staff, that’s it.”
Bannon stood up and started going through his pouches for some sort of wooden stick. Blasted stubborn rodent mages. He didn’t find a stick, but he did find the carving knife Leliana had given him. So he went to the edge of the sandy clearing, which is where they were now standing, and snapped off a twig from one of the black trees. He whittled it into shape as he walked back to the mouse. “Here.”
Niall took the twig in his paws and stared at it, his whiskery little nose twitching rapidly. He turned it over and over in his paws. “How did you do that?”
“It’s… It’s a three-headed dragon staff. How did you just carve all that tiny detail with a few swipes of your knife?”
Bannon rolled his eyes. “It’s a talent. Well?”
“Cast a spell, come on!” Great Andraste, he thought this guy wanted to hurry.
“I suppose… I can try.” Niall raised the staff in one paw and gestured with the other. A tiny glint of green light appeared and circled slowly over the mouse’s head. It looked like the light globe Morrigan had conjured, only appropriately-sized for a mouse. “Oh,” Niall said jadedly, “that’s real helpful.”
“At least your magic works,” Bannon said. “I told you. Now if that stupid Sloth demon or anyone shows up, just blast the hell out of him. Ha! Can you imagine the look on his face? Blasted by a little mouse?” He started laughing. Big, ugly Sloth-pig; itty-bitty mouse– BAM! He laughed harder, then stopped when he noticed Niall’s little beady eyes were wide and the mouse was frantically gesturing for him to stop. “What?”
The rodent gestured more emphatically, incapable of more than a strangled squeak.
“Don’t tell me. He’s right behind me.” Bannon sighed. He turned around and sure enough, there was a big bear-like lump of demonic flesh with Sloth’s droopy-jowled face.
“Why… must… you… fight?” The demon drawled slowly, its long jaw opening in a fearsomely large yawn. “Resssst….”
Bannon forced his eyes to stay wide open. He cracked his own jaw in a convincing yawn. “Yessss…,” he intoned.
“That’s… right…,” the demon said with a sleepy smile. “Just….”
Bannon didn’t feel like waiting around for the damned demon to finish a long, drawn-out sentence. He just lashed out and poked Sloth in the eye!
“OW!” The demon rolled back on its big, round butt.
“Eeek!” squealed Niall.
“Blast him!” Bannon yelled, snatching up the string.
The mouse waved his paws frantically and pointed the twig staff. A puff of cold white air shot out of the end and made a little ice patch on the ground in front of the demon. “Run!” the mouse squeaked.
Sloth got ponderously to its feet and took one step towards them. Its front paw hit the patch of ice and shot out from under its body. With a bellow, it crashed face-first to the ground.
Bannon ran like hell, trying not to laugh. He had to save his breath. He pounded down the Fade path, dark trees whizzing by. He took a sharp left, imagining walls and streets and tenements…. They ended up in a maze of alleys between dilapidated wood buildings. Bannon took a few more sharp turns, then slowed to a halt.
“Don’t stop!” Niall said frantically. “Oh, Maker, he’s going to kill us!”
Bannon laughed. “Are you kidding? That thing is too fat and lazy to get off his ass and chase us.”
“Where are we?” the mouse asked.
“The Alienage.” Bannon looked around at the eerily empty buildings and streets.
“We shouldn’t stay where there are lots of people. Demons might fill it up.”
The mouse had a point. Bannon tried to stop thinking of all the people he knew in Denerim, and his family. No! No one! He walked quickly out of the maze and turned down a larger street. “All right, the Wilds are here through this back gate,” he said, hoping it were true. They arrived at the small wooden gate that separated the Alienage from the patch of road that led to the Arl of Denerim’s estate.
No–! Bannon shook his head. It was the palisade gate that led out of the pass at Ostagar, and into the Wilds. He squeezed his eyes shut and moved forward, his arm out to push the gate open.