Theron glanced at Solas and looked away quickly. Fuck those eyes and fuck his traitorous heart. That’s enough of that. He pasted a smile on his face and moved back to the fire to start cleaning up, waiting for the tension to disperse naturally.
“I can get that, Killer. You cook, we’ll clean.” The kindest hands took the pan out of his, and Theron took a slow breath. This game was bound to kill him. Dangerous pack-roaming wildebears? No problem. Hot-headed, addict-addled Templars? Sure. Why not. But the Wolf’s piercing eyes and Varric’s smooth voice?
Hell, all the men of the Inquisition…
Theron was drowning.
“Yeah, I think I’ll head to bed early.”
“You do that.” The dwarf chuckled and gave his shoulder a gentle pat before stepping away.
Theron stood slowly, offering everyone a smile and a bid goodnight before dipping into his tent, feeling that piercing gaze on him the whole time. It was almost painful not to glance back.
Once inside his tent, he heard Bull chuckle and offer, “You know, Solas. I’m sure Varric would trade you tents for the night if you—”
“—That won’t be necessary, but thank you.”
“Are you sure? I’d think two elves would be more comfortable—”
“—I can assure you that I’m happy with our current arrangements.”
“Alright… just checking. I know I snore.”
“That you do, but I shall endure.”
Theron smirked and shucked his shirt, sprawling onto his bedroll and resting his hands on his stomach as he tried to calm his breathing. It didn’t help that he wasn’t that tired yet. He’d just wanted to extract himself from an increasingly awkward conversation. It was his own fault. He played way too loose with what he had, and if he wasn’t careful, he was going to fuck up and ruin a good thing. Saving the world would be so much harder if he were fighting against the Inquisition to do it.
Hell, he hadn’t even made it to Haven yet. There was so much to do once he got there. It was overwhelming. So much to do, so much to plan. So much still yet unknown. Like who Elana would go with. The mages or the Templars. When he’d played, he’d always gone with the mages, but he’d read enough fanfiction to have grown unnaturally fond of Delrin Barris. It had stopped being anything to do with policing mages and everything to do with saving good-hearted people. Like a cheeky Mary Sue, Theron wanted to save them all.
Why not? Niall said he could do anything. It was his dream. Though Theron was definitely starting to suspect that none of this was a dream. He felt a flutter in his chest every time he thought about it, but he pushed through from sheer stubbornness. If believing this world was a dream gave him any kind of power, then he was sticking to it.
What did it matter, anyway? Unlike Solas, Theron’s belief that anyone here might not be real, didn’t affect his determination to save them at all. If anything, these were all his people. They were all Theron’s. Elves. Dwarves. Qunari. Humans. Fucking bears. Nugs. Griffons.
Hell yeah, Thedas was his.
Maybe it should alarm him how decidedly close his thought process was to Corypheous, but that would require a degree of shame or self-doubt, and Theron had none. Coryphyshit saw an empty throne and wanted to destroy the world to sit on it. The stupid fuck. What good would that do? Still yet, there were now rifts all over Thedas. So go jump in one and start hiking, but no. The idiot wanted to showboat, and what… bring the veil down? Why? For what purpose?
Idly, Theron wished fanfics had addressed the man’s motives a little more, but they didn’t. He always just repeated the same lines and stayed the most one-dimensional villain ever in the history of villains. Alright… maybe that was being dramatic and unfair, but still.
The power of the rebel mages with Elana could and would close a giant hole in the sky… Theron imagined what that magic could build if they just had the vision enough to try. Like why did the veil have to come down at all? Magical myths from Earth often teased of the Fae hiding in another world. Glamoured and hidden from mortal eyes. With eluvians as a bridge, why didn’t Solas take the elves and build a new world for them in the Fade?
Not that they should have to leave… the purpose was to keep them safe while they grew and reformed themselves as a proud people, not to exile them at all.
So busy in his thoughts, Theron hadn’t even noticed he’d fallen asleep until he heard a familiar voice.
“You continue to surprise me, Traveler. Your thoughts are quite… busy tonight.”
Theron sighed, the tent around him fading away and then brightening into the familiar grays and greens of the Fade. “Solas suspects me and is going to question me on watch later tonight.”
“Hmm. He prowls already. I can hold him off for now, but you play with fire.”
“Always, but what worries you the most?”
Theron didn’t miss the sound of the being’s scoff. “Everything, but the Wolf’s attention the most. I can only watch from here.”
“So you think I should demure and let the story play out?”
“Not at all. You exist to shake this world to its bones and remind them of what is good. You are fulfilling your purpose.”
Theron chuckled, reaching a finger out to touch the shadow cast from the void onto the boulder next to him. When he pulled away, a tendril of darkness stretched with him. “You sound like the Qun.”
A gravely hum followed. “I predate the Qun. It’s no surprise.”
But Theron is already distracted. The Arishok.
Such a shame…
“You regret his death and your helplessness.”
Theron felt a shift in front of him and looked up in surprise. No longer a void, but a tall, silver-haired Qunari in bright red vitaar stood waiting. “Niall?”
The Arishok did not move or speak, and Theron wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed. “Are you sure you aren’t a desire demon?” It was a valid question.
“If I were, I’d either be a very bad or very good one.”
“Is this… another spirit?” He asked carefully.
“No. Simply a tool.”
Theron’s chuckle had something of an addled quality to it. What was this life? “Ha ha… really?” Then. “It just blinked, Niall. It blinked.”
“So it did.”
“Can it…” He flickered a glance down and then felt foolish for it. “He… talk?”
“Perhaps. Not yet, but… it will learn.”
Huh. “So… will it become a spirit?”
“Clever question, but one I cannot answer. I merely helped manifest your will to see him. What he becomes from here is limited only by your imagination and will.”
“My dream, huh.”
“Your dream, Traveler.”
Dread filled him. “That’s… remarkable, but a little terrifying. If he were a spirit, I would worry about corrupting him, but you’re saying he’s like a blank slate. Niall, he doesn’t stand a chance.”
“I beg to differ. You are playful, but kind first and foremost. All will be as it should.”
Theron glanced up at the Arishok and swallowed when the still-silent sentinel’s head shifted down and blinked at him again. Was the war paint real?
Cautiously, he reached out a finger to touch the Qunari, but just before his finger touched the bright red paint, a large hand grabbed his wrist. He was startled to feel thick callouses against the tender skin where his pulse beat the strongest. It was pounding now, the blood betraying him in its raw enthusiasm.
“He is good.” Niall chuckled darkly.
The qunari’s grip gentled, and the hand slid back to rest at his side.
Theron’s breath caught in his throat. He flushed and opened his mouth to say… something. God knows what.
He didn’t get a chance because Niall hissed, and the everpresent light in the Fade darkened like the sun blocked by the clouds. “I can put the wolf off no longer.”
“Wait… what do I do?” Theron’s heartbeat had yet to calm from before, but it went wild now. He’d hoped to avoid a confrontation in the Fade… forever, really. He was a terrible liar. Surely everyone had noticed by now?!”
“Do not lie.” Ah, see. Clearly, Niall had noticed. “But do not tell him the truth. Distract him, Traveler. You are good at that. He is pride, but he is not unreasonable. He will not hurt you on suspicion alone.”
“Niall—” All of a sudden, it was like his stomach turned inside out. Niall’s shadow and the Arishok—gone. The boring grey dirt and boulders of the Fade—gone. The sky split down the middle, and the once green glow swelled and melted into a deep red…with purple clouds.
Theron watched as the crimson colors spread downward like wallpaper, and on the horizon, the pattern changed. In the distance, he could see a stone castle that was…familiar, but not the Black City. As the horizon started rapidly approaching, zooming toward him at a rate that caused him to choke and stumble backward until he hit something solid, layers upon layers of sand-colored stone rose around him until he realized just where he was.
The Labyrinth outside the goblin city.
A deep growl vibrated the ground beneath his feet and echoed through to the tips of his fingers. Moreso, he felt it against his back. It was then he realized that he hadn’t backed into a wall at all. A pitiful glance upward confirmed his suspicion by the massive furred head posed above him, glancing tall over the labyrinth walls toward the goblin city.
Theron sucked in a fear-shuddered breath, his muscles frozen and his mind so indecisive that it wouldn’t have helped if they hadn’t been. Half of his instincts said to run away, but the other half reasoned that against the wolf’s massive chest was probably the hardest angle to get a clear bite. Unless he were especially nimble for a wolf, he’d have trouble seeing Theron at all, even while knowing he was there.
But fuck, this was the Fade. Did he really need to see him to eat him?
“Where are we?” The voice was deep, almost a blend of voices, but still so deep that Theron felt it in his chest. Like sitting on a subwoofer. Oh my god. Sub…Woof…er.
How do I answer that?! I’m going to die. Two minutes in, and already I’m hit with questions I can’t answer.
Or can I…
“It’s ah… we’re in the goblin city.”
There was silence for a moment. Just long enough for Theron to worry whether Goblins were actually a thing in Thedas; he didn’t know. He hadn’t read anything about them, but this took him back to the question of whether this Thedas was a dream or not. If it were a dream, then theoretically, it could go either way. Either Theron could will the existence of goblins—a theory that relied heavily on Theron’s ability to will something into being on the fly, and therefore not a comfortable theory at all—or because Theron didn’t know about them, they assuredly could not exist. As if the only knowledge of Thedas came from Theron’s brain. That was the one that—while equally plausible—was the more likely. Occam’s razor. The most simple explanation was the most likely.
Though, now that he’d thought of either theory, neither one would prove the other right or wrong, so nothing was proved either way. Logic was fucking exhausting when paired with the possibility of the impossible.
“What are goblins?”
Theron almost sighed in relief when the question came. Either because it stopped his flow of thought or because this was the diversion he needed. He just needed to make it until they were woke for their turn to watch. “Hmm… small creatures of various sizes. Anywhere from knee to waist high. In most mythologies, magical in nature. Mischievous.”
“In most mythologies… does that mean they are real or once were?” The wolf sounded genuinely curious, and Theron found himself relaxing.
“Perhaps. I don’t know. I’m not sure if it matters. These goblins are mischievous creatures who venture forth into the mortal world to steal babies to bring back to the castle.
“What is their purpose? Do they eat the babies?”
Theron smiled at the disgust in the wolf’s voice. “To live, I suppose… and no. Once the babies are here long enough, they turn into goblins themselves.”
“They cannot bear children of their own?” Valid question.
“No, I believe they can. I think there’s probably more to stealing human children, but I’ve never met the Goblin King to ask.” Theron wanted to add that it wasn’t a part of the story, and like Thedas, there were so many questions that he wasn’t sure he would get the answers. Niall was one of a kind, so far. Both willing to answer questions he knew and admit when he did not.
“There is a king of the goblins.” Then after a pause, “Yes. I suppose there would be. There is a castle.”
“And a castle needs a king,” Theron added lightly, pleased that their conversation was so damn amicable.
“We should meet this king.”
Theron stumbled as the wolf’s great form rose, and he lost the support where he’d been leaning. Hell, he hadn’t noticed how much of his weight he was leaning on the beast until then.
“No, wait. We can’t.” Yeah. Panic was setting in. If any world was a dream, it was definitely this one, and there was no telling what Theron’s dream Jareth would be like.
“Why?” The wolf sounded amused, and Theron sighed.
“Because he’s not real.”
“Clearly, we are in the fade.”
“I mean, this is a story.”
The wolf moved, the ground shaking slightly as he turned to sit with his back to the castle, peering down at Theron with his six glowing eyes. “So goblins are not real.”
“That’s not fair. They might have been once… but not these.”
The wolf peered around them, seeming to examine the space in detail. “This place is quite solid for somewhere that doesn’t exist.”
“I have a very vivid imagination.”
“Which is why I’m afraid for us to meet the Goblin King.” Surely it would be their turn to wake up eventually? Didn’t time in the Fade move differently? Was that in his favor or not, he couldn’t remember. Knowing his luck, though.
“Nothing can harm you here but me.”
“I know, but—”
“—you know?” The voice almost purred, and Theron jumped.
“I mean… you’re huge. And not a part of my dream, so…”
“Do you know who I am?”
Fuck. Yes or no. He was an elf here, but he had no vallaslin. But surely even city elves heard stories of Fen’Harel. “I… yes.”
“And you’re not afraid.”
“I don’t think that’s a fair assessment at all. I’m just too stupid to use my god-given instincts to protect myself.”
“Which God do you think gave you those instincts?” The graveled demand vibrated the very air between them, and Theron sucked in a breath.
“None,” he breathed out shakily. “I believe we’re all born from a thought…a wish…a command. I don’t know whose thought came first, and I doubt I ever will. But I sincerely doubt it was yours.” Ah shit. Too honest.
It took a minute to realize what the rumbling sound was, but Theron realized it was a laugh. Fen’Harel was laughing. It was… far too charming.
After the laughter calmed, there was a lull. A quiet that was followed by a gentle breeze. Further proof that this was a dream because it was a pleasant smell and really, from what Theron knew about the goblin city and the Bog of Eternal Stench, it shouldn’t be.
“You’d be surprised. There was a time when all that you are, is everything I could have wished for.”
“But not anymore?” He asked carefully. Unlike earlier by the campfire, Theron didn’t dare look the wolf in the eyes. Somehow he was thrown off by the beast’s admission. It felt too real, and it felt oddly like an open wound.
When did hope become something he feared so much?
Silence wrapped around them again, and Theron felt a tugging at his mind. He was waking up. The wolf’s answer came almost too late.
“I don’t know.”