The Final Conversation

A note to start: I don’t work for BioWare any longer, and while I created and wrote Dorian for “Dragon Age: Inquisition”, this is purely fanfiction — a little story that planted itself in my head after a recent conversation over drinks, one which wouldn’t go away until I wrote it. Revisiting Dorian was both easier than I feared but harder than I’d imagined, so take this for what it’s worth…just a bit of time spent having fun with an old friend.
image credit to slugette

Three hours had passed since the funeral.

A funeral in Tevinter was a curious thing, particularly if the deceased was a magister. In this case, the body of Magister Halward Pavus had been laid upon a large stone dais in the middle of a massive underground mausoleum, its stone walls etched with centuries of smoke and grief. The shadows hung heavily, barely kept at bay by the flickering light of the many braziers that lined the hall, one by each towering column.

The magister himself had been dead for several weeks now, not that one could have easily discerned this. He might have simply been resting, arms folded across his chest, the color still visible in his cheeks. Only the occasional shimmer of magic across his form gave any hint of how he’d been preserved. Prior to being transported to the mausoleum this evening, he’d have been on display at the Pavus estate. It was tradition, with close family members coming to visit every day, sitting beside his bed and holding his hand, chatting with him as if he could still hear.

Mostly, Dorian figured, it was so the rest of the family could verify the deceased was, in fact, dead as promised. There were no illusions, no attempts to transform the body of some luckless slave into a simulacrum. Perhaps, in the distant past, it had been common for magisters to fake their deaths. An escape from their debts, or a convenient way to end a losing battle with one’s opponents. They could slip into the night unseen until returning when the time was right. Whatever the reason, it was common now for every distant relation to appear out of the woodwork, even ones you barely knew existed, each demanding the right to verify with their own eyes that they weren’t being deceived.

The Pavus estate would have been a madhouse of constant visitors. Somehow Lady Aquinea Pavus had endured it all, and during the funeral she had performed her duty according to yet another of Tevinter’s macabre traditions: standing guard at the dais of her dead husband. For hours she’d been there, stiff and silent like a gargoyle, her eyes gazing out over the scattered guests who milled around, wine glasses in hand, treating this as they would any other gathering of the elite. They chatted, politicked, occasionally laughed uproariously at a jest. More than one cousin of the household circulated, eyes gleaming with eager anticipation as they attempted to convince the powers present that they should assume Halward Pavus’s magisterial seat if his chosen heir did not materialize.

Every now and again, one of the guests would break off from the herd and make the trek up to Dorian’s mother, mouthing condolences and hollow regrets. She barely registered their presence, nodding if required but otherwise maintaining her vigil with the dignity her noble house required. Some might have taken her icy composure for callousness, or assumed she was so tightly wrapped within her grief there was simply no reaching her.

Dorian knew better: this was rage.

His mother stared out at those men and women, glittering in their gold-threaded robes and jewelry, knowing one of them was responsible for her husband’s death and yet completely unable to do anything about it. She seethed at her helplessness, and also at the fact that standing guard over Lord Halward was a duty which should have fallen to his heir — her son. Yet Dorian hadn’t shown.

So she waited. She waited as each guest slowly took their leave to escape the oppressing shadows. She waited until the mausoleum cleared, the last few stragglers awkwardly commending her dedication. When all were gone, she waited still. She did not blink as the elven servants came to extinguish most of the braziers, pointedly avoiding her, and did not flinch when they eventually fled her presence. Lady Pavus waited in the dark for her son for three hours, her silent fury gathered around her like armor, until finally she collected her skirts and walked out of the chamber. The clacking of her heels upon the hard stone echoing with grim finality.

And thus Dorian was left alone with his father.

He’d watched the proceedings from the dark upper gallery. He hadn’t bothered to disguise himself with magic — in this particular company, that would have been tantamount to shouting his presence from the rooftops, an option which had tempted him greatly even so. The collective clutching of pearls and scandalized whispers would almost have been worth it, if it wouldn’t have also meant he’d have needed to face his mother.

Which he should have done, he admitted that freely. Dorian’s cowardice was shameful, but he wasn’t ready to look into those dark eyes yet, to bear the blame he would have found there. Mother’s blame was cold and smothering, never spoken but always present between them, and today would have only added to the long and invisible tally she’d been keeping for however many years. He’d faced down dragons, but he couldn’t face that. Not yet.

Father came first.

This was one Tevinter tradition Dorian wasn’t going to pass up: the commutatus ultima, or the “final conversation”. It was a necromantic ritual, designed to allow a magister to have one last chat with their next in line… a way, if you will, to ensure that the silence of the grave wasn’t strictly eternal. Murderers could be named, family secrets passed on, the heir given whatever preparations the magister hadn’t put into writing before they passed. Technically it was also forbidden but, like many things in Tevinter, it was practiced so long as no-one discussed it.

“Hello, Father.”

His words felt too large in the lofty mausoleum, but nothing stirred in response. Certainly not the cold figure on the dais before him. The glamour which had been preserving him was already beginning to decay, and the flesh on the body’s face was taking on a waxy look. Soon the priestesses would arrive, quietly carting Father off to the lower tunnels where he would be magically incinerated and his ashes interred in an overly-fancy urn. They’d put that on a dusty shelf next to the urns of all the other Pavus magisters who came before him, a silent line left soaking in the darkness and their collective pride.

The ritual itself was simple. Dorian had specialized in necromancy not, as many had assumed, because it was considered vaguely distasteful by most within the Circle of Magi, but because it was the most difficult. Mastery over spirits and the very stuff of life. The looks he’d received upon announcing his choice had simply been an added bonus. Now he recalled those lessons as he drew the sigils in the dust at the base of the dais, reciting the old incantations. The energy thrilled along his skin, adding an electric current to the still mausoleum air that required only one additional ingredient to will into proper action: blood. It was always blood, here in Tevinter. Blood to provide life, to provide energy, to provide a connection to one’s ancestors. Assuming Father had taken the necessary steps before he died…

…and of course he had. Dorian made a simple slash across his hand, and the energies around Halward Pavus’s body instantly coalesced into a reddish mist. It formed into a figure that floated above the corpse, almost ghost-like, and even in the dim light Dorian could tell who it was.

My son. The words were not spoken so much as they settled into Dorian’s mind, a susurrus of whispers barely more audible than his own thoughts. He needed to school his mind into utter quiet to hear them, ignoring the chills racing up and down his arms. The irony that this reunion was permitted through the use of blood magic was not lost on him, but he devoted no attention to that now.

You’ve come. I knew you would come.

“Did you, now? I wasn’t as certain.”

But you are here now. The figure formed of reddish haze shifted slightly, its facial features forming something that seemed like a sad smile. More horrifying than comforting, really. An echo of a life departed, called back into this plane for but a short time. Was it truly worth it?

“I am. I’ve invoked the commutatus, Father.”

The figure was silent for a moment. Perhaps it was regarding Dorian now, sizing him up. It was difficult to tell. When it took a step from the dais towards Dorian, he retreated a step back. Not in fear, but just as a message: stay where you are, and come no closer.

You’ve changed a great deal.

“And you’re a great deal deader than I remember.”

There is so much for us to discuss. If you are to take the Pavus seat, you will need to know who our enemies are. One of them is responsible for the spell that slayed me, and it will be up to you to avenge my death.

“Avenge your death, is it?” Dorian smirked, despite himself.

Do you not wish to?

“You don’t honestly think that’s what I’m here for.”

You have a duty, if not to me than to your mother, to your name. Ours is a family with a long history, Dorian. If you are to take up the magisterial robes, there is much I must tell you and little time to —

Dorian held up his hand, taking a deep breath. “I didn’t come here to be prepared. I don’t know why you left your seat to me, Father, or why you think I’d want it. I’m fairly certain I made it quite clear I wished nothing to do with this dreary little life.”

If the ghostly figure could have arched its brows, it would have. It was an expression Father had used many times whenever they were about to argue, and Dorian sensed it now even if he couldn’t see it. Is this what you came to tell me? All this, it waved its arms at the sigils which still glowed bright red from Dorian’s spell, to declare your defiance yet again?

“We have an unfinished conversation, you and I.”

He’d meant to say more, and hadn’t meant the words to come out so tinged in bitterness, but now they were spoken. The ghostly figure stepped back to the dais and sat on the stony edge, as if weary from standing. I am dead, Dorian, his father said with a heavy sigh. Is that not enough for you, for us both?

“It’s a start,” Dorian snapped. “Why didn’t you mention, when we spoke, that you still wanted me to be your heir? All the threats, all the condemnations, and after all that you want me to carry on like nothing at all happened? Did you go soft in your old age, Father? Did regret finally catch up to you, the realization you had no child to carry the Pavus torch?”

I… regret many things.

“So you said the last time.” Dorian spun on his heel, ready to make the dramatic exit the moment called for, to leave this ghostly figure wallowing in its sadness until it faded away into nothing… but he just couldn’t will himself to do it. The realization that there were still words left to say hung too heavily on his shoulders. So he turned about again, though the effort cost him dearly. “Tell me why,” he said slowly. “Tell me why you still want me to do this.”

You are my son.

“That’s not what you said, before I left Tevinter. I’d gone to Minrathous after I discovered your little plan for me. Drank myself near to oblivion, did a fair number of things I’m not overly proud of, but I was in a bit of a state, yes? Yet somehow I nearly convinced myself there must have been some mistake. You couldn’t have done that to me, not that, not something so incredibly vile and beyond the bounds of everything you’d taught me. So I went home, hoping to find some vestige of the man I admired.”

Dorian, there is no need —

“You’d been told about my arrival, of course. Probably told about every little seedy thing I’d been up to in the capital. You were standing there at the gates like a guard dog, waiting for me. And the first words out of your mouth weren’t to welcome me back. They weren’t to say you were worried about me, about what you’d almost done to me. They weren’t an apology. Do you remember what they were, Father?”

The ghostly figure’s head sagged. You have gone too far, he finally said.

I had gone too far! Not you, but I. The line had been drawn, and I stood on the other side of it. I wasn’t to step foot into your house, your house, unless I gave up my selfish ways and stopped bringing scandal to the family. I replied with something along the lines of, ‘but it’s my family too, Father, and it could use a bit more scandal!’ Rather cheeky, I’ll admit, but it was short notice. Do you remember what came next?”

His father said nothing, merely staring at him with ghostly reddish eyes.

“It’s all right, I’ll finish it for you: ‘This is no family of yours,’ you said, ‘and you are no son of mine.’”

The mausoleum chamber was quiet, the only sound the faint crackling of the two remaining braziers which flanked the dais. Dorian waited for a response, for something, but — like ever — his father’s only response to being challenged was stony silence. It infuriated him in a way that few things did.

“There I was thinking, ‘I guess it’s finally done, it’s finally admitted and out in the open!’ I was not the son you wanted. I was incorrect. I was a living disappointment that you’d sooner cast out from your side, rather change than admit I might be different than you!” The words came out in a rush, Dorian feeling the heat rising in his face. He hated how his father was always able to goad him this way, almost effortlessly, now even from beyond the grave. “I respected that stand, at least. But then you came to find me in the Inquisition, not because I’d found a way to cause the family shame even from outside the empire, no, but because you wanted to talk.”

He folded his arms. “So talk. Tell me why I should take your place, Father. If the answer is ‘because you’re my son’, I can tell you that’s simply not going to be good enough.”

Why must it always be this way, Dorian?

“Oh, I don’t know. Stubborn, I suppose.”

The ghostly figure rose from the dais. He gazed at Dorian for a long moment, his expression unreadable, and then turned to look upon the body of Halward Pavus. He reached out with a hand, but the glowing mist passed through the flesh… and, with that, he faltered. With his back to Dorian, he finally lowered his head in defeat. I want you to become the magister after me, he said slowly, because you will be far better at it than I ever was.

Dorian’s eyebrows shot up. “I do believe I misheard you.”

I regret many things, Dorian. What I regret most of all is that it took me too long to recognize a son who… possessed more courage than his father.

The ghostly figure turned around once more. He approached, and this time Dorian did not step back. He could see the faint traces of his father’s face more clearly at this distance, enshrouded within the mist.

All the things I might have done, the lives I might have lived, and yet I did none of it because I saw my duty as a cage. Rather than be glad to see you escape it, I hated you for it. My own son. How dare you open the cage and walk out, when I had not even thought to check whether it was locked?

Dorian was shaken, and said nothing at first. “That’s… quite the metaphor to conjure on the spot, Father. I’m rather impressed.” He managed a chuckle, but it was flat.

You will have time, when you grow old, to think on these things. To realize that you are neither so powerful nor so wise as you believed. To realize your son will achieve greater things than you ever thought possible, not because of all you gave and taught him…

His father reached out, and although Dorian did not flinch away still the hand stopped short, and then slowly dropped back.

…but despite it.

They said nothing then. Dorian thought the ghostly figure of his father might continue, but he didn’t. Dorian then thought of several things he should say, some cold and others clever, but they all felt insufficient. Finally he shrugged, blinking away tears he refused to let fall. “You… weren’t always so terrible, Father.”

I did what I thought was best. I thought to change you, to spare you the pain I saw before you, but instead I made the pain so much worse. I should have had your courage, Dorian.

“You were protecting the family. I… I understood that. I hated that I understood that.”

You are my family.

The ghostly figure walked back to the dais again. The sigils were dimming, and already Dorian could see the reddish mists beginning to dissipate. Was it already over? The panic that rose within his heart was as sharp as it was unexpected.

Do better than I did, Dorian. Live a life of fewer regrets, and forgive your fool of a father, if you can.

His father looked at him, the barest smile across his lips.

Be the magister I should have been, and which all the rest of them will learn to fear.

And with that, the spell ended.

Dorian was left alone in the mausoleum with his thoughts and his father’s corpse, still lying atop the dais undisturbed. It occurred to him to wonder whether the apparition had been real. Could it have been a spirit, come to provide him the words it believed he wanted to hear? Is that perhaps all the ritual ever provided? Or was there some part of Dorian which thought that might be preferable, might be more real, than these parting words with a man he’d learned to hate as much as he’d loved?

There were no answers forthcoming.

With a boot, he scraped away the now-cold sigils from the stone. He was about to leave, but then thought better of it. Instead, Dorian reached into his belt pack and pulled out a silver flask. Opening it, he lifted it towards the dais.

“To things that might have been,” he said, his words nearly choked behind a cloud of emotions he’d thought long left behind, “and to fewer regrets.”

Dedicated to elidoo