Though it shames me a little to admit it, I am a little bit filthy, and while I’m plenty picky about quality writing and good story, it’s very rare that I take the time to read a fic that has no sex in it at all. A recent exception has been Bellus et Bestia by CandidCantrix on AO3. The story is a Dragon Age: Inquisition AU about Dorian and The Iron Bull that takes place before the game’s story. It really delves into Qunari culture and Iron Bull’s mental state, as well as taking a slightly different approach to Dorian’s past. It is very, very loosely based on the story of Beauty and the Beast, but instead of taking the obvious tack and making the eight-foot-tall horned Qunari the “beast” character, Iron Bull is actually the one who gets captured and held captive by Dorian, who is rather horrifically less pretty in this AU than in the game.
The story takes place on Seheron, a long-disputed jungle island in the ancient and ongoing Qunari/Tevinter conflict. In the game, Iron Bull explains that he was stationed there for a while, and mentions that the psychological stress of constant guerilla warfare on Seheron was a major problem in the Qunari army, but the game only touches on how that affected Bull personally. Bellus et Bestia begins with a mission where Iron Bull leads a small contingent to intercept Tevinter weapons traders at an abandoned Tevinter estate on Seheron. They are successful in that mission, but two people under Bull’s command are killed, and Bull himself is wounded in the struggle and taken captive by a man with bandages on his face who insists he’s just a bystander. Bull awakes in a cave, wounded and magically restrained, to find that his captor isn’t quite properly human.
The robes that covered Dorian’s face had been ripped down one side, and the firelight was flickering over his features from below. They were wrong. That was the only word for it – he looked like something based off a person, but his eyes were black and his skin hung grey and leathery from his face, not Qunari grey, but almost corpse-like. A curving, ragged row of fangs poked out over his bottom lip.
The image fitted itself over the memories from the last time he’d fought a magister, with all her conjured pets grasping for him, slippery fingers down his skin and his head.
During Dorian’s personal quest in Inquisition, he explains that his father attempted a highly dangerous demon-summoning blood magic ritual to turn him straight. In this AU, that ritual went disastrously wrong, leaving Dorian with demonic features that are slowly taking over his body and mind. He has come to Seheron to isolate and attempt to cure himself, and he has decided he can’t let Bull go, for fear that the Qunari will find him before his work is complete. Over the course of several weeks, as Dorian works with magical experiments and Bull heals, the two become friends. Ultimately Dorian comes to trust Bull enough to let him go, but Bull keeps visiting Dorian in secret to escape the mentally harrowing conditions on Seheron. Meanwhile, the experiment that Dorian was pinning his hopes on has been accidentally ruined, he’s becoming more desperate and despondent, and while he remains mentally himself most of the time, he progressively becomes more demon than Dorian.
The story remains unfinished, and given that there have been several months since the last update it may sadly remain that way, but it is exceptionally well-written, does a great job of extended worldbuilding, and it uses limited third person to capture Bull’s narrative voice exceptionally well, contrasting the casual, unaffected way he tends to speak with his actual perception of what’s going on and what effect it has on him.
One time, the Bull had woken up with a blade in his chest. Weirdest feeling.
Three months after he was packed off to Seheron, he’d been sent marching off to the West coast with nine other wet-behind-the-ears agents. They’d been five paces behind the commander all the way, taking it nice and gradual because they were proud to serve the Qun but they were Ben-Hassrath, not the Antaam. They’d heard enough rumours about the situation in Alam to take their time while they could. Who knew when they’d have another chance to shoot the shit while grabbing handfuls of the low-hanging fruit smacking them in the face, tossing the cores back among the trees? The Bull had been relaxed, relaxed and bright-eyed and sharp enough to cut himself, so at night he slept out right beside the others. They didn’t bother with a night watch. It was farmland in every direction and besides, who’d mess with them?
He’d been dreaming, he remembered, because there was this bit in the dream where something started crushing him. Then he’d woken up, and there’d been a knife sticking out of his chest, and red eyes above him. Hot breath in his face. The crushing feeling didn’t go away and at first he was too confused to feel the pain…
Apparently it’d been Tal-Vashoth, worried that the squad were there to take them out. No-one had even known there were Tal-Vashoth in the area, but later Bull would realise that there really wasn’t anywhere on Seheron that a threat couldn’t come from. He’d been lucky, his commander told him while wrapping the wound, because Tal-Vashoth were too unhinged to remember how to fight with discipline. That one had stabbed Bull in a frenzy, so the wound was deep but badly-placed, whereas a Fog Warrior would have seen a sleeping body and gone straight for the throat.
He’d never really slept properly outdoors again. After a few months in the city, he stopped sleeping properly indoors too.
Setting the story on Seheron gives an image of the island and the Qunari presence there that Inquisition hinted at but never explored in depth, and makes it clear how important the whole experience likely was to Bull’s character development. The fact that Dorian’s father’s gay-curing magic went catastrophically wrong in this AU also illustrates just how destructive that father-son relationship really was. The ritual failed to have any effect in the game itself, but it is implied that this was a canonical possible outcome, and that this was a risk Dorian’s father was willing to take simply to make him straight.
Bellus et Bestia also expands on society under the Qun, at least as it pertains to Seheron: how things are rationed, how records are kept, how physical and psychological health are coped with (including “sexual relief detail”, which Qunari consider important to mental health, and which is explained a little in game). As a bean counting, detail-oriented nerd myself and a sucker for good worldbuilding, I really enjoyed these aspects of the story and how they meshed with the bits of information explained in the game. It all worked to create an interesting backdrop to the core struggles Bull faced within Qunari society and how they played out in the game.
I am eagerly awaiting the next installment of this story, but simultaneously trying not to get my hopes up. Even if it remains unfinished, I strongly recommend checking it out. The existing twelve chapters are content heavy and a pleasure to read, and we geeks are lucky in that at least we have good imaginations.