The Canticle of Fate

The Canticle of Fate

{Completed} This is the song of those that would stand against the chaos. The song of the Inquisition.

17,987 readers have visited this universe since AugustArria created it. Talisman, Kurokiku, Yonbibuns, and The Valkyrie are listed as curators.

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http://www.bioware.com/en/

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Introduction



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And so is the Golden City blackened
With each step you take in my Hall.
Marvel at perfection, for it is fleeting.
You have brought Sin to Heaven
And doom upon all the world.
-Threnodies 8:13

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The Mage Rebellion has begun. In the years following the violence between mage and Templar in Kirkwall, more Circles across southern Thedas rebelled against the Templars, those they saw as oppressors and jailors more than protectors and allies. Soon, all of the Circles had been disbanded, leaving every mage in Ferelden, Orlais, and the Free Marches labeled as an apostate, an enemy to all civilized peoples. The military arm of the Chantry dedicated themselves to eradicating the threat magic posed. The violence spread.

In an effort to contain the growing chaos, Divine Justinia V used her considerable influence to arrange for a meeting between the leaders of both the Templars and the mages, at a neutral site. There they would try to come to some agreement, some kind of compromise, before the war could do any further harm. Both sides made the pilgrimage in force to the Temple of Sacred Ashes, in the Frostback Mountains. Here, at this most holy site, was the best, and possibly only, chance for peace. But it was not to be. Other forces were at work, and the Conclave ended in disaster. A massive explosion decimated the Temple of Sacred Ashes from within, leaving seemingly no survivors, and opening a great rift in the sky, a massive tear in the Veil that spewed forth demons without end. The mages were scattered to the winds and left to regroup, while the Templars renewed their faith in their war.

From within the wreckage of the Temple, two individuals staggered forth from a rift, wounded and soon fading from consciousness. This would only be the beginning. From the ashes of the hope for peace, a new power would rise. It would be led by individuals willing and able to weather the storm, to stand against the chaos that had consumed Thedas. This is their song, their story, of how Fate plucked them from their lives, and chose them for something greater...





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Blessed are they who stand before
The corrupt and the wicked and do not falter.
Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just.
-Benedictions 4:10
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A Dragon Age AU written by:
AugustArria | The Valkyrie | Talisman | Yonbibuns | Kurokiku


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The City of Chains

Set during the events of Dragon Age 2, The City of Chains tells the interwoven stories of nine individuals who come to reside in the city of Kirkwall during the most turbulent eight-year period in its history. They come from all walks of life, but are united in their desire to build a life in the city they come to call home. But that life isn't easy in a city where magic, religion, race, and politics clash on a daily basis. To secure their future, they must navigate a dangerous road, one that leads to events that will shape the very future of Thedas.


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The Canticle of Fate

Three years after the events of The City of Chains, the south of Thedas is in chaos. The Mage-Templar war threatens to destroy both factions, and wreaks havoc across Ferelden. Civil war looms in Orlais as Celene's grip falters. In an effort to contain the chaos, a Conclave is called between mages and templars at the Temple of Sacred Ashes. But this only leads to tragedy, as an unseen enemy strikes, and the temple is destroyed, leaving only two mysterious survivors. With the Divine dead, the Inquisition is reborn, and called to restore order where chaos now reigns. This is their story. This is The Canticle of Fate.

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The Canticle of Fate: Silver Lion Stanza

Following the defeat of Corypheus, the Inquisition was restructured and moved to a new home in Lydes. While no imminent world-shattering threat remains for them to combat, there are still a great many dangers left over from the strife that ravaged southern Thedas. The Canticle of Fate: Silver Lion Stanza is centered around the city of Val Royeaux, where growing racial tensions between humans and elves threaten to escalate into chaos. The new Emperor and Empress send for two elven Argent Lions, agents both capable and trustworthy, to find the source of the trouble, and keep the peace. With the weight of the past and expectations for the future bearing down on them, their time to be heroes has come.

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Dragon Age: The Undoing

Something of an informal, retconned prequel to the other stories, The Undoing takes place back in the year 1:95 Divine, at the end of the second Blight. It follows a group of elite (and expendable) warriors on a last-ditch, desperate suicide mission: to take out the Archdemon's four most elite darkspawn underlings, and bring the areas of the world these generals occupy back under the control of the Grey Wardens and their allies. The team is made up of oddballs who don't fit anywhere else, the mission is damn near impossible, and everything points to an early failure. Naturally, it gets worse before it gets better.


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The Story

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius

Earnings

0.25 INK

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Those who oppose Thee
Shall know the wrath of heaven.
Field and forest shall burn,
The seas shall rise and devour them,
The wind shall tear their nations
From the face of the earth.
Lightning shall rain down from the sky,
They shall cry out to their false gods,
And find silence.
—Canticle of Andraste 7:19

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He woke as he had lived: on his knees.

It was a sound that stirred Romulus first, a crackling like lightning, but without the thunder. Dull shocks of pain rattled up his arm and through his body, and he groaned quietly. His eyes slowly opened, to see nothing but blurred darkness. There was some dull light ahead of him, on the ground around him, but he couldn't make it out. He was hungry, but nauseous. Uncomfortable from the hot pains and the cold air. He was a man far from home, and worst of all, he didn't understand what had led him to this point.

Another crackle from below, and he grimaced, as a green light illuminated his peripherals. He tipped forward, barely putting his hands to the ground to catch himself. The green light was stifled, and Romulus heard the clink of iron manacles. In chains again. He shifted his feet beneath him. His legs were mostly numb, either from the cold or the awkward position, but he heard the same clink from them as well. Either he was a prisoner to someone, or he was home again, and in a great deal of trouble.

He turned his left hand over to look at his palm. A mark spread across his skin, a vaguely green-tinted scar, but from what weapon, Romulus could not say. Suddenly, it erupted with green light and the crackling noise, and the pain shot through him with ease, eliciting a growl of pain. In the light, he could see the symbol on the cold stone floor beneath him. The Chantry sun. His vision was clearing up. This was some kind of cellar or storage area. It hardly looked like a dungeon.

To his left was the only other person in the room. A young woman, by the looks of her, but it was hard to tell precisely how young, given that her face was streaked with dirt and half of it was planted against the floor. She may have originally been kneeling as he was, but if so, she’d tipped over sideways at some point, and was now half-sprawled with her head towards him, clearly unconscious. She was wearing some kind of dark red or maroon tunic, a silver stripe on the outside of her sleeve at her bicep, but beyond that she bore no identifying markers. An empty scabbard at one hip indicated she’d once been armed, but of greater interest was her right hand.

Her fingers were curled inwards slightly, obscuring her palm, but nonetheless there was a soft green light issuing from it, throwing her face into a sickly sort of relief in the gloom of whatever chamber they’d been thrown into.

He remembered her. Her face, her clothes. He'd seen her, not long ago, he knew that much. Romulus tried to rise, to push himself over to her, so that he might wake her and figure what had happened to them, but before he could even get his feet under him the green light burst again from his hand, forcing him back down. Nearby he heard soft footsteps, and stilled himself, breathing slowly through his nose.

The footsteps, deliberate but swift, grew louder, resolving into three distinct pairs of feet: two pairs heavier than the third. They hit what must have been a staircase, and then a door in the front of the room burst open with a bang, almost thrown back too hard. A woman in dark clothing entered, followed by a pair of larger men, both armed with halberds. She herself bore no visible weaponry, but from the way they were two paces behind her at all times, it was clear that she wielded the authority in the group.

She came to a stop before them, motioning to the guard on her right, who detached from her flank and circled around behind both Romulus and the girl. A shifting of armor plates made it obvious he’d leveled his weapon, but at a modest distance. The woman, blonde and entering middle age, narrowed her eyes, flicking them to the girl a moment before they came to rest on him.

“Explain.” The command was soft, but a threat was clearly implied.

Romulus had worked himself back to his centered kneeling position by the time the woman came before him with her two guards. Her command was not surprising to him; it was not difficult to tell he'd done something to land himself within these walls, in these chains, but he knew not what it was, or how it had happened. He remembered... some things, but they would not be shared with her on a simple command.

There was some that could be discerned simply by looking at him. The markings on him, not to mention his skin tone and general appearance, identified him as Rivaini of birth. His weapons had been either destroyed or confiscated, as had his tonics. He'd been removed of his outer layer of clothing, the leather armor chest piece and the thick cloak, leaving him only in a bland, dark tunic, and brown trousers. There were no identifying markers on his clothes or weapons to link him to any person or organization, nor were there any orders or notes in his possession to be confiscated. This, of course, was by design, in case this exact situation occurred.

He settled his hands on his thighs, and kept his gaze steady, around the level of the woman's feet. Any words he spoke would have repercussions for more than just himself, he knew. So he spoke none.

As it happened, that silence would go unchallenged, at least for a moment, because the girl next to him was starting to stir. At first, it looked like she’d fallen into the grip of some nightmare—her hands clenched and she seemed to curl in on herself, her knees pulled as close into her chest as her chains would allow. But then the cracking sound returned, and her eyes snapped open even as her expression twisted in pain.

She gripped her wrist with her other hand until it passed, then slowly pushed herself into a sitting position, her legs tucked under her. She blinked several times, apparently taking in her surroundings, before her brows knit and she tipped her head to look up at the woman. “Who… what’s… what happened?” She listed slightly sideways again, but caught herself before she fell over.

The woman’s lips thinned, frustration seeping into her facial expression. A muscle in her jaw ticked, but when she spoke, it was slow and deliberate, the cadence almost monotone. “The Conclave was attacked. The Temple of Sacred Ashes is destroyed. The Divine, hundreds of Templars and mages, all dead. And you—” Her hand spread in a gesture that encompassed both of them. “You were the only survivors. I will not ask again: explain. Give me a reason not to kill you where you sit.” Behind them, the guard’s armor plates scraped softly.

Romulus processed the information. The Conclave, attacked. The Temple, destroyed. The Divine, dead. And they believed him... responsible? If he'd been pulled from the ruins of a Temple, in his current shape, he supposed he would think himself guilty, too. He didn't feel great, but he was in no danger of dying. At least, not from physical wounds. The scar on his hand, the flashing green light, it was not a good sign. Perhaps he was a dead man already.

He had the words to stay her hand. At least, he suspected they might stay her hand. Perhaps they'd simply kill him anyway. He could give the parameters of his mission. To infiltrate the Temple, not destroy it. To watch over the Conclave and report on it, not attack it. To ensure that the Divine lived, not kill her. But to relay the orders he'd been given would prompt the question of who had given them. Better for them to think he'd acted on his own.

Romulus remained silent.

“D-dead?” the other prisoner seemed to have no such compunction. “All of them?” Here eyes were wide, undisguised grief slowly dawning over her features. Her next exhale shuddered from her lungs, but she straightened herself up, blinking away what must have been tears. She murmured something too low to hear, then squared her shoulders and met their interrogator’s eyes.

“Please, I…” she trailed off and licked her lips, swallowing audibly. “My name is Estella Avenarius. I’m… I’m a lieutenant with the Argent Lions mercenary company. We were… we were there to help protect the Conclave, to make sure that the mages and Templars kept the peace. I—” Her voice faltered. “I remember running.” She glanced to her side, at Romulus. “We were both running, from… something. And there was… a woman, I think, reaching toward us.” She shook her head. “And then nothing. This.”

A pause. “Please… we didn’t… we aren’t behind this.”

Despite his stoic demeanor thus far, Romulus could not hide the compulsory reaction at the name that fell from the lips of the other prisoner. His eyes shifted left, his head following suit before he turned it back a moment later. Estella Avenarius. Could it be that he recognized her from more than just a recent memory? He knew the family name, and knew it to be Tevinter. He remembered a pair of children, from a time when the word slave had no meaning to him. But more than that, he remembered the family name, and how it occasionally graced the tongue of his domina. Did she remember him, he wondered? Unlikely.

A slow breath hissed out of the interrogator, but she seemed to relax slightly at the mention of something the girl had said. Perhaps it was her name, or perhaps it was the company she spoke of. Still, she looked to be gathering herself for another question before the door opened again, this time with no footsteps to presage it. The guards remained in place when she turned, her shoulders easing further at the appearance of the new person.

From the ears, he could only be an elf, though a relatively tall one. His hair was white, but obviously not from age, and the sunburst mark of the Chantry was prominent upon his brow. He was dressed for battle, not so differently from the woman he stopped beside. Sharp eyes swept over the both of them, though they stopped on Estella. “Unchain her, and his feet. They must go to the Rift.” His tone was flat, as though devoid of any feeling whatsoever, and his expression remained neutral as Estella was released and the other guard warily unshackled Romulus’s feet, leaving his hands bound as they had been.

As soon as she was free, Estella sighed softly, then turned to the new arrival and smiled. It wasn’t a large one, and was contained primarily in her eyes, but though it faded quickly, it was definitely present. She looked relieved, and a few steps later she was directly in front of him. There was a slightly-unsure moment where it looked like she might attempt to hug him, but she didn’t, instead turning around partway, to where Romulus was still shackled. “Can’t we take those off? I don’t remember much of what happened, but I know it wasn’t his fault.”

"Perhaps, but other things remain to be determined. Follow me, both of you."

Romulus might've tried to make an escape after his feet were unshackled, but his estimations of his captors left him overmatched. The Tranquil moved extremely well, and was geared for a fight. Romulus had nothing but manacles around his wrists. Estella, at least, seemed to have a decent relationship with the elf. Her defense of him, while entirely unwarranted, was welcome. If she remembered the same that he did, there was no way to be so certain.

A strong hand gripped his arm and hauled him to his feet. After being prodded to move forward, Romulus was allowed to walk on his own. His dark eyes were constantly moving, wary, unused to being the center of concern for so many. The guards didn't much care for watching Estella, he could see. They had eyes only for him, the man who would not speak in his own defense.

They passed through a heavy oak door, climbing some stairs until they entered the main hall of what looked to be a Chantry building. The pews had been pushed off to the sides or even dismantled, while the walls were lined with the wounded and weary. Their eyes found the two marked prisoners as they walked, and their gazes were accusing. How long had it been, Romulus wondered. There was a gap in his memory, but the length of it, he could not say.

Two guards at the main doors pushed them open for the group, and blinding afternoon light, reflected off the pearly white snow, assaulted his eyes. He brought a hand up against the light, and shuddered briefly from the chill, the feel of which he had yet to become accustomed to.

What urged him to open his eyes and look around was a crackle, not unlike the kind that came from his hand, but deeper and much more powerful, followed by rumbles and distant booms. He lowered his hands, and stared up into the sky. In the distance, above where the Temple of Sacred Ashes once stood, was now a great beacon of green light, reaching up into a great tear in the very sky itself. Even the clouds around it appeared ill, diseased. It seemed to radiate magical energy from within, even at this distance.

"It is called the Rift, or the Breach, depending on who is referring to it.” The Tranquil explained this with the same unshakeable air they always seemed to have. “Three days ago, it appeared in the sky, after an explosion that destroyed the Conclave, and killed almost everyone in attendance.” He turned to face them, and his eyes fell upon the marks on their hands. “It shares some properties with the marks you bear, though the exact nature of the connection is elusive. What we do know is that it is a sort of tear in the curtain between this world and the Fade. And it grows.”

Cutting his glance from Romulus to Estella and then back again, he continued. “It is not the only one, but it is the largest, and all have the same cause. If it continues to grow, the results will be unpleasant.”

“So then… how do we fix it?” Estella stared up at it, lips pursed into a thin line, before another loud burst accompanied her pitching forward onto her hands and knees as the mark on her hand brightened. As quickly as the pulse had come, it appeared to recede, and she clenched her fist around a chunk of snow.

Romulus suffered the same, his left hand bursting from within with the same green light, and he doubled over, clutching it to himself. He tightly controlled his breathing, tearing his eyes from the Breach and placing them on the Tranquil.

He’d bent over to assist Estella to her feet, taking hold of both her elbows until she was steady again. Once both were more or less recovered, he stepped back. "I do not know with certainty. But we have observed that every time the Rift grows, your marks do as well, and they are killing you. The best hypothesis we have is that those marks may be necessary to close the Breach, but time grows short, for you and for the rest of us.”

“If I can help, then I will. Just tell me what I have to do.” Estella drew herself up taller, her expression smoothing out even as her shoulders aligned properly over her spine. She held the Tranquil’s eyes for a moment, then turned hers towards Romulus, the question in them obvious.

Romulus took the news that he was dying fairly well, all things considered. The Tranquil's estimation of the situation made things a lot clearer for him, in fact. The tear in the sky was a danger to all, and to their knowledge, the marks on their hands were somehow linked. If there were no further questions for the moment as to why he was here, uninvited, or how he'd ended up a survivor of the deadly blast, then he could help. But there was a condition, first.

He held out his shackled hands, and spoke quietly. "Unbind me. And I will help." It was possible he didn't have a choice in the matter. But he was also much more useful with his hands at his disposal. And it seemed like they needed all the help they could get.

The elf nodded to the guard nearest, who stepped forward and unchained Romulus, replacing the shackles at his belt. For a moment, the Tranquil simply studied him, head tilted slightly to one side, but if he had anything further by way of questions, he asked only one.

"What is your name?”

For the moment, they displayed about the same level of emotion to one another, even though one was Tranquil. He rubbed his wrists once they were free.

"Romulus."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

Earnings

0.00 INK

Unfortunately, though they had been freed in the strict sense, it did not seem that everyone had accepted the situation quite the same way Rilien had. As he led them down a short pathway to what looked like the exit of whatever encampment this was, there was no shortage of hostile glares to go around. Some part of Estella wanted to wither and hide behind the Tranquil, or else stop and try to explain the situation to everyone, but that part was something she kept a lid on as well as she could, trying not to let her apprehension creep into her body language. She walked a great deal like the elf in front of her, actually, though she didn’t consciously make an attempt to do so.

They stopped for a moment by someone who must have been in charge of supplies or something, and not for the first time, she wondered whose soldiers these really were. They wore the colors of no nation, and something about the settlement suggested far too many for any mercenary company she’d ever heard of. But they weren’t Templars, and they didn’t look like mages, either, which left her entirely mystified as to their allegiance. In any case, Rilien seemed to have authority enough to get their equipment back, and she felt herself ease slightly once her saber was back at her side where it belonged.

It didn’t take her more than a few minutes to arrange her leathers, either, pulling them back on over her company tunic. Her motion hitched for just a moment when she got to her cloak, dark grey and clasped with a simple lion design in silver, and her fingers trembled when she affixed it by her shoulder, but she knew well enough that she couldn’t think about it now. First, the Rift, and then… then everything else.

A deep breath put it from her mind, and she glanced askance at her unlikely companion. Romulus—something was there, some memory she couldn’t recall, but likely, it was just one of the many gaps in her recollection of the events of three days ago that needed filling. “Ready?” Her tone was quiet, but not so flat as either of theirs had been.

Romulus had finished donning his own gear a few moments before Estella. He wore only a sturdy leather chestplate for armor, and had added gloves and his black cloak to the ensemble. In his left hand, where the glow of his mark still came slightly through the glove, was a flat targe shield, unadorned and sturdy, while in his right was a wide thrusting dagger, which he sheathed at the hip on that side. He buckled on a heavy belt with several pouches, briefly checking inside for their contents. He then pulled his hood up, casting his eyes into shadow, and nodded.

“Okay then.” She supposed it was a good thing taciturn people didn’t intimidate her as much as they used to. Turning back to Rilien, she nodded, and the two of them followed after him as he led them onto a mountain path of some kind. It wasn’t exactly snowing, but there was plenty of it blowing around; the wind seemed to be quite strong here, but then, it was the mountains. They passed some fortifications along the way; it seemed the demons from the Breach had made it at least this far already, at some point.

They might have made faster progress, had the marks on their hands not kept acting up. Estella had been electrocuted before, and it felt a little like that—like a mage putting a bolt of lightning right in the palm of her hand. It tingled and left her temporarily numb, and she flexed the leather of her glove, trying to restore sensation each time. It wasn’t unbearable, though, just sudden, and they kept up a march pace.

After about ten minutes, they came to a stone bridge, the river beneath which seemed to be frozen through. Her breath puffed out in little clouds as she followed the Tranquil over, the rock solid under her feet until about halfway over. She’d chanced another look at the Breach, only to find that something else was falling from it—and was about to land where she was.

“Look out!” A spilt-second later, there was a massive crash, and the bridge collapsed beneath them, spilling Estella down towards the ice below. She landed hard on her shoulder, her head knocking into a stone and sending white flickers across her vision. Several more crashed down around her, cracking the ice in several places but not breaking through. Disoriented and dizzy, she could still make out the vague outlines of several demons, which had apparently scattered from the initial impact. Trying to stand was presently proving to be an impossible endeavor, as she couldn’t balance well enough to get her feet underneath her.

Another impact sound corresponded with Rilien’s appearance in Estella’s field of vision, his hands moving to where his knives were crossed over his back. He drew both in a smooth, practiced motion, then glanced back at her over his shoulder. The demons crept closer, however, and though his lips pursed slightly, he returned his attention forward, and sprang, propelling himself forward with powerful strides that seemed not to falter even on the slick surface of the ice.

He used it to his advantage, actually, sliding himself past the first of the demons, a hunched shade with inky-purple flesh and arms many times too long for its proportions. It took a swing at him, but he ducked under it, allowing his momentum to carry him past, until he curved his trajectory sharply to the side and came around behind it, plunging both knives into its back and tearing them out to either side. It fell with a wet splattering sound to the ice below.

From nearby Estella another of the shades pulled itself from a small crater in the ground, glowing eyes locked on her. They were soon forced away, however, when Romulus leaped down from a pill of rubble and bashed it solidly in the side of the head with his shield's rim. It moaned angrily, slashing at him with clawed hands, but he nimbly darted back a step, sliding a foot on the ice but clearly expecting to do so. The next slash scraped over the face of his shield, and he took a hard step forward, wrapping his shield arm around the grotesque neck of the thing and swinging around onto its back. From there he plunged his wide knife down into its chest, and tore up vertically, spewing black blood down onto the ice.

It sank down into the earth, lowering Romulus down with it to land firmly on his feet. He wiped the knife clean and sheathed it, before walking the few steps over to Estella, and holding out his right hand.

"Can you stand?"

Estella blinked a few times, fighting back a sigh. Of course. She couldn’t even regain her feet in enough time to be useful. She felt the distinct and familiar knot of shame forming at the pit of her stomach, but all the same she nodded, though she wasn’t entirely sure of the veracity of her answer, and reached out with her left hand, grasping Romulus’s right and using it to pull herself to her feet.

Once the initial wave of nausea had passed, she made sure her feet were steady underneath her, and only then let go of his hand. “I… yeah. Thanks, I’m okay now.” Or okay enough anyway. She made sure all her equipment was in place before following the other two off the river and onto the bank. There didn’t seem to be much around, and the wind carried no sound to her ears save the occasional hum or rumble from the Rift itself.

Demons fell from the sky with much greater regularity as they got closer, most of them striking relatively far away, seemingly concentrated on some area still in the distance. The general sense Estella had was that they were climbing, though the road was far from straightforward, and occasionally they took what must have been shortcuts over frozen rivers, often enough that she was suddenly glad of that time her brother had frozen the pond behind the Chantry garden and insisted she slide around on it with him. At least she didn’t fall, though she hardly managed the crossings with the grace of the others.

Eventually, they came to a more robust-looking architectural feature: two stone pillars flanking a deliberate staircase, which was mostly but not completely covered in snow. By this point, the din of a battle was audible, and Estella looked to Rilien.

"Allies. We had best make haste.” He mounted the stairs first, daggers still drawn, and led them into what looked like the remains of a building, its bones now open to the elements. Given that only about two feet of wall had survived anywhere, they were easily able to spot a small-scale battle in progress, several more of the soldiers in open conflict with a pack of demons about ten strong.

More curious than that, however, was the green, crystalline structure seemingly suspended in midair in the center of the skirmish. It oscillated and mutated its shape almost constantly, but occupied roughly the same area at all times. The hue of it was a match to the marks on their hands and the massive Rift in the sky, an ominous hint at its nature.

Rilien moved forward first, picking up into a run and leaping off the five-foot ledge that separated them from the battle below. He disappeared almost immediately into the fray, leaving them to follow.

Romulus paused before following, to draw a thin vial of light blue liquid from a pouch on his belt. He pulled the cork from the top of it with his shield hand, and tipped his head back, downing the concoction in one gulp. From under his hood, his skin took on a shimmering appearance for a few moments, like a physical layer had surrounded him following the ingestion of the tonic. He shook his head, perhaps at the taste of the strength of it, slipping the now empty vial back into the pouch. He then drew his knife, and dropped down after Rilien.

With no excuse for laying around this time, Estella was a bit slower on the takeoff than the other two, but with a delay of a couple seconds to gape at the green crystal… thing, she was off, too, her saber in her hand, glowing faintly with the light of its enchantment. She approached the ledge at a sprint, leaping off with all the momentum she had, landing heavily but steadily on the ground below. Her entrance drew the attention of at least one of the demons, another shade, and her grip tightened on her sword as she set her feet properly underneath her, bending slightly at the knees.

She exhaled as it lunged for her, dodging to the side in enough time that its claws whistled by her leathers, and she used the proximity to bring the saber down with a two-handed grip, scoring a deep slash in its forearm. She’d learned never to overcommit to any single maneuver, though, and so she didn’t waste time trying to cut any deeper than she already had, instead slicing another shallow gash further up the arm before it recovered and shoved at her with its other hand.

Forced to take several steps back, she reset her stance and propelled herself forward, lower than its shoulder, keeping the saber down by her hip, angling it only as she charged by its side, the lunge itself as well as the clever angle of the blade doing more of the work than her arms, which was fortunate since she wasn’t that strong. The gash was deep this time, and she whirled, taking advantage of the time it took to accustom itself to the pain and aiming her next stroke, letting it slide across the side of what passed for its neck, bringing a gout of blackish-red blood to the surface and dropping the shade itself to the ground.

There was no time for celebration, however, as something—she knew not what—caught her in the back, sending her pitching forwards onto her face. She rolled to the side, knowing that any follow-up would likely aim for where she landed, and in doing so, narrowly avoided another set of claws. She kicked for the shade’s legs, before remembering it didn’t have legs, as such, and was almost impossible to trip, wasting her opportunity. Wincing at the pain in her back, she leaped to her feet, in just enough time to catch the incoming swing with the blade side of her sword.

Her arms shook with the effort of fending off the blow, but then she angled the saber to slide it away, and it bit deeper into the shade’s hand, earning her an enraged shriek. Gritting her teeth, she pressed forward, slashing broadly on her strongest pattern: the diagonal right-to-left. That staggered the creature, and she was moving forward for the finishing blow when suddenly, pain erupted on her right hand again, worse than before, and she fell to her knees with the force of it, unable to finish off the shade, which readied to do her in instead.

Romulus fell to a knee nearby as well, gritting his teeth and managing to keep his shield raised, despite the crackling green light emanating from behind it. A shade bashed against the shield, forcing it aside, but when it raised both arms for a more damaging strike he lunged forward, plunging the knife into its chest and driving it back. Romulus withdrew the knife and thrust it in several more times, forcing the shade to sink to the ground along with him.

The shade struck to try and rip Estella's head from her shoulders with its claws. Before it could follow through in its attempt however, it came to a very sudden and violent stop, as if it hit something other than its target. And it appeared to have, as a blue transparent luminescent barrier stood erected between Estella and the shade. Then, someone else came into view, someone new. A tall woman with white hair and a pair of horns rising from her forehead, one hand wreathed in the same blue as the shield, the other holding a staff, put herself beside Estella.

The hand that controlled the Fade then shoved forward and the shield mimicked the gesture, ramming back into the shade and creating room between it and them. She pulled her hand back and threw it forward again, the shield bashing the shade again, and throwing it to the ground. She finished by drawing the shield into the air, and slamming it into the prone shade, banishing it in a plume of green light.

With the shade dealt with, the woman immediately turned and went to a knee. Clearly she was looking for any injuries Estella may have sustained in the fight, but upon finding none that were immediately visible, offered a timid smile. A smile that quickly faded when the light of the mark on her hand caught her golden eyes.

Estella frowned, too, looking down at it, then back up at the woman. Qunari; something she knew mostly because of a friend. She hadn’t met many, but she wasn’t afraid. At least not anymore. “Thank you,” she murmured, pushing herself to her feet. A quick glance around confirmed that the last of the shades was falling, meeting its end by Rilien’s knives, from the look of it. She wasn’t sure she should find that thought as reassuring as she did, but there it was.

Of course, that still left the matter of the green… thing in the air. “Is that… also a rift?” It was obviously not quite the same as the one all the way up in the sky, but Rilien had said something about smaller ones existing as well. She couldn’t help but stare at it, even as the mark on her hand seemed to grow almost agitated, the light in it pulsing brighter, though not quite as badly as when it grew.

"Yes.” Rilien’s reply was prompt, even as he stooped to wipe the blood and ichor from his knives with snow, sliding them back into their wooden sheaths. He remained at a distance from the anomaly itself however, his eyes fixed on it in a fashion that could only be described as wary. "There are many of these in the area.”

The Qunari woman had slipped back out of view behind Estella, though she was soon reminded of her presence when gentle fingers gingerly grasped the forearm of the hand that held the mark. The young woman's eyes went from the mark to the smaller rift before alighting on Estella. Though she averted them before they could make eye contact, the woman offered a hopeful smile before leading Estella's hand to stretch out toward the rift.

It felt… right, somehow. The same kind of right she rarely encountered during one of her training sessions, when she executed some move exactly the way she, intellectually, knew it was supposed to be done. The kind of right that happened when mind and body were in concordance, harmony. Like it was natural as breathing.

Of course, that feeling lasted only for a moment, and then there was pain. The electric sensation of something ripping up her whole arm from her hand, doing a torturous circuit of her entire body, and then exiting again. And something certainly exited, a beam of green-and-black light that struck, with unerring precision, at the center of the rift. Estella’s knees buckled, but she kept her hand pointed at the rift, using her own left hand to add to the Qunari woman’s support of her right.

Breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth, Estella waited for it, whatever it was, to pass, and in time, there was a strange sound, one that grew in pitch until it ended in a booming crack, and the pain disappeared, leaving her with a curious lightness. She swallowed back bile, and glanced up.

The rift was gone.

She’d actually done it.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

Earnings

0.00 INK

Asala held Estella, the name that Rilien had given earlier, upright as the mark did, in fact, close the rift as she'd hoped. Relief washed over her, considering she wasn't even sure that it would even work in the first place. She was glad that it did. It was a hunch or, rather, an educated guess; If the mark reacted in turn with the giant tear in the sky, and the smaller rifts were the result of that tear, then there remained a chance that the smaller rifts could be effected by the mark. At least, that was the hope, and it appeared correct.

Afterward, the woman took Estella's hand in her own and gingerly inspected it. It had continued to grow larger than the last she'd seen it. It was worrying. She bit her lip as she thought and stared at it. If it could effect the smaller rifts, then it stood to reason that the mark and the rifts were related. If it were able to close the smaller rifts, then it could hold the same effect on the tear in the sky. And if the tear was closed, then it was likely that the mark would cease to grow as well. She ventured a glance into the broken sky, before she gave Estella's hand a comforting squeeze and allowed her control back. She then looked toward the other bearer of a mark, the man in the hood, and though his hand was obscured, the light could still be recognized.

She frowned. If they were to save these two, then they would need to hurry to the tear, and hope that they could close it. It was then, however, that Asala noticed just how close she was to Estella. Her eyes widened for a moment in fear and she quickly put a step or two between them, embarrassment burning into her face.

"S-sorry," she stuttered.

Estella flexed her hand, then looked back up at Asala and shook her head. “N-no, it’s fine. How did you know it would do that?”

"I.. Uh. Didn't?" she said, sounding more like she was asking than answering.

Asala stood clutching the collar of the thick white robes she wore, her shoulders bent in and making her look smaller than her build should suggest. Now that most eyes were on her, she could almost feel them individually, and she only shrank further into herself, the blush deepening on her ashen skin. "Well. I-I mean, I thought it would," she answered as her feet shuffled beneath her. "I'd hoped," she added.

"Asala was your attendant healer after the explosion; she had opportunity to study the marks.” That was Rilien, who was already moving forward again. "Now that we know they work, we must keep moving. There is much more to do before we reach the Rift. This way.”

The dusky-skinned man in the hood withdrew his blade from the shade he'd felled, having watched the whole display of rift-closing and stuttering conversation. He sheathed his weapon as he approached Asala, peering up at her from under his hood. "If what the elf says is true, you have my thanks," he said, with a nod. "My name is Romulus." It appeared to be all he planned on giving, as he immediately turned after that and followed after Rilien.

He led them down a steep embankment to the river, frozen solid, but for the moment, they stayed to the left of it, their boots crunching through snow. It had begun to fall from the sky again, as opposed to merely being batted about by the wind, making the terrain rougher going, but the four of them nevertheless kept up a reasonable pace, leaving the other soldiers behind to keep the location secure.

The Rift was spitting out demons with much greater frequency here, low-level shades, mostly, which descended to the ground in flashes of green light, landing with solid thuds like stones would make. For the most part, Rilien kept them from direct conflict, skirting the edges of the heavier-hit areas and aiming them efficiently for where the rest of the army was located. They crossed over what must have been a lake, and then ascended again, this time up an even steeper hill.

It was not long, however, before the hum of another small rift could be heard, and with it, the sounds of fighting, this time, right by the gate they needed to pass.

From beside Asala, Estella shifted her weight slightly, a soft rasp indicating that she’d drawn her sword, a slightly-curved, one-handed implement with the distinct sense of powerful enchantment about it. “Let’s try not to mess up this time,” she muttered, though it was unclear whether she’d meant anyone else to hear it or not. When she moved, it was to fan out towards the left, where a cluster of soldiers looked about to be overwhelmed, and she caught a shade broadly across the back, flinging an arc of blood off the blade on the follow-through. That one was taken care of, at least, but there were many others yet remaining.

"... Wh-what did we mess up?" Asala asked thinking she meant them both, though by time she did Estella had moved on. She turned toward Romulus then, though before she could risk accidently making eye contact, she stiffened and turned her head forward. People were much more easy to be around when they were asleep, as it turned out. There wasn't the risk of them judging her then. Puffing her cheeks out, she shook her head and followed Estella into the battle ahead.

She approached the cluster of soldiers, but she did not wade in. She lifted the hand that did not carry her staff as it began to glow in a dull blue light. She peered into the battle intently, searching for the moments of opportunity and striking with precision. Though perhaps striking was not the best word. A luminscent barrier erected itself between a soldier and a shade, quickly pushing the shade back before vanishing just as quick. While doing no damage itself, the soldier saw the gift for what it was and struck down the demon himself, nodding his thanks to Asala.

A bolt of glowing green energy wailed by Asala's head from her right, missing her narrowly. A ghostly figure, a pale green wraith, floated around the edges of the fight, hurling magical attacks into it. Several dissipated upon colliding with the Qunari woman's barriers. In the middle of its casting of another, a knife burst forth from its chest, the body offering little resistance. It tried to call up a barrier of its own, but the blade had torn a sizable hole clean through its chest by then. It screamed, and faded like so much mist, revealing Romulus behind it.

Following the example he'd seen earlier, Romulus took several aggressive steps towards the rift, and an arc of the green magic shot forth from his hand, ignoring the full glove. It twisted and crackled, prompting the nearby soldiers to back away to a safe distance, while the rift became overloaded and destabilized. From under his hood, the man's bared teeth could be seen, gritting together with effort, until at last he ripped his hand away, breaking the arc, and exploding the rift in front of him. All evidence of it vanished in a few seconds. Asala was glad that both marks had the ability to close the rifts.

No few of the soldiers were wide-eyed at the sudden disappearance of the rift, but at a quick gesture from Rilien, they reassembled, and two of them ran to the gate, the indistinct sound of voices indicating that they were talking to their comrades on the other side. With a delay of only a few seconds, it swung open inwards, admitting the four of them, the Tranquil in front.

"This is the forward camp.” The Tranquil paused a moment, likely to allow the two newcomers a chance to adjust to the situation. What was immediately visible was what looked like a wide stone rampart, laden with the tools of warfare. Racks of javelins, catapult ammunition, and, close to the parapet at the end, what appeared to be a command table. Currently, two people stood nearest to it, one directly behind it, dressed in the white and red of a Chantry brother. He appeared to be having quite an animated argument with Tanith, Rilien’s assistant, who was much less reactive but still obviously agitated.

“You don’t understand. We must get them to the Temple of Sacred Ashes. They’re the only chance we have.” She spoke slowly, as though trying to explain something to an obstinate child.

“Absolutely not. You’ve already caused enough trouble without resorting to this exercise in futility!” As the group approached, the man threw Tanith an angry glare, to which she reacted only by crossing her arms over her chest, before both caught notice of the approach of the quartet.

“Ah, here they come.”

Tanith nodded. “Chancellor Roderick, you know Ser Rilien. The young woman in the back is Asala Kaaras, and the other two are—”

"I know who they are," Roderick answered, the contempt easily detectable in both his face and tone.

Asala spared only a glance to the argument Tanith and the man were having, her attentions instead toward the soldiers that milled about. Some bore bloodstained bandages around injuries, and in her eyes, that was more important than some squabbles. She was hardly use in discussions of import anyway, she figured that she would be of use elsewhere. Breaking off from the group, she approached the soldier who looked to be in the most pain, leaned against the ramparts and breathing slowly. She gestured for him to take a seat and then began to inspect him. Soon, a gentle warm light emanated from her hands as she began to work on his wounds, and the soldier's facial expressions softened soon thereafter.

The argument, however, continued and she listened as she worked. "As Grand Chancellor of the Chantry, I hereby order you to take these criminals to Val Royeux to face execution," the Chancellor demanded. The worry immediately leapt into Asala's face as she looked up from her work and gasped.

"E-execution?! He can't do that! Can he?" she asked fearfully.

Neither Rilien nor Romulus seemed to react much to this pronouncement, though Estella had paled slightly, which was perhaps understandable, with someone bandying about the word ‘executed’ so freely.

The Tranquil, however, only blinked, folding his hands into his sleeves. “You do not command me, Chancellor.” It was a statement of fact, given the tone, but it caused the man in question to scowl deeply.

“Perhaps not, but you serve by special dispensation, and the understanding was, you would be serving the Chantry!” Roderick’s face had gone slightly red, due to either cold or strain, and his grip on the edge of the table was white-knuckled.

Rilien shook his head. “I was asked only to do as the Divine bid, not the Chantry.”

“And Justinia is dead! We must elect a replacement and follow her orders on the matter. In the meantime, we must call a retreat—our positon here is hopeless, surely you can see that.” The Chancellor’s shoulders slumped, and he flicked a glance to the Breach, his anxiety transparent.

But again, Rilien seemed to disagree. “We must close the Breach. Anything less delays the inevitable and seals our fates.” He glanced over Roderick’s shoulder at Tanith, who sighed, but stepped in closer.

“Look… there are two ways we can do this. Either we charge with the troops and try to make it directly to the Temple, or… we go the less-direct way. The troops can distract while a smaller group heads through the mountains.” She gestured at the table while she spoke, probably pointing things out on a map or something of that nature.

“We lost contact with an entire squad up there!” Roderick’s protests grew more desperate. “Listen to me! Abandon this before more lives are lost.”

At that point, everyone’s attention was drawn skyward, as the Breach seemed to surge, bathing the whole area in sickly green light, which as before reacted with the marks on both Romulus’s and Estella’s hands. The latter shifted uncomfortably, but both remained standing. “Whatever we do, we should do it soon,” she said, cradling her right hand to her chest.

Asala tossed a worried glance at both Romulus and Estella, as their marks surged with the Breach. She frowned as she finished healing the soldier, who grasped her shoulder in thanks before letting her rise. While she did not wish to speak her thoughts aloud, the more time they wasted simply talking, the larger the Breach grew, and the larger the marks grew. And the larger the marks grew, so would the danger be to the two who bore them.

"M-Maybe," She began to attract attention. And though it did, she clutched at her collar again, her nerves playing clearly on her face. Still, though uncomfortable, she continued. "Maybe we should l-let them decide what we do?" she said. It was their lives at stake, and it was only with them that they had a chance to close the Breach.

"We cannot do this without them." she added, with a before unseen firmness. It lasted only a moment however, before she retreated back into herself.

"We must reach the Temple somehow. There are two routes, and two of you.” Rilien half-turned, such that he was now obviously able to see everyone involved. "Strategically, the wisest thing to do is send one of you in each direction, so that if one of you is delayed or killed, the other will have a better chance of success.” He paused, glanced at Romulus, and then Estella, waiting a beat longer than seemed strictly necessary.

"But strategic advantage is of little use if you are not acting in the ways most conducive to your skills. What do you believe our course of action should be?”

Estella’s lips parted as if to speak, but at first she didn’t quite manage it, glancing at Romulus, then the rest of them, before finally sighing softly. “I can… push with the soldiers, if you wanted to go the other way.” It almost sounded like a question, but in the end, the intonation fell down rather than up, making it a statement, if only just.

Romulus said nothing for a moment, still shrouded under his hood, but at last he nodded. "Don't die," he added softly, to Estella. He paused a moment, before adding, "that thing may require both of us." He tilted his head sideways briefly, in the direction of the Breach.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

Earnings

0.00 INK

Romulus made his way up the steep mountain path, with only the Tranquil, Rilien, at his back. The density of the snowfall increased, as did the strength of the wind. Romulus shivered visibly several times, thankful that at least his cloak and gear had been returned. He was not accustomed to this climate yet, and was beginning to think he never would be. And now, with a hole torn in the sky and some link connecting him to it by the hand... it was difficult to say what was before him.

The path led upwards until a simple road would no longer suffice, and a sturdy wooden ladder presented itself. Romulus led the way, climbing up onto the platforms of wooden planks that allowed them to continue their ascent. Down below, he could hear the ever present sounds of fighting, the rumbles of demons smashing down into the earth, and from above, the booms of the Breach as it expanded hungrily across the sky.

The ladders led them into what looked like a cave network, which had evidently once been part of some livable complex, if the supplies were anything to go by. It was abandoned now, though, and the weather had seeped in over time, freezing water to parts of the floor, now slick and nearly textureless. With soft feet they navigated, both inclined to silence.

Rilien, as the others had called him, was the first one to break it. "You do not recall, why it was you and she who survived the explosion?” Logically for a Tranquil, his tone held no accusation, nor even curiosity, though there was something in it beyond the perfect neutrality they were known for nevertheless. He’d taken a position to Romulus’s left, slightly behind, and one of his knives was already drawn, flipped back so the blunt side of the blade lay against his forearm. He carried it like someone who’d done so all his life.

Romulus was familiar with the Tranquil, at least in part. It was not as prevalent in the Imperium as it was in the south, but the Magisterium was known to pass it as a punishment for those that stepped too far out of line. None of the Tranquil he had ever encountered were much like this elven one. They could hardly take care of themselves, let alone lead operations and skillfully protect themselves. He'd seen more than one person already look to Rilien as a source of authority. Romulus made a mental note not to underestimate him.

Didn't mean he would provide him with everything he knew, though. They had limited time, of course. But the question itself did not demand he give up anything meaningful. He lacked an adequate answer, in reality. "I do not remember," he said simply, before coming to a stop at a corner, and signaling for Rilien to halt as well.

Two wraiths wandered slowly, almost mournfully down the hallway beyond towards them. Romulus held out two fingers briefly so Rilien might know what was incoming, if he did not already. Romulus was not accustomed to working with others, certainly not the Tranquil. When the wraiths came in range, almost around the corner, Romulus led the charge out, shield protecting himself from the first magical blast. He rolled smoothly forward, stabbing up through the head of the left wraith, and ending it, the green mist soon fading up into the air. Beside him, the other dropped, too, victim to a clean, deep cut horizontally across its neck.

"What Estella recalled, in the Chantry... I remember that as well. Waking in a strange place, seeing her there with me, running from creatures, up a path. I remember the woman at the top. She glowed, and reached out to us. After that... nothing." He frowned, trying to remember, and wondering why only certain pieces were available to him.

"Estella also remembers what she was doing in the Chantry in the first place.” Rilien’s eyes were thoughtfully narrow, but he clearly chose not to press that line of questioning at the moment, though he was evidently aware that it was there to be pressed.

The rest of the journey through the cave complex was relatively straightforward, and aside form the occasional stray shade, easily dispatched by one or the other of them, they encountered no difficulty. At the end of the climb, they emerged into what looked like the beginning of a gradual downhill slope. Slightly into the distance, a pale green light could be observed rising towards the sky, though it was obviously not part of the Breach itself.

"This is where we lost the scouts.” This time, Rilien took point, treading lightly over the snow. It proved to be unnecessary in terms of reconnaissance, however, because they could hear the characteristic noise of a battle before they could see what was making it.

They rounded a corner of trees alongside the path beaten out of the snow, to find four battle-weary scouts standing near one of the Fade rifts, with no visible enemies around it. Romulus paused, inspecting them from a distance. They looked to have only just escaped from a combat, judging by their wounds and their state of disorganization. But there was no evidence of a foe...

At least, not until the ground beneath him turned a pale, sickly green, shifting and swirling like a whirlpool. Romulus had the clarity of mind to dive forward out of the center of it, but soon after a powerful force from below pushed up, hitting him across his entire body and turning what would have been a smooth roll into a hard smack into the dirty snow on his side. A demon had launched itself from the ground, with long, thin limbs and bony, clawed hands. The face at the top of its tall body was marked by a number of holes which perhaps served as eyes, and one gaping maw that opened, and screamed.

Romulus observed all this from his back, right up until the screaming started, which sent waves of debilitating pain outwards, as well as considerable force. He found himself buffeted by it, unable to rise, at least until the soldiers formerly by the rift intervened. An arrow struck the demon solidly, knocking it back a step, and Romulus scrambled to his feet, ducking under a clash slash and targeting the thing's legs. A stab from his pugio into the back of its knee drove it down to a more manageable height.

Moments later, Rilien leaped onto the creature’s back, driving a dagger into its bony shoulder and using it to push himself further upright, but the demon bucked violently, gripped by the need to escape from what was rapidly becoming its death, and the Tranquil was thrown off and crashed into a nearby snowdrift, the knife embedded where he’d left it.

As soon as Rilien was removed from it, however, Romulus took his place, stabbing his own dagger into its back, and grabbing the Tranquil's blade with his shield-hand, ripping it free. With considerable arm strength he pulled himself high enough to target the head, and thrust the blade right into the back of it. The demon released a horrible shriek, causing Romulus to lose his grip and fall several feet onto his back, but it soon fell limply forward. It crashed into the snow, and lay still.

Getting to his feet, Romulus was bothered by yet another expansion of the Breach, lighting up the palm of his hand, but he ignored it as best he could, pressing his hand into the side of his leg as he pulled free his dagger. After yanking out the other and tossing it at Rilien, he centered his gaze on the rift before him, and held out his hand. The arc of green energy was established again, the rift destabilized again, and finally destroyed, allowing no more of the fearsome demons to press through.

The four scouts that remained alive nursed their wounds, the healthiest among them helping another one to stand. "Thank the Maker you came," she said, breathing heavily. "I don't think we could have held out much longer."

Rilien inclined his head. "The way we came is clear. Get back to the forward camp and have your injuries treated.” She nodded, and, still supporting her teammate, led them back towards the caves. Wordlessly, Rilien turned and continued down the pathway, the Temple of Sacred Ashes now coming into sight, or at least what was left of it.

They entered through an area that must once have been the courtyard, though now it was nothing more than a hollowed-out shell, the ground blackened and scorched beyond recognition. In contrast to the crash of battle, the area was eerily quiet. Here and there, figures that looked like men and women in armor had been seemingly petrified where they stood, still holding arms, their faces twisted into visages of surprise, fear, or in some cases grim determination.

"The Breach is through here.”



His heart was thunder, crashing in his ears a thousand times louder than the ring of steel.

But he could hear that, too, in the same distant kind of way he could hear the shouting of the others. Mist and smoke from the fires rolled across the valley, obscuring the view from the slit of a bronze-colored helmet, but he had no care for that, because he could feel them, smell them even, like tainted lightning, and they were all so much unnatural chattel.

The force with which he swung tore his hand clear through the spectral greenish thing, the same color as the tear in the sky that he did not quite understand. That was far beyond his reach at present, though, and so he contented himself with this, ripping his fist back through the deconstituted cloud that remained and moved to the next. There was always another, and he felt them, aiming projectiles at his armor, which was already coated in clumps of frost, that crackled and shattered when he moved, shedding from him like old scales from the back of a dragon.

A rage demon rose up next, and he moved forward to meet it, hesitation a thing long left behind, at least for this moment. The demon too charged, bellowing its rage at him, clarion in the din, but still not so loud as his heart. They met with a full-bodied crash, and his hand closed around the front part of its throat, where its windpipe was. Magma flowed over his hand, armor and all, and he felt the blistering sensation as it started to burn the skin that lay beneath.

Beneath his helm, he smiled.

His other hand jabbed repeatedly at the demon’s gut, coming away coated in rapidly-cooling lava each time, until it was protected by a layer of stone forged of the fiend’s belly, and then he drove it forward again, pulling the thing towards him with his left hand and driving the rock-covered fist right into its forehead with his right. It scrabbled at him with long arms, leaving welts in his plate, but its extremities were far too cold to burn him the same way its innards could. Stunned from the blow to the head, it slackened, and he flexed his fingers, driving them forward one last time, clenching them over whatever he could hold, and tearing it back out again.

It went completely limp beneath him, and he dropped it, discarding the molten stone it called a heart to one side, his right gauntlet steaming from abrupt exposure to the cold.

He scraped the cooling stone off and glanced around, seeking his next foe. Instead, he found that he and his soldiers had cleared most of the area, but that the shifting green crystal a dozen feet away, hovering at shoulder height, was still present. He’d tried to tear that apart, too, only to find that his hands passed right through, and so they’d turned to killing everything that came from it instead. Now, however, he was out of ideas.

No sooner had he had the thought than something caught his attention from his peripheral vision. His entire frame tensed, but then relaxed. Humans. There was no need to kill humans today. The one in front was unfamiliar, dark-haired and lightly-armored. He recognized the crest on her cloak. The other one wasn’t human at all, he discovered upon turning his head, but a Qunari. He didn’t know her, either, but they were approaching from the direction of the forward camp.

They approached the rift first, and he watched with surprise as the one in front looked down at her hand, and then thrust it upwards, in the direction of the anomaly. A beam of some kind of light issued from her palm, and she staggered backwards a step, and he heard the sound of his heartbeat gradually recede, overtaken by a whine of increasingly-high pitch, one that ended with a loud bang.

He blinked, to confirm what he was seeing, and upon opening his eyes again, the rift was still gone, as though it had never been there at all.

Leonhardt exhaled, and took a step towards them.

The Qunari woman was the first to notice his approach, wide golden eyes turning upon him. They alighted on Leonhardt for a moment before they widened in what appeared to be either fear, shock, or a mix of the two. She said nothing except for a timid eek and clutched at her collar. Quickly she took a defensive step backward and stood behind the shorter woman. If it was an attempt to hide, it was a poor one, considering the Qunari stood nearly a foot over the other one.

He sighed behind his helm. He supposed that was to be expected, though a cowering Qunari specifically was rather new, and something he doubted he’d see again. “They told me you might be able to do that,” he said, stopping in his tracks and holding both hands up at the level of his chest. Not that this would be really reassuring to anyone, considering the fact that he wasn’t armed to begin with, but it was the intention of the gesture that he hoped to convey.

“It’s Estella, isn’t it? I’ve met a few friends of yours. They insisted on helping when they found out what happened to you. They’re further ahead, with the rest of the troops.”

He watched her eyes go wide as she processed what he was implying, and then she visibly swallowed, slumping slightly in what could only have been relief. “Thank the Maker for that,” she said, and then took a step in his direction. “I’m Estella, yes, and this is Asala. We’re supposed to help you push to the Temple.”

He nodded. “Then that’s what we’ll do. I’m Leonhardt Albrecht, and I command the troops here. Follow me.”

Over the clamor of soldiers and their arms and armor, they pressed forward, Estella and Asala following behind Leonhardt. As they pushed forward, broken and shattered cobblestones crunched beneath their feet. They passed by hastily constructed bulwarks and large chunks of rock most likely thrown from the temple in the explosion.

Their path fed them into a larger battefield and the din of battle grew as they closed the distance.

This was, he knew, the last major area they had to clear before they would be granted access to the Temple. There were enough soldiers here to handle it, but they were going to take heavy casualties unless the tide of battle turned quickly, and Leonhardt scanned the field with a heavy gaze. The other Lions he’d met had told him a little bit about Estella, and he knew of Asala, if only through a brief mention in a progress report, but the information he had should be sufficient.

“Asala, please remain here. I’d like you to support the whole field, if possible, but prioritize Estella when you have to. Estella, follow me.” He glanced sideways at the young woman, and adjusted his gauntlets slightly, trying to get comfortable now that one of them was slightly misshapen. “Please remain at a moderate distance, however.” It would be better for him if he could move without fear of hitting her, however accidental it would be.

Deciding to keep his wits about him as much as possible, he waded into the field directly thereafter, going right when a glimmering shield appeared to his left. He’d let Estella take advantage of the positioning that would offer, and fend off enemies from the unprotected side. It was mostly shades and those green wisps down here; certainly no more rage demons that he could see.

This time, when he went to work, he fought down the threatening haze, focusing on defending rather than outright aggression. They needed to punch through the front line, after which it wouldn’t be too difficult to set his troops up in a wedge, which would allow them to flank both sides and crush the pockets of demons in a double-pincer.

He drew back and slammed his gauntlet into a shade’s nose, following up with an elbow to the back of its head when it doubled over, and something cracked under the force, a signal that he could move onto the next. With a forced step forward, he brought his knee into the gut of the next one, catching its head in both hands and twisting sharply to the side. More cracks, another down. Ranging near him, but at the modest distance he’d requested, Estella brought her blade down on another, felling it. She was panting slightly, but her forward progress had yet to falter, so he left her to it, and eventually, they broke the line.

Leonhardt whistled sharply, and the remaining soldiers lined the wedge with their bodies, cutting off any attempt at demonic pursuit. He waved Asala down from her position on the hill, and the three of them cleared the line, leaving the troops to finish off the remnants.

“This way. We’re almost there.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

Earnings

0.00 INK

It was enormous. A crystal structure, just like the rest, except for the fact that it was several times the size and positioned directly below the Breach in the sky. Estella wasn’t actually so sure her mark could close this, given the size of it, but it wasn’t as though there was any choice but to try. The two groups had met up just outside the Temple, and she was relieved to see that both Rilien and Romulus appeared to be fine, or at least none the worse for wear. It was reassuring that she wasn’t the only one in this situation, because it meant that she wasn’t really the only hope for this.

But their work wasn’t done yet. Glancing to her right, she saw what looked like a likely way down, since there weren’t really any stairs directly from the point they’d entered. Steeling herself, she started down that way, vaguely aware of Rilien breaking off from the group to direct the other soldiers who’d arrived with them, meaning that she, Romulus, Asala, and Leonhardt were left to make their way down.

They hadn’t been walking for more than a minute or so when something extremely unexpected happened. A voice, disembodied and deep, spoke from seemingly everywhere and nowhere all at once.

“NOW IS THE HOUR OF OUR VICTORY.”

Estella stopped dead. Something… no, she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Wincing at the volume, she shook herself and continued forwards.

Asala however, remained still for a few moments longer, staring up into the Breach and then all arpind. She winced and took a step back, before noticing the others moving ahead and quickly moving to catch up. "Wh-what... Who is that?" she asked, still searching.

Romulus slowly pulled his hood back upon hearing the booming voice, a frown lining his face. He spun in a full circle as they walked, as though trying to find the source of the voice, before eventually settling on the floating crystalline structure of the Breach. "It's... coming from the Breach, isn't it?"

"BRING FORTH THE SACRIFICE."

“I think so,” Estella replied, once the echoes of it had died down. “But I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard it before…” It fell quiet for a while after that though, as they wended their way further down towards the Breach. Their path had faded from clearly-supported architecture to whatever was left after the explosion, and it was treacherous going, though it seemed mundane enough, at least until she caught sight of a soft red glow ahead of them.

“That’s…” She turned around, almost by instinct, seeking Rilien, but of course he was further up. She wondered if he’d sensed it already. In his absence, her eyes found the gap in Leonhardt's helm, the massive man encased in burnished armor, and he finished her sentence for her.

“Red lyrium.” He didn’t sound quite as surprised as she’d expected, so maybe he knew something about it.

“I’ve only seen it once, but… it’s not good that it’s here.”

He seemed to nod, though it was hard to tell with the helmet. Giving the stuff a wide berth, she continued down the path, hoping it was not a sign of things to come. Meredith had been… terrifying was too mild a word. Fearsome seemed about right.

Her gaze fell from the air around them and Asala instead looked to the shards of red lyrium embedded in the walls and sprouting from the ground. "Maybe.." she said whilst seemingly in thought. "Wh-whatever magic was used to destroy the temple drew from the lyrium beneath," she said, the grip on her collar tightening.

"It c-could've corrupted it. Whatever happened here was... Terrible," she continued, a tone of sadness in her voice.

"KEEP THE SACRIFICE STILL."

This time, the voice was followed by another, this one feminine, much higher-pitched, and filled with the obvious tone of fear.

“SOMEONE! HELP ME!”

It was starting to sound less like strange echoes and more like a scene of some kind, like a play, or… a memory, perhaps. She didn’t recognize the woman’s voice at first, but Leonhardt clearly did. “That’s… Divine Justinia’s voice.” Estella wasn’t sure how he knew that, but she didn’t doubt him.

“WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?”

The third voice, impossibly, sounded exactly like her own. “What…? That’s…” If this was a memory, was it her own? Despite her certainty that she was the third speaker, Estella still didn’t recall any of it. Her pace quickened—they needed to reach the bottom, for surely that was where the answers lay, if there were any to be had at all.

Romulus was the first to reach the ledge closest to the bottom of the ruin, and he dropped down, stepping forward as the others followed closely behind. The crystalline structure of the Breach snapped and reformed rapidly before their eyes, seemingly reacting to the encroachment of the two that bore marks on their hands. When Romulus came close enough, a crack coincided with the lighting of his mark, and the echoes began again. The Divine cried out, and Estella answered, the same as before.

"She called out to you for help," Romulus remarked, quietly, as Estella stood close enough beside him to hear. He held his mark out, as if offering it to the Breach. Suddenly there was a flash of light and a rumbling like thunder, temporarily rendering their sight useless. When they could see again, a shadowy veil had formed in front of the crystal, and images floated above them. A shifting shadow, incredibly tall, with long, sharp fingers and bright red flames for eyes hovered. It reached out with a hand, curled fingers arcing towards a woman in elaborate Chantry robes, her arms suspended out to the side, leaving her helpless.

Through what looked to be a shadowy doorway, a darkened representation of Estella entered the area, saber in her left hand, knife in her right. Her posture tensed immediately when she took in the scene, and the knife fell from her fingers. Romulus appeared beside her, his face hidden under the shadow of his hood, but the gear and the posture, unmistakable. The Divine, as Leonhardt had named her, managed to turn her head towards them.

"RUN WHILE YOU CAN! WARN THEM!" The great shadow slowly turned its head towards the newly arrived pair.

"WE HAVE INTRUDERS. SLAY THEM." Another flash of light followed, and the vision vanished, leaving the crystalline structure of the Breach behind, unchanged.

“You were there when she died.” That was Leonhardt, and he looked from Estella to Romulus, but made no aggressive motion. “And yet it seems she was slain by another. One we did not find.”

Estella had to admit that it certainly looked that way, and those really did seem to be herself and Romulus, so why was it still so difficult to remember? She furrowed her brow, and sighed heavily. In any case, it could wait. The Breach had to come first. She moved her attention to Asala, who seemed to be an especially nervous person, and pitched her voice as gently as she could. “Do we just do the same thing as before?” Maybe something that big would require both of them.

She nodded in the affirmatory, but there was something else. Asala hesitated for a moment, casting her eyes upward to the Breach. "But... It is closed but not s-sealed," she said. Her mouth worked for a moment before her eyes dropped back down to the ground below. "You both w-will have to reopen and close it p-properly but..." There was another pause.

"Be r-ready. Something may try to slip through," she added, pulling her cloak tighter over her shoulders like she felt a sudden chill in her bones.

This bit of information seemed to ripple upwards through the ranks of the assembled soldiers, but by that time, they looked to have been positioned already, largely around the rim of the depression in the ground that the four of them now occupied. Most of them were armed with bows, and took careful aim at the area around the rift, bows half-drawn and readied for whatever emerged from it.

Romulus rolled his shoulders and neck briefly in preparation, while the soldiers and archers that came down with them took up defensive positions and prepared for the battle. After sparing a glance at Estella to make sure she was ready, the two simultaneously lifted their marks up to the Breach, twin arcs of green energy shooting from their palms and striking against the crystalline structure. It seemed almost to flinch in on itself, reforming and cracking rapidly, until it began to shake with the force being applied to it.

Finally, it shattered altogether, opening up the rift with a gaping hole. Almost instantly a purple-hued shape shot through, like a ball of crackling electricity. It flew through the air right behind Estella and Romulus, where it halted, hovered, and quickly expanded. In mid air the impressive physique of a pride demon formed. It roared, shaking with fury as it landed with a mighty crash against the ground, shaking everything around it.

The first arrows to strike it clattered harmlessly off of the thickened skin on its shoulders and back, and it let loose a deep, guttural laugh. Below, Romulus quickly downed a second of the vials of liquid. He tossed it aside and drew his knife as the fight began, the pride demon stepping forward to launch its first powerful attacks.

Estella herself, slower to recover than Romulus had been, was still dizzy for several seconds after he’d run off, but she was gathering her wits and her breath to follow him when a chance glance from the corner of her eye informed her of something quite unexpected. Beneath her feet, the dark grey ground was swiftly turning black, and was that green?

Not especially eager to find out what that meant, she made to leap off the patch, but her feet hadn’t made it two inches from the dirt before she was hit from below with a—she supposed it was like a vent in the ground, as one might see from a geyser. Whatever it was, it hit her hard, and blasted her off her feet, knocking her to the side, where she landed in an ungainly heap and rolled several times, ending in a sprawl on her back, arms out to either side and a disconcerting tingling sensation in her legs.

Asala had said… what had Asala said? It was so hard to think. Struggling to her feet, she staggered sideways with a groan. The rift had been closed, but not sealed, so they had to open it. Which was where the Pride demon had come from, which meant… it was still open. She looked to her left, but Romulus was engaged with the demon, too far away to be of any help, which meant…

She had to try and close this thing on her own. Absurdly, she felt laughter starting to bubble in her chest, and wondered to herself if she was succumbing to hysteria from the strain. But really, it would have been humorous if it weren’t so urgent—the idea that anyone might have to rely on her for something so important. She couldn’t even be relied upon not to get herself killed.

But despite her thoughts, she forced her numb feet to move, shuffling back to the rift, avoiding the blackened spot on the ground and raising her hand towards it. As before, a column of viridian light lanced outwards, and she grit her teeth against the discomfort of it, stretching closer. This time, when the boom sounded, a cloud remained, but the crystal formation was gone. That wasn’t right…

She looked back down the field, to where the others had the demon engaged, to see it on its knees. Already? She knew they were good, but… it occurred to her that maybe what she’d done and that were connected somehow. Maybe she’d weakened the demon by destroying the rift structure? Still, it didn’t look fixed, like the others, and she prayed she hadn’t ruined their chances of sealing it properly.

Prayed, but dared not hope.

The demon did not stay down for long, and when it rose again, it appeared even angrier than before, perhaps now taking its opponents seriously. Romulus circled around in front of it, noticing that the arrows loosed at it were now piercing the skin, and leaving thin trails of blood leaking down. Whatever Estella had done seemed to have weakened its defenses.

The pride demon’s eyes settled on Romulus, and it brought forth a large hand, creating a sphere of electrical magic in its palm, soon launching it directly at the man. He didn’t so much as try to get out of the way; the lightning passed right through him, but judging by his reaction, he only barely felt it. His clothes were crackling and singed, but he seemed almost entirely unaffected. He rushed forward under the demon’s arm, and nimbly leaped up, pushing off the side of its leg and plunging his knife into the thing’s stomach. He carved a short line, spewing blood behind him, before the demon tried a more mundane approach.

A swift backhanded smash collided with Romulus, hitting him in the back and pitching him forward. He landed hard on the scorched, stony ground and rolled several times, stumbling back to his feet. The fall probably would’ve broken a few bones, had it not been for the benefit of a shield placed over him by Asala just before he hit the ground.

With Romulus out of immediate melee range, Estella saw Leonhardt step in to draw the demon’s attention, a resounding smacking noise reaching her ears even over the intervening distance, as he drove an arm for the back of its knee. It worked, too, and the creature listed to the side, staggering to recover its balance with one leg near to buckling. Several more arrows thudded into it while it remained thus preoccupied, and its next blast of lightning was hasty, aimed right at the armored man now circling around to its front.

She was about to shout a warning when without notice, the rift’s crystalline structure suddenly reformed, and this time, it spilled a small wave of more minor demons, closer to her than the others. One landed nearly on top of her, and she threw herself to the side, tucking into a roll and drawing her sword on the way back up. She glanced quickly back to where the others were.

The lightning never did find its target. Instead, it bounced harmlessly off of another barrier that had since become associated with Asala's magic. The woman herself, in fact, was not too far away, standing only a short distance away from Leonhardt. This time, her staff was the instrument that she had wreathed blue hued Fade, the tip of which was planted into the ground.

Closer inspection revealed the barrier to not be just a simple shield this time, but a full dome shielding both Leonhardt and Asala from the wild lightning cast by the pride demon. While her eyes remained open, the concentration in them was readily apparent, even as she mouthed something to herself. Once the fingers of lightning had safely vanished into the air, Asala lifted her staff into the air and twisted it so that the bottom tip whipped upward.

The dome mimicked the gesture, lifting into the air and shrinking so that when it struck underneath the chin of the pride demon, it was a condensed sphere. The barrier held enough force behind it to keep the demon stumbling.

The demon did not seem to particularly enjoy that. It sucked in air and loosed an enraged roar, beating its chest and covering itself in a rocky exoskeleton to act as a shield.

Upon seeing the formation of the armor plates around the demon, Romulus was forced to back away, his options for attack entirely limited. He looked to Estella, to make sure she was in a position to hear him. "Estella! Whatever you did before, do it again!"

“Right,” she muttered, bringing her saber down with both hands in a broad slash that felled the nearest shade. “Kill the demons, do the thing to the rift. I can do this. I think.” She wasn’t sure when she’d fallen into the habit of talking to herself, but it tended to happen the more strain she was under, which meant now was just about right.

There were probably too many demons here for her to realistically handle, but as usual, her allies were there to save her—most of the arrows had diverted towards helping suppress the movement of the smaller demons, useless as they were on a Pride-creature covered in stone. She had the distinct feeling she owed Rilien her life, again. “One day I’ll get around to paying those.”

With the suppressing fire, she was able to take them more or less one at a time, but the third foe came as a pair, and though she felled the first, she did so at the expense of the second raking claws across the side of her abdomen, finding a weak spot in her leathers and sinking its talons deep into her skin. She bit down on the scream that threatened, lunging forward to relieve the pressure and also stab the end of the saber up under its chin. Blood ran in rivulets down her side, most of it dripping from her hip to the ground, while yet more slicked down the side of her leg.

But she was free, for the moment, and so she forced herself to let go of the wound and instead use her free hand to disrupt the rift again. This time, when it exploded, she was ready for it, and skittered away from another of the vents in the ground, shedding more blood as she went.

A check of the others informed her that it had worked; the demon, still armored, was kneeling again, clearly in pain, and it looked a lot like Leonhardt was trying to rip stone plates off it with his hands, something which didn’t work until he jumped for one, bearing down with his considerable body weight and upper body strength alike, the plate protecting the demon’s lower spine peeling away slowly and with great resistance. To help, Asala erected a barrier and slowly expanded it beneath the plate that Leonhardt was pulling back. Together they were able to tear it away inch by inch.

As soon as there was an opening to a vulnerable spot, Romulus flew into it, stabbing the pride demon in the lower back. Instantly it arched backwards and howled in agony, and it began to spin around, thrashing its arms about in an attempt to swipe away anyone nearby. Romulus, however, was attached to the thing's back, and hung on tightly to the armor plates that remained, while he worked to dig the knife deeper, and cut across the vital spine.

Eventually, he got it, as the pride demon's legs ceased to respond, and it collapsed heavily onto its face, the armor plates sloughing off entirely now that it lacked the magical strength to maintain them. The soldiers present launched repeated stabs down onto the thing, and Romulus slid over the back to come to rest at the head, where he stabbed his blade cleanly into the back of the neck, and silenced the demon.

He did not revel in the victory, instead immediately removing his blade from the neck and climbing smoothly back to the ground, where he headed over to Estella, closer to the Breach. "Can you help me close it? It needs to happen now." He had clearly noted the wound in her side. If there was any concern in his eyes, it was hard to tell.

She made a pained noise, but nodded. Truthfully, she wasn’t sure she could, but that hadn’t stopped her from trying in a while. Together, they lifted their hands towards the rift—and she immediately regretted it, because the pain that ricocheted around in her muscles and bones was much greater than before, great enough that she straight-out fell over, though thankfully she was able to keep her arm outstretched, and that the green light issuing from it flickered, it regained strength as soon as she stopped moving.

The thunderous rapport sounded again, and she blinked up at the sky exactly once before she knew only darkness.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

Earnings

0.00 INK

Image



This time, Romulus woke on a soft bed, in a warm house.

The comforting crackle of a firepit came from nearby, and the first thing he saw was the gentle burning of a candle on the night stand next to him. His armor was off, sorted neatly into a pile at the foot of his bed, as were his weapons. The house itself was unfamiliar to him, but the sound of the wind outside, the drifting snow, was starting to become otherwise. No, he had not traveled far.

The house was small, two rooms, but well furnished, seemingly someone's home judging by the decorations. It didn't look like any sort of medical lodgings. The bed itself was quite comfortable, far more so than what Romulus was used to sleeping on. He stirred, groaning as he sat up. Everything still hurt slightly, if he had to guess from the effort of trying to close the Breach, but how long it had been since then, he couldn't know.

The creaking of the bed under him as he moved drew the attention of a nearby elven woman, young and blonde haired, with the markings of some Dalish god upon her face. She blinked several times, and then took a few steps forward, looking first at Romulus, then at Estella, who lay on another bed across the room from him.

"You're awake!" she said, grinning from pointed ear to pointed ear. She turned her head expectantly, and when Estella started to awaken as well, she nearly jumped in place. "You're both awake!"

"What happened?" Romulus asked, his voice weak from lack of use. He cleared his throat. "Where am I?"

"You're still in Haven," the elven girl answered, already turning to leave, "and you did it! You stopped the Breach!" On the way out, she gently shook Asala by the shoulder. The Qunari woman had been asleep in a nearby wooden chair. The elf pushed open the door to the outside, sticking her head out and calling to some others.

"They're awake!"

Both the noise and the light jarring woke Asala and once opened, her eyes fell on Romulus, and then Estella in short order. She straightened in her chair for a moment, but once whatever it was that she saw pleased her, she allowed herself a small smile and quietly relaxed again, rubbing a spot on her forehead under her horns.

Estella, on the other hand, woke groggily, but not so much so that she wasn’t immediately upright, pushing loose chunks of dark hair back from her face. “Lia?” Blinking several times, she scrambled out of bed, at right around the same time several new people entered all at once, crowding the door in an attempt, apparently, to be the first one in. Estella had opened her mouth to say something else, but any effort to do so was immediately muffled when she was swept up into a crushing hug by the person who’d managed to get in the door ahead of the others.

It was a youthful elven man, from the pointed eartips visible even through his brunet mane of hair. He was much taller than most elves, though, and from the bareness of his face, he’d grown up in a city. The embrace was soon made that much more stifling by the addition of a second man, stockier and human, with hair the color of straw. The last one through the door was a Qunari, as large and imposing as any of his kind, but unlike most of them, wearing a smile, of all things. He didn’t continue the attempt to suffocate Estella, but he did chuckle, reaching down and scrubbing the top of her head with a grey fist. All three wore dark red tunics similar to Estella’s, down to the silver stripes on the sleeves.

“Welcome back, Stel!" That was the elf, and he and the human released her, at which point she dropped at least half a foot, looking rather red in the face, though it seemed to be embarrassment more than anything. Still, she smiled, a small one, but one that reached all the way to her eyes.

“I’m so glad you guys are all right.” The smile faded, but the elf clapped her on the shoulder.

“Us? When we saw that explosion, we thought…” He trailed off, glancing at the others, then sighed. “Well, it’s just good that you made it. We got here as soon as we heard, and we’ve been helping out this lot for a while.”

The Qunari nodded. “We are supposed to bring you up to the Chantry, actually.” He turned his eyes to Romulus. “Both of you.”

"We're glad you made it, too," the elven girl, Lia said to Romulus, after she was finished with her turn smothering Estella in a hug. Romulus sat somewhat awkwardly on the bed, where he had observed all of Estella's friends enter and greet her. Lia, he could guess, was conscious of the fact that no one had arrived for him. "They've been saying you helped a great deal. Some of the scouts owe you their lives, they said. The two of you are all anyone's talked about the last three days."

"Wasn't my doing. I've chosen nothing so far." He stood, beginning to don his outer layers of clothes, and his cloak.

"All the same, you saved them from demons and the rift. Not just anyone could do that." Romulus seemed mostly to ignore Lia's comment, glancing over at Estella.

"We should get to the Chantry, if you're ready." Truthfully, he was worried about how much this had spread in three days. Haven was an isolated community, but with recent events, there were many people coming and going, and wagging their tongues. He noted that the mark on his hand was still present, if not particularly painful. It seemed unlikely that he would be able to just go on his way. Whatever his course of action, he hoped to establish it soon.

“Um.” Estella looked down at her clothes, then sighed, patting down her hair for all of five seconds before she threw on her cloak and belted her sword into place. She didn’t seem concerned with armor, presently, which probably had something to do with the fact that her friends were all without, though not one of them had failed to bring some kind of weapon with them. “Yeah. I can go.”

Something appeared to occur to her, because she leaned out from behind the Qunari to look in Asala’s direction. “I think I probably owe you. Again. So… thank you.” The others had already started moving for the door, and the human, who was in front, turned back to them, his hand on the door.

“Uh… also, there’s a bit of a crowd out there, so stick close to us, just in case. They’re… well, you’ll see.” Having delivered his warning, he pushed open the door and stepped down off the small front porch.

And crowd was a bit of an understatement. It looked like the entire population of Haven was out there, waiting for… something. The two of them, apparently. Estella immediately located herself to the inside of the Qunari, apparently not eager to face so many people, and the group started forward.

Romulus wasn't sure whether to pull up his hood or not. Having that many eyes upon him at once was... well, he didn't think he'd ever had this many people looking at him before. Having the others, Estella's friends, was a comfort, but the eyes of the crowd didn't care, even for a sight as strange as two Qunari in a group in Ferelden of all places. Romulus moved forward, the rest in tow, and there were guards ahead, even, soldiers who had probably fought in the battle, there to keep members of the crowd away in case they wanted to reach. Asala, naturally, tried to avoid the crowd completely and broke from the group, taking a back way elsewhere.

"That's them," he heard a woman say in the crowd, which was uncomfortably silent for its size. "They stopped the Breach from getting any bigger." Romulus looked up, and even from just outside he could see that it was true. The Breach was still present in the sky above the Temple, but no longer did the light reach down to the earth itself, nor did it spew forth fire and demons.

"The Heralds of Andraste," another one said, a man, and Romulus frowned at the weight of the title. He walked a little faster, heading towards the steps ahead.

"Do we know, though? Did they both work to stop the Breach?"

"I thought they were supposed to close it."

Their voices faded behind them as they moved on. Smaller groups were scattered throughout the village, awaiting their arrival it seemed, wanting to simply watch them on their way up to the Chantry. There, the entire collective of Haven's Chantry sisters were gathered outside the doors, which they opened for the approaching group. Romulus was grateful to be inside, away from the eyes of the villagers. The Chantry appeared to be emptied out entirely.

Up ahead, he could hear arguing, and the familiar sound of an upset Chantry chancellor. Romulus walked swiftly the length of the chantry towards the voices, and pushed open the door that led to them. Estella's friends stopped to wait outside, and presumably guard the door.

The door led into a somewhat-spacious chamber, done up in such a way that it must have once been a library or someone’s office. There were several bookshelves along either side wall, and a hearth against the back. Currently dominating the space was a large wooden table, overlaid with what looked to be a series of maps, the largest and most central ones being of Ferelden and Orlais. Several small tokens were spread over the map, some of them in the shapes of predatory birds, painted black, and others were plainer, the wood unvarnished. Improvised, probably.

As expected, Chancellor Roderick was present, as was Rilien, but this time the person having an argument with the Chantry official was an exceedingly tall, quite broad man in what looked like the typical robes of a clerical scribe; they were dark green and extremely simple. His hair, a blonde approaching platinum, was pulled into a rough tail at the nape of his neck, and he glanced up at them with violet eyes when they entered. He looked quite different, but few people were made in such proportions, and the easy guess was that it was Leonhardt, something which he confirmed by speaking in the same voice.

“Ah, you’ve awakened.” His tone, however, was much softer than it had been before; mild, even. “When you collapsed again after stabilizing the Breach, we were worried the marks would…” he shook his head. “Well, anyway. I’m glad to see you’re both awake.”

“Yes, yes, excellent,” Roderick put in, his sarcasm evident. “Now arrest them both. They must be taken to Val Royeaux for trial.”

Leonhardt blinked down at him, apparently quite sanguine about the whole thing. “I’m not going to do that, Chancellor. And you shouldn’t want me to. They saved us, regardless of how it happened. And they tried to save Justinia as well.”

“You walk a dangerous line, Seeker.” Roderick seemed ready to offer further protest, but he was cut off by Rilien this time.

“It is High Seeker, if we are to lean on the formalities.” His tone was flat as ever, but the Chancellor bristled. “Regardless of whether they are or are not guilty of anything, the Breach is still a threat. If we ignore it, we court destruction, and they are the only measures we have against it.” He nodded towards Romulus and Estella, both standing on the opposite side of the table.

“This is ridiculous! If anyone created the problem in the first place, it must surely be them! Who else is there?” Roderick was gesticulating with greater emphasis at this point, in contrast to the collected demeanors of the other two. “And if they are responsible, we can’t just let them walk around freely; they must be questioned!”

“Yes.” Rilien’s agreement seemed to throw him off, and for a moment, the Chancellor gaped like a fish. “We must learn who they are and what their purposes were, but that does not require their arrest, nor their trials. There is no evidence that they attempted what you accuse them of, and mounting evidence to the contrary.”

“Nonsense! I will believe none of this until someone can explain to me what they were doing at the Conclave and how they survived it when no one else—when even the Divine did not.”

All eyes in the room turned to the pair of them.

Estella spoke up first. “I’ve said it already, but if it makes any difference, I’ll say it again.” She took a deep breath, moving her legs so that they were shoulder-width apart and folding her arms behind her back before she started to speak, directly to Roderick. “I’m with the Argent Lions mercenary company. Several days before the Conclave, I received orders to take my squad, along with two others, and serve as part of the peacekeeping force there. My commander thought it would be good to bolster them, because there was always the danger of a fight breaking out, and since the parties involved were mages and Templars, it could get dangerous very quickly.”

She paused, and Leonhardt nodded, almost as if to encourage her to continue. “So, I went, along with my squad. We were ten in total, and with the other two groups, there were thirty-one of us. My team was assigned to the inside of the Temple. The others were going to be ranging the nearby area, in case of anything interfering from outside.” Estella pursed her lips, looking at the ground for several seconds before she raised her head again.

“After that, my memory gets patchy. I don’t know exactly what happened, only that at some point, something went wrong, and… someone called for help. I remember heading in that direction. I also remember that at some point, Romulus was with me.” She cast a glance at him, but looked back at Roderick almost immediately afterwards. “The next thing that seems clear was… running. From something terrible. And then a woman, bright and hard to see in any detail, reached for us, and we took her hands. After that, I woke up in a cellar, with this mark, and no idea what had happened to me.”

Roderick seemed to be giving that some thought. Leonhardt spoke next. “The other Lions corroborate her story as far as the circumstances, and Rilien knows this girl quite well, Chancellor. We have little reason to doubt what she says. More than that, I believe the Divine was calling her—them—for help. I heard it myself, else I would find it difficult to believe as well.”

Roderick still looked skeptical, but it was evident that he was the only one who was, and so he switched tacks. “But there are two people in this position, and while one accident might be believable, two is too miraculous for credibility. What does the other suspect have to muster in his defense?”

Romulus had spent the time while Estella explained to weigh his position. The truth, if he told it, was not pleasant. It did not favor him; if anything, it made him seem more guilty. And though he believed himself to be innocent, despite his lack of memory, the Chancellor seemed very inclined to think the opposite, even without a word spoken on his part. Then again... Roderick was in the minority here. The others seemed, at least in part, to be on his side, thanks to his efforts and willingness to help fix the Breach. And with a high-ranking member of the Seekers of Truth here... it seemed inadvisable to lie. Nor would silence do any longer.

"I was dispatched from Minrathous after the Conclave was announced." The Chancellor appeared about to press him further before Romulus spoke, and now that he had, he was left with his mouth hanging slightly open. "I am an agent of Magister Chryseis Viridius, her will and her blade. She took an interest in the events of southern Thedas, and commanded I observe and report on the Conclave's result." He kept his hands folded in front of him while he spoke, his eyes locked on a figure set upon the war table before him.

"I was not to be detected, or become involved. I do not remember how either occurred. I remember only the events Estella has already relayed." Two people, raised in the Imperium but not of ideal Tevinter stock, as they might describe it, the only two to survive the Conclave. It did strike Romulus as odd. The work of a Divine? That was a leap he was not willing to make. But he would not rule out the possibility.

"If I am to be executed for my failure, so be it. But know that I speak the truth. Neither I nor my domina had any intention of disrupting the Conclave."

Aside from Rilien, of course, there didn’t seem to be a face in the room not currently wearing an expression of surprise, including Estella’s. She blinked several times, but then her features shifted briefly to a sort of intent thoughtfulness before they smoothed out again.

Roderick, on the other hand, was practically apoplectic. “A Tevinter spy? Surely this is all the proof we need!”

Estella frowned. “I’m from Tevinter, too, you know. I might not work for a Magister, but I’m related to more than one. If that’s enough to prove guilt, then I’m guilty too.” Her tone suggested just the opposite, of course.

Leonhardt sighed, holding up a hand to forestall anything further, probably from Roderick specifically. “It’s… not quite the same, but… yes, it’s a complication. Even so, there is nothing about being an agent of the Imperium that makes one likely to or even capable of engineering destruction on this scale.” The hand moved to rub at the back of his neck, and he looked over towards Rilien.

“You know more about this kind of thing than I do. What do you make of all this?”

“If he were lying to protect himself, he would have done a much better job than that.” Rilien currently leaned against the side of the hearth, his hands folded into his sleeves, observing the byplay with a placid face. “And I believe that is obvious to all of us.” He moved his eyes for a long moment to Roderick, then returned them to Leonhardt.

“I am less concerned with the possibility of his guilt in the foregoing matters and more concerned with the fact that his allegiance is clearly elsewhere. This matter no longer has an apparent solution, and resolving it will take time.” Having said that, he addressed Romulus directly. “Suppose we let you free. What would you do?”

His eyes finally moved from the war table, to meet Rilien's, and he lifted his head slightly as well. "I would follow my directive and return to Minrathous, to report all that has occurred, all that I have seen and done, to my domina." His mouth was set in a hard line as he contemplated adding more. "I do not know how she will react to... what has been done to me." He glanced down at his bare left hand, and the mark upon it. "But there is no choice. I am not free. I am a slave."

“So… how about a different question?” That was Estella, and her tone was thoughtful. “What do you want to do about all this?”

The question, though it was perhaps the obvious one, seemed to catch Romulus off guard. It was not one he was often asked, for it did not often matter. He hadn't wanted to grow up without parents, or be sold as a child to a wealthy family, or to take a life as a young teen, or a great many things afterwards, but he lived with it because there was no choice. He didn't see much choice here, as he would not betray Magister Chryseis for this mess he'd been entangled in. But there was a thought, buried beneath the surface.

He cocked his head slightly towards Estella beside him. "I would like to stay." He paused, his brow furrowed, clearly in thought. "After the explosion, I found myself preventing further damage from the Breach. I believe my domina would approve of this. I also believe she will be willing to entertain the thought of me staying here." He shifted his gaze back to Rilien, believing he would understand best of those present. "It offers her a unique advantage, if I were to remain. I would ask that you send a message to her, and explain what has happened to her slave. If she desires me to stay... I will stay, and do what I can to help."

“It will be done.” Rilien inclined his head slightly, but his attention was swiftly diverted to Roderick, who had been uncharacteristically silent for a while.

No longer, however. “None of this is for any of you to decide!”

Delicately, Leonhardt cleared his throat. “Actually, it is.” He smiled for all of a second, almost uncomfortably, and moved to one of the adjacent bookshelves, producing a tome bound in thick leather and metal, setting it down carefully on the map table. “I was really hoping it wouldn’t come to this, but I believe you will recognize this document, Chancellor.”

Though he didn’t say it, Roderick nodded tightly.

“For the rest of you, this is actually a writ from the Divine. It was given to me before her death in the event of, well, not this exactly, but something ill befalling her. It grants myself and those I should choose to appoint the authority to do what I’m about to, which is declare an Inquisition.” The smile flickered again.

“Which, really, is just to say that the lot of us are going to be working together until the Breach is closed and those responsible are identified and apprehended. Sound fair?”

It certainly didn’t satisfy Roderick, who threw up his arms and stormed out of the room. “I wouldn’t expect much Chantry support, nor an easy alliance with any nation. It will be a difficult task.” The dry observation was Rilien’s, but he nodded anyway. “I will also lend my skills to this endeavor, and more importantly, those of my agents. I will write Ser Lucien as well, to inform him that I will be commandeering his lieutenant for an indefinite period of time.”

Estella still looked a little stunned, but Rilien’s words were apparently enough to bring her around, because she was nodding even as he finished speaking. “I… yes. I’ll help, if I can. And thank you. For, well… not executing us, I suppose.” She winced.

Romulus merely nodded, believing he'd said more than enough already. His hope was that Chryseis might actually be pleased with the developments, insofar as his new position went. Of course, it was entirely possible that she would simply want him dead, for giving up her name and her decision to meddle at the Conclave.

Whatever happened next, he knew that the day's events had changed everything. An Inquisition had been born.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

Earnings

0.00 INK

Leonhardt awoke with a small start, looking down at the parchment he’d been writing on and sighing. He supposed he could be forgiven for dozing, considering he’d barely slept in the last week. Predictably, attempting to run the logistics of an Inquisition was extremely difficult, even for someone with not-inconsiderable command experience. This wasn’t quite the same as leading people to battle, after all, and for the past four days, he’d let the three Lions' lieutenants run the drills with the troops and shut himself in this side office, taking care of not only his own tasks, but most of those that would be better suited to someone with a more diplomatic bent.

Rilien had helped some, of course, but the Tranquil was busy with his own matters, those involving espionage, the scout regiment, and who knew what else. Leonhardt trusted the fellow, to a point, but it would be foolish to believe that the elf had been completely straightforward with him. He was, after all, a Bard, at least of a sort.

Frowning down at the ink-splattered draft letter he’d been working on, he crumpled it up and brushed it off the desk into a garbage receptacle, and started again. If all went according to plan, he could at least leave answering all the inquiries from curious nobility to someone else, starting as soon as possible. But in order to do that, he had to arrange to rendezvous with the person who’d be taking over that task.

Lady Marceline,

His hand remained steady even with the sudden knock on his door, but he sighed again and put the quill back in its inkwell. If this was about the supplies again—

“Lord Albrecht, you have a, uh… visitor.” That was Reed, one of the guards on shift for the Chantry building at the moment. “At least, I think they’re here for you.”

Leon felt himself make a face. How, exactly, could that be uncertain? Setting his current work aside, he stood from his chair, unsure what to expect, but also undeniably curious.

“All right, Reed, send in my mysterious guest.”

The door swung open, to reveal that Reed was wearing a very skeptical expression, mixed with a bit of caution, as though he weren’t quite sure what was going on, which wasn’t entirely unreasonable, considering that the visitor marched in right after him, looking not entirely put-together in any recognizable fashion. They were quite short, wearing a scarlet cloak with a large, cowl-like hood, and some kind of steel mask fastened over the lower half of their face, with several small, vertical slits, presumably to allow them to breathe. Their armor was a strange assortment, clearly scavenged from several different sets, leather and chain and a few plates, scratched and scuffed with use.

The sword—if it could be called that—on the figure’s back was held there with a series of straps rather than a proper scabbard, and appeared to be bladed only on one side, but very thick on the other, giving it the appearance of a rather large, oddly-shaped cleaver more than anything properly used as a tool of warfare.

The figure stopped not more than two feet from the edge of his desk, and from the flash of white visible in the gaps of the mask, they were grinning, tipping their head quite far up to meet Leonhardt’s eyes with peridot-green ones.

“That Maker of yours must really have liked you, because it looks like he could have made two people from the same stuff instead.” The voice was feminine, though not especially so, and carried a certain rasp to it. She reached up towards her face, unhooking the mask and pulling it away from her, making it evident that she was tattooed over the whole of her visage, in the distinctly-Dalish fashion.

“I’m here to volunteer for your Inquisition thing.”

Whatever he’d been expecting, this—she—was not it. “My…?” It admittedly took him a second to process all of this, from her strange appearance to the incredibly blunt way she’d stated her intentions. He supposed he could appreciate that, in a certain way, but he wasn’t quite sure what to do with the comment about his height; surprisingly, it was not one he’d received before, probably because of politesse.

“Right. The Inquisition.” After a few seconds’ delay, Leon got his wits about him and resumed his seat. He would have offered her one as well, but he didn’t really have anything else by way of office furniture, so that tactic was not an option.

They’d received a few volunteers over the past week, often those drawn by rumors of the mysterious abilities of the so-called Heralds of Andraste. Apparently, the popular interpretation of the story Romulus and Estella had told was that the woman in question was the Bride of the Maker, and though he didn’t think they should endorse such speculation, silencing it was all but impossible, and probably detrimental to the cause, so they’d left it be. But this woman didn’t seem like the kind of person who’d be here for a reason like that.

“If I may ask… what is your name, and why do you want to volunteer?”

She scrunched her nose, almost the expression a person would make if they’d smelled something foul. “Kharisanna Istimaethoriel. But if you could do me a favor, don’t ever tell anyone that, and just call me Khari.” She pulled her hood down, apparently quite content to make herself more comfortable despite the lack of seating, and yanked a long, almost equally-red braid out from underneath it, throwing it over her shoulder.

“And I want to volunteer because the massive spooky green thing in the sky is a big deal, and you lot seem to be the only people doing anything about it. It’s really not complicated, is it?” She shrugged, and placed her hands on her hips, though it didn’t seem to be an attempt at aggression, merely a way she felt comfortable holding herself.

“If you’re worried about me being useful, you’re welcome to put me through my paces. Wouldn’t mind fighting a guy like you.” She grinned, jagged and feral, and it brightened her eyes.

Somehow, he had no trouble at all believing that. Leonhardt gave it some consideration, but the truth was at this point they were so desperately in need of manpower that they were taking farmers with pitchforks, if they wanted to join. Everyone was put through some training, anyway, so it wasn’t really her ability to fight that he was worried about. He had a sense that she knew what she was doing in that respect, but they were in need of more than just soldiers, and he wondered if she might not serve some other purpose just as well.

“I… don’t believe that will be necessary,” he replied, though part of him did wonder if it might not be worth it just to get himself out of this office for a little while. “That said, if you have any particular training I should be aware of, that might make a difference.” She was clearly Dalish; perhaps she knew some of the things they were traditionally known for? She didn’t look much like someone to put under Lia’s watch, but appearances had fooled him before.

If possible, her grin widened. “Special training? Yeah, I’ve got some of that. My mentor’s a chevalier-errant; I know a lot of what they do. Oh, and I get mad and hit things, in sort of an… organized way, I guess. Like those nutty dwarves in the whatsit—the Legion, or something. I dunno. I’ve only ever actually met one dwarf, and he was drunk at the time.” She waved a hand, as if this were unimportant to the point, then suddenly seemed to realize something.

“Oh. Oh. You’re talking about elfy stuff, aren’t you?” There was a pause. “That’s not really my area. I can survive fine, and find a trail if I have to, or move… kind of quietly. But none of that sneaky-sneaky arrow business, no.”

Leon supposed this was a very good lesson in not supposing too much from what he could see. Still, chevalier training was definitely unusual, even from an errant one. Still, it was just believable, though he’d definitely have thought her insane if she claimed to have received instruction at the Academie. He considered her for a moment, then nodded to himself.

“All right then. I don’t see any reason to decline your offer of assistance. I’d normally tell you to go see the Quartermaster about the standard kit and a bunk somewhere, but actually, if you’re amenable, I think there might be something you’re better suited to.” That would indeed require a bit of testing, but if she proved up to the task, he thought she’d do better working outside the rank-and-file. There was a distinct sense of… independence about her, and he wasn’t sure how well she’d fit in with the main body of the army.

“Of course, your wages would be scaled appropriately.”

Khari snorted. “As long as I have something to eat and somewhere to sleep, I don’t care about that stuff.” She shrugged carelessly, her demeanor wholly reflective of her words. “But as long as I’m out in the field, you can put me wherever you damn well want, uh… ser? Milord? Serah? Sorry, I’m not good at the title thing.”

Now that was something he could sympathize with, and Leonhardt smiled slightly. “If you have to use one, Commander is fine, but you’re welcome to just call me Leon, Miss Khari.” He held out his right hand.

She shuddered. “As long as you don’t call me ‘Miss’ again, you have yourself a deal, Leon.” She gripped his hand with surprising strength for one so small, and nodded, the solemnity broken when her grin reappeared.

“But I’m serious about that field test. Anytime you feel like a spar…”

“Well, I’ll keep that in mind, but I think I’ll throw you to our Lions, first. After that, we’ll see. Welcome to the Inquisition.” He settled back into his desk as she left, unable to keep the slightly bewildered half-smile from his face. Either he’d just found them a diamond in the rough, or he was really, really going to regret this conversation. He found that he was actually looking forward to discovering which. He shook his head and returned to his writing, quill scratching mindfully across parchment.

Maybe he was getting used to this Commander thing, after all.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius

Earnings

0.00 INK

It had taken her a while, but eventually, Estella had grown used to the cold.

Which wasn’t to say that she could just walk around outside without a cloak or anything, but she didn’t find it especially unpleasant to do so. And right now, it was actually about the most relaxing thing she could think of. She’d abandoned Haven in favor of walking around outside as the afternoon drew to a close, unable to deal with the awkward scrutiny for much longer before she felt she might crack, so a break from people had seemed in order.

She’d wanted to spend a little time down in the makeshift bailey, running drills with her friends, but after an attempt to do that earlier in the week, she knew it wouldn’t go well. She wasn’t the most inconvenient distraction, but she still did occasionally draw too much attention, making it harder for the others to do their jobs, and in turn impossible for her to get any meaningful practice. She’d never been comfortable with people watching her drill, and only with time and friendship had she come to enjoy practicing with the other Lions, even.

So today she’d decided to get her exercise some other way, and had run for a while around the village before concluding her jog where she was now, which was the bank of a frozen lake, legs dangling off the wooden dock, back planted firmly on the chilled wood, which gave her a rather spectacular view of the darkening sky. Night fell early and quickly here, which made sense, she supposed, since the sun went behind the mountains and all.

The sheer number and enormity of the things that had happened to her in the last fortnight was actually kind of staggering. She hadn’t made lieutenant more than a month ago, somehow managed to make the biggest possible mess of her first assignment, get her whole squad killed, and then stagger out of some… rift in the Fade or something, only to discover that she was now somehow really important to fixing a gigantic problem that hadn’t even existed before that point.

It was quite a lot for one simple mercenary to handle, not that she was the only one in a predicament. Still, she couldn’t help but wish her brother were here. He’d know what to do. Or even her Commander, or even that Rilien actually had time to talk to her for more than a few minutes. Groaning, she threw one arm over her face, shielding her eyes with the crook of her elbow.

"You'll freeze out here, won't you?"

The question came from behind Estella, the man who'd asked it just now walking onto the dock. Romulus was bundled as he had almost always been while outside, though this time at least his hood didn't shroud his face. His arms remained firmly crossed over his chest, though. He came to a stop beside Estella and slowly took a seat, not dangling his legs over the edge but instead keeping his knees up around his chest, where he draped his arms over them. "Or does living with the southerners give you some resistance after time?"

She let her hand fall back away from her eyes, a small motion curving one side of her mouth upwards, just a fraction. “I haven’t stopped missing the Imperium’s weather, but I did get used to this, eventually.” With a small sound, she raised herself so that she was sitting upright as well, hunching slightly to lean her weight on her hands, which grasped the edges of the dock.

Up here in the mountains, the sunset was pale, pastel compared to the explosion of color one got over the ocean, for example, but pretty in its own way. “I guess my name probably gave me away, right?” She actually didn’t use the whole thing that often, for exactly that reason, because while Estella could be passed off as something from the northern Marches, there was no mistaking Avenarius for anything but a Tevinter name. She’d even been cagey about it with her friends in Kirkwall, at first, which had proven almost humorously unnecessary. She doubted they would have cared if she was anything short of a murderous blood mage.

"Perhaps mine should have as well," Romulus said, a slight glint in his eye. "I have no other name. No family to belong to, save the house of Viridius." He sniffed, the cold air having turned his nose quite red, making it serve as a sort of centerpiece for the dark lines marked into his face. Lines of ink ran from the inner corners of his eyes jaggedly across his cheeks to the jawline, while various dots and smaller patterns were more faintly marked into the skin. That particular practice was more commonly known to be Rivaini, rather than Tevinter in origin.

"The Inquisition's plan is to not allow word of my circumstances to spread. It doesn't look well for them to be following a Tevinter magister's loyal blade in their supposed holy calling." He made it difficult to tell how he felt about many things, as any of his expressions of emotions were subtle at best. A very slight quirk to his lips was all he showed now.

"You have the easier story to sympathize with, I suppose. And the easier face."

That got a laugh out of her, a soft one, but a laugh nevertheless. “I don’t know about that. At least yours has real character—I could be anyone.” She paused, then shrugged. Maybe that was the point. “As for the rest of it, well… I suppose I can see why they think that.” Her tone indicated that she was not particularly amenable to it, though. Still, it wasn’t like either of them really had much of a choice here: they were necessary, of that much she was certain, but there was no mistaking that their lives were being more or less used for everyone else’s benefit, at least for now.

She didn’t mind, really. In fact, she was mostly just afraid that she’d fail somehow.

Silence reigned for a while, but then an errant thought struck her, and she furrowed her brow. “Viridius, though. Is Magister Chryseis related to Cassius Viridius?” It seemed unlikely that they were not, but families in Tevinter were often large, and they may not be closely connected at all.

"Daughter," Romulus answered, readily, as though he'd expected the question. "I was originally purchased by Magister Cassius, while I was still a child, and worked on his estate for several years. My actions eventually saw me transferred into the service of his only child and daughter."

He fell silent, perhaps to allow the information to linger on the cold air. It was evidence that he had known perhaps more about Estella from the moment he'd heard her name than he had originally let on. But he didn't hold on to the subject, instead reaching up to pull his hood into place. His ears, uncovered by any hair the likes of which Estella had, had turned quite a bright shade of red.

"Do you believe in the Maker?" he asked, quite out of nowhere. Clearly the question had been lingering on his mind. "Everyone else seems to think we're touched by Andraste, and not just horrible luck."

She accepted the change of topic with equanimity, though not before noting the information to herself. It seemed to collude with the vague sense she had that she’d met this man somewhere before, though it didn’t elucidate the feeling any further. She looked back out at the frozen lake, the way the light from the setting sun reflected off it, coating it in brilliant silver so bright she couldn’t really look at it for too long. She couldn’t help but think she knew a lot of things like that, and many of them were actually people.

“I do,” she replied softly. “Maybe not… not the same way I used to. But I do.” She turned her eyes down to her hands, the right one currently bereft of a glove. She’d woken without it—perhaps trying to close the rift had shredded it or something. The green mark was still there, smaller, but yet alight. She closed her fingers over it.

“But I definitely don’t think I was chosen for anything. I can’t bring myself to believe that it was Andraste in there. I’ve never heard anyone respond to my prayers, and people of much more merit and faith than me have been praying longer and harder to be met with just as much nothing.” There was something beyond this world, she knew that much. But whether that something would ever have anything to do with them, that was harder to say. Certainly they wouldn’t pick her of all people to affect so directly, and it was arrogance to assume otherwise.

“What about you?” She knew that slaves in the Imperium as a rule weren’t known for being religious, but then, the Chantry was at odds with the Magisterium often enough that some of them did end up inclined in that direction, so it varied.

"I've never believed," he answered simply. He let it sit for a moment before clarifying. "I've never had a reason to. The Tevinter Chantry decided I was fit only for servitude. And I have served no one that even mentions the Maker's name in passing. My life... has never had time for questions of faith."

He looked up and to his left, at the Breach that still hung in the sky. "Inconvenient that I think to ask only now." As the daylight faded its unnatural glow became more prominent, casting reflecting green trails across the ice and the clouds, though they were slower moving than before, when the tear in the sky had been much more volatile.

"I don't know who it was that saved us. I know little of magic. But I do know what I have experienced, from when I was a child, to this moment." He twisted where he sat, to look more directly at her.

"Tell me. Do you remember me? From before. Long, long before any of this ever happened."

It was the same question that had been nagging at the back of her mind, and she wondered if she was transparent enough that he’d read it right off her or if he’d been wondering as well. She bit her lip and searched her memory, which really seemed to be failing more often than it wasn’t lately.

“There’s… something. I have a sense that I’ve met you, but I can’t recall where or how.” She was sure if it had been some time after she’d been apprenticed to Master Ignis, she would have recalled—she hadn’t been lying when she said his face had a distinctive character, especially with the tattoos. But though she knew of the Viridius household, she’d never been there, and it was unlikely that was the right avenue, which left only one.

“The orphanage, maybe? I was so young then that I barely remember most of it, but…? She let the end of the sentence become a question, hoping he would have the answer.

He smiled, not broadly, but certainly the closest he'd come since showing his face in Haven. "I was a wild, stupid, angry child, no more than nine years old. I remember the little twins. After I was shuffled off in the night and clapped in irons, it was many years before I heard of either of you, and then, only of the other Avenarius. But my domina let the name fall enough that I did not forget."

There was a gleam in his eye, like he was truly interested in the coincidence the pair of them had fallen into. "I sometimes wondered where the girl had gone, but did not trouble myself with it. And looking back now, what have we gone through to be here? What have you gone through that lets you even function after what happened? How is it that both of us are still alive?"

The questions were obviously not meant to be answered, as he stood then, looking out over the lake. "I never believed before... but after the two of us, so far from Tevinter where we were placed as children, fell out of a rift, the only survivors... after all of that, I find it hard to believe that it was only luck that chose us." It was apparently all he wanted to say on the subject, as he turned and quietly departed, heading back for the warmth of Haven.

Estella contemplated that for a while, but no answers presented themselves, at least not to what seemed to be the larger question. Still, Romulus had definitely given her something to think about, something she was still doing when she, too, rose and headed back towards the gate into the village.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

Earnings

0.00 INK

It was sweltering, but to her, it was perfect.

The house that Asala had been given to work in had all of its windows shut to keep out the cold mountain air, and a fire raged in the hearth, a cauldron bubbling above it. Asala had discarded her white robes, thrown into a heap in the corner of the room, and instead wore a thin, wide necked tunic that fell to her navel. Her thick, furlined boots were also discarded wanting instead to feel the cool wood under her barefeet. For someone so shy, she didn't mind exposing some skin. The cold and snow was something new to her, having never experienced it in the northern reaches of Thedas. Judging by the thickness of the clothes around her, she never grew used to it.

She stood over the bubbling cauldron, stirring the contents slowly and methodically with a long metal ladle. The house smelled of herbs and medicine, and a stack of vials waited on a table nearby and a box on her other side contained many herbs, though primarily elfroot. She reached into the box and plucked out a few roots, working them in her hands to draw the juices to the surface before she dropped them into the cauldron.

A few minutes more, and she stopped the stirring and drew some of the mixture. She took a sniff and gave a pleased nod, before grabbing a vial and filling it with the light green mix. A bald headed man with a bushy beard then appeared beside her, looking into the cauldron too. "The potions are done then?" He asked. Adan, the man's name was. Asala remembered he was cranky when they first met, but soon he came to accept her presence. At least she hoped he did, it was hard to tell under that beard. She nodded in the affirmative.

"Good, Ser Albrecht will be pleased," he said, taking the vial from her hand and stoppering it before putting it in a crate. They managed to pack a few more before a knock came from the door. Adan packed the vial he was holding before moving to answer. The chill quickly swept in when he had, causing her shoulder to shudder.

He stood at the doorway for a moment, staring at whoever had knocked before asking, "Herald? What brings you to my little piece of Haven?" Asala shuddered again, this time at the sarcasm in his voice.

There was a momentary pause, but then a feminine voice, soft but steady, answered. “Oh, hello serah. Rilien mentioned to me the other day that you might like the former alchemist’s notes. I was out walking today and found his house—are these what you were looking for?” There was a shuffling sound, like parchment, and then a moment of silence.

Asala paused what she was doing for a moment and glanced toward the door. Setting the ladle down, she moved toward it and stood over Adan's shoulder, peering at the notes in his hands. She could make out ingredients, serving sizes, methods, and techniques. Adan flipped through the notes before nodding, "This will be useful. Were it not for Asala, the Commander would be without potions for his troops." The faint praised caused a blush to seep into Asala's face, and she averted her head to try and pretend she didn't hear it. It was difficult for her to deal with compliments.

With the notes in hand, Adan removed himself from the doorway and went back to the cauldron, and continued to pour potions into vials leaving Asala standing awkwardly with Estella. A moment passed in silence before she twitched. She was being rude she realized. "Oh! Uh... C-come in?" she asked in a stuttered. She was not good talking with new people... Even if she had watched over this one for the better part of a week. It was different when she was unconscious. Asala didn't have to speak then.

Estella smiled slightly, in what would be described as a reassuring fashion, perhaps sensing her discomfort. After a moment’s pause at the threshold, she stepped forward and entered, closing the door tightly behind her, shaking a bit of loose snow from the hem of her cloak. It didn’t take long for the ambient temperature to bring spots of color to her pale face, and she removed the single glove she was wearing, tucking it into her belt.

“Oh, this is much nicer than outside. Thank you.” Carefully, she unclasped her cloak and hung it one of the hooks reserved for such uses, and stepped further in, no longer at risk of dripping much on the floor. She stood well away from the workstation itself though, placing herself against a wall and folding her hands behind her back. Her eyes passed over the various alchemical accoutrements, though from the cursory nature of the examination, it was probably safe to say she knew at least some of them already.

Eventually, her eyes settled back on Asala, though not in any particularly intent way. “Is Haven home for you, Asala? Or did you come here from somewhere else? That is, if you don’t mind my asking.”

She'd moved back and resumed the spot that Adan had moments ago, aiding him in filling the vials and then packing them away. She shook her head no and paused a moment, pointing upward. "More north," she answered. It was intentionally vague for she didn't know how she felt about telling Estella the details of her home. She did not think Estella a bad person, farthest from it actually. She found herself rather fond of the woman, but they'd only known each other for a few weeks, and some of those days Estella had been unconscious. She did, however allow the woman a warm, if fragile, smile. "Far more."

“Makes sense, I suppose,” Estella replied mildly, apparently not inclined to push any further than Asala was willing to talk. There were only so many countries in the north of Thedas, and not many of them had much by way of a Qunari populace, so perhaps the guess was obvious. “It’s… different, of course, but I like it, in the south.”

She fell silent for a time, then seemed to remember something. “Oh, that’s right.” She went back over to her cloak, moving it around for moment until she exposed an inside pocket, which she fished something out of. “One of the bakers was working earlier today, and I remember someone mentioning you’d been holed up in here making potions, so I thought you might like some.” This time moving to Asala’s side and stopping within a few feet, she set the object down on the table. It appeared to be something covered in a napkin, but from the subtle sweet scent, it was quite fresh still.

Asala glanced at the napkin for a moment, but finished packing the last potions into the crate before investigating. She took it in her hands and folded it back, her eyes widening with childlike glee when she saw what was inside. A cookie, large and round, studded with pieces of chocolates. Her eyes darted back and forth between the cookie and Estella before finally blurting, "Thank you!" without a stutter. Nearby, Adan simply rolled his eyes and picked up the crate before heading for the door. "I'm going to deliver these to the Lions. You two are giving me a headache."

Asala's gaze fell for a moment, and Adan wore an apologetic look as he left. But it wasn't enough to keep Asala's spirit down for long. She broke a piece of and popped it in her mouth. It was still warm, she found, and she closed her eyes as she savored it. She opened them to see Estella, so she broke a small piece off from the cookie and offered to share.

However she may felt about it before, she was now far more receptive telling her more about where she came from. Her eyes fell to the floor a moment as she felt an aching pain in her heart. "I-I was born in Par Vollen, but it is not my home. The Qun... Do you know what it demand th-they do to the mages?" The staff that leaned against the wall nearby and the skill with which she wielded barriers bespoke of her status. Saarebas.

Estella accepted the proffered portion of the sweet, biting into it and chewing for a moment before she answered. “I’m… yes. I’m aware. One of my friends used to follow the Qun; he’s… well, he doesn’t talk about it much, but I do know that.” She sighed, then finished her bit of cookie.

“So you ran, then? From Par Vollen? That must have been difficult.”

She nodded, gingerly holding the cookie in her hands. She remembered. It was hard to forget. There was crying, pleading, and begging, but her only answer were stoic faces and unfeeling iron. Her hands trembled before finding their strength again. "Not alone. Tammy-- T-Tamassran, our teacher, took me and another from there before... Before..." she trailed off, a hand moving to the base of one of her horns. Had she remained, they would've taken them from her. Along with much more.

"We f-found a new home. Away from the Qun. We are... Tal-Vashoth. And I am a Saarebas. A dangerous thing," she said with a smile. There was no warmth within it however, only sadness. She shook her head throwing white locks around and recovering the base of her horns, trying to buck those thoughts, "It was... A l-long time ago," she said with a blush and an averting of her gaze.

Estella wore a sympathetic expression, but in the end, she only shook her head. “Well, not to reduce the difficulty you’ve been through, but in this case, it seems the Qun’s loss was our gain. You saved our lives, and if we manage to close the Breach, then… that means you’ll really have saved everyone.” She smiled kindly. Saarebas or no.”

She shifted her weight slightly and laid a hand, the one without the mark, on Asala’s forearm. “So, I for one am very glad you’re a mage. Thank you, for helping us.”

Asala returned the smile, this one with warmth. "Th-thank you," she stuttered before setting the cookie down and returning to the cauldron. She still had work to do, after, all. She glanced at the vials and then to Estella, giving her an apologetic look as she did.

“I’ll let you get back to it,” Estella said, clearly taking the hint. Patting Asala’s arm once, she stepped away and returned to the entranceway, donning her cloak swiftly and putting her hand to the door.

“If you need any help bottling those tomorrow, let me know. I don’t have much else to do, honestly, and I’ve spent more than a few hours as an alchemist’s assistant.” Her eyes glittered with a faint hint of mirth, as though something in that statement amused her, but then she pressed on the door and stepped back out into the chill.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

Earnings

0.00 INK

It did smell a little bit like dog.

Which was actually kind of weird, since there wasn’t a lot by way of civilization out here, but Khari didn’t much mind that. Someplace called the Hinterlands probably should have a bit more of a rugged, wild feel to it, right? It was mostly hills and valleys, with the occasional cluster of trees, but according to Leon’s pretty maps, there were forested areas, too, and some big old fortress to the southwest. Also bears. They’d been told to watch out for bears.

Khari wasn’t worried about bears so much—growing up in an area with the really big ones had made the normal ones seem less impressive.

They’d been going downhill for a while now, herself at point of the formation mostly because she’d insisted and no one else had argued with her. They were a pretty quiet bunch, and maybe even a smidge boring, for a really tall Qunari and a couple of Heralds of Andraste or whatever, but she reminded herself that it wasn’t smart to conclude anything before she’d gotten to know them, so she reserved her final thoughts on that for now at least. Plus the really quiet one with the big knife seemed like the kind of guy who might stab you in your sleep, which reminded her of all the things Ser Durand had said about Bards, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to piss him off if so.

The scouts thankfully weren’t that hard to follow, presumably because there wasn’t really any need to be, and so even her remedial skills could keep them on the right track, and it wasn’t too long before they crested a hill and saw the small encampment laying ahead of them.

“Splen-diferous. We’re here.”

The camp was well situated, set into the hill side with an excellent view to the north. It was a small hub of Inquisition activity, with a group of soldiers performing routine drills outside the tents, while others stood watch over all of the entry points. Two of these guards quickly noticed the approaching group led by the two Heralds of Andraste. One whistled loudly, turning back towards the camp.

The watchmen escorted the group into the camp, where an elven woman, quite young, dressed in light Inquisition leathers and mail, came to greet them. A finely made bow was slung across her back, along with a full quiver of arrows. Curling away from her eyes and down each of her cheeks were dark green tattoos, easily recognizable as Dalish vallaslin. Hers were the marks of Andruil, goddess of the hunt.

"Good to see you made it," she greeted, nodding to Estella in particular. "Hope you didn't find any trouble on the road." Her eyes settled on Khari, specifically upon the redheaded elf's own vallaslin, marks of a different god. "Don't think we've met. I'm Lia, the lead scout."

Khari was unexpectedly silent for a moment—she hadn’t encountered any other Dalish in a number of years, and now that she had, wasn’t sure exactly what to do. In the end, though, she decided not to do anything in particular, instead plastering her wolfish grin over her face and holding a hand forward.

“Khari. I guess I’m the hired thug.” She said it with a fair amount of pride and no little humor, which would hopefully make it obvious she wasn’t completely serious. It was surprising how many people couldn’t tell a joke from a dragon’s ass.

"Yeah, but you must be a pretty good thug, if they stuck you with the Heralds," Lia shot back, with a grin. She caught a glance from Romulus, and then returned to a more businesslike manner, clearing her throat.

"We've been doing what we can out here, but it's a mess. Commander wants you guys as the vanguard, with us backing you up. We set up camp here, above the refugee town below." She thumbed over her shoulder, towards the smoke that could be seen drifting from the small valley below. "They don't have any room left down there. We've made contact with Revered Mother Annika, she's the one leading the refugees. Tough one, for a Chantry woman. She wants to meet the two of you." She nodded her head towards Estella, and Romulus.

“Right.” From behind Khari, Estella nodded, stepping forward slightly. “Rilien mentioned she’d expressed some interest in the Inquisition. He… also said there’s still active conflict in the area. Should we expect any of it on the way?”

Meanwhile, there was a shuffling, and Asala's horns descended into Khari's view, eyes looking at her with no small amount of trepidation. "Are... Are y-you truly a h-hired thug?" Asala sputtered.

Was this lady serious? Khari’s grin widened, becoming quite nearly uncanny. “The baddest bandit between here and Val Fermin, serah.” Her tone was dripping with sarcasm, but it was unclear if even that would be of any help. Asala's cheeks reddened and brows furrowed, and she slowly slipped back out of view and away. It appeared... not.

"Uh..." Lia said, a little slack-jawed. She blinked, and then looked back to Estella. "Yes. A lot of it. We tried to reach a horsemaster in the area, a man named Dennet. Leon wanted us to see if he'd be willing to provide horses for the Inquisition. We couldn't reach him, though. To the northwest," she pointed, "through the tunnel, there's a battleground. Rebel mages and templars turned an entire village into burning rubble fighting each other."

"Where are they coming from?" Romulus asked, direct and to the point.

"Our best guess, the mages are somewhere in the forest to the north, and the templars somewhere along the river to the west. There's bandits of some kind along the eastern road, a cult of some sort to the south, and while we don't know who's occupying the fort in the southwest, they sure don't seem friendly. Basically, expect trouble anywhere you go."

“Sounds like fun.” And about that, she was completely serious. Khari felt the first little tingles of an oncoming adrenaline rush starting to buzz around in her fingertips, and glanced back at the rest of them. Maybe they’d be ready to go soon? Lia seemed swell, as far as people went, but she’d come this far looking for challenges, not small talk.

"It certainly isn't dull. Come on, we'd better get--" Lia's words were cut off by a loud, clear horn, echoing through the hills but almost certainly coming from down below, in the village. "Shit," Lia cursed to herself, turning and running to a cliffside, to get a better view. "Someone's attacking the village. I think it's the templars. Donnelly's leading the defense, they can hold them off, but I don't know for how long. Get going! We'll be right behind you."

No need to tell her twice. Khari had yanked her sword out of its makeshift harness before Lia had even finished speaking, and she was down the side of the hill like a shot, her feet sure and steady over the precarious terrain. Ordinarily, she might have been more mindful of the fact that she was in a group, but this was an emergency situation, and the faster they could get there, the better, even if they didn’t arrive all at the same time.

Her breath was as steady as her footfalls, even as she launched herself off smaller ledges on the way down the cliffside, in order to shave off time. She took a couple harder landings when the ground proved unstable underneath her, but they fazed her not at all, and it wasn’t long before she was charging down a dirt path, impressed into what had once been native grass from long years of wagon travel and the passage of horses. Her feet dug little furrows in the ground every time she pushed off into the next step; the last rain here had been recent, and the earth was still soft.

She knew all of this, in the same way she knew how to run. Eventually, her stride brought her to the Templar flanks, and she dove right into a knot of them, swinging her heavy sword with what other people would probably call ‘extreme prejudice.’ Khari preferred to think of it as getting her muscles warmed up, finding the right rhythm of battle.

Clearly, the Templars hadn’t expected to be flanked, least of all by someone like her, who just jumped right into their formation like she’d never had a tactical lesson in her life. That surprise lasted long enough for her blade to bite deep into one’s clavicle, and then she sawed it backwards, slamming the pommel into the stomach of the next, who’d come in behind, catching him just where his plate ended and weaker ringmail began.

She ducked under another swing, but focused on the one she’d just hit, arcing her blade over her head and bringing the graceless hunk of steel down on his helmet, where it sounded a dull rapport, and he reeled to the side long enough for her to punch the point of the blade into his guts. “Pick on someone who can fight back, you damned cowards!”

If any of them had failed to notice her before, that certainly got their attention.

Of course, there were advantages to that, such as the fact that Estella, next to reach the group, though looking a little more winded than Khari herself, was able to flank them a second time, the bright silverite of her own thinner sword flashing in the sunlight as she used it to slide between a pair of plates in another templar’s back, felling him as well. Unfortunately, the woman beside him had noticed this, and drove the Herald back with a series of heavy hits, each parried, but clearly more than a match for Estella’s strength.

A well placed arrow from above struck the templar in the sword arm, piercing between two armor plates and offering Estella a solid opening to take advantage of, which she did, plunging her blade into the Templar's armpit.

More Inquisition troops arrived to attack the flank, both in melee and from range. The templars seemed to realize how they'd overstepped, and almost immediately began a measured retreat, giving ground to try to consolidate their line. Behind them was a well lit tunnel dug through the rock. It was towards this that they backstepped.

In the center of the fray stood a woman with sandy blonde hair, wearing ringmail and leather armor over her Chantry robes. She wielded a mace and tower shield, deflecting blows left and right and covering the retreat of an injured Inquisition soldier. The blows she struck back with were debilitating, aimed at the limbs rather than major organs or killing blows. She had a commanding presence on the field, even the Inquisition soldiers seeming to rally around her.

"There are no apostates for you here, Templars!" she bellowed, above the din of battle. "And nothing for you to loot and plunder, either! Turn back from this madness!"

The comment about apostates however, was soon rendered false. The conspicuous appearance of white locks and a pair of horns stood out amongst the Inquisition soldiers at range, the woman's hands alight in blue Fade. In turn, barriers began to spring up from the battlefield, separating pockets of Templars and aiding the push back.

The Haze, as Khari preferred to call it, wasn’t like most people imagined. She didn’t lose her senses—she could still hear and register what was going on around her. It just… mattered less, in the same way pain mattered less. She could steer clear of allies with the precision of a finely-tuned instrument, at least when she was doing things right, but it was all instinct, not really consciously-decided on her part.

Khari swung her arms upwards, catching an incoming halberd by dint of that same instinct, angling it off her sword to avoid a pushing contest she’d probably lose, then took a hard step forward, lowering her shoulder and knocking into her foe, off-center so that she’d put a little spin on him, then leaped back and swung while he recovered, chopping into his abdomen like a lumberjack swinging an axe into a tree, and he fell just like one. That meant the last one in her immediate proximity was gone, and she considered chasing down some of the others, but there was no honor in felling a fleeing foe, and she backed off, joining up with the rest of the Inquisition’s forces and applying pressure on the few too stubborn to cede as much ground as they ought to be.

And then, as suddenly as it had begun, the fight ended, the last of the remaining templars turning tail to flee. Khari took a deep breath, slowly relinquishing the Haze, and came to covered in blood, most of it not her own. Slowly, she shook out each of her limbs, testing for injuries she might not have noticed, and finding nothing more devastating than a couple nicks and scratches. That was some backup; normally when she did things that stupid, she came away with at least a few deep gashes or a broken something.

Confident that she was still in fighting shape, she lowered Intercessor and glanced around, seeking the other three.

The templars fled back through their tunnel, licking their wounds, and the Inquisition forces moved quickly to re-secure it. Undoubtedly they would be more cautious about attacking the refugee camp in the future, given the staunch defense they'd been met with. The air smelled heavily of blood, as much of it had been spilled, on both sides. The crows feasted well here, but if the looks of the refugees emerging were any indication, they were not sharing in the bounty. From within the throngs of soldiers dispersing after the fight the Chantry Mother, Annika, emerged, her bloodied mace leaning against her shoulder. She slid her arm from the shield grips and set it at her feet.

"Bloody rogue templars, no better than common thugs," she muttered. "I doubt even they know what they fight for at this point."

Estella slid her blade home in the sheath at her hip, stepping forward to greet the armored cleric. “Not a flaw only they have,” she said quietly, then took a deep breath and spoke with more confidence. “Mother Annika? I’m Estella, and this is Romulus, Khari, and Asala.” She indicated each in turn.

Annika smiled, exhaling as though the weight of her armor had been lifted. "And the two of you are known now as the Heralds of Andraste. Come, walk with me. There is much to discuss."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

Earnings

0.00 INK

Romulus walked behind the Revered Mother, Annika, and pulled back his hood. The Hinterlands were anything but warm, but here at least the sun seemed to have some warmth, and the winds did not swirl with drifts of snow. It was no closer to Tevinter, but it was at least a little more bearable.

"Your timing was excellent," Mother Annika said, leading them back into the center of the makeshift village. It looked to have been simply a crossroads at some point, with a lone watchtower and a small guard house, probably manned by the Arl's men before the mage-templar war resumed. Now, it was manned by volunteers and Inquisition soldiers. The rest of the buildings, or more often just pitiful canvas tents, had sprung up with little organization all around it.

"The people here have little to offer for the Inquisition's assistance," she continued, leading them to the right and up a flight of old stone stairs, past a small wooden house. "But of course, the Inquisition's greatest need currently isn't soldiers, or swords. It's support of the people you need, something the rest of the Chantry would see denied to you."

The observation that was easiest to make for Romulus was that this woman was a part of the Chantry, but clearly did not share a mind with the rest of her organization. That she wielded shield and mace was odd enough; he'd rarely seen anyone in Chantry robes, Tevinter or otherwise, pick up a weapon.

They came to a small area set aside for the wounded, makeshift cots holding injured refugees and Inquisition volunteers alike. Annika surveyed them briefly, before approaching a young man, no older than twenty, with a bleeding stab wound to the side. He pressed his hand against it. Annika carefully set down her shield and propped the mace against it, before crouching down beside the boy.

"There is a mage here, a skilled healer. She can assist you, if you'll allow it." She looked back, and pointed to Asala. Her tone was comforting, devoid of any trace of the anger she'd carried in the fight. The boy, however, laid eyes on the Qunari, and they were filled with fear, though it was unclear if he was made apprehensive by the horns, or the magic.

"No, Mother Annika, please. Don't let an apostate touch me. Their magic..."

"Her magic," Annika corrected, "for she is her own woman, and she has chosen a nobler purpose than banditry in the woods. Now be silent, and allow her to ease your suffering." He looked at Asala a moment longer, before reluctantly easing up, and nodding. Annika smiled, squeezed him on the shoulder, and turned to the newly arrived group, her eyes finding Asala.

"You are the healer I've heard about, yes? The one who tended to the Heralds? News has spread from Haven of more than just those touched by Andraste. There are a great many here who could use your skill."

"O-Oh," Was all she could manage. Whether it due the boy's initial reluctance, the attention placed upon her, the news that she was known along with the Heralds, or a mix of it all that managed to overwhelm her, it was not clear. However, with a subtle shake of her head, her eyes focused and she turned toward the boy.

She fell to her knees and hiked her sleeves up past her elbows to reveal a pair of slender arms, holding her hands out over the boy's injury. "It will... tickle. At first," she offered him with a gentle smile. A moment later, a green glow enveloped her hands, evident of the healing magic they wielded, and the boy twitched at an unfamiliar sensation.

She spoke again, this time directed toward the Revered Mother, though she did not turn away from the boy placed in her care. "I will see to all those that I can."

"Excellent," Annika said, nodding in approval. She allowed Asala to go about her work, turning her attention next to Estella and Romulus. She spent a moment in silence, as though studying them, and Romulus thought perhaps to open his mouth and speak, if she were waiting for him to do so. She saved him the trouble, however.

"Before we go any further, I have a question for both of you." She paused, perhaps to see if there was any objection. "This title, Herald of Andraste. I would ask how you feel about it. Your honest opinion."

Estella glanced at Romulus, perhaps recalling their previous conversation on a related topic, but then moved her glance to the Revered Mother. “I think… that there is an awful lot I don’t know,” she said, pursing her lips. “It seems so unlikely to me that I’d ever be chosen for anything like that—part of me thinks it must be nothing but a coincidence… however strange that coincidence really is.” She paused, sighing softly through her nose.

“But then I hardly think I’m qualified to guess at what the Maker or Andraste are thinking, either. I don’t want to lie to anyone, to tell them I’m a Herald without knowing that I am, but… it’s not like I could possibly set straight every person who already believes it.”

"Humility is a good place to begin," the Revered Mother remarked. "I'm sure the confidence to use what you have been granted for the greater good will come with time. For whether or not you believe, many of those that follow do, and will look to you for example. Perhaps, when you have an opportunity to raise flagging spirits with a few small words, you will begin to believe." She turned her head to Romulus. "And what about you? Admittedly I've heard a bit less about the man with the marked face."

Romulus shifted uncomfortably, not eager to be judged. But that was the way the world would treat them, wasn't it? Judging them based on word of mouth, on glimpses of them and their actions, on the words they spoke. People across countries that didn't even know them would judge their actions, with heavy weights on their opinions.

"I have only ever believed in what I've seen," he began, uneasily. "But I've seen things recently that I cannot explain, and felt them. The title has its uses, as you've said. From nothing, in a short time, a force has been built capable of bringing order back to lands like these. The title has power behind it, enough to stop wars, or begin them. As for it's meaning to me..." He faltered. "I believe allowing myself to think I'm meant for something greater is dangerous. But the more I've thought on it, the easier it is to believe."

"A wise sentiment, to recognize the danger. Many a movement has blindly turned away from their original intent from how zealously they believe. Our dear rogue templars are a fine example." She quieted, taking a step past them to overlook the village below, where she watched the progress of the brief battle's aftermath.

"I hoped to speak with you because I am aware of the Chantry's denouncement of your Inquisition. I am experienced enough in these ranks to know those that are behind it." She curled her lip up slightly, an expression Romulus interpreted as disgust. "Some of them have followed Roderick for the purpose of grandstanding. They feel tempted by the possibility of being the next Divine, something unthinkable for them before the Conclave. Some... some are simply terrified, from what the stories told of the Temple of Sacred Ashes, or what remains of it." She looked to Estella.

"I have not seen it for myself yet. The refugees of war have occupied my time. Tell me, was there nothing but horror following the explosion? What stood out to you most, in the hours after you awoke?"

Estella took a long pause before answering, the gap in conversation much longer than those normally permitted. Then again, it wasn’t exactly a light query, so perhaps that made sense. When she answered, there was a distinct sense of reserve in her tone, as though she were withholding something—not particularly difficult to detect. “I suppose… what I noticed most about everyone else was that none of them had lost their composure. Everyone I met had understood just as much as I did about what happened, but they hadn’t given up. They had a plan, even if they disagreed about what it was, and they did everything they could to make it happen.”

"It's the mindset of a well-disciplined soldier, is it not?" Annika said, with a small, knowing smile. "Even when things go so terribly wrong, a good soldier knows that allowing fear to control will only make matters worse. My Chantry brethren, for the most part, are not soldiers. Their fear makes them desperate, and then drives them from reason. And the stories they have been told, of the events at the Conclave, have given them nothing but fear. Fear of the terrible destruction, and fear of the Inquisition that rose from it."

Romulus scowled, mostly because there was little other way to take a discussion such as this. He stood with hands folded in front of him, beside Estella, and listened carefully to the Revered Mother's words.

"I believe you should go to them, in Val Royeaux. Convince them that you and your Inquisition are no demons to be feared. Convince them of what I learned, during the Blight: that times like these bring out the best in people, not just the worst. Do you think you can do this?" Romulus felt that the question was specifically asked to Estella, for her gaze did not wander to Romulus during or after the asking.

Estella’s did, though, darting to him and then back, and then she bit down on her lip. “I’m not…” she sighed. “I don’t know if that’s possible.” Her eyes fell to the ground in front of them, and she shifted her center of gravity.

“But I can try.”

"You don't need to convince them all in one fell swoop. You just need some of them to doubt their certainty in branding you and yours as heretics. They only have power in unity. Take it from them, and they will flounder, giving the Inquisition the time it needs to brace itself." Finally, her eyes found their way up to Romulus, and clearly they saw the question within them. He wondered why this conversation was seemingly between the two of them, Estella and Annika. Why the task was solely hers.

"It must be her that goes to Val Royeaux. I would advise that you stay here, in the Hinterlands, for the time being. When I look at the pair of you, when I think of what I have heard... Estella is a known entity in comparison. A member of a respected mercenary organization, especially in Orlais. It already lends evidence that she is a woman with a good heart, and a capable hand. I will not say that you lack these..." She paused, studying him, his demeanor, his posture, the expression on his face, or lack thereof.

"But any noble or Chantry official of Orlais will see that you are a man who has known only servitude. It's in the way you carry yourself, how you position yourself near others, how you speak. They know nothing of you, and the unknown is something they greatly fear. Perhaps you can bring Andraste's wrath to the Inquisition's enemies, and Estella can bring Andraste's hope to those you would see become allies." Romulus pondered the words... and found them agreeable. Tactically, if nothing else. Speaking to a crowd, of his superiors no less, while refusing to renounce his loyalty to a magister of Tevinter... the less he spoke on behalf of the Inquisition, the better. Even if he wanted to, which he didn't, it simply wasn't wise. He didn't doubt Estella would dislike the experience as much if not more, but she was better suited for it, of the two of them.

Romulus nodded that he understood. Annika returned the gesture, and sighed. "I honestly don't know how I feel about the two of you. If you've been touched by Andraste and sent to help us... I hope it's true, though." She took another long look out at the refugees, pausing before she spoke again. "I will go to Haven, if the Inquisition will have me, to provide your leaders with the names of those in the Chantry that would be most amenable to a gathering. It isn't much, but hopefully it will be something."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

Earnings

0.00 INK

Several days after their first meeting with the Revered Mother, plans were already in motion for a trip to Val Royeaux. Still, it would take a little time to get everything together, and apparently Leon had been planning to go there already anyway, so it had been decided that they would kill two birds with one stone and do everything at the same time.

In the meantime, their focus had otherwise remained on the Hinterlands, which seemed to be plagued with enough problems to occupy much of their force for a very long time. There were mages, templars, bandits, some kind of cult, and rumors of rifts further in. Despite this, Estella had suggested diverting at least a small team of them to seek out someone who was not involved with any of it, at least not to her knowledge. She’d been… sparing, with the details, only pointing out that she knew a very talented mage who might be in the area, but considering how much they could use someone like that, little else was necessary.

She hadn’t heard from her brother since before the Conclave, but all of this seemed exactly like the kind of thing he would be able to help with. All this strange magic that she knew nothing about and Asala had to guess at—that was exactly what Cyrus had always thrived on. Estella also couldn’t deny that she was excited by the prospect of seeing him again; almost as excited as she was terrified, really.

The prospect of someone with real expertise in such rare arcane matters wasn’t something they could really afford to pass up, and so via messenger bird, she’d received Leon’s go-ahead to search for him, along with a note from Rilien about where someone interested in old magic might be. Apparently, there were several locations of historical interest in the Hinterlands, and one of them wasn’t too far from here. Their route had brought them into direct conflict with one of the more stubborn pockets of bandits, and so they were, at this point, making rather slow progress, fighting their way up the dirt path towards the location her teacher had indicated.

Estella rolled her shoulders when the last bandit fell, trying to ease some of the soreness that had built up over the long days of combat they’d endured here. The refugee camp wasn’t exactly in the safest location, and with the sheer number of potential threats to it, their troops were spread thin as it was. Khari had left several hours earlier to help Donnelly with a pocket of mages trying to sabotage the supply lines, which was quickly starving the refugees and the troops. Maybe Lia and the scouts would be able to replenish the food from the local wildlife…

She didn’t bother putting her sword away this time. Instead, she turned, to look back at Romulus and Asala. “It shouldn’t be too much longer before we get there. The map says it’s this way.” Turning off the road for the first time, Estella struck up a hill. There was more tree cover in this area, but the terrain wasn’t difficult, so they kept up a good pace.

They walked for several more minutes in relative quiet, occasionally passing the corpse of another bandit, or evidence of a scuffle between mages and templars. More than the usual amount of these bodies had been struck by arrows, however, though why that was didn’t become evident until they’d been walking for another ten minutes.

At that point, the soft hiss of an arrow passing through air broke the silence, and one struck the ground in front of Estella’s feet. She took a quick step backwards, scanning the undersides of the trees for the shooter, while Romulus immediately crouched down, and covered the direction the arrow had come from with his shield. “Turn around. There’s nothing for you this way, brigands.” The voice, slightly androgynous but identifiable as belonging to a woman, seemed to come from a different direction than the arrow had, making it hard to tell how many people were hidden in the boughs.

Almost immediately after a shield bubble was cast around the three of them, with Asala in the middle and the tip of her staff dug into the dirt.

Estella was glad of the protection, but she also thought maybe there’d been a misunderstanding here, and if they could correct it, it might not have to end in a fight. Though it probably didn’t mean much, considering she was behind a magical shield, she sheathed her saber and held both hands up in the air. “We’re not bandits,” she said, speaking generally up at the branches overhead, since she wasn’t sure which of them were occupied. The leaf cover made it really hard to tell. “Nor templars. And we aren’t with the mages, either.” It was technically incorrect to say that none of them were mages, and obviously so, considering Asala.

“Actually, um, we’re with the Inquisition. We’re looking for someone.” She’d never been any good with knowing what to give away or keep secret, so for the most part, she just erred on the side of telling the truth, and taking the risk of telling too much of it. It seemed to work sometimes, anyway.

There was a period of silence, but then the voice spoke, this time from somewhere else. It was likely that there was only one person in the tree, and she was capable of throwing her voice, so as to obscure her actual location. “Inquisition, is it?” Another pause. “Who are you looking for all the way out here?”

Well, this was a start. Estella wasn’t sure the answer to this question would do much for them either way, but if the woman wanted to know, there didn’t seem to be much for it but telling her. “We’re looking for a mage, named Cyrus. The last I knew of him, he was out here, but it’s been a while, so…”

Curiously, there was a short, sharp “ha!” from above, and then, quite suddenly, a woman appeared, swinging down from a branch and landing directly in front of them. She was obviously Dalish, her valaslin a bright, saturated blue, her long hair quite blonde. Armored more heavily than most of her kind, she wore chain and a few thinner plates as well as leather, but her boots were the soft, supple hide of those that moved quietly whenever possible. A longsword rested on one hip, and her bow was now slung across her back.

Stooping for the arrow, she pulled it out of the ground and placed it back in her quiver. “Now what would a pretty lady like yourself want with that good-for-nothing shem, huh?” But then she squinted a little, her eyes darting over Estella’s features. “I’ll be damned. He said you’d be coming…” She smiled slightly, then shook her head.

“Let down that bubble and follow me. I know exactly where he is.”

Asala instead looked to Estella for an answer. She nodded. “It’s okay.” She wasn’t sure how this woman knew where her brother was, but she recognized the tone of the way she’d spoken about him: frustration, tinged with no small amount of respect. It was a common reaction to Cyrus, and that, more than anything else, convinced her that they spoke of the same person. The shield then faded around them, dispersing from top to bottom as Asala lifted her staff and knocked the clump of dirt loose from the tip. She then waited for Estella to begin to move before keeping step behind her.

Estella walked beside their new guide, curious as to how the Dalish woman knew her brother. She wondered if it was a good time to ask, since she wasn’t sure how long this walk would be. In the end, she decided it couldn’t hurt. “Thank you, by the way. He can be difficult to find, and we didn’t have much to go on.” He’d managed to go undiscovered whenever he wanted to in their childhood, and he’d had only a building to hide in, then. With an area this large, he wouldn’t be discovered unless he desired it.

She wasn’t sure how it was that he could be expecting them, but then, she’d put very little past him. “How is it that you know him, can I ask?” She also felt like it would be polite to ask the woman’s name, but didn’t want to bombard her with questions, so she saved that one for now, at least.

The elf shrugged in response. “You saw it, really. He goes places. I make sure nothing kills him in his sleep.” From the way she said it, there was a little more to it than that, but it was unclear what that might be. At least until she continued. “Never really met anyone like him, but it’s been interesting, to say the least. I’m Thalia, by the way. Ethendir.”

Their path carried them up over the crest of another hill, and down below, they could see what looked like ruins. It wasn’t much, just some white pillars and a staircase, but both led up into what looked like a rough cave entrance. “You’re lucky you came when you did. He’s been here a while already, and he probably plans to leave within the next day or two.” She gestured at the cave, then started down the hill, clearly expecting them all to follow.

“And don’t worry about the spiders. We cleared all those out last week.”

Asala stopped dead in her tracks. "Wait. Sp-Spiders? What ab-about spiders?" The way that her shoulders hunched over and she began to scratch told that they weren't her most favorite creatures.

The grade of the hill was a bit steep, but they made it down without issue, save the time Estella had to stop herself mid-trip on a concealed stone before she tumbled the rest of the way down, but she managed it, though not without nearly turning her ankle. At least she didn’t eat any dirt this time. That was something.

The approach into the cave’s mouth was much easier. They entered what looked to be an antechamber of some kind—though the entrance was rough, these rooms had been carved out of stone with deliberateness, though some of it was now ruined from age and wear. To the left, in front of another doorway, burned a curious sort of wall-mounted torch, curious because the fire was a bluish color, and gave off no heat. Romulus stared at it, pulling back his hood, the light reflecting off of his eyes.

Estella had never seen anything of the kind. “Asala, do you know what that is?” She pointed to the fire.

"Oh, uh, I'm s-sorry, what?" she asked. It seemed tht she'd been too preoccupied staring at the ceiling, no doubt in search of a spider that Thalia and Cyrus may have missed to completely hear Estella. When she saw the torch in question however, she appeared to have realized what had been asked of her. Asala stared into the flame, placing her hand close to it, but not in it.

"It... Is not fire," She stated, her head tilted quizzically, "But I can sense the Fade in it... Magical flames?" It seemed the best she could do.

Thalia shrugged. “I’m pretty sure that’s how he lit it, yes. This way.” She entered the door flanked by the unusual flames and led them into a short hallway, which eventually opened up into a much larger chamber. The ceiling was vaulted, and had likely been quite smooth at one point, though erosion had worn away at the contours of it. The whole thing was well-lit by more of those flames, set periodically down the side walls of the chamber. They walked around a large platform in the center, and came toward what must have once been an altar of some kind.

Standing with his back to them was a man, discernible as such from his height and the breadth of his shoulders, mostly. He had thick, black hair that fell to his shoulders, and though the color of the light made it hard to tell exactly, it was a fair guess that he was dressed in dark indigo, robes made of some kind of silk or satin to his knees, slit in several places for easier movement, and dark breeches with leather boots. A cloak lay carelessly on the altar itself, as did what appeared to be some kind of spherical device, glowing with a faint green luminescence that threw his shadow long, stretched almost all the way to the western wall.

“Oy, shem, I brought you something.” Thalia’s voice was that same mixture of irritation and apparent camaraderie that it had been before, confirming Estella’s guess about her thoughts on the man before them.

He turned so that his profile was facing them, then all the way around. His features were aristocratic, from the line of his nose to the shape of his jaw, something slightly different hinted at in the angle of his brow. He also, of course, looked remarkably like a masculine version of Estella herself, and it was her he found first, almost as if he’d known where to look.

He smiled slowly, confidently, and held his arms out to either side. “Stellulam.”

She required no further invitation than that. “Cy.” She shot forward, her legs taking her unerringly over the intervening distance, and threw herself into his arms, winding hers tightly around his back, pressing her forehead into his shoulder. She’d been so worried about this moment, because six years was a long time, and they’d still been children in many ways, the last time they had seen one another. Letters were one thing, but they couldn’t give as good a sense of a person as being with them did.

Estella had feared that he would become someone she did not recognize, feared that, absurd as it was, she’d become someone he would not recognize. But of course he hadn’t, and of course he knew her. He was her brother, her twin, and if there was anyone she’d always know, it was him. “I can’t believe it’s really you.” Her words were muffled against his robes, and she felt herself shedding tears onto them.

His arms locked around her, and he picked her up off the floor with ease, whirling her around several times before setting her back down with exaggerated care. “And yet, here I am.” His response was lighter, almost flippant, but she knew him well enough to understand that there was much more to it than that. He released her and gripped her shoulders, stepping half a pace away from her to look her in the face. He brushed away her tears with his thumbs and pressed his lips briefly to her brow.

“I was beginning to grow bored waiting for you to find me, I must admit. I feared that my dear sister had forgotten all about her poor, feckless brother with her sudden ascent to the ranks of Heaven’s mighty chosen, hm?” His tone managed to convey both a characteristic sort of playfulness and a slight skepticism all at once, though there didn’t seem to be anything ill-intended in it. “But here you are, and my faith is restored.”

She smiled despite herself and smacked him in the chest with her open palm. The humor in his voice had centered her, though, and despite the fact that there were a thousand things she wanted to ask about him, wanted to know, she remembered that this was neither the time nor the place, and also that they weren’t the only two people in the room. Feeling a hundred times lighter now, she turned back around, so she was facing the same direction he was, namely, the other three.

“Romulus, Asala… this is my brother, Cyrus Avenarius, who’s also a scholar of magic, among… other things.” Well, Romulus probably knew that, but she felt an introduction was appropriate anyway, though she always seemed to fall short of describing just exactly what it was Cyrus did, helped along now by the fact that she no longer really knew, exactly. “Cy, this is Romulus, and Asala Kaaras. We’re, well… we’re with the Inquisition.”

Romulus clearly recognized Cyrus, and looked entirely unsure of how to respond to being introduced. His eyes met the man's for the briefest of moments, before falling back to the floor. With his hands clasped together in front of him, he settled for bowing his head shortly, and remaining silent. Asala, for her part, simply offered him a tight lipped smile and a small wave. She too had decided to remain silent.

From the huff of amusement perhaps audible only to Estella, Cyrus made his feelings quite clear. “Quite verbose, this Inquisition of yours. Then again, it seems no one is interested in the pleasure of a conversation these days. Certainly none of them.” He waved a hand towards the back of the cave, clearly indicating that he meant some or all of the people crowding up the Hinterlands with battle. The look in his eyes was recognizably sly, and they narrowed with evident interest for a moment on Romulus, leaving no need for speculation as to whether or not he’d recognized the other man. They then flicked to Asala, and his expression eased back into a confident smile.

“Well, I see no need to linger. There are no dreams left for me here.” So saying, he lifted his cloak off the altar and settled it around his shoulders, adjusting the fur-lined hood for a moment before picking up the small glowing object on the table, and tucking it under his arm. “Lead on, dear Stellulam. I’ve been wanting a change of scenery.” He nudged her between her shoulderblades, falling easily into step beside her.

She bumped him with her elbow in retaliation, but her happiness was evident, her smile obvious and, while still not what anyone would call a grin, as genuine as it had ever been. It was quite remarkable, how much she could already feel his presence doing wonders for her confidence in their task. Perhaps it was simply because she’d never known a problem he couldn’t solve, a hurdle he could not jump. The evidence had shown her, over and over again, that he was capable of anything he wanted to be, and that gave her hope she could not give herself.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius

Earnings

0.00 INK

My blade will serve the Inquisition, for now. That is my will.

Romulus stared at the note, and the elegantly formed words, for a long time. His domina's handwriting was soft, delicate, but her words were rarely so when speaking to those she believed she had authority over. And while she had no authority over the Inquisition, she had absolute authority over Romulus, and through her penmanship he could hear her voice, and knew there could be no disobeying.

It was relief, and at the same time, constricting yet further. He could stay, continue with this work he had discovered to be fulfilling, but the brief letter made it absolutely clear: the aid he provided to the Inquisition was not his own, but his domina's, for he was not his own man. By her will, he remained. And if she had requested he return home to Minrathous, then he would have slipped away in the night, without a word to anyone.

Night had fallen on another bloody day in the Hinterlands. Romulus was accustomed to killing at this point in his life. He did not think about the deed, not before, during, or after the doing of it. The kill, he reminded himself, was never his own. Every person that he struck down and silenced with his blade was felled by the long reach of the one that held his chain. With this much distance from her, though, it felt a bit different. It felt a bit like choosing. And Romulus did not know how he was supposed to feel about that.

A young bandit he'd killed earlier, on the road before making the rendevous with Estella's brother, he was barely a man, and an utter fool. He did not belong in a criminal life, and certainly not in a warzone. Romulus had no trouble finding his throat. Here in the darkness, from where he sat just north of the village, looking down on it, he thought to himself, and wondered if that boy's blood needed to be spilled. For the Inquisition's goals were not those of Chryseis Viridius. As Revered Mother Annika had more or less stated, the Inquisition's goals were what their leaders decided. And though he tried not to be one, Romulus found people looking to him, for nothing more than the mark on his hand.

He folded the little letter carefully and tucked it into a pocket, before draping his arms over his knees, and staring out at the sleeping refugee camp from under the shroud of his hood.

The footsteps that approached were soft from grace, but audible from sheer confidence. The walker made no secret of his presence; probably, he had seldom ever needed to. The steps came to a stop a few feet from Romulus’s left, but the one who’d made them remained standing. “The view is different from elevation, isn’t it?” He shifted, folding his arms behind him. “You see more, and that’s not always… convenient.”

Romulus turned his head upon hearing the steps, and after the man spoke, he determined him to be Cyrus. Inwardly, he cursed himself for not being prepared, while he hurried upright to his feet and removed his hood. His eyes, as habit dictated, fell towards Cyrus's feet, and Romulus clasped his hands together behind his back.

"Apologies, my lord. I did not know it was you." Romulus was well aware that Cyrus had disappointed a great many in the Magisterium, none more so than his own domina's noble father, a man Romulus had once belonged to. Still, Chryseis had always been fond of him, or at least interested in his power. There had even been whispers of a possible marriage, but Romulus had not cared to pry. He did not know if the interest was only on the Viridius side, and it hardly mattered anymore. The important thing was that Chryseis would not want Cyrus treated poorly by one of her slaves.

"These views are unfamiliar to me, my lord. I am not accustomed to these lands yet."

“Yes, that much is quite apparent.” Cyrus’s tone carried no little amusement, though of course Romulus couldn’t currently see his face to know if his expression conveyed the same. There was a moment in which nothing was said, though it was hard to say why, and then he continued.

“It has been a while since I last saw Chryseis, but it does not surprise me that she has an agent in the middle of all this. She always did tend to see further than most. Though something tells me even she could not have planned for your involvement to become so… central.”

"The error was mine," Romulus answered immediately, with a surprising level of certainty for one who had no memory of the events leading up to the explosion. "I was not to be detected at the Conclave, only to observe. I don't remember what drew me to the conflict. Est--" He paused, catching himself. "Lady Avenarius suffered the same selective loss of memory." Would he blame him for what happened to Estella? What was his opinion on what happened to Estella? These were questions that felt as though they could mean his life, were they asked in Tevinter. He supposed Cyrus could still have his head here if he chose. Chryseis would strongly disapprove, but that was about it.

"As for my domina, I expect she will utilize my position here, but I do not believe she will undermine the Inquisition. She does not oppose its goals."

Cyrus sighed, rather heavily, though the reason for it was unclear. He certainly seemed rather unconcerned by anything Romulus had said—indifferent might not even be a bad word for it, actually. “Some error.” He actually snorted there. “My sister survives an explosion that should have killed her, the two of you stabilize this Breach, and manage to find yourselves instrumental to the birth of a brand-new world power in the making. If that is in error, perhaps you should strive to make mistakes more often, Romulus.”

"I--" He did not know how to respond to that. The lack of memory made it difficult to tell if anything he did was by his own design, or if it was simply luck. The stabilization of the Breach... he'd been told he was dying, and had little choice but to help, or see his own head roll. And the Inquisition's birth... that was Leon's doing, the doing of a movement of people far more religious than he. He was an effective instrument in all of it, he knew that much. But none of it yet felt like his choice, his doing. Even if he found himself wanting to continue on this path. It was some other hand, always pushing him along.

"My lord, is there something I can assist you with?" He thought it perhaps dangerous to change the subject, to try to see if Cyrus came in search of anything more than conversation, but he was obviously uncomfortable. A task, some clearly laid out desire for him to fulfill, that would make things easier.

“Nothing you aren’t doing already.” The reply was flippant, but there was a certain hint of truth underneath it. “You could try to relax a little, but I suspect that would be asking too much. In any event, I’ll leave you to it.” He turned away, and his footsteps started to recede, before they paused, just for a moment.

“Do take in that view, though. It might be worth the inconvenience.” The steps continued, before fading entirely.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius

Earnings

0.00 INK

The dreams in this place were all of blood.

He supposed that was to be expected—the noise of the present did tend to drown out the whispers of the past. It had even been difficult to focus in on the right things in the ruin, and he’d ensured no one made it up that far, with help from Thalia, of course. It was convenient to have someone around who didn’t mind taking care of the more mundane matters, in exchange for as little as he’d had to give. But she spent most of her time with the Inquisition’s forces now, which was well enough. He couldn’t say he minded—what he had to offer in glimpses was rarely so interesting to people as what could be more directly and urgently experienced in the present. Not when the present had the potential to take one’s life.

It was part of the reason he found this whole southern war patently ridiculous. It was a petty thing, born of fear and bitterness and the inability to see past one’s own nose, and he had little use for it. The sooner things became peaceful again, the sooner he would return to what really mattered.

Still, he thought, turning the device in his hands over and around between his long fingers, there were benefits to this as well. It had been too long since he’d seen her—Estella. He was thinking now with a clarity that had left him in her absence, the kind of clarity only she had ever really afforded him. He doubted it was a phenomenon unique to him, though he suspected she didn’t know about the effect she could, with time and care, have on people. He wasn’t inclined to tell her, lest she waste more of it on people who were not him. A selfish thought, oh, the very paradigm of selfishness, but unlike most people, he’d never claimed to be otherwise. Not in the slightest. He didn’t see the use in it, either, for that matter.

The pads of his fingers brushed over the smooth metal surface of the sphere, finding the divots of the runes carved into its surface. Elvish, of course; he’d assembled a lexicon a number of years ago, and been adding to it since; most of these, he had seen already, but a few had slightly different forms. Perhaps older? Or more recent?

He set the sphere in his lap, safely held by his crossed legs, and reached to the side for his notebook, where he began meticulously sketching out the shapes of the runes, and their relative positioning to one another. He sat in front of his tent, a luxury that had not been granted him, but one he’d thankfully already had. It kept the damnable insects at bay, anyway. He’d been unmoving for most of the morning, though he’d risen with the sun and taken a walk before doing anything else. He liked to always have his bearings, a practical necessity since he could often lose them by an act so simple as taking a nap.

He thought he understood the function of the object, and if so, it was quite the find. It seemed to have a limited range, however, and he surmised that there must be others elsewhere, perhaps even in the Hinterlands themselves. If he could collect them, they might prove quite useful to his research…

It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes later that footsteps approached, as did the smell of food. “I thought I might find you here,” Estella said, and there was a rustle as she took a seat across from him, setting what seemed to be a slightly-dented tin tray of food down in front of him and balancing another on her opposite hand. It tipped precariously for a moment, and she hastily put it down in her lap before she could lose any of the contents.

“Everyone else is at breakfast. I remember how bad you are at eating when something’s caught your interest.” She smiled slightly, something unidentifiable in the expression. Curiously, she looked at the orb in his hands.

Ah, yes, nourishment. He did tend to neglect that. And sleep sometimes, when wakefulness was more useful than dream. It just seemed so… unimportant. But she had successfully reminded him that he needed to eat, and so he passed her the orb almost carelessly, assuming she would handle it with the delicacy it warranted. “It’s an elven device.” He cut into the simple food with precise, studied motions of his hands, rendering it into exact squares before he lifted any of it to his mouth. “Designed, it seems, to influence the Veil in a given area, to lend it strength.”

Estella turned it over in her hands, not so unlike the way he’d been doing so before. She looked at the runes with clear puzzlement, however, of course being unable to read them. She had always been better with languages than most other things, but it was very rare that anyone had cause to learn any elvish—even the Dalish had only scattered fragments of it. “Really? Something so small can do all that?” She seemed a bit skeptical, but laid it carefully down in the grass near him anyway, before turning to her own food.

He smiled at that, mischief entering his expression. “Come now, Stellulam; magic is never to be judged by its appearance alone—you know that.” He watched her motions with a sort of attentiveness usually reserved for his more interesting observations, but then, this was interesting. Six years, it had been, and she had certainly grown up. So had he, of course, but he’d been present for that, not confronted with it in the same sudden way he was now. He wondered just how much the years had done—for surely, they had done much to him.

Her lips pursed, and she swallowed before she nodded. “Yeah, I know.” For a moment, she glanced down at her bare hand and grimaced. “Better than ever.” She paused for a moment, looking like she wanted to say more, but then she fell silent, retreating from whatever ease the conversation had previously had.

That in itself was an interesting development. Once, there had been little, if anything, she would hide from him. That she seemed to be withdrawing now was something he found displeasing, and so he sought to change the subject of the discussion somewhat. “Is that so?” The question was light, betraying not an iota of his thoughts. “And what else has changed, Stellulam? I have heard tales of mercenaries and rends in the Fade, and I must confess myself most curious as to what you have accomplished in this time.” Frankly, he thought mercenary work was a bit… strange, for Estella, but as the stories went, the particular company to which she belonged was headed up by a Duke, or some such, which was quite the novelty. He’d had little opportunity to keep abreast of political developments in the past couple of years, and had cared little for them to begin with.

Her expression warmed, and her back straightened slightly. “I… yes. I work for the Lions. Well, the full name is the Argent Lions, but most people drop the first part. I found my way to Kirkwall first, and then when the Commander moved back to Orlais, my friends and I went with him, so I’ve been there for a while now. It’s been… really nice, actually. I made lieutenant recently.” She looked at him, her expression caught somewhere between hopefulness and something guarded.

He suspected—though he could not be sure, and that unsettled him—that she was seeking his approval, or at least his congratulations. His brows furrowed for a moment, and he wondered why that might be. Obviously, if his sister wanted to be a mercenary, she would be an excellent one; it was hardly a surprise. But, if that was what she wanted, it wasn’t like he minded.

He reached across the short gap between them and ruffled her hair. “But of course you did. I’d expect nothing less.”

She smiled, but something about it was slightly strained, and it didn’t reach all the way to her eyes. “What about you, Cy? I know you left Tevinter, but you never said why… or much about what you’ve been doing since then.”

He resisted the urge to sigh. Clearly, he’d lost the sense he’d had of her feelings over the intervening years. Then again, she was conversely less shy and yet somehow more reticent than she had once been. He wondered if that was the product of her leaving, or what had happened to her afterwards. His hand clenched on his fork, but he eased it immediately. She was asking about what he’d been doing, and that was a topic on which he could muster a great deal of enthusiasm. Indeed, he soon felt it coming on, and immediately, his mind was away on a tangent, one that he relayed to her as well as he could with the vagaries of mundane language.

“I left because there wasn’t anything to be gained from staying. I learned much there, but what I wish to learn now is something no Magister can teach me.” There was a delicate emphasis on the word ‘Magister,’ one that carried the faintest hint of disdain. “And so I have elected to learn what I can from sources older and more venerated than they. On a day to day basis, this consists in traveling to various locations known to contain ruins from various stages of civilization, and accessing the Fade there.”

He set aside his plate, no longer even slightly interested in eating, and instead pulled his notebook into his lap. The cover was made of leather, waterproofed but surprisingly simple for someone so used to the ornate and even overwrought, and the spine contained a strip of silverite, for reinforcement purposes. He opened it to a random page, this one covered with what looked to be an architectural rendition of a very old castle, large banners of no recognizable nation hanging from its walls. Figures dotted the walls, dressed in a way that somewhat resembled the modern Avvar. They were no such thing, of course, being much older than that, but the cultural heritage was clear, anyway.

“I see it, and then I transcribe it here. And there is so much to see, Stellulam.” He scowled. “When it can be seen, over all this nonsense.” He gestured vaguely, but it wasn’t hard to guess what he meant by that.

She bent over slightly, her own breakfast temporarily forgotten, tracing one side of the castle’s wall with a finger. “You go to ruins and see this?” There was a trace of wonder in her tone, but then she shook her head and straightened, smiling wryly. “Somehow, it doesn’t really surprise me that you do.”

Ah. He recognized this. He should use humor here. “It shouldn’t.” He was flippant about it, and smiled slyly. “I am a genius, after all. Everyone says so.” Lots of people actually had said so, but it seemed silly to him. Cyrus knew he was gifted, and he didn’t apologize for it, but it was just a fact. Some people were very tall. It was the same kind of thing—genius wasn’t a skill he’d cultivated, like some of the other things he could do. It was merely a brute fact about his makeup.

Why anyone thought that was praiseworthy any more than being tall was, he’d never bothered to parse.

It was a familiar jest, and the wryness went away, replaced by a genuine little smile. “A ‘genius’ that manages to forget he needs to eat.” She rolled her eyes at him, but then stood and dusted herself off. “Well, if you ever decide to join the rest of us little people, we’ve got work to do here in the boring physical world, and we could use your help, you know.” She held her hand out to take his plate, too, inviting him to hand it up to her.

He curled his lip in mock disgust. Well, mostly mock, anyway. “I suppose. But only since you’re the one asking.” Instead of handing her his plate, he picked up his own and grasped her hand with his, pulling himself up. “Where are the big, bad templars, then? I think it’s time they met a mage who hasn’t been stuck in a Circle too long to learn anything useful.”

“You’re terrible.” Though her tone was flat, she clearly didn’t mean it.

Cyrus only smiled.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

Earnings

0.00 INK

When he was away from the camp, and his only thought was the completion of his goal, Romulus felt much more at home.

Today, the goal was the destruction of the apostate mages hiding in the woods, attacking anyone like power-mad bandits. These were not members of the organized mage rebellion, those residing in Redcliffe, it had been determined, and thus they were free targets for any wishing to make the region safer again. Lia and her scouts had succeeded in locating their hideout without being detected, and before the end of the day, a small strike was planned.

In this case, small consisted of two people. Romulus would have gone alone, had the others allowed it, but they decided against it. Perhaps they thought him incapable of dispatching scared, unskilled mages fresh from a tower, or perhaps they just thought him too important to be thrown at objectives solo. Thus he was given a partner, in this case the elf woman, Khari. He knew her by no other name, and didn't care to ask for one.

It did not take him long to wonder if their methods were going to contradict one another. Some early trouble was encountered just outside the village on the western side of the tunnel. A group of mage scouts came across them, some so unskilled with their spells that they chose to fight with looted swords instead. Romulus had intended to allow them to pass, and then strike them from behind, but a fight had broken out before he could relay his intentions. When the scouts were all in bloody heaps upon the ground, they moved on.

Romulus loaded another bolt into the handheld crossbow he had acquired, an excellent little tool that could be effectively holstered upon his back when he didn't need it. He'd used a similar weapon in Tevinter several times before, and found it easy to adapt to. It wasn't used at long ranges, making aiming only a secondary priority.

The mage hideout was located in a cave deep in the woods, but the evidence of mage activity wasn't difficult to find the closer they got. Magical ice still lingered in small pillars on the ground, refusing to melt, and scorch marks seared the grass in varying sizes. The very air had a different smell to it, like burned clothes, but more acidic. Romulus checked his supply of tonics, rummaging a hand through the pack behind him. He would need several for this, he was sure.

“What’s in the satchel?” That was Khari, of course, but she’d at least lowered her voice, presumably due to their obvious proximity to the mages’ hideout. Her own preparations didn’t seem to be anything extensive; she’d taken her sword in hand and was sighting down the edge, one eye closed. Apparently satisfied, she lowered it back to her side and cocked her head at him, one eyebrow slightly elevated over the other. The question seemed to be one born of honest curiosity and nothing more.

"Tonics," Romulus answered. He pulled one free, a small clear vial containing a light red liquid. "This one makes fire wash over the skin like flowing water." He pulled the cork free, downed it in one gulp, and shook his head. It was not unlike a strong shot of a powerful drink, albeit with an instant kick. Chryseis had shown him the key to brewing such things, but warned him, both of the taste, and the mental effects.

He pulled another one once he'd returned the now empty vial to the satchel. This one was a light blue. "For ice... melts it away on contact." He swallowed that one as well, ignoring the foulness, instead focusing on the rush. Already he could hear a mage ahead in the distance, practicing some ice spell and wasting his energy. They were still far enough away to speak safely, though.

"Have you fought many mages before?" he asked. His eyes were alive, meeting hers directly, brimming with a strong and barely restrained energy, devoid of any of the deference he seemed to offer in the presence of those he deemed superior to him. It was not an insult to Khari, as he did not think her a slave, but her manner was... easier to be around than he'd expected.

“Not as many as you have, apparently.” There was a smile in her voice, and sure enough, it bloomed over her face a second later, ragged but reaching all the way to her eyes. “Some, though.” She paused for a moment, tilting her head to hear something, maybe just the practicing mage he’d already detected.

“You’re uh… a lot quieter than me. Probably I’d just screw this up if we both tried to sneak in there.” This didn’t seem to dim her mood, however, and she cracked her neck to either side. “But. I’m a pretty damn good distraction, if you’re in the market for one of those.” The way she said it suggested that she very much hoped he was.

He smiled then, a morbid thing, as he pulled up his hood and secured his shield in place on his arm. "Get their attention, then. I'll be around. Try not to die too quickly."

“Don’t worry, I’m too stubborn for that. Like a damn rash, and twice as irritating.” She kept low, fanning to his left, and despite her words, she was at least quiet enough not to draw attention until she wanted it.

Then, well… there was nothing quiet about her then. “Hey apostate! My grandmother can sling a spell better than you! Were they teaching you magic in that Circle, or landscaping? Because this ice is pathetic!” Predictably, the next several shots of the ice in question were aimed for her, and she laughed, though it was closer to a gleeful cackle than anything, and charged forward, sword in tow, dodging each projectile with a rapid sort of mobility.

An unarmored mage wasn’t going to be able to stand up to her at close range, and one swing was all it took before his guts were spilling onto the ground. Her shouting had been loud enough to alert most of the other residents of the hideout, most likely, and roughly another six mages emerged together, dashing out of their relative protection in the cave, perhaps interested in the prospect of an easy kill.

Khari ducked under several more thrown spells, though one did catch her in the left shoulder, frost appearing on the piece of armor she had there. She narrowed her eyes. “That all you got, stickman?”

Well, they were certainly distracted.

Romulus observed, and heard, all of this as he flanked around the edges of the clearing, unnaturally blasted free of foliage by the work of these mages, spewing spells about likely just because they could. Romulus had little opinion on their rights to freely spellcast or not, he only cared that they had chosen to cast spells for the purposes of terrorizing the people. In truth, this concern didn't cross his mind in the moment. Only the prospect of blood did.

He clambered his way atop a rock formation jutting up along the edge, where the group of clustered mages had come forth from their hidey-hole to sling magic at Khari. Most were resorting to frost magic, hoping to chill her to the bone and make her stop moving so damnably quick. One of them managed to create a fairly powerful cone of frost that threw itself a good distance forward from his staff at her, wide and difficult to dodge.

The mage in question received a crossbow bolt to the forehead for his trouble, and instantly dropped dead. Quickly exchanging the weapon for his dagger, Romulus dropped down on the next in line before he could determine where the shot had come from. His blade punched through the top of his bald head, a solid crack ringing out with the puncturing of the skull.

The woman next to him shouted in alarm at the surprise attack, turning to aim a spell at Romulus, but she hesitated, perhaps due to the presence of her allies so nearby, even if they were already dead. It was a moment too long. Romulus wrenched the blade free and pushed the body over, lunging forward and swinging the rim of his shield into her jaw. His shield hand found the base of her neck after she'd spun around and pulled her back with significant force. He punched his blade right into her spine, and she stilled.

The leader was next closest, judging by his more regal look. Black feathers adorned his shoulders and legs, along with light, looted pieces of armor. He did not hesitate to attack once he'd switched targets from Khari to Romulus, and he opened up with a gout of flames, consuming both the still breathing but paralyzed mage, and Romulus. The mage shrieked briefly in the flames before she was silenced, while no sound came from Romulus. When the flames had dissipated into just thick black smoke, Romulus hurled himself forward out of it. Only his clothes and armor were singed.

The mage leader backed up in wide-eyed surprise, and managed to dodge the shield strike that had doomed the woman before him. Romulus landed a kick to his gut next, forcing him back into the mage behind him. Before he could press the attack, the mage leader's body burst into a number of shadowy tendrils, which twisted through the air across the clearing, settling on the far side of Khari, where he reformed into his human shape.

She reacted with alacrity, evidently not having exaggerated when she said she’d fought mages before, and she was on him almost as soon as he’d reconstituted, swinging downward in an inelegant, but admittedly quite fast, motion, blocked by the metal pole of the man’s staff. A short bark of laughter on her part followed, and she flowed with her momentum, transitioning into a body-check which she led with her hip, sending him reeling backwards from her superior leverage if nothing else.

The blunt side of her sword hooked around the back of his leg as he staggered, and that was enough to send him to the ground. Reflexively, it seemed, he blasted her point-blank with another ice spell, this one powerful enough to coat her chest and abdomen, nearly freezing her armor in place. Indeed, her next motion produced a loud cracking sound, followed by the telltale squelch of something sharp finding its way into someone’s soft parts.

“Maker’s ass, that’s cold!” Khari was visibly shivering, even as she took a few steps back, leaving her blade staked into the ground and the mage’s lungs while she broke icicles off herself, starting with her arms. She glanced up to where he was, still smiling despite her complaints. “Nice work.”

Romulus withdrew his blade from the throat of the deceased mage he still had in his grasp, and the body slumped to the ground on its back, leaving the pugio dripping red. He couldn't help but return Khari's smile, wiping the blade clean on one of those he'd felled, and loosening the shield strapped to his arm.

"These were like children," he commented, with some hint of disdain in his tone. "Consumed by the little tricks they could perform." Crossing the distance to Khari, he briefly inspected the frost spell's effect on her. He put a hand on her shoulder and turned her slightly, finding a large chunk of ice solidified on her right side, at rib height.

"Hold still." He flipped his knife backwards and carefully worked the point of it into the ice, taking hold of the back of her armor, and then breaking it away with a crunching sound. The armor behind it appeared undamaged, if chilled. Ice magic had a way of shattering even sturdy metal armor, he had learned, if it was strongly hit by a physical blow after being frozen.

Khari remained compliantly unmoving throughout the process, though she clearly felt it when the ice cracked away, because she breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks. Would’ve had some trouble with that one.”

"What are you, anyway?" He asked, finally taking the time to inspect her assortment of armor. "I mean no offense. Just never seen an elf like you before."

“I’d be surprised if there were any others.” She stood on one leg and kicked with the other one at the knee, breaking off a few bits of frost here and there, then repeated the process with the other, stepping away so as to have room to shake out her arms as well. Once apparently satisfied with this, she pulled her sword out of the ground, making a face at its condition, which at present was quite wet with blood.

She swung it a couple of times, flicking off the better part of the ichor, but it was clearly still in need of some maintenance. “But me? I’m a chevalier. Or rather, I will be, one day. For now, I’m just someone who likes to fight. And does a lot of stupid things for the challenge.” Her smile was different this time, a little softer.

“And you’re apparently an alchemist as well as a fighter. Not even scorched, are you? That’s really impressive.” She seemed to mean it.

"All from the teaching of my instructor," he said, turning his head away. "The ingredients are rare, and the constant fighting recently has used most of them up. Soon you'll have to pry ice from my back as well."

He didn't know much of the chevaliers, but he had the intuition to know that there weren't many elven ones. Or... well, any. But there were no slaves that could close rifts in the Veil with their hands either, not until recently. Maybe what she said was true. He didn't know if his mostly good mood was from the drugging effect of the tonics, or the rush of the fight, or the fact that he felt more comfortable out here than he did surrounded by people and unfamiliar attention. Likely, a little of all of it.

"Should I call you ser, then?" He looked back up, a hint of mirth in his eyes, and a small smile returning.

She laughed, an unabashed sound not dimmed by any sense of reserve or decorum. “One day. But not until I’ve earned it.” Her eyes crinkled at the corners, and she stuck out a hand.

“You know what I think, Rom? This right here might just be the very first day of a pretty excellent friendship.”

He clearly reacted to the shortened form of his name, opening his mouth halfway as if to speak, all while still holding the little smile, but in the end he just closed it, and clasped her forearm in his hand, nodding his approval.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

Earnings

0.00 INK

The end of the marker was sharp, so when she drove it into the ground, it stayed there, displaying the Inquisition's colors so that Whittle could find the cache much more easily when he came to pick everything up. Estella took the map from where it was folded and tucked into her belt, withdrawing a stick of charcoal and marking an ‘x’ within one of the broad circles on it. One more cache of supplies, a few more refugees who’d sleep with a blanket tonight.

It wasn’t the most glamorous work she’d ever done, but as far as reward went, she had to concede that she hadn’t felt this good about herself in a long time. Perhaps part of it was residual happiness from seeing Cyrus again, awkward as their conversation was at times now, and part of it might just be that she didn’t tend to let herself dwell too much when she was actively doing something like this.

But part of it did come from the knowledge that she was helping people, and today, she didn’t have to kill anyone else to do it. Frowning slightly, she pushed the morbid thought from her head and folded the map up along the creases, tucking it back in her belt and stowing the charcoal.

“Next one should be east a ways, down the hill,” she remarked to her partner, who was carrying several other pennants like the one Estella had just staked into the ground. They’d been trekking for the better part of the afternoon, but they still had a couple more caches to search for.

Asala carried the markers over her shoulder in a bundle. If the weight of them affected her at all, she certainly didn't show it. Probably due to the fact of being a Qunari, she seemed to carry them with very little effort at all. She pointed her head in the direction given and nodded, a smile on her lips. Estella's own mood was rubbing off on her it appeared, as she did not display her usual level of hesitation. In fact, she seemed a bit more comfortable than normal.

Then she nodded for Estella to lead the way. She was the one with the map.

She smiled back and then turned to face forward, pressing on towards the east. The silence was comfortable, and though by this point in her life, she was well-used to a certain level of amiable chatter and joking, she wasn’t averse to quiet, exactly. She’d always been drawn to the bright people in her life, the ones that radiated a sense of charisma and good humor, but in Asala she saw a little bit of herself, maybe, or perhaps closer to what she’d used to be. More stuttering, admittedly, but the same kind of shyness.

Hopefully she’d never be forced to get over it, and could make a choice like that of her own volition, or not. But then… Asala was a refugee as well, perhaps even more than Estella herself ever had been. She’d run from Tevinter, yes, but not everything it stood for. Despite the popular perception in the south, there was much more to her fatherland than evil magisters and broken slaves, though there were indeed plenty of both those kinds of people.

She wondered if there was more to the Qun than subjugated mages and oppressive social control. She figured there had to be; she’d only met two former Qunari before Asala, but they were both very complex people, and the scant impressions she’d received of the society and philosophy didn’t give her much that would yield such folk. She thought about asking Asala, but the Qun seemed like an understandably-difficult topic for her, and she didn’t want to push her into talking about anything she didn’t want to.

So Estella asked a different question instead. “Hey Asala? You’ve been with the Inquisition since it started. Can I ask why?” Not that it had been going very long, but still. It took a certain kind of person to volunteer for the uphill slog this was sure to be. She honestly wasn’t sure whether or not she’d have done so. She’d have helped if the Lions were helping, of course, but to come here alone and actually join? It was hard to say.

Asala's head tilted curiously at the question. She was quiet for a moment, though it didn't appear to be out of hesitation, but thought. It wasn't until she looked back to Estella that she had her answer. "Because you and Romulus needed me," she said. "When they found you, you both were injured... I could not simply do nothing."

She blushed, and then averted her gaze, though she never seemed uncomfortable. Simply awkward. Another moment passed, and before Estella could say anything else, Asala continued. "And I feel I am still needed... I think," she said, a little bit of her uncertainty revealing itself. "This... Inquisition, I cannot say that I completely understand it. But I believe we are helping, and I will remain so long as we continue to help."

Her hand then went to a spot on her head, underneath her horns where she rubbed at nervously. "I h-hope that is satisfactory."

Estella shook her head. “Oh, don’t worry about that. None of this is about my satisfaction, that’s for sure.” They clambered over a rise, and she paused a moment to take in the view below them. Several miles of plain, it looked like, were stretched out in front of them, the late-afternoon sun dyeing the grass a warm shade of yellow. She could see some of the wild rams this area had collected into a group, grazing on the side of a gentle roll in the landscape.

“And I certainly won’t protest if you stay. I guess I just… wanted to make sure you really felt like being here, is all.” She sometimes found herself feeling obligated to do things she wasn’t all that keen on doing, and this, well… this was something else entirely. But that didn’t mean it had to be for everyone. Since it didn’t seem that way, though, she could easily accept the answer Asala had given and would worry no further about it.

"I do," was the answer she gave.

“Then I’m glad.” That seemed to settle the matter, and they walked a while longer in silence again, before they found the next cache and marked it as well. That left only one, and it looked like they might actually finish before nightfall, which was good because she’d really prefer not to be ambushed by anyone more familiar with the area than they were.

“I wonder how far we’ll go, in this whole thing,” she mused. She’d seen much of the Orlesian countryside over her years working for Commander Lucien’s Lions, and she’d at least tread over parts of the Free Marches in her flight from Tevinter, not to mention the years she’d lived in Kirkwall. But the Conclave had actually been her first trip into Ferelden, and now here she was, seeing another part of it. She doubted that it was on anyone’s list of exotic places to travel to, not the same way as, say, Antiva or Rivain might be, but it was new to her anyway, and she liked that kind of experience.

“Anywhere you’d want to see, if you had the chance? I think I’d like to visit an Antivan port, at least once. I hear they have this big festival called Satinalia, where everyone wears masks and lots of bright colors.” Of course, she’d just described Val Royeaux on a Tuesday, but the downside to that was the formality of it. She’d never felt more like an ungraceful cow than she had the first time she visited the Orlesian capital, that was for sure.

Asala took the question with a look of confusion, her head tilting in the opposite direction now. "I..." She began, but trailed off as she slipped back in thought. She was quiet for a minute afterward, her brows furrowed and her eyes on the ground in front of them. When it appeared she finally found an answer, she looked back up to Estella. "I had... never thought about it before."

She chewed on her lip for a second before shrugging, "I do not know... Meraad had always spoken of leaving to see the world but..." she said, words trailing off again. It did not appear that Asala had realized she had just mentioned someone that Estella did not know.

Estella certainly had, though. “Meraad?”

"Oh!" She squeaked. It seemed like she didn't mean to say the name, and a blush soon worked its way onto her face. She glanced around, looking at everything but Estella. "Uh... Well."

Then she sighed, rubbing the spot under her horn again. She finally looked at Estella, for a moment at least, and seemed to have internally decided on something. "He's my, uh.. he's my brother," she said. Then she frowned, having decided that wasn't enough, "Well. Not... not really. Not by blood but... By choice?" She asked, looking as if she wondered if that was clear enough. "It was his idea that we name ourselves Kaaras."

Estella’s expression brightened at this little piece of common thread. “Brother, huh? I don’t suppose he dragged you into a bunch of trouble when you guys were young? That’s what mine always did.” She huffed softly, her eyes looking somewhere that clearly wasn’t the present, though oddly enough her feet kept moving without incident.

“Then again, he always managed to get us out of it, too.” Except once, but she wasn’t going to think about that right now, not when she was having an otherwise very pleasant day.

Asala smiled and even chuckled, the understanding present in her manner. She seemed to know exactly what Estella was talking about. "Yes," she agreed, "But I was the one who had to find our way out." She hid her laughter behind her hand, but the mirth twinkled in her eyes. "The others had always felt guilty when they yelled at me." A knowing look crossed her face before she smiled.

Soon though, a frown worked itself in between her lips. "But the last I saw of him, and my friends, was in Redcliffe. Before the conclave." she looked past Estella for a moment before continuing. "Rilien allowed me to send a message by raven. I... hope he recieved it." A melancholic look fell over her features, at least for a moment, before they shifted into something more solid. "But what I do here is important. We will see each other again. I am sure."

She smiled after, as if to say not to worry.

It was an eminently-relatable situation, and Estella nodded her agreement. “I’m sure you will.” It wouldn’t surprise her if they wound up in Redcliffe at some point on their journey, and more than that, she couldn’t not believe Asala would be able to see her brother again after just finding her own on less information and with six years between them.

“Come on, let’s find this last cache, and then try and make it back before all the dinner is gone.”

"Yes. Let's."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

Earnings

0.00 INK

It had taken them about a week from the time he’d summoned Estella back to Haven to make the trip out to Val Royeaux. The Inquisition proper was yet without horses, but the Lions were not, and an explanation to her comrades was all that was necessary to secure the required mounts, and so the three of them had managed to cover the ground a great deal more quickly. Cyrus, Estella’s twin and apparently quite the expert in magical matters, was a more experienced traveler than Leon would have guessed, and of course a Seeker and a mercenary were both no stranger to the road, so they made efficient time, more perhaps than they would have with a larger party.

Not, he believed, that this had much to do with the Revered Mother’s reasoning for recommending that the young woman rather than her counterpart take care of this. It was sound argumentation, at any rate, and something that could only help them, even if it was simply by getting more people to talk about them, to see that there was more to them than some set of anonymous shadow heretics.

Anything would help them at this point. Additionally, of course, Val Royeaux was where he was to meet his own contact, someone the Divine had put him in touch with prior to her death, via a circuitous family of connections that began with Rilien’s bardmistress and ended with a well-traveled noblewoman apparently willing to take on the diplomatic endeavors their cause would require. He had only corresponded with the Lady Marceline Benoît via letter thus far, but he had found her to be keen of wit at the very least, and Rilien assured him that they could do much worse, in that odd fashion he had that probably shouldn’t properly count as reassurance but somehow did anyway.

They’d dismounted about ten minutes ago, and left their mounts with a stableman not too far from the gates, which they now approached. As was ordinary in the middle of the day, they were open to entrance, with a couple guards posted mostly for show. It wasn’t like any bandits were just going to march into the heart of the most powerful nation in all of Thedas.

They had taken only the first few steps inside the gate before they were approached. It was a woman, an elf judging by the shape of her ears and the wideness of her eyes. On her face she wore a mask, like most of those that resided in Orlais. It was of fine make, crafted of silverite and studded with sapphires down the right cheek. The mask cut off at the tip of the nose and bottom of the cheek, the nose of the mask curving upward and giving the mask an avian appearance.

As she approached with her hands tucked into her sleeves, it was clear she stood a few inches shorter than Estella. "Ser Albrecht?" she said with beautiful voice, pleasant and soft to the ears, "and Lady Herald, I presume?" She then bowed deeply and rose again. "I am Larissa. Mistress Marceline expected your arrival."

From beside Estella, Cyrus looked ever-so-slightly miffed, probably due to the fact that he’d just been ignored, but the expression was gone so swiftly it might never have been there at all, replaced by a smile that one might best describe as ‘courtly,’ one of those worn by people born to nobility and its subtle trappings as well as the obvious ones. A charmer’s smile, if one would.

“All these years, and I’ve never once been to Val Royeaux. Clearly, this was a grievous error on my part. Perhaps I shall take up ornithology?” There were a lot of things that could have meant, but the best guess was that it was some oblique form of flirtation.

Larissa took the comment in stride and turned to bow to Cyrus as well. "Of course milord, but may I suggest caution? Orlais possesses many dangerous genus of bird. Your studies may prove... detrimental."

Cyrus raised both brows, looking quite unthreatened, for what could easily have been interpreted as a veiled threat. “In that case, I think I shall like it here even more than I expected.” Larissa simply smiled.

Leon resisted the urge to sigh. Deeply. He’d forgotten how young his charges really were. Not that he was an old man, but he’d been a Seeker since these two were just hitting adolescence, and that did make him feel strangely ancient. “Yes, well,” he said, clearing his throat to draw everyone’s attention back to him. “While I’ve no doubt that you both have wit enough to banter for days, we do need to see the Lady Marceline, and if she’s expecting us, I doubt we want to make her wait.”

Estella shot him a look he interpreted much more easily than anything the other two said, and it was gratitude, so at least he wasn’t frightfully boring to everyone, he supposed. Really, the sooner they left, the better; his sensibilities were far from Orlesian in character, and already the city seemed far too… ostentatious, for his liking. It was even in the architechture.

"Of course milord. If you would, please follow me," Larissa said, turning and leading the group into Val Royeaux proper. Their path took them through the city, under brightly colored awnings and immaculately kept buildings. Along the way, they passed many more citizens who donned masks much like Larissa's, but each slightly different. Music seemed to follow them wherever they went, be it from windows of the buildings, or from an adjacent street. The capital of Orlais seemed to earn her reputation.

They reached a long thoroughfare crossing what seemed to be a giant reflecting pool when Larissa spoke. "Mistress Marceline awaits in Le Masque du Lion Café in the Summer Bazaar. Please," She said, leading them over the bridge and into the bazaar. Merchants hawked their wares in the bazaar, and a turn later brought them to the café in question. It was partly open air, giving them a view of those situated with in.

It was here Larissa stopped them. "I apologize. It appears mistress is still in her meeting with Marquis DuRellion. Please be patient until their business is concluded," she told them, turning her head toward a pair of nearby patrons, one male and one female. It seemed that these were the two in question

The woman, apparently the Lady Marceline, wore a fine black dress adorned with purple accents and stitching. Her mask was also made of silverite like Larissa's, but hers was cut in the middle of the cheek. On either side, feathers were worked into the metal and raised, possessing a coat of purple flake paint. The man, DuRellion, also wore a mask, his covering the majority of his face, showing only his mouth and chin, and a mustache was carved under the nose.

Even over the ambient din of the café, their conversation could be heard.

"The Inquisition cannot remain in Haven, Lady Marceline. Not if you can't prove it was founded on Justinia's orders," the man said with his arms crossed and his back straight in the chair that he sat.

"Your Grace, you must understand, now is not the best of times. More and more flock to your town daily," the woman said in a warm and kindly tone.

The man shifted his weight in chair and shook his head, "My house lent the Divine those lands for a pilgrimage. Your Inquisition was not part of the arrangement." His brows furrowed and he raised his hand to point at her. "We were overjoyed and honored to lend Haven to the Divine, she was... A woman of supreme merit. I will not see an upstart Order to remain on her holy grounds."

Lady Marceline's lips formed a straight line, though a hint of sadness remained in them. "I understand your Grace, I truly do. Divine Justinia was a wonderful woman, and she will be dearly missed by all." She paused, seemingly out of respect for the deceased, but then continued. "But it is the Inquisition-- Not the Chantry that shelters the people who come to mourn the passing of the Divine. My Lord DuRellion, the Divine would not wish us to squabble like this, and she would not want her death to divide us."

She then reached out to place a comforting hand on the Marquis's arm, lending him a warm smile. "We face a dark time. Lord DuRellion, she would wish that we band together, forge new alliances, and face this coming storm together, not apart."

The Marquis sighed and shook his head. "I... What you say is true, she would not want us to quarrel. I will think on it, Lady Marceline."

"That is all I ask Lord DuRellion." With that, they began to stand, and that was when she caught the eye of Leon. "Before you take your leave Marquis, if you would allow me, I would to introduce you to the Herald herself," she said, leading him to the group, and Estella specifically.

"Marquis DuRellion, I present to you Lady Estella Avenarius."

Leon couldn’t help but think to himself that he should have warned Estella of this possibility. She probably thought she was coming here to talk to clerics, not nobles, and there was a brief flash of undisguised panic on her face before it swiftly disappeared, forced under what could only be a veneer of calm. Clearing her throat softly, she dropped into a curtsey. As far as Leon could tell, it wasn’t a bad one, either, though the stiffness in her shoulders betrayed her continued discomfort.

“Y-your Grace. It is good to meet you. The Inquisition extends its gratitude for your generosity in this trying time.” She smiled thinly, and Leon’s brows rose just slightly. The correct noble form of address, and more or less what he figured was the right thing to say. That had actually gone much better then expected.

“Please also allow me to present High Seeker Leonhardt Albrecht, and Lord Cyrus Avenarius, my brother.” Well, that explained it. If her brother was a lord, she must have been noble at some point in her life, right? Leon inclined his head by way of greeting, as did Cyrus, though it was hard to mistake that the latter was more interested in his surroundings than the introduction.

Behind the Marquis, what can only be described as a pleased look crept into Marceline's face.

DuRellion bowed in response and spoke, "A pleasure Lady Estella. High Seeker, my Lord," he added, greeting Leon and Cyrus in turn. "I apologize, but I cannot stay. I have matters to attend to, surely you understand. Lady Marceline?" He said, turning to the woman, "We shall speak again, I have no doubt. Until then... The Inquisition may remain."

Marceline curtsied in response and said, "Thank you, your Grace." With that the Marquis took his leave.

Once out of earshot, Marceline turned toward Estella and nodded with a satified look. "Aside from the initial grimace, you handled yourself especially well Lady Estella. Now, as for introductions: My name is Lady Marceline Élise Benoît, Comtesse of the West Banks of Lake Celestine and the owner of the Lécuyer Vineyards brand of wine," she said with another curtsy. "I am told that I am to handle the matters of a diplomatic nature for the Inquisition, correct?"

Estella looked immediately to Leon, and he spared her the necessity of a response. He’d been warned that Lady Marceline was of distinctively Orlesian temperament, so to speak, and he’d dealt with that before. “We have been reliably informed that it is well within your capabilities, milady,” he cut in politely. “And as I’m sure the Marquis has aptly demonstrated, it will be a task of no mean challenge, nor significance. I’ve been handling most of it myself up to this point, but I have an army to provision, and our mutual acquaintance Ser Rilien has… other matters to handle.”

He was conscious of the fact that they were still in a public location, after all, and proclaiming for all listening ears that the Inquisition had spies and a truly impressive, if still nascent, network of information handlers was not the best way to curry favor with the public. Even if it became obvious, it must never be said.

All of it gave him a headache, quite frankly. He’d been glad to be the youngest in his family, so as to never have to deal with this kind of thing, but unfortunately, he’d had more than one encounter with politics since becoming a Seeker, and these days he anticipated many more.

"The Marquis?" she laughed, though it was a mild, even thing. The expressions she had worn with the Marquis were gone, replaced with something far more neutral. "His position is not as certain as he makes it out to be. The DuRellions are Orlesian, and despite their Fereldan relations, if he were to wish to lay claim upon Haven, he would have to petition the Empress to negotiate with Fereldan on his behalf." She frowned at this, and slowly shook her head. "Unfortunately, her Radiance is preoccupied with concerns far more larger than petty land disputes."

She shrugged and spoke again. "However, it is better to allow him to believe that it was his idea to let the Inquisition remain in Haven than to force the matter ourselves. I would far rather have him as a potential ally than an enemy."

“Really?” Cyrus broke back into the conversation, and though he didn’t roll his eyes, the same thing was implied by his tone—bored, skeptical. “With potential allies like that, will we have time to deal with our enemies? Seems better to cut rotting ropes before they snap unexpectedly.”

Marceline smiled, but there was no humor in it. "Perhaps, but there is a difference between idle complaints and a concerted effort to undermine us," the smile then fell out of her lips and something far more solid replaced it. "I will not stand for the latter."

"We would rather build bridges than burn them." It was Larissa who had spoken that time. "Shall I gather the ser and the young lord?" She asked Marceline, whom nodded her approval. With that, Larissa took her leave.

“I for one will be glad to leave the bridge architecture to you,” Leon said wearily. Maybe he’d actually be able to sleep at some point in the future, though he didn’t think it likely, for more than one reason. Well, that could all be dealt with later. Right now, they had one more matter to attend to, and that was taking the Revered Mother’s advice.

“It has been recommended, soundly I think, that we seek out some of the members of the clergy here in Val Royeaux, so as to better acquaint them with our organization and our Herald.” The one that wouldn’t scare them too much, anyway. “I was going to head to the Grand Cathedral, but if you have any more pertinent suggestions, I’d be grateful to know them.”

"It sounds as if we are to build bridges even now," she said, a knowing smile on her face. "Personally, I would suggest we pen a letter first, describing our intentions and to give us time to prepare but..." she said, her ocean blue eyes peering at Estella from behind the silverite mask. "I believe it would serve our purposes better for them to meet the Herald as she is now. We do not wish to manufacture her as something she is not."

"That and I do not believe the Chantry is in the mood to be recieving letters... So then. To the Grand Cathedral. Ser Albrecht?" She asked, gesturing for them to begin and make their way there.

Leon nodded, and turned to lead the way.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

Earnings

0.00 INK

They left the café with Leon leading the way, Lady Marceline only a step behind him. To get to the Grand Cathedral, they would have to go back over the Avenue of Reflective Thought over the Miroir de la Mère, the giant reflecting pool that sat under the bridge. It was a beautiful piece of architecture, Lady Marceline had found, and the trek over the bridge was relaxing at worst. Unfortunately, other matters would see that they not reach the bridge. As they made their way across Summer Bazaar, a crowd had gathered.

Lady Marceline had slowed her step to investigate the cause, and stopped outright when she saw the root. The crowd was surrounding a Revered Mother who was flanked by a templar and others of the Chantry cloth. "Ser Albrecht," she said to get his attention, before she pointed toward the head of the crowd. "I believe I have found your clergy." Well, that would make finding them easier, however, she did not particularly enjoy the thought of what the crowd meant.

Crowds could easily turn into mobs, and a mob would not look too fondly upon the Herald of Andraste. Especially if provoked by the Chantry.

Though if she was worried, it did not show on her face. In fact, it was quite even, refusing to betray even the slightest of emotion.

The Revered Mother raised her arms and lifted her voice, carrying it above the murmurs of the gathered people as they wondered what was about to happen. "Good people of Val Royeaux, hear me!" She stepped forward to the edge of the platform she stood upon. It was hastily erected, but effective nonetheless at making the otherwise unimposing woman rise above the crowd.

"Together, we mourn our Divine. Her naïve and beautiful heart silenced by treachery! You wonder what will become of her murderers. Well, wonder no more!" She swept an arm out dramatically, pointing it directly at Estella and narrowing her eyes. "Behold, a so-called Herald of Andraste! Claiming to rise where our beloved fell." She shook her head. "We say this is a false prophet! No servant of anything beyond her selfish greed!" Some of the crowd looked shocked at the strength of the accusation, and all looked to the Herald and her allies to see their response.

The sudden charge, perhaps combined with the vehemence of it, seemed to catch Estella off-guard, and she took half a step backward, raising both of her hands in front of her to the level of her shoulders in a placating gesture. “N-no, please Revered Mother, you misunderstand. I don’t claim to know the will of the Maker or Andraste, only to have the desire to close the Breach. This isn’t—I want nothing else. We have no other aim.” Her tone was earnest, borderline pleading, and she wore openly an expression that conveyed the same.

Lady Marceline allowed Estella to speak without any intervention from her. Estella sounded earnest in her admissions, far more than she could muster and her agreement would more likely harm than help. She wisely chose to let Estella to continue. They needed to see the Herald, not her.

“She speaks truly,” Leonhardt said, his tone carrying about the authority one would expect of a Seeker in such a situation. “The Inquisition’s sole purpose is to close the Breach before it is too late.”

“It is already too late,” the Mother replied, gesturing to her left. Most of the heads in the crowd turned, and their eyes fell on a small group of heavily-armored men and women, most of them recognizably wearing the armor of templars. The man in front, perhaps in his mid-forties, had well-tended grey hair and more elaborate armor than the rest, whereas the woman half a step behind him wasn’t dressed as a templar at all, though the Seeker’s eye was prominent on the half-cloak that was draped from one shoulder. She was tall, taller even than the man in front, probably of a height with Cyrus, her complexion deep and her face dotted with contrasting white paint. Though the others wore swords and shields, she carried no weapons.

“The Templars have returned to the Chantry!” The Revered Mother declared this with triumph, frowning down at Estella and the others. “They will face this Inquisition, and the people will be safe once more!” As she’d spoken, the group of them had started to advance up the stairs to the platform, and the man in the lead passed in front of her as though she weren’t present at all.

The woman behind him wore a scowl, in contrast to his neutral expression, and as she drew even with the Revered Mother, she drew one hand back and delivered an unexpected blow to the cleric’s head, catching her in the other arm as she started to fall forward and tossing her limp form at another one of the assembled Chantry brothers, who caught her with a grunt, falling to his knees to break her fall. The woman’s lip curled slightly, and she shook her head with evident disdain, following the apparent leader as he continued across the stage.

From slightly behind her, Marceline could hear a smothered laugh, which quickly became a cough, and resolved itself as nothing more than a clearing of the throat. It appeared the whole spectacle was amusing at least one of the Avenarius siblings, and it wasn’t Estella. She threw a hard glance behind her before turning her attentions back forward.

The templar that had accompanied the Revered Mother, a striking woman with long, dark hair in elaborate braids, reacted with surprise to the blow struck against the cleric. Clear anger flared in her eyes, but the leader of the group of templars stepped in front of her, grabbing her sword arm quite firmly above the elbow.

"Still yourself, Knight-Captain," he ordered. "She is beneath us." The templar woman's mouth opened as if to protest, but she seemed to think better of it, pressing her lips tightly together instead, and nodding.

"As you say, Lord Seeker." Her disagreement with him was thinly veiled, but she made no further protest.

"How dare you?" Marceline stated. Her tone was not one of anger, but something far more colder. The even, icy tone continued into her next words. "What is the meaning of this? What do you hope to accomplish by striking the Revered Mother?" The only thing she saw accomplished was a degree of blasphemy unheard of, and from a Seeker no less.

The man finally deigned to react to the presence of another, and turned cold eyes towards them. “Her claim to authority is an insult. Much like your own.”

This seemed to stir Leonhardt to action, and he stepped forward, his brow heavily creased. “Lord Seeker, what—”

“You will not address the Lord Seeker.” That came from the tall woman, and she stepped down to block Leonhardt’s path. He looked genuinely surprised at this.

“Ophelia? You endorse this?” His tone was one of obvious incredulity, and he looked at the woman in front of him as though he were seeing her for the first time, which nevertheless he clearly was not.

Her silence was stony, but the Lord Seeker spoke up. “Creating a heretical movement, raising up a puppet as Andrate’s prophet, to say nothing of the other one.” His lip curled, and looked to Estella as though she were something on the bottom of his shoe that smelled foul. She visibly winced. His eyes found Leonhardt again.

“You should be ashamed, for you do shame to us.”

He angled himself to better regard the crowd as a whole, for they were watching with rapt attention. Raising his voice, he continued. “You should all be ashamed! The templars failed no one when they left the Chantry to purge the mages!”

“This is ridiculous—” Leon was clearly not inclined to simply weather the words in silence, but Lucius shouted over him.

“You are the ones who have failed! You who’d leash our righteous swords with doubt and fear!” He scoffed. “If you came to appeal to the Chantry, you are too late. The only destiny here that demands respect is mine.”

“B-but…” That was Estella again, though her tone was much more tentative. It was clear she didn’t take being lambasted very well. “The Breach, it’s so much bigger than this, don’t you see? If we don’t do something, none of the rest of it will matter.” From his former position some distance away, Cyrus approached his sister, moving up behind her and laying a hand on her shoulder. He didn’t physically intercede between her and the Lord Seeker, but his body language was an obvious message nevertheless, and though his expression was still placid, his eyes could have been flecks of stone.

A gust of air slipped past Marceline's lips, sharing what she thought of this Lord Seeker's respect. After her initial indignation, Marceline went flat, unimpressed by this thug in the armor of a Seeker. "Whatever it is you have to say, it will not matter to him," she said to Estella, "He is too blinded by his own percieved destiny to see reason."

The Lord Seeker didn't seem to care what Marceline said, reacting violently instead to Estella's words. "Oh, the Breach is indeed a threat. But you certainly have no power to do anything about it."

The Knight-Captain the Lord Seeker had addressed before stepped forward at his side. She drew the eyes of some of the other templars, but her own were leveled at Estella and her friends. "Do not think you have the authority to dictate the Lord Seeker's path. Or the wisdom to question his judgement." Lucius glanced at her, her words seeming to swell his visible sense of righteousness.

"I will make the Templar Order a power that stands alone against the void," he said. "We deserve recognition. Independence!" He glared again at Estella, as though she had somehow personally wronged him. "You have shown me nothing. Your Inquisition... less than nothing." He turned to his templars at large. "Templars! Val Royeaux is unworthy of our protection! We march!"

He turned, and led the entire group of them away from the gathering, not once looking back. The templar Knight-Captain, while her expression was still quite stony, offered Estella a brief wink on her way out, before she confidently strode after the departing Lord Seeker.

Estella blinked, apparently surprised, and released a long sigh. “I think that actually managed to go worse than I expected it to.”

"You are within the heart of Orlais, it could always go worse. At least this did not end in a death. Only a headache," Marceline said, rubbing her temple behind the mask.

As the crowd was beginning to disperse, so too were Marceline and the others before the sight of some familiar people caught her eyes. She smiled, though this one was genuine and held a sweetness not yet seen within it. She had thought that she'd meet her family at the gate, but it seemed their distraction had held them up enough for her husband, Michaël and her son, Pierre to catch up with them.

The man was thick, nearly as thick as Leon, but far shorter and not as stout. He wore a mask of similar make and style as Marceline's, though its edges were rounded to not become a liability in battle. He wore a varient of the chevalier armor under a purple cloak, and on his back rode a child, barely a teenager, also wearing a mask. Larissa followed behind them, a clipboard under her arm as she stared at the Revered Mother who still laid on the ground.

"Uh... Marcy, did I miss something?" he asked curiously, pointing at the Revered Mother.

"Yes Micky, you did. I will tell you along the way. Come, we have a long journey ahead of us," She said, reaching to lay a kiss on his cheek. "I do hope that you all brought your coats."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

Earnings

0.00 INK

Since the bridge was broken, they forded the stream upriver of it. The water only rose roughly to Khari’s knees anyway, which meant it was even less of a pain for the people behind her, who were both considerably taller. The water was cold enough that she could feel it even through her boots, but they kept it from dampening her socks, at least, which was more of a mercy than a person might think. Wet socks were right up there with minor stab wounds in terms of annoyance, particularly when they still had quite a bit of walking to do.

Hopefully, there wouldn’t be quite so much of that after they talked to this horsemaster. Apparently, he’d used to breed them for Arl Eamon, which wasn’t quite as excellent as being Orlesian and doing it for the chevaliers, but Khari liked horses so much she didn’t even care that much. She’d never had one, though; but Ser Durand had taught her how to ride his, a big old cranky warhorse called Neige, presumably due to his coloration.

The first couple days had beat her up worse than Ser Durand usually did on the practice field, but by the end, she’d loved it. It was an experience she was eager to repeat, and that simple thing put an obvious spring in her step as they retread familiar territory before pushing further on than they’d yet had cause to explore. Even the scouts hadn’t been this far, but they’d told her to be on the lookout for potential new encampment locations, which was something she actually knew how to do, so she kept it in mind.

Seeing as how there was no special need for quiet, she hummed as she walked, some tune she couldn’t remember the words to, one she’d picked up a long time ago when spying on a trader’s caravan that had stopped close to her clan’s location at the time. Having never been much of a singer, she’d surprised herself as much as the next person when she learned she wasn’t totally tone-deaf. She thought the song had something to do with boats, or something. What were those called?

She stopped humming it. “Either of you know what those boat-songs are called? The ones sailors sing and stuff? I think it begins with an ‘s.’”

Asala glanced at Romulus first, and then back to Khari. "I..." she began, shaking her head. "No? I d-do not. I am s-sorry," she stuttered. It appeared Khari's little hired thug comment was still in Asala's mind.

Khari waved a hand carelessly. “Eh, it’s not important anyway.” She lapsed into silence for a while, focusing on navigating their path. They didn’t know exactly where Dennet was, so she was actually having to attempt a combination of tracking, navigation, and sort-of-educated guessing. It seemed to be going okay, but she couldn’t guarantee they were doing anything more effective than picking a direction and going in a roughly-straight line. At least they knew quite a few places he wasn’t, by this point.

After a bit more tricky negotiation of some significantly-hillier areas, the path she’d chosen spat them out near what seemed to be a very still lake, about waist-deep if she had her guess. As it happened, there was a flat, dry spot that wouldn’t do badly for a camp; she’d have to tell Lia about it later.

More importantly, the area also seemed to have a large occupied property on it, and—point for Khari, there were horses in a corral! “Looks like this must be the place.” Pointing that out was probably unnecessary, but she did it anyway, then picked out a series of bridges that would take them over the lake without any swimming. As they got closer, it became clear that there were both a barn and a house with a nearby workshop on the grounds, as well as several more fields, probably paddock, extending out behind that.

Well: nothing ventured, nothing gained. Khari approached the house and workshop. “Hello? Inquisition here; we’re looking for horsemaster Dennet?”

There was a woman in the garden, who glanced up at their approach. From her age and clothing, it was a fair guess that she was Dennet’s wife, probably. “My husband’s in the house; just go ahead and go in.” She didn’t seem to have any issue with them being present, which was probably a good sign, right? So Khari shrugged and did as she’d suggested, opening the door to the house and stepping in.

Dennet's home was spacious, with two stories and multiple cozy rooms. It was all constructed out of wood, but looked to be well-maintained, and judging from the outside, neither the templars or mages had really struck out at the place. Across the massive red rug in the center strode a dark-skinned man in a leather vest and a green scarf, to meet his three guests. His head was shaven clean, and a greyed goatee and stubble lined his jaw and mouth.

"I'm Dennet. You're Inquisition? I've heard your people have been looking for mounts."

"We have," Romulus answered, his hood removed. He checked his boots briefly, careful not to track any unnecessary mud into the man's house. "Can you supply them?"

"Not at the moment. I can't just send a hundred of the finest horses in Ferelden down the road like you'd send a letter. Every bandit, or rogue mage or templar, between here and Haven, would be on them like flies on crap." The way he delivered the words, it was as though he'd been expecting the Inquisition to come knocking for quite some time, and had prepared this. "You'll have mounts once I know they won't end up as a cold winter's breakfast."

"But... Winter is not for several more months," Asala said behind them. Confusion sat in her face before she turned to Romulus. "Is it not?"

“He means we need to kill the bandits and stuff,” Khari pointed out, speaking slowly, mostly because she was unsure if that was supposed to be a joke or not. She was guessing ‘no’, but she’d been wrong before. “Which, actually, we’ve done. Rom and I took out the mages a couple days back,” she ticked her list off on her fingers. “Cyrus and some other people killed all the Templars down the road, and we got the bandits within a couple days of getting here in the first place, I think. Plus, well, we can send people to escort them, right?” She wasn’t actually sure about the last one—and it wasn’t like she had the authority to just decide, so she shrugged.

Dennet appeared to give that some thought, then shook his head. “That’s fair enough, but there’s more mages and Templars and bandits in the world than you got rid of this week. If I’m to work with you on a long term basis, I need to know that my family and my herds will be safe while I’m gone.”

“Uh…” Khari frowned, thinking back over all that stuff they’d talked about over the pretty maps before they’d deployed here. She hadn’t been paying the most attention, because most of it didn’t really seem relevant to someone whose main purpose was ‘go here, kill this,’ but she had kept half an ear on all the stuff Leon was saying. And half of one of her ears was practically all of someone else’s.

“Watchtowers.” The word was said with a tone of aha, and she snapped her fingers. “Leon said we’re planning on building watchtowers and stuff, to reinforce the Inquisition’s control of the area. How about we go set markers down, make sure they put a couple up near your place?”

"Sounds agreeable enough to me," the horsemaster said, nodding. He crossed his arms. "Tell you what, I'll loan the three of you horses to speed you on your way, and see this done faster. You deserve something better than whatever knock-kneed nags you've got, or Maker forbid, going it on foot. Go find my daughter, Seanna, she's probably out near the stables. She'll pick out the horses for you and see them properly prepared."

Seanna wasn’t hard to find, and once they’d relayed everything, she gave them a warm smile and nodded, returning with three large horses, a bay, a grey roan, and a sorrel. Khari bounced a little on the balls of her feet, clearly excited if the huge smile plastered onto her face was anything to go by. They really were nice-looking horses, and she was tempted to do all the usual things Ser Durand had taught her: feet and teeth, mostly, but that would be rude, and she was sure someone called a horsemaster would know what he was doing anyway.

Since they were both redheads, she went ahead and approached the sorrel, reaching a hand out and letting him sniff her, rubbing his white-striped face with her palm. She glanced back at the other two, and a question struck her. “Er… you guys know how to ride, right?”

Romulus mounted the bay, a little uncomfortably, but by the way he moved, he wasn't riding for the first time. The third or fourth time, perhaps. He shrugged.

Asala had approached the roan and gently caressed the side of its muzzle with one hand, the other running through her mane. She whispered something to the horse, but what could be made out did not sound like Common. She then looked Khari, and then Romulus as if to see how they sat upon their horses. "Uh..." she began, before turning back to the roan. Surprisingly, she found the saddle without much difficulty. As if surprised herself, she beamed back at the other two...

Until the horse began to move forward. "Wh-what? Wait," she said to the horse, but it did not, continuing a lazy pace out of the stable. "Please stop?" she pleaded, but the horse continued to ignore her.

Khari was glad she hadn’t mounted yet. Leaving the sorrel where he was, she stepped to the side and took hold of the roan’s reins. “Okay. So these are how you steer.” She placed the reins in Asala’s hands. “Be sure to give her enough slack that she can move her head, okay? Then when you want her to slow down, pull back gently and gradually. She’ll be able to feel it. Move the reins in whichever direction you want her to turn, further for a sharper angle.”

She grinned up at Asala, remembering when someone had to teach her all of this stuff. “If you want her to move forward, just give her a squeeze with your legs, and a tap with your feet will speed her up. But maybe don’t do that until we’re outside and I can ride next to you. Keep your spine straight, but try to relax into her motions. She knows what she’s doing, even if you don’t.” She patted the horse’s neck. “Ready? I’ll be right next to you, so you don’t need to worry.” Asala nodded, but the worry remained in her face. It wasn't clear if she didn't believe Khari, or in herself.

Making good on her word, Khari padded back over to the sorrel and vaulted up into the saddle with the ease of long practice, steering the horse to sidle up next to Asala’s. “Mind leading us out, Rom?”

He looked to be concentrating quite heavily as he did so, slowly walking his horse out in front of them, and heading towards the nearby hill, where he could already spot a clearing that would excellently serve with a watchtower on it.

It took longer than it probably should have because of Asala. They did make progress however, despite the sudden starts and stops. Fortunately, the horse never broke off into a sprint, never going faster than a gentle trot. Eventually however, they made it to the clearing. "So, h-here?" Asala asked, clutching the reins with rigid arms, and a ninety degree bend in her elbows.

“Mm.” They’d crested a ridge, and the spot they’d found offered a pretty good view of the surrounding landscape, which meant it should work pretty well as the location of a watchtower. Plant an archer up here, even just one, and bandits would have a serious problem.

“Works for me.” Now they needed something to mark the spot with. There was a dead tree nearby, so Khari steered her horse towards it and leaned over sideways, holding on with her legs and cracking off a likely looking branch. It was pointy at one end and the ground was soft, so after a few blows with the side of her fist, it was staked in there decently enough, an obvious irregularity in the landscape. It’d do well enough for a marker, probably.

They turned their horses and headed back down the incline, looking for the next likely spot. There were a few minutes where no one said anything, and then Khari broke the silence. “So, Asala… I was joking when I said I was a thug. You know that, right?” Well, she was kind of like one, in the sense that she wasn’t much good for anything but hitting stuff, but she wasn’t actually a criminal or a thief or whatever.

"I sus-suspected," Asala said, staring at the back of her horse's head. "You are... Not so bad as you s-said," she added. There was a certain tilt to her head, as if something came to mind, but she straightened and kept it to herself.

Romulus laughed softly to himself, before veering slightly to the right, gesturing towards a clear spot along the side of the road, with clear sight lines in both directions.

Khari laughed considerably more obviously. “’Not so bad,’ she says. I can live with that.” She followed Rom off the road again, and repeated the process of marking the spot clearly, this time dismounting, gathering some loose stones, and arranging them in a large ‘x’ shape on the ground. As long as she told the others what they were looking for, it shouldn’t be too hard to find.

Swinging back up, she put them back on the road. They should probably form the watchtowers into a rough triangle that included Dennet’s property, but more than three seemed excessive, so they only really needed one more. “How do you reckon the others are doing in Val Royeaux? Never been there, but I hear it’s really fancy.” She also did hope to go someday, obviously, but it might be a little while yet before she did.

Probably not well," Romulus answered. "I've never known Chantry people to be reasonable. A few here and there, but those are drowned out by the rest that have never been outdoors."

Khari snorted. That seemed about right. They found a third likely spot and marked it as well, meaning that it looked like their work here was done. “Guess we should get back to Dennet,” she said, probably unnecessarily. “And then let the others know they have a pickup to do.” Getting that many horses to Haven probably wasn’t going to be fun, but it would be a big help. Cavalry never hurt anyone… er, well, now that she thought about it that was a terrible way to put it. But they’d done something important, anyway, and she was feeling pretty good about it.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

Earnings

0.00 INK

Well, Val Royeaux had been… something, he supposed.

Still, it wasn’t exactly surprising that politics had gotten no less absurd in the years he’d been away from it. All the posturing and the grandstanding far outdid any stage production he'd ever seen. If the Lord Seeker had been a rational man and could hear himself talk, he probably would have been ashamed. The only destiny that demands respect here is mine!

Good. Grief.

It was so dramatic it was funny, but then Cyrus didn’t think it would go over well if he laughed like he felt like doing. Even the one he hadn’t quite been able to clamp down on fast enough had gotten him a rather nasty look from Lady Marceline. If Cyrus had believed in the Maker, he would have thought him either insane or incredibly fond of making other people that way, one of the two. Perhaps both.

He walked close to Estella as they approached the gates back out of the city, Marceline’s family now in tow. Ordinarily, he might have engaged in joking or banter or something of the sort, but even he was not oblivious to her distress, and that mattered more to him than any of the rest of it, which meant that even his good humor about the whole thing was rapidly evaporating, and though in any other circumstance he might have liked to stay and take in the sights, right now he couldn’t put the place behind them fast enough.

Which was perhaps why he didn’t bother to disguise his scowl when someone called out from behind them, accent thick with the distinctive Orlesian lilt. “Wait, please! If I may have a moment of your time?” He turned with the rest of them, hand resting between his sister’s shoulderblades, just at the fingertips, and stared flatly at the stranger. She seemed vaguely familiar, this elf woman. Her hair was short, dark, her robes clearly those of a higher-ranked mage. At a guess, she had some pull in the Circle here.

Fiona, that had to be it. Grand Enchanter of the pitiful little thing Val Royeaux called a Circle, one of those places where Templars had far more say in what went on than blindly-faithful thugs in armor should ever have in anything academic. He was torn, as he usually was, between pity and scorn. “Grand Enchanter.” His tone was cool, bordering on chilly. “Should you not be somewhere else? Perhaps preparing your rebellion to throw themselves on more Chantry swords?” She led it now, as he understood. Even living sometimes literally under a rock, he’d heard that much.

“I heard of this gathering, and I wanted to see this Herald of Andraste with my own eyes.” And indeed, they fixed intently onto Estella, studying her with interest. “If it’s help with the Breach you seek, perhaps my people are a wiser option.”

“Your people? A few smatterings of ill-trained youth and elders, smothered by a lifetime under a templar’s hand? At least the Lord Seeker has power. What do you offer that trumps that?” He needn't have to see them to feel Lady Marceline's eyes try to stare a hole deep in him. He ignored her.

She frowned at him, but as he’d suspected, she didn’t become cross. She cared too much about getting them to agree. “We have lived long under a yoke, it is true, but we hold our own even now. Beyond that, we offer the moral high ground. You saw the High Seeker. You heard him. You think he wouldn’t happily kill the Divine to turn people against us? That he wouldn’t happily do the same to a Herald?”

Cyrus’s eyes narrowed. “Terms?” Their conversation was a staccato, a quick back-and-forth, undiluted by pleasantry. Perhaps a different negotiation tactic than others would take, but one he knew from experience worked.

“We’re willing to discuss this, but not here. Consider this an invitation to Redcliffe: come meet with the mages. An alliance could help us both, after all.” She consciously broke off their exchange, seeming to remember only then that she should probably have been speaking to Estella. “I hope to see you there. Au revoir, my lady Herald.”

She turned, apparently uninterested in giving any further details here, and departed. Cyrus scoffed. “Spineless.” He muttered it under his breath, shaking his head.

“Cyrus.” The voice was Estella’s, but the tone was hard to identify. There was a note of admonishment in it, though. “I appreciate the help, but did you have to be so hard on her? She’s only doing what she thinks is best. At least she didn’t try to set a mob on us…” She snaked an arm around his back and gave him a one-handed hug from the side, but then stepped away, her face pensive.

“Even if the mages don’t have that much power, we still need allies, and… and we should probably try to help them. To stop the killing, if nothing else.”

He sighed through his nose. “I assure you I haven’t ruined your chances to do any of that. The Grand Enchanter, if she’s not a fool, understands how poor her position is. She’s desperate, Estella, and she would put up with far more than some pointed comments to help her people. Did you really wish to hear her try and inflate her position, or advance theories she cannot possibly support about who is responsible for what happened at the Conclave?” He shrugged. “Now she knows: we’re willing to talk about terms, but we won’t be duped into believing she’s in a position to dictate them to us. Someone else can go in and do the gentler part later.”

He might have been upset, but he wasn’t an idiot. Really now.

"At the very least, we will not rule them out as potential allies," Marcy was the one to speak, her arms crossed. Then she tilted her head toward Estella. "But we must first take stock of our resources and count our options. We should not form an alliance solely out of pity. Remember, we must also gain some benefit from the relationship as well."

Marceline then took a few steps toward where Fiona had departed, putting her back to Cyrus and the others. "Your brother does possess a point however, though he does lack a certain tact," she said, glancing back at him. "Her position is indeed perilous, and now she understands that we know it. We will have the upper hand in any future negotiations." She then turned and made her way back to the group, but not before pausing to look at Cyrus again.

"Also, please do remember that it will most likely be me that shall have to, as you say, 'go in and do the gentler part'. I would ask that you not make it unnecessarily difficult for me, if you can help it at all Lord Cyrus." A tempered smile spread across her lips, but humor appeared in the corners of her eyes.

Cyrus switched gears as quickly as he blinked, smiling pleasantly. “Wine is all the sweeter when drunk after something bitter.” But then he sighed theatrically and inclined his head. “I find it difficult to believe anything I could do could put a situation beyond your skill to salvage, milady, but I shall endeavor to remain charming henceforth.” He placed a hand over his heart.

"I will greatly appreciate it Lord Cyrus. It is all I ask for,", she said, continuing to wear the smile.

Leonhardt, who’d been silent up to this point, made a vague gesturing motion with one hand. “While this has given us all a lot to consider, I think it would be best if we made haste back to Haven, no?” His tone suggested that he was eager to depart, and perhaps in the interest of just that, he started forward again, leaving the rest of them to follow.

"Maker yes, lets go." The agreement came from Michaël, who'd watched his wife's politicking with boredom. It was clear that it hadn't been his first time seeing it. He followed Leon shortly after.

Estella did too, though the exchange seemed to have lifted her mood a little, if the lighter expression on her face was anything to go by. She wore the faintest of smiles, and tugged at his sleeve. “Come on then. Everyone else should know what we learned.”

“As you say, Stellulam.” He felt his mood settle back into baseline contentment, and his posture eased considerably. He let her tug him forward, moving compliantly back towards where they’d stabled the horses. Once everyone was mounted and back out on the road, he elected to strike up a proper conversation with Lady Marceline, in part because she seemed more amenable to it at the moment than most of the others did.

“An interesting career move, joining a movement that will take you away from court and your home.” Naturally, there were other reasons to do so, but she didn’t really seem like the kind of person who would do something which presented her with no personal advantage. Her husband, maybe; he had that knightly air about him, honor and so on. But Marceline was different, a bit more like himself, if he was picking up on the what he thought he was.

"Perhaps, but I do not believe I am leaving the court entirely. I will still be required to speak with nobility and conduct business. The only change is that I am now doing so for the Inquisition's best interests." She spoke with a gilded tone and her face betrayed nothing, undoubtly due to years spent cultivating her mannerisms to suit her purposes. It was to be expected of an Orlesian, especially one who seemed as Orlesian as Marceline.

Her head then tilted toward Cyrus and a smile tugged at the corners of her lips. "Interesting was the word I used to describe this opportunity as well," she turned and gestured back toward Val Royeaux as it slipped into the horizon. "You have seen the petty squabbles that threaten to drown us all. The Chantry denounces anything and everything that frightens them, and, my apologies for this High Seeker," she added for Leon's benefit, "but how the Templars' righteous fervor blinds them to the real danger at hand."

Then her gaze shifted from Cyrus to behind him, at the boy that rode beside his father. Her smile then melted away, revealing the worried mother beneath. "I would see that this world still remains so that my son may live his own life within it." She looked back at Cyrus, her face quickly returning to the porcelain mask. "If we are fortunate, then perhaps our service within the Inquisition will see me rise above my current station as well."

Of course. Orlesians, always looking for some way to rise in the ranks of nobility. He didn’t even think there was anything wrong with it, really. Cyrus was fairly sure he’d met fewer than three people over the course of his entire life who would sacrifice power for anything else at all. The number who would sacrifice anything else at all for power was much higher, and that wasn’t nonsensical, since power was the means by which just about anything was achieved. One need only look at history to understand that.

“Many birds for a stone then.” He nodded, as if satisfied, then turned his attention to Leon. “Speaking of the Lord Seeker… has he always been like that?” It was difficult to believe.

“No,” the other man replied immediately. “He has not.” For a moment, that seemed like it was going to be the only thing said on the matter, but then he sighed deeply and continued. “He has always been a zealous man, but not nearly unreasonable—I can’t fathom why he would be acting like this now. Less still can I fathom why Ophelia would allow it without protest.”

“Ophelia? The woman who struck the Revered Mother, perhaps?” He fought to keep his amusement contained, but that had been quite funny, particularly considering what the cleric had been trying to do. He couldn’t pretend he hadn’t been contemplating something similar himself, regardless.

"Senseless," Marceline said, shaking her head.

“Yes.” Leonhardt was quite quiet, for such a large man, and it was difficult to hear him. “She is… she was my mentor, my instructor. She is the reason I am a Seeker at all, and the reason I fight the way I do. But she has never had the ardent fervor of the Lord Seeker—she has always tempered him, in a fashion.” He shook his head.

“I do not understand what has brought this about, but it is not something we will be able to ignore.”

“Yes, that much is apparent.” Cyrus pursed his lips. “Well, you know what they say. When it rains, it pours. Let’s hope no one minds being a little damp.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

Earnings

0.00 INK

The room in which they’d laid out the table and maps had grown crowded, but as far as he could tell, only maybe two of the people in the room didn’t strictly need to be there, and he wasn’t about to insist that Cyrus and Marceline’s assistant Larissa leave, so they would have to make due.

Leon stood at the center of his side of the table, facing the side with the door. Rilien was to his left and Marceline herself his right, and as before, the other side included both Estella and Romulus, as well as Cyrus, who’d stood slightly off to the right to enable Lia to get through. She had a scout report, and he’d felt it pertinent for the others to hear it as well, thus the assembly.

For a moment, he glanced down at the map. The little bird tokens that indicated the locations of Rilien’s agents were expanding further outward as their network established and solidified, but his own troops, represented by plain shield tokens, were split only between Haven and the Hinterlands, for the moment. Marceline's tokens, identified by a quill, represented the support of the nobility, but these were few and far in between and mostly consisted of minor nobles seeking to gain renown by offering what little aid they could. Fortunately, he now felt they had the numbers and the fundamental training to begin expansion into other territory, which would enable them to begin closing more rifts, and hopefully find some clues as to what had caused the Breach in the first place.

His vision blanked for a moment, and Leon remained perfectly still, not allowing it to show. It had happened before, but it was becoming more frequent, and right on cue, he felt a splitting pain lance his head. It faded as quickly as it had come, and he blinked, raising his eyes to acknowledge Lia. “I understand you’ve been busy, of late. Please, tell us what you’ve discovered.”

Lia looked the slightest bit embarrassed, and it didn't seem to be due the presence of anyone in the room. She glanced sideways at Estella briefly, as though looking for some form of reassurance from her longtime friend. Seemingly unsure of what to do with her hands, she set them upon the tabletop, her fingers lightly brushing the surface.

"Yes, uh... there was a bit of an issue, involving a scouting patrol in the southern Hinterlands. They didn't report back. I searched with a team, and... found an Avvar, instead. He told me they'd taken my scouts hostage, dragged them off to a marsh called the Fallow Mire. I'm sorry, Commander. I should've expected them, made sure the scouts knew to expect trouble..." She looked to be taking the events none too well.

Leon shook his head. “Things of this nature happen. What’s important is that you know where they went, and that means we can get them back.” Another organization probably would have rather left a small scout party to their fate than gone to the effort it would take to recover them. It was war, after all, of a sort. But this was a war that Leon was running, and he didn’t want to do that, so he wouldn’t, and he doubted anyone here would protest the decision.

“A small party would probably work best. Do you know anything else about the area?”

"Yes, actually..." Lia continued, uncertainly. "The Avvar in question was actually quite helpful. His clan has demanded to meet the Herald of Andraste, if we want our scouts back. They... didn't say which one. I didn't ask." She winced. "He had a really big maul. But, I did follow him. I think he knew, but he didn't try to stop us. The Fallow Mire is... probably the worst place I've ever seen. The rain never stopped. The entire region has a bit of an undead problem, and the rifts have just made it worse. The Avvar have control of an old abandoned fortress at the south end of the bog. Didn't see any easy ways to reach it."

She tapped a finger a few times against the table. "There's one other thing. Before we left, I came across an elf. He was... odd. I don't know how to describe him. Sort of... regal? But definitely not, in his mannerisms. He seemed to know a lot about the area, some magical architecture or something. He said it was elven, and old, and that it could help stop the demons and the undead, but he needed a mage to make it work."

Lia shrugged. "I didn't get a reason out of him, but once I mentioned I was Inquisition, he expressed interest in meeting us. Said his name was Vesryn Cormyth, and that he'd wait for us there. Looked like he could handle himself, too." Her expression seemed to imply that this was an understatement. "I came back here right after that."

“Well now.” Cyrus broke into the conversation, his eyes having sparked to life with vivid interest as soon as the words magical architecture appeared. He was regarding Lia with an intent expression, but when no more information was forthcoming, he continued. “If it’s old and magical, I do believe I could stand to take a look at it.” Whether he had any interest in the rest of it was debatable, but at the very least he didn’t seem to mind, and he turned to Leon.

“I volunteer for this assignment, High Seeker. It is, after all, precisely the kind of thing I’m here for.” His tone was light, his face reflecting mirth, but there was an undertone of that same very serious curiosity still threaded under the words.

Leon considered all of that, and nodded. It seemed best to send a group that could handle both things. The Fallow Mire was home to at least a village’s worth of people, and if there were undead in the region that could be stopped, it was the kind of task they should be undertaking. Not only for the support it would lend them, either, though he was comfortable couching it in those terms if that was what it took. And Cyrus was quite correct, even if Leon suspected his priorities were quite misplaced.

“Very well. Since the Avvar have demanded to meet a Herald, we’ll need to send one. Estella, please accompany Cyrus to the Mire. Meet with these Avvar, and this serah Cormyth, and see what you can’t do about our missing scouts and the undead. Lia, I want you to go with them and push our stake in the area out as they advance. With some work, we’ll be able to keep some soldiers there after the two of them leave, in case this solution is only temporary.” He paused a moment, considering. He knew Cyrus was knowledgeable, but he’d never seen the man fight, and Estella was, while a professional, not enough by herself. Best not to rely on the unknown, either, no matter what he looked like.

“I suggest you take Asala with you as well. Her skills will prove useful in a pinch.”

Estella nodded her acquiescence, turning to Lia and speaking quietly, such that he only barely heard. “We’ll get them back.”

At that moment, a knock sounded on the door, and Leon furrowed his brow. “Yes?”

“It’s Reed, ser.” He sounded slightly uncertain, but Leon knew he wouldn’t interrupt unless it was necessary, so he called for the man to enter, which he did, followed by a stranger.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, ser, but we have another visitor. Of sorts. An insistent one.” He shot a look at the person behind him, but at Leon’s nod, stepped aside and allowed the newcomer to enter fully.

“Is there something I can help you with?” His tone suggested that there had better be.

The stranger who followed Reed into the chamber occupied far more room than was expected. He was a burly Qunari, sporting large horns and bulging muscles, arms folding over his chest in a casual stance. His expression, or lack thereof, was set in a permanent state of disinterest. He regarded everyone with a leveled stare, and cleared his throat, “There is. Excuse my interruption. We've heard of the Inquisition. Hard to miss it.”

The tension in his arms loosened, and he took another deep breath before continuing, “This is an opportunity. Captain Zahra Tavish wishes an audience on the Storm Coast. We're a mercenary group with a ship of our own, looking for another staunch contract. And she has valuable information.” He shifted towards Leon, and arched his heavy eyebrows, “From the looks of it, you don't have much in the means of sea-faring allies.”

Rilien stirred as soon as the Storm Coast was mentioned, moving forward to the table proper. “We have other reasons to make a venture to that location as well.” He looked down at the map for a second, his head tilted to the side, and continued in the same tone. “We’ve received news that Grey Wardens are disappearing from Ferelden, and no fewer than three of them were last known to be in that area. It is also presently plagued by a cult group of bandits calling themselves the Blades of Hessarian. I suspect these things are unconnected, but each is a reason for us to extend our presence into the region.”

Well, that was indeed several good reasons. Both this and the matters in the Mire seemed equally time-sensitive, so the logical move was clear: those who weren’t headed for the Mire would go to the Coast.

“Very well. Romulus, if you would lead a second team to the Storm Coast, we can deal with all three matters. Prioritize whatever seems of most immediate concern to you when you get there, but anything we can find on the Wardens will likely be of import. Lady Marceline, if you would be so kind as to accompany him, I believe you will be able to negotiate matters with Captain Tavish. Take Khari and anyone else you think you might need, assuming they aren’t already heading for the Mire.”

Marceline turned toward her assistant, who stood in the corner with a clipboard in hand transcribing what seemed to be notes. "Larissa, will you be able to contend with the paperwork while I am away?" she asked.

The woman looked up from her notes and nodded. "Yes Mistress. You do not have any pressing engagements, and I am able do what remains."

Marceline smiled in response, the appreciation clear in her expression. She smiled and looked toward Leon in order to allow him to continue.

He returned his attention to the Qunari. “Tell your Captain to be expecting us. We will hear what she has to say.”

The Qunari finally uncrossed his arms, and tipped his head, “I'm no good with introductions, but I am Aslan.” He clicked his tongue, “You'd know that soon enough.” He did not bow, nor offer his hand: only nodded as somberly as he'd entered. Like a wayside observer, absorbing whatever information he could. “That I will. I appreciate your audience, and we'll be looking forward to seeing you again.” Rude or no, Aslan made a grumbling sound in his throat and excused himself out of the chamber without Reed's help.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

Earnings

0.00 INK

Saraya was cold, soaked, and... bored.

"You don't say," Vesryn murmured to himself. He could still feel his fingers, mostly, but it wouldn't be long now. The rain pitter-pattered against his shining steel armor, though the magnificence of it was tempered by the mud and the perpetually dark skies. The lion draped over his back atop his cloak looked as miserable as ever. Vesryn himself was a sentinel of steel, his face hidden under the mask of his tallhelm, but under that mask was a grumbling frown.

"Why would anyone stay here?" he asked the air, adjusting his grip on the bardiche axe in his hands just so they wouldn't fall alseep just yet. He set up his one-tent camp along the side of the road, fire in plain view. The fire was only able to survive due to the presence of a nearby rocky overhang that covered a small space. It was only slightly less damp than everything around it. And not once had anyone come by his tent since the elven girl, Lia, had departed. As far as he knew, this was the only sensible way into the swamp.

A blast of lightning erupted from the heavens, the thunder nearly ear splitting, but Vesryn paid it no mind. He'd been in worse storms. Though he did take a few steps back under the overhang. His tallhelm was feeling particularly tall just now.

Saraya urged him towards the water. Vesryn sighed, his breath rising in a cloud as it escaped his helm. "Again?" He already knew the answer to that one, though, and the urges repeated just to confirm it. Practice, every opportunity. This blighted marsh had unending opportunities to chop his axe into things, and she would have him seize every one. He shook himself awake, wondering what time it was. Evening, maybe? Or midday? It was hard to tell. He could still see in front of him, so it wasn't night. Not yet.

He stepped forward, back out into the rain, thumping his bardiche into the ground like a walking stick. His tower shield and spear were left back by the tent; he'd felt less and less like fighting with them since he'd been on his own again. Not enough offense. Grimacing, Vesryn allowed the toe points of his boots to touch the water, and he poked his bardiche handle down into it.

The presence in his mind receded. He knew that one clearly enough. Do this on your own. As much as the lessons annoyed him, he took them seriously every time. He found it much more difficult to be careless with his life when there was another soul wrapped up in it. Ahead of him, ghastly skeletal figures rose up from the water, covered in soaked moss and mud, wielding swords and shields. He counted three. An easy trip.

The first attacked down at him, an aggressive hack. Most undead were predictable, at least. They had no fear. Vesryn danced around it, quick for an elf in so much armor, and swung his axe right into the rotted hip of the corpse. It split in two to fall at his feet, still alive. Its sword clattered off his scaled skirt before he stomped down on its skull.

The second lunged, and he batted it aside, backstepping sharply away from the water, not wanting to draw any more. He made his own lunge forward, poking it in the stomach. He opened a decent hole, but no blood spilled out. Frowning, he stepped forward and swung upwards, the blade of his axe catching the wound and cutting up inside, splitting the corpse in half from ribcage to the top of the skull.

The last one seemed to be missing its sword, only carrying a decayed wooden shield, which was missing a few planks. He allowed it to charge him, watching it swing a haymaker with the shield rim, and ducking to let it fly over. It ran forward into his hip, doubling over on his back, and Vesryn flipped him clean over, before he brought the axe down like he was splitting a log. The head was crushed, not even strong enough to survive a clean splitting.

Saraya approved.

"You're entertained, then? Good. I was worried." As he turned back towards he camp, he stopped dead, spotting visitors coming down the path. The elf in the front with the bow was hooded, but he still recognized her gait. He was good at remembering those sorts of things. This time, Lia led a party of what appeared to be three. He removed his tallhelm, revealing a mane of silver hair that outdid the white lion on his back. He held an open hand up in greeting, before stepping back under the rocky overhang and nearing his fire.

"I thought for a moment you were going to leave me here. In the rain. It hasn't stopped since you left, by the way. Who've you brought to be miserable with us?"

Lia pulled back her hood once she was under the cover of the overhang. The cloak appeared to have failed at keeping her dry. She gestured to the three behind her. "This is Estella Avenarius, Herald of Andraste. This is Cyrus Avenarius, and this is Asala Kaaras. If we're successful I'll be back with more scouts, but this is it for now."

"The Herald herself?" Vesryn mused, clearly pleased. "I'm honored. Vesryn Cormyth, at your service." He performed a well practiced bow. Saraya was more interested in the elven girl.

“Oh, um. Please, that’s not necessary.” The Herald in question looked a little uncomfortable, actually, shifting the way she stood slightly. It was hard to tell in the dark, but she might have gone a bit red in the face. “The title’s a bit much, honestly. And you really don’t have to bow.” She wasn’t dressed any differently than the others with her; actually, her gear might have been a bit rougher than that belonging to the man introduced as Cyrus, and unlike Lia she had no hood, so her dark hair had long been plastered to her head and the sides of her face by the rain.

She smiled a bit, though, apparently not yet as miserable as hypothesized. “It’s nice to meet you, though. Do you prefer Vesryn or…” She appeared to contemplate the armor for a moment. “Ser Cormyth, perhaps?”

Saraya looked down on the girl as though Vesryn were eight feet tall. Not impressed. Vesryn, however, smiled warmly, and quickly ran a gloved hand through his hair. For all the rain, it didn't look that bad. A little of a mess, but sometimes that worked in his favor. The tallhelm had kept most of the downpour off of it.

"Ah, Vesryn please. I'm no knight, and we'll save Ves for once we know each other a little better. Come, the fire's not quite dead yet." It gave off enough warmth to be comforting, and he kneeled down in front of it, peeling off his gloves and warming his hands. "And noted on the title. But the bow? I'd say you deserve that much, stopping a tear in the sky like you did." A smile seemed almost perpetually attached to his features.

"Cyrus, is it?" he looked up at the man in question. "You're... a brother, then?"

He’d been wearing a hood as well, but dropped it as soon as he was addressed. “Right in one.” Unlike his sister, he seemed not in the least uncomfortable, though his eyes did flicker to her for a moment before they resettled on Vesryn. “I understand you were looking for someone versed in the nuances of ancient elven magic. That would be me.” He inclined his head, though it was assuredly a courtesy and not a deference.

Saraya's interest immediately shifted away from the elven girl and the Herald of Andraste to study the Herald's brother. There seemed to be no opinion just yet, none that Vesryn could feel. He, however, had come to at least a preliminary conclusion.

"Handsome and well-studied. Quite the catch." He looked to the last member of the group, the young Qunari woman introduced as Asala, and rubbed his hands together. "Hope you're not afraid of walking corpses. We'll be wading through plenty in a moment."

Asala said nothing, only nodded. She still seemed rather nervous about the whole thing, but did Vesryn's words did not cause her to back away. Like Estella, she too wore no hood, no doubt that the pair of horns sprouting from her head would make such an endeavor futile. Her hair was slick, but she had it pulled back into a tight ponytail, revealing exactly where the horns rose from. The edges of the white cloak she wore were wet too, the edges cacked in mud.

"Good," Vesryn said. "Now, the Avvar you're looking for are in the fortress at the south end of the bog. Long road of demons and undead to get there. Nothing to be done about the undead. They rest in the water, for the most part. Don't step in any deep pools and they may ignore us. The demons, however, we can get rid of. Along the path are two old pillars. Veilfire beacons. Lighting them should block further rifts from opening in the area."

He tilted his head sideways for a brief moment. "Sadly, lighting the beacons should draw demons to them. Angry ones. We'll have to keep them from snuffing out the beacons until the magic does its work. I hope everyone's up for a fight. On the other side, we'll reach those Avvar, and your scouts."

“If you know where they are, is there any chance you also have an idea what they want?” Estella asked, frowning. “All we really know is that they kidnapped a scout party and demanded to speak to me.”

"Speak?" Vesryn smiled, somewhat sadly. "I'm afraid they want to kill you. It's a religious thing, they're hoping to prove their nature-gods are superior to your Maker-god. By squishing you with their big hammers."

"How did you learn this?" Lia asked, uncomfortably.

Vesryn stood and pulled his gloves back on. "Had a chat with one of the painted brutes myself. Well, brute might be a little rude, he was actually quite civil. I don't think he likes their leader much, probably doesn't even agree with him, but as it often goes with these sorts, the only way to get rid of the chief is to kill him."

“I should probably be more surprised by that than I am.” Estella shook her head, then glanced out towards the swamp. “Well, I suppose the sooner we get going, the sooner the problems will be solved.” She paused a moment, presumably to ensure that everyone was ready, then exited the scant cover of the overhang, drawing the sword at her hip and holding it in her left hand. It was bright in the dark, surely an enchantment, but the light dimmed after a few seconds.

“If you would be so kind as to lead on?” He was the one that knew where they were going, after all.

Vesryn slid his bardiche axe into a sheath on his back, picking up his shield and spear instead. Holding them each in the same hand, he grabbed his tallhelm and dropped it into place, obscuring his features save for the emerald eyes. As he passed Estella, he turned and bowed again, this time as he walked backwards. "Of course, my lady Herald." Under his helmet, he grinned.

"Oh, and once more, do try to stay out of the water. We'll be swimming in demons as is."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

Earnings

0.00 INK

It was only in the last year or so that Cyrus had truly grown accustomed to surroundings he would easily and accurately describe as disgusting, but this place might just have taken the whole blasted cake.

It smelled like rotting corpses, which apparently was because quite a lot of them were reanimated and just… waiting, under the water or some such. It seemed that stirring the surface of the bog would be enough to alert them to one’s presence, and they had been advised against such a course by their present guide. Reaching into a small pouch under his cloak, Cyrus withdrew a finger-length green leaf, placing it on his tongue as he walked. As expected, the sharp flavor of it helped chase the half-there taste of decay from his mouth, a product of the smell.

This Vesryn was quite curious. It was not every day that one encountered someone who knew of things like veilfire and rifts. And though their ancestors had invented the former, meeting an elf who knew of them was even less common. He would have put the odds of any elf without the vallaslin knowing it at quite close to zero, which meant that this fellow was quite an anomaly, and probably aware of it. For a moment, Cyrus wondered if perhaps he was as the one other he’d ever met like that, but it seemed… no. That was too unlikely, so there was some alternative explanation that he did not yet have.

That was fine. He always found whatever information he was after eventually. This would be no different.

The path to their destination turned out to make the simple advice don’t touch the water into a rather farcical recommendation. Most of the architectural features of the bog were half-sunk into it already, and that included the nearly rotted, unsound wooden ‘bridges’ that connected the various more solid islands. Still, by some combination of luck, skill, and mutual assistance, they were managing adequately thus far.

“Your choice of tourist destination leaves much to be desired.” That was directed at Vesryn, of course, and accompanied by the skeptical arch of a brow. “Unless you intend for us to believe that you live here.” It was obvious that Cyrus wasn’t going to believe that in any case.

"Gods, no," the elf said, glancing back at Cyrus, the only thing visible of his face being his green eyes. "Merely passing through. I was on my way to Haven, actually, to meet this Inquisition I'd heard so much about. The Mire caught my attention, when I heard about the rifts and the elven structures within. There are some fools that live here, probably for the solitude, and they have no one dumb enough to defend them. Not until I arrived, at any rate."

Finally, the ground beneath them became somewhat less treacherous to walk through, as they began up a gentle incline. The hill before them was covered with thick black trees, gnarled and ancient, about as grouchy looking as the undead in the ponds below. "Unfortunately, all I found were these Veilfire beacons. Not particularly interesting, but useful at least. All I needed was a mage, and when our dear girl here passed through, it proved the perfect opportunity." Lia scowled at him from under her hood, from where she walked at Vesryn's back.

"It's a good cause, and a chance for me to prove myself to this Inquisition I'd like to join up with."

Frankly, Cyrus thought this was an awful lot of trouble to go to in order to prove oneself to an organization that was taking volunteers with farming implements, but he didn’t say so aloud. There would be no point—they needed to light the beacons anyway, and if Vesryn did join, he’d realize the same soon enough besides.

What he said instead was: “How very magnanimous of you.” It wasn’t supposed to be clear if it was a compliment or merely an observation, and his tone kept the distinction vague.

The hillside was wet, as was every other damn thing in the place, but it wasn’t an impossible climb, and it took them only a couple of minutes to reach the first veilfire beacon. It was basically just a monolith, probably a good fifteen feet tall, with a circle of mostly bare space around it, the terrain damp gravel. There were a few other larger stones left outside the circle, suggesting a larger structure may once have been built around the beacon, but overall it was quite the plain device, as expected.

“Right, well. I suggest the four of you prepare for the angry demons, then.” His boots crunched on the gravel as he approached the pillar, the front side of which was bare, though he felt a slight stirring in the Fade as he passed it. Probably one of those runes—he’d have to take a look afterwards. The back side, however, had a veilfire torch mounted onto it, as had the ruins in the Hinterlands, and Cyrus stood before it, raising an arm until it was at the level of his chest, his palm roughly vertical, and lazily flicked his fingers.

The spark of magic flew unerringly, and the torch burst to life, the green-tinged blue of veilfire catching easily and almost immediately blooming into full burn. The effect rippled through the Fade, changing the unseen part of the area’s landscape quite noticeably.

“Incoming.”

True to the warning, it didn’t take much time at all before the first wave of demons appeared, about six shades in total. They came in from the same direction the party had, flying over the ground about as swiftly as shades could move, and they met the front line as five, one of their number having fallen on the way up to a well-placed arrow from Lia, shooting from behind Estella and Vesryn.

Estella watched them with evident wariness, but from the set of her feet, it was clear that she planned to approach this with as much mobility as possible, and indeed as the lines met, she stepped forward, slashing aggressively at the nearest. She caught it a deep blow to the shoulder, evidently missing one of its vital arteries by scant inches, but the follow-up crossed upwards over the same area, nicking something important even as she shade’s claws scraped against her armor, digging a furrow in the leather and throwing her back a meter or so.

She landed on her feet, and pressed forward again, this time stepping over its fading corpse.

Vesryn threw himself at a cluster of three of the things, slamming into the first with his heavy shield and driving it back into another. The third lunged forward and slashed down, the claws clanging loudly off the face of his shield. His boot emerged from behind it to kick the demon away, and immediately following that the end of his spear punched through the thing's face. It made a howling but soon cut off cry, falling limp into the ground as the spear was withdrawn. The two other shades had risen once more and resumed their frontal assault. One strike that swiped around the edge of his shield caught a magical barrier instead. The last unengaged shade charged up the hill, towards Asala.

Asala seemed to handle herself far better in a fight than she did socially. Despite the shade charging toward her fast as it could carry itself, she did not take a step back. In fact, her feet were set, and her eyes were wide as if searching out for a moment of opportunity. And sure enough, when one seemed to present itself, she took it.

As the shade closed the distance, Asala's hand went up, enveloped in the fade, and a wide barrier flew forward as fast as the shade in the opposite direction. The action was too sudden and the barrier too quick. The shield struck the shade hard in what should've been the thing's face. The force and momentum was great enough to send the shade into a backward flip and land on its face.

Another shield was called, this one appearing above the shade and crashed downward, crushing the shade against it and the ground below. It then vanished in a plume of smoke.

With the shades all down rather too quickly to constitute much by way of challenge, Cyrus was left to wonder if perhaps the danger of this part of their task had been overestimated a bit. There were a few seconds of silence after the last one fell, but just as he was opening his mouth to say something humorous, he felt an abrupt shift in the Fade, a spike against whatever served him as a sense of danger.

There wasn’t even time to issue much in the way of a warning before several spots on the ground turned an unhealthy greenish-black and from them erupted demons of a much higher order than mere shades—terrors, four of them. They had always reminded him of preying mantises, the way they were all limbs and long, emaciated, greenish forms. They had burst from the ground in eerie synchronization: two near Vesryn and Estella, one in front of Lia, and another right next to Asala.

Cyrus, not the subject of the wave of concussive force that issued from any of them, was able to react immediately. Springing forward, he pointed a finger in the direction of one of the two demons attempting to hew down his sister and Vesryn, and a tiny, concentrated orb of light formed at his fingertip, zipping over the elven warrior’s shoulder and impacting the creature in the chest, at which point Cyrus released the spell properly, and from that compact sphere erupted a massive fireball, scorching the demon from chin to hips, and sending it sprawling backwards, smoking in the damp of the rain—alive, but barely.

In his other hand, he summoned a Fade-weapon, in this case a spatha, which fit into his hand with the ease of long practice. Still running, he veered for the one physically closest to himself, which was near Lia, the scout. Halfway there, he pulled himself into the Fade, leaving a distorted afterimage in his place as he accelerated beyond the pale of normal physical speed, angling himself at the terror’s back. With a familiar low thrum, the sword cut into its flesh, breaking the spine as much with the blunt force of his acceleration as with the sharp edge of the blade proper, and he stopped himself abruptly upon contact, so as not to tear his own arm out of its socket.

The broken creature collapsed to the ground, and he flashed a friendly smile at Lia, the only person close enough to see it. “I really quite dislike these things.” The first time he’d encountered one… well, perhaps that was a thought for another time.

"Does anyone not?" Lia queried, drawing a long knife from the small of her back as one of the terrors focused on her. She dove forward and around it under the first claw swings, and stabbed the back of its leg, forcing it down. It shrieked as she pulled the blade free with a grim look, stabbing it again into the thing's lower back. She dodged sideways when it twisted and slashed down, and stabbed a third time, into its chest.

Suddenly it erupted in a magical cry, a shriek that knocked Lia back, leaving the knife in its chest. She stumbled and kept her feet, but the second pulse of energy tipped her over, sending her sliding in the mud on her back. By the third blast she was out of range, and had drawn an arrow. She nocked it in place while still on her back, drawing the bow sideways, and loosed. The arrow pierced straight through the terror's skull, silencing it and sending it collapsing into a pile of tangled limbs on the ground.

Vesryn, meanwhile, leapt through the smoke of the fireball's remnants and speared through the chest the injured terror. It squealed and went down in a smoking heap, twisting in pain until it died.

All told, that left one, and it was currently repeatedly hitting Asala’s barriers, which were starting to show some damage as a result. It was a quick thing, though, making it difficult to target as she’d taken down the shade previously. Estella, freed of the need to worry about either of those that had appeared in front of her, moved in to assist, sprinting across the intervening distance with her face set into grim lines, her saber trailing behind her.

It flashed over the terror’s midsection, aimed for the head but missing because of the creature’s reflexes, scoring a deep gash that seemed to hiss and sizzle at the edges, as its blood did along the edge of the sword itself. The creature turned its attention away from Asala and swung a hand for its new attacker, which she ducked under, scoring another blow lower, at its legs.

Its mobility reduced, it screamed again, catching Estella in the sonic attack, sending her to the ground in a tangle.

The dome Asala had erected around herself took the brunt of the terror's scream, though the cracks deepened as a result. However, Estella bought Asala an opportunity, one she did not waste. The dome melted around her, and reformed at her command. She held out her hands, both now awash in the fade. A pair of barriers appeared on either side of the demon, and before it could react, Asala brought her hands together. The barriers closed in on each other with the terror caught in the middle.

Asala's clap was drowned out by the crashing of the barriers. The force dazed and injured it, bringing it down to its spindly knees. She then took a step forward, lashing out with another barrier. It struck underneath its chin, raising it up off the ground and onto its back, its head twisted at a ghastly angle. Asala didn't waste a moment, and she was at Estella's side in a moment, the green glow of a healing spell already in her hand.

“I’m fine.” Estella waved a hand, a refusal of the healing spell, and pulled herself to her feet, tipping unsteadily for a moment before she seemed to regain her bearings and shake off whatever damage the fall had done. “Thanks, Asala.”

She spent a moment checking herself over before resheathing her sword and turning to the other three. “Well… one down, one to go, I suppose.” There was a moment in which she obviously assessed the rest of them for any injuries, and, finding none, she smiled slightly.

“Shall we?”

After having made his own determination that she was uninjured, Cyrus nodded. His hood had come off in his maneuvering, so he used both hands to push his hair back out of his face, slicking it against his head so he could see. The cloaks were basically an unfunny joke at this point.

“Yes, let’s. The sooner we get out of here, the sooner we can never come back.”

Now there was a lovely thought.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

Earnings

0.00 INK

The trek to the second beacon proved to be even trickier than the first. It seemed like half the time, they were over deep water, prevented from touching it only by rotting wooden bridges, some of which had broken away in places, leaving large gaps in them that had to be jumped. Their progress was slow, in part because of the driving rain and in part because they had elected to be careful in their passage, taking each new obstacle carefully enough to avoid too much risk, something which Estella was grateful for.

Of course, this particular bridge was not looking very safe even with all that considered. She could feel the wood creaking underneath her, and the jump that now loomed before her was very long. Her brother had made it without difficulty, of course, and it hadn’t seemed to trouble Vesryn much either. Estella was next in formation, and looked at it with a mounting sense of dread. The gap was wide, maybe six or seven feet, so a running start was necessary. It was also about four feet higher than a lake, which was who-knew-how-deep. Estella could swim, but that wasn’t much reassurance when the lake was supposedly filled with animated corpses that reacted to motion in the water.

Nervous, but unwilling to hold up the line, she backed up, taking a deep breath and trying to remember the things she’d been taught. If it didn’t feel natural, she could calculate it. She knew about what she had to achieve, when the best place to jump off was and how she should hold herself in the air, but whether she’d be able to do those things right on the first try was very questionable.

She didn’t think she’d ever done anything right on the first try.

And here she was, making far too much of what was probably simple for everyone else. Setting her jaw so she wouldn’t bite her tongue on the landing, she took her running start, bounding over the wooden planks and launching herself as high and far as she could once she reached the end. Her angle was slightly off, she knew, but she made the distance, landing on the other side with several inches to spare.

Unfortunately, she also landed on a slick spot, and one of her feet gave out from underneath her, forcing her to stagger backwards to compensate, grabbing for a railing. Her hand met only air, and the foot she’d moved back to stabilize herself hit wood—which promptly collapsed under her weight, sending her backwards. She didn’t shout or cry out, merely teetered off the edge with nothing to grip, landing on her back in the water with a loud splash.

Her cloak tangled around her as she tried to reach the surface, thrashing underneath the water in an attempt to free herself from it. It took several seconds to do so, and by the time she broke the surface again, she'd swallowed or inhaled what felt like half the lake. She came up coughing and spluttering, water in her lungs burning her chest, but predictably, that was the least of her problems.

Before she'd even cleared the murky water from her eyes, a putrid corpse had emerged from the water behind her, grabbing her by the shoulders with surprising strength. Its first gurgling roar, however, was cut short by a spear thrust from above, right through the softened bone of its skull. It fell back into the water, limp, sinking under the surface, but in its place more rose around Estella, some of them armed with dripping, ancient blades and knives.

From the edge of the bridge's gap, Vesryn withdrew the spear, quickly flipped it around in his hand, and thrust it back down, butt-end first, hovering it right in front of Estella. "Grab it!" His attention was drawn somewhere off to his right, and he soon was forced to bring his shield up in front of his face, just before a pair of arrows clattered off the surface of it. "Could we deal with those, please?" The suggestion seemed to be directed at Cyrus and Lia. A rapid barrage of crackling explosions answered, the air filling briefly with the scent of a thunderstorm.

"No, no. D-don't do that. Go-go back down, please." It was Asala's voice, apparently attempting to tend to some of the undead on the other side of the bridge.

Estella heard all of this, and smelled it, but mostly her head was filled with one simple thought: don’t die. Strangely, though she was desperate and still coughing up her lungs, the thought was calm, rational, devoid of any particular urgency but somehow yet absolute. She obeyed it, reaching up and grasping the haft of the spear, closing one hand around it with all the strength she had, her feet kicking steadily in the water beneath her—at least until she felt another pair of bony hands grasp her shoulders.

A quick glance confirmed that they were, in fact, mostly bone, the skin warped, greyed, and sliding off in places. It smelled worse than anything else she could remember, and she fought its grip, throwing an elbow back into it, but her motion was slowed by the water, and with only one hand free, she didn’t have much recourse.

That would prove to be a problem she wished she had, though, because it pulled her back down, dragging her under the water, and her hand slipped from the end of the spear despite her every effort to hold it there. She managed a deep breath before she went down, and this time tried to be more proactive, actually exhaling so she’d sink faster, and slip from its grip.

She managed to free herself, but before she could kick back up, it grabbed her cloak, halting her motion upwards. Her lungs were already burning, and she was starting to feel the distinct pressure that came with the gasping need for air, something she was currently in no position to get. She fought free of her cloak, tearing the clasp off and letting it fall away, finally untangling herself and surfacing again with another heaving inhalation.

A second corpse was not far behind, though, and she knew she had to get them off her before anything else happened. They were staying submerged, mostly, shambling along the bottom of the lake, and she couldn’t draw her sword and have any hope of swinging it hard enough. But…

Her right hand found its way to the knife sheathed at the small of her back, and she drew it, the straight, triangular blade thin but effective for stabbing, which was all she needed. She threw herself through the water, pushing off one of the bridge’s supports, and brought the knife down on top of one of the skulls, at the slightly weaker part behind the crown. It punched right through, and the corpse went slack. The other tried to drag her under the water again, but she plunged the knife into its arm where it tried to grasp her waist, kicking away and setting the knife hilt between her teeth, lunging to grab the spear with both hands this time.

As soon as both of her hands were firmly around the spear, it was pulled upwards with impressive strength, carrying her entirely up out of the water and forward onto the bridge. A plank beneath her and Vesryn groaned and threatened to give way, and the elf immediatedly stumbled back, falling away from the edge and pulling Estella with him so she wouldn't end up back in the water again.

Vesryn fell flat onto his back with a loud clatter of armor on wood, with Estella on top of him. The elf let his arms fall to his sides, and he smiled good-naturedly up at Estella from underneath his helmet. "Well, that got the adrenaline going, didn't it?"

She found that for some reason extremely funny just now, which wasn’t helping her chances at recovering her breath. Some of her pants sounded suspiciously like laughter, and she shook her head, rolling off him and to the side. “This? This is any given Tuesday.” She coughed a few more times, groaned, and clambered to her feet. She would have liked nothing more than to be warm and dry and take a long nap right now, but there was no chance of that, which meant she just had to keep going.

“Sorry about that.” She offered this to the party at large, then stretched a hand down to Vesryn, who clambered up to his feet with her help. “And thank you.” It didn’t look like there were any more corpses around; probably the other three had dispatched the majority of them with great acumen, if what she knew of their talents was anything to go by.

“Now that we’ve enjoyed the local lake, perhaps it would be a good time to get ourselves to that second beacon.”

“Are you sure? We can stop for a picnic if you like. No?” Cyrus’s words were light, but his eyes were serious, and he stepped forward towards her, lifting first one of her arms, and then another, checking her over for wounds, it would seem. When he found nothing obvious, he clicked his tongue and released her, not before giving her hand a little squeeze.

Asala said nothing aloud, but the look on her face was one of confusion-- or more than likely, one of misunderstanding. She mumbled something under her breath, but whatever she had said, it decidedly wasn't in the trade tongue.

The other two made it over the gap without falling in, thankfully, and after that the whole party was off again, and it wasn’t long before the second monolith came into sight. It appeared to have the same construction as the first, and they would likely face enemies of a similar type as before. At least they knew exactly what to expect this time.

Cyrus scrutinized it for a moment, before turning behind him and pinning Asala with his glance. “Asala, was it?” He beckoned her forward with a crook of his fingers. “Given how we approach combat, it makes much more sense for you to start in the back than I. I’ll show you how to light this one.” Without waiting for much by way of reply, he strode up to the pillar, leaving the rest of them to take their positions.

She dutifully followed him without a complaint until she came to a stop beside him, staring at the pillar in front of them. "O-okay?" she said, apparently waiting for the next step of instruction.

“Veilfire is actually rather simple to activate when an apparatus is in place like this. All it requires is a small, directed spark of your magic. Push it forwards, but do not form it into a specific spell. The torch will take care of the rest.” With a sharp motion, Cyrus summoned another weapon to his hand, a shortsword, by the look of it, and took several steps towards the front, facing backwards so as to make sure she did it properly, probably.

“Whenever you’re ready.”

Asala gazed into her palm for a moment before reaching for the staff slung on her back. She held it one hand as she reached out toward the torch with the other. A moment passed with nothing happening, but eventually a spark flew from her open palm and collided with the torch, lighting it in the greenish-blue flame.

She turned back to the others with a bright smile on her face, proud of herself. The smile didn't last long however, melting away into a rather pouty frown as the action soon drew demons toward them.

Estella actually smiled a bit at that, but quickly turned her attention towards the front. They were quite prepared this time, or at least she felt more prepared, and so the fight honestly wasn’t any harder than any other she’d ever been in, and while her body was beginning to remind her of how tired she was, she could put that off for a while longer yet, and she did, keeping herself light on her feet and agile, rarely stopping or holding position for more than a moment. Her strikes were light but precise, and she couldn’t say she felt anything but relief at the death of a demon, really. Maybe things would be different later, when it was Avvar—people—and not the distorted creatures of the Fade.

The first round was down before they’d managed so much as a scratch on anyone, and though the terrors proved to be more difficult as expected, no one took any serious wounds from them, either, though Estella did find herself sporting a new scratch down her cheek. It was only shallow, though, not even worth the effort of a healing spell when worse might come later.

When the last terror was gone, she lowered her blade and breathed a sigh. “Well… that’s the beacons. I guess we just have to deal with the Avvar now.” She wasn’t really looking forward to it. People wanting to kill her was nothing new, but it had been a while since it was her specifically, and it made her feel guilty. Like what had happened to the patrol was her fault.

She knew it wasn’t. But that didn’t stop her from feeling that way.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

Earnings

0.00 INK

The looming silhouette of a fortress peered at them from the horizon. Asala was relieved, they were almost there. She was tired, cold, and wet, and the ground sucked at every step she took. It was no secret that she wished she was anywhere but there, her emotions were already easy to read. Trudging through the bogs and marshes only made it easier. Brows knitted and furrowed, and her lips were drawn in a tight frown. The rising of the fortress in the distance gave her some hope of finally make it out of the rain, at least for a little while.

That hope put a slight hop to her step, though it only made the squelching noise that much worse. They approached through a narrow span of land, the marsh extending on either side of them. In the distance off to their side, Asala could make out a windmill listing at an angle, with dead trees sprouting every so often. She did not like this place, and the demons and undead only reinforced it.

Not even halfway to the fortress however, something caused Asala to stop. It was something in the Fade, it just didn't... feel right. She turned to her left, then her right, and then back to her left, trying to suss out the source of her feeling. It wasn't long until she found her answer. An undead broke the surface of the water, and he was not alone. Undead began to rise from the water, and they did not seem to stop.

Asala brought her staff around, but they were outnumbered, easily. She threw her gaze around her, trying to find something that would help, but the only thing she saw was the fortress. She pointed at it, and said "Th-there!" With that, they were off, with Asala bringing up the rear.

Cyrus had apparently elected to act from range this time, and periodic blasts of magic, mostly fire or electricity, flew outwards from his hands, aimed at large groupings of the corpses, clearly intended to knock them back and hamper their progress more than kill them outright, which made sense considering their numbers. Even so, no few of them didn't move again after being hit. He’d moved to the left flank of the group, and focused his attention on that side.

Estella was only armed with a sword and a knife, and since the aim was to run past the creatures rather than stop to engage them, there didn’t seem to be much she could do. She kept to the center of the formation, matching pace with the others, keeping her eyes fixed straight ahead.

Vesryn charged at the front, tower shield raised in front of him, just below eye level so that he could still see. An occasional clash of metal on rotted flesh and bone heralded his removal of an undead from their path. The bodies fell to the side of the group or were trampled at their feet, most still writhing in the mud. Some suffered broken necks or crushed skulls on impact. More of them rose on either side of the group, soon becoming a sizable force that they would not be able to take on. Lia spent arrows sparingly; those loosed into the crowd would never be seen again.

"Get to the gate!" Vesryn shouted. In front of them, the large reinforced wooden gate was mostly open, and while it looked light enough for the five of them to push closed, it also looked strong enough to keep the undead out. "We'll close it behind us!"

Cyrus was the first in, though he kept the magic steady, shooting through the gap in the gate. Magic was, after all, a much more renewable resource in a situation like this than arrows, so it wasn’t bad strategy. He stood far enough aside not to impede any of the others on their way through, though, focusing his bolts on those corpses getting too close to his fleeing allies, or to the gate itself.

Asala was the last through the gate, but she was kept from crossing completely over. The moment of relief was temporary, however, as something halted her progress from behind and caused a shrill eep to slip by her lips. An undead had managed to catch up and grab a handful of her cloak. In an attempt to spin away, she turned and tried to back up, the cloak sliding up and over her head. However, instead of the cloak slipping by her ears like it would an ordinary point, it caught on her horns and she saw nothing but white cloth.

"H-help!" she called, fighting against the undead. She was definitely not having a good day.

Given that he was already facing her, Cyrus reacted first, but instead of trying to hit the undead, he just frowned and summoned more magic to him, sending off what must have been a fire spell in a thin, whiplike line instead of the usual sphere. It sliced into Asala’s cloak where the corpse was grabbing on, severing it cleanly above that portion and releasing her from its hold. It staggered back, arms full of pale fabric.

“Quickly, now.”

He needn't tell her. She involuntarily stumbled back a few steps before she fell backward into the mud. The others shut the large gate moments later, cutting them off from the horde of undead. Asala, however, remained on her back for a moment, her cloak wrapped around her head and face. "I want to go home..." she whined, her voice muffled by the fabric. Why would there also be undead in such a miserable place? Was the rain and mud not enough? It just wasn't fair.

Without an ounce of grace, Asala got back onto her feet, discarding her ruined cloak, revealing a sleeveless, wide necked tunic which cut off above her navel. She more keenly felt the chill of the rain and mud now, and she hugged herself to keep what little warmth she had to herself. For once however, she was glad it was raining. Else the others would be able to realize that not all the beads of water on her face came from the weather. Estella stood close by, a hand hovering near Asala’s elbow as she regained her feet, helping her dust off a little bit, though it didn’t do much, considering how soaked everything was. As soon as she was standing again, the girl offered a sympathetic smile, before turning her attention forward.

In spite of the difficulty, they had arrived at the fortress. They stood in a courtyard of sort, and great stone stairs led up to the fortress proper. At this distance, Asala could see the disrepair the keep had fallen into, and her hope of finally finding someplace dry slowly dwindled. With a wide pouty frown, she began to trudge behind the others upward into the keep.

The battlements were eerily quiet, especially after the undead outside the gate eventually calmed down and trudged back to their waters, unable to see any target for their wrath. The Avvar were not currently present, but signs of them were, such as recently snuffed fire pits, and footprints embedded deep in the muddy paths, now little pools of brown water. Vesryn kept his eyes up, towards the walkways and stairs, searching for any unseen threat.

The keep was situated at the southern end of the fortress, nestled into the rock face that formed natural barriers on all but one of the fortification's sides. The stairs were wide and slick with rainfall and mud trudged up by the Avvar. The keep's gate was hauled up and left open for them, an invitation to enter. Vesryn chuckled softly to himself.

"Well, at least it's got a roof. That alone's worth the fight at this point."

He led the way inside, checking corners and carrying his shield before him as they entered the darkened main hall, but light could be seen ahead, in the form of torches in their racks on the walls. One of the supports had collapsed on the right side of the room, its pile of stone rubble littering the floor in a mound and creating an area of tricky footing. Outside, thunder cracked down violently, the flash illuminating the large, muscular figure that sat on the old throne at the back of the room.

He was huge, as he revealed upon standing, towering over them at nearly seven feet, his stature elevated further by the fact that he looked down on them from atop a flight of stairs. His skin was painted in striped patterns of black and white, same as the others that surrounded him. Their leader's paint was the least worn away by the rains. At least three of the other Avvar present wielded bows, while more close to the bottom of the stairs clutched swords and axes. The leader carried a massive two handed warhammer, the sort of weapon only the strongest and largest of individuals could effectively wield. He stepped forward, down a few steps, his heavy armor clinking with each thud of his boots. Quietly, Asala recoiled a step back, frightened by the sheer stature of the man. She hoped they could work something out without resorting to violence. Wishful thinking perhaps, but still she hoped.

"Who comes before the Hand of Korth?" he demanded, in a bellowing, deep voice. "Is a Herald of Andraste among you?"

Estella’s slow, bracing intake of breath was audible enough for the group to hear it, though probably not the Avvar, but when she stepped forward, she did so with her head held high, her gait rolling from heel to toe in a practiced manner. Her sword wasn’t drawn, but the hand on the same side rested loosely on the hilt. She came to a stop once she’d passed Vesryn at the front of the group. The line of her shoulders was visibly tense from the back, but when she spoke, it wasn’t in her usual voice; this one was much cooler in temperature, and stiller, with less of her natural intonation.

“Yes.” She tipped her head up slightly further, probably because he was much taller than her and on a staircase. “You have taken our scouts. I would see them returned.”

The Avvar warlord did not move, his eyes shifting between each of them beneath his painted leather mask. Eventually he scratched his head. "Which one of you is the Herald?"

The muscles at the corners of Estella’s eyes tightened, and her teeth clenched, if the motion in her jaw was anything to go by, but she didn’t hesitate. “I am.”

His eyes widened for a moment, and then he burst into laughter. Deep, gut-wrenching barks echoed around the hall for several seconds, but he made sure to not double over so far as to be unable to see her. Always his eyes remained on the group, his hand remaining on the warhammer. "You? Touched by your god? You look like a weakling." He broke down into chuckles of laughter again. "Where is the other one, the one with the marked face? Your Inquisition insults my power, sending only you." He took another lumbering step down the stairs. The archers above, on either side of the rock throne, watched him tensely, their fingers twitching.

She smiled, a brittle thing that likely fooled no one. “Your skepticism is understandable.” She took her right hand off her sword and held it out, palm-up, the greenish glow evident for all in the room to see. Her eyes moved over the archers, and for a moment she looked like she was trying to swallow something very unpleasant. “If… if you wish to test my mettle, to… set your gods against mine, then so be it. But that is what it will be: you, and I. I think other people have been involved in this far enough.”

It was impossible, at the close distance Asala stood, not to notice the fine tremor wracking Estella, but her words didn’t betray it, delivered almost in a monotone, devoid of either fear or anticipation.

"You would challenge me?" the Hand asked, somewhat disbelieving. When it became apparent to him that Estella was not merely throwing empty words at him, all trace of humor left the warlord. His mouth settled into a hard frown, and he thumped the base of his warhammer into the stone step beneath him, making a little crack. "Who am I to refuse you a good death? If that's what you wish for..." He gestured back with his free hand, and the close quarters fighters of the Avvar immediately backed off, some up the stairs and some further to the sides. Most looked relieved to be doing so, as they watched their leader thunder down the stairs a step at a time, until he stood on even ground with Estella. His eyes moved to her companions, waiting for them to clear the space.

Cyrus, at least, did not immediately do so, instead advancing four long strides to Estella’s side, speaking into her ear in a low voice. He looked like he was about ready to strike something, but the hand he placed on his sister’s shoulder was gentle. “Please tell me this is an elaborate trap, and the rest of us ambush him while he’s distracted.” His voice wasn’t more than a hissing whisper. She shook her head, giving him a look that could only be described as meaningful, though likely its meaning was lost on anyone but him. He scowled deeply, shaking his own head as if in reply, but he withdrew to the side of the room with the others, muttering something under his breath in what might have been Tevene.

The visual the situation presented was almost absurd: Estella was not a short woman, but neither was she exceptionally tall, and her build wasn’t by any means extraordinary in terms of muscle or bulk. She was soaked through, her ponytail dripping water from its end at a steady rate, her armor little other than leather and a few small metal plates over cloth. She drew her sword, the blade of it elegant and curved, and almost pitifully thin next to the massive hammer wielded by her Avvar foe. He towered over her, even at the five feet or so they stood apart from one another, the paint lending him a fearsome visage, which was probably something he could have achieved equally well without it.

He looked like he’d lived his entire life answering challenges much more imposing and worthy than this one, from a drenched little woman with a face that seemed to have blanked entirely, all traces of expression gone until she might as well have been a doll. She rose onto the balls of her feet, bending slightly at the knees, and struck first.

It was an extremely aggressive maneuver; three lunging steps forward followed by a jump, a horizontal slash probably meant to carve a red line right over his throat. The directness of it seemed to surprise him; probably he’d been expecting her to fight defensively, or at least with greater timidity or caution. He couldn’t maneuver his weapon to guard in time, so he took a large step backwards, the barest edge of the saber kissing his collarbone. A very thin line of red welled up in the spot, and Estella landed, pressing forward, this time cutting in low.

The initial surprise had worn off, however, and he was more prepared this time, and moved aside, kicking at her as she passed and catching her on the shoulder, with a vicious strength that sent her flying several feet, and rolling after she hit the stone. She was back on her feet quickly, in just enough time to avoid a massive blow from the hammer, clearly intended to end her in one by crushing her into a paste on the floor. The blow cracked the stone where she had been, a resounding crash echoing in the massive chamber.

He had her clearly on the run, and it was a pattern that persisted over the course of the next several minutes. Broad swings kept her well out of closing distance, and she had little choice but to get out of the way of them by any means necessary, for any one of them could spell the end of her life, with no time for retaliation or healing or anything else. Despite the fact that she was covering about twice as much ground as her foe, though, Estella didn’t seem to be tiring especially quickly, and her eyes remained locked on him and the immediate surroundings, not straying even once to where her companions or the other Avvar stood.

Still, it was evident to everyone watching that the advantage was the Avvar’s, and that if Estella didn’t find and seize an opportunity soon, he would simply outlast her. She seemed to know that, too, because she started to make riskier moves, dodging by less, pressing inward when she spotted what might have been a gap in his defenses or a pause in his unerring swings. She managed to duck under one, and then, with a burst of speed, she brought the sword around and plunged it towards his middle.

It hit, but any forward motion that would have made the stab fatal was halted when his meaty hand closed around her neck and he lifted her off the ground. Her sword clattered to the floor, her hands grasping at his wrist as her feet kicked uselessly in the air, though she was clearly swinging them with purpose, trying to get at his abdomen, perhaps. The muscles in his arm flexed as he tightened his grip, grinning, it would seem, at her predicament.

Estella moved her right hand back quickly, drawing her knife and plunging it into his forearm in one swift motion. He roared and dropped her, pulling the blade out and tossing it to the side. On the floor in a heap, she struggled to regain her breath as he swung the hammer, more hastily this time, perhaps anticipating her agility. It didn’t hit where he aimed, but it did crack down on her leg, a prominent crunching sound making it apparent that the limb had been broken, probably in multiple places.

She shrieked, though it came out more as a rasp than anything, considering the state of her throat, and pulled herself backwards with her functioning three limbs, pushing herself into a roll away from the next blow, which landed with a much heavier crash beside her. He had her hobbled, and considering her mobility had been her only advantage, things looked dire.

And yet it was clear she hadn’t given up; she managed to stand on her good leg, though she had to pitch herself away from the next hit, losing her stand as soon as she’d gained it. Rather than rolling away or to the side, however, she threw herself towards him, sliding under his legs and twisting around to her back when she was behind him. She had no weapons, though her sword was nearby, little maneuverability, and if this was merely an attempt to dodge, she’d bought herself perhaps a moment at most.

A crackling sound filled the air, sparks of light dancing between her fingers as she thrust both hands towards him. It wasn’t, anyone familiar with magic could tell, a very strong lightning spell, but that was nevertheless exactly what it was, and it lanced in an arc from the tips of her digits to the small of his back, impacting right at the base of his spine. He staggered, taking a step forward, the shock having the visible effect of locking his muscles in place, if only for a second.

It was a second Estella took, rolling sideways and grasping the hilt of her sword with the edges of her fingertips, coaxing it towards her before she gripped it and stabbed quickly at the only place she could reach—the back of his leg. It punched into spot behind his knee, snapping the tendon there with an audible and very unpleasant sound, and he fell as she had, only directing himself backwards, onto her.

This time, she had enough breath to scream as he came down heavily on her body, the leg in particular, no doubt, but she was pinned in place, and he gripped the shin belonging to her mangled limb much in the way he’d gripped her by the neck, and she thrashed mostly uselessly, trying to free her sword from under the pin. Clearly an experienced grappler, he’d soon flipped himself over and seized her injury again, pressing his other forearm down mightily on her windpipe, a sort of modified submission hold.

Estella fought it still, and managed to get her good knee up into the space between them, driving it into his groin, but though he grunted, he didn’t relent, pressing down harder in retaliation. Desperately, she freed one of her hands and reached up to claw at his eyes, but he turned his head away and so, with what appeared to be a monumental effort, she lit a flame in her palm, pressing it into the side of his face. The sizzle and hiss of the fire accompanied the smell of burning flesh, and still he held on for several seconds before he was forced to relent, and rolled off her, seeking his hammer in what seemed to be an attempt to end the fight once and for all.

But with both of them crippled, she was the faster one, and the blade of her sword erupted from his chest. She’d stabbed him from behind. Her hand fell heavily from the hilt, and with a soft groan, she half-rolled, half-collapsed from her side to her back, a mottled, black-and-purple bruise already beginning to form on her neck.

“Scouts…” she mumbled, almost incoherently. “Give us back our scouts.” Then her eyes rolled up in her head, and she passed out.

Cyrus didn’t even wait for any reaction from the other Avvar—he was moving to her side as soon as she’d stabbed the leader. He reached her just as she passed out, and went to his knees beside her, his hands lit with the familiar bluish light of a healing spell. Nothing that had happened to her over the course of the fight was likely to be fatal, but it wasn’t clear whether or not he knew that. He kept up a steady stream of murmuring, too low to be discerned over everything else that was happening, and once he’d discharged the first spell, his free hand was smoothing across her brow, moving loose hair back from her face in a tender motion.

Asala was right behind him, sliding around on Estella's other side. Her hands immediately went into a pouch on her hip, and retrieved a red vial from within. She latched onto Cyrus's hand with a firm grip and pressed the potion into it. "Give this to her. I will do all that I can for her leg," she said with a certain strength in her voice. She was worried, as they all were no doubt. But she could fix this. It may take time to recover, but Estella would come back from this. She'd see to it. He nodded tersely and took the glass vessel in hand.

Her attentions turned toward the leg in question. The sight of the mangled limb brought a tight frown into her lips, but she didn't recoil from it. Asala had seen many broken limbs in her lifetime, though perhaps not as severe. Still, she could do this. She shook the sweat off of her palms before she brought the gentle green light into them. She laid the spell over Estella's leg and began to work. The green light pulsed gently in her hands as it set about knitting the bone back together.

"She will need time and rest before she is in any condition to move," Asala said aloud, intently focusing on the healing spell. "We will remain here until then." The way she said it, it did not sound like a suggestion. In fact, her tone held a hint of anger in it. She didn't see the point in the fighting. For what reason? There was no point in it, and now Estella was hurt and he was dead. Her brows knit, before they relaxed, letting the anger melt away as she threw herself into her work.

Behind them, Vesryn had removed his helmet. He set his spear and shield up against one of the stone supports, and stepped forward, eyes flicking momentarily down to Estella from the Avvar still watching. His face showed little emotion, a stark contrast from how he'd seemed out in the rain, among the undead. Stepping past the healer and her patient, he looked back up to the Avvar.

"I believe the victor demanded her scouts back." There was no glibness to his words; instead they were spoken more forcefully. Lia stepped up with him, glaring at the Avvar. The second largest among them, apparently second in command, tilted his head to the side in a gesture towards a hallway.

"Down at the end of the hall. Here's the key." He tossed the small metal object through the air, and Lia caught it, still eyeing him warily. "You've killed our chief's son. But if there's to be retaliation for this, it won't be from us. Bastard got what he deserved, if you ask me." A few of the other painted warriors grunted in approval. "We'll be on our way. When the Herald wakes up, tell her she fought well." Quietly they filed out of the great hall, back out into the rain.

"Come on," Vesryn said, tapping Lia on the shoulder. "Let's get those soldiers out of there." They walked off down the hall, into shadows. A few moments later, they returned, the entire squad of scouts behind them. A few were injured, supported by their comrades, but all appeared to be accounted for. Lia shared a few uneasy smiles with them, before she came to crouch at Estella's side, careful not to get in the way. She looked to be holding back tears.

Some of the scouts stopped, wide-eyed, upon seeing Estella badly injured on the hall's floor. "It was the Herald that came for us?" one asked.

"She nearly died," another pointed out.

"I can't believe it. I didn't think they'd send anyone, let alone her."

"The Inquisition cares about its people, obviously," Vesryn pointed, crossing his arms as he watched Asala work. "A rare thing, these days."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

Earnings

0.00 INK

The weather was absolutely dreadful. Once the salt from the coast began to permeate the air, it started to rain and it never stopped. Ugly gray clouds hung high above them and seemed to stretch from eternity in every direction. A dark purple cloak draped over Lady Marceline's shoulders, the hood up so as to not subject her hair to the terrible conditions. Marceline was miserable but she did not allow that to play out on her face. She would not show weakness, not even to those she called allies that rode with her.

She was not unarmed, as only a fool would be when traveling through the country. A thin, silverite basket-hilted rapier tapped against her saddle as she rode, a small main-gauche waiting in the small of her back, currently hidden by her cloak.

She did not lead the procession however. That honor would go to the dalish woman called Khari, and she seemed to take to it with a certain zeal. The woman wore a mask, not unlike her own. However, Marceline was without her mask during this time, having opted to discard it upon leaving Orlais and instead show her face. The masks were an Orlesian tradition, and meant little outside of her homeland. That, and it would be better to allow the people to see her.

They had broken from the road some time ago as they approached the coast, the scent of salt on the air intensifying as they grew closer to their destination. The elements would play havoc on Marceline's hair, she knew it, and she did not know how long their venture to the coast would take them. She, however, said nothing and rode in silence.

If Khari cared a whit about what the elements were doing to her hair, she had a terrible way of showing it. Wisps of it stuck out from underneath her hood, curling into a rather impressive frizz once exposed to the open elements. Her eyes were good-humored from over the top of her half-mask, and she rode as though entirely oblivious to the conditions of the Coast.

At several points, she seemed to turn her attention vaguely southwest, though each time she did, she’d shake her head and return to navigating her horse down the slope shortly afterwards. It was a good half-hour of riding in the rain before anything changed. The Dalish crested a hill first, then shifted in her saddle to call back to the other two.

“Heads-up, you two. I think we found ‘em.”

Romulus put his heels into his horse and rode ahead, to catch up with Khari. His shield found its way onto his arm.

A great flapping flag could be seen in the distance, bright red against the miserable sky. It was attached to an anchored ship dipping and swaying near the rocks, far from the dancing figures on the beach: a battle between two groups, from the looks of it. On the outskirts of it stood a woman holding a bow, foot planted on a boulder. Her fingers smoothly drawing back and loosing arrows into shoulders, bellies, and hips, though if she was bothered by any of it, the sordid weather, the mewling cries as they stumbled onto their arses, she gave no indication. If anything she seemed delighted. Tossing her head back and laughing. She called out encouragements, and pointed a waggling finger at the mismatch of individuals grunting below.

The largest of the group—a Qunari, bashed his forehead into the nearest man's face, then grappled onto his leathers and tossed him aside. Unlike the woman, he was not smiling. There was a fine distinction between the fighters. One group wore unusual plates, garb reminiscent of Tevinter mercenaries: all human. Difficult to tell from the crest, but it was easier to distinguish the motley crew of pirates. Dwarf, Elves, Qunari, and a roaring woman. None of them seemed to notice anyone else happening on their exchange.

Khari fidgeted in her saddle, looking quite a bit as though it was physically difficult for her not to join the fight below, but her eyes were sharp as she surveyed the goings-on, moving from one fighter to the next, and she leaned forward slightly on her red horse, her head tilted to the left.

“They’re pretty good.”

"Mhm," Marceline agreed. "It is a coarse display, but that is not necessarily a terrible quality," she added, watching the battle intently. While she did not command the Inquisition's armies as Ser Leonhardt, she had been around Chevaliers her entire life and could deduce the effectiveness of the fighters. "They would not fit in with Ser Leonhardt's main body, but I am positive that they could prove their usefulness elsewhere." she added, her eyes rising to look out toward their ship. Of course, that's provided the Inquisition signed them on.

While they may have been a decent fighting force with their own ship to boot, that meant nothing if they asked too much from their fledgling organization. A deal had to come at a right price, as it was with most mercenaries, and she was there to ensure that. They would need to see what else they could offer first, and toward that end, Lady Marceline patiently waited for the battle to conclude.

It did so quickly, and none too softly. Blasts of blue shot from an elven lass's hands, sending a man tumbling head over heels. It was the dwarf who ended his cries, smashing her mallet into his skull. Stragglers were being pushed backwards, and cut down against the boulders and the skeletons of old boats littering the coastline. One particular man gurgled for the others to retreat back up the crest, and without helping any of his mates, began scrambling up the hillside himself. He jerked to a halt when he spotted horses pawing at the ground: and riders, simply watching. His mouth gawked open and the only thing that came out was the tip of an arrow, silencing whatever words he'd been trying to say. The man shivered and jerked, tumbling back down the hill.

In the distance, the wild-haired woman lowered her bow and stared up at the riders. She bared her teeth in greeting and put her fingers to her lips, whistling a sharp tone. She made another small movement with her hand, and her crew scattered amongst the remains, picking at discarded weapons. Others slumped down against pieces of driftwood and turned their attention towards the newcomers. Only Aslan walked to the woman's side, exchanging a few words, before her smile cracked into a grin and they both turned to begin their approach.

For someone so small, stature wise, she seemed to encompass a lot of space. She climbed the hillside without much trouble and stopped short of Khari's horse. Aslan rounded up at her side, crossing his arms over his barrel-chest. Although no words were exchanged, and he did little more than survey the new arrivals with narrowed eyes, it appeared as if he was just as much a weapon to her as the bow she'd already begun strapping to her back. The woman rubbed her hands together and arched her back, hands planted on her hips. Several cracks sounded and a long sigh followed, “So, this is the fabled Inquisition. I've heard good things about you, and I hope we haven't disappointed. Either way, I'm glad you could make it.”

She paused and clicked her tongue, “Right on time.” The woman motioned for them to follow her down the ridge, and towards the beach where the others were. Someone had already started dragging the bodies into a pile, pilfering whatever they needed into another one. Those who'd been injured lingered beside a scruffy-looking man, wrapping sopping wet bandages around proffered arms and legs. “I'm assuming you'd like to get straight to business. Serious bunch as you look. I'd like that too, honestly.”

Marceline nodded and swung off of the Orlesian charger's saddle in a single fluid motion. She landed on soft feet, though her black boots sunk into the sand with a squelch. Dreadful, she thought again, but her face betrayed nothing. In fact, her face was unreadable save an easy confidence on her brow. A neutral expression, this Zahra was a business woman, and would not take kindly to any air she may have put on. If she wished to speak business, the Lady Marceline would speak business.

She turned and pointed out her companions as she said their names, "This is Ser Khari, Ser Romulus, and I," She said, turning back to face Zahra, "Am Lady Marceline. And you are the good Captain Zahra Tavish." It was a curt introduction, but they were not in Orlesian courts, but on a beach among fighters and mercenaries. Social graces were unnecessary and the game that was to be played was not the Grand one, though she remained unfailingly polite.

"We were told that you were in search of your latest contract, and that you may possess some piece information that may be of value to the Inquisition," Marceline steepled her fingers and let them rest on her belly, taking on a relaxed posture. "So I shall cut through the pleasantries and get straight to the matter at hand. What is it that you are willing to offer, and, if you will excuse my forwardness, what are your terms?" She asked as a dark brow rose.

The Captain inclined her head to each new person that was introduced. Her eyes lingered on each one, then fell back on Lady Marceline, clearly unaware that her scrutiny might have come off as unsettling. She idly scratched at her chin but listened intently, eyebrows flagging when her name was mentioned. Aslan stared off into the distance, glancing at their horses and adjusting his stance, occasionally stepping out of the sucking sand into more sucking sand. Zahra seemed as comfortable as a cat stretching out across a bed. Even in the Storm Coast's miserable weather, rain pattering down her cheeks, whereas Aslan stood as still and silent as a wall. A formidable one.

“Yes, you're right,” Zahra tossed her head towards the ship, still bobbing up and down in the distance, “And much more besides. You see, we're in the business of information. We've traveled near everywhere, haven't we?” There was a boom of cheers and clattering weapons coming from her crew mates littered about. “That is to say, we hear more than rumors, and secrets are worth their weight in gold. If there are no little birds to whisper in our ears, we compensate in battle. You won't find a tougher crew than us, that's a guarantee. Front line, and fearless. It wouldn't matter where you intended to take us. Once a deal is struck, we're loyal-bound. To hell and back.”

Her mouth curved into a smile, “Did I mention we have a boat?” Pleasantries cast aside, Zahra threw her arms out wide and took another deep breath of the ocean spray, “Our terms are simple. We've both got something to gain. You and I. Strong alliances. What we're asking for is a place to stay. Food, warm beds. Gold, of course. We come at a fair price, but I'm sure the Inquisition can afford us.”

Though she didn't let it show, Marceline's interest was piqued. If her interest bled through, then it may cost them later in the negotiations. It was safer to regard them with a nominally impressed expression. It would be rude to do otherwise. "Your offer is intriguing," she conceded, though she turned quiet afterward. She regarded this Captain, her crew, and even her ship with a critical eye. There was nothing that would refute anything the woman had said, and if what she had said was true to the letter, then it would be unwise to simply let this opportunity sail away.

However, she was not going to simply hire them on the spot. They would need to be gauged first, to ensure what they say and what they offer were up to the standards they desired. "The Inquisition is willing to offer you and your crew a probationary contract," Marceline said, an inviting smile creeping into her lips.

"If what you say is true, and we find your services satisfactory, we will renegotiate the terms of your contract for a longer period of employment, and the pay to reflect the services you provide. Of course, food and board will certainly be provided within the deal as well. The Inquisition is kind to her people," Marceline said with a nod. It was a fair offer, she felt, and there were many potential opportunities to be had with a crew with their own ship.

"Do you find these terms fair, Captain Zahra?" Marceline asked with a raise of her brow.

The woman-Captain took another deep breath and sucked at her gums, glancing over her shoulder at her gathered crew. She was silent for a moment, as if she were considering her options, though the wild brightness in her eyes spoke volumes. And abrupt as any of her movements seemed to be, Zahra whipped back towards Lady Marceline and held her hand out for a sealing handshake, mouth twisted in a toothy grin, “You have a deal, Lady Marceline, and it's not one you'll regret making.”

"I would hope not, Captain Zahra," Marceline replied with a smile of her own, before taking her hand and shaking it.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

Earnings

0.00 INK

It wasn’t more than thirty seconds after they shook hands on the deal that they heard a loud screech, almost impossibly loud, and a corresponding rumble. The ground tremored slightly beneath their feet, and from the east, it was possible to see the masked woman, identified previously as Khari, approaching on horseback. She must have left at some point during the negotiations, but her horse trotted back towards them, its rider holding herself high off the saddle, standing in the stirrups.

“There’s a dragon here!” Her tone was excited, almost gleeful. “A really big blue one. It’s fighting a giant over there!” She jabbed a thumb over her shoulder.

With little more than a handshake, the deal was struck and Zahra stood as pleased as a coddled kitten. Albeit sopping wet and forced to keep readjusting her feet in the sucking sands beneath them. She'd much prefer being inside her ship, or else somewhere dry, but by the looks of this Inquisition of theirs, with lady Sunshine bringing up the front, it appeared as if they still had business to do on the Storm Coast. She'd truly meant through hell and back again, so questions were useless. Besides, their group looked just as motley as her own. Her smile did not wane, only bellied the relentless energy swirling in her belly. She didn't doubt that they would be just as interesting.

A shriek cut through their nice little congregation. Loud enough to rattle her skull and make her ears ring. Certainly not a sound she'd ever heard before, and she figured she'd seen many things in her travels. Aslan's meaty fists clamped down across the curved blade hanging at his hip, though Zahra placated him when she placed a hand on his shoulder. The one introduced as Khari rounded up on them. Fiery-haired and pointing off in the distance, rattling on about a dragon and a giant. She'd admit to being just a little bit distracted by her hair, bright as fire. She turned the words over in her head and clicked her tongue again, “Two things I never imagined I'd see in one day.”

It seemed as if staying anchored in these parts would be both unwise, and foolish if there was a dragon circling the coastline, even if it wasn't interested in their ship. From what little she knew of dragons, and their ilk, they were damnably large and capable of felling their mast as if it were a toy. And she'd just commandeered that thing months ago, she meant to keep it in one piece. Her hand slipped away from Aslan's shoulder and she leaned closer to him, hooking her thumb towards her gathered crew mates, already springing up to see what Khari was talking about. “I'll be traveling with these guys for awhile, but I want you to get our girl out of these waters. I'll be damned if it gets torched after coming all this way.”

Aslan nodded. His voice was a gravelly pit when he said, “Where to, Boss?”

She rubbed her knuckles against her nose, and sniffed, “Head back to that little fishing village we passed. Anchor there. Feed the boys and girls. Get some rest while you can. Keep your ears open.”

With that said, Aslan stomped down towards the pirates, and gave rumbling instructions to get their arses in gear as quickly as they could manage. Fantastic crew as they were, she'd rather see them all safe on their ship. Besides, she could prove how useful their company was while they were gone. Zahra joined Marceline at her side, and placed her hands back at her hips, fingers drumming a beat, “Besides my ship and my crew, you're also getting me. I'm a good shot. They say I never miss. Course, you'll see that yourself. A sharp eye, an arrow in the dark—whatever you need of me.”

She didn't wait for her response, only slipped back up where Khari had been stationed. She saw it for herself. Two great beasts, entangled. A giant and a blue dragon as bright as any jewel. Her heart hammered in her throat, and if she didn't have any better sense, she would have crept closer.

“Well, look at that, Ginger's right.”

Marceline noticeably kept her distance with a deep frown marking her face. "If I may make a suggestion," she began with arms crossed. "I suggest we give them both a wide berth and allow them to finish any business they may have with each other." A deafening roar from the dragon caused the air around them to shudder, and Marceline's eyes narrowed. "A very generous berth," she added.

There was a glimmer in the eye of Romulus as he pulled his horse up alongside Khari. The excitement was clear in him, but it was heavily tempered, reduced down to a small upward curl in his lips, and a gaze of wonderment towards the two battling behemoths across the bay.

"Have you ever seen anything like it?" he asked, the question directed at Khari.

“Only once.” Her tone was reverent, her enthusiasm for the experience more than apparent. Her eyes stayed fixed on the spectacle, drinking it in the way other people watched sublime artistic performances, or whatever it was that fascinated them in a similar way. “And not this close.” Her eyes narrowed, clearly from pleasure rather than anger.

“This is absolutely worth it.” What the ‘it’ she referred to was wasn’t clear, but the words seemed to mean something to her, anyway.

From where Zahra was standing their business may last a long time, though it looked as if the giant was faltering against the dragon's advances. Difficult to tell, really. She let her gaze drift away from the carnage below and she turned to consider the two riders at her side with much of the same fascination. She watched their reactions, took note of the small things. An upturned lip. The brightness in Ginger's eyes, leaning forward in her saddle as she was. Minute gestures, like the fluttering of fingers. She didn't think it would be very difficult to convince them that taking up their arms would be the better course of action. Then again. Perhaps, she was wrong and they were looking on in wonder and not with the tickling sense of violence and glory.

“It'd be a shame, just to bypass them,” Zahra shrugged her shoulders, and glanced back to Lady Marceline. The most sensible one, it seemed. Even so, she couldn't help but wonder how much those scales would sell for or what that giant was carrying for that matter. Opportunity could be had if they waited around long enough, but she supposed that Marceline wasn't the patient type. Already seeking out another route. Fighting off a dragon and a giant seemed foolish enough but she'd be hard-pressed to deny that her blood wasn't already boiling. Besides, she wasn't sure who, in fact, was in charge of this expedition. “I'm assuming you have some sort of destination in mind,” Zahra arched her eyebrows, “which isn't over there.”

"A pair," Lady Marceline answered. She returned to her steed and remounted it. She pulled in behind the three of them, still warily gaze out toward the dragon and giant. "Along with you, we were to make contact with a cult that goes by the name 'Blades of Hessarian'. Judging by the name they have given themselves, it is a highly religious organization. Perhaps we can use that to our advantage," Marceline added, her gaze lingering on Romulus for a few moments.

She then shifted attention to the path ahead, "The other destination is far more nebulous. We are to investigate the disappearance of the Grey Wardens. Our source says that they were last known to be in this area." Marceline looked out ahead for a moment before turning to look at the others. "I suggest that we meet with these Blades first, and should they prove amiable, inquire what they know of the Wardens and then proceed from there." With that Marceline nodded as if pleased with the plan of action.

"Agreed?"

“You can ride with me, by the way.” Khari had waited until Marceline had done all the necessary explaining before making her offer, but now she was holding an arm out and downwards, with the clear intention of helping Zahra up behind her. The horse certainly looked strong enough to take two, especially considering that the first was a fairly small person.

A group of religious arseholes, and some Grey Wardens. There it was, an adventure already to be had. She certainly wasn't complaining. Besides, Lady Marceline wasted no time explaining where they were going and that suited her just fine, though she was curious what made her tick. Surely, she wasn't all prim and proper. There must've been some fun buried underneath all of orderly business. “Fine by me,” Zahra bobbed her head. Now that she thought about it, she'd never actually met a Grey Warden before. Sounded like they'd have their pants in twist. She hoped not.

She followed the voice and was pleased to find out that it was Ginger who'd offered her a ride—not that she would have minded any of the others, though Ser Romulus was quiet enough to make her wonder whether or not he'd talk at all. Perhaps, she intimidated him. Wouldn't have been the first time. As for Lady Marceline, she doubted that she'd want to close the distance between them anytime soon. Not before having a few drinks. So, Zahra turned towards Khari and took up her proffered arm, boosting herself over the horses rump and settling in behind her as best as she could manage, “Thanks for the lift.”

“Not a problem.” Khari grinned, then faced forward, urging her horse to begin moving. The others did, too, and the small group was off, turning back towards the north, avoiding the dragon as advised. The slopes were fairly steep, but the horses seemed to be solid, hardy creatures, and not once did any of the legs under Zahra and Khari falter, the elf’s deft hand guiding him to the best places on the narrow, rocky paths.

They’d been riding for another fifteen minutes or so when something resolved ahead of them. It looked to be a small group of people, grouped on one side of the path. From the way they were all looking down towards the approaching Inquisition, it would seem that they awaited their arrival, and Khari slowed the horse down to approach with a little more reserve.

Most of them were armed, but with a few exceptions, they were women, younger teenagers, and older people, and none of them looked particularly well-fed, the hollows of their cheeks perhaps more sunken than was warranted. Still, there wasn’t a one that was bowed over or hunched; each held themselves tall, and tall most of them were, even the children. There were about fifteen, it looked like, though most of them were set back a ways from the road, sitting in a rough circle, but two stood right next to the road. One was a thickset man with meaty arms and a head of wild, copper-colored hair. He held a staff in one hand; it looked to serve as a walking stick more than anything, for his face showed age, especially around the eyes and mouth.

The other was perhaps of an age with Zahra, or thereabouts, and shared the man’s hair color and most of his height. Her armor was mostly leather and fur, and had nothing by way of sleeves, dark blue tattoos encircling her right arm all the way to her neck, the patterns foreign and strange—not Rivaini, not Antivan, and certainly not Dalish. Her skin was dark, much darker than that belonging to any of the others, but it was the way that she stood in the front which perhaps differentiated her the most.

“Hail, Inquisition. If you seek the Blades of Hessarian, you will not make it far.” The words were not a threat; indeed, she spoke them with a hint of amusement underneath the contralto timbre of her voice.

Lady Marceline bowed slightly in her saddle, more out of appreciation it seemed than greeting. "If I may ask then, why is that?" her tone wasn't one of contention, but genuine. Her eyes glanced between the other individuals before returning to the one that had addressed them.

The woman smiled, more with her eyes than her mouth. “They are a strange lot, with many rules that have little purpose.” She shrugged, then raised both of her hands to her neck, tugging until what seemed to be a necklace came free and dangled from one hand. The blue color of the gem in the middle suggested serpentstone, and the rest of it looked to be made of granite and some sort of scaly hide. “Such as this: without one of these in view, your group will be attacked by them on sight, something we discovered the hard way.” There was a thread of malice under her tone, but it seemed to coexist with the same amusement that had accompanied her words thus far, making her feelings on the matter difficult to pin down.

“I, therefore, find myself in a position to make a deal with you, and that is something I would like to do.”

Marceline's head tilted to the side, but likewise she betrayed nothing, making it difficult to feel out her own thoughts. She looked at the amulet for a moment before she spoke. "Hmm," she hummed to herself, as if thinking it over. "We would hear the deal before we are to commit to anything. Know, however, that we wish to negotiate with these people." Her eyes then went to burly man beside her, and then to the rest behind them.

"We will not be able to condone any retribution you may have in mind unless they instigate hostilities themselves," She said, with a sigh and subtle shake of her head. She did not seem overly surprised to hear that the Blades were hostile to strangers, only tired by it.

The woman shook her head. “You misunderstand. Perhaps I should have been clearer.” She lowered the amulet to her side, and then glanced back at the others further away from the road, the gesture inviting them to do the same. “It is partly an insistence on retribution that has whittled us so. That, and famine, and darkspawn, and any number of other disasters over the last dozen years. The gods do not answer, and so it is I who must decide.” The man at her side shifted, but said nothing.

She returned her gaze to them. “I choose to save them, whatever others may say of my honor for it.” She smiled again, sharply, like the edge of a knife. “Retribution is uninteresting to me. My terms are this: you have the amulet, which will enable you to negotiate. You have us, who are capable survivors and hunters, when there is game to be found. You have me, and the weight of my clan’s good name, which is leverage you will not be able to get elsewhere, and will carry much meaning should you have cause to deal with Avvar. We have food, and shelter, your word that we will be tolerated outside your town, protected by your troops. That is the deal.”

"Is this what remains of your clan?" Marceline asked, indicating to the others a ways away from the road.

“It is. Once we were many, and our hold large. But hunger is an enemy that cannot be fought.” Her answer was even, but any trace of humor had vanished from it.

She looked toward them for a moment more, as if internally debating something before turning her gaze toward the woman addressing them. There Marceline seemed to internally gauge her worth. Finally, she spoke. "What is your name?"

The question seemed almost to perplex the woman, as though it seemed irrelevant and she was unsure why it was being asked. “I am Signy Sky-Lance, Thane of the Wyvernhold. This is my father, Svavar Earthspeaker, our shaman.” The older man inclined his head, politely if a bit awkwardly, as though he weren’t used to that form of greeting.

"I expect Ser Leonhardt would benefit from the scouting expertise you and your clan will bring, and the medallion you hold will see to it that our business here goes smoother than without," she said with a nod, before Marceline dismounted her horse and offered this Signy an outstretched hand. "I will have to requisition hardier tents from Ser Leonhardt, but your people will have their shelter and their food. You need not starve any longer."

Signy took the proffered hand, grasping Marceline’s forearm, then nodded and relinquished the medallion. “Then we will make our way to Haven and find this Ser Leonhardt. We will be of little assistance with religious cultists, beyond what we have already provided, and without the crest, we are no longer safe here.” She released Marceline’s arm, then stepped back and whistled sharply. Almost as one, the other members of her band stood, and she gestured them to the right.

“You’ll want to go left from here. And watch out for their leader—he’s unpopular, and for good reason.” With that, she and her father turned to depart, soon disappearing down a different path.

Certainly not what she'd been expecting to see on their travels, though she'd seen enough starving folk in her travels to understand the need for powerful allies. She only shifted sideways, so that she could properly see the unusually tattooed woman at the front. Lady Sunshine was proving be an awfully good conversationalist and so, Zahra offered no words. She hadn't been hired for that anyhow. Shamans, Avvar, Thanes and hollow-cheeked tribesmen already—things she had never encountered before.

A chuckle bubbled from her lips, and she looked much like Khari had observing the dragon and giant, “Worth it.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

Earnings

0.00 INK

The Blades of Hessarian kept their camp a fair distance inland, nestled into the steep hills and cliffs that zig-zagged along the coast. The people of the region were scarce, only a few outlying fishing villages and mountain communities, tough people that looked on strangers, especially armed ones, with suspicion. While they made their way towards the bandit encampment, or cult, or whatever it was, they preoccupied themselves with following up on some clues as to the Wardens that they sought in the area.

The people of one particular fishing village remembered them, but provided little information, for they only had little to begin with, or so Romulus believed. He was fairly good at spotting lies, and these villagers spoke none, concealed nothing. The Wardens that had passed through were a group, led by an elf, apparently. They were not received with hostility, for the locals were still grateful to them for the speedy end to the Blight, years ago. The group of Wardens inquired after other Wardens, an Orlesian man and an elven woman of the Free Marches, but the villagers could tell them nothing.

Khari led the tracking effort, for the most part. Romulus wasn't too experienced in following signs in the wild. A city would've been preferable, honestly. He was often more successful at prying information from broken fingers than broken twigs. Khari was the one most comfortable with this sort of work, and so she was best suited to find where the Warden group had gone.

It took the better part of a day to find a discarded camp, well nestled between steep rock formations on a secluded hillside. There they found, among few other things, a discarded journal, mostly soaked through, but with a few legible lines through which information could be gleaned. The camp had indeed been made by the Warden group they sought, but there were no names available, either for the searching party, or the two that they pursued. They worried over a whisper in their minds, had difficulty sensing darkspawn, and ultimately determined that their objectives had since departed the region. It could only be assumed that they themselves had left soon after, and there was no indication as to where.

The search for the Wardens having proven fruitless, they were left with one more task on the Storm Coast, dealing with the Blades of Hessarian. The camp was not far now. Romulus occasionally spied shadows moving behind bushes and trees, but none ever approached. Perhaps the openly displayed medallion that the redheaded woman had presented them with was truly enough to keep their arrows and blades at bay.

He studied their new companion, the sea-captain, as they descended down steep terrain. She handled herself well, on and off land, and carried herself with confidence. He didn't doubt she was capable, and a worthwhile addition to the Inquisition, especially considering their lack of influence at sea. What interested him more was her appearance. She shared a similar tone with him, the rather distinct features of one with Rivaini heritage. Given her own profession, and the manner in which Romulus had been told he was first found, he determined her to be worth prying into.

"You are Rivaini, Captain Zahra?" he asked, the answer obvious, the question probably more in what to call her. Titles felt annoyingly necessary when a person such as him ventured to address someone. "May I ask how you acquired a ship and crew?"

Zahra leaned backwards, slightly further from Khari, and tilted her head to examine Romulus. Her mouth curved into a smile. It pulled at the scars banded across her lips, twitching back to bare her teeth, “Perceptive of you.” She readjusted herself across the horse's rump, possibly to keep herself from slipping off as they rode. Her movements were languid, thoughtful. She drew a hand up to her face and traced her fingertips across her cheekbone, trailing it down below her eye, “And so are you. Must've come from a wealthy family with those.” A rhetorical question, it seemed. Or rather, a statement. With her, it seemed difficult to tell the difference.

“Now, that's a tale that I'd gladly share,” she clicked her tongue and raised an eyebrow, watching him as a hawk might, “but I'm not in the habit of giving without taking anything so, if you'll answer a question of mine, I'll answer one of yours. Deal?”

Romulus ignored the comment about his tattoos. He knew not what they signified, or where he had acquired them. If they were some symbol of his belonging to a wealthy lineage, it hardly mattered now. "I'll answer as best I can. Ask."

Zahra made a small noise in her throat and dropped her hand back down to her side, seemingly lost in thought. She rolled her eyes skyward. There was a pause, and only the clopping of hoof beats and rattling weapons filled in the spaces of her silence. It took her a few moments, but her eyes fell back to Romulus and held his gaze, “Alright then. How is it that you came to be with the Inquisition? I'm sure you all have your own stories to tell.”

Romulus was aware that the circumstances regarding his joining were less than ideal for the Inquisition's public image, hence why they'd been largely swept under the rug in favor of Estella's more palatable background. Briefly, he tried to catch the Lady Marceline's eye, to see if he had permission to answer truthfully. Marceline nodded her consent.

"I came from Tevinter, on orders from my domina to spy on the Conclave. Somehow, I was caught in events, I don't remember. The Breach was created by the explosion, I helped stop its spread three days later. The Inquisition requested that my domina allow me to remain and help close the Breach entirely. She agreed." It was delivered without much emotion, despite the enormity of everything that had happened. Perhaps it was because Romulus always seemed uncomfortable discussing the details of his slavery with these southerners. In Minrathous, his position was not something that was looked at twice. Many magisters had favored slaves, and he was fortunate and skilled enough to be one of them. Here, they seemed to think the idea worse than death. He did not know what to make of it.

"My question still stands, if you're satisfied. The short version, maybe. We're getting close." He could see wisps of campfires in the distance. They'd be in sight of the bandit camp soon.

Her eyebrow occasionally shot up when Romulus said certain words, though she did little more than nod her head. As abrasive as she seemed to be, she was a polite listener. Her shoulders straightened when he was finished and she seemed to consider his words. If she had any questions, she thought better of voicing them aloud. It seemed as if she had many of them, tapping at her knee as she was. Her smile simpered into a flat line. For all of her bluster, she hesitated. She followed his gaze and her grin returned, kindled like fire, “So we are.”

“Short version it is. This particular ship was commandeered. Borrowed indefinitely, you might say. If you're all for justice and fairness, you might not want to hear that story. As for my crew, I picked them all up along the way. Like I said, I've been around the world, mostly. Took some of them in. Except for Aslan. He's always been at my side. Hell if I know why,” Zahra used her hands, stroked the air in broad gestures, as if it explained anything at all. She paused and crackled a rough laugh, “But I'm sure you'd be more interested hearing it from them.”

The camp belonging to the Blades of Hessarian actually looked more like a small fort, complete with a large wooden wall, watchtowers, and a gate. Blue flags were unfurled over the towers, and Romulus got the distinct sense they were approaching a military encampment rather than a bandit hideout. Their little formation of horses left them appearing quite exposed, but even when more of the Blades came into sight, they did not attack. Those who manned the gate pushed it open upon seeing the medallion.

"You come to challenge our leader?" One asked, disbelieving. The other shrugged.

"All others have failed, but you're welcome to try."

They rode through the gate, Romulus with his hand ever on the hilt of his dagger, and already with shield in hand. His eyes watched the places an ambusher might hide, but for all their strength, these bandits seemed interested in this approach, which they perhaps saw as more honorable. It would certainly be easier than fighting all of them, he supposed.

There were many tents and little fires scattered throughout the interior of the camp, but some of the structures were actual houses, well-made and seemingly well-lived in. They had been here for some time, unchallenged. It made sense, he supposed. The Blight would have had no cause to travel through this place, and after it the darkspawn would've retreated and remained underground. The region was too far from Highever for Teyrn Cousland to do anything about it, not when darkspawn threatening more populated regions took priority. No, the Blades of Hessarian were masters of this land, and had been for some time. Removing them would not be easy. Controlling them would be more profitable.

"Who among you challenges the Blades of Hessarian?" demanded a man, standing in front of a throne carved from wood and stone. He was a large brute of a man, lightly armored and armed with a hand axe and round shield. His beard and hair were both thick and blond, in all a very Fereldan appearance. At his sides, a pair of mabari hounds clad in spiked plates of armor growled at the approaching strangers.

Marceline had dismounted her horse and stood straight as the man spoke. She was not cowed by the installation the Blades had, nor did she seem fearful standing in front of the man. As she spoke, she kept her head level and her arms crossed. A relaxed stance. "We represent the Inquisition and would ask to parley. We need not resort to violence," she said.

The rest dismounted in turn, and all approached the leader of the Blades on foot. He crossed his arms at Marceline's words, narrowing his eyes at all of them. "You carry the Crest of Mercy. This earns you the right to a challenge, no more. The Blades of Hessarian will not negotiate with outsiders, not under my command." He took a threatening step forward, his two hounds behind him drooling with anticipation. He pointed at Marceline and the others with the spike atop his axe.

"Name your two champions. One for me, and the other for my dogs. That's how this works."

When it seemed like words get them nowhere, Marceline's eyelids dropped and she stared down her nose at him. Instead of addressing the brute anymore she turned and looked toward the others to listen to their comments.

“Me. I volunteer.” It was spoken immediately, probably before anyone else had a chance to get a word in edgewise. From the way Khari sat, though, tense as a bowstring and tall as she could make herself, she’d been anticipating this from the very start. As if to match actions to words, she tossed her leg easily over the side of the horse, hopping to the ground in a fluid motion that left Zahra behind her undisturbed.

“Don’t care what, either. Those dogs look vicious and mean, but the big man looks more vicious and meaner.” Her eyes glittered, and she turned them towards Romulus, perhaps because he was, after all, the Herald here. Or perhaps just because she anticipated him being the other party, it was hard to say for sure. Her hand was already reaching back for the hilt of her sword.

Zahra sucked at her gums, and slid off the horse as well, eying the Blades of Hessarian with little more than a crinkled nose. Her fingers, however, twitched at her sides. One of them lingered slightly behind her back—closest to her bow, fingering the string as if it were a musical instrument to be plucked. Her stance bellied a readiness that was often seen in warriors, and her eyes danced not with the wariness that any of the others might have had, but excitement, “Let them have their way then. I don't doubt any of your abilities.”

Romulus stepped forward beside Khari, drawing his dagger, wordless in his intent. It was obvious what he was planning on doing, and that was volunteering. He was trained for killing important targets, mages or otherwise. Killing this man and his dogs would make killing the rest unnecessary, and would possibly make them pliable to the Inquisition's will. But, it was ultimately Marceline's duty to direct the mission, and so Romulus glanced again to her for her approval.

She looked at the three of them in contemplation before she turned back to the Fereldan and his hounds. She held them in her gaze, sizing them up before she closed her eyes and sighed, apparently having decided on something. Marceline then began to undo the clasp to the cloak around her shoulders. "Khari," she began, "If you would handle the hounds?" Once the cloak was free, she approached Zahra and handed it to her, giving her an appreciative look. Zahra, in turn, folded and tucked the cloak underneath her arm and grinned at the others, obviously pleased by the outcome.

"I shall answer his challenge," she said, reaching into her pocket to produce a length of black fabric. As she used it to tie her hair back into a bun, she looked to Romulus somewhat apologetically. "Your position in the Inquisition is far too important to risk on something I can handle myself, Lord Herald," she explained. By her tone, it was clear that her usage of the title of Herald was not so much meant for him, but for the Blades. Romulus did not move at first, looking briefly at Khari and then back to Marceline. His face was stone, more so than usual, but eventually he sheathed his dagger, and stepped back, deferring to her.

Turning back to the Fereldan, her arms free and her hair out of the way she drew the rapier at her side with one hand, and the main-gauche with the other. She held the rapier horizontally at eye level, while the dagger waited in the shadows.

"Begin."

It was probably only meant to commence the match between Marceline and the leader of the Blades, but it seemed to serve well enough as a signal for Khari, as well. She still wore her cloak, and the steel mask, as well, and the hounds leapt for her as one. She immediately jumped backwards, positioning herself a fair distance behind Marceline, but still at her back, obviously to prevent the mabari from flanking her. One of the dogs landed short, but the other had taken an extra step before jumping at her, and she was forced to block, swinging her fist around to punch it directly in the nose.

That didn’t seem to do much, perhaps due to the armor plating it had, and though it failed to get a good hold on her, it did knock her to the ground. Chances were, it weighed about the same as she did, maybe a little more with the armor, and the ground was muddy and slick. Khari fell, but she did so easily, almost as if she’d been expecting it, and she laughed as she slid backwards on the mud about a foot before coming to a stop, rolling onto her feet quickly and bringing her sword around for the next exchange.

Marceline simply shook her head most likely at what was Khari's laughter. When it was clear that it was not her that going to make the first move, the Fereldan made his own instead. With his first step forward, she took her first backward. Likewise for the second. The slow retreat seemed to have angered the man, because a scowl leapt into his face before he threw himself at Marceline.

Instead of rushing forward to meet him, and instead of retreating backward and risk tripping into the fight Khari was in, she danced to the side and out of the way, carefully watching his weapons with each step. Marceline carried herself with practiced steps and honed grace. It was becoming clear that she was no stranger to a duel. The rapier never dropped below eye level, at least until it bobbed upward, as if to entice him to try again.

Khari, meanwhile, wasn’t particularly graceful at all. She was all motion, a constant back-and-forth, push-and-pull, like the flow of the tides, and the part of the field she and the dogs occupied was swiftly becoming even more of a mud pit than it had been before, as she and her four-legged foes churned it up with the strength of their strides. It seemed to be ankle-deep, in most places, but their vigor had splashed large portions of it onto them, until the dogs were gaining a coat to their chests and Khari was just wearing it everywhere. She repelled their attacks mostly by swatting them away with large, sweeping strokes of her sword, but she never overshot, never left herself open for longer than she could recover.

One of them dove low, going in for her ankle, most likely, but she went low, too, diverting to the side and pivoting, the force of the motion carrying her through the next stroke, which cleanly severed one of its legs, just below where the armor protected. It went down on its side, so she opened up its belly with the subsequent blow, ending its life with celerity.

"It appears as if you overestimated your hounds," Marceline taunted after the hound that Khari dispatched cried aloud. The leader of the blades simply grunted angrily and charged her again. This time, she did not retreat, but she never let her eyes move away from his shield and axe. He came in hard for a horizontal swipe, but Marceline apparently had seen it coming and took a step backward to let it pass harmlessly in front her. She had also seen the backswing coming, and parried it with the main-gauche, pushing it away from her.

A fierce shield block followed, but Marceline easily dipped under it and spun away, coming out unscatched on the other side of him. She put a few steps between instead of pressing an attack, before resetting the positioning of her rapier. "It also appears as if your hounds were much more competent," she taunted again. The mounting frustrations on the Fereldan's face was visible to all, and it was easy to see that his motions were becoming more and more wild with each miss and each taunt.

In the aftermath of the death of its counterpart, the second mabari fought all the harder, seemingly confirming the rumors about their intelligence and loyalty, and it was certainly well-trained for battle. It snarled at Khari, and lunged, this time from too close for her to merely duck away, and they both hit the ground with a wet squelch. It was a bit hard to see exactly what happened after that—a great deal of rolling was involved, as both tried to get the necessary leverage to finish the other off. With a half-yell, half-snarl of her own, though, Khari hauled the dog off her and threw herself onto it, planting a knee in its chest and a hand beneath its jaw, tipping its head back too far to bite her and rendering most of its powerful muscles useless, since it couldn’t get leverage to push her off.

With a grunt, she brought her sword towards her with her second hand, laying the blade over its throat under her first, then leaning into it. Given the lack of armor there, it bit in easily, and the hound went still beneath her. She climbed to her feet, coated almost head to toe in wet earth worn proudly, almost, glancing towards Marceline and her foe, and her teeth flashed at him from under the mask, though it it was a smile, a grimace, or something else wasn’t evident.

“Waste of good dogs, on your pride.” Her tone was clearly derisive, and the jab played off Marceline’s like taunts surprisingly well, for someone who’d been wholeheartedly engaged in her own confrontation.

"She is correct, you know?" Marceline said, with a brow raised. Her answer was immediate, a rage induced yell and the Fereldan threw everything at her in his next flurry. However, even in the mud, Marceline proved quicker, stepping out of the way of errant strikes and batting away the weaker ones with her main-gauche. Despite the ferocity, it was clear that the fight was beginning to strain him. The wide angles, the wild slashes, the ferocity, even in the rain it was easy to tell the Fereldan was laboring.

She backstepped one more time before the man barked at her, taken over by his rage. "Fight Ba--urk," he was never able to finish the sentence. Marceline siezed the opportunity provided by the man opening his mouth to speak to drive the tip of her rapier into his throat. He was choking on his blood before he fell to his knees, his weapons quickly sinking into the muck beside him.

"We could have just spoken," Marceline said, the man tipping over into the mud, lifeless. She sheathed main-gauche and produced a linen hankerchief from a pocket. She then proceeded to wipe the beads of blood from the tip of her rapier, before she sheathed it as well. Turning to face Khari, she looked her up and down before she offered the woman herself the handkerchief.

Khari only laughed, waving the offer away with a good-natured grin. “Gonna take more than that, I think. Rain should do for most of it." They were quite the contrast, one of them as neat as it was likely possible to be out here and the other wearing muck from the crown of her head to the toes of her boots, but they'd both been successful.

It was Zahra who first stepped forward to congratulate them on their victories. Arms held out wide as if she might embrace them, though she did not. Instead she stood in front of Khari and settled her hands on her hips, smiling broadly, “Now that was a damn good fight. I'm glad the brute was stupid enough to challenge you.” Her eyes flicked from Khari's mud-speckled face, to Lady Marceline's sheathed blade and back up to hers, which was noticeabl cleaner, “It might've been easier to talk, but less fun, you must admit.”

Whatever her idea of fun was, it obviously lied in the more violent aspects of their journey. Her expression shifted as she looked between the two, sizing them up before she circled around Khari. Glancing over her shoulder, Zahra looked mildly apologetic as she held out Marceline's cloak, “Forgive me, but I think I'll be riding with her the rest of the way. At least until the rain does its work.” Khari only shrugged.

“Suit yourself."

As Romulus mounted, one of the Blades of Hessarian approached. "You'll be hearing from us, Inquisition," he said, not at all in an unfriendly manner. "You've proven yourselves worthy, and earned the right of command. In the Storm Coast, your will is our own." Romulus pulled his hood up over his head, as the rain began to come down ever harder.

They were not unlike slaves, he thought. Serving without question at the whim of the most dangerous person they could find.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

Earnings

0.00 INK

Asala’s work really was exceptionally good. This was something Estella knew more about than she probably should, this little time into their acquaintance, but it seemed the young Qunari had been of great assistance to her yet again, and she couldn’t say she was ungrateful, much as she wished it weren’t necessary. Fortunately, nothing that had happened to her had been life-threatening; she’d passed out mostly from pain and exhaustion, which was admittedly a little embarrassing, especially because she hadn’t even been conscious when they’d actually gotten around to doing what they’d come for, and rescuing the scouts.

At least they’d all still been there, and alive, and no further confrontation with the Avvar was necessary. She believed she’d done the right thing, though of course as usual she probably should have done better at it. But the scouts were safe and no members of her party were dead, and the Avvar who hadn’t wanted to be there in the first place had been able to leave, and that was… well, it was truthfully a much better outcome than she’d been expecting.

Estella currently sat at the small desk crammed into the little cleric’s cell she used as a room, the charcoal pencil in her hand moving only occasionally, because she was thinking more than she was sketching, at the moment. Her leg ached a lot still, and they’d only made it back to Haven the day before, so she limped a fair bit yet, but considering how many places her bones had been broken in, that was really a small miracle of magic. She was on strict instructions not to wear herself out by doing anything too strenuous, but she had to admit the enforced inactivity was probably going to drive her up a wall eventually. She’d slept most of the previous day, and now that she no longer felt like she was going to topple over and die at any moment, she admitted she was bored. Even when she wasn’t on a job, Estella preferred to be active, to train or at least walk around, and there weren’t any especially interesting books around for her to get lost in, either.

So she was drawing, mostly to give her hands something to do. It was a skill Commander Lucien had taught a few of the others, and that they in turn had tried to teach her, but though she could draw simple things relatively well, she was still having trouble with faces and architecture and things like that. Even her renderings were quite inferior to Cyrus’s, she mused, but, well, that was just to be expected. She liked doing it, anyway, and since there was really nothing else to do, she figured she might as well.

A sharp knock on her door drew her out of her reverie, and she called for the person on the other side to enter. She’d suspected it might be Asala, by to check on her again, but when the door opened to reveal Cyrus, she wasn’t all that shocked.

His expression, initially difficult to read, shifted almost immediately upon his entry, and he shut the door behind him with a click. A thundercloud seemed to pass over his features, darkening them for a brief moment, and his eyes narrowed as he took a deep breath. He otherwise looked as he always did—as though they hadn’t been traipsing through a bog and then traveling as swiftly as horseback would carry them back to Haven.

He looked at her for a moment, flinty and intent, his displeasure clear from the look on his face. Crossing his arms over his chest, he leaned back against her door. “Just what—” He cut himself off, exhaling through his nose and visibly clenching his jaw. “What were you thinking, Stellulam?”

It didn’t take a genius to figure out what he was referring to, and she turned her body in her chair so that she was sitting sideways on it, folding both of her hands in her lap and looking down at them for some time. She didn’t need to look up to know that he was still skewering her with his stare—he had a way of doing that. He could look at a person, at her, and make her feel either like she was the thing at the center of his entire universe or… like she was a bug on the end of a needle, and half as smart. Right now it was definitely the latter, so she didn’t meet his eyes.

She supposed it was a fair question. The Estella he knew would never have done something like that. Estella hadn’t even known she would do it herself, before she did it. But her thought process had actually been quite rational, and so maybe if she explained it, he would understand. “I was thinking… I was thinking that the Hand was Avvar. I don’t know a lot about them, but I know they value honor. Or, well, if they don’t, their culture does, and so he’d be bound to accept a challenge issued to him. I was thinking the only person he really cared about killing was me. I was thinking that his people didn’t look like they wanted to be there, and no one should ever have to die for something they don’t believe in.”

She did chance meeting his eyes then, and grimaced. Maybe that part was more emotional than rational, but still. “It just… it wasn’t necessary to risk anyone else. I knew if it really came down to it, then the rest of you would be able to win, so either way the scouts would be safe.” She’d done the right thing. She had.

Cyrus, however, didn’t seem to think so, at least not the way she did. He scowled deeply, then dropped his hands to his sides, moving one up to run through his hair in an irritated motion that seemed to be more for preventing him from doing something else, though it was hard to say what. “The scouts.” He repeated the words softly, a faint note of incredulity in his tone. “Did you even once consider that the relevant difference between these two scenarios might be the fact that in one of them you were dead?”

Her brother’s entire body was tense; his volume had risen a fair bit over normal inside modulation, though he wasn’t precisely yelling. He looked like he wanted to, though. Cyrus’s expression had morphed from irritated to livid, and looked like it was about to tip a degree further, too.

She’d rarely seen him so upset. Cyrus was a man of extremes; he always had been, and she knew that. But though Estella had supposed he must have many emotions she rarely saw, she’d not thought him a person with much anger in him at all. Which actually made this a little alarming to her. She’d gone tense, too, but not because she was angry in return. Rather, the volume in his voice was bringing on an adverse reaction in her, one that was old and instinctive, and she swallowed several times. This was Cyrus. Her brother. He wasn’t going to—

She slammed the proverbial door on the thought and forced herself to breathe, clenching her hands in her lap but keeping eye contact. “I… of course I did. I knew what could happen, but…” She suspected this was the part where she was supposed to say I knew I could do it, but she found herself unable to. She was a poor liar on the best of days, and he’d see through her like she was made of glass. “But I knew that wasn’t likely. Asala’s an amazing healer; she’s saved my life more than once already. And you… you were there. I know you can heal, too.” It wasn’t, as far as she knew, something he’d ever been especially interested in, but the basics were part of any Imperium magical education.

It sounded like a lame excuse, and it probably was. That it was all technically true didn’t help her sound any more convincing, she was sure. She tried something else, quickly, before he could interject. “Besides, I… I can’t let myself think like that, about whether I’m going to die or not. The way I did it, no matter what happened, the fewest possible people would die. Either just one, or… well.” She wasn’t sure exactly what would have happened if she’d been the one to die, but most likely the Avvar would have honored the duel, called their gods the victors, and let the rest of them take the scouts back. It was still only one death.

Even if it was hers.

“Just one.” He seemed to be quite apt to repeat her words back at her with very different tone, and this time it was somewhere between derision and… something else. Something more urgent that was difficult to identify. He ran both hands over his face, looking quite like he had no idea what to do with himself but needed to do something. The indecision lasted for only a moment, and then he was marching toward her, laying his hands on her shoulders and gripping, not hard enough to cause her pain, but quite firmly. She could feel through the contact that his hands were actually trembling.

“You stupid, stupid girl.” Whatever anger was in him seemed to have faded back to a simmer, leaving in its place a wounded look that she had only ever seen once on his face, the day he told her to run and not look back. “It would not have been just one life, it would have been your life. You can’t do this to me. Do you have any idea what would have happened if you’d…” He couldn’t seem to even finish the sentence, moving his hands so that he held either side of her face, tilting her head back so that eye contact was forced. His own met hers, seemingly searching for something, or perhaps imploring her to understand.

“It isn’t just one life, it’s yours.” If possible, he said it more emphatically the second time.

His distress was evident, and Estella flinched at the clear strength of his feelings on the matter. And yet, for all she knew what he was trying to convey to her, she could not bring herself to agree. He cared about her, loved her a great deal. She loved him too, of course. And she could even understand why he wanted her to acknowledge this thing he was trying to tell her: if it were him, she would have worried too. But… she also would have trusted him to succeed, and she could not deny a twinge of pain in her heart when she realized he likely had not expected that she would. Then again… she hadn’t known, either. Maybe it was just because she had so much evidence of how skilled and talented he was, and he had none for her, because there wasn’t any to be had.

So she could understand, why he wanted her to agree, why he wanted her to treat her life like it mattered more than someone else’s. But she couldn’t. “Cyrus… when it comes right down to it, my life is just one life. I’m just a normal person.” Even if something like being especially skilled or powerful or likely to contribute to the world or something made someone’s life worth a bit more, which she wasn’t sure it did, she wasn’t any of those things. Estella was really only one person, and she’d accepted that a long time ago. Some people had to be normal, or average, or below it, in order for there to be an average. By most math, one life for many was a good trade to make.

“Wrong.” His response was immediate, and he shook his head violently, releasing her face and backing up a few paces. “Wrong, wrong, wrong.” His emotions had apparently flipped kilter again, and the anger built to a second crest. “If you don’t believe it because I tell you, go out there and ask the commander. Ask Marceline, ask anyone who makes strategic decisions. Ask any of your friends. For gods’ sake, ask anyone in your entire damned Inquisition!” He really was yelling now, and gesticulating wildly to emphasize it, thrusting one hand out to point at the places beyond her walls.

“Any single one of them with half a brain to think about it will tell you that your life is worth whatever they have to pay to keep it! If it wasn’t so before because they cared about you, it is now, because they’re relying on you to save them all!” His emotions seemed to be having a strange effect on his magic—the air around him began to distort and warp as though it had suddenly become very hot, like the way it rose off the sand in a desert and shimmered. The tang of thunderstorms was on the air as well, but he wasn’t casting anything.

“And don’t you dare tell me that you’re disposable because there’s another Herald! You are absolutely fucking indespensible, do you hear me?! How many people have to tell you before you’ll believe it, even just a little bit?! Because I’ll parade every single one of them through here if I have to, Stellulam, until you promise me that you won’t do something so stupid again!” His eyes were unusually bright, and the faintest hint of moisture gathered at the edges of them. His hand formed into a fist, and he slammed the side of it into her door, which splintered, not due to the impact alone, but rather the magic it discharged, unformed and purely concussive in nature.

A high-pitched yelp came from behind the door after Cyrus's savage lash. The damage done to it was enough to break the seal, letting the door lazily swing open to reveal a very startled Asala. Her hand clutched the collar of her borrowed cloak, though whoever she'd gotten it from was clearly a lot smaller than she was, considering the fit. Inside the grip she had on it she held a small red vial.

She didn't say anything at first. She only stared into now open room with widened eyes and a look of anxiety on fer face. It wasn't clear how long she had been standing behind the door, nor how much of their exchange she had heard. "Uh..." Asala murmured. "Am I... Is this a b-bad time?"

Estella gulped in a large breath, using the opportunity Asala had so unknowingly presented to steady herself. Cyrus was… she didn’t think he was going to like anything she could say, because she couldn’t promise him, with full genuineness, what he wanted her to promise. She would know it was false, and because she did, he would, and she suspected that would only make matters worse than they actually were. Suspected, but couldn’t say with certainty, because in all the years they’d been alive, she’d never seen him lose his composure like this. It meant she wasn’t really sure what to expect.

She’d started to shake, she realized belatedly, and steadied herself as well as she could, lifting her eyes to smile thinly at Asala. Maybe what they needed was time to cool off, both of them. Though honestly, she wasn’t… she didn’t know exactly how she felt about this. It broke her heart to upset him so much, but she still didn’t believe she’d done anything wrong, and she wasn’t sure talking any more about it would do anything but upset the both of them.

“No, Asala, it’s not.” She felt herself automatically sliding her usual expression over her features; reserved politeness with a hint of confidence—she’d been faking it for so long it was almost effortless—and turned her eyes briefly to her brother. “I believe Cyrus was just leaving.”

He stiffened for a moment at her words, wearing his true feelings much more openly than she was wearing hers, but then he finally looked over at the door, as though noticing it for the first time, and grimaced. Then his face smoothed over, too, and he swallowed once. The look he gave Estella was one that informed her quite clearly that he was not going to let the matter go, but when he spoke, his voice had regained its normal volume and tone.

“Yes. I suppose I was.” He nodded faintly at Asala, though he scarcely seemed to notice her, really, merely stepping around her to get out the door and depart.

She turned to let him through, then remained in the hall and continued to gaze down it, no doubt watching Cyrus depart. Eventually, she entered the room, not bothering to close the damaged door behind her. Asala pulled the few errant strands of her hair obscuring her face behind her horns and took a knee in front of Estella. She gave her a comforting smile before gently setting the red vial on the table beside her. "Take that, please," she asked.

Then she reached for Estella's leg with gentle fingers, and began to firmly message it as if testing the bone. "Have you had any acute pain lately?" Asala asked, though her attention was primarily focused on the limb.

Downing the contents of the vial, Estella made a slight face at the aftertaste and shook her head. “No,” she murmured, though she still looked at the empty doorway. Pursing her lips, she forced herself to focus on Asala and what she was doing. “It just aches, especially when I put weight on it, obviously.” Still, even that wasn’t a stabbing pain, just a slight flare in the general soreness. She knew from experience being injured that it was healing as expected, or, well, generally in a good manner, anyway.

She almost wanted to ask Asala, how she’d made amends with Meraad, if they’d ever argued, but something about this was too fresh to be seeking that sort of advice yet, and Estella wondered if it wasn’t something she’d have to figure out by herself. Usually, making amends involved apologizing, but she doubted Cyrus cared whether she apologized. He just wanted her to do the thing he’d been trying to convince her to do in the first place, and she couldn’t give him that. So amends, as such, weren’t going to be easy.

She fiddled with the empty potion vial, and swallowed thickly. Now, of all times, she could feel the hot prickles at the back of her eyes that meant she wanted to cry. But she wouldn’t, couldn’t let herself, so she let out a shaky breath instead and tried to focus on the pain in her leg. It was better than the pain in her chest.

Asala was silent for a time afterward, concentrating on the leg in her hands. At least until she stopped for a moment, and simply held it. It looked as if she was thinking on something. Estella could tell when she decided, because she loosened her grip on her leg. "He... cares about you," she said, with hesitation in her voice. She then looked up at her and, for once, held her gaze, though the uneasiness remained in her face. "We all do."

With that, she returned her attention to the limb, something she appeared to be more comfortable in dealing with. She gave it one more once over before she stood and nodded. "You will be fine. Just... Give it time."

Estella smiled, just a little, aware that Asala was probably talking about more than her wound, and appreciative of the sentiment. She was probably even correct. “I know he does.” It was almost the root of the problem, really, that Cyrus cared so much. He was like that with everything he came to care about, which is why she suspected he tried to avoid it as often as possible. “And… and I hope you’re right. Thank you.” It was something she found herself saying a lot to Asala, now that she thought about it, but then… perhaps that was only natural, considering the circumstances.

She tilted her head to the side, changing the topic to something more comfortable, probably for the both of them. “So, doctor… do you think I’ll be able to take a walk tomorrow, at least?”

"I'm... not a... doctor?" She said, the look of confusion that's become a staple of who Asala was gracing her features once more. However, she didn't allow the comment to sit for too long, apparently brushing past it. It appeared that she was beginning to ignore most of these things.

She nodded afterward, a smile on her lips to replace the confusion. "Yes. If you rest today, you will be able to walk tomorrow." She then shrugged and rubbed her arms. "But... you should put off running for another day or so." she added apologetically.

Estella sighed, but supposed it could be a lot worse. She wasn’t usually stupid enough to aggravate her injuries, though, and she nodded slightly. She trusted the other woman’s advice, and smiled as Asala stood, giving her a soft goodbye as she exited. The door still worked, mostly, and once she was alone again, Estella closed her eyes and breathed a deeper exhale, scrubbing over her face with both hands.

When had everything become so complicated?

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

Earnings

0.00 INK

Saraya, as ever, was unimpressed.

Vesryn often felt he had to overcompensate for the cynicism, to combat the foreign opinions and often negative emotions that entered his head. He'd long since learned how to force them away from becoming his own. And he'd always been an upbeat, incessantly light-hearted elf. Saraya's grumblings, for lack of a better term, weren't going to change that. If anything, it just made him glad she was stuck with him. He could only imagine how dreary her experience would've been if she were forced into the head of some moody elf, full of dark emotions, or Gods forbid, a human.

Still, Vesryn had been elvhen'alas, a dirt elf, when they had first met, and in the eyes of many of the Dalish, that was halfway or more to shemlen. Thankfully, Saraya was not Dalish. Eventually Vesryn had even come to believe that it was better that he wasn't Dalish. Fewer false notions already ingrained into his mind, or some such. That he'd been so unconcerned with the legacy of his people perhaps made him the best, most open-minded candidate for learning about them.

The Inquisition did not know what to make of him. There was the other notable elf, that darling redheaded one, Khari he thought he'd heard, but her condition had an explanation. Sometimes Dalish just didn't like being Dalish. It wasn't impossible to believe. Not everyone wanted to live in a wagon on wheels. But Vesryn lacked the tattoo, something he was thankful for; he found his face quite pleasing just the way it was. What he did have was a very unique suit of armor, a powerful build not common at all among his people, and an air of confidence unheard of among the city elves, and different from that of the Dalish. He felt threatened by nothing, and furthermore, felt there was nothing he had to prove.

It was unsurprising to him, then, when he was called to meet with the army commander, Leon something-or-other. Clearly he was wasted on the front lines, not that he wouldn't absolutely excel there, but his talents and backgrounds were beyond the average recruit. He was special, and he walked like he knew it when he entered the Chantry at Haven's highest point. He was garbed in armor, lion's pelt cloak and all, as he planned to train on the ice following the meeting, and vastly preferred to train in the same gear that he would fight in.

Vesryn found a guard standing outside the commander's door, and offered him a charming smile, before pressing a fist to his chest and bowing shortly. "Vesryn Cormyth, here to see the commander."

The guard’s expression was best classed as skeptical, but in a weary sort of way, like he’d seen one too many things stranger than Vesryn by this point to be all that surprised by an elf in shining armor, so to speak. “Right. He said he was expecting you.” With very little ceremony, he turned, walked a couple paces, and knocked on the door. “Sir, it’s the new fellow.” There was a short pause, and a reply that was a little too low for Vesryn to make out through the door, but the guard seemed to have heard it, because he nodded and opened the door, gesturing in clear invitation.

The office itself was exceedingly spartan in nature, and likely not the largest such space the Chantry had to offer—it had about enough room for a bookshelf, a writing desk with a smaller table next to it for parchment overflow, and not much else. The one concession to comfort was a thick rug underfoot, but even that was comparatively plain. Several maps lined the walls, many with pushpins stuck in various places, a few having lines of variously-colored string between them.

It was almost comically small for the size of the man who occupied it, hunched over the desk in a slightly-ungainly way, which was only reinforced when he stood from his chair at Vesryn’s entrance and promptly knocked his head into the light fixture over the spot, which had clearly been put there with someone much shorter in mind. It might have been smarter to place the desk elsewhere, but from the size of the room, there wasn’t really any other option. A rueful sigh followed, and the commander stepped out from behind the furniture, extricating himself from potential hazards in so doing.

Vesryn, meanwhile, had burst into laughter, his grin spread across his face, and he threatened to bend over, almost needing to support himself with hands on knees. "I'm sorry," he managed, slowly composing himself. "Really though, that was... how many times have you done that to yourself?"

“Far too many to count.” The reply was immediate, dry, and slightly self-effacing. The commander rubbed at a spot near one of his temples, his own smile considerably milder, but still present. “Laugh now, but the moment someone needs something from the top shelf, I’m a bloody hero.” He dropped his hand, appeared to reconsider that slightly, and then shrugged. “Well, to shorter people than you, at least.”

He pushed back an errant piece of hair dislodged by his collision, resetting the damage without being fazed much by it, apparently. “Anyway, welcome. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suppose that you must be Vesryn. I’d tell you to make yourself comfortable, but alas, I really don’t think anything in here will be of any assistance with that.” The commander put forward a hand, currently gloved in some kind of thin leather, by the look of it, though whether that was for warmth or something else wasn’t clear.

“It’s good to meet you. I’m Leonhardt Albrecht, but Leon’s quite sufficient, if you don’t mind.”

Vesryn clapped his own leather and plate gloved hand with Leon's, his grin never fading, his eyes now wandering up to the commander's hair. "That really is magnificent, well done. A striking shade, as well, if I'm any judge. Truly, this must be the most dashing Inquisition in history." Of course, it had only recently become even more so.

Leon appeared to give that some thought, and an eyebrow arched upwards. “And I’m sure Lady Marceline is already planning to take advantage of that somehow,” he mused, releasing Vesryn’s and chuckling good-naturedly. “You ought to be careful, though, or you’ll find yourself being asked to give our Heralds outfitting advice.” He gestured vaguely to his shoulder, probably to indicate the lion pelt that rested over the elf’s own.

“I, however, am engaged in the rather more mundane task of trying to keep them alive, and I daresay I’d rather have your skills on that end of things. I hear tell that you’re quite something, on a battlefield.” He didn’t indicate who he’d heard from, but the options were fairly limited; most likely, it had been someone in the group that had initially met him in the Mire. The words seemed to be just as much an invitation for elaboration as they were a statement, however.

"My reputation precedes me," Vesryn replied, bowing slightly. He'd always wanted to say that. Straightening, he finally appeared to become at least a little more serious. "I'd have done more of the fighting in the swamp, but sadly your Herald insisting on doing the most dangerous job herself. She handled herself well enough, though." It was hardly all that he thought about that particular encounter, but those thoughts were for Estella, when he could find a moment with her. She was proving to be quite popular.

"I spent some years with a mercenary company in Orlais, a small outfit called the Stormbreakers. Fun bunch, even if they didn't have the prestige of a certain group of Lions. Beyond that... roughly a decade of constant training and experience on the road." He wasn't trying to hide the fact that he wasn't divulging everything, for Vesryn had learned by now that he wasn't a very good liar. It wasn't that he didn't want to let them in on his little secret. He just knew that there would be unavoidable dangers if certain types learned of his condition. The Inquisition was, to some degree, a Chantry based organization, and there was a chance some among them would simply see him as being possessed, without bothering to fully understand. Not that Vesryn could make them.

Saraya, meanwhile, regarded Leon with what Vesryn could recognize as an alert wariness, sizing him up for any potential threat, while affording him a high level of respect for his obvious physical prowess.

Leon seemed to accept this all with a great deal of sanguinity, however, and nodded with an air of contemplativeness. “Much of what we do is… surprisingly ordinary, in truth,” he confessed, folding his hands behind him. “At this point, the regulars are mostly responsible for holding regions we’ve already pressed into, and of course many more will be mobilized as their training periods end and if we should need a more traditional army at some point.” He didn’t seem to be a person of much excess movement, and where others might have fidgeted just from habit, he was quite still.

“Where the work really is at this point is on two fronts: the organizational one, which is mostly myself, Lady Marceline, and Rilien, our intelligence man, and then of course out on the frontiers, so to speak, with the Heralds themselves. Closing the rifts, establishing base camps in new areas, meeting with potential allies where it is necessary, that sort of thing. The occasional rescue mission, though with luck we won’t need many more of those.” He inclined his head in Vesryn’s direction. “There’s need for people everywhere, but I think it rather apparent what you’re most suited to. That said… you are a volunteer; it seems only appropriate to give you the majority say in what you do.”

There was a certain... anxiousness, was really the only way to describe it, when Vesryn had seen the Breach on his way in. Not from himself, either. It was Saraya, that made him feel it, and it was the same feeling that she'd given him when they first had heard about the events at the Conclave from a traveler. Having spent a decade and a half with her in the company of his mind, Vesryn had become attuned well enough to her reactions. This was not fear, for if they truly feared the Breach, they could simply go the other way. No, Saraya was made anxious by the Breach for some other reason, and Vesryn wanted to know what it was. She never objected to his investigation. He, admittedly, had felt some nerves upon seeing the thing, and how it seemed to exude the Fade, but there was no noticeable difference in his head.

"I will admit, I have some interest in elven and magical history. I know, I know, not a mage, not a Dalish, but the Inquisition seems poised to go quite far, if it gets some support, and this Breach is unlike anything we've seen. I'd love to accompany your advance teams, in the event they need a shield or just someone always in good spirits. It's a good cause too, what the Inquisition is doing. Makes my decision easy."

Leon smiled at that, a quick flash of teeth, then nodded. “No one here is really typical or what one might first suppose,” he pointed out simply, then shrugged. “Though most of them could benefit from a shield and even more from good spirits, I expect. Thanks for coming by—I’ll make sure to start sending you out with the Heralds.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

Earnings

0.00 INK

It felt better than it perhaps should have to be out of the damn office for a while.

Leon was grateful, actually, that his duties included supervising the training of the troops as often as possible. The Lions' lieutenants, and, if he were being honest, even their non-officer members, were exceptionally well-trained even for professionals, and so they could do a lot of the teaching and drilling in his absence, but he refused to shut himself away in a building all day out of the reach of most of his people and pretend like being here, where they could see him, wasn’t important. He much preferred dealing with soldiers to dealing with either diplomats or spies anyway, and that was in part exactly why he had the role within the organization that he did.

Currently, he was only observing drills; he suspected he might be coaxed into some kind of informal spar later, but for the moment, it was more important that he get a better sense of how they were doing. Down in the ranks, Hissrad and Donnelly were shouting drill commands, which the men and women under their supervision followed with varying degrees of competence and accuracy. They were already looking better than they had a month ago, and he told Cor, standing to his left, as much. To his right, Reed nodded an agreement.

“Well… they’ve been working hard,” the young elf replied, shifting his weight slightly from one leg to the other. Another thing that seemed to hold fairly universally of the Lions was that they were quick to give others as much of the credit as they could for anything, be that shifting praise between themselves or putting it at the feet of their trainees. It was an admirable sort of humility, but almost disconcerting to find so universally over what was otherwise a very diverse group of people. He wondered if they’d all picked it up from their own commander or if he’d simply selected them in the first place because they had it. Still, sans Estella, there was a quiet confidence to each of them, a sense that they knew that they were skilled and valuable, but refused to make any noise about it.

It made them incredibly easy to work with.

“They have,” Leon agreed with a smile. It was hard not to, perhaps, when the Breach was still there in the sky and no one else in the world seemed to have half an idea what to do about it. “But they’ve been instructed well, also, else their hard work would not have achieved so much.” Cor pursed his lips, but nodded with what appeared to be some reluctance.

“We’re working hard, too,” he admitted, glancing over and up at Leon. “She’s one of ours, after all; we can’t not help her. Plus, Lia’s with you guys now, and after that whole thing with the scouts...” He grimaced. It was obvious that Cor held a great deal of affection for both of his friends, and the sentiment was more than likely shared by the other two as well.

Leon hummed thoughtfully. “I know our supplies yet leave much to be desired, but is there anything in particular you think you need?”

Cor exhaled through his nose. “Help?” Thinning his mouth, he explained further. “Our squads can help a little, when they see a line-mate doing something wrong, but we don’t want to disrupt your command structure too much by having troops ordering each other around. And if you take our twenty out of the equation, there’s only three of us, some spare people with previous mercenary or military experience, and… well, that’s it. It’s fewer than ten people running drills for what’s eventually going to be an army.”

And that was indeed where the personnel problem was hitting them the hardest: mid-level officers. Leon himself was doing most of what he’d usually have captains and up do, but the burdens of lieutenants fell on the scarce volunteers they had with command experience, and it was bound to wear them as it wore him. Thinking of that brought to the forefront again the massive migraine he could feel building in the back of his head, and he sighed. “You’re right. Start picking out troops with a knack for the drills. I at least need to promote you some sergeants.” He couldn’t ask them to keep doing all this work for the pittance he was currently able to pay them.

Nearby, Leon could hear the telltale clacking of two wooden practice swords bouncing off of each other. Not too far away, but away from the main body of troops, a man was practicing with a boy. The man, Ser Michaël, a Chevalier and Lady Marceline's husband, was sparring with their son, Pierre. Michaël bore his full plate backed by a purple and black cloak that seemed to be the Benoît house colors. He easily held off his son with a single practice sword in one hand, while the boy struggled with two hands.

Michaël had been giving his son encouragement and guidance, but had quieted when Cor spoke. Though his attentions seemed to be held on the conversation they were having, the spar with Pierre continued, though he was still able to effortlessly hold the boy off. At least, until Leon finished his last sentence. A surprised yelp cut the air then, and Pierre's sword was in the snow, with Michaël's own pressed gently against the boy's shoulder. The man gave his son an apologetic look, before he laughed.

"I will make a Chevalier out of you yet. Come," he said, tusseling the boy's hair and shouldering his sword. His hand fell to the boy's shoulder and they finally made their way to Leon.

"Commander Leonhardt?" He asked, "If I may suggest something?"

Leon turned his attention to Michaël in full at that point, rather than half-observing the training as he had been before, and lifted a brow. “Of course, Ser Michaël. You have a recommendation?” While technically speaking, the chevalier was outside the Inquisition’s command structure, Leon had never seen the harm in a second opinion, especially one from someone well-trained in martial matters, as was all of present company, excluding, of course, the lad.

Michaël smiled and nodded before he began "Perhaps I may be able to allievate your problem somewhat. I am a Lieutenant for the Chevaliers, with knowledge of their tactics and training methods. Methods I sometime see the Lions utilize in their own regiments," he said with a warm smile for Cor. Michaël then placed a hand on his hip, and noticably puffed his chest out, though a playfulness remained in his green eyes. "I would offer my services, if you have need of them, Commander."

The boy next to him simply shook his head, and looked to Leon with a wry smile. "Please. Let him help. When father gets bored, he uses me as an excuse to train," Pierre explained. Michaël said nothing in turn, but his chest sagged in response to the comment. The sword on his shoulder then shifted however, and reached across to tap the boy lightly on top of the head, a smile on his lips the whole time.

Leon’s violet eyes picked up a glimmer of amusement at Pierre’s words, and he spoke partly to both of them. “It would seem I have little choice, in that case.” His gaze shifted up to Michaël. “In truth, I would be grateful for the assistance. As, I am sure, would the Lions.”

Cor’s smile was much more obvious evidence of the fact that he was entertained than anything on Leon’s face, and he crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t know about that. To hear the commander tell it, Ser Michaël, your methods haven’t improved much since your days of tripping in formation when there were pretty girls around.” It was clearly an inside joke of some sort, a reference that Leon didn’t have, but from the sounds of things, the Lions would work quite well with Lord Benoît’s help, which, while it would not alleviate the growing pains the Inquisition experienced, would at least go partway there.

Cor's joke however, took the rest of the air out of Michaël's chest. Instead of puffing himself out, he hid his face with his hand, and rubbed his eyes. He said nothing at first, only muttering, "Lucien," under his breath. Pierre also laughed at the joke, but turned away from his father so that he could not see, no doubt lest he risk another tap to the head.

Michaël waved his hand in the air, and said, "I deny everything."

"You can try, love, but that does not mean it is not true," a voice cooed from behind them. It was Lady Marceline's, who came from the road leading back to Haven proper, with Larissa close beside her. Larissa carried a clipboard in hand, but was currently not writing anything. She was, however, laughing gently. "I apologize," Marceline told Cor as she pulled up beside her husband. "I believe I am cause of that," she added, leaning up against him.

Michaël for his part, said nothing and continued to look out over the horizon, as if trying to pretend nothing was happening.

“No fault of yours, Lady Marceline,” Cor replied easily, with a modest bow. It was clear enough that he and she had met on a previous occasion, probably through the Lions’ commander. “And it does seem to have worked out for the better, no?”

Leon’s attention was temporarily drawn away from the byplay by the approach of another, however, and he found himself straightening a little bit unconsciously. He wondered if she was here to…?

Khari, who’d been marching not unlike a chevalier herself, slowed slightly upon spotting the group, or perhaps the size of it. At one point, she almost stopped, but then seemed to think better of that and soldiered on until she was standing in front of the lot of them. There was a moment where she looked like she was thinking, and then she dipped herself at the waist. “Uh… hey commander… everyone.” She grinned, nodded to Cor and Reed, glanced back and forth between Marceline, Michaël, and Pierre, and then settled her eyes on Leon himself.

“I had a question: does anyone around here have like… glassware and retorts and alembics and stuff? Like for potions? Fancier than the local alchemist, I mean?” She raised a hand to scratch at the back of her head, pulling her red braid over her shoulder on the way back. She was without most of her usual gear at the moment, which made her take up a lot less space than usual, and she seemed conscious of the fact that discounting Pierre, she was by far the shortest person in present company.

Leon wasn’t sure what the purpose behind the question was, but he wasn’t exactly sure he wanted to ask. The smile on Khari’s face always looked like trouble to him, and while he was mostly sure she wouldn’t do anything damaging, there were perhaps things he’d be better off knowing about only in the event he needed to do something about them. “Rilien would have equipment like that, if I’m not mistaken,” he replied. The Tranquil was an alchemist of surpassing talent, among his many other virtues and useful skills.

A thought struck him, then, and he angled himself slightly differently. “Khari, I don’t believe you’ve met the other Benoîts. Lady Marceline you know, but Ser Michaël is a lieutenant with the chevaliers, and Pierre here is their son. Michaël, Pierre, this is Khari. She’s one of our irregulars.” That was what he’d settled on calling the volunteers and recruits who didn’t work inside the usual armed force structure.

At precisely the moment Leon had enunciated the word ‘chevalier,’ Khari had stood ramrod straight, her full attention clearly fixed on the introduction, and if possible, the haphazard grin on her face widened, until she may have been showing a few too many teeth. “Chevalier, huh?” To her credit, she acknowledged Pierre to a greater extent than most would note the presence of a child, but it was clear where the majority of her attention had diverted. “Bear mauls the wolves or tower in a storm? Because if you’re a tower person, we’re gonna have a problem, you and I.” The way she said it gave the lie to the last sentence; she was clearly extremely excited to be talking to a chevalier, apparently to the exclusion of taking to the rest of them.

"Bear mauls the wolves, of course. Shields just get in the way," Michaël said chuckling with a grin of his own. Then he stopped and glanced over to Cor and Leon, his face settling into an awkward look. "Er... Not literally of course. I understand the value of a good shield wall," he explained.

Pierre simply rolled his eyes and huffed, which earned him another tap to the top of the head with the practice sword.

Leon sighed softly, shaking his head and leaving the two of them to their tactical discussions, as it were. He diverted his attention to Marceline, who probably wasn’t out here in the cold to watch the troops practice. “Is there something I can help you with, milady?”

"Yes, Ser Leonhardt," Lady Marceline replied. If she seemed at all perturbed by the tactical discussion being carried on by her husband, she did not show it. In fact, by the way she carried herself, it seemed as if she dealt with it often enough. Glancing first at Khari, and then the rest of the troops, she turned back to Leon. "I would ask for access to detailed personel reports on the individuals serving the Inquisition," she said.

Larissa then went to her clipboard and began to write something, though Leon could not see what. "In return, Larissa and I will pen letters to some of our contacts in order to obtain more experienced soldiers to fill your needs," She said, glancing to the woman beside her, already hard at work.

There were far too many individuals to assemble more than basic dossiers based on the standard forms each volunteer had dictated to Reed or Tanith upon his or her entrance into the Inquisition, with things like next-of-kin information and the like, but he supposed more than that might be in order for the officers and irregulars, at least, so with some reluctance, he inclined his head. It would probably mean even more hours in the office, but the idea had relevance, and they really could use any more people those letters might gain them.

“Very well. I will see what I can assemble in the next few days to that effect. Cor, if you would be so kind as to poll the others and get names for likely sergeants, I’ll try to run a round of minor promotions within a fortnight.” The pressure at the back of his head felt like it was ratcheting up to become a full-blown tension headache, but he ignored it for now. Rilien would have something for that, or else he’d just work through it. He had before.

There just usually wasn’t quite so much at stake.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth

Earnings

0.00 INK

Considering it was the third day after they’d returned from Haven and she’d been cleared to run on her leg as of yesterday, Estella didn’t think Asala would be too upset at what she had planned for her afternoon today. Rather than armor, she’d bundled herself in the warmest clothes she had, including a new cloak she’d borrowed from Cyrus, one with a nice furry lining in it that was blissfully toasty on the inside. It was still… uncomfortable, talking to him, but for the most part, they were both sort of acting like their argument hadn’t really happened, which meant that at least on the surface of things, they were amiable enough. She could still feel a little twinge of heartache whenever they made eye contact, though, and she’d decided she really needed to do something to take her mind off that.

Perhaps it was silly to pick something that would inevitably remind her of their shared childhood, but she didn’t actually think so. Those memories, the ones with just the two of them, were some of the best she had, bright spots in what had otherwise been… grim, for her. So she’d made her way down to the bank of the lake, a small satchel of supplies in tow, and currently sat on the snowy bank, waxing the bottoms of her boots with a sort of polish-oil she’d borrowed from Rilien’s supplies. She’d left a note, so she knew he wouldn’t mind. Well… probably he wouldn’t mind anyway, but it had been the considerate thing to do.

Pulling the boots, with their bladed attachments, back onto her feet, she laced them up tightly, and used an arm to pull herself up, bracing against the dock. She supposed she could see this as a form of training, really, for balance and control and such, but while maybe it would have those benefits, she was willing to admit to herself that she was going to be doing this for fun, and the other benefits were only incidental.

Getting down to the lake wasn’t too difficult—the snow was soft and powdery, so she was in little danger of slipping. Once she stepped onto the frozen surface of the pond, however, things were different, and she immediately leaned heavily onto her arm when one of her feet slipped out from underneath her, letting a light laugh escape her. It was probably a good thing no one ever really came down here. They’d either think their Herald was crazy or a silly girl who didn’t really have the capability to handle the responsibility. Grimacing, she moved the thought away, compartmentalizing it like she did with lots of things, and struck out.

The pond wasn’t completely smooth like the one Cyrus had frozen in the back yard, but there was a pretty big section that was close enough, and Estella stuck to that, folding her arms behind her back and skating along it with alternating motions of her legs. The wax made it extremely easy to glide along the surface, and she smiled to herself as she remembered how to do it, turning a few times around the perimeter before she attempted skating backwards, and then a couple of pirouettes. The first time, she fell, landing hard on her rear, but this only prompted more laughter from her, and by the time she’d been at it for half an hour, she was starting to remember the tricks for balance. This seemed easier now than it had when she was a child, perhaps because of all the things she’d learned about balance and centers of gravity and the way a body moved since then.

The second pirouette even had a jump to it, and when she landed on the injured leg, it held steady. Estella grinned.

Eventually, a familiar hooded figure came to stand near the lake's shore, bundled up as he usually was when he was seen outdoors. His entrance was subtle at first, as he took a few moments to watch her, but soon enough he wasn't difficult to notice, standing with his arms crossed and cloak wrapped tightly around him.

Her good mood remained firmly enough in place as she skated her way back over to the edge of the lake, though some of her previous grace seemed to have disappeared, and she nearly tripped over a ripple in the ice, but on the whole she was pleased with herself for not faceplanting—a distinct possibility with her. Hopping onto the lakeshore, she took part of her cloak in each hand and closed it over herself, trying to preserve some of the warmth that motion had started generating.

“Good afternoon, Romulus.” She smiled, not especially surprised to see him here since it had happened once before. “How was the Coast?”

It appeared that even so simple a question made him hesitate for an answer. He'd taken a half step forward when she nearly fell, though he quickly corrected himself, as though trying to hide that he'd ever made the motion at all. Finally, he came up with a response. "Wet," he said simply, "though I've heard the marsh you visited was worse." He glanced down to her leg, and the skate beneath it. "Looks like you're healing up."

Estella pulled a face, grimacing slightly. “Oh, I’ll be fine. Asala’s been working on me for a couple of days, so the pain’s basically all gone. The marsh was very wet, though. And smelly. Which was probably because of the undead.” She stopped herself before her reply became a ramble, which tended to happen sometimes when she felt obligated to fill more of the conversational space than she was usually allotted or comfortable with. She assumed if he knew enough to know about her injury, he also knew they’d successfully retrieved the scouts, so there wasn’t any need to say that, which left her slightly bereft of anything else to add.

Even though most of his face was obscured by the hood, given that he was looking out at the lake rather than at her, his awkwardness was definitely apparent, given that his posture seemed affected by more than just the cold. "I also heard what happened with the Avvar chief. That was... impressive." It wasn't clear what exactly he was referring to, either the manner in which the deed was done, or the fact that she'd made the decision at all. He didn't choose to linger on it very long, however.

"I'm starting to feel like I don't have many uses here." The words were more certainly spoken, clearly indicating that they were what he'd come to talk to her about, not any of the poor attempts at small talk earlier.

Estella was genuinely surprised by that, and she let it show plainly on her face. “Really? What makes you say that?” She tipped her head to the side before appearing to think better of just uncomfortably standing there. Instead, she pulled herself up onto the dock next to her and scooted to one end of it, sitting with her back to one of the supports at the front and crossing her legs underneath her. She made a gesture, inviting him to do the same opposite her, her expression containing some amount of clear concern. “Because it seems to me that it couldn’t actually be so.”

He didn't react to her answer, but did take her up on the invitation to sit. His eyes were thoughtful, but troubled. "I didn't have many purposes before, in Tevinter. I killed for my domina. She has other slaves for other jobs. She would have me tend to... well, little other than killing. I removed her enemies, kept her position in the magisterium secure when other options failed. I've never been good at anything else." The thought didn't appear to please him in the slightest.

"Here, I'm supposedly valuable. On the Storm Coast, I was ordered not to fight, not to kill, because I'm too valuable to risk. I stood and watched while others did the work. I've always been good at following commands." He swallowed. Often he gave off the impression of a man with far more bottled inside of him that was healthy, but now more than ever that seemed to be the case. He was clearly trying his hardest to ensure this was a contained release, and not an explosion.

"Mother Annika said I could be Andraste's wrath, but now I can't even do that. I'm a slave, a shame for the Inquisition, an embarrassment to be put into the light. Now I have to be tied up in the dark as well."

Estella thought that one over. She wasn’t sure of any of the details of what happened on the Storm Coast, mostly because she didn’t really know anyone who had gone well enough to ask, and hadn’t yet heard the official line on what had occurred, if there was to be one. But it sounded like a situation had come up where someone prevented Romulus from fighting. She tried to decide how she’d feel about that, though she wasn’t sure if they were anywhere near alike enough for the comparison to be any good. He’d said he felt like fighting was his only real skill. Estella wasn’t sure she was good enough at anything for it to qualify as a skill, but she knew how to do some things, at least.

She wouldn’t have liked it much if someone had tried to stop her from fighting the leader of those Avvar, though. Not even Cyrus had done that, exactly. “You’re not an embarrassment,” she said firmly, sure of at least that much. “It’s true that not everyone could or would understand, if they knew, but that doesn’t… that doesn’t change anything about you. That’s other peoples’ problem.” She vaguely waved a hand. Estella understood why they couldn’t widely publicize Romulus’s origins, but that didn’t mean she liked it, and it certainly didn’t mean there was any fault or shame due on his part.

The rest of it, though… she wasn’t sure what to say about that. “As for the fighting part… I don’t know, really. All I can say is that there’s plenty of that still to come, I’m sure, and no matter how much they want to protect us, they won’t be able to forever. We’ll have to risk ourselves, at some point. We’ll have to fight.” That part, she was saying to herself just as much as she was saying it to him, and she suspected he could guess that, from the way it was inflected.

"The necessity of it doesn't change much, as I see it," Romulus said. He rubbed his head briefly, sniffing. The constant chill of the air was obviously still not settling well with him. "But I think the Inquisition doesn't need me. Not like it needs you. I'm just here for this," he briefly raised his marked hand, "until that is closed." He pointed up at the Breach, still swirling above the mountains as always. "Once it's done, I expect I'll go back to Minrathous, and we'll pretend this never happened."

He'd apparently decided against talking it over further, as he stood a bit abruptly. "I'm sorry for interrupting you." With that, he turned to leave, though his step was hitched when he spotted the cloaked, armored elven man at the shore-end of the dock, just now approaching with his lion's cloak draped over his shoulders. He smiled almost jovially in greeting.

"There he is! I was wondering when we'd finally meet." Vesryn held out a hand for a shake, which apparently forced Romulus to stop, though it looked like every fiber of his being wanted to keep walking. He briefly shook the elf's hand. "Vesryn Cormyth. A pleasure." Romulus released his hand and bowed stiffly.

"If you'll excuse me." His eyes remained averted as he headed away from the lake, back towards Haven. Vesryn watched him go, perplexed, before he shrugged, and walked out towards Estella.

"Bad day, or... is he always like that?"

Estella grimaced. She wasn’t sure they should have just left things at that, but then… she also wasn’t sure there was anything else she could have said or done to help, which was troubling, but not that unusual for her. She didn't think she had enough of a grip on what he was dealing with to be of any assistance in alleviating it. Her previous good cheer had sort of evaporated by this point, and she sighed softly, tipping her head so as to look up at Vesryn. “Well… to be honest, I’m not entirely sure. It’s not usually quite so uncomfortable, though.” It was definitely at least partly the bad day problem, though.

“Something I can do for you, Vesryn, or are you just out for a walk?”

"I'd love to skate with you," he said, gesturing towards her feet. "Don't know how, but I've never been afraid of embarrassing myself in front of beautiful women." He sighed. "Sadly, I find myself a bit flat footed. I actually came out to train, on the ice. So I don't embarrass myself in front of our enemies, if there's ever cause for a fight here."

Estella coughed awkwardly, glancing out at the lake in what was likely a poor attempt to hide the reddening of her face. He said such ridiculously flattering things so easily, it left her feeling a bit off-kilter herself. This week was apparently going to put her through all the different flavors of uncomfortable. The training part, though, she could talk about that easily enough. “Well, if you’re trying to train, you probably don’t want to change anything much in the first place, since this is what you’d be equipped with if you had to actually do any fighting, right?”

She pursed her lips. “There’s a flat spot out near the middle; it doesn’t have much friction. It’d probably do just fine, for your purposes.” Putting her feet over the edge of the dock, she used her arms to lower herself carefully onto the surface of the lake. “But if you really wanted that feeling of not being able to grip much, you could always just wax the bottom of your boots. It comes off, afterwards.” She pointed at where she’d left the satchel, not too far off in the snow.

Unlike Romulus, Vesryn didn't seem at all bothered by the cold. It was probably unsurprising, given that he'd only been slightly dampened by the torrential rain and undead-filled nastiness of the Fallow Mire. He dropped lightly off the side of the dock, boots clattering against the surface of the ice, and not for a moment did his balance seem to be in doubt. "Maybe I'll do that," he mused, coming around the edge of the dock until he was next to Estella. If he'd noticed her embarrassment, it didn't seem to change much about his demeanor.

"Now that I've caught you, though, I wanted to say a few things. Specifically, that the way you handled yourself in the Mire was, to put it simply, heroic. You're a great deal braver than I gave you credit for at first glance."

“I think you mispronounced ‘stupid’,” she said lightly, though inwardly she felt her guts turn over. That was… quite the compliment, and it left her feeling unsettled, and really wishing he hadn’t said it. Because it wasn’t, really—it wasn’t heroic or brave, not by the understanding she had of those things. It had been necessary, she’d believed at the time, and so she’d done it, because if nothing else she could usually manage to do those things, but bravery would have required something she didn’t have, something that didn’t have anything to do with skill or talent. Estella knew she wasn’t a coward, either, but not being a coward was a very different thing from being brave.

“But, um… thank you.” It was a nice thing to say, and maybe it would have even been nice to hear, were things a little different. “For saying so, and for helping get me there in one piece. Wouldn’t have made much difference if I’d drowned, now would it?” She smiled, still letting herself assume the tone of jest, but the expression didn’t quite get all the way to her eyes.

"Think of it how you will," Vesryn said, taking a step forward and turning his back to the lake, so he could face the dock, and Estella, "but it fit my definition. You didn't know if you could win, maybe even thought you wouldn't, but you tried anyway. We could've worked together, killed every last one of those Avvar, certainly. But clearly, you're a person who cares about individual lives. That's the right kind of person to be stuck with something like that mark on your hand, if you ask me."

He smiled easily, his mannerisms so comfortable it was like he'd had this conversation a hundred times already. Clapping his hands together once, he began to step backwards, out onto the frozen lake. "I apologize, I've bothered you enough. I hope you enjoy your day, Estella, and I look forward to many future adventures." The gleam in his eye seemed to imply he didn't think he was bothering her, exactly. He slipped his bardiche axe from its sheath, setting the point of it lightly into the ice.

It wasn’t a bother, so much, but since he seemed to know that, she didn’t correct him, instead shaking her head. She’d let him have the lake. Probably using it for training was better than just wasting time on it, so she made her way back over to the bank and detached the blades she’d strapped to her boots. She should probably return Rilien’s supplies to him, now.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

Earnings

0.00 INK

Mornings in Haven were ass-numbingly cold.

As it happened, this fact had both advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages was that not too many people were up at the crack of dawn, which made it an ideal time for training, if she happened to want to use any of the equipment usually taken up by people running drills or whatever. The cold was also something Khari considered to be a training obstacle all its own—if she could get used to moving around and really working herself out in this, she’d probably be able to withstand just about anything, and that thought appealed to her a great deal.

Khari, like most of the members of the Inquisition that weren’t holed up in the Chantry or one of the sparse available houses, slept in a tent, and so when she stepped out of it, still pulling on her boots, dawn hit her full in the face, temporarily blinding her and almost making her stagger back a step. She might believe in the efficacy of morning training, but that didn’t mean she was at her best first thing. Grumbling under her breath, she finally got the damn boot on and stepped down into it, working her foot from side to side to settle it. She figured it’d be good to run first, for a warmup, before she got into anything too strenuous. There were some good hills here that would make for tough intervals, too, and she was pretty sure she had seen some trees that would work well for pull-ups…

It was at that point that she spotted someone else jogging by her tent, though jogging was perhaps too mild a word. It was definitely a run, and the runner was definitely quick. The swish of a very dark ponytail, as well as the person’s general height and build, tipped her off to the fact that it was actually Estella, the second Herald, or whatever they were called. “Hey Stel!” She loped up to the other woman, flagging her down with a hand. “Warmup run? I was just about to take one myself.” Training with someone else had always been a far better motivator to Khari than training alone, even when it was something as simple as running in the morning, and she wondered if the other woman would mind.

Estella paused to let Khari catch up, half-smiling a bit, but then shook her head. “Cooldown, actually. But you’re welcome to run with me anyway, if you’d like.” From their closer proximity, it was easy to see that it was, in fact, a cooldown run; Estella’s brow was beaded with sweat, and several pieces of her hair were loose, indicating that whatever training she’d been doing before was quite vigorous. She was outfitted for it, in full gear except armor, which really just meant one of the maroon-and-silver tunics all the Lions wore, and dark grey breeches tucked into her boots.

That… was pretty impressive, Khari had to admit. She’d already been up long enough for an entire training set, and the sun was only just rising. Did she train in the dark or something? Khari contemplated that. Maybe she should start training in the dark, too. Might make her eyes better for it if she had to venture into a cave or something…

Shaking her head, she grinned the couple inches up at Estella. Fortunately, the other woman was built even more slender than Khari herself, so there was no twinge of discomfort in the difference. “You read my mind; let’s go.” The two of them started back down Estella’s initial path, and it didn’t take them too long to find a pace that was comfortable for both of them. Stel ran like a halla, Khari thought—with one of those graceful, long strides that made her feel a bit like a nug in comparison. But there wasn’t anything wrong with that; she was more than capable of keeping up, and found herself settling into the pleasing feeling of having her muscles warm up, chasing the cold away.

Their breath puffed out into the air in front of them as they rounded a corner, Khari taking the outside, and she used the opportunity to strike up a conversation. “Do you do intervals, or not on cooldown?” Not everyone was fond of pushing themselves up really tall hills at maximum speed, strangely enough. It was great for lung capacity though, Khari firmly believed.

Estella’s lips pursed. “Sort of, but it’s less intervals than obstacles. I’ve set some up on my usual route; I’ll point them out as we get to them.” There was a pause that lasted a couple more strides, and then: “But, uh… they’re nothing too fancy or challenging, probably, so please don’t laugh.”

Khari shrugged, keeping her stride steady. “That’s no problem—anything can be made into more of a challenge if you think about it the right way.” She’d used to do something similar, once, with logs and stones and the like, back before she’d left the clan. She actually had a makeshift training ring, far away from the summer encampment, where she’d set up a lot of that stuff, but alone and young, she hadn’t been able to do much, nothing that could even approximate what the Inquisition had now. Her training dummy was a dead trunk on one of the sides of the clearing.

“I’m used to simple setups.”

Estella nodded, seeming somewhat reassured by this, and as they rounded the next curve, they came upon what had to be the first obstacle: it was a log, set long ways along the side of the path. The thing was fairly thin, and had twiggy branches sticking out at the occasional odd angle, meaning that it was by no means a smooth journey across. Estella hopped up onto it first, clearly making effort to break her stride as little as possible, and ran her way over it, occasionally swaying to the left or right as she was forced to account for one of the protrusions in the log. She jumped off the other end and turned around to jog backwards for a while, likely mostly to observe Khari’s own progress across the obstacle.

It was trickier than it looked, but then, Khari had spent the first part of her life in a very dense forest, so she didn’t have much trouble navigating it, and the two picked up speed by unspoken decision as they approached the next setup, which consisted of a few old boards arranged as hurdles, again set off the main road. Here was a place where Khari’s lack of height didn’t serve her too well, but her momentum more than made up for it, and the two crossed in rough synchronicity, before their path took them up a hill.

“So you’re a Lion, huh?” Khari had attempted not to launch into this line of questioning immediately after meeting Estella, but there was only so long she could contain her curiosity, and this honestly seemed like an excellent time to ask. “They made me fight Cor, when I signed up. He’s a tough bastard. I wanted to try my luck with Hissrad, but apparently one fight was enough, or something.” She pulled a face that matched her incredulous tone, though it shouldn’t have been too hard for Estella to tell that she was joking. Mostly.

Estella laughed, slightly breathlessly due to the pace at which they were running. “Yeah, they told me about that. Cor was very impressed, actually. I think Hissrad wants to fight you, too, but they’re all pretty busy training the troops at the moment.” She frowned a moment, then seemed to shake it off and smiled instead. “He said you hit like a warhorse at full gallop, which I’m guessing you’d realize is a compliment.” There was a glint of humor in her indigo-colored eyes, one that suited her face quite well.

She did, indeed, take it to be a compliment, and her answering grin was ragged and a touch wild. “They’re good people.” There was a pause, and then she decided to go ahead and ask. “What’s the commander like? Everyone’s heard of him, of course, but I can’t even imagine what people that… important are like on a daily basis, you know?” It wasn’t like she regularly met nobles or anything, and even the few she did know certainly weren’t princes of whole countries, and chevaliers to boot. Khari might be willing to admit that Lucien Drakon had attained near-mythical status in her mind, and here was someone who actually knew him well.

Estella’s smile softened. It was a while before she answered, though, as if she were trying to figure out exactly what she wanted to say. “I don’t know him quite as well as some of the others do, but…” she paused again as they crossed a frozen stream, careful of their footing on the ice, then resumed when they were back to crunching over the snow with their boots. “He actually… I forget, sometimes, who he really is. He has a way of doing that, of making you forget that you’re supposed to be formal around him, probably because he’s so casual with all of us, you know? He prefers his name to the title commander, even, and he doesn’t let any of us call him milord.”

It didn’t seem to be all she could say on the subject, but she lapsed into silence after that, as though it were nevertheless enough.

Khari absorbed the tidbit carefully. All of her contact with Orlesian social structure had been through the bottom, trying to burst up through the floor, so to speak, down in the dirt where she was with every other elf, though she rarely enjoyed thinking about herself as such. It was surprising, actually, when she’d first even heard of the company. After all, while some mercenary groups employed elves on occasion, those groups weren’t usually the really prestigious ones, certainly not the ones that occasionally rubbed elbows with courtiers and the like.

Not that Khari wanted to spend a lot of time with politicians, exactly, but the point was that it was possible for the Lions, something that no one with ears like hers would ever have been able to consider before. It made her feel like other things were possible, and that, more than anything else, was why she admired them so damn much. She didn’t want to be a Lion—she had her own ambitions. But she was damn grateful they existed.

“That’s good. That’s really good, actually.” It was hardly a scintillating judgement of the situation, nor was it a novel one, even, but she felt compelled to say it anyway, and she didn’t often bother to censor her thoughts. That did no one any good, and it only tended to piss her off if she felt like she had to.

“My mentor was kind of like that, too. Well, I did call him ‘milord’ sometimes, but part of learning to be a chevalier was learning the social norms of stuff like that, so I kind of had to, you know?”

“You’re learning to be a chevalier?” Estella sounded surprised, which was perhaps understandable, considering that the only two people who knew or might have inferred that thus far weren’t exactly the gossiping type. “That’s…” Her tone indicated that she wasn’t precisely certain what to say about that. There was a little bit of hesitance in her voice, but in the end she shook her head. “That will be quite a challenge, I expect.”

Khari laughed, unreservedly so. “You can say it, you know. I won’t be offended. It’s a ridiculous thing for someone like me to try and do.” It seemed to her like Stel was trying to be polite about it, which was kind, but Khari’d been subjected to far worse ridicule for it in the past than anything she thought this woman would ever throw at her. After all, Estella was at her core a good person, she figured.

Stel shook her head again, more emphatically this time. “It’s not ridiculous,” she countered. “I don’t doubt for a second that it will be extremely difficult, and honestly I’m not sure it’s possible, but then… people said the same thing about women, once, and in the end, all it took was one woman trying hard enough and being good enough to make them change their minds, eventually. Who’s to say one elf can’t do it, too? And who’s to say it couldn’t be you? Stranger things have happened.”

Oddly enough, she’d never thought to compare herself to Ser Aveline before, which was kind of funny in a way because the stories said that Ser Aveline had been trained by the Dalish, of all people. Khari was inclined to call bullshit on that part of the story, because the Dalish didn’t train people in anything that would do much good towards winning a tourney, especially not a melee, and she would know. Then again… living in a forest for sixteen years had taught her a thing or two about keeping her feet, which never seemed to stop being useful. Until she was face-down in a mud pit wrestling with a dog, anyhow.

“Huh. You know, I guess that’s one way to think about it. Another way would be like this: with all this insanity going on and demons falling from the sky, elf chevaliers don’t really seem like such a big deal, do they? I mean, I’m running next to a girl who can seal up a hole in the world with her hand, so I’m pretty normal by comparison.” She moved slightly sideways to knock Estella lightly with an elbow, an indication that she was only kidding, at least on some level.

Not that part where everything was crazy, though. That was completely true.

“Stranger things,” Estella repeated, knocking back. They finished the rest of the run in relative quiet, but as they rounded the bend back into Haven, she spoke up again. “Uh… no pressure or anything, but… I usually train starting a couple hours before sunup. I could come get you, if you wanted to do that with me?” She sounded unsure, perhaps more because at that hour, she was almost certainly one of those people who trained in complete solitude than because of the fact that making the offer itself was uncomfortable.

Khari contemplated that for all of about half a second. “Deal.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit

Earnings

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Lady Marceline had her hands full, with a bottle of wine in one, and a docket of files in the other. Not only her hands, either. Larissa dutifully kept step behind her, clipboard and another set of files in hers. She had stepped out of the larger office she had initially requisitioned from Ser Leonhardt, who'd relocated into a smaller office of the Chantry. It was required, however, she had to have the space to host visiting dignitaries... Of which there had only been a few. Most had deigned to only speak through letter, or not speak to them at all.

They would come around, however. The letters were being penned, favors were being called, and the appointments were set. The Game was being played, and Marceline did not lose. The Inquisition would have their support in due time, but first, they had to prove they were worthy. It was partly for this reason that Marceline and her assistant left the Chantry, and headed toward the tent of their Spymaster.

She knew Ser Rilien, of course, before he was the Inquisition's Spymaster. Her duties, however, had kept her away from speaking with the man, and even now, it was her duties that took her to see him. From the mouth of the Chantry, she could see his tent with the flaps open and inviting. He was not alone, though, Estella sat nearby, and a tea set spread out in front of them. She glanced back to Larissa, who wore a smile which soon spread to her own lips. "Come," she beckoned the woman and headed toward the tent.

She stood at the entrance and bowed to both Rilien and Estella, and greeted them in turn. "Ser Rilien," she said to the man, "Lady Estella," the woman. Larissa as well bowed to both, but her gaze lingered on Rilien.

"I apologize if I am intruding at all," she said, gesturing to the tea set with the hand that held the bottle of wine, "But there are things I wish to speak to you about," Marceline added for Rilien, motioning to the docket she held.

Estella looked uncomfortable for a fraction of a second, but then she glanced between Marcy, Larissa, and Rilien, frowned slightly, and then shook her head. “Um… if it’s things you don’t mind me hearing about, you could always join us for tea?” It came out more as a question than a statement, and it was obvious why when she turned her glance back to the Tranquil, clearly seeking his confirmation. “But, if it’s too important, I can leave.”

Rilien shook his head. “It is Inquisition business. You are a Herald. In principle, there is nothing that need be kept from you. In practice, we do so only because the details are many and tedious.” He moved his attention to the other two. “You may enter.” The Tranquil paused a moment to pour two extra cups of tea, the seating already being adequate to another pair of guests, before reaching for the docket.

“What was it you wished to discuss, Lady Marceline?” His voice, as ever, indicated no interest, but also no particular lack of it, odd as that was.

Marceline smiled and nodded her agreement. There were so many things that required their attention, that if a Herald were required for each of them, they would need many more than two. Marceline and Larissa entered the tent together, but Marceline was the first to hand him her docket. "The names and information on the nobility, both in Orlais and Ferelden, that support the Inquisition." She frowned however and sighed. "There are not many, I am afraid. Though word of the Inquisition's deeds spreads, we are still largely an unknown entity. An issue I am attempting to solve," she said before turning it over to Larissa.

The woman stepped forward and passed her own set of files off. "These are the names of the nobility that may require watching, now or in the future. Likewise, the names are few, many continue to watch us from a neutral standpoint to see how our actions play out." Larissa took a step back, but still spoke. "We believed as our Spymaster, you would have use of these files, no matter how sparse," she added. Marceline caught a little gleam of amusement in her eyes when she called the man their Spymaster, though she said nothing on the matter.

"And this," she said, holding up the bottle of wine. "Is a gift from my own personal store," she explained gently laying it down on the table. The label held the emblem of a shield surrounded by vines of grapes, the Lécuyer Vineyards crest, her crest. "The market value of which is measured in sovereigns," she said, with a coy smile. It was true, of course, and not just arrogant boasting on her part. The Lécuyer Vineyards were very well respected for their wines, and provided for many of Orlais's salons.

"It has been quite some time since we have last seen each other, has it not Rilien?" she said, slipping out of her usual business demeanor and into something more fitting when speaking to an old acquantance. Even Larissa eased into a more comfortable disposition.

Marceline then took a seat, taking Estella's offer of tea, while Larissa hovered close to the table. "Thank you Lady Estella," she said to the woman before looking back to Rilien. "I apologize that we have not been by, we have been busy, as I am sure you understand," she said, glancing to Larissa, who nodded in agreement. Rilien no doubt had just as much work as she.

“You need not have troubled yourselves.” Before sitting down, Rilien lifted the wine off the table, checked the label, and then nodded almost imperceptibly, putting it away on one of the small, low shelves contained within the tent. “I have been quite occupied myself, and at present, I am catching my apprentice up on some of the lessons she has missed.” It was an obvious reference to Estella’s presence, though he had not mentioned her to be such before.

He took a seat in the remaining empty chair, thumbing through the dockets with a disinterested gaze that was nevertheless keen, sharp. Marceline had known him long enough to understand that he was a perceptive man, and that he missed very little, if anything. It was hardly a wonder that he walked in a prince’s shadow most of the time, and even now, he seemed to have little effort splitting his attention in several directions, however much the others might struggle with it.

“Estella, if you would begin in the minor chord again, please.”

Setting her tea down, Estella picked up the lute that had been leaning against her chair and pulled it back into her lap. Her eyes flickered a trifle uncertainly between the two guests, before she smiled thinly. “Apologies in advance if I assail your ears,” she murmured, but she dutifully arranged her fingers on the instrument, their placements quite precise, likely much to do with the fastidious nature of the person who’d taught her how to do so.

The first note was sweet and clear, and dropped into a trilling cascade of them, immediately recognizable to Marceline as one of the more popular accompaniments to a gaillarde, one of the most athletic but also precise forms of dance found in the Empire. The choice certainly seemed to suit the instructor’s sensibilities, such as they were.

Marceline laughed softly to herself. She hadn't shown surprise when Rilien had said that Estella was his apprentice. In fact, it explained why some of the small things that she did reminded her of him. When she began to play, Marceline closed her eyes and listened intently to the melody, enjoying it. Soon, however, a hum accompanied Estella's playing. Marceline cracked an eyelid and glanced over to her assistant, who gently rocked with the rise and fall of the tune. The hum added to the arrangement beautifully, and Marceline couldn't help but smile at the dulcet duet.

Rilien worked through the files quite briskly, and by the time he looked up about five minutes later, all of them were stacked neatly beside him. “I take it we’ve still not heard anything from the templars.” It wasn’t really a question the way he’d put it, and demanded no answer. “It seems our next logical move is to meet with the mages in Redcliffe, though my agents have reported little out of there.” He paused for a moment. “I know of at least two people there who may prove of aid to our cause, however, and they may be able to inform us of what has occurred since the Grand Enchanter’s proposition.”

Marceline shook her head in the negatory. "We have not unfortunately, and I have written to them on more than one occasion," she revealed. The Templars were frustratingly quiet, and apart from their demonstration in Val Royeaux she had heard nothing from them. "I have been in correspondence with the nobility, and they report the same, I am afraid." From the wording used in their letters, they were as frustrated as she was.

"I agree," she said, "the mages seem far more amiable to any negotiations, and we are able assert our position upon them easier than if we were to negotiate with the Templars." Her lips had formed a thin frown, and she was far more contemplative, the music of Estella and Larissa just a dull memory. However, it did help allieviate the stress. "However, I shall still continue to try and make contact with the Templars and speak to the other nobles on the matter. If at all possible, I would see an alliance with both, instead of just one or the other."

It would also be a catalyst to end the Mage-Templar war. If they could find the peace that Justinia was searching for before her death, it would honor her memory.

“The Templars may actually be more communicative if they believe we have already taken up with the mages.” Rilien sat back slightly, folding his hands together. “They speak the language of power, and such a substantial boost to ours may draw us closer to even with them in their own eyes, which might gain us a place at the negotiating table even with someone as unreasonable as the Lord Seeker.”

“Er…” That was Estella. The music had ended, and the girl looked a little leery of entering the conversation, but she did pipe up. “I mean, that seems very possible, but… aren’t we also risking just making them even angrier with us? The Templars are at war with the mages right now; won’t they see us as just… siding with the enemy?”

"Possibly," Marceline answered, "But it is a risk we must take." She crossed her arms and held the woman in her gaze, her face an even mask. "Before the Breach, the Divine wished to bring peace to both the Mages and the Templars. That was the reason of the Conclave, as you know," she gently reminded her. Estella was there after all, she had to know this. "But more than that, we may need all of their strength to close the Breach."

She sighed and steepled her hands, continuing to look at Estella. "Rilien is correct. They speak power, and if we can gain that power, they will open their doors to speak with us. Whether it is to denounce us or otherwise, the door remains open and that is something we can work with."

“And any opportunity is better than none, which is what we have if we do not act.” Rilien set the dockets aside for the moment and refocused his eyes on Estella. “Now, the ballad of the Ser Aveline, please. Do sing it this time.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

Earnings

0.00 INK

It was a beautiful, cold, clear day, and the champion in his shining armor was enjoying himself, as always.

Vesryn was a self-proclaimed champion, of course; no city that still existed would claim him as their protector. He preferred to see himself as a champion of the lost, the forgotten, the ruined places that no one but him could find. This, he had discovered, was one of the few things Saraya liked about him, and not even in a grudgingly admitted sort of way.

The clash of the dulled training weapons rang out through the crisp air, as the rank-and-file soldiers performed their drills and bettered themselves. Vesryn had been engaging anyone who wished to challenge him all morning, and what had started as a few private duels had turned into a bit of a sideshow, distracting a fair bit from the main body of drills and probably giving the Lions running things a headache. It was proving good for morale, though, as a fair number of soldiers were gathered around in a circle and enjoying themselves. They placed bets, not on the winner of the fights, but on how long any soldier would be able to keep his feet against Vesryn, or if they'd land a single hit or not.

For a man who spent much of his time alone in the isolated corners of the world, Vesryn had a knack for showmanship, and played wonderfully for the crowd, like he'd been trained in arena fighting or some such. This sort of thing had been a near daily ritual for the Stormbreakers, but back in that period of his life Saraya had been very interested in teaching Vesryn some hard lessons. How to survive on his own chief among them.

Now, he could tell she was immensely enjoying this, putting human after human into the snow using a seemingly unwieldy blunted axe. Vesryn's motions were graceful, without hesitation or doubt, but with an undeniable strength behind them, applied in exactly the right way. The presence in his mind did not control his actions, but Vesryn could feel her instincts, and allow them to become his own. Sometimes, he felt a bit of sadness while fighting. How beautiful it would be, to watch her move in her own body, what he considered to be perfection in fluidity, grace, and controlled power. He was a poor imitation of what she could do, he knew this. No one in Haven would be remotely able to challenge her.

The crowd groaned when another was whacked across the upper back and flew face forward into the snow. The soldier in question rolled over, spitting and wiping his face, and Vesryn offered him a hand up. The man slapped his plated hand angrily away, and clambered back to his feet himself. "The elf's a bloody demon!" someone in the crowd shouted. Vesryn bowed, grinning.

"Would anyone else like to try their hand?"

“Couldn’t turn down a challenge to save my life.” The reply was actually almost a grumble, as though the thought had caused some grouchiness in the one who spoke it, and she looked around her for a minute until she spotted someone holding what looked like a heavy practice bastardsword. “Hey Wulf, can I borrow that?” The man in question shrugged and handed it over, and Khari tested the weight with a few swings before she stepped into the makeshift ring across from him.

“Put me down for…” She grimaced, her eyes flicking up and down Vesryn, or rather, his gear, most likely, and a short huff escaped her. “Ten minutes. If I can’t make it that long, I’ll eat my sword, because I won’t deserve it anymore.” Despite the dry tone of her words, there was a very steely glint in her jade-green eyes when they met his, and her mouth curled up at the corner. Whether she thought she could achieve it was not certain, but all the same, she’d entered the ring with the intention of winning. "Give him hell!" A voice called out, belonging to Michaël.

Saraya's judgemental nature immediately sprang into action, something which Vesryn tiredly endured. He could feel her analyzing every inch of the poor girl, and finding every last one wanting. Vesryn had heard about Khari, but they'd yet to have the chance to properly speak, or even introduce themselves. As was his custom, he refrained from making any assumptions long after Saraya had already made hers. What was obvious to Vesryn was that she did not intend on letting Khari stay standing for two minutes, let alone ten.

Vesryn, however, gave her a welcoming smile, his arms outstretched. "There's no one I'd rather dance with, lovely. Best give us some more room, everyone." The circle gathered around them wisely shuffled away from the center, offering the two of them a larger dance floor of snow, packed down from countless feet smashing it day in and day out. "Whenever you're ready," he said, briefly beckoning her to him, "you may throw your storm at my tower." He smiled, with a confidence that had already goaded more than one opponent this morning into recklessness.

Though she might have seemed the type to be exactly the same, she did not immediately spring into offense. Instead, she shifted her grip, using both hands to hold the bastardsword at an angle equally well suited for either attack or defense. She appeared to, at least initially, be waiting for something to happen, but then she shifted her stance, increasing the bend in her knees and rising onto the pads of her feet, bouncing on them a couple times as though to test something.

When she did move, she telegraphed it very little. It was sudden, and neither her eyes nor her feet had given away that she’d be going for the left, which she did, with enough force to kick up snow behind her. She swung in low, which made some sense, since her center of gravity was a great deal below his.

Vesryn, however, was a great deal stronger, and almost impossible to catch off guard. Perhaps he'd taken some of the rank and file soldiers lightly, but he knew Khari was in the same bracket he was, and he knew she had far too much raw talent to be treated the same way the others were. But she was horribly outmatched in terms of experience. His instincts were bolstered by those of a warrior who had lived in a time when elves far outlasted humans in years.

He blocked with the head of his axe low, stopping the blade cold only a short distance from his body, but it was all he needed. His face lost all of its humor as he forced their weapons upwards, turning over their weapons to the other side in front of him. The bottom of his axe head hooked around the blade enough for him to pull forward and manipulate her momentum, and suddenly he brought the haft of the two handed weapon to smack across her jaw.

He sidestepped immediately, extricating his weapon, which he whipped swiftly over his head, aiming a swift, strong blow once he was around her back, aimed for the left side of her ribs.

The blow to her face had stunned her, that much was quite clear, but her own instincts weren’t so bad, for someone so young, and she threw herself into the snow almost immediately afterwards, as far away as she could jump, so while the second blow hit, it didn’t do so with nearly all the force he’d put behind it, and she rolled back to her feet, shaking her head. To her credit, perhaps, she didn’t seem to fear a repeat of the painful experience, and she attacked a second time, this time aiming for his arm itself, before abruptly switching her stride at the last possible second and trying for a cross-slash. A feint, it seemed.

She came close again, but again Vesryn's axe handle was there to solidly block her slash, the clash of weapons ringing out loudly through the air. The crowd had mostly silenced for the fight, knowing the two participating were among the Inquisition's best. Perhaps it was simply because Vesryn appeared to be focusing for the first time all morning. He shoved upwards hard, to move Khari's sword away from her center, before he launched a swift straight kick for her abdomen.

"Faster!" he commanded. "A chevalier would at least make me sweat."

Khari actually outright snarled at him, her face twisting into a sneer. “If I were a chevalier, you’d bleed.” He appeared to have succeeded in drawing out a more aggressive version of her, however, because the next series of attacks she leveled at him were harder to block. She wasn’t especially strong, but Khari was quick, and she did seem to understand how to make momentum work on her favor, because though she didn’t get any hits in on him, she was striking hard enough to vibrate both their weapons for multiple seconds after the impacts themselves, and the clanging was loud.

She appeared to know better than trying to block him, however, because her own maneuvers were overwhelmingly of the dodging variety, and he wound up hitting a lot of nothing when he went to retaliate. It was beginning to look very much like a storm assailing a tower: she only seemed to pick up speed as the fight wore on, throwing herself wholeheartedly into her offense and relying on her own sense of the flow of motion to keep her out of the way of his axe.

"That's better," he growled, when another swing of his axe missed, causing a section of the onlookers to back away from the follow-through of the swing. Vesryn's own blocks were often placed excellently, to deflect the weight of Khari's sword as much as halt it, and indeed, it was a necessary skill, for he rarely dodged her attacks entirely. His footwork was precise, in the way it carefully positioned him on the defensive. He could quite literally do this almost all day, and had in the past. His brow did indeed work up a sheen, but if anything, he seemed to be enjoying the exertion.

Finally he parried one of her blows away and rapped her on the back with the axe handle, creating a brief moment of separation. He ran a hand through his white-blonde hair, eyeing her and walking sideways, circling. "What does a title give you? What do you lack, that being called chevalier would grant you?" He was actually curious as to what would drive her so powerfully just to join the ranks of an all-human group. Saraya didn't care. She just wanted to hit the girl more.

“What makes you think it’s just about me?” The reply was snapped back—Khari was clearly not as capable of separating her demeanor from the inherent aggression of the spar as he was, at least not at the moment. She eyed him warily, moving with him, mostly, and certainly not presenting him with her back, rolling out her shoulders and settling back into her initial stance. She clearly wasn’t going to give him any more than that, though, and she drove forward again. Her endurance was nothing to sneeze at, even if her patience perhaps left much to be desired, and she was just as aggressive on this pass as she’d been on the last.

Ten minutes was swiftly coming upon them, but for all that, she didn’t try to stretch it out, placing herself at just as much risk as she had before, and she paid for it, catching the haft of the axe full in the stomach, sliding backwards on the snow, though she yet retained her feet, closing one eye perhaps from the pain of impact but rebounding with uncanny quickness, swinging, of all things, her fist, in what looked very much like a wild lunge, but was pulled short as she drove the point of her blunted blade forward instead.

Vesryn couldn't make sense of her, and he wondered briefly if she weren't a little bit unhinged. Perhaps it was just the fight that was making her seem that way, as she wielded her aggression as much as she did her blade. Perhaps he should have simply chalked it up to the fact that he knew only one thing about her, and that one thing painted her as a foolishly optimistic, even naïve, person. Her feigned punch, flowing into a stab, was about as effective as it could have been, the point of her blade scraping across plate armor briefly before it was pushed aside by the haft of his axe. Not the wisest attack against someone with armor easily strong enough to withstand a sword point, but successful in its own way.

Saraya's instinct was to grapple with her, use his superior strength to stop her from getting away again, and Vesryn obeyed, snatching her wrist on the follow-through of the lunge. He pulled her into his reach, and then landed a solid, heavy punch to her cheekbone. Restraining the wrist that held her blade, he kicked hard to the back of her leg, to put her down on a knee. Rather than finish the fight, he let curiosity get the best of him. "Are you not already what you want to be? For yourself? For others?" His eyes were searching, confused. Saraya raged in his head, demanding a blow that would end the spar.

Her reply was extremely simple: “Is anyone?” It was a surprisingly lucid question, which perhaps made what she did next all the more bizarre in contrast. She seemed well aware of what would happen if they went into a grapple, and so she pushed herself off the ground, yanking downwards with what was possibly all the strength she had on the wrist he held, though her aim was evidently not to get free. Of all things, she headbutted him, the hard part of her skull hitting him right where his nose met his brow.

Saraya, as she had a tendency to do in these moments when she was displeased, abandoned him when he least expected it. Perhaps he should have begun expecting it, but he was still caught off guard when suddenly his reflexes weren't as sharp, his instincts not as lethal. His nose broke, blood immediately flowing down over his mouth, some of it ending up dripping on the responsible elf's already red hair. He recoiled, but then he felt Saraya return, with grim determination. Before Khari could follow up on the hit, he'd pulled her by the arm into him, kneed her strongly in the ribs, elbowed her in the jaw, yanked her to her feet, and swept her legs out from under her with a swift low swing of his axe. When she was horizontal in the air in front of him, Vesryn gave her a parting boot to the chest, snow crunching and spraying into the air. Yet more of it was kicked up when Khari was thrown across the makeshift arena, sliding and rolling through the snow until she came to a stop near the far side on her back.

Vesryn turned and spat a glob of blood into the snow, reaching a hand up to feel the shape of his nose. "Very funny," he murmured to himself, the words most likely unheard since the crowd had also livened up, excited by the exchange of blows. By the time he turned and walked back to Khari, a smile had once again worked itself into place, many of his pearly white teeth now red.

"What was that you said? A chevalier would make me bleed?" He extended a hand down, to help her up.

She sucked in a breath, one hand up at her jaw. “Should have worn the mask.” She muttered it more to herself than him, then narrowed her eyes up at him, contemplating the hand for a few seconds before she took it, pulling herself back up to her feet. “Hm. Apparently I get to keep my sword after all.” In a display of good sportsmanship, however, she inclined herself in a combatant’s bow, then gestured in his direction, to a swell of applause.

In the wake of the fight's completion, there was a fair amount of both cheering and grumbling among the soldiers, undoubtedly the result of bets won and lost, but in all, they seemed entertained by the fight, and perhaps a little relieved that it had ended peacefully enough, without the need to be broken up by the spectators.

Vesryn bowed back to Khari, his best opponent of the day by a long shot, and nodded his thanks to the crowd. "Perhaps we should visit the healer," he suggested to Khari. "Hopefully she can mend our lovely faces."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

Earnings

0.00 INK

"Please, do not do... that anymore," Asala begged her two most recent patients as they left the tent she used to address the injuries of the Inquisition's soldiers. She had just spent the last hour mending Vesryn's broken nose and a small rib fracture on Khari, not to mention all the bruising. Apparently, they had gotten their injuries from the bright idea of sparring with each other, which sounded absurd to her. The disapproval she felt had been plain to see on her face. She'd said nothing about it of course, and quietly worked on their injuries until she'd done all she could for them. "Do not... just... please rest for the rest of the day. Please?" she continued to plead.

"But darling," Vesryn said, as charmingly as he could manage, "I just needed an excuse to come and see you. Those golden eyes... how could I stay away?"

“Hey Asala, you have anything for nausea? ‘Cause I think I’m about to be sick.” Khari made a face in Vesryn’s direction, which, considering all the bandages on the left side of her jaw, might actually have hurt a little bit. Not that she was making any sign of it, however.

The tent flap slapped closed then, more to hide the blush blossoming across her cheeks than out of anger or anything of the like. That one comment flustered her, and she didn't know what else to do. Certainly not how to respond to it. Her heart beat quickened her and her cheeks were on fire, and remained that way until what Khari had said finally processed. "Oh!" she squeaked, and reached into a satchel she had on her hip, fishing through the contents until she came across a light greenish potion.

She stared at the tent flap for a moment, debating on what she should do before reach down to peel the flap back partially at the bottom. There, she threw the little vial under it to Khari. "Ta-ta-take that!" she stuttered through the flap. She was too flustered to digest the comment for the joke it was, though it probably didn't matter anyway and would've taken it for face value regardless. Asala then turned back to the interior of the tent, closed her eyes and rubbed her face, willing herself to try and calm down.

"Uhh?" a soldier said, sitting on a cot at the far end. Her eyes snapped opened and she stared at the soldier in surprise. "Oh! I-I am sorry," she apologized. The little comment Vesryn made had made her forget that she still had a patient. She crossed the tent to come to a kneel in front of the shoulder. "I am so sorry," she apologized again, causing the soldier to reach out and grip her gently by her shoulders.

"It's fine," she said with a smile, and Asala accepted it, nodding her appreciation. "A-a sprain, correct?" She asked the soldier who nodded. "Please remove your boot," she asked. The soldier then removed her boot as asked, and in moments, a healing spell was in Asala's hands. She set about gently messaging the area of affliction, marked by an area of blue on her ankle.

The next visitor to the tent, as it happened, did not appear to be in need of any medical assistance, but he did come burdened down a bit. With the sound of a clearing throat, given that knocking was impossible, Leonhardt lifted the flap of the tent and stooped down inside. Fortunately, it had been erected to be able to comfortably hold Asala, so the extra three inches he had over her height were insufficient to cause any structural damage to it, and his head cleared the roof, if he kept to the very middle, which he did. He held a large, wide basket in both hands, the fragrant smell issuing from it promising herbs.

“Your pardon, Miss Asala. I’ve been cultivating some royal elfroot behind the Chantry, and it was sufficiently grown to trim today, so I thought I might see if you had any use for it before I added it to Rilien’s supplies.” The basket also contained a carefully-folded square of scarlet fabric, though he made no comment on it.

Asala paused for a moment to look at Leon before she glanced back to the woman in her care. "One moment, p-please," she asked Leon with an apology written on her face. She took a few more moments to continue to massage the woman's injury, before the spell faded away. Standing, Asala took a step back to let the woman stand and test her ankle out. "It will be tender for the rest of the day, but with rest you should be fine tomorrow."

The soldier stood on the foot and nodded with a wide smile. "Thanks. I will," she said, slipping her boot back on. As she made to leave the tent, she paused for a moment to salute Leon with a "Commander," before she took her leave.

Now done with her patient, she diverted her full attention to Leon. She initially recoiled, forgetting just how big the man was, but caught herself soon after. She nodded and inclined slightly in thanks before she accepted the basket, taking a seat on the cot to inspect its contents. "Ooh," she cooed. The herbs were exquisite, especially to be grown in this weather. She took one in her hand and turned it over, sniffing it tentatively before setting it back in the basket. For a moment, she forgot about the size of the man and spoke plainly. "These are wonderful! Thank you!" She said, glancing between him and the basket. She could find many uses for royal elfroot.

Then she caught sight of the fabric that accompanied the herbs. "Oh?" she said aloud, plucking a corner of the cloth. As she pulled, it kept coming, and coming, and coming until she held a rather large scarlet cloak in her hand. She flicked it with her hands to open it to its fullest, and she looked at him with confusion.

He smiled slightly, the expression looking a little bit out-of-place on what would more naturally be a stern visage, the way it was hewn, but was genuine all the same. “Estella told me you lost your cloaks, in the Mire. Hers was easy enough to replace, but we do not have many Qunari volunteers. I fear this one may actually be a bit too large; it’s one of mine. But you’re welcome to it until we can get you something more suitable.”

His eyes turned to the empty cot, where the soldier had been only moments before, and when he spoke, his voice was heavy with something, a weight that made it seem almost remote. “I must thank you, as well. For healing her, and the scouts. And those who occasionally give a little too much to their exercises, as it were.” The smile returned, and he inclined his head, resting a hand flat over the left side of his chest. It was almost courtly, but not exaggerated.

“Also, if I may make a request?” He straightened, letting his hand fall back to his side. It was clear that she was quite free to say no if she had too much otherwise occupying her. This was not a ‘request’ from the commander of the Inquisition, only one from Leon.

Asala didn't answer in words, but her brows rose over her eyes and her eyes were expectant. She truly was curious as to his request.

In answer, he shifted his attention down to his hands, which were currently covered in leather gloves. He removed them carefully to expose his skin, and it was clear from one look that they’d taken a lot of abuse over some number of years, most likely. His knuckles were quite callused, and even the rest of his skin had a sort of worn-looking texture to it. There were dozens of old scars on them, from little white nicks to what seemed to be a still-healing burn over the majority of the back of the right one. It had clearly already been attended to, though.

When his gloves came off, Asala stood and quietly approached, her eyes glued to Leon's hands. She took his hand sgently in her own, turning them over and inspecting every square inch intently. She frowned at all of the scars his knuckles bore, but her gaze lingered on the burn wound. Now that she got a closer look, her brows furrowed and her frown deepened. Any awkwardness she had initially vanished as she concentrated on the man's wounds.

Leon didn’t seem to mind much; it was almost as if he’d expected a reaction of the kind. “I have a tincture,” he explained, with a hint of ruefulness, “Which I use to keep my skin flexible and prevent my hands from drying out, but I can’t use it while the burn wound is still healing. I was hoping you maybe had something that would serve the same purpose, but without the irritation? I hate to impose, but Adan’s significantly busy with the ordinary supplies, and Rilien rarely has time to brew as it is.”

"You should have came to me sooner," she said, her tone that of a scolding. She let her grip on his hands loosen and went to her satchel. After a moment or two of fishing, she produced a small container holding a white subtance, and when she twisted the top off the scent of aloe and lavendar filled the tent. She dipped a pair of fingers into the mixture and then proceeded to spread it over Leon's burn. "This will ease the pain and irritation," she explained, closing the container and handing it to him.

"In the meantime will prepare a balm that will both aid in the healing process and keep the skin pliant. I will need time to make it however, but the elfroot you brought will help immensely," she added with a smile.

Leon massaged the balm in the rest of the way, and a few of the lines at the corners of his eyes seemed to ease a little as it disappeared. “I did properly medicate with potions,” he defended, though nothing about his tone was harsh or even especially defensive. He must have been right, though, because the burn was clearly healing, and unlikely to leave too much by way of scarring, unlike some of the older wounds he’d clearly sustained. “It honestly seemed rather… trivial, compared to the other things you’ve been healing of late.” he smiled, and replaced his gloves over his hands.

Anything else he might have said was interrupted when Reed entered the tent. “We’ve got another one, Commander. Though, uh… I don’t think he’s here to volunteer. Pretty sure he came for Miss Asala.” Reed nodded to her, then exited the tent, Leon not far behind.

Asala's eyes went wide and she pointed at herself, clearly confused. She glanced between Leon and Reed, before she finally spoke. "Me?" She asked.

A curt voice then cut in from outside the tent, the tone low, but not altogether unfriendly. "Get out here, Kadan. I cannot fit in there." Asala gasped at the voice, her hands going straight to her mouth. Without another word she darted past Leon and through Reed, bursting through the tent flap.

The man who'd called stood as tall as Leon, though the pair of horns from the top of his head gave him at least a few inches on the man. The Qunari's face was bronzed in color, but his hair was the same alabaster white as Asala. He too wore a thick cloak, though judging by the neck it was fur lined. Asala was taken aback by the sight of him, but it didn't take long for her to respond. "Meraad!" she exclaimed, jumping into his open arms in a wide hug.

"That is better," Meraad said, chuckling as he swung her in the air. When she finally pulled away from the embrace she looked up with a wide smile on her face. "What are you doing here?" she asked, "I thought you were in Redcliffe."

"I was. But you were taking too long, so I came here," he replied, seeming rather unimpressed by the question as if the answer was obvious. Asala laughed and simply pressed into his chest. "Impatient," she muttered, before adding something in Qunlat.

"Oh!" she said, pulling back away from Meraad and turned to Leon. "I am sorry Leon, this is Meraad," she said, gesturing to the man. "He is Kadan," she then shook her head, remembering he may not understand the word. "My, uh... Brother."

Leon, pausing to assist Reed up off the ground where Asala had knocked him in her haste to get past, patted the harassed-looking soldier on his shoulder and murmured something at low volume. Reed gave a salute and left, apparently not sad to be doing so. Turning back towards the two Qunari, the Inquisition’s commander tapped a fist over his heart. “That word, I do know,” he said, with a mild smile that was quickly becoming rather familiar to those that knew him. Shanedan, Meraad. Welcome to Haven.”

Meraad seemed surprised, though whether it was due to the Qunlat greeting or the sheer size of the man, it wasn't clear. Asala knew it was even rarer for Meraad to look someone eye to eye. However, after that initial surprise he grinned and put a fist over his chest in greeting. "Ataas shokra," he responded, "And thank you. For keeping my sister safe," he said, before glancing around at the other soldiers. "Ish," he added with a grin.

“You may have that the wrong way around,” Leon replied easily, glancing down to Asala. “In any case, I’ll let the two of you catch up. Miss Asala, if you need anything further for your work, please do not hesitate to inform me; I’m usually either with the troops or in my office, and if you can’t find me, Reed can always take a message.” With that, and a polite nod, he excused himself from their company.

"Oh. Yes. I will find you again, when the balm is ready," she said eagerly before turning to Meraad.

She had been so busy, she forgot how much she missed him.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

Earnings

0.00 INK

Romulus felt a constant burn in his arms and across his chest. Sweat dripped from his brow, down the side of his face, as he looked up at the bar above him, and the stone ceiling. Even in the Chantry cellar he could not escape the noise of activity. Haven had become an extremely busy place of late, even more so now that it was widely known that they would have forces departing for the Hinterlands again in a few days time. Romulus would be going with them, to meet the mage rebellion in Redcliffe, and... likely do nothing.

He grunted with each time he pulled his chin above the bar. The cellar, the very place he had first woken up following the explosion that had marked him, was naturally dark, only lit by a few torches set into sconces along the support pillars and the walls of the hallway that led inside. They were used for storage, since the Inquisition had no need to keep prisoners yet, and that meant that very few people came down here. Romulus was one of the few, making use of the privacy to have something of a personal place. It was known by anyone important that he sometimes ventured down here.

His thoughts drifted, until he was thinking about rats, and how similar he was being to one at the moment, and he growled, pulling his chin above the bar again. The sweat ran down his bare back and chest; he savored the warmth of working right next to a flaming torch. Thinking about the freezing cold outside only served to annoy him. Finally he dropped from the bar onto the ground, breathing heavily, and shaking out his arms.

Worst of all was that he couldn't figure out what bothered him more: that he wasn't finding the kind of experience in this Inquisition that he'd wanted, or the fact that he'd wanted it in the first place. He coiled his right hand into a tightly balled fist, and thought about striking the wooden pillar in front of him.

The sound of metal-girded boots clanking unceremoniously along the stone floor to his left was obvious, and heralded the approach of Khari, though she probably didn’t rank highly enough on the list of important people in the Inquisition to have known he’d be here without needing to ask someone. Even so, it was clearly him she was looking for, because as soon as she was far enough into the room to be seen in the warm glow of the torchlight, it was obvious that she was looking right at him, and she smiled. “Evenin’, Rom.” She seemed pleased to have found him, and stepped out of the doorway into the chamber proper. “I’d say I like what you’ve done with the place, but it’s actually making me feel a little… cagey.”

He turned to look at her out of the corner of his eye, still for a moment, before he uncoiled his fist, turned around, and laughed softly, stepping away from the wooden support.

She grimaced. “Gods, sorry. That sounded much more clever in my head.” She appeared to be carrying a large sack over her back, and a smaller satchel in her other hand. The big one, she set down with a soft clink, but the second one, she kept hold of, opening the drawstring mouth of it and fishing out what seemed to be a piece of jerky or something. She held the bag out to him, clearly in offering.

“Don’t mind if I say so, but you look like you could use some. It’s elk, but they brined it in apples. Might be my favorite food ever. I was saving it for a celebration, but… don’t foresee many of those in the future.”

He was hungry, the workout only making him more so. When the light hit him more clearly, especially from the ceiling above, it lit up the multitude of scars that lined his body, all across his chest and back, blade and magic scars in equal measure. There were old burns, puncture wounds, slashes, too many individual ones to count. He was able to see Khari a little better when she came close, and he noted the bruises on her jaw and cheekbone.

Romulus took a few pieces of jerky from the bag, trying out the first, and humming his approval as soon as he'd chewed a few times. "Thanks." He gestured up at her, frowning. "What happened to you?" The question was asked casually.

She was clearly making an inspection of his inventory of scars, though it was for once not plain on her face exactly what she thought. His question, though, brought her eyes back to his, and she huffed. “Got into a fight with the taller, stronger, prettier and more charismatic elf in the group. Got my ass handed to me.” She frowned; it was hard to say for sure, but there seemed to be something worse than a simple lost match underneath the expression, but she shook her head.

“I really hate feeling like a redundancy. The lesser of two, even.” She bit off another piece of jerky with more force than was perhaps strictly necessary, mumbling something around her food that sounded suspiciously like ‘stupid shiny bastard’, but it wasn’t completely clear whether that was the right interpretation.

Romulus wasn't too surprised. From what he'd figured out, Khari was more than willing to fight anyone, even if the odds were vastly in favor of her opponent. Hell, he figured she'd fight the commander if he ever had the time. She didn't seem to care about whatever was stacked against her, and simply tried anyway. He liked that about her, a great deal.

As for Vesryn... Romulus shrugged. "He seems like an ass. And there's something not right about him. He's... too well put together, or something. At least you're genuine." He didn't have the slightest clue what he felt was off about the elven man, other than he didn't know it was possible for an elf to have the kind of demeanor he had. That alone put him on guard. Romulus tore off another piece of jerky.

"You're not redundant, or lesser. Not to me." He might've said some other things, about her strength, her charisma, her prettiness, even. The tallness thing wasn't really up for debate. But he felt he'd said enough already.

That seemed to lift her spirits considerably, and she smiled again. “Thanks, Rom. That means a lot.” Her eyes wandered to the larger sack she’d brought with her, and lit up, almost as if she’d forgotten it was there. “Oh! That’s right. I got you something. Kind of. Don’t suppose your birthday’s anytime soon, is it?”

He half smiled at the mention of a gift, and his eyes wandered to the sack. In fact, he was a bit unsure how to feel at the prospect of being given something. Suddenly, he was quite intensely unsure if it was acceptable for him to take whatever she offered... since nothing he had was actually his. Not even, to an extent, his life.

At her question, he shrugged. "I have no idea when I was born."

Khari seemed stunned for about two seconds before she appeared to do a bit of mental calculation and most likely came to the correct conclusion. “Oh, right. I’m stupid sometimes, aren’t I?” she huffed, but then her face brightened again. “But the best part of not having a birthday is that you get to choose one, and on that day, everyone gives you free stuff and has to be nice to you. It’s great.” She shrugged.

“If I were you, I’d pick something like… a couple weeks out and tell everyone about it so they had some time to pull some good presents together, but in my case, I already thought about it, so.” She nudged the sack towards him with a foot, but she did it carefully.

“Happy birthday, or something. At least I’m not late, right?”

He understood the gesture, and he was appreciative of it, truly, but it would be plain to see that she'd made him uncomfortable with this. Whatever smile he formerly had faded while she described birthdays to him. He knew what a birthday was. Just because he didn't have one himself didn't mean he hadn't watched those more fortunate than himself celebrating theirs. Specifically, they were the people he had served his entire life.

Some of the slaves he had known knew their birthdays, but any celebration was kept to a minimum. Any gift had to be something terribly small, or otherwise consumable; most slaves would prefer a good bit of food to a worthless trinket that was only going to arouse suspicion in a master. The bag in front of him now was big, much too big. And Romulus had done little other than think of his status as a slave lately. He couldn't stop thinking about it.

He backed away a few steps, eyeing the sack warily. "I shouldn't. Whatever it is, I shouldn't take it."

She looked at him with some clear consternation, but then shook her head. “It’s not…” Khari sighed softly. “It’s not a big thing, really. I know I talked it up a lot, but I… can I lend it to you? I’m serious, you can give it back whenever you don’t want it anymore. It’s not a personal thing, I’m not…” For once, she seemed less-than-sure of her words, like she was struggling to frame the nature of the exchange.

He was overthinking it, he knew he was, but it seemed important to him, especially with how she had presented it. She was his friend, and he knew she considered him the same. He also believed that she wouldn't understand that anything he touched, anything he called his own, was immediately tainted, and automatically inherited by the one that owned him. A Dalish girl who had left her life behind to try and become a chevalier of all things? No, she wouldn't understand. She'd never seen any place like the place he came from.

Carefully, like he expected to find a poisonous snake inside, Romulus crouched down, and opened the sack.

Inside of it were several pieces of glassware, mostly: an alembic, a retort, several vials with stoppers, and a few flasks, as well as all the pieces of wood and metal necessary to set everything up properly on a desk or table, for the work of an alchemist. At the bottom lay a wooden case, well-made and fitted with a red iron lock. None of the pieces were obviously elaborate, but they were very well-made, and well-suited for the tasks they’d been designed for.

“It’s… it’s stuff for your tonics.” Khari sounded much more tentative than she previously had, and her mouth pulled to the side, as though she were unsure what expression she should be wearing. “I remember you telling me that they protected you from magic, and that you were running out, so I talked to Rilien about what you would need to make them, and he said this would be what you ought to have for it. The box has reagents.”

Romulus examined a few of the set's pieces with the utmost care, kneeling down and taking the alchemical equipment with steady hands. It was not as horrible a feeling as he'd thought, especially once he realized that these things were not hers to begin with. She'd worked with Rilien to acquire them. They were probably the Inquisition's more than hers. It was simply her own thoughtfulness that led them to his hands, since he was too unaccustomed to asking for anything of his own.

Satisfied with the examination, he put everything he'd removed back in the back, and closed it up. "I can't keep it," he said, with a little more certainty than he'd managed to muster before. "But I can use it. At least until the Breach is closed, and I have to go back." He picked up the bag, carried it over to the rest of his small pile of things, mostly consisting of his clothes, armor, and weapons, and set it down. He donned a light linen shirt on his way back to her.

"You know I'll have to go back, right? To Minrathous?" Things would be a great deal more simple, and also more complicated, if he didn't have to go back. But there was no sense thinking about that. While he was yet owned, he was still bound to Tevinter, and allowing himself to entertain other possibilities only led to pain. It was something he'd learned as a child, and didn't want to have to learn again.

Khari rubbed at the back of her head, inadvertently fluffing up a few more rambunctious curls from her plait, and sucked on her teeth for a second. “I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but… do you have to?” She seemed honestly curious, rather than upset or contrary or anything like that. “I guess I’m just… trying to imagine what would happen if you decided you didn’t want to, you know? You’re here, and there’s this big army between you and anything anyone in Minrathous could send your way, and I don’t really see anyone forcing you to leave on this end, exactly.” She sighed.

“But really, what the hell do I know? I’m just a fool with a sword and a side of crazy. I can’t pretend like I understand how any of this works.”

"An army is just an inconvenience to an assassin," Romulus said, somewhat sadly. If he were a different person, someone who had been placed much more by chance than by design at the Conclave, this would likely be much simpler for him. He probably could just escape from his past. But he was not a different person. "Chryseis Viridius, the woman that owns me, invested a great deal to make me into the weapon that I am. To make an enemy of her would be unwise, even if I wanted to." He sometimes felt he didn't use her name enough, and he wondered which way was better. Was it better to be reminded that a real person, someone made of the same stuff he was, owned his body and mind? Or was it better for her to simply remain as domina, a simple, controlling force, to be followed without hesitation?

"She has powerful allies, and a personal interest in my loyalty. To betray her would bring pain or death... but probably not to me." Killing him would be an abandonment of her investment. Killing his cause for betrayal would be the answer. At the very least, proving that it was in danger would give him reason to return to her service. In essence, any cause he had would be in immediate danger, until he no longer had it. There was no way out. He had accepted this.

"This... whatever this is, with the Inquisition. It's nothing more than a diversion for me. When it's done, I will leave with her, like nothing ever changed." The thought obviously weighed on him, but he seemed set in stone in the way he thought about it.

“Well… shit.” Khari apparently thought this was a sitting-down kind of problem, because she plonked herself rather gracelessly onto the floor after saying that, crossing her legs and propping her elbows on them. She rested her chin in a hand, rubbing at the bruises still on her jaw with her fingers, prodding them, almost. Her brows knit together over her eyes, darker than usual in the gloom of the cell block, and creases appeared at the corners of them. When she spoke again, it was slower and with more deliberateness than she generally had, and less certainty. Clearly, this kind of thinking wasn’t her usual element, but she was putting the effort into it.

“I mean… I guess it sounds like any way this gets sliced up, she’s your problem, then. So… without ruling anything out yet, seems like there’s three obvious options for that. One, you convince her somehow that she’s better off if she doesn’t… keep… you.” The last few words were awkward on her tongue; very clearly, she wasn’t used to using terms like that when talking about people, but she didn’t comment on it. “Seems unlikely, from what you’ve said. Two, you could make some kind of… exchange, I guess? I don’t know how much she thinks you’re, uh… worth, or how that works, but theoretically there’s something she’d be willing to accept in your stead, maybe?” Khari frowned, then shook her head. “And three, well… get her before she gets you.”

She made a face, then regarded him speculatively over her knuckles. “But that all assumes you’d want to stay. That you’d have a reason to want that. I mean, if it were me, I would, but it’s not. It’s you, and only you can decide what you want. Only you can possibly know, even, unless you tell someone.” Those words were perhaps the most uncertain of all, giving away the fact that his mental state was likely quite opaque to her, though she appeared to be trying to understand him as well as she could.

"What I want is rarely relevant. And Chryseis is only my problem if I make her into one.” It was obviously difficult for many to grasp, especially in the south of Thedas, why a slave would ever want to remain a slave. And that wasn’t necessarily something Romulus wanted, but he did think it was probably for the best. For him, and for everyone else. His status actually afforded him a fair bit more than the vast majority of enslaved in Tevinter, and undoubtedly a great many free people living in other lands. If he had to sacrifice several personal freedoms to maintain that… well, he’d proven already that it was a sacrifice he was willing and able to make.

He took a seat against one of the wooden supports, leaning his head back against it and momentarily glancing up at the torch hanging above him. "I may have painted her as an enemy to me, but I also owe her, and her father, everything. I am who I am because of them. This… excursion, whatever I should call it, has already been more than I expected. I should be satisfied with that.” Humbling his desires was something Romulus had worked many years to do, and since being roped into the Inquisition he’d allowed them to wander, inappropriately so.

He regarded the way she sat, how she looked so thoughtful, with a smile of his own. She was putting a lot of effort into this, and it hadn’t gone unnoticed. "I will miss you when I have to go, of course.”

Khari was quiet for a while, clearly digesting what he’d said, and though the look she fixed him with then was measured, she did smile a bit. “I’d miss you too, naturally. Haven’t had a friend in a while; managed to forget how nice it was.” A pause, and then: “This might sound weird, but… if you ever get the urge to tell someone something irrelevant, not for advice or to do anything about it, but… just to say it, then I’m here. Used to be that what I wanted was pretty irrelevant, too, not that I’m saying it was the same situation. Just… I still wanted stuff, and I remember sometimes being almost choked, feeling like I couldn’t talk about it with anyone else.”

He scratched the side of his head a bit awkwardly, but his smile didn't disappear. "I... thanks, Khari. I'll keep that in mind."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

Earnings

0.00 INK

The Inquisition, Cyrus had learned, was far too busy an organization for most of its members to run into each other with any great deal of frequency, unless they chose to seek out one another’s company. As of the present, he wasn’t one of the people ever particularly sought out, which was actually a novel and interesting experience for him. He was used to being the most popular man in a room, for a wide variety of reasons that usually came down to a combination of three things: his looks, his intelligence, and his power, sometimes but not always in that order. The solitude was… different, and he may have actually preferred it, most of the time, but he had spent so long in the company of others, whether he liked it or not, that he wasn’t without a certain habitual predilection for it. Sometimes. The tendency was particularly acute whenever he remembered that he should eat something.

The way his teacher—master, really, but that word was loaded when spoken from Tevinter lips here in the south and so he did not use it—had made sure he ate regularly was by requiring his presence in the dining room for at least one meal a day, at the same time as the rest of the household, and so he’d grown quite used to supping with others, when he did so at all. It had proven good practice, for certain other aspects of his life, though not any of the ones he considered most important. Certainly not the challenging ones.

Usually when he ate here, there were only one or two others around at most, but this time, the long table in one of the Chantry’s side rooms was occupied, not only by himself, but a motley assortment of the others—Estella, who’d dragged him here to begin with, Leonhardt, the commander, who took up enough space for one and a half ordinary people, and Vesryn, the elf with an interest in history and a… distinctive sense of fashion. He’d swept into the room behind his sister—because he was incapable of merely walking anywhere—and settled himself with the ease of someone completely at home in his skin into a spot to her left, across from the commander.

He dished Estella her food first, manners bred and trained into him with long years in the courts of the magisters, before taking his own portions from the modest vessels that lay in the middle of the table. “Good evening Commander, Vesryn.” He spared each a nod before settling back to eat.

“Hello, Cyrus,” the commander replied first, returning the nod with his customary informality. “This is a bit of a surprise. I seldom run into you. Have you found accommodations to suit you?”

Cyrus smiled, the expression more than a little sardonic. “‘Suit’ is a strong word for a tent, but it will do for the moment.” He’d roughed it worse before, of course, and this tent was at least one of those meant to stand in one place for longer than a single night, and there was a fair bit of space in it for his various books, both owned and borrowed, as well as the various artifacts and trinkets he carried around with him. He shared with Thalia still, but that was in large part because she didn’t irritate him much and he irritated her less than basically any other human, so it worked out somehow.

He’d even moved a desk into it, so he felt he was quite well-off indeed, compared to most places he’d lodged the last couple of years.

There was comfortable silence for a bit, or comfortable for Cyrus, anyway. He didn’t know how anyone else felt about it, and frankly probably wouldn’t care much even if he did know, with one very glaring exception. Eventually, however, his curiosity got the better of him, as it was wont to do, and he glanced back up at Leon. “I’ve borrowed several books from the Chantry library; quite the collection, for such a small village. I was most interested on a volume on the Seekers of Truth. Common knowledge in the south, I’m sure, but an institution the Imperium is quite without.” He lifted his glass; it was filled with a red wine which was pleasant enough, if not excellent. Only the members of the command structure and the commander’s so-called ‘irregulars’ ate here, and while the little luxuries were quite few, he did note their presence.

Taking a sip, he replaced it, his fingers toying absently with the stem. “Is it true you can kill a mage by burning the lyrium right out of his bloodstream?” He asked the question in a light tone, but one that was clearly only a ruse for the powerful inquisitiveness that undergirded it—Cyrus was quite intrigued by this little tidbit he’d come across, and since he knew Leon was a Seeker, he saw no reason not to ask directly.

Vesryn, meanwhile, took a long drink from his glass, eyes moving to watch Leon. His brows were quite raised, possibly in mild alarm.

Leonhardt seemed taken aback by the question, and coughed a few times before reaching for his own wineglass, quaffing a few gulps with the inelegance of someone who needed to cleanse his throat, clearing it with a final cough, and blinking several times. “I… ahem. I have no idea what book you managed to find that in,” he began, sounding somewhat impressed almost despite himself, “but it isn’t quite that simple.” He sat back against his chair, sighing through his nose, and then shrugged his broad shoulders.

“Among the particular abilities of some Seekers is the ability to burn lyrium in the blood, yes, but most of us who can do so are only capable of causing pain with such a technique, not death, and it applies just as much to Templars as mages. Anyone who has consumed lyrium over time, actually. Very rarely, one of us will manifest the ability to, ah, kill with the technique.” He looked somewhat uncomfortable with the idea, but it was not difficult for someone as astute as Cyrus to figure out which group Leon was in.

“Truthfully, it is most often used for interrogation. It requires a focus few can achieve, and it kills… slowly. If death is the desired end, there are much more merciful methods by which to bring it about.” He smiled uncomfortably, and beside Cyrus, Estella shifted slightly, betraying her own unease, her eyes gaining a wariness they had not previously had.

“Fascinating.” Cyrus murmured the word in a tone that betrayed the complete genuineness of the sentiment. Of course, he had no cause for fear himself; lyrium was the tool of inferior mages, those who required assistance to enter the Fade, something he obviously did not. He was quite inclined to ask further questions about it, actually, because he did have some interest in lyrium, for its properties if not its practical use to him. “That suggests almost that you’ve interacted with the Fade in some way, though of course the connection between magic and lyrium is ill-understood at best.”

His sister’s discomfort did not fail to register with him, however, and he shifted the topic slightly in hopes of putting her at ease. “Evidence of consistent lyrium use only appears in those ruins which postdate the fall of Elvhenan, though I believe it was employed in some manner before that time. Of course, I cannot claim to have visited every such ruin; perhaps in time I will discover otherwise.”

Vesryn set down his cup, swallowing, and shoved a spoonful of food into his mouth. He was indeed sharply dressed, but still appeared more the mercenary than anything else. He didn't dress like a noble, but rather a well paid swordsman, with a bit of flair like he fancied himself a dashing rogue. The lion cloak he seemed fond of wearing was currently draped across the back of his chair.

His manners were not quite as well trained. His elbows were up on the table, and he didn't seem to care about speaking while there was still some food in his mouth. "You've interest in these ruins, then?" He studied Cyrus. "I'm rather fond of them myself. I could share some locations with you." He paused, then smiled, more to himself than anything. "If I were inclined to, of course."

“I suppose you could, were you indeed so inclined.” Cyrus agreed, his answering smile pleasant, but his eyes sharp. It sounded as though Vesryn was implying that he did not yet have such an inclination, which was fair enough. Those with knowledge were often loath to part with it for free; such was the nature of the most arcane and valuable pieces of information. Those were powerful things to have, after all, and few would give them up readily.

“If it is any particular… incentive, it may interest you to know that my visits are not merely to the ruins themselves. I am able to see what such places resembled when once they were whole, and on occasion, what events took place there. I have seen the glory of the army of Arlathan, marching to battle, and structures that reached high enough to scrape the clouds.” His tone was one of clear knowledge—he had a great enthusiasm for these dreams he had, and an uncommon ardor for their subject matter. Still, he banked that for the moment, almost like he were pulling something back inside himself that had begun to radiate outwards, and almost physically reset himself in the present. His mind did tend to wander, when he thought of those places—he’d not described the surface of it, even, but he too was jealous with his knowledge, and he would readily admit it.

“You should see his journals,” Estella added, glancing askance at him with more obvious warmth than he’d received from her since their argument a week prior. “His drawings are beautiful; it’s almost like seeing it myself.” She smiled tentatively, then looked back down at the crust of bread she was slowly picking apart.

“You’re somniari. A dreamer.” That interjection came from Leon, who seemed to be quite willing to participate in the conversation now that the subject had changed. “I’d heard the world still had one—he was discovered a few years ago. I did not know there were two yet living.” For a moment, he also abandoned table manners and leaned forward, his academic interest obviously overcoming whatever disdain and wariness Chantry folk were supposed to have for magic. “Are there others, like you?”

Cyrus laughed, the sound full-throated and rich. “Seeker, there is no one in the world like me. I have gone to great pains to ensure it. But yes. I am one of three recently-known dreamers in the Imperium, and to my knowledge, none reside elsewhere anymore.” His eyes narrowed slightly. “Which means that very few exist who can do the research I do. One is dead, now, and likely would not have bothered to begin with. The other is far too young and inexperienced.” He shrugged a single shoulder. “There is much to be learned from the past. Someone should learn it, I think, and so here I am.” It was, of course, considerably more complicated than that, in many respects, but he doubted he’d bother defining the intricacies to anyone but himself. One day, Estella would know, too, but not yet.

“I confess, my own studies of magic have had more to do with counteracting it and knowing what to do about demons than anything so historical,” Leon replied, a thoughtful expression coming over his face, “which seems almost mundane by comparison. But surely if you’re in the Fade so often, you contend with those as well? What little information there is on somniari indicates that they are especially prone to temptation by such creatures, due to the power they have within it, and without.” The implied question was clear enough, but it was not asked suspiciously, merely carefully.

“Never doubt it, commander.” Cyrus’s reply was delivered with levity, but he was in fact completely serious. “Demons court me almost aggressively as some people I’ve met. It’s actually not so different—there’s an offer I’m not interested in, and then an effort to tell me what I really want. The only difference is, I can actually find some respite from the demons.” He grinned.

“But in the case you’re worried about possession, you need not be. I am far too fond of my face to allow one of those to corrupt it the way they do.”

“That would be your reason.” Estella looked back up, and shoved his shoulder with a hand, not hard enough to actually risk dislodging him in case he was unprepared, but in the manner she’d done a thousand times before. It was familiar, and perhaps a sign that things were returning to some state of equilibrium between them.

“Well, it’s a reason.” Cyrus returned the gesture with a look of mock hurt. “Chief among them, of course, being that I could never abandon my dear sister to the dreary fate of a world without her wonderful, generous, doting brother who loves her so.” He tried to keep his face straight, but as usual, his disguises failed in her company, and the lopsided grin that broke over his visage was pure mischief.

“Aren’t I just the luckiest girl in the world?” she drawled dryly in response. But there was no mistaking the fact that she was grinning too, now.

Vesryn leaned his head upon one of his hands, a silly smile worked into place. "D'awww."

“I know, I know. We’re adorable.” But she was smiling, and so he was lifted. All was right with the world, for now, and he would savor it.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

Earnings

0.00 INK

The snow crunched under Zahra's feet as she stepped out of the tavern she'd just recently been occupying. Sure, Lady Sunshine had instructed her to find a woman named Asala, but in the midst of her searching she'd come across this fancy little place. An oasis settled in the mountaintops, filled with the warmth of a crackling fireplace and the sound of a woman's voice, crooning soft-spoken chanties, and tunes she'd never heard of before. There were fairly friendly faces, though they seemed curious as to who she was. Fortunately, it was not a chilly reception. She didn't ask too many questions. Only where she might find this Asala. The alchemists home. Accompanied by a waggling finger pointed in the opposite direction. If the directions were anything to go by all she needed to do was step outside of the building and climb up the pathway.

Before she shut the door behind her, Zahra glanced over her shoulder. Aslan had chosen to come with her as well. In strange lands, familiar faces were welcomed. Especially when her feet were on dry land—or frozen lands, unfamiliar even to her. Never had she seen so many mountains, crested with white caps. Goosebumps raised across her arms, and she rubbed at them with her hands. Never had she been in a place so cold. She let out a low whistle, gestured with her fingers, and slammed the door behind her. He seldom stayed behind, but she'd instructed him to hold the fort while she explored Haven. Best not to have a lumbering Qunari stomping behind her, scowling as he often did. It might not send the right impression. Besides, she'd be right back here. The barkeep had Antivan brandy in her stores, and she had enough coin to spare.

Frostback Mountains. Cold as hell.

She trudged up the slope and pulled the cloak tighter around her shoulders. As stolid as she'd like others to believe she was, she ached to snuggle closer to the campfires she could just see in her peripherals. There were others there, surrounding the fires, holding out their hands to the flames. In the distance, she could hear the clattering of swords and shields. Shouted instructions that grew more and more irritated. As she made her ascent, she spotted erected tents, and people shuffling in and out of them. It wasn't exactly a colorful place to be, but she supposed the Inquisition was all business, and only a little bit of fun, if you knew where to look for it. She crested the top of the hill and planted her hands on her hips, eying the three thatched buildings. Specificity would have been nice, but she'd always been a gambling woman. There was one with a sign, and so, she choose that one.

Like a yowling cat coming in from the cold, Zahra burst into the building and pushed it closed behind her. A raspy laugh bubbled from her lips. She wasn't sure if she'd chosen right, but someone else was in here. Curled up on stool with her back facing her, hunched over whatever she was working on. Tubes and glass decanters littered the tables, as well as books and other objects she'd never laid eyes on before. The horns did not elude her. Fancy that. A Qunari woman. She leaned her back against the door and chewed at the inside of her mouth, “You a lady named Asala?”

There was a clatter of something and the woman's shoulder jerked out of apparent surprise. Zahra had entered rather abruptly and the woman did not seem to expecting it. A moment passed with the woman staring at whatever it was she had been working on, but she said something low under her breath and turned in her seat to greet Zahra.

"I, uh... I am?" she answered, stumbling over her words. Though Qunari, it was clear that she was still rather young. She twitched, glancing back to what she had been working on. Once she had shifted she revealed a mortar and pestle, with a number of reagents next to it. However, the mortar was currently on its side, and the pestle located not far away, dripping with some substance.

Another round of laughter wheezed from her lungs, though this time Zahra had a hard time recovering. She bent double, clapped her hands to her knees, and knuckled at her eyes. Once she'd properly regained her composure, she straightened back up and pushed away from the door. A smile twitched at her lips, and only faltered when the Qunari turned to face her. Not what she was expecting at all. Hair as white as snow, and pretty as a kitten, “Aren't you? Asala, that is. Y'see, Lady Sunshi—Marceline wasn't specific with who I was supposed to be meeting.”

So meek for one so imposing in stature. Even if she was sitting down, she could tell how much taller she was. Supposing she only had Aslan to compare to, it might've not been a fair observation. Zahra stepped closer and peered over her shoulders, scrutinizing her workspace. Mortars and pestles, some kind of liquid. From whatever fancies she liked to dredge up, Qunari wielded humongous weapons, flexed their muscles, and spoke in bugling volumes. This, in any case, was a pleasant surprise. “She said this Asala would be showing me around Haven. Introducing me to interesting folk,” she continued, absently reaching out for the dribbling pestle.

"She... she, uh, did?" Asala stammered, slowly taking the mortar in hand and steadily pulled it out of Zahra's reach. She glanced between her and the workstation she had set up for herself. Asala then gave her a shakey smile and held up an unsteady finger. "O-one moment, please?" she asked before turning back to the mortar and pestle.

Zahra complied and retracted her grubby fingers, allowing Asala far more personal space than she usually allowed people she'd just become acquainted with. Mostly because she asked so politely. She gave her environment another once over as soon as Asala turned back towards her work. And if she hadn't been so curious as to what exactly she was working on, she might have poked around the place: surrounded by bundles of craggy roots, leaves and strange plants, as they were.

"I promised L-Leon that I w-would do this for him," she revealed, plucking some aromatic purple and green leaves from nearby and tossed them into the mixture before returning to the pestel. A moment more of crushing the leaves, she set the pestle down and moved the mortar over a nearby bowl. Inside, a thick creamy mixture that smelled of honey and oats waited. She mixed the juices with the cream and mixed both ingredients thoroughly.

She then reached for another container, this one a wide mouthed bottle. "I-I am sorry, I am al-almost done," she stuttered again, pulling the cream into the container, before finally fastening a lid onto it. Finally done, she stood quickly and moved around Zahra to grab a scarlet cloak that hung from a nail on the wall.

"Ri-right. Where do... who... uh." She said trailing off, apparently not knowing how to phrase the question she wanted to ask.

Crunching dried herbs, mixing things together to make something else, was unusual. Lest it concocted some kind of new drink, Zahra had no interest in such things. She remembered, in a vague sense, that there had been herbalists in her village, though they'd been nothing like Asala. With paper-thin hands, drooping eyes, always trembling as they worked to cure some ailment—she hadn't thought they were impressive, though she hadto admit that this particular mixture smelled... fairly nice. Appetizing even. She ignored the senseless urge to dip her fingers in and stepped away out of her path, “Leon? Might be he's one of those interesting folk I'm supposed to meet.”

She readjusted her cloak and tilted her head, mouth twisting into a grin, “Oh. My manners. My name is Zahra Killiani Tavish. Captain, at that.” There was a considerate pause, a weighing of options. While she may have drawn out the game as long as she possibly could, and continuously correct Asala's attempts at spluttering out her name, often in misleading ways. It felt meaner than she meant it to be. A silly game played with new recruits. But Asala was not one. And she doubted the game would be well-received. Zahra glanced up at the ceiling and stuck out her hand, “But you can call me Zahra.”

“Well. Now that that's done,” she tipped her head towards the bottle of fragrant slime, “we could bring it to its destination, and we could meet your friends on the way.”

"Yes, uh... let's go to the... Chantry, then?" Asala asked rather unsure. Still despite the moment of hesitation, she threw the cloak over her shoulders and clasped it under her chin tightly. Apparently she found the cold as distasteful as Zahra did. They set out from the Alchemist's house and headed toward the direction of the Chantry, though noticably the woman kept looking back at Zahra, though never far enough to actually meet her eyes.

They were on the way up the slope near a small cluster of houses when they were met by a man walking in the opposite direction. He had a sort of air about him that was easy to identify as belonging to one of those noble sorts, if the fact that his cloak was lined with sable and appeared to be otherwise as much silk as linen wasn’t enough to tell. He paused a moment in his stride upon spotting them, apparently at least acquainted with Asala, though nothing much in his expression gave away any particular feeling on his part. He blinked saturated-blue eyes at the both of them, flicking his glance from one to the other, then lifted a brow.

“Forgive me if I operate under a mistaken assumption, but in the event you’re looking for the tavern, you’re going the wrong way.” He didn’t sound all that sorry, actually, and a little smile flirted with one edge of his mouth.

It was Zahra who answered him first, trailing up beside Asala in order to properly snake her arm around her midsection, “Tavern, love? No. I've already come from that direction. Lovely place. Kitten here is showing me the ropes.” The poor lass seemed petrified of her. Of course, she'd have to rectify that. It wouldn't do if anyone here walked on eggshells around her. At least without her intentionally intimidating anyone. Her hand slowly retracted back to her side, releasing Asala from the possibly unwanted embrace. She wasn't sure if this was someone of importance, but she found his eyes peculiar enough. Bright as the open skies. She shoved her hands under her armpits, seeking warmth, and stared back at him, unabashed. There'd been a soft cry from Asala, and a short sidestep.

The man seemed to be entertained by the byplay, if nothing else, and flicked his glance back and forth between them once. “Ah, I see. You must be Captain Tavish, then. Well, don’t allow me to delay you; I’m sure there are interesting things to be seen, people far more important than I to be met, and so on.” His tone carried a thread of humor, as if there were some joke in that only he could identify. He inclined his head in a motion almost too deferentially-polite, and started on his way.

Haven was a small place. Zahra shouldn't have been too surprised that word had spread of her arrival, though she still was. Important people, indeed. Apparently, he found himself falling short, because he'd chosen not to introduce himself. At least, this one seemed to have some indication of fun in him. She tipped her head in his direction, a small smirk playing on her lips.

"Oh, um, Cy-Cyrus?" Asala asked, stepping forward to catch his attention. "Where... uh, is Estella in the Chantry?"

He paused his step and glanced back over his shoulder. “The commander’s office, last I knew.” Shrugging as though it was of little concern, he faced forward again and left them to their own devices.

Asala passed a smile off to Zahra before she continued to lead her upward toward the Chantry. They passed through the large double doors in to the spacious main hall. Asala led into the hall a ways until she turned and pulled up to a door off to the side. Before she opened it however, she spared a few words for Zahra. "Leon's office is, uh, rather small. So. Be aware of that," she said, allowing her to open the door herself. Zahra's eyebrow quirked up at that, though she seemed far too curious to ask what she'd meant. In any case, she would know soon enough.

The door was already cracked, and so fell open at a light touch, revealing that the interior of the room was, indeed, quite small. Both of its occupants were currently standing, one towering over the other by a full foot, though he appeared to be doing his best not to crowd her. “—just wanted to make sure you’re certain,” he was saying, but then he noticed their entrance, and his shift in attention drew her notice as well, and both faced the newcomers.

The man, in addition to being extremely tall, was colored in light tones, from his platinum hair to his fair complexion, a contrast to the dark blue of the tunic he wore. The girl was raven-haired and had eyes of an identical color to the man named Cyrus, as well as a nearly identical, if more feminine, facial structure. Her brows rose at the appearance of the other two, and it was she who spoke first. “Asala? Is something the matter?”

The room's other occupant seemed to have a better understanding of what must be going on. “Ah. Captain Tavish, I presume? Lady Marceline told me to expect you at some point. I’m Leon, and this is Estella, one of the Heralds.” He nodded politely, and Estella half-bowed, offering a small smile.

So, that was what Asala had meant by small. It's cramped in the way that makes her twitch for space. For the blue expanse of the sea. An oppressive room housing two people, huddled together and discussing something she could not discern. Zahra eyed the occupants and beamed with the kind of enthusiasm she'd had on the beach, slaughtering Tevinter soldiers. Haven was filled with curious-looking individuals. Ones who might have suited her merry little crew aboard the Riptide. At least, they had the good sense for variety. Her eyes shifted back towards Asala, idling in the doorway. And racial acceptance. It was a pleasant surprise. She'd made many bad calls when it came to contracts, but she believed that this was not one of them.

“Captain Zahra Tavish,” she echoed, drawing out the syllables, rolling them over her tongue, “A pleasure to meet you.” Another brilliant smile followed with a languid bow of her own. She straightened up and planted her hands at her hips, dark eyes trailing across Leon's broad shoulders, and falling back towards Estella. Another Herald. There was a moment a familiarity, though she was fairly certain she'd never see this woman before. Zahra abruptly snapped her fingers, stepped a little closer and sucked at her teeth, “That's it. The same eyes. Do you have a brother? Because if not, you've a curious double here in Haven.”

“You’ve met Cyrus.” It wasn’t a question, though Estella’s mouth pulled up at one corner, making the resemblance even stronger between them. “We’re siblings, yes. Twins, actually.” The smile faded, naturally enough, and she passed her glance from Zahra to Asala again, tipping her head to one side. “Were you here for some particular reason, or just to meet the Commander? I understand you’ve come with a crew, so I’d like to see them at some point, and thank all of you for helping us.” She didn’t seem to consider it a possibility that anyone would have ventured this far to meet her.

Zahra hummed in reply, and bobbed her head in a nod. Of course, there were twins in Haven. Unusual enough given their location. Honestly, she'd only met one other set of twins in her life. And that was in a rumpled brothel nestled in the darker parts of Denerim. Recalling the event now, it wasn't likely that they were twins at all. There was a poignant pause as she reflected on her time spent there, but Estella was already pulling her back in to know why she'd come all this way, “No specific reason. Marcy thought it'd be prudent to become better acquainted with the Inquisition, and so did I.”

“As soon as they've all landed, we'd be glad to have some proper introductions.” In the tavern. Hopefully. Her crew might've been a rowdy bunch in comparison, but they would fit in just as well. She hooked a thumb towards Asala and grinned brightly, “Besides that, Kitten here had a package to deliver.” She omitted the words sludge and delicious-smelling slime, though she was sure that whatever Asala had to give Leon encompassed both of those things.

"Oh! Uh..." Asala sputtered, apparently surprised at being put on the spot. She went to the pack at her side and fumbled within it for a moment before she retrieved the container she'd placed in it earlier. She held it up for Leon to see. "The balm you, uh, you asked for," she said, crossing the distance to personally hand to him. "Twice a day, if at all possible," she added.

His brows upraised with surprise, perhaps at the timing, Leon accepted the vessel with a small half-smile. “You needn’t have hastened,” he murmured, but he was clearly pleased by it, and pocketed the glassware with a nod of acquiescence to the instructions. “My thanks, Miss Asala.”

Estella was still wearing her own modest smile, and it seemed to encompass the both of them. “It was good to meet you, Captain; thank you for dropping by. I’m sure we’ll run into each other more often as time goes on, and please do let me know when your crew arrives.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

Earnings

0.00 INK

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Those who had been cast down,
The demons who would be gods,
Began to whisper to men from their tombs within the earth.
And the men of Tevinter heard and raised altars
To the pretender-gods once more,
And in return were given, in hushed whispers,
The secrets of darkest magic.
—Canticle of Threnodies 5:11

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The journey up to Redcliffe proved mostly uneventful. Considering the effort that was going into these negotiations, most of the Inquisition’s leadership would be showing up at one point or another, but in order to minimize risk and maximize efficiency, a multi-stage arrival plan had been put in place. A small team had been sent in first; Donnelly’s squad of Lions, to be exact. Their reputation would get them in the door with no troubles, and they’d been doing much of the Inquisition’s work in the Hinterlands anyway, which meant it was no extra effort to get them that far.

Following behind them was the first party of the Inquisition proper, and that consisted of an even smaller group: both Estella and Romulus, as well as Khari, Asala, Meraad, and Leon, which was a group that would make a statement, if nothing else, simply by being who they were. They’d run into no trouble up the road—presumably any there would have been had been cleared out by Donnelly’s team on the way up, though that had been couple of days ago. Even bandits were usually smart enough not to repopulate an area that quickly, after all.

Unfortunately, the calm was not to last, and they were climbing the incline towards the gates of Redcliffe when Estella first saw the greenish cast to the area ahead of them, and grimaced. That could only mean a rift in the Fade had opened there, and that wasn’t good news for anyone. How long it had been there, she didn’t know, but obviously there wasn’t anyone in the town itself that could close it. As they approached, the crystal shifted and crackled ominously, before doing exactly what she knew it was going to do and spitting out half a dozen demons onto the ground before them. Mostly terrors, but it looked like at least one of them was a Despair demon, as well, and the brief burst of crushing sadness that threatened to claw its way up her throat seemed to confirm it.

The quick staccato of footsteps behind her was not difficult to predict, and as usual, Khari breezed right past any attempt to coordinate an approach or strategize as such, in much the same way she breezed past anyone still walking at an ordinary pace, charging the line of demons with palpable enthusiasm. Then again, strategizing might not have helped much anyway—their approach had clearly been noticed. Possibly even less surprising was the fact that she angled herself right for the Despair demon, the most obvious threat on the field, and she brought her unwieldy sword up and over her shoulder, swinging it down to cleave right into the monster’s head.

But the demon, as their kind did, leaped backwards with supernatural agility, and Khari’s sword met empty air. Pulling the strike back with a look of surprise, she blinked, followed its trajectory with her eyes, and grinned, ducking to the side to get out of the way of the ice magic it hurled for her. “You wanna dance? Let’s go, fiend!” And then she was off again after it.

Romulus charged for the terrors, pulling his crossbow free and loosing a bolt into one's shoulder. It wailed and dove straight into the ground, disappearing in its magical pool. Paying it no mind, he continued his charge for the one behind it, which screamed at him, baring claws, before beginning the same spell, about to disappear into the earth. Romulus replaced his crossbow onto his back and closed in.

Before it could vanish beneath the earth, a strange circle of yellow-green light appeared around it on the ground, and the air within the circle's perimeter gaze off a subtle shimmer. The terror's movements suddenly slowed to a crawl, as it slowly spread the magical pool beneath it in an attempt to relocate. Romulus disregarded the strange sight and closed the gap, using the slow movements of the terror to get in close. He made a dive for the terror once in range, looking to plunge his knife into its chest.

When he crossed the edge of the circle, Romulus slowed remarkably as well, though he was entirely suspended in the air. He simply moved at an extremely slow rate towards the terror, as it steadily sank further into the ground. The world around them proceeded at its normal pace.

Estella had no idea what was causing that, but she noted that several other circles or areas of shimmering gold had appeared as well, on the ground around the rift, and she nearly stopped her own progress into the fray, before she shook herself out of it and continued forward, making a note to avoid them where possible. Keeping pace beside her, Leonhardt didn’t seem to care quite as much, and when he stepped into one himself, she observed the opposite effect: he suddenly accelerated, seeming to move at triple the speed until he emerged on the other side, now far ahead of her and looking almost perplexed, which she could see because he was neither helmeted nor armored.

In spite of that, the hit he aimed at the terror nearest him cracked up into its jaw with a resounding crunch, the creature staggered from the blow, unable to retreat inside the voidlike darkness it had been forming at its feet. He was so tall that he simply reached up and took hold of its head, wrenching hard to the side and breaking its thin neck in what she guessed was several places. He flinched a little when it hit the ground, but she couldn’t see what happened after that, because another pool of darkness was forming underneath her, and she had to dive off it, much more prepared for the horror than she had been last time, and the end of her sword stabbed into its back, puncturing a lung before it could shriek and send her to the ground.

She pulled the blade out and thrust her hand up towards the rift, seeking to disrupt it and give her allies ample time to finish off the other demons.

"I hate these creatures," Meraad stated. He was not too far from Estella, just close enough to see smoke rising from his fingertips, and the after affects of a lightning storm around him. Not long after however, darkness began to form underneath his feet. "Asala!" he called, back stepping out of the cloud and was summarily replaced by a sheet of translucent energy-- one of Asala's barriers.

The terror erupted from the ground and met the barrier instantly, the force of which bowing the shield outward before shattering outright. The act stunned the horror long enough for Estella to disrupt the rift, sending it further into confusion. Meraad began to rush the terror, his hands crackling with electricity. Before he was able to strike however, a barrier formed in front of him, slamming into the terror first and putting it on the ground.

Meraad finished by driving the lightning infused fist into the mass of flesh that was its face.

“Ha!” The sharp cry of victory, however, belonged not to him, but to Khari, and the soft burst of a demon being forced back into the Fade followed, a testament to her success over the Despair creature. The lingering hint of oppressive melancholy lifted as well, and it wasn’t long before Khari could be spotted diving back into the fight, hewing another one of the horrors almost in half with a mighty swing of her cleaver.

Meanwhile, Romulus had finally reached the still-diving horror with his diving attack, his blade plunging into its chest at an incredibly slow rate, but still producing a strong spurt of black blood, and still driving the demon out of its hole. The circle steadily began to shrink around them, and when they eventually passed outside of it, the two tumbled around swiftly, back at normal speed, with Romulus ending up on top, where he ended the terror with a swift stab. He looked up at the rest of the fight, blinkly rapidly, obviously confused.

That left one, until it didn’t, because Leon had gotten to it in the intervening time and taken it down, as well. She wasn’t sure how he’d managed to end up standing on its back, pressing its face into the dirt, but he did, and a well-placed stomp snapped its neck, stilling it permanently. It, like the others, faded away into nothing, leaving them with nothing but the rift itself. Once more, Estella raised her hand towards it, the ribbon of green light bursting from her palm to connect her to the disruption in the sky. She felt the familiar tingling in her arm, but she must be getting better at this, because it was no longer painful to do, exactly, only a bit uncomfortable.

With a muted bang, the rift disappeared, and Estella breathed a sigh of relief, sheathing her saber and glancing between Romulus and Leon. “What… happened? It looked like you were moving so slowly, but you seemed to be going much too fast.” She shifted her eyes along with the descriptions, and so they ended on the commander, who was frowning thoughtfully.

“At a guess? That rift specifically was somehow able to create localized distortions in time. Though it’s nothing I’ve ever even heard of before, and I’m not sure how it’s possible.” His expression briefly became a grimace. “A question for Cyrus, more than any of us, I should think.”

She had to agree with him about that, and nodded, but anything further was interrupted by the sound of the gate, and she immediately turned her attention towards it. From inside Redcliffe emerged two figures, walking side-by-side, and they were both familiar to her, though one of them was extremely unexpected. The first was Donnelly, who looked at the spot the rift had been and whistled softly under his breath.

“It’s really just gone, isn’t it? Hard to believe before I saw it, honestly.” He smiled briefly at her before his expression sobered again, and he addressed the group at large. “So, uh… you’re sure the mages were supposed to be expecting us, right? Because we managed to secure the inn for negotiations, but… the situation’s not at all like we thought.” He turned to the woman beside him, expectantly, as though inviting her to continue.

Estella hadn’t known Aurora very well, but she did recognize her, though it had been some years since she saw her last. “Aurora? I didn’t realize you were in Redcliffe.” She must have been the contact here Rilien was talking about. Which meant she knew who the other one probably was, too. But that was a thought for another time.

Aurora's face was not a happy one, though she did allow a smile to slip through when she recognized Estella. "We'd heard you were the Herald, and I guess that settles it," she said, indicating to where the rift had been only moments before. "That was good work, though I'd expect nothing less from the Lions," she said with a grin angled toward Donnelly, who shifted slightly awkwardly. Aurora opened her mouth in order to say something else, but closed it and raised an eyebrow. Something seemed to have distracted her.

Or someone rather. "Asala?" she asked, the smile on her lips widening.

"Hi Aurora," Asala replied, stepping by Estella and toward Aurora, only stopping when she wrapped the smaller woman into an embrace. "It is good to see you, Ash-Talan," she added, though apparently she was unaware that she was lifting Aurora off of her feet. Aurora did not complain, and returned the embrace until she was finally set back down.

"When we heard about the Conclave we were all so worried. We were so glad when Meraad got your letter," Aurora said, gripping the woman's hands tightly. Her gaze then drifted over her shoulder to the grinning Meraad. "Ah, I see you found her rather quickly," she said with a wide smile, though Meraad seemed confused by something.

Donnelly seemed to catch on quickly to what the issue was, which was good because Estella had no idea why Meraad seemed confused by anything. “Everyone in Redcliffe is like this,” he said, grimacing slightly. “It took talking to Aurora for me to really understand, but… no one’s expecting us here, and as far as I can tell, they all think the explosion at the Conclave was very recent. Meraad’s been gone for a few weeks, by our understanding, but somehow… it’s only been a couple of days here, or everyone thinks it’s only been a couple of days, or… something. I don’t really understand, but the point is, we weren’t expected."

“Not even the by Grand Enchanter?” That was Leon, and Estella nodded to second the question.

Donnelly only shook his head. “No, not even by her. And it’s former Grand Enchanter now, if I’m understanding things properly.”

That caused Aurora to cover her face and gently rub at her temples. "It's a... it's a huge mess," Aurora said, clearly not happy with whatever had transpired. "No, for some foolish reason or another, Fiona thought we would have more of a chance if we pledged ourselves to a Tevinter Magister. So no. Fiona is not in charge any more. A magister named Cassius Viridius is," Aurora said, unable to hide the upset tone.

Asala covered her mouth in surprise, and Meraad's brow raised. They exchanged glances before they looked back to Aurora. "I tried to warn anyone I could, but it was our only option," she said, apparently parrotting something someone else had told her. "I really hope the Inquisition can help. I will not follow a Magister. If it were my choice, I would follow you," she said, her eyes falling on Estella.

Estella’s eyes went wide, but not from Aurora’s declaration of support, surprising as she might otherwise have found it. Rather, the name triggered a memory, and she glanced immediately at Romulus, then back to Aurora. This… this probably wasn’t good. She wished Cyrus were here—he’d be arriving shortly, of course, and as soon as he did, they’d need to talk about this, because she wasn’t sure under what terms he’d left his teacher or whether his presence might prove of help or detriment to them in negotiating with the man. The fact that southern mages had pledged something to a Tevinter Magister was unusual, for sure, but Estella couldn’t exactly muster the same obvious disgust that Aurora felt, not without understanding the situation further.

“This is quite a bit of information. We ought to get inside, await the rest of our party, and then decide what to do.” The declaration was more order than suggestion, which made sense, considering it was coming from the commander. Glad to have something more productive to do than sit around and speculate, Estella nodded.

“Right. This… will make things complicated.” Perhaps more complicated than most of the others here would know.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius

Earnings

0.00 INK

Cyrus suspected that Redcliffe had seen much better days.

As far as he’d bothered to assess the situation, Arl Teagan wasn’t currently in residence, though much of what remained of the southern mage forces were. At least those organized enough to deserve the title forces, barely though they may have qualified. He’d arrived with the second group of Inquisition people, about an hour or so after Estella and her advance group, and had since been filled in on the situation. By the time they’d gotten to it, he’d not been surprised to hear the name Cassius Viridius come up—he had a feeling he knew exactly what was going on here, though if he was right, then Cassius was in fact a much more desperate man than Cyrus had previously taken him to be. Then again… two years could change a person. They had certainly changed him.

He hadn’t left much choice for anyone when he said he’d be attending the negotiations. When the unilateral pronouncement didn’t seem to be taken especially well, he’d explained as much as he felt he needed to, which was that Cassius was formerly his master, in the tutelage sense of the term, and that he would be considerably more likely to pay attention to what Cyrus had to say than any upstart southern religious movement, which was all true, especially because there was quite a bit he could hold over his former teacher’s head in this situation, with or without revealing it to anyone else.

The inn they were supposed to be meeting him at was near the top of the central hill in the town, though still a tier below the castle and the Chantry, of course. He, Estella, Romulus, and the Lady Marceline were to be the negotiators, though he suspected that the task in question would inevitably fall to him when the good Comtesse’s kid-glove tactics proved utterly fruitless as he knew they would. Magisters didn’t negotiate the same way southern nobility did—at least not when they knew they were winning. But that was a piece of advice he kept to himself right now. It would become evident with due time.

The air still carried a chill, but he found that it didn’t bother him nearly as much as Haven did, of course, and he’d actually swapped out his cloak for a less-warm but much nicer one, in the rich indigo and sable of his house. Details were rarely insignificant when one played this little game, after all. They reached the inn’s entrance with Cyrus in front, and though he might have preferred to enter first, he understood what was necessary here, and so he reached for the handle of the door, turning back over his shoulder to glance at the others, letting his eyes fall last of all on Estella.

“Show no weakness, unless you fancy being devoured.” As if to soften the cryptic ominousness of the words, he flashed a smile, bright and fey, and narrowed his eyes. “Everyone ready?”

Romulus did not appear ready in the slightest. In fact, he looked deeply unsettled, as though he wasn't sure at all what to do with his hands, or his eyes. "Perhaps I shouldn't be here," he said. The suggestion was given to the group at large, as though he didn't want to direct it at anyone in particular.

"You are the Herald. You have every right to be present. Whether you are or you are not is entirely up to you," Lady Marceline answered. Ever since they had found out that the Free Mages were not expecting them in the slightest, Marceline had seemed to be less than happy. She turned back to Cyrus and nodded, a hard line present in her frown.

“I’d, um. I’d feel better if you were,” Estella said, her tone considerably less brusque than Lady Marceline’s. “I’m not sure I want to be the only one of us standing in front of a Magister. The last time I did something like that, the other party was insulted. Er, but… don’t let me make up your mind.” She shook her head, her expression clearly uneasy.

Romulus was at least able to meet Estella's eyes when she spoke, and while he was clearly still in an anxious mood about everything, he managed to nod, and steady himself a bit. "Let's go, then."

Marceline allowed herself a small sigh before collecting herself. The annoyance she'd wore melted away to leave her face completely neutral, and once more made it difficult to see exactly how she was feeling and what she was thinking.

Personally, Cyrus thought it might have been somewhat wiser for Romulus to not be present, because he didn’t know what Cassius knew or didn’t know about that situation, and it was better to enter any negotiation with all the information on one’s own side, but because it was Estella’s suggestion, he offered no protest, only shrugging. “All right then. Stellulam, dear, you and Romulus should enter first. You are, after all, in charge.” His eyes glittered with contained amusement, and he grasped the handle of the door, sweeping it open with an almost-playful flourish and gesturing the others in ahead of him.

The inside of the inn was mostly unoccupied, as promised, but at a table in the back, several people were gathered. Only four, actually, which made their own number a very wise, if coincidental, confluence. Two of the men were guards, that much was obvious from the way they stood flanking the chair that faced the door. The third, also standing in a somewhat deferential position, was the former Grand Enchanter, but Cyrus could muster no pity for her, despite her obvious misery. He’d never been good at pity in general, and tended to find it even more difficult when someone else had backed themselves into such an obvious corner.

The fourth party had a bearing and a face he knew better than his own, which he supposed was the product of years of familiarity. Magister Cassius Viridius was an elderly man who looked like one, his face lined with age, but even in spite of that, he had a certain distinctive vitality about him, one that was evident in the way he moved: assured, confident, smooth and graceful. He was powerful and exceptionally aware of that power, and unafraid of letting it be known to anyone else. As the party entered, he looked up and over towards the door, an eyebrow ascending his forehead, and he reached up, pushing his hood down onto his shoulders, his bald pate catching some of the light. He was, of course, wearing those gods-awful robes that were apparently still the fashion in Tevinter, the ones that practically screamed ‘sinister mage lord.’ Cyrus had always thought they were a bit ridiculous, but everyone had their foibles, he supposed. He’d at least dressed for the occasion, in House Viridius green and gold.

“Well, well, well.” The Magister’s eyes scanned sharply over each of those present, though they lingered not long at all on Marceline. The other three, however, were of paramount interest to him, though of course they would be. “So it’s true what they say: the 'Heralds of Andraste,' one of our own, and one of our own.” His tone changed on the last words, and his eyes narrowed on Romulus.

The Herald froze entirely, as though Cassius had placed a spell on him with the words alone, though of course he needed nothing more to achieve such an effect. His hood was down, features fully exposed, and it was clear to see that he was struggling to determine what to say. Clearly his issue was that Cassius did not seem to know that Romulus remained with the status of Herald only because his daughter commanded it.

"My trusted blade," said a voice from behind them, and Romulus instantly paled even further, turning his head. "Your freedom has made you bold, I see. I will admit, I did not expect this from you." Chryseis Viridius descended the stairs from the inn's second floor, gloved hand trailing lightly atop the railing. She was dressed as her father was, in green and gold, her own robes a bit tighter about her, with clearly some modifications made for stylistic purposes. The neck was cut lower, the skirt asymmetrically shorn, and the metal covering her fingers and belt intricately engraved. Her blonde hair was done up in an elaborate but tightly wound bun. Her lips wore a confident smile.

Romulus had turned fully away from Cassius, lowered his eyes slightly, and was about to speak, when Chryseis cut him off, continuing her approach. "Do not presume to speak. I have asked you no question. I trust you have enjoyed your little escapade. It will not last forever." Romulus forced himself to meet her eyes, and apparently decided it was best to remain silent. The smile disappeared from Chryseis, replaced by a little smirk, her eyes agleam as they found Cyrus instead.

She worked her way around the group to stand at her father's side, her hand lightly touching his upper arm only momentarily before it was removed. "Cyrus. Wonderful to see you again. The runaway's life is treating you well, I hope?"

“Ah, Chryseis. I confess I have missed the rather lovely sight of your face.” Cyrus’s answering smile was every bit as sly, but it was true that her presence didn’t make him uncomfortable in the least, quite unlike poor Romulus. Of course, it was clear to him what game she was playing, with words like that—it would appear she desired her father to believe that her blade did not have her leave to be here, doing as he was doing, when of course they knew differently.

So Cyrus did something he’d always been exceptionally good at doing, and drew the attention away from someone else and onto himself. “But what a surprise, to see that the most illustrious House Viridius has joined us in the south, hm? This really isn’t the season for it, I must admit.” He made eye contact with Cassius, his smile inching wider. “Imagine, if you will, how interested I was to hear that Magister Cassius had managed to indenture most of the mages left in the region in one fell swoop. Truly a master stroke, executed with a most uncanny timing.” The emphasis he gave the last word was so delicate it could easily have been missed, but Cassius clearly did not miss it.

“What can I say? A Magister with no apprentice suddenly finds himself with a great deal of time to think down other avenues.” The old man lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “And what luck, that such avenues might give him opportunity to meet with an Inquisition. I’m curious: what would such an organization wish from me?”

Lady Marceline apparently decided that that was her cue. She laid a hand on Estella's shoulder and gently guided her so that she could step forward, but she never did try to overshadow her. In fact, she stood side-by-side with the woman, a warm and friendly smile on her lips directed toward Chryseis and Cassius. "I will be frank," she began, her voice holding the same warmth her smile held. "The Inquisition did not expect to be speaking to Magisters of such... renown," she said, dipping into a low curtsey.

When she finished, she held her hands on top of each other and her body language shifted in an attempt to entreaty them. "Lord Cassius, Lady Chryseis," she began, glancing at each in turn. "You of course know of the Breach that hangs in the sky above Haven. It is... a danger if it is allowed to continue to exist as such. All the Inquisition asks for is the Free Mages' aid in helping to close it. With your permissions, of course."

She smiled again and tilted her head forward, "No doubt being the man who had helped put Thedas at ease would aid in your politics back home in Minrathous, yes?"

Cyrus suppressed a grimace, because he knew she’d said the wrong thing. Cassius’s smile only confirmed it. It was polite, indifferent, and utterly unmoved. “I fear you understand little of politics in Minrathous, milady. These mages are not free, not in the strict sense, anyway. I am afraid they have promised me their service in return for my protection, and at present, I have decided it is in their best interest to return with me to the Imperium as quickly as possible. There have always been few good places for them in these lands, after all.”

It was almost admirable, how he managed to sound like he actually gave a damn. Cyrus, of course, knew that Cassius was just as full of shit on this count as Marceline was, pretending to be pleased to be speaking to Imperial Magisters. It was almost funny to watch, but then of course he had to go and make it no longer funny at all by shifting his attention to Estella.

“I am sure that is something with which my lady Herald can completely agree, can she not? I’ve heard about Kirkwall; most unfortunate, what Templars in these regions are capable of. Utter madness, really. One could hardly blame a mage for seeking refuge where their abilities, however grand or humble, are celebrated rather than reviled.” Cyrus clenched his teeth.

“I can think of no one who would not celebrate were the Breach closed,” Estella replied, her tone careful, her face smooth and passive. “And I think that if you truly cared how mages were perceived here, you would let mages be the root of the solution.” She lifted her chin slightly, almost as if daring him to contradict her. Marceline simply continued to smile, though this time, it was genuine.

Cyrus did not bother to conceal his own. She was absolutely brilliant, she really was. It was so very perfect, really—no one could have managed to make that sound so genuine except for her, he was certain, and Cassius was left in the rather unenviable position of having to admit he didn’t care about the mages, or that he wanted the Breach to remain open, which was an intriguing possibility that Cyrus filed away for consideration. He suspected both were true. Of course, admitting the first would cost him considerably less, but he’d no longer be able to pretend to the moral high ground. This would be seen for exactly what it was: an opportunistic power-grab.

That appeared to be the route he’d chosen. Cassius’s polite smile vanished, replaced with a stern expression Cyrus knew all too well. It was the expression he’d usually received when his master was about to commence ignoring him until he’d gained command of whatever he was supposed to learn that week, which meant he was extremely displeased. “I’m afraid I’ve little concern for such affairs. I am not the one with an Inquisition, after all. Unless you can offer me something worthwhile in exchange for my loan of my servants, this discussion is quite over. We will be in the castle for a while longer—perhaps you shall devise some new terms in the meantime.” Cassius stood, gesturing to his guards and Fiona, who all fell in step behind him as he made for the exit.

Chryseis remained behind, her back leaned gently against one of the inn's wooden supports. Her expression had not changed as her father's had, instead showing a hint of amusement as her eyes followed Cassius until he was out the door with all of his personal guards. When the door was firmly shut behind him, her eyes fell to Estella, her smile still in place. "Words well chosen. But make no mistake, you are all in great danger by being here. A danger I believe only Cyrus can understand the magnitude of." The smile slowly faded.

She stepped away from the wooden support, coming a little closer to them. "I must remain in my father's presence until night falls, to avoid suspicion. Meet me in the Chantry tonight, if you will, so that we can... catch up." She flashed a smile briefly at Cyrus, before walking around the side of the group and lightly grabbing Romulus by the chin, between her thumb and forefinger. "I know you at least will follow my wish." She released him, and Romulus immediately averted his eyes downwards.

"Domina."

"Until tonight, then," she said, striding towards the door. "Take care, Inquisition."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius

Earnings

0.00 INK

As the door closed behind Chryseis after her departure, Marceline's smile left her lips as well. What replaced it was an even line to her lips, though it was clear to the others that she was not enthusiastic about what had transpired. She had felt ill prepared and most of all, foolish. She did not enjoy those feelings, and took any and all precautions to ensure that she never felt them. She could not fault any of them for it, she knew. None of them had expected how this would turn out when they left Haven. Marceline thought that they were to deal with vulnerable mages, not a Tevinter Magister and his daughter.

Before the others attempted to exit the inn, Lady Marceline held up a hand to beckon them to stay. "I would kindly ask that you two please remain for a moment longer. I believe we have things to discuss. Lady Estella, if you would be so kind to join us?" It was a polite way of ordering them to remain. Marceline strode toward a nearby bench and indicated that they should all take a seat.

Cyrus didn’t appear to have any objections, given the way he shrugged indifferently and took a seat on the opposite side of the bench, leaning his back against the wall and crossing his arms over his chest. It was relaxed rather than defensive, though he did cock his head to one side. “I didn’t know they were going to be here, if that’s what you’re wondering.” The table near his elbow contained a few leftover glasses, likely from before the inn had been vacated for the meeting. He brought one to his nose, sniffed, frowned, and set it back down again, further from himself than it had been before. “I hadn’t seen either of them in a couple of years, actually.”

"I didn't expect this either," Romulus said, taking a seat at the far end from Cyrus, leaving a space for Estella in between them. He placed his elbows upon the table, lowering his head into his hands, and rubbing his scalp for a moment. He looked a little less wound up now that Chryseis had left the room, but his anxiety from before was seemingly just replaced with a different variety now. "Even after we learned Cassius was here. My domina... I knew she had an interest in the south, but this is not usual for her. She does not often directly assist her father with anything. I believe we should meet with her in the Chantry, as she said. I, at least, must go."

Marceline shook her head, "No, I am not so unreasonable as to believe either of you would intentionally have kept this from us," she said. She wasn't angry, nor was she even frustrated with them. She was frustrated at the situation, and she would see to it that next time she would not so unprepared. She too reached for a glass, and upon looking into it, turned her nose up and set it to the side, far out of her way. The tastes in this part of the country left much to be desired, she decided.

She then turned to Romulus and nodded in agreement, "And we will, but first, we need to discuss some things." At that, she turned to Estella and wait for the girl to take a seat before she finally seated herself.

Estella did so, though she seemed a bit like she wasn’t sure what she was still doing there. Settling herself between Cyrus on one side and Romulus on the other, she laid her hands flat on the surface of the table. “Uh… what things, exactly?” She actually looked as though she had some guesses, but if so, she kept them to herself.

"Everything that they are able to tell me about both Cassius and Chryseis," she told Estella, before glancing at both Cyrus and Romulus. Had she the time, she would have had Larissa look into the Magisters while she asked around the nobility. But time was not on their side, it seemed. "The next time we speak with them, I will not be caught unawares," she said with a rather firm tone. It would be the only hint at the frustration she felt. With that, Marceline cradled her hands into her lap and looked to Cyrus, her eyes level with his.

"Cyrus, let us start with Cassius. What can you tell me of the man?" she asked. "Aside from the clear fact that he is an opportunist." Marceline would have been impressed that he was able to snatch the support of the Free Mages had she not been personally invested in their wellbeing.

Cyrus blinked, the everything in his expression languid, easy, and entirely missing the urgency that Marceline was expressing. His arms loosened, and he moved one of them to the table, drumming his fingers against it in an absent rhythm. “Lady Marceline, the man was my master—my teacher—for almost ten years, though he’d put the number closer to fifteen.” He fixed her with his eyes, and smiled slightly, arching a brow. “Had I the inclination, I could write you his biography. I’m afraid you’re going to have to be much more specific.”

Marceline accepted the answer and nodded, "Then, would you know why he would press the Free Mages into servitude?" she asked, "What would his plan for them be? He is a powerful man, even without the mages' support, that much is clear. What does he hope to gain by doing this?"

He shrugged, as though it should be obvious. “He wants what everyone wants—more power. House Viridius is very old and very well-respected in the Imperium, but fortunes can change very quickly even for an Altus house. He recently found himself with a collapsed investment, and he needs a way to make up the difference as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Indenturing the remaining southern mages to his servitude is a very good strategy, considering his position. They wouldn’t count for much in Tevinter—their training is obviously inferior, but that can be rectified with time. More importantly, he’ll be the first magister in a very long time to so successfully undercut the southern Chantry, which almost all magisters disdain at the very least, and his cleverness and daring will be the talk of Minrathous.”

Cyrus appeared to consider something for a moment, then added: “And I suppose in another five years or so, he may well have the largest conglomerate of mages over which he commands direct loyalty. Mages can be servants or slaves, in Tevinter, but not so many usually are. There is advantage in that, I’m sure you can see.”

"Am I incorrect in assuming that you were the collapsed investment?" Marceline asked.

“People as capital? My, my, you’re thinking much more like a magister now, Lady Marceline.” Cyrus’s eyes were narrow, though it was impossible to distinguish whether mirth or malice did it. Perhaps both. “But you are correct. An apprenticeship is a significant institution, in the Imperium. It binds two houses together in a way usually only superseded by blood relation or marriage. He instructed me, and I was expected, in turn, to ascend to the Magisterium and act as his stalwart ally, and, if the occasion called for it, an extension of his will. He put a lot of effort into making sure I’d be very good at it.” He smiled without humor.

“You southerners have this quaint idiom for that… something about eggs and baskets?”

Marceline could not help but smile at that. "I shall take it as a comfort to know that Cassius' investment is the Inquisition's gain," with that she nodded, "Thank you Lord Cyrus." The fact that Cassius' former apprentice worked with the Inquisition, or the very least, his sister, should vex the magister, even by a small amount. Marceline could not help be feel a little gladdened by that.

She then went into thought for a moment. It appeared that she had misunderstood Minrathous politics after all, a revelation that came with no little sting. "So he gathers strength and public support with a single act in binding the mages to him. Shrewd," she said, sounding a small bit impressed. It stung, yes, but she could not discount the man's cunning. It would only reinforce the point that she need to be careful in any further dealings with the man.

“He has always been that, yes.”

"Does he have any habits or weaknesses we could exploit? We can not simply allow him to return to Minrathous with the Free Mages," she said.

“Pride, of course, though it’s likely to do you little good.” Cyrus crossed one leg over the other, glancing down past Estella at Romulus. “What should interest you more is that Chryseis has not seen fit to inform him of the fact that she has licensed Romulus to be here. She’s always had her own mind, quite apart from his despite their relation, and here it would seem that she’s being subversive about it. You’ll want to find out why.”

"I intend to," Marceline said, referring to the meeting to be held at the Chantry, but first, she turned to Romulus, "But first, I would like to know more of the woman. Tell me, Romulus, what is she like? Personality wise, of course. If I am correct in my assumption, what we had seen from her initially was a mask. I wish to know of the woman behind the mask," she asked, quite curious to the answer. "Anything you can tell me will be helpful," she added.

Romulus didn't seem prepared to speak about her personality or behavior, his mouth hanging open somewhat foolishly for a moment before he swallowed, sitting up a little straighter. "She is..." He paused, struggling for the correct words. "She's always calculating. Making estimations of people. Learning about them, predicting them. She isn't prideful like her father, but she is idealistic. It was always something that put the two at odds with each other." He scratched his head again, clearly uncomfortable about broaching the subject, but this was nothing new for him.

"We've known each other since adolescence. She has changed since then. Her tutoring from her father, her marriage, her husband's death, her own ideals drawing the ire of others in Minrathous... she's grim under her mask, as you say, but stubborn. She is here to help herself, not her father. If the two were one and the same, she would've told him that I remain loyal."

Marceline brought her hands to her chin, where they rested. She listened to Romulus before she nodded. "That is something we can work with then," Marceline said. If Chryseis was there to subvert her father, then perhaps she would continue to aid the Inquisition in a more direct manner. Though Marceline would not offer the woman her complete trust. It would be foolish to do so, it was as Romulus said. She was there for her. Not them, nor her father.

"Do you know what she would hope to gain here, if she were to aid us?" Marceline asked. She had already helped by allowing Romulus to continue to act as Herald, and if that was any indication, she would continue to aid them. Though at what price she wondered.

"I can't claim to know what she wants," Romulus admitted, shrugging. "But I doubt she would openly aid us, not until it suits her. Maybe this has more to do with her father. They are still family, after all. Cassius is not an easy man to dissuade, especially through peaceful means.” His daughter, as Romulus had described her, was much the same, in her own way.

Marceline went quiet for a bit before she shook her head and began to stand. "There is nothing else we are able to do at this time. We will wait until nightfall and then meet with Chryseis at the chantry. I suggest you all rest and prepare yourselves until then. Romulus, Cyrus? Thank you, this has been most... enlightening," she said with a smile.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

Earnings

0.00 INK

This was infinitely more comfortable than she’d been a couple of hours ago.

Estella had Rilien on one side and Donnelly on the other too, as the three of them had decided to pay a visit down to the section of the mages’ encampment that belonged to Aurora’s faction. Which meant some people she’d just met, like Meraad, but also some people she’d known, however briefly, several years ago, including Donovan and Aurora herself, from the old Kirkwall mage underground. Estella suspected Rilien had some business with them, but she also knew him well enough that she thought she could detect a certain anticipation in him independent of that. It had occurred to her that Sparrow might be around as well, and she wondered how he felt about that.

Because he did feel about it, even if she was the only one who knew so.

In any case, she’d looped one of her arms through one of Donnelly’s, who was goofily and with much exaggerated pomp and circumstance pretending to be a knight in charge of escorting ‘the lady Herald’, a title her friends could only ever use with humor. She was grateful for that about them, really; if everyone was so serious about it all the time, she was certain she’d crack under the pressure. She tugged him a bit to the side, so that she could even be so daring as to loop her other arm with Rilien’s, offering him her best reassuring smile. She wasn’t entirely sure he needed it, but she wanted him to know that she knew, at least a little bit, what this could possibly mean for him. Even if that wasn’t the same as what it might mean for someone else. Rilien's slightly-severe neutrality of expression softened almost imperceptibly, and he nodded, showing no resistance to the contact.

They approached Aurora in this rather ridiculous fashion, at which point Donnelly pointedly cleared his throat to announce their presence to Aurora and her second-in-command, Donovan. “Lady and gentleman, may I present to you the Herald of Andraste? She’s here…” He paused for a moment to laugh when Estella jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow, then tried to recover. Ahem—she’s here on very official and important business you see, and very official and important people have—ow, Stel!” He let go of her arm and doubled over, still laughing, his hands on his knees. “The Maker is cruel, to have sent us such an abusive Herald!”

Estella rolled her eyes. “Forgive him, he’s an idiot. I’m actually only here to see you. I thought it might be nice for all of us to do a little catching up.” It wasn’t like they had anything else to accomplish with the afternoon, really, and she’d enjoy hearing about what they’d been up to, she was sure.

Aurora grinned, an eyebrow raised toward Donnelly in mock surprise. "It's fine Estella. I wouldn't believe they'd let Donnelly present anyone on official business," she said, chuckling. Aurora's group, or what could be seen of them sat around a campfire on makeshift chairs. She was the only one who stood to greet Estella, Rilien, and Donnelly. Nearby Donovan stirred something in a large pot, but from the scent it wasn't anything for potions, but that day's dinner. Asala sat next to him, and chattered about, apparently talking about the people in the Inquisition. It appeared that she was currently talking about Khari.

"She is... different. Like she wears this metal mask, yes? And when she is in a fight she laughs! Who laughs while they are in a fight?" She chittered. Donovan appeared to take it in stride, nodding his head when necessary, though like always, a smile never came to his lips. The only hint to his amusement was the wrinkles in the corner of his eyes, though whether it were because of the story, or Asala herself, it wasn't clear. What was clear however, was that Donovan was used to it. Asala saw Estella, and provided a little wave for her before she continued to chatter to Donovan.

Aurora only laughed and returned her attention to Estella, but did point in Asala's direction. "She's way ahead of you," she revealed. Before she returned to her seat, she offered the others to take one well. "Sure, we can talk. We have nothing but time, apparently."

Estella smiled and took a chair, Donnelly beside her doing the same, dragging his so that it was slightly closer to the rest of them. He was still clearly in a good mood, but he’d abandoned the theatrics for the moment, and pulled one leg up to cross his ankle over his knee, his longsword propped against the arm of the chair. He scrubbed both hands through his mop of straw-colored hair, sending pieces of it askew in every direction. Though he yet wore the grin, he seemed content to let the others do the talking. Rilien's mood seemed to be about the same as it ever was, and he didn't break into the discussion at this point, either.

“I’d heard rumors, about you and the others, after you left Kirkwall. But I didn’t know you’d met Asala. How did that one come about?” She couldn’t help but notice that the Tal-Vashoth woman seemed much more comfortable here than she was in Haven, to the point where she was actually being chatty, it seemed. That was quite unexpected

"That's... a story," Aurora said before she chuckled to herself. Before she could begin to tell it though, another approached. It was an elf, about Aurora's height with brown brown eyes and braided hair. However the most noticable feature of the woman was the sunburst brand on her forehead, mirroring Rilien's own. She stepped between them an approached Donovan, handing him a pouch of something. "The spices you asked for Donovan," she said, her tone hollow. He nodded his appreciation and took the pouch, and with that, she took a seat near Aurora.

Aurora's gaze lingered on her for a moment before she began. "We were in Antiva City. The Mage rebellion had just began in earnest, and I wanted to help the mages still trapped in the Circle by the templars. That's where we found Milly," she said, rubbing the tranquil's back, "And Asala and Meraad," she said, throwing a gaze at the two Qunari. Asala blushed and looked away, and Meraad inspected the horizon. Aurora only laughed. "That one," she said, pointing to Meraad, "Should explain to you why they were there in the first place." Asala teased him by sticking her tongue out at him.

Meraad sighed and rubbed a spot under his horns. "It seemed like a good idea to begin with. When the mages began to rebel, I believed it best that Kadan and I seek them out to aid in honing our abilities."

Asala quickly cut in to add her own opinion. "You just wished to leave home and see the world. You never could sit still," she said with a smile, and Meraad did not try to refute her.

"We had heard that Antiva City possessed a Circle, so we came south to see for ourselves... We did not expect so many templars, Meraad said, "Nor that they would be so... angry," Asala added.

"That was when we ran into them," Aurora revealed. "We helped them evade the templars, and in turn they helped us save as many mages as we could. Including this one," Aurora indicated to Milly. "They have been with us since. We have been helping refine their technique. Asala's a very intelligent student. Meraad... tries," Aurora said with a grin.

Asala glanced at Meraad before turning back to Estella, shielding her mouth and whispering, "Impatient," to her. Meraad seemed to pretend to not hear her, though he obviously did.

"And you?" She asked the trio of Estella, Donnelly, and Rilien. "How have you been?"

“It’s been… interesting, for sure.” Estella wasn’t sure she had better terms for it than that, though she’d readily admit it was terrifying as often as not. “The Lions have been really busy over the last couple of years—the Kirkwall branch, too, according to the Commander.” Beside her, Donnelly nodded. “We’ve spent most of our time in Orlais, though there were a couple of jobs we were hired for in Antiva and the Anderfels. Those were exceptions, though.”

“The civil war has meant Commander Lucien’s mostly been keeping us inside Orlais,” Donnelly agreed with a grimace. “That stuff’s… really messed up, to be honest. Three factions of chevaliers, and three ordinary infantry factions to match, plus all the mercs people have been hiring, and then the bandits in the countryside, and all the fighting between mages and templars… we’re never out of work, that’s for sure.” He didn’t sound too happy about it, and Estella shared the sentiment. There was a certain extent to which the Argent Lions being in such high demand was actually a bad thing, because it meant that death was everywhere, and they weren’t being hired for escorts or bodyguarding or any of the things that would be most of their business in peacetime, like they used to be in Kirkwall.

“He sent us to the Conclave, you know, for security. I’m surprised he could even spare this many of us. They must really be feeling the lack of people right now.” The Orlesian branch of the company only had about sixty people, and even that was much larger than the number Lucien would have preferred, she knew. It also included all the recruits they’d taken on recently, when the demand proved too high for the rest of them to account for. Considering how many of them weren’t really ready to be fighting yet, and then the loss of her own ten, the company was in bad shape, at least numbers-wise, and nearly half of what was left were helping the Inquisition for an indefinite period of time.

“I was surprised, though, that the Inquisition was even planned. I hadn’t seen Rilien in a while, but I didn’t know this was why.” She’d gotten the story from him since, of course, but she glanced over at him anyway, wondering if there was some version of it he might be willing to share with the group at large.

“It was not, initially.” The Tranquil’s correction was mild, and he folded his legs underneath him on the chair he occupied. “What is now the Inquisition’s informational network was meant to be Ser Lucien’s, and I’d been working on assembling it since our initial return to Orlais. He did not at first know I was doing so, and by the time I elected to share the information, it was well-established. As it happened, this coincided with the Divine’s request that he lend his aid to the Conclave, and if it failed, to the Inquisition.” Rilien steepled his hands, more thoughtfully than anything.

“As his own endeavors were in no way yet reliant on what my agents could provide, it was easy enough to reconfigure them for this purpose, and he asked me to oversee this, and in so doing, provide the Inquisition with something it did not have, but would need.” He lifted a shoulder. “And so until it serves him better for me to do something else, I will remain.” It was evident that his concern was less for the Inquisition itself and more for the fact that Lucien supported it, but then, that was not so much a problem as divided loyalty in someone else might have been, considering the nature of the second party Rilien was loyal to.

His brows furrowed just a fraction, then, and he focused intently upon Aurora. “Is… is she here as well, then?” The hesitation was rare, but no particular inflection was given to it. It could have been any mundane inquiry, save the pause in it.

Aurora simply nodded, the smile having left her lips a while ago. "Yes. Somewhere," she answered, "You know how she is... flighty as always." Rilien did not initially react to this, but then he returned the nod and sat back slightly in his chair, apparently deep in thought.

“You know,” Estella ventured, drawing the conversation back into its previous locus, or one close, “I find it really… strange. Supposedly, the Arl of Redcliffe isn’t even around, but there’s no way a Fereldan nobleman would allow Magisters to use his castle in his absence, right? Do you think he knows they’re here?”

Aurora sighed at that and shook her head. "He knows they're here," she said. "Have you noticed there aren't any of the Arl's guards either? The Magisters forced the Arl and his men out," Aurora revealed, leaning back in her seat. All in one moment, the years spent in conflict seemed to show on her face, at least for only that moment.

"The last I heard, Arl Teagan was on his way to the King in Denerim to ask for help in retaking his home," she said, clearly not happy with how everything had turned out. Instead, she leaned forward and rest her elbows on her knees, looking to both Estella and Rilien. "I... have a favor to ask of you two. Well, pehaps not a favor. A proposition," she said, glancing over to Donovan. He simply nodded in response and she resumed speaking. "We-- that is, me and the mages who follow me, we have fought to keep ourselves free. I would not see Fiona try to sell us out or an Imperium Magister pretend that he holds our chains."

She glanced back up to Rilien once more, though a strength remained in her eyes. "I would instead offer our aid to the Inquisition. We will not be controlled by anyone but ourselves and while we are only a few, we will do whatever we can in order to aid the Inquisition."

“Personally, I’d be glad to have your help,” Estella said, and it was the truth. She knew Aurora was a good person, and that the mages who followed her were likely the same. They represented only a small fraction of the total mages in Redcliffe, never mind the south, but she knew they needed all the help they could get, and she could sympathize with their desire to choose their own fates.

But for all they called her Herald, Estella had no illusions that she was in charge of anything, and so her eyes, too, sought Rilien’s, as they so often had when she found herself unsure of her direction.

Rilien appeared to give it some consideration, but in the end he simply nodded. “Aside from our personal inclinations, I do believe you would be of assistance to us. It will take some time for me to decide exactly how, but yes. You are welcome.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

Earnings

0.00 INK

Rilien Falavel was not, particularly, an elf who spent much of his time thinking about the past.

He’d never seen the point in it, and furthermore, until the later part of his life thus far, he’d also never had anything especially pleasant to think about when it came to that. But for all of the things he could have said about the inefficiency of it, or the foolishness, even, he did occasionally find himself ruminating upon it now, usually after he received a letter from Aurora, or Ashton, or even Bodahn. He’d find himself suddenly slipping into some kind of recollection, of Kirkwall, and the time he’d spent there and the people he spent it with. It was highly inconvenient and sometimes even caused him to brush up against the emotion that most people called irritation, because he would remember himself later only to find that his taper had burned down a candlemark and the reports he was supposed to be parsing were no closer to completion.

He considered it fortunate that this was the first time he’d ever been to Redcliffe, because he was already… distracted enough, as it was. In this case, it was because he knew they were here, the so-called Free Mages, and he knew that because they were, they were, a more specific subset of two that had once been of particular concern to him. One still was; he was in regular written communication with Aurora, after all. He would even admit to a certain degree of pleasure, upon meeting her in person for the first time in several years. Perhaps it was that he had been in contact so regularly, however, that allowed him to simply resume their previous pattern of interaction as though it had never been interrupted. There had been no break in their… he supposed the word most people would use was friendship. Whatever that meant for someone like him, it had endured the intervening time and distance quite easily.

But Sparrow had written him no letters. And there had most certainly been a break in that relationship, whatever the word was for it. Too many words might apply, none of them adequately to capture all of its facets. They’d severed that tie, no matter the name, and they had done so at his insistence. So it was only logical that he avoided her now—that he conducted his business with the Free Mages through Aurora or Milly or Donovan, and that whenever he believed he heard a familiar shambling tread, he found a reason and method to disappear, as though he’d never been there at all. With luck, she would never even know he’d been here until he was gone. He truly believed that was for the best.

He stood presently inside the command tent, alone save for Tanith, who sat at a small folding desk, writing diligently. The commander, as he understood, was out and about in Redcliffe itself, and Lady Marceline was doubtless seeing to what she could discover about the Arl’s notable absence from his own holding. Rilien was attempting to take in the details of the map of the area that Tanith had drawn from survey-gathered details Lieutenant Donnelly’s troops had taken the opportunity to collect while stationed here. He was not, however, meeting with much success. He kept finding that his mind had wandered, most uncharacteristically of him, and that it always wandered to the same place. Or person, rather. He’d so long taken himself to be responsible for seeing to her good health and contentment—he was unprepared for the strength of the instinct, to simply go check on her, and assume that responsibility again, however temporarily.

Someone cleared their throat from outside of Rilien's tent. There was a brief glimpse of leather boots and folded arms peeping beside the canvas flap that hung down: head obscured. The individual made no movement to actually enter. Another short pause followed, and the person shuffled their weight from foot to foot. Gloved fingers tapped a tuneless beat against their elbow, until a familiar voice inquired, “Too busy to talk?”

Rilien’s jaw tightened, imperceptible to most, but Tanith, who’d looked up at the sound of a clearing throat, noticed. “I believe I will go deliver these documents to Miss Larissa.” She looked directly at him when she said it, what was conveyed by her expression extremely obvious. Do not disappear this time. He was not sure when she had decided she was licensed to mother-hen him, but then, she’d done that last time they knew each other, too, and he suspected she’d rather not acknowledge all that had changed between then and now. He allowed it, at any rate, though he made no promises.

“Send in my guest, then.” He watched the flicker of approval enter her tawny eyes, and the way pleasure deepened the lines at the corners of them, before she opened the tent flap, offering a smile and gesturing the intruder inside. He was… it was good to know that she had those, for it meant that she had laughed in her life. His face would always have its uncanny smoothness, he supposed, until he was a very old man indeed, because he had neither laughed nor frowned overmuch in his entire span of years.

His laughter and his sorrow had always been vicarious.

He did not immediately say anything as she entered, folding his hands into his sleeves and studying her instead, head slightly tilted, as though inviting her to say whatever had brought her here. In truth, he laid that burden at her feet because he knew not what to say.

A brief, “Thank you,” sounded as Tanith departed the tent. The individual ducked beneath the flap and entered. It seemed, much had changed over the years. Her ashy hair would have tumbled down her shoulders if it was not bound into a loose bun, though strands hung in front of her freckled face. Newer scars banded her jawline. A prominent one marked the side of her cheek. She still wore her dragonhide armour, looking a little worse for wear. A loose white tunic and a pair of brown trousers completed her garments. Her mace did not hang at her back any longer, and gaudy bangles did not signal her approach. Her mouth was settled into a hard line, and her murky eyes seemed to scrutinize Rilien just as curiously.

As soon as it was apparent that Rilien would not break the silence growing between them, Sparrow's forehead creased and a sigh puffed from between her lips, “You look like you're doing well, Rillien.” A simple observation. If she was uncomfortable with this impromptu meeting, she did well not showing it. She gave him another once over and uncrossed her arms, settling them back to her sides. “I thought I would—” whatever she'd meant to say, she thought better of it and spread her hands out wide, mouth twisting into a shadow of a smile, “The Inquisition, huh. A far cry from Orlais. I'm sure there's a story there, but I haven't come here for stories. I came to see how you fared.”

Businesslike. Brusque, even. Rilien felt a dull surprise at that, one that, of course, did not ever make it to the surface of his expression. “I should think it fairly obvious.” He used his eyes to gesture at the tent itself, at the accouterments of command that occupied it. He looked essentially identical to the person he'd been three years ago, when they’d last seen one another. Even more than she’d changed, he’d remained the same. It was what he did, after all—no one Rilien knew changed less than he did, no matter what experiences his life carried him through.

He was still dressed in the way he’d used to favor, save that perhaps now, he wore slightly darker colors and richer, more heavily-embroidered silks. His daggers had been moved a bit, crossed over the small of his back, a hilt protruding slightly from each side of his sash, and he’d cut his hair again, so that it trailed no lower than his nape, but the snowy color remained the same. His brand was the same; everything was, in fact, the same. Including his reasons for instituting their parting in the first place.

Sparrow's gaze drifted away from Rilien's as soon as he looked away. Instead, she studied the objects scattered around the tent. As if the answers would suddenly reveal themselves. And she uprooted herself from where she'd been standing and wandered around. Small enough as it was, she plopped down on a crate. Perched like a small bird: tireless, impatient. Her hands remained at her sides, though she squinted over at the parchment papers sitting on the wooden table, half-written. Her expression read that perhaps, it wasn't as obvious as he said.

“And yourself? I do not remember that scar.” He drew his thumb across the same spot on his own face, but of course all that he left behind was smooth skin. The only flaw in his facial symmetry, if one discounted the brand itself, was that his nose was no longer perfectly straight, in profile. It had been broken for her sake, in a sense, which was unsurprising.

“Reckless abandon. You remember well enough how I fight,” Sparrow replied, lifting one of her shoulders in a half shrug. Her voice might have been as even as his was. Whatever the story was, she judged it inconsequential and turned back to face him fully. There were no feral-corners to the sides of her lips, no bared teeth. Only a resolute line, and ever-studying eyes. For a brief moment, Sparrow pinched her them shut, and reopened them, “Just as good as Aurora has been.” There was an accusatory note, however slight. Nearly imperceptible. Though, she did not elaborate.

The steady, sauntering gait of her old manner of speaking rippled through the cool veneer, “Y'know, it was difficult tracking you down here, in this place. Each time I was pointed to where you were supposed to be, you weren't there. The third time, I found it odd.”

“I have a great number of things to do; rarely am I in one place for long.” The lie was effortless, and it changed nothing about his demeanor at all. Rilien had no tells; they’d been trained out of him a decade ago—longer, even. Even before then, he’d been a rather magnificent deceiver. This one was even easier, because all he said was true, and only the implication was a lie. That he hadn’t been consciously avoiding her. Because some part of him didn’t want to see her, didn’t want to know what three years had done. Wanted to believe that she was just as immutable as he told himself he was. But of course that was untrue. Sparrow had always been changeable, adaptable, in truth and not merely in appearance.

She would have easily grown accustomed to life without him. Much more easily than he had grown accustomed to life without her.

A shade of emotion crossed her features and settled just behind her eyes. There was another pause, and a searching look before her shoulders sagged down a few inches. Another breath puffed from her between her lips, slightly exasperated. Her hands traced shapeless patterns across her knees, trailing the messy stitching and repeating them once she'd finished. She looked away from him and licked her lips, taking the lie with little more than a tepid frown, “I suppose that's true.”

“Aurora has committed the remnants of the free mages she leads to the service of the Inquisition, at least for now. Will you be joining them?” He blinked at her with his usual sanguine manner, but he wasn’t completely without feeling, and he could not just now pretend to it. The problem was, he had no idea what nascent feeling this one in his gut was trying to become. He could not say if he quasi-felt dread, or something different. Any of them would have been illogical. Any of them would be possible, with her.

Sparrow uncurled and sat up straighter when Rilien posed his question. Her eyebrows rose, and fell. Whatever he'd said rattled her far more than she was letting on. It appeared as if she was searching once more, head tilted owlishly. Even so, she did not answer him quickly. A small muscle jumped across her jawline, and the scars pulled at the edges when her lips twisted into a half-smile, “Yes. I told her that I would.” While she no longer looked like a bird preparing for its next flight, her voice was pensive, “Does that bother you?”

“…No.” His answer was not quick, and even he did not know with any certainty if it was a truth or a falsehood. He looked back down at his map for a moment, a heavy breath passing through his lungs, though it wasn’t a sigh. Rilien never did that. Returning his eyes to her, he nodded slightly.

“Good,” a curt, nearly detached reply. There was a slight edge there, though Sparrow did not expand on it. She gathered herself up and walked to the mouth of the tent, idling.

“If that is all, it would be best for me to return to work.” There were a dozen things he could have said instead, but he did not choose any of them. He chose this, because it was simpler. He would have to accustom himself to being in her proximity again, and he would have to learn to adapt to the differences. These were things he could do, though they would be difficult. What he would not do was risk upsetting the tentative balance they were striking here with one another, feeling out the way the dynamic was going to work now. He would not return them to thoughts of three years ago, because neither of them should dwell there. It was irrational, and pointless.

And Rilien Falavel was, above all else, a rational, efficient elf.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

Earnings

0.00 INK

Romulus could not calm the storm in his mind.

Chryseis Viridius was in Redcliffe, and he hadn't known it until she walked into the room with him. He'd only barely managed to avoid ruining the cover she wanted him to have, thanks to the intervention from Cyrus. Thankfully, Cassius had paid him little mind after that. He was, after all, still just a runaway slave to him, beneath worry or consideration, especially next to his lost apprentice. And Estella had forced him to make a quick exit.

He could have managed well enough if it had just been Cassius. He was just another magister, despite their history. Romulus had only ever called the man dominus for a period of a few short years, before he was transitioned fully into the service of his daughter. Chryseis was running her own affairs almost immediately after the first attempt on her life, and it was not long before she was split off from her father almost completely. Even when he had been in the man's service, it was as one of a much larger group of slaves. Chryseis was the one to have seen the worth in him, and made him into her blade.

Her being here just seem to muddle an already confusing situation. He expected to be glad to have her direct presence again, commands to follow, a side that he knew he could be on, a return to his old ways of not needing to think, or decide anything. But she was having him pose like a runaway slave, and he knew not why, or what she was doing here. He trusted her, but also knew her to be a woman capable of many things.

That... and he couldn't shake the dislike he felt for letting others see him around her. Perhaps he wasn't any different here than before, but he found himself ever so slightly ashamed, of himself. A feeling nagged him, telling him that he should want more, even if he knew it to be a dangerous path. Could any of them understand his difficulties? Was he capable of explaining?

For now, he didn't much want to. The waiting was proving agonizing, so he occupied himself with walking instead, and listening. Very few people recognized him for who he was, even with the marks on his face. He wore no identifying clothing, nor did he openly display the mark on his hand. He watched people, conversations, peculiarities, and learned a bit about this mage rebellion to keep his mind busy, until the sun could set. He learned several things. Very few Tranquil not already out of the Circles had survived the initial rebellions. One of the Chantry sisters remaining was a smuggler, but currently out of work. An elven man was trying to find a traveler willing to bring flowers to his wife's grave. And few of the people present were happy about anyone from Tevinter being there.

Eventually, Romulus found himself wandering up towards a broken old watchtower, hoping to get a better view of the castle fortifications from there. Cassius and his guards had no doubt moved in and secured the place. Knowing more of it could only benefit them.

The watchtower had a ladder which led up to what was now a wooden platform of solid, if only partially intact, construction. The wall that was supposed to be there had fallen away at an angle, meaning that, essentially, the platform looked out over the area uninhibited by architecture. It would seem, however, that Romulus was not the first person to arrive there, or have the thought of using it for the view, because Khari was already present, her legs dangling over the edge of the platform, knocking her heels occasionally against the stone and mortar of the fragmented outside wall. Her sword lay flat behind her, within easy reaching distance, though she clearly didn’t expect to have to use it, from her relaxed posture.

She glanced over her shoulder at the sound of the old ladder, her expression pensive for all of a moment before she recognized him and grinned. “Hey, you. Did you come for the view, or the solitude? ‘Cause I’m bound to ruin the second one.” As was quite common, she appeared to be eating, this time from a loaf of bread fresh enough that it still steamed, from which she periodically tore pieces.

Despite himself, Romulus snorted slightly, and grinned. He stopped near the base of the ladder, turning towards Redcliffe's castle and crossing his arms. The sun was beginning to lower in the sky, at least, currently throwing light directly at him. He squinted and gazed out at the fortress beyond.

"Scouting. The castle looks difficult to get into. The walls would be the best way, but it wouldn't be an easy climb." This was not an uncommon task for him, finding ways to get into a place that where he didn't belong. He'd infiltrated the Conclave, after all... though he didn't quite remember how.

Suddenly, he remembered Khari had not been present for any of the proceedings in the tavern, and quite possibly didn't know what was going on. She didn't seem the type to inquire, either, if it was complicated magical business that in general was above her head. Romulus couldn't help but think it was good that she wasn't there. She might've caused an issue that they really didn't need.

"Have you been told what the situation is, with the mages?"

She hummed a bit, keeping her eyes out on the castle. “Not really. But I heard a name I recognized. Seems… complicated.” She leaned over in her position, looking down at him directly with an arched brow, a clear invitation to elaborate, but she didn’t seem inclined to press otherwise. “View’s better up here, you know. Also, there’s bread in it for you if you come sit with me, and this stuff’s delicious. In case my excellent company’s not enough incentive.” She patted the platform next to herself with obvious exaggeration.

He looked away from the castle, up at the bread Khari held. Soon enough, he was scaling the ladder, skipping a few rungs, and climbing up on the platform with her, though he looked down at it warily when it creaked slightly under the weight of both of them. The repair efforts on the tower, if they could be called that, had clearly been halted some time ago with all of the region's upheaval, Redcliffe especially.

Romulus split the bread with Khari, exhaling deeply through his nostrils as he chewed. He was silent for a while, and no longer really focusing on the castle. He was a bit tired of it all, tired of worrying about every move and every word. It felt much better to simply do as Khari seemed to, and not be bothered by any of it. If only he were in a position to do so more permanently.

"It is complicated," he finally said, between bites. "But there's no point making any judgements on it until I know more. We'll be speaking tonight." For now, he didn't mind enjoying good bread and a good view.

“Fine by me.” The reply was accompanied by a shrug, and she leaned back on one hand, holding her food in the other, apparently quite content, for the moment, to do the same.

A smoky voice called up from below Romulus and Khari's position, “Partying without me?” Coming from the side of the ladder they had both used. It belonged to the smarmy pirate-Captain, already flashing a toothy grin. When exactly she'd managed to creep up on them was anyone's guess, but she had already taken her own post against the tower's base, arms neatly folded over her chest. And if she'd been eavesdropping on their conversation, she gave no indication of embarrassment or guilt. From the smile plastered on her lips, it was clear that she was pleased by something. She occasionally lifted her chin and stared across the rolling waves, tilting her face as if relishing a lover's caress.

There was a short pause, and the sound of shuffling leathers, as Zahra moved further away so that she could see them properly. One of her eyebrows flagged up inquiringly. Whatever attempts at wrestling down the excitement she obviously felt was reflected in her eyes, dancing like the frothy waves. She held her hands out wide, and waggled her fingers, “I wasn't sure if you'd be interested. But fancy a walk along the docks?”

Romulus hadn't expected a visit from the pirate captain, but it wasn't unwelcome. She seemed like a good woman to kill time with, putting Romulus in the company of two of the best, then. He shrugged at Khari, and then nimbly slid down the ladder to the bottom, landing lightly on his feet.

"Don't see why not."

Khari crammed the rest of the bread she was holding into her mouth at once, though fortunately she seemed polite enough to finish chewing before she spoke, at least. It took her a few seconds to strap her sword properly to her back, and then she slid down the ladder after Romulus, landing surprisingly lightly for someone wearing armor.

“Sure. Didn’t have anything more exciting planned, anyhow.” She flashed her usual ragged grin and shrugged.

The Redcliffe docks were fairly active, though this was no city, and could not possibly be mistaken for a port. The lake had no real ships, as they were all contained to the Waking Sea, though there was a way to slip through, at the northernmost point, close to the now-empty Calenhad Circle tower. Currently, the docks were a site of trading, the rather unique conditions of the village meaning that all sorts were currently passing through, setting up makeshift stalls, and doing their unique form of preying upon the Circle mages, some of which were still a bit fresh to the outside world.

In busy places like these, Romulus felt a bit closer to home. The sounds of voices were easy to get lost in, and both Zahra and Khari did no small amount of talking on either side of him. Most important of his crowd-oriented skills was to pick out the other individuals that were a part of it, but not participating in it. The other people that would rather watch, and listen, than speak. One of these in particular stuck out fairly obviously to Romulus.

He was an older man, probably in his fifties, wearing a long coat of a red-orange leather, with a thick, wide collar. His skin was dusky, evidence of either Rivaini or Antivan heritage, though Romulus hadn't gotten a close enough look to determine which. His hair and beard were a soft brown, both long and full. He had the look of a seafarer about him, judging by his light, loose clothes under the coat. He'd been keeping his distance while they moved through the docks, but unmistakably watching their group. Well, unmistakable to Romulus at least.

"There's a man following us, watching," he said to his two companions. "Behind me, at the dock's edge. Long red coat. Either of you know him?" He wondered if the man wasn't there to see Zahra. She seemed like a woman that would make a fair amount of both friends and enemies.

Khari turned very obviously to look over her shoulder, clearly either unaware that it would be incredibly easy to spot or just not caring. When she noticed the person in question, she lifted a hand, and waved, wiggling her fingers and smiling a little too widely for the situation. She turned back though, her expression dropping back to something more ordinary, and lifted a shoulder. “Never seen that guy before in my life. We could just ask him?" Despite her emphasis, her statement rose at the end to become a question, and she arched a brow.

Zahra sauntered down the docks, as content as a rat might've been skirting down a rusty pipe. She seemed far too busy scrutinizing the boats, dipping in the waters, to notice anyone watching them. Lips pulled into a permanent smile. She halted in mid-trot when Romulus indicated that someone had been actually paying them more mind than was necessary. There was a brief pause, and a murmured curse, before she followed Khari's example and simply turned on her heels to face whoever was rude enough to follow them. She wasn't, however, particularly surprised. One had to wonder whether or not this was a common occurrence.

“Bloody hell,” were the first words hissing from between her teeth, “No need to ask him. His name is Borja. Captain Borja. What the hell does he want?” From the way her smile faded into a tight-lipped frown, Zahra certainly recognized the man Romulus was pointing out. Her expression seemed a few shades more sour, though she did offer bearded man a cheeky smile, one that did not quite reach her eyes. She turned back towards Romulus, and Khari both, and let out a soft sigh, “We'd best ask him what he wants. He's not one to simply walk away.” She shuffled towards Borja, steps a little heavier this time.

"Fair enough,” Romulus said. He supposed he should have been put more on edge by the fact that they had another captain, apparently a man to give Zahra some pause, on their tail. Really, Romulus was just a bit relieved that he was there for Zahra, in all likelihood, since the two apparently knew each other. Perhaps it would also be interesting to meet someone else from the northern seas.

"I’ll follow your lead.” Zahra was the captain here, the one with experience dealing with these types. Romulus preferred a way to get through this without saying anything at all, if it was possible. Thus, he followed a half-step behind Zahra as they walked directly towards Borja, not giving him any option to quietly slip away. His fingers fumbled together near belt-level, and he didn’t turn his head towards them, but from the way he’d centered his hips, it was obvious he knew they were approaching. If Romulus had to peg it as anything, he’d guess the man was actually a bit shy.

He glanced up at Zahra first, offering a brief flash of a smile, his teeth whiter than Romulus had expected. He spared a glance for Khari as well, before his eyes lingered on Romulus a bit longer than he preferred. He was a tall man, around six feet, but from the way he carried himself, he actually seemed a bit shorter than that. “Zahra Tavish,” he greeted, his voice a low growl, but quiet, almost tentative, like the words weren’t easily forced from him. “Captain, of course I should say, forgive me. Didn’t expect to see you in Redcliffe. A… pleasure, as always.”

Zahra's mouth twitched up at the edges as if she were trying to conjure up a kinder, well-intentioned part of herself and failing horribly at it. She seemed to decide on something less friendly. A small, mirthless smirk. As soon as they came to stand in front of Borja, she rustled her fingers through her messy hair, and eyed him through the curly strands that fell back into place. Her eyebrows pinched together for a moment. An expression passed. Perhaps, irritation. But as quickly as it had come, she smothered it back down, “Captain Borja. Likewise. This it the last place I expected to see you.”

She stood like an immovable stone, far too close to Borja than was comfortable for either of them. Shoulders slack and hands sliding back to take their posts on her hips. Even though she was looking up into his face, it appeared as if her presence towered over his own. She clicked her tongue and glanced over her shoulder, regarding Romulus. It seemed as if she hadn't missed the unusual attention Borja had been giving him. “I'd love to say that this is just a pleasant coincidence, but we're hardly in the business of those.” Although she posed no questions, they lingered there just the same.

He cocked his head sideways a bit, his eyes holding somewhere near Zahra's shoulder. "Coin's no coincidence, and there's plenty to made here. Mages... always need lyrium." Romulus was immediately prompted to look around for boats, or whatever means the pirate captain had used to transport the lyrium he'd mentioned. There were a few boats of varying sizes around the dock, none suitable to be manned by a single person. Borja had to have crew members around.

"Nice marks you have, boy," Borja said, the words half grumbled. Romulus snapped his gaze back onto him, aware that he was being spoken to directly now. He narrowed his eyes at the man. Unlike with the others, Borja looked him right in the face when he spoke. "You know what they mean?"

The way he said it... to Romulus, it implied that Borja knew, and was merely testing him, wondering if he knew as well. He pursed his lips tightly together, stepped forward past Zahra, and reached to grab Borja by the front of his coat. He hardly reacted, even when tugged forward half a step.

"What do you want?" With me was the unneeded addendum, and Borja seemed to get the message clearly enough. He simply looked down at Romulus, as though the other people present no longer existed, or anyone or anything on the dock, for that matter.

"I heard about a Herald of Andraste, a Rivaini man with marks on his face. Came to have a look myself. Now I've had it."

Zahra had stumbled back a few steps, away from Borja and Romulus. She now stood beside Khari. Her fingers twitched at her sides, and whatever veneer of patience she'd been demonstrating fell away. Replacing it was a molar-crunching temper rearing its ugly head, indicated by the way her face contorted. Lips pulled back like a snarling hound, teeth flashing. Her eyes twirled like two hard pieces of flint. “Who told you? Don't tell me you'd come all this way just for a look.”

Her hand brushed across her leather belt. She was obviously uninterested in wasting anymore breath. Her fingers tickled the dagger that hung there, threatening as ever, “Tick tock, Borja.”

"I've done nothing to you," he stated flatly. "You wanna carve me over nothing, in front of these people you're trying to win over, be my guest." Now that he noticed it, their exchange had drawn some attention, specifically the rough grabbing of the coat, and Zahra's snarling. Romulus released Borja's coat, shoving it back against him. He let out a short huh in reply.

"Might be I have some interesting things to tell you," he said, taking a step back, "but I'm not in the habit of giving anything away for free. And you've got... other things to worry about right now. I'll be in touch, Herald." He turned, heading out onto the dock, an Antivan man who had been conversing with a local suddenly falling into step with him. The pair headed towards one of the smaller boats.

Romulus gave no pursuit to the pirate captain, for he was right in that there were more immediate things to be concerned with. Something about him, though... Romulus wasn't used to being recognized, to being sought out by men from across the world. He stroked his forehead as Borja and his compatriot set out from onto the water.

"This day can't be over quick enough."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

Earnings

0.00 INK

“She what?” Leon resisted the urge to run his hand down his face. Being kind was one thing, but there was a certain point at which one had to consider other factors. Though… he supposed he couldn’t really be too upset. He might have done the same thing, in that situation, and considering that it was hard to fault her, exactly.

“Well, you know… our troops are out there, and it’s not like she’s never done anything by herself before.” Donnelly’s tone was a fraction defensive, and Leon held up a hand to show that he wasn’t going to be making a big event of it. “It was just flowers. I’d have gone with her myself, but she said she needed the walk.” From the way he said it, it was a turn of phrase with a particular meaning for her, and though he sighed slightly, Leon nodded.

“All right. Just… tell me what direction she went, and I’ll go get her myself.” Ordinarily, he wouldn’t—he’d take his cue from Estella’s comrades and trust that she’d be fine, but she wasn’t just any member of the Inquisition, and he supposed he found it disconcerting that she seemed to be able to stumble upon trouble with such precision. Still, as long as she was fine, there wasn’t any need to make a major production of this, and he could simply retrieve the Herald and escort her back, with no need to inform Marceline or, Maker forbid, Cyrus that she’d left the village by herself.

Donnelly eased, his baleful expression shifting back into his usual good humor. “Sure. Fellow said his wife was buried in Hafter’s Woods, on the hill.” The Lions’ Lieutenant, long familiar with the area from his squad’s survey work, tapped the spot on the command tent’s map, and Leon made a mental note of it. “Stel’s seen the map, too; she’ll know which route to take, so it shouldn’t be hard to find her.”

Leon inclined his head a second time, and Donnelly snapped a brief salute before exiting the tent, leaving the Seeker to contemplate his armor. In the end, he chose to forgo it, layering his clothes with only a cloak, and applying leather gauntlets to his hands rather than the steel ones he used in heavier combat situations. Despite his disinclination to simply let the Herald wander about on her own, he wasn’t really too worried about fighting anything—he knew the troops were proud of the work they’d done clearing out the place, even the fort to the south. There would still be stragglers, though.

Pulling up the flap on the command tent, Leon ducked under it and headed out. Since Donnelly was technically second-in-command of the squads here, there wasn’t a particular need to inform anyone else specifically of where he was going, and he elected for discretion in this case and didn’t.

He was well on his way to the gate when he came upon a scene he wasn’t sure he would have expected: Vesryn was apparently in conversation with one of the locals, who had what looked like a very distraught expression for some reason. They were standing next to what appeared to be a fenced-in yard, as one would use to pen medium-sized animals. His brows furrowed, Leon diverted from his initial path and approached. Probably best to make sure there wasn’t a dispute or something, though he had a hard time imagining Vesryn causing something of the kind.

“Is everything all right here?” he inquired, using the mildest tone in his repertoire, which usually went some distance toward mitigating the fact that he looked the way he did.

The elf turned, smiling a bit awkwardly. "Ah, yes, young James here was just explaining a situation to me regarding his missing ram, what was the name?" He titled his head sideways. The man, with blonde hair halfway covering a rather clearly missing eye, jumped at the chance to enter the conversation.

"Lord Woolsly, sers. A most special ram. He wandered off, you see, as he sometimes does. If he were to be found I'd be most grateful." Vesryn crossed his arms, tracing the toe of his boot absently through the dirt and nodding.

"Of course. But... you do know the Inquisition might be a bit preoccupied to chase lost rams? What makes yours so special anyway?"

"Well, he's always brought the family luck," he said, without any hesitation, "and his advice has helped us make our fortune." Vesryn quirked an eyebrow at him, before glancing over at Leon.

Admittedly, it took Leon a second to make sense of that claim. Vesryn’s point about preoccupation was quite a good one, but at least partly moot, since he was headed out of Redcliffe at the moment anyway, and the commander sighed. “Well… I can’t promise anything, but since I’m leaving for a bit regardless, I’ll keep an eye out.” At least there wasn’t some kind of dispute here, which was what he’d been more worried about than anything. With a polite nod to both men, he turned to continue on his way out.

"Yes, we'll... keep an eye out." Vesryn left the one-eyed young man a bit awkwardly and with hurried steps caught up with Leon, falling into step beside him. "You know, the talking ram thing might not be entirely out of the question. If that poor kid isn't crazy, it probably means his ram is... well, quite possessed. By a demon." He waved his hands about a bit theatrically, looking back to make sure they were out of earshot, and also out of line of sight. "Stepping out of town for anything in particular?"

The Seeker contemplated that for a moment, then grimaced. “I was rather hoping he was one of those superstitious kinds. Sometimes, folk have their animals give portents by means of bones or special wooden tokens, that kind of thing.” It was more common in less well-populated areas, those where the Chant had not reached quite as deeply into hearts and minds, in part because it was drawn from an old Chasind practice. But then, arguably a possessed animal that actually spoke was quite possible as well. In any case, they would find out if they happened upon the creature, and probably not otherwise. While under ordinary circumstances, that was the kind of rumor he’d have to chase down, Leon had considerably larger matters to attend to at this point.

“As for why I’m out in the first place…” he paused a moment, then decided it probably wasn’t any harm to divulge, though he did lower his voice so that it would not carry any further than necessary. “Estella left Redcliffe sans escort. Apparently, she was not of the opinion that the Inquisition is too busy to be carrying flowers to someone’s grave by request.” His tone indicated that he was actually a bit unsure how he felt about that, because he was. Approaching the gate, he waved up at the woman posted there, who saluted back and began to turn the crank that would lift it to allow exit.

Vesryn laughed softly to himself, clearly using some effort to keep the sound from carrying. "Our Lady Herald isn't interested in delegating, clearly. It's, ah... admirable, if not exactly efficient."

Leon supposed that was as good a characterization as any. The two passed under the gate, which closed behind them with a clank, putting them out on the road back into the Hinterlands. Vesryn seemed to have decided he’d be going along as well, but Leon didn’t mind any. The truth of the matter was, until this evening, there wasn’t really much else to be doing, so there was no reason for him to refuse the company.

“Do you find that the Inquisition’s what you expected, Vesryn?” The commander was genuinely curious. He supposed someone who volunteered might have had some idea what they were in for, but he doubted a great deal that the organization—and more importantly, the people in it—were really what most would first think.

"It's rather inclusive, isn't it?" Vesryn had drawn out his spear, as was his habit, while walking. He poked the bottom end of it regularly into the soft grass and dirt ahead of him. "Considering what it's up against, it's not surprising that it takes all sorts, but still. It was founded on orders of the Chantry's head, its armies are led by a Seeker, and its two greatest weapons are supposedly blessed by Andraste herself. Of course, they wouldn't be alive if a Qunari girl hadn't saved them. And you take elves, too, folk like me who have never spared a second thought for the Maker."

He shrugged, the lion's head on his shoulder bobbing up and down. "I suppose we're all just too focused on doing the right thing to be thinking about who's doing the right thing. In that sense, the Inquisition's exactly what I expected. Too busy plugging skyholes to spend time pointing fingers at one another."

That was slightly more crudely than Leon might have put it, but aside from half a choked laugh, he didn’t give sign of it. His expression settled at a slight smile, actually, and he nodded. He supposed it was quite inclusive, in one sense. Certainly moreso than the Chantry itself generally was. Many of his compatriots would have seen that as a necessary evil, the reliance on Qunari and heathen elves. Leon had his reservations about it as well, but they didn’t have anything to do with different physiologies or religious beliefs so much as the wide variance in personalities. In life, such a broad spectrum of people surrounding oneself was a blessing, he thought, but in an organization with a specific purpose like this… there were risks.

“As long as the center holds, it will hopefully remain so,” he replied thoughtfully. He was not oblivious to the fact that much of the responsibility of ensuring that would be his, and it was daunting, but no moreso than he’d expected it to be. Flexing his hands under his gauntlets, Leon continued, broaching a subject he found himself curious about.

“So where exactly is it that you’re from, Vesryn? I’d think maybe here in Ferelden somewhere, from the accent, but I’ve been wrong before.”

"Denerim, born and bred," he said, with a hint of mock pride. "Until the late teens, at any rate. Arranged marriages have a way of driving rebellious children from their homes. I visit occasionally. I like to think my parents are proud, even if I never did a single thing they wished. I'm no Hero of Ferelden, swooping in save them from the Blight. She actually did that, by the way, my mother will tell you the story sometime. But, I've done some notable things here and there."

He turned his head, his lips quirked in that almost ever-present grin. "And you? Only the Chasind and the Avvar make men of your size around here, but none of them are half as handsome. You're an Anderfels man, aren't you?"

Leon snorted, and shook his head slightly. “You know, most people manage to guess, but I’m fairly certain that’s not the logic they use to do it.” Usually it was something like his coloration or the slight guttural rasp on the edges of his bass. “But yes, I was born not far outside Hossberg. As third children are really quite extraneous by any standard, I was given to the Chantry before arranged marriages became an issue, thankfully.” Which was good, because that thought was mildly terrifying, really.

“I went in expecting to be a lay brother in a monastery somewhere, leading a life of contemplation. I came out rather wishing I were, as it turns out.” He smiled good-naturedly, but the words were a little too true for the expression to be entirely free of discomfort. “Alas, being so tall made someone think I’d make an excellent Templar one day, and then someone else thought I’d be a good Seeker, and so here I am.” It was really remarkable how little of his fate had been of his own design, when he thought about it.

"I don't think I was supposed to be good at anything," Vesryn remarked, with no small amount of humor. "You should've seen me. I had far too much bone for a place with so little to eat. I ran away to the Brecilian Forest at eighteen, expecting to go back to Denerim in a few days. Turns out I didn't go back for several years."

He sighed lightly, as though enjoying the brief reflection. "Someone else clearly thought you'd make a good Commander. As far as I've seen, you've yet to prove them wrong."

“Well, it’s early days yet,” Leon replied with obvious humor of his own. “I’ve still got time.”

Their trek eventually took them into Hafter’s Woods, whereupon they climbed the hill Donnelly had pointed out. Clearly, Estella was not expecting company, because she was humming to herself as they arrived, intently at work with what looked like some kind of cloth scrap, damp and slowly gaining a coat of dirt. She’d evidently been using it to clean a stone marker, at the foot of which she’d laid half a dozen white lilies. The humming stopped as soon as Leonhardt intentionally stepped on a twig, which snapped under his weight and alerted her to their presence.

Looking up sharply from her work, Estella had moved her hand halfway to the hilt of her sword before recognition lit in her eyes, and she dropped her hand back down, using the other arm to swipe across her brow. Her eyes flickered back and forth between them, her face smoothing over into something impassive that imperfectly masked what might have been anxiety. “Commander? Vesryn? Um… I don’t suppose you just happened to be taking a walk, did you?”

"Of course not," Vesryn said, gently. "I thought I'd say a few words. Perhaps they'll amount to something." Almost reverently, he laid down his spear, stepped over to the grave, and knelt down beside Estella. He settled his hands on his knees, and closed his eyes. "Hahren na melana sahlin. Emma ir abelas. Souver'inan isala hamin. Vhenan him dor'felas. In uthenera na revas." The words spoken, he opened his eyes again, and carefully stood. He offered a hand down to Estella.

"We did come to walk back with you, however."

Leon maintained a respectful silence for the duration, bowing his head while Vesryn spoke, but upon the conclusion of what he supposed must be an elvish blessing of some sort, he nodded to confirm what the other man had said. “It isn’t wrong of you to want to do something like this,” he said, nodding to the stone marker, “but I confess I do feel some concern upon hearing that you’ve elected to do so by yourself.” He was careful in the way he said it, because his impression was that her confidence, little of it that there was, was quite delicate, and he worried he might shatter it if he spoke too carelessly.

Estella sighed, looking at the marker for a moment, and then nodded herself, accepting the hand up from Vesryn and using it to get back to her feet. “I know. I only…” Her lips thinned with what he guessed was the effort to find the right words. “It feels like if I’d said anything, there would have been a bit too much of a production about it, is all. This seemed better to do… quietly.”

Though perhaps another would have pressed the point, Leon felt that his had been made clearly enough, and so he didn’t push back on the matter, instead leading their trio back down the hill and towards the road. Seeking to change the topic somewhat, he said the first thing that came to him. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen a talking ram anywhere, have you?”

“A… what? Talking ram?” She didn’t seem to be sure if he were serious or not.

“It’s a… bit of a story, apparently. Just, well, if you happen to spot any rams in general as we’re walking, let us know.”

Estella smiled at that, still looking a bit perplexed, but taking the odd request in stride. “Sure, all right. The Inquisition: for all your delivery, exotic animal husbandry, and rift-closing needs, I suppose.”

“I’m sure it will look very good on all of our credentials, someday.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

Earnings

0.00 INK

Despite all the personal ties to the mission they'd found themselves in, Romulus continuously reminded himself that this wasn't, in fact, personal.

Chryseis was here because her father was, not because he was. That part was merely an uncomfortable coincidence. Regardless of what happened in the aftermath of their trip to Redcliffe, the mission there remained the same: sever the link between Cassius and the Free Mages, and secure their aid for the Inquisition. The rest was of no consequence. He wondered if he could make that true by repeating it enough.

The same group that had attended the initial tavern meeting with Cassius was headed to the Chantry, with the addition of Khari. In truth, Romulus didn't want her to come along, but as usual, he felt he had no place in telling her to stay behind, and hid any form of displeasure behind his stony features when they made their way, armed and armored, for the Chantry. The streets cleared out nicely at night, and there was a sort of tenseness to the chill in the air, as though the village knew that its fate would be decided sooner rather than later.

The way to the Chantry was clear, but as they approached the steps leading to its doors, several clergy members in varying states of undress burst out from within, terrified. From the brief moment the doors had swung open, Romulus could hear the familiar sound of a rift, and see the ominous green light reflecting off of the ceiling. They hurried inside.

The rift had appeared right in the center of the main hall, spewing forth shades and wraiths. A hooded woman in Tevinter robes, clearly Chryseis, was the only one currently battling them. The bottom end of her battle staff was sharply bladed, and she stabbed down into the shoulder of the nearest shade, causing it to roar in pain. Before it could move any more, runes along the handle of the staff glowed a bright, hot red, and suddenly the shade exploded from within in a fiery blast. Chryseis pulled her hood back, and looked to the newcomers.

"I could do this all night," she twisted, leaning back from a slash, and stabbing her staff's blade into the chest of the next shade, "but I'd really rather not!" The runes turned an icy blue, and then a massive chunk of jagged ice burst through the shade's body, shattering against the back wall. It slumped to the ground, with the large hole clean through its chest.

Romulus charged forward without hesitation, his shield and blade immediately in hand. He absorbed a magical projectile from one of the wraiths in the back, the attack bouncing off his shield. His blade was cutting through the offending demon before it could charge up another.

Khari wasn’t far behind him, splitting off from his trajectory near the end of the run to lunge into another shade, her cleaver slamming into the area between its neck and shoulder, the telltale crunch of its bones breaking within the containment of its flesh. One of them, what might have been a clavicle on a human being, punched through the skin, exposed to open air as it fell, and then she was off in pursuit of another, a bloody trail following behind as ichor dripped from the blade of her sword.

The distinctive crackle of lightning was audible even over the din of the rest of the battle, and Cyrus seemed to materialize on the far side of the rift, the glowing blue blade belonging to his spatha erupting from the chest cavity of a shade even as the one immediately to his right went down in a bright conflagration of flames, turning its dark flesh black and filling the air with the stench of burning meat. Ripping his sword out to the left of the first shade, he cast again, lightning arcing from his fingers to lance into one of those at the front, headed for Estella and Marceline.

“Don’t tell me you’re not having at least a little bit of fun, Chryseis!” His reply was lighthearted enough to be at serious odds with the situation, but then again, he seemed not at all perturbed by the enemies present.

One of the shades pushed itself as quickly as it could along the floor towards Chryseis. She lazily flicked a few fingers in its direction, and ice sprang up around it, freezing it solid. "Everything's more fun with you around, Cyrus," she said, with a hint of a smirk. "But you already know that, of course."

The ice at her fingertips suddenly sparked into flame, and she casually tossed an explosive spell beneath the new ice sculpture. It ignited a moment later, sending small fragments of frozen shade body raining down onto the Chantry floor. It appeared to be the last of the demons. Chryseis turned her head towards Romulus, pulling a lock of blonde hair behind her ear. "Go on then, blade. Show me your new power."

He nodded, and lifted his shield arm towards the rift. The arc of green energy snapped into place, building and intensifying until the rift exploded. The air where it had been appeared scarred momentarily, but soon cleared altogether, as though the portal had never been present at all. Chryseis smiled in wonder. "Fascinating. And you do that on instinct, then? Do you command it to close?"

"Maybe, domina," Romulus answered, head bowed. "I don't know if will is a part of it. It closes rifts in proximity, when the demons are dealt with."

"And that alone makes you an immensely valuable asset, my dear. You've no memory of how you acquired it, though?"

He shook his head. "No, domina."

"And the same for you, Estella?" she asked, turning away from Romulus. "Nothing of the Conclave?"

Estella sheathed her sword, which had clearly seen some use, if not perhaps a great deal, and stood a fraction straighter, folding her hands behind her back. “No, milady,” she replied, her tone quiet, but not timid. “I can recall why I was there, but nothing that happened during the Conclave itself.”

"Shame," Chryseis said, frowning, "the knowledge of how to recreate such abilities would be immensely powerful, in the right hands." She held the thought a moment, before shaking her head, and returning her focus to the group at large. "No matter. We're here to stop my father, before he accidentally ends the world. At least, I'm hoping it's accidental. He can't be so power-mad as to intentionally jeopardize the stability of time itself." She seemed to realize the gravity of her last sentence, and glanced up at Cyrus.

"That's how we arrived here so quickly, of course. By distorting time. Makes me glad I didn't often see what the two of you got up to while you were his apprentice."

Lady Marceline simply sighed a short distance away, polishing the last of the ash off her rapier with a handkerchief.

Cyrus’s smile was enigmatic. It didn’t seem to be a particularly pleased expression, but nor did it qualify as sheepish. It was unclear if he were even capable of the latter. “Yes, I rather expect it does.” He looked up at the place where the rift used to be, and his expression became obviously calculating. “I hadn’t thought he’d attempt such a large-scale use of the magic without completed stabilization formulae, but I suppose I hadn’t counted on his desperation reaching quite these heights, either.”

He took a moment to brush off the front of his tunic-styled robe, which had acquired a bit of dust, from the look of it, before he moved forward again, descending the stairs to properly join the group, his hands clasped at the small of his back. “Now. I do believe you expressed an interest in stopping him; have you some specific method in mind?” From the way he asked, it seemed he expected that she did.

"You might first want to know what he's here for," Chryseis said, the first words that left her lips that could be described as uneasy. "I'm afraid it's far more than a powerplay in the Magisterium. He's gotten himself mixed up with a cult. Tevinter supremacists, a group called the Venatori. Sadly, I'm little more than an honorary member at this point, despite my cozying up to them. Father's not so easily swayed by me anymore."

She turned to gaze at Romulus, instantly making him uncomfortable. Conversations between his domina and other Tevinter mages were things he was only ever meant to listen to, not become involved in. "What I do know, is that all of this madness, unraveling time, has been to get to you." He looked up only long enough to know that Chryseis indeed meant him with her words. Her eyes then flicked to Estella. "And you. He's become very interested in both of you, that much is clear."

Estella frowned slightly, reaching up to rub at the back of her neck, and rocked back on her heels. “If the cult and his interest in us are connected, it’s probably a safe guess that what they really care about is the Breach,” she said, her dark brows knitting together. “And since we’re already working to close it, a reasonable guess would be that he—or they, rather—want it to stay open, if he went to so much trouble. Do you know why that might be?”

“Well, if these Venatori are in fact a Tevinter supremacist cult, then they want it to stay open because they believe it serves Tevinter.” There was an obvious thread of disgust in Cyrus’s voice as it lilted over the word cult, one that remained at slightly less emphasis throughout the rest. “I can think of half a dozen reasons they might surmise as much, and in each of them is a motive for wanting the two of you out of the picture…” He seemed to drift out of the present for a moment, as though his thoughts were carrying him elsewhere, but then his eyes cleared and he shook his head.

“But none of them would be enough reason for the Cassius I remember to do something quite this… extreme. Gaining control of the southern mages is one thing. But the use of incomplete time-distortion magic to do it—that suggests something much larger at work.”

"Somehow I doubt the Venatori are the ones behind the rifts, or the Breach. But they're strong, no doubt about that. My father doesn't lead them, but whoever does knows what they're doing." She crossed her arms, brow furrowed in concern. It was not often that Romulus witnessed her displaying concern over another, but he supposed he shouldn't have been surprised. The bonds of family were difficult to break, even in an environment as strange and caustic as the Magisterium.

"Domina, if I may," Romulus said, gently. Pulled from her thoughts, Chryseis met his eyes.

"You have something in mind?"

"Knowing your lord father intends to remove the threat of the Heralds, we can turn his plan against him. Appear to fall into his trap, only to spring one ourselves."

A small gleam of a smile appeared, and she turned to face Romulus in full. "I'm intrigued. Go on."

Romulus folded his hands together before him, lowering his gaze once more. "Magister Cassius has retreated to the castle. Requesting an audience will seemingly place us in his hands. While one party enters the castle directly and absorbs his attention, another infiltrates the fortress and eliminates the danger before it becomes an issue." Chryseis hmmed in thought, before shaking her head.

"And you would lead this infiltration? No. I'm confident you could, but for once your absence would be noted. Father would suspect something, and Estella would be lost before we could reach her."

"I would go with Lady Estella, domina. Both Heralds before your father's eyes. Choose another to lead the attack, and seek information about the castle. A Revered Mother now with the Inquisition, Annika, once served Arl Eamon. She may know of a weakness in the castle." Chryseis studied her slave, her blade, for some time, her smile growing the longer she did so.

"I could see if anything can be done about my father's magical defenses. He has fortified the castle in other ways by now. But this could work." She turned to the others. "Thoughts?"

“Magical defenses, if there are any, won’t be an issue.” Cyrus said as much with obvious confidence, as though it were simple fact, rather than an estimation of how their magic would fare against Cassius’s. “As for who should lead the infiltration party…” He turned to Estella. His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Stellulam. That teacher of yours, the Tranquil. He’s quite inclined to moving about unseen, is he not? And perhaps your lovely little scout-captain, as well.”

Estella nodded. “Rilien and Lia are both quite good at that sort of thing, yes. If we wanted to spring a trap within the trap, they could certainly accomplish it.” She didn’t seem to doubt that in the slightest. Her eyes moved to Marceline, though, an obvious question there. “But that’s only if the three of you would commit the resources to this.”

"We have no choice," Marceline relented. She had since sheathed her rapier and had seemingly listened to the conversation being had with Chryseis. Now that she was addressed, she spoke. "I shall have Larissa seek out a weakness in the castle walls for Lord Rilien and Lia to exploit, and I will speak to Mother Annika personally." She paused for a moment and thought pensively before continuing. "I will also speak to Leon about drafting a contingency in case we have need of one."

"Then it's settled," Chryseis said, with no small amount of excitement. "We'll dismantle this madness, and Father will return to his more sensible schemes. Blade, remain for a while. The rest of you had best be off. Much to prepare for, yes? I shall eagerly await your arrival at the castle."

For the first time in the entirely of the conversation, Khari drew attention to herself, though whether it was purposeful or not was hard to tell. She had quite clearly been content up until that moment simply to listen, rather than speaking, but now there was a look of something distinctly disgruntled on her face, and she made eye contact with Romulus, frowning slightly before she shook her head, as if to herself. “See you later, Rom.” She gave half a smile, then turned to exit with the general stream of departure.

Cyrus lingered slightly longer, saving his own departure for after the others had taken theirs. “While I am sure you have machinating of your own to do, and that your father expects you soon, should you find yourself with some spare time, I would very much enjoy catching up, Chryseis.” The slight smirk on his lips and the ambiguous tone of his voice could have meant any number of things. He bowed at the waist, though it was playful rather than truly reverent, and winked as he turned to leave.

"Likewise, Cyrus," Chryseis said, returning the smile in kind. "Minrathous is hardly the same without you." Once all had left save for the magister and her slave, she turned and planted a finger under his chin, her smile carrying some small amount of amusement. "Rom, is it?"

"Merely your blade, domina." The words were delivered with no emotion, something he found especially easy to pull off around her. Her smile faltered for a brief moment, as her eyes fell down to his chest, where she placed her hand.

"Good. You remember." Forcefully, she shoved him towards an open doorway in the back, and Romulus took the hint, leading the way inside.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

Earnings

0.00 INK

Estella swallowed thickly, pulling in a breath and trying to loosen the constricting feeling winding around her heart like climbing ivy, and push down the rising taste of bile on her tongue. She was nervous, for a lot of reasons. First among them, of course, was the fact that they were planning to spring a trap on a magister, one cunning and powerful enough to have taught her brother, regardless of whatever Cyrus thought of him now. It was a serious risk, and she understood that everyone here was taking it, just by entering this room. But even that wasn’t it—she knew that Rilien and Lia and the others with them, including Zahra, if she understood the plan properly, were capable of doing what they’d decided to do.

She wasn’t even especially concerned that she would fail, exactly, because in the end, her role in this was simply to be present. That, and not give away the plan by revealing what they knew of Magister Cassius’s intentions too soon, or letting herself look at where she knew the ambush party would be. She could do that much, she knew—she’d been hiding her thoughts from people more powerful than she was practically since she had any thoughts worth hiding. But more than any of that, this was making her remember things best left forgotten, and there were parts of it that were strong in her memory, things dredged up in response to who the Magister was, and where she knew he was from.

Part of Estella had never left Tevinter behind, not even after six years of physical distance.

Watching her brace herself was indeed an act of perception: she straightened her spine, eased the expression on her face until it was nearly blank, settled her shoulders back, and tipped her chin up slightly, because it defaulted to let her eye the floor, something she should definitely not be doing as part of the Inquisition in an audience with a Magister. They could smell weakness, and fear, and Estella was both weak and afraid. The trick was pretending she wasn’t well enough to fool him. Glancing to Romulus beside her, she offered a thin smile and nodded, pushing the door to the throne room open, allowing the two of them and their company—Cyrus, Vesryn, Lady Marceline, and Khari—to enter.

A red carpet runner guided a straightforward trajectory to the dais on which the throne sat. The path itself was flanked by columns on either side, and in front of each stood one of the magister’s guards. There were about two dozen in total, which was a large number, but not entirely unexpected. He probably had more troops, hired or brought with him, elsewhere, else he likely would have had difficulty holding the castle for long, magical defenses or not. She was reluctant to put her back to any of them, but that was required to advance far enough for an audience, and so she put her trust in the people behind her and kept moving forward.

The throne itself was occupied, and Magister Cassius looked quite comfortable upon it, one ankle crossed over the other knee, and his jaw leaned on a fist, the corresponding elbow braced on the armrest. If anything, he seemed a bit too put-together for the accouterments of Fereldan nobility, which were generally much more rustic than those one would find in older lands like the Imperium or Orlais. His daughter stood beside him, and it would seem he’d been in conversation with her before the party entered.

When they stopped close enough for an audience, he smiled slightly, the expression deepening the existing lines around his mouth, the whole of his face thrown into sharper relief by the intermittent torchlight of the chamber. It gave him a more hollowed-out aspect, so that for a moment, his face appeared nearly skeletal, until the flames shifted again and he regained the aspect of an older, but still very much living, man. “Inquisition, welcome. I take it from your presence here that you are still inclined to bargain. Perhaps your terms will be more… agreeable, this time.”

Estella knew that all she really had to do here was stall for time, and not give away the fact that she knew this was a trap. She also knew that it was usually true of people in power, people with egos worth talking about, enjoyed hearing the sound of their own voices more than anyone else’s. So ideally, the best way to go about this would be to get him to talk, with as little input from her or anyone else as possible. Suppressing her nervous tendency to chew her lip, she put on a small smile, one that couldn’t have made it even halfway to her eyes, but looked convincing enough for someone in what her position was supposed to be.

“That is my hope, milord,” she lied softly. “I’m afraid that, considering the brevity of our last meeting, there was little opportunity to ascertain which terms you might find agreeable. You know what it is we need—what is it you would want in exchange?” She chose her words carefully, framing him as the one with all the power in the situation, and they as the ones who were in need of something from him. It wasn’t far from the truth, though this was not the method they’d chosen to get it, in the end. With a little luck, she’d stroked his ego and prompted him to speak at some length with a few sentences, but she didn’t trust much to her luck, in truth.

The Magister was intrigued at such an open question, it was clear. He leaned farther forward, his brows arching up towards the edge of his hood and a slight smirk playing at the edges of his mouth. “A question with a great deal of relevance, my dear.” He did indeed appear pleased at the situation, not entirely unlike a cormorant, full-bellied but still hungering voraciously, more out of habit than necessity. “What I propose is simple: I will release the southern mages from their indenture, provided I receive two things in return: firstly, my daughter’s slave returned to her.” He made a careless gesture with his free hand at Romulus. “Hardly asking for much, I should think, considering she owns him already anyway.”

He sat back then, and the smile grew, a deep satisfaction evident. “Secondly, a trade: all the mages now in my service for just one—you.”

It was Marceline's turn to step forward. A far cry from the saccharine smile she wore during their last meeting, Lady Marceline's lips were drawn in a tight line, and her face wholly unreadable. She held her arms crossed and her elbow propped, her hand gingerly rubbing her chin. "A sound trade," Marceline agreed, looking down upon Estella, then glancing back at Romulus for a moment before returning her gaze back to Cassius.

"You are correct, what Lady Chryseis owns is hers. We are more than willing to relinquish him," she said, her head tilting to the side. She spoke it with no emotion, only a matter-of-factly demeanor as one would use during a business discussion. "The Inquisition would also find the trade agreeable, the mages for Lady Estella. However, I would ask what you had in mind for the young woman," Lady Marceline asked, a look of curiosity seeping into her features. "Out of pure curiosity of course," Marceline said, before a smile slipped into her lips and she allowed herself a light laugh.

"It sounds as if we are getting the better deal, after all."

Cassius raised a brow, then shrugged lightly. “Who knows? I’m sure I’ll find some use for her. I’ve had great success with one apprentice from the family; perhaps one who cannot leave will prove even more beneficial.” From the way he said it, his tone light, careless even, it wasn’t entirely clear whether he was being serious, though a fair guess would be that he wasn’t. “There would be much interest in the mark, of course, but once the research possibilities were exhausted, well…” He paused, looking Estella over dispassionately, as a buyer at an open market.

“A face that exquisite will always draw its own brand of interest, no?”

Though she couldn’t say she was unused to being talked about like she wasn’t even there, she had managed to forget exactly what it felt like, for the most part. Estella wound up doing what she’d always done in such situations before—she tried to pretend she was somewhere else, someone else, and did her best to deaden her feelings to what was being said. She couldn’t let herself lose focus entirely, however, and she knew this was actually a good thing. For every moment Magister Cassius availed himself his considerable advantage over them without actually springing his trap, they were a moment closer to being in position to turn the tables.

So really, the implication that she’d be sold into a brothel or private ownership or something wasn’t bothering her as much as it could have. Especially considering that, in the absence of other options, she likely would have agreed to it anyway. She only prayed that Cyrus would be able to hold his temper in check long enough to get through this conversation. She knew her brother, and knew he wasn’t taking any of this conversation very well, though his face didn’t change much.

Marceline's eyes dropped and she sighed heavily. It was as if she expected something of the like, because didn't display a moment of surprise. When she looked back up, her eyelids were at halfmast and any emotion she may have allowed to show were long gone, replaced entirely by her matter-of-factly demeanor. Instead of responding immediately, Marceline's hand fell on Estella's shoulder, and patted it encouragingly, almost like a mother would a child. "Tell me, Lord Cassius, as a man with a family of his own," she began.

Her gaze then went from Estella to Cyrus, the frown tight on her lips. "How do you believe her brother will take this news?" she asked, the curiosity remaining in her voice. "And what do you intend to do about him? she finished, looking back to the Magister.

"Out of curiosity. Of course."

Cyrus was doing a rather impressive job remaining blank-faced, but something in his eyes was very hard, almost crystalline. Cassius laughed. “I know better than any one of you what that boy will do for the sake of his sister. In fact, I’m rather counting on it.” He seemed to shift his demeanor, however, and raised a hand, waving it in a lazy motion. “But enough talking. I grow bored with this charade. I will have the Heralds, and I need not give up anything to obtain them.”

At the signal, the guards posted around the room were immediately at attention, drawing their swords, spears, and axes almost as one unit. “Capture the Heralds, and my wayward apprentice. Kill the rest.”

It would seem that Cyrus could contain himself no longer, and the first thing that happened was a massive bolt of lightning flying from his fingertip, crashing with a thunderous rapport into the shield Cassius had conjured, shattering it, but also expending the spell. He summoned a familiar blue sword to his hand, and ran right for the dais.

“Finally!” That was Khari, who ducked under a horizontal swing from another guard and swung her cleaver, which bounced off his shield with a forceful clang. She pressed forward, however, and her next hit was delivered from inside his guard, punching into a spot beneath his protective chestplate.

Romulus passed by on her left, blade drawn, running right through glowing orange magical glyphs that had been quickly inscribed upon the floor by a white-clad Venatori mage. They were triggered by his step, a burst of fire engulfing Romulus, but he came out the other side unscathed, the flames washing over him like so much wind. His blade found the mage's throat, and painted his white robes a bright shade of red.

Vesryn had his helmet down over his face, the tallhelm giving him the visage of a man made mostly of steel, save for the proud white lion on his back. His tower shield was locked in front of him, and soon a pair of arrows clattered off of it. He lowered his spear and awaited the first attacker to step forward. "Always running off, these people!" he shouted, mostly for Estella and Marceline to hear. "Bloodthirsty and angry. Stay behind me! Watch the flanks."

Estella honestly wasn’t sure any of them had experience fighting as part of a unit. Khari might have, but then, with the way she tended to fight, she probably had to break ranks usually anyway. Cyrus had certainly never been part of an army or anything, and Romulus was, as far as she could tell, a solo agent, so in a way, she understood why they acted as they did. She, however, was quite accustomed to group tactics, and so she took Vesryn’s right flank, the harder one to defend, given the absence of the shield.

Indeed, the majority of those who tried to get at the three of them came for her, at least when they could get around behind the spear-wielding elf, but she had expected that, and to the extent the could be, she was prepared for it. The first two came in as a pair, and there wasn’t really room for any more than that at once, a blessing she noted gratefully. The first swung, and she parried, angling her sword quickly to force his off it. Her mobility was reduced by the tighter quarters, so she’d have to rely a lot on angles and the geometry of a fight, since her ability to dodge was considerably hampered.

Reacting more quickly than her foe coming off the clash of blades, she drove her own forward, seeking and finding his throat, which she sliced across with a neat stroke. The arterial spray that resulted informed her she’d found the mark, and just in time to twist herself away from the incoming axe the second had aimed for her shoulder. It clipped the very edge, biting into her leathers, but tore away without meeting her flesh. She swung low, slashing at his thigh, where another vital blood vessel was located, this one not known to as many people, by any means. That one hit, too, and he collapsed beside the other, still alive, but barely. Estella grimaced, and thrust her sword down, puncturing his windpipe and ending his life quickly.

From over her shoulder behind her, Estella could not see Marceline on Vesryn's left flank. However, every now and then the noble brushed up against her to remind her of her presence. There was the sound of flesh being pierced, and the gurgling of someone getting stabbed in the throat before armor clattered to the ground. Though no warrior, Marceline sounded as if she held her own.

Meanwhile, Chryseis observed the approach Cyrus was making, and immediately readied a swift entropy spell in her hand. Rather than cast it at him, she instead aimed down at her father, immediately to her left, the sleeping spell leaving her fingers even as she drew her bladed staff into her other hand.

The spell was met midair by another, a dispel magic, from the way both fizzled out upon mutual contact. Cassius turned slightly to regard his daughter, an almost sad smile upon his face. “While I can’t say I’m surprised, Chryseis, I am rather disappointed.” The Magister drew his own staff, several of the white-robed Venatori breaking off from the main assault to assist him. “Don’t kill them. Render them unconscious or bloody if necessary, but do not kill them.”

Two of the cultists turned to face Chryseis, while two more and Cassius himself went after Cyrus, attempting to bring him down before he could close to melee distance, which would no doubt provide him with a tremendous advantage. A volley of fireballs flew in his direction, but he pulled himself into the Fade, and they struck only afterimages of where he had been, a trail of them between his former position and halfway up the stairs, where he wound up. Another quick spell from Cassius landed there, but he brought his spatha around, the low thrum of it sounding as he used it to slice clean through the stonefist, the halves of it flying off to either side of him.

And that, as far as Estella could tell, was how the fight generally proceeded. Cyrus and Chryseis put heavy pressure on Cassius and the most elite of his Venatori, while herself, Lady Marceline, and Vesryn weathered the storm at the center. Khari and Romulus ranged more freely around that center, their aggressive styles keeping too much from concentrating on the center. The problem was, there were a lot of Venatori and guards, and probably unless the ambush team arrived very soon or Cyrus somehow managed to get at Cassius himself, they would simply be worn down by sheer numbers.

She’d acquired several wounds by this point, but they were mostly minor, and thankfully her stamina wasn’t failing her just yet, but it was growing tedious, and she knew that this was the part of the fight where she risked serious injury, because if her focus flagged, she might make a mistake. So she did her best not to let that happen, keeping herself aware of Marceline behind her, Vesryn to her side, and as much as possible, the positions of her enemies and other allies.

Her arms were burning with the effort of fending off multiple blows from people of superior strength, but she raised them again for another necessary parry, hoping they would stand up to the force with which the next guard swung his axe.

A bugling roar came from Zahra's mouth. And her hands moved remarkably fast as soon as the ambush began, though it appeared as if she'd been ready the entire time. She plucked arrows from her quiver and loosed them as quickly as she notched them back across her cheek. Several whistles could be heard as the arrows sailed through the air, more so over Estella's shoulders, and bit into their marks.

Her arrows were marked with brightly colored feathers, speckled with blood as the shafts sunk into gawping holes in Venatori faces. She danced around the meaty portions of the ambush, away from clanging swords and flashing fireballs. It appeared as if she were concentrating her attacks on those who were having trouble, causing her own version of chaos by crippling and maiming the opponents her companions faced.

More arrows came from Lia, fearlessly throwing herself into the mix, as the Inquisition scouts and agents flanked the Venatori force on either side, throwing the previously desperate fight's outcome into doubt. Chryseis and Cyrus had nearly broken through to Cassius, when a shield bearing guard surprised Chryseis from the side, slamming her to the ground with the heavy metal plate. From her side she unleashed a blast of arcane energy, sending him staggering back. Romulus appeared behind him, opening his throat and spilling his blood down his front, allowing Chryseis the needed time to get back to her feet.

The scouts freed up Vesryn to make some moves of his own, and began a bit of an advance, burying his spear in the guts of a Venatori mage who had been forced into the center of combat by the pincer attack of the Inquisition. "Push!" he shouted. "We'll have him! Don't let up!"

Recovered from her near-miss, Estella figured Vesryn’s advice was good enough, and pushed. Now that there wasn’t quite the same need to simply weather, her mobility was back to providing the lion’s share of her advantage, and she utilized it, keeping herself light on her feet and darting between opponents in an attempt to reach the front of the room, where the fighting was beginning to concentrate as more and more of the guards and Venatori closed ranks on their leader, in an attempt to shield him from the wrath of his own former apprentice and his child as well. The magic flew thick and heavy through the air, enough so that even Estella tasted it on the back of her tongue, the tips of her fingers tingling with a familiar, but long-suppressed itch to dip into the Fade and claim some of it for herself.

An empty promise, if ever there were one.

She dashed past a guard, flaying into his sword-arm on her way, causing him to drop the weapon he was holding and clutch at his wound, which made him an easy target for those behind her. She wasn’t far from the dais now, and mounted the first step, blocking an overhead strike from one of the guards, nearly brought to her knees with the strength of the blow before she managed to angle it away, forcing another step forward and up and burying her saber in his neck. Blood gushed down the blade to her hands, but she stepped to the side before his body could fall atop her, gaining another two stairs before she was made to halt again, her hip clipped by a fireball that left her armor smoking but her flesh thankfully only mildly burned.

By this point, Cyrus was basically dueling Cassius, though with several bodies in the way, which prevented him from closing range. The magic was especially dense in the air between them, and it seemed almost that each of them was casting several spells simultaneously, to keep the volume of fire and earth and ice so thick, to say nothing of the shields and Fade cloaks and the rest. The spell-volley was interspersed with more raw blasts of force, though those were issuing only from Cyrus, and it was hard to tell if they were intentional or not, as they tended to arc away from their initial trajectory, doing more damage to the throne room's furniture than anything. One of them crashed into the stairs, chipping several large chunks of stone off the dais, a pair of them careening into some nearby Venatori and crunching bones with their momentum.

Cassius was clearly tiring faster, whatever the reason, and when he turned to see the others approaching the dais, abandoning the effort to focus on his apprentice for just a moment, he paid for it, a glistening bolt of raw lightning slamming into his chest. He lurched for a moment, then threw himself into a Fade-step not unlike the ones Cyrus so commonly used, reappearing on the other side of the fight, behind everyone pushing for him, both arms outstretched.

Not far from where Estella, Chryseis, and Romulus fought, an almost deafening ripping sound issued from the air, the ground beneath everyone’s feet trembling as the space over their heads seemed to twist and distort, at first like heat waves and then like a window opening to some other place. The pull towards it was strong, almost like it contained its own gravity, and the three nearest the tear were lifted from their feet, pulled upwards toward it.

“Stellulam!” Cyrus’s shout reached her at about the same time he did, his shoulder slamming into her with almost enough force to break a rib, the space she occupied clearly the end point of his own Fade-step’s trajectory. She was knocked a dozen feet backwards, and out of the range of the tear, which picked him up instead, pulling he, Romulus and Chryseis into it within seconds, before the sound crescendoed to an almost agonizing pitch, then ended abruptly, as the tear closed.

But the three it had taken did not reappear.

Estella hit the ground hard, rolling several times before she came to a stop in just enough time to watch three people disappear into the rend in the air, both like and entirely unlike a rift, and though she was forced to cover her ears, she regained her feet as she did, such that by the time it stopped, she was standing again.

For a moment, there was utter silence, or perhaps she’d simply lost the ability to register sound. In any case, she waited what seemed like an eternity for them to reappear, to drop back from the spot like it was all one of Cyrus’s grand jokes, something they’d laugh about later while she insisted she hadn’t been fooled.

But though she counted her heartbeats, her breath still in her chest, they did not return. “Cyrus…” It was hardly more than a whisper, but time seemed to snap back into place as she said it, and suddenly she could hear again, and the fight was back on. It was extremely difficult to make herself care in just that moment, however.

“Cyrus!” It was a ragged shout that time, raw and agonized, and she was halfway through a step towards the dais when she remembered who was responsible for this. Surely, if Magister Cassius had caused this, he could put it to rights. Estella clenched her jaw, her grip tightening on her saber, and whirled around to face him, lunging into a sprint. She’d have to get all the way back across the room, and through all the fighting, but honestly, the plausibility of that was the furthest thing from her mind right now.

All she knew was that if she could get to that Magister, she could get her brother and the others back. There was no need to think about whether she could. She simply must.

"Estella!" The voice was Vesryn's, from behind Estella, and soon a strong hand had clamped down on her upper arm and wrenched her backwards. Vesryn pulled himself in front of her, another arrow clattering loudly off the face of his shield, the projectile originally aimed for the Herald. The elf's eyes were wild, bewildered, but he seemed focused enough on keeping her close to him.

"We have to get out of here!" he said, trying to hold her back. Perhaps due to the fact that the Venatori were simply more prepared for such a stunning feat of magic than the Inquisition, they had instantly turned the tide again, and several of the flanking force had fallen in pools of their own blood. Lia struggled frantically with a Venatori swordsman on the ground, having abandoned her bow in favor of the knife. Rilien was juggling a trio of opponents, but they were slowly backing him up against a pillar with their shields.

“What? No! We can’t just abandon them!” She referred to her brother and Romulus and even Chryseis, of course, but also to anyone else they’d be leaving behind in such a retreat. Those who couldn’t disengage fast enough, or the injured. She tried to tug her arm free, but his grip was too strong for that. Gritting her teeth, she slashed at a guard who went in low for her unprotected side, kicking him square in the chest where she’d cut him. That would keep him down for a while, at least.

"We have to leave! Else we risk everything!," Marceline barked over the din of battle. Her hair was disheveled, and the fatigue was quickly seeping into her face. Her rapier and main-gauche flashed in her hands as she fended off a Venatori swordsmen, her back pressed up against Khari. "We must get back to Ser Leonhardt!" She called, her rapier biting deep into the shoulder of the Venatori. It stumbled him for a moment, but he replied with a backhand and opened up a cut under her chin. Her rapier went for the killing blow at his neck, but he batted it away and pulled back to drive his sword through her.

Not before she drove her own main-gauche into his belly, disemboweling him. "Now!" she demanded. Vesryn released Estella's arm, out of necessity more than anything, but still stood between her and Cassius.

Not more than a beat of time passed after that before Cassius gathered more magic to him. This time, the spell was a firestorm, recognizable as such only for the faint scent of brimstone on the air before flaming rocks began to crash down upon them from the ceiling. Each landed in an almost-explosive burst, clearly a very advanced and very powerful version of the spell. With almost casual ease, he threw a bolt of lightning right for where Vesryn and Estella stood, summoning a shield in another and then detaching it from his hand, letting it orbit freely around him. It caught half a dozen arrows with precision, and more importantly, left his hands free to hurl spell after spell at them—his ability to do so seemed almost inexhaustible, and his forces were clearly drawing from his apparent superiority and control of the field.

“Escape is beyond you!” He shouted the words over the din, his mouth twisted into a snarl. Help is beyond you! The Elder One rises! Surrender the Herald, and the rest of your Inquisition may yet live to see tomorrow!”

Vesryn locked his shield into the ground, angling it up, and crouching low, so as to get himself somewhat under it. "Get down! Or get out!" he called, as the spells rained down around him. Powerful lightning spells blasted against his shield, little arcs of electricity snapping through the air around his body, until he was shaking violently with the absorption of it. When it became clear he could take no more, he flipped the grip of his spear in his hand, stood, and hurled it at Cassius. One of the shields deflected it aside, and the next bolt of lightning hit the elf square in the chest. He flew back, smashing into Estella along the way and tumbling to the ground face down and unconscious.

Vesryn in full armor was quite a lot of weight, and easily took Estella to the ground as well, where she slid on her back for quite a distance before she ran out of momentum and tried to scramble to her feet, only to be hit by an ice spell, one that pinned one of her legs to the ground. She attempted to lunge out of it, but it held fast, creeping up the length of her leg to her waist, locking her joints. A second one followed, striking her square in the chest, and try as she might, she couldn’t fight free of it.

Within moments afterward, she was surrounded by Cassius’s guards, who leveled weapons at her, one ambitious lance even flirting with the skin of her throat. She couldn’t so much as lean away, able only to glare at the Magister as he advanced towards her. This was it—she was in his custody now, at his mercy, and she knew far better than to expect him to have any of that to spare for her, or her comrades.

If only Cyrus were still here, instead of her, he could have stopped this.

It was the last thought she had before one of the guards cracked the haft of his axe over her head, and she fell into unconsciousness.