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Asala Kaaras

"Now tell me, where does it hurt?"

846 views · last seen in Thedas
a character in “The Canticle of Fate”, as played by Talisman

Description

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Full Name: Asala Kaaras (ah-SAH-lah kah-RAHS)
Titles/Nicknames: Saarebas, Beres-taar, Asala
Age: 21 (9:42)
Race: Qunari
Gender: Female
Sexual Orientation: Pansexual
Class: Mage
Specialization: Force Mage

Hair Color: Alabaster White
Eye Color: Bright Gold
Height: 6'4"
Build: Slender

Appearance: It's not easy to mistake a Qunari for anything but. Asala is no different. She towers a good half a foot over the average human male and she's rarely met a non-Qunari taller than her. Despite that she's actually somewhat shorter than that of an average Qunari, though it's hard to tell unless standing side-by-side with the rest of her kin. Her height is further detracted by the slight hunch present in her shoulders, as if trying to make herself smaller and attempt to fit in better. She's also quite slender for a Qunari. She is in possession of a lithe frame, corded by strands of muscle bred by use and practice. She has strong abdominals, though this strength is well hidden.

Asala is very cold-natured, and has taken to wearing layers of loose fitting clothes and robes in all but the hottest and most tropical climates. The color of the garments do not matter, though she would prefer if they matched, but if not then it doesn't bother her too much. She has been taught function over form, and will use what she needs to-- though she does have moments of attempting to look her prettiest. Usually this translates into wearing colors that match her hair color and skin tone as well as practical application of vitaar.

The reason for the loose clothing, or rather bare considering the climate, are the pair of horns sprouting from the top of her head. While hornless Qunari do exist, Asala is assuredly not one. Hers rise from above her brow just below her hairline and sweep backward, so clothing is easier to slip on than some of the Qunari she's seen. She just has to be careful. A head full of alabaster white hair frames her face and hides the skin with the roots of her horns. A pair of slightly pointed ear can usually be found hiding beneath this mat, usually sporting golden hoops of some other form of jewelry. The hair is rather long, falling to about her waistline before tapering off. Braids sometimes accompany this waterfall, and she has a habit of braiding it when she's particularly bored.

Another staple of Qunari physiology is their bronze-hued skin color. Asala possesses a slightly lighter tone of ashen grey. It produces a rather striking visual when paired with her snow white hair and her brilliant gold eyes. Eyes that always seem to be flittering to and fro, never focusing on an individual's face for an extended period. Her eyes are angular in shape, matching up with the rest of her face. Her features are rather sharp, notable in her chin, though softened just before the point of cutting. A smallish nose sits in the middle of her face, with a pair of thick lips usually found nervously pursed, though they're no stranger to smiles and laughter. A youthful face, made even younger by the dusting of freckles across her cheeks.

9:42: The young woman's features have not changed over the past year. She is still as youthful in the face as she was when the Inquisition was first born. However, her mannerisms have changed. She has since become far more comfortable within the Inquisition than she was before, and she can be found more easily smiling, and the nervous shroud that used to always follow her only reappears when she is amongst strangers. Her hands have become sure of late, though through comfort or newfound confidence is not yet clear. Otherwise, she has not changed much... Healing and her specific method of defense do little to build muscle mass.


“Um, yes? Can I help you with anything.”


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Apparent Demeanor: Imposing, intimidating, disciplined, all words usually used to describe a Qunari. Asala is none of these unless accidentally. In reality Asala is a meek creature who's actually kind of shy amongst strangers. She's quiet and will usually only speak when spoken to or if her opinion is asked upon an important matter. She's not the type to simply walk into a room and instantly command it with a booming voice and proud swagger. It's much more likely that she'd slink into the room and linger on the wall near the door or in a corner somewhere. Attention tends to get her flustered, and she hates standing out in a crowd. Unfortunately, that's entire far too common for her liking thanks to her height and the pair of horns sprouting from the top of her head.

It's not to say she's antisocial. In fact, she loves people. She just doesn't like to be the subject of their attention-- unless those people are her friends. She enjoys being around others, and loves listening to other people talk, particularly about the the stories of their past. In an odd twist for an introvert, she loathes to feel alone. She's much more comfortable if she knows that there is someone nearby that she can find if need be. She's also rather useless by herself, as she tends to second guess herself and with no one's word to go on becomes unsure of what she should do with herself. She's not the type of person who would make a great leader, but she is the type of person a great leader wants behind them.

Through the layers of shyness and underneath that shell is a very sweet and kind girl. Asala is very earnest in all that she does, and never once does she ever have a bad word to say about anyone. She's genuine in her emotions, she she can very rarely hide them if at all. Everything she feels writes itself clearly on her face, and she's terrible at lying-- so much so that she's all but given up on trying. She absolutely adores the people she feels she can trust and loyal to them to a near fault. To her friends, she's far more open, and far more talkative and can actually crack a joke or two. That being said, it's usually an absolutely horrid joke that no one but her laughs at, but it's a start. It takes a while to get her to that point however, Her trust is bred and cultivated, not given to anyone on a whim. But you'll know when you earn it.

Naivety and innocence betray her age. She is still young and inexperienced and why the world can't just all try to get along bewilders her. Why fight and argue the whole time when talking and getting along is so much easier and safer? She's also amusingly literal, having spent half of her life in the Qun, and the other half in the care of Tamassran. However, a youthful optimism comes with it. She hopes for the best and wishes that at the very end everything will turn out just fine. And despite it all, there's an uncommon strength of character lying underneath. If she feels that something needs to be done, then her soft hands can summon a firm grip. It's best characterized in her bedside manner. She speaks reassuringly and softly, but with a firmness. All she wishes if for the well-being of everyone, and though she may be afraid to voice her concerns, she will still try.

9:42: It took a long enough time, but Asala is finally comfortable enough around a number of the Inquisition that they can finally see the real Asala beneath the shell. She has demonstrated moments of silliness and on more than one occasion been embarrassed by a sudden bout of ignorance, though the blush to her cheeks no longer last as long as they used to. She laughs easier and smiles more openly now that she has friends among the Inquisition she believes that she can trust implicitly.

She remains the kind, sweet young lady, but loss has... not hardened, that's not the correct word. There is still nothing hard about Asala, but strengthened her and pushes her to see that that loss never returns. She's obtained a curious streak and a desire to improve, particularly from Cyrus, and spends her free moments reading and studying, eagerly learning what she couldn't in her little piece of Thedas, away from everything else. As in everything, Asala remains earnest in everything she does, and a certain confidence is beginning to seep into her previously shaky hands.

Hangups/Quirks: Asala is a shy creature until she can reach a point where she can call you a friend. Until then, she's rather hesitant to speak, and would rather not stand out in a crowd. Hard to do as a Qunari, but she tries. She's also rather skittish, and certain things will never cease to frighten her. She hates spiders, for instance. More seriously, deep inside she's afraid of the potential of her magic. Perhaps the most striking, Asala is technically a pacifist. Technically, because sometimes one just has to defend themselves. But she never goes for the killing blow, instead trying to disarm or momentarily disable. While a broken leg still hurts, it leaves both parties still alive.

Strengths: Were she born in a Circle, Asala would best be described as a prodigy. She demonstrates a natural knack for magic and displays an uncommon potential. Despite being so young, she's able to manipulate her magic on par with an enchanter even without ever knowing what a Harrowing is. This does not mean she's most commonly seen with fire in one hand and ice in the other. Quite the contrary, she focuses less on the offensive magics and more on those that would help her to protect those who need it most. She's a proficient healer, able to ease and exercise most wounds given the time and effort.

However, it's better if there were no wounds for her to cure and toward that end she's become adept in the ability to create and summon magical barriers and arcane shields. So much so that she's even able to wield these shields in an offensive manner. There also hides a greater than average strength in her arms, and it's a bit surprising to see it first hand. She also has a certain strength of character. She is very genuine, and it's hard to not like her. She's willing to help and protect nearly anyone, and though maybe a little bit afraid to, will always voice what she believes is right.

9:42: Asala's learned that there's always room to improve, and she continues to seek to refine and add to her magical repertoire, with Cyrus's help of course. Slowly she is learning how to experiment with her particular brand of magic.

Weaknesses: Despite her potential, she has never been formally trained. A majority of what she knows has been self taught, though some apostates have also had a hand in shaping her studies. She's best described as a hedge-mage because of it, and her skill set doesn't necessarily line up with the Circles more defined definitions. She's also shy, as been stated before, and so it takes some effort to get her to open up. It's not easy to earn her trust. It needs to be built over time and cultivated, it's not given on a whim. One must earn her trust and the right to be called friend.

Fears: Asala is afraid of her own power. She's heard stories of mages going mad with such power or becoming possessed. Because of her potential, the potential for her to get possessed is also heightened, something's that's been made clear to her. She fears losing herself and going on a rampage and hurting her friends.


“I can mend broken bones and stitch flesh back together,
but I can not piece together a broken heart. I can
listen, however. If you wish to speak.”





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Strength: XXXXXx | ▇▇▇▇▇▇ | [6/10]

Dexterity:XXXXX | ▇▇▇ | [3/10]

Intelligence: XXX | ▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ | [8/10]

Cunning: XXXXXX | ▇▇ | [2/10]

Wisdom: XXXXXX | ▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ | [7/10]

Magic: XXXXXXXX | ▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ | [9/10]

Willpower: XXXX | ▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ | [8/10]

Constitution: XXX | ▇▇▇▇▇ | [5/10]

Weapon of Choice: Though it's less a weapon and more a focusing mechanism, Asala wields a staff typical of the mages. On the exterior it looks like a piece of driftwood with the tip charred, and could easily pass for a walking stick. A focusing crystal however is hidden within the tip, with only the top edge visible. It helps for her to pass as "not-a-mage" though it doesn't really matter any more.

Fighting Style/Training: Asala is what her Tamassran termed a beres-taar, a shield in Qunlat. The closest specification the Circle has is the Force Mage. Instead of using her powers to summon bolts of lightning or streams of hellfire, she uses it to form barriers and shields. She can use these shields to protect herself or others within a bubble or behind a wall of energy, or summon small ones to fend off individual blows or projectiles. Shields can be used for more than defense, however, and if given a good enough vantage point Asala can control the battlefield with her shields, funneling enemies where she wants them or create killing fields for her allies. This predictably takes the most energy, especially if the fight is prolonged. If her needs demand it, she can also forcefully use these shields to smash an opponent against the ground or between two of them, or simply hit them with an edge for blunt force trauma. She also has healing spells if necessary.


“The Qunari would call me saarebas. I am not a dangerous thing.
I am Asala Kaaras, beres-taar.
I am a shield.”


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Place of Birth: Par Vollen
Social Status/Rank: Apostate and Tal-vashoth.

History: Asala Kaaras. This is not the name that she was born with under the Qun, but one she's come to adopt. Not so long ago, Asala was born into the hands of a Tamassran in the heart of Qunari nation of Par Vollen. She never knew who her biological parents were, as in the Qun the father's role ends at conception, and the mother's at birth. For all intents and purposes, Asala's entire family was the Tamassran and the other children she raised. Asala knew nothing of her parents aside from their roles. Her Tamassran, or Tammy as her children called her, told her that her father was a priest under the Ariqun and her mother another Tamassran and that is the extent of her knowledge of her parents.

For Asala and the other imekari, Tammy was warm, loving, and encouraging. She was young and Asala's group was the first group she raised. Despite the circumstances, Asala had a childhood just as any other child, she made friends, most notably another child who'd later take the name Meraad. He was everything she was not. Even as a child, Asala was the smaller and meeker one of her group. He was brave, excitably, eager to adventure, and though he might've not known it, Asala looked up to him.

Tammy taught her everything she needed to know in order to live under the Qun, and she waited for the day she would come of age and would be assigned her own role. However, fate had other plans. Somewhere in her ninth year Asala manifested magical abilities. It happened suddenly, and Asala has no real memory of what exactly happened, having fainted from the sudden surge of stress, but what she does remember is what happened when she awoke. Tammy sat beside her alone in a darkened room, sadness and disappointment written into her face. Whatever her role might've been, it was since lost. Asala was a saarebas. A mage, in Qunari society. She would chained and collared, her horns cut and her lips sewn shut. It terrified Asala, and she burst into tears, hugging Tammy as the woman sat there. She said nothing and simply left the room. The next few days Asala spent hugging her knees and crying.

The next time it opened, it was late, the only thoughts Asala had was fear of the chains and collar. There were no chains however, only Tammy and Meraad. It turned out, not so long after her own powers manifested, Meraad did as well. Not able to cope with the thought of losing two of her children, Tammy smuggled both saarebas and herself out of Par Vollen and away from the Qun, both becoming Tal-Vashoth in the process. They did not take flight from their home without a plan. In her role as a Tamassran, Tammy had heard rumors of a commune of Tal-Vashoth on the coast of Rivian. As it turns out, the rumors proved true, and they approached the commune tired, dirty, and hungry, but alive.

Eventually, they soon settled into their new lives. Tammy resumed teaching the children of the commune, Meraad, faced with the freedom to choose, bounced around various apprenticeships, while Asala became the apprentice of an herbalist. It was under this apprenticeship that Asala learned how to ease wounds, mix herbs, and apply poultices. However, they were left on their own to practice and hone their magical ability, as the mage could teach nothing about magic She found her own ways instead and it was during this time that Asala displayed her natural talent for magic, soon developing how to heal, and then her own form of magic, utilizing barriers and shields to protect and defend rather than attack and kill. It was for this reason the commune had given her the title Beres-taar, a shield in Qunlat.

Years were spent in the manner, both children growing into young adults, until the Mage-Templar war broke out. With the Circles broken, mages were now free in Thedas. Though Asala was reluctant to take leave from the comfortable familiarity of the commune, she and Meraad were worried that their new home would soon be engulfed by the chaos, not to mention both were interested in developing their skills with the Circle mages. Without him, she doubts that she would've ever sought these mages out by herself. Their paths inevitably led them to meeting some of the apostates.

Word of the mage and templar summit in the Temple of Sacred Ashes passed through the apostate camps, and invested in it's outcome, Asala set off alone to be nearby when it reached it's conclusion.





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| Cyrus Avenarius |

Her tutor, and the times in which she doesn't see him as such, a friend. Having spent most of her life figuring out her magic on her own, she is grateful to have someone as knowledgeable and intelligent as he watching over her learning. She accepts his eccentricities and strangeness easily and doesn't judge the man for them-- he has proven himself to her enough. She trusts him, but that should go without saying. She... does have a tendency to worry about him, when something in particular catches his eye. He does enjoy his work to the exclusion of food and sleep.



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| Marceline Benoît |

Lady Marceline, she still does not know much of the woman and their paths rarely ever cross. She has a feeling that the woman's station sits higher than her own, and she quite honestly intimidates her. From what the others have said about her, she is apparently a shrewd woman whom desires results. A driven individual, from what she understands-- and to be honest, the thought of her sort of frightens her. At least she is on their side.



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| Leonhardt Albrecht |

A rather large man whose size belies the gentle man whom she'd seen. Outside of battle, however. In battle he still frightens her a bit, and she tends to stay well out of his face-- though even there she keeps an eye on him in case he would need a quick barrier on his flank. Outside of it he is far different. Unfailingly polite, proper, and even at times awkward-- much like her in a sense. If she had not seen it herself, she would not believe that they were two sides of the same man. Still, she likes him, and though at times he has a tendency to be firm, she believe he has hers, and the rest of the Inqusition's, best interests in mind. Still, she worries for the man. She has noticed the shakes in his hands and how tired he seems at times. However, she believes and trusts in the man, and if something was well and truly wrong, he would come to her.



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| Zahra Tavish |

Their vibrant pirate captain. Asala is captivated by Zahra's bravery and outgoing nature. Just watching and listening to the woman act and speak makes her wish she could be as outgoing as she was. She's adventurous, brave, and shameless in the ways that she wish she could be. Alas, it is not that easy, and so she lives vicariously through the woman. She answers the questions and quips she has, and though she doesn't always understand, likes the jokes she sometimes tells her. She enjoys the woman's friendship, and though sad, is glad that they can share their connection with Meraad and Aslan. She was grateful Zahra was there so that they could put their souls to rest together.



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| Vesryn Cormyth |

The elf warrior does tend to enjoy teasing her, a fact that is not lost on her. But she is also able to get him back for it, considering she is usually the one in charge of healing the irregulars. No bruise is safe from Asala's adorable wrath. Still, she was surprised to hear that another... being also inhabits Vesryn's head. She is thankful that he trusts her enough to tell her about Saraya, though admittedly he doesn't quite understand it completely. Though, she believes he is a good person at heart, he is still somewhat of a mystery to Asala, and him revealing Saraya only made her realize how much she doesn't know about the man-- it's something she would like to rectify-- though it will be up to him to choose to divulge any more information about himself.



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| Kharisanna Istimaethoriel |

Khari is a bright and energetic woman, much like their pirate friend, though... different. She admires the woman's enthusiasm for everything and the way she puts her everything in everything that she does. Even the teases. Especially the teases. She's learned to best act like she understand Khari at times to avoid them, though she doubts the strategy actually works. Still, she likes the woman and considers her a friend



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| Romulus |

WIP



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| Rilien Falavel |

WIP



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| Estella Avenarius |

WIp




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“Tammy always told me, 'Asala. The world possesses many swords.
But not enough shields to protect against them.
Be the shield that protects, and not the sword that harms.'
I try, but I fear it may not be enough.”

So begins...

Asala Kaaras's Story

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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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
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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

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

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Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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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: Romulus Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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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: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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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

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Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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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
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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

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Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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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: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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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: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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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: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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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
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Image



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

Image

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: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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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: Romulus Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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INK

It was all too much for Romulus to comprehend, but at the same time, the reality of it was so intense, so all-consuming, that he had no choice but to face it. It was the worst nightmare he'd ever had, because despite all of the appearances and all of the horrors, this wasn't a nightmare. This was real, and there was a distinct possibility that this would be the reality he was stuck in.

Cyrus and Chryseis talked about undoing the damage, going back and making sure none of this ever happened, but there could be no guarantee for that, could there? What if Cyrus couldn't figure out how to do it? What if the materials they needed, if there were any, were missing, or what if Cassius was dead when they reached him, and they needed him alive? It forced him to confront the very real possibility that they could be stuck here.

Here, in this place where the Inquisition was crushed, most were dead, and those that survived were tortured, maimed beings. He feared every new sight, around every corner.

Vesryn explored it with the purposeful gait of one who knew where he was going, and one who wasn't tentative about witnessing the disturbing. He carried a Tevinter sword and shield now, taken from the body of a slain Venatori guard, and led the group through the fairly labyrinthine Redcliffe dungeons. The castle was immense, and much of the ground it stood upon had been hollowed out as well. Romulus wondered if any of these routes were ones that Mother Annika had shown them. If the now dead scouts and agents had crept along these passageways.

"Asala?" Vesryn called, turning a corner into another cell block. "Asala, it's Vesryn. Don't be alarmed, I've brought some friends. We're getting out of here." Romulus followed, looking into each of the cells Vesryn passed for any sign of other prisoners, or even just the dead.

It was in the last cell that he found what he was looking for. In the far corner of the cramped room, a familiar white haired figure leaned heavily against the wall. A large vein of red lyrium was present on the opposite wall, oppressively looming over her unmoving form. Asala's white hair was matted and dirty, stained with dirt and crimson, but most noticable was the absence of her horns. Instead they were replaced with massive holes where they should've been, the broken roots just visible under the sea of dirty white.

She hung limply by her arms, held high above her head by shackles bolted to the brick behind her. Her knees were bent, as the shackles were clearly meant for someone shorter than her. She wore the same sleeveless unwashed tunic that Vesryn did, though hers faded with red from blood spilled long ago. Along her arms were a number of surgical precise scars, and they continued through her tunic. Even some of her veins possessed the strange orange hue that Vesryn's did.

She did not acknowledge his voice, and were it not for the steady shallow rise and fall of her chest there'd be no evidence that she was even alive.

Cyrus, his mouth compressed into the same grim line, re-summoned the glowing blue axe he’d used before, this time cracking through the lock in a single swing. Throwing open the door, he stepped inside and spent a moment examining Asala’s chains, his expression deepening into something like a scowl. Reaching up, he took hold of one of them with his free hand, wrapping it around his palm to absorb the weight from both sides and hold it in tension. Another few strikes with the axe broke the chain, and he eased her arm down very slowly, perhaps aware of the fact that a sudden rush of blood to her limb would be extremely painful.

“Easy now.” He repeated the process with the other side, placing a hand on her shoulder to steady her as she grew accustomed to freedom of movement.

Asala would've fallen to her knees, were it not for Cyrus catching her. The sudden rush of activity seemed to have jarred her out of whatever numbness she had been in before. Her eyes snapped wide to take in the visage of Cyrus, and the others on the other side of the cell door. Her eyes also held the red tint. She seemed confused as her face twisted in appearance and she opened her mouth as if to say something.

However, a realization struck, and her mouth snapped shut into a snarl. Her once weak hand snatched Cyrus's collar and forced him back with an uncommon strength. She slammed him hard into the iron bars and even lifted him a few inches off of the ground. She braced him there with her forearm while a familiar blue light flickered into her other hand. A barrier rose where the cell door had been, blocking the others from reaching them.

"Where have you been?" she hissed, her voice trembling with rage and desperation.

Vesryn was next to move towards the door of Asala's cell, and he made to put a hand on the Qunari's barrier. "Easy, Asala, it's not their fault." Romulus was perhaps more alarmed by the situation. Despite his sympathy towards Asala, he knew that above all, they needed Cyrus. He didn't actually think Asala could really hurt him in her current state, but still... there were so many individual things that could wrong and leave them stuck.

"It was Cassius's time magic, they were caught in his spell. I didn't even think they were real at first." He glanced back at Romulus, with a hint of a smile. "At least she's past that part already." Romulus didn't find much humor in it.

"Let him go, Asala. We need your help to undo this."

“He has the right of it.” There was a bit of a roughness to Cyrus’s voice, though from looking at him, it had less to do with pain or distress and more to do with restraint. He was clearly suppressing whatever instinctive reaction he would have had to being bodily handled in such a fashion, his legs hanging still beneath him, his hands flexing, fingers closing over little flickers of electricity that disappeared a second later. “If you would like the long-form explanation, I can elucidate the principles of time-distortion magic to you, but the important point is that I’m rather necessary to correcting the error, which I will not achieve if you strangle me first.”

The outburst seemed to have taken a lot out of her, because only a moment passed before the arm holding Cyrus against the bars began to waver. The rage and pain was still vivid in her features as she looked between him, Vesryn, and Romulus before she weakened. The anger and rage shifted to pained anguish. She let Cyrus slip through her grip, and the barrier with him, before she stumbled a step backward. Her hands went to her eyes first, before pushing upward through her hair and passing by her missing horns, before finally alighting on her ears as if to drown out all sounds.

"Undo this?" she asked, her arms still hanging around her ears. "You cannot undo this!" Asala cried, throwing her arms wide to reveal the countless scars that weaved across her body. Now that they were much more visible, it was clear that they served only one purpose: To inflict pain.

"You do not know what I have been through," she muttered, anger seeping back into her voice, but not before she brought her arms back to her ears.

“Actually, I believe I do know.” Cyrus said this quietly, rolling out his shoulders before tilting his head at her. “They attempted to make you into an abomination, did they not?” He turned, exiting the cell with one hand on his opposite shoulder, prodding at it with a grimace. “Make them pay for it.”

"I intend to," Asala growled as she followed him out of the cell, her hands throbbing with a now violet energy.

The group fell back into line, allowing Vesryn to lead them down several more hallways, and then up a slope of some kind, at least a perceptible grade in the floor. One hall looked markedly different from the rest, lined with wooden doors rather than iron bars, though they were reinforced with metal. One of them hung ajar, and a quick glance inside was all that was necessary to confirm that this hall was filled now with chambers of torture, whatever had been in them before.

Romulus and Vesryn led the way forward side by side, the elf wearing a near constant sneer of disgust at the plethora of torture racks and hideous devices. Romulus simply kept his eyes forward, and listened. He knew full well what many in Tevinter were capable of, and doubted highly that these all of these instruments of torture had been in the castle to begin with.

As they proceeded, voices became audible from ahead, to the right. “You will speak!” The first was male, accented with the Antivan purr, which had become rather harsher with increased volume, and, it seemed, frustration.

“Fuck you!” That snarl was more familiar, and could only have belonged to Khari. It was followed with the sound of something striking flesh, and then harsh, hoarse feminine laughter. “Death before dishonor. Try harder, filthy son of a mabari bitch!”

“And what if I cut your friend instead, hm? Would you be so defiant in the face of her pain, too?”

Emma bellanaris din’an heem, you piece of shit! Break me first, I dare you!” The rattle of chains was sudden and obvious, as though someone were actively fighting their restraints. Weapons up, Vesryn was the first to round the corner into the room they sought, Romulus close on his heels.

What met them was certainly not a pretty sight. Khari—or someone who had to be Khari—was suspended from the ceiling by chains, her feet shackled to a metal ring embedded in the stone floor. She’d strained forward as far as her bonds would allow, producing the characteristic rattle-and-clank. Someone had hacked most of her hair off; what remained fell to her shoulders in a scraggle, covering half her face and leaving her to glare at the man in front of her with one bright green eye. Her ears had both been docked at some point, though probably in stages, since one of them was still at least an inch or two longer than the other. She seemed to show fewer of the red-lyrium-induced damages than the others, but made up for it in the sheer amount of physical mutilation. One of her arms was missing from the elbow down, so she’d been cuffed around her bicep rather than her wrist on the right side.

Whatever torment she’d endured was not near as precise as what had been visited upon the others—her belly was crosshatched in jagged lines, as though she’d struggled through the infliction of each and every one of them, causing some to bite too deep and others to skitter away entirely. She was yet decent, but barely, outfitted in what amounted to a breastband and breeches torn off below the knees. Her visible eye flickered to them upon their entrance, but then abruptly back to what was happening in front of her, which was that the interrogator was sharpening a knife with the rasp of a whetstone.

“Nothing to say now, asshole? Lost your chicken-shit nerve already? We both know this won’t achieve anything. It didn’t yesterday, or any of the days before that.” It was clear that she was talking now mostly to prevent the man from noticing the intruders in the room, and her volume was indeed sufficient, if the provocation didn’t accomplish that on its own.

“Listen here, you knife-eared bitch—”

His words were cut off by the rim of the shield Romulus carried crunching against his jaw. The bone clearly shattered, distorting the entire shape of his lower face, and he staggered away, dripping blood from his mouth. Romulus wasn't of a mind to let him get any further. He reached out, grabbed the torturer by the hair and pulled him back, forcing him to stand up straight. His blade then came down diagonally on the base of his neck, cutting down more than across.

It was enough to send a torrent of blood down to the already stained floors, and left the man choking and gurgling, but Romulus wrenched his blade free and sliced again, and again, raggedly hacking the man's head off on the fourth strike. He roared, shaking, and let the body fall headless to the ground on its back. He clutched the head tightly in his palm for a few seconds before tossing it away, and beginning to pace around the room.

Chryseis watched from the doorway, holding a closed fist under her nose, while Vesryn moved to the headless body, picking a set of keys the belt. "Let's get you down," he said, his tone gentle. He stepped up on a stool that had been placed so the shackles around her wrist could be reached. "Romulus, if you don't mind catching her..."

Romulus did not seem inclined to look at her, and spent a few more moments pacing, before he finally sheathed his blade and walked over to her, carefully taking hold of her hips while Vesryn worked on the locks. One came free, and then he unshackled the other attached to her upper arm, and she was allowed to return to the floor. Romulus made sure to support her if she proved unable to stand, which seemed likely given the circumstances.

Khari did indeed struggle to get her feet under her for a moment, but after a chance to shake out her legs, she was standing firmly enough. For a couple of seconds, she stared hard at all of them, particularly Romulus, with her visible eye, rolling out her shoulders and cracking her neck from one side to the other. In the end, though, her face worked into a grin. It was obvious from this close that her tattoos had been cut out of her skin, leaving scarring in the same pattern, save where occasionally there was an extra line or something, less deliberate.

“I knew it. I fucking knew it! Quintus owes me ten sovereigns; you’re alive! Ha!” If anything, she seemed genuinely, fiercely delighted to see them, and clapped Romulus on the shoulder with her remaining hand. “This is excellent—I don’t know how you got in here, but getting out’s going to be a trick. Leon’s not gonna know what hit him when we show up…” She trailed off, her brows knitting.

“You don’t… uh… look any different from how I remember you. Any of you three. I feel like I’m missing something.”

Romulus didn't seem to have any words, judging by the way his mouth hung open, and when it was clear she was standing well enough on her own, he backed away from her a few paces as well. He still seemed a bit stunned by all of it.

Vesryn, meanwhile, had crouched down to free her feet from their shackles. "What he means to say, little bear, is that he's very sorry for how late he is, but magical time warping is a bitch. They only just left the throne room, when we were captured."

“Huh.” Khari didn’t seem quite sure what to make of that, and shook her head, finally casting the hair away from her second eye, not that it made much of a difference. From the milky color of it, she couldn’t see out of it anymore regardless. “Well… better late than never. We should get Zahra, too, she’s back here somewhere…” She turned towards the far side of the room.

In the furthest corner of the torturer's chamber lay a trembling mess of rattling bones. From the looks of it: a woman. An iron collar kept her anchored in place, though it was apparent she had not moved in awhile. Heavy chains trailed up the muck-encrusted wall, occasionally jangling together whenever a shudder enveloped her. The woman's thin arms were wrapped around her knobby knees, pulled tight against her bare chest. The remnants of an old shirt barely clung onto her emaciated frame, ripped and torn in many places, and clutched in her fists like an ill-fitting cloak. Her hands gripped onto the fabric as if it was the only thing keeping her in place. Several clumps of her hair had fallen out or been removed. Red, molted patches were left in their place. Old and new burns alike. Initially, she made no movements at all, except for the occasional quiver. She wriggled her toes. Or what was left of them.

A low, nasally hum wheezed from the woman's throat. A broken tune, hissing off into an exhaled breath. At the sound of approaching feet, the woman's face peeked above her knees. Revealing who she was, or who she'd been, an old husk of the seafaring creature: Captain Zahra. Bright, wild eyes swam in deep sockets. She appeared to startle at the sight of them. Though she remained where she was, blinking rapidly. Her sharp cheekbones warped whatever expression she was trying to demonstrate. Cracked lips pulled back to reveal several missing teeth. She made another garbled sound in the back of her throat.

“They, uh… they cut out her tongue.” Khari grimaced, her brows knitting together, and held a hand out for the keys, which she used to undo the captain’s restraints. “We’re getting the hell out of here, Zee.” The collar came away first, followed by the rest, and Khari offered her hand to the other woman, so as to help pull her up. “Sounds better than staying, right?”

Another low hum sounded, apparently forgoing the garbled speech she had been attempting earlier. Zahra's thin fingers immediately itched at her neck when the collar clattered on the ground, freeing her from the wall. She only paused in her scraping when Khari mentioned leaving. Her head bobbed in a fervent nod, and she flashed another horrid, toothless grin. She snatched up Khari's hand and staggered back to her feet, unsteady as a colt. With her other hand, she maintained her death-grip on the shirt draped across her bony shoulders.

From behind them, Asala was hard at work pulling the bloodied coat off of the corpse of the interrogator. She was not gentle in her method, using her foot to rip it free from his arms. She then moved toward Zahra, a shoulder hitched up to an ear to block out some sound that only she seemed to hear. She glanced at the bloodied garment before she wrapped it around Zahra's shoulders and fastened it at her neck. The small act of kindness did not come with a smile, only a grim determination.

"You will want both hands," Asala explained, offering Zahra the interrogator's knife with one hand, the other covering one of her ears. "Come. They have gone unpunished for too long," she added with darkened eyes and made her way first toward the exit.

Romulus touched Vesryn lightly on the shoulder, pulling the elf's attention away from Zahra and the others. "Are there any others we can find?" he asked, cautiously, for the answers clearly were capable of causing pain. Perhaps this wasn't real for Romulus, or Chryseis or Cyrus, but this had been the reality of their companions for many months. "Is Estella here?"

Vesryn's eyes wobbled between Romulus and Cyrus momentarily, and he opened his mouth, struggling to speak. His eyes fell. "Ah... no. She is not."

Cyrus scowled. “Let’s go. While we’re walking, tell me everything.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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Footnotes

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INK

No one really seemed to want to linger anyway, so they followed him out without issue. After a pause in which Khari secured herself a loose black shirt and a sword, much lighter than the one he’d seen her with to account for her missing hand, they were moving again, generally heading up as often as the architecture would allow. Cyrus was simply attempting to contain his impatience—there were many reasons he wanted to know as much as possible about what had transpired in this world, many of them strategic. But all the same, he knew he had not been thinking about strategy when he’d made the demand. He’d spoken from whatever poor excuse for a heart he had.

He pulled in a deep breath. “Start right after we left, if you would.” He reminded himself that these people, these versions of people he knew, had never been separated from this reality, that even in the act of reversing the damage, he would be unmaking them, unmaking this timeline, and so, in once sense, effectively destroying them. It didn’t change his mind in the slightest, but it helped him remember to soften the way he said things, at least.

Khari sucked her teeth, then blew out a soft breath. “Right. So, you guys got dragged up into that weird… thing, and then it disappeared, but the rest of us were still there. Cassius’s people overwhelmed us. They captured Stel pretty soon after that.” She frowned, shaking her head and disturbing several near-matted curls in the process. “It was pretty clear from where I was standing that our best chance of saving her was to get out, warn Leon and the rest, and try to retake the castle, so Marcy and I fought our way out.” Her eyes flicked to the others, clearly pausing to allow them to explain what had happened to themselves.

"I stayed behind," Vesryn pitched in, his eyes watching their surroundings rather than any of his companions. "Not by choice, obviously. Your insane former teacher caught Estella and I in a firestorm, while ranting about this Elder One. I held out as long as I could and then... nothing. They'd tossed us in the dungeon." Though his gaze kept wandering about, his eyes were distant, clearly remembering things that he was utterly haunted by.

"We weren't in the best position to know what was going on. The Venatori arrived in force, and used the castle as their base of operations in Ferelden. There weren't many of us imprisoned there, at first. Estella, myself, Lia, Zahra, some of the scouts..." His voice trailed off for a moment, and he swallowed. "Everyone went through it differently. Their mages experimented on my head when they found out what I carried. The Elder One had some interest in Saraya, they said. As for Estella... they studied her mark, tried to remove it. Experiments, interrogations... the mark eventually started to consume her again." Relaying the information was clearly causing him a great deal of pain. He looked to be struggling to hold himself together.

"We were in cells across from each other. She'd have these horrible nightmares. The Elder One, darkspawn, war and death. We talked... a great deal. I'd like to think we kept each other alive for a time down there." There were tears evident in his eyes now, and he finally looked at Cyrus, ignoring the surrounding halls for once. "She never gave up, you know? And she spoke often of you. She really did believe you'd come for her, and set things right. I will admit I didn't share her optimism... but here you are."

"Do you need to torture yourself like this, Cyrus?" Chryseis asked, clearly made uncomfortable by all the things she was hearing. "The world won't remain this way. The horrors visited upon these people will be erased." Ahead, Romulus had drawn up his hood, making it impossible to get so much as a reading of how he was reacting.

"In your eyes, perhaps," Asala replied sharply. When she rolled her head toward Chryseis, the others could see her pointed gaze.

"I did everything I could to care for her, Cyrus," Vesryn said, his eyes practically pleading. "Some nights my mind was hardly my own, but I tried. You have to believe that."

He did. Of course he believed it—how could he not? He’d always found it difficult to suppose that anyone could mean Estella any harm, even people who were, like himself, more or less without moral compass or concern. Her goodness was evident even to people usually blind to it. Another person who was fundamentally decent, as Vesryn seemed to be, wouldn’t be able to ignore that, and a situation such as the one he’d described… Cyrus let a breath hiss out from between his teeth. Ignoring the byplay between Chryseis and Asala, he gave Vesryn a tiny nod, more a jerk of his chin than anything, which was about all he could muster at the moment.

Khari, her eyes flickering between the two for a moment, set them forward again as they searched for the next staircase. “It wasn’t too long after that battle when the Elder One made his big move. In one night, several high-profile assassinations were carried out. They got Marcy, for her spot in the Inquisition, but Rilien and Leon got theirs first. The bigger deal was that he also managed to get pretty much anyone in Orlais who could possibly hold the country together. The Empress, the Crown Prince, even the Lord-General...they couldn't have seen it coming. With no one to hold the throne, the entire country broke apart, even worse than the civil war. He set up a puppet of his, and suddenly they had the biggest army in the world, with most people unaware he even existed. Not until it was far too late.”

She was clearly getting to the worrying part, though, because her strides were suddenly more clipped, less sure, and she spoke with a hesitation uncommon in her. “About… about four months later, we—what was left of the Inquisition—heard they’d set an execution date for Estella. It was, um. It was going to be public. Sort of a way to, uh… demoralize us, and the rest of the world.” She looked back over her shoulder at him, but Cyrus’s expression as yet betrayed nothing.

“And you tried to save her.”

“Of course we did.” Khari’s voice was heavy with sorrow, and she shook her head. Asala quietly nodded, gently reaching up to cover her ears once more. “They said… that if she claimed to be Andraste’s Herald, she could have Andraste’s demise.” She closed her eyes for a long moment, and took in a deep breath. “They burned her at the stake, Cyrus. We attacked, but they were prepared for us. Rilien, he… he tried to reach into the fire and pull her out, but all he got for it was burns and arrows in the back.” She shuddered. “By the time anyone else got to her, it was too late. I got captured, and so did Asala, and a few of the others. Leon got the rest out, I think. They’re still out there somewhere, fighting.” She looked away, apparently unable to meet his eyes.

His sister. His little star—they’d—

Several of the torches lining the walls of this hallway exploded, raining ash down around them. Cyrus could feel, in a distant sort of way, that he’d caused it. His entire frame trembled with the force of his rage. “I’m going to kill him.” His voice shook with the same, his vision clouding. Lightning started to crackle around him, contained for the moment, though he was throwing sparks within a short radius around him as well. He didn’t bother to specify which him—it had become a generic term for anyone responsible, though the easy and obvious target was Cassius. Zahra made another mewling noise, an agreement. She straightened her shoulders a few inches and gripped her dagger all the tighter.

“Slowly.”

“He’s in another part of the building, from what the guards say.” That was Khari again, presumably under the assumption that he did indeed refer to his former teacher. “They say the best way to get there is actually to walk outside for a while, on the wall. Quintus tended to bitch about the cold a lot.” She paused a moment, then took a decisive left. Supposing that she probably knew better than the others where to go, Cyrus followed.

Eventually, the hallway they were in opened into what looked to be a lesser dining room, probably once used for servants or men-at-arms. Unfortunately, it was also occupied, with perhaps a dozen Venatori, by the look of their garments. Well… unfortunate for the Venatori anyhow.

Cyrus didn’t even wait for them to be noticed before he flung a hand forward, a massive fireball crashing into the table at the far left, immolating four of the cultists, though two managed to at least survive it. Clearly his aim had been off. Well, he’d just have to get closer then. Wrenching himself through the Fade, he summoned to hand a simple punching dagger, a weapon that would, he knew, give him maximal contact and proximity with his foes.

Leaving the burning ones alone, he aimed himself at another grouping, throwing his fist up under the chin of one, punching right up into his brain matter at an angle, before he shifted his grip on the weapon and tore it out the left side, dislocating the dead man’s jaw and not even pausing to watch him fall. He didn’t bother to contain the magic any longer, and some of it spilled over, crackling lightning wreathing him from head to toe, a stray bolt occasionally lancing outwards at anyone who drew too near.

Without much finesse, Zahra wove in around Cyrus, careful not to stray too close to the crackling bolts. She slammed her bare foot into the nearest guard's chestplate. The man reeled backwards, into the burning men, possibly surprised by the rattling mess of bones weaving between them: wild-eyed and nearly silent. She snarled like an animal and struck out at any Tevinter close enough to reach, though her strikes often bit air. Her matted hair hung in front of her face, drawing a curtain against her lopsided expression.

As soon as her companions moved forward, Zahra ducked beneath a sword and stumbled to his side, gnarled fingers flashing the dagger Asala had given to her. She caught hold of the man's shoulder and swiveled around, plunging the dagger straight up through his chin. Into his mouth. Her own breath whistled from her lips, fluttering her ribs out like bellows. With an ugly squelch, and an uglier snarl, she retrieved the blade and hunched down behind Asala.

If the woman expected her to hold back and focus on protective barriers, she would be rather disappointed. Asala's golden eyes flashed wide, and the orange in them seemed to intensify for the moment. The now violet magic engulfed both her hands and arms, stopping only at her upper arm. A large violet bubble was thrown up around the two guards that had survived Cyrus's immolation and the one that Zahra had kicked into them. Immediately they began to beat against their prison, the words they tossed at her muffled by the solid barrier.

However, their scorn soon turned to fear as the walls of the dome began to collapse in around them. It grew steadily smaller and smaller until each were beginning to get crushed by the shrinking bubble and the body of the man next to them. Bones began to snap and crack as their muffled wailing added to the din of battle. One by one though, the wailing began to die down. The barrier shrank until it could shrink no more and shattered with force, leaving only a crumpled mass of flesh and shattered bones behind.

As that bubble had constricted, Asala directed another dome with her remaining hand. A sharp movement in Cyrus's blindside revealed a another Venatori who'd apparently attempted to brave attacking the man. Currently however, he was far more preoccupied with the bubble that appeared around his head. It was small, just big enough to fit the man's head inside, and by the way he clutched at his throat in an attempt to find purchase under the barrier, it was suffocating him.

Unlike the last barrier however this one did not shrink, but rather was content in allowing the Venatori to suffer.

Romulus had mounted one of the long tables the Venatori had been using, firing off a crossbow bolt into the throat of one of them before replacing the weapon on his back. He vaulted off towards the rear of the group, coming down on an archer and breaking the man's wrist with a slam of his shield. He kicked hard into the archer's knee, cracking it bending the limb grotesquely against its will. When the archer was forced down, Romulus firmly gripped the front and back of his helmet, and twisted his head sharply until the neck snapped. With a slice of his dagger he removed the quiver from the archer's back. Taking both that and the bow into his shield hand, he turned.

"Zahra!" He tossed the weapon and its ammunition forward, allowing them to slide along the ground until they came within reach of the silenced woman. Vesryn moved into place beside her to cover her while she moved. He looked none too eager to throw himself into the fray, content to allow the other rage-filled group members their moment of bloody retribution.

It was a moment that Khari took too, though not with her customary verve. Her face twisted halfway into a snarl, she focused her attention on anyone trying to flank the others, hewing them down with quick, efficient sweeps of her borrowed sword. It clearly took her some time to accustom herself to fighting one-handed, but once she was settled into the rhythm of it, she just kept moving, swinging from one hit smoothly into another, giving Cyrus a one-finger wave from the hilt of the weapon when he blasted down another Venatori trying to come in on her blind side.

All told, it wasn’t long at all before all the cultists in the room were dead, the largest portion of them clearly having succumbed to magic of one kind or another, Cyrus and Asala by far the battle’s most active participants, though no few bore the slash-marks of a knife or sword, either, and by the end, one or two even had an arrow sticking out of some body part or another. It was a bloody mess, the room filled with the stench of burning skin and hair, and perhaps that, more than anything, snapped Cyrus back into the present.

Burning.

The electricity around him fizzled out, and he swallowed past the sudden lump in his throat. Visibly shaking himself and blinking rapidly, he located the door to the outside and threw it open, stepping through and out onto the wall. A blast of cold air hit his face, but at just this moment, he welcomed it, for it chased the burning away from his eyes, and though the air even out here smelled stale, it did not have the scent of a pyre. He lingered at the doorframe for just a moment, one of his hands closing over the wood, before he gritted his teeth and forced himself forward, leaving five blackened cracks behind when he dropped his arm away to continue onto the parapets.

The world over the wall was nigh unrecognizable. He couldn’t say what time of year it was, only that it was chill, and the grass was a dull, dry red-brown-black, like all the life had been sucked from it. The sky was uniformly an ill gangrene, the color of disease, and he had no doubt that disease was as accurate a word as any. This was the worst parts of the Fade and the material world made manifest, all in the same place. Forks of sickly lightning speared amidst the smoggy clouds seemingly at random, and when some of them parted and he lifted his head, he could see it: the Breach.

It dominated the skyline, impossible to deny, and what was below it was nothing short of a wasteland. None who saw it could mistake that this was irreparable—without doubt, it could be seen from any country in Thedas, in the known world, with perfect ease. For a long moment, it held his attention, and his thoughts were somewhere else, sometime else, but nothing could deter him from his aim for long. Cyrus leveled his eyes back to the wall, peering down the length of it to the next door. In front of the entrance, a duller green even than the Breach, stood a naked rift, its crystals shifting sluggishly, almost as though it were spent somehow, exhausted of something. It barred their way about halfway down.

When he spoke, it was softly, almost flatly. “If you would, please, Romulus.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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INK

Romulus wondered what would happen if he attempted to close the entire Breach at this point. Likely, it wasn't possible, and it would simply kill him. From how things looked, nothing could stop the destruction of the sky, and the death of the land below.

He nodded at the request Cyrus made, and moved to close the rift blocking their way. It wasn't spewing forth any demons. Perhaps they'd all come through already, and were now off wandering the forests of the Hinterlands or beyond. When he raised his mark to it and connected to the rift, it hardly seemed to resist, and in only a few moments he'd burst it into nothingness.

"It's clear," he said, to the group behind him. "They will know we're coming."

"Let them," Asala muttered. After she spoke, the glowing red veins under her skin seemed to pulse and both hands shot to her ears. She winced heavily and swayed where she stood, clearly fighting against something. "Parshaara!" she hissed to herself quietly, before mentally pushing whatever that something was back. She looked back up, the orange glow still present in her eyes. "We should hurry," she said, her hand lingering around her ear.

The door inside led into a room that, architecturally at least, mirrored the one they had just been in. There was no one inside, and it seemed to be mostly unused. It was a decent guess that any of the Venatori who’d seen or heard the rift close had gone straight to Cassius, and would be waiting with him when they arrived. By now, they were back in the parts of the castle they’d at least been near before, in the past, and so Cyrus took point, leading the way rather decisively through the hallways, bypassing most of the doors without looking twice. It was hard to say exactly, but he seemed to be aiming them generally towards the throne room, which must have been where he thought Cassius would be.

Khari lingered near the back, looking rather uneasy for her. Her lips were pressed together tightly, and her eye moved occasionally from Cyrus to Asala, but she shook her head, apparently choosing not to spit out whatever thought troubled her. She matched her pace with Romulus’s, shifting her grip often on her naked sword, as though she were uncomfortable holding it.

“So, uh…” She spoke quietly, and a fraction hesitantly. “I get that the general idea here is ‘kill the nasty Magister and fix time’ or something, which I’m fine with, but… how exactly are we supposed to do that? Will we just, er, go back if he’s dead, or what?” She fixed her monocular gaze on Cyrus’s back.

“No.” His tone was clipped, but not sharp. “What happens to Cassius is, in the grand scheme of things, incidental. He will die so that he does not interfere with my own casting, but his death in and of itself will change nothing. What comes after will be a feat of delicate spellweaving that has, frankly, never been attempted before.”

“Wait. You mean you don’t know if this can be done?’

Cyrus turned to look over his shoulder, his eyes cold. “It can be done. I can—and will—do it. You have no need to doubt that.”

"So how is this going to work?" Vesryn asked, uncertainly. "When we go back with you... everything just reverts to how it was, when you left?"

"You're not coming back with us," Chryseis cut in, sternly, but by her standards gently. Romulus had seen her in both rage and sorrow, and knew that currently, she at least understood what was going to be asked of those they'd freed. He'd figured it out himself, only a few moments earlier, and was entirely accepting of it.

"Only those that were displaced from time should be sent back," Chryseis explained. "Nothing will be forgotten for us. The three of us will be the only ones in Thedas that remember this day, if all goes to plan. If you were to go back, you would carry all of your experiences since we left with you. And besides, this magic in untested, and very dangerous. We have no way of knowing the damage it might cause, the damage it has already caused."

"You shouldn't have to suffer like this," Romulus said, little above a murmur, delivered to Khari at his side. "The three of us will go back, and ensure the fight ends in our favor."

Chryseis nodded. "The rest of you must remain here. I'm... sorry."

Khari’s brows knit, but in the end, she just sawed a gusty breath in and out. “It’s kind of weird, to think that I won’t exist. Not like this, anyway. Feels… like more than dying, somehow.” She looked like she was struggling to take hold of the concepts and bring them under her grip, and then a bit unsure. “Kind of the opposite of how I wanted to go out, not having had an effect on anything.” Her half-arm moved, as though she’d intended to gesture with the part of it that wasn’t there, and she grimaced down at it.

“But still. World like this? We’re all bound to die anyway. Just make sure to tell past-me that even if the future fucks up this bad, I’m still this awesome.” She grinned, with a fair amount of humor, even, but it faded quickly, and she continued under her breath, mostly to herself. “She forgets, sometimes.”

Asala simply grunted. The news didn't seem to phase her. Rather, it seemed to have the opposite effect as a grim determination set in her brow. "We will send them back. That will be our effect," Asala stated.

Crooked and hunched over, Zahra hobbled just behind Khari and Romulus. Her trembling fingers absently fluttered over the blistered skin around her neck and dropped away whenever someone's gaze strayed too close. She remained silent for the majority of the conversation, as the extent of her language only involved hand gestures and soft hums. It seemed as if she had already deemed it irrelevant to try and communicate, though her lips twitched up into a ghost of a smile when they spoke to each other.

The latter half of the walk was quieter, little but the sound of their actual motion to fill the space. Eventually, though, Cyrus pulled up short in front of a familiar set of doors—these ones led into the throne room. Oddly, there was still little sign of guards of any kind. If the Venatori here really did know they were coming, either they were doing a poor job of preparing for it, or else they had some kind of plan for such an eventuality that did not involve much by way of defending the Magister himself. Perhaps he was elsewhere, but when Cassius’s former apprentice flicked his fingers and threw open the door with magic and a bang, they entered to find that the old mage was indeed present, and appeared to be expecting them.

“I’ve had nightmares about this day.” He said it almost with a trace of good humor, though the small smile he wore quickly faded. “I have both dreaded it and anticipated it for a year and a half. The tear was unstable, and I had no idea when I’d sent you.” He sighed, and his shoulders slumped slightly. “You, Cyrus, I rather hoped had been propelled far enough into the past that I never had to deal with you, but in some way that possibility was even more alarming than this one. Chryseis, on the other hand, well… I’d hoped for something a bit sooner.”

Cyrus’s face was thunderous, but he hadn’t moved yet. Instead, there was an element of clear calculation to his expression, as though he were trying to decipher something.

Chryseis's expression reflected more venom than anything else, and she stood before the rest of the group, studying her father after so much time. Romulus believed he didn't actually look all that different, something he found fairly insulting. How could anyone not be drastically changed by living in this wretched world he'd created?

"Did you find it easy, Father?" Chryseis asked, her eyes narrowed. She leaned on her staff, the blade hovering inches away from her face. "To cast my life away to the whims of chance? You had no idea what you were sending me into." Romulus recognized the hint of grief in her voice. He adjusted his grip on his shield and blade.

"I came to Redcliffe for you, Father. More than anything else. Despite whatever differences we had, I still worried for you. What did you do this for? What did you destroy everything for?"

“If I could have done what I did without involving you, than I would have.” Cassius seemed to reflect her grief back at her for a moment, the lines near his mouth deepening. “But I also remember which of the two of us attacked the other first in this very room, daughter. It was not I.” He stood from the throne he occupied, seeming to expend some effort to do so, as though his joints did not cooperate quite as smoothly as they had in the past. But when he reached his full height, his spine was straight and proud as it had always been.

“I did what I did so that House Viridius would weather history. So that we would survive. With or without us, the Elder One would have risen. Because I helped him do it, I run a nation. Had I resisted, as everyone else did, I’d have been crushed under his heel, as everyone else was. I have not the youthful arrogance necessary to believe that one mortal, however exceptional, can change the world that much.” His eyes slid to Cyrus, and he wore an ironic smile. “Even if I am wrong in that, I am not such a person.”

A breath hissed out from between the young Lord Avenarius’s teeth. “Your house may survive, but you will not.”

Cassius smiled sadly. “I rather expected as much, yes. I have committed the one crime you cannot overlook, haven’t I?” Despite his expression, there was a knowing, almost malicious undertone in the way he said it. “Imagine, had the Herald been anyone else…”

The sharp hum of weaponry being pulled from the Fade removed the need for a conclusion to the sentence, and Cassius raised his staff in preparation. Within the space of seconds, he needed it to fend off Cyrus’s assault, and the steel clashed with a keening note off the bastardsword the dreamer had drawn from the realm of magic. Sparks flew, but Cyrus buckled down, refusing to let the weaponlock relent, and slowly, the steel warped and twisted, the relatively thin pole of the staff snapping in two.

Cassius staggered back, throwing ice that cracked off a shield, then fire, which went wide, but struck Cyrus in one of his shoulders, burning away his left sleeve and scorching the skin underneath. In retaliation, he pressed forward, knocking Cassius in the head with the pommel of his summoned blade, which sent him sprawling backwards down the stairs of the throne’s platform. He smacked his head against the stone, clearly dazed, and struggled to stand. Cyrus descended after him with clear deliberateness, almost casually plunging the blade into the Magister’s stomach, letting go of the Fade-weapon and leaving it there.

There was a distinct pause, during which Cyrus’s eyes bored into his former teacher’s, and he seemed to struggle mightily with something. “Mercy is more than you deserve.” The words were as much spat as said. “She would have shown it to you anyway. I, on the other hand, will let you bleed out.” Another gesture produced a bluish knife, and he used that one to stake Cassius’s right hand into the stone as well. A third immobilized his left.

“You can watch while I change the world.”

As if heeding Cyrus's tall claim, the walls shuddered around them. Small rocks and dust rained down across their heads. Window panes rattled and shook and finally burst inwards, scattering glass across the floor. A great gust of wind whipped through the chamber, snapping the curtains like wild flags. There was a palpable sense of heaviness, but with no apparent source. Another tremor shivered across the floors like a great wave: the ocean violently slapping across the shore. With it came another sound not unlike the clapping of thunder, rippling in the distance.

Closer this time, a quieter, throaty rumble filled the air. It carried itself through the open windows. Besides the luminescence of red-lyrium playing on the walls in the courtyard below, nothing else could be seen outside. The rumbling died down for a few moments, and Zahra took the opportunity to snatch up Cyrus' elbow, attempting to pull him away from Cassius. Her bright eyes had gone wide and her mouth worked for words she could not speak. Instead, she pointed back towards the window, insistent that he turn his attention towards it. That was when a deafening roar bellowed from the skies, clamoring into a high-pitched shriek strong enough to bring them to their knees.

“Shit.” That was Khari, her expression dropped into a scowl, and she picked herself up from the floor, using her sword to leverage herself off her knees. “I remember that sound. The Elder One’s here. Whatever you’re going to do, Cyrus, you have to do it quick.”

The mage himself, using the fact that Zahra was still attached to his elbow to pull her back to her feet as he reached his, narrowed his eyes. “I believe I can create a tear of the necessary stability and destination in… ten minutes, perhaps.”

Khari barked a hollow laugh, sounding more strangled than anything. The sound of the wind outside grew louder, and she shook her head. “You don’t have ten minutes. If we’re lucky, you might have two.” She readied her blade, lips pressed into a thin line.

“You want me to tear open time and space, stabilize both entry and exit points, and carry three people more than a year into the past, in two minutes? Would you also like me to just march out there and kill this Elder One while I’m at it?” For the first time, his tone, sarcastic though it was, seemed to betray a lack of confidence, though his expression was stony.

Khari took a deep breath, and fired back not with a verbal jab, but something else entirely. “She forgave you, Cyrus. She forgave everyone. Us for not saving her, you for not showing up in time, even the bloody Elder One, for causing this mess in the first place. You know what her last words were? Tell my brother I believe in him. You have two fucking minutes, and you’re going to succeed, because this is not how it ends.”

Cyrus’s jaw tightened, a muscle in it jumping, but she appeared to have silenced any attempt at protest he might have made. “Keep them off me.” He turned his back to the entrance and shook out both his hands, his fingers and palms slowly limned in opalescent light.

"I'll tell... you, what you said," Romulus said quietly, to Khari. "And if we can't stop this, I promise I'll be there to go through it with you this time." He wasn't a man that often made promises, of any kind. They were not words spoken lightly. If this was truly the world's fate if the Inquisition cracked and fell, then he didn't much care if he was supposed to remain a slave. There would be no point to any of it, and in that case, he wanted to see it through to the end, this mad quest he'd gotten himself caught up in.

"Rather morbid words, don't you think?" Vesryn cut in, wearing a half-smile.

“I’ll be glad to hear it. Both parts, even.” Khari grinned, savage and wide, strongly reminiscent of the version of her that he knew. Raising her good arm, she mock-saluted with her sword in hand. “Goodbye, Rom. Don’t make me say it again, okay?” With nothing more than that, she turned away, drawing herself tall as she could and heading for the doors, where soon the enemy forces would arrive.

"You'll fix this," Vesryn said. "You're a powerful little trio, you time-travelers. Oh, and... tell past-me that future-me is sorry, will you? For spilling the secret. I realize now that I was quite invested in keeping that from all of you at the time." Romulus nodded, prompting Vesryn to pat him on the arm once before he turned to head for the door. Romulus wasn't quite sure what the elf had been speaking of, something in his head, but if they did all survive and change the outcome here, certainly it would be inquired of some point soon.

Asala was hesitant at first, but eventually she stepped forward to stand in front of Romulus. Her hands left her ears and she gripped him by the shoulders, gently, and arched until she was eye level with him. The gold of her eyes were beginning to be replaced by orange, but her brow remained staunch. "Do... Do not let this happen. Do not force us to go through this again," she pleaded. Then she paused, and an uncertainity worked into her face.

For this first time since they'd arrived, Asala showed shades of the woman they knew before they were sent forward. "And Romulus? Keep... Look after me. Please?" she asked. Even underneath the dirt on her cheeks, a small blush could still be seen. She then pulled him in for a hug before pushing away, where she turned to follow Khari and Vesryn to the door.

Since Zahra had no voice to speak, and therefore no instructions to give, she simply clapped a hand across Romulus and offered a thin-lipped smile. Her hand drifted down to his elbow, where she gave a quick squeeze. There was an imploring look to her bright eyes, as if she were trying to say something through her expression alone. Whether or not it conveyed anything was another matter altogether. A soft hum sounded from her throat: imploring victory. It might have been an old Rivaini chanty of sorts, or simply Zahra's own raiding tune. Her eyebrows pinched together for a moment and she clasped his forearm instead, huffing out a breath. She held it briefly before offering another lopsided grin. It was a shade of the proud woman she'd once been, only a brief flicker, before she released his hand and turned away, trotting behind Asala.

With that, the four of them headed outside the throne room, shutting the door behind them, though how long it would hold after they'd been overwhelmed was hard to say. It would seem that Khari had been correct—there was not much time at all before they were simply outdone by strength of numbers. The faint glimmer of a protective barrier gave away that Asala had reinforced it as well as she could, which would help considerably on that score.

In the end, the clash outside, followed by the aggressive beating-down of the door itself, lasted somewhat longer than Khari had predicted. They were nearly five minutes in when the Venatori entered the room.

Romulus instinctively directed his gaze to the fight that had occurred beyond the doors, and what was still taking place. Their four protectors had made the Venatori pay dearly for their entrance, and the room beyond was practically painted red, with Tevinter bodies and parts of bodies strewn about the room. Among them, his eyes caught both Vesryn and Zahra sprawled on the ground, hacked down by a dozen weapons, already dead. Khari and Asala still lived as they were forced back through the door, but only barely. Several arrows protruded from Khari, and a Venatori sword had skewered her through the abdomen. The hand that wielded the sword still clutched the handle, severed from its arm. She fell to the ground shortly after the door burst open, another Venatori blade soon ending her life.

Asala was grievously injured as well, but managed to throw up a strong barrier in the doorway, temporarily keeping the Venatori from getting all the way inside, and covering Cyrus in his final spell preparations. They raged against it with their weapons, steadily wearing it down, until it began to glow red, near the breaking point. Cracks began to form in the barrier, as the red veins hatching Asala's body intensfied and pulsed. The effort of keeping the barrier solid drove her to her knees and she began to scream. Slowly, the barrier was pushed back out of the door and encroached on them. Asala's screaming paused for a moment, before starting again, this time far more intense. The blood red barrier then slammed forward and pushed the Venatori back out of the door and some ways down the hall.

The barrier then shattered, leaving a bloodied Asala wailing and writhing on the throne room floor. Soon, her screams distorted and became something monstrous, as the woman's body mutated and altered into something else entirely. The screaming never stopped, even as the Venatori approached once more.

Cyrus suddenly grinned, and a bright flash of light threw his shadow long across the chamber before the tearing sound from the past incident repeated itself, and a rend, similar to the last one save that its shape was a defined oval rather than jagged at the edges, appeared in front of him. It was at roughly ground level, stretching six feet high or so. “Go through, now! I must be last!” His brow and upper lip were dotted with beads of perspiration, and his already-fair complexion had whitened almost to the color of a sheet, but the hands held in front of him were steady, and he spoke without waver.

Chryseis tugged harshly on Romulus's sleeve. "We must go!" He was smart enough not to resist, and aware enough to know that if he stayed any longer, the sacrifice he'd just witnessed would be rendered meaningless. But he turned and looked back as he was pulled towards the rend that Cyrus had created, just in time to see Asala's last screams cut off by half a dozen swords, preventing her from fully transforming.

The rend in time then swallowed him, and the nightmare was consumed by darkness.

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Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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INK

She'd been watching him for a while now. It was only a day after, from what she understood, Romulus and Cyrus entered and returned from a rift in time. In all honesty, Asala did not understand the mechanics behind time traveling, and fortunately she wasn't required to. Still, from what she heard and saw secondhand, it was a journey that left its mark on them both. To say she was worried about them was an understatement. So when it came up that there was a small castle nearby that contained a cult, and that Romulus and a few of the Lions were to investigate, Asala volunteered to accompany them.

It was no secret that she was worried for them, she knew she was terrible at keeping her emotions in check. Whenever he was to throw a glance her way, she always tried to avert her gaze and pretend she wasn't studying him. Asala was transparent however, and once he turned his gaze forward again, her eyes went right back to him. He was a hard man to read, as it turned out, and her survey of his back yielded nothing.

The journey they took through the Hinterlands was relatively quiet, due in no small part to the efforts of the Inquisition and the Lions from what she had heard. The castle they were heading to lay eastward from Redcliffe, built into the side of the mountain from the scouting reports. Apparently, they were seeking a sign or something or another. Truthfully, the reason of the journey didn't matter to her as much as the man leading it. Not for the first time, Asala tilted her head as she watched Romulus, trying to suss out anything she could from his body language.

When that didn't work, Asala finally decided to say something. Or rather, attempt to. "Uh..." she began, hopefully catching his attention. "Rom-Romulus? How... how are you... feeling?" she stammered out. She didn't know if that was the right thing to ask, but it was the only thing to come to mind.

Romulus was hooded as usual, but turned to look back at the Qunari woman when his name was called. Though he led the way for the group, he merely followed in the tracks of the Lead Scout, Lia, while Donnelly and a few others of the Lions followed closely behind. Romulus was as stone faced as ever, an expression that only softened for the briefest of moments, upon observing Asala's difficulty even addressing him.

"I'm fine, Asala," he answered, looking back ahead of him again. "I wasn't injured, and I've been assured the spell we passed through would have no ill effects on me. You don't have to worry." His answer was delivered somewaht brusquely, perhaps a bit more than he intended, as a quiet sigh soon followed, an exhale from his nostrils, and he reached up to rub his face.

"That is not..." Asala frowned and scratched the spot under her horns. She was unsure how to go about this without prying or infringing too far on his own privacy. "It is just..." she tried again, but once more the words didn't seem to come to her. She sighed and closed her eyes, trying to figure out a succint way to put what was on her mind. "I do worry," Asala revealed, "For you and Estella both."

A blush seeped into her features as her eyes fell to his heels. A memory of one of Tammy's lesson's then came to her. "Sometimes... The injuries are not on the outside, but inside... And those can be the hardest to heal." No sooner than she'd said it, her eyes widened and her face flushed. She held up her hands defensively and waved them back and forth. "I-I-I don-don't mean to pry. N-not at all," she stuttered, her eyes now on the ground behind Romulus's feet. "I-i-it's just that if you...ever want to talk... I'm always here." she added with a nervous chuckle.

Romulus slowly came to a stop upon Asala's mention of injuries on the inside; a brief nod to Donnelly and the other Lions allowed them to go on up ahead, ascending the hill in front of them. Waiting until they were out of earshot, which wasn't far considering how softly he spoke, Romulus pulled back his hood and rubbed his temples. After avoiding Asala's gaze momentarily, he finally met her eyes.

"Perhaps you shouldn't be." The words weren't spat or hissed aggressively. Instead they were quite gentle, and the look in his eyes was as haunted as ever; they lingered for a long moment upon her horns. "Our enemies have shown themselves to be the worst kind of people the world has to offer. I've seen the aftermath of what they can do." He shook his head slowly, uncertain of himself.

"It's the kind of thing that breaks a person like you."

"I..." Asala began, though not quite sure where to go from there. He had seen things in the rift, that much was clear, but she would not ask what. She doubted he'd tell her even if she did. Her eyes lingered on the ground for a moment more, before they lifted to reach Romulus's own. It would be clear to him that she was quite awkward holding his gaze as such, but she didn't let them fall away. His words were frighteningly serious, and indeed seem to come from a man who'd seen things best left unseen. Still, she did not allow it to sway her from her current course. What they did was important, yes, but the people who did it were more important.

"Per... haps," she began again, "But... Everyone has their breaking point, Romulus," she said sweetly, taking a step closer. "I... just want to make sure you do not reach yours," she said before sighing. She pulled a hand over her eyes and shook her head gently. "You must think me terribly foolish," she said, taking her hands off of her eyes.

"Do you know what a... beres-taar is?" Before he could answer, Asala answered for him. "It means shield in Qunlat. Instead of saarebas, a dangerous thing, Tammy called me beres-taar. You and Estella both face these... people, and I will not let you do it alone." Even though she did not know what else she could do but ease their injuries, she could only hope that would be enough. "I am sure that... together, we need not let these people break us... Any of us." She flushed again and she let her eyes fall back to the ground.

She clutched at the collar of her crimson cloak before she spoke again. "I apologize, I did not mean... Are we near the castle yet?" she asked, quickly trying to change the subject.

"It's just over the next rise," came a voice from beside them. Lia trotted down the hill towards them, her bow securely slung over her shoulder, a sure sign that there was no threat. The other Lions awaited them at the top of the rise, looking down. Lia suddenly seemed to realize she had stumbled across a potentially awkward conversation, and grew wide eyed for a moment. "Uh... did I interrupt something?"

Romulus shook his head, tiredly. "No." He began walking forward, prompting Lia to follow. "What's happening at this castle?"

"The cult that moved in seem to be Chantry cast-offs or exiles. They reacted pretty strongly to the Breach, thinking it a sign of the end times, a sign that the Maker would be taking the worthy up to the Golden City or something. I think they might be nuts, but they want to talk to you." Romulus looked down at her beside him.

"Me?"

"Well, a Herald of Andraste. We need to start making these people be specific if they want one of you in particular." She grinned a bit to herself, but it faded quickly enough when she realized that Romulus wasn't in much of a mood for humor. "Their leader, a woman named Anais, is waiting out front for you."

"Ah. Well. We should not keep her waiting then, yes?" Asala said, quite ready to put the recent conversation behind them. She'd said what she felt she needed to.

Lia hummed her agreement, and together the group crested the hill, bringing the dilapidated old castle into full view. Despite its age, the walls still stood proud and intact, if a bit weather-weary in places. The castle was indeed built into the rock wall of the mountain, and a channel had been cut into the earth around the entrance, creating a sort of waterless moat only passable with a drawbridge, or wings.

On their side of the drawbridge, which was currently lowered for them, was a small group, headed by a woman with bright red hair pouring out of the sides of her hood. She was lightly armored, and carried a pair of short swords across her back. Supposedly they'd been set up in there since before the bandits and rogue templars and apostates had even been cleared out, so it wasn't altogether surprising that a group of Chantry exiles would be at least partially armed. She stepped forward as the Inquisition group with Romulus at its head approached.

"It's good to meet you, Inquisition, and one of your Heralds of Andraste. My name is Anais, and my people have given me the title of Speaker."

Romulus darted with his gaze side to side, clearly uncomfortable with being in the primary speaking role of the party, but at last he managed an awkward, "Greetings."

"Truth be told," Anais carried on, without delay, "these people expected to have been whisked away to the Golden City by now, but the Breach has remained largely silent. We have heard stories of your ability to close the rifts. We would be very interested in seeing a demonstration."

"Ah," Romulus said, unsure what to do with his hands. "Well. Do you happen to know where one of these rifts is located?"

"Yes," Anais said, smiling. "We have one within the castle walls, actually."

“And you just go about your business, then?” Donnelly’s face was pulled into an expression of clear skepticism, but he shook his head and gestured his two other soldiers, a dwarven woman and an older human man, forward. “Don’t suppose it really matters…” The three of them led the group forward, guided by Anais, until they reached what looked to be some kind of walled-in courtyard, open only on one side. They’d passed a lot of castle architechture, repurposed for the needs of what was effectively a small village. A tavern, several housing blocks, a few stables, all fitted vertically more than horizontally. It was clearer then how they’d been able to live around the rift, because it was barred into its own area, one not near much else. For the moment, it looked passive, but doubtless it would spew demons like the rest of them as soon as they got close enough.

When the group actually reached the gate, however, the Lions’ lieutenant turned around and met Romulus’s eyes, his shield on one arm and sword in the other hand. “At your word, Herald.” He was likely using the title for the benefit of the cultists, because he didn’t usually bother as such.

A number of the cultists had indeed followed, though the word did not seem entirely appropriate. Most were still clearly within their Chantry ways, and had simply been removed from their former places of worship due to their overblown beliefs about the Breach. Anais remained at the head of them as they approached the gate, and Romulus glanced sideways at her. "You may want to have your people keep back."

Anais regarded him evenly. "We've been able to protect ourselves before, whenever the rift has seen fit to send demons at us. We are not as helpless as we might seem. Proceed." Exhaling somewhat uncomfortably, Romulus nodded at Donnelly, and the group moved forward.

The fight was over quickly, the shades disposed of with relatively no difficulty. One lesser terror had emerged with the second wave of demons, but Asala had left it stunned with a barrier, and Lia and Donnelly had finished it off with arrows and blade, respectively. When the fight was complete, Romulus lifted his hand towards the rift, allowing the impressive arc of light to connect the two. When he wrenched his hand away, the rift burst, remnants of it raining down to the ground.

A number of murmurs went through the crowd, while Anais watched with crossed arms. As Romulus returned towards the group, she stepped forward. "Very impressive, Herald. We were wrong to doubt you, it seems. I speak for these people, but you speak for Andraste. We are yours to command. How would you like us to serve?"

Romulus was clearly caught off guard by suddenly having a group full of people to command, and his mouth hung open for a moment. Anais clearly caught on, smiling knowingly beneath her hood, an expression only visible to the Inquisition members, as her own people all stood behind her.

"Perhaps we can encourage other doubters to come to believe as we have, at least in the area. Surely anything that will help solidify the Inquisition's authority and righteousness will be of use, no?" Romulus, still obviously unsure how to proceed, closed his mouth and nodded, forcing a small smile.

"Yes. That sounds agreeable. You have my thanks, Speaker Anais."

She bowed briefly. "None are required. I will report to you at Haven if there are any interesting developments." With that, many of the other cult members bowed, and took their leave, allowing the Inquisition group a clear path back out of the fortress. By the way Romulus walked, it was clear that he hoped to be gone from there swiftly.

Asala followed closely behind, scratching under her horns again. She was relieved that it was Romulus and not her that commanded the authority, though she could not say she didn't see how uncomfortable it made him. However, she chose to keep her silence. She did not know what she could say to make it better for him, nor that even if she did, if it would actually help. Instead, she settled for a sweet comforting smile.

Setting

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

Now the Inquisition had garnered the support of the free mages... or, rather, what Asala understood as their support. From what she had heard from Aurora and Donovan, Marceline had not given Fiona much of a choice in the matter. However, what she did know was that the Inquisition was a far better option than a Tevinter Magister and from what she had seen thus far the mages were being treated fairly. It also meant that she was far more busy as requisitions for mana potions to supply their new allies mounted. Fortunately, it was not only she and Adan brewing them now, as Donovan and Milly offered their assistance.

They had set up a cauldron outside of Adan's home, and the scent of elfroot and embrium wafted throughout the small circle of houses. Donovan stood over the cauldron, stirring it in a steady, rhythmic fashion, while Milly measured out the herbs on a nearby scale that were to be added. Asala herself stood some distance away with Leon's crimson cloak pulled tight over her shoulders, watching over the process with Adan.

Even with her proximity to the fire, the cold chill still seeped into her bones. Asala doubted she'd ever get used to the cold, and though the snow was novel at first, its appeal had worn off long ago.

It wasn’t long before the sound of approaching footfalls crunching over the snow met her ears, march pace, from the sounds of it. Someone cleared their throat behind her, and then Reed stepped into their lines of vision. He didn’t look uncomfortable with the temperature, but then, he was wearing a decent amount of armor and a thick cloak made of wool, so perhaps it was unsurprising. “Pardon me, miss Asala,” he ventured, though the politeness of the words sounded a little awkward on his tongue, as though he were accustomed to being much more direct. “But the Commander is wondering if you had a moment. He’s asking to see you, but he stresses that the invitation is not obligatory and you should feel free to decline if you’re otherwise occupied.”

Reed shifted his weight, draping a forearm casually over the hilt of his sword where it angled away from him. “To be more specific, I’m pretty sure he’s going to help with your supply problem.” He jerked his chin towards the cauldron.

"Uh..." Asala began, stealing a glance to Donovan. He nodded and spoke, "Go, we will be fine," he said as Milly dropped a handful of herbs into the cauldron. As soon as she did, the scent of elfroot around them intensified and the liquid within the cauldron turned a crystal color. "The potions are almost done anyway. Meraad can help us bottle them. Milly?" he asked. The tranquil nodded serenely and turned to go find him.

"He should be with the other mages, practicing," Asala called after her. He truly could never sit still, she thought as a smile crossed her lips. Soon, though she remembered Reed's invitation. "Oh! Uh. Yes, let's go," she said nodding, and letting him take the lead.

Reed was evidently quite patient, because he didn’t seem to mind the delay in the slightest, merely nodding when she indicated that she was ready to leave and leading the way up towards the Chantry. Rather than entering through the double-doors, however, he walked them around behind the building, through a small line of trees, and out the other side. There wasn’t a great deal of space back there before the ground began to fall away in a steep hill, but what was present had been rather painstakingly worked on, by the look of it.

In several places, long branches or fallen logs had been filed and staked into the ground over uniform intervals, and more even taller ones stood in a line at the center. Over this, a number of tarps had been draped, providing some degree of protection from the elements for a plot of about ten by ten feet. At present, Leon and Estella were holding opposite ends of another tarp, taking it down, by the looks of things. Presumably, this was for sun. The plot itself had several neat lines of plants, most of them either once cuttings of larger specimens or grown from seed, by the small size.

They noticed Asala and Reed approaching at about the same time, and both smiled. Leon gestured, and Estella brought her end of the tarp towards him, after which he took over the process of folding. Reed took his cue to leave with a short salute. “Hey, Asala,” the young mercenary greeted. “Glad you could make it.”

Leon nodded his agreement. “I hope we haven’t taken you away from anything too important just now.”

Asala shook her head in the negative as she took in her surroundings. It was a small garden, that much she was certain. She took a step forward and knelt down to inspect the closest plant to her. An elfroot, from the looks of it. She tilted her head to the side as she gently caressed a leaf. "When did you plant these?" She asked curiously. Leon always seemed so busy with Inquisition matters, she was surprised to find that he found the time to work a small plot of land into a garden.

He wore a little half-smile, something almost sheepish in it, and shrugged his massive shoulders. “I… don’t always sleep as well as I could. I’ve found that working something simple is a decent substitute. Lets me rest my thoughts, at least.” He placed the folded tarp atop a stack of them, and went about the business of pulling the next one down himself.

“Khari and I passed him working on a run one morning,” Estella continued. “I asked him about it later, and he let me help a bit, too. I’m usually the one who takes down the tarps in the afternoon so they can get some sun while it’s warm. Well… warmer, anyway.” She pulled a face that indicated how little she thought of the difference, but the plants were doing relatively well. Clearly, Leon had picked varieties that were not only medicinal, but hardy enough to survive Haven.

Adding another tarp to the stack, Leon brushed his hands off on one another. They were still gloved, but it was becoming evident that they were always thus. “With a little time, I suspect this will help ease the burden of your supply shortage. Not quite all the way, of course; we’d need a much larger garden for that. But it should be enough on its own to keep the irregulars in decent supply, at least, and they’re the ones I’m most concerned about, considering what they do.”

Asala frowned when Leon told her that he didn't sleep as well as he should. She said nothing on the matter of course, he probably wouldn't like to be chided like that, but she did mentally file it away for a later time. She knew a few recipes for a tea that would aid in sleep. Taking one last glance at the elfroot, she rose back to her feet and brushed the snow and dirt from her knees. "Yes, this should... do," she said, pausing a moment to do a quick mental calculation. The Inquisition was growing day by day, and so were their needs, but the small plot would be enough for the few of them that went into the most danger.

"You know..." Asala said, throwing a look out back the way they'd entered, "Aurora is quite impressive with plants as well. If you wish, I could ask her to help too." While the woman lacked an alchemist's touch, she possessed an impressive knowledge of plants, and had taught Asala how to care and tend to them. Then she looked back to Leon with a curious gleam in her eye. It was plain that a question was waiting to spill out of her mouth, but instead of waiting to be asked, she went ahead and spoke. "How is it that you know so much of plants? Oh! Uh, if you do not mind me asking."

It did seem like a strange hobby for the Commander of the Inquisition's army to have. Most soldiers she knew did not know what went into their potions.

A breath passed from Leon in what might have been a sigh. If so, it was a soft one, weary, perhaps, or nostalgic, even; it was impossible to say for sure. “Little grows where I am from,” he replied, his eyes somewhere far away. “The first time I visited Orlais, which was the first time I had left the Anderfels, I was astounded by the amount of green I could see. I had never known that color to be so vivid before—even the plants are paler in my homeland, and smaller as well.” A tiny smile played over his mouth for a moment, and he blinked, clearing the distance from his expression.

“I suppose that I, like a child, was simply transfixed by the novel. I made a point of learning as much of horticulture as I could. It is not often I remain in one place long enough to actually keep a garden, however small or inadequate by most standards, but I like to take the opportunity when I have it.” He motioned for the both of them to follow him towards the door.

“I was going to take tea—ah, in the command room, not my office. Perhaps the two of you would not mind joining me?”

Estella nodded easily. “I’d be happy to.” Both then turned their eyes towards Asala.

She simply nodded her agreement before following them inside. Donovan was also from the Anderfels, and she remembered what he told of her of the place. He had said much of what Leon had. Truthfully, Asala found it hard to imagine a place so devoid of color, having spent most of her life in the tropics of Par Vollen and Rivain. Her vistas were full of lush greens and bright blues.

"Back home..." she began rather absentmindedly, as if she was stuck in the memory, "We had forests with trees that had these big leaves," she said, holding both hands up to indicate the size, "That were greener than any emerald. And the water," she continued, letting a hand fall to her collar, "the water was the clearest crystal blue, that stretched out as far as the eye could see..."

She then glanced up to both Estella and Leon, and a blush slipped into her features. "Oh! I am sorry. I did not..." she trailed, a pang of something welling up in her belly. How long had it been since she'd last been home?

Leon shook his head as if to dismiss the apology, but it was Estella who spoke. “It’s impossible to forget where we come from, isn’t it?” She smiled, a subtle expression best classed as bittersweet. “Very few good things ever happened to me in Tevinter, but I still miss it sometimes. Especially in the winter. There are these big thunderstorms that roll in off the ocean to the north of Minrathous, and they go for days—but when you walk outside after they’re gone... everything looks clean again.” She lowered her eyes to the floor as they entered the command room, where a smaller table had been set aside from the one with the map on it.

There were two chairs already present, and Leon let them have those, pulling up a third to the odd side and lowering himself into it. One of the older women who worked in the kitchen slipped into the room with a pot of hot water and what seemed to be a canister of some kind, which Leon accepted with a smile and a word of thanks. She dipped a curtsy to the three of them and departed.

The canister came open with a soft pop, and the scent of something citrusy immediately wafted outwards from it. With some care, Leon tipped out a generous portion of the dry tea into what looked like a mesh hemisphere of some kind, also extracted from the canister. When that was done, he produced the other half, enclosing the leaves in an effective straining mechanism, and lowered that into the pot.

“Homesickness strikes me at the strangest times,” he confessed freely, seeming rather unashamed of admitting the vulnerability. “Sometimes I’m simply walking along and see something that reminds me of one thing or another. Sometimes it just happens when I’m working, with no provocation at all.” He picked up one of the upside-down cups on the tea tray and deftly flipped it over, setting it on a saucer in front of Asala, and then did the same for Estella. “Citrus fruits were my mother’s one indulgence, so the smell of this tea reminds me of her. Sometimes, even that’s enough to do it.”

He deliberately waited a moment longer, then picked up the pot and poured each of them a cup of tea, setting the ceramic back down carefully.

Asala smiled and took the teacup in hand, though she didn't move to take a drink, instead just letting the warmth of the cup seep into her hands. She stared into the cup for a moment before she tilted her head as an errant thought struck her. "You know what I miss?" Asala asked, eyes remaining on the teacup. "The smell of fresh coffee beans," it seemed like every morning she woke up to the scent of Tammy brewing fresh coffee. She was quiet for a moment afterward, and took a sip of the tea once it was cool enough to drink.

Estella smiled slightly, and looked like she was about to speak, but she was interrupted by the sudden sound of shattering ceramic. The cause was obvious not long afterwards, when Leon muttered something softly under his breath. The sleeve of his robe and the glove on his right hand were both drenched in tea—and he still gripped several shards of the broken cup. It would appear that he’d crushed it in his hand somehow, and his left hand moved up to grip his right wrist, near where he seemed to be struggling to unfurl the fingers of his dominant hand.

“Are you all right?” Estella’s voice carried a note of alarm, and she immediately leaned forward to grab the small towel that had been brought in with the tray, using it to soak up the tea that had spilled onto the table and was even now dripping towards the floor. She looked as though she wanted to help, but was unsure how to do so.

Leon’s jaw clenched visibly. “I… yes, sorry. It is a muscle spasm. I did not mean to cause alarm.” His own tones were quiet as usual, but there was an edge of strain to them, as though he were exerting considerable effort to remain as subdued in demeanor as he was. His grip on his arm shifted, and he set about forcing his fingers to straighten with the opposite hand, faint lines of strain creasing at the corners of his eyes.

Asala's eyes widened in surprise and a moment later she was out of her own seat and kneeling beside Leon. She had a gentle hand rested on his shoulder as she quietly watched him wrestle with his own hand. "How long have you had these muscle spasms?" she asked gently, but with an edge of concern. She continued to watch him too, inspecting the hand from a distance for any telltale streaks of crimson that would tell her if he'd cut himself with the glass or not.

Fortunately, his gloves seemed to have prevented that, and with a few more moments’ concentration, he was able to stretch out the muscles, holding them in place for several seconds before they seemed to ease of their own accord. He released a heavy breath, noticeably slumping the shoulder beneath her hand. “It’s been a while,” he replied vaguely, “but truly, they’re nothing to worry about. While the attendant clumsiness is a bit embarrassing, I must admit, the pain is quite tolerable.” He flexed his hand a few times as if to demonstrate that it was fine, and the last of the tension eased out of his frame.

“I suppose hand cramps are an occupational hazard when I spend so many hours writing.” It was clearly an attempt to lighten the mood with humor, and Estella sat back in her chair, still looking vaguely worried, but at least less so than she had been a moment before.

Asala still frowned, but said nothing on the matter. It was clear that she wasn't entirely convinced of his story, but she chose not to pursue it. Instead, she reached over to the table and plucked up a towel when she began to dab at the tea he had spilled on himself. "Try... not to write so much then," she said, "Surely you can find someone to aid you, yes?" She asked. He was the commander of the Inquisition, surely he could find someone to write letters for him.

After she'd gotten enough of the tea off of him, Asala gently took hold of his hand and looked up at him. "And if it happens again, please Leon. Come see me."

He smiled thinly, but it was easy enough to tell that he wasn’t keen on committing to that, for some reason. “Thank you, Miss Asala. Your kindness is appreciated. As is yours, Lady Estella.” He nodded to the Herald in turn, then carefully extricated his hand from Asala’s, inclining his head at her empty seat. “But please… perhaps we can yet finish? I was quite enjoying our conversation.” It was perhaps the gentlest possible way of closing off a topic, but it was still unmistakable that he’d done just that: the incident would be discussed no further.

Asala continued to frown, but still said nothing. Instead she simply stood and returned to her seat, before turning to Estella. "You were... going to say something?" she prompted, though it was clear that her mind remained elsewhere.

She had always been terrible at hiding the emotions on her face. Worry being chief among them.

“Oh, yes. Right.” Estella nodded. “I was going to mention that my first teacher was very fond of coffee as well. He used to have these beans imported from Rivain…”

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