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Leonhardt Albrecht

"You have to rethink what you mean by 'impossible,' when you have friends like mine."

0 · 1,099 views · located in Thedas

a character in “The Canticle of Fate”, as played by The Valkyrie

Description

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Full Name: Leonhardt Engelram Albrecht (LAY-on-hart EHN-gehl-rahm ALL-breckt)
Titles/Nicknames: High Seeker, Commander. Leon.
Age: 31 (9:44)
Race: Human
Gender: Male
Sexual Orientation: Heterosexual
Class: Warrior
Specialization: Reaver

Hair Color: Platinum Blond
Eye Color: Violet
Height: 6’7”
Build: Built is a bit of an understatement.

Appearance: Everything, it’s occasionally said, is more extreme in The Anderfels. The comment is usually taken to refer to climate, lifestyle, and the like, but it could just as well have been referring entirely to Leon, from the looks of things. It’s impossible not to notice that the man is exceptionally tall, taller than a good chunk of Qunari, to say nothing of his fellow humans. His build is well-proportioned to his height, though the opportunity to develop truly ridiculous musculature, he has not taken. The emphasis in his training was on utility, not raw power, and so he has exactly as much muscle tone as is useful to him—which is still quite a lot, to be honest. He is broad enough, especially through the shoulder area, that any armor he wears has to be custom-made for him, which leads to him eschewing it as often as not.

His daily dress is understated, plain in design and clearly chosen for the benefit of durability, but he does seem to favor bright, jewel-like colors where he can get them, so it is not entirely uncommon to see him in a richly-hued green or purple tunic. Most of what he wears is without the traditional emblem of the Seekers, though he has the cloak for when he needs to look more “official.” Most of the time, though, he’s dressed more like a scribe than anyone especially important, and he prefers it so.

If it’s an attempt to blend, it was doomed to fail. Leon’s height is not the only feature that stands out on him. The Anders people are generally dyed with a lighter palette than most of Thedas, and this holds of him, to be sure. His hair is a very platinum-blonde, almost appearing silver under certain lighting conditions. It’s rather long for a man’s, though not as long as some, falling to around his shoulderblades unbound. His face, while the furthest thing from androgynous, is quite symmetrical and free of the scars that seem to litter the rest of him. Luck, perhaps. His eyes are a most uncommon violet color, a family trait.

Leon usually walks slightly hunched over, because he’s often reading something as he goes, a tendency that has frequently led to unfortunate accidents and injuries, always of himself, as he seems quite capable of avoiding other people when thus engaged… or maybe other people just successfully avoid him. Inanimate objects, not so much. Curiously, his resting facial expression seems to be a slight smile.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
The middle of a war is hardly the kind of place and time that softens a person, so it’s unsurprising that Leon is just as obviously-capable as he was the year before. Those with particular talent for observation, however, might be able to notice that not all is quite as well as it seems with him. When he forgets to cover them, the dark circles under his eyes are obvious, and there’s a sort of gauntness to his face that wasn’t there before, like his cheeks have sunken in. The change was very gradual, and it’s not very obvious, but nonetheless, it’s there. Normally rock-steady, his hands occasionally spasm or shake now, particularly when he’s spent long hours writing or using them for other delicate tasks.

9:43
Spoiler: show
Leon tries very hard to hide the signs of his continued deterioration. It isn't so much worse yet that it really impedes his ability to do his job, but he acknowledges that may not remain the case for much longer. His large frame and obvious mass make it difficult to tell, but he's actually lost quite a bit of weight, some of it in muscle. It doesn't seem to have much affected his strength, but it has begun to hollow out his contours in ways he can't completely disguise with loose clothing. Of all things, he's also picked up a few grey hairs, which may be more boon than curse, as they're easily-attributable to ordinary stress, meaning that the weight loss and occasional shakes can be credited to the same.

9:44
Spoiler: show
The last year has not been kind to Leon. What was slow decay has accelerated, leaving him considerably more gaunt in the face than he used to be. The change tracks—though he has a lot of muscle mass to lose, he has lost a lot. He hasn't been gangly in a long time, but there are echoes of it visible in him now as his condition eats away at his body. More than that, he looks sick—his skin is paler even than it was before, with a permanent sort of waxy pallor to it. The dark circles under his eyes won't go away, and the shakes in his extremities aren't either. He has better days and worse days, and for the most part he can still exert himself in short bursts, but each one costs him more than the last, and it shows. The premature grey streaks in his hair are now visible even considering the light color of the rest.


“I'm not sure I'll ever be quite the same again.
But I am alive, and that's gift enough.”

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Apparent Demeanor: Leon has two distinct faces: the Seeker and the everyman. The first, he wears only when he absolutely must, and like one would expect of a member of his order, it is stern, logical, and to a certain degree, even cold. He knows how to make difficult decisions when the time comes for them, and he is familiar with what it is like to lose people, even people with whom he is personally friends. He is able and willing to order such things for the greater good, and indeed has been called upon to do so in the past. He is also tactically very clever, and understands battlefield mechanics in a way few officers do. This is augmented by his knowledge of history and his extensive study not only of mundane armies, but also of demons and the arcane, leaving him in a very good position to instruct others on how to defeat the numerous hostile entities that can and do make their way out of the Fade.

Where the Seeker is cold, calculating, and unerringly precise, Leon the ordinary man is hardly any of those things at all. Academic, certainly, to the point of being largely unable of taking the time to walk from one place to another without his nose half-stuck in a book. Also, it would seem, absurdly good-natured for someone trained to kill people in innumerable ways with his bare hands. He rarely if ever has an ill word to say about anyone, even if they have been less-than-kind to him themselves. He seems to see no difference between people, at least not any difference that would lead him to privilege one group over another. Humans, elves, Qunari, dwarves… they all value things, and fight to protect those things. A strange attitude for an agent of the Chantry to have, perhaps, but then Leonhardt is not exactly an ordinary agent of the Chantry.

In fact, on most occasions, he seems entirely unsuited for the role he performs, for despite his intelligence and education, he looks more peaceful monk than military commander or demon hunter. Fond of outdoor spaces like gardens and rooftops, of listening to music and the simplest of sensations, like the sun on his face or the breeze at his back, it is almost impossible to imagine him taking life, considering the reverence he shows for it.

This is, of course, until he has taken the field.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
Leon is not very good at opening up to people. When he didn’t keep the same company for long, that was neither obvious nor unwarranted. Now, though, he’s around the same individuals basically all of the time, and it looks like they’re in for a long haul together. It’s making his reticence much more apparent, and also much more conscious on his part. He chooses not to reveal things to people now, while before the opportunity to make the decision just never arose. He thinks it’s probably for the best—there are enough things to worry about without adding to anyone’s burdens.

9:43
Spoiler: show
If nothing else, the last year has forced his choice about whether or not he lets certain people into his confidence. Rilien was the first, then Romulus, and then Estella and Marceline, and finally Cyrus. He'd tell the other Irregulars, at least, if he could find it in himself to do, but he just... can't quite seem to manage it.

Time has left his demeanor by and large unchanged, though his sense of humor surfaces more often now than it used to, mostly because he's spending more time with people who bring it out in him. That much he thinks of as a positive. Were it not for the trials of his physical condition, he's sure he'd be more content now than he ever really had been before, and more centered in himself as a person. But unfortunately, the solidity he might have had is disrupted, and the looming threat of his death isn't always something he can put out of his mind.

9:44
Spoiler: show
There's a preternatural calm about Leon, and uncanny, grim silence. Where previously, his intimidation was tempered by a sort of gentle quietness, that is no longer the case, because that sort of peace about things eludes him now. What he has left is resignation. Despite the hope of a solution, he has more or less accepted that he'll die within the year. It's not that he doesn't believe in Cyrus's deductions, or that the others would be willing to do whatever it took to help him. Rather, he just knows that other things will take priority, as they should, and that the possible cure to what ails him will be too elusive to track or too demanding to acquire. It's better, in his position, not to have hope, because if it were dashed, it would be devastating.

So his silence and calm is that of someone who has accepted his death. He's almost waiting for it, even, though certainly not with anticipation of any kind. It makes him a bit colder, a bit more distant, though he's doing his best to hold onto his friendships for now. They mean a lot to him, after all.


Hangups/Quirks: Leon is a pacifist. An honest-to-Maker pacifist, in normal circumstances quite incapable of taking a person’s life. This was something he unfortunately did not discover until he was quite done with all of his training, and a solution was necessary to help him actually kill things. One has been devised, but it leaves him feeling morally conflicted about what he does at best. He doesn’t generally balk at killing things like demons or darkspawn, but apostates? Templar deserters? These things are exceedingly difficult. He quite enjoys a good spar, but the moment life and death hang in the balance, it is a different matter altogether.

He is particularly fond of herbal teas and reading, and grows his own herbs and flowers, on those rare occasions when he is in one place long enough for horticulture. The greenery of nature and presence of small animals actually fascinates him, because he grew up in a region of the world far too stark and barren for any but the hardiest of shrubs and scrawniest of rodents and insects. Leon, true to his nature, doesn’t eat meat, and seems to be a bit uncomfortable with the sight of blood.

Strengths: Leon is an experienced commander of military and paramilitary forces, more knowledgeable than most mages when it comes to things like demons and blood magic, and, when he wishes to be, a combatant of fearsome strength and no little speed. This makes him quite suited to his role as the Inquisition’s Commander. But what qualifies him above all others is his humanity, deeply flawed and at times uncertain, but giving him an empathy and ability to relate to other people, to understand them in ways that those who hold themselves too high above their troops will never quite be able to manage.

9:44
Spoiler: show
With the strength of his body unreliable to the point that he's unwilling to count it, his remaining strengths are almost all those of mind and personality. Even in the condition he's in, he's patient, intelligent, and an excellent strategist. He knows how to lead, effectively if not in the inspiring way of more charismatic figures he could name. He has a head for logistics, and knows the ins and outs of the Inquisition's daily workings probably better than anyone.


Weaknesses: That same empathy, however, can leave him desolate for extended periods of time when those he commands fall to their foes, and every decision, while made with utmost care and clarity, nevertheless hits him very personally. He does not have the advantageous detachment that his fellow Inquisition leaders can muster, and he suffers for it. He also has to deal with issues and symptoms relating to his unique approach to combat, and this can have physiological as well as mental backlash.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
The symptoms, such as they are, are also accelerating. He hasn’t exactly told anyone that he’s dying, but then… in a situation like this one, it doesn’t make much difference. He’ll do everything he can until he can’t do anything anymore, and then he’ll expire. He hopes that the Inquisition will have achieved its aims by then—but there’s no way to say for sure. Truthfully, Leon has no way of knowing how much longer he has before his deterioration begins to affect his performance in combat or as a commander. All he can do is pray he lasts long enough, and begin to prepare for when he loses effectiveness.

9:44
Spoiler: show
Leon is now more liability than asset on the battlefield, and it's doing a number on his mental state. He hates the idea of sending others out to fight while he remains trapped behind a desk, but it's the reality of his situation for now. He also finds himself slipping further and further into fatalistic lines of thinking, and is much more easily exhausted just by the strain of an ordinary day than he can ever remember being in the past. The near-constant physical pain and weakness is actually comparatively easier to deal with.


Fears: He fears that the delicate balance between his worse nature and his better will one day be shattered, leaving him either useless at his job or else hopelessly lost to his violence. Right now, he is a man on a tightrope, and he’s never really trusted much to his grace.

9:43
Spoiler: show
At the moment, Leon fears most that too much time will pass and he will not accomplish enough. That he will die with things undone, that Corypheus will outlive him, more or less. He does not make a habit of overestimating his own importance, but he knows that right now, there is no one else in the ranks who could do his job. Perhaps in time that will change, and it has crossed his mind once or twice to train a successor, but... even that's no guarantee. He just wants to survive long enough to see this through—but he fears that even asking that is too much.

9:44
Spoiler: show
He's not afraid of death, he's decided. Not death itself. But the work he'll leave unfinished behind him, and the people he'll leave without him—that terrifies him. Mostly because he's finally allowed himself to believe other people when they tell him that he's important to them and to the Inquisition for who he is, and not merely the position he occupies. If there's anything more bittersweet than that, he's never heard of it.


“For the first time in my life, every part
of me has oriented in the same direction.
I know what I want to achieve, and I'm
more than willing to fight for it.”





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▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]


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Weapon of Choice: Leon fights empty-handed, and only sometimes with armor. The one concession he makes is that in actual battle situations, he will wear cestūs, a pair of sort of armored gauntlets with blades in the knuckles, that add a little more heft to his already massive blows. One should take care to note, however, that he is not nor does he appear to be, a barroom brawler with fancy toys. On the contrary, it is clear that he has very accurate knowledge of the humanoid form, where to hit someone in armor, how to remove a sword from someone’s grip without getting impaled, and a large number of other things. He has, evidently, been trained to barehanded fighting, not simply resorted to it from a lack of patience or skill with other things. Indeed, he can use other kinds of weapons, he just doesn’t.

Fighting Style/Training: The Seekers are one of the most highly militarized forces in Thedas, and more than that, they are taught to fight not only other soldiers, but also mages—and Templars. The training is extensive, at least on par with what chevaliers receive, with the added skills required to handle complicated situations without the aid of others, meaning that each Seeker has a wide skillset geared towards fighting the dangerous and the unpredictable. Leon’s style is almost ascetic in nature, relying on a bare minimum of accouterments to achieve the required results. He needs no sword nor shield, for he himself is quite capable of being both. Watching him fight, however, is not the most… pleasant of experiences. He seems to fall under the sway of some kind of cold rage, his strikes brutal and beyond even what one would expect of a person of his considerable size. It is an almost night and day contrast with his everyday demeanor, and even allies are best advised to stay well clear of his path.

9:43
Spoiler: show
Leon is, and has for many years been, a Reaver. But his abilities carry a steeper cost even than the typical member of his kind. While most Reavers only once imbibe the tincture of dragon blood to awaken their potential, Leon has to repeatedly dose himself with it. This is because he can't bring himself to use lethal force if he doesn't have the dragon blood raging through his system, upping his adrenaline output and settling a fog of battle-fury over what is usually a very powerful conscience. It's the repeated dosing that lies at the root of his problem: dragon's blood is a potent substance, and the human body was never meant to withstand it, let alone so much of it. Over time, then, it's poisoning him, and at this point stopping altogether would only delay the inevitable. The loss of his ability to fight would be too steep a cost, and so Leon must balance the considerations as well as he can.

He is as fearsome as ever when he takes the field, thanks to the lessons he has learned in tapping the power he gains by such methods. Reavers are notorious for being stronger the closer to death they edge. In a way, Leon is always close to death. The logic isn't hard to figure out.

9:44
Spoiler: show
More than anything, Leon's stamina has suffered. It's true that he can't hit as hard or move as fast as he used to, but there's an extent to which the battle-rage can compensate for that. What it can't compensate for is the fact that his body simply gives out sometimes. And that's taking less and less time to provoke. Each time he pushes himself to his limit, the limit decreases, and his death accelerates. It forces a maddening calculus every time he fights.


"It's not a nice, clean sort of thing, what I do.
If I am to fight, then I must accept all the ugliness that comes with the decision.
It has never been easy. Not once.
I try not to enjoy it.”

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Place of Birth: Hossberg, The Anderfels
Social Status/Rank: High Seeker; minor nobility.

History: Leonhardt Albrecht is the second son and third child of the Albrecht family, nobility of moderate stature in the Anderfels, which is rather unlike being nobility of moderate stature anywhere else. The king in that country is mostly preoccupied with keeping order in Hossberg, and the countryside is left to fend for itself. This is due to a large number of factors, but suffice it to say that the real power in the region belongs to two entities: the Grey Wardens and the Chantry. The Anders as a group have seen the worst of most of the Blights, and are among the most religious nations in Thedas, so that perhaps makes sense.

Being in essence an unnecessary child, Leon was at a very young age promised to the Chantry, and he entered the cloister for training at around eight years of age. Even as a lad, he was rather large compared to his peers, and as he grew and trained, his teachers were consistently impressed by his performance in all areas: history, tactics, and especially sparring. Initially a promising candidate for the Templars, he was scouted for recruitment into the Seekers of Truth shortly after his thirteenth birthday, and underwent his Vigil at seventeen.

Emerging from that trial successfully as a young man of eighteen, Leon immediately began work for the Seekers. His first few missions were… not as impressive as his trainers had expected them to be, and for a while, some suspected that the Vigil had gone wrong somehow. Eventually, the true nature of the problem was discovered, and he underwent a special training regimen with a High Seeker named Ophelia, after which he customarily discarded all weapons, shields, and armor he’d come to rely on and fought only with his hands. The unique aspects of this training seemed to solve the problem, and over the next few years, he built a steady reputation as a consummate slayer of demons. On the few occasions he had cause to act in teamwork capacities, he made for an excellent leader as well, capable of apt tactical analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of his comrades, and in time, he was promoted to High Seeker.

Recently, Leon has been called by the Divine to Ferelden, where he was given a writ from Justinia herself with a very specific conditional direction: if the Divine and her two most trusted agents are not able to broker a peace between mages and Templars, Leon is to join those two agents in forming a new Inquisition. While the Conclave proceeds, Leon waits in the nearby village of Haven, unsure exactly what he is supposed to do if they succeed.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
As it turned out, the Inquisition became quite necessary after the explosion at the Conclave. No one could have foreseen the outcome of those events; it’s fair to say he wasn’t really prepared for two complete strangers with magical marks on their hands to become the center of it all. That said, Leon adapted as well as he could, and with the contributions of many others, the Inquisition slowly built itself from the ground up. Gaining the support of both the Free Mages in the south and the remains of the Templar Order was fortunate; losing Haven and the casualties they took from Corypheus’s attack was much less so.

But they have proven resilient, and with Skyhold as their new base of operations, they might yet succeed. Leon will do everything he can to make sure of it. He’s staking his life on the outcome, after all.

9:43
Spoiler: show
9:42 was a rough year to be at the helm of the Inquisition. And Leon has always been there, steering through the storm as the Inquisitors found their footing and worked out how they wanted to approach their new positions. He has striven above all to be supportive of them, and decisive where he needs to be in his own leadership. For him personally, the months were marked only by the continual deterioration of his body, but for the Inquisition as a whole and those of greatest personal concern to him in it, there was a great deal more.

The siege at Adamant is still difficult to categorize as a victory or a defeat in total, considering all that happened. But for the most part, he considers it their third great trial after the Breach and Haven, and considers them to have been successful, particularly from his own military standpoint.

The Irregulars saw a great deal of disruption and change as well; he hopes he's been of help to at least some of them as they struggled, though he knows his own reticence may have precluded it, for better or worse. He was happy to assist Asala in the trials put to her by her bond-spirit, and glad he could help Cyrus when he was poisoned with red lyrium. Though Leon himself ended up with mixed feelings about what he did, Cyrus seems to be grateful, and he supposes that's what counts.

When Khari questioned her path and her place in the Inquisition, he did his best to show her that she belonged here, with them, and he thinks he might have succeeded, though of course much of the credit for that goes to Michaël, and much to Khari herself. He currently mentors her in leadership and tactics, a topic also of interest to Captain Séverine, with whom he now spends a fair amount of his free time, trying to figure out what future there is for the Inquisition's templars.

He has fully embraced this mission—this life—as his own. That brings him some measure of peace with what is certain to come for him soon enough.

9:44
Spoiler: show
Leon is duly proud of what the Inquisition and its members have achieved over the past year. Perhaps the most momentous achievements were those that took place at the beginning and end of the year, respectively: the role the organization played in the affairs at Halamshiral and their crucial help breaking the siege of Kirkwall.

But there was plenty in the middle, too. Leon was finally able to track down the Lord Seeker, and put an end to one of the darkest chapters in the history of the order. The Chantry now has a way forward, a trajectory to follow even after Corypheus and Leon himself are long gone. He's confident in Séverine's ability to lead as Divine, and has no doubts about the future of his faith.

So, too, was he able to play a small part in helping Romulus put some things to rest, and in reuniting Zahra with her family. Certainly more personal achievements, but no less important, in their way. Perhaps most personally of all, he's been able to admit to himself how much his friends mean to him, Khari in particular. If it hadn't been for the dark cloud hanging over his very short future, he could count himself a very lucky man, indeed.

Perhaps he is, anyway.



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| Cyrus Avenarius |

"No amount of gratitude would be in excess of what he's done for me."

With time and necessity, Leon has come to gain a certain comfortable familiarity with Cyrus. It almost goes without saying how crucial the other man was in resolving Leon's reaver tonic issue, but over the course of that ordeal, they just spent enough time in each other's company to form a friendship almost by osmosis: even if there wasn't any particularly-intense period of swapping stories or learning about one another per se, those sorts of things happened in bits and pieces, via proximity. It's a surprisingly-relaxing dynamic, for Leon, who admittedly used to be put vaguely on edge by the rather startling sharpness to Cyrus. But they've both changed, Cyrus in particular mellowing to the point where Leon feels no need to guard anything in his company.



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| Asala Kaaras |

"She's proven hardier than I expected."

Leon was glad to be able to assist Asala in some small way with her Spirit Healing, and he's glad that she proved to have the correct temperament to win the spirit's approval, as it means there is little danger now of her desire for vengeance ever overcoming her. It doesn't mean there's no chance, but more even than the spirit's judgement, he is choosing to trust Asala's, and the strength of the moral compass that guides her. He finds her pleasant to be around, though it is difficult still, to avoid thinking of her as more like a child than she honestly is.



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| Marceline Benoît |

"Lady Marceline is an adept diplomat and a sharp thinker."

Leon and Marceline have settled into an effective working relationship, alongside their counterpart Rilien. It was a little rocky at first, but things have mostly smoothed over. He values the fact that Marceline’s perspective is very different from his, and believes, at least, that she values his for the same reason. On a personal note, he finds her charming, in that carefully-crafted, sly sort of way that noblewomen sometimes have, and in truth, they get along better than he expected they would, usually in those moments when Marceline will allow herself to relax the formality that seems to be her default, and speak of matters other than pressing business. It hasn't escaped him, however, that she isn't as... strongly-tied, to the Inquisition's other members as even he manages to be. Part of that must surely be because her life lacked for little before she took up with them. It's not a problem, of course, and he hopes that she continues to be able to find the support she needs, even if that is in other places than the rest of them look for it.



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| Zahra Tavish |

"Ah... how do I put this? She's certainly different."

Which is something of an understatement, when it comes to Leon's personal experiences. It's not every day a friendly acquaintance and ally lays one on you in order to punctuate a ruse. As embarrassing as the whole thing was for Leon, that had more to do with the circumstances and his own hangups than anything Zahra actually did. Oddly enough, it might have jumpstarted their friendship in earnest, though not in the way it would sound if he said that. She's funny, Zahra, and not always intentionally. It's pleasant to be around.



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| Vesryn Cormyth |

"I suppose if anyone knows quite how he feels, I'm it."

The parallels in their positions are easy to see. Though Leon's own troubles are not due to a foreign spirit residing in his mind—and thank goodness for that, even if Saraya's presence has been on the whole very positive for Vesryn—they are otherwise not entirely different. The feeling of being slowly betrayed by one's own body is not an easy one to swallow, especially perhaps for people used to being so physically capable. Vesryn seems to have plenty of support available to him by way of dealing with all that, but if Leon senses an opportunity to be of assistance, he certainly will. Vesryn has done more than enough for them all to deserve that.



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| Kharisanna Istimaethoriel |

"I don't know that I've ever been this invested in another person."

Leon is proud of Khari—extremely so. He thinks she gives him a little too much credit for her success, but at the same time, he doesn't intend to ask her to stop doing it. Just being in her company is enough to lift his mood regardless of the circumstances. It hasn't all been light and sunshine—she's given him more than one much-needed reality check, and he's shed more than a few tears either in her presence or because of her, but the end result is a profound bond that fair-weather friendships or untried ones can never hope to replicate. Khari's happiness and success are as important to Leon as his own, and the current state of their relationship is something he hopes to preserve for as long as it's possible. Bonds like theirs are rare, as far as he can tell, and he doesn't expect to be gifted with another in his lifetime.



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| Romulus |

"I think few people are capable of such changes as his."

Romulus has made a different man of himself, that much is clear to anyone who cares to observe. Leon sort of figured that he'd have to, given the circumstances, but he didn't foresee the changes being quite as momentous as they have in fact been. He also didn't foresee being friends with the Lord Inquisitor, but there it is. They get along well perhaps because they're both accustomed to listening as well as speaking, and for all that initial social interaction was awkward, it's become surprisingly easy after three years or so of working on it.



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| Rilien Falavel |

"A most capable ally... and perhaps something like a friend."

Leon knows that Rilien will always be Lord Lucien's man first and foremost. But he no longer has any reason to suspect that this in any way hedges his commitment to the Inquisition's goals. They have worked closely together now for three years, and in all that time Rilien has never once done anything or made a single choice without the benefit of their organization and its members in mind. He's been especially helpful to Estella, no doubt, but his impact can be seen elsewhere as well. And of course, his competence at his job is almost staggering; one thing the Inquisition seldom lacks for is the information spies can grant them. Even when they seem to lack just about everything else.



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| Estella Avenarius |

"She has grown into someone quite capable."

In some ways, Estella was just as worrisome as Romulus when they first became the Heralds of Andraste. Her issue was that she simply wasn't in a good position to be a leader, and Leon feared her relative lack of both skill and confidence would see her killed quite before the Inquisition was able to achieve its goals. He's most pleased to have been shown wrong on all counts, as Estella has grown almost unbelievably in terms of both her skills—both combative and diplomatic—and her self-esteem in the three years the Inquisition has been active. Since she's never been anything but congenial and kind, he's never had any particular issue getting along with her, either, and their working relationship is very effective. Personally, he likes her a great deal, though tine constraints mean he rarely encounters her outside of formal settings.




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"I must believe it's about what we do with our time,
and not how much of it we have."

So begins...

Leonhardt Albrecht's Story

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Breach is through here.”



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

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

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

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

Beneath his helm, he smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leonhardt exhaled, and took a step towards them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This way. We’re almost there.”

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"They're awake!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I thought they were supposed to close it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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

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

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

Lady Marceline,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon nodded, and turned to lead the way.

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

Good. Grief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Senseless," Marceline said, shaking her head.

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lia shrugged. "I didn't get a reason out of him, but once I mentioned I was Inquisition, he expressed interest in meeting us. Said his name was Vesryn Cormyth, and that he'd wait for us there. Looked like he could handle himself, too." Her expression seemed to imply that this was an understatement. "I came back here right after that."

“Well now.” Cyrus broke into the conversation, his eyes having sparked to life with vivid interest as soon as the words magical architecture appeared. He was regarding Lia with an intent expression, but when no more information was forthcoming, he continued. “If it’s old and magical, I do believe I could stand to take a look at it.” Whether he had any interest in the rest of it was debatable, but at the very least he didn’t seem to mind, and he turned to Leon.

“I volunteer for this assignment, High Seeker. It is, after all, precisely the kind of thing I’m here for.” His tone was light, his face reflecting mirth, but there was an undertone of that same very serious curiosity still threaded under the words.

Leon considered all of that, and nodded. It seemed best to send a group that could handle both things. The Fallow Mire was home to at least a village’s worth of people, and if there were undead in the region that could be stopped, it was the kind of task they should be undertaking. Not only for the support it would lend them, either, though he was comfortable couching it in those terms if that was what it took. And Cyrus was quite correct, even if Leon suspected his priorities were quite misplaced.

“Very well. Since the Avvar have demanded to meet a Herald, we’ll need to send one. Estella, please accompany Cyrus to the Mire. Meet with these Avvar, and this serah Cormyth, and see what you can’t do about our missing scouts and the undead. Lia, I want you to go with them and push our stake in the area out as they advance. With some work, we’ll be able to keep some soldiers there after the two of them leave, in case this solution is only temporary.” He paused a moment, considering. He knew Cyrus was knowledgeable, but he’d never seen the man fight, and Estella was, while a professional, not enough by herself. Best not to rely on the unknown, either, no matter what he looked like.

“I suggest you take Asala with you as well. Her skills will prove useful in a pinch.”

Estella nodded her acquiescence, turning to Lia and speaking quietly, such that he only barely heard. “We’ll get them back.”

At that moment, a knock sounded on the door, and Leon furrowed his brow. “Yes?”

“It’s Reed, ser.” He sounded slightly uncertain, but Leon knew he wouldn’t interrupt unless it was necessary, so he called for the man to enter, which he did, followed by a stranger.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, ser, but we have another visitor. Of sorts. An insistent one.” He shot a look at the person behind him, but at Leon’s nod, stepped aside and allowed the newcomer to enter fully.

“Is there something I can help you with?” His tone suggested that there had better be.

The stranger who followed Reed into the chamber occupied far more room than was expected. He was a burly Qunari, sporting large horns and bulging muscles, arms folding over his chest in a casual stance. His expression, or lack thereof, was set in a permanent state of disinterest. He regarded everyone with a leveled stare, and cleared his throat, “There is. Excuse my interruption. We've heard of the Inquisition. Hard to miss it.”

The tension in his arms loosened, and he took another deep breath before continuing, “This is an opportunity. Captain Zahra Tavish wishes an audience on the Storm Coast. We're a mercenary group with a ship of our own, looking for another staunch contract. And she has valuable information.” He shifted towards Leon, and arched his heavy eyebrows, “From the looks of it, you don't have much in the means of sea-faring allies.”

Rilien stirred as soon as the Storm Coast was mentioned, moving forward to the table proper. “We have other reasons to make a venture to that location as well.” He looked down at the map for a second, his head tilted to the side, and continued in the same tone. “We’ve received news that Grey Wardens are disappearing from Ferelden, and no fewer than three of them were last known to be in that area. It is also presently plagued by a cult group of bandits calling themselves the Blades of Hessarian. I suspect these things are unconnected, but each is a reason for us to extend our presence into the region.”

Well, that was indeed several good reasons. Both this and the matters in the Mire seemed equally time-sensitive, so the logical move was clear: those who weren’t headed for the Mire would go to the Coast.

“Very well. Romulus, if you would lead a second team to the Storm Coast, we can deal with all three matters. Prioritize whatever seems of most immediate concern to you when you get there, but anything we can find on the Wardens will likely be of import. Lady Marceline, if you would be so kind as to accompany him, I believe you will be able to negotiate matters with Captain Tavish. Take Khari and anyone else you think you might need, assuming they aren’t already heading for the Mire.”

Marceline turned toward her assistant, who stood in the corner with a clipboard in hand transcribing what seemed to be notes. "Larissa, will you be able to contend with the paperwork while I am away?" she asked.

The woman looked up from her notes and nodded. "Yes Mistress. You do not have any pressing engagements, and I am able do what remains."

Marceline smiled in response, the appreciation clear in her expression. She smiled and looked toward Leon in order to allow him to continue.

He returned his attention to the Qunari. “Tell your Captain to be expecting us. We will hear what she has to say.”

The Qunari finally uncrossed his arms, and tipped his head, “I'm no good with introductions, but I am Aslan.” He clicked his tongue, “You'd know that soon enough.” He did not bow, nor offer his hand: only nodded as somberly as he'd entered. Like a wayside observer, absorbing whatever information he could. “That I will. I appreciate your audience, and we'll be looking forward to seeing you again.” Rude or no, Aslan made a grumbling sound in his throat and excused himself out of the chamber without Reed's help.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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Saraya, as ever, was unimpressed.

Vesryn often felt he had to overcompensate for the cynicism, to combat the foreign opinions and often negative emotions that entered his head. He'd long since learned how to force them away from becoming his own. And he'd always been an upbeat, incessantly light-hearted elf. Saraya's grumblings, for lack of a better term, weren't going to change that. If anything, it just made him glad she was stuck with him. He could only imagine how dreary her experience would've been if she were forced into the head of some moody elf, full of dark emotions, or Gods forbid, a human.

Still, Vesryn had been elvhen'alas, a dirt elf, when they had first met, and in the eyes of many of the Dalish, that was halfway or more to shemlen. Thankfully, Saraya was not Dalish. Eventually Vesryn had even come to believe that it was better that he wasn't Dalish. Fewer false notions already ingrained into his mind, or some such. That he'd been so unconcerned with the legacy of his people perhaps made him the best, most open-minded candidate for learning about them.

The Inquisition did not know what to make of him. There was the other notable elf, that darling redheaded one, Khari he thought he'd heard, but her condition had an explanation. Sometimes Dalish just didn't like being Dalish. It wasn't impossible to believe. Not everyone wanted to live in a wagon on wheels. But Vesryn lacked the tattoo, something he was thankful for; he found his face quite pleasing just the way it was. What he did have was a very unique suit of armor, a powerful build not common at all among his people, and an air of confidence unheard of among the city elves, and different from that of the Dalish. He felt threatened by nothing, and furthermore, felt there was nothing he had to prove.

It was unsurprising to him, then, when he was called to meet with the army commander, Leon something-or-other. Clearly he was wasted on the front lines, not that he wouldn't absolutely excel there, but his talents and backgrounds were beyond the average recruit. He was special, and he walked like he knew it when he entered the Chantry at Haven's highest point. He was garbed in armor, lion's pelt cloak and all, as he planned to train on the ice following the meeting, and vastly preferred to train in the same gear that he would fight in.

Vesryn found a guard standing outside the commander's door, and offered him a charming smile, before pressing a fist to his chest and bowing shortly. "Vesryn Cormyth, here to see the commander."

The guard’s expression was best classed as skeptical, but in a weary sort of way, like he’d seen one too many things stranger than Vesryn by this point to be all that surprised by an elf in shining armor, so to speak. “Right. He said he was expecting you.” With very little ceremony, he turned, walked a couple paces, and knocked on the door. “Sir, it’s the new fellow.” There was a short pause, and a reply that was a little too low for Vesryn to make out through the door, but the guard seemed to have heard it, because he nodded and opened the door, gesturing in clear invitation.

The office itself was exceedingly spartan in nature, and likely not the largest such space the Chantry had to offer—it had about enough room for a bookshelf, a writing desk with a smaller table next to it for parchment overflow, and not much else. The one concession to comfort was a thick rug underfoot, but even that was comparatively plain. Several maps lined the walls, many with pushpins stuck in various places, a few having lines of variously-colored string between them.

It was almost comically small for the size of the man who occupied it, hunched over the desk in a slightly-ungainly way, which was only reinforced when he stood from his chair at Vesryn’s entrance and promptly knocked his head into the light fixture over the spot, which had clearly been put there with someone much shorter in mind. It might have been smarter to place the desk elsewhere, but from the size of the room, there wasn’t really any other option. A rueful sigh followed, and the commander stepped out from behind the furniture, extricating himself from potential hazards in so doing.

Vesryn, meanwhile, had burst into laughter, his grin spread across his face, and he threatened to bend over, almost needing to support himself with hands on knees. "I'm sorry," he managed, slowly composing himself. "Really though, that was... how many times have you done that to yourself?"

“Far too many to count.” The reply was immediate, dry, and slightly self-effacing. The commander rubbed at a spot near one of his temples, his own smile considerably milder, but still present. “Laugh now, but the moment someone needs something from the top shelf, I’m a bloody hero.” He dropped his hand, appeared to reconsider that slightly, and then shrugged. “Well, to shorter people than you, at least.”

He pushed back an errant piece of hair dislodged by his collision, resetting the damage without being fazed much by it, apparently. “Anyway, welcome. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suppose that you must be Vesryn. I’d tell you to make yourself comfortable, but alas, I really don’t think anything in here will be of any assistance with that.” The commander put forward a hand, currently gloved in some kind of thin leather, by the look of it, though whether that was for warmth or something else wasn’t clear.

“It’s good to meet you. I’m Leonhardt Albrecht, but Leon’s quite sufficient, if you don’t mind.”

Vesryn clapped his own leather and plate gloved hand with Leon's, his grin never fading, his eyes now wandering up to the commander's hair. "That really is magnificent, well done. A striking shade, as well, if I'm any judge. Truly, this must be the most dashing Inquisition in history." Of course, it had only recently become even more so.

Leon appeared to give that some thought, and an eyebrow arched upwards. “And I’m sure Lady Marceline is already planning to take advantage of that somehow,” he mused, releasing Vesryn’s and chuckling good-naturedly. “You ought to be careful, though, or you’ll find yourself being asked to give our Heralds outfitting advice.” He gestured vaguely to his shoulder, probably to indicate the lion pelt that rested over the elf’s own.

“I, however, am engaged in the rather more mundane task of trying to keep them alive, and I daresay I’d rather have your skills on that end of things. I hear tell that you’re quite something, on a battlefield.” He didn’t indicate who he’d heard from, but the options were fairly limited; most likely, it had been someone in the group that had initially met him in the Mire. The words seemed to be just as much an invitation for elaboration as they were a statement, however.

"My reputation precedes me," Vesryn replied, bowing slightly. He'd always wanted to say that. Straightening, he finally appeared to become at least a little more serious. "I'd have done more of the fighting in the swamp, but sadly your Herald insisting on doing the most dangerous job herself. She handled herself well enough, though." It was hardly all that he thought about that particular encounter, but those thoughts were for Estella, when he could find a moment with her. She was proving to be quite popular.

"I spent some years with a mercenary company in Orlais, a small outfit called the Stormbreakers. Fun bunch, even if they didn't have the prestige of a certain group of Lions. Beyond that... roughly a decade of constant training and experience on the road." He wasn't trying to hide the fact that he wasn't divulging everything, for Vesryn had learned by now that he wasn't a very good liar. It wasn't that he didn't want to let them in on his little secret. He just knew that there would be unavoidable dangers if certain types learned of his condition. The Inquisition was, to some degree, a Chantry based organization, and there was a chance some among them would simply see him as being possessed, without bothering to fully understand. Not that Vesryn could make them.

Saraya, meanwhile, regarded Leon with what Vesryn could recognize as an alert wariness, sizing him up for any potential threat, while affording him a high level of respect for his obvious physical prowess.

Leon seemed to accept this all with a great deal of sanguinity, however, and nodded with an air of contemplativeness. “Much of what we do is… surprisingly ordinary, in truth,” he confessed, folding his hands behind him. “At this point, the regulars are mostly responsible for holding regions we’ve already pressed into, and of course many more will be mobilized as their training periods end and if we should need a more traditional army at some point.” He didn’t seem to be a person of much excess movement, and where others might have fidgeted just from habit, he was quite still.

“Where the work really is at this point is on two fronts: the organizational one, which is mostly myself, Lady Marceline, and Rilien, our intelligence man, and then of course out on the frontiers, so to speak, with the Heralds themselves. Closing the rifts, establishing base camps in new areas, meeting with potential allies where it is necessary, that sort of thing. The occasional rescue mission, though with luck we won’t need many more of those.” He inclined his head in Vesryn’s direction. “There’s need for people everywhere, but I think it rather apparent what you’re most suited to. That said… you are a volunteer; it seems only appropriate to give you the majority say in what you do.”

There was a certain... anxiousness, was really the only way to describe it, when Vesryn had seen the Breach on his way in. Not from himself, either. It was Saraya, that made him feel it, and it was the same feeling that she'd given him when they first had heard about the events at the Conclave from a traveler. Having spent a decade and a half with her in the company of his mind, Vesryn had become attuned well enough to her reactions. This was not fear, for if they truly feared the Breach, they could simply go the other way. No, Saraya was made anxious by the Breach for some other reason, and Vesryn wanted to know what it was. She never objected to his investigation. He, admittedly, had felt some nerves upon seeing the thing, and how it seemed to exude the Fade, but there was no noticeable difference in his head.

"I will admit, I have some interest in elven and magical history. I know, I know, not a mage, not a Dalish, but the Inquisition seems poised to go quite far, if it gets some support, and this Breach is unlike anything we've seen. I'd love to accompany your advance teams, in the event they need a shield or just someone always in good spirits. It's a good cause too, what the Inquisition is doing. Makes my decision easy."

Leon smiled at that, a quick flash of teeth, then nodded. “No one here is really typical or what one might first suppose,” he pointed out simply, then shrugged. “Though most of them could benefit from a shield and even more from good spirits, I expect. Thanks for coming by—I’ll make sure to start sending you out with the Heralds.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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It felt better than it perhaps should have to be out of the damn office for a while.

Leon was grateful, actually, that his duties included supervising the training of the troops as often as possible. The Lions' lieutenants, and, if he were being honest, even their non-officer members, were exceptionally well-trained even for professionals, and so they could do a lot of the teaching and drilling in his absence, but he refused to shut himself away in a building all day out of the reach of most of his people and pretend like being here, where they could see him, wasn’t important. He much preferred dealing with soldiers to dealing with either diplomats or spies anyway, and that was in part exactly why he had the role within the organization that he did.

Currently, he was only observing drills; he suspected he might be coaxed into some kind of informal spar later, but for the moment, it was more important that he get a better sense of how they were doing. Down in the ranks, Hissrad and Donnelly were shouting drill commands, which the men and women under their supervision followed with varying degrees of competence and accuracy. They were already looking better than they had a month ago, and he told Cor, standing to his left, as much. To his right, Reed nodded an agreement.

“Well… they’ve been working hard,” the young elf replied, shifting his weight slightly from one leg to the other. Another thing that seemed to hold fairly universally of the Lions was that they were quick to give others as much of the credit as they could for anything, be that shifting praise between themselves or putting it at the feet of their trainees. It was an admirable sort of humility, but almost disconcerting to find so universally over what was otherwise a very diverse group of people. He wondered if they’d all picked it up from their own commander or if he’d simply selected them in the first place because they had it. Still, sans Estella, there was a quiet confidence to each of them, a sense that they knew that they were skilled and valuable, but refused to make any noise about it.

It made them incredibly easy to work with.

“They have,” Leon agreed with a smile. It was hard not to, perhaps, when the Breach was still there in the sky and no one else in the world seemed to have half an idea what to do about it. “But they’ve been instructed well, also, else their hard work would not have achieved so much.” Cor pursed his lips, but nodded with what appeared to be some reluctance.

“We’re working hard, too,” he admitted, glancing over and up at Leon. “She’s one of ours, after all; we can’t not help her. Plus, Lia’s with you guys now, and after that whole thing with the scouts...” He grimaced. It was obvious that Cor held a great deal of affection for both of his friends, and the sentiment was more than likely shared by the other two as well.

Leon hummed thoughtfully. “I know our supplies yet leave much to be desired, but is there anything in particular you think you need?”

Cor exhaled through his nose. “Help?” Thinning his mouth, he explained further. “Our squads can help a little, when they see a line-mate doing something wrong, but we don’t want to disrupt your command structure too much by having troops ordering each other around. And if you take our twenty out of the equation, there’s only three of us, some spare people with previous mercenary or military experience, and… well, that’s it. It’s fewer than ten people running drills for what’s eventually going to be an army.”

And that was indeed where the personnel problem was hitting them the hardest: mid-level officers. Leon himself was doing most of what he’d usually have captains and up do, but the burdens of lieutenants fell on the scarce volunteers they had with command experience, and it was bound to wear them as it wore him. Thinking of that brought to the forefront again the massive migraine he could feel building in the back of his head, and he sighed. “You’re right. Start picking out troops with a knack for the drills. I at least need to promote you some sergeants.” He couldn’t ask them to keep doing all this work for the pittance he was currently able to pay them.

Nearby, Leon could hear the telltale clacking of two wooden practice swords bouncing off of each other. Not too far away, but away from the main body of troops, a man was practicing with a boy. The man, Ser Michaël, a Chevalier and Lady Marceline's husband, was sparring with their son, Pierre. Michaël bore his full plate backed by a purple and black cloak that seemed to be the Benoît house colors. He easily held off his son with a single practice sword in one hand, while the boy struggled with two hands.

Michaël had been giving his son encouragement and guidance, but had quieted when Cor spoke. Though his attentions seemed to be held on the conversation they were having, the spar with Pierre continued, though he was still able to effortlessly hold the boy off. At least, until Leon finished his last sentence. A surprised yelp cut the air then, and Pierre's sword was in the snow, with Michaël's own pressed gently against the boy's shoulder. The man gave his son an apologetic look, before he laughed.

"I will make a Chevalier out of you yet. Come," he said, tusseling the boy's hair and shouldering his sword. His hand fell to the boy's shoulder and they finally made their way to Leon.

"Commander Leonhardt?" He asked, "If I may suggest something?"

Leon turned his attention to Michaël in full at that point, rather than half-observing the training as he had been before, and lifted a brow. “Of course, Ser Michaël. You have a recommendation?” While technically speaking, the chevalier was outside the Inquisition’s command structure, Leon had never seen the harm in a second opinion, especially one from someone well-trained in martial matters, as was all of present company, excluding, of course, the lad.

Michaël smiled and nodded before he began "Perhaps I may be able to allievate your problem somewhat. I am a Lieutenant for the Chevaliers, with knowledge of their tactics and training methods. Methods I sometime see the Lions utilize in their own regiments," he said with a warm smile for Cor. Michaël then placed a hand on his hip, and noticably puffed his chest out, though a playfulness remained in his green eyes. "I would offer my services, if you have need of them, Commander."

The boy next to him simply shook his head, and looked to Leon with a wry smile. "Please. Let him help. When father gets bored, he uses me as an excuse to train," Pierre explained. Michaël said nothing in turn, but his chest sagged in response to the comment. The sword on his shoulder then shifted however, and reached across to tap the boy lightly on top of the head, a smile on his lips the whole time.

Leon’s violet eyes picked up a glimmer of amusement at Pierre’s words, and he spoke partly to both of them. “It would seem I have little choice, in that case.” His gaze shifted up to Michaël. “In truth, I would be grateful for the assistance. As, I am sure, would the Lions.”

Cor’s smile was much more obvious evidence of the fact that he was entertained than anything on Leon’s face, and he crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t know about that. To hear the commander tell it, Ser Michaël, your methods haven’t improved much since your days of tripping in formation when there were pretty girls around.” It was clearly an inside joke of some sort, a reference that Leon didn’t have, but from the sounds of things, the Lions would work quite well with Lord Benoît’s help, which, while it would not alleviate the growing pains the Inquisition experienced, would at least go partway there.

Cor's joke however, took the rest of the air out of Michaël's chest. Instead of puffing himself out, he hid his face with his hand, and rubbed his eyes. He said nothing at first, only muttering, "Lucien," under his breath. Pierre also laughed at the joke, but turned away from his father so that he could not see, no doubt lest he risk another tap to the head.

Michaël waved his hand in the air, and said, "I deny everything."

"You can try, love, but that does not mean it is not true," a voice cooed from behind them. It was Lady Marceline's, who came from the road leading back to Haven proper, with Larissa close beside her. Larissa carried a clipboard in hand, but was currently not writing anything. She was, however, laughing gently. "I apologize," Marceline told Cor as she pulled up beside her husband. "I believe I am cause of that," she added, leaning up against him.

Michaël for his part, said nothing and continued to look out over the horizon, as if trying to pretend nothing was happening.

“No fault of yours, Lady Marceline,” Cor replied easily, with a modest bow. It was clear enough that he and she had met on a previous occasion, probably through the Lions’ commander. “And it does seem to have worked out for the better, no?”

Leon’s attention was temporarily drawn away from the byplay by the approach of another, however, and he found himself straightening a little bit unconsciously. He wondered if she was here to…?

Khari, who’d been marching not unlike a chevalier herself, slowed slightly upon spotting the group, or perhaps the size of it. At one point, she almost stopped, but then seemed to think better of that and soldiered on until she was standing in front of the lot of them. There was a moment where she looked like she was thinking, and then she dipped herself at the waist. “Uh… hey commander… everyone.” She grinned, nodded to Cor and Reed, glanced back and forth between Marceline, Michaël, and Pierre, and then settled her eyes on Leon himself.

“I had a question: does anyone around here have like… glassware and retorts and alembics and stuff? Like for potions? Fancier than the local alchemist, I mean?” She raised a hand to scratch at the back of her head, pulling her red braid over her shoulder on the way back. She was without most of her usual gear at the moment, which made her take up a lot less space than usual, and she seemed conscious of the fact that discounting Pierre, she was by far the shortest person in present company.

Leon wasn’t sure what the purpose behind the question was, but he wasn’t exactly sure he wanted to ask. The smile on Khari’s face always looked like trouble to him, and while he was mostly sure she wouldn’t do anything damaging, there were perhaps things he’d be better off knowing about only in the event he needed to do something about them. “Rilien would have equipment like that, if I’m not mistaken,” he replied. The Tranquil was an alchemist of surpassing talent, among his many other virtues and useful skills.

A thought struck him, then, and he angled himself slightly differently. “Khari, I don’t believe you’ve met the other Benoîts. Lady Marceline you know, but Ser Michaël is a lieutenant with the chevaliers, and Pierre here is their son. Michaël, Pierre, this is Khari. She’s one of our irregulars.” That was what he’d settled on calling the volunteers and recruits who didn’t work inside the usual armed force structure.

At precisely the moment Leon had enunciated the word ‘chevalier,’ Khari had stood ramrod straight, her full attention clearly fixed on the introduction, and if possible, the haphazard grin on her face widened, until she may have been showing a few too many teeth. “Chevalier, huh?” To her credit, she acknowledged Pierre to a greater extent than most would note the presence of a child, but it was clear where the majority of her attention had diverted. “Bear mauls the wolves or tower in a storm? Because if you’re a tower person, we’re gonna have a problem, you and I.” The way she said it gave the lie to the last sentence; she was clearly extremely excited to be talking to a chevalier, apparently to the exclusion of taking to the rest of them.

"Bear mauls the wolves, of course. Shields just get in the way," Michaël said chuckling with a grin of his own. Then he stopped and glanced over to Cor and Leon, his face settling into an awkward look. "Er... Not literally of course. I understand the value of a good shield wall," he explained.

Pierre simply rolled his eyes and huffed, which earned him another tap to the top of the head with the practice sword.

Leon sighed softly, shaking his head and leaving the two of them to their tactical discussions, as it were. He diverted his attention to Marceline, who probably wasn’t out here in the cold to watch the troops practice. “Is there something I can help you with, milady?”

"Yes, Ser Leonhardt," Lady Marceline replied. If she seemed at all perturbed by the tactical discussion being carried on by her husband, she did not show it. In fact, by the way she carried herself, it seemed as if she dealt with it often enough. Glancing first at Khari, and then the rest of the troops, she turned back to Leon. "I would ask for access to detailed personel reports on the individuals serving the Inquisition," she said.

Larissa then went to her clipboard and began to write something, though Leon could not see what. "In return, Larissa and I will pen letters to some of our contacts in order to obtain more experienced soldiers to fill your needs," She said, glancing to the woman beside her, already hard at work.

There were far too many individuals to assemble more than basic dossiers based on the standard forms each volunteer had dictated to Reed or Tanith upon his or her entrance into the Inquisition, with things like next-of-kin information and the like, but he supposed more than that might be in order for the officers and irregulars, at least, so with some reluctance, he inclined his head. It would probably mean even more hours in the office, but the idea had relevance, and they really could use any more people those letters might gain them.

“Very well. I will see what I can assemble in the next few days to that effect. Cor, if you would be so kind as to poll the others and get names for likely sergeants, I’ll try to run a round of minor promotions within a fortnight.” The pressure at the back of his head felt like it was ratcheting up to become a full-blown tension headache, but he ignored it for now. Rilien would have something for that, or else he’d just work through it. He had before.

There just usually wasn’t quite so much at stake.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

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"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: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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The Inquisition, Cyrus had learned, was far too busy an organization for most of its members to run into each other with any great deal of frequency, unless they chose to seek out one another’s company. As of the present, he wasn’t one of the people ever particularly sought out, which was actually a novel and interesting experience for him. He was used to being the most popular man in a room, for a wide variety of reasons that usually came down to a combination of three things: his looks, his intelligence, and his power, sometimes but not always in that order. The solitude was… different, and he may have actually preferred it, most of the time, but he had spent so long in the company of others, whether he liked it or not, that he wasn’t without a certain habitual predilection for it. Sometimes. The tendency was particularly acute whenever he remembered that he should eat something.

The way his teacher—master, really, but that word was loaded when spoken from Tevinter lips here in the south and so he did not use it—had made sure he ate regularly was by requiring his presence in the dining room for at least one meal a day, at the same time as the rest of the household, and so he’d grown quite used to supping with others, when he did so at all. It had proven good practice, for certain other aspects of his life, though not any of the ones he considered most important. Certainly not the challenging ones.

Usually when he ate here, there were only one or two others around at most, but this time, the long table in one of the Chantry’s side rooms was occupied, not only by himself, but a motley assortment of the others—Estella, who’d dragged him here to begin with, Leonhardt, the commander, who took up enough space for one and a half ordinary people, and Vesryn, the elf with an interest in history and a… distinctive sense of fashion. He’d swept into the room behind his sister—because he was incapable of merely walking anywhere—and settled himself with the ease of someone completely at home in his skin into a spot to her left, across from the commander.

He dished Estella her food first, manners bred and trained into him with long years in the courts of the magisters, before taking his own portions from the modest vessels that lay in the middle of the table. “Good evening Commander, Vesryn.” He spared each a nod before settling back to eat.

“Hello, Cyrus,” the commander replied first, returning the nod with his customary informality. “This is a bit of a surprise. I seldom run into you. Have you found accommodations to suit you?”

Cyrus smiled, the expression more than a little sardonic. “‘Suit’ is a strong word for a tent, but it will do for the moment.” He’d roughed it worse before, of course, and this tent was at least one of those meant to stand in one place for longer than a single night, and there was a fair bit of space in it for his various books, both owned and borrowed, as well as the various artifacts and trinkets he carried around with him. He shared with Thalia still, but that was in large part because she didn’t irritate him much and he irritated her less than basically any other human, so it worked out somehow.

He’d even moved a desk into it, so he felt he was quite well-off indeed, compared to most places he’d lodged the last couple of years.

There was comfortable silence for a bit, or comfortable for Cyrus, anyway. He didn’t know how anyone else felt about it, and frankly probably wouldn’t care much even if he did know, with one very glaring exception. Eventually, however, his curiosity got the better of him, as it was wont to do, and he glanced back up at Leon. “I’ve borrowed several books from the Chantry library; quite the collection, for such a small village. I was most interested on a volume on the Seekers of Truth. Common knowledge in the south, I’m sure, but an institution the Imperium is quite without.” He lifted his glass; it was filled with a red wine which was pleasant enough, if not excellent. Only the members of the command structure and the commander’s so-called ‘irregulars’ ate here, and while the little luxuries were quite few, he did note their presence.

Taking a sip, he replaced it, his fingers toying absently with the stem. “Is it true you can kill a mage by burning the lyrium right out of his bloodstream?” He asked the question in a light tone, but one that was clearly only a ruse for the powerful inquisitiveness that undergirded it—Cyrus was quite intrigued by this little tidbit he’d come across, and since he knew Leon was a Seeker, he saw no reason not to ask directly.

Vesryn, meanwhile, took a long drink from his glass, eyes moving to watch Leon. His brows were quite raised, possibly in mild alarm.

Leonhardt seemed taken aback by the question, and coughed a few times before reaching for his own wineglass, quaffing a few gulps with the inelegance of someone who needed to cleanse his throat, clearing it with a final cough, and blinking several times. “I… ahem. I have no idea what book you managed to find that in,” he began, sounding somewhat impressed almost despite himself, “but it isn’t quite that simple.” He sat back against his chair, sighing through his nose, and then shrugged his broad shoulders.

“Among the particular abilities of some Seekers is the ability to burn lyrium in the blood, yes, but most of us who can do so are only capable of causing pain with such a technique, not death, and it applies just as much to Templars as mages. Anyone who has consumed lyrium over time, actually. Very rarely, one of us will manifest the ability to, ah, kill with the technique.” He looked somewhat uncomfortable with the idea, but it was not difficult for someone as astute as Cyrus to figure out which group Leon was in.

“Truthfully, it is most often used for interrogation. It requires a focus few can achieve, and it kills… slowly. If death is the desired end, there are much more merciful methods by which to bring it about.” He smiled uncomfortably, and beside Cyrus, Estella shifted slightly, betraying her own unease, her eyes gaining a wariness they had not previously had.

“Fascinating.” Cyrus murmured the word in a tone that betrayed the complete genuineness of the sentiment. Of course, he had no cause for fear himself; lyrium was the tool of inferior mages, those who required assistance to enter the Fade, something he obviously did not. He was quite inclined to ask further questions about it, actually, because he did have some interest in lyrium, for its properties if not its practical use to him. “That suggests almost that you’ve interacted with the Fade in some way, though of course the connection between magic and lyrium is ill-understood at best.”

His sister’s discomfort did not fail to register with him, however, and he shifted the topic slightly in hopes of putting her at ease. “Evidence of consistent lyrium use only appears in those ruins which postdate the fall of Elvhenan, though I believe it was employed in some manner before that time. Of course, I cannot claim to have visited every such ruin; perhaps in time I will discover otherwise.”

Vesryn set down his cup, swallowing, and shoved a spoonful of food into his mouth. He was indeed sharply dressed, but still appeared more the mercenary than anything else. He didn't dress like a noble, but rather a well paid swordsman, with a bit of flair like he fancied himself a dashing rogue. The lion cloak he seemed fond of wearing was currently draped across the back of his chair.

His manners were not quite as well trained. His elbows were up on the table, and he didn't seem to care about speaking while there was still some food in his mouth. "You've interest in these ruins, then?" He studied Cyrus. "I'm rather fond of them myself. I could share some locations with you." He paused, then smiled, more to himself than anything. "If I were inclined to, of course."

“I suppose you could, were you indeed so inclined.” Cyrus agreed, his answering smile pleasant, but his eyes sharp. It sounded as though Vesryn was implying that he did not yet have such an inclination, which was fair enough. Those with knowledge were often loath to part with it for free; such was the nature of the most arcane and valuable pieces of information. Those were powerful things to have, after all, and few would give them up readily.

“If it is any particular… incentive, it may interest you to know that my visits are not merely to the ruins themselves. I am able to see what such places resembled when once they were whole, and on occasion, what events took place there. I have seen the glory of the army of Arlathan, marching to battle, and structures that reached high enough to scrape the clouds.” His tone was one of clear knowledge—he had a great enthusiasm for these dreams he had, and an uncommon ardor for their subject matter. Still, he banked that for the moment, almost like he were pulling something back inside himself that had begun to radiate outwards, and almost physically reset himself in the present. His mind did tend to wander, when he thought of those places—he’d not described the surface of it, even, but he too was jealous with his knowledge, and he would readily admit it.

“You should see his journals,” Estella added, glancing askance at him with more obvious warmth than he’d received from her since their argument a week prior. “His drawings are beautiful; it’s almost like seeing it myself.” She smiled tentatively, then looked back down at the crust of bread she was slowly picking apart.

“You’re somniari. A dreamer.” That interjection came from Leon, who seemed to be quite willing to participate in the conversation now that the subject had changed. “I’d heard the world still had one—he was discovered a few years ago. I did not know there were two yet living.” For a moment, he also abandoned table manners and leaned forward, his academic interest obviously overcoming whatever disdain and wariness Chantry folk were supposed to have for magic. “Are there others, like you?”

Cyrus laughed, the sound full-throated and rich. “Seeker, there is no one in the world like me. I have gone to great pains to ensure it. But yes. I am one of three recently-known dreamers in the Imperium, and to my knowledge, none reside elsewhere anymore.” His eyes narrowed slightly. “Which means that very few exist who can do the research I do. One is dead, now, and likely would not have bothered to begin with. The other is far too young and inexperienced.” He shrugged a single shoulder. “There is much to be learned from the past. Someone should learn it, I think, and so here I am.” It was, of course, considerably more complicated than that, in many respects, but he doubted he’d bother defining the intricacies to anyone but himself. One day, Estella would know, too, but not yet.

“I confess, my own studies of magic have had more to do with counteracting it and knowing what to do about demons than anything so historical,” Leon replied, a thoughtful expression coming over his face, “which seems almost mundane by comparison. But surely if you’re in the Fade so often, you contend with those as well? What little information there is on somniari indicates that they are especially prone to temptation by such creatures, due to the power they have within it, and without.” The implied question was clear enough, but it was not asked suspiciously, merely carefully.

“Never doubt it, commander.” Cyrus’s reply was delivered with levity, but he was in fact completely serious. “Demons court me almost aggressively as some people I’ve met. It’s actually not so different—there’s an offer I’m not interested in, and then an effort to tell me what I really want. The only difference is, I can actually find some respite from the demons.” He grinned.

“But in the case you’re worried about possession, you need not be. I am far too fond of my face to allow one of those to corrupt it the way they do.”

“That would be your reason.” Estella looked back up, and shoved his shoulder with a hand, not hard enough to actually risk dislodging him in case he was unprepared, but in the manner she’d done a thousand times before. It was familiar, and perhaps a sign that things were returning to some state of equilibrium between them.

“Well, it’s a reason.” Cyrus returned the gesture with a look of mock hurt. “Chief among them, of course, being that I could never abandon my dear sister to the dreary fate of a world without her wonderful, generous, doting brother who loves her so.” He tried to keep his face straight, but as usual, his disguises failed in her company, and the lopsided grin that broke over his visage was pure mischief.

“Aren’t I just the luckiest girl in the world?” she drawled dryly in response. But there was no mistaking the fact that she was grinning too, now.

Vesryn leaned his head upon one of his hands, a silly smile worked into place. "D'awww."

“I know, I know. We’re adorable.” But she was smiling, and so he was lifted. All was right with the world, for now, and he would savor it.

Setting

Characters Present

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

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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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Those who had been cast down,
The demons who would be gods,
Began to whisper to men from their tombs within the earth.
And the men of Tevinter heard and raised altars
To the pretender-gods once more,
And in return were given, in hushed whispers,
The secrets of darkest magic.
—Canticle of Threnodies 5:11

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The journey up to Redcliffe proved mostly uneventful. Considering the effort that was going into these negotiations, most of the Inquisition’s leadership would be showing up at one point or another, but in order to minimize risk and maximize efficiency, a multi-stage arrival plan had been put in place. A small team had been sent in first; Donnelly’s squad of Lions, to be exact. Their reputation would get them in the door with no troubles, and they’d been doing much of the Inquisition’s work in the Hinterlands anyway, which meant it was no extra effort to get them that far.

Following behind them was the first party of the Inquisition proper, and that consisted of an even smaller group: both Estella and Romulus, as well as Khari, Asala, Meraad, and Leon, which was a group that would make a statement, if nothing else, simply by being who they were. They’d run into no trouble up the road—presumably any there would have been had been cleared out by Donnelly’s team on the way up, though that had been couple of days ago. Even bandits were usually smart enough not to repopulate an area that quickly, after all.

Unfortunately, the calm was not to last, and they were climbing the incline towards the gates of Redcliffe when Estella first saw the greenish cast to the area ahead of them, and grimaced. That could only mean a rift in the Fade had opened there, and that wasn’t good news for anyone. How long it had been there, she didn’t know, but obviously there wasn’t anyone in the town itself that could close it. As they approached, the crystal shifted and crackled ominously, before doing exactly what she knew it was going to do and spitting out half a dozen demons onto the ground before them. Mostly terrors, but it looked like at least one of them was a Despair demon, as well, and the brief burst of crushing sadness that threatened to claw its way up her throat seemed to confirm it.

The quick staccato of footsteps behind her was not difficult to predict, and as usual, Khari breezed right past any attempt to coordinate an approach or strategize as such, in much the same way she breezed past anyone still walking at an ordinary pace, charging the line of demons with palpable enthusiasm. Then again, strategizing might not have helped much anyway—their approach had clearly been noticed. Possibly even less surprising was the fact that she angled herself right for the Despair demon, the most obvious threat on the field, and she brought her unwieldy sword up and over her shoulder, swinging it down to cleave right into the monster’s head.

But the demon, as their kind did, leaped backwards with supernatural agility, and Khari’s sword met empty air. Pulling the strike back with a look of surprise, she blinked, followed its trajectory with her eyes, and grinned, ducking to the side to get out of the way of the ice magic it hurled for her. “You wanna dance? Let’s go, fiend!” And then she was off again after it.

Romulus charged for the terrors, pulling his crossbow free and loosing a bolt into one's shoulder. It wailed and dove straight into the ground, disappearing in its magical pool. Paying it no mind, he continued his charge for the one behind it, which screamed at him, baring claws, before beginning the same spell, about to disappear into the earth. Romulus replaced his crossbow onto his back and closed in.

Before it could vanish beneath the earth, a strange circle of yellow-green light appeared around it on the ground, and the air within the circle's perimeter gaze off a subtle shimmer. The terror's movements suddenly slowed to a crawl, as it slowly spread the magical pool beneath it in an attempt to relocate. Romulus disregarded the strange sight and closed the gap, using the slow movements of the terror to get in close. He made a dive for the terror once in range, looking to plunge his knife into its chest.

When he crossed the edge of the circle, Romulus slowed remarkably as well, though he was entirely suspended in the air. He simply moved at an extremely slow rate towards the terror, as it steadily sank further into the ground. The world around them proceeded at its normal pace.

Estella had no idea what was causing that, but she noted that several other circles or areas of shimmering gold had appeared as well, on the ground around the rift, and she nearly stopped her own progress into the fray, before she shook herself out of it and continued forward, making a note to avoid them where possible. Keeping pace beside her, Leonhardt didn’t seem to care quite as much, and when he stepped into one himself, she observed the opposite effect: he suddenly accelerated, seeming to move at triple the speed until he emerged on the other side, now far ahead of her and looking almost perplexed, which she could see because he was neither helmeted nor armored.

In spite of that, the hit he aimed at the terror nearest him cracked up into its jaw with a resounding crunch, the creature staggered from the blow, unable to retreat inside the voidlike darkness it had been forming at its feet. He was so tall that he simply reached up and took hold of its head, wrenching hard to the side and breaking its thin neck in what she guessed was several places. He flinched a little when it hit the ground, but she couldn’t see what happened after that, because another pool of darkness was forming underneath her, and she had to dive off it, much more prepared for the horror than she had been last time, and the end of her sword stabbed into its back, puncturing a lung before it could shriek and send her to the ground.

She pulled the blade out and thrust her hand up towards the rift, seeking to disrupt it and give her allies ample time to finish off the other demons.

"I hate these creatures," Meraad stated. He was not too far from Estella, just close enough to see smoke rising from his fingertips, and the after affects of a lightning storm around him. Not long after however, darkness began to form underneath his feet. "Asala!" he called, back stepping out of the cloud and was summarily replaced by a sheet of translucent energy-- one of Asala's barriers.

The terror erupted from the ground and met the barrier instantly, the force of which bowing the shield outward before shattering outright. The act stunned the horror long enough for Estella to disrupt the rift, sending it further into confusion. Meraad began to rush the terror, his hands crackling with electricity. Before he was able to strike however, a barrier formed in front of him, slamming into the terror first and putting it on the ground.

Meraad finished by driving the lightning infused fist into the mass of flesh that was its face.

“Ha!” The sharp cry of victory, however, belonged not to him, but to Khari, and the soft burst of a demon being forced back into the Fade followed, a testament to her success over the Despair creature. The lingering hint of oppressive melancholy lifted as well, and it wasn’t long before Khari could be spotted diving back into the fight, hewing another one of the horrors almost in half with a mighty swing of her cleaver.

Meanwhile, Romulus had finally reached the still-diving horror with his diving attack, his blade plunging into its chest at an incredibly slow rate, but still producing a strong spurt of black blood, and still driving the demon out of its hole. The circle steadily began to shrink around them, and when they eventually passed outside of it, the two tumbled around swiftly, back at normal speed, with Romulus ending up on top, where he ended the terror with a swift stab. He looked up at the rest of the fight, blinkly rapidly, obviously confused.

That left one, until it didn’t, because Leon had gotten to it in the intervening time and taken it down, as well. She wasn’t sure how he’d managed to end up standing on its back, pressing its face into the dirt, but he did, and a well-placed stomp snapped its neck, stilling it permanently. It, like the others, faded away into nothing, leaving them with nothing but the rift itself. Once more, Estella raised her hand towards it, the ribbon of green light bursting from her palm to connect her to the disruption in the sky. She felt the familiar tingling in her arm, but she must be getting better at this, because it was no longer painful to do, exactly, only a bit uncomfortable.

With a muted bang, the rift disappeared, and Estella breathed a sigh of relief, sheathing her saber and glancing between Romulus and Leon. “What… happened? It looked like you were moving so slowly, but you seemed to be going much too fast.” She shifted her eyes along with the descriptions, and so they ended on the commander, who was frowning thoughtfully.

“At a guess? That rift specifically was somehow able to create localized distortions in time. Though it’s nothing I’ve ever even heard of before, and I’m not sure how it’s possible.” His expression briefly became a grimace. “A question for Cyrus, more than any of us, I should think.”

She had to agree with him about that, and nodded, but anything further was interrupted by the sound of the gate, and she immediately turned her attention towards it. From inside Redcliffe emerged two figures, walking side-by-side, and they were both familiar to her, though one of them was extremely unexpected. The first was Donnelly, who looked at the spot the rift had been and whistled softly under his breath.

“It’s really just gone, isn’t it? Hard to believe before I saw it, honestly.” He smiled briefly at her before his expression sobered again, and he addressed the group at large. “So, uh… you’re sure the mages were supposed to be expecting us, right? Because we managed to secure the inn for negotiations, but… the situation’s not at all like we thought.” He turned to the woman beside him, expectantly, as though inviting her to continue.

Estella hadn’t known Aurora very well, but she did recognize her, though it had been some years since she saw her last. “Aurora? I didn’t realize you were in Redcliffe.” She must have been the contact here Rilien was talking about. Which meant she knew who the other one probably was, too. But that was a thought for another time.

Aurora's face was not a happy one, though she did allow a smile to slip through when she recognized Estella. "We'd heard you were the Herald, and I guess that settles it," she said, indicating to where the rift had been only moments before. "That was good work, though I'd expect nothing less from the Lions," she said with a grin angled toward Donnelly, who shifted slightly awkwardly. Aurora opened her mouth in order to say something else, but closed it and raised an eyebrow. Something seemed to have distracted her.

Or someone rather. "Asala?" she asked, the smile on her lips widening.

"Hi Aurora," Asala replied, stepping by Estella and toward Aurora, only stopping when she wrapped the smaller woman into an embrace. "It is good to see you, Ash-Talan," she added, though apparently she was unaware that she was lifting Aurora off of her feet. Aurora did not complain, and returned the embrace until she was finally set back down.

"When we heard about the Conclave we were all so worried. We were so glad when Meraad got your letter," Aurora said, gripping the woman's hands tightly. Her gaze then drifted over her shoulder to the grinning Meraad. "Ah, I see you found her rather quickly," she said with a wide smile, though Meraad seemed confused by something.

Donnelly seemed to catch on quickly to what the issue was, which was good because Estella had no idea why Meraad seemed confused by anything. “Everyone in Redcliffe is like this,” he said, grimacing slightly. “It took talking to Aurora for me to really understand, but… no one’s expecting us here, and as far as I can tell, they all think the explosion at the Conclave was very recent. Meraad’s been gone for a few weeks, by our understanding, but somehow… it’s only been a couple of days here, or everyone thinks it’s only been a couple of days, or… something. I don’t really understand, but the point is, we weren’t expected."

“Not even the by Grand Enchanter?” That was Leon, and Estella nodded to second the question.

Donnelly only shook his head. “No, not even by her. And it’s former Grand Enchanter now, if I’m understanding things properly.”

That caused Aurora to cover her face and gently rub at her temples. "It's a... it's a huge mess," Aurora said, clearly not happy with whatever had transpired. "No, for some foolish reason or another, Fiona thought we would have more of a chance if we pledged ourselves to a Tevinter Magister. So no. Fiona is not in charge any more. A magister named Cassius Viridius is," Aurora said, unable to hide the upset tone.

Asala covered her mouth in surprise, and Meraad's brow raised. They exchanged glances before they looked back to Aurora. "I tried to warn anyone I could, but it was our only option," she said, apparently parrotting something someone else had told her. "I really hope the Inquisition can help. I will not follow a Magister. If it were my choice, I would follow you," she said, her eyes falling on Estella.

Estella’s eyes went wide, but not from Aurora’s declaration of support, surprising as she might otherwise have found it. Rather, the name triggered a memory, and she glanced immediately at Romulus, then back to Aurora. This… this probably wasn’t good. She wished Cyrus were here—he’d be arriving shortly, of course, and as soon as he did, they’d need to talk about this, because she wasn’t sure under what terms he’d left his teacher or whether his presence might prove of help or detriment to them in negotiating with the man. The fact that southern mages had pledged something to a Tevinter Magister was unusual, for sure, but Estella couldn’t exactly muster the same obvious disgust that Aurora felt, not without understanding the situation further.

“This is quite a bit of information. We ought to get inside, await the rest of our party, and then decide what to do.” The declaration was more order than suggestion, which made sense, considering it was coming from the commander. Glad to have something more productive to do than sit around and speculate, Estella nodded.

“Right. This… will make things complicated.” Perhaps more complicated than most of the others here would know.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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“She what?” Leon resisted the urge to run his hand down his face. Being kind was one thing, but there was a certain point at which one had to consider other factors. Though… he supposed he couldn’t really be too upset. He might have done the same thing, in that situation, and considering that it was hard to fault her, exactly.

“Well, you know… our troops are out there, and it’s not like she’s never done anything by herself before.” Donnelly’s tone was a fraction defensive, and Leon held up a hand to show that he wasn’t going to be making a big event of it. “It was just flowers. I’d have gone with her myself, but she said she needed the walk.” From the way he said it, it was a turn of phrase with a particular meaning for her, and though he sighed slightly, Leon nodded.

“All right. Just… tell me what direction she went, and I’ll go get her myself.” Ordinarily, he wouldn’t—he’d take his cue from Estella’s comrades and trust that she’d be fine, but she wasn’t just any member of the Inquisition, and he supposed he found it disconcerting that she seemed to be able to stumble upon trouble with such precision. Still, as long as she was fine, there wasn’t any need to make a major production of this, and he could simply retrieve the Herald and escort her back, with no need to inform Marceline or, Maker forbid, Cyrus that she’d left the village by herself.

Donnelly eased, his baleful expression shifting back into his usual good humor. “Sure. Fellow said his wife was buried in Hafter’s Woods, on the hill.” The Lions’ Lieutenant, long familiar with the area from his squad’s survey work, tapped the spot on the command tent’s map, and Leon made a mental note of it. “Stel’s seen the map, too; she’ll know which route to take, so it shouldn’t be hard to find her.”

Leon inclined his head a second time, and Donnelly snapped a brief salute before exiting the tent, leaving the Seeker to contemplate his armor. In the end, he chose to forgo it, layering his clothes with only a cloak, and applying leather gauntlets to his hands rather than the steel ones he used in heavier combat situations. Despite his disinclination to simply let the Herald wander about on her own, he wasn’t really too worried about fighting anything—he knew the troops were proud of the work they’d done clearing out the place, even the fort to the south. There would still be stragglers, though.

Pulling up the flap on the command tent, Leon ducked under it and headed out. Since Donnelly was technically second-in-command of the squads here, there wasn’t a particular need to inform anyone else specifically of where he was going, and he elected for discretion in this case and didn’t.

He was well on his way to the gate when he came upon a scene he wasn’t sure he would have expected: Vesryn was apparently in conversation with one of the locals, who had what looked like a very distraught expression for some reason. They were standing next to what appeared to be a fenced-in yard, as one would use to pen medium-sized animals. His brows furrowed, Leon diverted from his initial path and approached. Probably best to make sure there wasn’t a dispute or something, though he had a hard time imagining Vesryn causing something of the kind.

“Is everything all right here?” he inquired, using the mildest tone in his repertoire, which usually went some distance toward mitigating the fact that he looked the way he did.

The elf turned, smiling a bit awkwardly. "Ah, yes, young James here was just explaining a situation to me regarding his missing ram, what was the name?" He titled his head sideways. The man, with blonde hair halfway covering a rather clearly missing eye, jumped at the chance to enter the conversation.

"Lord Woolsly, sers. A most special ram. He wandered off, you see, as he sometimes does. If he were to be found I'd be most grateful." Vesryn crossed his arms, tracing the toe of his boot absently through the dirt and nodding.

"Of course. But... you do know the Inquisition might be a bit preoccupied to chase lost rams? What makes yours so special anyway?"

"Well, he's always brought the family luck," he said, without any hesitation, "and his advice has helped us make our fortune." Vesryn quirked an eyebrow at him, before glancing over at Leon.

Admittedly, it took Leon a second to make sense of that claim. Vesryn’s point about preoccupation was quite a good one, but at least partly moot, since he was headed out of Redcliffe at the moment anyway, and the commander sighed. “Well… I can’t promise anything, but since I’m leaving for a bit regardless, I’ll keep an eye out.” At least there wasn’t some kind of dispute here, which was what he’d been more worried about than anything. With a polite nod to both men, he turned to continue on his way out.

"Yes, we'll... keep an eye out." Vesryn left the one-eyed young man a bit awkwardly and with hurried steps caught up with Leon, falling into step beside him. "You know, the talking ram thing might not be entirely out of the question. If that poor kid isn't crazy, it probably means his ram is... well, quite possessed. By a demon." He waved his hands about a bit theatrically, looking back to make sure they were out of earshot, and also out of line of sight. "Stepping out of town for anything in particular?"

The Seeker contemplated that for a moment, then grimaced. “I was rather hoping he was one of those superstitious kinds. Sometimes, folk have their animals give portents by means of bones or special wooden tokens, that kind of thing.” It was more common in less well-populated areas, those where the Chant had not reached quite as deeply into hearts and minds, in part because it was drawn from an old Chasind practice. But then, arguably a possessed animal that actually spoke was quite possible as well. In any case, they would find out if they happened upon the creature, and probably not otherwise. While under ordinary circumstances, that was the kind of rumor he’d have to chase down, Leon had considerably larger matters to attend to at this point.

“As for why I’m out in the first place…” he paused a moment, then decided it probably wasn’t any harm to divulge, though he did lower his voice so that it would not carry any further than necessary. “Estella left Redcliffe sans escort. Apparently, she was not of the opinion that the Inquisition is too busy to be carrying flowers to someone’s grave by request.” His tone indicated that he was actually a bit unsure how he felt about that, because he was. Approaching the gate, he waved up at the woman posted there, who saluted back and began to turn the crank that would lift it to allow exit.

Vesryn laughed softly to himself, clearly using some effort to keep the sound from carrying. "Our Lady Herald isn't interested in delegating, clearly. It's, ah... admirable, if not exactly efficient."

Leon supposed that was as good a characterization as any. The two passed under the gate, which closed behind them with a clank, putting them out on the road back into the Hinterlands. Vesryn seemed to have decided he’d be going along as well, but Leon didn’t mind any. The truth of the matter was, until this evening, there wasn’t really much else to be doing, so there was no reason for him to refuse the company.

“Do you find that the Inquisition’s what you expected, Vesryn?” The commander was genuinely curious. He supposed someone who volunteered might have had some idea what they were in for, but he doubted a great deal that the organization—and more importantly, the people in it—were really what most would first think.

"It's rather inclusive, isn't it?" Vesryn had drawn out his spear, as was his habit, while walking. He poked the bottom end of it regularly into the soft grass and dirt ahead of him. "Considering what it's up against, it's not surprising that it takes all sorts, but still. It was founded on orders of the Chantry's head, its armies are led by a Seeker, and its two greatest weapons are supposedly blessed by Andraste herself. Of course, they wouldn't be alive if a Qunari girl hadn't saved them. And you take elves, too, folk like me who have never spared a second thought for the Maker."

He shrugged, the lion's head on his shoulder bobbing up and down. "I suppose we're all just too focused on doing the right thing to be thinking about who's doing the right thing. In that sense, the Inquisition's exactly what I expected. Too busy plugging skyholes to spend time pointing fingers at one another."

That was slightly more crudely than Leon might have put it, but aside from half a choked laugh, he didn’t give sign of it. His expression settled at a slight smile, actually, and he nodded. He supposed it was quite inclusive, in one sense. Certainly moreso than the Chantry itself generally was. Many of his compatriots would have seen that as a necessary evil, the reliance on Qunari and heathen elves. Leon had his reservations about it as well, but they didn’t have anything to do with different physiologies or religious beliefs so much as the wide variance in personalities. In life, such a broad spectrum of people surrounding oneself was a blessing, he thought, but in an organization with a specific purpose like this… there were risks.

“As long as the center holds, it will hopefully remain so,” he replied thoughtfully. He was not oblivious to the fact that much of the responsibility of ensuring that would be his, and it was daunting, but no moreso than he’d expected it to be. Flexing his hands under his gauntlets, Leon continued, broaching a subject he found himself curious about.

“So where exactly is it that you’re from, Vesryn? I’d think maybe here in Ferelden somewhere, from the accent, but I’ve been wrong before.”

"Denerim, born and bred," he said, with a hint of mock pride. "Until the late teens, at any rate. Arranged marriages have a way of driving rebellious children from their homes. I visit occasionally. I like to think my parents are proud, even if I never did a single thing they wished. I'm no Hero of Ferelden, swooping in save them from the Blight. She actually did that, by the way, my mother will tell you the story sometime. But, I've done some notable things here and there."

He turned his head, his lips quirked in that almost ever-present grin. "And you? Only the Chasind and the Avvar make men of your size around here, but none of them are half as handsome. You're an Anderfels man, aren't you?"

Leon snorted, and shook his head slightly. “You know, most people manage to guess, but I’m fairly certain that’s not the logic they use to do it.” Usually it was something like his coloration or the slight guttural rasp on the edges of his bass. “But yes, I was born not far outside Hossberg. As third children are really quite extraneous by any standard, I was given to the Chantry before arranged marriages became an issue, thankfully.” Which was good, because that thought was mildly terrifying, really.

“I went in expecting to be a lay brother in a monastery somewhere, leading a life of contemplation. I came out rather wishing I were, as it turns out.” He smiled good-naturedly, but the words were a little too true for the expression to be entirely free of discomfort. “Alas, being so tall made someone think I’d make an excellent Templar one day, and then someone else thought I’d be a good Seeker, and so here I am.” It was really remarkable how little of his fate had been of his own design, when he thought about it.

"I don't think I was supposed to be good at anything," Vesryn remarked, with no small amount of humor. "You should've seen me. I had far too much bone for a place with so little to eat. I ran away to the Brecilian Forest at eighteen, expecting to go back to Denerim in a few days. Turns out I didn't go back for several years."

He sighed lightly, as though enjoying the brief reflection. "Someone else clearly thought you'd make a good Commander. As far as I've seen, you've yet to prove them wrong."

“Well, it’s early days yet,” Leon replied with obvious humor of his own. “I’ve still got time.”

Their trek eventually took them into Hafter’s Woods, whereupon they climbed the hill Donnelly had pointed out. Clearly, Estella was not expecting company, because she was humming to herself as they arrived, intently at work with what looked like some kind of cloth scrap, damp and slowly gaining a coat of dirt. She’d evidently been using it to clean a stone marker, at the foot of which she’d laid half a dozen white lilies. The humming stopped as soon as Leonhardt intentionally stepped on a twig, which snapped under his weight and alerted her to their presence.

Looking up sharply from her work, Estella had moved her hand halfway to the hilt of her sword before recognition lit in her eyes, and she dropped her hand back down, using the other arm to swipe across her brow. Her eyes flickered back and forth between them, her face smoothing over into something impassive that imperfectly masked what might have been anxiety. “Commander? Vesryn? Um… I don’t suppose you just happened to be taking a walk, did you?”

"Of course not," Vesryn said, gently. "I thought I'd say a few words. Perhaps they'll amount to something." Almost reverently, he laid down his spear, stepped over to the grave, and knelt down beside Estella. He settled his hands on his knees, and closed his eyes. "Hahren na melana sahlin. Emma ir abelas. Souver'inan isala hamin. Vhenan him dor'felas. In uthenera na revas." The words spoken, he opened his eyes again, and carefully stood. He offered a hand down to Estella.

"We did come to walk back with you, however."

Leon maintained a respectful silence for the duration, bowing his head while Vesryn spoke, but upon the conclusion of what he supposed must be an elvish blessing of some sort, he nodded to confirm what the other man had said. “It isn’t wrong of you to want to do something like this,” he said, nodding to the stone marker, “but I confess I do feel some concern upon hearing that you’ve elected to do so by yourself.” He was careful in the way he said it, because his impression was that her confidence, little of it that there was, was quite delicate, and he worried he might shatter it if he spoke too carelessly.

Estella sighed, looking at the marker for a moment, and then nodded herself, accepting the hand up from Vesryn and using it to get back to her feet. “I know. I only…” Her lips thinned with what he guessed was the effort to find the right words. “It feels like if I’d said anything, there would have been a bit too much of a production about it, is all. This seemed better to do… quietly.”

Though perhaps another would have pressed the point, Leon felt that his had been made clearly enough, and so he didn’t push back on the matter, instead leading their trio back down the hill and towards the road. Seeking to change the topic somewhat, he said the first thing that came to him. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen a talking ram anywhere, have you?”

“A… what? Talking ram?” She didn’t seem to be sure if he were serious or not.

“It’s a… bit of a story, apparently. Just, well, if you happen to spot any rams in general as we’re walking, let us know.”

Estella smiled at that, still looking a bit perplexed, but taking the odd request in stride. “Sure, all right. The Inquisition: for all your delivery, exotic animal husbandry, and rift-closing needs, I suppose.”

“I’m sure it will look very good on all of our credentials, someday.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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Estella hit the ground hard, rolling several times before she came to a stop in just enough time to watch three people disappear into the rend in the air, both like and entirely unlike a rift, and though she was forced to cover her ears, she regained her feet as she did, such that by the time it stopped, she was standing again.

For a moment, there was utter silence, or perhaps she’d simply lost the ability to register sound. In any case, she waited what seemed like an eternity for them to reappear, to drop back from the spot like it was all one of Cyrus’s grand jokes, something they’d laugh about later while she insisted she hadn’t been fooled.

But though she counted her heartbeats, her breath still in her chest, they did not return. “Cyrus…” It was hardly more than a whisper, but time seemed to snap back into place as she said it, and suddenly she could hear again, and the fight was back on. It was extremely difficult to make herself care in just that moment, however.

“Cyrus!” It was a ragged shout that time, raw and agonized, and she was halfway through a step towards the dais when someone answered.

“Now, now, Stellulam. No need to shout; I can hear you just fine.” From one of the sides of the room, her brother himself, alongside Romulus and Chryseis, stepped out from behind the line of columns to the right. He wore a broad, almost triumphant smile, and that and the glint in his eyes was rather rare, because it seemed tempered by something, not as haphazard as such expressions had been before. With an almost lazy flick of his fingers, he blasted away the few Venatori standing between themselves and her, and then crossed the intervening distance with a quick Fade-step.

“Cy? What—?” Estella had no idea what had happened, but it would seem that in any case her unvoiced prayers had been answered, and she sent fervent thanks to whoever was listening to begin with. If it hadn't been the middle of an armed confrontation, she’d have hugged him, and she wanted to anyway, but restrained herself for the sake of necessity. She did smile at him, though, shaking her head faintly at his usual lofty mannerisms and his very unusual expression alike.

“Remind me to tell you how I did this, when it’s all over.” His tone was light, but his expression was not, and it was easy enough for her to tell that something was really getting to him. This was clearly neither the time nor the place to discuss it, however, and he turned his eyes towards Cassius, where he stood now near the entrance to the room.

“You’ve failed, old man. I’ve outdone you. Again.” What under other circumstances could have been anything from factual to arrogant to possibly even lighthearted sounded much graver, in the sonorous modulation he used to deliver it, and Cyrus stepped slightly away from Estella, materializing a weapon in his left hand. “Call off your dogs. There need only be one more death here.” It wasn’t hard to guess whose he meant, either.

At the sudden reappearance of those he’d banished but moments before, Cassius seemed to know he was defeated. The strategy had been a good one, unfortunately thwarted by the ill luck of his former pupil being caught up in it instead of the second Herald, but it was clear that he had less left than he needed, that opening the tear had taken a good deal out of him. The Venatori were dying around him anyway—the reappearance of their Herald and his allies had put the wind back in the Inquisition’s sails, and they were rallying, regaining the advantage that had been theirs with the ambush.

And yet despite the obvious disadvantage this had put him at, Cassius was apparently reluctant to surrender. In the end, however, he did. “All right, then. Have it your way, Cyrus. You always did insist upon it. Cease!” The command, he shouted to his men, who were trained and obedient enough to do just that, abruptly stopping and sheathing their weapons, though they were generally prevented from doing much more than that by the equally-trained blades of the Inquisition, which predictably did not see the need to trust the Magister at his word, and reinforced the Venatori submission with edges and points skirting throats, backs, and similarly-vulnerable areas.

It was now, effectively, a hostage situation in addition to a near-rout.

“Give me one reason, Cassius. One reason I shouldn’t kill you where you stand.” Cyrus’s glance shifted to Estella for only a moment, but then he tightened his jaw and moved it back to his teacher.

“Don’t.” The response, swift and sure, came not from Cassius, but Estella, who reached forward and laid her right hand on Cyrus’s left forearm, a gentle and entirely surmountable barrier to him raising his sword. Despite that, she believed he’d stay his hand if she asked him to, assuming she could ask in the right way. He seemed particularly intent on this, and she didn’t know why. “Cyrus, there’s nothing else he can do. You’ve defeated his magic, and the Inquisition has defeated his soldiers. We came here to free the other mages, remember?” She hoped the reference to his own accomplishment would put him in a better frame of mind—for lack of a better phrase, she was playing to her brother’s ego, hoping that he’d take it as enough of a victory that he’d done that much.

She would have thought it’d be unquestionably enough—Cyrus liked to win, of course, but she’d never known him to be a violent person. She could only assume that something was really bothering him, which meant that if he acted from that now, he’d regret it later. Besides, there really wasn’t any reason to kill Cassius, not really. All he’d done was try—unsuccessfully, now—to indenture some people with terms they’d agreed to, and then attacked the Inquisition, which was admittedly part of what the Inquisition had come here prepared to do to him. Looking at it that way, she wasn’t sure he’d done anything wrong, whatever his intentions might have been.

“Please.”

“You haven’t seen what I saw.” His reply was soft, perhaps even hollow. The arm under her hand slowly relaxed though, and he let her guide it back down to his side, the Fade-weapon flickering a few times before it disappeared entirely, leaving him empty-handed. Cyrus shook his head slightly.

“Do what you will, Stellulam, but do not underestimate the danger he still poses you.”

That was well enough for him to say, and she was relieved that he’d apparently abandoned the notion of actually killing Cassius, but what exactly they should do with him instead was still a pressing question, and not one she felt qualified to answer. Instead, she turned to Lady Marceline and Rilien, expecting them to have a better idea than she did of what should be done. Chryseis observed the exchange with obvious interest, from where she stood nearby. She'd visibly relaxed when Cyrus had refused to decide her father's fate himself, but if she had a strong desire to sway the Inquisition's decision, she clearly wasn't acting on it.

Lady Marceline, tucking her bloodied hankerchief back into a pocket, raised a hand and signalled for Lia. When the woman approached, Marceline spoke. "If you would be so kind as to fetch Ser Leon and a contigent of guards, I would see Lord Cassius placed into our custody for the time being." As she spoke, her clean rapier rested on her shoulder, Marceline appearing uncomfortable with the idea of returning it to its sheath. "Agreed, Ser Rilien?"

Rilien, who’d already tucked his knives away at his lower back, nodded in the sanguine fashion typical of him. “For the moment.”

Cassius himself seemed disinclined to resist, perhaps even a little relieved now that his immediate death seemed to have been taken off the table, though there was no mistake that the look he shot Cyrus and Estella was one of calculation. “As you wish, then.” His tone was carefully neutral, almost as bled of emotion as Rilien’s own. Cyrus’s lip curled, but he protested no further.

Chryseis exhaled, stepping over towards Marceline. "I appreciate your ability to remain sensible, Lady Marceline. This is not a decision to be made so close to the heat of battle." She turned, nodding briefly to Estella. "You as well, Estella. Your brother and I went through... a great deal, to return here." Romulus, having finished wiping the blood from his blade, returned to her side. The look in his eyes was enough to confirm her words, if nothing else. It shared the same hollowness that Cyrus carried.

Another reference to the fact that something important had transpired while they were gone. Estella wasn’t sure she could make sense of it—though the moment had seemed to stretch for minutes to her, it hadn’t really been that long. Then again, it was time magic of some kind—she had no idea what might have passed for them while so little did for her. In the end, she only smiled thinly and nodded. “It’s, ah… don’t mention it.” Her mouth thinned, her eyes flickering to Romulus, before a noise from behind drew her attention, and she turned to see Leon entering, with a contingent of Inquisition troops. They must have already been on their way up, to be here now. Perhaps he had anticipated something going wrong, or perhaps they’d simply taken more time than he was comfortable waiting.

Whatever the case was, it didn’t take much more than a few minutes before Cassius was being led away in irons by the troops, with particular attention paid to the bonds so he couldn’t cast, though from the look of him, she wasn’t sure if he had the energy left for that regardless.

Also among those who had entered was Fiona, who looked around at the room full of dead Venatori and blanched slightly. “You’re, um… well, you’re not indentured to Magister Cassius anymore,” Estella explained, though maybe that was already obvious.

Fiona recovered quickly, to her credit, and nodded. “I… yes, thank you. But this does present a new set of problems. I doubt very much the king will allow us to remain in Redcliffe after a Magister chased out the Arl. We cannot stay here, either.” She made careful eye contact with Estella, who sighed under her breath, but inclined her head.

“Well, ah… with regard to that, I believe the Inquisition is in a position to give your people somewhere to stay, if you’re willing to help us close the Breach.” Honestly, she was inclined to offer as much regardless, but she had a feeling that wouldn't go over too well with, say, Lady Marceline.

"It is not as though you possess any other option." Marceline still had not sheathed her rapier, instead she held it point down into the throne room's stone floor, her hands resting on top of the basket. Her facial expression was even and hard, that of a woman who would get what she desired, no matter the cost. She glanced at Estella, whom she held in a gaze for a moment, before returning to Fiona with a hard stare. "The mages will recieve room and board in return for aid in closing the breach, as the Lady Herald said," However, there was an implied but at the end of the statement.

"However, considering the quality of your recent judgements, the Inquisition will take command of the Free Mages. You shall be relegated to an advisory position," Marceline said with authority. Eventually, her stoney exterior cracked a bit with a sigh and a tilt of her head. "I can assure you, the Inquisition is fair in its dealings, and the mages will face no such mistreatment from the rest of our forces. It is a much better option than your previous employer." A polite term for master.

"Agreed?"

“It is as you say,” Fiona replied, heavily. “We have no choice.”

As if the end of the matter were some kind of signal, Cyrus slumped heavily against Estella’s side, a soft groan escaping him as he struggled to keep his feet under him. Whatever had been propelling him up until this point had obviously run out, and now that the immediate danger had passed, he was in clear danger of collapse. His eyelids fluttered, but thankfully, he didn’t quite pass out, having apparently enough strength yet to aid her in supporting his weight.

“Are we done, then?” He muttered it almost incoherently, quietly enough that probably only she could make out the actual words.

Estella immediately pushed back on his weight, solidifying herself under him, maneuvering one of his arms across her shoulders, and wrapping one of her own around his waist. She couldn’t even begin to imagine the amount of magic it had taken to reverse Cassius’s spell, but still his state was alarming to her. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen him look so utterly spent before, and felt a spike of worry spear its way into her chest. When she spoke, though, she kept her tone gentle, reassuring.

“Yes, Cyrus. We’re done now.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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Romulus found it difficult to just set foot back in Redcliffe, in the time that he remembered, after seeing what he had, and living in it. It felt not unlike a horrid dream, despite it having been entirely real, and only erased by the skill Cyrus had in magic. The thought that he could've been trapped there haunted him. As did the fact that a similar future could await them still.

His normal stony demeanor was replaced by a bit of a daze as they cleared out from Redcliffe castle, which stood empty awaiting the arrival of the Arl back into his domain. The Inquisition would be clearing out soon, but since they were now directly responsible for the mages taking shelter here, it would take a bit of time to organize. Time that was sorely needed for many of them to rest. And while none needed it more than Cyrus, Romulus was plenty exhausted himself.

He was only allowed a few hours, however, before Leon's man Reed arrived to summon him, letting him know that the commander required him for a debriefing. With Cyrus out of commission, and Chryseis still ultimately remaining a third party, it seemed the duty of relaying what had happened fell to the slave. Ignoring the soreness already setting into his limbs, he forced himself up from his cot.

He was allowed an opportunity to scarf down some food quickly, and fully planned to return for more when this was done. A few of the soldiers looked at him as though he were a ghost, and he wondered if he might actually be. He'd simply been erased from time for some of them, those that had been watching, before he reappeared. Romulus did not claim to understand how magic like that even began to work, but he could at least understand why the others might look at him differently. It was the second time he'd walked out of a place no man had a right to return from.

Reed opened the flap of the command tent for Romulus, and he proceeded inside, finding the Inquisition's military, diplomatic, and espionage leaders all assembled and awaiting him. Folding his hands together behind his back, he bowed his head in greeting, and left his eyes gazing down towards the table. Some things would not be changed, even by time-traveling.

The tent was quite a large one, with space for all three of its occupants to have clear working room of their own, plus a smaller version of Haven’s map table for each of them to use when necessary. Rilien was currently standing at that, quite intently focused on something or another there, while Lady Marceline was at a desk, shuffling through a stack of parchments, a quill and inkwell at the ready beside her. Leon, on the other hand, was sitting in a chair, on one side of low table, which was covered with what looked like some kind of food service for the three of them, it was hard to say exactly. Mostly it was all very mobile pickings, nuts and fruit, that sort of thing. There were a few other spartan chairs arranged around the space, and when Romulus entered, the commander stood, offering him one with a gesture.

“If you wouldn’t mind sitting, Romulus, I’m not sure how long we’re going to be here, and I expect you’re rather tired, if our resident magical expert’s condition is any indication of what you’ve been through. You’re also welcome to eat, if you like.” The Seeker himself resumed his own seat thereafter, ignoring the food in front of him and smiling mildly.

“I do apologize for how soon this is, but I’ve always found that memory is best committed to paper as soon as possible, lest some details get scrambled in the intervening time. If you’re up to it, I would like to hear from you what happened today.” Nothing he said was phrased as a command, nor even delivered with the tone of one.

Romulus sank into the offered chair, his posture perhaps not the best, and despite the rest, he still seemed, and felt, quite tired, the kind of tired that a simple night's sleep would not cure. As for Leon's prompting... he was almost tempted to laugh, as the commander couldn't possibly know what he was asking him to describe. Romulus shifted an elbow onto one of the chair's armrests, propping his head briefly upon his hand, before he seemed to think better of it. He still stared somewhere beneath the table they worked at.

"Cassius aimed a spell for Estella and I, meant to remove us from time. If Lord Cyrus and my domina had not confirmed it as such, I'd have thought I was under the effect of some nightmarish horror spell. We determined ourselves to be roughly one and a half years into the future, at which point the Inquisition had nearly been crushed, by the forces of something the Venatori called the 'Elder One.'" He narrowed his eyes at the thought, half-wishing they'd interrogated those they'd found in the future about the Elder One, to learn more of what exactly that was.

Finally, he looked up at the three before him. "Is there anything in particular you wish to know? We escaped from that future, and now a different one will come to pass instead."

There was a moment of silence at that; perhaps the three others simply needed time to digest the information. It wasn’t exactly the kind of thing one commonly encountered after all. In the end, Rilien spoke first, looking up from what he was doing to meet Romulus’s eyes. “If that is so… were you able to ascertain a narrative of what happened? It is possible that whatever this Elder One accomplished early on in that future is identical with what it plans for ours. Were we to know these things, we would be better prepared to face them.”

Romulus shrugged. "Perhaps." Sitting up a little higher in the chair, he exhaled heavily, raking through his mind for the information they'd picked up. The words were so much less memorable than the images, in all but a few cases. "The Inquisition suffered a crippling loss, with one Herald presumed dead, and the other captured. We acquired no allies, and lost our ability to close Fade rifts. The Venatori revealed their full strength, and allowed the Inquisition no victories. Cassius did not lead them, someone else did. We didn't get a name." It hadn't even occurred to them to care about most of these details that suddenly appeared important. None of it would have mattered if they couldn't get back at all.

His eyes shifted to Marceline, taking notes. "You escaped from the ambush, but were assassinated some time later, along with a great many others from Orlais. The Elder One apparently established a puppet, dethroning the most powerful nation in Thedas without being revealed." He looked to the spymaster next. "Many others were killed or captured in an attempt to rescue Estella from the Venatori. You were among them, Ser Rilien. You... were shot down trying to free Estella from... her pyre." His eyes could no longer remain on them, and fell to the ground again.

"The Inquisition still existed, when we arrived from the spell, but it was little more than a desperate resistance led by Commander Leon. The Breach had split across the sky. There... wasn't much of a world left to save."

Lady Marceline's quill quit its scratching for a moment as she looked up to Romulus. A coy smile then spread across her lips as she shook her head. "Assassinated, you say? I can not say I am terribly surprised. It is suitably... Orlesian, wouldn't you say, Ser Rilien?" She asked, glancing at Rilien.

"Fortunately, we still have you and Lady Estella, and with the mages, we have grown in strength as well," she said, returning to the notes she had been writing. "I shall send letters to prominent Orlesian nobility to warn them of such a possibility, and keep an ear open for any opportunistic occasion for assassins to strike." She then frowned again as she continued to stare at the notes laid out in front of her. "Did you discover which nobles were assassinated in particular? she asked.

"Those of greatest importance to stability," Romulus declared, somewhat simply. They were among the few names of dead people in the future that he had no connection with, but he remembered the titles. "The Lord-General, the Crown Prince, and the Empress herself." He swallowed. "I heard this from Khari, after we freed her. She'd been captured in the attempt to rescue Estella."

Leonhardt folded his hands together underneath his chin, his elbows propped on the armrests of his chair. He regarded Romulus less keenly than the other two did; it was clear they were thinking tactics in this very moment, but it would seem that, beyond the initial summons, he was not especially inclined that way himself. He looked vaguely troubled by what he was hearing, but had thus far been silent, apparently content to let the others do the questioning. Now, though, he did speak up.

“You met some of us, then, in this future. How was it that you were able to return? As I’ve heard it told, barely a minute passed as those in the throne room perceived it.”

How long had it been? An hour, perhaps two? Maybe less, Romulus supposed. Every moment in that hell had been agonizingly drawn out. Marceline seemed to find it amusing, though he could hardly read a woman like her, that she'd been murdered. She and the Tranquil were thinking tactically of this, or coldly, as it felt to Romulus. Leon was the one that Romulus at least felt slightly able to relate to. It was real, what had happened, as difficult as it was to imagine. In fact, what they were experiencing now was probably less real than the things he'd missed... but Romulus had no desire to think on any of that.

"We recovered Vesryn, Khari, Zahra, and Asala from the dungeons of the castle. The Venatori were using it as a base. The others were... tortured. I will not describe the details. They aren't important." Perhaps Vesryn had some secret he was hiding from the group, but Romulus would not be the one to force it out of him. If there was anything he'd demonstrated in that future, it was that he was willing to give his life for their cause. Cyrus could pry answers out of him later if he so chose to.

"Together we reached the throne room, and Cyrus killed Cassius there. He then prepared the spell that would transport us back. It was never certain if we would be able to return. The Elder One arrived with some kind of creature, though we never laid eyes on the threat. Venatori advanced ahead, and since the others could not be allowed to return with us, they held them off to give Cyrus enough time. I watched all of them die." He'd seen, and done, more than his share of terrible things, and many of them refused to leave him, but somehow he suspected visiting that future only briefly would outlast them all.

“I’m sorry,” Leon said quietly, though it didn’t seem to be as much an apology as an expression of honest sympathy. He sighed heavily, leaning back in his chair. “I’m sure the details of the magic involved will go over my head, but I’ll ask Cyrus about it at a later date anyway, to see if it’s anything we still need to be worried about. For now…” He paused, apparently searching for the words he wanted, pursing his lips and shaking his head faintly.

“For now I also wanted to ask something else. I admit I don’t really have a grasp of the details, but… Lady Chryseis is still present, and as I understand it, she was of help in… what happened. We have no cause or grounds to interfere with her if she wishes to leave and return to the Imperium. But from what you have said, it appears painfully obvious to me that the Inquisition needs its Heralds—"

"Both Heralds," Lady Marceline clarified.

“—and that the world needs the Inquisition. What do you want to do from here, Romulus? I want you to know that you have our support, should you be inclined to make use of it for any reason.”

Romulus was silent for a long period after that, threading his fingers together in front of him and placing his chin upon his knuckles. In the end, the immediate course of his life seemed obvious, and when he spoke, it was for once with confidence. "I want to close the Breach. Whatever that takes. I believe, after what we went through, my domina understands the importance of that as well. I believe she will keep our arrangement as is." Despite everything that had happened, nothing had really changed. Chryseis had even admitted she'd come to Redcliffe for her father, to protect the world from him, and perhaps to try to protect him from himself.

"After the Breach is closed... I still intend to do as she commands. If that means returning to Minrathous, and disappearing, so be it. I won't ask you to understand. If that puts the Inquisition at risk... then I'm sorry." His relationship with Chryseis was not something that was at all easy to comprehend. Despite the things he'd done for her, and as a result the things he'd done to himself, he did not, and could not resent her for any of it. For he knew that since her husband had been killed, no other person understood her quite the way he did.

Leon smiled a little wider. “I don’t understand, but it doesn’t matter, if it’s what you want. So long as we close the Breach, I’ll not complain.” He glanced to the other two briefly. “Unless Rilien or Lady Marceline has a further question, I believe we can conclude here. Please, enjoy some well-earned rest.” Rilien shook his head in the negative.

"None," Marceline agreed.

"Thank you," Romulus said, rising from the chair. After nodding briefly, he turned and exited the tent, forcing himself to think only of a large meal, and a long sleep to follow.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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The Inquisition’s leadership and much of the main body had departed in advance of the mages themselves, who’d doubtless take longer to make it all the way back to Haven, but a small rear guard had been left behind to guide and protect them on their way up into the mountains. Khari was not part of that team, which was probably for the best because it sounded tedious and annoying. She didn’t have anything against mages, but the majority of this lot had been in Circles most of their lives, and watching them bumble around in the real world was kind of like watching a baby halla try to gain its footing, only much less cute. Not something she wanted to be dealing with all the way back to the base camp, anyway.

Most everyone was still getting settled in or else off doing something they hadn’t bothered to inform her about, and so with the exception of the usual morning training with Estella in the wee hours, Khari had been alone for most of the day. For someone so exuberant in the company of others, she took solitude quite well, she thought—probably because she was used to it. But it was one thing to be alone and have something to do; it was another thing entirely to be alone and bored, which was the unfortunate condition she presently found herself in.

At the moment, she just sat on a retaining wall on the south side of Haven, kicking her feet idly and watching people go by. She’d volunteered to help move things, but most of that was basically done, and to be honest, she wasn’t great for the really heavy stuff anyhow. It was embarrassing, actually, but thankfully no one had said anything about it. Probably they hadn’t even really noticed; it wasn’t like she was particularly noteworthy unless she was expending conscious effort to be. She still wasn’t sure if that bothered her or not.

All such abstract musings were immediately chased from her thoughts when she saw the commander go by, head bowed over some documents or a book or something—she couldn’t say for sure from this distance. Even this far away, his silhouette was unmistakable as belonging to anyone else, both for the size and the carriage. Now there was someone who never had to worry about being invisible, for better or worse. Unfortunately, he was heading right for a staircase, and she wasn’t entirely sure he knew it. Raising a hand to her mouth, Khari curved it around the side to amplify her voice and shouted over the intervening distance. “Oi, Leon! Watch your step!”

His head snapped up as soon as she called his name, and fortunately, he also stopped walking forward. He seemed confused for a moment, looking around as though seeking for the source of the voice, but then he saw the stairs, and turned his head in her direction. He gave a wave and what might have been a smile, lowering his hand slowly and pausing for a moment before he diverted his course from its previous track and headed in her direction.

Leon was currently sans any of his armor, his hands just layered in those leather gloves, the rest of him clothed in plain brown robes, like a monk might wear, including the hood in the back that he wasn’t using. For all the utter unremarkability of his wardrobe, however, he still definitely stood out, cutting an imposing figure as he drew closer. It was an impression somewhat tempered by the slightly-sheepish look on his face, though, and while it could have just been the cold, he also looked a bit flush, as if from embarrassment.

“I really must thank you for your timely intervention, Miss Khari. I am afraid I’d have rather embarrassed myself if I’d managed to break my nose falling up the stairs.” He shifted the book he was carrying under one arm, marking his place with what looked like a scrap of fabric or something, and rubbed at the back of his neck with his now-free left hand.

“What did I tell you about that ‘Miss Khari’ business?” She groused the words, but it was clear enough from her expression that her irritation was only jesting. She thought it was pretty absurd for anyone to call her miss—that was the kind of title you gave to young ladies of genteel demeanor, and Khari didn’t qualify. Asala, sure, and probably Estella, too, if there was some reason not to call her ‘Lady Herald’ or whatever, but not her.

She leaned back further on her hands, which was necessary so she could actually meet his eyes, even at the polite distance he was standing. He really was damn tall—well, and she was short, but that part wasn’t anything extraordinary. She wondered how hard he’d had to work to get a musculature like that one. It was beyond the capability of most people of course, probably even beyond most tall men, but that didn’t mean he’d cultivated it by natural gifts alone. She wondered if he had any pointers for putting on mass, and if they’d even apply to her twiggy elf person.

Well, okay, ‘twiggy’ wasn’t true. Khari personally thought she had okayish leg mass and a killer set of abdominals, but then again, it was all relative. She pursed her lips and crossed one leg over the other, raising a hand to shade her eyes. He was standing with his back to the sun, and it was damn bright out. “How much do you reckon you can dead-lift, Leon? Because those are really fantastic arms you’ve got. Actually, your whole body is pretty incredible. Most people can’t get good proportions like that.” A large chunk of the bigger warrior-types she’d ever met wound up looking slightly unbalanced to her, but his ratios were really spot-on.

Leon’s face had done this weird contorting thing through most of her query and explanation, and at one point, he’d actually dropped the book, which he now bent over to retrieve, clearing his throat. “Ah… well, I can’t say exactly. Last time I checked, I deadlifted, um… thirty-five stone? That was several years ago now, though—I don’t often take occasion to actually measure.” Dusting a bit of snow off the book’s cover, he tucked it more securely under his arm and smiled mildly. “I’ve been training a very long time, though, Khari, and I need that strength a great deal more than anyone else would, considering my… tendencies.”

She was technically aware of the things he’d said after ‘thirty-five stone,’ but to say that she’d paid attention to them was perhaps a bit of an overstatement. Mostly she’d just stared right at him with obvious admiration. “Fight me, please.” Despite the fact that it was a challenge, it was delivered in a near-reverential tone. And why the hell not? His so-called 'tendencies' were to take down people fighting with weapons with his fucking bare hands: she thought a little awe was perfectly justified. More importantly even than the awe, though, was the fact that she wanted to test herself against that kind of mettle and see what happened.

Khari held no illusions whatsoever that she’d stand a chance. But it would be damn fun to try her luck anyway. “I mean, come on. It’ll be easy for you. Probably won’t even take that much time. But it’s not the office, and it’s not paperwork, and it might even be a little bit of a workout.”

Leon sighed slightly through his nose, taking a few steps forward and to the side, turning around so that he, also, could sit. Needless to say, there was no space for his legs to dangle off the ground—he actually propped his heels on the ground a ways in front of the wall. He turned his head to look down at her, though distinctly not in the uppity kind of way. “May I ask why you’re so enthused by the prospect of sparring with me?” he inquired, his tone kind. It would seem to be an honest question, so to speak.

For all the simplicity of it, though, Khari wondered if it weren’t some kind of trick. What kind of reason did she need? “Uh… because it would be fun? And help me improve? Isn’t that kind of the point of training?”

Leon tilted his head to the side, pushing a strand of fair hair behind one of his ears. “Setting the amusement aside for a moment… is this the way you trained in the past? Simply fighting anyone you could? Or were there other elements to it?” His tone never lost the patience and deliberateness that seemed to characterize a great many of the things he said and did.

Khari frowned a bit, then shrugged. Was there supposed to be something more to it than that? “I mean… sure, I run and do lifting and stuff, but… mostly when Ser Durand trained me, it was just hitting me with a practice sword until I got what he was trying to teach through my thick skull, yeah.” She chuckled a bit. She hadn’t been the easiest student, she was sure, but she’d picked it up with practice and work, just like everyone else. She learned something from every spar, even if it was just a new place she could be bruised.

For some reason, Leon’s expression changed then; his brows knit together, and he frowned slightly, compressing his lips into a thin line. It was clear something she’d said had struck him poorly, though what exactly the problem was, he didn’t say. Reaching up, he scratched at one side of his jaw, then shook his head. “I fear you would gain little from sparring with me, Khari. The way I fight, it’s not…” He exhaled heavily through his nose and grimaced. “You would obtain much more of use from what you do with Estella.” That seemed to be the answer he’d settled on, because he said nothing further on the subject, and from the way he ended, it was a fair guess that the topic was closed, at least for the moment.

He made no move to leave, however, and indeed a few moments later, he shifted the topic somewhat. “This chevalier that trained you—you said his name was Durand?”

She was definitely disappointed that he seemed unwilling to even consider it, but she suspected that something about her approach had gone awry, and so she left it be for the moment. Though she could be as tenacious as a hound when the mood took her, she liked to think she had a fairly good read on people, and she knew to let this go right now. At the question about her teacher, she let herself grin brightly. “Ser Jean-Robert Durand, of the Collines Vertes region of the Heartlands. Pretty sure it doesn’t get much more Orlesian than that, does it?” She shook her head, clear amusement showing through.

“He’s a mean old bastard, but he’s he only person I know crazy enough to teach a little stick-figure elf girl how to fight like a knight. Wouldn’t have made it half this far without him. Without him believing in me, you know? He said I had something special, something that none of those fancy nobles who come out of the Academie have.” She cut a glance at him from the corner of her eyes, humor glinting in them.

“Utter shamelessness?” Leon’s guess was dry, but his own expression conveyed some amusement as well.

She barked a laugh, deep from her belly, wrapping her arms around herself and for a moment rocking precariously close to falling off the retaining wall, not that it was that far down. Righting herself, she still wore a toothy smile, and nodded vigorously. “You can count on that. Though honestly, some of those nobles are pretty shameless, too. No, he said I want it more than anyone who just gets to have it for free because of who their family is.” Her expression sobered a little, and she tilted her head to the side. “And I do, you know? I want it so damn bad it hurts sometimes.”

Leon nodded a bit. “That, Khari, is a more admirable thing than any amount of skill. Or, indeed, any amount of muscle.” He arched his brows, calling back to the beginning of the conversation, and half-smiled. “It will carry you much further, as well, through things that people with skill and build alone would not be able to conquer. You need them all, to some extent, of course, but that desire, that passion—that will serve you, when the odds are slim and the time comes to do or die.” He said it not like a platitude, but like he had a real sense of what it was like to be in such a situation.

She was hardly accustomed to being praised much, and she found herself feeling a slightly awkward about it suddenly, coughing a bit. It was just that, coming from someone who was clearly so accomplished, the words really seemed to mean something. It sounded almost like he actually respected her, which was pretty novel to her, really. “Thanks, Leon.”

“You’re quite welcome.” He stood then, brushing his robes clean of any extra snow, and then turned to face her one last time. “And, just so I’m being clear: I didn’t mean I’d never spar you, only that now isn’t the time, I think. I’ll give you a little longer to train for it, shall I?” His eyes narrowed with his mirth, clearly readable.

She jerked her chin in a sharp upward motion. “You’ll regret it when I kick your ass.” That was definitely mostly bravado, but it was in good fun.

“I hope I do.”

Setting

Characters Present

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

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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…”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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Blessed are they who stand before
The corrupt and the wicked and do not falter.
Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just.

Blessed are the righteous, the lights in the shadow.
In their blood the Maker's will is written.
—Canticle of Benedictions 4:10-11

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Leonhardt leaned back in his chair, setting his knife and fork down on the half-full plate that held his lunch. He was dining today with the Lady Marceline, and though he was expecting the conversation to be exclusively about business, and it mostly had been, it wasn’t quite as bad as he was anticipating, in terms of news. Both of them had made significant strides in terms of pulling their respective sides of the Inquisition together. The military now had low and mid-level officers, mostly those trained up to the point since they’d joined, with input from the Lions, Michaël, and Vesryn on who was likely to handle command well, and who was simply better suited following orders instead of giving them. There was a certain balance to be struck between that and a person’s combative abilities straightforwardly, but he thought between the lot of them, they’d done a fairly good job at it, and the system for bringing newcomers up to speed was much more efficient now than it had been in the beginning, which was fortunate since the volume of volunteers had drastically increased in parallel.

On the diplomatic side of things, they’d received a considerable boost in interest once it was clear that the free mages of the south of Thedas had thrown in with them, as well as a large number of the former rebel forces in the mage-templar war. It meant, in effect, that any mages who had not died or taken to the roads for pure banditry were now quartered with the Inquisition, and, though their numbers were small, they were quite formidable. Doubtless, that had spurred the nobility to take greater interest. Hopefully, it would actually result in some support, both ideological and material. They were short on almost every conceivable sort of supply, though not yet dangerously so. Reed had informed him it would only be a matter of time, though, especially if their forces continued to swell at this rate.

That left the spies, and whatever his reservations about working with someone he had absolutely no read on, Leon could not deny that Rilien was effective at his job. Almost worryingly so, considering what that job was. In any case, their scouts and agents were the most up-to-muster portion of the Inquisition at the moment, perhaps due in part to the fact that they’d been more or less established before the Inquisition itself even began.

“And how is your family finding Haven, Lady Marceline?” Business discussion had been ongoing for the better part of an hour; he shifted the topic largely out of a desire to put it aside for a while. Leon had always much preferred doing to speaking in such matters, even if the latter was necessary. “It’s… quite different from Val Royeaux, obviously, and likely from your holdings as well.” He believed she had ancestral property near the water, on fertile ground, not at all like the snow-battered mountains.

Marceline dabbed at the corners of her mouth with a handkerchief and likewise leaned back in her chair. She did not seem averse to the change of topic, in fact she seemed to welcome it. She ruminated on the question before she nodded. "It is, yes. We do not see much snow on the banks of Lake Celestine," she revealed. "Regardless, Michaël has settled in nicely now that he has something to occupy his time. He tends to grow bored if left to his own devices, and Pierre is usually the one to suffer because of it," She said with a jovial smile.

"Pierre..." she said, thinking about her son for a moment, "I believe snow was novel for him at first, but I believe it has since worn off," she said with a frown, before it quicky turned upward into another smile, "Though Larissa did reveal that she witnessed him and Asala sledding down one of the smaller foothills outside the village recently, so not all is lost," she said with a soft laugh.

She nodded and continued, "The lodgings are smaller than what we are used to, but we have settled in. Larissa, Michaël, and myself have seen to Pierre's studies so he is not missing his education, and my mother and father are running our business back on the West Banks. All is well from what I understand," she said easily. "How about yourself, Leonhardt? I hope Haven finds you well," she asked politely.

He smiled, the expression a tad wry. “As I’m sure you can guess, I’ve lodged in places both better and far, far worse. I expect I’ve seen much of Thedas by now, save the obvious outliers.” Tevinter and Par Vollen, that was. “It’s never places anymore. It’s people, usually, and events, on occasion. What we do is worth doing, and I daresay the rather odd little assortment of misfits we’ve assembled makes it enjoyable at times as well.” When he wasn’t bored near to tears by the drudgery of paperwork, he quite liked being here, serving a worthy cause with worthy and diverse others.

Their meal was interrupted by a knock, and as soon as Marceline had given permission for entry, Reed opened the door and stepped over the threshold. “Sorry to interrupt ser, milady. But… there’s someone here to see you. And I couldn’t exactly tell her to wait.”

Leon’s brows rose, conveying his degree of surprise that his stalwart aide was deferring to status. Their guest’s importance was confirmed when a dark hand found Reed’s shoulder and steered him slightly to the side so that another person could step through. Marceline knew her as the woman who’d been accompanying Lord Seeker Lucius in Val Royeaux, the extremely tall one Leon had called by name. Leon knew her as his teacher, and once, his friend.

Indeed, he stood now, clear surprise etched over his face. “Ophelia?”

Her eyes narrowed, and she nodded once, curtly. “I bring a message, from the templars to Inquisition command.” She produced what must have been the missive in question from somewhere under her cloak, and handed it over to him. Leon took hold of it, but he did not make any attempt to remove it from her hand.

“Ophelia, what is going on? You must—”

She shook her head emphatically. “Do not presume to instruct me, child. I brought this message to you personally. I suggest that you answer it in kind.” She held his eyes for a long moment, then turned from him, nodding once to Lady Marceline, and then taking her leave as abruptly as she’d entered. He was half-tempted to run after her, but if Ophelia had no intentions of telling him more than she had, no amount of persuasion would move her. She was solid and stubborn as granite that way.

Instead, he resumed his seat, looking a bit flabbergasted, and handed the message to Marceline wordlessly.

Marceline was likewise wordless for a time after Ophelia's departure, the message resting limply in her hand. "She is certainly a curt woman, yes? And quick to the point," she finally managed before turning her attention to the letter in her hands. "Regardless, it seems as if we have finally garnered the attention of the Templars." With that, she opened the message and read it, which did not seem to take long.

Marceline spent only a moment reading it before she looked back up to Leon. "I seem to be correct in my initial assessment of our messenger," she added, handing the message back to him. "The Templars are at Therinfal Redoubt. Come prepared," she said, reciting it from memory.

He wasn’t surprised by the brevity of the message, nor its vagueness. Ophelia had always liked making him figure things out for himself. She had guided him only when absolutely necessary, in all things. In retrospect, he knew that this had given him strength to do things he would not otherwise have been able to accomplish, because he had learned how to work with little to achieve much. It would seem to be a skill he’d be needing again now.

“This isn’t official. There’s no seal on it—not from the Lord Seeker, nor from Ophelia. I think this means we should not expect him to expect us. Which means if we want in the door at all, we’re going to need to bring people he can’t simply turn away. Can you find anyone like that who might support us?”

"Several, in fact," Marceline answered simply. She shifted in her chair and opened a drawer in her desk and back to shift through papers. As she was searching, she continued, "There are those in Orlais that see the rise of the Inquisition as an opportunity, and not, as the Chancellor would have them believe, a heretical rebellion. I believe that they think that would win status if they were to ally themselves with us, and we were to succeed."

Marceline paused for a moment and produced a number of papers and piled them to the side on her desk. "The Grand Game, Ser Leonhardt," she said with a coy smile, "I will save you from the majority of the details. I shall speak to Rilien and we will win or convince a number of influential houses to walk with us. I can assure you, the Lord Seeker will not be able to turn us away, lest he risk incurring the wrath of Orlais in the process." A rather devious look seemed to settle into her features, and for a moment, to even become predatory.

Leon knew a fair amount about the Game, actually—one did not become a high-ranking member of the Chantry without at least a bit of exposure. The Seekers were based out of Val Royeaux, after all. Still, he was perfectly happy not knowing or needing to care about the details of it, and so he simply nodded. “We’ll need to send one of the Heralds as well, I’m sure. Probably Estella.” She was the more diplomatically-inclined of the two, though considering Romulus’s disposition, that wasn’t saying much about her, really. Still, if what he’d seen in Val Royeaux was anything to go by, she had a certain earnest forthrightness that would do better than most, though he did worry about her personality being trampled over by people with more domineering disposition.

“If she goes, I suspect Cyrus will want to as well.” Not that he was against it. They couldn’t go with too many fighters, but the other Avenarius twin was easily capable of more destruction than several men, if that proved to be necessary. Ophelia had said to come prepared. He took that to mean prepared for anything. With that in mind, it would make the most sense to pick people who packed as much punch as possible, and limit their number so as not to draw attention to them as anything but an honor guard. Some level of discretion would also be best, which immediately excluded at least one person he could think of.

“And… you, myself, and Vesryn. Any more is a risk, I think.” They had to leave one of the three heads of the organization behind, and Marceline would be better suited for the diplomatic side of things than Rilien would, whose reputation preceded him in a very particular way. “I’ll leave the negotiations to yourself and Estella as much as possible, but with my own connections to these matters, I may have to step on your toes a bit.”

"Completely understandable," Marceline accepted. She seemed to acknowledge his relationship to the Templars and Seekers, but otherwise made no other mention of it. She then steepled her fingers and leaned forward as she thought. Eventually, her eyes tilted toward Leon and she spoke, "About Lady Estella," Marceline began, "What do you know of her experience with nobility?" she asked, before she continued, "On occasion, I have witnessed her handle a few such situations exceptionally. No doubt some of it is due to Lord Rilien's instruction, but otherwise..." she trailed off.

"The nobility we are to encounter will certainly wish to speak with the Herald of Andraste, and I do not wish to simply throw her into a den of lions unprepared..." She said, before closing her eyes and subtly shaking her head, "If you will pardon the expression."

Leon huffed slightly, amused by the turn of phrase, but then gave the question some consideration. “I understand that the Avenarius family is noble in Tevinter, or were, I’m not sure. But I don’t know to what extent either of them were raised with it. I gather she’s attended court at least a few times, either with the Crown Prince or as part of her work with the other kind of Lions. I don’t know any of the details, however. You may wish to inquire of her personally, and address any glaring issues before we expect her to negotiate with the Lord Seeker. He’s… an aggressive man. He was even before all of this.” That said, recent events had likely only made matters worse in that respect as well as many others.

"I remember," Marceline said, obviously referring to their run-in with the man in Val Royeaux. She then straightened in her chair and crossed her arms, nodding. "And I intend to," she said on the matter of Estella. With a subtle tilt of her head and a softening of the lip, the predatory appearance she had moments ago bled away and she appeared to soften when she thought about the girl. "I am positive she will be fine, she is a much stronger woman than she seems," Marceline said before shaking her head.

"We should get to work then, yes?" she said as she stood from her desk. "We should have these lunches more often Ser Leonhardt. I enjoyed it," she said with a genuine smile.

Almost to his surprise, Leon found himself smiling back, and nodding as he stood. “As did I, Lady Marceline.”

Setting

Characters Present

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

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The approach to Therinfal Redoubt was a rainy one, and a bit of a slog uphill, once they’d left the horses and the majority of the travel supplies they’d taken down at the bottom. If all went to plan, they’d be housed within the castle itself for the duration of the negotiations, and no doubt the nobility here were expecting that, considering how poorly they’d bothered to provision themselves despite what Leon would consider an overabundance of luggage. Still, the Inquisition’s one cart contained a number of tents, just in case. He wasn’t exactly expecting this to go to plan, after all—in fact, Leon was rather unsure what he was expecting.

Perhaps that was for the best. He’d found that most often a healthy dose of wariness served him well.

Presently, he was just cresting the hill up onto the approach to the fortress, alongside Estella, Lady Marceline, Larissa, Cyrus, and Vesryn. The deliberately-small number of other Inquisition personnel that he’d asked to accompany them had been purposefully left with the supplies; in keeping with his instinct to go with few, but mighty compatriots. The rain was undoubtedly a nuisance, though the hood of his cloak—the black one emblazoned with the emblem of the Seekers of Truth—kept most of it out of his way.

It wasn’t long after they’d set themselves on the road to approach that they were joined by a nobleman, dressed in the fashion that highborn Orlesian men favored lately, he believed. Leon had never really claimed to understand such things, nor their proclivity for hiding their faces, at that. “Ah, the Herald of Andraste!” His voice was elevated over the general volume of the procession, which gave him a sort of unfortunate bombastic aspect that he probably thought lent him some impression of authority. Leon simply wished he’d project instead of shouting.

“Lord Esmeral Abernache,” he introduced himself, the majority of his attention focused on Estella. A steward walked behind him, but said nothing. Abernache folded one hand behind his back at his waist, the other hovering around his sternum. “Honored to participate. It is not unlike the second dispersal of the reclaimed Dales.”

Estella, who’d looked more comfortable than Leon had expected up until that point, paused perhaps a moment too long. She recovered, though, smiling thinly. “If you’ll permit the nuance, milord, I rather hope it will be kinder than that.”

Leon struggled to contain his amusement. Whether because someone had actually understood the obscure historical event to which he was referring or because the Herald had the gumption to gently disagree with him, or perhaps some combination of the two, Abernache looked just a little bit floored, and unsure exactly what to say, which likely didn’t happen to him often. “Ah… yes well. Divinity puts you above such things, I suppose.” Clearing his throat, he returned to the matter at hand.

“The Lord Seeker is willing to hear our petition about closing the Breach. A credit to our alliance with the Inquisition. Care to mark the moment? Ten Orlesian houses walk with you.”

Estella shifted, moving her hands to secure her hood more firmly over her head. “The Inquisition is grateful, Lord Abernache. It is our hope that the templars come to see what the rest of us have already: that the Breach is a danger too great for dwelling on our differences.” Leon nodded, glancing towards the front gate. Honestly, the sooner they got there and took care of this, the more content he’d be. Something sat ill with him—many things, really, but some of them he couldn’t quite identify. He felt… uneasy.

Lord Abernache seemed more or less oblivious. “Oh yes. Ghastly-looking thing. The Lord Seeker can’t think we’re ignoring it.” With that, the procession finally got moving, and though it was still entirely too slow and processional, at least it was movement. “Speaking of which,” Abernache continued, falling into step beside the Herald, “I don’t suppose you’d divulge what finally got their attention? Rumor will, if you won’t.”

Estella’s brows drew together, but it was Leon who replied. “I don’t take your meaning, Lord Abernache.” He had a feeling he wasn’t going to like it much when he did.

“The Lord Seeker won’t meet with us until he greets the Inquisition in person. Quite a surprise after that spat in Val Royeaux.”

"The Inquisition only asks that the Lord Seeker lend his Templars to aid us in the closing the breach," Marceline answered. She wore her silverite mask with a hood drawn over her head to keep the rain away. Her mood had seemed to dip with the weather, and she could be found frowning more often than not. Even under the hood, there was evidence that her hair had been immaculately styled in anticipation of meeting with her countrymen.

She walked behind the Lord, Larissa keeping step beside her, her hands resting in her sleeves. When Marceline spoke the Lord tilted his head and regarded her before his expression broke into a warm smile. "Then it must have already been arranged by your ambassador," he said, turning back to Leon. "Let the diplomats work their magic, if you trust them," he said with wink in Lady Marceline's direction. She simply smiled in returned and inclined her head.

"Between you and I, the Chantry never took advantage of their templars. Wiser heads should steer them."

Leon wasn’t quite sure what he should make of that statement, and apparently Estella was still contemplating it as well, so for the moment, it went unanswered. Thankfully, they reached the bridge immediately in front of the iron gate in short order. Abernache leaned forward, peering to the other side of the structure, and clucked his tongue. “It appears they’ve sent someone to greet you.” As the group moved forward, he spoke—largely, Leon presumed, to everyone who wasn’t Marceline. “Present well. Everyone is a bit… tense, for my liking.”

“The Lord Seeker seems to have changed his mind about us rather quickly,” Estella pointed out, quietly enough that Abernache, walking ahead of them, was unlikely to hear. “I wasn’t under the impression he was known for that.”

“He isn’t,” Leon replied firmly. There was a great deal to be distrusted about all of this, but he had little in the way of concrete evidence to point to in order to back up his suspicions. “Please be careful, all of you. It is no paltry force that quarters here.”

The first iron gate was open to any who wished to proceed inside, allowing them to pass through what in time of war would serve as a gauntlet, that long, thin, empty space between the two outer gates, where the attackers would be showered upon by their enemies with far more than just light rain. Currently, only a few low-ranking templars observed from on high, the rest somewhere deeper in the old fortress. Those that watched looked down upon Therinfal's guests ominously from beneath their full-faced helmets.

At the second gate ahead was one of Abernache's serving men, his herald, currently standing beside a female templar, unhelmeted and looking disgruntled to still be standing beside such a man. Some in the group might potentially recognize her as one of the templars seen in Val Royeaux departing with the Lord Seeker. Her long, dark brown hair was elaborately tied up in braids, clearing away from her face, which was marred by several scars, the most noticeable ones across her lips and one of her eyebrows.

The herald stepped forward to greet his lord and the Inquisition's party. "I present Knight-Templar Ser Séverine Lacan, first daughter of Lord Cédric Lacan of Val Chevin." She seemed irritated by being introduced in so formal a manner, and took an aggressive step forward past the man, just as he was about to introduce his own lord to her.

"For all the good it's done me," she grumbled quietly, but soon stood at attention and offered the Herald of Andraste and her company a respectful, if brief, bow. "I'm glad you came, Inquisition, even if you did it in rather... irksome company. You received my message, then?" The question sought the eyes of Leon.

Leon blinked. He certainly recognized her, but he wasn’t sure exactly to what she referred. “I cannot say we did, Ser Séverine. If you attempted to send a message to the Inquisition, it never reached us.” Although… given just who had reached them, he had a fair guess as to what had happened to it in transit, and his expression set into something even grimmer. “Would you perhaps be so kind as to reiterate its contents now that we’re here anyway?”

"Wait..." Séverine said, struggling with Leon's words. "What? How are you here, then? Who told you where the Lord Seeker had taken us?"

“High Seeker Ophelia did, though with what motive, I cannot discern.” It was possible she was here now, but then, it was also possible that if she were, no one would know. He had no idea what his teacher was driving at with all of this.

"Ophelia? Shit." The curse was hissed quietly, and Séverine exhaled, shaking her head. "Well, you're here now." Abernache, apparently feeling left out of the conversation, crossed his arms and inspecting the Knight-Captain.

"Lacan, was it? Minor holdings, your father has. And you are the second child, are you not?" He scoffed, turning up the bronze, pointy nose of his mask. Séverine narrowed her eyes as though looking at an annoying child who knew not when to close his mouth. Ignoring the masked man, she looked back between Leon, Estella, and Lady Marceline.

"There's something very wrong here. The Lord Seeker has not been himself for some time. He's become obsessed with his status. His ego only grows, even as the Breach lingers. That, and..." she glanced up, to see if anyone was still watching. None were, the few recruits from before having filed off. "There's something going on with the other officers. They've been taking this new kind of lyrium. Even some of the lower ranks have been allowed to ingest it. I fear for the Order's future."

“This lyrium.” The new voice belonged to Cyrus, who continued after a moment. He looked vaguely perturbed by something, and shot a glance further inwards past where they stood before moving his eyes back to the others, Séverine specifically. “It wouldn’t happen to be red, would it?” It was a pertinent question, and if the answer was affirmative, would certainly provide a link between the templars and the events at the Conclave, however tenuous. There had been quite a bit of red lyrium there, too.

"It is, yes. I haven't seen it's like since... well, since Kirkwall." The city's name left her tongue as though the memory tasted somewhat foul.

Leon grimaced; this was shaping up to be worse than he’d thought, which was rather saying something. “The Lord Seeker now says he wishes to meet the Herald personally,” he said, shaking his head. “I suspect we will discover what all of this means in short order.” He was a breath from inviting Séverine to lead the way inside when Abernache spoke up again.

“Don’t keep your betters waiting, Lacan. There’s important work for those born to it.” Leon felt keenly the temptation to remind him just who was actually in charge here, but took a deep breath and refrained.

“We’re grateful for the warning,” he added, keeping his tone mild.

"Think nothing of it. The other officers already hate my guts. But I won't let the templars fall to ruin quietly." She gestured towards the inner gate. "Come. I'll lead you in."

Setting

Characters Present

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

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Red lyrium. It did not bode well for whatever was happening among the Templars. Marceline had read the reports from Kirkwall, of Meredith's madness and the presence of a red lyrium idol. Not only that, but the reports from the site of the Conclave likewise spoke of veins of it rising from the ground. Whatever it was, it seemed as if it followed disaster, and the news that it was now among the Templars sat ill with her. Marceline did not let it reveal on her face however, the only hint of her wariness a glance at Larissa. There was an imperceptible nod, and Larissa's eyes tilted upward behind her avian mask to the tops of the fort's walls, keeping an eye out for any unseen danger.

"Lady Herald," Marceline said, signalling that Estella be the first to follow behind Séverine. She nodded, breaking from the roughly even line they’d had before and stepping into place behind their guide.

The templar woman led them inside, the cramped and purposefully uncomfortable space of the path between gates opening up into a much wider courtyard. The rocky paths paved between the structures in the fortress were mostly overgrown by grass and weeds, though a clear training area had been carved out, with practice dummies for archers along the base of the walls, and sparring rings set aside. Currently they saw only light use, as most of the Order were clearly on edge, besieged as they were by an army of frills and fancy masks. As they drew further in, a small group of templar recruits and scribes began to gather, to observe the scene.

"The Lord Seeker has a request, I'm afraid, before you are to meet him," Séverine said, her tone already apologetic. She led the group to a row of three wooden cranks set into the ground, each one placed before large red flags affixed to the inner face of the stone wall. The left flag depicted a sunburst, symbol of the Maker, the center flag a lion, symbol of the people, and the right flag a flaming sword, symbol of the templars. "He would like for the Herald of Andraste to complete the Rite of the Standards. My Lady Herald is to raise the flags, each to a different level, so that the Lord Seeker might know in which order you honor them."

Estella looked immediately uncomfortable, eyeing the standards with apprehension. Her posture seemed to deflate slightly, which was saying something considering how modest it was to begin with. “I’m supposed to… rank them? Will he refuse to see us if the answer is wrong?” Her brows knit over her eyes, her mouth turning down into a pronounced frown.

Séverine shook her head immediately. "There's no wrong answer here. Obviously all three of these are of great importance. Among the templars our choices vary greatly. It simply offers insight into the mind, shows a bit of who you are. Supposedly." By her tone, Séverine did not take the greatest of stock in this Rite. Still, she did not seem disrespectful of it, simply not reverent.

"Do not worry, Lady Herald," Marceline began firmly. "Simply answer as you would ordinarily. The Lord Seeker would dare not turn us away," she said. Though she personally found the rite to be silly, they should not risk offending the Lord Seeker and his Templars by refusing to complete it.

Estella’s lips thinned, but she nodded, returning her attention to the standards themselves. Watching her gather herself was a visual process composed of obvious stages. With a breath inward, she straightened her spine and pulled her shoulders back. When she moved forwards, it was almost assured in appearance, though someone with eyes as practiced as Marcy’s knew false bravado when they saw it, and it was clear that the young woman drew it around herself like her cloak, even as she reached up and pushed the hood of her physical one down.

She paused in front of the cranks, apparently contemplative for all of a moment before she shook her head, dismissing whatever internal suggestion she must have posited to herself. Unerringly, she reached for the center crank, lofting the standard of the people to the highest position. It would seem that no two of them were allowed to remain on the same level, because the one belonging to the Maker slid to the bottom, while the flaming sword of the templars remained in the middle. After a moment, Estella turned back around.

“That’s it. That’s the order I choose.” Her voice was soft, but a thread of firmness kept it from qualifying as meek by any stretch.

Séverine nodded in return, not displaying any obvious judgement of the Herald's decision. "It's tradition for any participant in the Rite to explain their choice to the witnesses. It is, however, a choice and not a requirement."

Estella’s eyes dropped to the ground for a moment, but she forced them back up again. When she spoke, it was loud enough to be heard by those that were paying attention, though no louder than that. “I know only a little of honor,” she said, a faint smile playing at the corner of her mouth, as though she remembered something fondly. “But what I do know is that it is service by those who can do what needs to be done, freely given to those who cannot. It is, I think, the Inquisition’s duty and its honor, then, to act in service, first and foremost of those without our resources and our strength.”

The fleeting smile faded. “And the templars are people, too. Fewer, and perhaps more capable of defending themselves, but people nevertheless. If what we are meant to do is protect and serve those who must be protected, well… I hardly think the Maker should need our help, and whether we honor him or not is nothing I can decide.” The explanation, brief as it was, seemed to exhaust her present reserves of courage, because she ducked her head and returned to the group of the others immediately afterwards.

"The honesty's all well and good," Abernache put forth, his arms crossed, "but no thought given to impressing the Lord Seeker? Why bother at all? We're here to bring these templars to heel, are we not?" Séverine's glare at the man could've cut glass, but thankfully his mask cut off his peripherals enough for him not to notice. Her irritated sigh, however, was quite audible.

"I thank the Maker the Inquisition has a bit more heart than its noble support. I trust the Herald's intent here is more than just rounding up swords for an army." Abernache turned, stepping forward to be face to face with the woman.

"My intent is to deal with people who matter. You armored louts are wasting the Inquisition's time, and mine. Unacceptable!"

Séverine took a carefully controlled breath, obviously reminding herself not to bludgeon the man. "You need not worry about impressing the Lord Seeker, regardless." She stepped around Abernache, carefully, as though she did not desire to accidentally make contact with him, and drew closer to Estella and the others of her party. Though her focus was centered on the Herald alone.

"You should know that the Lord Seeker seems only to want to meet you. Not your Inquisition. You. By name. I know not why, but he's been utterly fixated on you since your lovely horde of nobles arrived."

A soft laugh echoed from under Vesryn's helm, from where he stood at Estella's side like a sentinel, shield and spear in hand. The elf had a proud visage when fully armed and armored, and indeed, it wasn't actually clear at all that he was an elf at the moment. "Seems you've got an admirer." There was an undertone of sarcasm to the words, evidence that he didn't find the development all that amusing, or pleasing to hear.

Estella scoffed softly at that, half-amused, before returning her attention to Séverine, whereupon she shifted awkwardly where she stood, shaking her head. “That… can’t be right. Maybe he’s just surprised we have so much support? I mean, I’m kind of…” she gestured vaguely to herself, then pulled her hood back up over her hair.

“The face of our present effort, yes.” Leon at least seemed to have little trouble deciphering what she meant, and she looked quite grateful for that, nodding. “As skilled as he’s always been at getting to the heart of things, the Lord Seeker would not have failed to notice as much.” He appeared to be thinking quite hard about something, but whatever was going on in his head, he did not share for the moment.

Cyrus had taken up a scowl at some point during this part of the conversation, and wore it openly beneath his own hood. It wasn’t terribly difficult to guess what part of this made him look so, but he kept his thoughts to himself as well, eyeing the path forward and inner parts of the castle with wary disdain. His hands disappeared beneath the folds of his cloak, removing another set of tells as to his intentions.

"Just thought I'd give you fair warning," Séverine said, nodding. "Come on, we've delayed long enough. I'll take you to him now."

Marceline said nothing and kept her own features guarded, though she did offer a smile to Abernache when they met eyes for a moment. He may have been brusque in his approach, but the message he sent was loud and clear. The Inquisition and its allies would not be turned away. However, Marceline still made a mental note to speak with him after all is said and done. She glanced behind her to Larissa who pulled her eyes down from the rampart to give a curt shake of her head.

Soon, Séverine led the small procession into a room with a table, no doubt where the negotiations were to take place. Lady Marceline chose to occupy a spot beside the Lord Abernache in order to better guide his furor. She took the moment to pull the hood away from her head and brush the few drops of rain that remained from her hair.

Estella also pulled her hood back down, though her hair was in nowhere near the neat state Marcy’s was. Clearly, the static and the weather had combined to thwart any attempts at looking especially put-together on her part, because several strands had slipped the grip of her plait, and stuck out in places, especially around her ears. She hesitated before stepping forward so as to be at a level with Lord Abernache and Marceline, appearing reluctant to stand too far in front of the other four and maintaining a distinct five feet from the nobleman. “I’m… not actually going to have to meet with the Lord Seeker by myself, am I?” She grimaced. “I really doubt I’d be able to convince him of anything.” The question seemed to be directed at Marceline.

Marceline shook her head in the negative, "No, we will be with you during the negotiations," she answered. Though how much use they would be remained to be seen. From all that she had heard, the Lord Seeker seemed to be focused solely on the Herald which appeared strange, considering how easily he dismissed them in Val Royeaux. Perhaps their recent alliance with the mages changed his mind on the matter, and their newfound power managed to catch his eyes... Though that did not explain the focus on Estella.

"But you must remain strong, the Lord Seeker will notice if you flag," Marceline gently reminded. A man such as him could smell weakness, and he would not be afraid to press his advantage.

Estella nodded, her face resuming a relatively impassive expression. Before anyone could speak any further, the clank of armored boots followed by the sound of a door opening drew their attention to the left, where a man in armor more ornate than Séverine's, including a prominently-winged helmet, had just entered the room, flanked by two other Templars. “You were expecting the Lord Seeker,” he said without preamble. “He sent me to die for you.” It was a strange turn of phrase, and Leon straightened perceptibly when it was uttered, his eyes narrowing.

"Knight Captain," Abernache said, attempting to approach the man. He only managed a step, however, before a gentle tug on his sleeve from Marceline bade him to keep his place. Like Leon, Marceline did not particularly enjoy how the situation was playing out, and she most definitely did not like the knight captain's body language. "Lord Esmeral Abernache. Honored," he continued with a bow, though at a much safer distance. "It is not unlike the second dispersal of the Reclaimed Dales." Marceline coughed, but said nothing.

"No doubt rank puts you above such things. A pity more people don't understand that," he said with a sharp glance at Séverine. Apparently the Knight Captain's more ornate armor suggested to him that he was of a higher rank than Séverine. Marceline made no move to correct him, and though her face was impassive as always, her hand rested on the hilt of her rapier.

The Knight-Captain chuckled, but the sound carried not even a faint hint of genuine mirth. This is the grand alliance the Inquisition offers?” He turned his eyes from Lord Abernache, clearly uninterested in dealing with him, and swept them over the rest of those assembled. Even behind the helmet, it was easy to tell that his gaze landed heavily on Estella.

There was a slight tic in her jaw, but she looked right into the eyeslit of the helmet. “With respect, Knight-Captain, we understood that we were to be meeting the Lord Seeker.”

“Yes, let me also extend my hand to the Lord Seeker, Knight-Captain.” Though now held back from approach by Marceline, Abernache seemed otherwise oblivious to the tension permeating the room.

Outside of the room, a dull roar started up, one that sounded like the din of an armed clash of some sort. Estella’s eyes went wide, and Leon took a half-step forward before the Knight-Captain raised his voice to be heard over the commotion. “The Lord Seeker had a plan, but the Herald ruined it by arriving with purpose. It sowed too much dissent.” Cyrus stepped in front of his sister, and the telltale flicker of a barrier forming appeared in front of the hand he raised to chest-level.

“What’s going on out there?” Leon completed the motion he’d begun, moving to the side of the table. Perhaps it was only the fact that he drew no weapon that prevented any from being drawn on him.

“They were all supposed to be changed. Now we must purge the questioning knights!” It took no more than that, and Leon surged forward, knocking the Knight-Captain to the ground by slamming an elbow into the space between his helmet and his breastplate. An arrow clanged off his armor, and the archer who had fired it took up the invective.

“The Elder One is coming! No one will leave Therinfal who is not stained red!”

A low ranking templar attempted to run Séverine through from behind, but she had her blade drawn and whirled about in time, blocking the sword aside and grabbing the young man's arm to twist. He shouted, at her mercy despite his flails. "Maker, you can't be serious," she said, looking under the recruit's hood. Red veins criss-crossed over his face, and his eyes were an even darker shade.

"The Elder One will--" His threat was cut off by Séverine's sword slashing across his throat, and he collapsed to the ground. The Knight-Captain readied herself for the next that would attempt to purge her.

"No. The Elder One will not."

The gentle grip on Abernache's sleeve turned firm, and Marceline threw the Lord back and out of the way of an incoming arrow. "Larissa," Marceline called out as she freed her rapier from its sheath. "See to Lord Abernache," and wih that, the woman took a grip on the Lord and backed away from the rapidly ensuing melee.

Marceline for her part slipped in behind Vesryn, and more importantly, his shield. "May I borrow you for a moment?" she asked as she placed a hand on his shoulder and hunkered down behind him as she watched his flanks.

"As long as you need, my lady," the elf answered easily. A templar rebounded off of his shield, the blow met with perfect timing, and Vesryn's spear found the red-lyrium tainted woman's gut in the ensuing opening, dropping her to the ground in a heap.

"My thanks," Marceline said, her rapier slipping under the helmet of a templar who'd tried to approach them from the side.

Leon was surprisingly quick over ground, and had left the dropped Knight-Captain in favor of breaking an archer’s nose over his knee within seconds of the initial attack. The man howled, at least until the Seeker gripped his head in both hands and twisted, silencing him. He was midway through a lunge for the next when Estella called out over the noise. “Commander, behind you!” Apparently following up the warning with action, she drew her sword as she ran, clearing the table with a flying leap and bringing the saber down with both hands.

A ringing sound issued from contact with what had once been the Knight-Captain’s arm, though it was scarcely recognizable as such anymore. The outer half of each forearm was coated in red crystals, faintly glowing, and more jutted out from each elbow, like blades almost. More of it had grown in over parts of his neck, and his breastplate had cracked from the inside, half-useless now but hinting at more of the lyrium underneath. His eyes were a luminous, menacing red, and he backhanded Estella with speed not commonly found in ordinary men, and clearly more strength still, because she went from having rather solid footing to rolling on the ground half a dozen feet away, regaining her feet in a recovery maneuver.

She’d kept him busy long enough for Leon to readjust, however, and he grabbed for one of the Knight-Captain’s hands, twisting him around into what must have been some kind of joint-lock, placing himself behind the man and kicking out his knees from behind, taking him to the floor.

A cluster of the remaining templars to the right lurched under the force of a chain lightning spell, given no time to recover before Cyrus was suddenly right next to them, hacking into weak spots in their armor with a humming blue sword. His first hit nearly took the head right off one of them, but he didn’t bother hacking twice, adjusting his feet fluidly and shoving the blade into the next one’s armpit, the arterial blood making a faint hissing sound as it came in contact with the weapon. The third, recovered perhaps too quickly for the obvious impact of the spell, took a gout of fire to the face before she could prepare her smite, and fell with her compatriots.

“At least we don’t have to wonder when they’re going to try and kill us anymore.” His tone was exceedingly dry.

The sound of a rapid barrage of blows followed, though the table blocked sight of everything in that direction save Leon’s head and shoulders, which moved vigorously enough to suggest that he was the cause. A great deal of cracking followed, and then the Seeker drew back further, his gauntlet speckled in bits of red stone, and slammed a fist down one last time, producing a deeper crunch, before he pushed himself back into a stand. It seemed to take him a moment to regain his bearings, and he shook his head a few times, blinking rapidly before refocusing on the rest of the group. Given that the rest of the templars that had been in the room were dead or close enough, he started picking little shards of red lyrium out of his armor without looking at them.

“We need to find the Lord Seeker. With apologies, Lady Marceline, Lord Abernache, it seems that the diplomatic portion of this venture is over.”

Marceline took a glance at the carnage around around with a distasteful look in her eyes before she shook her head and turned toward her assistant. "Larissa, if you would be so kind as to escort the good Lord Abernache safely away from this place?" With a nod, Larissa took a gentle hold onto Abernache, who still seemed to be in a state of shock, and began to slowly guide him out.

"It does indeed seem that way Ser Leonhardt," Marceline said, her rapier lightly resting against her shoulder. "The Lord Seeker has much to answer for."

Setting

Characters Present

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

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It was hardly the first fight in which Estella had been of almost no use at all, but she was keenly reminded of how far she still had to go in moments like this. Frankly, she would have dwelled on it, had it not been for the much more pressing need to continue forward, to find the Lord Seeker and stop all of this, somehow. She hadn’t seen a person afflicted with red lyrium since Kirkwall, and even then, it had only been one. Meredith was fearsome enough, though Estella had not had to confront her directly. She still had nightmares about the events of that day, sometimes—so much death, and such desperate conflict, all in service of something she couldn’t begin to understand, a madness that this substance had brought on.

It made her feel faintly nauseated, though that was more than likely at least partially due to the lyrium itself. She suspected a better mage, like Cyrus, felt it even more keenly than she did. She’d be surprised if the others were oblivious to it, either. Leon may be able to brush it off, but she knew that they really shouldn’t be touching it, if what she’d heard was true.

Not desiring to linger here, she followed the Commander out of the room. They headed deeper into the barracks first, Séverine giving directions whenever they came to a turn or door, since she knew the area by far better than any of the rest of them. The fighting didn’t seem to have made it this far out, and though they occasionally ran into a small pocket of the lyrium-infected templars, none of those groups were even as large as theirs, which meant short work, considering the prowess of the others.

After the first such bout, Estella could swear she heard something. It was perhaps no more than a whisper, but in something close to the Lord Seeker’s voice, as though he were standing right over her shoulder and speaking into her ear. “Come to me, Herald of Andraste.” She shuddered, reaching up with her free hand to touch the nape of her neck, and glanced over her shoulder, but of course all she saw was those of her allies who walked in the rear. Biting her lip, she faced forward again and kept going, reaching the outside—and another fight—with the rest of them.

She was just shaking some of the blood off her sword from her last opponent when the whisper sounded again. “You will be so much more than you are!” It was more emphatic this time, more sudden, and she jumped, dropping the blade in surprise.

“Can… can anyone else hear that?”

Cyrus approached, stooping to retrieve her blade and handing it to her hilt-first. His concern was evident in his eyes, which had always been his tell, if nothing else was. “Hear what, Stellulam?”

"Whispers," Vesryn said, from Estella's side, where he'd situated himself for much of the fighting. "You mean the whispers, right?" He glanced between Estella and Cyrus rapidly.

"I haven't gone mad, I swear."

"We should keep moving," Séverine urged from the front, where she kept watch. The rain continued with no sign of stopping, steadily washing the blood from the fighting into the softening earth.

It was almost a relief to know someone else had heard them. “I… yes. I think… with the Lord Seeker’s voice.” She pursed her lips, but started forward again. Séverine was right—they had to keep going. People’s lives were on the line here, and whatever strange thing might be happening wasn’t worth stopping and trying to figure out.

“Show me what you are.” Estella locked her jaw and increased her pace, though it seemed unlikely she could simply outrun it, whatever it was. She had a feeling they’d know in time, regardless.

“DO NOT IGNORE ME!” This time, it thundered, loud enough for all to hear and then some, a strange multi-tonal cadence to what was clearly still based on the Lord Seeker’s diction. “I WOULD KNOW YOU!”

“So much for whispering.” Cyrus wore a look of open displeasure, his lip faintly curled. “But you’re right; it does sound like the Lord Seeker. One more problem we solve by finding him.” His features shifted, clearly from some internal musings, but he didn’t choose to let the rest of them in on what he was thinking, for the moment.

At Séverine’s direction, they took a turn into what was apparently a guard building, because it contained stairs to the lower wall. There they came upon a few other templars, these ones clearly unaffected by red lyrium, striking down one who clearly was. They turned at the party’s approach, their postures easing when they recognized at least the Knight-Captain, and they both saluted her.

“Knight-Captain! The other officers—they’ve all gone mad.”

“We know,” Leon replied. “We need to reach the Lord Seeker. Any idea where he is?” All three shook their heads, leaving the party to continue in the direction of their best guess. Of course, the fact that the Lord Seeker continued to speak to them—or, well, her at least—was as good an indication as any that they were on the right track. Clearly, he wanted this confrontation just as much as they did.

The lower wall let them out onto a higher level of the castle, which was comparatively empty of occupants, though pitched battles had evidently been fought, with dozens of Templar corpses on the ground—both laced with red lyrium and without, though there were many more of the second. Estella tried not to hurry too much, aware of the need for a degree of caution, but her pace further increased until she was just short of breaking into a jog.

They reached a large staircase, one that led up to what must have been the main door to the redoubt's central building. She couldn't see anyone there; perhaps the man they were looking for had taken up residence within? “Come, Estella Avenarius. Show me what kind of woman you really are.” The voice echoed still, but not as loudly as before.

“All of this, for what?” she muttered, tightening her grip on her sword and mounting the stairs. The rain had grown much heavier, and though it did not yet approach what she’d experienced in the Mire, it was quite close, and very cold.

The whispers returned, this time unintelligible, echoing around the pillars that were lined along the top of the staircase, just before the main doors. Judging by the reactions of the others, all looking about, searching for the source, everyone could hear them. Eventually, a few words could be made out among the slithering noise. Herald. At last. Know you. At last. Learn. At last...

He appeared from behind one of the pillars and rushed at the group with inhuman speed. Lord Seeker Lucius never let his eyes leave Estella, even while Vesryn stood partially between them. He charged them from the right, hands outstretched with no weapons, only grasping fingers. Vesryn's shield hand reached around to grab Estella's shoulder and pull her behind him, but the Lord Seeker's speed was too quick.

He half charged through the elf, seizing Estella by the collar, at which point all three of them began to topple over backwards together. Before her back even hit the ground, Estella's vision filled with a bright light, quickly becoming all consuming, until only the Lord Seeker's piercing whisper could be heard.

"At last..."




She landed in a very different place than she had fallen, or so it seemed to her. Her back hit the ground with a hard thud, knocking the wind out of her, and as her eyes cleared, she could make out a ceiling above her head, a dome lofted high and arranged with gorgeous pieces of colored glass, which filtered the light from above in rich pigments, so that where it struck the dust motes floating through the air, it did so in scattered reds, blues, greens, and purples. There was no sound to be heard, and for a distended moment, she simply stared up at the stained glass dome, running her eyes over the familiar pattern.

There was a kind of loneliness that could only be felt when one was not only utterly devoid of company, but felt it, deep in one’s heart, the aching of an empty space. She wondered, for a moment, if everything had been a dream, after all. Her flight, Kirkwall, the Lions, the Inquisition, all of it. If that was what left her feeling so bereft now—that all of the things she’d built had been torn away, and she was returning to this moment. The thought intensified the ache, and she drew a hissing breath in between her teeth, raising an arm to place a fist over the center of her chest and push down, through the leathers and her light gauntlet.

Furrowing her brow, she drew her eyes down to the spot, realizing that it was a gauntlet, and she was wearing leathers. Moving the hand to her face, she pressed hard on her cheekbone, but felt no pain. In fact, she wasn’t in pain at all. It couldn’t have been a dream.

Sitting up, she looked around, a few discrepancies immediately becoming obvious. The chamber was circular as it should be, the light grey stone tinted in many colors by the filtered light, but it was otherwise empty. No furniture, no decoration, just dust in the air and herself on the floor. She wasn’t wrong about being alone, but she drew comfort from the fact that she might not have to be that way forever. A daring thought, really. Pursing her lips, Estella clambered to her feet, the task more difficult than she would have anticipated. All of her felt slow and sluggish, actually; awkward. She was like that all the time, though, so it was hardly surprising.

Slow. Weak. Graceless, yes. Show me more. The barest whisper of sound reached her in the still air, and she whirled around, seeking for its source, only to find that it seemingly had none.

As this particular room was at the end of a hallway, there was only one doorway out, an open stone arch, and she started towards it. Normally, it would put her into a passage of ordinary size, but when she stepped past the threshold, she found that it was about three times as big as she remembered it, its own ceiling vaulted high. The floor was bare stone, and her boots made too much noise as she walked along the center. Each side of the path was flanked with tall insets, each containing what appeared to be a sculpture or a statue. They were hard to see, but as she continued down the hall, the first one resolved into clarity.

“Cyrus?” Her voice was grating in the echoes, too rough and raspy and hissing, too loud, though she’d meant it to be quiet. There was no music in it.

But the statue, fifteen feet tall and exceptionally well-formed, did depict her brother, in white marble. Somehow, though, the eyes were the right color, as though someone had inlaid a dark sliver of lapis lazuli into the space each of the irises was supposed to be. Something was the faintest degree off about it, and when she leaned to the left, its features seemed to shift, rounding out from the well-defined lines of a man’s face to the soft, less sure ones belonging to a child, and then the emergent, nearly gaunt bone structure she’d known him to have as a teenager.

Yes, yes, excellent. First and last, you say. Always but never. So much to know, always knowing.

The return of the whisper made her jump, and she cursed herself for being so quick to startle, shaking her head. Whatever the meaning of the statue was, she could not decipher it. Her steps carried down the hall and rebounded back to her, emphasizing the inelegant shuffle of her gait by making it a dozen times louder. As though she could forget, and needed reminding.

To her right, something flickered in the corner of her eye, and she turned towards it, sucking in a harsh breath when another statue resolved into her vision. This was an elderly man, his features craggy and weathered and stern, his carriage unmistakably proud. Though the lines near his eyes were deep, they only seemed to lend authority to him, and he peered down at her from a height of no fewer than twenty feet, giving her the distinct impression that she had shrunk somehow. It was difficult to make out his face properly, given that he was carved from obsidian, but she knew its every line quite well, and swallowed thickly, her lower lip trembling.

Not wishing to linger, Estella turned and hurried onwards. More. More. I will know you.

The intervals between statues at first seemed random; it was much longer before she reached the next one, just as tall as the last, but of a younger man, with a clearer expression: one of soft frustration, tinged with affection. She closed her eyes and moved past.

The space between the third and fourth was much longer still, but the fourth and the fifth stood across from each other. One was a dignified man in armor, holding the hilt of a large sword, the tip of the blade resting at his feet. In contrast with the serious line of his mouth, his eyes carried a gentle humor about them. The one across from him wore almost no expression at all, his hands folded into his sleeves. Even the way he’d been carved was somehow enough to convey all the grace and finesse with which he moved in life, and these at least, she smiled to see.

Walking between giants. So much attention. Show me. Who is the you that they see?

Estella shook her head. Whatever this whisper belonged to didn’t understand anything at all, that much was clear. Her step was light and airy as she advanced, and she almost felt as if the hall was not so much longer after all, and wondered what might be behind the next door.

Whatever good mood had begun to lift her spirits was swiftly quashed when she reached the end of the hall and saw the last statue. For a long moment, she stared up at it, trying to quell the return of the bottomless solitude she felt. It reminded her of so many things, and her last treads towards it fell loud and ponderous on the stone.

So many faces. So many changes. What are you? I see what you see, not what you are!

“I’m no one,” she answered in the ugly murmur, and turned her eyes to the floor. The door was just ahead, and she wanted to be through it. Another few long strides did the trick, and she pushed the door open with her palm, stepping through the frame and into what seemed torn from another memory, another almost-death that had not come to pass.

The ground was scorched black, stone flooring ripped up and scattered everywhere, to say nothing of the debris from the rest of what had once been the Temple of Sacred Ashes. All around her, petrified corpses studded the landscape, their faces twisted and frozen in masks of fear, the barest remnants of almost-mummified flesh left to cling to their skeletons, just enough that if she squinted, she could almost imagine the people they had once been. Her squad… they were here somewhere, too, though she knew not where. Her recollection had not granted her even that much.

Her feet dragged as she tried to keep moving forward—it felt like they were weighted down, as if by shackles that made no noise and could not be seen, chained to she knew not what. Every step was a torment, but Estella drove forward all the same, tripping more times than she kept track of, often catching herself on her hands, but sometimes not, an unfortunate lack of reflex that rewarded her duly with several cuts and scrapes on her face, which stung terribly in the grainy wind that whipped the smallest pieces of stone dust and scree directly at her.

She became increasingly aware as well of the cold, seeping into her bones and setting her teeth to a permanent chatter, the clicking sound loud and grating and annoying in her own ears. Still, she staggered forward, though she wasn’t even sure why anymore, because if this place even had an end, she didn’t seem to be getting any closer to reaching it, and even the whispers seemed to have abandoned her for now. A hard stumble brought her to her knees, and for a moment, she remained there, arms wrapped around herself, bowed over, the rasp of her breath sawing in and out of her lungs and the clatter of her teeth the only sounds audible over the driving gale. When had it become a gale? She didn’t recall. It tugged at her cloak, ripping it free of her shoulders before she could hold it in place, and blowing it behind her on the wind.

With a groan, Estella pushed herself to her feet, and kept moving forward.

For all she walked, for all it felt like ages, she never reached what should have been the bounds of the Temple. Nothing seemed to repeat, but at the same time, several times she looked around her and was confronted with the vague sense that she’d made no progress at all. Still the faces of the dead begged her to help them, though they were long past saving. Still the ground wore away at her feet, and the wind and cold at her spirit. Still her chest ached with hollowness. Still she kept walking.

The next time she tripped, her arms gave out from under her when she tried to catch herself, and she felt a sharp stab of pain. Rolling over into her side, she reached down towards her abdomen, where she could see in the dim light that a shard of granite had buried itself in an unlucky joint in her leathers, punching a hole in the left side of her belly. Grimacing, she used trembling fingers to pull it out, trying to summon a rudimentary healing spell in the other hand to stop the bleeding, at least. But of course, she was no mage, not really, and so that was impossible. She almost laughed at herself for trying.

It left her with precious few options, however, and she tried to decide what she needed most. Loosening her jerkin, she tugged it off, rolling another quarter-turn onto her back and taking hold of the hem of her tunic with both hands. She had to tug several times before it tore, but from there she was able to remove enough to tie around the wound as tightly as her numb fingers would let her, and then fold herself back into her armor, which now sat uncomfortably directly against her skin from the end of her ribcage to her waist. But it was better than giving up her boots to take the bandages from her breeches.

It took several deep breaths before she could gather the strength to roll back onto her hands and knees, and quite a few more before she could ease to her feet. For the first time, she looked behind her, but the landscape that way looked just the same as the landscape in front, and she couldn’t see the door she’d come from in any case. Somehow she doubted going backwards would help anyway.

When she returned her attention to the front, she was surprised to see a dim light in the distance, glowing softly blue. It was the first change in scenery since she’d arrived here, and she struck out for it immediately, hoping against hope that what she found there might make a difference.

As she approached, the light took on the shape of a person. A woman, and by the point of her ears, an elf. Her back was turned; her body was entirely unclothed, but her shape was made up of the light, to the point where she was partially transparent. The sapphire glow kept her exact appearance indistinct, as though it deliberately unfocused whenever Estella attempted to see her clearly. It was not difficult to tell, though, that she had a powerful figure, both taller and significantly more muscled than Estella was.

She turned when Estella neared, and even blurred her features were noble, proud. The gale whipped at Estella, but the glowing woman seemed entirely unaffected by it. Her hair, which glowed like the rest of her did, fell neatly to rest upon her shoulders. The source of the light seemed to emanate from her chest. With the severity of the cold around her, it was obvious to Estella that the woman in front of her was radiating warmth into the air.

The figure raised her hand slowly, and a spark of blue light lifted into the air above them. It burst over their heads, and a translucent dome slowly fell around them, until it reached the ground. The wind stopped altogether, and within moments the warmth had filled the entire space.

The woman bowed gracefully in greeting, nodding her head forward.

Estella, battered, chilled, clumsy and no doubt looking like a wreck, blinked slowly. It took her several seconds to even properly comprehend what she was looking at, as though her mind, no longer in the simple state of forward, now again, had to lurch back to a start. The warmth helped, and though the feeling returning to her extremities was quite painful, she was glad it was pain she could feel, because that was much better than the alternative.

Despite that, she managed to dredge up a smile from somewhere, and bowed back as best she could. She wasn’t the kind of mage that frequently conversed with spirits, but she dreamed like anyone did, and occasionally, one of them had a reason to notice her, and so she did generally know what they were like. This one was strange, a little different somehow, like she might have been incomplete, the way her features appeared to shift, losing sharpness when directly focused upon. It was almost easier to see her from the periphery of her vision.

“Thank you,” she rasped, though it might have been more an effect of the dry wind than anything. “You’re… We’ve not met before, have we?” It would be very strange if they had, but stranger still if they had not, considering the location.

The figure smiled, not parting her lips, and then shook her head. A moment later, she waved her hand, and beams of light traveled along the glowing surface of her body, leaving armor in their wake. Were it not transparent, it would look quite heavy, and its design was ornate. In fact, as it completed its formation, it took on a very familiar shape, as did the tower shield that now leaned against her, and the spear she carried in her grasp. She tilted her head, and awaited recognition from Estella.

It was immediate. “Saraya?” Estella’s eyes went wide, and she took a half-step backwards, though it was more that she lost her balance again than anything. This was an alarming development, for more than one reason. Mostly, she was extremely concerned about this because she knew for a fact, or close enough, that she was inside her own consciousness right now—nothing else explained all the phenomena. Which meant that if Saraya was in here with her, then she wasn’t inside Vesryn’s head, and that was very, very bad.

“How did… ah. The Lord Seeker.” Whatever he’d done, she recalled Vesryn had attempted to stop, which might have interfered in part with the magic that had pulled her in here. Estella chewed her lip. “He’s in here somewhere, too. Do you think that if we found him, made him reverse… whatever this is, that you’d get back safely?”

Saraya nodded once, apparently all that she believed was necessary.

Suddenly, a crack of lightning blasted against the dome she had erected, and it split apart in several places, allowing icy wind to cut back through.

Begone, thing! I am learning. You cannot help her...

Saraya gazed up above them, her expression annoyed. Stepping forward, she set down her shield when she was within easy arm's reach of Estella. Slowly, she reached out a glowing hand, and gently placed it upon Estella's forehead. Instantly an intense feeling of envy filled her mind, envy directed at herself. The envy was stemmed by thoughts of freedom, a youthful, strong body, a position of authority, of opportunity. It was powerful in magnitude, but it ended before it could carry on too long, and Saraya took a step back.

She pointed up to the sky.

“Envy…” She knew the feeling, though she wasn’t sure she’d ever felt it so strongly as this. To feel it directed at herself was… uncanny, and very strange. It made no sense, and yet she could only interpret what Saraya imparted upon her as that. “The Lord Seeker is an envy demon?” Or, perhaps more accurately, an envy demon was assuming the form of the Lord Seeker, which meant that they weren’t dealing with the real one at all. Perhaps they never had been. Saraya nodded gravely, confirming her suspicion.

“This shape is significant.” The voice, at once more familiar than her own and somehow distorted, sounded from behind her, and Estella turned, met with the visage of her twin, though he looked ill in the light, wan. The demon didn’t hold the shape like Cyrus held himself, either—she supposed that made sense; envy wasn’t self-assured, rather the opposite. She knew from experience that attempting to falsify confidence could only work so well. “Will it help me know you?”

“You will not tell me about you. All you will think is of others. But I must know you!”

She understood, now, what it meant about learning. It wanted, for some reason, to assume her shape, to imitate her. And in order to do that, it needed to know enough to pass as her. So it had brought her here, to seek the answers it would need to wear her face. Even now, it was trying to understand. Estella’s hand went to the hilt of her sword, but then paused, her fingers still loose around the grip. Everything she did was now another piece of information for it, potentially. And if that was really what it wanted, then she had to avoid giving it that. Knowing how she moved, how she fought, however poorly, was information. She wasn’t even sure she could kill it, here.

No. What she needed to do was make it do all the talking and thinking aloud. She needed to understand it better than it understood her, and use that information to frustrate it to the point of making a mistake. And what she knew about it right now was that it wanted to learn about her. The way it looked at her made a mockery of her brother’s natural inquisitiveness, that fervent curiosity that so often lit his eyes. It looked sick, while the demon wore his face.

Taking a breath, something she tried not to make too obvious, she answered with a question. “Why do you want to know me?” She asked it as neutrally as possible, showing it her best imitation of Rilien’s face. It was almost ironic, that she planned to outdo the demon by being, in some sense, the superior imitator. If she could manage it.

As if in response, its features shifted, until it was wearing the face of her teacher, down to the sunburst on his forehead. “Being you will be so much more interesting than being the Lord Seeker.” In its left hand, the demon toyed with a knife, a replica of one of the Tranquil’s daggers, running a precise finger along the edge. It was also not an excellent likeness, considering the fact that she’d never once known Rilien to fidget or move idly. Hopefully that was a sign that it wasn’t being as careful.

“Do you know what the Inquisition can become? If only I were you…” It lunged at her, and she jumped backward, but no sooner had it completed its forward arc than it burst into smoke and disappeared.

"When I am done, the Elder One will kill you and ascend. Then I will be you.” It was Asala that time, and the voice from the left, where the Qunari woman appeared as well, though envy walked straighter in her skin, assuming a demeanor more like Asala when there was healing to be done than Asala at any other time. Still Estella kept herself mindful—the details were important.

“What is the Elder One?” Short questions, and only questions. It was already talking a great deal more than she was, even if it was deeply unsettling that it used the voices of her friends to do so.

The creature laughed, shifting again so that what began as a feminine sound ended as a masculine one, and it wore the same familiar face as the second statue, draped in dark blue robes and carrying a staff with a scythe-blade on one end, a thick hand with heavy knuckles gripping it with surety. “He is between things. Mortal once, but no longer. Glory is coming, and the Elder One wants you to serve him like everyone else: by dying in the right way.” The corners of his mouth turned up in a twisted caricature of a smile, probably the best envy could manage, and this time, it called lightning to itself, lifting the staff and throwing the spell in a broad arc from the scythe.

Estella stood no chance of getting out of the way in time, she knew, and indeed, her body was extremely slow to react, almost like she was moving through water.

Saraya was not so restrained, and she intervened before the lightning could reach Estella. Planting the glowing shield into the ground before her, the spell crackled and smashed against it, leaving the woman reeling and digging a foot into the ground. The envy demon hissed, infuriated.

"Insolence! This will be my place, not yours! Begone!" He threw a straight bolt of lightning from his hand, a spell which exploded directly against Saraya's shield, and the glowing body burst into a dozen wisps of flickering light. They scattered into the wind.

“Saraya!” Estella didn’t have time to think, only react, and her hand flew to the hilt of her sword, which rang free of the sheath with a hissing rasp. She lunged into the place her ally had been, bringing the saber down on the envy demon, which still wore the face of Tiberius. As soon as her blade made contact, it shrieked and dispersed.

“You cannot stop me! I will have what is yours!” Its voice trailed off with the motes of black dust that seemed to have constituted that particular form, but Estella hardly cared. She fell to the ground, plunging the end of the saber down into it and leaning heavily against the blade, which glimmered brightly in the dark. From her knees, she dragged a hand across the ground, as though hoping to recover some remnant of the remnant, something that would show her that Saraya was still alive, still present. What did it take to kill something in the mind? Cyrus would know. Of course he would. He’d be able to fix this.

But she couldn’t. She couldn’t fix anything. “Why me?” she muttered miserably, losing all will to keep herself upright and remaining so only because she saw no more point in removing her grip from the hilt of her saber than she did in keeping it there. “I don’t matter. I’m nobody.” If the demon had chosen anyone else, this wouldn’t have happened. But it had chosen her—miserable, wretched, worthless Estella—and so everything was going straight to shit, just as she’d always known it would. That she was surrounded by so many talented, impressive people, that Romulus had a mark, too; these things had allowed her to believe that they might succeed, that they might really close the Breach, and that she might be able to go back to being anonymous and unimportant without having ruined anything, save the lives of the families of her squadmates.

Her back bowed further under the pressure of her thoughts, and she fought the bile that rose in her throat. How could she have forgotten? How could she have let herself, for even a single moment, fail to recall her own incompetence, and how dangerous it was, for those around her? How had she let herself believe that she could ever be the kind of person others might be able to lean on? Where had she gained the pretension to suppose that one day, she might be strong, or worthy, or valuable in any way at all? She had no grace, no skill, lackluster intelligence, and a terrible, crippling inability to improve for all the first-class instruction and arduous practice in the world.

How dare she forget. How dare she let other people pay the price for that.

She was pathetic.

And she deserved to suffer for all the things she could not be.

Some combination of the brittle-bone cold, the weight settled over her body like a cloak of lead, and the furious churning of her own thoughts overcame her, and she retched, dry-heaving painfully, folded in on herself and at last relinquishing the grip she held on the sword. Another thing she wasn’t worthy of. Another grace extended to her that she could not hope to repay in kind. Estella fell onto her side, curling into a small ball and pulling her knees against her chest, willing the ordeal to simply end. She’d proven what she knew all along: she was incapable of meeting a challenge of this magnitude. She couldn’t do it alone, and she was toxic to anyone who would be her ally. She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them again—dry, because even she knew she was wallowing in self-pity and she wasn’t worth crying over—and they found immediately the bright edge of her saber. She stared at it for what seemed the longest time, fascinated by the way the enchantment made it glimmer with a light all its own. Like a little star, right there in the dark.

A bitter smile slashed her face, and she chuckled weakly. “Stellulam…” Cy’s nickname for her was ridiculous. Even he would surely be disappointed in her, if he could see her now. She was disappointed in herself. Then again, she was always that.

Distantly, she knew that she had to stand up. If she did nothing else, she had to make this right again. Her wound twinged—she’d hurt herself by falling over. Of course she had, because actual battle wounds were for people who had a fighting chance. She couldn’t…

“I can’t.” But slowly, she stood anyway, dragging herself to her feet, resting her hand on the saber, which was faintly warm to the touch, and pulling it from the ground. It felt heavy in her hands, unfamiliar, like the first time she’d ever tried to wield it. Listing to the side slightly, she took a step forward, and had to scramble not to fall backwards when the scenery around her abruptly changed, putting her back in Therinfal Redoubt.

It was eerily quiet, compared to what it had been like before, but she remembered the route, and followed it. This version seemed to be what Envy imagined the Inquisition would look like, if it replaced her. She thought it was foolish to believe she had so much power as it seemed to assume, particularly when she walked in on a meeting between herself and the Inquisition’s three advisors. They all stood around the table, though Romulus was a conspicuous absence. "We’re almost there,” Marceline was saying. "Orlais, Ferelden, then Antiva and the Anderfels. Rivain’s surrender is imminent. Fitting that you’ll end where you started, no?”

“Soon enough, my accomplishment will match my ambition,” she heard her own voice reply from the facsimile of her appearance. She couldn’t help but find the words ridiculous. Estella had aspired to little. Though her faults were many, arrogance was not usually one of them. Perhaps even believing she could help close the Breach counted as arrogance enough.

“Do you see? What the Inquisition could be without you? When you are dead, and the Elder One has allowed me to become you?”

Estella walked through the ghostly image, dispersing it, and continued on her way. When she reached the same staircase as before, she spotted herself standing at the bottom of it. Or, well, the envy demon’s version of her, anyway. She took some little bit of succor in the fact that it had clearly glamorized her considerably: she looked as put-together as Marceline, and wore clothes as nice as Rilien’s, her armor polished silverite, chain with a heavy silk sash holding her sword in place, and leathers in lighter places. It still wasn't near to accuracy, really.

“Unfair! You are still whole!” In what seemed an instant, the demon was in front of her, its version of her hand tight around her throat, lifting her from the ground with no more difficulty than the Avvar she’d dueled in the Mire. “Why can’t I have your shape?!”

“Why… would you want it?” She choked out, her hands grabbing pointlessly at the arm holding her. It was uncanny, looking into her own face like that.

“Why would… why would…?” It seemed thrown by the question, but then gritted its teeth, its free hand glowing with sickly green magic, and turned to shove her against the door. “We’ll start again! More pain this time! The Elder One still awakes!”

A rumbling suddenly surrounded the two of them, as a ball of impressively bright blue fire burned through the wall of clouds hanging over them, to Estella's left. The envy demon growled, hurling Estella back with force against the door and turning to face the arriving presence. It smashed into the ground, scattered bits of the stone ground through the air, and from the cloud of dirt re-emerged the glowing form of Saraya, now wielding a greataxe the likes of which Estella had already seen.

She whirled forward through the air, the first blow coming down hard on Envy's sword, as it still attempted to retain Estella's shape. Saraya's offense was swift, precise, and brutal, but the demon was able to parry or repel every blow, even when it appeared to have no chance, as though it wasn’t actually possible for Saraya to land a hit. Eventually they clashed weapons and locked together. Blue sparks flickered through the air from Saraya’s axe, and sickly arcs of familiar green lightning careened away from Envy’s feign of a marked hand. Envy’s face was contorted in a mixture of extreme effort, and overwhelming anger.

“What are you? How can you remain? Die and leave, forever!”

Estella thanked whatever deities were paying attention for Saraya’s intervention, and more importantly, for the fact that she yet lived. While she knew she’d be of little assistance, the elven woman’s spirit had the demon locked in battle, which was opportunity enough for anyone, and so she circled around behind the dark shadow of herself, sheathing the sword quietly and drawing the straight-bladed knife from the small of her back.

Her approach was awkward, and she wound up just running the last half-dozen steps, jumping onto the demon’s back and plunging the blade downwards and slightly diagonally, for her replica’s less well-protected neck. The knife struck, and the envy demon beneath her dissolved again, this time with an inchoate shriek. Her vision filled once more with white, and she fell back into reality.

Setting

Characters Present

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

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Though three bodies had begun to fall in tandem, only two finished the arcs they should have. While Estella and Vesryn collapsed to the ground, the Lord Seeker was seemingly thrown from them with great force, his shape twisting in midair, limbs elongating and visage twisting. What landed before the door was no man, but rather a demon, lanky and warped. Cyrus recognized it immediately—envy, a rather rare variety, and much subtler than its kin.

It rose into an arch, walking its hands through the gap between its six-foot legs, an eerie contortion of its warped form, and then it shrieked at the lot of them, prompting Cyrus to move in front of Stellulam and Vesryn, putting himself between it and them, but doing so turned out to be, for the moment at least, unnecessary. The demon exploded into a cloud of green mist, flying in through the doors and over the heads of the Templars inside, retreating to some area beyond, and leaving a barrier behind it.

The moment he was sure it was safe to do so, he was kneeling by Estella’s side, a hand at her forehead. “Stellulam, can you hear me?” His tone was low, but unmistakably urgent; worry gripped his heart and furrowed his brow. That the demon had retreated meant something—he only hoped that it wasn’t the worst.

A soft groan was his initial response, but fortunately, Estella’s eyes opened directly afterwards, unfocused and hazy. Her head lolled slightly towards the side Cyrus knelt at, and she blinked slowly a few times. “Cy?” She coughed, the force of it actually bringing her partway off the ground, and she planted one of her hands on the floor, pushing herself into a sitting position. “How long have I been out?”

That was a peculiar question. Cyrus shook his head slightly, using one of his arms to support her back, though she seemed to be sitting all right on her own, for the moment. “Not long. The Lord Seeker attacked you and you fell.” And yet, he could sense a disturbance in the Fade greater than he would have ordinarily considered warranted, as though something or someone had used a considerable amount of magic in that tiny window of time.

“Are you all right? What happened?”

The expression she showed in reaction to his answer was complicated, but confusion seemed to predominate, and her lips parted for a moment, before she hesitated, apparently unsure what to say. “I… the Lord Seeker’s an envy demon. Or well… the person the templars thought was the Lord Seeker is one. It… it wanted my shape, and…” Her eyes went wide suddenly, and she glanced around herself frantically, pausing when she found Vesryn, who was still unmoving.

Shit,” she hissed, half-dragging herself within arm’s reach of the elven warrior and reaching out, laying a hand on his chestplate and shaking him gently. “Vesryn. He—” She cut herself off and looked meaningfully at Cyrus, suggesting that there was something she could not say, before she returned her attention to their fallen ally.

“Oh Maker, please be all right.”

The elven warrior soon stirred, as though coming out of a deep sleep, but when he seemed to remember where he was, he blinked several times in confusion. "Erm... what?" He paused, an awkward, uncomfortable smile coming into place. "I've gone and embarrassed myself, haven't I?"

His eyes then darted between Estella and Cyrus, before settling longer on Estella and looking her over, perhaps to confirm that she was undamaged. Satisfied, he pushed himself up into a sitting position. He removed his helmet briefly, shaking his head. "You haven't been waiting for me to wake up for long, I hope?"

“Not really, no.” Cyrus shrugged, offering a hand to each for assistance in moving from sitting on the ground to standing on it. Estella took his left without hesitation. He frowned a bit, and threw a glance into the now-open doorway. They’d become a minor spectacle for the templars inside, by the looks of things. “But if you’re both quite all right, we’d best continue. I doubt this lot will be very enthused to learn that their illustrious leader was a demon all along.” Not that he planned on dealing with the mess. That could fall to the Knight-Captain or Leon, whichever felt more inclined.

After Vesryn was on his feet as well, the group moved inside, where the remaining uncorrupted templars had assembled in what appeared to be the main hall. The long tables had mostly been cleared off to the side to allow easier room to move about. Above, on the far end of the hall, stairs led up to a balcony or upper courtyard or some such, but the way was blocked by a barrier spell of some kind, shimmering thickly, clearly strong if the templars hadn't immediately been able to dispel it.

Of course, few of them were of any decent rank, and the one Knight-Captain present looked a bit floored by witnessing the transformation of the Lord Seeker into an envy demon. Séverine stood now in the center of the hall. "Never thought I'd have a leader that could outdo Meredith on the bad ideas front. Bloody demon, bloody red lyrium. How many lives, thrown away for this?" She turned, seeking out Leon with her gaze.

"The demon turned our leadership against us first with that red lyrium. I'm lucky I was never forced into taking any. I don't think anyone else of my rank or higher refused the stuff." She shook her head, eyes falling to the floor.

“An obstacle,” Leon agreed heavily, “but not an insurmountable one. By arriving when we did, we forced the demon’s hand. Not all of you have succumbed, and that means we yet have a chance.” He scanned the room, his eyes moving over all the templars present, and landed on what must have been another low-ranking officer. “Knight-Lieutenant,” the Seeker said crisply, drawing the man into a sharp salute. “There are others, still fighting outside?”

The templar nodded beneath his helm. “Yes, sir. Another three Knight-Lieutenants, there should be, and their squads. Or… whatever’s left of them.”

“And you have lyrium, as well? The uncorrupted kind?” Another nod. “Then I’ll need the last locations you knew the lyrium and the soldiers to be at. The Inquisition will bring you the people and the supplies, and then we’re going to take that barrier down, and the demon with it. Clear?” He spoke loud enough to be heard over the relative quiet of the room, and those in attendance drew themselves straighter, responding with a collective yes, sir!

One immediately moved to a table on the right side of the room, and gestured the group over. With a stick of charcoal, she drew three circles on an architectural rendering of the redoubt. “These are the supply rooms, sir. There’ll be a crate’s worth of lyrium in them, at least. Might be you run into some of the others on the way.”

Leon nodded. “Three supply crates should be enough.” He glanced up at the group. “Lady Marceline, Ser Séverine, go to the northern one, please. Take some of the more experienced templars here with you.” He pointed to the closest circle to the building they currently occupied, then moved his attention further down. “Vesryn, Estella, the one to the east, please. Cyrus, you and I will go west.” From the look he gave him, Leon knew well that he likely wouldn’t appreciate being separated from his sister, but was asking him to do so anyway.

“Very well.” Cyrus was indeed not terribly pleased with the suggestion, but he understood why it had been made. There was logic in ensuring that one didn’t send two mages against a lot of templars. He could even overlook the fact that the reasoning employed clearly underestimated him. Briefly, he turned his eyes to Estella and Vesryn. “If… possible, perhaps just once keep the heroics to a minimum?” That was the problem with decent people, really—they tended to take risks that the purely self-interested would avoid.

Estella smiled, but it was thin. “No promises.”

With the strategy set, all that remained was to execute it. One of the Knight-Lieutenants was left to manage the templars that would remain in this room, though the majority of those with much rank would be split up between the three parties. It might have been strictly safer to retrieve the lyrium crates one at a time, but time was important, and that would almost certainly have taken too long. Furthermore, three teams pushing out at once would relieve the burden on the defenders of the main hall itself, which was fortunate since it would also thin their numbers considerably.

Leon led their way out of the main hall, moving down a side passage way to the west, which was both damp and dark, lit only by a few guttering torches. With a few more turns, they came face to face with a door to the outside. “How are you against templars, Cyrus? I understand they don’t use lyrium in Tevinter.”

“Why don’t you open that door and find out, Seeker?” Cyrus let his amusement color his tone, and smiled sharply. It was true that he’d faced few southern templars, and their abilities were not to be dismissed, when properly enhanced by lyrium. But by the same token, no southern templar knew what a northern mage was like, and he did not doubt they would find the difference… perceptible. The very best education in Thedas could do that for a person.

“Fair enough.” Leonhardt didn’t push the door open just yet, though, instead reaching into a belt-pouch and withdrawing a small vial, about the size of one that would hold a lyrium dose, but the liquid inside this was a blackish red, lacking both the glow of red lyrium and the metallic smoothness of that fluid. “I don’t believe we’ve had cause to fight together before. I say this in all seriousness: please keep clear of me.” His voice lacked the usual mildness it carried, edged instead with a harshness that seemed foreign to it.

Tipping back the vial, Leon downed it in one swallow, tucking it back into his belt pouch and throwing the door in front of them open. He didn’t linger on the threshold, charging forward into the fray outside.

It would seem the fighting had drawn very close on this side, and the Red Templars had nearly reached the entrance to the main building. The defenders remaining were few, and consistently moving backwards. That was, until Leon crashed into the front line. His first swing snapped a red templar’s head back so far the crack was audible, and the edge of his helmet clanged against the edge of the armor protecting his back. Before his body could collapse, Leon picked it up in both hands and threw it into a line of advancing red templars, knocking one to the ground and another two off balance. The last dodged, but it didn’t matter, because the Seeker killed him next, taking his helmet in both hands and twisting sharply. His stride didn’t even break as a sword clanged off his armor; he simply turned and caught the blade between his armored palms on its way down the second time, turning his body and disarming the half-crystallized man that held it, tossing the sword away like refuse before pulling the man down by the arm and shoving a knee into his gut, sweeping his legs out from under him with a foot and stomping hard at a less-armored part of his back.

Whatever resulted was effective, because the templar did not stand again, and Leon showed no signs of stopping.

It was quite the brutal display, but its effectiveness could not be denied. Cyrus waded onto the field as well, giving Leon the berth he so desired. Considering that his last lightning spell hadn’t seemed to work too well against these people, he switched tactics, sending a fire rune to land strategically on the ground where a cluster of soldiers tried to flank what few uncorrupted templars were left. It took them all off their feet, and Cyrus pulled himself through the Fade, spatha in hand, and finished them while they were down, quick strokes to throats and any vital artery he could reach. Putting them down fast was the key here, and he was quite good at that when he set his mind to it.

Where Leon charged with pure force and raw speed, Cyrus walked the edges of the field, laying down strategic area spells to control the flow of templars, narrowing their avenues of motion with fire, barriers and harassment tactics. Though he’d have preferred to simply rain fire down from above and jump between them with his blade, as was his wont, it made more sense presently to keep the red ones away from the ordinary templars and funnel them towards Leon in small numbers at a time. It was clear that he could handle three at once without encountering significant issues, which was really quite something for someone who usually looked a bit uncomfortable around other people eating meat.

Between the two and their templar allies, what had once looked dire for the defenders turned around in relatively short order. Cyrus’s effective control of the battlefield essentially fed Leon a line of foes, which he tore through with brutal efficiency, which for all its violence was unerring in its precision. Ten minutes after they had reached the fight, it had ended, and the red templars lay slain.

A general cheer went up from the others, but for several long moments, Leon remained in the middle of the field. It was hard to tell where exactly his eyes were, with the helmet, but his fists remained clenched at his sides, trickles of blood dripping off his knuckles. With what seemed to be one very deep breath and a momentous effort, he relaxed his shoulders backwards and turned to face the templars. “You’ll want to go back inside, reinforce the others. We’ll go get the lyrium and meet you back there.”

The general consensus seemed to be that this was a good idea, and the soldiers turned, some of them supporting each other as they walked, and headed inside. Leon turned his head, clearly looking at Cyrus, and then gestured forward. “The supply storage is this way.”

Cyrus raised an eyebrow, nodding nonchalantly and falling into step beside the Seeker, glancing up at the other man through the corner of his eye, his hands folded casually behind his back even as they picked their way over what had effectively become a killing field, first for the red templars and then for them. “I can see why you prefer your space.” He kept his tone deliberately light. “That tincture you took, before we fought—that does something to you, doesn’t it?”

The color of it looked suspiciously like blood, but it was a bit too dark even for that, suggesting that something else might have been done to it alchemically. Cyrus had a guess about what that might be, but it was merely a guess, and didn’t quite account for all of his observations. He wondered if Leon would simply be willing to explain.

“It does.” It was fairly clear that Leon saw no point in trying to lie about that—probably he had decided Cyrus had only asked in an attempt to get more than a confirmation. That, however, he didn’t give, and after a few more seconds of silence, it became evident that he wasn’t planning on it. Disappointing, but hardly a surprise.

The supply cache was a bit of a ways out, but they ran into only one more red templar on the way, and she was already injured to the point of dying. Leon put her out of her misery, and the two proceeded onwards, until the sounds of more battle could be heard, at which point they picked up the pace, rounding a corner and finding themselves face-to-face with the tail end of a confrontation.

A woman in Seeker’s armor placed a heavy roundhouse kick to the face of a red templar, dropping him with a hard thud. Several more lay in a circle around her, all variously battered and broken to death. Like Leon, she carried no weapons. It was clearly the same woman from Val Royeaux, the one who had stood at the Lord Seeker’s side.

She spotted them from the corner of her eye, and moved to face them. “Good. You’re here.” She spoke rather evidently to Leon rather than Cyrus, and it was he who answered.

“Ophelia. What are you doing here? Did you know about this?” The earlier aggression clearly hadn’t left him, from the gravelly undertones to the words, and he looked about ready to step forward and be her next opponent. Cyrus wasn’t sure he was entirely misguided in his intent, and did not dismiss his conjured blade, though he remained a few paces out to Leon’s left, and watched him for cues as to how they would handle the situation.

That made her smile, just a little one, a turn at the corner of her mouth. “Know the Lord Seeker was an envy demon? No, not until recently. But I suspected. And so I remained at his side.” She crossed muscular arms over her chest, tossing back the thick ebony braid that rested over one shoulder.

“While he had all those templars take red lyrium? You know what it does. You know what happened in Kirkwall.”

She shook her head slowly. “The demon was suspicious of me, at first. Inherited that from Lucius, I expect. I didn’t know what it planned for these templars until it was already happening. After that, the best I could do was try and convince it to delay further action until I could discover whether it was really the Lord Seeker or not. As it happened, I wasn’t the only suspicious one. I intercepted a message, and replaced it with one I knew would reach you, and gain your attention.”

Leon sighed heavily. “How did you figure out that the Lord Seeker was an envy demon?”

She thinned her lips. “There’s something you should see.” Gesturing for them to follow, she led the way into an adjacent building and opened a door on the right side of a hallway. The chamber so demarcated was relatively large, perhaps once an office of some kind, but far enough from the main building that it was doubtful any of those near it were in use.

Of much greater interest, however, was the state of the room. In terms of furniture, it contained only a single desk, which rested right at the center of the rug, covered with papers, candles, and oddly enough, pieces of art. Front and center was what seemed to be a marble bust of Empress Celene, though its face was obscured by parchment. Leaning against that, a hand-sized portrait of the Lord General of Orlais had been slashed once, with a knife, from the look of it, but still remained intact enough to identify his visage. The last item was a humble charcoal sketch, rendered nevertheless in highly-accurate detail, of the crown prince. It lay in two halves atop the desk, and had at some point been further defaced with candle wax.

The dull brown stone of the walls was marred by several drawings of eyes, quite clearly in blood rather than paint, and several stacks of books were strewn carelessly about the room.

“Well this is a rather macabre little shrine, isn’t it?” Cyrus scanned quickly over the walls, and then the spines of the books in the nearest stack, before deciding that clearly, the items of greatest interest were those on the desk. The three most powerful people in Orlais, before the civil war, and possibly still, though it was hard to say. “Targets, perhaps?” It would fit with what he’d seen in the future he went to—he recalled that all three of these people had been assassinated. This could be a clue to how and when that was supposed to happen, if their mysterious perhaps-ally knew more than was obvious.

“This… Elder One. This thing the demon is working for. It wants them dead, as might be obvious.” Ophelia nodded to the ruined artworks on the table. “I don’t know exactly why, but I suspect it’s partly a tactical decision and partly something else. A hatred, perhaps. Orlais has the strongest army in Thedas, and it’s as unstable as it’s been since the reign of the Mad Emperor, with the civil war going on.” She paused, a crease appearing between her brows. “But there are no fewer than four people with enough popularity and sufficient nobility to satisfy the aristocrats and the populace and lead the country. It’s interesting that only three of them appear here, isn’t it?”

“Gaspard de Chalons is missing.” That was Leon, who’d removed his helmet and tucked it under an arm. His free hand held a sheaf of parchments, carefully arranged so as to be smeared minimally with the blood on his gauntlets. “But whether that is because the demon overlooked him or because he’s allied with this Elder One is difficult to say. He doesn’t have quite the same infamous personality as the other three.”

Ophelia nodded deliberately. “That, I have not been able to discover. Envy likely knew relatively little outside of what it was to do here.” There was, after all, a certain sense in playing secrets and strategies as close to the chest as possible, and it would have been careless for the Elder One, who or whatever it was, to simply tell its minion everything it had in mind. Cyrus could understand the limitation of information as an effective command strategy; fewer loose ends when all was said and done, and the more work rumor and speculation could do for you, the better. This Elder One might have done quite well in the Magisterium, had it the inclination.

“This note…” Leon frowned deeply, then handed it to Cyrus. “My Old Tevene isn’t very good, but I believe it says something about the Seekers. Any chance you could translate?”

“Certainly.” Cyrus was not quite the linguist Estella was, in the sense that he spoke fewer of them than she did, but his Old Tevene was rather impeccable, if he did say so himself. Which made sense, since it was a common language for scholars in the Imperium to know. He took the parchment between his thumb and forefinger, as it was relatively worn and probably ought to be handled carefully, then swept his eyes over the words.

“‘Remember, you will be watched constantly. A Seeker is always looked to, when he is seen at all. I had a replica of the armor made—it should serve your purpose in Therinfal.’ Addressed to Envy, no doubt. There’s a little more below it that might interest you.” He paused, possibly just for effect, and then continued. “There is no place for Seekers in the world the Elder One builds. The life of Lucius Corin ends with you. Leave the real one to me.’” He raised a dark brow, glancing at the other two over the edge of the paper.

“Someone was feeling rather dramatic. Though I must say I’ve always loved a good conspiracy. So many skeins to be unraveled…” Cyrus narrowed his eyes, his aspect amused rather than menacing. He didn’t think it was especially amusing for either of them, of course, but still he saw little purpose in being unnecessarily grave. It was what it was, regardless of the attitude anyone took towards it.

“Seems the thing to do would be to find the real Lord Seeker, no? After we’ve dealt with our little demon infestation, that is.”

Leon looked to Ophelia, who shrugged her powerful shoulders. “I do not know where the real Lucius is. I intend to find out, but your friend is right. Horse first, then cart, as they say. You’ll be wanting lyrium. It’s through here.” So saying, she turned and led them out of the room, opening another door at the end of the hallway, remaining outside while Leon went in after the crate, hefting it easily in a single arm, donning his helmet again with the other.

“Let’s get this back to the others.”

They were, as it turned out, the last to arrive back, perhaps due to the pit stop they’d taken. Ophelia’s reception among the templars was mixed; while none were openly hostile, they were wary almost to a one, and stood far aside when she passed. That seemed not to faze her in the slightest—perhaps, as a Seeker, she was accustomed to it.

Cyrus soon found himself caught up in a warm embrace from Estella, who, aside from a cut marring the line of her cheek, appeared intact. She squeezed once before releasing him, her expression clearly relieved. “I was worried when we got back and you weren’t already here,” she admitted softly.

“Worried? About me? What will you think of next?” Really, the idea that she worried about him, while familiar and welcome in a sense, was also a bit unnecessary. If she could stop worrying about him and worry about herself instead, he’d be much more assured. Still, neither that nor the twinge of hurt that remained between them stopped him from returning the hug, a muted exhale the only sign he gave of his own mollification.

He returned his attention to the pair of Seekers and the Knight-Captain afterwards, however. “Now… how about we bring down this barrier?”

Setting

Characters Present

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

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Vesryn's pristine armor was spattered with blood at this point, but every drop of it belonged to corrupted templars. Saraya had effectively guided him to dispatch any enemy that had crossed his path, and even many of those that only crossed the others, though of course he hadn't been quick enough to prevent all the injuries in his allies. Even his shield could only be in one place at one time.

Focused as he was on the fight, he'd been especially wary of any signs from Saraya since the ambush from the Lord Seeker, or rather the demon that had formerly worn his shape. He remembered nothing of it, only trying to get in the way of the charge, getting caught up with Estella as they fell, and then... black. Estella's face was the first thing he saw upon waking, the first thing he comprehended. There were far worse things to lay eyes on after being knocked out, of course.

As they'd worked together to bring back more of the low-ranking officers, he'd noted that Saraya looked upon Estella differently. How, he could not say, and there was no time to speculate on it. They had a task to complete here.

The Knight-Captain, Séverine, nodded at Cyrus, and smoothly stepped up on top of one of the tables shoved off to the side, allowing the assembled templars to see her more clearly. She pointed her blade out at the group. "Templars! I ask of you: what is Envy?"

"A wretched thing!" cried one.
"Weakness!"
"A pathetic demon!"
"A coward, Sister!"

"A coward," Séverine repeated, nodding. "In order to study, and worm into our hearts, it must hide. We will drag it into the light!" A first cheer went up among the templars, accompanied by a cacophony of swords bashed against the faces of shields.

Séverine stepped down and began approaching the barrier, while the templars cleared from her path. "Those who have been taken by this demon and its promises of power are corrupt. They have betrayed the Order and all they once stood for. We, the true templars, will show them no mercy." The grimmer nature of the task did not receive a cheer, but instead a hardened rumbling, an anger building to do what needed to be done.

"Join me, Brothers and Sisters, and tear down this barrier. Give Envy no place to hide. And give the Red Templars no reason not to run!" She accepted a chalice of lyrium from a scribe when offered, the draught steaming with a frost-like substance. Séverine drank deeply, and once the scribe retreated from her, she took her sword in both hands, and knelt, placing the point of it into the floor. The other templars followed her lead.

They began to glow with a golden light, some brighter than others, and the sickly green barrier above them began to tremble and waver. Vesryn adjusted his grip on his spear and shield, and moved forward in preparation to advance up the stairs. It was not long before the demon's barrier let out a wretched wail, and then shattered altogether.

From the top of the stairs came the Red Templars, storming in down in a disorganized formation to engage. Séverine looked back at the Inquisition members aiding them. "Cut through, find the demon, and destroy it! We'll deal with these traitors." Their blood worked up for the fight, the templars smashed into the first arriving group of enemies, engaging them with a fearsome fervor.

Vesryn glanced sideways at his allies. "Let's get moving."

“An excellent suggestion.” Cyrus softened up a likely trajectory for them by sending a massive fireball through it, forcing several red templars to throw themselves to the side, some of them landing poorly and falling down the staircase in the process. One didn’t get away in time and took a full blast of flame to the face, collapsing in a cacophony of shrill cries. “How about that way?”

“Good enough,” Leon growled, cracking his neck under his helmet and bursting forward. His momentum seemed little affected by the fact that he was essentially fighting uphill, and he took two stairs at a time as though that were the way they were meant to be used. Considering the objective was only to clear a path, he didn’t linger long on any one red templar—generally speaking, one hit was enough to get any given individual out of the way, and he struck out with elbows, fists, knees, and feet, almost too fluid for a person encased in that much armor. Several of them, he simply gripped by the neck of their armor and pulled, toppling them facefirst down the staircase. Cyrus had driven a wedge into the line, and he was making a full tunnel of it.

Vesryn cleared the way for easy passage behind Leon's destructive force, tossing away any red templars that were fortunate enough to survive the initial encounter. They pushed up the stairs with little difficulty; Vesryn was able to surmise that the Red Templar force engaging them here was not much more than a rear guard, judging by their numbers. Séverine and the templars she led would no doubt be able to handle them given some time.

All of their party through, they took off down the hall towards the outdoors, a sort of grassy overlook of the forested land far below. The sections of walls before them had steadily crumbled from weather much like they were currently experiencing. The rain came down as steady and cold as it had upon entering the hall originally, and the earth beneath Vesryn's boots felt soft, vulnerable to being torn up if too much weight was applied in the wrong way.

"I touched so much of you," the demon said, with a voice from no particular direction, as before, "but you are selfish with your glory. Now I'm no one." Vesryn kept his eyes glued to the sides of the group, not desiring to be taken by surprise again. There was nowhere for the demon to run now, but while it did not prefer to fight directly, he had no doubt that it could if pressed into a corner, as it was.

"Lovely creature, this," Vesryn commented dryly. His spear remained leveled before him, ready to strike.

“And this isn’t the half of it,” Estella replied from beside him, her hands flexing on the grip of her saber. Her eyes were in constant motion over the field, a wariness that turned out to be quite wise. “There!” It did not manifest with the same directness as another demon would have. Pride would have stood before them and demanded acknowledgement. Desire and Rage would have commanded attention just as certainly.

But Envy appeared at their flank, a hideous thing with pale pink flesh, like someone had taken a human body, stretched it impossibly long, torn up the head and sewn it back together again with crude stiches and forgotten anything but the mouth, a thin red slash filled with sharpened, bloodstained teeth. It had a second set of arms beneath the first, shorter, almost humanoid still, a reminder, perhaps, of something it had once been. In all, it had to be nearly ten feet tall, but it was thin, in places little more than skin stretched over bones, too tight to be comfortable. Hardly a wonder it wanted someone else’s form and face, really.

No sooner had it appeared than the sodden ground beneath them began to turn black, in a ring much like that caused by a terror, save that its radius was considerably greater. Estella dashed out of it quickly, but Leon seemed to pay it almost no mind, simply moving himself off the circle in his barreling charge towards the demon itself. It threw something at him, shimmering slightly in the air like heat off the desert—likely a concussion blast of some kind, and the two met at full speed. The Seeker dug his feet in, pushing through and tearing rents in the soft earth beneath him. The hit slowed him considerably, but it did not stop him, and faced with an incoming assault, the demon seemed to open another one of the dark spots on the ground and dove through, reappearing far to the other side of the field and hurling a massive chunk of what had once been masonry with telekinetic force for the group.

A blast of lightning hit the boulder in midair, the resulting explosion breaking apart the stone and raining it down upon them as harmless detritus. Cyrus switched his attention to the demon itself thereafter, hurling a tiny orb of magic from each of the fingers on his left hand at once. They flew swiftly, and when the first hit, it encased the demon’s left leg in ice. The next three seemed to target different joints of its body, one successfully locking up the larger right elbow. The others hit, and spread, but it was able to crack the ice crystals off with movement.

A few seconds later, the mage’s form blurred, then disappeared entirely, reappearing much closer to the demon, which abruptly found itself faced with an opponent quite close. It swung a clawed hand for Cyrus, who ducked under it and retaliated with a horizontal slash, but Envy twisted with inhuman strength and flexibility, and the sword he used met only air.

Limber and quick as it was, it could not dodge two well-placed strikes at once, or at least in extremely quick succession. Vesryn had flanked Envy after Cyrus moved in for his attack, and his spear found the creature's torso, spilling blood and earning an enraged shriek of pain. Vesryn anticipated the counterattack; Saraya was familiar with such an opponent, which did not surprise Vesryn in the slightest. No demon was an unknown entity to her.

He withdrew his spear and properly angled his shield above his upper body to deflect the first slash to the side, and the adjusted to deflect the second slash the opposite way. The third he took head on, jarring his shield arm but stopping the clawed arm of Envy cold and giving him an opening to put his spear right through the thing's elbow joint. Its horrid features, or lack thereof, still twisted in pain from the injury, and it sought to flee, diving into a black pit it opened in the ground beneath it. Vesryn wrenched his spear free and stepped away from the magic beneath him.

"Watch your feet!" he called to the others, certain it would pick a spot to come up again soon, and it never preferred to assault directly.

When it did reemerge, it wasn’t the fleet magician, the precise warrior, or the powerful Seeker it went for. The demon was a coward, and it chose the coward’s target: Estella. She didn’t look all that surprised when it sprang up behind her, and without looking over her shoulder, she rolled herself to the side, its claws digging deep furrows in the fragile earth she’d been standing on seconds before. When she came up out of the roll, she turned herself around to face it, her momentum channeling into a smooth, controlled lash with her saber. The maneuver opened up a bloody line on the arm closest to her, and she stepped in closer, taking on the role of aggressor.

Her feet were light over the ground, her strokes no longer or flashier than they needed to be, and her efficiency was rewarded when two new gashes appeared over the creature’s torso, its gangly limbs less effective when someone had closed to so close a distance. It tried to dive under again, but this time met some trouble when a strong grip closed over the arm Cyrus had previously frozen. Leon’s hand nearly made it all the way around the rangy bicep of the demon, and the blow he delivered to its elbow snapped the limb clean off, made possible by the magical cold that lingered still at the joint.

Envy shrieked, a sonic blast that forced both of them back far enough for it to make its escape. Estella landed hard on her side, sliding another few feet back when her impact tore up the grass and slicked her left half with mud. Leon kept his feet, but lost his grip on the demon, allowing it to retreat once more.

This time, it came up closest to Cyrus, who immediately flung a massive bolt at it, staggering the creature before it had a moment to react. Adjusting his feet, he sped forward again, the hum of his blade followed by a new, smoking furrow dug across the back of its knees. It looked to be about to try and dive again, but with a broad gesture, he cast another spell, and bars of crackling lightning appeared to close it in from all sides, even below. The gaps between were more than adequate for a spear or other weapon with reach, however, and the mage turned, nodding tersely to Vesryn.

The elf nodded back, allowing his shield to fall to the ground, before he flipped his grip around on his spear. "Hold still for me, love." He briefly took aim, before he stepped into a throw and hurled his spear like a javelin right between two of the bars of crackling energy. The weapon punched clean through Envy's chest, rendering it incapable of screaming any further. Instead, it gurgled miserably for a moment, before it slumped sideways to the ground, and stilled.

"Nice throw," Séverine commented, from the top of the short flight of stairs that led back into the main hall. A large number of the templars from inside had followed her out, those that had made it through the fighting without serious injury. The Knight-Captain herself was heavily bloodied, at least over her armor, but most of it appeared to belong to others. "It's over then. For now."

"I expect the other Red Templars won't simply give up," Vesryn speculated, walking to the corpse of Envy and pulling his spear free.

"No, they won't." Séverine looked back at the battered group of men and women she'd come into command of. "The fight won't be truly done with until the last of these traitors have been dealt with. Until the Order's direction has been restored."

“And that will not be a simple process.” Ophelia spoke up then, stepping forward to draw even with Séverine. “The Templars have numbers across Thedas, but their leadership is in ruins. Most either knew not of what was going on, or were complicit in it.” She crossed her arms over her chest, glancing over those assembled. “These are a good lot, though. It would be a waste for them to idle when their skills could be so useful.” Her eyes flickered between Leon, helmed and silent at present, and Estella, who stood straight, but unable to hide the fact that one of her arms was limp at her side, the one she’d landed on earlier.

“All the Inquisition came here to do was ask of them their help. The Breach threatens us all, and they could be instrumental in closing it.” She shook her head, then turned to the body of them as a whole. “If that is something you’d be willing to do, we’d welcome your blades and your stout hearts. We’ve need of both, and it would give you somewhere to be and something to fight for. You know by now that we have allies of all kinds, and you’d be equal among them.” She smiled slightly, though it was tinged a little by the pain she was clearly in, and glanced at Séverine.

"Not how I imagined this turning out," the Knight-Captain admitted, shaking her head with a little smile. "But I think my Commander will understand if I don't return home just yet. The Breach does indeed need closing, and I would be honored to lead these templars in helping you do it, Lady Herald." Her plated, closed fist thumped against her chestplate. "You have our blades."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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It didn’t take more than a day or so after the templars arrived in Haven for the predictable problems to crop up.

“They’re about three words from reenacting their stupid war on the Chantry’s front steps, sir,” Reed told him, rolling his eyes. Leon scrubbed a hand down his face, sighing heavily. He’d hoped this wouldn’t be an issue, as he’d thought Estella had made it rather clear that they’d have no authority over the mages here—that the allies of the Inquisition were equals for as long as they were united to this purpose. Then again, it might not even be the templars that had started the argument. He doubted too many of the mages would be pleased at such a high concentration of them suddenly appearing in the already too-crowded town. It might look like oppression even when it was nothing of the kind; some of those wounds were still raw on both sides, and it might have been too much to expect that everything went smoothly.

Hopefully they’d be able to put a stop to the nonsense quickly. The reality was they likely didn’t have to tolerate one another for long—Cyrus was already at work developing the exact ordering of events for the closing of the Breach, which he understood better than anyone else did. Likely they’d be getting to it within a few days. Still, if any fragment of the Inquisition lasted beyond that, they’d need to move elsewhere. The town was too small for an organization of the kind.

The Seeker pushed open the door out to Haven, Reed half a step behind him. Once his eyes had adjusted to the sunlight, he had to resist the urge to sigh again. It was, quite literally, a standoff. Less than a foot separated the frontmost templar from his counterpart mage, and there was a lot of shouting going on, along with general glaring and discontented murmuring. It was enough that few people even noticed him standing there, which was rather novel for Leon. While normally he wouldn’t have minded, he actually needed them to pay attention to him right now. He glanced at Reed, who nodded and placed two fingers in his mouth, issuing a sharp whistle that drew everyone’s attention temporarily.

“What’s going on here?” He demanded, using what Verena had once mockingly dubbed the ‘Seeker voice’—which was to say, the one that wasn’t mild and quiet.

What appeared to be the leader of the agitated mages was the first to speak. “It’s the Templars,” she insisted. “Ever since they got here, they’ve been acting like it’s all Circles again, watching us like hawks!”

“We’ve done no such thing,” the templar fired back, “but you’ll excuse us for being a little concerned that there are so many unsupervised, paranoid apostates just wandering about camp!”

The templar's words seemed to throw contention back into the crowd of mages. The murmuring grew and the glaring resumed, until a voice called out over the commotion. "That is enough!" it said. The words were not quite a shout, but still held enough volume and firmness to quieten the mages' clamor. They began to part as the owner of the voice made her way toward the forefront of the argument. Eventually, a redheaded mage emerged from the throng, her brows set deep and a frown on her lips. The disapproval on her face was not directed at the templar, but instead toward the mage.

The woman was Aurora, one of the first mages that pledged themselves to the Inquisition's cause in Redcliffe. She had led a small group of mages of her own, but by the way the others in the crowd regarded her, it seemed as if she carried their respect as well. She held arms crossed over her chest as she kept the man in her hard stare for a moment or two before she spoke again. "We should not bicker amongst ourselves," she began, offering a glance to the templar behind her, before returning to the mage.

"Not while that," she said, a bandaged hand pointing toward the Breach, "Still looms over us all."

"And how are we to know one of the rebel mages didn't put it there?" one of the templars asked, and a few of the others around him grumbled their assent. "How are we to know that mages were not responsible for the death of Most Holy?"

The hand of Knight-Captain Séverine appeared upon the man's shoulder, the rest of the woman soon following, and she drew him back, coming to stand before the other templars. Rather than face the mages, she turned to look upon her own number. "We cannot know, just as they cannot know if one of our own rogue templars was responsible. There has been violence, corruption, and deceit from factions of both mage and templar. We who stand here with the Inquisition do so because we believe in this alliance. And any alliance must begin with trust."

The templar who'd attempted to rally the crowd behind him stepped back reluctantly, aware that his voice would not outstrip the Knight-Captain's. "I will not ask any of you to trust the mages with your lives," she continued. "I only ask you to trust that their goals, for the moment, align with ours. The closing of the Breach." Finally she turned to look upon Aurora and the other mages.

"Nothing will be gained by settling this with swords and deadly magic. Only death. A balance must be achieved, but this will only be possible once some semblance of order has been restored. That is what the Inquisition aims to achieve, and what we will assist with." She glanced back, to ensure the crowd knew she was speaking to her own as well with her next words. "Put aside your blind prejudices, and work towards something that will save lives, not end them."

The mage who'd argued with the templar earlier backed away and fell into the crowd, deferring to Aurora's judgement. "Mage or templar, we stand with the Inquisition together."

Though no one looked fully satisfied by this, it thankfully wasn’t necessary to defuse the situation any further, and the crowds began to disperse on their own, something Leon was grateful for. “My thanks,” he said, inclining his head to both Séverine and Aurora. “I’d been concerned this would happen, but admittedly I thought it would take a bit more time.” He smiled ruefully, then shook his head.

“Though now that you’re here, Ser Séverine, do you have a moment? I was hoping to speak with you for a bit.”

"Never underestimate a young templar's ability to do something rash," Séverine said, with a knowing gleam to her eye. "And of course. I was rather hoping to speak, actually." She then nodded respectfully to the redheaded mage.

"If you'll excuse us, Miss..."

"Aurora Rose," she said with a respectful nod of her own.

"Miss Rose," she echoed. "Thank you for the assistance. Keeping the peace will be no small task for us, I fear."

"It appears so," Aurora agreed, watching the direction the mages had dispersed off into. "Ser Séverine," Aurora said in a farewell before taking her leave. As she departed, she offered a wave to a passing Asala and Pierre, who hung from the woman's shoulders.

Leon nodded to Reed, who stepped back into the Chantry, and after Aurora had departed, he turned to Séverine. “Shall we take a walk? My office is rather appallingly unsuited for anything but paperwork.” He grimaced, and started them off to the south, mostly for the relative quiet that way. “If you’d like to go first, please do; my questions aren’t urgent.”

"Certainly." Séverine kept pace with Leon, which wasn't overly difficult, given the meandering pace. She was still armed and full-armored, having gotten the damage to her gear already repaired by her new allies. "The templars behind you here are relatively few in number. Gathering more might prove difficult, with my rank only at Knight-Captain. Even some of those from Therinfal chose not to follow me, and instead returned to their old posts." She said the words somewhat awkwardly, as though struggling not to see it as a slight against her.

"Knight-Commander Cullen of Kirkwall will be the best place to start, if you would like a stronger relationship with the Templars for the Inquisition. He's a reasonable man, and an excellent leader. I would return to his command myself, were I not already responsible for the templars here." Her praise for the man was delivered in an earnest manner, without a second of hesitation. "I still plan to, once the Breach is closed."

Leon folded his hands behind his back, noting the information with some interest. “There’s much to recommend him,” he agreed. The reports out of that region had been a marked improvement from the years before. Meredith had done a very good job of covering up the increasing instability in Kirkwall from the Chantry in Val Royeaux, such that no Seekers had ever been dispatched to the city even at the height of her zealotry. Though eventually suspicions had grown, and the Divine had elected to act covertly, sending an ally to try and recall Grand Cleric Elthina at least. An investigation had been pending when the cathedral in the city exploded and set everything off far earlier than anticipated.

“Kirkwall has been rather stable, hasn’t it? At least relative to the places where the mage-templar war has raged openly.” Of course, that had a lot to do with the fact that they’d sent their surviving mages away or simply failed to stop them from leaving in droves. “I can only assume that’s in no small part due to those of you stationed there, though I understand that the situation is… complicated.” They passed by several of the regulars, sitting outside for once due to the relative warmth of the day, loosely clustered around where a very animated Lieutenant Pavell was apparently regaling them with some sort of story. Leon gave them enough of a berth that none would feel obligated to acknowledge him.

"It wasn't pretty to get there," Séverine admitted with something of a grimace, "and there are still issues to be worked out. Kirkwall's templars are a powerful force, a small army, and some don't share the Knight-Commander's views. Thankfully, no small amount of them showed their true color when they left to follow the Lord Seeker." It went without saying that the color in question was a rather glowing shade of red.

"But he's done it so far, and the popular opinion of the Order there has improved as a result. Granted, we haven't really been doing our jobs, watching over the mages, but... there aren't any mages left in Kirkwall to watch. On that front... it's like I said earlier. Beating the mages into submission and dragging them back to their Circles will only cause this to flare back up again down the road. Something has to change." She shrugged. "It's up to more ambitious minds than mine to figure out what."

They passed by a few of the returning Inquisition scouts, Lia at the head of them. The group appeared to be on their way to join to others gathered about not far from them. The young elven woman offered Leon a smile and a salute in passing.

"In all, the city's recovering, now that it has nothing left to hurt itself with. The Guard is fantastically well-run, and the Viscountess can twist the nobility into doing just about anything she wants them do. The common people adore her, as well." She smiled, the expression tinged with a certain amount of sadness, for some reason.

"Kirkwall's been through a lot, but I think it's finally getting some rest again."

“After all you lot have been through, I’d say it’s well-deserved.” He half-smiled. “And what of you, Knight-Captain? Our rather imperious ally was quick to point out that you’re Orlesian by birth; I’d have thought you’d be with one of those Circles. Did you transfer long before the events in question?” From the way he asked it, he made clear that he was only asking from harmless curiosity—when he inquired something of a templar, they often took it to be an interrogation, and that concerned him. Relations between his order and theirs had not always been germane to polite company, after all. Leon’s extremely benign demeanor was in some measure a defense against this assumption.

"I'm Orlesian in name and accent only, I think." Séverine didn't seem bothered by this, and even her accent was only mild, obviously something that she had to have worked on. "I was in Val Chevin's Circle originally, but... let's just say I was not so mild-mannered and well-behaved as I am now." She nearly laughed at herself, evidence that she didn't think she was all that well-behaved even currently.

"It took me some time to figure out how to endure the insufferable people in life. I may have given one sniveling, arrogant recruit with a powerful family a rather severely broken nose. Though it was entirely deserved, it was the latest in a long list of transgressions for me, and they shipped me off to Kirkwall, hoping a stricter regimen from a more intimidating Knight-Commander might get me in line." She seemed to have unintentionally arrived at a sobering point of her narration.

"My superiors were right, though for a while I was not exactly in the correct line, you follow. The Qunari had arrived dug in by the time I reached the city, and it wasn't long before I was swept up in events I was not wise enough to avoid." She acquired a bit of a thousand-yard stare, but shook it off soon enough. "The acquisition of that wisdom didn't kill me, thank the Maker. When Cullen took over, he claimed I had some potential, and made me start to believe it, too. It was only a year ago I was promoted. In fact, it was on his order that I went to Val Royeaux and met the Lord Seeker. It was believable for me to be the one to run off with the zealots."

“Sensible,” Leon replied with a knowing smile and a nod. “And I daresay I’m glad you were there, even if it wasn’t your summons we actually answered.” He sighed slightly, his expression falling into a troubled frown. “It’s… no problem if you haven’t any insight about this, but,” he drew his brows together over his eyes. “High Seeker Ophelia. It appears she wasn’t working with the envy demon, but… I still can’t say I understand her motives. Did you see her do or hear her say anything strange or unusual while she was at Therinfal?”

He hated to suspect that his mentor might be up to something untoward, but she’d always been an exceptionally difficult woman to read, and he could not discern what she was thinking now. It was unusual for her to be anything other than plain with him, however, and that more than anything put him ill-at-ease.

Séverine hesitated, but decided to go ahead. "I... I think she had me figured out early on, to be honest. She's a Seeker, after all. She took me aside pretty quickly, asked me a few questions. It was on her advice first, actually, that I didn't take any of the red lyrium. After I turned it down a few times, the other officers shut me out anyway." She frowned, troubled by something.

"I saw her ingest it, though, along with some of the other officers, when they demonstrated to the lower ranks. She should've been changed, right? She looked fine to me."

That was concerning, and for a moment, Leon’s face reflected the alarm he felt. “That’s… I can’t explain that, except to say that when I encountered her, I’d never have guessed she’d taken any.” No explanation for that was ready to his mind, either, which meant it was the kind of question that he was going to have to trouble over. One more for the list, he supposed. He, at least, was going to be extremely busy even after the Breach was closed.

“Something that needs investigating, at any rate. Thank you, for bringing it to my attention.” He sighed through his nose and resumed his light smile. “But one thing at a time. First, the Breach. I believe we’ll be prepared to deal with that within a few days. I trust you can keep your young and rash templars in check in the meantime?” It was more jest than serious query, though there was a little bit of that as well.

"I'll do my best," she replied with a salute, her tone matching his in terms of mixed seriousness and humor. "We'll be ready when the time comes."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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Then the Maker said:
To you, My second-born, I grant this gift:
In your heart shall burn
An unquenchable flame
All-consuming, and never satisfied.
From the Fade I crafted you,
And to the Fade you shall return
Each night in dreams
That you may always remember Me.
—Canticle of Threnodies 5:7

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The air still smelled like burning flesh.

It was probably a good thing that it was a memory from the Fade, and so the others present would not be able to smell it. Well, the mages might, but not until they’d taken the lyrium, anyway. Between they and the templars and his own estimations, the need had been for an entire cart of it, several crates stacked on top of each other and pulled towards the temple by a draft animal. The templars required it, and it dramatically increased the efficacy of the average mage, to the point that he believed it was actually possible to do what he’d been asked to devise a way of doing.

History, which so dramatized action over thought, was unlikely to remember his contribution to this, but for once, Cyrus couldn’t really say he cared much. Let it be forgotten, so long as it was done.

He stood now on one of the edges of the drop-off that led down to the floor beneath the Breach itself, though even at his height, he was still angled somewhat below it, such that he had to tip his head up to regard the thing. He’d not stood in its presence before, and he had to admit that he felt the keen temptation of allowing it to remain. It was a tear in the Veil of massive proportions, and even standing beside it, he felt like more than he was. When he dreamed, Cyrus could achieve nearly anything his heart desired. The Fade itself bent and twisted to his whim, answering his demands with little more than a thought from him. Here the distinction between the Fade and the mundane world was so blurred it was almost no distinction at all—he was smelling what was in the former while still fully conscious in the latter.

The prospect of being able to shape and mold this world in the same way he could sculpt and define that one was staggering. If he’d only put himself to work figuring out how to expand the Breach instead of how to close it, perhaps he could have had that. But the Breach was sick, ill, distorted—only the darkest reflections of the Fade were nearby it. And it threatened not only to collapse the distinction between worlds, but to utterly destroy this one. And the risks of expanding it without knowing the consequences—even he knew when something was too dire to chance.

But still, gooseflesh prickled along his skin, and he could almost feel the crackling of magic beneath it, yearning, almost, to be loosed, to be put to purpose and change what was into what had been dreamed. He tightened his hands together behind his back, suppressing the strange, giddy mix of nauseous vertigo and the sudden influx of power, squeezing his eyes shut and opening them again. Let it be assumed that he was nervous—that, unlike what he felt in truth, would be acceptable.

The mages fanned out to the left of where he stood and the templars to the right, taking up positions on the mid-level ledge. As he’d requested, Leon stood closest to him on the templar side, and Asala on the mage side. The most necessary individuals of all, Romulus and Estella, were moving into place directly beneath the Breach. A breeze picked up from the north, feathering over his face, and Cyrus let his muscles relax. Several more Inquisition troops began to carry in and distribute the lyrium—scraped together from personal stores, whatever the Riptide’s crew had been able to secure in the last few weeks, and the amount the spymaster had been able to accrue from more land-bound smuggling and trade routes. It was quite a lot, but each mage or templar would still be getting a minimal dose, given how many ways it had to spread. Cyrus himself was abstaining, of course, and as a Seeker, Leon didn’t need any, either, but everyone else would be taking at least some.

He signaled for them to do so, and waved the rest of the Inquisition back, as it was rather difficult to predict just what effect this much concentrated effort would have on the area, and it was better to minimize the risk of unnecessary casualties. Injuries, that was—he didn’t anticipate any deaths unless everything went horribly wrong, but then if that happened the entire world was doomed anyway, so it would hardly matter in the long run.

“Let it never be said that I avoided doing things of consequence.” He murmured the words to himself, a wry twist of his lip and a shake of his head accompanying the statement.

When at last it looked as though everyone were ready, Cyrus inhaled deeply, releasing his hands from behind his back and raising the right one. He held it there until he knew it was seen, then dropped it, the signal for the templars to begin.

“Templars!” The Commander’s voice boomed out over the ranks, and as one, they took a step forward, genuflecting with their armaments in front of them, bowing their helmed visages over the pommels of swords or hafts of axes, or else leaning them against the poles of spears and halberds, lapsing as one into reverent posture and calling to themselves the peculiar lyrium-fed abilities to cleanse a particular area of hostile magic. Where once they would have turned such force against the mages not far from them, now it was directed at the Breach, and the green light in the sky seemed to shudder and dim as each one spent their resources attempting to wrest it under control. Leon alone remained standing, his eyes clearly fixed on the rift itself, imperceptible words forming on his lips, his stare a thousand yards away.

At the conclusion of their efforts, however, it remained perceptibly magical. Clearly, they had weakened it, but the task of closing it was far from over.

Catching Asala’s eye, Cyrus raised his left hand, and then brought that one down as well, in a sharp motion much like the last.

Though she visibly trembled and her knuckles were white from the grip she held on her staff, Asala still raised it high and called out. "M-mages!" The mages stepped forward in a wave, enveloping their staves in a dispelling green glow before slamming them into ground. As more mages added their spells to the whole, the reflections of the Fade felt by Cyrus began to dwindle as magic around it started to ebb away by the mass dispelling. Asala's eyes darted back and forth over the breach and every now and then a blue glint could be seen in the sky, evidence of her effort to concentrate and corral straying spells.

As soon as the last of the dispellings had run its course, Cyrus stepped forward himself, right to the edge of the drop-off. With a deep inhalation, he reached for the magic, easy to his hands even still, even though he could feel the Fade retreating from this place. He reminded himself that it was good, that it was what he wanted. That it was the right thing to do, and they were the only people who could do it. When that wasn’t enough and his willpower faltered, he reminded himself also of all the reasons he had to do the right thing for once in his life. Of all he needed to make up for, all he needed to repent. And then he glanced down, past the ranks of templars and the less-organized throng of mages, to where the Heralds stood, and he thought of her as well, and all together, it was enough to turn aside the lure.

He raised his arms, a white light gathering around them, spreading until it covered the whole of his body, thin like a mist, and then growing denser as more of it billowed outwards, still contained around him, until he almost seemed to be encased in a sphere of roiling fog. Little scattered sparks of electricity jumped around inside the clouds, occasionally lighting them from within. When the mist had thickened to the point of obscuring his view completely, he finally released it, sending it towards the Breach like a slow-rolling ocean wave. Struck by the light as it moved, it threw tiny prisms of refracted light onto the ground below, glinting off templar armor and the polished staves of the mages.

The Breach, which had begun to distort and destabilize at the edges as it fought against the attempts to neutralize it, almost recoiled from the wave, as though it were half-alive itself and sensed danger. But it was, ultimately, immobile, and the spell hit it like a tidal force, the pearlescent cloud clinging to it, dulling the green to a washed-out verdigris hue, and stopping its motion entirely. It simply hung there, pulsing faintly, a tumor in the sky.

“Now!” His shout echoed as it descended towards the Heralds, his eyes flicking between where they stood and where it remained, yet to be defeated.

Romulus nodded, looking to Estella to see if she was ready as well. She appeared to gather herself for another second, then inclined her head.

As one, they stepped forward and thrust their marked hands at the Breach, the left of Romulus beside the right of Estella. Twin arcs of the green lightning-like energy shot forth and connected with the sickly tear above them, which began to pulsate violently. It shook the arms of both Heralds to maintain the connection, and soon a blindingly bright white light began to emanate from within the Breach's center point.

It was enough to force some of the mages and templars to look away, distracting them from their task, and for a brief moment it seemed as though the Breach was strenghtening, fighting back against the forces trying to shut it for good. It swelled and expanded in front of them for an unknown reason, bulging from within while the light grew stronger still. The Heralds did not relent, each knowing that to stop now could spell disaster far beyond the confines of the temple ruins.

The Breach gave out a great moan, twisting and pulsating as it was steadily filled with the energy from the marks, until at last it could hold itself together no longer, and it exploded, the blinding light becoming all-encompassing, forcing any sane person to shut their eyes. A strong wave of force washed out over the temple grounds, throwing anyone not already bracing for it onto their back. The Heralds received the worst of it, the blast enough to throw them several body lengths away, the green crackling energy still pulsating from their palms.

Cyrus, even despite being prepared for backlash, staggered backwards several steps, his eyes shut against the bright light. As soon as it dimmed, though, he opened them again, running to the end of the ledge and dropping down to the next level, then moving through a few dazed-looking mages to do the same thing a second time, putting him on the ground with the Heralds. “Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant, both of you!” He reached down to Estella first, knocked prone by the blast, and offered a hand to Romulus as well once she was back on her feet.

Whoever or whatever the Elder One was, it had to know they weren’t going to take this lying down now. Behind them, once it was confirmed that both Heralds had survived the effort, a cheer began to swell, dozens of voices adding to the exultation, the celebration of what had just been accomplished.

The sky overhead bore a greenish scar, a remnant of what had loomed so dire, but the Breach was closed.

The Inquisition had succeeded.




Needless to say, the tavern in Haven was packed to the rafters that evening. All the tables had been pushed to the side, and it was standing-room only, still incredibly full due to its proximity to the alcohol. He’d initially entered seeking libation, as most of these people had, but the din of all the voices was incredibly loud, and he wasn’t sure how people could even hear themselves think in the space. So once he’d secured his tankard, he headed for the door immediately.

The Captain of the Riptide busied herself at the bar and knocked shoulders with her large, Qunari-companion. She'd chosen lighter garbs, forgoing her restrictive leathers for softer linens. It seemed as if she was always in the tavern, especially if there was cause for celebration. She occasionally drifted away from her stool to twirl around in the middle of the dance floor and always had a tankard held in her hand. Somehow, she managed not to spill a drop. She arched her back and stretched her arms over her head, as content as one could be in good company. She leaned towards Aslan and tossed her head back, laughter crackling from her belly. Though she was obviously amused, Aslan's tight-lipped frown betrayed none.

Most of the people in here were not those he knew to any degree, though one of the Lions he’d met earlier, Donnelly, was leaning heavily against the bar, apparently in less-than-sober conversation with a much more lucid-looking Aurora, the little redhead who led the mages in these parts, or at least the ones that didn’t answer to Fiona. He gestured upwards with his cup at both of them, the mercenary returning it with a broad grin and the same, sloshing a bit of ale over his hand and then eyeing his handiwork with exaggerated trepidation, frowning for all of a moment before he shrugged and grinned again. It would appear that there was little dampening his current mood. The corner of Cyrus’s mouth turned up, and he passed through the exit to the outside without issue.

The rest of the Lions weren’t far away, standing in a cluster not too far from where the bard played and Larissa sang. They looked to be a bit under the influence on average, but none among the three of them seemed especially so, particularly not considering the chaos around them. Completely sober were Estella’s Tranquil teacher, Rilien, and his assistant. Tanith, Cyrus believed her name was—she was speaking to him with an amused look on her face, but he, of course, wore no expression at all, though he was tuning a lute. That was bound to produce an interesting result, in any case.

He spotted Thalia weaving into and out of the crowd, but of course she rarely talked to him when she didn’t have to, and he certainly didn’t expect to see much of her tonight. She’d probably be spending it with some pretty little thing or another, as was her wont.

Most of the rest of Haven and the Inquisition seemed to occupy the area close to a bonfire, which burned high and bright against the night sky, bathing those around it in an orange glow more than sufficient to stave off the chill of the evening. Asala and Meraad danced in the light of the fire, both laughing freely and easily as he spun her in a wide circle. Nearby the Benoît child watched with a light smile and clapped along to the beat. Even the commander seemed to have been persuaded to join in the festivities, admittedly with much less abandon than anyone around him. He was talking to Marceline, who had her arms around the man who’d been introduced as her husband, Michaël. For once, Leon's expression was relaxed; open, even. He appeared to be rather enjoying himself, despite the absence of a drink in his hand. Marceline's hand, however, was not likewise unburdened, but held a goblet of wine, no doubt from the same bottle that hung from Michaël's.

Sparrow herself was lounging on the outskirts, for once. She'd found a barrel to perch on and was idly tapping her fingers across her knee, looking across the tavern. It wasn't immediately apparent what, exactly, she was looking for, but by the expression on her face, she was mildly annoyed.

Estella was nearby the fire, looking a strange mix of happy and uncomfortable. Happy, perhaps, because of the general festivity. The discomfort was likely due to the fact that a new person seemed to crop up to shake her hand or speak to her every few moments. No few of the exchanges were likely either high praise or requests for a dance, from the way she so often looked surprised and then embarrassed in quick succession, a result he suspected both types would have produced. In any case, she tended to smile politely and shake her head a fair amount, which was unsurprising, given what he knew of her tendencies towards reservation and the deflection of compliments.

She met his eyes, shooting him a look that conveyed something between disbelief and panic, as though she weren’t quite sure what to do with herself.

Cyrus merely met her look with a much more mischievous one and shrugged in an exaggerated fashion. Frankly, he thought she should get used to the attention. It wasn’t like she’d be able to avoid it forever, no matter how little she thought of herself. He raised his tankard to his lips, drawing several swallows down in rapid succession. It tasted almost unbearably cheap, but accomplishment had a way of making anything sweeter.

From out of the swirl of dancing people came Vesryn, devoid of most of his armor, though his cloak, a lighter one than the garish white lion, was still tied around his waist, and several of his leg plates were still attached. His tunic was unbuttoned halfway down his chest, as it always seemed to be on the occasions when he got out of his armor. Evidence suggested that the heat of the fire, the warmth of the bodies, and the pace of the movement had warmed him up enough to risk shedding layers, though he'd have to preserve the momentum to stay that way.

Currently he wound his way over to Estella, the latest in her line of visitors, pausing only to take a breath that needed catching. "Might I succeed where the others have failed?" he pondered, offering an upturned hand in her direction, attempting his most charming smile. "My night is not a victory until I have danced with a Herald. The other one has already cruelly spurned me in favor of another." By his delivery, it was entirely true.

Estella was nothing if not consistent, though she looked slightly less surprised this time, something that said perhaps more of Vesryn than it did of her. Her embarrassment, however, was just as evident, though it did seem accompanied by a shade of amusement. “I should hate to hand you a ‘loss’,” she replied, considerably less dramatically, if lightly all the same. “But this particular Herald doesn’t dance, and it really is better that way.” The declination was offered kindly and in good humor, but it was still a refusal, and she smiled apologetically. “I’m sure there is no shortage of people who will gladly take advantage of my lapse in judgement, however.”

"As you wish," Vesryn said, accepting the rejection quite easily. He withdrew the hand into a flourishing bow, and stepped away. "This is not a retreat!" he called, stepping back into the throng of dancers. "Merely a tactical withdrawal!" The swirling bodies consumed him, though it was not long before the telltale sound of his laughter was heard again.

Cyrus didn’t bother suppressing his snicker, but over the noise, it wouldn’t be audible anyway. He was willing to bet that didn’t happen too often to Vesryn, but from Estella, it was entirely predictable. Skirting the edges of the crowd himself, he attempted to find a way to maneuver closer to the fire without getting caught up in the mass of whirling bodies. His path took him by Romulus, and Khari, who was halfway through a tall glass of something golden in color and looking a bit flush in the face because of it, though that might have just been the firelight. He nodded to both as he passed them by, spotting an ideal perch atop a barrel, one that looked to be empty now but had probably contained beer at some point earlier in the evening.

He stationed himself upon it, for the moment, resting his tankard on his knee, his fingers loose about the handle. If he looked up past the fire, he could still see the faint green scar left by the Breach, and try as he might, he couldn’t avoid thinking about it. They celebrated like everything was over, and perhaps for most of them, it would be. But for him at least, he knew things had only begun. There was still the matter of the Elder One, whatever it was, and the magic that had been used to tear open the Veil in the first place. He could recall with unsettling clarity the feeling of power he’d had from just standing close to it, how intoxicating that had been.

Shaking his head and forcing his eyes down, Cyrus lifted his tankard to his lips and downed half of what was left. He should probably make sure he had a few more of these before he slept. For now, though, he tried to let himself get caught up in the merriment of others, washing around him like water around an island. And for a little while at least, it was good enough to be so near to it.

Tomorrow was another day. But tonight didn’t have to be only a prelude to it.

Setting

Characters Present

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

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Leon rarely slept well, and he never slept early, so even after more than half of the troops and citizens of Haven had sought the warmth of their beds, or one another’s, as the case seemed frequently to be, he was still awake, standing a little closer to the dying bonfire than he’d been before. Periodically, he’d throw a few more scraps of wood on it, to keep it burning for those who weren’t quite ready to call the celebration quits yet. Some remained in the tavern, but most of those who were still awake had moved outside by the time the foreign horn sounded down the mountain.

It seemed to draw everyone to a temporary stillness. His own head whipped towards the source of the sound, and he stepped out from around the fire to peer up the mountainside from whence it had issued. He could see faintly the glimmer of hundreds, possibly thousands, of torches, and his heart jumped in his chest, a wash of mixed dread and anticipation flooding his system. He did the necessary strategic calculations without even consciously deciding it, and every outlook was grim. Grimmer, the longer it took them to respond.

He took quick stock of who was in his immediate proximity, and found that there were yet a fair number of people he could use immediately. Haven had three trebuchets built within its defenses, and those would be their best chance of softening up this force, whatever it was, before it reached their doorstep. He was under no illusions that an army of that size was here to negotiate or offer assistance. It was here to kill them, and it was his job to make sure that didn’t happen, impossible as the task now seemed.

“Reed. Get the Lions, have them take command of their units. They’re on the southern trebuchet. Go with them.” The corporal saluted and hustled off towards the cluster of tents where the officers on loan made their camp. Nearby, Vesryn was stepping into his gear about as fast as anyone could don full plate, whilst Cyrus stood from where he’d been sitting, also peering at the incoming force. Asala had a bit of a shellshocked look to her, but he feared that much worse was to come.

“Cyrus, Vesryn, Asala. Take any troops you can get on the way, find Estella, and get to the near trebuchet.” It was the closest by a lot, but they’d probably have to wake the Herald before getting there, which meant they’d need the time they could save. “Rilien—please go to the Chantry and inform Marceline and Michaël. Prepare a retreat and find us a way out of here.” In truth, the way he saw the largest number of them surviving this was to get out of Haven, but preparing that would take time, time in which they would be forced to fight. The Tranquil dipped his head, speaking too low to hear to Tanith, who nodded as well and remained behind as he headed up towards the top of the hill Haven sat on. Sparrow lingered near the gates, balancing herself on the pommel of her ridiculously large flanged mace, eying the horizon with narrowed eyes and pinched lips. Though she said nothing to the bypassing soldiers, nor to Rilien or Leon's assembled group, it was apparent she was readying herself for combat.

“The rest of you are with me. We’ll be going to—” He stopped at the sound of the front gate being thrown open, and when it was, it admitted Romulus, Khari, and what appeared to be a severely injured Lia. Leon’s brows drew down over his eyes, and he remembered that she’d been sent on a routine patrol earlier in the evening. From the looks of it, the other scout she’d gone with hadn’t made it back.

“What are we looking at?” Though he’d have much preferred to insist she get her wound looked at before reporting, it didn’t look fatal and they didn’t have the time. He needed as much information as he could get as soon as she could get it, and so he silenced his expression of sympathy in favor of bare efficiency. Asala produced a red vial from the satchel she seemed to always carry with her, and pressed it into Lia's hand with a deeply apologetic look before she took leave to follow Leon's orders.

“Venatori,” the elf managed, as Romulus and Khari helped her into a seat. Immediately she drank a small amount of the potion Asala had handed her, swallowing with a grimace. “And templars. The red kind. Together.” Vesryn buckled on his second gauntlet, drawing his axe.

"Well, that’s just wonderful.” He jogged off, to join the others he’d been assigned to.

He couldn’t say it made no sense. Both groups had made reference to an Elder One, and, at least indirectly, an assassination plot. He hadn’t expected there would be near enough of either to constitute an army of this size yet, but it would appear that this was a grave miscalculation on his part. Leon’s jaw tightened. “When you’re done with that, Lia, wake as many of the troops as you can find. Gather them at the gate and position them as well as you know how. Tanith can help with the formations.” He glanced to Rilien’s aide to confirm the order. She was also a mage, so she should at least be able to fix the wound well enough to finish what the potion would start. Lia nodded wordlessly, getting to her feet before half the potion was through, and downing the rest as she ran off, Tanith on her heels.

That left him with Romulus, Khari, Séverine, a few regulars, and whoever was still inside the tavern for the last trebuchet. He was accounting for the possibility of advance troops in sending so many to each of the machines. Hopefully, he was wrong about that, but Leon had learned to plan for the worst and leave the best for hoping. Gesturing for those that were around to follow him, he pulled open the tavern door. Inside lingered Captain Tavish, her first mate Aslan, and a few other soldiers, no few of them blearily waking to the sounds of organized chaos outside.

“We’re under attack,” he informed them curtly. “Get up, arm yourselves as well as you can, and follow me.”

Zahra was on her feet as soon as Leon swept into the tavern. Geared appropriately in her flexible leathers, and swinging her bow from her shoulder, tightening the buckle connected to her quiver. Aslan stood at her side, though he held an impressive axe in his hands, arms bristling with corded muscle. If he was worried about the outcome of their impending battle, he showed no indications. It might've been just another walk in the park. Small, flinty eyes regarded the other soldiers, dwarfed in his presence. She took a deep breath and flashed Leon an encouraging smile, if the small twinge of her lips was anything to go by. She tottered away from the stools, followed closely behind by the others inhabiting the tavern and wove around a few soldiers, rounding up on his side, thick eyebrows raised in question, “We're ready when you are. I don't mind, but mightn't we know what we're facing?

“Venatori.” The reply came from Khari, who’d leaned around Leon’s impressive presence to peer into the tavern. And Red Templars. We’ve gotta go load the trebuchets, and, you know, be on the lookout for anyone trying to climb the palisade from the flanks and stuff.” She sounded as though she expected subterfuge of that kind, which wasn’t entirely unreasonable. This army was bound to contain shock troops of some kind, and the walls, while sturdy and tall, were not unassailable.

“Can't say I've ever been in a fight this large, but I s'pose it's like anything else,” Zahra wrinkled her nose and reached back into her quiver, tickling her fingers across the feather. Counting off arrows, from the movement of her lips, until she was satisfied, and also drifted to Leon's side in order to see Khari properly. If Aslan's ears could have perked up, they might have, as interested as he appeared in the conversation, drifting closer. He held the axe aloft, inspecting its bladed edge, and finally broke his silence, regarding Leon with a leveled stare, “Where would you like us to go?”

“Follow me.” The words were terse, clipped, and Leon moved away from the doorway, twisting to avoid a collision with Khari and leading the group towards the farther trebuchet. It was in an unready position, being that they’d not foreseen the need to use it yet. The crank behind it would turn it in the proper direction, but doing so wasn’t their only task.

The sound of wood splintering in a burst drew Leon’s attention, and his head snapped to the wall, part of which had just been caved in by some kind of controlled explosion. Several red Templars were the first through, followed by half a dozen Venatori, and further dull booms indicated that this breach of the defenses was not the only one. The Seeker ground his teeth, particularly when one hulking creature filed in behind the rest, its body, perhaps once human, now a towering mass of red lyrium more than anything else. It couldn’t have been any less than ten feet tall, by his estimation, its arms heavy clubs of blood-colored crystal.

“Séverine, turn the trebuchet! The rest of you, keep them off her!”

Leon took a deep breath, feeling the shift inside himself, the way his every sense seemed to expand, and a primal violence welled in his chest, urging him forward, suppressing his tendencies towards gentility and flooding him with the unquenchable desire for blood. A red mist fuzzed the very corners of his vision, but the rest of it only grew sharper, the colors more vivid and defined, and his nose flooded with the scent of iron and fire and fear, thick and pervasive in the air over Haven.

He charged.

Despite her lack of armor or her usual weaponry, Khari was the next one off, charging after him and peeling off to the left, where she rolled out of the way of a heavy swing from one of the other templars, springing to her feet and planting her knife in the armpit he exposed with the swing. He went down, and she scooped up his battle-axe, bounding back into the fray with a snarl.

Romulus was also underprepared for the fight, but managed to grapple one of the Venatori to the ground, where he drew the man's sidearm, a short curved dagger. After ending the zealot's life by cutting his throat open, Romulus withdrew and kept watchful eyes on the unfolding melee. Séverine had begun working to turn the large trebuchet towards the enemy masses beyond the wall, her templars throwing themselves into the conflict against the army that faced them. The Red Templar behemoth crushed the first unlucky templar to attempt facing it, crunching the man into a distorted shape of metal and torn flesh.

Aslan bulled ahead with a startlingly loud howl. One that might've given fleshy men pause, if they weren't out of their heads with red lyrium. He dragged his axe behind him and planted his feet, swinging the axe around to shear a man's head clear off his shoulders, flicking a clear spray of blood behind him. Shouldering the body aside, the bulky Qunari faced the Red Templar behemoth and danced away from a disfigured fist swinging towards his head. For someone so large, his experience in battle was evident by the way he danced to the creature's glowing side, hunkering under another nasty blow and coming up behind him with a response of his own.

Bows were best utilized on the outskirts, so Zahra took her position at the rear and bounced around their own soldiers, who were all barreling towards the Venatori and Red Templars. She notched the first arrow and drew it back against her cheek, eyes feverishly bright, and loosed it into the closest Venatori's head. The man didn't seem to know he was dead, because he stumbled ahead a few paces, blinking rapidly and fell at Khari's feet. The Dalish woman barely seemed to register his presence, stepping over him without noticing him, as such, driving her pilfered axe into the leather chestplate of one of the Venatori in much the same way she swung her cleaver-sword on any other day. Zahra turned her attention towards Aslan and the hulking mass of crimson gems, loosing three arrows in quick succession, though they did little more than ricochet off its grotesque body. One, at least, thumped into its fleshy elbow. A glowering snarl sounded, accompanied by more arrows hissing by her companions head, aiding them in felling oncoming enemies.

Though Leon had initially charged the behemoth, landing a blow heavy enough to issue spiderweb cracks through part of its lyrium surface, he’d been quickly surrounded by others, templars and Venatori alike, as they rounded on the largest, most immediately threatening target, and they were proving much more tenacious than the average man, perhaps an effect of their morale. He only barely registered the tactical thought, which sounded in some part of his mind that was distant now. Much more immediate was the sound of his heart in his ears, and the immediate action-and-reaction taking place in front of him.

An incoming longsword left a bloody slice on his unarmored shoulder, and his hand snapped up, closing around the wrist attached tightly enough to turn his knuckles white under his gloves. They bled again, from impact with the jagged lyrium crystals, but he didn’t notice it as more than a minor inconvenience, one that might cause his grip to become slicker than he liked. Twisting, he wrenched the Venatori’s arm out of its socket, and, unburdened by plate, shifted his weight to kick another square in the chest, sending him back onto his rear for someone else to end. An arrow whizzed by over his shoulder, but he remained unflinching, dismissing it as a non-threat and driving his fist up into the throat of the man with the dislocated arm. He fell clutching at his crushed windpipe, and Leon flowed forward to the next foe, kicking a third in the back of the knees while she was distracted with her efforts to engage Romulus.

The hiss of displaced air followed by the sound of squelching and a wet crack signified the end of another red templar slightly behind him, Khari having taken up a position at his flank, though not too close. She breezed past him after that, though, bringing the battle-axe over her head and heaving it down upon the behemoth, who turned at the last moment and raised a stony arm to block, sending her blow aside with a ringing clang. Khari staggered backwards, her momentum momentarily halted, and leaving her open to the Venatori shield that slammed into her side, taking her to the ground.

The Venatori engaging Romulus didn't live much longer, as he brought a knee swiftly up into her helmet, rattling the woman's skull around with a dull clang. His knife found her throat as she fell back. Romulus had earned himself a few new scars from slashes from the battle, undoubtedly a result of his poor armament and perhaps even his inexperience navigating battlefields with this many combatants. He did manage to pick out Khari upon the ground, and rushed to assist, tackling the Venatori warrior from behind, the two of them collapsing to the ground in a murderous struggle.

"It's lined up!" came a cry from behind them. Séverine drew her sword and moved swiftly around to the trebuchet's release, slicing it with a chop and releasing the counterweight of the siege engine. Though they were the ones currently besieged, the trebuchet hurled a large stone chunk out. There was a heavy thud in the distance, and cries of agony echoing over the battle, but if the attack had any significant effect, their enemies weren't showing it. Séverine scooped up a second sword from one of her fallen troops and waded into the fray, slicing through several unaware enemies with ruthless efficiency.

"That thing needs to fall!" she called out, referring to the Red Templar behemoth, still smashing anything that came too close, barely discriminating between friend and foe. Séverine stabbed her sword into the back of the Venatori entangled with Romulus, allowing him to get back to his feet and move away from the tower of muscle and red lyrium before them.

The hulking Red Templar swung its scythe-like arm down in a wide, clumsy circle, growling more like a beast than a thing that had once been human. It shivered and stepped into a corpse, crushing it beneath its foot. Unheeded in its pursuit of bodies to crush and maul, it lumbered towards Khari and Romulus, mouth agape in a red, glowing socket. Though its movements were sluggish and uncoordinated, it hardly reacted to the blades clattering off its contorted limbs, occasionally swinging its smaller arm like a claw. Zahra continued pelting arrows into its shoulders, knees, elbows, and one that thudded into its neck, seeking any weakness, without much success. Like a drunk stumbling for purchase on the ground, the Red Templar behemoth bumbled forward and appropriated its momentum to swing its lyrium-encrusted hand against the ground. It bellowed once more, and turned abruptly, hefting its arm towards Leon's unprotected back.

It was Aslan who shouldered Leon aside, raising his axe in front of his face, palm planted against the flat of the blade to present the brunt of the blow. As far as preventing the lyrium-scythe from rendering him as dead as that contorted soldier, he'd managed to hold his ground. The upper portion of the blade had curved itself into the Qunari's broad shoulder blade, deep enough that both seemed pinned in place, with the axe biting into the creature's shoulder. One of his meaty fists maintained the hold on his axe, while the other had snaked out to grappled onto chain-links clanging through the creature's chest. Portions of the lyrium crystals bit into his mauve flesh and bled freely down his forearms, and the top of his head. His horns had prevented them from going straight through his cheeks.

A rippling scream sounded over the din of battle, “Kill the fucking thing.” Zahra's fingers moved in meticulous, practiced movements, sending arrows into chests and foreheads, a clear attempt to pave a path towards the immobile pair.

The deadlock broke quite savagely, when Leon leaped atop the behemoth, wrapping one of his arms around its neck, still much softer and more vulnerable than the rest of its body. He flexed the muscles in his arm with tremendous strength, pulling his hooked limb back towards him, using both his strength and his considerable weight to cut off its air supply. As it turned out, even mostly-lyrium monsters still needed that, and though it took several moments, its hold on Aslan eventually slackened, its arm withdrawing and its body collapsing ponderously to the ground, Leon still atop it. He didn’t relent until he knew it had died, rather than simply falling unconscious, at which point he rolled off it and to his feet, breathing heavily and deeply, like a blacksmith’s bellows.

The Behemoth's arm retreated from Aslan's shoulder with a sickening suck and nearly took the Qunari with him in a tumble of limbs, though he sunk to his knees instead. His breath came in wet gasps, sifting from bleeding lips. There was a moment where it appeared like he was trying to stand using his axe as a brace, but his shoulders hunched forward and slumped. Bright eyes swam upwards, searched for something far off. His axe clattered from his twitching fingers. It didn't take long for Zahra to find herself scrambling to his side, fingers smoothing over his skin in desperate strokes, as if she were trying to hold in his wounds, and prevent the inevitable from happening.

A sort of breathlessness overtook him as Zahra babbled against his shoulder, “No, no no no. Aslan. Aslan. You're okay. You're fine. They'll patch you up. Asala, she can—” His answer was a hacking cough and a slow nod, followed by a small, knowing smile. His ragged breath drew out in a long sigh and as suddenly as he'd been there, Aslan slowly slumped to the side, dragging Zahra along with him. The howl that escaped her sounded as inhuman as the Behemoth's roars, an ugly, poignant sound that muffled itself into the Qunari's jawline. If she had any inkling of impending danger, it appeared as if she didn't care.

There were several seconds of poignant silence, pervasive somehow even despite the fact that battle continued around them. For a thick, heavy moment, the only noises in the area were the ones Zahra made, but they could not remain to mourn. Haven was still under attack, and all their lives still at risk.

It was Khari who stepped forward first, approaching the captain much as one might approach a wild animal, cornered and wounded—cautious, but resolute. She swallowed thickly, laying a hand on Zahra’s shoulder and flexing it in a soft squeeze that became an insistent tug. “We can’t stay, Zee. They’re still coming.” She hesitated, pushing a gusty breath out between her teeth. “Your crew can’t lose you, too.”

At that moment, a sound not unlike scraping metal, amplified hundreds of times, ripped through the air, and a fine tremor shook the ground, just enough to be felt beneath their feet. Khari’s eyes went wide, and she glanced back down at Zahra, grimacing and shifting her grip to bodily pull the petite captain, no bigger than herself, to her feet.

“Hate me later. We don’t want to meet that like this.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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Panic set in immediately and clutched Asala's heart. The deafening roar of something terrible doubled her over and forced her hands to her ears to try and drown out the sound. It didn't help, of course, she could feel the ferocity of the cry in her bones, she could feel its hate. Eventually the roar subsided, but the dread she felt did not. Slowly Asala took a step back, but her foot caught something and she was thrown backward. She landed on top of something, and when she turned to see what to what it was, the dead eyes of a Venatori soldier stared back at her. She cried out in surprise and scrambled away from the charred corpse.

She reached the trebuchet and used it to pull herself to her feet. All around her, the scene was the same. Bloodied and charred Ventori, broken and shattered red templars, and even some of the Inquisition soldiers lay dead around them. But all of that only garnered her attention for a moment, as the sound of the massive wing beats drew her eyes upward. A great black dragon with leathery jet wings flew silhouetted against the night stars. Asala's eyes went wide in fear and terror, causing her to slip back down to the ground, her back pressed against the trebuchet and her gaze pinned upward.

She watched it descend and sink its talons into a another trebuchet, wrecking it like it was made of nothing but rotten wood. Panic seeped in again, this time with a shot of adrenaline, and she pushed herself up from the ground and quickly took a few cautionary steps away. Over the din of everything, she could still hear the cries of battle and the ringing of metal against metal. She turned and found Cyrus, her eyes wide and confused. She didn't know what to do any more, and she looked to him for direction.

His attention too was pinned on the dragon, but he wore no expression of fear. Rather, Cyrus seemed to be studying it, a sharp stare following its wheels and turns in the sky carefully. He was mouthing words, though it was impossible to tell what they were, or if they had any volume at all, over the din of battle. When the dragon passed temporarily out of sight, his eyes fell back down, and only then did he seem to observe the chaos around them for the first time, flicking his gaze back and forth between each component of their situation rapidly, absorbing the information and processing it.

A muscle in his jaw jumped, and his scrutiny fell on her briefly, before skittering to Estella and then the rest. He looked like he was about to say something, loud enough for everyone to hear this time, but it was at about that point that a small cluster of other soldiers stumbled upon the site, all in various states of woundedness. “Fall back to the Chantry!” The words were hasty and slurred, but nevertheless effective. “Commander’s orders!”

“You heard him, let’s go.” That seemed to be mostly directed at Estella and Vesryn, but then he glanced to Asala, gesturing up Haven’s hill with a sharp tilt of his head as he turned.

Vesryn withdrew away from the thickest fighting, his spear coated in blood, and much of his armor spattered as well, though he was moving quite efficiently, a sign that he hadn't suffered too much in return as of yet. His axe as well was dripping dark red, and even small bits of red lyrium crystals clung to the blade of the weapon, from where it sat upon his back. He moved back swiftly, always keeping his shield towards the enemy, his helmet darting left and right to watch his path as he moved.

"I'll watch the rear," he stated, leaving no room for argument. A reckless Venatori found himself skewered upon the spear, and Vesryn shoved him off onto his back with a kick from a metal boot. "No time to lose, we can't get cut off." He was clearly referring to the fact that elsewhere the Venatori and Red Templars were finding more success, and starting to break through into Haven, where they could run rampant. It would get very messy soon, unless they could fall back and find a better place to hold them off.

Estella was covered in cuts and scratches—they’d pulled her out of sleep and she hadn’t had time to don much more than a leather cuirass and boots before they were off again, and the lack of protection had hurt. All things considered though, the wounds were light, and it was obvious enough that she’d somehow avoided the worst of all of them. Looking between the others, she nodded, leading the way forward. Their path took them towards the gate first, after which they’d be able to go up the hill, past the tavern again, and then to the Chantry.

The scene that met them upon approaching the gate was not a pretty one. There were fewer corpses here, but the gate itself was clearly but a few blows from caving inward. Spotting Lia and Tanith in the crowd, Estella shouted out. “Fall back to the Chantry, everyone! The Commander’s called a retreat!” As if to punctuate the statement, the heavy wooden gate groaned in protest again as it was struck from the outside—presumably, they were using a battering ram.

Most of the soldiers looked quite glad to be going along with that plan, but Tanith looked at the gate for a long moment before turning back to Estella. “If we don’t hold them here, you won’t have enough time to get out before we’re overrun. Some of us must stay, and I will stay with them.” Quickly, she turned to the soldiers. “Men and women of the Inquisition! Who among you will remain, that your Herald, and your brothers and sisters in arms, might live to fight another day?”

There was a moment of heavy silence, but then a woman stepped forward, her shield to the fore, and saluted Estella with her sword. “For the Inquisition.” Several of those who’d been standing closest to her followed, with various affirmations of for the Inquisition, for the Herald, or even for Thedas. No few of these people had been wearing broad grins earlier in the evening, celebrating with joy and abandon, but there was no trace of that now. In the end, Tanith had two dozen footsoldiers with her, and they all rearranged hurriedly so as to be in front of the gate itself, forming a wall of shields and spears, those in the back line drawing bows and pointing them for the door. In front of the rest, Tanith lit a flame in one hand, a dagger held in a reverse grip in the other, and glanced over her shoulder.

“We’ll hold. The rest of you—get to the Chantry. And tell Rilien I’m sorry, would you?”

Estella’s face twisted into an expression of clear pain, and she looked almost as though she intended to protest, but in the end, something stayed her tongue, and she nodded solemnly to them. “I will. Thank you, all of you. Fight well.” Her voice nearly cracked, but she managed to hold it steady. The need for haste was still apparent, however, and she turned from them then, jogging up the hill with the rest of the group and the remainder of those who had been posted at the gate.

Asala quietly followed, her eyes wide in shock. It was all too difficult to process what was happening, and she didn't truly understand it all. There was smoke and blood in the air, and deeper into the town the crimson of fires burned. She felt empty and numb, her feet moving on their own behind Estella and Cyrus. As they drew closer to the Chantry, the clash of steel reached her ears, and she looked up to see a small cluster of Venatori. They must have found a breach somewhere within the wall. Their armor was covered in scarlet and around their feet lay multiple bodies-- not all of them soldiers of the Inquistion. Amongst the pile, Asala recognized the face of Adan, the alchemist who'd aided her.

Her hand covered her mouth and she choked back a sob. Her legs trembled and threatened to buckle under her own weight. So distraught was she, that she didn't see the Venatori archer draw his bow, his arrow aimed at them.

The arrow flew from the end of the bow, its trajectory straight and unerring, at least until there was another body in front of it, Cyrus leaving afterimages behind as he pulled through the Fade to the spot, the luminous sword in his hand swinging in a controlled arc that snapped the arrow in two, the halves of it flying off in different directions. The bolt of lightning that he shot from his free hand cooked the archer in his armor, and the cultist dropped heavily to the ground.

“Asala! Focus! We’re not done yet!”

She shook her head, hard, and her eyes focused. Closing her eyes she forced everything to the back of her mind and drew her hands up. A Venatori with a large sword rushed them, and in a moment, the fade lit up in her hands. A barrier formed feet in front of him and surged forward. He attempted to hew through the shield, but the sword bounced off and left hairline cracks in it, but it continued to bowl forward regardless. The barrier struck the man at full force, throwing him back first into the ground hard. The wheezing he let out caused Asala to wince, but otherwise she did not back away.

The fight was a short one, in total, and the last Venatori soldier fell before Estella, a saber-stroke opening a broad gash on his neck, gushing arterial blood onto the snow. Her expression was grim, but resolute. “It’s not far now; let’s go.” She took point again, leading them up the last staircase and onto the highest level of the town itself, where they could glimpse ahead of them several others standing by the Chantry doors.

There were a lot of maroon tunics in the mix—it would seem the Lions had made it this far as well, and from the prominent scorch marks on their clothes and the soot-covered civilians that they herded inside the building, their progress here had been no easier than anyone else’s. As the group approached, they drew the attention of the mercenaries, who looked quite relieved to see them.

“Thank the Maker,” Donnelly said as they approached, breathing a heavy exhale. “Commander Leon’s lot are inside already, and we’ve got most of the civilians and remaining troops as well. You should hurry—he’ll want to speak with you.” He gestured for the group to head inside ahead of himself and the other Lions.

The small Chantry was brimming with people, civilians and soldiers alike. There was a loud clamor of multiple voices all speaking at once, and in various states of panic. The unrest felt within the building was palpable, and Asala wanted nothing more than to close her ears and drown it all out. But she didn't. Instead, she threw herself into work. As they approached the leaders of the Inquisition, Asala stopped and began to heal all of those that needed it. The work helped take her mind off of the panic in her heart, and the focus helped drown out the dread.

As she helped a soldier with a large gash in his side, she watched as the others approached the Inquisition's leaders. Marceline stood with her arms crossed and a thin frown on her lips as she spoke to Leon and Rilien. It seemed she had just been roused from bed, as she still wore a black nightgown, though she also wore a thick coat that was far too big for her and a pair of thick leather boots. Nearby, her husband rested heavily against a pillar, a thin line of blood falling from his temple, and a pair of swords hanging limply from his hands. Larissa comforted Pierre with a firm grip on his shoulders and whispering something into his ears. Leon was fully armored now, his arms crossed over his broad chest, but when they entered, his eyes were immediately upon them, and a fraction of the tension left his frame.

Rilien looked the same as he ever did, still unerring in his calm, though not too far away, Khari seemed considerably more agitated, pacing restlessly. She too was fully armored now, and wearing her familiar cleaver-like sword. Her expression brightened for a moment upon seeing them, but then her eyes moved to the cluster of the Inquisition's leaders, as though she were waiting for something.

Leon said something to his fellow Inquisition leaders, too low to hear properly, and then nodded shortly, drawing in what seemed to be a very deep breath indeed, before he gestured to Asala and the rest of the irregulars, both those who’d just entered and the ones who were already there. Once everyone had assembled in a rough circle, he began to speak, his voice low enough not to carry much further than their ring of people.

“There isn’t much time until they reach us, as I’m sure you're aware.” He glanced up, towards the doors, where several Inquisition soldiers were at work fortifying the entrance to the Chantry with whatever was available, setting up an inverted ‘v’ of pews, a traffic control tactic that would likely do no one any good in the end. “I don’t know who this is or where they got a dragon, but we’ve no hope of holding Haven.” He shot a glance to Marceline.

She shook her head and drew the coat tighter over her shoulders. "We have our essential supplies packed into carts and the horses are ready..." She said before she hesitated. She threw a wary glance over her shoulder and toward her son and husband, before she returned it to the group. Marceline sighed heavily before she continued. "But, we have nowhere to escape to. We would not make it out the front gate before we were cut down." Though her face betrayed no emotion, her grip on the coat noticably tightened. "And I do not know of any other way out of Haven."

The group was interrupted at that point by an approaching Reed, who half-carried Chancellor Roderick, one of the clergyman’s arms slung over the corporal’s shoulders. Roderick’s white vestments bore a very obvious red stain, though it would seem he wasn’t currently bleeding. Rather, his face looked wan, bleached of all color, and a healer as experienced as Asala knew he was dying from blood loss.

“He said he had to talk to you, Commander,” Reed offered to Leon, whose brows drew together over his eyes.

Asala quickly moved to Roderick's other side and gestured for Reed to gently lower him into a sitting position on the ground. Once there, Asala's hand lit up in a healing spell and she moved it over the wound. She tilted her head toward Leon and gave him a curt shake of his head. It... did not look good, and she doubted that he was within her power to save, but it would not stop her from trying. She focused in on his wound and began to try and help as much as she could-- at the very least, she could dull the pain.

"Charming girl," he said, having apparently caught the look she gave Leon. Roderick patted her gently on the head before he weakly turned her head toward Leon. "Ser Albrecht," he began, before wincing in pain. "There is a way. You wouldn't know it unless you've taken the summer pilgrimage as I have. The people can escape. She must've shown me," he said weakly, but still tried to reach his feet. A steadying hand from Asala and a constant healing spell at his said, she helped guide him up.

"Andraste must have shown me so I can-can tell you."

“What do you mean, Chancellor?” Leon’s tone seemed to waver between gentle and stern, as though he could not quite resolve the tension between the urgency of their situation and his evident sympathy for the cleric. “Shown you what?”

“It was whim that I walked the path,” he replied, his mind clearly not at its usual alert capacity, which was probably the result of the wound he’d taken earlier. “Now, with so many in the Conclave dead, to be the only one that remembers…” He wheezed, a sound that might have been a rueful laugh, had he the lung capacity for it. “If this simple memory can save us… then this could be more than mere accident.” He turned his head, clearly making an effort to fix his eyes on Romulus and Estella. You could be more…”

“Will it work?” Estella asked urgently, training her gaze on Rilien and Leon. The commander turned to the Tranquil as well, perhaps trusting his instinct in clandestine retreat better than his own.

It did not take him long to consider. “Possibly. If you can show us the way.” His expression remained devoid of any readable traces, until he turned the scant bit needed to move his citrine eyes from Roderick to the others. “But it will take time, and the opposition must be occupied while it occurs.” The gravity of what he was saying was apparent in his pitch, somehow, though he didn’t modulate much at all. He was saying, clearly enough, that some group of people would need to remain behind and distract the encroaching force while the rest escaped. And the prospect of those people escaping was near to nothing.

"So we give them something they’ll be drawn to, as bait,” Romulus cut in, buckling on the second of his bracers. Estella looked as though she’d been about to speak, but yielded the floor when the now battle-geared assassin spoke up instead. His weapons were soon in his hands, making his next words perhaps less surprising. "I’ll go, with a few others maybe. I could try to reach one of the trebuchets, turn it towards the mountains behind us. Hit the right spot, and…” He pushed his hands down, a gesture symbolizing an avalanche as best he could make it.

"Bury them in the village they want to take?” Vesryn said, grinning slightly as he leaned on his spear, though he appeared largely uninjured. "Not a bad plan for our escape, but that doesn’t leave you with much of one.” Romulus had a look of steel in his eyes, and yet at the same time it had softened. Aggression towards the enemy, out of desire to help friends, perhaps.

"I was going to be gone in the morning anyway,” he admitted, glancing at Khari. "But this is a choice I can make. One choice of my own. I want it to be a good one.”

“I’m going with you.” That was Khari, and she said it with iron in her voice, a tone that left no room for protest. It didn’t take long, though, for that impression to almost dissipate, subsumed under her usual carefree demeanor, complete with reckless smile. “Can’t well run away while my friend goes off to fight a dragon and fire a trebuchet at a whole mountain, now can I?” She put one fist in her other palm in front of her chest, cracking her knuckles and shaking her hands out, shifting deliberately from one foot to another, as though to make sure everything was working the way she wanted it to.

Romulus simply nodded, offering no objection, and smiling slightly, as though unsurprised.

Estella glanced back and forth between them, still looking a bit like she’d swallowed something that didn’t agree with her, something tightening around her eyes, but she didn’t say anything. Leonhardt didn’t seem especially pleased, either, but clearly he believed that the suggestion made sense, and he nodded slowly. “Very well,” he said at last. “Give me a moment; I’ll see who among the others would join you—skilled as you are, the distraction needs to last, or it will be for naught.”

He left them there for several minutes, during which he made a short circuit of the room, returning with four Inquisition regulars, looking nervous but resolute, and, surprisingly enough, Grand Enchanter Fiona. She nodded to the group, smiling grimly. “I failed to protect my people once,” she explained, “I will not do so again.”

A pair of horns muscled their way toward the group and Meraad emerged with his arms crossed and his head tilted to the side. After a moment of him glancing between them, he nodded. "I will join you."

"No." The healing spell in Asala's hand cut off abruptedly and caused Roderick to wince as the pain rushed back. She shifted his weight so that Reed was left holding onto him again, and she moved toward Meraad. "No, you will not," she stated firmly as she stood in front of him. The frown she wore was deep and wide and she held his wrists as tight as she dared.

He simply smiled and shook his head. "I am, and I will." A muscle tightened in her jaw and she was about to refuse him again, but he silenced her by pressing his forehead gently against her. "For you, Kadan. I have to make sure you escape safely." With that said, he withdrew and threw a glance back at Romulus and Khari. "Someone has to make sure they come back," he said still smiling. "We will be fine. I promise," he said, kissing her forehead.

She was quiet after that, her mouth open but she didn't know what to say. She stared at him long and hard before she spoke again. "You... promise?" she asked, to which he nodded. Her gaze lingered for a moment longer before she went into the pack at her side. She retrieved a container and pulled the lid off to reveal a white, paint-like substance. She dipped a pair of fingers into it a scooped some out.

Without needing her to ask him, he leaned forward and she drew a pair of lines across his forehead with the vitaar, and another pair down his forehead, across his brow, and all the way to his jaw. He then offered her his arms, and she drew another pair of lines down each of them. When she was done, she replaced the lid, slipped the container back in her pack, and took a step backward. She was on the verge of tears, before she threw herself into his arms.

"Come back, Kadan," and with that, she returned to Roderick's side and resumed the healing spell, throwing herself back into her work.

Setting

Characters Present

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

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Estella had lost track of how many hours, how many miles, the Inquisition had walked since departing Haven. Their progress was understandably slow, considering the number of wounded. The cavalry’s horses, the ones they’d managed to round up for the retreat, had been given over to the injured, as had any spare space in the two supply carts they’d been able to muster in enough time. It wasn’t a lot, wasn’t near enough, but it was something. She supposed she should feel comforted by that, but she really didn’t.

As it had done so many times before, the necessity of continuing to move forward kept her from collapse, but it was a near thing. She simply led Nox, burdened down with two injured soldiers, along the trail the wagons had forged through the snow, near the back of the procession. The other Lions slogged nearby, she knew, but she hadn’t made eye contact with anyone for most of the time they’d been walking.

Now, they drew to a stop, far enough away for those in charge to feel comfortable making camp, and knowing that they had to, lest the injured become the dead. Handing Nox off to one of the soldiers so he could help the others down, Estella moved forwards into the camp and started to help pitch the tents, few as they were, the largest one devoted to the care of the wounded. Her hands moved mechanically, methodically, without any thought at all, because she was trying very hard not to have any. A few others laid all the blankets and such that they had down on the floors, and she caught sight of Leon and Hissrad assisting with the carrying of the most gravely hurt to the tent, where she expected Asala and Donovan and some of the other mages would soon be hard at work.

It would be nice, to have a use at a time like this. A real one.

When the tents were pitched, Estella helped dig a fire pit, then ventured out into the snowy landscape to find wood to burn in it. At present, no one told her she shouldn’t, because they couldn’t spare anyone the work needed to get the camp set up as soon as possible. Every time her thoughts wandered to the avalanche’s thundering down the mountainside into Haven or the sight of that dragon flying away, she shook her head and refocused, scanning the landscape for another dead tree or brush sticking up from under the snow. Every time she thought of Khari or Romulus or the party who held the gate, or Fiona or Tanith or Asala’s brother Meraad, she threw another branch over her shoulder and trekked it back to the site, not pausing before she struck out again.

Every time she thought of the people who’d died so that she could live, she took a deep, shuddering breath, and another step forward. What else could she do?

Each trip back to the fire pit brought her back to Cyrus, who’d started it with his magic and was now tending it, coaxing it to grow as large and warm as possible, feeding it gradually from the pile of wood she was bringing in so that it would burn long and steady. He’d also altered the shape of the pit, so that the outer perimeter of the fire could be used in several places for heating snow into drinkable water and cooking, things of that kind. He seemed to be doing so now, actually, a large cauldron set near the center of the flames, which licked up its thick, cast-iron sides. Several bags of supplies lay near where he sat, and water was beginning to boil in the cauldron, prompting him to begin adding other things. From what he had, it seemed their meal would be a thick stew of some kind.

Rilien could be seen on another side of the fire, steadily at work brewing potions, from the look of it, though his kit was quite small, probably being the only version of it he’d been able to stow on such short notice as they’d had. Already, though, several glass vessels were full and stoppered, stuck into the snow to cool rapidly for consumption. Larissa worked nearby, aiding him to the best of her abilities. Several other members of the Inquisition were hard at work building up a snow-wall to protect the camp from the worst of the wind, especially considering that there would not be enough tents and blankets for everyone. Out of those helping build the wall stood Sparrow, no worse for wear, possibly sporting a new wound or two, but it seemed as if she'd come out of the battle with all her limbs intact. Through chattering teeth and the occasional colorful cuss, she smoothed her fingers across the impromptu bricks and turned towards the nearest man to settle another brick in place.

Marceline had changed out of her nightgown, and now wore something more appropriate for the environment: a thick black dress and heavy leather boots. She kept Pierre close as they moved through the camp, handing out the water to those who needed it, one of whom was her husband, Michaël. He sat heavily against the cart, another soldier working to patch the cut that opened above his eye. When not watching his family, he seemed to gaze off into the distance, with a glaze to his eyes.

Zahra had positioned herself on the outskirts of their makeshift base camp. Mumbled something about keeping her eyes on the horizon in case any dragons flapped over the mountains, though if that were the case, everyone would know without her say so. In any case, they hadn't directed her anywhere, and allowed her to slink off by herself. She hadn't changed out of her bloody leathers, nor donned any warm cloaks. Hers had burned along with everyone else's belongings back in Haven.

She'd refused treatment from any of the healers, and upon close inspection, there wasn't anything inherently wrong with her. No physical wounds, no new scars, nothing at all. She hunkered herself down in the snow, just outside one of the tents, hands wrapped around her knees. Chin tipped across her knees, lips set into a hard line. The Captain looked less like the intimidating woman who had born down on the Inquisition, lips perpetually drawn into that shit-eating grin of hers and more like a lost little girl, motionless and unusually silent.

Eventually, on one of Estella's trips to retrieve more wood, though they had acquired enough for the fire to last already, she found Vesryn already out there, separated away from the rest of the group as well. There were scouts still about as well, those not too severely injured, but for the most part, they were beyond the earshot of anyone within the camp, especially when speaking softly, gently, as Vesryn did.

"I won't pretend to know what you're going through," he said. He looked uncomfortable himself, obviously unsure how to proceed. His hands rested upon the blade of his axe, his eyes hovering with concern over Estella. Throughout all the fighting, somehow he'd managed to only acquire a single, minor wound, treated by a tight wrap around his left arm near the elbow. "But if there's any way I can help, any way at all, please, tell me."

His words brought her up short, and for a moment, she struggled to understand their meaning. That, after all, required something more than automatic motion. When they finally clicked into place, though, she cleared her throat, shifting uncomfortably where she’d stopped and looking at her feet. “It’s not me,” she murmured softly, and then she forced herself to look up, meeting his eyes and smiling awkwardly. “I’m not the one to worry about right now, I think.” In the end, all she was doing was feeling sorry for herself.

Asala was the one who’d lost a brother. Zahra had lost her most stalwart crewman, a member of her family. Rilien had lost one of his oldest friends. Romulus and Khari… they’d lost their lives, they and so many others. Probably everyone here had lost someone—a compatriot, a friend, a family member or a lover. But now she was thinking about it, and she hadn’t meant to do that. Estella felt a hot sting at the back of her eyes, and dropped them again, gulping in a deep breath, trying to blink away the moisture and failing.

“Sorry, I, um.” She used the heel of her left hand to wipe off her cheeks and exhaled a shaky breath, trying not to let herself get caught up in her emotions. There were certainly a lot of them, dark and churning through her head like a violent tide.

Vesryn was quick to set down his axe against a nearby tree and cross the space between them, such that he was within arm's reach. "Listen." He placed a hand on her shoulder, squeezing slightly, and ducking his head down a little so that they'd be closer to even in height. "There are dozens of reasons why you're worth worrying about right now. And only a few of them have to do with you being a Herald, or important, or anything of the sort." He spoke the title almost dismissively, as though in that particular moment it meant quite little to him indeed.

"Here's a reason for you: you're a good person. A selfless person. I've seen it. And you had to witness people make sacrifices that our blighted circumstances stopped you from helping with, or lessening. To me, that's something far more heavy to endure, and not something Asala can magically make go away." His other hand rose to her other shoulder. "I can't cast any spells, and I don't know any of the others enough to help them. But I hope I can help you. I want to."

She swallowed thickly, trying to fight down the lump that was forming in her throat. Vesryn’s face swam in and out of clarity as more tears gathered, and still she fought them back. What he was describing… all of them had needed to witness that. He’d know—he’d been right there the whole time as well. So why was she the only one who couldn’t seem to handle it right now? How was it that everyone else was still moving, still doing what needed to be done, when what they’d suffered was at least as much as what she had?

How was it that none of them were blaming her for it?

“Don’t die then,” she said, struggling to force the words out in some steady, comprehensible way. “They died because I’m the Herald. Because they believed that this—” she held up her right hand, where the mark glowed even through her glove—“made me worth that sacrifice.” Not all of them, maybe. Certainly not Rom or Khari, but the majority of the Inquisition’s soldiers… “Please.” She met his eyes, blinking to clear hers and make sure she had them, her voice cracking and fading to a whisper. “Promise me you won’t die for me.”

Even to phrase it that way sounded absurd to her own ears, like the height of arrogance. To presume that anyone would bother. But at the same time, she knew that many of them had. For the Herald, they’d said. She couldn’t bear it.

Vesryn actually smiled, exhaling a soft, breathy laugh. Her emotion was obviously proving somewhat infectious, though he managed to keep it within himself much better than she did. "Come here." He pulled her into an embrace, wrapping one arm around her, the other pressed against her dark hair. "I'll have you know I'm very good at not dying. I have plans to grow old and grouchy, entertaining hordes of adorable little children with tales of my heroics." There was a glint of light in his eyes, but whether it was tears or amusement was difficult to say. Likely a bit of both. She huffed weakly, something that might have been a laugh in better circumstances, and tentatively returned the hug, making obvious effort to keep her breathing steady.

"I will not lay down my life for a title anyone has, or a magic ability they wield. I have another life in my head to protect besides, remember? But she gave me the skill to follow in her ideals, and they would have me oppose whatever force tried to obliterate us tonight." He broke the embrace so that he could have her eyes again, swallowing. "And they would have me do everything in my power to help you succeed."

“Okay.” Estella nodded shakily, but she was gradually regaining the feeling of having her feet properly beneath her, of having a way to go forward, and the declaration was as much for herself as for him. She knew from experience that as along as she had a way to go, she could keep going until she was numb and half-dead. She’d done so before, in ways both literal and figurative. What they needed to do now was decide which way forward was. She knew at least one thing that had to happen for that, too. Maybe… maybe he could help with that, as well.

“I-in your travels… have you ever come across anyplace big enough to hold us? Somewhere we could go, without imposing on anyone else?” She knew of a few old mercenary forts that stood empty across the Orlesian countryside, but none of them were large enough. It was possible that he’d once encountered some ruins that were, or perhaps Saraya knew of some. “If we’re to have a hope… we need somewhere to plant ourselves, all of us together.”

Vesryn nodded thoughtfully, but didn't seem surprised by the query. "We've given some thought to this. There is a place that I can show you. It's far from here, to the north. It'll be a hard journey through the mountains, but I can show you." He looked tentative about the next part, taking a step back and letting his hands fall to his sides. "I believe it will serve the Inquisition well... but I don't know how the Inquisition will react, having an elf lead them to a home. I can lead troops in a battle, but I can never be the heart of this Inquisition."

He shrugged. "That, more than ever, needs to be you. I'll be there, step for step, but I think you should lead the way."

“What? No.” There was more than one thing in that to protest, but she felt most strongly about a particular piece of it. “You two are the ones who know where it is—everyone should know that it’s your doing that gets us there.” It was, of course, impossible to explain Saraya to everyone, but Vesryn at least should be acknowledged for what he contributed to the cause. “I’ve no reservations following you if you know where to go, and neither should anyone else.” If the title and everything that came with it were to do any good, at least she should try and lead by example, in this case, the example of accepting help and wise counsel, whether it came from an elf or not.

"Think about this," he urged, still gently. "The Inquisition suffered a blow, a hard one, but one that it can still recover from. But it will never rise like it needs to without a leader. I don't believe you were chosen by Andraste, but I don't need to because I know you. The world must believe it, and they won't if they hear that the lone Herald of Andraste followed an elf every step of the way. The right thing to do here... it has to be giving these people the hope they need. It doesn't matter if Andraste chose you or not. You have the ability, the opportunity, to make their hope real. And I believe you can do it."

Anguish morphed her features. “That’s the same lie that just killed hundreds of people,” she replied, just as gently. “And I have to tell it again?” She shook her head slowly, her brows knitting tightly over her eyes. Even if she wasn’t saying it directly, by not denouncing it, she was allowing it to stand uncontested, which was enough of an endorsement. Deep down, she knew he was right, or at least, she suspected he was. She knew it was the same advice Marceline or Leon or Rilien would give her, but it didn’t make her feel any less like dirt.

She exhaled heavily, her breath clouding in the chill, and felt a new weight settle over her shoulders that had nothing to do with hauling wood. She didn’t know how long she’d be able to do this, to let people believe this, before she cracked under the pressure of it. But if she had to be the bad person here, the liar and the fake… would it be worth it, for what they achieved?

Estella had to believe it would be. Had to believe the lie and the false front would be enough to accomplish what they needed to. She lamented that she wasn’t strong enough to do this as herself, but she couldn't be. To most of them, she would have to be something she wasn’t; she’d have to let them believe it. Just long enough.

“All right,” she said at last. “I’ll… I’ll lead. But you have to be next to me. If I can’t follow you… everyone else can.” She tried for a half-smile, shrugging one shoulder. “The world needs to know that’s possible, too, the sooner the better.”

He smiled, the expression coming more easily to him, as it always did. "I've no problem with that."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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A week of travel had taken its toll.

The Inquisition was drastically undersupplied, even in terms of camp equipment, and on most nights, the vast majority of its people slept outside, under their cloaks with their bundled gear by way of pillows, if they had any. Leon had done his rotations outside with the soldiers, and he knew that Estella and the other officers had done the same. The lack of good rest made the days even more wearying, and the horses and carts necessarily went with priority to the injured, leaving most to trek the snowy miles by foot. A large number of the most gravely wounded had succumbed to their injuries or infection or the cold—there simply weren’t enough potions and healers to go around.

For all that, though, they’d kept going. Part of it was undoubtedly the fact that every time one of the regulars looked up and forward, they could see their Herald at the front of the column, breaking the ground over which they would eventually tread, the other leaders fanned out behind her. Periodically she would consult those nearest her, and she called breaks in trekking regularly, but at the conclusion of every one, she was walking forward again. Even that much was enough to make clear that the Inquisition, like its remaining leadership, yet had purpose, destination, and the will to reach it.

But after a long week slogging through the mountains, even the most faithful believer in the cause grew nearly unbearably weary, and that discontent was beginning to seed in the ranks, many of whom could be heard to wonder aloud why they had not simply turned east, for the Hinterlands they already held, or west, towards potential allies in Orlais. Either would have been far warmer than this, and safer. They’d nearly lost one cart to a narrow and unstable pass already—it would have been a loss they could not sustain.

Fortunately, he had the suspicion that they neared the end of their trek. It was something he read off the way Estella’s tread lightened, the way she’d smiled the last time she’d paused to update directions from Vesryn. Presently, they crested another rise, sundown almost upon them, and Leon halted at the sight below.

Farther down the path before them lay a castle.

Composed of grey granite, it wasn’t enormous by the standards of such constructions, but it wasn’t modest, either. Connected to their present course by a stone bridge over a deep chasm, the castle proper was perched firmly upon the top of another rise, one that stood apart from the mountains to two of its sides, the third side falling off sharply down into a canyon beneath. It was eminently defensible from the ground, the only way in through a system of gates on the bridge, protected by guard towers.

It had roughly eight towers, two in the back considerably larger than the rest, as well as the central building, which was twice as broad again, but perhaps fifty feet shorter, lending it a sense of symmetry. It was hard to make out from this far, but the grounds within looked expansive enough to contain all the things one would expect: bailey, stables, smaller buildings; enough space for a village’s worth of people, at least. Leon noted also that several of the towers looked to be on the verge of collapse, and would need immediate attention from a mason, or rather many of them. Then again… it was probably quite old.

"We certainly have a project ahead of ourselves, yes?" Lady Marceline stated as she pulled up beside him on her black Orlesian Courser. Behind her, Michaël led another, this one bearing a dozing Pierre. Though she spoke the words, she still seemed relieved to have finally reached their destination.

“So it seems,” he agreed pensively.

It was still a relief to see it at last, and as he trailed in the wake of the Herald, he couldn’t help but turn back periodically to assess the reactions of the others. They seemed, for the most part, both impressed and bolstered by the sight of their destination, and that eased his worry a bit. It wasn’t near the end of the work they had to do, but at least things like roofs, beds, and baths were in the foreseeable future, now. He knew from experience that these were the things that beckoned most to soldiers weary from long, hard marching.

They deserved this. To be able to sleep indoors, warm and comfortable. To not have to huddle close in hopes of conserving what warmth was to be had, or rotate with their fellows for the spots closest to the campfire. After what they’d been through, they deserved a fair bit more than that, as well, but Leon knew it was important to focus on one thing at a time for the moment.

The gates themselves proved old, but mostly still in working condition, and they were able to get all three of the ones across the bridge raised, and funnel their people, animals, and supplies through without difficulty. The bridge was missing a few chunks out of the side, which made for more careful going in places, but the underlying structure appeared quite sound.

After the final gate put them in a wide area of shriveled brown grass and weeds, Leon directed the carts be placed under a stone overhead seemingly designed with the purpose in mind, and then they were unloaded, quite quickly considering how little there was to unload. The scouts came back shortly after with an idea of which buildings were immediately accessible, which fortunately included what had to be the barracks, so the regulars had somewhere to set their things, anyway.

While they worked on settling in and getting off their feet for a while, Leon gathered some of the others to himself in hopes of making a more detailed survey of what they were working with. Cyrus and Asala should stay with the healers and continue tending the wounded for the moment, and he didn’t want to disturb Zahra, but himself, Rilien, Marceline, Estella and Vesryn might as well figure out what they now had.

“Might as well start with the main hall, I suppose.”

It was Rilien who tried the door first, and though it stuck initially, it opened when he put his shoulder into it, a cloud of dust billowing about at its motion for the first time in what might well have been centuries. The group stepped inside, to find that the situation with respect to the castle’s condition was even more dire than had been evident from the outside. The chamber they entered had vaulted ceilings as grand as any architecture in Orlais, but that was, for the moment, where the similarity ended.

This room, like the rest of the building, was built primarily from grey stone, likely pulled at some point from the mountain itself, and much, though not all of it, had remained intact. The room was longer away from them than it was wide, and clearly once served as a receiving hall. A dais at the end of it seemed poised to hold a throne, and the depressions along either side would serve well for long tables.

Of course, all of the wood in the space, and much of what must have once been its furnishings and decorations, were in utter ruins. Massive beams of wood lay over the floors, rotted and torn fabric dangling here and there from splinters or else lying strewn over the ground. It was impossible to tell so much as what color they’d once had, so advanced was their decay. The smell was not as bad as it could have been, considering, but the thick layer of choking dust over everything made breathing a labor nevertheless.

Rilien, at least, seemed unperturbed, scanning over the features of the chamber with no detectable feelings on the matter. “We ought not risk moving too much of the debris, but some of these doors are unblocked.” Several flanked each side of the hall, and he was correct that at least half of them looked to be useable without risk of further damage.

Marceline's eyes were turned upward, as though she was worried their intrusion would bring the roof down around their ears. However, a few more steps into the main hall seemed to have settled her as she instead looked toward a door on the left side of the hall. She pointed toward it and turned back to look at the others. "Shall we?" she asked. She then began to pick her way through the debris, careful to not to trip over anything, to reach the door in question. She took its latch in hand gingerly and gave a pull, but it fought against her and refused to swing wide. She huffed a little and pulled again, this time putting more weight into it until something snapped. Instead of swinging open, the door's rusted hinges snapped and tipped forward toward Marceline.

Vesryn found himself in the opportune place and swiftly reached armored hands out to catch the door, subsequently trapping Marceline in a rather small space between the flat surface of the door braced by his palms, and the chest of the elf himself. He laughed a bit uncomfortably, but did not seem displeased by the development. "Fear not, my lady. I will prevent such a low, dastardly foe as this door from marring your beauty." There was at least enough room for her to slip out, if she were willing to duck and squeeze. Which she did.

"That would be a such shame. My thanks, Ser Vesryn," she said with a smile. Grunting, he shifted the door to the side, and set it up against the wall.

With that dealt with, they entered through the now bare door frame and through another door that did not break into a side room. The room itself was of moderate size, with one half built three steps into the floor. The upper part of the floor made a pathway that led to another door at the far end of the room, while the lower part held a grand fireplace built into the wall. Like the main hall, the floor was littered with splinters of wood and torn pieces of fabric. Marceline descended the steps into the lower part of the room and placed a hand on the fireplace. As she ran her hand across the mantle, she looked around studying the room. Once she was done, she turned to face the others.

"If we are to stay here, then I will keep this room in mind for my office, if you all would allow it," she said, allowing her hand to fall from the mantle. The fireplace seemed to have found a way into her heart.

With the room thoroughly inspected, she took the steps onto the upper landing and continued to the doorway at the far end. Once through the portal they were met with a long hallway built onto the contours of the mount they were on, by the way the floor rose upward by a set of two stairs. To the right, windows were built into the wall, but the glass that once filled them were long gone. Near the end of the hall, the wall gave way to crumbling masonry, allowing them a good view of the mountain range to their side. Marceline frowned as she looked at it and shook her head, her displeasure clear.

Estella simply gave it a careful berth, skirting around the structural deficiency and towards the door at the end of the long hallway. She was careful with it, perhaps seeking to avoid a repeat of Marceline’s ill fortune, but she needn’t have worried, for the door opened easily, if with a grating squeak of hinges. She winced, glancing back over her shoulder at the rest of them. “Sorry.”

Leon suspected apologizing was a reflex for her at this point, so he simply shook his head, following her into the room on the other side.

It was quite spacious, semicircular at the far end, and contained a bank of vertical windows on that side, most of them at least partly broken out as well. Here too was the same evidence of former furniture and furnishing, now destroyed, as well as some clear weather-damage, where rain or snow had worn away at things over long decades of no maintenance. What might have once been a massive chandelier was the main piece of debris in the room, broken and scattered in all directions.

“You know, it’s almost like the place was attacked,” Estella mused, stepping carefully over various chunks of debris to the windows. It looked like they faced out to the mountain behind. “Or maybe just… ransacked, after it was left last.” It was hard to imagine bandits all the way out here, but Leon had to agree that it did look like that way. Furniture didn’t rot itself into smashed condition, after all.

“Well, let’s hope it suffers no such ill luck whilst we’re present, shall we?” he replied wryly. The room would do well as a meeting one, though—he’d been able to save most of his maps from Haven, and a new table for them would easily fit in here; there was standing room for as many people as he could imagine needing to address at once, in such a situation. It would seem that, however much work it required beforehand, the castle would at least be able to meet their needs.

“What’s this place called, anyway?” Leon asked, glancing between Estella and Vesryn.

"Tarasyl'an Te'las," Vesryn answered simply, though he seemed well aware that further explanation would be required. "I expect that wouldn't do for a name to spread far and wide, of course, and the fortress itself is Ferelden, not elvish. The words mean 'the place where the sky was held back.' For our purposes... Skyhold, I think will do."

“Skyhold it is, then.” Quite the grandiose name, really, but the that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Now… they just had to get it in the kind of shape that deserved the designation.

“…we’d better get to work.”

Setting

Characters Present

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

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It was a few days after they had reached Skyhold, the name the leaders of the Inquisition had given the castle they now resided in. One of the towers near the corner of the compound was cleaned out and was decided to be stable enough to be of immediate use. Currently, the floors were littered with mats, blankets, and cots with the injured laying atop them. Asala had found a small table still intact on the grounds and had brought it inside to hold all manner of potions that Donovan, Milly, and some of the other mages were able to save from the attack on Haven.

Beside that was a cauldron that held enough water to give all of their patients. Presently, Asala stood at the table, her back hunched over so that she could reach the bottle. She was mixing a potion for one of the soldiers who had their leg broken from a nasty fall due to some of the stones on the wall giving away. Meanwhile on the floor next to her, the tranquil Milly was hard at work constructing a cast for the man.

With the potion mixed, Asala turned and crossed the room to where the man sat with his back against the wall. Groans and mumbling came from all around her from soldiers with afflictions. There were many with fevers and pneumonia due to the cold they had to trudge through. Donovan and the other mages made rounds to aid as many as they could, but they were clearly understaffed and under supplied. Even now, Aurora and some of the others were out beyond the castle walls to try and find herbs that they could use. She knelt by the soldier and put a comforting smile on her face before she offered the potion. "This will help with the pain and the healing," she explained, guiding it to his mouth and helping him drink it.

The smile faded as she stood and allowed Milly to take her place and begin to gently wrap the leg in a cast. She returned to the table and reached for another bottle to begin the process again, but she missed and knocked a bottle over, clattering against another. She jumped out of surprised and let out a low squeak, but fortunately she did not break anything. She was still tired, even when they had stopped moving and with a roof over their heads. She was too worried to sleep, her mind awash in thoughts she'd rather not think.

She placed the bottles upright again, and before she was able to return mixing, a firm hand descended on her shoulder and she turned to Donovan's stoic face. "Go rest," he urged. Reflexively her mouth opened to refuse, but before she could get a word out, Donovan cut her off. "Go. We will be fine," he said. She hesitated for a moment, but by the grip he had on her shoulder, he would not take no for answer. Finally she acquiesced, taking her leave through the door and out of the tower. She did not make it far, however, plopping down against the wall beside the door.

There were dozens of people moving about outside, as was to be expected, given the mountain of work that was yet to be done. Some noticed her odd positioning by the door and offered sympathetic smiles, their arms burdened down with debris or, going the other way, measured beams of wood or masonry supplies and who knew what else. Clearly, the Inquisition’s leadership had wasted no time in requisitioning whatever they could as far as essentials.

It wasn’t long before two much more familiar faces approached. Leon looked the slightest bit apprehensive, but he was carrying a wooden tray in one hand, covered over by a metal dome with a handle at the top. Estella had a bundle of blankets over one arm and a pillow tucked under the other. They both looked a bit surprised to see her where she was, but glanced at each other wordlessly, then approached.

“Asala?” Estella spoke first, her voice soft and gentle, almost difficult to hear until she took another few steps, to crouch beside her, shifting the burdens in her hands slightly so that one was free to gently touch Asala's arm, at the bicep. “Are you all right? Can you walk a bit farther?”

"I am fine, just... tired," she said. By the ways her words were drawn out and the bags that stayed under her eyes even after they reached Skyhold said that she was more than just tired. Still, she kept it bottled away for the moment and put a hand against the masonry behind her to help her to her feet. She was unsteady at first, catching Estella's shoulder to help find her legs under her again before she nodded an extending a hand, allowing Estella and Leon to take the lead.

Leon did lead, but Estella stayed back by Asala’s side, keeping a light contact with her elbow—little more than a brush of the fingers, but close enough obviously to become a stronger effort at steadying if she proved to be in need of it. As promised, they didn’t go far, only to the next tower, which was also in relatively good shape.

Entering it brought them into a small hallway, with two doors on either side. Leon took the first one on the left, which opened up into a comfortably-sized room. Clearly, some work had been put into it—the floor had been swept, washed, and then covered in a thick, plush rug, patterned in red and orange. Against the far wall, which also sported a window with a latch, was a wooden bedframe and a currently-bare mattress. A desk, stuffed armchair, and small bookcase completed the arrangement, most of the furnishings looking either new or like someone had gone to a fair bit of work making them useable after a period of time.

“It’s not much,” Estella said, half-smiling and moving to deposit the linens and pillows on the bed, “But we wanted to give you someplace that would just be yours. We’ve had people building bunks and the like since we got here, but… uh.” She glanced at Leon, who shrugged.

“I can wait for an office chair.” Now that he had the opportunity, he set the tray down on the desk. “We brought you lunch, also. We’re…” he hesitated, looking distinctly uncomfortable.

“We’re worried about you.”

"What? Why?" she asked, genuine confusion in her voice. "I am fine, r-really," she said, though she noticably swayed. She had put so much of herself into her work lately, that she no longer felt exhausted, only numb. Her mind worked faster than it should've and all of her thoughts jumbled into an inchorent mess. It was fortunate she manged to find a thread and follow it.

"There are others..." she said, pointing back the way they came. In another moment of confusion, she did manage to take a moment to look at the room they were in, before shaking her head again, "I-I-I cannot. It is too nice. Wh-what of you? Estella? Do you not need a room? Leon? Surely there is someone who needs it more than me," she asked.

Leon was quicker to her side, but despite the urgency of the initial movement, he was extremely careful in his contact, laying one hand on her shoulder and the other at the center of her back, gently guiding her into the chair, perhaps from fear for her continued stability. “Everyone who needs a place to sleep has one, or will soon,” he assured her. “There’s no need for you to be concerned about that.”

He removed his hands once she was safely lowered into the chair, and took a half-step back, probably out of respect for her space, but Estella was a little less reserved in that respect, crouching on the opposite side of the chair and resting a hand on Asala’s knee. “I’m fine,” she confirmed softly. “I’m less sure you are. Asala… it’s been nearly two weeks. I’m just…” she swallowed thickly. There was no need to ask what she was talking about. The solemn silence that had descended over the three of them was indication enough.

"He promised," Asala said quietly, her hands neatly folded into her lap. It was what kept her up the nights since they escaped Haven, and was why she pushed herself so hard now. She had hoped by throwing herself into her work, she wouldn't have time to think, and by the time she was done she would be too tired to dream. It had not been like that. She still thought of it in between brewing potions, and those very same thoughts kept her from her sleep, despite how tired she was. Even so, she still believe Meraad would come back, and soon. "It is... Haven is a long way away. He-he just hasn't had time to get here yet."

He always came for her. Back home, he'd be the one to pull her from her studies. He found her in Haven after the Conclave was destroyed, and he'd find her again, at Skyhold. He was too impatient not to. She only wished he would hurry, she was tired of worrying for him.

“Miss Asala…” Leon’s tone was heavy, and sounded almost as exhausted as she felt. “Rilien’s already sent agents to search Haven and the surrounding area. The only people alive there are Venatori.” He said it as gently as possible, clearly well aware of how terrible the news was. “I’m sorry—more than I can say. He made a sacrifice few would be brave enough to even consider. But that’s what it was: a sacrifice. And I think you know that, too.”

Asala shook her head vigorously, throwing white strands of hair into her face. "He promised," she repeated again. "They-they cannot find him because he is... he is on his way. Here. Now," she said, though the pain was beginning to blossom in her face. "They all are. Romulus and... and Khari. He promised," despite herself, the tears began to flow from her eyes, which she quickly tried to wipe away. She didn't believe it, she couldn't believe it. She had to believe that they were somewhere in the mountains they had trekked, on their way there.

Neither bothered to argue the point with her, perhaps because the damage was already done. Estella smiled sadly, then patted down her pockets, brows furrowing slightly. It wasn’t clear exactly what she was doing until Leon beat her to it, handing her a clean handkerchief from one of his own, which she accepted wordlessly, adjusting herself so that she was half-sitting on the arm of Asala’s chair, dabbing gently underneath her eyes to help blot the tears away.

“Maybe,” she conceded in a murmur. “But you can’t go on like this, Asala. You can’t let the waiting drain you as it is. You have to sleep, and eat.”

"I am... I am not hungry," she said in between sobs, pushing the tray with the silver dish further up the desk. "I-I am so-sorry. I just... I just really need to be... be alone for now."

Estella sighed, almost imperceptibly, but then she nodded. “Okay.” She folded the handkerchief and placed it on the desk, squeezing Asala’s shoulder and rising from her spot. “If you need us, we’ll be here.” Clearly, neither she nor Leon were going to insist on remaining present, and they took a discreet exit thereafter, the latter closing the door carefully behind him.

With Estella and Leon having left, Asala no longer had to hold herself together for their sakes, finally allowing the tears to fall freely. She picked herself up from the chair and threw herself heavily onto the bed where she began to sob heavily. She cried until she fell asleep.

This time, her dreams did not hold any happy moments for her.

Setting

Characters Present

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

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“My, my. Don’t you look official.”

Cyrus could tell from one look at Estella that she was not at all comfortable in her current raiment. Someone had made her a light shirt of polished, silverite ringmail, which fell almost to her knees. Her trousers were ordinary dark linen, but russet and gold fabric was predominant throughout the rest, with a few touches of red. Her chestpiece was dyed leather, impressed with the Inquisition’s heraldry, the all-seeing eye and the blade of mercy, as well as designs thematic of flames and the sun, which carried through to her pauldrons and the silk sash that took the ringmail in at her waist and held her sword. The part of the shirt from the waist down was layered over with a skirt of sorts, an abstract sunburst in yellow patterned onto darker orange. Her boots were the color of her other leathers, banded in silverite for reinforcement. She’d bound her hair back into an Orlesian-style braid, which trailed down the rather impressive cloak behind her. It was all the sort of thing someone of status would wear to an official function, which was precisely what today was to be. Naturally, his sister likely thought it all beyond what she deserved or was suited to.

Deserving was such a peculiar notion. He couldn’t say he really understood whatever version of it she operated with. At the moment, however, the abstract thought wasn’t the one that occupied him, and he plucked a pin off the table and moved forward to her side, flattening a little flyaway hair down atop her head and using the pin to secure it in place. He was himself back in indigo and black silk, much more at home in such things than she was. He, of course, had to look presentable as well, because he was now the brother of an Inquisitor, something which amused him a great deal more for her obvious apprehension than anything else. Something about Estella’s discomfort with attention had always struck him as slightly absurd, and funny, but he knew it wasn’t so for her.

So when he stepped away from her, he gentled his smile and took her hands, lifting them to press his palms against her own and lace their fingers for a moment. He ducked his head slightly to meet her eyes. “Everything’s going to be fine, Stellulam.” His eyes narrowed, and his tone was lighter when he continued. “They can’t be any more unbearable than me, and you already have that problem well in hand, don’t you?”

She half-smiled in that way she had that wasn’t quite all the way to happy, and shook her head ruefully. “Not everyone out there is my brother, Cyrus. And you’re not unbearable. Just… difficult.” She was joking with him, at least, which was a good sign, perhaps.

Still, it didn’t take long for the sense of unease to return to her, and she sighed shakily, her hands tightening in his. “I don’t suppose you know some back way out of Skyhold, do you? So we can escape if there are riots?” That joke, at least, fell flat, symptomatic of the all-too-serious way in which it was delivered.

Cyrus raised both eyebrows, letting his reply remain ambiguous between jesting and complete seriousness. “Stellulam, the day you genuinely want out of all of this, I will carve you a path out of Skyhold if I have to.” He tilted his head to the side and blinked down at her.

“But today, I think, is not that day, despite its trials.” When she didn’t correct him—of course she wouldn’t—he dropped one of her hands and moved himself sideways, adjusting her other so that it rested on his forearm. “Now. Please allow your first loyal subject to escort you to all your new ones.” Escort was really too formal a term, since all they’d be doing is entering the main hall through one of the side doors, but nevertheless, appearances were important.

She took the opportunity of their positioning to elbow him in the ribs before resettling her hand on his arm. “Don’t even start with that,” she scolded him, though a fair amount of the disapproval in her tone was exaggerated. Estella sucked in a deep breath and straightened her spine, giving him a short nod to indicate that they could proceed.

The door they were behind in the first place led right out into the front part of the hall, which necessitated a bit of a procession forward to the far end with the dais, but then, this had likely been deliberately arranged. The room had been one of the first repaired, and was now decorated in much the same warm palette of colors as Estella was wearing, a dark crimson carpet runner aligned with the path up to the modest throne that now sat atop the dais.

Estella’s step hitched beside him; likely someone had neglected to inform her of this particular detail, though her face didn’t change. Members of the Inquisition were variously standing or seated at the sides of the room, where twin long tables had been set with matching chairs, and new chandeliers hung over each, to complement the light pouring in from the elegant stained-glass windows behind the throne. It would have quite the effect, once someone was seated in the chair itself, which was designed to complement the rest of the décor, hammered metal and a flowing design giving it the gleam and depth of flame, particularly when it reflected light from elsewhere.

Though there was far from enough room to admit the entire Inquisition force in the main hall, there was certainly a large portion of it, including all the officers, most of the irregulars, and all three of the organization’s subdivision leaders, the last of whom stood just beneath the dais.

Cyrus ascended the first few steps with her, shifting effortlessly to take her hand and guide her up the last few to the top without him, smiling up at her with a distinct sense of mischief and winking so only she could see, backing down the stairs to land on a level with the rest, leaving her to stand in front of the throne by herself, facing the crowd.

Lady Marceline was the first to move after that. She took long, deliberate steps to deliver her below Estella and the throne, when she turned to face the gathered Inquisition forces. She wore an immaculate black dress stitched with silver embroidery and the Inquisition Heraldry sewn onto either shoulder. Her hair held gentle curls and seemed to have been groomed especially for this occasion. In fact, she seemed to have prepared for it extensively. Dark eyeliner lined her bright ocean blue eyes, and her lips were painted an intense cherry red. She stood with a regal bearing with her hands folded against her stomach.

The moment was allowed to simmer as she did not immediately begin speaking. Instead, she looked into the throne room, meeting the eyes of many of the individuals that had gathered, a gentle but proud smile on her face. She was silent for a time, but when she began to speak, her words carried all throughout the room. "Those of you who have gathered with us here today," she began her hands motioning along with her words, "We are the Inquisition," she continued, her hand turning to a fist, "Those that would stand before us will soon realize that we will not be defeated so easily, not when our hearts still beat and we still draw breath!" she paused to allow for a swell of voices.

"Haven was a defeat," she said, solemnly, before her voice began to rise again, "But it was not the end! The Inquisition still lives. We will rise from the ashes of Haven, stronger and more determined. We will step forward with a righteous fervor, and continue forward until the enemies that sought to eradicate the us lay behind us! Men and women of the Inquisition, will you follow?" She asked to the agreement of all of those in the throne room.

She smiled against and glanced backward to Estella before she continued. "But we cannot do so without a leader, a shining light to follow in the darkest of days. A light that has already guided us from the ashes and to this place that the Inquisition now calls home. It is her example we should follow, her kindness we should remember. Our Herald. Our Inquisitor," she said, a genuine smile on her cherry lips.

Marceline turned to Leon and accepted a golden sword by the blade. It was ceremonial in nature, its hilt intricately designed to hold the impression of a dragon. Turning back to Estella, Marceline gazed up and held the sword out horizontally for her to take. "Lady Estella Avenarius, will you lead the Inquisition?"

Estella stood tall, holding herself with a poise Cyrus knew she believed to be mere affectation, and when she reached forward to accept the blade offered to her, those closest could see that her hands shook. She took it as it was presented, horizontally, and then stepped back a pace.

“I will,” she replied, her tone velvet-coated iron, heavy with resolve and soft with her natural inclination towards reserve. She shifted her grip on the unwieldy object, tilting the blade down until the tip of it balanced on the floor, putting both hands on the hilt, which rose to the center of her chest.

“Lady Inquisitor Avenarius.” Leon spoke solemnly, projecting to be heard by everyone, and bowed at the waist towards her, holding the position. The rest of the room took its cue from him, one by one inclining themselves or taking a knee where they stood, raising their fists to their hearts. Cyrus himself placed his open hand there, sweeping low. Silence pervaded for several heartbeats, until she spoke again.

“Rise, Inquisition,” she said, and they did, to find that she wore a smile, gentle and mild. “I will lead, but I will not do so alone. Here beside me now stand people who have made all of this, our efforts to close the Breach and now our efforts against the Elder One, possible. Here before me now, and out beyond this room, strive others, without whose support the Inquisition would falter and fade. A leader is nothing and no one without those that follow her, and I’m no different.”

She lifted her chin, to look down towards the end of the hallway. “And with us now are two people whose accomplishments, whose contributions to the cause, deserve great recognition, and more grandiose words than these. Knight-Captain Séverine Lacan and Miss Aurora Rose, please approach.” This part, at least, she seemed more comfortable with. He supposed that was because she'd be able to shift the attention away from herself for a while.

Aurora approached with a smile on her face, not directed to Estella the Inquisitor, but rather, the Estella beneath the title it seemed. They'd known of each other long before the Inquisition was a thought in someone's mind, and even a small bit of pride seemed to be in Aurora's face as she looked up to the new Inquisitor. The woman, while not a circle mage herself, wore the finely made robes of an Enchanter.

Séverine's approach was not as openly friendly as Aurora's, though it was genuinely proud, and tall. Her Knight-Captain's plate was polished to a glimmering shine, robes freshly cleaned and smoothed. Her ebony hair was draped about her in several separate braids, purely for ceremonial purposes. She stopped beside Aurora, gauntleted hands clasped behind her back.

Estella’s smile inched fractionally wider. “Both of you came to the Inquisition as our allies. The leader of the Free Mages of Thedas, and a Knight-Captain of Kirkwall’s Templar Order. And those things you will remain. But… I would like to ask you also to become something else. You’ve both proven your courage and skill beyond the shadow of doubt. If you are willing, I would have each of you take the role of Captain in the Inquisition’s army, so that you might continue to lead your fellows in our name.”

She shifted the ceremonial blade to one side, holding it in her left hand. “Will you swear your loyalty to the Inquisition, to serve the people of Thedas, until such time as the threat it rises to meet has been vanquished and it is dissolved?" She said the words carefully, deliberately, and the silence from all the rest of the gathered was absolute, not so much as a shifting of a chair or a throat clearing to be heard from anyone.

Séverine was the first to take a step forward, and she settled down upon a knee, shifting her hands atop it. "It would be my honor, Inquisitor." The lines of her face were hard, and genuine. A new scar from the battle at Haven rested across the bridge of her nose. "For those that have already sacrificed all, I will continue to serve, until the threat has been destroyed, and the peace restored."

Aurora's acceptance wasn't nearly so grand. She followed Séverine to her knee, her smile slipping away into something far more solemn. "I will," she said simply, but firmly, inclining her head at the words.

Estella inclined her head and raised the blade, touching first each of Séverine’s shoulders, and then each of Aurora’s. “Then I give to each of you the title and rank of Captain, and all the rights and responsibilities it carries with it. Rise, and join your fellows.”

When they had departed to the sides of the room, Estella seemed to hesitate, for just a moment. The plan here had simply been for her to dismiss the assembled, allowing them to go about their business so that she could go about hers, but she did not immediately do so. Instead, her eyes dropped to the floor for a moment before she raised them again and cast them out over the soldiers. “I know that it still seems bleak,” she said, and she swallowed visibly. “What we all saw that day—all those soldiers, and a dragon, and everything else… it’s hard to keep hoping for the best after seeing something like that. After losing your friends, or comrades, or people who were family to you.”

She frowned grimly, and shook her head. “And I know that it took courage, to keep going after that. Any one of you, any one of us, could have chosen to give up then, to let the responsibility for this fall onto the shoulders of others. You could have gone home, to your families and the people you love and the lives you knew, and held all of that close to you, in a way that those we lost can no longer do.” Her grip on the sword tightened until her knuckles were white. “And we’re asking a lot of you. I’m asking a lot of you, when I ask you to take on faith that this can be done, and that we will achieve it.”

She was silent for a moment, then took a deep breath. “I can’t express to you how grateful I am that you’re still here. Still willing to fight for this. Nothing I can say or do will be enough to thank you for the choice you made, the one you make every day you remain. But I… I can make you a promise. I promise you that I’ll never give up, on this or on you. Whatever happens, however grim this gets, whatever becomes of me, I can keep going. Because I know that you’re willing to do the same. This isn’t my Inquisition—it’s yours. And when we defeat the Elder One… that victory will not be mine.

It will be ours.”


Cyrus started the applause, half-smiling and clapping his hands together twice. That was all it took—the rest of the crowd joined him soon afterwards in a generous swell of noise. It would seem something she’d said had resonated with them. Perhaps all of it had. The words weren’t the most elegant or poetic, but they were genuine, and honest, obviously so, and he suspected that was what stirred them most of all.

With the ceremonies having drawn to a close, most of those present were dismissed, and returned to their regular duties. Some remained, for now came the other part of the day’s events: Stellulam was to sit in judgement of the Inquisition’s prisoners, and Cyrus could not claim to be looking forward to the first item on the docket.

For these purposes, less formality was required, and Estella was relieved of the ceremonial sword, though she did have to actually sit on the throne, which provided him with another flicker of amusement. Once everyone was settled, the eyes in the room turned to Marceline, who had the list of matters to be addressed. He knew well what was on it, but there were certain procedures that had to be observed regardless.

Marceline gazed down at the list, which had been delivered to her by Larissa moments ago with a clipboard. "Lady Estella," she began, looking up from the clipboard as she spoke. "You, of course, remember Cassius Viridius of Tevinter, yes?" It was difficult to forget the man. "Ferelden has allowed us to keep him within our custody. The formal charges levied against Lord Viridius are attempted enslavement of the Free Mages of Thedas, as well as attempted assassination against you and others of the Inquisition."

Behind them, the rattling of chains signified the man in question being brought in. "Tevinter has since publicly denounced his actions and stripped him of his rank due to these crimes," she explained though there were a flutter of her eyes. It seemed that she did not put much stock in Tevinter's denouncement.

Estella’s brows visibly furrowed, and she glanced over at Cyrus, concern clear in her eyes, but she turned back directly afterwards, regarding Cassius with an expression best called thoughtfulness. “Have you anything to say on your own behalf, Lord Viridius?”

Time in the Inquisition’s custody had done little to erode Cassius’s natural dignity, and even cuffed in manacles with his feet bound together, he stood tall and commanding. He appeared to regard those around him carefully, but with an ill-concealed disdain. The question brought his attention to Estella herself for perhaps the first time since he’d entered. There was a certain irony in the picture they made: once, Stellulam had stood before the Magister on his throne, and petitioned him for his cooperation. Now, it was he that stood before her, and she that was throned, however uncomfortable Cyrus knew she was there.

He had to admit, he liked this version of the image a great deal more.

When his teacher spoke, it was in a voice raspy from disuse, but still genteel, the Imperial accent clear without being thick. “We all make choices. Sometimes, we choose imprudently. I acted to protect my House and my family, and I do not regret that, nor do I apologize for it. Kill me if you will, but I shan’t confess any wrongdoing.” He seemed resigned at least to the fact that his fate was truly in her hands, but he quite evidently yet retained his pride.

It would be a cold day in a Seheron summer before Cassius ever admitted that anything he did was wrong. That much had never changed. Magisters did not apologize. They did not regret, either—at least not publicly. Sometimes, they chose poorly, but that was always the fault of incomplete information or unpredictable circumstance, never the Magister. To admit error was to admit weakness, and weakness was fatal in the Magisterium and the decadent culture of nobility that surrounded it. Better to risk death at the hand of someone generally benevolent than to expose one’s bleeding wounds to the sharks in Minrathous.

Estella wore an expression that was melancholy, but not surprised. She’d been raised at the very periphery of that world, but no one was truly free of it. Pursing her lips, she moved her eyes from Cassius to Leonhardt, Marceline, and Rilien. “You know as much of his deeds as I do, and he brings nothing further in his defense. What would you do?”

Leon scowled slightly, shaking his head. “Truthfully? I’d let Ferelden have him. He ran the Arl of Redcliffe out of his castle, and they’re not particularly amenable to us right now, either. Handing him over may ease Arl Teagan’s soreness, and he has the ear of the King.” She considered that for a moment, then looked to Lady Marceline, who nodded her agreement.

"It would certainly go towards easing over our relations with Ferelden, and we will need as many allies as possible."

“Kill him.” That was Rilien, blunt and monotone as usual. “Ferelden would do the same, and remanding him to their custody would cause the impression that we either lack the authority or the will to punish him. At this early stage especially, we cannot be believed to be missing either one.”

Cyrus had not moved his stare from Cassius the entire time, and now the old man was looking back at him, too, as though expecting him to agree with the tranquil. And really, perhaps he should. He’d certainly been in that frame of mind when Cassius had first surrendered; only Stellulam had stayed his hand then. He doubted she would want to kill him now, either, and wondered if she would do it. He figured she’d see little distinction between ordering it herself and sending him to Ferelden to receive the same.

That was one very rare way in which they might just be alike. Memory seized him momentarily, and he glanced down at his own hands, at the ghost-image of the blood that would always be upon them, when he looked the right way. There was part of him that hated Cassius, had hated him even before all of this. But he wondered if that was the only part there was. Could even he truly despise someone who’d raised him, more a father than anyone he’d ever known? Which part was more despicable: the part that did, or the part that didn’t?

With a sharp breath, Cyrus snapped himself back to the present, speaking abruptly. “Killing him would be a waste. Letting Ferelden do so would be marginally less of one, but still much less use than he could be.” He let that sink in a second, then continued dispassionately. “That man, for all his many faults, is one of the most brilliant magical minds in Thedas. One of two people to ever succeed in the manipulation of time, and a scholar of towering intellect. He’s not to be trusted, but he can be relied upon to always act in his own interest, and that of his House. He doesn’t care about anything else.” He shrugged, keenly aware that he could just about be describing himself with the same words.

“Make him an offer he can’t refuse, and his work will pay the Inquisition a thousandfold what it takes to keep him imprisoned and fed.”

Estella looked to be deep in thought, glancing from him back to Cassius, then over at the others. Leon lifted a shoulder, conveying clearly enough that it was her decision to make, and she frowned slightly. “I think… that we need what resources we can muster, as you’ve all pointed out, in one way or another.” She shifted her attention to Cassius, and spoke politely, but with a firmness uncommon to her.

“What you’ve done, what you tried to do, cannot go ignored, Lord Viridius. You’ve incurred a debt to the Inquisition, and you’ll have to pay it. Work for us until this is over, spend your nights in a prison cell, and you’ll keep your life. You’ll be supervised at all times by a templar and a mage to guard you, and be given limited access to the materials necessary for your work. If you attempt to escape or circumvent the conditions of this punishment by working sub-standardly or intentionally subverting us, I’m quite certain Cyrus will be able to inform us, and this process will happen again, with no third option. Are the terms of your sentence clear to you?”

Cassius’s jaw was tight, but he nodded, even inclining himself slightly in a bowing motion, though it was clearly difficult for him to do. “You are most merciful, Lady Inquisitor. I shall bear your conditions in mind.”

With that, he was escorted out by the guard, presumably to whatever cell they were keeping him in. Cyrus wasn’t sorry to see him go. He glanced at Marceline. He hadn’t the faintest idea who was next.

Marceline looked at the list in her hand again, but after reading it closed her eyes and began to rub her brow. "This is different," she said, looking back up to Estella. "And strange. A few weeks after we arrived to Skyhold we discovered this man attacking the stronghold. With a goat." Marceline said, delivering the line in a deadpan akin to Rilien's. "Throwing the goat against the castle wall, in fact." She paused to allow that to sink in before the doors to swung open to permit the man to enter. Like Cassius before him, he was clad in shackles and flanked by two Inquisition soldiers, though another woman who did not appear to be a part of the Inquisition's main force also accompanied them.

"Chief Movran the Under, father of the Avvar that you defeated in the Fallow Mire," Marceline frowned at that, still seemingly displeased by what had transpired there. There was an imperceptive shake of her head and she sighed somewhat, still seeming a little confused on why the man would assault their keep with a goat. Though, who could blame her. "I also present to you Signy Sky-Lance, an Avvar chief herself and our resident expert on their culture and customs. She is present to assist you in your judgement," Marceline continued, introducing the woman.

Signy was a tall woman, perhaps six feet in height, with a dark complexion and thick red hair to just beneath her shoulders. Her armor, light and composed primarily of leather and hide, left her upper arms bare, making it obvious that one of them was patterned beautifully with dark blue tattoos which extended up to tease the line of her jaw. She wore an expression that, while subtle, left little doubt as to the fact that she was highly entertained by all of this. That said, she observed what was now customary, and inclined herself politely to Estella.

Cyrus was still trying to comprehend the idea that this man had attacked Skyhold… by throwing a goat at it. He snorted, then smothered a laugh by coughing into his hand, trying to keep a straight face. Just imagining this man, with his ibex-horn helmet and all that apparently-for-intimidation body paint, hurling a goat straight for the castle wall—well, it would take a lot of strength, or a catapult. He wasn’t sure which was funnier. Both were very much so. Estella looked like she was trying not to smile herself.

When the attention settled upon him, Movran spoke, apparently completely unbothered by his circumstances. “You killed my idiot son, and I answered, as is my custom, by smacking your hold with goats’ blood.” He shrugged, almost as if to dismiss the oddity of it.

“The custom does exist.” That was Signy, who had moved to stand to the side of the dais, next to Cyrus. Her arms were crossed beneath her chest, and she held herself with relaxed ease. “Though whole goats are not required. Just the blood.” She raised an eyebrow at Movran, who chuckled softly.

“They bled a little, didn’t they?” Signy smiled a little wider and shrugged. “No foul, Inquisition. My son meant to murder Tevinters, but got feisty with you instead. A redheaded mother guarantees a brat, they say.” Cyrus glanced at Signy, who lifted one shoulder as if to indicate that she couldn’t deny it. It was also unsurprising that these Avvar didn’t like Tevinters. No one ever did. Clearly, Movran had no idea that one of them was sitting on the throne.

“Do as you’ve earned, Inquisitor. My clan yields. My remaining boys have brains still in their heads.” He paused, seeming to study Estella for a moment. “I’d not have thought one of your stature could defeat him, but my clan tells me you did. In honorable combat no less. I’ve no further quarrel with you or yours.”

“I don’t doubt it seems strange to you, but he means it.” Signy spoke again, rocking back idly on her heels. “Honor demands that he answer your deed the way he did, but now that he’s done so, the matter is finished. If his son had been the victim of treachery, that would be a different matter, but your kill was clean, and in the defense of yourself and others. We can respect that, just as we respect your right to answer as your customs would bid you.” Movran inclined his head in agreement.

Estella pursed her lips thoughtfully, and made eye contact with Signy. “I’m not sure I have any customs for what to do when someone throws a goat at my residence,” she replied, clearly exercising great effort to say that with a straight face. Still, she managed. “What do yours generally advise in such a situation?”

“Usually? Nothing.” Signy blinked, almost surprised, it would seem, to be asked how the Avvar would handle the matter. “His actions are a symbolic gesture. I think it clear that there was no love lost between them anyway. Thane Movran fulfilled his familial duties. That is all.” She appeared to be curious now, regarding Estella with a keenness she’d not previously shown.

Estella did smile, then, just slightly. “Well, all right then. Thane Movran, you’re free to return to your people. We’ll keep the goats, though.” A glimmer of amusement entered her expression. “It seems a fair trade for needing to clean the blood off the walls.”

Movran laughed, this time full-bellied and wholly genuine, it would seem. “Then they are my gift to you, Inquisitor. May the Lady guide your hand.” The guards on either side moved to unshackle him, and he was clearly none the worse for wear, giving Estella a slight bow before he turned and exited the main hall, head held high.

“Well.” Cyrus spoke lightly, glancing up at Estella. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

She sighed deeply, pushing herself off the throne at first opportunity and descending the stairs. “It… could have been worse, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to the next time I have to do this.”

He supposed that was fair enough.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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It was a few days after Estella sat on Skyhold's throne for the first time. Marceline and the other advisors stood with their Inquisitor around a long table that held maps of both Orlais and Ferelden, as well as many other papers spread across them. A model figurine of the Inquisition's Heraldry stood in a specific place on the map, the location where they resided in Skyhold. Other, smaller figures were spread out across much of the map, each set belonging to a specific advisor. Currently, Marceline found herself in the middle of a strategy meeting with the others. They had established Skyhold as their base of operations and named Estella their Inquisitor. Now was the time to plan the next step.

Marceline stood a step away from the table, a glass of wine in her hand. Unconsciously she swirled the dark purple liquid in her hand as she looked down at the table. They knew very little of their enemy, only someone or something called the Elder One had gathered enough Venatori and Red Templars in order to fashion an army. Other than that, they were reduced to guessing. The location of the Elder One's base was unknown to them, along with the numbers in his army, and other rather necessary items. Marceline simple sighed and took a drink from glass, before going back and swirling the liquid again.

Estella’s eyes were fixed on the map, her expression pensive. “We know a few things they might try to do,” she mused, “surely our best chance is to catch them out in something underhanded. If we can get an agent or two, we might be able to start unraveling the skein.” She bit down on her lower lip and shook her head. She’d been holding up quite well since her official appointment, at least externally. She seemed to be quite against the finer armor and silk, but had consented at least to trade her maroon and silver Lions’ linens in for the russet and gold of the Inquisition. How she was beneath the face she wore was harder to say—she wasn’t entirely ineffective at hiding her feelings, it seemed.

“The common thread, the one that both Cassius’s future contained and Envy’s plans hinted at, was the assassination sequence. Either it’s something they really want to do, and will therefore probably attempt even despite our survival, or… it’s a trap.” He sighed, then glanced across the table to Rilien.

“What does Lord Drakon have to say?”

“We have his support.” The tranquil’s reply was brief, but he elaborated. “He will pay the Lions himself from this point, which allows us to appropriately salary several new officers. He has also officially contracted with us for their services, and given his permission for us to promote them within the hierarchy as we see fit. You have leave to make Corvin a captain, and Lia as well.” He paused a moment, blinking down at the representation of Val Royeaux on the map.

“Ser Lucien has taken our warning seriously, but there is little he can do about it without more concrete information. Nevertheless, he will be in contact with Lady Montblanc, and my agents in the capital, and coordinate a search for such. It will be difficult, with the war, but he reports that the fighting in some regions has begun to abate. The chevaliers are uneasy with how things are changing while they are asked to fight amongst themselves.”

"Correspondance with my father corroborates this. Though he cannot offer his official support due to his standing with the loyalist Chevaliers under Empress Celene, Marshall Lucas Lécuyer wishes us the best and will send us reports on the Orlesian civil war," she said, pausing a moment to take another drink from her glass. Though she didn't display anything outwardly, she was worried for her father, having been drawn out of retirement to fight against their countrymen. The regular correspondance set her heart at ease a little, but the fact remained that her father still fought in a war. They both did, she supposed.

She tilted her head back down to the maps, but shook her head once more. "Even if were were to discover this Elder One's identity, and were able to accurately pin down what it is that he or she plans to do, there lay other issues that will surface in our near future. Issues that are no less important," Marceline said, tapping the stem of her glass. She did not envision it necessary that the Inquisition expand so quickly. "Currently, we operate off of donations from our noble allies-- some of which you may have noticed touring the castle. However, if the Inquisition is to grow in order to combat all threats, then charitable donations will soon not be enough." A thin frown lined her painted cherry lips.

"I fear that we may have to begin taking loans in order to be able to pay for the expenses that arise. My mother, Comtesse Gabrielle, has agreed to one such loan with a very generous interest rate. However, we will need much more if the Inquisition is to survive," she said, solemnly. They can not fight against this Elder One if they did not have the resources necessary.

“When you put it like that… I should write my sister.” Leon had spoken very little of his family, but it was obvious enough that he was from some form of noble stock. He grimaced, though whether at the prospect of this communication or the news itself was hard to say.

Before anyone could contribute anything further, the door burst open, the usually-composed Reed barreling through like demons were chasing him. “Inquisitor, Commander. You’re—that is…” he paused long enough to gulp in a breath, then shook his head, an expression on his face far beyond his usual skeptical assessment of the strange happenings around him. “It’s Romulus. He’s alive, and at the gate.”

Marceline looked about as shocked as her even expression could manage. For a moment, the room was silent from what they had heard. Marceline's own eyes were wide and her head taken on a slight tilt. A beat passed before she looked to the others. "We should go," she understated. Like the others, she had thought Romulus and the others had died in the attack on Haven, having sacrificed himself for the rest of the Inquisition. To hear otherwise, well, it was a surprise to put it mildly. The others began to file out the door behind Reed, while Marceline took a moment to down the rest of her wine, before setting the glass on the table and following.

The news had already reached the rest of the castle, but the sound of the clamor echoing through the halls. Their steps quickened until their path brought them to the double doors that led outside to the front gate. A pair of Inquisition soldiers opened the door for them to pass through and deposited them onto the stairwell that led to the ground below. From their position, they could see a crowd had gathered around the gate, in hopes no doubt to catch a glimpse of the Herald they thought they had lost.

He did not make any attempts at hiding himself, standing unhooded among the center of armed individuals bearing the sunburst brand stitched upon their clothing. His cloak was new, only dusted from light travel it appeared, and Romulus himself looked quite different, in addition to his clothing. His hair was longer atop his head, and a filled-out beard covered the man's jawline and upper lip. There were a great many speaking, trying to get the Herald's attention, or just chattering excitedly to each other, but Romulus appeared to be waiting for the Inquisition's leaders to appear.

He stood alongside the immediately recognizeable visage of Khari, sans mask or hood and grinning broadly. She waved as they approached. Another redheaded woman, this one human, flanked him on the other side, bearing the group's suburst brand and wearing more polished pieces of armor than the rest. She stood proud and tall, hands folded before, though they soon sweeped out, when she noticed the obvious Inquisition leaders, coming down towards the gate.

"Good people of the Inquisition, I give to you your Herald, who survived the events of Haven, despite all the forces of darkness threw at him. He has fought through cold, sickness, and Tevinter pursuit to rejoin you now, and tell you, that he is the blood of Andraste, the first son in the line of endless daughters!" The crowd erupted in murmuring and talk, the utmost amount of mixed reactions, while Romulus turned and whispered something to the woman, obviously displeased with something. Very few knew what to make of the woman's introduction, but plenty just seemed happy to have the second of their Heralds back, especially considering all he reportedly went through just to stand there.

The pronouncement seemed to catch Leon off-guard for a moment, but he recovered swiftly, and as usually happened when he wanted to go somewhere, people got out of his way as he advanced forward. Estella moved in his wake, until they were both directly in front of their returned comrades and the newcomers. It was difficult to tell what the newly-minted Inquisitor was thinking, at least until she smiled.

“Welcome back, both of you. I’m so glad you made it.” And clearly, she was.

Khari didn’t let her get away with just the words, however, and took half a dozen steps forward, more at a run than a walk, to half-tackle her in a tight hug that drove them both backwards several more paces. “What a coincidence! I’m really glad we made it too!” She actually lifted Estella several inches off the ground, apparently having no reservations whatsoever about doing any of this in public with much of the Inquisition hanging around. Estella actually laughed, a bright sound that lacked most of her customary reserve, looking a bit surprised to be so enthusiastically greeted, but not at all unhappy about it. Even after she was put back on the ground, she wore a grin, her eyes a tad wet, though whether that was because she was overwhelmed by the good news or because Khari had hugged her tightly enough to squeeze a few tears out of her was rather unclear.

"It is so very good to see that you both are alive and well," Marceline said, a genuine smile even on her lips. The cheer that had developed over them was infectious and even drew her in. She stood beside Leon, taking the sight of Romulus and Khari backed by an armed escort in. "We had feared the worst," she explained, before her gaze shifted next to him, to the redheaded woman that had announced him. She beheld the woman for a moment, her smile wavering. What she had just announced was best left for a later discussion between all involved, but the mere fact that they had returned safely seemed to have flooded any negative impact such a proclamation could have.

"It seems that there is much to be discussed," she allowed a pause into her words while she returned her attention back to Romulus, "But, that will come in good time. Until then," she said, stepping forward and extending a hand for Romulus to take, "Welcome home, Lord Herald." There was an arch to her brow as she spoke the word, as if asking him if home was, indeed, the correct word to use.

"Thank you," he replied, taking the offered hand, though his eyes and his smile could not help but be directed at the sight of Khari attempting to swallow Estella with her limbs. "I plan to see this through with the Inquisition, to the end."

"That is exceptionally wonderful to hear," Marceline answered, inclining her head in a show of respect. No doubt his presence would help to take some of the weight off of Estella's shoulder, as well as do wonders for the Inquisition's morale. Her smile brightened as she laid a gentle hand on Romulus's shoulder, and gestured toward the castle proper. "Come, the sooner we speak, the better," she said, allowing Leon to lead the way back. Amongst all of the faces cheering for the return of their Herald, Marceline saw the back of only one person's head, a familiar mane of white hair framed by a pair of horns heading away from the crowd.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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Leon drew a deep breath into his lungs, holding it and counting to five before he let it out again. The large, semicircular chamber they’d chosen for the war room was nearly full to capacity, as he’d been rather liberal with his summonses, unsure what expertise would be necessary and what would not. Besides himself, Estella, Marceline, and Rilien, the room also held Romulus, Khari, Vesryn, and Cyrus. Reed and Larissa were present as well, situated in one corner of the room, both supplied to take notes on anything significant. He suspected they would not stop writing once they began.

The Inquisition’s commander cleared his throat softly, having prioritized the order in which he’d make his queries, doing his best to account for the fact that at least some of the others were bound to interject with queries of their own. He’d decided getting an accounting of events, and any consequent intelligence, was first priority.

He smiled mildly at both Romulus and Khari. It truly was good to see them well, but for the moment, there was too much else to be done to linger on that. He would leave the celebration to the troops outside, who were almost certainly doing so at this moment. “As I’m sure you’ve guessed, we’d thought you both lost after the events at Haven.” They had, essentially, volunteered to give up their lives for the rest. Fortunately, it would seem that at least the two of them had not needed to pay that steep a price after all. Leon folded his hands together behind his back.

“What happened?”

Romulus took a moment to get acclimated to the new meeting room, which was far grander than what they'd been afforded in Haven. It even had windows. And these offered a breathtaking view to the mountains that surrounded Skyhold's position in the Frostbacks. When he was ready, he leaned forward, placing his hands upon the edges of the table.

"We held our position at the trebuchet for as long as we could. Venatori and Red Templars were drawn to it. Eventually, that dragon made a pass, and obliterated a section of the wall. Everyone was thrown back. I was the closest to it, and was severely injured. The dragon circled around to land inside the wall, and the army's leaders came through the flames."

“A bunch of people, actually.” Khari picked up the thread of the explanation there. “The first lot were Venatori, probably the elites. Mages, but ones who moved like… like an army, a real one. Their leader was this man—he seemed to be human, but…” Her brows furrowed for a moment, but then she shook her head. “Anyway. He was tall, definitely a mage, and wore a mask over one side of his face.” She raised a hand to cover the left half of her own.

“He and the Venatori, uh… they seemed like a vanguard or something. The leader, he killed Fiona, like it wasn’t even an effort for him.” Considering who Fiona was, that news boded extremely poorly, to say the least. “Behind them came…” She struggled for the right words for a moment. “It looked like a darkspawn, I guess. But… there were also chunks of that glowy red lyrium on him, and he talked. A lot, actually.” She scratched her head, glancing briefly at Romulus.

“He was really tall, taller than you, Commander. But kinda weirdly spindly, like someone took all his parts and stretched them out. He had magic, too. By that point it was just me, Rom, and Meraad against this guy and his dragon and his army.” Her voice, usually at least slightly good-humored or light, was heavy, thick. “I, uh… charged them. Aimed for the big Darkspawn.” She didn’t make eye contact with anyone, instead fixing her eyes somewhere near Leon’s shoulder. “It—he, I guess… he just kinda gestured, and then this force picked me up and flung me into the trebuchet. Hurt like hell.” Her gaze came back into focus on the last part, at least, and she managed a little smile, more self-effacing than anything.

Romulus nodded somewhat gravely, not refuting anything Khari had said. His own voice had constricted somewhat since he'd last spoke. "They were only interested in me. The bait worked as well as we'd hoped. Meraad tried to stand up to the dragon on his own..." He left unsaid how well the attempt had gone. It was not difficult to imagine.

"The darkspawn Khari described is the Elder One we've been hearing about. His name is Corypheus, and he was responsible for the Breach and the deaths of everyone at the Temple of Sacred Ashes. In fact, he spoke a great deal, believing his victory complete." He shook his head at the thought, either from bewilderment or the darkness of the memory that the particular night in question carried with it.

"He spoke of championing Tevinter, assaulting the heavens. He said we interrupted a ritual," he looked to Estella, "the day we received our marks. He called them Anchors. 'Beg that I succeed, for I have seen the throne of the gods, and it was empty,' he said."

He delivered the line with no attempt at impersonating the Elder One, this Corypheus, though by his tone, he found a great deal of confusion in what the creature spoke of. "He tossed me away like I was nothing, and I hit the side of a well or something. He wanted to remove the mark from my hand with some sort of magical tool, but determined that it couldn't be done. I was to die, but Khari managed to set off the trebuchet, and dragged me into the well before the avalanche crushed the town." He half smiled at her briefly, as though he still couldn't quite believe they lived despite all of that.

"That's what we know of the enemy. The rest of the time was spent just trying not to die, and... discovering some interesting things." He did not actually look eager to enter that particular discussion.

Fortunately for him, he didn’t yet have to. “It called itself Corypheus?” Cyrus spoke with obvious surprise, and more appeared on his face when he glanced about the room only to find that no one else shared his shock. Blinking several times, he decided more explanation was prudent. “Corypheus was the name of the Conductor of the Choir of Silence. He was the Old God Dumat’s high priest at the time all of them entered the Fade physically. It was more than a thousand years ago.” From the sounds of it, he wasn’t sure whether he believed the implication of the darkspawn naming himself such, and he snorted softly.

Elder One, indeed.”

“The Grey Wardens had this creature sealed in the Free Marches, bound by blood magic ritual.” That contribution, perhaps more immediately relevant to their interests, came from Rilien. “Several of those I knew in Kirkwall broke the seal and killed it. Or believed they did. I will contact them immediately—there may be more they can tell us.”

It was almost too much information to process. But Leon knew from experience that when something seemed overwhelming, the best way to handle it was to break it down into its parts. The part about Corypheus’s possible origin, he left aside for the moment, focusing instead on Rilien’s contribution regarding a recent previous encounter. “Please do,” he replied, inclining his head in the Spymaster’s general direction. Anything else they wanted to talk about regarding that should probably wait until they could talk to one of these friends of his, anyway.

That left several other choices: the marks, their enemy’s goals, the other man who’d appeared with him, who was likely a general or right hand of some sort, and then the elephant in the room—what the woman who had appeared with Romulus had said about him. The marks, he thought, were probably a matter for Cyrus and Asala to do some work with, and that would be later than this meeting, anyway. Corypheus’s goals were unclear, beyond what Romulus had already said, and the while they might be able to get somewhere informationally if they knew who his prominent underlings were, the description Khari gave wasn’t enough to work with yet.

That left one more thing they could likely address in this meeting, and Leon turned violet eyes on Romulus. The Herald’s unease hadn’t gone unnoticed, but it was surely an important-enough matter that it bore explanation as soon as possible. “Romulus, the manner of your return did raise a number of questions. Would you please explain to us what it is that you have discovered?”

He grimaced slightly. "I'm sorry about that. It wasn't how I would've made my return, but... there are no subtle ways to enter this place." He half smiled, as much making fun of his own tendency to hide as he was complimenting the Inquisition on the new fortifications. He cleared his throat.

"The woman who spoke is named Anais. She leads a group that operates out of a place called Winterwatch in the Hinterlands. I traveled there with Asala and several of the Lions, and earned their loyalty by closing a rift. Her people rescued Khari and I from a mounted group of Venatori that nearly caught us." That seemed to be the easiest part of the explanation, and Romulus swallowed, taking a moment to formulate what came next in his mind. "Anais had studied under an order that devoted themselves to the history of Andraste, and her bloodline. She'd been researching a theory since Redcliffe."

He placed his palms back upon the table, as though to steady himself. "She believes I am a living descendant of Andraste herself. She introduced me to a man I met in Redcliffe, who turned out to be my father. I don't know if it can be proven, but she claims to be working on a way. From what we have, between Anais and my father... it seems right." He practically shook when he admitted that, effectively giving away that he believed it himself. The idea seemed to scare him more than anything, though there was a glimmer of something in his grey eyes. Hope, perhaps.

Well. That did, in fact, sound even stranger the second time.

Leon’s relationship to his faith had always been a great deal more nuanced and complicated than that of most people he knew. It didn’t bother him to acknowledge the mortality and the humanness of most of the figures involved in the Chant, and he’d never been one to, say, condemn outright the actions even of Maferath or the Archon Hessarian. Those were, naturally, unpopular positions, as was the common Tevinter belief that Andraste was not so much an exalted Bride of the Maker as she was foremost a human woman and a mage. He’d never seen the tension in saying she was both.

So it was perhaps easier to swallow for him than many faithful that her descendants were still very much alive. It wasn’t something everyone believed, nor something everyone liked to think about, but it was well within the realm of possibility, though as far as most knew, the line had disappeared a long time ago. Harder to believe than the fact that her descendants existed was that someone had managed to track them down. But he didn’t know this Anais or what she knew, and so on that, at least, he chose to suspend judgement.

“That, I think, is something best dealt with when she proves it or fails to do so,” he said at last. “In the meantime, I think it may be most prudent to prevent further declarations of the kind that accompanied your arrival.” His lips twitched into a rueful smile. “It’s not impossible that you are who she says you are, and if so, that will have implications. But those implications will go more than one way. Some will react as Anais and her group have. Others will deny it, and hate you for so much as suggesting that it could be true. Everything you’ve done, your entire life, will fall under the kind of scrutiny we have hitherto tried to divert from you. If you choose to make this information public, you will have to be prepared for that—to own your history and everything you do from now on as well. It will not be easy.” He didn’t mean to sound to dire about it, but he spoke the truth as he saw it. Being a public figure, especially one propelled to it with a claim like that, true or not, was very different from being anyone else.

"If I may, Ser Leonhardt?" Marceline interjected. Up to now, she quietly listened and kept her thoughts to herself. Her face was impassive, nearly impossible to glean any information on how she felt about all of this through her body language. Until now, she watched Romulus with a hawklike gaze, at least until her facade broke away with a smile. "Even if what this Anais says was true, and you must understand that by no means am I implying that it is not. There are far too many possibilities to discount it completely. But, the Inquisition cannot officially declare you Andraste's heir."

The smile on her lips remained, though, as she leaned forward, her arms crossed at her chest, "However, rumors have a strange way of propagating. Amongst the crowd that witnessed your speaker's declaration, a number of the nobility were present. Whom no doubt will spread news of what they have heard when they return home," Marceline's head tilted toward Leon, "The Inquisition will neither confirm nor deny these rumors," it was not as if they had many options. Either stance would anger someone. "With luck, those who wish to believe shall, and those who do not, simply will not."

Romulus nodded, taking a moment to absorb their reactions to the news. "Whatever you believe is best. I'm... still not sure what to do with the information myself." He then looked to Estella, and offered a reassuring smile. "But I do know that I'm here to stay, and serve the Inquisition in whatever manner it will have me. That's my choice now."

She looked a bit unsure in response, halfway raising a hand as though to stave off some part of what had been said. Likely the serve part, considering her nature. In the end though, she sighed a little, half-smiling back. “We’re happy to have you, in any case.”

That, really, seemed to be the bottom line here, and Leon nodded. “Exactly so. Thank you—both of you, for the information as well. By all means, get some rest. We’ll sort out what to do about all of this as soon as possible.”

Setting

Characters Present

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

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“Sir.”

Reed’s voice broke Leon’s reverie, and he shook his head, trying to clear his vision. His headache was splitting, but he hadn’t realized he was simply staring off into space until his aide had addressed him. The most alarming thing was that he hadn’t even realized the newly-promoted lieutenant had even entered the room in the first place.

Leon’s new office was on the wall-level of one of the towers. The whole thing was his space, actually, which he found rather excessive. He didn’t need an entire tower to himself, but at least it was one of the smaller ones. His quarters were above, accessible by ladder, and below lay the armory, so perhaps it was inaccurate to say that the whole thing was reserved for his use. Even so… but he was losing track of his thoughts again, and forced himself to snap out of it, regarding Reed with his usual mild gaze.

Correctly taking this as cue to continue, he did. “You asked me to tell you when Miss Asala left her quarters, or if she stopped eating. She’s gone back to work, sir, in the infirmary.” His delivery was neutral, but he sounded perhaps a little relieved. Leon could not blame him—many people had taken the losses at Haven hard, but none quite so much so as Asala, which was expected, considering whom she had lost. With a short sigh, Leon nodded to Reed and stood.

“Thank you, Lieutenant. I should go check on her.” Mostly, he felt he needed to apologize. With more distance from the events and considerable thought, he’d decided that Estella’s approach was probably better than his own, considering the circumstances—he should have let her hope a little longer that Meraad lived. Perhaps the grief would have been less shattering if it crept in over time, handled bit by bit, rather than delivered like a hammerblow. Just because he would prefer the single devastating hit to the slow, unbearable loss of hope didn’t mean everyone would. It didn’t seem like Asala had.

Had he really forgotten, what it was like to be anything but this? A soldier, accustomed if not immune to death, even the death of close friends and comrades? But then, he had known this reality even before he was properly a soldier. It was one of the first things of significance that he could remember learning.

“Sir?” That was Reed again, and Leon remembered that he’d meant to go, but hadn’t yet moved. “Are you…?”

“I’m fine, Lieutenant. I appreciate the concern.” Leon smiled benignly, turning aside further inquiry with only the application of that composed expression and a few words. That had taken many years to perfect, but he’d managed in the end. He answered Reed’s salute with a nod, and exited his office onto the battlements, not really minding the mountain wind that stirred his heavy cloak. Summer would be upon them soon, and perhaps Skyhold would at last be subject to milder weather than it had yet been. The Conclave had exploded in the dead of winter—it was hard to believe it had been months ago, now, and yet in other respects, he didn’t understand how it hadn’t been years.

The next tower over was the one the mages occupied, and the room at the bottom floor was the infirmary, with a lounge above and many sets of quarters further up. He entered at the lounge level, but he was a common-enough sight that he didn’t startle them with his simple presence anymore, though he knew that no few of them were still nervous in his presence. He wasn’t sure if it was the fact that he was a Seeker, the Commander, or simply a very large person. Perhaps it was some combination of the three. He tried not to give them any more reasons to be wary of him, anyway, and took the stairs down as quickly as was polite, putting him in the infirmary.

And there she was, immediately recognizable even among the many people moving about, in large part for being, as he was, head and shoulders taller than a great number of people. He’d admit the horns were also distinctive, however. Leon made his way over to her workstation, stepping deliberately such that his approach would be noticed. Though it seemed that she still didn't, so focused was she on her work.

“You know,” he said gently, “there’s quite a large garden courtyard here in Skyhold. I think we’ll be able to keep you in much better supply than before.” He leaned himself against the wall a polite distance from her work station, folding his hands behind him.

A number of jars sat open on her station, various herbs and medical reagents gathered in small piles on top of the table. Asala was currently in the midst of separating the various supplies into their corresponding labeled jar. On the wall in front of her sat a long shelf that already held a number of the labeled jars, though some spots were left empty, no doubt the ones that already lay on her table. They had recieved a shipment of supplies recently, and she seemed to have set to neatly organizing them. Donovan stood on her other side, doing the same except for bandages and splints. However, at the Commander's arrival, he nodded a greeting and took his leave, apparently deciding to let them have a moment to themselves.

Grief hadn't changed her skittish nature, as it turned out. Asala twitched, clearly caught by surprise by his words, and turned to see him. She turned to him with saucerlike eyes, a jar labeled Embrium in her hands, filled to the brim with the crimson leaves of the plant. She quickly took a glance down at the jar before turning back to the table to set it back down. "Uh..." she said, though she didn't formulate any actual words. Instead, she simply nodded and smiled. Her smile, Leon noted, was more melancholy than it was happy.

He wasn’t that surprised by the fact, though he did feel a twinge of sympathy. He suddenly wasn’t sure whether he should even bring it up; probably the reminder would be less welcome than just about anything else he could say, but he didn’t think he could simply not mention it, either. Leon hadn’t ever really thought of himself as a person lacking social graces. Certainly, he wasn’t the fluid speaker Marceline was, and he didn’t have the easy charm of Vesryn or the effortless wit of Cyrus, but he’d never been particularly awkward, either.

This, though… this made him feel awkward.

“I wanted to say I’m sorry,” he ventured at last. If she reacted badly, he supposed he could just leave and never mention it again, or something. He struggled with the next words, because he really didn’t want to hurt her, and by comparison to most of the people he knew, she was quite fragile indeed. “The last time I spoke to you… I was more callous than I should have been. It… I forgot what it was like, the first time I lost someone I loved. It took me a little while to remember how different it was from any loss since.” He wasn’t sure how he’d managed to miss that detail—perhaps it was only the sheer amount of time that had elapsed, or perhaps it was something a little worse.

Asala's feet shuffled beneath her and she refused to meet Leon's eyes, looking instead down and away. She was very definitely uncomfortable with broaching the subject, but by the lack of an immediate reply, she also didn't know how to respond. It wasn't until a few moments later that she picked up a jar that read aloe, and began to inspect it that she finally said something. "It is... fine," she said with a rather timid tone. "You... did what you felt you had to," continued, turning the jar over in her hands. She seemed tired.

“And sometimes,” he replied, “I am wrong.”

But he decided to leave it at that. Grief was different for everyone, and if she would rather avoid the topic entirely, that was her business, and none of his unless she chose to share. “Is there anything I can do to help with these?” He nodded to the jars she was surrounded by, picking up on her apparent fatigue but guessing she wouldn’t consent to simply stop working. Perhaps another pair of hands would lighten the burden a bit.

"Um..." She finally took her eyes off of the jar and to the table she had been working at moments ago. She scanned and paused, seemingly working out the best way they could use him. When she turned back to him, her lips held a weak smile. "Uh... If you can tell the difference between the herbs, I could... use the help sorting them," Asala said, gesturing to the herbs that were laid out on her table. She moved with much less of a frantic pace now, it seemed, far different than when she was drowning herself in her work only weeks ago.

“Of course.” That much, he could do quite easily. Leon moved around the workstation, so as to take up a spot actually at it instead of next to it, which was slightly awkward considering his size and the fact that he was sharing it, but he’d long learned by this point to be fluid enough and light enough on his feet that the problems that came of the bulk of his frame were minimized. Of course, that only applied when he was paying attention, as he tended to demonstrate whenever he was not.

His gloved hands made quick work of sorting the various plants, though a few looked similar enough to each other that he had to identify them by smell, occasionally raising a sprig to his nose. Some of them had been picked at different points in the growth cycle as well, which actually made them suitable for radically different purposes, so he kept separate piles on those criteria as well.

Several minutes into their work, soft footfalls signaled the approach of someone new to the infirmary. Romulus seemed to carry himself differently now, taller, a little more easily, less withdrawn into himself. His clothes and cloak were cleaner than he'd typically kept them in Haven. Still, he looked a bit uncertain, particularly upon approaching the workstation that Asala and Leon worked at, and clearing his throat.

"I heard you were back at work," he said carefully, coming to a stop just beyond arm's reach of the workstation. It seemed word traveled quickly. "I wanted to check on you, make sure you're doing alright." He paused for a second, shifting his weight onto his other foot, clearly deciding whether or not to add something. In the end, it slipped out.

"I missed you. I'm sure Khari won't mind me saying that she could never do your job." Old, healing wounds aside, it was obvious from his tone that wasn't the only reason he'd missed her.

Asala turned and held Romulus in her gaze for a moment. She seemed unsure of something, before she averted her gaze elsewhere. She looked at his feet as she spoke. "I hope..." she managed before she hesitated again. Something else was on her mind and it wasn't difficult to figure out what it was. The last time Asala had seen Romulus it had been Haven, with Meraad leaving with them to try and buy them time to escape. Now he returned, and Meraad was nowhere to be found. The melancholy and sadness was clear on her face, but she did not try to escape from the situation.

"I hope that she was enough and that you... weren't injured too badly," she said with an apologetic smile, though her eyes still remained downward. "It was... not too difficult, I hope. Oh... uh, your... journey, I mean," she said, finally making herself look at him, though when she began to trip over her words again, her eyes fell.

"It was not easy," he admitted, "but I'm alive. And I learned a lot about myself." He surveyed her for a moment, running a hand through his hair uneasily.

"I'm sorry for your loss, Asala. I didn't know Meraad well, but his bravery was plain to see. He died bravely." He looked like he wanted to say more, but also like he wasn't sure what to add. Death was an unpleasant thing, and there were only so many ways to soften it.

She managed a small, though pained, smile onto her lips as she nodded. "Thank you," she said quietly, glancing up to meet his eyes once more. She wavered for a moment, and her eyes threatened to mist over. Surprisingly however, they did not and instead she took a deep breath which seemed to have strengthened her resolve. She nodded, and glanced at her work table before returning her look to Romulus.

"Is there, uh, anything I can--I can do? For you I mean? Now?" she inquired with a tilt of her head.

Romulus took the cue easily enough, and nodded, clapping his hands together once. "Yes, actually. Most of my tonics were lost in the attack, or used after it. I'd hoped to steal some supplies, if you have some you can spare." His eyes passed swiftly over the sorted piles and labeled jars.

"You... do not have to steal them," she said quizzically. Leon cleared his throat, suppressing a chuckle. "But yes. We have an abundant supply now," she said, gesturing to the labeled jars sitting on the shelves "Just let one of us know, so we can, uh... keep track of stock," she said, scratching beneath her horns. It seemed that keeping stock wasn't her idea, but someone else's. By the way that Donovan nodded in approval off away from them said that it was most likely his.

"Right," Romulus assented. "I'll... make a list of what I need to take, and get back to you."

"Thank you," Asala said with an appreciative nod. A quiet moment passed with Asala glancing at the door that led outside before she spoke. "If... you both will excuse me. I... am going to take a walk. Maybe I will... visit the garden," she said with a heavy smile to Leon. It was apparent that she needed time to herself think about some things, and soon she made her exit.

Donovan watched her leave, his expression as impassive as the tranquil that he worked with. He made his way over to where Leon and Romulus stood, staring at the door the whole while. Finally he turned to regard them both. "She will be fine," he stated plainly, "Asala is stronger than she lets on. All she needs is time."

Leon nodded simply. “Of course.” He certainly didn’t expect a person to recover from the death of a family member in the space of a month and a half, especially considering it hadn’t really been confirmed for her until a week or so ago. At least she was doing things like taking breaks now.

With a nod to Donovan and a half-smile in Romulus’s direction, he turned back to his work. He’d at least bundle and label all of these before returning to his office.

Setting

Characters Present

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

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Leon hummed, setting another half-full supply crate aside and stepping farther towards the back of the tack room. Most of the wooden boxes in this room were being used, which meant either he’d have to find something he could put into another box, or else go check the smithy and see if they had anything. Those would probably be too big, though, and he was in a considerable hurry, which just made his present lack of success all that much more frustrating to him.

With a grunt, he picked up a stack of three crates and shifted them to the side of the room—someone had neglected to organize the place in any logical way whatsoever. He’d have to send Reed down to have a discussion with the Quartermaster. The spare horsemanship supplies they stored here were certainly not top priority, but the Inquisition had been at Skyhold for nearly two months. This should have been done already—

A sudden cracking sound disrupted his chain of thought, and Leon snapped his eyes down to his hands, where he’d broken through one of the slats on the bottom crate with his grip. Swearing softly in his mother tongue, he controlled the fall of the crates as well as he could, catching the uppermost one as it fell from the stack and setting it to rights. There was a loud bang as the one on the bottom hit the wooden floor of the building, and Leon sighed heavily, running a hand down his face.

“Having troubles, Commander?” The sly tone of voice could only belong to Cyrus, apparently drawn to the room by the crashing of the crates onto the ground. “I wasn’t aware a man of your rank spent his afternoons organizing messy storage areas, but I suppose everyone has their eccentricities.” He smiled, the expression in good humor at least, and leaned a shoulder against the doorway, crossing his arms over his chest.

Estella leaned around him, fixing Leon with a much more concerned expression. That probably made some sense, since she’d had more exposure to his unfortunate episodes than her brother had. That somehow only managed to make him feel worse, but he concealed it in the same way he always did—he smiled gently and shrugged his massive shoulders. “If only all eccentricities were so productive. But no—I came here in search of an empty box or crate, a small one.”

The Inquisitor blinked, raising both eyebrows. “Um. I think I have one in my, uh… office, still. I’m still only just setting it up, so…” She paused, tilting her head to one side. “I can go get it for you, and bring it to yours?”

He was reluctant to send her on what was essentially an errand for him, a personal one at that, but she seemed willing enough to do it, and so he nodded. “I would appreciate that, Estella. If you would be so kind as to meet me back there in a few minutes?” She nodded and stepped backwards out the door, turning towards the main keep and leaving him with Cyrus.

“I’m stopping by the kitchens on the way back,” Leon said, not really sure if the slightly-elder Avenarius had any interest in accompanying him. In either case, he had to get past him to exit the room.

Cyrus lifted a shoulder, stepping back and out of the doorframe with a smooth motion. “I notice you’ve yet to explain what all this is about.” When Leon set in the direction of the kitchens, Cyrus fell into step beside him, keeping pace easily despite the five-inch difference in their heights. “Is it to remain a secret, or can I convince you to divulge, hm?”

Leon scoffed softly, shaking his head. “It’s not really a secret in the first place,” he said, ducking into the mess and making his way to the back, where the humbler of Skyhold’s kitchens was to be found. There was the one in the main building, which served the officers, irregulars, and diplomatic guests, and the one here, which was for the barracks and visiting merchants, that sort of thing. As in Haven, the regulars didn’t eat badly by any means, but these were people who did not require unnecessarily-extravagant fare, and so the Inquisition bought whatever was available and affordable, and the cooks put it to use.

“I’ve told you already, there’s nothing for you to eat until—oh, it’s you, Commander.” The cook on duty at the moment was a middle-aged dwarven woman, and Leon was rather glad she’d recognized him in time, because she might well have smacked his knee with a kitchen implement had she not. As it was, she looked a little chagrined, and he shook his head slightly.

“Quite all right, Ygrisse. I came to request some milk or cream, if you’ve any to spare.”

She raised a brow, but didn’t seem to find the request all that unusual. “Sure we do. Here.” She stepped down from the block she used to bring herself up to counter-level and moved to the back of the room, near the door out the other side. Flipping open the lid of an icebox, she pulled out a glass bottle and tossed it in his direction. The lob was easy, and Leon caught it by reflex, nodding his thanks.

“Much obliged. We’ll be out of your hair now.”

Ygrisse chuckled. “No trouble, Commander. You should bring this one back more often. He looks a little like he could use a meal.” She nodded her chin upwards at Cyrus, who sighed.

“Why does everyone say that? It’s not like I’m particularly thin.” He looked down at himself as though to make the point, and to be fair, he wasn’t. He had the build of a leaner man, certainly, but he was in much better condition physically than most of those who used magic as a method of combat. He glanced over at Leon. “Perhaps I should stop standing next to you. It’s bound to make anyone look peckish by comparison.”

Ygrisse laughed outright. “Fair enough. Now go on, both of you. I’ve work to do.” She waved them out with an impatient gesture, and both took their leave the way they’d come. As Leon had no other stops to make, they climbed an inner staircase to the ramparts thereafter. The wind was cold up here, and strong, but it didn’t bother him much anymore.

A door on level with the wall led into his office, and Leon pushed it open mostly with his shoulder, leading the way inside. It was much warmer therein, mostly the result of the sudden loss of wind and the fire going in the hearth on the north wall. It wasn’t a particularly luxurious space, being quite plain compared to, say, Lady Marceline’s own, but Leon preferred it this way. His desk was minimalist in terms of lines and very large overall, in part a concession to his own dimensions and in part just because he had so many things to put on it. Paperwork, inkwells and quills, wax and a seal, and any books he might be using for reference. The rest of his small collection was in a shelf not too far away, and he’d finally acquired chairs, two of which sat in a corner, on either side of a small round table.

Estella, it seemed, had already made it inside, and she was crouched near the desk, a small crate beside her, having already found the point of this whole excursion. On a pile of blankets in front of the desk, several small bodies squirmed about, eyes closed, little paws reaching out for something that was not there. Pitiful mewling noises came from the spot, and Leon sighed heavily. The sound drew her attention towards them, and when she turned, her expression was caught somewhere between wonder and melancholy.

“Leon…” She didn’t seem to know what to say next.

“Kittens?” Cyrus moved around to his sister’s other side, crouching as well, though at a greater distance. He studied them like he wasn’t quite sure what to make of them, a slight frown on his face. There were five in total, ranging in coloration from the largest, a tortoiseshell-patterned one with white paws, all the way down to the runt, an all-black female who already looked like she was half a step from death.

His brows drew together over his eyes, and he looked skeptically up at Leon. “What happened to the mother cat? These can’t be any more than a day old.”

“She died,” Leon replied quietly. “I think she was from Haven originally—she must have gotten on one of the carts somehow and made the journey with us. The first time I saw her, I thought she was starved.” The distended belly would have been explained by that just as easily, and she was otherwise extremely thin and mangy. “I’d been trying to get her to eat for several weeks, but I didn’t think she’d ever come close enough for me to do anything but that.”

Apparently, however, when push had come to shove and she’d sought out someplace safe to have her litter, she’d chosen to wedge herself under his desk. “She wasn’t strong enough to survive the labor. I buried her in the garden last night.” His eyes fell to the kittens, and he picked up the box Estella had brought with her. It would serve his purposes just fine, for now.

“Can the two of you mind them while I move their blankets into this? I don’t want them crawling away somewhere and getting hurt.” Estella nodded immediately, using her hands to carefully scoop up the smallest one first, shifting to look at her brother, holding her cupped hands out towards him.

“Careful. She’s really little.”

“Uh…” For once, Cyrus looked completely out of his element, uncertain and awkward. He fell back onto his rear, crossing his legs underneath him on the floor. “Are you sure you can’t just hold all of them? I’m not good with… fragile things.” He said it with disdain, perhaps, but there was something off about it, as though it were meant to conceal something else, though what that something was couldn’t be discerned. His face twisted into a grimace as he held his hands out and let his sister carefully hand him the kitten, which immediately pawed weakly at the base of his thumb with its tiny claws.

Cyrus flinched, though obviously not from pain, and brought it close to his chest, settling it in the crook of his elbow. His obvious discomfort only seemed to increase, but he obligingly let Estella hand him two more. Tension remained clearly observable in the line of his shoulders, and a muscle in his jaw jumped.

Leon was fairly sure he knew the look, because he felt it often enough himself: a reluctance to handle something so small and fragile, for fear he lacked the gentleness required. Honestly, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep them alive in the first place, but… it felt wrong not to at least make the attempt. If that mother cat had jumped into a cart with them all the way from Haven, and sought this place out as the right one to have her kittens, well… it seemed the least he could do to try and save them from her fate. Perhaps he was making too much of it; it was rare that he was this sentimental.

Carefully, he lined the crate with the blankets, settling onto the ground himself. Reaching into a pocket, he produced the fruits of his first stop on today’s supply run: alchemical droppers he’d borrowed from Rilien. The tranquil had assured him that they were clean and sanitary, and since he lacked any other means of feeding them, he hoped they’d work. He handed one each to Estella and Cyrus. “If you don’t mind lending me a hand, I’d like to make sure they all eat something as soon as possible. The others can rest in the crate until we can get to them.” He was particularly worried about the runty one Cyrus held.

Estella hummed an agreement and saw to the arrangements, handing one of the kittens to Leon and transferring two of the ones her brother held back into the crate and the warmth of the blankets. She went to pick up the milk bottle and frowned, her brows knitting together. “This is probably too cold. Here…” She concentrated for a moment, and slowly, condensation began to form on the outside of the glass bottle. After a few seconds, she smiled brightly. “That’s better. Cyrus, hand me your dropper?”

Cyrus, still holding the runt, handed it over without protest. When he received it back, however, he glanced between it and the kitten with very evident trepidation. “Stellulam, I do not know what I am doing.” The words were almost pained, though whether that was because he had admitted to not knowing something or because the situation was simply profoundly uncomfortable to him was difficult to say.

“I know,” she replied, “that’s why I’m going to show you.” She held her hand out for Leon’s dropper, and he gave it over without protest, sensing that she was the one with the knowledge here and perfectly willing to let her do the teaching. He hardly had any idea what he was doing, either, anyway.

“Not really how I was planning on this day going,” he conceded, moving a gloved index finger gently along the side of the orange-striped creature dwarfed by his other hand. Even through the thin leather, he could feel its tiny rib cage, the bones even more frail than those belonging to a bird, at this stage. It was almost alarming, to know that this was a life he could hold like this. It scared him, how utterly delicate it was. How one wrong move, one unlucky hand-spasm from him, could snuff that life out. A strange thing to be afraid of, for someone who killed for a living. It mewled softly, and he felt something in his chest tighten. He wasn’t sure if there was some relevant difference or not, between that and this, but he felt one. Maybe it was just that no one had ever depended on him for its livelihood in this way before.

“You and I both." Cyrus was quick to quip back, but he seemed afraid to stop watching the kitten he held, and his eyes remained fixed on her.

When Estella handed Leon's dropper back to him, he accepted it, finding the glass warm to the touch. He’d never actually seen her do magic before; he’d been told she was a mage, but forgotten the fact until this point. She certainly didn’t use it in the same way Cyrus or Asala did. “You have to be really careful with them,” she said softly, cradling hers close to her body. “And you have to mind what they’re telling you. If you try to go too fast, they’ll get sick, or inhale it. So if you have to, err on the side of going much too slow.”

She demonstrated, lowering the tip of her dropper to the kitten’s questing mouth, only for it to turn its head away. “I know,” she murmured, “not what you want, is it? I promise it’s good for you, bellatulus.” She squeezed the end of the dropper enough to bead a bit of the milk on the end of it and tried again, just as gently. This time, it seemed to work, and it wasn’t long before the kitten, likely ravenous, had consumed the entire dropper’s worth, its belly rounding out slightly with satiation.

“Well,” she said, moving it back to the crate with its siblings, “they can eat. That’s a good sign. You two try it.”

Cyrus wore an almost too-serious expression, peering down at the little thing in resting against the inside of his arm like it was a puzzle he hadn’t yet solved. His brows descended heavily over his eyes, which were narrowed slightly. It wasn’t impossible to note that his hand shook a little when he moved his dropper, and perhaps because of this, it took him more than half a dozen tries before he was at all successful, and even then, he went much more slowly than Estella had, utterly fixated on the task to which he’d been set, however reluctantly.

He heaved a sigh of obvious relief when the dropper was empty, glancing up at the both of them. In the moment before he remembered to smooth over his expression, it was surprisingly soft, considering his usual attitude towards things. “I’m not doing another one.” He announced it decisively, but he moved with utmost delicacy when he put the kitten down in her box, and rubbed the top of her head with the pad of a finger.

“They’re… very soft, aren’t they?”

“They are.” Leon supposed he’d have to take their word for it, considering that he was wearing gloves. They managed to get all of the kittens fed, and he had to admit to an immense sense of relief when they did.

“They’re definitely not out of the woods yet,” Estella said sadly, petting them gently as they fell asleep, “but if we keep them warm and their blankets clean and feed them regularly, they have a fighting chance.” Leon knew her well enough to guess that she’d be quite insistent on helping with that, and frankly he was glad of it. She seemed to have a better idea of how to handle all of this than he did.

“Where did you learn to take care of kittens?” He knew the Lions taught a lot of skills, but this was definitely not one of them.

She glanced up at him and smiled. “Minrathous has a lot of strays,” she said. “I was in a situation like this once. One of the Chantry servants, Falon, taught me how to do this kind of thing. He was… very good with all sorts of animals.” He supposed that made some kind of sense.

“And you Cyrus? I don’t think I can look after them all by myself, and Estella likely won’t be able to, either.” He was much less certain of what the other Avenarius would do than he was of his sister. Generosity was not the first trait that naturally came to mind when one considered him, but he’d been surprisingly willing to make an attempt of this today, so perhaps there was yet a point in asking.

For a moment, Cyrus regarded him with a flat look, but then his eyes wandered down to the box, and the sleeping creatures within, and he shook his head. “I suppose.” He didn’t exactly sound pleased about it, but he wasn’t refusing. “But I make no promises.” His lips pursed, but whatever else he’d been thinking of saying, he kept to himself. His protest, such as it was, seemed a bit thin, but there was real reluctance in his expression.

Estella, at least, didn’t seem to believe that he was really all that upset about it, and she rolled her eyes at him. “It’ll give him a reason to leave his atelier. I’m all for it.”

Leon chuckled, then nodded slightly, rising to his feet. “All right then. I can keep them for the rest of today, but I have several meetings tomorrow, so I’ll bring them by your office, shall I?” She inclined her head by way of agreement, rising as well and taking her brother’s arm when he did the same.

“Sure. Let us know if you need help with them later tonight or something, though. And start working on names. They’ll need those eventually.” She half-smiled, then elbowed Cyrus. “This one gets to name the little girl, though. I saw that look on your face.”

“I've no idea what you're talking about. There was no look." Their lighthearted bickering carried on past Leon's office door, but faded as it closed behind them.

Setting

Characters Present

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

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The view from her balcony was simply brilliant. Marceline had taken it upon herself to occupy the living space atop the main tower, which was connected to the main hall via long staircase and and short hall. A rather large four-poster bed rested against the far wall, its bedding made and tucked into the mattress immaculately. Above that hung a purple banner of Marceline's house heraldry stitched in silver, a shield emblazoned with the image of a raven sitting atop a vine of grapes. On the wall adjacent was a large wardrobe which held a number of her finely tailored dresses. Across from that and pressed into a corner sideways was a desk whose seat would still give her the gorgeous view out of her balcony.

It was certainly the room of a noblewoman, and Lady Marceline was not yet even done decorating to her liking. "My apologies for the bare accomodations, I still have pieces of furniture on its way from home," she explained to her two guests. Leon, Cyrus, and herself had chosen the moment to put aside their duties and to do something other than work. "I am particularly anxious to get in a rug that I had imported from Antiva. The floor is nearly unbearably cold in the morning," she added taking an unsavory glance at the wooden floor beneath their feet.

It was summer, but the mountain mornings still carried a bit of a chill with it, but fortunately it heated up during the afternoon. The weather was nice enough that she had the double doors that led out onto the balcony thrown open. On the balcony itself was a long table, and on the table sat a number of items. Most prominently featured were the selections of bottles that they had all brought, dust still present on the necks of some. Surrounding them were a basket full of various types of bread, a plate of select cheeses, another plate holding different luncheon meats, and finally a dish of crackers.

Marceline allowed herself a mild smile as she looked between both her guests. "I must admit, I have been looking forward to this opportunity for a time now. It is a relief to do something other than try and manage the Inquisition's finances while meeting with the nobility." They were still receiving donations from their allies among the nobility, though fortunately their petitions to take tours of Skyhold had dropped somewhat since they had established themselves. Still, it was not a rare thing to cross the hold's grounds and catch the reflection off of an Orlesian mask.

Cyrus didn’t stand overmuch on the formality, and made himself comfortable in one of the chairs set at the long table, relaxing his usual impeccable posture into the seat back and half-smiling in that curiously-sharp way he had. He looked entirely comfortable, as though he did this sort of thing all the time, and in all fairness, he might once have done. “What's this?” His tone was teasing, but mildly so. “Even the esteemable Lady Marceline grows tired of balancing books and attending to the eccentricities of blue-blooded gawkers? There’s hope for the likes of us yet, Leon.”

Leaning forward, he reached towards one of the bottles on the table, dusting it off slightly with a cloth napkin. Removing what looked to be a foldable corkscrew from a pocket in his tunic, he popped it open with a series of practiced motions, moving forward again to pull three of the glasses towards himself. Into each, he poured a small amount of the dull golden liquid—one of his selections for this particular exchange. He declined to distribute them, however, apparently waiting for the others to get settled.

Leon did so as well, choosing a seat on the near side, so as to look out over the view from where he sat. For someone who left the matters of nobility wholly to Marceline, he didn’t look uncomfortable at a setup like this, either, as though it might not be precisely unfamiliar to him, either, though he lacked Cyrus’s obvious ease and comfort. Then again, that seemed to be true generally. He was smiling though, perhaps from the other man’s jest. “My thanks for the invitation, Lady Marceline.” He nodded amicably to her, then turned his attention with interest to Cyrus’s glasses.

“Ah, I’d heard Imperial brandy was worth writing home about. How did you manage to get it shipped here, though?”

While they spoke, Marceline took a seat on the other side so as to see them both, her back to the open air. “I still know people in the right places.” The reply was a little enigmatic, but Cyrus said no more, simply handing a glass to each of them. They weren’t full of course—this was more a tasting than an effort for any of them to become inebriated. “This one has a bit more honey to it than most do. I like it best with something a bit heavier, but the camembert will do quite well.” He lifted his glass a bit into the air.

“To our mutual culinary edification.”

Marceline raised her glass to clink off the others while allowing herself a smile. Instead of downing the liquid immediately, she gently swirled it in her glass before lifting it to her nose so that she could get the aroma. Once satisfied, she finally allowed herself a sip of the liquid. It rolled smoothly over the tongue, but it was immediately obvious as having a heavier kick than ale, a sort of sharp burn that settled in on the way down. Though made of grapes, like wine, it resembled in taste a strangely-sweet whiskey, and the tart flavor of fruit was blended, indeed, with something like honey, rich and saccharine. Marceline paused to think on the taste for a moment before she spoke. "It certainly has a kick, does it not? But it is not an unpleasant kick. I am rather fond of the aroma as well," she said, swirling the liquid again under her nose. She could find the tart fruitiness in the scent. "Where is this distilled?" She asked. While it was not the type of liquor that Michaël particularly enjoyed, her father did however. A bottle or of something similar would be a wonderful gift to send him.

“This particular one? The river valley just outside Vyrantium. The lowlands there are quite amenable to grapes. I can put you in contact with the distributer, if you’re so inclined. She’d be quite happy to have a client from somewhere outside the Imperium, I’m sure.”

He rolled the stem of his glass between his fingers for a moment, chewing over the cheese he’d taken to accompany the drink, then ventured a different variety of question. “You’re from growing country yourself, aren’t you, Marceline? I understand you’ve inherited a vineyard and production facilities of your own.” He either didn’t notice that he’d dropped her title from her name, or he’d done it on purpose, because he neither made note of it nor corrected himself. Either way, she did not say anything to correct him. Were they in public, she may have, but they were in a social outing and she did not feel the need to point out the faux pas.

"I am and I have," she answered, though a slight frown appeared in her lips. "The Lécuyer Vineyard, and the West Banks as a whole are mine, yes, but my mother is once again in charge of operations. With my obligations and attention focused on the Inquisition, I am unable to run our business efficently. Though fortunately, mother was more than happy to resume her duties as my steward. I do not think she enjoyed retirement as much as she believed she would," Marceline added with a smile.

“Sounds familiar,” Leon put in, his tone somewhere between nostalgic and amused. “There are some people, I think, who really don’t suit a life of inactivity.” He reached across the table next, taking up three new glasses and a bottle, picking up Cyrus’s corkscrew and using it to open a squatter, squarish bottle of liquor, the glass dark and smoky. The label was black, the letters on it silvery, and the glass itself was cut with some eye to aesthetics, though it was a sharp, angular sort.

“This is my contribution. I think my sister was a little too happy to learn that I intended to share with friends, because she sent me the really good stuff.” He smiled wryly. “Anderfels whiskey. You should, ah… drink slowly. It tastes better than Golden Scythe, but it’s almost as potent.” He barely covered the bottoms of their glasses with a thin finger’s width of liquid, the color a reddish amber. Even from as far away as they sat, the smell was sharp and obvious, and he handed the glasses over, raising for another toast.

“To… well, to family, I suppose.” He shrugged, knocking his own glass back with the ease of much practice.

"To family," Marceline repeated, clinking the glasses once more. Like before, she swirled the liquid and lifted it under her nose, though this time it was wholly unnecessary, and in fact came from a habit alone. A habit that burned the inside of her nose, and she noticeably took the glass away from her nose quicker than usual. However, despite the omen, she had her pride as a connoisseur and knocked the shot back much like Leon did. It was probably a mistake. He hadn’t been exaggerating when he called the whiskey potent; the sort they had in Orlais, that she was more familiar with, didn’t have near the bite this did. Though the taste was strong, with a fair number of oak and smoke flavors to it, it was clearly of good make, just… very overpowering.

Marceline stifled a cough and quietly reached for the nearest glass of water, and attempted her best to nonchalantly sip from it. One sip turned into two, and then two turned to half the glass, but she could still feel the burn in her nose and chest. Though she made no vocal complaint, she silently wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and helped herself to a wheat roll. "It certainly is... stout," Marceline admitted, pulling a chunk out of the roll and placing it in her mouth. After she swallowed, she continued, "Michaël would most certainly enjoy this," she said. Her husband was rather fond of strong drink, but she wondered if it was too much for even him.

It was impossible to miss the sound of Cyrus laughing to her left, though he was doing so quietly. “Let no one doubt your talent for diplomacy.” His own glass was empty as well, though she hadn’t seen in what manner he’d consumed it, and he looked relatively unaffected. Perhaps he’d elected to go a bit more slowly. She stared at him with an even frown for a moment before a smile worked its way into her features. It was her fault for letting her pride to get the better of her.

Leon smiled, too, his humor just as evident. “It’s… an acquired taste, I think.” While they waited for her to sufficiently recover and make her own contribution to the exchange, he changed topics slightly. “Are you still planning to send Pierre to live with your mother for a while, Lady Marceline? I think it might be more comfortable for him if he didn’t spend the winter here; I’m still not sure how well the castle’s going to handle the cold.”

"Yes, the weather in Orlais's heartlands is much more favorable than it would be here in the mountains," she explained. While it certainly did grow cooler back home, it would certainly not snow as much as it would in the mountains or as it had in Haven. "He should spend time at home, I would like it if he learned of the business much of the same way I had, and mother is a superb teacher." She then frowned again, sighed, and continued, "I would also like him there to keep mother company. She is a stern woman, yes, she has a soft spot for Pierre. The business slows during the fall and winter months, and she would get lonely with father away due to the civil war. I worry," she said, exchanging glances between Leon and Cyrus.

"What of your family, Leon?" she asked with genuine curiosity.

He lifted a shoulder, leaning back a bit in his seat. The expression on his face was fond, but still very much in the present moment. “My family and I have been separate for most of my life,” he explained. “I was given to the Chantry around the time I turned eleven, and entered templar training not long afterwards. I do visit, though. My mother died when I was quite young, but my father and two older siblings still inhabit our land. Gerwulf is the heir—he’s been married a while now, and I’ve a niece and a nephew. Verena heads the family’s forces, and nags me in letters.” Leon smiled, and moved his eyes to Marceline.

“I think it’s quite remarkable, though. The way you can raise a child in the midst of all of this. I certainly couldn’t.”

“I don’t think I could raise a child ever.” Cyrus said it humorously, but there was nonetheless a detectable thread of sincerity in the words. “Especially not if it was anything like I was.” His eyes glinted with mirth, and he reached for a round portion of bread, manipulating it in his right hand so that it rolled along the length of his forearm to his elbow, where he caught it with his left. “I was terrible, really. Still am, I suppose.” He lofted a brow, as though anticipating confirmation.

“Your Pierre is extremely well-behaved, by comparison."

"He is a young gentleman," Marceline agreed with a proud smile. She saw much of herself in the young man, in his demeanor and personality, but she also saw some of Michaël in him as well. She could tell by the set of his shoulders and the square in his jaw that Pierre would grow tall and strong like his father. "It is our hope that he will grow to be able to do anything he so desires, though it is my hope that he will wish to inherit the family business," she said with a coy smile and a slight laugh. However, the smile was short lived, and it gave way to a frown.

She could not pretend that it was that easy however. "I still worry. Michaël and I both do," she began, her features even set. "With our obligations, we fear that we are not able to be present as much as we would like. I wish I was able to spend more time with him, but I simply cannnot," she said. "I am pleased that he has managed to find a friendship with Asala." Marceline had noticed Pierre spending time with the Qunari woman in Haven, and she could not disapprove. It was clear that Asala was a kind young woman, and was a healthy friend to have.

Cyrus looked thoughtful for a moment, unusually free of the half-mocking demeanor which seemed to characterize him most of the time. “Friends have a way of changing things.” It was unclear if he spoke from personal experience or was merely offering up something he’d heard, but he didn’t exactly seem happy to say it. He shook his head just a little bit, though, and moved away from the subject.

“And what have you brought to our little exchange, Marceline?”

"A Cabernet Sauvignon," she answered, reaching for her bottle. The bottle itself was dark and dusty with the label having browned from age in her cellar. However, the stamp her heraldry of the shield and raven and its vintage was still immediately recognizable with black ink. She took Cyrus's corkscrew in hand and in a practiced sequence had the cork free in moments. She smiled as she began to pour into their glasses. The liquid was a thick, dark purple with a hue of red reflecting off of the edges. She was generous with the pour, but did not overdo it to better let the wine breathe.

She swirled the wine much like she did the other liquors, but she spoke too. "I will spare you from the sales pitch," she said, with a coy smile, "Just know that it is a Lécuyer Special Select, taken from my own personal stores," she explained. Finally she lifted it under her nose and took in the scent. Among the various aromas were an earthy wood, with a strong note of blackcurrants. She took a drink and allowed the flavor to settle over her tongue. It was a heavy drink, with the taste of blackcurrants at the fore, though beneath that were layers of tastes of vanilla and, oddly enough, a hint of green peppers.

“I’m not much of a wine person,” Leon admitted after his first swallow. “But that’s really quite good.” He offered a smile and a shrug, gathering up a few pieces of cheese and some bread to eat with it, presumably, and relaxed further back into his chair. His eyes wandered out over the view, and it was quite spectacular, really.

“I suppose I’ll add it to my list. Things I’d never have experienced but for the Inquisition.” His expression became slightly wry, and his focus momentarily returned to the other two. “At least not everything on it is completely terrible.”

“Commander, I think you may be even more cynical than I am. It’s quite refreshing.” Cyrus looked amused as ever, his smile widening a little to something with a hint of genuine pleasure in it. “I can happily drink to that, though. To things not entirely terrible, enjoyed with people not entirely intolerable.” He raised his glass and tilted it forward.

Marceline simply laughed and raised her glass as well, clinking it together with the others.

"Agreed."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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Leon really needed to stop trying to walk and read at the same time.

He’d managed to crack his forehead on another doorframe, though mercifully no one was around this time, and he winced, reaching up to his brow and rubbing the sore spot with a sigh. Sometimes, he really wished he were just a few inches shorter.

Ducking under the side entrance this time, he made his way around to the long staircase that led up past Rilien’s personal floor to the workshop directly beneath the rookery. He’d been summoned, more or less, by word of some kind of breakthrough regarding… well, he wasn’t entirely sure what yet. Something to do with the Red Templars. Since he needed to run these papers over to the spymaster anyway, he’d figured it wouldn’t hurt to check on whatever it was in person. Rilien was hardly one to waste time.

The door to the workshop was open, and Leon stepped inside, his head clearing the doorframe this time, clearing his throat politely in case his presence had gone unnoticed.

Rilien wasn’t by himself this time, and indeed seemed to be conferring with a young-looking dwarven woman, her short, dark hair pulled into a small tail. She wore mostly heavy-duty clothing, overlaid with leathers for work rather than battle, and from various belts, bandoliers, and harnesses were strung a wide array of metal objects, most of them either tools of some kind or what looked like small mechanisms and devices. Leon had met her once before, shortly after she joined the Inquisition, and she’d given him his mesh tea-steeping contraption, a small thing that was designed with a sort of mindful simplicity. Her name, he could recall, was Sennesía, though she introduced herself as both that and Widget, apparently an informal nickname referring to her proclivity for designing such implements as she carried.

Presently, both she and Rilien were examining something on a wooden worktable, Sennesía standing on a wooden block to aid her height. Though she appeared much the same as she had last time he saw her, Rilien was not quite his usual self. His skin looked waxy and slightly drawn, paler even than usual, and it would seem he’d been sweating a fair bit, from the dampened ends of the hair near his nape. His expression was unchanged, but his physical appearance itself was clearly that of a person unwell.

When they turned to greet him, Sennesía’s motion gave him a look at what they were examining: a red crystal of perhaps six inches in length and three in width. From the way it glowed, it had to be red lyrium. “Ah. ‘Lo there, Commander.” Sennesía spoke with a slightly roughened accent, as though she’d been raised among people with a great deal less education than Leon had.

“Good afternoon, Miss Sennesía,” Leon replied mildly, though he did not bother to disguise his concern at Rilien’s present condition. “Rilien? You said you had something to tell me, but are you sure it cannot wait? You seem… ill.” Leon wasn’t really sure how else to put it, but in his limited experience, Rilien hadn’t bothered with tact unless it was necessary for something, and so he figured the tranquil wouldn’t mind if he did the same.

The mechanist gave him a look like that was something she’d said already, but Rilien shook his head slightly. “It is the lyrium. I will recover when it is removed.” His tone held as steadily as ever, so clearly whatever physical effects he was feeling were manageable, even if they made him look like hell. “More importantly, we have arrived at a theory regarding what makes red lyrium different from the ordinary variety.” He moved his eyes to Sennesía, who nodded.

“I worked in lyrium mines fer a few years, in Orzammar. M’ family’s minin’ caste, so it’s what I knew first.” She looked briefly awkward, but then hurried onwards in the explanation. “Anyway, er… it’s got some interestin’ properties. Rilien here gets sick around it, faster ‘n anyone else does, but he’s sensitive to magic, he says, so I figure… the magic is sick, too.” She reached up to scratch at the back of her head, shrugging a bit. The pause in the explanation seemed polite, rather than one created because she had no more to say. Evidently, she expected a question here.

“Sick? Sick how?” Leon hadn’t heard of such a thing before, but of course red lyrium itself was a relatively new development, at least on the surface of Thedas. The dwarves of Orzammar hadn’t been familiar, either—the world’s first exposure to the stuff in living memory had been through something unearthed in an ancient thaig, or so the story went. The only other things that far down in the earth were supposed to be the old Tevinter gods that became archdemons, and the darkspawn that searched endlessly for their slumbering-places.

“Sick like… tainted.” Sennesía compressed her lips into a thin line, then sighed and dropped her hand back to her side. “The song’s different, y’see. Us in the minin’ caste, we can learn t’ hear the song, but this isn’t the normal one. The taint’s the only reason I can think why this stuff poisons dwarves, like that Bartrand fellow Rilien mentioned. If it was like any other lyrium, it wouldn’t be able t' do that, ‘cept if it was raw, which that bit wasn’t.”

Rilien nodded slightly, folding his arms into his sleeves and taking a step away from the work table. “I believe Sennesía’s deductions to be correct. I as well have frequently worked with lyrium, and though my tranquility was never complete, I have only ever felt it barely. Not like this. It exudes physical heat, but also… there are mental effects, and they are not entirely unlike accounts of what occurs to Grey Wardens at the end of their lifespans, or those who are affected by the taint and become ghouls.”

Leon grit his teeth at the mention of Grey Wardens, but eased the tension in his jaw with conscious effort. “So what does this mean? I thought the Blight only affected living things, not inanimate objects like stone.” Of course, lyrium wasn’t always stone, he knew that. But it was either that or a powder, or a potable liquid, so the point remained the same. He eyed the piece on the table warily. He didn’t feel any different, being in proximity to it, but then, he wasn’t a mage, and he’d never taken lyrium—templars only received their first dose at the conclusion of their training, and he’d been moved into the Seekers before that happened.

“You are correct.” Rilien stood a fraction more stiffly than usual, but a little bit of color was returning to him already.

“It means lyrium’s a livin’ thing. Sort of.” Sennesía looked unsure how to explain it, and shrugged again. “It’s somethin’ some people have always thought, though you’d have to ask someone who knows more about magic for the fancy details. But I know it sings, and if it sings, seems like it could be alive.” She exhaled a short, sharp sigh, scratching her cheek just beneath her eye.

“The theory’s really interestin’, but probably not the most important part for you. What you’ll want t’ know is that it could make a lot of people sick. Folks like me, with a bit of resistance, they’ll be okay fer a while, but not too long, if there’s a lot of it. You’ve seen what it does t’ templars who drink the stuff.” She paused there, perhaps feeling little more needed to be said on that point. “Ingestin’ even once’d probably kill a mage, so you’ll want t' keep that lot well away. Probably better if they don’t even touch it. Normal tranquil are probably about as okay as us dwarves, considerin’.”

She stopped there, though, and glanced at Rilien expectantly. He picked up easily on the cue and the thread of conversation both. “Actually, Commander, I understand that you fought red templars with your hands at Therinfal. Did you at no point feel any ill effects?”

Leon moved a little further into the workshop, taking up a spot at the worktable, studying the red lyrium with some trepidation. He still didn’t feel anything, really. “No. I know I hit it directly a few times, too. Probably managed to inhale some dust…” He trailed off, something from an earlier discussion coming back to him. “Captain Séverine said that Ophelia, another Seeker, had publicly consumed some as the templars did, but appeared to suffer no ill effects. And if the symptoms are as bad as we’ve seen in others, I would have noticed when I met up with her. She didn’t look or sound affected at all.”

He reached forward for the shard, picking it up in a gloved hand and turning it over. He would admit, the light it emitted seemed rather sinister-looking to him, but he felt nothing in particular. Putting it back down for a moment, he tugged his glove off and touched it directly. Still nothing, not even a mild hint of nausea, though it was indeed quite warm to his fingers. He didn’t want to cut himself with it, of course—even he didn’t want to risk something like that directly in his bloodstream if he could avoid it, but if Ophelia was anything to go by, even that might not do anything to him.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “Maybe Seekers are resistant for some reason.”

“Huh.” Sennesía was looking at him curiously. “Even I wouldn’t want to touch that with my bare hands.” She was, indeed, wearing thick-looking work gloves up to her elbows, and had apparently been making use of eye-protection as well, from the goggles perched on her head.

Rilien’s eyes narrowed slightly, but he gave no indication as to why. “In any case, it is only a theory. We will have to study it further, and devise some way of storing it that cancels the effects completely.”

The mechanist nodded. “Cold does somethin’, I noticed, though it might not be a good somethin’ for us. If I keep it in a lead box like this, I can’t hear the singin’, so that’s probably a good bet fer now.” With great care, she lifted the shard into the box in question and set it down, closing the heavy lid over the whole container. “Well, I’m goin’ t’ go put this away. Fer the best, I think.” She looked apprehensively at Rilien, shaking her head. “You get some rest now, Rilien. You don’t look too great, if you’ll forgive me sayin’ so.”

Leon had been about to offer to help with the box, but she seemed to have it well in-hand, and after she left, he gently closed the door behind her. Deciding that calling further attention to Rilien’s condition was unlikely to be of any help, he instead handed the tranquil the papers he’d originally come bearing. “Scout reports. I thought you’d make better use of them than I can, at the moment.” He paused, trying to work up to the other reason he was here, the one that he found it much more difficult to discuss. He didn’t find it easy to talk about, in general, particularly not to people he had to see on any kind of regular basis. Fortunately, Rilien wasn’t really the sort of person who would bring it up or look at him differently simply because he knew, and so it was a little more bearable.

“The, ah… potions you’re making for me. Have you been modifying the formula at all?” He didn’t think Rilien would do something like that, but he felt he had to make sure, just in case. Whether or not he meant any harm, the tranquil was, to Leon’s estimation, the kind of person who often went for efficiency, and sometimes that meant changing things without bothering to tell anyone, as the Seeker himself knew from personal experience.

Rilien blinked at him, and if he’d been anyone else, the minute alteration in his expression might have qualified as offense. “I have not. Are they performing substandardly?” He crossed the room to the alchemy table he’d set up, this one now with a full standing kit, much larger than the portable version in the rookery above. From the shelf behind the table, he took down half a dozen glass vials, slotting them easily into the spaces between his fingers, and returned to the center of the room, holding them up to the light of the chandelier for inspection—likely Leon’s rather than his own.

And they did indeed look exactly the same as they always had, a blackened red rendered almost carbuncle in the light. Leon knew for a fact that they’d tasted the same as well, dismissing one possible cause of his present predicament. “No, no they’ve been rather the opposite, actually.” That was just the problem. He’d suspected Rilien might have altered the formula explicitly because they seemed better than they usually were. “It’s just… the effects seem to be lingering longer, and… bleeding over, into situations where I’d really prefer they didn’t.” He’d noticed an increased degree of irritability, for one, and he suspected something was making his physical symptoms worse as well. Headaches, muscle-spasms, and his persistent inability to get a good night’s sleep may well all be connected.

“I don’t suppose there’s anything you could tell me about that?”

Rilien set the vials down on the nearest flat surface, clearly leaving them there for Leon to take, and spent a moment considering the question. “The reagent is exceedingly rare.” He glanced down at one of the vials. “I had not had much experience brewing with it before you asked me to, and there is little alchemic literature on its properties and side effects. But I have encountered other texts, wherein others who have used it have described the long-term effects.”

There was another pause, this one a little longer. “Your progression down the list is accelerated. That is perhaps to be expected—most people in your position only require one dose at all. Your continued consumption is most likely to blame.”

Leon sighed deeply. That, of course, was the most obvious answer, though he’d been hoping for a different one, one he could do something about. He’d always known this would have consequences. Ophelia had warned him of as much. His faith had bid him accept those consequences. And now… his position in the Inquisition demanded that he continue to do so, faith or no faith. He swallowed. It was quite one thing for those consequences to be some indeterminate number of years in the future. It was another altogether to be able to feel them beginning to take their toll.

“How long, do you suppose?” He asked the question just as evenly as Rilien usually spoke, unwilling to expend any more on it than that.

“That will depend on how often you imbibe it between now and then. If you continue at your recent rate, perhaps a year or two in total. If you slow down, it may take longer.” Rilien’s words were dispassionate, but he tilted his head faintly to one side. “If you were to consult others with some relevant expertise, you may be able to extend that further. Seeing a healer about it regularly would not do harm. And I understand that the Imperium has many people who may know more than I do about blood magic.” They of course had both a healer and an Imperial mage among the Inquisition’s irregulars.

Leon’s immediate instinct was to reject the suggestions. But… the more he thought about it, the more he wondered if it might not help to talk to Cyrus, at least, see if there was anything he might know about this kind of thing. The problem was, he didn’t really understand all the pieces of it. He doubted even Ophelia did. She didn’t have the same problem after all, despite being a Seeker herself. They both knew, though, that no healer could repair the damage done by their methods of combat, and considering just how sensitive and easily-distressed Asala was, not to mention her current state of being barely functional, he wasn’t going to talk to her about his problem anytime soon.

“As you say,” was what he ended up going with, and he inclined his head to Rilien, taking up the vials and depositing them in a pocket. “You’ve my thanks, for this much.” He’d seldom met an alchemist willing to do the work for him, once they knew what it was for, what it would do. He didn’t tell most of them, of course.

“I will continue to look into the matter.” Rilien returned the slight nod with one of his own. “If there is an alchemical solution, I will find it.” His words contained no trace of uncertainty.

Leon smiled, the expression for once exactly as bitter as he felt, though the feeling wasn’t directed at Rilien. Far from it. But he said nothing further, taking his leave from the workshop. There was no alchemical solution—he was quite sure there was no solution at all. Those had been the terms.

The strength he needed, his life in exchange.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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The fresh snow crunched underneath their feet as Marceline traveled alongside Leon. Winter was upon them now, with new drifts of snow being supplied to Skyhold's grounds daily. Even then, snowflakes lazily drifted from the sky, and provided a stark contrast for the moment that they lingered in her well-kept mane of black hair. She was dressed for the weather with a thick black coat with silver fur lining the collar. The mountains would only make the winter chill all the more sharp, and they could probably look forward to snow for several more months.

“I do hope you have men keeping the roads clear,” Marceline said with her neck arched upward, studying the falling snowflakes. They would depend on those roads in the following months for supplies like food and clothing. A lot of diplomacy went into securing contracts and trade routes for goods. It would be a shame to see all of her work undone by snow blockages. Her words, however, were merely musings. She had faith that Leon had the soldiers doing whatever was required of them.

Her head fell back down and turned toward Leon, “Speaking of the soldiers, there are some things I wish to discuss.”

“I wished to see how you felt using the army in an attempt to bring in a source of income,” Thus far, the Inquisition had mainly relied on donations and loans from across Thedas, though primarily Orlais and Ferelden. However, donations would soon become scarce as the Inquisition established itself, and there were only so many loans they could take out before the debt crushed them. “If you feel they are ready, of course,” If not, then the whole thing was moot.

Leon, perhaps due to sheer size, didn’t seem much bothered by the cold. His own cloak was comparatively light, made of nothing more than roughspun wool with a deep red linen lining. He crossed his arms upon Marceline’s suggestion, causing the edges of the garment to fall forward. His brows furrowed.

“Bring in income?” he echoed, sounding dubious at best. “It’s not a matter of readiness, Lady Marceline, but a matter of ethics. If you’re suggesting that we hire ourselves out to the highest bidder or take sides in a civil war in hopes of getting paid…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “That’s not really the kind of thing an army like this one should be doing.”

“I did not mean for the suggestion to sound so mercenary, Ser Leon.” Taking a side in the civil war would not only be unethical, but would also lead to a conflict of interest and undeniable bias. Her father fought for the Empress however, and she would not condone placing the Inquisition's army in his way. “You understand as much as I that war brings all sorts out of the woodwork. Bandits, highwaymen, plus we now have the Venatori and the Red Templars to contend with. With the majority of the Chevaliers' attention turned toward the civil war, there are not as many trained soldiers patrolling the roads or keeping the holds safe.”

Marceline shrugged and glanced upward toward Leon's face. “I am simply suggesting we fill that need. Now, do not misunderstand me,” Marceline, her own brows furrowed, “I do not want to initiate a protection racket where safety comes at a price, but... The Inquisition will need income to feed and pay her soldiers.”

Leon seemed somewhat mollified by the clarification, but his frown didn’t disappear. “In principle, that’s not a bad idea, but… the kind of people who would benefit from our protection are not the kind who have much to give in terms of donations. We may end up spending more on transport and supplies than we get back for the effort. Much as I’d like to help, that might be better left to the Lord-General’s chevaliers. Not to mention Orlais is a sovereign nation even despite the civil war. We don’t really have a legal right to—look out!”

Before she could react, whatever it was struck her hard in the face. A freezing cold sensation was immediate as it spread through her face and seeped into her neckline. She halted midstep and gasped, swiping her face and bending over to free the snow stuck in her collar. Snow. It was then she realized that she'd been struck by a snowball. After removing as much of it as she could from her face and clothes, she shot a gaze upward, looking for the most likely culprit. Her brows were furrowed and her eyes narrow, though her face did not hold a look of outright rage instead sitting somewhere at accusing.

The first person she saw was her husband, having himself a hearty laugh. Michaël had returned to Skyhold from their estate on the West Banks a number of weeks back. Once he realized that she was staring at him however, his laughter stopped immediately. An alarmed expression entered his face as he quickly pointed toward the elven woman beside him. “Her,” he hastily accused.

Khari glared at him, but quickly threw up both hands in a placating gesture. One of them still grasped a second snowball. “Uh… sorry, Lady Marceline. I was aiming for Leon, I swear!” Apparently she expected this information to make things less bad.

A loud snort sounded above the pin-drop silence, followed by hoarse, uncontrolled laughter. It carried itself across Skyhold’s grounds and belonged to the resident pirate, Zahra, who appeared to be struggling to keep herself on her feet. She was crooked forward with one hand perched on her wobbly knees, and the other planted firmly on the closest building. A breathy intake of breath later and she was rubbing her hands and knuckles across her eyes. If any attempt was made to stifle her amusement, it was a feeble one. “You should see—I can’t believe,” she sputtered between giggles and snorts, “your faces.”

She appeared to have made some effort when it came to dressing for the weather. No amount of pride could keep the chattering of teeth at bay. She’d chosen simpler clothes, though they still appeared unusual. Dark leathers, bound with soft brown linens. A heavy black cloak rimmed with some sort of animal fur hung over her shaking shoulders. Her hair hung free, in a wild mess, woven with small braids and beads upon closer inspection.

“That’s not helpful, Zee!” Khari threw the other chunk of snow she was holding for the laughing woman. Certainly, her aim could use some work—it barely clipped Zahra before spinning off slightly to the right. Zahra’s laugh only grew louder when the snowball careened off her shoulder. She was already ducking down to gather snow in her own fingerless gloves, wolfish grin wild on her dusky face.

Coming up behind the elf and the chevalier was a bundled up Romulus, heavy cloak draped around him and a hood covering his head. He stepped lightly through the snow, but if he was trying to put his particular skillset to use, he wasn't doing it very well. The dusky-skinned Herald still looked far from home traipsing about through the snow, but he at least looked a little warmer than he had the previous winter.

He was rapidly forming a snowball in his own gloves, packing it into a throwable condition. As soon as he had he aimed it for Khari, and his aim was true; it exploded right against the back of her neck, and Romulus showed a toothy grin as he shrugged. "It's only fair, I think."

She pretended to look offended for all of two seconds before cracking a smile just as wide. “Oh yeah? We'll see what's fair." Apology already forgotten, Khari stooped and drew up a handful of snow.

Across the courtyard where the inn sat, a window on the second level popped open and swung outward. The white-blonde mane of Vesryn appeared, his eyes surveying the sudden snowy conflict. "Are you having fun, Herald?" he asked incredulously. "I didn't think you knew how."

"Why don't you come down, then? I'll show you." Romulus was already working on another snowball, eyes watching all those present, his grin unwavering. Vesryn took the bait, disappearing immediately from the window and closing it behind him.

Next to Marceline, Leon chuckled under his breath. “I do believe we’d best either take cover or arm ourselves,” he said, a smile lingering at the corner of his mouth. “That’s my official advice as commander, by the way.” Leaning forward slightly, he scraped some snow off a banister to his left, exposing the grey stone and compressing the flakes together between his palms. Taking his sound advice, Marceline quietly took a step backward and slipped into the rather large silhouette cast by Leon.

He eyed the entrance to the inn, apparently waiting for Vesryn to emerge before loosing the snowball. Given his strength, it wasn’t an outlandish possibility that he’d be able to hit someone all the way across the courtyard, either.

The elf swiftly moved out of the inn's doorway, like a child in a pretend game of warfare, which for all intents and purposes, this was. He had an actual implement of war, however. His tower shield led the way, and it was this alone that saved him from a snowy smack in the jaw. With snow sliding down the metallic front of the shield, Vesryn advanced, planting the shield into the ground just as another attack came from Romulus. He began working up a snowball of his own, though his efforts were a little hindered from holding up the shield.

"Is that all? My grandmother has a fiercer attack than this lot."

A soft thud accompanied a snowball striking him in the back; the culprit was soon revealed. Estella stepped out from behind a corner of the inn, one hand holding up part of her cloak, which was for the moment a makeshift basket for what looked like several more snowballs. “Surprise?” She half-smiled, darting away to take cover of her own behind a pile of chopped wood, stacked adjacent to the inn’s other side.

She adopted a steady rate of fire—her accuracy was at least better than Khari’s, though perhaps not by much.

She was certainly, however, not responsible for the volley of perhaps a dozen snowballs that arched onto the field from behind her, pelting anyone unfortunate enough to not duck behind cover in time. From her angle, Marceline could easily discern the cause—Cyrus strolled up behind his sister, wearing a broad grin. With a sharp hand gesture, he levitated another five or six chunks of snow into the air and hurled them as well.

“Asala?” The Qunari woman was indeed not far behind. “Have you ever attempted snow-fort architecture?”

“I have never had snow,” Asala answered cheerfully, the majority of her attention diverted instead toward a decently sized bubble levitating nearby. The bubble was completely opaque, having been filled with snow. “Though, Pierre and I did create a... snow man, back in Haven.” She stared at the snow-filled bubble for a moment before staring at Cyrus with a blank expression for another few moments.

She was quiet, before her eyes lit up in understanding. “Oh!” she exclaimed, and brought the bubble around to their front, morphing and shaping the snow in the air. By the time she sat it down, they had a nice, compressed snow wall between them and the rest of the combatants. With that, she beamed proudly. At least, until she was struck by a snowball.

“Cheating! That’s cheating—,” Zahra cried beneath the hail of levitating snowballs, raining down like arrows. A few had certainly struck their mark. Remnants of snow shook from her shoulders, and hair. If she was at all upset at having clumps of snow mussed in her wild mane, she certainly didn’t show it. Instead it appeared as if she was trudging through the snow and behind Asala’s makeshift wall, hidden from view. At least from the snow-ball churning demon grinning beside Estella. A lone snowball veered over their heads, and Zahra appeared a moment later, further to the right. Arms thrown back. Shuffling through the snow as if it were water. She dipped lower and attempted to tackle Cyrus into a nearby snowdrift, laugh already bubbling from her lips.

They went down in a heap; a pause in the constant barrage of snowballs from the south side allowed an opportunity for counterattack.

With a good deal of the attention turned toward the scuffle between Cyrus and Zahra, Marceline finally peeked out from Leon's shadow. She shot a glance around at the rapidly increasing number of individuals embroiled in their little snow battle. In a one fluid movement, she leaned out from behind Leon and loosed the snowball she'd been holding on to toward Khari. There was a little twist to her lips as she slid closer to her Seeker bulwark. Marceline always got her vengeance.

Above the frosty battle, and across the powdered walls, sat a lone figure. A woman perched across the brickwork like one of Rilien’s cackling ravens, though she hadn’t made a sound. She kicked her legs back and forth and absently fluffed snow from her knees, white-haired and dressed in clothes fit for Skyhold’s nippy weather. A soft brown hood was pulled over her head, but upon closer scrutiny, it appeared as if she was smiling. It pulled against the scar on her face.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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Crimson sails flapped and rustled overhead as the Riptide sliced through oncoming waves. There was an occasional salty spray that broke over the wooden figurehead. It crowned over the painted face and pattered across the forecastle. It was difficult enough to miss the elegantly crafted woman staring off into the distance, breasts bared and hands planted across her knees. Her midsection was covered with wooden ruffles. Painted with the same rouge as the sails, though it hardly applied any modesty. Whoever had etched its face had certainly spent a painstaking amount of time on it. She nearly looked real. In the ship’s belly lied the hold and the crew’s quarters, individually decorated and ridiculously large. Hammocks, wooden beds built into the walls, and an assortment of chests. There was a small stock of barrels in the furthest chamber, filled with who knows what and a makeshift kitchen that appeared as if it’d just been built.

Borja had certainly been accurate when he’d said that the little vessel sailed truer than his own. Quicker, at least. A great deal smaller than his heavily-gunned battleship, the Riptide speedily progressed towards their destination—where to? Zahra wasn’t entirely sure, but when Rom and Khari had approached her with the request, she was loath to deny them. Her ship, she’d said, was as good as theirs. Always, anytime. Besides, she’d been itching for a reason to clamber back onto these decks. She’d missed it. Dearly. Skyhold was all well and fine, but it paled in comparison to the freedom she felt striking across the seas, an expanse of glass or choppy waves. As much as Zahra missed the cawing of gulls, and the salty breeze kissing her cheeks… it reminded her of loss, of the absence of Aslan who’d always stood at her side. A vigilant giant keeping her from tumbling straight off the cliffs she toed so close to.

Even if Skyhold’s chill still nipped at their heels, she’d chosen a lighter fare. She assumed the weather would incline itself to her preferred state, after all. Zahra wore a loose cotton shirt tucked into tight leather pants, with a red sash and thick belt wound around her waist. She had her sleeves pulled up to her elbows and oddly enough had forgone wearing boots. Riptide’s deck was smooth enough to abandon good manners and civilities. This was her ship after all. She hadn’t left her companions with any instructions other than to enjoy the ride, explore the ship as they saw fit. They could sneak down into the hold’s kitchen and nab some biscuits before Brialle hid them away or help Nuka shuffle around the ship, tugging on the rigging with curse-words sifting through her lips. Or simply find a place to sleep. Garland was snoozing near the forecastle and his figurehead. Impressively ignoring the spray of water splashing across his face. He could sleep anywhere, that one.

Zahra found herself lounging near Nixium and the Riptide’s helm. Usually she’d harass the little elf. Stick her hands through the cylindrical spokes or teasingly jerk the rudder in the opposite direction. Anything to acquire an annoyed grumble, or a small, steepled smile depending on the occasion. But today, she wasn’t in the mood. She hunched over the chestnut railing and leaned her elbows across it. In these moments, you couldn't tell where the gray skies ended and the gray seas began. Thick clouds swirled in a tumult above, blue-gray waves swirled below, crashing into the side of the ship. It reminded her of things. Memories, mostly. Of the day she’d first stepped foot aboard a ship. A pirate ship. How ridiculously terrified she’d been. She glanced over her shoulder, expecting a familiar face, and chirped a quiet laugh when she saw no one standing there.

Ridiculous.

Something nudged into her shoulder. Zahra glanced over to her right and faced a tin flask: two inches from her face. Behind it was Nixium’s impassive expression. Betraying nothing behind those bright eyes of hers. Not even a smile, nor a word or explanation. She supposed she didn’t need one. Her smile simpered into something less wistful as she accepted the flask. She twisted off the lid and tipped her head back to seize a generous mouthful.

Ridiculous.

"Borja's impressed," came the voice of Romulus, and soon the visage of the man himself appeared nearing the helm. "I heard him say we're making good time. Thought I'd pass the compliment along, since he's unlikely to do it himself." He was dressed comfortably again, in a loose tunic and pants, and only a pair of sandals separating his feet from the ship's deck. His beard, too, he'd trimmed, down to its lowest layer. Likely he wanted to keep it for their return to the cold when this was over.

Romulus took a seat on a nearby railing, keeping himself anchored with one hand grabbing a rope tied up to a sail. He looked comfortable on the water, at home, even. If he was putting on some kind of act, it was a good one. "Thanks again for doing this. I know my father was sparse with the details. I think he sees you as a rival, actually." He seemed to remember himself, and walked to within arm's reach of the pair.

"Don't think we've met yet," he said, addressing Nixium. He outstretched a bare hand. "I'm Romulus."

Zahra spotted Romulus before he spoke. Or the top of his head anyhow. Ascending the wooden stairs, quiet as a mouse. If he’d wanted to startle them, she doubted it would’ve been difficult. She passed the sloshing flask back to Nixium and stretched her arms up towards the gray skies, wriggling her fingers. It’d been awhile since she’d had so many passengers aboard the Riptide. People not officially belonging to her crew… but somehow managing to fit in just the same. She felt a crick in her neck and internally blamed old age. Maker knows she wasn’t as young as she used to be. “That’s just like him,” her laugh was genuine, and a little reflective, “Stubborn man. You’re right. I’d never hear it.”

She watched as Romulus perched himself across the railing, seeming every bit a sailor. Or pirate, if she had her way. She wondered just how different his life might’ve been if he’d been raised by Borja himself. It’d taken her awhile to even believe they were related. Would they have met on the seas? Would Borja have taken a different path altogether? Lived a nice and quiet life in the hills. It almost made her laugh. From what she’d heard, they’d been through quite a lot before finally appearing in Skyhold. Of course, she hadn’t broached the subject. And wouldn’t unless he asked. Though she felt a small tickle of regret at how she behaved in Redcliffe. At Rom’s father, no less. All bared fangs and venom. She’d have to apologize, someday. Perhaps.

“What kind of pirate would I be if I couldn’t help my friends?” It was a rhetorical question because at this point she was treading past the line of contractual responsibilities. This time, she’d strayed too close. She supposed it made her a weak mercenary. One that wasn’t so inclined to choose wealth over her companions. An odd transition to be sure, and one she found not so unpleasant. She pushed the wild mess of curls from her eyes and nodded her head. It appeared as if she wasn’t quite used to being thanked either. “Rival? You know, Borja’s one of the greatest sea pirates I’ve ever seen. Doubt he thought much of me when I was a just a whelp. Thought I was too mouthy for my own good. He’s probably right.” She held a finger in front of her lips and snorted, “Don’t tell him I said so.”

The red-headed elf regarded him coolly. Not in the manner that appeared impolite, or rude. Simply one belonging to an individual who preferred watching and listening over speaking herself. Nixium tilted her head and trailed her eyes across his outstretched hand. She blinked up at him and reached past his proffered hand, grabbing onto his forearm instead. A firm grip. If she was at all perplexed by the odd handshake, she gave no indication. “Nixium. Navigator. I keep this one from sinking our ship.” It might’ve been a joke if she’d laughed or smiled but she only nodded.

Behind them, Zahra snorted louder. “She isn’t lying.”

"Good thing you're here then," Romulus chortled back. "We've got a long ways to go still, and then a long ways back." The humor faded from his tone, an indication that he was moving to some business at hand. Indeed, he hadn't yet told her where they going, or what they were doing when they got there.

"We're headed to Llomerryn, or nearby at least. There's a Qunari ship docked there with a prisoner that we need to recover, man named Conrado. Long story short, he's an underworld sort that sold out my mother and father a long time ago. Someone had reason enough to want my mother dead for her bloodline, and if Conrado can point us in their direction, we might have a real lead on proof of my ancestry." He made his way back to his position on the railing, taking a seat again. "Not the simplest operation, I know. But you shouldn't have to risk the ship. I figure we'll want to go in with something a little smaller."

“That can be arranged.” The new voice was Leon’s distinctively-accented bass. The Seeker had shed most of his customary layers in concession to the rapidly-warming climate, though he still exposed no more than his face and forearms to the sun. He looked like the type that burned easy, between the blond hair and the fair complexion.

The tread of his boots was soft over the planks of the deck—either he hadn’t taken long to adjust to the rolling of the ship, or else he had experience with boat travel already. He spoke to all three of them, though perhaps mostly Romulus. “There’s not as much Chantry presence in Rivain as elsewhere, but for our purposes, that’s good. What is there aren’t templars or the sorts that speak the Chant on street corners. We do have agents, though, and more than one unmarked boat, I’m sure.” It seemed to go without saying that he could request such a thing and receive it.

Zahra said little to interrupt the flow of conversation. Only nodded when it was appropriate. She hadn’t been privy to any battle plans, though she felt a little more at ease knowing why they were going… if not where. Llomerryn? She’d honestly never been there, but she’d sailed close enough to spot their terrifying ships. Even she wasn’t stupid enough to trespass too close. Dreadnoughts could tear them to pieces. And as restrained as Aslan was with his history, he’d instructed her how to avoid such conflicts. Though, she would’ve been lying if she said she didn’t want to see more Qunari. His people. His ways. A shame this wasn’t a frivolous occasion. She glanced between Leon and Romulus, resting her hands back at her hips.

Rivain. Home, then. A wistful sigh sifted from between Zahra’s lips. It was dangerously close to home, in any case. A rough fishing village surrounded by piers and docks and old, creaking boats. She didn’t often wonder what her family was up to. Though she missed her brothers, dearly. Though even less of the fiancee she’d fled from. She did think of the day Aslan appeared in the sour-smelling tavern. Remembered him proposing that she simply leave if she hated living there so much. Easy for him to say. And then she’d gone as if she’d never been there in the first place. Stepped off the docks without so much as a backwards glance. They’d sail straight past it if her estimations were right.

She shook the thoughts from her head and studied Romulus. Never thought she’d be in the business of recapturing prisoners. She had no qualms who they faced in Llomerryn. Or how they’d pull it off. Nor did she understand the weight of this particular pursuit, but she did know that it was important to him. That’s all that mattered.

"That's good," Romulus responded. "In any case, I can't imagine we'll get in and get out without coming across anyone. Even Qunari ships aren't that big. Best to go without anything that can link us with the Inquisition. Goes without saying that I don't want to bring any unnecessary trouble on us." Killing Qunari unprovoked was a certainly a good way to do that, even if Skyhold was about as far as possible from Par Vollen.

"Somehow I doubt the Qunari would be willing to just hand him over. They don't like to bend on these sorts of things, from what I've seen." There was something a little dark in the last words Romulus spoke, but he didn't elaborate on it any further.

“Their intelligence-gathering capabilities are also very good in Llomerryn,” Leon pointed out. “We’re going to need to be as unobtrusive as possible as soon as we hit land—even a bit before. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a viddathari that close to Kont-Ar.” He frowned slightly. “Actually, you’re probably going to want to keep your face hidden as much as you can. I don’t know if the tattoos would be recognizable, but they might be.” He gestured vaguely to his own visage as he said it.

Before any sort of response could be made to that, there was a soft groan from off to the left. Khari, looking distinctly green around the gills, staggered towards the prow of the boat, muttering something impossible to hear. She hit the railing hands-first, bending over it for a few seconds before she fell into a seated position, dangling her legs over the edge and pressing her forehead into one of the vertical bars keeping the handrail in place.

“Zee… you’re great and your crew is great, but I hate your boat. Ugh.” She paused to take several deep breaths. “How do I make it stop moving?”

“You should see the other boats. Riptide’s smooth as butter in comparison.” Zahra snorted through her laughter and rubbed at her eyes with her knuckles. She hardly looked sympathetic when she sauntered over and leaned against the railing to Khari’s side, “An acquired taste, I think.”

Asala followed close behind, whom in contrast seemed right at home on the deck of the ship. She too had shed much of the layers she'd usually wore at Skyhold. She walked barefooted along the wooden deck, with loose breeches that cut off at her calf and a shirt that exposed her midriff. In fact she even appeared to have a slight skip in her step as she came to stand over Khari.

Asala bent over and gently gathered the woman's fiery red hair in her hands to keep it out of her face. The look on her face was one of pity as gazed upon the poor creature. “You, uh... do not,” Asala answered. “But you will get used to it. In time. Maybe.” She did not seem at all convinced by her own words. It was all she could do to shoot the others a shaky smile that all but said probably not.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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They’d been in Llomerryn for the better part of a day, docked at the harbor. Khari was itching to set her feet back on land, but they were waiting for Anais to show up, and apparently it was better if they kept themselves mostly out of sight. Her guts were not thanking her—they still hadn’t settled, even if the boat wasn’t really moving much now. It was better if she wasn’t below, though. Khari had sprawled herself out on the deck near the helm, arms thrown out to either side, obeying the injunction not to make a spectacle of herself and her body’s demand for fresh air at the same time.

The night sky was pretty here, without much around to block the view. Still, she was mostly sure she liked it better at Skyhold. A wave rolled into the harbor, dipping the boat slightly underneath her. She groaned softly when something churned in her innards. The idea of sailing was great—too bad the reality sucked so much.

Zahra stood off a few feet from Khari’s right side, looking every bit the forlorn lover. Arms splayed across the railing. Finger trailing circles around the knots of the wood. Almost as if she were bidding someone farewell for a time. It would’ve looked peculiar to anyone else, or perhaps, as if she were deep in thought. Not quite so armed as the other group, but prepared all the same, the captain’s bow was strapped to her back and her thin rapier hung at her hip.

Soft footfalls across the deck heralded Rom's approach. He'd been restless ever since they arrived, to say the least. He was out of the comfortable travel clothes and into something more suitable for their mission: near black garb, and next to nothing that would make noise when he moved. He was armed to the teeth as well, even if not all of his weapons were visible. One did not take on even an unprepared portion of the Qunari's military arm lightly.

"She's here," he said softly, giving Khari a squeeze on the shoulder and pointing towards the dock. "About time."

Anais was also out of the usual half-plate they'd grown accustomed to seeing her in, instead wearing nondescript black clothing, including a light hooded cloak, which she currently had drawn over her vibrant red hair. She was accompanied by two others, one who appeared to be her own agent, or fellow cultist, and the other an agent of the Inquisition. It was only Anais who came aboard, though.

"Your Worship," she greeted Rom first, with a respectful bow of her head. Rom impatiently waited for her to finish. When Anais raised her head again, she glanced around at those assembled on the deck. "Is the Qunari mage here? Asala, was it? I've seen to it that the Qunari are expecting a saarebas. Tantalizing bait."

As if on cue, the Qunari woman in question strode out from under deck, her attention focused on the harbor in the distance. She lingered a step beyond the threshold, looking up and down the coast for a moment as if searching for something. Eventually however, she turned and finally noticed that all eyes were turned toward her. She flicked between them as her head tilted quizzically.

“Um...?”

"Saarebas," Anais repeated, her tone indicating a low estimation of Asala's intelligence. "Bait. You're to lead as many Qunari as possible away from their ship, thus giving us a better chance to retrieve the prisoner. This may require you to attack some of them, and it will require some endurance. Are you capable?"

Asala noticably twitched at being called Saarebas, but otherwise said nothing. Instead, she averted her gaze to their feet.

Rom had crossed his arms by this point, leaning back against the mast of the ship. "You won't be going alone," he said. "We'll be splitting up, so you'll have some people to watch your back." He looked expectantly in Khari's direction. "Right?"

Khari gave Anais a sidelong look for all of a second before grinning at Asala. “We’re gonna go on a merry little chase, you and me. And Cap’n Zee.” Oh, that had rhymed. Awesome.

She figured she was pretty useless for sneaking around and onto occupied boats. She could be quiet enough, but the armor clanked and there was no way she was going without it for a job like this, so she’d decided pretty early that she’d play to her strengths and be a huge pain in the ass instead. There were plenty of other people who could do the rest of it.

“Rom, Leon, Anais, and Borja here are gonna get on board the ship while we’re running around with Qunari on our heels.” Asala didn’t exactly know the whole plan yet; Khari figured she deserved to be told. “But all we’ve gotta worry about is not getting skewered by javelins. Sounds like a good time, right?”

She didn’t expect agreement.

She was not disappointed. “No... It does not,” she answered flatly. Once more, Asala flicked her eyes between them before she signed through her nose, apparently resigning to her task. “I do not suppose there is another way... But if this will help you...” she added, looking at Romulus while she spoke. She then looked down at her bare feet and shrugged. “I will need boots,” she stated, returning back under deck to undoubtedly go fetch a pair.

"It'll have to do," Anais said, seemingly more to herself than anyone. "The boat is prepared and nearby, Your Worship. We should move into position."

Borja started down the ship's ramp onto the dock, sheathing a knife at his waist. "About time. I've waited long enough." Rom made his way over to Khari, offering a squeeze on the shoulder. He looked a bit uncomfortable about everything as well.

"Look after Asala. And don't do anything too stupid. No one should get hurt for this. We'll make it fast."

“No risk, no reward.” Khari meant it in jest, though—it would be one thing if she were doing this by herself, but there were other people to think about here. Asala in particular was not likely to enjoy the experience of being chased around by a bunch of the same people that nearly sewed her mouth shut or whatever else Qunari did with their mages. Khari might not be the quickest on the emotional uptake, so to speak, but even she knew that everyone had their sore spots. If they could have done this without putting her at risk, she’d have wanted to.

She flashed Rom a jagged half-smile, clapping him on the upper part of his arm. “We’ll be fine. I’m almost as good at getting out of trouble as I am at getting into it.”




Had she been with anyone else, those other people probably would have known better than to let Khari be more-or-less in charge of the plan. But she was with Asala, who was probably honestly a bit too timid to register a complaint, and Zee, who would probably also think that what she had planned was a great idea. Or at least a fun one.

Llomerryn was actually pretty bustling, even at this time of night. Most of the buildings near the harbor had candles burning in the windows or lanterns outside or whatever other light they needed. The smell of burning incense and spices Khari didn’t know the names for hung thick and heavy on the salt air—she could taste it all on the back of her tongue. She had the feeling that some of the incense was actually more like what her uncle put in his ironbark pipe, only headier.

The street was flanked with little stands as well, draped in colorful fabrics she couldn’t fully appreciate in the semidark, embroidered with metallic thread that she could. All kinds of food was available for perusal: fruit she’d never seen, fish right from the ocean, and round fuzzy coconuts she kind of wanted to try.

The hawkers weren’t as avid in the evening as they were at other times; everyone seemed content to call out occasionally and otherwise leave the small crowd traversing the night bazaar to their business. At least that made it slightly easier to tear her attention from all the food and focus on the task at hand.

It wasn’t unusual for Khari to be the person who stuck out like a sore thumb in whatever situation. So it was unsurprising that she did now. Qunari weren’t that hard to find around here, and of course Zee blended on her own home turf, so to speak. But she hadn’t seen many other elves, and not a single Dalish, which was pretty predictable. It would be to their advantage, actually.

Their targets were mostly clustered near the docks proper, casting wary eyes about the immediate area. As Anais had promised, they looked to be expecting trouble; all of them were armed. The solemn looks on their faces could have been that, or just the fact that none of them had a sense of humor. Was humor outlawed in the Qun? She’d ask Asala, but that might get her a serious answer.

So instead of contemplating it further, Khari did what she usually did and waved goodbye to caution, happy to see it go. “Hey you! Big, grouchy Qunari! It’s a couple of infidels and their illegal mage friend!” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder at Asala and grinned. “What’re you gonna do about it?”

Behind her, Asala sighed and lifted both hands into the air. They were immediately enveloped in her blue energy to truly drive mage home.

It didn’t take the Qunari long to decide. Khari’s eyes rounded; she ducked the first javelin, which buried itself in the post of a small fruit cart. “Sorry!” The merchant looked at her like she had two heads for a second, but she couldn’t really stick around to explain.

Time to run.

A loud laugh sounded across the throng of wooden carts laden with fruit. A few heads turned. Customers who’d heard Khari’s catcalls. Wide and reflective as soon as Asala’s electric-blue fists pumped in the air. Zahra’s own eyes were two mischievous saucers, shoulders bristling with giddy energy. She grappled onto the nearest cart and hefted it over with a grunt. It caught another javelin as its contents scattered across the ground. Bright red apples rolled towards their feet as they advanced. Shouting angrily, shaking their weapons, while she crooned with her hands cupped to her mouth, “Come get us, flaming shites!”

With that she tugged at Asala’s elbow in order to turn her around in the opposite direction. She pointed out a side-alley with stairs and mouthed there, there.

A flash of blue, and the sound of a javelin clattering harmlessly to the ground followed. With that out of the way, Asala turned with the tug of her sleeve and followed close behind Khari and Zahra. From behind them, harsh cries of Qunlat vocabulary could be heard, Saarebas chief among them. They had not escaped Asala, judging by her downcast brow and tight lipped frown plastered to her face. Clearly, she was not enjoying it near as much as the other two.

Khari was determined to have her fun regardless. When the two of them ducked into one alleyway, she split off, heading down another. The general idea was that it’d be good to split the pursuing forces, but she hadn’t counted on just how singleminded the Qunari were going to be about this. Not one of them followed her, all of them pursuing the fleeing Saarebas with the fervor of true damn believers.

Well then. That narrowed the options a little.

Accelerating until she was moving at a breakneck sprint, Khari hung a sharp left at the next intersection, bringing herself into the path of Zee and Asala, who were about half a block down, their pursuers hot on their heels. How to slow down a rampaging squad of Qunari, then? Khari cast her eyes around the market street, but it wasn't until she turned them up that she got her first really good idea.

Hopping back into a run, she increased the distance between herself and the others, getting the lead she’d need to keep if this was going to work. There was a big crash behind her; maybe Zee had overturned another cart or something. Visualizing her path, Khari jumped, landing atop a shipping crate stamped with a big, fancy red logo—probably Orlesian Port Authority. Planting her hands on the next one, she swung herself up, then jumped vertically, catching the sill of the second-story window above. Using it to crawl along the wall, she hopped off onto the nearest rooftop, running along the edge and drawing Intercessor at the same