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Non-Player Characters

A full collection of The Canticle of Fate's minor characters.

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

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Astraia Carrith

Age: 24 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Inquisition Mage and Healer

Astraia originally came to the Inquisition with her brother Zethlasan, from the distant Dalish clan Thremael of the Tirashan. After staying for a time she became attached to some within the organization, including the Lady Inquisitor and her brother, and chose to stay on as a healer after her brother was forced to return home. With access to a wide range of skilled teachers her aptitude as a mage has grown swiftly. Aurora, Asala, Cyrus, and Harellan all tutor her in different skills, and the latter two of those have begun training her in weaponry and physical skills as well. Harellan above all others she seeks to learn from, as she is entirely absorbed by his knowledge of the elven people and their magic.




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Aurora Rose

Age: 35 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Captain of the Free Mages

There's not been a lot from Aurora since she left Kirkwall with a handful of mages, only a few rumors of a redhead aiding mages in their times of need. Though such rumors were never able to be pinned down, as her and the group she led never lingered in a single place for long until the Inquisition arrived. She and her group were the first of the mages to pledge themselves to the Inquisition, and since then she has become a unifying and steadying figure to the Free Mages. Now with the death of Grand Enchanter Fiona, and a promotion to Captain of the Inquisition's mages, she has become a leader to the group.




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Brand

Age: 25 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Steward to the Lord Inquisitor

Brand was born into slavery, and sold to the Catus family in Minrathous at a very young age to be separated from any family ties. He served Bastian Catus his entire youth, often working alongside the future Lord Inquisitor Romulus when he too was a slave to Tevinter. Brand's experience as a slave was not easy, as few are, but his skill for subterfuge and spywork earned him a more comfortable living than many were given. After assisting the Inquisition with a mission in Minrathous, Romulus was able to negotiate the purchase of Brand from the Catus family, and subsequently granted him his freedom. Brand chose to work for the Inquisition in turn, serving as a steward of sorts to the Lord Inquisitor, while also performing counter-intelligence duties for the Spymaster.




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Corvin "Cor" Pavell

Age: 25 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Mercenary Lieutenant, Argent Lions Company

Officially still a Lieutenant with the Argent Lions, Cor has fallen quite naturally into his job as a captain in the Inquisition's ranks as well. He leads the regulars, which mostly involves coordinating with Leon on duty rotations, training the troops, and actually commanding a large chunk of the ground troops when the Inquisition's army is deployed. Though there were some initial difficulties with this given his very obvious status as a city elf, he has proven himself to those he's in charge of, to the point where his race has become largely irrelevant—at least in this context.




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Edwin Donnelly

Age: 30 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Mercenary—The Argent Lions

Along with Hissrad, Donnelly serves in the second tier of the Inquisition's army command structure. In particular, he's usually in charge of the Vanguard, among the first of the regulars to push into new regions and capture whatever locations need capturing. He's also found himself to be a talented cartographer, a skill he puts to use for the sake of the organization's intelligence resources. He maintains his close friendships with the other Lions among the Inquisition, and his generally-amiable nature means he's integrated well with the other troops also.




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Hissrad

Age: 29 (9:44)
Race: Qunari
Occupation: Mercenary, The Argent Lions

Hissrad acts as Cor's direct Lieutenant within Inquisition command structure, something he doesn't seem to mind. It means he's usually in the practice yard, drilling the regulars and catching any newcomers up to speed. It's almost nostalgic for him in a certain way, though the training he puts his people through is several degrees gentler than what the Beresaad gets, to be sure. More than his fellow Lions, he's found it somewhat difficult to integrate with the regulars, who still don't always know what to make of him. Still, three years has done a lot to normalize his appearance and lingering Qunari mannerisms, and he seems to have accrued a lot of trust among the ordinary soldiers.




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Harellan 

Age: Unknown, appears in his 40s.
Race: Elf
Occupation: "Stablehand"

Now revealed to be Estella and Cyrus's uncle, as well as one of the few remaining elves of Arlathan, Harellan occupies a more central place in the Inquisition than his humble title suggests, though he mainly concerns himself with matters as he chooses, rather than having any official duties as such. Of late, this mostly includes instructing his niece and nephew, applying himself to Vesryn's difficulties with Saraya, and most recently assisting Cyrus in his efforts to teach Astraia. He seems quite pleased to busy himself thus, but of late those closest to him have been able to notice a certain sense of discontent about him.




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Larissa

Age: 31 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Lady Marceline's Assistant

Larissa is a bard hailing from Val Royeaux's Alienage. It was her soft touch and golden voice that saw her lifted out of the ghetto and into the courts of the noble elite. Though a bard, she is squeamish with the thought of assassinations, which limited her use. However, she made up for it in both her intelligence and arts of stealth. It was these skills that caught the attention of Lady Marceline, who desired the skill of a spy, not an assassin. A number of years in Marceline's service saw the woman rise from spy, to assistant and sometimes nanny to Marceline's child. When not on assignment, Larissa can be found at her Mistress's side with clipboard in hand, or tucking Pierre into bed with either a song or story.




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Lia Tael

Age: 24 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Lead Scout of the Inquisition and Mercenary, The Argent Lions

Originally one of the Argent Lions that hailed from Kirkwall, Lia was among the earliest entrants into the Inquisition after the disaster at the Conclave, alongside the others in her mercenary company. A skilled ranger and skirmisher, Lia was elected to serve as the Inquisition's Scout Captain, and grew both her skills and her leadership qualities in the years that followed. After reuniting with Ithilian and Amalia and being officially adopted by the former as his daughter, Lia took up her father's role in the hunt for the Venatori leader Marcus Alesius, and vowed to help end him so that her beloved mentors might finally be able to live in peace.




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Michaël Benoît

Age: 40 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Chevalier

Husband to the good Lady Marceline, Michaël is a Chevalier Lieutenant. The Benoît family are minor noblity, and as the youngest son of his family, the life of a Chevalier had always been on his horizon, though for that he has to be thankful. Were he not, then he would never have met his sweet wife. Michaël served, at one point, in the same unit as Ser Lucien, and it is thanks to him that he still breathes. The recent outbreak of the Orlesian civil war saw him in battle against his countrymen. After a time, and thanks to the pressure provided by his wife, he was given leave to remain closer to home. Upon the finalization of Lady Marceline's role within the organization, Michaël serves as a sort of advisor to the Inquisition's army.




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Pierre Benoît

Age: 17 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: N/A

Lady Marceline's and Ser Michaël's only son. Intelligent as his mother, she cultivates and encourages his scholarly pursuits by affording him nothing but the best tutors. He grows into a strong young man daily, trained by two generations of chevalier in his both father and grand father. Though still young, no matter what path he chooses in life, the opportunities provided by his parents ensure that he will excel. For what more does a parent want than to see their child succeed? He splits time with his parents in Skyhold and the Benoît's home on the West Banks with his grandmother.




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Rashad

Age: 25 (9:44)
Race: Qunari
Occupation: Former Ashaad

Another of the Tal-Vashoth encountered by the group who accompanied her return home. Rashad is the more quiet, introspective of the pair, allowing his shorter, quicker partner to do most of the speaking. Rashad only knows a few words in the common tongue, relying on his partner to translate the needed information back to him. It is fortunate then the pair is never found too far apart. An Ashaad like the other once upon a time in the Qun, it was his idea to leave under the stifling idealogy, and all it took was a few words to bring his friend along. After Asala's group arrived in Ash-Rethsaam it was Rashaad who began to think about joining the Inquisition as a scout, to see the world, and maybe become a bigger part of something than their small coastal village. Again, all it took was a couple of words with his partner, and he would not be joining along.




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Rhys

Age: 27 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Former Ashaad

One of the pair of hunters encountered during Asala's return to her home of Ash-Rethsaam, Rhys is an elven man with a quick wit and a tongue willing to use it. By his own admission, he was once an Ashaad back before he became a Tal-Vashoth. He seemed to have handled the break from the Qun well and seems comfortable in his own skin no matter where he is. It was he who gave the members of the Inquisition who accompanied Asala back to her home a tour of the village, glibly filling them on the details on how the village ran. When Asala was ready to take their leave, he was also one of the two Tal-Vashoth she returned to Skyhold with, though it wasn't his idea. He acts a scout for the Inquisition, drawing on his experience as an Ashaad and sends the pay he makes back home to Ash-Rethsaam.




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Rilien Falavel

Age: 39 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Inquisition spymaster.

The Inquisition's Spymaster remains at the peak of his rather vast network of information and knowledge, monitoring the vibrations in the web. Anyone with a sense for these things understands how vital it is that he continue to do so, but he also offers more direct assistance when the occasion calls for his expertise, whether enchantment based or alchemical. And of course, he is still Estella's tutor, offering advice and assistance to both the Lady Inquisitor and her most frequent training partners, should they indicate willingness to accept such. Though the opportunity arose for him to rid himself of his Tranquility, he elected not to, on the grounds that he was better suited to his role in the organization as he is.




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Sennesía Engström

Age: 27 (9:44)
Race: Dwarf
Occupation: Mechanist

Sennesía, or Widget, as she is commonly called, is a mechanist, someone especially talented with mechanical devices and locks, as well as advanced trapmaking. Formerly a wandering trader of sorts, she volunteered her services to the Inquisition almost as soon as they established themselves in Haven, recognizing the “giant green glowy hole in the sky” as a threat not only to some, but to everyone. She can usually be found near the smithy, tinkering with new mechanisms, or else trying to devise a lock Rilien can’t pick. So far, to no success.




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Signy Sky-Lance

Age: 31 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Avvar Thane

Signy is the leader of a very small band of Avvar, currently comprised mostly of women, children, and the elderly. The Blight, several famines, and now the existence of rampaging demons and the mage/Templar war did her hold in, and she was forced to move her people from it, eking out a nomadic existence in the Frostbacks. For all that, though, they are surviving, if only just. She offered her services as an expert in Avvar culture to the Inquisition in exchange for sorely-needed refuge for her people, and now serves in the scout unit, as well as any time a hand is needed dealing with local barbarians.




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Stanford Reed

Age: 34 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Inquisition Lieutenant

Reed is Leon's direct Lieutenant-aide, which generally involves doing legwork and sometimes paperwork that the Commander can't or doesn't have time for. He has borne this uprightly, even when the burdens became substantial in the face of Leon's illness. He's by now grown used to the idiosyncrasies of the Inquisition and its members, his solid personality becoming rather unflappable in the face of all the extraordinary things he's witnessed over his time with them. He does, however, look forward to the end of it, when he'll be able to return to the life and family he left behind to join the cause.




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Thalia Ethendir

Age: 35 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Hunter/Ranger

Thalia is a formidable woman, a Dalish warrior born and bred. Once a member of the Relaferin Clan of northern Ferelden, she now wanders further afield from her people, though she knows she is welcome to return at any time. This reassures her, to some extent, but honestly, she is enjoying her life by herself, and the richness of experience it has afforded her. For a time, she served as Cyrus's guide through the wilderness of Ferelden, but since he's joined the Inquisition, she has as well, and has taken a commission as one of the mid-level officers in the regular army, something that has afforded her the opportunity to get to know a wide range of people.

Harellan has since revealed that she is, to some extent at least, in his employ, and that it was he who appointed her to watch after Cyrus after he left his uncle's company.



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Amalia

Age: 38 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Bounty Hunter, when income is necessary.

Born to the Qun, Amalia was raised as Ben-Hassrath, the long arms of the Qunari priesthood. She was assigned to Kirkwall, as a sort of extension of the Antaam’s presence there. Though not part of the Arishok’s group, she became involved in the subsequent invasion, surprisingly not on the Qunari side, and eventually left the Qun entirely, renouncing all that had once made her what she was. In its absence, she built a new life and identity, alongside those she had come to care for above all others. In recent years, she and her kadan Ithilian have been tracking and occasionally encountering her old nemesis Marcus Alesius, and it would be fair to say that she knows Corypheus’s general better than anyone else alive. That knowledge has proven valuable to the Inquisition, who they met in the Emerald Graves. She has since joined the cause more formally, mostly for the purpose of hunting Marcus, though she's also proven to be of benefit as an instructor, when she decides to take on the role.




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Annika

Age: 39 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Revered Mother

Revered Mother Annika was once a much more worldly woman, serving as a soldier under the command of Arl Eamon of Recliffe. As a young woman, she fought in many well-known conflicts, such as the undead uprising in Redcliffe, and the battles of the Fifth Blight that followed. After the Blight, she decided she'd had enough of warfare and blood, and became a lay sister instead. Though she had not dedicated her entire life to the Chantry, the respect the people of Ferelden offered her allowed her to rise somewhat quickly to the title of Revered Mother. Her views are quite balanced, but her bravery and willingness to aid those in need are unmatched.

After coming into contact with the Inquisition, Annika chose to join up with them, insofar as a Revered Mother is capable. She currently resides within the keep at Skyhold, offering counsel to those that seek her, and helping in whatever way she can.




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Ashton Riviera

Age: 41 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Kirkwall's Guard Captain

The illustrious guard captain of Kirkwall, the man is... different. Born to Ferelden nobility, he was given away to his aunt and uncle before he could become Bann of anything, the man's upbringing was harsh, but loving. A refugee in the wake of the fifth blight, he'd managed to scrap enough together to get entry into the city and soon rent out a little store to live off of. Over time, he met friends whom all seemingly became important in a myriad of ways, became a peerless archer, saved Kirkwall (at least, according to his words) multiple times, became the Captain of the Guard, and even found himself a wife who rather enjoyed his eccentricities. It has not been easy, and there remains still more than a few skeletons in his closet, but the good captain give his all to protect his home, even after he lost his beloved to the Nightmare in the Fade. Time will tell if that is the one wound he can recover from.




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Brialle Maven

Age: 25 (9:44)
Race: City Elf
Occupation: Ship's Musician / Cook aboard the Riptide

A smarmy young woman that Zahra had the pleasure of meeting in Denerim. They met under hostile pretenses, in the sense that Brialle had her fingers in Zahra's pockets and somehow managed to steal her entire purse without so much as alerting her to her presence. She was just some thieving girl with a penchant for shiny things, but she'd been deathly quiet and stupidly brave. She did end up catching her, but something stayed her hands. A twinkle in her eye, or something just as cliché. She's not sure what she saw in her, but it was enough to offer her a position aboard the Riptide. It was there that she discovered Brialle's less shady abilities. She had a voice of pure gold—velvet, smooth, bellying tales that transcended her age. And she was a fabulous cook. At least compared to her own charred attempts.




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Donovan McGregor

Age: 47 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Apostate Mage

Donovan is a mountain of man, and though despite never smiling, might be the most gentle as well. Born in the harsh Anderfels, the manifestation of his magic forced him to make a choice. Remain and be sent to the Circle, or leave and live life as an Apostate. He chose the later and now acts as Aurora's second. It is always him she goes to for guidance and advice. He is an active pacifist, choosing to focus on his healing and alchemy skills. It was actually from him that Asala honed her own skills. Though he would not say it himself, he was one of the pillars in Aurora's mage underground, and was always the one the younger mages looked up to. In the Inquisition, he now serves both as medical personnel with Asala and one of the instructor for the rest of the mages.




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Ethne (Compassion)

Age: ?
Race: Spirit
Occupation: Horticulturist

A spirit of compassion, melded with the memories of a young woman she once bonded with, that dwells in a garden in the Fade. Initially encountered by Cyrus in his search for a spirit Asala might bond with to become a Spirit Healer, Ethne was happy to help—provided her prospective student could demonstrate the necessary character to avoid putting them both in grave danger. She devised a test for the young woman, and when Asala proved her commitment to the path of healing and mercy, Ethne agreed not only to bond with her, but also to instruct her in the advanced techniques she would need to make best use of her power. Who exactly Ethne was, or when, remain a mystery.




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Fiorella Costanza

Age: 38 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Antivan Ambassador to Orlais

Lady Costanza is a familiar face at court in Orlais, having served in her position for the past ten years. Originally from a wealthy merchant family in Antiva, she married into a titled house with little by way of resources, and in doing so, gave herself a foothold in international politics that she's done well with, or so the rumors go. Estella has done mercenary work for the Lady Ambassador and her husband before, and likes both of them a great deal for their relative informality and kindness. She cooperated as well as she was able with the Inquisition's investigation into the D'Artignon case, proving herself to be the kind of person for whom fairness matters a great deal. She proved her good intentions once again at Halamshiral, offering what information and assistance she was able freely and without expectation of compensation.




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Garland Langley

Age: 29 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Carpenter / Surgeon aboard the Riptide

Now, their relationship is strange. Strained. Like tiptoeing on glass shards, bloody and too much damn trouble. She should have walked around, but the damage has already been done. Zahra often wonders why she ever let him aboard her ship. Wonders why she didn't throw him overboard when she had the chance. She supposes its because of the work he does. Good damn work with his hands, mending her crew whenever they end up on the bad end of a deal—which happens more often than she'd like to admit. He reminds her of all the things she had run away from. She'd met him before. One of Faraji's friends: glib, full of cocky grins, and flagged eyebrows. Inquisitive, nosy, always in her business. Apparently, he followed her. His reasons remain unknown, and she's not sure she wants to know, anyhow.




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Gauvain

Age: 45 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Steward

Gauvain's family has been serving the Marquises and Marquesses of Arlesans for the better part of a century now. Oftentimes very involved in the rearing of their charges, or else, as it turns out, raised by them, the system creates an almost familial connection between lord and steward. In this, Gauvain is no exception, and is rarely seen anywhere other than Julien's side. But he is also an agent of the Cendredoights, a fifth-column organization seeking to destabilize the Orlesian government from within. This put him in an uncomfortable position when Julien came too close to discovering their existence, and events spiraled out of his control in the aftermath. Gauvain helped the investigation more than he perhaps should have as one of the Ashfingers, indirectly exposing his organization to the Inquisition in the process. He has since come clean with Julien, and the two have reconciled. He feels himself indebted to the Inquisition, and Estella in particular, for giving him the chance.




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Gemma de Santis

Age: 20 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Criminologist

A bit of a wunderkind, Gemma has from a young age had a marked interest in empirical science, particularly as it relates to the solving of crimes and mysteries. Over time, she has developed several completely new investigative methods, but without a way to legitimize them in the eyes of the general public, she could not ensure that they helped solve crimes of the sort that had orphaned her. Eugène's ingenious solution was to act as the public face of her discoveries, something discovered by the Inquisition in the course of solving the D'Artignon case. She keeps up an exchange of letters with Cyrus, who took a keen interest in her scientific findings, and finds scholarly engagement with a mind like his to be quite enjoyable, particularly since he respects her expertise as much as she respects his. Gemma also proved to be quite helpful at Halamshiral, pointing the Inquisition in a useful direction almost right away.




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Ithilian Tael

Age: 47 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Dalish Hunter

A grizzled, scarred, and war-weary elf originally from Ferelden, Ithilian came across the Inquisition while hunting for the Venatori leader Marcus Alesius alongside his lethallan, Amalia. There he was reunited with Lia, his ward from Kirkwall, now the Scout Captain of the Inquisition, and officially adopted her as his daughter. A mission to Minrathous to assassinate Marcus led Ithilian and Amalia into a trap, leaving Ithilian gravely wounded and without the lower half of his left arm. His fighting days now ended, Ithilian intends to return to Kirkwall and accept their offer to become the new hahren there, but only after his lethallan and his daughter do what he could not, and end the life of Marcus Alesius.




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Jean-Marc Stroud

Age: 47 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Grey Warden Commander

Jean-Marc Stroud was formerly a chevalier, and therefore a member of the Orlesian peerage. After his family became victims of the Grand Game, he was recruited into the Grey Wardens in an effort to prevent him from seeking revenge. Having agreed, he quickly rose in the Warden ranks, helping to train and lead other Wardens, including his current partner, Nostariel Riviera. Though no longer a knight, Stroud holds tightly to honor and his ethical code, putting him at odds with those who would encourage the Wardens to take more extreme measures in their fight against Darkspawn. After the loss of his partner in the events at Adamant Fortress, Stroud led the remaining Wardens from Orlais and back to Weisshaupt in the Anderfels, where the organization as a whole has gone conspicuously silent.




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Julien D’Artignon 

Age: 35 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Marquis of Arlesans

An ally of the Inquisition, Julien devotes much of his time, energy, and money to furthering the cause of racial justice in Orlais. Recently framed for treason, he was granted a new trial by the Inquisition's successful investigation into the matter, and in return promised donated a considerable amount of foodstuffs to the cause. He was of considerable assistance to them at Halamshiral as well, demonstrating his commitment to helping them defeat Corypheus, and more generally improve the state of things in Thedas at large. He has promised to field his household troops whenever they should be most needed, and currently keeps himself busy preparing them for just that, when he is not serving as part of the new Emperor's advisory council.




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Lucien Drakon

Age: 38 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Emperor of Orlais

Few people have managed to accumulate quite the same laundry list of titles behind their name as Lucien has. Born to a unique union of Houses Valmont and Drakon, he was brought up in the military tradition of his forebears, with the expectation that he would one day be Lord-General of the Orlesian army. He worked his way up the chevalier order, until he was exiled from the country in a thinly-veiled political maneuver by his aunt, then-Empress Celene. He became a mercenary, eventually starting his own company, the Argent Lions, in Kirkwall. In time, his exile was rescinded, and he was acknowledged as Crown Prince, as Celene remained childless. With the end of the Civil War and the events at Halamshiral, Lucien was the half-willing last claimant standing for the throne, and has now assumed it, making him the leader of the most militarily-mighty nation in Thedas. It is certainly not an easy job: he must unify disparate factions, repair a country heavily-damaged by war and genocide, and unite what remains against Corypheus. He remains in all things a staunch ally of the Inquisition, however.




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Milian Randrel

Age: 34 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Tranquil

Milian Randrel, or Milly as Aurora calls her, is an mage from the Antivan Circle. At least, she was formerly, before she had the rite of tranquility forced upon her by a rogue sect of templars in Kirkwall. Before, she was Aurora's best friend in the Circle and had aided her in her escape. Years later, they reunited in Kirkwall, where Milly lived with Aurora for a time. After the rite, Aurora was unable to care for the newly tranquil Milly, and she returned to the Antivan Circle, where she remained until the mage uprisings. Aurora came back for her friend before the templar could enact their justice upon the Circle, and she has been traveling with Aurora's group since. In the Inquisition, she serves as a medical aid to Donovan and Asala.




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Nixium Elenvaul

Age: 30 (9:44)
Race: Dalish Elf
Occupation: Navigator aboard the Riptide

Far too cute for that sour-puss smile on her face, Zahra's sure that there's a small piece of fun lying somewhere in that gut of hers. Just waiting to be explored even if she's not interested. She's the first to question her actions, and as irritating as it is, it's refreshing to have someone stand up to her. Apparently, Nixium comes from a long line hoighty-toighty Halla. An old Dalish clan of nomads, traveling the plains. Her family personally tended to their needs, and formed strong bonds with the creatures. Churned butter and produced milk. Nothing out of the ordinary, though she's gained useful medicinal skills as a result of her lessons. And as tight-lipped as Nixium is, Zahra managed to wheedle some information out of her. Most clans move from forest to forest to avoid confrontations with those who believe their presence is a nuisance, and hers was no different. They had strict rules involving those with magical abilities. Too many children born with such skills would pose a threat to them. One of those children had been a close friend of hers. The Keeper decided it was best for everyone to leave her behind. Funny, she'd said, how easily it is to slip away while they abandon one of their own.




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Nuka Lenkasdottir

Age: 32 (9:44)
Race: Dwarf
Occupation: Boatswain aboard the Riptide

Her little bonnie lass. Literally, little lass. Zahra likes to poke fun at her shortness, and Nuka likes threatening to take out her shins. She's brave, proud, sensitive and perhaps a wee too bossy, but what can you expect from someone in her position—of her stature. She's certainly not shy to share her tales. Nuka once lived beneath the surface, in a place Zahra has never had the opportunity to visit: Orzammar. She belonged to the Artisan caste. Nothing impressive, she'd said. It was only when her younger brother was rendered casteless that she abandoned her family and in turn... somehow ended up on the surface. There are juicy details that she's kept buttoned-up about. Even booze would loosen her tongue. Zahra is sure, that in time, she'll spill the details. Until then, she's content to trade quips and ruffle her hair in passing. Besides, Nuka is the first to have her back in a scuffle. She's all tiny flying fists, snarling teeth and headbutts.




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Ophelia Géroux

Age: 55 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: High Seeker

Born in a border region between Orlais and Ferelden, Ophelia had one parent from each country, and grew up a member of a proud warrior lineage. Devout even as a child, she entered Templar training in her early teenage years and was picked for the Seekers of truth several years later, undergoing her vigil at the age of twenty-three. She is well-regarded and well-known in the order for her sterling record of service, as well as for a peculiar eccentricity: she combines the traditional techniques of holy warriors with those of her family, and has developed over the years a sort of hybrid barehanded fighting style that she has taught to only one student. After the events at Kasos left her one of only two remaining Seekers in the world, she has taken upon herself the task of selecting and training the next generation of them, taking recruits from among the Inquisition's templars, as well as Kirkwall's, and a few less-expected places.




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Sabino Costanza

Age: 47 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Scholar, Noble

Lord Sabino was born into old money, without the money, as he prefers to put it. His family had an old name in Antiva and not much else, making his match with the new-money Fiorella Abano rather advantageous. She's done wonders for their political standing as well, and he's fully supportive of her in that, but also quite content to allow her to be the ambitious one in the partnership. He's more of a scholarly type himself—holding a teaching position at the University in Val Royeaux—and a linguistic aficionado. This particular trait made him fast friends with Estella, and he delighted in helping her with her Antivan and Qunlat pronunciation in return for help practicing his Tevene. He assisted the Inquisition in their investigation into the D'Artignon matter and at Halamshiral, and is quite amenable to their cause in general.




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Saraya

Age: Unknown
Race: Elf
Occupation: Elven General, once upon a time

In her earthly life, Marellanas Arayani Lihris was a great general among the ancient elves, one of the highest ranking servants of Mythal. Her destiny was to become a great betrayer of her people, a traitor that sided with Tevinter in a vain attempt to save her family in the wake of Arlathan's fall. For this she faced the greatest punishment the surviving elves could think of, imprisoned for eternity rather than allowed the release of death. Ages later, by accident or fate, her consciousness magically came to pass into the head of a young elven man from Denerim's Alienage, Vesryn Cormyth. Their relationship was strained and difficult to comprehend. Saraya, as Vesryn named her and she accepted, was all but a mystery to him until recently, a silent teacher and guide, a shadowy remnant of ages past. Knowledge of her betrayal came as a crushing blow to Vesryn for a time, but he seeks now only a way to save them, as their bond is a volatile one, and will kill them both if no way can be found to correct it.




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Séverine Lacan

Age: 33 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Southern Divine

From Val Chevin to Kirkwall to Therinfal to Skyhold to Val Royeaux... Séverine Lacan's path through the Templar Order has been a wild one, and in the end it has led her to the very top of her faith. Once a zealot blindly following the leadership of Knight-Commander Meredith, Séverine managed not only to survive her worst years, but to learn from them as well, and use them to forge herself into a better woman, a better templar, a better leader. Coming into the service of the Inquisition as the Captain of their templars led her to clash directly against Carver Hawke and the Red Templar Order. Her subsequent victory in multiple battles over them led her to fame and influence needed to ascend to the highest seat of power in the Chantry. She is now Divine Galatea II, and responsible for repairing the shattered organization that made her who she is.




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Sophia Dumar

Age: 34 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Empress of Orlais and Queen of Kirkwall

Sophia began her rise as the eldest child of Viscount Marlowe Dumar of Kirkwall, swinging her sword fearlessly through dark streets and endless perils that her city faced. Her deeds include dragon-slaying, defeating the Qunari Arishok in single combat, and overthrowing the tyrant Knight-Commander Meredith, among many others, and these in part led her to be crowned Queen of Kirkwall, a symbol of the city's fierce pride, demonstrated perfectly during the Red Templar siege in the winter of 9:43. Her marriage to the Emperor of Orlais, a man she spent her first day with crossing blades with vicious sellswords, makes her the new Empress, and one of the most powerful people in the world. That, however, is a mere side effect of their births, and was entirely irrelevant to her true dream: that of having a family again.




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Sparrow Kilaion

Age: 38 (9:44)
Race: Half Elf
Occupation: Unknown

The coastline huntress. Liberator of apostates. Redeemer. A specter of a woman traipsing through the lands, appearing neither here nor there for longer than she has to, Sparrow’s become quite an anomaly compared to her time spent in Kirkwall. Surrounded by whispers and tales, spread out across Thedas. What she’s done, and what she continues to do, is a mystery few would understand. Perhaps, save for the little red-headed mage she’s traveled with. Aurora remained a life-long friend when she left Kirkwall. It’s true that she hadn’t written the friends she’d left behind as often as she’d liked to, but she did send some things back—bobbles, trinkets, nameless pieces of where she’d been. She continued honing her abilities, free of her shackles and binds. Became something of an arcane she-devil. The scarred brute, tempered. Alongside Aurora and their mage-companions, Sparrow joined the Inquisition easily enough. Aiding the mages in their lessons, often leaving them in a mess of aching muscles. She doesn’t appear as if she minds her duties, at all. Burdened by experiences, and thoughts she’d rather forget, it appears as if she smiles less than she used to.




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Vareth Saras

Age: 28 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Keeper's First

Bitter envy tinges Khari's relationship with her father's apprentice, the person who became everything to her parents that she herself could not be. Adopted into the clan in their shared childhood, Vareth integrated smoothly and easily into the clan's way of life, becoming of indispensable assistance to Hawen in his work, and earning the regard of everyone else for being, essentially, good at everything the Dalish need to be good at. She might just despise him for that. After an awkward encounter in the middle of 9:42, Khari met him again when the Inquisition moved in to the Exalted Plains. He convinced the Inquisition to assist him with a rift in an ancient elven burial ground, and then convinced Khari to visit her clan after ten years away. There's a part of her that's grateful to him for that, even if it was extremely uncomfortable. He is a great deal more inclined to view the Inquisition well than most of his kin, and though he cannot abandon his duties to help, he has promised to keep Khari informed, if anything they need to know should occur where the clan wanders.



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Cassius Viridius

Age: 64 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Magister

Father of Chryseis Viridius and longtime mentor of Cyrus Avenarius, Cassius is among the most powerful Magisters in Tevinter, both for his magic and his advanced experience in the games of politics. He is well known for his research, which is generally on the cutting edge of magical understanding—something which gives him an edge among his peers as well. While he was in a good position to make a bid for Archon at one point, the abrupt disappearance of his apprentice, along with the continued smudge on his credentials that is his daughter's politics, rapidly destabilized his position. Seeking above all to ensure the posterity of his house, Cassius fell in with a group of cultists called the Venatori, and made on Corypheus's behalf a bid to secure the cooperation, or at least removal, of most of the remaining southern mages, using time magic to gain an advantage in negotiations. When the Inquisition caught on to his plans, he attempted to send both Heralds through a time distortion, but succeeded only in sending Romulus, Cyrus, and his daughter Chryseis. When Cyrus was able to reverse the spell, he surrendered to the Inquisition, and became its prisoner. He now researches on its behalf, while remaining in punitive custody.




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Celene I Valmont 

Age: 59 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Tenant of La Flèche.

Celene is the former Empress of the Orlesian Empire, a position she occupied from the death of her predecessor in her twenty-first year (9:06) to 9:43 Dragon. Her reign was controversial in many ways, but was a shrewd and intelligent player of the Game, able to outmaneuver and outwit her foes at almost every turn. The Orlesian Civil War, however, its opposing side led by her cousin Grand Duke Gaspard De Chalons, proved exceptionally troubling, especially since it split the nation’s chevaliers into roughly three factions, and hers was the smallest. Her once-moderate policies on many matters slowly radicalized, resulting in the unexpected, such as when she ordered the purge of the Alienage at Val Royeaux, believing it was harboring those who conspired against her. In the end, she miscalculated, and her attempt to have her cousin, Grand Duke Gaspard, assassinated was thwarted by the Inquisition, and Celene deposed as a result. She now awaits trial for war crimes in Orlais's most infamous prison.




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Corypheus

Age: Unknown
Race: Darkspawn
Occupation: Former Tevinter Magister

Corypheus revealed himself at the attack on Haven, making apparent that he is the entity referred to as the "Elder One" and therefore the leader of the Venatori cultists and master of the Red Templars. His motives are hard to pin down, exactly, but from details he gave away during that confrontation, the explosion at the Conclave resulted from a ritual, one he'd been planning for years. This ritual was interrupted by Romulus and Estella, resulting in the Anchors on their hands when they seized the ancient elven orb Corypheus wanted to use to tear a path into the Fade. He seems intent on godhood, and will stop at nothing to achieve it.




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Decius Catus

Age: 29 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Former Venatori Captain

The son of Magister Bastian Catus, Decius was one of the many young men and women to be drawn in by the rhetoric of the Venatori in Minrathous, finding that they appropriately echoed frustrations he felt with his father and the state of his nation in general. A talented mage, Decius managed to reach the rank of a captain, and came to serve the general of Corypheus himself, Marcus Alesius. Unfortunately for him, he became a pawn in one of Marcus's plans to lure and kill his old enemies, Amalia and Ithilian Tael. Knowing he would likely help the Inquisition under pressure if captured, Marcus sent him on a fool's mission after Chryseis Viridius, giving him precisely the knowledge he would need to unwittingly lead the Inquisition into a trap. After the trap failed, Decius was returned to his father. Branded an enemy of the Venatori for the information he gave up, Decius will need to find a new path in life.




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Florianne de Chalons

Age: 40s
Race: Human
Occupation: Prisoner

Florianne de Chalons is Gaspard's sister, and was a longtime friend and ally of Empress Celene. That put her in quite the tense position, given the civil war, though she was believed to have sided firmly with Celene on the matter of the throne. As it turned out, however, her loyalist sympathies were a mask for considerable opportunism, and she pledged her loyalty to Corypheus in the belief that if she was able to hand him Orlais, the darkspawn Magister would give her Thedas to rule once he had achieved his goals. Her plan, to assassinate all other prominent contenders to the throne, was thwarted by Lucien and the Inquisition, and she was imprisoned as a result.




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Gaspard de Chalons

Age: 50s
Race: Human
Occupation: Prisoner

Gaspard de Chalons is a cousin of Empress Celene's, and at one time her staunchest political opponent. Those in Gaspard's faction believed the Empress to be mismanaging the empire, and pointed in particular to growing indications of what they saw as instability in her personality and decisions. Within the last few years, the discontent fomented a full-blown civil war, sometimes referred to as the War of the Lions, for the fact that the leaders of its two official factions were members of House Valmont, whose heraldry features a lion. Gaspard would have been Emperor, if things went his way, but they didn't. At the peace talks in Halamshiral, Gaspard hired Fereldan mercenaries in an attempt to intimidate the Council of Heralds into naming him Emperor. The effort backfired when the mercenaries were killed by Inquisition forces, and one of their number testified to Gaspard's crimes in front of the Court. He, along with Celene and Florianne, now sits in prison, awaiting trial for his actions.




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Leta 

Age: 30 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Venatori Captain

Leta was once a slave in the Tevinter Imperium, in the service of House Viridius. After the death of her brother at the hands of Lord Viridius's apprentice Cyrus, she was sold to the Alesius estate, where eventually she bought her own freedom and became Marcus's apprentice proper. Often left to manage his holdings in his absence, she was recently instructed to insinuate herself with the Inquisition, masquerading as a refugee named Livia. She was surprised to find Cyrus there, and was able to secure Marcus's permission to exact her revenge upon him—provided she first allowed him to complete his work on the Breach, so she could steal it and return it to her Master. She dosed him with red lyrium and fled through an eluvian she'd smuggled into Skyhold, but her plans were thwarted by Cyrus's survival, the Inquisition, and Harellan's timely intervention.




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Marcus Alesius

Age: 43 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Tevinter Magister, Corypheus’s General

Marcus was once a man nearly atop the world: a prominent, powerful Magister, with the first successful infiltration of Qunari ranks to his name, and the promise of valuable information, in the form of a list of Qunari agents seeded in the Imperium. All he had to do was torture the information out of one defeated Ben-Hassrath, and all the power and acclaim he wanted would be his. Unfortunately, that woman, that persistently inconvenient woman, escaped from his custody, having spoken not a name, and his delicately-constructed ladder to the apex of the Imperium crumbled to dust. In the years following, he has made several well-crafted, well-planned attempts to regain some of what he lost, but each time fate has mocked him, by sending that woman and her Dalish friend to thwart him, in a maddening game of cat-and-mouse that has cost him his position, his connections in Orlais, and even much of his face. Joining Corypheus is his final gambit, the ultimate power play, and this time, he will emerge victorious.



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Ainsley Rockwell

Age: 39 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Mercenary—The Argent Lions

Ainsley Rockwell was the child of a well-to-do merchant family in Highever, which she thought was about as interesting as watching mortar dry. From a very young age, she displayed an unmatched thirst for adventure, and at the tender age of fourteen, stowed away on a merchant vessel headed for Rivain. Of course, without any plan for what to do when she got there, she nearly wound up on an entirely different kind of boat to Tevinter. Narrowly escaping this with a bit of help from a man named Harper, she joined his raider crew, where she met her soon-to-be other half Farah. Ainsley was honestly not much suited to raiding, and it was only a matter of time before she decided to do something different, having heard stories of a goodhearted band of mercenaries in Kirkwall. Dragging Farah along with her, she left her crew and sought out these so-called Argent Lions. She was not disappointed.




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Asvhalla Saeris

Age: Appears 60s
Race: Elf
Occupation: Councilwoman

Harellan and Mahvir's mother, and the current council representative of house Saeris, who claim direct descent from Mythal of the Evanuris. They in turn are part of the Suledvhen, the People who Endure, all of whom see themselves as the very last bastion of true elven civilization, and remain hidden away in Arlathan, studying, preserving, and even actively restoring the culture of their ancestors. They are governed by the Ghilan'al, an aristocratic body composed of one representative from each major Evanuris house. Asvhalla herself is a hard woman to read, but she welcomes the presence of her alleged grandchildren in Arlathan at least enough to speak to them, something that cannot be said for most of the Ghilan'al. Her feelings towards her grandchildren are complicated, but she does acknowledge them as such, and gave them each a symbol of the house before they left Arlathan.




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Aurelie Montblanc (Dame Cygne)

Age: 50 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Bardmistress of Le Nichoir, one of Orlais's most well-reputed bardic organizations.

A self-described appraiser of talent, Aurelie is also the Marquise de Valle, and a powerful, independent player in the Game. Allied with such impressive forces as Divine Justinia herself, she has carefully built herself a power base on the foundations of her excellent understanding of the quintessentially Orlesian psyche. Her bards are, to a one, unique-looking, aesthetically pleasing, and meticulously trained to the very furthest reach of their potential. Though Le Nichoir is small in number compared to similar conglomerates, it has traded on this to give itself the feel of an extremely elite organization, if also a rather eccentric one. Given her alliances and her profession, it is unsurprising that Aurelie has a hefty stake in the outcome of the Orlesian Civil War, and to some extent, the popular perception of the Inquisition itself, to which she is tied through alliance and also personally, via her former protégé Rilien.




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Bastian Catus

Age: 52 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Magister

A long-time ally of Chryseis Viridius in the Magisterium, Bastian has always been the more moderate of the pair, typically erring on the side of caution to an excess. Though Chryseis has often chided him for his lack of aggressiveness, she recognizes the value of having a strong friend in the Magisterium, especially one with more experience than she. He maintains a clean, if strict, estate, and as magisters go he is quite caring of his indentured servants and slaves. He allowed a number of Inquisition members to use his estate as a safe haven of sorts in Minrathous for their time there, and for that he has become a tentative ally of the Inquisition in Tevinter.




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Chryseis Viridius

Age: 34 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Magister

Daughter of Magister Cassius Viridius and former domina to the Lord Inquisitor, Chryseis is aggressive, shrewd, and pragmatic in her efforts to improve Tevinter, and sides firmly against the radical views of the Venatori and their master. After assisting the Inquisition in Minrathous in their efforts to kill Marcus Alesius, Chryseis came to feel conflicted about her methods, and the personal cost she had refused to acknowledge before. Her power is diminished while the Venatori still remain at large, but it has become safe to say that her interests and those of the Inquisition have become largely aligned, and she could be called upon as a resource in Minrathous if ever she is needed.




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Conrado

Age: 53 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Smuggler

A man of mixed Rivaini and Nevarran descent, Conrado was an old acquaintance of both Romulus's deceased parents, and the alive and well captain Adan Borja. A smuggler by trade, Conrado had a history of being roped into Borja's plans by force, and the two shared a rather strained working relationship. This continued into Anais's plot to pose Romulus as the heir of Andraste, where Conrado was required to be captured by the Qunari as a means of believably recovering a key journal that would lead to the eventual ritual. After the plot fell apart, Conrado was taken prisoner, and despite Romulus's initial thought to have him executed, he eventually would be given back to the Qunari, to be taken to Par Vollen for reconditioning and labor.




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Elodie Janvier 

Age: 38 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Duchess of Verchiel

The Duchess Verchiel is known widely in the courts of Orlais for her close personal friendship with Empress Celene, as well as her particular talents for deft maneuvering. Her lands are rather expansive by comparison to most holdings, and while they aren’t the most productive in terms of raw crop yield, she has cultivated her city as a craftsman’s haven, and many of the finest practical and luxury goods Orlais has to offer, as well as a goodly portion of its fine art, are produced with the Duchess’s patronage. She was involved in the frame-up of Julien D'Artignon for sedition, though proving so would divulge too many other secrets, and so she has faced no consequences for her opportunism save the eventual failure of the effort.




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Enania Istimaethoriel

Age: 49 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Craftswoman

Originally a huntress by occupation, Enania was forced to choose a different one after a run-in with human bandits resulted in the necessary amputation of her left leg from the knee down. Electing to take up the crafts necessary to her clan's survival, she adapted to her new role with diligence and exacting precision—making herself nearly invaluable in the process. As most of the People do, she married young; Hawen was at that point the First to the previous Keeper. Her approach to motherhood often put her at odds with her rather bullheaded child; to this day it's hard to tell whether there's any love lost between them. Khari's attempt at reconciliation met more resistance from her mother than her father, and she suspects that they'll never be able to see each other the way parents and children ought to. Too much damage was done on both sides. But at least they understand each other now, much more than they ever did before.




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Eugène Lefévre

Age: 34 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Nobleman, Criminologist

A dabbler in many areas of academic specialty, Eugène is widely considered to be a pioneer in the art of criminology, or the use of special investigative techniques to solve crimes. He has been credited with assembling the evidence for several major court cases, and regularly self-publishes articles on everything from plant components to corpse rot. Naturally, most of the well-to-do are happy to leave him the unchallenged expert, as too much interest in such things is considered both morbid and eccentric. Still, he's often a minor source of scandal at parties, and therefore frequently invited to them. In truth, the discoveries are his ward's, and the publicity his responsibility. But neither of them minds the arrangement, as it fulfills their shared goals of promoting justice in the Orlesian court system. He's happy to learn from her, and has always encouraged her talent.




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Farah Tahrir

Age: 42 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Mercenary—The Argent Lions

A raider’s illegitimate daughter from Rivain, it surprised no one when Farah followed her mother into the business, least of all Farah herself. The Tahrir outfit was one of the more legitimate operations that ran from Rivain all the way down to the Waking Sea, and they carried legal goods as often, or maybe slightly less often, than they smuggled contraband. They had rules: no slaves, no lyrium and no double-crossing your business partners, but in truth, the rules didn’t always seem to apply when times got tough. Farah blames the fact that she grew a conscience partly on her mother’s first mate Harper and partly on Ainsley, but in any case, she and the latter left the life together when their ship docked in Kirkwall, looking for something else to make of themselves. They found the Lions, and the rest was history.




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Félicité Ambroise

Age: 18 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Noble of Collines Verts

Lady Félicité is the true heir of Collines Verts, but is yet too young to take the reins of the sizable hold. Her parents fell some years back when a pack of bandits set upon them on their way home from Val Royeuax. The hold passed to her, though her uncle acts as regent until the days she comes of age to manage it herself. There are rumors in the courts, however, that the bandits that set on her parents did find them by circumstance. It was, of course, Lord Mathis who would gain much in the event her parents were no longer in the picture. They are unsubstantiated rumors, however, and should not be entertained. The young lady is a vibrant, kind woman, whom Marceline notes reminded her much of her mother. Marceline also notes the Marquis's insistence that his niece and her son... interact more.




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Fenesvir Ellas

Age: Appears 30s
Race: Elf
Occupation: Soldier

The Ellas are a family with a storied history of military service to the nobles of Arlathan, dating back to well before the fall of Elvhen'an. Fenesvir continues in that tradition, one of many generals in his line. Of course, what there is to command and protect now is not near so much what it once was, but if anything, this sobering fact has only made him fiercer and prouder of it all. Physically, he is as daunting as his weighty title implies, armored in the ancient fashion and trained with the oldest methods, the elven heritage preserved in living form, in a certain sense. He strives to be the embodiment of it, and acts from a deep sense of duty, tempered by a surprisingly-robust sense of humor. After being defeated by Estella in trial by combat, something which would have meant the end of his life but for her mercy, he advocated for her trial to be considered passed, that she might have a chance at the others.




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Gabrielle Lécuyer

Age: 62 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Comtesse and steward of the West Banks

The once former owner of the Lécuyer Vineyards, Lady Gabrielle finds herself in control of the holdings once more due to her daughter's appointment as the Inquisition's ambassador. Though she is reaching her sixtieth year and her mane of once jet black hair is now a curtain of gray she is still as shrewd as she was in her prime, perhaps even more so due to the wisdom that comes with age. Intelligent and businesslike, much like her daughter, the holdings of the West Bank continue to flourish under her steady hand. Gabrielle and Marceline exchange correspondence as often as possible, with the former sending care packages to the latter.




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Guillame Drakon

Age: 63 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Lord-General, Chevalier Order

Lord-General of the Orlesian army and a noted chevalier, Guy has not been as successful off the battlefield as he is on it. He has little sense of tact or decorum, preferring to speak plainly and bluntly, whatever ire that may earn him. His no-bullshit attitude has made him something of a pariah at court, but the Chevaliers respect him immensely for it, and he is a figure of singular divisiveness in his homeland. Outside of it, those that know of him either fear or revere him, depending on whether or not they believe they have cause to be his enemies or not. During Maric’s rebellion, Guy alone of all the Orlesian commanders never lost a battle, and it was largely at his insistence that Celene agreed to end the conflict. The recent civil war has once again seen him playing the moderate, and his faction of chevaliers have refused to participate, continuing instead to function as normal, keeping order in population centers and fighting bandits and rebel mages and templars off the roads.




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Havard Offenberger

Age: 54 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Mercenary—The Argent Lions

Havard is the oldest of the Lions, a veteran of many a mercenary company before. He grew up in the Anderfels, but moved to the Free Marches in his thirties because his company at the time did the same. He bounced between a few after that, but found himself perpetually dissatisfied with the way they were run—young people given swords and sent to sink or swim. Lucien likes to remark that he is not quite sure which one of them was really being interviewed when they first met, but he thinks it probably wasn’t Havard. The lifelong merc now holds the position of Captain, responsible running the branch that remains in Kirkwall, though he still writes regular reports to Lucien.




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Hawen Istimaethoriel

Age: 47 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Keeper

Hawen Istimaethoriel is Khari's father, and Keeper of the Genardalia Clan of the Dalish, one of the few clans that actually still lingers around the Dales region of Orlais. His clan in particular are charged with the retrieval of knowledge and artifacts that yet remain in the region from the time before the Exalted March. This often brings them closer to human settlements than the People usually prefer, and puts them at comparatively greater risk than those that dwell further from competing civilization. He has learned to guard his clan with wariness and automatic suspicion, not to mention powerful magic. In the years after his daughter's disappearance, Hawen grew withdrawn and solemn, rarely so much as smiling, according to his First. Seeing each other again and talking out their differences went some way towards mending their relationship, though there will always be fundamental differences of opinion between them.




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Idris Valesti

Age: 49 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Mercenary—The Argent Lions

Idris is a bald, heavyset Rivaini man with a perpetual smile. As a result, one might not expect him to be well-suited for the jobs the Lions do, but he is assuredly among the most capable members of the company. He is first and foremost a medic, exceptionally talented with alchemy and potionmaking, as well as possessing an amicable, easy bedside manner. That said, he’s also a dangerous foe with a quarterstaff or a spear, and not to be trifled with. His mother was a hedge-witch, explaining the alchemical talents, but she never had much use for her son, as he wasn’t a mage as she was. She likely didn’t even notice when he left home, and peddled medicine for many years before being recruited into the Lions. Unlike most of the company’s members, Idris has a family, namely a wife and son, both of whom also reside in the barracks. His wife makes most of the company’s meals, and his son, now in his early twenties, has joined the Kirkwall branch.




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Jean-Robert Durand

Age: 51 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Chevalier-Errant

After graduating from the Academie des Chevaliers, Ser Durand took up one of the rather less glorious functions of chevaliers: that of the knight-errant, leader of a small, mobile unit that generally ranges the countryside within a certain area of Orlais. His roaming area was near Khari's clan's territory, and as such, she encountered him on one of many attempts to run from home. He taught her for several years, before sending her off on her own. Five years ago, he made a deal with the bandit leader Halfhand in an attempt to bring down her large group from the inside, when help was not forthcoming from Val Royeaux. His plan backfired when the Inquisition became involved, and his duplicity was discovered. After Halfhand's defeat, he was remanded to House Drakon's custody, where he was stripped of his knighthood, imprisoned for a year and a day, and then put to work training troops to help defend his former roaming grounds from bandit incursions.




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Kestrel 

Age: 25 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Bard

A talented infiltrator, disguise artist, and con woman, Kestrel was picked up off the streets of Val Royeaux’s Alienage at a young age and groomed her for work as a Bard, something she does extremely well at. She is also, quite unbeknownst to all but a few, the agent known as Q, one of the leaders of the Cendredoights, a conglomerate of elves who work from the shadows to change their people's fate in Orlais. Having struck a deal with Estella, Kess has taken a reluctantly-neutral outlook on the Inquisition, and has made it clear that she will be watching their progress closely. She proved at least somewhat willing to compromise during the events at Halamshiral, letting go of her assassination plot in exchange for the Inquisition's promise to depose Celene. She resurfaced again at the Grand Tourney, just long enough to warn the Inquisition that Khari's entry into the contest was likely not unknown, the most overtly-friendly thing she'd ever done for them.




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Lucas Lécuyer

Age: 66 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Marshall, Chevalier Order

The rise of the Orlesian civil war saw the once retired Marshall pressed back into service on the side of Empress Celine. Husband of Lady Gabrielle and father of Lady Marceline, Ser Lucas possesses the even countenance of both and a stern discipline. Despite that, he's been known to dote on his daughter and grandson, though he is not especially fond of Marceline's choice of husbands. He is not especially tall or broad, but regardless the man possesses an air of authority about him, and there still remains in his arms. Currently, Lucas leads the loyalist forces of several troops against Gaspard's forces. He regularly sends updates on the war to his daughters, hoping that one day her Inquisition will be able to end their fighting.




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Mathis Ambroise

Age: 40 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Marquis of Collines Verts

The Marquis of what is essentially a portion of what is Orlais' breadbasket, Lord Mathis enjoys a rather comfortable existence. He initially outwardly appeared as an easy going man who is neither quick to anger nor quick to judge. He is polite and relaxed in his speech and seems as a man who is comfortable in his own skin. The man is regardless Orlesian, with a sizable hold whom he personally manages-- it would be a mistake to assume that he not an apt player of the game himself. Of an interesting note, Collines Verts is not actually his hold, but rather, his nieces. However, due to her youth and inexperience, he acts as a sort of regent until a time that she comes of age. Once upon a time, he even courted Lady Marceline, and had she married him, their holds would have been united, though that plan fell through.




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Rethari

Age: 54 (9:44)
Race: Qunari
Occupation: Rethari

The leader and protector of the Tal-Vashoth commune known as Ash-Rethsaam, the man embodies his role in mind and body. Playing off of the names of the Arishok, Ariqun, and Arigena, the Rethari is the one responsible for protecting the village. He appears up to the task as even for a Qunari he is towering, but possesses a gentle heart and warm, if deep, voice. Sten of the Antaam once upon a time, reasons saw him shirk the absolute of the Qun and embrace the chaos choice would bring. Granted, it's a very ordered chaos. The knowledge of small battle tactics given to him by virtue of being a Sten once upon a time served him well in the detailed planning of the village of Ash-Rethsaam.




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Shaethra Movrin

Age: 33 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Dalish Hunter

A silent, stoic, and dedicated member of clan Thremael, Shaethra (Shae to most) has spent her entire life reaching her physical potential, and none of it reaching her social potential. She's cold and closed off, and though she has no inclination to treat non-elves with any sort of kindness, she follows Zethlasan's lead without question, and will unhappily work with no complaints with anyone he desires. One of her duties has been the personal protection of the Keeper's First and the Keeper himself, in the event that either of them deem it necessary to travel away from the clan. Zethlasan has done this often of late, and so Shae keeps a close watch on him, and vows to make sure he gets back home to his people. Her sense of duty put her on the wrong side of Zethlasan's plot involving Vesryn and Saraya, but she joined with the others to defeat the demon that was influencing him. After escaping the ruin, Shae agreed to ensure that Zeth made it back to clan Thremael alive, with the unspoken agreement that she would continue to watch over him for any sign of wrongdoing in the future.




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Tamassran

Age: 44 (9:44)
Race: Qunari
Occupation: Tamassran

Even from an early age, Tamassran would always know her role within the Qun. Picked for her gentle nature and patience, it was decided that she would be among those who role it was to raise the children of the Qun and teach them their general education. She was the closest thing either Asala or Meraad had to a mother. When not only one, but two of her children displayed their latent magical talents, she was heartbroken, to know that her children would be sentenced to a life of chains and collars. So late one night, she quietly stole them away and took them to a Qunari commune she had heard about. They called the place home, Tamassran resuming her duties in helping to raise and teach the Qunari children of the Commune. Though she never forgot her two children, and still worry and check on them from time to time.




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Théodore Blancheflor

Age: 28 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Chevalier (Captain)

A rather young, up-and-coming member of the chevalier order, Théo is the third son of the Blancheflor family, who run a small Barony within the larger territory of Val Foret. Despite his comparatively humble origins, his skill as combatant and battlefield commander has seen him rise quickly through the ranks. He is in many ways considered to be the quintessential chevalier: he puts honor and nation first, and abides without compromise to the law. He had a rather unpleasant run-in with Khari at Halamshiral, in which he ignored her attempts to speak to him completely and she broke his nose for it. They met again, unbeknownst to him, at the Grand Tourney, where she defeated him in the melee, though not before he inadvertently unmasked her in front of the crowd. Though the overall victory in the events was his, he took the revelation rather hard, and has of late been circumspect and a great deal more reflective than usual.




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Valhail III

Age: 47 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Imperial Divine

Known to most outside the Imperial Chantry as the “Black Divine,” Valhail III was born Horatio Ignis, son of a powerful and prominent family of Altus mages. Though his family initially wanted him to make a career in the Magisterium, following his mother and father, his politics and opinions proved unpopular, making him an unlikely candidate for Archon at best. He did, however, find some support within the ranks of the Chantry, and when his predecessor died while still holding the office, a quite-young Horatio was elected to the position in 9:28 Dragon, taking the name Valhail III, after the first Imperial Divine. He has proven politically shrewd, applying pressure to the Magisterium whilst maintaining great popularity among more liberal elements and enjoying the adoration of most of Tevinter’s common folk and lower classes. He was perhaps the first positive mentor figure Estella ever had, and her visit to Minrathous allowed her to re-establish tentative contact, which for now remains in the form of occasional letters.




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Varric Tethras

Age: 43 (9:44)
Race: Dwarf
Occupation: Owner, The Hanged Man

One of Kirkwall's most beloved personalities, Varric Tethras is the heart of Lowtown. He came in contact with a number of the notable individuals that lived in the City of Chains during its most tumultuous years, even leading a few of them on his Deep Roads expedition, which earned them riches and a host of troubles brought about by a red lyrium idol. With his riches Varric eventually took ownership of his favorite haunt, The Hanged Man, and he now serves as an advisor to the Queen, keeping her informed of the needs of Lowtown and its people, and working together with her to improve the lot of all in the city.




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Violette Routhier

Age: 40 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Chevalier Lieutenant-Commander

Ser Violette was one of the Crown Prince's classmates at the Academie des Chevaliers, and is now one of his closest allies, particularly in the army. She commanded a well-ordered brigade of chevaliers, but did not fight in the civil war. Until recently, she and her people patrolled the country's roads, mostly the main thoroughfares, and worked to keep opportunistic criminal activity to a minimum.

On a recent mission, Violette was sent to discover the fate of her sister, Liliane, who had failed to report after being sent to deal with a bandit uprising. Lili had been captured by a woman called Halfhand, who bore a grudge against both of the Routhiers for their involvement in an incident six years prior, in Kirkwall. Liliane was killed, and Violette left as the last of the three Routhier sisters. Vi returned her sister to Val Royeaux for burial, and now works directly under Lord-General Guy, as his aide.




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William Alston

Age: 28 (9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Baron, Kirkwall Nobility and Commander, Queen's Companions

Perhaps the most popular figure in Hightown besides the Queen herself, Baron William Alston has been at the forefront of the city's efforts to increase its self-sufficiency and pride. He was a key figure in the decision to name Sophia Queen rather than Viscountess, and spearheaded the efforts to create a citizen army to defend the city in the absence of the templars. Though his family once hoped Sophia would agree to marry him, those dreams are now passed, and William seems content as the commander of the Queen's Companions, the noble cavalry company he created to act as the fist of Kirkwall's citizen army, as well as Sophia's royal guard. Service in the Companions has already become a position of prestige for young Kirkwall nobility.




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Yerion Aedanthir

Age: Appears 40s
Race: Elf
Occupation: Councilman

The Aedanthir claim descent from Elgar'nan, the All-Father, generally believed to have been the first and most powerful of the Evanuris. Though all on the council are technically equals, Yerion doesn't necessarily act like it, often assuming a role analogous to that of his vaunted ancestor. Whether warranted or not, he does command a great deal of influence among the Suledvhen. This is in part due to his status as one of the last remaining Dreamers among them. He was resistant to Estella's claims of blood relation, but not entirely unreasonable, and stuck to the terms of their deal when she passed her trials, allowing her and her companions access to the Shattered Library.




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Zathrand

Age: Appears 20s
Race: Elf
Occupation: Healer

Among the elves of Arlathan forest, vallaslin serve their original purpose—as designations of slavery, tied to the house the slave serves. Zathrand's clearly mark him as the property of the Saeris; he serves as a healer and one of the family's attending physicians. It's not a position of particular prestige, but he's good enough at it that his peers, even the older ones, respect him a great deal, and he's afforded a degree of independence to execute his duties as he deems most expedient. He's very mild, but not exactly what one would call retiring, and years of studious improvement in his craft have given him well-earned confidence in his abilities. He appears to be a close ally of Harellan's, despite the latter's banishment from his home.




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Zethlasan Carrith

Age: 31 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Dalish Keeper's First

Zethlasan was not born Dalish. He escaped as a teen from an Orlesian city and came across clan Thremael, nearly dead from his travels. The clan took him in, planning to send him on his way once he was healthy, but when his magical abilities were discovered, they decided to offer him a place. He proved to be the ideal student, with both great magical aptitude and an unmatched respect for elven history and traditions. Even his "wayward" sexual orientation could not dissuade the Keeper from naming him First, as he promised to uphold his duty to The People regardless. It was eventually revealed that he and Vesryn had once carried on a romantic relationship, Zeth being the first person Vesryn ever told of Saraya. This proved to be a mistake, when Zeth's interest in Saraya developed into something first unhealthy, and then deadly. Influenced by a powerful demon of desire known as Obsession, Zeth gained forbidden knowledge of blood magic capable of altering Vesryn's mind, his connection with Saraya specifically. Before his attempts could be completed, however, he was interrupted by Estella, and the demon was later defeated. Vesryn commanded the shamed Zethlasan to return to his people, and never show his face to the Inquisition again.



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Adan Borja

Age: 53 (d. 9:42)
Race: Human
Occupation: Pirate Captain

The Captain of the Northern Sword, the Rivaini pirate lord Adan Borja revealed himself to supposedly be the father of Romulus, the former slave and Herald of the Inquisition. With that false revelation came the even greater one that Borja was once married to a woman descended from Andraste, making Romulus the only known living heir. This turned out to be a lie constructed by Anais; Borja's real role in Romulus's history was that he was the one to hunt down and murder his parents, sparing the baby Romulus (named Tavio at the time) out of "mercy" for him to be recovered by Tevinter later. After Romulus discovered the plot, Borja chose to fire on Zahra Tavish's ship Riptide and flee. His attack was ineffective, however, and he was caught in a storm and boarded by Romulus and his allies. In the ensuing fight, Adan Borja was killed by Romulus in the lower decks of the ship.




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Anais

Age: 30 (d. 9:42)
Race: Human
Occupation: Speaker, The Herald's Disciples

Anais was the leader of a cult based out of an old fort in the Hinterlands called Winterwatch. A capable and cunning leader, she led the zealots behind her against both apostates and rogue templars until a formal relation with the Inquisition could be established. Specifically she swore allegiance to Romulus personally, and soon she had developed a secret plan to convince the world that he was actually the only living descendant of Andraste herself. The plan, which involved convincing Romulus that the pirate lord Adan Borja was his father, nearly worked, but was foiled at the last minute by an unexpected revelation from Romulus. Anais was forced to surrender, and after being judged by the new Lord Inquisitor, she was sentenced to die. Romulus executed her himself the following morning.




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Aslan

Age: 36 (d. 9:41)
Race: Qunari
Occupation: Quarter Master aboard the Riptide

Once a stern-faced, devout follower of the Qun, specifically in the Ben-Hassrath branch, Aslan chose a much different path in his younger days. It's difficult to say what steered him away from the Path, because he's never spoken of it before. A part of a past that bears no meaning on the name he's given himself these days—Tal Vashoth be damned, he bears the scars of failed assassinations, and sometimes speaks Qunlat for the hell of it. He is who he is: Zahra's right-hand man aboard Riptide. Everything else is irrelevant. She doesn't ask personal, debilitating questions, and he stands as solid as a wall behind her (or in front of her, wherever he's needed). Seeing how he rescued her from a damned life, she owes him far more than she can ever account for. He's the closest thing to family she's had in years. He fell to one of Corypheus' Red Templar's, at the attack on Haven.




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Carver Hawke

Age: 33 (d. 9:44)
Race: Human
Occupation: Knight-Commander of the Red Templars

A Kirkwall templar originally from Ferelden, Carver was broken by the death of his sister at the hands of the First Enchanter Orsino. Struggling to find purpose, Carver was deceived by a lie about a new form of lyrium, as many of his fellow templars were. As the corruption set in, and Corypheus's influence took control, Carver found his original purpose warped, and became the new leader of the Red Templars. He directed their strength at the city of Kirkwall, now a source of great personal pain for him, and led a surprise attack that brought the city to its knees until the Inquisition could arrive and relieve the battered Queen and her forces. Carver fled to Emprise du Lion after his defeat, where he was later cornered by the Inquisition and Séverine Lacan. Carver chose to take his own life rather than surrender, unable to see any possible future for himself after all that he had done.




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Cullen Rutherford

Age: 32 (d. 9:43)
Race: Human
Occupation: Knight-Commander, Kirkwall Templars

In Kirkwall Cullen served under Knight-Commander Meredith, eventually rising to the rank of Knight-Captain and becoming her second in command. Though he was initially loyal, Cullen's level head kept him out of the worst of Meredith's ambitions and fears, and he became an ally of those supporting Sophia Dumar's attempts to regain her family's power. With Meredith overthrown, Cullen was promoted to Knight-Commander of the Kirkwall templars, and there he worked with the Viscountess to restore much of the faith that the public had lost in the Order. Sadly, he was assassinated on the day of Sophia's crowning as Queen by the Red Templar forces under the command of Carver Hawke.




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Elias Pike

Age: 31 (d. 9:42)
Race: Human
Occupation: Apostate and Fugitive

A mage hailing from the Circle in Kirkwall, a rogue group of Templars attempted to brand the rite of Tramquility on him, though he was saved by the timely intervention of Aurora and her friends, while others were not so lucky, such as Milian. However, the incident left a lasting scar on him, and the wound festered, the man becoming more violent and unhinged as time went on, and even Aurora's guidance failed to rein him in. He eventually cut ties with her and a few weeks after set off the bomb that destroyed Kirkwall's chantry in order to incite a mage rebellion. Years later, it seemed that destorying Kirkwall wasn't enough, as he joined with Corypheus to remake the world anew.

Things did not go according to plan for Pike at Adamant Fortress with the Grey Wardens, and following his failure and capture there, he was sent to Skyhold for judgement. There Estella elected to have him sent to Kirkwall, his fate left to the Viscountess Sophia Dumar. Seeing no other option, Sophia executed Pike for his crimes.




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Fiona

Age: late 50s (d. 9:41)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Grand Enchanter

Fiona was an elven mage from Orlais, one of the few former Wardens, and the Grand Enchanter of the Circle of Magi, making her the leader of the Mage Rebellion. After a difficult childhood, Fiona was sent to the Montsimmard Circle of Magi. After the Circles eventually rebelled, directly due to a decision Fiona made, the Conclave was announced, but Fiona sent representatives in her place, fearing a trap. When the war resumed, she led her people to Ferelden, where she was granted refuge in Redcliffe. After a nearly-disastrous deal with Magister Viridius that would have indentured her people for a decade, she allied with the Inquisition on much more favorable terms. When Haven was attacked and a volunteer party was needed to provide a decoy for the Inquisition's escape, Fiona elected to join that effort. She fell to Corypheus's general on the field of battle.




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Justinia V

Age: 60s-70s (d. 9:41)
Race: Human
Occupation: Divine

Originally known by the name Dorothea, Justinia V became Divine in 9:34 Dragon, and was reputed to be one of the finest players of The Grand Game of Orlais. Justinia's election to Divine was controversial, given her colorful past, and she made allies and enemies in equal measure. She was seen as a progressive leader, and it was her effort that led to the Conclave between the mages and the templars. Before the peace talks could officially begin, however, the blast that created the Breach destroyed the Temple of Sacred Ashes, killing Justinia alongside many others.




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Liliane Routhier

Age: 37 (d. 9:42)
Race: Human
Occupation: Chevalier Lieutenant

Working as an officer in her sister's large brigade, Ser Liliane handled a lot of the day-to-day work of scrubbing bandits off the Orlesian landscape, a task that required both skill and a great deal of patience and tenacity, considering their seemingly-endless numbers. It was a near-thankless task, and one that frayed her temper more often than not, but she acknowledged the necessity of it.

At the end of 9:41 Dragon, Liliane's squad disappeared on a mission to suppress a bandit uprising near the Dales. She failed to report in upon reaching her destination, having been set upon on the road by a group of elite bandits known as the Reapers and captured by their leader, Halfhand. She was killed in the rescue attempt.




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Lucius Corin

Age: 40s (d. 9:43)
Race: Human
Occupation: Lord Seeker, Seekers of Truth

As the head of the Seekers of Truth, Lucius is responsible for overseeing the direction of the Templar Order, and handling delicate military matters for the Chantry. While he readily agreed to Justinia's Conclave, he did not attend it himself, for fear of a trap. Following the explosion that created the Breach, Lucius ordered the templars to return to Val Royeaux. There, an envy demon disguised as Lucius confronted the Inquisition representatives sent, and secluded itself and the Templars at Therinfal Redoubt, but where the real Lord Seeker was during all of this, or what he was doing, remained a mystery for quite some time. Eventually, it was discovered that he'd been in hiding at Kasos, a Seeker fortress and reliquary, spearheading ghastly research efforts into red lyrium, resulting in the deaths of nearly every other Seeker of Truth. He was eventually defeated and killed by the Inquisition, who were then forced to retreat quickly from the fortress.




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Meraad Kaaras

Age: 21 (d. 9:41)
Race: Qunari
Occupation: Tal-Vashoth Saarebas

Meraad Kaaras, or Tide Navigator, is the foster brother to Asala. It was his idea that he and Asala share a surname, the idea taken from the practice of families having the same last name. He is far more open than his foster sister, and unafraid to let his thoughts be heard. His own magical talents manifested not too long after Asala, though he'll readily admit that she is the better mage of the two. While she spent her time learning how to heal, he went through many apprenticeships attempting to find his own role in the commune. However, when word of the mage and templar war reached their ears, it was his idea that he and Asala should set off to find these Apostates, to better learn how to control their powers, and to experience the world beyond the walls of the commune. He was among the volunteers to buy time for the Inquisition to escape the attack on Haven. He fell to the dragon that follows Corypheus.




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Nostariel Riviera

Age: 34 (d. 9:42)
Race: Elf
Occupation: Grey Warden

Born to parents she never met, Nostariel was left on a Chantry doorstep in her infancy, where she was raised until she displayed a talent for magic, from there being transferred to the Circle in Starkhaven, within the Free Marches. Upon reaching adulthood, she joined the Grey Wardens, a turning point in her life that brought more heartbreak than freedom, and by the time she was posted to Kirkwall, she was resigned to living the rest of her life at the bottom of a tankard of cheap ale, until the Calling took her. But over her time there, she slowly and unexpectedly scraped her life back together, making friends, building a reputation as a talented healer, and even getting married. In recent years, she returned to her work with the Wardens, which led her into conflict with a faction of them seeking to bind demons with themselves under deception by an agent of Corypheus. She was killed when she stayed behind to buy time for the Inquisition to escape from the Fade.




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Roderick Asignon

Age: 50s (d. 9:41)
Race: Human
Occupation: Grand Chancellor of the Chantry

Roderick Asignon, Grand Chancellor of the Chantry, was responsible for communicating the Divine's will to the rest of the Chantry, and advising her on mundane matters, at least up until her death at the Conclave. This gave him a considerable amount of influence despite his somewhat low position in the hierarchy. The creation of the Breach removed every Chantry official that outranked him, leaving him as the de facto head of the organization, until a new Divine could be elected. While he did not directly oppose the Inquisition with force, Roderick put his influence to use by having the surviving clerics of the Chantry brand them as heretics, their Heralds of Andraste in particular. He had a change of heart in time, however, and it was his knowledge of a hidden path into and out of Haven that saved the Inquisition from total annihilation during Corypheus's first direct assault. He took an injury in the battle for Haven, and succumbed to his wounds on the road to Skyhold several days later, despite the best efforts of the organization's mages to keep him alive.




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Tanith Richenne

Age: 38 (d. 9:41)
Race: Human
Occupation: Rilien’s Assistant

Tanith was a mage, a longtime apostate, in fact. She began her life in the Orlesian Circle at Val Royeaux. Though not part of the Circle for most of her years, she nevertheless remained in the city, under the noses of the Templars and the Chantry, until the war between mages and Templars broke out and she was picked up by Rilien, whom she had known since their respective youths. Her expertise in evading detection made her an excellent candidate for his informational network, and her scholarly background served well in her role as his direct assistant, a capacity in which she served excellently until the attack on Haven. It was Tanith who led the team that held the gate, allowing the rest of the Inquisition time to make it up to the Chantry and plan their escape. She, and those that stood with her, perished in the effort.



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INK

Rilien Falavel was not, particularly, an elf who spent much of his time thinking about the past.

He’d never seen the point in it, and furthermore, until the later part of his life thus far, he’d also never had anything especially pleasant to think about when it came to that. But for all of the things he could have said about the inefficiency of it, or the foolishness, even, he did occasionally find himself ruminating upon it now, usually after he received a letter from Aurora, or Ashton, or even Bodahn. He’d find himself suddenly slipping into some kind of recollection, of Kirkwall, and the time he’d spent there and the people he spent it with. It was highly inconvenient and sometimes even caused him to brush up against the emotion that most people called irritation, because he would remember himself later only to find that his taper had burned down a candlemark and the reports he was supposed to be parsing were no closer to completion.

He considered it fortunate that this was the first time he’d ever been to Redcliffe, because he was already… distracted enough, as it was. In this case, it was because he knew they were here, the so-called Free Mages, and he knew that because they were, they were, a more specific subset of two that had once been of particular concern to him. One still was; he was in regular written communication with Aurora, after all. He would even admit to a certain degree of pleasure, upon meeting her in person for the first time in several years. Perhaps it was that he had been in contact so regularly, however, that allowed him to simply resume their previous pattern of interaction as though it had never been interrupted. There had been no break in their… he supposed the word most people would use was friendship. Whatever that meant for someone like him, it had endured the intervening time and distance quite easily.

But Sparrow had written him no letters. And there had most certainly been a break in that relationship, whatever the word was for it. Too many words might apply, none of them adequately to capture all of its facets. They’d severed that tie, no matter the name, and they had done so at his insistence. So it was only logical that he avoided her now—that he conducted his business with the Free Mages through Aurora or Milly or Donovan, and that whenever he believed he heard a familiar shambling tread, he found a reason and method to disappear, as though he’d never been there at all. With luck, she would never even know he’d been here until he was gone. He truly believed that was for the best.

He stood presently inside the command tent, alone save for Tanith, who sat at a small folding desk, writing diligently. The commander, as he understood, was out and about in Redcliffe itself, and Lady Marceline was doubtless seeing to what she could discover about the Arl’s notable absence from his own holding. Rilien was attempting to take in the details of the map of the area that Tanith had drawn from survey-gathered details Lieutenant Donnelly’s troops had taken the opportunity to collect while stationed here. He was not, however, meeting with much success. He kept finding that his mind had wandered, most uncharacteristically of him, and that it always wandered to the same place. Or person, rather. He’d so long taken himself to be responsible for seeing to her good health and contentment—he was unprepared for the strength of the instinct, to simply go check on her, and assume that responsibility again, however temporarily.

Someone cleared their throat from outside of Rilien's tent. There was a brief glimpse of leather boots and folded arms peeping beside the canvas flap that hung down: head obscured. The individual made no movement to actually enter. Another short pause followed, and the person shuffled their weight from foot to foot. Gloved fingers tapped a tuneless beat against their elbow, until a familiar voice inquired, “Too busy to talk?”

Rilien’s jaw tightened, imperceptible to most, but Tanith, who’d looked up at the sound of a clearing throat, noticed. “I believe I will go deliver these documents to Miss Larissa.” She looked directly at him when she said it, what was conveyed by her expression extremely obvious. Do not disappear this time. He was not sure when she had decided she was licensed to mother-hen him, but then, she’d done that last time they knew each other, too, and he suspected she’d rather not acknowledge all that had changed between then and now. He allowed it, at any rate, though he made no promises.

“Send in my guest, then.” He watched the flicker of approval enter her tawny eyes, and the way pleasure deepened the lines at the corners of them, before she opened the tent flap, offering a smile and gesturing the intruder inside. He was… it was good to know that she had those, for it meant that she had laughed in her life. His face would always have its uncanny smoothness, he supposed, until he was a very old man indeed, because he had neither laughed nor frowned overmuch in his entire span of years.

His laughter and his sorrow had always been vicarious.

He did not immediately say anything as she entered, folding his hands into his sleeves and studying her instead, head slightly tilted, as though inviting her to say whatever had brought her here. In truth, he laid that burden at her feet because he knew not what to say.

A brief, “Thank you,” sounded as Tanith departed the tent. The individual ducked beneath the flap and entered. It seemed, much had changed over the years. Her ashy hair would have tumbled down her shoulders if it was not bound into a loose bun, though strands hung in front of her freckled face. Newer scars banded her jawline. A prominent one marked the side of her cheek. She still wore her dragonhide armour, looking a little worse for wear. A loose white tunic and a pair of brown trousers completed her garments. Her mace did not hang at her back any longer, and gaudy bangles did not signal her approach. Her mouth was settled into a hard line, and her murky eyes seemed to scrutinize Rilien just as curiously.

As soon as it was apparent that Rilien would not break the silence growing between them, Sparrow's forehead creased and a sigh puffed from between her lips, “You look like you're doing well, Rillien.” A simple observation. If she was uncomfortable with this impromptu meeting, she did well not showing it. She gave him another once over and uncrossed her arms, settling them back to her sides. “I thought I would—” whatever she'd meant to say, she thought better of it and spread her hands out wide, mouth twisting into a shadow of a smile, “The Inquisition, huh. A far cry from Orlais. I'm sure there's a story there, but I haven't come here for stories. I came to see how you fared.”

Businesslike. Brusque, even. Rilien felt a dull surprise at that, one that, of course, did not ever make it to the surface of his expression. “I should think it fairly obvious.” He used his eyes to gesture at the tent itself, at the accouterments of command that occupied it. He looked essentially identical to the person he'd been three years ago, when they’d last seen one another. Even more than she’d changed, he’d remained the same. It was what he did, after all—no one Rilien knew changed less than he did, no matter what experiences his life carried him through.

He was still dressed in the way he’d used to favor, save that perhaps now, he wore slightly darker colors and richer, more heavily-embroidered silks. His daggers had been moved a bit, crossed over the small of his back, a hilt protruding slightly from each side of his sash, and he’d cut his hair again, so that it trailed no lower than his nape, but the snowy color remained the same. His brand was the same; everything was, in fact, the same. Including his reasons for instituting their parting in the first place.

Sparrow's gaze drifted away from Rilien's as soon as he looked away. Instead, she studied the objects scattered around the tent. As if the answers would suddenly reveal themselves. And she uprooted herself from where she'd been standing and wandered around. Small enough as it was, she plopped down on a crate. Perched like a small bird: tireless, impatient. Her hands remained at her sides, though she squinted over at the parchment papers sitting on the wooden table, half-written. Her expression read that perhaps, it wasn't as obvious as he said.

“And yourself? I do not remember that scar.” He drew his thumb across the same spot on his own face, but of course all that he left behind was smooth skin. The only flaw in his facial symmetry, if one discounted the brand itself, was that his nose was no longer perfectly straight, in profile. It had been broken for her sake, in a sense, which was unsurprising.

“Reckless abandon. You remember well enough how I fight,” Sparrow replied, lifting one of her shoulders in a half shrug. Her voice might have been as even as his was. Whatever the story was, she judged it inconsequential and turned back to face him fully. There were no feral-corners to the sides of her lips, no bared teeth. Only a resolute line, and ever-studying eyes. For a brief moment, Sparrow pinched her them shut, and reopened them, “Just as good as Aurora has been.” There was an accusatory note, however slight. Nearly imperceptible. Though, she did not elaborate.

The steady, sauntering gait of her old manner of speaking rippled through the cool veneer, “Y'know, it was difficult tracking you down here, in this place. Each time I was pointed to where you were supposed to be, you weren't there. The third time, I found it odd.”

“I have a great number of things to do; rarely am I in one place for long.” The lie was effortless, and it changed nothing about his demeanor at all. Rilien had no tells; they’d been trained out of him a decade ago—longer, even. Even before then, he’d been a rather magnificent deceiver. This one was even easier, because all he said was true, and only the implication was a lie. That he hadn’t been consciously avoiding her. Because some part of him didn’t want to see her, didn’t want to know what three years had done. Wanted to believe that she was just as immutable as he told himself he was. But of course that was untrue. Sparrow had always been changeable, adaptable, in truth and not merely in appearance.

She would have easily grown accustomed to life without him. Much more easily than he had grown accustomed to life without her.

A shade of emotion crossed her features and settled just behind her eyes. There was another pause, and a searching look before her shoulders sagged down a few inches. Another breath puffed from her between her lips, slightly exasperated. Her hands traced shapeless patterns across her knees, trailing the messy stitching and repeating them once she'd finished. She looked away from him and licked her lips, taking the lie with little more than a tepid frown, “I suppose that's true.”

“Aurora has committed the remnants of the free mages she leads to the service of the Inquisition, at least for now. Will you be joining them?” He blinked at her with his usual sanguine manner, but he wasn’t completely without feeling, and he could not just now pretend to it. The problem was, he had no idea what nascent feeling this one in his gut was trying to become. He could not say if he quasi-felt dread, or something different. Any of them would have been illogical. Any of them would be possible, with her.

Sparrow uncurled and sat up straighter when Rilien posed his question. Her eyebrows rose, and fell. Whatever he'd said rattled her far more than she was letting on. It appeared as if she was searching once more, head tilted owlishly. Even so, she did not answer him quickly. A small muscle jumped across her jawline, and the scars pulled at the edges when her lips twisted into a half-smile, “Yes. I told her that I would.” While she no longer looked like a bird preparing for its next flight, her voice was pensive, “Does that bother you?”

“…No.” His answer was not quick, and even he did not know with any certainty if it was a truth or a falsehood. He looked back down at his map for a moment, a heavy breath passing through his lungs, though it wasn’t a sigh. Rilien never did that. Returning his eyes to her, he nodded slightly.

“Good,” a curt, nearly detached reply. There was a slight edge there, though Sparrow did not expand on it. She gathered herself up and walked to the mouth of the tent, idling.

“If that is all, it would be best for me to return to work.” There were a dozen things he could have said instead, but he did not choose any of them. He chose this, because it was simpler. He would have to accustom himself to being in her proximity again, and he would have to learn to adapt to the differences. These were things he could do, though they would be difficult. What he would not do was risk upsetting the tentative balance they were striking here with one another, feeling out the way the dynamic was going to work now. He would not return them to thoughts of three years ago, because neither of them should dwell there. It was irrational, and pointless.

And Rilien Falavel was, above all else, a rational, efficient elf.

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Some might not have known where to find Rilien, hidden as he was in his high-top nook, but Sparrow did. She'd made it her business to know, though she wasn't exactly sure why it was a concern of hers. Nestled as he was in the western tower with an accompaniment of swift-winged birds who shrieked whenever she ventured too close to the rookery. It seemed as if they sensed her far sooner than she could see them. Since coming to this place, she'd climbed those spiraling stairs more times than she cared to admit. Never quite making it to the top. Always finding some excuse to turn around.

This time, she found herself weaving through the courtyard. Nervous fingers tapping at her sides, hooked beneath the belt hanging around her hips. She found herself back on the cobblestone steps, mouth set into a determined frown. Each step felt too heavy, too loud. She braced herself for the crooning wails of birds, and beady eyes, all turning to witness a conversation she was far too unsure about.

Haven had been messy business, and it reminded her all too much of Kirkwall. Perhaps, on a grander level. She'd never fought beside so many soldiers, so many men and women she'd drunk with only nights before. Alive and well. Warm and so assured. Bumping elbows and tankards, singing songs into the chill night. A puzzling sentiment when she reflected that half of them were no longer with her. So quickly, strangers had become allies. Companions, fellow swords at her sides, and just as swiftly, they'd become corpses at her feet. War held no qualms, it took who it pleased. She'd had no time to properly mourn. Besides, there were those here who'd lost far more than she had. As long as Aurora and Rilien lived, she could breathe easy. She would not falter. In Kirkwall, her world had only just been growing larger. Inch by inch, in small, understood bites, but things here were... complicated. There was too much she did not understand.

Another step brought her over the lip of the staircase, where she halted her ascent and peered into the spacious rookery. It reminded her, perhaps, too much of how she remembered Rillien. Of his old shop in Kirkwall, of their now-abandoned hovel in Darktown, of all the reflections she'd tried to lay to rest. He was a constancy that persevered against her memories, reeling her backwards, instead of forward.

Rilien’s office, if it could be called that, really didn’t look too different from the way his shop used to—only the items involved were the tools of a Spymaster and intelligence agent rather than the ones belonging to an enchanter. It was still meticulously clean, everything was still exceptionally well-made, and he still seemed to fit perfectly into the picture. At present, a raven standing on his shoulder, turning its head to observe her entrance with a sharp black eye. It cawed once at her, than clearly decided she was fine to ignore, and went back to adjusting its position on its tranquil perch.

The elf in question was deftly tying a small tube around the leg of another bird, this one a bird of prey, but a small one, perhaps a kestrel or kite. Once the tube was secure, he whistled a trilling note, and it hopped out the window, flapping its wings several times before taking flight out the opening left for it.

Only then did he turn to her, regarding her steadily as always, his eyes holding hers without the faintest trace of awkwardness or emotion at all. He blinked slowly, then tilted his head towards the chair in front of his worktable, offering it to her without a word.

A younger Sparrow might have bullied her way into Rilien's space, uninvited and listless, claiming parts of the rookery as if it were a home she intended to make. As if she were a restless bird sweeping in from the window, building a nest where it did not belong. She'd grown old enough to understand that that wasn't how people worked. Her deliberate cautiousness belied previous experiences, refined in places that compelled growth. Changes that hardened her features, twittered hesitations that hadn't been there in Kirkwall. They were not unpleasant in her eyes, only necessary.

As soon as the window came into view, her expression wavered. Of course, she'd known that he was alright. He had survived Haven's attack as she had heard, but whatever inkling of doubt she'd harbored sifted away when she actually saw him. Standing there, alive. Meticulous movements, as familiar as ever. A small slip of a smile tipped her lips up, and as if she'd been caught doing something nefarious, it smoothed itself into a fine line. She idled on the top stair and allowed herself a deep breath through her nostrils, expression sorting itself out. Dulling into something a little more acceptable. Because, if she knew anything for sure, their conversations were never easy.

With the unspoken invitation determined into a simple head movement, Sparrow climbed the remaining stair and moved towards the lone chair facing Rilien's mundane, hardwood desk. She did a fine job quelling her curiosity as to what the rookery might have held, folding her hands in her lap. As bland as it looked, it reminded her of his shop. Everything in its proper place. Her eyes did, however, slide over to the raven tottering on Rilien's shoulder. An acceptable focal point. Far easier than meeting his eyes, “I'm glad you're alright.” Her words, clipped as they were, ended abruptly, as if she'd tried to reign her words in too late. She looked uncomfortable for a moment and took the time to straighten her posture, sliding up in her own perch, “And I know, I don't know how that kind of loss feels, but I wanted to... I'm sorry for your loss. Tanith. I didn't know her as well as I wanted to. But she was important to you.”

There were several heartbeats of utter silence, and then Rilien moved, smoothly as ever, reaching up to his shoulder and coaxing the fat raven onto his hand instead. He returned the creature to its perch, silencing its protests with some kind of dried fruit from the look of it, shrugged out of his sleeve, was the best guess from the way it suddenly appeared in his hand. He rubbed at the side of its neck with two long, pale fingers, long callused over by knives and instrument-strings in equal measure.

Sparrow counted these seconds, thumped her fingers against her knees, rapt. Her eyes slid away from the raven's beak and lingered somewhere between between Rilien's eyes, his nose, his cheekbones. She considered his expressions as one might study a particularly interesting book, though her intents were perplexed, muddled things. A child fumbling for meaning that went beyond its understanding. Perhaps, trying to read between the lines, as they once had. He was a book she could not interpret. Always searching for something where there was nothing—though she was sure, so sure that she had not been mistaken. She watched. Listened and waited. Attempted to puzzle out small infractions to his dispassionate state.

“Before I met her, I was a selfish, impulsive child.” He’d never actually told her who Tanith was to him, though it had been obvious that they knew each other beforehand, even from the way they interacted since Sparrow had joined the Inquisition. Two years, the amount of time Tanith had supposedly been working for him, was not long enough for the kind of rapport they had, especially not considering how difficult it was to get to know Rilien to any extent at all. “After I left the Circle, I was… this.” He clearly referred to his present state of tranquility.

“But for a short time in between, I was better. She taught me how.” There was no emotion in his tone—there almost never was. But something about the way he cast his eyes towards the floor was different. Rilien never hid his gaze or ducked his head—that he was doing both now was quite unusual, and particularly telling.

She had noticed their interactions. Whereas she might not have perceived anything at all, it seemed as if, of late, she noticed everything. Non-important things, coloring her field of vision. Imperceptible moments that shifted far beyond hapless assistant and the Inquisitor's spymaster, not unlike the subtle ticks he seldom displayed. She wasn't sure just how long they'd known each other, but they'd moved together as if they belonged to the same puzzle. Synchronized. An understanding that could only be achieved by knowing far more than she did. Parts of Rilien she would never come to know. Losing someone who had been so tangled in one's life, old and new, was just another facet she could not understand. At least not in the same sense.

Smoothing her hands over her knees, Sparrow watched him look away. Something she'd never seen him do before. If anyone had faced these, or any, circumstances with the aplomb of an unflappable statue, placid against whatever torrents pounded against him... it was Rilien, though now she wasn't so sure. She wondered, often. Of what could make him look like this. Cause shifts in his temperate veneer. Force ripples across the things she remembered. It seemed as if Tanith was the source. She smothered down the compulsion to ask how she had taught him. How he had been better in those days. It was an inappropriate, selfish thought. A fleeting moment of weakness. Her eyebrows pinched together and her hands dropped back down into her lap, though she could not recall moving them.

He took his own chair, the moment passed as quickly as it had come about, his composure once more utterly unruffled. “You do not need to feel obligated to see to me. I am the one who severed our tie. If it is easier for you to behave as though I do not exist, I will accept that.” It would seem he’d noticed her previous aborted attempts to visit. Then again, that wasn’t surprising; he never missed much, least of all when it came to her.

A small muscle jumped in her jawline, crushing her teeth together. He had been the one to change things between them. It did nothing to extinguish the quick flare of annoyance, flaring her nostrils before she could subdue her irrationalities. This hadn't been why she'd come here. She didn't know why she'd come. Her shoulders slumped a fraction of an inch. A concession of disbelief. Or a consideration of familiar circumstances, “Coming to see you has always been a choice of my own. Severed tie or no.” She refused to say that he too was important. As Tanith was to him. As Aurora and Rilien continued to be, in contrasting shades.

He blinked slowly, his head tilting just fractionally to the side, and an exhale declined his shoulders just fractionally, an ever-so-slightly more ponderous breath then the one he’d last taken. “As you wish.” He offered no protest to her actions, no reminder that he’d intended for her to stay far from him for what might well amount to the rest of their lives. It was hard to say if he understood it in those terms. Likely, he had simply done what he always did: acted in the way that made the most sense to him, without consulting those on whose behalf he acted.

Reaching downwards, he produced two glasses from a smaller table at his side, it would seem, and set them on the large one they sat at. A bottle of something followed; not wine, though. It looked to be a large, bulbous container, the kind often used to hold multiple servings of beer. What he poured into the glasses, though, was a bright gold color, and lacked the froth that ale would have produced. “Estella keeps me supplied with this—I think you might find it to your taste.”

As you wish.

Words that might've enlisted her ire, but now only drew a soft sigh. Sparrow leaned forward and cupped her hands around the cup, dragging it close enough to peer into. It almost looked like liquid gold. Unlike any drink she'd been served in taverns, but this was no tavern and Rilien was full of surprises. She leveled her nose lower and took a quick whiff. It was sweet. Not sickeningly sweet. There was a soft warmth there, if it could be rightly described. Her eyebrows drew together as she swirled the contents and finally brought it to her lips, taking a mouthful. Strange, to say the least, but not unpleasant. Crisp apple rose to the forefront, accompanied by spices she could not put her finger on.

A laugh bubbled from her lips, and stifled down just as quickly. An uncontrolled reaction to an unexpected beverage, which overlooked their ridiculous circumstances. Everything and nothing had changed. There was a continuance of push and pulls, and she wasn't sure which direction either of them were going in. And where reading between the lines had done them so well before, she supposed that would not change either. She settled back into her seat and took another ginger sip, eying Rilien from over the glass lip, “I'll admit. This isn't awful.”

“No." Rilien spoke softly, taking a swallow without looking down at the glass.

“It is not."

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While Rilien was often to be found in the rookery, where he attended to the immediate business of sending and receiving messages from his agents, he spent almost as much time on the floor below, in the room that served as both office and workshop. It was, of course, meticulously-organized, the newly-installed wooden shelves host to books, tools, and a truly considerable number of stoppered glass vials, filled with liquids ranging in color from the deep, nearly black-red of Leon's concoctions to the pale silver-silver of his strongest nature-resistance tonic. The arrangement was in prismatic order, but only after they'd been sorted by general type: potion, poison, tonic. He had taken care to label everything for those not as familiar with alchemy as himself.

At present, he was brewing, the shutters over the gaps in the rounded stone walls thrown open to allow for more air circulation. It didn't quite prevent the pungent smell of dried elfroot from hanging low in the space, sitting thickly on the back of his tongue. It was long familiar by this point, and incapable of bothering him. Most things were like that.

“Never got used to that smell.”

Accompanying the statement was someone who’d taken to appearing in Rilien’s rook as of late. Even if Sparrow had no business there, she didn’t seem to mind intruding in his space. Her footsteps had become light enough to become indiscernible taps against the wooden slats leading up into the rookery. It might’ve eluded to the missing years she hadn’t spoken of. Years that warranted becoming a smaller, quieter creature, far different than the woman he’d known in Kirkwall. No longer did the beady-eyed birds squawk at her presence, protesting the intruder. Perhaps, she’d come up in his absence, or else, they’d simply become acclimatized to her unwarranted visits.

The Rookery. A place of quiet contemplation and oft times, fastidious decision making. An unusual mix of propriety, pressures and complexities that she could not fathom—but still managed to ceaselessly bumble into, interrupting whenever she had the chance. Not in the same manner. After all, this was not the shop in Kirkwall. She dragged her hand across the wooden railing until she reached the top of the stairs and revealed herself fully. She picked her way around wooden crates, unfurled parchments and bubbling pots. Careful not to touch anything she shouldn’t. Discretion looked strange on her, though she employed it frequently.

“Aurora told me you kept in touch with everyone back in Kirkwall,” she hadn’t called it home, though there was a brief pause where she faltered in her words. Sparrow perched herself nearby. She settled herself atop a barrel and drew one leg across her knee, hands planted on the side’s of it. While her eyes raked across his workstation and stoppered vials, she did not ask about them. Her moment of uncertainty ended quickly enough, “I never asked. Did you ever visit them after you went to Orlais?” From the sounds of it, she hadn’t.

“No." Rilien brought some dried embrium petals to the board in front of him, tipping them into a stone pestle. To the thin layer of plant matter, he added some of the liquid in the third of the vials lined up on his worktable. It was clear, but the sharp smell could only belong to some kind of distilled alcohol. Not the sort for drinking, of course. “Letters were sufficient to my purposes."

Stoppering the vial again and taking up the pestle, he ground the dried petals against the stone bowl with a soft rasping sounds, each stroke crisp and short. Gradually, it became a thin paste, colored a rather unappetizing burnt orange.

His answer seemed to fulfill whatever gnawing curiosities she had on the matter. Save for the sounds of pestle strokes, there was the briefest of silence brewing between them before she broke it once more. An absence of conversation, at least.

“Did you ever settle your debts?”

The query came without malice, and without bitterness. Spoken with the same matter-of-fact tone Rilien was prone to. As if they were discussing the weather and not something that had happened ages ago. There was a faint thudding sound as Sparrow slipped from her perch and approached him from the side. She appeared somewhat distracted by whatever he was working on. Murky eyes following his movements. His hands, rather. The scar stippled across her lip stretched slightly and settled back into a line, inquisitive if anything else.

“What I owe cannot be repaid." His debt was, first and foremost, to Ser Lucien. What did you give the person who reduced to nothing the confines one had been forced into one's whole life? The person who pointed out what may have always been true: that there was something for Rilien to be but someone else's curiosity, someone else's exotic bird or subtle knife? Maybe in saying it, Lucien had even made it so. Certainly for all his rationality, Rilien had never noticed before then. How much there was outside of what he already knew.

A teaspoonful of powdered root entered the mortar, thickening the admixture to the texture of paste. “And..." He paused, frowning just slightly down at his work. “At some point, it was no longer about the debt." He lifted his eyes to meet hers, blinking slowly. “You see, do you not? How important this is?" Not for the world. Rilien had little care for the world; if he'd ever been capable of such altruism, he was no longer. But there were people here who were quite capable of it. And he was at least able to desire to aid them. To act on their behalf. His. Hers. Theirs.

His words seemed to resound something in her. An echo, perhaps. Sparrow leaned far enough forward that the sliver of sunlight cutting through the opened windows, spilling out onto the table, filtered across her face. She winced slightly at the sudden burst of white, and retracted her inquiring advance. Her lips peeled back into a small smile, as if she understood the sentiment well. Of owing debts that couldn’t be paid. She nodded her head and slipped her hands off the table, away from the loose bundles of herbs, elf-root bits and other things he’d had meticulously arranged.

There’s another stretch of silence, of careful consideration. As if she was milling the words in her mouth before she set them a’flight, like birds being released from the rookery’s windows. Talons anchored with letters, and thoughts. Sparrow met his gaze and seemed to steel herself. For what? Everything. Nothing. It appeared as if she’d already known his answer. Or else, she’d prepared for it. She studied his face for a moment longer, and peeled her eyes away, “I do.” Her voice was quiet. A whisper, nearly. She cleared her throat and stepped away from the table, opting to drape her arms over the rounded railing where the room was gutted; allowing one to look down into the library, or even further, if they wished.

“I’m glad you found something so important. The Inquisition. The people in it. It’s… a good cause.”

Unstoppering the leftmost vial with a soft pop, Rilien set aside the rubber cap and emptied the contents into the mortar, whisking the mixture together rather than using the pestle that time. The whole lot of it went into the bubbling cauldron he had over a recessed flame. “And you?" His voice was quiet, lacking some of the leveled certainty he usually had. It was not a waver—Rilien did not do that.

“Have you found nothing in all this time that you consider important?"

A supposed hurt flickered in and out and was gone, barely discerned by the tension leaving her shoulders and her white-knuckled fists untangling from over the wide gap in the rookery. Mountains had erected in her murky eyes, unclimbable. Unreadable, as of late. Sparrow turned and propped her elbows on the railing. Trusting it enough not to buckle under her weight and send her tumbling through the empty air. Her recklessness, at least, hadn’t changed.

“I always had something important,” the response came quickly. A conviction of sorts. There was an inevitability there that spoke volumes, though she took no time to elaborate on what she’d meant by it. She tilted her head and glanced in Rilien’s direction for a brief moment, before turning her attention’s towards the bird cages dangling from the ceiling’s rafters; swaying with the absent breeze sifting through the windows, “Sometimes, what you consider important isn’t yours to keep.”

Her smile was wistful, tugging at the edges of an ugly scar, “But it doesn’t mean I've stopped looking.”

Rilien understood what she said, even if she didn't explain. His eyes lingered on the scar at the edge of her mouth for a moment. There was a sense in which it suited her. A visual cue to the rougher edges to her personality. It—she—had character. Everything she touched was changed by her presence, in some way or another. He had been taught to leave no trace, no matter where he went or who he encountered on the way. In that respect, he supposed he was the one who had failed.

“Nothing is permanent." Perhaps the first truth of any great significance he'd ever learned, and one constantly reinforced by his experience. “But perhaps you have kept more than you believe." He dropped his gaze to the cauldron on front of him; the brew had changed color and needed to be moved to the empty glassware he'd laid out for the purpose.

He set about his work at an efficient clip, but he did not delude himself about where the majority of his attention remained.

Sparrow hummed an assent of sorts, pushing herself away from the railing and back towards the top of the stairs she’d just climbed moments before. She’d acquired a new habit of drifting in and out of things. Phantom-like. A harder, peculiar presence. Equipped with a new flightiness that was colder in some regards. Or else, less like the dizzying tornado she’d been before, and more like a creature with clipped wings who never strayed too far. She paused mid-step and rested her hand back on the spiraling railing leading down into the library below. It would guide her back to wherever she’d come from, which was anyone’s guess.

Her mouth parted.

If she’d had anything else to say, she’d thought against it. The sound of retreating footsteps were considerably louder than her entrance, but soon enough they too were silenced.

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Here lies the abyss, the well of all souls.
From these emerald waters doth life begin anew.
Come to me, child, and I shall embrace you.
In my arms lies Eternity.
—Canticle of Andraste 14:11

Image

It was a long horse ride from Jader to Skyhold. Tactically, the placement was sound. No one would ever want to throw an army at a mountainous fortress... But his ass was no army, and it felt every hard stone along the trek. The boat from Kirkwall was pleasant in contrast, especially since he didn't have to read any reports to set up patrols along the way. Ashton figured he must just be getting old, or settling down made him soft or something. One or the other. He remembered the days when he called such an excursion like this a vacation. Now all he wanted was to sit in a padded chair in front of a roaring flame. Why it still had to be winter to compound it all was beyond him-- maybe fate just hated him. He could really make a case for it.

Luckily, he needn't have to suffer for much longer, as he could just see Skyhold and the bridge that led into it in the horizon. At its sight, he tsked to himself, thinking on just how far his friends had come from Kirkwall. How they had a castle now. Granted, he had his little piece of the Vicountess's Keep, but now... That seemed a bit quaint considering where some of the others stood. He shook his head, and remembered that he wasn't the jealous type. That just meant he didn't need to travel with an escort like Sophia had.

He'd missed that trip no few months ago, and instead had sent his best guardsmen to be a part of her escort while he tended to the homefront. Vesper was among them, and he'd reread the report she made a few more times before he left Kirkwall. Still, written word couldn't do much for Skyhold. The singular castle was huge against the skyline with an architecture entirely different from the angles of the Keep. And the walls... Vesper wasn't wrong when she called it a fortress.

A horse appeared on his right, a surefooted and stocky Fereldan breed that had no trouble scaling down the uneven mountainside. Seated atop it was a young elven woman, her face marked with vallaslin that was immediately familiar to Ashton. Lia never really rode horses when she still lived in Kirkwall, but she looked comfortable in the saddle now, if not particularly warm. A scarf was wrapped around the lower half of her face, a heavy cloak draped over her shoulders, the tips of her ears peeking out from underneath her long blonde hair and burning red. A few more scouts appeared at several vantage point, but none of them had bows drawn or appeared threatening.

Lia waved in greeting and spurred her horse into a canter once she was on level ground, speeding along the road until she could pull a stop alongside Ashton. She pulled the scarf down from her face, revealing a genuine grin. "Rilien said you were coming. I'm glad you managed the trip in one piece."

"Tell that to my ass," Ashton replied, shifting uncomfortably in his saddle. They didn't have to ride many horses in Kirkwall, usually only in order to flush out a bandit hive on the outskirts on the Wounded Coast. He stared at her, putting on his best grumpy face, before it shattered a moment later with a massive grin. He leaned over, wrapping an arm around her and bringing her in for a hug, rubbing his knuckles across her scalp playfully. He wasn't entirely worried about the scouts that could put an arrow in him at a moments notice-- if Lia was half as professional as she seemed now, she would've warned them about him.

"Oh sweetheart, it's good to see you again," he said, making no qualms about not hiding the genuine joy in both his face and words. He bore a Kirkwall orange cloak around his own shoulders, the orange and gold neckerchief of the Kirkwall guard captain poking out above the neckline. On his back a bow and quiver stocked full of arrows, as well as a sheathed standard issue sword. He barely took his arms off in Kirkwall, he wasn't going to leave them home while he traveled.

"How are the rest of the Lions?" He asked, though there were a hundred other questions he also wanted to ask. Some of those were probably going to get pushed back at a later time, though.

"We're great," she answered, putting her hair back to order after she was able to escape from his hug. Her face was a little red, but that could easily be blamed on the cold. "I can't speak for the guys Lucien hung on to, but I'm sure they're doing fine. I'm sure they're warmer than us, too. But we're great. Come on, we can talk on the way in." She wheeled her horse around, leading the way forward and up towards Skyhold.

"Let's see... Cor's a Captain now. He's a natural, you should see him train the recruits. Donnelly's always on the front lines, but he helps out all over the place. Hissrad works with Cor a lot, and Stel... well, Stel's got a lot on her plate. Probably the only one of us that isn't fond of her new job. But she's doing really well, even if she'd never admit it." She turned in her saddle to look back at him. "How's Kirkwall? I hope you enjoy watching over a city more than you did watching over a shop."

"I'll have you know that I was very fond of that shop," he said in a rather indignant tone. However he soon shrugged to say that it was a jest. There were more than a few days he closed the shop because he wanted to take on far more stimulating mercenary work with extremely interesting people. "I sold it, you know?" he revealed, "What with my job and you leaving town, I didn't have the time, nor the manpower," nor the motivation, though he didn't say that bit, "So yeah. I just sold it. I think someone is selling textiles out it now," he said.

After that he shrugged. "It's peaceful, more peaceful than it has been," He said, though that wasn't saying much. It felt like the city had always been embroiled in some sort of battle, whether it was the Qunari, or the strife between the mages and templars. "Though personally I'm bracing myself for whatever is up next." It was a touch of pessimism from an eternally optimistic man, but... "Peace doesn't tend to last with us," he said with a small smile. Still that didn't mean he didn't believe that they wouldn't persevere, he believe that they stronger than that. Then he shrugged and continued, "Vesper is in charge of the Guard until I get back-- bless their poor souls, that woman is a taskmaster," he said with a laugh.

"And Nostariel? How's she doing?" she glanced back with a teasing look. "Is married life all it's made out to be?"

Ashton was quiet at that, a serious, but sad look creeping into his face. "I... don't know."

"Oh." Lia's mouth hung open for a second, obviously confused, but she decided not to ask anything else. She bit her lower lip, looking a bit concerned herself, though if it was simply over his response, or lack thereof, was unclear. They had arrived at the gate, mercifully breaking up the suddenly awkward moment. Lia gave a curt greeting to the guards there and led the way inside once the gate had been raised.

A stableboy came to greet them once they were within the walls of Skyhold proper, and Lia dismounted, handing over the reins. She turned back to look up at Ashton. "You're probably looking to speak with Stel, then?"

"And Rilien, if you would," he added also dismounting and handing the reins off. Sure it would be nice to see his little white haired elf buddy again, but he felt that Rilien would also want to hear the information that he had. The Spymaster should be privy to it, after all.

"Right. Hopefully he's not too hard to find. Follow me. Oh, and welcome to Skyhold." It looked to have been a while since the last snow, unless the Inquisition was especially good at clearing it from the grounds. The walls offered some protection from the wind, though the air was still chilly, and only grew more so as Lia led him into the fortress and up the main set of stairs into the castle's great hall.

There they were met by the warm air given off from the crackling fires, and greeted with the sight of the Inquisition throne at the end of the hall. The hall was immense, at least compared to his little office in the Keep's barracks. He let his gaze shift upward to take it all in before finally falling back onto the throne. He frowned for a moment. It was like everyone was getting thrones but him... And his little office chair didn't count.

They didn't linger long, as Lia soon took a sharp right and pushed open a door that was slightly ajar, knocking clearly a few times as she did. "Stel? I've got a visitor for you, a certain friend of ours from Kirkwall."

Estella was already standing when they entered, dressed in what looked like full gear. From the redness to her face and the wild strands of hair loose from the braid she wore, they'd caught her just after practice, rather than before. Rilien was still present as well, fortunately, which at least meant no one had to go looking for him.

It didn't take her more than a second to recognize him, even considering how long it had been. She offered a small smile. “Ashton. It's good to see you." Being the Inquisitor hadn't seemed to change her demeanor much if at all—she still stood straight, but rather unobtrusively. To look at her next to Rilien, one might get the wrong idea about which one was actually halfway in charge of the castle and everyone in it.

“How was the trip?" Unsurprisingly, she didn't seem to know the exact purpose of his visit yet. He'd have to break that particular piece of news himself.

He offered quick wave in her direction, but was already moving, almost not even hearing the question asked of him. A grin was spread wide on his lips and he held a singular determined purpose in his gait. In one swift movement, where once Rilien stood, he now held aloft by Ashton in bearhug. "Ugh, it's been too long," he said, half whining as he did, "Letters just aren't the same." He swung the smaller man just a bit before finally setting him back down on the ground, though his hands were still plastered to his shoulder.

"It is good to see you, again."

If anyone could survive a bear hug still looking as utterly unperturbed as ever, it was Rilien. Once his feet were set back on solid ground, he blinked slowly at Ashton, folding his arms into his sleeves. “Letters are indeed different." He inclined his head slightly. “No parchment has ever attempted to collapse my ribcage. Seeing you is not much relief, considering." The tone of his voice was invariant, but Ashton had known the tranquil more than long enough to recognize his arid sense of humor.

Estella coughed softly, clearly disguising laughter.

Ashton shrugged, "Hey, builds character. You know you loved it," Ashton said with a little mischievous twist to his lips. He definitely missed those dry attempts at humor.

“I did not." The negation of Ashton's hypothesis was blunt, but Rilien did not attempt to linger on the point. He glanced at Lia and Estella both, apparently deciding that whatever he had to say could be said in front of the both of them.

“The tone of your last letter indicated some urgency. Please elaborate."

"I..." He began by glancing at everyone in the room, before facing back to Rilien, "Got a letter from Nos." All the humor that he had only moments ago was soon sucked back out of the room, and the same melancholy that Lia had seen when she asked replaced it. "She had started making expeditions with Stroud again, but she had always kept in contact, visiting and sending letters, except about a year ago they just... stopped."

What he didn't reveal immediately was the worried mess he had been the months afterward. He had asked Rilien to keep an eye out for her in their letters while he did a little searching himself, but neither found anything, at least not until her letter. "Her letter didn't have any specifics in it, I feel she was afraid to reveal too much in a letter in case it got intercepted but the gist of it was that she needs help."

He sighed after that, crossing his arms and shaking his head. That wasn't it. "Ordinarily, I would've raced off to find her immediately but..." He said, biting his lip. It took a certain amount of restraint not to do it regardless, "Well, from what information Ril had given me, it seems that Corypheus appeared right around when her and her letters stopped coming." His lip raised at mentioning the name. He had been surprised to read it when Rilien had relayed the information, and for good reason. "Thing is, I know we killed the bastard in the Deep Roads."

Rilien took the information in for a moment. Of course, he'd known more of it than the others, and so it wasn't that surprising that he was the first to speak. “It seems that you were mistaken. I know not how, but there is no doubt Corypheus is alive, and as you described him to be before." He paused, then narrowed his eyes fractionally. “Did Nostariel convey to you her precise location?"

"Long, gangly creature that looks like a darkspawn with a human face stretched across its skull? Hard to mistake something like that," Ashton said with a shake of his head. "She's relayed that she's hidden away somewhere in the Western Approach, in Orlais."

Estella pursed her lips. “We don't have any presence in that region," she said, crossing her arms loosely over her chest and shifting her weight to the left. “But I think we could manage to get some there, if we needed to. I bet Leon would be fine sending some of Lia's scouts out that way." She nodded to her friend and fellow Lion. “And then probably an advance party of some of the rest of us."

Meeting Ashton's eyes, she tilted her head to the side. There was obvious sympathy in her expression, and a subdued concern. “If Nostariel was asking for help, I'm certain it's important enough to investigate. Besides... she's a friend. If we can't even help our friends, there's no way we can deal with Corypheus." Pushing out a soft sigh, she dropped her arms back to her sides. “I know you probably need to rest, but I hope you're all right with meeting the Commander and Lady Marceline first. They can help start getting things planned." She paused, then continued in a gentler tone.

“We'll find her."

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It took the rest of the Inquisition longer to reach the Western Approach than it had taken the advance party, of course. When the army moved, it needed supply wagons and hundreds of tents and the like. Though only a fraction of the force had been deployed for the task of taking Adamant Fortress, it was easily the majority of the combat-capable personnel, as well as the support staff necessary to ensure the smooth function of a mechanism with so many moving parts.

Rilien supposed that in this case, he belonged to both groups, though he did not doubt the majority of his time would be spent in the latter capacity. The ability to take life on a battlefield was quite a bit more common than the ability to plan a siege or put together schematics of a target, both of which were going to be crucial here.

The catapults and battering rams were already on the way, but they would take another day or so to arrive. The loan from the Lord-General would likely make all the difference, as Adamant was built long before defending against such things was a concern. Fortunate, since otherwise it would have been nigh impossible to get into with the relatively small number of soldiers they had.

Directing a few of his agents to help Reed set up the command tent, Rilien elected to make for higher ground, mounting the stairs that would take him up onto the walls of the small keep Estella and the others had seized. He found Sparrow already up there. She seemed to share his proclivity for altitude. Or perhaps she had simply not wanted to be caught in the large tide of people still moving in through the open gate. But there was one other possibility worth considering.

“Are you looking for Ashton?"

“I… yes, I suppose,” Sparrow’s demeanor sat somewhere between concerned and reflective. There was a faraway gaze to her eyes as she stared over the lip of the walls. Her aptitude for disappearing hadn’t changed much since leaving Skyhold’s gates. When she’d been there, she flapped through Rilien’s open shutters like a wayward bird. Perched long enough for simple conversation and flitted out just as quickly. What she did outside their walls was anyone’s guess, but there were whispers; stretching out from Redcliffe’s piers to the Hinterlands.

At times, she would bring back dirty, trembling mages. Stowaways to a world that still shirked their existence. They would be welcome in Aurora’s fold. While Sparrow never shared the details of just how she’d found them… there were times when blood crusted her fingernails.

Now that they’d filtered through the Griffon Wing Keep’s gates, and she’d done her part hauling crates into the storerooms below, she chose to occupy herself by exploring the dismal area around them. Appearing only long enough to cast a silhouette across the ramparts; a figure pacing above the gates. But now she was sitting back on her heels, mouth cast into a fine line. While she’d long since shed most of her eccentricities, her expression read loud and clear. That, at least, had not changed. Hesitance.

“I haven’t seen him in a long time, Ril,” she admitted and shuttered her eyes for a moment, Any of them.” She exhaled softly and tucked her bangs behind her ears. Whatever she was feeling obviously wasn’t sitting well with her. She made a noise and crinkled her nose. “I know how foolish that sounds.”

“I had not seen him in just as long." Rilien lifted his shoulders. “I suspect the worst he will do is embrace you." He supposed some part of Sparrow might actually be permissive of that. She had never been as hands-off as Rilien typically was.

Spotting the topic of their conversation approaching, he tilted his chin to draw the fact to her attention. “He does not look upset to me."

Whether or not they’d both been absent from Ashton’s life, Sparrow hadn’t seemed all that reassured. There was a tightness to her jawline, and a somber pull to her lips. It appeared as if, at any moment, she’d take flight from the walls and escape. In any case, it looked like a viable option to consider. She only stood up when Rilien shifted behind her. She followed his gaze and stared towards the lip of the stairs at Ashton. An exhale whistled past her lips, as she leaned over to brush the dust and sand from her knees. Shadows cast across her face. Perhaps, a means to recompose herself.

"You know," came the familiar voice from the stairs, "There's a smart ass remark I can make about birds and high places, but I'm just gonna let it lie this time." As he stepped on to the wall proper, his gait never slowed as he approached them, and it continued all the way until he stood in front of Sparrow. Just as he had done to Rilien, he swept her up and lifted her off her feet in one fluid motion-- just as Rilien had predicted he would.

"Would've found you before we left Skyhold," Ashton said, still holding Sparrow aloft, "But I was... kinda in a hurry," he explained. He had seemed antsy before the advance party left Skyhold, no doubt because of how close he had been to finding Nostariel again. Eventually he did manage to sit her down, and held her in widely grinning gaze, until his head tilted curiously to the side. "You look different. Did you do something with your hair?" He asked, batting a lock around with his fingers.

Sparrow hadn’t even had time to straighten up properly before arms wound around her slender shoulders, dragging her into a full-bodied embrace. Even if Rilien had warned her beforehand of what he might do, her expression read surprise. Eyebrows raised. Not disgusted, but rather the reaction of one who wasn’t quite used to physical contact anymore. A far cry from the wild thing she’d been in Kirkwall. Stealing from windows, in the dead of night with angry, hooting spouses in tow. She made a small noise in the back of her throat, and breathlessly added “I’d heard. I’m glad you found her, Ash. I’m glad… that she was alright.”

Alive. The implications were bare, plain as day.

As soon as her feet touched the ground again, Sparrow cleared her throat and smoothed out the rumples in her vest. It took her a moment to meet his gaze; invasive as they were. As they had always been. Reading things between the lines, or slamming books wide open. There was something there that lessened the tension in her muscles, eased away by familiarity. She did, however, still appear cautious. As one would when approaching family they’d neglected to see in a long time. This her smile tugged the scar wide, “is what you get when you have no one to shear a wild mane. You should have seen the number Donovan did one time.” She chuckled and paused, “It must look strange to you.”

"The bald fellow?" Ashton asked, ruffling his own hair in example, "Yeah, wouldn't trust him with the shears." After that, he simply waved it off, "You've always looked strange, I was just polite enough not to say anything," he said behind a toothy smile. The lighthearted jab and the wide grin was the clear evidence of how much he'd actually missed Sparrow. Things were probably tame in Kirkwall without her.

Rilien's expression flattened out further, if that were possible. “Perhaps you should ask someone you know who regularly handles sharp objects and precise tasks next time." He meant, of course, himself, but avoided saying so directly for a reason he could not quite articulate. “I am afraid, however, that I know of no one who might help Ashton look less strange." He turned his eyes out to the desert landscape as though he hadn't just insulted his friend. The only response he received was Ashton rolling his head over to gaze at him with a deadpan look of his own.

It was quite the peculiar thing, that simply being in the company of both of them at the same time should turn his mind towards finding some kind of... problem, for them to solve. Sparrow would probably call it an adventure to have. Perhaps that was how Ashton would think of it as well. But most of what Rilien did now was logistics, handling information, and giving out orders. He was almost never the blade in the hand anymore. Perhaps some part of him was still too accustomed to it. To adventure.

Sparrow’s laugh was a little more genuine, it crinkled at the corners of her eyes, “He’s right.” She made a hum of assent and crooked her head towards Rilien. There was a thoughtfulness there, as if she were considering his words. She, at least, no longer looked like she wanted to dive off the Keep’s walls. She jabbed a finger into Ashton’s stomach and looked up into his face, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d be offended. If it weren’t true, I suppose.”

Her smile tempered itself as she rounded to his side and pinched the fabric of his sleeve. Lifted it for a moment before completing an entire circuit around him. She halted in front of him once more, close to the Keep’s edge, where she appeared most comfortable. “You look like you haven’t changed a bit.” Same could be said for Rilien. She paused once more, and licked her lips, appearing thoughtful once more. Weighing her words between the gaps.

“I’d say there’s no stranger company,” she added with a grin, “than the ones on this wall. I almost miss...” She brushed her bangs behind her stunted ears, and lifted her shoulder in a shrug. “In any case, it’s good to see you.” While she might’ve not expressed it in such an obvious way, it was clear she’d missed them both. Seeing them here had struck a chord in her. One that elicited her presence for longer than a bird’s beat.

"Yeah," Ashton said, looking out over the expanse of desert. "Yeah, I missed this too." He smiled again and gave her a gentle shove on the shoulder, enough to throw both of them off balance for a moment.

Rilien shook his head faintly at them, but in truth, there was nothing to contest. Perhaps... perhaps he had managed to miss it as well.

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Any mage knew what the Fade felt like.

Admittedly, though, Nostariel had never felt it quite like this. She didn't think she was dreaming, she wasn't sure she was dead, and she most definitely hadn't used lyrium to get here in a waking state.

Any Grey Warden knew the story of the first darkspawn.

So the fact that she was looking at what appeared to be a Deep Roads tunnel was not a promising sign. Red lyrium grew in slowly-pulsing veins on the walls of dark stone; a passage stretched silently in front of her, tall enough for her to stand upright but not much taller. Behind her extended the same; she had a feeling if she'd been dropped in here facing this direction, it was the one she should go in. The logic of the Fade, if it could even be properly called that, was queer, and often she had found herself better served here by instinct than any loftier guide.

As if her first step forward was a trigger, the environment around her came to life: the slightly-hollow sound of air moving through a cave tunnel faded in, followed by the dripping of fetid water and the long-familiar stench of darkspawn. She had been in places like this hundreds of times since the Joining. She would probably be in them hundreds more. And yet... that only made it seem more real, made the aching throb of the Calling in her bones that much harder to ignore. She could even believe she sensed darkspawn further in, moving about in groups to inscrutable purpose.

The tunnel wasn't really large enough to use her bow properly, so when the first of them appeared, Nostariel reached for her magic, feeling unnatural frost chill her fingertips almost before she'd formed the intention to use a Winter's Grasp spell at all. Her magic was never this responsive, this quick to her hands, in the waking world; she hurled it forward with enough force that she actually had to take a step back to compensate.

It crashed into the hurlock's chest, engulfing it in a thick coating of frost. The follow-up, a blast of kinetic force, shattered him with ease. Nostariel blinked, looking down at her hands. They still tingled faintly with the force of the magic she'd used, as though they were waking from having fallen asleep. That same pins-and-needles sensation. Shaking her head, she stepped into a jog.

The first time the tunnel opened up into a wider cave, she found her husband.

“Ash?" He seemed to be confused, from his body language and facial expression. She could understand why—he walked along one of the cave walls as though it were the floor.

"Nos?" He countered, wheeling around to face her. The confusion he must've been feeling seemingly intensified, as his brows furrow and an odd look graced his features. He stared at her for a moment, the wheels in his head apparently spinning if his expressions were anything to go by. He had his arms crossed but pointed his finger at her when he spoke, "Why are you on the wall?" he asked, unaware that he was the one on the wall. "I'm not dead, am I? Honestly, I would've expected it to be a lot more peaceful than this," despite the words, his tone was that of worry.

“I'm not the one on the wall, dear. That's you." Though she could detect his concern, she couldn't help but smile a little. Somehow, it was perfectly believable that Ashton would end up at a right-angle to normal. Jogging over to the closest point she could reach, Nostariel stood on her toes and grasped his hand. “Now, just... give a little hop towards me, like you're trying to land next to me here. It'll work if you believe it should."

"Uh..." Ashton still seemed unsure, but he trusted her enough to take a few steps toward the floor. "If I land on my face, we tell no one, deal?" He said with a little smirk of his own. He then did as he was told and jumped. The angling was weird, certainly, but fortunately in spite of his height, Ashton had always been the agile type. He touched down with a foot and continued forward for a couple of steps before he had his balance back underneath him. He turned and retreated back to Nostariel's side, taking a contemplative look at the wall once more. "Now... how do we know we're not on the ceiling?" he asked aloud, though quickly he dismissed it as inconsequential with a shake of his head. Honestly, it didn't matter in the long run. There were more pressing matters to contend with.

He turned back toward Nostariel and smiled, leaning down and wrapping her into a hug, pressing his head against hers, "I'm glad you're alright." When he pulled back however, he appeared thoughtful for a moment, "But if we're alive, then... Where are we?" He asked, looking around at the cave they found themselves in. "It looks like the Deep Roads, but that fall would've killed us," he noted with an arched eyebrow.

“It would have." Nostariel nodded. “This looks like the Deep Roads, and it's definitely populated with darkspawn, or... demons in their shape. But it's... we're in the Fade, I think. I can't imagine anything else it could be." It still sounded preposterous to her own ears—the idea that they could somehow be physically in the Fade. A feat that had only been accomplished once, and at great cost. In more than one sense.

And yet, here they were. No used-up lyrium, no dead innocents. No corruption in anyone's veins but her own. She swallowed; something in her chest throbbed, squeezing her ribcage. There was a high-pitched keening of some kind in the back of her thoughts, always right on the fringes of consciousness. She wondered if it might not drive her mad.

"Wait." Ashton stated, the wheels starting to turn again. It took a few more moments before he was able to actually formulate a response. "The Fade? You mean, the Fade?" He repeated, turning toward her once more. For once, his face was unreadable, probably because he didn't know how to feel about it himself. "The very same Fade that the last time this," he began to wildly gesture around them to indicate their presence, "happened, it pissed off the Maker, created the Blight, and made him hate us for, oh, forever? Oh, right. And created Corypheus."

He chuckled weakly and began to rub the scraggle on his chin. "Heh, right. Well. Remind me not to touch anything," he laughed again and shook his head this time, apparently having a difficult time to process it.

"Sweetheart, I love you to death, but we have some of the worst luck."

“I'm not even sure we can blame this one on our luck. Our friends in the Inquisition seem just as magnetized to trouble as we ever were." She sighed, choosing another tunnel and heading down. This one was tall enough to accommodate Ash as well, but again only just. Nostariel wasn't claustrophobic—that would have been a fatal flaw in a Grey Warden—but it wasn't comfortable, either. Especially not considering how stale the air was.

She swallowed. “Though... perhaps ultimately, the blame does lie with us. At least with me. I'm..." She grimaced. It was hard to escape the obvious fact. “I'm the one who let him out, after all."

"No, don't do that to yourself," Ashton said, his tone warm, but with a rare firmness to it. The weight of his hands fell on her shoulders where they held firmly while they walked, his thumbs massaging her shoulders. "Don't you even start telling yourself that," he added.

She resisted the urge to lean further backwards. The song in her head was getting louder, maddeningly variant in pitch and tone. Her body ached, from deep in the core of it, like fatigue and weakness were endemic upon her. Like age was catching up and grinding her bones into dust, little by little.

“What else is there to be told? Ash, I undid blood magic seals keeping him tied to that place. I did that. Me. No one else could have. And then he got out, and now he's... this. Threatening everything. Trying to hurt everyone I love, destroy everything I've ever stood for. And I can barely think straight because the Calling won't leave me be for two seconds!" She made a frustrated noise, clenching her hands into fists. Something at the back of her throat tasted like bile; a cold sweat began to bead on her back, beneath the armor and blue linens she wore.

Ashton didn't say anything, but the hands on her shoulders beckoned her to slow her gait to a stop. They slipped away and wrapped around her, pulling her in close to his chest until his head rested on the crook of her neck. He said nothing for a while, the only sound she could hear the incessant Calling and his gentle breathing. For a while he stood like that, refusing to let her go until he finally began to speak quietly. "You weren't alone. Me, Lucien, Ithilian, Amalia, and Stroud were there as well. You had no choice, because if you didn't, that would've meant leaving us all imprisoned in there with him. And I know you, sweetheart, never would you ever let that happen. We're all just as equally responsible."

The embrace he held her in only tightened and he let his head rest against hers. "But we can't dwell on it, you know that as much as I do. You weren't alone then, and you aren't alone now," Ashton finally released her from his grasp only to move around and stand in front of her, hunched over so that they could look at each other face-to-face. "So, this is what we're going to do. We're going to get out of here, we're going to fight Corypheus, and we're going to make damn sure he's dead this time. He's going pay for what he's doing to you, and he's damn sure going to pay for taking you away from me for a year."

With that, Ashton brought her in for a kiss, and when he pulled back, he wore his usual confident, cock-sure smile.

Nostariel kept her eyes closed for a few moments after, only blinking them open after a full breath had passed in and out of her lungs. “Aren't you upset?" She landed back on her heels. “I'm... I'm dying, and I didn't tell you." She'd had reasons, but in hindsight, she didn't think they amounted to much. What was the point of protecting Warden secrets? Clearly, the freedom and obscurity in which they'd been allowed to exist for so long was doing them no favors. It felt like she'd been giving up so much of herself for something that might not be worth the sacrifice.

Some part of her wished she'd spent the last few years in Kirkwall with him, instead. At least her work at the Clinic never made her feel guilty. But Nostariel knew she had to do this. Had to find some way to repent what a mess she'd made of the Corypheus incident. Good intentions or otherwise.

His smile wavered and he frowned. "I... I-- no. I can't be upset with you," he said, the frown deepening. Disappointed, maybe sad, but his face did not read upset. "I can't imagine what you must be going through, and if there was some way to take some of that weight off of your mind, I would in a heartbeat. And it is so frustrating to know that I can't," He said, biting his lip. "And it kills me," he continued, letting his forehead touch hers, "to know that you had to deal with all of this on your own for the past year. It terrifies me to think that I can lose you."

He pulled back and stood straight again, putting on a brave smile for her, but he was easy to read, he always had been. Underneath the front, he was scared for her. "So, I'm going to do what I've always done, my pretty little Nostariel, and that is be with you every moment that I possibly can, Fade, demons, Darkspawn magisters be damned. I made a vow, remember?" He stated, rubbing the spot on the ring finger of his gauntlet, before offering it for her to take.

Nostariel could feel the words in her throat, and she tried to swallow them, but... whether it was the atmosphere of this place, the circumstances of their arrival here, or even just the fact that the damn thing looked so much like the Deep roads, she couldn't keep them down. “But you will. You will lose me, and I'll lose you." She took his hand, wrapping her light gauntlet around his heavier one. They needed to keep moving forward, though it hardly seemed to matter when all the tunnels looked the same to her.

“This isn't... it's not a fluke. Even if it goes away for a while when Corypheus dies, it's going to come back, Ash. It could be any day." The Calling took every Warden at a slightly different time, but none of them lasted more than thirty years from Joining. Nostariel had Joined at nineteen—it had already been more than half of that. More than the ten or fifteen that some had.

“And I'm afraid." It hurt to admit the same way as it hurt to think about, but of late it had been the thing most often on her mind. She couldn't afford to keep it to herself, or it would drive her insane. If it hadn't already—it was difficult to see clearly even now. She was closer to the desperate irrationality of those other Wardens than she wanted to think about.

"And I'm not?" he said gently. There were no anger in his voice, only a hint of sadness. "Nos, I hadn't seen you in a year. After a time I dreaded any letter that I got because I thought it might be Stroud writing me that I might've lost you. I... I didn't know what to do. I asked everyone I knew to keep an eye out for you, but they couldn't find you either." His face was strained and she could feel the tremble in his hand. It was plainly obvious that her absence had affected him more he wanted her to know-- probably in an attempt to keep it from adding to her guilt.

"The time I had to myself was a nightmare. I tried to throw myself into work so that I wouldn't think... but that only worked moments at a time. The worst part was the not knowing." He gripped her hand even tightly, his face working into a multitude of emotions. "I wanted to rip off this armor to run off and find you, but... I couldn't." He sighed heavily and rubbed his face with his other hand.

"I knew I could... would lose you," he said, the change in words tearing him apart, "I knew it when we fought Corypheus the first time, and I knew it when I asked you to marry me, but I didn't care. And I am terrified of that day, but..." He said, wincing at his own words, "I want to know. I want to be there when you have to leave, and I want to go with you as far as you'll take me, so that I can say goodbye. I don't want you to just one day disappear, never to be heard from again. As much at it would hurt, that would hurt worse. It might be selfish, and it'll hurt, far worse than anything else I've ever felt but I want to be there with you."

There were tears in his eyes now, and try as he might to wipe them away, they kept coming. "Every moment I'm with you, all of the pain just seems worth it."

“Okay." Nostariel said it softly. “After this... I'll retire. For good this time. After Corypheus is gone, the rest of whatever I have left, whatever we have left, is ours. And I won't... I won't hide it from you, when the Calling really comes. I promise." She swallowed thickly.

“But in return, when it's time... you have to turn around and go back the other way. You have to live out the rest of your life as well and as fully as you can, whatever that means. If I'm gone and you can find someone else to love, don't you dare hesitate, okay? Run the guard, go back to running the shop, sleep in the woods with bears, I don't know. As long as you're happy. Promise me."

It had been a topic they avoided for so long, because she'd thought what needed to be understood already was. Perhaps it had taken this... almost-Calling to make her realize that there were things they hadn't resolved after all. But being in that state, believing for a terrifying year that death would come for her at any moment, had made many things crystal clear for her. One most of all.

“I love you, Ash. Always."

And it was brighter in her thoughts, in her heart, than even the Calling could be. Than even the instinctive fear of death.

"And I love you Nos. Far more than even those bears."

Despite herself, she snorted. “Good to know I rate above bears, then. I'll put it on my resume." She leaned her forehead into his chest for a moment, just long enough to smother a soft run of laughter. She certainly hadn't married him for his solemnity, but that was good. Already, her shoulders felt lighter.

When she stepped back, it was to discover that the tunnel had changed, so that is sloped upwards towards a circle of light. “Oh look. Your jokes are so bad the demon got disgusted with us and decided to kick us out."

"Heh, well at least we know it has a weakness now," he said with a soft chuckle.

"Well, shall we get to it then?" He said, taking her hand and nodding toward the slope and ring of light. If anything, that seemed like the best place to start moving. The slope itself wasn't a terrible incline, almost like they were walking up and out of a ditch. Now that the visage of the tunnel was gone, except for the overall wrongness of it all and the green skies, the landscape of the Fade was rather indistinct, and it continued on to even when they reached to top of the pitch.

No sooner had they emerged into the light than a voice, louder even than the Calling, thundered in the back of Nostariel's mind.

"Welcome, Captains Riviera and... Riviera."

There was a sort of amusement in the tone, but it was condescending in the extreme. Nostariel blinked, turning to Ash to confirm that he'd held it as well.

"Lovely to meet you, dear Nostariel. I'd always hoped for the chance to personally thank the one who made all of this possible. I shall not want for sustenance for ages, given all the fear Corypheus is seeding over Thedas. And he walks free because of you. Because you wanted to know even just a little bit more about who you were. Because you could not sacrifice the few to keep the many safe."

Nostariel squeezed Ash's hand and started forward. “It's a demon. Don't listen to a thing it says."

"You've failed so many times, as a Warden. You say their rush to martyr themselves is hasty and unwise, but isn't that only because you couldn't do it? Couldn't bear to give up the life you stole from the jaws of death? Couldn't bear to die now that you're finally content? Aren't you just too weak to make a sacrifice? Too selfish?"

"Yeah," Ashton tsked, "Yeah, that's definitely a demon alright. You can tell because they usually sound like assholes."

"Ah, Ashton. Still deflecting every attack with that unique sense of humor of yours. It's a shame that it hides all those nasty insecurities you have."

Ashton's eyelids fluttered to half-mast and he turned to look at Nostariel with them, immediately tired of the demon's droning.

"Did you tell your lovely wife that you started drinking again?"

That managed to make Ashton cough and rub the back of his head before he turned back toward Nostariel and measured out with his fingers. "Only just a little," he said, his face somewhat apologetic.

"It's a shame that all that humor won't help you save Kirkwall the next time disaster strikes. You can laugh all you wish as your wonderful home burns to ash. Oh yes, you are just bracing yourself for it, are you not? Kirkwall wishes to destroy itself so much that you will not be the least bit surprised when it finally succeeds, will you?"

Ashton sighed deeply, but shook his head. "This has to be the fifth or sixth time a demon has taunted me, and it really got old after the first one." With that, he turned back to Nostariel and shook his head. "It's always demons, isn't it? Demons or blood magic. I'm starting to feel nostalgic," he said wistfully, but he still clutched Nostariel's hand tightly. The voice said nothing else, but it's oppressive presence remained.

She sighed. While she might have preferred to find out some other way about the drinking bit, it wasn't like she didn't understand.

“Well, if old times are anything to go by, we'll be wanting friends. Let's find some." Nostariel half-smiled up at him, and pointed them both down the path forward.

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Rilien rolled the parchment carefully, tapping it delicately until it fit inside the thin, lightweight metal tube. Capping it, he rolled the end in wax, coating liberally to provide an obvious seal. While he could not guarantee that any of his birds would not be intercepted, the very least he could do was provide clear evidence of it, should someone attempt to read his communications and then disguise the fact. The greater safety measure was that he wrote in ciphers, different ones with different recipients, so that none of his agents even knew how to interpret the things he wrote to Ser Lucien, for example.

This one, however, was of a more mundane nature—a letter to the Guard-Captain of Kirkwall. There were no state secrets in it, certainly. This particular piece of correspondence was merely personal in nature, inquiring after Ashton's well-being and updating him on some of the goings on of the Inquisition that were not confidential. He'd included his observations of the conditions of Sparrow and Aurora, of course, as they were friends and Rilien suspected the information may be of some comfort to him. Or at least relevance.

Sometimes he wondered if he weren't growing more remote from his emotions with each passing year. Objectively, it seemed unlikely—he felt more here than he had in some time. Particularly when his old friends or especially Estella was involved. But still he was occasionally given to wonder... would he ever lose even this tenuous connection with the person he had once been? Already they were distant, that point in his past and himself, and not merely due to time itself. Perhaps one day he would forget. Forget altogether what it had once been like. To be anything but tranquil.

With twine and careful, deft motions, Rilien tied the message tube to the leg of his nearest bird. Not all of them could go long distances, as it would take for the message to reach Kirkwall, but in practice, he ran them through several stopover points, so birds could be changed out if necessary. More chances for interference, but also a greater rate of success. He still needed to lay a trap for his rogue agent; perhaps he would make use of a relay such as this one to do it.

Polonius, as Estella had taken to calling him, flapped his dark wings several times, taking off from his perch and diving out the window. He knew where to go. Brushing his hands off, Rilien returned to the small desk he kept in the rookery, intent on writing his next piece of communication.

There was something unusual in Rilien’s rookery—an object that did not quite belong there, settled against the wall nearest to the top of the winding stairwell. A ridiculously large mace, stained with red across the leather grips; perhaps, a recent rendition to the weapon itself. Someone, or rather many someones had taken to leaving it in various places. If it was not in Aurora’s study… it was here, leaning against the cobblestone wall for Sparrow to later procure. It would not have gone unnoticed to Rilien’s hawkish eyes, though it was clear that she had not put it there herself.

Since Nostariel’s unexpected demise, and Ashton’s absence, Sparrow’s demeanor had shifted. Become less palpable in nature, perhaps more of who’d she’d been in the past. The veneer of control she’d cultivated in front of the others had formed cracks; small slivers, sliding off to the wayside. When Ashton had left the gates, she’d chosen to grieve alone. Further away than most of them had. To the Hills, across the shorelines, but she always returned by herself. There were no bedraggled apostates in tow. Not this time. Only bloodied knuckles, and new bruises blooming across her swarthy skin.

When she wasn’t driving the mages into the ground with her backbreaking lessons, she was instilling them on herself. From Rilien’s towering windows, he'd seen her wailing on the straw-stuffed dummies, movements wild and clumsy and bristling with barely contained anger. Her sessions always ended the same: a frustrated roar, where she’d toss her mace to the side, and stalk to whatever dark corner Skyhold had to offer. She had not been, however, anywhere near the Herald’s Rest. Perhaps, that was what changed most of all. Her answers no longer lay at the bottom of a bottle.

Footsteps sounded up the stairwell. Heavier. Sluggish, at best. A steady rhythm of ascent. As if the person were taking their time to climb each stair. The first thing to appear at the threshold of the rookery was a mess of white hair, pulled back into an equally messy bun. There was a pinched look to her face, which slipped into exasperation when she reached the final stair, and the mace came into view. She reached forward and stopped mid-stride, hand poised over the handle. Her eyes raked up to meet Rilien’s, blinking owlishly. From the looks of it, she hadn’t been sleeping well. A tempered smile wobbled its way to her lips, as she pulled back her hand back to her side and plopped down against the wall. Defeated.

“I don’t know why they—” Sparrow’s words cut off, and the smile wavered as she pushed disobedient strands of hair behind her ears. She leaned her head back against the cool stones, and closed her eyes; just for a moment, before the tension in her shoulders eased a fraction. It’d been awhile, perhaps, since she’d allowed herself a moment to be still.

“Sit." Perhaps it was the tenor of his thoughts in the last while, but something softened the edges of Rilien's typical bluntness, letting the word sound more like an entreaty than the command most of his other declarations could read as to others. There were chairs enough in the rookery for it, and she looked very much like she needed one. He turned away from his parchments, his work, and pulled his legs up underneath him in the chair he occupied, watching her unblinkingly until she complied. She did, albeit at much slower pace, as if she wasn’t quite sure if she wanted to oblige him. She rocked back to her feet and wandered closer, claiming a chair adjacent to his own. Just to the side of his desk.

A number of observations came immediately to mind. Things that he would not ordinarily have hesitated to say. He had rarely ever spared her his thoughts, not when he believed they were relevant to her in some way. In that sense he'd been almost honest. A far cry from how he lived most of his life, both before and since. But her own honesty, what once there had been, had somehow drawn out the same in him. It wasn't a foreign correlation—he tended to match his surroundings in that way. Rilien almost had not known what to make of the mask she wore when they met again, after everything.

Not until he remembered that it was no longer his place to make anything of it in particular.

“I suspect your pupils are attempting to convey their wishes for you to rest more often." He paused, arching one brow just fractionally. “Or else they are registering a plea for your mercy. You are hard on them." He didn't necessarily disapprove. He was harder on Estella than most teachers ever were on their students. But that was because he knew she would succeed in such conditions. Even if she did not know it herself. Sparrow's hardness may have been more a reflection of her own mental state than anything else in particular.

Sparrow slumped in her chair. It appeared as if she expected the observation and didn’t quite know what to do with it. As of late, or perhaps since he’d seen her again, she hadn’t allowed herself to fall behind. Anything that might’ve perceived itself as a weakness was squashed out. If that meant driving herself to the edge, she gladly lept. It reflected in her lessons, as well. However, her students were given allowances she did not extend to herself. To take advantage of whatever Skyhold had to offer: frequent trips to the Herald’s Rest included. Whatever they needed to unwind. She briefly pressed a hand to her forehead and allowed a sigh to sift past her lips, one she may have been holding in, “I am.”

There was silence. Comfortable enough. One she allowed to drag itself between them. She fidgeted in her seat. Crossed a leg over her knee, before dropping it soon after. She pushed her shoulder blades against the back of the chair she sat in. Even the mention of slowing down seemed to cause her some discomfort. The pinched look to her brows smoothed itself out. “I need them to be prepared,” she made a wild gesture, a habit she’d yet shaken off, “For anything, Ril. We bloody well know things don’t always go to plan.” Her tone held a bite to it. A harshness that didn’t seem directed at Rilien. What plans she was referring to, she didn’t elaborate.

As of late, the mask she’d chosen to wear in front of him appeared less solid. It wavered, at times. In those moments, there were glimpses. Brief moments, quick as a blink, where it may have reminded Rilien of days spent in Kirkwall. With Ashton, Nostariel, and everyone else. Her smiles, in those instances, were made of softer things. Though, gone just as quickly. She shook her head, and swallowed thickly, “They mean well… they forget I can take care of myself.”

“Can you?" He tilted his head, letting his eyes linger on the signs of wear at her edges. The shadows beneath her eyes, the frenetic way she fidgeted, unable or unwilling to be still, like there was something skittering under her skin and she could not be free of it. Perhaps she could take care of herself, but she didn't seem to be using the ability. “Perhaps you have forgotten as well. It is not an unusual thing to forget, after a loss." He'd seen the same many times, always detached from it. Never quite able to understand, in the way that only those who felt in full could understand.

At the inquiry, Sparrow’s head snapped up. She appeared as if she were about to argue the point, though her mouth clamped shut just as quickly as it had fallen open. As if she were working out words on an unwilling tongue, bunching muscles along her jawline. The hands in her lap had bunched into fists, white-knuckles splotching with red. Her gaze fell away from Rilien’s face, directing the next words to the floor, “I’m fine—”

The sound of approaching footfalls startled her into silence, murky eyes widening a fraction before she managed to wrestle down the lapse of calm; smothering the crackle of emotion. At least, momentarily.

Aurora's bright red hair soon crested the stairs, followed by the rest of the woman. Upon the final step, she paused for a moment, her eyes lingering on the mace that rested beside her. She raised a brow and tilted her head curiously at the object before she shrugged. "Huh. So that's where they put it," she noted absently, before turning to face the two of them. Even now, Aurora exuded that easy confidence she'd found in Kirkwall, and the intervening years seemed to have only ingrained it further. She did not wait for permission to find a chair, crossing over the threshold into the rookery and choosing one near enough to the both of them.

In stark contrast to Sparrow, she had proven to be the soft touch to her driving taskmaster amongst the mages, but that was not necessarily a bad thing. Nor did it mean that Aurora lacked the requisite firmness. Rilien had seen her drive the mages on occasion as well when they weren't up to her standards, however she was always calm and collected, and maintained a nurturing edge to her lessons. "I'm sorry for not visiting more," she said to Rilien, "I haven't missed much, have I?"

“We were discussing Sparrow's health." Rilien saw no point in hiding what was likely to be an obvious truth for someone as astute as Aurora. “And... loss." He knew the Warden had been particularly close friends with Aurora as well. Perhaps her presence would be fortuitous. She was more likely to know the right things to say or do than he was. “Sparrow was about to attempt to deceive me into believing she no longer suffers any ill effects from it. I believe that is all you have missed up to this point."

Sparrow glanced over her shoulder, and the lip of the chair, to see Aurora walking past the mace, choosing to plop into a nearby chair. She had been in the midst of sinking back into her seat. At least until Rilien’s candid explanation, spoken as casually as if he’d been describing the weather.

Rilien,” seethed between grit teeth before she could stop herself. If she could have slumped down in her seat any further, she might’ve fallen to the floor. She cleared her throat and straightened up in her chair, clearly having no clue where to focus her attention. It idled on Rilien’s face for a moment longer, before sliding back towards Aurora. “And I was telling him how I was fine. Which I am. Fine.”

There was a toss of hands, a frustrated gesture. “We all are, aren’t we?” It was difficult to tell if the statement was spoken to anyone in particular, or to herself.

Aurora seemed to take the news easily, or at least she did not seem surprised, offering a hum in a reply. Eventually, she sighed and her head dipped to the side and she seemed likewise unconvinced by Sparrow's words, though her face had the emotion to go along with it. "I don't know Sparrow," she answered with a shrug, "I truly don't." She then leaned forward on her knees and shaking her head. In spite of her earlier ease, at Sparrow's words she deflated and even Rilien could see the lingering hurt in her face. It appeared that Aurora was dealing with the grief as well, though unlike Sparrow she was more open with it.

Her knees propped up her elbows as she leaned forward, using her fingers to cradle her chin. "It's still hard to believe that she's... gone, you know?" she stated, "It feels like she is still traveling with Stroud, and we'll find her in her clinic in Kirkwall once all of this is done," she shook her head. "It happened so fast... I didn't have time to really talk to her, you know? I... thought there would be time after."

Rilien did not believe there was much he could say in response to that. The death of someone that young was in some sense always a surprise. “Life always proceeds on the assumption that there will be more time." He sat back slightly in his chair, straightening the corner of a stack of paper on the desktop. “There is no sense in living otherwise. But it does mean that sometimes, you will have been wrong." He'd heard adages before, about living as though there would not be a following day for oneself, or the people one cared about. But that was senseless; plans and real relationships depended upon the assumption that there would be those things. It was faithless to become too detached from past and future in such a way. And stupid.

“And it isn't contemptible, to feel a sense of loss when you are. It's quite natural. If you did not grieve, it would only be evidence that you were not... connected, in the right way, to the people around you." Evidence that they were like him. And they weren't—he knew that much very well.

There was a loud thumping noise, as Sparrow slammed her fist against the table Rilien was sitting at. Whatever lay atop jumped and settled back down. An errant quill rolled and tumbled to the ground, clattering at his feet. It appeared as if her feelings, or whatever it was that she was holding in had reached a crescendo. Her fist remained atop the table, trembling at the force of keeping it tightly closed, though she’d hunched forward and averted her gaze towards the ground.

“It wasn’t supposed be like that,” her voice came out as a heavy rasp, cracking at the end. How she’d imagined it going at all was anyone’s guess. Perhaps, her sentiment regarding the Inquisition’s mission and the involvement of those she considered her close companions… were in conflict. She’d never stated so. Not in so many words, though it was clear what she held in higher regard. “She wasn’t supposed to—we should’ve been there, if it weren’t for...”

It seemed as if Aurora’s words had struck a chord with her, peeling away the last fragments of the mask she’d been trying to keep in place. There was a shudder of her shoulders, and a frustrated shake of her head as she hissed, “Dammit, dammit, dammit.” She retracted her fist from the table and pressed the heels of her palms into her eyes, hunching further towards her knees. There was another sound. An intake of air. An angry sob, as if she were furious at herself for allowing it to come out. “She should be here.”

"She should," Aurora agreed solemnly. There was hardly any change in her body language, though the features in her face softened subtly. She did reach over and gently rub Sparrow's back, her lips pressed into a thin frown. "But... she is not," she added, the pain melting into her words as she spoke them. She was quiet afterward, letting it sink in, for the both of them, as it appeared.

Eventually, she spoke again, softly, "She wouldn't want us to let it eat away at us though, she'd want us to be strong. She was an amazing woman, she wouldn't want her loss to destroy us."

Sparrow’s breath caught in her throat and she nodded, swallowing around whatever lump was lodged in her throat. It threatened to peel out into an uglier affair. The gravity of grief, the discussion of loss, Aurora’s gentle hand and perhaps both of their presence, in one room, appeared to cause an unraveling of sorts. A release, a pardon, a window she’d been desperately trying to stamp shut—suddenly being pried open.

The next sob was harsher. A small, ineffective battle to breathe, to hold in, to stifle. Her fists, however, slowly relinquished into opened palms, which she used to cover her now-blotchy face. “And Ashton… he… how will he—” she smothered the words into her wrists. Her eyebrows drew together. Soon after her hands fell away, though she remained fixed in place. Shoulders slumped, head lowered.

“I didn’t want to lose anyone.” Them. There was a childish slant to her expression. So unlike the veneer of calculated calm. A muscle along her jaw tensed, appearing as if she were clamping it shut. “I know. I know.”

Rilien turned in his chair, sitting sideways on it in a most unusual sort of incongruence. He usually did everything exactly the right way; deviance from efficiency was quite strange for him. Of course, considering the fact that his goal was to face Sparrow, it wasn't actually inefficient at all. She was always doing that in some manner or another—forcing him to occupy angles and crooked, uneven spaces in ways that could only make sense if he oriented himself around her. His plans, his actions. His life, at one point. He could admit that for a time he had merely been a satellite to her, willingly hemmed in by some kind of gravity. He was always one to somebody.

For a moment, he wasn't sure what else to do. His scant understanding of emotion left him precious little by way of resources for dealing with them. The same blunt honesty that served him so well when Estella needed his help was not the sort of thing Sparrow needed. What had always seemed to work for her was something he was less equipped to give. But he tried, at least. Reaching forward, Rilien touched his fingertips to the clenched muscle in her jaw, skimming them backwards to pick up a few strands of hair. Tucking them behind her ear made her face easier to see, but he didn't do it for that. He did it because he knew Sparrow, unlike himself, was habitually tactile. Habitually engaged, fully and passionately, with everything around her. Regardless of her recent attempts to demonstrate otherwise.

He let his hand fall back to his knee. “Ashton will do what we all must do." He tried to soften the flatness of his tone. He was capable of vocal modulation, but he didn't want to act for them, portray something that was not real. It was a delicate balance where his almost-feelings were concerned. “He will mourn, and then he will carry on. He will—keep moving forward." He borrowed the phrase from someone who knew much more of loss and sympathy than he. “However slowly."

Everything in Sparrow’s countenance seemed to soften. Her edges, her sharp angles. The muscles bunched along her jawline smoothed out as soon as Rilien’s fingertips retracted. Her ragged rasps steadied out with a more controlled, drawn out inhale and exhale. His words, hers, seemed to have an effect. Or else, she was all cried out. Exhausted. Spilled over. She finally looked away from the floor.

“You’re right.” A pause, a heartbeat. Acceptance, maybe. Something close to it. “Like we always do.”

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"You can come up here anytime you want," Lia said, walking backwards through the great hall, still leaving bits of snow here and there as she walked. "Meals are served in the hall here if you're hungry. Stel's office is just there on your right, her door's always open if you need anything. Romulus is further back and down the stairs on the right, Lady Marceline's office on the left. We passed through it on the way to the war room. Come on, this way." She turned and led the way towards a closed door on their left, between two of the long tables that were situated along that wall, sparsely occupied this time of the afternoon with soldiers and templars and the odd mage or two, eating or just speaking to one another.

Ithilian had to admit, he was paying less attention to the tour than he was to Lia herself. He'd gotten the important bits, like where he needed to sleep and eat, where the infirmary and training grounds were, where the Commander's office was and where Rilien had taken up residence as the Inquisition's spymaster. But the biggest thing he took away from it all was that Lia loved it here. Her mood had obviously been lifted by being together again with him and Amalia, but he could see it in her enthusiasm, the way she wanted them to see the place she'd come to call home. How much she obviously wanted them to like it, too.

He thought the fortress was very impressive, and the Inquisition seemed very much at home in it. Maybe too at home, considering that it was technically within Fereldan borders. He also figured he was doing much better with the cold than Amalia, wrapped in layers as she was.

"The gardens are through here," Lia explained, turning to walk forward as she pushed the door open, and then another behind it. "Best place to think in Skyhold, or so I've heard. Plenty of scout's nests hidden around the mountains that are just as good, and sheltered from the wind, too."

"Probably not hidden too well, if your work in the Graves was anything to go by." Harsh, perhaps, but there was a glint to his eye and a curl of his lips that belied his seriousness.

She shoved at his arm playfully. "Yeah, yeah, rub it in." She led them to the edge of the garden's covered area, which surrounded the inner grounds in a square. There she spun about and situated herself atop the low railing after brushing the dusting of snow off of it. "Anyway, it's a lot prettier when it's not winter, but it's always peaceful here. And that's it! Tarasyl'an Te'las. Skyhold. Pretty awesome, right?"

"It is impressive," Amalia agreed, one of her rare smiles touching her mouth. For all that she was clearly not fond of the cold, she never did show any discomfort with it. Only the extra layers gave her away. "You have done well for yourself, Lia." A position as the leader of the Inquisition's scouts was nothing to be looked down upon, regardless of what one thought of the organization itself, to be sure. And 'well' by Amalia's standards was excellent by most others.

"Thanks," she said, grinning broadly, before the expression faded a little. "It's, uh... it's been a really long road, for sure. Feels like forever since the Conclave."

"You were there, then?" Ithilian crossed his arms, allowing his concern to show. "I'd managed to piece together that some of the Argent Lions were there, but didn't know if you were one of them." All he'd heard beyond that were stories of the devastation left in the blast's wake, the charred ruins of the Temple of Sacred Ashes, and the wildly conflicting stories about the pair that had somehow survived it all.

"I was. Not close to the center when it blew, but... close enough that I had to duck for cover." It was obviously a sobering memory for her. "I figured Stel and the others inside were all dead, and for a while it was touch and go, but she pulled through. After that there was... barely any time to rest. We were fighting demons, throwing together the Inquisition, moving into the lands around Redcliffe. How much have you guys heard about the things we've done? So much happened while you were away." Ithilian didn't think she meant it, but she sounded a bit regretting of that. Not blaming, though. They hadn't so much as known where to look for her, and time spent doing that was time that Marcus could be allowed to escape, or prepare to meet them next. It had been so difficult to allow themselves even the smallest reprieves, when it seemed certain that victory or defeat against him would balance on a knife's edge.

While Lia spoke, Amalia glanced around, finding a bench nearby and clearing it of snow. She took a seat on it, pulling her legs up underneath her and wrapping her cloak more securely about her person. "We have heard some things," she said. "But many of them have been from unreliable sources. The Venatori speak of you in certain terms, and those we encountered on the road or the settlements we've passed through have had varying accounts of matters as well."

She pulled her hood down, extracting her long braid and letting it fall over one shoulder. "We've surmised that it was the Inquisition that closed the... Breach, it was called. We know some things about Corypheus as well. But the rest of it has been mostly rumors, and quite different from one telling to the next." With some of the things they'd heard, it would probably be better for Lia to just tell them her version of events rather than try to get her help correcting the gossip and stories. There were quite a lot of them, after all.

"Right..." She rotated sideways on the railing, letting one leg hang over the edge while she leaned back against a stone pillar, facing Amalia. "Well, at Redcliffe was where we first fought the Venatori. Stopped some really weird magic plot they had there, I honestly don't know all the details. Most of the mages we have here came from there, and the templars we have are the ones who stayed loyal at Therinfal Redoubt. They helped us close the Breach all the way. Then it got... messy." Ithilian took a seat on another bench near the wall, across the narrow walkway from Amalia.

"The Inquisition was still based at Haven at this point?" he asked. Lia nodded.

"That was our last night there, yeah, and our first encounter with Corypheus and his dragon. His army attacked without warning. I was wounded really early on just trying to get word back of their approach. Probably would've died if Romulus and Khari hadn't been outside the walls for some reason." Details about the battle had been scarce for everyone, naturally, but the rumor for a while was that the Inquisition had been crushed, that the few of them who survived were left to wander the mountains. Obviously that hadn't been the case.

Lia let her head fall back against the stone. "After that, Vesryn led us here, to Skyhold." She paused, almost rolling her eyes. "Well, Stel was at the front... she's awesome, but there's no way she knew this place existed, or where it was. Vesryn's the pretty one with the fancy armor, you met him. He knows a lot about these places, apparently." Indeed, he'd seemed a curious sort to Ithilian, but admittedly he had bigger concerns at the moment than meeting new people, of which there were many here.

"And after relocating here?"

"It took us a while to settle in, and Corypheus was biding his time, too. Couple of smaller-scale missions in the meantime. You probably heard about that whole 'Blood of Andraste' thing? Yeah, that was a mess. Romulus is cool, though. Bit like you. Not half as mean as he looks." Ithilian had indeed heard of the news, though it had only really just gotten started before the news came that it was all ended and a ruse. One of the larger strikes against the Inquisition's reputation, actually.

Lia's expression became significantly more grim after that. "Eventually, Ashton came to visit, and led us to investigate where the Grey Wardens had gone. Their trail led to Nostariel in the Western Approach. Corypheus had sent that madman, Elias Pike, to spin a story for the Wardens. Terrify them into doing something incredibly stupid. We didn't have a choice but to attack them at the fortress they'd holed up in." She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, her eyes falling down towards her lap. "It... got ugly. A lot of people died. Nostariel, she... she didn't make it. Ashton wanted to tell you, but we didn't know where to find you."

Amalia appeared to absorb that news very slowly. Her expression didn't change much from the impassive one she'd assumed while Lia was explaining the sequence of events, but after a moment, her brows did furrow. Ithilian knew well that she had as many emotions as anyone else, many of them extremely deep. But it was not often that she showed them; they were largely internal, for her. Her hands, resting on her knees, tightened—he could see the dark skin of her fingertips whiten with the pressure she was applying.

"Do you know what happened to her, exactly?" she asked, her tone quiet, contained.

"You should ask Stel if you want to hear it from someone who was there," Lia answered, just as quietly. She'd been right about the gardens. It was very quiet here, and there was no need to raise voices any further, even if Lia was naturally prone to doing so in good company. "They were chasing Pike after the battle had turned against him. Nostariel, Stel, Ash, some others. He lured them to a bridge, used his magic to destroy it and send them falling into a chasm. Stel saved them by using her mark to... take them physically into the Fade. She didn't mean to do it. They had to fight a fear demon there called Nightmare. It was the thing messing with the Wardens' heads. They killed it, but it had this monster that they couldn't hope to fight. Nostariel bought them time to escape through another rift. She knew what it meant for her, she just... did it."

Releasing a breath, Amalia nodded. "I see." Her grip eased; some of the tension in her frame melted away. Her thoughts were still hard to read off her expression, but it seemed that had assuaged some doubt or something of the kind. "We heard the Wardens had left Orlais, close to the beginning of the year." It must have been the same event.

She closed her eyes, then blinked them open again. "What about since then? I believe someone ran into Marcus directly at some point. He was injured and we had not caused it."

Lia exhaled a bit of her own tension as well, obviously more than willing to move on to a new topic. "Yeah... yeah, that was Harellan. He helped out a group of ours when they chased after someone who tried to assassinate Stel's brother Cyrus."

"Harellan?" Ithilian asked, knowing full well what the name's meaning was.

"Weird, I know. He's, uh... he's been looking after our horses since he got here."

Ithilian raised his eyebrows. "The stableboy is the one that injured Marcus?"

Lia looked like she couldn't decide if Ithilian was being serious or not, but she half-smiled herself. "He's not a stableboy. Honestly, I don't really know who he is, but he's a mage, and I think Stel and Cyrus knew him from before the Inquisition. I'm sure he'd talk to you if you wanted to meet him. He seems friendly enough."

Amalia's next breath sounded more like a huff. Almost amused, even. "Sharp knives might wear humble sheaths," she mused, lifting her shoulders. "There seems to be proof enough of that here as well." There had certainly been plenty in Kirkwall.

Lia nodded her agreement with a small smile. "After that, we didn't run into the Venatori again until the Emerald Graves. Seems like they're gone from there now, though, so... who knows where they'll pop up next. We'll be there, wherever it is. And you're here now, which seems like it's their every worst fear realized." She sounded more than a little pleased with that.

"We should've been here sooner," Ithilian said. He'd been thinking it since Lia relayed the news of Nostariel's death, but that wasn't all that had caused it. The things happening here were important, and Lia had been wrapped up in the middle of them from the beginning, while Ithilian was off hunting a man in something that had been, until very recently, a very personal affair. They'd been going after Marcus long before he was the Venatori general, before his schemes threatened the world. More than that, they'd failed to hunt him, to kill him and free themselves in time to be here and assist the people they had come to care for when they might've been needed most. If he and Amalia had just known the danger the others were in, maybe they could have—

"Hey. No, that's not okay." Lia was frowning down at him from where she sat, hands resting on her knee. She seemed to have been reading his line of thought. "It doesn't matter why you left. You've been going after an evil man, one of the most dangerous men in the world. That isn't time wasted. You both deserve a chance to be in a world without him." She turned, pulling her legs off the railing and setting her feet back on the ground, coming to stand again. "And you're here now. Staying too, right?"

"We are." Amalia said it with certainty, glancing once at him before she returned her attention to Lia. "For now, both of the things we want most to do align: we can hunt Marcus alongside this group, and also be present. For you and for the others, should we be needed." The way she said it left no doubt that she found the second part to be the more important one, even despite how important it was to her to be free of the man who'd hunted and haunted her for the better part of her entire life.

She half-smiled, just a small one. "As kadan has already said, there does seem to be plenty we can offer your Inquisition, as well. I think it will be good, that we came to be here."

"There is one thing I can offer you now, if you'd like," Ithilian said quietly, slowly pushing himself up to stand. It took more effort some days than others, but this time he found it quite the simple thing.

Lia regarded him curiously. "What's that?"

"A name." He smiled for her, actually a bit nervous for some reason. "My name. And my clan's name, if you would like one to call your own. Mordallis will likely remain a clan of ghosts, and the two of you are the only ones I'll ever call lethallan. Family, if I've earned the right to call myself your father."

Lia's smile was small and fragile at first, but grew and strengthened even as her eyes watered. She struggled for words on the spot for a moment, shifting her weight awkwardly, but she started forward just as the tears started to spill over onto her cheeks. "I think I've been your daughter for years." She wrapped him in a hug, one he was ready for this time, curling his arms around her and feeling an uncomfortable amount of emotion welling up inside his own chest. "It's about time you came around to it."

His voice was gravelly when it came out, choked up as it was. "I've always changed slowly, da'len."

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INK

Skyhold was certainly an impressive fortress, as far as they went. Far from invulnerable, of course—but its weaknesses were fewer than Amalia had expected. She supposed perhaps the commander here would be interested in the results of her survey of it, were she inclined to share. She had some, if not much to say about siege weaponry, but as for the pathways an infiltrator of a more subtle sort would take, well... it would hardly be the first time she'd needed that sort of eye.

Her fingers trailed along the rough stones of the crenelation beside her, skimming over the top of the waist-height wall as she walked it. For a moment, she allowed herself to leave the thoughts of assassinations and tricky-but-manageable climbs behind and cast her eyes out over the vista.

Seldom had she ever seen a sight that reminded her so little of Par Vollen. Or even of Kirkwall. The sheer cliff dropped away beneath, mountain peaks clawing at the sky in the distance. Everything was blanketed in a thick layer of snow, and the darkness of the hour made the contrast all the starker when the moonlight shone off the mountainsides and canyons below. Her breath clouded out around her; the cold was certainly a potent reminder that she was not any place she knew well.

But she was home. Or close to it. She always was, these days, even when home was a long night watching a Venatori camp from high in a tree, only the sound of kadan's breathing nearby to remind her of it.

Amalia had learned many things. But perhaps the most important lesson she had ever learned was that home was not a place.

From somewhere below, she could hear familiar voices. It was almost nostalgic. Surprised by the feeling, Amalia blinked, turning herself and crossing to the inner side of the wall to look down. Sure enough, Aurora and Sparrow were walking near the other side of the wall below. A small smile touching her lips, Amalia hopped up quietly onto the crenelations on the inner side and crouched there. Torchlight from one of the nearby wall mounts washed over her back, throwing her shadow onto the ground beneath in a distended irregularity of shape. She wondered if they'd notice it.

From where she crouched, Amalia could make out a few words of their conversation, enough to understand the gist. It sounded as if Aurora was going over the day's drills with the other mages that looked to them for leadership. She was wrapped up tightly in a couple of layers of clothing to fight off the chill of the winter night, the crimson scarf she wore even back in Kirkwall clinging to her neck and chin tightly, while her hands were jammed into one of the folds of her coat.

It seemed that she was the first to notice the shadow between them. Whatever thought she was in the middle of conveying trailed off as her red head dipped toward it. A moment was spent staring at the shadow, most likely trying to figure out its shape. Eventually, she pointed it out for Sparrow and turned in order to try and find its cause. When she finally caught sight of Amalia, Aurora relaxed and let a smile slip onto her lips. "I thought you might've been one of the trainees," Aurora said while waving.

The top of Sparrow’s head also came into view as Aurora shifted towards the crenelations and looked upwards, following the shadow she’d been staring at previously. There was a pause as she, too, looked up and caught sight of the crouched woman—though soon enough the scar pulled at her face as a smile tugged at the corners of her lips, wrinkling the corner’s of her murky eyes. Stray strands of white hair shadowed her features, making them difficult to read until she pushed them back behind her ears.

Only then did it read clearly. A gladness that rippled off her. Perhaps even relief. It’d been ages since they’d seen each other, perhaps longer than the others. It only made sense, that even though Sparrow hadn’t been the best at contacting the others… she probably thought about them more than she let on. Her features were more hardened than Amalia remembered. She, too, had chosen to wear a warmer fare of clothes suited for Skyhold’s nippy weather. She’d chosen a similar leather vest with fur trimmings, but carried a patchwork of furs that made up a cape, thrown over her shoulder and clasped at her breastbone. A copper sigil in the form of a sparrow.

“Caught you, then. Why don’t you come down?” There was a hint of a tease, as she crossed her arms over her chest.

"Do your pupils ordinarily preoccupy themselves climbing walls at night?" Amalia arched an eyebrow, though it would likely be impossible for them to see. Her voice carried despite being rather quiet, though, so the skepticism would be obvious enough in her tone.

Gauging the distance down, Amalia exhaled softly and swung over the side, catching herself on the edge to hang for a controlled moment before dropping the rest of the way. She landed softly, letting herself fold into a roll rather than trying to keep her feet. It wasn't as far down on the inside as the outside, obviously, but it would still be bad if someone landed poorly.

Flowing back into a stand, she found herself much closer to the both of them than she had been. "Far be it from me to say what would be best for them, but it would be an odd training exercise."

"I mean, I don't make them do it," Aurora said, offering Sparrow a teasing smile.

There was a soft chuckle at her side, Sparrow lifted one of her shoulders in a half-shrug and eyed Amalia as she straightened back up, “Admit it, it would come in handy. Sneaky mages in the dead of night.”

Amalia could think of one sneaky mage who worked in the dead of night. The fewer like him, the better. But that wasn't the point, and doubtless Sparrow had not intended to make her think of him. Of Marcus. She knew little of him to begin with. Better that it stay that way, and remain unmentioned.

Before Sparrow could say anything more, she stepped away from Aurora’s side and drew Amalia into a tight, bear hug. Rather spur of the moment—from the feel of it. Awkward. Odd, perhaps from disuse. Though she’d lost much of her stocky frame, she was still able to lift her off the ground. It didn’t last long and she certainly didn’t linger, almost looking abashed when she retracted her steps and rubbed at her shoulder. She asked no questions of where she’d been or why she’d suddenly appeared, most likely, because she’d already heard from someone else.

“They’re doing well. Our trainees,” she rubbed at her chin and hooked a thumb at Aurora, “though she’s far kinder to them than I. Suppose they’d lack finesse, and… discipline otherwise.”

Amalia remained where she was as Sparrow retreated like ebb tide. Always the stone, she. Always the shore. Molded only slowly, and with time. Perhaps it should have surprised her, to learn that this difference in Sparrow's demeanor had bled so far into the world around her, but it didn't. There was a certain kind of hardness only possible for those who lived selfishly, clinging on to everything they could, for fear of losing what mattered. Sometimes, Amalia saw the same hardness in herself.

"Each appropriate in its time, I am sure." She had no inclination to tell them what to do, in any case. Amalia herself was no longer anyone's teacher. Only time would tell if it was a mantle she'd ever wear again.

But the night air was crisp in her lungs, and unlike walking, standing still threatened to chill her more than she wished to endure at the moment. "You were walking somewhere. Shall we continue on your path?"

"Of course," Aurora answered, sliding the scarf from around her neck up around her mouth and nose. The winters were sharper in the Frostbacks than they were in Kirkwall, and Aurora still hadn't seemed to acclimate to it yet. She did not appear to be about to complain about it however, and simply spoke louder so that her voice would carry through the cloth. "We were heading back to our quarters," she added.

She laughed quietly, mostly to herself after that. "We've come a long way from Kirkwall," Aurora noted absently. She considered Amalia again, this time with a reflective look gracing her exposed features. "Used to be, we had to teach mages in secret, far away from the prying eyes of the Templars. Now," Aurora stated, and gestured with a tilt of her toward a small grouping of soldiers. They had built a fire and currently sat around it, sharing a bottle of some nature. Though they were without armor, it was clear from their attire, and from the few swords that rested nearby that they were Templars. As they passed, one of them noticed them and offered Aurora a salute, one which she easily returned.

"Well. Now things are different."

Amalia blinked, glancing aside at the seated men for a moment. She didn't drop her guard when they moved past, and even after they'd left them behind, she kept some attention behind. An automatic thing, for herself, but even so...

"Is it really so different?" she asked, adjusting her cloak so that it let in less of the outside air. "So easy? They do not seem so dissimilar to the templars who stalked the Alienage. Nor the ones who made Millian a tranquil." Perhaps the comparison was unfair, but Amalia was of the firm belief that an overabundance of caution was preferable to too little. Far less likely to get oneself killed, in any case. "They worship the same god. Recite the same Chant. Wield the same powers. What makes them safer for your charges than any of those before them?"

Sparrow had chosen to take the lead and walked a few paces ahead of them, hands poised at her back with her hands crossed over one another. Her eyes roved the horizon and glanced sidelong towards the Templars lounging at the side, though she only inclined her head in a nod instead of offering her own salute. Ages spent god-knows-where hadn’t made her a soldier, and it was obvious by the tilt to her chin that she wouldn’t start acting like one now, even with an army at their sides.

She remained somewhat quiet as Amalia posed her question—perhaps, she too shared the same sentiment. Or perhaps she simply trusted Aurora to come up with a far more civil, considerate answer. Her methods had been questionable in Kirkwall and there was no indication that she’d changed all that much; aside from her brisk demeanor. The hardness she’d seen etched across her face attested to that. Besides, it was difficult to read her expression from the back of her head, but the slight, shadowed pull to the side of her face may have indicated a smile: gone as quickly as it had come.

“The Inquisition is what’s different.” She drew one of her hands away from behind her back and glanced over her shoulder, “It’s a balance. A delicate one; but we all walk the same path here. For now, in any case.”

Amalia exhaled a short breath through her nose—neither sharp enough to be derisive nor prolonged enough to be a sigh. She shook her head, a faint motion difficult to catch in the low light. "And when this is done? You believe they will rest content with your freedom?" Sparrow didn't seem to, which was good. It would be strikingly naïve to presume as much. It already seemed naïve to cooperate so readily now. Amalia of all people understood that getting too close to people who might be your enemies one day was a very good way to become knocked off one's path.

Sometimes, it no doubt worked out for the better. But when so much was at stake...

"I hope," Aurora answered, though something lingered in her tone. "I hope the peace we achieved here will last after we defeat Corypheus, and I've tried do things here so that might be possible." She sighed then, her breath visible through the scarf she breathed through. "I don't want my mages to have to live their lives constantly worrying about the Templars. Ideally, I'd want them to find some measure of peace after this is done. Heaven knows they deserve it, and I will do everything that I can to try to give it to them," she said, with a familiar determination to both her words and in her green eyes.

She then glanced at Amalia, her brows knitted together, "But don't mistake my optimism for blindness. We've had to fight ever since we left Kirkwall, and if we have to continue to, so be it," she glanced behind them, and at the fading fire of the Templars, "I still watch them. I have more people than just myself to keep safe now, and I will see that any threat they face will not come from the inside."

Aurora shook her hands then, perhaps trying to knock the cold out of them, before jamming them both into her coat. "Something will have to change if we ever want to live with some measure of peace, but that does not mean we're blind to the dangers. We've been through too much for that."

“When aren’t we fighting for something? Freedom. Peace. Rights. A cause.” Sparrow sniffed at the cold air and pulled the furred cloak tighter around her face, huffing against it. It seemed as if it was a rhetorical question and one she didn’t particularly mind. There was a sense that if she wasn’t doing so, she’d be lost. After all, peace was a peculiar notion for people like them. Trouble always seemed to follow at their heels.

“Besides, we were never the type to give up. We won’t start now.”

Amalia hummed noncommittally, still not convinced, but there was no point in continuing to aggravate the matter, and she let it drop. If anyone was aware of the danger, Aurora surely was, and clearly Sparrow expected things to sour at some point. Let them do as they thought best with the information. The three of them were approaching the mages' quarters anyway, and there was something she wanted to bring up.

"In my survey of the defenses here, I noted a number of vulnerabilities in this tower. I will show them to you, so that you may decide what to do about them." Whether she ever met with the commander here or not, she had always intended to convey this much. She, too, had her obligations.

Some of them were not onerous at all.

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INK

Séverine had never been too fond of the cold, but in this case it was good to be back.

Northern Orlais had been a comfortable place to grow up, and in Kirkwall it only snowed occasionally in the winters. Here in the Frostbacks it was spring, but still a lazy snowfall speckled the multiple braids of her dark hair with white. Her horse's breath still wafted out in visible clouds on the morning air. Despite that it seemed brighter than usual. The snow would melt soon after it had fallen, and warmth would return to Skyhold once more.

It was almost starting to feel like home. Séverine wasn't sure how to feel about that. Where her loyalties were supposed to lie, first and foremost. Kirkwall was supposed to be her home, she felt in her heart, as it was the place where she'd been reborn, so to speak. The place where she'd turned away from a path she finally saw to be self-destructive, and remade herself into something that would serve the Templar Order and the people it protected, not the whims of a woman made paranoid by her own personal loss.

But it was only after she'd left Knight-Commander Cullen and the Gallows behind that she felt she truly began to come into her own. Therinfal had been a revelation, an opportunity to lead more than just a few templars. And though difficulties had followed at Skyhold, she continued to find success, with the proper guidance and help from the many talented individuals Leon could call upon.

Three of those individuals rode close behind Séverine, along with the rest of the combined templar and scout forces that had been deployed in the Emerald Graves since the Inquisition's original excursion to the region. Their progress had been somewhat slowed by a few severely wounded templars, but all of them were expected to pull through, something Séverine had not expected to be able to say when she set out. The news was not all good, of course, but on the whole the spirits of her templars were high. The Red Templars could be crushed like any other enemy, given the right circumstances, and they had proven it.

It wouldn't have been possible without the help in planning from the two wanderers they'd picked up in the Graves, Amalia and Ithilian, the latter of which was apparently their scout captain's father. Séverine didn't see the resemblance. They were supremely skilled at what they did, though, and helped them gather all the necessary information they'd need to plan an effective ambush with overwhelming force, separating the Reds from their hostages before they could react and picking them off one by one.

"Looks like we made it," she announced, once the bridge to Skyhold finally came into view. She looked back to Ithilian and Amalia. "Thank you again for the work you've done. I don't doubt many of my templars are still alive because of it. I won't forget that." One of the first things she'd noted about them was how guarded they were, around pretty much everyone besides Lia. Trust wasn't something they gave easily, it was plain to see, especially not trust of a templar. But at least on Séverine's end of things, they'd earned hers.

"No doubt many of them are also still alive because of you." One of the few things Amalia had made obvious about herself was the fact that she had an inherent sense of fairness, and tended always to give credit where she believed it was due. Though she never sounded complimentary about anything, exactly, just quite matter-of-fact. That was how this came across as well. "We will not forget, either."

It was hardly an indication of trust, though she didn't seem to have had any difficulty interpreting Séverine's words for what they were. But there was a hint of respect in there, and that was far from nothing. With a short nod, Amalia returned her attention to the bridge crossing.

Soon they had made their way across it and through the fortress gates, the horses breathing somewhat heavily from the long climb at the end of the journey. There weren't really any farewells to be said, as they were all living in the same place, though Séverine wasn't sure either Ithilian or Amalia would have reason to visit her, or wish to do so. Not the easiest pair to make friends with. Ithilian's daughter was another matter, but even she seemed naturally a little more guarded around templars of any kind. Understandable, for an elf that grew up in Kirkwall. Séverine knew that better than most.

The wounded were directed to the infirmary. Séverine hoped Asala and the others would be ready to receive them. None were in real danger of perishing anymore, but that didn't mean the danger had passed. There was a chance one of them might never walk again, and another had severely injured her sword arm. Both were injuries that could easily prevent them from carrying out their duties as a templar, and force them down another path they might not want.

Those that were healthy were allowed freedom for the day to rest, which had been well earned. Séverine paused to watch them file in, dismounting from her horse and handing it off to one of the stablehands. She remained to observe and salute back when saluted, which more than a few of the lower ranking templars did. No few of them were bruised and filthy, heads wrapped or arms carried in slings, but she couldn't find a one of them that looked unhappy with where they were at. It was enough to bring a smile to her face.

"Séverine." The voice was familiar, though it did not belong to any of her troops. Rather, Leon seemed to have found his way to them—rather swiftly, for the short time they'd been back in Skyhold. He seemed to have omitted her title, clearly an accident, from the way he corrected himself immediately afterwards. "Captain. Good to see you." That much at least was undoubtedly genuine.

Leon too received more than a few salutes, which he returned in kind. Whatever distinction had once existed between Seekers and Templars was not particularly operative here. No one even called him one; it was fully possible that at least some of her people didn't even know. "Everyone made it back in one piece, then? I know you mentioned some severe injuries, so I had the infirmary on standby to receive them."

"Commander," she greeted back. "Thanks for that. Might make the difference between cripples and fighting templars for a few of them." Her expression sobered at the thought. "And we're in dangerous times now. Need every last templar we can get." To beat the Reds, and for the Order to survive at all. It was an uncomfortable amount of pressure to think that her band of templars were one of the two remaining bastions of the Order in all of the south. Tevinter had their own, of course, but Séverine was hardly willing to call them templars at all. The other group was Cullen's, and Séverine would always feel that they were in more stable hands, no matter how many successes she had here.

"Should we head back?" she asked. "I could use a chair and something warm to drink, honestly." And then a bath. She was fairly caked in remnants of dirt and grime, and certainly not looking her best. They'd marched at speed, after all, for the sake of the wounded that they carried.

"I think that can be arranged." Leon looked briefly worried himself, but it faded from his face quickly. He led the way out of the stable, pausing only once on the way to flag down one of the staff and ask for a two meals and something to drink to be brought to his office. "Hope you don't mind a bit of business with your food," he remarked, his tone conciliatory. "I suspect there's a lot to catch up on from both sides here." From the wry shake of his head, he considered it quite an understatement.

When they reached the Commander's tower, Reed opened the door for them both, adding a brief "welcome back, Captain," before closing it again behind them.

"Feel free to shuck the shell," Leon said, moving a few pieces of furniture around to make it easier to eat and talk at the same time. The food was almost certainly on its way up from the kitchens already. "Very little is quite as uncomfortable as trying to relax in armor that needs a cleaning. I certainly don't mean to make you try."

She laughed at that. "I've been guilty of making my men try it on occasion. But thanks, I'll take you up on that." She set down her shield face up on the end of a couch. The metal had some fresh scrapes, dents, and even one new puncture where a Shadow had almost pierced her side. Here it provided a surface to put her coiled up flail and the rest of her armor on, to avoid spreading much dirt on the rest of the furniture. Old habits her mother had driven into her, with the palm of her hand when necessary.

She started with the helmet, then peeled off her gauntlets and gloves to make the rest of the removal easier. "My report's got good news and bad news, but you seem to be in a better mood than I remember before I left, so let's start with yours." She finished unbuckling the straps around her arms that secured her pauldrons in place, shrugging them off and setting them down on the shield when they were free. That left the breastplate next, several of the straps of which on her back were a bit hard to reach. She pulled her trio of braids and the rest of her hair out of the way. "Give me a hand with this?"

"Of course." Leon stepped up behind her, loosening and unfastening the necessary straps and buckles with the same practiced ease all templars had drilled into them from their first day as trainees. He helped her ease it over her head as well, setting it down carefully with the rest. "I think the news is mostly good, yes. As you're doubtless aware, the Inquisition made a journey to Halamshiral while you were away." That much, at least, they'd known they were going to do beforehand.

"It was... quite eventful," he admitted, settling down into one of the chairs and pausing a moment as Reed admitted the kitchen lad bearing their dinner. He set everything in place on the table with a small nod to the both of them, and then departed as quietly as he'd come. As she'd observed on numerous occasions before, the Commander's plate was quite meatless, though the sheer amount of food on it was about what made sense for a person of his dimensions.

He tore the small loaf of bread at the center of the tray in half, a gout of steam and a delightful smell escaping into the air, then set one part of it back down, slicing into the other with his knife and reaching for the butter. "The summary version of events is that both the Empress and Grand Duke Gaspard were more or less planning to kill each other. Once everything came out, Lucien Drakon was named Emperor. Corypheus did in fact have an agent in the mix as well; the Grand Duchess Florianne, who also tried to kill some people. We left her to the Emperor's judgement as well." He shook his head, meeting Séverine's eyes with something approaching amusement.

"I don't know how the Orlesians do it, really. Worst thing that ever happened to my family was a rather persistent rumor that my brother was sleeping with the king. Utterly tame, by comparison."

"It does sound like out of the two of us, you walked into the deadlier situation since last we spoke," she said, grinning. She'd dug into the food while he explained, but the news itself required slowing down to process. "If Gaspard went down, that'll be the worst thing that's happened to my family. Father was quite firmly in his camp. Replaces the embarrassments I brought them getting shipped off to Kirkwall for my bad behavior, at least." She felt vaguely ill at-ease with it, honestly, knowing that her parents were likely more concerned with which butt landed on the throne that how their daughter fared with the Inquisition. But then again, they had other children, and her older brother may well have been involved in the fighting. As far as she was concerned, any end to the war was a good one.

"I'm sure they'll be fine, though." Séverine waved a hand dismissively, preempting any concern. "Really, though, Lucien Drakon is the Emperor now?" She didn't doubt him, but still... she wiped the dumbfounded look off her face quickly as it came, replacing it with a quite unapologetic look of pleasure. "That's brilliant." Anyone that spent long in Kirkwall while Lucien Drakon was there would have heard something of what he'd done for the city. His effects were still being felt there, what with part of the Argent Lions remaining behind. She found herself wishing she'd brought Lia along to help her report. The elf would've loved to hear this news. No doubt she'd get it soon enough, likely from one of her fellow mercenaries.

"I haven't told many people this, but Lucien was actually the one to give me this scar," she pointed to the one cutting up an inch or so from her upper lip. "The pommel of Everburn, right to my mouth."

Leon blinked in obvious surprise, but he had to wait until he was finished with his bite before replying. "Did he? Found yourselves on opposite ends of something in Kirkwall, I take it." Considering what he knew of her history working for Meredith, he'd likely deemed that connection the most likely explanation.

"We did." Séverine unfastened the top two straps across her chest securing her gambeson now that she was starting to warm up fully. "It's probably not that remarkable of a story, but I'm saving it for him. Well, preferably him and the Viscountess, if they should happen to be together next time I meet him." They'd been working together that night, after all, and even if Vesenia had never struck her, she was just as thankful to Her Excellence all the same.

"Anyway, I like to think that not many people can claim they've been smacked by the Emperor of Orlais. Though an Emperor like Lucien has smacked more people than most." Just so happened that most of them didn't live to tell about it. Everburn was a very large sword. "In the Emerald Graves I was just smacked by less interesting people. If they can still be called that."

No few of them seemed more monster than man at this point, warped into their armor and physically distorted until they were barely recognizable as even being human. "The good news I have to report is that we rescued twenty hostages from the Red Templars, we took down one of their staging areas for disguising the red lyrium, and no templars or scouts paid for it with their lives." There had been many close calls, as was always the case in war, but they'd gotten lucky. They had put themselves into the right positions to get lucky.

"That is very good news," Leon agreed readily, dipping his chin in a small nod. "Both in itself and for what it means for our future efforts. I can't imagine it did anything but good for morale, either." The Commander added some thick marmalade jam to the buttered bread on his plate and hummed thoughtfully. "That's excellent—I know you were worried about their sense of purpose."

His lips thinned, brows knitting over his distinctively-colored eyes. "Unfortunately, the Chantry as a whole seems to be struggling with the same. Of all the things that moved into place during our time in Halamshiral, that was not at all one of them. I looked into it before the peace talks." Pausing to chew, he swallowed and elaborated. "There's almost no movement. The Chantry seems to have split deeply along several prominent ideological lines, and the result has become a deadlock. The remaining Grand Clerics can reach no consensus on which among them ought to be Divine." His mouth pulled to the side.

"I'm... not entirely sure that is a bad thing, however. I can't say I have the greatest confidence in any of those I've met, and little reason to believe the ones I haven't are much different." It wasn't a flippant comment, what he said, nor did he seem to be treating sharing that opinion with her lightly. But he did state it simply. Honestly, to all indications.

"The fact that none of them were at the Conclave makes it nearly impossible for any of them to rally much support," Séverine added. "It wasn't meant that way, but it served as a statement of their lack of importance. And when none stand out from the rest, how can any of them be up to the task of repairing the Chantry after all this?" There was no one inspiring, no one capable of rallying the people behind them and restoring the faith that had been so deeply shaken by everything that had happened.

No, they would need a more radical choice this time, in one direction or the other. Séverine had an inkling of an idea what might work, but she wasn't ready to share it yet. Not until she'd thought on it more. The Inquisition had great influence now, after all, given the result at Halamshiral. It was not influence to be tossed around lightly.

"I suppose I should get to the bad news, then." She took a bite of bread, finding that the lighter foods were what was agreeing with her the best at the moment. After she finished, she continued. "The hostages didn't provide us with much. All had varying degrees of sickness from the red lyrium exposure, and clearly the Red Templars have been careful about what they were allowed to see. Most that were in a strong enough state to answer questions said they were taken from small villages in southern Orlais. Shipped in covered wagons, chained to each other and blind. They were left in a dungeon somewhere cold, but in winter that doesn't mean much, and Orlais has a lot of dungeons."

It also implied they weren't the ones working to collect the lyrium, as they'd been in the dungeons the entire time. Their lyrium exposure would've been much worse as well. No, they seemed to have been taken for the exclusive purpose of being used as hostages for transporting the lyrium after it was mined. "The Reds have picked up their operations in the Graves as far as we can tell," she continued. "I like to think we've been giving them too much trouble, but more likely they're just getting ready to make a move elsewhere. A few notes in the hideout we sacked spoke of a new leader, but no mention of a name. I'm not sure they even knew. But it's obvious that when they reappear, it'll mean trouble."

A sigh escaped Leon, ponderously and accompanied by a small shake of his head. "It's certainly not much," he agreed, clearly contemplating the news. Perhaps he was trying to see if there was anything extra he could glean from the same information. In the end, though, that didn't look to be the result. "Still, it's good that we disrupted them even to the extent we did. Without a better idea of their strategy, it's impossible to guess how much it hurt them, but it did something, without doubt."

Damn right it did. "I don't know if they feel much anymore, but I'm pretty sure they still feel fear. If their looks before they met the flail were anything to go by."

It took hours for them to pry all the little shards of their enemies from their weapons and armor after it was all said and done. It was not an experience Séverine was looking forward to repeating. And at the same time, she couldn't wait.

Setting

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Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters
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INK

Séverine watched as the red-headed young templar focused intently on the hilt of her sword, the tip planted in the dirt before her. Across the training yard from her, a straw dummy stood with arms outstretched, blank face taunting her with every moment it remained intact. Other templars trained around them, the air filled with a familiar chorus of clashing practice swords and clangs of weapons against shields and armor. It would be harder to focus without all the noise, to be honest. That was how accustomed they were to it.

Their captain had been drilling them daily, and drilling them hard. They knew why, and they were more than willing to meet the challenge. Impossibly powerful though the Red Templars became physically, they lost certain gifts that their uncorrupted brethren maintained. A templar's purpose was to destroy corruption, and her abilities were suited for it. They betrayed what they were, what they swore to protect, and so they had to turn to foul new gifts and diseases they could spread like a plague.

Of course, a templar's traditional gifts were difficult to learn, and they went beyond striking magic away with a swing of a sword. The templar Séverine observed, one Knight-Corporal Leanna, had been working at one specific skill for the entire week, ever since she publicly declared to her captain that she was capable of it. She proved nothing if not patient, and while it seemed as though she came close several times, she'd never been able to replicate her success in front of Séverine.

She wondered if she shouldn't say something, but Leanna had shown no signs of frustration, and so she continued to watch. Her faith was rewarded no more than a few minutes later, when the templar's sword suddenly glowed a bright white, and a pillar of cleansing light gathered around the straw dummy. With a loud crack, the ground was powerfully scorched all around it, leaving the dummy almost immediately cooked to a crisp.

The templars temporarily ceased their training to turn and look at the aftermath, no few of them offering quiet congratulations before they returned to their work. They knew what Séverine would say before she opened her mouth.

"Well done, Knight-Corporal," she said, offering a little smile. "Now, do it again. The enemy will not give you several days to prepare your abilities."

"Yes, Captain." She nodded, turning her attention to the next dummy, resetting her stance, and focusing again.

There was a minor disturbance off to the left; several of the Templars abruptly stood at attention and saluted. It was quite clear why when Leon's head and shoulders appeared above the rest. He tapped his fist to his heart in a short response, scanning over the assembled until his eyes found hers. "Captain, if you have a moment, the Lady Inquisitor has requested we see her in the war room."

Séverine nodded, and followed after him as they left the training ground behind. Estella was not known for calling people away from their work or training without very good cause, so she didn't bother questioning what for. Likely Leon didn't actually know yet either. She watched his gait while she caught up to him, studying it. He seemed to be recovering well from the wounds suffered at Kasos, but he wasn't fully healed yet, that much was clear to her. He was better than most at hiding such things as well, she'd learned.

They walked in silence, making their way up the stairs into the central keep, a pair of guards saluting their arrival at the massive doors leading inside. The weather was pleasant enough to simply keep one of them open at all times, and it saved the guards on duty the trouble of opening and closing them for every new arrival. They slipped inside and walked briskly past the main hall, the soft clinks of the mail under Séverine's templar armor echoing quietly off the walls.

They took a left before reaching the throne, making their way down the hall and to the doors of the war room, where Leon opened the way and closed it behind them. Séverine did find this room suitably impressive, particularly the carved table serving as a seat for their map, like the powerful roots and trunk of a great tree holding up Thedas.

"Inquisitor, Spymaster," she greeted Estella and Rilien in turn, the Inquisitor apparently having already fetched their head of intelligence. They gathered around the table. "What's the news?"

Estella offered a slight smile. "Captain Séverine. Leon. Thanks for coming." She stood on the opposite side of the large table, directly next to Rilien. "I've asked you here because we received a request for help from Kirkwall." She nodded at a trifolded parchment on the table, its broken wax seal in crimson easily recognizable as the Viscountess's. "You can read it if you like, but there aren't many details. I believe Sophia was vague for reasons of security. The gist of it is that there are some issues with red lyrium arising in Kirkwall, and she's hoping a small group of our people will be able to lend assistance."

She paused there, pursing her lips momentarily. "I thought the two of you might want to come, for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, you've been dealing with the red lyrium issue more directly than anyone else, and it's exactly that experience that Kirkwall probably needs most right now."

Séverine wasn't quite ready for the jump her heart made, and not entirely for good reasons. On the one hand, home. She'd never really been sure she considered Kirkwall as such until she was forced to leave it behind for some time, but then it became perfectly clear. It was where she'd found herself, who she wanted to be. The thought of returning again was as tantalizing as it had been last time, only now... red lyrium in Kirkwall again. It was somewhat troubling that the Viscountess would be hesitant to give details in the letter, in case of interception. In all likelihood that meant they had something that would lose its value entirely if the enemy found out about it.

Which meant they needed to act on this quickly. "I can prepare to leave at once, Inquisitor. Will you be leading the team, then?" It would certainly make sense, as Estella had a good relationship already established with Lady Sophia, and she was familiar with the city besides, neither of which could be said of Romulus.

"I will," Estella confirmed with a small nod. "Given that this represents the first time a head of state has officially asked the Inquisition for its assistance, Lady Marceline will be accompanying us as well. I thought Khari would round out the group effectively, but since Sophia asked for a small group, I think it's best not to add anyone else." She paused, glancing down at the map. "Though if anyone had any contrary suggestions, I'm perfectly happy to discuss them before we make anything final."

"It seems sound enough to me," Leon replied. "I doubt we'll want to involve Lady Marceline if there are anything like Red Templars to be fought, but a diplomatic attaché would not be unwise for this situation. And we'll have better numbers than our last encounter with them, I'm sure." His smile was a little strained, evidence that he may yet be in pain, though whether it was physical or not was a bit harder to tell.

Rilien inclined his head by way of agreement to the last statement, it seemed. “Kirkwall's native forces are not inconsiderable." He blinked, moving a flat gaze from Leon to Estella. “No doubt there will be plans in place already when you arrive, but do not hesitate to suggest amendments if you see places they can be made. It is likely that the Inquisition's knowledge and expertise is the point of the summons in the first place." The advice seemed to be directed for the Lady Inquisitor specifically, almost as if the tranquil were trying to reassure her of something.

Whatever its intent, it looked to have that effect; Estella's shoulders eased just enough to be noticeable. She hummed a short note. "Right. I'll keep that in mind."

So that was settled. Séverine would go with Estella, Marceline, Leon, and Khari to Kirkwall to assist her Excellence with the red lyrium problem. Séverine found that she was both excited and a little nervous, perhaps in part because of what she felt she should say next. Though she hadn't called this meeting, the thought had been occurring to her over the past week or more, and now seemed to be the best time to voice it.

She cleared her throat. "Since I have your ears for the moment, and since we'll be traveling to Kirkwall, there's something else I've been meaning to discuss." She glanced at Leon when she said it. Admittedly, she'd meant to have the discussions with him first before bringing it to the others, but Estella was easy to speak to, and while Rilien was undoubtedly not the warmest person, he never came across as unreasonable. "The Chantry has been floundering and leaderless for far too long now, I think we can all agree. They bicker endlessly over who should be the next Divine. As for our position, Halamshiral served as proof that our influence can have weight. If we were to lend our support to a candidate, they would have an excellent chance of becoming Divine."

Her eyes fell to the map on the table, to the spot where the City of Chains was marked on the southern coast of the Free Marches. "With that in mind, I thought I would put forward the idea that Lady Sophia might make an excellent Divine, if given the chance. With your leave, I would like to present the idea to her, and see how she feels about it."

Despite the fact that they hadn't spoken of this directly, Leon didn't seem particularly surprised by the proposal, glancing at her for just a second before his eyes settled on the Lady Inquisitor. "The Captain makes a fair point," he added. "There are... not many standout candidates."

Estella tilted her head thoughtfully. She crossed her arms, though only loosely, shifting her weight to a more comfortable standing position. "Who are the others? Not that I disagree Sophia would be a good one, it's just... well, giving anyone official backing would depend on a lot of things." She smiled wryly. "Definitely including her interest, as you implied."

Rilien, of course, gave absolutely no reaction at all, therefore parting with no clues as to whether he'd expected anything of the sort to come up. At Estella's question, though, he removed his hands from his sleeves, where he seemed to keep them a lot of the time, and let them drop to his sides. “There are dozens of potential candidates, most of them tied to the existing hierarchy in Val Royeaux. None of them are especially strong; it is well understood that those who survived the Conclave generally did so because they were not important enough to have been in attendance." He paused, eyes falling to the map.

“It is not common for the Divine to be drawn from outside the Chantry structure, but it has happened before. Likewise, most have been nobility, but commoners are possible as well. My agents report that little has been decided among the acting Grand Clerics; there isn't a single establishment candidate. Some names appear with higher frequency than others." Turning his head slightly, Rilien regarded Estella from the corner of his eye. “Lady Sophia has been mentioned only in passing, but not with disfavor. High Seeker Ophelia comes up slightly more frequently, along with one or two higher-ranking female Templars, most of them from the Anderfels. And then, of course, there is you."

"The Anderfels makes sense, since the issues with the southern templars probably haven't reached that far—" Estella halted awkwardly midsentence, the last part of Rilien's statement only then catching up with her, it seemed. Her eyes rounded. "Wait, what? Me? They... they do remember I'm from Tevinter, right? And a mage, and—er." She cut herself off, grimacing. "They can't be serious."

Leon shrugged. "I wouldn't be surprised if it hadn't gotten around that you were a mage," he said. "And while no doubt your nationality is a significant deterrent, it might not be as much of one as your reputation continues to grow. I'd prepare myself to hear a lot more of that, were I you."

"Um." Estella cleared her throat and shook her head. "I'll just go ahead and say right now that it's not happening. My magic isn't... it's not the only thing about me that would come as an unpleasant surprise to some of them, and besides that my place is here." She shook her head emphatically. "If the state of things is really that desperate, though, it might be a very good idea to see what Sophia makes of your suggestion, Captain." She looked a little unsure about that, her brows knitting together, but at a guess it wasn't because she thought the Viscountess a poor candidate.

Séverine wasn't sure about it herself, but mostly for personal reasons. Her Excellence would be a very outside candidate; as Séverine understood it her faith had become a personal matter due to events leading up to her reign. But if the Chantry didn't need a shake-up from an outside candidate now, then she didn't know when it ever would. And she couldn't think of a better woman to do that than Sophia. If her mind could be set to it, her becoming Divine would be all but guaranteed. The stir it would cause alone would give her enough discussion in the Chantry to be pushed over the top. All the other candidates were too forgettable, save for perhaps Ophelia or of course Estella, though Séverine happened to agree that her place should remain as Inquisitor.

"I'll bring it to her, then," she said, glancing at Leon again. "Though, perhaps not alone." As much as she liked the idea of Sophia taking up the mantle of Divine, she was not fond of the personal cost she would be asking of her. She would need to give up much in the pursuit, least of all her rule over Kirkwall, the city she belonged to and loved through all of its hardships.

She shook the thought off. "If there's nothing else, I should go prepare. Need to make sure my templars take no rest while I'm away."

Setting

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Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters
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INK

It wasn't long after that Ashton had guided the Inquisition back down the numerous stairs from the keep and to the dock that faced the Gallows. After a short talk with the ferrymaster, they were all presently waiting patiently on the barge that would take them across the water to the Gallows. Ashton glanced upward at the towers that waited for the across the water and shook his head. They always looked so ominous as he approached them, though fortunately he had gotten used to them by now, on account of him basically working there. Still, he couldn't help but wonder about the thoughts crossing the minds of the others. Stel would have been used to it as well, he supposed, but the others...

"Heh, I'm sorry for the oppressive vibe the Gallows give. I should probably talk to Sophia about painting it a more cheerful color, or maybe changing the name," he chuckled. As he spoke, Snuffy had ventured away from his side and currently stood at the bow of the barge, watching their course resolutely and dutifully. "Though at this point, I think it might be too ingrained with the rest of the city. And besides, who wants to risk breaking the law and ending up getting sent to a place called the Gallows?" He added with a waggle of brows.

Lady Marceline glanced between him and the place in question before acquiescing with a nod of her head. "It is certainly a... deterrent," she agreed.

"It's no prettier on the inside, either," Séverine commented, though the look she gave one of the towers was somewhat strange. Not fondness, but... respect, perhaps. As a former Kirkwall templar, she too had spent a great deal of time on the island fortress. "No sense hiding what it is, though. A prison and a dungeon, and a formidable one at that. Some of the slave imagery could use an overhaul, no doubt, but the fortress itself will always be strong, and I have a feeling the name will stay stuck, too."

Some of the slave imagery she mentioned went along with Meredith. The red lyrium idol piece she'd worked into her sword was powerful enough to animate the slave statues meant to intimidate all who passed through, and their subsequent destruction meant that their metal could be melted down and put to use elsewhere.

A group of templars awaited their arrival on the docks, their leader wearing a pelt of dark fur of some kind across his shoulders, hands resting on the pommel of the sword sheathed at his hip. Cullen Rutherford was lucky to be as well liked as he was in the city. A more hated Knight-Commander would have been kicked out by the nobility already, but even though Cullen had supported Meredith until her madness became apparent, he then did what he could to bring her down, and restore the city afterwards, a fact not lost on its people.

Séverine was the first off the barge when it came in reach of the dock. Cullen offered her a smile, which she returned in full along with a salute. "Knight-Commander," she greeted. "We're here to help."

"Welcome home, Knight-Captain," he swept his eyes over the others as they disembarked. "And thank you for coming on short notice, Inquisition. High Seeker Leonhardt," his gaze settled on the tall Ander, "Séverine's written about your efforts. I'm glad the Inquisition has you at its head. I believe there are some matters we should discuss, once this business is dealt with."

The Inquisition's own commander inclined his head, a mild smile on his face. "Knight-Commander. I look forward to it." He touched a hand to his chest just briefly, but did not divert the topic from the matters at hand.

"If you'll follow me," Cullen said, leading them off the docks and into the Gallows proper. There was a certain emptiness to it now, like the fortress was half dead already and gasping for air. There were likely a lot of factors contributing to that. The Circle tower had been unoccupied for years, any tomes or artifacts of value in its halls long since cleared out. Neither Cullen's templars nor the city guard had any use for it, so it simply sat in silence. The Gallows themselves were not as filled with prisoners as they had been in the years of Meredith's rule, or Marlowe Dumar's before her. Crime had been driven down, and though it could never be eliminated altogether, it had been a long time since a group like the Coterie had held any real power in Kirkwall.

The Knight-Commander took them into the dungeons, the prison cells, which were housed in the largest tower rather than beneath the earth, and operated by a constant shift from the guard, while the others were stationed in the Viscountess's Keep. Ashton had walked their halls a number of times, and not always as a guard. Cullen didn't take them up to the general holding cells, but rather to those in the base of the tower, the darkest cells with the smallest flames to provide light. Isolation cells, for the especially troublesome prisoners. It went without saying that a red templar would qualify as such.

Cullen stopped outside of the cell in question, which was guarded by a pair of city guards, and turned to face the others. "We haven't been able to get so much as a name. She won't speak to any templars, and so far the city guard haven't fared much better. It might be best if you wait here with me, Séverine."

She couldn't help but show some disappointment, but nodded her acceptance. "As you say, Knight-Commander."

"Any questions before you begin? She can't hear us out here."

Leon hummed, a low rumble of sound, then crossed his arms. "What have you tried so far?" he asked. "And how have her conditions been, in general? It would help to know where we're starting." He sounded like someone who'd conducted more than his fair share of interrogations. Probably had, being a Seeker and all.

"The Gallows are not kind," Cullen admitted immediately. "Normally smuggling wouldn't put a prisoner on this level, but we can't put her in more open cells. The red lyrium, it... well, I'm sure you've already experienced the effects of exposure to it. We can't subject the other prisoners to that, so we were forced to put her here." He obviously wasn't fond of the result, but it was clear that there was nothing to be done about it.

"We haven't tried any physical means of interrogation," he continued. "Not that she hasn't suffered anyway. She grows sicker by the day without red lyrium. Rarely keeps any food down. At this rate, it seems she'll be dead within the week. This has made getting information from her problematic. Likely she doesn't see the point in doing much of anything."

"Grim," Séverine remarked. "It sounds like a rough hand isn't what's needed here, if she would be welcoming of death."

"Then maybe we try a gentle one," Leon concluded, turning his eyes for a moment to Stel. Admittedly, she was a natural choice for such an approach—she didn't have the intimidating appearance most of the others shared.

She noticed, brows knitting, but then nodded slowly. "I'll help however everyone thinks is best, but this is Kirkwall. It's up to Ash how we go in, I think."

"You guys are the experts on all this red business. Our usual tactics haven't worked, so I'll follow your lead on this," Ashton stated. It wasn't like they were interrogating an undisciplined bandit who'd sell out his mates for a slice of bread, after. The templar was trained and drilled, and chances were wouldn't spill anything unless she thought it was her idea. She wasn't their usual customer, that much was certain. Even Cullen's templars couldn't get anything out of her--the Inquisition was their best bet.

Ashton leaned forward a bit, casting his gaze downward to the faithful hound that had been listening intently to their exchange. "Think you can stand guard out here and keep these two in line for me?" he asked, tossing a wink in his guards' direction. Snuffy accepted the order easily, though the lingering gaze that she'd given him told him that she wasn't entirely excited about it. He smiled as he watched her take up a watchful position in front one of the guards.

"Welp, shall we?" He asked the others, gesturing toward the door leading into the cell.Well

"Good luck," Cullen said, and the guards opened the door.

A single little torch burned on the wall left of the door, but it didn't even cast enough light to illuminate the corners of the room. The back right corner was quite obviously where their prisoner kept herself, judging by the fact that she herself was something of a light source. The woman sat against a wall curled into a round shape, stripped of her armor, wearing only the shirt and pants that had been underneath the disguise they'd caught her in.

As Ashton had heard it, her red lyrium corruption wasn't all that bad yet, but it was still difficult to look at, especially when the person bearing it was no longer threatening. The most notable bits of red lyrium were the ones that had begun to grow from the left side of her face, along her jawline and up her cheek, ending somewhere near the temple and eating away at the hairline there. Her hair was inky black, almost invisible in the darkness, thick and long, going down to the middle of her back.

Her color was terribly pale, and her skin seemed... thin, almost deathly so, though perhaps it was simply an illusion cast by the fact that many of the veins running down her arm were quite clearly visible, pulsating with a low red light in a way that was clearing causing her almost constant pain. She scratched at her side near the ribs with her hand, both arms crossed around her and tucking her knees into her chest. She looked young, no more than mid twenties. She'd lost a remarkable amount of weight since they'd captured her. Her body was consuming itself, it seemed, in the absence of any red lyrium.

She shook, either from cold chills or pain, but probably not fear. Her eyes shot up to the guests in her cell as soon as they entered. One iris was a hazel green color, while the one closer to the lyrium was turning scarlet. Her cracked and dry lips remained sealed as the door was shut behind Ashton. It wasn't long before they could feel the red lyrium emanate from her in waves. Unpleasant, to say the least.

“Shit." That was Khari, muttering the word under her breath in a tone caught somewhere between pity and revulsion. Not loud enough to make it much past Ashton, though, and she clearly didn't intend to do much of the talking herself, planting her back against the near wall and crossing her arms loosely over herself.

Stel didn't react too much, either to the captive's appearance or the sick feeling of red lyrium in the room. Her face was that deliberately-neutral one she wore for card games at the Hanged Man, the one she'd learned from Rilien, who almost always had it on. She pulled in a long, slow breath through her nose, then carefully moved to the same corner of the cell as the red templar, her motions smooth, deliberate, and careful. She stopped about three feet from the prisoner, then lowered herself until she was sitting, crossing her legs beneath her and resting her hands on her knees.

"What's your name?" she asked quietly.

"You're the Inquisitor," she said, her voice incredibly quiet, only able to be heard due to the heavy silence in the cell, only interrupting by the sounds of their breathing, shifting of their gear, and the low burn of the little torch on the wall. "I... I saw you, at Therinfal. We were to capture you, k-kill the others. It—" She turned her head into her shoulder and coughed violently. A wet sound, and when she turned back her lips were stained red. She wiped at them ineffectually.

"No one should know my name."

Stel brought her hands together in her lap, keeping her eyes on where they folded together for a moment before lifting them instead to the prisoner's eyes. "You don't have to tell me if you really think so," she said, tipping her head a bit to the side. "But I'd like to know. And I'd like you to call me Estella. Seems to me the problem started because we forgot to think of each other as people with names and lives and things to live for." She didn't put any finer a point on it than that, though, leaving the statement to sit in the still air between them.

"I have none of those things." Her hand reached up to tug away strands of hair that the red lyrium on the side of her head was encroaching on. "Just this song, now." A hint of a melancholy smile appeared. Her teeth were yellowed and decaying as badly as the rest of her. "It was sweet, once. Now it's like dagger tips running along the inside of my skull. I wish the daggers would just cut deeper, and be done with it."

Her eyes wandered to the others in the room, and she took in a long, shaky breath. "You can call me Em."

"Em," Stel repeated, nodding slightly. She shifted slightly where she sat, the only indication she'd given that the red lyrium was uncomfortable to be around. "The Guard-Captain said you were captured on the docks here in the city. Can you tell me what you were doing there?"

That was something that hadn't yet become clear, even after Varric's people had identified her as a Red. She'd been going somewhere, and clearly with purpose, but she didn't have any lyrium on her person, so she clearly wasn't transporting it herself.

She thought for a minute, then apparently deemed it okay to respond. "Leaving." She swallowed, the action clearly causing her some pain. "The others said I'd stayed too long, moved too much, taken too much. I had to go, or... this would happen. Guess it was too late." She smiled again, her eyes falling to her knees. A bead of sweat ran down her forehead, though she still appeared to be shaking from the cold.

"It's how the operation works. Never the same people for too long. Except for me. The weak link." Her eyes went to Ashton. "There's a red storm building beneath your feet. Meredith's vengeance. You might think it's your city. But you'll think differently when the Red Templars wash over it."

Ashton frowned and leaned heavily against the back wall. He felt tired just hearing the words slide out of her mouth. Same old song he thought to himself. He wondered if they would ever be free of Meredith's influence. Or if Kirkwall would ever not be in danger from within. He sighed and shrugged, the usual mirth in his character replaced by the veteran stoicism he'd earned through out the years.

"I doubt it," he answered flatly. It didn't matter if the city was finally at peace, or if the flames of battle were consuming it, Kirkwall would always be his city, his home. It always had been, no matter what she faced, or what she will face. If the red was expecting him to answer with anything more, then she'd be sorely disappointed. He didn't have a whole lot to say to threats, and he trusted Estella to be able to extract the information they needed.

Estella expelled a breath through her nose. It was slightly uneven, something he might not have noticed but for the utter quiet that pervaded otherwise. "Is that... something you want, Em? For this to go through, for the Red Templars to take Kirkwall?"

"I can't remember wanting anything other than the red for..." She let out a breath, her eyes listing sideways for a moment before she righted them again. "I don't know how long its been. I should be like the others by now. Pillars sprouting from my back, not these little pebbles." She then succumbed to another bout of racking coughs, the shaking growing so violent that she tipped over onto her side, cheek pressed into the wet, dirty floor beneath them. Splotches of blood further dampened it.

"I can't—" It was all she could manage for the moment, as tears streamed from her eyes, her limbs tense and locked like a drawn back arm of a catapult.

Stel hissed, a sympathetic sound, and lifted herself to her knees, shuffling over towards Em and carefully laying a hand on one of her shoulders, deliberately avoiding any actual red lyrium crystals, no doubt. Her brows knit and her eyes closed, a line appearing in the skin just above her nose as she focused on... something. Whatever she was doing didn't have any visible effect, not even the soft blue light Nos's healing magic had once caused.

A few moments later, the coughing stopped, as did the shaking. Em moved her face from the small pool of blood that had formed there, slowly and steadily rising back to her seated position, obviously confused. She blinked several times, the look in her eyes more clear now than it had been before. More focused. "The song... it hasn't been this quiet since..."

She didn't need to finish the sentence, and instead looked at Stel's hand. "What did you do to me?"

A thin smile preceded the answer. "What I could. Just a little bit of magic is all." She retracted her hand, settling back on her legs and resting the palms of her hands on her thighs. "Is there anything you can tell us about what's coming? The storm?"

She seemed almost to answer, but then hesitated, confused. Debating internally, or perhaps questioning if her current line of thought was correct, or if all the previous ones for years were correct instead. In the end, her decision seemed clear, but still conflicted. "It's brewing below the surface. In Darktown. Places the Coterie once owned, sitting abandoned. Now red. I followed orders, went where I was directed on the docks, received a box, delivered it to Darktown. They prepare it, make it small, and hand it off to others."

An idea struck her, one that required her to take in a breath before she could say it. "We could do it tonight, if the spot hasn't changed. Go there, kill the one that arrives in my place, wait for the shipment. Let me take the box, and follow me. I'll take you to the red hole, get you inside. You kill them all, destroy their operation." She swallowed, a tremor running through her that was obviously nervousness more than chill or pain. "I have a condition, though."

"What's the condition?" Stel looked like she had an idea, and from the grim expression she wore, she didn't much seem to like it, but whatever the hypothesis was, she did not make it aloud.

"You have to kill me," she said, sounding very certain of it. "If not you, someone. After it's over. There's too much red in that place, I—I may even try to kill you. And I'm dead already. The templars would kill me for betraying them. The red templars will kill me for helping you. And the red itself is killing me, with either its presence or its absence." She almost reached to grab Stel, but stopped halfway, withdrawing the red lyrium encrusted hand when she realized the danger. "Make an end of it, and make it quick."

Pressing her lips together, Stel nodded slightly. It seemed likely that this was exactly what she'd guessed. "I... understand," she said quietly. "And I'll do what you ask myself, if you help us as you've promised."

Ashton pushed himself off of the wall at that, though he still kept his arms crossed. He wasn't exactly ecstatic about the idea of trusting a red, but with nothing else to go on, it was a chance that he believed they needed to take. It was unlikely they'd find another red templar that'd be willing to help them, even harder than trying to capture another alive. He left his frown visible to everyone in the cell, but nodded. "It's an opportunity," he admitted, "One we probably won't find again."

He turned toward Leon and spoke, "I'll let Sophia know and gather a few of my finest. Stel?" He added, flicking his attention in her direction. A small smile formed in the corner of his mouth. "Bet some of the Lions would want to be there too," he said.

"I don't doubt it," she said, a faint smile appearing over her face for just a moment before it dropped, and she stood. "I'll collect whoever's available, and then we'll come back for you, Em. Shouldn't be too long." She glanced between the others for a moment, then nodded. "We all need to be at the docks by nightfall."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters
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INK

Leon's armor hadn't felt this heavy in a long time.

It was something he put down to the fact that he was still recovering from his injuries, a piece of information he was doing his best to make obvious. No doubt most of the others had noticed anyway; they were as a rule observant, and three of them at least knew him quite well. Certainly well enough to spot something like this. It wasn't so bad right now, when he just stood at the docks, awaiting Ashton's arrival with his contingent of guards. The last lingering fingers of sunset were fading now, disappearing quickly behind the horizon, slightly off-angle from the harbor itself.

Estella had managed to find two Lions who were not occupied with other work at the moment, either for the Viscountess or private contracts. They'd introduced themselves as Ainsley and Farah, and they way they stood together implied long and close familiarity, a unit within a unit. Both wore powerful-looking longbows, and the arrow Ainsley was twirling between her fingers had a heavy, barbed head on it, no doubt chosen with red templars specifically in mind. Each also wore a sidearm, in case things drew closer than arrow-range, no doubt.

Otherwise, it was himself, Estella, Khari, Séverine, and whatever forces Ashton brought to bear. Along with, of course, their red ally Em. Leon couldn't say he was entirely convinced of her intentions, but he was naturally suspicious, and for now, willing to let things play out. He couldn't fault Estella's approach to the conversation, at least.

Pursing his lips together, Leon drew up the hood on his cloak, obscuring his pale hair in hopes of preventing it from catching much light. Ainsley and Farah did the same, though the others weren't in much danger of it.

They needn't wait long before Ashton and his guards finally came into their sight line. It appeared that he had brought a pair of guards with, along with his mabari. He was speaking with one as they walked side-by-side, an olive skinned woman with an ugly scar slicing diagonally across her face. She stood shorter than Ashton, though not by much, and she carried a shield and longsword on her back. Her features were hard and there was a certain intensity about her. The other walked slightly behind and was a fair haired man with a youthful expression. He was shorter than the other two, and more lightly armored. A pair of shortswords rested on either hip revealing him to likely be more of a specialist than the usual rank-and-file. Each had their helmets tucked beneath their arm.

Ashton seemed to have even prepared Snuffy for their foray, as her fur was dyed with what to be be kaddis in patterns that brought to mind the symbols associated with Kirkwall. Noticeably, each guard had a matching streak of kaddis along the armor of their right arm. Once within distance, Ashton gave them a wave and approached. "Hey guys," Ashton greeted, though a bit more subdued from his usual jovial nature. "My finest, like I said. Lieutenant Vesper," he gestured toward the woman, whom delivered a succinct nod, "and Sergeant Samuel, though he prefers Sammy," he added, with a wink to the man. Samuel in turn gave them a light-hearted salute with a pair of fingers.

Em watched the introductions from a short distance away, clearly having no intention to take part in them. Her hood was drawn up over her head, the cowl concealing most of her features from the light save for her eyes, which she was intentionally keeping towards the ground. Apparently she'd worn no armor on her person when she was captured, and only concealable weapons, all of which had been confiscated by the guard. Her clothes had been given back to her. They were in shoddy condition, but mostly hidden by her cloak. Also hidden was the knife that Estella had parted with and given to her, though by her stance Leon could tell her hand rested on the knife's hilt, and had rarely left it since the weapon was received.

It had been given since their plan required the young red templar to put herself in a large amount of danger, effectively acting as bait and hoping the others wouldn't immediately think her a traitor. Séverine had briefly voiced her disagreement, but the captain knew the Inquisitor's tendencies well enough to know that if she parted with the knife, she had reasons for doing so, belief to back it up.

When all confirmed they were ready to begin, Em led them deeper into the docks, away from the most common landing sites and warehouses. Kirkwall's docks were extensive, with a number of the storage areas directly accessible to the sea. On the edges of the docks were places still abandoned, rarely in use, or simply not watched over at night, if the owner had no means of surveillance or proper security. It was to one of these warehouses that Em led them, though she stopped before entering an alleyway.

"Shipments are nightly," she explained. "Can't say when exactly, but this was the place I was sent to. Someone should be along soon. We need to kill them, there's no time for capture."

“Lemme at 'em." Khari's tone was quite dry, but Leon could tell she was a bit restless, perhaps on the grounds that her role so far in the proceedings had been limited. She was no interrogator, no negotiator, even if he was slowly making a strategist of her. But this was well within her skillset. “Drop them quickly, right? I can do that." Her eyes moved to a position near the likeliest entrance, and the rest of her followed.

Leon himself stayed closer to the center, taking up a post behind some unloaded cargo, crouching slightly to maintain a sight line to the entrance Khari had chosen without putting himself in one from the other direction. Estella chose a doorway with an awning, and her archer friends went a little higher, onto the first-story roof of a nearby customs building. Em was able to conceal herself behind the same cargo Leon was using, and Séverine took up a position close by, no doubt to keep an eye on the red templar. Ashton found himself an elevated position, though on the opposite end of the alley from the Lions. Vesper apparently had the same idea as Leon and Séverine and found a spot to crouch behind some barrels, with Snuffy quietly accompanying her while Sammy pressed himself against another doorway.

It didn't take long after they'd settled in their places for the promised courier to arrive. The agent moved with some stealth, a large cowl drawn up around his features. From the shape of him, he was far from the most advanced stages of lyrium growth, probably two dozen doses better off than Em. There weren't any visibly-protruding crystals, though a soft red glint gave away the fact that the stuff had crept in behind his eyes, lending them the same unearthly light as most of his compatriots.

He paused a moment several yards from where Khari was hidden, glancing around warily, but the near-disaster at Kasos did not repeat itself, and she made no noise or subtle movement that risked giving away her position. Apparently satisfied, he hurried forward again, treads falling almost silently on the flagstones of the dockside pathway.

Khari was just as quiet when she appeared behind him, the dull whistle of her sword through the air far too late a warning to save the red templar's life. The blade cleaved deeply into his neck, stopped only by the bones of his neck, and he fell with nothing more than a wet gurgle and a dull thud.

Em approached the body almost as soon as he'd fallen, reaching out to put a hand on the wall of the nearby warehouse building. The movement seemed to be doing her some good, or perhaps that was just the help that Estella was able to occasionally give her, helping her fight off the red lyrium's effects for the time being. "Good, this is good," she said, looking down at the body to confirm that he was also taking the red lyrium. "This means they'll be here soon. A boat, with the red."

Her hands were on the red templar only a few seconds after Khari had pulled her blade from his neck, rifling through his pockets and the inside of his cloak, perhaps searching for something. Whatever she was looking for, she didn't find it, but she stood again and looked to Estella. "I need to do the next part alone, inside. Smugglers will come, and give me the box with the red. No one interferes. The smugglers don't need to die, and we can't risk the box." There were some obvious risks, of course. Em was much shakier than the red templar they'd just killed, and the smugglers were undoubtedly dangerous. And it remained to be seen how well she'd handle receiving a box full of the substance that her life depended on.

This was easily the diciest part of the plan, and Leon liked it the least. Still, it made sense to avoid the unnecessary deaths if possible. He nodded slightly, but said nothing further—the plan was already agreed upon, and there was little time for deviation now.

Estella emerged from her hiding place to stand next to Em, reaching out to place a hand on the other woman's elbow. "You can do this, Em," she said, almost too quietly to reach Leon. "You're strong enough." It was hard to tell, but it looked like she was using her magic again, probably trying to give the other woman as much assistance as possible before she was forced to confront the source of her weakness.

She refused to meet Estella's eyes, dipping the rim of her hood down in a half-hearted sort of nod. "Thank you," she said.

They moved into the warehouse carefully, to find two large rowboats hanging from the ceiling by thick ropes, and several large piles of poorly organized crates of varying sizes. The floor was packed down dirt, which gently sloped down into the water at the house's edge, going just far enough that the water wouldn't be disruptive during high tide.

Hiding positions were taken up again, though this time there was no plan to intervene unless absolutely necessary. Em leaned up against one of the walls, moonlight just barely hitting her feet, water coming and going and brushing against the toes of her boots. As these things tended to go, it quickly became a tedious and constantly tense wait, as the smugglers did not immediately show themselves, and the other red templar's arrival didn't necessarily mean the exchange was imminent. They had to be patient. Em scratched at her arm more than once, and rolled her neck to try to loosen something up in her upper back.

A sound broke up the rhythm of the gentle waves. Oars, dipping into the water and coming out dripping. A rowboat soon came into view, gliding along the water from somewhere even further out on the docks, or perhaps not even. It was a small craft, only big enough for the two of them and their cargo, a small but dense looking chest with handles on either side, and no obvious way to open it.

The rowboat brushed up against the shore, the first of the hooded and cloaked smugglers hopping out. "You look familiar," he said to Em, his voice gravelly and low. "Didn't we deliver to you last week?"

"Other guy got himself killed," she answered, eyeing the chest. "I'm taking the boxes until they find someone else."

"If you see your Red Hawke, tell him the sovereigns need to start coming in quicker. Getting hard to move cargo in Kirkwall these days."

"You'll have your gold. Give me the box." No more words were exchanged. The two smugglers hauled out the little chest and set it at Em's feet, before they stepped back into their boat and pushed away from the shore, disappearing as quietly as they came. Em waited until the sound of their oars was gone before she stooped to pick up the chest by its handles, and made her way back to the others. They emerged from their hiding places.

"Straight to Darktown now," she said. "Keep your distance. There will be lookouts. If you can spot them, kill them quietly. When we get to the door, I'll try to get us in. As soon as it's open you need to rush them, cut them down before they can organize."

“Uh... about how many are we expecting here?" Khari glanced down at the box once, then reached up to tug at her ear. “Also, what was all that about a red hawk?"

"The Red Hawke is the leader," she answered simply. "We won't see him, I've never met him. But he leads the Red Templars now."

"Hawke?" Séverine repeated, eyebrow raised, her tone skeptical. "With an 'e' on the end?" Em nodded, causing Séverine to expel a quiet gust of air that might've been a laugh. "Maker's breath..."

"Fifteen, maybe twenty in total," Em said, answering Khari's original question. "No knights, no ascended. Maybe a few shadows. They won't be ready for you." She glanced at Séverine. "We need to leave now. Time to talk about leaders later."

Leon figured there might not be that much time later, considering their informant's current condition, but Séverine had clearly recognized the name and that was good enough for the moment. The priority had to be disrupting this particular operation right now. There was an order to everything, as he'd once pointed out in an attempt to encourage the Knight-Captain.

Though he had been listening to the conversation at hand, Ashton found a moment to have a different one. "Sergeant, remind me to order your unit to patrol the docks a couple of nights when we get back to the barracks. I want those smugglers caught," he ordered in a serious vein. When Em stated their need to leave, his attention snapped back to her, and he nodded. "Let's not keep them waiting then," he said with a fairly serious frown.

"Can you stay above for our trip to Darktown?" That, Leon directed at the two Lions.

Farah nodded. "Help us spot, and we'll get rid of the lookouts for you." She glanced once at Ainsley, who grinned almost as widely as Khari tended to, and the two of them disappeared, no doubt off to gain altitude once more.

It was fortunate that they had; near one of the entrances, Leon paused at a corner and glanced around it, spotting a hooded figure leaning casually against the wall of a building. Would have been easy to miss her if they'd just followed their route directly. He whistled lowly, and the sharp hum of an arrow through the air answered, striking the lookout beneath her hood and dropping her.

The red templar's feet were disappearing into a nearby alley by the time they passed, Ainsley winking as they passed. With the body moved off the main road, soft footfalls put her back on one of the roofs, and so she and her teammate remained, until everyone was forced to descend together into the underground section of the city.

As with the other regions of Kirkwall, Darktown proved to be quite literally named, especially now that it was night. They had to descend a long flight of stairs carved out of the rock before they could enter it properly, and by then they were very much underneath Lowtown, or perhaps far, far below Hightown. Any lighting came from torches or little braziers that were sporadically placed along walls, illuminating only a small radius before the heavy darkness stopped their advance. As Leon had heard it told, Darktown used to be a far busier place, back in the years when Kirkwall had been nearly overrun by Fereldan refugees fleeing from the Blight.

The refugees were either gone, dead, or moved up to become permanent residents, but poverty was much harder to eradicate, as was the criminal underworld. To these groups Darktown would always belong, barring extreme measures such as the destruction, burning, or collapsing of entrances to this place, which it seemed unlikely the Viscountess would consider. The guards and the templars did not make patrols down here unless they were after something very specific, something worth risking life and limb. The risk was easy to see; any shadow could hide a knife well enough here.

At the moment, they were the knives in the shadows, trailing along behind Em as she made her way through twists and turns, moving swift enough to appear in a hurry, as she would be normally, but not going too fast to lose her escort. She looked to be struggling a little with the weight of the chest after a time. She was still quite weak, physically, and the effects of Estella's magic were hardly permanent.

She made it to their destination unassisted, however. It was an inconspicuous door deep in Darktown with no obvious markings to speak of, simply set into the wall. Em glanced once behind her, then turned and quietly kicked the bottom of the door.

A few seconds later, a little window at eye level swung open on its hinges from the other side. A door guard, inspecting the visitor. Em kept her hood down, holding the chest of red lyrium so that the guard could see. No words were exchanged. The guard closed the view hole, and an uncomfortable few seconds passed before the sound of a bolt unlocking reached their ears. The door swung open, and Em slipped inside.

Khari slipped after, drawing her sword from its place at her back as she moved. Though the door was nearly closed by the time she got there, she shouldered it back open with abrupt force, throwing the guard forward when he didn't let go of the inside handle fast enough. Swiftly, her sword found his chest, skewering him and emerging from his back. With her elbow, she threw the door wide, and then disappeared inside after Em.

The rest of them filed in afterwards, into a small entry area, with the only way forward being a long hallway that eventually bent a sharp left out of sight. In typical Darktown fashion there was nothing to speak on in the room save for a single dying old chair. Em waited until the last of the team was inside, and the door was shut behind them.

"Around the corner," she whispered. "It'll open up. Templars everywhere. Kill them all. There's a back exit, a hatch that drops into the sewers. Someone needs to reach it, block it off, or some will escape."

"Understood, we'll take it from here," Séverine said, shouldering her way past the red templar to the front of the group, shield and short sword in hand. "Let's make this quick."

They moved swiftly and quietly down the hall, and then charged around the corner, Séverine's shield leading the way. The hall led into a much larger room, what had likely once been a Coterie safe house or even an armory. The reds were working at tables on similar chests to the one Em had brought in, the red lyrium exposed to the air. They were creating draughts of it, converting it into consumable forms. There were perhaps ten working, and five more sleeping in makeshift bunks, with a pair of shadows watching over the operation. The workers wore no armor, save for those that could no longer remove pieces of theirs, but all were armed with bladed weapons, and a few had shields on hand. Séverine cut on down before he could turn to defend himself, but after that the fight was on. The shadows charged aggressively into the attacking group with arm blades of red lyrium, trying to disrupt them, inflict wounds, and then retreat. Neither engaged an enemy for long.

Perhaps most alarming was that two or three of the templars in the room didn't appear corrupted at all. One them immediately made a break for a hatch at the rear of the room.

Khari, for once at an advantage due to her size, ducked under one of the shadows' blade-arms, making a break for the back hatch. She managed to bring her sword around and slam it into the wood, holding it down and preventing the would-be escapee from bolting. She lashed out with her foot, catching the half-stooped man in the temple with the steel-plated toe of her boot. He dropped immediately, but there was another swinging for her with a one-handed axe, and she didn't have time to pull her blade free of the trapdoor to block.

The swing fell wide of its mark, and reason was soon apparent. One of Ashton's guards, Samuel judging by the weaponry he used, had gripped the templar's collar and yanked backward. Once Khari was out of immediate danger, Samuel's shortsword slipped beneath his target's arm and bit deep beneath the armpit twice, leaving the templar to fall limply to the ground. Sammy spared one glance for Khari, though his helmet obscured his expression, though he did give her a sharp tilt of his head before slipping off to find another target, though he never strayed too far from the trapdoor.

On the other hand Ashton hung back and let the reds come to him. And Snuffy, it seemed. A red set his eyes on the captain, but before he could reach him, the red found the mabari's teeth embedded deep into his calf. The moment's hesitation was all it took for Ashton to clean up, plunging his sole longsword into his chest. Snuffy dodged the now dead weight deftly and fell into practiced step beside Ashton. Vesper added the weight of her shield to Séverine's, apparently deciding to stick close to the templar to pool their strength.

For once, Leon was the last into a fight instead of the first. Fortunately, it didn't seem to be a particularly arduous one, in the sense that these templars were unprepared, and few of them were even properly reds, lacking the obvious signs of lyrium tainting. Something to think about later, but assuredly not now.

The Lady Inquisitor engaged the shadow Khari had ducked under, preventing him from chasing her down as she went. Leon moved to intercept a dagger-wielding fighter intent on flanking her. The wound in his chest stretched uncomfortably when he reached out to seize the woman by her collar; his grip faltered before he could finish pulling her back into a hold. She still staggered, and that was enough to let him disarm her—the knife clattered away on the floor. Leon adjusted his movements, focusing on blows that didn't require strength or much movement to deliver; the sort that needed precise positioning and not much else. He struck with his elbows and knees, until he could maneuver himself behind her and wrap an arm around her neck from behind, bracing his other hand on the back of her head.

He held it a few moments past when she went limp, to be sure she wasn't bluffing, then dropped her and moved to the next.

As far as fights went, it wasn't even close. Since her near-miss, Khari had allowed no more openings, and with her sword back in her hands, stood over the trapdoor, cleaving into anyone who even attempted to get near. So far, that had been two more reds, both now still on the floor at her feet. She fended off an attack from a third even now, keeping herself planted solidly on her spot, adjusting much more smoothly to the cramped quarters and stationary positioning than she would have even as little as a few months ago. The scant light from the small sconces on the walls glinted off a coating of dark blood on the zweihänder before she plunged it up into another woman's armpit, yanking it out again with enough force to throw an arc of red off the blade and onto the already-stained wooden floor.

Estella kept herself a little more mobile, but with a shorter, lighter blade, that was easier to do. She seemed to be keeping track of which templars had the lyrium corruption and which did not—the deadliness of her force increased considerably when the signs of red lyrium use were obvious, and she'd felled at least one of the others without actually killing him, though no doubt the severed hamstring on his left leg was exceedingly painful. Wisely, she'd elected not to use magic in the engagement, saving herself the pain of being smited as a result.

Leon took another warrior's knees out from underneath him, following him down with a heavy punch to the face, gravity lending the strength that escaped him otherwise for the moment. The nose under his gauntlet caved in, and he stomped on the back of the templar's knee when he tried to roll aside of the follow up. The wet crunch of the impact was enough to inform him of his success; his opponent passed out from the pain a few seconds later. He glanced up, assessing the state of the rest.

Vesper had broken off from Séverine's flank and currently found herself in a stand off with another red, her large shield standing between him and her. He attempted a feint to get past it, but Vesper proved to be a more seasoned warrior than he, and he was met with the flat side of the shield. However, it was not Vesper that struck first, nor the templar, but Snuffy. Once again, her fangs found an uncorrupted part of his calf and she pulled. In the confusion, Vesper let a bit of aid by pushing him with her shield, and then disengaged. Snuffy cleaned up afterward, sinking her teeth into his exposed throat.

The numbers had quickly turned against the red templars, and the last few were being felled. Séverine had managed to pin the second of the two shadows in a corner of the room, using her shield to intercept any attempts to escape. It took several thrusts of her blade to fell the heavily corrupted templar, but after the fourth strike he fell, gurgling out his last breaths before he stilled.

Em had entered the room behind them, knife drawn. She made her way quickly over to the templar Estella had hamstrung, falling to her knees and plunging the blade into the back of his neck with force. She held it there until he ceased his struggling entirely. Her hood concealed her face, but in the open air of the room she wavered forward on her knees, as though she was about to collapse. The effect of the red lyrium was much stronger in here, enough that she began to cough quietly.

Estella quickly sheathed her sword, tsking softly under her breath. She took the few steps necessary to put herself in front of Em, then crouched there, one hand on her own knee, the other reaching towards the red templar, almost as if to touch her, only to pull up short. "Em, are you—" She seemed to think better of the obvious question. Probably something she'd been doing a lot recently, and not just here, for that matter. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Make the song stop," she said, fairly urgently. She kept her head down, still kneeling over the dead templar's corpse. "It makes you forget, forget everything. What you are, what you believe, what you fight for. When it's quiet, sometimes you can remember, but then there's sickness, and pain, and the pull to the red, and you forget again."

She looked up, eye glowing dull red under the hood, her hand clutching the knife tight enough that it shook, her skin ghostly white. Her eyes locked on Estella's, and she coiled in place, making her intentions quite obvious. "Make it stop, make it stop, make it stop, make it stop!"

She lunged at Estella with the knife.

At that range, with the positioning she had, not even someone as fleet as the Lady Inquisitor could hope to avoid the lunge entirely. In the time it took anyone else to react, Estella's head slammed back against the ground, but she instinctively raised her arm to protect herself, something that likely saved her from the worst, as it meant Em's lyrium-encrusted free hand closed around her bracer instead of touching her skin directly, or—worse—cutting into it.

She didn't have as much luck fending off the dagger, and it sliced into her just under her jawline, tracing a red ribbon from about halfway down her neck up and back to just beneath her ear. Blood welled from the wound, but it was much less dire than it could have been.

The pain might even have been a favor, for it certainly seemed to snap Estella out of her daze, and her hands closed over Em's forearm, wrenching it and the knife to the side. She got her knee between them, and rolled them both with an impressive heave that also unfortunately made it very dangerous for anyone else to intercede immediately. That seemed to be all she needed, however, because she made eye contact with Em, pinning the red templar's free arm with her knee and maintaining a tight hold on the other.

"I promised," she murmured, expelling a shaky breath. Her eyes closed with it, and a few tense moments later, Em went slack beneath her. Estella didn't move for several more, but then she set the templar's arm down carefully, and climbed off her, struggling somewhat to get her feet underneath her. She looked vaguely sick, though whether that was red lyrium exposure or something else entirely was hard to tell. Immediately, her hand pressed to the bleeding wound at her neck, trying to staunch the flow.

"D-does anyone have a potion? I don't think I've got enough left to..." She staggered sideways and leaned her shoulder heavily against the wall.

"Here," Séverine offered, sheathing her sword. She'd been looking for a way to intervene after Em attacked Estella, but once the Lady Inquisitor handled it herself Séverine replaced her sword with a potion from her belt, offering it to Estella.

"The Viscountess won't be pleased to hear about any of this," she said.

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Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters
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INK

Khari was pretty sure Sev was right about Sophia's feelings on the matter. Not that she really had to deal with it; the others were doing most of the breaking of bad news. The elf stood off to one side of the Viscountess's office, leaning back against the wall with her arms crossed over her middle. Even for a spacious study, it was pretty full of people, most of them bristling with weapons: their little adventure party, minus the Lions and Ashton's people, but along with Marcy, the Knight-Commander, and of course Sophia herself.

They'd just gotten to the part about the hideout in Darktown and their discovery there. It probably sucked to learn that an entire cell of reds had been using your city to move their shitty lyrium around for long enough to be that established, with their own supply lines and regular deliveries. She didn't know the whole story about what had happened here with Meredith and all that, but there was no way red lyrium wasn't a sore subject around here.

To her credit, Sophia seemed to be taking the news evenly, evaluating it with a level head. It was probably one of the worst things she could wake up to in the morning. Unlike the day before, she looked the part of the noblewoman rather than the warrior. Free Marcher style wasn't nearly as extravagant as Orlesian, but it was still remarkable that anyone could look so put together after what was undoubtedly a nerve wracking night of waiting, and an early morning filled with bad news.

"And there were uncorrupted templars among them?" she asked.

Sev nodded. "Yes, Excellency. A few that showed no signs of change from the red lyrium, assuming they'd taken any at all." She hesitated then, looking to Cullen. "I'm worried they may have infiltrated your ranks. Outside of the Inquisition, this is the other seat of templar power in the south. They must hope to topple it."

"I trust most of my templars," Cullen responded. "But certainly not all. Corruption won't be allowed to spread in the ranks. I'll make sure of it."

"Your injury," Sophia said, pointing out the slash Stel had taken to the neck. "This was the red templar captive's work? Did you learn anything from her, apart from the operation she was a part of?"

Estella nodded, probably to both things. "She said the leader of the Red Templars was someone named Hawke." Her fingers moved almost automatically to the wound, which was already scabbing over thanks to the potion, though it would probably leave some form of scar. "Séverine seemed to know who he was?" Her eyes moved to the Knight-Captain as she said that.

Cullen reacted to the name as well, though it was Sev who answered. "He was a Knight-Captain here in Kirkwall, before I left. Around my age. An intense sort, certainly none too happy, but..." She looked to Cullen for an explanation. "What happened to him?"

"Carver Hawke left the Order almost a year ago. He was... troubled, I think, before he left. Something to do with Elias Pike's return to Kirkwall. He harbored a particular hatred for that mage. I know many of us did, but for him it was personal."

"His sister," Sev said. "Bethany, I think it was. A twin sister. She was a mage in the tower. I remember him saying it was why he became a templar. She died in the chaos after the Chantry explosion."

"And Carver blamed Pike for it," Sophia concluded. "I saw justice done to him as best I could myself. Was he not satisfied with that?"

"I'm not sure," Cullen said. "He visited the Gallows often while Pike was awaiting his fate there. I've no idea what they spoke about, but Hawke became increasingly distant. It was perhaps a week or two after Pike's death that he left the city."

Khari felt her lips pull into a frown at that. “Pike was a pretty unstable piece of shit." And that was putting it mildly. “I can't see him convincing anyone of anything, especially not someone who hated his guts. Unless he was trying to convince him that he needed to go to crazy extremes to stop even crazier mages. Dunno anyone who could make a better case for that than him."

Sophia nodded her agreement. "Regardless of how it happened, at least our enemy has a face and a name now," she said. "This isn't something we can fight with subtlety anymore, I don't think. The lyrium you found, it was destroyed?"

"As best we could," Sev said. "It's a dangerous process that can potentially affect a templar doing it, so only those we trust should be allowed anywhere near it." Cullen nodded in approval of that. "You might also speak with Varric, see if any of his contacts could provide an alternate method."

"Good idea. Either way, there will be more found that needs disposing of." She made sure to catch her guard captain's eyes next. "Ash, we have work to do. The smuggling needs to stop, first of all. Heavy patrols of the docks will make things difficult for them, and I'd rather scare them off than try to catch them and risk letting more lyrium slip into Darktown." She expelled a breath, obviously uncomfortable with the whole situation.

"And I think it's time we started kicking some doors down. Work with Varric, get whatever information you can on other possible red lyrium sites. When we have leads I want to hit them hard and fast. I think the guard and the Lions together should be up for the task. Agreed?"

"Agreed. I'll get with my Lieutenants and Sergeants and we'll draw up a few action plans for you to review," he said. It appeared that he already had a few ideas stirring around in his head. In fact, Sophia's admissions seemed to invigorate the man, and he seemed eager to get to work. "That being said, we will definitely ramp up patrols in the docks. I had already intended to have Sammy and his unit put some eyes in the shadows, but I'll also get Vesper to get some muscle there as well. Hard and fast," he agreed with a confident smile.

"Any suggestions from the Inquisition?" he asked, turning his eyes toward them.

"Don't touch the lyrium directly, and be extremely careful when you handle it. Including what's on their bodies. It nearly killed one of ours, even in liquid form." Leon said as much with a shrug. "Also, any time you know you're facing reds, bring three men for every one you're expecting, and then more on top of that for the ones you aren't."

"Whatever they're planning, they won't find Kirkwall an easy target," Sophia promised. "We're far more capable of defending ourselves than we ever have been in the past." A thought seemed to occur to her, and she stood. "I refuse to let this dominate my entire day, as well. There's something I'd like you to see, Inquisition." Her eyes found Khari. "From what I've heard, I think you'll like it."

"Perhaps Leon and I could speak to you alone, Knight-Commander?" Sev asked, glancing at Leon before her eyes returned to Cullen. "There are some templar matters to discuss, among other things." Cullen nodded.

They split up from there, with Sophia leading them out of her office and out of her keep, while Leon, Sev, and Cullen remained behind to discuss their templar matters, and Ash set to work on his duties as guard captain. Sophia took Khari, Stel, and Marcy down the steps and away from the keep, along one of Hightown's narrower streets. "I've heard you're aiming to become a chevalier," she said to Khari. "Not the easiest field to break into. How's your progress been?"

Khari hummed. “I mean, still kinda waiting for an opportunity to actually break the, uh, ceiling, if you know what I mean, but... the training's going really well, I think." She offered Sophia a grin. “I'm not sure if it was Stel or Lucien that told you that, but either way, I'm pretty damn flattered."

"Maybe they both did," she said, returning the smile. "You have a way of making impressions on people. We have no chevaliers here, but between you and me, I am rather proud of what we've created. I think it's brought the entire city closer together. Through here." She led them to a wide gate flanked by city guards, who pushed them open for their Viscountess with a salute.

It was a training facility, quite simply, with a wide open courtyard of soft dirt, rectangular in shape and extending far ahead of them. The training grounds were exposed to the sky, with pillars and awnings surrounding it and providing shaded areas, a number of doors leading to armories, storage spaces, and the like. Stables were found off to their right, certainly not the only ones in Hightown. These were likely horses belonging either to the nobility, or to Sophia herself. They looked to be war horses all, strong and swift and fierce.

There was a melee ring in one of the far corners of the grounds, but the most obvious draw was the long wooden fence running along the length. A horse was thundering down its length away from them, an armored rider bearing down on a shield and weight-armed dummy with a lowered lance. With a crack the lance connected, punching the shield away and sending the weighted bag swinging around, but the rider was well beyond it by the time it would've struck his head. A few other nobles looked on, some tending to their horses while they waited for a turn, either against the dummy or against each other.

"Always a safe bet to find him here," Sophia remarked. The rider wheeled about and removed his helmet, revealing himself to be the same one that had ridden up to them the day before, William Alston. He trotted his horse back over to them, laying the lance across his lap. By the sheen of sweat on his brow, he'd been at it for a while already.

"Good morning Your Excellence, Inquisition. Come to see the Companions in action?"

"I thought they might be interested in seeing one of Kirkwall's undertakings, yes." She turned to Khari. "I also thought Khari might be interested in joining you for some practice. Have you worked with a lance much?"

Khari's eyes lit up; she'd shifted up onto the front of her feet before she'd actually thought about it, as if to better observe the goings-on. At the offer, she glanced quickly between William and Sophia, confirming that what she'd just heard had actually been said. If possible, her smile stretched wider. “I prefer swords, but Mick makes me practice everything. Ser Michaël, I mean." She gestured vaguely in Marcy's direction, half-forgetting and half-not-really-being-concerned that not everyone would know who he was. “Skyhold doesn't have an actual jousting setup, though; can I really use it?"

She tried to brook her obvious enthusiasm, but she wasn't successful.

"Absolutely," Sophia assured her. She paused for a moment, and then explained further. "Truth be told, I'm hoping word about this can reach the Alienage. I won't force anyone, but I want them to know the rest of this city is open to them. Not everyone can do what an Irregular of the Inquisition can, but if they hear an elf was able to take her turn at the joust in Hightown, I think it can only do good things."

"Some of the others took some convincing," William admitted from atop his horse, "but personally, I get tired of riding against the same people day in, day out. Some fresh meat is always welcome." He grinned. "If you're interested in a few tilts after getting warmed up."

Khari certainly didn't mind being the first. It was pretty much what she'd dedicated her life to being, and any step forward was one worth taking. She nodded, a little more seriously this time. “Give me a few minutes to loosen myself up and some equipment to ride with, and I'll take you up on that."

She found that all of it was readily provided, including the heavy lance and shield, though she left those on the ground while she mounted, making sure the saddle was on right and the horse beneath her was responsive. It was a blood bay color, with a broad stripe on its nose concealed beneath practice barding. Confirming that everything was where it was meant to be, she fitted the helmet down over her head, her vision narrowing to several vertical slits in the visor. Her breaths echoed in the space between her face and the cool steel.

“Hey Stel, can you hand me my lance and shield?"

"Do I get to be the squire, then?" Stel's reply was clearly intended for humor, and she obligingly handed up the shield first, waiting for Khari to get it set in the position she wanted before lifting the lance as well. It was wooden all the way down, without the metal tip used in less friendly circumstances, but it was still about ten feet long and somewhat unwieldy, painted in red and gold stripes. Stel foisted it up with both hands, holding it mostly level so Khari could tuck it against herself. "Good luck out there. Show them what you're made of, okay?" She flashed a smile and stepped back.

“Gritty sand and backtalk, and they're all gonna know it. I promise to be a better target than a quintain, at least." Khari figured her chances at actually winning a match were pretty low, but she might be able to break a lance or two on him if she tried hard enough. Shifting her grip just under the vamplate protecting her hand, she lodged the lance into a better couched position, steering the horse around with her legs to line herself up with the her side of the lists. There she stopped him, checking everything to make sure it was in order, then moved her eyes to the spectators.

“Someone want to call the rounds? I'm ready whenever Will is."

The young baron lifted his lance at the other end. "Morgan! Get off your ass and get the flag, will you?" A man who appeared to be the youngest of the Companions that were present almost jumped out of his bench upon being addressed, and rushed to grab a short crimson flag decorated with the white falcon symbol of Sophia's house. He rushed out to the center of the track, pausing to look both ways at the riders, checking to see they were both prepared.

Will pushed his visor down into place, his horse stamping about in anticipation. The flag was lifted, and he charged.

Khari wasn't quite as quick to react, but half a second later, she was charging too. The three-beat rhythm of the horse's canter smoothed out into the four-beat of a full gallop. Khari leveled her lance and pulled in a breath. It didn't take more than five seconds for contact. She knew on the half-stride in that she'd placed her lance slightly too high, and instead of splintering, it skidded off the side of Will's shield with an uncomfortable screech. She felt a heavy impact in her arm at the same time, and twisted slightly on instinct. A crack sounded, but not the shattering of a full break.

Then they rushed past one another, and Khari started pulling the horse up underneath her, her breath leaving her in a slightly-shaky rush. There was something exhilarating about that. About everything going into what was basically just a single moment. Wheeling herself around, she stood in her stirrups to readjust her seat.

Will's lance had broken, a split down the middle rendering it unusable, but it was a near thing, not a resounding loss on her part. That wasn't bad; she knew she could do better. Khari rolled her shoulders in the armor, grinning despite herself.

“Let's do that again."

Setting

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Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters
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INK

Estella couldn't quite keep the smile off her face, watching Khari insist on multiple tilts, visibly improving with each one. Sophia, Marceline, and herself had moved into the shade, and were now seated well out of the way of any potential flying splinters or things of that nature. Honestly, it felt nice to be off her feet—she hadn't been able to sleep much after last night, and a lingering feeling of discomfort, guilt, and residual disgust sat heavily in the pit of her stomach. It was something she knew she'd need to spend some time with later, but she didn't think she was ready for that right now. And Khari, as she so often did, was proving to be a magnificent distraction.

There were others to choose from, though, and as the riders reset after the last round, Estella glanced at Sophia beside her. "I noticed Baron Alston seems quite convinced that the proper name for his group is the Queen's Companions," she observed, moving a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "What's going on there?"

"A rather tiresome battle of semantics," she answered, crossing her legs and pulling her long braid over her shoulder. She folded her hands in her lap. "It's probably my own fault for encouraging them in other areas. There's a faction of the nobility that believes we should do away with the titles of Viscount and Viscountess. They want to declare me Queen of Kirkwall and the surrounding territories, for all the Free Marches and the rest of the world to hear. I doubt Orlais or Nevarra or Ferelden care much what my people call me, but the other Marcher states certainly would."

The next tilt proved inconclusive, both riders finding the other's shield as they passed, and afterwards William brought his horse around to Khari's end, instructing two of his fellows to take their turn next. He pulled up beside her, removing his helm and starting to offer some critique.

"This business with the citizen army has them on edge as it is. I'm not against the principle of independence and self-sufficiency for Kirkwall, but I won't have it harm relations with our neighbors. Starkhaven in particular offered valuable aid after the mage-templar battle, and I haven't forgotten it."

"Mhm, I can see where such a declaration would sit uneasily with the rest of the Free Marches in addition to the army. The other city-states may see such an act a threat to their independence, and fear that you may attempt to encroach upon it as a result," Marceline agreed simply.

"I'm maybe having a little trouble seeing the importance," Estella admitted freely. "You already do exactly the kinds of things a Queen would do in the first place, now that the Templars are in no danger of ruling Kirkwall from the Gallows. The standing army could be an issue, but I can't see any reason to care what your people call you if nothing actually changes." Then again, there didn't seem to be much point in anyone insisting on 'Queen,' either, unless... "Is it a sticking point for the nobles here because Viscount and Viscountess are holdovers from when Kirkwall was an Orlesian colony? I guess I could understand wanting to shed the implication."

"That is the usual argument for the change," Sophia said, nodding. She paused as two riders charged each other, one of them soundly outdoing the other with a solid hit against the other's miss, leaving the recipient of the hit leaned back heavily in the saddle, though they managed to remain in the seat. "I no longer need to grapple with and appease factions like templars and Qunari as my father tried to do. Cullen is thankfully willing consider all my advice on how the templars should function in Kirkwall, and the noble council's only true power would be choosing a new ruler if I were to die or be unable to lead. Any other power they have was granted by me, so in all but name, I am a monarch."

She exhaled a rather annoyed breath, something else occurring to her. "It is also a hereditary position. The council does love to remind me of that, and how I have no heir as of yet." That was a complex situation that Estella was fairly familiar with just by virtue of knowing and being good friends with the two people most involved.

"But this Queen business is probably locked in its course," she said. "The reliance on the templars was the first thing to be targeted, but our connections to Orlesian and even Tevinter occupiers in our history came soon after. I have engineers devising a way to bring down those slave statues without destroying any of the city, or the chains guarding the docks, but it's a long ways out. We have no navy as of yet, so those chains are the best defense we have against attack from the sea." They certainly were formidable, and could stop any ship larger than a rowboat from slipping through.

"I'll just have to keep convincing the other Marcher states that I have no expansionist plans towards them, even after I have an army and they call me Queen."

"That much, I can relate to," Estella replied wryly. "As our efforts to convince... everywhere else in the world that we don't intend to use our army for nefarious purposes are definitely still ongoing." Part of her wondered if they'd ever be able to do that, or if the political climate of Thedas just couldn't handle another independent power. The Wardens had collapsed rather dramatically, the Chantry was trying to build itself back up out of shambles since the Conclave. Perhaps there was a lesson in there, about trying to stably hold power without a border to go along with it. She hoped not—the Inquisition had to do better than the Chantry or the Wardens in this respect right now. They couldn't afford not to.

She leaned back in her chair, crossing one leg over the other, smiling slightly as she jumped her thoughts to a slightly different track. "If it's any consolation, at least your nobles seem to like you. Lucien's in a bit of a bind with his. The solution's probably the same, though: time enough to convince the people you need to convince that you mean what you say."

That brought a small smile to her face, though it was a touch melancholy. They hadn't seen each other in quite a long time now, both held by their respective duties, and while Estella knew they wrote often to one another, it wasn't at all the same as being able to see someone you cared deeply about every day. Or even once in a while. "He's not very Orlesian in the ways they're used to in their rulers, is he?" She reached up to brush hair from her face and behind her ear. "I don't think I properly thanked you or the Inquisition for that. For your role at Halamshiral. Though I'm not actually sure what the extent of that role was. The stories I've heard conflict wildly, and Lucien has a way of understating things, specifically with regards to himself."

"I wouldn't be surprised if he politely asked the throne to surrender to him first," Ashton answered. It seemed he and Snuffy had finally returned from their duties. He was still armed, and still bore the full guard captain regalia, though now both Ash and Snuffy were without their kaddis, and he carried a folder beneath his arm. He paused for a second to think about it and shook his head with nostalgia in his eyes. "Damn, I miss that," Ash added, and genuinely too. Snuffy stared at him for a moment before she decided to make for the shade without him, but it wasn't long before he followed behind.

He held up the folder in his hands and shook it a bit before shaking it a bit, "Some rough plans to start with, we'll polish them as we get more information. I also had a nice talk with Varric, and he'll have his people keep their ears to the ground. He'll let us know as soon as he hears something," he explained to Sophia before tucking the folder back beneath his arm. "How is Lucien doing by the way? I wish I could visit more," he said, a mild pout forming at his lips.

Estella supposed she had seen him most recently, but six months was hardly more up-to-date than anyone would be who wrote him regularly. But there was information that letters along could not convey. "He's keeping well," she said with a slight nod. "Busier than I can possibly imagine, of course, but... he's in good health, and mostly good spirits, I think." She looked down at the hands folded in her lap for a moment, then up at Sophia. "It doesn't take any particularly-brilliant skills at observing to know you're never far from his mind, though."

She didn't exactly know what words to give the expression he'd worn, when he'd said of Sophia that she was very far away. Melancholy was accurate, but not quite enough, somehow. Just like Sophia, though, he continued to dedicate himself to his work even with that weight always close at hand. It was a remarkable kind of strength they shared. No doubt one most people lacked.

"As for Halamshiral, well... we helped." She wouldn't deny that much. "It seemed like there was a new assassination plot around every corner, and each one with a different target, Lucien included. Thankfully, none of them got too far."

"It sounds like absolute madness," Sophia said, shaking her head slightly. "And I've lived through a nightmarish party or two." She looked out to the practice field again, where Khari was preparing to take another turn. "All of your Irregulars attended, didn't they? I'm having trouble imagining Khari blending in well."

"She broke someone's nose," Estella replied, half-smiling. In retrospect, the incident was an amusing anecdote. Perhaps Khari would come to see it that way one day, too, even if it did distress her in the aftermath for legitimate reasons. "Looked lovely in her dress, though. I can confirm."

Sophia laughed softly at that, wearing the brightest smile they'd seen of her for this visit. "Somehow I don't have trouble believing that," she said. "Either part." From the sounds of it she didn't seem overly condemning of the nose breaking. Possibly assuming there was an understandable reason behind it, given the way her friends spoke of her. And it wasn't as though it had negatively affected the result of the night in the end.

"Well I'm glad you were there to help him, everyone who was involved. I wish I could have been, too." The melancholy, the subdued longing, returned very quickly, for reasons that were quite clear. Though Lucien had lived through many great events, large and small, that defined his life and the person he was, becoming Emperor of Orlais was no doubt among the most important of them. And her duty to her city and her people had kept her from being there to see.

"He's already been making some changes," she said, possibly trying to avoid shifting conversation in the direction her previous words would lead to. "He's working on appointing a true advisory circle. I suppose it's scandalous among the Orlesians for their ruler to act like they might not know everything under the sun. He has a far greater task than I did when I stepped into my role here, so I'm sure he could use all the help he can get. I don't envy him."

They both had power to change things for the better, and appreciated the chance to use it, but Estella knew them both well enough to know they saw their reigns as duty and not at all privilege. She'd seen first hand how long it had taken Sophia to accept that she deserved the chance to serve her people, her home, as their Viscountess. And soon their Queen, unless Séverine's offer was one she was willing to take up.

"Have you thought at all about the after, Estella?" she asked. "When things have calmed down? I imagine it's difficult to think about. It was for me."

"It is," she agreed quietly, pursing her lips. "So much is uncertain that I can't even clearly see the trajectory to the end of it, sometimes. I know what we have to do, but I don't yet know exactly how, and I suppose that makes it hard to predict anything. And uncomfortable to try." She found that any such thoughts abruptly led her down one of two paths, neither of them particularly useful: the ideal end to it all, where everything was halcyon and wonderful, however unlikely that might be. And on the other hand, one of the thousand ways it could all go wrong. The afters she wouldn't be alive to see. Or worse, the afters where she would see, and miss someone important. Someones, sometimes.

She shook her head, clasping her fingers together and watching another pair of jousters tilt at each other. They scored a mutual hit, one breaking his lance on the other, but then falling sideways from the saddle, forced off by the placement of the opponent's thrust. It might be that breaking the lance over Corypheus would send the Inquisition tumbling, too—their balance was already so precarious.

"I think for people in our positions, in these situations, it's probably better not to." She spoke as though she had a fair amount of experience trying. "However you think it will turn out, something will change. Not necessarily for the worse, though. Especially if you do what you can to help, every single day." She looked to Estella, reaching slightly to place a hand on her forearm. "So don't try to take on too many days at once. You've made it this far. I know you can make it the rest of the way."

It was shortly after that William and Khari approached them, on foot this time, having removed the training gear required for the jousting. The baron waited to make sure he was welcome to speak, bowing slightly.

Sophia pulled her hand back into her lap, smiling down at them. "How did she fare?"

"She's got talent," he answered confidently. "Still pretty sloppy on her technique, but... no worse than you were the first few weeks, Excellency."

"Is that so?" Sophia lifted an eyebrow, but certainly didn't seem offended. "Maybe we can ride against each other next time you visit, Khari." She glanced down at her dress. "I'm afraid I'm not dressed for it at the moment."

Khari seemed pleased by the suggestion, a warm gleam in her eyes that suggested she was genuinely enjoying herself. “I'll hold you to that, Sophia. I'd never pass up a chance to add 'unhorsing a Viscountess' to my accomplishments. Or Queen, or whatever you are by then." She waved a hand, the title clearly entirely unimportant from her point of view.

"Bold words," Sophia answered, obviously enjoying herself as well. "I'd better keep practicing."

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Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters
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INK

Séverine had no right to be here, asking this favor.

She tried to convince herself that it wasn't really a favor for her, that it was for the entire Chantry. For Cullen, for Leon and Ophelia, for all of her templars, and every Chantry sister and brother in every city in Thedas that still felt doubt at the lack of a Divine in Val Royeaux. But it still felt like a personal request. Even if others had considered the same thing, she was the one who put voice to it, giving legs to the idea, and she would be the one asking Sophia.

And it wasn't like handing her a great honor, even though the Chantry might frame it as such. To be Divine was to serve as much as it was to rule. To sacrifice as much as it was to gain. And Sophia had already sacrificed so much for the things she cared about. She cared for her city and her home perhaps above all, but Séverine knew she cared for the Chantry too, despite everything it had done to her in the past, every way it had betrayed her. She cared for the Maker, trusted in the Maker, and would want fellow believers to be able to trust in the organization that supposedly watched over them. But for her to do that, more sacrifices would need to be made.

Séverine knew Sophia could make those sacrifices, and that made it all the worse.

After she and Leon had discussed the matter in depth with Cullen, they politely requested of Sophia's seneschal, Bran, to relay the message to Sophia that they were waiting to speak with her in her office. It wasn't long before she returned, without the company she had left with.

"This is something to do with the templars, I'm assuming?" She walked smoothly around her desk and sank into the chair behind it, settling her arms on the rests.

Séverine folded her hands together in front of her, hesitating now that the moment had arrived. She didn't let it keep her silent for long. "We can discuss that after, but there's something else I wanted to bring up first." She paused to take a breath. "I believe, and others agree, that you might be able to bring an end to the stalemate in Val Royeaux, regarding the next Divine."

Whatever Sophia had been expecting Séverine to speak of, it was not that, and it showed momentarily on her face. "I suppose my voice might have some weight there, yes, but... which candidate would I support? I'm barely familiar with most of them."

"Yourself, Excellency. I believe you should be the next Divine."

Again she was caught off guard, this time quite fully, and she paused to make sure she'd heard correctly. When Séverine simply waited uncomfortably for an answer, she shifted in her seat, trying her best to formulate one. "Me..." She took another moment to consider the idea, or perhaps just the plausibility of it. "I—why? Why should it be me?"

This question at least was something Séverine had adequately prepared for. "For a number of reasons. Your faith is well known. More than that, it is known how much your faith has been tested, and endured. You led the way in the reconstruction of the Chantry here in Kirkwall, as well as assisting in the recruiting and approving of the brothers and sisters to replace those we lost." She glanced at Cullen. "You defended the true templars who chose to remain in Kirkwall when the city wanted us thrown out. You gave us a place to remain and good works to do while we figured out how to move forward." Without her, many more would have flocked to what became the Red Templars, and perhaps all would've been lost.

"You are loved and adored by your people, and respected by foreign rulers. All have seen the remarkable recovery Kirkwall has made since your reign began. You've proven yourself strong, intelligent, compassionate, and reasonable. And now more than ever the Chantry needs a Divine with those qualities. It needs you."

Sophia took a moment to let it sink in, tilting her head slightly. "You've obviously given this a great deal of thought." She exhaled, studying something on her desk. Something on the infinite list she needed to attend to as Viscountess, no doubt. Part of Séverine wondered how this wasn't just too much to absorb all at once, but the other part knew that it was yet another reason she felt Sophia was right for this. "Perhaps I'm not in the best position to judge my own worthiness. But I'm still not convinced Val Royeaux would see things the same way."

She lifted her eyes to the Seeker in the room. "I'm assuming you're all in agreement about what Séverine has said?"

"The idea has considerable merit," Leon said, voice a bit raspier than usual at the edges. He'd looked quite stiff that morning, but that at least had faded by this point. "And the facts are the facts." He paused for a moment, considering something, then expelled a breath from his nose, almost a sigh. "But..."

His brows furrowed, carving a line above his nose. He folded his hands behind him, clasping them at his lower back. "Like ruling a nation or joining the Grey Wardens, something like this is the work of a life. And while it is rarely those who seek power who are best suited to wield it, it's also true that anyone who cannot assume the burden of this duty wholeheartedly should not assume it at all. Even if she is otherwise the best choice." His mouth twitched, as though he'd attempted to smile in his usual way but only gotten halfway there. "I don't mean to presume to say I know your heart, Lady Sophia, but I might have some insight into how you deliberate, and I wanted to say that this is not the kind of thing you ought to take up only for the good of others. If it is not good for you as well, the work will consume you, and itself suffer."

His hands tightened where they were clasped. "And perhaps you already knew that, and I've made myself redundant. Even so, I should think it no moreso than the facts already discussed." He did manage to smile that time—it was true that the argument for Sophia as Divine effectively just involved reciting her well-known history and almost equally-well-known character traits. It didn't really require any more than that.

She took in a long breath, leaning back in her chair, pressing a finger to her lips and thinking. There was a very long moment of silence, during which no one deemed it necessary to intrude. Cullen did not even have to voice his agreement; the fact that he'd remained silent was evidence enough of that, and he knew Sophia far better than Leon did.

It was not an easy thing to even begin considering, and though there were no doubt many emotions to work through even trying to approach, Sophia did that without letting many of them show in overt ways. She looked back to Leon. "If I were to agree to try for such a thing, you think my chances of actually becoming the Divine would be good? Even against the other hopefuls?"

"I do," he confirmed readily. "As of now, the strongest candidates have no interest, and the interested candidates have little strength or support. And the Chantry is in dire need of leadership at the moment, which will make them more open to considering candidacies that would have been near-impossible in any other circumstances. No offense meant, of course, but if any of the senior clergy had survived the Conclave, this would not be in any way a question right now."

"Of course," she agreed, returning to her deliberations. Séverine knew for a fact that Sophia had been quite close to Grand Cleric Elthina, that she'd been largely responsible for Sophia's devoutness growing up, a trait her father and brother had only loosely shared. Séverine also supposed it was a good thing she didn't need to recite any of these facts out loud, and reveal how well she had studied and learned of her Viscountess's life since the two of them had come in contact. No doubt Sophia was thinking of Elthina now, and how she would have made an excellent candidate for Divine, if she still lived.

Of course, if she still lived, there might not be a need for a new Divine. The facts remained, and it appeared that Sophia had accepted that she was potential candidate. A good one, at that.

But she shook her head. "I'm sorry, I can't accept this. Not yet, anyway. My duty to Kirkwall, my home, must come first for the moment. We've been recovering, steadily on the rise, and now this threat of red templars looms. My focus has to remain here, at least until they've been defeated."

"Perfectly understandable, Your Excellence," Séverine said, almost relieved that she had declined, even temporarily. "We will continue to hunt for their stronghold of power, in hopes of crushing them before they can bring any more harm to Kirkwall. I won't fail you." Sophia nodded her approval. Séverine was tempted to let it go at that, but found herself pressing on all the same. "When it's done, though... you'll consider it?"

"I will," she said, the words leaving her heavily, like she was settling another weight on her chest. "You know what it is you're asking of me, and I know you wouldn't ask it lightly. If you truly believe there's no better candidate, then I will do what I can, when I can."

"Thank you, Sophia." Séverine blinked. "Er, Your Excellence."

Sophia waved a hand in dismissal. "Please, don't bother yourself over the trivial things, you've enough to worry about."

"There's still the matter of the future of the Templar Order to discuss," Cullen pointed out. "You have a recommendation, High Seeker?"

"A bit of a self-serving one, yes." Leon shifted his arms to cross them loosely over his chest. "Recently, the Inquisition discovered that due to Lord Seeker Lucius aligning himself with Corypheus, the Seekers of Truth have been depleted to two: myself and my mentor Ophelia." The crestfallen expression on his face lasted only a moment, no doubt one spent thinking about those he had known personally, now more likely than not among the anonymous dead. "The next Divine, whoever she may be, will need more than us at her disposal, and no doubt the Templar Order will, in some measure, require the oversight the Seekers could help her provide, to ensure that no traces of our present problems remain."

It went almost without saying that Red Templar loyalists within the rebuilt ranks would be an utter disaster, tantamount to a snuffing of any confidence they might be able to win back by defeating Corypheus. Public opinion of the Templars in general had never been lower. "Ophelia is both capable of training and willing to guide a new group, to make Seekers of them. There are few enough Templars to choose from, and the Inquisition needs most of our own to remain where they are for now. No doubt she will pull more from Nevarra, Antiva, and the Anderfels. But if there are any in Kirkwall you think particularly-suited... she would have a place for them, and they a place in what is to come."

"I can think of a few," Cullen said thoughtfully, "but it may be best to wait until the current conflict is over to draw any from Kirkwall. Last night made it apparent that I may not be able to trust every templar under my command. No doubt the next few months will prove a initial trial of loyalty. This will undoubtedly be for the best, to ensure you don't end up training traitors."

"And after the Red Templars are dealt with?" asked Sophia. "The will of the city is to see the templars removed from the Gallows eventually. The people are thankful for the work they've done, but understandably they don't wish to be the bystanders caught in a templar conflict again. Nor do they ever want to see a Knight-Commander vying for power with a Viscount again. So where will they go?"

"The largest body of Templars currently resides at Skyhold." Leon moved his eyes between Sophia and Cullen. "Given the issues, we'd have to vet others carefully beforehand, but it makes sense to try and reunify the southern branches of the Order. We have the capacity for it, if they are willing to fight for our cause before they are once more put to the direct service of the Chantry." Having said that, he turned his attention to Séverine. "Of course, that plan of action would depend on the Knight-Captain's willingness to accept such an increase in her command. I run the army as a whole, but she leads the Templars. I certainly will not deny that." A half-smile pulled at his mouth, and he inclined his head in her direction, curiously pleased if his tone was anything to go by.

"I think I can manage it," Séverine said, half-smiling herself. It honestly wasn't as daunting as taking command of those she gained at Therinfal. The Kirkwall templars were men and women she'd trained with, and she knew many of them personally over years of service. Granted, that meant many of them knew her through her years of work for Meredith, and some were far more forgiving of that than others. But she wasn't that person anymore, and most had seen the change before Cullen had her follow Lucius. Any who hadn't... well, she'd get them to come around.

"Then we have an arrangement, I think," Sophia concluded. "The templars remain in Kirkwall until the Red Templar threat is dealt with. At that point, with Knight-Commander Cullen's leave, the templars will join the Inquisition in full."

"Stealing my command, are you?" Cullen asked of Séverine, his tone light. She was honestly caught off guard by that. He didn't joke very much, and he didn't even seem against the idea. It was almost enough to redden her cheeks, but she liked to think she had more composure than that.

"Er, not meaning to," she said. "We'll work something out."

"It's fine by me, I could use some time off after all this is done."

Sophia sighed, though she looked glad to see the humor in her office as well. "I think we all will."

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Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters
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INK

Rilien was finding it unusually difficult to quiet his mind.

Though he gave as little outward sign of it as ever, his thoughts had been... troubled, for the last few days. It wasn't difficult to ascertain why—the discussion of the 'cure' for Tranquility was what had done it.

Cure.

As though he were diseased.

In a way, perhaps he was.

His Tranquility had certainly been something of a problem for him in the past, when it came to matters more personal than professional. His inability to feel in the same way others did no doubt presented some limitations in his work as Spymaster as well, though he believed he adequately compensated for them in other ways. And he just as surely could not deny that it had given him many advantages: he was never shaken, never in doubt, and his decisions—even the quick ones—were always rational. Measured, and more often than not optimal given the situation. He was very, very good at what he did. There was no point in false modesty.

Unfortunately, his thoughts, always so clear, were clouded now, no doubt because of the part of him that remembered what it was like to be otherwise, and the part that wasn't quite perfectly Tranquil, a thread of connection to the Fade remaining. He still dreamed, after all.

“You are moving your wrist too much. The motion you want is a controlled arc, not a snap or flick." With a small motion, Rilien loosed one of the daggers in his sleeve from its holster and slid it down to his hand, raising his arm and tossing deftly. The blade spun end-over-end, thudding point-first into the center of the target he'd set up against the tower wall. “You are strong enough to do this without exerting so much effort. The force should come primarily from your back and shoulder, not your hand."

Lowering his arm, he tucked it back into the opposite sleeve and slid his eyes to Estella. “Try again."

She nodded, exhaling a controlled breath through her nose and reaching down to the small brace of short throwing daggers at her waist. He'd taught her a little bit of a lot over their time together, and a lot of some things in particular, but she'd never protested that. Perhaps she understood that versatility would serve her better than specialization, or perhaps she lacked the confidence to believe she could succeed at being a specialist. In either case, she never seemed to mind trying something new.

Estella emptied the brace into the target—or around it, in some cases. About three-quarters of the knives hit somewhere on the hay bale and stuck, a marked improvement over how she'd been doing when they started this morning. Of those, few wandered too close to where his own had struck dead-center, but there weren't many on the very edges, either. Her mouth pulled into a very familiar dissatisfied frown, and she jogged over to the target to pull the knives out, sliding hers back into their places before tugging several times at the one he'd thrown to try and pull it free.

The task took some doing, but she managed it, and returned, handing it to him hilt-first. "Is everything okay?" she asked. It would have been sudden, but she'd looked a little bit like she wanted to say something to him for the last hour or so. "You seem a little... distracted. For you, anyway. And then I thought maybe I knew why."

She probably did—Estella was sharp, better at reading his microexpressions than anyone but Lucien at this point, and the options were limited. No doubt she'd drawn the connection easily. Rilien considered his answer, then shook his head slightly. “I do not know."

It was absurd, really. Whatever else he may or may not have been at any given time, Rilien always knew himself to be capable of functioning. Of being what she would consider merely 'okay.' And yet now his thoughts wandered, enough that it was quite clearly affecting his instructional methods. Enough that she'd felt the need to ask.

Estella's brows drew together; she bit her lip. It was clearly not the response she'd expected. But then she pulled in a deep breath, and smiled. "Well... then how about you come with me for a bit and we'll see if we can figure it out?" Unbuckling the brace of knives, she racked it where it belonged, apparently not inclined to continue the lesson regardless, and gestured with a hand for him to follow.

When he did, she led them both outside of the tower, over the bailey grounds, and then even further, until they were on the bridge leading away from Skyhold entirely. Eventually they made it down to the lakeshore, but she moved them even past that, until they came to the ledge of one of the mountain's many sheer cliff faces. This one looked out over other parts of the range below, the mountainsides green still with late summer foliage, a glimmering ribbon below no doubt the river that began back up at the lake and wound its way down the other side.

She stopped a few feet from the edge, settling herself on the ground. "Khari and I found this place on a run," she said, leaning back and bracing her weight on the heels of her hands. "The fresh air helps me think, and there's no one around to hear what we're saying."

Rilien stared at the vista for some amount of time—he didn't keep track of just how much. The air did indeed smell nicer than that inside Skyhold, where many people and animals lived in often-close proximity to one another. Seeing the logic in it, he settled himself beside Estella, crossing his legs beneath him and setting his hands on his knees. Even at this time of year, the breeze was bracing, slightly chill against the warmth of the day. The contrast was not unpleasant.

Not unpleasant was almost the highest compliment he could give.

That thought brought him back to his conundrum. As she had not yet spoken further, he could only assume that Estella was waiting for him to elaborate on his earlier statement, and though it was difficult, he wanted to do so. Perhaps because, while she might come to him for advice on what logic demanded in some situation or another... he could think of few people better to tell him what was right in a situation about right. About feelings. About anything warmer than the chill water of tranquility allowed him to feel. He was numb to a great deal.

“I am not sure what to do." The words were quiet. “I do not know whether it would be better, to be rid of my tranquility, or to remain as I am."

She nodded, apparently having been expecting something along those lines. "I don't really know the answer to that either," she confessed, "but I'd like to help if I can. What's the most logical argument in favor of going through with the reversal?"

“There are things I do not fully understand as I am." The first part of his answer was immediate. Rilien let his eyes wander along the uneven line of the river in the valley below, tracing its course down towards sea level. This one emptied into the ocean near Jader, but it was little more than a trickle by the time it got so far. “Things that, in some sense, it would be useful for a Spymaster to know. I am not always able to predict with accuracy what the emotions of others will allow them to do. I cannot... empathize. Place myself in the position of another person and assume the outcomes would be even remotely similar. This damages my predictive capacity and is a shortcoming that I consistently must work around."

Of course, that was far from the entirety of it, but the second part did not have such an easy explanation, such obvious relevance. “Also... being as I am has... done damage. It has hurt people I have no desire to harm. It may have lost me the greatest gift I ever received. I am under no illusion that undoing my Rite will repair what damage I have done, but it may prevent me from making such mistakes in the future. From hurting others."

Estella was silent, shifting her position so that she was sitting more upright and her hands were loosely folded in her lap. The breeze stirred her ponytail, still a bit sweat-slick from being put through her paces earlier in the day. "And what are the arguments in favor of staying the way you are right now?"

“Being tranquil affords me considerable advantages in what I do." Rilien closed his eyes, letting one whole breath pass before he opened them again. “My judgement is most often clear even when that belonging to others is clouded by emotional considerations. I am able to put aside what limited feelings I possess in the interest of the most logical, efficient decision. I can ignore more pain than most people because it does not cause me panic or fear. The fact that I do not easily empathize with others allows me to be ruthless. That is perhaps not a very desirable quality on its own, but it is a necessary counterbalance to the idealism of the people I have taken it upon myself to assist."

It felt more difficult than it should have been, to move his eyes from the scene in front of him to her face, but he did. For once, Rilien had no idea what he was going to see there, and that was... unpleasant. He could not imagine what he would do if he saw something that had once been common for him—horror, or disgust, or pity. He had never laid out his ways of thinking, his shortcomings, in such stark terms for anyone before. People tended to build into his presumed thoughts ones that really were not there. Ones that would make him more like everyone else. They tended to think that he was really just like them, somewhere internal, that his stoniness was a lack of expression, not a deeper lack.

But it was. This was the way he thought, the way he made his decisions. The cut and dry assessment of advantages and disadvantages, professionally. And the occasional unwelcome, disturbing thought of a more personal nature.

But Estella met his eyes with not a bit of any of that on her face. No pity, no revulsion, no fear or horror. Instead, she smiled slightly. "I think you're selling yourself a little short, Rilien." She paused, tilting her head. "Or maybe you just think too much of the rest of us, I'm not sure which. But look." She shuffled a bit closer, so as to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with him, hers warm from sunlight and solid from years of conditioning. Most of which was, at base, his doing. "Everyone does damage sometimes, whether they have all the usual emotions all the time or not. That's just part of being a person living in a world with other people."

She tipped her head slightly sideways, resting the side of her cheek on his shoulder. "I think I know what you're talking about specifically, and I can't really give you an answer because I'm not the right person for that. All I can tell you is what I know. Maybe it will be relevant to your decision, and maybe it won't but... will you listen when I explain it?"

Rilien was admittedly not used to this much physical proximity to others—others rarely dared or bothered. It was... there was an uncomfortable twinge in his chest, but he had no desire to move away, and so he didn't. Unsure what his voice would sound like if he spoke, he simply nodded instead. He'd always listen to anything she found important enough to say.

"I think you're wonderful," Estella said, no trace of uncertainty or hesitation in the words. "Exactly the way you are, right now. I've always thought that, and you've done nothing but give me even more reasons as I got to know you." Shifting slightly, she pulled in a deep breath, her arm pressing a little more firmly into his as her lungs expanded. "I will wholeheartedly support you in whichever decision you make, but I don't want you to choose to do this because you believe that you're somehow inadequate as you are now. You're not."

Her eyes fell shut. "When we first met, I wasn't sure if I was going to be in Kirkwall the next day or if I was going to sneak away in the night. The Lions confused me. I thought their kindness couldn't possibly be real. That they had to be lying, because no one ever gave that much without expecting something in return. I didn't know what it was going to be, but I was afraid. waiting for the other shoe to fall the whole time." In her lap, her hands curled into loose fists.

"But you... you were just what I needed. You didn't try to tell me that I'd do better or be better if only I tried. You didn't have any expectations, and you never once made your words any gentler to spare my feelings. You just told me what I was doing wrong, and how to fix it. And when I still couldn't, you didn't coddle me or get frustrated and give up, even though I was always waiting for you to. All you wanted me to do was keep going." Consciously, she relaxed her hands.

Her next breath was a little uneven. "I know now. That you feel things. Nothing you say can convince me that you don't, because I've seen it. I know what it's like when someone's only pretending to care about me. You've never once pretended anything, not to me. And that... that saved me, Rilien. You did. Your steadiness, your... unimpeachable honesty. That was exactly what I needed. And I've relied on you so many times for just that. For the part of you that sees right to the heart of things, with logic and ruthlessness and all of it. But also... also for the part of you that cares. Because you could be anywhere. You could be doing anything, almost. Maker knows I've never met anyone as capable as you. But you're here, and helping us. Helping me. And if anyone's ever told you that what you feel, the way you feel, isn't enough... then—then fuck them. Anyone who thinks that doesn't deserve you anyway."

For an interminable, distended moment, Rilien simply stared at her. The signs of emotion were there, the uneven breathing, the slight tremble he thought he could feel. It was almost incomprehensible to him that she should feel such things for his sake, on his behalf. But in another way, it wasn't so difficult to understand at all.

He swallowed, the motion curiously difficult, as though there were something lodged in the back of his throat. Reaching up, he laid an hand on her head, stroking his fingers back until his palm rested on her crown. It was warm. Just like everything about her.

“Thank you." Her words were not an answer. But she hadn't intended them to be—she respected that this was his choice to make, and as she'd promised, simply told him what she thought. What she saw. He could not see quite what she could, but he acknowledged that she was not deceiving him, and he knew there was merit in her words. Perhaps... perhaps what passed as his feelings were enough. Perhaps he did not need to be anything he was not, even for the one purpose that had eaten away at him since Cyrus revealed that undoing his Rite was a live option.

But to know that for sure... he would have to speak to someone else.

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INK

Songbirds caroled their songs above Skyhold’s garden, bathed in the first lick of morning-light. Orange and red hues painting the grounds. Sparrow, for the most part, was alone as she wandered between rows of flowers and twisting greenery. Flitting like a hummingbird—never staying for too long before her hands crooked out from underneath her thin cape, threading flower stems through her knuckles. Gently. A soft touch that conflicted against the callouses riddled across her hands. Hands made for breaking things, not creating them. She stooped down to pull out weeds and tossed them in the burlap sack tied to her belt.

Elfroot. Black lotus. Dogwood. Roses. Tulips.

It reminded her of Aurora’s garden. A little different. After all, this was not Kirkwall. Would never be Kirkwall. There were times when she even missed the musty slums of Darktown. Her hovel. Theirs. She supposed that it had more to do with missing how things used to be. Memories that she hadn’t quite let go of. Even so, the similarities were close enough to drag herself out of bed. She woke up early enough to tend to it while the others slept and squirreled away before anyone could catch her there. There was a comfort there, having this little world to herself. She wiped the dirt from her palms across the front of her trousers and frowned across the way.

This was hers, for a time. Until it, too, eluded her. She hoped that someone still cared for the flowers and plants back in Kirkwall. It would’ve been a shame if they were left to fade. A fool’s thought.

As it happened, however, she did not occupy the garden alone on this particular morning. She could not hear Rilien's footsteps, but she could see him, somewhat further down her path, currently paused by the bed of irises that sat firmly under the shade of one of the courtyard's walls. His hands were folded into his sleeves, back pressed to the dark grey stone behind him, one foot propped against it as well.

It wasn't more than a few seconds after she noticed his presence that he glanced up, meeting her eyes across the slightly-awkward distance. He didn't say anything—he never raised his voice, and he would have needed to in order to guarantee that she'd hear him. Instead, he tilted his head slightly to the left. An invitation.

Sparrow had long since stopped questioning Rilien’s ability to drift into her peripherals, soundless as an apparition. Their gaits contrasted as brightly as he did in the garden; a shadow among flowers. How long he’d been there without her noticing was anyone’s guess. She was accustomed to that as well. He may have been the only one in Skyhold who could find her as easily as he did. It made her question, at times, if she had really changed all, if she was a predictable creature, even after all this time.

Still. It was unusual to see him here of all places. It was common for her to seek him out in the rookery. Stealing into his space like one of his ravens, bereft of invitation; either drinking tea or discussing her students. About the others, as well. Ashton, Sophia, Lucien. Small conversations. Other times, they’d sit in silence. She found that she didn’t mind those moments as much as she used to. She unhooked the burlap sack from her belt and dropped it at her feet before closing the distance between them.

She took her own place at his side, leaning against the stone wall as well. She stared off towards the mountains, the sun climbing the sky—beyond them, towards nothing. Sparrow inclined her head to the side, tucking an errant strand of hair behind her stubbed ear. She turned her gaze towards him and held it there, studying his face. Waiting. She’d long since stomped out the piece of herself that clambered to be heard.

Probably a good thing, in this case, because he let the silence reign for several minutes, holding court over the garden like a monarch, they its obedient subjects. He glanced at her once, unreadable as he always was, but turned his eyes back out to the courtyard before he spoke.

“There is a way to reverse the Rite of Tranquility." His arms shifted slightly, producing a rustling in the light silk of his sleeves. His bell-sleeved tunic was purple today. Dark, like wine, tinged with red in the same way. The gold stitching at the hems winked in the sunlight where he moved, an odd break in the stillness. Unnatural to him—a ripple in a pond, not a wave in the ocean. He said nothing further.

What—

Sparrow’s hand snapped out and grabbed onto his sleeve, just below his elbow. An involuntary motion. She blinked sluggishly. Not quite believing her own ears. Even so, she did not relinquish her grip.

Had she heard him correctly? The words washed over her. A hopeful swell. Desperate, and so, so guilty. It spilled over so many things she’d tried to bury. She studied the profile of his face, once more. An uncomfortable feeling bloomed in the pit of her belly, threatening to overtake her. She quelled the quiver of her lip by biting the inside of her cheek. Hard. How long had she waited to hear such words? That there was a chance of reversing what she’d done to him meant more than she could articulate. She’d never been good with words.

She could return what she had stolen in Kirkwall. His chance at a new life. A beginning. He’d never profess to wanting something in so many words, but she knew that he must’ve, if he could. If it had ever been a possibility. Being whole. She swallowed thickly, trying to dislodge the horrible lump occupying her throat. It didn’t seem to work. “Ril,” she allowed herself a pause, wetting her lips, “When? How?”

He allowed her touch in the same way he always had: without protest or the faintest hint of discomfort. She knew that if he hadn't wanted it, he'd have no problem extricating himself—he was never one to endure something to spare someone else's feelings. It seemed to take him some effort to move his eyes back to her, like they were pulled away to nothing else in particular. Like it was somehow difficult. “Only recently." His lips pursed just fractionally. “It seems that the Seeker leadership has always known. Ser Leonhardt recently inherited the knowledge, which was then conveyed to me."

He paused; the silence seemed heavier now, less comfortable. “I... wished to know. What you thought of the idea." He gave no hint as to his own thoughts, at least none over and above the subtle indications of tension in the way he held himself. If he'd been anyone else, it might have been nervousness. But he was not anyone else; only himself.

Sparrow’s eyebrows drew together. A much younger version of herself would have wailed against the injustice, railed against the fact that someone else had that knowledge available, kept in dusty tomes. She would have roared how disgusting those wretches were for secreting away something so damn important to him. To her. But she was older now, and understood that things were hardly that simple; it was enough that they had it now. What she hadn’t expected was the sickeningly hollow feeling expanding within her. Making her want to scream, suddenly, like a child beating its fists against change. That’s what it was, wasn’t it?

Her hand smoothed down the silken fabric of his sleeves until it rested against his hand. The silence was palpable. He hadn’t changed since Kirkwall. There were lines there, between his words, as there always had been. Unspoken, but implied. It felt like Rilien was the only one with all the answers in his hands, and yet… he’d ask her a question like that. What she thought of this; and in an instant when she shouldn’t falter, hesitate; she did for no reason she could justify.

For a moment, Sparrow only stared at him. She remembered Ashton’s words. How he’d been in those dreary caves, hunting for a demon to rid herself or Rapture. He was happy. Ecstatic. Whole. A man entirely different from how he was now. She remembered what Lucien had told her. How sick she’d been of herself afterwards. It was a sacrifice he shouldn’t have needed to make.

It was a chance to rectify that… even if he’d become less of the Rilien she knew. Her fingers closed around his hand. There was a hardness to her eyes; a determined tilt to her chin. There was nothing, no one. Only him. “I think we should do everything in our power to make sure we succeed.” Her voice, though softening to a whisper, peeled like chantry bells in the silence that seemed to blanket them, “Isn’t that what you want?”

“What I want is to know that I have not lost you." He ducked his head slightly, catching her eyes with his and holding them steadily. Rilien's were such an odd color, gold tinged with orange, like the mellow flame of a candle, or the much less-mellow hue of a blade in the forge. His jaw flexed under the smooth skin of his face. “When I am not Tranquil, I..." He paused a heartbeat too long for it to be insignificant. “I love you."

A soft breath left him, his shoulders easing just a fraction. “When I am like this—I do not know if it can be called the same thing." He frowned openly. A more subtle expression than the same would be on another face, but obvious nevertheless. “You deserve that. To be loved. I do not know if I can give you that, as I am. And if you desire that I should become someone who can, then I will." The words were cautious, as though he believed she might well choose that. But he was also clearly telling the truth—he would let her decide that if she wanted to.

Sparrow’s mouth dried up like a summer drought on her tongue. It was not what she expected to hear. There was a small chance that she was imagining this all. Disbelief lined her innards, and if she wasn’t frozen in place, she might have pinched herself to confirm her suspicions. Asleep somewhere, nestled under a dogwood tree. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities. Where else would she hear those words tumbling so carefully from his lips? The Rite of Tranquility—a cure, a means to relinquish him from shackles long set on his wrists. And this admission.

It was careful. Cautious as a whisper. An honest allowance, threading itself into a decision he wanted her to make. One that was much too large to fit in her palms. One that she didn’t think she deserved to make. Wasn’t this the same as stealing something away from him? Another decision. She, too, remembered her own admission in Kirkwall. It had not been enough to dissuade him at the time; to keep him in place, where she had found a place to perch. Her grip tightened on his hand as she tore her gaze away and studied the stonework at his shoulder.

The sky was cranberry, sunlight peeping across the horizon and catching against the gold of his robes—stealing her gaze, until she found herself staring back into his eyes. Two suns. There was no desperation there, but she certainly sensed uncertainty. If there was any hint to what he truly wanted, he did not allow it to seep through. There was too much she wanted to say. Things she’d kept locked up. Or so she’d believed. The lump in her throat constricted. She didn’t trust the sound of her voice. Even so. “You should know,” she focused on keeping it as level as she could manage, smoothing out the ugly creaks, “that you’d never lose me.”

It was all she’d wanted to hear. Long ago.

Her hand trembled. “This is...” too much to bear, a responsibility she selfishly yearned after. “How would you be afterwards?” The implications were there. Would he be crippled by everything he’s never felt before? Having one’s emotions ripped away was terrible enough, but to have them all pour back in… was unfathomable. She didn’t understand the procedure. She hardly understood the Rite of Tranquility at all.

“Not well." The answer was simple, succinct. Perhaps sensing that she needed more than that alone, he continued. “I have reason to suspect I would endure considerable emotional torment, for how long I could not say. I have been without those things for a very long time. At least... without the most powerful forms of them. It has been more than twenty years." All simple truth, and delivered like it. He considered her, head slightly tilted. “Please do not decide on that basis alone. It is not unworthy of consideration—my indisposal would inhibit the Inquisition considerably. But it is not all that is worth considering."

His eyes dropped; then, for a moment, they closed. “Estella says I am... enough as I am. But she is my student and my friend, and you are... something different from that. I would understand if I was not enough, for you."

How his eyes would light, how his voice would brighten, how passion would bleed from his very being—it’s how Sparrow imagined it would have been like, if she’d been there to witness it. It was how she had pictured it when Ashton told her how he’d been in that short span of time. She felt foolish for believing that it would have been all good. There were things she wished she couldn’t feel at all. Guilt. Regret. Grief. A kaleidoscope of emotion, colliding all at once. Heavy burdens. Would she wish those things on him if she knew he would suffer? For her sake.

Her question held none of the confidence she seemed capable of conjuring. It was quiet, imploring. Dredging hands towards a selfish wish, but still shrinking against it. Her mouth thinned for a moment before she let out an exhale, one that she hadn’t been aware she was holding in. She knew beneath the hardness she’d built over the years, scraping down Thedas, bloodying her fists, that she was still hurt. That she still wanted. She smiled, if only a little. “Of course you are. You always have been,” she could feel her heart tightening, uncomfortable in her chest, “So, I’ll ask you… what do you want?”

The question seemed to give him a moment's pause. But it didn't appear to come as a surprise—not that anything ever did. Still, for some reason, Rilien weighed his words carefully before he spoke, and when he did so, it was with unusual slowness. “I want to try again." Obviously that was not sufficiently clear, but he let it sit for a moment before explaining it. “In the time I spent away from you, I realized that it was not possible to become as I had been before you. You changed me, enough that my idea of what was important changed as well. I want to live in a way that is true to that change. True to the significance you have to me."

Slowly, he extracted one hand from his sleeve, reaching forward slowly—slowly enough that she had ample time to move away. His palm came to rest on her cheek, the calluses on his fingertips pressing gently into her cheekbone. “To me. To the person you changed. The person you loved. I do not know what the words are for what you are to me now, but I wish for the opportunity to discover them, if you find that suggestion to be tolerable."

There was no doubt that he knew her better for everything she didn’t say. The things she never needed to say. Her actions spoke volumes; her tide, beating against the boulder of everything Rilien stood for. The only one who had ever willingly weathered her storms in all the ways she needed. The odds had always been stacked against them. They came from different worlds, colliding into one. A mess, in every sense. He set it to rights, while she continued to stumble. Even now, with everything that had changed in his absence, the flicker of the disreputable woman roaring from the shadows remained. But it was not only she who felt the relentless tugging urging her to dig her heels into the dirt. To stay in one place, instead of fleeing to where the wind took her.

For all of the thing she’d shaken apart in Rilien’s world… he’d changed hers just as much. He changed everything he touched without realizing the significance. She’d seen how he’d changed others, as well. Stel. Her friends in Kirkwall. Skyhold would falter without him, she was sure. Irreplaceable. She would have been remiss to deny the fact that she’d sought him out along her travels with Aurora—perhaps, that’s how it had always been. He had given her a home; a place she wanted to be. He was so much more than she ever thought he could be. As he was now, and as he could be.

Even this was careful. The cautious caress that made her heart ache. A question in itself. He had plenty of those, and half of them she wasn’t sure how to answer. She pressed her face into his hand, shuttering her eyes closed. Yes, of course. Her selfish heart wanted for nothing less. She drew one of her hands up and placed it at his own, holding it in place. Upon opening them, she met his gaze and closed the distance between them, as she had done so long ago. A firestorm who did not ask for permission. Her lips, always so insistent, found his. The kiss was fragile, soft. Quick as a bird’s beating wings. Only then did she rest her forehead against his, breathing out. This was her answer. Had always been.

It would not be unpleasant. The words echoed in her mind. It almost made her laugh. She could feel the scars on her face pulling up, “Tolerable? Of course I would. For as long as it takes for you to discover them, I'll be here. It’s what I’ve always wanted, Rilien. You’ve kept me waiting long enough.”

His expression softened, and for a moment she could see a faint echo of the elf Ash had described to her. Eyes warmed with something, lips curled faintly. Even the little place where his nose went crooked seemed to suit him in that moment, the subtle imperfection something that made him look less like a wax sculpture and more like he was really alive. His thumb moved across her cheek, smoothing over the skin just beneath her eye, his brow still pressed to hers.

“Then I shall endeavor never to make you wait again."

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INK

There was no time to linger and hope their allies could break through.

Ithilian had never been of the opinion that they needed them to get the job done. The help was welcome, and it had gotten them this far, but it was always going to be he and Amalia that had to do this themselves. Marcus was too smart to risk letting it happen any other way, but also too keen on their deaths not to risk letting it happen at all. Not only that, he wanted to kill them himself, just as much as they wanted to kill him. Two sides of a battle of over a decade, steadily reducing each other's lives to ruin.

It ended here, somewhere in this tower. The barrier had them trapped in a stairwell, but rather than pincer them with Venatori on both sides, they only rushed down from above. Ithilian already had his blades out, and Parshaara first found the blood of an overeager Venatori trying to leap down on them from several stairs up. His throat was opened as a result, but more were immediately coming. The tower's stairwell was open and round, a railing separating them from a very long fall. Ithilian was quite certain he'd never been in such a tall building before.

Though there was more up than down, it was down that the Venatori clearly intended for them to go, as a large group of Venatori, mages and warriors alike, continued down towards them, a few slinging spells already. "Can't fight them here," he said, remaining calm. There were too many, and while the terrain was tight and would nullify number advantages in melee, the mages would still be able to fire at them with impunity from across the gap. "Need to move down."

Amalia tsked softly, reaching down to her belt and lobbing something there up and over. The sound of glass shattering followed, and several thuds where Venatori bodies hit the staircase further up. Probably just a temporary unconsciousness, and not enough to thin out the ranks so they could climb instead of descending, but it gave them a few less to worry about. She glanced down the stairwell, then started to follow it.

It became clear quite quickly that they were being herded, as the Venatori recollected themselves, now considerably more cautious of the danger even just the two of them presented, and their focus shifted to gaining ground rather than doing damage outright, a variety of spells aimed for their feet to keep them moving, and a choir of clanging blades to greet them should they attempt to push against the tide. It was in this way that they came to the bottom of the staircase, an unassuming closed wooden door their only clue as to what lay below.

Amalia's back hit it first; she grimaced. It was obvious enough what the course of action was here, and also obvious that it was one they were meant to take. Fighting on Marcus's terms was far from ideal—he had proven on many occasions to be possessed of not only considerable magical talent to compliment his physical capabilities, but a predator's intuition and a very cunning knack for traps and other such defenses. They did best when they caught him by surprise, and in this case, they clearly had not.

She reached across, putting her hand on the knob of the door, which remained harmless for now. "I'm opening it," she warned him, before wrenching it and pushing in at the same time, turning herself so that she stepped in weapons-first.

As with the entrance, a golden barrier of some sort shimmered behind her, but chances were good that it would allow Ithilian to pass as well.

Ithilian would never say he trusted such a thing, but there wasn't much choice here. It was that or fight the horde of Venatori until they were overwhelmed. Gritting his teeth, he threw himself through it, expecting the worst on the other side.

At first, all that met his eye was darkness. The barrier washed over him like hot water, on the verge of burning, but not quite there. When his vision returned on the other side of it, there still wasn't all that much light to speak of.

The chamber they'd landed in was quite large—probably taking up the whole level by itself. Peering through the gloom made it possible to tell almost immediately what it had been designed for. Various sinister-looking instruments of pain hung from the walls or ceiling, or lay on plain wooden tables lining the chamber's sides, glinting in a way that somehow suggested malevolence.

The centerpiece of the room, however, was clearly what had captured Amalia's attention. Another table, this one somewhat longer and wider than the others, part of it angled up at a slight incline. The straps and metal bands around it suggested that it was meant to hold a person and keep them held; the indistinct reddish stains could only mean it had seen use. Parts of it were rusted—indeed the whole thing looked quite old.

"Do you like it?" The smooth, oily tone of the voice could only belong to one person.

The sharp sound of a finger being snapped echoed throughout the room, and the light level went up a few notches, allowing them to see all the way across the chamber. Marcus stood in deep shadow, flanked by two others in the white robes of the Venatori elite: a young elven woman with a swarthy complexion and an even younger man with ash-colored hair.

The visible half of Marcus's face curled into a smile. "I regret that I could not host you once more in that old fool's dungeons, but I did manage to salvage this particular piece. Please forgive its state of disrepair—it has seen no guests since you, dear kadan." Amalia's jaw visibly tightened, but she was clearly wary of approaching. It wasn't hard to tell why—this had the feel of a trap to it, and the last thing they ought to do would be to seize the bait and walk right into it.

Always with the flair for the dramatic. It had a way of making Ithilian feel sick. He knew well what Marcus had done to her, in a time before they'd even met in Kirkwall's Alienage. He knew well that Marcus enjoyed doing it, that the memory likely gave him pleasure, as did the thought of doing it again. To both of them, no doubt, but to Amalia in particular, because their relationship had been one of trust, at least in one direction, before it was one of hatred. They just wanted Marcus dead so they could have peace in their lives. Marcus wanted them dead, eventually, once he was satisfied.

As was almost always the case in their engagements, Marcus would be the one doing most of the talking. Even with half his face burned away by Parshaara he couldn't be silenced. And even in every inconclusive fight he could never get a rise out of them. Their cool heads had kept them alive a number of times. The Ithilian of a decade ago would've long gotten himself killed by now.

Ithilian was swift to change weapons, sheathing his blades and drawing his bow. He drew back an arrow, aiming it first at Marcus, then deciding to direct it to his side, at the ashen-haired man. He was not interested in talking.

Beside him, Amalia chose a similar tactic, launching a throwing knife across the room towards the woman. They'd fought her a few times as well—Leta, her name was, and near as they could discern, she was some kind of apprentice or acolyte of Marcus's. Certainly one of the more dangerous Venatori.

Both arrow and knife were struck from the air. The man met the arrow midair with a heavy stone projectile, while the knife simply clattered off an orange-colored barrier. Marcus himself didn't move at all, instead sighing, as though it was all some kind of minor inconvenience and not yet another iteration in a fight for the lives of everyone involved.

"Well, never mind, I suppose. There's always later." With a lazy hand gesture, he signaled the other two forward, and they went without hesitation. The man drew a heavy mace from his back; Leta preferred the traditional staff wielded as a weapon almost more than a focus. Each threw a heavy fire spell in advance of their passage, forcing Ithilian and Amalia to move or be baked where they stood.

Amalia went left, towards Leta, drawing a second, longer knife from a sheath at the small of her back. Perhaps unwilling to risk the floor, she instead leaped onto one of the tables, sending several sharp bladed objects clattering to the floor beneath it.

Rather than replace the bow at his back Ithilian dropped it, letting the quiver fall as well. He doubted they would be much more use in the fight, and there would be benefit in fighting lighter. These others needed to be dealt with before they could focus on Marcus. Sacrifices to soften them up, though he didn't doubt Marcus had invested considerable time in training them. With Amalia engaging Leta, Ithilian cut off the approach of the mace-armed Venatori.

He slid under the thrown fireball, the spell blasting against the wall behind him, and drew his sword and dagger, meeting the first downward swing of the mace with a deflection that sent sparks flying from the fire enchantment on Parshaara. Immediately he was able to drag his blade up across the man's upper arm and slice open the white robes there, landing the first hit. The pommel of the mace came up in retaliation, but Ithilian anticipated and caught it, turning the momentum against him by hurling him around in a half circle, throwing him into a wooden table and tipping it over, possibly close enough to disrupt Leta's focus for a moment.

It seemed to have an effect of some kind, if the low oath she hissed out was any indication. It looked like she might have released her spell too early, the telekinetic burst forcing her a step backward even as she threw it at Amalia and followed it the rest of the way in, swinging for center mass with the wickedly-bladed end of her staff. The other end was already catching fire, the first hint that the follow-up would be a close range incendiary spell.

Amalia deflected the staff-blow with her dagger, still slightly off-balance from the concussion spell. Rather than trying to force herself steady, she fell into a roll, coming up at Leta's side and slashing at her arm before the flames could fully manifest. They'd both grown much more experienced at fighting mages over the past few years, even compared to their time in Kirkwall. Marcus trained his to be capable physically as well, which hadn't usually been a problem, back then.

Ducking under the elf's elbow, Amalia forewent the opportunity to try and attack her from behind, using her momentum to hurl a pair of knives at Ithilian's foe instead. Planting her hand on the ground, she attempted to sweep Leta's legs out from beneath her.

Leta jumped back, narrowly avoiding the sweep of the knife and thrusting one of her hands forward. The spell she used threw them apart with another blast of force, probably an attempt to better position herself to use her weapon's superior reach.

Amalia's knives flew to their target, striking him in the upper back near the shoulder of his weapon arm just as he was about to swing. It was an opening Ithilian seized on, not by slicing with his blades but by driving his knee up hard into the man's face, wrenching his head up and knocking him flat onto his back beside the tipped table. He plunged down at him with his blades, the killing blow with his dagger just pushed aside by the Venatori's free hand, the mace able to block his sword. He wouldn't last much longer though, as Ithilian had the superior leverage.

"Kadan!" That was the only warning Ithilian got before a flash in the corner of his eye alerted him to an incoming chain lightning spell. It was just enough. Ithilian had suspected Marcus wouldn't wait much longer, and he was just able to side step it, leaving his grounded and dazed foe in favor of using the fallen table as a temporary sort of cover or shield, his blade ready to strike over it.

Marcus's next spell hit the table directly, nearly splitting it in half in the process, though it held well enough to serve its purpose. The man himself threw another blast for Amalia's feet, this one ice. She jumped away in time to avoid the worst of it, though the wall of jagged crystals that resulted forced her closer to Leta.

The Magister himself had followed the spells in, fire blossoming around his hands, but he wisely did not draw within Ithilian's striking range, keeping up the pressure on Amalia instead. Planting a foot in Leta's chest, she shoved the other woman as far away as she could to buy herself time and lunged directly for Marcus, forcing him three steps backward—and now within range.

Ithilian planted a foot on the edge of the tipped table, launching himself into the air at Marcus, but the intent of Amalia's attack was something he read easily enough, as they often made attacks with little chance of success in order to create openings for each other. He was able to turn instinctively and find Ithilian in the air, throwing up a hand and hitting him with a directed telekinetic blast. It clotheslined him to the ground on his back.

He rolled away from the flames that erupted from Marcus's fingertips, the Magister's back covered by Leta re-engaging Amalia. Marcus rushed forward through the smoke after the spell was through, swinging flaming fists at Ithilian. He dodged and was forced backwards, eventually seeing a strike well enough to block and make a slash of his elven blade into Marcus's side, opening up a bloody line.

Ithilian was about to rain more down on him when the mace collided with his upper back, leaving a bloody gash and pitching him forward. Marcus swung in the opening, a punch leaving a nasty burn across the left side of his jaw and forcing Ithilian back again. The mace armed Venatori wrapped his arms around him from behind, grimacing from the effort required after the wounds he'd suffered. For the moment he pinned Ithilian in place, and forced him to lash out with a kick to keep Marcus back.

Amalia obviously noticed, breaking off from Leta with a short thrust of her hand to shove the other woman back. It wouldn't last more than a second, but she used the time to remove another small knife from her belt. It cut through the air with a high-pitched hum, passing Ithilian's face closely enough that he could feel the ripple as it flew. A wet squelch signaled that it had sheathed itself in the ashen-haired man's eye. Immediately the arms holding him slackened, but did not fall away entirely, and the Venatori started to tip backwards.

Amalia paid for the intervention—the time it had taken to aim and throw allowed Leta to recover and left her open to counterattack. The elven woman's staff cracked over Amalia's temple, and when she staggered back, a powerful blast threw her into the far wall, where she bounced off with a dull noise and crumpled to the ground, coughing and struggling to find her knees as Leta advanced.

Ithilian threw an elbow backwards, aiming for the knife in the Venatori's eye, but he missed, hitting the nose instead. Either way, the mace-armed disciple of Marcus fell away, though he wasn't dead yet. Probably not a threat for the moment, at least not compared to Marcus. Amalia was going to need time to recover, and recovering wasn't going to be easy with Leta keeping up the pressure. It meant Ithilian had to fight Marcus alone for the time being. Neither of them had ever had much success alone, but there was no alternative. He lowered his stance, readied his blades, and locked his eye on his opponent.

Marcus drew a single long dagger of his own from his hip, longer than Parshaara but not reaching the length of his elven short sword. Ithilian was quick enough that engaging him without weapons was less than ideal. Marcus pressed the attack, mixing melee attacks with lightning fast close-range spells, with almost no time used to cast and throw them. What they lacked in power they made up for in speed, and the first few all connected. A jolt of lightning to his leg, a small shard of ice into his side, a telekinetic blast that interrupted his swing and opened him up for a knife slash to the face. He leaned away in time for it to only slice his cheek.

He wasn't impossible to anticipate, however, and went for a final blow before it was time, trying to call down a crushing prison on top of him. It was not an easy spell to cast quickly, and it gave Ithilian just enough time to make a swift sidestep and land a slash to the side of Marcus's leg. He wavered, sinking low for a moment, and Ithilian stabbed upwards with Parshaara, aiming for his throat. The attack was deflected by a powerful and sudden telekinetic burst, strong enough to break several bones in Ithilian's right hand. His dagger flew from his hand, landing on the floor.

Marcus's knife stabbed into his side, spilling out blood, and he was driven back until he bumped into the centerpiece of the room, the torture table he'd used on Amalia. Forcefully Ithilian smacked away the arm holding the blade, removing it from his side. He swiped his Dalish sword high, catching Marcus for once by surprise and landing a slash across his brow, cracking the porcelain mask on half his face as well. Marcus grunted in pain, staggering a step back, and Ithilian went for a lunge to end him. Even this, it seemed was a ploy.

Marcus reacted with almost inhuman speed, bending out of the way of the lunge and grabbing Ithilian's left arm by the wrist. His dagger came down in a swift slice at Ithilian's elbow, chopping in deep, almost the entire way through the bone at the joint. His arm refused to obey him anymore; his Dalish sword fell from his hand as well.

"You owe me half a face," the Magister hissed, the knife digging in deeper. His black eyes were wild, alive with the fervor of adrenaline and no small amount of madness. "Since you lack even that, I will have this instead."

His dagger began to vibrate with a magical telekinetic force, and it tore through the rest of Ithilian's arm.

It fell to the floor at their feet, a bloody stump left behind. Ithilian stared at it for a moment, and Marcus at him, no doubt savoring the moment. It wasn't to last, though. With his broken hand he reached up to grab Marcus's collar, and before anything else could happen he'd yanked their heads together, smashing his lack of a face into the Magister's porcelain one. It shattered, revealing a twisted mass of burn scars, angry red and shiny. They flared over Marcus's still-intact eye, from his half-missing brow all the way down to the line of his once-handsome jawline. Parshaara's enchantment had left much of the skin permanently blackened as well, the underlying muscle paralyzed in the shape of a contorted rictus. It did nothing to lessen the impression of insanity.

Snarling, he sliced a deep gash across Ithilian's chest with his dagger, grabbed him, wheeled him around to his other side, and blasted him with magical force across the room. He rolled over once, ending up face down. Consciousness wasn't quite lost, and he could see that Marcus was leaving him to bleed, turning on Amalia instead.

She still fought, having by this stage rolled to her feet and regained her balance. A large wedge was missing from Leta's staff, no doubt where raising it to block in time had saved the Venatori captain from a much worse fate. Without being able to use it quite so effectively in combat, the elf was struggling against Amalia's superior mobility and precision, casting almost purely defensively in an attempt to keep her fleet opponent from overpowering her at close range.

Marcus's intervention turned things around, however, and he caught Amalia by surprise with a heavy blast of ice to her center mass, crystals forming around her abdomen and hips, creeping down towards her thighs and hindering her midstride. She dropped into a roll, trying to crush some of the ice impeding her and reposition herself away from the wall at the same time, but the magic had slowed her considerably. Leta managed to catch her across the head again when she rose from the roll, the bladed edge of the staff opening a deep gash just above her right eye.

Marcus moved in with the knife, allowing Leta to drop back and shoot spells from range. He went in for a low slash first, Amalia just barely twisting out of the way. His follow-up was swift and unexpected; he closed his hand around Amalia's throat and leaned in, speaking too low for Ithilian to hear. More taunts, no doubt.

Whatever he said provoked an immediate reaction; Amalia slashed for his face with the knife she was still holding, opening up a cut on his burned side. He leaned away from the worst of it, and she let her knees buckle, dragging them both to the ground. It at least prevented Leta from doing too much—with her master in such close quarters, she couldn't risk hitting him by mistake. But Marcus had not let go of Amalia's throat, and Ithilian could see her beginning to weaken as lack of air took its toll. Marcus's knife found her side: once, then twice, punching through her thick dragonhide leathers with, it would seem, the sheer force of his hate and thirst for retribution.

Ithilian and pain were old friends. He'd known it well before he ever met any of the people that would change his life, even when he belonged to a Dalish clan. This was, without a doubt, the worst he'd felt in his entire life, the loss of his eye included. But even still, it wasn't enough to take him out for good.

The mace-armed Venatori was back on his feet, dragging his weapon towards Ithilian, intent on finishing him off. His progress was slow, the wound to his eye clearly paining him greatly. Ithilian could see Parshaara, just out of reach in front of him. He crawled to it as best he could, grabbing it and ignoring the pains from the breaks in his right hand. Clambering onto his knees, he ignited the flame enchantment on the blade, waiting as long as he could spare.

He pressed the flat of the blade to his severed left arm, and held it there.

The flesh sizzled and burned, and the sight of it was enough to give the Venatori pause, especially considering the fact that Ithilian didn't even scream in pain. The bleeding slowed as the end was cauterized, and even though the room was starting to spin from dizzying pain, Ithilian got to his feet, just in time to avoid a downward strike from the mace. He dodged left, bringing his arm around and slamming the knife deep into the Venatori's back, letting the enchantment go to work. He dropped his mace as he lit up in flames, screaming hysterically and soon collapsing to the ground.

Across the room, Amalia capitalized on the brief moment of distraction as Marcus and Leta realized what had happened. Marcus's knife, inches from once again stabbing into her flesh, wound up in her hand instead, her fingers closing over the naked blade even as she forced herself up fast enough to slam the crown of her head into Marcus's jaw. It loosened his grip on her neck just enough for her to pull in a breath, and with strength dredged up from somewhere, she got her knee between them, shoving him bodily off her and wresting the knife from his grip.

With her own blood-slick hand, she shifted her grip to the handle and brought it down, narrowly missing his heart when he shifted out of the way. It punched into his chest on the right side instead, no doubt finding a lung. In the doorway, the barrier wavered and disappeared.

Behind Amalia, however, Leta was once more in the fight, and the blade on her staff sought and found the other woman's back, hitting just to the left of her spine and emerging from beneath her diaphragm in the front. Amalia choked on a breath and fell, the damaged staff at last breaking off where she'd hit it earlier, leaning at a slight angle where it protruded from her unmoving body.

Noise from outside reached his ears—familiar voices, headed towards them. It would seem that the Inquisition had finally arrived. He wasn't awake to see them, as he collapsed forward only a few seconds later.

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INK

Amalia regained consciousness very slowly.

In her earliest years, among the Qunari, she had been trained to caution and good judgement in all things. Her tasks were never those that the more direct warriors of the Antaam would take on. They required guile and care and a ruthless willingness to take advantage of anything and everything that presented itself. Pain could be an asset. Injury could be an asset, too—particularly if her enemies underestimated her because of it. The thing to do first was allow herself to awake naturally, and to assess her surroundings as her senses returned to her.

But all she could make herself do was force it. A nameless urgency willed her to wakefulness faster, immediately, now. Something was wrong, and she didn't remember what, but it was the kind of wrong for which patience and judgement were no panacea. The kind of wrong that could not be made an asset. Panic, foreign and bitter in the back of her throat, gripped her, and she pulled in a breath much too quickly, her eyes snapping open even as she struggled to get her arms beneath her. Something was wrong. She had to—

The room spun, vertigo knocking her horizontal again the moment her body registered that she'd tried to lift herself. Her throat felt raw, cracked; every breath hurt to take. Dull, throbbing pains in her side, just above her hip, shot through her like lightning, rattling against her frame. She gritted her teeth until they felt like they'd crack to contain the pathetic sound that clawed its way up her savaged windpipe. Pain. Everything was pain, for a white-hot moment, and she almost thought it would kill her right then.

Pushing a shaky exhalation from her nose, she waited until it passed, then tried again, still thrumming with the unidentifiable sense of urgency. This time, her vision cleared when she blinked, and though her arms trembled, she tried again to find a sitting position, clenching her hands into fists in the blanket beneath her. One of those throbbed, too, but it was a duller pain, ricocheting up to her elbow before dissipating.

A hand found her shoulder, grasping gently, but steadily keeping her down all the same. A smaller hand, likely a woman's. The voice that spoke a moment later confirmed it. "Be still," she commanded, and Amalia eventually recognized it as the Magister, the one that had come to Skyhold. Chryseis. "If you tear yourself open again struggling, it would displease me greatly. I have worked very hard to keep you and your friend alive."

The room was softly lit by either morning or dusk light, but by the sounds of the birds and the city outside, it was probably early morning. It looked to be one of the guest rooms of Magister Bastian's house, where they'd stayed. By the smell in the room, a great deal of blood and other fluids had been shed inside. Empty potion bottles and medical supplies were littered on end tables. Chryseis herself looked worn thin, with bandages wrapped around her own midsection, and the little movements she made were pained, struggling. Evidence of recent magical recovery from broken bones that hadn't yet entirely healed.

Suppressing the instinct to use more force, Amalia raised one arm and pushed Chryseis's away with her wrist, shrugging aside the touch. The woman's words had brought with them the realization of why she felt such urgency. Next to that, she had little concern for anything else. "Kadan," she rasped, getting her arms back underneath her and pushing herself upright with all the strength she could summon. "Where is—" Her eyes fell on the room's other bed.

"He's right here, you mad woman." Chryseis's tone was exasperated, and she stepped aside to reveal that Ithilian was, in fact, on the other side of the room, sleeping or perhaps comatose, it was hard to tell. His upper body was bare and riddled with scars, some fresh and bandaged, others decades old. He was deathly pale, but plainly still breathing, judging by the shallow rise and fall of his chest. Most alarming was the bandaged stump of his left arm, severed at the elbow.

"Despite the loss of the arm, he fared better than you," Chryseis explained. "He somehow managed to cauterize it himself, which likely saved his life. His stab wounds were severe, but not as bad as yours. He was actually awake briefly yesterday, or so I'm told. The Qunari girl was watching over the two of you then." She seemed to realize that what she said might be disorienting. "You've been out for several days. Three... no, maybe four now? I'm not sure." By the looks of it, she hadn't slept much during that period, and potions had probably sustained her. It was a look Amalia had seen before, that of the overworked healer.

Amalia scarcely heard anything Chryseis was saying. Only dimly did she register the information, and she could not say much of it mattered to her. Only that he was alive.

Her eyes lingered on the empty space where his left forearm had once been, then traveled up to what remained, the bandages wrapped around the truncated limb and then his bare shoulder. It was gone. Cauterized... she remembered that now, vaguely. Remembered seeing Parshaara pressed to the stump as her vision flickered in and out. She wasn't sure if she remembered the hissing sound of the bone-knife against his flesh, the smell of it burning, acrid and horrific, or if she was only imagining them now, her experience filling in the gaps until she was forced to understand exactly what had transpired.

She tasted bile in the back of her mouth; her stomach turned. Swallowing the gorge down again was a momentous effort, but she somehow managed it, expelling a quivering breath when it was gone. Amalia clenched her right hand into a fist, welcoming the sharp sting where her fingernails dug into the bandages there. This pain was clarity. An asset. But that...

"You can go." Amalia almost didn't recognize the sound of her own voice, hollowed out by the rawness of her throat, the emptiness of it filled back in by a different kind of pain. "You need sleep. I will remain awake." Watch after kadan. She didn't need to say it—that part was simply implied.

"As you wish," she answered. No doubt sleep would do nothing to improve her mood. It seemed permanently sour. "There is a potion on your end table there." She pointed to it. "Drink it when you are able. Not all at once, or you'll never keep it down." With that, she turned on her heel and slipped out of the door, closing it behind her.

Slowly, Amalia was able to shift herself around until her bare feet touched the rug underfoot. The potion was there, as Chryseis indicated, but for the moment, she didn't reach for it, instead leaning forward and catching her breath, closing her eyes and attempting to recover the effort it had taken her to make it even this far in the process of moving. Reaching her feet was an even greater challenge, and for half a minute, she had to brace herself on the rail at the head of the bed to support her weight, shaking legs unable to manage the task on their own.

Gradually, though, Amalia felt herself stabilize, and only then did she allow herself to release her hold on the wood and pick up the potion, taking a small sip and swallowing before attempting her first steps under her own power. Her muscles ached down to the bone—she could not recall the last time she'd felt so weak. Bypassing the chair Chryseis had been using, she instead sat herself on the edge of kadan's mattress near his hip, leaning forward until she'd braced her forearms on her knees. She stared unseeingly at the wall in front of her, forcing her mind carefully blank in the same way she'd done years ago, beneath Marcus's knife.

The ability to think of nothing at all was not an easy one to learn, but she hadn't forgotten it, either. She didn't let herself pay attention to how much time passed, either, instead taking small, slow sips of the potion until it was gone, her vigil passing in silence.

Eventually, he stirred, a soft, barely audible groan accompanying it. Ithilian's eyes opened very slowly, like the rising of the sun, slowly but steadily taking in the light of the room. He looked... it was difficult to say. Since the day Amalia met Ithilian he'd looked like a man worn down by his life, an old blade used to the breaking point. At times as their years in Kirkwall went on he looked profoundly tired, dragged down by weights he carried, weights of responsibility and weights of memory. He'd never looked like a young man, but this was truly the first time he'd appeared as an old one.

His eye settled on her, his right hand reaching out slightly, setting down two fingers on the skin of her forearm. He shifted his other arm, the one lost at the elbow. The lack of weight seemed to take him by surprise, and his eye was drawn to it. Phantom pains, ghostly feelings of what was now lost to him. Magic could bring them back from a great deal, as Amalia knew very well, but it could not restore a loss like this. He would never be the same again.

"I thought we were dead," he said, his voice a hoarse rasp. "Maybe we were."

How many times did this make? How many times had they nearly died, paid the toll for their pursuit of Marcus in blood and pain and all the things they could have been doing with their lives instead? How much longer would they have to fight, and could they last long enough?

Amalia was not as old as Ithilian was, but like him, she had been fighting for most of her life, in one form or another. She had fought for the Qunari, and then for the Alienage, and now perhaps she fought for herself, for the sake of regaining the things Marcus had taken from her. For the sake of freeing herself. But the truth was, fighting for herself—and asking him to fight for her—was the hardest thing she'd ever done, by leagues.

She moved her arm slightly, just enough to solidify the touch where they were in contact. "This is my fault," she whispered, voice hoarse and thin. "You've lost too much for my sake, kadan." It wasn't just the arm, though that was an obvious visual reminder of the fact, the last push she needed to finally put to breath what had lingered long in the back of her mind. Guilt.

She should have said it as soon as their hunt became a matter of months instead of weeks. Should have said it louder when it became a matter of years. Years they both deserved to spend in some other way. Amalia didn't have a choice, but Ithilian did. Or he had. Perhaps she'd taken that freedom from him as surely as Marcus had taken hers from her. Drawn him into this despicable trap, where an enemy they could not seem to kill would not let them live in peace.

He tried to say something, but it caught in his throat, and he coughed softly, even that seeming to cause him immense pain. He grimaced, taking his hand from her and clutching at his chest until it passed. When it did, the hand fell back to his side, and he regarded the lost arm again. No doubt it would take him many years to grow accustomed to it, if he ever did at all.

Ithilian let his head fall back against the pillow, which was damp and stained with sweat and the odd drop of blood. He breathed and let the silence sit until he was willing to risk speaking again. "There is no fault, lethallan." A tear slipped from his eye, but it was unclear whether it was from the pain, or something else. "If the choice was to sacrifice this or let you fight alone, then there was never any choice at all. You have always helped me fight my battles, and I do the same for you, because when a bond like ours is made, we cannot choose to break it."

His fingers found her hand instead when next they touched her skin, but his grip was incredibly weak. "I've always known the risk, the possible price. I just always thought I was fast enough, strong enough not to pay it. A fool to the last." That seemed to bother him more than anything. Not the injury itself, but what it meant for their future. A future where he couldn't fight at her side, no matter how much he wanted to. Needed to.

Amalia closed her hand over his, her grip hardly any stronger. Still, she squeezed with what strength was left to her, feeling a half-remembered hot sting building behind her eyes. His face blurred in her field of vision; when she blinked, warmth slid down either side of her face.

It had been fifteen years since she wept. She'd thought tears were simply one more thing Marcus had wrung from her. One more thing she'd spent a lifetime's worth of back then. But like so many other things, she'd found them again because of this. Because of him. Even now, even in the middle of all this, that thought made her smile. A thin thing, tremulous and small, but persistent.

"My kadan is an utter fool," she murmured, recalling a situation not so unlike this one, but many, many years ago. In a time when the cause had been his and she had risked herself for it without even the slightest hesitation. Even when he hadn't wanted her to. Leaning over and down, Amalia gently pressed her brow to his, smoothing the tear's track away from his face with the callused tips of her fingers. "But he is still kadan." She swallowed thickly. "And so I am never alone."

His breathing became irregular, pulled in through his nose, and it almost sounded like he was choking. By the lack of any panic, however, it was safe to say he was simply feeling a multitude of things, many of which he just wasn't prepared for in the slightest. His grip on her hand tightened. The half of the left arm that remained to him shifted up slightly, as though to wrap around her, but of course he was no longer capable of those things. He could no longer embrace anyone like he had with Lia in the Emerald Graves, scooping her up and holding her weight in his arms.

He waited until the moment had passed, and he was capable of speaking again. "What will we do now?" he asked, the grief coming through. Fear of the future. "When he comes again, when he recovers." It was wishful thinking to believe he would succumb to the wounds they'd dealt him. He'd survived as much as they had. "We couldn't kill him before. And I'm of little use to you now. I can be with you in spirit when you fight, but that won't protect you from blades or magic."

"I don't know," she confessed, rising slightly but shifting closer so that it was easier to maintain their grip on each other. "I suspect that now... we rely on them. This Inquisition. No doubt they've combed through Marcus's belongings by now—perhaps there is some clue in them as to what he aims for. If we can find out what that is, perhaps we can gain the upper hand for once." Amalia pursed her lips, expelling a shaky breath and dragging her thumb back and forth across Ithilian's knuckles. "If that's not enough, then... I'll lay a trap for his apprentice and discover it that way."

She was not alone capable of striking decisively outright, not without him. But now they were capable of something that had not been available to them before: discovering what Marcus was after. He was not one to bow to another for long, and what he was doing among these Venatori was something that still mystified her. But for all it had cost them, this was still an opportunity to find out, to arm themselves with something other than blades and the strength of their bodies.

"This has not been for nothing," she said, her tone firmer. With her free hand, Amalia wiped at her own cheeks, finding the skin of her face too warm beneath the moisture. "I won't let it be for nothing."

They had friends and allies, it was true. But somehow Marcus always knew the way to nullify them, to isolate them so it was they alone who fought against him. Now she alone. And Ithilian obviously dreaded the thought of what that conflict might result in, now that he could not fight alongside her as he always had.

He looked up, and saw Parshaara in its scabbard on the end table, alongside the rest of his weapons and bloodied, scorched gear. His longbow and quiver, useless to him. He could still carry one blade, but the writing was etched on his face: this had been the last battle he would fight.

"Then we aren't finished yet," he declared, though it was uncertain if he believed it. "And I'll hold onto these dreams of what's on the other side of this a little longer."

"When we're done," she replied, the words coming out like a promise, "I'll ask you whether it's everything you hoped it would be."

The next time, she resolved.

The next time she faced Marcus, she was going to end him.

And then they would both be free.

Setting

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Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters
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INK

That absolute motherfucker.. That son of a bitch. That—

The blade, sanguine, and so, so sharp, pierced through Cyrus’s chest. Ripping. Cleaving. His armor had not held as she had thought it would. It had only taken a moment, before it slid in like butter, its quarry changed. Tossing him to the ground like a doll. Lifeless. No, no. Not here, no now. Impossible.

He was simply standing. Running. And then, he was not.

The sound that ripped from Zahra’s throat sounded alien to her. Not hers. It couldn't be. Begging, pleading, frenzied. Stop, no. It changed into a savage, blood-curdling howl. Vowing destruction. A monster, a creature, sordid and twisting and so far away. Her hands could not find Faraji’s throat quick enough. The arrow fumbled from her fingers, clattering somewhere, forgotten. She didn’t remember shouldering her bow either. But she had. Her hands were empty now. Fingers clawing uselessly in the air, as she stumbled forward, cursing her clumsy legs. Jellied, weak. She could taste bile in her throat, rising up her gorge, threatening to spill as the blood had from Yda’s mouth.

Her mother lay on her side, motionless. A corpse, hunkered forward onto her face, cheek pressed against the cobblestone. Sightless eyes staring up, smeared with gore. A husk. A nothing, emptied of whatever she was. A life force feeding that fucker’s hands, his consumptive power, bleeding out from her. It was easy to put her at the back of her mind, shoving the thoughts under the rampant frenzy. Under a rug for another time, a better time. She couldn't ignore the desperation cloying its claws into her shoulders, riddling up her spine; cold, heavy. An anchor, drawing her to Cyrus’s side, where she fell to her knees, hands pushing at the weeping wound. As if she could close it with her hands, like Rom with his verdigris palm, luminescent, binding the sky free of its unholy breach.

This, this could not be.

“Kill him, dammit,” an order, unneeded. Far away. Corveus’s voice, the veneer of calm long lost. It almost sounded frantic; an edge, despairing, but everything sounded that way now. There was a blast of energy that soared past her shoulders, sweeping up her wild curls with the force. Magic. More damn magic. A manic laugh echoed off the walls, all brittle, high-pitched. Inhuman. Like those reanimated corpses. That’s what he was, what he would be. She looked up only long enough to see Faraji pinned in place, leaning heavily against the stone wall at his back, mouth bubbling, frothing. Eyes bulging in his skull, lips peeled back from crimson-stained teeth. A mixture of drool and blood, though his hand was already raising to the air, pointed at an approaching figure.

A flash of movement, hurtling in his direction.

Rom didn't intend on letting Faraji transform into anything other than the man that he was, and was on the mage as the possession began to truly take hold. In this time Faraji was vulnerable to all but the horror stricken, and very little if anything seemed to have that effect on the Lord Inquisitor. With blade and marked hand he stabbed and blasted at him, plunging the pugio into flesh as it twisted and reformed underneath the steel. His mark blew open Faraji's belly, sending a flood of innards spilling down at their feet. Again and again the blade came down, striking high, aiming for the moving target of the head and neck, cutting apart whatever the demon inside him was trying to reform and strengthen. Within seconds he was covered in blood, but showed no signs of relenting until the task was done.

Zahra’s eyes blurred, hot. She could look no longer, because her hands were slick with Cyrus’s blood, and she could do nothing to push it back in. His chest still rose and fell, but his eyes had shuttered themselves closed. The pressure, yes, important. Asala had told her so. But there was so much of it. Pooling between her fingers, onto her knuckles, onto the cobblestones, blooming outward, not in. She clamped her hands there, seeking to prove with touch, what she did not want to believe with sight. Dammit, dammit—

Her mouth worked, words babbling out. Promises, curses, appeals. To who, to what? Wake up, wake up, wake up.

Someone hunkered down on the opposing side, pushing her hands away from the wound. Adamant. Hands she did not recognize, a stranger. An enemy.

“Don’t you fucking touch him—” it came out all wrong. A weak, breathless whimper. Angry, furious, with no direction, no target to pinion. A beast hunched over, hackles raised. It was all she could do, couldn’t she?

“Let me help him,” Corveus, again. He repeated himself. This time, she relented. His hands trembled, she felt it, as she took his place, pushing his palms down across the center of his sternum, dragging down along his stomach. This was not Asala’s magic, glowing cerulean, cobalt, viridian. Blood drew up in the air, into beads, threading themselves into thin lines, before finally pulling back into the wound. It congealed to a sluggish pace, rather than the chute it had been moments before. But there was so much. On his hands, on hers. His voice was louder this time, for he no longer spoke only to her, “He won’t die, but he will if we don’t get him out now.”

The antechamber shuddered in response.

Leon appeared then, grimacing down at Cyrus. His eyes were still reddened from whatever alchemy fueled his fights, but clearly nevertheless aware of what was going on. Hastily, he pulled his cloak off, tucking it firmly against the entry wound, one more measure against the sluggish bleeding. "Keep it like this as long as you can," he said, glancing just once at Corveus. Either he assumed he'd be obeyed or he realized he had no choice but to put his faith in it.

Whichever it was, he wasted no more time with it, lifting Cyrus from the ground and settling him as carefully as he possibly could over a shoulder. Leon was an exceptionally-tall man, it was true, but Cyrus was not short or small by any means, and he had to take a half-step backwards to stabilize himself with the other man's weight distributed so unevenly. "We need the quickest way out of here, and now. Go."

As soon as Leon swept Cyrus up on his shoulder, Zahra found her legs once more, steeling herself for the next step. The muscles worked along her jawline, eyes narrowed. She felt the last dredges of her potion wearing off. Fatigue nipped at her heels, a warning that urgency was needed, if Leon would be tied up by the weight he bore. If there were more enemies just around the bend to face, they would tear them apart, in order to crawl their way through. She would.

They would. Gladly.

Corveus took the lead, back through the door they’d come in from. This time, however, he stopped at the first cell, hands frantically patting down the cobblestones. Raking over the cracks, palms pressing down ineffectively. He was mumbling to himself, “Where the hell is it? How did he—” Zahra wanted to scream at him for stopping so abruptly. For making things harder. They didn’t have time for this, whatever this was.

Only then did one of the stones press inward, giving away under his touch. Much like the weighted plate Cyrus had stepped on, though this time no golem bugled out. The wall to the side shifted, scraped sideways, and revealed a hidden passageway that permitted two people to walk side by side. Certainly not large enough to defend themselves in. In the distance, back down the hallway they’d previously come from, a faint echo of metal grated against metal, steel joints and gruff voices; the angry howl of wolves snuffling out intruders. “Hurry, in.”

Once they entered, Corveus elbowed his way to the back and struck his hand out once more, into the darkness. He pulled something backwards—an iron lever, well-worn and in the shape of a striking serpents mouth. The wall shifted back in place, undisturbed, as if it had never been there in the first place. He exhaled sharply through his nose, and squeezed back past Leon, pausing momentarily to inspect Cyrus’s wound. When he seemed satisfied, he strode back to the forefront. Lanterns had already been lit, most likely by Faraji himself.

It made sense, how he’d managed to find them so quickly. Perhaps, he’d always known.

The fucking monster, finally dead. Just another corpse alone in the darkness. It’s what he deserved.

Zahra dogged Corveus's heels, another arrow clutched in her palm. She held her bow held at her side, once more. Just in case. Only three arrows left. She’d wasted so many against the golem in a futile attempt to distract. A lot of good that did. She wished she’d just… if she had, if she had. But, she hadn’t. Maleus had his shoulders hunched, head lowered. He brought up the rear, watching Leon’s back intently. She had no words for him. Not yet, not now. She’d have words for Cyrus when they got out of there, alive. He’d wake up, say something smarmy and she’d make him promise never to do something so stupid, so selfless.

The passageway wound, with no discernible direction. It stretched into a flight of stairs, and deposited them back into the estate, into another long hallway. Decorated, gaudy, carpeted. Seeing how there were no corpses here, they’d appeared in another portion of the household. Fortunately, this one appeared remote, empty. No matter how hard she strained her ears, she couldn’t hear any voices coming through any of the doorways. No servants, no thorns in their arses. Corveus gestured towards the other end of the hall, and started down it. “We’re close, now. Keep down this way, and we’ll come to the lounge. Slip out the way we came.”

Zahra had long given up thinking that things would go smoothly. That they would simply walk out of here, free from danger. It never happened that way. Not when people like this were involved. She almost laughed when she heard footsteps stomping down towards them, at the opposite end of the hall. Three men, armed much the same as the guards they’d already faced. Swords and plate, youthful faces eager, pining for blood. She couldn’t understand their words; a babble of rolling syllables. But she understood their laughter, and hated them for it. They advanced, whooping.

In one smooth movement, she drew back the string of her bow against her cheekbone, loosing the arrow. It whistled through the air, and found its mark, biting into the nearest man’s throat, sending him tumbling in a gurgling mess on the floor, hands clawing at the feathered bit that stuck out in front of him.

Leon made a discontent sound; it was clear enough that he wasn't going to aggressively strike at the soldiers, given that he was carrying Cyrus. It would perhaps be a mistake to assume he was completely incapable of it, though, even burdened down by the weight of another person.

Rom took the initiative instead, racing forward to outpace the others and reach them first. The guards had stopped laughing after one of them had been swiftly killed, and charged back. His marked hand began to glow under his shield as he reached them, and he drew back for a punch. He flowed around the first sword to swing his way, his shield rising and cutting across the jaw of the attacker, the mark bursting with energy as he did so. Violently the man's head was wrenched sideways, throwing him against the wall, dazing the other as well. Rom stepped forward at him, finding a gap in the plate with his blade, withdrawing it covered in red.

Rom caught the second guard's wrist while the dazed first tried to make a strike on his back. Twisting around, he pulled the guard in front of him, letting the blade fall down into the base of his neck and sink deep, the wound spurting backwards. Rom threw the body aside, taking the lodged sword with it, and he stepped forward into the opening of the disarmed man, jabbing with his shield into his temple. His head was thrown back, exposing the neck, and Rom slashed cleanly across it, dropping him. Youthful faces were now bloodied, laughter turned to choked gurgles and then silence.

It felt good to see them that way—corpses, tangled in a heap. Discarded. Finished. Deserving every bit of Rom’s brutality and more, if time allowed. It did not. These thoughts no longer frightened her. They were age-old recollections, revisited when circumstances turned sour. When there were hurts beating painfully in her chest. She wasn’t sure what to do with it. Zahra’s lips peeled back into something that felt less and less like a grin, and more like scowl.

“Out through that door,” Corveus’s instruction bleated through her thoughts, forcing her legs back into movement. She brought up the rear with Maleus, tight-lipped, silent as the last gurgling breaths of the lads they left in the hallway. Dead, gone. A smear on the Contee household. She gripped her bow tight in her hand, and exhaled sharply through her nose, glancing over her shoulder to make sure that they weren’t being followed. Her free hand closed into a tight fist, fingernails cutting into her palm. It felt good, a distraction.

It seemed as if Maleus wanted to break the silence between them, the way his jawline bunched, but the sound of their footsteps were loud enough.

They needed to be free of this place.

The lordling led from the front with Rom at his side, whispering directions of where they had to go next. He occasionally held a hand up, indicating that they should halt, while he strained his ears, leaning slightly into the next hallway. Urgent as they were, he never waited too long before beckoning them forward. He hadn’t been wrong. A few minutes stride, and they reached the lounging area, the same as it had always been. Cold, and empty. Fortunately, entirely vacant. There were no guards here, nor any unwelcome surprises. He pressed his bare hand up against the interior plate, and the magical inner workings shifted the doors wide, allowing them to slip back through the shrubbery leading to the hidden passageway.

Only when they were considerably safer, splashing through water, into the catacombs, did Zahra break the silence, “He’s going to be fine, isn’t he?” She didn’t like the sound of her voice, how weak it was, pleading for a lie. For what she wanted to hear.

A pause, grim, “I hope you have a damn good healer.”

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Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters
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INK

It hadn’t taken them long to return to Bastian’s estate, briskly traversing the winding streets until they came panting to the front doors. Cyrus was spirited away to one of the rooms, while plans were drawn up to leave aboard the Riptide as soon as he was stabilized. A bobbing, swaying ship, would only hamper the healing process if they couldn’t stop the bleeding. Too crowded in the room, they’d said. She believed them. They would have their hands full keeping him from falling apart. Zahra, and the others, were left alone to their own devices, either to pack their things or take a breath. Relax for as long as they could, before the long journey home.

Relaxation would not find her. Sleep seemed hilariously out her reach. Exhausted as she was, she felt restless. Her thumping heart, beating loud in her temples. It made her feel dizzy. Lost. The wound he’d suffered was… grievous. She couldn’t get the image out of her head. It replayed, over and over again. Thumping to the ground like he weighed nothing. A listless corpse. All the blood. On her, him, Leon. She’d never been the sort to agonize over what-if’s, but there they were, reconstructing into plausible angles, precautions she could have taken, but didn’t. Seeing him like that made her stomach turn over, sick. What would Stel think? What would she say? That she was the cause of it, because she’d been selfish enough to involve him in her business, and he, the smarmy, selfless fool had jumped in front of a blade to save her idiot-brother.

She gripped onto the front of her shirt and slumped against the wall, eyebrows drawn together. The fabric pinched between her fingers as she loosened her grip, letting her hand fall back to her side. Sitting here, tormenting herself over what had already happened, would do no one any good. Most of all, herself. Still, she didn’t think she was ready to face the others, especially Stel. A soft sigh slipped from her lips, as she pushed herself away from the hall, facing towards the lounge area closest to the kitchen. Bastian had allowed Corveus sanction for the night, but nothing longer than that. Tevinter politics. Something she understood, and cared, little about.

Maleus hadn’t strayed far from his side. From habit, perhaps. Their relationship was as inscrutable as Corveus was. Though the shroud of mystery surrounding him had dampened considerably since escaping his families estate, seeing how there was no longer anything to hide behind. No mirrors, no masks. That, in itself, was a comfort. She didn’t like being kept in the dark. About anything, let alone something so important to her. As for Maleus’s proximity to the man, she wasn’t sure how she felt. Whether the roles were still in place, Corveus being a dominus, and her brother, a simple slave, hounding faithfully behind. She hoped that wasn’t the case. She hm’d quietly, and decided quickly enough. She needed to talk to her brother.

It was a start, at least.

Zahra found them easily enough. In the kitchen, talking in loud, brazen voices. There was a laugh she didn’t recognize, along with one she did. At first, she lingered beside the doorway, cursing herself for eavesdropping. She couldn’t help it. Leaning slightly forward, but enough to be tucked away beside the door frame, she could see them facing the counter. Maleus was seated in one of the stools, a knuckle of bread in one of his hands, talking with his mouth full and Corveus was standing behind him, hands fiddling at the heavy collar wrapped around his neck.

“Stop squirming. I swear, it won’t hurt,” Corveus chided, pushing at his shoulders. He drew one of his hands up to his mouth and shifted, exhaling sharply. Biting at his thumb, deep enough to draw blood.

“Easy for you to say. You don’t have this thing wrapped ‘round your neck,” her brother’s response. She could almost hear him rolling his eyes. He didn’t seem to believe him, the way he was trying to square his shoulders, raising them so that the collar shifted closer to his ears. Still, he hadn’t moved away. Only wrenched his head to the side, allowing a better vantage.

The lordling drew his finger down the top of the collar, dragging it downwards, a look of consternation twisting his features.

There was a hissing noise, and the black, polished hinge was being bent under the pressure of whatever magic he was using. His hand lingered there, careful enough not to touch skin. Another sound. This time, an obvious heavy, metal crack. A clean break, right along the middle, where someone else had applied the initial weld, still a yellow-gold with the applied heat. His hand slid away and he made a sound, a rather triumphant hmph. “See. How does that feel?”

Maleus was the one who drew his hands up, cracking the collar wide enough to slip from his neck. His expression was unreadable, a veil of muted surprise. “It feels…” He held it for awhile, before his eyes swung towards her, and the confusion melted away, replaced by a grin she sorely missed. The drawn out look on his face didn’t escape her, and neither did his eyes, red-rimmed. Like he’d been crying.“What’re you doing, gawping there? Snooping isn’t like you, Zee.”

Zahra blinked, stupidly. When had she—glancing to the side, she hadn’t realized that she had taken a step in, without thinking. No, she’d never been good at snooping. On anyone, or anything. Too loud, always too loud. It wasn’t her style. She much preferred bullying her way into someone’s business, nosy as ever. She wasn’t sure why she’d done it in the first place. Maybe, she hadn’t wanted to interrupt. Corveus looked mildly uncomfortable by her presence, though she couldn’t discern why. She didn’t mind seeing him look unsure, awkward even, rather than smug. Almost looked like he wanted to vacate the room. She cleared her throat and cocked her head to the side, “Thought I’d drop in and see how you were doing.” A pointed pause, before she glanced over to the only other person in the room, “You too. I’ve got questions, and I think I deserve some answers. We all do, y’know. For the shit we went through.”

They could mourn afterwards, when they were safe in Skyhold. For now, she needed answers. Badly. For Cyrus, for her.

Corveus seemed surprised by this, though he didn’t protest. Instead, moving to perch himself on one of the stools. Clearly unprepared. He set his hands across the table for a moment, before decidedly pulling them into his lap. “As you wish. I’ll answer what I can.”

An irksome response. One that she expected given how uncooperative he’d been so far. She circled around the counter, and chose to lean her elbows on it, facing them directly. There was a set to her lips, one that she oft used with people who often bullshitted her. She wouldn’t allow it here. Maker knew, she had so many damn questions, blustering to be spoken aloud. One at a time. She studied Maleus’s face, and turned back towards Corveus, eyebrows drawing. “Your brother died today, because you agreed to bring us there. Doesn’t that bother you? Why would someone like you even want that?” It didn’t make sense to her. She couldn’t stop the question before it tumbled out, a startled lilt. Confused. He was family, after all. Like her brother was to her.

To his benefit, he hesitated before speaking. Floundered for words, whereas he seemed to nonchalant before. Not so assured this time, cornered into a query that he didn’t quite seem to know how to answer. There was a pinch to his brow, as he studied his hands, set in his lap. He seemed to turn them over, as he broke the silence, “Faraji. He changed over the years. He used to be… good. Or better. I don’t expect you to understand how things operate here in Tevinter. There are people who stand on each others shoulders just to have more, and there are families who will go to any length for an edge, for power.” He seemed to chew on his words, before continuing, “Faraji was a product of ill upbringing. He became dangerous, to himself and everyone else. Cruel.”

“Ill upbringing?” There was a terseness to her tone, one that she failed to smother down. Incredulous. Half the people in the Inquisition had ill upbringings. What made him any different? What made their suffering horrible enough to warrant torture? The same sort of exasperated outrage tickled out, threatening to spill over. Back in the estate, she’d understood why Cyrus was so angry at his response, how he’d casually dismissed the inhumanities they passed by. It made sense to her then, and now. But she’d wanted so badly to bring her family home, that it seemed… less. That implication, in itself, made her feel sick. How she could decided who was worth more, and who less. It was something she wouldn’t readily admit. Not now, maybe not ever. She felt the same thing when she’d seen Cyrus on the ground, and decided that he was worth more, certainly enough to leave those prisoners behind.

Corveus met her gaze for once, and held it. “Magisters don’t only frown on anyone who crosses too many lines. Blood magic. Experimentation. They excommunicate. My mother never cared for those lines. She walked them. And those who knew, ignored it. Faraji was unlucky enough to be her favorite. The heir to the family.” He raised his hands, disfigured and mottled with scar tissue. Slash wounds forming white and pink bands. “And I served my own purpose, making sure the magic wasn’t dangerous enough to kill him. Dutiful sons.”

Maleus seemed ready to squabble to his defense, though he kept his mouth firmly closed. He gripped the collar tighter in his hands, offering a feeble, “It’s true, what they were doing there. Corv kept me from the worst of it, y’know. If it wasn’t for him—”

Zahra waved a hand at him, dismissively. She’d heard enough. Maybe, she didn’t want to hear anymore. That people like that actually existed, treating family like dirt, like something so easily expended, made no sense to her. It made her sick. She didn’t want to hear anymore, certainly not from Corveus’s mouth. Didn’t want to think of Faraji as anything other than a monster, one that had hurt one of her friends. Her family. She breathed out, and remembered something.

“The prisoners. What about them? Cy… we said we’d get them out of there.” A demand. It sounded like one, even if she wasn’t entirely sure what he could do from here. From the sounds of it, he didn’t carry much weight there, in the first place. Her hand had drawn itself into a fist atop the counter, and she was sure, so sure, that if he replied with anything but benevolence, she’d crawl over the table and strangle him. The prisoner’s were left to who-knows-what kind of future treatment. They deserved freedom most of all.

This time, a small, wistful smile tugged on the corner of Corveus’s lips, skin taut against sharp cheekbones, “That’s something I can do, until I find a way out of Tevinter. I didn’t fulfill my side of the promise, did I?”

She never did hear what the end of his deal had been.

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Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters
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INK

When Astraia had asked Cyrus to start training her, she hadn't imagined it would be quite this cold.

Stupid of her to forget where they were going back to, she supposed. Arlathan had been so warm, so comfortable, Minrathous as well. Now they returned to Skyhold and not a day went by before the snow was starting to fall. It already had the peaks covered, and before she could even set out with Cyrus there were several inches on the ground. Harellan joined them, something that Astraia didn't offer much of a comment on, attempting to hide her mixture of nervousness and excitement. Certainly she wasn't going to stop him from watching, if he wanted to. Stel clearly got along well with him, and as far as she could tell he'd been an effective teacher to her.

She'd learned a few basic things on the boat as they came back south, beginner forms to practice, stances and that sort of thing. She picked it up quickly, diligent learner that she was when she actually had a teacher willing to offer knowledge. Conditioning and strength training would take much longer, and it remained to be seen what sort of results she was capable. For the moment her reward was a soreness that had to be battled through every day. It would lessen over time, she was told.

She left Skyhold with the workings of her clan covering her. Neras's warm, fur-lined boots crunched against the soft snow. Ashwen's forest green scarf was wrapped around her throat and the lower part of her face. She wore Marelya's bracelet on her right wrist, a prayer carved into the polished wood. The craftswoman's necklace she tucked underneath her shirt, symbols of the gods carved from scraps of ironbark and threaded onto a string. She wasn't sure what to think about that anymore, but took as just a sign of home, a sign that their thoughts were with her, even if the gods were not.

Her mother's blanket couldn't come, though. There was too much work to be done for that. After the first day of conditioning Astraia had quickly concluded that a change was in order, and had since removed all but a few feathers from her hair, so she could better bind it in a braid and keep it from being a nuisance. She'd have to ask Stel about it sometime. The Lady Inquisitor never seemed bothered by her hair.

"Where are we going today?" she asked Cyrus, unable to keep her impatience in check. She prodded her staff into the snow with every step as they crossed the bridge out of Skyhold. She'd been asked to bring it along this time.

Cyrus glanced back over his shoulder at her for a moment, his eyes and a narrow strip of skin around them currently all that was exposed to the open air. He didn't seem to like the cold any more than she did, and had bundled himself in dark fabric from crown to heels. “Just a little further. A small clearing—the wind should be less bad. And no eyes but ours." His voice came muffled by the deep grey scarf wrapped about the lower half his face, but clear enough. He gestured vaguely with the staff he carried to indicate the three of them. It wasn't so different from hers, but longer, to accommodate his height.

Planting it back into the snow, he led the three of them up a hill, the passage slightly tricky and forcing them single-file. Harellan slid easily to the rear position, leaving Astraia to occupy the middle. The wind was biting, worse than the temperature itself or the snow, really. When it really picked up, it howled between the peaks, imbuing their trek with a strange sense of desolation, even though Skyhold was still close at their backs.

The slope of the ground changed beneath them, flattening out considerably, and it took only another short interval before Cyrus was slipping into what looked like a crevice in a cliffside. For a few hundred feet, the passage they stepped into was narrow, but then it widened considerably, and they emerged into what did, indeed, appear to be a clearing. It was open to the sky above them, and snow had fallen here, too, but the formation of the mountains had made almost a stone bowl of the area, bounded by high walls on all sides that insulated rather comfortably against the wind.

Cyrus pulled down his hood with the hand that held his staff, hooking a finger through his scarf and tugging it away from his face, so that it fell back to his neck. “Good. This should do. Go ahead and get yourself warmed up, if you like; we'll start with whatever you want to work on after." He exchanged a glance with Harellan, who nodded, extending a hand towards her with a mild half-smile.

"If you don't mind, I'll blunt your staff with a spell so the blade doesn't cut while you're practicing. It should only take a minute."

"Oh. Right." She handed over her weapon, extending it out horizontally so as not to point the blade at anyone. She noted that Harellan had simply mentioned blunting the blade so it wouldn't cut, omitting who the likely target of those cuts would be. She figured it was probably more for her own protection than anyone else's.

She pulled off her scarf and cloak, setting them down on a rock close to the wall and large enough to keep them off the snow. She still had a couple layers on underneath, but since they were protected from the wind now it really wasn't so bad. She sat down to stretch for a few minutes, her hide leggings thick enough to avoiding soaking through immediately in the snow. When she forced herself to ignore how limber she was (or wasn't), she ended up thinking about the privacy of all this. It wasn't that she didn't appreciate it, quite the opposite. She'd grown comfortable practicing her magic in front of others since arriving at Skyhold, but physical training was another matter. She wasn't especially clumsy, but comparing herself to the people she was making friends with reminded her of comparing her magical aptitude to Zeth's as a teenager.

It was just hard to figure how this kind of private attention from these two people was worth spending on her. Cyrus always had important work to be doing, it seemed like, and Harellan already seemed to be tutoring one of their Inquisitors, someone who saw incredible danger much more regularly than Astraia did. She just wanted to be able to defend herself a little more. Feel a little more capable.

And stop comparing herself to the others.

She stood back up, working through a few other stretches. "I've been practicing defensive stances, so maybe we should work on blocking first." As they'd discussed a little on the boat, self defense was the goal of learning to use the staff. Her magic would almost always be her most reliable weapon, but to be able to use it in the first place, she had to keep an opponent away, create separation. The first step in doing that was knowing what to do when she was attacked up close.

Cyrus accepted his own staff back from Harellan first, giving it an experimental spin and passing it from one hand to the other behind his back, motions deft and sure. He'd warmed up while she had, discarding his outermost layers next to where his uncle was now sitting crosslegged. If he planned to participate, he certainly didn't seem to be doing so immediately. Retrieving her staff as well, Cyrus closed the gap between them and handed it back to her, retreating a few feet and planting the end of his in the ground.

“Blocking it is. We'll start with the timing, and once you get comfortable with that, we'll add a few ripostes you can use to force an attacker to back away once you've staved them off." He paused, then cleared his throat. “Ah... pun not intended." Astraia snorted softly, but soon straightened her expression again.

Lifting his staff, he took a wide grip on it, so that about two-thirds of the length was between his hands. He'd taught her that already: to think of the staff in thirds, and to take the broadest grip for defensive purposes. He smiled a little crookedly, something clearly amusing him. “Hit me."

She supposed he was going to demonstrate something for her. Her brother had been fond of doing that too with his magic, typically in ways that she couldn't hope to replicate without proper instruction. She wasn't sure how much of that had been the influence of the demon working in him, making him desire superiority and power and using her to feel like he had both. But she trusted was different. It was why she'd asked him. Even if he didn't acknowledge it, he was a good teacher, the best one she'd come across. She'd known that not long after meeting him in Crestwood.

She hadn't practiced attacking much, but at least knew the proper form to imitate in the attempt. She shifted her hands closer to the bottom of her staff, the lower one about a foot from the end, the upper one a little over halfway through it. More leverage to give swings of the blade on the end more force. Lifting the staff over her head, she held the stance for a second, and then went for an attack, stepping forward and letting her top hand slide down as she made the overhead strike.

Smoothly, Cyrus lifted his stave slightly over his head and about six inches in front of his body, catching her staff just below where the blade on the end began. It landed square in the middle of his with the resounding crack of wood on wood, stopping her blow cold. He didn't do anything immediately, rather remaining still, elbows slightly bent, balance obviously solid. “This is your overhead block. Nine times out of ten, if someone's swinging vertically for you, it will work. And I don't have to be strong to do it, because I caught you before you were really able to gather the most momentum."

He flicked his eyes to where the staves met. “And the angle's bad for the attacker, too. Not so high the blade might cut my staff in two, not so low that someone strong would just be able to push down past it. From here I could do a lot of things to destabilize your balance, but we'll worry about that later." Cyrus disengaged carefully, stepping back. “Make sense? I'll attack you next if you want to give it a shot."

Astraia withdrew her staff, returning to a more neutral grip on it. It seemed like a lot of precision was required for that to go right. The drawbacks to the angle being different than what Cyrus had caught her at were pretty severe. And she'd have to read it quickly in a real situation if she wanted to react in time and not rely on strength to stop the blow.

"Alright," she said, glancing for a half-second at Harellan before she settled her stance, preparing to widen her grip as soon as Cyrus moved at her.

When he did, it was with intentional slowness, still fast enough to be smooth, but certainly not so quickly that he was in any danger of actually hitting her if she couldn't get the angle right. The bladed end of his staff arced around from being near his left foot, passing behind him and up, and then his hands slid along the pole similar to the way hers had, angling it down towards her shoulder.

She got her staff up quickly, helped by the fact that she knew what attack was coming. Her feet weren't as steady as his had been, fidgeting around slightly, and she found herself shifting a bit to get her staff directly under the attack, so it would hit equidistant between her spread hands. The end result was that her block wasn't straight, and Cyrus's staff hit hers at an angle, causing it to immediately slide down the shaft after contact towards her left hand.

It didn't make it that far before he'd halted the momentum, stopping his weapon from hitting any of her fingers, and a quiet, uncertain noise escaped Astraia. There were a lot of different things to focus on at once, and she wasn't sure which one had been the most critical mistake. "That was, uh... ugly, wasn't it?"

Cyrus arched an eyebrow at her, disengaging again and taking the requisite step away. “It needs work." He shrugged. “But that's to be expected."

"Certainly a lot of new skills to learn at once." Harellan spoke from where he as still seated, his expression betraying some interest. "I think a little conditioning would help, don't you, Cyrus?"

“Yes, but I'm not going to make her do forms for months before she touches anything with practical applications. It's meant to be helpful as soon as possible." Cyrus returned his eyes to Astraia, nodding at her staff. “It does take precision. And balance. Neither of those things is innate; with practice, they will come. Try to... think of yourself as rooted. Press down into the ground with your feet, and keep your knees slightly bent. We'll practice a bit more with this, and then Harellan can do the same thing with a sword, and give you a feel for the difference."

She did learn quickly, even if they were almost moving in slow motion for the moment. Thinking of herself as rooted, as Cyrus had put it, did help some, and with a bit of repetition she started to block a little more naturally. They worked in other blocks after that, and these came a little quicker, blocking left and right, and before long they were drilling without Astraia knowing where the attack would come from. Still slow motion, but requiring reaction rather than just repetition of the same movements. Her feet were what betrayed her more often than not, the rest of her form crumbling for a few seconds before she would reestablish herself, and focus again.

The sword came next, Harellan switching in to practice with her next. She quickly noticed after going through a few individual blocks that the smaller weapon was more difficult to predict in its approach. His magic blade was also somewhat alarming to look at, but she was assured it would do her no harm in the event she failed to block it. She did so, again and again, eventually working in what to do against lunges coming straight for her. Seeing as those required both reaction and properly timed deflection on her part, Astraia ended up with a number of imaginary wounds to the chest and stomach. The point was to keep them imaginary, of course, so she paid them no mind.

It proved to be more than enough for a day's worth of practice, as all of them would have other duties to attend to once they got back to Skyhold. "Thank you for doing this," she said as she made her way to the bowl's rim, so to speak. "I know it's a lot to take on, if we're doing this regularly. Sorry I picked the start of winter to ask." She smiled a little at the last bit, bending to scoop up her scarf and cloak, and donning both. It was only going to get colder, and the snow was only going to get heavier.

Cyrus snorted; both men were bundling themselves back up to face the chill as well. “It isn't a problem. I've less to do than it might seem." From the way he pursed his lips, that probably wasn't exactly what he wanted to say, but it was difficult to tell for sure. Pulling his scarf back up over his nose and mouth, he shrugged back into his cloak and tugged the cowl over his head.

He led the way back into the passage; Harellan lingered, gesturing for Astraia to precede him. "What he means, I think, is that he's happy to help." They filed after Cyrus into the crevice, emerging to a somewhat-darkened sky. It wasn't in danger of reaching nightfall before they got back to Skyhold or anything, but the overhead light was beginning to mellow and deepen, the way it did at the very cusp of sunset.

When they were again able to walk abreast rather than in single-file, Harellan tilted his head, eyes falling briefly to where her necklace had come to rest on the outside of her shirt. "One of the gifts from your clan?" The question was benign, but he seemed to be asking something else, too. A little less straightforwardly.

She glanced down at it, only just now realizing he could see it. "Oh. Yes." She thought for a moment to tuck it back under, but maybe it was a little late for that. It was starting to make her question why she'd bothered hiding it in the first place. It felt... strange, to wear any symbols representing gods around someone who had always known they were less than that. If less was really the right word.

"Our craftswoman, Marelya, carved it for me. She's... a believer, I guess you could say." Astraia had never been much of one before, and now... she wasn't sure how she felt now, actually. She would've thought learning the truth about their gods would make her even less interested in them, but it was actually having the opposite effect.

She made sure to watch where she was going as they neared the descent, and then looked Harellan's way. "Do your people believe in anything?" She wasn't sure if the question was acceptable to ask, but she doubted she'd offend him if it wasn't. Dalish didn't know any better. "Everyone seems to have their own gods, but to the elves in Arlathan the gods are more like ancestors, right? So do they believe something else about how the world was created, that sort of thing?" The Dalish often called the gods the Creators, but if they were just elves, Astraia didn't see how that could be true.

"It's a matter of some philosophical debate." Harellan smiled easily, lifting a shoulder. "And it was even in the time before the Fall. I don't think we as a group have a particular consensus on the matter. Some think that the world could not possibly have sprung into being on its own, and everything has a beginning, even our immortal ancestors. Others are inclined to say that whatever brought this world about could not itself have been sentient, since that creates a rather difficult regress problem."

He glanced at Cyrus, a thoughtful expression crossing his face. "There are those, now as then, who believe that any such causes or creators became irrelevant long ago, sentient or otherwise. We are capable enough of both great glory and great terror on our own, and must make do with what is before us." Harellan's eyes fell back to hers, feet sure on the gentle slope beneath them without the need to check the terrain. "Unsatisfying as it may be for some, I admit I'm attracted to the last view, personally. People are very willing to leave their fates in the care of gods, where such are believed to exist. Much more productive to take it into one's own hands."

It was a very similar thought to the one she'd had, even back in Arlathan. She'd needed time to think it over, but the more she did, the more... excited wasn't quite the right word for it. The more she anticipated the potential of tomorrow. The potential in herself, if she could only figure out how to seize it. She smiled at him, feeling even a little relieved. "I feel the same way. It's... I never saw the point before. Gods who could be sealed away can't be much of gods at all, and if that leaves us alone here with someone we're supposed to fear, where's the hope in that? But this way, knowing that these gods were just people, powerful people..." She shook her head, wondering what the Dalish might be like if they'd believed differently all these years. "It makes me feel like we have a real chance of changing something, someday. Maybe not in my lifetime, but at least something that I could help start."

She figured her clan would barely recognize her, if they saw her right now. Training her mind and body and talking about hope for changing the fate of the elven people, restoring some piece of what they had in the past. Dozing off in soft fields under the clouds, avoiding her clan, seemed so far away...

"Sorry, that was a bit much," she said. "Just felt like seeing Arlathan and learning about this opened my eyes to a few things. I'm really glad I was able to go." Her brother would be incredibly jealous, she knew. The thought gave her an undeniably guilty pleasure.

Harellan's smile broadened; even Cyrus had a little curl to the corner of his mouth, though he'd angled his face away, as though taking in the mountainsides to their left. "It's an admirable thing to want." The elf folded his hands behind his back as they walked, tipping his head up a little to take in the sky. "Of course, knowing how best to do that, even in which direction to aim, is a difficult matter. Like it or not, thousands of years have passed since our height. My people strive to preserve it. Some wish to restore it. But that would be a very involved process, and likely impossible in its fullest form."

“Of course it would be." Cyrus seemed to find that obvious. “Restoration couldn't work, because there are entire empires in play that didn't exist last time that world did. As the fool who invented time travel—" he rolled his eyes there—“I don't recommend it as a solution to anyone's problems."

"We can start small then," she said, feeling that the subject was probably a bit over her head at this point. She was quite short. "Teaching me to use this properly should be challenging enough for the moment." She shook her staff softly at them, before putting it back to work as a walking stick, its primary function since it had come into her possession.

“Not getting killed first, highly-theoretical discussions about the hypothetical destinies of all the nations on Thedas later?" Cyrus arched an eyebrow, false imperiousness rolling off him in waves. “Ugh. You would be sensible, wouldn't you?" He waved a hand.

“I suppose I can accommodate your request. We'll get to the fate of the world later though; mark my words."

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INK

Séverine couldn't remember a time where she'd wanted to kill someone more strongly than this.

Not even when her mind had been addled by the power of Meredith's zeal. The thought of how close she came to ending up on the other side of this conflict sickened her, made her want to empty her stomach over the side of the ship. If a few things had gone differently... she could've been the one to kill Cullen. To lead the attack that had Kirkwall pinned and in desperate need of aid.

But she refused to believe the Knight-Commander was dead. Not until she saw his body. There were other bodies, strung up on the wave-drenched walls of the Gallows in front of them. Naked and pale, drained of blood from wounds suffered trying to fend off the surprise attack. Trying to dissuade them from attacking out of respect for the dead, perhaps. It wouldn't work. Nothing would stop her from breaking through. The dead wouldn't mind. If they were true templars, they would expect no less.

The chains were up, as expected, connecting to a point on the back of the fortress they couldn't see. They were impossibly thick, hovering dutifully above the water's surface, unbreakable by any means they had at their disposal, physical or magical. Tevinter magisters had forged them, so long ago, when this city had more slaves than citizens, the technique now lost to time. They'd bring them down, one way or another.

The Inquisition's fleet was arranged in an attack formation, swift ships prepared to unload troops front and center. The Red Templars had no ships of their own to speak of, no defense from sea attack other than the chains, and any ranged attacks they could throw from the towers of the fortress-prison. They were just out of range, for now, while the Riptide prepared to fire on the walls with their Qunari cannon.

They were signaled from their left, and Séverine turned to see an Orlesian ship approaching. The Emperor's, no less, with Lucien visible on the deck. It seemed he intended to board, and be among the first to set foot on the Gallows and drive out the traitors. Séverine glanced to Khari beside her. "Ready to fight alongside the Emperor?"

Khari seemed to be trying to contain her enthusiasm and failing. This wasn't nearly as personal for her, of course, but she was doing about as well as she could at respecting the fact that it was personal for a considerable number of others. Still, the question must have broken whatever filter was keeping the excitement at bay, because she grinned to hear it, just barely the right side of savage, for the moment. She tore her eyes away from the approaching ship long enough to nod.

“Those Reds don't have a snowball's chance in a bonfire."

The Orlesian vessel—solitary but every bit as impressive as the Inquisition's own flagship—pulled up alongside them at that point. Lucien waited for permission before nodding to two of his compatriots, who settled a board in between the boats with a solid thud. The Emperor himself was the first across it, stride sure and quick. He was clearly dressed for war, layered in immaculate silverite ringmail so bright it was almost white to the eye, the plates protecting key areas fashioned from the same. A helm was tucked under his arm, the hilt of Everburn visible over his shoulder, beneath the emerald-green cloak at his back. Lucien's face was set into grim lines; no doubt he took this about as personally as anyone could.

He nevertheless spared a smile for Séverine and Khari both, clearly recognizing the latter, at least. Grey eyes swiftly found Rilien, the ranking Inquisition officer aboard, and it was to him that he initially addressed himself. "Ril. Is this the crew you're sending in first?" There certainly wasn't much time for pleasantries; the longer they spent here, the more time the Red Templars had to brace themselves for defense.

The spymaster inclined his head slightly, docile in demeanor as he ever was. “It is. And you wish to be among them, I take it." He looked for a moment as though he were deliberating about something—perhaps considering registering the obvious objection to such a plan: that it would be risking the not-yet-crowned monarch of a tenuously-peaceful, extremely powerful nation in a fight against enemies who could easily outdo most combatants.

He did not give voice to the argument.

Lucien seemed relieved that it was a discussion he didn't have to have. Given the stubborn set of his jaw, he would have insisted quite forcefully if pushed to it. Instead he expelled a breath and nodded. "I would. If possible, tell your men not to treat me any differently than another comrade. Or avoid telling them who I am altogether, if that would do. I've no desire to disrupt things, only to help."

Séverine had a better Graceface than Khari when it came to her excitement, but perhaps that was because of the damper the situation put on her mood in general. Still, she had wanted to meet Lucien Drakon for so long. Meet him again, rather, though she didn't get the sense he recognized her. How would he?

"I'm afraid everyone knows who you are, Your Radiance," she said, failing to contain her smile entirely. "I'm Knight-Captain Séverine Lacan. I'll be in command." She might've preferred Leon to lead instead, but... his condition made it unwise for him to push himself more than was required. She could do this. "The bombardment will begin shortly. The Red Templars will not keep us out." They couldn't. The city was visible beyond the Gallows, smoke rising from a hundred sources, Hightown among them. And even if this didn't work, Lia and the scouts were already making their landings on the Wounded Coast, dangerous though it was. They'd report back with whatever they could learn.

"Lucien, please," he replied, offering his free right arm for her to shake. "Can't say I much like the 'radiance' bit. I'm at your disposal if you can use me for anything as we go, Knight-Captain. Otherwise I'll just do whatever seems helpful." He released her hand and glanced at the elf beside her. "Good to see you again, Khari."

Behind him, the boarding plank disappeared, pulled back to the Orlesian ship. It seemed whoever was on board there would be waiting to move in the the bulk of the Inquisition's forces; probably for the best.

Khari's grin remained firmly in place. “If you didn't wanna be called 'Your Radiance,' you probably should have worn less-shiny armor." While undoubtedly energized by his mere presence, she didn't seem to show him much more deference than she showed anyone else. Not all that surprising, really.

Lucien managed a huff. No doubt it would have been a laugh in a less dire situation. Khari had that effect on people. "Maybe you're right. We'll see how shiny it is by the time we're done."

“Your Radiance has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?” A clearly amused voice, cut through the din of slapping waves beating against the ship’s bow, breaking off towards the rocks jutting from the water. Deep pockets made for tricky navigating… though it seemed as if the navigator was steering them quite ably, tutting over sea charts near the helm. A laugh wasn’t far behind it. Sparrow had been in the process of ascending the stairs leading to the main deck. Given her countenance, and the way she spoke, it wasn’t likely she’d be using any title anytime soon. At least, not without a quip.

She, too, wore clothes made for warring. Not nearly as shiny as Lucien’s fare, though she was decked head to toe in leathers; most noticeably was the large mace held in her hands, just as long as she was, and certainly of a heavier variety. The scar pulled on her face as she smiled, closing the distance in a striding gait. She stopped short of Lucien, planted the head of her mace on the ground with a thump and leaned in to wrap him in a one-armed hug. Once she broke free, she stepped to the side, and turned towards Kirkwall. “I’d say welcome home, but…”

Under the circumstances, it seemed reminiscent of when Meredith’s shadow loomed over it. An iron fist, and pure chaos. The city of chains under siege once more. Not by the Qunari, this time. She nodded her head and swung her gaze back to Lucien, “Aurora sends her warm regards. She’d of loved to see you in person, shiny armor and all. But, I wager we’ll bump into each other once we’re inside anyway.”

"With luck, I'm sure we will," Lucien replied, though his attention was drawn to the nearby Riptide, where it looked like Amalia and the Qunari Lion, Hissrad, were supervising the crew in placing heavy glass spheres into the catapults they'd brought aboard for the operation. Those would be the lyrium explosives, then, to soften the wall up a bit so the cannon could hopefully punch through. Amalia nodded to Hissrad once, then disappeared through a hatch in the deck, no doubt to see the cannon loaded and aimed.

Séverine drew her short sword, dropping her helmet down into place. "Enough greetings. There's work to be done." She of all people could understand being thrilled to see Lucien, but they had a grim job to do, and it wasn't going to be painless.

A few moments later Rilien had given the signal to fire upon the Gallows wall. The catapults unloaded their spheres; they hurtled through the air and smashed against the stone, immediately igniting into a powerful blast, the force of which was easy to feel even from the boats, as was the heat from the blue-tinted blaze that erupted into the air around the points of impact. They weren't especially accurate, as it was hard to properly aim a siege weapon on rolling waters, but they didn't need to be. The blasts were meant to soften a large area for the more precise strike of the cannon that would follow.

They reloaded and let fly two more times, until Séverine could smell the burnt lyrium on the air. From inside the Gallows, they could hear inhuman roars, battle cries from the Red Templars. Outside, the bodies they'd strung up were... less intact now, but Séverine was resolved to ignore them. A heavy boom sounded out from Zahra's ship, and the sharp-eyed could catch the heavy metal object zip at blistering speeds into the wall, penetrating through the weakened stone and leaving a section of it crumbling down. A cloud of dust rose up into the air as the rubble collapsed down onto the rock below. There was just enough rocky ground between the wall and the crashing sea waves to make a landing, but it wouldn't be easy.

"Forward," she commanded, as soon as her eyes settled on a breach they could get through. The hole was wide enough for three or four to pass through simultaneously, and tall enough that even Lucien wouldn't need to duck. Their ship lurched forward, oars and a few sails taking them in. The approach would need to be precise. If any infantry missed the landing on the rocks, the waves would likely slam them against those rocks with force, assuming they didn't just sink and drown.

Red templars were already filling the breach, looking to meet them. Mostly their smaller, more typical infantry, though Séverine spied one knight among them. Horrors began to rain down shards of lyrium on them from above, shooting it out of arrow slits and the battlements. Those with shields lifted them for cover, the rest finding shelter where they could. Séverine could barely maintain her sight on the target, but thankfully the steering was sound, and before long the ship was just beginning to scrape the rock underneath it.

"Now!" she called. "Over the side!" She vaulted the ship's railing and fell a good five feet, boots thudding down against the rock. More came down behind her, though she heard one infantryman take a horror's red lyrium shard to the chest as soon as he lowered his shield. His body plunged into the sea. The first of many casualties. Séverine led the charge, catching a sword on her shield and driving her own blade up in the opening. They had to get clear of the landing, so more troops could join them. They had to carve their way inside.

A coarse shout to her left alerted her to Khari's presence. The elf's size was actually something of an advantage here, as even without a shield she was a hard target for the horrors to strike, made only more difficult by the fact that she never did stay still for long. The first red to get in close enough to attack her in melee wound up with the point of her sword in his neck for his trouble, and she wrenched it to the side, taking his head half-off. Enough to kill even one of them, obviously. He crumpled, and she stepped over his corpse, and then forward even further, putting herself on the very front edge of the advancing Inquisition line.

Lucien wasn't about to be left behind, either, clearing a path in front of him with broad, efficient strokes of Everburn. The Emperor's sword glowed white-orange at the edges, the enchantment heating it enough to give that much more against the armor and occasional lyrium crystals that protruded from the red templars. He'd donned his helm, a design of dragon wings stretching back from the temples of it to run along the side of his head. Red projectiles still rained from above, glancing off it or his armor occasionally with slight ringing noises—just barely audible over the rest of the din.

Downing a footsoldier, Lucien stepped up in front of the knight before anyone else got there. His first swing towards her was blocked outright, a ridgelike growth on her arm deflecting the force of his blade. Several crunched under the force of the blow, flaking off as the weapon drew away again, steam hissing on the edge. He'd drawn blood, if not much. If he was surprised, he recovered quickly, sliding away from her attempted riposte and maneuvering his sword into the gap his body left. It slid past hers with a grating screech, impacting her cracked armor with more force than either Séverine or Khari could bring to bear. That and Everburn's heated edge were all it took; with another shove, Lucien found the knight's heart inside one of the cracks, and she fell like a stone.

He tore the sword free, and did not look back.

There was a rattling laugh over the din of crashing steel and the squalor of death-moans, coming from Khari’s right side, a few paces behind where they’d stepped off the ship. It ripped into a battle roar, announcing that Sparrow had brought up the rear. She’d dipped beneath hurtling lyrium shards, and despite the pinched expression across her face, she seemed at home in the carnage, digging her heels into the sand and hurtling forward to face an oncoming red.

The over sized mace swung up like a hammer, hefted over her own head. Another shout rippled from her throat. As if she, too, was in pain. The man hadn’t had the chance to lift his weapon in defense, though he’d tried to recoil backwards, away from the blow. The mace vibrated, glowing a soft blue; humming as it sang through the air. It came down, violently. Smashing into the top of his head, crushing the skull beneath and pinning him at her feet. She placed her foot on his shoulder, tugged her mace out of the remnants of gore, and hurtled forward once more.

Whatever the Reds were expecting, it wasn't the soon-to-be-crowned Orlesian Emperor and Everburn. Séverine might have engaged the enemy first, but Lucien was the first through the breach in the wall, as his ability to clear a path was simply unmatched. Séverine could withstand a great deal behind her shield, but they didn't need defense right now. Khari was fighting with as much energy as Séverine had ever seen, keeping up in Lucien's wake, and together along with Sparrow the four of them pushed into the tower, their soldiers behind them. Future waves of landing troops would only have the ranged attacks to deal with, at least until those could be cleared away as well.

The lower dungeon levels were for the most dangerous prisoners, typically mages in the time Séverine had worked in this fortress, while the more common criminals were given the rooms with views. It seemed obvious now that it was the Red Templars trapped in here now, lacking the manpower to do anything more than slow them down. They cut them down as quickly as they came, often not pausing to finish downed enemies, letting the troops and templars behind them carry out the work.

The Reds did, however, form a plan to hold the hall, clustering four mutated horrors together at the far end of it, waiting for the infantry behind them to fall. Red templars with shields crouched before them, trying to establish a defensive wall, and soon there were dangerous lyrium spikes targeting them in close quarters. "Shields!" Séverine called to her templars behind her. "Lucien, Khari, get back!" They were well armored, but she didn't want to test what would happen if they charged an oncoming wall of projectiles in tight spaces.

Lucien must have realized the same; he laid a hand briefly on Khari's shoulder and stepped back behind the forming shield wall. "Time to let the others do their work, hm?"

She shook herself a little, blinking as if to clear her vision, then grinned up at him. “I guess we could stand to share the fun a bit." She considered the line then, as the templars mustered into their wall. Her voice disappeared as Séverine led the templars forward. They didn't practice this every day, given that magic and tight formations often didn't mix, but this was precisely what she did intend for it. Tight quarters and protection from missiles.

"Forward!" she ordered, and with a silent determination the templars moved forward at a steady pace, ignoring the red lyrium shards bouncing off their shields. The few that pierced through they ignored, even if they pierced parts of their arms. Just part of the job. As they neared they increased in speed, until they were almost at a run in unison. They slammed into the Red Templar shield wall with a loud clang of metal and armor, both sides pushing against the other, swords trying to slip through or over and find a body to bleed.

Allez-hop!" A small thunder of full-sprint footsteps accompanied the words, followed by abrupt silence, then a soft laugh.

"Ç'est parti," Lucien quipped back.

They'd followed the front line closely, and the elf now went sailing over the battle line, boosted by the chevalier. She landed confidently on the other side, crooked smile baring a few too many teeth, perhaps. Khari didn't waste any time laying into the first of the horrors, ducking under the first hasty wave of red lyrium projectiles sent her way and lunging forward. Her sword arced in a low sweep, cutting the horror's relatively undistorted legs out from underneath him. She ended him with a swift downwards stab, and bounded to the next.

The distraction proved to be what they needed. The slight break in discipline of their line from having an elf jump over their heads let Séverine get a strong push. The enemy in front of her had no support behind her, unlike Séverine, and so she collapsed backwards, the Knight-Captain's weight falling down on her. Séverine drove her sword into the woman's side, trying to find a weak point, but she was distracted by a sharp pain in her own back, as one of the other red templars turned his sword on her, hacking at her near her right shoulder.

The blade abruptly pulled away from Séverine’s shoulder, followed by a hissed, "Got yer back.” From what she could see, Sparrow had jerked the assailant backwards by the back of his helmet, enough to for him to lose his balance. She kicked the back of his knee, and sent him falling to his face, swinging around to smash her mace down on whichever part of him she could reach before he squirmed away or got back to his feet. The mace found the back of his legs and they bowed inwards, conjuring a scream from the man’s mouth.

Another blow ended it.

Lucien was next through the line, deftly parrying away a reaching blade. He was certainly an obvious target, between the armor and his obvious skill and stature. No doubt that was on purpose; he seemed quite accustomed to handling having a great deal of aggression directed at himself, always able to turn Everburn or his armor into a blow when it was otherwise impossible to avoid. As he'd implied to Khari, the silverite did not remain unstained, blood mixed with red lyrium dust smeared across the chestplate and his gauntlets. None of it yet seemed to be his.

That very nearly changed as the remaining horror threw a barrage of red lyrium darts at him, but Lucien turned his head away in just enough time to prevent any from slipping inside the eyeslit of his helm, stepping in and swinging blind. His instincts were good, and though it wasn't a killing blow, it was enough to stagger the horror and allow Séverine to finish him off.

It was a rout in the lower levels, and when Séverine glanced back, she saw a large number of Inquisition troops making their way in behind her, the Inquisitors among them, along with Vesryn and Cyrus. They gave a controlled chase to the soon retreating red templars, fighting the ones who remained to fight up flights of stairs. Séverine led the way, being the one most familiar with these halls out of anyone. Eventually they fought their way into the central chamber of the dungeons, and then out into the courtyard.

The sight was almost enough to turn Séverine's stomach, even in the middle of the battle. Templar dead littered the courtyard, just left to rot where they'd fallen, their red counterparts leaving their marks on their bodies. She shook off the horror, realizing they were still in danger. There was still so much to be done.

"Khari," she said, turning to the elf. "Lead the regulars through the towers, clear every last one. We'll secure the headquarters."

She nodded briskly. “You've got it, Sev." Khari gestured for a cluster of the regulars to accompany her. At this point, they were so used to taking orders from an elf that they didn't even blink when it was a different one, falling neatly into formation and following her lead.

Séverine started forward, with the Emperor and her templars at her back. At the Templar headquarters they'd find their best look at the chains blocking their ships from the harbor. And perhaps they would find Cullen, too.

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The oars sliced quietly into the water; Amalia dare not lift them too high from the surface, lest the sound of the falling drops back to the sea give away their position. It was unlikely that any red templars would be watching the harbor so closely as to discern it over the ambient noise of the night, but it was better not to take chances. In a situation like this, one had to have a care with one's life, or one would certainly lose it.

Above, the thinning crescent sliver of the moon cast silvery light onto the mostly-smooth ocean, interrupted when they passed beneath the massive boom-chain. Though she did not spare the upward glance, she could still smell the algae along the metal links, evidence of a very long time spent submerged until recently. With skill and discretion—what other people mislabeled luck—it would fall back to its place at the bottom of the bay soon enough.

She spared a small nod for Sparrow and Rilien as their boat angled away; their destination necessitated a landing place further north along the docks. Amalia, however, aimed the rowboat she and Lia shared for a center-south destination.

"It is unlikely the red templars are wasting many resources controlling Darktown," she observed, voice low. She paddled a few times with the right oar only before dipping both beneath the surface again. "I was going to use the old Coterie tunnel that lets out near Taril's house, unless something you observed leads you to believe another would be better." If it still was Taril's house, anyway. Individuals and families tended to move as their sizes and the demand for space fluctuated over time.

"No, that sounds best." Lia answered quietly, her eyes not leaving the docks ahead, blonde hair concealed underneath her hood. Her cloak was waterproof, in mottled colors good for forest terrain, but dark enough that it was effectively black in the night. Amalia had given it to her, some years ago, when the young elf had been just a fledgling scout. The archer's bracer and the curved bone knife she wore as well, the craftsmanship withstanding the test of time and use. Lia kept an arrow nocked to her bowstring, though against anything other than one of the weaker Red Templar troops, it would prove to be of little use.

She'd worked against this enemy long enough to know that. "I hate them," she said softly, likely not expecting a response. As they came closer, it would become more dangerous to provide one.

Amalia elected only to nod slightly, an acknowledgment if not precisely an agreement. Hatred was a powerful motivator for some people, but Amalia had always instinctively tried to keep herself from it. It clouded her thinking, and she relied upon being clear and cold, even in her anger.

She brought the boat up to a pier, looping its rope around one of the jutting poles and securing it with an efficient knot. She gestured for Lia to precede her up, pulling her dark scarf over her head and adjusting it so that it covered her nose and mouth as well as her hair. Then she climbed out as well, pulling herself noiselessly onto the dock.

It was quieter than either of them had ever experienced Kirkwall before. Even in the dead of night there was usually some activity, despite how dangerous the streets had been at certain times in those years. Now there was just a stillness, like the city itself was petrified in fear while the Red Templars crawled over its skin. The only sounds were that of the water lapping against the docks, and the distant battles near the Alienage and Hightown. Amalia and Lia added no sound to that mix as they moved.

The Red Templars appeared to have made use of some ships, likely for the purposes of attacking the Gallows and then returning here, but there weren't enough to ferry an army. Sparse patrols along the docks and in the streets of Lowtown had to be avoided, but Amalia and Lia were more than up to the task, even if Lia was subconsciously drawing back her bowstring slightly any time they saw one. She showed restraint, and together they managed to slip down into Darktown unseen.

It didn't require a tracker to know that the rest of the army had come up through the underbelly of the city, erupting and swarming over Kirkwall from within and below. They left traces of corruption where they went, little red growths on the ground and on the walls, just taking root. Thankfully, their army seemed to be preoccupied elsewhere, with no real reason to leave any forces behind in Darktown. In all likelihood, it was now the safest place in the city.

Lia knew of the tunnel Amalia was planning to use, but hadn't used it much herself, considering how young she'd been before leaving Kirkwall, and how little reason she typically had for venturing into the depths of Darktown. She paused, waiting for Amalia to direct their next move.

The passage itself wasn't anything too elaborate. All it required was removing and replacing a sewage grate in the stone road, dropping the short distance to the ground, and then bearing to the right. Numerous other passages, long blocked off by deterioration and warping, passed by before Amalia located the door they wanted. It had stuck fast in the years since she'd last used it; it took some doing, but leverage eventually forced it open, allowing them to skirt the edges of Darktown before another passage took them up.

They emerged at the end of an alley, the neighborhood here peripheral to the Alienage proper. It almost blended into Lowtown, actually, but in this case, that turned out to be fortuitous. No sooner had they crept from the sewer back onto street level than there was a low, trilling whistle. Whippoorwill, or a good imitation of one. It was, of course, a signal of some sort; someone had been thorough enough to post a guard even here.

From the fact that no attack immediately followed, Amalia deduced that it probably wasn't the red templars. She turned to Lia, raising a brow. The signal sounded vaguely familiar, somehow.

Lia pulled back her hood, to better let whoever it was see who was infiltrating their Alienage, and took the arrow from her bowstring. She responded with a similar bird-call, slightly higher in pitch, and she smiled up at the as-of-yet unseen watcher. "You guys haven't forgotten me, right?"

A delighted ha escaped into the quiet, followed by the sounds of motion. A moment later, a head appeared over the lip of the nearest rooftop. Amalia recognized this Lion—Ainsley, one of the archers. "Thought you seemed familiar. Been hard to see straight for a few days, so I'm glad I checked." Ainsley grinned, leaving little doubt that it was something of a joke, before pointing to her left. "Much as I'd love to chat, Lia, we probably don't have too much longer before they push forward again, and you two are going to want to be somewhere safer when they do. Havard and the rest are helping the defenses down the way. We've got the main entrance blocked off, but I dunno how much longer it'll hold. Lots of injuries." She grimaced at that.

Amalia answered with a small nod, and they headed in the direction Ainsley had indicated, moving a little more quickly and less quietly now. There didn't seem to be any red templars in the immediate proximity, and the blockade was not hard to find. Improvised about as well as it could be from whatever was available—Amalia recognized several sturdy front doors, the bright and cheerful paint chipped and splintered away where they'd held firm against the surface of a red's shield or edge of a blade, perhaps.

It was clear from little more than a glance that the situation was bad; several of the defenders were sporting bandages and splints already, wearing whatever they had that was nearest to armor. It looked like no few of them had been hastily armed with whatever the Lions had at their disposal, the weapons and shields and leathers sized on average a fair bit too big for the elves that now donned them, but it was no doubt much better than they'd have been able to manage otherwise.

Directing the defenses was Havard, a man many years his commander's senior, grey hair slowly making the shift to white. He was far more confident with the armaments in his possession than anyone else, however, and recognized who was approaching immediately. "Watch the stakes," he said, using his longsword to point to the sharpened poles standing at a clever angle just in front of the main barricade. Amalia took heed, and swung over carefully.

Havard glanced between them, grim expression easing only slightly. "I'm thinking if you're here, Lucien's here. I'm also thinking he's having trouble getting in. How 'm I doin'?"

"Not bad," Lia answered. "Lucien's here, and the Inquisition's here, but the army's stuck outside the chains. Another team's trying to get to the west tower, Amalia and I volunteered for the east." She took stock of the defenses, grimacing. Nearby, people were noticing the new activity, where it had recently no doubt only been dreary routine of desperate defense. They looked out their windows, stood in their doorways, elves that weren't fighters and never had been, but now faced death if the enemy broke their line. Trapped in their own homes.

Lia swallowed. "The Reds will have a constant guard on that tower. We could reach it without being seen, but we'd never be able to kill the guards before more came, not without help." The obvious problem with going on any kind of attack was that it would significantly hurt their defense here. "We need to come up with something quick, though, before they finish regrouping and hit again."

Havard clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. "So you need to get there, and with enough people not to get skewered on sight." He pressed his lips together in a thin line, then nodded slightly. "I think we can make that happen. As you might have noticed, we've fallen into a pattern here—they attack, we defend, they take a couple more of us down, then get out before we have a shot at the same." The area wasn't entirely without red templar corpses, but the defenders were indeed at an obvious disadvantage.

"Disrupting the pattern may take them off guard, but that involves taking the offensive with fewer people." Amalia finished the thought, and the mercenary captain grunted his agreement. "What if we went with everyone at once, then split once they'd shifted to defense?"

Havard's brows climbed his forehead. "They'd get bold again right quick if they saw that happen," he pointed out.

"So then we ensure they do not see." Unhooking a mid-sized pouch from its place at her thigh, she tossed it to him.

He caught it in his free hand, giving a soft 'hm' when he glanced inside. She only had three, but that many would produce enough smoke to obscure a wide area, at least temporarily. "Use those in advance of the charge. If we play our parts convincingly enough, they will mistake few for many for some time."

"And then what?" Havard asked, throwing the satchel to Idris, the company's Rivaini alchemist. No doubt he'd know what to do with them. "We can't retreat back here once they realize what's going on. We won't have enough people to hold the line, and the whole Alienage burns if we try."

"Run for the docks," Lia suggested. "They want to crush resistance, not destroy every home. Most of Lowtown still seems intact. They'll chase you, not go for the Alienage." It would be a risk, certainly, to leave the Alienage entirely exposed, but if they wouldn't have the manpower to defend it anyway... "I promise you we'll get that chain down, and Lucien will be on the first ship through. They'll land on the docks, and drive off the Reds."

That much seemed guaranteed. If they could get the chains down, the Red Templars wouldn't be able to hold off an army at the docks and make a breakthrough in Hightown. They would have to retreat, abandon their efforts on Lowtown. The other guarantee, unfortunately, was death, at least to some degree. They were a battered fighting force going up against superior numbers of a much more deadly enemy. Many had already died. And more would have to, for this to succeed.

Havard considered this for a moment, exchanging a weighted glance with Idris before nodding slowly. "All right. I'm going to have to take most of the Lions, but you've got Farah and Idris." He glanced quickly between the defenders. "And any of the elves that doesn't volunteer to be with me. Better shot at surviving that way, I suppose. Let's get ourselves set up, then try that smoke trick."

Exhausted and depleted or not, the defenders were still reasonably efficient, and it didn't take more than another minute or two to circulate the plan and collect volunteers. They only had time for the subtlest of affectionate goodbyes. Hands held until arms were outstretched, fingers slipping away. Quick kisses, husbands and wives leaving partners behind to fight and likely die. Those too wounded to keep fighting needing to be held back. Their community had been hardened and bonded by years of struggle and sacrifice, and this attack could break them no more than the others.

When there was no more time to delay, their assembled force surmounted their barricade and marshaled in the street. Lia had an arrow nocked again, her cloak left behind in the Alienage. Easier to move without it, no doubt. She reached to softly grab Havard's arm. "Hey. Don't hold any longer than you have to, all right? I've got some stories of my own to share with you for once, when all this is done."

Havard's mouth quirked into a half-smile. "Aye, lass. I'll look forward to hearing them over a pint in the Hanged Man." He patted Lia briefly on the shoulder once, nodded at Amalia, then turned his attention to Ainsley.

"Get as many of the elves with bows as you can on the roof." She nodded and hopped to it while he organized the others on the ground. Amalia could not fault his strategy—while what they were doing was no doubt going to result in casualties, Havard clearly meant to minimize them, and to place the trained professionals against the brunt of the danger while keeping the armed civilians as safe as the situation would allow. It was a very Argent Lion sort of tactic to take.

The sound of a disorganized march drew their attention ahead. The Red Templars would be coming around the corner any second. It was now or over, so the order was given. Idris lit the smoke bombs and hurled them down the street, and a young woman in a maroon tunic Amalia did not recognize made sure to ferry the smoke in the right direction with a bit of magic to encourage the breeze. Before the smoke obscured the entire street, they could see the first few red ranks, heavily armed and armored, with at least a few knights among them.

The Argent Lions led the advance, moving under a volley from their back line, the best Lia and the other archers could manage. They were able to get off a few more volleys before the first ranks disappeared into the smoke ahead, with the Red Templars having no idea the size of the force engaging them. The sounds of pitched battle echoed out from ahead. Lia tilted her head sideways, indicating that they should get moving. They wouldn't have long. No one would.

Amalia nodded shortly, replacing the throwing knives she hadn't used at her leg and drawing a much longer dagger instead. As quietly as they could, their group peeled off from the others, leaving the Lions and those who had elected to stand with them to hold back the tide of red templars for as long as possible.

Idris took up point, his relatively light armor making next to no noise as he moved. In his right hand, he gripped a smooth metal pole with a short, dartlike point on one end; the other was currently closed around some kind of flask. Something a little more direct than smoke, she suspected. Farah fell back closer to Lia, an arrow already fitted to her bowstring, but pointed downwards, tension held short of a full draw. They kept the others between them, navigating as swiftly as they dared through the darkened neighborhood streets.

The tower was impossible to miss; to say that it dwarfed the buildings around it was a severe understatement. Though they encountered no resistance along the way, it was clear they weren't going to be able to sneak inside. The sounds of battle were still very audible behind them, enough that any guard posted to the tower would know something was out of the ordinary.

They skidded around a corner to find two archers and another pair of sword-armed guards on alert. Lia and Farah's arrows were loosed before the red templar archers could so much as draw theirs, though they both aimed for the same target. She was killed instantly, one arrow finding her throat while the other tore through the hood of her robe to crack the skull. The other archer drew up his shot next, finding one of the shoddily armored elves that had come along with them. The arrow hit him in the gut, and he dropped. There was no time for any of them to see to him. They had to push their way in.

Idris threw the flask in his hand; it cracked open on the second archer's chestplate, the fluid inside igniting and immolating him. Though it might not be enough to kill him at any speed, it certainly prevented him from firing, allowing the remainder of the group to close. One of the swordsmen went after the Rivaini man, her blade skidding off the pole he now gripped in both hands. He strafed quickly sideways, drawing her attention and leaving her flank open to assault.

Amalia didn't hesitate stepping in quickly. More red templars were appearing from behind those already in the fight; it would seem they'd run into a cluster of guards bigger than anticipated. Grimacing, Amalia planted her knife in the swordswoman's armpit, retracting it just as quickly and drawing a throwing dagger with her free hand. It flew true towards the archer, knocking him to his knees; an arrow from one of the elves was enough to finish the job.

Two more of the civilians fell to the remaining swordsman and his reinforcements. Amalia was considering their options when something much larger rounded the corner, the tainted sick of red lyrium rolling from him in waves. She had only heard of these—the knights. A protracted battle with one of those was going to end in several dead elves at best. She decided she didn't like those odds.

"Lia! We need to disengage; how do we do it?" Amalia parried another incoming strike; she could not remove her attention from the melee long enough to get a better sense of the environment. Not against opponents this dangerous. Those at a distance would be better able to pick out the best strategy, and she trusted Lia and her training to know what to look for.

"Inside!" Lia called out, her voice drawing nearer. "We have to get inside!" The reason for that seemed plain enough: this was their one chance to get the chain down. Even if they managed to regroup back at the Alienage, their numbers would be too devastated to try anything again, and the Red Templars would adapt to what they'd done. There was also the fact that much of the Red Templar force here was actually coming from inside the tower, but around it.

"Follow me!" Lia seemed inclined lead by example rather than shout and follow, and by the time she passed Amalia her bow was across her back, her knife in hand. She ducked under a swing of a sword that would've decapitated her, taking the time to stab her knife backwards near the templar's spine but nothing else. Killing the enemy was less important now than just getting past them.

Amalia spun to the left of her current opponent, sliding the knife across his throat, then swiftly kicking the slackening body back towards two approaching templars. She waited until the other had passed before she, too, disengaged, sprinting after the rest and letting the archers do most of the work fending off the chase for the moment.

The door slammed behind her as soon as she passed the threshold, Farah already laying a thick board across the door in hopes of holding off pursuit for as long as possible. It likely wouldn't be sufficient for long, but it did give them all a chance to take the spiraling staircase as fast as possible, the wooden steps creaking under the combined weight of the party stomping upwards. But it all held; Amalia made a note of the wooden construction of the stairs. Setting fire to them would be a very bad idea, but one they may have no choice but to try anyway—or one the templars might attempt if they succeeded.

The plank on the downstairs door gave way just as Lia reached the upper landing first. If their run upwards had been a frantic drumbeat, the templars were thunder. Passing through the one up the staircase, Amalia closed it behind her. There wasn't much in this room but the gate control itself, it seemed. Already the others had found what little was available to impede further entry: a heavy crate and some spare lengths of very thick chain, not that there was much to anchor it to.

"Hurry," she urged, perhaps needlessly. Anyone could hear the approaching enemies, and feel them, too. The crate was in place; Amalia picked up the chain and tossed one end to Farah, holding the other herself. The first few to break through would have considerable difficulty. By then she had to hope the boom chain itself would be down and the mechanism destroyed.

"Uh... okay." None of them had ever been in this room before, as it was supposed to be only accessible to the city guard. The mechanism for operating the chain appeared to be some kind of large wheel crank, requiring two people to operate. That wasn't a problem for them, but the large spear wedged into it was. With the others bracing the door, Lia sheathed her knife and tugged on the spear. It wouldn't budge. She planted a boot on the wheel pulled again, but some force was keeping it firmly stuck.

A heavy bang smashed against the door with enough force to almost throw everyone bracing it backwards. It wasn't going to be enough to hold the knight. Lia couldn't get the spear free. "Idris, help me with this!" She pointed to the other side of the crank. "Push on that, I think it'll take the weight off."

He was already moving to do it, taking hold of the crank and leaning into it with both his muscle and bodyweight. He had a considerable amount of each, but still the spear would not easily come free. Amalia grimaced, nodding at Farah across from her as another massive crash followed the first. The door groaned, buckling inwards partway as a crack appeared near the center. The two women braced as well as they could, others taking up the extra length of the chain behind them and planting themselves as close to the wall as possible.

The third hit took the door off its hinges completely. It held a moment more when it hit the chain, but then the red templar knight put his shoulder into it, and the defenders were forced to drop it. He pushed through the doorway, kicking aside the crate, the broad surface of his shield the first thing into the room. A wave of heady nausea followed, the scarlet crystals protruding from his arms and back pulsing with some kind of slow, corrupted heartbeat.

Amalia swallowed, and drew her knife.