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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.



So begins...

Non-Player Characters's Story

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His laughter and his sorrow had always been vicarious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

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."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

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.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

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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

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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."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

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.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

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.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

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.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

"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."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

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.

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

Characters Present

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

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

Characters Present

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

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

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.

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

Characters Present

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

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."

Setting

Characters Present

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

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."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

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.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

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."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

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.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

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

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

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.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

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.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

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."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

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.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

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.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

The rowboat carrying Rilien and Sparrow split off from the other about halfway to their destination, angling towards the foundry district, and one of the many walls that kept the paraphernalia of industry contained within its due borders. Lia had run into difficulty scouting the location because of them, but Rilien had a plan to remedy the intelligence issue before deciding on an exact course of action.

He sat facing towards the city, keeping his eyes on the approaching harbor. Sparrow took care of the rowing part; only once did he murmur a course-change direction, as she had her back to the direction they were going. He couldn't see any Red Templars along the docks, but they likely wouldn't be, unless they were passing through en route to elsewhere. Rather, they'd be concentrated at areas of particular conflict, something that Rilien planned to use to bypass them unseen. Sparrow was neither particularly quiet nor subtle, but if he guided their route correctly, that would not matter.

He stood smoothly as the boat approached a pier, looping a length of rope over the protruding pole designed for it, then removing the grappling hook he'd brought with him from the bottom of the vessel and placing it at his hip, on a clip attached to his belt. He pulled himself soundlessly onto the quay, holding a hand down to help Sparrow and her impractically-large mace onto solid footing as well.

Placing a finger to his lips, Rilien indicated that from here on, they had to be as quiet as possible, then turned and led the way through the docks. No small amount of damage was already apparent; the red templar vessels moored here loomed over destroyed evidence of industry, broken crates and smashed barrels. It looked like pure violence, but Rilien knew there was a purpose to it. Any supplies so summarily destroyed could not be used to sustain the defenses, and in a siege, it was often the army that starved first that lost.

Red templars, to his knowledge, needed little food in the early stages of their transformation and none in those that came later.

It was in a way fortunate that he became as ill as he did around red lyrium, for it was a passing wave of nausea that first alerted him to the oncoming group of them. Reaching back, Rilien took Sparrow by the wrist, pulling them both into a crouch behind an overturned fishmonger's cart. It still bore the distinctive smell, but it was not for this reason that he nearly retched.

By the pinched expression on Sparrow’s face, and the way she wrinkled her nose, the reds' proximity had taken a toll on her as well. She hunkered down at his side, and pressed herself as low to the ground as she could. Leveraging her weapon so that it wasn’t peeping up over the upturned cart. The footsteps drew nearer, near enough for the smothering repugnance to swell. Her face paled considerably. Never the one with the strongest of stomachs, especially since she’d stopped chasing bottles in dingy taverns, her hand instinctively clamped to her mouth.

That, paired with the rancid smell of fish left out to rot, certainly didn’t seem to be helping.

When the red templars had passed, Rilien stood once more, exhaling softly. The nausea went easily with them. He could not claim to be fully neutral on the matter of his unique difficulty with the substance, but for all his condition made that more difficult, it made ignoring it easier. Perhaps a fair trade-off, compared to what others endured.

Though they paused frequently so as to allow him time to suss out whether any further lyrium-poisoned soldiers might intersect with their path, the caution paid off, and they met with none, slowly creeping across the docks and into Lowtown proper, headed for the stone walls that blocked their access to both their destination and any information about it. Rilien was careful to walk them around to the least-occupied side, the one that faced closest to an unlit, quiet neighborhood, and furthest from any of the loci of conflict the scouts had been able to detect.

When they reached the spot he wanted, he removed the grabbling hook from his belt and turned to Sparrow. “I need you to keep a watch." His eyes flickered momentarily out towards the residential area on their side of the wall. “If anything comes that I should be aware of, whistle." She'd learned a few common signals over time, he knew, designed to mimic birds one might normally hear in various locations. Best to keep as quiet as possible, even if they were discovered. A few red templars would be difficult enough to deal with. Even half a dozen stood a very real chance of killing them.

Sparrow nodded her head. Obedient, for once. She pursed her lips, however, and drew up her hand, knocking her knuckles softly against his cheekbone. Worry wasn’t in her repertoire of affections; certainly not when it involved her friends. She simply assumed they’d pull out fine, as they always had. She’d been proven wrong once before. It’d been a hard lesson to swallow. “I don’t need to tell you to be careful, do I?” A terse smile, flitting away just as quick as a bird’s beating wings. She dropped her hand away and perched herself closer to the wall, facing her back to it. At least then, she could look in all directions without fearing someone coming up from behind.

“I am always careful." He said it to her back, about the only reassurance he could offer. He could certainly not responsibly say that he would survive. But those thoughts were only a distraction now, and he discarded them with the dispassionate ease his tranquility afforded him.

Spinning the grappling hook in his hand, Rilien launched it deftly. It caught the top of the wall with a soft clang; he tugged a few times to test the grip. Adequate. Quickly, he scaled the wall, slowing when he came to the top of it. A sonorous crash sounded, a faint tremor in the wall itself reaching him through his feet planted on the side of it. He paused, trying to decide if he knew the sound, but no identification was immediately obvious to him.

Deciding he had to risk it, Rilien pulled himself far enough up to peer over the wall.

He located the statue-tower immediately, of course. It was too large not to. Also quite large was a vague shape that looked to be in motion. It took him a moment to register what he was seeing: a massive humanoid form, but misshapen, crimson crystals protruding from a hunched back and the ropy muscles coiled thickly around its trunklike limbs. It would seem that somehow or other, the red templars had corrupted a giant with their tainted lyrium. All around it lay scattered pieces of what must have been buildings and machinery, several corpses dotting the area. Squinting, Rilien could make out less-bright protrusions on some of them, the characteristic arm-spikes of a shadow informing him that among the giant's victims had been at least some of the enemy. Others wore an unfamiliar uniform, but from the color of it, he suspected that they must be part of this new militia he'd heard about.

Knowing that, Rilien scanned the horizon more carefully, silent but for a soft exhale when he found what he was looking for. A plan came together quickly in his mind. Risky, but no more so than anything useful would be in a situation like this. Retreat was not an option, and the giant was so close to the tower that there would likely be no avoiding it.

Though he found some irony in the metaphor, the tranquil believed he had a way to kill three birds with about one stone—and some creative alchemy.

Making his way back to the ground, he replaced the grappling hook at his belt and gestured Sparrow a little closer to him. “They have a giant nearby the tower. Some red templars seem to be entrenched within the district, and I suspect that they are arranged thus because they are trying to deal with a group of the militia. If we can give the soldiers an opportunity to escape their corner, we could use them to help us overwhelm the templars... and then the giant to bring down the chain."

A telltale grin steepled it’s way past Sparrow’s lips as Rilien explained his plan, especially when there was mention of a giant in the tower. The more dangerous, the better. She’d never been one to steer away from particularly risky arrangements, so this was no different. Besides, she’d always been good at creating diversions, however unintentionally. Though clearly different, this might have felt like skulking through Kirkwall all those years ago; enough for her to feel nostalgic about it. It was home, once. She wrestled her grin into a line, and arched an eyebrow, “I’ll follow your lead. Hopefully not into the giant’s path. I don’t fancy being crushed.”

Rilien reached into a pouch at his belt, hanging from the opposite side as the rope. “The creature will need to be drawn away temporarily, so that the militia can risk emerging from shelter." In front of her, he held up a glass sphere, designed so that a smaller sphere rested inside. The inner one contained a liquid that, when brought into contact with the lyrium dust in the inner sphere, would cause a rather noisy combustion reaction. “This explodes. It should be sufficient to distract the giant. Take care not to draw it right to you, but if you do—"

He shifted his hand, a much plainer sphere appearing between his last two fingers. This one had a wick protruding from the top. “Smoke to escape with." She would obviously be able to light it with magic. “If you can take care of distracting it and double back, I will help the militia." What he was asking her to do was dangerous, but it did not occur to him to do otherwise. That she enjoyed risk was irrelevant. That a faint prickle of uneasiness ran over his skin at thinking of her taking such risks was also irrelevant. She was capable. That was the important thing.

Sparrow nodded once more, a shade more serious, as she took the spheres from his hand and pocketed it into her vest. Close enough to shift and grab should she need to do so quickly; this scheme involved a lot more finesse than she was used to, and a lot of guesswork on the giant’s part, though it wouldn’t stop her from hurtling straight in. Relentless. A firestorm, scorching everything in her path. “Shall we?” because good luck had never been appropriate for any of them, there were no guarantees.

Of course, nothing here would happen untroubled. The red templars had located themselves squarely at the district's entrance, which meant Rilien himself would have to be a distraction for the second distraction. If he could confuse them or draw their attention, Sparrow would stand a greater chance of slipping through undetected. At least for now, she needed to remain so.

Taking stock of his other supplies, Rilien settled on a soporific gas. Its effects would be diminished on the chemically-resistant red templars, but he didn't need to knock all of them out, efficient as that might have been. Slowing and confusing them temporarily should be enough. Peering around the corner of the house they'd ducked behind, Rilien tried to get a sense of the numbers. Conservatively, he'd estimate them at thirty, but he could see only about fifteen heads or so, so he could be undershooting by a fair margin. Less than ideal, but so it was.

“Wait ten seconds after I leave, and follow me. Hold your breath until you are clear of the radius, and do not stop." He caught Sparrow's eyes, conveying the rest without using the words. No matter what happens to me.

They had one chance to do this correctly. If they failed, there would be no further opportunities, because the dead did not get second tries.

Rilien hurled the flask, jumping into a sprint immediately after it and drawing his knives from behind his back as he ran. The broken glass released an indistinct cloud, greenish under light but just dark in the scant illumination of the red templar encampment. A pair of them spotted him immediately, streaking towards them fast enough that his hood had long fallen back, making his pale hair rather visible even in low light.

The first nearly skewered him, but Rilien shifted his balance in anticipation, diving to the side and hearing the clang of the sword on stone behind him. He held his breath, darting forward and plunging one knife into the templar's waist, siding it precisely under the largest of her plates. She toppled, and Rilien whirled, parrying the hit her partner aimed for him. Already the gas was taking effect; the man's movement was much slower than his partner's.

He only had so much time, and he refused to waste a moment of it, lunging and dragging the blade of his second knife across that man's throat. By now, the others had realized that something was upon them, and staggered to arm themselves and deal with it. Their attention thus diverted provided exactly the opportunity he had promised Sparrow.

All Rilien saw was a streak of movement coming from his left side, a flurry with a mace in hand. Sparrow had her head lowered as she skirted around some of the templars, facing away from her. Facing him, instead. The frantic sound of footsteps slapping cobblestone and wet gurgles coming from those he felled, paired with the ill-looking cloud, masked her presence well enough. Either that… or they were just too focused on the assailant who’d sprinted into the fray, twisting blades into fatal parts, leaving them crumpled at his feet.

A rattled cry smothered itself out with a whomping thud. An unfortunate templar had stepped in her way, distracted by the scuffle. She’d brought up her flanged mace, and charged as if she were jousting, knocking the man clear off his feet. A squelch later, and the mace was freed from his chest. As instructed, she did not stop or look behind her, only hurtled down the street, closer to the decrepit buildings and abandoned stalls. Possibly ducking beneath the tattered remains of orange canvas strewn between the alleys; fortunately for her, she was familiar with Kirkwall’s streets, especially the seedier parts of Lowtown. Navigating her way to the giant wouldn’t take her long.

It hadn’t.

Or else, the giant had wandered a little closer.

The same stomping noise that had given Rilien pause rattled the buildings; made the ground tremble beneath their feet. Shortly after, a concussive blast sounded off. Another jarring tremor, shaking pebbles and pieces from the buildings as a frenetic, frenzied clomping signaled the giant’s movements. No longer unhurried, nonchalantly destructive—it was running and bumbling into buildings, a howl bugling from its throat. From where Rilien stood, only the disfigured shards coming from its pale head could be seen bobbing between the alleys, heading away from the statue-tower. Unintelligible screams followed soon after. A ruckus, as intended.

Only then did something else slither into the air. A slow, languid haze, rising up between smokestacks.

Smoke.

It was all the signal he could wait for. Sparrow had done her job; now it fell to him to do his fast enough that she'd survive it. Already his breath began to burn in his lungs, and the effects of the gas were fading from the red templars. Stabbing the one in front of him in the arm—not fatal, unimportant—he used the opportunity to disengage, ducking under his other elbow and sprinting past the rest as well. The remaining gas swirled violently in his wake, giving them an easy sense of his direction. That was as it should be.

Free of the cloud, Rilien took in a deep breath, angling them for a narrower street in between two of the smaller foundry buildings. His destination was the one ahead, where he suspected the militia was holed up. Importantly, it was in the opposite direction from where the giant was headed.

It didn't take particularly sharp ears to hear the clanging pursuit behind him. He was faster than the templars in their heavy armor, but he had no doubt they could keep the chase up for a very long time, tainted lyrium conferring upon them endurance well beyond the capacity even he was capable of. As he shot down the street, Rilien kept his eyes on his destination, barely swerving in enough time to avoid the worst of the arrows aimed for his back. One found the upper right quadrant, sticking in his leathers and sinking just slightly into his deltoid muscle on that side, but it didn't slow him. He could not allow it.

More arrows were loosed into the air, but unlike the last few, these went above Rilien's head, and more importantly, were flying in the opposite direction. In the distance, Ashton and another pair of archers-- one of the guard and one of the civilian army if the differing uniforms were anything to go by-- stood atop a pile of debris, each already going for another arrow. After the next volley, Ashton paused for a moment, and brought a finger to his lips and let a shrill whistle pierce the clanging from the Red Templars.

There was another shuffling of armor and arms, and whatever remained of Ashton's infantry element poured into the narrow street with an eager din. It was as if Rilien's appearance had set off a spark they'd been waiting for. They were only a few, and what few there weren't in the best of shape. Armor was bent and broken in places, weapons were chipped, and bandages were apparent on most, if not all of them, but still. It seemed that the possibility for a counterattack put the breath back into their lungs. From atop the pile of debris, Ashton gestured forward with his free hand, before drawing another arrow and sending it downfield-- striking true as another red templar fell as it pierced his skull.

Rilien did not stop moving until he was within range of Ashton, by which point the infantry had already arranged themselves between the red templars and himself. He would duck back into the fray eventually, but first there was information that needed conveying. He hadn't precisely expected to find Ashton here, but it did make things rather easier than they might have been otherwise.

“There are fifteen more still at the entrance. Sparrow is distracting the giant, but we do not have indefinite time before she will have to abandon the effort. The chain must come down." He still suspected the best way to do that was going to be somehow manipulating the giant into destroying it from the outside, but if they had to force their way into the tower, then so be it.

"I'm not gonna ask the dumb question on whether if you have a plan or not, what do you need us to do?" he asked succinctly glancing up and loosing another arrow before returning to Rilien.

“I need you with me. We are finding Sparrow and making the giant do our work for us if we can. We are pushing up the tower if we cannot. Your numbers seem sufficient to rout the templars without you." Cold, factual judgement. He could not say they would do it without casualties, but Rilien would not lose sleep over that. There was no perfect outcome, and so no point in despairing that none was to be found.

"Got it," he answered before taking a moment to search the fray ahead of them. A moment later he appeared to have found who he looking for. "Lieutenant! This one's yours!"

A figure among them paused for a moment and glanced backward before nodding. Vesper, Ashton's second it appeared. She had a bandage wrapped around her head, and her face was bruised, but she hefted her shield all the same. "You better have a good fucking idea Captain!" She called, before turning back toward the battle.

"Something of the sort," he answered, before hopping off of the debris pile. "Right, behind you then. Also, have I said it's damn good to see you?"

“I always take that to be implied." Rilien blinked once, then turned them both down a perpendicular road. The giant was still banging and crashing in the distance, and he oriented them towards the sound. Hopefully, he'd spot some sign of Sparrow before they reached it; otherwise, they'd simply have to improvise.

There was a glimpse of Sparrow in the distance, cut between alleyways as she passed. Running up the street and seemingly trying to compensate for the stomping creature huffing behind her, ripping through canvas and stubborn cobblestone alike. She stumbled, fell to her hands and knees, and lurched back up, hurtling forward once more. Clumsy. The right side of her face was a sheet of red, dropping in flecks. A trail of crimson in her wake. A head injury, perhaps. Her lips were peeled back from her teeth in a bloody grimace, though she appeared determined all the same.

The giant was drawing back to deliver another crushing blow with its club. Rilien did not take the time to decide whether it was likely to hit her or not. Instead, he hit faster, drawing back and hurling his left-hand knife. It flew end-over-end through the air, hitting point first and sinking to the hilt in the creature's thigh, between two plates formed by the lyrium growing out of its body.

It lurched, the club flying wide, smashing into the ground several meters to Sparrow's left instead of upon her. The enchantment on the blade meant that the muscle was swiftly covered in frost, but that was likely to be only minimally inconvenient. It would be slower, but it was far from downed. For the moment, that was actually a good thing.

“To the tower. We need to draw it into striking the chain." Already, it was too close. Rilien's legs felt unsteady underneath him, threatening to give under the sheer sickening weight of the corruption rolling off the giant in waves. No doubt, the majority of the work from here onwards would have to be borne by his companions. He was too sluggish to muster the agility necessary, and he knew it.

"Good thing I can be pretty annoying," Ashton noted under his breath with a clear lack of humor. He held off on drawing an for a moment arrow to grab at Rilien's shoulder and straighten him up. Once the small service was done, then his hand went to the feather of his dwindling quiver. In one fluid he drew it and nocked before letting it fly downrange. Fortunately for him, the target was large enough to be nearly impossible to miss, and the arrow struck true. The arrow was not meant to harm, as it just glanced off a lyrium deposit on its temple, but rather draw attention to himself.

If that didn't work, then the goading that followed surely would. "Hey, jackass! Get out of my city!" And with that, the chase was on.

Sparrow huffed at their sides, wiping the blood from her face as best she could. A grin, quick as a whip, tipped the corner of her mouth up as she spotted Ashton in their midst. She was relieved, if not tired from her jaunt through the Foundry’s streets. She set a sidelong look in Rilien’s direction and joined him at his side, hands empty. Perhaps, to best help him out if he needed her. Her mace would only be in the way. A laugh. Curt, but genuine. “Maybe if you’re a little louder, they’ll actually listen.”

The giant was pretty fast for a creature of its size, perhaps in part because its strides were so large. The group took off running together, but Rilien's creeping weakness would not allow him to continue for as long, and he was the first to peel off, about a block before they reached the tower. Getting it in the general vicinity was not going to be hard. Getting it to knock down the chain would be a matter of a little more nuance.

The first crash of its club against the ground reverberated through his feet as he pushed himself to circle the tower from the opposite side. He trusted that Sparrow and Ashton would keep it in the place it needed to be. The trap was live—but it yet needed bait.

Rounding the side of the tower, Rilien took in the situation with cold precision. Sparrow had retrieved the flanged mace from the strapping on her back, circling around the giant’s ankles. Despite whatever injury she’d acquired, she was faster. Pushing herself to her limits, as always. Certainly, quick enough to slip around the beast to its flank and swing her mace against the leg Rilien’s glacial-enchanted dagger had embedded itself in, still licking frost up to its kneecap. She swung hard, as if she could actually fell the thing. It howled, reverberating off the cobblestone buildings, shaking the foundations. Pieces of frost and ice chipped off where she’d hit, hailing down over her head.

The giant’s empty hand swung down in a clumsier sweep, knuckles hitting the ground first. Desperate to rid itself of the thing attacking its feet. Stone and dirt flung into the air, bowling over abandoned carts and scattering debris in its wake. She managed to roll away just in time, releasing her grip on the mace in order to roll across her shoulder. As soon as she gained her ground once more, she vaulted forward, intent to retrieve it. Her head whipped to the side, “Ash, its eye!”

She never had to ask twice.

She barely had to ask once. Most of Ashton's arrows bounced off of the lyrium embedded in its skin, and the ones that managed to find purchase left the giant unfazed. The only other place that may have any affect was its sole eye. He had to take time to aim and wait for the perfect opportunity to strike, and when none immediately presented itself, took matters into his own hands. He let loose a shrill whistle and in the moment that the giant swung its ugly head to investigate, the arrow was loosed. Its reaction had been quicker than he expected, it seemed, as instead of piercing its eyeball, it struck a lyrium shard embedded in it's orbital bone.

It had an unintended side affect however. The arrow shattered on the shard, and slinters reigned into its eye. It howled in pain as it swiped at its eye. It bought them a few more moments, but the weak point was lost to him now. "Dammit," Ashton cursed as he scanned the giant with his bow, looking for anywhere else that might hurt near as much.

Rilien elected to try something different. Fortunately, would not have a difficult time selling a wounded bird act; all he really had to do was make sure that he was placed exactly where he needed to be. Casting his eyes overhead, he found the chain through rapidly-blurring vision, then angled his gaze down to the giant, triangulating himself and taking his best guesses about how to account for its reach and likely trajectory from its current position to striking distance of him.

When he was exactly where he wanted to be, Rilien extracted the last of the small lyrium orbs from his pouch. Bringing the fingers of his other hand to his mouth, he whistled shrilly. The noise clearly caught the giant off-guard for a short moment; it stilled and turned its head towards him. The seconds of immobility were enough; Rilien tossed the sphere.

Unfortunately, he overestimated the strength remaining to himself and it fell lower than he aimed, striking their towering foe in its knee instead of center mass where he'd aimed. It was still enough to draw its attention and its ire; it reorientated its whole body towards him and charged, raising its club overhead. He resisted the urge to double-check the angles involved; he'd done it right the first time.

The giant's club descended towards the motionless tranquil, catching hard on the boom chain above his head. The impact jarred back through the giant's arm for a second before the chain snapped outright, part of it flying back into the creature's face with a slightly-crunched thud. It staggered backwards, shaking its head as if to clear its vision, and then continued to back off, confused and void of its previous aggression. Rilien had little time to consider this; the hit had taken off a portion of the bronze slave statue as well, and chunks of metal and masonry fell from near the top, clanging off the rest as gravity pulled them inexorably down—and towards him.

He dove, but a large slab of stone caught his leg anyway, sending him hard to the ground, and he was too weak to pull himself forward. A second heavy something struck his back, right between his shoulder blades, and Rilien's forehead cracked against the torn pavement beneath him. He remained conscious long enough to feel sense more impacts, darkness closing in around him, and then his vision whited out entirely.

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The waters were quite calm; the boat rocked only a little beneath his feet, more like the gentle rise and fall of breath than anything best classed as turbulent. Lucien could not help but feel that it was a poor representation of how things really were in the moment. Here, behind the boom-chains, forced to sit uselessly on their hands, there was little activity, it was true. But the anxiousness and anticipation were palpable, as though a storm hung in the distant sky and they were inevitably headed for it.

No doubt those they'd sent to risk themselves to bring down the chains were right in the thick of that storm. He'd have preferred to be facing it with them than this. Closing his eyes a moment, he squeezed his arms where he gripped them in his hands, balance automatically adjusting for the subtle dip of the boat's prow as another small wave went by beneath him. When he opened them again, the chain was still there, of course, and Kirkwall still dark in the distance. Close enough to see, much too far to reach.

He reminded himself once more that patience was necessary; that no amount of restlessness would make the moment arrive any faster. It was unsurprising that such rational reassurance was no help at all, when everything in him pulled him towards the fight. Towards her. He grit his teeth so hard they nearly creaked under the force, and tried not to think about it in those terms. Tried not to think of what every second here might cost.

A futile effort. He'd have had more success forgetting his own name.

A gentle touch on his arm alerted him to Aurora's presence. She had briefed her mages as much as she could in preparation for the liberation of the city, and even for them all that was left to do was wait, it appeared. She did not bear the brightly colored outfit she could be usually found in back when they had all lived in Kirkwall, but rather the Inquisition's russet uniform. She was lightly armored, mostly on her shoulders and arms, but seemed ready for the battle ahead. Anxious as well, undoubtedly.

"Guess it'd be a dumb thing to say 'be patient', wouldn't it?" she offered with half of a self-deprecating smile. It fell away the moment she tossed her gaze back to the city and she shook her head. "I know the others are going as quickly as they can but," she said, shaking her head, "It doesn't make the waiting any easier."

Lucien expelled a breath through his nose, lifting his shoulders slightly, halfway to shrugging before he abandoned the effort. He nodded instead, but couldn't bring himself to relax, even slightly. He was carrying his tension deep in his muscles, to where it almost felt like it was seeming into his bones somehow, rendering him stiff and uncomfortable. A necessary lock against the persistent urge to do something.

"I suppose I'm going to have to get used to leading from... somewhere other than the front line of things," he said at last, because her words deserved a response, no matter how little he felt like giving one at the moment. "But still, this is one case where I can't—" he grimaced. Couldn't quite accept it. Couldn't quite steady himself in the usual way. No great mystery why: he had more friends and comrades in Kirkwall right now than he really wanted to think about. And the most important person in his entire world was among them.

"None of us can," Aurora answered, the frown on her lips deepening and revealing the turmoil she felt as well. She was hesitant as she glanced out across the water again before she began to shake her head. It was her home as well, and they had to see it with smoke swirling above it again although this time there was nothing that they could do but wait and watch. For the moment. "But we have to, for the moment at least. They're strong, they'll hold out until we get there," she answered again, before her brows began to furrow again. "And then we'll kick the reds out of our city together."

He supposed there was little point in believing anything else. Offering Aurora half a smile, Lucien uncrossed his arms and patted her once on the shoulder. But he'd promised Lia he'd speak to her father, and he intended to make good on that.

Breaking away from the prow of the boat, he descended the short staircase to the main deck, spotting Ithilian not far from Knight-Captain Séverine and a small cluster of others. Most of them were working on gear maintenance, at this point likely as much to keep their hands busy as anything, but of course that activity was now mostly closed to the elf. He'd paid a heavy price for his cause; of that there was no doubt.

Lucien settled himself next to them without fanfare; anywhere he could get away with not making a production of his presence was welcome. Here there wasn't any need at all. It was of course impossible to sit with Everburn at his back, so he removed the sword and put it down beside him, nodding politely to the templar captain. "How's everyone holding up?" There'd been a fair number of injured in the initial push to the Gallows, but of greater concern now was their state of mind.

"Adequately, Your—Lucien," Séverine answered, slightly apologetic in her eyes at almost using the more proper form of address with him again. The answer itself seemed forced, slightly too fast in the response, but she made no comment of it, returning to the work of sharpening her short sword with a whetstone. Her armor was still somewhat spattered with blood, as there hadn't been time to properly clean it all yet.

Ithilian seemed to be doing less than adequately. The scarred elf had never really become friends with Lucien during the time they spent in Kirkwall together, though there had to be some amount of trust gained over a distance if he was willing to let the woman who was now his daughter work for him at so young an age. Currently the two people most important in his life were not present, and actively risking their lives without him in order to ensure the rest of the army could have a chance to push on Hightown. He spent the moment examining his dagger, bone-carved and enchanted.

"I'm a wasted spot on this ship, I think," he said, quietly. "But I need to set foot on those docks, and find them." It was not hard to guess whom he referred to.

Lucien let his hands rest on his knees. "She asked me to talk to you about that," he remarked mildly, in a voice just as quiet as Ithilian's. "Lia. I doubt I need to tell you what she thinks." He still wasn't quite sure why she thought he'd have any more success than she would—perhaps it was because they were not nearly so personally involved in one another's lives.

The elf exhaled slowly, lowering the knife and looking up from his seat on the deck to Lucien with his one remaining eye. "Asking those closest to her to stay back while she throws herself into the worst kinds of danger..." He shook his head, twisting scarred lips into something resembling a smile. "Seems like she learned more from me than I intended. But in this she's probably right."

He shifted, sitting up a little straighter, the effort required to do that jarring a few coughs from him. Ithilian never looked particularly well, but perhaps he was in even more pain than he was letting on. "I'm not delusional, I know I can't be on any front lines. But I won't be stopped from following in the army's wake, until I know they're all right. She'll have to live with that compromise."

He was silent for a moment, likely expecting that there would be no argument against his plan. The rear wouldn't be entirely safe, especially if the Red Templars were ever able to flank or somehow surrounded them. But it was certainly better than trying to carve his way through them the way Lucien would be doing with Everburn.

"Have you thought about it much?" Ithilian asked. "Not fighting? I imagine you've a few people telling you to stay back yourself. Though I also imagine being an emperor will give you plenty to do besides fighting." It was easy enough to make the jump that he didn't expect the same was true of himself.

If his advisors had their way, Lucien would have already adopted a no-direct-combat policy. He understood the reasoning; honestly he knew they weren't wrong. But there would always be things he would have to make exceptions for, and in that sense he could understand one part of Ithilian's difficulty all too well.

"In a sense," he conceded. "Certainly there will be plenty to keep me busy. But it will also mean completely changing the kind of life I've been living. I'm afraid it seems that emperors don't have time to lead mercenary companies, or train young fighters, which I admit I enjoyed more than I ever enjoyed fighting itself." The latter had always been a matter of necessity, but the really rewarding part of leading the Lions had been watching those under his guidance grow until they no longer needed it. And then watching them take what they'd learned and do good things with it, like with the elves at Halamshiral.

"It also doesn't really require two hands, if you're looking for somewhere else to turn your energy." He paused. "Though I'm coming at this from a skewed viewpoint, I admit. No one in my family has ever really retired; I have heard there's much to recommend it." He lifted his shoulders in a slight shrug. No doubt it was the kind of decision that would take time and careful consideration to make—what to do with himself now. Lucien didn't envy him that, even if there was a certain freedom in it that he'd never have.

"I've been trying to retire," Ithilian admitted, "for quite some time. There's only one obstacle left in the way, and I fear he'll take away everything I'm fighting for before the end. And now there's nothing I can do to help." He seemed to regret his words as soon as they left his mouth. He sheathed the knife in his hand, running his fingers in frustration through his hair. "Ignore me. I just need this night to be over."

"May I have a word, Lucien?" Séverine asked, returning her short sword to its sheath and handing off the whet stone to one of her templars. "In private?"

"Of course." Lucien nodded, returning his attention momentarily to Ithilian. There wasn't much he could say that wouldn't be an empty platitude, and he wasn't going to use one of those. Instead, he clasped the elf's shoulder for just a moment before he stood, taking up his sword and gesturing for the captain to precede him.

She nodded and led the way, leaving her helmet, shield, and flail behind and making her way towards the opposite railing of the ship. They passed Khari and Stel on the way, also passing the time by preparing gear that needed no more preparation, and making conversation. Séverine offered them a nod. The ship was crowded with occupants waiting for battle, so there wasn't much in the way of privacy, but a spot along the ship's starboard railing was empty enough that they could speak quietly without being overheard. It also offered them a clearer view of the city ahead of them.

The lights of a few fires still burned, but otherwise Kirkwall was darker than they'd ever seen it. All save for Hightown, where the conflict was clearly at its most heated. The Red Templars needed little in the way of rest, only pausing to reorganize their troops and prepare more attacks. "The fighting is still in the streets," Séverine concluded, squinting into the distance. "Even if they break, they can reform and hold the doors to the Keep. Her Excellency reinforced them, after what happened with the Qunari. The true templars won't break, though, not against this enemy, or any enemy." She seemed nervous about something. When they'd been on the verge of battle earlier she was calm, collected, focused in her anger. But now she seemed wholly unsure of something.

He didn't think it would be particularly helpful to share his suspicions that some of those she believed to be true templars were probably corrupted. Lucien thought it likely, considering the suddenness and effectiveness of the siege. A smart commander with the ability to do so would have seeded some of his own people in the ranks, or attempted to convert some that were already there. Instead of saying as much, Lucien took hold of the railing with both hands, squinting out at the faint lights on the distant shore. "I hope you're right," he said softly.

But this would not have been anything she needed to tell him alone, and so he waited patiently for her to ready herself for whatever that other thing was.

It took her the better part of a minute to come around to it, but there was still no change in the way the boom chains hung in front of them, so the time didn't seem particularly wasted. "I was going to tell you something personal. I'd... actually hoped I could tell you, if I ever met you again, and... here we are. Considering that anything could happen in the battle, it's best that I say this now." She winced, apparently finding that to be a terrible opening, but pressed on.

"Before the Inquisition, I was posted in Kirkwall. I started there a few years before the Qunari attacked. You were not yet a mercenary commander at the time. At least, I hadn't heard of the Argent Lions yet. Seems like a very long time ago, now." A great many things were different in the world, that much was true. "I was... fairly impressionable, I think, and angry, and Knight-Commander Meredith turned that to her own ends, as she did for many of us. Especially in the wake of the Qunari attack, her conviction was... well, it was inspiring."

Lucien diverted his eyes from the fires and turned them back on Séverine instead, tilting his head slightly. "No doubt," he said. For all that her madness had consumed her late in her life, Meredith did have a certain kind of forceful charisma. The way soldiers looked up to his own father wasn't entirely different, and he'd been one of them, at one point in his life. He could see the draw.

Séverine leaned forward, settling her forearms on the ship's railing. "In the years that followed, as Lady Sophia was coming closer to trying to retake her crown, I... was drawn into activities that were not fit for a templar. Things that Meredith commanded of me, and the others who believed in her. Belief she used just to keep herself in power, to keep out the enemies she started to see lurking in every corner." She swallowed, likely thinking back on it given the distant stare that came over her eyes.

"One night, I was assigned with a group of others to hit previously targeted homes in Lowtown. Mage sympathizers, I believe were the words Meredith used. When we got there, the people were gone, and you were there, with Her Excellency and some of your Argent Lions. We fought." She turned to face him, reaching up with a finger to trace along the scar running down over her lip. "The pommel of your Everburn gave me this, and your man Havard brought me down. But you didn't kill me. After everything that became of Meredith, I thought for a long time that... that I didn't deserve that. Mercy."

He couldn't say that he recognized her face or the wound in particular. But he knew now who she had to be—because he did remember that night, and the fight, and trying to succeed with as few deaths or grievous injuries as possible. He even remembered Havard struggling to contain the templar he'd subdued. He supposed it must have been her. Lucien smiled.

"You didn't make it easy for us," he recalled, letting himself dwell for a moment on the details. "But I hope you feel differently about it now. Frankly I'd say it's worked out quite well, if I might judge."

"I think it has as well. I was lost for a long time, but some of the people I've met helped me find my way. Cullen was the first. But eventually I was able to work with Lady Sophia as well, and Captain Riviera. And then Commander Leonhardt here with the Inquisition. It's... honestly, it's difficult for me to think about where I was, when I consider where I am now." A thought seemed to occur to her, perhaps one of the other sources of her nervousness. "If it's true, and Cullen really is dead, then... I think that would make me Knight-Commander of the Templars. And not just here, but... of all the templars that are left." Their numbers were dwindling, especially after this, but it went without saying that it was a large responsibility she'd be inheriting.

"But that's in the future. For now..." She looked back out at the city. "It's possible that some of the templars you spared are among the red ranks trying to capture our city. I just wanted you to know that one of them is also here, on your side. And I mean to do absolutely everything in my power to repay you for the opportunity you gave me. You, and Sophia, and Cullen, and Leon, and everyone that helped me get this far."

"That's reassuring to know." And it was, truly. Lucien was certainly used to that sort of thing working out less well down the line; he could count on the fingers of one hand the number of instances in which his tendency towards mercy had definitely worked out for the better. Fortunately, even one was enough to justify it, as far as he was concerned. And this one was certainly quite the case for it. "As for the rest, well... we do what we can. One step at a time. Though I'll admit standing in place is beginning to wear."

Séverine nodded, clearly having no argument to that. She squinted at the city in the distance. The lights seemed to have shifted slightly, but it was difficult to tell if that wasn't just a natural progression of any fires. "Lots of smoke there," she pointed out, referring to a location that looked to be somewhere outside of the Alienage. "I wonder if that's—"

Her words were cut off by the snapping of the western chain, audible even from this distance. It flew with force out towards the Gallows, falling into the water with a hefty splash all along its length. Everyone on board the ship had risen to their feet, staring ahead. A few had already started cheering.

"They did it," Séverine said, smiling ever so slightly. "Rilien and Sparrow did it. And... look!" The other was sinking as well, with a much more controlled descent into the water. "Both sides are down." She looked to the Emperor, expectantly.

Lucien let out a deep breath, a smile stealing over his face. "Yes. Yes." He pushed back from the rail and raised his voice. "Get this boat into that harbor; it's time to take back Kirkwall!"

Finally.

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The adrenaline surged through with the ship as it crashed through the waves and brought Aurora closer home. Kirkwall loomed not-so-far in the distance, and only drew nearer with every passing moment. She began to rock back and forth on her feet unconsciously as they were now on the cusp of making landfall on the docks, the very same docks that she and Sparrow had bid farewell from years ago. She had hoped to return someday, but never like this. The reds had a debt to pay, for making their welcome such a grim affair. She then closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, in an attempt to calm her nerves and clear her mind. It only partially worked.

Flecks of stone and static arced between her knuckles as she flexed her hand. Her anxiety had barely been contained before but now, it flooded off of her eager as she was to foot back on the docks. The reds wouldn't make it too easy on them, however. A volley of arrows arched from the docks, but with a raise of her hand most harmlessly bounced off of barriers made up of ice, stone, and magic. She had more mages following her now than she did in Kirkwall, and though only a select few among them had been with her that far back, all of them were eager to prove themselves to their allies. "Aim carefully, and choose your targets," she stated. She had faith in them, they were well-trained and reliable, she had ensured it.

She raised her hand one more time, though this time when she pointed forward, a precise and controlled volley of spells followed, striking into the reds gathered on the dock. There were less of them than she thought there would've been, which meant that the brunt of their force were elsewhere. She frowned and took a step forward, thrusting a palm outward and conjuring a stone spire to follow its path among the other spells.

It was only a few volleys later until they made landfall, and Aurora was the among the first to set foot onto the docks.

Séverine landed beside her, shield in hand. More templars followed with similar armaments, forming a defensive front line that steadily advanced, providing space for the less durable among their forces to safely disembark and form up. The landing wouldn't be a swift process, as there were only so many docks to go around, and the ships would need to reverse their courses to make way for those in the back. They didn't have time to wait for everyone, though.

"I'm moving up through the west," Séverine informed them, and as they'd decided on, she led roughly half of the landing forces into an attack, pushing away from the docks to their left and making for Lowtown proper. The rest would be left with Aurora and Lucien, winding up the eastern side. Already the reds in sight were breaking and falling back. With their numbers, they couldn't hope to stop the Inquisition, only slow them, which it seemed they were still intent on doing.

Given the reduced durability of Aurora's half the troops, Lucien's presence made a difference almost immediately—all that shiny armor did a very good job drawing the opponents towards him, as it was no doubt meant to do. He waded into battle as though no time had passed at all since the last time they were here, in Kirkwall, taking on templars who'd strayed too far from their mandate. The same grim efficiency, same iron defense.

Slowly, they pushed their way eastward, until the sounds of battle changed; it seemed that another fight was already in progress ahead. Through the dark, she could see a man she vaguely recognized as one of Lucien's Lions, the silver-grey hair and stocky stature familiar as those belonging to Havard. Either he hadn't worn a helmet or someone had torn it from him already; he bore a gash over his brow that looked to be bleeding into one of his eyes, but that was nothing compared to the near-total cleft in his steel kite shield. He was still using it, but no doubt doing so effectively was quite the challenge.

Several others fought with him, mostly at his flanks and behind him as he tried to hold the point of the formation more or less by himself. About half of them wore the maroon and silver of the Argent Lions—but the other half looked to be elves, largely unfamiliar with the weapons in their hands if the awkwardness with which they struck was anything to go by. A few had clearly fallen in the area, bodies unmoving on the stone of the street. But for all that, they were doing surprisingly well, considering the sheer number of injuries she could pick out even from this distance.

"We've got to get them out," Lucien said, glancing down at her from the corner of his eye. "They can reinforce our front line." That was obviously not his actual reason for wanting to attempt the rescue, but he was deferring to her as captain of the forces on this side. It was unclear how long he'd be willing to, though—he was patient only to a point, and this appeared to be it.

"Agreed," Aurora answered, her head already rising in order to give out orders. Actual reason or not, his notice was correct. With Sev went much of their sturdier stock, and unlike them, her forces had to worry about the effect the proximity to red lyrium had on them. They could use as many people they could find who didn't have that specific weakness. She reached into her pocket and produced a number of dried leaves which she then popped into her mouth. Mint, in order to try to counteract some of the nausea that would come with fighting the red templars. She'd seen to it that most of her mages also had a supply-- if nothing else to keep their minds off of it and focused.

"We'll lead the charge," she told Lucien as she chewed on the leaves. "Those who can, will follow us and the rest will support." While her mages weren't as durable, they had other talents. "Ready?" she said, and before she even received the answer, she off. She already knew what he'd say. These were his people after all. Precise spells flew past them, striking the reds while outright avoiding the Lions. Amongst that, telltale blue sheened barriers sprung to life in an attempt to better funnel the fighting.

"Of course." Lucien, used to being the first into a battle and the last out, wasted no more time, using the onslaught of spells to preempt his own approach, moving in just behind the first volley.

Unfortunately, red templars were still templars, and arguably more resistant to magic than their more conventional counterparts. Most of the spells didn't seem to do much but distract them, if that; those that hit the hardest still didn't do the amount of damage they perhaps should have.

Physical weapons had a bit more of an effect; Lucien cleaved down into one who had been knocked off-balance by a stonefist and sawed Everburn forward, felling the red who'd been unlucky enough to be standing there. He stepped forward again, drawing even with Havard and reinforcing the point of the formation.

"Fashionably late, Commander," the other man said, angling his shield to deflect the majority of a morning star strike from one of the other corrupted templars. He winced at the impact; the arm was clearly tender. "I see you've settled back into Orlesian habits." Thrusting forward with his longsword, he caught the red in the belly. The blade screeched as it scraped past flushed lyrium crystals.

"It's not a good rescue unless the rescued is desperate, right?" With a grunt, Lucien caught another heavy sword on his own, pushing back against the red wielding it. Havard took the opportunity to sweep his legs out from under him, and a deftly-placed arrow from some nearby rooftop took care of the rest. Slowly, they worked their way through the rest of the group, each hard-earned step punishing them a little more.

Fortunately for Aurora, her magic was only part of her skillset. She was only a step behind Lucien, having paused for a moment to finish off a red templar that had tripped with a stone-encased fist. It cracked his skull and shattered the red lyrium that had crystallized around his temple. The shards caused Aurora to retch before she collected herself and dwelled on the mint in her mouth. Eventually she found herself at Lucien's other flank. She gestured off to their side, where some of the elves were attempting to fend off a few of the red templars. A blue barrier appeared where she had pointed, alleviating the pressure on the elves, but drawing it onto themselves instead.

She ducked under the guard of the first red quickly, before they'd have time to react, and when she came up, she did with the palm of her hand. A hidden blade sprung out from within her dragonhide bracer, piercing beneath the red's chin and ceasing any other thought. She gently gave him a push backward as the blade retracted back into the bracer, and gravity did the rest of the work. She turned toward the side and retched again, before shaking her head and resetting her guard in anticipation for the next one.

As it turned out, there were no more. At least not in this cluster, though much of Lowtown remained to be swept. Gradually, the others relaxed, at least somewhat. Havard heaved a heavy sigh, grimacing as he took in the number of dead. No few wore the uniform of Lucien's mercenaries, but the majority looked to be the same elves in ill-fitting armor.

"We were certainly desperate," he mused, recalling the exchange from a few minutes ago. Wiping the blade of his sword on the tunic of a downed red, he sheathed it and patted Lucien briefly on the shoulder. "It is good to see you. And reinforcements. If you can swing by the Alienage entrance as you go, you might be able to see what's left of the rest of us. We split up so Lia and Amalia could get to the tower. Chain came down, so I'm guessing they're a bit better off than we are. Shield's holding my arm together."

He gestured with it, revealing the inside. It looked like whatever had cleaved it had snapped his radius, though the gauntlet made it hard to say with any certainty.

Lucien hissed sympathetically. "You've done well. Get everyone here as sorted as you can; we'll take care of the rest. I'll send any more injured we find your way... and any healers."

Havard nodded. "Good luck out there, you lot. Don't go dying, now."

Aurora still had the back of her hand pressed against her lips in an attempt to keep the contents of her stomach were they were. With all the adrenaline and activity, she was able to not think about the pit welling up every time a red took a step nearer, at least until she involuntarily retched. Now in a moment of calm, she felt the nausea more acutely. She plucked another mint leaf out of her pocket and threw it in her mouth, the taste covering up the bile coating.

"Donovan," she called, picking him out of the rest of the force. "Take a few of the healers and go with them," she added, pointing at Havard, "I want a triage set up for now." The larger man nodded, and pointed at a few of the mages before following Havard and his men. She would have sent Asala as well, but her barriers would prove more useful with them for now.

She then turned toward Lucien and nodded. "From here, we'll clear the path to the tower and clean out whoever's left there. With any luck, we'll run into Lia and Amalia along the way," she noted. She would feel better if she could be certain they had the tower under their control. While the Inquisition already made it into the the city, they should make sure they had possession of the chain. They would have to pass by regardless as they swept their side of Lowtown. "Let's go," she said, for more than Lucien.

They didn't encounter much resistance as they moved through the streets. The reds had opted instead to take potshots at them and flee before they could be pinned down. Otherwise, their presence was minimal, which made Aurora nervous. They'd need more than that to lay siege to the city, and if the bulk of the forces were elsewhere... She just hoped that they did not have to face them all at once when the time came. Eventually the hit-and-run tactics faded as they began to tread over the bodies of both the red and elves, clear signs that Lia, Amalia, and their allies had been this way. She grimaced as they passed by the next body of an elf, and quickened their pace.

It was not long after that they came to the tower. Like the path behind them, there was a lack of red presence, and after a sweep, the tower was empty as well. "Amalia and Lia must have left after they let the chain down," she noted to Lucien.

He hummed, pursing his lips. "No doubt medical care was required after all this... I believe they may have headed for Nostariel's clinic. I understand the Lions are the people making most use of the building these days." There was a silence after the statement that stretched slightly too long, but Aurora could almost see him set the thought aside in favor of continuing forward. A necessity, at this point.

It was clear that the red templars were mostly retreating from Lowtown; they ran into only one more group on their way to the clinic, and though a lucky arrow struck another of the mages in the belly, the line broke and scattered before anything more substantial could occur. The group elected not to give chase—tracking down their allies took priority for now.

The clinic still stood in exactly the same place Aurora remembered it. The garden in front looked to have been trampled, but recently. Some of the plants still drooped sadly on their stalks, or bent at angles where the passage of many uncaring boots had partially uprooted them. The soft blue of the façade was dull in the dark, the white trim speckled with dirt. But as a whole, it hadn't been the object of any special attention—probably the red templars had passed it by without a clue as to its significance, or the significance of the elf it had once belonged to.

Lucien took point, perhaps anticipating that Amalia and Lia as well as anyone with them would be defensive. "Lia, are you in there? It's us." Only after announcing himself did he approach the door from the street, lifting a hand to knock firmly, but not in a way that conveyed too much urgency.

At the sound of his voice they heard a heavy exhale, from someone who'd been holding her breath. "Yeah, I'm here. We're here." By the sound of her voice, Lia was obviously in pain. She opened the door from the inside, the hand holding the handle also grasping her knife. Her other arm was bloodied, bandaged, and cradled around her side. It wasn't hard to tell that she was dealing with some fractures, probably in her arm and her ribs. A line of dried blood had run down the right side of her face, but it looked to be only a minor cut.

"And you're here," she said, half-smiling and half-wincing up at him. Behind her, Idris was already busying himself again tending to the few elves of their group that had survived the attack on the tower, while Farah was working on a splint for her own leg.

Amalia looked to be in worse shape than any of the others here; the extent of the damage to her face was just a split lip, but below that, she was a mess. She seemed to be in the process of popping her shoulder back into its socket with her other arm, blood running freely from the joints of her armor. There were gouges in the dragonhide in places, where it looked like a heavy flanged weapon had torn through even the thick reptilian skin. One of her boots was already gone, the foot splinted and bandaged likely by someone else. Three empty potion bottles lay on the counter nearest her, a fourth one still full, but uncorked. She glanced up long enough to give them all a slight nod.

"None of us will likely be of much aid to you now," she said, voice somewhat labored even beneath the typical stoicism with which she spoke.

Lucien shook his head. "You've all been plenty of help already." He paused, then addressed the Lions in the group. "Havard's alive," he said, "and so's Ainsley. A few of the others are critical or gone, but there wasn't time for a full accounting. I just wanted to make sure you knew."

Farah hid her relief poorly at the mention of Ainsley's name. Idris didn't bother trying—Aurora remembered him being close friends with the captain.

Lia's relief was obvious as well. "We'll wait here for a while, then move down to the docks. You should hurry, there have been red templars going by ever since we got here. I think they're throwing everything they have at Hightown."

"I was afraid of that," Aurora noted, her lips folded into a grim line. She spared a glance for Lucien before turning back to the others. "I left a few of my healers with Havard. Find them when you get there," she stated, with lingering gaze on Amalia. "Come on, let's hurry," she said to Lucien before turning to leave the clinic. They would all have time to talk later, when the city was theirs again.

As they pressed on, the sounds of a conflict grew louder in the distance. Two conflicts, actually. One was distant, up above them, a struggle raging in Hightown somewhere, while the other was more immediate, punctuated with a series of pop, pop, pops. Grinding gears and strings being stretched taught, just before bolts flew through the air and punctured even thick red templar armor.

They rounded a corner near Lowtown's exit and laid eyes on The Hanged Man, now barred and barricaded. The red templars in sight were actually running from it, trying to scramble up the steps with their shields on their backs as bolt after bolt flew from one of the windows, each finding its mark. Arrows flew from other windows, hooded faces appearing just a moment inside before they took aim again. The source of the bolts was of course the dwarf, Varric Tethras.

"Hold your fire, hold your fire, that's the Emperor of Orlais on my street! And Rosie!" Varric disappeared from the window, and a moment later emerged from the front door after unbolting several locks. A pair of archers emerged behind him. Hired hands, perhaps, or just Lowtown people brave enough to fight with him. "It's about time. When the attack started, I thought I'd grab Bianca, head over The Hanged Man, hole up, grab a nice warm mug of ale, and wait for all this to blow over." His eyes passed over the assembled soldiers behind Lucien and Aurora. "Now I'm thinking I've got a date with Hightown."

"Well, if it isn't Varric." Lucien managed a smile and a short nod. "Well met, though I'd have preferred the warm ale myself."

"You're certainly invited," Aurora said with a raise of her brows. They'd probably need every hand they could find to liberate Hightown, and Varric's crossbow would definitely do some damage, if the demonstration was to go by.

Soon footsteps sounded from the opposite side of the street and set Aurora on the defensive, and the sound of readying spells behind her told her that she wasn't the only one. Their caution proved unnecessary however, as the steps didn't belong to the reds. Instead Ashton took the hard corner out from an alley. Upon gazing on Aurora's force, he lurched to a stop and defensively took a step back, clearly surprised at running into them there. He carried Rilien on his back, who seemed to be unconscious, and not soon after Sparrow rounded the corner, which had the effect of soothing a few of the mages behind her. Aurora hadn't been the only one worried.

Ashton glanced at the bar behind them and then to them specifically before shaking his head. "Why am I surprised we'd meet here of all places," he asked himself. "Of course we would," he added, "You didn't happen to bring an Imperial army with you, did you?" he asked Lucien with a raised brow, half in jest, half serious.

"Just a few friends and a boat," Lucien replied honestly. "And that's a boat more than we usually have around here, so I'll take it." Concern crossed his face upon catching sight of Rilien's condition, but it was clear enough that the elf was still alive, at least. "Let's get him somewhere safer, and then get moving."

The Hanged Man was apparently well-fortified, if Varric had weathered the red storm inside, so they dropped off Rilien inside, before grouping up with the others and preparing for the final push. Séverine rejoined them with her templars among Ashton and his guards and militia, as did both of the Inquisitors, along with Vesryn and Cyrus. It was an army, through and through, cobbled together from every different source possible.

"Let's get moving," Varric said, readying Bianca. "Queenie's not gonna save herself. Well, normally she would, but under the circumstances..." He trailed off, and they wasted no more time, instead making their way up the steps. Hightown awaited them, as did the bulk of the Red Templar army.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

The stairs leading up to Hightown had never felt so numerous.

It was understandable: though there were no live opponents to inhibit their progress, there were still wounded among them, those whose injuries slowed them down but did not halt them, and the passage itself was lined with corpses. Militia members, city guard, templars, and the occasional noble. They vastly outnumbered the red templar dead, and it was obvious to anyone with the eyes to see it. The picture presented was hardly encouraging, and the anxiety hung thick over those moving towards Hightown.

No one could say exactly what they would find there. A battle still active and bloody if they were lucky, a field of the dead and red templars aplenty if they were not. Lucien, accustomed to setting aside his emotions for the sake of making it out of battle alive, found that he simply was not equal to that task in this case; the knot of dread in his gut only tightened as they moved forward, he at the head of the formation, the Inquisition's Irregulars and a few of his Lions just behind. Ashton and the remains of the militia and guard came after, and then the rest. It was by no means an inconsiderable force, but neither had Kirkwall's been, when this all began.

He wondered what would be left when it ended. His grip on Everburn tightened.

As they neared Hightown, some of the bodies began to be more purposefully displayed. Stripped of their armor and lashed to pikes driven into the earth on either side. Lucien didn't recognize any of the faces, but it wasn't difficult to guess who they were: templars, those that had stood in the way of the red tide as it advanced. They looked to have been dead for days.

The top of the stairs came in sight, as did a row of tower shields blocking the width of the entryway, sharp spears leveled in their direction from the front ranks of red templar infantry. Lucien could hear Séverine's breath leave her in a rush beside him, and all he had to do was follow her gaze to the last body on the left. Knight-Commander Cullen was stripped as the others were, secured to a more sturdy pole and displayed as a warning for all attempting to enter Hightown to see. He was covered in wounds, but his face was left untouched. Clearly they wanted him to be recognized.

"Go back the way you came, Inquisition," a voice called out from behind the row of shields. Two of them parted, letting a tall, powerfully built man in glittering armor encased in red lyrium pass through, his glowing greatsword resting upon his shoulder. His face was concealed by a full helm, but it wasn't difficult to guess who he was, either.

"Traitor," Séverine hissed, the chain of her flail clinking at her side. "You die today."

Carver Hawke shook his head. "My position is superior. Turn around, go back the way you came, and we'll settle this another time, on another field. Attack, and your forces will break, just as the Queen's did."

Lucien straightened to his full height. "Your position was more superior two hours ago, and yet here we are." Without taking his hands from the hilt of his sword, he gestured behind him with his head. "The people behind me make a living beating odds like these. Lay down your arms unless you want a demonstration."

He was of two minds: desperate to push forward, all the rest of this be damned. And still, despite everything, himself: someone who knew his obligations. And one of them was to allow the opportunity for surrender. No one ever took it, but that wasn't the point. Everyone here knew what this would come to.

"Ah, I've missed you Lucien," Ashton stated, though the little laugh he gave afterward was mirthless.

In the distance, there was an almost rhythmic boom, boom. Something smashing against a solid surface repeatedly, perhaps, only audible in the tense silence before the inevitable storm here. Carver seemed to pay it no mind. "Your head will make for an excellent gift to the Elder One, Emperor."

Without warning, a volley of arrows arced over the top of the red templar line, soaring down at the Inquisition's force at close range. "Shields!" was all Séverine had time to cry before the unwary were struck, a few in the front ranks going down before barriers and bulwarks could catch the rest of them. By the time the volley had passed, Carver had disappeared back behind his defensive line, spears awaiting the Inquisition's uphill charge. Another volley would be only seconds away.

And the arrows were the most dangerous part of the situation. They were only dangerous as long as the line in front remained to protect them, but considering the walled gate at the top of the staircase, the battle would be uphill in more than one sense.

There was no time to waste. Lucien charged, the enchantment on Everburn heating the edges of the blade until they were silver-white. His initial position saw him to the line first, and he swung the blade in a controlled downward arc, cleaving the wooden shaft of the pike directly in front of him. His attempt to body-check the red templar behind it only pushed the man back a step, where he braced against the next stair and held, throwing the pole away and reaching for a longsword to pair with his shield instead. To Lucien's left, another sought to take advantage of his momentary stop, a second spear seeking the weakness in his armor beneath his arm.

But Khari was already there, half a pace behind and to his left, guarding his blind spot and stepping forward to meet the spear with her sword. A quick upward stroke deflected, sending the end of the thrust harmlessly over their heads, and with a snarl, she took another step up, thrusting her heavy sword for the templar responsible. It screeched off the gorget protecting the armored man's neck, and she was forced back down the very same step when he lashed out with his shield. Holding her position by her toes, she redirected her momentum, throwing herself forward against the line once more. It yielded no further for her than it had for him, but she didn't reel backwards either.

The army as a whole smashed into the red templar line next, a sudden deafening cacophany of steel on steel erupting where so recently there had been stillness and quiet. "Push!" Séverine called out, not even bothering to use her weapon and simply lowering down behind her shield and driving her legs as hard as she could into the stairs.

"Where did the knights go?" Vesryn asked, driving into the line on Lucien's other side. His own shield matched any of the red templar ones for size, but unfortunately his spear was nearly useless in such tight quarters. The red templar spearmen not in the front ranks were really the only ones that could use theirs anymore, and they stabbed back and forth, aiming for faces, throats, anywhere they could shed blood. Every few seconds another cry of pain or gurgled shout sounded out from the Inquisition ranks, while arrows flew overhead all the while, striking barriers from the mages that covered their heads.

"Oh!" Vesryn suddenly shouted. "I have an idea! Where's the Lord Inquisitor? Someone get Romulus up here!"

"Clear a path!" further back in the ranks, Estella had clearly overheard the suggestion and either understood what Vesryn was talking about or else simply decided to take on faith that the idea was a good one. Lucien heard the rustle and clank of positions being shuffled, but now his job had become holding the templars to their current positioning, and he couldn't spare much attention to it.

A pike dug in at his side, where the front and back plates of his armor joined, and he hissed as it pierced the chainmail, the force behind it far greater than most people would ever have a chance to muster. It sank a few inches into his side before he could shift away from it and retaliate, closing a hand over the pike behind the head of it and pulling with controlled force. That was not the directional force his opponent was braced against, and he tumbled forward, Everburn finding the armpit beneath his outstretched spear-arm and severing the large artery there. He dropped, only for another to fill his place within moments.

"Get down behind me!" Vesryn loudly suggested to the two Inquisitors. Both of them were much more lightly armored, and not best positioned on the front lines of a heavy infantry crush for long. When he could spare a brief moment, Vesryn looked back and down at Romulus. "We need a rift, right over there, right now!"

The Lord Inquisitor clearly wasn't so sure that was a good idea, but at the moment they didn't seem to have any others. The Inquisition's second and third ranks were being bled by the red templars, who had higher ground and frankly better organization, given that their army wasn't cobbled together from half a dozen different forces. Already the stairs underneath them were stained with a fresh coat of red. Grimacing, Romulus lit up his marked palm with a volatile energy practically bursting from within. He moved it up as though his arm was submerged underwater; Vesryn instinctively turned aside a spear that thrust for the glowing light.

With a crackling and a snap like a spark of built up static electricity, the magic flew from his hands, finding a spot in the air somewhere above the ranks of the red templars. A rift to the Fade erupted out of thin air, blindingly bright green, howling with a seeming hunger to consume everything around it. The immediate targets were the red templars, the front ranks of their archers and the back ranks of the heavy infantry holding the Inquisition back.

"Hold onto someone!" Romulus yelled. With a pulse of energy many of the red templars were pulled right off the ground and into the rift, disintegrating as they went, their corporeal forms not surviving the journey to the other side. Cries of pain and fright went up from the red templar infantry as more and more were pulled into the void, the ones at the edge scrambling to get away from its reach.

And then, finally, it stopped, collapsing in on itself until it burst outwards, leaving bits of Fade-matter raining down on their heads. Suddenly there was a relative quiet, while both sides recoiled from the raw force of the rift magic.

"Push!" Séverine roared.

As one, the Inquisition pushed behind Lucien. Without their ranks of infantry behind them, the spearmen in the front couldn't possibly hold the line against the force pressing up on them. They caved and fell, toppled over by the sheer weight of the attackers, slaughtered and trampled as Séverine led the way into the newly formed breach in the defenses that they couldn't fill quickly enough. They set foot in what had been the Hightown markets, stalls cleared away for space. All they could see were the rearranging red templar formations, archers trying to scramble to a safe distance, melee infantry shoving past them to try to plug the hole. But this was not a foothold the Inquisition would give up.

And they continued to push, the point of the charge flattening out and the line broadening until those that had been trapped behind the lines were able to join the fray. Lucien kept moving, knowing that to stand still now was to invite defeat once again to their doorstep. The red templar ranks, broken but not shattered, scrambled to reassemble.

"This can't be all of them," he murmured, mostly to himself. Everburn cleaved through the chestplate of a more lightly-outfitted shadow, felling her at his feet; he grimaced and took another step forward. The numbers visible were not enough to have inspired Hawke's confidence. There must be more of them occupied elsewhere. No doubt they'd be finding out soon, one way or another.

Behind him, Estella joined the fight in earnest, the bright blade of her saber glimmering in the dim illumination afforded by Hightown at night. She sought and found another templar's neck, flaying into her with a precise, ruthless slash that felled her in one, right at the tiny gap between helmet and breastplate. Beside her, Corvin pushed back another, making a charge for the Lady Inquisitor's back, sending them right into Donnelly's path. The lieutenant's shield clanged heavily against the templar's helmet, dazing him just long enough for Hissrad to finish him off.

Khari kept herself in Rilien's usual position. As shadows went, she wasn't half as quiet, but her reach and her persistence made her rather effective cover for his back. Though her strikes were fueled by controlled fury, she did not lapse into impulsiveness or impatience, keeping her momentum steady and controlled.

Further down the line, Estella's brother Cyrus clustered with some of the Inquisition's mages, running interference so that they could choose their targets more freely. They'd positioned themselves at the formation's flank, but occasionally a red templar would try to move past the main line and lay into them, to stop the flow of spells from overhead or disrupt the barriers making the archers less effective. Each time, he interceded, focused more on pushing them back than killing them, though those that fell and did not move again were in the majority.

Asala stood near the back somewhere, but her presence was no less felt. Her barriers alternated between forming in midair to counter the volleys of arrows still trickling down on then, to winking into existence in the red templar's formations, throwing them off balance and corralling them to be dealt with at the Inquisition's leisure.

Meanwhile, closer to the front, Ashton had found himself a shield and used it in tandem with his sword. The surviving guardsmen had also rallied around their captain and displayed a precise efficiency together, each covering the others' backs. At one point, when a red overreached on striking down his lieutenant, Vesper held him in place with her shield just long enough for Ashton's blade to slip between his ribs. When another red sought to avenge him, he received the rim of the lieutenants shield to the bridge of the nose for his efforts, and was felled by another guardsmen's blade to the back.

In the midst of it all, Sparrow bugled through a gaggle of reds, face contorted in teeth-baring howl. There was blood on her face, though it was difficult to tell if it was hers, or the carnage she was causing with her mace, steeling herself in place for a wild, overarching swing. She compensated her erratic swings by vaulting forward, snatching whichever part of armor she could get her hands on: the bottom of a helm, the lip of a chestplate, and bodily wrenched them to the floor for someone else to finish off. She only stopped long enough to grapple both hands on the shaft of her weapon, steeling herself against another opponent.

Zahra stood off near the back with bow in hand, hair stuck to her forehead. She remained closer to Asala and the other remaining archers, deftly loosing arrows through the crowd. The sound of hissing soared over shoulders, arrows biting into exposed, fleshy bits. Armpits, necks, knees, gauntleted fingers. Aiming mostly to hamper and debilitate, carving a way for the others to push forward, or maiming them enough for them to lose hold on their weapons, rendering them vulnerable to attack.

The red templars steadily fell back as the front line of the Inquisition carved through them. Vesryn remained in the first line, his armor nearly polished to the same sheen as Lucien's, though it too was now heavily stained with the blood of their enemies. Romulus hadn't appeared in the fighting, and while it was possible he was simply hidden from sight as seemed to be his strength, more likely he'd found a decently safe spot to catch his breath after the effort that earned them their breakthrough.

But their enemy was not finished, as was made apparent by the rumbling that came closer and closer ahead of them. "Brace!" Vesryn called, lifting his spear and trying to slow their own advance. "Knights incoming, form up!"

It seemed the red templar knights had been held back, allowing the pawns to take the brunt of the Inquisition's wrath until they fought their way into more open space. Considering that most of the red, corrupted, hulking warriors fought without much in the way of weaponry, they were perhaps better suited for a brawling melee only possible when there was actual space to disrupt a formation. They charged forward now, their lesser infantry stepping aside and following in behind them.

A volley of red lyrium shards from red templar horrors whistled in overhead, cracking and hissing as they burned through barriers more quickly than arrows could. Before the enemy knights arrived, more arrows came in from behind, cutting down Inquisition regulars and Kirkwall militia alike where they were momentarily unprotected. Archers were positioned on the rooftops above and behind them, using the slanted roofs for cover in between shots.

Just after the first volley, the knights crashed into their line from the front, some of them crushing soldiers with a single swing, ripping and tearing, grabbing people and hurling them over their shoulders to be skewered by waiting ranks of foot soldiers. Carver charged in among them, his greatsword cleaving one of Séverine's templars from the neck all the way through the rib cage. Plate armor seemed to melt like butter where the blade cut.

His appearance seemed to cue one of the Inquisition's own; Leon emerged from the back ranks and put himself directly in Carver's way, strafing aside from the first massive swing of the greatsword. It cleaved into the stone street below, throwing up shards of rock and clanging loud enough to be heard even at considerable distance. The Inquisition's commander seemed rightly wary of that strength—Lucien was under the impression that his own was at something under full muster at the moment. But he could understand the move anyway: even weakened, the Seeker would be less affected by the red lyrium than most, and his skill was still well above the average soldier's. If they wanted to contain Carver's damage, someone like him was the best option for it. Séverine stepped in beside him, likely having more personal reasons for wanting to engage with the red templar leader.

Lucien kept at the knights, but these foes were far slower going than the others, stronger, faster, and hardier than ordinary red templars. It felt like for every one or two he managed to fell, he found himself with another wound even in spite of maximizing the advantage of his armor—they were just that strong. It stopped none of their blows outright, and so he had to turn it to deflect, something which took far more effort and attention. Eventually he was entirely on the defensive, juggling several foes at once, but with only minimal opportunity to strike back. He'd have to rely on Khari for that.

She did her best, orbiting around him like he was her center of gravity, striking out hard when she found the opportunity but never moving too far. When things got too dicey, she retreated behind the bulwark of his defense to reset herself, then moved forward again. In this way, a few more knights met their ends, distracted by him and unable to defend against the more aggressive prong of their assault. But even her relentlessness couldn't break through the wall of them, only keep it from moving any further forward.

A heavy shard of red lyrium caught Lucien in the shoulder, denting the armor there, and he grit his teeth. "Someone take care of the archers!" he barked, more harshly than he intended.

"Get ready to climb!" a mousey voice called somehow above the din. A moment later, a barrier began to form at the base of the building. It took a few seconds to grow in size and width, while also taking on a slight pinkish hue. Not too long after it was initially summoned, a wide ramp stretched from the ground to the lip of the roofs. "Go!" Asala called again, urgency dripping from the word. It was likely she would not be able to hold it for long until her reserves gave out, or the red templars sawed it down.

Cor, Donnelly, Hissrad, and Aurora took heed, thundering up the temporary ramp to where the archers and horrors had situated themselves above the battle. Corvin hit first, being faster than either of his two compatriots, and nearly always in the front. He cut a horror's legs out from underneath her, kicking her over the side and to the street below.

Donnelly stepped in front of him in just enough time to deflect a volley from one of the others with his shield, and then sidestep to run an archer through, finding a weak point in his armor where the red lyrium crystals growing from his body had ruptured it. Hissrad's greataxe split the helmet of another, and then the skull beneath it, the Qunari not even pausing before tearing it out and slamming it into the next. Aurora weaved in between the Lions, and used the momentum she built up to drive a heavy stone sheathed fist into the midsection of an archer. The force alone was enough to bend the red templar just slight enough to set up the uppercut that came next. The moment she connected with the archer's jaw, she cast the the stonefist in earnest. It was enough force to rock him onto his heels, and then his back. It only took another stonefist to start the red templar's slide off of the roof and to the cold hard ground below.

That relieved a considerable amount of the pressure on the Inquisition's forces, but it would not help them break the line. Not directly anyway. Lucien could feel himself beginning to flag, just the first signs of fatigue that hopefully would not set in too soon. To the left, Leon landed a heavy punch to Carver's shoulder, forcing him backwards a step, but the greatsword was in the way before anything could be made of it. The commander was bleeding from somewhere, it looked like, ribbons of it trailing down his bronzed chestplate.

They needed something more, or the line of knights would simply overwhelm them. Attrition was a battle they could not win, not when their foes were so nearly tireless.

“Stellulam!" Lucien could make out Cyrus's voice from somewhere to his right. “You've got to try it, at least. We can't hold like this!" What it was wasn't immediately clear, but he seemed to be quite convinced of the fact that they needed something Estella could do.

"All right!" she called back, frustration, a touch of panic, and certainty warring for control of her tone. Lucien was suddenly aware of a high-pitched hum, not entirely unlike the sound that Romulus's mark had made, but at a different frequency.

A loud crack followed, and from behind him, a green mist spilled out onto the battlefield. The visual effect was a slight distortion, maybe, but it was the way it felt that was truly strange. Like warmth had blanketed him, seeping beneath his armor to lay comfortably next to his skin. Stranger still... the red templars within the distortion had slowed, almost like they were fighting to move through water or mud. Slow. Much slower than they had been.

"It won't last long!" Estella's voice was all urgency now. Lucien didn't need to be told twice. Temporarily abandoning his defense for more aggressive maneuvers, he slammed Everburn into the red templar making a slow-motion stab for his midsection, hewing into the unprotected space between her shoulder and neck. She fell immediately, the strange magic no longer gripping her, and Lucien moved onto the next.

He didn't know how long they had, but they had to be fast. The effect wasn't global, but if they took advantage of the area Estella had managed to cover, they could cleave right through the line of knights.

Khari kept pace beside him, wrenching the helmet off one of the larger knights and then taking a half-step back to bring her sword down, execution-style, on the back of his neck. He'd already been half-bent into an oncoming charge; he had no hope of changing what he was doing fast enough to get away. Slowly, the expressions on the faces of the reds around them began to contort into shock and surprise—perhaps if they seemed to be moving slowly to the Inquisition, then Lucien and his allies had sped up to them.

Already, the effect began to fade. Carver, on the edges of the area to begin with, broke free first, suddenly accelerating in his attempt to fend off what might have been a finishing blow from Séverine. They both overbalanced; Leon beside them recovered first, but not nearly fast enough to do more than push the Red Templars' leader back another few feet. It took the others more time, but eventually the mist faded and time regained its former balance.

It hadn't been for naught, though—the Inquisition had broken through the enemy lines at several points within Estella's radius. Slowly, the breaks became wedges, the Inquisition forcing the templars into smaller pockets, more easily isolated and flanked, and the numbers ever so slowly began to swing in their favor.

Carver's next swing at Séverine was caught by her shield, but the greatsword cleaved partway through it from the top, slicing into part of her arm as well. She was bleeding from multiple wounds as well, but for the moment she had Carver's sword lodged in her shield, and she used it to force it up and open him to the bash of her shoulder that followed, enough to send him stumbling back to regain his footing. They were steadily making progress now, just as the first hints of morning's light could be seen in the sky behind them.

They had pushed all the way out of the market area when a heavy, rhythmic thudding started to come closer and closer. Looking ahead, they could see a monstrous red templar, easily larger than any of the knights, with an obscene amount of red lyrium growth covering its body. A behemoth, with one arm so encased in red lyrium that it formed a great maul, wide enough to crush multiple soldiers in a single blow. The other arm ended in a two-pronged blade of red lyrium, like a twin pair of razor sharp longswords held in a single hand. It ran forward with an almost ape-like tread, shifting its gait to smash aside a group of regulars, tossing broken bodies through the air back into their comrades. The knights were emboldened, renewing the attack, and the momentum the Inquisition had built up was suddenly lost, deflated like a held breath being expelled.

"Merde." There was no avoiding that thing. Lucien had never seen anything like it; the reports from Haven didn't do it justice. Leave it to Rilien's dry narration to leave out the sheer impact of such a creature on the morale of both sides.

The only remaining wedge in the line was the one he and Khari occupied. Lucien took a hard step forward, whistling sharply and drawing the behemoth's attention. It thundered towards him, abandoning the effort of crushing regulars beneath its red lyrium cudgel. Lucien held his ground as long as he could, then abruptly strafed to the side, swinging at it with Everburn as it passed him. The hit jarred his arms, and the creature stopped more suddenly than he'd judged it capable, throwing the larger of its arms back.

The blow caught Lucien head on, lifting him from his feet and hurling him several meters away. He hit the ground heavily, rolling an additional few before coming to a stop, his sword pinned beneath his body. Unfortunately, the behemoth had followed, and now raised the maul-arm, intent on crushing him beneath it.

From Lucien's left, there was a clang—someone dropping a sword or other weapon. It was followed by a raspy yell, and Khari interceded, throwing herself at the oncoming red lyrium hammerhead as it descended. Her jump put her at the right level, and she wrapped her arms around it, her weight and momentum knocking it off its trajectory just enough. It still slammed into the ground, but it did so a few inches to the right of Lucien's shoulder, with an elf attached.

She shrieked at the impact, something crunching under the lyrium. Perhaps it was just her armor. More likely, it was both of her legs and a few other bones besides. Her grip slackened, head lolling to the side. When the behemoth lifted his weapon away, she did not move.

Lucien felt panic grip him for some amount of time he could not properly quantify. Swallowing, he pushed it down. Khari had bought him time, and he couldn't think about just what it had cost her right now, because he needed to make good use of it. Rolling to the side, he freed Everburn and pushed himself back to his feet, trying not to contemplate the mess that was her lower half right now.

The behemoth's focus was back on him, and Lucien took several large steps away from where Khari had fallen.

Others were trying to move up to support him. Vesryn visibly moved in where Khari had fallen, watching Lucien's flank, and Asala was nearby in the space behind him, likely ensuring she would be around in case a barrier was needed to save Khari's life. Or anyone else's, for that matter. Vesryn took the pressure off of Lucien by engaging the behemoth, deflecting a stab of the heavy twin blades aside with his shield and thrusting into the opening with his spear. It sank into the behemoth's thigh, but seemed to do little. The maul came back around, and Vesryn reacted with impressive speed, dropping low and bracing himself, angling his shield precisely.

It was still a nearly impossible attack to block directly, and when it bounced off the steel it sent the elf stumbling back and struggling to find his balance. A knight took advantage of that, landing a hook across the side of his helmet, a second coming down on the top of his shield. The behemoth went for the distracted opponent, throwing a downward smash of the maul in an attempt to crush him.

Before the maul could connect, a soft bluish pink barrier sprung to life in front of them. Asala had taken the step forward that Vesryn had taken back, putting her in the path of the behemoth. The improved barrier held fast against the maul, but spiderweb cracks quickly began to form across the surface. The red lyrium had to have an affect on the magic, improved as it was, and it was all she could do to jostle Vesryn out of its immediate way.

The barrier could take no more and shattered under the maul's pressure. It continued its previous trajectory, though instead of crushing Vesryn outright, it struck Asala in the head. A loud, audible crack followed soon after as one of her horns was snapped in half, gouging her shoulder from the force of the strike. Her head rocked forward and she fell backward, blood flowing from both her head and now her shoulder. She was still awake, the barrier absorbing enough of the maul's weight to not kill, but her eyes were confused and glazed over, and her body stiffened as she crumbled to the ground.

From Lucien’s peripherals, he’d seen Zahra hunching over Asala’s prone form. A hand, fluttering to a throat. Only for a moment. Her mouth twisted, sour, before she sprinted to the behemoth’s flank. More like that not, she wasn’t even aware of what she was doing. Couldn’t possibly know how to combat such a monster. Arrows cut through the air, rebounding off crimson lyrium. Ineffective. Only then did she abandon her bow, in lieu of her rapiers; a soundless howl on her lips, ducking beneath a wild swing of its arm that mussed her hair. She was not so lucky the second time, misjudging the behemoth’s unpredictable movements. It’s arm crashed down from overhead. She had no time to move.

Sparrow’s roar sounded over the din of crushing metal. The sound of crackling barrier, and the inhuman rasp of the behemoth. She charged off from the side, flanged mace dragging on the ground behind her, sparking to life. A blueish, green hue that crackled up to the steel head. The behemoth’s arm slammed against the mace, sending a shower of electricity into the air, locking them into place, instead of biting into Zahra’s skull. She held it there, but bowed backwards against the force, red lyrium biting into her shoulders, her collarbone. Drawing blood in sluggish streams. Her face turned ashen, sickly pale. Her arms trembled.

The behemoth took advantage of her weakness, lifting its arm only long enough to send her tumbling head over heels backwards, tangled into a motionless heap.

His allies were collapsing around him, unconscious or barely awake, others still in the fight but only as a matter of time. Their line was collapsing, too, the red templars regaining the ground they'd lost in the Inquisition's push into Hightown. Lucien gritted his teeth, leveling Everburn out in front of him. Prolonged exposure to the lyrium was bringing a shake to his limbs, bone-deep, robbing him of the strength he'd been fortunate enough to keep for so long.

He'd have to keep it a while longer. Lucien slid his front foot forward, preparing to charge, but just as he was shifting his weight, he heard an unexpected sound. Hoofbeats—someone was approaching on horseback.

The Emperor of Orlais had never been the sort of man who prayed often, but in that moment, he did. He willed his thoughts to whoever would listen.

Please. Let that be her.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

Just one more day. One more day. One more...

One more day as Viscountess of Kirkwall. Sophia couldn't help but feel she was leaving something behind along with the title. The nobles finally had their way, led of course by William Alston, and tomorrow they would crown her again, this time as Queen. Maybe it just felt like it was too easy. She'd nearly given her life countless times in the efforts that eventually led to regaining her throne, and not once since. Not a single drop of blood shed since the Keep could once again be called her own. But she reminded herself that not everything needed to be paid for in blood.

"Sophia?" Cullen's voice stirred the Viscountess from her thoughts, and she lifted her eyes from where they'd been staring blankly at her desk. The Knight-Commander was in full armor as he always was. To be honest, she missed gearing up more days than not. Never leaving home without Vesenia's comfortable weight across her back. She knew without a doubt that Lucien would feel the same way about his own life. Missing the simplicity it once had. Maybe their lives were never simple, but once upon a time, their goals were, and they didn't keep them from each other.

"Cullen, come in," she said, setting a paper aside and folding her hands in her lap.

"Actually, I intended to ask if you would come out." Cullen immediately looked as though he feared he'd stepped too far. "Er, if you would walk with me, that is."

She smiled, and pushed her chair back. "Of course. Where are we going?"

Just around Hightown, as it turned out. They spoke of other things as they walked, and as Cullen came around to whatever it was he really wanted to say. The state of the templars in Kirkwall, the way the citizen's army was coming along, current cleanup efforts in Lowtown. Cullen knew by now that the idea of Sophia taking up the mantle of Divine, or attempting to, was not her favorite subject, and dutifully avoided it. Just when she'd gotten used to the regularity of ruling the city, something came along to disrupt her entire life, her collection of plans and dreams for her future. Talking like this helped keep her grounded in the present.

"I enjoy these, you know?" she said, as they neared the stairs at the edge of the Hightown markets. "Our little talks." The view was always impressive, even if Lowtown was not particularly idyllic.

"I do as well." Cullen winced. "I'll be the first to admit I don't have many friends. I'm glad I can count you among them."

"My friends are limited as well," she said, and was met with an immediate look of skepticism from the Knight-Commander. "Real ones, that is. People I can really talk to. Some have gone far away, and others..." She let the thought fade away. How many times had she wondered what might've happened if she hadn't become Viscountess? Enough to know that it was madness. What was done was done.

"I've been meaning to thank you," Cullen said, a touch more awkwardly than before. "For quite some time, actually. Thought today would be as good as any day."

"Oh?" She lifted her eyebrows. "What have I done?"

"You... helped me keep my faith," he said. The words seemed hard for him to part with, difficult to admit. "In Meredith's last days, I started to question my purpose, the life of the templar. In Ferelden, I... saw things, so many terrible things, and it was because of them that I was led astray for so long." She knew a little of that story, though he'd never really shared all of it with her. Part of the legend of the Fifth Blight, when the Ferelden Circle Tower fell to the influence of demons. He'd come into contact with Elissa Cousland and her companions, but only at the end of the ordeal. Sophia had never dared press him for more of it.

"I thought, for a time," he continued, "that I would renounce my vows to the Order, live a life as something other than a templar, but... you inspired me. Inspired many of my brothers and sisters. I will gladly continue to serve the Order, and you, when you move on from being a Viscountess, or a Queen..."

She shook her head slightly at that, looking out and away at the city below her. "I'm still not sure about that. Any of it. It's not as though my faith has never wavered."

"Only the strongest of faiths survive the fires of doubt." He placed a hand on her shoulder. "And yours did. That's all that matters." She let that sit for a moment, at which point Cullen apparently decided he'd reached his limit of sharing his thoughts. He cleared his throat, awkward again. "I should get back. Preparations to make, of course."

"I'll see you tomorrow then, Cullen."

"I look forward to it, my Queen."




Just one more breath. One more breath. One more...

One more breath was all she could seem to focus on at a time. How could so much have happened in just a few hours?

They stripped Cullen's body of his armor, carrying his corpse as their banner up the steps towards Hightown. A red banner, coated in blood. They'd erupted like a volcano from underneath her city. Apparently their attempts to root out their bases in the tunnels had been futile. No doubt they had help on the inside, from within the Order, as they could be seen sending barges loaded with troops out to the Gallows, to overwhelm whatever templar force remained to protect them. They wouldn't stand a chance.

She'd been so foolish, so stupid. She sent Ash away to protect the people, to try to rally their forces in Lowtown, but the battle was lost before it ever began. For all she knew she'd sent him to his death, and all she could think about was what Nostariel would say, seeing her be so reckless with his life. One more breath, in and out. She had to focus, and lead this defense. They were formed up at the top of the stairs, guards and infantry and nobles and the last few of Kirkwall's true templars. They barred the way to Hightown.

A man emerged from the front rank of the Red Templar army, clad in glittering armor imbued with red lyrium, a full helm obscuring his face. The greatsword across his back was twice the width of Vesenia, throbbing with some corrupted energy or magic. She had her own enchantment, something she'd commissioned to be done on Lucien's advice. Vesenia now glowed white hot, and would burn through any of these monsters that dared come any closer.

The man removed his helm, revealing a familiar face, that of a grizzled warrior with short, dark hair. His eyes had once been blue, but now they were tinted red, along with the veins bulging down his forehead and along his neck. "You cannot resist, Queen," Carver Hawke said, gesturing back behind him to where Cullen was lashed to a pole, arms bound above his head. "The false Order has been cut down. Burned away. Only a few of their number remain with you. This city that harbored them will fall, and the ascension of the Red Templars will be complete."

He drew his sword, leveling it at her. "Lay down your arms. Not all of you need to die. Just enough for the Elder One to hear this call."

William arrived at her side, touching her shoulder and leaning in. "Your word is sent, Sophia. You think they'll come?"

Sophia nodded exactly once. It wasn't a question of if, but rather how soon. And how long could they survive the onslaught. "Kirkwall stands together against you," she said, raising her voice so that Carver could hear her. "You will not receive a surrender from us. You will not break us."

"You've already lost." Carver lowered the helmet back down over his head. "Struggling will only cause you more suffering before the end."

He lifted his hand nonchalantly, and his red knights charged, surging around him and smashing against their line.




Just one more night. One more night. One more...

One more night seemed like an impossibility at this point. But Sophia had felt the same way the night before. She brought Vesenia down hard, as hard as her weary arms could muster on the head of a red knight, the enchantment cleaving the corrupted woman's helmet and much of her head in two. Planting her boot against the breastplate, she shoved the body backwards, kicking off of the barricade and delaying two more enemy soldiers from trying their hand next. They met spears from the city guard, and Sophia pulled herself back from the front to catch her breath.

She wrenched off her crested helmet, pushing sweat-slicked golden hair from her face and planting the tip of her sword into a crack in the stone street for support. The night air was cool, chilled by winter's onset, and it helped keep her from collapsing, from retching again. Their line at the top of the stairs had collapsed, but not before others behind them had erected usable defenses they could retreat to. Many had paid for those defenses with their lives on the front line, or in the rear guard as they pulled back, and Sophia herself would've been overwhelmed and killed if William hadn't pulled her from the fight. Now they held the line at three points leading to the Keep, where the entire civilian population of Hightown was, for the moment, protected.

It had only been a few days, but it felt like a lifetime, cutting down red templars until her arms were numb, wading through their aura of corruption until she was sick to her stomach. She couldn't imagine what it had to be like for mages. There were none left in Hightown, a fact the severely wounded in particular were keenly aware of. Somehow Sophia had managed to avoid the worst of it, but like the barricades, her armor wouldn't last forever, especially not as exhaustion took hold.

"Sophia!" someone called out from behind her. William was riding her way, bringing her horse alongside him, his helmet pulled off and tucked under his arm. They'd managed to get the rest of the horses inside the Keep with the nobles, as they honestly had more value right now. The Queen pulled in one more breath, and righted herself.

"What's happened?"

"Our middle is collapsing," he relayed, urgently. "They won't hold much longer."

"Maker preserve us," she whispered under her breath. She slipped her helmet back down into place, hefting her sword. "Let's go."

The rode the short distance required to reach the central barricade, the one spanning the widest point and thus the most difficult to defend, right in front of the courtyard and steps leading up to the Queen's Keep. Sophia wheeled her horse about to see red templars spilling over the top at three different points, with a fourth steadily giving way. They were high enough here, with a clear enough view below, that Sophia could still see the lights on the ships in the distance. Still stuck beyond her own city's chains. She fought against the sinking feeling in her chest.

The stars were still out, though. Sophia would've offered a prayer, put her voice to the Chant, but she needed every breath. She'd have to hope the thought would do.

She dismounted, leaving her horse to a soldier to pull back to the Keep, and waded into the fight. William remained atop his horse, hacking down three red templars one after the other. Sophia cut down two, the second a shadow with blades of red lyrium for arms. He found them severed when Sophia parried, leaving him with nothing to turn aside her thrust. Around her, guards and true templars and militia fighters turned and rallied, and for a moment it was a pure pitched battle, chaos and carnage.

Steadily they pushed them back, Sophia leading the way with efficient, precise cuts, not even thinking anymore, just acting on instinct. She felled another knight, dodging sideways and slicing cleanly through his left leg. She drove her blade down through his chest once he was on his back, and a triumphant cry went up from the defenders, the momentum carrying them back to their barricade.

And then suddenly a great hulking creature blasted right through with a fist like solid rock. It slammed into Sophia on its way, sending her and three others flying back across the street onto their back. Dazed, she struggled to lift her head, only to find the hideous sight of a behemoth in the gaping hole in their wall. She'd only heard reports of their strength from the Inquisition's experience with them at Haven. They were as horrible as she imagined.

In an instant the battle went from a turning tide to an utter flood. Sophia got back to her feet just in time to backstep away from a knight's lyrium-encrusted fist. Her swing in the opening was disrupted by a horror's barrage of shards. They clattered off her armor, leaving her unharmed by throwing off her attack. Vesenia burned into the shoulder of the knight, not close enough to the neck or heart to end him.

Fighting through the wound, the knight smashed his fist into Sophia's side before she could withdraw her blade, the force enough to dent her armor on the left side and nearly cave it in. She slid her sword free, trying and failing to gasp in a breath through the slit in her helmet. William rode past, landing a slash to the back of the knight's neck where the warped armor had left him vulnerable, and Sophia finished him off with a thrust through his midsection.

Pain suddenly bloomed across her upper back, where a morning star struck her with full force, forcing Sophia down onto her knees. She swung blindly, Vesenia finding only the red templar's heavy shield and clanging off. The shield lurched forward, catching her across the chest and head and spilling her onto her back. She raised her sword in an attempt to block a killing blow, but William cut the red templar's hand clean off at the wrist first. He dropped his shield and drew a knife in the now free hand, attempting to dive onto Sophia, but she was able to lift her sword and let the red templar's weight drive it through his chest.

After he'd stilled, Sophia shoved him off of her and struggled back to her knees. All around her the defenders were falling, fleeing for the Keep, and on the sides they were breaking as well, no doubt hearing of the impending defeat in their middle. They couldn't hope to hold here any longer.

William rode up beside Sophia, offering his hand down. "There's nothing more we can do here, Sophia."

She pulled herself up, taking one last look at the chains and finding them still blocking Lucien from her. Turning away, she let herself be pulled up into the saddle with him, and they fled for the open doors of the Keep.




Just one more hour. One more hour. One more...

One more hour, and the sun would come up. And the Inquisition's army would be here. Her lookouts in the towers of the Keep reported that the chains had gone down, and their rescuers were landing troops on the docks, fighting their way up through Lowtown. Sophia hated to think of the murderous ascent that awaited them. Packed formations of spears and knights behind them, how many lives would it take to break them? Would it be enough? Every minute they were held in check another devastating injury was inflicted here.

The taste of healing potions hadn't fully washed out the taste of bile in her throat, but it at least came close. She didn't remember ever being this tired. Not when the Qunari had attacked, not when she fought a desperate battle to overthrow Meredith. Her wounds weren't nearly as significant as what some of the others had gone through, but they were steadily draining her, along with the lack of sleep.

How could anyone sleep, with the incessant pounding on the door. The behemoth outside was relentless, it never tired, and a constant team was required on the door to brace it. So far, it had held, but there were shadows crawling on the towers. Her lookouts were starting to disappear, anyone who wandered alone in the Keep cut down in a dark hallway. Picked off, one by one. They couldn't spare the manpower to hunt them down.

William came to sit beside her, bloodied and weary, but still able to fight if the enemy broke through. "Whatever happens next, Sophia... we made them pay for every inch they took."

"You'll have to forgive me if I find little comfort in that." She would not take solace in the amount of death she'd dealt before her own, not even when it was corrupted templars being felled, people who by all accounts appeared to be lost entirely. Without hope of redemption. Perhaps their army would be less capable of ravaging and destroying elsewhere, but if they succeeded in destroying her city, everything she'd spent her life to build... she couldn't bring herself to think beyond that.

They sat in silence, wasting no more breath on words, just trying to recover in time for the next battle. Their last, if the red templars forced their way inside. Sophia had felt a shifting relationship with death over the years. In the past, she hadn't feared it much, despite her responsibilities, despite the weight placed on her for the future. It was always so distant, a faraway dream of ruling Kirkwall when she was no longer a young woman. In those years she had always been a warrior before she was the Viscount's daughter, and a warrior had to be willing to face death if it came for her.

But now... she didn't want to fight anymore. She didn't want to be a warrior anymore. She was a Queen. The Inquisition wanted her to be a Divine. She'd been so close to a different life, a happier life, and now these red templars were going to tear that away from her, tear her away from him. She was terrified of dying, of losing the opportunities that seemed so close now. Of making Lucien go through that pain. She'd glimpsed it in his eyes after the Arishok had nearly killed her. She hoped she would never have to see it again.

And then suddenly the behemoth's smashing against the door stopped. Heavy footfalls like drum beats carried it away, away from the Keep. Sophia knew that was supposed to come as relief, but instead she only felt dread, as she knew where it was going. What it was going to do.

"Excellency!" a courier said, breathless as she careened towards Sophia and William, who were already on their feet. "The Inquisition has broken through! They're pushing towards the Keep!"

"That beast will tear through their lines," William said.

Sophia already knew what she was planning to do. What had to be done. "Bring the horses," she commanded. "My Companions will ride out beside me. One last charge into their flank." Their numbers were too few to break the enemy themselves, but maybe if they did enough, the Inquisition could get through before they were killed.

No one questioned the order. No one wanted to perish here without a fight. The horses were fresh, unused for the duration of the battle, and the Queen's Companions had yet to truly show what they were capable of. Sophia could still hear knights beyond the door, but they would break under the lance, she was certain of it.

They mounted up before the door, with enough room to make an effective charge. Sophia sheathed Vesenia for a lance, her own enchanted in much the same way her blade was, with a tip that glowed white hot in the presence of corruption. The Companions formed up beside her in a wedge formation, their formerly shining armor battered and cracked and bloodstained. Sophia's own was damaged and barely holding up, but there was no time to make any repairs. The behemoth was out there, smashing through Inquisition ranks, and Sophia was not about to let that stand.

"Let them come," she said, dropping her helm back into place.

The door was unlocked and unbarred, guards and militia infantry fleeing from it as it burst open, red templar knights and infantry suddenly charging inside. Sophia lifted her lance, and then leveled it at her enemy. "For Kirkwall!" The battle cry went up around her, and they kicked their heels in, charging straight ahead. Sophia's lance punched clean through the head of the first knight, dropping her instantly, the others pummeled aside by the Companions and cleaned up by the ranks of guards and militia that charged out behind them.

Once the armored horses built momentum, there was no stopping them, not from the disorganized mob of red templars that thought to easily overwhelm them. The Queen and her Companions trampled them underfoot, lanced them down, left them to die. They rounded a corner, renewing the charge as they crossed an open area of street between the two conflicts, just as the sun's first light broke over the rooftops ahead of them, reflecting off their armor, bathing them in a golden glow. The red templars threw everything they had at the Inquisition, the behemoth at their center, swinging and stabbing and killing with nearly every blow.

There, in the middle of them, she saw him, and though she couldn't be sure, she thought he saw her too, charging right for him. She lanced one of the archers, her weapon picking him up and tossing him through the air into his allies. The thundering cavalry line smashed into the rear of the red templar formation, and their infantry desperately tried to get out of the way or form some kind of defense. There was none against this charge. The militia followed behind, making it an all out melee in the wake of the cavalry. They couldn't possibly keep up, and soon the horses were surrounded by red templars on all sides. To stop now was to be overwhelmed and killed.

Sophia charged straight for the behemoth, glowing lance poised to strike through its heart. It turned, leaving the Inquisition behind to deal with knights and shadows, pushing red templars aside to better face the Queen. She narrowed her eyes, ignoring the ache in her arm and keeping it steady, on target, drowning every noise besides her breathing and the thunder of hooves. The behemoth reared back for a strike, too early, and for a moment Sophia could envision the kill, one swift, clean blow.

But it wasn't too early. The fist of red lyrium smashed down into the ground, a pulse of corruption going out, and spikes like thick metal stakes erupted from the ground all around it. Sophia's horse was impaled from underneath, momentum stopped cold, and she was pitched over forward out of the saddle, losing her grip on the lance. She flipped over and landed hard on her back, suddenly trapped in a tiny arena with her monstrous opponent.

She rolled over just in time to avoid being crushed in one blow, drawing her sword as she rose to her feet. The sounds of desperate battle were all around her, blocked by the wall of red lyrium spikes. The behemoth's opposite arm was a sort of two pronged claw or blade, lighter and swifter than the giant maul of a fist on the other side. It swung this for her, Sophia's deflection barely adequate, and she almost lost her feet. The fist came down next, forcing her to dodge to the side, and she did so in time to dart in and make a swing across its chest, the enchanted blade opening up a burning line across it.

It howled, and Sophia went for a thrust, trying to end it immediately. She'd overstayed her welcome; the fist of red lyrium swiped sideways and smashed her away, lifting her into the air and tossing her until she struck the inside of the red lyrium wall, the force of the blow taking her helmet right off. She crumpled to the ground, the world spinning, a sick feeling heavy in her gut.

She stumbled sideways away from being smashed, the tip of her sword lingering near the ground while she struggled to raise it. The pronged blades came in at her, faster than she could react to. She shifted Vesenia, trying to block it aside but instead getting caught in between the blades. She drove the right one wide, but the left struck her, piercing through her weakened armor and sinking into her abdomen on the left side. It didn't pierce all the way through, as Sophia was driven back into the lyrium wall first. The sickness from the lyrium blade stabbing into her was almost enough to overwhelm her, but she held onto consciousness and kept her feet.

She turned Vesenia sideways, and cut horizontally, burning through the blade until she was cut free. Sophia tried to lift her sword for an attack, but her legs gave out first, sending her to the ground on her side. Her sword fell beside her, as both of Sophia's hands went to the blade of lyrium in her. She curled in on herself, trying to wrench it free. It wouldn't matter, as she wasn't going to be able to move away from being crushed this time.

From over the side of the lyrium wall, somehow a templar was thrown over inside with her. A true templar, with a cracked shield and a flail. She was plainly wounded as well, dripping blood as she landed, but she skidded to a halt in front of Sophia, her shield glowing white just as the fist fell. It bounced away with a deafening crack, both shield and red lyrium fist shattering entirely, and the woman's arm clearly broke under the strain. She ignored it, calling down a smite like a bolt of lightning from above, leaving the entire front of the behemoth scorched and burning. She followed with an upwards swing of her flail, her templar abilities blasting pieces off from the monster's face.

The behemoth staggered back, wounded but not defeated, but the templar did as well, drained heavily by her efforts. She fought to stay up, but in the end she sank down to the ground, clutching at her wounds. Sophia still couldn't manage to rise above hands and knees. She'd withdrawn the blade from her side partway, but the pain had only spiked, temporarily sapping her strength. Just beyond her momentary prison, she could hear a familiar blade, hacking through the red lyrium wall of spikes trying to block the world out...

The enchantment on Everburn was both ancient and powerful, and the force of Lucien's strength behind it was just enough. Again and again the blade struck, scarlet crystals flying from the impacts, until finally the sword itself burst through, close enough for Sophia to feel the heat radiating from its white-hot edge. It withdrew again with a grinding hiss, and a moment later, there was a heavy impact from the other side. Lucien threw his shoulder into the fault line he'd created, and the large crack in the wall spiderwebbed once, twice.

On the third impact, he crashed through in a rain of red shards, landing solidly. His eyes, wide and desperate at the gap in his helm, found hers for a split second before the behemoth was upon him, thrusting forward with its remaining long spike and a half. A swift arc of Everburn parried, knocking the blow off its trajectory hard enough to crack the lyrium. With a hard step in, Lucien reversed the momentum of his sword, bringing it back down on the same spot.

With a sound not unlike breaking glass, the second lyrium blade shattered under the force, cracks traveling up the length of the behemoth's arm, the crystals flaring an angry shade as they ruptured. The creature staggered back, lashing out defensively as it sensed the tide turning against it; its spiked foot caught an unlucky blow to Lucien's leg, which buckled, taking him to a knee.

Even there, though, he wasn't defenseless, shifting his grip on Everburn until he was holding the blade in his hands, leaning forward to catch the back of the once-templar's knee with the crossguard and pull. Ordinarily, it would have been an annoyance at best, but the behemoth was already off-balance, and this only destabilized it further. All it needed was a push, and it would topple.

Just one more swing. One more swing. One more...

One more effort, and this would be over. Sophia had to believe that when the rest of this lyrium came down, it would be Inquisition soldiers, and her soldiers, surrounding them, and not the red templars overwhelming everyone. She didn't know where she dredged the strength up from, but her hand went back to the lyrium blade in her and pulled it free, a splotch of blood landing on the stone street beside it, but as soon as it left her hand she felt her head clear. The pain lingered, weighing down her limbs, but she could ignore that. What was a little more?

Her right hand closed around the hilt of her sword. Her left helped push her to her feet, and then she charged forward, blade low, humming and asking for one last kill. She swept it up in a broad arc, cleaving across the behemoth's chest and sending a small shower of red lyrium and blood into the air. The creature moaned and tipped backwards, defenseless, and Sophia drove her sword up into its belly, piercing straight through and out the other side. She let it slide out once more as the behemoth collapsed onto its back, throwing a cloud of dust into the air and shaking the ground where it fell.

With its death, the shards of red lyrium surrounding her cracked and shattered, and all around her the Inquisition was pressing the attack. Her surviving Companions ran down as many as they could; Sophia could spot William riding at the center of them, untiring. The enemy was in full retreat, running for the gates.

Vesenia slipped from her hands and clattered against the ground. The templar that had saved her removed her helm. Séverine offered a weak smile to her, keeping pressure on her own wounds. Sophia smiled back, and then tried to take the two steps needed to get to Lucien. Her legs failed her on the second, and she fell towards him.

Still on one knee, he caught her with a soft grunt, their armor clacking together and jarring their wounds, though he hardly seemed to notice. Lucien shifted, freeing one of his arms long enough to pull the helm from his head and let it fall to the ground with a ringing clang. And then his hands were at her face, gentle even despite the gauntlets he wore with his armor. A purple bruise darkened on his cheek, the deep shadows of fatigue sitting in the crescent-moons of skin under his eyes. His thumbs feathered over her cheekbones; he leaned down until his brow touched hers.

"Sophia," he murmured, an unfamiliar tremble in his voice. "My love." Though there was pain and anguish in his eyes, brightened by unshed tears, it was not the pain she had so feared putting there. Somehow, despite everything, the worst had not come to pass. The battle was over, and the both of them alive.

"I promised," she said, suddenly aware that it wasn't just like she said, and she needed to make it that way. Her tears were not unshed, for she'd been holding them back since all of this started. Ever since he left. "I promised you, whatever I was faced with..."

She ran out of breath, and the constriction in her throat wasn't helping. But she had to get up. She got one foot underneath her. If they worked together, both of them could make it off the ground. She leaned as much of her weight on him as she could, but before long they were both on their feet.

"Still here," she whispered. If they hadn't been touching, he wouldn't have heard her. "Still standing. And waiting for you."

"I'm sorry I made you wait so long." Lucien shifted; he was clearly favoring the leg the behemoth had hit. Most likely it was broken in some fashion or another, but it didn't show on his face. Leaning down, he touched his lips to hers, soft and momentary, moving back only a hairsbreadth to speak. "I made you a promise, too, but right now, I think we're needed elsewhere." He shifted partially away, letting one hand slide to her back, and they both faced the battlefield that Hightown had become.

They were always needed somewhere. For the moment, at least it was not in battle. The army had it well in hand, the sounds of battle fading and steadily being replaced with the cheers of the victorious. Despite the chill of the morning winter air, the sun was warm at their backs. Rest would have to wait, for it was a new day in Kirkwall. And as always, there was work to be done.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

His mother's ring was burning a hole in his pocket.

Lucien had not always been a patient man. In his youth, he was quite the opposite: hotheaded, brash, and impulsive—all to his own detriment, of course. He could feel the echoes of those traits now, because it always grew harder to keep his head the more important things were to him, and he couldn't think of anything more important than this. Her. Their future. The best and worst part was that he could almost see it, time stretched out in front of him like space. The lines appearing on their faces, children with her golden hair and perhaps his steely eyes. Bright and strong and above all else kind, because that was what mattered most. Orlais and Kirkwall the way they should be, stable and prosperous and just.

That all of that was so close made patience a fragile thing indeed. Easier to maintain when it had been a more distant dream, a thing for a few years down the line, or even before it was really a dream at all, when he hadn't had the clearest picture of who would stand at the center of it.

But for all that, he couldn't afford to be too hasty now. It was important to him that he did this properly, and at the right time. His father had once told him he lost his courage in situations like this—he might well have been right about that. In any case, sitting around recovering from his wounds wasn't going to accomplish anything, so Lucien stood, testing his weight on the leg the behemoth had broken. A shattered kneecap wasn't the easiest of injuries to deal with, but what healing could be spared and regular doses of Rilien's potions had ensured it mended properly. It was still a bit sore, but that was all.

Shuffling to the armoire, Lucien pulled a clean blue tunic from it, shrugging it over his head and letting it settle. He seemed to be fresh out of anything he could use to tie his hair, so loose it would have to remain. He'd left home somewhat too quickly, but he'd at least remembered his straight-razor, and he spent the few minutes it took to shave his beard off trying not to think too hard. When was the last time he'd felt this nervous about anything?

Running a hand over his bare jaw, he decided he just hadn't. Perhaps that was how it should be. He'd spent his life preparing to lead, and though becoming Emperor had never been in his plans, he knew he had what it took to navigate the politics of his homeland from a throne. But this was something completely different. Anyone who knew him could say easily that he hadn't spent much time preparing to share his burdens with anyone else, especially not from love. He doubted it could be prepared for. Exhaling a heavy sigh, he elected to leave Everburn and his armor behind, taking only a long knife at his belt. This wasn't anything he should do as an Emperor. This was something he had to do only as a person, who loved another he could not do without.

What was formerly the Viscountess's office now belonged to someone with a weightier title, he supposed. Naturally, there were already opinions on the change back in Orlais, but he saw nothing to object to. It was the same office in any event, and Lucien knocked softly before turning the handle, stepping inside. "So," he said, a smile tilting his mouth. "I hear it can be very difficult to get an audience with the Queen. Any chance she might have some time for her most adoring subject?"

The Queen hmmed from behind her desk, signing a sheet of paper with a slight flourish. "The Emperor of Orlais is still a citizen of Kirkwall. I suppose I can spare a moment." She smiled, betraying the fact that she would spare as long as he wanted for him. It was difficult to say she looked her best; she'd obviously found little sleep if any at all during the battle, to say nothing of wounds sustained during it. It seemed unlikely anyone had pushed themselves harder in the defense, and there was only so much a modest amount of cosmetics could cover up of the physical toll it had taken on her. And even still she'd only allowed herself scarce hours of sleep, intent on being alert and dutiful to her people in one of their greatest times of need.

The crown was not in sight, but Sophia still looked the part of Queen. There had been a time once when she'd dressed as a mercenary more often than not, but those days appeared to be gone. Burgundy was the color of her dress for the day, a simple Marcher style lacking in the grandeur an Orlesian woman calling herself Queen might prefer. She pushed her chair back and stood, wincing slightly at an obvious pain in her side, her own still healing injury. Sophia's victories and defeats had always been worn on her sleeves, etched into her skin and reflected in her eyes. She was worn down at the moment, by how much she cared and how hard she worked. And every bit as beautiful to him as she'd ever been because of it.

She crossed the distance between them, standing slightly on her toes to offer a brief kiss in greeting. "I've done what I can here for the moment. There's... still a lot of information to be gathered." Likely she referred to things like death tolls, the costs that would be required to rebuild, the grim business of piecing together Kirkwall after the siege. "Have you come to whisk me away? I could use a moment to get away from all this. Like the best of dreams."

"I was rather thinking I would," he admitted, letting his fingers trail along her jaw as he dropped his hand away. "It's much easier when the guards are occupied." They surely were now; there was still much to be done, and not all of the work could be hers. "I supposed you might like some fresh air. A ride out onto the coast, perhaps? A slow one," he amended, smile turning faintly wry. There was still a twinge in his own side, the remainder of what had been a spear-point between his last two ribs. No doubt he didn't look his best at the moment, either, but such was the way of things.

"I'd like that very much," she answered, softly touching her fingers around his hand before she peeled away, towards a corner of the room. "If we stick to the trails and off of the road, we should be able to avoid most of the patrols." The Inquisition army had been sending patrols of regulars to perform passes along the coast and the roads north of it, watchful for any lingering red templar presence, but thus far none had been found, the enemy's army thoroughly driven out. They'd been assured they were following their tracks at a safe distance, however, intent on locating wherever it was they meant to retreat to.

Sophia sank down into a chair, pulling off her shoes and retrieving a pair of sturdier boots fit for riding from the shelf behind her. The weather was enough to warrant a cloak for comfort, but Sophia didn't seem intent on gearing up in any other way. No armor, no guards. Her blade rested on a rack on the wall, below the picture Lucien had painted himself, that of Sophia's mother Vesenia. For once, they could ride out with no wariness, no need to be threatened, for the battle was done, the enemy routed.

And that they did. Lucien had to borrow a horse, but that was no object, really, and it didn't take them long to navigate the familiar path to the coast. He had a specific destination in mind, but he wasn't in any hurry to get there. The more important thing at the moment was that the air was fresh, the surroundings were calm, and for a little while at least, they didn't have to worry about anything else in particular. He knew he needed the break, and if that was true, Sophia surely must as well, given just how much more was on her plate at the moment.

It was strange, almost, being able to do something as simple as this after so long with nothing but letters to connect them. Years, it had been, since they'd last been face-to-face, and yet it all came back as naturally as breathing. The easy comfort of it. The effulgent happiness. It only confirmed what he already knew very well, but he relaxed into it anyway, letting the contentment settle over him like a cloak.

Eventually, though, he did start steering his horse with slightly more purpose, keeping to minor trails and crossing the main road only once. His destination was intentionally somewhat remote—the first time he'd been here, it was on suspicion that someone was using it to hide, after all. Situated at a natural dip in the landscape from the city-side, the promontory jutted out into the water, waves lapping up against the elevated sides of it periodically. Sparse vegetation grew near the edges, but for the most part it was as the rest of the Wounded Coast was—sandy.

It, of course, bore no trace of former events; they had been so long ago now that he'd have been surprised if it were otherwise. "Come to think of it, I was on a loan horse the first time I came here, too," he observed, swinging down from his saddle with a bit more care than he'd usually take and offering a hand up to Sophia, mindful of her injuries as well. "Back in my ill-advised farming-implement days." Personally he'd thought the scythe worked just fine for his purposes. But he could see why it wasn't exactly standard-issue for anyone's army, to be sure.

"I would have recommended a more tried and true weapon, of course," she said, taking his hand and slipping down from her side-saddle position, boots landing softly in the sand. "But I can at least understand why you chose not to wield the sword." She hadn't back then, of course, and even when it was explained she had trouble coming to accept it. But then, that was the way with both of them, to think more highly of each other than they thought of themselves, always.

Her hand remained in his as they started down, walking over ground they'd tread many times before. The Wounded Coast had changed as much as the city since then. Once it served as a haven for bandits, Tal-Vashoth, the Coterie, blood mages... every one of those groups had been driven out, one by one, the networks of caves now all but abandoned according to what Sophia had relayed to him. Now they were only the homes of spiders, and not even the frighteningly large kind.

"It's been over twelve years," Sophia said, the statement seeming to take her breath away. "It feels like we were different people then. And yet, even after it all, some things still feel just the same."

It was reassuring, that constancy. The fact that some things didn't have to change. "I miss it," he admitted. "Orlais is—I miss the way things were. Simple. Not easy, but simple." Shaking his head, Lucien lifted one hand to Sophia's back, carding his fingers through the ends of her hair. "I always felt like what I was doing here was good. Helpful. Worthwhile."

Not that what he was doing now wasn't, but it often seemed to end up muddied. His intentions the same, but the paths to take less clear. Cause and effect mediated by dozens of other forces, complications that simply didn't exist when it was them, their friends, and their blades.

"And this was the place it started. Perhaps it's an overly poetic way to put it, but I feel like this is where our paths joined, the first time." It was here that they'd gone to rescue Saemus, who turned out not to be very much in need of rescue. But the chain of events that it had set in motion turned out to be so much bigger. The memory was not untainted—the trajectory they'd walked was bloody and grim at points, but that would have been true of any he'd let himself walk.

"It's true," Sophia said, letting a bit of levity slip into her tone. "For all I knew, you were just an unusually polite sellsword. A handsome one, admittedly, but even then I tried not to let such things cloud my judgement too much." No doubt she had great experience dealing with people being more polite than normal, given her status. Everyone in positions of power had to be wary of false kindness concealing hidden motives.

Her expression grew more serious. "But you're right. It wasn't until we stood on this spot that I glimpsed just what sort of man you were, and still are. I'm... I can't even describe how happy I feel that the better parts of us were able to endure those years. And not just endure, but grow stronger. Unbreakable." There had been times when Sophia had teetered on the edge of something darker, when her greatest strengths were almost twisted by her defeats. Her passion, her faith, her desire to protect both the city and her friends. But every time she wavered, she did not break.

It was a sign, he thought, of the most admirable strength of character. To never feel tempted towards something darker, easier to bear—that was one thing. But to feel the full force of those alternatives and choose rightly anyway took more fortitude still. "I feel as if our routes have diverged," Lucien said, speaking more quietly now. "And that was necessary, for a time. I had my duty, and you had yours, and I'd never want to keep you from it." He swallowed thickly, trying to quell the unease at the pit of his stomach. Find the exact words. But they were slow to his tongue, and for a long moment, he was silent.

Pulling in a breath, he shifted away from her side so that he could turn to face her straight-on. He'd never have the right words for this. He had to try anyway. "We can never belong solely to one another," Lucien murmured, taking both her hands in his. "We will always have the burdens of our lineages and nations to bear, and we will always belong at least in part to our people." Unromantic as it was compared to other things he might have said, it was the truth. And part of why they understood each other so well in the first place. That commitment of hers was one of the reasons he loved her.

"But I can no longer stand the thought of bearing those burdens separately. I want to shoulder yours, and to ask you to carry mine as well. Then neither of us will ever again have to choose between duty and love, because they will be one and the same." Lucien slowly lowered himself to one knee, squeezing her hands gently in his grip. His voice, customarily strong and sure as the rest of him, wavered, whisper-thin and soft. "It's less than you deserve, but it's everything I have to offer. Sophia Dumar, light of my world, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"

There were a thousand complications that probably should have been factored into Sophia's response. For people such as them, marriage was something far more complicated than it ought to be, something that brought with it effects on cities and nations. There was always more behind the marriage than what it publicly stood for: an expression of devotion between two people in love.

If any of these complications passed through Sophia's mind as the question was asked, she didn't show it. "Yes," she said, the tears already falling freely as she smiled. "A thousand times, yes."

His eyes weren't dry, either, honestly, but he saw no shame in it. Lucien grinned broadly, pushing himself back to his feet and wrapping both arms around her waist. She lifted from the ground as he stood, spinning them around just once before he set her back down. There were injuries to be considered, after all, though his own were the furthest thing from his mind.

Relief and joy were a torrent, and he didn't mind being swept away by it, leaning down to kiss her soundly and then drop his forehead against her shoulder. "Once would have done, but I'll happily take the rest."

He couldn't be bothered to think of implications and symbolism and nations right now. All that concerned him was that their paths were once more the same, and would never need to diverge again.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

The sound was almost the same, but not quite.

The vhenadahl had survived the battle, and it was there that Ithilian planted himself, as he so often had done, either in its lower branches or at its base. The climbing required was not something he was capable of anymore, so he sat among the roots. It was the exact spot he first saw Amalia in. The shemlen interloper, and then the Qunari infiltrator, poisoning impressionable minds in the Alienage. If she was toxic, then Ithilian was well and truly corrupted by her. And there was nothing in his life he was more thankful for than that.

There was not much to do but sit and think. He couldn't carve anything as a gift for Lia. He couldn't play a low, mournful song on the wooden flute. It occurred to him that he could write, given that it was his left arm that had been severed. But he knew not what to write about, or why he should. And so he sat.

Children would often gather at Amalia's feet when she rested here. Ithilian had never known anyone better with them. With his one remaining eye he watched a few, those daring to emerge from their homes now that the siege had been lifted. They ignored him, acted like he wasn't there. Maybe they really didn't see him at all. Just another broken down veteran of one too many battles. Many were without fathers, without mothers, alone in their homes, nowhere to turn save to run to the remaining Alienage elders and see what was to be done with them. Who can take in another child? Who will give them the care they need? The questions usually went unanswered, and the elders did what they thought was best. Many would soon be hunting rabbits of the city, as these elves preferred to call them.

The dead from the battle had been gathered and tallied, and were in the process of being cleaned and prepared for meager rites. Ithilian had heard whispers of remarkable news on the way back from Minrathous, things that would've shaken his world to the core in years past. Now he found he couldn't be bothered with gods and the like. The elves in Kirkwall likely didn't care, those of them that were even familiar with Dalish myths. The funeral rites were for peace of mind, and the comfort that where the dead had gone to, it was a more peaceful place. A more plentiful place.

One of the few intact doors remaining in this part of the Alienage opened, Amalia and Lia emerging from behind it. From the dark red smears on Amalia's arms, they'd been at the task of preparing the dead for their rites—likely some of the especially cruelly-mangled dead. She paused at the open barrel in front of the house, dipping a clean rag into the collected rainwater in it and then scrubbing herself down from shoulders to fingers. The pale lines crosshatching her dark complexion would, of course, never go away, but the evidence of their recent work did.

Discarding the cloth in one of the organized piles of refuse to be burned, Amalia turned towards the vhenadahl, tipping her head slightly upwards to study its familiar branches. Her face had never been the easiest to read, but time and companionship had given him more insight into what her expressions meant than anyone else had. Being here, without the necessity of battle serving to shut down her more emotional reactions, was clearly having an effect on her. For now, only a slight furrow in her brow gave it away, but she glanced once at Lia and then proceeded towards the tree, coming to a stop beside where he sat and laying a hand along the trunk. Her expression softened almost imperceptibly; she huffed a quiet exhalation and shifted to drop into a seated position.

Though she'd paid the children no special mind until that point, he could see her studying them now, not overtly, but from the corners of her eyes. "I suppose there are more now," she observed quietly. "Without parents." For all the things that it had taken Amalia time to understand about the world away from the Qunari, the particular hardship of being an orphan had never seemed to elude her.

"They'll be okay," Lia said, though Ithilian doubted the confidence she put into the words was genuine. Of the three of them, Ithilian was the only one to grow to adulthood with his birth parents, though he supposed he could be considered orphaned after the Blight. Lia had already fallen under Ithilian's care before her father died, though he wouldn't have admitted it at the time.

His daughter sat more cautiously in front of him. Wondering if he was still angry with her, perhaps. He wondered if she understood that it wasn't anger at all. Just fear. He'd encountered very few things he couldn't fight against in his life. This was beyond all of them, and even to begin thinking about it sent an icy chill through him, more than the brisk winter air of Kirkwall could ever do.

Lia clearly expected him to say something, but he remained silent. He didn't know what to say. What subject to bring up, how to do it. He felt... stuck, trapped, helpless. Unable to help. "I talked some with Stel," Lia said eventually. "She said the Inquisition is going to stay a little while, help with some of the rebuilding. We can stay here, an elder told me that your old house is, uh... vacant again, and if you wanted, you could stay here as long as you like."

At some point Lia had shifted from talking about all three of them to just him specifically. Her words were clear, as long as you like meaning well after the Inquisition had departed, and Lia had gone with them. Amalia too, perhaps, but the message was clear enough: stay in Kirkwall.

"No," he answered. "I'm not leaving the Inquisition. The task isn't done."

Amalia hummed. Though she surely had a view on the matter, she had not made it obvious in the way Lia had, not up until this point, anyway. Drawing her eyes away from the other people moving about the Alienage, she refocused on the two closest to her, pursing her lips. "It is not as though they lack the space," she noted, shifting slightly so as to fold her legs beneath her. Her fingers tapped her knee almost involuntarily; perhaps she missed having the harp. "But we cannot continue exactly as we were." Her eyes met Ithilian's one, tone matter-of-fact as it usually was. "You know how strong Marcus is. To face him again would kill you—"

The certitude left her abruptly. From the look on her face, she hadn't been planning on it. He could hear the sound of her swallowing past something in her throat. "I do not wish for you to be elsewhere while I am there. But I alone am the one that must confront him, from here on. If..." Amalia grimaced, then shook her head. Whatever she'd meant to say there faded, and she did not take up the thread, lapsing instead into what was for her uncomfortable silence.

The ifs were the source of the fear, for they all seemed to be about disasters. If Marcus were to kill Amalia, or worse, capture her, it would be the end of Ithilian as surely as if he were the one cut down instead. Loss was not a thing that grew easier for him with experience. His survival of his first great loss had hardly been a sure thing, and it took him so, so long to mend himself to the point where he could accept having a family again. He simply could not lose them. But there was nothing he could do about it, either, besides throw his body in the way of blades meant for them. He would do that if he could, if it would not hurt them just as much.

"Why must it be you alone?" Lia asked Amalia. Her tone was more direct and honestly forceful than he'd ever heard her use with his lethallan. He knew she admired Amalia in nearly every way, but she was poorly concealing frustration at the moment. "Both of you insist that this is your fight, but there are people that care about you, that love you. Let me help you, you've seen how much I've improved since—"

"No." Ithilian shook his head firmly. "You will not. You're a scout, your responsibilities to the Inquisition don't include assassination."

"We worked well together," Lia argued. "We infiltrated this city, we led an attack, we watched each other's backs, we won."

"Marcus is not a mindless red templar brute, da'len, he is a cunning and ruthless monster. You risk yourself enough already in the field, you are not ready to face—"

"So teach me," she interrupted. She looked Amalia, hints of desperation in her eyes. "Will you let me help you? Prepare me for this? Whether you want it to be or not, the battles the two of you fight are my battles too. I want nothing more than for both of you to be free of it."

Amalia did not immediately refuse, which meant she was honestly considering it. The thought didn't seem to please her, from the way the impassive set of her mouth slanted down into a frown, but then her shoulders lifted with her intake of breath, falling again only when she sighed it out. The pad of her thumb ran the trajectory of the scar on her face, where a former Guard-Captain's sword had flayed her skin to bone. It had been him in danger, that time, but she'd not hesitated.

"You would have to be willing to do everything I tell you, when I tell you," she said at last, regarding Lia with a hard expression. "That includes abandoning the fight. And you won't go unless I decide your skill has improved to the point where it is viable." Amalia's standards were exacting to the point of harshness, something Lia knew quite well by reputation, and to some extent directly. She would certainly win no approval for passion alone.

She shifted her attention to Ithilian. "But it may be our best chance. I cannot watch every angle, and Marcus knows me. As well as I know him." No doubt there was still severe risk, but it was also obvious that Amalia fully intended to shoulder as much of that herself as possible. "We're with the Inquisition now, and no doubt their assistance will help. But you know how he works." He always found a way to specifically target Amalia. And him, when he'd been Amalia's obvious ally. The Inquisition had its own objectives, its own priorities and needs. They couldn't count on the aid of many to achieve their own.

They shared a look, Ithilian and Lia. Hers communicated a number of things. She did not need his approval to attempt this, if Amalia was willing to train her. Despite the fact that she was his child, she was not a child at all anymore, a fact he knew he would struggle to come to terms with. She'd survived much in her young life, and it had strengthened her beyond her years, but Marcus was something altogether different.

"Even if you do win," he said, more softly than before, "I don't want you to end up like me. I don't want you to have to fight until your body refuses to let you anymore. I don't want you to wake up and feel broken when you try to rise. I want you to have a different life. A happier life."

"Maybe I will someday," she said. "But right now, this is what makes me happy. Seeing the world, doing real good. Even besides what it means to the two of you, ridding the world of this shem piece of shit is a real good." That, Ithilian could not argue with. Nor could he say that Lia didn't seem her happiest when he'd found her again, in the Emerald Graves. For she'd found herself in the years since she left Kirkwall. She didn't need him anymore, even if he still needed her.

"Ithilian?" said an elderly elven woman, approaching the three of them with caution. He remembered her. Brilwyn, a stitcher, one of the few elves in the Alienage with grandchildren almost old enough to have children of their own. "We're almost ready to begin. I... thought it might lift spirits if you were to offer a few words. In the old tongue."

He wasn't sure how to react at first. He was surprised, to find that they wanted him to speak. He'd never been a leader or a speaker among the elves here before, just a protector alongside Amalia, and a quiet one. Brilwyn knew none of the elven language, same as most of the city elves. Apart from Marethari and Emerion, Ithilian was really the only Dalish to reside within the Alienage for any length of time. He knew a few words he could say, though he wasn't confident in any effect they would have.

Groaning softly, he got to his feet, touching the familiar weight of Parshaara at his belt out of habit. "Ma nuvenin. I'll do what I can." Brilwyn nodded her thanks, returning to where the bodies were being arranged on thin pyres. Many of them had known Ithilian, or at least known of him. He wasn't sure he was the right person to speak, considering that he hadn't been here when they died, but perhaps he couldn't be the judge of that.

Amalia stood as well, clearly intent on at least accompanying him to the ceremony, brief and perfunctory as it was sure to be. She smoothed her hands back over her head to tame the few hairs that had come loose from her high ponytail. Pulling a few wrinkles out of her tunic, she nodded once at them.

The dead were wrapped in clean sheets and laid down next to one another. Mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. Young and old. There was one body among them that was small, far too small to have ever been a warrior. Ithilian didn't want to know how the child died, but if he had to guess... sickness was the usual cause. They'd been cut off from the clinic, where in years past Nostariel would have saved the child and made it look easy. With so many wounded, it was easy for one young person to pass unnoticed, until it was too late.

The Alienage elves gathered in the open space until those in the rear were standing under the boughs of the vhenadahl. Ithilian, Amalia, and Lia came to stand in the front row, the elves parting to let them pass wherever they went. Ithilian searched a moment for the hahren, who would undoubtedly lead the rite, but he could not locate him. He wondered if perhaps it was someone else now, if the old man had passed during his time away.

Brilwyn seemed to follow his thoughts, and leaned towards him slightly. "Hahren Althorn is among those before you, Ithilian," she said, quietly. "He was killed on the second night, in the worst of the red templar attacks."

It didn't surprise Ithilian that the fool would put himself in harm's way. Too old to be a fighter or a hunter anymore, but still brave enough to risk his life for those with years yet to live. Ithilian nodded his understanding, and then a moment later gestured for them to begin. There was little to the ritual but to light the pyres, as these elves did not believe in the Maker despite occasional visits from the templars, nor did they have knowledge of the elven gods. And any who still followed the Qun were long gone.

Ithilian took a step forward as the flames curled around the wood and began to lick at the bodies. He let his gaze fall down to their feet, unsure what to do with his one hand now that he could not lock it with his other.

"Na melana sahlin
emma ir abelas
souver'inan isala hamin
vhenan him dor'felas
in uthenera na revas

vir sulahn'nehn
vir dirthera
vir samahl la numin
vir lath sa'vunin."


It wasn't the first time he'd said the words. He remembered speaking them clearly before he met Lia for the first time. As he watched the bodies burn, he couldn't help but wonder how many more times he would need to do this. If the next time would involve burning his daughter, his lethallan. Perhaps both of them. As difficult as these orphans would have it from here on out, Ithilian knew well that there was nothing more painful than for a parent to have to put a period on their child's story. To have everything they'd poured into them simply leak away as the life left their bodies.

He watched the bodies burn until the people began to disperse. It was Brilwyn that first came to stand beside him afterwards, while Amalia and Lia still watched from afar. "I have spoken with the other elders, and we are in agreement. If you are willing, we would like for you to become our next hahren, Ithilian." She paused, as though waiting for an immediate reaction, but none was forthcoming. "You have always been our protector," she continued, "you have worked with the Queen before, enough to have her respect and cooperation. You are loved here, more than you know."

It sounded... quite nice, actually. To have this place to belong to again. He hadn't intended for it when he first arrived, but he'd made a home in the Alienage, one he came to care for. The people were a large part of that, of course, but there was a kind of pride he'd been able to find again, in building and protecting something like this. If they felt he was best positioned to be their leader, could he turn them down? What would he do instead?

"I'll do it," he said. "But... not yet. There's something I have to see finished first. My family will soon leave this place again, and I must go with them, until the task is done."

"I understand," Brilwyn said, nodding with a relieved smile. "I wish you and your family the best of luck, and pray the gods deliver you back to us safely and swiftly."

She took her leave, allowing Ithilian to return to Amalia and Lia. His daughter was already giving him an encouraging smile. "We heard that," she said. "I think it's a great idea. You've got the old and grouchy part down already." He scoffed lightly at that, but didn't dare dispute it. Nor did he dare believe that he would want to do such a thing alone.

Amalia's smile was subtler, a bit more solemn. "And the protection part, as Brilwyn said. Perhaps there's even a little wisdom in there, somewhere." That bit, at least, was clearly meant to be less than completely serious, if the subtle crinkles at the corners of her eyes were anything to go by. He had certainly not always been wise in her presence, but she also knew well the ways in which the years had changed him. The years, and the experiences in them.

"It will suit you."

He hoped so. It was... something, and it would not require him to take up a blade again. Not in this city, not while the current leadership remained in power. It was plain to see that the Queen's rule had been good for the elves, and even if they wouldn't be integrating into Lowtown proper any time soon, they were at least taking steps in the right direction. Their isolation was now out of a sense of pride and having a home rather than simply borne out of fear.

"There's work to be done before we can return to this," he said, turning his eyes on Lia. "All three of us. Lethallan won't be the only one deciding on your skill, da'len." Lia restrained her obvious desire to roll her eyes at him, but she didn't argue. She wouldn't keep him from coming with them, and preparing her as much as possible. Perhaps he wouldn't be at the battle, or wherever they met Marcus next, but he would ensure as much of what he knew was passed onto her as possible, so some part of him could fight on.

To begin that process, he unbuckled and removed the sheath carrying Parshaara. "This... will belong to you now." Ithilian was not sentimental about any of his other weapons. Bows and blades were just tools of the trade, but this knife... there was a history in it that went hand-in-hand with his own. His initial refusal to accept it, the number of times it saved his life regardless, the meaning and the worth he'd come to see in himself after he'd started carrying it. He'd come to believe that he was enough, for himself, for Amalia, for the people of the Alienage, for a daughter, a family, a future. It wasn't enough to bring down Marcus. But she would be. They would be, together.

Lia hesitated. "I... are you sure?"

He nodded. "My fighting days are done. I will not see it go to waste, not if it can help protect someone I love."

She took it slowly, carefully, wrapping her hand around the hilt. Accepting the weapon seemed to help her understand just how much of a weight she was taking on, for their sake. But she broke a smile, tears brimming in her eyes. She wrapped Ithilian in a hug, resting her chin on his shoulder, and it was there that the tears fell.

"Thank you, Dad."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

"You sure you don't want to run through these reports for me?" Ashton asked, glancing up from the mound of papers on his desk. His Lieutenant shook her head from across the room where she stood, leaned against the door frame that led out into the keep. She wore a scar across her jaw, the freshest of her collection, its edges still jagged and fresh. It'll heal, in time, until it faded like its cousin that sat on her check. They were used to it at this point in their careers.

She huffed and shook her head. "You're healed up enough, you're not useless," She noted. She hadn't been the only one who received lasting marks from the battle. A jagged wound hid just above his hairline, a secret to all until he pulled his hair up to show it off. That along with a numerous amount of other smaller injuries, some that would fade. Some that would not. Trying to keep his people safe and alive while they waited for help took its toll not only on him, but the rest of his guard.

The rest, he thought grimly, taking another look at the paperwork piled high on his desk. The siege had taken its toll on his guardsmen, and their force was greatly diminished. The first thing he tried to figure out when the fighting had died down was just how many of his men made it, and how many did not. The ones that did not, he would have to write letters of condolences to their families-- if their families had survived as well. It wasn't only the guard who suffered losses. The entire city suffered losses, from the nobles, to the militia, to even the civilians. Ashton planted a elbow on his desk and rested his head on it. "Could've fooled me," he answered.

A knock on the office door, already cracked open, preceded a new visitor, albeit one with a familiar face. Lucien carried what looked like another thick sheaf of parchments tucked under his elbow. "Afternoon, Ash," he said, smiling halfway but no further. It was grim work they were doing, but he'd seemed to be in a good mood the last few days regardless. The sort of happiness that was not easily dampened by circumstance. As yet, there'd been no indication why, beyond the obvious fact that he was once again in Kirkwall, face-to-face with many of his friends and of course Sophia.

He nodded politely to Vesper as well. "Lieutenant. I've got the final tallies from the civilian reports. I thought you'd want a copy for your records. And to cross-reference, for the letters." His mouth pulled a little to the side at that.

Ash sunk even lower into his elbow, but still somehow managed to shrug. "There should still be an open spot on this desk... Somewhere," he said, scanning from side-to-side. Eventually he sat straight in his chair, at least for all of a moment or two before slunk into the highbacked chair. This was an inevitable part of the process, but that inevitability did not mean he wanted to do it. Some of the names he recognized, and one or two he'd actually seen fall in battle-- and he helpless to do anything for them.

He shook his head and sighed, working up a smile for Lucien. He then gestured toward the open seat in front of his desk, "I hope its not too presumptuous of me to ask the Emperor of Orlais if he would like to lend a hand?" he asked. "Two hands are faster and one, plus hopefully the conversation will take my mind off of all... this," he said, gesturing toward the papers.

Lucien hummed. "I think perhaps the actual letters should come from you, but I can help with the lists, at least." He seemed to pay no mind to the Emperor part—it wasn't really in his nature to put too much stock in titles and the like. He used them when politeness demanded, but Ashton had never known him to insist on being addressed by any himself. Apparently that much had not changed, even as the titles grew more prestigious.

He eyes one of the larger piles of work—patrol reports, some of which included the names of discovered dead and the like. Halving them neatly, Lucien pulled a smaller table and another chair up to the far side of the desk and settled himself there. "You write condolences; I'll condense the rest of this as well as I can. I've had some practice." His tone was almost wry, dimmed slightly by exactly what he was condensing, no doubt.

Ashton regarded him for a moment before nodding in agreement. "I suppose you would," he answered. It did sound like the type of thing an Emperor would be well versed in after all. Ashton then leaned over in his chair and pulled out the bottom drawer in his desk, revealing among other items, a sheaf of paper with the Viscount's letterhead stamped at the top. He regarded for a moment before setting it down with the other sheaf. "Wonder if Sophia's gonna change that,' he noted absently. Since in practice, she was no longer a viscountess, but rather the queen. Shaking his head he found the quill and began writing.

Lucien glanced over to see what he was referring to, then shrugged. "Presumably, but I daresay it's rather low on her priority list at the moment." Shifting his eyes back down, he worked his way through several more of the papers in the stack under the shroud of content silence. It was only several minutes after each of them had last spoken that he broke it again.

"It seems a rather odd time to ask, but... perhaps also the only time. How have you been lately?" The question itself was put almost too lightly; perhaps Lucien recognized that there were many ways it could be taken, and desired to allow Ashton freedom of construal. The ability to make it about whatever he felt inclined to discuss, and not about anything he wanted to stay away from.

Ashton glanced from up the letter he was in the midst of of and regarded Lucien for a moment. Yeah, yeah, of course he'd like to know. That was the type of person Lucien was, down to the gentle inquiry in which he'd let him choose his own answer. Ashton smiled, though it was tinged with melancholy. Time had managed to dull the pain, but he could never stop thinking about her. And perhaps he never would. Lucien was close to the both of them, and perhaps had been the closest to her. He deserved a real answer. "Better," he answered simply and tilted his head. "A lot better. The first few weeks after were..." he said, trailing off.

The first couple weeks had been the worst in his life. He felt useless and lost, not know where to go from there or even what to do. "Well, it wasn't pretty. The worst of my life, without a doubt. As I'm sure you could imagine," he added with a hurt smile. Lucien also loved someone, and just like Ashton, he bet he couldn't imagine trying to live without her--even if they did live apart. But... He had made a promise to her, and he was never the one to break his promises.

Lucien gave that a moment to sit, working through several more of the pages in front of him before he replied. "I know I said it in writing already, but... I am sorry. Nostariel was—" he grimaced, quite clearly searching for the words. "Entirely singular. It's good to know you're... coping. I don't know that I'd have the strength for that." His words were quite frank, though the tone in which he said them remained mild.

"I'm sure there's been a great deal to keep you busy, here; perhaps that's for the best. Sophia's written of the militia in some detail, but the Guard looks to be keeping well, also. Was there ever any talk of merging the two, or are the functions too distinct?" He didn't force the moment to linger, tactfully diverting the conversation to things more suited for the office. Perhaps he might have done otherwise, were they in the Hanged Man instead.

Ashton shook his head in the negative as he returned to the letter. "We aided in their training, but the militia and the Guard were always meant to be two separate entities," he explained, putting the finishing flourish on his signature, placing the completed letter off to the side for the ink to dry unperturbed. He took another page of letter head and found the name of the next recipient before he continued.

"The militia were meant to be citizens first, and soldiers second, you know. To be roused when the city was threatened, which seems like a running theme at this point," he answered with a tight-lipped frown. He hadn't heard the city-states of Starkhaven or Tantervale having the same issues they have had. "Meanwhile the guard is supposed to be a peacekeeping force, not real soldiers, though it's kinda hard to keep the peace when it's pissed off Qunari and Templars you're dealing with. At this point, I'd bet some of the older guys have as much experience as a soldier," he said with the shake of his head.

"Even if Sophia is a Queen now, the city is always going to need its guardsmen," he said with a smile. "We do a lot more than just guard after all. We also have to investigate the city's crimes and dole out punishments and fines-- difficult to integrate that into the militia," he said with a nod, dipping his quill back into the inkwell. "As you said, two entirely different functions."

"Sensible, though... a bit more difficult to make seem nonthreatening to one's neighbors. Still, I suppose after all of this, the justification of internal defense will turn out to be quite relevant." No doubt having a trained militia in the first place had made a substantial difference in the outcome of the siege, even if external relief had eventually been necessary.

Lucien shook his head, expelling a long breath. There was a kind of weariness to him, one that no doubt most everyone still going shared in. It was coupled with the same odd levity as had been present for several days now, though, making for an odd combination of things. Then again, Lucien was the sort who handled the more difficult emotions very privately, and took care to project confidence and kindness where anyone else was involved, as well as he could.

"How about yourself, Emperor? How are you holding up?" He asked, glancing up from the letter. It was a little poke of fun, but also a legitimate question, his way of asking if the throne was as uncomfortable as he imagined it'd be. Unlike Ashton, who still could go on his little adventures and forays through Kirkwall every now and then-- though in a far more official capacity-- he didn't see how Lucien could justify wading into the action as easily as he used to be able to. It mustn't have been easy for him, he'd always known Lucien to be the one waist deep in it ahead of them all. If he had to guess, he'd bet that throne chafed.

"You'll never hear me say I'm glad for a battle," Lucien said, smiling a little awkwardly. "But when I consider what I'd be doing right now if I were back in Orlais... I've missed the straightforwardness of hewing a path through a problem, much as I try to avoid it when I can." Certainly, his tendency to suggest the surrender was in full evidence still, but even that was probably a lot simpler than the sorts of things he had to negotiate now. "For the moment, it's trying to figure out who I can trust, and who I ought to bring into confidence. I don't mean to rule without plenty of advisors, and Rilien's rather busy running a spy network these days, as I hear it."

His smile widened just a moment, some humor entering his tone. "If you ever get tired of being Guard-Captain, I wouldn't say no to a bit more common sense in my council. The downside is you have to use manners even when someone's being... particularly obtuse."

Ashton chuckled lightly at that. "Ah yes, advisor of common sense and smart ass remarks. Surely I'd be most beloved in court. Or I'd find a bard's knife within the first week. Optimistically." He said, the smile still alive on his lips. He could already see himself dressed out in Orlesian finery and drinking fine wine. Well... No, he couldn't actually. Much like Lucien, he couldn't see himself standing away from the action at a distance. Of course, there's always times when he's called on to solve a murder or web of intrigue, but that was nothing like governing what was perhaps one of the most powerful nations in Thedas. When thought of in those terms, he couldn't help but find Lucien's throne all that more intimidating.

"Still, it'd be an exciting adventure if I ever decide to retire. But unfortunately, I think the city and Sophia need me most right now," he said with more earnest smile.

"Truthfully, I suspect you're correct," Lucien conceded readily. "And Kirkwall's all the better for your presence. I'd not want to tear you away merely due to my own selfish desire for sanity." Finished with his stack of documentation, he took up a blank sheet of parchment and a quill, to begin the task of summarizing the lot of it.

"Nah, you'll be fine," Ashton said, putting the finishing touches on the latest letter. "Were it anyone else, I'd be worried, but you?" Ashton said, finding the moment to raise and wag a finger, "I have faith in you. You'll be fine. But if you ever need anything, either as the Emperor, or just as plain ol' Lucien, all you ever have to do is let me know. My door is always open," Ashton said with a smile.

"It's much appreciated, of course."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

It’d taken Sparrow awhile to tear herself away from Kirkwall’s repairs. With many of its foundations in a more decrepit state than she remembered, she couldn’t help feel as if she’d taken a step back in time. Reminiscent of how it had been all those years ago, under Meredith’s heavy boot. She’d busied herself in Lowtown, hauling broken carts out of the streets, as well as bits and pieces of brick loosened and thrown haphazardly in the way. The giant had caused a lot of damage in its rampage, and the reds hadn’t been all too concerned about how much chaos they created. A cleanup, a distraction. A means to keep herself from wondering how many casualties they’d suffered. More injuries, heaped onto them at every turn.

When hadn’t they suffered such things? In all the years she’d been separated from those she’d known longest in stretches of Kirkwall, that hadn’t changed. She doubted it ever would. They would throw themselves on the line, again and again for this greater cause. No matter the lengths. Ithilian, Amalia, Ashton, Aurora, Lucien, Sophia, Ril. Nostariel. She repeated their names often, in her mind. Like a mantra. A prayer, of sorts. A reminder.

But they’d come out of this victorious. It was something, at least.

The last remnants of bandage had been taken off her head. Too early, they’d said. Stubborn as she was, she didn’t want to wear it any longer. It hampered her vision, wrapped tight around the upper portion of her forehead and head, tied off near her jawline. Another scar, puckered closed with practiced stitching. A falling rock struck shy of her temple. Lucky, they’d said. She often was. Her footsteps led her to Ashton’s estate, where she lingered until she grew brave enough to knock at the door. Her tongue had never been trained to comfort. She never knew how to reach, or when to stop. She’d sent scrawled chicken-scratch letters to him after what had happened in the Fade, relentless. Random words that meant nothing. Updates. Things she’d found. Wooden figurines, baubles, claws and feathers.

Things she might’ve sent him if she’d been living in Kirkwall, too.

Fortunately, she was able to wrangle him from the heaps of paperwork strewn across his desk—with little resistance. Perhaps, he needed it more than he let on. It was hard to tell nowadays… his smiles were slightly off. Didn’t quite reach, anymore. She’d hugged him. Too hard. As if it would make up for lost time. She led the way towards Rilien’s shop, threading them through old alleys that still smelled the same, still looked as they always did. She didn’t ask how he was doing. How he’d healed, or if he hadn’t. She’d always felt that if it was something he wanted to bear to her, he would: without prodding. The conversation was light, almost effortless. She didn’t pause at the doorway, but instead tugged the latch free, as she always had, and pulled it wide, jutting her chin out.

“Ladies first.”

"Most gracious of you, milord," he said, tacking on a dainty curtsy afterward. He chuckled to himself lightly, tickled by his own joke before he finally slipped into the establishment and racked his knuckles on the door frame to announce their presence. As if their presence alone wasn't enough to do it for them. They were not a subtle bunch, not when they didn't care too much about it.

While the exterior of the shop had clearly suffered the same damage as most of the buildings surrounding it—chips missing from the doorframe, a broad slash across the suspended sign that proclaimed it to be called simply 'ENCHANTMENT,' the interior was spotless, every tool and ware in its place, the stone floor swept, the counters wiped down and polished. Chances were, that was a recent development, the result of fastidious reconstruction and cleaning since the battle, no doubt.

In fact, the very last bit of that still seemed to be in progress. It looked as though Bodahn, the aging dwarven proprietor, was counting out his funds, while his adopted son Sandal, the prodigy who actually did the enchanting, checked over the runes. Rilien was standing with his back to the door, a clipboard in one hand, taking an inventory of the stock and making precise notes in his flawless handwriting upon each successful count. Bodahn glanced up at their entrance, offering a weary smile through his braided, greying beard. Sandal seemed barely to notice them, but that was not unusual where he was concerned.

“Ashton. Sparrow." It was hard to say for sure, but there may have been something the faintest bit softer, in the way Rilien pronounced her name. Perhaps it was only imaginary. In any case, he remained at his task instead of turning to face them. “Is there something you require?"

“Not particularly.” Sparrow’s attention was drawn to the nuances of Ril’s shop. The subtle changes she’d taken note of since walking through its threshold. A box, no longer there. Everything still categorized and filed; neat, meticulously so. It was the same, but not. She bobbed a nod in Bodahn and Sandal’s direction, though the latter hardly seemed to notice. As per usual. A small smiled played on her lips, wistful. She remembered the smell of this place, just as keenly as she remembered the quaint hovel in Darktown. At times, she found herself missing both. She gave Ashton a little jostle, accompanied by a grin, in passing as she closed the distance between her and the desk stationed at the far back—a place she’d often found Ril busying himself.

She perched herself on the corner, legs dangling at air. Hands planted at her sides. “Just thought we’d drop in, for old times' sake.” A breath sifted out, halfway between a lighthearted scoff and a sigh. Neither belied anything melancholic. It was nice… being there, together, without the world crashing around them. Without another calamity dredging them to the edge of something that would change them forever. “Doesn’t seem like we get the chance to do it very often in our line of work.”

That much was true. They hardly had time to stop and breathe, let alone relax. It was a momentary thing. Gone as quickly as a blink. Precious, in its rarity. Funny how Ril’s version of relaxation was burying his nose in his shop, taking stock of inventory, rather than recovering from his injuries. He didn’t stop. He never had. The same, she supposed, could be said of all three of them.

Rilien, she knew, wasn't really the sort of person who understood nostalgia. His emotional repertoire was sharply-constrained, not only by his tranquility, but by the range of feelings he'd experienced before that, and some of them were conspicuously missing. Considering he'd undergone his Rite at fourteen, it was perhaps understandable that the pink-tinged affection for things that used to be wasn't really on the list. He paused, turned partway to regard them flatly over his shoulder, and blinked once.

“As long as the resemblance does not extend to the mess you often left behind, I suppose you are welcome to sit." Nostalgia or not, he clearly remembered how things had been before. The state she'd been known to leave the Darktown house in—with broken glass and discarded clothing and something smelling several days too old.

“How goes business at the Keep?" That was clearly directed at Ashton.

"About as hectic as you can imagine," Ashton answered with a roll of his shoulders. He'd found himself a section of the counter to lean forward against, elbows resting on its polished surface and his thumbs twiddling together. "The usual pains associated with trying to get things back to normal. Well, what we'd consider normal, I suppose," he noted, taking a moment to think about what most likely they would construe as normal. "Cataloging, reports, damage estimates, you know. All the fun stuff," he huffed at that, with the bare minimal of mirth.

He then took a moment to glance around the shop, perhaps lapsing into a sense of nostalgia himself. "How about yourself? I would've imagined that the Inquisition would've kept you buried in reports too," Ashton added, his hand reaching to scratch the scrabble at his chin. Seemed as if he hadn't quite found the time to shave in between all of the recent business just yet.

“Not as many as you." Perhaps that made sense: the Inquisition's reports would have had more to do with casualties and recoveries than anything, given that their role here had been only to break the siege, and not endure it beforehand. And all of that was most likely work he split with Leon, even before Rilien's frightening efficiency was brought into the equation.

In that sense, it was hardly a shock that he was finding alternative ways to occupy himself in the meantime.

Sparrow knuckled her nose, eyes raking across the shop. Of course, he’d worry. It brought a smile to her lips; a small, flighty thing that smoothed itself over. How she’d been before, wrecking everything she touched… she supposed it’d taken a lot of patience, picking up her mess. While some things remained the same, they were different now. She no longer plucked things up in grimy hands, leaving a trail of chaos in her wake—only for him to right it once more, incessantly at her heels. She listened to them as she brushed the pad of her thumb across one of the wooden knots swirled across Ril’s table, staring off over Sandal’s head.

Hectic. Paperwork. There was a small, disappointed stone settling in her belly. She hadn’t truly thought Ashton would come back to Skyhold. Not really. He belonged here, working alongside Sophia. Keeping the peace in Kirkwall. His home, and hers, once. Even so. She slipped off the table, and chose to lean against it instead, turning her head towards Ashton and Ril. “Suppose you’ll be busy setting Kirkwall back on its feet again,” she sighed, drawing it out for dramatic effect, “You should visit sometime. We can’t keep meeting only when the world’s ending.”

She missed him. Probably more than she was willing to admit. “Ril’s awful lonely, y’know.” A grin pulled at the scar marring her face and lip, “He goes on and on about you.”

"Oh but Sparrow, the world is always ending," He said with a smirk. A moment passed before the smirk faded away and a thin lipped frown descended on his face. "Or it feels damn close to it anyway," he said, a bit more serious than he intended, by the way he raised a brow afterward. He tossed a glance between her and Rilien before he nodded, "I will, if I can ever find the time. Hard work trying to keep the city peaceful and in one piece," he chuckled at that.

He chuckled again, probably coming back to the idea of Rilien saying how much he missed him. "I'm sure he does. Waxing poetic about his best ol' buddy he never gets to see any more, as Bards are wont to do I'm sure," Ashton teased with a flourish of a hand, which ended with him leaning his jaw on it. "And what about you two? he continued, pointing an accusing finger toward them, "I'm not the only one who can visit, you know?" He said, "It's mighty lonesome here too. You know, Sophia aside-- but she has more Queenly duties to do than to entertain me," he added, brushing the thought off.

“I am far too busy composing odes to our friendship, it seems." Rilien lifted one of his eyebrows, just barely enough for the shift to be perceptible. “Cannot spare a moment." Truthfully, he was exceedingly preoccupied—the position he had within the Inquisition did not lend itself to holidays, especially not ones long enough to involve transport back and forth across the Waking Sea. The number of birds that came and went from the rookery at least indicated that he kept up... a lot of correspondence. No doubt a fair amount of it was with Ashton.

Sparrow scoffed as she pushed herself away from the table, crossing the distance between she and Ashton in long strides. She only halted when she wrapped her arm around his shoulder, shifting slightly below his shoulder blades to make up for their height differences. Tall bastard. Of course, she, too, had her own work in spades. If she wasn't training the Inquisition's menagerie of apostates, drilling them into the ground, she was knocking her head together with Aurora to make sure the Templar's played got along with them. Worked as one unit. The grin weaseled itself into a smaller smile, because it was true… the world always seemed to be ending with either party’s involvement. Add the Inquisition to the mix, and they’d be meeting once more, in due time. Certainly not in the manner she’d like, however. She drew Ashton closer, in an attempt to pull him down to her level.

“The lonesome, unentertained nobleman,” she lamented and pursed her lips, “Well. If neither of us can make the journey without upsetting the balance of paperwork and dull activities, we should make a pledge.” A short pause, as she rummaged through her thoughts for an appropriate promise. One that they’d be hard-pressed to keep under the circumstances, but one that she’d still like to keep anyway. That is, if they all survived saving Thedas, being big goddamn heroes on a much larger scale. It made her want to laugh. “After all this is said and done; this saving business, we’ll set aside some time to do nothing at all, in good company.”

She loosened her grip on Ashton, though hadn’t completely let go, swinging her attention back towards Ril. Passive as ever, dealing with two fools who were growing older, tired with warring even though it was a necessity. Someday, perhaps, it would not be. “The Herald’s Rest. Or, the Hanged Man… y’know, it’s been awhile since I’ve heard you play.” She found herself missing that, too.

"Damn she's right," Ashton added, the memories pulling his eyes upward. "The yokels Varric hires to play nowadays are serviceable, but they aren't up to Rilien's level. Just sounds-- off honestly."

Rilien paused a moment, still like something trapped in amber. Thoughtful, probably. “The last, at least, I can perhaps manage before we depart. As to the other... very well. Should we all survive, I will clear some time for... nothing." As someone whose efficiency had never allowed for idleness, it was no doubt a strange promise to be making.

Sparrow’s smile tugged at the corner’s of her eyes. A little less nostalgic, and certainly less wistful. This was what she missed most of all, even when she couldn’t collect enough words to say them aloud. She hoped that they’d know it without her having to wag her tongue; after all, they usually did.

Even if they couldn’t keep it—this lofty promise—it was something she’d fight for.

Setting

Characters Present

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

INK

After several days and nights of chasing down her enemy, Séverine was forced to return to Kirkwall empty handed.

It wasn't really a defeat; the Red Templars had escaped for the moment, but they had a giant in their ranks, and such a creature left tracks that were very difficult to disguise. Some of her most trusted troops, as well as a few scouts from the Inquisition, would track the traitors back to whatever hole they were using as a base of operations. All things considered, it was probably for the best. The army needed time to recover, and their enemy would find it exceedingly difficult to replace their numbers. After all, there weren't many templars left for Carver to draw upon.

Séverine could not help but feel disappointed that he had escaped, but the battle simply hadn't presented an opportunity to kill or capture him without significant sacrifice. The cavalry charge from Sophia's Companions had effectively disrupted the enemy formation and allowed them to seize the upper hand, especially once the behemoth was turned away. But that same creature would likely have killed Sophia had Séverine not broken off from her fight with Carver to help alongside Lucien. And considering that she and Leon were barely handling him as it was, it seemed unlikely either of them would have survived a one on one fight with him. So he would flee for now. She would bring him to justice eventually.

It took a great deal of self-control to let Carver go, but Sophia had to be the priority. Her future was too important. In truth, it was extremely reckless for either her or Lucien to have been on the front lines of that battle, but Séverine of all people knew that they'd done so for most of their lives, and that it went hand-in-hand with who they were. Something that made it all the more painful for Séverine to ask of Sophia what she had.

She led her outriders through the gates into Hightown, finding herself wearier than expected. She'd spared the time only for the healing that was required before riding out, despite the severity of her wounds, and she hadn't found much in the way of sleep after the battle either. The Red Templars did not need rest, and she could afford little when pursuing them. Dismounting, she gave the reins to a waiting stablehand, starting back towards the Keep.

No sooner had she reached the top of the stairs than she found Leon, apparently discussing something with one of the guardsmen who manned the front door. At her approach, however, he broke off the conversation and made his way to meet her.

To say he looked unwell was at this point something of an understatement; he looked rather like it was still only a couple of days after the battle, rather than nearly a week. He'd been in no shape to aid in the pursuit of Carver, having fended him off essentially alone for a significant portion of the fight. It had cost him, as the bandages visible beneath his left sleeve attested. They ran up the entire length of his arm, where there was a deep slash wound that didn't seem to be healing well at all. Perhaps because it had been infected with red lyrium. No doubt if he were anything but a Seeker, it would have slain him.

He offered a slight smile, though, surprisingly warm for an expression so thin. The rings under his eyes were several shades darker a purple, stark in the sunlight, but if he was as fatigued as they suggested, he wasn't allowing himself to show it right now, at least. "Welcome back, Captain," he said. "I take it you've a report for us."

"I do," she said, coming to a halt and managing a smile in return, more just as greeting than anything to do with the news she brought. "Yours first. How are the wounded doing? How are you doing?"

"Recovery is slow," he admitted, raising one hand, palm down, and tilting it back and forth. "On both accounts." Leon grimaced slightly, the expression still somehow retaining his characteristic good nature. "My arm's seen better days; Rilien had to retrieve a couple of red lyrium shards that had lodged in the bone. He seems to have gotten them, though—I should heal up eventually." It certainly wasn't the kind of injury normal healing could do much about until the chunks of crystal were gone, if so.

He paused, casting back over a mental accounting of the injured, no doubt. "Khari definitely endured the worst of it, I'd say. It will still be quite some time before she walks under her own power again. Everyone else is somewhere between that and already completely recovered."

She was glad to hear that Khari would walk again, at least eventually. It hardly seemed like a guarantee that she'd still have her legs, given the hit she took from the behemoth. All things considered Séverine was lucky to escape with the break to her arm from blocking its blow. Khari didn't have access to the same templar magic that had helped repel it that Séverine had called upon. Without it, she doubted she'd have many unbroken bones left in her body. Instead she just needed the arm set enough to heal in order to chase after her enemies.

"That's good to hear," she said, taking a second to glance up the arm Leon had injured. "I'm... holding together as well, I suppose. A bath and a bed will be welcome." She paused, growing significantly more solemn. "I'm assuming the dead have been given the proper rites by now..." Likely some of her guilt shone through. Leon would know which of the dead most concerned her, and Séverine couldn't help but feel that she should've been here, paying her respects in some way other than with a futile chase after the traitors responsible.

Leon nodded, catching her solemnity like it was contagious. "The pyres went up two days ago," he said. "Though there hasn't yet been much time for proper mourning on anyone's side, given all there is to do for the recovery effort. You've not missed too much; no doubt there will be something more official when there is time enough to give it the weight it deserves." Whether he'd guessed at her thoughts or not, he seemed to be speaking to them.

She nodded back, trying to push it from her thoughts. All of it was a mess that she wasn't quite ready to deal with, but the facts of the matter were that the true templars were without a leader now, and she was the obvious candidate to step into that role. After what she'd been through with the Inquisition, and how she felt it had improved as a leader, she was ready to accept that role. Knight-Commander didn't seem as impossible a step up as it once had been.

They headed inside, winding up to the left after the first set of stairs, bypassing the throne room for the Queen's office. A pair of guards waited at the door, saluting before they opened the way. Séverine was not surprised to find she was expected; they must have sent word of her approach on ahead.

Her arrival seemed to interrupt a conversation between the Queen and the Emperor, the former rising from where she was seated on the front of her desk, while the latter stood beside her. They seemed... really quite happy. Séverine supposed that was a good thing, but it honestly wasn't expected. Given what she'd asked of Sophia when last she visited Kirkwall, and what Sophia had agreed to consider, Séverine expected the Queen's reunion with Lucien to be rather more complex. But perhaps she was overthinking things.

"Your Excellence," she said in greeting, before she hesitated. "Er, Your Majesty—"

"Either way, it's still Sophia," she responded, her smile somewhat wry. "I'm glad you made it back safely. I didn't get the chance to properly thank you for saving my life."

Séverine nodded, expecting that would be her opening. "It was an honor to fight beside you. Both of you. I'm just sorry we weren't able to capture the rest of them. The conflict has already dragged on long enough."

"And it will no doubt drag a bit longer," Lucien said, frowning. The expression proved to be quite temporary, however; the same happiness was still coming through rather clearly in the way he held himself.

Leon, at least, didn't seem to find it odd. "Still," he added, "we've clearly begun the process of turning things around. They invested a lot of their resources on this siege and takeover, and that we broke it was no doubt a heavy blow to the red templars as a whole, even before their actual casualties are factored in."

"That's accurate, yes," Séverine agreed. "They made no attempts to attack us in our pursuit. It was a full retreat. I believe Carver threw everything at his disposal at us in this attack. His failure here will crack the Red Templars, but..." Her eyes fell momentarily. "The nature of their fall prevents them from surrender. Wherever they've gone, we'll need to destroy them utterly for this to be over."

"And where are they going?" Sophia asked.

"Unclear, as of now, but their tracks lead west into Orlais. With any luck they won't be foolish enough to attack anything there. Weakened as they are, I expect they'll flee to a fortified position. Given their activity in the Emerald Graves, I wouldn't be surprised if they return through there on their way to their destination. I've already sent word to our scouts there to expect them."

It would be preferable to engage them on the road somewhere if they could, but logistically it just wasn't going to be possible. Their forces moved too quickly, without little need of rest or resupply, and the Inquisition simply couldn't locate them, maneuver, and set up a proper ambush before they would be gone again. Not after having just fought a battle. As they had from the start, the Red Templars would make the end as painful for everyone else as possible.

"Good," Sophia said. "With that settled, there's something else we need to discuss. The Red Templars are defeated, but Knight-Commander Cullen is gone, and both the Templar Order and the Chantry are leaderless."

Séverine nodded, feeling uneasy but still somewhat confident. "I had some time to think on this. I'm ready to step into the leadership role that is needed. I feel I've learned a great deal, from all of you, and with your help I can guide the templars forward."

Now Sophia gave her an uneasy smile. "That's good to hear, but... I have a different leadership role in mind for you. That of the Chantry, not the Templars."

The Chantry? But that meant...

Whatever confidence Séverine had flooded out from under her, and her armor suddenly felt twice as heavy. She realized in a instant what Sophia had in mind, and it felt like blocking the behemoth's blow all over again. Why was it that she always prepared so diligently for one thing, only for an entirely different thing to be required of her in the end?

"Divine?" she said. Using the word aloud made it all the worse. "Me? Really? Is that...?" she wasn't sure what the best end to that question was, so she let it hang in the air, looking between them for some confirmation that such a thing was not only possible, but a good idea.

"Does it seem so preposterous?" Leon spoke from his spot on her left. His smile was uneasy, too, but something about it was different from Sophia's. "The Chantry right now... honestly, I'm of the mind that it needs someone exactly like you. Because it needs to follow exactly the trajectory that you have taken, Séverine." His eyes moved away, settling on some bit of paper on the Queen's desk. He clearly wasn't really looking at it, occupied somewhere in the middle distance instead.

"It has hit a low point, lost credibility with those it most needs to serve. And nothing short of proactive, thoughtful and firm leadership will see it out of that. You've proven capable of drawing yourself out of a situation like that, and the Templars out of yet another." He squeezed his hands together behind his back, meeting her gaze again.

"You won't be alone, either," Lucien pointed out. There was nothing whatsoever uneasy about him, at least, and his smile was warm. "Seems to me you'd be starting off well, with good connections among the Templars, a friendship with your Lord Seeker—" there he nodded at Leon—"And of course a not-inconsiderable working relationship with a few of Thedas's secular governments, to say nothing of the Inquisition. All things you achieved without really thinking too much about achieving them, I suspect. There's much to recommend you."

They all made very good points, but this was not an easy thing for Séverine to come to terms with. It was hard to believe that someone with a darkness in her past like herself could be a better candidate than Sophia of all people, who had stayed true to the right cause even through all that she'd been plagued with over the years. But it wouldn't be unheard of, for a Divine to ascend from her current position. She found Lucien's words most reassuring of all, the reminder that she had built some very strong and useful connections already with the people she'd be working alongside. They would strengthen both her candidacy and her ability to actually perform the duties of the office.

Her eyes met Sophia's. "This would... free you, I suppose. To choose something else." She was no fool, and it was well known besides that the Queen and the Emperor felt quite strongly about each other. It was among the greatest of things Séverine had asked Sophia to give up by striving for the position of Divine.

"While that may be true," Sophia answered, "I'd like to say I didn't take it into consideration in this. I still believe you're better suited for this than I am. The Chantry doesn't need to be rescued by an outsider, it needs to be uplifted from within, by a woman who has used the opportunities it gave her to change herself and the world for the better." She smiled then, glancing briefly at Lucien before she looked back. "But you're right. I am... very much looking forward to the future now."

Even if she wasn't the best candidate, Séverine would gladly take on the role to give Sophia that gift, that obvious happiness she'd fought so hard for. Séverine wanted it for both of them. It couldn't be why she accepted the task, but if nothing else she was glad it would work out that way for them. "I'll need some time. To think about this, to..."

"Of course," Sophia said, nodding. "And you still have work to do with the templars, Knight-Commander. I wouldn't dare take you away from them now. When Carver Hawke and his followers are brought to justice, we'll take the next step. Not before then."

"Thank you." She glanced to her sides. "All of you. I pray I'll be worthy of the honor, and up to the challenge." Next to being pushed for Divine, being named Knight-Commander hardly seemed daunting at all.

Leon seemed to ease, brightening a bit either due to something she'd said, or perhaps just because she'd indicated she was willing to consider it, to prepare. "I've the utmost confidence," he said, inclining his head, "but you're both right. Let's see the Red Templars to their end. The rest will come in its time."

"In the meantime, I'll do what I can to settle the situation in Orlais," Lucien added. "Perhaps the ranks will stabilize a little if they sense that their leadership won't be undecided too much longer. And if you need any support when you find Carver—do write. Honestly. We're depleted after the civil war, but not so depleted we can't assist, at least."

"I'll be sure to," Séverine promised. It wasn't about revenge, couldn't be, but she had to imagine few people wanted Carver brought to justice more than the ones in the room, considering what he'd attempted to do. Wherever they found him, she knew it wouldn't be easy.

But nothing had been up to this point, and they were only made stronger because of it.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

Sophia couldn't help but smile at the thought of how scandalous something like this would be to the delicate sensibilities of Val Royeaux's elite.

The Queen sat not at the head of the table, for there wasn't one. She and her friends ate their dinner at a round table, the largest one Varric could conjure up in Lowtown. They weren't feasting in her Keep, either, but rather the Hanged Man. It had been somewhat refurbished since the days where Sophia had lived in one of the upstairs rooms, but it was impossible to clean it up entirely. By nobility's standards it would always be a hovel, but there was a history to this place that elevated it beyond such things. This was the watering hole where friendships were made and cemented, altering the courses of their lives, a safe haven even when the rest of the city and the world seemed to be against them.

Sophia liked to think she'd truly found herself during her time here, just as Nostariel had. The rooms they occupied had been passed on to countless others after they no longer needed them, but some small piece of them would always be here, within these walls.

Loud, upbeat voices echoed off of those walls, as the Hanged Man was near full to bursting tonight. Sophia had invited everyone she could think of, and Varric had ensured they would have the space to eat comfortably. They couldn't all fit at one table, of course; most of the Argent Lions were situated at their own, the separate groups reunited and catching up over drinks. The Inquisition Irregulars shared another. All those that Sophia felt were most influential on her own life, her own city, were seated with her. It seemed only right for them to share a night together, before the Inquisition had to sail back for Skyhold. There was much work still to be done, after all.

She leaned to her left, resting her hand atop Lucien's forearm and speaking quietly. "Would you like to make the announcement?"

He smiled back at her, then nodded once. "I'd be happy to." As with many of the things Lucien said, this one was obviously an understatement.

The general ambient noise level was quite elevated, and he waited for a natural lull before clearing his throat and standing, the better to make his intention to speak obvious, and perhaps the better to address those further away. He didn't have to wait long for quiet—no doubt he never would again. "I hope everyone's enjoying themselves," he began, pausing for the obligatory acknowledgment, which in the Hanged Man with friends was rather rowdier than it would have been most other places. The Lions, at least, had no problem responding with some emphasis, though they kept it short.

"Thank you all, for being here. Not just tonight, but in the efforts earlier, as well. This city is dear to a great many of us, for a great many reasons." He paused, smile fading at the edges momentarily. "I suppose most of you know this, but I spent nearly a decade here myself, and I daresay had it not been for the people of Kirkwall, a few friends in particular, my life would have been quite different, indeed, and not for the better. I think that is something a lot of us here can claim."

Lucien folded his arms behind his back. "It means more than I can say, to be back here, with friends old and new, and if you can bear the insufferable sentimentality of the moment, there is something I would like to share with you first, before anyone else, for that very reason." The smile returned, and he looked back down at Sophia before turning his eyes back out to the assembled. "Sophia and I are engaged to be married."

Immediately, the Lions' table erupted into enthusiastic cheering; someone whistled—and Donnelly handed what looked like a coin purse over to Cor.

"About damn time," Ashton commented aloud, and a glance in his direction would reveal the man leaned back, with an incredibly smug look plastered to his face.

A loud, jarring whistle came from Sparrow’s seat of the table, as she thumped it enthusiastically. She jostled Ashton at her side, and wiggled her eyebrows, all too happy to hear the news. “Took you guys long enough,” she added with a beam of a grin, wolfish in nature. Like the some of the others, she seemed not at all surprised by the announcement; though, there was no exchange of coin. There’d probably be teasing later, if she succumbed to the half-empty goblet seated in front of her. Rilien, of course, seemed completely unsurprised, his quiet congratulations more a movement of his lips than anything audible over the rest.

"It's not as though we delayed because we wanted to," Lucien pointed out, though from his amiable tone, he was taking the gentle mockery in stride.

"I think this means the next round is on the Commander," Hissrad speculated, turning to his fellow Lions as if for confirmation. As though any of them would do anything but agree.

Lucien frankly didn't seem inclined to, either, sighing only from fondness and nodding to the barman, who set about assembling another several trays of drinks for the partygoers.

Some part of it felt wrong, this light, almost weightless feeling Sophia had. She knew the origin of the misgivings: it seemed somehow unfair that she should be allowed the happiness she'd always wanted, when some of her friends had it taken away. It had hurt her to see the state Ashton had fallen into after his return to Kirkwall without Nostariel. And though he'd eventually pulled himself out of it, he would never be the same. They'd had so little time together, while Sophia and Lucien still had much of their lives ahead, and so many beautiful things to look forward to.

But she had to remind herself that this exact moment was what Nostariel had sacrificed for. To make sure the people she cared for could have these chances at happiness. To be dragged down into somberness would be a disservice to her. Sophia thought back to the way her friend had reacted when she'd recounted her trip to Orlais with Lucien. The way their enthusiasm fed off each other. She could imagine Nostariel's face, sitting next to her husband. No one in the room would have been more pleased to hear their announcement.

"What does this mean for the city?" Ithilian asked, stirring Sophia from her thoughts. He'd waited until the immediate reaction had died down and many of the next round of drinks had been passed out to speak.

"For the moment, very little," she answered, understanding his concern. "A royal wedding isn't something that can occur overnight, and in the meantime I intend to oversee the repair efforts here myself, as I did in the wake of the mage-templar battle." The chantry building hadn't been destroyed this time, but overall there was much more work to be done. Meredith's attack had been dealt with in a matter of a few hours, while the Red Templar siege lasted the better part of a week. The giant in particular had done a number on the foundry district.

"After the marriage... Kirkwall will always be my home, no matter where I am, and its well-being will always number among my foremost concerns and priorities." The marriage would signify a great level of cooperation between Kirkwall and Orlais, something that might've ruffled noble feathers before, but after Lucien's efforts to help save the city, Sophia imagined they'd be far more amenable to it. No doubt they would insist on remaining an independent state, one that their Queen officially ruled and not the Emperor, even if in practice they would be sharing their burdens. Even if she would eventually be referred to as Empress before Queen.

Regardless, Kirkwall would remain in the best of hands. Sophia's own, as often as she could manage, far into the future. Until she could raise and prepare other hands for the task.

The answer seemed to satisfy Ithilian, and he returned to his meal. As far back as the two of them went, there was more respect than friendship, and Sophia was not inclined to force the issue. Varric had informed her of a development in the Alienage involving him, one that she approved of fully. By the looks of him, Ithilian had earned some rest.

“No doubt you will encounter resistance." Rilien had either picked up on the direction of her thoughts or simply been thinking something similar himself. “Perhaps more from the direction of Orlais than Kirkwall, now." The tranquil had since finished eating, and had pushed back from the table slightly, occupying his hands with the process of tuning his lute.

“I doubt it will prove to be anything you cannot handle." He glanced between them once, then back down to the neck of his instrument. The observation seemed to invite comment, though certainly without much pressure.

"The vote of confidence is reassuring, coming from you, Rilien." Though he was still smiling a bit too widely to look serious, Lucien clearly meant it. Rilien certainly wasn't the type to lie to spare anyone's feelings, and he had a point about resistance on the other side. No doubt for all the nobility of Kirkwall's potential protests, the Orlesians would have another about their Emperor marrying the Queen of what many of them still saw as a backwater provincial region. The title Queen itself might strike them as a conceit, even.

"In any case," he continued, "perhaps that's enough about us for now. I'd be interested to hear what the rest of you have planned for the future, both immediate and beyond. It may be some time before we're all able to be in the same place again." If, that was, it ever happened. As the empty chair at the table demonstrated, none of them were immortal, and the danger of the present threat to Thedas was very real.

"Ithilian and I will be returning with the Inquisition, for the time being," Amalia said, setting her fork down across her empty plate. "After that, I do not know exactly what I will do." The defeat of Corypheus would likely entail the death of the man she hunted, though Sophia didn't know all of the details.

Ashton tossed a pensive glance her way before tilting his head. "Could always come back home?" he asked with a raised brow. Obviously he meant Kirkwall, though he couldn't have known if she viewed it in the same way as he did. Regardless, he shrugged and took another drink out of his mug-- watered down juice, most likely. "Personally, I'm debating the merits of renaming ourselves the Royal Guard. You know, for the impact," he said with a wry smile. Most likely it was said in jest, though undoubtedly he'd still try to run with it depending on what Sophia said.

Aurora shook her head with smile before her glance lingered on Donnelly for a moment. It passed quickly, but it was not unnoticeable. She looked instead toward Sophia and shrugged. "Honestly, I'd like to settle down. A simple plan, but I'd really like to have a home I can call my own-- a house, with a little plot of land to grow my flowers," she said, leaning back in her chair as she spoke. She said with with a pleasant smile, almost like she could see herself there now. "Like I said, simple. But after all this, maybe simple isn't so bad," she said with a chuckle.

Then she frowned for a moment, "How realistic that is, I don't know. But a girl can dream, right?" she said with a wink for Donnelly.

"Anywhere in particular you'd like to live?" Sophia asked her. Kirkwall wasn't the best place for those seeking space and land to grow things on. Little gardens, of course, but Aurora had already put one of those together here before. Sophia imagined she had something slightly more impressive in mind.

"Wherever I land after all of this I suppose," Aurora answered thoughtfully. "Hopefully somewhere where I can visit as often as possible," she answered with a smile. On the other side of the table Ashton raised his cup in agreement.

Sparrow hummed in assent. Clearly, she thought it was a good idea, as well. The smile on her face was wistful. Perhaps, she, too, remembered the little garden Aurora had scraped up in the Alienage, growing things in bleak places had always been a skill of hers. One she’d been all too willing to divulge herself in, if only for awhile. Like Amalia, she’d never disclosed what she would do after all this was said and done. When Corypheus was laid to rest, and they’d be given a longer leash to do what they wanted… it was likely that she’d find something else to focus her efforts on. Whether it was combing the coast for slavers, freeing apostates, or striking out on the sea was anyone’s guess. Or, something more local.

She sipped from the rim of her tankard. From the crinkle of her nose, it was stronger than what she normally drank these days. Something from Varric’s reserve, or whatever dusty corner the Hanged Man dredged up whenever they saw fit to celebrate something. This was cause for celebration, after all. Her smile widened, “Best be a place we can visit, too.”

There was no definitive place Sparrow preferred living—that much Sophia knew. A bird hardly rested its wings in one place, and she had already claimed many homes over the years, flitting between them as she saw fit. She’d changed, however. That much was clear. Her eyes slipped from Ashton’s raised cup to Aurora’s face, and finally, on Rilien. It rested there. Though, only for a moment, before she raised her own cup in agreement.

It was getting to the point where nearly everyone had finished eating, the noise level in the tavern naturally increasing as conversation grew more lively around them. Rilien chose the moment to excuse himself, stepping away from their table with a glance at Amalia, and then repositioning himself near the hearth. She went with, picking up her harp from closer to the bar's entrance on the way and taking a seat nearby the tranquil.

The opening chords to a familiar song followed, one more popular in places like the Hanged Man than ballrooms. It was fast, lively, and clearly an invitation to dance, or at least mingle a little more freely.

Several of those present took up the cue, standing and moving the tables around so that there was a large open area in the middle of the floor. This, also, was quite familiar: the first such celebration Sophia had ever attended was the one immediately before the Deep Roads Expedition, but that certainly hadn't been the only one.

Ashton's smile lingered, though it became melancholy as bodies stood to start dancing. He personally did not partake, instead taking a seat closer to the bar, and away from the knots of people. He had turned away from the music, but from the angle he sat at from Sophia, she could see him playing with the ring around his finger. A habit he'd recently acquired.

Aurora on the other hand laughed freely as the music began and gave Donnelly one last look before standing and dragging him toward the music. He seemed only too happy to be dragged, and went with laughter in lieu of protest.

Sparrow had chosen a place at the bar, as well. Not too far from Ashton, though not close enough to rankle him from his thoughts. She was turned slightly towards the throng of dancers, chin propped into an upturned palm. Her eyes were shuttered softly and her foot bobbed, tapping against the stool to the beat of the music. The smile that tipped the corner of her lips, drawing up the scar, seemed at ease, for once.

Lia led a few of the Lions out to dance right away, no doubt with more soon to follow. Sophia noticed Ithilian move to a seat close to where the music was being played, looking like his thoughts were drifting somewhere. The past, perhaps. She wondered when the next time would be that they were all free to do this again. If it would take another catastrophe to bring them all together. She hoped not. These moments were some of the most refreshing in her life, and made all the toil and duty in between worthwhile.

Her hand found Lucien's as they moved to their feet, only an exchanged look needed before they were dancing. All around her there were friends shifting and twirling by, and she felt more relaxed than she had in a very long time. It was enough to make her eyes glisten when she lifted them up to Lucien's.

"These always were my favorite kind of dances."

He smiled back at her, the expression soft. "Mine, too."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

INK

Amalia was quite used to doing this sort of work alone, or with Ithilian only. It was fortunate that they'd found assistance now, because there were many more materials to go through than usual, and much of it was simply beyond the realms of her expertise. She was no mage, and had studied relatively little of the so-called Fade and its occupants.

Still, she supposed she'd been useful, as far as translation went. Qunlat was not an easy language to learn, though she was surprised by the number of people here who had even a loose command of it. As she worked on the last stack of pages, the others rifled through what she'd already rendered in the trade tongue. There had to be something in here that would give them some idea of what Marcus's plans were. She could not abide the thought that there wasn't—that all of the sacrifice and effort of the raid had been for naught after all.

She frowned, narrowing her eyes at the page below her. "I have seen this word too many times," she said, her brows knitting. "Iina. I have translated it as 'jar,' because that is the strict meaning of the word, but in context I think it would be better if it were vessel. Qunlat lacks a term that general for storage." Which meant that iina would have been the closest thing, if Marcus were searching for a way to convey 'vessel' or 'receptacle.'

Such was the price of keeping one's notes in a language less likely to be understood by spies. Few even in the Imperium knew much of it.

Lia was not among the individuals with knowledge of Qunlat, but that hardly stopped her from trying. At the very least she could look for specific words that Amalia pointed out to her, finding repetitions of them in other documents and passing them along to help expedite the search. She was tenacious in her efforts to contribute; Lia took many things more lightly than others, but she approached this with the utmost seriousness.

"What's the significance of that, you think?" she asked, looking up from her cross-legged position on the floor, setting down the paper she was glancing over.

"Nothing good," Ithilian grumbled, leaning against the wall near the closest window. The pieces of him that were lost didn't stop him from helping with this, in a way similar to how Lia was working, though over the years he had acquired a partial knowledge of the language they were working with. He and Amalia had spent countless hours together, after all. "Might be something he was searching for. An artifact of some kind. He spent plenty of time tomb raiding."

Rilien's face remained impassive as he scanned over several more of the translated pages. “Some of these definitely pertain to blood magic as well. I am not certain if that is connected or not—he appears to have had a wide range of active projects."

“It's almost like even he wasn't sure what he was doing—the notes are scattered." Cyrus could read Qunlat, or at least enough of it to decipher the original pages. It probably didn't hurt that he'd occupied a similar position to Marcus's in Tevinter, either. Rather than sitting, he stood, several pages in his hands, and leaned back against one of the inset bookshelves. His hair was disheveled, evidence that he'd run his fingers through it many times over the course of the day. “Like he was searching for something; or trying to collect anything that might be relevant on some subject. Vessel. Vessel..." He shook his head, shuffling through a few more sheets of parchment.

"So he might have been looking for some... vessel sort of object, and he thought he was going to find it in elven ruins?" Leon looked quite wan these days, but the malady seemed to be mostly physical, whatever it was. "Does he say anything about what the vessel was for? It seems really unlikely he was after anything of purely historical or financial interest."

Amalia grimaced, barely containing the frustrated noise that threatened to escape her. Something about the trajectory of the discussion was wrong. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she knew it was there anyway. Marcus wasn't the kind of person who—

She clicked her tongue against her teeth. "Power," she said flatly. "Marcus cares about nothing but power. Obtaining it, asserting it, having more of it than anyone else. It's just the kind of person he is." She knew that. Knew it with a certainty she only rarely felt about anything else.

"So this vessel thing could somehow give him more power..." Lia said, mostly to herself. "Maybe Vesryn or Harellan would know more about what he might be after? If it's something the ancient elves buried somewhere?" She obviously hadn't heard of such a thing herself, and it didn't take more than a look at the others to know that no one immediately knew of what Marcus sought.

"It doesn't make sense," Ithilian said, his voice carrying that same frustrated note. "Assuming Marcus does find what he's after, won't it just go to Corypheus? He's serving Corypheus, his Venatori followers serve him... and why is he serving him to begin with? As his general, Marcus can't rise any higher without—"

"Overthrowing him," Lia finished. "Could he be planning to do that? Overthrow Corypheus?"

Something about this line of thought must have struck Cyrus the right way, because all at once he was moving, crossing to the main table where the documents were piled and rifling through them. Translated, untranslated; it didn't seem to matter. He pulled them almost at random from other piles, creating a much smaller one and then spreading the parchments over the bare space on the table.

“Vessel, vessel... blood magic. Elven ruins, Corypheus—trying to overthrow Corypheus. What's the only way you topple someone like that? Someone with more power than you?"

“From behind." Rilien folded his hands into his sleeves.

Cyrus nodded several times, tracing his fingers down a page and then moving to another one. He seemed to be reading, but very quickly. “I don't think the vessel is a physical object. I think it's—I think Marcus is the vessel. It's a type of magic. Apostasy, something you only hear about in rumors of wilds-witches and... ancient elves."

"What is the purpose of this magic?" Amalia asked. "What is Marcus to be a vessel for?"

Cyrus frowned. “Corypheus." He let that settle for a moment, then explained. “Specifically two parts of Corypheus: his power and his consciousness. The consciousness part is the easier one: the ancient elves knew how to do it—bind a mind to either a physical object or another mind. That's the Saraya case." He pressed his lips together, shuffling through several more pages. “Unsurprisingly, Marcus is interested in blocking that. Methods of resisting the binding. The other part is power, which isn't in anything I've ever read. But if Corypheus can do it, Marcus obviously isn't going to mind."

“So Corypheus intends to share a mind and a body with Marcus, who is disinclined to accept the arrangement?" Rilien seemed to find something off about the statement, but Cyrus was already shaking his head.

“If Saraya and Ves are cohabitating, what Corypheus wants to do is evict a tenant and move in himself. No sharing involved."

"Do the notes contain any indication of how close he is to achieving this?" Leon's tone betrayed ambivalence; he obviously wasn't sure whether success on Marcus's part would be a good or bad thing for the Inquisition overall.

Amalia knew very well that success on Marcus's part was never good for anyone but Marcus. This Corypheus was indeed powerful, but any cunning in strategy seemed to be the work of his immediate underlings. Perhaps that power structure would collapse if Marcus tried to use it. His aims were certainly more occluded than wanton destruction in the name of continental rule. But she did not believe that was any reason for hope.

Much better that they kill him, and thwart both plans at the same time.

“I can't say with certainty." Cyrus grimaced, aware that this wasn't reassuring news. “These notes definitely don't have all the parts in place, but on the other hand, they may not be the latest version of his plan, and even if they were six months ago, they certainly aren't now, if he's as clever as he seems." He set the parchments back down on the table. “I can say that even here... he's fairly close. The missing pieces are important, and I wouldn't know where to find them, but I'd know where to start, which means he probably does, too."

“Then it seems our priority in this matter should once again be locating him. I will divert more agents to this purpose." Rilien apparently shared Amalia's intuition that the best thing to do was kill him as soon as possible.

Perhaps it was time that Amalia went back on the hunt, as well.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel Character Portrait: Non-Player Characters

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