0
followers
follow

Zahra Tavish

"If we're all gonna die here, at least we can give them something to talk about."

0 · 1,449 views · located in Thedas

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

Description

Image

Image


Image






ImageImage
Image

Image
Credit
Full Name: Zahra Killiani Tavish
Titles/Nicknames: To her crew, Zee suffices. She tends not to mind if people other than her crew call her Zee, as well. Though she’s quick to correct when people call her Captain Zahra. In a friend’s mouth, it sounds odd.
Age: 32 [9:43]
Race: Human
Gender: Female
Sexual Orientation: Homosexual
Class: Rogue
Specialization: Archer, navigating towards Tempestry.

Hair Color: Black
Eye Color: Chartreuse, sea-green
Height: 5'4”
Build: Slender and lean.

Appearance: Zahra could have been a well-tempered, simmering lady ripe for courting in some small, insignificant town. She could have been a doe-eyed lass with long lashes, bowed lips, and an equally soft smile. She could have worn frilly dresses and small shoes. She could have been pleasantly, quietly intriguing and walked on dainty, pretty kitten heels. But she was none of these things. Instead, she chose to be a set of jaws. Zahra's tenderness comes with an air of intrinsic sense of self, borne of freshly acquired liberty.

She walks with languid decorum, as if she owns whatever land she sets her feet on. She behaves as if she's sinking her teeth into whichever apple she so desires; reckless, daring someone to step forward and defy her. It's in the way she holds her shoulders, squared off. Posture straight and lazy all at once, arms at her sides. Danger? No, no. Fun. Sleek and lean as a red lion (and just as vicious), it's apparent that she's conceited enough to keep herself in sturdy shape; a dancer meeting partway with a bird's nest rope-monkey. Feminine, and barbarous. A nestling monster, who suffers from an unfortunate short stature, with it's hatch wide open—waiting for a single misstep.

Smooth, tawny-brown skinned, as many Rivain's are, Zahra however has not gloated through life unscathed. The brunt of her scars are spread out across her face. Small nicks chipped into her squared, proud jaw, and a much broader scar chinked into the upper left side of her lip, across the bridge of her nose, and the left side of her cheek. A knife of sorts was used, and the wound looked as if it healed incorrectly, leaving white puckered scars. Marking her as a once-thing. Less than human. An object to be taught lessons. Now, she carries them as badges of defiance; spitting on the world she'd belonged to before. Her soft, wavy, black hair is fashioned into a large braid, often decorated with seashells, bits of brightly coloured string or pearl beads. Other times, it's pulled into a complex warrior's braid. In all instances, her hygienic routine is meticulously maintained, unless she's bound to the sea for days on end. Even so, with her assortment of oils and perfumes, she flourishes in exotic scents.

She sees much farther than lets on, and she is always planning. Always seeking chinks in armour, weaknesses, areas to bleed and incapacitate, if she cannot outright deceive. Zahra has eyes like the underside of an eroded bottle; a mixture of soft greens and yellows weathered by the tide, sharpened with a meanness that is both breathtaking and frighteningly cold. Two blades slicing through your ankles, making not-so-silent judgements. They smooth into lukewarm satisfaction and tepid amusement just as surely as they narrow into looks designed for peeling skin and setting fires; perhaps, the most useful when trying to bargain or judge her moods. Slender eyebrows frame those condescending eyes, dancing with flagrant lies, and usually flagged in question.

She dresses finely in and out of battle, in and out of business, it doesn't matter where she walks, as long as she's fashionably prepared. Strip the luxury from her and she's miserable. She wears only the softest tunics in varying colours; reds, whites, deep blues and shades like nightfall. Equally luxurious dresses (that may or may not have been stolen from nobles) with feathers and beads and jewels that would make Orlesians cluck in approval—and when she has the sense to dress for the road, she prefers fitted leather trousers, a drape-like silk tunic, soft leather boots and many, many bangles.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
A woman of consistencies, and aberrant changes. While most of Zahra’s developments are purely internal, she’s changed. In small inches, increments hardly noticed. Perhaps, more muscled than she’s ever been. Loosing arrows never lent her anything but her straight-shooting, dead-eyed accuracy, but clambering up the ramparts stairs and tumbling across Skyhold’s yard in order to properly pirouette has done wonders. Under the tutelage of Marceline, she’s learned how to properly defend herself should combat bully itself into the forefront. She spars with anyone willing to put up with her loud, obnoxious challenges, often leaving with new bruises and welts, but always coming out with a grin.

Pirates are supposed to dress eccentrically. This hasn’t changed much, but she’s learned from experience that not all climates allow for tropical luxuries. Skyhold is an unforgiving chill bristling up your spine, and because of that, Zahra’s chosen to dress more modestly. No more laced vests, bound tight around her midriff. No more billowy sleeves, puffed at her shoulders. Instead she’s chosen plainer clothes, still mostly composed of leather parts. More often than not she’s seen wearing a familiar red scarf tied around her neck. A stark reminder that not all things you cherish can be saved, even then it doesn’t mean they’re far away, or forgotten.


9:43
Spoiler: show
This year, in particular, has been very telling to her. The realization came in the form of broken bones, burns and nasty cuts at the hands of her enemies. She was too slow, too reckless, too ineffective. Physically she’d never been particularly impressive. A slender waif. A grasshopper hopping from the ropes overhead. Lean as a fiddle. Much had changed in the last year. She wanted to transform. Become better. Stronger. Better suited to be at her companion’s side. Channeling her relentlessness, Zahra began training her body in any way she could—even if she hated every second of it. Running up the stairs, panting and sweating had never been something she’d thought she would do.

She’s slowly developing muscle, but more than that, she’s no a mess whenever she spars. At least, it doesn’t always end up hyperventilating. That in itself is a miracle. She’s taking small steps. Not quite bounds, but it’s progress, and for once in her life, she feels good to be doing it. As of late, she’s upped her sparing with Marceline, and anyone else who will have her. While her grace may still be lacking she’s found other ways to improvise, using her body as tool. She’s also enlisted in Rom’s help in order to concoct specific potions and drinks to enhance her vitality, strength, and growth. Honestly, she doesn’t think she’s ever felt so… good before. Assured.

Not much has changed when it comes to Zahra’s garb, changing whatever clothes needs changing when the weather calls for it. She’s still flamboyant as ever, though she has a secret store of lavish attire hidden in her commandeered tower. At times, she’ll deck herself out in bright scarves, handkerchiefs, and ringing bangles. Other times, she dresses far more practical. Comfy clothes for comfortable occasions. Her hair remains unchanged. Wild curls, a mess. She has looked rather tired, lately. If one were to look hard enough, they may notice dark rings hanging underneath her eyes. A clear indication that she hasn’t been sleeping very well.


“I never said I was a hero.
People like me seldom are. But I’m a goddamn believer, and I’m glad of the person I’ve become.”


ImageImage



Image



Image
Credit
Apparent Demeanor: While beetling the image of an impeccable, noble woman, Zahra is similar to the coppery taste of coins, or the swill of blood and missing teeth, rusting in your mouth. Unpleasant and usually introduced with violence. She is a whimsical, ill-tempered tease; and a vulgar trouble-making liar who assuredly milks each and every conversation for tidbits of useful information, and if she finds no diamonds in those supposed roughs, she walks; disinterested until a more compelling offer is made. Her fickleness, and rapacious hunger for power in any address, makes it considerably easier to sweeten whatever pot you're offering (and she will always listen). She is an avid abuser of underhanded means in order to get out of unpleasant situations. Outright aggression does not suit her needs, but manipulation is a much softer means in achieving her goals, and if she can avoid bloodshed, so be it to dirty her tongue with lies.

She remains relatively unflappable in situations that usually warrant panic in others. Sinking ship? That's fine. She wasn't too attached to this one anyhow. About to head into a particularly bloody battle? Skulking into a spidery cave who's width is startlingly tight? No problem. Fluffing her feathers every single time something awful happened would require energy she does not want to expend. And if she's learned one thing from life, if anything at all: it's that life is laughably short and wasting time, a commodity that ticks through her skull at an alarming rate, isn't something she's willing to do. While not one to pine over any losses, Zahra is adept in sniffing out golden opportunities and sinking her claws in once they've reared their heads. She's fierce, behaves fearless, and is always sashaying between not caring what people think about her and being sordidly obsessed with appearances. She hides behind winks and smiles and whispered words crooked between collar bones, murmuring sweet promises, and even sweeter rewards, should you only do this for that. She's a passive-aggressive grifter who offers things, in exchange for other things. Because, everyone wants to win, right?

While she professes seeing and knowing everything around her, Zahra understands that there are many things she's yet to experience and learn. She quietly absorbs what people do and what they say, even while gnashing her teeth because she already knew how to do that. Whether it's information she'd like to know or things she'd like to learn, her ears and eyes are strained open. She is a sea-sponge who devours knowledge because she knows it's important. Her curiosity is an itch she's yet learned how to scratch, and sometimes, it's as tempting as jewels. Contrary to her outward nature, once she's forged a bond, it holds stronger than the walls she's built around herself. A sly backstabber? No, not to her friends, anyhow. She cares deeply with those she's come to trust and loathes to leave them under any circumstance; forgoing her own self-preservation to see them safe and sound. Those she's allowed into her personal circle are people she's chosen as family. Her crewmembers are her children; and she, their vivacious, gregarious, bow-totting mother hen.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
In the truest sense of the word, Zahra has felt loss. Loosening her grip on whatever inkling she’d once had of her childhood home felt more like hanging up a heavy cloak then anything else, it hadn’t hurt at all. Scraping off the remnants of her dewy-eyed fears, hesitant steps, representation of a rabbit-girl, reminded her of the flapping of unburdened wings. Freedom in every sense, in any way she could describe it. She’d felt loss. Endured hardships. Grit her teeth against unfairness, promised to become better for it. This was much different. Losing Aslan? Feeling that sickening sense of helplessness, as if she were a statue. A spectator to her greatest nightmares. A lump of useless stone. A liar, most of all. She’d promised to keep her crew safe, after all. From everything and anyone. Foolish as those promises were, whispered into her pillow, in the absence of her friends, she certainly believed herself capable of seeing them through.

Haven served as an awakening. A reminder of mortality. Not of her own, of course, but of others. Her friends, her family. It was an admonition of just how much Aslan cared not only for her, but for the cause they’d decided to support. The Inquisition with it’s curious people, Inquisitors included. A backing of soldiers, mages, smirking rogues, and scallywags who’d fit in just fine aboard the Riptide. She’s come to realize that there’s faces she’s come to care about. Far more than she believed she was capable of. It was no longer only she, and the Riptide. No longer Zahra and her motley crew scavenging the world of what she believed they deserved. However unintentionally, she’s grown. Her worlds blossomed. Made allowances she would not have, perhaps, made otherwise. Her friends, her family. It’s grown larger than she’d believed possible. With it comes new fears, and a desperate desire to keep them safe, whatever the cost.


9:43:
Spoiler: show
If Zahra could quell demon’s in their entirety, she would. It seems as if they encounter them at every corner, and with them come unpleasant surprises rising like nightmares, reminding her of things she’d rather leave spoiled and buried. As much as she’s grown over the year, she feels as if there’s anchors wrapped around her wrists and ankles, tugging her backwards when she strains to push forward with the help of her friends. She understands that she’s not alone, even if, at times, she feels that it is so. She’s not sure if this means she’s weaker than the others, or if she has far more business that needs taking care of. She hopes it’s the latter.

Not that she’s show it. Zahra’s still as gregarious as ever, grin as wide as a sharks and eyes that dance, dance to whatever beat of conversation around her. It may be a farce, a means to avoid and deflect her own issues, though she’s found that they’re welcome distractions. Admittedly, she is happy where she’s found herself. She’s never felt at home with her own family back in Llomeryn, but here. It’s different. Much different. Aside from the rolling waves and the Riptide, it’s the closest thing she’s come to a static home, a place she can come back to and still feel free. The pull of adventure needn’t be squashed and her wanderlust is easily sated in their midst’s.

It’s also the first place she’s come to where she’s leaned on so many shoulders, which speaks volumes of how much the Inquisition and of all of its inhabitants continue to change her.


Hangups/Quirks: Stranger still is her obsession with time—everything about it terrifies her. It's one commodity she cannot buy or steal or create, it's something she cannot turn back or maintain. She's never been honest or logical about time passing. She's never wanted a thousand laugh lines, or to die comfortably in her sleep. If someone's late to meet up, Zahra will be silently grinding her teeth together while she fantasizes about leaving. Or killing them once they arrive. It doesn't matter if it's an unimportant. A One-time meet in a tavern or an appointment involving a new contract. If she wastes too much time, her life will slip through her fingers, and having achieved nothing... she'll slide right back where she'd begun. Become a nobody. A useless sack of waste. If no one values her time, why should she value theirs?

She's infamous for hoarding things. She has a tendency to pick up seemingly random things—with the very high likelihood of said things not being hers to take. One man's trash is another man's treasure or however that goes. Throwing something away because it's broken or no longer of use, it's likely she'll sneak up and snatch it without your know-how, and put make use of it herself. Every single thing has alternate uses, and she's keen to discover them, even if it doesn't make much sense to anyone else. Call her out on it and she'll feign ignorance. What? That's a coat hanger. It's always been a coat hanger. Haven't you seen one before? Here, have a drink. You look like you need one. Crisis averted. She has an eye for shiny objects and a talent for making useless things useful again.

Strengths: Zahra's an adaptable woman capable of shrugging off changes without any fuss. She rolls with the punches, moves on to the next big thing and sometimes thrives when things take a tumble. Instead of digging in her heels, she allows it to carry her forward. Every situation begets a new chance, a new start The idea of a quiet, easy life isn't for her. She isn't afraid of taking risks, because she knows that she's capable of handling failure. Each challenge in life leaves a mark on her, they build onto her arsenal of knowledge and makes her a stronger, more resilient person. She also has an innate ability to slither out of terrible situations.

Throw her into a pit with a spoon and she'll somehow manage her way out again (maybe, otherwise she'll resort to petty threats). Since it's difficult to ruffle her up, Zahra's quick-witted and excels in hasty decision-making. Most of the time, the ideas aren't terrible either. Her mind lies in array of cards; each one another angle, begging questions and answers and possibilities. She collects, organizes, researches her thoughts, her memories and puts them together into a cohesive whole, with impressive speed. Charismatic, affable, and a fantastic teller of lies, she transcends in the very things she loathes.

Weaknesses: It's abundantly clear that she carries far more baggage than anyone should. It's not a chip on her shoulder, but rather, a general distrust of people and an unhealthy habit thinking that everyone has ulterior motives. If she’s ticking off her fingers, plucking benefits off in her head, wouldn’t they as well? No one does anything for free unless there's something to gain. Her life has gravitated around that take, take, take world for so long that it makes it difficult to form any kind of long lasting friendships. It's a thick swirl of ugliness, rendering earnest people into hapless lampreys. This means she leans heavily on her crew mates. Her crew. She believes that only they are capable of weathering her crap; her storms, her affections, her insatiable curiosities. Few could, nowadays.

Have a good deal to make? It's unlikely she'll turn it down. Zahra is easily exploitable. There's a saying about someone's eyes being larger than their actual appetites. It's similar to her need for power and influence and money. They're all tied together and she is never satisfied with what she has. Could a dragon whet it’s appetite? No. She’s much the same. Her quarters reflect her ravish tastes. Silken pillows, bobbles, trinkets hanging from the rafters. Whatever she acquires only fans the flames of her inclinations, and once she's fallen in love with something as intoxicating as power, it isn't likely that she'll ever let it go.

Fears: What would a pirate fear most of all? Especially one in Zahra’s position? Loss of control, of power, of freedom. Her crew leaving her. Her ship sinking. Reducing herself to a nobody. Having everything she's worked so hard for disappear. It's a constant in her mind. Keeps her on her toes, regarding angles in lukewarm paranoia. She's afraid of having everything she's ever fought for slip through her fingers. She's afraid of being reduced to a cornered, shivering animal. A doe-eyed girl incapable of anything. Becoming less of who she strove to become, a weaker version of herself. Zahra fears simply fading away from everyone's memories, and becoming that same meaningless dust, sifting indefinitely. Reduced to having decisions made for her. While she may never admit it, she's terrified of losing her loves ones. Her friends, her family, her crew. For them, she would do anything. Anything.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
How far she’s come amazes even her. In the Inquisition, she’s faced helplessness so much that she fears it less. It’s no longer constant in her life, because if she’s learned anything from grappling beside great warriors, and witnessing great feats of political prowess, is that sometimes, it’s necessary to let go of he reigns. She cannot control everything. Not here. Perhaps, not even in most cases. She can control her actions. Her thoughts. But not much else. And that’s alright. In it’s place, Zahra fears losing any more of her people. Any more of the people she’s come to call friends. By Gods, it’s grown since stepping foot off the Riptide. She fears missteps, hesitance… staying her blade when she should have come to arms.


9:43:
Spoiler: show
Some of Zahra’s fears have wane the past year. Partly because she’s gained confidence in her companion’s abilities to protect themselves, and her own strength to protect them as well. It’s a weight off her shoulders, an acceptance of sorts. If any of them should crumble, she would too. But she knows the Inquisition makes no promises, and neither does war. She has, however, taken some steps backward due to unforeseen circumstances. Old, nearly forgotten fears, dredged up. Her mistakes, her past rearing it’s ugly head in the most inopportune times, dragging her into the deep end. Spoiling things. She fears facing everything they entail. What the consequences will be. How she will respond to it. She fears the fact that she has no interest in doing anything at all. What does make her? A coward.


“There’s still time to make amends.
There’s still time…”





ImageImage
Image

Image
Credit
Strength: XXXXXx▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

Dexterity:XXXXX▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [9/10]

Intelligence: XXX▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [8/10]

Wisdom: XXXXXX▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [4/10]

Cunning: XXXXXX▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [9/10]

Magic: XXXXXXXX▇▇ ⎭ [2/10]

Willpower: XXXX▇▇ ⎭ [2/10]

Constitution: XXX▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [4/10]

Weapon of Choice: Why would you get up close and personal when you can pincushion someone from afar? Kill them without being noticed yourself. Kill them before they even realize they're dead. Zahra's favoured weapon is a double-curved bow made out of cherry-wood and backed with sinew to make it springier. She's affectionately named it Truthbringer. Presumably crafted by Elven hands as there are unique carvings up and down it's entire length: a pretty woman's face, flowers and unusual swirls, as well as a howling wolf. Accompanied are feather fletchings of varying colours and sizes, copper and bone arrowheads, sinew bowstrings, pieces of flint and completed arrows tucked into a fancy leather quiver with matching designs. Other than that, she has various knives hidden here and there, but she hopes to fell whoever she's up against before resorting to something so intimate.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
When the Inquisition traveled to Dirthavaren, Zahra’s bow perished against the Revenant they faced in the old, Elven ruins. She hadn’t exactly expected it to happen, and as cheery as she’d been to survive the ordeal, she hadn’t found a proper bow for the longest time afterwards. Nothing felt right in her hands. Too light, too heavy. Off-balance or just plain wrong. Fortunately for her, Marceline’s lessons made her rapiers a decent substitution until she could find something to fill the void her bow left her with. Her search was fruitless, if not self-sabotaging. She believed nothing would compare to her Truthbringer.

That is, until Khari brought her a gift from home. Something she definitely hadn’t expected—a bow that felt right in her hands. Crafted by her own mother, and made from ironbark. She’s never even seen ironwood before, and to have it in her own hands, her gratitude was palpable. Stained a dark, nearly black mulberry hue. Difficult to see at night. Perfect for her style of hunting. It was carved with the traditional symbols and designs of Andruil. None that she understood. A hare in mid-bound and a hawk in mid-flight were engraved on the bow’s belly, in surprising detail. A steady hand, to be sure. She can’t wait to bear the bow in battle, and finally see it in action.


Fighting Style/Training: While Zahra’s not stupid enough to talk up her admirable attempts at close-combat abilities, she is confident in her marksmanship. She prefers, in all instances, her bow. Should she be forced to use any other means, she will resort to dirty means of keeping herself alive. Hair pulling and biting and groin-kneeing aside, Zahra would like to think that she's somewhat honourable in her hostile encounters, but the bottom line is, if you're fighting for you life, none of that really matters. So, she tries to ensure distance, and focuses entirely on quick-firing and maintaining her endurance. Her technique may seem strange to others, but it's something that she'd been taught as soon as someone settled a bow in her eager hands.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
All thanks to Marceline’s guidance, and Zahra’s persistence to learn how to do something out than notch arrows, she’s come far from the bow-totting woman, slinging arrows on the beach where they'd met. While her footwork could certainly use work and she’s still slogging through those dreadfully dull books, and loose writings, she’d been given at the beginning of her lessons, she’s certainly learned how to effectively swing a blade. Whenever she’s not plaguing the taverns, she’s pirouetting around straw-filled dummies, favoring a thinner blade, oftentimes a rapier she’d also obtained from Marceline. Her style is a barbaric, ungraceful version of her mentors, too direct for her own good, but she’s quick enough of her feet to slip away when she needs to. Her marksmanship, of course, still remains her strongest point.


9:43:
Spoiler: show
WIP WIP WIP


“Fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly,
but it can push you forward. Mine is a vessel, I’ll sail it as far as it can take me.”


ImageImage



Image



Image
Credit
Place of Birth: Llomerryn, Rivain.
Social Status/Rank: Captain of Riptide, affiliated with the Raiders of the Waking Sea.

History:
Like something out of a really bad bard's tale, she was born on an unnaturally cold night. There was a light dust of frost creaking down the wooden platforms, nestled in a Rivaini village. It wouldn't last long but it marked the day she was born. Zahra Killiani Tavish—a shrieking baby girl, waddled and warm. Her birthplace lied on the very tip of Rivain's finger, Little Llomerryn. Born into a family with many, many siblings, she was nestled somewhere in the middle. Far from the youngest and almost one of the oldest. An unimportant number joining their midst’s, and handed little in the means of expectations. Two brothers, Zahra, and three older sisters constantly squabbled for attention; it was stifling how alone one felt surrounded by people.

Their mother was a walking canvas of Rivaini tattoos, spidering boldly up her arms and legs and face, displaying prowess only seers could attain in their little village. Few Hedge Witches formed partnerships with spirits, but she'd done so in her youth to prove her devotion to the matriarchs and maintained a relatively healthy union. For long periods of time, she traveled throughout Rivain; tending to the people's needs, carrying out communal duties, and only drifted home when her daughters needed political grooming. On the other hand, her father was a simple, watery-eyed fisherman with an equally rummy spine. Misfortune dealt it's hand long ago and pronounced Zahra unskilled in any magical arts, and so, she stopped squabbling and joined her brothers on the wooden piers.

Expectations no longer weighed on her shoulders, but being expected of nothing felt far worse. She wanted to bend under those normal expectations, and make her parents proud. She wanted to stamp her name across the village and crook her chin up towards the sky. She wanted tattoos just like her mothers. Instead, she was overlooked, loved and taken care of. Zahra was not the black sheep of the family, nor was she unloved, she simply was. She existed. Her brothers and father took to their own trade as well as anyone else did—but she watched her sisters from afar, disconnected from a life she pined for. There was a oneness in tradition and passing on everything you knew, and without magic, she couldn't exist there, as they did. Her brothers flourished without all of the scrutiny and chattered about travelling away once they'd grown older. Males were hardly anticipated to stick around. Why would they? While her sisters received disproportionate amounts of attention, and their first tattoos, Zahra drowned herself in resentment and sunk her teeth into seedier activities.

Around her seventeenth birthday, it was made clear that she wasn't as overlooked as she thought she'd been. Arranged marriages aren't all that uncommon in Rivain when you've got a renown seer in your family. Even less so when you've acquired the attention of a heavily tattooed man in your wayward exploits, and your mother believes it's a fantastic idea to tie familial bonds. A marriage of convenience, a union of two powerful families combining into one. The man's name was Faraji Imamu Contee. Wealthy son to a particularly nasty magister. She shirked his attention, dismayed at the prospect of being with someone she had no interest in. Even if it did win some of her mothers attention... being punished into a loveless marriage with a man felt as if anchors had been shackled to her legs. Her brothers could do nothing but watch, and her coward-of-a-father remained silent.

On most days, she loitered around the taverns and avoided Faraji's company. Meek little kitten as she was, she hid from her responsibilities. Buried her head in the sand as best she could. The wedding approached, and with it, the nauseating promise of childbearing and joining her future husband at the hull, trading spice across the seas. In comparison, fishing with her father seemed like paradise; a safe-haven that she'd taken for granted. Faraji himself hadn't been a bad man, was not a bad man, but he was a man still. It posed problems. She felt no attraction towards him, and couldn't even scrounge up enough empathy to form some sort of mutual friendship, in order to ease into the transition of wifedom. Zahra could see it clearly now, that the union would eventually destroy her. All of her dreams would wither and die. Things changed on the eve of her wedding...

She met Aslan there. A burly, beefy Qunari with the strangest outfit she'd ever seen. Or lack of, anyhow. Never had she seen someone occupy so much space, and for reasons unknown to her even now, he entertained her tragic, drunken tale and uttered a question that would change her path in life forever, “Why don't you leave then? Leave. Now. Looks like you've got nothing to lose.” And then, she did the unthinkable. Zahra left with him that night and boarded his Captain's ship, the Black Cutlass, as a lowly perch-monkey. Just one of many pirate ships sailing under the Raiders of the Waking Sea. No packing and no goodbyes and never looking back once. She fell in love with the sea and the freedom it symbolized. Treasure, adventure, the slip of power she'd glimpsed in the Captain. All of the things she'd seen over the years, and the things she'd taken part in created and built a much stronger version of herself. One she hadn't known existed. While she may regret some of the thing she's done, she will never regret leaving that day.

Two years into service and she decided to strike out on her own, which isn't too uncommon. The Raiders of the Waking Sea is composed of several fleets; each with their own territories, contracts, crew members, and businesses. Some deal in slavery while others peddle wares and protect ships. Most seek out long contracts, or plunder and commandeer other ships; and nearly all Raiders disagree with each other at some point in time. Those who follow her to this day had been recruited in her travels, Aslan being the only one who'd been with her originally—afterward, they acquired her current ship, Riptide, from a kindly nobleman. The traveled across Thedas, seeking adventure, shiny things, and bolstered their names by making new friends, acquaintances, and affiliations. Some might say Captain Zahra Killiani Tavish is heartsick with power and control, but really, who isn't these days?

9:42:
Spoiler: show
Had anyone asked Zahra before settling into Haven’s chilly grasp, and allowing herself to open up a little bit, she’d say that leaving her ship for any amount of time was a godawful idea. That it was always better to drape herself across Riptide’s wheel, steering them into the sunset. Into the next great adventure, treasure troves included. If anyone asked her now… her answer wouldn’t be so simple, because the Inquisition has changed her. Not it’s ideals exactly. Certainly not the Maker, because she’s still not sure she believes in such a thing.

No, it was its people that cast a mark on her. From the tooth-baring little bear to it’s cheeky tavern-dwelling elf. The morose, pretty-faced Commander, with the sorceress of a political mother-figure flagging her eyebrows in the background. The Inquisitors themselves: perhaps, one of the bravest, soft-spoken lasses she’s ever had the pleasure of meeting and another dusky-skinned Rivaini who doesn’t smile nearly as much as she’d like. And the mouse of a Qunari who could crush anyone that stood against her, if she so wished. Stitched together to form a family of sorts. Friends bound in blood and the only cause she’s ever cared about. When was the last time she’s cared enough about something to linger? A long time, she supposes.

It’s an odd turn of events. Certainly not one she ever expected. She’s sure, at least, that they’ll continue surprising her.


9:43:
Spoiler: show
WIP WIP WIP



Image



Spoiler: show
Image
Credit
| Cyrus Avenarius | Forest Fires

9:43: WIP WIP WIP



Image
Credit
| Asala Kaaras | Pretty Down to Your Bones

9:43: WIP WIP WIP



Image
Credit
| Marceline Benoît | Thief

9:43: WIP WIP WIP



Image
Credit
| Leonhardt Albrecht | Ships With Holes Will Sink

9:43 WIP WIP WIP




Image
Credit
| Vesryn Cormyth | Little Bit of Feel Good

9:43: WIP WIP WIP



Image
Credit
| Kharisanna Istimaethoriel | Oh, La

9:43: WIP WIP WIP



Image
Credit
| Romulus | Keep Your Eyes Open

9:43: WIP WIP WIP



Image
Credit
| Rilien Falavel |

9:43: WIP WIP WIP



Image
Credit
| Estella Avenarius | House by the Sea

9:43: WIP WIP WIP





Image


Image


“They taught me something important. The Inquisition. My friends.
The things I’ve done, they don’t define me. Not anymore.”

So begins...

Zahra Tavish's Story

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

The weather was absolutely dreadful. Once the salt from the coast began to permeate the air, it started to rain and it never stopped. Ugly gray clouds hung high above them and seemed to stretch from eternity in every direction. A dark purple cloak draped over Lady Marceline's shoulders, the hood up so as to not subject her hair to the terrible conditions. Marceline was miserable but she did not allow that to play out on her face. She would not show weakness, not even to those she called allies that rode with her.

She was not unarmed, as only a fool would be when traveling through the country. A thin, silverite basket-hilted rapier tapped against her saddle as she rode, a small main-gauche waiting in the small of her back, currently hidden by her cloak.

She did not lead the procession however. That honor would go to the dalish woman called Khari, and she seemed to take to it with a certain zeal. The woman wore a mask, not unlike her own. However, Marceline was without her mask during this time, having opted to discard it upon leaving Orlais and instead show her face. The masks were an Orlesian tradition, and meant little outside of her homeland. That, and it would be better to allow the people to see her.

They had broken from the road some time ago as they approached the coast, the scent of salt on the air intensifying as they grew closer to their destination. The elements would play havoc on Marceline's hair, she knew it, and she did not know how long their venture to the coast would take them. She, however, said nothing and rode in silence.

If Khari cared a whit about what the elements were doing to her hair, she had a terrible way of showing it. Wisps of it stuck out from underneath her hood, curling into a rather impressive frizz once exposed to the open elements. Her eyes were good-humored from over the top of her half-mask, and she rode as though entirely oblivious to the conditions of the Coast.

At several points, she seemed to turn her attention vaguely southwest, though each time she did, she’d shake her head and return to navigating her horse down the slope shortly afterwards. It was a good half-hour of riding in the rain before anything changed. The Dalish crested a hill first, then shifted in her saddle to call back to the other two.

“Heads-up, you two. I think we found ‘em.”

Romulus put his heels into his horse and rode ahead, to catch up with Khari. His shield found its way onto his arm.

A great flapping flag could be seen in the distance, bright red against the miserable sky. It was attached to an anchored ship dipping and swaying near the rocks, far from the dancing figures on the beach: a battle between two groups, from the looks of it. On the outskirts of it stood a woman holding a bow, foot planted on a boulder. Her fingers smoothly drawing back and loosing arrows into shoulders, bellies, and hips, though if she was bothered by any of it, the sordid weather, the mewling cries as they stumbled onto their arses, she gave no indication. If anything she seemed delighted. Tossing her head back and laughing. She called out encouragements, and pointed a waggling finger at the mismatch of individuals grunting below.

The largest of the group—a Qunari, bashed his forehead into the nearest man's face, then grappled onto his leathers and tossed him aside. Unlike the woman, he was not smiling. There was a fine distinction between the fighters. One group wore unusual plates, garb reminiscent of Tevinter mercenaries: all human. Difficult to tell from the crest, but it was easier to distinguish the motley crew of pirates. Dwarf, Elves, Qunari, and a roaring woman. None of them seemed to notice anyone else happening on their exchange.

Khari fidgeted in her saddle, looking quite a bit as though it was physically difficult for her not to join the fight below, but her eyes were sharp as she surveyed the goings-on, moving from one fighter to the next, and she leaned forward slightly on her red horse, her head tilted to the left.

“They’re pretty good.”

"Mhm," Marceline agreed. "It is a coarse display, but that is not necessarily a terrible quality," she added, watching the battle intently. While she did not command the Inquisition's armies as Ser Leonhardt, she had been around Chevaliers her entire life and could deduce the effectiveness of the fighters. "They would not fit in with Ser Leonhardt's main body, but I am positive that they could prove their usefulness elsewhere." she added, her eyes rising to look out toward their ship. Of course, that's provided the Inquisition signed them on.

While they may have been a decent fighting force with their own ship to boot, that meant nothing if they asked too much from their fledgling organization. A deal had to come at a right price, as it was with most mercenaries, and she was there to ensure that. They would need to see what else they could offer first, and toward that end, Lady Marceline patiently waited for the battle to conclude.

It did so quickly, and none too softly. Blasts of blue shot from an elven lass's hands, sending a man tumbling head over heels. It was the dwarf who ended his cries, smashing her mallet into his skull. Stragglers were being pushed backwards, and cut down against the boulders and the skeletons of old boats littering the coastline. One particular man gurgled for the others to retreat back up the crest, and without helping any of his mates, began scrambling up the hillside himself. He jerked to a halt when he spotted horses pawing at the ground: and riders, simply watching. His mouth gawked open and the only thing that came out was the tip of an arrow, silencing whatever words he'd been trying to say. The man shivered and jerked, tumbling back down the hill.

In the distance, the wild-haired woman lowered her bow and stared up at the riders. She bared her teeth in greeting and put her fingers to her lips, whistling a sharp tone. She made another small movement with her hand, and her crew scattered amongst the remains, picking at discarded weapons. Others slumped down against pieces of driftwood and turned their attention towards the newcomers. Only Aslan walked to the woman's side, exchanging a few words, before her smile cracked into a grin and they both turned to begin their approach.

For someone so small, stature wise, she seemed to encompass a lot of space. She climbed the hillside without much trouble and stopped short of Khari's horse. Aslan rounded up at her side, crossing his arms over his barrel-chest. Although no words were exchanged, and he did little more than survey the new arrivals with narrowed eyes, it appeared as if he was just as much a weapon to her as the bow she'd already begun strapping to her back. The woman rubbed her hands together and arched her back, hands planted on her hips. Several cracks sounded and a long sigh followed, “So, this is the fabled Inquisition. I've heard good things about you, and I hope we haven't disappointed. Either way, I'm glad you could make it.”

She paused and clicked her tongue, “Right on time.” The woman motioned for them to follow her down the ridge, and towards the beach where the others were. Someone had already started dragging the bodies into a pile, pilfering whatever they needed into another one. Those who'd been injured lingered beside a scruffy-looking man, wrapping sopping wet bandages around proffered arms and legs. “I'm assuming you'd like to get straight to business. Serious bunch as you look. I'd like that too, honestly.”

Marceline nodded and swung off of the Orlesian charger's saddle in a single fluid motion. She landed on soft feet, though her black boots sunk into the sand with a squelch. Dreadful, she thought again, but her face betrayed nothing. In fact, her face was unreadable save an easy confidence on her brow. A neutral expression, this Zahra was a business woman, and would not take kindly to any air she may have put on. If she wished to speak business, the Lady Marceline would speak business.

She turned and pointed out her companions as she said their names, "This is Ser Khari, Ser Romulus, and I," She said, turning back to face Zahra, "Am Lady Marceline. And you are the good Captain Zahra Tavish." It was a curt introduction, but they were not in Orlesian courts, but on a beach among fighters and mercenaries. Social graces were unnecessary and the game that was to be played was not the Grand one, though she remained unfailingly polite.

"We were told that you were in search of your latest contract, and that you may possess some piece information that may be of value to the Inquisition," Marceline steepled her fingers and let them rest on her belly, taking on a relaxed posture. "So I shall cut through the pleasantries and get straight to the matter at hand. What is it that you are willing to offer, and, if you will excuse my forwardness, what are your terms?" She asked as a dark brow rose.

The Captain inclined her head to each new person that was introduced. Her eyes lingered on each one, then fell back on Lady Marceline, clearly unaware that her scrutiny might have come off as unsettling. She idly scratched at her chin but listened intently, eyebrows flagging when her name was mentioned. Aslan stared off into the distance, glancing at their horses and adjusting his stance, occasionally stepping out of the sucking sand into more sucking sand. Zahra seemed as comfortable as a cat stretching out across a bed. Even in the Storm Coast's miserable weather, rain pattering down her cheeks, whereas Aslan stood as still and silent as a wall. A formidable one.

“Yes, you're right,” Zahra tossed her head towards the ship, still bobbing up and down in the distance, “And much more besides. You see, we're in the business of information. We've traveled near everywhere, haven't we?” There was a boom of cheers and clattering weapons coming from her crew mates littered about. “That is to say, we hear more than rumors, and secrets are worth their weight in gold. If there are no little birds to whisper in our ears, we compensate in battle. You won't find a tougher crew than us, that's a guarantee. Front line, and fearless. It wouldn't matter where you intended to take us. Once a deal is struck, we're loyal-bound. To hell and back.”

Her mouth curved into a smile, “Did I mention we have a boat?” Pleasantries cast aside, Zahra threw her arms out wide and took another deep breath of the ocean spray, “Our terms are simple. We've both got something to gain. You and I. Strong alliances. What we're asking for is a place to stay. Food, warm beds. Gold, of course. We come at a fair price, but I'm sure the Inquisition can afford us.”

Though she didn't let it show, Marceline's interest was piqued. If her interest bled through, then it may cost them later in the negotiations. It was safer to regard them with a nominally impressed expression. It would be rude to do otherwise. "Your offer is intriguing," she conceded, though she turned quiet afterward. She regarded this Captain, her crew, and even her ship with a critical eye. There was nothing that would refute anything the woman had said, and if what she had said was true to the letter, then it would be unwise to simply let this opportunity sail away.

However, she was not going to simply hire them on the spot. They would need to be gauged first, to ensure what they say and what they offer were up to the standards they desired. "The Inquisition is willing to offer you and your crew a probationary contract," Marceline said, an inviting smile creeping into her lips.

"If what you say is true, and we find your services satisfactory, we will renegotiate the terms of your contract for a longer period of employment, and the pay to reflect the services you provide. Of course, food and board will certainly be provided within the deal as well. The Inquisition is kind to her people," Marceline said with a nod. It was a fair offer, she felt, and there were many potential opportunities to be had with a crew with their own ship.

"Do you find these terms fair, Captain Zahra?" Marceline asked with a raise of her brow.

The woman-Captain took another deep breath and sucked at her gums, glancing over her shoulder at her gathered crew. She was silent for a moment, as if she were considering her options, though the wild brightness in her eyes spoke volumes. And abrupt as any of her movements seemed to be, Zahra whipped back towards Lady Marceline and held her hand out for a sealing handshake, mouth twisted in a toothy grin, “You have a deal, Lady Marceline, and it's not one you'll regret making.”

"I would hope not, Captain Zahra," Marceline replied with a smile of her own, before taking her hand and shaking it.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

It wasn’t more than thirty seconds after they shook hands on the deal that they heard a loud screech, almost impossibly loud, and a corresponding rumble. The ground tremored slightly beneath their feet, and from the east, it was possible to see the masked woman, identified previously as Khari, approaching on horseback. She must have left at some point during the negotiations, but her horse trotted back towards them, its rider holding herself high off the saddle, standing in the stirrups.

“There’s a dragon here!” Her tone was excited, almost gleeful. “A really big blue one. It’s fighting a giant over there!” She jabbed a thumb over her shoulder.

With little more than a handshake, the deal was struck and Zahra stood as pleased as a coddled kitten. Albeit sopping wet and forced to keep readjusting her feet in the sucking sands beneath them. She'd much prefer being inside her ship, or else somewhere dry, but by the looks of this Inquisition of theirs, with lady Sunshine bringing up the front, it appeared as if they still had business to do on the Storm Coast. She'd truly meant through hell and back again, so questions were useless. Besides, their group looked just as motley as her own. Her smile did not wane, only bellied the relentless energy swirling in her belly. She didn't doubt that they would be just as interesting.

A shriek cut through their nice little congregation. Loud enough to rattle her skull and make her ears ring. Certainly not a sound she'd ever heard before, and she figured she'd seen many things in her travels. Aslan's meaty fists clamped down across the curved blade hanging at his hip, though Zahra placated him when she placed a hand on his shoulder. The one introduced as Khari rounded up on them. Fiery-haired and pointing off in the distance, rattling on about a dragon and a giant. She'd admit to being just a little bit distracted by her hair, bright as fire. She turned the words over in her head and clicked her tongue again, “Two things I never imagined I'd see in one day.”

It seemed as if staying anchored in these parts would be both unwise, and foolish if there was a dragon circling the coastline, even if it wasn't interested in their ship. From what little she knew of dragons, and their ilk, they were damnably large and capable of felling their mast as if it were a toy. And she'd just commandeered that thing months ago, she meant to keep it in one piece. Her hand slipped away from Aslan's shoulder and she leaned closer to him, hooking her thumb towards her gathered crew mates, already springing up to see what Khari was talking about. “I'll be traveling with these guys for awhile, but I want you to get our girl out of these waters. I'll be damned if it gets torched after coming all this way.”

Aslan nodded. His voice was a gravelly pit when he said, “Where to, Boss?”

She rubbed her knuckles against her nose, and sniffed, “Head back to that little fishing village we passed. Anchor there. Feed the boys and girls. Get some rest while you can. Keep your ears open.”

With that said, Aslan stomped down towards the pirates, and gave rumbling instructions to get their arses in gear as quickly as they could manage. Fantastic crew as they were, she'd rather see them all safe on their ship. Besides, she could prove how useful their company was while they were gone. Zahra joined Marceline at her side, and placed her hands back at her hips, fingers drumming a beat, “Besides my ship and my crew, you're also getting me. I'm a good shot. They say I never miss. Course, you'll see that yourself. A sharp eye, an arrow in the dark—whatever you need of me.”

She didn't wait for her response, only slipped back up where Khari had been stationed. She saw it for herself. Two great beasts, entangled. A giant and a blue dragon as bright as any jewel. Her heart hammered in her throat, and if she didn't have any better sense, she would have crept closer.

“Well, look at that, Ginger's right.”

Marceline noticeably kept her distance with a deep frown marking her face. "If I may make a suggestion," she began with arms crossed. "I suggest we give them both a wide berth and allow them to finish any business they may have with each other." A deafening roar from the dragon caused the air around them to shudder, and Marceline's eyes narrowed. "A very generous berth," she added.

There was a glimmer in the eye of Romulus as he pulled his horse up alongside Khari. The excitement was clear in him, but it was heavily tempered, reduced down to a small upward curl in his lips, and a gaze of wonderment towards the two battling behemoths across the bay.

"Have you ever seen anything like it?" he asked, the question directed at Khari.

“Only once.” Her tone was reverent, her enthusiasm for the experience more than apparent. Her eyes stayed fixed on the spectacle, drinking it in the way other people watched sublime artistic performances, or whatever it was that fascinated them in a similar way. “And not this close.” Her eyes narrowed, clearly from pleasure rather than anger.

“This is absolutely worth it.” What the ‘it’ she referred to was wasn’t clear, but the words seemed to mean something to her, anyway.

From where Zahra was standing their business may last a long time, though it looked as if the giant was faltering against the dragon's advances. Difficult to tell, really. She let her gaze drift away from the carnage below and she turned to consider the two riders at her side with much of the same fascination. She watched their reactions, took note of the small things. An upturned lip. The brightness in Ginger's eyes, leaning forward in her saddle as she was. Minute gestures, like the fluttering of fingers. She didn't think it would be very difficult to convince them that taking up their arms would be the better course of action. Then again. Perhaps, she was wrong and they were looking on in wonder and not with the tickling sense of violence and glory.

“It'd be a shame, just to bypass them,” Zahra shrugged her shoulders, and glanced back to Lady Marceline. The most sensible one, it seemed. Even so, she couldn't help but wonder how much those scales would sell for or what that giant was carrying for that matter. Opportunity could be had if they waited around long enough, but she supposed that Marceline wasn't the patient type. Already seeking out another route. Fighting off a dragon and a giant seemed foolish enough but she'd be hard-pressed to deny that her blood wasn't already boiling. Besides, she wasn't sure who, in fact, was in charge of this expedition. “I'm assuming you have some sort of destination in mind,” Zahra arched her eyebrows, “which isn't over there.”

"A pair," Lady Marceline answered. She returned to her steed and remounted it. She pulled in behind the three of them, still warily gaze out toward the dragon and giant. "Along with you, we were to make contact with a cult that goes by the name 'Blades of Hessarian'. Judging by the name they have given themselves, it is a highly religious organization. Perhaps we can use that to our advantage," Marceline added, her gaze lingering on Romulus for a few moments.

She then shifted attention to the path ahead, "The other destination is far more nebulous. We are to investigate the disappearance of the Grey Wardens. Our source says that they were last known to be in this area." Marceline looked out ahead for a moment before turning to look at the others. "I suggest that we meet with these Blades first, and should they prove amiable, inquire what they know of the Wardens and then proceed from there." With that Marceline nodded as if pleased with the plan of action.

"Agreed?"

“You can ride with me, by the way.” Khari had waited until Marceline had done all the necessary explaining before making her offer, but now she was holding an arm out and downwards, with the clear intention of helping Zahra up behind her. The horse certainly looked strong enough to take two, especially considering that the first was a fairly small person.

A group of religious arseholes, and some Grey Wardens. There it was, an adventure already to be had. She certainly wasn't complaining. Besides, Lady Marceline wasted no time explaining where they were going and that suited her just fine, though she was curious what made her tick. Surely, she wasn't all prim and proper. There must've been some fun buried underneath all of orderly business. “Fine by me,” Zahra bobbed her head. Now that she thought about it, she'd never actually met a Grey Warden before. Sounded like they'd have their pants in twist. She hoped not.

She followed the voice and was pleased to find out that it was Ginger who'd offered her a ride—not that she would have minded any of the others, though Ser Romulus was quiet enough to make her wonder whether or not he'd talk at all. Perhaps, she intimidated him. Wouldn't have been the first time. As for Lady Marceline, she doubted that she'd want to close the distance between them anytime soon. Not before having a few drinks. So, Zahra turned towards Khari and took up her proffered arm, boosting herself over the horses rump and settling in behind her as best as she could manage, “Thanks for the lift.”

“Not a problem.” Khari grinned, then faced forward, urging her horse to begin moving. The others did, too, and the small group was off, turning back towards the north, avoiding the dragon as advised. The slopes were fairly steep, but the horses seemed to be solid, hardy creatures, and not once did any of the legs under Zahra and Khari falter, the elf’s deft hand guiding him to the best places on the narrow, rocky paths.

They’d been riding for another fifteen minutes or so when something resolved ahead of them. It looked to be a small group of people, grouped on one side of the path. From the way they were all looking down towards the approaching Inquisition, it would seem that they awaited their arrival, and Khari slowed the horse down to approach with a little more reserve.

Most of them were armed, but with a few exceptions, they were women, younger teenagers, and older people, and none of them looked particularly well-fed, the hollows of their cheeks perhaps more sunken than was warranted. Still, there wasn’t a one that was bowed over or hunched; each held themselves tall, and tall most of them were, even the children. There were about fifteen, it looked like, though most of them were set back a ways from the road, sitting in a rough circle, but two stood right next to the road. One was a thickset man with meaty arms and a head of wild, copper-colored hair. He held a staff in one hand; it looked to serve as a walking stick more than anything, for his face showed age, especially around the eyes and mouth.

The other was perhaps of an age with Zahra, or thereabouts, and shared the man’s hair color and most of his height. Her armor was mostly leather and fur, and had nothing by way of sleeves, dark blue tattoos encircling her right arm all the way to her neck, the patterns foreign and strange—not Rivaini, not Antivan, and certainly not Dalish. Her skin was dark, much darker than that belonging to any of the others, but it was the way that she stood in the front which perhaps differentiated her the most.

“Hail, Inquisition. If you seek the Blades of Hessarian, you will not make it far.” The words were not a threat; indeed, she spoke them with a hint of amusement underneath the contralto timbre of her voice.

Lady Marceline bowed slightly in her saddle, more out of appreciation it seemed than greeting. "If I may ask then, why is that?" her tone wasn't one of contention, but genuine. Her eyes glanced between the other individuals before returning to the one that had addressed them.

The woman smiled, more with her eyes than her mouth. “They are a strange lot, with many rules that have little purpose.” She shrugged, then raised both of her hands to her neck, tugging until what seemed to be a necklace came free and dangled from one hand. The blue color of the gem in the middle suggested serpentstone, and the rest of it looked to be made of granite and some sort of scaly hide. “Such as this: without one of these in view, your group will be attacked by them on sight, something we discovered the hard way.” There was a thread of malice under her tone, but it seemed to coexist with the same amusement that had accompanied her words thus far, making her feelings on the matter difficult to pin down.

“I, therefore, find myself in a position to make a deal with you, and that is something I would like to do.”

Marceline's head tilted to the side, but likewise she betrayed nothing, making it difficult to feel out her own thoughts. She looked at the amulet for a moment before she spoke. "Hmm," she hummed to herself, as if thinking it over. "We would hear the deal before we are to commit to anything. Know, however, that we wish to negotiate with these people." Her eyes then went to burly man beside her, and then to the rest behind them.

"We will not be able to condone any retribution you may have in mind unless they instigate hostilities themselves," She said, with a sigh and subtle shake of her head. She did not seem overly surprised to hear that the Blades were hostile to strangers, only tired by it.

The woman shook her head. “You misunderstand. Perhaps I should have been clearer.” She lowered the amulet to her side, and then glanced back at the others further away from the road, the gesture inviting them to do the same. “It is partly an insistence on retribution that has whittled us so. That, and famine, and darkspawn, and any number of other disasters over the last dozen years. The gods do not answer, and so it is I who must decide.” The man at her side shifted, but said nothing.

She returned her gaze to them. “I choose to save them, whatever others may say of my honor for it.” She smiled again, sharply, like the edge of a knife. “Retribution is uninteresting to me. My terms are this: you have the amulet, which will enable you to negotiate. You have us, who are capable survivors and hunters, when there is game to be found. You have me, and the weight of my clan’s good name, which is leverage you will not be able to get elsewhere, and will carry much meaning should you have cause to deal with Avvar. We have food, and shelter, your word that we will be tolerated outside your town, protected by your troops. That is the deal.”

"Is this what remains of your clan?" Marceline asked, indicating to the others a ways away from the road.

“It is. Once we were many, and our hold large. But hunger is an enemy that cannot be fought.” Her answer was even, but any trace of humor had vanished from it.

She looked toward them for a moment more, as if internally debating something before turning her gaze toward the woman addressing them. There Marceline seemed to internally gauge her worth. Finally, she spoke. "What is your name?"

The question seemed almost to perplex the woman, as though it seemed irrelevant and she was unsure why it was being asked. “I am Signy Sky-Lance, Thane of the Wyvernhold. This is my father, Svavar Earthspeaker, our shaman.” The older man inclined his head, politely if a bit awkwardly, as though he weren’t used to that form of greeting.

"I expect Ser Leonhardt would benefit from the scouting expertise you and your clan will bring, and the medallion you hold will see to it that our business here goes smoother than without," she said with a nod, before Marceline dismounted her horse and offered this Signy an outstretched hand. "I will have to requisition hardier tents from Ser Leonhardt, but your people will have their shelter and their food. You need not starve any longer."

Signy took the proffered hand, grasping Marceline’s forearm, then nodded and relinquished the medallion. “Then we will make our way to Haven and find this Ser Leonhardt. We will be of little assistance with religious cultists, beyond what we have already provided, and without the crest, we are no longer safe here.” She released Marceline’s arm, then stepped back and whistled sharply. Almost as one, the other members of her band stood, and she gestured them to the right.

“You’ll want to go left from here. And watch out for their leader—he’s unpopular, and for good reason.” With that, she and her father turned to depart, soon disappearing down a different path.

Certainly not what she'd been expecting to see on their travels, though she'd seen enough starving folk in her travels to understand the need for powerful allies. She only shifted sideways, so that she could properly see the unusually tattooed woman at the front. Lady Sunshine was proving be an awfully good conversationalist and so, Zahra offered no words. She hadn't been hired for that anyhow. Shamans, Avvar, Thanes and hollow-cheeked tribesmen already—things she had never encountered before.

A chuckle bubbled from her lips, and she looked much like Khari had observing the dragon and giant, “Worth it.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

The Blades of Hessarian kept their camp a fair distance inland, nestled into the steep hills and cliffs that zig-zagged along the coast. The people of the region were scarce, only a few outlying fishing villages and mountain communities, tough people that looked on strangers, especially armed ones, with suspicion. While they made their way towards the bandit encampment, or cult, or whatever it was, they preoccupied themselves with following up on some clues as to the Wardens that they sought in the area.

The people of one particular fishing village remembered them, but provided little information, for they only had little to begin with, or so Romulus believed. He was fairly good at spotting lies, and these villagers spoke none, concealed nothing. The Wardens that had passed through were a group, led by an elf, apparently. They were not received with hostility, for the locals were still grateful to them for the speedy end to the Blight, years ago. The group of Wardens inquired after other Wardens, an Orlesian man and an elven woman of the Free Marches, but the villagers could tell them nothing.

Khari led the tracking effort, for the most part. Romulus wasn't too experienced in following signs in the wild. A city would've been preferable, honestly. He was often more successful at prying information from broken fingers than broken twigs. Khari was the one most comfortable with this sort of work, and so she was best suited to find where the Warden group had gone.

It took the better part of a day to find a discarded camp, well nestled between steep rock formations on a secluded hillside. There they found, among few other things, a discarded journal, mostly soaked through, but with a few legible lines through which information could be gleaned. The camp had indeed been made by the Warden group they sought, but there were no names available, either for the searching party, or the two that they pursued. They worried over a whisper in their minds, had difficulty sensing darkspawn, and ultimately determined that their objectives had since departed the region. It could only be assumed that they themselves had left soon after, and there was no indication as to where.

The search for the Wardens having proven fruitless, they were left with one more task on the Storm Coast, dealing with the Blades of Hessarian. The camp was not far now. Romulus occasionally spied shadows moving behind bushes and trees, but none ever approached. Perhaps the openly displayed medallion that the redheaded woman had presented them with was truly enough to keep their arrows and blades at bay.

He studied their new companion, the sea-captain, as they descended down steep terrain. She handled herself well, on and off land, and carried herself with confidence. He didn't doubt she was capable, and a worthwhile addition to the Inquisition, especially considering their lack of influence at sea. What interested him more was her appearance. She shared a similar tone with him, the rather distinct features of one with Rivaini heritage. Given her own profession, and the manner in which Romulus had been told he was first found, he determined her to be worth prying into.

"You are Rivaini, Captain Zahra?" he asked, the answer obvious, the question probably more in what to call her. Titles felt annoyingly necessary when a person such as him ventured to address someone. "May I ask how you acquired a ship and crew?"

Zahra leaned backwards, slightly further from Khari, and tilted her head to examine Romulus. Her mouth curved into a smile. It pulled at the scars banded across her lips, twitching back to bare her teeth, “Perceptive of you.” She readjusted herself across the horse's rump, possibly to keep herself from slipping off as they rode. Her movements were languid, thoughtful. She drew a hand up to her face and traced her fingertips across her cheekbone, trailing it down below her eye, “And so are you. Must've come from a wealthy family with those.” A rhetorical question, it seemed. Or rather, a statement. With her, it seemed difficult to tell the difference.

“Now, that's a tale that I'd gladly share,” she clicked her tongue and raised an eyebrow, watching him as a hawk might, “but I'm not in the habit of giving without taking anything so, if you'll answer a question of mine, I'll answer one of yours. Deal?”

Romulus ignored the comment about his tattoos. He knew not what they signified, or where he had acquired them. If they were some symbol of his belonging to a wealthy lineage, it hardly mattered now. "I'll answer as best I can. Ask."

Zahra made a small noise in her throat and dropped her hand back down to her side, seemingly lost in thought. She rolled her eyes skyward. There was a pause, and only the clopping of hoof beats and rattling weapons filled in the spaces of her silence. It took her a few moments, but her eyes fell back to Romulus and held his gaze, “Alright then. How is it that you came to be with the Inquisition? I'm sure you all have your own stories to tell.”

Romulus was aware that the circumstances regarding his joining were less than ideal for the Inquisition's public image, hence why they'd been largely swept under the rug in favor of Estella's more palatable background. Briefly, he tried to catch the Lady Marceline's eye, to see if he had permission to answer truthfully. Marceline nodded her consent.

"I came from Tevinter, on orders from my domina to spy on the Conclave. Somehow, I was caught in events, I don't remember. The Breach was created by the explosion, I helped stop its spread three days later. The Inquisition requested that my domina allow me to remain and help close the Breach entirely. She agreed." It was delivered without much emotion, despite the enormity of everything that had happened. Perhaps it was because Romulus always seemed uncomfortable discussing the details of his slavery with these southerners. In Minrathous, his position was not something that was looked at twice. Many magisters had favored slaves, and he was fortunate and skilled enough to be one of them. Here, they seemed to think the idea worse than death. He did not know what to make of it.

"My question still stands, if you're satisfied. The short version, maybe. We're getting close." He could see wisps of campfires in the distance. They'd be in sight of the bandit camp soon.

Her eyebrow occasionally shot up when Romulus said certain words, though she did little more than nod her head. As abrasive as she seemed to be, she was a polite listener. Her shoulders straightened when he was finished and she seemed to consider his words. If she had any questions, she thought better of voicing them aloud. It seemed as if she had many of them, tapping at her knee as she was. Her smile simpered into a flat line. For all of her bluster, she hesitated. She followed his gaze and her grin returned, kindled like fire, “So we are.”

“Short version it is. This particular ship was commandeered. Borrowed indefinitely, you might say. If you're all for justice and fairness, you might not want to hear that story. As for my crew, I picked them all up along the way. Like I said, I've been around the world, mostly. Took some of them in. Except for Aslan. He's always been at my side. Hell if I know why,” Zahra used her hands, stroked the air in broad gestures, as if it explained anything at all. She paused and crackled a rough laugh, “But I'm sure you'd be more interested hearing it from them.”

The camp belonging to the Blades of Hessarian actually looked more like a small fort, complete with a large wooden wall, watchtowers, and a gate. Blue flags were unfurled over the towers, and Romulus got the distinct sense they were approaching a military encampment rather than a bandit hideout. Their little formation of horses left them appearing quite exposed, but even when more of the Blades came into sight, they did not attack. Those who manned the gate pushed it open upon seeing the medallion.

"You come to challenge our leader?" One asked, disbelieving. The other shrugged.

"All others have failed, but you're welcome to try."

They rode through the gate, Romulus with his hand ever on the hilt of his dagger, and already with shield in hand. His eyes watched the places an ambusher might hide, but for all their strength, these bandits seemed interested in this approach, which they perhaps saw as more honorable. It would certainly be easier than fighting all of them, he supposed.

There were many tents and little fires scattered throughout the interior of the camp, but some of the structures were actual houses, well-made and seemingly well-lived in. They had been here for some time, unchallenged. It made sense, he supposed. The Blight would have had no cause to travel through this place, and after it the darkspawn would've retreated and remained underground. The region was too far from Highever for Teyrn Cousland to do anything about it, not when darkspawn threatening more populated regions took priority. No, the Blades of Hessarian were masters of this land, and had been for some time. Removing them would not be easy. Controlling them would be more profitable.

"Who among you challenges the Blades of Hessarian?" demanded a man, standing in front of a throne carved from wood and stone. He was a large brute of a man, lightly armored and armed with a hand axe and round shield. His beard and hair were both thick and blond, in all a very Fereldan appearance. At his sides, a pair of mabari hounds clad in spiked plates of armor growled at the approaching strangers.

Marceline had dismounted her horse and stood straight as the man spoke. She was not cowed by the installation the Blades had, nor did she seem fearful standing in front of the man. As she spoke, she kept her head level and her arms crossed. A relaxed stance. "We represent the Inquisition and would ask to parley. We need not resort to violence," she said.

The rest dismounted in turn, and all approached the leader of the Blades on foot. He crossed his arms at Marceline's words, narrowing his eyes at all of them. "You carry the Crest of Mercy. This earns you the right to a challenge, no more. The Blades of Hessarian will not negotiate with outsiders, not under my command." He took a threatening step forward, his two hounds behind him drooling with anticipation. He pointed at Marceline and the others with the spike atop his axe.

"Name your two champions. One for me, and the other for my dogs. That's how this works."

When it seemed like words get them nowhere, Marceline's eyelids dropped and she stared down her nose at him. Instead of addressing the brute anymore she turned and looked toward the others to listen to their comments.

“Me. I volunteer.” It was spoken immediately, probably before anyone else had a chance to get a word in edgewise. From the way Khari sat, though, tense as a bowstring and tall as she could make herself, she’d been anticipating this from the very start. As if to match actions to words, she tossed her leg easily over the side of the horse, hopping to the ground in a fluid motion that left Zahra behind her undisturbed.

“Don’t care what, either. Those dogs look vicious and mean, but the big man looks more vicious and meaner.” Her eyes glittered, and she turned them towards Romulus, perhaps because he was, after all, the Herald here. Or perhaps just because she anticipated him being the other party, it was hard to say for sure. Her hand was already reaching back for the hilt of her sword.

Zahra sucked at her gums, and slid off the horse as well, eying the Blades of Hessarian with little more than a crinkled nose. Her fingers, however, twitched at her sides. One of them lingered slightly behind her back—closest to her bow, fingering the string as if it were a musical instrument to be plucked. Her stance bellied a readiness that was often seen in warriors, and her eyes danced not with the wariness that any of the others might have had, but excitement, “Let them have their way then. I don't doubt any of your abilities.”

Romulus stepped forward beside Khari, drawing his dagger, wordless in his intent. It was obvious what he was planning on doing, and that was volunteering. He was trained for killing important targets, mages or otherwise. Killing this man and his dogs would make killing the rest unnecessary, and would possibly make them pliable to the Inquisition's will. But, it was ultimately Marceline's duty to direct the mission, and so Romulus glanced again to her for her approval.

She looked at the three of them in contemplation before she turned back to the Fereldan and his hounds. She held them in her gaze, sizing them up before she closed her eyes and sighed, apparently having decided on something. Marceline then began to undo the clasp to the cloak around her shoulders. "Khari," she began, "If you would handle the hounds?" Once the cloak was free, she approached Zahra and handed it to her, giving her an appreciative look. Zahra, in turn, folded and tucked the cloak underneath her arm and grinned at the others, obviously pleased by the outcome.

"I shall answer his challenge," she said, reaching into her pocket to produce a length of black fabric. As she used it to tie her hair back into a bun, she looked to Romulus somewhat apologetically. "Your position in the Inquisition is far too important to risk on something I can handle myself, Lord Herald," she explained. By her tone, it was clear that her usage of the title of Herald was not so much meant for him, but for the Blades. Romulus did not move at first, looking briefly at Khari and then back to Marceline. His face was stone, more so than usual, but eventually he sheathed his dagger, and stepped back, deferring to her.

Turning back to the Fereldan, her arms free and her hair out of the way she drew the rapier at her side with one hand, and the main-gauche with the other. She held the rapier horizontally at eye level, while the dagger waited in the shadows.

"Begin."

It was probably only meant to commence the match between Marceline and the leader of the Blades, but it seemed to serve well enough as a signal for Khari, as well. She still wore her cloak, and the steel mask, as well, and the hounds leapt for her as one. She immediately jumped backwards, positioning herself a fair distance behind Marceline, but still at her back, obviously to prevent the mabari from flanking her. One of the dogs landed short, but the other had taken an extra step before jumping at her, and she was forced to block, swinging her fist around to punch it directly in the nose.

That didn’t seem to do much, perhaps due to the armor plating it had, and though it failed to get a good hold on her, it did knock her to the ground. Chances were, it weighed about the same as she did, maybe a little more with the armor, and the ground was muddy and slick. Khari fell, but she did so easily, almost as if she’d been expecting it, and she laughed as she slid backwards on the mud about a foot before coming to a stop, rolling onto her feet quickly and bringing her sword around for the next exchange.

Marceline simply shook her head most likely at what was Khari's laughter. When it was clear that it was not her that going to make the first move, the Fereldan made his own instead. With his first step forward, she took her first backward. Likewise for the second. The slow retreat seemed to have angered the man, because a scowl leapt into his face before he threw himself at Marceline.

Instead of rushing forward to meet him, and instead of retreating backward and risk tripping into the fight Khari was in, she danced to the side and out of the way, carefully watching his weapons with each step. Marceline carried herself with practiced steps and honed grace. It was becoming clear that she was no stranger to a duel. The rapier never dropped below eye level, at least until it bobbed upward, as if to entice him to try again.

Khari, meanwhile, wasn’t particularly graceful at all. She was all motion, a constant back-and-forth, push-and-pull, like the flow of the tides, and the part of the field she and the dogs occupied was swiftly becoming even more of a mud pit than it had been before, as she and her four-legged foes churned it up with the strength of their strides. It seemed to be ankle-deep, in most places, but their vigor had splashed large portions of it onto them, until the dogs were gaining a coat to their chests and Khari was just wearing it everywhere. She repelled their attacks mostly by swatting them away with large, sweeping strokes of her sword, but she never overshot, never left herself open for longer than she could recover.

One of them dove low, going in for her ankle, most likely, but she went low, too, diverting to the side and pivoting, the force of the motion carrying her through the next stroke, which cleanly severed one of its legs, just below where the armor protected. It went down on its side, so she opened up its belly with the subsequent blow, ending its life with celerity.

"It appears as if you overestimated your hounds," Marceline taunted after the hound that Khari dispatched cried aloud. The leader of the blades simply grunted angrily and charged her again. This time, she did not retreat, but she never let her eyes move away from his shield and axe. He came in hard for a horizontal swipe, but Marceline apparently had seen it coming and took a step backward to let it pass harmlessly in front her. She had also seen the backswing coming, and parried it with the main-gauche, pushing it away from her.

A fierce shield block followed, but Marceline easily dipped under it and spun away, coming out unscatched on the other side of him. She put a few steps between instead of pressing an attack, before resetting the positioning of her rapier. "It also appears as if your hounds were much more competent," she taunted again. The mounting frustrations on the Fereldan's face was visible to all, and it was easy to see that his motions were becoming more and more wild with each miss and each taunt.

In the aftermath of the death of its counterpart, the second mabari fought all the harder, seemingly confirming the rumors about their intelligence and loyalty, and it was certainly well-trained for battle. It snarled at Khari, and lunged, this time from too close for her to merely duck away, and they both hit the ground with a wet squelch. It was a bit hard to see exactly what happened after that—a great deal of rolling was involved, as both tried to get the necessary leverage to finish the other off. With a half-yell, half-snarl of her own, though, Khari hauled the dog off her and threw herself onto it, planting a knee in its chest and a hand beneath its jaw, tipping its head back too far to bite her and rendering most of its powerful muscles useless, since it couldn’t get leverage to push her off.

With a grunt, she brought her sword towards her with her second hand, laying the blade over its throat under her first, then leaning into it. Given the lack of armor there, it bit in easily, and the hound went still beneath her. She climbed to her feet, coated almost head to toe in wet earth worn proudly, almost, glancing towards Marceline and her foe, and her teeth flashed at him from under the mask, though it it was a smile, a grimace, or something else wasn’t evident.

“Waste of good dogs, on your pride.” Her tone was clearly derisive, and the jab played off Marceline’s like taunts surprisingly well, for someone who’d been wholeheartedly engaged in her own confrontation.

"She is correct, you know?" Marceline said, with a brow raised. Her answer was immediate, a rage induced yell and the Fereldan threw everything at her in his next flurry. However, even in the mud, Marceline proved quicker, stepping out of the way of errant strikes and batting away the weaker ones with her main-gauche. Despite the ferocity, it was clear that the fight was beginning to strain him. The wide angles, the wild slashes, the ferocity, even in the rain it was easy to tell the Fereldan was laboring.

She backstepped one more time before the man barked at her, taken over by his rage. "Fight Ba--urk," he was never able to finish the sentence. Marceline siezed the opportunity provided by the man opening his mouth to speak to drive the tip of her rapier into his throat. He was choking on his blood before he fell to his knees, his weapons quickly sinking into the muck beside him.

"We could have just spoken," Marceline said, the man tipping over into the mud, lifeless. She sheathed main-gauche and produced a linen hankerchief from a pocket. She then proceeded to wipe the beads of blood from the tip of her rapier, before she sheathed it as well. Turning to face Khari, she looked her up and down before she offered the woman herself the handkerchief.

Khari only laughed, waving the offer away with a good-natured grin. “Gonna take more than that, I think. Rain should do for most of it." They were quite the contrast, one of them as neat as it was likely possible to be out here and the other wearing muck from the crown of her head to the toes of her boots, but they'd both been successful.

It was Zahra who first stepped forward to congratulate them on their victories. Arms held out wide as if she might embrace them, though she did not. Instead she stood in front of Khari and settled her hands on her hips, smiling broadly, “Now that was a damn good fight. I'm glad the brute was stupid enough to challenge you.” Her eyes flicked from Khari's mud-speckled face, to Lady Marceline's sheathed blade and back up to hers, which was noticeabl cleaner, “It might've been easier to talk, but less fun, you must admit.”

Whatever her idea of fun was, it obviously lied in the more violent aspects of their journey. Her expression shifted as she looked between the two, sizing them up before she circled around Khari. Glancing over her shoulder, Zahra looked mildly apologetic as she held out Marceline's cloak, “Forgive me, but I think I'll be riding with her the rest of the way. At least until the rain does its work.” Khari only shrugged.

“Suit yourself."

As Romulus mounted, one of the Blades of Hessarian approached. "You'll be hearing from us, Inquisition," he said, not at all in an unfriendly manner. "You've proven yourselves worthy, and earned the right of command. In the Storm Coast, your will is our own." Romulus pulled his hood up over his head, as the rain began to come down ever harder.

They were not unlike slaves, he thought. Serving without question at the whim of the most dangerous person they could find.

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

The snow crunched under Zahra's feet as she stepped out of the tavern she'd just recently been occupying. Sure, Lady Sunshine had instructed her to find a woman named Asala, but in the midst of her searching she'd come across this fancy little place. An oasis settled in the mountaintops, filled with the warmth of a crackling fireplace and the sound of a woman's voice, crooning soft-spoken chanties, and tunes she'd never heard of before. There were fairly friendly faces, though they seemed curious as to who she was. Fortunately, it was not a chilly reception. She didn't ask too many questions. Only where she might find this Asala. The alchemists home. Accompanied by a waggling finger pointed in the opposite direction. If the directions were anything to go by all she needed to do was step outside of the building and climb up the pathway.

Before she shut the door behind her, Zahra glanced over her shoulder. Aslan had chosen to come with her as well. In strange lands, familiar faces were welcomed. Especially when her feet were on dry land—or frozen lands, unfamiliar even to her. Never had she seen so many mountains, crested with white caps. Goosebumps raised across her arms, and she rubbed at them with her hands. Never had she been in a place so cold. She let out a low whistle, gestured with her fingers, and slammed the door behind her. He seldom stayed behind, but she'd instructed him to hold the fort while she explored Haven. Best not to have a lumbering Qunari stomping behind her, scowling as he often did. It might not send the right impression. Besides, she'd be right back here. The barkeep had Antivan brandy in her stores, and she had enough coin to spare.

Frostback Mountains. Cold as hell.

She trudged up the slope and pulled the cloak tighter around her shoulders. As stolid as she'd like others to believe she was, she ached to snuggle closer to the campfires she could just see in her peripherals. There were others there, surrounding the fires, holding out their hands to the flames. In the distance, she could hear the clattering of swords and shields. Shouted instructions that grew more and more irritated. As she made her ascent, she spotted erected tents, and people shuffling in and out of them. It wasn't exactly a colorful place to be, but she supposed the Inquisition was all business, and only a little bit of fun, if you knew where to look for it. She crested the top of the hill and planted her hands on her hips, eying the three thatched buildings. Specificity would have been nice, but she'd always been a gambling woman. There was one with a sign, and so, she choose that one.

Like a yowling cat coming in from the cold, Zahra burst into the building and pushed it closed behind her. A raspy laugh bubbled from her lips. She wasn't sure if she'd chosen right, but someone else was in here. Curled up on stool with her back facing her, hunched over whatever she was working on. Tubes and glass decanters littered the tables, as well as books and other objects she'd never laid eyes on before. The horns did not elude her. Fancy that. A Qunari woman. She leaned her back against the door and chewed at the inside of her mouth, “You a lady named Asala?”

There was a clatter of something and the woman's shoulder jerked out of apparent surprise. Zahra had entered rather abruptly and the woman did not seem to expecting it. A moment passed with the woman staring at whatever it was she had been working on, but she said something low under her breath and turned in her seat to greet Zahra.

"I, uh... I am?" she answered, stumbling over her words. Though Qunari, it was clear that she was still rather young. She twitched, glancing back to what she had been working on. Once she had shifted she revealed a mortar and pestle, with a number of reagents next to it. However, the mortar was currently on its side, and the pestle located not far away, dripping with some substance.

Another round of laughter wheezed from her lungs, though this time Zahra had a hard time recovering. She bent double, clapped her hands to her knees, and knuckled at her eyes. Once she'd properly regained her composure, she straightened back up and pushed away from the door. A smile twitched at her lips, and only faltered when the Qunari turned to face her. Not what she was expecting at all. Hair as white as snow, and pretty as a kitten, “Aren't you? Asala, that is. Y'see, Lady Sunshi—Marceline wasn't specific with who I was supposed to be meeting.”

So meek for one so imposing in stature. Even if she was sitting down, she could tell how much taller she was. Supposing she only had Aslan to compare to, it might've not been a fair observation. Zahra stepped closer and peered over her shoulders, scrutinizing her workspace. Mortars and pestles, some kind of liquid. From whatever fancies she liked to dredge up, Qunari wielded humongous weapons, flexed their muscles, and spoke in bugling volumes. This, in any case, was a pleasant surprise. “She said this Asala would be showing me around Haven. Introducing me to interesting folk,” she continued, absently reaching out for the dribbling pestle.

"She... she, uh, did?" Asala stammered, slowly taking the mortar in hand and steadily pulled it out of Zahra's reach. She glanced between her and the workstation she had set up for herself. Asala then gave her a shakey smile and held up an unsteady finger. "O-one moment, please?" she asked before turning back to the mortar and pestle.

Zahra complied and retracted her grubby fingers, allowing Asala far more personal space than she usually allowed people she'd just become acquainted with. Mostly because she asked so politely. She gave her environment another once over as soon as Asala turned back towards her work. And if she hadn't been so curious as to what exactly she was working on, she might have poked around the place: surrounded by bundles of craggy roots, leaves and strange plants, as they were.

"I promised L-Leon that I w-would do this for him," she revealed, plucking some aromatic purple and green leaves from nearby and tossed them into the mixture before returning to the pestel. A moment more of crushing the leaves, she set the pestle down and moved the mortar over a nearby bowl. Inside, a thick creamy mixture that smelled of honey and oats waited. She mixed the juices with the cream and mixed both ingredients thoroughly.

She then reached for another container, this one a wide mouthed bottle. "I-I am sorry, I am al-almost done," she stuttered again, pulling the cream into the container, before finally fastening a lid onto it. Finally done, she stood quickly and moved around Zahra to grab a scarlet cloak that hung from a nail on the wall.

"Ri-right. Where do... who... uh." She said trailing off, apparently not knowing how to phrase the question she wanted to ask.

Crunching dried herbs, mixing things together to make something else, was unusual. Lest it concocted some kind of new drink, Zahra had no interest in such things. She remembered, in a vague sense, that there had been herbalists in her village, though they'd been nothing like Asala. With paper-thin hands, drooping eyes, always trembling as they worked to cure some ailment—she hadn't thought they were impressive, though she hadto admit that this particular mixture smelled... fairly nice. Appetizing even. She ignored the senseless urge to dip her fingers in and stepped away out of her path, “Leon? Might be he's one of those interesting folk I'm supposed to meet.”

She readjusted her cloak and tilted her head, mouth twisting into a grin, “Oh. My manners. My name is Zahra Killiani Tavish. Captain, at that.” There was a considerate pause, a weighing of options. While she may have drawn out the game as long as she possibly could, and continuously correct Asala's attempts at spluttering out her name, often in misleading ways. It felt meaner than she meant it to be. A silly game played with new recruits. But Asala was not one. And she doubted the game would be well-received. Zahra glanced up at the ceiling and stuck out her hand, “But you can call me Zahra.”

“Well. Now that that's done,” she tipped her head towards the bottle of fragrant slime, “we could bring it to its destination, and we could meet your friends on the way.”

"Yes, uh... let's go to the... Chantry, then?" Asala asked rather unsure. Still despite the moment of hesitation, she threw the cloak over her shoulders and clasped it under her chin tightly. Apparently she found the cold as distasteful as Zahra did. They set out from the Alchemist's house and headed toward the direction of the Chantry, though noticably the woman kept looking back at Zahra, though never far enough to actually meet her eyes.

They were on the way up the slope near a small cluster of houses when they were met by a man walking in the opposite direction. He had a sort of air about him that was easy to identify as belonging to one of those noble sorts, if the fact that his cloak was lined with sable and appeared to be otherwise as much silk as linen wasn’t enough to tell. He paused a moment in his stride upon spotting them, apparently at least acquainted with Asala, though nothing much in his expression gave away any particular feeling on his part. He blinked saturated-blue eyes at the both of them, flicking his glance from one to the other, then lifted a brow.

“Forgive me if I operate under a mistaken assumption, but in the event you’re looking for the tavern, you’re going the wrong way.” He didn’t sound all that sorry, actually, and a little smile flirted with one edge of his mouth.

It was Zahra who answered him first, trailing up beside Asala in order to properly snake her arm around her midsection, “Tavern, love? No. I've already come from that direction. Lovely place. Kitten here is showing me the ropes.” The poor lass seemed petrified of her. Of course, she'd have to rectify that. It wouldn't do if anyone here walked on eggshells around her. At least without her intentionally intimidating anyone. Her hand slowly retracted back to her side, releasing Asala from the possibly unwanted embrace. She wasn't sure if this was someone of importance, but she found his eyes peculiar enough. Bright as the open skies. She shoved her hands under her armpits, seeking warmth, and stared back at him, unabashed. There'd been a soft cry from Asala, and a short sidestep.

The man seemed to be entertained by the byplay, if nothing else, and flicked his glance back and forth between them once. “Ah, I see. You must be Captain Tavish, then. Well, don’t allow me to delay you; I’m sure there are interesting things to be seen, people far more important than I to be met, and so on.” His tone carried a thread of humor, as if there were some joke in that only he could identify. He inclined his head in a motion almost too deferentially-polite, and started on his way.

Haven was a small place. Zahra shouldn't have been too surprised that word had spread of her arrival, though she still was. Important people, indeed. Apparently, he found himself falling short, because he'd chosen not to introduce himself. At least, this one seemed to have some indication of fun in him. She tipped her head in his direction, a small smirk playing on her lips.

"Oh, um, Cy-Cyrus?" Asala asked, stepping forward to catch his attention. "Where... uh, is Estella in the Chantry?"

He paused his step and glanced back over his shoulder. “The commander’s office, last I knew.” Shrugging as though it was of little concern, he faced forward again and left them to their own devices.

Asala passed a smile off to Zahra before she continued to lead her upward toward the Chantry. They passed through the large double doors in to the spacious main hall. Asala led into the hall a ways until she turned and pulled up to a door off to the side. Before she opened it however, she spared a few words for Zahra. "Leon's office is, uh, rather small. So. Be aware of that," she said, allowing her to open the door herself. Zahra's eyebrow quirked up at that, though she seemed far too curious to ask what she'd meant. In any case, she would know soon enough.

The door was already cracked, and so fell open at a light touch, revealing that the interior of the room was, indeed, quite small. Both of its occupants were currently standing, one towering over the other by a full foot, though he appeared to be doing his best not to crowd her. “—just wanted to make sure you’re certain,” he was saying, but then he noticed their entrance, and his shift in attention drew her notice as well, and both faced the newcomers.

The man, in addition to being extremely tall, was colored in light tones, from his platinum hair to his fair complexion, a contrast to the dark blue of the tunic he wore. The girl was raven-haired and had eyes of an identical color to the man named Cyrus, as well as a nearly identical, if more feminine, facial structure. Her brows rose at the appearance of the other two, and it was she who spoke first. “Asala? Is something the matter?”

The room's other occupant seemed to have a better understanding of what must be going on. “Ah. Captain Tavish, I presume? Lady Marceline told me to expect you at some point. I’m Leon, and this is Estella, one of the Heralds.” He nodded politely, and Estella half-bowed, offering a small smile.

So, that was what Asala had meant by small. It's cramped in the way that makes her twitch for space. For the blue expanse of the sea. An oppressive room housing two people, huddled together and discussing something she could not discern. Zahra eyed the occupants and beamed with the kind of enthusiasm she'd had on the beach, slaughtering Tevinter soldiers. Haven was filled with curious-looking individuals. Ones who might have suited her merry little crew aboard the Riptide. At least, they had the good sense for variety. Her eyes shifted back towards Asala, idling in the doorway. And racial acceptance. It was a pleasant surprise. She'd made many bad calls when it came to contracts, but she believed that this was not one of them.

“Captain Zahra Tavish,” she echoed, drawing out the syllables, rolling them over her tongue, “A pleasure to meet you.” Another brilliant smile followed with a languid bow of her own. She straightened up and planted her hands at her hips, dark eyes trailing across Leon's broad shoulders, and falling back towards Estella. Another Herald. There was a moment a familiarity, though she was fairly certain she'd never see this woman before. Zahra abruptly snapped her fingers, stepped a little closer and sucked at her teeth, “That's it. The same eyes. Do you have a brother? Because if not, you've a curious double here in Haven.”

“You’ve met Cyrus.” It wasn’t a question, though Estella’s mouth pulled up at one corner, making the resemblance even stronger between them. “We’re siblings, yes. Twins, actually.” The smile faded, naturally enough, and she passed her glance from Zahra to Asala again, tipping her head to one side. “Were you here for some particular reason, or just to meet the Commander? I understand you’ve come with a crew, so I’d like to see them at some point, and thank all of you for helping us.” She didn’t seem to consider it a possibility that anyone would have ventured this far to meet her.

Zahra hummed in reply, and bobbed her head in a nod. Of course, there were twins in Haven. Unusual enough given their location. Honestly, she'd only met one other set of twins in her life. And that was in a rumpled brothel nestled in the darker parts of Denerim. Recalling the event now, it wasn't likely that they were twins at all. There was a poignant pause as she reflected on her time spent there, but Estella was already pulling her back in to know why she'd come all this way, “No specific reason. Marcy thought it'd be prudent to become better acquainted with the Inquisition, and so did I.”

“As soon as they've all landed, we'd be glad to have some proper introductions.” In the tavern. Hopefully. Her crew might've been a rowdy bunch in comparison, but they would fit in just as well. She hooked a thumb towards Asala and grinned brightly, “Besides that, Kitten here had a package to deliver.” She omitted the words sludge and delicious-smelling slime, though she was sure that whatever Asala had to give Leon encompassed both of those things.

"Oh! Uh..." Asala sputtered, apparently surprised at being put on the spot. She went to the pack at her side and fumbled within it for a moment before she retrieved the container she'd placed in it earlier. She held it up for Leon to see. "The balm you, uh, you asked for," she said, crossing the distance to personally hand to him. "Twice a day, if at all possible," she added.

His brows upraised with surprise, perhaps at the timing, Leon accepted the vessel with a small half-smile. “You needn’t have hastened,” he murmured, but he was clearly pleased by it, and pocketed the glassware with a nod of acquiescence to the instructions. “My thanks, Miss Asala.”

Estella was still wearing her own modest smile, and it seemed to encompass the both of them. “It was good to meet you, Captain; thank you for dropping by. I’m sure we’ll run into each other more often as time goes on, and please do let me know when your crew arrives.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

Romulus could not calm the storm in his mind.

Chryseis Viridius was in Redcliffe, and he hadn't known it until she walked into the room with him. He'd only barely managed to avoid ruining the cover she wanted him to have, thanks to the intervention from Cyrus. Thankfully, Cassius had paid him little mind after that. He was, after all, still just a runaway slave to him, beneath worry or consideration, especially next to his lost apprentice. And Estella had forced him to make a quick exit.

He could have managed well enough if it had just been Cassius. He was just another magister, despite their history. Romulus had only ever called the man dominus for a period of a few short years, before he was transitioned fully into the service of his daughter. Chryseis was running her own affairs almost immediately after the first attempt on her life, and it was not long before she was split off from her father almost completely. Even when he had been in the man's service, it was as one of a much larger group of slaves. Chryseis was the one to have seen the worth in him, and made him into her blade.

Her being here just seem to muddle an already confusing situation. He expected to be glad to have her direct presence again, commands to follow, a side that he knew he could be on, a return to his old ways of not needing to think, or decide anything. But she was having him pose like a runaway slave, and he knew not why, or what she was doing here. He trusted her, but also knew her to be a woman capable of many things.

That... and he couldn't shake the dislike he felt for letting others see him around her. Perhaps he wasn't any different here than before, but he found himself ever so slightly ashamed, of himself. A feeling nagged him, telling him that he should want more, even if he knew it to be a dangerous path. Could any of them understand his difficulties? Was he capable of explaining?

For now, he didn't much want to. The waiting was proving agonizing, so he occupied himself with walking instead, and listening. Very few people recognized him for who he was, even with the marks on his face. He wore no identifying clothing, nor did he openly display the mark on his hand. He watched people, conversations, peculiarities, and learned a bit about this mage rebellion to keep his mind busy, until the sun could set. He learned several things. Very few Tranquil not already out of the Circles had survived the initial rebellions. One of the Chantry sisters remaining was a smuggler, but currently out of work. An elven man was trying to find a traveler willing to bring flowers to his wife's grave. And few of the people present were happy about anyone from Tevinter being there.

Eventually, Romulus found himself wandering up towards a broken old watchtower, hoping to get a better view of the castle fortifications from there. Cassius and his guards had no doubt moved in and secured the place. Knowing more of it could only benefit them.

The watchtower had a ladder which led up to what was now a wooden platform of solid, if only partially intact, construction. The wall that was supposed to be there had fallen away at an angle, meaning that, essentially, the platform looked out over the area uninhibited by architecture. It would seem, however, that Romulus was not the first person to arrive there, or have the thought of using it for the view, because Khari was already present, her legs dangling over the edge of the platform, knocking her heels occasionally against the stone and mortar of the fragmented outside wall. Her sword lay flat behind her, within easy reaching distance, though she clearly didn’t expect to have to use it, from her relaxed posture.

She glanced over her shoulder at the sound of the old ladder, her expression pensive for all of a moment before she recognized him and grinned. “Hey, you. Did you come for the view, or the solitude? ‘Cause I’m bound to ruin the second one.” As was quite common, she appeared to be eating, this time from a loaf of bread fresh enough that it still steamed, from which she periodically tore pieces.

Despite himself, Romulus snorted slightly, and grinned. He stopped near the base of the ladder, turning towards Redcliffe's castle and crossing his arms. The sun was beginning to lower in the sky, at least, currently throwing light directly at him. He squinted and gazed out at the fortress beyond.

"Scouting. The castle looks difficult to get into. The walls would be the best way, but it wouldn't be an easy climb." This was not an uncommon task for him, finding ways to get into a place that where he didn't belong. He'd infiltrated the Conclave, after all... though he didn't quite remember how.

Suddenly, he remembered Khari had not been present for any of the proceedings in the tavern, and quite possibly didn't know what was going on. She didn't seem the type to inquire, either, if it was complicated magical business that in general was above her head. Romulus couldn't help but think it was good that she wasn't there. She might've caused an issue that they really didn't need.

"Have you been told what the situation is, with the mages?"

She hummed a bit, keeping her eyes out on the castle. “Not really. But I heard a name I recognized. Seems… complicated.” She leaned over in her position, looking down at him directly with an arched brow, a clear invitation to elaborate, but she didn’t seem inclined to press otherwise. “View’s better up here, you know. Also, there’s bread in it for you if you come sit with me, and this stuff’s delicious. In case my excellent company’s not enough incentive.” She patted the platform next to herself with obvious exaggeration.

He looked away from the castle, up at the bread Khari held. Soon enough, he was scaling the ladder, skipping a few rungs, and climbing up on the platform with her, though he looked down at it warily when it creaked slightly under the weight of both of them. The repair efforts on the tower, if they could be called that, had clearly been halted some time ago with all of the region's upheaval, Redcliffe especially.

Romulus split the bread with Khari, exhaling deeply through his nostrils as he chewed. He was silent for a while, and no longer really focusing on the castle. He was a bit tired of it all, tired of worrying about every move and every word. It felt much better to simply do as Khari seemed to, and not be bothered by any of it. If only he were in a position to do so more permanently.

"It is complicated," he finally said, between bites. "But there's no point making any judgements on it until I know more. We'll be speaking tonight." For now, he didn't mind enjoying good bread and a good view.

“Fine by me.” The reply was accompanied by a shrug, and she leaned back on one hand, holding her food in the other, apparently quite content, for the moment, to do the same.

A smoky voice called up from below Romulus and Khari's position, “Partying without me?” Coming from the side of the ladder they had both used. It belonged to the smarmy pirate-Captain, already flashing a toothy grin. When exactly she'd managed to creep up on them was anyone's guess, but she had already taken her own post against the tower's base, arms neatly folded over her chest. And if she'd been eavesdropping on their conversation, she gave no indication of embarrassment or guilt. From the smile plastered on her lips, it was clear that she was pleased by something. She occasionally lifted her chin and stared across the rolling waves, tilting her face as if relishing a lover's caress.

There was a short pause, and the sound of shuffling leathers, as Zahra moved further away so that she could see them properly. One of her eyebrows flagged up inquiringly. Whatever attempts at wrestling down the excitement she obviously felt was reflected in her eyes, dancing like the frothy waves. She held her hands out wide, and waggled her fingers, “I wasn't sure if you'd be interested. But fancy a walk along the docks?”

Romulus hadn't expected a visit from the pirate captain, but it wasn't unwelcome. She seemed like a good woman to kill time with, putting Romulus in the company of two of the best, then. He shrugged at Khari, and then nimbly slid down the ladder to the bottom, landing lightly on his feet.

"Don't see why not."

Khari crammed the rest of the bread she was holding into her mouth at once, though fortunately she seemed polite enough to finish chewing before she spoke, at least. It took her a few seconds to strap her sword properly to her back, and then she slid down the ladder after Romulus, landing surprisingly lightly for someone wearing armor.

“Sure. Didn’t have anything more exciting planned, anyhow.” She flashed her usual ragged grin and shrugged.

The Redcliffe docks were fairly active, though this was no city, and could not possibly be mistaken for a port. The lake had no real ships, as they were all contained to the Waking Sea, though there was a way to slip through, at the northernmost point, close to the now-empty Calenhad Circle tower. Currently, the docks were a site of trading, the rather unique conditions of the village meaning that all sorts were currently passing through, setting up makeshift stalls, and doing their unique form of preying upon the Circle mages, some of which were still a bit fresh to the outside world.

In busy places like these, Romulus felt a bit closer to home. The sounds of voices were easy to get lost in, and both Zahra and Khari did no small amount of talking on either side of him. Most important of his crowd-oriented skills was to pick out the other individuals that were a part of it, but not participating in it. The other people that would rather watch, and listen, than speak. One of these in particular stuck out fairly obviously to Romulus.

He was an older man, probably in his fifties, wearing a long coat of a red-orange leather, with a thick, wide collar. His skin was dusky, evidence of either Rivaini or Antivan heritage, though Romulus hadn't gotten a close enough look to determine which. His hair and beard were a soft brown, both long and full. He had the look of a seafarer about him, judging by his light, loose clothes under the coat. He'd been keeping his distance while they moved through the docks, but unmistakably watching their group. Well, unmistakable to Romulus at least.

"There's a man following us, watching," he said to his two companions. "Behind me, at the dock's edge. Long red coat. Either of you know him?" He wondered if the man wasn't there to see Zahra. She seemed like a woman that would make a fair amount of both friends and enemies.

Khari turned very obviously to look over her shoulder, clearly either unaware that it would be incredibly easy to spot or just not caring. When she noticed the person in question, she lifted a hand, and waved, wiggling her fingers and smiling a little too widely for the situation. She turned back though, her expression dropping back to something more ordinary, and lifted a shoulder. “Never seen that guy before in my life. We could just ask him?" Despite her emphasis, her statement rose at the end to become a question, and she arched a brow.

Zahra sauntered down the docks, as content as a rat might've been skirting down a rusty pipe. She seemed far too busy scrutinizing the boats, dipping in the waters, to notice anyone watching them. Lips pulled into a permanent smile. She halted in mid-trot when Romulus indicated that someone had been actually paying them more mind than was necessary. There was a brief pause, and a murmured curse, before she followed Khari's example and simply turned on her heels to face whoever was rude enough to follow them. She wasn't, however, particularly surprised. One had to wonder whether or not this was a common occurrence.

“Bloody hell,” were the first words hissing from between her teeth, “No need to ask him. His name is Borja. Captain Borja. What the hell does he want?” From the way her smile faded into a tight-lipped frown, Zahra certainly recognized the man Romulus was pointing out. Her expression seemed a few shades more sour, though she did offer bearded man a cheeky smile, one that did not quite reach her eyes. She turned back towards Romulus, and Khari both, and let out a soft sigh, “We'd best ask him what he wants. He's not one to simply walk away.” She shuffled towards Borja, steps a little heavier this time.

"Fair enough,” Romulus said. He supposed he should have been put more on edge by the fact that they had another captain, apparently a man to give Zahra some pause, on their tail. Really, Romulus was just a bit relieved that he was there for Zahra, in all likelihood, since the two apparently knew each other. Perhaps it would also be interesting to meet someone else from the northern seas.

"I’ll follow your lead.” Zahra was the captain here, the one with experience dealing with these types. Romulus preferred a way to get through this without saying anything at all, if it was possible. Thus, he followed a half-step behind Zahra as they walked directly towards Borja, not giving him any option to quietly slip away. His fingers fumbled together near belt-level, and he didn’t turn his head towards them, but from the way he’d centered his hips, it was obvious he knew they were approaching. If Romulus had to peg it as anything, he’d guess the man was actually a bit shy.

He glanced up at Zahra first, offering a brief flash of a smile, his teeth whiter than Romulus had expected. He spared a glance for Khari as well, before his eyes lingered on Romulus a bit longer than he preferred. He was a tall man, around six feet, but from the way he carried himself, he actually seemed a bit shorter than that. “Zahra Tavish,” he greeted, his voice a low growl, but quiet, almost tentative, like the words weren’t easily forced from him. “Captain, of course I should say, forgive me. Didn’t expect to see you in Redcliffe. A… pleasure, as always.”

Zahra's mouth twitched up at the edges as if she were trying to conjure up a kinder, well-intentioned part of herself and failing horribly at it. She seemed to decide on something less friendly. A small, mirthless smirk. As soon as they came to stand in front of Borja, she rustled her fingers through her messy hair, and eyed him through the curly strands that fell back into place. Her eyebrows pinched together for a moment. An expression passed. Perhaps, irritation. But as quickly as it had come, she smothered it back down, “Captain Borja. Likewise. This it the last place I expected to see you.”

She stood like an immovable stone, far too close to Borja than was comfortable for either of them. Shoulders slack and hands sliding back to take their posts on her hips. Even though she was looking up into his face, it appeared as if her presence towered over his own. She clicked her tongue and glanced over her shoulder, regarding Romulus. It seemed as if she hadn't missed the unusual attention Borja had been giving him. “I'd love to say that this is just a pleasant coincidence, but we're hardly in the business of those.” Although she posed no questions, they lingered there just the same.

He cocked his head sideways a bit, his eyes holding somewhere near Zahra's shoulder. "Coin's no coincidence, and there's plenty to made here. Mages... always need lyrium." Romulus was immediately prompted to look around for boats, or whatever means the pirate captain had used to transport the lyrium he'd mentioned. There were a few boats of varying sizes around the dock, none suitable to be manned by a single person. Borja had to have crew members around.

"Nice marks you have, boy," Borja said, the words half grumbled. Romulus snapped his gaze back onto him, aware that he was being spoken to directly now. He narrowed his eyes at the man. Unlike with the others, Borja looked him right in the face when he spoke. "You know what they mean?"

The way he said it... to Romulus, it implied that Borja knew, and was merely testing him, wondering if he knew as well. He pursed his lips tightly together, stepped forward past Zahra, and reached to grab Borja by the front of his coat. He hardly reacted, even when tugged forward half a step.

"What do you want?" With me was the unneeded addendum, and Borja seemed to get the message clearly enough. He simply looked down at Romulus, as though the other people present no longer existed, or anyone or anything on the dock, for that matter.

"I heard about a Herald of Andraste, a Rivaini man with marks on his face. Came to have a look myself. Now I've had it."

Zahra had stumbled back a few steps, away from Borja and Romulus. She now stood beside Khari. Her fingers twitched at her sides, and whatever veneer of patience she'd been demonstrating fell away. Replacing it was a molar-crunching temper rearing its ugly head, indicated by the way her face contorted. Lips pulled back like a snarling hound, teeth flashing. Her eyes twirled like two hard pieces of flint. “Who told you? Don't tell me you'd come all this way just for a look.”

Her hand brushed across her leather belt. She was obviously uninterested in wasting anymore breath. Her fingers tickled the dagger that hung there, threatening as ever, “Tick tock, Borja.”

"I've done nothing to you," he stated flatly. "You wanna carve me over nothing, in front of these people you're trying to win over, be my guest." Now that he noticed it, their exchange had drawn some attention, specifically the rough grabbing of the coat, and Zahra's snarling. Romulus released Borja's coat, shoving it back against him. He let out a short huh in reply.

"Might be I have some interesting things to tell you," he said, taking a step back, "but I'm not in the habit of giving anything away for free. And you've got... other things to worry about right now. I'll be in touch, Herald." He turned, heading out onto the dock, an Antivan man who had been conversing with a local suddenly falling into step with him. The pair headed towards one of the smaller boats.

Romulus gave no pursuit to the pirate captain, for he was right in that there were more immediate things to be concerned with. Something about him, though... Romulus wasn't used to being recognized, to being sought out by men from across the world. He stroked his forehead as Borja and his compatriot set out from onto the water.

"This day can't be over quick enough."

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

Estella swallowed thickly, pulling in a breath and trying to loosen the constricting feeling winding around her heart like climbing ivy, and push down the rising taste of bile on her tongue. She was nervous, for a lot of reasons. First among them, of course, was the fact that they were planning to spring a trap on a magister, one cunning and powerful enough to have taught her brother, regardless of whatever Cyrus thought of him now. It was a serious risk, and she understood that everyone here was taking it, just by entering this room. But even that wasn’t it—she knew that Rilien and Lia and the others with them, including Zahra, if she understood the plan properly, were capable of doing what they’d decided to do.

She wasn’t even especially concerned that she would fail, exactly, because in the end, her role in this was simply to be present. That, and not give away the plan by revealing what they knew of Magister Cassius’s intentions too soon, or letting herself look at where she knew the ambush party would be. She could do that much, she knew—she’d been hiding her thoughts from people more powerful than she was practically since she had any thoughts worth hiding. But more than any of that, this was making her remember things best left forgotten, and there were parts of it that were strong in her memory, things dredged up in response to who the Magister was, and where she knew he was from.

Part of Estella had never left Tevinter behind, not even after six years of physical distance.

Watching her brace herself was indeed an act of perception: she straightened her spine, eased the expression on her face until it was nearly blank, settled her shoulders back, and tipped her chin up slightly, because it defaulted to let her eye the floor, something she should definitely not be doing as part of the Inquisition in an audience with a Magister. They could smell weakness, and fear, and Estella was both weak and afraid. The trick was pretending she wasn’t well enough to fool him. Glancing to Romulus beside her, she offered a thin smile and nodded, pushing the door to the throne room open, allowing the two of them and their company—Cyrus, Vesryn, Lady Marceline, and Khari—to enter.

A red carpet runner guided a straightforward trajectory to the dais on which the throne sat. The path itself was flanked by columns on either side, and in front of each stood one of the magister’s guards. There were about two dozen in total, which was a large number, but not entirely unexpected. He probably had more troops, hired or brought with him, elsewhere, else he likely would have had difficulty holding the castle for long, magical defenses or not. She was reluctant to put her back to any of them, but that was required to advance far enough for an audience, and so she put her trust in the people behind her and kept moving forward.

The throne itself was occupied, and Magister Cassius looked quite comfortable upon it, one ankle crossed over the other knee, and his jaw leaned on a fist, the corresponding elbow braced on the armrest. If anything, he seemed a bit too put-together for the accouterments of Fereldan nobility, which were generally much more rustic than those one would find in older lands like the Imperium or Orlais. His daughter stood beside him, and it would seem he’d been in conversation with her before the party entered.

When they stopped close enough for an audience, he smiled slightly, the expression deepening the existing lines around his mouth, the whole of his face thrown into sharper relief by the intermittent torchlight of the chamber. It gave him a more hollowed-out aspect, so that for a moment, his face appeared nearly skeletal, until the flames shifted again and he regained the aspect of an older, but still very much living, man. “Inquisition, welcome. I take it from your presence here that you are still inclined to bargain. Perhaps your terms will be more… agreeable, this time.”

Estella knew that all she really had to do here was stall for time, and not give away the fact that she knew this was a trap. She also knew that it was usually true of people in power, people with egos worth talking about, enjoyed hearing the sound of their own voices more than anyone else’s. So ideally, the best way to go about this would be to get him to talk, with as little input from her or anyone else as possible. Suppressing her nervous tendency to chew her lip, she put on a small smile, one that couldn’t have made it even halfway to her eyes, but looked convincing enough for someone in what her position was supposed to be.

“That is my hope, milord,” she lied softly. “I’m afraid that, considering the brevity of our last meeting, there was little opportunity to ascertain which terms you might find agreeable. You know what it is we need—what is it you would want in exchange?” She chose her words carefully, framing him as the one with all the power in the situation, and they as the ones who were in need of something from him. It wasn’t far from the truth, though this was not the method they’d chosen to get it, in the end. With a little luck, she’d stroked his ego and prompted him to speak at some length with a few sentences, but she didn’t trust much to her luck, in truth.

The Magister was intrigued at such an open question, it was clear. He leaned farther forward, his brows arching up towards the edge of his hood and a slight smirk playing at the edges of his mouth. “A question with a great deal of relevance, my dear.” He did indeed appear pleased at the situation, not entirely unlike a cormorant, full-bellied but still hungering voraciously, more out of habit than necessity. “What I propose is simple: I will release the southern mages from their indenture, provided I receive two things in return: firstly, my daughter’s slave returned to her.” He made a careless gesture with his free hand at Romulus. “Hardly asking for much, I should think, considering she owns him already anyway.”

He sat back then, and the smile grew, a deep satisfaction evident. “Secondly, a trade: all the mages now in my service for just one—you.”

It was Marceline's turn to step forward. A far cry from the saccharine smile she wore during their last meeting, Lady Marceline's lips were drawn in a tight line, and her face wholly unreadable. She held her arms crossed and her elbow propped, her hand gingerly rubbing her chin. "A sound trade," Marceline agreed, looking down upon Estella, then glancing back at Romulus for a moment before returning her gaze back to Cassius.

"You are correct, what Lady Chryseis owns is hers. We are more than willing to relinquish him," she said, her head tilting to the side. She spoke it with no emotion, only a matter-of-factly demeanor as one would use during a business discussion. "The Inquisition would also find the trade agreeable, the mages for Lady Estella. However, I would ask what you had in mind for the young woman," Lady Marceline asked, a look of curiosity seeping into her features. "Out of pure curiosity of course," Marceline said, before a smile slipped into her lips and she allowed herself a light laugh.

"It sounds as if we are getting the better deal, after all."

Cassius raised a brow, then shrugged lightly. “Who knows? I’m sure I’ll find some use for her. I’ve had great success with one apprentice from the family; perhaps one who cannot leave will prove even more beneficial.” From the way he said it, his tone light, careless even, it wasn’t entirely clear whether he was being serious, though a fair guess would be that he wasn’t. “There would be much interest in the mark, of course, but once the research possibilities were exhausted, well…” He paused, looking Estella over dispassionately, as a buyer at an open market.

“A face that exquisite will always draw its own brand of interest, no?”

Though she couldn’t say she was unused to being talked about like she wasn’t even there, she had managed to forget exactly what it felt like, for the most part. Estella wound up doing what she’d always done in such situations before—she tried to pretend she was somewhere else, someone else, and did her best to deaden her feelings to what was being said. She couldn’t let herself lose focus entirely, however, and she knew this was actually a good thing. For every moment Magister Cassius availed himself his considerable advantage over them without actually springing his trap, they were a moment closer to being in position to turn the tables.

So really, the implication that she’d be sold into a brothel or private ownership or something wasn’t bothering her as much as it could have. Especially considering that, in the absence of other options, she likely would have agreed to it anyway. She only prayed that Cyrus would be able to hold his temper in check long enough to get through this conversation. She knew her brother, and knew he wasn’t taking any of this conversation very well, though his face didn’t change much.

Marceline's eyes dropped and she sighed heavily. It was as if she expected something of the like, because didn't display a moment of surprise. When she looked back up, her eyelids were at halfmast and any emotion she may have allowed to show were long gone, replaced entirely by her matter-of-factly demeanor. Instead of responding immediately, Marceline's hand fell on Estella's shoulder, and patted it encouragingly, almost like a mother would a child. "Tell me, Lord Cassius, as a man with a family of his own," she began.

Her gaze then went from Estella to Cyrus, the frown tight on her lips. "How do you believe her brother will take this news?" she asked, the curiosity remaining in her voice. "And what do you intend to do about him? she finished, looking back to the Magister.

"Out of curiosity. Of course."

Cyrus was doing a rather impressive job remaining blank-faced, but something in his eyes was very hard, almost crystalline. Cassius laughed. “I know better than any one of you what that boy will do for the sake of his sister. In fact, I’m rather counting on it.” He seemed to shift his demeanor, however, and raised a hand, waving it in a lazy motion. “But enough talking. I grow bored with this charade. I will have the Heralds, and I need not give up anything to obtain them.”

At the signal, the guards posted around the room were immediately at attention, drawing their swords, spears, and axes almost as one unit. “Capture the Heralds, and my wayward apprentice. Kill the rest.”

It would seem that Cyrus could contain himself no longer, and the first thing that happened was a massive bolt of lightning flying from his fingertip, crashing with a thunderous rapport into the shield Cassius had conjured, shattering it, but also expending the spell. He summoned a familiar blue sword to his hand, and ran right for the dais.

“Finally!” That was Khari, who ducked under a horizontal swing from another guard and swung her cleaver, which bounced off his shield with a forceful clang. She pressed forward, however, and her next hit was delivered from inside his guard, punching into a spot beneath his protective chestplate.

Romulus passed by on her left, blade drawn, running right through glowing orange magical glyphs that had been quickly inscribed upon the floor by a white-clad Venatori mage. They were triggered by his step, a burst of fire engulfing Romulus, but he came out the other side unscathed, the flames washing over him like so much wind. His blade found the mage's throat, and painted his white robes a bright shade of red.

Vesryn had his helmet down over his face, the tallhelm giving him the visage of a man made mostly of steel, save for the proud white lion on his back. His tower shield was locked in front of him, and soon a pair of arrows clattered off of it. He lowered his spear and awaited the first attacker to step forward. "Always running off, these people!" he shouted, mostly for Estella and Marceline to hear. "Bloodthirsty and angry. Stay behind me! Watch the flanks."

Estella honestly wasn’t sure any of them had experience fighting as part of a unit. Khari might have, but then, with the way she tended to fight, she probably had to break ranks usually anyway. Cyrus had certainly never been part of an army or anything, and Romulus was, as far as she could tell, a solo agent, so in a way, she understood why they acted as they did. She, however, was quite accustomed to group tactics, and so she took Vesryn’s right flank, the harder one to defend, given the absence of the shield.

Indeed, the majority of those who tried to get at the three of them came for her, at least when they could get around behind the spear-wielding elf, but she had expected that, and to the extent the could be, she was prepared for it. The first two came in as a pair, and there wasn’t really room for any more than that at once, a blessing she noted gratefully. The first swung, and she parried, angling her sword quickly to force his off it. Her mobility was reduced by the tighter quarters, so she’d have to rely a lot on angles and the geometry of a fight, since her ability to dodge was considerably hampered.

Reacting more quickly than her foe coming off the clash of blades, she drove her own forward, seeking and finding his throat, which she sliced across with a neat stroke. The arterial spray that resulted informed her she’d found the mark, and just in time to twist herself away from the incoming axe the second had aimed for her shoulder. It clipped the very edge, biting into her leathers, but tore away without meeting her flesh. She swung low, slashing at his thigh, where another vital blood vessel was located, this one not known to as many people, by any means. That one hit, too, and he collapsed beside the other, still alive, but barely. Estella grimaced, and thrust her sword down, puncturing his windpipe and ending his life quickly.

From over her shoulder behind her, Estella could not see Marceline on Vesryn's left flank. However, every now and then the noble brushed up against her to remind her of her presence. There was the sound of flesh being pierced, and the gurgling of someone getting stabbed in the throat before armor clattered to the ground. Though no warrior, Marceline sounded as if she held her own.

Meanwhile, Chryseis observed the approach Cyrus was making, and immediately readied a swift entropy spell in her hand. Rather than cast it at him, she instead aimed down at her father, immediately to her left, the sleeping spell leaving her fingers even as she drew her bladed staff into her other hand.

The spell was met midair by another, a dispel magic, from the way both fizzled out upon mutual contact. Cassius turned slightly to regard his daughter, an almost sad smile upon his face. “While I can’t say I’m surprised, Chryseis, I am rather disappointed.” The Magister drew his own staff, several of the white-robed Venatori breaking off from the main assault to assist him. “Don’t kill them. Render them unconscious or bloody if necessary, but do not kill them.”

Two of the cultists turned to face Chryseis, while two more and Cassius himself went after Cyrus, attempting to bring him down before he could close to melee distance, which would no doubt provide him with a tremendous advantage. A volley of fireballs flew in his direction, but he pulled himself into the Fade, and they struck only afterimages of where he had been, a trail of them between his former position and halfway up the stairs, where he wound up. Another quick spell from Cassius landed there, but he brought his spatha around, the low thrum of it sounding as he used it to slice clean through the stonefist, the halves of it flying off to either side of him.

And that, as far as Estella could tell, was how the fight generally proceeded. Cyrus and Chryseis put heavy pressure on Cassius and the most elite of his Venatori, while herself, Lady Marceline, and Vesryn weathered the storm at the center. Khari and Romulus ranged more freely around that center, their aggressive styles keeping too much from concentrating on the center. The problem was, there were a lot of Venatori and guards, and probably unless the ambush team arrived very soon or Cyrus somehow managed to get at Cassius himself, they would simply be worn down by sheer numbers.

She’d acquired several wounds by this point, but they were mostly minor, and thankfully her stamina wasn’t failing her just yet, but it was growing tedious, and she knew that this was the part of the fight where she risked serious injury, because if her focus flagged, she might make a mistake. So she did her best not to let that happen, keeping herself aware of Marceline behind her, Vesryn to her side, and as much as possible, the positions of her enemies and other allies.

Her arms were burning with the effort of fending off multiple blows from people of superior strength, but she raised them again for another necessary parry, hoping they would stand up to the force with which the next guard swung his axe.

A bugling roar came from Zahra's mouth. And her hands moved remarkably fast as soon as the ambush began, though it appeared as if she'd been ready the entire time. She plucked arrows from her quiver and loosed them as quickly as she notched them back across her cheek. Several whistles could be heard as the arrows sailed through the air, more so over Estella's shoulders, and bit into their marks.

Her arrows were marked with brightly colored feathers, speckled with blood as the shafts sunk into gawping holes in Venatori faces. She danced around the meaty portions of the ambush, away from clanging swords and flashing fireballs. It appeared as if she were concentrating her attacks on those who were having trouble, causing her own version of chaos by crippling and maiming the opponents her companions faced.

More arrows came from Lia, fearlessly throwing herself into the mix, as the Inquisition scouts and agents flanked the Venatori force on either side, throwing the previously desperate fight's outcome into doubt. Chryseis and Cyrus had nearly broken through to Cassius, when a shield bearing guard surprised Chryseis from the side, slamming her to the ground with the heavy metal plate. From her side she unleashed a blast of arcane energy, sending him staggering back. Romulus appeared behind him, opening his throat and spilling his blood down his front, allowing Chryseis the needed time to get back to her feet.

The scouts freed up Vesryn to make some moves of his own, and began a bit of an advance, burying his spear in the guts of a Venatori mage who had been forced into the center of combat by the pincer attack of the Inquisition. "Push!" he shouted. "We'll have him! Don't let up!"

Recovered from her near-miss, Estella figured Vesryn’s advice was good enough, and pushed. Now that there wasn’t quite the same need to simply weather, her mobility was back to providing the lion’s share of her advantage, and she utilized it, keeping herself light on her feet and darting between opponents in an attempt to reach the front of the room, where the fighting was beginning to concentrate as more and more of the guards and Venatori closed ranks on their leader, in an attempt to shield him from the wrath of his own former apprentice and his child as well. The magic flew thick and heavy through the air, enough so that even Estella tasted it on the back of her tongue, the tips of her fingers tingling with a familiar, but long-suppressed itch to dip into the Fade and claim some of it for herself.

An empty promise, if ever there were one.

She dashed past a guard, flaying into his sword-arm on her way, causing him to drop the weapon he was holding and clutch at his wound, which made him an easy target for those behind her. She wasn’t far from the dais now, and mounted the first step, blocking an overhead strike from one of the guards, nearly brought to her knees with the strength of the blow before she managed to angle it away, forcing another step forward and up and burying her saber in his neck. Blood gushed down the blade to her hands, but she stepped to the side before his body could fall atop her, gaining another two stairs before she was made to halt again, her hip clipped by a fireball that left her armor smoking but her flesh thankfully only mildly burned.

By this point, Cyrus was basically dueling Cassius, though with several bodies in the way, which prevented him from closing range. The magic was especially dense in the air between them, and it seemed almost that each of them was casting several spells simultaneously, to keep the volume of fire and earth and ice so thick, to say nothing of the shields and Fade cloaks and the rest. The spell-volley was interspersed with more raw blasts of force, though those were issuing only from Cyrus, and it was hard to tell if they were intentional or not, as they tended to arc away from their initial trajectory, doing more damage to the throne room's furniture than anything. One of them crashed into the stairs, chipping several large chunks of stone off the dais, a pair of them careening into some nearby Venatori and crunching bones with their momentum.

Cassius was clearly tiring faster, whatever the reason, and when he turned to see the others approaching the dais, abandoning the effort to focus on his apprentice for just a moment, he paid for it, a glistening bolt of raw lightning slamming into his chest. He lurched for a moment, then threw himself into a Fade-step not unlike the ones Cyrus so commonly used, reappearing on the other side of the fight, behind everyone pushing for him, both arms outstretched.

Not far from where Estella, Chryseis, and Romulus fought, an almost deafening ripping sound issued from the air, the ground beneath everyone’s feet trembling as the space over their heads seemed to twist and distort, at first like heat waves and then like a window opening to some other place. The pull towards it was strong, almost like it contained its own gravity, and the three nearest the tear were lifted from their feet, pulled upwards toward it.

“Stellulam!” Cyrus’s shout reached her at about the same time he did, his shoulder slamming into her with almost enough force to break a rib, the space she occupied clearly the end point of his own Fade-step’s trajectory. She was knocked a dozen feet backwards, and out of the range of the tear, which picked him up instead, pulling he, Romulus and Chryseis into it within seconds, before the sound crescendoed to an almost agonizing pitch, then ended abruptly, as the tear closed.

But the three it had taken did not reappear.

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

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

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

“Cyrus!” It was a ragged shout that time, raw and agonized, and she was halfway through a step towards the dais when she remembered who was responsible for this. Surely, if Magister Cassius had caused this, he could put it to rights. Estella clenched her jaw, her grip tightening on her saber, and whirled around to face him, lunging into a sprint. She’d have to get all the way back across the room, and through all the fighting, but honestly, the plausibility of that was the furthest thing from her mind right now.

All she knew was that if she could get to that Magister, she could get her brother and the others back. There was no need to think about whether she could. She simply must.

"Estella!" The voice was Vesryn's, from behind Estella, and soon a strong hand had clamped down on her upper arm and wrenched her backwards. Vesryn pulled himself in front of her, another arrow clattering loudly off the face of his shield, the projectile originally aimed for the Herald. The elf's eyes were wild, bewildered, but he seemed focused enough on keeping her close to him.

"We have to get out of here!" he said, trying to hold her back. Perhaps due to the fact that the Venatori were simply more prepared for such a stunning feat of magic than the Inquisition, they had instantly turned the tide again, and several of the flanking force had fallen in pools of their own blood. Lia struggled frantically with a Venatori swordsman on the ground, having abandoned her bow in favor of the knife. Rilien was juggling a trio of opponents, but they were slowly backing him up against a pillar with their shields.

“What? No! We can’t just abandon them!” She referred to her brother and Romulus and even Chryseis, of course, but also to anyone else they’d be leaving behind in such a retreat. Those who couldn’t disengage fast enough, or the injured. She tried to tug her arm free, but his grip was too strong for that. Gritting her teeth, she slashed at a guard who went in low for her unprotected side, kicking him square in the chest where she’d cut him. That would keep him down for a while, at least.

"We have to leave! Else we risk everything!," Marceline barked over the din of battle. Her hair was disheveled, and the fatigue was quickly seeping into her face. Her rapier and main-gauche flashed in her hands as she fended off a Venatori swordsmen, her back pressed up against Khari. "We must get back to Ser Leonhardt!" She called, her rapier biting deep into the shoulder of the Venatori. It stumbled him for a moment, but he replied with a backhand and opened up a cut under her chin. Her rapier went for the killing blow at his neck, but he batted it away and pulled back to drive his sword through her.

Not before she drove her own main-gauche into his belly, disemboweling him. "Now!" she demanded. Vesryn released Estella's arm, out of necessity more than anything, but still stood between her and Cassius.

Not more than a beat of time passed after that before Cassius gathered more magic to him. This time, the spell was a firestorm, recognizable as such only for the faint scent of brimstone on the air before flaming rocks began to crash down upon them from the ceiling. Each landed in an almost-explosive burst, clearly a very advanced and very powerful version of the spell. With almost casual ease, he threw a bolt of lightning right for where Vesryn and Estella stood, summoning a shield in another and then detaching it from his hand, letting it orbit freely around him. It caught half a dozen arrows with precision, and more importantly, left his hands free to hurl spell after spell at them—his ability to do so seemed almost inexhaustible, and his forces were clearly drawing from his apparent superiority and control of the field.

“Escape is beyond you!” He shouted the words over the din, his mouth twisted into a snarl. Help is beyond you! The Elder One rises! Surrender the Herald, and the rest of your Inquisition may yet live to see tomorrow!”

Vesryn locked his shield into the ground, angling it up, and crouching low, so as to get himself somewhat under it. "Get down! Or get out!" he called, as the spells rained down around him. Powerful lightning spells blasted against his shield, little arcs of electricity snapping through the air around his body, until he was shaking violently with the absorption of it. When it became clear he could take no more, he flipped the grip of his spear in his hand, stood, and hurled it at Cassius. One of the shields deflected it aside, and the next bolt of lightning hit the elf square in the chest. He flew back, smashing into Estella along the way and tumbling to the ground face down and unconscious.

Vesryn in full armor was quite a lot of weight, and easily took Estella to the ground as well, where she slid on her back for quite a distance before she ran out of momentum and tried to scramble to her feet, only to be hit by an ice spell, one that pinned one of her legs to the ground. She attempted to lunge out of it, but it held fast, creeping up the length of her leg to her waist, locking her joints. A second one followed, striking her square in the chest, and try as she might, she couldn’t fight free of it.

Within moments afterward, she was surrounded by Cassius’s guards, who leveled weapons at her, one ambitious lance even flirting with the skin of her throat. She couldn’t so much as lean away, able only to glare at the Magister as he advanced towards her. This was it—she was in his custody now, at his mercy, and she knew far better than to expect him to have any of that to spare for her, or her comrades.

If only Cyrus were still here, instead of her, he could have stopped this.

It was the last thought she had before one of the guards cracked the haft of his axe over her head, and she fell into unconsciousness.

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Listen here, you knife-eared bitch—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you tried to save her.”

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

His sister. His little star—they’d—

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

“Slowly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burning.

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can watch while I change the world.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Agreed?"

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Cyrus. We’re done now.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth

0.00 INK

Redcliffe's tavern stood like a beacon of warmth in the darkness. Zahra counted herself lucky that it was as charming inside as it was on the outside. Squared, wooden beams supported the ceiling and the hanging lanterns attached to it. The walls were clear of anything, though it showed signs that plenty of things used to hang on the walls, though they had probably been knocked off by customers who had too much to drink. It suited her just fine. It just meant less things that would end up broken. She hated paying for things she never intended to keep.

The tavern itself was packed. The Inquisition seemed to be the primary clientele here, which could be seen as a bad sign, though she was sure it was not. Several long tables were occupied by her own crew: men and women who were throwing up their arms and roaring as loudly as they could. They were, by far, the loudest ones in the tavern. The other, smaller tables were also occupied by people who were clearly having a good time. Even most of the stools at the bar were occupied, though nobody seemed to mind more company.

Another cheer sounded from their table. And a loud, snorting laugh that came from the smallest one who had just spilled her drink across the lap of her neighbour: a dwarven lass.

Several goblets sloshed and spilled whenever someone slammed their fist across the table. There were far more wine bottles lining the longest tables, accompanied by squatter bottles Zahra was hoarding in front of her. She'd taken a seat at the furthest end of the table, just in case she needed to duck around any rowdy elbows being thrown. She rested her forearms across the table and cradled one of the bottles in the crook of her elbow. Aslan sat to her right. Nursing the same goblet he'd ordered since they'd first entered. Still with the same lackluster frown idling on his lips. Being here with them was enough to put her mind at ease. Sometimes, nothing needed to be said.

The main door of the inn suddenly burst open, as it likely had many times that night. This time, the tall, handsome elf, Vesryn, came lumbering through, weighted down by a lighter body that clung to either arm. He'd cast off his armor, clothed instead in light trousers and a soft blue tunic, with the sleeves removed, and the laces undone halfway down his chest. The girl that wrapped herself around his left arm was human, simply dressed, probably from the village. On the other side was an elf, doe-eyed, a mage as evidenced by her robe. She stared up at him dreamily, while the human girl played at his shirt, biting her lip. By the way their eyes and bodies wobbled, all three had already had a fair amount to drink.

"A night of victory, is it not?" Vesryn called out, when the door had shut behind him. A raucous cheer went up through the tavern, and he grinned, leading the two girls over to the bar, and securing himself a large mug of ale. He turned to the rest of the patrons, raising the mug. "A toast! To driving the mad cultists from beloved Ferelden! To a better future for us, the people that would seize it!"

He earned himself another cheer, and the noise died down for a brief moment as many took a good, long drink, Vesryn included. Grinning, he made his way over to the pirate captain's table, observing her crew. "Care to make space for an elf in search of a table?" He glanced at the girls still drunkenly attached to him, and his grin expanded. "One seat will do. We can squeeze in, I think."

This one, Zahra had never met before. Her eyes trailed his retreating back as he swaggered to the bar with two women hanging on his arms. From what she could see, he wasn't a local. She was no stranger to Redcliffe, as she'd been here many times before without chancing onto someone like that. An elven lad with an easy grin that promised trouble and fun. Just the type of company she normally kept. Perhaps, he was one of the important fellows Asala hadn't had the time to introduce her to. Perhaps not. She straightened up and roared along with the rest of them when he proclaimed his own toasts, tipping the ember-colored bottle to her lips, and settling it back down with a sigh.

A throaty chuckle sounded as he approached their table. Zahra scooted closer to Aslan and patted the wooden bench with a toothy grin of her own, “By all means. The more the merrier.” She leaned her elbows back on the table, and propped her chin into an upturned palm, considering her new drinking companions. Her dark eyes, settled at half-mast, flicked from one girl to the other, and finally settled on Vesryn's face. Unusually pretty, an impression she'd already decided. Snowy hair. Green eyes like swirling gems. She wasn't sure if it was impressive, or awfully obnoxious that he was so aware of it.

“But there's a price for your seat. We like to know who we're speaking to, don't we boys?” Women and men alike slapped their hands on the table and heartened their assent. Except for Aslan. He seemed far too preoccupied trying to look like wasn't enjoying himself at all. “I'm Zahra. Captain of the Riptide,” she tilted her head to the side and laughed, “and that's my merry crew.”

"Zahra!" Vesryn exclaimed, delightedly. "I have indeed heard much about you." He eased himself forward onto the bench, the human girl sliding in next to him, while the lithe elven mage shifted around onto his back, draping an arm over his chest, the other idly playing with his hair. "My name is Vesryn Cormyth. Captain of nothing, though I've steered a heart or two over the years. I believe we fought together, in the castle hall."

He grinned, taking another long drink of his ale. "I'm a different man out of my armor, I'm told, but no less desirable." His eyes were caught by the stare of another mage from across the room, a young elven man with braided red hair. Vesryn threw him a mischievous smile and a wink, and the elf reddened in return, smiling despite himself.

"I am going to miss this town," Vesryn admitted, to Zahra. "Makes me want to go back to mercenary work."

There was a cat-calling whistle that came from down the line of rowdy crew mates, though there was no discernible source as to who it was. It might have come from the bearded man with his feet kicked up onto the table, bright blue eyes peering over the rim of his goblet. Leering, more like. Where his appreciation was directed was anybody's guess. Although, it was apparent he'd said something lewd as well. The red-haired elf-woman to his side elbowed him in the ribs and looked somewhat disgusted. Whatever bickering that was happening in the background was expertly ignored by their Captain, who seemed intent on picking apart the creature slouching beside her.

“Ah, that's where I remember that face of yours, Captain of Nothing, Zahra slapped a hand across the table and grinned cheekily. Swinging a ridiculously large axe around with impressive strength. For someone so pretty, it seemed like a weapon that was far too rough. But there was a saying about deceptive appearances, and perhaps, this Vesryn Cormyth was a man of many surprises. She sucked at her gums and took another swig out of her own bottle before finally relinquishing her hold on it. There was quite a bit left. Seeing as this was her second bottle, and it had come from her own private reserves. A woman needed something proper to set her belly on fire. The offer was made with an inquiring eyebrow, following his gaze over to the seated elf across the way.

A jingle of a laugh bubbled from her lips, flashing her teeth, Now, you've got my attention. Before I ask you about your old occupation, seeing as we've got something in common—do you always do that?” She tipped her head towards the bar and waggled her eyebrows.

"Only after victories, love," Vesryn said, leaning back and securing his arm more tightly around the waist of the human girl, who was likely not even half-listening to the conversation. "Of course, the word has a flexible definition. Tonight definitely applies, I think." He gulped down a swig of ale, apparently finishing the mug, and the elven girl grabbed it from the table, waving it over at the innkeeper.

"As for the mercenary work, I was with a small company, called the Stormbreakers, out of Orlais. Not half so glorious as our own Argent Lions, but a tough bunch, and a sure bet if a contract needed doing. Good place to hone the skills before I set out on my own." Left unsaid was obviously why he'd set out, but likely the armor she'd seen him fighting with in the throne room had a thing or two to do with it. It wasn't something an elven mercenary would just come across in that line of work, nor would the pay cover the cost of making a set like that. Clearly, by the glint in his eye, he enjoyed having some aspect of mystery around him.

Zahra didn't press him on any of his actions. He'd answered her question well enough. Even if she was a mite interested in why he behaved that way. From the long line of bright-eyed charmers she'd met on her many adventures, there were reasons why they needed to surround themselves with warm bodies. Inadequacies they were trying to fill within themselves. If he wanted to act like he was intending to board everyone's ship, that was his business. Another throaty chuckle sounded as she leaned back and stretched her arms above her head, dropping them back across the table, “May we have many victories, then.”

“Stormbreakers,” she rolled the word around in her mouth, as she often did with names she was unfamiliar with. It had a nice ring to it. One of her eyebrows raised. Orlais was an interesting enough place. Full of mask-wearing nobles with fancy tunics, laced up to their necks. A mass of peacocks, strutting about. Her initial impression was that he'd been raised elsewhere. In the Alienage. In the woods. Her understanding of elves, and their peculiar cultures, only went so far. But seeing how eccentric he was, she supposed she could've been wrong.

“A mercenary without a company is a sell-sword. There's a story there, I bet.” Quick as a viper, Zahra snatched up one of his free hands and turned it over so that she could look at his palm. She squinted her eyes, pausing for a moment, before releasing it: a grin lit up her dark features. Though, she gave no clear explanation, save for another question.

“So, was that when the Inquisition found you? Or did you find them?”

“That was the Fallow Mire. And I think there was a bit of mutual finding involved.” The voice belonged to Estella, who had apparently entered the tavern with little fanfare, beneath the notice of its rowdy occupants. Though she spoke from roughly behind them, she had soon enough moved to near the front end of the table, so at a corner with Zahra, and close enough to be easily heard by Vesryn as well, though she did not raise her volume above its usual modulation. She made no request for further room on the bench. It was, after all, quite occupied already; instead she dropped halfway into a crouch, so as to be at a decent level with the table’s occupants.

She was of course not in armor either, though whatever she was wearing was obscured by a considerably overlarge cloak, clearly a man’s and meant for someone at least six inches taller than her. It was thickly-lined, though, with what looked like sable fur. She smiled with her eyes, just a vague little change in their shape, and nodded to both of them. “You four look to be having quite the time. Perhaps I shouldn’t interrupt.” A smile did curl half her mouth then, though, and she arched one of her brows.

"Nonsense," Vesryn objected, turning to get his eyes on Estella. "I'm tempted to make a horrid joke about my sword needing to be sold somewhere, but... the point is, I believe my friends are growing restless." The increased groping was likely a sign of that. At Vesryn's behest, they extricated themselves from the bench, leaving Estella more than enough space in their absence, should she want it.

"I shall see your beautiful faces again come morning. Until then, farewell." He rounded the corner of the table, the elven girl half upon his back giggling, and somehow the young redheaded elven mage had fallen in behind them, adding another hand to the mix. Vesryn started up the stairs towards the room, managing to turn halfway after a few steps. "Remember, a night of victory!" Laughing carelessly, they continued on, until the sound of a heavy door slamming removed them from the hearing of those drinking below. Zahra snorted as the outrageous group retreated up the stairs. That was something she never thought she'd see unless she was in a brothel. At least the Inquisition wasn't letting her down.

In the wake of his departure, Estella blinked, then shook her head. “Well then.” She returned her attention to Zahra and smiled a little more fully, apparently not at all fazed by the rowdiness going on in all directions. “I’d hoped to catch you and yours before we left Redcliffe. I don’t suppose I could meet your crew? I confess I’m about to try bribing my way into their good graces.”

No sooner had she said it than the tavern’s staff were all amongst the crowd, passing out what looked distinctly like a free round of whatever everyone had been drinking before. “Compliments of the Inquisition, and the Herald of Andraste!” The grinning barman jabbed an arm in Estella’s general direction, and she grimaced.

“I thought I told him not to do that.” She sank a little lower in her crouch, as though hoping she might spontaneously become invisible.

Another full-bellied laugh came from the petite Captain. She knuckled at her eyes, wiping tears away and slapped her hands across her knees, accepting the goblet of ale that was pushed across the table. “We're lucky you did, ducky. You know, being the Herald might not be such a bad thing,” a lofty grin twitched at the corner of her lips as she leaned precariously backwards and grappled onto Estella's elbow, encouraging her to take the seat Vesryn had just recently vacated. How else would they do proper introductions?

For all her obvious discomfort with attention, Estella went along easily enough, sliding into the spot next to Zahra. Someone passed her a tankard of something, which she accepted with a word of thanks, bringing it up and taking a quaff before laying it gently back down on the table and wrapping both hands around it. From her body language, it was evident that she was one of those people who drank slowly, and not much—she was clearly settling in to linger over the tankard rather than quaffing it as quickly as possible.

“So these are the nefarious mercenary-pirates of the Riptide, then? I’m honored.” It would seem that the energy and humor of the situation had soaked into her, like she was a sponge of some kind. Or perhaps more accurately, a mirror: reflecting her surroundings, but more softly then they truly appeared. A kind mirror, then, if such a thing had ever existed.

Once Estella had secured her seat, Zahra straightened up in her own with a discerning wobble. She caught herself by plopping her elbows back onto the table, causing some of the drinks to slop over. Not that she seemed to notice. Her attention secured itself back onto the black-haired lass sitting at her side, bundled up so ridiculously in that overly large cloak of hers. Others were already turning in their seats, bumping shoulders or leaning back to get a peek at the one who'd earned them all free drinks. She bit her lip and chuckled softly this time, “Nefarious? No. Opportunistic is a little closer. Don't tickle our egos too much, dear. Garland's head will spin right off.”

There was another round of laughter, though a bearded, blue-eyed man crossed his arms over his chest and seemed to mutter something under his breath. Zahra inhaled deeply and allowed her shoulders to slump forward, eying Estella through narrowed eyes. In one abrupt movement she slapped her hand against the table and cried out something in another tongue. Heavy rolling syllables. Rivaini, most likely. A call to those belonging to the Riptide. Several heads turned. And there was a blasting roar in response. “Introductions are in order. This little lass here is Estella. She's come to meet you fine folk, so be on your best behavior.”

She slapped a hand onto the Qunari's hefty shoulder and crooked an eyebrow up, “You might've seen him bumbling about Haven, but this here's my best mate, Aslan. A man of few words. He makes up for it, though.” He granted Estella a low grumble and a curt nod, though his gaze quickly fell away. She didn't seem to mind, smiling politely and offering a nod.

“Over there, yes, right there,” Zahra's waggling finger pointed out a blonde-haired elven lass seated beside a much smaller individual. She lifted one of her hands and wriggled her own fingers in response, smiling brightly. “That's Brialle Maven. Used to be a wee cut-purse until she found her hands in the wrong pocket. Why I ever let her aboard, I'll never know. But our bellies are thankful she's with us.”

The Dwarven lass seated next to Brialle was growing restless and tossing her arm in the air, signaling for the barmaid to come back with more ale. She huffed over her tankard and scrunched up her face, clearly irritated. Zahra gave Estella a soft nudge and made a vague attempt to smother down the grin stippled on her lips, lowering her voice so that she had to strain to hear, “Beside her is Nuka Lenkasdottir. It's a mouthful, don't even bother trying. She's a little lass with a big temper. Picked her up on the surface, but I'm sure there's a story there. Someday...”

The Captain dropped one of her arms across Estella's shoulder and pulled her closer, as if they were secret conspirators and not two individuals making simple introductions, or amiable conversation. Her smile quibbled and she snorted. “Nixium Elenvaul. Yes, that red-haired lass there. Told me she'd come from some Dalish clan. She doesn't smile as much as she ought to. And always tells me when I'm toeing lines I shouldn't.”

Zahra blew out her cheeks and retracted her arm, crossing both over her chest. A fine imitation of Aslan if there ever was one. She glanced up at the ceiling and worked at the last introduction, chewing around words she truly wanted to say. Her brows drew together as her gaze dropped back onto Estella, “And lastly, Garland Langley. Cheeky bastard with the beard over there. Don't let those blue eyes fool you. Wandering hands. I wouldn't fault you if you slapped him.”

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” Estella replied diplomatically, but touches of amusement remained in her eyes, before she turned slightly away from Zahra to address the rest of the crew. “I actually came to thank you all, as well as meet you. I’ve been a mercenary myself. Still am, actually. I know a high-risk job when I see one, and it means a lot to me—to the Inquisition—that you’re here with us. So… you have my gratitude, in the form of free drinks.” She raised her own tankard, just briefly, but either she wasn’t one for overblown speeches or she just suspected giving one would bore them; whatever the case, she seemed content to leave it at that, and straightened herself back out on the bench so as to be able to talk once more to Zahra.

“Which goes doubly for you, Captain. Taking risks is one thing. Leading others into them… that’s different. Especially when they matter to you.” Her expression darkened slightly, but the shadow over her features only lasted for a moment. “Something for thinking about some other time, though. I do believe this is a party.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

Haven was less chilly than when Zahra had first arrived. Not in the sense that all the snow had melted. It hadn't become a tropical oasis in her absence. Much to her disappointment. These changes, however minute, were welcome things. Her presence was expected. Her face was recognized. People were growing accustomed to seeing her snooping around the buildings or finding some hidey-hole to curl up and snooze. If she wasn't exploring the mountains surrounding the small village, she was in the local tavern causing trouble with the locals. Or creating just a bit more fun. Besides, the brown-haired bard had a voice that could make her legs weak, if she was so inclined to indulge in it. However, she was not in the tavern today, as it so happened.

Instead, she'd chosen to walk around Haven and found an outcrop of rocks overlooking the frozen lake below. She'd been told that the first tear in the sky had been closed in the mountains. And only the Heralds of Andraste had the ability to close them: Romulus and Estella. Effectively saving them from whatever hell-beasts would rain down on them. It was almost too much to chew on. Whether or not it made any sense didn't particularly matter to her. As long as the Inquisition had her under contract, she and her crew would go through hell and high water to fight for them. Through beasts, demons, and humans alike. Land or water. She'd never thought about it before, so why now? A soft puff of white blew from her lips.

She'd chosen heavier garments this time. Things she'd procured from the holdings of Riptide's belly. A white linen shirt with a leather bodice, with leather pants and knee-high boots. She wore an old cloak made from several furred animals, pulled tightly across her hunched shoulders. She hadn't drawn the hood over her head, so that she could still tip it back and look at the swirling clouds. Zahra leaned back against the boulder, fingers wrapped around the copper clasp keeping her cloak in place. Even if she felt unusual being so far from the sea, she had to admit that there was beauty in unexpected places. Even in bloody cold places.

Some time later, after at least a good ten minutes of uninterrupted silence, there was a pointed “Ah-ha!” from somewhere below, and then the sound of someone climbing up the face of the rocks. Well, actually, it could have been more than one person, but the one was making enough noise in her passage upward that it was hard to tell. Indeed, a head of bright red hair soon popped up over the stone, and the rest of Khari followed, grinning as usual and pulling herself up onto the outcropping with what seemed to be little by way of effort, even considering the fact that she was wearing her armor. Romulus climbed quietly up behind her, clad in his warm clothes and heavy cloak as always upon going outside in Haven. By his general look he'd been persuaded to come along, but he didn't look particularly grudging about it.

With little ceremony and not so much as a by-your-leave, the Dalish lass plopped herself down next to Zahra, tipping her head back as well to look at the clouds overhead. The Breach still dyed much of the sky a vaguely-ill green, and Khari frowned at it, sticking her tongue out in its general direction for a moment before she tilted her gaze back down and to the side, to meet the pirate captain’s eyes. “Hope you’re not too bored yet, stuck on solid ground with the rest of us… what’s the word? Land-lovers? Whatever it is.”

Zahra nearly jumped out of her skin when a familiar voice cried out from below—not that she would ever admit it. For a woman who bustled through the bush like a drunken bear, she'd been eerily quiet up until she'd revealed herself. She'd been growing weary of the silence that cut through the mountains, only offering soft whistles through the pines glowering beside her. Nothing like the sea at all. The rhythmic slapping of the waves was capable of lulling her to sleep on any given day. The leering silence put her on edge. While she hadn't expected anyone to find her, any company was welcome. She pressed a hand to her chest and exhaled sharply, willing her skipping heartbeat to slow back down.

She scooted to the side to give Khari and Romulus more room and pointed a waggling finger up to the sickly-looking sky, letting it fall back against her chest. Swirling plumes of white mingled with the shade of green a sea-sick land-lover might turn when they settled their legs back on land. Zahra tilted her head to the side and stared back at Khari, lips pulled back into a grin, “How do you all bear it? It's suffocating. Might sound strange coming from a pirate, but spending so much time on this rock feels like you couldn't sleep without waking to a knife at your throat.” She laughed. It wasn't a harsh laugh, just one that was acknowledging how ridiculous that sounded. Living on the sea was no less dangerous after all, “Land-lovers, that's right.”

Khari seemed to contemplate that for a moment, and then she shrugged. “I dunno. It’s ugly as shit and spews demons everywhere, but other than that I guess it doesn’t bother me much. Probably because I don’t spend an awful lot of time thinking about it. It’ll go away eventually; that’s what we’re all here for.” She closed an eye and reached up to scratch the back of her head, apparently doing a bit more thinking on it now that she subject had been brought up in that way. “Seems like you’d hear a demon coming anyway, right?”

She pulled her legs up underneath her, leaning back until her palms hit the stone, bracing herself at a slight incline. “Truth be told, life’s not that different for me right now than it would be if the thing weren’t there. Either way, I’d be fighting stuff. Bandits or demons—can’t say it makes much of a difference to me. I guess this is all a bigger change for you though, right?”

Ugly as shit accurately described what was happening in the sky at the moment. It was difficult trying to remember when the sky hadn't looked so ill. She hummed a soft tune and turned her gaze skyward once more, “Fair enough. I've seen a lot of things in my line of work. But the Inquisition and demon-shitting tears, those are things you don't often see.” She was certain she was leaving out far more things, like their mottled crew, and an awfully cold destination for their headquarters. A laugh bubbled up from her chest and ended with an unladylike snort, dark eyes twinkling mirthfully, “You're right. Suppose I would, if they're as noisy as you are.”

She rolled her eyes up at the third one, standing so silently. From what little they'd spoken about, Romulus was a mystery. One that she'd like to pick apart, if he was willing to entertain her curiosities. Zahra patted a hand above her head, indicating that he could scoot beside them if he so wished to join in on the conversation. He took a seat and drew his cloak tightly around him. She had no sense of personal space, anyhow. She, too, drew herself back up and readjusted the cloak around her shoulders, arms hidden within it. Bandits and demons seemed awfully different from where she was standing, but she supposed there was an inkling of truth there. Weapon in hand, it hardly mattered what it was that you were fighting. She wondered whether Khari had wanted anything else in her life, or if she'd simply return to fighting bandits when this was all over. A question for another time.

“Much bigger,” Zahra sighed and quirked an eyebrow, bumping Khari with her shoulder, “I suppose I'd rather fight bandits than demons.” She laughed again, softer this time. “It's much more simple at sea. You, your crew, on a ship. Sail anywhere, see anything. There's freedom there, and responsibilities of a different sort. No one to tell you that you can't do something.”

“Sounds kind of nice.” Khari furrowed her brows for a moment, as though thinking of something mildly troubling. “Though I’m not sure how well I’d do on a boat. Even the aravels used to make me kind of motion-sick, if the terrain was bad. Horseback is much better for that.” She sighed, the gusty breath stirring a few loose ringlets of hair, and flopped backwards onto the stone beneath them, letting her legs dangle over the edge.

“You’re a pirate, right Cap’n Zee? What kind of pirate?”

Zahra bobbed her head. It was nice. Her mouth pulled up at the edges and settled into a dreamy smile. She could have described it with hundreds of flowery words. It was mostly something she hadn't believed she would find: a home. One she dearly missed whenever she ventured too far way, as sentimental as it sounded. Everyone had one of those, even if it meant being astride a snorting, pawing creature. She tilted her head to the side, and glanced over her shoulder so that she could see Khari's face, “Aravel?” It came out as a slowly-pronounced question, because she'd never heard of such a thing. She made it sound like it was a land-traveling ship, which sounded impossible. These days, she'd believe anything.

Her small smile widened and broke into a grin that was hardly innocent. It dimpled her cheeks as she turned back to face the sky, already glazing over with different hues as the sun settled across the horizon. Zee was a fair exchange for Ginger, she supposed. “Wasn't aware that there were certain types of pirates,” she replied offhandedly, pausing for effect, before flopping down beside her, “Why don't you ask what you really want to know—do I peddle in flesh, slaughter spice-runners, steal from the rich and poor alike?” Her tone hadn't changed, it remained good-natured with furtive undertones. As if she were sharing childish secrets.

Khari shrugged from her position on the stone. “I don’t know a lot about piracy. Seems like the kind of thing that could have types. But if you want to answer that question instead, be my guest.” She grinned, but there was something faintly serious about it all the same.

Zahra settled deeper within the confines of her furred cloak and clicked her tongue, “Well, then. I don't do any of those things. We're an off-branch of the Raiders of the Waking Sea. No preying on sea-traffic. Got our differences, us. We're mostly a group of mercenaries. I'd be lying if I said we haven't gotten our hands in any dirty business, but who hasn't?” She knuckled her nose, and blew another puff of white from her lips, watching as it whisped up and disappeared, “I guess I'm the type of pirate that does right, sometimes.”

"Are pirates hunted often?" Romulus asked, breaking his silence with clear interest in the conversation. He leaned forward where he sat, placing his elbows on his knees and peering out at her from under his hood. "Do you ever come to violence with each other? Are there any rules to the engagement, if that happens?"

“Oh-ho,” Zahra's snorting laugh spoke volumes, though she wriggled her shoulders and turned to face him all the same, “You'd be surprised how awful we are to each other. You'd think that being fellow pirates would count for something. It doesn't, unless outsiders attack one of our own. We're like hounds fighting over a bone, on a great expanse of water. It's never made sense to me, but that's just the way it is. I guess, pirates aren't fond of sharing.”

She hummed another low tune, and chewed on his next question for a moment. Mercenaries certainly had regulations when it came to contracts, and how they would conduct themselves, but pirates were a different breed altogether. “No. I suppose there aren't any. The last man standing earns the right to breathe another day.” She drew her hands in front of her lips, and blew on them, “But we all operate differently. Squabbles are a waste of time.”

Khari frowned, though it was difficult to tell exactly why that was so. At least, until she spoke. “Waste of time and people.” She scrunched her nose somewhat, distorting her valaslin a bit, and moved her hands up to fold them behind her head, placing them between herself and the stone. “It’s damn foul, that people die because some asshole wants more for himself. Or herself, I guess.” There was a small pause. “Not that I’m accusing you of anything. You said you’re different, and I believe you.” It was unclear where this belief came from—quite possibly she was choosing to take the words on faith, so to speak.

“If you’re going to have friends, or family, or a crew or whatever—seems to me like you shouldn’t ask them to risk death unless what you’re after is worth dying for.” Clearly implied was that she didn’t think whatever they fought over out there on the ocean was likely to count.

Zahra's expression shifted. Perhaps, imperceptibly. A fraction of an inch less amused, mouth forming a smaller smile, if that could at all be perceived as seriousness. She took a deep breath and scrutinized Khari from the corner of her eye, not quite turning to face her, but simply listening. Sure, raiders sometimes operated as individuals, and hardly mourned the loss of their own, specifically if their band was too large. People became numbers. Disposable, expendable. Pirates were different. Especially if they only had one ship, and one crew; less so if they had entire fleets. That's when people lost sight of what was important. She'd made a promise long ago that it wouldn't happen to her. While she thought Khari's viewpoint was a tad naive, she agreed with the sentiment, “To hear you talk, you'd make a fine captain yourself.”

She arched her back in a cat-like stretch and sighed softly, plopping back against the boulder. She settled into her cloak once more, and rolled her eyes up towards the sky. Stars had already come up against the darker smudges, illuminating the eerie green tear in the distance. “There's not much I wouldn't do for them,” it came out as a soft whisper, a truer declaration that often frightened her. Just how far she'd be willing to go.

“Good to know.” Khari seemed satisfied, though what she’d been seeking in the first place wasn’t obvious, and the conversation mostly lapsed into comfortable silence thereafter, the three of them watching the sky slowly darken into night.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish

0.00 INK

"Ahh, welcome back Chancellor, I do hope your travels found you well," Lady Marceline replied as politely as she could. However, despite whatever message she had written on her face, speaking with Chancellor Roderick would be the furthest thing from enjoyable. As it stood, she had awaited outside the double doors of the Chantry for the arrival of their local corsair, whom she'd sent Larissa to fetch not too long ago. Instead, now she had to deal with Roderick, who'd made it quite clear of what he thought of their Inquisition.

Or rather, heretics in his words. "I'm curious ambassador," he said, pulling up to Marceline and crossing his arms. The appearance of the Chancellor and the way that his voice seemed to carry had drawn the attention of some of the Inquisition's forces, as well as a few of the mages. "As to how the Inquisition and its Heralds will restore the order that you've promised." Marceline's lips remained in a tight, even line that's become her default.

"Of course you are, Lord Chancellor, however I unfortunately find myself asking the same of the Chantry. Tell me, has the Chantry sent you back in an effort to offer aid in closing the breach and recovering the peace we seek, or is it to just denounce us as heretics and heathens," she asked with what sounded like genuine curiosity. She already knew the answer, it was the only thing the Chantry had done since the conclave. The Inquisition seemed to be a unifying force, for both the right and wrong reasons.

Chancellor Roderick guffawed at the notion, "Offer aid to the rebel Inquistion and the murderers you call the Heralds of Andraste? I think not!" There was a grumble among the crowd, and it was not in favor of the Chancellor's viewpoint. The Inquisition had heard about the selflessness of Lady Estella, and they respected Romulus's efforts. To hear their Heralds called murderers did not sit well with them, and Marceline could not blame them.

She narrowed her eyes and her chin lifted as she looked down on the Chancellor. "Those two murderers as you say, have done more to restore order than the Chantry has even attempted," she said coolly.

Roderick returned her stare with one of his own. "Careful ambassador. What you say is blasphemy. Order can never truly be restored so as long as this rebellion is allowed to fester."

Lady Marceline simply allowed herself a tight smile and nodded. "We shall see about that Lord Chancellor. Personally, I am quite fond of our chances," she said, ending with a look at the gathered crowd. There were more grumbles, this time of agreement with Marceline's sentiments. She then tilted her head and curtsied, keeping ever polite. "Now Chancellor, if the Chantry decides to do something other than cry heresy, please. Allow me to be the first to hear." It would be immensely difficult to march upon the Inquisition without soldiers after all.

"As you all were," she called, turning to the crowd that had formed. Eventually they began to disperse as well, leaving only a rather upset looking Roderick glaring a hole into Marceline's forehead.

It was only then when Zahra showed herself. She'd been in the crowd, only revealing the wild-haired captain when they began dispersing back to their duties, or lack thereof, anyhow. Her expression spoke volumes, though it seemed to direct itself at the Chantry's representative. Her eyebrows were pinched together, hooding livid eyes and a bared scowl that could've tickled itself into a grin at a moment's notice. She took a few leveled steps towards him and turned on her heels, perhaps thinking better of it, though she clicked her tongue, in disgust rather than amusement and faced Marceline instead.

“Well. I'd say that went rather well, even without Mr. Dour's cooperation,” her comment might've held a bit of humor, but it was obvious that she held some sort of reservation towards the pious old man. She flagged an eyebrow, and glanced over her shoulder, leveling the Chancellor with a glare of her own, in order to force him to finally look away. A crooked laugh sounded as she placed her hands over her hips, and faced Marceline once more, “Shall we? I'm sure you've called me for a reason, and as much as I'd like to say that we're in good company...”

Larissa stepped out from behind Zahra and gave Marceline a nod before she stood beside her with her hands resting in her sleeves. Just like Marceline, she wore the same impassive face as she watched a vein on Roderick's neck grow in size. "Thank you, Larissa. If you would be so kind as to see to the Chancellor, I shall discuss our business with our good captain here." Larissa looked at Marceline with a slightly raised brow. She'd certainly have to make it up to the woman later, dumping the Chancellor off on her like that, but she doubted he'd approve of the business she was to discuss with Zahra.

Eventually, Larissa nodded and turned to Chancellor, and simply settled in. Marceline allowed an apologetic look to pass over her features before she turned to Zahra. "Come, we can talk in my office," she said and turned to enter the Chantry. They passed through the double doors and passed through the main hall, passing Michaël and Pierre along the way. Pierre sat on one of the benches with a book on Orlesian history in hand, his father watching over his shoulder. As they passed, both men looked up and waved, Marceline smiling at them genuinely and returned the wave.

They took a left and entered the small office that Marceline basically lived out of now. A desk sat in the middle of the room, full of scrolls of parchment and sheafs of paper in varying stages of being written. Marceline offered Zahra a chair that faced the desk as she went to a corner of the room that sat a small table that held a bottle of wine and accompanying glasses. She already began to pour herself a glass before she offered one to Zahra "Can I offer you a glass as well? It is a pinot noir, just arrived from my winery back home."

Zahra followed Marceline, matching her pace, in relative silence. She seemed awfully comfortable in it anyhow. A small smile played on her lips as they walked. Her bright eyes flicked across the main expanse of the building and seemed to be picking apart the tapestries, and the neat line of candles scattered against the walls. While she made no comment, her curiosity was obvious. When Marceline led them both into one of the side chambers, she immediately dropped down in the proffered chair. It was only when there was an offer of wine that her attention perked up once more, drawing her lidded gaze to the bottle she was holding. “You know how to steer your way into my heart. Of course, thank you.”

Marceline smiled and continued to pour the second glass as well, and when both were full, she crossed back over the room to hand Zahra the glass. Instead of moving around her desk to take a seat behind it however, Marceline instead chose to lean gently against the corner. "Forgive me if I do not sit with you, I have sat for far too long and I wish to stretch my back," she said, gesturing to the pile of neatly stacked parchments. "With the support of the free mages, we are starting to be taken seriously, and I find myself fielding inquiries from many inquisitive sources."

At that, Marceline put the glass to her lips and took the first sip of her wine. The taste held a sweet warmth with a tart ending. Upon swallowing, Marceline swished the glass and watched as the liquid spun around the bottom. "But we have come to speak business yes? It is because of the mages that I asked to speak with you today." She halted the spinning of the liquid and cupped the glass with both hands on her lap, straightening her back in the process. The sheaves of paper would make her into a bent old woman long before she got there naturally.

"To close the Breach, we are bound to require a large amount of power. The mages are only but a step in that direction. I have already set up a number of legitimate lyrium supply lines, but I am aware that you are, shall we say, a woman of resources, no? The Inquisition requires every advantage we can afford you understand?" She was dancing around the word smuggling of course. She did not intend to ask Zahra the details of the matter if she was in fact able to procure another source of lyrium.

Zahra accepted the glass gracefully and held it close to her nose, inhaling before taking a sip of her own. From the expression on her face, it certainly was a well-chosen vintage. She swished the contents a couple times, and took a much larger mouthful, closing her eyes for a few moments. When she opened them, she appeared mildly apologetic. “Swimming political currents, and still keeping up with the paperwork,” she noted with a curled lip, eying the piles of parchments tidily stacked across her desk, “I don't envy your duties.”

The captain bobbed her head in a curt nod, indicating that Marceline could continue explaining why she'd been called down here. Her eyes, half-lidded and perpetually amused, drifted away from the rim of her glass, and settled back on Marceline's face. Zahra's countenance changed at the mention of business, taking on an air of earnestness. Like an eel coiling for an opportunity. Her smile simmered down to an inquisitive line, though her eyes lit up with bright-eyed interest. “You've the right of it, Lady Marceline,” her voice had a tickle of laughter in it, though she disclosed no reasons as to why, “Say the word, and your mages will have another lyrium supply in their services.”

She tapped two fingers against her chin and tilted her head to the side, cradling the glass of wine in her lap, “Though I'll have to ask if you've any wagons to spare. And horses to draw them. I'm afraid a boats all I have, and unfortunately it isn't able to sprout legs.” Zahra finished the wine and leaned forward to place it back onto her desk, “That's all I'd require to do as you ask.”

"That is unfortunate," Marceline agreed with a small laugh of her own. Afterward though, her lips set into a thin line and she began to process. "You need not worry about the wagons, they will be supplied. I shall speak to Ser Leonhardt about requisitioning them, and also to Master Dennet to gather the horses to draw them." Marceline paused for a moment before she leaned backward over her desk and plucked a scroll of parchment expertly, bringing it back and depositing it into Zahra's hands.

"It is a map of the land between here and the Waking Sea. If you would indicate the routes you believe to be most efficient, I will send letters to the local Banns to ensure that the roads are safe to travel. I would not put anyone in unnecessary danger if I can help it," she said, though she neglected to reveal that she did not want the supplies to fall into the hands of bandits.

Zahra waggled her eyebrows, and fanned her hands out wide, “With both our efforts, what couldn't we achieve?” Even without the mirthful tilt to her tone, she appeared pleased by the prospects. She lounged back in her seat and crossed a leg over her knee, taking up the scroll of parchment Marceline dropped in her hands and smoothing it across her lap. She hummed a soft tune and traced a finger across various lines, where roads and smaller villages lied. An approving smile crossed her lips, as she looked back to Marceline.

“And I'll have Nuka accompany our little caravan to ensure the supplies reaches its destination all proper-like,” she added as she rolled the piece of parchment back up and tapped her knee with it, “So, this concludes our business. Seems to me, no loose ends that needs tying. Is there anything else you'd like of me?”

Marceline shook her head, "No, I do not believe so. Thank you for assistance Captain," she said with a grateful nod. Before she could stand and see Zahra out, however, the door opened behind them and Larissa stepped inside. The moment she crossed the threshold, the serene and even look she wore broke away into a furrowed brow and scrunched nose. It was clear that her time spent with the Chancellor were not altogether enjoyable. Marceline offered her an apologetic look before the elf spoke first. "I know many songs and stories, and even I was unaware of how many ways it is possible to call someone a heathen," she said. Marceline found it somewhat difficult to stifle a small chuckle.

Quickly, Marceline coughed to cover herself and spoke, "I apologize for putting you through that Larissa. You have the rest of the day to yourself. Mother sent a package from home, you are welcome to it," she said, indicating to the package that rested in the opposite corner of the room. Larissa's eyes alighted on the package and went to it, curiously checking the contents. Eventually, she produced a book, Hard in Hightown written extravagantly on the cover.

"Ah, give Lady Lécuyer my thanks."

Zahra did little in the means of containing her laughter, though she had enough decency to offer her own apologies, “Who else could stave off his insults so easily?” She'd already risen from her chair and lingered closer to the doorway, peering curiously over Larissa's shoulder when she fiddled with the contents of the package. There was a mischievous glint in her eyes when she held the book aloft, and the quirking smile broke into a full-blown grin. “Lovely book, that. Best enjoyed in a quiet space, if you take my meaning.”

"That is the plan, Captain," Larissa answered with a smile.

Lady Marceline sighed, but a smile was on her lips as well. The poor girl deserved it after dealing with the Chancellor.

"Captain," Marceline nodded and stood to see the woman out, before turning to her desk to resume her work

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

Image



Then the Maker said:
To you, My second-born, I grant this gift:
In your heart shall burn
An unquenchable flame
All-consuming, and never satisfied.
From the Fade I crafted you,
And to the Fade you shall return
Each night in dreams
That you may always remember Me.
—Canticle of Threnodies 5:7

Image

The air still smelled like burning flesh.

It was probably a good thing that it was a memory from the Fade, and so the others present would not be able to smell it. Well, the mages might, but not until they’d taken the lyrium, anyway. Between they and the templars and his own estimations, the need had been for an entire cart of it, several crates stacked on top of each other and pulled towards the temple by a draft animal. The templars required it, and it dramatically increased the efficacy of the average mage, to the point that he believed it was actually possible to do what he’d been asked to devise a way of doing.

History, which so dramatized action over thought, was unlikely to remember his contribution to this, but for once, Cyrus couldn’t really say he cared much. Let it be forgotten, so long as it was done.

He stood now on one of the edges of the drop-off that led down to the floor beneath the Breach itself, though even at his height, he was still angled somewhat below it, such that he had to tip his head up to regard the thing. He’d not stood in its presence before, and he had to admit that he felt the keen temptation of allowing it to remain. It was a tear in the Veil of massive proportions, and even standing beside it, he felt like more than he was. When he dreamed, Cyrus could achieve nearly anything his heart desired. The Fade itself bent and twisted to his whim, answering his demands with little more than a thought from him. Here the distinction between the Fade and the mundane world was so blurred it was almost no distinction at all—he was smelling what was in the former while still fully conscious in the latter.

The prospect of being able to shape and mold this world in the same way he could sculpt and define that one was staggering. If he’d only put himself to work figuring out how to expand the Breach instead of how to close it, perhaps he could have had that. But the Breach was sick, ill, distorted—only the darkest reflections of the Fade were nearby it. And it threatened not only to collapse the distinction between worlds, but to utterly destroy this one. And the risks of expanding it without knowing the consequences—even he knew when something was too dire to chance.

But still, gooseflesh prickled along his skin, and he could almost feel the crackling of magic beneath it, yearning, almost, to be loosed, to be put to purpose and change what was into what had been dreamed. He tightened his hands together behind his back, suppressing the strange, giddy mix of nauseous vertigo and the sudden influx of power, squeezing his eyes shut and opening them again. Let it be assumed that he was nervous—that, unlike what he felt in truth, would be acceptable.

The mages fanned out to the left of where he stood and the templars to the right, taking up positions on the mid-level ledge. As he’d requested, Leon stood closest to him on the templar side, and Asala on the mage side. The most necessary individuals of all, Romulus and Estella, were moving into place directly beneath the Breach. A breeze picked up from the north, feathering over his face, and Cyrus let his muscles relax. Several more Inquisition troops began to carry in and distribute the lyrium—scraped together from personal stores, whatever the Riptide’s crew had been able to secure in the last few weeks, and the amount the spymaster had been able to accrue from more land-bound smuggling and trade routes. It was quite a lot, but each mage or templar would still be getting a minimal dose, given how many ways it had to spread. Cyrus himself was abstaining, of course, and as a Seeker, Leon didn’t need any, either, but everyone else would be taking at least some.

He signaled for them to do so, and waved the rest of the Inquisition back, as it was rather difficult to predict just what effect this much concentrated effort would have on the area, and it was better to minimize the risk of unnecessary casualties. Injuries, that was—he didn’t anticipate any deaths unless everything went horribly wrong, but then if that happened the entire world was doomed anyway, so it would hardly matter in the long run.

“Let it never be said that I avoided doing things of consequence.” He murmured the words to himself, a wry twist of his lip and a shake of his head accompanying the statement.

When at last it looked as though everyone were ready, Cyrus inhaled deeply, releasing his hands from behind his back and raising the right one. He held it there until he knew it was seen, then dropped it, the signal for the templars to begin.

“Templars!” The Commander’s voice boomed out over the ranks, and as one, they took a step forward, genuflecting with their armaments in front of them, bowing their helmed visages over the pommels of swords or hafts of axes, or else leaning them against the poles of spears and halberds, lapsing as one into reverent posture and calling to themselves the peculiar lyrium-fed abilities to cleanse a particular area of hostile magic. Where once they would have turned such force against the mages not far from them, now it was directed at the Breach, and the green light in the sky seemed to shudder and dim as each one spent their resources attempting to wrest it under control. Leon alone remained standing, his eyes clearly fixed on the rift itself, imperceptible words forming on his lips, his stare a thousand yards away.

At the conclusion of their efforts, however, it remained perceptibly magical. Clearly, they had weakened it, but the task of closing it was far from over.

Catching Asala’s eye, Cyrus raised his left hand, and then brought that one down as well, in a sharp motion much like the last.

Though she visibly trembled and her knuckles were white from the grip she held on her staff, Asala still raised it high and called out. "M-mages!" The mages stepped forward in a wave, enveloping their staves in a dispelling green glow before slamming them into ground. As more mages added their spells to the whole, the reflections of the Fade felt by Cyrus began to dwindle as magic around it started to ebb away by the mass dispelling. Asala's eyes darted back and forth over the breach and every now and then a blue glint could be seen in the sky, evidence of her effort to concentrate and corral straying spells.

As soon as the last of the dispellings had run its course, Cyrus stepped forward himself, right to the edge of the drop-off. With a deep inhalation, he reached for the magic, easy to his hands even still, even though he could feel the Fade retreating from this place. He reminded himself that it was good, that it was what he wanted. That it was the right thing to do, and they were the only people who could do it. When that wasn’t enough and his willpower faltered, he reminded himself also of all the reasons he had to do the right thing for once in his life. Of all he needed to make up for, all he needed to repent. And then he glanced down, past the ranks of templars and the less-organized throng of mages, to where the Heralds stood, and he thought of her as well, and all together, it was enough to turn aside the lure.

He raised his arms, a white light gathering around them, spreading until it covered the whole of his body, thin like a mist, and then growing denser as more of it billowed outwards, still contained around him, until he almost seemed to be encased in a sphere of roiling fog. Little scattered sparks of electricity jumped around inside the clouds, occasionally lighting them from within. When the mist had thickened to the point of obscuring his view completely, he finally released it, sending it towards the Breach like a slow-rolling ocean wave. Struck by the light as it moved, it threw tiny prisms of refracted light onto the ground below, glinting off templar armor and the polished staves of the mages.

The Breach, which had begun to distort and destabilize at the edges as it fought against the attempts to neutralize it, almost recoiled from the wave, as though it were half-alive itself and sensed danger. But it was, ultimately, immobile, and the spell hit it like a tidal force, the pearlescent cloud clinging to it, dulling the green to a washed-out verdigris hue, and stopping its motion entirely. It simply hung there, pulsing faintly, a tumor in the sky.

“Now!” His shout echoed as it descended towards the Heralds, his eyes flicking between where they stood and where it remained, yet to be defeated.

Romulus nodded, looking to Estella to see if she was ready as well. She appeared to gather herself for another second, then inclined her head.

As one, they stepped forward and thrust their marked hands at the Breach, the left of Romulus beside the right of Estella. Twin arcs of the green lightning-like energy shot forth and connected with the sickly tear above them, which began to pulsate violently. It shook the arms of both Heralds to maintain the connection, and soon a blindingly bright white light began to emanate from within the Breach's center point.

It was enough to force some of the mages and templars to look away, distracting them from their task, and for a brief moment it seemed as though the Breach was strenghtening, fighting back against the forces trying to shut it for good. It swelled and expanded in front of them for an unknown reason, bulging from within while the light grew stronger still. The Heralds did not relent, each knowing that to stop now could spell disaster far beyond the confines of the temple ruins.

The Breach gave out a great moan, twisting and pulsating as it was steadily filled with the energy from the marks, until at last it could hold itself together no longer, and it exploded, the blinding light becoming all-encompassing, forcing any sane person to shut their eyes. A strong wave of force washed out over the temple grounds, throwing anyone not already bracing for it onto their back. The Heralds received the worst of it, the blast enough to throw them several body lengths away, the green crackling energy still pulsating from their palms.

Cyrus, even despite being prepared for backlash, staggered backwards several steps, his eyes shut against the bright light. As soon as it dimmed, though, he opened them again, running to the end of the ledge and dropping down to the next level, then moving through a few dazed-looking mages to do the same thing a second time, putting him on the ground with the Heralds. “Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant, both of you!” He reached down to Estella first, knocked prone by the blast, and offered a hand to Romulus as well once she was back on her feet.

Whoever or whatever the Elder One was, it had to know they weren’t going to take this lying down now. Behind them, once it was confirmed that both Heralds had survived the effort, a cheer began to swell, dozens of voices adding to the exultation, the celebration of what had just been accomplished.

The sky overhead bore a greenish scar, a remnant of what had loomed so dire, but the Breach was closed.

The Inquisition had succeeded.




Needless to say, the tavern in Haven was packed to the rafters that evening. All the tables had been pushed to the side, and it was standing-room only, still incredibly full due to its proximity to the alcohol. He’d initially entered seeking libation, as most of these people had, but the din of all the voices was incredibly loud, and he wasn’t sure how people could even hear themselves think in the space. So once he’d secured his tankard, he headed for the door immediately.

The Captain of the Riptide busied herself at the bar and knocked shoulders with her large, Qunari-companion. She'd chosen lighter garbs, forgoing her restrictive leathers for softer linens. It seemed as if she was always in the tavern, especially if there was cause for celebration. She occasionally drifted away from her stool to twirl around in the middle of the dance floor and always had a tankard held in her hand. Somehow, she managed not to spill a drop. She arched her back and stretched her arms over her head, as content as one could be in good company. She leaned towards Aslan and tossed her head back, laughter crackling from her belly. Though she was obviously amused, Aslan's tight-lipped frown betrayed none.

Most of the people in here were not those he knew to any degree, though one of the Lions he’d met earlier, Donnelly, was leaning heavily against the bar, apparently in less-than-sober conversation with a much more lucid-looking Aurora, the little redhead who led the mages in these parts, or at least the ones that didn’t answer to Fiona. He gestured upwards with his cup at both of them, the mercenary returning it with a broad grin and the same, sloshing a bit of ale over his hand and then eyeing his handiwork with exaggerated trepidation, frowning for all of a moment before he shrugged and grinned again. It would appear that there was little dampening his current mood. The corner of Cyrus’s mouth turned up, and he passed through the exit to the outside without issue.

The rest of the Lions weren’t far away, standing in a cluster not too far from where the bard played and Larissa sang. They looked to be a bit under the influence on average, but none among the three of them seemed especially so, particularly not considering the chaos around them. Completely sober were Estella’s Tranquil teacher, Rilien, and his assistant. Tanith, Cyrus believed her name was—she was speaking to him with an amused look on her face, but he, of course, wore no expression at all, though he was tuning a lute. That was bound to produce an interesting result, in any case.

He spotted Thalia weaving into and out of the crowd, but of course she rarely talked to him when she didn’t have to, and he certainly didn’t expect to see much of her tonight. She’d probably be spending it with some pretty little thing or another, as was her wont.

Most of the rest of Haven and the Inquisition seemed to occupy the area close to a bonfire, which burned high and bright against the night sky, bathing those around it in an orange glow more than sufficient to stave off the chill of the evening. Asala and Meraad danced in the light of the fire, both laughing freely and easily as he spun her in a wide circle. Nearby the Benoît child watched with a light smile and clapped along to the beat. Even the commander seemed to have been persuaded to join in the festivities, admittedly with much less abandon than anyone around him. He was talking to Marceline, who had her arms around the man who’d been introduced as her husband, Michaël. For once, Leon's expression was relaxed; open, even. He appeared to be rather enjoying himself, despite the absence of a drink in his hand. Marceline's hand, however, was not likewise unburdened, but held a goblet of wine, no doubt from the same bottle that hung from Michaël's.

Sparrow herself was lounging on the outskirts, for once. She'd found a barrel to perch on and was idly tapping her fingers across her knee, looking across the tavern. It wasn't immediately apparent what, exactly, she was looking for, but by the expression on her face, she was mildly annoyed.

Estella was nearby the fire, looking a strange mix of happy and uncomfortable. Happy, perhaps, because of the general festivity. The discomfort was likely due to the fact that a new person seemed to crop up to shake her hand or speak to her every few moments. No few of the exchanges were likely either high praise or requests for a dance, from the way she so often looked surprised and then embarrassed in quick succession, a result he suspected both types would have produced. In any case, she tended to smile politely and shake her head a fair amount, which was unsurprising, given what he knew of her tendencies towards reservation and the deflection of compliments.

She met his eyes, shooting him a look that conveyed something between disbelief and panic, as though she weren’t quite sure what to do with herself.

Cyrus merely met her look with a much more mischievous one and shrugged in an exaggerated fashion. Frankly, he thought she should get used to the attention. It wasn’t like she’d be able to avoid it forever, no matter how little she thought of herself. He raised his tankard to his lips, drawing several swallows down in rapid succession. It tasted almost unbearably cheap, but accomplishment had a way of making anything sweeter.

From out of the swirl of dancing people came Vesryn, devoid of most of his armor, though his cloak, a lighter one than the garish white lion, was still tied around his waist, and several of his leg plates were still attached. His tunic was unbuttoned halfway down his chest, as it always seemed to be on the occasions when he got out of his armor. Evidence suggested that the heat of the fire, the warmth of the bodies, and the pace of the movement had warmed him up enough to risk shedding layers, though he'd have to preserve the momentum to stay that way.

Currently he wound his way over to Estella, the latest in her line of visitors, pausing only to take a breath that needed catching. "Might I succeed where the others have failed?" he pondered, offering an upturned hand in her direction, attempting his most charming smile. "My night is not a victory until I have danced with a Herald. The other one has already cruelly spurned me in favor of another." By his delivery, it was entirely true.

Estella was nothing if not consistent, though she looked slightly less surprised this time, something that said perhaps more of Vesryn than it did of her. Her embarrassment, however, was just as evident, though it did seem accompanied by a shade of amusement. “I should hate to hand you a ‘loss’,” she replied, considerably less dramatically, if lightly all the same. “But this particular Herald doesn’t dance, and it really is better that way.” The declination was offered kindly and in good humor, but it was still a refusal, and she smiled apologetically. “I’m sure there is no shortage of people who will gladly take advantage of my lapse in judgement, however.”

"As you wish," Vesryn said, accepting the rejection quite easily. He withdrew the hand into a flourishing bow, and stepped away. "This is not a retreat!" he called, stepping back into the throng of dancers. "Merely a tactical withdrawal!" The swirling bodies consumed him, though it was not long before the telltale sound of his laughter was heard again.

Cyrus didn’t bother suppressing his snicker, but over the noise, it wouldn’t be audible anyway. He was willing to bet that didn’t happen too often to Vesryn, but from Estella, it was entirely predictable. Skirting the edges of the crowd himself, he attempted to find a way to maneuver closer to the fire without getting caught up in the mass of whirling bodies. His path took him by Romulus, and Khari, who was halfway through a tall glass of something golden in color and looking a bit flush in the face because of it, though that might have just been the firelight. He nodded to both as he passed them by, spotting an ideal perch atop a barrel, one that looked to be empty now but had probably contained beer at some point earlier in the evening.

He stationed himself upon it, for the moment, resting his tankard on his knee, his fingers loose about the handle. If he looked up past the fire, he could still see the faint green scar left by the Breach, and try as he might, he couldn’t avoid thinking about it. They celebrated like everything was over, and perhaps for most of them, it would be. But for him at least, he knew things had only begun. There was still the matter of the Elder One, whatever it was, and the magic that had been used to tear open the Veil in the first place. He could recall with unsettling clarity the feeling of power he’d had from just standing close to it, how intoxicating that had been.

Shaking his head and forcing his eyes down, Cyrus lifted his tankard to his lips and downed half of what was left. He should probably make sure he had a few more of these before he slept. For now, though, he tried to let himself get caught up in the merriment of others, washing around him like water around an island. And for a little while at least, it was good enough to be so near to it.

Tomorrow was another day. But tonight didn’t have to be only a prelude to it.

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

Leon rarely slept well, and he never slept early, so even after more than half of the troops and citizens of Haven had sought the warmth of their beds, or one another’s, as the case seemed frequently to be, he was still awake, standing a little closer to the dying bonfire than he’d been before. Periodically, he’d throw a few more scraps of wood on it, to keep it burning for those who weren’t quite ready to call the celebration quits yet. Some remained in the tavern, but most of those who were still awake had moved outside by the time the foreign horn sounded down the mountain.

It seemed to draw everyone to a temporary stillness. His own head whipped towards the source of the sound, and he stepped out from around the fire to peer up the mountainside from whence it had issued. He could see faintly the glimmer of hundreds, possibly thousands, of torches, and his heart jumped in his chest, a wash of mixed dread and anticipation flooding his system. He did the necessary strategic calculations without even consciously deciding it, and every outlook was grim. Grimmer, the longer it took them to respond.

He took quick stock of who was in his immediate proximity, and found that there were yet a fair number of people he could use immediately. Haven had three trebuchets built within its defenses, and those would be their best chance of softening up this force, whatever it was, before it reached their doorstep. He was under no illusions that an army of that size was here to negotiate or offer assistance. It was here to kill them, and it was his job to make sure that didn’t happen, impossible as the task now seemed.

“Reed. Get the Lions, have them take command of their units. They’re on the southern trebuchet. Go with them.” The corporal saluted and hustled off towards the cluster of tents where the officers on loan made their camp. Nearby, Vesryn was stepping into his gear about as fast as anyone could don full plate, whilst Cyrus stood from where he’d been sitting, also peering at the incoming force. Asala had a bit of a shellshocked look to her, but he feared that much worse was to come.

“Cyrus, Vesryn, Asala. Take any troops you can get on the way, find Estella, and get to the near trebuchet.” It was the closest by a lot, but they’d probably have to wake the Herald before getting there, which meant they’d need the time they could save. “Rilien—please go to the Chantry and inform Marceline and Michaël. Prepare a retreat and find us a way out of here.” In truth, the way he saw the largest number of them surviving this was to get out of Haven, but preparing that would take time, time in which they would be forced to fight. The Tranquil dipped his head, speaking too low to hear to Tanith, who nodded as well and remained behind as he headed up towards the top of the hill Haven sat on. Sparrow lingered near the gates, balancing herself on the pommel of her ridiculously large flanged mace, eying the horizon with narrowed eyes and pinched lips. Though she said nothing to the bypassing soldiers, nor to Rilien or Leon's assembled group, it was apparent she was readying herself for combat.

“The rest of you are with me. We’ll be going to—” He stopped at the sound of the front gate being thrown open, and when it was, it admitted Romulus, Khari, and what appeared to be a severely injured Lia. Leon’s brows drew down over his eyes, and he remembered that she’d been sent on a routine patrol earlier in the evening. From the looks of it, the other scout she’d gone with hadn’t made it back.

“What are we looking at?” Though he’d have much preferred to insist she get her wound looked at before reporting, it didn’t look fatal and they didn’t have the time. He needed as much information as he could get as soon as she could get it, and so he silenced his expression of sympathy in favor of bare efficiency. Asala produced a red vial from the satchel she seemed to always carry with her, and pressed it into Lia's hand with a deeply apologetic look before she took leave to follow Leon's orders.

“Venatori,” the elf managed, as Romulus and Khari helped her into a seat. Immediately she drank a small amount of the potion Asala had handed her, swallowing with a grimace. “And templars. The red kind. Together.” Vesryn buckled on his second gauntlet, drawing his axe.

"Well, that’s just wonderful.” He jogged off, to join the others he’d been assigned to.

He couldn’t say it made no sense. Both groups had made reference to an Elder One, and, at least indirectly, an assassination plot. He hadn’t expected there would be near enough of either to constitute an army of this size yet, but it would appear that this was a grave miscalculation on his part. Leon’s jaw tightened. “When you’re done with that, Lia, wake as many of the troops as you can find. Gather them at the gate and position them as well as you know how. Tanith can help with the formations.” He glanced to Rilien’s aide to confirm the order. She was also a mage, so she should at least be able to fix the wound well enough to finish what the potion would start. Lia nodded wordlessly, getting to her feet before half the potion was through, and downing the rest as she ran off, Tanith on her heels.

That left him with Romulus, Khari, Séverine, a few regulars, and whoever was still inside the tavern for the last trebuchet. He was accounting for the possibility of advance troops in sending so many to each of the machines. Hopefully, he was wrong about that, but Leon had learned to plan for the worst and leave the best for hoping. Gesturing for those that were around to follow him, he pulled open the tavern door. Inside lingered Captain Tavish, her first mate Aslan, and a few other soldiers, no few of them blearily waking to the sounds of organized chaos outside.

“We’re under attack,” he informed them curtly. “Get up, arm yourselves as well as you can, and follow me.”

Zahra was on her feet as soon as Leon swept into the tavern. Geared appropriately in her flexible leathers, and swinging her bow from her shoulder, tightening the buckle connected to her quiver. Aslan stood at her side, though he held an impressive axe in his hands, arms bristling with corded muscle. If he was worried about the outcome of their impending battle, he showed no indications. It might've been just another walk in the park. Small, flinty eyes regarded the other soldiers, dwarfed in his presence. She took a deep breath and flashed Leon an encouraging smile, if the small twinge of her lips was anything to go by. She tottered away from the stools, followed closely behind by the others inhabiting the tavern and wove around a few soldiers, rounding up on his side, thick eyebrows raised in question, “We're ready when you are. I don't mind, but mightn't we know what we're facing?

“Venatori.” The reply came from Khari, who’d leaned around Leon’s impressive presence to peer into the tavern. And Red Templars. We’ve gotta go load the trebuchets, and, you know, be on the lookout for anyone trying to climb the palisade from the flanks and stuff.” She sounded as though she expected subterfuge of that kind, which wasn’t entirely unreasonable. This army was bound to contain shock troops of some kind, and the walls, while sturdy and tall, were not unassailable.

“Can't say I've ever been in a fight this large, but I s'pose it's like anything else,” Zahra wrinkled her nose and reached back into her quiver, tickling her fingers across the feather. Counting off arrows, from the movement of her lips, until she was satisfied, and also drifted to Leon's side in order to see Khari properly. If Aslan's ears could have perked up, they might have, as interested as he appeared in the conversation, drifting closer. He held the axe aloft, inspecting its bladed edge, and finally broke his silence, regarding Leon with a leveled stare, “Where would you like us to go?”

“Follow me.” The words were terse, clipped, and Leon moved away from the doorway, twisting to avoid a collision with Khari and leading the group towards the farther trebuchet. It was in an unready position, being that they’d not foreseen the need to use it yet. The crank behind it would turn it in the proper direction, but doing so wasn’t their only task.

The sound of wood splintering in a burst drew Leon’s attention, and his head snapped to the wall, part of which had just been caved in by some kind of controlled explosion. Several red Templars were the first through, followed by half a dozen Venatori, and further dull booms indicated that this breach of the defenses was not the only one. The Seeker ground his teeth, particularly when one hulking creature filed in behind the rest, its body, perhaps once human, now a towering mass of red lyrium more than anything else. It couldn’t have been any less than ten feet tall, by his estimation, its arms heavy clubs of blood-colored crystal.

“Séverine, turn the trebuchet! The rest of you, keep them off her!”

Leon took a deep breath, feeling the shift inside himself, the way his every sense seemed to expand, and a primal violence welled in his chest, urging him forward, suppressing his tendencies towards gentility and flooding him with the unquenchable desire for blood. A red mist fuzzed the very corners of his vision, but the rest of it only grew sharper, the colors more vivid and defined, and his nose flooded with the scent of iron and fire and fear, thick and pervasive in the air over Haven.

He charged.

Despite her lack of armor or her usual weaponry, Khari was the next one off, charging after him and peeling off to the left, where she rolled out of the way of a heavy swing from one of the other templars, springing to her feet and planting her knife in the armpit he exposed with the swing. He went down, and she scooped up his battle-axe, bounding back into the fray with a snarl.

Romulus was also underprepared for the fight, but managed to grapple one of the Venatori to the ground, where he drew the man's sidearm, a short curved dagger. After ending the zealot's life by cutting his throat open, Romulus withdrew and kept watchful eyes on the unfolding melee. Séverine had begun working to turn the large trebuchet towards the enemy masses beyond the wall, her templars throwing themselves into the conflict against the army that faced them. The Red Templar behemoth crushed the first unlucky templar to attempt facing it, crunching the man into a distorted shape of metal and torn flesh.

Aslan bulled ahead with a startlingly loud howl. One that might've given fleshy men pause, if they weren't out of their heads with red lyrium. He dragged his axe behind him and planted his feet, swinging the axe around to shear a man's head clear off his shoulders, flicking a clear spray of blood behind him. Shouldering the body aside, the bulky Qunari faced the Red Templar behemoth and danced away from a disfigured fist swinging towards his head. For someone so large, his experience in battle was evident by the way he danced to the creature's glowing side, hunkering under another nasty blow and coming up behind him with a response of his own.

Bows were best utilized on the outskirts, so Zahra took her position at the rear and bounced around their own soldiers, who were all barreling towards the Venatori and Red Templars. She notched the first arrow and drew it back against her cheek, eyes feverishly bright, and loosed it into the closest Venatori's head. The man didn't seem to know he was dead, because he stumbled ahead a few paces, blinking rapidly and fell at Khari's feet. The Dalish woman barely seemed to register his presence, stepping over him without noticing him, as such, driving her pilfered axe into the leather chestplate of one of the Venatori in much the same way she swung her cleaver-sword on any other day. Zahra turned her attention towards Aslan and the hulking mass of crimson gems, loosing three arrows in quick succession, though they did little more than ricochet off its grotesque body. One, at least, thumped into its fleshy elbow. A glowering snarl sounded, accompanied by more arrows hissing by her companions head, aiding them in felling oncoming enemies.

Though Leon had initially charged the behemoth, landing a blow heavy enough to issue spiderweb cracks through part of its lyrium surface, he’d been quickly surrounded by others, templars and Venatori alike, as they rounded on the largest, most immediately threatening target, and they were proving much more tenacious than the average man, perhaps an effect of their morale. He only barely registered the tactical thought, which sounded in some part of his mind that was distant now. Much more immediate was the sound of his heart in his ears, and the immediate action-and-reaction taking place in front of him.

An incoming longsword left a bloody slice on his unarmored shoulder, and his hand snapped up, closing around the wrist attached tightly enough to turn his knuckles white under his gloves. They bled again, from impact with the jagged lyrium crystals, but he didn’t notice it as more than a minor inconvenience, one that might cause his grip to become slicker than he liked. Twisting, he wrenched the Venatori’s arm out of its socket, and, unburdened by plate, shifted his weight to kick another square in the chest, sending him back onto his rear for someone else to end. An arrow whizzed by over his shoulder, but he remained unflinching, dismissing it as a non-threat and driving his fist up into the throat of the man with the dislocated arm. He fell clutching at his crushed windpipe, and Leon flowed forward to the next foe, kicking a third in the back of the knees while she was distracted with her efforts to engage Romulus.

The hiss of displaced air followed by the sound of squelching and a wet crack signified the end of another red templar slightly behind him, Khari having taken up a position at his flank, though not too close. She breezed past him after that, though, bringing the battle-axe over her head and heaving it down upon the behemoth, who turned at the last moment and raised a stony arm to block, sending her blow aside with a ringing clang. Khari staggered backwards, her momentum momentarily halted, and leaving her open to the Venatori shield that slammed into her side, taking her to the ground.

The Venatori engaging Romulus didn't live much longer, as he brought a knee swiftly up into her helmet, rattling the woman's skull around with a dull clang. His knife found her throat as she fell back. Romulus had earned himself a few new scars from slashes from the battle, undoubtedly a result of his poor armament and perhaps even his inexperience navigating battlefields with this many combatants. He did manage to pick out Khari upon the ground, and rushed to assist, tackling the Venatori warrior from behind, the two of them collapsing to the ground in a murderous struggle.

"It's lined up!" came a cry from behind them. Séverine drew her sword and moved swiftly around to the trebuchet's release, slicing it with a chop and releasing the counterweight of the siege engine. Though they were the ones currently besieged, the trebuchet hurled a large stone chunk out. There was a heavy thud in the distance, and cries of agony echoing over the battle, but if the attack had any significant effect, their enemies weren't showing it. Séverine scooped up a second sword from one of her fallen troops and waded into the fray, slicing through several unaware enemies with ruthless efficiency.

"That thing needs to fall!" she called out, referring to the Red Templar behemoth, still smashing anything that came too close, barely discriminating between friend and foe. Séverine stabbed her sword into the back of the Venatori entangled with Romulus, allowing him to get back to his feet and move away from the tower of muscle and red lyrium before them.

The hulking Red Templar swung its scythe-like arm down in a wide, clumsy circle, growling more like a beast than a thing that had once been human. It shivered and stepped into a corpse, crushing it beneath its foot. Unheeded in its pursuit of bodies to crush and maul, it lumbered towards Khari and Romulus, mouth agape in a red, glowing socket. Though its movements were sluggish and uncoordinated, it hardly reacted to the blades clattering off its contorted limbs, occasionally swinging its smaller arm like a claw. Zahra continued pelting arrows into its shoulders, knees, elbows, and one that thudded into its neck, seeking any weakness, without much success. Like a drunk stumbling for purchase on the ground, the Red Templar behemoth bumbled forward and appropriated its momentum to swing its lyrium-encrusted hand against the ground. It bellowed once more, and turned abruptly, hefting its arm towards Leon's unprotected back.

It was Aslan who shouldered Leon aside, raising his axe in front of his face, palm planted against the flat of the blade to present the brunt of the blow. As far as preventing the lyrium-scythe from rendering him as dead as that contorted soldier, he'd managed to hold his ground. The upper portion of the blade had curved itself into the Qunari's broad shoulder blade, deep enough that both seemed pinned in place, with the axe biting into the creature's shoulder. One of his meaty fists maintained the hold on his axe, while the other had snaked out to grappled onto chain-links clanging through the creature's chest. Portions of the lyrium crystals bit into his mauve flesh and bled freely down his forearms, and the top of his head. His horns had prevented them from going straight through his cheeks.

A rippling scream sounded over the din of battle, “Kill the fucking thing.” Zahra's fingers moved in meticulous, practiced movements, sending arrows into chests and foreheads, a clear attempt to pave a path towards the immobile pair.

The deadlock broke quite savagely, when Leon leaped atop the behemoth, wrapping one of his arms around its neck, still much softer and more vulnerable than the rest of its body. He flexed the muscles in his arm with tremendous strength, pulling his hooked limb back towards him, using both his strength and his considerable weight to cut off its air supply. As it turned out, even mostly-lyrium monsters still needed that, and though it took several moments, its hold on Aslan eventually slackened, its arm withdrawing and its body collapsing ponderously to the ground, Leon still atop it. He didn’t relent until he knew it had died, rather than simply falling unconscious, at which point he rolled off it and to his feet, breathing heavily and deeply, like a blacksmith’s bellows.

The Behemoth's arm retreated from Aslan's shoulder with a sickening suck and nearly took the Qunari with him in a tumble of limbs, though he sunk to his knees instead. His breath came in wet gasps, sifting from bleeding lips. There was a moment where it appeared like he was trying to stand using his axe as a brace, but his shoulders hunched forward and slumped. Bright eyes swam upwards, searched for something far off. His axe clattered from his twitching fingers. It didn't take long for Zahra to find herself scrambling to his side, fingers smoothing over his skin in desperate strokes, as if she were trying to hold in his wounds, and prevent the inevitable from happening.

A sort of breathlessness overtook him as Zahra babbled against his shoulder, “No, no no no. Aslan. Aslan. You're okay. You're fine. They'll patch you up. Asala, she can—” His answer was a hacking cough and a slow nod, followed by a small, knowing smile. His ragged breath drew out in a long sigh and as suddenly as he'd been there, Aslan slowly slumped to the side, dragging Zahra along with him. The howl that escaped her sounded as inhuman as the Behemoth's roars, an ugly, poignant sound that muffled itself into the Qunari's jawline. If she had any inkling of impending danger, it appeared as if she didn't care.

There were several seconds of poignant silence, pervasive somehow even despite the fact that battle continued around them. For a thick, heavy moment, the only noises in the area were the ones Zahra made, but they could not remain to mourn. Haven was still under attack, and all their lives still at risk.

It was Khari who stepped forward first, approaching the captain much as one might approach a wild animal, cornered and wounded—cautious, but resolute. She swallowed thickly, laying a hand on Zahra’s shoulder and flexing it in a soft squeeze that became an insistent tug. “We can’t stay, Zee. They’re still coming.” She hesitated, pushing a gusty breath out between her teeth. “Your crew can’t lose you, too.”

At that moment, a sound not unlike scraping metal, amplified hundreds of times, ripped through the air, and a fine tremor shook the ground, just enough to be felt beneath their feet. Khari’s eyes went wide, and she glanced back down at Zahra, grimacing and shifting her grip to bodily pull the petite captain, no bigger than herself, to her feet.

“Hate me later. We don’t want to meet that like this.”

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

Image



Estella had lost track of how many hours, how many miles, the Inquisition had walked since departing Haven. Their progress was understandably slow, considering the number of wounded. The cavalry’s horses, the ones they’d managed to round up for the retreat, had been given over to the injured, as had any spare space in the two supply carts they’d been able to muster in enough time. It wasn’t a lot, wasn’t near enough, but it was something. She supposed she should feel comforted by that, but she really didn’t.

As it had done so many times before, the necessity of continuing to move forward kept her from collapse, but it was a near thing. She simply led Nox, burdened down with two injured soldiers, along the trail the wagons had forged through the snow, near the back of the procession. The other Lions slogged nearby, she knew, but she hadn’t made eye contact with anyone for most of the time they’d been walking.

Now, they drew to a stop, far enough away for those in charge to feel comfortable making camp, and knowing that they had to, lest the injured become the dead. Handing Nox off to one of the soldiers so he could help the others down, Estella moved forwards into the camp and started to help pitch the tents, few as they were, the largest one devoted to the care of the wounded. Her hands moved mechanically, methodically, without any thought at all, because she was trying very hard not to have any. A few others laid all the blankets and such that they had down on the floors, and she caught sight of Leon and Hissrad assisting with the carrying of the most gravely hurt to the tent, where she expected Asala and Donovan and some of the other mages would soon be hard at work.

It would be nice, to have a use at a time like this. A real one.

When the tents were pitched, Estella helped dig a fire pit, then ventured out into the snowy landscape to find wood to burn in it. At present, no one told her she shouldn’t, because they couldn’t spare anyone the work needed to get the camp set up as soon as possible. Every time her thoughts wandered to the avalanche’s thundering down the mountainside into Haven or the sight of that dragon flying away, she shook her head and refocused, scanning the landscape for another dead tree or brush sticking up from under the snow. Every time she thought of Khari or Romulus or the party who held the gate, or Fiona or Tanith or Asala’s brother Meraad, she threw another branch over her shoulder and trekked it back to the site, not pausing before she struck out again.

Every time she thought of the people who’d died so that she could live, she took a deep, shuddering breath, and another step forward. What else could she do?

Each trip back to the fire pit brought her back to Cyrus, who’d started it with his magic and was now tending it, coaxing it to grow as large and warm as possible, feeding it gradually from the pile of wood she was bringing in so that it would burn long and steady. He’d also altered the shape of the pit, so that the outer perimeter of the fire could be used in several places for heating snow into drinkable water and cooking, things of that kind. He seemed to be doing so now, actually, a large cauldron set near the center of the flames, which licked up its thick, cast-iron sides. Several bags of supplies lay near where he sat, and water was beginning to boil in the cauldron, prompting him to begin adding other things. From what he had, it seemed their meal would be a thick stew of some kind.

Rilien could be seen on another side of the fire, steadily at work brewing potions, from the look of it, though his kit was quite small, probably being the only version of it he’d been able to stow on such short notice as they’d had. Already, though, several glass vessels were full and stoppered, stuck into the snow to cool rapidly for consumption. Larissa worked nearby, aiding him to the best of her abilities. Several other members of the Inquisition were hard at work building up a snow-wall to protect the camp from the worst of the wind, especially considering that there would not be enough tents and blankets for everyone. Out of those helping build the wall stood Sparrow, no worse for wear, possibly sporting a new wound or two, but it seemed as if she'd come out of the battle with all her limbs intact. Through chattering teeth and the occasional colorful cuss, she smoothed her fingers across the impromptu bricks and turned towards the nearest man to settle another brick in place.

Marceline had changed out of her nightgown, and now wore something more appropriate for the environment: a thick black dress and heavy leather boots. She kept Pierre close as they moved through the camp, handing out the water to those who needed it, one of whom was her husband, Michaël. He sat heavily against the cart, another soldier working to patch the cut that opened above his eye. When not watching his family, he seemed to gaze off into the distance, with a glaze to his eyes.

Zahra had positioned herself on the outskirts of their makeshift base camp. Mumbled something about keeping her eyes on the horizon in case any dragons flapped over the mountains, though if that were the case, everyone would know without her say so. In any case, they hadn't directed her anywhere, and allowed her to slink off by herself. She hadn't changed out of her bloody leathers, nor donned any warm cloaks. Hers had burned along with everyone else's belongings back in Haven.

She'd refused treatment from any of the healers, and upon close inspection, there wasn't anything inherently wrong with her. No physical wounds, no new scars, nothing at all. She hunkered herself down in the snow, just outside one of the tents, hands wrapped around her knees. Chin tipped across her knees, lips set into a hard line. The Captain looked less like the intimidating woman who had born down on the Inquisition, lips perpetually drawn into that shit-eating grin of hers and more like a lost little girl, motionless and unusually silent.

Eventually, on one of Estella's trips to retrieve more wood, though they had acquired enough for the fire to last already, she found Vesryn already out there, separated away from the rest of the group as well. There were scouts still about as well, those not too severely injured, but for the most part, they were beyond the earshot of anyone within the camp, especially when speaking softly, gently, as Vesryn did.

"I won't pretend to know what you're going through," he said. He looked uncomfortable himself, obviously unsure how to proceed. His hands rested upon the blade of his axe, his eyes hovering with concern over Estella. Throughout all the fighting, somehow he'd managed to only acquire a single, minor wound, treated by a tight wrap around his left arm near the elbow. "But if there's any way I can help, any way at all, please, tell me."

His words brought her up short, and for a moment, she struggled to understand their meaning. That, after all, required something more than automatic motion. When they finally clicked into place, though, she cleared her throat, shifting uncomfortably where she’d stopped and looking at her feet. “It’s not me,” she murmured softly, and then she forced herself to look up, meeting his eyes and smiling awkwardly. “I’m not the one to worry about right now, I think.” In the end, all she was doing was feeling sorry for herself.

Asala was the one who’d lost a brother. Zahra had lost her most stalwart crewman, a member of her family. Rilien had lost one of his oldest friends. Romulus and Khari… they’d lost their lives, they and so many others. Probably everyone here had lost someone—a compatriot, a friend, a family member or a lover. But now she was thinking about it, and she hadn’t meant to do that. Estella felt a hot sting at the back of her eyes, and dropped them again, gulping in a deep breath, trying to blink away the moisture and failing.

“Sorry, I, um.” She used the heel of her left hand to wipe off her cheeks and exhaled a shaky breath, trying not to let herself get caught up in her emotions. There were certainly a lot of them, dark and churning through her head like a violent tide.

Vesryn was quick to set down his axe against a nearby tree and cross the space between them, such that he was within arm's reach. "Listen." He placed a hand on her shoulder, squeezing slightly, and ducking his head down a little so that they'd be closer to even in height. "There are dozens of reasons why you're worth worrying about right now. And only a few of them have to do with you being a Herald, or important, or anything of the sort." He spoke the title almost dismissively, as though in that particular moment it meant quite little to him indeed.

"Here's a reason for you: you're a good person. A selfless person. I've seen it. And you had to witness people make sacrifices that our blighted circumstances stopped you from helping with, or lessening. To me, that's something far more heavy to endure, and not something Asala can magically make go away." His other hand rose to her other shoulder. "I can't cast any spells, and I don't know any of the others enough to help them. But I hope I can help you. I want to."

She swallowed thickly, trying to fight down the lump that was forming in her throat. Vesryn’s face swam in and out of clarity as more tears gathered, and still she fought them back. What he was describing… all of them had needed to witness that. He’d know—he’d been right there the whole time as well. So why was she the only one who couldn’t seem to handle it right now? How was it that everyone else was still moving, still doing what needed to be done, when what they’d suffered was at least as much as what she had?

How was it that none of them were blaming her for it?

“Don’t die then,” she said, struggling to force the words out in some steady, comprehensible way. “They died because I’m the Herald. Because they believed that this—” she held up her right hand, where the mark glowed even through her glove—“made me worth that sacrifice.” Not all of them, maybe. Certainly not Rom or Khari, but the majority of the Inquisition’s soldiers… “Please.” She met his eyes, blinking to clear hers and make sure she had them, her voice cracking and fading to a whisper. “Promise me you won’t die for me.”

Even to phrase it that way sounded absurd to her own ears, like the height of arrogance. To presume that anyone would bother. But at the same time, she knew that many of them had. For the Herald, they’d said. She couldn’t bear it.

Vesryn actually smiled, exhaling a soft, breathy laugh. Her emotion was obviously proving somewhat infectious, though he managed to keep it within himself much better than she did. "Come here." He pulled her into an embrace, wrapping one arm around her, the other pressed against her dark hair. "I'll have you know I'm very good at not dying. I have plans to grow old and grouchy, entertaining hordes of adorable little children with tales of my heroics." There was a glint of light in his eyes, but whether it was tears or amusement was difficult to say. Likely a bit of both. She huffed weakly, something that might have been a laugh in better circumstances, and tentatively returned the hug, making obvious effort to keep her breathing steady.

"I will not lay down my life for a title anyone has, or a magic ability they wield. I have another life in my head to protect besides, remember? But she gave me the skill to follow in her ideals, and they would have me oppose whatever force tried to obliterate us tonight." He broke the embrace so that he could have her eyes again, swallowing. "And they would have me do everything in my power to help you succeed."

“Okay.” Estella nodded shakily, but she was gradually regaining the feeling of having her feet properly beneath her, of having a way to go forward, and the declaration was as much for herself as for him. She knew from experience that as along as she had a way to go, she could keep going until she was numb and half-dead. She’d done so before, in ways both literal and figurative. What they needed to do now was decide which way forward was. She knew at least one thing that had to happen for that, too. Maybe… maybe he could help with that, as well.

“I-in your travels… have you ever come across anyplace big enough to hold us? Somewhere we could go, without imposing on anyone else?” She knew of a few old mercenary forts that stood empty across the Orlesian countryside, but none of them were large enough. It was possible that he’d once encountered some ruins that were, or perhaps Saraya knew of some. “If we’re to have a hope… we need somewhere to plant ourselves, all of us together.”

Vesryn nodded thoughtfully, but didn't seem surprised by the query. "We've given some thought to this. There is a place that I can show you. It's far from here, to the north. It'll be a hard journey through the mountains, but I can show you." He looked tentative about the next part, taking a step back and letting his hands fall to his sides. "I believe it will serve the Inquisition well... but I don't know how the Inquisition will react, having an elf lead them to a home. I can lead troops in a battle, but I can never be the heart of this Inquisition."

He shrugged. "That, more than ever, needs to be you. I'll be there, step for step, but I think you should lead the way."

“What? No.” There was more than one thing in that to protest, but she felt most strongly about a particular piece of it. “You two are the ones who know where it is—everyone should know that it’s your doing that gets us there.” It was, of course, impossible to explain Saraya to everyone, but Vesryn at least should be acknowledged for what he contributed to the cause. “I’ve no reservations following you if you know where to go, and neither should anyone else.” If the title and everything that came with it were to do any good, at least she should try and lead by example, in this case, the example of accepting help and wise counsel, whether it came from an elf or not.

"Think about this," he urged, still gently. "The Inquisition suffered a blow, a hard one, but one that it can still recover from. But it will never rise like it needs to without a leader. I don't believe you were chosen by Andraste, but I don't need to because I know you. The world must believe it, and they won't if they hear that the lone Herald of Andraste followed an elf every step of the way. The right thing to do here... it has to be giving these people the hope they need. It doesn't matter if Andraste chose you or not. You have the ability, the opportunity, to make their hope real. And I believe you can do it."

Anguish morphed her features. “That’s the same lie that just killed hundreds of people,” she replied, just as gently. “And I have to tell it again?” She shook her head slowly, her brows knitting tightly over her eyes. Even if she wasn’t saying it directly, by not denouncing it, she was allowing it to stand uncontested, which was enough of an endorsement. Deep down, she knew he was right, or at least, she suspected he was. She knew it was the same advice Marceline or Leon or Rilien would give her, but it didn’t make her feel any less like dirt.

She exhaled heavily, her breath clouding in the chill, and felt a new weight settle over her shoulders that had nothing to do with hauling wood. She didn’t know how long she’d be able to do this, to let people believe this, before she cracked under the pressure of it. But if she had to be the bad person here, the liar and the fake… would it be worth it, for what they achieved?

Estella had to believe it would be. Had to believe the lie and the false front would be enough to accomplish what they needed to. She lamented that she wasn’t strong enough to do this as herself, but she couldn't be. To most of them, she would have to be something she wasn’t; she’d have to let them believe it. Just long enough.

“All right,” she said at last. “I’ll… I’ll lead. But you have to be next to me. If I can’t follow you… everyone else can.” She tried for a half-smile, shrugging one shoulder. “The world needs to know that’s possible, too, the sooner the better.”

He smiled, the expression coming more easily to him, as it always did. "I've no problem with that."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish

0.00 INK

Skyhold had many hiding spots, it hadn't been very difficult to spirit herself away. Out of sympathetic sights, and far from any soft murmurs, belying condolences that only meant well. But Zahra wasn't sure what to do with those words. They lessened no burdens, and her thin-lipped responses shut whatever doors they were trying to pry open. She wasn't entirely sure what to do with herself in this case. Where should she go? What place did she have here, in these dark times? She'd been wholly unprepared for this kind of loss. Or maybe she'd never experienced it at all. Sometimes, she felt as if she were still sitting in those mountains, surrounded by glades of snow: numb, empty. As if she were distancing herself from the emotions she ought to have been feeling and coming up short. She knuckled at her eyes and drew herself tighter against the stone wall. She supposed she looked like a mess. An ugly, weak woman who'd boasted her worth to the Inquisition and her crew, and failed both.

If her clothes were anything to go by, it seemed as if her languid tastes had subdued themselves to ripped hand-me-downs. Old trousers, and a shirt that was obviously much too large for her small frame. Hanging from her shoulders as it did. Zahra didn't seem to care, bundled up in Skyhold's ramparts. She'd found herself a little nook. A flat expanse of stonework that led away from the towering walls, and roaming guards. A perfect spot to continue stewing in her grief.

Red-rimmed eyes were puffy from weeping in the darker parts of the fortress. Pathetic, how quickly she fell apart. The remainder of her crew had joined them and positioned themselves within the walls. There was a tavern in the making on the main level. Already drawing familiar faces inside, where a warm fireplace crackled and spit. No doubt serving drinks to those who would rather lick their wounds in prevailing ways. Once upon time, she might have done the same. But this, this was different. This couldn't be remedied with any amount of blackout nights, suckling at bottles until all of the wounds felt less raw. An untouched bottle sat beside her leather boots. She could, if she'd wanted to, but what difference would that make? None. Nothing would bring Aslan back to her. She drew shaky fingers through the mess of unwashed hair, pushing it out of her face.

She supposed she could have blamed the Inquisition or the heralds it supported. Perhaps, Leon for not dying instead. Or the damned tears in the skies, green toxic leeches spewing only the vilest creatures down across their heads. Might've made more sense to blame those twisted stone-encrusted abominations, serving whichever deluded leader that had deemed the Inquisition dangerous enough to slaughter. Or else, maybe the dragon that burned Haven to the ground. There were so many possibilities, so many scapegoats. None of them felt right. Most of all, she blamed herself. As ridiculous as she knew it was, she'd promised long ago that she'd protect everyone under her flag—the Riptide, who had become her family. They weren't children. They weren't incapable of defending themselves, least of all Aslan. But she'd failed them. And now she was too much of a coward to face her remaining friends, allies, family members.

Something with weight settled over her shoulders—it didn’t take long to realize that it was actually a physical weight, one that brought some relief from the wind outside. A blanket, it would seem, thick and soft. Someone had draped it over her. That same someone settled next to her where she sat, breathing out a soft exhale that could have been a sigh. A short, quiet metal-on-stone clanking accompanied the entrance of some kind of canister into her line of vision, and then the hand that held it moved away.

“That’s soup, if you’re interested.” The voice belonged to Estella, who’d sat herself with her knees pulled to her chest, and now wrapped her arms around them for warmth, probably. She didn’t seem to mind Zahra’s obvious lack of current cleanliness—she in fact gave it no acknowledgement at all. “But I’d understand if you weren’t.” She turned her eyes outward in front of them, not that there was much to see. Stone, a slight wall as the parapet edged the grey square they occupied, a level or two above the ground.

Zahra startled as soon as the blanket dropped across her shoulders, though it only showed in a flinch. She'd been far too fixated on her thoughts to notice approaching footfalls. How she hadn't noticed anyone descending the stairs, and coming close enough to lay a blanket across her shoulders, she wasn't sure. If this was a battle, she supposed she would've been at the mercy of a blade. But she was safe, in Skyhold. Surrounded by allies, friends, and friendly faces. She hadn't noticed how cold she actually felt until her hands drew away from her knees, drawing the blanket under her chin like a cape. Her shoulders slumped when she noted that the individual was in the process of sitting beside her. In the state that she was in, and even as miserable as she felt, she couldn't help feel the unseemly bite of embarrassment.

Her stomach gave a small lurch. A surprising gurgle. Hadn't she eaten? She couldn't remember. Either way, she wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. She eyed the metal canister and glanced sideways, studying Estella's face for a few moments before reaching out beneath the warmth of her blanket and scooping it up in both hands, “Thanks. I, uh. I appreciate it.” She'd wanted to say that she hadn't needed to bring anything to her, and wondered how she had found her in the first place, but she was tired. Pushing people away took too much effort and there was a frankness there, in Estella's actions, that deserved better. She brought with her an unusual warmth, drudging up no judgments. She unscrewed the cap and took a sip. It was a rich broth. Hearty. Tasted far better than anything she'd eaten recently. Hunger had a funny way of doing that.

Estella's lips quirked slightly by way of response, but it faded quickly, and she simply nodded instead. She didn’t speak further for quite a while, letting Zahra consume her soup in peace and quiet. There was the occasional sound from below, where troops moved about the bailey area or trained, and a few snatches of conversation occasionally filtered up far enough for them to hear, but nothing too substantial.

It was several minutes later before either of them said anything. “I lost my whole squad, at the Conclave,” Estella murmured, her tone so soft it was almost hard to hear, despite the fact that she was sitting close enough that their shoulders almost brushed. “My first real mission as their leader, as a Lieutenant. The first time I was the one responsible for their safety—every single one of them is gone, and I’m not.” The way she delivered the words was subdued, but there was no mistaking the ache in them. She turned her head slightly, tipping it back against the stone and angling it in Zahra’s direction, smiling sadly.

Finishing the last dredges of soup from the canister, Zahra settled it beside the lone bottle of rum and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She leaned her head on the back of the slanted stone at their backs. Perfect for reclining. How long had she been sitting here, anyhow? Far longer than was appropriate by anyone's standards. She was happy for the company, even if she didn't make for the best of company. Silent as she was, with little more than a twitch of a smile on her lips. A far cry from the woman who'd dragged Estella on the bench in Redcliffe's seaside tavern. How much had changed in such a short period of time. She tipped her head to the side, regarding Estella as she broke the silence between them.

She would've been stupid to assume she was the only wounded party within the Inquisition. Everyone had their own stories, though it still surprised her to hear that Estella had lost so much. She still managed to smile and laugh and fight for a cause greater than herself. And live, for herself and for others. How long had it taken her to recover? Her wounds might have sealed up into scars, but the same nagging anguish played across her features when she spoke of them. Leadership had an awful habit of burdening your shoulders and clamping responsibilities on your ankles until you felt as if you were solely culpable for their actions, their inaction, their livelihoods. Her eyebrows pinched together for a moment and she feared as if she would crumble here, in front of someone else. She bit the inside of her lip and willed within herself a calmness she did not feel.

“I know it’s not my fault, intellectually at least. But it still feels like my fault, in here.” She tapped her sternum with an open hand.

“How did you move on?” Zahra's voice sounded off in her own ears, unfamiliar and hoarse, “I don't know how to stop feeling as if... I should have done more. How do you stop feeling that loss?” Avoiding how she was feeling wasn't the answer either, but navigating grief was not something she was familiar with. She needed to know with a desperation that frightened her. Any manner of salvation that could drag her away from the darkness that clouded her thoughts and made her mornings listless.

Who could she blame, if not herself? Zahra bit at her lip and swallowed around the lump in her throat, “You know. He was the one who suggested I contact the Inquisition. I thought it was, I don't know. A fool's errand. He thought differently. A greater cause, he said. He was the best parts of me, Stel.” Her voice cracked and softened to a whisper, “How do you keep leading if you can't even protect anyone?”

“I don’t know,” Estella admitted quietly, her eyes falling to her hands. “My teacher, whenever I encounter something I think I can’t do, but it’s really important, he just… he reminds me that it’s not about what I think I can do. It’s about what I must do. I think that helps, somehow.” She sighed heavily, shaking her head a bit, a stray lock of hair falling free from her braid to tickle the side of her face.

“I keep going, and leading, I guess, because… even if I don’t think I can, even if I’m worried about all the ways I could mess it up or get people hurt…” Her brows furrowed; clearly this wasn’t something she had worked out all the way for herself, either, and the words were slow to come, almost as if she had to fight to even speak them. “I have to. Your crew needs you, and I don’t think they expect you to be perfect as a leader. They just expect you to be there, and to do everything you can for them. Even when it hurts.” She took in a deep breath.

“Sorry. I don’t actually know if that helps you at all. I’m still… trying to figure this out too. I just remind myself, as often as I can, that other people are suffering, and there’s something I can do about it. So… I try to do that. Day by day.”

The whole scenario Zahra was concocting in her head was impossible. She would never again hear Aslan click his tongue against his teeth and look at her like she was out of her mind, never break the silence with his baritone, forcing everyone to listen because he seldom did, never linger at port side with her to watch the sunset. Never again. And even if Estella had no swift measures for mending weeping wounds, her words helped. What she was saying helped. Or maybe, just being there helped. She wasn't sure, if she was sure of anything at all. What she must do then. Like Lieutenants and heralds and commanders, being Captain meant that awful things would happen on her watch. She watched Estella from the corner of her eye and exhaled sharply. She should not falter as she did. It was a lesson she had difficulty wrapping herself around, but it was important nonetheless.

A short bark of laughter. Or a ragged sob, sifted from her throat. She mashed her palms against her eyes and sniffled. It took her a moment to regain her composure, and against whatever odds she was stacking against herself, she did. Zahra straightened her shoulders, imagined Aslan saying these same kinds of things, in less words and took deeper breath, softening the sharp edges of her face. She hoped she looked thankful, because she was. She wasn't alone. Especially not with these feelings. They were not unique. As sordid as everything felt, there was a connection there. A small comfort that made her shoulders feel a little lighter, “It has. It does. Thanks for coming here. I think I can do that. Take it day by day.”

After another bout of silence, Zahra knocked shoulders with Estella and chuckled. It was a small, feeble thing. But it was there, an improvement on the phantom who'd been sitting here moments go, “Suppose I should go wash myself. I'm surprised you managed to sit here this long.”

Estella huffed softly, a little touch of laughter entering her eyes. “Well, you know. I wasn’t going to say anything, but…” She wrinkled her nose a little bit, clearly in jest, then stood, offering a hand down to Zahra to help her up.

Zahra snatched up her hand and rose to her feet with Estella's aid, keeping a firm grip on the blanket. The brief flicker of humor seemed to rejuvenate, far better than a drink might have. She sniffed at her collar and sighed, “I'll have to take care of that then. I have a feeling that other people aren't as tolerant as you.”

“And… you’re welcome. If you ever want to talk about it more, or about Aslan, I’m here.”

The Captain's smile was genuine when she said, “I may take you up on that. Maybe, under better circumstances. Inside. It's damn cold out here.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

While Zahra couldn't entirely rid herself of all those lingering fears, nor could she rightly face her crew until she pieced her words together properly, she'd been able to distract herself enough by exploring Skyhold's many hidey holes. Hidden alcoves, dusty spider-infested rooms, a crumbling window leading out into the open clouds, and a frumpy garden that had the potential to look splendid with the help of green thumbs. Whoever had made this their home before hadn't spared any expenses. She couldn't profess to understanding the complexity of brickwork, but she'd been around enough boats to know that carpentry of this magnitude would have taken skilful hands. She'd run her hands along the bricks and plodded underneath great statues, feathering fingers across their toes, before exploring the endless rows of books in Skyhold's library. Never had she seen so many books, but it was the scenery that seduced her back to the battlements.

And why waste such beautiful sights alone? Zahra made a stop in the kitchens and pilfered braided pretzel doughs coated with cinnamon and sugar. Fresh from the ovens, and neatly tied in a cloth bundle, tucked into the hem of her billowy white shirt. Fortunately for her prospective companions, she'd bathed herself and smelled every part of the dilettante, sauntering pirate-Captain of the Riptide they'd met on the Storm Coast's shoreline. Perfumed to the bones, as fragrant as a rose petals. She'd donned appropriate clothes as well. There were similarities between Haven and Skyhold. Both were cold as tits, and she'd rather not shiver around the keep as if she were stark naked. Heavy leathers over a loose shirt with a sash wound her waist. Leather trousers, patched at the knees and finished off with knee-high boots. She'd forgone wearing her cape. Instead, she'd found a soft pair of gloves and a checkered handkerchief to bind her exposed throat. For now, that was fine.

She rounded into the barracks and swept around tables, winking to the nearby soldier who'd looked up from whetting the pointy part of an axe. A laugh crackled from her lips, tipped them into a smile that felt unfamiliar. Like a long-lost friend who'd decided to visit. How long had it taken her to shake off that miserable stupor? Weeks. But someone had told her that that was all it took. Taking one day at a time. It was something she was willing to try. She didn't linger long enough to see whether she'd incited a reaction. Instead, Zahra tiptoed up the stairs and grinned between the wooden railings, waggling fingers creeping between them, “Khari. Khari. Are you awake?”

Of course, it was fairly early.

Despite the hour, the response was quick enough that she must have been awake already, and one of the doors at the hallway the stairs landed on cracked open, a head of red hair poking out around it, the particular wild combination of curls and waves unmistakable for anyone else. Khari grinned when her eyes met Zahra’s, and stepped out beyond the door, closing it with deliberate care behind her. Probably whoever else occupied it was still in bed.

It looked like she’d already been out and about—her face had the slight pink tinge of someone recently scrubbed, and her plaited hair was drying still, but her clothes were the ones she donned after her morning exercise routines: loose, dark, held to herself only where absolutely necessary, the wide neck of the dark blue men’s tunic nearly reaching out to the edges of her shoulders. She had freckles everywhere, it seemed. “Mornin’, Zee. You smell like breakfast. Don’t suppose you’re looking for someone to help you eat it?” She crossed her arms over her abdomen, hiking an eyebrow. Clearly, she thought that was precisely the case.

Curiosity itched at Zahra's elbows, flagging eyebrows high on her forehead. She pouted her lips, and thought better of it. She'd already jumped to the conclusion that Khari had someone lounging in her room. In her bed, more like. Even if she was mistaken, she'd like to think she wasn't. Besides, she could tease the details out of the flaming-haired lass later. Deft fingers fished inside her shirt and produced the still-warm bundle of pastry-goodness. She hefted it in her hands, mischievous eyes alight in the soft darkness. From the large window spanning the other side of the staircase, orange shades were already casting themselves off in the distance. A pastel glow of rouge, not unlike a painting. The sun would rise soon, so they would have to hurry.

“I wouldn't have it any other way,” she crooked her finger and indicated that she should follow her down the stairs, “but first we should creep down to Rom's chambers and smuggle him with us. Honestly, I'm not sure where he sleeps. I've found the perfect spot for a morning snack. I promise you won't regret it.” Zahra wiggled her eyebrows, plopped her elbow down on the landing and cupped her chin into an upturned palm. Bundle balanced on her hip. She looked every part a willing conspirator in a dastardly plot. Or else, a giggling gossiper with a penchant for plucking her fingers in everyone's pies. “Unless your bed-warmer is better company. But, I must say, these are the best smelling sweets I've gotten my hands on yet.”

Khari had looked like she was just as happy to be involved with the plan, and had parted her lips as if to speak, but then her brows furrowed, and she looked a bit confused, reaching up to run a hand over some wayward curls. They didn't get any neater. “My what, now?” It would appear she didn’t know exactly what to make of the last statement. Perhaps the term bed-warmer was somehow unfamiliar to her.

A moment of silence passed between them before Zahra pulled away from the landing and possibly looked just as confused. If Khari was acting coy or pretending as if she didn't know what she was talking about because she wanted to keep her bedroom liaison a secret... she was doing a mighty fine job. She slid her tongue on the back of her teeth and tilted her head to the side, eying the door Khari had carefully closed behind her, “A tussle. Making the beast with two backs. Shaking of the sheets. Boarding someone's ship.” She counted off the euphemisms with her fingers and looked mildly surprised when Khari's expression hadn't changed. She'd always been presumptuous about people, but she supposed she'd been wrong before. Not often, mind you. “You're not sleeping with anyone?” Her question was as frank as the wibbling smile twisting at her lips.

“Oh.” Realization dawned on Khari almost as slowly as the sun rose outside, and she met Zahra’s eyes. “You’re asking if I’m having sex with anybody.” For all the frankness of the question, its rephrasing was half again as blunt, and Khari didn’t say it with any embarrassment, just a lingering remnant of confusion. Her fingers moved to one of her tapered ears, and she tugged on it a bit. “Why are people suddenly so interested to know that?” She sounded perplexed more than annoyed, though, and shook her head, dropping the hand.

“Nope. The only person sleeping in there besides me is my bunkmate. Widget. Nice girl. Works with mechanics, if I understood her properly.” She shrugged, already unconcerned with the whole thing, and raised both eyebrows at Zahra. “If you want to see if Rom’ll join us, I know where he’d be.”

A laugh chortled from Zahra's throat. Far too unexpected to stifle down. It ended in an ungraceful snort before she managed to regain her composure. Coupled with Khari's utter disregard for sultry eventides, and a candor that rivaled her own... it was too much to take. Even without the toothy grin tipped across her lips, it was easy to tell how amused she was. She offered a simple shrug and appeared mildly disappointed by the news, “Who knows. I've always been the curious sort.” She licked her lips, and raised another eyebrow, already speculating on her words, “I do wonder why I'm not the only one who's asking.”

She let the subject die. For now. Organizations this large would never be without succulent scandals. Interesting buzzes, whiffed from careless mouths. Perhaps, someone in the kitchen would know about such meddling disclosures. Taverns often parsed traces, but nothing that would sate her palate. As a Captain anchored to the lands, she had to find things to amuse herself with. This would do, in between night-time explorations. Aside from her own dwindling prospects amongst the Inquisition's residents, her bed was disappointingly cold. She supposed that was partially her fault.

“Let's fetch him then. You lead the way. I would suggest scraping up something warmer.”

Khari shrugged. “Nah, it’s practically summer. I’ll live.” She bounded down the stairs, surprisingly light on her feet for someone who usually charged into any given situation, and led them out of the barracks building. The fabric of her shirt was thick, and the cold didn’t seem to bother her overmuch in the time it took them to cross the bailey, and then they were ascending the stairs to the main building, the castle proper.

A very small number of people were around for breakfast already, though at this hour, most of them sat by themselves and ate while still trying to wake up. One fellow even looked to have nodded off next to his plate, and Khari snickered, diverting a moment to bring her hand down on the table beside his head. The collision rattled tableware and shot him right up in his seat, to blink rapidly while she cackled at him.

It didn’t take him long to recognize her, and he scowled. “Oh, sod off, you.” He waved a hand as though she were a fly he could swat away, but Khari only grinned at him and flitted off in her own sweet time.

“Good morning to you, too, Goram. You still owe me twenty silver, so don’t forget to cough it up next time we get paid.” Returning to Zahra, still wearing the grin, she steered them through the main hall and to a door on the immediate right as they faced the dais.

“Rom sleeps in the undercroft.” The door led them down a short hallway to another, which Khari rapped on with bare knuckles, loud, but not alarmingly so. “Hey Rom! I’ve got Zahra, and she has breakfast. You wanna open up?”

“And an unforgettable sight,” Zahra catcalled from behind Khari's shoulder. She kept the bundle of sweets balanced across her hip like a wicker basket teeming with fish. Old habits died hard. She flagged her eyebrows up, and leveled her voice a little lower, “The Undercroft, hm? Skyhold's full of surprises.”

From the other side of the door, they could hear heavy footfalls thudding to the floor, before the room's sole occupant unlocked the door and allowed it to swing open. Romulus stood just inside, bare-chested but obviously not just sprung from his bed, revealing scars, old burns and other damage. He'd worked up a sheen of sweat all over his dusky skin, most likely from the weights and somewhat rudimentary workout equipment he'd acquired and assembled along the wall to their left.

"We eating here, or elsewhere?" he queried, turning away from the door and obviously allowing them entry if they wished. He made his way over to a metal bar suspended horizontally out from the wall, snatching a towel from the back of a nearby chair and wiping at his face and neck. A water skin had been laid upon the seat; he scooped it up and squeezed a drink into his mouth, swishing the water around momentarily before swallowing.

It wasn't a bad spot, if they wanted to eat there. Fresh air was constantly coming in from the outside, keeping the place cool but not uncomfortably cold, and the scenery visible made for quite the view. There wasn't a great place for a group to eat yet, but the floor was clear further in, and clean enough to lay a blanket down upon.

Zahra let herself in as soon as the door swung open and laughed as soon as she spotted the Undercroft's spacious opening into the wide world Skyhold sat upon. Stalagmites hung from the mouth's opening but mountains could be seen pebbled in the distance, creating an illusion of a grand city composed of peaks, crags, palisades. Fortunately, the sun had not yet crept up the sky. Despite the mentioned chill whisking into the chamber, it was pleasant. Whoever had been here before had found it prudent enough to build a balcony leading outside. Sturdy, she hoped. She could bring them elsewhere at a later date. She swung around on her heels, and prodded Romulus gently in the shoulder, eyes alight, “Who knew you were hiding such a sight.” Her mouth pulled up at the edges. If she were talking about anything more than the scene outside, she gave no indication.

“What about over there? Where we can see the sky properly,” she fumbled with the knot tied around the bundle and swore under her breath when it did not come undone as easily as she expected. Bloody sailors' knots. Perhaps, too effective. It took her a moment before she unraveled the damned thing, though she kept it closed. Her stomach flopped and made an unseemly grumble. After all that slinking around, even she had been growing hungry. Had she brought her cloak with her, she might've laid it down for them. Zahra glanced up and flagged her eyebrows, “You don't have a soft blanket we can use, do you?”

Romulus made his way over to the large chest beside his bed, pulling it open and grabbing a folded grey blanket from inside, which he proceeded to toss in Khari's direction. "It's a bit better than the last basement I lived in," he agreed, pulling out a shirt next and draping it over himself.

Khari snatched the blanket from midair with a short laugh. “A bit, he says.” With a snap and a deft motion, she flicked the blanket open to its full size and guided its descent to the floor, spreading it over the most obvious spot for their breakfast before taking her boots off with her feet and setting herself down on a corner. “All right, Zee, you’ve gotta stop holding out on us. Gimme.” She made exaggerated grasping motions with both hands, but clearly her demanding attitude was farcical. Romulus took a seat next to her, his feet already bare to begin with.

The Captain's laugh sounded more like hawking bird than anything else. It usually came unexpectedly. Her curiosity had already been piqued at the sight of Romulus's chambers. Weights strewn about on the walls. A place fit to train the most disciplined fighters. She'd taken note of the scars riddling his body. A flicker of a glance, barely perceptible. She'd seen such things before in her travels. Rivain rubbed elbows with its neighboring realm, Tevinter. All too common to have some of her own people snatched up and whisked away. Onto boats, into shackles. And now, there was mention of another basement? Much worse than this. She had no doubts that his past held many stories. Difficult ones to recall, no doubt. Another time, another place. As nosy as she was, wheedling him with questions was hardly appropriate breakfast conversation.

She, too, kicked off her boots and flopped down beside them. “Ladies and gents,” she carefully folded down the corners, revealing the aforementioned breakfast she'd been carrying around. Immediately, the smell of cinnamon, butter and nutmeg wafted up to meet them. Spices she recognized from her own village. Warm, gooey spirals of bread, drizzled with sugar. She'd brought six of them in total. Now that she thought about it... something this fancy might've belonged to someone else. An important figure. A visiting lordling. It was a strange thing to happen onto, in a chilly fortress. She shrugged to herself and studied their faces, “may I present breakfast. We can toast to the cooks of Skyhold.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” Khari, hardly one to stand on ceremony, plucked one of the treats from its spot in the basket, electing to eat by unwinding it, breaking off chunks, and then chewing those. She hummed with approval in between bites. “I’m not normally much of a sweets person, but these are something else.” Refined she was not, but at the very least she didn’t stuff her face, and managed to avoid dropping anything in her lap. “Thanks, Zee. This was a great idea."

“Delicious, no?” Zahra's fingers danced a few inches from the warm swirls of cinnamon bread and stopped on one that had a large spattering of sugar on top. She tore her own into mouth-sized bites, and leveled Romulus with a stare. She'd brought this for everyone. Unless she'd chosen poorly. Given the state of his chambers, and whatever drills he ran himself through... perhaps, the breakfast was not up to par. She'd always assumed soldiers dined on gruel. Things scrounged up from the forests. Romulus, however, did not look like a soldier. Maybe he just didn't like sweets. She licked her fingers and leaned back on her elbows. Propping herself up just so.

“I didn't get the chance to say,” she began to say, staring out into the open space cut into the Undercroft. Already, the sun was crawling up the sky and peeking between the mountain peaks, casting smears of blistering red. At this time of day, even the sickly green tears couldn't rob the sky of its beauty, “that I was happy to see both of you. After Haven.” Zahra snorted and shoved the remainder of bread in her mouth. Stifling the awkward laugh bubbling up from her guts. Of course, she'd heard of their return but hadn't immediately sought them out. To see her in such a sad state, she wouldn't have that. Now that she was doing better, she could face them properly. “I'm glad both of you survived. Wouldn't be much fun without you.”

"I'm glad we made it, too," Romulus said, testing this cinnamon bread for himself, and clearly finding it to his liking. He leaned back, propping himself up with a hand on the blanket while the other carried the delectable treat. "I'd thought the Inquisition was almost done before," he said, chewing through a mouthful, "but now it seems like we've only just gotten started." Khari hummed an enthusiastic agreement, but she was clearly busy chewing.

“A dragon, a crazed tall man and an army of bejeweled Templars,” Zahra said as she smacked her lips and let herself flop entirely onto her back. If she didn't know better, it sounded like the beginning of an awful tale. Something a bard would sing around a campfire. An unlikely happening that children sniggered at. Though it was anything but funny. She might have once said that the seas were tumultuous. Far more dangerous. An arbitrary ocean of privateers, pirates and smugglers alike. But these lands were surprisingly treacherous. The dangers, thus far, spanned Thedas. The world seemed much larger in the Inquisition. She looked up at them from her vantage point and smirked. “Let's make a pact to stay alive until the end of this, then.” She clicked her tongue and rolled her eyes skyward, “It's a pirate thing. Sacred as a spell.”

It was a lie. An obvious one. Though she doubted that they'd know the difference. She'd made one with her crew. Each and every one. And while she could not guarantee any effectiveness, it meant she cared for their welfare.

“Why not? I’ve got no plans to die.” Khari grinned, holding up a hand like one might swear an oath or something. “Still have other important stuff to do when this is done, and all.” By now it was common-enough knowledge that this particular elf fancied herself a knight-to-be, or something of the sort; she didn’t go around shouting it from the rafters, but she didn’t hide it, either, and rumors did tend to circulate, especially the bizarre ones.

“So I won’t get offed if you two don’t. Seems fair to me.”

Who could argue with that logic? Pleased to hear Khari's enthusiasm, and fool enough to continue on with her embarassing tradition, Zahra raised her hand beside hers and swung an expectant gaze towards Romulus, lips still quibbling with a smile.

Romulus had to swallow his food first, but then he grinned. "Deal."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish

0.00 INK

Someone had been bringing him food.

The most perplexing thing, to Cyrus, was that he’d noticed this. He normally didn’t pay mind to anyone coming by when he was busy with his research—in the past, it had been only servants or slaves slipping in and out with the meals Cassius had ordered them to bring to him. He ignored those delivering the food in the same way he ignored the food itself. It was kinder that way, but it also just came naturally to him. Problems had been more interesting to him than people had for most of his life, and eventually he hadn’t needed to exert any effort to not acknowledge them anymore; it had simply become automatic.

So he was quite nonplussed to learn that he had, in fact, noticed that someone was bringing him things to eat. Probably at regular intervals, though his concept of time tended to fade as he focused as well, so it was difficult to say. It wasn’t Estella; he would have actually been drawn from his internal world if it had been her. He knew no one else who would bother.

He stared for a moment at the plate as though it had offended him. It was still faintly warm, from the steam rising off the potatoes, which meant it had been brought recently. No others remained beside it, his mysterious courier perhaps having cleared away the untouched priors when the new ones were left. He tried to decide when this had started, but found he had no idea how many days he’d been up here to begin with. He took a mental inventory and found himself to be still functional, so less than a fortnight for certain, but when he finally registered the gnawing in his own stomach, he cringed. Definitely more than a few days, then. He’d never required sustenance at the same rate as others, but it was still a necessity.

His eyes narrowed, and he considered the innocent-looking platter before him. The smell was enticing, given his present state, but he resented the idea that someone thought he needed looking after. He was perfectly capable of remembering these things in his own time, and if he hadn’t died from malnutrition yet, he was unlikely to.

“What do you think, Pia?” A short mewl answered him from the worktable he stood at, the still-very-small cat recognizing the name he’d given it. His eyes fell to her, curled atop an open book and regarding him with extremely large green eyes. He frowned. “Yes, I rather thought so, too.” Electing to ignore the plate on the far table, he moved across his workshop, contemplating his cloak for a moment before he decided against it. It was full summer—even in Skyhold, that meant such things could be foregone. “Watch the atelier for me, would you?” Another meow.

Cyrus descended his tower mostly unnoticed. Aside from being dressed better than most, he supposed he didn’t really look that different from anyone else around here. Or rather, the Inquisition’s people were diverse enough to begin with that he wouldn’t stand out. Besides that, he wasn’t about nearly often enough to be immediately recognizable as some of the others were, a marked change from how things had once been. He found he liked it—no one knowing or caring about who he was left him free to do much the same, and pursue whatever interested him with the vast majority of his time.

It was dark outside, which didn’t surprise him as such; he’d had no expectations for what time of day it was, and hadn’t bothered to check out the curtains of his tower windows to find out. The kitchens would probably be closed this late, which left the tavern as far as potential eating locations were concerned. He glided in with little fuss, taking a spot at the near-empty bar and ordering himself something to eat and drink, folding his arms on the counter and leaning against them while he waited.

Near-empty, save for the Riptide's captain slipping into the seat to Cyrus's left. From how quick she'd inhabited the space, it was evident that she had already been in the Herald's Rest. Perhaps, in one of the corners, or traipsing down the stairs leading up to the rooftops. Difficult to say with the dark-skinned woman. As loud as she seemed to be in everyone's company, her footsteps were feather-light and innocuous. Aside from the now-apparent sounds of shifting leathers, easily noted by her close proximity, and slender fingers drumming against the bar top, Zahra seemed comfortable in the silence stretching between them. Wearing a mixture of loose clothes, set low to bare her shoulders, leather trousers, and knee-high boots, she looked as if she might step out and set sail at any moment. Or step into a brothel.

The Herald's Rest was unusually empty, omitting the remnants of her crew strewn about the chairs in the furthest corner of the establishment. Hunched together, tankards full, playing a heated round of Wicked Grace. Bartender, bard, and stragglers remained. Deft fingers plucked at strings, piecing together a mellow tune that filled the reticent spaces. A few moments passed before there was movement beside him. Dusky eyes slid towards Cyrus and appeared to study his face, full-faced and unabashed. She leaned her elbow on the bar top and leaned her cheek against her fist. “To rest, recoup, and persevere,” she lamented and nodded towards the doorway he'd walked in through. Her lips settled into an imploring smile, “which is it that's brought you all the way here?”

Cyrus slid his eyes to the side, cutting a glance at Zahra from the corner of his vision, and his mouth turned up at the corner. The barkeep brought by his tankard, and he hooked a finger over the bottom curve of the handle, dragging it closer towards him over the surface of the polished wood bar. The room smelled like warm spice and alcohol; they probably had some kind of mulled wine going in the back. “Perhaps all three.” He didn’t see the point in giving the bland, factual answer—he didn’t really think it a question asked in spirit of getting one. “Perhaps only a change of scenery.”

He lifted the tankard to his mouth and took a long draught, setting it back down on the bar with a soft clink of tin on wood. “And yourself? It’s a little stereotypical, isn’t it? A privateer in a tavern?”

Another tankard slid in front of the leering Rivaini. It was accompanied by an exasperated grumble and a waggling finger pointing towards the corner of the tavern where her crewmen were growing rowdy, tossing their heads in laughter and shedding garments. A shirt or two, at least. She glanced sidelong and shrugged her shoulders, toothy grin flashing across her features. No one was quite naked. Not entirely. She seemed far too comfortable with the circumstance for it to have been the first time. Her nonchalance did little to pacify the frazzled barkeep. Vigorous scrubbing ensued, though the polished wood had naught a speck of dust or spilled ale on it. Zahra turned her attention back on Cyrus and regarded him with lidded eyes, reaching out with her free hand to drag her tankard closer. She pursed her lips and nodded.

“Haven't you seen the bright-eyed lasses in the Inquisition? They all have a thirst once in awhile,” she sighed and took a long swig of her own ale, setting it back where it had been resting before. A snorting laugh sounded as she straightened her shoulders and slunk a little lower in her chair, draping her arms over the back of it. Like a feline rearranging itself. Languid curves and a devil-may-care expression dancing on her face. There might have been a flicker of disappointment, barely perceptible, “For a place so large, it's certainly bland. Plenty of pretty faces. But, filled with a less adventurous sort. If you take my meaning. What is a privateer to do.”

Cyrus laughed, a rolling chuckle that shook his shoulders more than it projected any sound. His eyes sparked with mirth, and he turned his head to better meet her eyes, a half-smile on his face, a brow angled upwards. “Why captain. When fun cannot be found, it must be made.” His smile spread until it was a bright grin, capricious and fey, with a wolfish slant to it. He leaned forward slightly, his fingers dancing absently across the smooth handle of his tankard. In a conspiratorial tone, he continued.

“And I speak from experience when I say that sometimes, the staid and 'bland' women are much more than they seem. Just because she won’t approach you, or drape herself all over you in public, doesn’t mean there’s nothing interesting there. Sometimes, all it takes is a little subtlety to find it. I’ll wager that’s true even here.” He could say with great confidence that people were much more intriguing when they were genuinely more than they seemed. When he had any cause to interact with them at all, he preferred that—talking to, or in this case, bedding, those who had a bit of complexity to them. Coyness wasn’t required, just nuance.

“Though I suppose that depends on how much time you’re looking to sink into your… endeavors.” Perhaps he was assuming something untrue, but Zahra seemed quite straightforward in this one respect, and more likely to choose her partners for, as she put it, their evident adventurousness. It was all a matter of taste, really; he wasn’t criticizing anyone, though he supposed it might sound like he was.

Zahra's grin widened slightly, queried with a flagged eyebrow, “Now, where have you been my whole life. I'd swear that I was surrounded by sourpusses. Sticks in the mud.” She straightened up in her chair and crossed a leg over her knee, fingers weaving around her tankard. Her golden-flecked eyes almost glowed in the soft lamplights swaying overhead. It was difficult to tell if she was a nefarious pirate beguiled by furtive banter or simply a vixen-of-a-woman prattling about the Inquisition's latest gossip. It appeared as if she walked a fine line between predatory appetites, and girlish delights. As soon as she Cyrus leaned in, she followed suit: clearly rapt.

She rolled her eyes skyward as if she were chewing on his words, “You've a point.” Then Zahra laughed again. Far less harsh this time. She pushed wavy hair away from her eyes, dragged slender fingers across her crown and down the nape of her neck. Her lips curved back up into that grin of hers that's half-grin, half-smirk. All amusement. It appeared as if he'd piqued her interest at least. Leaning back into her seat, Zahra polished off her drink with a sigh and settled the tankard back across the table, turning to face Cyrus properly. “Time?” Her eyes danced. “I prefer quick and easy. Messy in all the right ways. You've someone in mind?”

“Quick, is it? I hope that’s not your attitude during the act, dear captain, else I’ve discovered the root of your problem.” His grin was positively salacious by that point, and he supposed this scene would look like something quite different than it was from the outside—as though he were propositioning Zahra herself, perhaps. He wouldn’t have minded in the least, but he’d picked up from cues in her words that she preferred her diversions much more feminine than Cyrus could ever be. Pity.

Zahra tossed her head back and laughed, raking errant strands of thick, dark hair behind her studded ears, looking every bit entertained. One might've been offended even if they'd walked straight into that, but it appeared as if she took everything in jest. “Seems whorehouses have spoiled me,” she reflected with a shrug of her shoulders, rubbing at her chin. Her chuckle was low and intimate, inviting him to share the joke with her. There was story there, hidden between her words. Perched on her lips. Perhaps not. Her inflections were disarmingly candid. Explicit windows into whatever adventures, and conquests, she'd experienced on the open seas. In any case, it appeared as if she was in no mood to share.

He huffed, clearly amused, though not inclined to pursue the thought. But… let’s see.” He turned around on the bar stool, Leaning back against the counter with his forearms and elbows, crossing an ankle over a knee and considering the other patrons with sharp eyes. “I’m going to assume you prefer to keep such things outside the crew, for the sake of simplicity.” Likely, if she’d wanted to be sleeping with any of them and they were willing, it would be occurring already, so he felt it a safe assumption.

She, too, swiveled around in her chair and mimicked his posture: elbows and forearms leaning against the counter. Despite being a woman of such diminutive stature, masculine mannerisms suited her. Zahra's smile was almost cat-like in its ferocity, scanning the outlying crowd as one might seek a mouse. A pretty mouse. She jiggled her foot across her knee, obviously relishing in whatever game Cyrus was playing. The Captain's expression was open and guileless, clever and cunning. Clearly, easily enticed into mischief. While her words might have slipped out like silken promises, sultry demands and immediate inclinations, she looked like she was having fun.

He lifted his tankard to his mouth and drew down another swallow of ale. This was a popular party trick of his, with the right audience, and he did so love an audience. “That leaves us with five women, three possibilities.” One of the five was with friends, and her body language made it evident to him that she wanted it to stay that way, meaning that approaches would be unwelcome. He might be a bit of a rake on his own time, but Cyrus did have boundaries. Another was already with a lover, quite obviously, narrowing the field.

He observed the others for a minute, then shrugged. “The little blonde’s your best bet. The brunette wouldn’t sleep with a woman and the elf’s too much of a romantic to enjoy anything casual.” He didn’t explain how he knew any of that, but he stated it as though it were fact nevertheless.

She nodded and glanced towards the furthest corner of the Herald's Rest. An exasperated sigh followed suit, “Alas, some fruit aren't meant to be eaten. It's a rule. Pity that.” Zahra looked back at Cyrus and followed his gaze towards various corners. Her smile might have posed as an effective compass for specific interests, though it never faded. Often quirked into a wolfish grin that rivaled his own and tempered itself into a smirk. Lidded eyes wandering across shoulders, faces, and mouths.

For a moment she seemed silent as she regarded the little blonde across the way. She clicked her tongue and turned towards him, “I think you've got a gift, love. Supposing it works.” She inspected her fingernails, turned her hand around and flagged her eyebrows, “and the approach? In my experience, women in these parts aren't partial to aggressive pursuits.”

He considered the question. She might be a bit out of her element, with soldiers instead of port-dwellers, but he could say the same, to an extent. Not as much—martial types did mingle with nobility to some extent, of course, and so he’d some experience in the matter, but still, he was yet a long way from Minrathous, and the culture was different. “Not aggressive, no. And one must inevitably warm up to directness, though one can reach it eventually. Start light, I should think. Funny. Clever. Sweet, even, if you like. I doubt she’d turn down a free drink, either. She likes darker beers, if you cared to know.” He also didn’t justify how he knew that. Explaining the ways in which all of this was just careful observation took the fun out of it. The magic, so to speak.

He polished off his tankard and set it down behind him, fixing his eyes on nothing in particular as usual. “I have always found that the application of a little charm goes a long way. Aggression might save time, but it’s still a waste if it doesn’t work, don’t you think?”

Zahra seemed the sort who would have normally scoffed at anyone's advice when it came to wooing potential ladies. Instead, she hummed her accord. Captains, sailors, men and women of the sea chased unbridled furies and tended to dance far too close to the flames just to see if they would burn. Hungry lips, feverish touches, desperate kisses. A lack of control that felt a lot like sailing. Freedom from the tedious task of cooing soft lullabies into necklines and whispering sweet words like a songbird. Those were efforts reserved for those who remained buried in sheets. Promised a future they could not give. Woman or no, she behaved every part a pirate. But Cyrus had a different approach in mind. Things she might not have never considered. A small smile curled on her lips, drew up dimples.

She slipped from her stool and leaned towards him. Stopping so that she was looking up into Cyrus' face, albeit at shoulder height. Slender hands, bedecked in rings, drew up to cup his cheek and drag him closer. She swept the pad of her thumb down his jawline and grinned, “I like you, Cyrus. Thanks, I'll keep that in mind.” He, not quite used to uninvited touch, blinked but did not flinch back. Zahra dropped her hand away, sidestepped in the empty space beside him and drew herself up on her tiptoes, tapping the counter top. “One dark beer, please—and stop that scowling, it'll ruin your pretty face.”

With tankard in hand, Zahra turned on her heels and wove through the growing crowd. Tempering her approach as much as she could manage, to look less like a stalking predator licking her chops. Planting a hand against the brickwork and flagging an inquiring eyebrow towards the bard strumming by the fireplace, she spoke just softly enough that the woman had to lean closer to hear. The conversation went fairly well. And the bright-eyed lass gave a surprised smile when she pushed the tankard into her hands, how did she know that that was her favorite drink? She laid out her charm. Smoldered. Offered witty banter and reached out to tuck errant strands of hair behind her ear, laughing. For a few moments, it appeared as if they were talking intensively. Loose gestures, giggling. Then Zahra offered her arm as any good gentleman would and inclined her head towards the door. For all her talk of bluntness and aggression, she did the other sort of wooing quite masterfully. He chuckled to himself.

The blonde settled her tankard down and took up Zahra's extended elbow. Perhaps, instinctively. It was only when they reached the door that Zahra looked over her shoulder, wolfish grin flashing teeth back towards Cyrus. He nodded with mock solemnity, then ruined the effect by winking. A loud laugh carried the women from the tavern and into the night.

Cyrus snorted softly through his nose and turned his stool back to face the bar, where his dinner had just arrived. It was with half a smile still lingering on his face that he picked up his utensils and tucked in.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

0.00 INK

“What took you so long?”

The Herald's Rest was considerably less crowded that day. Seeing that it was the afternoon and not on the cusp of nightfall. It was only then that harried individuals sifted through the welcoming doors and into the warmth the tavern provided Skyhold. At least in here, there was some kind of normalcy. A sanction away from all of the strange happenings in the world. Unchanged, familiar. Taverns were the same all across Thedas. Varied hearths with licking flames. Scattered chairs and stools, centered by long wooden tables. Bards plucking strings and singing tales that swept across their lands. This place was no different. The individuals who called it home, however, were a motley crew. In the furthest corner of the building lied a neat spread of pirates in varying shades of disarray.

It was a straw-haired dwarven lass who had broken the silence. Small hands planted on her hips, much like Zahra did whenever she was scoping out a place. Or a person. Although the atmosphere felt far too bristly. Her face was pinched up. Thick eyebrows drawn over her blue peepers. A seriousness resonated over her. One she wasn't sure she'd ever seen cloaking the wee spitfire. If Zahra didn't know any better, she might have thought that Nuka was rounding up to kick her in the shins. Luckily enough, her speculation didn't develop. She was standing near their table. For once in her life, she wasn't sure what to do with her hands. One crept behind her neck and rested there while she tried to scrounge up an appropriate explanation for her disappearance. For actively avoiding the only ones she considered family.

Someone thumped her shoulder. For all of her misgivings against the bearded man and his suspicious intentions, it was Garland's face that swung into view, accompanied by that shit-eating grin of his. Infuriating and reassuring. Even if she wanted to boot him in the shins, she was happy to see him. For once. If he resented her absence, he made no mention of it. Only inclined his head. Pale eyes lidded. Beside him stood her fiery-haired beauty. Incessantly frowning and nearly swelling with unspoken impatience. Zahra could almost taste it in the air—just how much Nixium wanted to tear into her for skulking back in this manner. She'd forgotten along the way, perhaps. Aslan hadn't just been hers to mourn. She wasn't the only one who had been hurting in all of this.

“We'll speak of this later,” Nixium's tone was an even slate, belying promises that were shrouded by a subtle twitch of her slanted eye. No doubt it would involve some sort of verbal lashing. As per usual. Zahra had the good sense to feel somewhat embarrassed. Or at least uncomfortable. She simply nodded. It would do her no good to sputter out any nonsense. The elf had an aptitude to see straight through any of her falsehoods. A laugh like bells sounded behind her shoulder. Soft blond curls and a dimpled smile revealed themselves as Brialle tottered forward and snatched up both of Zahra's hands, drawing them in front of her, “We're just glad you're back, Captain. You kept us waiting.”

Aslan's absence was felt. There was no need to bring awareness to the fact. She could feel the heaviness clinging from their shoulders. Drawing them together rather than apart. They'd mourned in their own ways, she was sure.

Zahra had taken a moment to sit with them before excusing herself. Told them that she would return later on. Discuss things further. Celebrate Aslan in their own way. As they usually did when they lost someone they cared about. It'd happened before. Pirating could be nasty business. Certainly not without its risks. They all understood that before they'd stepped aboard the Riptide, but confronting the cold reality was still difficult. Even for her. Zahra swept out into Skyhold's courtyard. For a place that rivaled Haven for its chilly weather, she was pleased that the sun was beating down. She would always prefer sweltering heat over goosepebbled climates. Alas, she would not be so lucky with the Inquisition.

She hummed softly under her breath as she cut around training soldiers. Pausing only to greet anyone who cared enough to call out to her. People around Skyhold had grown accustomed to the wild-haired pirate and her crew. Remembered her name, even. It was strange. As if they were setting roots down. Never had they stayed in one place for so long. She wasn't sure if she liked it or not. For now, it would do. There was something she wanted to know. And there was only one person she was aware of that could help her. Whether or not she would be inclined to share the information was another matter altogether.

Pausing in front of Asala's chamber, Zahra idled beside the doorway and lifted her knuckles to rap against the door.

There was a moment a silence, and then a rustle of activity behind the door. Even for all her meekness, Asala could not hide the weight behind her frame and her footfalls were easily distinguishable as they approached the door. The knob twisted and pulled ajar, the familiar shocks of white poking through the doorway. At first she she glanced down the hall away from where Zahra lingered, and when she swung it in the correct direction, she recoiled a bit apparently surprised by the proximity. "Oh, uh, Zahra? Is there... Can I help you with some-something?" she asked, stumbling over her words as she usually did. The door had swung open wide enough to allow a Zahra a peak inside.

The room was settled in, with just enough disorganization to tell that it was being lived in. Ruffles in the blankets on her bed, books tilted haphazardly on their shelves, and papers strewn across her desk. A book also lay open on the bed, but the most eyecatching thing, due to its adorableness, was a marmalade kitten snuggled into a blanket-lined box off to the side of her desk, snoozing comfortably.

Zahra tilted her head and stepped away from the wall. Turned to face Asala properly. She might have tried drawing herself on her tiptoes, but even then she wouldn't be able to peer into the young Qunari's face. Full of blushing embarrassment. The little, adorable flower. Of course because of her vertical disadvantage, she hadn't immediately seen her. She delighted in her reaction all the same. A small smile pulled at the corners of her lips as she casually peered around Asala's elbow. Her fault for not holding the door, “Ah yes, I had some questions—”

Her eyes widened. Gaze snared themselves on the fluff of fur kneading its little paws in a blanket. A laugh bustled out before she had time to stop it. This was meant to be all about business. Stark business involving solemn affairs. A swift conversation. How could she ignore such an adorable sight? She imagined for a moment... the curvy Qunari scooping up the kitten in her arms. Kitten snuggling a kitten. She smothered down the urge to bully her way inside and flagged an eyebrow, drawing her lips into her best pout, “You'll invite me in, won't you?”

Asala hesitated for a moment, her golden eyes wide and confused. A flurry of hair came next as she gently shook herself and nodded her consent. "Uh, yes. Oh, I mean, uh. D-do you wish to come in?" she asked, her ashen skin flushing. Asala sunk back into the door frame to make way for Zahra to follow. Apparently, the question had only been rhetorical, and only for her to tell Zahra that it was fine. Asala then threw herself into a flurry of activity, straightening up her room as much as she could. She straightened the blankets on her bed, before turning toward the desk and trying to quickly organize the papers into one neat stack.

Once she did everything that she could to clean the room, she threw her gaze around as if searching for anything else out of its place before alighting on Zahra. She smiled apologetically and shrugged. "I am... sorry. I do not get m-many visitors." Chances were, most of the visitors she recieved were in need of her skills. Asala then turned erratically toward the sole chair in the room and pulled it out. "Uh, you can have a, uh, seat. If you want," she offered, though she herself remained standing, most likely to see what Zahra would do first.

“Of course!” Zahra slipped through the opening Asala created. Quick as a snake slithering into a hidey hole. She swept into the room as if it was hers to peruse. Of course, it wasn't and she had no intentions of plucking through her personal effects. Plenty of snooping could be done where she was standing. She planted her hands on her hips as she scrutinized the Qunari's chambers and hummed a low tune in the back of her throat. Spun in a lazy circle as Asala scrambled around the room and tidied her things. Though she had to admit that it hadn't been particularly messy to begin with. Compared to some of the Riptide quarters—it was bloody spotless, albeit bookish. She wasn't sure why she was fussing about.

“No need to apologize, kitten. Or rearrange anything. After all, I'm the one that dropped in on you.” Zahra tilted her head and looked mildly apologetic. It may have been the lighting. Because she was anything but sorry for dropping in on her. Seeing her as flustered as she was had made the trip all the more worthwhile. It wasn't why she was here, however. She closed the distance between them and brushed past in order to plop down on the chair. Seated backwards, so that she could cross her arms over the back and face Asala properly. Or improperly. However way she wanted to look at it. Her smile softened around the edges, lopped pensive. “Actually... I came here because I had some questions. About Qunari culture.” While she hardly staggered when speaking to attractive women... she floundered.

“I wanted to do something special for Aslan. But I never got the chance—I guess, I didn't know much about him. His past. I need to do it right.” Zahra nodded and swung her gaze upwards, meeting Asala's eyes. She hoped she would understand. Even if she wasn't willing to divulge any information on the subject, she had to try.

Asala had curled her legs under herself and opted to take a seat on the bed, taking the nearby book and dog-earing the page she was on before she sat it aside. Apparently from what little Zahra could catch of the title, it was a Fereldan tale. She raised her head for a moment, and made eye contact with Zahra before her gaze dropped, breaking it as fast as it was made. Her head remained lowered, and the conversation seemed to bring melancholy veil over her. She was quiet for a time, as she thought hard over something before she finally spoke, though her eyes never rose from her lap. "The... Qunari. They..." She frowned, "They respect and... celebrate the spirit of the one that has passed."

She closed her eyes and gently sighed, wincing at something that was happening inside her mind. "Shok ebasit... hissra. Meraad..." She paused on the word and inhaled, before shaking her head and forced herself to continue. "Astaarit, meraad itwasit, aban aqun. Maraas shokra... Anaan esaam Qun." With the prayer, she turned toward Zahra, though Asala's eyes never rose to meet hers. "It is... a Qunari prayer for the dead. It means... that despite the ups and downs we face, life is... unchanging. And that victory is in the Qun."

Asala was quiet for a moment before the frown deepened and she shook her head with little more zeal than was expected. "No, that does not work," she said rather vehemently for her, "The Qun would have Meraad and I shackled, and life does change. There is no victory in the Qun," she said, seemingly talking to herself for a moment, at least before she realized that Zahra was still there. She flinched and her gaze dropped again. "I.. I am.. sorry. I-I understand your, uh, desire," she added quietly.

Small details hardly eluded her scrutiny. Neither did the book she had scooped up and neatly dog-eared. Something Ferelden. A familiar title. Only because Rivaini ports acted as gateways to other destinations. With each journey it picked up pieces of another place. Dropped them off as mementos. She tilted her head after it but could not discern the title in it's entirety. Too soon put away. Set aside for later perusal. Zahra imagined that Asala busied herself in many books. Carried herself away into worlds that were less frightening and easily managed between flipped pages and scrawled ink. Her expression thinned and set itself into a frown as she awaited Asala's answer. Perhaps, she'd send her away. Either way, this was time well-wasted.

It took her by surprised when she wasn't turned away. Zahra's frown lifted. Not quite a smile. It hadn't reached her eyes, but she was listening. Intently. Absorbing her words as if she were filing them away for later use. Even if it was slow-going... Asala was grieving too. She'd known before slinking her way down to her chambers. Heard from the others. Of all the losses felt in Haven. Selfish or not for dredging up painful memories, she wondered if they could both benefit from this. If she hadn't already put him to rest already. “Meraad,” she repeated his name and let it linger in the air, “I was fool enough to think I was the only one with losses. I'm sorry for yours, Asala.” Perhaps the only time she'd ever used her name properly. No cutesy nicknames. No fluttering of eyelashes and lewd comments dripping from her tongue.

Zahra perched her chin back down on her forearms and remained quiet for a few moments. While she could never profess to understanding the Qun as Asala did, she understood enough to know that neither Meraad nor Aslan had felt like their ways had been home. They'd found it in other places: far, far from where they had been raised. What did that say then? They were not their stations—much like she'd been told she was. Shackles? So, they had escaped a miserable fate. When Asala turned to see that she was still there, it seemed, as if she'd go anywhere else while she was talking and she caught the briefest glimpse of gold, Zahra straightened her shoulders and drew her chin up.

“No. You've answered what I asked. Thank you,” she tapped her fingers across the back of the chair and finally nodded, “but I think we're both going about it the wrong way. How would we celebrate their lives?”

She grew quiet again, though this time Asala appeared to be in thought. "I... I think I would wish to return home." Her eyes did not turn upward to Zahra yet, but still remained in her lap. Her hands now rested there as well, the palms turned outward so that she sat inspecting them, as if the lines within held some sort of answer she was searching for. "Tammy, the one who raised us. She... still does not know. Meraad..." She hesitated a moment after speaking the name, and audibly swallowed. "Meraad should be mourned by all of us, and not me alone."

There was another quiet moment, but during that moment Asala's head slowly tilted until she faced Zahra, and though her eyeline never rose above her chin, it was closest she had come to making eye contact on purpose. "Perhaps... she began before she shook her head. She tried again, this time her tone one of optimism "Perhaps, one day, I may return. If... you wish to, you... and your crew, could join me." A weak smile played across her lips, but the pain they still held was clear. "My home... Ash-Rethsaam, is on the northern coast between Antiva and Rivain. We could celebrate their memories... Together."

With that, Asala's gaze fell to the legs of Zahra's chair and she shook her head. "I am sorry if that sounds... Foolish."

It didn't take Zahra long to decide. No, not when it involved Aslan. Never had. She doubted it ever would. He was more than a wayward memory on a long voyage. He was something precious she'd always hold close. A cherished gem from her treasury she would never part with. As soon as the words parted from Asala's lips... she knew, with a voracity, that it was the proper thing to do. A proper farewell in a familiar place. That the mousey Qunari would allow her to come along meant far more than she could piece into words. Meraad and Aslan. Ash-Rethsaam. A destination cradled between her homeland. Somehow fitting how she would find herself so close to the place Aslan had freed her.

Harnessing every stealthy ability she'd cultivated in her childhood sneaking out windows and tiptoeing through midnight promenades, Zahra swept up from her chair and stood directly in front of Asala. She did not immediately answer. Nor did she initiate any physical contact. God knows how uncomfortable that made her feel. Instead, she offered her own upturned palm. Swarthy-colored, calloused and laughably small. Shiny baubles and bracelets hung from minute wrists. Rings clacked against adjacent rings. “Foolish?” She rolled the word in her mouth and shook her head, “No. Anything but. I would be honored if you'd let us come with you. Like you said, together.”

She let the words linger and tilted her head. It hadn't occurred to her before. The word that she'd never truly understood. A small smile tipped across her lips and the lines at the corner of her eyes seemed to soften. Kadan doesn't really mean idiot, does it?”

Asala gazed at her hand for a moment, as if confused as to what to do with it. Instead, she finally found Zahra's eyes and smiled sweetly. "No," she said, shaking her head.

"It means family."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

0.00 INK

The leaves were beginning their change.

From green to their orange and red hues, autumn was quickly approaching. The summer's heat, while not still not so hot in the mountains where Skyhold nestled, started to bleed away, and soon a crispness would return to the air. Autumn's arrival also signified Pierre's departure. It was this occasion that had Marceline out of her office this afternoon. A cart and a team of horses to pull it had been requisitioned for their use. Along with Pierre, a few of the Inquisition's soldiers were given leave and were hitching a ride to their homes along the way. They'd hear no objections from Lady Marceline, the more people that traveled with Pierre and his father, the safer they'd be along the roads.

Marceline watched with her arms crossed and a tight frown as Michaël checked the horses and their tetherings. Though both Michaël and she believed it best that their son stayed the autumn and winter at their home on the West Banks, it did not mean she wouldn't miss him. The boy himself was busy nearby, helping the soldiers organize their belongings in the back of the cart. Standing beside the men, Marceline couldn't help but notice how fast her son was growing. It wouldn't be but a few years now that he would be a man himself. An imperceptible wince came with the thought, that she would miss more time with him. She hoped that he wouldn't grow even more while he was away.

Both Larissa and even Asala were present as well, to see Pierre off. Larissa laughed and joked with the soldiers as they packed, but Asala stood quietly further away, almost as silent as Marceline was. Eventually, their work was done, and they climbed in back of the cart themselves, settling themself in for the trip to come. Pierre and Michaël approached Marceline, and she put a practiced smile on her lips. They could see through it, of course. They always could. "That should be it," Michaël said, tossing a glance to the cart behind him. Marceline simply nodded. "Come on, Marcy. We'll be back before you know it," he added with a big, genuine smile.

The plan was, Michaël would travel back home with Pierre, and then a few weeks later return to Skyhold with the other soldiers. Larissa would then travel at the beginning of Spring to fetch Pierre and return to Skyhold. "You both know that is not true. Skyhold will be rather lonely without my men," she said with a gentle laugh. With that, Marceline approached her husband with her arms wide, pulling him into a hug, before he suddenly lifted her up off the ground into a spin. She tried her best, but she couldn't hide the surprised squeak she made. As he set her down, she laughed and turned toward Pierre. "Do not give your father any trouble... And make sure that he and mother play nice," she said, before wrapping him into a hug too. Rather unexpectedly, he too lifted her in the air, though without a spin. When he set her back down, Michaël and him shared a laugh. "You two need to stop," she said firmly through a smile.

"We will be fine, mother. I will write, every chance I get. You know this," he said. Then Pierre turned toward Larissa, "I will miss you too, and I will make sure to send you the newest novels in Val Firmin," he said.

Larissa beamed for a moment before collecting herself bowing. "Thank you Milord. And I will be sure to keep in touch about how Lady Marceline is doing," she added.

With that, Pierre walked past them and to Asala who stood nearby. She recoiled half-a-step before digging her heels in and blushing. It seemed that having his parents eyes on her put her off-balance. "And I'll be sure to keep you in my letters too, Asala."

"Uh... Th-thank you... Oh! I almost forgot. These are for you," Asala said, producing a small package from under her cloak. "They are, uh... Snacks. For your trip," She added with a shaky smile. She then inclined her head and spoke "Pan-panahedan." Asala hesitated for a moment before wrapping him into a quick hug and releasing him just as fast, the blush spreading across her face.

Pierre chuckled and returned to the cart, before hopping into it's seat beside his father. Marceline approached them both and took a hold of Michaël's hand. "You two be careful, and have a safe trip. Please," she asked.

"Of course," Michaël answered, before leaning down to kiss her. "And you try not to work yourself to death. I love you."

And with that, Michaël bade the horses forward through the gate and over the bridge leading out of Skyhold, Marceline waved to them as they departed, and she was aware that Larissa and Asala were doing the same behind her. Slowly they faded from view, and though Larissa took her leave, they watched as they vanished over the horizon, leaving only Marceline and Asala.

A hum sounded above the retreating din of clopping hoof beats and rolling wagon wheels. Accompanying the intrusion were deft fingers plucking at Marceline's sleeve: a pinch of fabric between forefinger and thumb. It wasn't readily apparent just how long she'd been there. Or if she'd simply skulked up on them as they were waving Pierre and Michaël off. Lidded eyes followed theirs into the distance. Zahra watched as the wagon bounced and rolled and ebbed further away. Her expression softened as she released Marceline's sleeve and took a tentative step backwards, “They'll be fine—those two, if they're anything like you, Sunshine.”

The Captain had chosen a mixed fare of clothes for the season. It appeared, in any case, that she was always cold. At least if her colorful mix of words were anything to go by. Cold as tits, she'd say. A light tunic with a leather vest cinched around her waist. Leather trousers and knee-high boots. A decorative sword dangled at her hip. Bright red tassels hung from the pommel. She inclined her head towards Asala and grinned. A form of greeting if it was anything at all. Or else she'd found something else amusing. The distinction was difficult whenever Zahra was involved. She planted her hands on her hips and rolled one of her shoulders, bright eyes moving back to Marceline's face, “I was hoping you had some time to spare.”

Marceline first looked to Asala, who'd been watching the Captain herself. Eventually though, she realized that Marceline was looking at her, and caused her to wince and avert her gaze elsewhere, but not before shrugging. Marceline's breath hitched in humor toward the woman and she smiled as she turned her attention back to Zahra. “I suppose it would all depend,” Marceline answered with a manufactured smile, “with what you intend to do with that time.” Despite the words, there were humor behind them. Larissa could handle what paperwork she had to do, and in fact was probably doing it as they spoke. The meeting she had with various individuals about expanding their trade routes to Skyhold wasn't for some time yet, so it was not as if she was immediately busy.

“But no, there is nothing that requires me as such currently,” she added.

If there was anything awkward about the silence that passed between them, Zahra was nonplussed by it. It didn't seem at all possible that she could be bothered by anything of the sort. She took a step back from Marceline and idled to the side, casually glancing over to where Asala stood. Her fingers tapped against her hips. A tuneless sound beating against her leathers, “Nothing you'd regret.” She let the words hang in the air for a dramatic moment and pursed her lips, “I was hoping you could show me how to use this thing.” She patted the blade swinging at her hip affectionately and toyed with the brightly-colored tassels. Running them through her fingers, “You know I'm good with my bow, but there are times when... something else is needed.” It appeared as if she didn't want to clarify her reasons, or else she thought that it was good enough of one.

She swung her gaze back to Asala and inclined her head. A smile pulled at her mouth and appeared all the more mischievous, “You wouldn't mind if I borrow Lady Benoit, would you? I promise I'll bring her back before nightfall. Captain's honour.” A strange way of asking whether she was interrupting anything, perhaps. However skewed. Asala looked up and shook her head in the negative, throwing her white hair across her face.

“Oh, well, you see... I, uh, I mean, we... weren't...” she tried before unsurprisingly stumbling over her words as usual.

Marceline decided to make it easy for the woman and raised her own hand. Asala drew into silence from the gesture, and let Marceline speak. “We had nothing planned, she just wished to see Pierre off,” she explained, smiling at the young woman. Asala blushed, and her gaze fell, but she said nothing else, nor did she start to leave. No doubt curious, and Marceline couldn't blame her. The Captain was a rather interesting individual. Her gaze fell upon Zahra's sword, and Marceline's smile turned into a thoughtful frown. She looked at it for a moment, before she reached out and held her hand open, gesturing with a wagging finger to let her see the sword for a moment. Still, it was quite strange that Zahra would come to her to ask how to use the blade.

“There are better swordsmen than I present, why is it that you wish to learn from me and not them?” The Lions came to mind, as they were the ones training the Inquisition's soldiers.

Asala's spluttering caused Zahra to laugh. Though it was without malice. Her smile pulled back to reveal teeth and her hands drifted towards the waxen rope binding the scabbard in place. It loosened and fell away as soon as soon as she pulled the knot inwards: an unusual sailor's tangle. She caught the blade before it touched the ground and turned towards Marceline. Offered it in both hands, palms facing upward. From the looks of it... it may have been a decorative piece, or at least meant for extravagance rather than bloodshed. A pretty piece. She took a step forward and dropped it into Marceline's open hand. A softer laugh sifted through her teeth. It sounded somewhat flustered. As if she'd been caught with something she was not supposed to touch.

“You do yourself no credit.” Zahra pulled her now-empty hands back and settled them back at her hips, toeing the rope she'd left at her feet. Her eyes rolled skyward for a moment and resolved themselves back on Marceline's face. As if she were collecting her thoughts. Or deliberating on a reason good enough to serve. “Not all styles would suit my purposes. I'm not like Khari. Or Rom. Brute strength? No. Finesse? Grace? Fluidity? I see no better teacher. I may seem,” she tilted her head and chuckled, “harsh, sometimes. But I'd like to learn from someone who fights to win. Honor be damned.” From her choice of words, it appeared as if her mind had been made up on anyone else in the Inquisition. Lions included.

Marceline's eyes focused on Zahra for a moment. It was a fair assessment, though she still believed that there were others better suited to teaching than her. Marceline knew that she was unsuited to combat, but then again, she did not claim to be a soldier. She was a diplomat, with enough experience to protect herself. However, Zahra was an archer, and few lessons in swordsmanship could only help. Her attention then turned to the sword in her hand, gripping it by the hilt and bringing it closer to inspect. She ran a finger down along the blade and then tapped the point. Nodding to herself, she turned away from Zahra and held it straight up in front of her, perfectly parallel to her body and perpendicular to the ground. Her off hand settled into the small of her back as she thrust the blade forward twice, and slashed on the third.

“The blade should be sharpened, and the weight better distributed. It is very lovely, however, and nothing that cannot be fixed by a quartermaster,” Marceline smiled, before turning the blade over in her hand and offering it back to its owner. “Very well, if you wish for lessons, then I cannot deny you,” she said with a smile, “Though I've never taught this particular subject. Michaël is the one who teaches Pierre self-defense so forgive me if I am not the ideal teacher.”

She then crossed her arms and held Zahra in her eyes for a moment, before she nodded, “Come, we will go to my office. There is enough room to learn the forms there, but,” Marceline said, beckoning with a finger, “understand that the best weapon is not the one in your hands, but the one in your head,” she said with a smile.

Zahra watched as Marceline scrutinized the blade, hands on hips. Her mouth set itself into an expectant smile. If she could've bristled with energy—a desire to get down to all the nitty grit of swordsmanship, she probably would have. Instead, she tipped towards Asala and bumped her shoulder with a blooming grin. As languid and lewd as the Captain could be, there where instants like these where she appeared more childlike and unreasonable. Had Marceline outright said no, the woman certainly looked as if she would not take it as an answer.

She ticked the impressions from her fingers as if she were creating a schedule of chores in her mind. When Marceline back towards her, Zahra waggled her fingers and retrieved the blade from her hands. Settled it back into its scabbard and nearly rocked up on her tiptoes. Green eyes bright against the sun blazing in the background: nearly as wild as Khari. “Just what I wanted to hear!” she butt in, all hurried, before licking her lips and settling back on her feet, “Leading and teaching are one in the same, aren't they?” Not always true, though she appeared as if she had no misgivings on her decision to approach her about the subject.

She nodded her head and fell in beside Marceline. It was clear that her expectations had already run their course. Fancies best left in storybooks. Perhaps, towards something involving clashing swords in the yard or leaping onto tables and skittering parchment paper across the tables. Certainly not what Marceline had in mind.

In reality, what Zahra received was a number of guides written on the matter of fencing, as well as a few hand-written notes of Marceline's own design. They were piled up on a desk that Marceline had placed Zahra at in her office, while Larissa sat at Marceline's own with an amused look. The woman herself stood nearby with a tilt to her head as she looked upon the gathered materials. She did not know how the Captain would take to being issued mostly theory at first, but Marceline would rather Zahra get acquainted with the theoretical aspect before they dove into swinging swords around. Without a good baseline, Marceline surmised that she may hurt herself or someone else in her attempts to learn.

“You may borrow this material, it will give you a good idea of the basics you are to learn.” She then smiled and nodded, “It is dry, I understand, but one must first gather all the information they are able to before they act.”

If Zahra's expression was anything to go by, she certainly hadn't expected being seated at Marceline's desk with a pile of books, dog-eared and well-worn, surrounding her. She pursed her lips and leaned over the assorted papers she'd been instructed to look over. She dragged her fingers across the letters and finally leaned back in her chair. There might have been a sigh poised on her lips, though she made no noise. Glassy eyes rolled towards the ceiling for a moment before she leaned back into her work. Scrawled notes in a small empty book bound with strings. Certainly not something she would have owned. Marceline had instructed her to read through several books and mark down prudent information pertaining to footwork and movements. She paused in her work and smoothed her hands across the loose pieces of parchment.

“I, uh,” she seemed to hesitate before a smile tickled at her mouth and widened, “wasn't exactly expecting this. At all.” Zahra looked up from her work and tapped her fingers against the table, “Is this truly how you were taught all this? For curiosities sake. With the way you move, I thought you'd had a savvy teacher. Leaping and darting and all that.”

Marceline laughed softly to herself. She shook her head gently and began to lean against the desk Zahra sat at. “My studies began the same way when I was a young girl, and Pierre as well. The leaping and darting followed soon after.” The corner of Marceline's lip turned upward and she continued, “Though, I doubt there is much leaping in reality. Lifting your feet off of the ground is not an intelligent maneuver.” There was a tone of gentle chiding mixed in with her amusement but soon she shook her head and tried to give her something Zahra could work with.

“Some of the others, yes, they may start you off with sword in hand immediately, but it was not how I was taught. I would never be as strong, or even as quick any who may would wish me harm, but I could be more intelligent.” Marceline quieted for a moment and reflected. “We will never be able to overpower or outrun everyone, but we can outmaneuver and out-flank, and all that begins inside those pages.” she said, pointed toward the collection of books and papers. “And yes, once you have attained a basic understanding, we will move into the practical application. You can be as intelligent and observation as possible, but it means little if you do not know how to hold a sword correctly,” Marceline added. The smile had returned to her face.

This would prove interesting.

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

The fresh snow crunched underneath their feet as Marceline traveled alongside Leon. Winter was upon them now, with new drifts of snow being supplied to Skyhold's grounds daily. Even then, snowflakes lazily drifted from the sky, and provided a stark contrast for the moment that they lingered in her well-kept mane of black hair. She was dressed for the weather with a thick black coat with silver fur lining the collar. The mountains would only make the winter chill all the more sharp, and they could probably look forward to snow for several more months.

“I do hope you have men keeping the roads clear,” Marceline said with her neck arched upward, studying the falling snowflakes. They would depend on those roads in the following months for supplies like food and clothing. A lot of diplomacy went into securing contracts and trade routes for goods. It would be a shame to see all of her work undone by snow blockages. Her words, however, were merely musings. She had faith that Leon had the soldiers doing whatever was required of them.

Her head fell back down and turned toward Leon, “Speaking of the soldiers, there are some things I wish to discuss.”

“I wished to see how you felt using the army in an attempt to bring in a source of income,” Thus far, the Inquisition had mainly relied on donations and loans from across Thedas, though primarily Orlais and Ferelden. However, donations would soon become scarce as the Inquisition established itself, and there were only so many loans they could take out before the debt crushed them. “If you feel they are ready, of course,” If not, then the whole thing was moot.

Leon, perhaps due to sheer size, didn’t seem much bothered by the cold. His own cloak was comparatively light, made of nothing more than roughspun wool with a deep red linen lining. He crossed his arms upon Marceline’s suggestion, causing the edges of the garment to fall forward. His brows furrowed.

“Bring in income?” he echoed, sounding dubious at best. “It’s not a matter of readiness, Lady Marceline, but a matter of ethics. If you’re suggesting that we hire ourselves out to the highest bidder or take sides in a civil war in hopes of getting paid…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “That’s not really the kind of thing an army like this one should be doing.”

“I did not mean for the suggestion to sound so mercenary, Ser Leon.” Taking a side in the civil war would not only be unethical, but would also lead to a conflict of interest and undeniable bias. Her father fought for the Empress however, and she would not condone placing the Inquisition's army in his way. “You understand as much as I that war brings all sorts out of the woodwork. Bandits, highwaymen, plus we now have the Venatori and the Red Templars to contend with. With the majority of the Chevaliers' attention turned toward the civil war, there are not as many trained soldiers patrolling the roads or keeping the holds safe.”

Marceline shrugged and glanced upward toward Leon's face. “I am simply suggesting we fill that need. Now, do not misunderstand me,” Marceline, her own brows furrowed, “I do not want to initiate a protection racket where safety comes at a price, but... The Inquisition will need income to feed and pay her soldiers.”

Leon seemed somewhat mollified by the clarification, but his frown didn’t disappear. “In principle, that’s not a bad idea, but… the kind of people who would benefit from our protection are not the kind who have much to give in terms of donations. We may end up spending more on transport and supplies than we get back for the effort. Much as I’d like to help, that might be better left to the Lord-General’s chevaliers. Not to mention Orlais is a sovereign nation even despite the civil war. We don’t really have a legal right to—look out!”

Before she could react, whatever it was struck her hard in the face. A freezing cold sensation was immediate as it spread through her face and seeped into her neckline. She halted midstep and gasped, swiping her face and bending over to free the snow stuck in her collar. Snow. It was then she realized that she'd been struck by a snowball. After removing as much of it as she could from her face and clothes, she shot a gaze upward, looking for the most likely culprit. Her brows were furrowed and her eyes narrow, though her face did not hold a look of outright rage instead sitting somewhere at accusing.

The first person she saw was her husband, having himself a hearty laugh. Michaël had returned to Skyhold from their estate on the West Banks a number of weeks back. Once he realized that she was staring at him however, his laughter stopped immediately. An alarmed expression entered his face as he quickly pointed toward the elven woman beside him. “Her,” he hastily accused.

Khari glared at him, but quickly threw up both hands in a placating gesture. One of them still grasped a second snowball. “Uh… sorry, Lady Marceline. I was aiming for Leon, I swear!” Apparently she expected this information to make things less bad.

A loud snort sounded above the pin-drop silence, followed by hoarse, uncontrolled laughter. It carried itself across Skyhold’s grounds and belonged to the resident pirate, Zahra, who appeared to be struggling to keep herself on her feet. She was crooked forward with one hand perched on her wobbly knees, and the other planted firmly on the closest building. A breathy intake of breath later and she was rubbing her hands and knuckles across her eyes. If any attempt was made to stifle her amusement, it was a feeble one. “You should see—I can’t believe,” she sputtered between giggles and snorts, “your faces.”

She appeared to have made some effort when it came to dressing for the weather. No amount of pride could keep the chattering of teeth at bay. She’d chosen simpler clothes, though they still appeared unusual. Dark leathers, bound with soft brown linens. A heavy black cloak rimmed with some sort of animal fur hung over her shaking shoulders. Her hair hung free, in a wild mess, woven with small braids and beads upon closer inspection.

“That’s not helpful, Zee!” Khari threw the other chunk of snow she was holding for the laughing woman. Certainly, her aim could use some work—it barely clipped Zahra before spinning off slightly to the right. Zahra’s laugh only grew louder when the snowball careened off her shoulder. She was already ducking down to gather snow in her own fingerless gloves, wolfish grin wild on her dusky face.

Coming up behind the elf and the chevalier was a bundled up Romulus, heavy cloak draped around him and a hood covering his head. He stepped lightly through the snow, but if he was trying to put his particular skillset to use, he wasn't doing it very well. The dusky-skinned Herald still looked far from home traipsing about through the snow, but he at least looked a little warmer than he had the previous winter.

He was rapidly forming a snowball in his own gloves, packing it into a throwable condition. As soon as he had he aimed it for Khari, and his aim was true; it exploded right against the back of her neck, and Romulus showed a toothy grin as he shrugged. "It's only fair, I think."

She pretended to look offended for all of two seconds before cracking a smile just as wide. “Oh yeah? We'll see what's fair." Apology already forgotten, Khari stooped and drew up a handful of snow.

Across the courtyard where the inn sat, a window on the second level popped open and swung outward. The white-blonde mane of Vesryn appeared, his eyes surveying the sudden snowy conflict. "Are you having fun, Herald?" he asked incredulously. "I didn't think you knew how."

"Why don't you come down, then? I'll show you." Romulus was already working on another snowball, eyes watching all those present, his grin unwavering. Vesryn took the bait, disappearing immediately from the window and closing it behind him.

Next to Marceline, Leon chuckled under his breath. “I do believe we’d best either take cover or arm ourselves,” he said, a smile lingering at the corner of his mouth. “That’s my official advice as commander, by the way.” Leaning forward slightly, he scraped some snow off a banister to his left, exposing the grey stone and compressing the flakes together between his palms. Taking his sound advice, Marceline quietly took a step backward and slipped into the rather large silhouette cast by Leon.

He eyed the entrance to the inn, apparently waiting for Vesryn to emerge before loosing the snowball. Given his strength, it wasn’t an outlandish possibility that he’d be able to hit someone all the way across the courtyard, either.

The elf swiftly moved out of the inn's doorway, like a child in a pretend game of warfare, which for all intents and purposes, this was. He had an actual implement of war, however. His tower shield led the way, and it was this alone that saved him from a snowy smack in the jaw. With snow sliding down the metallic front of the shield, Vesryn advanced, planting the shield into the ground just as another attack came from Romulus. He began working up a snowball of his own, though his efforts were a little hindered from holding up the shield.

"Is that all? My grandmother has a fiercer attack than this lot."

A soft thud accompanied a snowball striking him in the back; the culprit was soon revealed. Estella stepped out from behind a corner of the inn, one hand holding up part of her cloak, which was for the moment a makeshift basket for what looked like several more snowballs. “Surprise?” She half-smiled, darting away to take cover of her own behind a pile of chopped wood, stacked adjacent to the inn’s other side.

She adopted a steady rate of fire—her accuracy was at least better than Khari’s, though perhaps not by much.

She was certainly, however, not responsible for the volley of perhaps a dozen snowballs that arched onto the field from behind her, pelting anyone unfortunate enough to not duck behind cover in time. From her angle, Marceline could easily discern the cause—Cyrus strolled up behind his sister, wearing a broad grin. With a sharp hand gesture, he levitated another five or six chunks of snow into the air and hurled them as well.

“Asala?” The Qunari woman was indeed not far behind. “Have you ever attempted snow-fort architecture?”

“I have never had snow,” Asala answered cheerfully, the majority of her attention diverted instead toward a decently sized bubble levitating nearby. The bubble was completely opaque, having been filled with snow. “Though, Pierre and I did create a... snow man, back in Haven.” She stared at the snow-filled bubble for a moment before staring at Cyrus with a blank expression for another few moments.

She was quiet, before her eyes lit up in understanding. “Oh!” she exclaimed, and brought the bubble around to their front, morphing and shaping the snow in the air. By the time she sat it down, they had a nice, compressed snow wall between them and the rest of the combatants. With that, she beamed proudly. At least, until she was struck by a snowball.

“Cheating! That’s cheating—,” Zahra cried beneath the hail of levitating snowballs, raining down like arrows. A few had certainly struck their mark. Remnants of snow shook from her shoulders, and hair. If she was at all upset at having clumps of snow mussed in her wild mane, she certainly didn’t show it. Instead it appeared as if she was trudging through the snow and behind Asala’s makeshift wall, hidden from view. At least from the snow-ball churning demon grinning beside Estella. A lone snowball veered over their heads, and Zahra appeared a moment later, further to the right. Arms thrown back. Shuffling through the snow as if it were water. She dipped lower and attempted to tackle Cyrus into a nearby snowdrift, laugh already bubbling from her lips.

They went down in a heap; a pause in the constant barrage of snowballs from the south side allowed an opportunity for counterattack.

With a good deal of the attention turned toward the scuffle between Cyrus and Zahra, Marceline finally peeked out from Leon's shadow. She shot a glance around at the rapidly increasing number of individuals embroiled in their little snow battle. In a one fluid movement, she leaned out from behind Leon and loosed the snowball she'd been holding on to toward Khari. There was a little twist to her lips as she slid closer to her Seeker bulwark. Marceline always got her vengeance.

Above the frosty battle, and across the powdered walls, sat a lone figure. A woman perched across the brickwork like one of Rilien’s cackling ravens, though she hadn’t made a sound. She kicked her legs back and forth and absently fluffed snow from her knees, white-haired and dressed in clothes fit for Skyhold’s nippy weather. A soft brown hood was pulled over her head, but upon closer scrutiny, it appeared as if she was smiling. It pulled against the scar on her face.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

Crimson sails flapped and rustled overhead as the Riptide sliced through oncoming waves. There was an occasional salty spray that broke over the wooden figurehead. It crowned over the painted face and pattered across the forecastle. It was difficult enough to miss the elegantly crafted woman staring off into the distance, breasts bared and hands planted across her knees. Her midsection was covered with wooden ruffles. Painted with the same rouge as the sails, though it hardly applied any modesty. Whoever had etched its face had certainly spent a painstaking amount of time on it. She nearly looked real. In the ship’s belly lied the hold and the crew’s quarters, individually decorated and ridiculously large. Hammocks, wooden beds built into the walls, and an assortment of chests. There was a small stock of barrels in the furthest chamber, filled with who knows what and a makeshift kitchen that appeared as if it’d just been built.

Borja had certainly been accurate when he’d said that the little vessel sailed truer than his own. Quicker, at least. A great deal smaller than his heavily-gunned battleship, the Riptide speedily progressed towards their destination—where to? Zahra wasn’t entirely sure, but when Rom and Khari had approached her with the request, she was loath to deny them. Her ship, she’d said, was as good as theirs. Always, anytime. Besides, she’d been itching for a reason to clamber back onto these decks. She’d missed it. Dearly. Skyhold was all well and fine, but it paled in comparison to the freedom she felt striking across the seas, an expanse of glass or choppy waves. As much as Zahra missed the cawing of gulls, and the salty breeze kissing her cheeks… it reminded her of loss, of the absence of Aslan who’d always stood at her side. A vigilant giant keeping her from tumbling straight off the cliffs she toed so close to.

Even if Skyhold’s chill still nipped at their heels, she’d chosen a lighter fare. She assumed the weather would incline itself to her preferred state, after all. Zahra wore a loose cotton shirt tucked into tight leather pants, with a red sash and thick belt wound around her waist. She had her sleeves pulled up to her elbows and oddly enough had forgone wearing boots. Riptide’s deck was smooth enough to abandon good manners and civilities. This was her ship after all. She hadn’t left her companions with any instructions other than to enjoy the ride, explore the ship as they saw fit. They could sneak down into the hold’s kitchen and nab some biscuits before Brialle hid them away or help Nuka shuffle around the ship, tugging on the rigging with curse-words sifting through her lips. Or simply find a place to sleep. Garland was snoozing near the forecastle and his figurehead. Impressively ignoring the spray of water splashing across his face. He could sleep anywhere, that one.

Zahra found herself lounging near Nixium and the Riptide’s helm. Usually she’d harass the little elf. Stick her hands through the cylindrical spokes or teasingly jerk the rudder in the opposite direction. Anything to acquire an annoyed grumble, or a small, steepled smile depending on the occasion. But today, she wasn’t in the mood. She hunched over the chestnut railing and leaned her elbows across it. In these moments, you couldn't tell where the gray skies ended and the gray seas began. Thick clouds swirled in a tumult above, blue-gray waves swirled below, crashing into the side of the ship. It reminded her of things. Memories, mostly. Of the day she’d first stepped foot aboard a ship. A pirate ship. How ridiculously terrified she’d been. She glanced over her shoulder, expecting a familiar face, and chirped a quiet laugh when she saw no one standing there.

Ridiculous.

Something nudged into her shoulder. Zahra glanced over to her right and faced a tin flask: two inches from her face. Behind it was Nixium’s impassive expression. Betraying nothing behind those bright eyes of hers. Not even a smile, nor a word or explanation. She supposed she didn’t need one. Her smile simpered into something less wistful as she accepted the flask. She twisted off the lid and tipped her head back to seize a generous mouthful.

Ridiculous.

"Borja's impressed," came the voice of Romulus, and soon the visage of the man himself appeared nearing the helm. "I heard him say we're making good time. Thought I'd pass the compliment along, since he's unlikely to do it himself." He was dressed comfortably again, in a loose tunic and pants, and only a pair of sandals separating his feet from the ship's deck. His beard, too, he'd trimmed, down to its lowest layer. Likely he wanted to keep it for their return to the cold when this was over.

Romulus took a seat on a nearby railing, keeping himself anchored with one hand grabbing a rope tied up to a sail. He looked comfortable on the water, at home, even. If he was putting on some kind of act, it was a good one. "Thanks again for doing this. I know my father was sparse with the details. I think he sees you as a rival, actually." He seemed to remember himself, and walked to within arm's reach of the pair.

"Don't think we've met yet," he said, addressing Nixium. He outstretched a bare hand. "I'm Romulus."

Zahra spotted Romulus before he spoke. Or the top of his head anyhow. Ascending the wooden stairs, quiet as a mouse. If he’d wanted to startle them, she doubted it would’ve been difficult. She passed the sloshing flask back to Nixium and stretched her arms up towards the gray skies, wriggling her fingers. It’d been awhile since she’d had so many passengers aboard the Riptide. People not officially belonging to her crew… but somehow managing to fit in just the same. She felt a crick in her neck and internally blamed old age. Maker knows she wasn’t as young as she used to be. “That’s just like him,” her laugh was genuine, and a little reflective, “Stubborn man. You’re right. I’d never hear it.”

She watched as Romulus perched himself across the railing, seeming every bit a sailor. Or pirate, if she had her way. She wondered just how different his life might’ve been if he’d been raised by Borja himself. It’d taken her awhile to even believe they were related. Would they have met on the seas? Would Borja have taken a different path altogether? Lived a nice and quiet life in the hills. It almost made her laugh. From what she’d heard, they’d been through quite a lot before finally appearing in Skyhold. Of course, she hadn’t broached the subject. And wouldn’t unless he asked. Though she felt a small tickle of regret at how she behaved in Redcliffe. At Rom’s father, no less. All bared fangs and venom. She’d have to apologize, someday. Perhaps.

“What kind of pirate would I be if I couldn’t help my friends?” It was a rhetorical question because at this point she was treading past the line of contractual responsibilities. This time, she’d strayed too close. She supposed it made her a weak mercenary. One that wasn’t so inclined to choose wealth over her companions. An odd transition to be sure, and one she found not so unpleasant. She pushed the wild mess of curls from her eyes and nodded her head. It appeared as if she wasn’t quite used to being thanked either. “Rival? You know, Borja’s one of the greatest sea pirates I’ve ever seen. Doubt he thought much of me when I was a just a whelp. Thought I was too mouthy for my own good. He’s probably right.” She held a finger in front of her lips and snorted, “Don’t tell him I said so.”

The red-headed elf regarded him coolly. Not in the manner that appeared impolite, or rude. Simply one belonging to an individual who preferred watching and listening over speaking herself. Nixium tilted her head and trailed her eyes across his outstretched hand. She blinked up at him and reached past his proffered hand, grabbing onto his forearm instead. A firm grip. If she was at all perplexed by the odd handshake, she gave no indication. “Nixium. Navigator. I keep this one from sinking our ship.” It might’ve been a joke if she’d laughed or smiled but she only nodded.

Behind them, Zahra snorted louder. “She isn’t lying.”

"Good thing you're here then," Romulus chortled back. "We've got a long ways to go still, and then a long ways back." The humor faded from his tone, an indication that he was moving to some business at hand. Indeed, he hadn't yet told her where they going, or what they were doing when they got there.

"We're headed to Llomerryn, or nearby at least. There's a Qunari ship docked there with a prisoner that we need to recover, man named Conrado. Long story short, he's an underworld sort that sold out my mother and father a long time ago. Someone had reason enough to want my mother dead for her bloodline, and if Conrado can point us in their direction, we might have a real lead on proof of my ancestry." He made his way back to his position on the railing, taking a seat again. "Not the simplest operation, I know. But you shouldn't have to risk the ship. I figure we'll want to go in with something a little smaller."

“That can be arranged.” The new voice was Leon’s distinctively-accented bass. The Seeker had shed most of his customary layers in concession to the rapidly-warming climate, though he still exposed no more than his face and forearms to the sun. He looked like the type that burned easy, between the blond hair and the fair complexion.

The tread of his boots was soft over the planks of the deck—either he hadn’t taken long to adjust to the rolling of the ship, or else he had experience with boat travel already. He spoke to all three of them, though perhaps mostly Romulus. “There’s not as much Chantry presence in Rivain as elsewhere, but for our purposes, that’s good. What is there aren’t templars or the sorts that speak the Chant on street corners. We do have agents, though, and more than one unmarked boat, I’m sure.” It seemed to go without saying that he could request such a thing and receive it.

Zahra said little to interrupt the flow of conversation. Only nodded when it was appropriate. She hadn’t been privy to any battle plans, though she felt a little more at ease knowing why they were going… if not where. Llomerryn? She’d honestly never been there, but she’d sailed close enough to spot their terrifying ships. Even she wasn’t stupid enough to trespass too close. Dreadnoughts could tear them to pieces. And as restrained as Aslan was with his history, he’d instructed her how to avoid such conflicts. Though, she would’ve been lying if she said she didn’t want to see more Qunari. His people. His ways. A shame this wasn’t a frivolous occasion. She glanced between Leon and Romulus, resting her hands back at her hips.

Rivain. Home, then. A wistful sigh sifted from between Zahra’s lips. It was dangerously close to home, in any case. A rough fishing village surrounded by piers and docks and old, creaking boats. She didn’t often wonder what her family was up to. Though she missed her brothers, dearly. Though even less of the fiancee she’d fled from. She did think of the day Aslan appeared in the sour-smelling tavern. Remembered him proposing that she simply leave if she hated living there so much. Easy for him to say. And then she’d gone as if she’d never been there in the first place. Stepped off the docks without so much as a backwards glance. They’d sail straight past it if her estimations were right.

She shook the thoughts from her head and studied Romulus. Never thought she’d be in the business of recapturing prisoners. She had no qualms who they faced in Llomerryn. Or how they’d pull it off. Nor did she understand the weight of this particular pursuit, but she did know that it was important to him. That’s all that mattered.

"That's good," Romulus responded. "In any case, I can't imagine we'll get in and get out without coming across anyone. Even Qunari ships aren't that big. Best to go without anything that can link us with the Inquisition. Goes without saying that I don't want to bring any unnecessary trouble on us." Killing Qunari unprovoked was a certainly a good way to do that, even if Skyhold was about as far as possible from Par Vollen.

"Somehow I doubt the Qunari would be willing to just hand him over. They don't like to bend on these sorts of things, from what I've seen." There was something a little dark in the last words Romulus spoke, but he didn't elaborate on it any further.

“Their intelligence-gathering capabilities are also very good in Llomerryn,” Leon pointed out. “We’re going to need to be as unobtrusive as possible as soon as we hit land—even a bit before. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a viddathari that close to Kont-Ar.” He frowned slightly. “Actually, you’re probably going to want to keep your face hidden as much as you can. I don’t know if the tattoos would be recognizable, but they might be.” He gestured vaguely to his own visage as he said it.

Before any sort of response could be made to that, there was a soft groan from off to the left. Khari, looking distinctly green around the gills, staggered towards the prow of the boat, muttering something impossible to hear. She hit the railing hands-first, bending over it for a few seconds before she fell into a seated position, dangling her legs over the edge and pressing her forehead into one of the vertical bars keeping the handrail in place.

“Zee… you’re great and your crew is great, but I hate your boat. Ugh.” She paused to take several deep breaths. “How do I make it stop moving?”

“You should see the other boats. Riptide’s smooth as butter in comparison.” Zahra snorted through her laughter and rubbed at her eyes with her knuckles. She hardly looked sympathetic when she sauntered over and leaned against the railing to Khari’s side, “An acquired taste, I think.”

Asala followed close behind, whom in contrast seemed right at home on the deck of the ship. She too had shed much of the layers she'd usually wore at Skyhold. She walked barefooted along the wooden deck, with loose breeches that cut off at her calf and a shirt that exposed her midriff. In fact she even appeared to have a slight skip in her step as she came to stand over Khari.

Asala bent over and gently gathered the woman's fiery red hair in her hands to keep it out of her face. The look on her face was one of pity as gazed upon the poor creature. “You, uh... do not,” Asala answered. “But you will get used to it. In time. Maybe.” She did not seem at all convinced by her own words. It was all she could do to shoot the others a shaky smile that all but said probably not.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

They’d been in Llomerryn for the better part of a day, docked at the harbor. Khari was itching to set her feet back on land, but they were waiting for Anais to show up, and apparently it was better if they kept themselves mostly out of sight. Her guts were not thanking her—they still hadn’t settled, even if the boat wasn’t really moving much now. It was better if she wasn’t below, though. Khari had sprawled herself out on the deck near the helm, arms thrown out to either side, obeying the injunction not to make a spectacle of herself and her body’s demand for fresh air at the same time.

The night sky was pretty here, without much around to block the view. Still, she was mostly sure she liked it better at Skyhold. A wave rolled into the harbor, dipping the boat slightly underneath her. She groaned softly when something churned in her innards. The idea of sailing was great—too bad the reality sucked so much.

Zahra stood off a few feet from Khari’s right side, looking every bit the forlorn lover. Arms splayed across the railing. Finger trailing circles around the knots of the wood. Almost as if she were bidding someone farewell for a time. It would’ve looked peculiar to anyone else, or perhaps, as if she were deep in thought. Not quite so armed as the other group, but prepared all the same, the captain’s bow was strapped to her back and her thin rapier hung at her hip.

Soft footfalls across the deck heralded Rom's approach. He'd been restless ever since they arrived, to say the least. He was out of the comfortable travel clothes and into something more suitable for their mission: near black garb, and next to nothing that would make noise when he moved. He was armed to the teeth as well, even if not all of his weapons were visible. One did not take on even an unprepared portion of the Qunari's military arm lightly.

"She's here," he said softly, giving Khari a squeeze on the shoulder and pointing towards the dock. "About time."

Anais was also out of the usual half-plate they'd grown accustomed to seeing her in, instead wearing nondescript black clothing, including a light hooded cloak, which she currently had drawn over her vibrant red hair. She was accompanied by two others, one who appeared to be her own agent, or fellow cultist, and the other an agent of the Inquisition. It was only Anais who came aboard, though.

"Your Worship," she greeted Rom first, with a respectful bow of her head. Rom impatiently waited for her to finish. When Anais raised her head again, she glanced around at those assembled on the deck. "Is the Qunari mage here? Asala, was it? I've seen to it that the Qunari are expecting a saarebas. Tantalizing bait."

As if on cue, the Qunari woman in question strode out from under deck, her attention focused on the harbor in the distance. She lingered a step beyond the threshold, looking up and down the coast for a moment as if searching for something. Eventually however, she turned and finally noticed that all eyes were turned toward her. She flicked between them as her head tilted quizzically.

“Um...?”

"Saarebas," Anais repeated, her tone indicating a low estimation of Asala's intelligence. "Bait. You're to lead as many Qunari as possible away from their ship, thus giving us a better chance to retrieve the prisoner. This may require you to attack some of them, and it will require some endurance. Are you capable?"

Asala noticably twitched at being called Saarebas, but otherwise said nothing. Instead, she averted her gaze to their feet.

Rom had crossed his arms by this point, leaning back against the mast of the ship. "You won't be going alone," he said. "We'll be splitting up, so you'll have some people to watch your back." He looked expectantly in Khari's direction. "Right?"

Khari gave Anais a sidelong look for all of a second before grinning at Asala. “We’re gonna go on a merry little chase, you and me. And Cap’n Zee.” Oh, that had rhymed. Awesome.

She figured she was pretty useless for sneaking around and onto occupied boats. She could be quiet enough, but the armor clanked and there was no way she was going without it for a job like this, so she’d decided pretty early that she’d play to her strengths and be a huge pain in the ass instead. There were plenty of other people who could do the rest of it.

“Rom, Leon, Anais, and Borja here are gonna get on board the ship while we’re running around with Qunari on our heels.” Asala didn’t exactly know the whole plan yet; Khari figured she deserved to be told. “But all we’ve gotta worry about is not getting skewered by javelins. Sounds like a good time, right?”

She didn’t expect agreement.

She was not disappointed. “No... It does not,” she answered flatly. Once more, Asala flicked her eyes between them before she signed through her nose, apparently resigning to her task. “I do not suppose there is another way... But if this will help you...” she added, looking at Romulus while she spoke. She then looked down at her bare feet and shrugged. “I will need boots,” she stated, returning back under deck to undoubtedly go fetch a pair.

"It'll have to do," Anais said, seemingly more to herself than anyone. "The boat is prepared and nearby, Your Worship. We should move into position."

Borja started down the ship's ramp onto the dock, sheathing a knife at his waist. "About time. I've waited long enough." Rom made his way over to Khari, offering a squeeze on the shoulder. He looked a bit uncomfortable about everything as well.

"Look after Asala. And don't do anything too stupid. No one should get hurt for this. We'll make it fast."

“No risk, no reward.” Khari meant it in jest, though—it would be one thing if she were doing this by herself, but there were other people to think about here. Asala in particular was not likely to enjoy the experience of being chased around by a bunch of the same people that nearly sewed her mouth shut or whatever else Qunari did with their mages. Khari might not be the quickest on the emotional uptake, so to speak, but even she knew that everyone had their sore spots. If they could have done this without putting her at risk, she’d have wanted to.

She flashed Rom a jagged half-smile, clapping him on the upper part of his arm. “We’ll be fine. I’m almost as good at getting out of trouble as I am at getting into it.”




Had she been with anyone else, those other people probably would have known better than to let Khari be more-or-less in charge of the plan. But she was with Asala, who was probably honestly a bit too timid to register a complaint, and Zee, who would probably also think that what she had planned was a great idea. Or at least a fun one.

Llomerryn was actually pretty bustling, even at this time of night. Most of the buildings near the harbor had candles burning in the windows or lanterns outside or whatever other light they needed. The smell of burning incense and spices Khari didn’t know the names for hung thick and heavy on the salt air—she could taste it all on the back of her tongue. She had the feeling that some of the incense was actually more like what her uncle put in his ironbark pipe, only headier.

The street was flanked with little stands as well, draped in colorful fabrics she couldn’t fully appreciate in the semidark, embroidered with metallic thread that she could. All kinds of food was available for perusal: fruit she’d never seen, fish right from the ocean, and round fuzzy coconuts she kind of wanted to try.

The hawkers weren’t as avid in the evening as they were at other times; everyone seemed content to call out occasionally and otherwise leave the small crowd traversing the night bazaar to their business. At least that made it slightly easier to tear her attention from all the food and focus on the task at hand.

It wasn’t unusual for Khari to be the person who stuck out like a sore thumb in whatever situation. So it was unsurprising that she did now. Qunari weren’t that hard to find around here, and of course Zee blended on her own home turf, so to speak. But she hadn’t seen many other elves, and not a single Dalish, which was pretty predictable. It would be to their advantage, actually.

Their targets were mostly clustered near the docks proper, casting wary eyes about the immediate area. As Anais had promised, they looked to be expecting trouble; all of them were armed. The solemn looks on their faces could have been that, or just the fact that none of them had a sense of humor. Was humor outlawed in the Qun? She’d ask Asala, but that might get her a serious answer.

So instead of contemplating it further, Khari did what she usually did and waved goodbye to caution, happy to see it go. “Hey you! Big, grouchy Qunari! It’s a couple of infidels and their illegal mage friend!” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder at Asala and grinned. “What’re you gonna do about it?”

Behind her, Asala sighed and lifted both hands into the air. They were immediately enveloped in her blue energy to truly drive mage home.

It didn’t take the Qunari long to decide. Khari’s eyes rounded; she ducked the first javelin, which buried itself in the post of a small fruit cart. “Sorry!” The merchant looked at her like she had two heads for a second, but she couldn’t really stick around to explain.

Time to run.

A loud laugh sounded across the throng of wooden carts laden with fruit. A few heads turned. Customers who’d heard Khari’s catcalls. Wide and reflective as soon as Asala’s electric-blue fists pumped in the air. Zahra’s own eyes were two mischievous saucers, shoulders bristling with giddy energy. She grappled onto the nearest cart and hefted it over with a grunt. It caught another javelin as its contents scattered across the ground. Bright red apples rolled towards their feet as they advanced. Shouting angrily, shaking their weapons, while she crooned with her hands cupped to her mouth, “Come get us, flaming shites!”

With that she tugged at Asala’s elbow in order to turn her around in the opposite direction. She pointed out a side-alley with stairs and mouthed there, there.

A flash of blue, and the sound of a javelin clattering harmlessly to the ground followed. With that out of the way, Asala turned with the tug of her sleeve and followed close behind Khari and Zahra. From behind them, harsh cries of Qunlat vocabulary could be heard, Saarebas chief among them. They had not escaped Asala, judging by her downcast brow and tight lipped frown plastered to her face. Clearly, she was not enjoying it near as much as the other two.

Khari was determined to have her fun regardless. When the two of them ducked into one alleyway, she split off, heading down another. The general idea was that it’d be good to split the pursuing forces, but she hadn’t counted on just how singleminded the Qunari were going to be about this. Not one of them followed her, all of them pursuing the fleeing Saarebas with the fervor of true damn believers.

Well then. That narrowed the options a little.

Accelerating until she was moving at a breakneck sprint, Khari hung a sharp left at the next intersection, bringing herself into the path of Zee and Asala, who were about half a block down, their pursuers hot on their heels. How to slow down a rampaging squad of Qunari, then? Khari cast her eyes around the market street, but it wasn't until she turned them up that she got her first really good idea.

Hopping back into a run, she increased the distance between herself and the others, getting the lead she’d need to keep if this was going to work. There was a big crash behind her; maybe Zee had overturned another cart or something. Visualizing her path, Khari jumped, landing atop a shipping crate stamped with a big, fancy red logo—probably Orlesian Port Authority. Planting her hands on the next one, she swung herself up, then jumped vertically, catching the sill of the second-story window above. Using it to crawl along the wall, she hopped off onto the nearest rooftop, running along the edge and drawing Intercessor at the same time.

The market streets were festooned with many colorful fabric banners at irregular intervals, some of them proclaiming the names of nearby businesses—others seemed to be there for no other reason than to make the place more colorful and visually-interesting. Hefting her sword in both hands, Khari crouched at the edge of the roof, watching the approach of the runners.

No sooner had Asala and Zee made it past below than she swung, cleaving through the rope securing one such heavy banner in place with no difficulty. Bereft of support on her side, it fell with a thick flutter, blanketing the Qunari in dense blue canvas, still held up at the other end by the rope. The first few were horribly twisted in it, weapons pinned at their sides. The ones after had to step around with more care if they didn’t want to get entangled themselves.

“Keep going!” She shouted at the others, already on the move again herself. “I’ve got a few more things to try!”

As long as they could stay ahead of their hunters, they’d do fine.

Zahra skidded to a halt as soon as the heavy fabric blanketed the Qunari pursuers behind them. She grinned up at Khari and threw her a thumbs up, though she was quick to turn back towards her running companion. There was an imperceptible shift on her face, an expression that likened concerned rather than pure fun. It seemed as if she noticed the houndish behavior of their pursuers, or at least that they hadn`t been all too concerned by Khari`s disappearance. She shouldered Asala forward and smiled, “Whatever they’re saying—don’t listen. Run ahead, I’ll give them something to piss their pants about.”

With that said, Zahra swung on her heels, facing the scrambling Qunari and slipped Truthbringer from her shoulder. She notched an arrow and aimed towards them. She loosed in one fluid, graceful movement. It didn’t meet it’s mark. Not in the conventional sense, anyhow. Only grazed the closest one’s arm. He yowled and cursed something she wouldn’t have been able to understand. Deft fingers plucked two more arrows from her quiver. Loosed them frighteningly close, though it did little to stave their advance. As soon as they ventured closer she turned back towards the direction Asala had run and jogged at her heels, pulling the bow back over her head so that it rested on her back.

Khari, meanwhile, kept pace from above. Only a couple Qunari had so much as bothered to throw javelins at her—even those seemed like an afterthought. So she disrupted them with whatever came to hand. Another banner, an awning with round, decorative lanterns to roll around on the street, the window boxes from several buildings… none of it was enough to do any great harm, but it was annoying enough to slow them down.

By this point, she figured they’d been running long enough to give Rom and the rest of them time enough to get onto the ship, grab Conrado, and leave, so she had to shift gears—now she needed a way to get them clear of their pursuers so they could disappear into the crowd.

From her vantage, she picked out the narrowest alley she saw. “Guys, hang a right!”

Khari jumped down from her rooftop, sliding down a fabric overhang to land solidly on her feet. This was really the first time in a while that being small and having haphazard armor without too many solid pieces had helped her, rather than the opposite.

She waited for the other two to run into the alleyway she’d picked, then grabbed a fruit cart with wheels, dumping the coconuts onto the ground and sliding it in front of the alley entrance behind them. Intercessor made quick work of the axels, meaning it wouldn’t be quite as easy to move aside. “Hey Asala, how ‘bout a nice barrier?” The small size of the street should make that possible, right?

Asala nodded and tossed up the requested barrier. The Qunari began to trip over themselves as they tried to navigate the coconuts, but instead more often that not an errant step caused them to slip on the rounded surfaces. The ones that were lucky or deft enough to maneuver the minefield of coconuts had to contend with the downed cart-- which a few just careened into. The one or two that also managed to vault the cart did not expect the final barrier however, as they struck luminescent wall hard enough to send them back into the cart behind them.

Asala took a moment to belt something out in Qunlat before turning and quickly making her way down the alley, her glowing hands that kept the shield in place raised above her head as she went.

Khari's laughter lingered long after they were gone.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

0.00 INK

They were once again back out to sea; Asala could feel the slight ebb of the ship as she gently rocked on the tide. She could not see the waves, however, as she was presently below the Riptide's decks. After Khari, Zahra, and she managed to elude their pursuit, they had made their way back to the ship, taking a roundabout path just in case. They had returned just in time to meet Romulus and Leon, along with the others doing the same. They had set out to sea immediately in order to put as much distance between them and the Qunari as they could, but from her understanding, they did not have a destination in mind yet.

She was actually attempting the draw up the courage to speak to Zahra about that when Anais found her. In the usual sharpness Asala had come to expect from the woman, she had requested her presence below deck to ensure that their prisoner “kept breathing.” The way she had said it made her feel uncomfortable, which was the exact reason she felt it necessary she was present. In a room illuminated by candles, Romulus, Leon, Zahra, Borja, and Anais stood around their prisoner, Conrado, bound to a chair. Asala stood quietly in the corner, though she watched the proceedings with a careful eye. Prisoner or no, she did not wish for undue harm to fall upon Conrado.

Since it was Zahra who’d directed them into the a fairly empty side-chamber in Riptide’s belly, she, too, stood off to the side. Candlelight barely illuminated her features, as she’d taken a spot in one of the corners, balanced atop a barrel. It was difficult to tell what she thought about the whole situation, but it didn’t seem as if she was bothered by the implications of violence. Nor did she break the heavy silence engulfing the room as Rom and the others encircled their prisoner, Conrado. She brushed thick strands of hair from her eyes and glanced over in Asala’s direction, seated opposite to her. Her mouth formed a hard line, barely a frown before she turned her attention back to the center of the room.

"Lovely company I find myself in..."

Conrado just about whispered the words, as though he'd struggled to keep them inside, and ultimately failed. He immediately braced, knowing what it would get him, and he was not disappointed, as Borja stepped forward and gave the smuggler a wallop to the side of the head, leaving Conrado groaning. Romulus leaned back against the nearest of support beams, while Anais searched through the bag of Conrado's belongings. None had taken the time to change out of their darkened gear for the night raid. It was almost morning now, and sleep was beginning to creep up on all of them. They'd need rest before long, but first, this needed to be done.

"You'll speak when asked a question, wretch," Borja spat, shaking out his hand. Anais didn't seem interested in leading the questioning, and Borja was a bit of a blunt instrument, so Romulus stepped forward, and crouched down until he was actually below Conrado's level.

"Rosamara Borja," he said, throwing her name out there for him to hear. "You were asked to smuggle them from the very city we just left, and then somewhere in these very waters they were attacked."

"You don't have to remind me, Herald of Andraste," Conrado murmured, not meeting his eyes. "I've been living the consequences of that day ever since."

"So you admit to selling them out, betraying their course?"

Now his eyes came up. "I'd say no, but you're only looking for one answer here. Yeah, I sold your parents out. But you have to believe me, I didn't think they were going to try to kill them."

Borja appearing to expending great effort to keep his knife in its sheath. Instead he rushed forward, nearly pushing Romulus aside as he took hold of Conrado's coat. He pushed forward and sent the smuggler tipping onto his back, landing with a loud thud, the hulking presence of the pirate lord hovering over him. Borja fumed.

"Liar! They were assassins, killing like the bloody Crows, spilling blood the second they boarded! What could you possibly think they wanted, a fucking chat over tea?"

"Well of course they didn't present themselves like murderers to me, Adan!" Conrado protested, speaking much more quickly now. "These weren't people to mess with, but I honestly thought they wanted to help! Once I gave them what they wanted to know—"

"I'm the bloody bastard you don't want to mess with!" Borja roared, raising his fist to strike. Romulus caught it at the backswing, having come to his father's side after Conrado was taken down. Borja furiously threw off the hand. "Don't touch me, boy!" The fist came down, hard, leaving Conrado coughing. He spat out blood to his side. Borja leaned in uncomfortably close. "Who were these people, and what did they want from you? Besides betraying my wife."

His tone was deadly, to the point where Anais had stopped digging and watched with interest, and Romulus stood hesitantly over them both, obviously unsure what to do. But Conrado seemed more than willing to comply. "They never gave me a name, and I only met a few at a time. Looked like common thieves, save for these marks on their wrists. They said they suspected Rosamara was more than she seemed, that she had divine ancestry, and that I could help prove it."

"How could you help?" This came from Anais, peering at Conrado from under her hood. Conrado hesitated, eyes bouncing between the cultist leader and the pirate lord, before Borja slammed his fist down into the floor.

"Answer her!"

"Rosamara, she... she came to me, from time to time. Confided in me. We... we were closer than you knew."

Borja stared down at Conrado a long time, the room falling into utter silence, while he seemingly pondered what to do. The smuggler helplessly awaited judgement, eyes finding Romulus several times as though pleading for him to intervene, but Romulus made no move, struggling with the revelation himself. Then Borja's knife came out of the sheath on his chest, and he twirled it deftly about above Conrado's head. He looked sideways to Anais.

"You find anything useful in there? Anything that renders this lying sack of shit obsolete?"

"Continue, smuggler," was Anais's response. Borja gritted his teeth.

"Some part of you must have known this, Adan," Conrado said hurriedly. "She loved you, but she saw what Llommeryn did to you. The drinking, the violence, the enemies you always seemed to make. You must admit you were often not there for her. Nor were you yourself always faithful."

The words for once seemed to strike Borja more than they angered him. Indeed, it was as though he'd been hit with a blow to the chest, with the way his breathing changed pace and tightened. He almost laughed once, even, before he sheathed the knife again and turned from Conrado, finally removing his weight from the man and allowing him to breathe properly. Borja paced around towards the back of the room, ending up leaning forward on his arm against a wall. Romulus reluctantly grabbed the back of the chair Conrado was strapped to, and pulled it back up onto its legs.

"This relationship gave you information, then?" Anais said. If anything, she just seemed enthralled by all of this. "What did you give the ones seeking Rosamara?"

"Information from a journal. Rosamara's. I'd seen her writing in it some nights, very late. I... I stole it, I admit. The last time we saw each other, when I got them on that ship leaving Llommeryn."

"Did you give them the journal?" Romulus asked, coming around in front of Conrado. "Do you have any idea where it is now?"

"They let me keep it," Conrado said, wearily. He looked towards the pack of his things. "Further evidence of their good intentions, in my eyes. Had it sewn into the lining of my pack, very subtly. It's a little book, hard to notice if you don't know where to look." Anais immediately began to examine the bag again, this time feeling the bag itself rather than pulling any more contents from inside. Conrado sighed quietly. "Don't suppose I could have my hands back? Not like I'm going to be escaping from individuals such as yourselves."

Borja turned to put his back to the wall, but simply glowered in place at his old acquaintance. Rather than look to anyone for permission, Romulus went ahead and cut Conrado free. The smuggler initially did nothing more than rub his wrists once they were out of the rope bindings, but he soon reached out for the bag. Anais dumped his personal belongings entirely out onto the floor and handed it over.

Before he could even ask, Romulus had extended the handle of a smaller knife to him. Conrado took it with a silent nod of thanks, and began making a careful incision into the bag. "It was a ritual of some sort they seemed most interested in, some kind of old magic, I don't know." Once he'd cut a wide enough window in the bag, he reached inside. "Never read more than a page of it myself. Didn't feel right. But I guess if anyone should have it, you should."

He handed a small black journal to Romulus, the cover and binding worn down with time but still solidly intact. Anais stared at it with unblinking eyes, like it was the beating heart of Andraste herself. Romulus looked through the pages, eyes scanning quickly over them. "This was written in several hands. Different languages. I can't read it."

"An heirloom, perhaps?" Anais suggested, inching closer. "I would be honored to assist you in translating it, Your Worship."

Romulus honestly didn't look the most thrilled at the offer, but he nodded his head. Conrado's expression shifted to something approaching relief. Borja still glowered, however. "What's to be done with this one, then?" he asked, in a low growl. "If I've any say, he'll come with me, back to the Northern Sword."

There was an uncomfortable pause which almost begged a protest to interrupt, but Romulus hesitated, and Anais followed his lead. Conrado looked steadier than he had before, and searched out the Herald's eyes. "Good intentions or no, my actions brought death to your mother, and his wife. I've outrun that for far too long."

"It's settled, then," Anais concluded, with that strange sort of energy she often had when she was excited or enthralled by something. "I will assist the Blood of Andraste in the translation of the text, and Conrado will be given to Captain Borja upon our return to the Waking Sea."

That seemed to decide the matter. Everyone but Conrado and Borja filed out of the room; Romulus and Anais split off in search of someplace suitable to translate, presumably. That left Asala with Leon and Zahra. The commander sighed almost inaudibly, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “Certainly not the approach I’d have taken,” he murmured. It was unclear whether he was speaking to them or mostly to himself.

He dropped his hand, offering a thin smile. “I think I’m heading up onto the deck for a while. I’ll be around if either of you need anything. Captain. Asala.” He bobbed his head—slightly awkwardly, considering the relative size of him in the hallway—then turned to head up the stairs.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

0.00 INK

Zahra offered a slight lift of her shoulders, shrugging at Leon’s sentiment. Had she been in Borja’s place, it might’ve proceeded in the same fashion—though it was a difficult circumstance to imagine in the first place. She’d never been married. Being engaged to someone she hardly liked didn’t count. Loving someone and having them snatched away from you? Impossible. She hummed low in her throat and glanced at Asala, sidelong. Wondered absently what she’d thought of the violent encounter. Seeing as the compassionate Qunari wasn’t quite someone who’d submerge themselves in anger and hatred and spill it out on someone you considered an enemy, she supposed it would’ve been a shock.

Whatever revelations that had taken place in the candlelit chambers hadn’t been lost on her, though she’d taken less out of it than Anais and the others. She understood less, anyhow. Hadn’t fully understood Anais's feverish desire to rifle through Rom’s late ma’s journal. However burdensome the situation was, she hoped that Romulus came out of it relieved. Lighter, in a sense. There were few things worse than dredging anchors to your ankles, trudging through uncharted waters without any clear answers in sight. She hoped he wouldn’t drown in the process. Unresolved, bitter. Disappointed in the past he’d been cheated of. In any case, it appeared as if they were making progress, and that’s all that counted.

She hooked her thumb towards the stairway leading to the upper decks and exhaled softly, “Join me?” She hadn’t waited for a response. Stomping up the stairs as she usually did, impossibly heavy for a woman so lithe, Zahra greeted the crisp air with a satisfied sigh. All too happy to put those spear-waving Qunari behind. As brutal as it was being pin-cushioned with arrows, she’d imagine having a broomstick-sized pole protruding from your belly would be infinitely worse. And they’d been getting worryingly close near the end of their chase, even if she’d shown it by laughing. If it hadn’t been for Khari’s quick-thinking and creative distractions, she wasn’t so sure they would’ve fled unscathed.

Zahra perched herself near Riptide’s right side, elbows propped over the ocher railings. Narrowed eyes trained on the horizon, searching for the old, familiar piers swaying in the distance.

Asala followed behind as she stepped onto the deck. Unlike the Captain, her footsteps were silent in the night, having since discarded the boots at some point after boarding the ship. The only indication that she followed behind was the unmistakable sense of her presence. Once they reached the railing, Asala began by leaning against it, but eventually she seemed to melt, sliding downward until she sat, staring out into the water between the gaps in the rails. She rested her forehead gently against the cool wood as she sat crosslegged.

Every so often, she ventured a glance toward the captain, as if she wanted to say or ask something, but could not quite get it out.

Zahra sighed. It wasn’t tinged with annoyance, but rather belonging to someone who just knew she’d have to be the one pinching and prodding to loosen someone’s tongue. She tapped her fingers across the wooden knots spiraling through the railing she was leaning on and leaned precariously backwards, stretching her arms in front of her as she grappled onto it. She swung down to Asala’s level with the grace of someone who was used to standing on edges, especially one so close to the seas they swayed on. However, instead of sitting as the young Qunari-woman had, she stuck her legs between the gaps in the rails and let them dangle down and planted her palms down.

As quiet as she tended to be around her, perhaps for good reason… she rather liked her company. It was unusual and refreshing. Fortunately, very unlike the stern-lipped reticence she elicited from Nixium—always looking at her as if she’d said something stupid. Forgetting that she was Captain and not the other way around. She supposed she’d always needed an anchor to keep her from plunging head-first. But Asala’s silence was thoughtful. Empathetic. In a sense, kind. When hadn’t she seen that kindness radiating from her core? She could hardly imagine her reeling in anger. Hands balled into fists. Though she’d been surprised before. She hummed low in her throat and leaned her forehead against the rails, and tilted her head so that she could see her face.

“Something on your mind?”

She didn't answer immediately. No, instead she simply sighed and let her forehead lean against the lip of the railing, the base of her horns resting easily against it. "Yes," she answered, with a tight smile and an inflection on the end of the word that acknowledged how obvious she was being. She didn't elaborate for a time, opting instead to take in the rolling waves beneath their feet. She chuckled to herself, though the sound itself held a tone of melancholy.

"My home is not too far from here," she answered, looking out over the water. "I do... not know if you remember," she said, finally looking toward Zahra, "but Ash-Rethsaam lies north of here, along Rivian's coast." She was quiet for a moment again, her gaze sweeping across the ocean once more before she continued. "That is... what has been on my mind," she answered, with a small, slightly apologetic smile cast her way.

Zahra let the words sit. Idle in silence, as she regarded Asala’s sheepish expression. Even if she hadn’t the heart to ask it, she heard the question loud and clear. She remembered the conversation vividly. Remembered seeking her out in a moment of vulnerability. They both shared similar losses, and a means to mourn properly. She hadn’t forgotten—would never forget it. Every time her gaze roved across the Riptide, it reminded her of Aslan. Of everything they achieved together. How they’d managed to scrounge up such a motley crew, sailing the seas as if they hadn’t a care in the world. She imagined the same thoughts plagued the Qunari’s mind, especially since they were so close to her home.

She felt… somewhat lighter being able to share in that same grief. Her smile softened around the edges, and she hoped it belied an understanding of sorts. As the waves rolled across the hull and rocked the ship, she nodded. “Of course I do,” Zahra said, a breathless whisper against the railing. How could she forget? In this, they were sisters, both tasked to send off the ones they loved. She felt grateful to Asala in ways she couldn’t express, because she could do right by him. In a sense, she believed she couldn’t move on otherwise, and perhaps, she felt the same way. “We could go, if you like, you need but ask. I don’t think the others would mind.” A soft sigh pushed from her lips, as if she were combating truer feelings, “I’d like to.”

Asala was quiet as she thought about it, her eyes cast downward to the waves crashing against the hull of the Riptide. Her lips were pursed, but that had only lasted a moment before they cracked into a smile. She nodded eagerly, an air of excitement suddenly fluttering about her. "Yes, I would like that," she said with a wide smile. Her smile hitched for a moment as if there was something he had realized, but she pushed it back and said nothing of it, the smile returning back to its full form soon after. "We should probably tell Romulus," she added. It seemed only right to let him know that their return to Skyhold may be pushed back a few more weeks, considering the importance of his own task.

“It’s decided then!”

Zahra’s smile crackled back at her in full-flight. She was happy that Asala had decided that yes, this was an opportune time to head home. She feared that she’d decided it was too much of a bother. It wasn’t, in her eyes. Besides, if Asala had truly wanted to return even after they reached Skyhold, she would’ve taken extraordinary measures to reach it. She doubted Romulus and the others would object to their request, though it was only proper to run it by them. She reached up and grabbed onto the railing she’d been leaning on in order to pull herself back to her feet. Time was of the essence, and if they wanted to go, telling the others was a priority. Afterward, they’d set the course and inform their taciturn navigator.

What was another few weeks at sea? This was her home, after all. Delaying their return to Skyhold’s mountains suited her just fine, if she was being honest. However selfish her desires were, she’d grown accustomed to taking others into consideration. Some might not consider her so pirate-like these days, casting from the shores for favors instead of gold and treasures, but it made her laugh all the same. She’d changed. Though it didn’t hurt as much as she thought it would. Relying on others was… refreshing. She offered Asala a hand and grinned wide, “No time like the present.”

Asala offered her a warm smile and accepted the outstretched hand, and pulled herself to her feet. She allowed Zahra to take the lead, apparently having figured that the Captain knew better which cabin Romulus had called his. Together, they slipped under deck and navigated the ships belly until they pulled up to Romulus's door. They could hear the sounds of movement beyond the door, and surprisingly, it was Asala who'd issued the knock on the door. Apparently the thought of returning home so close to her grasp managed to embolden her, as there was no longer any hesitation in step nor actions. However, after a moment she did offer Zahra an apologetic smile. Probably thought it should've been the captain that should be the one to knock, but as was becoming the usual of late, it did not last long.

The door soon cracked open, and it was the red hair and annoyed features of Anais that filled the gap. She stared up the considerable height difference at the Qunari woman in front of her.

"The Herald and I are in the middle of important work. We are not to be—"

The woman cut short any bravery Asala had shown, causing her to instead quietly take a step backward and let Zahra take point once again.

"Anais," came Romulus's voice from inside, sternly. "Open the door. Let them in."

She looked back, and almost hesitated before she let the door swing open wide, revealing a desk with her notes and the recovered journal, as well as Romulus sitting cross-legged on the bed by the other wall. Anais stood aside and allowed the two to enter the room, while Romulus stood.

"What's going on?" he asked.

If Zahra was in any way stifled by Anais’ frankness, she certainly did not show it. As soon as Asala stepped backwards, revealing stark-red hair and an annoyed face, the captain sidestepped into view with a toothy grin of her own. Steeped across her lips like an amused feline. She was used to this kind of response, after all. A light laugh sounded when Anais turned back towards the chamber, answering Rom’s call. She noted the hesitance, and shrugged her shoulders as if to say I thought this was my ship.

“Sorry to interrupt.”

She pressed her hand against the door and pushed it wide enough to free it from Anais’ fingers, and stepped aside so that Asala could enter freely. There was a moment of silence, as Zahra’s eyes roved across the chamber. Noting the files, parchment papers, and journal they’d just acquired. Though it wasn’t any of her business, and besides, her heart was already set on other matters entirely.

“I’ve a request—,” she rubbed her chin and shook her head, “or rather, a favor of my own. A change of course. We’d like to go to Asala’s homeland. But it’d be another few weeks delay from returning to Skyhold. Now, usually I'd just sail off wherever I please, but I’ve never had so many guests aboard my ship, and I suppose that’d be rude. So, here we are.”

"Yes, it would be rude," Anais agreed, sullen. "Especially considering the identity of your guest." She turned to Romulus. "Your Worship, when we finish translation we may well know how to proceed immediately. We should return to Skyhold immed—"

"Anais," the Herald interrupted again. "Stop." Anais looked thoroughly annoyed at being silenced again, but as she always seemed to do, she obeyed any wish Romulus had. He smiled at Zahra, apologetic. "Won't be a problem. Translation's going to take a while anyway."

"We may not even need all of it, Your Worship," Anais offered, more cautiously. Romulus did not move his gaze to her.

"Well I want all of it. And we're not stopping my friend from visiting her homeland." He looked like he might throw more of an explanation on to the end of it, but in the end decided against it. Anais let her mouth hang open for a second, before she shut it and turned back to her desk.

Asala had been silent during the exchange with an expectant look on her face. Several glances had went Zahra's direction, as apparently she'd not forgotten whose ship she stood on. Though, once it was decided that it would not be an issue, Asala beamed and nodded deeply. "Thank you," she said, before turning toward Zahra with a wide smile on her lips.

A bark of ill-contained laughter bubbled from deep in Zahra’s chest. She couldn’t help it. Really. Seeing Anais’ face shift so quickly. If the red-headed lass could wring her hands around her neck without fear of consequence, she probably would have. Of course, even with Rom’s newfound title, and awfully complex family history, she’d never considered changing her demeanor towards him. They were friends, weren’t they? Besides, kneeling didn’t suit her. As soon as the words left Romulus’ mouth she was closing the distance between them in brisk, swaggering steps, wholly ignoring Anais’ presumed reaction to such insolence, sweeping down to plant a quick kiss atop his head.

“Knew we could count on you!” She stepped away from him and offered a roguish wink, Your Worship.” No, it didn’t sound quite right after all. With another wry grin, Zahra turned on her heels and barked another rough laugh as she opened the door and disappeared through it. All coattails and jangling bangles, announcing her departure. They could already hear her excited footfalls bounding up the wooden stairs, cries rasping up to Nixium to change their course immediately.

Asala offered them one more smile before skittering off behind her.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

Image



Emptiness is an illusion. Beneath my feet,
Grains of sand beyond counting.
Above my head, a sea of stars.
Alone, they are small,
A faint and flickering light in the darkness,
A lost and fallen fragment of earth.

Alone, they make the emptiness real.
Together, they are the bones of the world.
—An excerpt from the Tome of Koslun, The Body Canto

Image

It was strange, to have the others follow behind her. Usually, it was the opposite, with Asala gladly allowing someone else to take the lead while she walked behind them and away from their expectant stares. What was stranger still was the fact that it didn't bother her as much as it supposedly should have. She was giddy, as it turned out, a lightness to her step and an excitement bubbling up from deep within. How long had it been since she'd last been home? Way back when Meraad decided for them that they should set out and seek the newly freed mages to better hone their skills. They were naive and ultimately optimistic back then, not to mention extremely lucky that they had happened upon Aurora and her group to learn under. That was four years ago, a long time to be away from home.

The Riptide laid anchor some ways behind them, hidden in a small bay, it was there they saw the first signs of habitation. Several small fishing boats had laid upturned on the sand, and Asala had revealed that fish had been a mainstay of their diet. A well worn path carved in land, running parallel to a mountain range to their west. Once it had been decided that they were to finally visit her home, Asala had pointed its location out to Zahra on a map, midway along Rivain's eastern coast, on the other side of the mountains from the country's capital of Dairsmuid.

She spun in the middle of a step, turning to the others that followed her. "We should not be too much further now," she said with a smile. The climate was tropically warm, and her dress showed. She was without her crimson cloak, and instead wore no shoes, light and airy breeches that flapped in the coastal winds, and a shirt with the midriff exposed. It only made sense that she feel at home at home.

Leon seemed to have made no concessions at all for the climate, but if that caused him discomfort, he certainly wasn't showing it. He pursed his lips slightly when she spoke, shifting his eyes so he was looking over her shoulder and towards the horizon ahead of them. “I suppose I should have asked earlier, but are you sure that the rest of us will be welcome? It can hardly be the policy of a group hiding from the Qunari to allow anyone at all within their settlement."

Asala thought about it for a moment as she walked backwards. The thought truly hadn't ever crossed her mind, she just assumed that it would've been fine. Eventually however, she shrugged and wore a sweet smile, "It will be fine," she said, dismissively. Spinning back on her heel, she continued to lead them down the path, but she continued to speak. "See, Ash-Rethsaam is small enough to not warrant attention from the Mainland and hidden enough to escape prying eyes. They have other things to worry about than a small Tal-Vashoth commune-- Or, at least, that is what Tammy had told me," she explained, throwing back a warm smile. There were days, especially when they first arrived, that Asala had worried that her new home would found by the Qunari.

Then she realized that may not have been what he meant. "Oh," she said, turning around again, "If you mean because that you are not, uh... Qunari," she said, tapping on her horns to indicate she meant the race, not the religion, "Then do not worry. There were other elves and humans among us as well," she added, though she did linger on Leon for a moment. Granted, none of them were as large as he was.

Zahra stretched her arms above her head in a wide, cat-like manner. As if she were one, basking in the sun. For all appearances, she was far happier on this type of land then she’d ever been at Skyhold. Of course, the weather might have had something to do with it. She’d forgone wearing shoes as well, kicking up sand between her wriggling toes, though she held her boots over her shoulder, buckles grasped in her hand. As far as clothes were concerned, she’d shed her warmer garments, and instead chose more comfortable fares: a loose white shirt with no sleeves, a brown leather vest with half the lacings undone, and a pair of puffed blue and teal trousers cinched slightly below her knees.

She hummed a tune in the back of her throat and joined Leon at his side, watching as Asala skipped ahead and turned so that she was walking backwards. By the slight frown on her lips, it appeared as if she hadn’t thought of their racial inclinations either. She looked to the horizon around Asala’s midriff, because she was, after all, quite short. The frown only lasted a fraction of a second, because the excitement radiating off the small captain was palpable, barely contained. “I’m sure we won’t be thrown into any cages, what with our esteemed guide here,” she added a toss of her wild hair. There was a slight pause, and one of Zahra’s hands lifted just below Leon’s chin. “Besides, you’d fit right in. You’re practically a giant.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” he replied, dry as the sand surrounding them. Nonetheless, he seemed satisfied enough by Asala’s reassurances, though that didn’t quite stop him from looking around with a certain wariness and caution. Maybe nothing would have.

With that settled, Asala turned back toward the path in front of them. It wasn't long that something else caught her attention, and this time it wasn't behind her. Off to the side of their trail came a rustling underneath the foliage and a pair of low voices coming with it. Asala came to stop to peer toward the sounds, intently curious as to what could be making it. Or rather, who. It wasn't an animal-- no animal she knew of laughed like that, and the footfalls were too heavy to belong to some other creature. As she waited, an excitement wound through her frame. It was soon thereafter that they revealed themselves.

A pair of men stepped out of the brush. One was very obviously Qunari, young, with a pair of sweeping horns, a bronze skin tone and a bloodied spear held in his off hand. His man hand was occupied holding a pole on his shoulder. The pole held the creature that the blood on his spear belonged to, a large boar with glistening ivory tusks. The other man, the one who held the other end of the pole, and laboriously at that, was an elf who stood about a head and a half shorter than the Qunari. Their conversation quickly came to a stop as the two of them caught sight of Asala and her friends.

They were quiet for a moment, both Asala and the men, both parties looking the other up and down. It wasn't long before recognition struck the man. "Asala?" he asked, incredulous.

It took a moment longer for Asala to recognize his face, but eventually she did. "Rashad?" She asked, taking a step toward him. That was all it took. Rashad dropped the pole holding the boar, leaving the elven man scrambling forward with the creature's entire weight now on his shoulder alone. Rashad clasped Asala's shoulders and took a closer look, as if to confirm that it was really her. She tensed initially at the sudden contact, but quickly relaxed, overjoyed because she found some one she recognized, and recognized her. Granted, she didn't remember his horns being as large as they were.

Apparently satisfied that, yes, it was her, he laughed and brought her in close for a hug, despite her small squeak. She soon returned his hug, and when he released her, he began to speak in Qunlat. "It's how long since I last saw you? Three? Four years? And here we are tripping over you. Why didn't you tell us you were coming?" While he spoke, the elven man had shucked his end of the pole and came to stand between both Qunari, his arms crossed and disappointment in his face.

"Asala." He said in a monotone. Now that he was closer, and no longer obscured by Rashad's large frame, it was clear that the elf was close to the same age as his partner.

"Rhys..." She replied, rather embarrassed by his terse tone.

"You caught us woefully unprepared," He said glancing down at the blood on his leathers. When his gaze returned to her, he stared for a moment more before the thin lipped frown he wore broke into a wide smile. "It's really good to see you again."

"It's good to see you both too," she added, laughing despite herself.

There was a semi-polite pause there, after which someone behind Asala cleared their throat.

“I'm gonna go ahead and say these are friends of yours, though I caught maybe four words of that, and three of them were names." Khari didn't seem upset with this, really; even her professed confusion was hardly in evidence on her face. On the contrary, she was grinning, arms crossed over her chest and one eyebrow arched. Romulus was a little more straight faced beside her, and seemed to be following the conversation better. He glanced sideways at Asala.

"Introduce us to your friends, Asala?"

With that, Asala remembered she had brought her friends with her. Both Rashad and Rhys noticed too, considering that they both looked past her toward her entourage. "Oh! Yes, um. Heh, sorry," she said with a blush and apologetic bow. She then gestured toward the Qunari first "Well, this is Rashad. He arrived a few years after I had. He was Ashaad under the Qun," she said, glancing at the man, "A scout," she explained. "He... doesn't like to talk about it though, she said, shooting him an apologetic smile. He only raised an eyebrow and tilted his head quizzically.

"Still doesn't speak much of the Common Tongue, unfortunately," the elf added with a shot to his ribs. "They don't train the military for that," he added with a mischievous smile. "I am Rhys," he said with a deep, but playful bow. "I was Ashaad as well, his partner, when I followed the big oaf out." He nodded to Asala for her to continue.

"Yes, well. Um," she stuttered for a moment before slipping back into Qunlat, "Rashad, Rhys, these are my friends. This is Khari," she said, pointing to the woman in question. "The man with the beard is Romulus, the woman over there is Captain Zahra, and the tall one back there is Leon." she introduced.

The two men nodded along as Asala called them out, at least until she got to Leon. Rhys chuckled to himself while Rashad seemed taken aback by his size. It was unlikely that he'd seen a human that could match him in size. That was sure to be a running theme, Asala noted to herself. Personally, Asala had gotten used to it, and only noticed it when someone else did. "What are they feeding them?" he asked, "And where is Meraad? Honestly, I thought he would be the one leading." With the name of her brother, Asala's mood visibly shifted, and her eyes fell.

"He's... not coming."

The tone of the answer was all that they seemingly needed. Even for those who could not understand Qunlat, Meraad's name and the way she answered it should have been enough. Rashad's smile fell into a deep frown and Rhys only covered his mouth. "Oh... I am... sorry Asala. I didn't know..."

A moment of silence passed before Rhys clapped, ripping everyone from their melancholy. "Right. Well. We should be getting back to the village then, yes? I'm sure Tammy wants to see you," he said, wearing the largest smile he could manage, considering the news. He then pointed to Leon and spoke again, "Hey you, big man. Leon was it? If could do me a favor and help Rashad carry the hog back to the village, I would be fiercely appreciative. Sometimes he forgets that he's worth two of me," he added, his arms crossed.

Leon’s face hadn’t changed much over the duration of the conversation, making it difficult to tell if he’d followed anything but the obvious. Then again, he had spoken Qunlat the first time he met Meraad, so maybe he had. He furrowed his brows slightly when Rhys addressed him, glancing back towards the hunters’ quarry. He spared a glance at Asala, then shrugged.

“Very well.” He moved over to the back end of the pole, his boots sinking slightly in the sand every time he took a step. “Ready when you are, Rashad,” he said politely.

Zahra did little to interject in the conversation. Though, her curiosity had blossomed. She stepped away from Leon’s side and closer to the hog-baring duo, bright eyes evaluating Rashad. Perhaps, too close for comfort. Her frown was inquisitive, if not one that could have belonged to a child prodding a new shiny thing. She clucked her tongue and laughed when he dropped his burden, leaving the poor elven lad to deal with it, and did her best to keep him from keeling over in the sand. She stepped aside when Leon was asked to relieve Rhys of his duty and joined Khari’s side.

She waved a hand ahead of them. “Let's?”

Asala smiled kindly and nodded. "Yes, let's," she said as the group began to move forward once again, this time with Rhys and Rashad.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

The rest of the trek to the village itself wasn't that exciting. Lots of sand, mostly. Hot sand. Khari really hoped it didn't end up in her boots; she had a feeling it'd never come out, and then there'd be permanent sand in her boots and blisters everywhere. That would be the worst. She'd nicked these from her mom's workbench way back when, though—they'd probably be okay. Unless she fell into one of those pits that only looked like normal sand. But then she'd have other problems, like trying not to die.

Okay, maybe a little sand wouldn't be the worst. But it would still be pretty shitty.

Toward the front of the procession, Asala spoke with both Rashad and Rhys. She spoke in a mix of the trade tongue and Qunlat. It was strange to see how easily she spoke to them, without a hitch in her voice or a stereotypical stammer. In fact, from the way Rhys chuckled at her a few times, and it seemed that they were able to get away a bit of teasing as well. During the majority of the trek, Asala seemed to hurriedly explain what had happened since she left, but no doubt chunks of information were left out. The word Inquisition was dropped several times, which raised the brow of Rhys, but seemed to do nothing for Rashad.

Khari didn't pay terribly close attention in any case, not until a change in the rhythm of the footsteps around her drew her out of her rather unimportant thoughts and back into the desert around her. Not so desert-ish in this spot, though; they'd clearly reached the village. From this far away, it looked mostly like a collection of hexagonal clusters, each built out of smaller hexagon shapes. It reminded her of nothing so much as a beehive, but she really doubted the Qunari were making honey in there.

Now she was hungry.

Each of the little modules was hut-sized, more or less. She was willing to bet most of them spent the majority of their time outdoors in one way or another, so that made sense. Instead of doors, most of them had cloth hung over the entrances; as they got closer, Khari could pick out the individual colors and patterns. They were bright, but the patterns had the same kind of precision to them as the architecture—everything was nice and geometric.

She wondered what they did if they made a mistake in the weaving. Did they unravel everything after the error and fix it? Shit, she'd never get anything done if she tried that. She'd never met anyone quite so detail oriented as that besides her mother, but it seemed like the norm around here. Everything was almost uncannily neat and precise. Not very discreetly, Khari glanced over Rashad and Rhys. She didn't see any rulers or protractor-things, but she bet they had them.

The whole settlement seemed to spiral outwards from a fixed center point, actually; they were approaching it now. Quite a few people were out and about—she guessed the ones near the center were kids, from the roundness of their faces and their comparative height. It was a little disconcerting to realize that some of them already cleared her by a good few inches. She was shorter than qunari twelve-year-olds. Great.

They looked like they were having fun, though, playing some sort of game that seemed to be a variant on tag or keep-away or something like that. She was almost tempted to join. But they were here for serious stuff, so she quelled the urge and glanced around, looking for anyone who seemed to be approaching them.

Though Asala didn't seem to notice, so engaged in the conversation with her two friends, Khari had a better sense that they were being watched. As they walked through the village, eyes turned toward them curiously, and lingered for a while before their owners eventually returned to their duties. Obviously, they were a curious sight, a group of their size making down what amounted to the village's main street. Asala obviously did not take into account the awkwardness their just showing up would entail. Not that Khari really cared. A good forty percent of her life was awkward. Being weird compared to what people expected when they looked at you would do that.

Eventually, Rhys beckoned their group to stop. "Hold up, this is where we'll have to part ways for the moment," he said as he approached Leon. "We have to take this guy to the butcher, else Rethari will give her our hides in its stead," he explained, gesturing that Leon let him take the pole again. Asala seemed saddened that they had to depart from their company, though Rhys noticed it as well. "Don't look at me like with those eyes, we'll find you when we're done."

Rashad, for his part, said something that Khari couldn't understand, but whatever it was it did manage to make Asala laugh and smile. The pair then bid their farewell before taking turning and taking their kill down one of the side paths. Asala paused for a moment and watched them until they took another turn and vanished from view. She then turned toward the rest of them and nodded apologetically, "Sorry. Tammy's schoolhouse isn't much further now,"" she added with an eager smile. With that, Asala resumed the lead, and true to her word it was only moments later that they arrived.

The building itself was constructed in much of the same way as those beside it, though noticeably larger and occupying a space all its own. A garden of flowering cacti lay, fenced off, far enough away from the entrance to avoid children accidently falling into them, but still gave the building a little exterior color. Asala led them to the double door before she asked them to wait for a moment. She quietly opened the door and stuck her head in for a peek, before withdrawing and turning toward them with a smile. "She's here," she explained before beckoning them to follow her.

As they entered the building, the first thing they noticed were the empty desks laid out in neat and orderly lines in the middle. It seemed that they had arrived after the children were let go. The walls held shelves of books, and blackboard with unreadable words written in chalk in it. On another wall, a map of Thedas laid out, and beside that was a number paintings drawn in small hands.

Khari had never been inside a schoolhouse before; she'd learned to write mostly on scrap bark because paper was hard to come by in the middle of bloody nowhere. She squinted at the chalk lines on the...slate? She was pretty sure that was slate. The idea of a room, much less a building, for no purpose other than instructing kids in stuff like this was completely foreign, but she supposed it made some kind of sense. Probably humans did this kind of thing too, but it wasn't like Khari knew that many upper-class people. Pierre learned from his mom and dad like everyone she knew.

In front of the room, sitting at a large desk with a quill in her hand and pondering over a number of papers, a middle aged Qunari sat. Her hair was tied up into a messy bun, but was still as white as Asala's. Though where Asala's skin was ashen, the woman's was a light bronze.

Upon hearing them enter, the woman's eyes rose above the papers in front of her and toward her guests. She was silent, though the surprise and confusion in her face was plain as day. She leaned forward in her chair, her brows scrunched up, and her mouth agape.

"Asala?" She asked.

"Hello Tammy," Asala said while she sweeped in between the desks and darted toward the woman. It wasn't long before Tammy was up out of her chair and enveloping her in a loving embrace of her own. What followed next was a lot of excited chattering in Qunlat from both parties, having seemingly forgot about the rest of them. Again.

Khari figured they had the right.

After enough time had passed to move them from polite silence into an awkward one, Leon softly cleared his throat to draw attention. “If you would prefer it, Miss Asala, the rest of us could allow the two of you some time to be reacquainted?" It was hard to tell if he was advancing that as an option he expected her to take or just as a very indirect way of reminding her that other people were present.

It was Zahra who trailed furthest from the group as they walked along. She lingered just outside the schoolhouse, eyes trained on the buildings. On the bluster of movements in the distance. Her mouth was drawn into… something similar to a frown, although she didn’t appear at all unhappy. Just thoughtful. Her hand rested on her hip as she followed behind Khari and stood behind them. It appeared as if there was too much here to take in. Without so much as plucking things up in her grubby hands, she absorbed her surroundings by leaning much too close. Rapt. While she did smile at Tammy and Asala’s reunion, she made a noise when Leon suggested that they should give them time to speak properly, even if it’d merely been a means of letting their presence be known.

Asala didn't acknowledge them, seeing as she was buried too deep within the crook of Tammy's neck to notice. It was the other woman who addressed them, by gently smiling at them and holding up a finger for them to wait. She petted the girl's hair and said something that Khari couldn't understand and pulled away. However, they did not get too far apart, as Asala held Tammy's hand in her own and leaned heavily against her, as if she thought that if she let go, she'd lose her again.

Now that there was room enough between them to get a good look at her, Tammy was an older woman, appearing to be somewhere in her middle ages. Freckles dusted her face however, giving her a youthful appearance over the wrinkles that were just beginning to fold onto her forehead. Her hair was a dark silvery gray and tied up into a messy bun and a strip of calico cloth wrapping around the base of her horns. Another pair of horns were present too, just behind her ears, barely more than nubs. Standing beside Asala, it was clear that the woman also stood a few inches taller than Asala.

"Asala?" she asked, giving the girl a motherly smile. Asala looked at her confused, with a face that just screamed, what? Tammy laughed and pointed toward the rest of the group. "You are going to introduce us, yes?"

"Oh! Yes, I'm sorry, these are, uh," she said, stumbling over her words again, "my friends. This is Romulus, Khari, Zahra, and that is Leon," she said, pointing at them as she named them out. Then she smiled brightly and pointed toward the woman herself, "And this is Tammy. She was the one who raised us."

Tammy bowed deeply, which was impressively considering how tightly Asala held on to her, and said something in Qunlat before rising and addressing them more directly. "It is a pleasure to meet you all. Officially, I am Tamassran, but..." she said, giving Asala a loving glance, "Everyone just tends to use Tammy instead."

Khari waved casually. She wasn't really sure if the bowing was a thing all the Qunari did or not, but it wasn't anything she usually did. Since no one else seemed to be rushing to bow back, she figured it was okay.

"They are, uh..." Asala began, before apparently thinking about her words more carefully, "Well, I mean, we are a part of the Inquisition. I suppose," Asala added. This managed to elicit a surprised look from Tammy, directed more toward Asala than the rest. Of which, the girl only shrugged at.

"We have heard news of the Inquisition from our traders in Dairsmuid, but... I did not expect you to be a part of it, imekari," Tammy explained, the surprise still lingering in her face.

“A very valuable part, it should be said." Leon inclined his head graciously to Tammy. He'd situated himself politely near, but not leaning against, a wall, and folded his hands neatly behind his back. He didn't look comfortable, exactly, but he didn't seem quite as wary as before, either.

“Miss Asala has proven herself more than capable as a healer and a shield, as well as an alchemist. There is much to be proud of." Because it was Leon, he delivered the praise in an even, mild tone, like it was just any old collection of facts he'd picked up somewhere. But then, it was his job to assess those things and be able to make decisions based on them. So maybe that was only to be expected.

"Most of us here would've died at one point or another without her," Romulus added from near the door. Despite being back in a more familiar climate, he too looked a little out of his element, but not in a negative way. He scratched at his beard, regarding Asala. "She's our friend, not just our healer."

Khari grinned, crossing her arms comfortably over her chest. “Even if she doesn't get our jokes."

Zahra laughed and nodded in agreement. Her hands had found themselves back on her hips, eyes trailing down from Tammy’s face back onto Asala’s. She seemed pleased by the swing of conversation as she included, “She’s been sweet to us. We’re lucky to have her.”

The pride welling up in Tammy's face was unmistakable. "That is why she is beres-taar, a shield. She has always possessed a certain strength of character, even if she does not often acknowledge it," Red blossomed in Asala's cheeks as she turned away and blushed, pretending not to hear, but everyone could see the slight tug in the corners of her lips. "And of Meraad? Does he remain with your Inquisition?"

It felt as if some of the warmth within the room drained with the question, and the slight smile Asala wore faded away into a deep frown. The sudden shift in mood was not lost on Tammy as she immediately seemed to catch on. She turned and laid a gentle gaze upon the girl beside her. "Asala?"

She could not bear to meet her eyes. "He, uh. He is not... did not..." she stammered just barely above a whisper.

It was all the answer Tammy needed, and she closed her eyes and sighed deeply. She rubbed her face and leaned into her hand, slipping into thought for a moment before speaking again. "I see," she answered. There was a sag in her shoulders that hadn't been there before, and now the woman seemed older than she had initially appeared as she news weighed heavily on her shoulder. "I... I apologize, but I would like to speak with Asala alone for a bit. There is much we need to speak about. I hope you all will forgive my selfishness," she said, this time to the others.

Asala nodded in agreement and added, "I am sorry as well. I will... find you, afterward. I promise."

“Not a problem." Khari said it quickly, feeling the unease in the room getting a little thicker. She might be oblivious most of the time, but death at least was something she had a bit of experience with, and she definitely didn't want to make this any more uncomfortable than it already was. “We'll go find Rhys and Rashad or something; don't worry about us."

She waved a hand in a dismissive gesture, almost as if to bat away the unnecessary apologies or something, then turned and led the way out, holding the door open with her foot for the others. Before she closed it behind her, she turned over her shoulder for a second and offered a lopsided smile. Too thin to read as genuine, probably. “Seriously. Take your time. We can wait."

She let the door—this building actually had one—fall closed softly before returning her attention to the outside. It was still damn hot, but at least it was dry. The sun hadn't stopped beating down overhead, but looking at the angle, she estimated they had only a few more hours before dark.

“If you actually meant to find the other two, I suspect the butcher would be on the outskirts of the settlement,” Leon said after a moment. “They usually are in planned towns, and this is about as planned as I’ve ever seen one.” He glanced back outwards towards the center gathering area. Even from this far, the voices of children filtered over the space, mostly Qunlat. Leon seemed to understand at least some of it; there was a twitch at the corner of his mouth after one particularly-enthusiastic shout.

He shook his head slightly and returned his attention to Khari and the others a moment later. “In any case, I’m sure I don’t have to tell any of you to be polite, so I won’t. I don’t know what we’re meant to do for the moment, exactly, but it might be for the best if no one wandered too far.”

Khari almost laughed at him. He sounded like a parent trying to instruct a bunch of kids or something, though admittedly with considerably more respect for their intelligence than most parents she knew. He had a point, really; they'd kind of been left without a guide for the moment, and it was obviously better not to offend the locals.

“I'm gonna go back to the middle of town. Those kids looked like they were having fun; maybe they won't mind teaching me how to play that game." She shrugged. Might as well get to know people a bit; there was no telling how long they'd be here, after all.

Zahra gave Khari a playful swat on the shoulder and grinned wide, still brimming with excitement, “Don’t go too hard on ‘em, Khari. Might join you later, so save me a spot on your team.” If there was at all teams. Qunari sports looked awfully complicated. A far cry from bobbing for apples, and rigging in fish as quick as possible. She straightened her own shoulders and looked back towards the direction they’d been walking. It appeared as if she was just barely holding herself back from wandering off on her own, though it was evident she wasn’t sure which place to explore first.

She, too, seemed to strain her ears at the distance shouts. Pausing and turning towards the center of the village. Although it wasn’t clear whether it was with brief understanding or simple curiosity. She cleared her throat and arched an eyebrow, leveling Leon with an unabashed stare. She had to stare up at him, even though she didn’t act like it. “Care to join me in finding this butcher’s house?” Zahra knuckled her nose, and tempered her smile a little, “I’d like to see more of the village on the way.”

Leon blinked at her almost skeptically, but nodded. “Very well." He shifted his attention to Khari and Rom. “Until later, then."

“Try not to have too much fun without me."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

0.00 INK

Once they'd parted from Romulus and Khari, Leon and Zahra started down one of the flat, well-edged paths that ran through the settlement. Like spokes on a wheel, all of them met in the center, and all of them reached the outer boundaries. Admittedly, it was a bit of a guess which was the one they wanted, but he recalled the direction Rhys and Rashad had gone in and decided to follow that one. Presumably, it would get them somewhere worth going; the Qunari did not seem particularly inclined to building roads to nowhere, not even the ones that had departed the Qun.

He kept his gait rolling, trying not to move too swiftly or in an excessively businesslike manner, in part because his companion was a great deal smaller than he was and also in part because he didn't really have business to be attending to. It was a foreign feeling, for there to be no task for him to accomplish, and it left him somewhat off-balance. He was almost looking for work to do, scanning the housing units on the side of the road as though something would present itself to him in the form of heavy things to carry or missing things to find or... anything at all really.

But they passed unhindered along the road, drawing eyes on occasion but no voices. Stifling his vague uneasiness, Leon glanced around again, letting his eyes linger on the buildings this time. He'd seen drawings of typical Qunari architecture before. This wasn't even the first Tal-Vashoth encampment he'd visited. But the other had simply been an encampment, tents and all. Not a proper village like this one. He recognized that the geometry was a holdover from the previous lives of the occupants. Even the more personal touches seemed unable to escape it; the Qunari had art just as surely as anyone else did, and he suspected much of it looked like the weaves serving as entrance covers here. Geometrical. Controlled. Clean and precise.

For all of Leon’s efforts to suit her small-statured pace, Zahra seemed to bounce along the straight pathway. She did seem to notice though. A small smirk quirked at the corner of her lips, eyes flitting from his shoulder and back towards sea of identical buildings. She did, however, seem to walk in a half-hazard fashion and allowed her hands to trail across pretty much everything they passed. Smooth canvas with intricate designs woven into the material covering the windows they passed. Everything appeared refined. Clear-cut, symmetrical. As if there was no room for error. She paused a few times, pressing her palms across the bricks. Thumbing the lip of a vase, holding an unusual bundle of plant-life. Unusual flowers. Even they appeared explicitly picked and arranged.

Everything had its place and everyone seemed to move as if driven by committed duties. Shortage of work seemed to be an impossibility in this settlement. No one lingered too long doing nothing and she hadn’t seen anyone lounging in the sun, even if there was a lot of that in these parts. It bared down on them without mercy. The wafting smell of freshly baked bread greeted them as they walked. And the sound of clattering hammers struck a rhythmic tune to their right. A steady thunking, never once missing its beat. She appeared somewhat confused by the things they passed. Almost as if the expectations in her head weren’t quite adding up. Zahra inhaled deeply and glanced again at her towering companion walking at her side, mouth lightly curling.

“I think this is the first time we’ve actually been together,” she broke the silence, “I’d think you were avoiding me, if I didn’t know you were a busy man always doing… busy stuff.” From the barely tempered expression on her face, it was evident that she was teasing him. Perhaps, trying to illicit a response. Or at least a smile. She inclined her head towards the artistic door-covering he’d been looking at and walked backwards, still facing him as she moved towards it.

Leon supposed she was right about that. Both Rilien and Marceline had more reason to make use of her ship than he did, and in what little free time he had, he just didn’t tread the same Skyhold pathways as she did. “Aside from when we were introduced, yes,” he agreed easily. The expression on her face indicated that the last part was meant to be a joke, or at least light-hearted as far as hypotheses went, so he didn’t take it too seriously.

Certainly, he elected not to say that the “busy stuff” felt like all that kept him sane, some days.

“But I hardly think I’m the only busy one,” he pointed out, watching with slight apprehension as she approached yet another one of the artworks. She seemed very fond of… touching things, apparently unconcerned about whether they belonged to her or not. Perhaps he should have guessed that a raider didn’t go in much for notions like private property. He wasn’t sure that was even always a bad thing.

“Surely you’re busy enough, running lyrium for Rilien, or ferrying the Inquisition to grand quests of religious revelation?” He said the last part very dryly, perhaps the only hint he’d yet given anyone as to what he thought of the whole thing. It was in his nature to be skeptical, however much it clashed with the way the Chantry appeared to those outside of it, or on the edges.

Zahra threw her head back in an easy laugh. What he said hadn’t been all that funny, especially if anyone had overhead them, but she appeared amused either way. She swung on her heels and nearly pressed her nose up to the tapestry as she brushed her fingers across the patterns, eyes reflecting the impeccable circles, the absolute spirals, and mirrored emblems. “There’s a difference between being busy and looking busy, I suppose. I’m especially good at the latter,” her smile was wistful as she straightened her shoulders, “Besides, any work aboard the Riptide is done in my absence. Nixium’s rather talented at bossing people around.”

She paused for a moment and glanced back at Leon, thick eyebrow raised. Hand still poised on the door. If anyone was watching them in the nearby yards, she certainly hadn’t noticed. “Oh. This? A favor. An excuse to sail. Maybe, more of a selfish personal call. Though Anais can be awfully irritating with all that stuff.” If the way she spoke about it was anything to by, she wasn’t all that concerned about it. It might not have been a stretch to assume that most raiders, and pirates, had far different inclinations towards religion. Perhaps, they only worshiped the sea. Zahra inclined her head in a curious fashion and wrinkled her nose, “Here I thought that most people in the Inquisition would cheer for grand quests like this. Y’know, Chantry hand-holding. But you don’t seem to care much. Haven’t seen you blubbering about it anyway.”

Leon shrugged. “I suppose many people who believe would see it like that, but my position has... changed the way I think about these things. Most people seldom, if ever, see the Chantry at its worst. I often do. Being as jaded as I am makes it difficult to be optimistic the way they can. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse." Which way his reservations would lead him this time was as yet undecided.

Zahra simply listened. Eyes peeling away from the tapestry she had pinched between her fingers. She appeared to be considering his words, or trying to read his expression. Whichever it was, she hadn’t interrupted him. From what little she’d said on the matter, she didn’t look particularly appalled by his confession… if it was at all one. There were stories there, to be sure, but she’d taken the hint well enough and allowed him to shift the conversation elsewhere. There were two Qunari women nearby shucking corn into a woven basket. Occasionally, their eyes rose from their work to observe the strangers in the next yard, though never for too long.

The topic was one he'd prefer not to linger with, presently, so he shifted the focus of discussion from himself to her. He was, if he could be permitted to think so, rather effective at that. “Forgive me if I'm off-base, but it seems as though you had expected something in particular of the settlement. Perhaps something you have not found?" He canted his head to one side. “It is not quite like I was thinking, either, I must admit."

The smile she wore slipped. She pressed her lips together and hummed a low tune, as if to conjure up an acceptable reason as to why her expectations hadn’t been met. At least one that might make sense. She let the fabric sift through her fingers and watched it flap back into place, symmetrical and deliberate. Inflexible and planned. She was silent for a moment before she raised her arms into a cat-like stretch, allowing her arms to fall back to her sides, “You’ve a good eye, Leon.” Zahra regarded him with another leveled stare, “I thought… it would be different. This place. The people. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I was expecting.”

There was a brief moment where her forehead scrunched up and she looked out across the yards. She pressed a hand to her mouth, and laughed against her palm. While she didn’t look particularly upset, she appeared embarrassed. It was difficult to conclude why, exactly. “I thought I’d find Aslan here. Not like that. I thought that I could imagine him here, working. Maybe carrying boars around. But I can’t picture it at all.” As if remembering herself, she glanced at Leon and shrugged her shoulders, burying her words behind another toothy grin, “He knew everything about me, and I didn’t know a thing about him.”

“I know someone like that," Leon offered, not really sure what to say. He half-smiled in a way that wasn't entirely happy, and shook his head. “So much so that I honestly can't even tell what side of this whole mess she's on. For... for what it's worth, I think you must have known one important thing about him. He was on your side. Whichever one that turned out to be."

That was the wonderful thing about a true friend, wasn't it? People spoke about family, how close that was, but family could also be deeply divided and still family. There was something about being a friend that didn't work quite the same way. But maybe he was overthinking it. That was a persistent shortcoming of his. He was far too in his own head, even when it was a miserable place to be.

“I'm sorry," he added softly. Pushing a sigh out through his nose, he glanced briefly down the road. “For your loss. I should have said so sooner."

There was a twitch of Zahra’s lips at Leon’s honesty. Whatever unshed tears might’ve swam there, certainly hadn’t fallen. A sharp intake of breath was quickly followed by the ruffling of hands against fabric, as if Zahra was sweeping off dust and dirt from her pants that wasn’t actually there. She straightened her shoulders, and sniffed. She appeared to be staring past the buildings, into the distance, though her eyes gradually found their way back to Leon’s. “Thank you.” It was barely audible, a whisper, but the sentiment was clear enough.

He’d said something that had reached her. In any case, it seemed to have an effect. She’d lost the tension in her shoulders, and her eyes seemed clearer. No longer seeking solace from what might’ve been an uncomfortable conversation she’d willingly dredged up. His response, however, appeared appreciated. She cleared her throat and tapped his elbow, inclining her head towards the road they’d been previously walking down in a let’s go fashion. A small smile tipped the corner’s of her lips, a small reminder that she was paying attention to his words, “You should ask her. Anything. Everything, maybe.”

She did not ask who he’d been talking about, but it was clear enough that she’d listen if he so chose to express himself. If her pace was anything to go by, she’d recovered rather quickly from her momentary bout of weakness, already walking in the direction they’d initially been trekking down. She waited for Leon to join at her side before continuing on. “It sounds like you’ve seen a lot. Other Qunari settlements? When we were speaking to Tammy, you looked like you understood what they were saying.” Clearly, she didn’t. At least not enough to know the gist of it. It was an open-ended question, though she appeared fixated on what he might say.

“Some," he agreed, inclining his head and retaking to the road alongside her. A bit of his earlier discomfort had faded; the words came more freely to him, now. Perhaps because this wasn't a topic he felt the need to be too circumspect about. “I'm much better at understanding Qunlat than speaking it, I must say. It's a difficult language."

He tipped his head back a little, glancing up at the cloudless sky over their heads. His chest and shoulders expanded with the volume of a large, steady breath. “Seekers often end up in strange places, tracking fugitives or looking for information. I'm sure it won't surprise you that the Chantry is very concerned about the Qunari. They themselves are notoriously difficult to interrogate, which means that most of what we know about them comes from those who are willing to part with the information. Usually, that is the Tal-Vashoth." Zahra nodded as he spoke, content to just listen. She hardly looked where she was walking. Fortunately, Qunari roads were composed of straight, linear lines, so there was no concern of bumbling into anything.

Leon half-smiled. “I am fortunate; my interactions with them have been mostly positive. I helped relocate a few dozen informants away from risk of discovery. They're in The Anderfels now. Learning bits of the language was a good way to pass the time as we rode. Though they speak much better trade tongue than I do Qunlat, now." The smile broadened a bit, though remained close-lipped. They were approaching their destination; it looked as though Rhys and Rashad were already done. They were speaking to a woman who was probably the butcher, from the apron and gloves she wore.

As they approached, it seemed that they were finishing up relaying the details of the hunt to the butcher from what Leon could glean from the conversation. Rashad was the first to notice their approach, and tapped Rhys on the shoulder. The elf turned first toward the Qunari and then toward the direction that he pointed. "Oh, they're the guests Asala brought," Rhys said to the butcher before waving toward them.

"Interesting guests," The butcher replied, mostly due to Leon's appearance, considering how she lingered on him. Eventually, she shook her head. "The Rethari will probably want to meet them," she said, nodding a greeting at them. Eventually, she shrugged and turned to to go back into the building. "Welcome them to Ash-Rethsaam for me, I have work to do. You two put me behind schedule."

Rhys frowned, but Rashad had to cover his mouth, though the hitches in his shoulders revealed the chuckling. Rhys rolled his eyes and hooked a thumb toward the departed butcher, "Qaal says hi."

“Seems she says a bit more than that," Leon replied, allowing himself a small smile. “But thank you. We've had the chance to walk around a little; it's a lovely town." It wasn't merely the diplomatic thing to say—he did genuinely find the aesthetic interesting, though perhaps a bit strict even for his military sensibilities. For the most part, Zahra remained quiet. Squinting her eyes at the departing butcher, as if she could decipher their words by listening hard enough. Besides, she appeared somewhat distracted by the various carcasses hanging by neat hooks, swinging in various states of preparation to be too put off by not understand what they were saying.

“Please don't let us keep you from anything; if there is somewhere else you need to be, we can entertain ourselves, I think." He'd been undeniably a little concerned about that before, but perhaps their conversation thus far had been enough to convince him that Zahra had much of interest to say... and was willing to share those thoughts with someone like himself.

Rhys shook his head "We just hit our quota, so we're free for the rest of the day," he said, sounding rather happy with himself. "Although..." Rhys added, looking upward to Rashad.

The larger Qunari shrugged in apparent agreement, "Qaal was right, you know. The Rethari will want to meet them.[i]"

"Right. Well, if you two would like, we could take you to the Rethari. He runs a tight ship, I'm sure he'd like to meet you all, though... Where's Asala and the other two?" Rhys asked.

“Asala was speaking with Tammy, when we left," Leon supplied. He trusted they could infer what that was about. “I believe Khari and Romulus were headed towards the center of town; she'd expressed some interest in the game the children were playing." He paused a moment, then shook his head. “It seems polite at least, to meet this Rethari. If you don't mind that it's only the two of us doing so."

"It'll be fine, as long as [i]someone
tells him what's going on,"
Rhys said with a laugh, "Come, it's back near the middle of the village. Heh, by the time you leave, you'll have this village memorized," he chuckled to himself.

“Well, you've made it fairly easy, being so organized." Leon fell in beside him, pausing to allow Zahra to do the same before they continued. He wasn't exactly worried about getting lost on what was essentially a grid, certainly.

“If I may ask, what exactly does the Rethari do here? It doesn't seem that you have much need for additional structure." If they kept schedules and quotas by themselves, and they weren't military, he supposed all that was left was to adjudicate disputes and the like.

"Hah, he is our structure," Rhys answered, "You don't think we keep our schedules and quotas on our own do you? The Rethari and his assistants plan out the needs of the village and then send out requests to see that they get done. Everyone does something to help the village as a whole. To do nothing is... frowned upon, but it will not get you sent to the Ben-Hassrath." Rashad shuddered at the word, leading Rhys to pat him on the arm. "Fun story, Qaal was Ben-Hassrath. Took about a year for us to trust her."

Zahra had fallen in step at Leon’s side, glancing behind him whenever Rhys spoke. Her gaze absently dragged back towards Rashad, though it appeared as if she thought better than to direct any questions his way. Her mouth formed a line, curious in nature. “What’s a Ben-Hassrath do, then?” She had no trouble rolling the word in her mouth, even if she didn’t quite know what it meant, or understand the implications of the position.

“They're not so different from Seekers, actually," Leon said, shaking his head a little. Before they'd learned the trade tongue word for what he was, the Tal-Vashoth he'd known had used the Qunlat one, and that was what they'd chosen. Some time had passed before they'd been able to put any finer a point on it. “They act almost like a military police, of sorts. Covert operations abroad, and... reeducation, in Qunari communities." He glanced at the other two for confirmation.

"You know, exactly the kind of people you'd want handling the village meat supplies," he confirmed with a wry grin. Zahra laughed at that, even if it wasn’t clear if she’d understood the jibe. Perhaps, she laughed for the sake of laughter, or not knowing what else to say. From the expression on her face, it was clear she wanted to ask more questions, though she’d chosen not to.

They had clearly reached their destination, however; the building looked a lot like the rest of them, but a small placard over the doorway read office in Qunlat. Asala's tendency to take everything literally was hardly surprising, all things considered.

Not usually one for treading carefully, Zahra still inclined her head and glanced back at Rhys, “Should we know anything before meeting this, uh… Rethari?” Her question was frank enough. It was clear that she didn’t want to step on any toes, or say anything that might come off as offensive. Both of which were unusual in her case. She turned her attention back towards the building and its placard, squinting.

Rhys thought about the question for a moment, before shooting her a mischievous smile. "He's big."

Rhys was the one to open the door for them, gesturing that they be the first to enter. Inside was a brightly lit room, with a large desk situated in the middle of the space. The desk held a number of papers and writing utensils, but all of it was neatly organized and apparently properly bookmarked, as a number of parcels held thin slivers of paper marking a specific point in them. However, no one currently sat at the desk, instead a trio of individuals stood at the far end of the building inspecting the wall in front of them. The wall held a board with a number of papers tacked onto it. The individuals, an elven woman, a younger Qunari man, and another, larger Qunari who eclipsed even Leon's height, were in the midst of speaking about repairs when they entered.

"Rethari? These are the guests that Asala brought home with her," Rhys said, slipping in behind them. The larger Qunari, no doubt the Rethari turned toward them and nodded. The other two also nodded and waved warmly before returning to speak amongst themselves about the repairs.

"I had heard that Beres-taar had returned with friends," he began, his voice a deep baritone, but holding elements of warmth within his words. He was a large, powerful man, with stark white hair pulled neatly behind long, twisting horns. The wrinkles in his cheeks belied his eyes, though his eyes remained a crystal blue, and a goatee helped to make him seem younger. He would not have been out of place as a soldier in a previous life. "Welcome, I hope that Ash-Rethsaam has treated you well since your arrival," he said. "I am Rethari and these," he gestured to the pair behind him, "Are my assistants."

Leon considered leaving off his titles in the return introduction, but to do so in a formal situation like this felt like a sort of dishonesty, and he didn't want to end up offending because of it. So he inclined his head respectfully. Shanedan, Rethari. I am High Seeker Leonhardt Albrecht, Commander of the Inquisition. This is Captain Zahra Tavish, of The Riptide." He gestured to her with a hand. “It is an honor to meet you, and to be welcomed to Ash-Rethsaam."

Zahra’s eyes had widened considerably as soon as she’d spotted the aforementioned Rethari. Big might’ve been an understatement. There was a brief moment where she hesitated in the doorway. A wry smile tugged at the corner’s of her lips, as her gaze slipped back towards Leon. She mouthed something about duties being decided by height—though the mutter was one of awe, and probably a rhetorical slip of the tongue. Finally stepping through the threshold, she stood in front of the desk. Looking a little like she’d been pulled in for a tongue-lashing. She pushed her hair out of her face, and inclined her head too, with a softer than usual, “Pleasure to meet you all.”

"Maraas shokra," The Rethari said in response, slipping into a formal bow himself. His two assistants, however, seemed rather surprised at the sudden formality and seemed confused as to what the should do. In the end however, they simply mimicked the Rethari

She glanced back over at Leon and back to Rethari. Clearly waiting for some sort of continuation to their introduction. It was obvious that formal situations put her off. One of her hands settled on her hip. Something she seemed to often do to anchor herself. She cleared her throat and added with a gesture of her hand, “I suppose you’d like to know why we’re here.”

"I would," he said, nodding. However, there was no suspicion or malice in his body language, and the smile he wore was genuine, "Out of curiosity, if nothing else. I understand that you arrived with Asala, and she would not bring anyone she did not trust home. That alone speaks volumes."

Leon elected to give him the short version of events. In part, that was for the sake of brevity and the Rethari's time. But the reason they were here was also quite personal to Asala, and he didn't feel that it would be right to spell everything out in its entirety.

“We will depart as soon as Asala believes herself ready to do so. Until that time, I'm afraid we must impose upon your hospitality."

The Rethari frowned with the news. "It is unfortunate that is what brings her home, though we are nonetheless happy to see her again," He said, managing to smile once again. He then waved him off, "Nonsense, if you are friends of Asala, then you are friends of Ash-Rethsaam. However..." The Rethari said, turning to toward his assistants as he spoke. The two of them exchanged glances before turning back to the Rethari and nodded. "We would ask that you do what you can to help the village in your time here."

Rhys chuckled to himself beside Zahra before shooting her a glance, "Everyone does something to help, remember?" he echoed from earlier.

"In the meantime, we have temporary lodgings for you to make use of," the Rethari revealed, "Rhys, if you could show them?"

The elf nodded, "Of course, whenever you're ready," he told them.

“Our thanks," Leon replied.

He could use some work to do, anyway.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

It had been two days since they arrived to Ash-Rethsaam. Asala knew the importance of time, but she couldn't help but selfishly wish she could spend more time home. She'd spent the last few days meeting and catching up with everyone she had left those few years ago, as well as preparing for this moment. Despite being gone for so long, it felt as if she could easily just slip back into routine. The day before she had attended to a few sick individuals and one man who had sprained his wrist while fishing. Everyone helped in Ash-Rethsaam and she was no different. It felt nice, to be able to fall back into a routine so easily, almost as if she had never left. But she had, and though she had left with Meraad, she had returned without him.

A number of Qunari were gathered on the nearby shore, each wearing a solemn look on their face. It was a celebration, yes, but this particular one was bittersweet. Tammy stood beside her and the children who remembered Meraad gathered around them. Others had come as well, and among the faces she could count Rhys, Rashad, and even the Rethari. A number of them had spent the day gathering the drift wood that washed up on shore and collected in a pile, creating a makeshift sort of pyre. It had been her idea, after all, and the others were more than happy to help remember a fallen friend.

It was nearing sunset, the coastal sky lighting up with ambers and crimsons, with only the sound of the waves rolling onto the beach to fill the air. This was her last day home, as they'd planned to set out early next morning. Asala had explained to Tammy why they had to leave so quickly, repeating the story of their recent venture into Llomerryn, and what they had found out. While it was perhaps not her story to tell, Tammy was kadan and the closest thing she had to a mother. There would be no secrets between them.

A gentle hand rested on her shoulder and she turned to see Tammy nod. Together, they strode forward toward the pyre. The knelt where they had piled most of the kindling and Tammy placed a hand on top of her own. With a little flash of magic, the kindling began to burn, and not long after it began to spread to the rest of the wood. With the pyre lit, they returned and began to watch it burn.

Melava inan enansal, ir su araval tu elvaral u na emma abelas. In elgar sa vir mana, in tu setheneran din emma na." Khari pushed out what was almost a sigh, glancing up at Asala from where she stood near her elbow and offering a sympathetic half-smile. Reaching up, she laid a hand on Asala's shoulder blade for a moment, then dropped it again.

“The Dalish plant trees, but I think this suits him better than something like that." Her eyes seemed to soften. “I'm sorry, Asala." Having said her condolences, she dipped her head briefly to Tammy and slipped away.

Some distance away, Leon and Romulus stood with Rhys and Rashad. It looked like they were talking about something, though their voices were respectfully quiet, so she couldn't pick out the exact topic, only that it was complex enough that they were mixing languages to understand each other. Or rather, Leon spoke with them while Romulus listened and watched over the burning pyre ahead of them.

Flickering firelight cast shadows across Zahra’s face as she looked on at the pyre they’d all built together. She’d found herself a little spot away from the others, plopped down on the sand. Her forearms were draped across her knees, tucked close to her chest. There was an unreadable expression on her face, framed as it was with thick curls she hadn’t bothered pushing out of her face. She held a smaller stick in her hands, and absently turned it over in her fingers. Since meeting the others on the beach, she hadn’t said much of anything. She swung her gaze towards Asala and Tammy. Scanned the other faces, and sighed softly through her nose, before finally rocking back to her feet and scuffing off the sand from her pants.

She’d made her own after all. For Aslan. As soon as Asala explained the preparations she would need to make, and what she, too, planned to do, she’d scurried off to the beach on her own and collected drift wood. It was much smaller. She wasn’t as strong as the Qunari there, so lugging large pieces was out of the question. She’d done a well enough job. It looked relatively the same shape. On a smaller scale. Resting at least ten feet away from Meraad’s crackling pyre. From the looks of it, she’d butchered her hands dragging the things together. Small cuts, and red splotches painted her upturned palms. In passing Zahra patted Asala’s forearm, and lingered a moment before parting ways and standing alongside the second pyre.

“Nada rápido, Big Man. Te amo,” whether anyone had heard it, it’d been the first time she’d actually spoken Rivaini around the others. The words slipped effortlessly from her lips, a statement of sorts. Or a farewell. Whisper as it was. Zahra rested a hand across the smooth side of a slab of wood she’d found and settled the small stick across it.

Asala turned her attention back to Meraad's pyre, staring deep into the glowing embers. For a moment, she was lost to the world as she looked into the fire, only minutely aware of Tammy's presence next to her. He'd probably find all of this funny, Meraad would. He never was one to stand on ceremony, instead always wanting to be doing something. Reflection did not suit him either, not that he was not thoughtful. He always had others in his mind. He'd asked Asala to leave the village and go see world with him, and she had suspicions that if she had said no, that he would've remained as well. But... She couldn't have said no to him. Her glance slowly slipped toward Leon and Rom, and she couldn't help but wonder if it was worth it.

Of course it was she could imagine him saying. He found his adventure and saw the world outside of their tiny village. He seemed so content while they traveled and while they remained in Haven, to be doing something, and though neither of them truly knew how important, they knew that it was important regardless. She sighed through her nose and gazed back into the flames. While he was not the reflective type, she was, and he'd understand their little ceremony.

Something other than the flame finally caught her attention then. The children walked forward past her and the pyre, each carrying something in their hands. She couldn't make out what it was they held until they reached the water. When the water reached their ankles, they bent over and placed a boat made from palm leaves. The waves threatened to push the fleet of ships back into the coast, but the tide drew them deeper into the ocean.

A little hand tugged at her wrist, and she looked down to see a little Qunari child hold a boat out for her to take. "Meravas," she told the child as she took the boat in hand. She then leaned over and kissed her forehead. She stood and looked toward the ocean, before Zahra's flame caught her eye. She hesitated for a moment, wondering if she should say something or just allow her to mourn in her own way. She sighed. No. She was not the only one who had lost family, they shared in that. She crossed the distance between them and gently leaned over and put a hand on Zahra's shoulder. She then held the leaf boat out in a palm.

"Let us see them off... Together."

Zahra seemed startled by the touch. Though she recovered quickly when she turned to look over her shoulder. Her expression softened and the tension from her shoulders seemed to melt away. Her smile was genuine, if not a little somber. Through the crackling of flames, and the smell of burning wood, she appeared far more at peace then she’d been as of recent. A weight had been lifted. She inhaled through her nose, before accepting the leaf boat in her palms. She held it close to her chest for a moment. Gently. Pursing her lips, Zahra nodded with a resoluteness that spoke volumes, “Together.”

"Come." Asala said quietly, offering a hand for her to take. With it, she led her toward sea's rolling waves. She led them until the water reached their calves, at which point she turned, with a bittersweet smile still on her lips. She knelt close to the water and beckoned for Zahra to do the same so that they may set the little leaf boat off on its journey.

Even when Asala led them down into the waters, wading past the gentle lull of the shoreline, Zahra kept hold of her hand. The sight might’ve been strange, seeing how much smaller she was in comparison… but the act in itself seemed to anchor her in place. The water reached her knees, though she didn’t seem bothered as she knelt alongside the Qunari woman. She took a deep breath through her nose, and settled the small leaf-boat in the water, floating in the nook of her palm. For someone so meek, Asala appeared larger in essence then the rowdy captain at her side. She swung her gaze sideways, seeking guidance. Direction for letting go.

"Do you know what Meraad's name meant?" Asala asked. She watched as the boat bobbled in her hand as the tide jostled it. "He... chose it himself. Meraad Kaaras. We were children then, but... It had always fit him." As she spoke, she could feel the burning behind her eyes once more. She had long thought she had cried all she could for his loss but... Maybe it wasn't her loss she felt so keenly now.

"Navigator of the tides. No matter where life took him, he always seemed like he knew where he was going," she said, feeling the tears gently roll down her cheeks. That's what she had always thought, that he just knew where he was going. Maybe he always did.

“I wish I’d known him too,” Zahra squeezed her hand and finally released it, drawing up a wet thumb across Asala’s cheek. She dropped her hand back into the water and dug it into the sand. Turning over a small shell she’d found it the muck. There was a wistful look on her face, a pull to her lips. She’d tied up her wild hair, so there was nothing to hide behind. Her gaze was trained on the shell pinched between her fingers, before dragged her gaze away and faced Asala once more.

“Seeing how you all live here, like a real family… I’d like to think Aslan grew up in the same kind of place,” her chin quivered for a moment before her mouth settled into a smile. She cupped the palm leaf in front of her and inclined her head. There was a short pause, as if she was readying herself for something. She stared off into the distance, across the ripple of seemingly endless sea. “Meraad Kaaras. Navigator of tides. He was never alone.” She nodded her head, “He’ll be leading the way.”

Asala was quiet for a moment afterward, her own gaze pointed toward the setting sun. The ambers in the sky were beginning to darken as the dusk began to encroach. She wasn't sure if the others remained on the shore waiting for them, or if they had left. For the moment, it did not matter, only Zahra and her, and their memories. She then turned toward Zahra and offered her a tiny smile.

She cupped Zahra's hands with her own and took one last look out over the rolling waves. "Meraad astaarit, meraad itwasit. Rethadim kadan parshaara..." she said mournfully, not only for herself, but for Zahra as well. With that, she gently pulled her hands away from the little boat with Zahra's, letting it flutter in the water freely before the tide took hold. "... Panahedan," she said, barely above a whisper. "Goodbye."

Zahra stared after the two leaf-boats and finally drew herself up, clutching Asala’s hand so that she, too, could stand. She whispered something softly under her breath. Her own goodbye, it seemed. The sea still licked at their clothes, as the tide drew the boats farther and farther away until they looked like small, bobbing silhouettes. She gave Asala’s hand a small tug and led them towards the shoreline, where their friends waited. Only then did she release her grip.

When the two of them left the water, they found Leon, Rhys, and Rashad waiting a respectful distance away. Upon eye contact, Leon nodded slightly, making a small gesture to beckon them over. “Your friends have something to tell you, Asala." He shifted his eyes to the two of them.

"Well. Rashad and I have been talking about it with the Rethari and..." The elf began, before turning to look at his much larger companion. The Qunari nodded and placed a solid hand on Rhys's shoulder. "It's not much, but we decided that we weren't going to let you go back alone," he said with a toothy smile. "We'll be going back to the Inquisition with you. We've arranged to have our wages sent back to the village, along with any letters you may have." Zahra had already slipped in beside Rhys. She slapped him across the shoulder blade, smile blooming into a mischievous grin. It appeared as if her steps were lighter, even if her eyes were puffy. She turned back towards Asala and arched an eyebrow.

Asala smiled and nodded, before uttering a small, "Thank you." Her mind was occupied elsewhere before a gentle hand fell on her shoulders, comforting her. "You did fine," Tammy said quietly. Her own cheeks were damp as well, and her eyes were red. "He would have liked anything you would have done," she added, drawing her in close for a hug.

"Come, you all have an early morning tomorrow," Tammy beckoned, but before they all departed, Asala threw one long glance back toward the sea as the leaf boats slipped from view and into the fading horizon.

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

Their next journey at sea was mercifully far shorter than the first. Unfortunately the weather seemed to be trying to make up for the lack of distance, and the waters were choppy and rough, causing the Riptide to sway up and down with the waves. The winds were up and the rain came down steadily. No downpour, but enough to dampen all who showed their faces above deck with a constant spray. Rom had placed himself firmly at the bow of the ship for the past few hours, Anais refusing to leave his side. She always seemed to have something she needed to say to him.

The rough weather no doubt kept Zee on deck, near the helm with Nixium the navigator. Leon was there too, though he kept out of the way of the wheel itself. Whatever they were saying wasn't loud enough to make out over everything else, but none of them appeared that concerned with the state of the waters.

Their road had taken them north and just into the Orlesian border, where they boarded their ships at Jader and headed east for a nearby island. This time the Riptide was accompanied by the larger warship belonging to the Herald's father, the Northern Sword. Borja had made some scant attempts at small talk with his son on the one-day journey, but the man seemed always to be more awkward and uncomfortable when speaking of anything personal, and with all of the Herald's Disciples around, they never had a moment to themselves. Now they were a ship apart, with Rom choosing to remain with the other prominent members of the Inquisition, and Borja choosing to captain his own ship.

The Riptide was far more crowded than it had been before, with a large contingent of zealots under the command of Anais crammed aboard to witness the historic event. They were practically bubbling with excitement. Anais's own enthusiasm was tempered compared with the night before, but perhaps that was just because she was in the presence of her followers. Air of authority to maintain, and all that.

Khari had never had authority over anyone but herself. With no appearances to maintain, she had one less worry about planting herself at the ship's rail, crossing her legs around it and leaning her forehead against the smoothly-worn wood. The choppiness of the ocean had only made her stomach churn along with it, and staying below had been no help at all. At least the air was fresh out here.

So Khari concentrated on taking deep, slow breaths, not too bothered one way or another about the rain. Turning her head, she rested her cheek against the rail and distracted herself by counting the number of ropes in the rigging.

"Few know of this place," Anais said, mostly to Rom, though no small number of disciples stood about close by, to listen in. "A place of quiet reflection and worship for Andraste, after her release from slavery at the hands of Tevinter. The journal states quite clearly that the ritual must be done here. I suspect this place to be where the Maker first spoke to her." Rom did not react visibly to most of what she said. The disciples seemed to regard the pair with the utmost reverence, as though they were concerned that the breaths they took might disturb them if they exhaled too loudly.

"And there's a temple here?" Rom asked. Anais looked out into the mists ahead of them.

"The remains of one, yes. My scouts found ruins, and dated them back beyond the Second Blight by our best estimates. It was likely destroyed then, but the power of the place should remain intact. The Maker will recognize you, Your Worship, and make it known. So long as you are willing to recognize yourself." Rom did not respond, and the Riptide moved forward into a cloud of fog. The daylight was fading now, making their way forward somewhat treacherous, and they slowed to be safer.

With the retreat of the sunlight and the constant rain, it was also getting cold. Even if they weren't in the mountains anymore, winter in this part of the world could be pretty brutal. Khari tugged her cloak a little tighter around her shoulders, wrapping her arms around her middle and hugging herself. The steady flow of her breath, chill enough to sting the lungs on the deep inhalations, produced little clouds when she pushed the air back out again.

She was glad she wasn't superstitious. All the fog and the cold and the uncomfortable feeling in her guts could have been foreboding if she were. Fortunately, it was just fog and cold and seasickness. Well... she was pretty sure that was all, anyway.

Quiet footsteps heralded an approach; a moment later, a slight weight settled over Khari's shoulders. A blanket, it seemed, pulled from down below deck. Stel settled next to her, mimicking Khari's posture on the next rail over, and offered a slight smile. “I know you said it's better for your stomach up here, but I thought you might be cold."

Khari blinked stupidly for a second. Huffing a staccato breath, she returned the smile, shrugging the blanket up further around her shoulders. “You're a lifesaver, Stel. Thanks." Shuffling around a little bit, she scooted the blanket around so that all of the excess was on the left side where Stel was, then held it out towards her. “You want some?" Truthfully, she could use the company. Misery loved it, or something.

Stel contemplated that for about a second before she accepted, scooting slightly closer so that their shoulders and hips were firmly in contact. “This isn't bad at all," she remarked. “The cold, I mean. Are you still feeling sick?"

Khari's pride said no, but her guts could only contribute an emphatic yes. She groaned slightly by way of reply and leaned her head forward against the rail again. “I can sit a horse all damn day, but a few hours on a boat and I'm a useless puddle." It was actually pretty humiliating, but she supposed the upside was that she was too busy feeling ill to really wallow in the embarrassment.

Seeking to distract herself, she asked the first question that came to mind. “Are you religious, Stel? What's your take on all this?" Maybe that was a bit too complicated a question for simple distraction. Hopefully she'd actually be able to follow the answer.

One of Stel's arms shifted until it was between Khari's back and the blanket, and she smoothed her hand up and down a few times, a clear attempt to mitigate the discomfort. “Well..." she murmured, shifting slightly and throwing an unreadable look towards the prow of the ship. “I'm honestly not really sure. I used to be religious; I was raised in the Chantry, after all. I thought my whole life would be there. And it's a matter of historical record that Andraste existed and had children, so none of it's impossible."

She sighed. “I'd have protested if I thought it too unlikely that Romulus was indeed part of that family, considering the consequences of being wrong. I'm still... worried, but that's just in my nature, I suppose."

“'S'not in my nature. But I'm still kind of worried." Khari pressed her brow harder into the rail, closing her eyes. She hadn't really planned on admitting that, but there it was. Still, it wasn't like Stel was going to go around repeating that to people. She had way too much integrity for that kind of petty thing. “...mostly about what comes after this." The big fire with the magic and stuff was... well, she didn't really know what to think about that except to hope it worked. But all appearances to the contrary, Khari wasn't stupid. She could guess how the news would go over with the rest of the world. And it wasn't always pretty.

“Yeah, I know what you mean." Stel said nothing further. Maybe she didn't have any better answer for that concern than Khari did. Maybe their answers were the same: maybe just being here was answer enough.

"How did this place remain hidden so long, if it's this significant?" Rom asked Anais, narrowing his eyes and trying to search through the mist for their destination. Behind them, the Northern Sword kept close, just remaining in sight in the reduced visibility.

"It would hardly be the first time something significant to Andraste has vanished for ages," Anais replied. "And unlike certain valuable artifacts, few had cause to search for this place, or knew it existed to begin with. It has no name, nor representation on any maps. On top of that, these mists are a common sight here, and the Frostbacks south of us conceal the island from those inland." She paused, leaning forward slightly. She then quietly gasped, and pointed ahead. "And here we are. The Prophet's Refuge."

It emerged slowly ahead of them, and the two ships were brought to a halt near the shore, at a safe distance to drop anchors. It was a very small island indeed, with a shore that was rocky instead of sandy, with any real vegetation having died off from the winter's cold. There wasn't much of the temple left to find, just the remains of a stone pillar here, the crumbling base of a wall there. It plainly wasn't some simple house, though, judging by the stonework. It had taken many years and probably darkspawn, as Anais suggested, to tear it to the ground.

One thing that did remain intact was a flat and square stone slab in what looked to be the center of the temple. If any statue or artifact had been placed upon it at some point was unclear, but now there was an impressive pyre. A contingent of the Herald's Disciples had traveled ahead of the rest, it seemed, and these had prepared a tall group of wooden pillars, with a single post at its center with footing for Rom to stand upon and presumably burn. The waiting disciples stood in a neat line with their hoods drawn against the rain.

The large shore party loaded into several boats and rowed to shore, with the lead boat carrying the Herald, the Speaker, Khari, Zee, Stel, Leon, and Marceline, who had chosen to observe the event along with the others. When all were ashore, Rom waited somewhat impatiently for instruction from Anais. The redheaded woman drew back her hood and smiled, her expression betraying a bit of nerves despite her obvious excitement.

"We can begin when you are ready, Your Worship. I will prepare the ritual. In the meantime, if you would like to say anything to your companions... I am confident this is not the end, but of course there are dangers involved." She turned to begin her work, and then abruptly stopped. "Oh, and you will want to remove any clothes that you wish to keep."

A single laugh, quiet and uneasy, escaped Rom, and he watched Anais stroll over to the pyre to begin her work. Judging by her concentration as she circled the assembled wood, it was not a simple task, but subtle and complex magic. Rom turned to those that had come along for the ride, but was obviously unsure what to say.

Marceline, wrapped in a thick black cloak, had her arms crossed and glanced at the rest of those assembled. "Tis a poor moment to be at a loss for words," she chided gently before shrugging.

“Sometimes, there aren't any," Leon said, moving his eyes to Rom and nodding solemnly. “Best of luck to you."

“We believe in you," Stel added warmly. Even Marceline nodded in agreement.

Zahra’s expression tempered itself between a grin and a soft smile. She didn’t appear all that concerned of what the outcome might be, but it might’ve been a result of the adamant, sea-roving approach she had to nearly everything: including her companions. She sniffed against her knuckles as she strode up to Rom and paused for a moment before clapping both hands on his shoulders, wild eyes alight.

Her breath still puffed out in white plumes, rising between them. She’d donned a wolf-headed jacket over her shoulders, probably scrapped up from the Riptide’s hold. “Drinks on me after this is all done,” she offered a wayward wink and released his shoulders, stepping back to allow the others to reach him as well, “That’s a promise.”

Khari's own confidence warred with her concern, and as usually seemed to happen to her when she couldn't quite sort out her feelings about something, she reacted physically. In this case, she took a couple steps forward and bear-hugged Rom, squeezing tightly.

“You're gonna be fine." She wasn't entirely sure which of the two of them she was trying to convince, but it probably didn't matter. “A little fire's got nothing on you. So don't go making me a liar."

He smiled and hugged her back, momentarily burying his face in her mass of red hair. As Leon had said, there weren't any words, at least not for her specifically. But certainly something was said with how strongly he embraced her. When he finally broke free of the hug, he looked to be a little choked up, but managed to maintain his composure.

"Thank you," he said, nodding. "All of you." His eyes wandered to the water. All of the boats from the Riptide had come in and were beached on the shore. None had come from the Northern Sword. In the distance, the outline of the bulky Captain Borja could be seen at the bow of his ship, seemingly content to watch his son from afar. Rom's expression was hard to read, but any pain or confusion there was quickly pushed beneath the surface.

He removed his cloak and boots, handing both to a disciple that was perhaps overly eager to receive them. Without looking back, he made his way to the pyre. Anais met him at the base of it, having finished her work. The base of the pyre seemed to be glowing, a barely perceptible white that may not have been noticeable at all if not for the relative darkness around them. The rain was lightening somewhat, but judging by the clouds on the horizon, it was only a pause in the storm, and not the end of it.

Anais pulled a small vial from a pouch on her belt, containing a pale golden liquid. "The last piece, Your Worship, prepared exactly as the journal specified. Have faith, and the Maker will protect you. His Bride will protect you." She handed the vial to him. Rom studied it momentarily, before he pulled the cork and downed it. He seemed to have a lack of reaction to it, not even a shudder at any foul taste. He dropped it once it was done. Anais placed a hand on his arm. "Now, let us begin."

Khari found it difficult to stand still, shuffling her feet slightly in place and drumming her fingers against her thigh, but she didn't get much closer to the pyre. It was like an invisible line had been drawn in the ground, whether for the sake of reverence or just more mundane safety. She didn't cross it, toeing the edge instead. She was good at not thinking about all the ways something risky could go wrong. It was a talent she chose to employ now. Zahra idled just close enough to her side to let her know that she was there. Arms folded neatly over her chest. While her expression has dampened a bit, and the grin had lost its humor, she appeared fairly composed.

One of the disciples aided his ascent onto the platform of the pyre, climbing up after him with a length of rope, which he used to bind Rom's hands around the central pole. The Herald's eyes remained down, almost purposely not seeking out anyone in particular, while the other disciples put some distance between themselves and the pyre, ending up near the assembled group from the Inquisition. Once Rom was properly secured to the pyre, the last disciple scampered away from the site, leaving only Anais behind. She tilted her head back towards the sky.

"The first son in the line of daughters has stepped forward to claim his mantle!" she called, to the Maker or to no one in particular. "He offers up his life as a show of faith in you! Receive him and protect him, Maker!"

With that, she called fire to her hands, and thrust the magic down at the base of the pyre. The white glow brightened and then immediately turned an intense orange as the natural fire seemed to consume it. Anais quickly retreated away from the pyre and came to join the others at a safe distance, a half smile of wonder etched on her face. "I would advise not approaching the pyre until it is done, for your own safety," she warned them.

The fire lingered at the base momentarily while the wood caught it, and for a moment it was only smoke that rose and surrounded Rom. The moment did not last long, though, and soon enough the blaze rose in height, and then with an unnatural speed it reached higher. The tongues of flame licked at his feet and legs, setting his clothes alight, and for a brief moment there was a look of confusion and alarm on Rom's face. Then the fire grew until it was monstrous in size, and the flames swallowed him entirely such that he could no longer even be seen by those witnessing. But he did not cry out in pain. Not a sound came from the blaze save for the roaring of the fire itself.

Khari pulled in a breath and held it. No sound was good, right? She doubted there were many people if any who'd be able to not make a peep if they were actually burning alive. Except the story said Andraste had done that, right? Shit. She crossed her arms in a self-conscious attempt to stop her own fidgeting, grinding the teeth in the back of her mouth and staring into the fire. Beside her, Stel pulled in a deep breath and seemed to hold it. A slender hand came to rest upon Khari's shoulder, though Marceline said nothing of it and only kept her eyes forward on the pyre. Zahra’s arms had dropped to her sides, and she appeared to be leaning slightly forward. Hands bunched into fists, eyes searching through the smog of black smoke licking through the air above and around the pyre. She did not move, though it looked as if she wanted to.

Still the fire grew more and more fierce, the heat of it blasting even those that stood as far away from it as they could, perhaps even reaching those that remained behind on the ships. It swirled in the wind, and even the mist shrouding the island seemed to be giving way, forced back and clearing the air, unable to withstand the intensity. When it finally stopped growing, it held and spun and roared for thirty seconds, a minute, more... any man inside without some kind of protection would have been burnt to their blackened bones by now.

Suddenly, a wave of energy radiated outwards from the pyre, akin to a strong gust of wind, continuing outwards until it had passed beyond the shores of the tiny island and over the pair of ships watching. From the ground up the fire was extinguished, the flames swirling up into the sky above where they eventually vanished. With the sound of the blaze gone, only the continuous pattering of the rain remained.

Romulus remained on the pyre, blackened with ash and soot and entirely naked, but seemingly alive and unhurt. His head lolled forward, but he looked to be barely hanging on to consciousness. The rope restraining his hands had burned away, and soon he toppled over forward towards the ground. The entire pyre collapsed with him in a crash of charred wood, into the rocky surface below. Anais, her face awash with delight, rushed forward with his cloak in hand.

“Dammit." Unable to keep her spot with her best friend on the ground like that, Khari ran forward, too. The Maker better have remembered to insulate against smoke inhalation, because that could knock a person just as dead. Anais had the cloak thing handled, so Khari busied herself pushing aside ash and debris from the pyre, clearing the area a little in hopes of making it a bit easier to breathe.

The rain began to come down harder now, sizzling as it hit the wood pieces and even against Rom's skin. Behind the Speaker and Khari others quickly moved to help as well, some at the orders of Marceline, whether she had command of them or not. Anais was quick to throw the cloak over the Herald's naked body, and together with Leon they were able to pull Rom free from the smoking remains of the pyre. Under the ash his skin was reddened and extremely warm to the touch, but he appeared to be cooling quickly, and there were no visible burns or signs of damage on him. Once he was clear of the smoke he was set down to rest upon his knees. He was still conscious and trying to stay upright, but needed support on either side. For a moment, he seemed delirious.

"Your Worship," Anais said, holding tightly onto his arm. "You've done it. The Maker has safeguarded you. You have proven your status, Blood of Andraste." The disciples around them heard the declaration, many falling to their knees and lowering their heads to the ground. A few openly shed tears. Romulus blinked rapidly, struggling to focus. With a hand he seemed to shove at Anais. She grabbed the hand and squeezed. "It's over, Your Worship. It's over."

"No," he managed, the word barely escaping him. "No." His eyes sought those around him, and found Leon. His other hand latched onto Leon's collar, and he tried to maintain eye contact with him. "Stop her. Stop... no. False... no..." Anais frowned, reaching to place a hand on the side of Rom's face, trying to get him to look at her.

"Your Worship? It's alright, you're safe now, the ritual is complete. You passed the trial, your faith has been rewarded!"

Leon's expression hardened slightly; his eyes narrowed a bit and his lips thinned. “Everyone step away for a moment, please." Though it was phrased politely, it was hard to mistake the fact that it was the High Seeker speaking, and not Leon. He was more than capable of supporting Rom on his own, and he moved to do so, putting a hand on either of his shoulders.

He ducked his head to keep eye contact, speaking quietly, deliberately and clearly—probably in hopes that Rom would be able to understand the words. “Stop whom?"

"He's just been through a great ordeal, High Seeker," Anais said, remaining firmly at Rom's side. "This is hardly the time for questioning him. He needs rest."

Khari frowned. “Whatever he's talking about, it's important enough to him that he's trying to say it now, so we should hear it now." She crossed her arms and took a single step closer. “Surely whatever the Blood of Andraste has to say is important enough to listen to?"

Reluctantly, the Speaker took a single step back away from Rom, who tugged the cloak tighter around his shoulders. He took several deep breaths, each one seeming to bring his strength back bit by bit. Anais's frown grew. Finally, Rom looked at Leon again.

"Anais," he said, as clearly as he could. "The vial... the ritual. Never... any danger." Suddenly he looked as though he was quite sick, and lurched forward, heaving and coughing in a fit that racked his body. He shuddered when it was through, and began shivering from the cold. Anais began to look offended.

"He's not in his right mind, High Seeker. Of course there was never any danger, the Maker protected him! He was chosen by a power greater than any of you to lead us!"

“Then surely you will not mind sharing the journal and the recipe for that concoction with our alchemist when we return to Skyhold," Leon replied evenly. A look of trepidation crossed his face, and he shook his head a little. “Estella? Is there anything you can do for him before we head back?" He must have been talking about healing magic.

“Perhaps," she replied softly. “But I do think it would be best to get him somewhere warm and comfortable first."

Khari shrugged out of her own cloak and added it to Rom's for warmth. “No reason to stay here in any case, is there?"

Suddenly Rom shoved himself up to his feet, with a groan of effort. He nearly fell again, but managed to remain upright and facing Anais. If anything the bout of sickness seemed to have purged him of some of the ill effects, and he was looking significantly more focused now. Anais's eyes widened, and she even took a step back in surprise.

"Your Worship, how... how can you even stand?"

"I could've..." he wiped at his mouth, eyes locked on the Speaker. "I could've made that potion myself. Couldn't... cast the spell, but I know there was nothing divine in that fire, nor in that vial. You build up a... tolerance, with enough use." Her mouth hung open, struggling for a moment to find something to say, but she still seemed stunned to see Rom coherent, let alone on his feet.

"I prepared the ritual exactly as the journal specified, Your Worship. As your ancestors wished, for one of their own to claim their rightful mantle as Blood of Andraste."

"The journal..." he practically scoffed at the mention of it. "The journal you translated. I'm such a fool..." He staggered a step closer to her, and this time she remained firmly rooted to the spot. The disciples around them seemed confused, alarmed, some even distraught at the argument. "What am I, Anais? What am I really?"

"Your Worship—"

"Don't call me that. What am I?"

She seemed threatened, half recoiling away from Rom, though she kept her eyes firmly rooted to his, and spoke slowly and deliberately. "You are the Blood of Andraste, Romulus. You have been given a great opportunity here, to seize the power that your birthright grants you. You must take it."

He held her gaze for a long, uncomfortable moment. "Must I? No. I'm done listening to you. You brought my father to me, and for that I'm thankful, but I won't pretend that any of this was real." He turned to the others. "There's no one holy here. Only frauds."

Marceline strode forward, rubbing her eyes with her fingers. "Ser Leonhardt," she began before opening her eyes, "If you would kindly keep an eye on Anais on the way back to Skyhold, I would very much appreciate it." Shaking her head, she looked up and took a protective step next to Romulus. "And if you would, send a runner to inform Borja as well?" With that, Marceline gently encouraged Romulus that it was time to leave.

"Come... We have a long day of traveling ahead of us."

Leon nodded, pointing to one of the few Inquisition soldiers on the shore. “Run that message for me, Legrand. Everyone else, get back to the boats."

Boom. A powerful blast echoed in the distance, from the ships. Rom immediately turned towards the sound, to see a heavy projectile whistling away from the Northern Sword amidst a cloud of smoke. It smashed into the side of the Riptide, punching straight through and sending a spray of wood splinters into the air. By the looks of it, the shot had been aimed for the ship's main mast, but it remained upright, only slightly damaged, having avoided the worst of it. Shouting erupted from the two ships, and the Northern Sword began to turn, having already hauled up her anchor.

"No!" Anais cried, distraught. "You idiot!" Some of the disciples searched for cover, though there seemed to be no threat to the shore party. Borja's ship was turning to flee, the winds catching her sails and taking her east, towards the storm. The captain could be seen at the helm, not looking back.

Rom stared in utter confusion at the attack, the hurt written plainly across his face. He did not seem to understand what Anais was furious about. But after a few more seconds of disbelief, he seemed to have his mind made up.

"We need to catch him." He looked around at all of his companions, searching for support. "I need to catch him."

“Then let's go!" Khari didn't see any point in arguing about it. Even Marceline should be okay with chasing down someone who'd just fired on the Inquisition's borrowed boat. She was mostly just pissed at Borja though. That slimy little—there had better be a damn good explanation for this.

But of course, there was one person whose permission actually mattered. “Zee?"

Whatever confusion had happened at the pyre had wept from Zahra’s face like the ash and dust sifting from Rom’s flesh. Now, her eyes were trained on the horizon and on Borja’s fleeing vessel. There was a fury twisting her features, drawing her lips back from her teeth, as if she were bristling to throttle someone. In this case, it would’ve been Borja. She exhaled sharply and stomped forward, “Back to the ship. Now.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

It was all Zahra could do to contain the tawdry shudder of anger riddling through her bones as she ground out commands through clenched teeth. Why had Borja done this? What kind of fucking rouse had Anais pulled back at the pyre? The connections weren’t lost on her. Nothing made sense anymore. She doubted she’d get any answers until they had Borja here. On his knees, begging for forgiveness. She’d see it. Even if he was Rom’s father. They’d hightailed it back to the ship far quicker than she’d thought possible given Rom’s state, but she figured Leon could’ve practically carried him back without much effort. Her crew was already scrambling across the decks and the anchor had been hauled up as soon as they’d set their feet aboard. Nixium’s face was grimmer than it usually was, though she’d already turned the rudder’s hard to port and without being needed to be told where they needed to be, cut the Riptide towards the Northern Sword.

The Riptide’s sails flapped down like falling curtains and billowed out at the gust of wind as if it were a lover blowing them true. They sliced through the waters at a quickening speed. Fortunately, their ship was much smaller than Borja’s and crafted specifically for this: catching fleeing vessels. However, the damage that had been done to the ship was… concerning. The Northern Sword could be frighteningly destructive if it’s intentions were to send said ship to the bottom of the sea. How many had she seen suffer that fate? Too many. If it hadn’t been for dumb luck, they might not have had any way to leave. He’d missed the mast. Garland had already vaulted down the steps leading into Riptide’s belly, armed with hammer, nails, and boards tucked under his armpits. If his expression was anything to go by… the damage wasn’t good.

But they were afloat. For now.

Seeing as Anais was the only one that might know what was going on here, Zahra stalked up to her with all of her small-sized, pent-up rage. She hadn’t allowed them to lock her in the holds, nor move her out of the cold. Her nostrils flared and her eyes flashed, drawing into mean slits. Whatever remnant of calm had already sizzled out like the flames of the pyre. Her hands, drawn into fists, bloomed opened and closed before she finally reached the woman in question. One hand shot out and grappled onto the scruff of her collar, which she used as leverage to draw her down closer to her face, and her withering stare. She hadn’t reached for blade or arrows, but her posturing was anything but feigned. It spoke of consequences.

“I’ll give you one chance to explain what’s happening here,” she breathed out sharply.

"And if I pass on that chance?" To her credit, Anais did not seem cowed by the captain's display of ferocity and justified anger. She did little to shield herself from the driving rain, which grew ever fiercer the closer they came to the storm's heart. "What will you do? Kill me? I very much doubt it. I could provide some answers for the Herald, but I won't do that here."

Zahra tossed her head back and laughed. She hadn’t released her hold on the back of her neck either, only forced her to reel back with her. There was a glint in her eyes, like two pieces of flint. “Kill you? No. That’d be easy. But I can make you wish for it, little bird.”

Romulus carefully positioned himself partway between them. He was clothed again with a spare change under his armor, which he'd left behind on the ship. It was obvious that he wasn't at full strength and wouldn't be for some time, but he at least seemed alert. "I need her alive," he warned Zahra. "I think there's too much to explain for it to be done here."

Even as Rom repositioned himself so that he stood nearly between them, Zahra’s countenance hadn’t changed. She demanded blood be paid. It was the raider way, even if she’d become less and less of one. For one who’d lived their lives on land instead of the sea, it was difficult to explain just how much a ship meant to its crew. This was no different. It accounted for a life.

"He's right," Anais agreed. "For the moment, I should inform you that Adan Borja will not hesitate to sink this ship if threatened, nor will he think twice about killing every soul aboard. This must be done carefully." That was clear enough. The waves ahead were growing ever larger, and the Northern Sword was showing no signs of changing her course. Romulus glowered at the sight, taking his shield in hand.

"Just get me on that ship."

Zahra’s fingers slowly released their death-grip on her collar and she allowed the fabric to slip away from her hand. Her eyes, however, raked away from Anais’s face, and onto Rom’s. “When this is done, and she sings her last useful words...” her eyes shifted sidelong and her mouth settled into a hard line, “I won’t move on this matter.” For now, as he said, they’d need to catch up to the Northern Sword and board it before he tried to turn around and face them. Being punched with more cannon balls wasn’t an option. She pushed the sopping wet hair from her face and grinned grimly, “Now, that I can do. Make sure everyone’s ready.”

She turned away from them and cried out quick commands over the sound of the storm. Nixium bellowed back from the helm, though her words were muffled from the rain that’d decided to start pelting down from all angles, chilling them to the bone. Riptide quickened its pace, and the Northern Sword began showing discernible details. People shuffling along the decks. If she squinted hard enough she thought she could see Borja leaning over the railings, hands planted… though she couldn’t be sure, and chalked it up to her eager imagination.

On The Riptide's own deck, those few who were neither crew nor cultist prepared for battle. Khari, still with wan and waxy complexion from all the rocking, was nevertheless arranging the straps that held her graceless cleaver to her back. She forewent the metal mask—perhaps air was more important—but pulled her dark hood up around her head, her facial features disappearing from view. Across the deck, Marceline stood with the point of her rapier resting gently in the wood by her feet, flanked by a pair of sturdy Inquisition soldiers and their shields. Meanwhile Estella appeared from below, sword now at her hip, and tossed what looked like a pair of heavy gauntlets to Leon, who caught them in midair. They stayed out of the way of the crew, but their eyes were fixed forward on the retreating boat.

A porthole opened up in the rear of the Northern Sword as the Riptide steadily gained on her. A flash of fire followed, and a boom like thunder rippled through the air. A cannonball from the stolen Qunari weapon hurtled through the air at them, the shot sailing high and splashing down into the tumultuous seas behind them. With the way the waves lifted and dropped the two racing vessels, aiming would be very difficult. But soon there were more projectiles added into the mix.

"Find cover!" Romulus called, as the first arrows whistled down onto the deck, some clattering off into the sea, others thudding into the wood. They were almost impossible to see in the darkened sky, with the driving rain added into the mix. Another shot from the cannon sent a giant plume of water up in front of the ship, the attack falling short this time. Their aim was unreliable at best in the storm, but it wouldn't be long before something found its mark.

Khari didn't need to be told twice. She half-lunged, half-toppled forward, snatching Estella's arm and dragging them both behind a couple of the barrels that had been lashed down to the deck in preparation for the inclement weather. One lucky arrow thudded right into the barrel in front, vibrating for several seconds before it stilled. A semitransparent barrier, more purple than blue, flickered into life over their heads. It was neither very large nor sturdy-looking, but at least one arrow bounced off of it harmlessly.

Taking cover wasn't exactly simple for a man of Leon's proportions; he wound up putting the foremast between himself and the oncoming arrows, occasionally risking a glance out from behind it. At this point, though, their job was pretty much to stay alive until they were close enough to retaliate.

Marceline huddled behind the shield-wall erected by her guard, adding her own weight to theirs to help keep them steady. Slowly they picked their way to a rise in the railing, in an effort to add it to their protection as arrows thumped harmlessly into their shields. Once they reached it, there was nothing more they could do but patiently wait.

While most wouldn’t have counted themselves lucky facing such an unforgiving storm, Zahra was. If only for the fact that Borja couldn’t pelt them with flaming arrows—it was a tactic she was keen to employ whenever she pulled up to other ships. Setting a ship’s sails aflame was a good way to render them useless, and still. She’d donned her own bow in hand and bounded up towards the upper decks as quickly as she could manage, arrows whistling through the air. If they could reach the ship in time, she could sink his hooks into his, and he’d be daft to fire anymore cannonballs.

In any case, they were gaining on him.

Nixium kept her post at the helm. Though she’d conjured some sort of shield to protect herself. A rippling force-field. One of her palms was held up in the air as she grappled with the wheel using her upper body. From the looks of it, the wild waves crashing into the ship’s bow wasn’t being easily managed. Several arrows crashed and splintered against her ward, while some buffered off into the hail. Once Zahra reached her, breathless and sopping wet, she grappled onto the other side of the jerking wheel while Nixium adjusted herself on the opposite end.

“Hooks are ready. Close as we can, now.”

The last attempt from the Qunari cannon was a hit on the Riptide, a ricochet off the starboard side railing that sent splinters raining down on their heads before it careened over the back and into the sea. A lucky result, considering how easily it could've taken a head clean off. They were close enough now to accurately exchange fire, the two crews loosing arrows back and forth in between dives for cover. Romulus pegged a pirate in the chest with his crossbow before he ducked back down to load another bolt. They were numerous, this crew of Borja's, but they had never faced an enemy like this one before.

"We're in range!" Romulus shouted, through the crack of lightning. "Hook them!" The grappling hooks were heaved at the Northern Sword, entangling its masts and railings, binding the ships together and steadily drawing them into each other. "Brace!" A wave pushed the larger ship the rest of the way into the Riptide, scraping the sides of both hulls and inflicting some light damage on the smaller of the two. It was negligible in the grand scheme of things; they had their way across.

They were close enough to make a jump, and Romulus was the first to throw himself across, landing near the Northern Sword's bow. The first pirate to get in his way found a knife digging into his ribs, and he was discarded overboard into the sea. If the effects of being drugged were still wearing on him, he was hiding it quite well. Borja roared at his men from the rear of his ship, compelling them into action, and the melee began in earnest.

Khari, too, leaped from cover, bounding over the deck with surprising surefootedness for someone with such a bad stomach for the ocean. She made the jump further down the ships, landing closer to the mizzenmast than the fore, sword swinging wildly. She looked to be aiming mostly for center mass, and moved on as soon as a foe dropped, rather than pausing to finish any of them off. Jamming an elbow into one pirate's jaw, she pulled him over her hip with one hand, whacking him hard in the head with the flat side of her cleaver. He stilled, and she stepped forward into another.

Estella and Leon took a little longer to board, mostly because Leon paused to boost her across the gap before following himself. The Seeker went to work immediately in that brutal way he had. Grabbing one man by the head, he threw him sideways into the mainmast and kicked hard enough to break ribs, snatching up the pirate's weapons and throwing them into the churning ocean below. The next got his legs swept out from underneath him; his kneecaps broke under Leon's stomping boots.

The hatchet he'd been carrying flew end-over-end, lodging itself in the back of a woman who'd been after Estella. The Inquisitor herself pulled it free, toppling her foe with a hamstring slash and slamming the hatchet down with all her might, pinning the pirate to the deck by the back of her shirt. A few seconds later, the axe was frozen to the wood, and Estella was standing, bringing her saber up to block another assailant.

Marceline was among the last to board the ship with her entourage, probably in an effort to let their main force at least thin the resistance a little. Both soldiers aided her in crossing the gap between the ships. Once their feet were dug into the Northern Sword's deck, they formed into a tight unit, with shields flanking both sides of Marceline. A pirate who perhaps believed that felling the Orlesian ambassador might hurt morale, drove straight for her before he was intercepted by a shield. In the moment that he turned his attention away from her was the moment she chose to strike, the tip of her rapier burying deep into his chest. They'd find the ambassador to be a far more difficult target than that.

Zahra had left Nixium’s side with little more than a nod. As soon as ships kissed sides, there was not much else a navigator could do until the time came to unhook themselves. She, too, jumped onto the railing and used her momentum to leap onto the Northern Sword’s busy decks. She ducked an incoming blade, heard the sweep of air as it sliced above her. As she was coming back up, she swung the sharp end of her bow underneath his chin. There was a spray of blood and a sickly gurgle. A thud sounded behind her, but she was already springing away towards the next foe.

“Borja!” She screamed into the hail. Whether he’d heard him or not didn’t seem to matter. Her eyes trained the decks, absorbing the carnage that was unfurling on both the Riptide, and the Northern Sword. Numb fingers notched an arrow in place and pinned a man’s hand against the wood of the mainmast. Struck clear through the knuckles. His sword, mid-swing, clattered at his feet. His screams couldn’t be heard either, though she did not doubt they’d end soon enough.

Romulus was giving as little thought to the well-being of his enemies as Zahra was, it seemed. Lightly armored pirates dropped in heaps, leaking blood to mix with the rain washing over the ships. He pushed through the melee towards the rear of the ship, towards where the captain was supposed to be fighting alongside his crew, though in the thick of the fighting it was difficult to discern where anyone was. His efforts to search for Borja were continuously interrupted by sword-armed criminals trying to end his life. Frustrated, he bashed one in the throat with the rim of his shield, before reaching forward to violently snap the man's neck, dropping him to the ground.

Before him, a hatch opened leading to the lower decks of the Northern Sword. Romulus had been about to plunge his dagger down into the neck of the first person to appear there, but he managed to stop himself short, recognizing the figure. The lanky and aging smuggler Conrado had his hands free, one of them grasping a long, thin sword which he carried with practiced ease. His head swiveled about, searching for threats, eyeing up the pirates around him as well as those they'd been boarded by.

"Conrado!" Romulus called, demanding the man's attention. "Fight with us!" How he'd gotten free was unclear, but his treatment at Borja's hands had been none too kind. Conrado nodded briefly, then gestured with his head behind Romulus, warning him of an attacker to his rear.

Romulus half-turned his head to react, before a sharp pain immediately bloomed in his torso. He looked down to see Conrado's sword stabbed into his side. Before he could so much as react the thin blade was withdrawn and slashed deep across his lower left thigh. He staggered and nearly fell, but Conrado was quick to complete the move, pulling him forward and throwing him down the hole he'd emerged from, where Romulus crashed against the ladder and disappeared out of sight. The smuggler kicked the hatch closed behind him.

On the upper deck, Borja was nowhere to be seen.

Khari must have either seen or inferred what happened, because she hastily kicked her off-balance opponent over the railing of the ship and threw herself at Conrado, barreling through a couple of occupied pirates on the way. He stepped neatly out of the way of her first blow; the sound of the blade hitting the deck was inaudible over the din, but from the way it jerked through her whole frame, it must have been quite the impact.

Her lips pulled back from her teeth in a snarl, and she wrenched the cleaver out of the floorboards, twisting away from a fencing lunge but unable to completely avoid the follow-up, which caught her in the side. It was hard to tell if she so much as felt it. She attempted to close one gauntlet-protected hand over the blade of the rapier, but Conrado was too fast to allow it. So she followed his retreat instead, clearly trying to pin him down in a corner.

Leon was swiftly clearing out the mid-ship area, but his progress was nowhere near fast enough to get to Romulus's aid anytime soon. Estella branched off in the aft direction, but was immediately waylaid by a trio of Borja's men. Grimly, she leveled her saber and got to work.

With a solid solid foothold behind them, Marceline ventured away from her guard, the rapier flashing in one hand, and the main-gauche in the other. She pressed as hard as she could along with the others, but she was careful that her pace did not leave her vulnerable. Unfortunately, that pace was not quite quick enough.

Zahra battled her way down from the upper decks. Somewhat disgruntled at the fact that she hadn’t found her mark. No sight of Borja anywhere—the damned coward. She did, however, spot Khari grappling with a familiar face on the ground… Conrado. Someone she hadn’t expected to see here. Alive, in any case. She tensed her shoulders and twisted around an incoming man’s fist, leveling her elbow into his nose. It crunched under the blow and she finished it with a dagger pulled from her hip, dipping it between his ribs. She was trying to bully her way through the crowd, but every inch she drew closer was interrupted by another of Borja’s snarling crewmembers.

Over the shoulder of the current layer of pirates blocking her way, she could see Khari still struggling with Conrado. The elf looked the worse for wear; her hood had fallen and she bore a deep cut across her forehead, freely bleeding into one of her eyes. Conrado's agility and skill with that dueling sword was clearly formidable.

Khari's main advantage, however, was sheer dauntlessness. It didn't seem to matter how many times he stuck her with the thing, how many little goading jabs pricked her skin: she just kept going, relentless and aggressive. She didn't try to be a better duelist than he was—instead, she took some of the blows, turned aside the rest, and kept advancing.

She left an opening on her right side; Conrado darted in to take advantage. But her reaction was quicker than it should have been, like she'd bluffed the vulnerability in the first place, and a powerful blow disarmed Conrado, sending the rapier spinning across the deck. Her lips moved, but there was no way to hear what she said. The pommel of her sword smashed into his temple, and Conrado crumpled.

Wiping the blood out of her eye with her cloak, Khari hustled for the hatch, yanking it open and barging in without so much as pausing to assess the landing.

She left a darkened wet streak behind her on the deck.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

She should have been with them. That was all Asala thought about ever since Romulus and those who attended his ritual returned. They were in pretty bad shape when they arrived the day before. Asala and most of her staff had spent the entire previous day tending to their injuries, and currently they were all in stable condition. She still preferred it that they did not move for another day or two in fear of tearing or reopening their wounds. Asala was especially firm in Khari's case, fearing the woman would probably try to escape if the opportunity presented itself. Still, they were all alive, and if they took their recovery slow, and she and her assistants did their jobs properly, then there should be no lasting danger either.

She couldn't shake the guilt, and it remained with her even as she measured out a dose of potion into a vial. Donovan stood next to her, carefully folding clean bandages into a tin tray to change out the soiled ones. Asala couldn't help but feel things would've been different had she been there. No, she probably could not have changed the outcome, but she could have at the very least tended to them while their wounds were fresh, if not prevented a number of them to begin with. Asala had not asked for details, and in truth she did not want to hear them. It was clear that whatever they were supposed to prove failed, and she had seen Anais led to the dungeons in chains. She could infer enough from that alone.

With the potion measured, Asala set it on the tray with bandages and took it with her as she went to Romulus's bedside, and sat it down on a small stand beside her. Asala gave him a sweet, if a little sad smile when she handed him the vial before she began to undo the bandages on his thigh. The wound was mostly closed now and beginning to scab over. She was extremely careful as she worked; he had broken a number of bones and was no doubt very sore, if still not a little pain.

In the bed beside them, Bibi purred softly at the foot while Millian worked with Khari, cutting the bandages on her hand and inspecting the wound there. She was efficient, though she lacked Asala's... bedside manner.

Khari didn't seem to care much; she was surprisingly compliant with the tranquil's commands. The only resistance she'd put up so far was insisting that she was well enough to sit up with her back to the wall next to the bed she'd been assigned. Aside from the wound on her hand, most of her abdomen had been bandaged under her shirt due to multiple stab wounds there, and there were more around her head, covering a deep cut over one of her brows.

Indeed, she was uncharacteristically solemn in general, and didn't even keep up much of a running commentary, as she otherwise would surely have done. Instead, she stroked the cat with her free hand, rubbing at his ears.

Where Khari was solemn, Romulus was despondent, and had said almost nothing that wasn't absolutely necessary since his arrival back at Skyhold. His injuries had been extensive, the majority of them consisting of broken bones from being repeatedly struck with blunt force. His right arm was the worst break, requiring him to keep it tied up in a sling despite the best efforts of Asala's considerable healing magic. His jaw had been broken, his cheekbone fractured, even part of his skull had required healing. His ribcage was a mess, which had led to a number of internal injuries varying in severity, and there was the stab wound through his side and the deep slash through the muscles of his left leg to work through.

Despite it all, it was obviously not his physical injuries that troubled him, as he'd been clearly withdrawn inside his own head, where nothing good could be occurring. He slept often, but not well, either the pain of his injuries or his intense dreams waking him repeatedly. He ate only the bare minimum, and if Asala's comforting presence was having any effect on him, he was hiding it well. He did not sit as Khari did, but lay still and stared at the ceiling while she worked.

The door to the infirmary opened, and Vesryn entered, for once seemingly unsure what to do with himself. He closed the door quietly behind him, rubbing his hands together for the warmth. "How are we doing?" he asked, in a carefully casual tone. "On the mend, I hope." When Romulus didn't so much as acknowledge him, he nodded uncomfortably. "Well... is there anything I can get you, Asala? From the Keep, or the tavern maybe? Thought I'd see if I could be of service somehow."

The only one from the Riptide occupying another bed was its small-statured boastwain. Tucked neatly into the corner. Apparently she’d suffered the worst of the Northern Sword’s initial attack. She’d been in the Riptide’s belly when the cannonball crashed into its side, sending a spray of thick splinters through the upper portion of the ship. Her arm had taken the worst of the blows, and it’d needed to come off. Too much damage to salvage. They’d done a good job, though she hadn’t woken up for more than a handful of minutes before drifting off.

Zahra had visited several times throughout the night to check on Rom, Khari and Nuka. Most of the time, she’d just fill in the empty space between them with rambles, trying to cast light in the dark situations they’d tumbled through. Even if it didn’t have any effect… she was relentless. She’d had scrapes and cuts but hadn’t suffered nearly as much as the others had. Bruises would blossom and disappear, but she looked none worse for wear. The upper portion of her arm was neatly bound in fresh bandages where they’d extracted an arrow. Besides that, she’d been lucky.

She, too, filtered through only moments after Vesryn had. There was a bottle tucked under her arm, though it was difficult to tell what it was. She paused at the door before stepping through and shutting it behind her. Her eyes roved across the occupied beds, stopped short when they reached Rom and Khari before they slipped towards the farthest corner of her room. Her mouth formed a line, before it shifted into an easy smile. “How’re the patients, kitten?” Zahra closed the distance and idled beside Vesryn. She fished the bottle from beneath her armpit and prodded him in the shoulder with the corked end, “Just got back from there.”

Asala paused her work for a moment to turn and greet both Vesryn and Zahra. There was nothing really more to do except to keep their injuries clean and supply doses of healing medication until they were well enough to start moving again. It was not the external injuries Asala was most worried about however, but the ones that lingered in their heads. Broken bones and cuts could be mended, but maladies of the mind was something on an entirely different scale. In fact, their company were perhaps the most important thing right now than the things they could get.

She turned, but before she could even ask, Donovan was already to work fetching the chairs. "They are... healing," Asala answered Zahra. Her eyes did linger on the bottle disapprovingly for a moment before she shrugged. "I believe we have what we need but, if you would like, you are more than welcome to stay awhile," she said, though by the way Donovan was bringing chairs, it was more of a request than a suggestion. Their company would perhaps give them something to think about over whatever dark thoughts were swirling around their heads. She sighed again, but offered a smile to Vesryn and Zahra before returning to tend to Romulus. She should've been there, she told herself not for the first time, and certainly not for the last.

Khari roused herself a bit at the presence of company, still leaving her hand within Millian's custody but turning her head so she could smile wanly at the visitors. It was hardly a smile compared to the face-splitting grins she so often wore, but she seemed tired and concerned enough to warrant it. Her eyes frequently flicked across the room to where Romulus was.

“'Fraid we're not at our most entertaining right now, but thanks for dropping in. Don't worry too much though—you should see the other guys."

"Oh, I have," Vesryn assured her. "The ones able to make it into our dungeon here, at least. I suspect they didn't fully understand what they were getting into when they fired on the likes of you. Safe to say they do now." Seeing that Zahra was a step ahead of him on the gift from the tavern, he shuffled his feet a bit awkwardly in place, before smiling and bowing his head a little. "Well, I should be going. I hope your recovery is swift, all of you, and... Saraya expresses her concern as well." He took his leave, shutting the door quietly behind him.

Zahra appeared as if she wanted to call after him… but he’d walked through the door as quickly as he’d come, and she was left standing there, bottle held in both hands. She made a humming noise in her throat before plopping down on one of Donovan’s proffered chairs. She’d caught Asala’s opposing stare, and shrugged her shoulders, “It’s a gift. What can I say? I don’t go back on promises.” She bounced the bottle on her knee and tilted her head to the side, “Well. You’re alive, at least. Counts for something.”

Khari's smile grew, just a bit. “Well, we promised, too, after all. Can't break a promise on breakfast."

At that point, the door outside opened up again with a blast of cold air. It admitted Lady Marceline first, who held a cloth covered parcel close to her chest, and behind her Estella, who was laden with a heavy-looking tray bearing what looked like a couple of decently-sized pots and several empty bowls stacked upside down, along with the glint of tin spoons.

Steam gushed liberally from the top of both pots, and Estella moved with exaggerated care, careful to place each foot before adding weight to it. She made it over to an empty side table, where she gingerly lowered the whole tray, breathing what sounded like a sigh of relief. Turning towards Asala, she gave a small smile, brief enough to be little more than a twitch, and folded her hands in front of her.

“Um... I made soup. That's okay, right? I wasn't sure if anyone had any stomach injuries, so it's not very spicy or anything..."

"Larissa sends her regards," Marceline said after Estella, "Along with these." She then began to pull the cloth away to reveal a set of novels which she turned over to show them. "I find her choices to be... subject, but nonetheless she assured me that you would enjoy them," she said. From the glance Asala took, she read Hard in Hightown on one of the covers before she returned to her task, setting the old bandages back into the tray beside her.

Khari snorted. “I've heard of those. Some guy from Kirkwall wrote them, right?" Admittedly, she seemed more interested in the soup at the moment; as soon as Millian was finished wrapping her hand in fresh bandages, she was pushing herself out of the bed. Apparently the concept of bedrest was a little lost on her. Millian even put a hand on her shoulder to try and dissuade too much movement, though it seemed to be ineffective, and the tranquil did not try to fight her over it.

“Rom, you want to eat something?" She glanced back at him, turning an empty bowl over in her hands quite heedless of the injured one. If she was still in pain, she was remarkably resistant to it.

Romulus blinked, turning his head at the sound of his name and taking in the sight of the soup, Estella, and Marceline. "Uh... yeah." It wasn't the most enthusiastic response, but perhaps the smell of it was enough to convince him to acquiesce. Carefully he worked himself back into a sitting position with Asala's help, though he wasn't able to perform much movement with one of his arms and one of his legs. "Thank you," he said quietly in Estella's direction.

Asala picked the tray with the empty vial and dirty bandages up, handing it to Donovan as he came to retrieve it. She then reached into one of the pockets in her robes to produce a clean rag and wiped down the table she had been using with the intention of using it the hold the soup.

“You're welcome." While Khari was serving herself, Estella started serving bowls for the others in the room, handing the first one to Asala, indicating with a small nod that it was intended for Romulus. Others went to Donovan and Millian to distribute; Estella seemed inclined to stay clear of where the healers were working.

Khari sat back down on her bed, holding her soup steady in her lap with her injured hand and using the other to manipulate the spoon. It was a little awkward, since she'd been stabbed in her dominant hand, but this didn't seem to pose a significant problem. “It's pretty good, Stel. Thanks."

"Will you need help?" Asala asked Romulus softly. While she wanted to, she did not want to make him feel useless by stealing any independence that he could have. If he wished to feed himself, Asala would make sure that he would be able to do it.

"No." Romulus said, somewhat quickly. "Thank you."

With that, she smiled and nodded, pulling the table close enough for him to reach without straining himself and set the bowl down on to it, with another clean rag beside it. She stood and backed away to give him space. The rest of her staff went about distributing the soup, and helping those who needed it with their eating. For a moment, she felt lost for a moment before her eyes hungrily fell onto the bowls of soup and she realized she couldn't remember the last time she had eaten. Asala had spent so much time tending to everyone and making sure that they were comfortable that she had forgotten to eat. Even so, she did not immediately go for the soup, and instead hesitated, looking around in case there was someone else who needed her.

Estella must have noticed, or she looked more tired than she realized. In either case, the Inquisitor handed her the next one, pointing to a chair near the wall with a little half-smile. “I know enough about magic to know it's exhausting," she chided mildly. “You should eat, too."

Asala took the soup with a little surprise and was about to refuse before her stomach betrayed her and grumbled. She could feel the heat of the blush blossom across her face, so she meekly accepted both the bowl and the chair, slinking into it and leaning against the wall. As she began to eat, she couldn't help be begin to feel tired, and before long her eyelids began to droop. Soon after, she slipped off to sleep, with the warm bowl of soup in her lap and spoon still in her hand.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

0.00 INK

Leon stared at the map in front of him with a furrowed brow. Rilien was seeding his agents at a remarkable pace; in truth, the rest of the Inquisition needed to shape up to match the spread of their information networks. He turned a wooden shield token over and over between his bare fingers, the smooth varnish slick against his mangled skin. Beside him, Estella sighed softly; he could hear the slight rustle of her fidgeting with her sleeves. Marceline and Rilien were quieter, more accustomed to this sort of waiting.

Leon had sent a message summoning Romulus to the war room, but he expected it to be a few minutes yet before he arrived. There was quite a lot of business to take care of today, but it all had to happen in a certain order.

Shaking his head faintly, Leon dropped the token onto the side. They just didn't have the ability yet to move their soldiers any deeper into either Orlais or Ferelden. The support Romulus would have gained had he been proven blood of Andraste would have likely made the difference, but Leon had never counted on that. He didn't make a habit of relying on miracles, which was usually to his benefit.

When Romulus did arrive, a few minutes late as expected, it was with an uneven and uncomfortable gait, still limping slightly from the damaging wound he'd suffered to his leg. His right arm was still in a sling, cradled near his chest, and he was still plainly fragile from head to toe, but the movement was a good sign that with proper healing from Asala he could eventually make a full recovery.

He hadn't made a habit of being in the war room, despite being a Herald of Andraste. In fact he'd only been inside a few times before, the most notable being the first when he spoke of the enemy encountered at Haven, and Corypheus. He might've entered a bit more confidently now had the events off the coast gone differently, but instead he looked smaller than usual, dwarfed by the scale of the room. "Is this about Anais?" he asked quietly. He'd hardly once raised his voice to normal speaking levels since the return to Skyhold.

“In part." Rilien, as ever, did not spend time on pleasantries. He stood slightly further back from the table, almost in Estella's shadow. It wasn't clear if he'd chosen to do so deliberately or just naturally gravitated there. He unfolded his hands from his sleeves, taking a step forward so as to be more clearly visible. “But first we wish to ask you if you would accept the rank we've granted Estella."

Lady Marceline smiled, most likely from the terseness of the tranquil. Her head tilted slightly to one side and she clarified. "We have discussed the matter at length amongst ourselves and we have decided that you have proven yourself a most valuable part of the Inquisition. We have unanimously determined that you should be offered the rank of Inquisitor in spite of the recent events that have transpired," she said. "Provided that you accept it, of course."

A frown settled onto Romulus's face as soon as Rilien put the offer on the table. His eyes followed from the Tranquil to Marceline, but his confusion only seemed to grow. Silence filled the room for a long moment, while he struggled to think of a response. "You... want to make me an Inquisitor," he repeated, as though the words might make more sense after they left his own mouth. "After everything that happened. Everyone who was hurt because of me." Clearly he didn't think the same way about the idea as they did, but his eyes sought Leon, and then Estella.

"You would trust me with that?"

Leon elected to let Estella speak first. She understood the reasoning, but more importantly, she understood how to say things, for the most part. It would come across better from her than him or one of the others.

She didn't fail to take the opportunity, inclining her head a bit. “Really, we should have done it before," she said. “Maybe as soon as you got back from Haven. But everything was... unclear, then. Too much of—too much of what Anais and the others were saying was muddying the water. But you were right all along: there was no wedge between us, and you never tried to put one there. We're... for better or worse, we're in this together. I'm not above you. I don't want to be."

“You're not the first person ever to be swindled by a clever ploy, Romulus," Leon added. “You won't be the last. It doesn't disqualify you from your place here. You've earned our trust as you are." The emphasis he placed on the last words was delicate, but certain. “We want everyone to know it, but the choice is yours."

"We believe that even the willingness to pursue the chance of your own divinity was done out of service to the Inquisition. Know that everyone here understands your loyalty and the lengths you would go for the cause," Marceline paused a moment a looked at the others, "We wish to recognize that loyalty with our own. Officially."

He visibly wrestled with the words in his mind. "I don't know that it was," he answered Marceline. "In part, maybe, but... I did it because I thought it was what my mother would have wanted. I thought my ancestors had been preparing for that moment, for me to seize it. I would try to use the power for the good of the Inquisition... but what I wanted most was to have a family, or be closer to one. Connection to a history that wasn't in chains." He seemed almost surprised that he'd said so much, and fell silent for a moment.

"I don't know what to say, though. Thank you, I'll—I'll try to earn this. Maybe you all think I already have but I'll try anyway." He paused, before he looked back to the Tranquil. "You said in part. What's to be done with her?"

“That is for you to decide." Rilien blinked in that owlish way of his, folding his arms back into his wide sleeves. “As Inquisitor, it is your right to sit in judgement of our prisoners. Given that it is you who best understands the extent of their crimes, it is only prudent that this round of judgements fall to you." He tilted his head slightly to the side.

“They wait just outside the main hall now."

“We will of course be present to advise, if you are inclined to seek counsel," Leon added. “And to keep the records even if you are not." Marceline picked up a clipboard from the table, as if to confirm.

"Oh... right." He seemed to have forgotten that particular responsibility of the Inquisitor. After mulling it over some more, he nodded, more resolved than he'd appeared since returning. "Good. Let's not delay, then."

Leon nodded, gesturing to the open doorway. The small group proceeded to the main hall, where Reed along with Zahra already waited. The throne stood empty on the dais; the Seeker took up his customary spot to the right, slightly in front and below. Estella elected to stand on the other side, with Rilien, and Marceline took up the officiator's position just to the side of the carpet runner leading up. Romulus looked unsure about taking a seat in the throne itself, as well as uncomfortable once he had, perhaps due to his injuries.

“Reed. We'll take the first, please." His aide nodded and headed down the hall at a swift clip to admit the first prisoner.

Eventually, the clanging of chains echoed throughout the hall as Reed escorted the first prisoner. "Lord Inquisitor," Marceline began, her voice taking in an air of authority as she stated Romulus's new title. "I present to you the accused, Speaker Anais, the leader of the cult known as The Herald's Disciples."

Anais had been stripped of the light armor pieces she wore, perhaps the one article of clothing that wholly separated her from those that had followed her lead. The past few days had obviously not been comfortable for her; her hair and skin was unwashed and dirty from both the journey and then her time in the dungeons, and her robes were in need of a change. All that said, she still appeared to be keeping herself together. Once escorted to the appointed position, the Speaker chose to kneel before the Inquisitor, rather than stand.

"The formal charges levied against her are as follows," Marceline said, looking down to the clipboard in hand. "Fraud, heresy, collusion with the pirate formerly known as Adan Borja, and attempted sedition."

"Lord Inquisitor," Anais greeted, lowering her head in deference. "It seems you don't need me to rise up in rank after all. Though I fear this is as high as you'll ever go." Romulus chose not to answer her opening statement, instead studying her in silence. Looking down at her from his seat, he almost seemed to relax.

"Do you deny any of your charges?" he asked.

"No, Lord Inquisitor," she responded, ready for the question. "Had I succeeded, it would only have strengthened the Inquisition. I acted in service of our shared cause."

"Not all of us would have benefited."

"No, of course not, but few things in the world benefit everyone. I believe a joint leadership, as you have just established, will prove a thorn in the Inquisition's side before long. You may share the same goals as your fellow Inquisitor, as the leaders of your armies and your spies and your diplomats, but all of you have different minds. Our enemy has one mind, one body, and one goal. I sought to give the Inquisition the strongest leadership it could have, to counter that."

Romulus let that sit for a moment, the two just staring at each other unwavering. He shifted in the throne, failing to conceal a wince. "Explain your plan to me. From the beginning. I want to know what you did each step of the way." He paused, watching her think over how to begin. "You don't want to lie to me again, Anais."

His tone was dark, angry, dangerous even. Anais clearly caught wind of it, and for the briefest moment it seemed to strike some fear into her. She swallowed, finally breaking eye contact with him. "I began to make some connections soon after we first met, and you closed that rift with your mark, but the idea didn't truly come to me until my agents reported that Adan Borja had taken an interest in you personally." Her eyes flitted up to him before they fell back down. "He clearly never forgot you, despite only meeting you before when you were very young. I approached him personally, and learned of the history between you two."

"And after learning what he'd done to my parents... you offered him a part to play?" Romulus was unable to hide his disgust. Anais nodded uneasily.

"I did. He was uncertain at first, but I was able to sell the potential of it quite well. I researched how your own history might connect with what I'd learned from the Augustan Order, but it wasn't until Haven fell that the opportunity truly felt within reach. When my scouts reported that the Venatori were hunting for some survivors in the area, I was confident that it was you. That the elf was with you was even more fortunate."

"Khari," Romulus interrupted.

"Yes, of course, forgive me. I had Borja brought in, and we agreed to present the story to you together should you be found alive. You were, and you seemed to believe us, so we were willing to move forward. While you returned to the Inquisition at Skyhold, we had ample time to prepare for a way to see you fully ascend. This gave Borja time to make contact with Conrado, and allowed me to prepare the journal."

"The journal..." Romulus nearly whispered the words, stewing in his seat. "My mother wrote none of it, I'm assuming?"

"Correct," she answered, as though she were now tiptoeing across shards of glass. "I wrote every word. It required... a great deal of time and research. I built a fictional family tree for you. Recorded in every language I'm familiar with, and had several of my trusted agents pen some of the pages, to have messages in different hands." She paused, carefully watching for his reaction. "I can give you their names, if you like. Most of my servants were kept in the dark regarding the plan, and were fed the same story as you, but a few were aware."

Leon glanced at Marceline. She would no doubt be able to take the names down; that was good. He hadn't been looking forward to sorting through which cultists were gullible but innocent and which were complicit. It would have been several days of interrogations, at least.

"I don't care about their names. Later." Romulus waved his hand in dismissal. He was beginning to look quite uncomfortable, perhaps a result of revealing the full extent of the deception against him. "The action in Llomerryn. It was staged?"

"The Qunari were quite real, and unaware. I didn't dream of trying to persuade any of them. But the journal couldn't simply be handed to you for it to be believed. Acquired from someone who knew your mother, though, I believed that would work. And Conrado did know Rosamara Abeita. The Qunari, as it turns out, are easy enough to offend, and they prefer to bring their prisoners back to Par Vollen in most cases. With some well-timed sabotage on the part of my agents and Borja's men, we were able to keep them where we wanted them, and secure Conrado before any real harm could be done to him."

It occurred to Leon that Khari had left Conrado alive; he was actually due in next for judgement. He doubted any answers the man could give would be much in the way of the connection Romulus wanted, but they might be something more than he'd get if the man had been killed. Shifting his weight slightly, Leon clasped his hands at the small of his back, allowing the story to proceed uninhibited. On the other hand, Zahra appeared to be teething at the bit. Mouth pinned into a hard line. Eyes, bereft of sympathy, glued on the kneeling figure in front of Romulus.

Romulus nodded, clearly having come to expect this level of dedication to the lie at this point. "And the rest I think I know well enough. You translated your own journal in front of me, read the details of your own false ritual, and prepared a powerful potion to protect me from even the fiercest flame."

"Yes. We were very close, I think. You will not hear me claim that morally any of this was right, but you must believe that I did this to bring more power to the Inquisition, to help us fight the threat we now face. What is a legend on the level of Andraste born from? Entirely truth? Only a fool would believe so. I'm sure it's heresy to speak this way, but I do not believe this was the first time such a story was attempted. Nor will it be the last."

"You would have had me believe for the rest of my life that the man who brutally murdered my parents was, in fact, my father?" Romulus leaned forward, narrowing his eyes at her.

"To serve the Inquisition, yes. He was not a good man, and likely deserved his fate, but we are in conflict with far greater monsters than he."

The Lord Inquisitor rubbed at his forehead, exhaling a long breath. "What are we to do with you, then?"

"I have no delusions about continuing my plan, or developing a new one," she replied, inching forward slightly on her knees. "The ruse has been sniffed out for good. But I have a great many talents, and a desire to serve the Inquisition. Let me study our enemy, and his forces, and I will prove my worth to you. I will do it in chains, if you like, until some glimmer of trust can be built." Romulus raised his eyebrows at her idea, but did not immediately respond, instead looking to his counsel, to see what they thought.

“She successfully led a cult. That ability is as dangerous inside an organization of this kind as outside. Perhaps moreso. Do not give her anyone else to influence." Rilien spoke first, perhaps already having anticipated some kind of bid to this effect. “Certainly do not trust her. But she is a resource like any other. I could find a use for the talents she claims to have."

Leon frowned. He had a fair point about Anais's potential usefulness to the Inquisition. That said... “We must also consider, however, what message doing that would send. Anais was never quiet in her declarations of your holiness, which is now a lie that is, rightfully or not, likely to be attributed to us as an organization. Nor was she hesitant in her condemnation of our other Inquisitor. It will eventually get out that she swindled us. Allowing her to continue in any capacity will look the height of foolishness—may in fact be the height of foolishness. We have plenty of talented people with ample competency in these matters."

His brow furrowed deeply over his eyes. “She is also responsible, directly or indirectly, for quite a bit of harm. She killed a Qunari sailor who had done us no wrong in her ruse, orchestrated a borderline-heretical scheme that has undoubtedly damaged our reputation already, and brought to our doorstep the man responsible for extensive damage to our allied naval forces, both material and personal." He dipped his head to acknowledge Zahra, but she would likely have much more to say on that matter than he did. “To say nothing of what nearly happened to you and Khari. It would be unfair to blame her for all of Borja's actions. But she is nevertheless the reason any of it occurred in the first place."

Zahra finally broke her silence, incited by Leon’s assessment. It appeared as if hers would not be so repressed. Nor kind. As if she’d made her decision ages ago, or at least before she’d even stepped foot in the large chamber, with its high ceilings and looming windows. Her face was cast in shadows since she’d been standing off to the side, though they melted away when she stepped forward. There was a twitch to her fingers, as if she couldn’t stand to hear anymore warbling. “An execution.”

Clad in leathers and a loose, thick cotton shirt and a variety of bandages, she paused for a moment as she regarded Anais’ crumpled form. Whatever vexation or indecision Romulus felt at appropriating judgment was entirely lacking in her. Conviction read clearly in her movements. Hand planted on her hip. Her mouth was tipped up in disgust. If she was at all swayed by Anais's declaration of betraying them all for the greater good of the Inquisition, she was hiding it well. Or she didn't care. From the looks of it, it didn’t matter what Anais said or what she could offer. It was an obvious decision. To her, at least.

Her tone had taken an iciness that belied no room for leniency, “Imprisonment is too kind for the lives she’s affected. For those who’ve been lost. For those she’s maimed. Borja paid his price. Hers should be just as steep.” Spoken as if she wasn't there at all. There was a short pause before a muscle bunched at her temple, and her voice grew terse, almost desperate, “She hurt my family.”

Anais grimly listened to the advice given regarding her fate. When she looked back up to Romulus, her expression was showing signs of pleading. "I would urge you to remember that I did not choose to attack your ship. You said the words yourself, there was never any danger to you. You cannot treat the captain's actions as my own."

The Lord Inquisitor was not moved. "There was never any danger? You put a murderer at my side, within these walls, endangering all of us. Your scheme threatened everything we've built." He paused, his eyes cold and devoid of any remorse. "No. You'll die for this." He glanced sideways at Rilien and Leon, perhaps to ensure that the judgement was indeed acceptable. "At first light tomorrow. I'll swing the sword myself."

Rilien remained impassive, giving no sign of his thoughts save a tiny nod.

“Very well," Leon said neutrally. He didn't think it was an entirely-unwarranted decision at all. People had been executed for less, and as a matter of practicality, housing and feeding a prisoner was an expensive matter. That said... he was in general not fond of death sentences, and he did wonder if Romulus had insisted upon one in this case for personal reasons, rather than an impartial assessment of the situation. There was a reason the philosophers believed justice should be blind.

But in this case, it served no purpose to argue the point. Far be it from him to undermine the new Inquisitor's authority as soon as he'd exercised it. Equally far to insist on saving the life of someone who had so wronged them all.

It sat more wrongly with Estella than it did with him; that much he could detect. From the corner of his eye, he watched her frown, only for the expression to disappear without a trace a moment later. She did not speak against it, however. That was unsurprising.

"You're making a mistake, Romulus," Anais said urgently, as Reed and another guard hauled her back up to her feet. She offered minimal resistance, only enough to turn her head and shout. "You can't afford to throw away allies! I can help you!" It was the last she was able to get out before she was ushered from the hall.

After a suitable amount of silence had passed, Lady Marceline cleared her throat to bring their attentions back to the matter at hand, and began to read the next item on the agenda. "Lord Inquisitor, I present one Conrado Ruis," she began, as the sound of another set of chains began to fill the air. "The formal charges levied against the accused include: assault on Inquisition forces, collusion, conspiracy, and theft against the Qunari."

Conrado was battered, the result of losing an altercation with Khari, though some of his injuries looked a little fresher than the battle would have suggested. Possibly the other prisoners taken from Borja's ship did not look fondly on him. He remained standing before the Lord Inquisitor, his hands and feet chained, all in all not nearly as steadfast as Anais had been upon her arrival.

"I want to know about my mother, Conrado," Romulus said bluntly. A dark look had fallen across his face since Anais had been escorted from the hall, and it remained in place now. "My father, too, if you can. Tell me something true about them."

Conrado did not appear to have expected such a beginning, but he adapted to it quickly enough. His posture was tense, perhaps afraid of the men standing behind him, or intimidated by the sight of Romulus and the others leaders of the Inquisition above him. "Of-of course. We... well, we didn't carry on together, like I implied. We were friends, I think, but she never really had an interest in me that way. Your father, his name was... Remero. Remero Abeita. I didn't know him very well."

"Borja said they were thieves. Is that true?"

"A-Aye," Conrado nodded. "That was how we crossed paths. We did business together. They were quite good at what they did, and I moved a large amount of goods for them. It's the kind of work that creates enemies, however. They were trying to escape from it once they had you, I think, but that life isn't easy to get away from."

"I understand." Romulus fell silent for a moment, resting his chin against the closed fist of his marked hand. "Tell me what she was like. As a person."

"She was..." His mind worked visibly in front of them, possibly trying to come up with an answer that would please him. "Spirited? Perhaps that's not the right word. They both were. Anything but cautious. Loud, aggressive people. I think they enjoyed their lives quite fully, while they had time."

"Time which you helped cut short." The Lord Inquisitor exhaled slowly, his face largely unreadable. "You'll die with Anais tomorrow, for aiding in her plot."

"What?" Disbelieving, Conrado began to lunge forward as though to rush closer, but he was immediately restrained by the guards, and fell to his knees. "No, you can't, you must understand, I lived in fear of Adan Borja! He was not the kind of man I had the power to betray, to refuse! I had no choice. Not now, and certainly not then." He found no sign of change on the Inquisitor's face, so he immediately sought it out in the others. "Please, spare me! I will not dream of troubling the Inquisition again, I swear it! My part in the plot was not my choice. I was a prisoner of Borja's!"

“Romulus." The interjection was quiet, but there was a sort of firmness to it, one Estella was still learning to wield. “Is this truly necessary? If what he says is true, he was acting under coercion. If his actions were not fully his own, does he truly deserve to suffer the full brunt of their consequences? Borja would have been an easy man to fear, surely." There was a slight change in the cast of her eyes, just enough that Leon caught it.

He suspected she was trying to make Romulus empathize. See a similarity of a certain sort. His eyes moved back to the other Inquisitor, but Estella continued.

“Much is unclear, but is that not reason for caution? Who does it benefit, to kill him?"

"And if he's lying?" Romulus asked. His emotionless mask was beginning to crack. It was impossible to fail to see that extremely personal feelings were motivating his decision. "As he's lied so many times before? Who could it hurt, to let him live?" He glanced down at the cowering smuggler, his disdain for the man plainly apparent. "I can't just let him go. I won't let him avoid this."

“It need not be death or freedom." Rilien's monotone was a stark contrast to the emotion seething just under the surface of the scene. “Punish him for what we know he has certainly done: collusion, assault, theft. Hard labor and prison time are both common for such offenses. The labor, at least, we could use. Alternatively, he is most certainly wanted in Antiva or Rivain. The Inquisition could keep him until such time as a court system with more evidence of his crimes could arrange a transfer."

"We can have the message en route to both nations before the evening is over, Lord Inquisitor," Marceline added.

Romulus was clearly deep in thought on the issue, and most likely not feeling satisfied by any possible outcome. Conrado looked like he wanted to say something, but kept his mouth shut, probably doubting it would help his situation at all. At last, an idea seemed to occur to the Lord Inquisitor.

"Do you deny stealing from the Qunari?"

At once Conrado shook his head. "No, Lord Inquisitor, I admit to it."

Romulus nodded. "Then you'll be delivered back to them, for the theft of their artifact. No one will come for you this time. What they do with you is their concern." Quite clearly he was hoping it would not be pleasant. He looked to his advisors. "If that can be arranged?"

"We do not have very much contact with the Qunari, so it will take some time, but it can be arranged, yes," Marceline stated.

"Good." Romulus seemed to deflate while Conrado was escorted away, the smuggler rather blank faced and struggling with the reality of what was happening to him. The ordeal seemed to have taken quite a bit out of Romulus, who rubbed at a spot on his chest that was clearly paining him. "Are we finished?" he asked Leon.

“We are, for today at least." It was quite the task to undertake on one's first day at the job, to be sure, but both of them had done it now. Their footing was even—that was significant. Allowing his expression to take on a bit of the sympathy he'd been concealing up until that point, Leon nodded towards the door that led out of the main hall and towards the undercroft. “Please, do get some rest. We can handle the rest, for the moment."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

“Thanks for coming, everyone." For once, Estella allowed herself to wear a smile openly, glancing between her assembled friends with a little bubble of warmth in her chest. She'd invited all of them to her rooms for the afternoon, with the promise of something to do to take their mind off everything else going on, and a chance to get out of the cold. She'd pretty much counted on Khari and Lia being there, but she was glad Asala had been able to get away from her work for a bit, and that Zahra was feeling up to it.

Of course, now she had to explain exactly what she had in mind. At present, her bedroom, located at the top of one of the smaller towers on the castle itself, was bare of what sparse furniture it normally had, and she'd laid cheesecloth over the floor. Several large ceramic jars sat nearly against one of the walls, an assortment of large brushes next to them. She'd had to ask Leon, Hissrad, and Reed for their help moving the jars and her furnishings, but apparently they hadn't minded.

“I... may have decided I'd like to paint in here," she explained, gesturing to the blank walls. “I thought maybe you all would like to help? If it just seems like work, you don't have to, obviously, but I thought it might be fun if we all did it together." Folding her hands behind her, she rocked back on her heels.

Khari, who'd looked confused up until that point—likely due to the absence of furniture—grinned broadly. “I can't draw for shit, but if you don't care about that, then I'm in. What kinds of colors did you get?" She crouched next to one of the jars and removed the lid with a soft pop. When the hue in question turned out to be a verdigris pigment, her eyes lit up.

“Oh, this is nice. Let's do it!"

“Glad you like it," Estella said with some humor. “I wasn't sure what colors to choose, but thankfully we had a bit of everything leftover from the renovations to Skyhold, so there's all kinds of things there." She turned to the other three with a smile. “Give us a hand?"

"Absolutely!" Lia jumped quickly to the task, and searching until she found a dark enough shade of green. "You know, I tried to decorate the Alienage sort of like this when I was little. I don't remember where we got the paint from. Nothing as nice as this, though." She stooped to pick up one of the jars and carried it over to a wall she deemed in need of her services.

"'Course, I had to use my fingers for that. Father wasn't too pleased when he found me decorating the inside of our house." She smiled wistfully at the thought, and got to work, dipping her brush into the paint and starting on a design.

"Tammy gave Meraad and I each a side of the wall of our home to paint as we wished," Asala added, popping open another can with a thin barrier. She then dipped the edge of the barrier into the paint, and when she pulled it out, a thin film of burnt orange lined the barrier. She nodded and let the barrier dissipate, letting the paint fall back into the can with a quiet splash. "He was... liberal in his application," Asala added with smile.

Apparently satisfied with the hue, Asala reached for a brush and inspected the walls, as if to try and find the best place to begin.

“Sounds like fun. I’m in too,” Zahra stood around them as they fished through the collection of paints. She scratched at her chin and walked between them. Perusing the assortment Estella had scrounged up. She stooped low to expect them and strode away, hands plucking lids off and popping them back on. “Might ask one of you to paint the new figurehead. Riptide will be needing one.”

“We always painted our own boats. Little one-sailed shifts. Ridiculous colors, most times—they hated that,” She offered. A scoff of laughter followed. Whatever memory she was recalling probably had more to it then that. She’d been smiling more lately. It appeared as if this get together had worked on her, at least, in softening her bristled edges. She popped a few more open before idling her hand on top of one particular shade of blue: turquoise. She scooped it up and claimed a spot of her own beside Lia, already working out a pattern.

She paused occasionally, glancing at everyone else’s pallets.

Estella herself started with a shade of blue, though she spent considerably more time staring at the wall than she did actually painting anything. It was a fault of hers, she knew; she'd work herself up so much that the specter of failure nearly paralyzed her, even failure at something so simple.

But... everyone else was starting in on their parts, and they were doing it for her, with her. She took a deep breath and tried to let go of the need to do this right—what did it matter if whatever she did wasn't spectacular? There would be no one up here ever to see, beyond these people that wouldn't mind in the slightest.

She'd just made the first stroke when a rapid series of patters on the cheesecloth alerted her to Gil and Elia's arrival. While Bibi spent his time at the clinic, Hanne lived in Leon's office, and Pia never left Cyrus alone, the other two tended to wander, and return to her quarters when they wanted to sleep or avail themselves of willing human attention.

Of course, 'human' wasn't really the right modifier. Elia twined himself around Lia's feet, meowing up at her in a plaintive tone, while Gil made straight for Zahra, apparently very interested in the laces of the captain's boots.

Zahra paused between strokes when the small ball of fur bumbled up and began swatting at her boots. Her grin widened as she stuck the brush behind her ear. She hadn’t gotten very far in her design but it was clear that she intended it to be nautical-based. Loose sweeps of waves. Perhaps, a boat would be the feature.

She plopped down on the ground and loosened her laces enough so that she could pluck one end between her fingers, dangling in front of Gil so that she could entice him to play. It worked well enough. He, too, plopped on the ground and slapped at it with his paws while he squirmed on his back. “More the merrier, right? Kitten,” she glanced over at Asala and her workspace, before laughing and resuming her play.

"Wha-huh?" Asala stammered, both surprised and confused. It seemed like Asala thought Zahra was speaking to her, and she appeared to be too deep in concentration to tell whether or not Zahra may have been speaking to the actual cat or her. "Wait... Uh, sure," she said, nodding along regardless, though it still seemed like she was somewhat confused.

Near where Asala sat, a geometric shape was beginning to take form. A rather large triangle sat askew on the wall, with two orange edges slightly bowing inward while the third was straight an an arrow. She seemed to be just starting on the interior lines, with a light blue one stretching from the straight line to one of the bowed ones, itself slightly bowed outward. Judging by how perfect her line work was, it appeared that her barriers were vital.

Khari apparently found Asala's confusion hilarious. Certainly at least funny enough to look like. Her painting wasn't quite as terrible as she'd suggested with her previous comment. The tree she was painting was at least basically passable, in a more stylized way than true realism. “You have no idea what she just said, do you?" It seemed to be a mostly rhetorical question.

"Nooot... really," she said, answering the rhetorical question.

There was an audible thump as Zahra flopped onto her back and regarded Khari and Asala across the way. She absently wriggled her fingers in front of the kitten’s face, as she propped herself up on one elbow. She blinked up at their work spaces, and her smile broadened, “I’ve never seen straighter lines. Reminds me of the streets in your village.”

"Would you like a better look?" Lia asked the little cat at her feet. She crouched down a scooped the little creature up in one arm. He seemed not to mind, far more interested in pawing at her than observing what she was painting. "These symbols are for Sylaise. She keeps the hearth." Lia had been working with a pair of colors so far, the green being used to create a fairly complex pattern of twisting vines, along with a vibrant pink at various points, where flowers bloomed. Her amateur work actually wasn't all that bad, and she seemed somewhat proud of it.

"Her fire will keep our Lady Inquisitor warm even in the cold winters here," Lia continued, educating the kitten, "and her care will heal her after hard battles." The kitten began to lick at her face, where similar markings had been tattooed years ago. They were of a different goddess, however, one more suited to Lia's lifestyle. The scout pulled her brush away, smiling through her slight annoyance. "She won't do anything, however, if you mess up my painting, so behave yourself."

Estella snorted softly. Her own selection, a cluster of constellations with the lines traced between the individual stars, was taking up decent shape on the wall, but she set her brush down for a moment, moving over to Lia. “Here," she said. “I'll get him out of your hair. I think I've got a bit of string..." She rummaged through her pockets until she found what she was looking for, then reached out to take Gil from her friend.

He was easy to satisfy, fortunately, and preoccupied himself batting around the snippet of yarn for a while. They'd been working for about an hour when someone knocked on the doorframe. Estella turned, spotting Livia hesitating at the threshold, a tray in-hand.

“You can come in," she assured her, offering a smile. “Were you asked to find one of us?" She didn't recall making any requests, and Livia was a bit too retiring to venture here without some reason or another.

Livia returned the smile, shaking her head a little. Her braids knocked together, producing a soft metallic chime from the cheap ornaments woven into them. "Cyrus asked me to bring you this. He said you'd have friends by for something." The tray was laden down with what smelled like coffee and tea, with small containers of the cinnamon and nutmeg Estella preferred in her coffee, as well as more ordinary things like sugar, milk, and honey. "I'll just leave it here, shall I?"

Estella was more than a little surprised Cyrus had even known to do something like that. She'd mentioned her plans for this only once in passing, and she could have sworn he'd been completely in his own head at the time. Still, the refreshment was welcome, as far as she was concerned. “That sounds good. Thank you, Livia. Does anyone want tea or coffee?"

Just at a glance, most of the designs looked nearly finished; she was eager to see what they'd come up with.

Khari finished filling in a bit of green on her tree; it wasn't especially skillful, but from the way parts of it were shaded and highlighted in other versions of the same color, it did have a certain kind of depth to it. “Oh, tea. Yes please." She took it with quite a lot of honey, but no sugar.

There was an appreciative sniff from Zahra’s corner of the wide chamber, followed by the sound of hands scuffling against knees, and approaching footsteps, “Smells good. Thanks, love.” She’d snatched up her own odd mixture of coffee, tea and an unhealthy dollop of cinnamon and nutmeg in equal proportions. From the looks of it, she had a major sweet-tooth. With her cup in hand, she resumed her station.

What had appeared like the sea’s waves, hadn’t been the ocean at all. Rather, it was the sky. Fat white clouds mixed with light grays filtered through a sea-worthy sky. A red-wood ship was painted in vibrant, wild strokes, as if it were cutting through them—flying rather than sailing. It’s sails were black as night. Given her lackadaisical attitude, there was a surprising amount of details. As if she’d done it before. The jolly roger she’d drawn flapping on the mast was of unknown origins: a red hand grasping an arrow.

"I'd love some tea," Lia said, heading over to Estella and trading her brush for a cup. Her work was just about finished, covering a good portion of the section of wall she'd chosen to work on. "Do you like it? I thought maybe Mythal, but this seemed like a better fit for a room. Some of the flowers don't look quite right from here, actually. Need to fix those..."

“It's lovely," Estella replied honestly, adding a dash of cinnamon to her cup. She loved the way it smelled. “And I like the flowers. I wasn't sure there'd be any use for the pink, but it's such a pretty color." She glanced over at where Zahra was still working. “I seem to have acquired my own pirate ship as well, which is something I never thought I'd say."

That left one. “Asala? Can I see yours, as well?" She was willing to bet it would be precisely-executed and colorful, but beyond that, she had no guess at all.

Asala was sprawled across the floor on her belly near the tray that held the tea and coffee, her hands just reaching a cup that held coffee and a carafe of milk. She'd been in the middle of pouring milk into her coffee when Estella called. She looked up from her prone position before turning to look at the painting on the wall, though she made no move to get up. "Oh, sure," she said, using a leg to gesture toward the wall.

The orange triangle was now filled in with several blue lines, each bowing inward until they finally met in the middle. The lines gave the painting an illusion of depth, as if the triangle continued beyond the wall. She pulled the coffee closer to her mouth before she took another glance at the painting. "The corners stand for the mind, body, and soul while the angle represents balance," she explained, taking a sip of the coffee. Her eyes lit up for a moment and she stared at it before continuing the explanation. "The lines gives it strength. This coffee is good," she added, quickly.

Taken together, the designs were an almost-comical mismatch in style, color, and honestly even the skill with which they were applied. Estella loved them. “Thank you, everyone. These are beautiful."

She took a sip of her coffee, watching Zahra finish up the last parts of the boat's design. Even without any of the furniture, the room felt more like home than it had since she'd moved into it.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

0.00 INK

At its heart, the city of Jader was a fishing port. It borrowed from both the Fereldans and Orlesians, creating a chaotic miss-mash of architecture. There was a practical simplicity clearly reminiscent of Ferelden stonework, coupled with Orlesian whimsy of columns and vibrant colors. Bright and loud. Where one faltered in sophistication, Orlais offered its fancies. Ferelden tempered it with a genuineness it would have lacked otherwise. Besides, as impressive as its aesthetics were, it wasn’t what Zahra was looking for. Seeing as it was the closest shipyard in relation to Skyhold… it was the best they could do. She readjusted the bundle in her arms and swung her gaze skyward.

The Riptide was neatly anchored in Jader’s dry dock. Surrounding the ship were several neat piles of timber, binds, and pad parts. Thick rope, as well. Fortunately the main mast hadn’t been hit. Replacing it was far more trouble than it was worth—the holes, however, were just as much of a pain. The railings had been ravaged by one of the cannonballs, and its midsection had been pierced as well. They’d had to cut and remove some of the boards; bowed in as they were. The holds were a mess. The first cannonball Borja had fired hadn’t pierced through the entire vessel, and had rolled about inside. As soon as they’d returned, it was the first thing to be removed. Nixium had taken her station next to anyone who’d begun placing down boards. Smoothing her fingers across the gaps, until the wooden pieces molded and merged together.

Zahra had instructed the others to clean up the holds, carry boards and set about with hammers, nails, and ropes. There was much to do, and the weather had held enough not to feel uncomfortable. Hefting wood up and down the gangplank would’ve warmed them up anyhow. She, too, bustled around the shipyard. She’d also visited the local tavern in order to buy a few bottles of wine for anyone whose thirst couldn’t be quenched by the casket of water settled beside the nearest building. Damn Borja. Her collection of vintages had perished in the battle. Shattered and wasted on the lower decks. A damn waste.

“More work than it’s worth if you ask me,” Garland guffed from beside her, scratching at his beard. He seemed more irritated the usual, but it was probably because of the influx of work he’d been handed. Sweat beaded on his brow, and his hair was slicked back from his face.

“Good thing then—I wasn’t,” her grin cracked wider when she turned to face him, dumping the load of wood into his arms without waiting to see if he’d catch it. He did. Barely. They were empty, anyhow. He made a noise, clearly annoyed before clambering up the gangplank and onto the deck.

Among those who'd joined the crew in their repair efforts was Estella. It was clear enough that her knowledge of ships and the requirements of repair was minimal, but she'd made herself useful clearing away broken boards and glass and the like from the lower decks until that was done. Now, she mostly ran supplies to people who knew what they were doing, hauling boards and buckets of nails up and down the gangplank with diligent steadiness. She'd tied her hair up and away from her face and neck; she dressed like any of the others working on the Riptide, with no indications of rank or position.

On one trip down for more supplies, she passed Zahra by and smiled. “The fore hold is shaping up pretty nicely; the crew down there say they'll probably be done in half an hour." She shifted her grip on the laden buckets she was carrying and wiped her forehead with her sleeve near the shoulder.

“Appreciate you coming up here, we’re making good time,” Zahra said, offering a soft smile and a free hand for one of the buckets Estella carried. She didn’t mind helping out anyone who wasn’t Garland. His whining was a small victory, in a sense. If he wasn’t such a damn good shipwright, she would’ve thrown him off ages ago. Anyone who couldn’t understand the value of salvaging Riptide as long as possible, didn’t deserve to call themselves a raider. He’d never ran under different sails before, as she had. This was her first ship. Her first crew. Assembled by her and Aslan back before they’d scrounged up their motley crew.

It was the closest thing to a home she’d ever had.

Fortunately, she’d acquired extra hands on her way to Redcliffe: Estella, Vesryn and Asala. She was grateful they’d come along with her, even if they hadn’t needed to. It lessened the workload and would make Riptide seaworthy far quicker than if she’d had to rely solely on her crew. Asala’s magical prowess proved invaluable, shifting the larger boards with ease. Estella’s eye for detail had proven equally useful. The ship’s inner belly looked even more organized then it’d been before. And for an elf so pretty, Vesryn was stronger than he appeared. His humor, as well, seemed to brighten the sour mood as of late.

Once they stepped down the stairs, the smell of shallots and garlic met their noses. Brialle was busying herself in Riptide’s kitchen, preparing lunch for those who’d grown hungry after toiling for hours. A soft, melodic hum came from that direction. A sea-chanty she recognized. Her stomach lurched and gave an unseemly growl. Zahra grinned and gently bumped her shoulder into Estella’s, “Looks like it’s about time for a break anyhow.”

They encountered Vesryn underneath, the elf lugging a very heavy looking canvas sack over one shoulder. He'd been working tirelessly at collecting anything and everything that needed to be removed from the ship, which mostly consisted of things blasted apart by the cannonballs or damaged when the ships had crashed together in the storm. He'd set to the work cheerfully, and indeed gave them a smile in greeting as he passed. "Ladies. Lunch sounds fantastic."

He looked to be enjoying himself, honestly, despite the dull manual labor. He'd worked up a sheen of sweat and managed to get his shirt half-unbuttoned so his chest (and most of his torso) would have room to breathe. It remained to be seen if the shirt would end up in the trash pile, too. He paused at the base of the stairs. "Looks like she held up pretty well, all things considered. Under Qunari cannon fire, no less. No small feat." His expression seemed to grow a bit more serious and genuine. "I'm sorry I couldn't be there. The whole affair was a bit over my head."

Zahra settled the bucket down by a neat stack of crates and stretched out her arms above her head: cat-like. She cracked her neck from side to side, and set to work dragging extra chairs to the long table settled in the largest hold Riptide had to offer. They had all their meals down here, as a crew should. Stale biscuits and salted meat be damned when you had a decent enough cook aboard. When one could afford better ingredients, and expensive wines, it would’ve been a shame to punish themselves with poorer fare. While she’d never boast of all the things they’d had to do to accumulate their fortunes, it was obvious that they didn’t lack in that department.

She plopped herself into one of the chairs and kicked up her feet on the table, boots and all. The sound of food snapping in the foreground was all the more apparent the closer they ventured—just around the bend was Brialle’s kitchen. A place christened by the little lass herself. Off-limits to anyone else, she’d say. Unless they wanted to help with dishes. It smelt of butter and some sort of mild fish, mixed with the shallots and garlic she’d noted earlier. She looked over her shoulder and waved Estella over, hooking her arm over the back of the chair so she could swing her attention onto Vesryn’s face, “Can’t say she’s been through worse.” She shook her head and arched an eyebrow, “And risk that face?” Her wicked smile diminished a few inches, and softened around the edges, “Don’t worry about it. You’ve more than made up for that.”

"Hardly," Vesryn replied, dismissive, "And I do have a helmet, you know. Keeps this face of mine intact. Dare say I look rather dashing in it." With that, he made his way up to remove the refuse he'd collected from the ship. No doubt he would soon return for the food.

A dull thump drew their attention to the door. Asala stood slightly outside of it, rubbing her forehead while pouting at the top of the door frame. Judging by the bruise already blossoming, it'd not been the first time she'd ran into one of them. One of the crew, whom she'd been following apparently, turned and quickly hid his grin. "Wh-what?" she stammered, hiding the bruise, but the crewmate said nothing and continued on his way.

Asala had her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, revealing the base of her horns and giving door frames a clear shot to her forehead. She wore a thin sleeveless shirt with a wide neck and which cut off at the midriff, her crimson cloak tied into a knot at her waist. She, like the others, had worked up a sheen of sweat. "Th-they, uh, said it was cl-close to lunchtime?" Asala asked, apparently reverting back into her shell while around the rest of Zahra's crew, whom she had not had a chance to get to know as much as Zahra and Estella. The blush on her face said that she'd rather them not had seen her bash her head on the door frame either.

Estella smiled in a way likely intended to be reassuring, and patted the seat on the other side of her. “It is. Sit next to me?" She made no mention of the blunder against the doorframe, as though she hadn't noticed it in the first place.

Asala smiled and nodded, quietly taking the offered seat.

Zahra had a harder time ignoring the fact that Asala had bonked her head on the ship’s door frame. Her mouth stippled itself into a wavering smile, before crooking into a simpering smirk. Her laughter sputtered out like a leaky facet. How many times had she seen Aslan smack his horns into the wooden frames? Dangling ropes? Unfortunately, Riptide hadn’t been designed to cater to anyone whose stature was above average. While she hadn’t seen it firsthand, she assumed Leon had had the same troubles when he was aboard. A shame, really. She would’ve liked to see him as flustered as Asala seemed to be. She nodded her head and unhooked her arm from around the chair in order to face them properly.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said as she knuckled at her watering eyes, clearly thinking it was much more amusing than anyone else, “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen that happen.” As soon as she regained control of herself, she cleared her throat and smoothed her fingers across the wooden surface of the table, “Ah. Yes, it’s nearly ready,” she added with a conspiratorially wag of her eyebrows, “It might just be the most delicious thing you’ve tasted—”

“Don’t listen to her. It’s fine on an empty stomach. Nothin’ fancy,” a slight elf-woman with blond curls interrupted with a sheepish smile, hands occupied by a large pewter-platter. A peculiar item for a pirate ship, but given their prior affairs… perhaps not so surprising.

Brialle set the platter in the middle of the table, and brought out a few more platters. One had an arrangement of fragrant fish toppled on top of each other, garnished with shallots and wild mushrooms. Others had fresh bread and a round of old cheese. Diced fruits, as well. Afterward, she set smaller pewter plates in front of them and retreated back into the kitchen with a content hum. “Nothing fancy she says,” Zahra snorted.

"You know," Vesryn said after he'd come back down the stairs, free of any heavy load, "I don't think I've ever been served a meal by a pirate before." He slipped into an open seat at the table, surveying the array before him. "Seems I should make a habit of it, though."

Zahra’s clapped the table, making platters jump, before she laughed, “Well, you’re always welcome aboard this ship.”

Estella carefully served herself from the platters nearest her, occasionally diverting the spoons on their way to her plate to someone else's instead, if one got shoved in her general direction. Eating meals in a large group that wasn't too stuffy about their manners meant it happened more than a few times.

“Oh, nectarines. I haven't had one of those in years." She seemed quite excited by the prospect, and lifted half of one to her plate with something approaching reverence. “I suppose I should be questioning your supply lines, but I think I'm going to selfishly enjoy this instead of asking." She bit into the tender fruit with relish.

Asala was busy helping herself to fish, shallots, and mushrooms when Estella spoke. She leaned over and whispered, though quite loudly enough for Zahra to hear, though from her expression it wasn't meant to be some sort of secret. "Pirate," she answered with grin and a flutter of fingertips.

“Say it isn't so," Estella quipped back in the same stage whisper, apparently unable to help the slight smile she wore.

Zahra was busy stuffing her face, though she’d noticed the conversation going on to her side. She leaned towards them and grinned wide, arm hooked behind her chair. “I prefer the term… opportunist.”

“Then I guess this is an opportunity to remodel the ship. Should we put in anything new while we're at it? A bar, perhaps?" Estella nudged a tankard a little closer to Zahra, perhaps sensing that she was going to need to wash all that food down at some point. “Day spa? New cannon? We might actually be able to get you one of those, eventually."

“You’ve read my mind. Maybe, on all accounts,” Zahra tapped a fork to her lips, and dropped it in lieu of the tankard slipped in front of her face. Who was she ever to turn down a drink? Opportunities and all that. She settled her hands around it and arched an inquisitive eyebrow, “I’m thinking it’s time that Riptide had a little more kick.”

Sailing fast no longer suited her purpose. If she had more bite? It’d mean all the difference. A Qunari-crafted cannon with those damned cannon balls?

It’d suit her just fine.

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

It was a few days' ride out from Skyhold to this part of the Orlesian countryside. From what the others had said, it was somewhere near a place called the Exalted Plains. This region, though, was a bit hillier than anything properly called a plain, and at times the road led them into wooded areas, surrounding them with the pale bark of ash trees and dimming the natural illumination from the sun overhead.

Khari rode at the front of their little group, astride the sorrel horse Dennet had initially provided her. Romulus rode quietly beside her. Despite his injuries having almost entirely healed, he didn't look very comfortable atop the horse. Behind them, Asala rode at a close clip. Primarily because Khari held the reins to her horse. She still hadn't quite learned the basics of riding a horse yet, and mainly focused on gripping the saddle pommel to try and not fall off. Estella, perhaps the only other particularly experienced rider, had elected to take the rear guard position. Zahra rode slightly in the back, closer to Estella. If she was having any difficulties astride a horse, she was doing well to hide it. Gripping the reins in both hands, she seemed to busy herself by looking at their surroundings.

The stippled sunlight made the shadows in between the trees seem longer, deeper. A slightly-uneasy feeling hung over the place, almost like there were eyes on their backs, looking out from someplace Asala couldn't quite find. Every once in a while, Khari would turn her head sharply, glaring towards a different part of the wood, a frown slowly etching its way deeper into her face. But then her attention would turn forward again, a muttered something under her breath the only indication that it was more than mere watchfulness.

Though the weather was still mild in the part of Thedas they were in, Asala still clutched her cloak tightly. She felt that they were being watched, but could not figure out from where or from whom, no matter how intently she stared off into the trees. Perhaps it was simply paranoia, of being so far away from Skyhold in an unfamiliar land. Despite the reach of the Inquisition's influence, she herself had not ventured far into Orlesian land. Still, she couldn't quite buck the feeling that something was off.

"So, uh..." she began, if only to break the silence, Are we th-there yet?" she asked, though the answer truly didn't matter. She only wanted hear something that wasn't the crackle of leaves or brushing of tree limbs.

Khari shook her head in response, glancing back over her shoulder at Asala. “We're close. Ser Durand doesn't usually cross into the forest, but this path will put us back out in the hills within another couple of miles." She sounded certain enough that she must have been personally familiar with the trail. Pushing a breath out of her nose, she spoke a little louder, probably so that her words would carry back to Estella and Zahra.

“Don't mind the prying eyes. They know as well as I do that this is nobody's land. I'm not even sure what they're doing here—it's not like them to get this close to the edge of the woods." She shifted a bit in her saddle, dropping her feet out of the stirrups and rotating her ankles.

“You mean the Dalish, right?" Estella spoke up from a few meters behind them. She also seemed to have the vague sense that people were around, but like Asala, it didn't appear that she could pinpoint anything specific. “If... you don't mind me asking, would the clan or clans around here be yours?" The question was tentative; perhaps she anticipated it going over poorly.

“It's usually only the one, this close to the Plains." Khari shifted her line of sight to peer deeper into the trees. “And yeah... that'd be the Genardalia. Mine, once." She shrugged; it wasn't really clear how she felt about that. The tone she used to discuss it was oddly uninflected, for her.

“We could... I mean, if you wanted to see anyone, I don't think it would hurt to make a stop," Estella suggested, trying to follow the direction of Khari's eyes and evidently not finding anything. “Just, you know... a visit, or something."

Khari snorted, shaking her head emphatically. “That's kind of you, Stel, really. But it wouldn't be some kind of warm, happy reunion. They probably think I'm dead—and honestly, it's better that way. I'm not exactly the pride of the clan, if you know what I mean." The trees around them began to thin, admitting more sunlight, and gradually, the feeling that they weren't quite alone started to fade.

While Zahra hadn’t outright made any inflections on the creeping sensation of being watched… she did appear more at ease when the trees thinned out.

"They'll know you're not dead now," Romulus added, visibly relaxing a bit once they got clear of the thickest wooded areas. "Assuming we were being watched by someone that would recognize you." He paused for a bit, observing the landscapes around them. He'd seemed much more at ease, all things considered, since leaving Skyhold for a while. The traveling seemed to be doing him some good. "We're not expecting any trouble from them, right?" he asked. From his tone, it was obvious he didn't think so, but Dalish clans did often differ on how they treated outsiders.

Khari made a noncommittal sound, but apparently decided that was insufficient as an answer. “No. They're not friendly, but they're not hostile, either. They won't—"

Whatever she was going to say next was interrupted by the sound of something very much like an explosion. From the noise, it had happened somewhere in front of them. Khari immediately tensed, hooking her feet back into the stirrups. “Hold on, Asala. We're gonna go a little faster now." She nudged her horse's flanks with her heels, goading him into a canter; Asala's horse followed suit with no input needed from her.

As they drew closer to the source of the noise, they could make out other sounds: people shouting, the occasional clang of metal. Clearly, someone was also using magic; a plume of smoke rose from behind the hill in front of them, the roar of fire intensifying in the way that only spells had—all at once, in a burst that faded again soon after.

When they crested the hill, Khari let go of Asala's reins, drawing her sword from behind her. The scene was chaotic, for how few people it seemed to involve. A group of about ten men, rough-and-tumble looking, wielded maces, clubs, and swords against what seemed to be a pair of Dalish. One of the two was already heavily-injured, doubled over and pressing a hand to her side, unable to fire her bow.

The other was the source of the magic; he threw bright handfuls of fire at the oncoming humans, but he kept casting worried looks at the covered wagon behind them, as though hesitant to do anything with it so close to his targets.

“Shit." Khari grimaced, quickly turning to Asala. “Can you shield that wagon? Zee, cover fire?"

“Gotcha’!” Zahra spurned her horse and broke away from their troupe. She was already unslinging the bow from her back in one smooth motion. For one who preferred the rocking decks of a ship, she appeared to be doing just fine, even as the horse jostled her in its saddle.

Asala nodded and looked down at the horse she sat upon. She hesitated, worried about what would happen once Khari let go of the reins. Feeling that she would be best suited on the ground than helplessly flailing around on a horse, she drew her staff from the saddlebags and pulled her foot out from one of the stirrups. However, her grace left something to be desired. As she went to dismount her other foot got caught and she fell forward. The horse was spooked by the sudden impact, but Asala was fortunate enough that she was able to swing her foot free before the horse began to leave.

She scrambled forward to take a hold of her staff and rose to her knees, driving the end into the ground. The staff lit up in a blue glow as a wide barrier materialized in front of both the wagon and the injured elf, but behind the magic wielding one so that his vision remained unimpeded. With the barrier erected, her offhand fell from the staff and took on a blue glow of its own. Though the barriers from that hand would not be as strong because of the other's strength, they would still prove useful in the right spots.

With the barrier erected, she rose to her feet and slowly began to advance toward the wagon, dividing her concentration there and the battle in front.

While Asala had taken a more practical route, conjuring a glistening shield that kept errant arrows at bay, Zahra’s technique was not so well thought out. Lady luck must’ve been on her side, because none of the arrows scored its mark. Her horse, however, did not seem to like being pushed so hard. Its hooves kicked up dirt and one arrow hissed close enough to spook it. She nearly took a tumble, but managed to unseat herself and roll neatly out of the way of its legs.

She came up as gracefully as she could manage and shook herself off. She was even quicker to scramble behind Asala and notch arrows, as they both approached the wagon. She loosed them into the line of grungy-looking individuals, not particularly careful with her aim until they reached it. Only then did she hunker down and squint her eyes, exhaling on each release. One arrow bit into a man’s exposed neckline, straight through a slit in his rusted gorget. For a moment, he didn’t seem to be aware that he was dying. Hands clawed at the air, before he toppled over with one final wet gurgle.

Every other arrow was aimed at their knees, legs and arms, in order to incapacitate them enough to be finished off with gusto.

Khari didn't have anything remotely approaching a ranged combat option, but that was apparently just fine by her. She shot a glance at Estella and Romulus, jerking her chin down to where the gap was swiftly closing between what were obviously bandits and the two Dalish. “Trust me, those guys are bad news. Mind lending a hand?"

She didn't really wait for the answer so much as went for it anyway, letting go of her reins and squeezing her horse with her legs, guiding him down the hill at a charge, taking a doublehanded grip on her cleaver. By that point, the bandit group had noticed them—as had the Dalish. They didn't have much time to react, save that the cluster of men she was charging at tried to scatter. Doubtless, being trampled was not something they wanted to risk. But Khari adjusted her trajectory, and swung down at one of the men as she passed, the momentum of the horse's charge cleaving his head from his shoulders. She jerked with the impact, but kept her seat, steering for the next.

Estella's charge wasn't quite as direct, but she maneuvered her horse almost as well, pulling around to flank those that attempted to retreat. The height advantage of being mounted worked well in her favor; she felled another man with a broad slash to his chest. One tried to sneak up on her from behind, but one of Zahra's arrows swiftly prevented that from becoming a problem, and she was able to meet the next head-on.

On some cue that Asala could not see from where she was, Nox reared, his front hooves catching one of the other bandits in the temple. When the horse landed, he caved the man's ribcage in. Estella grimaced, but did not pause.

Romulus used his horse only for closing the distance, not really having any weapons on his person that were suited for mounted combat. He pulled his crossbow from where it was secured on his back and loosed the already loaded bolt, striking a bandit in the back of his neck. He would not die immediately, but he was removed from the fight, falling backwards and choking. Returning the crossbow, Romulus dismounted while Khari and Estella charged through them, following in their wake.

He was more than willing to capitalize on the opportunities from men getting out of the way of Khari's horse. One had to dive face first, and he was unable to get back up or even see Romulus coming before he'd plunged his dagger first deep into his side, then into his chest after he'd rolled the man over. An adrenaline-induced shout gave away one of the bandits coming to strike him, and Romulus was able to parry away the bandit's club with his shield. He slipped his dagger into the exposed ribcage, and elbowed him down. He searched warily for more threats, but the shock of their charge had easily scattered the bandits away from the Dalish.

No few of those scattered fell to the ground aflame, either, and in truth, their interruption turned things around extremely quickly. Without an overwhelming advantage of numbers, the bandits lost morale almost simultaneously. None of them seemed all that skilled to begin with.

It couldn't have been more than five minutes before all of them were dead or unconscious; only at that point did Khari swing down from her horse, pushing her hood down and stomping to the back of the covered wagon. “Fucking Jackals, always after the same damn thing." There was, Asala was close enough to spot, a rusty-looking lock on the back of the wagon, holding its back doors shut. “Hey! If you can hear me, move back in there!" Khari wasted no time in heaving her cleaver over her shoulder and slamming it into the wood. Like she'd split a log, the doors splintered and cracked; She reached into the hole she'd made and ripped away chunks of wood.

"K-Kharisanna? Is that really—" The two Dalish had moved closer. The mage had his archer companion half-supported over his shoulders. She wore a wary expression, casting her eyes about at all of them as though she wasn't quite sure if they should still be fighting or not. His face, though, had quickly shifted into a look of clear surprise.

Khari seemed to ignore him, if she heard him at all. Her focus was on dismantling the doors, and it quickly became obvious why: the wagon contained living cargo. Three elves, two with the characteristic tattoos of the Dalish, and one without. All had been expertly gagged and trussed. “Help me untie them, guys? Don't really want to cut ropes with Intercessor..."

“Of course." Estella moved forward immediately, but with a great deal of deliberate slowness, as though she were worried about startling the occupants of the wagon. Carefully, she drew her dagger. “I'm just going to get the ropes off, I promise." It didn't totally seem to assuage the evident fear the captives had, but the first offered up his arms for her help readily enough. She delicately slid the knife through the bindings, then repeated for the ones on his feet, allowing him to remove his own gag.

Romulus was quick to move to the back of the wagon after Estella, and also quick to wipe the blood from his dagger. He gave the two elves that had been fighting a respectful berth, watching them seemingly only to confirm that they were not also a threat. At the rear of the wagon, he seemed content to not add anything after Estella had assured them of their intentions, instead only slicing the bonds from the first prisoner willing to be freed by him.

While everyone else worked to free the elves, Asala approached the mage and the archer. "Um," Asala began trying to get their attention. She held a tight grip on the collar of her cloak, and now that two pairs of unfamiliar eyes were upon her, she slunk into her shoulders somewhat. Regardless, she continued, pointing toward the wound in her side, "Would you, uh, allow me to-to take a look at that?" she said gently. She wanted to immediately check the wound, but these were strangers, and any out-of-line movement would only put them more on edge.

It took the Dalish woman a second to realize that Asala was speaking to her specifically, it seemed. She frowned slightly, then shook her head. "That is not necessary." Her companion sighed, but did not attempt to convince her otherwise.

Her mouth worked for a moment, trying to come up with the words to suggest otherwise, but none would come. Instead, she sighed quietly and slowly reached into her pack and retrieved a vial containing a crimson liquid. She went to hand it to the mage this time, explaining, "It is a, uh, a potion. It will... stem the bleeding. At least." There was a certain plea in her voice this time. He accepted with a small nod, but his attention was clearly mostly elsewhere.

As Estella and Romulus worked on the elves’ bindings, Zahra had trotted off to retrieve her snorting steed, busy kicking up grass and dirt a few paces ahead. When she’d successfully berated the horse for tossing her off like a sack of potatoes, she returned with the horse in hand, reins held in a fist. Her eyes raked across the hills, even though they’d clearly overtaken the bandits. She seemed apprehensive of approaching the caged elves, though she gave no indication why. She certainly wasn’t surprised seeing living cargo, “Jackals? That who they were?”

The three captives, once freed, worked themselves out of the wagon. Khari stood back to allow them to move past her at a respectable distance, flicking her eyes to Zahra for a moment. “Bandit outfit. You can always tell them by the neckerchiefs." She pointed down at one of the corpses, which was indeed wearing a red square of fabric, folded in half and tied around his neck. “They're nasty shits, and the only ones around here who traffic in skin. They like to load them up on boats and send them to Tevinter." She made a noise of disgust.

"Kharisanna." The Dalish man was more insistent this time, his use of her name more certain. As though with great reluctance, Khari turned her attention to him.

What, Vareth?" Her tone could have peeled paint.

He didn't seem surprised by it, exactly. Vareth was dark haired and dark-eyed, somewhere around Estella's height—but he carried himself well enough that he looked a little taller. Vallaslin decorated his forehead and chin; the patterns were different from either Khari's or Lia's. "You—" He didn't quite seem to know what to say to her. "Everyone thought you were—but what happened?"

“I left." She stared flatly at him, clearly unwilling to explain any further than that. “You should get these people back to the clan. I'm assuming that's why the scouts are in the woods."

"They—yes. We'd tracked the bandits for days, but... it wasn't safe to go past the woods, so when the trail went that way..."

Khari nodded tersely. An awkward silence descended. Despite her injunction, Vareth seemed hesitant to leave, and no one else appeared inclined to do anything without word from him.

“Um." Estella cleared her throat softly, smiling a bit too thinly for it to be wholly genuine. Still, she stepped a little closer to the locus of the conversation. “Pardon me, serah... Vareth?" She paused a moment, then soldiered on. “We actually came here in search of a chevalier. Perhaps you might have seen him around here somewhere?" Her eyes moved back and forth between the Dalish man and Khari.

Vareth's brow knit; he glanced at Estella. "Chevalier?" He grimaced. "Most of what's around here is bandits; they've been all over each other lately. Some kind of power struggle or other petty thing." His voice dripped with disdain. "The local chevaliers know to stay away from the forest, unlike the Jackals. But... yes. There was another who passed through the neutral area recently. But it was a woman. Tall, red hair. She had a group with her."

“Which way did she go?" Khari reentered the conversation with considerably more urgency than before.

Another too-long silence; Vareth looked reluctant to respond. "You're still chasing those knights, after all this time?"

Khari crossed her arms over her chest. “Still chasing the dead, after all this time?"

He sighed, shoulders slumping. His companion adjusted herself a bit, clearly unhappy and making it obvious by glaring daggers at Khari. "She went east from here." The woman ignored Vareth's look of reproach, and pointed her free hand in the right direction.

“Great. Let's go, everyone." Khari immediately reached for her horse, swinging herself up into the saddle.

"Kharisanna—"

“Don't call me that." She scowled. “I'd ask you not to tell the Keeper, either, but we both know you will."

He didn't seem to have any response to that.

Romulus had a bit farther to walk before he could mount up, but he was moving as soon as Khari was, his dagger sheathed and head turned away from the elves. He seemed very much inclined to follow her lead, and her lead was to remove herself from the presence of these elves with haste.

Zahra had already swung herself back into her saddle, and joined Khari at her side. She made a low humming sound in the back of her throat and cocked her head to the side, eyebrows raised in question—if the awkward conversation had bothered her at all… well, it probably didn’t. She did, however, have her own questions about the matter. She spoke as if they were already out of Vareth’s earshot, even though they weren’t.

“Likely we’ll be seeing them again? Because the tension is...” she let out a low whistle, and glanced over her shoulder. They still seemed rooted in place. As if simply staying their ground would arouse a less curt discussion from Khari.

“I damn well hope not."

Asala's gaze lingered on the Dalish for a moment before she too turned away, where she hesitated for a moment. She realized that after she'd freed herself from the saddle, she had no idea where the horse had gone. She looked one way, then the other before turning to her companions. "Um... Have any of you... seen my horse?" she asked, her face quickly turning a shade of scarlet.

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

The ride away from the scene of their short battle was considerably more somber than the earlier part of the excursion, and Estella found herself sorely missing the first few days, when Khari's enthusiasm had been palpable, and the conversation had come much more easily. Now, though, her friend looked pensive, withdrawn. She wasn't talking at all, and Estella missed that, too. Khari just didn't look like herself when she was in this kind of mood. Surely, everyone was more than allowed to have their down days, but... there was just something particularly wrong with the idea that she was bereft of her characteristic enthusiasm and verve.

The road was more open now, so there wasn't so much reason for them to ride in any particular formation. Estella had taken over the job of guiding Asala's horse along, and the moved them up a little bit, within polite conversation range of the others. “Um, Khari? Is—are you all right?" It seemed like a lame question, devoid of any particular insight or idea as to what could make things better. If anything could. But it was the only one she knew to ask.

It got Khari's attention at least; she'd been staring somewhat ahead and down for the better part of an hour, now, but she raised her head at the query, glancing sidelong at Estella. “Huh? Oh." Her brows furrowed, distorting her vallaslin slightly. “Uh... I mean, yeah. I'll be fine. It's just... been a while, since I had to think about all that. I don't usually like to dwell on the past." She sighed. “I said this already, but... my family probably thought I was dead. And even if none of the scouts recognized me, Vareth and Elasha definitely did. Which means pretty soon everyone's gonna know."

She tugged uncomfortably at her ear; her mouth pulled to one side in a lopsided grimace. “I'd really rather they didn't. I'm never going back; it's not like I was great for the clan when I was there, either. It's just... better, if they think I died or something."

"Why?" Romulus asked, the first word he'd said in a while. His mood had also obviously worsened since the battle and their encounter, but rather than seem lost mentally for the ride, he'd been hard in thought, trying to figure something out. It took the outbreak of conversation for him to finally speak, though. "Will they come after you? Doesn't seem like they bothered before." He frowned, eyes shifting across the horizon as they rode. He was always watchful, never more so than when it was quiet. "I'm no father, but... I think I would prefer to know if my child was alive." The last part was added very quietly, and for a moment he took his eyes off their surroundings, looking at nothing more specific than his horse's mane.

Asala nodded quietly in agreement.

Zahra said little on the matter. Whether she agreed with Khari, or Romulus, was a mystery. From what little she spoke about her own family, it might've been safe to assume that she, too, thought it best to be wary of whatever wayward kin that lied in the forests behind them. She led her horse astride theirs, and occasionally glanced across the way. Seeking any signs of trouble, if there was at all any. She’d opted to keep her bow nestled in her lap, instead of strapping it to her back.

“I don't know if they did before or not." Khari shrugged. “Either way... if I'm dead to them, then they don't have to think about me anymore. It's hard to explain, but—every elf in the clan is the responsibility of the clan, whether they want that responsibility or not. And for everyone who would have been fine letting me go, there's a few like Vareth who always wanted to convince me that I was making a mistake. That I should go back to being shitty at being Dalish instead of trying to be good at something else. It's not going to work. And it's better if they don't have to waste the effort. This way, they can believe whatever suits them, and no one has to deal with what the reality of the situation is."

She shook her head. “I tried, once. To get them to see things the way I do. I think I... hurt them. By turning my back on everything they see as sacred. Maybe my father would want to know I was alive. But the Keeper? The man who has to preserve all that's left of the past? I betrayed that man. And if he's moved on now, then he should be able to stay that way." She leaned down, rubbing at her horse's neck.

Estella of all people believed she could understand fraught and uncomfortable family circumstances. She'd run away from her homeland as well, though for reasons that amounted to far less than Khari's aspirations. But all the same, even knowing what family were uniquely capable of doing to each other, she had to wonder if that was really all there was to it. “You said Vareth would have tried to convince you? Were you friends?" It seemed like a complicated situation, but Khari wasn't refusing to talk about it, at least. Maybe it would help her if she did.

Khari let out a disbelieving snort. “He'd probably describe it that way, I guess. We sure as hell spent enough time together. He wanted to impress my dad, I think—figured if he could bring me back into the fold, that would do it. Followed me around everywhere when he wasn't getting lessons." She lifted her shoulders. “I could never decide if he was okay, or if I just hated his guts. He let me beat on him with a stick for fencing practice back before I knew the first damn thing about fencing, but... eh." She hesitated for a moment. “He was really good at everything, you know? All the stuff Dalish are supposed to be able to do. The hunting and the magic and even the crafting and looking after the halla. Pissed me right off most of the time."

“Well, I bet he would make a terrible chevalier," Estella said matter-of-factly. Truthfully, she could relate quite a bit, at least to the part where Khari had grown up next to someone who was remarkable and talented and easy to envy. Of course, she'd never been upset that her brother was all those things. She'd just developed a distinct sense of her own inferiority. She really hoped Khari didn't have one of those, but it was hard to say. Sometimes, her confidence was utterly convincing, but at others...

Zahra broke free from her silence with a loud snort. It gave way into an even louder laugh.

Asala barely suppressed a giggle at the sudden joke.

Khari didn't bother, laughing aloud instead. Even after it had faded, a small grin remained. “You're absolutely right, Stel. The whole clan would, in fact. Good thing there's me, then." Her smile softened for a moment; there was genuine appreciation in it. “Anyway, this shit is depressing. Let's talk about something else: I've never known there to be other chevaliers around here. But 'red hair and leading a small group' isn't a lot to go by, since that also describes me right now."

Romulus quietly cleared his throat. "He did say 'tall,' though."

"It is not her fault," Asala added with a teasing pout.

Khari made a face at both of them, sticking out her tongue. “Okay, fine, point taken. But if she's a chevalier, she was probably on a horse anyway, so she would have looked tall even if she wasn't." As counterpoints went, it was rather poor, and she seemed to know it. “But anyway, Stel, since you know a bunch of famous people... any chance you've met any tall red-haired chevalier women?"

Estella chuckled. Actually, she did know someone who met that description. “Well," she said, “it's possible he met Violette Routhier. I obviously don't know every chevalier in Orlais, but I do know she has a command rank, so she'd be leading people. I'm not sure what she'd be doing here though. Maybe something about the increase in bandits recently?"

It seemed they would be finding out soon enough. Cresting yet another hill, their group came upon what looked like a small encampment. It was set up against a small river on one side, but the landscape made it difficult to select a truly fortified position. This particular camp clearly made up for that with the volume of posted guards; no fewer than four men and women on horseback stood guard; the camp itself flew the standard of House Drakon—a silver dragon on dark green.

“Uh... that doesn't mean what I think it means, does it?" Khari's eyes were wide; it was clear what she thought it meant.

Estella was reluctant to burst her bubble, so to speak but it was probably better to do it before they approached the camp. “Sorry," she said, smiling a bit. “With the Civil War going on right now, no one flies the Orlesian flag on its own. Everyone uses either the Valmont one, the de Chalons standard, or the Drakon one, depending on who they side with. Violette is a captain under Grand Duke Guillame."

If Khari was trying to contain her disappointment, she did a pretty terrible job at it, but it passed quickly, at least. Pulling her horse to a stop, she looked back over at Estella, more thoughtfully now. “So, while I could try to explain, if this is really the lady you know, it might be better if you did it. Actually, maybe it's better if it's you anyway. One of the Inquisitors, and all." She shrugged.

Estella nodded. She'd sort of expected that; the fact that the camp flew the Drakon flag definitely narrowed down the possibilities—that faction was by far the smallest. Perhaps it was a bit misleading to even call it a faction, since what they were really focused on was continuing with standard chevalier duties while the rest killed each other over what amounted to a political dispute. She'd certainly inherited her commander's viewpoint on how much sense that made, though she'd have thought the same anyway. “I can do that," she confirmed.

They rode towards the camp deliberately, not near fast enough to look like they were coming in for an attack, but directly enough that their intent to speak with the guards would be clear. This actually would have been easier of she were still in her Lions gear, but perhaps the russet and gold of the Inquisition would be recognizable enough for now.

She eased Nox to a stop a polite distance from the guard. The masked helm made it exceedingly difficult to read him, but his body language at least suggested curiosity rather than anything hostile. They didn't really have the look of highwaymen, she supposed. “Hail, ser," Estella called, pressing her fist to her heart as she'd been taught. “Might we know who camps here?"

"This is the encampment of the first squad of Lord-General Drakon's second flight, captained by Ser Violette Routhier," the chevalier replied, returning the gesture. "What business have you here, strangers?"

“I am Estella Avenarius, of the Inquisition." She still hadn't gotten used to calling herself Inquisitor, and she was never, ever going to refer to herself as the Herald of Andraste. “Formerly of Commander Lucien Drakon's Argent Lions. I know Ser Violette, and we would speak with her, if she would hear us."

That certainly gave the knight pause. He seemed to think that over for a moment, then inclined himself forward on his horse in a more formal bow. "If you would be so kind as to wait a moment, my lady, I will consult with the captain on this matter." He raised a hand, waving over one of the other guards, who assumed his position between them and the camp proper while he left.

A few minutes of silent waiting later, he returned. "The captain will see you, Lady Inquisitor." It would seem Violette at least knew what she was. "If you and your friends would care to dismount, we can care for your horses here. The captain is in the command tent."

There didn't seem to be any reason to protest that; the chevaliers collected the reins of their horses, one of them giving Nox an affectionate pat. The group was allowed to pass into the camp unhindered. It was both small and orderly, not given to the noisy energy of larger military groups. There were perhaps a dozen men in total visible, including the guards, though the number of tents suggested the number must be closer to twenty. There was a small cluster of them closest to the river that were markedly different—older-looking. Khari looked intently at them for a few moments, only moving again when it became obvious she'd be left behind if she didn't.

The command tent was easy to find; it was considerably larger than the rest, built of a sturdy canvas material held up by several poles staked into the ground, tall enough to easily accommodate even Asala's height. The flap was already open, admitting them inside. The most prominent feature therein was the map table; the rest was no more than a cot and a small trunk at the foot of it, both pushed far to the back, and a few chairs around the table.

Standing on the further side of the table were two people. The first was Violette, red hair chopped to just graze her shoulders and armor of an even brighter shade polished to a shine. She glanced up when they entered, offering Estella an unusually strained smile. The second was a man, perhaps six feet in height, with a thick mane of unruly, greying hair and a roughly-trimmed beard only a few shades darker. The lines around his eyes were etched deep into tanned, leathery skin, but his eyes themselves were a lively blue, with the glimmer of a keen mind to them. His armor was considerably older-looking, but just as well-maintained, the red iron dark by comparison to his counterpart's.

His facial expression didn't change much—not until he spotted Khari. "Little Bear?" His accent was relatively thick, compared to most of those Estella had encountered at court. His face, gruff to first appearance, morphed into a bewildered smile, softening the craggy edges.

“Big Bear!" Slipping past Estella, Khari lunged at the man, who caught her seemingly by reflex. There was a muffled clank where their armor collided, but neither seemed to pay it any mind.

"Still don't know your damn manners, I see." He grumbled, but when he set her back down on her feet, he was careful about it. "Introduce your friends, you little heathen."

She scrunched her nose at him, but it didn't dim the force of her smile. “Everyone, this is Ser Jean-Robert Durand. Big Bear, this is everyone. Stel's the one with the prettiest eyes you've ever seen, Asala's the one who looks like she needs a hug all the time, Cap'n Zee's the one who looks like the fun kind of trouble, and Rom... has better tattoos than me." She might have been about to say something else there, but it was hard to tell for sure. “Also I guess two of them are like Inquisitors or something, but that's not the important part."

Ser Durand ran a hand down his face, very obviously rolling his eyes. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, Lord and Lady Inquisitor, Captain, Miss Asala." He tapped his fist to his chest as Estella had not long ago.

"I do not need a hug all of the time," Asala murmured with a slight pout, before giving Ser Durand a timid wave.

“Little Bear, huh?” Zahra cooed with an already widening grin, before scratching at her chin with obvious curiosity. She, too, dipped her head in greeting and planted her hands on her hips, eyes roving the interior of the large tent. From the looks of it, she was impressed by their encampment. Her gaze slipped back Ser Durand. "Lovely to meet you, Big Bear. It took us awhile."

Estella sort of thought Asala was undermining her own argument, putting it with that face, but it was only more amusing that way. She considered protesting her own characterization, but decided against it. Khari was clearly in a good mood right now; she didn't want to put even a mild damper on it, considering how she'd been feeling a while ago. It was sort of charming that her spirits could be so lifted so quickly; it meant she wasn't the sort of person to hold onto the negative things in life. Really, most people could learn a great deal form that, herself included.

Estella returned Ser Durand's gesture. “The pleasure's mine," she said, smiling.

Romulus raised his eyebrows a little at the descriptor Khari applied to him, but it seemed as though her shift in mood was infectious, and he found himself smiling as well, though not as broadly as Estella. "It's good to finally meet you. We came a long way."

"So it seems. I'd like to hear more about it, later on. For now, I'm afraid you've caught us in the middle of a strategy session." He glanced over at Violette, his smile fading considerably. "Quite an urgent one, it seems."

"I'm afraid so," Violette said, sighing slightly. "My sister Liliane's squad was sent to the area a fortnight ago, to help quell the bandits encroaching on the region. None of them have been heard from since." She grimaced, moving her eyes to Estella. "I know it probably isn't what you're here for, but..."

Estella nodded slightly. “We came here seeking Ser Durand, actually. As it seems he's with you for the time being, so shall we be. If that's all right?" She tilted her head at the others.

"You are certain?" Durand looked a little skeptical. "Unfortunate as the missing patrol is, finding them doesn't amount to what you're doing, surely. We should not keep you from it."

"The sooner the situation is resolved, then, the sooner we can get back to it," Romulus said, as though it was quite a simple decision to make. "And we would not ask for your help if we weren't willing to help in return."

Durand huffed a short breath. "Fair enough, then. We'll fill you in."

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

Seven people was probably a few too many to fit around the small map table, but they made due; Khari just stood a row in front of Asala and Rom and called it good enough. The map on-hand wasn't a particularly-detailed one, but she supposed it had been short notice for Ser Routhier and Ser Durand had the landscape long memorized by this point. So maps weren't really a necessity for him. That was nice, because they were damn expensive, as she understood it.

“We ran into some Jackals on our way here. You think this is them?" Khari recalled the incident with clear distaste splashed across her face. They were nasty pieces of work to a one, but they usually moved in smaller, more mobile groups, so they could get in and out of the territory quickly. The Dalish would catch them every time, otherwise, before Ser Durand even had to worry about flesh-traders in his territory.

Her teacher considered it for a moment before shaking his head. "In a way, I'd prefer it." His tone was grim; he crossed his arms over his chest. "The Jackals at least would have been likely to try for capture." The implication was obvious: Ser Routhier's missing sister and her troops were much more likely to be alive if slavers had ambushed them.

"I think it's more likely Halfhand and her damn Reapers." He grimaced, pointing to a spot on the map that sat in an area Khari knew to be steeper, with as many cliffs as gentler hills. "They took the old fortress off the last guys a couple years back. I've never had the manpower to even try and dig them out." His tone was edged with a familiar grievance there.

Khari sucked a breath in between her teeth. Halfhand was no joke; she remembered stories about her. “What makes you think it's them?"

He huffed, arching a brow at her. "Little Bear, do you know any other bandits crazy enough to try fighting a full squad of chevaliers? Ser Routhier had ten fully-trained knights with her. They'd have broken any other group to pieces, ambush or no."

Seeing how Zahra’s skills and abilities were usually strictly useful on the seas, there wasn’t much she could offer by means of strategy. She’d taken on mercenary gigs, and sticky-fingered capers, but it wasn’t likely that she did anything planned. Flying from the seat of her pants? More likely. She kept her silence, but peered over their shoulders, scrutinizing the map splayed out in front of them.

Violette, who had so far been quiet, chose that moment to speak. "The complaint Lili was responding to was simply for increased bandit activity, but she would have gathered what she could from the locals, as far as information. If she heard about some bandit in an old fortress, I'm certain she would have at least gone to investigate. I believe Ser Durand's hypothesis is likely correct; if..." She paused, her throat working as she swallowed thickly. "If Lili is still alive, it seems likely she will be there. If nothing else, it is a place to start."

“That looks like a bit of a trek, from here," Estella contributed softly. “It would be nearly morning by the time we got there, if we left right now."

Clearing her throat, Violette continued in a much crisper tone of voice. "Quite so. I believe our best option is to camp here for tonight, leave early tomorrow, and attempt to take the fortress under cover of darkness."

Rom had no disagreement with that. He had studied the map while they spoke, listening intently with his arms crossed, one closed fist gently propped against his lips. "You said the fortress is old," he stated, looking to Ser Durand and lowering his hands towards the map. "Do we know what the state of its defenses are? If we're attempting to take it, I'd be put to much better use on my own, inside the walls, than with the bulk of our numbers."

Khari watched her teacher study her friend, clearly reassessing what type of fighter he was. Durand nodded slowly. "It's backed up against a cliff, making it inaccessible from that side. The rest of it is walls, but the masonry is old enough that it should be scalable, to someone with the right skills. Halfhand's no amateur, though—she'll have a watch posted, and she herself will likely be heavily-guarded." He stroked his beard with a hand, eyes shifting into the middle distance.

"I think it would be best if you got the gate open for us, rather than risking taking her out. Too many unknowns—I only know the basics of the fortress's layout, for one. Just what I've been able to get from observing at a distance."

“How many people does she have, these days?"

"At least fifty in the fort on a given day. More, if her lieutenants are in to give their reports. She runs a large outfit." It was easy to see why even a chevalier and his eight soldiers wouldn't have risked it, considering that. Khari would have asked why he hadn't sent for help, but she already knew that was the wrong question.

The better one to ask was why no one had ever answered.

Violette didn't look thrilled by even the suggestion of what amounted to an assassination; she shot Durand a very obvious aside-glance, but apparently decided to let it slide. "Opening the gate would be for the best. Even with our troops combined, we'll have but slightly more than half their number. I'm not worried about that so much—a bandit is a bandit, and two are hardly a concern." Her confidence was clear, but the matter-of-fact tenor of the comment didn't carry any arrogance. Rom nodded his understanding of her advice, and said no more.

"The worry is, I believe, that they will know the environment much better than we do, and be better positioned to begin with, if the watch is on the walls. We'll have to be quick."

"Little point in planning much beyond that." Durand seemed to be amenable to the plan's general direction, however. When it was clear that everyone with an opinion on the matter was in agreement, he turned to Khari and the others. "It seems we've an evening to kill. I don't suppose any of you lot play Skulls and Roses?"

It turned out that everyone who didn't play was willing to learn, so after a hearty camp stew, they clustered together in a circle to one side of the campfire. They'd relocated to the part of the camp dominated by the older tents; Khari had made a point of greeting all the guys before sitting down to her food. They were pretty much exactly as she remembered them, though considerably older, of course. Brick and Firmin had decided to play as well, bringing the number up to eight.

“I didn't see Gervais or Louis around—they find actual gainful employment or something?" Khari laid her first card face down on her knee, passing the turn to Ser Durand on her right.

Brick pulled a face, but it was her teacher that answered. "They're dead." The news was delivered with the measured, even tone of someone quite used to the idea, but the fact that he didn't look at her when he said it told Khari the rest of the story.

“Shit." She grimaced. “It's just the six of you guys now?"

Firmin nodded, playing his card face down as well. The oldest man in the bunch, he had a beard that extended well past his chest, and no other hair to speak of. "Not the same without you kicking us all awake in the morning to spar with you, Khari."

"Yeah." Brick rolled his eyes. "I can actually fuckin' sleep now. Not the same at all."

“One." No sooner had the turn gone around once than Estella used the opportunity to begin the betting phase. Her face was quite unreadable, smoothed over until there was no expression on it at all. Rather appropriate, for a game where bluffing was half the point. She broke the moratorium on expression for just long enough to smile at Brick, though. “If it helps, I got her back for you, in a way. We train before morning, now."

For a pirate who was committed to underhanded means, Zahra floundered at Skulls and Roses. She was in the habit of betting far too high and coming out with nothing at all. From the look on her face, nose scrunched and eyebrows screwed up in concentration… she wasn’t fond of losing either. She sighed and passed, effectively drawing herself out of the round, “Just isn’t the same without any ale.”

Meanwhile, Asala stared at her cards with a confused expression, her eyes darting back and forth between the cards in front of her and those in her hand. "Uh..." she murmured.

Khari nodded emphatically, then leaned over to peek at Asala's cards. “You pass, Asala. I raise to two. Anyway, Stel here is up a couple hours before the sun, and now so am I." She spread her remaining cards a little further with her free hand; she'd put down her skull, so she was really hoping someone tried to up that bet.

"Pass." Apparently her teacher at least was not going to oblige. "You've been keeping up with your training then, Little Bear?"

“Of course I have." She sniffed, as though indignant. “Can't let myself slack off. I'm helping important people now, you know." Thankfully, Brick raised to three, so she was safe for this round, at least. “Inquisitors and everything. I've beat up demons and Tevinter cultists and crazy templars with red lyrium growing out of their bodies, and that's just this year!" So it wasn't strictly modest to mention, maybe, but she couldn't help herself; she figured she had reason to be proud. “I mean, I'm kind of a big deal if I got them both to traipse out to the countryside with me, right?" She grinned at the two of them.

"We wouldn't be alive to traipse anywhere if not for our quiet Qunari friend here," Rom added, his face quite blank as he looked at his cards and the board. "Several times. Pass." Now that he was out of the round, he returned her grin with his own smaller variety. "But yes, she's important to us. And we have to keep her out of the regulars anyway, for morale reasons. Sleep, as you mentioned."

“I do believe they quite enjoy watching her fight, though," Estella added, raising to four. No one seemed to want to take her up on that, so she was left to try and pick three roses besides her own. Brick had one, which she guessed immediately, as did Firmin. Her last guess was Durand, and she accompanied it with a question.

“May I ask what you know of the Inquisition, Ser Durand?"

He flipped his card, showing her the rose on it. The first bet was Stel's. As everyone reshuffled for the next, Ser Durand raised his shoulders. "Well, we don't exactly get news from the horse's mouth around here, but you could see that damn green thing in the sky from just about anywhere. Rumor tells that you lot were the ones who went about fixing that, and now you're looking to fix whatever caused it in the first place."

“That's basically it." Khari brought her legs up to cross underneath her, settling into a more comfortable position. “It's why we're here, honestly. I thought maybe you'd be able to help us."

He looked surprised by that for a moment, scratching at his beard with the hand not holding his cards. "Me? I'm not much of an asset, Little Bear. Can barely keep the bandits under control in my neck of the woods. Seems like a question better put to Routhier."

Khari snorted. “Bullshit. I know how hard you hit. And I know none of them have ever beat a clumsy dumbass into shape the way you have."

It was his turn to look like he didn't buy it. "That was not the labor you make it seem. But if what I can offer seems worth the asking, then I suppose I'll have to consider it." He grimaced. "If we can dig Halfhand out of her fort, I could pull up my old roots, too, I suppose."

Khari kept a lid on her excitement, but only just. It had been years since she'd been able to be around Ser Durand and the others; if they were coming to the Inquisition, well... almost everything she cared about would be in one place.

War or no war, that felt pretty damn good.

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

The camp was packed up and ready to move before first light. Despite the missing and potentially dead portion of the company, the group seemed to be in decent spirits moving out, albeit tempered by a resolve that would be needed to make it through a hard fight. Romulus wondered if for once he was the most relaxed among them. The removal from Skyhold had done him a service, and though he wasn't particularly proud of his skillset, it would be good to put it to use helping Khari's teacher and the others among the chevaliers. Perhaps his commanders and advisors wouldn't agree with the risk of sending in an Inquisitor alone for the cause of rescuing a few soldiers (valuable ones, but still soldiers). But they weren't here now, and his aim was to help Khari and the Inquisition. That meant getting these prisoners back.

They walked mostly in silence, though some unresolved conversations from the night before popped back up every now and then, from those that weren't comfortable sitting in the quiet. Romulus was, and so he kept near the forefront of their formation, watchful for any threat. They passed rolling hill after rolling hill, covering ground swiftly but without overly tiring themselves. There was work to be done at the end of the trip, after all. There were unfortunately few trees to work with, barely more than one in sight at any time, but the sky was beginning to cloud over. It was light enough that rain wasn't prompted, but it would conceal to moonlight later, for their attack.

The conversation grew more and more sparse as the daylight waned, and by nightfall they had ceased altogether. They kept clear of the faded road leading into the fortress, moving ahead one hill over until the target came in sight. Fortress was a generous word, Romulus thought. There were no holes in the walls, but they were crumbling in places, and one of the towers had partially collapsed on the left side, making that vantage point unusable. The gate, at least, looked to be of sturdy construction, made of interlocking bars of iron. No getting through that with the tools they had; it would indeed need to be opened. What worried Romulus more was the cast-iron pots he saw, or at least the rims of some poking out above the battlements.

"Oil or something similar above the gate," he mentioned quietly to Violette. "Doesn't look like the gate's controlled from above. I'll see if I can take care of both, but if I can only open the gate, get everyone through quickly." He was sure he didn't need to tell her that, but he had no wish for her to overestimate his abilities. He much preferred having the time to properly scout a place's defenses before breaking in. Tonight he would have to manage things on the fly.

She seemed to understand, at least. "Will do, Lord Inquisitor. We can manage if necessary, so by all means... be careful."

"I'm going to start with that tower on the right," he said, loud enough for the rest to hear while still keeping his voice down. "Might take some time. I'll need to get a good look at everything first. The gate opening will be the signal." He cracked his knuckles, looking over at those few from the Inquisition that were with him. "I'll see you soon."

“Good luck in there," Estella replied with a nod. She tugged at the hood on her cloak, for once taking a leaf out of his book and casting her face into shadow. Even if he got the gate open, it was better if they were near enough to move quickly, and so they'd have to approach as quietly as possible in the meantime.

"Be careful, okay?" Asala said with a worried frown.

“Or we’ll have no choice but to tear the whole damn place down looking for you,” Zahra added with a toothy grin. If she was at all worried about Romulus going on his own, she’d done well in hiding it. Her smile wavered a fraction before she simply nodded her head.

“Don't have too much fun without us." Khari gripped his shoulder momentarily, squeezing for just a second before she let go. “Wish I was quiet enough to go with you." A pause. “And I don't usually wish I was quiet." She frowned at the fortress for a minute, then spoke in a lower voice. “If things go south and you need to get out without opening the gate... do it, okay?"

"I will," he promised, pulling up his hood and making his way out from cover. If things did turn bad on him, escaping would be no simple matter. It wasn't a big fort, but the walls were high enough to make jumping dangerous, and getting clear of arrow range with a broken leg or twisted ankle would be a difficult endeavor. He'd have to be careful.

Most of his cover on the approach came in the form of large rocks and boulders, obscuring him from the faint silhouettes that patrolled the wall. Their watch was more or less wasted on a night like tonight, though. The cloud cover cast a deep blackness over the land, making it undoubtedly impossible for the chevaliers to see how Romulus was progressing. They'd be able to see the gate lift, from the torchlight within the walls, but that was about it.

Romulus crept to the base of the wall at the edge of the watchtower, taking a moment to look up and plot his ascent, as well as listen for footsteps. He could hear one pair of boots moving along the top of this section of wall. He would have no cause to look straight down, though, so it was unlikely he'd be spotted. Carefully and quietly, Romulus began to climb, a small knife between his teeth. The wall was hardly smoothed solid any more, and it gave him ample options for foot and handholds, though he had to be careful not to disturb any of it, as the sound could easily give him away and leave him defenseless to an arrow or crossbow bolt.

At the top, he let his fingers creep over the edge of the wall, one hand taking the little knife, and waited while the sounds of footsteps came closer and closer. When they stopped in front of him, he lunged up and forward, taking the watchman by surprise. The knife found his throat and cut short any cry he might've made, and his legs gave out, giving Romulus an easy opportunity to get his weight over the wall and his feet down on solid ground. He cradled the man's fall but did not let go, instead taking a quick look around to see if the act had been spotted. Clear, he listened at the door into the tower now on his left. No sound.

Pushing open the door, he carefully brought the body inside and shut the door behind him. He was on the mid-level of a three tiered watchtower, a winding wooden spiral leading up to a trap door at the top. Down below a fire carried warm air up through the guts of the structure; the heat had lulled a woman to sleep in her chair next to it. Romulus pushed the dead body against the wall and made his way up. Listening through the trap door, he could hear a low whistling from above.

He came up through the door slowly at first, peeking just to confirm there was only one atop the tower. A sword-armed woman sat comfortably in a chair, rocking back and forth and whistling a tune into the darkness. The trap door creaked ever so slightly, enough for the whistling to be cut short. The moment it happened Romulus lunged up again, seizing a fistful of the guard's ponytail and wrenching her head back, his knife quickly slicing across the throat. She thought to reach for her sword first, but her hands then went to her throat, and Romulus steadied the back of her chair to make sure it didn't tip over one way or the other.

Once she stilled, he turned and crouched low at the back of the tower, getting a good look at the fort's layout. The main central building had its back to the cliff. It was pretty much the one place Romulus knew was too great a risk to go, and also where he was mostly certain the prisoners would be, if they still lived. A hanging platform equipped with a few nooses beside the main building wasn't a great sign, but perhaps they hadn't been used yet. Executing prisoners wasn't common if they could be ransomed, and chevaliers could fetch a decent price, he was sure. Other than that, there were a few other outbuildings, including stables and what looked like the remains of a once-decent smithy.

The gate controls were on the ground level, against the wall right next to the opening. A large wheel crank, by the looks of it. He'd be able to get it open himself, but it would not be quick, or particularly quiet.

He would need to clear out some of the watchers closest to the gate before attempting to open it, starting with a pair that watched over the pots of oil from directly above it. He snuck back through the trap door and began making his way down again, stopping once he reached the middle level. The woman below was still asleep. He thought for a moment to make a move to kill her first, but then he heard two men's voices, growing louder and closer to the door.

"She says to me, 'what if this place turns into another Kirkwall mess for us?' Fucking Kirkwall. She can't put it out of her head."

"That was six years ago."

"That's what I told her! But you'd think we'd pushed off the docks yesterday. She needs to relax."

It became apparent that they weren't slowing down, so Romulus ducked to the side of the doorway, sheathing his knife and drawing his pugio and shield instead. The wooden door swung open and concealed him, the two men stepping inside. They stopped on the landing, glancing below at the sleeping woman, before the disgruntled one among them sighed, leaning against the railing.

"Business is great here, though, and we're bloody miles from Kirkwall. It's high time she—hey, what's he doing there?" He had looked across the opening to the other side, where the first man Romulus had killed lay crumpled against the wall. They had time for little more than squinting, however, as Romulus kicked the door shut behind them and swept forward. He seized the head of the smaller one on the right and viciously twisted, snapping his neck and dropping him. The other already had his sword out, but by the time he located the threat and raised it Romulus had sank his blade right underneath his arm into his chest.

The sound of the brief fight had woken the woman below. Romulus glanced down, then let the second body he still held tip and fall over the railing. The corpse fell one full story and landing right in the middle of the firepit, blasting ash, dust, and embers outwards and into the waking woman's face. Startled half to death, she swiped at her face and eyes and struggled to rise. Romulus quickly vaulted over the railing and fell directly on top of her, slamming the rim of his shield into the top of her skull. The blow was enough to knock her unconscious, but he knelt to slice her artery all the same. Checking to make sure the fire hadn't gotten out of hand, Romulus made his way out into the grounds of the fort proper.

He was fortunate; apart from the posted guards, the majority of this Halfhand's forces seemed to be inside, if the projected numbers were accurate. A few patrolled the roads, and some still remained at their posts along the wall, but for the most part Romulus was not troubled on his way to the gate. One man wielding a poleaxe watched over the gate controls, leaning against his weapon and absently picking at his teeth. Romulus observed him for a moment from the shadow of the stables, watching for the other patrolling guards to give him an opportune moment. He knew he wouldn't have long, and the clock would start as soon as he killed the man by the gate.

When the time came he moved decisively, launching the bolt from his crossbow. The well-aimed shot punched straight into his skull through the eye socket, killing him almost instantly. He fell against the overgrown, grassy earth, his poleaxe going with him, and Romulus only bothered to move the body until it was out of his way before he set to work on the gate crank.

It was heavy, but once he got it going his progress increased, and the gate's pointed metal teeth began to rise off the ground. The sound was obvious, however, and it wasn't long before a woman was squinting at the sight from a distance. A moment later her posture tensed with recognition, and a shout of alarm was raised. She charged from the main building's front steps, mace in hand, and seconds later an arrow came in, grazing Romulus's upper arm.

He ignored it, cranking the wheel as quickly as he could until the gate was passably open, a good seven or eight feet of clearance off the ground. At that point he grabbed the gate guard's pole arm, and first turned it on the charging woman, lifting it off the ground and suddenly burying the point in her guts. She stumbled backwards and fell, writhing on the ground while Romulus shoved the now bloody spear through the gears of the crank, thoroughly jamming it. It would take time to fix and force the gate down, time they wouldn't have if his allies came with haste.

For Romulus, however, there wasn't any time, and his split-second judgement deemed that escaping out the gate was not the preferable option. Instead he chose to flee further into the fort, heading for the stables. Arrows whistled through the air around him, missing by inches and then thudding into the wooden doors of the stables once he got close. He ducked inside, grabbing a torch on his way in. Immediately he set a blaze in the rear, the hay lighting up well enough and soon catching the building as well. The horses immediately began to rear and panic. They'd be able to burst free once they became frightened enough. In the meantime, smoke billowed out from the stables as Romulus made his escape, using the darkness to switch directions and make it back into the tower, and then onto the wall. He'd lost the pursuit of the Halfhand's guards, and there was a clamor coming from the main gate, which he was given a vantage of as he made his way towards it from above.

It wasn't long before he could see the source; a troop of chevaliers in full charge was a rather impressive sight, even dark as it was. Durand and Violette both seemed to be the type to lead from the front; they were the first in. Most of the soldiers were armed either with sturdy lances or the longer cavalry-type swords. The charge broke the first line of defense that had accumulated near the gate as though tearing paper.

The one difficulty they encountered was that the gate wasn't all that wide; a few of the smarter bandits had already grabbed polearms of their own and were lining up at the sides of the entrance. Durand's horse took a spear in the flank and went down, pitching him forward. It was Khari who rode through the gap that created, leaning down sideways from her own mount and helping him to his feet, apparently content to ignore the arrow that clanged off the armor on her shoulder. Someone had given her a brace of javelins; the first found a home in the back of a bandit running towards the main building.

Even if that messenger died, though, there would be plenty more, and no doubt the tumult itself would rouse the rest from their slumber soon enough. Down on the wall adjacent to the gate, one industrious bandit was working to light the oil pots above the entranceway. The first caught flame easily—and only about half the chevaliers were through.

The oil tipped forward, but before it fell onto the chevaliers' heads, a fluorescent blue shield sprang to life above them. The edges were raised upward while it also tapered off on either side of the gate entrance. The barrier diverted the oil harmlessly away from the chevaliers. However, the maneuver left Asala open with her arms awash in the blue hued fade energy, painting her as the prime target for the bandit archers. One such archer on the rampart nocked his arrow and aimed her direction.

Another arrow whooshed from the opposite end of the bridge.

Followed shortly by a thunking sound as it thudded into the man’s leathers. He’d been in the process of notching his arrow. It fumbled from his fingers, and clattered off the ramparts. His mouth flapped open and his eyes bulged… though if he made any noise, it couldn’t be heard above the din of clopping hoof beats and the screech of battle. He staggered forward and pawed at the arrow protruding from his chest, until he simply pitched forward and fell off the wall, lying in a tangled heap at the base. Fortunately, he hadn’t