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Cyrus Avenarius

"I'm a different person than I used to be - and I finally understand just how important that is."

0 · 1,841 views · located in Thedas

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

Description

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Full Name: Cyrus Tullius Aquila Avenarius (SIGH-russ TUHL-lee-us ah-KWEE-lah ah-vehn-AIR-ee-us), also born Syrillion Saeris (sih-RIL-lee-on sa-EH-ris)
Titles/Nicknames: Cy, to a few. He's a lord, but would never insist on being called one.
Age: 28 (9:44)
Race: Elf-Blooded
Gender: Male
Sexual Orientation: Heteroflexible.
Class: Mage
Specialization: Arcane Warrior/Knight-Enchanter

Hair Color: Black
Eye Color: Indigo Blue
Height: 6’2”
Build: Well-rounded and athletic.

Appearance: Cyrus is well used to attention, and it shows in the way he carries himself. His posture is upright, unconsciously so, his gait gliding, and it is very clear that he takes care of himself fastidiously. His build, which could perhaps have grown soft with many years in the opulence of the Imperial mage community, is nothing of the sort; he obviously did regular exercise even prior to the past few years, and had good overall conditioning regimens. He doesn’t look like the stereotypical bookish mage, certainly, and a few years wandering Thedas have added a touch of sun to what was once a very fair skin tone. His facial features are neither exceedingly masculine nor androgynous—he at least finds himself rather pleasing to the eye.

He keeps his black hair roughly to his shoulders; long enough for fun, short enough for business. It’s usually swept back away from his face; overall it shares a certain luxuriant quality with his sister’s, being thick and quite shiny, like ink. His eyes duplicate the shape and indigo color of hers as well, though the impression they lend his face is quite different. His height is slightly above average for a man’s, but not anything worth a double-take, really. He is meticulously cleanshaven, though he’d likely encounter difficulty should he attempt to grow any beard beyond persistent stubble anyway.

His clothes are generally made of heavier fabrics like silk and linen, and he favors cloaks, boots, and gloves lined with fur for their warmth—when he’s far south enough to need it, at least. His tailoring is usually of impeccable taste, designed to emphasize his build without being either obvious or crass about it, and his garments do lend him a certain impression of refinement and class—though not to the point that he could be mistaken for impractical. He rarely bothers with much in the way of armor, as his magic is more protection than mundane armament, but he does own a shirt of fine ringmail, just in case. He carries no visible weapons at all, not even a staff.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
While physical activity and combat as such were once incidental events in Cyrus’s days, they are now part of his lifestyle. It shows. Though he’s never needed as much sustenance as other people, he eats more regularly now. That, combined with regular physical exertion and combat training has added considerably to his weight and muscle mass. Mage he may be, but he’s a mage who swings a sword around, so he’s developed the physique to match.

Cyrus still prefers silk and expensive linen over more roughspun fabrics, and rich color over neutral tones; his wardrobe has nevertheless adjusted to life in the Inquisition. The cut and fit of his tunics is much more military, and he’s switched out his soft walking boots for armored ones. His cloaks lack some of the more decorative touches, though the one he favors bears the Avenarius sigil: forked indigo lightning on a sable field. Still much better dressed than the average soldier, he at least doesn’t resemble a traveling courtier anymore.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
Since the loss of his magic, Cyrus has found that his appetite and need for sleep both bother him much more frequently, for some reason. As such, he now eats and sleeps about as often as anyone, though old habits are persistent at times. Though his face is still quite sharp in its angles, and likely always will be, it's no longer gaunt. Now that he has nothing to rely on but his own physical capability, he's focused a great deal of time and attention on improving it, tuning up what was already a rather efficient body type until it's as well-designed for his purposes as he can make it.

Since his purposes are now front-line fighting more often than not, he's put on fair amount of weight in muscle, trimming off what wasn't necessary in the process. He'll never match the likes of Leon for that, of course, but fortunately he doesn't have to. There's a distinct grace to his movement, a sort of reacquaintance with living primarily in the physical world. It strengthens the foundations he already had, and makes him appear, if anything, a little more present. Possibly even intense, in the right moment.

But the hard edge of arrogant self-assurance has, conversely, abandoned him. His standards of dress have, for example, lapsed a little, and he just as frequently wears roughspun, simple fabrics as anything more expensive or elaborate. His garments tend to hang looser and more haphazardly about his person. His hair's grown out a bit, and falls into his face quite frequently. There's a sort of persistent, quiet melancholy to his expressions that never quite leaves, either. In that sense, he looks much... softer, than he used to.

9:44
Spoiler: show
Truthfully, the biggest change in Cyrus's appearance in the last year has been the addition of a lot of scar tissue. Learning not to rely on magic he didn't have was not an easy process, and with the Inquisition still smack in the middle of risking their lives on a regular basis, the results weren't difficult to predict. Cyrus believes he's doing fairly well not to be dead, in all honesty.

The largest of the scars is the one on his chest, where a powerful bolt of blood magic caved in his armor, which in turn pierced a small multitude of jagged holes in his chest. He was healed well enough that he hasn't suffered any permanent incapacitation, but the scar itself is a weblike net of knotted white tissue just under his sternum.

Other than the scars, the only new fixture in his appearance is a thin silverite chain around his neck, the attached pendant of which he keeps under his shirt. Estella has an identical one—gifts from their grandmother. His ambivalence about having a clan symbol for a collection of people he doesn't really know hasn't prevented him from wearing it, though it might explain the understated manner in which he does.


“I suppose it figures that all the ways I've changed are difficult to see.
Difficult to believe.”

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Apparent Demeanor: On the surface of things, Cyrus is capricious, unpredictable, and arguably quite complicated. His moods vary from amused to the point of almost being jovial, through the gamut of quiet thoughtfulness to thorny standoffishness; it can be difficult to discern what provokes each of these things, if anything provokes them at all. He seems to be a creature of his own whimsy, dictated in his actions by his desires rather than principles of any kind. He seems flighty, unstable on occasion, and doubtless eccentric. More than one person has observed that he appears to be living more in his own head than in the real world; this makes him rather difficult to pin down. His motivations are obscure, his intentions shaded at best, and his impulses apparently largely unchecked.

Despite—perhaps sometimes because of—this, he can be an incredibly charming fellow. Learned, adroit, witty, and intuitive with people, he displays a politician’s savvy to motive, a scholar’s attention to detail, and none of the sycophantic nonsense that usually comes with it. Strange he may be, but Cyrus is wholly genuine in that strangeness, and unafraid of what others may think of him for it. He’s smart as a whip, to be sure, and more than a fair hand with games of intrigue and implication, but it would not be hard to guess that in large part, his political success has been helped along by the fact that it’s difficult to get a read on what he’s thinking, rather than any intentional deception.

He seems, if anything, to be a bit weak-willed, given how quickly his mind, hobbies and interests all change. Perhaps, to a certain point, this is true. Cyrus has never seen the point in continuing to do something that no longer holds interest for him, and few things manage to keep his focus for long. He sees puzzles and problems, solves them, and moves on with his life. Permanence isn’t really something he expects or understands in any matter but one.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
He’s mellowing, slowly. There will always be edges to Cyrus, points where he rubs up against convention and norms and refuses to be buffed down to complete smoothness. But there’s a difference between obstinate independence and a complete inability to get along with other people. And that’s really the thing: he’s learning that it might just be possible to both be genuinely himself and be liked, at least sometimes. Before, he’d thought it had to be one or the other: if he wished to be on friendly terms with someone, he had to put on one of his many faces. If he wanted to behave as he truly was, he’d have to accept that people would be pushed away. The idea that the dichotomy might be false is slow to dawn on him, but rather staggering in its implications. He’s still cautious about it.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
There's no mistaking the impact the last year has had on him. The process of slow maturation was interrupted in a big way by the sudden loss of his magic, what Cyrus considered to be the foundation of his identity as an individual. He was not in a good place following the events of his near-death experience, and in all honesty, he still struggles to motivate himself on a day-to-day basis. He's unmistakably depressed, withdrawn, and melancholy. He has to exert a great deal of effort to spend more than a brief period of time even with his close friends, and he has withdrawn largely into solitary pursuits, as a form of protection rather than habit.

He gets a wistful look on his face when he observes someone else doing magic, and it's sometimes hard to keep from feeling bitter about what happened to him. But though he isn't quite aware of it, some of the effects have been positive, or at least not negative. He's much more genuine, lacking the energy or a motive to really be otherwise. His veneer of arrogance and self-assurance has completely melted away, and on the days when he can avoid the opposite extreme, he can actually be quite pleasant to be around. It's just that he can't always avoid the opposite extreme.

9:44
Spoiler: show
Things are... a little brighter, now. Over the course of the last year, Cyrus was able to find new ways to anchor his identity, ones that didn't have anything to do with being a mage. Slowly, and with quite a lot of help, he dragged himself out of the worst of the debris in his head—but there's no mistaking the fact that he didn't and couldn't just go back to being the person he had been.

He's more pensive now, quieter. The moodiness is a little less caustic and a little more melancholic, but outright friendliness is easier now than it used to be, too. He doesn't feel the need to prove himself the smartest man in the room, or be acknowledged in any particular way. Like with many things, he's still recovering from backswinging too far: there was a point where he essentially wanted to be forgotten entirely, or at least felt like that would happen. In a way, it's almost like he's reached level ground at last, and how he builds himself from this point is finally, finally up to him and no one else.

Still reticent to express softer emotions with anyone who isn't Estella, he's nevertheless managed it well enough to cultivate some genuine friendships, and for these he's extremely grateful. Cyrus has come to terms with a lot of his history, and made amends with people he would have otherwise silently resented for a very long time. All of it—all of him—is still a work in progress, but he's letting himself be hopeful about the outcome.

Next to that, all the nonsense about his heritage and then discovering he might be able to get his magic back feels... minor.


Hangups/Quirks: Cyrus has fairly deep trust issues, and no expectation that any of the alliances or ‘friendships’ he makes with the various people he meets will last any longer than is convenient. It would not be an errant guess to assume that the same is true of sexual relationships, because it is. He has never been in a romantic relationship with anyone, and is deeply skeptical about their existence in general. He looks cynically for the catch in everything, the real reason for what seems like altruism or benevolence. Being so suspicious has served him quite well in the past, after all—but definitely not in the sense that it’s given him more friends. He has a tendency to become obsessive over the things that catch his interest, focusing on them until he has fully satisfied his curiosity. If he sees a reason to learn more about a certain kind of spell or a period in history, for example, he will tear through as much literature on the subject as is necessary to become an expert—and quite quickly, considering his aptitudes. But then he locks the knowledge away inside his head, and moves on to the next thing. He is profoundly dissatisfied in situations where he lacks the relevant expertise, so it is fortunate that gaining such expertise is not generally beyond him.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
As he slowly—very slowly—opens up to other people, Cyrus does occasionally find himself wondering if perhaps some of this cynicism and distrust of other people might be somewhat misplaced. He doesn’t think he was wrong to become this way. He reacted appropriately to the circumstances in which he found himself. He learned his lessons about trust and faith in other people harshly, but he learned them well. However… perhaps he overgeneralized them. It’s an intriguing possibility, but also a terrifying one. Because he isn’t equipped for a world that isn’t as horrendous as he thinks it is.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
He's almost forced to rely on others, now, because he is no longer nearly so capable himself. If anything, his view of his own worth to the Inquisition has whiplashed too far in the wrong direction, as he doesn't seem to recognize the things he still has to offer. He has to be provoked into interacting with people, again, but the difference is that at this point he's quite willing to go along with such provocations. It's almost alarming, how much of his self-esteem collapsed when his magic disappeared.

9:44
Spoiler: show
Being tentative with others is something a person usually grows out of rather than into, but perhaps it's a sign of just how far behind Cyrus was in the 'good person' department that doubt and uncertainty plague him now more than ever, when he's at least trying to be better than he has been. But it's there; he can switch on the charisma if he has to, but it feels unbearably fake to him now. Uncomfortable—like shoes that are a little too big. And in the absence of a facade to hide behind, genuineness is as awkward as it's always been.


Strengths: From very early in his life, Cyrus knew quite well that he was different from other people. Things that took other children a great deal of time to master came to him with ease. He never had to struggle—not with his lessons or his magic or even particularly with physical training. He had an instinct for everything laid before him, and this continues to be the case in most situations. His magic is certainly nothing to be sneezed at, either, especially considering that he is what those in Tevinter call somniari, which really just means interesting things happen when he sleeps, as he'd put it.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
In fairness, he's not lost an iota of his intelligence. And he's gained a certain kind of resilience he never needed before: Cyrus has learned how to put his nose to the grindstone, so to speak. His mastery of things was never as facile and quick as he made it seem, but he's willing to struggle now. At length and, importantly, with an audience. As much as it might shame him, he is not as quick a study in the arts of the warrior as he was in the arts of the mage. But he's willing to take advice, and he works himself every bit as hard as his most dedicated comrades. He has to.

9:44
Spoiler: show
Arcane conundrum? Problem with few clues and no evident solutions? Cyrus is your man—the past year has, if nothing else, cemented him as the Inquisition's resident expert on 'anything no one else is an expert in, and some things they are.' This is made possible by his excellent memory, ability to read extremely quickly, and the simple fact that he's very clever. It's a role he's at least a little comfortable in—and unlike a lot of experts, he's also proven quite apt at teaching other people the things he knows. He does so gladly; knowledge and skill is not meant to be hoarded, but shared. Next to that, his usefulness as a fighter sort of pales, but he does have that, too, for when it's needed.


Weaknesses: Cyrus doesn’t understand how to form bonds with people, nor how to trust them. The one instance of love and acceptance in his life came prepackaged at birth, so to speak, and there was never any need to explain it or reinforce it or question it. Estella just was the other half of him, until he they were both old enough to be whole people on their own. Still, they are connected more closely than he ever has been with anyone else, and probably ever will be. He is fundamentally a man alone, however. No matter how good he is at the things he puts his hand to, he is still only one person—with all the shortcomings that entails. He is at times almost profoundly lonely, and unable to rectify the situation.

He understands the intricacies of court politics, how to scheme with and against people you cannot trust, how to come out of even the dirtiest machinations smelling like roses, but he doesn’t comprehend the simple principles of friendship, and treats every interaction like a calculation because he doesn’t have any other frame of reference to work in. He doesn’t know how to be a friend, or to have one, or to open himself up and trust anyone new. And he only begins to understand that this is a weakness.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
He's adrift, lost. The only thing giving him any kind of purpose at the moment is whatever use the Inquisition can make of him. It's enough, for now. But he tries not to think about what will become of him when and if they succeed. There can be no Magister without magic, and his ambitions have all gone up in flames accordingly. He can't think of anything else he wants to do. Anything else he wants to be. He's become a passenger, following where he is led, acknowledging the value of the cause but finding no personal meaning or fulfillment in it. After... after is unthinkable.


Fears: The silence, he calls it. The future moment he dreads: when he lifts his head, and there are no more things to catch his interest. And then, when he looks around him and beside him, there is nothing and no one there, because nothing and no one is permanent. He fears that moment, when everything will be silent and still and the world will cease to hold anything for him. As a corollary, and arguably more importantly, he fears losing Estella, because right now, she is the only person who is there beside him, even when they are physically quite distant. It's arguably unhealthy, how dependent he is on her validation and her regard. He's decent enough at keeping this from her, but the years he spent without her were... not especially stable ones.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
He fears he'll be stuck this way forever, a pale shadow of the man he was, unanchored and free-floating with no direction. He knows what becomes of people like that, and he is no longer so arrogant as to believe himself special enough to avoid such inglorious fates.

9:44
Spoiler: show
Right now, what Cyrus fears most is becoming again the person he used to be. Bound up in this is a dread of restoring his magic, for though he recognizes the practical necessity of it, it was such a large part of his former self that he worries that everything he's built since he lost it will be crushed beneath it if it returns.


“I've given up pretending I know what's good for me.
Nothing ends up the way I expect anymore.”





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STR:

DEX:

INT:

WIS:

CNG:

MAG:

WIL:

CON:
▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [8/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [9/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [4/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [9.5/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]


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Weapon of Choice: Cyrus eschews weapons made of steel, instead choosing to draw his armament directly from the Fade. It is a much less-common discipline in Tevinter than the near-ubiquitous blood magic, but Cyrus found it natural to learn and even more natural to apply. The form his Fade-weapons take is variable depending upon the situation and what he thinks he needs to accomplish the job, but they are uniformly blueish in color.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
Even without his magic, he isn't entirely without options. For most of his life, he trained with blunt polearms, occasionally with blades on the end, as tends to be fashionable with combat staves for mages. But when he took it upon himself to learn the ways of the Knight-Enchanter, he gave that up for swordfighting, and it is with the latter he has remained even without the magic. He now wears a matched pair of ordinary falcata, weapons more common in the Imperium and among the Qunari than elsewhere. The cutting edge of the weapon is good for chopping as well as slashing, and maximizes leverage, compensating for most of the damage potential he loses by only being able to hit one-handed. They're somewhere between a machete and a falchion, and their relative weakness at thrusting means they require considerable skill to use most effectively.


Fighting Style/Training: He’s a chameleon. Freely adapting to the situations that present themselves, Cyrus can fight shoulder-to-shoulder with warriors using his barriers and Fade-weapons; or at a range, shooting off elemental spells and mind-altering techniques from a distance like a more conventional mage—though he would say that it’s a waste of his talent to do so. He even has a few healing spells in his repertoire, though they are not his specialty by any means. One can expect Cyrus to hit like a ton of bricks, while being just deft enough to avoid receiving similar punishment from his foes. Though a showman's demeanor would not be unexpected out of him, and does sometimes surface, he is overall efficient rather than flashy.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
Cyrus is a dual-wielder, more because it takes advantage of his near-ambidexterity than for any particular reason of preference. He's strong enough to make a one-handed hit forceful, and so he doesn't need both to swing a blade. Without the need for a free hand to cast, then, it only seemed prudent to put another sword in the other hand. It helps that this is the type of technique Harellan favors, and Harellan was the one who taught him to use a sword properly. It's preferable to being weighed down with a shield in the off-hand, in large part because Cyrus's remaining strengths are his fluidity and physical well-roundedness. Hampering his movement any more than necessary is not the best choice for him, however well it may work for others.

With time, he's worked out most of the pauses or hitches from his motion, places where he would have naturally transitioned into casting, but the instinct to use magic is almost as old as he is, and sometimes it resurfaces. It's been inopportune more than once, and he has several new scars to show for his difficulties adjusting. But he's getting there. He considers himself a middling fighter at best now, and while that's not quite a fair assessment, he does have a lot further to go than he used to.

9:44
Spoiler: show
The extra practice he gets against his friends has certainly helped work the tics out of his style, to be sure. Harellan does, too; and time itself was perhaps the most helpful teacher. Smoothing the rough spots out of his fluid dual-wielding style puts him once again comfortably among the Irregulars in terms of proficiency, and his hesitation to put that to use is gone.


“Steel does not hum in my hands. I do not feel
complete in the holding of it. But it can
pierce a heart just as well, I suppose.”

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Place of Birth: Minrathous, Tevinter Imperium
Social Status/Rank: From a Laetan mage family, on his mother's side. His father's... well, that's another matter entirely.

History: Cyrus Avenarius was born slightly before his twin sister, Estella—both of them to an unwed Laetan mage, Iphigenia Avenarius, the only child of her parents. Though the family historically produced mages, they do not trace their descent from the first prophets. They have therefore never risen above the rank of Laetan, despite many generations of true-breeding magic: something which has made their sons and daughters relatively desired candidates for arranged marriages despite their lower blood. There was a great deal of distress, therefore, when not long after the birth of the twins, Iphigenia died. Cyrus suspects it was because they had an inkling of who his father was that his family sent himself and his sister to the Chantry, but he has never shared this theory with Estella.

Regardless, they were both initially given into the care of the Imperial Chantry in Minrathous, and there they were raised in their youth—at least until Cyrus turned six. It was at this point that his life, at first seemingly determined from the very beginning to be that of a Chantry brother or a slave, changed drastically almost overnight. The boy manifested his magic—not often heard of in one so young, but certainly within the realm of historical possibility. It was no small event, either; he nearly killed a few people entirely on accident.

He was immediately set up to receive training from a tutor, and, miracle of miracles, his family emerged from the woodwork to adopt him. Cyrus, still only a child, assumed that this meant his sister would also be taken from the Chantry with him, a matter on which he was proven exceedingly incorrect. It continued to be a sore point for him, and he regularly snuck out of his family’s home to see Estella, who remained under the care of the priests.

When the extraordinary level of his talent became apparent, he was removed from the group tutoring he’d been placed under with a Circle scholar and apprenticed directly to a magister, an influential Altus mage named Cassius Viridius. Under the man’s tutelage, Cyrus learned not only magic, but other aspects of political manipulation and deft maneuvering: how to put his looks and charm to use, for one, to further his goals and get him the things he decided (however whimsically) that he wanted. He was firmly entrenched in traditional Imperial worldviews, including in the superiority of magic and the pragmatic usefulness of slavery. He grew adept at the games magisters would play with one another, and his star rose with meteoric speed as he grew, outmatching his opponents both in matters of wit and those of sheer magical clout.

He was an exceedingly good player of these little chess matches, and relished in this fact. He had power, taste, and acumen, and with those three things firmly in tow, the world was open before him. Everything changed the night Estella left the Imperium, however. In all his excesses, all his sins, Cyrus had never lost the love for his sister that he honestly believes he was born with. At first, this was an amusing indulgence, one his mentors allowed him. It gave him a human touch, they said—a little bit of softness in his reputation. That in itself was not so bad; there were ways to take advantage of it. But eventually, it became more dangerous than that, and his sister was driven from her home. This left Cyrus—though surrounded by sycophants and those who claimed to have his best interests at heart—well and truly alone for the first time in his life.

And so, four years after Estella had done the same, and with an appointment to a vacant seat in the Magisterium pending, along with soft whispers of a possible match with the Archon’s own granddaughter filling ears all over Minrathous, Cyrus left it all behind. He did not follow Estella’s footsteps to the Free Marches, knowing that he needed to carve his own path, at least until he could come to terms with himself. So instead of that, he did something he’d always known, but differently: he sought knowledge, and in it, perhaps he would find a balm to his troubles.

So far, it has proven less than helpful.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
He certainly always expected that he would see Estella again one day. He even expected that it would be sooner rather than later—he’d planned to drop in on her in Val Royeaux, where she was headquartered with the Lions. What even he did not anticipate was that it would be Estella who found him, a magical mark on her hand and a heavy burden placed on her shoulders.

The first year he spent with the Inquisition proved to be one of the most interesting and eventful of his life—and for him, that’s actually saying quite a lot. He watched, more an observer than participant, as the cause recruited more and more talented individuals. Perhaps it was the most diverse group of people he’d ever known; certainly by more than one metric. With time, he grew more directly involved. His former teacher turned up in Redcliffe, using magic they’d developed to interfere with time itself—Cyrus had to figure out on the fly how to reverse the distortion. His particular brand of expertise was also crucial to closing the Breach itself. And that doesn’t count all the various battles, skirmishes, and expeditions he’s been part of over the year.

He does derive some pride from this: he was necessary, and he accomplished feats of magic that most people could scarcely conceive. On the other hand… it has also been a particularly humbling period of time. He detests admitting things like this, but… Cyrus has been made keenly aware of just how far he has to go, as a person. And, indeed, that he has a reason to care about what kind of person he turns out to be. He isn’t just an academic mind with a body to ferry it around—somehow, he’d nearly managed to forget that. Remembering is extremely unpleasant, but… perhaps necessary.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
9:42 managed to turn Cyrus's life upside down and backwards all at once. First, he was reminded how far he still had to go, as a mage and as a person, by the horrifying and fascinating jaunt some of the Inquisition took into the Fade. Used to being the master of his own fate there especially, it was difficult for him to come up against Nightmare, a creature clearly far superior to his own strength in that regard. He nearly died, and someone did. though he doesn't precisely consider this his fault, he does linger perhaps too often on the fact that things wouldn't have been half as difficult if he were the dreamer he should be.

But the sobering knowledge that his power still had far to go before he'd be satisfied was rendered rather inconsequential afterwards, when Leta—someone he knew but did not recognize—very nearly succeeded in her attempt to assassinate him for revenge. Had it not been for Leon's unique talents, the red lyrium would have poisoned him, and on some days, Cyrus honestly wishes it had.

Because to be without his magic is to be without the core of his identity. To be without what has defined him for most of his life, and the foundation for the ambitions and dreams he still had some hope of attaining in time. The whole event forced him to dredge up things in his life he'd tried to bury, and to confront the stark reality of a world in which he was, quite frankly, insignificant. The simple truth of the matter was that he never had been, before. He'd never been just anyone, because he'd always been one of a few. Most recently, one of less than five somniari in all of Thedas. He never realized how much of his sense of self-worth came from that single fact until it was no longer true, and everything crumbled around him.

The consequences have not been so easy to push aside. He hasn't recovered from the loss. He might never. What he has tried to do is find something else to want, to strive for, to be. So far, the search has been profoundly unsatisfying, and a restlessness grows in him, alongside a deep sense of isolation that is proving difficult to crack, and a lack of motivation to do anything much that doesn't sit easily with the restlessness.

But he's trying. Trying not to let what happened preclude him from happiness or purpose. Failing more often than not, but trying all the same. What else can he do?

9:44
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It was a year of slow growth, for Cyrus. A year of trying to rebuild himself and change the schematics of himself at the same time. Definitely not done yet, he's nevertheless reasonably sanguine about the process.

In terms of major events, he recalls it mostly as other people doing things that he sometimes managed to help with. His connections played a small role in the Inquisition's success at Halamshiral. He supported Zahra as she tried to track down her missing family—and surprised himself when he proved willing, at least instinctively, to put himself at very real risk of death not for the sake of her life, but the sake of her happiness—a very stupid thing to do, really, but one he can't bring himself to regret.

He learned the full truth of his heritage, too, a thing he'd only sort of been able to piece together before, and journeyed to his father's homeland. If anything, this only taught him that he didn't much belong anywhere in particular, for he could not claim to feel anything in particular upon learning the information or walking in Arlathan. At least nothing on the same deeply personal level he suspects Estella was affected. But he did help devise a solution to Vesryn and Saraya's dissolving mental separation. So too did he discover the issue at the root of Leon's decay, and pointed the Commander in the right direction for a solution. He played his part in the siege of Kirkwall, and helped discover Marcus Alesius's true intentions in becoming Corypheus's general.

But more than any of it, he remembers the year in terms of friendships made or cemented or changed. Leon, Zahra, Vesryn, Romulus, Khari, Astraia—he'd never have picked himself to end up especially close to anyone, and perhaps by most standards, 'close' is the wrong term to use for any of them. But for Cyrus, the difference is momentous, and represents the single largest departure from the way his life was before he ever joined the Inquisition.



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| Asala Kaaras |

9:44: It was a tumultuous year for Cyrus's association with Asala, mostly because for most of it, there was none. She was conspicuously absent from the most difficult months of his life, and he didn't fail to notice that. Her initial attempts at reconciliation, he brushed off with a cruelty he'd been trying to banish from himself, but in the wake of discovering that his best chance at getting his magic back was to make peace with the people he felt had wronged him, he did a lot more thinking about the whole thing. The second time around, he accepted her apology. He does not think he can bring himself to trust her enough to be vulnerable to her again in any way, and so their friendship and mentor/student relationship is well and truly over, but he bears her no further ill will, and they are on courteous—if somewhat careful—terms now.



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| Marceline Benoît |

9:44: Their paths do not cross often. Cyrus is nearly a hermit, and when he isn't, it's because he's spending time with in the tavern or outside or in Rilien's tower with those who frequent such places. If Lady Marceline ever breaks her own seclusion, she does not do it there. This isn't really either here or there as far as Cyrus is concerned. They move in different circles: she does her diplomatic work with the nobles and resources and the Chantry. He just tries to make himself the best frontline fighter he can be. It's hardly surprising that people in such different spheres never interact. The days when he was more lord than soldier—and thus the days in which the opportunity existed for more than that—are long gone now.



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| Leonhardt Albrecht |

9:44: Leon has well and truly become a friend of Cyrus's. It's a quiet friendship, the kind more suited to peaceful afternoons in shared company than anything more extroverted, but honestly that suits the both of them just fine. There is of course still the complication of Leon's persistent affliction, but Cyrus has done his best to engineer a solution, and feels that now is the time to put his faith in his own mind and Leon's perseverance and hope for the best. The Commander is an uncommonly-mighty man, in a sense that has little to do with the state of his physical body.



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| Zahra Tavish |

9:44: He never would have really predicted his friendship with Zahra, if indeed that's what to call it. They have more in common than Cyrus would have believed: initially selfish people who really don't fit all that well amongst the more altruistic members of the Inquisition. But they both desire to, and they're both working on it. Combine that with fraught family histories, and there's actually quite a lot of common ground, even if there are scarcely two more different people in terms of surface traits and first impressions. He doesn't know that their association will survive the extraordinary circumstances they're currently in—proximity makes strange bedfellows, after all. But he thinks it just might, and doesn't mind the idea at all.



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| Vesryn Cormyth |

9:44: Assuming that none of them gets killed in the next few years—not the safest assumption, to be sure—Cyrus has this feeling that he'll eventually be referring to Vesryn as his brother-in-law, regardless of whether that's ever formally recognized or just informally obvious. He's actually quite pleased about this. Vesryn has a rare kind of decency to him, and a gregariousness that makes him difficult not to like. And even Cyrus, cynic that he is, can recognize the strength of the bond between the elf and Stellulam, one that seems to have done the both of them a lot of good. It goes without saying at this point that Cyrus will do anything he can to help resolve the presently-suspended issues involving Saraya. Vesryn is his friend, too, after all. He doesn't have many of those, and he doesn't intend to lose any if there's anything he can do about it.



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| Kharisanna Istimaethoriel |

9:44: Khari's is that almost-perfect story of sheer grit overcoming all kinds of obstacles. From the day he met her, she obviously had her sights set on one thing, and though she has not yet achieved it as such, the steps she's taken have propelled her further towards it than any elf has gone before. It's hard not to be both in awe of that and inspired by it, even if he doesn't know what he wants with quite the same clarity she does. Perhaps her clarity of purpose will rub off on him at some point—if nothing else, he's happy to keep sharpening his chess skills against her.



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| Romulus |

9:44: Romulus is a changed man, and it's obvious for all to see. Though his history and his time in Tevinter will no doubt always influence the person he is, he's risen above the influences and truly chosen his own path. It's admirable and to a certain extent enviable, but the envy is without even a touch of bitterness. Cyrus simply hopes he'll one day feel as free of all his trappings as Romulus does now. In the meantime, they get along very well.



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| Rilien Falavel |

9:44: Cyrus runs into the tranquil spymaster more often now, given his frequent presence on the bottom floor of the elf's tower. Watching him put Stellulam through her paces is always an entertaining experience, and Cyrus himself feels he learns something new every time they interact, which is admittedly not a common feeling for him. Their work together on the investigation into Julien's arrest convinced him of Rilien's intellect, and more recently, they collaborated on an alchemical solution to Leon's Reaver tonic issue. It's all given him the deepest respect for the Spymaster, and an appreciation for some of the nuances of his tranquility.



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| Estella Avenarius |

9:44: Discovering (or in Cyrus's case, confirming) their shared ancestry was an experience that affected them both very differently. Estella seemed to get something good from it, even if it wasn't perhaps exactly the thing she wanted going in. He knows she's always chased the sense of family, and also tied it to connection with blood and kin. For a long time, that was mostly him, and he admits he's had some trouble accepting that they have more than each other to any degree. Where Stellulam seeks connection and the purpose that comes with it, Cyrus only sees the absence of such things thus far, and the cruelty of outright rejection. Nothing that happened with the elves of Arlathan showed him anything else. But regardless of his own feelings, the whole experience did something good for her, and he feels that she's finally become who she always was, in a certain sense. Who she was always becoming, perhaps. He's inexpressively proud of her—she's incredible.




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"Sometimes, we get what we deserve.
Sometimes, we get even worse."

So begins...

Cyrus Avenarius's Story

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Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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Several days after their first meeting with the Revered Mother, plans were already in motion for a trip to Val Royeaux. Still, it would take a little time to get everything together, and apparently Leon had been planning to go there already anyway, so it had been decided that they would kill two birds with one stone and do everything at the same time.

In the meantime, their focus had otherwise remained on the Hinterlands, which seemed to be plagued with enough problems to occupy much of their force for a very long time. There were mages, templars, bandits, some kind of cult, and rumors of rifts further in. Despite this, Estella had suggested diverting at least a small team of them to seek out someone who was not involved with any of it, at least not to her knowledge. She’d been… sparing, with the details, only pointing out that she knew a very talented mage who might be in the area, but considering how much they could use someone like that, little else was necessary.

She hadn’t heard from her brother since before the Conclave, but all of this seemed exactly like the kind of thing he would be able to help with. All this strange magic that she knew nothing about and Asala had to guess at—that was exactly what Cyrus had always thrived on. Estella also couldn’t deny that she was excited by the prospect of seeing him again; almost as excited as she was terrified, really.

The prospect of someone with real expertise in such rare arcane matters wasn’t something they could really afford to pass up, and so via messenger bird, she’d received Leon’s go-ahead to search for him, along with a note from Rilien about where someone interested in old magic might be. Apparently, there were several locations of historical interest in the Hinterlands, and one of them wasn’t too far from here. Their route had brought them into direct conflict with one of the more stubborn pockets of bandits, and so they were, at this point, making rather slow progress, fighting their way up the dirt path towards the location her teacher had indicated.

Estella rolled her shoulders when the last bandit fell, trying to ease some of the soreness that had built up over the long days of combat they’d endured here. The refugee camp wasn’t exactly in the safest location, and with the sheer number of potential threats to it, their troops were spread thin as it was. Khari had left several hours earlier to help Donnelly with a pocket of mages trying to sabotage the supply lines, which was quickly starving the refugees and the troops. Maybe Lia and the scouts would be able to replenish the food from the local wildlife…

She didn’t bother putting her sword away this time. Instead, she turned, to look back at Romulus and Asala. “It shouldn’t be too much longer before we get there. The map says it’s this way.” Turning off the road for the first time, Estella struck up a hill. There was more tree cover in this area, but the terrain wasn’t difficult, so they kept up a good pace.

They walked for several more minutes in relative quiet, occasionally passing the corpse of another bandit, or evidence of a scuffle between mages and templars. More than the usual amount of these bodies had been struck by arrows, however, though why that was didn’t become evident until they’d been walking for another ten minutes.

At that point, the soft hiss of an arrow passing through air broke the silence, and one struck the ground in front of Estella’s feet. She took a quick step backwards, scanning the undersides of the trees for the shooter, while Romulus immediately crouched down, and covered the direction the arrow had come from with his shield. “Turn around. There’s nothing for you this way, brigands.” The voice, slightly androgynous but identifiable as belonging to a woman, seemed to come from a different direction than the arrow had, making it hard to tell how many people were hidden in the boughs.

Almost immediately after a shield bubble was cast around the three of them, with Asala in the middle and the tip of her staff dug into the dirt.

Estella was glad of the protection, but she also thought maybe there’d been a misunderstanding here, and if they could correct it, it might not have to end in a fight. Though it probably didn’t mean much, considering she was behind a magical shield, she sheathed her saber and held both hands up in the air. “We’re not bandits,” she said, speaking generally up at the branches overhead, since she wasn’t sure which of them were occupied. The leaf cover made it really hard to tell. “Nor templars. And we aren’t with the mages, either.” It was technically incorrect to say that none of them were mages, and obviously so, considering Asala.

“Actually, um, we’re with the Inquisition. We’re looking for someone.” She’d never been any good with knowing what to give away or keep secret, so for the most part, she just erred on the side of telling the truth, and taking the risk of telling too much of it. It seemed to work sometimes, anyway.

There was a period of silence, but then the voice spoke, this time from somewhere else. It was likely that there was only one person in the tree, and she was capable of throwing her voice, so as to obscure her actual location. “Inquisition, is it?” Another pause. “Who are you looking for all the way out here?”

Well, this was a start. Estella wasn’t sure the answer to this question would do much for them either way, but if the woman wanted to know, there didn’t seem to be much for it but telling her. “We’re looking for a mage, named Cyrus. The last I knew of him, he was out here, but it’s been a while, so…”

Curiously, there was a short, sharp “ha!” from above, and then, quite suddenly, a woman appeared, swinging down from a branch and landing directly in front of them. She was obviously Dalish, her valaslin a bright, saturated blue, her long hair quite blonde. Armored more heavily than most of her kind, she wore chain and a few thinner plates as well as leather, but her boots were the soft, supple hide of those that moved quietly whenever possible. A longsword rested on one hip, and her bow was now slung across her back.

Stooping for the arrow, she pulled it out of the ground and placed it back in her quiver. “Now what would a pretty lady like yourself want with that good-for-nothing shem, huh?” But then she squinted a little, her eyes darting over Estella’s features. “I’ll be damned. He said you’d be coming…” She smiled slightly, then shook her head.

“Let down that bubble and follow me. I know exactly where he is.”

Asala instead looked to Estella for an answer. She nodded. “It’s okay.” She wasn’t sure how this woman knew where her brother was, but she recognized the tone of the way she’d spoken about him: frustration, tinged with no small amount of respect. It was a common reaction to Cyrus, and that, more than anything else, convinced her that they spoke of the same person. The shield then faded around them, dispersing from top to bottom as Asala lifted her staff and knocked the clump of dirt loose from the tip. She then waited for Estella to begin to move before keeping step behind her.

Estella walked beside their new guide, curious as to how the Dalish woman knew her brother. She wondered if it was a good time to ask, since she wasn’t sure how long this walk would be. In the end, she decided it couldn’t hurt. “Thank you, by the way. He can be difficult to find, and we didn’t have much to go on.” He’d managed to go undiscovered whenever he wanted to in their childhood, and he’d had only a building to hide in, then. With an area this large, he wouldn’t be discovered unless he desired it.

She wasn’t sure how it was that he could be expecting them, but then, she’d put very little past him. “How is it that you know him, can I ask?” She also felt like it would be polite to ask the woman’s name, but didn’t want to bombard her with questions, so she saved that one for now, at least.

The elf shrugged in response. “You saw it, really. He goes places. I make sure nothing kills him in his sleep.” From the way she said it, there was a little more to it than that, but it was unclear what that might be. At least until she continued. “Never really met anyone like him, but it’s been interesting, to say the least. I’m Thalia, by the way. Ethendir.”

Their path carried them up over the crest of another hill, and down below, they could see what looked like ruins. It wasn’t much, just some white pillars and a staircase, but both led up into what looked like a rough cave entrance. “You’re lucky you came when you did. He’s been here a while already, and he probably plans to leave within the next day or two.” She gestured at the cave, then started down the hill, clearly expecting them all to follow.

“And don’t worry about the spiders. We cleared all those out last week.”

Asala stopped dead in her tracks. "Wait. Sp-Spiders? What ab-about spiders?" The way that her shoulders hunched over and she began to scratch told that they weren't her most favorite creatures.

The grade of the hill was a bit steep, but they made it down without issue, save the time Estella had to stop herself mid-trip on a concealed stone before she tumbled the rest of the way down, but she managed it, though not without nearly turning her ankle. At least she didn’t eat any dirt this time. That was something.

The approach into the cave’s mouth was much easier. They entered what looked to be an antechamber of some kind—though the entrance was rough, these rooms had been carved out of stone with deliberateness, though some of it was now ruined from age and wear. To the left, in front of another doorway, burned a curious sort of wall-mounted torch, curious because the fire was a bluish color, and gave off no heat. Romulus stared at it, pulling back his hood, the light reflecting off of his eyes.

Estella had never seen anything of the kind. “Asala, do you know what that is?” She pointed to the fire.

"Oh, uh, I'm s-sorry, what?" she asked. It seemed tht she'd been too preoccupied staring at the ceiling, no doubt in search of a spider that Thalia and Cyrus may have missed to completely hear Estella. When she saw the torch in question however, she appeared to have realized what had been asked of her. Asala stared into the flame, placing her hand close to it, but not in it.

"It... Is not fire," She stated, her head tilted quizzically, "But I can sense the Fade in it... Magical flames?" It seemed the best she could do.

Thalia shrugged. “I’m pretty sure that’s how he lit it, yes. This way.” She entered the door flanked by the unusual flames and led them into a short hallway, which eventually opened up into a much larger chamber. The ceiling was vaulted, and had likely been quite smooth at one point, though erosion had worn away at the contours of it. The whole thing was well-lit by more of those flames, set periodically down the side walls of the chamber. They walked around a large platform in the center, and came toward what must have once been an altar of some kind.

Standing with his back to them was a man, discernible as such from his height and the breadth of his shoulders, mostly. He had thick, black hair that fell to his shoulders, and though the color of the light made it hard to tell exactly, it was a fair guess that he was dressed in dark indigo, robes made of some kind of silk or satin to his knees, slit in several places for easier movement, and dark breeches with leather boots. A cloak lay carelessly on the altar itself, as did what appeared to be some kind of spherical device, glowing with a faint green luminescence that threw his shadow long, stretched almost all the way to the western wall.

“Oy, shem, I brought you something.” Thalia’s voice was that same mixture of irritation and apparent camaraderie that it had been before, confirming Estella’s guess about her thoughts on the man before them.

He turned so that his profile was facing them, then all the way around. His features were aristocratic, from the line of his nose to the shape of his jaw, something slightly different hinted at in the angle of his brow. He also, of course, looked remarkably like a masculine version of Estella herself, and it was her he found first, almost as if he’d known where to look.

He smiled slowly, confidently, and held his arms out to either side. “Stellulam.”

She required no further invitation than that. “Cy.” She shot forward, her legs taking her unerringly over the intervening distance, and threw herself into his arms, winding hers tightly around his back, pressing her forehead into his shoulder. She’d been so worried about this moment, because six years was a long time, and they’d still been children in many ways, the last time they had seen one another. Letters were one thing, but they couldn’t give as good a sense of a person as being with them did.

Estella had feared that he would become someone she did not recognize, feared that, absurd as it was, she’d become someone he would not recognize. But of course he hadn’t, and of course he knew her. He was her brother, her twin, and if there was anyone she’d always know, it was him. “I can’t believe it’s really you.” Her words were muffled against his robes, and she felt herself shedding tears onto them.

His arms locked around her, and he picked her up off the floor with ease, whirling her around several times before setting her back down with exaggerated care. “And yet, here I am.” His response was lighter, almost flippant, but she knew him well enough to understand that there was much more to it than that. He released her and gripped her shoulders, stepping half a pace away from her to look her in the face. He brushed away her tears with his thumbs and pressed his lips briefly to her brow.

“I was beginning to grow bored waiting for you to find me, I must admit. I feared that my dear sister had forgotten all about her poor, feckless brother with her sudden ascent to the ranks of Heaven’s mighty chosen, hm?” His tone managed to convey both a characteristic sort of playfulness and a slight skepticism all at once, though there didn’t seem to be anything ill-intended in it. “But here you are, and my faith is restored.”

She smiled despite herself and smacked him in the chest with her open palm. The humor in his voice had centered her, though, and despite the fact that there were a thousand things she wanted to ask about him, wanted to know, she remembered that this was neither the time nor the place, and also that they weren’t the only two people in the room. Feeling a hundred times lighter now, she turned back around, so she was facing the same direction he was, namely, the other three.

“Romulus, Asala… this is my brother, Cyrus Avenarius, who’s also a scholar of magic, among… other things.” Well, Romulus probably knew that, but she felt an introduction was appropriate anyway, though she always seemed to fall short of describing just exactly what it was Cyrus did, helped along now by the fact that she no longer really knew, exactly. “Cy, this is Romulus, and Asala Kaaras. We’re, well… we’re with the Inquisition.”

Romulus clearly recognized Cyrus, and looked entirely unsure of how to respond to being introduced. His eyes met the man's for the briefest of moments, before falling back to the floor. With his hands clasped together in front of him, he settled for bowing his head shortly, and remaining silent. Asala, for her part, simply offered him a tight lipped smile and a small wave. She too had decided to remain silent.

From the huff of amusement perhaps audible only to Estella, Cyrus made his feelings quite clear. “Quite verbose, this Inquisition of yours. Then again, it seems no one is interested in the pleasure of a conversation these days. Certainly none of them.” He waved a hand towards the back of the cave, clearly indicating that he meant some or all of the people crowding up the Hinterlands with battle. The look in his eyes was recognizably sly, and they narrowed with evident interest for a moment on Romulus, leaving no need for speculation as to whether or not he’d recognized the other man. They then flicked to Asala, and his expression eased back into a confident smile.

“Well, I see no need to linger. There are no dreams left for me here.” So saying, he lifted his cloak off the altar and settled it around his shoulders, adjusting the fur-lined hood for a moment before picking up the small glowing object on the table, and tucking it under his arm. “Lead on, dear Stellulam. I’ve been wanting a change of scenery.” He nudged her between her shoulderblades, falling easily into step beside her.

She bumped him with her elbow in retaliation, but her happiness was evident, her smile obvious and, while still not what anyone would call a grin, as genuine as it had ever been. It was quite remarkable, how much she could already feel his presence doing wonders for her confidence in their task. Perhaps it was simply because she’d never known a problem he couldn’t solve, a hurdle he could not jump. The evidence had shown her, over and over again, that he was capable of anything he wanted to be, and that gave her hope she could not give herself.

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Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius
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My blade will serve the Inquisition, for now. That is my will.

Romulus stared at the note, and the elegantly formed words, for a long time. His domina's handwriting was soft, delicate, but her words were rarely so when speaking to those she believed she had authority over. And while she had no authority over the Inquisition, she had absolute authority over Romulus, and through her penmanship he could hear her voice, and knew there could be no disobeying.

It was relief, and at the same time, constricting yet further. He could stay, continue with this work he had discovered to be fulfilling, but the brief letter made it absolutely clear: the aid he provided to the Inquisition was not his own, but his domina's, for he was not his own man. By her will, he remained. And if she had requested he return home to Minrathous, then he would have slipped away in the night, without a word to anyone.

Night had fallen on another bloody day in the Hinterlands. Romulus was accustomed to killing at this point in his life. He did not think about the deed, not before, during, or after the doing of it. The kill, he reminded himself, was never his own. Every person that he struck down and silenced with his blade was felled by the long reach of the one that held his chain. With this much distance from her, though, it felt a bit different. It felt a bit like choosing. And Romulus did not know how he was supposed to feel about that.

A young bandit he'd killed earlier, on the road before making the rendevous with Estella's brother, he was barely a man, and an utter fool. He did not belong in a criminal life, and certainly not in a warzone. Romulus had no trouble finding his throat. Here in the darkness, from where he sat just north of the village, looking down on it, he thought to himself, and wondered if that boy's blood needed to be spilled. For the Inquisition's goals were not those of Chryseis Viridius. As Revered Mother Annika had more or less stated, the Inquisition's goals were what their leaders decided. And though he tried not to be one, Romulus found people looking to him, for nothing more than the mark on his hand.

He folded the little letter carefully and tucked it into a pocket, before draping his arms over his knees, and staring out at the sleeping refugee camp from under the shroud of his hood.

The footsteps that approached were soft from grace, but audible from sheer confidence. The walker made no secret of his presence; probably, he had seldom ever needed to. The steps came to a stop a few feet from Romulus’s left, but the one who’d made them remained standing. “The view is different from elevation, isn’t it?” He shifted, folding his arms behind him. “You see more, and that’s not always… convenient.”

Romulus turned his head upon hearing the steps, and after the man spoke, he determined him to be Cyrus. Inwardly, he cursed himself for not being prepared, while he hurried upright to his feet and removed his hood. His eyes, as habit dictated, fell towards Cyrus's feet, and Romulus clasped his hands together behind his back.

"Apologies, my lord. I did not know it was you." Romulus was well aware that Cyrus had disappointed a great many in the Magisterium, none more so than his own domina's noble father, a man Romulus had once belonged to. Still, Chryseis had always been fond of him, or at least interested in his power. There had even been whispers of a possible marriage, but Romulus had not cared to pry. He did not know if the interest was only on the Viridius side, and it hardly mattered anymore. The important thing was that Chryseis would not want Cyrus treated poorly by one of her slaves.

"These views are unfamiliar to me, my lord. I am not accustomed to these lands yet."

“Yes, that much is quite apparent.” Cyrus’s tone carried no little amusement, though of course Romulus couldn’t currently see his face to know if his expression conveyed the same. There was a moment in which nothing was said, though it was hard to say why, and then he continued.

“It has been a while since I last saw Chryseis, but it does not surprise me that she has an agent in the middle of all this. She always did tend to see further than most. Though something tells me even she could not have planned for your involvement to become so… central.”

"The error was mine," Romulus answered immediately, with a surprising level of certainty for one who had no memory of the events leading up to the explosion. "I was not to be detected at the Conclave, only to observe. I don't remember what drew me to the conflict. Est--" He paused, catching himself. "Lady Avenarius suffered the same selective loss of memory." Would he blame him for what happened to Estella? What was his opinion on what happened to Estella? These were questions that felt as though they could mean his life, were they asked in Tevinter. He supposed Cyrus could still have his head here if he chose. Chryseis would strongly disapprove, but that was about it.

"As for my domina, I expect she will utilize my position here, but I do not believe she will undermine the Inquisition. She does not oppose its goals."

Cyrus sighed, rather heavily, though the reason for it was unclear. He certainly seemed rather unconcerned by anything Romulus had said—indifferent might not even be a bad word for it, actually. “Some error.” He actually snorted there. “My sister survives an explosion that should have killed her, the two of you stabilize this Breach, and manage to find yourselves instrumental to the birth of a brand-new world power in the making. If that is in error, perhaps you should strive to make mistakes more often, Romulus.”

"I--" He did not know how to respond to that. The lack of memory made it difficult to tell if anything he did was by his own design, or if it was simply luck. The stabilization of the Breach... he'd been told he was dying, and had little choice but to help, or see his own head roll. And the Inquisition's birth... that was Leon's doing, the doing of a movement of people far more religious than he. He was an effective instrument in all of it, he knew that much. But none of it yet felt like his choice, his doing. Even if he found himself wanting to continue on this path. It was some other hand, always pushing him along.

"My lord, is there something I can assist you with?" He thought it perhaps dangerous to change the subject, to try to see if Cyrus came in search of anything more than conversation, but he was obviously uncomfortable. A task, some clearly laid out desire for him to fulfill, that would make things easier.

“Nothing you aren’t doing already.” The reply was flippant, but there was a certain hint of truth underneath it. “You could try to relax a little, but I suspect that would be asking too much. In any event, I’ll leave you to it.” He turned away, and his footsteps started to recede, before they paused, just for a moment.

“Do take in that view, though. It might be worth the inconvenience.” The steps continued, before fading entirely.

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Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius
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The dreams in this place were all of blood.

He supposed that was to be expected—the noise of the present did tend to drown out the whispers of the past. It had even been difficult to focus in on the right things in the ruin, and he’d ensured no one made it up that far, with help from Thalia, of course. It was convenient to have someone around who didn’t mind taking care of the more mundane matters, in exchange for as little as he’d had to give. But she spent most of her time with the Inquisition’s forces now, which was well enough. He couldn’t say he minded—what he had to offer in glimpses was rarely so interesting to people as what could be more directly and urgently experienced in the present. Not when the present had the potential to take one’s life.

It was part of the reason he found this whole southern war patently ridiculous. It was a petty thing, born of fear and bitterness and the inability to see past one’s own nose, and he had little use for it. The sooner things became peaceful again, the sooner he would return to what really mattered.

Still, he thought, turning the device in his hands over and around between his long fingers, there were benefits to this as well. It had been too long since he’d seen her—Estella. He was thinking now with a clarity that had left him in her absence, the kind of clarity only she had ever really afforded him. He doubted it was a phenomenon unique to him, though he suspected she didn’t know about the effect she could, with time and care, have on people. He wasn’t inclined to tell her, lest she waste more of it on people who were not him. A selfish thought, oh, the very paradigm of selfishness, but unlike most people, he’d never claimed to be otherwise. Not in the slightest. He didn’t see the use in it, either, for that matter.

The pads of his fingers brushed over the smooth metal surface of the sphere, finding the divots of the runes carved into its surface. Elvish, of course; he’d assembled a lexicon a number of years ago, and been adding to it since; most of these, he had seen already, but a few had slightly different forms. Perhaps older? Or more recent?

He set the sphere in his lap, safely held by his crossed legs, and reached to the side for his notebook, where he began meticulously sketching out the shapes of the runes, and their relative positioning to one another. He sat in front of his tent, a luxury that had not been granted him, but one he’d thankfully already had. It kept the damnable insects at bay, anyway. He’d been unmoving for most of the morning, though he’d risen with the sun and taken a walk before doing anything else. He liked to always have his bearings, a practical necessity since he could often lose them by an act so simple as taking a nap.

He thought he understood the function of the object, and if so, it was quite the find. It seemed to have a limited range, however, and he surmised that there must be others elsewhere, perhaps even in the Hinterlands themselves. If he could collect them, they might prove quite useful to his research…

It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes later that footsteps approached, as did the smell of food. “I thought I might find you here,” Estella said, and there was a rustle as she took a seat across from him, setting what seemed to be a slightly-dented tin tray of food down in front of him and balancing another on her opposite hand. It tipped precariously for a moment, and she hastily put it down in her lap before she could lose any of the contents.

“Everyone else is at breakfast. I remember how bad you are at eating when something’s caught your interest.” She smiled slightly, something unidentifiable in the expression. Curiously, she looked at the orb in his hands.

Ah, yes, nourishment. He did tend to neglect that. And sleep sometimes, when wakefulness was more useful than dream. It just seemed so… unimportant. But she had successfully reminded him that he needed to eat, and so he passed her the orb almost carelessly, assuming she would handle it with the delicacy it warranted. “It’s an elven device.” He cut into the simple food with precise, studied motions of his hands, rendering it into exact squares before he lifted any of it to his mouth. “Designed, it seems, to influence the Veil in a given area, to lend it strength.”

Estella turned it over in her hands, not so unlike the way he’d been doing so before. She looked at the runes with clear puzzlement, however, of course being unable to read them. She had always been better with languages than most other things, but it was very rare that anyone had cause to learn any elvish—even the Dalish had only scattered fragments of it. “Really? Something so small can do all that?” She seemed a bit skeptical, but laid it carefully down in the grass near him anyway, before turning to her own food.

He smiled at that, mischief entering his expression. “Come now, Stellulam; magic is never to be judged by its appearance alone—you know that.” He watched her motions with a sort of attentiveness usually reserved for his more interesting observations, but then, this was interesting. Six years, it had been, and she had certainly grown up. So had he, of course, but he’d been present for that, not confronted with it in the same sudden way he was now. He wondered just how much the years had done—for surely, they had done much to him.

Her lips pursed, and she swallowed before she nodded. “Yeah, I know.” For a moment, she glanced down at her bare hand and grimaced. “Better than ever.” She paused for a moment, looking like she wanted to say more, but then she fell silent, retreating from whatever ease the conversation had previously had.

That in itself was an interesting development. Once, there had been little, if anything, she would hide from him. That she seemed to be withdrawing now was something he found displeasing, and so he sought to change the subject of the discussion somewhat. “Is that so?” The question was light, betraying not an iota of his thoughts. “And what else has changed, Stellulam? I have heard tales of mercenaries and rends in the Fade, and I must confess myself most curious as to what you have accomplished in this time.” Frankly, he thought mercenary work was a bit… strange, for Estella, but as the stories went, the particular company to which she belonged was headed up by a Duke, or some such, which was quite the novelty. He’d had little opportunity to keep abreast of political developments in the past couple of years, and had cared little for them to begin with.

Her expression warmed, and her back straightened slightly. “I… yes. I work for the Lions. Well, the full name is the Argent Lions, but most people drop the first part. I found my way to Kirkwall first, and then when the Commander moved back to Orlais, my friends and I went with him, so I’ve been there for a while now. It’s been… really nice, actually. I made lieutenant recently.” She looked at him, her expression caught somewhere between hopefulness and something guarded.

He suspected—though he could not be sure, and that unsettled him—that she was seeking his approval, or at least his congratulations. His brows furrowed for a moment, and he wondered why that might be. Obviously, if his sister wanted to be a mercenary, she would be an excellent one; it was hardly a surprise. But, if that was what she wanted, it wasn’t like he minded.

He reached across the short gap between them and ruffled her hair. “But of course you did. I’d expect nothing less.”

She smiled, but something about it was slightly strained, and it didn’t reach all the way to her eyes. “What about you, Cy? I know you left Tevinter, but you never said why… or much about what you’ve been doing since then.”

He resisted the urge to sigh. Clearly, he’d lost the sense he’d had of her feelings over the intervening years. Then again, she was conversely less shy and yet somehow more reticent than she had once been. He wondered if that was the product of her leaving, or what had happened to her afterwards. His hand clenched on his fork, but he eased it immediately. She was asking about what he’d been doing, and that was a topic on which he could muster a great deal of enthusiasm. Indeed, he soon felt it coming on, and immediately, his mind was away on a tangent, one that he relayed to her as well as he could with the vagaries of mundane language.

“I left because there wasn’t anything to be gained from staying. I learned much there, but what I wish to learn now is something no Magister can teach me.” There was a delicate emphasis on the word ‘Magister,’ one that carried the faintest hint of disdain. “And so I have elected to learn what I can from sources older and more venerated than they. On a day to day basis, this consists in traveling to various locations known to contain ruins from various stages of civilization, and accessing the Fade there.”

He set aside his plate, no longer even slightly interested in eating, and instead pulled his notebook into his lap. The cover was made of leather, waterproofed but surprisingly simple for someone so used to the ornate and even overwrought, and the spine contained a strip of silverite, for reinforcement purposes. He opened it to a random page, this one covered with what looked to be an architectural rendition of a very old castle, large banners of no recognizable nation hanging from its walls. Figures dotted the walls, dressed in a way that somewhat resembled the modern Avvar. They were no such thing, of course, being much older than that, but the cultural heritage was clear, anyway.

“I see it, and then I transcribe it here. And there is so much to see, Stellulam.” He scowled. “When it can be seen, over all this nonsense.” He gestured vaguely, but it wasn’t hard to guess what he meant by that.

She bent over slightly, her own breakfast temporarily forgotten, tracing one side of the castle’s wall with a finger. “You go to ruins and see this?” There was a trace of wonder in her tone, but then she shook her head and straightened, smiling wryly. “Somehow, it doesn’t really surprise me that you do.”

Ah. He recognized this. He should use humor here. “It shouldn’t.” He was flippant about it, and smiled slyly. “I am a genius, after all. Everyone says so.” Lots of people actually had said so, but it seemed silly to him. Cyrus knew he was gifted, and he didn’t apologize for it, but it was just a fact. Some people were very tall. It was the same kind of thing—genius wasn’t a skill he’d cultivated, like some of the other things he could do. It was merely a brute fact about his makeup.

Why anyone thought that was praiseworthy any more than being tall was, he’d never bothered to parse.

It was a familiar jest, and the wryness went away, replaced by a genuine little smile. “A ‘genius’ that manages to forget he needs to eat.” She rolled her eyes at him, but then stood and dusted herself off. “Well, if you ever decide to join the rest of us little people, we’ve got work to do here in the boring physical world, and we could use your help, you know.” She held her hand out to take his plate, too, inviting him to hand it up to her.

He curled his lip in mock disgust. Well, mostly mock, anyway. “I suppose. But only since you’re the one asking.” Instead of handing her his plate, he picked up his own and grasped her hand with his, pulling himself up. “Where are the big, bad templars, then? I think it’s time they met a mage who hasn’t been stuck in a Circle too long to learn anything useful.”

“You’re terrible.” Though her tone was flat, she clearly didn’t mean it.

Cyrus only smiled.

Setting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon nodded, and turned to lead the way.

Setting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht
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Well, Val Royeaux had been… something, he supposed.

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

Good. Grief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Senseless," Marceline said, shaking her head.

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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Saraya was cold, soaked, and... bored.

"You don't say," Vesryn murmured to himself. He could still feel his fingers, mostly, but it wouldn't be long now. The rain pitter-pattered against his shining steel armor, though the magnificence of it was tempered by the mud and the perpetually dark skies. The lion draped over his back atop his cloak looked as miserable as ever. Vesryn himself was a sentinel of steel, his face hidden under the mask of his tallhelm, but under that mask was a grumbling frown.

"Why would anyone stay here?" he asked the air, adjusting his grip on the bardiche axe in his hands just so they wouldn't fall alseep just yet. He set up his one-tent camp along the side of the road, fire in plain view. The fire was only able to survive due to the presence of a nearby rocky overhang that covered a small space. It was only slightly less damp than everything around it. And not once had anyone come by his tent since the elven girl, Lia, had departed. As far as he knew, this was the only sensible way into the swamp.

A blast of lightning erupted from the heavens, the thunder nearly ear splitting, but Vesryn paid it no mind. He'd been in worse storms. Though he did take a few steps back under the overhang. His tallhelm was feeling particularly tall just now.

Saraya urged him towards the water. Vesryn sighed, his breath rising in a cloud as it escaped his helm. "Again?" He already knew the answer to that one, though, and the urges repeated just to confirm it. Practice, every opportunity. This blighted marsh had unending opportunities to chop his axe into things, and she would have him seize every one. He shook himself awake, wondering what time it was. Evening, maybe? Or midday? It was hard to tell. He could still see in front of him, so it wasn't night. Not yet.

He stepped forward, back out into the rain, thumping his bardiche into the ground like a walking stick. His tower shield and spear were left back by the tent; he'd felt less and less like fighting with them since he'd been on his own again. Not enough offense. Grimacing, Vesryn allowed the toe points of his boots to touch the water, and he poked his bardiche handle down into it.

The presence in his mind receded. He knew that one clearly enough. Do this on your own. As much as the lessons annoyed him, he took them seriously every time. He found it much more difficult to be careless with his life when there was another soul wrapped up in it. Ahead of him, ghastly skeletal figures rose up from the water, covered in soaked moss and mud, wielding swords and shields. He counted three. An easy trip.

The first attacked down at him, an aggressive hack. Most undead were predictable, at least. They had no fear. Vesryn danced around it, quick for an elf in so much armor, and swung his axe right into the rotted hip of the corpse. It split in two to fall at his feet, still alive. Its sword clattered off his scaled skirt before he stomped down on its skull.

The second lunged, and he batted it aside, backstepping sharply away from the water, not wanting to draw any more. He made his own lunge forward, poking it in the stomach. He opened a decent hole, but no blood spilled out. Frowning, he stepped forward and swung upwards, the blade of his axe catching the wound and cutting up inside, splitting the corpse in half from ribcage to the top of the skull.

The last one seemed to be missing its sword, only carrying a decayed wooden shield, which was missing a few planks. He allowed it to charge him, watching it swing a haymaker with the shield rim, and ducking to let it fly over. It ran forward into his hip, doubling over on his back, and Vesryn flipped him clean over, before he brought the axe down like he was splitting a log. The head was crushed, not even strong enough to survive a clean splitting.

Saraya approved.

"You're entertained, then? Good. I was worried." As he turned back towards he camp, he stopped dead, spotting visitors coming down the path. The elf in the front with the bow was hooded, but he still recognized her gait. He was good at remembering those sorts of things. This time, Lia led a party of what appeared to be three. He removed his tallhelm, revealing a mane of silver hair that outdid the white lion on his back. He held an open hand up in greeting, before stepping back under the rocky overhang and nearing his fire.

"I thought for a moment you were going to leave me here. In the rain. It hasn't stopped since you left, by the way. Who've you brought to be miserable with us?"

Lia pulled back her hood once she was under the cover of the overhang. The cloak appeared to have failed at keeping her dry. She gestured to the three behind her. "This is Estella Avenarius, Herald of Andraste. This is Cyrus Avenarius, and this is Asala Kaaras. If we're successful I'll be back with more scouts, but this is it for now."

"The Herald herself?" Vesryn mused, clearly pleased. "I'm honored. Vesryn Cormyth, at your service." He performed a well practiced bow. Saraya was more interested in the elven girl.

“Oh, um. Please, that’s not necessary.” The Herald in question looked a little uncomfortable, actually, shifting the way she stood slightly. It was hard to tell in the dark, but she might have gone a bit red in the face. “The title’s a bit much, honestly. And you really don’t have to bow.” She wasn’t dressed any differently than the others with her; actually, her gear might have been a bit rougher than that belonging to the man introduced as Cyrus, and unlike Lia she had no hood, so her dark hair had long been plastered to her head and the sides of her face by the rain.

She smiled a bit, though, apparently not yet as miserable as hypothesized. “It’s nice to meet you, though. Do you prefer Vesryn or…” She appeared to contemplate the armor for a moment. “Ser Cormyth, perhaps?”

Saraya looked down on the girl as though Vesryn were eight feet tall. Not impressed. Vesryn, however, smiled warmly, and quickly ran a gloved hand through his hair. For all the rain, it didn't look that bad. A little of a mess, but sometimes that worked in his favor. The tallhelm had kept most of the downpour off of it.

"Ah, Vesryn please. I'm no knight, and we'll save Ves for once we know each other a little better. Come, the fire's not quite dead yet." It gave off enough warmth to be comforting, and he kneeled down in front of it, peeling off his gloves and warming his hands. "And noted on the title. But the bow? I'd say you deserve that much, stopping a tear in the sky like you did." A smile seemed almost perpetually attached to his features.

"Cyrus, is it?" he looked up at the man in question. "You're... a brother, then?"

He’d been wearing a hood as well, but dropped it as soon as he was addressed. “Right in one.” Unlike his sister, he seemed not in the least uncomfortable, though his eyes did flicker to her for a moment before they resettled on Vesryn. “I understand you were looking for someone versed in the nuances of ancient elven magic. That would be me.” He inclined his head, though it was assuredly a courtesy and not a deference.

Saraya's interest immediately shifted away from the elven girl and the Herald of Andraste to study the Herald's brother. There seemed to be no opinion just yet, none that Vesryn could feel. He, however, had come to at least a preliminary conclusion.

"Handsome and well-studied. Quite the catch." He looked to the last member of the group, the young Qunari woman introduced as Asala, and rubbed his hands together. "Hope you're not afraid of walking corpses. We'll be wading through plenty in a moment."

Asala said nothing, only nodded. She still seemed rather nervous about the whole thing, but did Vesryn's words did not cause her to back away. Like Estella, she too wore no hood, no doubt that the pair of horns sprouting from her head would make such an endeavor futile. Her hair was slick, but she had it pulled back into a tight ponytail, revealing exactly where the horns rose from. The edges of the white cloak she wore were wet too, the edges cacked in mud.

"Good," Vesryn said. "Now, the Avvar you're looking for are in the fortress at the south end of the bog. Long road of demons and undead to get there. Nothing to be done about the undead. They rest in the water, for the most part. Don't step in any deep pools and they may ignore us. The demons, however, we can get rid of. Along the path are two old pillars. Veilfire beacons. Lighting them should block further rifts from opening in the area."

He tilted his head sideways for a brief moment. "Sadly, lighting the beacons should draw demons to them. Angry ones. We'll have to keep them from snuffing out the beacons until the magic does its work. I hope everyone's up for a fight. On the other side, we'll reach those Avvar, and your scouts."

“If you know where they are, is there any chance you also have an idea what they want?” Estella asked, frowning. “All we really know is that they kidnapped a scout party and demanded to speak to me.”

"Speak?" Vesryn smiled, somewhat sadly. "I'm afraid they want to kill you. It's a religious thing, they're hoping to prove their nature-gods are superior to your Maker-god. By squishing you with their big hammers."

"How did you learn this?" Lia asked, uncomfortably.

Vesryn stood and pulled his gloves back on. "Had a chat with one of the painted brutes myself. Well, brute might be a little rude, he was actually quite civil. I don't think he likes their leader much, probably doesn't even agree with him, but as it often goes with these sorts, the only way to get rid of the chief is to kill him."

“I should probably be more surprised by that than I am.” Estella shook her head, then glanced out towards the swamp. “Well, I suppose the sooner we get going, the sooner the problems will be solved.” She paused a moment, presumably to ensure that everyone was ready, then exited the scant cover of the overhang, drawing the sword at her hip and holding it in her left hand. It was bright in the dark, surely an enchantment, but the light dimmed after a few seconds.

“If you would be so kind as to lead on?” He was the one that knew where they were going, after all.

Vesryn slid his bardiche axe into a sheath on his back, picking up his shield and spear instead. Holding them each in the same hand, he grabbed his tallhelm and dropped it into place, obscuring his features save for the emerald eyes. As he passed Estella, he turned and bowed again, this time as he walked backwards. "Of course, my lady Herald." Under his helmet, he grinned.

"Oh, and once more, do try to stay out of the water. We'll be swimming in demons as is."

Setting

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Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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It was only in the last year or so that Cyrus had truly grown accustomed to surroundings he would easily and accurately describe as disgusting, but this place might just have taken the whole blasted cake.

It smelled like rotting corpses, which apparently was because quite a lot of them were reanimated and just… waiting, under the water or some such. It seemed that stirring the surface of the bog would be enough to alert them to one’s presence, and they had been advised against such a course by their present guide. Reaching into a small pouch under his cloak, Cyrus withdrew a finger-length green leaf, placing it on his tongue as he walked. As expected, the sharp flavor of it helped chase the half-there taste of decay from his mouth, a product of the smell.

This Vesryn was quite curious. It was not every day that one encountered someone who knew of things like veilfire and rifts. And though their ancestors had invented the former, meeting an elf who knew of them was even less common. He would have put the odds of any elf without the vallaslin knowing it at quite close to zero, which meant that this fellow was quite an anomaly, and probably aware of it. For a moment, Cyrus wondered if perhaps he was as the one other he’d ever met like that, but it seemed… no. That was too unlikely, so there was some alternative explanation that he did not yet have.

That was fine. He always found whatever information he was after eventually. This would be no different.

The path to their destination turned out to make the simple advice don’t touch the water into a rather farcical recommendation. Most of the architectural features of the bog were half-sunk into it already, and that included the nearly rotted, unsound wooden ‘bridges’ that connected the various more solid islands. Still, by some combination of luck, skill, and mutual assistance, they were managing adequately thus far.

“Your choice of tourist destination leaves much to be desired.” That was directed at Vesryn, of course, and accompanied by the skeptical arch of a brow. “Unless you intend for us to believe that you live here.” It was obvious that Cyrus wasn’t going to believe that in any case.

"Gods, no," the elf said, glancing back at Cyrus, the only thing visible of his face being his green eyes. "Merely passing through. I was on my way to Haven, actually, to meet this Inquisition I'd heard so much about. The Mire caught my attention, when I heard about the rifts and the elven structures within. There are some fools that live here, probably for the solitude, and they have no one dumb enough to defend them. Not until I arrived, at any rate."

Finally, the ground beneath them became somewhat less treacherous to walk through, as they began up a gentle incline. The hill before them was covered with thick black trees, gnarled and ancient, about as grouchy looking as the undead in the ponds below. "Unfortunately, all I found were these Veilfire beacons. Not particularly interesting, but useful at least. All I needed was a mage, and when our dear girl here passed through, it proved the perfect opportunity." Lia scowled at him from under her hood, from where she walked at Vesryn's back.

"It's a good cause, and a chance for me to prove myself to this Inquisition I'd like to join up with."

Frankly, Cyrus thought this was an awful lot of trouble to go to in order to prove oneself to an organization that was taking volunteers with farming implements, but he didn’t say so aloud. There would be no point—they needed to light the beacons anyway, and if Vesryn did join, he’d realize the same soon enough besides.

What he said instead was: “How very magnanimous of you.” It wasn’t supposed to be clear if it was a compliment or merely an observation, and his tone kept the distinction vague.

The hillside was wet, as was every other damn thing in the place, but it wasn’t an impossible climb, and it took them only a couple of minutes to reach the first veilfire beacon. It was basically just a monolith, probably a good fifteen feet tall, with a circle of mostly bare space around it, the terrain damp gravel. There were a few other larger stones left outside the circle, suggesting a larger structure may once have been built around the beacon, but overall it was quite the plain device, as expected.

“Right, well. I suggest the four of you prepare for the angry demons, then.” His boots crunched on the gravel as he approached the pillar, the front side of which was bare, though he felt a slight stirring in the Fade as he passed it. Probably one of those runes—he’d have to take a look afterwards. The back side, however, had a veilfire torch mounted onto it, as had the ruins in the Hinterlands, and Cyrus stood before it, raising an arm until it was at the level of his chest, his palm roughly vertical, and lazily flicked his fingers.

The spark of magic flew unerringly, and the torch burst to life, the green-tinged blue of veilfire catching easily and almost immediately blooming into full burn. The effect rippled through the Fade, changing the unseen part of the area’s landscape quite noticeably.

“Incoming.”

True to the warning, it didn’t take much time at all before the first wave of demons appeared, about six shades in total. They came in from the same direction the party had, flying over the ground about as swiftly as shades could move, and they met the front line as five, one of their number having fallen on the way up to a well-placed arrow from Lia, shooting from behind Estella and Vesryn.

Estella watched them with evident wariness, but from the set of her feet, it was clear that she planned to approach this with as much mobility as possible, and indeed as the lines met, she stepped forward, slashing aggressively at the nearest. She caught it a deep blow to the shoulder, evidently missing one of its vital arteries by scant inches, but the follow-up crossed upwards over the same area, nicking something important even as she shade’s claws scraped against her armor, digging a furrow in the leather and throwing her back a meter or so.

She landed on her feet, and pressed forward again, this time stepping over its fading corpse.

Vesryn threw himself at a cluster of three of the things, slamming into the first with his heavy shield and driving it back into another. The third lunged forward and slashed down, the claws clanging loudly off the face of his shield. His boot emerged from behind it to kick the demon away, and immediately following that the end of his spear punched through the thing's face. It made a howling but soon cut off cry, falling limp into the ground as the spear was withdrawn. The two other shades had risen once more and resumed their frontal assault. One strike that swiped around the edge of his shield caught a magical barrier instead. The last unengaged shade charged up the hill, towards Asala.

Asala seemed to handle herself far better in a fight than she did socially. Despite the shade charging toward her fast as it could carry itself, she did not take a step back. In fact, her feet were set, and her eyes were wide as if searching out for a moment of opportunity. And sure enough, when one seemed to present itself, she took it.

As the shade closed the distance, Asala's hand went up, enveloped in the fade, and a wide barrier flew forward as fast as the shade in the opposite direction. The action was too sudden and the barrier too quick. The shield struck the shade hard in what should've been the thing's face. The force and momentum was great enough to send the shade into a backward flip and land on its face.

Another shield was called, this one appearing above the shade and crashed downward, crushing the shade against it and the ground below. It then vanished in a plume of smoke.

With the shades all down rather too quickly to constitute much by way of challenge, Cyrus was left to wonder if perhaps the danger of this part of their task had been overestimated a bit. There were a few seconds of silence after the last one fell, but just as he was opening his mouth to say something humorous, he felt an abrupt shift in the Fade, a spike against whatever served him as a sense of danger.

There wasn’t even time to issue much in the way of a warning before several spots on the ground turned an unhealthy greenish-black and from them erupted demons of a much higher order than mere shades—terrors, four of them. They had always reminded him of preying mantises, the way they were all limbs and long, emaciated, greenish forms. They had burst from the ground in eerie synchronization: two near Vesryn and Estella, one in front of Lia, and another right next to Asala.

Cyrus, not the subject of the wave of concussive force that issued from any of them, was able to react immediately. Springing forward, he pointed a finger in the direction of one of the two demons attempting to hew down his sister and Vesryn, and a tiny, concentrated orb of light formed at his fingertip, zipping over the elven warrior’s shoulder and impacting the creature in the chest, at which point Cyrus released the spell properly, and from that compact sphere erupted a massive fireball, scorching the demon from chin to hips, and sending it sprawling backwards, smoking in the damp of the rain—alive, but barely.

In his other hand, he summoned a Fade-weapon, in this case a spatha, which fit into his hand with the ease of long practice. Still running, he veered for the one physically closest to himself, which was near Lia, the scout. Halfway there, he pulled himself into the Fade, leaving a distorted afterimage in his place as he accelerated beyond the pale of normal physical speed, angling himself at the terror’s back. With a familiar low thrum, the sword cut into its flesh, breaking the spine as much with the blunt force of his acceleration as with the sharp edge of the blade proper, and he stopped himself abruptly upon contact, so as not to tear his own arm out of its socket.

The broken creature collapsed to the ground, and he flashed a friendly smile at Lia, the only person close enough to see it. “I really quite dislike these things.” The first time he’d encountered one… well, perhaps that was a thought for another time.

"Does anyone not?" Lia queried, drawing a long knife from the small of her back as one of the terrors focused on her. She dove forward and around it under the first claw swings, and stabbed the back of its leg, forcing it down. It shrieked as she pulled the blade free with a grim look, stabbing it again into the thing's lower back. She dodged sideways when it twisted and slashed down, and stabbed a third time, into its chest.

Suddenly it erupted in a magical cry, a shriek that knocked Lia back, leaving the knife in its chest. She stumbled and kept her feet, but the second pulse of energy tipped her over, sending her sliding in the mud on her back. By the third blast she was out of range, and had drawn an arrow. She nocked it in place while still on her back, drawing the bow sideways, and loosed. The arrow pierced straight through the terror's skull, silencing it and sending it collapsing into a pile of tangled limbs on the ground.

Vesryn, meanwhile, leapt through the smoke of the fireball's remnants and speared through the chest the injured terror. It squealed and went down in a smoking heap, twisting in pain until it died.

All told, that left one, and it was currently repeatedly hitting Asala’s barriers, which were starting to show some damage as a result. It was a quick thing, though, making it difficult to target as she’d taken down the shade previously. Estella, freed of the need to worry about either of those that had appeared in front of her, moved in to assist, sprinting across the intervening distance with her face set into grim lines, her saber trailing behind her.

It flashed over the terror’s midsection, aimed for the head but missing because of the creature’s reflexes, scoring a deep gash that seemed to hiss and sizzle at the edges, as its blood did along the edge of the sword itself. The creature turned its attention away from Asala and swung a hand for its new attacker, which she ducked under, scoring another blow lower, at its legs.

Its mobility reduced, it screamed again, catching Estella in the sonic attack, sending her to the ground in a tangle.

The dome Asala had erected around herself took the brunt of the terror's scream, though the cracks deepened as a result. However, Estella bought Asala an opportunity, one she did not waste. The dome melted around her, and reformed at her command. She held out her hands, both now awash in the fade. A pair of barriers appeared on either side of the demon, and before it could react, Asala brought her hands together. The barriers closed in on each other with the terror caught in the middle.

Asala's clap was drowned out by the crashing of the barriers. The force dazed and injured it, bringing it down to its spindly knees. She then took a step forward, lashing out with another barrier. It struck underneath its chin, raising it up off the ground and onto its back, its head twisted at a ghastly angle. Asala didn't waste a moment, and she was at Estella's side in a moment, the green glow of a healing spell already in her hand.

“I’m fine.” Estella waved a hand, a refusal of the healing spell, and pulled herself to her feet, tipping unsteadily for a moment before she seemed to regain her bearings and shake off whatever damage the fall had done. “Thanks, Asala.”

She spent a moment checking herself over before resheathing her sword and turning to the other three. “Well… one down, one to go, I suppose.” There was a moment in which she obviously assessed the rest of them for any injuries, and, finding none, she smiled slightly.

“Shall we?”

After having made his own determination that she was uninjured, Cyrus nodded. His hood had come off in his maneuvering, so he used both hands to push his hair back out of his face, slicking it against his head so he could see. The cloaks were basically an unfunny joke at this point.

“Yes, let’s. The sooner we get out of here, the sooner we can never come back.”

Now there was a lovely thought.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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The trek to the second beacon proved to be even trickier than the first. It seemed like half the time, they were over deep water, prevented from touching it only by rotting wooden bridges, some of which had broken away in places, leaving large gaps in them that had to be jumped. Their progress was slow, in part because of the driving rain and in part because they had elected to be careful in their passage, taking each new obstacle carefully enough to avoid too much risk, something which Estella was grateful for.

Of course, this particular bridge was not looking very safe even with all that considered. She could feel the wood creaking underneath her, and the jump that now loomed before her was very long. Her brother had made it without difficulty, of course, and it hadn’t seemed to trouble Vesryn much either. Estella was next in formation, and looked at it with a mounting sense of dread. The gap was wide, maybe six or seven feet, so a running start was necessary. It was also about four feet higher than a lake, which was who-knew-how-deep. Estella could swim, but that wasn’t much reassurance when the lake was supposedly filled with animated corpses that reacted to motion in the water.

Nervous, but unwilling to hold up the line, she backed up, taking a deep breath and trying to remember the things she’d been taught. If it didn’t feel natural, she could calculate it. She knew about what she had to achieve, when the best place to jump off was and how she should hold herself in the air, but whether she’d be able to do those things right on the first try was very questionable.

She didn’t think she’d ever done anything right on the first try.

And here she was, making far too much of what was probably simple for everyone else. Setting her jaw so she wouldn’t bite her tongue on the landing, she took her running start, bounding over the wooden planks and launching herself as high and far as she could once she reached the end. Her angle was slightly off, she knew, but she made the distance, landing on the other side with several inches to spare.

Unfortunately, she also landed on a slick spot, and one of her feet gave out from underneath her, forcing her to stagger backwards to compensate, grabbing for a railing. Her hand met only air, and the foot she’d moved back to stabilize herself hit wood—which promptly collapsed under her weight, sending her backwards. She didn’t shout or cry out, merely teetered off the edge with nothing to grip, landing on her back in the water with a loud splash.

Her cloak tangled around her as she tried to reach the surface, thrashing underneath the water in an attempt to free herself from it. It took several seconds to do so, and by the time she broke the surface again, she'd swallowed or inhaled what felt like half the lake. She came up coughing and spluttering, water in her lungs burning her chest, but predictably, that was the least of her problems.

Before she'd even cleared the murky water from her eyes, a putrid corpse had emerged from the water behind her, grabbing her by the shoulders with surprising strength. Its first gurgling roar, however, was cut short by a spear thrust from above, right through the softened bone of its skull. It fell back into the water, limp, sinking under the surface, but in its place more rose around Estella, some of them armed with dripping, ancient blades and knives.

From the edge of the bridge's gap, Vesryn withdrew the spear, quickly flipped it around in his hand, and thrust it back down, butt-end first, hovering it right in front of Estella. "Grab it!" His attention was drawn somewhere off to his right, and he soon was forced to bring his shield up in front of his face, just before a pair of arrows clattered off the surface of it. "Could we deal with those, please?" The suggestion seemed to be directed at Cyrus and Lia. A rapid barrage of crackling explosions answered, the air filling briefly with the scent of a thunderstorm.

"No, no. D-don't do that. Go-go back down, please." It was Asala's voice, apparently attempting to tend to some of the undead on the other side of the bridge.

Estella heard all of this, and smelled it, but mostly her head was filled with one simple thought: don’t die. Strangely, though she was desperate and still coughing up her lungs, the thought was calm, rational, devoid of any particular urgency but somehow yet absolute. She obeyed it, reaching up and grasping the haft of the spear, closing one hand around it with all the strength she had, her feet kicking steadily in the water beneath her—at least until she felt another pair of bony hands grasp her shoulders.

A quick glance confirmed that they were, in fact, mostly bone, the skin warped, greyed, and sliding off in places. It smelled worse than anything else she could remember, and she fought its grip, throwing an elbow back into it, but her motion was slowed by the water, and with only one hand free, she didn’t have much recourse.

That would prove to be a problem she wished she had, though, because it pulled her back down, dragging her under the water, and her hand slipped from the end of the spear despite her every effort to hold it there. She managed a deep breath before she went down, and this time tried to be more proactive, actually exhaling so she’d sink faster, and slip from its grip.

She managed to free herself, but before she could kick back up, it grabbed her cloak, halting her motion upwards. Her lungs were already burning, and she was starting to feel the distinct pressure that came with the gasping need for air, something she was currently in no position to get. She fought free of her cloak, tearing the clasp off and letting it fall away, finally untangling herself and surfacing again with another heaving inhalation.

A second corpse was not far behind, though, and she knew she had to get them off her before anything else happened. They were staying submerged, mostly, shambling along the bottom of the lake, and she couldn’t draw her sword and have any hope of swinging it hard enough. But…

Her right hand found its way to the knife sheathed at the small of her back, and she drew it, the straight, triangular blade thin but effective for stabbing, which was all she needed. She threw herself through the water, pushing off one of the bridge’s supports, and brought the knife down on top of one of the skulls, at the slightly weaker part behind the crown. It punched right through, and the corpse went slack. The other tried to drag her under the water again, but she plunged the knife into its arm where it tried to grasp her waist, kicking away and setting the knife hilt between her teeth, lunging to grab the spear with both hands this time.

As soon as both of her hands were firmly around the spear, it was pulled upwards with impressive strength, carrying her entirely up out of the water and forward onto the bridge. A plank beneath her and Vesryn groaned and threatened to give way, and the elf immediatedly stumbled back, falling away from the edge and pulling Estella with him so she wouldn't end up back in the water again.

Vesryn fell flat onto his back with a loud clatter of armor on wood, with Estella on top of him. The elf let his arms fall to his sides, and he smiled good-naturedly up at Estella from underneath his helmet. "Well, that got the adrenaline going, didn't it?"

She found that for some reason extremely funny just now, which wasn’t helping her chances at recovering her breath. Some of her pants sounded suspiciously like laughter, and she shook her head, rolling off him and to the side. “This? This is any given Tuesday.” She coughed a few more times, groaned, and clambered to her feet. She would have liked nothing more than to be warm and dry and take a long nap right now, but there was no chance of that, which meant she just had to keep going.

“Sorry about that.” She offered this to the party at large, then stretched a hand down to Vesryn, who clambered up to his feet with her help. “And thank you.” It didn’t look like there were any more corpses around; probably the other three had dispatched the majority of them with great acumen, if what she knew of their talents was anything to go by.

“Now that we’ve enjoyed the local lake, perhaps it would be a good time to get ourselves to that second beacon.”

“Are you sure? We can stop for a picnic if you like. No?” Cyrus’s words were light, but his eyes were serious, and he stepped forward towards her, lifting first one of her arms, and then another, checking her over for wounds, it would seem. When he found nothing obvious, he clicked his tongue and released her, not before giving her hand a little squeeze.

Asala said nothing aloud, but the look on her face was one of confusion-- or more than likely, one of misunderstanding. She mumbled something under her breath, but whatever she had said, it decidedly wasn't in the trade tongue.

The other two made it over the gap without falling in, thankfully, and after that the whole party was off again, and it wasn’t long before the second monolith came into sight. It appeared to have the same construction as the first, and they would likely face enemies of a similar type as before. At least they knew exactly what to expect this time.

Cyrus scrutinized it for a moment, before turning behind him and pinning Asala with his glance. “Asala, was it?” He beckoned her forward with a crook of his fingers. “Given how we approach combat, it makes much more sense for you to start in the back than I. I’ll show you how to light this one.” Without waiting for much by way of reply, he strode up to the pillar, leaving the rest of them to take their positions.

She dutifully followed him without a complaint until she came to a stop beside him, staring at the pillar in front of them. "O-okay?" she said, apparently waiting for the next step of instruction.

“Veilfire is actually rather simple to activate when an apparatus is in place like this. All it requires is a small, directed spark of your magic. Push it forwards, but do not form it into a specific spell. The torch will take care of the rest.” With a sharp motion, Cyrus summoned another weapon to his hand, a shortsword, by the look of it, and took several steps towards the front, facing backwards so as to make sure she did it properly, probably.

“Whenever you’re ready.”

Asala gazed into her palm for a moment before reaching for the staff slung on her back. She held it one hand as she reached out toward the torch with the other. A moment passed with nothing happening, but eventually a spark flew from her open palm and collided with the torch, lighting it in the greenish-blue flame.

She turned back to the others with a bright smile on her face, proud of herself. The smile didn't last long however, melting away into a rather pouty frown as the action soon drew demons toward them.

Estella actually smiled a bit at that, but quickly turned her attention towards the front. They were quite prepared this time, or at least she felt more prepared, and so the fight honestly wasn’t any harder than any other she’d ever been in, and while her body was beginning to remind her of how tired she was, she could put that off for a while longer yet, and she did, keeping herself light on her feet and agile, rarely stopping or holding position for more than a moment. Her strikes were light but precise, and she couldn’t say she felt anything but relief at the death of a demon, really. Maybe things would be different later, when it was Avvar—people—and not the distorted creatures of the Fade.

The first round was down before they’d managed so much as a scratch on anyone, and though the terrors proved to be more difficult as expected, no one took any serious wounds from them, either, though Estella did find herself sporting a new scratch down her cheek. It was only shallow, though, not even worth the effort of a healing spell when worse might come later.

When the last terror was gone, she lowered her blade and breathed a sigh. “Well… that’s the beacons. I guess we just have to deal with the Avvar now.” She wasn’t really looking forward to it. People wanting to kill her was nothing new, but it had been a while since it was her specifically, and it made her feel guilty. Like what had happened to the patrol was her fault.

She knew it wasn’t. But that didn’t stop her from feeling that way.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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The looming silhouette of a fortress peered at them from the horizon. Asala was relieved, they were almost there. She was tired, cold, and wet, and the ground sucked at every step she took. It was no secret that she wished she was anywhere but there, her emotions were already easy to read. Trudging through the bogs and marshes only made it easier. Brows knitted and furrowed, and her lips were drawn in a tight frown. The rising of the fortress in the distance gave her some hope of finally make it out of the rain, at least for a little while.

That hope put a slight hop to her step, though it only made the squelching noise that much worse. They approached through a narrow span of land, the marsh extending on either side of them. In the distance off to their side, Asala could make out a windmill listing at an angle, with dead trees sprouting every so often. She did not like this place, and the demons and undead only reinforced it.

Not even halfway to the fortress however, something caused Asala to stop. It was something in the Fade, it just didn't... feel right. She turned to her left, then her right, and then back to her left, trying to suss out the source of her feeling. It wasn't long until she found her answer. An undead broke the surface of the water, and he was not alone. Undead began to rise from the water, and they did not seem to stop.

Asala brought her staff around, but they were outnumbered, easily. She threw her gaze around her, trying to find something that would help, but the only thing she saw was the fortress. She pointed at it, and said "Th-there!" With that, they were off, with Asala bringing up the rear.

Cyrus had apparently elected to act from range this time, and periodic blasts of magic, mostly fire or electricity, flew outwards from his hands, aimed at large groupings of the corpses, clearly intended to knock them back and hamper their progress more than kill them outright, which made sense considering their numbers. Even so, no few of them didn't move again after being hit. He’d moved to the left flank of the group, and focused his attention on that side.

Estella was only armed with a sword and a knife, and since the aim was to run past the creatures rather than stop to engage them, there didn’t seem to be much she could do. She kept to the center of the formation, matching pace with the others, keeping her eyes fixed straight ahead.

Vesryn charged at the front, tower shield raised in front of him, just below eye level so that he could still see. An occasional clash of metal on rotted flesh and bone heralded his removal of an undead from their path. The bodies fell to the side of the group or were trampled at their feet, most still writhing in the mud. Some suffered broken necks or crushed skulls on impact. More of them rose on either side of the group, soon becoming a sizable force that they would not be able to take on. Lia spent arrows sparingly; those loosed into the crowd would never be seen again.

"Get to the gate!" Vesryn shouted. In front of them, the large reinforced wooden gate was mostly open, and while it looked light enough for the five of them to push closed, it also looked strong enough to keep the undead out. "We'll close it behind us!"

Cyrus was the first in, though he kept the magic steady, shooting through the gap in the gate. Magic was, after all, a much more renewable resource in a situation like this than arrows, so it wasn’t bad strategy. He stood far enough aside not to impede any of the others on their way through, though, focusing his bolts on those corpses getting too close to his fleeing allies, or to the gate itself.

Asala was the last through the gate, but she was kept from crossing completely over. The moment of relief was temporary, however, as something halted her progress from behind and caused a shrill eep to slip by her lips. An undead had managed to catch up and grab a handful of her cloak. In an attempt to spin away, she turned and tried to back up, the cloak sliding up and over her head. However, instead of the cloak slipping by her ears like it would an ordinary point, it caught on her horns and she saw nothing but white cloth.

"H-help!" she called, fighting against the undead. She was definitely not having a good day.

Given that he was already facing her, Cyrus reacted first, but instead of trying to hit the undead, he just frowned and summoned more magic to him, sending off what must have been a fire spell in a thin, whiplike line instead of the usual sphere. It sliced into Asala’s cloak where the corpse was grabbing on, severing it cleanly above that portion and releasing her from its hold. It staggered back, arms full of pale fabric.

“Quickly, now.”

He needn't tell her. She involuntarily stumbled back a few steps before she fell backward into the mud. The others shut the large gate moments later, cutting them off from the horde of undead. Asala, however, remained on her back for a moment, her cloak wrapped around her head and face. "I want to go home..." she whined, her voice muffled by the fabric. Why would there also be undead in such a miserable place? Was the rain and mud not enough? It just wasn't fair.

Without an ounce of grace, Asala got back onto her feet, discarding her ruined cloak, revealing a sleeveless, wide necked tunic which cut off above her navel. She more keenly felt the chill of the rain and mud now, and she hugged herself to keep what little warmth she had to herself. For once however, she was glad it was raining. Else the others would be able to realize that not all the beads of water on her face came from the weather. Estella stood close by, a hand hovering near Asala’s elbow as she regained her feet, helping her dust off a little bit, though it didn’t do much, considering how soaked everything was. As soon as she was standing again, the girl offered a sympathetic smile, before turning her attention forward.

In spite of the difficulty, they had arrived at the fortress. They stood in a courtyard of sort, and great stone stairs led up to the fortress proper. At this distance, Asala could see the disrepair the keep had fallen into, and her hope of finally finding someplace dry slowly dwindled. With a wide pouty frown, she began to trudge behind the others upward into the keep.

The battlements were eerily quiet, especially after the undead outside the gate eventually calmed down and trudged back to their waters, unable to see any target for their wrath. The Avvar were not currently present, but signs of them were, such as recently snuffed fire pits, and footprints embedded deep in the muddy paths, now little pools of brown water. Vesryn kept his eyes up, towards the walkways and stairs, searching for any unseen threat.

The keep was situated at the southern end of the fortress, nestled into the rock face that formed natural barriers on all but one of the fortification's sides. The stairs were wide and slick with rainfall and mud trudged up by the Avvar. The keep's gate was hauled up and left open for them, an invitation to enter. Vesryn chuckled softly to himself.

"Well, at least it's got a roof. That alone's worth the fight at this point."

He led the way inside, checking corners and carrying his shield before him as they entered the darkened main hall, but light could be seen ahead, in the form of torches in their racks on the walls. One of the supports had collapsed on the right side of the room, its pile of stone rubble littering the floor in a mound and creating an area of tricky footing. Outside, thunder cracked down violently, the flash illuminating the large, muscular figure that sat on the old throne at the back of the room.

He was huge, as he revealed upon standing, towering over them at nearly seven feet, his stature elevated further by the fact that he looked down on them from atop a flight of stairs. His skin was painted in striped patterns of black and white, same as the others that surrounded him. Their leader's paint was the least worn away by the rains. At least three of the other Avvar present wielded bows, while more close to the bottom of the stairs clutched swords and axes. The leader carried a massive two handed warhammer, the sort of weapon only the strongest and largest of individuals could effectively wield. He stepped forward, down a few steps, his heavy armor clinking with each thud of his boots. Quietly, Asala recoiled a step back, frightened by the sheer stature of the man. She hoped they could work something out without resorting to violence. Wishful thinking perhaps, but still she hoped.

"Who comes before the Hand of Korth?" he demanded, in a bellowing, deep voice. "Is a Herald of Andraste among you?"

Estella’s slow, bracing intake of breath was audible enough for the group to hear it, though probably not the Avvar, but when she stepped forward, she did so with her head held high, her gait rolling from heel to toe in a practiced manner. Her sword wasn’t drawn, but the hand on the same side rested loosely on the hilt. She came to a stop once she’d passed Vesryn at the front of the group. The line of her shoulders was visibly tense from the back, but when she spoke, it wasn’t in her usual voice; this one was much cooler in temperature, and stiller, with less of her natural intonation.

“Yes.” She tipped her head up slightly further, probably because he was much taller than her and on a staircase. “You have taken our scouts. I would see them returned.”

The Avvar warlord did not move, his eyes shifting between each of them beneath his painted leather mask. Eventually he scratched his head. "Which one of you is the Herald?"

The muscles at the corners of Estella’s eyes tightened, and her teeth clenched, if the motion in her jaw was anything to go by, but she didn’t hesitate. “I am.”

His eyes widened for a moment, and then he burst into laughter. Deep, gut-wrenching barks echoed around the hall for several seconds, but he made sure to not double over so far as to be unable to see her. Always his eyes remained on the group, his hand remaining on the warhammer. "You? Touched by your god? You look like a weakling." He broke down into chuckles of laughter again. "Where is the other one, the one with the marked face? Your Inquisition insults my power, sending only you." He took another lumbering step down the stairs. The archers above, on either side of the rock throne, watched him tensely, their fingers twitching.

She smiled, a brittle thing that likely fooled no one. “Your skepticism is understandable.” She took her right hand off her sword and held it out, palm-up, the greenish glow evident for all in the room to see. Her eyes moved over the archers, and for a moment she looked like she was trying to swallow something very unpleasant. “If… if you wish to test my mettle, to… set your gods against mine, then so be it. But that is what it will be: you, and I. I think other people have been involved in this far enough.”

It was impossible, at the close distance Asala stood, not to notice the fine tremor wracking Estella, but her words didn’t betray it, delivered almost in a monotone, devoid of either fear or anticipation.

"You would challenge me?" the Hand asked, somewhat disbelieving. When it became apparent to him that Estella was not merely throwing empty words at him, all trace of humor left the warlord. His mouth settled into a hard frown, and he thumped the base of his warhammer into the stone step beneath him, making a little crack. "Who am I to refuse you a good death? If that's what you wish for..." He gestured back with his free hand, and the close quarters fighters of the Avvar immediately backed off, some up the stairs and some further to the sides. Most looked relieved to be doing so, as they watched their leader thunder down the stairs a step at a time, until he stood on even ground with Estella. His eyes moved to her companions, waiting for them to clear the space.

Cyrus, at least, did not immediately do so, instead advancing four long strides to Estella’s side, speaking into her ear in a low voice. He looked like he was about ready to strike something, but the hand he placed on his sister’s shoulder was gentle. “Please tell me this is an elaborate trap, and the rest of us ambush him while he’s distracted.” His voice wasn’t more than a hissing whisper. She shook her head, giving him a look that could only be described as meaningful, though likely its meaning was lost on anyone but him. He scowled deeply, shaking his own head as if in reply, but he withdrew to the side of the room with the others, muttering something under his breath in what might have been Tevene.

The visual the situation presented was almost absurd: Estella was not a short woman, but neither was she exceptionally tall, and her build wasn’t by any means extraordinary in terms of muscle or bulk. She was soaked through, her ponytail dripping water from its end at a steady rate, her armor little other than leather and a few small metal plates over cloth. She drew her sword, the blade of it elegant and curved, and almost pitifully thin next to the massive hammer wielded by her Avvar foe. He towered over her, even at the five feet or so they stood apart from one another, the paint lending him a fearsome visage, which was probably something he could have achieved equally well without it.

He looked like he’d lived his entire life answering challenges much more imposing and worthy than this one, from a drenched little woman with a face that seemed to have blanked entirely, all traces of expression gone until she might as well have been a doll. She rose onto the balls of her feet, bending slightly at the knees, and struck first.

It was an extremely aggressive maneuver; three lunging steps forward followed by a jump, a horizontal slash probably meant to carve a red line right over his throat. The directness of it seemed to surprise him; probably he’d been expecting her to fight defensively, or at least with greater timidity or caution. He couldn’t maneuver his weapon to guard in time, so he took a large step backwards, the barest edge of the saber kissing his collarbone. A very thin line of red welled up in the spot, and Estella landed, pressing forward, this time cutting in low.

The initial surprise had worn off, however, and he was more prepared this time, and moved aside, kicking at her as she passed and catching her on the shoulder, with a vicious strength that sent her flying several feet, and rolling after she hit the stone. She was back on her feet quickly, in just enough time to avoid a massive blow from the hammer, clearly intended to end her in one by crushing her into a paste on the floor. The blow cracked the stone where she had been, a resounding crash echoing in the massive chamber.

He had her clearly on the run, and it was a pattern that persisted over the course of the next several minutes. Broad swings kept her well out of closing distance, and she had little choice but to get out of the way of them by any means necessary, for any one of them could spell the end of her life, with no time for retaliation or healing or anything else. Despite the fact that she was covering about twice as much ground as her foe, though, Estella didn’t seem to be tiring especially quickly, and her eyes remained locked on him and the immediate surroundings, not straying even once to where her companions or the other Avvar stood.

Still, it was evident to everyone watching that the advantage was the Avvar’s, and that if Estella didn’t find and seize an opportunity soon, he would simply outlast her. She seemed to know that, too, because she started to make riskier moves, dodging by less, pressing inward when she spotted what might have been a gap in his defenses or a pause in his unerring swings. She managed to duck under one, and then, with a burst of speed, she brought the sword around and plunged it towards his middle.

It hit, but any forward motion that would have made the stab fatal was halted when his meaty hand closed around her neck and he lifted her off the ground. Her sword clattered to the floor, her hands grasping at his wrist as her feet kicked uselessly in the air, though she was clearly swinging them with purpose, trying to get at his abdomen, perhaps. The muscles in his arm flexed as he tightened his grip, grinning, it would seem, at her predicament.

Estella moved her right hand back quickly, drawing her knife and plunging it into his forearm in one swift motion. He roared and dropped her, pulling the blade out and tossing it to the side. On the floor in a heap, she struggled to regain her breath as he swung the hammer, more hastily this time, perhaps anticipating her agility. It didn’t hit where he aimed, but it did crack down on her leg, a prominent crunching sound making it apparent that the limb had been broken, probably in multiple places.

She shrieked, though it came out more as a rasp than anything, considering the state of her throat, and pulled herself backwards with her functioning three limbs, pushing herself into a roll away from the next blow, which landed with a much heavier crash beside her. He had her hobbled, and considering her mobility had been her only advantage, things looked dire.

And yet it was clear she hadn’t given up; she managed to stand on her good leg, though she had to pitch herself away from the next hit, losing her stand as soon as she’d gained it. Rather than rolling away or to the side, however, she threw herself towards him, sliding under his legs and twisting around to her back when she was behind him. She had no weapons, though her sword was nearby, little maneuverability, and if this was merely an attempt to dodge, she’d bought herself perhaps a moment at most.

A crackling sound filled the air, sparks of light dancing between her fingers as she thrust both hands towards him. It wasn’t, anyone familiar with magic could tell, a very strong lightning spell, but that was nevertheless exactly what it was, and it lanced in an arc from the tips of her digits to the small of his back, impacting right at the base of his spine. He staggered, taking a step forward, the shock having the visible effect of locking his muscles in place, if only for a second.

It was a second Estella took, rolling sideways and grasping the hilt of her sword with the edges of her fingertips, coaxing it towards her before she gripped it and stabbed quickly at the only place she could reach—the back of his leg. It punched into spot behind his knee, snapping the tendon there with an audible and very unpleasant sound, and he fell as she had, only directing himself backwards, onto her.

This time, she had enough breath to scream as he came down heavily on her body, the leg in particular, no doubt, but she was pinned in place, and he gripped the shin belonging to her mangled limb much in the way he’d gripped her by the neck, and she thrashed mostly uselessly, trying to free her sword from under the pin. Clearly an experienced grappler, he’d soon flipped himself over and seized her injury again, pressing his other forearm down mightily on her windpipe, a sort of modified submission hold.

Estella fought it still, and managed to get her good knee up into the space between them, driving it into his groin, but though he grunted, he didn’t relent, pressing down harder in retaliation. Desperately, she freed one of her hands and reached up to claw at his eyes, but he turned his head away and so, with what appeared to be a monumental effort, she lit a flame in her palm, pressing it into the side of his face. The sizzle and hiss of the fire accompanied the smell of burning flesh, and still he held on for several seconds before he was forced to relent, and rolled off her, seeking his hammer in what seemed to be an attempt to end the fight once and for all.

But with both of them crippled, she was the faster one, and the blade of her sword erupted from his chest. She’d stabbed him from behind. Her hand fell heavily from the hilt, and with a soft groan, she half-rolled, half-collapsed from her side to her back, a mottled, black-and-purple bruise already beginning to form on her neck.

“Scouts…” she mumbled, almost incoherently. “Give us back our scouts.” Then her eyes rolled up in her head, and she passed out.

Cyrus didn’t even wait for any reaction from the other Avvar—he was moving to her side as soon as she’d stabbed the leader. He reached her just as she passed out, and went to his knees beside her, his hands lit with the familiar bluish light of a healing spell. Nothing that had happened to her over the course of the fight was likely to be fatal, but it wasn’t clear whether or not he knew that. He kept up a steady stream of murmuring, too low to be discerned over everything else that was happening, and once he’d discharged the first spell, his free hand was smoothing across her brow, moving loose hair back from her face in a tender motion.

Asala was right behind him, sliding around on Estella's other side. Her hands immediately went into a pouch on her hip, and retrieved a red vial from within. She latched onto Cyrus's hand with a firm grip and pressed the potion into it. "Give this to her. I will do all that I can for her leg," she said with a certain strength in her voice. She was worried, as they all were no doubt. But she could fix this. It may take time to recover, but Estella would come back from this. She'd see to it. He nodded tersely and took the glass vessel in hand.

Her attentions turned toward the leg in question. The sight of the mangled limb brought a tight frown into her lips, but she didn't recoil from it. Asala had seen many broken limbs in her lifetime, though perhaps not as severe. Still, she could do this. She shook the sweat off of her palms before she brought the gentle green light into them. She laid the spell over Estella's leg and began to work. The green light pulsed gently in her hands as it set about knitting the bone back together.

"She will need time and rest before she is in any condition to move," Asala said aloud, intently focusing on the healing spell. "We will remain here until then." The way she said it, it did not sound like a suggestion. In fact, her tone held a hint of anger in it. She didn't see the point in the fighting. For what reason? There was no point in it, and now Estella was hurt and he was dead. Her brows knit, before they relaxed, letting the anger melt away as she threw herself into her work.

Behind them, Vesryn had removed his helmet. He set his spear and shield up against one of the stone supports, and stepped forward, eyes flicking momentarily down to Estella from the Avvar still watching. His face showed little emotion, a stark contrast from how he'd seemed out in the rain, among the undead. Stepping past the healer and her patient, he looked back up to the Avvar.

"I believe the victor demanded her scouts back." There was no glibness to his words; instead they were spoken more forcefully. Lia stepped up with him, glaring at the Avvar. The second largest among them, apparently second in command, tilted his head to the side in a gesture towards a hallway.

"Down at the end of the hall. Here's the key." He tossed the small metal object through the air, and Lia caught it, still eyeing him warily. "You've killed our chief's son. But if there's to be retaliation for this, it won't be from us. Bastard got what he deserved, if you ask me." A few of the other painted warriors grunted in approval. "We'll be on our way. When the Herald wakes up, tell her she fought well." Quietly they filed out of the great hall, back out into the rain.

"Come on," Vesryn said, tapping Lia on the shoulder. "Let's get those soldiers out of there." They walked off down the hall, into shadows. A few moments later, they returned, the entire squad of scouts behind them. A few were injured, supported by their comrades, but all appeared to be accounted for. Lia shared a few uneasy smiles with them, before she came to crouch at Estella's side, careful not to get in the way. She looked to be holding back tears.

Some of the scouts stopped, wide-eyed, upon seeing Estella badly injured on the hall's floor. "It was the Herald that came for us?" one asked.

"She nearly died," another pointed out.

"I can't believe it. I didn't think they'd send anyone, let alone her."

"The Inquisition cares about its people, obviously," Vesryn pointed, crossing his arms as he watched Asala work. "A rare thing, these days."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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Asala’s work really was exceptionally good. This was something Estella knew more about than she probably should, this little time into their acquaintance, but it seemed the young Qunari had been of great assistance to her yet again, and she couldn’t say she was ungrateful, much as she wished it weren’t necessary. Fortunately, nothing that had happened to her had been life-threatening; she’d passed out mostly from pain and exhaustion, which was admittedly a little embarrassing, especially because she hadn’t even been conscious when they’d actually gotten around to doing what they’d come for, and rescuing the scouts.

At least they’d all still been there, and alive, and no further confrontation with the Avvar was necessary. She believed she’d done the right thing, though of course as usual she probably should have done better at it. But the scouts were safe and no members of her party were dead, and the Avvar who hadn’t wanted to be there in the first place had been able to leave, and that was… well, it was truthfully a much better outcome than she’d been expecting.

Estella currently sat at the small desk crammed into the little cleric’s cell she used as a room, the charcoal pencil in her hand moving only occasionally, because she was thinking more than she was sketching, at the moment. Her leg ached a lot still, and they’d only made it back to Haven the day before, so she limped a fair bit yet, but considering how many places her bones had been broken in, that was really a small miracle of magic. She was on strict instructions not to wear herself out by doing anything too strenuous, but she had to admit the enforced inactivity was probably going to drive her up a wall eventually. She’d slept most of the previous day, and now that she no longer felt like she was going to topple over and die at any moment, she admitted she was bored. Even when she wasn’t on a job, Estella preferred to be active, to train or at least walk around, and there weren’t any especially interesting books around for her to get lost in, either.

So she was drawing, mostly to give her hands something to do. It was a skill Commander Lucien had taught a few of the others, and that they in turn had tried to teach her, but though she could draw simple things relatively well, she was still having trouble with faces and architecture and things like that. Even her renderings were quite inferior to Cyrus’s, she mused, but, well, that was just to be expected. She liked doing it, anyway, and since there was really nothing else to do, she figured she might as well.

A sharp knock on her door drew her out of her reverie, and she called for the person on the other side to enter. She’d suspected it might be Asala, by to check on her again, but when the door opened to reveal Cyrus, she wasn’t all that shocked.

His expression, initially difficult to read, shifted almost immediately upon his entry, and he shut the door behind him with a click. A thundercloud seemed to pass over his features, darkening them for a brief moment, and his eyes narrowed as he took a deep breath. He otherwise looked as he always did—as though they hadn’t been traipsing through a bog and then traveling as swiftly as horseback would carry them back to Haven.

He looked at her for a moment, flinty and intent, his displeasure clear from the look on his face. Crossing his arms over his chest, he leaned back against her door. “Just what—” He cut himself off, exhaling through his nose and visibly clenching his jaw. “What were you thinking, Stellulam?”

It didn’t take a genius to figure out what he was referring to, and she turned her body in her chair so that she was sitting sideways on it, folding both of her hands in her lap and looking down at them for some time. She didn’t need to look up to know that he was still skewering her with his stare—he had a way of doing that. He could look at a person, at her, and make her feel either like she was the thing at the center of his entire universe or… like she was a bug on the end of a needle, and half as smart. Right now it was definitely the latter, so she didn’t meet his eyes.

She supposed it was a fair question. The Estella he knew would never have done something like that. Estella hadn’t even known she would do it herself, before she did it. But her thought process had actually been quite rational, and so maybe if she explained it, he would understand. “I was thinking… I was thinking that the Hand was Avvar. I don’t know a lot about them, but I know they value honor. Or, well, if they don’t, their culture does, and so he’d be bound to accept a challenge issued to him. I was thinking the only person he really cared about killing was me. I was thinking that his people didn’t look like they wanted to be there, and no one should ever have to die for something they don’t believe in.”

She did chance meeting his eyes then, and grimaced. Maybe that part was more emotional than rational, but still. “It just… it wasn’t necessary to risk anyone else. I knew if it really came down to it, then the rest of you would be able to win, so either way the scouts would be safe.” She’d done the right thing. She had.

Cyrus, however, didn’t seem to think so, at least not the way she did. He scowled deeply, then dropped his hands to his sides, moving one up to run through his hair in an irritated motion that seemed to be more for preventing him from doing something else, though it was hard to say what. “The scouts.” He repeated the words softly, a faint note of incredulity in his tone. “Did you even once consider that the relevant difference between these two scenarios might be the fact that in one of them you were dead?”

Her brother’s entire body was tense; his volume had risen a fair bit over normal inside modulation, though he wasn’t precisely yelling. He looked like he wanted to, though. Cyrus’s expression had morphed from irritated to livid, and looked like it was about to tip a degree further, too.

She’d rarely seen him so upset. Cyrus was a man of extremes; he always had been, and she knew that. But though Estella had supposed he must have many emotions she rarely saw, she’d not thought him a person with much anger in him at all. Which actually made this a little alarming to her. She’d gone tense, too, but not because she was angry in return. Rather, the volume in his voice was bringing on an adverse reaction in her, one that was old and instinctive, and she swallowed several times. This was Cyrus. Her brother. He wasn’t going to—

She slammed the proverbial door on the thought and forced herself to breathe, clenching her hands in her lap but keeping eye contact. “I… of course I did. I knew what could happen, but…” She suspected this was the part where she was supposed to say I knew I could do it, but she found herself unable to. She was a poor liar on the best of days, and he’d see through her like she was made of glass. “But I knew that wasn’t likely. Asala’s an amazing healer; she’s saved my life more than once already. And you… you were there. I know you can heal, too.” It wasn’t, as far as she knew, something he’d ever been especially interested in, but the basics were part of any Imperium magical education.

It sounded like a lame excuse, and it probably was. That it was all technically true didn’t help her sound any more convincing, she was sure. She tried something else, quickly, before he could interject. “Besides, I… I can’t let myself think like that, about whether I’m going to die or not. The way I did it, no matter what happened, the fewest possible people would die. Either just one, or… well.” She wasn’t sure exactly what would have happened if she’d been the one to die, but most likely the Avvar would have honored the duel, called their gods the victors, and let the rest of them take the scouts back. It was still only one death.

Even if it was hers.

“Just one.” He seemed to be quite apt to repeat her words back at her with very different tone, and this time it was somewhere between derision and… something else. Something more urgent that was difficult to identify. He ran both hands over his face, looking quite like he had no idea what to do with himself but needed to do something. The indecision lasted for only a moment, and then he was marching toward her, laying his hands on her shoulders and gripping, not hard enough to cause her pain, but quite firmly. She could feel through the contact that his hands were actually trembling.

“You stupid, stupid girl.” Whatever anger was in him seemed to have faded back to a simmer, leaving in its place a wounded look that she had only ever seen once on his face, the day he told her to run and not look back. “It would not have been just one life, it would have been your life. You can’t do this to me. Do you have any idea what would have happened if you’d…” He couldn’t seem to even finish the sentence, moving his hands so that he held either side of her face, tilting her head back so that eye contact was forced. His own met hers, seemingly searching for something, or perhaps imploring her to understand.

“It isn’t just one life, it’s yours.” If possible, he said it more emphatically the second time.

His distress was evident, and Estella flinched at the clear strength of his feelings on the matter. And yet, for all she knew what he was trying to convey to her, she could not bring herself to agree. He cared about her, loved her a great deal. She loved him too, of course. And she could even understand why he wanted her to acknowledge this thing he was trying to tell her: if it were him, she would have worried too. But… she also would have trusted him to succeed, and she could not deny a twinge of pain in her heart when she realized he likely had not expected that she would. Then again… she hadn’t known, either. Maybe it was just because she had so much evidence of how skilled and talented he was, and he had none for her, because there wasn’t any to be had.

So she could understand, why he wanted her to agree, why he wanted her to treat her life like it mattered more than someone else’s. But she couldn’t. “Cyrus… when it comes right down to it, my life is just one life. I’m just a normal person.” Even if something like being especially skilled or powerful or likely to contribute to the world or something made someone’s life worth a bit more, which she wasn’t sure it did, she wasn’t any of those things. Estella was really only one person, and she’d accepted that a long time ago. Some people had to be normal, or average, or below it, in order for there to be an average. By most math, one life for many was a good trade to make.

“Wrong.” His response was immediate, and he shook his head violently, releasing her face and backing up a few paces. “Wrong, wrong, wrong.” His emotions had apparently flipped kilter again, and the anger built to a second crest. “If you don’t believe it because I tell you, go out there and ask the commander. Ask Marceline, ask anyone who makes strategic decisions. Ask any of your friends. For gods’ sake, ask anyone in your entire damned Inquisition!” He really was yelling now, and gesticulating wildly to emphasize it, thrusting one hand out to point at the places beyond her walls.

“Any single one of them with half a brain to think about it will tell you that your life is worth whatever they have to pay to keep it! If it wasn’t so before because they cared about you, it is now, because they’re relying on you to save them all!” His emotions seemed to be having a strange effect on his magic—the air around him began to distort and warp as though it had suddenly become very hot, like the way it rose off the sand in a desert and shimmered. The tang of thunderstorms was on the air as well, but he wasn’t casting anything.

“And don’t you dare tell me that you’re disposable because there’s another Herald! You are absolutely fucking indespensible, do you hear me?! How many people have to tell you before you’ll believe it, even just a little bit?! Because I’ll parade every single one of them through here if I have to, Stellulam, until you promise me that you won’t do something so stupid again!” His eyes were unusually bright, and the faintest hint of moisture gathered at the edges of them. His hand formed into a fist, and he slammed the side of it into her door, which splintered, not due to the impact alone, but rather the magic it discharged, unformed and purely concussive in nature.

A high-pitched yelp came from behind the door after Cyrus's savage lash. The damage done to it was enough to break the seal, letting the door lazily swing open to reveal a very startled Asala. Her hand clutched the collar of her borrowed cloak, though whoever she'd gotten it from was clearly a lot smaller than she was, considering the fit. Inside the grip she had on it she held a small red vial.

She didn't say anything at first. She only stared into now open room with widened eyes and a look of anxiety on fer face. It wasn't clear how long she had been standing behind the door, nor how much of their exchange she had heard. "Uh..." Asala murmured. "Am I... Is this a b-bad time?"

Estella gulped in a large breath, using the opportunity Asala had so unknowingly presented to steady herself. Cyrus was… she didn’t think he was going to like anything she could say, because she couldn’t promise him, with full genuineness, what he wanted her to promise. She would know it was false, and because she did, he would, and she suspected that would only make matters worse than they actually were. Suspected, but couldn’t say with certainty, because in all the years they’d been alive, she’d never seen him lose his composure like this. It meant she wasn’t really sure what to expect.

She’d started to shake, she realized belatedly, and steadied herself as well as she could, lifting her eyes to smile thinly at Asala. Maybe what they needed was time to cool off, both of them. Though honestly, she wasn’t… she didn’t know exactly how she felt about this. It broke her heart to upset him so much, but she still didn’t believe she’d done anything wrong, and she wasn’t sure talking any more about it would do anything but upset the both of them.

“No, Asala, it’s not.” She felt herself automatically sliding her usual expression over her features; reserved politeness with a hint of confidence—she’d been faking it for so long it was almost effortless—and turned her eyes briefly to her brother. “I believe Cyrus was just leaving.”

He stiffened for a moment at her words, wearing his true feelings much more openly than she was wearing hers, but then he finally looked over at the door, as though noticing it for the first time, and grimaced. Then his face smoothed over, too, and he swallowed once. The look he gave Estella was one that informed her quite clearly that he was not going to let the matter go, but when he spoke, his voice had regained its normal volume and tone.

“Yes. I suppose I was.” He nodded faintly at Asala, though he scarcely seemed to notice her, really, merely stepping around her to get out the door and depart.

She turned to let him through, then remained in the hall and continued to gaze down it, no doubt watching Cyrus depart. Eventually, she entered the room, not bothering to close the damaged door behind her. Asala pulled the few errant strands of her hair obscuring her face behind her horns and took a knee in front of Estella. She gave her a comforting smile before gently setting the red vial on the table beside her. "Take that, please," she asked.

Then she reached for Estella's leg with gentle fingers, and began to firmly message it as if testing the bone. "Have you had any acute pain lately?" Asala asked, though her attention was primarily focused on the limb.

Downing the contents of the vial, Estella made a slight face at the aftertaste and shook her head. “No,” she murmured, though she still looked at the empty doorway. Pursing her lips, she forced herself to focus on Asala and what she was doing. “It just aches, especially when I put weight on it, obviously.” Still, even that wasn’t a stabbing pain, just a slight flare in the general soreness. She knew from experience being injured that it was healing as expected, or, well, generally in a good manner, anyway.

She almost wanted to ask Asala, how she’d made amends with Meraad, if they’d ever argued, but something about this was too fresh to be seeking that sort of advice yet, and Estella wondered if it wasn’t something she’d have to figure out by herself. Usually, making amends involved apologizing, but she doubted Cyrus cared whether she apologized. He just wanted her to do the thing he’d been trying to convince her to do in the first place, and she couldn’t give him that. So amends, as such, weren’t going to be easy.

She fiddled with the empty potion vial, and swallowed thickly. Now, of all times, she could feel the hot prickles at the back of her eyes that meant she wanted to cry. But she wouldn’t, couldn’t let herself, so she let out a shaky breath instead and tried to focus on the pain in her leg. It was better than the pain in her chest.

Asala was silent for a time afterward, concentrating on the leg in her hands. At least until she stopped for a moment, and simply held it. It looked as if she was thinking on something. Estella could tell when she decided, because she loosened her grip on her leg. "He... cares about you," she said, with hesitation in her voice. She then looked up at her and, for once, held her gaze, though the uneasiness remained in her face. "We all do."

With that, she returned her attention to the limb, something she appeared to be more comfortable in dealing with. She gave it one more once over before she stood and nodded. "You will be fine. Just... Give it time."

Estella smiled, just a little, aware that Asala was probably talking about more than her wound, and appreciative of the sentiment. She was probably even correct. “I know he does.” It was almost the root of the problem, really, that Cyrus cared so much. He was like that with everything he came to care about, which is why she suspected he tried to avoid it as often as possible. “And… and I hope you’re right. Thank you.” It was something she found herself saying a lot to Asala, now that she thought about it, but then… perhaps that was only natural, considering the circumstances.

She tilted her head to the side, changing the topic to something more comfortable, probably for the both of them. “So, doctor… do you think I’ll be able to take a walk tomorrow, at least?”

"I'm... not a... doctor?" She said, the look of confusion that's become a staple of who Asala was gracing her features once more. However, she didn't allow the comment to sit for too long, apparently brushing past it. It appeared that she was beginning to ignore most of these things.

She nodded afterward, a smile on her lips to replace the confusion. "Yes. If you rest today, you will be able to walk tomorrow." She then shrugged and rubbed her arms. "But... you should put off running for another day or so." she added apologetically.

Estella sighed, but supposed it could be a lot worse. She wasn’t usually stupid enough to aggravate her injuries, though, and she nodded slightly. She trusted the other woman’s advice, and smiled as Asala stood, giving her a soft goodbye as she exited. The door still worked, mostly, and once she was alone again, Estella closed her eyes and breathed a deeper exhale, scrubbing over her face with both hands.

When had everything become so complicated?

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

Frostback Mountains. Cold as hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius
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Cyrus suspected that Redcliffe had seen much better days.

As far as he’d bothered to assess the situation, Arl Teagan wasn’t currently in residence, though much of what remained of the southern mage forces were. At least those organized enough to deserve the title forces, barely though they may have qualified. He’d arrived with the second group of Inquisition people, about an hour or so after Estella and her advance group, and had since been filled in on the situation. By the time they’d gotten to it, he’d not been surprised to hear the name Cassius Viridius come up—he had a feeling he knew exactly what was going on here, though if he was right, then Cassius was in fact a much more desperate man than Cyrus had previously taken him to be. Then again… two years could change a person. They had certainly changed him.

He hadn’t left much choice for anyone when he said he’d be attending the negotiations. When the unilateral pronouncement didn’t seem to be taken especially well, he’d explained as much as he felt he needed to, which was that Cassius was formerly his master, in the tutelage sense of the term, and that he would be considerably more likely to pay attention to what Cyrus had to say than any upstart southern religious movement, which was all true, especially because there was quite a bit he could hold over his former teacher’s head in this situation, with or without revealing it to anyone else.

The inn they were supposed to be meeting him at was near the top of the central hill in the town, though still a tier below the castle and the Chantry, of course. He, Estella, Romulus, and the Lady Marceline were to be the negotiators, though he suspected that the task in question would inevitably fall to him when the good Comtesse’s kid-glove tactics proved utterly fruitless as he knew they would. Magisters didn’t negotiate the same way southern nobility did—at least not when they knew they were winning. But that was a piece of advice he kept to himself right now. It would become evident with due time.

The air still carried a chill, but he found that it didn’t bother him nearly as much as Haven did, of course, and he’d actually swapped out his cloak for a less-warm but much nicer one, in the rich indigo and sable of his house. Details were rarely insignificant when one played this little game, after all. They reached the inn’s entrance with Cyrus in front, and though he might have preferred to enter first, he understood what was necessary here, and so he reached for the handle of the door, turning back over his shoulder to glance at the others, letting his eyes fall last of all on Estella.

“Show no weakness, unless you fancy being devoured.” As if to soften the cryptic ominousness of the words, he flashed a smile, bright and fey, and narrowed his eyes. “Everyone ready?”

Romulus did not appear ready in the slightest. In fact, he looked deeply unsettled, as though he wasn't sure at all what to do with his hands, or his eyes. "Perhaps I shouldn't be here," he said. The suggestion was given to the group at large, as though he didn't want to direct it at anyone in particular.

"You are the Herald. You have every right to be present. Whether you are or you are not is entirely up to you," Lady Marceline answered. Ever since they had found out that the Free Mages were not expecting them in the slightest, Marceline had seemed to be less than happy. She turned back to Cyrus and nodded, a hard line present in her frown.

“I’d, um. I’d feel better if you were,” Estella said, her tone considerably less brusque than Lady Marceline’s. “I’m not sure I want to be the only one of us standing in front of a Magister. The last time I did something like that, the other party was insulted. Er, but… don’t let me make up your mind.” She shook her head, her expression clearly uneasy.

Romulus was at least able to meet Estella's eyes when she spoke, and while he was clearly still in an anxious mood about everything, he managed to nod, and steady himself a bit. "Let's go, then."

Marceline allowed herself a small sigh before collecting herself. The annoyance she'd wore melted away to leave her face completely neutral, and once more made it difficult to see exactly how she was feeling and what she was thinking.

Personally, Cyrus thought it might have been somewhat wiser for Romulus to not be present, because he didn’t know what Cassius knew or didn’t know about that situation, and it was better to enter any negotiation with all the information on one’s own side, but because it was Estella’s suggestion, he offered no protest, only shrugging. “All right then. Stellulam, dear, you and Romulus should enter first. You are, after all, in charge.” His eyes glittered with contained amusement, and he grasped the handle of the door, sweeping it open with an almost-playful flourish and gesturing the others in ahead of him.

The inside of the inn was mostly unoccupied, as promised, but at a table in the back, several people were gathered. Only four, actually, which made their own number a very wise, if coincidental, confluence. Two of the men were guards, that much was obvious from the way they stood flanking the chair that faced the door. The third, also standing in a somewhat deferential position, was the former Grand Enchanter, but Cyrus could muster no pity for her, despite her obvious misery. He’d never been good at pity in general, and tended to find it even more difficult when someone else had backed themselves into such an obvious corner.

The fourth party had a bearing and a face he knew better than his own, which he supposed was the product of years of familiarity. Magister Cassius Viridius was an elderly man who looked like one, his face lined with age, but even in spite of that, he had a certain distinctive vitality about him, one that was evident in the way he moved: assured, confident, smooth and graceful. He was powerful and exceptionally aware of that power, and unafraid of letting it be known to anyone else. As the party entered, he looked up and over towards the door, an eyebrow ascending his forehead, and he reached up, pushing his hood down onto his shoulders, his bald pate catching some of the light. He was, of course, wearing those gods-awful robes that were apparently still the fashion in Tevinter, the ones that practically screamed ‘sinister mage lord.’ Cyrus had always thought they were a bit ridiculous, but everyone had their foibles, he supposed. He’d at least dressed for the occasion, in House Viridius green and gold.

“Well, well, well.” The Magister’s eyes scanned sharply over each of those present, though they lingered not long at all on Marceline. The other three, however, were of paramount interest to him, though of course they would be. “So it’s true what they say: the 'Heralds of Andraste,' one of our own, and one of our own.” His tone changed on the last words, and his eyes narrowed on Romulus.

The Herald froze entirely, as though Cassius had placed a spell on him with the words alone, though of course he needed nothing more to achieve such an effect. His hood was down, features fully exposed, and it was clear to see that he was struggling to determine what to say. Clearly his issue was that Cassius did not seem to know that Romulus remained with the status of Herald only because his daughter commanded it.

"My trusted blade," said a voice from behind them, and Romulus instantly paled even further, turning his head. "Your freedom has made you bold, I see. I will admit, I did not expect this from you." Chryseis Viridius descended the stairs from the inn's second floor, gloved hand trailing lightly atop the railing. She was dressed as her father was, in green and gold, her own robes a bit tighter about her, with clearly some modifications made for stylistic purposes. The neck was cut lower, the skirt asymmetrically shorn, and the metal covering her fingers and belt intricately engraved. Her blonde hair was done up in an elaborate but tightly wound bun. Her lips wore a confident smile.

Romulus had turned fully away from Cassius, lowered his eyes slightly, and was about to speak, when Chryseis cut him off, continuing her approach. "Do not presume to speak. I have asked you no question. I trust you have enjoyed your little escapade. It will not last forever." Romulus forced himself to meet her eyes, and apparently decided it was best to remain silent. The smile disappeared from Chryseis, replaced by a little smirk, her eyes agleam as they found Cyrus instead.

She worked her way around the group to stand at her father's side, her hand lightly touching his upper arm only momentarily before it was removed. "Cyrus. Wonderful to see you again. The runaway's life is treating you well, I hope?"

“Ah, Chryseis. I confess I have missed the rather lovely sight of your face.” Cyrus’s answering smile was every bit as sly, but it was true that her presence didn’t make him uncomfortable in the least, quite unlike poor Romulus. Of course, it was clear to him what game she was playing, with words like that—it would appear she desired her father to believe that her blade did not have her leave to be here, doing as he was doing, when of course they knew differently.

So Cyrus did something he’d always been exceptionally good at doing, and drew the attention away from someone else and onto himself. “But what a surprise, to see that the most illustrious House Viridius has joined us in the south, hm? This really isn’t the season for it, I must admit.” He made eye contact with Cassius, his smile inching wider. “Imagine, if you will, how interested I was to hear that Magister Cassius had managed to indenture most of the mages left in the region in one fell swoop. Truly a master stroke, executed with a most uncanny timing.” The emphasis he gave the last word was so delicate it could easily have been missed, but Cassius clearly did not miss it.

“What can I say? A Magister with no apprentice suddenly finds himself with a great deal of time to think down other avenues.” The old man lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “And what luck, that such avenues might give him opportunity to meet with an Inquisition. I’m curious: what would such an organization wish from me?”

Lady Marceline apparently decided that that was her cue. She laid a hand on Estella's shoulder and gently guided her so that she could step forward, but she never did try to overshadow her. In fact, she stood side-by-side with the woman, a warm and friendly smile on her lips directed toward Chryseis and Cassius. "I will be frank," she began, her voice holding the same warmth her smile held. "The Inquisition did not expect to be speaking to Magisters of such... renown," she said, dipping into a low curtsey.

When she finished, she held her hands on top of each other and her body language shifted in an attempt to entreaty them. "Lord Cassius, Lady Chryseis," she began, glancing at each in turn. "You of course know of the Breach that hangs in the sky above Haven. It is... a danger if it is allowed to continue to exist as such. All the Inquisition asks for is the Free Mages' aid in helping to close it. With your permissions, of course."

She smiled again and tilted her head forward, "No doubt being the man who had helped put Thedas at ease would aid in your politics back home in Minrathous, yes?"

Cyrus suppressed a grimace, because he knew she’d said the wrong thing. Cassius’s smile only confirmed it. It was polite, indifferent, and utterly unmoved. “I fear you understand little of politics in Minrathous, milady. These mages are not free, not in the strict sense, anyway. I am afraid they have promised me their service in return for my protection, and at present, I have decided it is in their best interest to return with me to the Imperium as quickly as possible. There have always been few good places for them in these lands, after all.”

It was almost admirable, how he managed to sound like he actually gave a damn. Cyrus, of course, knew that Cassius was just as full of shit on this count as Marceline was, pretending to be pleased to be speaking to Imperial Magisters. It was almost funny to watch, but then of course he had to go and make it no longer funny at all by shifting his attention to Estella.

“I am sure that is something with which my lady Herald can completely agree, can she not? I’ve heard about Kirkwall; most unfortunate, what Templars in these regions are capable of. Utter madness, really. One could hardly blame a mage for seeking refuge where their abilities, however grand or humble, are celebrated rather than reviled.” Cyrus clenched his teeth.

“I can think of no one who would not celebrate were the Breach closed,” Estella replied, her tone careful, her face smooth and passive. “And I think that if you truly cared how mages were perceived here, you would let mages be the root of the solution.” She lifted her chin slightly, almost as if daring him to contradict her. Marceline simply continued to smile, though this time, it was genuine.

Cyrus did not bother to conceal his own. She was absolutely brilliant, she really was. It was so very perfect, really—no one could have managed to make that sound so genuine except for her, he was certain, and Cassius was left in the rather unenviable position of having to admit he didn’t care about the mages, or that he wanted the Breach to remain open, which was an intriguing possibility that Cyrus filed away for consideration. He suspected both were true. Of course, admitting the first would cost him considerably less, but he’d no longer be able to pretend to the moral high ground. This would be seen for exactly what it was: an opportunistic power-grab.

That appeared to be the route he’d chosen. Cassius’s polite smile vanished, replaced with a stern expression Cyrus knew all too well. It was the expression he’d usually received when his master was about to commence ignoring him until he’d gained command of whatever he was supposed to learn that week, which meant he was extremely displeased. “I’m afraid I’ve little concern for such affairs. I am not the one with an Inquisition, after all. Unless you can offer me something worthwhile in exchange for my loan of my servants, this discussion is quite over. We will be in the castle for a while longer—perhaps you shall devise some new terms in the meantime.” Cassius stood, gesturing to his guards and Fiona, who all fell in step behind him as he made for the exit.

Chryseis remained behind, her back leaned gently against one of the inn's wooden supports. Her expression had not changed as her father's had, instead showing a hint of amusement as her eyes followed Cassius until he was out the door with all of his personal guards. When the door was firmly shut behind him, her eyes fell to Estella, her smile still in place. "Words well chosen. But make no mistake, you are all in great danger by being here. A danger I believe only Cyrus can understand the magnitude of." The smile slowly faded.

She stepped away from the wooden support, coming a little closer to them. "I must remain in my father's presence until night falls, to avoid suspicion. Meet me in the Chantry tonight, if you will, so that we can... catch up." She flashed a smile briefly at Cyrus, before walking around the side of the group and lightly grabbing Romulus by the chin, between her thumb and forefinger. "I know you at least will follow my wish." She released him, and Romulus immediately averted his eyes downwards.

"Domina."

"Until tonight, then," she said, striding towards the door. "Take care, Inquisition."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius
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As the door closed behind Chryseis after her departure, Marceline's smile left her lips as well. What replaced it was an even line to her lips, though it was clear to the others that she was not enthusiastic about what had transpired. She had felt ill prepared and most of all, foolish. She did not enjoy those feelings, and took any and all precautions to ensure that she never felt them. She could not fault any of them for it, she knew. None of them had expected how this would turn out when they left Haven. Marceline thought that they were to deal with vulnerable mages, not a Tevinter Magister and his daughter.

Before the others attempted to exit the inn, Lady Marceline held up a hand to beckon them to stay. "I would kindly ask that you two please remain for a moment longer. I believe we have things to discuss. Lady Estella, if you would be so kind to join us?" It was a polite way of ordering them to remain. Marceline strode toward a nearby bench and indicated that they should all take a seat.

Cyrus didn’t appear to have any objections, given the way he shrugged indifferently and took a seat on the opposite side of the bench, leaning his back against the wall and crossing his arms over his chest. It was relaxed rather than defensive, though he did cock his head to one side. “I didn’t know they were going to be here, if that’s what you’re wondering.” The table near his elbow contained a few leftover glasses, likely from before the inn had been vacated for the meeting. He brought one to his nose, sniffed, frowned, and set it back down again, further from himself than it had been before. “I hadn’t seen either of them in a couple of years, actually.”

"I didn't expect this either," Romulus said, taking a seat at the far end from Cyrus, leaving a space for Estella in between them. He placed his elbows upon the table, lowering his head into his hands, and rubbing his scalp for a moment. He looked a little less wound up now that Chryseis had left the room, but his anxiety from before was seemingly just replaced with a different variety now. "Even after we learned Cassius was here. My domina... I knew she had an interest in the south, but this is not usual for her. She does not often directly assist her father with anything. I believe we should meet with her in the Chantry, as she said. I, at least, must go."

Marceline shook her head, "No, I am not so unreasonable as to believe either of you would intentionally have kept this from us," she said. She wasn't angry, nor was she even frustrated with them. She was frustrated at the situation, and she would see to it that next time she would not so unprepared. She too reached for a glass, and upon looking into it, turned her nose up and set it to the side, far out of her way. The tastes in this part of the country left much to be desired, she decided.

She then turned to Romulus and nodded in agreement, "And we will, but first, we need to discuss some things." At that, she turned to Estella and wait for the girl to take a seat before she finally seated herself.

Estella did so, though she seemed a bit like she wasn’t sure what she was still doing there. Settling herself between Cyrus on one side and Romulus on the other, she laid her hands flat on the surface of the table. “Uh… what things, exactly?” She actually looked as though she had some guesses, but if so, she kept them to herself.

"Everything that they are able to tell me about both Cassius and Chryseis," she told Estella, before glancing at both Cyrus and Romulus. Had she the time, she would have had Larissa look into the Magisters while she asked around the nobility. But time was not on their side, it seemed. "The next time we speak with them, I will not be caught unawares," she said with a rather firm tone. It would be the only hint at the frustration she felt. With that, Marceline cradled her hands into her lap and looked to Cyrus, her eyes level with his.

"Cyrus, let us start with Cassius. What can you tell me of the man?" she asked. "Aside from the clear fact that he is an opportunist." Marceline would have been impressed that he was able to snatch the support of the Free Mages had she not been personally invested in their wellbeing.

Cyrus blinked, the everything in his expression languid, easy, and entirely missing the urgency that Marceline was expressing. His arms loosened, and he moved one of them to the table, drumming his fingers against it in an absent rhythm. “Lady Marceline, the man was my master—my teacher—for almost ten years, though he’d put the number closer to fifteen.” He fixed her with his eyes, and smiled slightly, arching a brow. “Had I the inclination, I could write you his biography. I’m afraid you’re going to have to be much more specific.”

Marceline accepted the answer and nodded, "Then, would you know why he would press the Free Mages into servitude?" she asked, "What would his plan for them be? He is a powerful man, even without the mages' support, that much is clear. What does he hope to gain by doing this?"

He shrugged, as though it should be obvious. “He wants what everyone wants—more power. House Viridius is very old and very well-respected in the Imperium, but fortunes can change very quickly even for an Altus house. He recently found himself with a collapsed investment, and he needs a way to make up the difference as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Indenturing the remaining southern mages to his servitude is a very good strategy, considering his position. They wouldn’t count for much in Tevinter—their training is obviously inferior, but that can be rectified with time. More importantly, he’ll be the first magister in a very long time to so successfully undercut the southern Chantry, which almost all magisters disdain at the very least, and his cleverness and daring will be the talk of Minrathous.”

Cyrus appeared to consider something for a moment, then added: “And I suppose in another five years or so, he may well have the largest conglomerate of mages over which he commands direct loyalty. Mages can be servants or slaves, in Tevinter, but not so many usually are. There is advantage in that, I’m sure you can see.”

"Am I incorrect in assuming that you were the collapsed investment?" Marceline asked.

“People as capital? My, my, you’re thinking much more like a magister now, Lady Marceline.” Cyrus’s eyes were narrow, though it was impossible to distinguish whether mirth or malice did it. Perhaps both. “But you are correct. An apprenticeship is a significant institution, in the Imperium. It binds two houses together in a way usually only superseded by blood relation or marriage. He instructed me, and I was expected, in turn, to ascend to the Magisterium and act as his stalwart ally, and, if the occasion called for it, an extension of his will. He put a lot of effort into making sure I’d be very good at it.” He smiled without humor.

“You southerners have this quaint idiom for that… something about eggs and baskets?”

Marceline could not help but smile at that. "I shall take it as a comfort to know that Cassius' investment is the Inquisition's gain," with that she nodded, "Thank you Lord Cyrus." The fact that Cassius' former apprentice worked with the Inquisition, or the very least, his sister, should vex the magister, even by a small amount. Marceline could not help be feel a little gladdened by that.

She then went into thought for a moment. It appeared that she had misunderstood Minrathous politics after all, a revelation that came with no little sting. "So he gathers strength and public support with a single act in binding the mages to him. Shrewd," she said, sounding a small bit impressed. It stung, yes, but she could not discount the man's cunning. It would only reinforce the point that she need to be careful in any further dealings with the man.

“He has always been that, yes.”

"Does he have any habits or weaknesses we could exploit? We can not simply allow him to return to Minrathous with the Free Mages," she said.

“Pride, of course, though it’s likely to do you little good.” Cyrus crossed one leg over the other, glancing down past Estella at Romulus. “What should interest you more is that Chryseis has not seen fit to inform him of the fact that she has licensed Romulus to be here. She’s always had her own mind, quite apart from his despite their relation, and here it would seem that she’s being subversive about it. You’ll want to find out why.”

"I intend to," Marceline said, referring to the meeting to be held at the Chantry, but first, she turned to Romulus, "But first, I would like to know more of the woman. Tell me, Romulus, what is she like? Personality wise, of course. If I am correct in my assumption, what we had seen from her initially was a mask. I wish to know of the woman behind the mask," she asked, quite curious to the answer. "Anything you can tell me will be helpful," she added.

Romulus didn't seem prepared to speak about her personality or behavior, his mouth hanging open somewhat foolishly for a moment before he swallowed, sitting up a little straighter. "She is..." He paused, struggling for the correct words. "She's always calculating. Making estimations of people. Learning about them, predicting them. She isn't prideful like her father, but she is idealistic. It was always something that put the two at odds with each other." He scratched his head again, clearly uncomfortable about broaching the subject, but this was nothing new for him.

"We've known each other since adolescence. She has changed since then. Her tutoring from her father, her marriage, her husband's death, her own ideals drawing the ire of others in Minrathous... she's grim under her mask, as you say, but stubborn. She is here to help herself, not her father. If the two were one and the same, she would've told him that I remain loyal."

Marceline brought her hands to her chin, where they rested. She listened to Romulus before she nodded. "That is something we can work with then," Marceline said. If Chryseis was there to subvert her father, then perhaps she would continue to aid the Inquisition in a more direct manner. Though Marceline would not offer the woman her complete trust. It would be foolish to do so, it was as Romulus said. She was there for her. Not them, nor her father.

"Do you know what she would hope to gain here, if she were to aid us?" Marceline asked. She had already helped by allowing Romulus to continue to act as Herald, and if that was any indication, she would continue to aid them. Though at what price she wondered.

"I can't claim to know what she wants," Romulus admitted, shrugging. "But I doubt she would openly aid us, not until it suits her. Maybe this has more to do with her father. They are still family, after all. Cassius is not an easy man to dissuade, especially through peaceful means.” His daughter, as Romulus had described her, was much the same, in her own way.

Marceline went quiet for a bit before she shook her head and began to stand. "There is nothing else we are able to do at this time. We will wait until nightfall and then meet with Chryseis at the chantry. I suggest you all rest and prepare yourselves until then. Romulus, Cyrus? Thank you, this has been most... enlightening," she said with a smile.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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Despite all the personal ties to the mission they'd found themselves in, Romulus continuously reminded himself that this wasn't, in fact, personal.

Chryseis was here because her father was, not because he was. That part was merely an uncomfortable coincidence. Regardless of what happened in the aftermath of their trip to Redcliffe, the mission there remained the same: sever the link between Cassius and the Free Mages, and secure their aid for the Inquisition. The rest was of no consequence. He wondered if he could make that true by repeating it enough.

The same group that had attended the initial tavern meeting with Cassius was headed to the Chantry, with the addition of Khari. In truth, Romulus didn't want her to come along, but as usual, he felt he had no place in telling her to stay behind, and hid any form of displeasure behind his stony features when they made their way, armed and armored, for the Chantry. The streets cleared out nicely at night, and there was a sort of tenseness to the chill in the air, as though the village knew that its fate would be decided sooner rather than later.

The way to the Chantry was clear, but as they approached the steps leading to its doors, several clergy members in varying states of undress burst out from within, terrified. From the brief moment the doors had swung open, Romulus could hear the familiar sound of a rift, and see the ominous green light reflecting off of the ceiling. They hurried inside.

The rift had appeared right in the center of the main hall, spewing forth shades and wraiths. A hooded woman in Tevinter robes, clearly Chryseis, was the only one currently battling them. The bottom end of her battle staff was sharply bladed, and she stabbed down into the shoulder of the nearest shade, causing it to roar in pain. Before it could move any more, runes along the handle of the staff glowed a bright, hot red, and suddenly the shade exploded from within in a fiery blast. Chryseis pulled her hood back, and looked to the newcomers.

"I could do this all night," she twisted, leaning back from a slash, and stabbing her staff's blade into the chest of the next shade, "but I'd really rather not!" The runes turned an icy blue, and then a massive chunk of jagged ice burst through the shade's body, shattering against the back wall. It slumped to the ground, with the large hole clean through its chest.

Romulus charged forward without hesitation, his shield and blade immediately in hand. He absorbed a magical projectile from one of the wraiths in the back, the attack bouncing off his shield. His blade was cutting through the offending demon before it could charge up another.

Khari wasn’t far behind him, splitting off from his trajectory near the end of the run to lunge into another shade, her cleaver slamming into the area between its neck and shoulder, the telltale crunch of its bones breaking within the containment of its flesh. One of them, what might have been a clavicle on a human being, punched through the skin, exposed to open air as it fell, and then she was off in pursuit of another, a bloody trail following behind as ichor dripped from the blade of her sword.

The distinctive crackle of lightning was audible even over the din of the rest of the battle, and Cyrus seemed to materialize on the far side of the rift, the glowing blue blade belonging to his spatha erupting from the chest cavity of a shade even as the one immediately to his right went down in a bright conflagration of flames, turning its dark flesh black and filling the air with the stench of burning meat. Ripping his sword out to the left of the first shade, he cast again, lightning arcing from his fingers to lance into one of those at the front, headed for Estella and Marceline.

“Don’t tell me you’re not having at least a little bit of fun, Chryseis!” His reply was lighthearted enough to be at serious odds with the situation, but then again, he seemed not at all perturbed by the enemies present.

One of the shades pushed itself as quickly as it could along the floor towards Chryseis. She lazily flicked a few fingers in its direction, and ice sprang up around it, freezing it solid. "Everything's more fun with you around, Cyrus," she said, with a hint of a smirk. "But you already know that, of course."

The ice at her fingertips suddenly sparked into flame, and she casually tossed an explosive spell beneath the new ice sculpture. It ignited a moment later, sending small fragments of frozen shade body raining down onto the Chantry floor. It appeared to be the last of the demons. Chryseis turned her head towards Romulus, pulling a lock of blonde hair behind her ear. "Go on then, blade. Show me your new power."

He nodded, and lifted his shield arm towards the rift. The arc of green energy snapped into place, building and intensifying until the rift exploded. The air where it had been appeared scarred momentarily, but soon cleared altogether, as though the portal had never been present at all. Chryseis smiled in wonder. "Fascinating. And you do that on instinct, then? Do you command it to close?"

"Maybe, domina," Romulus answered, head bowed. "I don't know if will is a part of it. It closes rifts in proximity, when the demons are dealt with."

"And that alone makes you an immensely valuable asset, my dear. You've no memory of how you acquired it, though?"

He shook his head. "No, domina."

"And the same for you, Estella?" she asked, turning away from Romulus. "Nothing of the Conclave?"

Estella sheathed her sword, which had clearly seen some use, if not perhaps a great deal, and stood a fraction straighter, folding her hands behind her back. “No, milady,” she replied, her tone quiet, but not timid. “I can recall why I was there, but nothing that happened during the Conclave itself.”

"Shame," Chryseis said, frowning, "the knowledge of how to recreate such abilities would be immensely powerful, in the right hands." She held the thought a moment, before shaking her head, and returning her focus to the group at large. "No matter. We're here to stop my father, before he accidentally ends the world. At least, I'm hoping it's accidental. He can't be so power-mad as to intentionally jeopardize the stability of time itself." She seemed to realize the gravity of her last sentence, and glanced up at Cyrus.

"That's how we arrived here so quickly, of course. By distorting time. Makes me glad I didn't often see what the two of you got up to while you were his apprentice."

Lady Marceline simply sighed a short distance away, polishing the last of the ash off her rapier with a handkerchief.

Cyrus’s smile was enigmatic. It didn’t seem to be a particularly pleased expression, but nor did it qualify as sheepish. It was unclear if he were even capable of the latter. “Yes, I rather expect it does.” He looked up at the place where the rift used to be, and his expression became obviously calculating. “I hadn’t thought he’d attempt such a large-scale use of the magic without completed stabilization formulae, but I suppose I hadn’t counted on his desperation reaching quite these heights, either.”

He took a moment to brush off the front of his tunic-styled robe, which had acquired a bit of dust, from the look of it, before he moved forward again, descending the stairs to properly join the group, his hands clasped at the small of his back. “Now. I do believe you expressed an interest in stopping him; have you some specific method in mind?” From the way he asked, it seemed he expected that she did.

"You might first want to know what he's here for," Chryseis said, the first words that left her lips that could be described as uneasy. "I'm afraid it's far more than a powerplay in the Magisterium. He's gotten himself mixed up with a cult. Tevinter supremacists, a group called the Venatori. Sadly, I'm little more than an honorary member at this point, despite my cozying up to them. Father's not so easily swayed by me anymore."

She turned to gaze at Romulus, instantly making him uncomfortable. Conversations between his domina and other Tevinter mages were things he was only ever meant to listen to, not become involved in. "What I do know, is that all of this madness, unraveling time, has been to get to you." He looked up only long enough to know that Chryseis indeed meant him with her words. Her eyes then flicked to Estella. "And you. He's become very interested in both of you, that much is clear."

Estella frowned slightly, reaching up to rub at the back of her neck, and rocked back on her heels. “If the cult and his interest in us are connected, it’s probably a safe guess that what they really care about is the Breach,” she said, her dark brows knitting together. “And since we’re already working to close it, a reasonable guess would be that he—or they, rather—want it to stay open, if he went to so much trouble. Do you know why that might be?”

“Well, if these Venatori are in fact a Tevinter supremacist cult, then they want it to stay open because they believe it serves Tevinter.” There was an obvious thread of disgust in Cyrus’s voice as it lilted over the word cult, one that remained at slightly less emphasis throughout the rest. “I can think of half a dozen reasons they might surmise as much, and in each of them is a motive for wanting the two of you out of the picture…” He seemed to drift out of the present for a moment, as though his thoughts were carrying him elsewhere, but then his eyes cleared and he shook his head.

“But none of them would be enough reason for the Cassius I remember to do something quite this… extreme. Gaining control of the southern mages is one thing. But the use of incomplete time-distortion magic to do it—that suggests something much larger at work.”

"Somehow I doubt the Venatori are the ones behind the rifts, or the Breach. But they're strong, no doubt about that. My father doesn't lead them, but whoever does knows what they're doing." She crossed her arms, brow furrowed in concern. It was not often that Romulus witnessed her displaying concern over another, but he supposed he shouldn't have been surprised. The bonds of family were difficult to break, even in an environment as strange and caustic as the Magisterium.

"Domina, if I may," Romulus said, gently. Pulled from her thoughts, Chryseis met his eyes.

"You have something in mind?"

"Knowing your lord father intends to remove the threat of the Heralds, we can turn his plan against him. Appear to fall into his trap, only to spring one ourselves."

A small gleam of a smile appeared, and she turned to face Romulus in full. "I'm intrigued. Go on."

Romulus folded his hands together before him, lowering his gaze once more. "Magister Cassius has retreated to the castle. Requesting an audience will seemingly place us in his hands. While one party enters the castle directly and absorbs his attention, another infiltrates the fortress and eliminates the danger before it becomes an issue." Chryseis hmmed in thought, before shaking her head.

"And you would lead this infiltration? No. I'm confident you could, but for once your absence would be noted. Father would suspect something, and Estella would be lost before we could reach her."

"I would go with Lady Estella, domina. Both Heralds before your father's eyes. Choose another to lead the attack, and seek information about the castle. A Revered Mother now with the Inquisition, Annika, once served Arl Eamon. She may know of a weakness in the castle." Chryseis studied her slave, her blade, for some time, her smile growing the longer she did so.

"I could see if anything can be done about my father's magical defenses. He has fortified the castle in other ways by now. But this could work." She turned to the others. "Thoughts?"

“Magical defenses, if there are any, won’t be an issue.” Cyrus said as much with obvious confidence, as though it were simple fact, rather than an estimation of how their magic would fare against Cassius’s. “As for who should lead the infiltration party…” He turned to Estella. His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Stellulam. That teacher of yours, the Tranquil. He’s quite inclined to moving about unseen, is he not? And perhaps your lovely little scout-captain, as well.”

Estella nodded. “Rilien and Lia are both quite good at that sort of thing, yes. If we wanted to spring a trap within the trap, they could certainly accomplish it.” She didn’t seem to doubt that in the slightest. Her eyes moved to Marceline, though, an obvious question there. “But that’s only if the three of you would commit the resources to this.”

"We have no choice," Marceline relented. She had since sheathed her rapier and had seemingly listened to the conversation being had with Chryseis. Now that she was addressed, she spoke. "I shall have Larissa seek out a weakness in the castle walls for Lord Rilien and Lia to exploit, and I will speak to Mother Annika personally." She paused for a moment and thought pensively before continuing. "I will also speak to Leon about drafting a contingency in case we have need of one."

"Then it's settled," Chryseis said, with no small amount of excitement. "We'll dismantle this madness, and Father will return to his more sensible schemes. Blade, remain for a while. The rest of you had best be off. Much to prepare for, yes? I shall eagerly await your arrival at the castle."

For the first time in the entirely of the conversation, Khari drew attention to herself, though whether it was purposeful or not was hard to tell. She had quite clearly been content up until that moment simply to listen, rather than speaking, but now there was a look of something distinctly disgruntled on her face, and she made eye contact with Romulus, frowning slightly before she shook her head, as if to herself. “See you later, Rom.” She gave half a smile, then turned to exit with the general stream of departure.

Cyrus lingered slightly longer, saving his own departure for after the others had taken theirs. “While I am sure you have machinating of your own to do, and that your father expects you soon, should you find yourself with some spare time, I would very much enjoy catching up, Chryseis.” The slight smirk on his lips and the ambiguous tone of his voice could have meant any number of things. He bowed at the waist, though it was playful rather than truly reverent, and winked as he turned to leave.

"Likewise, Cyrus," Chryseis said, returning the smile in kind. "Minrathous is hardly the same without you." Once all had left save for the magister and her slave, she turned and planted a finger under his chin, her smile carrying some small amount of amusement. "Rom, is it?"

"Merely your blade, domina." The words were delivered with no emotion, something he found especially easy to pull off around her. Her smile faltered for a brief moment, as her eyes fell down to his chest, where she placed her hand.

"Good. You remember." Forcefully, she shoved him towards an open doorway in the back, and Romulus took the hint, leading the way inside.

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
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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: Vesryn Cormyth
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Cyrus had a tendency to land always on his feet. Fortunately, it was a statement that was true literally as well as figuratively, and so when he found himself falling, he twisted himself around somewhat so as to make the approach legs-first, landing with a splash in a waist-deep pool of water. It didn’t do much to soften the fall, so his knees took the majority of the impact, though it was easy enough, as he’d probably only fallen from ten feet up or so. Frowning his distaste for the stagnant stench of the water, he lifted his eyes and scanned the room.

The massive spear of red lyrium against the wall on the right was an interesting decorative choice, but otherwise, he placed himself underground, in what looked like a storage room. He wouldn’t be surprised if there was a cellar nearby, or a dungeon or something. A more interesting question than where he was would, of course, be when, as there was no mistaking the fact that Cassius had opened a time distortion field right above them in the heat of the fight. Given how obviously unstable the field had been, it was unlikely he’d planned on anyone surviving the trip, though who knew? Perhaps since one of the travelers was Chryseis, he’d actually done his best to send them through safely. Perhaps not.

It didn’t really matter to Cyrus, in any case. The result was the same.

And he had a lot of searching to do. Perhaps he would begin by seeing if the other two had landed nearby. It would be at the very least convenient to have their assistance, though he didn’t strictly need it. He supposed Estella would prefer to have all three of them back rather than just him, and as usual, he let her serve as his moral compass, because she was a great deal better at it than he was. Likely, the right thing to do was to find Romulus and Chryseis, and get all of them to where he thought they needed to go.

There was a loud splashing from the front of the room, and Cyrus returned his thoughts to whenever the present was to see a pair of Venatori guards approaching the chamber. He sighed softly to himself. He supposed such inconvenience was to be expected. “Blood of the Elder One, what’s he doing here?”

“Be honest; you’re going to try and kill me no matter what I say.” His voice took on the tone of light amusement that he used by default, and sure enough, both drew their swords. Cyrus flexed his fingers; though he probably could have halted both with spells before they crossed the twenty feet through water to him, he rather felt like something a bit more personal just at this moment, so he let them approach, his hands loosely at his sides, empty for now.

One of them seemed to be smart enough to realize that his utter lack of concern might have been an important detail, and Cyrus smiled when that one hesitated, letting his partner go first. The less-observant went in for a diagonal slash to his unarmored chest, a solid, controlled opening move that Cyrus avoided entirely, placing his feet unerringly even underwater and twisting his body out of the way. The follow-up was a quick horizontal stroke, which he stopped cold with a barrier, concentrated over one hand, knocking the sword away in an efficient parry which threw the guard’s armspan wide, leaving his front completely exposed for just a moment.

That, as it happened, was all Cyrus required, and the knife appeared in his hand easily, whereupon he drove it down into the base of the Venatori’s throat. The blade disappeared as the guard dropped, and smoothly, he bent backwards to avoid the attempt by the second to capitalize on his distraction. On his way back up, he grabbed the other man’s arm and pulled him forward and down, cracking his knee up into the guard’s nose with a satisfying crunch. Mindful of his need for celerity, Cyrus summoned back the Fade-knife and plunged it into the second cultist’s spine. He dropped next to his partner, both slowly sinking into the water. If they weren’t already dead, they’d drown.

Heading for the entrance, he gave the red lyrium a wide berth. He could hear it, in his head—singing, some described it as. Cyrus thought it was perhaps the ugliest song he’d ever heard, and it seemed also to burn with something. He knew to touch it was to risk something he did not want to risk, and so he avoided it studiously, his lip curling a bit as he waded past.

Upon reaching the entrance of the storage room, he found himself in a hallway that split off to the left and right. Reminding himself that he ought to seek out his allies, he spent a moment listening as well as he could, before frowning and striking off to the left. He could see the end of that half the hallway, anyhow, so worst-case scenario, he spent a while searching where there was nothing to be found.

As he carried on, sounds of battle eventually rang out from one of the rooms. There were shouts of both men and women, and the unmistakable crunching on rapidly freezing water, and shattering ice. A few heavy thuds of bodies followed, and then silence. Sloshing footsteps signaled that at least one had survived the fight, and shortly afterwards Chryseis stumbled out of the room, tired and disheveled. An arrow protruded from her upper back, near her right shoulder, and she leaned on both her staff and subsequently the wall when she entered the hallway.

She momentarily lowered her staff in Cyrus's direction, but then raised it again and loosened up when she noticed him. "Blasted spell dropped me facing away from an archer," she grumbled. "But we're alive. That's something."

“Vastly preferable to the alternative, at the very least.” Cyrus smiled, then waded smoothly over to her side, tilting his head at the arrow. “If you’ll permit me?” He actually wasn’t sure how confident she was in her healing magic—it was usually considered less-than-important in Tevinter, and specialists were rare, considering how long it took to learn to do well. He wasn’t one of those by ay means, but he’d dabbled long enough to master the basics, and a wound like that was small enough that he wouldn’t have a problem with it.

Chryseis sighed. "Yes, let's get this over with." She turned to face the wall, bracing herself against it with her hands.

“As the lady wishes.” Cyrus didn’t hesitate, gripping the arrow near the base of the shaft, as close to her wound as possible, and pulled it out with a single, sharp motion. A fair amount of blood followed, but he applied the healing spell in his left hand thereafter, mending it with a few seconds of effort. He was actually rather impressed with his own handiwork—he doubted she’d even scar. Stepping back, he twirled the arrow between his fingers, almost absently, leaning sideways to peer into the room she’d emerged from.

“Looks like it dropped all three of us in different places, then. Which makes the next order of business rather obvious, I should think.”

Chryseis groaned, rolling the recently healed shoulder a few times to test it out and, apparently pleased enough with it, she took up her staff again, stepping away from the wall. "I suppose I should be more surprised this happened. Sadly, I'm not." She began leading the way forward, back the way Cyrus had come. The hallway further in the other direction merely led to a visible dead end.

Chryseis wore a look near disgust as she trudged through the still knee-deep water of the flooded hallway. Her eyes scanned over their surroundings. "We're still in the castle, I remember this area. The Venatori are still present here, so this can't be in the past. Father's tossed us into the future, clearly. Question is, how far?"

“I suspect we’re at the nearest arcane confluence of the right type.” It would have been easiest for the distortion to send them sometime that had a similar balance of Fade-energy to itself. That was how the magic worked: just as distance was traversed by selecting an terminal point and altering it with one’s magic in the same way the beginning locus was altered, so it was with time, though of course a distortion in chronology was much more complex than a mere teleportation spell. But in both cases, it worked best when the beginning and end points were as similar as possible, to draw the traveler from one to the other.

Since he doubted Cassius had enough time to even begin preparing an end-point for this magic, they’d likely been snapped to whatever time coincidentally had the most similar arcane signature. In all likelihood, there was another tear here, or at least a place where creating one would be easy, which meant they could get back. “So it won’t be decades, but it might be years. Perhaps we should ask the next guards what the calendar date is before we kill them, hm?” The suggestion was only half-serious, but then again, it was half-serious. The information would be helpful, at any rate.

"Or we'll ask my father, right before he sends us back..." They continued on to a convergence point in the halls, a large, mostly empty room dimly lit by the torches ensconced on the walls, and the dull red glow of the lyrium that protruded periodically from the stone. The few stairs they ascended up into the room allowed them to finally rise out of the water They'd barely entered when sounds of another struggle could be heard, and shortly afterwards the full conflict came into view.

Or the end of it, rather. Romulus had taken a guard to the ground on his back, the assassin pinning his sword arm down with his blade, which had stabbed right through his wrist. He screamed in pain, but the sound was choked off when Romulus bashed the rim of his shield into his mouth, shattering several teeth and spraying blood left and right. He repeated the act a few more times, until the man's skull was clearly demolished.

Romulus was breathing quickly, his eyes wild, filled with confusion. He looked up, noticed Chryseis and Cyrus standing there, and raised his weapons briefly. Chryseis did not raise her own hands, instead looking down upon him with authority. "Easy, now. It's just us. We just went through the same thing you did."

He clambered off of the dead guard and a few steps to the side, but fell back to a knee for the moment. "What happened? Where are we? Where are the others?"

“The first question is quite worthwhile, but the others are a tad misaimed, I’m afraid.” Cyrus could perhaps understand Romulus’s confusion; he understood the magic at work better than most anyone, but had he not, he might well have been rather perplexed himself. “We are in Redcliffe castle, just as we were. The others… well, I haven’t the slightest idea, but I think you’ll find that’s ultimately irrelevant. Because at just this moment, we’re some amount of time into…” He paused, debating whether to give the long, more accurate version, or the less-accurate, but easier one. He elected to go with the latter.

“The future, I suppose you could call it. Relative to when we were, anyway. The distortion moved us forward in time.”

Clearly, Romulus wasn't going to understand that easily. "What? But... we were..." Chryseis was prompted to shake her head, and take a few steps forward, to come within arm's reach of her slave.

"Don't try to understand it. I barely know the basics of my father's work myself." She grabbed hold of his arm and pulled him up to his feet. "The important thing is that the three of us made it here in one piece. We need to keep moving, see if we can find some way to get back."

"What happened to the others?" he asked again, clearly not letting the question go. "Do you think they're here with us, too?" Chryseis shook her head again.

"Unlikely. The spell was only big enough to pull us through, I think. Otherwise this hall would probably be quite a bit more hectic right now. They were probably left behind." She glanced back at Cyrus. "And I very much doubt anything pleasant happened after we left. Judging by the state of things."

“That seems a fair guess.” Cyrus’s reply was noncommittal, mostly because he’d already reached the same conclusion himself and was currently for once in his life trying not to think too much about anything outside of the here-and-now, which, if he could find the distortion he suspected existed in this time, would soon become the there-and-then. If he couldn’t find one, he’d have to make one, the consequences be damned.

“In any case, we should get out of this dungeon. Perhaps we shall learn more along the way.” Turning, he led the way farther down the hall. At the end of it, as he’d suspected, there was a staircase, and he moved up them with care, placing his feet solidly before shifting his weight. While he didn’t waste time doubting his ability to deal with Venatori, this would go considerably faster if they could manage it without drawing the attention of every guard in the castle, something he suspected Romulus knew quite well himself.

The floor that the staircase emptied them out on looked to be merely another underground level, this one occupied by barred cells, most of them empty. There was no other staircase immediately visible, which meant it was probably on the other side of the cell block. Hanging a right, Cyrus grimaced at the amount of red-lyrium-song filling his head, shaking it slightly as though the tuneless hum would just scatter out his ears. A futile endeavor, of course, but incidentally directing his vision to the cells themselves did provide him with a most unexpected piece of information.

“Perhaps some of them are here, after all.” They would be the versions of themselves from whatever future this was, of course, but that was almost better. They’d have information, and more importantly, any damage done to them would be fixable with a proper reversal. The one he’d spotted appeared to be Vesryn, who sat against the back wall of one of the cells, another mound of red lyrium not too far off. Gesturing for the other two to follow, Cyrus approached with some caution. There was little telling what prolonged exposure to that stuff would have done, and he still wasn’t going to get near it himself.

Vesryn looked terrible. Clearly some was a result of the red lyrium, some of which was actually beginning to protrude into his cell. Some of his veins were slightly glowing, appearing orange under his skin, and his eyes too had a red tint to them. His skin had not been tanned much before, but now he was ghostly white, and thinner than he had been by quite a bit. His hair had almost all been shorn off, revealing a number of wicked-looking scars traversing the sides and back of his head. More typical scars were all over his body, or at least his arms, which were revealed by the fact that his threadbare shirt possessed no sleeves. His posture was lazy against the wall, and he hardly readjusted upon seeing the three newcomers.

In fact, he laughed. The laughter bubbling up from within him was the only thing that moved him, as a wide grin spread across his face. The act appeared to be somewhat painful for him, judging by the half-grimace there as well. "Well, now I'm actually insane. You three... you Tevinter fucks. You're all supposed to be dead."

“I’ve always been exceptionally bad at doing what I’m supposed to.” Cyrus cocked his head to the side, choosing for the moment not to react overmuch to being referred to in the crude manner the elf had chosen. It was probably quite excusable, considering the situation. Apparently, one or more of Vesryn’s captors had attempted something with his head, for him to have scars like those. He recalled the lobotomy experiments of one of the Magisters, and the attendant demonstration, with some distaste. He suspected something similar had happened here.

“I expect that by your reckoning, we’ve been gone for a considerable amount of time. By ours, we just left the throne room in Redcliffe in 9:41 Dragon. It would seem things did not fare well in our… absence.”

He stared back at Cyrus blankly, before rubbing his face with his hands, and then peeking through his fingers. Upon seeing the group of three still standing there, he let out a heavy sigh. "Of all the bloody dead people to come haunt me in my cell..."

"We're not dead, elf," Chryseis corrected, somewhat sternly. "You were there, were you not? In the fight against my father? When he opened that portal that absorbed the three of us? You were the elven warrior, with the shield and spear?"

"That elf is dead. Now begone. I'll not talk to the madman's bitch daughter, ghost or no." Chryseis rolled her eyes, and turned away, shaking her head. Romulus watched her momentarily, before crouching down in front of the bars that imprisoned Vesryn.

"How long has it been since that day, Vesryn?" he asked, making an obvious attempt to be gentle. "What has happened to the others?" Vesryn's mouth twisted into a grimace and quivered for a moment, before it exploded.

"They're dead! And if they're not, they'll soon wish to be. We were captured... tortured... experimented on." He leaned forward, grabbing hold of the bars, and Romulus instinctively backed a pace away. Vesryn's eyes were filled with grief and anger. "They cut open my head." He prodded the side of his skull with a finger. "They tried to take... to take... fuck! Get the fuck away from me!"

Cyrus remained where he was, which was just out of arms’ reach from the imprisoned Vesryn, his mouth compressed into a thin line. There were questions to be answered there, but now seemed hardly the time. If the ‘others’ were dead… no. He couldn’t think about that right now. He had to focus on rectifying the situation.

When he spoke, there was no lightness or humor in his voice at all. All the playfulness had been sucked right out of him along with the levity, and he drew himself taller. “What if I told you that none of this had to be? That I could fix it, make it so that the world never looks like this? That you could help make it so?” He didn’t doubt his own capacity to do the magic required, but if things were as bad as they seemed, it may be no simple matter to get there. To the tear itself.

He watched Cyrus a moment longer, before falling back away from the bars, onto his rear. He gestured to the gate of his cell. "Get rid of these bars, and maybe I'll believe you're real."

Cyrus shrugged, summoning an axe made of the Fade to his hand, swinging with both arms sideways into the lock on the bars. The first blow got him halfway through, and the second broke the lock off entirely. “Could it be any worse than languishing in there, waiting for the lyrium to eat you?” A motion banished the axe, and he slid the door to the cell open, stepping back to allow Vesryn the room to move through, should he so choose.

The elf jumped back in obvious fear, watching Cyrus break down the lock of the door, suddenly seeming to see them for the first time again. "You..." With one hand he pushed himself up along the wall, while the other rubbed his head, as though the revelation was too much for him. "You can undo this... you can send us back, fix everything?"

He stepped out of the cell, his legs a bit wobbly at first, but he soon got his balance, even if it was tentative. "I need a weapon. Sword, shield, anything."

"We killed some Venatori on our way here," Romulus said, gesturing back out into the hall. "You can use theirs."

"It'll do, even if I'm not half the warrior I used to be." He paused, grimacing, looking between Cyrus and Chryseis. "There are others. Asala's still alive, last I saw her. In a cell somewhere. Khari's alive, too. They... I think they like to torture us elves more. Her and Lia got the most of it. I can hear the screams from down here sometimes. I... haven't heard Lia scream in a while." If it was possible, his face had actually gotten more pale. "I suppose that's a good thing."

Romulus appeared disturbed, and of a murderous disposition. He seemed to be struggling to remember proper forms of address towards the two Tevinter mages with him. "We need to free them, domina. They can help us."

“If they can still stand, that is.” Chryseis had taken to watching the hallway from the cell block’s entrance. She glanced back at the other three. “Is my father still alive, Vesryn?”

"Of course he is. Good things never happen to us.” Despite the grim situation Chryseis actually cracked a smile, albeit a humorless one.

“It might be hard to see, but him being alive is the best thing that could possibly happen, for all of us.”

Cyrus snorted, but he didn’t offer his opinion on that. “We should find the others, then. If he’s around, he’ll have a great deal of men at his disposal—and we’ll need to hew through them.” Turning on his heel, he headed down the cell block, seeking any other familiar face.

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Listen here, you knife-eared bitch—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you tried to save her.”

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

His sister. His little star—they’d—

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

“Slowly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burning.

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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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
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Estella hit the ground hard, rolling several times before she came to a stop in just enough time to watch three people disappear into the rend in the air, both like and entirely unlike a rift, and though she was forced to cover her ears, she regained her feet as she did, such that by the time it stopped, she was standing again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Agreed?"

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Cyrus. We’re done now.”

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It was several hours after midnight when Cyrus finally tore himself from the nightmare, the first in a long time he’d not been able to shape to his own will as easily as he pleased. For once, it had seemed that for all his somniari capability, he had been utterly at the mercy of the Fade. But of course, the Fade was nothing more or less than he willed it to be, and so what he’d really been at the mercy of was his own fear, his own worry, and it laid him low. He woke with a gasp, his brow gleaming with sweat, his face wan and pale in the dim light of his tent, his chest heaving for breath, air skittering in and out of his lungs with great shudders. He groaned low in his throat, reaching both hands up and smoothing his hair out of his face and over his crown, trying to regain some sense of equilibrium as the adrenaline died down.

On the other side of the tent, Thalia was up, having rolled out of her cot and grabbed the knife that she slept beside. He looked at her with unfocused eyes, not sure what had her on the defensive, but then he sat up and noticed the fact that something had blown apart the chairs and several of the blankets in the tent, and pieces of fabric were still drifting, utterly shredded, to the ground. That was probably his fault.

The fact that he didn’t know for sure, that he might have done that while fighting his nightmare, was perhaps the most unnerving thing of all. That hadn’t happened to him since he was a boy—it was a sign that he’d lost control of his own magic. Admittedly, his hold on it had never been perfect, but most of the time, it was containable, stable enough that he could let himself sleep at least. Bile rose in the back of his throat, and he ran his hands down his face.

“What the fuck was that, shem?” Thalia’s tone was harsh, and he didn’t even blame her for it. She hadn’t exactly entered into their little deal expecting that he was an obvious health hazard to her. He only shook his head, swallowing thickly. Though it was cold in the tent, he was still sweating through his shirt, hunched forward in his cot and trying to contain what naturally desired to be free and unconstrained. He needed grounding, anchor. He needed—

“Estella.” The word was rasped, harsh, raw. “Bring Estella here.”

Thalia’s brow furrowed, but she evidently decided the errand was worth her time, because she sheathed the knife and nodded, wrapping a cloak around herself and stepping out of the tent and into the night. Probably she’d be waking his sister, if it was that dark out, but she’d come anyway. He knew she would. And right now, that was exactly what he needed. Cyrus threw his blanket off and swung his legs over the side of the cot. At first, he’d intended to try cleaning the mess, at least moving the largest chunks of debris away from the direct path to the entrance, but he found himself utterly without the energy or motivation to do so. Awakening had done nothing to aid his pallor, and despite his efforts to the contrary, his hair hung haphazardly on either side of his face, something only worsened by the fact that he was bowed over so far that his head was halfway to his knees.

It was several more minutes before Thalia returned, but when she did, Estella was in tow, and as soon as his sister took one look at the scene, she stepped swiftly in front of the elven woman and picked her way over splintered wood and torn wool to him, easing to her knees in front of where he sat so she could look into his face. Her own wore an expression of undisguised worry. “Cyrus? What’s wrong? What happened?” She placed a careful hand on his knee, searching his visage for the answer.

“You were dead.” His voice hardly sounded like his own, barely registering in his ears, even. “You were dead and I couldn’t save you.” In the future Cassius had sent them to, in the nightmare he’d just had, in all his darkest fears and imaginings. But those had never had this kind of weight to them before, this kind of possibility, even. Because it had always been obvious to him before that she would be all right. She had him—and he would give anything and everything he could get his grasping hands on to keep her safe. He’d always believed that would be enough. It had been enough, for a very long time. The things he’d done to protect her did not make him proud, but that he’d accomplished it did.

He’d decided quite early in his life that she was the only thing that mattered to him, besides himself. But even that comparison was ridiculous—she mattered so much more to him than he ever had. Ever would. Cyrus was useful and important for what he could do—things no one else could. Estella was important, and good, for who she was, and thus it had always been. “You can’t die, Stellulam. You can’t.”

She was the only thing he’d ever lived for.

“Cy,” she started, eyes bright in the dim illumination afforded by the tent. Her lips parted, as though there were something else she meant to add there, but in the end, she fell silent and instead rose, only so she could sit right beside him. Her arms wrapped around his middle from the side, and she pressed her forehead into his shoulder. “I’m not dead. You did save me. You pushed me out of the way of Cassius’s spell, remember?”

He did remember. It hadn’t even been a thought for him, only an instinct. He hadn’t planned it or calculated it or considered it. He’d simply acted, without knowing the consequences or pausing to inventory the reasons. As someone who thought carefully about everything he ever said or did, even when he let others think he was simply ruled by impulse, the power of that instinct was almost staggering. But he couldn’t bring himself to be wary of it. Cyrus turned himself in the cot so he could pull her into a closer hug, burying his face in her hair and shuddering. A strangled sound escaped him—a sob.

“Not in that world.” His voice cracked over the sentence, ragged and trembling. That world where she’d been tormented and experimented upon and burned on a pyre, and the whole time hoping, believing he would help her. He couldn’t stand the thought that in that world, she might have been waiting for him to appear even as she died, and then forgiving him when she realized he would not. The thought of failing her in such a way, in this time, was now backed by a reality he could not deny. He could no longer believe with his former certainty that he wouldn’t, and the weight of that doubt was crushing, like something had reached inside his ribcage and squeezed his heart until it was near to bursting. The idea that she would die was paralyzing by itself, that it might be because he’d failed her was a pain he had not the words to describe.

Estella sighed softly, one of her hands reaching up to run through his hair gently, combing through it with her fingers, and the other moved circles around his back, as she’d done fairly often when they were both yet little orphans scared and alone in the Chantry, before he was a Magister’s apprentice or she was a lay sister or a mercenary, before everything else, back when all they’d had to count on had been each other. When he was just a terrified little boy with dreams too big for him, and she a tiny girl who cried about everything and followed him everywhere like his shadow. A small sniffle gave away that he was not the only one having difficulty containing his emotions, but hers had always been soft and subtle in the expression.

She was steady, though, and let him shake and sob against her, breathing slowly and deliberately, leaning the side of her head against his where it was pressed to her neck and hair. “That world isn’t real anymore, Cyrus. You came back. You made sure that’s not the future.” From the way she said it, someone had told her at least some of the details, because what he’d said about it all didn’t seem to surprise her.

For many more minutes, she held him thus, while he attempted to center himself, to regain what he’d lost in the nightmare and in that future—his assurance, for one. It wasn’t ready to him this time, though, and he struggled even to pull the magic back within his own physical bounds, to reassert his control over it. Her reality, her solidity, these things helped, but it was no small task to stop the shaking, the emotional overflow. Eventually, his grip on her eased, and he matched his breathing to hers, remembering many nights in their childhood when things had been exactly the same. He let his eyes close, and eased into the soothing feel of her hands carding through his hair.

He imagined it was the sort of thing a mother might do, but Cyrus had never had a mother. He’d only ever had a sister.

It went both ways, but he admitted to himself that she more often saved him than he saved her. He worried, sometimes, that she didn’t need him at all, not the way he needed her. If she didn’t, then he was a burden to her, and he’d never desired to be that. Slowly, he drew himself back up to his natural height, straightening from the slump that had dropped him so easily onto the strength of her shoulders. His face was a mess, he knew, his eyes red-rimmed, his cheeks streaked with the tears he’d shed, and he looked at her like she had all the answers. She had, after all—at least the ones he couldn’t divine.

He swore to himself that the future he’d seen would never come to pass. He didn’t care what he had to do to guarantee it.

“Better?” Estella smiled softly up at him, her tone equally mild, reaching up to thumb away the liquid tracks that remained over his sharp cheekbones, her expression faltering when she felt over the hollows of his cheeks themselves. “You’re not eating enough,” she scolded gently. “I know you get busy and forget, Cyrus, but I worry about you.” She let her hands fall to his shoulders, giving a brief comforting squeeze, before she drew them back into her lap.

If he’d been in a better frame of mind, that would have coaxed a smile out of him. As it was, he couldn’t muster even a false one, which she’d have seen through anyway. You worry about me. I’m not the one taking all the risks here, Stellulam.” That future had only come about because of the mark on her hand. Because she couldn’t resist the temptation to do as much as she could. More than anything about his poor habits, that was a danger. And he’d been powerfully reminded of how high the stakes were. The only thing that had gotten him through that future was the knowledge that he could reverse the spell, and his anger at Cassius for casting it… and at himself. For the discovery of the magic had been in part his own work as well.

She sighed again, and shook her head. “Cyrus, don’t you think… don’t you think that maybe you should…” She was clearly struggling with what she wanted to say, and the look she was giving him was tentative, extremely so. Likely she suspected that whatever she was about to utter would not go over well. “It’s just… you care so much, and so deeply, and that’s not bad, it’s just… if something does happen to me, I don’t want… I don’t want you to have no one.” Her eyes softened. “You understand, don’t you? I love you, and I don’t want you to be alone. Even if…”

“Estella.” His voice was harder now, and perhaps because of that, more familiar to his own ears. He’d dropped the endearment, in part because he felt it necessary that she understand just how serious he was. “I don’t care about other people. It doesn’t matter to me how many of them are around or how many of them I know. If anything happens to you, I will be alone in the world.” That was the simple truth of the matter, and equally true was that he preferred things that way. She was right, in one sense—he did tend to feel deeply, whenever he felt at all. Sometimes, he hated how vulnerable his attachment to her made him. She was obviously a major weakness of his, and though she was far from the only one, she was much, much easier to spot than any of the others, because he could hide the weaknesses in his character. He could not hide her. This was a fact that had already been exploited more than once.

But he couldn’t help how he felt about his sister, and he didn’t want to. He knew he’d be a complete monster if he ever stopped caring about her, and he was cognizant enough to know he didn’t desire that. But nor did he desire to have yet more obvious weaknesses, quite independently of the fact that he believed he was incapable of caring about anyone else in the first place.

“That’s not fair,” she replied softly, pulling her legs up underneath her on the cot. They were essentially facing each other still, but her repositioning made it a bit more comfortable. “To anyone. Cy, you’re my brother, and I’ll never stop caring about you, but… I can’t be everything you have in the world. It’s unfair to you—you have so much to share with others, things that should be out there, carried by other people, known by someone who isn’t me.” She looked at him imploringly, worrying at her bottom lip between her teeth. “I’m better for knowing you, better for loving you and being close to you, but there’s no way I’m enough for you, not really.”

She took a pause, visibly steeling herself, before she continued. “And it’s not… it’s not fair to me, either.” Her eyes fell, and she swallowed thickly, audibly in the stillness. “I can’t… I can’t be the only one you care about. I can’t matter to you to the exclusion of all else. Don’t you know how heavy that is? How difficult it is? I’m not…” She didn’t seem to know how to finish the thought. “I’m not the person you think I am.”

He didn’t want to hear any of this. He wasn’t sure he could handle it, but that apparently wasn’t enough to stop her from saying it. The worst part was, he didn’t know how to respond. He really was a burden to her, and if anything had become clear, it was that she didn’t need him the way he needed her. The words hit him like he’d slammed into a stone wall at full sprint, and he was fairly sure the breath left his lungs in one fell swoop, leaving him deflated and sunken in on himself, stricken with something not unlike grief.

And then anger rose in the empty places grief had vacated—not at her, not as such—anger for the same things that had angered him before, after she’d risked her life against that Avvar brute. Anger at whatever part of her insisted she was inferior to anyone or anything. Somehow, it always came back to this. “You’re not the person you think you are, either.” He was surprised by the amount of venom in his own tone, and he gritted his teeth, struggling again to modulate himself, if for different reasons this time. It was a lot to process, some for reasons he didn’t truly understand, and he couldn’t help but feel a bit betrayed by the suddenness of it. All he wanted to do was keep her safe—what was so wrong about that?

“What… Estella, what do I have to do? I don’t understand.” He shook his head faintly, his strickenness clearly scrawled over his face. He had no idea where this was coming from, and no concept of how to make it right again. But more than anything, more even than his feeling of hurt and betrayal, there was what there’d always been: he loved her, and he trusted her to guide him, and there was nothing he could name that he would not do for her sake. If she needed something from him that he was not currently doing, then he would simply have to start doing it.

She looked troubled, and for a long moment, said nothing at all. In the end, though, she sighed. “I’m sorry, Cyrus. I didn’t mean to… to cause you pain. I just…” She was clearly uncomfortable now, unsure what to say, and she grimaced. “It’s not… I don’t know what to tell you, except… I think you should have friends. Other people to rely on and care about. Other people to talk to, to share yourself with. That’s all. I’ll still be your family, always, but—it’s okay for there to be other people you care about, too, right?”

He wasn’t so sure of that. Part of him thought this was a terrible idea, and bound to end poorly. Cyrus had never had friends in his life. They were unnecessary and exploitable, and much of his time had been spent trying to make himself stronger, not weaker, as exploitable weaknesses would make him. But she was asking it of him, and he’d never been able to deny her anything. It was with great reservation and some resentment that he at last forced himself to speak, reaching out with a sigh to fluff her hair with his hand. He couldn’t promise he would succeed in this, but perhaps that wasn’t the point. It certainly wasn’t for him.

“All right, Stellulam. I will try, for you.”

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Since waking from his nightmare the previous evening, Cyrus had dared not sleep again. It was one thing to know, intellectually, that what had come to pass in that future had been reversed. It was another entirely for the realization to have any weight. As of yet, it hadn’t settled properly, and what he felt more than anything else was the looming possibility of it. For as long as that was the case, he knew it wouldn’t be safe for him to do any dreaming. That fact alone rankled him—it was infuriating and frustrating and agonizing and unnatural. The Fade, he felt, was where he belonged more than he’d ever belonged anywhere else. Sans, perhaps, wherever Estella was.

But that, too, was not as simple as he’d believed it to be. She didn’t like the way he relied on her. Thought it was unfair. That had been a considerable shock to his system, and much as he hated to admit it, he might not have been able to sleep even if he’d wanted to, because that new knowledge would have kept him awake and restless. And now everyone was packing things away, getting ready to move the Inquisition out of Redcliffe, apparently something to do with the Arl wanting it back and the Fereldan King and other things that Cyrus didn’t care about.

And so while everyone else went about their business, he simply sat here, on an empty dock, feeling distinctly like a man frozen while everyone else moved about. Life went on, even when it felt like his had ground to a halt. It must have been ironic, that only now did he truly feel unmoored in time. He stared listlessly out over the water—Lake Calenhad. Named for a king with the blood of a dragon. One useless fact, just the kind of thing that his head was filled with. To the brim, to bursting. The same way his physical bounds were filled with magic, trying to claw its way out with him as conduit. Spirits and demons in his ear, all the time, the echoes audible even in the material world, because he was never wholly here.

He looked terrible, at least relative to himself: his cheeks were sunken, in part because he’d not eaten in… nearly two days, perhaps. He didn’t remember. It didn’t matter. There were livid bruises under his eyes, evidence of fatigue and sleeplessness. Even his clothing was a bit rumpled, seeming to hang looser in the absence of proper lacing and belting. Usually he only looked like this when he’d locked himself in his atelier in Minrathous, working frenetically on something near-incomprehensible to anyone else. But his eyes were alive then, with the light of discovery and vivid interest. This was nothing like that at all.

Light foosteps came up behind him, soft, but making no real attempt to remain hidden. The voice that spoke was quiet, and belonging to Chryseis Viridius. "If your intent is to remain alone until you starve to death, say the word and I'll depart. Though I seem to recall you mentioning a desire to catch up. The desire is mutual, if yours still remains." Though the words were perhaps a bit harsh, her tone was not as it usually was. There was little coyness to it at all.

It took him perhaps a beat too long to respond, but he did, turning away from the water for a moment to glance over and up at her, as she was indeed standing. He supposed he could have used the opportunity to slide back into the effortless demeanor he usually wore around other people, plaster a smile on his face and muster a gleam for his eye, but he elected not to bother, perhaps more than anything a sign of his fatigue. “On the contrary. If you’ve the patience for the inelegant setting, then I’d most welcome a return to things I actually understand.” His thoughts were circular and sinking and dark, and a distraction from them would be most welcome, though he still had the good sense not to phrase it quite like that, lest he offend.

Chryseis no longer wore her robes, those with her house colors, clearly identifying her as a magister of Tevinter. It was undoubtedly a wise-choice, in the environment that Redcliffe had fallen into in the Inquisition’s victory over Cassius. She was incapable of appearing entirely inelegant, but her garb was plain and unadorned, hooded robes that could’ve belonged to any mage fleeing the Circle and looking to cast off the old trappings.

She worked her way forward and sat down beside him, curling her legs up sideways underneath her and drawing her hood back slightly, enough to see him in her peripherals while she surveyed the water. “I wanted to thank you, first, for staying your hand after we returned. Perhaps my father deserved death for what he would have done, and perhaps he will still die. At least now the decision can be made with more distance, more perspective on the crime.” She tucked her hands into the ends of her sleeves, obviously not the most comfortable with the relative chill of the southern country.

“I expect his removal from the Magisterium will stir up a great many things back home. The Viridius name is becoming ever harder to lean on.”

The water itself was mostly smooth, almost glasslike, and mirrored the late-afternoon sunlight quite brightly, interrupted only by the occasional stir that the chill wind made as it passed over. He didn’t mind it much anymore, actually. Only half-aware that he was doing it, Cyrus raised a hand up to his sternum, sliding his hand beneath one side of the loose v-neck of his shirt and rubbing at the spot with his fingers. He swore it ached, but only sometimes.

He couldn’t really muster much sympathy for Cassius, but there had been a time when things were different. It wasn’t nothing, to take in a child from a Laetan family like the Avenarius one—it was a risk, and a big one, considering all the Altus houses who would have almost killed to have their children apprenticed to Magister Viridius, back then. Rightly so, really; for all his faults, Cassius was a brilliant mind. Sometimes, especially as he aged, his magic had been outstripped by his theoretical comprehension, but that had been exactly what Cyrus was for. Even then… to open a rend in time was something very few could have accomplished, at any age.

“Your father was a gambler.” That was what he said at last—true, and by far one of the kinder things he could have said. The past tense didn’t have any special significance. There just wasn’t much decision-making to do when one was a prisoner of war. “Sometimes it paid off. This time, it bankrupted him.” He pressed his lips together in a thin line.

I did what I did so that House Viridius would weather history. So that we would survive.

Cyrus knew he would be a hypocrite if he took issue with the motive. He himself acted in much the same way, for an even narrower reason than the survival of a family. House Avenarius was essentially dust now. His grandparents were dead, his mother long thus, and his father… his father was another matter altogether, one he would certainly not be discussing with Chryseis.

He wondered if he would have allied with this Elder One, in the same way, if he’d believed it was the path necessary to protect what he held dear. The answer was obvious. The only difference was probably that Cyrus would not have believed it necessary. He would have thought his own strength enough. Hadn’t he labored for so many years to make certain that it was?

“But you don’t have to lean on it, Chryseis. You’re smart enough to figure out how to strengthen it again, even if everyone else does think you’re an irredeemable idealist.” It was almost funny, that he should use that term for her, when he might be the only person of a similar background who was actually worse, in that respect.

She laughed softly, looking down a moment. "We'll see, I suppose. My power and intelligence may corrupt me yet. I find myself quite lacking in good influences these days." Her tone was at least half serious, even if the words were delivered lightly. She fell silent for a time, clearly thinking on something, while she studied the gentle lapping of the water beyond the edge of the dock.

"Do you ever regret leaving?" she asked. "I'd always assumed you'd simply had enough of the whole charade. There were a great many opportunities awaiting you, though. The Magisterium, your lessers begging for your approval, the Archon's granddaughter... or so I heard." She let the last part linger a bit, her eyes having shifted from the water to peer sideways at him. "You could have gone as high as you wished."

Ah, that particular question was one he expected had lingered for quite some time after his departure. He’d almost intended for it to—there was part of him that almost couldn’t bear the thought of being forgotten entirely. Better to leave a little mystery behind when he departed. But the truth was at once simpler and more complex than simply growing tired of it. He had, of course. But if he’d thought it would serve his ends to do so, he would have remained anyway.

Cyrus shook his head. “Even Tevinter’s heights are bounded by a ceiling.” That was the thing—there was a structure there already. A way to do things. One had to work within the bounds, no matter how gifted one was, or how radical one’s ideas. Everyone in Tevinter was slave to the system itself, even those who did not see it. “If I want to see how high I can go, I can’t remain indoors.”

A lack of ambition or daring had never numbered among his flaws.

"But what is there to gain, from running, being alone? Knowledge only becomes power when it's put into effect. What have you been searching for out here?" By her tone, she was more invested in the answer than mere curiosity would warrant. "Not this Inquisition, I would think. You're here purely for Estella, are you not?"

He nodded. The only reason he remained with the Inquisition was because Estella was here. But of course, he had not left two years ago merely seeking his sister’s location—indeed, he’d not thought he’d need to be in her proximity at all, at least not for a while yet. He was glad he was, because that impression had clearly been mistaken, considering how much danger she was in, but Chryseis wasn’t wrong. He had been searching for something, something that could not be found in only one place.

“I haven’t been running. At least, not away from anything. I’m…” He paused; his eyes fell half-lidded, his focus shifting so that he looked at something far away. “I needed some answers. This was the way to find them.” Perhaps he yet would.

Chryseis pushed a few strands of blonde hair from her face and sighed lightly, apparently deciding that she was not going to be able to pry any more from Cyrus on the subject, which she was right about. She fell silent for a long time once more, perhaps debating whether or not to press forward with a subject. She seemed lost in a memory, and remained so when she spoke again.

"You'll remember that I was a married woman once. A dark time for my father, no doubt. He always did hate Pyrrhus." The words were spoken with a sort of pride, or perhaps just amusement, in a rather dark way. She seemed to have taken herself to a fairly dark place in general. "You'll also remember that I was widowed a year later. I did not emerge from my manor for almost two weeks. Grieving, it was assumed." She searched for Cyrus's eyes.

"Do you remember how Pyrrhus died?"

His brow furrowed, but Cyrus nodded, maintaining eye contact. She didn’t speak of this often, much less to him of all people. He wondered why she was choosing now to do so. It was hardly a topic of contemporary change—she’d been married when he was still a teenager, all the way back in his days of awkward adolescent fumbling. “I understood it to be the Qunari. Near Seheron, yes?” He kept his tone even, neutral. Whyever they were treading this ground, he assumed it had relevance. He also knew, however, that Chryseis had taken Pyrrhus’s death quite hard. Arguably, she hadn’t been emotionally available since, not that he’d kept tabs on that or anything. Cassius had, though, and occasionally dropped unsubtle hints to him about it.

"Yes," she said, heavily. "He was not a memorable man, not to my father, likely not to you, and certainly not to the Magisterium. His magical talent was middling at best. But he was a rare man... a good man. He meant the world to me." The words seemed to threaten taking her happier memories, and she clearly forced them aside.

"When he died, and left me alone... I spent considerable resources to arrange for the discreet transfer of a group of Qunari prisoners of war. I had them placed in my cellar. It was an expansive room, but still a tight fit for twenty of them. They were seafaring warriors, all of them, and I knew that there was a slim, slim chance that one of them had butchered my husband." She curled up her lip, a clear expression of hatred.

"My weeks of grief were spent tormenting them in every conceivable way. Together, my blade and I learned to inflict an exquisite variety of agony upon them. He was a natural with a knife, and I a burgeoning expert in the things that can be done with Qunari blood. It made me feel no less destroyed, no less like my world had ended, but it was what I felt needed to be done at the time. They deserved a swifter death than what we gave them. But I always felt I deserved at least some small measure of happiness. As it turns out, people rarely get what they deserve."

The relaying of the information seemed to have shaken her quite deeply; it was highly likely that neither she nor Romulus had ever spoken of this particular event before. She looked to be fighting a trembling in her hands, and steadily losing.

"Sometimes, when our world ends, we do not end with it. We merely become twisted by it, and carry on." She looked about to say something else, but then thought better of it, and shook her head, standing, and speaking with more confidence as she turned to leave.

"Farewell, Cyrus. I wish you luck with your search. And please, do remember to eat once in a while. You look dreadful."

Something dark passed, over his face for a moment, like a shadow behind his eyes, but it swiftly cleared. When he spoke, it was somberly, and distinctly measured. “Farewell, Chryseis. And good luck.” To have any hope of recovering her standing, let alone advancing, she would need it.

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Vesryn stepped away from the drilling Inquisition soldiers, removing his helmet and allowing his impressive mane of silvery hair to fall down his back. He'd worked a sheen of sweat up in the effort of drilling a few individuals among the group. His skills were well utilized in testing and improving the upper tier of soldiers, weeding out those that had hit their ceiling, skill-wise, and finding those that truly had some potential. As always, he trained as he fought, and wore his full plate.

The suit was not unlike a second skin at this point. He knew every facet of its weight and shape, how much it would restrain his movement, how much of an attack it would stop. He knew the effect it carried as well. A champion did not allow gear to become worn down, rusted, and shoddy. He presented the most splendorous image possible, to be deserving of awe, and inspiring of victory. Not everyone had the temperament for it, nor the resolve. A champion received just as much ire as they did affection, and it had to be endured. For the champion falling was as crushing to morale as it was uplifting to see him stand.

He came to a stop just outside the stone wall that encircled the lowest level of Haven's houses, beside the gate, and accepted a water skin from one of the serving boys, tipping his head back and savoring the icy coolness of it. It was a benefit of making a home base in such a cold location, he supposed. Swishing the water before swallowing, he handed the skin back to the boy, who ran off to attend to others.

Planting the haft of his large practice axe into the snow, Vesryn leaned upon it, and surveyed the drilling soldiers with a practiced eye, evaluating from afar. It was not long, however, before he noticed an approaching pair of familiar faces: the Avenarius twins.

Cyrus, as ever, walked with a distinct sense of purpose, his stride long and his carriage upright. Estella had to hasten to keep up, taking a stride and a half for every one of his. They appeared to be having an argument of some kind, from the looks on their faces, though it wasn’t a particularly vehement one. Whatever it was, it ended with Cyrus sighing deeply and shaking his head just as they came within range of Vesryn’s hearing. “As you wish, then, Stellulam. I shall simply inquire, for now.”

He turned his attention forward, and if it weren’t obvious before, it swiftly became evident that it was Vesryn they had come seeking, for they made a beeline directly for him, angling to avoid approaching the drills too closely, though Estella's step hitched slightly as she seemed to want to pause and observe. Cyrus wore the expression that seemed easiest to his face—something pleasant enough, but with touches of sharp slyness that prevented it from being entirely mild. His eyes narrowed in keen interest as they approached, head tilted slightly to the left in a piece of body language common to both of them.

He opened his mouth to speak, but paused slightly, furrowing his brows as if recalling something. “Good afternoon, Vesryn,” was what he settled on, but it was clear he wasn’t keen on lingering over the pleasantries. “If you’ve a moment, I’ve a question for you.”

Behind him, Estella grimaced slightly.

Vesryn regarded him evenly, eyes moving between he and his sister as they approached. Estella seemed a bit unsure, or perhaps apprehensive about something, but then, this was not a new expression for her. Cyrus was less so, though he was getting the sense that the man was restraining himself from something. Nevertheless, Vesryn smiled in an amiable manner, turning away from the drills to give them his full attention.

It was extremely tempting to offer a smart-ass response and answer a question of his choosing before Cyrus had even asked, but he got the sense there was some amount of business to this meeting. "I'm all ears. Ask away."

Cyrus smiled, edged like a shard of ice, and just as mirthless. “Your guest.” He tapped the side of his head. “Saraya. What is she, exactly?”

Any trace of Vesryn's previously friendly demeanor vanished in an instant, his features instead settling into hard lines, questioning. The way he immediately tensed was obvious. Not only did he know of her, but he knew her name? How could he know that?

His own alarm was only coupled with Saraya's, who was inclined to regard Cyrus as a direct, immediate threat, something Vesryn was close to agreeing with. It was the smile, the unshakable confidence, and the certainty in the way the question was asked. He didn't respond, instead finding Estella's eyes, and hoping for some kind of sign that he shouldn't be threatened by all of this. Saraya felt much the same. While Estella was still something of an unknown entity to her, she did not radiate threat in the same way she felt from Cyrus.

“It’s all right,” Estella said, almost as soon as his eyes landed on her. She stepped up beside her brother, throwing him a look best classed as cross, then shook her head and returned her attention to Vesryn. “We don’t mean her, or you, any harm. Apparently, the version of yourself that was in the future Cyrus and the others traveled to didn’t feel the need to hide her presence.” Something in her eyes softened slightly, and when she continued, her tone was less urgent.

“Perhaps, in time, you will feel the same. We’re certainly not demanding anything of you—I’m fairly sure my brother is only curious. If you don’t want to talk about her, you need not, and we will keep this to ourselves.” The last, at least, was firm, and she glanced at Cyrus from the corner of her eye, as if prompting him.

Cyrus didn’t exactly look chastised, but with some obvious reluctance, he nodded. “Yes, yes, you’ve no need to worry that I’ll go shouting it from the rooftops. The Chantry types would all misunderstand anyway, something about possession or the like. I’m not interested in having you both killed by some zealot, of that you can be reasonably sure.” He paused, then huffed. “And of course, even explaining is optional, though I don’t see what harm it could do. I’m a scholar, not a Templar.” He didn’t appear perturbed by the situation at all, though it was hard to imagine he’d missed Vesryn’s sudden wariness.

"I hope you told future me that he's a moron," Vesryn grumbled, scratching at the back of his head. He'd heard only bits and pieces about what had happened to Cyrus, Romulus, and the magister woman upon being spellcasted out of existence for a few moments, and most of that was hearsay. He hadn't even known he was in the future with them, let alone that he'd gone ahead and told them about Saraya. A magister, and a man who surely would have been one.

Saraya's disposition towards Cyrus after his comments was one that could've been described as "willing to spit on him." In that particular moment, Vesryn felt much the same way. "Tevinter mages needed no templars to drive my people to the brink of ruin. Considering what we just went up against in Redcliffe, I'd say that not so much is different in this Age." Cyrus might've opposed Cassius, but from where Vesryn stood, the two were merely a half-step apart from each other. Undoubtedly Estella occupied the space in between.

He sighed. If he was to remain with the Inquisition, this would now need to come out. He probably could tell them to simply turn around and forget this brief conversation ever happened, but would Cyrus stand to let him fight alongside his sister, if he were unwilling to explain what it was that gave him power? If he didn't trust them? He didn't trust Cyrus, not in the slightest, but from what he had seen, the man was at the mercy of Estella's will, a will that was almost always mercy. And he trusted that.

"When I was eighteen, I fled Denerim and my shoddy arranged marriage. I took some friends and bolted into the Brecilian Forest. We didn't prepare for the dangers of the forest, because we were idiots." Giant, walking, angry trees, and equally large spiders were the things that ultimately sent them running for their lives. "I was separated, and fled into an old ruin. When I felt a thirst, like a fool I drank from a pedestal, and the crystal clean water contained within."

He shrugged, palms up, as though the rest should simply be obvious. In truth, that was about all he understood completely. Ancient elven magic was not something he understood the inner workings of. He could recognize it, through Saraya's recognition of it, but he was no mage, and that was something his passenger could not teach him.

"The water caused me to begin hearing things, one of these being a vial. Only after I grabbed it did I realize that it contained the remnant of an elven woman, preserved magically through the ages from a time when my people were still great. She... travels with me, now."

Cyrus’s expression shifted; now he simply looked thoughtful, his brows furrowed and his mouth set into a slight frown, any trace of guile apparently replaced by contemplation. “Water? A most peculiar medium.” His fingers twitched, like he’d rather be doing something with them, but he remained where he was. “Definitely not a spirit, then, in the sense that the word is usually understood. Certainly not a demon…” He trailed off before seeming to return to himself sharply, his murmur strengthening to proper speaking volume.

“What is the extent of your ability to communicate with her? Is it a direct mind-link—that is, can you ‘hear’ her thoughts, or anything like that?”

He'd never really needed to describe it to many people before. The Stormbreakers had never known, nor had they any members with the insight needed to ask questions that he couldn't avoid. In fact, it seemed that it was only himself that could give away this secret, as he'd done in the future. His mouth hung open for a moment, while he searched out the correct words.

"I... feel, what she feels. She cannot speak to me, not in words, but emotions come through clearly enough. I expect it has something to do with the fact that I'm not a mage. Some ritual would've been required as well, to properly transfer her into a body." Saraya's assent was enough to confirm that, but over the years Vesryn had been able to deduce that her state of suspension had been performed upon her, not a choice she'd made herself. Likely a mage with far more power and knowledge than even she had done this to her, and Saraya had been left with little choice in the matter.

"Instincts, too, I feel those as well, reactionary impulses. I learned a long time ago how to separate my own thoughts from hers, but if we both allow it, her instincts can become my own. She taught me everything I know, through repeating the motions until they were more or less my own." Not entirely so, of course, as he was painfully reminded whenever Saraya saw fit to demonstrate how far he yet had to go. Vesryn grimaced.

"She doesn't like you, not in the slightest. She doesn't like many people, though. We're different in that respect."

Cyrus laughed at that, if only for a moment, then shook his head. “Most people don’t.” He shrugged, nonplussed by it, and hummed thoughtfully. “That does explain a great deal, yes. For a moment, I’d thought… but no, never mind.” Whatever thought he’d been about to express was discarded, apparently not judged worth the effort. “What is done can usually be undone, especially if the ritual wasn’t properly completed. Were I you… well, in any case I’m sure you’ve already figured out that it’s a good idea to avoid magic that affects the mind. I’ve no idea how stable her tether to you is, though with some time, I might be able to find out, if you cared to know.”

His continued interest was evident enough, but if he had more questions or further thoughts, he kept them to himself.

Mental afflictions of the magical variety, as Cyrus had mentioned, were already something Vesryn looked to avoid, though in his line of work, it was not always easy. Still, he didn't come up against those sorts of mages all that often.

"I'm curious, I'll admit... in the future that you visited, what caused me to be so careless with knowledge regarding Saraya?"

“That’s…” Estella broke in, interrupting whatever her brother’s answer may have been. She looked uncomfortable, and pursed her lips. “As I understand… in that future, you were captured by people working against us. They found out about Saraya somehow and tried to… get her out.” She grimaced. “I very much doubt it had anything to do with carelessness on your part. Some Magisters, and those that do their bidding…” She let the thought trail off, apparently deciding it did not need to be explicitly finished.

“I am certain you can infer the rest.” Any trace of amusement had abandoned Cyrus.

"Ah. Well then." Vesryn found himself regretting he'd asked, but also a bit... vindicated, perhaps. He'd always suspected there were many ways that could lead to separation between himself and Saraya, and had always assumed that most would ultimately lead to Saraya's death, if there was not a proper way prepared to contain her. It was something he could never wish upon her. When she was released from his mind, it would be of her choosing, and it would be followed by death, and peace. They had long since agreed it to be so.

"As long as you consider, as I do, anyone desiring Saraya's removal to be an enemy, then I believe we can continue to work together." The thought of leaving if they felt otherwise was not pleasant, but Vesryn would do it, if it meant Saraya's safety. That, above all, was his concern. "I don't know if you can understand, but at this point... losing her would be losing a part of me. The parts I consider most worthwhile, actually."

“Mm.” It was hard to interpret Cyrus’s reply as particularly committal, but he looked thoughtful again, rather than quite so glib as he had before. “Considering how few people would even know to seek her, that’s a rather minimal obligation in exchange for considerable assistance, but I’m not the one who can decide upon it.”

“But I can.” Estella said it with a solidity uncommon to her voice, meeting Vesryn’s eyes and nodding slightly. “And I do. As long as you want to be here, you’re welcome to stay. Both of you.” From the way her jaw was set, she really meant it, too.

"Well," Vesryn said, smiling, though still a bit uncomfortable, "that's that, then."

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Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius
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Cyrus had to admit, he wasn’t sure how he felt about this.

Normally, when he met new people, he didn’t give a damn what they thought of him, and so he felt free to just say or do whatever he liked, regardless of accepted courtesy or social norms about behavior. But that was because he also didn’t really care about people in general. It was easy to disregard what someone thought of you if they didn’t matter to you, and he’d learned early in life that cultivating genuine apathy was an excellent way to survive. It was now almost universal, and when he’d been in Tevinter, that had served him extremely well.

And yet. It had left him in a rather unfortunate position now. Because he did care, to a certain extent, what these people would think of him, because his sister cared about them, and they about her. He wasn’t such an utter cad that he couldn’t see that, and couldn’t understand that it was significant, that they were real components to her happiness, and that being around them had changed her, in ways he was still struggling to fully understand. So… there was a point to which he desired that they should like him, as well—that he should not leave a bad impression upon them as he did with almost everyone eventually.

He did not know how to guarantee that. He didn’t know how to make people like him. He could wear any number of pleasant or charming false faces, but he didn’t know how to be himself in a way that was even remotely similar to any of those.

It occurred to Cyrus that, outside of a few very specific contexts, he might not even know who he really was, at all.

The thought left him disgruntled and uncomfortable, and he doubted very much that such a question could be answered on the rest of the way to the tavern, where they were supposedly meeting four members of the Argent Lions for dinner, which meant he was going into this quite unprepared, which was exactly the opposite of how he preferred to tackle new problems. Still, he walked willingly enough alongside Estella, though admittedly he might only have been actually moving because she was tugging him forward by the elbow.

“You’re thinking so loud I can almost hear you,” Estella said from her spot beside him and several inches down. She turned her face up to meet his eyes, and hers seemed a bit more amused than anything. “And you’re tense as a lyre-string. They don’t bite, Cy. Just… don’t be…” She trailed off, her brows furrowing. “You know how when we talked to Vesryn and you were kind of a bit threatening, or, um… smug? Just don’t do that. People don’t like that.” She patted his bicep with her free hand, the one with the mark on it, and steered him around to the front door of the tavern. He grimaced. Cyrus didn't remember being particularly smug at any point... this might be more difficult than he'd anticipated.

A swirl of warm air escaped when she pulled the door open so they could enter, knocking her boots on the half-step up to clear them of the worst of the snow before she let go of his arm and led the way inside. The tavern had a homey feel to it, most of it bathed in honey-gold firelight. A few of the tables were occupied, but none by any party so noticeable as the one at the center of the room, set up at one of the longer tables. Presently, there were four seated there, with room for two more.

Of those present, there were two elves, one human, and a Qunari. The last took up the most space, but no more than someone of his dimensions naturally required, in any case. Unlike a large number of the Qun’s runaways, he still painted his face and neck with vitaar, the patterns predominantly triangular, the red paint a sharp contrast with the steely grey of his skin and the dark gold of his eyes. His horns swept back from his head, ending some inches behind his crown, tipped upwards in an almost-graceful arc. The human man was stocky rather than tall, perhaps only two or three inches taller than Estella. His blond hair bore evidence of a fresh cut, recently shaved on either side. The rest was short as well, but not as much so. His back was to the door, so apart from that, it was hard to tell much about him.

The elves were a study in contrast, in some respects. The first was a dark-haired man, nearing six feet in height, with the build of a warrior, but a bit of a roguish charisma about him. He had extremely relaxed, almost lackadaisical body language, and was barefaced in the typical manner of elves from the city. The other, Cyrus had actually met, in the Fallow Mire. When not miserably wet, Lia was blonde, and the dark green vallaslin on her face were more evident.

Estella slid into the seat next to her with an easiness that was not especially like her, a sure sign of her comfort and familiarity with them. That left the seat next to the Qunari open for Cyrus, who took it after a moment's hesitation.

“Enjoying the night off, everyone?” Estella inquired, settling her cloak over the back of her chair.

“It’s about damn time for one,” the blond man replied, his tone a bit petulant. “The new corporals are helping, but Commander Leon runs these people almost as hard as Commander Lucien runs us, and I think it might actually be harder when we have to lead the drills instead of just doing them.”

“Yes, woe is us,” the elven man replied, clearly sarcastically, but mildly so. “At least we’re not running all about Thedas closing rifts in the Fade. They saved all that headache for our dear Estella.” He raised a brow, shifting slightly to regard Cyrus. “Who seems to have finally brought us her infamous brother. We’ve heard a great deal about you, Cyrus. Mostly good things.” He grinned, tossing his head to clear some wayward strands of hair out of the way of his jade-colored eyes.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Estella replied, with a prim tone that was clearly put-on, because she was smiling, too. “But yes. Everyone, this is my brother, Cyrus. Cy, these are the Argent Lions. Well, some of them anyway. That’s Cor—” she indicated the male elf—“And Donnelly, who was in Redcliffe with us. Hissrad’s the one with the vitaar, and you’ve also met Lia, who’s serving as the Inquisition’s lead scout right now, though she was one of us first.”

Well, they were certainly a motley lot, weren’t they? Cyrus had admittedly had little cause to meet any sellswords over the course of his life—the closest person he knew to any degree at all was Thalia, and she would have sneered at him for describing her so. This bunch, though… they didn’t really seem to fit the things he’d commonly been told about mercenaries. For one, there supposedly weren’t a lot of elite companies who employed nonhumans; a few probably had elves or dwarves, but a Qunari? That was quite unexpected. They were also a great deal more… sober, than he’d anticipated, in more than one sense of the term. There was no mistaking that they could employ humor and the like, as evinced by the one called Cor, but not a one of them was either slovenly or drunk despite the hour, and indeed they also seemed to lack the hardscrabble sort of appearance he’d espied in a few roadside bars on his travels. Perhaps that was only a factor of their comparative youth, or the fact that they were regularly employed, he didn’t know enough to say.

He was slightly unnerved to realize that she’d already spoken of him to them, but he wasn’t sure why he hadn’t expected that. She’d known these individuals for years; for most people, that was plenty of time to talk at least to some degree about one’s history and personal life. Even more than before, however, he felt disarmed. Estella hadn’t told him much of them. Perhaps because he’d never thought to ask her. Refusing to let his discomfort become apparent, Cyrus smiled at the four of them, inclining himself at the waist in a quasi-bow, made a bit less serious by the fact that he was sitting.

“Perhaps I’d best not add anything to the account, then. Stellulam does tend to see the best in people, and if what you know about me is mostly good, I think I could only do worse, speaking for myself.” While delivered with the light inflection of a jest, there was nothing false about his statements. He figured that was probably the best he could do—tell something like the truth where he could, but keep things amusing. He at least knew he could be good for wit; everything else was much more questionable.

Cor and Lia grinned at that, while Donnelly outright laughed. Even the stoic-looking Qunari cracked a smile, and it was he who spoke. “I think that is true of most of us,” he replied, but anything further was interrupted by the arrival of a round of drinks and some food, which it was a fair guess the Lions had ordered in advance. It seemed they preferred to dine in the manner of many a larger group—rather than everyone ordering for themselves, there was simply a large number of dishes for everyone to take from as they chose. It would seem that Hissrad was in charge of the purse strings, because he removed a small satchel from his belt and tossed it casually to the barkeep, who snatched it out of the air with a grin.

“Always a pleasure doing business with you lot,” she said, and made her way back over to the bar.

“Really, though, Cyrus, do tell us a little bit about yourself,” Cor ventured, moving what seemed to be the leg of a pheasant over to his plate, along with a heaping portion of some steamed vegetable slathered in melted cheese. “Stel mentioned you were a mage?”

That was a bit of an understatement, now wasn’t it? Cyrus glanced across the table at his sister, but he knew he should probably field the implied question himself. But really, what was he supposed to say to that? ‘Why yes, in fact, I’m exactly the kind of mage that everyone else in the world hates and fears most.’ He was supposed to be leaving a good impression on these people, wasn’t he?

“I am.” His response was cautious, almost circumspect. He doubted they had much of a problem with mages as such, for by now they had to know that Estella was one as well, but… a mage and a magister’s apprentice were very different things. “What I practice is… in the south, I suppose the closest thing would be a Knight-Enchanter. The basic principle is the same, anyway, though I’ve never had any affiliation with a Chantry or anything as such.” Feeling that he’d probably said enough about that for the time being, he turned the question around.

“But what about all of you? I suspect you know more of me than I could get through in a sitting, considering how well you know my sister. It seems unfair, I confess.” He let his smile inch wider, arching a brow as if to invite any of them to comment. Given that he was no longer immediately expected to speak, he went about the process of securing his own dinner as well, having politely waited for the Lions to do the same first.

Estella smiled back at him, as though he’d done something she was quite happy about, but she kept quiet, allowing her friends to answer the question on their own terms. Donnelly, having just swallowed, took up the query first. “Not particularly interesting, myself,” he said with a shrug. “My parents are farmers from Ostwick, in the Free Marches. I joined up with the Lions during the initial round of recruiting, on a visit to Kirkwall. Mum was ripshit pissed, but dad never had a problem with it.” He lifted his tankard and took a draught before he finished. “Right now, I do a lot of the groundwork for the Inquisition, once we’ve pushed into a place. I can relate to what the locals have to deal with, and I’m not bad with cartography and topography, so I draw a lot of maps when I’m not busy swinging a sword at things.”

Cor snorted. “I joined up when Donny there did. Difference was, I got to Kirkwall on a slave ship, bound for Tevinter. Just so happened a bunch of nutty folks raided the thing and let all of us go when it docked near Kirkwall. One of them let my mother, sister and I live in his spare room in Lowtown. Turns out he was a prince the whole time.” He clearly derived some considerable amusement from telling the story. “Not that you’d guess just from meeting him. He’s good like that.” Though his body language conveyed ease and lightness, it was clear that he took the last statement at least quite seriously.

“I did not join until the Lions had already moved to Orlais,” Hissrad put in, pausing in his tactical assault of a heaping plate of steaming food. He sat back slightly in his chair, causing the wood to creak softly, though it didn’t seem to be in any danger of failing to support his weight. “By that time, I had already left the fighting on Seheron. But fighting is what I know, and the Lions provided a place for me to do that in a way that satisfied my desire to serve a cause greater than my own gain. Also, the wage is very good.” His aureate eyes held a hint of mirth.

“His joining test was to fight one of the corporals,” Donnelly put in. “Could have picked any of us, and he went with Stel.”

“She looked least sure,” Hissrad defended. “A company who promoted a corporal without giving her a measure of esteem for her own aptitude was not one I thought I wanted to be part of.”

“Yeah,” Cor parried, “but then you actually fought her and asked to be in her squad, remember?” Hissrad had no reply for that, and had the grace to look slightly chastened, shrugging as if to brush off the matter. That left only one Lion.

“And what of you, Lia?"

"Kirkwall born and bred," the elf answered, before gesturing up to her face. "Don't let the tattoo fool you. I'm a quarter Dalish, at most. Grew up in the alienage. Kirkwall was... not a stable place then. Had my fair share of troubles growing up, but I had my fair share of friends, too." Both of those statements seemed to have quite a bit of weight for her. It was likely she was trivializing it for the sake of not being dramatic, given the casual setting.

"I was too young for mercenary work when the Lions came to town, but I signed up as soon as I was able. I'd gotten some good training before, and started doing scout work once the commander thought I was ready." She looked thoughtful for a moment.

"D'you think this'll be over soon, by any chance? With the mages from Redcliffe on our side, we should be able to make a move on the Breach, right?"

It was the question, wasn’t it? If all the Inquisition had to do was close the Breach, then they should be ready for it no sooner than the mages arrived and he came up with some way to use all that magic to assist Stellulam and Romulus in actually getting the thing closed. Simply hurling magic at it would not do, of course, but Cyrus was fairly confident he could figure out what needed to be done, and that the number of mages they were getting would be sufficient to do it. He’d be certain if he had any idea what had caused the thing in the first place, but unfortunately that was information that no one had, despite the way the Spymaster’s agents probed after the information like ferrets.

Cyrus circled the mouth of his tankard with a finger. There was a slight ding on one part, doubtless where someone had dropped it, or used it to hit something, but because he was left-handed anyway, it was on the far side. “One part of it will be.” He made the assertion with some reserve, not because he doubted the veracity of it, but because he didn’t think the part in question was enough. “Supposing we are successful in closing the Breach, the immediate threat posed by it will be eliminated. But doing that still leaves many questions. How was it caused? Who was responsible? Could they do it again? How might they react to our interference? The answers to those items might well mean much more work. Though whether that work will be the Inquisition’s or not is another matter.” He smiled slightly, the expression somehow both easy and grim.

He’d seen a future, after all. It seemed unlikely that the Elder One vanished simply because the Breach closed. And if not… what they would achieve by their work thus far might be nothing more than a bandage on a mortal wound—an effective method of slowing death, but far from anything resembling true salvation.

He suspected he’d made things too serious, now. Perhaps he should have answered with more flippancy?

Lia didn't seem to take the news too harshly, at any rate. "Well, this has been a learning experience, to be sure, but I'm looking forward to getting back to the other Lions, whenever it happens. Less world-saving, better pay."

“Hear, hear,” Donnelly replied, and Hissrad nodded. Cor shrugged, looking decidedly less certain.

“I don’t know. I kind of enjoy this whole ‘saving the world’ thing. Feels important.” It was hard to tell for certain how much of that was truth and how much of it was humor, but a fair guess would have been that it had elements of both. “I do miss court, though, a little bit. Court’s fun.”

Estella snorted. “For you, maybe.” There was a point where the rest were silent for a beat too long, and Donnelly even flinched, but almost as one, they relaxed again. It was almost as though they’d been anticipating something that did not, in fact, occur, and Cor shook his head. Cyrus's eyes narrowed fractionally, but he did not comment.

“What can I say? Nobles love me. I bet Cyrus understands, don’t you, Cyrus?” The elven youth raised a brow, taking a draught from his tankard.

He shrugged. He could understand why Cor thought that way—probably he’d never been to court before his work with the Lions, and probably he was now viewed as an extremely interesting oddity, in part for his race and in part for his profession and closeness to a prince. If one navigated a situation like that properly, there was a lot of gain to be made and a lot of fun to be had doing so. “I hate to say it, but the pretense does eventually wear thin. Or at least, it has for me. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to recommend it, depending on one’s interests.”

“See? Definitely not all bad.” Cor tipped his chair back with a foot, balancing on the back legs of it and pulling his tankard down to a knee. “Now, I’m pretty sure this is the part where you tell us embarrassing stories about what Stel was like as a kid, and we trade you for embarrassing stories about what she’s been like for the last six years.” Donnelly snickered, and Hissrad appeared to be trying to hide a smile.

Estella herself frowned, clearly not fond of the idea. “How about we don’t do that, and say we did? Or just not say anything about it at all?”

“On the contrary, that sounds like a marvelous suggestion.” Cyrus was all mischief now. If Stellulam was going to insist that he make friends, he was going to do so in whatever way most amused him, and right now a little bit of petty vengeance seemed like the perfect thing. “I like the way you think. Now, when Stellulam and I were six…”

Setting

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Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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The rift was a stark contrast to the greyed-out blue of the lake, a vivid green that seemed almost too bright for the world around it. Of course, it would look brighter to him than to most, for various reasons, but he was still quite certain that it would stand out even to the most mundane of individuals. Cyrus watched the alien oscillation of its component crystal shards with an expression best classed as rapt curiosity, edged with something that might almost be called hunger.

This particular rift had opened over the frozen lake just outside of Haven about ten minutes ago. He’d felt it, like a ripple in the Fade, and had immediately sought Estella and hurried down to the spot. At some point or another, Vesryn and Asala had joined as well, which had proven most useful in expunging the demons that had issued from within, but for the moment, the rift was idle, though it looked to be working up to vomit another round of the useless things. Cyrus hated demons—more than most. Their very presence made him feel ill, twisted inside, like whatever little good there was in him was becoming warped. They also never shut up around him, which had been true since he was but a boy.

He ran his tongue along his bottom lip unconsciously. If he could feel it that way, it was magic like anything else, and all that he had to do, in theory, was defeat it with stronger magic. He did not believe anything could truly repair the rift save the marks on the hands of his sister and Romulus, but that did not eliminate the possibility that they could be rendered inert in the same way any other magic was rendered inert.

Rings of green fog began to billow from the rift, a sure sign that more demons were imminent, but with a rustle of heavy silk, Cyrus raised his hands first, forming them into a rough triangle shape, through which he focused the spell. He felt the magic swell underneath his skin and channeled it outwards, pushing a blunt wave of it against the rift. There was nothing especially momentous about the visual effect—this was not a spell of flashbangs and bright streaks of color. Rather, a wave of soft blue light, undulating like water, washed over the rift, and when it disappeared, it took all the green fog and the vibrancy of the color with it, leaving a dull, unmoving crystalline structure in its place.

A small smile turned the corner of his mouth upwards. “Rifts are subject to dispelling. Something to make our lives easier, I suspect. I think I should like to work with this one a bit longer before you close it, Stellulam. There might be information to be had that will help us understand the Breach.” It could well be the information he needed to figure out how to close it for good. Estella nodded slowly, lowering the hand that she had started to raise to take care of the problem and taking a half-step backwards.

Vesryn's tower shield was placed in front of him, the elf leaning on the top rim of it, staring at the rift with a perturbed frown. He'd accompanied the little study group for protectionary measures, mostly, but clearly had at least some curiosity regarding the rift. In one hand he held the top of his tower helm, the other his spear. He kept close to the others, but maintained a safe distance, not venturing too close to the open portal.

"I don't suppose anyone else hears that?" he asked. He was clearly focused for a moment, attempting to make out whatever sound he seemed to be hearing. "That whispering. I think it's a whispering, anyway. Never heard it before, with it usually being covered up by roaring demons and fiery explosions."

"Uh..." Asala mumbled before pausing. She seemed to concentrate on something for a moment before she shook her head in the negative. "N-no. Not-not anymore," she said, clutching her staff with both hands. The sound of a heavy hand clapped her shoulder as Meraad agreed. "No, the dispelling seemed to have shut the demons up. For the moment at least." he said with a chuckle. However, at the mention of the dispelling, Asala's eyes fell to Cyrus, and she seemed a moment away from asking something before apparently deciding against it.

Estella’s brows furrowed slightly, and she tilted her head just fractionally, also looking about a half-step away from saying something, but then her eyes moved to Asala and Meraad, and her expression eased. Probably, she’d been about to venture a question about Saraya, but had refrained from doing so due to the presence of two people who didn’t know of her. Cyrus thought it was a good hypothesis, if unvoiced. He had many fewer reservations about bringing up Vesryn’s passenger, but even he realized he was at least somewhat beholden to the promise made on his behalf not to, and so he quelled his curiosity for the moment.

She turned her eyes to him then. “It feels… sick,” she said, as though she weren’t sure of exactly what word she wanted. “Like… an affliction. But not as much now that you’ve dispelled it. If it wasn’t spilling forth demons and the like, I’d just think… ‘here’s a place where the Veil is thin.’” She paused, and grimaced, as though debating the next words, but evidently decided to use them. “Thin enough that even I feel like a real mage, almost.” She turned her right hand over so the palm faced up, little colored sparks gathering at the center before streaming down to the snow below like an overflowing liquid, where they left harmless little pockmarks in the surface. Blues, purples, greens, and pinks—it was not the destructive spell of a combat situation, that was to be sure, rather a little trifle they’d used for amusement as children.

Cyrus sighed, shaking his head. He genuinely didn’t understand why Estella couldn’t have a little more confidence in her abilities as a mage. Magic had never come as easily to her as it had to him, but that alone was no insurmountable obstacle. Her talents were not geared towards large explosions and powerful concussive blasts, it was true, but even just looking at the simple spell she performed to prove her point, he could say with certainty that he did not find it as easy as she did to produce so many colors. Magic was complex, and nuanced, and he really wished she hadn’t given up on it the way she had.

But those were not thoughts for the present discussion, and so he realigned his attention with her more straightforwardly observational remarks, noting that she wasn’t inaccurate about the feeling of illness—it had lessened considerably with the application of his dispel magic. And the Veil was thin here, for a very obvious reason.

“The rifts are actually very small tears in the Veil. I suspect that a dispelling has this effect because it nullifies the magic bleeding in. It would be like… applying a patch to a torn piece of fabric, if you will. But to actually mend the cloth requires your mark, I should think. I am, however, open to alternative hypotheses, if there are any.” He didn’t think any of them would be correct, but he was certainly not the only person here capable of giving the matter the thought required to advance one. After all, they were dealing with the novel and the strange—his stockpile of knowledge was of little use. Intuition, theory, calculation, and experimentation were the order of the day, and those were not capacities unique to him.

Asala meanwhile, continued to gaze into the inert rift while Meraad, on the other hand, stared at Estella after her little magical light show. Clearly he was rather surprised to find that she was a mage also. Though if had thoughts on the matter, he said nothing. Instead, his attention shifted back to Asala who'd taken a step toward the rift. "Kadan?" he asked as she raised a hand. The blue glow of her magic enveloped it, a corresponding barrier appearing around the rift. Then, she began to manipulate the bubble, shrinking it with her first two fingers and her thumb until it fit tightly over the rift. However, other than robbing the rift of its green glow, it seemed to do nothing.

Meraad opened his mouth to speak, but before the words could come, Asala slammed her fist shut. The barrier quickly shrank around the rift, deforming the shape for only a moment before the barrier shattered, returning its glow to the ground around it. Asala sighed and simply shook her head. "Were it still active, the magic of the rift that deposits the demons on this side of the veil would have interfered with my own. My barrier would have shattered far sooner," she said, turning to look at Meraad. It was clear that she had been mainly speaking to him, which might've explained her lack of stuttering. Meraad simply tilted his head. It seemed that he did not understand it as well as she did.

"So... You cannot crush them as they file in?" He asked, causing Asala to smile and shake her head in the negative. "Unfortunately, no." Though she did pause for a moment to look at her hand, and she seemed to slip into some deep thought.

Vesryn was looking consistently uneasy at this point; he'd taken up his shield again, adjusting his grip on the eight-footer in his hand. "I'm... getting the feeling that proximity to this thing might not be a great idea." It was obvious he was referring to Saraya with the feeling, though what exactly was going on in the elf's head was hard to say.

"Any chance we could close this thing up soon? Before it gives us a pride demon or two?"

“It won’t.” Cyrus made the declaration with absolute confidence, because it was what he felt in the answer. He knew the Fade, and even this novel manifestation of it was not exempt from what few rules could be said to govern the Veil generally. Still, he supposed he could see where it would cause unease, particularly if left to hang there in space for too long. Eventually, its continued existence would be questioned.

“But… it’s unlikely that we’ll learn much else by keeping it here. I believe I understand it now.” And, consequently, what must be done to close the large one, the so-called Breach. He nodded to Estella, taking a step backward so that she might move forward and approach it unimpeded.

Asala also took a step back, but turned to Vesryn. She made a small circle with her forefingers and thumbs and mouthed too small.

The sound of Estella taking in a deep breath was just audible over the ambient noise of the area before she moved past him, putting herself within five feet of the spot on the lake above which the rift hovered. Though the passage took her over ice, her balance didn’t falter. She raised her hand towards the faded green crystal, a thread of emerald light connecting her hand to the distortion. With the typical humming sound, the link established itself and the noise grew in pitch until the low bang signaled the end, and she jerked her arm back down, looking down at the glowing scar marring her palm.

“That was easier than it usually is, for me. I think maybe neutralizing it beforehand might have made it simpler to use the mark. It wasn’t even that painful.” She turned back around to look at him, both eyebrows arched. “Which I suppose means closing the Breach might not—well. It might be possible if all the mages focus on repelling the magic spilling out of it. That’s what you’re thinking, right?”

“Precisely. The phenomena are the same, or roughly the same. Which means any solution that can be applied to the little ones will work on the large one… provided that it is scaled up appropriately.” He wasn’t entirely sure they had enough spellpower for it. Cyrus had little confidence in southern mages, but even if he had, they were small in number. Of course, there was one other group capable of dispelling magic, though he had even less confidence in templars. Nevertheless, it was in principle possible.

Still, something she said had not sat quite right with him, and he gestured for her to approach. “I would like to make an examination of your mark, Stellulam. Asala, would you be so kind as to tell me exactly what methods you used to treat the Heralds when they came under your care?”

"Oh, uh..." Asala said, seemingly surprised by Cyrus's question. She hesitated a moment, at least until Meraad gently prodded her in the shoulder. With the provocation, Asala approached, her eyes glazed in remembering. "I, uh... Well," she scratching under her horn again. When she was successful in exorcising the itch, her hand returned to the staff. "Right, well. First, I administered a dose of a strong healing agent to both. They only recieved minor exterior injuries, but the marks..." Asala said, before shaking her head. She seemed to acknowledge she was getting ahead of herself.

"I followed up with, uh... direct applications of healing spells over time. I... did not know how to deal with the mark directly." After she spoke, her head tilted and it was as if the gears in her head began to churn. "However... The mark seemed to draw its energy from them, at least initially." She frowned and her brows furrowed as she slipped deeper into thought. "Do you believe the marks use the energy that they draw from the Heralds to close the rifts?" Asala asked, drawing up closer to Cyrus in order to inspect Estella's mark as well. Estella herself was compliant, and freely offered up her hand.

"I'll leave you magical types to your studies, then," Vesryn said, a subtle grin returning to his features now that the rift was gone. He slung his tower shield around onto his back and balanced the spear on one shoulder, turning and taking his leave from the lake.

“Thanks for your help, Vesryn!” Estella called after him, thereafter returning her attention to what the others were discussing.

Cyrus shook his head in reply to Asala’s query, taking Estella’s hand in both of his and inspecting the mark more closely than he previously had, running the pad of his index finger along its contour. He felt a light tingling where his bare skin made contact with it, the feeling almost familiar somehow. It was like…

“It would have drawn from them to stabilize itself, perhaps. But the energy it generates is its own, probably derived from whatever gave it to them. My guess would be some kind of artifact.” He looked at Estella quite seriously. “If you experience pain, it is likely because this energy is foreign to you. Your body was not meant to conduct it, nor, I should think, was Romulus’s.” He suspected Asala had aided them as well as she had simply by repairing the damage it was doing their bodies by being present, but that was not the same thing as stabilizing the mark itself.

“I will need to consult my notes, but there may be a way to steady the fluctuations, and prevent the mark from beginning to grow again.” He realized belatedly how that might sound, and flicked his eyes to Asala. “You did extremely well, especially dealing with an unknown magic like this—I mean only to discover its nature, not discredit your achievement. In fact, I am rather grateful you made it.” He actually offered her a smile, one that was in no part cynical or smug, only—as he’d indicated—caused by relief and gratitude.

“Stellulam is alive because of you, and whether she likes me to say so or not, that is to me the most valuable thing I can think of. If there is something I might provide for you in exchange, you need only name it.” He did despise leaving debts unpaid. His sister sighed, but did not choose to say anything herself.

That, of course, only served to fluster her. The blush across her cheeks was instant and she averted her gaze, instead focusing on an apparently very interesting rock nearby. "No, no..." she said, waving a hand back and forth, "It was, uh... It was nothing. I-I-I could not just... do nothing," she said, though a sweet smile did sneak in near the end of her words. Nearby, Meraad cackled, which robbed her of the smile, and instead replaced it with a glare in his direction. He threw his hands up in forfeit and also began to walk off.

"There is, uh... no need to repay me. The fact that she is okay is plenty," she said with a smile, though after a moment it wavered. There seemed to be something else on her mind, though she was struggled with herself over it. Finally she sighed and closed her eyes, having decided on something. "But maybe... if I... if someone were to... tutor me. Help me to learn how to... dispel magic, I could be of more aid to Estella and Romulus," she said, her eyes on the staff in her hand.

Cyrus grinned at that, a touch of slyness seeping back onto his face. “You know, I don’t teach… but I do believe I can make an exception, considering. If you are not otherwise occupied after dinner, meet me back here. There is much to learn.”

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No. The Elder One will not."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

“Can… can anyone else hear that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"At last..."




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It left her with precious few options, however, and she tried to decide what she needed most. Loosening her jerkin, she tugged it off, rolling another quarter-turn onto her back and taking hold of the hem of her tunic with both hands. She had to tug several times before it tore, but from there she was able to remove enough to tie around the wound as tightly as her numb fingers would let her, and then fold herself back into her armor, which now sat uncomfortably directly against her skin from the end of her ribcage to her waist. But it was better than giving up her boots to take the bandages from her breeches.

It took several deep breaths before she could gather the strength to roll back onto her hands and knees, and quite a few more before she could ease to her feet. For the first time, she looked behind her, but the landscape that way looked just the same as the landscape in front, and she couldn’t see the door she’d come from in any case. Somehow she doubted going backwards would help anyway.

When she returned her attention to the front, she was surprised to see a dim light in the distance, glowing softly blue. It was the first change in scenery since she’d arrived here, and she struck out for it immediately, hoping against hope that what she found there might make a difference.

As she approached, the light took on the shape of a person. A woman, and by the point of her ears, an elf. Her back was turned; her body was entirely unclothed, but her shape was made up of the light, to the point where she was partially transparent. The sapphire glow kept her exact appearance indistinct, as though it deliberately unfocused whenever Estella attempted to see her clearly. It was not difficult to tell, though, that she had a powerful figure, both taller and significantly more muscled than Estella was.

She turned when Estella neared, and even blurred her features were noble, proud. The gale whipped at Estella, but the glowing woman seemed entirely unaffected by it. Her hair, which glowed like the rest of her did, fell neatly to rest upon her shoulders. The source of the light seemed to emanate from her chest. With the severity of the cold around her, it was obvious to Estella that the woman in front of her was radiating warmth into the air.

The figure raised her hand slowly, and a spark of blue light lifted into the air above them. It burst over their heads, and a translucent dome slowly fell around them, until it reached the ground. The wind stopped altogether, and within moments the warmth had filled the entire space.

The woman bowed gracefully in greeting, nodding her head forward.

Estella, battered, chilled, clumsy and no doubt looking like a wreck, blinked slowly. It took her several seconds to even properly comprehend what she was looking at, as though her mind, no longer in the simple state of forward, now again, had to lurch back to a start. The warmth helped, and though the feeling returning to her extremities was quite painful, she was glad it was pain she could feel, because that was much better than the alternative.

Despite that, she managed to dredge up a smile from somewhere, and bowed back as best she could. She wasn’t the kind of mage that frequently conversed with spirits, but she dreamed like anyone did, and occasionally, one of them had a reason to notice her, and so she did generally know what they were like. This one was strange, a little different somehow, like she might have been incomplete, the way her features appeared to shift, losing sharpness when directly focused upon. It was almost easier to see her from the periphery of her vision.

“Thank you,” she rasped, though it might have been more an effect of the dry wind than anything. “You’re… We’ve not met before, have we?” It would be very strange if they had, but stranger still if they had not, considering the location.

The figure smiled, not parting her lips, and then shook her head. A moment later, she waved her hand, and beams of light traveled along the glowing surface of her body, leaving armor in their wake. Were it not transparent, it would look quite heavy, and its design was ornate. In fact, as it completed its formation, it took on a very familiar shape, as did the tower shield that now leaned against her, and the spear she carried in her grasp. She tilted her head, and awaited recognition from Estella.

It was immediate. “Saraya?” Estella’s eyes went wide, and she took a half-step backwards, though it was more that she lost her balance again than anything. This was an alarming development, for more than one reason. Mostly, she was extremely concerned about this because she knew for a fact, or close enough, that she was inside her own consciousness right now—nothing else explained all the phenomena. Which meant that if Saraya was in here with her, then she wasn’t inside Vesryn’s head, and that was very, very bad.

“How did… ah. The Lord Seeker.” Whatever he’d done, she recalled Vesryn had attempted to stop, which might have interfered in part with the magic that had pulled her in here. Estella chewed her lip. “He’s in here somewhere, too. Do you think that if we found him, made him reverse… whatever this is, that you’d get back safely?”

Saraya nodded once, apparently all that she believed was necessary.

Suddenly, a crack of lightning blasted against the dome she had erected, and it split apart in several places, allowing icy wind to cut back through.

Begone, thing! I am learning. You cannot help her...

Saraya gazed up above them, her expression annoyed. Stepping forward, she set down her shield when she was within easy arm's reach of Estella. Slowly, she reached out a glowing hand, and gently placed it upon Estella's forehead. Instantly an intense feeling of envy filled her mind, envy directed at herself. The envy was stemmed by thoughts of freedom, a youthful, strong body, a position of authority, of opportunity. It was powerful in magnitude, but it ended before it could carry on too long, and Saraya took a step back.

She pointed up to the sky.

“Envy…” She knew the feeling, though she wasn’t sure she’d ever felt it so strongly as this. To feel it directed at herself was… uncanny, and very strange. It made no sense, and yet she could only interpret what Saraya imparted upon her as that. “The Lord Seeker is an envy demon?” Or, perhaps more accurately, an envy demon was assuming the form of the Lord Seeker, which meant that they weren’t dealing with the real one at all. Perhaps they never had been. Saraya nodded gravely, confirming her suspicion.

“This shape is significant.” The voice, at once more familiar than her own and somehow distorted, sounded from behind her, and Estella turned, met with the visage of her twin, though he looked ill in the light, wan. The demon didn’t hold the shape like Cyrus held himself, either—she supposed that made sense; envy wasn’t self-assured, rather the opposite. She knew from experience that attempting to falsify confidence could only work so well. “Will it help me know you?”

“You will not tell me about you. All you will think is of others. But I must know you!”

She understood, now, what it meant about learning. It wanted, for some reason, to assume her shape, to imitate her. And in order to do that, it needed to know enough to pass as her. So it had brought her here, to seek the answers it would need to wear her face. Even now, it was trying to understand. Estella’s hand went to the hilt of her sword, but then paused, her fingers still loose around the grip. Everything she did was now another piece of information for it, potentially. And if that was really what it wanted, then she had to avoid giving it that. Knowing how she moved, how she fought, however poorly, was information. She wasn’t even sure she could kill it, here.

No. What she needed to do was make it do all the talking and thinking aloud. She needed to understand it better than it understood her, and use that information to frustrate it to the point of making a mistake. And what she knew about it right now was that it wanted to learn about her. The way it looked at her made a mockery of her brother’s natural inquisitiveness, that fervent curiosity that so often lit his eyes. It looked sick, while the demon wore his face.

Taking a breath, something she tried not to make too obvious, she answered with a question. “Why do you want to know me?” She asked it as neutrally as possible, showing it her best imitation of Rilien’s face. It was almost ironic, that she planned to outdo the demon by being, in some sense, the superior imitator. If she could manage it.

As if in response, its features shifted, until it was wearing the face of her teacher, down to the sunburst on his forehead. “Being you will be so much more interesting than being the Lord Seeker.” In its left hand, the demon toyed with a knife, a replica of one of the Tranquil’s daggers, running a precise finger along the edge. It was also not an excellent likeness, considering the fact that she’d never once known Rilien to fidget or move idly. Hopefully that was a sign that it wasn’t being as careful.

“Do you know what the Inquisition can become? If only I were you…” It lunged at her, and she jumped backward, but no sooner had it completed its forward arc than it burst into smoke and disappeared.

"When I am done, the Elder One will kill you and ascend. Then I will be you.” It was Asala that time, and the voice from the left, where the Qunari woman appeared as well, though envy walked straighter in her skin, assuming a demeanor more like Asala when there was healing to be done than Asala at any other time. Still Estella kept herself mindful—the details were important.

“What is the Elder One?” Short questions, and only questions. It was already talking a great deal more than she was, even if it was deeply unsettling that it used the voices of her friends to do so.

The creature laughed, shifting again so that what began as a feminine sound ended as a masculine one, and it wore the same familiar face as the second statue, draped in dark blue robes and carrying a staff with a scythe-blade on one end, a thick hand with heavy knuckles gripping it with surety. “He is between things. Mortal once, but no longer. Glory is coming, and the Elder One wants you to serve him like everyone else: by dying in the right way.” The corners of his mouth turned up in a twisted caricature of a smile, probably the best envy could manage, and this time, it called lightning to itself, lifting the staff and throwing the spell in a broad arc from the scythe.

Estella stood no chance of getting out of the way in time, she knew, and indeed, her body was extremely slow to react, almost like she was moving through water.

Saraya was not so restrained, and she intervened before the lightning could reach Estella. Planting the glowing shield into the ground before her, the spell crackled and smashed against it, leaving the woman reeling and digging a foot into the ground. The envy demon hissed, infuriated.

"Insolence! This will be my place, not yours! Begone!" He threw a straight bolt of lightning from his hand, a spell which exploded directly against Saraya's shield, and the glowing body burst into a dozen wisps of flickering light. They scattered into the wind.

“Saraya!” Estella didn’t have time to think, only react, and her hand flew to the hilt of her sword, which rang free of the sheath with a hissing rasp. She lunged into the place her ally had been, bringing the saber down on the envy demon, which still wore the face of Tiberius. As soon as her blade made contact, it shrieked and dispersed.

“You cannot stop me! I will have what is yours!” Its voice trailed off with the motes of black dust that seemed to have constituted that particular form, but Estella hardly cared. She fell to the ground, plunging the end of the saber down into it and leaning heavily against the blade, which glimmered brightly in the dark. From her knees, she dragged a hand across the ground, as though hoping to recover some remnant of the remnant, something that would show her that Saraya was still alive, still present. What did it take to kill something in the mind? Cyrus would know. Of course he would. He’d be able to fix this.

But she couldn’t. She couldn’t fix anything. “Why me?” she muttered miserably, losing all will to keep herself upright and remaining so only because she saw no more point in removing her grip from the hilt of her saber than she did in keeping it there. “I don’t matter. I’m nobody.” If the demon had chosen anyone else, this wouldn’t have happened. But it had chosen her—miserable, wretched, worthless Estella—and so everything was going straight to shit, just as she’d always known it would. That she was surrounded by so many talented, impressive people, that Romulus had a mark, too; these things had allowed her to believe that they might succeed, that they might really close the Breach, and that she might be able to go back to being anonymous and unimportant without having ruined anything, save the lives of the families of her squadmates.

Her back bowed further under the pressure of her thoughts, and she fought the bile that rose in her throat. How could she have forgotten? How could she have let herself, for even a single moment, fail to recall her own incompetence, and how dangerous it was, for those around her? How had she let herself believe that she could ever be the kind of person others might be able to lean on? Where had she gained the pretension to suppose that one day, she might be strong, or worthy, or valuable in any way at all? She had no grace, no skill, lackluster intelligence, and a terrible, crippling inability to improve for all the first-class instruction and arduous practice in the world.

How dare she forget. How dare she let other people pay the price for that.

She was pathetic.

And she deserved to suffer for all the things she could not be.

Some combination of the brittle-bone cold, the weight settled over her body like a cloak of lead, and the furious churning of her own thoughts overcame her, and she retched, dry-heaving painfully, folded in on herself and at last relinquishing the grip she held on the sword. Another thing she wasn’t worthy of. Another grace extended to her that she could not hope to repay in kind. Estella fell onto her side, curling into a small ball and pulling her knees against her chest, willing the ordeal to simply end. She’d proven what she knew all along: she was incapable of meeting a challenge of this magnitude. She couldn’t do it alone, and she was toxic to anyone who would be her ally. She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them again—dry, because even she knew she was wallowing in self-pity and she wasn’t worth crying over—and they found immediately the bright edge of her saber. She stared at it for what seemed the longest time, fascinated by the way the enchantment made it glimmer with a light all its own. Like a little star, right there in the dark.

A bitter smile slashed her face, and she chuckled weakly. “Stellulam…” Cy’s nickname for her was ridiculous. Even he would surely be disappointed in her, if he could see her now. She was disappointed in herself. Then again, she was always that.

Distantly, she knew that she had to stand up. If she did nothing else, she had to make this right again. Her wound twinged—she’d hurt herself by falling over. Of course she had, because actual battle wounds were for people who had a fighting chance. She couldn’t…

“I can’t.” But slowly, she stood anyway, dragging herself to her feet, resting her hand on the saber, which was faintly warm to the touch, and pulling it from the ground. It felt heavy in her hands, unfamiliar, like the first time she’d ever tried to wield it. Listing to the side slightly, she took a step forward, and had to scramble not to fall backwards when the scenery around her abruptly changed, putting her back in Therinfal Redoubt.

It was eerily quiet, compared to what it had been like before, but she remembered the route, and followed it. This version seemed to be what Envy imagined the Inquisition would look like, if it replaced her. She thought it was foolish to believe she had so much power as it seemed to assume, particularly when she walked in on a meeting between herself and the Inquisition’s three advisors. They all stood around the table, though Romulus was a conspicuous absence. "We’re almost there,” Marceline was saying. "Orlais, Ferelden, then Antiva and the Anderfels. Rivain’s surrender is imminent. Fitting that you’ll end where you started, no?”

“Soon enough, my accomplishment will match my ambition,” she heard her own voice reply from the facsimile of her appearance. She couldn’t help but find the words ridiculous. Estella had aspired to little. Though her faults were many, arrogance was not usually one of them. Perhaps even believing she could help close the Breach counted as arrogance enough.

“Do you see? What the Inquisition could be without you? When you are dead, and the Elder One has allowed me to become you?”

Estella walked through the ghostly image, dispersing it, and continued on her way. When she reached the same staircase as before, she spotted herself standing at the bottom of it. Or, well, the envy demon’s version of her, anyway. She took some little bit of succor in the fact that it had clearly glamorized her considerably: she looked as put-together as Marceline, and wore clothes as nice as Rilien’s, her armor polished silverite, chain with a heavy silk sash holding her sword in place, and leathers in lighter places. It still wasn't near to accuracy, really.

“Unfair! You are still whole!” In what seemed an instant, the demon was in front of her, its version of her hand tight around her throat, lifting her from the ground with no more difficulty than the Avvar she’d dueled in the Mire. “Why can’t I have your shape?!”

“Why… would you want it?” She choked out, her hands grabbing pointlessly at the arm holding her. It was uncanny, looking into her own face like that.

“Why would… why would…?” It seemed thrown by the question, but then gritted its teeth, its free hand glowing with sickly green magic, and turned to shove her against the door. “We’ll start again! More pain this time! The Elder One still awakes!”

A rumbling suddenly surrounded the two of them, as a ball of impressively bright blue fire burned through the wall of clouds hanging over them, to Estella's left. The envy demon growled, hurling Estella back with force against the door and turning to face the arriving presence. It smashed into the ground, scattered bits of the stone ground through the air, and from the cloud of dirt re-emerged the glowing form of Saraya, now wielding a greataxe the likes of which Estella had already seen.

She whirled forward through the air, the first blow coming down hard on Envy's sword, as it still attempted to retain Estella's shape. Saraya's offense was swift, precise, and brutal, but the demon was able to parry or repel every blow, even when it appeared to have no chance, as though it wasn’t actually possible for Saraya to land a hit. Eventually they clashed weapons and locked together. Blue sparks flickered through the air from Saraya’s axe, and sickly arcs of familiar green lightning careened away from Envy’s feign of a marked hand. Envy’s face was contorted in a mixture of extreme effort, and overwhelming anger.

“What are you? How can you remain? Die and leave, forever!”

Estella thanked whatever deities were paying attention for Saraya’s intervention, and more importantly, for the fact that she yet lived. While she knew she’d be of little assistance, the elven woman’s spirit had the demon locked in battle, which was opportunity enough for anyone, and so she circled around behind the dark shadow of herself, sheathing the sword quietly and drawing the straight-bladed knife from the small of her back.

Her approach was awkward, and she wound up just running the last half-dozen steps, jumping onto the demon’s back and plunging the blade downwards and slightly diagonally, for her replica’s less well-protected neck. The knife struck, and the envy demon beneath her dissolved again, this time with an inchoate shriek. Her vision filled once more with white, and she fell back into reality.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht
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Though three bodies had begun to fall in tandem, only two finished the arcs they should have. While Estella and Vesryn collapsed to the ground, the Lord Seeker was seemingly thrown from them with great force, his shape twisting in midair, limbs elongating and visage twisting. What landed before the door was no man, but rather a demon, lanky and warped. Cyrus recognized it immediately—envy, a rather rare variety, and much subtler than its kin.

It rose into an arch, walking its hands through the gap between its six-foot legs, an eerie contortion of its warped form, and then it shrieked at the lot of them, prompting Cyrus to move in front of Stellulam and Vesryn, putting himself between it and them, but doing so turned out to be, for the moment at least, unnecessary. The demon exploded into a cloud of green mist, flying in through the doors and over the heads of the Templars inside, retreating to some area beyond, and leaving a barrier behind it.

The moment he was sure it was safe to do so, he was kneeling by Estella’s side, a hand at her forehead. “Stellulam, can you hear me?” His tone was low, but unmistakably urgent; worry gripped his heart and furrowed his brow. That the demon had retreated meant something—he only hoped that it wasn’t the worst.

A soft groan was his initial response, but fortunately, Estella’s eyes opened directly afterwards, unfocused and hazy. Her head lolled slightly towards the side Cyrus knelt at, and she blinked slowly a few times. “Cy?” She coughed, the force of it actually bringing her partway off the ground, and she planted one of her hands on the floor, pushing herself into a sitting position. “How long have I been out?”

That was a peculiar question. Cyrus shook his head slightly, using one of his arms to support her back, though she seemed to be sitting all right on her own, for the moment. “Not long. The Lord Seeker attacked you and you fell.” And yet, he could sense a disturbance in the Fade greater than he would have ordinarily considered warranted, as though something or someone had used a considerable amount of magic in that tiny window of time.

“Are you all right? What happened?”

The expression she showed in reaction to his answer was complicated, but confusion seemed to predominate, and her lips parted for a moment, before she hesitated, apparently unsure what to say. “I… the Lord Seeker’s an envy demon. Or well… the person the templars thought was the Lord Seeker is one. It… it wanted my shape, and…” Her eyes went wide suddenly, and she glanced around herself frantically, pausing when she found Vesryn, who was still unmoving.

Shit,” she hissed, half-dragging herself within arm’s reach of the elven warrior and reaching out, laying a hand on his chestplate and shaking him gently. “Vesryn. He—” She cut herself off and looked meaningfully at Cyrus, suggesting that there was something she could not say, before she returned her attention to their fallen ally.

“Oh Maker, please be all right.”

The elven warrior soon stirred, as though coming out of a deep sleep, but when he seemed to remember where he was, he blinked several times in confusion. "Erm... what?" He paused, an awkward, uncomfortable smile coming into place. "I've gone and embarrassed myself, haven't I?"

His eyes then darted between Estella and Cyrus, before settling longer on Estella and looking her over, perhaps to confirm that she was undamaged. Satisfied, he pushed himself up into a sitting position. He removed his helmet briefly, shaking his head. "You haven't been waiting for me to wake up for long, I hope?"

“Not really, no.” Cyrus shrugged, offering a hand to each for assistance in moving from sitting on the ground to standing on it. Estella took his left without hesitation. He frowned a bit, and threw a glance into the now-open doorway. They’d become a minor spectacle for the templars inside, by the looks of things. “But if you’re both quite all right, we’d best continue. I doubt this lot will be very enthused to learn that their illustrious leader was a demon all along.” Not that he planned on dealing with the mess. That could fall to the Knight-Captain or Leon, whichever felt more inclined.

After Vesryn was on his feet as well, the group moved inside, where the remaining uncorrupted templars had assembled in what appeared to be the main hall. The long tables had mostly been cleared off to the side to allow easier room to move about. Above, on the far end of the hall, stairs led up to a balcony or upper courtyard or some such, but the way was blocked by a barrier spell of some kind, shimmering thickly, clearly strong if the templars hadn't immediately been able to dispel it.

Of course, few of them were of any decent rank, and the one Knight-Captain present looked a bit floored by witnessing the transformation of the Lord Seeker into an envy demon. Séverine stood now in the center of the hall. "Never thought I'd have a leader that could outdo Meredith on the bad ideas front. Bloody demon, bloody red lyrium. How many lives, thrown away for this?" She turned, seeking out Leon with her gaze.

"The demon turned our leadership against us first with that red lyrium. I'm lucky I was never forced into taking any. I don't think anyone else of my rank or higher refused the stuff." She shook her head, eyes falling to the floor.

“An obstacle,” Leon agreed heavily, “but not an insurmountable one. By arriving when we did, we forced the demon’s hand. Not all of you have succumbed, and that means we yet have a chance.” He scanned the room, his eyes moving over all the templars present, and landed on what must have been another low-ranking officer. “Knight-Lieutenant,” the Seeker said crisply, drawing the man into a sharp salute. “There are others, still fighting outside?”

The templar nodded beneath his helm. “Yes, sir. Another three Knight-Lieutenants, there should be, and their squads. Or… whatever’s left of them.”

“And you have lyrium, as well? The uncorrupted kind?” Another nod. “Then I’ll need the last locations you knew the lyrium and the soldiers to be at. The Inquisition will bring you the people and the supplies, and then we’re going to take that barrier down, and the demon with it. Clear?” He spoke loud enough to be heard over the relative quiet of the room, and those in attendance drew themselves straighter, responding with a collective yes, sir!

One immediately moved to a table on the right side of the room, and gestured the group over. With a stick of charcoal, she drew three circles on an architectural rendering of the redoubt. “These are the supply rooms, sir. There’ll be a crate’s worth of lyrium in them, at least. Might be you run into some of the others on the way.”

Leon nodded. “Three supply crates should be enough.” He glanced up at the group. “Lady Marceline, Ser Séverine, go to the northern one, please. Take some of the more experienced templars here with you.” He pointed to the closest circle to the building they currently occupied, then moved his attention further down. “Vesryn, Estella, the one to the east, please. Cyrus, you and I will go west.” From the look he gave him, Leon knew well that he likely wouldn’t appreciate being separated from his sister, but was asking him to do so anyway.

“Very well.” Cyrus was indeed not terribly pleased with the suggestion, but he understood why it had been made. There was logic in ensuring that one didn’t send two mages against a lot of templars. He could even overlook the fact that the reasoning employed clearly underestimated him. Briefly, he turned his eyes to Estella and Vesryn. “If… possible, perhaps just once keep the heroics to a minimum?” That was the problem with decent people, really—they tended to take risks that the purely self-interested would avoid.

Estella smiled, but it was thin. “No promises.”

With the strategy set, all that remained was to execute it. One of the Knight-Lieutenants was left to manage the templars that would remain in this room, though the majority of those with much rank would be split up between the three parties. It might have been strictly safer to retrieve the lyrium crates one at a time, but time was important, and that would almost certainly have taken too long. Furthermore, three teams pushing out at once would relieve the burden on the defenders of the main hall itself, which was fortunate since it would also thin their numbers considerably.

Leon led their way out of the main hall, moving down a side passage way to the west, which was both damp and dark, lit only by a few guttering torches. With a few more turns, they came face to face with a door to the outside. “How are you against templars, Cyrus? I understand they don’t use lyrium in Tevinter.”

“Why don’t you open that door and find out, Seeker?” Cyrus let his amusement color his tone, and smiled sharply. It was true that he’d faced few southern templars, and their abilities were not to be dismissed, when properly enhanced by lyrium. But by the same token, no southern templar knew what a northern mage was like, and he did not doubt they would find the difference… perceptible. The very best education in Thedas could do that for a person.

“Fair enough.” Leonhardt didn’t push the door open just yet, though, instead reaching into a belt-pouch and withdrawing a small vial, about the size of one that would hold a lyrium dose, but the liquid inside this was a blackish red, lacking both the glow of red lyrium and the metallic smoothness of that fluid. “I don’t believe we’ve had cause to fight together before. I say this in all seriousness: please keep clear of me.” His voice lacked the usual mildness it carried, edged instead with a harshness that seemed foreign to it.

Tipping back the vial, Leon downed it in one swallow, tucking it back into his belt pouch and throwing the door in front of them open. He didn’t linger on the threshold, charging forward into the fray outside.

It would seem the fighting had drawn very close on this side, and the Red Templars had nearly reached the entrance to the main building. The defenders remaining were few, and consistently moving backwards. That was, until Leon crashed into the front line. His first swing snapped a red templar’s head back so far the crack was audible, and the edge of his helmet clanged against the edge of the armor protecting his back. Before his body could collapse, Leon picked it up in both hands and threw it into a line of advancing red templars, knocking one to the ground and another two off balance. The last dodged, but it didn’t matter, because the Seeker killed him next, taking his helmet in both hands and twisting sharply. His stride didn’t even break as a sword clanged off his armor; he simply turned and caught the blade between his armored palms on its way down the second time, turning his body and disarming the half-crystallized man that held it, tossing the sword away like refuse before pulling the man down by the arm and shoving a knee into his gut, sweeping his legs out from under him with a foot and stomping hard at a less-armored part of his back.

Whatever resulted was effective, because the templar did not stand again, and Leon showed no signs of stopping.

It was quite the brutal display, but its effectiveness could not be denied. Cyrus waded onto the field as well, giving Leon the berth he so desired. Considering that his last lightning spell hadn’t seemed to work too well against these people, he switched tactics, sending a fire rune to land strategically on the ground where a cluster of soldiers tried to flank what few uncorrupted templars were left. It took them all off their feet, and Cyrus pulled himself through the Fade, spatha in hand, and finished them while they were down, quick strokes to throats and any vital artery he could reach. Putting them down fast was the key here, and he was quite good at that when he set his mind to it.

Where Leon charged with pure force and raw speed, Cyrus walked the edges of the field, laying down strategic area spells to control the flow of templars, narrowing their avenues of motion with fire, barriers and harassment tactics. Though he’d have preferred to simply rain fire down from above and jump between them with his blade, as was his wont, it made more sense presently to keep the red ones away from the ordinary templars and funnel them towards Leon in small numbers at a time. It was clear that he could handle three at once without encountering significant issues, which was really quite something for someone who usually looked a bit uncomfortable around other people eating meat.

Between the two and their templar allies, what had once looked dire for the defenders turned around in relatively short order. Cyrus’s effective control of the battlefield essentially fed Leon a line of foes, which he tore through with brutal efficiency, which for all its violence was unerring in its precision. Ten minutes after they had reached the fight, it had ended, and the red templars lay slain.

A general cheer went up from the others, but for several long moments, Leon remained in the middle of the field. It was hard to tell where exactly his eyes were, with the helmet, but his fists remained clenched at his sides, trickles of blood dripping off his knuckles. With what seemed to be one very deep breath and a momentous effort, he relaxed his shoulders backwards and turned to face the templars. “You’ll want to go back inside, reinforce the others. We’ll go get the lyrium and meet you back there.”

The general consensus seemed to be that this was a good idea, and the soldiers turned, some of them supporting each other as they walked, and headed inside. Leon turned his head, clearly looking at Cyrus, and then gestured forward. “The supply storage is this way.”

Cyrus raised an eyebrow, nodding nonchalantly and falling into step beside the Seeker, glancing up at the other man through the corner of his eye, his hands folded casually behind his back even as they picked their way over what had effectively become a killing field, first for the red templars and then for them. “I can see why you prefer your space.” He kept his tone deliberately light. “That tincture you took, before we fought—that does something to you, doesn’t it?”

The color of it looked suspiciously like blood, but it was a bit too dark even for that, suggesting that something else might have been done to it alchemically. Cyrus had a guess about what that might be, but it was merely a guess, and didn’t quite account for all of his observations. He wondered if Leon would simply be willing to explain.

“It does.” It was fairly clear that Leon saw no point in trying to lie about that—probably he had decided Cyrus had only asked in an attempt to get more than a confirmation. That, however, he didn’t give, and after a few more seconds of silence, it became evident that he wasn’t planning on it. Disappointing, but hardly a surprise.

The supply cache was a bit of a ways out, but they ran into only one more red templar on the way, and she was already injured to the point of dying. Leon put her out of her misery, and the two proceeded onwards, until the sounds of more battle could be heard, at which point they picked up the pace, rounding a corner and finding themselves face-to-face with the tail end of a confrontation.

A woman in Seeker’s armor placed a heavy roundhouse kick to the face of a red templar, dropping him with a hard thud. Several more lay in a circle around her, all variously battered and broken to death. Like Leon, she carried no weapons. It was clearly the same woman from Val Royeaux, the one who had stood at the Lord Seeker’s side.

She spotted them from the corner of her eye, and moved to face them. “Good. You’re here.” She spoke rather evidently to Leon rather than Cyrus, and it was he who answered.

“Ophelia. What are you doing here? Did you know about this?” The earlier aggression clearly hadn’t left him, from the gravelly undertones to the words, and he looked about ready to step forward and be her next opponent. Cyrus wasn’t sure he was entirely misguided in his intent, and did not dismiss his conjured blade, though he remained a few paces out to Leon’s left, and watched him for cues as to how they would handle the situation.

That made her smile, just a little one, a turn at the corner of her mouth. “Know the Lord Seeker was an envy demon? No, not until recently. But I suspected. And so I remained at his side.” She crossed muscular arms over her chest, tossing back the thick ebony braid that rested over one shoulder.

“While he had all those templars take red lyrium? You know what it does. You know what happened in Kirkwall.”

She shook her head slowly. “The demon was suspicious of me, at first. Inherited that from Lucius, I expect. I didn’t know what it planned for these templars until it was already happening. After that, the best I could do was try and convince it to delay further action until I could discover whether it was really the Lord Seeker or not. As it happened, I wasn’t the only suspicious one. I intercepted a message, and replaced it with one I knew would reach you, and gain your attention.”

Leon sighed heavily. “How did you figure out that the Lord Seeker was an envy demon?”

She thinned her lips. “There’s something you should see.” Gesturing for them to follow, she led the way into an adjacent building and opened a door on the right side of a hallway. The chamber so demarcated was relatively large, perhaps once an office of some kind, but far enough from the main building that it was doubtful any of those near it were in use.

Of much greater interest, however, was the state of the room. In terms of furniture, it contained only a single desk, which rested right at the center of the rug, covered with papers, candles, and oddly enough, pieces of art. Front and center was what seemed to be a marble bust of Empress Celene, though its face was obscured by parchment. Leaning against that, a hand-sized portrait of the Lord General of Orlais had been slashed once, with a knife, from the look of it, but still remained intact enough to identify his visage. The last item was a humble charcoal sketch, rendered nevertheless in highly-accurate detail, of the crown prince. It lay in two halves atop the desk, and had at some point been further defaced with candle wax.

The dull brown stone of the walls was marred by several drawings of eyes, quite clearly in blood rather than paint, and several stacks of books were strewn carelessly about the room.

“Well this is a rather macabre little shrine, isn’t it?” Cyrus scanned quickly over the walls, and then the spines of the books in the nearest stack, before deciding that clearly, the items of greatest interest were those on the desk. The three most powerful people in Orlais, before the civil war, and possibly still, though it was hard to say. “Targets, perhaps?” It would fit with what he’d seen in the future he went to—he recalled that all three of these people had been assassinated. This could be a clue to how and when that was supposed to happen, if their mysterious perhaps-ally knew more than was obvious.

“This… Elder One. This thing the demon is working for. It wants them dead, as might be obvious.” Ophelia nodded to the ruined artworks on the table. “I don’t know exactly why, but I suspect it’s partly a tactical decision and partly something else. A hatred, perhaps. Orlais has the strongest army in Thedas, and it’s as unstable as it’s been since the reign of the Mad Emperor, with the civil war going on.” She paused, a crease appearing between her brows. “But there are no fewer than four people with enough popularity and sufficient nobility to satisfy the aristocrats and the populace and lead the country. It’s interesting that only three of them appear here, isn’t it?”

“Gaspard de Chalons is missing.” That was Leon, who’d removed his helmet and tucked it under an arm. His free hand held a sheaf of parchments, carefully arranged so as to be smeared minimally with the blood on his gauntlets. “But whether that is because the demon overlooked him or because he’s allied with this Elder One is difficult to say. He doesn’t have quite the same infamous personality as the other three.”

Ophelia nodded deliberately. “That, I have not been able to discover. Envy likely knew relatively little outside of what it was to do here.” There was, after all, a certain sense in playing secrets and strategies as close to the chest as possible, and it would have been careless for the Elder One, who or whatever it was, to simply tell its minion everything it had in mind. Cyrus could understand the limitation of information as an effective command strategy; fewer loose ends when all was said and done, and the more work rumor and speculation could do for you, the better. This Elder One might have done quite well in the Magisterium, had it the inclination.

“This note…” Leon frowned deeply, then handed it to Cyrus. “My Old Tevene isn’t very good, but I believe it says something about the Seekers. Any chance you could translate?”

“Certainly.” Cyrus was not quite the linguist Estella was, in the sense that he spoke fewer of them than she did, but his Old Tevene was rather impeccable, if he did say so himself. Which made sense, since it was a common language for scholars in the Imperium to know. He took the parchment between his thumb and forefinger, as it was relatively worn and probably ought to be handled carefully, then swept his eyes over the words.

“‘Remember, you will be watched constantly. A Seeker is always looked to, when he is seen at all. I had a replica of the armor made—it should serve your purpose in Therinfal.’ Addressed to Envy, no doubt. There’s a little more below it that might interest you.” He paused, possibly just for effect, and then continued. “There is no place for Seekers in the world the Elder One builds. The life of Lucius Corin ends with you. Leave the real one to me.’” He raised a dark brow, glancing at the other two over the edge of the paper.

“Someone was feeling rather dramatic. Though I must say I’ve always loved a good conspiracy. So many skeins to be unraveled…” Cyrus narrowed his eyes, his aspect amused rather than menacing. He didn’t think it was especially amusing for either of them, of course, but still he saw little purpose in being unnecessarily grave. It was what it was, regardless of the attitude anyone took towards it.

“Seems the thing to do would be to find the real Lord Seeker, no? After we’ve dealt with our little demon infestation, that is.”

Leon looked to Ophelia, who shrugged her powerful shoulders. “I do not know where the real Lucius is. I intend to find out, but your friend is right. Horse first, then cart, as they say. You’ll be wanting lyrium. It’s through here.” So saying, she turned and led them out of the room, opening another door at the end of the hallway, remaining outside while Leon went in after the crate, hefting it easily in a single arm, donning his helmet again with the other.

“Let’s get this back to the others.”

They were, as it turned out, the last to arrive back, perhaps due to the pit stop they’d taken. Ophelia’s reception among the templars was mixed; while none were openly hostile, they were wary almost to a one, and stood far aside when she passed. That seemed not to faze her in the slightest—perhaps, as a Seeker, she was accustomed to it.

Cyrus soon found himself caught up in a warm embrace from Estella, who, aside from a cut marring the line of her cheek, appeared intact. She squeezed once before releasing him, her expression clearly relieved. “I was worried when we got back and you weren’t already here,” she admitted softly.

“Worried? About me? What will you think of next?” Really, the idea that she worried about him, while familiar and welcome in a sense, was also a bit unnecessary. If she could stop worrying about him and worry about herself instead, he’d be much more assured. Still, neither that nor the twinge of hurt that remained between them stopped him from returning the hug, a muted exhale the only sign he gave of his own mollification.

He returned his attention to the pair of Seekers and the Knight-Captain afterwards, however. “Now… how about we bring down this barrier?”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht
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Vesryn's pristine armor was spattered with blood at this point, but every drop of it belonged to corrupted templars. Saraya had effectively guided him to dispatch any enemy that had crossed his path, and even many of those that only crossed the others, though of course he hadn't been quick enough to prevent all the injuries in his allies. Even his shield could only be in one place at one time.

Focused as he was on the fight, he'd been especially wary of any signs from Saraya since the ambush from the Lord Seeker, or rather the demon that had formerly worn his shape. He remembered nothing of it, only trying to get in the way of the charge, getting caught up with Estella as they fell, and then... black. Estella's face was the first thing he saw upon waking, the first thing he comprehended. There were far worse things to lay eyes on after being knocked out, of course.

As they'd worked together to bring back more of the low-ranking officers, he'd noted that Saraya looked upon Estella differently. How, he could not say, and there was no time to speculate on it. They had a task to complete here.

The Knight-Captain, Séverine, nodded at Cyrus, and smoothly stepped up on top of one of the tables shoved off to the side, allowing the assembled templars to see her more clearly. She pointed her blade out at the group. "Templars! I ask of you: what is Envy?"

"A wretched thing!" cried one.
"Weakness!"
"A pathetic demon!"
"A coward, Sister!"

"A coward," Séverine repeated, nodding. "In order to study, and worm into our hearts, it must hide. We will drag it into the light!" A first cheer went up among the templars, accompanied by a cacophony of swords bashed against the faces of shields.

Séverine stepped down and began approaching the barrier, while the templars cleared from her path. "Those who have been taken by this demon and its promises of power are corrupt. They have betrayed the Order and all they once stood for. We, the true templars, will show them no mercy." The grimmer nature of the task did not receive a cheer, but instead a hardened rumbling, an anger building to do what needed to be done.

"Join me, Brothers and Sisters, and tear down this barrier. Give Envy no place to hide. And give the Red Templars no reason not to run!" She accepted a chalice of lyrium from a scribe when offered, the draught steaming with a frost-like substance. Séverine drank deeply, and once the scribe retreated from her, she took her sword in both hands, and knelt, placing the point of it into the floor. The other templars followed her lead.

They began to glow with a golden light, some brighter than others, and the sickly green barrier above them began to tremble and waver. Vesryn adjusted his grip on his spear and shield, and moved forward in preparation to advance up the stairs. It was not long before the demon's barrier let out a wretched wail, and then shattered altogether.

From the top of the stairs came the Red Templars, storming in down in a disorganized formation to engage. Séverine looked back at the Inquisition members aiding them. "Cut through, find the demon, and destroy it! We'll deal with these traitors." Their blood worked up for the fight, the templars smashed into the first arriving group of enemies, engaging them with a fearsome fervor.

Vesryn glanced sideways at his allies. "Let's get moving."

“An excellent suggestion.” Cyrus softened up a likely trajectory for them by sending a massive fireball through it, forcing several red templars to throw themselves to the side, some of them landing poorly and falling down the staircase in the process. One didn’t get away in time and took a full blast of flame to the face, collapsing in a cacophony of shrill cries. “How about that way?”

“Good enough,” Leon growled, cracking his neck under his helmet and bursting forward. His momentum seemed little affected by the fact that he was essentially fighting uphill, and he took two stairs at a time as though that were the way they were meant to be used. Considering the objective was only to clear a path, he didn’t linger long on any one red templar—generally speaking, one hit was enough to get any given individual out of the way, and he struck out with elbows, fists, knees, and feet, almost too fluid for a person encased in that much armor. Several of them, he simply gripped by the neck of their armor and pulled, toppling them facefirst down the staircase. Cyrus had driven a wedge into the line, and he was making a full tunnel of it.

Vesryn cleared the way for easy passage behind Leon's destructive force, tossing away any red templars that were fortunate enough to survive the initial encounter. They pushed up the stairs with little difficulty; Vesryn was able to surmise that the Red Templar force engaging them here was not much more than a rear guard, judging by their numbers. Séverine and the templars she led would no doubt be able to handle them given some time.

All of their party through, they took off down the hall towards the outdoors, a sort of grassy overlook of the forested land far below. The sections of walls before them had steadily crumbled from weather much like they were currently experiencing. The rain came down as steady and cold as it had upon entering the hall originally, and the earth beneath Vesryn's boots felt soft, vulnerable to being torn up if too much weight was applied in the wrong way.

"I touched so much of you," the demon said, with a voice from no particular direction, as before, "but you are selfish with your glory. Now I'm no one." Vesryn kept his eyes glued to the sides of the group, not desiring to be taken by surprise again. There was nowhere for the demon to run now, but while it did not prefer to fight directly, he had no doubt that it could if pressed into a corner, as it was.

"Lovely creature, this," Vesryn commented dryly. His spear remained leveled before him, ready to strike.

“And this isn’t the half of it,” Estella replied from beside him, her hands flexing on the grip of her saber. Her eyes were in constant motion over the field, a wariness that turned out to be quite wise. “There!” It did not manifest with the same directness as another demon would have. Pride would have stood before them and demanded acknowledgement. Desire and Rage would have commanded attention just as certainly.

But Envy appeared at their flank, a hideous thing with pale pink flesh, like someone had taken a human body, stretched it impossibly long, torn up the head and sewn it back together again with crude stiches and forgotten anything but the mouth, a thin red slash filled with sharpened, bloodstained teeth. It had a second set of arms beneath the first, shorter, almost humanoid still, a reminder, perhaps, of something it had once been. In all, it had to be nearly ten feet tall, but it was thin, in places little more than skin stretched over bones, too tight to be comfortable. Hardly a wonder it wanted someone else’s form and face, really.

No sooner had it appeared than the sodden ground beneath them began to turn black, in a ring much like that caused by a terror, save that its radius was considerably greater. Estella dashed out of it quickly, but Leon seemed to pay it almost no mind, simply moving himself off the circle in his barreling charge towards the demon itself. It threw something at him, shimmering slightly in the air like heat off the desert—likely a concussion blast of some kind, and the two met at full speed. The Seeker dug his feet in, pushing through and tearing rents in the soft earth beneath him. The hit slowed him considerably, but it did not stop him, and faced with an incoming assault, the demon seemed to open another one of the dark spots on the ground and dove through, reappearing far to the other side of the field and hurling a massive chunk of what had once been masonry with telekinetic force for the group.

A blast of lightning hit the boulder in midair, the resulting explosion breaking apart the stone and raining it down upon them as harmless detritus. Cyrus switched his attention to the demon itself thereafter, hurling a tiny orb of magic from each of the fingers on his left hand at once. They flew swiftly, and when the first hit, it encased the demon’s left leg in ice. The next three seemed to target different joints of its body, one successfully locking up the larger right elbow. The others hit, and spread, but it was able to crack the ice crystals off with movement.

A few seconds later, the mage’s form blurred, then disappeared entirely, reappearing much closer to the demon, which abruptly found itself faced with an opponent quite close. It swung a clawed hand for Cyrus, who ducked under it and retaliated with a horizontal slash, but Envy twisted with inhuman strength and flexibility, and the sword he used met only air.

Limber and quick as it was, it could not dodge two well-placed strikes at once, or at least in extremely quick succession. Vesryn had flanked Envy after Cyrus moved in for his attack, and his spear found the creature's torso, spilling blood and earning an enraged shriek of pain. Vesryn anticipated the counterattack; Saraya was familiar with such an opponent, which did not surprise Vesryn in the slightest. No demon was an unknown entity to her.

He withdrew his spear and properly angled his shield above his upper body to deflect the first slash to the side, and the adjusted to deflect the second slash the opposite way. The third he took head on, jarring his shield arm but stopping the clawed arm of Envy cold and giving him an opening to put his spear right through the thing's elbow joint. Its horrid features, or lack thereof, still twisted in pain from the injury, and it sought to flee, diving into a black pit it opened in the ground beneath it. Vesryn wrenched his spear free and stepped away from the magic beneath him.

"Watch your feet!" he called to the others, certain it would pick a spot to come up again soon, and it never preferred to assault directly.

When it did reemerge, it wasn’t the fleet magician, the precise warrior, or the powerful Seeker it went for. The demon was a coward, and it chose the coward’s target: Estella. She didn’t look all that surprised when it sprang up behind her, and without looking over her shoulder, she rolled herself to the side, its claws digging deep furrows in the fragile earth she’d been standing on seconds before. When she came up out of the roll, she turned herself around to face it, her momentum channeling into a smooth, controlled lash with her saber. The maneuver opened up a bloody line on the arm closest to her, and she stepped in closer, taking on the role of aggressor.

Her feet were light over the ground, her strokes no longer or flashier than they needed to be, and her efficiency was rewarded when two new gashes appeared over the creature’s torso, its gangly limbs less effective when someone had closed to so close a distance. It tried to dive under again, but this time met some trouble when a strong grip closed over the arm Cyrus had previously frozen. Leon’s hand nearly made it all the way around the rangy bicep of the demon, and the blow he delivered to its elbow snapped the limb clean off, made possible by the magical cold that lingered still at the joint.

Envy shrieked, a sonic blast that forced both of them back far enough for it to make its escape. Estella landed hard on her side, sliding another few feet back when her impact tore up the grass and slicked her left half with mud. Leon kept his feet, but lost his grip on the demon, allowing it to retreat once more.

This time, it came up closest to Cyrus, who immediately flung a massive bolt at it, staggering the creature before it had a moment to react. Adjusting his feet, he sped forward again, the hum of his blade followed by a new, smoking furrow dug across the back of its knees. It looked to be about to try and dive again, but with a broad gesture, he cast another spell, and bars of crackling lightning appeared to close it in from all sides, even below. The gaps between were more than adequate for a spear or other weapon with reach, however, and the mage turned, nodding tersely to Vesryn.

The elf nodded back, allowing his shield to fall to the ground, before he flipped his grip around on his spear. "Hold still for me, love." He briefly took aim, before he stepped into a throw and hurled his spear like a javelin right between two of the bars of crackling energy. The weapon punched clean through Envy's chest, rendering it incapable of screaming any further. Instead, it gurgled miserably for a moment, before it slumped sideways to the ground, and stilled.

"Nice throw," Séverine commented, from the top of the short flight of stairs that led back into the main hall. A large number of the templars from inside had followed her out, those that had made it through the fighting without serious injury. The Knight-Captain herself was heavily bloodied, at least over her armor, but most of it appeared to belong to others. "It's over then. For now."

"I expect the other Red Templars won't simply give up," Vesryn speculated, walking to the corpse of Envy and pulling his spear free.

"No, they won't." Séverine looked back at the battered group of men and women she'd come into command of. "The fight won't be truly done with until the last of these traitors have been dealt with. Until the Order's direction has been restored."

“And that will not be a simple process.” Ophelia spoke up then, stepping forward to draw even with Séverine. “The Templars have numbers across Thedas, but their leadership is in ruins. Most either knew not of what was going on, or were complicit in it.” She crossed her arms over her chest, glancing over those assembled. “These are a good lot, though. It would be a waste for them to idle when their skills could be so useful.” Her eyes flickered between Leon, helmed and silent at present, and Estella, who stood straight, but unable to hide the fact that one of her arms was limp at her side, the one she’d landed on earlier.

“All the Inquisition came here to do was ask of them their help. The Breach threatens us all, and they could be instrumental in closing it.” She shook her head, then turned to the body of them as a whole. “If that is something you’d be willing to do, we’d welcome your blades and your stout hearts. We’ve need of both, and it would give you somewhere to be and something to fight for. You know by now that we have allies of all kinds, and you’d be equal among them.” She smiled slightly, though it was tinged a little by the pain she was clearly in, and glanced at Séverine.

"Not how I imagined this turning out," the Knight-Captain admitted, shaking her head with a little smile. "But I think my Commander will understand if I don't return home just yet. The Breach does indeed need closing, and I would be honored to lead these templars in helping you do it, Lady Herald." Her plated, closed fist thumped against her chestplate. "You have our blades."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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As Asala stepped outside of the gate that led into Haven proper, a cold wind brushed against her face. She shivered and drew her cloak tighter around her shoulders, as she fondly reminisced about the hearth back in the tavern. While one hand clutched a handful of her collar, the other was used to cup the heat from her mouth so that her nose didn't freeze off. As she looked out from Haven's entrance, she found herself surprised once more at the volume of tents. The village itself had proven itself too small to hold both the mages and templars, and overflowed outside the walls into a sea of tents.

She turned and decided to cut through the side where there were more mages than templars. While she had nothing against the templars, they had a tendency to watch her as she walked, or at least, she felt like they did. She entertained thoughts that maybe it was just all in her head, but still. She was more comfortable among the mages. As she cut through, offered a wave to Donovan as she passed, as he seemed to be lecturing a group of mages. Once on the other side of the tents, she angled herself and headed toward the frozen lake.

From what she had gathered it was where Cyrus was last seen, and sure enough she eventually recognized his figure on the dock. She offered a wave as she approached.

He didn’t seem to see her at first, which was perhaps understandable. He was sitting crosslegged on the structure, an assortment of what looked like leather-bound books spread over his lap and the planks around him. He held a thin charcoal pencil in one hand, and was scribbling something onto a page about as fast as someone could write, by the looks of it. As she approached, Asala was able to see that all of the books were filled with the same writing, and it wasn’t really scribble at all—his penmanship seemed to default to an elegant, but somewhat minimal script. The book he was working in was filled more with numbers than letters, almost after the manner of a Qunari engineer.

The sound of her feet over the snow seemed to finally alert him to her approach, however, and he finished off the line he was writing on before turning his head in her direction. He blinked a few times, almost as if emerging from some kind of trance, and only then did he appear to actually properly register her presence: his eyes sharpened, and he half-smiled, a touch sly as usual.

“I do not believe we’re due for another lesson for a few hours yet. Don’t tell me you missed me.” That he was joking was obvious from the slight sarcastic edge to the words, as though he expected her attitude towards him to be rather the opposite.

"Uh... hm," she murmured as she shook her head in the negative. Then her eyes widened and she held her hands up submissively, fearing that she may have just accidently insulted. "N-n-not that you... I... it is just..." she stammered before closing her eyes and sighing. A blush was seeping into her features but the breath she took next seemed to ease her somewhat. She was aware of ridiculous she seemed at the moment, and the flush in her cheeks only deepened because of it. He laughed, a surprisingly understated thing for someone who didn’t seem to have any issues drawing all the attention in a room. His shoulders shook slightly with it, but there was no malice or condescension in his expression. Instead of continuing to stutter, she shook her head and tried to forge ahead.

She was frustrated with herself, and her cheeks puffed for a moment before she spoke, "It is just... there was nothing else for me t-to do." she said. They were caught up on their requisitions for potions. Injuries were also at a minimum, and nothing so severe as to require her attention. Aurora and Donovan were busy trying to instill some temperance into the mages, and Pierre had lessons from Larissa. She had nothing on schedule besides her own lesson later that day.

Asala's eyes fell onto the book that Cyrus was working on, and she tilted her head inquisitively. "What, uh, what are you working on?" she asked.

He glanced down at his work, almost as if surprised to see it there, but the impression quickly passed, and he gestured at her to sit down near him, moving a few of the other books around so as to make that possible. “Closing the Breach.” He shrugged, the way he said it making the whole thing sound like it was simple. The notes, though, gave the lie to that, rather obviously. “Magic is notoriously difficult to pin down in precise terms, but there are some things that can be quantified. The Qunari are actually better at it than almost anyone else. Perhaps because they are disposed to treat everything as a matter for mathematics.” He smoothed out the paper he’d just written on, tracing a finger down the edge of the page.

“While it’s hardly the whole story, it’s a valuable approach. Calculations like these were how Cassius and I figured out the trick to time magic.” He sounded distant, like he was remembering something, and ambivalent, like he wasn’t quite sure how he felt about it. He shook his head though, and glanced over at her from the corner of an eye.

“For now, it’s at least a preliminary approach. How has your dispelling practice been going?”

"It is... coming along," Asala admitted. While she was adept in healing and barriers, other forms of magic did not come as easily. She had very little formal training in the other types of magic, only what Aurora and the other mages could teach her while they traveled, and dispelling seemed counterintuitive, considering. Though she could fling simple small fire, ice, and lightning spells, they were nothing compared to what she witnessed Cyrus do on a regular basis.

She took a seat and looked at her hands for a moment. Asala then spread them apart and she concentrated, her brows furrowing in the effort. Soon her hands began to glow green and a green bubble formed in between them, but unlike her ordinary barrier spells, this one did not appear to be solid. Asala sighed as she stared at the dispel bubble. "It is hollow inside. It only dispels things that try to pass through, but magic is still able to work inside." An experiment with Estella revealed that.

Cyrus shifted gracefully up into a crouch, moving himself until he was perched on the edge of the dock in front of her, balance apparently not something he needed to worry about any more than a cat did. He cocked his head to the side, examining the shape of the spell with interest. “Hold the spell there.” He murmured it in a soft voice, a clear indication of his absorption. It was almost possible to see him thinking, his eyes lit with an almost childlike excitement at the prospect of an interesting puzzle to solve.

He moved his hands so that they were at the top and bottom of the sphere, perpendicular to her own, and then his hands began to glow softly blue. He touched the greenish magic between her hands, and a spark jumped around inside, like lightning contained in a ball. The corner of his mouth turned up. “Fascinating. Solid, and hollow. It seems barriers have seeped into your essence, Asala.” It was inflected with humor, but he didn’t seem to be entirely jesting.

His hands still in place, he moved his eyes from their hands to hers. “There’s no reason to change what works. Are you familiar with how to compress your barriers, make them as small as possible, and then expand them? If you can minimize the volume inside, and make sure your target is hit by the outer shell, it should work just the same as mine does. Here.” He half-rotated, so that he could point out towards a piece of driftwood stuck in the frozen lake. It lit on fire, bursting into a bright conflagration.

“It’s a large area, but not a strong version of the spell. Try banishing that.”

The spell between her hands fizzled out as Asala turned toward the fire. She frowned for a moment, quietly wishing the flame was closer to ward off the cold. Still, she held out her hands, palm outwards, as if she was trying to warm with with the distant fire. Soon, however, the familiar green glow enveloped her hands, and a tiny bright green sphere appeared in the middle of the flames. Her brows contorted and she bit the corner of her lip as she concentrated. It was different than controlling her ordinary barriers. Once she got a good feel of her sphere, she slowly began to move her hands apart.

Mimicking her motion, the barrier likewise began to grow in volume, at least until it grew to about a yard in diameter. Asala tried to hold the dispel barrier together, but it still began to twist and deform until it dispersed entirely. Though the dispel fizzled out, it still snuffed out a circle of flame in the wood, though its edges were still alight. "Wait, wait, wait," she bade eagerly, "I have an idea."

Her hands slipped into the green glow again, though this time instead of a sphere, the dispel manifested in flat square. Instead of trying to regulate its size, Asala simple swiped her hand, causing the square to wipe across the driftwood, extinguishing the fire wherever it touched. It took a pair of passes to get all of the flames, and by the end of it a film of sweat had worked itself onto her forehead, but her goal was accomplished. She turned back to Cyrus beaming with a wide smile on her lips.

Cyrus seemed to find this quite amusing, if the chuckling was anything to go by. He shook his head, grinning back at her. “Hardly the most efficient method, but remarkably creative, I’ll give you that.” Even when his laughter died away, his smile remained, and he waved a hand. “You know, it takes most people at least a month to make that much progress on this spell, and more to master it. If master is even the right word to use.” He rolled his eyes, some of the sharpness returning to his expression.

“When we close the Breach, I want you to direct the mages. We’ll need someone trustworthy holding both groups together, and the Commander can doubtless take care of the templars. Worst case scenario, you can channel whatever efforts the mages muster in the right direction, at least, with those barriers of yours.” He arched a brow, perhaps in anticipation of a protest.

"D-direct?" Asala sputtered, "What... what do you mean b-by direct?" she asked, the unsettling image of her standing in front of a formation of mages lingering in her mind.

He waved a dismissive hand. “Nothing too unsettling, I assure you. I will be asking them all to cast dispel magic at the same time, after the templars have cleansed the Breach to the best of their abilities. All you have to do is relay the signal to the rest and perform the spell also. Some of them are still edgy around the templars, and will doubtless be uncomfortable being so close to a mass cleanse. You’ll also all be ingesting some amount of lyrium beforehand to increase your efficacy, and some of them haven’t had any in a while. Might be a little jumpy, but a barrier should take care of any wayward spell residue, no?”

"Uh..." She was a comforted a bit, but still very clearly nervous about the whole idea. "I, uh, I s-suppose so..." She said, scratching under her horn. To be honest, she would probably be a little anxious after a mass cleanse too. She made a mental note to speak to Aurora afterward, but otherwise nodded, though reluctantly.

"What... uh, what will you be doing?" Asala asked curiously.

His smile widened, looking some strange mix of that innocent delight and something much more savvy. I am going to be casting a very particular spell of my own devising. It should stabilize the Breach at its weakest point after all that disruption, and make it much easier for Stellulam and Romulus to close it.” He nodded down at the books still on the dock. “With a bit more work, I should also be able to modify it to more permanently steady their marks as well, which are bound to expand after what they do—assuming they do not disappear when the Breach does.” It seemed like he didn’t think they would, though the exact nature of his hypotheses was difficult to pin down. Cyrus wore a lot of expression openly on his face, but for all that his thoughts remained obscure.

"That is..." she began, but interrupted herself as she finally parsed everything he'd just said. "Wait, disappear? They could disappear? That is a possibility?" She asked, her eyes wide and the worry written clear on her face. "That... That is not good!" she rather understated.

Cyrus looked confused for a moment, blinking slowly at her, until the issue seemed to come to him in a flash of insight and he snorted, holding up his hands placatingly. “The marks, Asala. Not the people who bear them. Really, do you think I’d be this unconcerned if I believed two people, one of whom is my sister, could simply vanish afterwards?” He arched his brows, regarding her with a skeptical look.

Her answer was a flat "Oh." The blush was returning to her face at an alarming rate, and she could feel the heat from the flush to her cheeks. She didn't look to meet his eyes, rather, she stared off into an unremarkable part of the lake. "Well, um, that is, uh..." She said, clearly unable to find the words underneath all of her embarrassment. "So I should perhaps go prepare then, yes?" She asked, pointing back in the direction of Haven.

"I-I think so, yes," she said, attempting to make her way in the direction.

“You do that.” He spoke loud enough to be audible to her though she departed, and his amusement with the situation remained evident.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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Then the Maker said:
To you, My second-born, I grant this gift:
In your heart shall burn
An unquenchable flame
All-consuming, and never satisfied.
From the Fade I crafted you,
And to the Fade you shall return
Each night in dreams
That you may always remember Me.
—Canticle of Threnodies 5:7

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The air still smelled like burning flesh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Inquisition had succeeded.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He charged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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Panic set in immediately and clutched Asala's heart. The deafening roar of something terrible doubled her over and forced her hands to her ears to try and drown out the sound. It didn't help, of course, she could feel the ferocity of the cry in her bones, she could feel its hate. Eventually the roar subsided, but the dread she felt did not. Slowly Asala took a step back, but her foot caught something and she was thrown backward. She landed on top of something, and when she turned to see what to what it was, the dead eyes of a Venatori soldier stared back at her. She cried out in surprise and scrambled away from the charred corpse.

She reached the trebuchet and used it to pull herself to her feet. All around her, the scene was the same. Bloodied and charred Ventori, broken and shattered red templars, and even some of the Inquisition soldiers lay dead around them. But all of that only garnered her attention for a moment, as the sound of the massive wing beats drew her eyes upward. A great black dragon with leathery jet wings flew silhouetted against the night stars. Asala's eyes went wide in fear and terror, causing her to slip back down to the ground, her back pressed against the trebuchet and her gaze pinned upward.

She watched it descend and sink its talons into a another trebuchet, wrecking it like it was made of nothing but rotten wood. Panic seeped in again, this time with a shot of adrenaline, and she pushed herself up from the ground and quickly took a few cautionary steps away. Over the din of everything, she could still hear the cries of battle and the ringing of metal against metal. She turned and found Cyrus, her eyes wide and confused. She didn't know what to do any more, and she looked to him for direction.

His attention too was pinned on the dragon, but he wore no expression of fear. Rather, Cyrus seemed to be studying it, a sharp stare following its wheels and turns in the sky carefully. He was mouthing words, though it was impossible to tell what they were, or if they had any volume at all, over the din of battle. When the dragon passed temporarily out of sight, his eyes fell back down, and only then did he seem to observe the chaos around them for the first time, flicking his gaze back and forth between each component of their situation rapidly, absorbing the information and processing it.

A muscle in his jaw jumped, and his scrutiny fell on her briefly, before skittering to Estella and then the rest. He looked like he was about to say something, loud enough for everyone to hear this time, but it was at about that point that a small cluster of other soldiers stumbled upon the site, all in various states of woundedness. “Fall back to the Chantry!” The words were hasty and slurred, but nevertheless effective. “Commander’s orders!”

“You heard him, let’s go.” That seemed to be mostly directed at Estella and Vesryn, but then he glanced to Asala, gesturing up Haven’s hill with a sharp tilt of his head as he turned.

Vesryn withdrew away from the thickest fighting, his spear coated in blood, and much of his armor spattered as well, though he was moving quite efficiently, a sign that he hadn't suffered too much in return as of yet. His axe as well was dripping dark red, and even small bits of red lyrium crystals clung to the blade of the weapon, from where it sat upon his back. He moved back swiftly, always keeping his shield towards the enemy, his helmet darting left and right to watch his path as he moved.

"I'll watch the rear," he stated, leaving no room for argument. A reckless Venatori found himself skewered upon the spear, and Vesryn shoved him off onto his back with a kick from a metal boot. "No time to lose, we can't get cut off." He was clearly referring to the fact that elsewhere the Venatori and Red Templars were finding more success, and starting to break through into Haven, where they could run rampant. It would get very messy soon, unless they could fall back and find a better place to hold them off.

Estella was covered in cuts and scratches—they’d pulled her out of sleep and she hadn’t had time to don much more than a leather cuirass and boots before they were off again, and the lack of protection had hurt. All things considered though, the wounds were light, and it was obvious enough that she’d somehow avoided the worst of all of them. Looking between the others, she nodded, leading the way forward. Their path took them towards the gate first, after which they’d be able to go up the hill, past the tavern again, and then to the Chantry.

The scene that met them upon approaching the gate was not a pretty one. There were fewer corpses here, but the gate itself was clearly but a few blows from caving inward. Spotting Lia and Tanith in the crowd, Estella shouted out. “Fall back to the Chantry, everyone! The Commander’s called a retreat!” As if to punctuate the statement, the heavy wooden gate groaned in protest again as it was struck from the outside—presumably, they were using a battering ram.

Most of the soldiers looked quite glad to be going along with that plan, but Tanith looked at the gate for a long moment before turning back to Estella. “If we don’t hold them here, you won’t have enough time to get out before we’re overrun. Some of us must stay, and I will stay with them.” Quickly, she turned to the soldiers. “Men and women of the Inquisition! Who among you will remain, that your Herald, and your brothers and sisters in arms, might live to fight another day?”

There was a moment of heavy silence, but then a woman stepped forward, her shield to the fore, and saluted Estella with her sword. “For the Inquisition.” Several of those who’d been standing closest to her followed, with various affirmations of for the Inquisition, for the Herald, or even for Thedas. No few of these people had been wearing broad grins earlier in the evening, celebrating with joy and abandon, but there was no trace of that now. In the end, Tanith had two dozen footsoldiers with her, and they all rearranged hurriedly so as to be in front of the gate itself, forming a wall of shields and spears, those in the back line drawing bows and pointing them for the door. In front of the rest, Tanith lit a flame in one hand, a dagger held in a reverse grip in the other, and glanced over her shoulder.

“We’ll hold. The rest of you—get to the Chantry. And tell Rilien I’m sorry, would you?”

Estella’s face twisted into an expression of clear pain, and she looked almost as though she intended to protest, but in the end, something stayed her tongue, and she nodded solemnly to them. “I will. Thank you, all of you. Fight well.” Her voice nearly cracked, but she managed to hold it steady. The need for haste was still apparent, however, and she turned from them then, jogging up the hill with the rest of the group and the remainder of those who had been posted at the gate.

Asala quietly followed, her eyes wide in shock. It was all too difficult to process what was happening, and she didn't truly understand it all. There was smoke and blood in the air, and deeper into the town the crimson of fires burned. She felt empty and numb, her feet moving on their own behind Estella and Cyrus. As they drew closer to the Chantry, the clash of steel reached her ears, and she looked up to see a small cluster of Venatori. They must have found a breach somewhere within the wall. Their armor was covered in scarlet and around their feet lay multiple bodies-- not all of them soldiers of the Inquistion. Amongst the pile, Asala recognized the face of Adan, the alchemist who'd aided her.

Her hand covered her mouth and she choked back a sob. Her legs trembled and threatened to buckle under her own weight. So distraught was she, that she didn't see the Venatori archer draw his bow, his arrow aimed at them.

The arrow flew from the end of the bow, its trajectory straight and unerring, at least until there was another body in front of it, Cyrus leaving afterimages behind as he pulled through the Fade to the spot, the luminous sword in his hand swinging in a controlled arc that snapped the arrow in two, the halves of it flying off in different directions. The bolt of lightning that he shot from his free hand cooked the archer in his armor, and the cultist dropped heavily to the ground.

“Asala! Focus! We’re not done yet!”

She shook her head, hard, and her eyes focused. Closing her eyes she forced everything to the back of her mind and drew her hands up. A Venatori with a large sword rushed them, and in a moment, the fade lit up in her hands. A barrier formed feet in front of him and surged forward. He attempted to hew through the shield, but the sword bounced off and left hairline cracks in it, but it continued to bowl forward regardless. The barrier struck the man at full force, throwing him back first into the ground hard. The wheezing he let out caused Asala to wince, but otherwise she did not back away.

The fight was a short one, in total, and the last Venatori soldier fell before Estella, a saber-stroke opening a broad gash on his neck, gushing arterial blood onto the snow. Her expression was grim, but resolute. “It’s not far now; let’s go.” She took point again, leading them up the last staircase and onto the highest level of the town itself, where they could glimpse ahead of them several others standing by the Chantry doors.

There were a lot of maroon tunics in the mix—it would seem the Lions had made it this far as well, and from the prominent scorch marks on their clothes and the soot-covered civilians that they herded inside the building, their progress here had been no easier than anyone else’s. As the group approached, they drew the attention of the mercenaries, who looked quite relieved to see them.

“Thank the Maker,” Donnelly said as they approached, breathing a heavy exhale. “Commander Leon’s lot are inside already, and we’ve got most of the civilians and remaining troops as well. You should hurry—he’ll want to speak with you.” He gestured for the group to head inside ahead of himself and the other Lions.

The small Chantry was brimming with people, civilians and soldiers alike. There was a loud clamor of multiple voices all speaking at once, and in various states of panic. The unrest felt within the building was palpable, and Asala wanted nothing more than to close her ears and drown it all out. But she didn't. Instead, she threw herself into work. As they approached the leaders of the Inquisition, Asala stopped and began to heal all of those that needed it. The work helped take her mind off of the panic in her heart, and the focus helped drown out the dread.

As she helped a soldier with a large gash in his side, she watched as the others approached the Inquisition's leaders. Marceline stood with her arms crossed and a thin frown on her lips as she spoke to Leon and Rilien. It seemed she had just been roused from bed, as she still wore a black nightgown, though she also wore a thick coat that was far too big for her and a pair of thick leather boots. Nearby, her husband rested heavily against a pillar, a thin line of blood falling from his temple, and a pair of swords hanging limply from his hands. Larissa comforted Pierre with a firm grip on his shoulders and whispering something into his ears. Leon was fully armored now, his arms crossed over his broad chest, but when they entered, his eyes were immediately upon them, and a fraction of the tension left his frame.

Rilien looked the same as he ever did, still unerring in his calm, though not too far away, Khari seemed considerably more agitated, pacing restlessly. She too was fully armored now, and wearing her familiar cleaver-like sword. Her expression brightened for a moment upon seeing them, but then her eyes moved to the cluster of the Inquisition's leaders, as though she were waiting for something.

Leon said something to his fellow Inquisition leaders, too low to hear properly, and then nodded shortly, drawing in what seemed to be a very deep breath indeed, before he gestured to Asala and the rest of the irregulars, both those who’d just entered and the ones who were already there. Once everyone had assembled in a rough circle, he began to speak, his voice low enough not to carry much further than their ring of people.

“There isn’t much time until they reach us, as I’m sure you're aware.” He glanced up, towards the doors, where several Inquisition soldiers were at work fortifying the entrance to the Chantry with whatever was available, setting up an inverted ‘v’ of pews, a traffic control tactic that would likely do no one any good in the end. “I don’t know who this is or where they got a dragon, but we’ve no hope of holding Haven.” He shot a glance to Marceline.

She shook her head and drew the coat tighter over her shoulders. "We have our essential supplies packed into carts and the horses are ready..." She said before she hesitated. She threw a wary glance over her shoulder and toward her son and husband, before she returned it to the group. Marceline sighed heavily before she continued. "But, we have nowhere to escape to. We would not make it out the front gate before we were cut down." Though her face betrayed no emotion, her grip on the coat noticably tightened. "And I do not know of any other way out of Haven."

The group was interrupted at that point by an approaching Reed, who half-carried Chancellor Roderick, one of the clergyman’s arms slung over the corporal’s shoulders. Roderick’s white vestments bore a very obvious red stain, though it would seem he wasn’t currently bleeding. Rather, his face looked wan, bleached of all color, and a healer as experienced as Asala knew he was dying from blood loss.

“He said he had to talk to you, Commander,” Reed offered to Leon, whose brows drew together over his eyes.

Asala quickly moved to Roderick's other side and gestured for Reed to gently lower him into a sitting position on the ground. Once there, Asala's hand lit up in a healing spell and she moved it over the wound. She tilted her head toward Leon and gave him a curt shake of his head. It... did not look good, and she doubted that he was within her power to save, but it would not stop her from trying. She focused in on his wound and began to try and help as much as she could-- at the very least, she could dull the pain.

"Charming girl," he said, having apparently caught the look she gave Leon. Roderick patted her gently on the head before he weakly turned her head toward Leon. "Ser Albrecht," he began, before wincing in pain. "There is a way. You wouldn't know it unless you've taken the summer pilgrimage as I have. The people can escape. She must've shown me," he said weakly, but still tried to reach his feet. A steadying hand from Asala and a constant healing spell at his said, she helped guide him up.

"Andraste must have shown me so I can-can tell you."

“What do you mean, Chancellor?” Leon’s tone seemed to waver between gentle and stern, as though he could not quite resolve the tension between the urgency of their situation and his evident sympathy for the cleric. “Shown you what?”

“It was whim that I walked the path,” he replied, his mind clearly not at its usual alert capacity, which was probably the result of the wound he’d taken earlier. “Now, with so many in the Conclave dead, to be the only one that remembers…” He wheezed, a sound that might have been a rueful laugh, had he the lung capacity for it. “If this simple memory can save us… then this could be more than mere accident.” He turned his head, clearly making an effort to fix his eyes on Romulus and Estella. You could be more…”

“Will it work?” Estella asked urgently, training her gaze on Rilien and Leon. The commander turned to the Tranquil as well, perhaps trusting his instinct in clandestine retreat better than his own.

It did not take him long to consider. “Possibly. If you can show us the way.” His expression remained devoid of any readable traces, until he turned the scant bit needed to move his citrine eyes from Roderick to the others. “But it will take time, and the opposition must be occupied while it occurs.” The gravity of what he was saying was apparent in his pitch, somehow, though he didn’t modulate much at all. He was saying, clearly enough, that some group of people would need to remain behind and distract the encroaching force while the rest escaped. And the prospect of those people escaping was near to nothing.

"So we give them something they’ll be drawn to, as bait,” Romulus cut in, buckling on the second of his bracers. Estella looked as though she’d been about to speak, but yielded the floor when the now battle-geared assassin spoke up instead. His weapons were soon in his hands, making his next words perhaps less surprising. "I’ll go, with a few others maybe. I could try to reach one of the trebuchets, turn it towards the mountains behind us. Hit the right spot, and…” He pushed his hands down, a gesture symbolizing an avalanche as best he could make it.

"Bury them in the village they want to take?” Vesryn said, grinning slightly as he leaned on his spear, though he appeared largely uninjured. "Not a bad plan for our escape, but that doesn’t leave you with much of one.” Romulus had a look of steel in his eyes, and yet at the same time it had softened. Aggression towards the enemy, out of desire to help friends, perhaps.

"I was going to be gone in the morning anyway,” he admitted, glancing at Khari. "But this is a choice I can make. One choice of my own. I want it to be a good one.”

“I’m going with you.” That was Khari, and she said it with iron in her voice, a tone that left no room for protest. It didn’t take long, though, for that impression to almost dissipate, subsumed under her usual carefree demeanor, complete with reckless smile. “Can’t well run away while my friend goes off to fight a dragon and fire a trebuchet at a whole mountain, now can I?” She put one fist in her other palm in front of her chest, cracking her knuckles and shaking her hands out, shifting deliberately from one foot to another, as though to make sure everything was working the way she wanted it to.

Romulus simply nodded, offering no objection, and smiling slightly, as though unsurprised.

Estella glanced back and forth between them, still looking a bit like she’d swallowed something that didn’t agree with her, something tightening around her eyes, but she didn’t say anything. Leonhardt didn’t seem especially pleased, either, but clearly he believed that the suggestion made sense, and he nodded slowly. “Very well,” he said at last. “Give me a moment; I’ll see who among the others would join you—skilled as you are, the distraction needs to last, or it will be for naught.”

He left them there for several minutes, during which he made a short circuit of the room, returning with four Inquisition regulars, looking nervous but resolute, and, surprisingly enough, Grand Enchanter Fiona. She nodded to the group, smiling grimly. “I failed to protect my people once,” she explained, “I will not do so again.”

A pair of horns muscled their way toward the group and Meraad emerged with his arms crossed and his head tilted to the side. After a moment of him glancing between them, he nodded. "I will join you."

"No." The healing spell in Asala's hand cut off abruptedly and caused Roderick to wince as the pain rushed back. She shifted his weight so that Reed was left holding onto him again, and she moved toward Meraad. "No, you will not," she stated firmly as she stood in front of him. The frown she wore was deep and wide and she held his wrists as tight as she dared.

He simply smiled and shook his head. "I am, and I will." A muscle tightened in her jaw and she was about to refuse him again, but he silenced her by pressing his forehead gently against her. "For you, Kadan. I have to make sure you escape safely." With that said, he withdrew and threw a glance back at Romulus and Khari. "Someone has to make sure they come back," he said still smiling. "We will be fine. I promise," he said, kissing her forehead.

She was quiet after that, her mouth open but she didn't know what to say. She stared at him long and hard before she spoke again. "You... promise?" she asked, to which he nodded. Her gaze lingered for a moment longer before she went into the pack at her side. She retrieved a container and pulled the lid off to reveal a white, paint-like substance. She dipped a pair of fingers into it a scooped some out.

Without needing her to ask him, he leaned forward and she drew a pair of lines across his forehead with the vitaar, and another pair down his forehead, across his brow, and all the way to his jaw. He then offered her his arms, and she drew another pair of lines down each of them. When she was done, she replaced the lid, slipped the container back in her pack, and took a step backward. She was on the verge of tears, before she threw herself into his arms.

"Come back, Kadan," and with that, she returned to Roderick's side and resumed the healing spell, throwing herself back into her work.

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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