0
followers
follow

Estella Avenarius

"I've never felt anything so wonderful as the realization that I'm not alone."

0 · 2,051 views · located in Thedas

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

Description

Image


Image






ImageImage
Image

Image
Credit
Full Name: Estella Severa Calligenia Avenarius, also born Eliana Saeris
Titles/Nicknames: Lady Inquisitor. Stel, to some. Her brother calls her Stellulam.
Age: 28 (9:44)
Race: Elf-Blooded
Gender: Female
Sexual Orientation: Heterosexual
Class: Mage
Specialization: Vitamancer; a practitioner of the elven art Dirthin'era.

Hair Color: Black
Eye Color: Indigo
Height: 5’7”
Build: Svelte

Appearance: At first glance, Estella is certainly not what most people expect when they hear the word “mage.” Absent the robes and carrying weapons made of steel, she's lightly-armored in leather and with a certain wariness in her eyes and confidence in her step, both sure markers of someone who has not just left a Circle. In appearance, she is much more what she claims to be: a mercenary. Sleek but not thin, she could be a citizen of any number of cities or countries in Thedas, and her voice, muted but not meek, lends no particular accent to the vernacular.

Her hair is very dark, black rather than brown, and could easily be identified as the one vanity in an appearance that is otherwise quite utilitarian (though not plain in the usual sense). It’s lush and shiny, kept somewhat impractically at the length of her waistline, though most often bound in some fashion so as to keep it from becoming a serious impediment. Her eyes, almond-shaped and thickly-lashed, are a dark blueish color, with faint traces of purple, the exact shade her brother shares. Somewhat if not exceptionally tall for a woman, she carries herself with excellent posture and a considerable amount of grace, two things that lend her an impression of softness and a certain degree of poise. It wouldn't necessarily be a mistake to call her appearance feminine, though to do so might imply a little too much, because that usually insinuates a sort of deliberate effort that she does not seem to have made.

Her clothing is uniformly unadorned, the majority of pieces black, grey, or slate blue, when she's not wearing the colors of her company. Her everyday clothing is nothing fancy, about what one would expect of a well-paid merc, so decent linens, occasionally with the Lions' crest somewhere on the gear, trousers, and supple boots. Hindering her movement would be a foolish idea, and so the majority of her armor is close-fitting leather, in more pieces rather than fewer to maintain as much mobility as possible. There are occasionally metal plates, if small ones, on more vulnerable spots, or ones she may have to block with in bad situations, but she is at best armored as a skirmisher rather than a warrior proper, and just as often enters battle with significantly less protection. She carries a slightly-curved sword at her right hip, as she is left handed, the edge facing to the rear. There is also a dagger worn sideways at the small of her back, so as to be drawn straight out with her right hand.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
Estella’s never been one to cut corners when it comes to her training, but even she’ll freely admit that it’s much more effective when Rilien’s around to instruct. And then, of course, she’s joined Khari for chevalier-caliber morning workouts, which all means she’s been seriously beaten into shape over the past year. It shows—she’s a little leaner, and her muscles are much more sharply-delineated than they were before. She’s also got a pretty wicked scar on her leg just below her knee, the remaining evidence that it was once crushed by a very big hammer.

Though she still dresses very plainly, especially for someone in her position, she’s shifted color schemes from the maroon, silver, and black of the Lions to the russet, brown, and gold of the Inquisition. They aren’t her favorite colors, but she thinks it’s important to get the details right when it comes to this kind of thing. She might not have asked for it—or even wanted it—but she’s the Inquisitor now, and she needs to demonstrate that. In the little ways as well as the big ones.

9:43
Spoiler: show
Estella has never bothered to give too much thought to her appearance. Just enough to know that she likes her hair and doesn't mind the rest of it, most days. But, well, funny how certain things will make the details seem a little more important. The result of this additional consideration has been... mixed, to say the least. With each year, a little more youthful immaturity fades from her face, leaving her a bit closer to the woman she was always becoming. It's a bit of a complicated matter for her, because of who she knows she resembles, but she's not entirely displeased with the changes time is working on her. She did always think she looked slightly too young for her age, after all.

Much more prominently and considerably less-favorably, she's very conscious of the fact that she is slowly accumulating quite the inventory of scar tissue. There's the one on her leg from the Hand's hammer, one each on her lower back and abdomen from Obsession's knife, and other, smaller ones various and sundry. She can't help but think they look... unfortunate.

The strain of her job sometimes shows on her, though its effects have yet to sink particularly deeply. Estella is often found with dark circles beneath her eyes, and many of her expressions have a certain careworn aspect to them. But she also smiles now, more than she ever used to. She's more expressive on the whole, in part because she thinks she has more to be expressive about, and in part because she thinks there are people here who can be entrusted with her real feelings. She walks taller than she ever used to, her posture excellent and her treads light, almost gliding. It took a long time for that soft-footedness and grace to become natural to her, but they are—at least most of the time.

9:44
Spoiler: show
New year, new scars. The inventory this time had two notable entries: the first just along the line of her jaw on the left side, the mark of a Red Templar who gave her name only as Em. Someone Estella desperately wanted to save, but could not. The second is vertical, sitting just underneath her ribcage, knotted and red-white. That one was from Fenesvir Ellas, general in Artlathan. Someone she desperately wanted to survive.

Her appearance is otherwise largely unchanged. She holds herself a little better on average now, not just when she needs to put on a show of confidence. Perhaps she also smiles a little more often. It's hard not to, when she spends so much time in the company of people with excellent and robust senses of humor.

“I seem to be accumulating an anthology of scar stories.
Maybe that's not so bad.”

ImageImage



Image



Image
Credit
Apparent Demeanor: She projects a studied, quiet thoughtfulness, when she feels at ease. Estella is not one to speak more than is warranted, though she can hold a conversation with most anyone without significant issues. Only if the other person is especially awkward themselves does it start to affect her, in which case she can swiftly become the same. She is otherwise not ostentatious in her self-presentation in the slightest, but humble, though she does not at first seem to lack assuredness. Her posture is perfect, her gait soft and rolling and easy over seemingly any terrain. She looks almost at home anywhere she should find herself... assuming she's not thinking about it.

Stel is quick to smile or laugh, but these things are not ostentatious either. Her smiles are more often a quirk of the lip than a full-blown grin, a chuckle or snicker rather than a gale of laughter. She is something half in a shell, still, reserved without being reticent. Cool and still rather than warm and effusive, but not cold, either. A little bit wry, a little bit too serious most of the time, perhaps, but readily-enough switching to something a bit more relaxed if someone points this out.

As with everything else, it is not too obvious, but if asked or observed in the relevant situations, she would seem to be quite religious, in the Andrastian tradition. There are no physical markers to distinguish the two, but her faith is that of the Imperium rather than the South, though of late she would say that it is much less strong than it once was. She holds the values of charity and mercy quite high, though like anyone else, she sometimes struggles with them in practice. Doubt, of all the flaws in character, is her most persistent demon, so to speak, and she is forced to confront it often.

Definitely more direct than dissembling, cunning politics seem lost on her for the most part, though she is nevertheless smart enough to be capable of interesting conversation and, if goaded into it, witty repartée, a side of her that is more evident when her twin is present. She has a childlike aspect as well, most easily observed in her affection for animals of all kinds, from enormous cranky brontos all the way down to fennec foxes, squirrels, and mousing-cats.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
A great burden has been placed upon Estella’s shoulders. It’s not one she asked for or ever desired, and it’s not one she believes she’s especially suited to bear—if anyone can be suited to bear something like this in the first place. No longer are her failures hers alone; she is now responsible, in an important sense, for the well-being and futures of hundreds of people. She doesn’t bear that burden alone, but she does bear it publicly, and centrally. This is most of her worst nightmares realized, in all honesty. But there is no choice: she must try, and in trying she will either succeed or fail. She cannot opt out, cannot shunt responsibility onto someone else.

It’s a huge shift in her life, as it would be for just about everyone. Any comfort she had about her position in the world has been snatched away like a blanket in the middle of winter, leaving her to wince against the harsh chill of reality. She has to be a leader now. A soldier. A diplomat. And the bar for “good enough” is far higher than she’s ever believed herself capable of reaching. It’s no longer enough to merely work as hard as she can, and hope that skill comes to her gradually, with time and dedication—she needs to be as good at all of this as she can, as soon as she can. The pressure, both external and self-imposed, is nearly crushing, even with the help of the people around her.

In some ways, this has made her even less certain of herself than she already was. Where she might have fit into her life as a modest mercenary officer with time and practice, being the leader of an entire army tasked with saving the world from an ancient and powerful darkspawn is something else completely—something she has no basis for believing she’ll succeed at. But she knows enough about leading to know that she cannot allow her doubts to become obvious to the people she leads. And so she’s doubled down not only on her diligence and her doubt, but also on her methods of concealing her true thoughts and feelings from those around her. She’s hiding, retreating into a shell like a turtle under assault, but it’s all she can do.

Her connection to her faith is withering—perhaps strange, considering the number of people who proclaim that she was chosen by Andraste or the Maker for some divine purpose. Deep in her heart, Estella feels the falsity of that claim. She’s not destined for anything. She’s not some shining beacon of hope, meant to lead the faithful through the dark into the dawn. She’s just a girl who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and wound up in way over her head. But she has to let all those people believe that lie if there’s to be even a chance of success—that much, others have convinced her of. It feels wrong to her, deeply wrong; she’s disgusted with herself for doing it, however necessary it is. If Andraste were really divine, if she really had control of the fates of people, then she would have chosen someone other than Estella for this purpose.

Maybe she did. Maybe it was only accident or coincidence that Estella wound up with the same power as the real chosen. But even so… it’s hard to believe any of this would be nearly as messy as it is if some god or bride of a god were really involved in it.

It’s hard to believe any god could hate her so much as this.

9:43
Spoiler: show
The trials of the past year have been many, but Estella has survived and overcome every one of them. It wasn't something she ever would have thought herself capable of before, and she does place most of the credit for these achievements firmly with other people. But at the same time, she'd have to be outright foolish not to see that at least in some cases, she helped. Much more than she harmed, in any case. It's almost bewildering information, the sort of thing she isn't even really sure how to handle. So for now, she allows herself to be cautiously optimistic about what it might mean.

Perhaps—perhaps—she's been wrong about herself this whole time. And perhaps other people really have seen in her things that she has been blind to. It's a staggering possibility, one she is still far too tentative to fully embrace. But it's enough to create a little doubt in her mind every time she reflexively believes the worst. Enough to make her pause and think.

It's not ideal that she's one of the Inquisitors. But she, and they, might just succeed anyway.

9:44
Spoiler: show
Though she'll perhaps never quite be as confident as her deeds give her a right to, Estella has come a long way. What was once a pervasive self-flagellation is now an echo of what it used to be, twinges of unfair comparison and assessment that she's learned not to dwell on too much. Letting that go had brightened her considerably, make her feel lighter and better and happier, even in the midst of a protracted war like the one the Inquisition is waging.

She's also less hesitant to express these emotions, and the number of people she trusts enough to be herself around only continues to grow. Surprisingly, it hasn't come back to bite her yet, and she lets herself hope that it never will. Not here. Not with them.


Hangups/Quirks: Estella’s primary hangup is of a self-evaluative nature. Growing up in Tevinter, where mages rule, and being born to a magical, if not excessively prominent, family, engendered certain expectations regarding her talent. More than that, though, she was negatively influenced by a very simple fact: though she and Cyrus were twins, and in many ways very similar, he was an exceptionally-talented mage from a very young age, good enough to be considered a prodigy in the most magical nation in Thedas. Estella was, at every stage of her development, barely adequate. Sometimes, she wasn’t even that. As a result, she has serious issues with her confidence, and a very demeaning self-conception, sometimes made worse rather than better by the fact that Cyrus never acknowledged her shortcomings as such.

Unexpectedly, the woman has a stubborn streak a mile wide. While others in her situation would simply give up on attempting to be better at what they do—and she in fact once had that attitude—what has grown in place of it is a diligence that will turn aside for almost nothing. Someone telling her that she can’t is rarely actually enough to dissuade her, and her will is one of steel. She will beat herself against a wall repeatedly in an attempt to knock it down, even if it is made of stone and her bones would break sooner.

She’s amusingly fond of small animals, and large ones, for that matter, and has picked up sketching as a habit and way to relax herself when necessary.

9:44
Spoiler: show
As her self-esteem builds, Estella is less likely to second-guess herself in quite the same way. That's not to say that all of her hangups have magically vanished, of course. One that still remains is something of a family issue: she doesn't really feel comfortable laying claim to either side of her heritage, and to her that's a significant omission. Things are complicated on both sides, and as many half-blooded children could probably attest, it's hard to feel like she really belongs to any world. That there's really anything she came from. Most days it's not that bad, but it's still a bit lonely for someone who's always wanted family and that sense of belonging.


Strengths: Estella has never been talented at anything in her entire life. While she isn’t always consciously aware of it, this has actually left her in possession of a virtue: nearly unwavering persistence. She also possesses the intelligence to look at problems in new ways, and a certain straightforwardness and honesty which makes her easy to trust. She may never be talented at anything, but she has become good at several things due to these traits, and the humility required to heed the advice of people more knowledgeable and experienced than she. She has not a shred of arrogance in her, nor haughtiness, and that makes her more open-minded than most, though she’s guarded about it. The strengths she has that she would identify as such, however, are only three: she is good with languages (she speaks every human language in Thedas to at least a passable degree, in fact), her memory, especially for faces, names, and events, and, rather lamely, her skill at card games, at least the ones that require bluffing.

9:43
Spoiler: show
These fundamental strengths are slowly leading her to develop derivative ones. Strange as she finds it, the things her teachers impart to her are sticking. Maybe not as fast as they would for someone else—in fact, certainly not that—but they are sticking all the same. She's better than passable as a physical combatant, and her magic is developing more quickly than she is accustomed to anything developing, where she is involved.

But perhaps most important of all, her strength of character has not faltered. Estella has been faced with significant choices over the course of the last year. Situations where the right thing to do and the safe or easy thing to do were not at all the same. Decisions that she has been mostly or wholly responsible for, all by herself. And she has never once chosen the easy thing over the right thing, even when that brought her into conflict with her allies. She is finding her own feet, as a leader and as a person, and the results have been impressive.

9:44
Spoiler: show
Surprisingly—to herself at least—Estella makes an effective leader. Perhaps not in the same way as some, but her empathy, compassion, and desire to do right by anyone and everyone have their own merits. The people who follow her do so from loyalty and genuine respect.


Weaknesses: Well… she’s never been talented at anything. If Estella needs to learn something new, it’s going to take her time to get it right, and this can at times frustrate her. Her visceral self-deprecation is also a bit of a problem, as it inhibits the learning process further, because she must first convince herself that she can learn something new. Her guilelessness also means that she is easily fooled or lied to, though not precisely naïve. She knows that plenty of terrible things happen in the world, she just doesn't seem to expect them from the people closest to her, and that faith in people has steered her both wrong and quite right before. Perpetually underestimates herself, to say the least.

Fears: She fears being seen, in a few senses of the phrase. On one level, she just fears public scrutiny—having too much attention makes her profoundly uncomfortable, as she is not accustomed to it in the slightest. On another, she is afraid of someone really seeing her—through not only through her façade of confidence and ease, but even through her disquiet humility, to what lies at the very core of her: an aching loneliness and persistent heartsickness that she hides behind a dozen other veneers. Someone told her once that if she pretended to be something long enough, eventually she would be. She only wishes that were true.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
She has so many things to fear now, on a daily basis. Sometimes, she wonders if there’s anything left in her but fear: the fear that it could all go disastrously wrong at any moment. That she’ll misstep, and no one will catch it quite in time. That she’ll miscalculate, and bring the entire Inquisition crashing down around her ears. That she’ll mortally offend a potential ally and the army will starve for lack of supplies as consequence. That she’ll err in the middle of a battle and get someone else killed. That she’ll give away the dirty secret she’s keeping: that she’s no one special at all, and the mythos that’s been built around her is nothing but smoke and mirrors. There are a thousand ways she could fail… and failing is the only thing she’s ever been able to do consistently.

9:43
Spoiler: show
It still hovers over her, that terrible fear that she will somehow undermine everything the Inquisition is working toward. She's conscious that even an errant word or command could do it, and having this kind of power is terrifying in and of itself. Beyond that, she has become deeply personally invested now in the lives of so many other people, and she fears on their behalves as well. They support each other, all of them, and if even one pillar falls, all will be weaker for it.

“Every day, I feel a little more like myself.”




ImageImage
Image

Image
Credit
STR:

DEX:

INT:

WIS:

CNG:

MAG:

WIL:

CON:
▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [6/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [8/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [8/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [6/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [8/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [9/10]

▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [5/10]


x
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
x

Weapon of Choice: Estella prefers lighter, single-edged blades, and carries an enchanted saber. The style that it allows is quick, efficient, and makes more use of her capability for nimble motion than her strength or size, which is fortunate, given her slighter stature. She also carries a stiletto, a thin type of dagger that is shaped so as to be able to slip between the joints of a knight’s armor, or puncture most leathers entirely. She rarely uses it to fight as such, though she can wield it in tandem with the saber, but it is a common “mercy” weapon for her—which is to say that, when a battle is done and those not standing aren’t quite dead but beyond healing—friend or foe—she will use the stiletto to end them quickly. Both weapons are made of high-quality steel, and the saber's magic allows it to do more damage to demons and the undead.

Fighting Style/Training: One might rightly expect a mage, especially one from Tevinter, to make use of her magic and basically nothing else in a fight. Estella does no such thing. In point of fact, she’s barely adequate with most types of magic, and this is a source of considerable personal shame for her. So, she has learned to fight in the ways that people without magic do, and prefers to keep it to that. Very pragmatic, she will obviously still throw a fireball if she needs to, she just knows she cannot rely on her magic to save her and expect to survive. So she has acquired some skill in a wide range of things, and mastered nothing. The perpetual student—but one who knows her limitations. Her style is quick, efficient, and even slightly brutal, much after the manner of the man who taught it to her.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
Her fighting style as such hasn’t really changed over the past year. More practice has, of course, sharpened her skills considerably—though she may be worse at noticing this than just about anyone else would be. She’s certainly benefited from morning exercise with Khari, as well as once again being in a position to get direct instruction from Rilien. If nothing else, wearing herself down physically for a while helps get her mind off all the things that are wearing her down in other ways.

9:43
Spoiler: show
Though she continues to train with Rilien and will always think of herself as his pupil first and foremost, Harellan has picked up the discarded remains of her magical education and salvaged what might be salvaged, adding on to the ends with knowledge he seems uniquely situated to impart. Dirthin'era, the way of inner magic, he calls it. The abilities are primarily focused around enhancing the capabilities of herself and her allies, rather than straightforward offense or defense as other mages lean towards. She actually has a knack for it, which is an entirely foreign feeling to her.

In addition, the past year saw her experimenting with and eventually gaining a competent mastery of the unique properties of her mark. It's very different from Romulus's, to be sure. There don't seem to be any straightforward offensive applications, but she can use it defensively, by cloaking herself in the Fade and—more importantly—using it to nearly-instantaneously transport herself (and others, if need-be) over short distances.

9:44
Spoiler: show
Estella's magic is getting stronger as she learns to control it. Though some of its applications are unnerving to say the least, it seems to come more readily to her than any of the styles she'd previously attempted to learn. As such, she integrates it more readily into her fighting style. The ability to do so saved her life more than once over the course of the year.

So did her growing control over her mark. She's discovered she can use it to warp the flow of time in a small field. This, in addition to her teleportation, adds effective battlefield control to her repertoire, though the duration of the ability is quite short.

“It's so strange. Like all of a sudden, everything I am makes sense.”

ImageImage



Image



Image
Credit

Place of Birth: Minrathous, Tevinter Imperium
Social Status/Rank: Mercenary and commoner, having willingly disowned every member of her family but one.

History: Estella has never known who her father was, and though she has her mother’s name, it means next to nothing to her. From her birth (and, she thinks on her more pessimistic days, unto her death) the only family she has really had is her brother, Cyrus. They were both born in the dead of winter, a mild season in Tevinter, but one often lashed by torrential downpours, like the one on the night they came into the world. The labor of birthing twins was a little too much for their mother, and even the healers could only keep her alive for a few months afterwards, before she died from complications of the birth.

For reasons unknown to her, the rest of her family chose to give the twins to the Chantry rather than adopting them, as would have been the expected move. Their mother was, after all, a talented mage, and even if they were bastards, there was a chance that they would be the same. As a matter of fact, her brother very much was, manifesting his magic for the first time at the tender age of seven. The family became very interested in them both after that, and there was talk of adoption after all. When Estella’s magic failed to manifest around the same time, she was passed over, left in the cloister while her brother was taken from it.

He insisted on seeing her frequently, much to the chagrin of his tutors, but they allowed it, or she can only assume they did. While Cyrus was tutored in magic, Estella remained in the chantry, serving by cleaning the place, mostly, and sneaking books from the library whenever possible. It was in this way that she met the Divine, Valhail III. She had unknowingly been taking books from his personal collection for several weeks when he caught her in the act. Instead of punishing her for the transgression, he employed her to keep his archives, since she was the only person who’d ever bothered to take the time to learn his organizational system.

Even when she discovered her own magic at the age of thirteen, she remained with the Chantry rather than taking an apprenticeship, and in the time between his more official duties and personal studies, Valhail worked with her on her own. She was, in fact, not an especially good student, and she imagined that he was extremely disappointed with her poor proficiency, eventually requesting an end to the lessons. So he taught her history and languages instead, as well as promoting her to the position of his personal assistant, more prestige than she could ever have expected, in truth.

ImageFor reasons she has thus far chosen not to divulge, Estella left the Imperium shortly before her twentieth birthday, in 9:36 Dragon. She made it as far as the Free Marches, Kirkwall specifically, before her exhaustion and injuries caught up with her, and she collapsed on the Wounded Coast after fighting off a small group of bandits. She would have died, most likely, but thankfully she was come upon by the mercenary company known as the Argent Lions, operated by one Lucien Drakon, presumptive heir to the Orlesian throne. At first intending to press onward further south, Estella chose to remain in Kirkwall, and joined up with the Lions, receiving training in weaponry under the tutelage of Lucien’s Tranquil friend, Rilien. She was tight-lipped about her magic, considering the state of the city at the time, but both Lucien and Rilien were aware of it.

After the explosion of the Chantry by a Kirkwall mage, and the ensuing battle, Lucien eventually returned to Orlais, taking half of the Lions with him and leaving the other half to be of whatever assistance they could to those trying to maintain order in the city. Estella was among those that left with him, and in the years afterwards, she became one of his officers, often dispatched solo or with small groups to deal with sensitive tasks that he felt he could trust to her. One such job was to provide security and support at the Conclave called by Divine Justinia V, to seek peace between the mages and the Templars.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
It’s difficult to imagine any change more radical in a life than the one she has undergone in the past year. At least in terms of circumstances. Estella began 9:41 Dragon as a newly-promoted Lieutenant in the Argent Lions—not a bad life, by any means, nor one she’d ever call unimportant. But it was relatively ordinary; she was almost comfortable with it.

Then, in the space of a day, her first mission as a squad leader went disastrously wrong, her entire squad was killed, the Conclave exploded, and she somehow survived and wound up with an arcane mark on her hand that she did not understand and only one fellow survivor. From there, it was nonstop: someone decided she was a Herald of Andraste, an Inquisition was formed with her and Romulus right in the middle, and they were out all over the Ferelden countryside, trying to close little holes in the world in hopes of building up the resources and power to close the big hole in the world.

She made a lot of friends—for that, she’ll always be grateful. But even those bright spots can’t quite chase away the darkness of the year, and the mounting sense of dread that she felt throughout. It was a dread that seemed almost prophetic when Haven fell, and all those people died. Some part of her refuses to accept that it wasn’t her fault somehow; it’s clouded her thoughts ever since. Even when two dear friends she’d thought dead returned, the situation changed relatively little. The Inquisition is still reeling and recovering from the losses. She’s still found herself the center of public scrutiny and responsibility she doesn’t think she can handle. Corypheus is still so much stronger than they are.

It still feels like only a matter of time before he destroys everything she cares about.

That’s not to say she’ll roll over and let it happen, but Estella has always tried to be realistic. And when the only people capable of standing against him have put her at the front…

Things aren’t looking good.

9:43
Spoiler: show
9:42 was quite an eventful year. Certainly not just for her, but nevertheless very prominently in her case.

For much of it, Estella just felt like she was being forced to watch people she'd grown to care for suffer, over and over again.

First, Romulus discovered the deception of Speaker Anais and the man who claimed to be his father. Then Khari reunited with her mentor, only to learn that he was not the man she believed him to be.

The journey to Adamant almost felt like the beginning of the end: somehow, she managed to open a rift into the Fade itself, dropping herself and half the Irregulars all into it still embodied. There she witnessed Ves suffer through Nightmare's interference with Saraya, and was forced to stand steady through that and the demon's attempt to bring her low by manipulating her own fears, both the oldest and freshest of them. What felt like bare success was tilted in the direction of catastrophic failure when exiting the Fade again came at the cost of the life of an old friend—the first person she'd met in Kirkwall, Warden-Captain Nostariel Riviera.

After that, things almost grew worse: Leon confessed that he was dying of something no magic or alchemy could fix. Cyrus—her poor, beloved brother—had his magic ripped from him in an assassination attempt that almost worked, plunging him into a period of crisis that Estella is unsure she even knows how to help him handle. Vesryn's reunion with his friends from Tirashan turned into a deeply-personal betrayal that left her almost dead and him somehow worse off than that, but in a completely different way.

But somehow, some way, things got better.

Estella doesn't think anything has ever made her feel quite as simultaneously happy and terrified as she did when he confessed to affection for her. She wasn't sure she was prepared to handle it, but just when she needed to believe she was enough for something as important as that, an old friend called upon her for help. And this friend, she was able to save. It was enough to carry her over some threshold she did not know was there, and she found the courage to admit what she felt for Ves in turn.

Harellan's arrival brought her information she had never thought she'd have: stories of her mother and father, and another fragment of family to weave into the lopsided patchwork of her life. A flicker of hope, slowly solidifying, that maybe, after all this time, she could chase her loneliness away for good. With time, and healing, and the love of friends and kin alike.

Despite everything, despite all the trials and all the pain, the Inquisition is more solid than ever. More united. And suddenly, being at the forefront of it doesn't seem like such a laughable impossibility. With friends like hers, with people like these beside her and surrounding her, even saving the world might just be doable. For the first time in perhaps ever, Estella has genuine hope.

That everything will be all right, after all.

9:44
Spoiler: show
After the events at Halamshiral put her friend and former boss on the Orlesian throne, Estella sort of thought there wasn't anything that could beat that for eventfulness. At least not for the rest of the year.

She was quite mistaken.

The two trips to Kirkwall were one thing—not completely unexpected given what the Inquisition is doing. But the trip to Tevinter, to Arlathan, was nothing she'd expected in even her wildest dreams. The events that precipitated it—watching Ves suffer and weaken—were heartrending. The trip itself was at once revelatory and somewhat disheartening. But there's no denying that it changed her, and in the end, things seem to be looking up: Ves is well for now, Estella knows more about herself and her family, Cyrus is on the mend...

Some part of her wonders how her luck could possibly be good. The other part—the echo of who she used to be—is only waiting for the other shoe to fall.



Image



Spoiler: show
Image
Credit
| Cyrus Avenarius |

"I think maybe things are finally looking up."

There's no denying the trials that Cyrus has been through, nor how much they've changed him. Losing his magic was a particularly-heavy blow, and the grief he suffered as a result was heartbreaking. But over time, Estella thinks he came to understand what she always had: that his value, his worth, really has nothing to do with it at all. He still probably doesn't quite get that it's not what he can do for people that matters, but even being mistaken in that way is so different from the person he used to be that she can't help but marvel at the shift in his mindset. She fully believes that when he undertakes the ritual to regain the magic, he'll be able to do so safely. Whether or not he knows it, she knows that the worst of his demons are dead.



Image
Credit
| Asala Kaaras |

"I can't thank her enough for all she's done, truly."

Estella knows better than most the value of a healer to an army, and Asala is very talented at what she does, even if perhaps not as expert as others she's known. More importantly, she has the right personality for it: compassion, persistence, and a genuine care for her patients that is admirable and reassuring to see. They get along quite well, when they get a chance to spend time together, which is not as often as Estella might like, honestly. Still, she hopes Asala knows that if ever she should need anything only Estella can provide (whatever strange sort of thing that might be), she need only name it. She'll even keep the not-a-secret secret she stumbled upon shortly after the new year. Mostly.



Image
Credit
| Marceline Benoît |

"We're... all right. I think."

The last year was a bit shaky for the two of them specifically. There were a couple of incidents where Estella honestly questioned Lady Marceline's sense of ethics, as well as her judgement on other matters, and it made things... uncomfortable, for quite a while. To an extent, the questions still linger, but after the mission in Val Royeaux, they talked a bit about things and it's mostly settled, for the time being. Of course, Lady Marceline hasn't exactly admitted to having reconsidered anything, so the potential awkwarness is still there. Hopefully, it won't resurface. She hopes and believes that it won't.



Image
Credit
| Leonhardt Albrecht |

"It's a relief to have him back."

The possibility of losing the Commander always weighed heavily upon the Inquisition. And the possibility of losing Leon was always uncomfortable for Estella as well. He's been nothing but kind and patient with everyone since the beginning, and she is well aware that without his guiding hand at work, the organization (and most of the people in it) would not have survived the early years. Looking back on how dysfunctional they all really were then—herself absolutely included—it's something of a miracle they did anyway. Leon had a lot to do with it, and the news of his recovery was duly joyous.



Image
Credit
| Zahra Tavish |

"Zee's so genuine. Different as we are, I find that comforting."

As far as Estella's concerned, there are few people even in the Inquisition who give so much to the effort. Zee's always willing to be there for others, always going above and beyond for them, sometimes in obvious ways, and sometimes in subtler ones. Always prepared to talk something out, always ready to lift the spirits of the others. It's wonderful to have someone like her around. Beneath the rough exterior and her more bombastic, sardonic mannerisms, there's someone who really cares. It's reassuring.



Image
Credit
| Vesryn Cormyth |

"I want to hope. I do. But even if there comes a time when I can't... I'm not going anywhere."

Though she's never exactly stopped feeling a rather embarrassing degree of fluttery around him, the giddiness of that affection has deepened into something a lot more solid and substantial over the course of the past year. Just in time to face trials the like of which she'd never have imagined before, and the reality that she just might lose him when all is said and done. It's almost unbearable to think about directly, and so she tries not to—tries to hold on to the hope that there really is some solution for what ails Vesryn—and Saraya too. But it would be irresponsible to hang everything on that hope and not prepare for the other possibility, and so Estella has reached the quiet, unspoken decision that no matter how it all ends, one day or fifty years from now; no matter how painful or ugly or terrifying it gets, she will be there. And she will take everything she can from every moment until then, and commit all of them to her fallible human memory as well as she's able.



Image
Credit
| Kharisanna Istimaethoriel |

"I think at this point, there's no calling her anything but Khari."

Estella kind of runs out of superlative adjectives for her best friend. Extraordinary. Indefatigable. Unswerving. Incredible. They all capture something of the truth, but not all of it. Certainly not the way Khari has managed to achieve so much while remaining a surprisingly-grounded individual. She hasn't let her triumphs go to her head too much, but neither does she deny their significance, and Stel really admires that about her. The Inquisition, she feels, will spawn a lot of legends. Some of them will be mostly truth, others mostly fiction, and all of them will probably be warped in the telling eventually. But Khari's legend might just outlive the rest: not for its scope, but for the way it captures the imagination. And, of course, for the vibrancy of its central character.



Image
Credit
| Romulus |

"We're absolutely partners at this whole Inquisitor thing, and I couldn't ask for a better one."

The last year did a lot for Romulus, the sum total of which has allowed him to finally feel comfortable standing on even ground with her in all aspects of the job they share. It's been a relief, to have someone else to lean on, someone who understands exactly what it's like to come new and untutored to their tasks and have to learn things on the fly. They work well together, she thinks, slowly shoring up one another's weaknesses and learning to lead as a team. It's been unexpectedly nice, to get to do that.



Image
Credit
| Rilien Falavel |

"Rilien's family to me. Maybe that doesn't mean the same thing for us as for other people. But it's still true."

Her teacher, and her friend as well. She’s always admired him, not only for his skill and intelligence, but also because of his pragmatic thoughtfulness and understated, hidden kindness. He doesn’t ask for thanks for any of the things he does, but nevertheless it is obviously because of him that she’s even alive today. If not for what he’d taught her over the years, she’d certainly be dead by now. He’s a rock-steady constant in her life, and after a life spent looking in dark corners and shadows for the knife in her back to come, being able to trust him so absolutely was the first step she took towards the person she is now. It would be difficult to place too much emphasis on that, or too much importance.

She wasn't completely sure of the validity of her advice to him, when he asked for it, but she can't deny that she's relieved at his decision to remain tranquil. While she knows it has its difficulties, it's also part of what makes him the extraordinary person that he is. She'd have supported him either way, but she was glad to be able to convince him that he doesn't need to be like everyone else. He's long convinced her of the same, after all.




Image

Image

Image

“I'm not enough. Not by myself, not for this.
But I don't have to be, because
I'm also not alone.”

So begins...

Estella Avenarius's Story

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius

0.25 INK

Image



Those who oppose Thee
Shall know the wrath of heaven.
Field and forest shall burn,
The seas shall rise and devour them,
The wind shall tear their nations
From the face of the earth.
Lightning shall rain down from the sky,
They shall cry out to their false gods,
And find silence.
—Canticle of Andraste 7:19

Image

He woke as he had lived: on his knees.

It was a sound that stirred Romulus first, a crackling like lightning, but without the thunder. Dull shocks of pain rattled up his arm and through his body, and he groaned quietly. His eyes slowly opened, to see nothing but blurred darkness. There was some dull light ahead of him, on the ground around him, but he couldn't make it out. He was hungry, but nauseous. Uncomfortable from the hot pains and the cold air. He was a man far from home, and worst of all, he didn't understand what had led him to this point.

Another crackle from below, and he grimaced, as a green light illuminated his peripherals. He tipped forward, barely putting his hands to the ground to catch himself. The green light was stifled, and Romulus heard the clink of iron manacles. In chains again. He shifted his feet beneath him. His legs were mostly numb, either from the cold or the awkward position, but he heard the same clink from them as well. Either he was a prisoner to someone, or he was home again, and in a great deal of trouble.

He turned his left hand over to look at his palm. A mark spread across his skin, a vaguely green-tinted scar, but from what weapon, Romulus could not say. Suddenly, it erupted with green light and the crackling noise, and the pain shot through him with ease, eliciting a growl of pain. In the light, he could see the symbol on the cold stone floor beneath him. The Chantry sun. His vision was clearing up. This was some kind of cellar or storage area. It hardly looked like a dungeon.

To his left was the only other person in the room. A young woman, by the looks of her, but it was hard to tell precisely how young, given that her face was streaked with dirt and half of it was planted against the floor. She may have originally been kneeling as he was, but if so, she’d tipped over sideways at some point, and was now half-sprawled with her head towards him, clearly unconscious. She was wearing some kind of dark red or maroon tunic, a silver stripe on the outside of her sleeve at her bicep, but beyond that she bore no identifying markers. An empty scabbard at one hip indicated she’d once been armed, but of greater interest was her right hand.

Her fingers were curled inwards slightly, obscuring her palm, but nonetheless there was a soft green light issuing from it, throwing her face into a sickly sort of relief in the gloom of whatever chamber they’d been thrown into.

He remembered her. Her face, her clothes. He'd seen her, not long ago, he knew that much. Romulus tried to rise, to push himself over to her, so that he might wake her and figure what had happened to them, but before he could even get his feet under him the green light burst again from his hand, forcing him back down. Nearby he heard soft footsteps, and stilled himself, breathing slowly through his nose.

The footsteps, deliberate but swift, grew louder, resolving into three distinct pairs of feet: two pairs heavier than the third. They hit what must have been a staircase, and then a door in the front of the room burst open with a bang, almost thrown back too hard. A woman in dark clothing entered, followed by a pair of larger men, both armed with halberds. She herself bore no visible weaponry, but from the way they were two paces behind her at all times, it was clear that she wielded the authority in the group.

She came to a stop before them, motioning to the guard on her right, who detached from her flank and circled around behind both Romulus and the girl. A shifting of armor plates made it obvious he’d leveled his weapon, but at a modest distance. The woman, blonde and entering middle age, narrowed her eyes, flicking them to the girl a moment before they came to rest on him.

“Explain.” The command was soft, but a threat was clearly implied.

Romulus had worked himself back to his centered kneeling position by the time the woman came before him with her two guards. Her command was not surprising to him; it was not difficult to tell he'd done something to land himself within these walls, in these chains, but he knew not what it was, or how it had happened. He remembered... some things, but they would not be shared with her on a simple command.

There was some that could be discerned simply by looking at him. The markings on him, not to mention his skin tone and general appearance, identified him as Rivaini of birth. His weapons had been either destroyed or confiscated, as had his tonics. He'd been removed of his outer layer of clothing, the leather armor chest piece and the thick cloak, leaving him only in a bland, dark tunic, and brown trousers. There were no identifying markers on his clothes or weapons to link him to any person or organization, nor were there any orders or notes in his possession to be confiscated. This, of course, was by design, in case this exact situation occurred.

He settled his hands on his thighs, and kept his gaze steady, around the level of the woman's feet. Any words he spoke would have repercussions for more than just himself, he knew. So he spoke none.

As it happened, that silence would go unchallenged, at least for a moment, because the girl next to him was starting to stir. At first, it looked like she’d fallen into the grip of some nightmare—her hands clenched and she seemed to curl in on herself, her knees pulled as close into her chest as her chains would allow. But then the cracking sound returned, and her eyes snapped open even as her expression twisted in pain.

She gripped her wrist with her other hand until it passed, then slowly pushed herself into a sitting position, her legs tucked under her. She blinked several times, apparently taking in her surroundings, before her brows knit and she tipped her head to look up at the woman. “Who… what’s… what happened?” She listed slightly sideways again, but caught herself before she fell over.

The woman’s lips thinned, frustration seeping into her facial expression. A muscle in her jaw ticked, but when she spoke, it was slow and deliberate, the cadence almost monotone. “The Conclave was attacked. The Temple of Sacred Ashes is destroyed. The Divine, hundreds of Templars and mages, all dead. And you—” Her hand spread in a gesture that encompassed both of them. “You were the only survivors. I will not ask again: explain. Give me a reason not to kill you where you sit.” Behind them, the guard’s armor plates scraped softly.

Romulus processed the information. The Conclave, attacked. The Temple, destroyed. The Divine, dead. And they believed him... responsible? If he'd been pulled from the ruins of a Temple, in his current shape, he supposed he would think himself guilty, too. He didn't feel great, but he was in no danger of dying. At least, not from physical wounds. The scar on his hand, the flashing green light, it was not a good sign. Perhaps he was a dead man already.

He had the words to stay her hand. At least, he suspected they might stay her hand. Perhaps they'd simply kill him anyway. He could give the parameters of his mission. To infiltrate the Temple, not destroy it. To watch over the Conclave and report on it, not attack it. To ensure that the Divine lived, not kill her. But to relay the orders he'd been given would prompt the question of who had given them. Better for them to think he'd acted on his own.

Romulus remained silent.

“D-dead?” the other prisoner seemed to have no such compunction. “All of them?” Here eyes were wide, undisguised grief slowly dawning over her features. Her next exhale shuddered from her lungs, but she straightened herself up, blinking away what must have been tears. She murmured something too low to hear, then squared her shoulders and met their interrogator’s eyes.

“Please, I…” she trailed off and licked her lips, swallowing audibly. “My name is Estella Avenarius. I’m… I’m a lieutenant with the Argent Lions mercenary company. We were… we were there to help protect the Conclave, to make sure that the mages and Templars kept the peace. I—” Her voice faltered. “I remember running.” She glanced to her side, at Romulus. “We were both running, from… something. And there was… a woman, I think, reaching toward us.” She shook her head. “And then nothing. This.”

A pause. “Please… we didn’t… we aren’t behind this.”

Despite his stoic demeanor thus far, Romulus could not hide the compulsory reaction at the name that fell from the lips of the other prisoner. His eyes shifted left, his head following suit before he turned it back a moment later. Estella Avenarius. Could it be that he recognized her from more than just a recent memory? He knew the family name, and knew it to be Tevinter. He remembered a pair of children, from a time when the word slave had no meaning to him. But more than that, he remembered the family name, and how it occasionally graced the tongue of his domina. Did she remember him, he wondered? Unlikely.

A slow breath hissed out of the interrogator, but she seemed to relax slightly at the mention of something the girl had said. Perhaps it was her name, or perhaps it was the company she spoke of. Still, she looked to be gathering herself for another question before the door opened again, this time with no footsteps to presage it. The guards remained in place when she turned, her shoulders easing further at the appearance of the new person.

From the ears, he could only be an elf, though a relatively tall one. His hair was white, but obviously not from age, and the sunburst mark of the Chantry was prominent upon his brow. He was dressed for battle, not so differently from the woman he stopped beside. Sharp eyes swept over the both of them, though they stopped on Estella. “Unchain her, and his feet. They must go to the Rift.” His tone was flat, as though devoid of any feeling whatsoever, and his expression remained neutral as Estella was released and the other guard warily unshackled Romulus’s feet, leaving his hands bound as they had been.

As soon as she was free, Estella sighed softly, then turned to the new arrival and smiled. It wasn’t a large one, and was contained primarily in her eyes, but though it faded quickly, it was definitely present. She looked relieved, and a few steps later she was directly in front of him. There was a slightly-unsure moment where it looked like she might attempt to hug him, but she didn’t, instead turning around partway, to where Romulus was still shackled. “Can’t we take those off? I don’t remember much of what happened, but I know it wasn’t his fault.”

"Perhaps, but other things remain to be determined. Follow me, both of you."

Romulus might've tried to make an escape after his feet were unshackled, but his estimations of his captors left him overmatched. The Tranquil moved extremely well, and was geared for a fight. Romulus had nothing but manacles around his wrists. Estella, at least, seemed to have a decent relationship with the elf. Her defense of him, while entirely unwarranted, was welcome. If she remembered the same that he did, there was no way to be so certain.

A strong hand gripped his arm and hauled him to his feet. After being prodded to move forward, Romulus was allowed to walk on his own. His dark eyes were constantly moving, wary, unused to being the center of concern for so many. The guards didn't much care for watching Estella, he could see. They had eyes only for him, the man who would not speak in his own defense.

They passed through a heavy oak door, climbing some stairs until they entered the main hall of what looked to be a Chantry building. The pews had been pushed off to the sides or even dismantled, while the walls were lined with the wounded and weary. Their eyes found the two marked prisoners as they walked, and their gazes were accusing. How long had it been, Romulus wondered. There was a gap in his memory, but the length of it, he could not say.

Two guards at the main doors pushed them open for the group, and blinding afternoon light, reflected off the pearly white snow, assaulted his eyes. He brought a hand up against the light, and shuddered briefly from the chill, the feel of which he had yet to become accustomed to.

What urged him to open his eyes and look around was a crackle, not unlike the kind that came from his hand, but deeper and much more powerful, followed by rumbles and distant booms. He lowered his hands, and stared up into the sky. In the distance, above where the Temple of Sacred Ashes once stood, was now a great beacon of green light, reaching up into a great tear in the very sky itself. Even the clouds around it appeared ill, diseased. It seemed to radiate magical energy from within, even at this distance.

"It is called the Rift, or the Breach, depending on who is referring to it.” The Tranquil explained this with the same unshakeable air they always seemed to have. “Three days ago, it appeared in the sky, after an explosion that destroyed the Conclave, and killed almost everyone in attendance.” He turned to face them, and his eyes fell upon the marks on their hands. “It shares some properties with the marks you bear, though the exact nature of the connection is elusive. What we do know is that it is a sort of tear in the curtain between this world and the Fade. And it grows.”

Cutting his glance from Romulus to Estella and then back again, he continued. “It is not the only one, but it is the largest, and all have the same cause. If it continues to grow, the results will be unpleasant.”

“So then… how do we fix it?” Estella stared up at it, lips pursed into a thin line, before another loud burst accompanied her pitching forward onto her hands and knees as the mark on her hand brightened. As quickly as the pulse had come, it appeared to recede, and she clenched her fist around a chunk of snow.

Romulus suffered the same, his left hand bursting from within with the same green light, and he doubled over, clutching it to himself. He tightly controlled his breathing, tearing his eyes from the Breach and placing them on the Tranquil.

He’d bent over to assist Estella to her feet, taking hold of both her elbows until she was steady again. Once both were more or less recovered, he stepped back. "I do not know with certainty. But we have observed that every time the Rift grows, your marks do as well, and they are killing you. The best hypothesis we have is that those marks may be necessary to close the Breach, but time grows short, for you and for the rest of us.”

“If I can help, then I will. Just tell me what I have to do.” Estella drew herself up taller, her expression smoothing out even as her shoulders aligned properly over her spine. She held the Tranquil’s eyes for a moment, then turned hers towards Romulus, the question in them obvious.

Romulus took the news that he was dying fairly well, all things considered. The Tranquil's estimation of the situation made things a lot clearer for him, in fact. The tear in the sky was a danger to all, and to their knowledge, the marks on their hands were somehow linked. If there were no further questions for the moment as to why he was here, uninvited, or how he'd ended up a survivor of the deadly blast, then he could help. But there was a condition, first.

He held out his shackled hands, and spoke quietly. "Unbind me. And I will help." It was possible he didn't have a choice in the matter. But he was also much more useful with his hands at his disposal. And it seemed like they needed all the help they could get.

The elf nodded to the guard nearest, who stepped forward and unchained Romulus, replacing the shackles at his belt. For a moment, the Tranquil simply studied him, head tilted slightly to one side, but if he had anything further by way of questions, he asked only one.

"What is your name?”

For the moment, they displayed about the same level of emotion to one another, even though one was Tranquil. He rubbed his wrists once they were free.

"Romulus."

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

Unfortunately, though they had been freed in the strict sense, it did not seem that everyone had accepted the situation quite the same way Rilien had. As he led them down a short pathway to what looked like the exit of whatever encampment this was, there was no shortage of hostile glares to go around. Some part of Estella wanted to wither and hide behind the Tranquil, or else stop and try to explain the situation to everyone, but that part was something she kept a lid on as well as she could, trying not to let her apprehension creep into her body language. She walked a great deal like the elf in front of her, actually, though she didn’t consciously make an attempt to do so.

They stopped for a moment by someone who must have been in charge of supplies or something, and not for the first time, she wondered whose soldiers these really were. They wore the colors of no nation, and something about the settlement suggested far too many for any mercenary company she’d ever heard of. But they weren’t Templars, and they didn’t look like mages, either, which left her entirely mystified as to their allegiance. In any case, Rilien seemed to have authority enough to get their equipment back, and she felt herself ease slightly once her saber was back at her side where it belonged.

It didn’t take her more than a few minutes to arrange her leathers, either, pulling them back on over her company tunic. Her motion hitched for just a moment when she got to her cloak, dark grey and clasped with a simple lion design in silver, and her fingers trembled when she affixed it by her shoulder, but she knew well enough that she couldn’t think about it now. First, the Rift, and then… then everything else.

A deep breath put it from her mind, and she glanced askance at her unlikely companion. Romulus—something was there, some memory she couldn’t recall, but likely, it was just one of the many gaps in her recollection of the events of three days ago that needed filling. “Ready?” Her tone was quiet, but not so flat as either of theirs had been.

Romulus had finished donning his own gear a few moments before Estella. He wore only a sturdy leather chestplate for armor, and had added gloves and his black cloak to the ensemble. In his left hand, where the glow of his mark still came slightly through the glove, was a flat targe shield, unadorned and sturdy, while in his right was a wide thrusting dagger, which he sheathed at the hip on that side. He buckled on a heavy belt with several pouches, briefly checking inside for their contents. He then pulled his hood up, casting his eyes into shadow, and nodded.

“Okay then.” She supposed it was a good thing taciturn people didn’t intimidate her as much as they used to. Turning back to Rilien, she nodded, and the two of them followed after him as he led them onto a mountain path of some kind. It wasn’t exactly snowing, but there was plenty of it blowing around; the wind seemed to be quite strong here, but then, it was the mountains. They passed some fortifications along the way; it seemed the demons from the Breach had made it at least this far already, at some point.

They might have made faster progress, had the marks on their hands not kept acting up. Estella had been electrocuted before, and it felt a little like that—like a mage putting a bolt of lightning right in the palm of her hand. It tingled and left her temporarily numb, and she flexed the leather of her glove, trying to restore sensation each time. It wasn’t unbearable, though, just sudden, and they kept up a march pace.

After about ten minutes, they came to a stone bridge, the river beneath which seemed to be frozen through. Her breath puffed out in little clouds as she followed the Tranquil over, the rock solid under her feet until about halfway over. She’d chanced another look at the Breach, only to find that something else was falling from it—and was about to land where she was.

“Look out!” A spilt-second later, there was a massive crash, and the bridge collapsed beneath them, spilling Estella down towards the ice below. She landed hard on her shoulder, her head knocking into a stone and sending white flickers across her vision. Several more crashed down around her, cracking the ice in several places but not breaking through. Disoriented and dizzy, she could still make out the vague outlines of several demons, which had apparently scattered from the initial impact. Trying to stand was presently proving to be an impossible endeavor, as she couldn’t balance well enough to get her feet underneath her.

Another impact sound corresponded with Rilien’s appearance in Estella’s field of vision, his hands moving to where his knives were crossed over his back. He drew both in a smooth, practiced motion, then glanced back at her over his shoulder. The demons crept closer, however, and though his lips pursed slightly, he returned his attention forward, and sprang, propelling himself forward with powerful strides that seemed not to falter even on the slick surface of the ice.

He used it to his advantage, actually, sliding himself past the first of the demons, a hunched shade with inky-purple flesh and arms many times too long for its proportions. It took a swing at him, but he ducked under it, allowing his momentum to carry him past, until he curved his trajectory sharply to the side and came around behind it, plunging both knives into its back and tearing them out to either side. It fell with a wet splattering sound to the ice below.

From nearby Estella another of the shades pulled itself from a small crater in the ground, glowing eyes locked on her. They were soon forced away, however, when Romulus leaped down from a pill of rubble and bashed it solidly in the side of the head with his shield's rim. It moaned angrily, slashing at him with clawed hands, but he nimbly darted back a step, sliding a foot on the ice but clearly expecting to do so. The next slash scraped over the face of his shield, and he took a hard step forward, wrapping his shield arm around the grotesque neck of the thing and swinging around onto its back. From there he plunged his wide knife down into its chest, and tore up vertically, spewing black blood down onto the ice.

It sank down into the earth, lowering Romulus down with it to land firmly on his feet. He wiped the knife clean and sheathed it, before walking the few steps over to Estella, and holding out his right hand.

"Can you stand?"

Estella blinked a few times, fighting back a sigh. Of course. She couldn’t even regain her feet in enough time to be useful. She felt the distinct and familiar knot of shame forming at the pit of her stomach, but all the same she nodded, though she wasn’t entirely sure of the veracity of her answer, and reached out with her left hand, grasping Romulus’s right and using it to pull herself to her feet.

Once the initial wave of nausea had passed, she made sure her feet were steady underneath her, and only then let go of his hand. “I… yeah. Thanks, I’m okay now.” Or okay enough anyway. She made sure all her equipment was in place before following the other two off the river and onto the bank. There didn’t seem to be much around, and the wind carried no sound to her ears save the occasional hum or rumble from the Rift itself.

Demons fell from the sky with much greater regularity as they got closer, most of them striking relatively far away, seemingly concentrated on some area still in the distance. The general sense Estella had was that they were climbing, though the road was far from straightforward, and occasionally they took what must have been shortcuts over frozen rivers, often enough that she was suddenly glad of that time her brother had frozen the pond behind the Chantry garden and insisted she slide around on it with him. At least she didn’t fall, though she hardly managed the crossings with the grace of the others.

Eventually, they came to a more robust-looking architectural feature: two stone pillars flanking a deliberate staircase, which was mostly but not completely covered in snow. By this point, the din of a battle was audible, and Estella looked to Rilien.

"Allies. We had best make haste.” He mounted the stairs first, daggers still drawn, and led them into what looked like the remains of a building, its bones now open to the elements. Given that only about two feet of wall had survived anywhere, they were easily able to spot a small-scale battle in progress, several more of the soldiers in open conflict with a pack of demons about ten strong.

More curious than that, however, was the green, crystalline structure seemingly suspended in midair in the center of the skirmish. It oscillated and mutated its shape almost constantly, but occupied roughly the same area at all times. The hue of it was a match to the marks on their hands and the massive Rift in the sky, an ominous hint at its nature.

Rilien moved forward first, picking up into a run and leaping off the five-foot ledge that separated them from the battle below. He disappeared almost immediately into the fray, leaving them to follow.

Romulus paused before following, to draw a thin vial of light blue liquid from a pouch on his belt. He pulled the cork from the top of it with his shield hand, and tipped his head back, downing the concoction in one gulp. From under his hood, his skin took on a shimmering appearance for a few moments, like a physical layer had surrounded him following the ingestion of the tonic. He shook his head, perhaps at the taste of the strength of it, slipping the now empty vial back into the pouch. He then drew his knife, and dropped down after Rilien.

With no excuse for laying around this time, Estella was a bit slower on the takeoff than the other two, but with a delay of a couple seconds to gape at the green crystal… thing, she was off, too, her saber in her hand, glowing faintly with the light of its enchantment. She approached the ledge at a sprint, leaping off with all the momentum she had, landing heavily but steadily on the ground below. Her entrance drew the attention of at least one of the demons, another shade, and her grip tightened on her sword as she set her feet properly underneath her, bending slightly at the knees.

She exhaled as it lunged for her, dodging to the side in enough time that its claws whistled by her leathers, and she used the proximity to bring the saber down with a two-handed grip, scoring a deep slash in its forearm. She’d learned never to overcommit to any single maneuver, though, and so she didn’t waste time trying to cut any deeper than she already had, instead slicing another shallow gash further up the arm before it recovered and shoved at her with its other hand.

Forced to take several steps back, she reset her stance and propelled herself forward, lower than its shoulder, keeping the saber down by her hip, angling it only as she charged by its side, the lunge itself as well as the clever angle of the blade doing more of the work than her arms, which was fortunate since she wasn’t that strong. The gash was deep this time, and she whirled, taking advantage of the time it took to accustom itself to the pain and aiming her next stroke, letting it slide across the side of what passed for its neck, bringing a gout of blackish-red blood to the surface and dropping the shade itself to the ground.

There was no time for celebration, however, as something—she knew not what—caught her in the back, sending her pitching forwards onto her face. She rolled to the side, knowing that any follow-up would likely aim for where she landed, and in doing so, narrowly avoided another set of claws. She kicked for the shade’s legs, before remembering it didn’t have legs, as such, and was almost impossible to trip, wasting her opportunity. Wincing at the pain in her back, she leaped to her feet, in just enough time to catch the incoming swing with the blade side of her sword.

Her arms shook with the effort of fending off the blow, but then she angled the saber to slide it away, and it bit deeper into the shade’s hand, earning her an enraged shriek. Gritting her teeth, she pressed forward, slashing broadly on her strongest pattern: the diagonal right-to-left. That staggered the creature, and she was moving forward for the finishing blow when suddenly, pain erupted on her right hand again, worse than before, and she fell to her knees with the force of it, unable to finish off the shade, which readied to do her in instead.

Romulus fell to a knee nearby as well, gritting his teeth and managing to keep his shield raised, despite the crackling green light emanating from behind it. A shade bashed against the shield, forcing it aside, but when it raised both arms for a more damaging strike he lunged forward, plunging the knife into its chest and driving it back. Romulus withdrew the knife and thrust it in several more times, forcing the shade to sink to the ground along with him.

The shade struck to try and rip Estella's head from her shoulders with its claws. Before it could follow through in its attempt however, it came to a very sudden and violent stop, as if it hit something other than its target. And it appeared to have, as a blue transparent luminescent barrier stood erected between Estella and the shade. Then, someone else came into view, someone new. A tall woman with white hair and a pair of horns rising from her forehead, one hand wreathed in the same blue as the shield, the other holding a staff, put herself beside Estella.

The hand that controlled the Fade then shoved forward and the shield mimicked the gesture, ramming back into the shade and creating room between it and them. She pulled her hand back and threw it forward again, the shield bashing the shade again, and throwing it to the ground. She finished by drawing the shield into the air, and slamming it into the prone shade, banishing it in a plume of green light.

With the shade dealt with, the woman immediately turned and went to a knee. Clearly she was looking for any injuries Estella may have sustained in the fight, but upon finding none that were immediately visible, offered a timid smile. A smile that quickly faded when the light of the mark on her hand caught her golden eyes.

Estella frowned, too, looking down at it, then back up at the woman. Qunari; something she knew mostly because of a friend. She hadn’t met many, but she wasn’t afraid. At least not anymore. “Thank you,” she murmured, pushing herself to her feet. A quick glance around confirmed that the last of the shades was falling, meeting its end by Rilien’s knives, from the look of it. She wasn’t sure she should find that thought as reassuring as she did, but there it was.

Of course, that still left the matter of the green… thing in the air. “Is that… also a rift?” It was obviously not quite the same as the one all the way up in the sky, but Rilien had said something about smaller ones existing as well. She couldn’t help but stare at it, even as the mark on her hand seemed to grow almost agitated, the light in it pulsing brighter, though not quite as badly as when it grew.

"Yes.” Rilien’s reply was prompt, even as he stooped to wipe the blood and ichor from his knives with snow, sliding them back into their wooden sheaths. He remained at a distance from the anomaly itself however, his eyes fixed on it in a fashion that could only be described as wary. "There are many of these in the area.”

The Qunari woman had slipped back out of view behind Estella, though she was soon reminded of her presence when gentle fingers gingerly grasped the forearm of the hand that held the mark. The young woman's eyes went from the mark to the smaller rift before alighting on Estella. Though she averted them before they could make eye contact, the woman offered a hopeful smile before leading Estella's hand to stretch out toward the rift.

It felt… right, somehow. The same kind of right she rarely encountered during one of her training sessions, when she executed some move exactly the way she, intellectually, knew it was supposed to be done. The kind of right that happened when mind and body were in concordance, harmony. Like it was natural as breathing.

Of course, that feeling lasted only for a moment, and then there was pain. The electric sensation of something ripping up her whole arm from her hand, doing a torturous circuit of her entire body, and then exiting again. And something certainly exited, a beam of green-and-black light that struck, with unerring precision, at the center of the rift. Estella’s knees buckled, but she kept her hand pointed at the rift, using her own left hand to add to the Qunari woman’s support of her right.

Breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth, Estella waited for it, whatever it was, to pass, and in time, there was a strange sound, one that grew in pitch until it ended in a booming crack, and the pain disappeared, leaving her with a curious lightness. She swallowed back bile, and glanced up.

The rift was gone.

She’d actually done it.

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

Asala held Estella, the name that Rilien had given earlier, upright as the mark did, in fact, close the rift as she'd hoped. Relief washed over her, considering she wasn't even sure that it would even work in the first place. She was glad that it did. It was a hunch or, rather, an educated guess; If the mark reacted in turn with the giant tear in the sky, and the smaller rifts were the result of that tear, then there remained a chance that the smaller rifts could be effected by the mark. At least, that was the hope, and it appeared correct.

Afterward, the woman took Estella's hand in her own and gingerly inspected it. It had continued to grow larger than the last she'd seen it. It was worrying. She bit her lip as she thought and stared at it. If it could effect the smaller rifts, then it stood to reason that the mark and the rifts were related. If it were able to close the smaller rifts, then it could hold the same effect on the tear in the sky. And if the tear was closed, then it was likely that the mark would cease to grow as well. She ventured a glance into the broken sky, before she gave Estella's hand a comforting squeeze and allowed her control back. She then looked toward the other bearer of a mark, the man in the hood, and though his hand was obscured, the light could still be recognized.

She frowned. If they were to save these two, then they would need to hurry to the tear, and hope that they could close it. It was then, however, that Asala noticed just how close she was to Estella. Her eyes widened for a moment in fear and she quickly put a step or two between them, embarrassment burning into her face.

"S-sorry," she stuttered.

Estella flexed her hand, then looked back up at Asala and shook her head. “N-no, it’s fine. How did you know it would do that?”

"I.. Uh. Didn't?" she said, sounding more like she was asking than answering.

Asala stood clutching the collar of the thick white robes she wore, her shoulders bent in and making her look smaller than her build should suggest. Now that most eyes were on her, she could almost feel them individually, and she only shrank further into herself, the blush deepening on her ashen skin. "Well. I-I mean, I thought it would," she answered as her feet shuffled beneath her. "I'd hoped," she added.

"Asala was your attendant healer after the explosion; she had opportunity to study the marks.” That was Rilien, who was already moving forward again. "Now that we know they work, we must keep moving. There is much more to do before we reach the Rift. This way.”

The dusky-skinned man in the hood withdrew his blade from the shade he'd felled, having watched the whole display of rift-closing and stuttering conversation. He sheathed his weapon as he approached Asala, peering up at her from under his hood. "If what the elf says is true, you have my thanks," he said, with a nod. "My name is Romulus." It appeared to be all he planned on giving, as he immediately turned after that and followed after Rilien.

He led them down a steep embankment to the river, frozen solid, but for the moment, they stayed to the left of it, their boots crunching through snow. It had begun to fall from the sky again, as opposed to merely being batted about by the wind, making the terrain rougher going, but the four of them nevertheless kept up a reasonable pace, leaving the other soldiers behind to keep the location secure.

The Rift was spitting out demons with much greater frequency here, low-level shades, mostly, which descended to the ground in flashes of green light, landing with solid thuds like stones would make. For the most part, Rilien kept them from direct conflict, skirting the edges of the heavier-hit areas and aiming them efficiently for where the rest of the army was located. They crossed over what must have been a lake, and then ascended again, this time up an even steeper hill.

It was not long, however, before the hum of another small rift could be heard, and with it, the sounds of fighting, this time, right by the gate they needed to pass.

From beside Asala, Estella shifted her weight slightly, a soft rasp indicating that she’d drawn her sword, a slightly-curved, one-handed implement with the distinct sense of powerful enchantment about it. “Let’s try not to mess up this time,” she muttered, though it was unclear whether she’d meant anyone else to hear it or not. When she moved, it was to fan out towards the left, where a cluster of soldiers looked about to be overwhelmed, and she caught a shade broadly across the back, flinging an arc of blood off the blade on the follow-through. That one was taken care of, at least, but there were many others yet remaining.

"... Wh-what did we mess up?" Asala asked thinking she meant them both, though by time she did Estella had moved on. She turned toward Romulus then, though before she could risk accidently making eye contact, she stiffened and turned her head forward. People were much more easy to be around when they were asleep, as it turned out. There wasn't the risk of them judging her then. Puffing her cheeks out, she shook her head and followed Estella into the battle ahead.

She approached the cluster of soldiers, but she did not wade in. She lifted the hand that did not carry her staff as it began to glow in a dull blue light. She peered into the battle intently, searching for the moments of opportunity and striking with precision. Though perhaps striking was not the best word. A luminscent barrier erected itself between a soldier and a shade, quickly pushing the shade back before vanishing just as quick. While doing no damage itself, the soldier saw the gift for what it was and struck down the demon himself, nodding his thanks to Asala.

A bolt of glowing green energy wailed by Asala's head from her right, missing her narrowly. A ghostly figure, a pale green wraith, floated around the edges of the fight, hurling magical attacks into it. Several dissipated upon colliding with the Qunari woman's barriers. In the middle of its casting of another, a knife burst forth from its chest, the body offering little resistance. It tried to call up a barrier of its own, but the blade had torn a sizable hole clean through its chest by then. It screamed, and faded like so much mist, revealing Romulus behind it.

Following the example he'd seen earlier, Romulus took several aggressive steps towards the rift, and an arc of the green magic shot forth from his hand, ignoring the full glove. It twisted and crackled, prompting the nearby soldiers to back away to a safe distance, while the rift became overloaded and destabilized. From under his hood, the man's bared teeth could be seen, gritting together with effort, until at last he ripped his hand away, breaking the arc, and exploding the rift in front of him. All evidence of it vanished in a few seconds. Asala was glad that both marks had the ability to close the rifts.

No few of the soldiers were wide-eyed at the sudden disappearance of the rift, but at a quick gesture from Rilien, they reassembled, and two of them ran to the gate, the indistinct sound of voices indicating that they were talking to their comrades on the other side. With a delay of only a few seconds, it swung open inwards, admitting the four of them, the Tranquil in front.

"This is the forward camp.” The Tranquil paused a moment, likely to allow the two newcomers a chance to adjust to the situation. What was immediately visible was what looked like a wide stone rampart, laden with the tools of warfare. Racks of javelins, catapult ammunition, and, close to the parapet at the end, what appeared to be a command table. Currently, two people stood nearest to it, one directly behind it, dressed in the white and red of a Chantry brother. He appeared to be having quite an animated argument with Tanith, Rilien’s assistant, who was much less reactive but still obviously agitated.

“You don’t understand. We must get them to the Temple of Sacred Ashes. They’re the only chance we have.” She spoke slowly, as though trying to explain something to an obstinate child.

“Absolutely not. You’ve already caused enough trouble without resorting to this exercise in futility!” As the group approached, the man threw Tanith an angry glare, to which she reacted only by crossing her arms over her chest, before both caught notice of the approach of the quartet.

“Ah, here they come.”

Tanith nodded. “Chancellor Roderick, you know Ser Rilien. The young woman in the back is Asala Kaaras, and the other two are—”

"I know who they are," Roderick answered, the contempt easily detectable in both his face and tone.

Asala spared only a glance to the argument Tanith and the man were having, her attentions instead toward the soldiers that milled about. Some bore bloodstained bandages around injuries, and in her eyes, that was more important than some squabbles. She was hardly use in discussions of import anyway, she figured that she would be of use elsewhere. Breaking off from the group, she approached the soldier who looked to be in the most pain, leaned against the ramparts and breathing slowly. She gestured for him to take a seat and then began to inspect him. Soon, a gentle warm light emanated from her hands as she began to work on his wounds, and the soldier's facial expressions softened soon thereafter.

The argument, however, continued and she listened as she worked. "As Grand Chancellor of the Chantry, I hereby order you to take these criminals to Val Royeux to face execution," the Chancellor demanded. The worry immediately leapt into Asala's face as she looked up from her work and gasped.

"E-execution?! He can't do that! Can he?" she asked fearfully.

Neither Rilien nor Romulus seemed to react much to this pronouncement, though Estella had paled slightly, which was perhaps understandable, with someone bandying about the word ‘executed’ so freely.

The Tranquil, however, only blinked, folding his hands into his sleeves. “You do not command me, Chancellor.” It was a statement of fact, given the tone, but it caused the man in question to scowl deeply.

“Perhaps not, but you serve by special dispensation, and the understanding was, you would be serving the Chantry!” Roderick’s face had gone slightly red, due to either cold or strain, and his grip on the edge of the table was white-knuckled.

Rilien shook his head. “I was asked only to do as the Divine bid, not the Chantry.”

“And Justinia is dead! We must elect a replacement and follow her orders on the matter. In the meantime, we must call a retreat—our positon here is hopeless, surely you can see that.” The Chancellor’s shoulders slumped, and he flicked a glance to the Breach, his anxiety transparent.

But again, Rilien seemed to disagree. “We must close the Breach. Anything less delays the inevitable and seals our fates.” He glanced over Roderick’s shoulder at Tanith, who sighed, but stepped in closer.

“Look… there are two ways we can do this. Either we charge with the troops and try to make it directly to the Temple, or… we go the less-direct way. The troops can distract while a smaller group heads through the mountains.” She gestured at the table while she spoke, probably pointing things out on a map or something of that nature.

“We lost contact with an entire squad up there!” Roderick’s protests grew more desperate. “Listen to me! Abandon this before more lives are lost.”

At that point, everyone’s attention was drawn skyward, as the Breach seemed to surge, bathing the whole area in sickly green light, which as before reacted with the marks on both Romulus’s and Estella’s hands. The latter shifted uncomfortably, but both remained standing. “Whatever we do, we should do it soon,” she said, cradling her right hand to her chest.

Asala tossed a worried glance at both Romulus and Estella, as their marks surged with the Breach. She frowned as she finished healing the soldier, who grasped her shoulder in thanks before letting her rise. While she did not wish to speak her thoughts aloud, the more time they wasted simply talking, the larger the Breach grew, and the larger the marks grew. And the larger the marks grew, so would the danger be to the two who bore them.

"M-Maybe," She began to attract attention. And though it did, she clutched at her collar again, her nerves playing clearly on her face. Still, though uncomfortable, she continued. "Maybe we should l-let them decide what we do?" she said. It was their lives at stake, and it was only with them that they had a chance to close the Breach.

"We cannot do this without them." she added, with a before unseen firmness. It lasted only a moment however, before she retreated back into herself.

"We must reach the Temple somehow. There are two routes, and two of you.” Rilien half-turned, such that he was now obviously able to see everyone involved. "Strategically, the wisest thing to do is send one of you in each direction, so that if one of you is delayed or killed, the other will have a better chance of success.” He paused, glanced at Romulus, and then Estella, waiting a beat longer than seemed strictly necessary.

"But strategic advantage is of little use if you are not acting in the ways most conducive to your skills. What do you believe our course of action should be?”

Estella’s lips parted as if to speak, but at first she didn’t quite manage it, glancing at Romulus, then the rest of them, before finally sighing softly. “I can… push with the soldiers, if you wanted to go the other way.” It almost sounded like a question, but in the end, the intonation fell down rather than up, making it a statement, if only just.

Romulus said nothing for a moment, still shrouded under his hood, but at last he nodded. "Don't die," he added softly, to Estella. He paused a moment, before adding, "that thing may require both of us." He tilted his head sideways briefly, in the direction of the Breach.

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Breach is through here.”



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

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

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

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

Beneath his helm, he smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leonhardt exhaled, and took a step towards them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This way. We’re almost there.”

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

It was enormous. A crystal structure, just like the rest, except for the fact that it was several times the size and positioned directly below the Breach in the sky. Estella wasn’t actually so sure her mark could close this, given the size of it, but it wasn’t as though there was any choice but to try. The two groups had met up just outside the Temple, and she was relieved to see that both Rilien and Romulus appeared to be fine, or at least none the worse for wear. It was reassuring that she wasn’t the only one in this situation, because it meant that she wasn’t really the only hope for this.

But their work wasn’t done yet. Glancing to her right, she saw what looked like a likely way down, since there weren’t really any stairs directly from the point they’d entered. Steeling herself, she started down that way, vaguely aware of Rilien breaking off from the group to direct the other soldiers who’d arrived with them, meaning that she, Romulus, Asala, and Leonhardt were left to make their way down.

They hadn’t been walking for more than a minute or so when something extremely unexpected happened. A voice, disembodied and deep, spoke from seemingly everywhere and nowhere all at once.

“NOW IS THE HOUR OF OUR VICTORY.”

Estella stopped dead. Something… no, she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Wincing at the volume, she shook herself and continued forwards.

Asala however, remained still for a few moments longer, staring up into the Breach and then all arpind. She winced and took a step back, before noticing the others moving ahead and quickly moving to catch up. "Wh-what... Who is that?" she asked, still searching.

Romulus slowly pulled his hood back upon hearing the booming voice, a frown lining his face. He spun in a full circle as they walked, as though trying to find the source of the voice, before eventually settling on the floating crystalline structure of the Breach. "It's... coming from the Breach, isn't it?"

"BRING FORTH THE SACRIFICE."

“I think so,” Estella replied, once the echoes of it had died down. “But I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard it before…” It fell quiet for a while after that though, as they wended their way further down towards the Breach. Their path had faded from clearly-supported architecture to whatever was left after the explosion, and it was treacherous going, though it seemed mundane enough, at least until she caught sight of a soft red glow ahead of them.

“That’s…” She turned around, almost by instinct, seeking Rilien, but of course he was further up. She wondered if he’d sensed it already. In his absence, her eyes found the gap in Leonhardt's helm, the massive man encased in burnished armor, and he finished her sentence for her.

“Red lyrium.” He didn’t sound quite as surprised as she’d expected, so maybe he knew something about it.

“I’ve only seen it once, but… it’s not good that it’s here.”

He seemed to nod, though it was hard to tell with the helmet. Giving the stuff a wide berth, she continued down the path, hoping it was not a sign of things to come. Meredith had been… terrifying was too mild a word. Fearsome seemed about right.

Her gaze fell from the air around them and Asala instead looked to the shards of red lyrium embedded in the walls and sprouting from the ground. "Maybe.." she said whilst seemingly in thought. "Wh-whatever magic was used to destroy the temple drew from the lyrium beneath," she said, the grip on her collar tightening.

"It c-could've corrupted it. Whatever happened here was... Terrible," she continued, a tone of sadness in her voice.

"KEEP THE SACRIFICE STILL."

This time, the voice was followed by another, this one feminine, much higher-pitched, and filled with the obvious tone of fear.

“SOMEONE! HELP ME!”

It was starting to sound less like strange echoes and more like a scene of some kind, like a play, or… a memory, perhaps. She didn’t recognize the woman’s voice at first, but Leonhardt clearly did. “That’s… Divine Justinia’s voice.” Estella wasn’t sure how he knew that, but she didn’t doubt him.

“WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?”

The third voice, impossibly, sounded exactly like her own. “What…? That’s…” If this was a memory, was it her own? Despite her certainty that she was the third speaker, Estella still didn’t recall any of it. Her pace quickened—they needed to reach the bottom, for surely that was where the answers lay, if there were any to be had at all.

Romulus was the first to reach the ledge closest to the bottom of the ruin, and he dropped down, stepping forward as the others followed closely behind. The crystalline structure of the Breach snapped and reformed rapidly before their eyes, seemingly reacting to the encroachment of the two that bore marks on their hands. When Romulus came close enough, a crack coincided with the lighting of his mark, and the echoes began again. The Divine cried out, and Estella answered, the same as before.

"She called out to you for help," Romulus remarked, quietly, as Estella stood close enough beside him to hear. He held his mark out, as if offering it to the Breach. Suddenly there was a flash of light and a rumbling like thunder, temporarily rendering their sight useless. When they could see again, a shadowy veil had formed in front of the crystal, and images floated above them. A shifting shadow, incredibly tall, with long, sharp fingers and bright red flames for eyes hovered. It reached out with a hand, curled fingers arcing towards a woman in elaborate Chantry robes, her arms suspended out to the side, leaving her helpless.

Through what looked to be a shadowy doorway, a darkened representation of Estella entered the area, saber in her left hand, knife in her right. Her posture tensed immediately when she took in the scene, and the knife fell from her fingers. Romulus appeared beside her, his face hidden under the shadow of his hood, but the gear and the posture, unmistakable. The Divine, as Leonhardt had named her, managed to turn her head towards them.

"RUN WHILE YOU CAN! WARN THEM!" The great shadow slowly turned its head towards the newly arrived pair.

"WE HAVE INTRUDERS. SLAY THEM." Another flash of light followed, and the vision vanished, leaving the crystalline structure of the Breach behind, unchanged.

“You were there when she died.” That was Leonhardt, and he looked from Estella to Romulus, but made no aggressive motion. “And yet it seems she was slain by another. One we did not find.”

Estella had to admit that it certainly looked that way, and those really did seem to be herself and Romulus, so why was it still so difficult to remember? She furrowed her brow, and sighed heavily. In any case, it could wait. The Breach had to come first. She moved her attention to Asala, who seemed to be an especially nervous person, and pitched her voice as gently as she could. “Do we just do the same thing as before?” Maybe something that big would require both of them.

She nodded in the affirmatory, but there was something else. Asala hesitated for a moment, casting her eyes upward to the Breach. "But... It is closed but not s-sealed," she said. Her mouth worked for a moment before her eyes dropped back down to the ground below. "You both w-will have to reopen and close it p-properly but..." There was another pause.

"Be r-ready. Something may try to slip through," she added, pulling her cloak tighter over her shoulders like she felt a sudden chill in her bones.

This bit of information seemed to ripple upwards through the ranks of the assembled soldiers, but by that time, they looked to have been positioned already, largely around the rim of the depression in the ground that the four of them now occupied. Most of them were armed with bows, and took careful aim at the area around the rift, bows half-drawn and readied for whatever emerged from it.

Romulus rolled his shoulders and neck briefly in preparation, while the soldiers and archers that came down with them took up defensive positions and prepared for the battle. After sparing a glance at Estella to make sure she was ready, the two simultaneously lifted their marks up to the Breach, twin arcs of green energy shooting from their palms and striking against the crystalline structure. It seemed almost to flinch in on itself, reforming and cracking rapidly, until it began to shake with the force being applied to it.

Finally, it shattered altogether, opening up the rift with a gaping hole. Almost instantly a purple-hued shape shot through, like a ball of crackling electricity. It flew through the air right behind Estella and Romulus, where it halted, hovered, and quickly expanded. In mid air the impressive physique of a pride demon formed. It roared, shaking with fury as it landed with a mighty crash against the ground, shaking everything around it.

The first arrows to strike it clattered harmlessly off of the thickened skin on its shoulders and back, and it let loose a deep, guttural laugh. Below, Romulus quickly downed a second of the vials of liquid. He tossed it aside and drew his knife as the fight began, the pride demon stepping forward to launch its first powerful attacks.

Estella herself, slower to recover than Romulus had been, was still dizzy for several seconds after he’d run off, but she was gathering her wits and her breath to follow him when a chance glance from the corner of her eye informed her of something quite unexpected. Beneath her feet, the dark grey ground was swiftly turning black, and was that green?

Not especially eager to find out what that meant, she made to leap off the patch, but her feet hadn’t made it two inches from the dirt before she was hit from below with a—she supposed it was like a vent in the ground, as one might see from a geyser. Whatever it was, it hit her hard, and blasted her off her feet, knocking her to the side, where she landed in an ungainly heap and rolled several times, ending in a sprawl on her back, arms out to either side and a disconcerting tingling sensation in her legs.

Asala had said… what had Asala said? It was so hard to think. Struggling to her feet, she staggered sideways with a groan. The rift had been closed, but not sealed, so they had to open it. Which was where the Pride demon had come from, which meant… it was still open. She looked to her left, but Romulus was engaged with the demon, too far away to be of any help, which meant…

She had to try and close this thing on her own. Absurdly, she felt laughter starting to bubble in her chest, and wondered to herself if she was succumbing to hysteria from the strain. But really, it would have been humorous if it weren’t so urgent—the idea that anyone might have to rely on her for something so important. She couldn’t even be relied upon not to get herself killed.

But despite her thoughts, she forced her numb feet to move, shuffling back to the rift, avoiding the blackened spot on the ground and raising her hand towards it. As before, a column of viridian light lanced outwards, and she grit her teeth against the discomfort of it, stretching closer. This time, when the boom sounded, a cloud remained, but the crystal formation was gone. That wasn’t right…

She looked back down the field, to where the others had the demon engaged, to see it on its knees. Already? She knew they were good, but… it occurred to her that maybe what she’d done and that were connected somehow. Maybe she’d weakened the demon by destroying the rift structure? Still, it didn’t look fixed, like the others, and she prayed she hadn’t ruined their chances of sealing it properly.

Prayed, but dared not hope.

The demon did not stay down for long, and when it rose again, it appeared even angrier than before, perhaps now taking its opponents seriously. Romulus circled around in front of it, noticing that the arrows loosed at it were now piercing the skin, and leaving thin trails of blood leaking down. Whatever Estella had done seemed to have weakened its defenses.

The pride demon’s eyes settled on Romulus, and it brought forth a large hand, creating a sphere of electrical magic in its palm, soon launching it directly at the man. He didn’t so much as try to get out of the way; the lightning passed right through him, but judging by his reaction, he only barely felt it. His clothes were crackling and singed, but he seemed almost entirely unaffected. He rushed forward under the demon’s arm, and nimbly leaped up, pushing off the side of its leg and plunging his knife into the thing’s stomach. He carved a short line, spewing blood behind him, before the demon tried a more mundane approach.

A swift backhanded smash collided with Romulus, hitting him in the back and pitching him forward. He landed hard on the scorched, stony ground and rolled several times, stumbling back to his feet. The fall probably would’ve broken a few bones, had it not been for the benefit of a shield placed over him by Asala just before he hit the ground.

With Romulus out of immediate melee range, Estella saw Leonhardt step in to draw the demon’s attention, a resounding smacking noise reaching her ears even over the intervening distance, as he drove an arm for the back of its knee. It worked, too, and the creature listed to the side, staggering to recover its balance with one leg near to buckling. Several more arrows thudded into it while it remained thus preoccupied, and its next blast of lightning was hasty, aimed right at the armored man now circling around to its front.

She was about to shout a warning when without notice, the rift’s crystalline structure suddenly reformed, and this time, it spilled a small wave of more minor demons, closer to her than the others. One landed nearly on top of her, and she threw herself to the side, tucking into a roll and drawing her sword on the way back up. She glanced quickly back to where the others were.

The lightning never did find its target. Instead, it bounced harmlessly off of another barrier that had since become associated with Asala's magic. The woman herself, in fact, was not too far away, standing only a short distance away from Leonhardt. This time, her staff was the instrument that she had wreathed blue hued Fade, the tip of which was planted into the ground.

Closer inspection revealed the barrier to not be just a simple shield this time, but a full dome shielding both Leonhardt and Asala from the wild lightning cast by the pride demon. While her eyes remained open, the concentration in them was readily apparent, even as she mouthed something to herself. Once the fingers of lightning had safely vanished into the air, Asala lifted her staff into the air and twisted it so that the bottom tip whipped upward.

The dome mimicked the gesture, lifting into the air and shrinking so that when it struck underneath the chin of the pride demon, it was a condensed sphere. The barrier held enough force behind it to keep the demon stumbling.

The demon did not seem to particularly enjoy that. It sucked in air and loosed an enraged roar, beating its chest and covering itself in a rocky exoskeleton to act as a shield.

Upon seeing the formation of the armor plates around the demon, Romulus was forced to back away, his options for attack entirely limited. He looked to Estella, to make sure she was in a position to hear him. "Estella! Whatever you did before, do it again!"

“Right,” she muttered, bringing her saber down with both hands in a broad slash that felled the nearest shade. “Kill the demons, do the thing to the rift. I can do this. I think.” She wasn’t sure when she’d fallen into the habit of talking to herself, but it tended to happen the more strain she was under, which meant now was just about right.

There were probably too many demons here for her to realistically handle, but as usual, her allies were there to save her—most of the arrows had diverted towards helping suppress the movement of the smaller demons, useless as they were on a Pride-creature covered in stone. She had the distinct feeling she owed Rilien her life, again. “One day I’ll get around to paying those.”

With the suppressing fire, she was able to take them more or less one at a time, but the third foe came as a pair, and though she felled the first, she did so at the expense of the second raking claws across the side of her abdomen, finding a weak spot in her leathers and sinking its talons deep into her skin. She bit down on the scream that threatened, lunging forward to relieve the pressure and also stab the end of the saber up under its chin. Blood ran in rivulets down her side, most of it dripping from her hip to the ground, while yet more slicked down the side of her leg.

But she was free, for the moment, and so she forced herself to let go of the wound and instead use her free hand to disrupt the rift again. This time, when it exploded, she was ready for it, and skittered away from another of the vents in the ground, shedding more blood as she went.

A check of the others informed her that it had worked; the demon, still armored, was kneeling again, clearly in pain, and it looked a lot like Leonhardt was trying to rip stone plates off it with his hands, something which didn’t work until he jumped for one, bearing down with his considerable body weight and upper body strength alike, the plate protecting the demon’s lower spine peeling away slowly and with great resistance. To help, Asala erected a barrier and slowly expanded it beneath the plate that Leonhardt was pulling back. Together they were able to tear it away inch by inch.

As soon as there was an opening to a vulnerable spot, Romulus flew into it, stabbing the pride demon in the lower back. Instantly it arched backwards and howled in agony, and it began to spin around, thrashing its arms about in an attempt to swipe away anyone nearby. Romulus, however, was attached to the thing's back, and hung on tightly to the armor plates that remained, while he worked to dig the knife deeper, and cut across the vital spine.

Eventually, he got it, as the pride demon's legs ceased to respond, and it collapsed heavily onto its face, the armor plates sloughing off entirely now that it lacked the magical strength to maintain them. The soldiers present launched repeated stabs down onto the thing, and Romulus slid over the back to come to rest at the head, where he stabbed his blade cleanly into the back of the neck, and silenced the demon.

He did not revel in the victory, instead immediately removing his blade from the neck and climbing smoothly back to the ground, where he headed over to Estella, closer to the Breach. "Can you help me close it? It needs to happen now." He had clearly noted the wound in her side. If there was any concern in his eyes, it was hard to tell.

She made a pained noise, but nodded. Truthfully, she wasn’t sure she could, but that hadn’t stopped her from trying in a while. Together, they lifted their hands towards the rift—and she immediately regretted it, because the pain that ricocheted around in her muscles and bones was much greater than before, great enough that she straight-out fell over, though thankfully she was able to keep her arm outstretched, and that the green light issuing from it flickered, it regained strength as soon as she stopped moving.

The thunderous rapport sounded again, and she blinked up at the sky exactly once before she knew only darkness.

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

Image



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"They're awake!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I thought they were supposed to close it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius

0.00 INK

It had taken her a while, but eventually, Estella had grown used to the cold.

Which wasn’t to say that she could just walk around outside without a cloak or anything, but she didn’t find it especially unpleasant to do so. And right now, it was actually about the most relaxing thing she could think of. She’d abandoned Haven in favor of walking around outside as the afternoon drew to a close, unable to deal with the awkward scrutiny for much longer before she felt she might crack, so a break from people had seemed in order.

She’d wanted to spend a little time down in the makeshift bailey, running drills with her friends, but after an attempt to do that earlier in the week, she knew it wouldn’t go well. She wasn’t the most inconvenient distraction, but she still did occasionally draw too much attention, making it harder for the others to do their jobs, and in turn impossible for her to get any meaningful practice. She’d never been comfortable with people watching her drill, and only with time and friendship had she come to enjoy practicing with the other Lions, even.

So today she’d decided to get her exercise some other way, and had run for a while around the village before concluding her jog where she was now, which was the bank of a frozen lake, legs dangling off the wooden dock, back planted firmly on the chilled wood, which gave her a rather spectacular view of the darkening sky. Night fell early and quickly here, which made sense, she supposed, since the sun went behind the mountains and all.

The sheer number and enormity of the things that had happened to her in the last fortnight was actually kind of staggering. She hadn’t made lieutenant more than a month ago, somehow managed to make the biggest possible mess of her first assignment, get her whole squad killed, and then stagger out of some… rift in the Fade or something, only to discover that she was now somehow really important to fixing a gigantic problem that hadn’t even existed before that point.

It was quite a lot for one simple mercenary to handle, not that she was the only one in a predicament. Still, she couldn’t help but wish her brother were here. He’d know what to do. Or even her Commander, or even that Rilien actually had time to talk to her for more than a few minutes. Groaning, she threw one arm over her face, shielding her eyes with the crook of her elbow.

"You'll freeze out here, won't you?"

The question came from behind Estella, the man who'd asked it just now walking onto the dock. Romulus was bundled as he had almost always been while outside, though this time at least his hood didn't shroud his face. His arms remained firmly crossed over his chest, though. He came to a stop beside Estella and slowly took a seat, not dangling his legs over the edge but instead keeping his knees up around his chest, where he draped his arms over them. "Or does living with the southerners give you some resistance after time?"

She let her hand fall back away from her eyes, a small motion curving one side of her mouth upwards, just a fraction. “I haven’t stopped missing the Imperium’s weather, but I did get used to this, eventually.” With a small sound, she raised herself so that she was sitting upright as well, hunching slightly to lean her weight on her hands, which grasped the edges of the dock.

Up here in the mountains, the sunset was pale, pastel compared to the explosion of color one got over the ocean, for example, but pretty in its own way. “I guess my name probably gave me away, right?” She actually didn’t use the whole thing that often, for exactly that reason, because while Estella could be passed off as something from the northern Marches, there was no mistaking Avenarius for anything but a Tevinter name. She’d even been cagey about it with her friends in Kirkwall, at first, which had proven almost humorously unnecessary. She doubted they would have cared if she was anything short of a murderous blood mage.

"Perhaps mine should have as well," Romulus said, a slight glint in his eye. "I have no other name. No family to belong to, save the house of Viridius." He sniffed, the cold air having turned his nose quite red, making it serve as a sort of centerpiece for the dark lines marked into his face. Lines of ink ran from the inner corners of his eyes jaggedly across his cheeks to the jawline, while various dots and smaller patterns were more faintly marked into the skin. That particular practice was more commonly known to be Rivaini, rather than Tevinter in origin.

"The Inquisition's plan is to not allow word of my circumstances to spread. It doesn't look well for them to be following a Tevinter magister's loyal blade in their supposed holy calling." He made it difficult to tell how he felt about many things, as any of his expressions of emotions were subtle at best. A very slight quirk to his lips was all he showed now.

"You have the easier story to sympathize with, I suppose. And the easier face."

That got a laugh out of her, a soft one, but a laugh nevertheless. “I don’t know about that. At least yours has real character—I could be anyone.” She paused, then shrugged. Maybe that was the point. “As for the rest of it, well… I suppose I can see why they think that.” Her tone indicated that she was not particularly amenable to it, though. Still, it wasn’t like either of them really had much of a choice here: they were necessary, of that much she was certain, but there was no mistaking that their lives were being more or less used for everyone else’s benefit, at least for now.

She didn’t mind, really. In fact, she was mostly just afraid that she’d fail somehow.

Silence reigned for a while, but then an errant thought struck her, and she furrowed her brow. “Viridius, though. Is Magister Chryseis related to Cassius Viridius?” It seemed unlikely that they were not, but families in Tevinter were often large, and they may not be closely connected at all.

"Daughter," Romulus answered, readily, as though he'd expected the question. "I was originally purchased by Magister Cassius, while I was still a child, and worked on his estate for several years. My actions eventually saw me transferred into the service of his only child and daughter."

He fell silent, perhaps to allow the information to linger on the cold air. It was evidence that he had known perhaps more about Estella from the moment he'd heard her name than he had originally let on. But he didn't hold on to the subject, instead reaching up to pull his hood into place. His ears, uncovered by any hair the likes of which Estella had, had turned quite a bright shade of red.

"Do you believe in the Maker?" he asked, quite out of nowhere. Clearly the question had been lingering on his mind. "Everyone else seems to think we're touched by Andraste, and not just horrible luck."

She accepted the change of topic with equanimity, though not before noting the information to herself. It seemed to collude with the vague sense she had that she’d met this man somewhere before, though it didn’t elucidate the feeling any further. She looked back out at the frozen lake, the way the light from the setting sun reflected off it, coating it in brilliant silver so bright she couldn’t really look at it for too long. She couldn’t help but think she knew a lot of things like that, and many of them were actually people.

“I do,” she replied softly. “Maybe not… not the same way I used to. But I do.” She turned her eyes down to her hands, the right one currently bereft of a glove. She’d woken without it—perhaps trying to close the rift had shredded it or something. The green mark was still there, smaller, but yet alight. She closed her fingers over it.

“But I definitely don’t think I was chosen for anything. I can’t bring myself to believe that it was Andraste in there. I’ve never heard anyone respond to my prayers, and people of much more merit and faith than me have been praying longer and harder to be met with just as much nothing.” There was something beyond this world, she knew that much. But whether that something would ever have anything to do with them, that was harder to say. Certainly they wouldn’t pick her of all people to affect so directly, and it was arrogance to assume otherwise.

“What about you?” She knew that slaves in the Imperium as a rule weren’t known for being religious, but then, the Chantry was at odds with the Magisterium often enough that some of them did end up inclined in that direction, so it varied.

"I've never believed," he answered simply. He let it sit for a moment before clarifying. "I've never had a reason to. The Tevinter Chantry decided I was fit only for servitude. And I have served no one that even mentions the Maker's name in passing. My life... has never had time for questions of faith."

He looked up and to his left, at the Breach that still hung in the sky. "Inconvenient that I think to ask only now." As the daylight faded its unnatural glow became more prominent, casting reflecting green trails across the ice and the clouds, though they were slower moving than before, when the tear in the sky had been much more volatile.

"I don't know who it was that saved us. I know little of magic. But I do know what I have experienced, from when I was a child, to this moment." He twisted where he sat, to look more directly at her.

"Tell me. Do you remember me? From before. Long, long before any of this ever happened."

It was the same question that had been nagging at the back of her mind, and she wondered if she was transparent enough that he’d read it right off her or if he’d been wondering as well. She bit her lip and searched her memory, which really seemed to be failing more often than it wasn’t lately.

“There’s… something. I have a sense that I’ve met you, but I can’t recall where or how.” She was sure if it had been some time after she’d been apprenticed to Master Ignis, she would have recalled—she hadn’t been lying when she said his face had a distinctive character, especially with the tattoos. But though she knew of the Viridius household, she’d never been there, and it was unlikely that was the right avenue, which left only one.

“The orphanage, maybe? I was so young then that I barely remember most of it, but…? She let the end of the sentence become a question, hoping he would have the answer.

He smiled, not broadly, but certainly the closest he'd come since showing his face in Haven. "I was a wild, stupid, angry child, no more than nine years old. I remember the little twins. After I was shuffled off in the night and clapped in irons, it was many years before I heard of either of you, and then, only of the other Avenarius. But my domina let the name fall enough that I did not forget."

There was a gleam in his eye, like he was truly interested in the coincidence the pair of them had fallen into. "I sometimes wondered where the girl had gone, but did not trouble myself with it. And looking back now, what have we gone through to be here? What have you gone through that lets you even function after what happened? How is it that both of us are still alive?"

The questions were obviously not meant to be answered, as he stood then, looking out over the lake. "I never believed before... but after the two of us, so far from Tevinter where we were placed as children, fell out of a rift, the only survivors... after all of that, I find it hard to believe that it was only luck that chose us." It was apparently all he wanted to say on the subject, as he turned and quietly departed, heading back for the warmth of Haven.

Estella contemplated that for a while, but no answers presented themselves, at least not to what seemed to be the larger question. Still, Romulus had definitely given her something to think about, something she was still doing when she, too, rose and headed back towards the gate into the village.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

0.00 INK

It was sweltering, but to her, it was perfect.

The house that Asala had been given to work in had all of its windows shut to keep out the cold mountain air, and a fire raged in the hearth, a cauldron bubbling above it. Asala had discarded her white robes, thrown into a heap in the corner of the room, and instead wore a thin, wide necked tunic that fell to her navel. Her thick, furlined boots were also discarded wanting instead to feel the cool wood under her barefeet. For someone so shy, she didn't mind exposing some skin. The cold and snow was something new to her, having never experienced it in the northern reaches of Thedas. Judging by the thickness of the clothes around her, she never grew used to it.

She stood over the bubbling cauldron, stirring the contents slowly and methodically with a long metal ladle. The house smelled of herbs and medicine, and a stack of vials waited on a table nearby and a box on her other side contained many herbs, though primarily elfroot. She reached into the box and plucked out a few roots, working them in her hands to draw the juices to the surface before she dropped them into the cauldron.

A few minutes more, and she stopped the stirring and drew some of the mixture. She took a sniff and gave a pleased nod, before grabbing a vial and filling it with the light green mix. A bald headed man with a bushy beard then appeared beside her, looking into the cauldron too. "The potions are done then?" He asked. Adan, the man's name was. Asala remembered he was cranky when they first met, but soon he came to accept her presence. At least she hoped he did, it was hard to tell under that beard. She nodded in the affirmative.

"Good, Ser Albrecht will be pleased," he said, taking the vial from her hand and stoppering it before putting it in a crate. They managed to pack a few more before a knock came from the door. Adan packed the vial he was holding before moving to answer. The chill quickly swept in when he had, causing her shoulder to shudder.

He stood at the doorway for a moment, staring at whoever had knocked before asking, "Herald? What brings you to my little piece of Haven?" Asala shuddered again, this time at the sarcasm in his voice.

There was a momentary pause, but then a feminine voice, soft but steady, answered. “Oh, hello serah. Rilien mentioned to me the other day that you might like the former alchemist’s notes. I was out walking today and found his house—are these what you were looking for?” There was a shuffling sound, like parchment, and then a moment of silence.

Asala paused what she was doing for a moment and glanced toward the door. Setting the ladle down, she moved toward it and stood over Adan's shoulder, peering at the notes in his hands. She could make out ingredients, serving sizes, methods, and techniques. Adan flipped through the notes before nodding, "This will be useful. Were it not for Asala, the Commander would be without potions for his troops." The faint praised caused a blush to seep into Asala's face, and she averted her head to try and pretend she didn't hear it. It was difficult for her to deal with compliments.

With the notes in hand, Adan removed himself from the doorway and went back to the cauldron, and continued to pour potions into vials leaving Asala standing awkwardly with Estella. A moment passed in silence before she twitched. She was being rude she realized. "Oh! Uh... C-come in?" she asked in a stuttered. She was not good talking with new people... Even if she had watched over this one for the better part of a week. It was different when she was unconscious. Asala didn't have to speak then.

Estella smiled slightly, in what would be described as a reassuring fashion, perhaps sensing her discomfort. After a moment’s pause at the threshold, she stepped forward and entered, closing the door tightly behind her, shaking a bit of loose snow from the hem of her cloak. It didn’t take long for the ambient temperature to bring spots of color to her pale face, and she removed the single glove she was wearing, tucking it into her belt.

“Oh, this is much nicer than outside. Thank you.” Carefully, she unclasped her cloak and hung it one of the hooks reserved for such uses, and stepped further in, no longer at risk of dripping much on the floor. She stood well away from the workstation itself though, placing herself against a wall and folding her hands behind her back. Her eyes passed over the various alchemical accoutrements, though from the cursory nature of the examination, it was probably safe to say she knew at least some of them already.

Eventually, her eyes settled back on Asala, though not in any particularly intent way. “Is Haven home for you, Asala? Or did you come here from somewhere else? That is, if you don’t mind my asking.”

She'd moved back and resumed the spot that Adan had moments ago, aiding him in filling the vials and then packing them away. She shook her head no and paused a moment, pointing upward. "More north," she answered. It was intentionally vague for she didn't know how she felt about telling Estella the details of her home. She did not think Estella a bad person, farthest from it actually. She found herself rather fond of the woman, but they'd only known each other for a few weeks, and some of those days Estella had been unconscious. She did, however allow the woman a warm, if fragile, smile. "Far more."

“Makes sense, I suppose,” Estella replied mildly, apparently not inclined to push any further than Asala was willing to talk. There were only so many countries in the north of Thedas, and not many of them had much by way of a Qunari populace, so perhaps the guess was obvious. “It’s… different, of course, but I like it, in the south.”

She fell silent for a time, then seemed to remember something. “Oh, that’s right.” She went back over to her cloak, moving it around for moment until she exposed an inside pocket, which she fished something out of. “One of the bakers was working earlier today, and I remember someone mentioning you’d been holed up in here making potions, so I thought you might like some.” This time moving to Asala’s side and stopping within a few feet, she set the object down on the table. It appeared to be something covered in a napkin, but from the subtle sweet scent, it was quite fresh still.

Asala glanced at the napkin for a moment, but finished packing the last potions into the crate before investigating. She took it in her hands and folded it back, her eyes widening with childlike glee when she saw what was inside. A cookie, large and round, studded with pieces of chocolates. Her eyes darted back and forth between the cookie and Estella before finally blurting, "Thank you!" without a stutter. Nearby, Adan simply rolled his eyes and picked up the crate before heading for the door. "I'm going to deliver these to the Lions. You two are giving me a headache."

Asala's gaze fell for a moment, and Adan wore an apologetic look as he left. But it wasn't enough to keep Asala's spirit down for long. She broke a piece of and popped it in her mouth. It was still warm, she found, and she closed her eyes as she savored it. She opened them to see Estella, so she broke a small piece off from the cookie and offered to share.

However she may felt about it before, she was now far more receptive telling her more about where she came from. Her eyes fell to the floor a moment as she felt an aching pain in her heart. "I-I was born in Par Vollen, but it is not my home. The Qun... Do you know what it demand th-they do to the mages?" The staff that leaned against the wall nearby and the skill with which she wielded barriers bespoke of her status. Saarebas.

Estella accepted the proffered portion of the sweet, biting into it and chewing for a moment before she answered. “I’m… yes. I’m aware. One of my friends used to follow the Qun; he’s… well, he doesn’t talk about it much, but I do know that.” She sighed, then finished her bit of cookie.

“So you ran, then? From Par Vollen? That must have been difficult.”

She nodded, gingerly holding the cookie in her hands. She remembered. It was hard to forget. There was crying, pleading, and begging, but her only answer were stoic faces and unfeeling iron. Her hands trembled before finding their strength again. "Not alone. Tammy-- T-Tamassran, our teacher, took me and another from there before... Before..." she trailed off, a hand moving to the base of one of her horns. Had she remained, they would've taken them from her. Along with much more.

"We f-found a new home. Away from the Qun. We are... Tal-Vashoth. And I am a Saarebas. A dangerous thing," she said with a smile. There was no warmth within it however, only sadness. She shook her head throwing white locks around and recovering the base of her horns, trying to buck those thoughts, "It was... A l-long time ago," she said with a blush and an averting of her gaze.

Estella wore a sympathetic expression, but in the end, she only shook her head. “Well, not to reduce the difficulty you’ve been through, but in this case, it seems the Qun’s loss was our gain. You saved our lives, and if we manage to close the Breach, then… that means you’ll really have saved everyone.” She smiled kindly. Saarebas or no.”

She shifted her weight slightly and laid a hand, the one without the mark, on Asala’s forearm. “So, I for one am very glad you’re a mage. Thank you, for helping us.”

Asala returned the smile, this one with warmth. "Th-thank you," she stuttered before setting the cookie down and returning to the cauldron. She still had work to do, after, all. She glanced at the vials and then to Estella, giving her an apologetic look as she did.

“I’ll let you get back to it,” Estella said, clearly taking the hint. Patting Asala’s arm once, she stepped away and returned to the entranceway, donning her cloak swiftly and putting her hand to the door.

“If you need any help bottling those tomorrow, let me know. I don’t have much else to do, honestly, and I’ve spent more than a few hours as an alchemist’s assistant.” Her eyes glittered with a faint hint of mirth, as though something in that statement amused her, but then she pressed on the door and stepped back out into the chill.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

It did smell a little bit like dog.

Which was actually kind of weird, since there wasn’t a lot by way of civilization out here, but Khari didn’t much mind that. Someplace called the Hinterlands probably should have a bit more of a rugged, wild feel to it, right? It was mostly hills and valleys, with the occasional cluster of trees, but according to Leon’s pretty maps, there were forested areas, too, and some big old fortress to the southwest. Also bears. They’d been told to watch out for bears.

Khari wasn’t worried about bears so much—growing up in an area with the really big ones had made the normal ones seem less impressive.

They’d been going downhill for a while now, herself at point of the formation mostly because she’d insisted and no one else had argued with her. They were a pretty quiet bunch, and maybe even a smidge boring, for a really tall Qunari and a couple of Heralds of Andraste or whatever, but she reminded herself that it wasn’t smart to conclude anything before she’d gotten to know them, so she reserved her final thoughts on that for now at least. Plus the really quiet one with the big knife seemed like the kind of guy who might stab you in your sleep, which reminded her of all the things Ser Durand had said about Bards, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to piss him off if so.

The scouts thankfully weren’t that hard to follow, presumably because there wasn’t really any need to be, and so even her remedial skills could keep them on the right track, and it wasn’t too long before they crested a hill and saw the small encampment laying ahead of them.

“Splen-diferous. We’re here.”

The camp was well situated, set into the hill side with an excellent view to the north. It was a small hub of Inquisition activity, with a group of soldiers performing routine drills outside the tents, while others stood watch over all of the entry points. Two of these guards quickly noticed the approaching group led by the two Heralds of Andraste. One whistled loudly, turning back towards the camp.

The watchmen escorted the group into the camp, where an elven woman, quite young, dressed in light Inquisition leathers and mail, came to greet them. A finely made bow was slung across her back, along with a full quiver of arrows. Curling away from her eyes and down each of her cheeks were dark green tattoos, easily recognizable as Dalish vallaslin. Hers were the marks of Andruil, goddess of the hunt.

"Good to see you made it," she greeted, nodding to Estella in particular. "Hope you didn't find any trouble on the road." Her eyes settled on Khari, specifically upon the redheaded elf's own vallaslin, marks of a different god. "Don't think we've met. I'm Lia, the lead scout."

Khari was unexpectedly silent for a moment—she hadn’t encountered any other Dalish in a number of years, and now that she had, wasn’t sure exactly what to do. In the end, though, she decided not to do anything in particular, instead plastering her wolfish grin over her face and holding a hand forward.

“Khari. I guess I’m the hired thug.” She said it with a fair amount of pride and no little humor, which would hopefully make it obvious she wasn’t completely serious. It was surprising how many people couldn’t tell a joke from a dragon’s ass.

"Yeah, but you must be a pretty good thug, if they stuck you with the Heralds," Lia shot back, with a grin. She caught a glance from Romulus, and then returned to a more businesslike manner, clearing her throat.

"We've been doing what we can out here, but it's a mess. Commander wants you guys as the vanguard, with us backing you up. We set up camp here, above the refugee town below." She thumbed over her shoulder, towards the smoke that could be seen drifting from the small valley below. "They don't have any room left down there. We've made contact with Revered Mother Annika, she's the one leading the refugees. Tough one, for a Chantry woman. She wants to meet the two of you." She nodded her head towards Estella, and Romulus.

“Right.” From behind Khari, Estella nodded, stepping forward slightly. “Rilien mentioned she’d expressed some interest in the Inquisition. He… also said there’s still active conflict in the area. Should we expect any of it on the way?”

Meanwhile, there was a shuffling, and Asala's horns descended into Khari's view, eyes looking at her with no small amount of trepidation. "Are... Are y-you truly a h-hired thug?" Asala sputtered.

Was this lady serious? Khari’s grin widened, becoming quite nearly uncanny. “The baddest bandit between here and Val Fermin, serah.” Her tone was dripping with sarcasm, but it was unclear if even that would be of any help. Asala's cheeks reddened and brows furrowed, and she slowly slipped back out of view and away. It appeared... not.

"Uh..." Lia said, a little slack-jawed. She blinked, and then looked back to Estella. "Yes. A lot of it. We tried to reach a horsemaster in the area, a man named Dennet. Leon wanted us to see if he'd be willing to provide horses for the Inquisition. We couldn't reach him, though. To the northwest," she pointed, "through the tunnel, there's a battleground. Rebel mages and templars turned an entire village into burning rubble fighting each other."

"Where are they coming from?" Romulus asked, direct and to the point.

"Our best guess, the mages are somewhere in the forest to the north, and the templars somewhere along the river to the west. There's bandits of some kind along the eastern road, a cult of some sort to the south, and while we don't know who's occupying the fort in the southwest, they sure don't seem friendly. Basically, expect trouble anywhere you go."

“Sounds like fun.” And about that, she was completely serious. Khari felt the first little tingles of an oncoming adrenaline rush starting to buzz around in her fingertips, and glanced back at the rest of them. Maybe they’d be ready to go soon? Lia seemed swell, as far as people went, but she’d come this far looking for challenges, not small talk.

"It certainly isn't dull. Come on, we'd better get--" Lia's words were cut off by a loud, clear horn, echoing through the hills but almost certainly coming from down below, in the village. "Shit," Lia cursed to herself, turning and running to a cliffside, to get a better view. "Someone's attacking the village. I think it's the templars. Donnelly's leading the defense, they can hold them off, but I don't know for how long. Get going! We'll be right behind you."

No need to tell her twice. Khari had yanked her sword out of its makeshift harness before Lia had even finished speaking, and she was down the side of the hill like a shot, her feet sure and steady over the precarious terrain. Ordinarily, she might have been more mindful of the fact that she was in a group, but this was an emergency situation, and the faster they could get there, the better, even if they didn’t arrive all at the same time.

Her breath was as steady as her footfalls, even as she launched herself off smaller ledges on the way down the cliffside, in order to shave off time. She took a couple harder landings when the ground proved unstable underneath her, but they fazed her not at all, and it wasn’t long before she was charging down a dirt path, impressed into what had once been native grass from long years of wagon travel and the passage of horses. Her feet dug little furrows in the ground every time she pushed off into the next step; the last rain here had been recent, and the earth was still soft.

She knew all of this, in the same way she knew how to run. Eventually, her stride brought her to the Templar flanks, and she dove right into a knot of them, swinging her heavy sword with what other people would probably call ‘extreme prejudice.’ Khari preferred to think of it as getting her muscles warmed up, finding the right rhythm of battle.

Clearly, the Templars hadn’t expected to be flanked, least of all by someone like her, who just jumped right into their formation like she’d never had a tactical lesson in her life. That surprise lasted long enough for her blade to bite deep into one’s clavicle, and then she sawed it backwards, slamming the pommel into the stomach of the next, who’d come in behind, catching him just where his plate ended and weaker ringmail began.

She ducked under another swing, but focused on the one she’d just hit, arcing her blade over her head and bringing the graceless hunk of steel down on his helmet, where it sounded a dull rapport, and he reeled to the side long enough for her to punch the point of the blade into his guts. “Pick on someone who can fight back, you damned cowards!”

If any of them had failed to notice her before, that certainly got their attention.

Of course, there were advantages to that, such as the fact that Estella, next to reach the group, though looking a little more winded than Khari herself, was able to flank them a second time, the bright silverite of her own thinner sword flashing in the sunlight as she used it to slide between a pair of plates in another templar’s back, felling him as well. Unfortunately, the woman beside him had noticed this, and drove the Herald back with a series of heavy hits, each parried, but clearly more than a match for Estella’s strength.

A well placed arrow from above struck the templar in the sword arm, piercing between two armor plates and offering Estella a solid opening to take advantage of, which she did, plunging her blade into the Templar's armpit.

More Inquisition troops arrived to attack the flank, both in melee and from range. The templars seemed to realize how they'd overstepped, and almost immediately began a measured retreat, giving ground to try to consolidate their line. Behind them was a well lit tunnel dug through the rock. It was towards this that they backstepped.

In the center of the fray stood a woman with sandy blonde hair, wearing ringmail and leather armor over her Chantry robes. She wielded a mace and tower shield, deflecting blows left and right and covering the retreat of an injured Inquisition soldier. The blows she struck back with were debilitating, aimed at the limbs rather than major organs or killing blows. She had a commanding presence on the field, even the Inquisition soldiers seeming to rally around her.

"There are no apostates for you here, Templars!" she bellowed, above the din of battle. "And nothing for you to loot and plunder, either! Turn back from this madness!"

The comment about apostates however, was soon rendered false. The conspicuous appearance of white locks and a pair of horns stood out amongst the Inquisition soldiers at range, the woman's hands alight in blue Fade. In turn, barriers began to spring up from the battlefield, separating pockets of Templars and aiding the push back.

The Haze, as Khari preferred to call it, wasn’t like most people imagined. She didn’t lose her senses—she could still hear and register what was going on around her. It just… mattered less, in the same way pain mattered less. She could steer clear of allies with the precision of a finely-tuned instrument, at least when she was doing things right, but it was all instinct, not really consciously-decided on her part.

Khari swung her arms upwards, catching an incoming halberd by dint of that same instinct, angling it off her sword to avoid a pushing contest she’d probably lose, then took a hard step forward, lowering her shoulder and knocking into her foe, off-center so that she’d put a little spin on him, then leaped back and swung while he recovered, chopping into his abdomen like a lumberjack swinging an axe into a tree, and he fell just like one. That meant the last one in her immediate proximity was gone, and she considered chasing down some of the others, but there was no honor in felling a fleeing foe, and she backed off, joining up with the rest of the Inquisition’s forces and applying pressure on the few too stubborn to cede as much ground as they ought to be.

And then, as suddenly as it had begun, the fight ended, the last of the remaining templars turning tail to flee. Khari took a deep breath, slowly relinquishing the Haze, and came to covered in blood, most of it not her own. Slowly, she shook out each of her limbs, testing for injuries she might not have noticed, and finding nothing more devastating than a couple nicks and scratches. That was some backup; normally when she did things that stupid, she came away with at least a few deep gashes or a broken something.

Confident that she was still in fighting shape, she lowered Intercessor and glanced around, seeking the other three.

The templars fled back through their tunnel, licking their wounds, and the Inquisition forces moved quickly to re-secure it. Undoubtedly they would be more cautious about attacking the refugee camp in the future, given the staunch defense they'd been met with. The air smelled heavily of blood, as much of it had been spilled, on both sides. The crows feasted well here, but if the looks of the refugees emerging were any indication, they were not sharing in the bounty. From within the throngs of soldiers dispersing after the fight the Chantry Mother, Annika, emerged, her bloodied mace leaning against her shoulder. She slid her arm from the shield grips and set it at her feet.

"Bloody rogue templars, no better than common thugs," she muttered. "I doubt even they know what they fight for at this point."

Estella slid her blade home in the sheath at her hip, stepping forward to greet the armored cleric. “Not a flaw only they have,” she said quietly, then took a deep breath and spoke with more confidence. “Mother Annika? I’m Estella, and this is Romulus, Khari, and Asala.” She indicated each in turn.

Annika smiled, exhaling as though the weight of her armor had been lifted. "And the two of you are known now as the Heralds of Andraste. Come, walk with me. There is much to discuss."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

Romulus walked behind the Revered Mother, Annika, and pulled back his hood. The Hinterlands were anything but warm, but here at least the sun seemed to have some warmth, and the winds did not swirl with drifts of snow. It was no closer to Tevinter, but it was at least a little more bearable.

"Your timing was excellent," Mother Annika said, leading them back into the center of the makeshift village. It looked to have been simply a crossroads at some point, with a lone watchtower and a small guard house, probably manned by the Arl's men before the mage-templar war resumed. Now, it was manned by volunteers and Inquisition soldiers. The rest of the buildings, or more often just pitiful canvas tents, had sprung up with little organization all around it.

"The people here have little to offer for the Inquisition's assistance," she continued, leading them to the right and up a flight of old stone stairs, past a small wooden house. "But of course, the Inquisition's greatest need currently isn't soldiers, or swords. It's support of the people you need, something the rest of the Chantry would see denied to you."

The observation that was easiest to make for Romulus was that this woman was a part of the Chantry, but clearly did not share a mind with the rest of her organization. That she wielded shield and mace was odd enough; he'd rarely seen anyone in Chantry robes, Tevinter or otherwise, pick up a weapon.

They came to a small area set aside for the wounded, makeshift cots holding injured refugees and Inquisition volunteers alike. Annika surveyed them briefly, before approaching a young man, no older than twenty, with a bleeding stab wound to the side. He pressed his hand against it. Annika carefully set down her shield and propped the mace against it, before crouching down beside the boy.

"There is a mage here, a skilled healer. She can assist you, if you'll allow it." She looked back, and pointed to Asala. Her tone was comforting, devoid of any trace of the anger she'd carried in the fight. The boy, however, laid eyes on the Qunari, and they were filled with fear, though it was unclear if he was made apprehensive by the horns, or the magic.

"No, Mother Annika, please. Don't let an apostate touch me. Their magic..."

"Her magic," Annika corrected, "for she is her own woman, and she has chosen a nobler purpose than banditry in the woods. Now be silent, and allow her to ease your suffering." He looked at Asala a moment longer, before reluctantly easing up, and nodding. Annika smiled, squeezed him on the shoulder, and turned to the newly arrived group, her eyes finding Asala.

"You are the healer I've heard about, yes? The one who tended to the Heralds? News has spread from Haven of more than just those touched by Andraste. There are a great many here who could use your skill."

"O-Oh," Was all she could manage. Whether it due the boy's initial reluctance, the attention placed upon her, the news that she was known along with the Heralds, or a mix of it all that managed to overwhelm her, it was not clear. However, with a subtle shake of her head, her eyes focused and she turned toward the boy.

She fell to her knees and hiked her sleeves up past her elbows to reveal a pair of slender arms, holding her hands out over the boy's injury. "It will... tickle. At first," she offered him with a gentle smile. A moment later, a green glow enveloped her hands, evident of the healing magic they wielded, and the boy twitched at an unfamiliar sensation.

She spoke again, this time directed toward the Revered Mother, though she did not turn away from the boy placed in her care. "I will see to all those that I can."

"Excellent," Annika said, nodding in approval. She allowed Asala to go about her work, turning her attention next to Estella and Romulus. She spent a moment in silence, as though studying them, and Romulus thought perhaps to open his mouth and speak, if she were waiting for him to do so. She saved him the trouble, however.

"Before we go any further, I have a question for both of you." She paused, perhaps to see if there was any objection. "This title, Herald of Andraste. I would ask how you feel about it. Your honest opinion."

Estella glanced at Romulus, perhaps recalling their previous conversation on a related topic, but then moved her glance to the Revered Mother. “I think… that there is an awful lot I don’t know,” she said, pursing her lips. “It seems so unlikely to me that I’d ever be chosen for anything like that—part of me thinks it must be nothing but a coincidence… however strange that coincidence really is.” She paused, sighing softly through her nose.

“But then I hardly think I’m qualified to guess at what the Maker or Andraste are thinking, either. I don’t want to lie to anyone, to tell them I’m a Herald without knowing that I am, but… it’s not like I could possibly set straight every person who already believes it.”

"Humility is a good place to begin," the Revered Mother remarked. "I'm sure the confidence to use what you have been granted for the greater good will come with time. For whether or not you believe, many of those that follow do, and will look to you for example. Perhaps, when you have an opportunity to raise flagging spirits with a few small words, you will begin to believe." She turned her head to Romulus. "And what about you? Admittedly I've heard a bit less about the man with the marked face."

Romulus shifted uncomfortably, not eager to be judged. But that was the way the world would treat them, wasn't it? Judging them based on word of mouth, on glimpses of them and their actions, on the words they spoke. People across countries that didn't even know them would judge their actions, with heavy weights on their opinions.

"I have only ever believed in what I've seen," he began, uneasily. "But I've seen things recently that I cannot explain, and felt them. The title has its uses, as you've said. From nothing, in a short time, a force has been built capable of bringing order back to lands like these. The title has power behind it, enough to stop wars, or begin them. As for it's meaning to me..." He faltered. "I believe allowing myself to think I'm meant for something greater is dangerous. But the more I've thought on it, the easier it is to believe."

"A wise sentiment, to recognize the danger. Many a movement has blindly turned away from their original intent from how zealously they believe. Our dear rogue templars are a fine example." She quieted, taking a step past them to overlook the village below, where she watched the progress of the brief battle's aftermath.

"I hoped to speak with you because I am aware of the Chantry's denouncement of your Inquisition. I am experienced enough in these ranks to know those that are behind it." She curled her lip up slightly, an expression Romulus interpreted as disgust. "Some of them have followed Roderick for the purpose of grandstanding. They feel tempted by the possibility of being the next Divine, something unthinkable for them before the Conclave. Some... some are simply terrified, from what the stories told of the Temple of Sacred Ashes, or what remains of it." She looked to Estella.

"I have not seen it for myself yet. The refugees of war have occupied my time. Tell me, was there nothing but horror following the explosion? What stood out to you most, in the hours after you awoke?"

Estella took a long pause before answering, the gap in conversation much longer than those normally permitted. Then again, it wasn’t exactly a light query, so perhaps that made sense. When she answered, there was a distinct sense of reserve in her tone, as though she were withholding something—not particularly difficult to detect. “I suppose… what I noticed most about everyone else was that none of them had lost their composure. Everyone I met had understood just as much as I did about what happened, but they hadn’t given up. They had a plan, even if they disagreed about what it was, and they did everything they could to make it happen.”

"It's the mindset of a well-disciplined soldier, is it not?" Annika said, with a small, knowing smile. "Even when things go so terribly wrong, a good soldier knows that allowing fear to control will only make matters worse. My Chantry brethren, for the most part, are not soldiers. Their fear makes them desperate, and then drives them from reason. And the stories they have been told, of the events at the Conclave, have given them nothing but fear. Fear of the terrible destruction, and fear of the Inquisition that rose from it."

Romulus scowled, mostly because there was little other way to take a discussion such as this. He stood with hands folded in front of him, beside Estella, and listened carefully to the Revered Mother's words.

"I believe you should go to them, in Val Royeaux. Convince them that you and your Inquisition are no demons to be feared. Convince them of what I learned, during the Blight: that times like these bring out the best in people, not just the worst. Do you think you can do this?" Romulus felt that the question was specifically asked to Estella, for her gaze did not wander to Romulus during or after the asking.

Estella’s did, though, darting to him and then back, and then she bit down on her lip. “I’m not…” she sighed. “I don’t know if that’s possible.” Her eyes fell to the ground in front of them, and she shifted her center of gravity.

“But I can try.”

"You don't need to convince them all in one fell swoop. You just need some of them to doubt their certainty in branding you and yours as heretics. They only have power in unity. Take it from them, and they will flounder, giving the Inquisition the time it needs to brace itself." Finally, her eyes found their way up to Romulus, and clearly they saw the question within them. He wondered why this conversation was seemingly between the two of them, Estella and Annika. Why the task was solely hers.

"It must be her that goes to Val Royeaux. I would advise that you stay here, in the Hinterlands, for the time being. When I look at the pair of you, when I think of what I have heard... Estella is a known entity in comparison. A member of a respected mercenary organization, especially in Orlais. It already lends evidence that she is a woman with a good heart, and a capable hand. I will not say that you lack these..." She paused, studying him, his demeanor, his posture, the expression on his face, or lack thereof.

"But any noble or Chantry official of Orlais will see that you are a man who has known only servitude. It's in the way you carry yourself, how you position yourself near others, how you speak. They know nothing of you, and the unknown is something they greatly fear. Perhaps you can bring Andraste's wrath to the Inquisition's enemies, and Estella can bring Andraste's hope to those you would see become allies." Romulus pondered the words... and found them agreeable. Tactically, if nothing else. Speaking to a crowd, of his superiors no less, while refusing to renounce his loyalty to a magister of Tevinter... the less he spoke on behalf of the Inquisition, the better. Even if he wanted to, which he didn't, it simply wasn't wise. He didn't doubt Estella would dislike the experience as much if not more, but she was better suited for it, of the two of them.

Romulus nodded that he understood. Annika returned the gesture, and sighed. "I honestly don't know how I feel about the two of you. If you've been touched by Andraste and sent to help us... I hope it's true, though." She took another long look out at the refugees, pausing before she spoke again. "I will go to Haven, if the Inquisition will have me, to provide your leaders with the names of those in the Chantry that would be most amenable to a gathering. It isn't much, but hopefully it will be something."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

0.00 INK

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.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius

0.00 INK

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

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

0.00 INK

The end of the marker was sharp, so when she drove it into the ground, it stayed there, displaying the Inquisition's colors so that Whittle could find the cache much more easily when he came to pick everything up. Estella took the map from where it was folded and tucked into her belt, withdrawing a stick of charcoal and marking an ‘x’ within one of the broad circles on it. One more cache of supplies, a few more refugees who’d sleep with a blanket tonight.

It wasn’t the most glamorous work she’d ever done, but as far as reward went, she had to concede that she hadn’t felt this good about herself in a long time. Perhaps part of it was residual happiness from seeing Cyrus again, awkward as their conversation was at times now, and part of it might just be that she didn’t tend to let herself dwell too much when she was actively doing something like this.

But part of it did come from the knowledge that she was helping people, and today, she didn’t have to kill anyone else to do it. Frowning slightly, she pushed the morbid thought from her head and folded the map up along the creases, tucking it back in her belt and stowing the charcoal.

“Next one should be east a ways, down the hill,” she remarked to her partner, who was carrying several other pennants like the one Estella had just staked into the ground. They’d been trekking for the better part of the afternoon, but they still had a couple more caches to search for.

Asala carried the markers over her shoulder in a bundle. If the weight of them affected her at all, she certainly didn't show it. Probably due to the fact of being a Qunari, she seemed to carry them with very little effort at all. She pointed her head in the direction given and nodded, a smile on her lips. Estella's own mood was rubbing off on her it appeared, as she did not display her usual level of hesitation. In fact, she seemed a bit more comfortable than normal.

Then she nodded for Estella to lead the way. She was the one with the map.

She smiled back and then turned to face forward, pressing on towards the east. The silence was comfortable, and though by this point in her life, she was well-used to a certain level of amiable chatter and joking, she wasn’t averse to quiet, exactly. She’d always been drawn to the bright people in her life, the ones that radiated a sense of charisma and good humor, but in Asala she saw a little bit of herself, maybe, or perhaps closer to what she’d used to be. More stuttering, admittedly, but the same kind of shyness.

Hopefully she’d never be forced to get over it, and could make a choice like that of her own volition, or not. But then… Asala was a refugee as well, perhaps even more than Estella herself ever had been. She’d run from Tevinter, yes, but not everything it stood for. Despite the popular perception in the south, there was much more to her fatherland than evil magisters and broken slaves, though there were indeed plenty of both those kinds of people.

She wondered if there was more to the Qun than subjugated mages and oppressive social control. She figured there had to be; she’d only met two former Qunari before Asala, but they were both very complex people, and the scant impressions she’d received of the society and philosophy didn’t give her much that would yield such folk. She thought about asking Asala, but the Qun seemed like an understandably-difficult topic for her, and she didn’t want to push her into talking about anything she didn’t want to.

So Estella asked a different question instead. “Hey Asala? You’ve been with the Inquisition since it started. Can I ask why?” Not that it had been going very long, but still. It took a certain kind of person to volunteer for the uphill slog this was sure to be. She honestly wasn’t sure whether or not she’d have done so. She’d have helped if the Lions were helping, of course, but to come here alone and actually join? It was hard to say.

Asala's head tilted curiously at the question. She was quiet for a moment, though it didn't appear to be out of hesitation, but thought. It wasn't until she looked back to Estella that she had her answer. "Because you and Romulus needed me," she said. "When they found you, you both were injured... I could not simply do nothing."

She blushed, and then averted her gaze, though she never seemed uncomfortable. Simply awkward. Another moment passed, and before Estella could say anything else, Asala continued. "And I feel I am still needed... I think," she said, a little bit of her uncertainty revealing itself. "This... Inquisition, I cannot say that I completely understand it. But I believe we are helping, and I will remain so long as we continue to help."

Her hand then went to a spot on her head, underneath her horns where she rubbed at nervously. "I h-hope that is satisfactory."

Estella shook her head. “Oh, don’t worry about that. None of this is about my satisfaction, that’s for sure.” They clambered over a rise, and she paused a moment to take in the view below them. Several miles of plain, it looked like, were stretched out in front of them, the late-afternoon sun dyeing the grass a warm shade of yellow. She could see some of the wild rams this area had collected into a group, grazing on the side of a gentle roll in the landscape.

“And I certainly won’t protest if you stay. I guess I just… wanted to make sure you really felt like being here, is all.” She sometimes found herself feeling obligated to do things she wasn’t all that keen on doing, and this, well… this was something else entirely. But that didn’t mean it had to be for everyone. Since it didn’t seem that way, though, she could easily accept the answer Asala had given and would worry no further about it.

"I do," was the answer she gave.

“Then I’m glad.” That seemed to settle the matter, and they walked a while longer in silence again, before they found the next cache and marked it as well. That left only one, and it looked like they might actually finish before nightfall, which was good because she’d really prefer not to be ambushed by anyone more familiar with the area than they were.

“I wonder how far we’ll go, in this whole thing,” she mused. She’d seen much of the Orlesian countryside over her years working for Commander Lucien’s Lions, and she’d at least tread over parts of the Free Marches in her flight from Tevinter, not to mention the years she’d lived in Kirkwall. But the Conclave had actually been her first trip into Ferelden, and now here she was, seeing another part of it. She doubted that it was on anyone’s list of exotic places to travel to, not the same way as, say, Antiva or Rivain might be, but it was new to her anyway, and she liked that kind of experience.

“Anywhere you’d want to see, if you had the chance? I think I’d like to visit an Antivan port, at least once. I hear they have this big festival called Satinalia, where everyone wears masks and lots of bright colors.” Of course, she’d just described Val Royeaux on a Tuesday, but the downside to that was the formality of it. She’d never felt more like an ungraceful cow than she had the first time she visited the Orlesian capital, that was for sure.

Asala took the question with a look of confusion, her head tilting in the opposite direction now. "I..." She began, but trailed off as she slipped back in thought. She was quiet for a minute afterward, her brows furrowed and her eyes on the ground in front of them. When it appeared she finally found an answer, she looked back up to Estella. "I had... never thought about it before."

She chewed on her lip for a second before shrugging, "I do not know... Meraad had always spoken of leaving to see the world but..." she said, words trailing off again. It did not appear that Asala had realized she had just mentioned someone that Estella did not know.

Estella certainly had, though. “Meraad?”

"Oh!" She squeaked. It seemed like she didn't mean to say the name, and a blush soon worked its way onto her face. She glanced around, looking at everything but Estella. "Uh... Well."

Then she sighed, rubbing the spot under her horn again. She finally looked at Estella, for a moment at least, and seemed to have internally decided on something. "He's my, uh.. he's my brother," she said. Then she frowned, having decided that wasn't enough, "Well. Not... not really. Not by blood but... By choice?" She asked, looking as if she wondered if that was clear enough. "It was his idea that we name ourselves Kaaras."

Estella’s expression brightened at this little piece of common thread. “Brother, huh? I don’t suppose he dragged you into a bunch of trouble when you guys were young? That’s what mine always did.” She huffed softly, her eyes looking somewhere that clearly wasn’t the present, though oddly enough her feet kept moving without incident.

“Then again, he always managed to get us out of it, too.” Except once, but she wasn’t going to think about that right now, not when she was having an otherwise very pleasant day.

Asala smiled and even chuckled, the understanding present in her manner. She seemed to know exactly what Estella was talking about. "Yes," she agreed, "But I was the one who had to find our way out." She hid her laughter behind her hand, but the mirth twinkled in her eyes. "The others had always felt guilty when they yelled at me." A knowing look crossed her face before she smiled.

Soon though, a frown worked itself in between her lips. "But the last I saw of him, and my friends, was in Redcliffe. Before the conclave." she looked past Estella for a moment before continuing. "Rilien allowed me to send a message by raven. I... hope he recieved it." A melancholic look fell over her features, at least for a moment, before they shifted into something more solid. "But what I do here is important. We will see each other again. I am sure."

She smiled after, as if to say not to worry.

It was an eminently-relatable situation, and Estella nodded her agreement. “I’m sure you will.” It wouldn’t surprise her if they wound up in Redcliffe at some point on their journey, and more than that, she couldn’t not believe Asala would be able to see her brother again after just finding her own on less information and with six years between them.

“Come on, let’s find this last cache, and then try and make it back before all the dinner is gone.”

"Yes. Let's."

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon nodded, and turned to lead the way.

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

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

0.00 INK

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

0.00 INK

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

0.00 INK

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

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

0.00 INK

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

0.00 INK

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

0.00 INK

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

0.00 INK

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: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth

0.00 INK

Considering it was the third day after they’d returned from Haven and she’d been cleared to run on her leg as of yesterday, Estella didn’t think Asala would be too upset at what she had planned for her afternoon today. Rather than armor, she’d bundled herself in the warmest clothes she had, including a new cloak she’d borrowed from Cyrus, one with a nice furry lining in it that was blissfully toasty on the inside. It was still… uncomfortable, talking to him, but for the most part, they were both sort of acting like their argument hadn’t really happened, which meant that at least on the surface of things, they were amiable enough. She could still feel a little twinge of heartache whenever they made eye contact, though, and she’d decided she really needed to do something to take her mind off that.

Perhaps it was silly to pick something that would inevitably remind her of their shared childhood, but she didn’t actually think so. Those memories, the ones with just the two of them, were some of the best she had, bright spots in what had otherwise been… grim, for her. So she’d made her way down to the bank of the lake, a small satchel of supplies in tow, and currently sat on the snowy bank, waxing the bottoms of her boots with a sort of polish-oil she’d borrowed from Rilien’s supplies. She’d left a note, so she knew he wouldn’t mind. Well… probably he wouldn’t mind anyway, but it had been the considerate thing to do.

Pulling the boots, with their bladed attachments, back onto her feet, she laced them up tightly, and used an arm to pull herself up, bracing against the dock. She supposed she could see this as a form of training, really, for balance and control and such, but while maybe it would have those benefits, she was willing to admit to herself that she was going to be doing this for fun, and the other benefits were only incidental.

Getting down to the lake wasn’t too difficult—the snow was soft and powdery, so she was in little danger of slipping. Once she stepped onto the frozen surface of the pond, however, things were different, and she immediately leaned heavily onto her arm when one of her feet slipped out from underneath her, letting a light laugh escape her. It was probably a good thing no one ever really came down here. They’d either think their Herald was crazy or a silly girl who didn’t really have the capability to handle the responsibility. Grimacing, she moved the thought away, compartmentalizing it like she did with lots of things, and struck out.

The pond wasn’t completely smooth like the one Cyrus had frozen in the back yard, but there was a pretty big section that was close enough, and Estella stuck to that, folding her arms behind her back and skating along it with alternating motions of her legs. The wax made it extremely easy to glide along the surface, and she smiled to herself as she remembered how to do it, turning a few times around the perimeter before she attempted skating backwards, and then a couple of pirouettes. The first time, she fell, landing hard on her rear, but this only prompted more laughter from her, and by the time she’d been at it for half an hour, she was starting to remember the tricks for balance. This seemed easier now than it had when she was a child, perhaps because of all the things she’d learned about balance and centers of gravity and the way a body moved since then.

The second pirouette even had a jump to it, and when she landed on the injured leg, it held steady. Estella grinned.

Eventually, a familiar hooded figure came to stand near the lake's shore, bundled up as he usually was when he was seen outdoors. His entrance was subtle at first, as he took a few moments to watch her, but soon enough he wasn't difficult to notice, standing with his arms crossed and cloak wrapped tightly around him.

Her good mood remained firmly enough in place as she skated her way back over to the edge of the lake, though some of her previous grace seemed to have disappeared, and she nearly tripped over a ripple in the ice, but on the whole she was pleased with herself for not faceplanting—a distinct possibility with her. Hopping onto the lakeshore, she took part of her cloak in each hand and closed it over herself, trying to preserve some of the warmth that motion had started generating.

“Good afternoon, Romulus.” She smiled, not especially surprised to see him here since it had happened once before. “How was the Coast?”

It appeared that even so simple a question made him hesitate for an answer. He'd taken a half step forward when she nearly fell, though he quickly corrected himself, as though trying to hide that he'd ever made the motion at all. Finally, he came up with a response. "Wet," he said simply, "though I've heard the marsh you visited was worse." He glanced down to her leg, and the skate beneath it. "Looks like you're healing up."

Estella pulled a face, grimacing slightly. “Oh, I’ll be fine. Asala’s been working on me for a couple of days, so the pain’s basically all gone. The marsh was very wet, though. And smelly. Which was probably because of the undead.” She stopped herself before her reply became a ramble, which tended to happen sometimes when she felt obligated to fill more of the conversational space than she was usually allotted or comfortable with. She assumed if he knew enough to know about her injury, he also knew they’d successfully retrieved the scouts, so there wasn’t any need to say that, which left her slightly bereft of anything else to add.

Even though most of his face was obscured by the hood, given that he was looking out at the lake rather than at her, his awkwardness was definitely apparent, given that his posture seemed affected by more than just the cold. "I also heard what happened with the Avvar chief. That was... impressive." It wasn't clear what exactly he was referring to, either the manner in which the deed was done, or the fact that she'd made the decision at all. He didn't choose to linger on it very long, however.

"I'm starting to feel like I don't have many uses here." The words were more certainly spoken, clearly indicating that they were what he'd come to talk to her about, not any of the poor attempts at small talk earlier.

Estella was genuinely surprised by that, and she let it show plainly on her face. “Really? What makes you say that?” She tipped her head to the side before appearing to think better of just uncomfortably standing there. Instead, she pulled herself up onto the dock next to her and scooted to one end of it, sitting with her back to one of the supports at the front and crossing her legs underneath her. She made a gesture, inviting him to do the same opposite her, her expression containing some amount of clear concern. “Because it seems to me that it couldn’t actually be so.”

He didn't react to her answer, but did take her up on the invitation to sit. His eyes were thoughtful, but troubled. "I didn't have many purposes before, in Tevinter. I killed for my domina. She has other slaves for other jobs. She would have me tend to... well, little other than killing. I removed her enemies, kept her position in the magisterium secure when other options failed. I've never been good at anything else." The thought didn't appear to please him in the slightest.

"Here, I'm supposedly valuable. On the Storm Coast, I was ordered not to fight, not to kill, because I'm too valuable to risk. I stood and watched while others did the work. I've always been good at following commands." He swallowed. Often he gave off the impression of a man with far more bottled inside of him that was healthy, but now more than ever that seemed to be the case. He was clearly trying his hardest to ensure this was a contained release, and not an explosion.

"Mother Annika said I could be Andraste's wrath, but now I can't even do that. I'm a slave, a shame for the Inquisition, an embarrassment to be put into the light. Now I have to be tied up in the dark as well."

Estella thought that one over. She wasn’t sure of any of the details of what happened on the Storm Coast, mostly because she didn’t really know anyone who had gone well enough to ask, and hadn’t yet heard the official line on what had occurred, if there was to be one. But it sounded like a situation had come up where someone prevented Romulus from fighting. She tried to decide how she’d feel about that, though she wasn’t sure if they were anywhere near alike enough for the comparison to be any good. He’d said he felt like fighting was his only real skill. Estella wasn’t sure she was good enough at anything for it to qualify as a skill, but she knew how to do some things, at least.

She wouldn’t have liked it much if someone had tried to stop her from fighting the leader of those Avvar, though. Not even Cyrus had done that, exactly. “You’re not an embarrassment,” she said firmly, sure of at least that much. “It’s true that not everyone could or would understand, if they knew, but that doesn’t… that doesn’t change anything about you. That’s other peoples’ problem.” She vaguely waved a hand. Estella understood why they couldn’t widely publicize Romulus’s origins, but that didn’t mean she liked it, and it certainly didn’t mean there was any fault or shame due on his part.

The rest of it, though… she wasn’t sure what to say about that. “As for the fighting part… I don’t know, really. All I can say is that there’s plenty of that still to come, I’m sure, and no matter how much they want to protect us, they won’t be able to forever. We’ll have to risk ourselves, at some point. We’ll have to fight.” That part, she was saying to herself just as much as she was saying it to him, and she suspected he could guess that, from the way it was inflected.

"The necessity of it doesn't change much, as I see it," Romulus said. He rubbed his head briefly, sniffing. The constant chill of the air was obviously still not settling well with him. "But I think the Inquisition doesn't need me. Not like it needs you. I'm just here for this," he briefly raised his marked hand, "until that is closed." He pointed up at the Breach, still swirling above the mountains as always. "Once it's done, I expect I'll go back to Minrathous, and we'll pretend this never happened."

He'd apparently decided against talking it over further, as he stood a bit abruptly. "I'm sorry for interrupting you." With that, he turned to leave, though his step was hitched when he spotted the cloaked, armored elven man at the shore-end of the dock, just now approaching with his lion's cloak draped over his shoulders. He smiled almost jovially in greeting.

"There he is! I was wondering when we'd finally meet." Vesryn held out a hand for a shake, which apparently forced Romulus to stop, though it looked like every fiber of his being wanted to keep walking. He briefly shook the elf's hand. "Vesryn Cormyth. A pleasure." Romulus released his hand and bowed stiffly.

"If you'll excuse me." His eyes remained averted as he headed away from the lake, back towards Haven. Vesryn watched him go, perplexed, before he shrugged, and walked out towards Estella.

"Bad day, or... is he always like that?"

Estella grimaced. She wasn’t sure they should have just left things at that, but then… she also wasn’t sure there was anything else she could have said or done to help, which was troubling, but not that unusual for her. She didn't think she had enough of a grip on what he was dealing with to be of any assistance in alleviating it. Her previous good cheer had sort of evaporated by this point, and she sighed softly, tipping her head so as to look up at Vesryn. “Well… to be honest, I’m not entirely sure. It’s not usually quite so uncomfortable, though.” It was definitely at least partly the bad day problem, though.

“Something I can do for you, Vesryn, or are you just out for a walk?”

"I'd love to skate with you," he said, gesturing towards her feet. "Don't know how, but I've never been afraid of embarrassing myself in front of beautiful women." He sighed. "Sadly, I find myself a bit flat footed. I actually came out to train, on the ice. So I don't embarrass myself in front of our enemies, if there's ever cause for a fight here."

Estella coughed awkwardly, glancing out at the lake in what was likely a poor attempt to hide the reddening of her face. He said such ridiculously flattering things so easily, it left her feeling a bit off-kilter herself. This week was apparently going to put her through all the different flavors of uncomfortable. The training part, though, she could talk about that easily enough. “Well, if you’re trying to train, you probably don’t want to change anything much in the first place, since this is what you’d be equipped with if you had to actually do any fighting, right?”

She pursed her lips. “There’s a flat spot out near the middle; it doesn’t have much friction. It’d probably do just fine, for your purposes.” Putting her feet over the edge of the dock, she used her arms to lower herself carefully onto the surface of the lake. “But if you really wanted that feeling of not being able to grip much, you could always just wax the bottom of your boots. It comes off, afterwards.” She pointed at where she’d left the satchel, not too far off in the snow.

Unlike Romulus, Vesryn didn't seem at all bothered by the cold. It was probably unsurprising, given that he'd only been slightly dampened by the torrential rain and undead-filled nastiness of the Fallow Mire. He dropped lightly off the side of the dock, boots clattering against the surface of the ice, and not for a moment did his balance seem to be in doubt. "Maybe I'll do that," he mused, coming around the edge of the dock until he was next to Estella. If he'd noticed her embarrassment, it didn't seem to change much about his demeanor.

"Now that I've caught you, though, I wanted to say a few things. Specifically, that the way you handled yourself in the Mire was, to put it simply, heroic. You're a great deal braver than I gave you credit for at first glance."

“I think you mispronounced ‘stupid’,” she said lightly, though inwardly she felt her guts turn over. That was… quite the compliment, and it left her feeling unsettled, and really wishing he hadn’t said it. Because it wasn’t, really—it wasn’t heroic or brave, not by the understanding she had of those things. It had been necessary, she’d believed at the time, and so she’d done it, because if nothing else she could usually manage to do those things, but bravery would have required something she didn’t have, something that didn’t have anything to do with skill or talent. Estella knew she wasn’t a coward, either, but not being a coward was a very different thing from being brave.

“But, um… thank you.” It was a nice thing to say, and maybe it would have even been nice to hear, were things a little different. “For saying so, and for helping get me there in one piece. Wouldn’t have made much difference if I’d drowned, now would it?” She smiled, still letting herself assume the tone of jest, but the expression didn’t quite get all the way to her eyes.

"Think of it how you will," Vesryn said, taking a step forward and turning his back to the lake, so he could face the dock, and Estella, "but it fit my definition. You didn't know if you could win, maybe even thought you wouldn't, but you tried anyway. We could've worked together, killed every last one of those Avvar, certainly. But clearly, you're a person who cares about individual lives. That's the right kind of person to be stuck with something like that mark on your hand, if you ask me."

He smiled easily, his mannerisms so comfortable it was like he'd had this conversation a hundred times already. Clapping his hands together once, he began to step backwards, out onto the frozen lake. "I apologize, I've bothered you enough. I hope you enjoy your day, Estella, and I look forward to many future adventures." The gleam in his eye seemed to imply he didn't think he was bothering her, exactly. He slipped his bardiche axe from its sheath, setting the point of it lightly into the ice.

It wasn’t a bother, so much, but since he seemed to know that, she didn’t correct him, instead shaking her head. She’d let him have the lake. Probably using it for training was better than just wasting time on it, so she made her way back over to the bank and detached the blades she’d strapped to her boots. She should probably return Rilien’s supplies to him, now.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

Mornings in Haven were ass-numbingly cold.

As it happened, this fact had both advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages was that not too many people were up at the crack of dawn, which made it an ideal time for training, if she happened to want to use any of the equipment usually taken up by people running drills or whatever. The cold was also something Khari considered to be a training obstacle all its own—if she could get used to moving around and really working herself out in this, she’d probably be able to withstand just about anything, and that thought appealed to her a great deal.

Khari, like most of the members of the Inquisition that weren’t holed up in the Chantry or one of the sparse available houses, slept in a tent, and so when she stepped out of it, still pulling on her boots, dawn hit her full in the face, temporarily blinding her and almost making her stagger back a step. She might believe in the efficacy of morning training, but that didn’t mean she was at her best first thing. Grumbling under her breath, she finally got the damn boot on and stepped down into it, working her foot from side to side to settle it. She figured it’d be good to run first, for a warmup, before she got into anything too strenuous. There were some good hills here that would make for tough intervals, too, and she was pretty sure she had seen some trees that would work well for pull-ups…

It was at that point that she spotted someone else jogging by her tent, though jogging was perhaps too mild a word. It was definitely a run, and the runner was definitely quick. The swish of a very dark ponytail, as well as the person’s general height and build, tipped her off to the fact that it was actually Estella, the second Herald, or whatever they were called. “Hey Stel!” She loped up to the other woman, flagging her down with a hand. “Warmup run? I was just about to take one myself.” Training with someone else had always been a far better motivator to Khari than training alone, even when it was something as simple as running in the morning, and she wondered if the other woman would mind.

Estella paused to let Khari catch up, half-smiling a bit, but then shook her head. “Cooldown, actually. But you’re welcome to run with me anyway, if you’d like.” From their closer proximity, it was easy to see that it was, in fact, a cooldown run; Estella’s brow was beaded with sweat, and several pieces of her hair were loose, indicating that whatever training she’d been doing before was quite vigorous. She was outfitted for it, in full gear except armor, which really just meant one of the maroon-and-silver tunics all the Lions wore, and dark grey breeches tucked into her boots.

That… was pretty impressive, Khari had to admit. She’d already been up long enough for an entire training set, and the sun was only just rising. Did she train in the dark or something? Khari contemplated that. Maybe she should start training in the dark, too. Might make her eyes better for it if she had to venture into a cave or something…

Shaking her head, she grinned the couple inches up at Estella. Fortunately, the other woman was built even more slender than Khari herself, so there was no twinge of discomfort in the difference. “You read my mind; let’s go.” The two of them started back down Estella’s initial path, and it didn’t take them too long to find a pace that was comfortable for both of them. Stel ran like a halla, Khari thought—with one of those graceful, long strides that made her feel a bit like a nug in comparison. But there wasn’t anything wrong with that; she was more than capable of keeping up, and found herself settling into the pleasing feeling of having her muscles warm up, chasing the cold away.

Their breath puffed out into the air in front of them as they rounded a corner, Khari taking the outside, and she used the opportunity to strike up a conversation. “Do you do intervals, or not on cooldown?” Not everyone was fond of pushing themselves up really tall hills at maximum speed, strangely enough. It was great for lung capacity though, Khari firmly believed.

Estella’s lips pursed. “Sort of, but it’s less intervals than obstacles. I’ve set some up on my usual route; I’ll point them out as we get to them.” There was a pause that lasted a couple more strides, and then: “But, uh… they’re nothing too fancy or challenging, probably, so please don’t laugh.”

Khari shrugged, keeping her stride steady. “That’s no problem—anything can be made into more of a challenge if you think about it the right way.” She’d used to do something similar, once, with logs and stones and the like, back before she’d left the clan. She actually had a makeshift training ring, far away from the summer encampment, where she’d set up a lot of that stuff, but alone and young, she hadn’t been able to do much, nothing that could even approximate what the Inquisition had now. Her training dummy was a dead trunk on one of the sides of the clearing.

“I’m used to simple setups.”

Estella nodded, seeming somewhat reassured by this, and as they rounded the next curve, they came upon what had to be the first obstacle: it was a log, set long ways along the side of the path. The thing was fairly thin, and had twiggy branches sticking out at the occasional odd angle, meaning that it was by no means a smooth journey across. Estella hopped up onto it first, clearly making effort to break her stride as little as possible, and ran her way over it, occasionally swaying to the left or right as she was forced to account for one of the protrusions in the log. She jumped off the other end and turned around to jog backwards for a while, likely mostly to observe Khari’s own progress across the obstacle.

It was trickier than it looked, but then, Khari had spent the first part of her life in a very dense forest, so she didn’t have much trouble navigating it, and the two picked up speed by unspoken decision as they approached the next setup, which consisted of a few old boards arranged as hurdles, again set off the main road. Here was a place where Khari’s lack of height didn’t serve her too well, but her momentum more than made up for it, and the two crossed in rough synchronicity, before their path took them up a hill.

“So you’re a Lion, huh?” Khari had attempted not to launch into this line of questioning immediately after meeting Estella, but there was only so long she could contain her curiosity, and this honestly seemed like an excellent time to ask. “They made me fight Cor, when I signed up. He’s a tough bastard. I wanted to try my luck with Hissrad, but apparently one fight was enough, or something.” She pulled a face that matched her incredulous tone, though it shouldn’t have been too hard for Estella to tell that she was joking. Mostly.

Estella laughed, slightly breathlessly due to the pace at which they were running. “Yeah, they told me about that. Cor was very impressed, actually. I think Hissrad wants to fight you, too, but they’re all pretty busy training the troops at the moment.” She frowned a moment, then seemed to shake it off and smiled instead. “He said you hit like a warhorse at full gallop, which I’m guessing you’d realize is a compliment.” There was a glint of humor in her indigo-colored eyes, one that suited her face quite well.

She did, indeed, take it to be a compliment, and her answering grin was ragged and a touch wild. “They’re good people.” There was a pause, and then she decided to go ahead and ask. “What’s the commander like? Everyone’s heard of him, of course, but I can’t even imagine what people that… important are like on a daily basis, you know?” It wasn’t like she regularly met nobles or anything, and even the few she did know certainly weren’t princes of whole countries, and chevaliers to boot. Khari might be willing to admit that Lucien Drakon had attained near-mythical status in her mind, and here was someone who actually knew him well.

Estella’s smile softened. It was a while before she answered, though, as if she were trying to figure out exactly what she wanted to say. “I don’t know him quite as well as some of the others do, but…” she paused again as they crossed a frozen stream, careful of their footing on the ice, then resumed when they were back to crunching over the snow with their boots. “He actually… I forget, sometimes, who he really is. He has a way of doing that, of making you forget that you’re supposed to be formal around him, probably because he’s so casual with all of us, you know? He prefers his name to the title commander, even, and he doesn’t let any of us call him milord.”

It didn’t seem to be all she could say on the subject, but she lapsed into silence after that, as though it were nevertheless enough.

Khari absorbed the tidbit carefully. All of her contact with Orlesian social structure had been through the bottom, trying to burst up through the floor, so to speak, down in the dirt where she was with every other elf, though she rarely enjoyed thinking about herself as such. It was surprising, actually, when she’d first even heard of the company. After all, while some mercenary groups employed elves on occasion, those groups weren’t usually the really prestigious ones, certainly not the ones that occasionally rubbed elbows with courtiers and the like.

Not that Khari wanted to spend a lot of time with politicians, exactly, but the point was that it was possible for the Lions, something that no one with ears like hers would ever have been able to consider before. It made her feel like other things were possible, and that, more than anything else, was why she admired them so damn much. She didn’t want to be a Lion—she had her own ambitions. But she was damn grateful they existed.

“That’s good. That’s really good, actually.” It was hardly a scintillating judgement of the situation, nor was it a novel one, even, but she felt compelled to say it anyway, and she didn’t often bother to censor her thoughts. That did no one any good, and it only tended to piss her off if she felt like she had to.

“My mentor was kind of like that, too. Well, I did call him ‘milord’ sometimes, but part of learning to be a chevalier was learning the social norms of stuff like that, so I kind of had to, you know?”

“You’re learning to be a chevalier?” Estella sounded surprised, which was perhaps understandable, considering that the only two people who knew or might have inferred that thus far weren’t exactly the gossiping type. “That’s…” Her tone indicated that she wasn’t precisely certain what to say about that. There was a little bit of hesitance in her voice, but in the end she shook her head. “That will be quite a challenge, I expect.”

Khari laughed, unreservedly so. “You can say it, you know. I won’t be offended. It’s a ridiculous thing for someone like me to try and do.” It seemed to her like Stel was trying to be polite about it, which was kind, but Khari’d been subjected to far worse ridicule for it in the past than anything she thought this woman would ever throw at her. After all, Estella was at her core a good person, she figured.

Stel shook her head again, more emphatically this time. “It’s not ridiculous,” she countered. “I don’t doubt for a second that it will be extremely difficult, and honestly I’m not sure it’s possible, but then… people said the same thing about women, once, and in the end, all it took was one woman trying hard enough and being good enough to make them change their minds, eventually. Who’s to say one elf can’t do it, too? And who’s to say it couldn’t be you? Stranger things have happened.”

Oddly enough, she’d never thought to compare herself to Ser Aveline before, which was kind of funny in a way because the stories said that Ser Aveline had been trained by the Dalish, of all people. Khari was inclined to call bullshit on that part of the story, because the Dalish didn’t train people in anything that would do much good towards winning a tourney, especially not a melee, and she would know. Then again… living in a forest for sixteen years had taught her a thing or two about keeping her feet, which never seemed to stop being useful. Until she was face-down in a mud pit wrestling with a dog, anyhow.

“Huh. You know, I guess that’s one way to think about it. Another way would be like this: with all this insanity going on and demons falling from the sky, elf chevaliers don’t really seem like such a big deal, do they? I mean, I’m running next to a girl who can seal up a hole in the world with her hand, so I’m pretty normal by comparison.” She moved slightly sideways to knock Estella lightly with an elbow, an indication that she was only kidding, at least on some level.

Not that part where everything was crazy, though. That was completely true.

“Stranger things,” Estella repeated, knocking back. They finished the rest of the run in relative quiet, but as they rounded the bend back into Haven, she spoke up again. “Uh… no pressure or anything, but… I usually train starting a couple hours before sunup. I could come get you, if you wanted to do that with me?” She sounded unsure, perhaps more because at that hour, she was almost certainly one of those people who trained in complete solitude than because of the fact that making the offer itself was uncomfortable.

Khari contemplated that for all of about half a second. “Deal.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit

0.00 INK

Lady Marceline had her hands full, with a bottle of wine in one, and a docket of files in the other. Not only her hands, either. Larissa dutifully kept step behind her, clipboard and another set of files in hers. She had stepped out of the larger office she had initially requisitioned from Ser Leonhardt, who'd relocated into a smaller office of the Chantry. It was required, however, she had to have the space to host visiting dignitaries... Of which there had only been a few. Most had deigned to only speak through letter, or not speak to them at all.

They would come around, however. The letters were being penned, favors were being called, and the appointments were set. The Game was being played, and Marceline did not lose. The Inquisition would have their support in due time, but first, they had to prove they were worthy. It was partly for this reason that Marceline and her assistant left the Chantry, and headed toward the tent of their Spymaster.

She knew Ser Rilien, of course, before he was the Inquisition's Spymaster. Her duties, however, had kept her away from speaking with the man, and even now, it was her duties that took her to see him. From the mouth of the Chantry, she could see his tent with the flaps open and inviting. He was not alone, though, Estella sat nearby, and a tea set spread out in front of them. She glanced back to Larissa, who wore a smile which soon spread to her own lips. "Come," she beckoned the woman and headed toward the tent.

She stood at the entrance and bowed to both Rilien and Estella, and greeted them in turn. "Ser Rilien," she said to the man, "Lady Estella," the woman. Larissa as well bowed to both, but her gaze lingered on Rilien.

"I apologize if I am intruding at all," she said, gesturing to the tea set with the hand that held the bottle of wine, "But there are things I wish to speak to you about," Marceline added for Rilien, motioning to the docket she held.

Estella looked uncomfortable for a fraction of a second, but then she glanced between Marcy, Larissa, and Rilien, frowned slightly, and then shook her head. “Um… if it’s things you don’t mind me hearing about, you could always join us for tea?” It came out more as a question than a statement, and it was obvious why when she turned her glance back to the Tranquil, clearly seeking his confirmation. “But, if it’s too important, I can leave.”

Rilien shook his head. “It is Inquisition business. You are a Herald. In principle, there is nothing that need be kept from you. In practice, we do so only because the details are many and tedious.” He moved his attention to the other two. “You may enter.” The Tranquil paused a moment to pour two extra cups of tea, the seating already being adequate to another pair of guests, before reaching for the docket.

“What was it you wished to discuss, Lady Marceline?” His voice, as ever, indicated no interest, but also no particular lack of it, odd as that was.

Marceline smiled and nodded her agreement. There were so many things that required their attention, that if a Herald were required for each of them, they would need many more than two. Marceline and Larissa entered the tent together, but Marceline was the first to hand him her docket. "The names and information on the nobility, both in Orlais and Ferelden, that support the Inquisition." She frowned however and sighed. "There are not many, I am afraid. Though word of the Inquisition's deeds spreads, we are still largely an unknown entity. An issue I am attempting to solve," she said before turning it over to Larissa.

The woman stepped forward and passed her own set of files off. "These are the names of the nobility that may require watching, now or in the future. Likewise, the names are few, many continue to watch us from a neutral standpoint to see how our actions play out." Larissa took a step back, but still spoke. "We believed as our Spymaster, you would have use of these files, no matter how sparse," she added. Marceline caught a little gleam of amusement in her eyes when she called the man their Spymaster, though she said nothing on the matter.

"And this," she said, holding up the bottle of wine. "Is a gift from my own personal store," she explained gently laying it down on the table. The label held the emblem of a shield surrounded by vines of grapes, the Lécuyer Vineyards crest, her crest. "The market value of which is measured in sovereigns," she said, with a coy smile. It was true, of course, and not just arrogant boasting on her part. The Lécuyer Vineyards were very well respected for their wines, and provided for many of Orlais's salons.

"It has been quite some time since we have last seen each other, has it not Rilien?" she said, slipping out of her usual business demeanor and into something more fitting when speaking to an old acquantance. Even Larissa eased into a more comfortable disposition.

Marceline then took a seat, taking Estella's offer of tea, while Larissa hovered close to the table. "Thank you Lady Estella," she said to the woman before looking back to Rilien. "I apologize that we have not been by, we have been busy, as I am sure you understand," she said, glancing to Larissa, who nodded in agreement. Rilien no doubt had just as much work as she.

“You need not have troubled yourselves.” Before sitting down, Rilien lifted the wine off the table, checked the label, and then nodded almost imperceptibly, putting it away on one of the small, low shelves contained within the tent. “I have been quite occupied myself, and at present, I am catching my apprentice up on some of the lessons she has missed.” It was an obvious reference to Estella’s presence, though he had not mentioned her to be such before.

He took a seat in the remaining empty chair, thumbing through the dockets with a disinterested gaze that was nevertheless keen, sharp. Marceline had known him long enough to understand that he was a perceptive man, and that he missed very little, if anything. It was hardly a wonder that he walked in a prince’s shadow most of the time, and even now, he seemed to have little effort splitting his attention in several directions, however much the others might struggle with it.

“Estella, if you would begin in the minor chord again, please.”

Setting her tea down, Estella picked up the lute that had been leaning against her chair and pulled it back into her lap. Her eyes flickered a trifle uncertainly between the two guests, before she smiled thinly. “Apologies in advance if I assail your ears,” she murmured, but she dutifully arranged her fingers on the instrument, their placements quite precise, likely much to do with the fastidious nature of the person who’d taught her how to do so.

The first note was sweet and clear, and dropped into a trilling cascade of them, immediately recognizable to Marceline as one of the more popular accompaniments to a gaillarde, one of the most athletic but also precise forms of dance found in the Empire. The choice certainly seemed to suit the instructor’s sensibilities, such as they were.

Marceline laughed softly to herself. She hadn't shown surprise when Rilien had said that Estella was his apprentice. In fact, it explained why some of the small things that she did reminded her of him. When she began to play, Marceline closed her eyes and listened intently to the melody, enjoying it. Soon, however, a hum accompanied Estella's playing. Marceline cracked an eyelid and glanced over to her assistant, who gently rocked with the rise and fall of the tune. The hum added to the arrangement beautifully, and Marceline couldn't help but smile at the dulcet duet.

Rilien worked through the files quite briskly, and by the time he looked up about five minutes later, all of them were stacked neatly beside him. “I take it we’ve still not heard anything from the templars.” It wasn’t really a question the way he’d put it, and demanded no answer. “It seems our next logical move is to meet with the mages in Redcliffe, though my agents have reported little out of there.” He paused for a moment. “I know of at least two people there who may prove of aid to our cause, however, and they may be able to inform us of what has occurred since the Grand Enchanter’s proposition.”

Marceline shook her head in the negatory. "We have not unfortunately, and I have written to them on more than one occasion," she revealed. The Templars were frustratingly quiet, and apart from their demonstration in Val Royeaux she had heard nothing from them. "I have been in correspondence with the nobility, and they report the same, I am afraid." From the wording used in their letters, they were as frustrated as she was.

"I agree," she said, "the mages seem far more amiable to any negotiations, and we are able assert our position upon them easier than if we were to negotiate with the Templars." Her lips had formed a thin frown, and she was far more contemplative, the music of Estella and Larissa just a dull memory. However, it did help allieviate the stress. "However, I shall still continue to try and make contact with the Templars and speak to the other nobles on the matter. If at all possible, I would see an alliance with both, instead of just one or the other."

It would also be a catalyst to end the Mage-Templar war. If they could find the peace that Justinia was searching for before her death, it would honor her memory.

“The Templars may actually be more communicative if they believe we have already taken up with the mages.” Rilien sat back slightly, folding his hands together. “They speak the language of power, and such a substantial boost to ours may draw us closer to even with them in their own eyes, which might gain us a place at the negotiating table even with someone as unreasonable as the Lord Seeker.”

“Er…” That was Estella. The music had ended, and the girl looked a little leery of entering the conversation, but she did pipe up. “I mean, that seems very possible, but… aren’t we also risking just making them even angrier with us? The Templars are at war with the mages right now; won’t they see us as just… siding with the enemy?”

"Possibly," Marceline answered, "But it is a risk we must take." She crossed her arms and held the woman in her gaze, her face an even mask. "Before the Breach, the Divine wished to bring peace to both the Mages and the Templars. That was the reason of the Conclave, as you know," she gently reminded her. Estella was there after all, she had to know this. "But more than that, we may need all of their strength to close the Breach."

She sighed and steepled her hands, continuing to look at Estella. "Rilien is correct. They speak power, and if we can gain that power, they will open their doors to speak with us. Whether it is to denounce us or otherwise, the door remains open and that is something we can work with."

“And any opportunity is better than none, which is what we have if we do not act.” Rilien set the dockets aside for the moment and refocused his eyes on Estella. “Now, the ballad of the Ser Aveline, please. Do sing it this time.”

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

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

0.00 INK

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

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

Frostback Mountains. Cold as hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

Image



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

Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

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

0.00 INK

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: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

0.00 INK

This was infinitely more comfortable than she’d been a couple of hours ago.

Estella had Rilien on one side and Donnelly on the other too, as the three of them had decided to pay a visit down to the section of the mages’ encampment that belonged to Aurora’s faction. Which meant some people she’d just met, like Meraad, but also some people she’d known, however briefly, several years ago, including Donovan and Aurora herself, from the old Kirkwall mage underground. Estella suspected Rilien had some business with them, but she also knew him well enough that she thought she could detect a certain anticipation in him independent of that. It had occurred to her that Sparrow might be around as well, and she wondered how he felt about that.

Because he did feel about it, even if she was the only one who knew so.

In any case, she’d looped one of her arms through one of Donnelly’s, who was goofily and with much exaggerated pomp and circumstance pretending to be a knight in charge of escorting ‘the lady Herald’, a title her friends could only ever use with humor. She was grateful for that about them, really; if everyone was so serious about it all the time, she was certain she’d crack under the pressure. She tugged him a bit to the side, so that she could even be so daring as to loop her other arm with Rilien’s, offering him her best reassuring smile. She wasn’t entirely sure he needed it, but she wanted him to know that she knew, at least a little bit, what this could possibly mean for him. Even if that wasn’t the same as what it might mean for someone else. Rilien's slightly-severe neutrality of expression softened almost imperceptibly, and he nodded, showing no resistance to the contact.

They approached Aurora in this rather ridiculous fashion, at which point Donnelly pointedly cleared his throat to announce their presence to Aurora and her second-in-command, Donovan. “Lady and gentleman, may I present to you the Herald of Andraste? She’s here…” He paused for a moment to laugh when Estella jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow, then tried to recover. Ahem—she’s here on very official and important business you see, and very official and important people have—ow, Stel!” He let go of her arm and doubled over, still laughing, his hands on his knees. “The Maker is cruel, to have sent us such an abusive Herald!”

Estella rolled her eyes. “Forgive him, he’s an idiot. I’m actually only here to see you. I thought it might be nice for all of us to do a little catching up.” It wasn’t like they had anything else to accomplish with the afternoon, really, and she’d enjoy hearing about what they’d been up to, she was sure.

Aurora grinned, an eyebrow raised toward Donnelly in mock surprise. "It's fine Estella. I wouldn't believe they'd let Donnelly present anyone on official business," she said, chuckling. Aurora's group, or what could be seen of them sat around a campfire on makeshift chairs. She was the only one who stood to greet Estella, Rilien, and Donnelly. Nearby Donovan stirred something in a large pot, but from the scent it wasn't anything for potions, but that day's dinner. Asala sat next to him, and chattered about, apparently talking about the people in the Inquisition. It appeared that she was currently talking about Khari.

"She is... different. Like she wears this metal mask, yes? And when she is in a fight she laughs! Who laughs while they are in a fight?" She chittered. Donovan appeared to take it in stride, nodding his head when necessary, though like always, a smile never came to his lips. The only hint to his amusement was the wrinkles in the corner of his eyes, though whether it were because of the story, or Asala herself, it wasn't clear. What was clear however, was that Donovan was used to it. Asala saw Estella, and provided a little wave for her before she continued to chatter to Donovan.

Aurora only laughed and returned her attention to Estella, but did point in Asala's direction. "She's way ahead of you," she revealed. Before she returned to her seat, she offered the others to take one well. "Sure, we can talk. We have nothing but time, apparently."

Estella smiled and took a chair, Donnelly beside her doing the same, dragging his so that it was slightly closer to the rest of them. He was still clearly in a good mood, but he’d abandoned the theatrics for the moment, and pulled one leg up to cross his ankle over his knee, his longsword propped against the arm of the chair. He scrubbed both hands through his mop of straw-colored hair, sending pieces of it askew in every direction. Though he yet wore the grin, he seemed content to let the others do the talking. Rilien's mood seemed to be about the same as it ever was, and he didn't break into the discussion at this point, either.

“I’d heard rumors, about you and the others, after you left Kirkwall. But I didn’t know you’d met Asala. How did that one come about?” She couldn’t help but notice that the Tal-Vashoth woman seemed much more comfortable here than she was in Haven, to the point where she was actually being chatty, it seemed. That was quite unexpected

"That's... a story," Aurora said before she chuckled to herself. Before she could begin to tell it though, another approached. It was an elf, about Aurora's height with brown brown eyes and braided hair. However the most noticable feature of the woman was the sunburst brand on her forehead, mirroring Rilien's own. She stepped between them an approached Donovan, handing him a pouch of something. "The spices you asked for Donovan," she said, her tone hollow. He nodded his appreciation and took the pouch, and with that, she took a seat near Aurora.

Aurora's gaze lingered on her for a moment before she began. "We were in Antiva City. The Mage rebellion had just began in earnest, and I wanted to help the mages still trapped in the Circle by the templars. That's where we found Milly," she said, rubbing the tranquil's back, "And Asala and Meraad," she said, throwing a gaze at the two Qunari. Asala blushed and looked away, and Meraad inspected the horizon. Aurora only laughed. "That one," she said, pointing to Meraad, "Should explain to you why they were there in the first place." Asala teased him by sticking her tongue out at him.

Meraad sighed and rubbed a spot under his horns. "It seemed like a good idea to begin with. When the mages began to rebel, I believed it best that Kadan and I seek them out to aid in honing our abilities."

Asala quickly cut in to add her own opinion. "You just wished to leave home and see the world. You never could sit still," she said with a smile, and Meraad did not try to refute her.

"We had heard that Antiva City possessed a Circle, so we came south to see for ourselves... We did not expect so many templars, Meraad said, "Nor that they would be so... angry," Asala added.

"That was when we ran into them," Aurora revealed. "We helped them evade the templars, and in turn they helped us save as many mages as we could. Including this one," Aurora indicated to Milly. "They have been with us since. We have been helping refine their technique. Asala's a very intelligent student. Meraad... tries," Aurora said with a grin.

Asala glanced at Meraad before turning back to Estella, shielding her mouth and whispering, "Impatient," to her. Meraad seemed to pretend to not hear her, though he obviously did.

"And you?" She asked the trio of Estella, Donnelly, and Rilien. "How have you been?"

“It’s been… interesting, for sure.” Estella wasn’t sure she had better terms for it than that, though she’d readily admit it was terrifying as often as not. “The Lions have been really busy over the last couple of years—the Kirkwall branch, too, according to the Commander.” Beside her, Donnelly nodded. “We’ve spent most of our time in Orlais, though there were a couple of jobs we were hired for in Antiva and the Anderfels. Those were exceptions, though.”

“The civil war has meant Commander Lucien’s mostly been keeping us inside Orlais,” Donnelly agreed with a grimace. “That stuff’s… really messed up, to be honest. Three factions of chevaliers, and three ordinary infantry factions to match, plus all the mercs people have been hiring, and then the bandits in the countryside, and all the fighting between mages and templars… we’re never out of work, that’s for sure.” He didn’t sound too happy about it, and Estella shared the sentiment. There was a certain extent to which the Argent Lions being in such high demand was actually a bad thing, because it meant that death was everywhere, and they weren’t being hired for escorts or bodyguarding or any of the things that would be most of their business in peacetime, like they used to be in Kirkwall.

“He sent us to the Conclave, you know, for security. I’m surprised he could even spare this many of us. They must really be feeling the lack of people right now.” The Orlesian branch of the company only had about sixty people, and even that was much larger than the number Lucien would have preferred, she knew. It also included all the recruits they’d taken on recently, when the demand proved too high for the rest of them to account for. Considering how many of them weren’t really ready to be fighting yet, and then the loss of her own ten, the company was in bad shape, at least numbers-wise, and nearly half of what was left were helping the Inquisition for an indefinite period of time.

“I was surprised, though, that the Inquisition was even planned. I hadn’t seen Rilien in a while, but I didn’t know this was why.” She’d gotten the story from him since, of course, but she glanced over at him anyway, wondering if there was some version of it he might be willing to share with the group at large.

“It was not, initially.” The Tranquil’s correction was mild, and he folded his legs underneath him on the chair he occupied. “What is now the Inquisition’s informational network was meant to be Ser Lucien’s, and I’d been working on assembling it since our initial return to Orlais. He did not at first know I was doing so, and by the time I elected to share the information, it was well-established. As it happened, this coincided with the Divine’s request that he lend his aid to the Conclave, and if it failed, to the Inquisition.” Rilien steepled his hands, more thoughtfully than anything.

“As his own endeavors were in no way yet reliant on what my agents could provide, it was easy enough to reconfigure them for this purpose, and he asked me to oversee this, and in so doing, provide the Inquisition with something it did not have, but would need.” He lifted a shoulder. “And so until it serves him better for me to do something else, I will remain.” It was evident that his concern was less for the Inquisition itself and more for the fact that Lucien supported it, but then, that was not so much a problem as divided loyalty in someone else might have been, considering the nature of the second party Rilien was loyal to.

His brows furrowed just a fraction, then, and he focused intently upon Aurora. “Is… is she here as well, then?” The hesitation was rare, but no particular inflection was given to it. It could have been any mundane inquiry, save the pause in it.

Aurora simply nodded, the smile having left her lips a while ago. "Yes. Somewhere," she answered, "You know how she is... flighty as always." Rilien did not initially react to this, but then he returned the nod and sat back slightly in his chair, apparently deep in thought.

“You know,” Estella ventured, drawing the conversation back into its previous locus, or one close, “I find it really… strange. Supposedly, the Arl of Redcliffe isn’t even around, but there’s no way a Fereldan nobleman would allow Magisters to use his castle in his absence, right? Do you think he knows they’re here?”

Aurora sighed at that and shook her head. "He knows they're here," she said. "Have you noticed there aren't any of the Arl's guards either? The Magisters forced the Arl and his men out," Aurora revealed, leaning back in her seat. All in one moment, the years spent in conflict seemed to show on her face, at least for only that moment.

"The last I heard, Arl Teagan was on his way to the King in Denerim to ask for help in retaking his home," she said, clearly not happy with how everything had turned out. Instead, she leaned forward and rest her elbows on her knees, looking to both Estella and Rilien. "I... have a favor to ask of you two. Well, pehaps not a favor. A proposition," she said, glancing over to Donovan. He simply nodded in response and she resumed speaking. "We-- that is, me and the mages who follow me, we have fought to keep ourselves free. I would not see Fiona try to sell us out or an Imperium Magister pretend that he holds our chains."

She glanced back up to Rilien once more, though a strength remained in her eyes. "I would instead offer our aid to the Inquisition. We will not be controlled by anyone but ourselves and while we are only a few, we will do whatever we can in order to aid the Inquisition."

“Personally, I’d be glad to have your help,” Estella said, and it was the truth. She knew Aurora was a good person, and that the mages who followed her were likely the same. They represented only a small fraction of the total mages in Redcliffe, never mind the south, but she knew they needed all the help they could get, and she could sympathize with their desire to choose their own fates.

But for all they called her Herald, Estella had no illusions that she was in charge of anything, and so her eyes, too, sought Rilien’s, as they so often had when she found herself unsure of her direction.

Rilien appeared to give it some consideration, but in the end he simply nodded. “Aside from our personal inclinations, I do believe you would be of assistance to us. It will take some time for me to decide exactly how, but yes. You are welcome.”

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

0.00 INK

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

0.00 INK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Out of curiosity. Of course."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An empty promise, if ever there were one.

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

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

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

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

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

But the three it had taken did not reappear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Agreed?"

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Cyrus. We’re done now.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius

0.00 INK

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.”

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth

0.00 INK

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."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth

0.00 INK

Estella rolled out her shoulders as she walked, relishing the burning feeling of muscles well-exercised. It was a sign that she was building strength and reflex, honing herself as well as she could, and so she’d never minded, even on the mornings she woke sore and stiff as a result. The best thing for that was just more deliberate exercise, anyway, provided she minded the need for lighter days of recovery. She wasn’t ever really short on opportunities for training, between Khari and whatever time her fellow Lions could manage to get to themselves. They were always willing to spend it on her, something she felt a bit guilty about, actually. But they didn’t often give her a choice in the matter, as Hissrad wasn’t now.

The Qunari man, nearly as tall as the Commander and about as broad, was not the most talkative of her friends, but nothing about his silence was ever awkward or even, to her, forbidding. He just didn’t say anything unless he felt the need, and so the both of them were often silent in one another’s company. Today, though, they were talking, at least at the moment.

“I was not certain I believed it, when the others told me about the kind of taskmaster Rilien is. Clearly, they were correct.” He’d agreed to assist with her instruction today, partly because Rilien was trying to teach her how to deal with opponents of far superior size, which Hissrad definitely was. Of course, it wasn’t a proper lesson unless Rilien also completely outclassed her in the ring himself, but considering she felt like she learned so much every time, she couldn’t be in the least upset about it. She took the lessons as a gift, because his time was valuable, especially of late. Honestly… it was probably as close as Rilien could really get to expressing fondness, in a roundabout way. She wore these particular bruises without shame, in any case.

“Remind you of the terrible old days?” she asked lightly, referencing the early years he’d spent being tutored in his role for the Qun. He hadn’t specified exactly what it was, but since he said he’d almost died on a battlefield, and was also very good with a javelin or a mace, she assumed it was something martial.

He chuckled, shaking his head. “No besrathari would work a soldier to that degree, lest there be more Tal-Vashoth than the Qun would know what to do with.” He smiled, and she mirrored the expression. Hissrad had never been hesitant to speak of his life before, nor indeed to tell jokes about it.

With several more minutes, they at last reached Estella’s destination, which was the tavern. She wasn’t the most frequent patron of such establishments, but tonight, she felt like a drink and perhaps a warm snack was in order. “Would you like to come in with me, Hissrad?”

“Thank you, but no. I told Cor I would help him set up the targets for tomorrow’s ranged drilling.” Estella nodded her understanding, touching his elbow in passing as she headed for the door. She glanced back as she entered, huffing when she observed his mock-salute, turning to face forward again and stepping into the comfortable warmth of the building. The tavern kept a very large fire going in its generous hearth, and most of the patrons tended to gravitate towards it.

The place looked to be mostly empty tonight, though she saw several faces she recognized and could put names to—thankfully, she’d always been pretty good with those, and was generally able to recall people if she’d met them before. Of course, some people just stood out a great deal, and Vesryn, who also occupied the room, was one of them. Though the setting was a tavern and the hour was evening, he was rather free of company this time, something that surprised her a bit, considering his gregarious nature.

Stepping up to the bar, Estella ordered herself a brandy and debated the food for a moment before deciding against it. She was actually quite surprised when the bar’s owner produced a snifter for the drink, sliding it across the bar with three fingers. Once she’d counted out the price and thanked the woman, she took the glass in hand and turned back around, hesitating a moment before she decided it probably wouldn’t hurt and picked her way over to Vesryn.

“Would you mind if I sat?” Technically, it wasn’t necessary—there were enough empty places in the room that she could well find her own, but there was something about that thought that was fairly depressing, even for her.

"Of course not. I rarely turn down good company when it's offered, after all." Vesryn's table was situated in a warm corner of the tavern, near the fireplace, and had enough seating for four, though currently only he occupied it, positioned as he was on a comfy-looking corner seat. There were chairs on all sides of the table, accomodating Estella if she preferred to sit across from him rather than adjacent. She generally did, as she preferred to make eye contact with people when speaking to them, if she could, and so that was the seat she took, pulling her legs up to cross them underneath her. The snifter, she set down in front of her, dropping her hands into her lap for the moment.

He worked, currently, on a plate of food, steaming chicken breast with sides of corn and mashed potatoes, the dinner appearing about half-complete. His last bite of chicken was washed down with a mug of what looked to be simple ale. His armor was not in sight, nor the garish lion's pelt cloak; instead he wore a long-sleeved blue tunic laced down the center, and comfortable looking trousers and boots, both of black leather.

"It might surprise you, but I've spent a great many nights in isolation. As close as I can get to it, at any rate." He did not seem overly concerned about referring to Saraya, beyond a small flick of his eyes towards the tavern's other patrons, none of which were paying much attention to the corner of the room. "I do love the company of others, but some nights there are things that must be dwelled on. Perhaps the Lady Herald can dwell on them with me for a while." The title, as usual, was delivered with gently teasing humor. "I imagine it must be strange to you, what we spoke of earlier.” He huffed a quiet laugh to himself. "It’s still strange to me, sometimes, a decade and a half later.”

“It’s certainly that,” Estella agreed without difficulty. She’d heard of possessions before, of course; over the course of her work with the Lions, she’d even fought a few abominations. It was… never a pleasant experience, unsurprisingly. But that was the thing—people who had been possessed always showed signs of it, signs that became much more obvious in tense situations or ones that might pose a danger. She knew he wasn’t possessed. If anything, her brother’s… antagonism had proven it for her.

For a moment, she looked down into her lap, trying to gather the words she wanted. Estella was not good at speaking extemporaneously or improvising; she liked to consider the things she said and did, perhaps as a guard against foolishness, which she suspected she might otherwise end up falling into quite a lot. She smoothed over the hem of her maroon Lions’ tunic, then glanced back up. “And it’s a very unique kind of strange, at that. But you know… I’ve seen a lot of strange things, and met a lot of strange people. Some of them have also been the very best people I’ve ever met.” Rilien came immediately to mind, of course—a Tranquil who could sense magic, and sometimes, almost feel. But there were plenty of others, with varying degrees of oddity. It said something that, even with this mark, she was the most boringly ordinary person in the room, most of the time.

"I don't doubt that. I've had much the same experience. Though, I doubt there were many places as strange as Kirkwall in the last ten years. I've heard the stories." He took a long drink of ale, just about finished with the meal before him, and leaned back with a breathy sigh.

"You know... Saraya actually doesn't mind you. That's pretty high praise, I should say. She despises most people we meet, for one reason or another."

Estella smiled, a bit ruefully. She supposed she should take it as a compliment, of sorts, but it was rather tepid as far as they tended to go. Still, it wasn’t like she was the kind of person on which warm praise was regularly heaped, so really it was quite nice. Especially considering just who Saraya was. “From someone who lived when humans were mere children, shaking swords at what they did not understand, that’s actually quite humbling,” she pointed out, raising her snifter to her lips and taking a swallow. As it always did, the flavor rolled thickly over her tongue, an even mix of honeyed sweetness and sharp burn. That was what she liked about brandy. “A great number of us are still like that, unfortunately.” Then again, so were a great number of everyone, these days. She wondered if Thedas had ever been peaceful; probably the only candidates for it were the times before anyone but elves lived here, and then again for a while after the founding of the Imperium, before the elves had recovered any strength.

She was disinclined to consider that a candidate though. All one’s enemies being dead or run out wasn’t the same thing as peace. Estella brushed those thoughts away as well as she could, like trying to clear out a cobweb from her mind, and continued. “I bet it wasn’t easy, though, for either of you, adjusting to this arrangement you have now.” She tried to imagine having a passenger inside her head, one whose emotions she could feel, and then trying to devise a method of communication, and even just coming to grips with the fact that someone else, or part of someone else, was there, for the foreseeable future. It seemed a daunting task, and she doubted she really had a grip on what was involved.

"I was an awkward, lanky, foolish boy when we found each other. I couldn't yet separate her feelings from my own, and all she felt in those first hours was a heart-splitting despair. Saraya wanted nothing more than a release from her suspension, and to her, I was simply a new prison. Her desire for death would've killed me, had I not been overcome by incredible pain, to the point where I could not move from a single spot on the floor." He seemed to enjoy telling the story, maybe just for the novelty of it to him, but clearly the memory was as painful as it was momentous.

Estella felt a sympathetic twinge of heartache, but aside from a slight tightening of her mouth, she didn’t react overmuch. It was obvious that he hadn’t said everything he wanted to, and she didn’t want to interrupt him.

"I don't honestly know how we got control over it. Possibly just the time from the joining lessened the intensity of it. But to cut a long story short, she convinced herself that there was something yet worth doing in the world, and for better or worse, I was to be her vehicle. I'd never experienced anything like it, and I have to admit I was a bit wrapped up in the idea of being important somehow. Thus, I followed her will, and she molded me into a better man. All I am is owed to her."

He played absently with the handle of the mug in front of him for a moment, before meeting her eyes again. "You can see why I'm so protective of her, I'm sure. She carries a wealth of knowledge in her, information that I cannot properly comprehend, being neither a mage nor a person capable of hearing her words. I hope the deception can be forgiven. In truth, it was partially Saraya's interest in the Breach that drew me here. She has concerns about it, though if they extend beyond what the rest of us have, I can't yet say."

She shook her head emphatically. “Even if she had no such knowledge, it seems abundantly clear that she’s your friend. You were doing what you felt like you had to do to protect her, and no one came to harm. I can’t fault you for that. On the contrary—it’s admirable.” Estella smiled slightly. She was tempted to ask more about what Vesryn had learned from Saraya, about ancient civilization. She had, after all, a great interest in such histories herself, and always had. But she also didn’t want to pry too much, or carelessly, even if he did seem to be all right with sharing some of the details at this point.

“I’d heard you were with the Stormbreakers at one point or another as well; what did you do between leaving them and finding us, if you don’t mind my asking?” He seemed like the kind of person who’d lived a most interesting life, and she’d never been averse to hearing a good story.

"I was off receiving my education, for lack of a better term." The innkeep came by, collecting his plate, noting that Vesryn and Estella were in conversation, and attempting not to intrude. Vesryn smiled politely and waited for her to depart. "Those were the periods I spent alone. The Stormbreakers finished my physical training, but Saraya took me to places that no man or elf has touched for many, many years. Places lost to the world. I took a few things, at Saraya's urging. Weapons, armor. Other than that, I studied. Learned lost tongues. Deciphered ancient mysteries with nothing but guesswork, and an answerbook in my head to confirm or reject my propositions."

He sighed, somewhat sadly, and folded his hands together on the surface of the table. "Unfortunately, much of it can't be shared. The Dalish... they wouldn't understand. Probably view me as an oddity, or a madman, and go on with their dirge. Humans aren't interested, and if they are, it's rarely for the right reasons. There are sadly few with your kind of heart, I'm afraid."

Cyrus would be extremely interested, but for the moment, Estella elected not to say that. She would also love to know anything he had discovered, and frankly didn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t. But she could understand why he wouldn’t simply go around telling people, and that stayed her questions for the moment. “I’d like to hear about it, someday,” she said, curious enough that at least that much couldn’t remain behind her wall of self-censorship.

A thought occurred to her, then, a considerably lighter one, and she tilted her head to the side at him, smiling a little more mirthfully. “Also… if she’s just been there in your mind, and she can’t talk to you, how is it that you knew Saraya was a woman, or what her name is?”

"It's..." He leaned back, fixating his eyes on the ceiling for a moment before they returned to her. "It feels different. Even before I asked her to make sure, which I did. The feeling of being a woman is different from that of being a man. I mean nothing by it, it's just..." He shrugged.

"As for the name, I actually don't know what her name is. There was a lot of time to guess, though. Saraya, when I guessed it, was one she liked enough for me to use. If for no other reason than to stop the guessing." A little grin formed over his features. "Our roads were rarely traveled, and very, very empty. As you might imagine, I'm fairly comfortable with one-sided conversations at this point."

Estella laughed, a soft chuckle more than anything, and nodded her head. She wasn’t offended; it wasn’t like he’d said there was something wrong with being female, and she had no doubt he didn’t think there was, either. A smile lingered even after the laugh died away. “Comfortable or no, they don’t all have to be that way, for the moment at least. I doubt you’ll ever be short on people willing to talk back to you around here, but I’m one of them, if you’re ever so inclined.” She raised her glass with one hand, tilting it fractionally towards him.

“To new roads forward?”

He raised his mug. "And to good company along the way."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius

0.00 INK

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

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

Now the Inquisition had garnered the support of the free mages... or, rather, what Asala understood as their support. From what she had heard from Aurora and Donovan, Marceline had not given Fiona much of a choice in the matter. However, what she did know was that the Inquisition was a far better option than a Tevinter Magister and from what she had seen thus far the mages were being treated fairly. It also meant that she was far more busy as requisitions for mana potions to supply their new allies mounted. Fortunately, it was not only she and Adan brewing them now, as Donovan and Milly offered their assistance.

They had set up a cauldron outside of Adan's home, and the scent of elfroot and embrium wafted throughout the small circle of houses. Donovan stood over the cauldron, stirring it in a steady, rhythmic fashion, while Milly measured out the herbs on a nearby scale that were to be added. Asala herself stood some distance away with Leon's crimson cloak pulled tight over her shoulders, watching over the process with Adan.

Even with her proximity to the fire, the cold chill still seeped into her bones. Asala doubted she'd ever get used to the cold, and though the snow was novel at first, its appeal had worn off long ago.

It wasn’t long before the sound of approaching footfalls crunching over the snow met her ears, march pace, from the sounds of it. Someone cleared their throat behind her, and then Reed stepped into their lines of vision. He didn’t look uncomfortable with the temperature, but then, he was wearing a decent amount of armor and a thick cloak made of wool, so perhaps it was unsurprising. “Pardon me, miss Asala,” he ventured, though the politeness of the words sounded a little awkward on his tongue, as though he were accustomed to being much more direct. “But the Commander is wondering if you had a moment. He’s asking to see you, but he stresses that the invitation is not obligatory and you should feel free to decline if you’re otherwise occupied.”

Reed shifted his weight, draping a forearm casually over the hilt of his sword where it angled away from him. “To be more specific, I’m pretty sure he’s going to help with your supply problem.” He jerked his chin towards the cauldron.

"Uh..." Asala began, stealing a glance to Donovan. He nodded and spoke, "Go, we will be fine," he said as Milly dropped a handful of herbs into the cauldron. As soon as she did, the scent of elfroot around them intensified and the liquid within the cauldron turned a crystal color. "The potions are almost done anyway. Meraad can help us bottle them. Milly?" he asked. The tranquil nodded serenely and turned to go find him.

"He should be with the other mages, practicing," Asala called after her. He truly could never sit still, she thought as a smile crossed her lips. Soon, though she remembered Reed's invitation. "Oh! Uh. Yes, let's go," she said nodding, and letting him take the lead.

Reed was evidently quite patient, because he didn’t seem to mind the delay in the slightest, merely nodding when she indicated that she was ready to leave and leading the way up towards the Chantry. Rather than entering through the double-doors, however, he walked them around behind the building, through a small line of trees, and out the other side. There wasn’t a great deal of space back there before the ground began to fall away in a steep hill, but what was present had been rather painstakingly worked on, by the look of it.

In several places, long branches or fallen logs had been filed and staked into the ground over uniform intervals, and more even taller ones stood in a line at the center. Over this, a number of tarps had been draped, providing some degree of protection from the elements for a plot of about ten by ten feet. At present, Leon and Estella were holding opposite ends of another tarp, taking it down, by the looks of things. Presumably, this was for sun. The plot itself had several neat lines of plants, most of them either once cuttings of larger specimens or grown from seed, by the small size.

They noticed Asala and Reed approaching at about the same time, and both smiled. Leon gestured, and Estella brought her end of the tarp towards him, after which he took over the process of folding. Reed took his cue to leave with a short salute. “Hey, Asala,” the young mercenary greeted. “Glad you could make it.”

Leon nodded his agreement. “I hope we haven’t taken you away from anything too important just now.”

Asala shook her head in the negative as she took in her surroundings. It was a small garden, that much she was certain. She took a step forward and knelt down to inspect the closest plant to her. An elfroot, from the looks of it. She tilted her head to the side as she gently caressed a leaf. "When did you plant these?" She asked curiously. Leon always seemed so busy with Inquisition matters, she was surprised to find that he found the time to work a small plot of land into a garden.

He wore a little half-smile, something almost sheepish in it, and shrugged his massive shoulders. “I… don’t always sleep as well as I could. I’ve found that working something simple is a decent substitute. Lets me rest my thoughts, at least.” He placed the folded tarp atop a stack of them, and went about the business of pulling the next one down himself.

“Khari and I passed him working on a run one morning,” Estella continued. “I asked him about it later, and he let me help a bit, too. I’m usually the one who takes down the tarps in the afternoon so they can get some sun while it’s warm. Well… warmer, anyway.” She pulled a face that indicated how little she thought of the difference, but the plants were doing relatively well. Clearly, Leon had picked varieties that were not only medicinal, but hardy enough to survive Haven.

Adding another tarp to the stack, Leon brushed his hands off on one another. They were still gloved, but it was becoming evident that they were always thus. “With a little time, I suspect this will help ease the burden of your supply shortage. Not quite all the way, of course; we’d need a much larger garden for that. But it should be enough on its own to keep the irregulars in decent supply, at least, and they’re the ones I’m most concerned about, considering what they do.”

Asala frowned when Leon told her that he didn't sleep as well as he should. She said nothing on the matter of course, he probably wouldn't like to be chided like that, but she did mentally file it away for a later time. She knew a few recipes for a tea that would aid in sleep. Taking one last glance at the elfroot, she rose back to her feet and brushed the snow and dirt from her knees. "Yes, this should... do," she said, pausing a moment to do a quick mental calculation. The Inquisition was growing day by day, and so were their needs, but the small plot would be enough for the few of them that went into the most danger.

"You know..." Asala said, throwing a look out back the way they'd entered, "Aurora is quite impressive with plants as well. If you wish, I could ask her to help too." While the woman lacked an alchemist's touch, she possessed an impressive knowledge of plants, and had taught Asala how to care and tend to them. Then she looked back to Leon with a curious gleam in her eye. It was plain that a question was waiting to spill out of her mouth, but instead of waiting to be asked, she went ahead and spoke. "How is it that you know so much of plants? Oh! Uh, if you do not mind me asking."

It did seem like a strange hobby for the Commander of the Inquisition's army to have. Most soldiers she knew did not know what went into their potions.

A breath passed from Leon in what might have been a sigh. If so, it was a soft one, weary, perhaps, or nostalgic, even; it was impossible to say for sure. “Little grows where I am from,” he replied, his eyes somewhere far away. “The first time I visited Orlais, which was the first time I had left the Anderfels, I was astounded by the amount of green I could see. I had never known that color to be so vivid before—even the plants are paler in my homeland, and smaller as well.” A tiny smile played over his mouth for a moment, and he blinked, clearing the distance from his expression.

“I suppose that I, like a child, was simply transfixed by the novel. I made a point of learning as much of horticulture as I could. It is not often I remain in one place long enough to actually keep a garden, however small or inadequate by most standards, but I like to take the opportunity when I have it.” He motioned for the both of them to follow him towards the door.

“I was going to take tea—ah, in the command room, not my office. Perhaps the two of you would not mind joining me?”

Estella nodded easily. “I’d be happy to.” Both then turned their eyes towards Asala.

She simply nodded her agreement before following them inside. Donovan was also from the Anderfels, and she remembered what he told of her of the place. He had said much of what Leon had. Truthfully, Asala found it hard to imagine a place so devoid of color, having spent most of her life in the tropics of Par Vollen and Rivain. Her vistas were full of lush greens and bright blues.

"Back home..." she began rather absentmindedly, as if she was stuck in the memory, "We had forests with trees that had these big leaves," she said, holding both hands up to indicate the size, "That were greener than any emerald. And the water," she continued, letting a hand fall to her collar, "the water was the clearest crystal blue, that stretched out as far as the eye could see..."

She then glanced up to both Estella and Leon, and a blush slipped into her features. "Oh! I am sorry. I did not..." she trailed, a pang of something welling up in her belly. How long had it been since she'd last been home?

Leon shook his head as if to dismiss the apology, but it was Estella who spoke. “It’s impossible to forget where we come from, isn’t it?” She smiled, a subtle expression best classed as bittersweet. “Very few good things ever happened to me in Tevinter, but I still miss it sometimes. Especially in the winter. There are these big thunderstorms that roll in off the ocean to the north of Minrathous, and they go for days—but when you walk outside after they’re gone... everything looks clean again.” She lowered her eyes to the floor as they entered the command room, where a smaller table had been set aside from the one with the map on it.

There were two chairs already present, and Leon let them have those, pulling up a third to the odd side and lowering himself into it. One of the older women who worked in the kitchen slipped into the room with a pot of hot water and what seemed to be a canister of some kind, which Leon accepted with a smile and a word of thanks. She dipped a curtsy to the three of them and departed.

The canister came open with a soft pop, and the scent of something citrusy immediately wafted outwards from it. With some care, Leon tipped out a generous portion of the dry tea into what looked like a mesh hemisphere of some kind, also extracted from the canister. When that was done, he produced the other half, enclosing the leaves in an effective straining mechanism, and lowered that into the pot.

“Homesickness strikes me at the strangest times,” he confessed freely, seeming rather unashamed of admitting the vulnerability. “Sometimes I’m simply walking along and see something that reminds me of one thing or another. Sometimes it just happens when I’m working, with no provocation at all.” He picked up one of the upside-down cups on the tea tray and deftly flipped it over, setting it on a saucer in front of Asala, and then did the same for Estella. “Citrus fruits were my mother’s one indulgence, so the smell of this tea reminds me of her. Sometimes, even that’s enough to do it.”

He deliberately waited a moment longer, then picked up the pot and poured each of them a cup of tea, setting the ceramic back down carefully.

Asala smiled and took the teacup in hand, though she didn't move to take a drink, instead just letting the warmth of the cup seep into her hands. She stared into the cup for a moment before she tilted her head as an errant thought struck her. "You know what I miss?" Asala asked, eyes remaining on the teacup. "The smell of fresh coffee beans," it seemed like every morning she woke up to the scent of Tammy brewing fresh coffee. She was quiet for a moment afterward, and took a sip of the tea once it was cool enough to drink.

Estella smiled slightly, and looked like she was about to speak, but she was interrupted by the sudden sound of shattering ceramic. The cause was obvious not long afterwards, when Leon muttered something softly under his breath. The sleeve of his robe and the glove on his right hand were both drenched in tea—and he still gripped several shards of the broken cup. It would appear that he’d crushed it in his hand somehow, and his left hand moved up to grip his right wrist, near where he seemed to be struggling to unfurl the fingers of his dominant hand.

“Are you all right?” Estella’s voice carried a note of alarm, and she immediately leaned forward to grab the small towel that had been brought in with the tray, using it to soak up the tea that had spilled onto the table and was even now dripping towards the floor. She looked as though she wanted to help, but was unsure how to do so.

Leon’s jaw clenched visibly. “I… yes, sorry. It is a muscle spasm. I did not mean to cause alarm.” His own tones were quiet as usual, but there was an edge of strain to them, as though he were exerting considerable effort to remain as subdued in demeanor as he was. His grip on his arm shifted, and he set about forcing his fingers to straighten with the opposite hand, faint lines of strain creasing at the corners of his eyes.

Asala's eyes widened in surprise and a moment later she was out of her own seat and kneeling beside Leon. She had a gentle hand rested on his shoulder as she quietly watched him wrestle with his own hand. "How long have you had these muscle spasms?" she asked gently, but with an edge of concern. She continued to watch him too, inspecting the hand from a distance for any telltale streaks of crimson that would tell her if he'd cut himself with the glass or not.

Fortunately, his gloves seemed to have prevented that, and with a few more moments’ concentration, he was able to stretch out the muscles, holding them in place for several seconds before they seemed to ease of their own accord. He released a heavy breath, noticeably slumping the shoulder beneath her hand. “It’s been a while,” he replied vaguely, “but truly, they’re nothing to worry about. While the attendant clumsiness is a bit embarrassing, I must admit, the pain is quite tolerable.” He flexed his hand a few times as if to demonstrate that it was fine, and the last of the tension eased out of his frame.

“I suppose hand cramps are an occupational hazard when I spend so many hours writing.” It was clearly an attempt to lighten the mood with humor, and Estella sat back in her chair, still looking vaguely worried, but at least less so than she had been a moment before.

Asala still frowned, but said nothing on the matter. It was clear that she wasn't entirely convinced of his story, but she chose not to pursue it. Instead, she reached over to the table and plucked up a towel when she began to dab at the tea he had spilled on himself. "Try... not to write so much then," she said, "Surely you can find someone to aid you, yes?" She asked. He was the commander of the Inquisition, surely he could find someone to write letters for him.

After she'd gotten enough of the tea off of him, Asala gently took hold of his hand and looked up at him. "And if it happens again, please Leon. Come see me."

He smiled thinly, but it was easy enough to tell that he wasn’t keen on committing to that, for some reason. “Thank you, Miss Asala. Your kindness is appreciated. As is yours, Lady Estella.” He nodded to the Herald in turn, then carefully extricated his hand from Asala’s, inclining his head at her empty seat. “But please… perhaps we can yet finish? I was quite enjoying our conversation.” It was perhaps the gentlest possible way of closing off a topic, but it was still unmistakable that he’d done just that: the incident would be discussed no further.

Asala continued to frown, but still said nothing. Instead she simply stood and returned to her seat, before turning to Estella. "You were... going to say something?" she prompted, though it was clear that her mind remained elsewhere.

She had always been terrible at hiding the emotions on her face. Worry being chief among them.

“Oh, yes. Right.” Estella nodded. “I was going to mention that my first teacher was very fond of coffee as well. He used to have these beans imported from Rivain…”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

0.00 INK

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

0.00 INK

Marceline sat on the edge of her desk in her office, a folder of papers held by the spine in one hand, and her polished silverite mask hanging limply from the other. The dossier she was currently reading contained reports on all of the noble houses that they were targeting in order to march on the Templars holed up in Therinfal Redoubt. The names that the dossier held were those of Orlais' most influential houses-- Marceline did not intend to give the Lord Seeker the chance to turn them away without causing a major incident. They had already gained the committments of some of the nobility already, but the others required a little more convincing. Favors would needed to be traded, information would have to swap hands, and promises would have to be made, but Lady Marceline did not forsee any complications.

With a flick of the wrist and a twist of the thumb, Marceline moved on to the next page. Not all of the nobility were that difficult, and for that, Lady Marceline was thankful. Some understood the importance of the work that the Inquisition did. Before, they could only offer their vocal support, as it would be foolish to support an unknown entity that had very little to offer but the bare minimum of a plan. Marceline understood, and accepted it then, but now that the Inquisition had demonstrated its ability to stand on its own two feet, that vocal support soon became some more physical.

It had been a great deal off of Marceline's mind now that she had something to work with. Discussions and opportunities were beginning to open themselves up to the Inquisition. Apparently, now that that weight was gone, she'd seemed to relax somewhat, as Larissa herself mentioned it. Marceline glanced upward to the door for a moment before returning to the file in her hand. She'd sent the woman out moments ago in order to fetch Estella. She intended to follow through with the desire to inquire of her experience with nobility, and to prepare her for the negotiations that were to come.

She had faith in the girl, Estella had instilled it in her when she handled herself first with the Marquis DuRellion in Val Royeaux and Cassius in Redcliffe. Still, she did not desire to throw the poor girl at them without at first preparing her. If at all, she'd like to make it as easy on her as possible, though with the label of Herald of Andraste stuck next to her name, things could only go so easily.

Apparently, Larissa had little difficulty locating her, because she returned not more than ten minutes later, Estella in tow. From the way she was dressed, in durable but plain clothes, her hair pulled well away from her face and evidence of recent activity in the flyaways that stood away from her scalp, she’d recently been engaged in some kind of strenuous physical activity, and her breathing was still slightly elevated. Given the time of day, it was likely that she’d been receiving instruction from Rilien.

She made some effort to straighten herself up as she entered, though, smoothing her hair back with her hands as well as she could and pulling her maroon tunic down to tug out the wrinkles and set it straight of any dishevelment. There were a few spots of blood on it, actually, though they were hard to see against the color, and the empty glass vial in one hand still had a few drops of pearlescent red potion at the bottom of it.

“Good afternoon, Lady Marceline,” she said in her usual subdued tone of voice, coming to stand a few feet back from the desk, folding her hands behind her back and standing with her feet shoulder-width apart. She didn’t look to have made any conscious decision to do so; perhaps it was simply an ingrained reflex at this point to stand at attention when in an office of this kind. “Larissa said you had something you wanted to ask me about?”

"Discuss is perhaps the better term," Marceline said with a smile. "If you would like a drink, please help yourself. There is water in the pitcher," she said, indicating with her mask to the small table that held a bottle of wine, the pitcher, and a number of glasses. Meanwhile, Larissa weaved in behind Estella and went around Marceline's desk, taking a seat in her emtpy chair. With a ruffle of paper, she produced a length of parchment and prepared an inkwell and quill. It seemed almost wasteful the amount of paper they went through.

Estella took the opportunity offered, tucking the bottle away in some pocket or another before heading over to the side table and pouring herself a glass of water. She downed half of one before refilling it the rest of the way and returning to her spot, standing in a slightly more relaxed fashion now. “Thank you,” she murmured, half-smiling. “I think Rilien sometimes forgets that not all of us are capable of his level of endurance and focus.” The words, while they could have been interpreted as a criticism, were delivered with an unmistakable affection, and a faint hint of amusement.

“What shall we be discussing, Lady Marceline?”

Marceline gave one last glance to the dossier in her hand before she closed it and placed it down. She then crossed her arms and studied the woman in front of her for a moment before she tilted her head to the side inquisitively. "From what I understand, the Avenarius family name holds some reknown in the Imperium," Marceline began. "Though I do not know if you have been privy to court politics of your homeland," she continued. It was possible, of course, that Marceline could have found the answer on her own by inquiring a few of her contacts in the Imperium, but it felt more of a matter that should be discussed personally, and not behind her back.

"Regardless," Marceline added, "I do understand that you have accompanied both the Crown Prince and Ser Rilien to court on occasion, though you were perhaps not the focal point..." With that, Marceline studied the woman again as she tapped her silverite mask against her arm. She was quite for a moment after, leaving space for Larissa to speak up from her position behind Marceline's desk. "What milady is attempting to figure is your knowledge and experience on dealing with nobility and general negotiation. That is why she called you here today."

Marceline nodded her agreement and passed an appreciative look toward Larissa, who responded with a kind smile. "We are to meet with nobility outside Therinfal Redoubt, where we will then attempt to negotiate with the High Seeker and the templars. Negotiations that will no doubt feature the Herald of Andraste heavily. I simply wish to understand your experience in such matters and prepare you accordingly."

Estella took in a deep, audible breath, and from the way she flinched, just slightly, she wasn’t especially keen on talking about this. Nevertheless, she nodded slightly. “Right, well… as to the matter of House Avenarius, there are two things you’ll want to know. Firstly, they’re noble, but they’re Laetan, which isn’t quite the same as being Altus. It’s a bit like… being a Baron, or a Bann, and one with a small holding at that, or if you’re really lucky, a Comtesse.” She inclined her head, apparently well-aware of Marceline’s own title.

“The second thing is… I might not actually be licensed to use the name. It’s very… complicated.” She grimaced, looking reluctant to speak any further.

The news caused Marceline to tlt her head to the side somewhat and a frown to grace the even line of her lips. "Complicated? How so? If you would be so kind as to explain," she asked.

Estella shifted her weight, taking most of it on her left foot, turning up the right one and drawing a line with the toe of her boot on the rug. She didn’t seem precisely aware that she was doing it. “When Cyrus and I were born, our mother died. We, ah… we’re bastard children, you see—and so there was no saying who our father was. My grandfather took it… badly, and gave us to the Chantry. Cyrus was adopted back several years later, but I never officially was.” She pursed her lips together, her brows furrowing.

“My brother’s head of the house now, and of course he acknowledges me as family, but because of the timing, I’m pretty sure no official paperwork to re-adopt me was ever approved. That’s, well, that’s the basic problem, anyway. I use the name, but I’m not sure it’s legally mine.” It was clear that what bothered her about this wasn’t the technicality of the issue, but she left the details of the rest untouched.

“Needless to say, none of my diplomatic experience—little as it is—came from that.”

Marceline nodded and mentally filed the information away for a later date. "I doubt that you will be required to use the name in any official capacity, fortunately. Your title as Herald is what is important, and what these nobles will rally around," for better or for worse. She did not envy the girl for having the title thrust upon her. She glanced behind her and met Larissa's eyes for a moment, before both wordlessly nodded. "Now, your experiences with the Crown Prince and Ser Rilien," she began, "I do not need a transcript of each step you took with them. Only your thoughts on the matters of court, and please. Be frank." She finished with a comforting smile.

"Oh, Lady Estella? You can take a seat if you wish. This is by no means an official review," Larissa said as Marceline nodded along. "We just simply wish to make the process as painless as possible for you."

Estella sighed, altogether too deeply for the subject matter. “Frankly? My experiences at court were challenging, and difficult, and made me wish I’d never have to go back.” She contemplated a chair for a moment, but in the end, she elected to remain standing. “That’s the predominant impression, anyway. There were parts of it I didn’t mind, people I met that I liked.” She smiled slightly. “The Antivan Ambassador, Lady Costanza, and her husband Sabino were extremely kind. I worked a bodyguard job for them, once. That was probably the most direct interaction I had with court functions proper. Most of the matters I attended to with Commander Lucien were just business things: meeting clients and discussing terms, delivering reports, the occasional social function with people he considers friends.”

She appeared to consider something, then tilted her head to the side. “Ah, Lady Marceline… these nobles, the ones accompanying us to Therinfal. Do you know exactly who they will be, yet?”

"A few, yes. We are in the process of convincing the others, and with the aid of the previously mentioned few, they should come to support us as well, but I will not tire you with those details," Marceline said with a smile. No doubt she did not wish to hear the intiricies of the game they played. "But yes, you are already familiar with one of the houses in question," Marceline said, with a coy smile as she brought her silverite mask to her eyes. The purple flake on the feathers worked into the metal sparkled in the candlelight. "I intend to represent house Lécuyer as well as the Inquisition's ambassador."

"Otherwise," Marceline said, allowed the mask to fall away from her face. "I have also been in contact with Lord Esmeral Abernache. While perhaps a bit long winded, and I would not sign my name to anything that he offers, I believe him to be a man with his heart in the correct place."

"He is also very reliable when it comes to gossip," Larissa noted behind them.

"Mhm," Marceline agreed and continued, "It is he who is aiding us in collecting the support of the other nobility. He will probably wish to speak to you, but I would not worry. He is on our side."

Estella’s posture seemed to ease, though why that was would have been difficult to pinpoint. She smiled when Marcy lifted her mask. “I’ll do the best I can,” she promised, taking a deep swallow from the glass of water in her hand. “I usually know enough not to say anything outright insulting at any rate, and I do have at least a little familiarity with how nobility works. But if there’s anything else specific about any of our supporters I should know, I’d be glad for the help.”

Marceline smiled and nodded before it slipped away into a frown. It was not the nobility that she was concerned with. The nobles would be with them under a single purpose, and she did not see any trouble that would come from them. No, it was not the nobility Marceline was worried about, "The Lord Seeker however, is another matter entirely," she said with a sigh. "I admit, I do not know much of the man himself. You have seen him yourself, in Val Royeaux... I would prepare myself accordingly. Perhaps speak to Ser Leonhardt for advice on the matter."

The young woman nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll do that. I have to say, I’m very glad you’ll both be there.” Her expression was rueful, and she downed the rest of her water, keeping hold of the empty glass. “Thank you, though, for the warning. I’m sure you’ve got a lot to do, so I won’t linger too much. Milady,” she inclined herself slightly at the waist, an informal bow, then straightened, dipping her head to Marceline’s assistant as well. “Larissa.” Estella moved her eyes back to Marceline, clearly awaiting permission to depart.

With that, Marceline pushed herself of the edge of her desk, and Larissa too stood from her chair. "Lady Herald," she said, giving her the permission to take her leave. As the door shut behind her, Marceline turned to face Larissa. "She is correct, there is still much we must do."

Larissa simply smiled and took the seat behind the desk once more, her hand moving toward the quill that rested in an inkwell. "Then perhaps we should begin, yes?" Marceline only smiled in response.

Setting

Characters Present

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

0.00 INK

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

0.00 INK

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

0.00 INK

#