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Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

"Want to see history happen? Don't take your eyes off the Inquisition."

0 · 2,145 views · located in Thedas

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

Description










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Full Name: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
Titles/Nicknames: She'd really, really prefer Khari.
Age: 27 (9:44)
Race: Elf (Dalish)
Gender: Female
Sexual Orientation: Heterosexual.
Class: Warrior
Specialization: Berserker

Hair Color: Rosy-red, visible from a long way off, at that.
Eye Color: Kind of a hazel-tinted green.
Height: She's all of 5'4".
Build: Ropy muscle and sinews all the way around.

Appearance: Kharisanna is, as most elves are, a rather small person. Short, and none too broad, she nevertheless manages to give off the impression of someone supremely at home in her own skin. Her general build isn’t much bulkier than any other elf, in all honesty, but a little compact muscle tissue goes a long way. Stout she may not be, but the woman is quite sharply-cut, from the lines of her biceps to the angles of her face. A pointed chin, thin nose, large peridot eyes and a full mouth compose her face, which is nice enough, though not really the stuff of paintings and romantic poetry. Like most everything else about her, it lacks a certain aristocratic refinement or delicacy, being vivacious more than elegant or graceful. She’s got an infectious smile, though, and there’s a spark to her that’s easy to perceive.

It’s a quality that carries through to the rest of her. She’s a little more generous where most elfish women are willowy, muscle rendering her thicker in most places, especially the thighs and hips, and trimmer in the abdomen. She’s always on the move, and her body has adapted to facilitate that, giving her a lean, hungry look to her, a sort of nothing-extra efficiency from head to toe. That said, she still looks like a little wisp of a person next to a human warrior, male or female, and she hates that; Khari is constantly trying to conform herself to the standard fighter's build through conditioning regimens of one kind or another. The observant will note that she cringes slightly if she happens upon a reflective surface, and her casual clothing is all extremely loose.

Her hair is worn rather long, usually braided and tucked up into her hood, so as to stay out of the way. It’s a very bright, very obvious red color, and riotously curly unless she takes steps to make it otherwise, formed into big, loose, slightly frizzy ringlets. Chances are it’s a mess at any given time, and she admittedly doesn’t put that much effort into trying to tame it. She’s relatively sun-touched, her face, shoulders, and back all dotted with a truly impressive number of freckles. Her brow and cheeks both bear the marks of vallaslin in charcoal grey, those corresponding to Dirthamen specifically.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
The last year has seen Khari knocked around quite a bit—though not really any more than she expected. She’s picked up a couple new scars to show for her battles, though nothing debilitating or all that disfiguring. Though she’ll never really gain any more height than she already has—and apparently has trouble gaining weight either—her angles have sharpened and her contours firmed up. Any excess she might have been carrying, little as it was, is pretty much gone by this point.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
Khari was never meant to be a warrior. Her height and natural build simply aren't suited for it. But she's walking proof that, with enough work and enough desire to succeed, even a waifish elven girl can become a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield—and she can do it with the slant-smiling swagger of someone much larger and more daunting. For once, she almost feels like she belongs in her body. There's no mistaking that she's in excellent condition, dense muscle packed onto her small frame in a way that leaves plenty of room for motion. But there's no mistaking her for what she used to be. Trim? Yes. Willowy? Never again. She's strong, swift, powerful, and there's nothing else she'd rather be.

Her growing mastery of herself and the way she exists in the world around her shows up in more subtle ways, too. Gradually, she's losing the inclination to swamp herself with too much fabric, losing the sense of shame that came with not being right. Not being on the outside the way she felt inside. She's always carried herself tall, but now it's less bravado and more genuine confidence. It's quieter. Smoother. More graceful, even, because power doesn't mean taking up all the space or drawing all the attention. She's found herself lots of role models in this respect, but she's also learned that she doesn't need to be just like any of them. That she can be herself, as she is, and as she's becoming, and both of those things are good. Both of them are really her.

9:44
Spoiler: show
Not much changed about Khari's appearance over the past year, save the acquisition of some truly epic scarring on her legs, evidence that they were once more shards than bone. Compound fractures are a bitch, and so is red lyrium. Otherwise, she remains as she always was, save that her wardrobe has now firmly transitioned to clothes that actually fit her. It's nice, to feel like she's got the skin she wants to live in, at long last.

x
“I'm pretty badass, right? I mean, I wouldn't wanna pick a fight with me.
Okay, that's a lie. I totally would.”

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Apparent Demeanor: Subtle and discreet are words that apply to Khari about as well as they apply to a bereskarn, which is to say, quite poorly. She is, to all appearances, an open book, her emotions worn clearly on her face, her foot semi-permanently in her mouth due to what would seem to be the complete absence of a mental filter. She’s a force of personality, really, and there’s an odd charisma about her—one that allows her to perhaps escape the more dire consequences of her trademark irreverence.

She has little issue talking back to authority figures, and indeed feels free to question people when she either thinks they’re doing something stupid or doesn’t understand why something is the way it is. She’s caught a lot of flak for this over the years, and was the bane of Keeper, Hahren, and craftsman alike back when she still lived with her clan. She’s so straightforward that it’s almost impossible to imagine that what one sees isn’t what one gets with her, and to be fair, that’s most often true.

Khari is the soul of confidence and independence, able to stand on her own and capable of looking out for herself through most any circumstance. Despite her fundamental lack of need for the company of others, however, she seems to enjoy it when she gets it. It’s not obvious at first, but she has an intuitive feel for personalities and emotions, enough so that she’s actually become quite accomplished at “reading” others, even those she does not know well, from small details in their facial expressions or body language. She may not be book smart, lacking much by way of education, but she is quite people-savvy in this way. Open, friendly, and generally honest to a fault, there’s also no mistaking the fact that she generally does her best to do right by people, even those that would not so quickly extend her the same consideration.

That said, from the boisterous, lively way she presents herself, many people infer a lack of intelligence or skill. Because she laughs too loudly and talks too much and smiles a little too often, she can be perceived as lacking some better qualities, someone likely to succeed only because she has a way of making friends of superior talent. She is, in truth, quite happy to be underestimated. By now, she knows that her demeanor leads some to fill in the blanks with a rather ungenerous brush, and she’s come to relish surprising them when she has the bite to back up her bark.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
The trials of the Inquisition’s first year have done little to dim Khari’s vibrancy and less to wear on her spirit. Despite all she’s been through, and all she’s learned in the process, she remains down to her core an optimist and an irrepressible ball of fire, so to speak. By this point, pretty much everyone around her knows what she’s about and what she wants out of life: while she made no particular effort to spread the word, she doesn’t mind that it happened. It saves her the trouble of explaining it a million times. And if no one ever asks her why, well… that’s okay too. She's comfortable with the Inquisition, and it shows quite obviously: she's often to be found in the practice yard with the regulars, or hanging out with Stel in the main building, or tucked in a corner of the barracks common room with her new favorite book. If she's not with Rom, that is.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
Time is slowly conferring upon Khari the deliverances of wisdom. She will never be a guileful, reserved sort of person, but she is learning a certain kind of cunning, and more than that a certain kind of thoughtfulness that she has previously eschewed. In some ways, it's been necessary: she's found herself in the position of wanting to help people who need something more than just an angry woman with a sword, and she's wanted to help badly enough to become more. And she's also found that sometimes the direct approach isn't the best one, or doesn't work at all. Before, she would have just... avoided things that didn't respond to that kind of approach, but now she has reasons not to.

She has reasons to want to be better, at more than just the fighting stuff. Friends who rely on her, at least sometimes, and at least as much as she lets herself rely on them. There's no mistaking that she'll never quite lose her boisterous demeanor, the sort of lively vivacity with which she comes to everything she chooses to confront. And perhaps she'll always be a bit obnoxious, too, but she thinks, or at least hopes, that those things are part of her charm, part of the reason her friends might want her around in the first place. It's hard, to think about herself in relation to others first and foremost. She's lived largely by her own rules for a long time. But she likes this—likes being the kind of person other people can depend on.

It's maturing her, but it's not jading her. She's pretty happy with that.

9:44
Spoiler: show
Khari's life is trending up, and she's gotten happier and more satisfied with it accordingly. If anything, her experiences in the last year have let her really settle into and solidify the life she has now—the person she is now. Her confidence has grown, but at the same time, she's tempered. Life experience will do that, she figures, and though her experiences have been on the whole good ones, some of them have also been very difficult, and required that she look inwards and find the strength right at the heart of her. She's found it, and the results are undeniable.


Hangups/Quirks: Khari’s relationship with her Dalish heritage is very fraught, and she doesn’t really like to talk about her clan or family, or really anything that happened to her before she left. There’s a lot of old pain buried back there, and thinking about it makes her uncharacteristically melancholy, so she avoids doing so. On the other hand, she’s extremely fond of human martial culture, especially the chevaliers of her home nation of Orlais. She aspires to one day be the first elven chevalier, and believes wholeheartedly that this is possible, if only she works hard enough and becomes skilled enough that she cannot be refused. She has even taken to wearing a mask in battle, a steel thing that fastens over the lower half of her face, but leaves her eyes unobstructed. She will also either wear a half-helm or a hooded cloak, making her elvish descent entirely unclear in the midst of a fight.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
It's a little easier now, to talk about her family. About The People and her hopes for them. But they're unconventional hopes, to be sure, and not widely accepted among either the elves themselves or humans. Khari has ambitions the like of which might, in the wrong circumstances or spoken to the wrong people, get her killed or at the very least harmed. But she doesn't keep her goals close to her chest out of fear. In truth, it's mostly from habit, and the desire not to open too much of herself up to people she doesn't like or trust. Perhaps that's fear of a sort, but it's a different kind from the obvious.

9:44
Spoiler: show
While she's still not the kind to get easily attached to others, she has no reservations left about letting the bonds get as deep as they can. The people she knows and loves now have changed her life, and if that sounds schlocky or unlikely, she doesn't damn well care. She's giving herself and her support to them in the same way she lends her body and soul to the goal they're trying to accomplish: everything she has, and then some, whenever it's needed.

She's even made a lot of progress accepting her family history, and the fact that she's become the kind of person who can do that is probably the best evidence there is that she's changed. Become stronger and better as a person.


Strengths: She’s really good with people, in the sense that she can get a pretty good read on someone just from a first impression, and also in the sense that she’s usually found to be quite likable, by a diverse variety of others. There are always going to be exceptions, of course, but her gregariousness and verve have served her well in the past, and will likely continue to do so in the future. In terms of combat, she takes her dream very seriously, and as a result, is a disciplined, vigorous fighter with quite a lot of latent talent still waiting to be tapped. Also surprisingly good at tactical things, like chess, though it’s not like she plays often. Perhaps her biggest strength, however, is her ability to withstand pain. It’s a core tenet of the berserker discipline, and she’s always been pretty good at shrugging off things that should have hurt a lot more than they do.

9:43:
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No longer quite so raw as she once was—in any sense, really—Khari is discovering in herself strengths she wouldn't have thought to find before. It turns out, for instance, that she's a pretty good listener, or at least she figures she must be, given that people tend to tell her important things. She still doesn't think her advice is that great; mostly she just asks obvious questions to try and help herself understand what's going on, and that seems to do something useful. At least for Rom and Stel. Maybe for Astraia too, even.

These days, she's working on turning her penchant for games of strategy into a real strength as well. Leon's helping her develop her leadership skills and ability to command people on a battlefield, which is honestly just about the most terrifying thing she can imagine. But she supposes if anyone can teach her how to lead, it's him. She's not sure how well she's doing, but she is making progress.

9:44
Spoiler: show
She may not quite be aware of it yet, but Khari has acquired the skills and know-how to be an effective leader and strategist. Her personal proficiency on the field of battle only continues to improve, even despite physical setbacks. If there's a limit to what she's capable of, she hasn't found it yet, because she's learned how to grow past her mistakes. How to turn them into not only motivation, but effective lessons.


Weaknesses: Kharisanna has been independent for a very long time. While this does enable her to look after herself quite well, it means that she doesn’t really know how to ask for help, or remember it’s an option at all, really. There’s also the fact that she possesses a startling naïveté: for instance believing that sufficient skill is all it will take her to achieve a place in the chevaliers, when in fact the biggest barrier is her race. The world is still a fundamentally shiny place for her, mostly because she hasn’t really been shown the tarnish yet. Combatively, she’s physically inferior to a large number of people she’ll have to fight, at least in the strength department, and her training is still only rudimentary.

9:42:
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For all her easy rapport with others, Khari has a persistent inability to make herself genuinely vulnerable to them. She’s perfectly happy sharing a fair amount about her circumstances and her history—as well as her goals in life. But when it comes to her fundamental motivations, the ‘whys’ of her choices, and the way she really feels about some of the things she’s done or been through… she’s considerably less talkative. Khari tends to deflect those kinds of lines of conversation, or divert them elsewhere, and for someone without much subtlety, she’s pretty good at it.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
Khari's still more than a little naïve, more than a little optimistic, but at this point, it's mostly intentional. She knows enough to understand that the road in front of her is a long one, and she might never reach the end of it. The people around her, too, are deeply imperfect and struggling almost to a one, and perhaps the objective chances of any of them really succeeding or ending up happy at the end of all of this are slim. But she chooses to believe they will. Chooses to believe that what's good and worthwhile in all of them, what's strong and resilient and brave—these are the things that will win, in the end. And that they'll win, even when what they're stacked up against seems so much more powerful and inevitable than they are.

Her weaknesses are becoming her strengths, but that is opening her up to new kinds of vulnerability. Because words like those are no longer just lip service, expressions of confidence too generalized to have any meaning. They come with actual understanding of her comrades and what they're fighting, both inside and outside themselves. And more than that, they come with investment. Stakes in the fight, so to speak. She's attached, and she can no longer just extricate herself if everything goes wrong. She wouldn't want to. A blow against her friends is a blow against her, now. And that's a lot more weak spots than she's used to.


Fears: She’s basically petrified of spiders, from the little tiny ones to the giant creepy cave ones. It’s irrational and pointless, but that doesn’t mean it’s easily-overcome. Also, she’s very, very afraid of coming to depend on anyone else, because she has learned from experience that rejection hurts a lot more when someone you’re attached to is doing the rejecting. She doesn’t want to be in a position where there’s something in her life she couldn’t stand to lose, because with her luck, she’d lose it, and she doesn’t want to endure that.

9:44
Spoiler: show
The dependence is real, and it makes the fear more acute. More dangerous. Throwing her lot in wholeheartedly with the Inquisition on the personal level as well as the professional one means she's a lot more vulnerable than she used to be. As far as she's concerned, that just means she has to work all the harder—to be strong enough to protect the things and people she loves. So she never has to watch them fall.


“I don't believe in halfway. Not anymore.
Not about anything.”





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▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [8/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [5/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [0/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [9/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [6/10]


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Weapon of Choice: Khari’s never exactly had the funds for expensive equipment. Her sword is a very old hand-me-down from someone she once knew, and it does, to some extent, show its age. There are nicks and scratches all along the surface of the thing, which must once have been quality steel, probably of dwarven make. It is technically a bastardsword, but the blade is much broader and thicker than most of its thinner kin. As such, it can function just as much like a cleaver as a more elegant sword proper, and Khari deploys it about equally often for each function. She has learned to use its weight to her advantage without wearing herself out, though most warriors would doubtless disdain the graceless hunk of metal. The hilt is decorated with feathers and small bone charms, her own additions to its already-crude aesthetic. It might get her laughed at by more conscientious fighters, but the fact of the matter is, the thing is well-suited to her purposes. She needs something that will stand up to the berserker fury with which she swings it; something that can clang off armor a few times and not snap. She calls it Intercessor, and has surprised a number of people more for knowing the word than for the joke behind it.


9:43:
Spoiler: show
The Inquisition's trip to Dirthavaren spelled the end of Intercessor. The blade was so old that even as carefully as she maintained it, it was bound to break eventually, and it did. Khari mourns the loss, in a way—her sword was her last tangible connection to a part of her life she still remembers mostly with fondness. Nothing she's tried to wield since has quite felt right in her hands, but she makes do as well as she can with claymores, zweihanders, and other assorted two-handed blades from the armory. Maybe she'll get lucky and strike upon something she likes eventually.

9:44
Spoiler: show
The solution to Khari's persistent weapon problem was delivered into her hands from her family, actually. She and some of the others slew a Revenant early in the year, and Vareth later brought its sword to Skyhold, the enchantments maintained and the entire thing made ready for battle. It has a heavy, thick blade like Intercessor did, but it's a strange, iridescent green color, and enchanted to deal nature damage. She's named it Inga, the elvish word for "claw".


Fighting Style/Training: Much like her armor, Khari’s fighting style is a very strange, cobbled-together assortment of elements, scavenged from different pieces of her life and hammered, tied, and welded together into something that serves its function well enough. There is nothing elegant or pretty about the way she navigates a battlefield, unless perhaps one finds aesthetic value in brutal efficiency. She moves fluidly enough, to be sure, and indeed much of her effectiveness is predicated on the fact that she is always moving—to fight Khari to a standstill is to put her at a major disadvantage. Without strength enough to match larger people, she needs leverage and momentum, and she’s very good at getting them.

Her early years in the forest have taught her how to keep track of her environment and use it to her advantage, as well as to move quickly and lightly over many kinds of terrain. More recently, her berserker training has given her the ability to withstand a great deal of pain before it even properly registers, which will keep her pressing forward when others would have grown sluggish or weakened. There’s a fierce energy to the flow of battle, and she can and does move with that flow, maximizing her advantage by staying aware and staying mobile.

9:42:
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Training with other people has always been something Khari enjoys—it helps her smooth out rough spots in her own abilities. Plus it’s good to know how to react to a variety of different situations. Over the last year, she’s made a point of training with both Stel and Rom, and each has added something worthwhile to her repertoire: from Stel, she’s learned to improve her speed and accuracy even in a berserk state, and from Rom, she’s learned a lot of groundwork, and more ways to defend herself without her sword. Both have made her a much more effective fighter than she was before.

9:43:
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It's official: Khari is once again being trained by a chevalier. That means really, really early wake up times, drills in armor heavier than she'd ever actually wear to battle, and pushing her body and her psyche to the outermost limits of strain.

She loves it.

In fact, she makes it even harder on herself. Besides what Mick teaches her, she also runs in the mornings with Stel, trains with her, Cyrus, and Ves in the afternoons, and manages to find time to keep up on her groundwork lessons with Rom, who is still infuriatingly much better than her at wrestling. That's not counting the odd match with anyone who seems strong enough to beat her silly—Khari still does and will always throw herself at challenges like those with an enthusiasm that borders on worrisome. Every bruise is a lesson, every fall another mistake she won't make again. And it's turning around. She is getting better. Much better. And very quickly. She was always a font of barely-touched potential. Now that she's learning how to forge that into actual skill, she's becoming undeniably formidable.

The principles she relies on are still the same: utilize the power in motion and momentum. Strike first, fast, and last. And never, ever give in.

9:44
Spoiler: show
Minus a setback after major injury in Kirkwall, Khari just continues to get better at what she does. Lots of practice and very tough sparring partners will do that for a person. Perhaps the most noticeable change in her style is that she relies increasingly upon her wits and tactical knowledge to help her, only entering the berserker state when she judges that to have the most overall utility for her goals.

“Fighting isn't easy, but it's simple:
stay moving, stay aware, stay mad.”

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Place of Birth: The Emerald Graves, the Dales, Orlais.
Social Status/Rank: Future chevalier, and that’s that.

History: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel is the daughter of Hawen, Keeper of the Genardalia Clan, one of the few clans that still wanders the Dales, and Enania, the clan's most respected craftswoman. Generally speaking, the children of Keepers themselves become Keepers, because magic is a heritable trait, but quite rare among the Dalish, as it is in general. Unfortunately for all involved, Kharisanna did not inherit her father’s magic, and that was probably her first major failure to contribute anything of use to her clan.

She remembers her childhood as a series of similar disappointments, mostly adults being annoyed at her because of her incessant curiosity and lack of much talent at any of the traditionally Dalish things to do. She wasn’t a mage, she couldn’t bend ironbark to save her life, and as far as hunting went, she lacked the required subtlety. Still, she wasn’t a bad survivalist, it was just that she couldn’t shoot a bow for anything, and everyone knew it. She was quite the laughingstock, and only earned her vallaslin on a technicality. No one could fault her then, though—she made not a single noise as they were applied, and honestly doesn’t even remember them hurting that much.

She was perhaps twelve when she first encountered a chevalier, as a contingent of them passed through the Exalted Plains while the aravels were there. They didn’t stop to talk or bother the Dalish in any way; it might be the case that they didn’t even notice them. But Khari noticed the chevaliers, to be sure. The masks, the plumed helmets, the meticulously-bred warhorses, the bright red armor—she was fascinated, and wouldn’t stop pestering the hahren until he told her all the stories he knew of them. There weren’t a lot, so she started to ask around for more, picking up as much information as she could via traders and travelers the clan happened to encounter. Her obsession with these human knights was just one more eccentricity as far as her clan was concerned, and though it was nominally discouraged, somewhat more strongly by her father than anyone else, most everybody had given up on her by that point, and preferred to leave her to her own devices.

This fostered a fierce independence within Kharisanna, who learned quickly that the best way to be able to disregard the disregard of others was to be able to make do for oneself. Needing people was a mistake, even if there was nothing wrong with keeping company.

It was shortly after receiving her vallaslin that she left the clan. A terrible row with her father, perhaps his last attempt to make her fit the demanded conventions of her people, precipitated her retreat, but she might have run off for no more than a night had she not encountered a small party of humans. The man at the head of them claimed to be a chevalier, and she ate up his stories of battle and training for an entire night, happily picking up and joining his entourage when the sun rose the next morning. He called her his page, and taught her how to hold and use a sword, much larger and heavier than anything her people had ever crafted.

She spent several years with him and his travel party, as he was an itinerant knight. When they weren't traveling or ridding the countryside of bandits, she was training or listening to more of her mentor's stories. Eventually, however, he declared that he was done teaching her, that it was time for her to go make her way on her own, and grow into her strength. It was considerably more difficult than she had anticipated, and Khari found it hard to be taken seriously enough. She couldn’t prove herself in tournaments if she wasn’t allowed to enter, and so she had a blacksmith fashion her mask, took to wearing a hood, and entered various competitions that way.

She wasn’t doing too badly for herself, but she wasn’t getting anywhere fast. She idolized the likes of the Lord-General Drakon, his son the Crown Prince, and Michel de Chevin, the Empress’s champion, as well as her teacher, of course. If she was to have a chance of reaching that level, she needed to be able to provide incontrovertible proof of her competence and worth—and her adherence to the chevaliers’ code of honor.

When the Inquisition formed up, its stated goal finding a way to close the breach in the sky and save the world, well… Khari didn’t need to be a genius to figure out that the best thing to do was join up. It was the opportunity she needed, and the right thing to do besides.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
Joining the Inquisition was definitely a good decision, Khari thinks. The cause is obviously a good and necessary one, but also the experience has been good for her, in and of itself. She volunteered in the early days, and not once has she regretted it. Not when she was sloughing through the rain or snow, not any of the dozens of times she got into a fight with people bigger and badder than her—not even when she nearly got eaten by a lyrium dragon and had to drag herself and Rom out of a hole in the ground and into several more weeks of almost dying.

Actually after that, getting back to Skyhold and settling into the new place was pretty easy.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
It's been a year of major upheaval for Khari, some of it direct and some of it by proxy. It began, in essence, with her best friend's fall from 'blood of Andraste' back to... something else. Khari thinks calling it a fall implies something stupid and wrong, but in any case she knows it was a big deal. And increasingly, anything that's a big deal to her friends is a big deal to her.

Not nearly so significant in the grand scheme of things was her own personal upheaval: when she'd thought to turn to the most reliable person she knew for help, she discovered that everything she'd built her dream upon was sand. Ser Durand, her mentor and the first person who ever believed in her, forsook his honor, and another chevalier paid the price for it. The betrayal—which she could not help but take personally—shook her deeply, and left her wondering if she hadn't been deceiving herself all along about what she wanted and what she could have.

But with a little help from her friends, and a little time, she renewed her resolve, and Leon saw to it that she was able to do so with proper chevalier training, under Ser Michaël. Mick, to Khari. She's been finding her footing again ever since, and has come to terms, of a sort, with her thoughts and feelings about Ser Durand in the process.

Coming to terms with her blood family isn't quite the same, but she quite unexpectedly found herself taking steps in that direction as well. She ran into her once-friend and clan's First Vareth by happenstance, early in the year. He sought her aid and that of the Inquisition several months later. That chain of events took her back to her clan and her parents for the first time in nearly a decade. She wouldn't call what happened there a reconciliation. But it was the start of one. The beginning of a mend, like when an infection is lanced and the blood flows fresh so the wound can heal in time. Maybe, someday, it will.

But more than anything, the year has given her insight into something she didn't really understand before: she has friends now. Real friends, who like her because of who she is. Not who they want her to be. Not who she might be someday in the future. And that realization—that she is liked and even trusted—has shaken loose a great deal of other revelations as well. Chief among them the knowledge that she can trust in return. That she might finally, finally, have a place in the world to belong. Just maybe.

She really doesn't want to fuck this up.

9:44
Spoiler: show
Khari's year didn't get off to the greatest start, since she probably did worst out of everyone as far as helping the cause at Halamshiral, but it turned out okay in the end. More importantly, she got to meet her hero just before he became an Emperor, too—and she honestly couldn't be happier that he seems to like her. She quite likes him, too, which is a pretty big relief after the Durand debacle.

Her bonds with her friends deepened a lot over the year, and she finally worked up the courage to spit her feelings out to Rom, which was surprisingly even harder than figuring out just what the hell they were in the first place. For a while, she was honestly worried about how that was going to go—but considering how they did, she couldn't be happier about it.

The battle at Kirkwall was probably the biggest single event of the year for her personally; Khari wound up facing down a Red Templar behemoth alongside Lucien, and taking a really hard hit in his place that nearly killed her. It did crush her legs, and only with a lot of healing, persistence, and time was she able to recover from that. Looking ahead to the next year, the Grand Tourney looms large in her mind, and the last few months have been devoted to pretty much nothing but preparing for it.

She sees it as her chance to show, in an undeniable way, what she's been trying to convince people of since she left home: that an elf can have what it takes to be a chevalier. It's her chance to make an inroad for her people that history won't be able to forget; and her chance to show herself that everything she's done has been worth the blood and the sweat and the tears she's endured to get to where she is now.




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Spoiler: show
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Credit
| Cyrus Avenarius |

9:44: Cy's been through a lot. Anyone even slightly aware of what's going on in the Inquisition knows that. And Khari's been able to pick up on the fact that it really gets to him on some days. She's not sure how she'd react if she lost something she thought was basically the core of who she was. As far as she's concerned, he gets to take as long as he wants to deal with that. In the meantime, he makes for a good sparring partner and a fun chess opponent. He's also got a wicked sense of humor, when it surfaces, which is something she enjoys. He also gives way more of a damn than he lets on, and she kind of likes that about him. The fact that he doesn't want or need recognition or congratulations for the way in which he's improving himself, little by little. She counts him among her friends without hesitation.



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Credit
| Asala Kaaras |

9:44: Though their personalities will always be nearly opposites of each other, Khari has found that there's a lot to like about Asala. Some of it has to do with how willing she is to push herself to heal their wounds and the like, of course, but that's not even most of it. There's something kind of refreshing about being around someone who's experiencing so many of the things they encounter for the first time. Khari's often new to the things they come across, too, and with so many experienced hands around, it's nice to know she's not alone. It's pretty fun to tease Asala, and watch her react in that hilariously-literal way she has. Also, she's a riot when hammered, as people often are.



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Credit
| Marceline Benoît |

9:44: Khari feels like Marcy doesn't really get what she's about. The awkward gift exchange was enough to prove that, to be sure. It wasn't that she didn't appreciate the gesture, because she did, but the fact that Marcy kept insisting after Khari had tried to make herself as clear as she could felt kind of... uncomfortable. Like Marcy wanted to be generous, but didn't really understand that the word has more to do with her attitude towards people than the material things you bestow on them. Maybe that's just the very different upbringings they have making things weird, though. She does appreciate that Marcy has a hard job to do, balancing the task of making the Inquisition stronger with protecting it from hidden threats. It can't be easy, but it seems like she can generally handle it well, so it's good that she's there to do it.



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| Leonhardt Albrecht |

9:44:Leon's definitely family to Khari at this point, and it's a relationship she treasures in part because her actual family has never exactly been all that supportive or healthy. It's not that she doesn't love them, or that it's not getting better, because both of those things are true, but with Leon, it's natural. Easy. Like it was always meant to be that way. She considers him a kindred spirit to herself, and she'll always have his back, come hell or high water. He's an awesome person, but she gets the feeling that he doesn't always see that. So Khari makes a point of opening his eyes to it whenever she can.



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Credit
| Zahra Tavish |

9:44: Some of Zee's humor still goes right over Khari's head. She was a little bit sour at being laughed at so uproariously, but at he same time, she doesn't really mind. It isn't hard to tell that she has everyone's best interests at heart, even if she's all bluster and bravado about it. Khari likes that about her, actually—both parts. The bravado is fun to be around, and the genuine goodness underneath it is easy to like. Maybe some people might think there was a contradiction in there somewhere, or at least an instability, but Khari thinks it makes her interesting. She was pretty happy to be able to replace Zee's broken bow, particularly in a pirate-approved manner.



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Credit
| Vesryn Cormyth |

9:44: Khari didn't always understand just how good having a friend like Ves was for her. In the beginning, he was an obstacle to throw herself at, a doubter she couldn't quite ignore in the way she could drown out other people who just didn't get it. Figuring out how to deal with that gave her a better sense of what she really wanted, why she was really putting so much of herself into what she did. And as their relationship lost the harshest edges and gained a lot more warmth, he was still there: training buddy, moral support, and someone she could look up to in terms of skills she still needed to develop. It was only natural that when things got tough for him, she wanted to help him out in any way she could (and by her lights succeeded at least a bit). They seem to have settled at a comfortable equilibrium now, friends with that little touch of rivalry remaining to keep things interesting, and she couldn't be happier about it.



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Credit
| Romulus |

9:44: Khari never really used to get what the big deal was with romantic love and all the stuff that goes with it. Sure it seemed nice and all, but the way people centered so much of their lives around it when they could be doing other things instead seemed outright bizarre, if not occasionally contemptible. But she gets it now. How it can feel, for someone else to be the most important person in your life, even when that life is filled with great friends and a healthy self-respect. What it's like to just have an intuitive, instinctive read on someone else's moods, and to just automatically adjust to them. And also what it's like to feel like another person makes her better, the best version of herself, and to feel that she does that for them.

Rom is literally her best friend and favorite person, and he's pretty much stuck with her now. Fortunately, he seems to be absolutely okay with that.



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Credit
| Rilien Falavel |

9:44: She doesn't interact a lot with the Spymaster, but she's seen him with Estella sometimes. He'll occasionally supervise one of their training matches. It's kind of weird, actually—watching him with Stel is a wildly-different experience than seeing him with pretty much anyone else. There's something there, between those two. Something really subtle and deep and peculiar. Whatever it is, there's no way she believes he doesn't have emotions. And if Stel likes him that much, then Khari figures he must be pretty okay, underneath the rest of it. The impression only gets stronger with time.



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| Estella Avenarius |

9:44: It's hard to say enough nice things about Stel, in part because she doesn't really seem inclined to say them about herself, even if the worst of her self-flagellating tendencies are behind her. But maybe it says enough about their friendship that even three years later, they still run together every morning. Stel is the first female friend of any closeness Khari's ever had, and it's been interesting leaning the ways in which it's a little different from being friends with men. Not better or worse, necessarily, just... different. In any case, Stel's always been supportive of Khari, and in turn, Khari makes a point of looking out for Stel where and how she can.




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“We were always waiting for something to change,
or worse, just being sad that it wouldn't.
I'm done waiting.”

So begins...

Kharisanna Istimaethoriel's Story

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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Leonhardt awoke with a small start, looking down at the parchment he’d been writing on and sighing. He supposed he could be forgiven for dozing, considering he’d barely slept in the last week. Predictably, attempting to run the logistics of an Inquisition was extremely difficult, even for someone with not-inconsiderable command experience. This wasn’t quite the same as leading people to battle, after all, and for the past four days, he’d let the three Lions' lieutenants run the drills with the troops and shut himself in this side office, taking care of not only his own tasks, but most of those that would be better suited to someone with a more diplomatic bent.

Rilien had helped some, of course, but the Tranquil was busy with his own matters, those involving espionage, the scout regiment, and who knew what else. Leonhardt trusted the fellow, to a point, but it would be foolish to believe that the elf had been completely straightforward with him. He was, after all, a Bard, at least of a sort.

Frowning down at the ink-splattered draft letter he’d been working on, he crumpled it up and brushed it off the desk into a garbage receptacle, and started again. If all went according to plan, he could at least leave answering all the inquiries from curious nobility to someone else, starting as soon as possible. But in order to do that, he had to arrange to rendezvous with the person who’d be taking over that task.

Lady Marceline,

His hand remained steady even with the sudden knock on his door, but he sighed again and put the quill back in its inkwell. If this was about the supplies again—

“Lord Albrecht, you have a, uh… visitor.” That was Reed, one of the guards on shift for the Chantry building at the moment. “At least, I think they’re here for you.”

Leon felt himself make a face. How, exactly, could that be uncertain? Setting his current work aside, he stood from his chair, unsure what to expect, but also undeniably curious.

“All right, Reed, send in my mysterious guest.”

The door swung open, to reveal that Reed was wearing a very skeptical expression, mixed with a bit of caution, as though he weren’t quite sure what was going on, which wasn’t entirely unreasonable, considering that the visitor marched in right after him, looking not entirely put-together in any recognizable fashion. They were quite short, wearing a scarlet cloak with a large, cowl-like hood, and some kind of steel mask fastened over the lower half of their face, with several small, vertical slits, presumably to allow them to breathe. Their armor was a strange assortment, clearly scavenged from several different sets, leather and chain and a few plates, scratched and scuffed with use.

The sword—if it could be called that—on the figure’s back was held there with a series of straps rather than a proper scabbard, and appeared to be bladed only on one side, but very thick on the other, giving it the appearance of a rather large, oddly-shaped cleaver more than anything properly used as a tool of warfare.

The figure stopped not more than two feet from the edge of his desk, and from the flash of white visible in the gaps of the mask, they were grinning, tipping their head quite far up to meet Leonhardt’s eyes with peridot-green ones.

“That Maker of yours must really have liked you, because it looks like he could have made two people from the same stuff instead.” The voice was feminine, though not especially so, and carried a certain rasp to it. She reached up towards her face, unhooking the mask and pulling it away from her, making it evident that she was tattooed over the whole of her visage, in the distinctly-Dalish fashion.

“I’m here to volunteer for your Inquisition thing.”

Whatever he’d been expecting, this—she—was not it. “My…?” It admittedly took him a second to process all of this, from her strange appearance to the incredibly blunt way she’d stated her intentions. He supposed he could appreciate that, in a certain way, but he wasn’t quite sure what to do with the comment about his height; surprisingly, it was not one he’d received before, probably because of politesse.

“Right. The Inquisition.” After a few seconds’ delay, Leon got his wits about him and resumed his seat. He would have offered her one as well, but he didn’t really have anything else by way of office furniture, so that tactic was not an option.

They’d received a few volunteers over the past week, often those drawn by rumors of the mysterious abilities of the so-called Heralds of Andraste. Apparently, the popular interpretation of the story Romulus and Estella had told was that the woman in question was the Bride of the Maker, and though he didn’t think they should endorse such speculation, silencing it was all but impossible, and probably detrimental to the cause, so they’d left it be. But this woman didn’t seem like the kind of person who’d be here for a reason like that.

“If I may ask… what is your name, and why do you want to volunteer?”

She scrunched her nose, almost the expression a person would make if they’d smelled something foul. “Kharisanna Istimaethoriel. But if you could do me a favor, don’t ever tell anyone that, and just call me Khari.” She pulled her hood down, apparently quite content to make herself more comfortable despite the lack of seating, and yanked a long, almost equally-red braid out from underneath it, throwing it over her shoulder.

“And I want to volunteer because the massive spooky green thing in the sky is a big deal, and you lot seem to be the only people doing anything about it. It’s really not complicated, is it?” She shrugged, and placed her hands on her hips, though it didn’t seem to be an attempt at aggression, merely a way she felt comfortable holding herself.

“If you’re worried about me being useful, you’re welcome to put me through my paces. Wouldn’t mind fighting a guy like you.” She grinned, jagged and feral, and it brightened her eyes.

Somehow, he had no trouble at all believing that. Leonhardt gave it some consideration, but the truth was at this point they were so desperately in need of manpower that they were taking farmers with pitchforks, if they wanted to join. Everyone was put through some training, anyway, so it wasn’t really her ability to fight that he was worried about. He had a sense that she knew what she was doing in that respect, but they were in need of more than just soldiers, and he wondered if she might not serve some other purpose just as well.

“I… don’t believe that will be necessary,” he replied, though part of him did wonder if it might not be worth it just to get himself out of this office for a little while. “That said, if you have any particular training I should be aware of, that might make a difference.” She was clearly Dalish; perhaps she knew some of the things they were traditionally known for? She didn’t look much like someone to put under Lia’s watch, but appearances had fooled him before.

If possible, her grin widened. “Special training? Yeah, I’ve got some of that. My mentor’s a chevalier-errant; I know a lot of what they do. Oh, and I get mad and hit things, in sort of an… organized way, I guess. Like those nutty dwarves in the whatsit—the Legion, or something. I dunno. I’ve only ever actually met one dwarf, and he was drunk at the time.” She waved a hand, as if this were unimportant to the point, then suddenly seemed to realize something.

“Oh. Oh. You’re talking about elfy stuff, aren’t you?” There was a pause. “That’s not really my area. I can survive fine, and find a trail if I have to, or move… kind of quietly. But none of that sneaky-sneaky arrow business, no.”

Leon supposed this was a very good lesson in not supposing too much from what he could see. Still, chevalier training was definitely unusual, even from an errant one. Still, it was just believable, though he’d definitely have thought her insane if she claimed to have received instruction at the Academie. He considered her for a moment, then nodded to himself.

“All right then. I don’t see any reason to decline your offer of assistance. I’d normally tell you to go see the Quartermaster about the standard kit and a bunk somewhere, but actually, if you’re amenable, I think there might be something you’re better suited to.” That would indeed require a bit of testing, but if she proved up to the task, he thought she’d do better working outside the rank-and-file. There was a distinct sense of… independence about her, and he wasn’t sure how well she’d fit in with the main body of the army.

“Of course, your wages would be scaled appropriately.”

Khari snorted. “As long as I have something to eat and somewhere to sleep, I don’t care about that stuff.” She shrugged carelessly, her demeanor wholly reflective of her words. “But as long as I’m out in the field, you can put me wherever you damn well want, uh… ser? Milord? Serah? Sorry, I’m not good at the title thing.”

Now that was something he could sympathize with, and Leonhardt smiled slightly. “If you have to use one, Commander is fine, but you’re welcome to just call me Leon, Miss Khari.” He held out his right hand.

She shuddered. “As long as you don’t call me ‘Miss’ again, you have yourself a deal, Leon.” She gripped his hand with surprising strength for one so small, and nodded, the solemnity broken when her grin reappeared.

“But I’m serious about that field test. Anytime you feel like a spar…”

“Well, I’ll keep that in mind, but I think I’ll throw you to our Lions, first. After that, we’ll see. Welcome to the Inquisition.” He settled back into his desk as she left, unable to keep the slightly bewildered half-smile from his face. Either he’d just found them a diamond in the rough, or he was really, really going to regret this conversation. He found that he was actually looking forward to discovering which. He shook his head and returned to his writing, quill scratching mindfully across parchment.

Maybe he was getting used to this Commander thing, after all.

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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When he was away from the camp, and his only thought was the completion of his goal, Romulus felt much more at home.

Today, the goal was the destruction of the apostate mages hiding in the woods, attacking anyone like power-mad bandits. These were not members of the organized mage rebellion, those residing in Redcliffe, it had been determined, and thus they were free targets for any wishing to make the region safer again. Lia and her scouts had succeeded in locating their hideout without being detected, and before the end of the day, a small strike was planned.

In this case, small consisted of two people. Romulus would have gone alone, had the others allowed it, but they decided against it. Perhaps they thought him incapable of dispatching scared, unskilled mages fresh from a tower, or perhaps they just thought him too important to be thrown at objectives solo. Thus he was given a partner, in this case the elf woman, Khari. He knew her by no other name, and didn't care to ask for one.

It did not take him long to wonder if their methods were going to contradict one another. Some early trouble was encountered just outside the village on the western side of the tunnel. A group of mage scouts came across them, some so unskilled with their spells that they chose to fight with looted swords instead. Romulus had intended to allow them to pass, and then strike them from behind, but a fight had broken out before he could relay his intentions. When the scouts were all in bloody heaps upon the ground, they moved on.

Romulus loaded another bolt into the handheld crossbow he had acquired, an excellent little tool that could be effectively holstered upon his back when he didn't need it. He'd used a similar weapon in Tevinter several times before, and found it easy to adapt to. It wasn't used at long ranges, making aiming only a secondary priority.

The mage hideout was located in a cave deep in the woods, but the evidence of mage activity wasn't difficult to find the closer they got. Magical ice still lingered in small pillars on the ground, refusing to melt, and scorch marks seared the grass in varying sizes. The very air had a different smell to it, like burned clothes, but more acidic. Romulus checked his supply of tonics, rummaging a hand through the pack behind him. He would need several for this, he was sure.

“What’s in the satchel?” That was Khari, of course, but she’d at least lowered her voice, presumably due to their obvious proximity to the mages’ hideout. Her own preparations didn’t seem to be anything extensive; she’d taken her sword in hand and was sighting down the edge, one eye closed. Apparently satisfied, she lowered it back to her side and cocked her head at him, one eyebrow slightly elevated over the other. The question seemed to be one born of honest curiosity and nothing more.

"Tonics," Romulus answered. He pulled one free, a small clear vial containing a light red liquid. "This one makes fire wash over the skin like flowing water." He pulled the cork free, downed it in one gulp, and shook his head. It was not unlike a strong shot of a powerful drink, albeit with an instant kick. Chryseis had shown him the key to brewing such things, but warned him, both of the taste, and the mental effects.

He pulled another one once he'd returned the now empty vial to the satchel. This one was a light blue. "For ice... melts it away on contact." He swallowed that one as well, ignoring the foulness, instead focusing on the rush. Already he could hear a mage ahead in the distance, practicing some ice spell and wasting his energy. They were still far enough away to speak safely, though.

"Have you fought many mages before?" he asked. His eyes were alive, meeting hers directly, brimming with a strong and barely restrained energy, devoid of any of the deference he seemed to offer in the presence of those he deemed superior to him. It was not an insult to Khari, as he did not think her a slave, but her manner was... easier to be around than he'd expected.

“Not as many as you have, apparently.” There was a smile in her voice, and sure enough, it bloomed over her face a second later, ragged but reaching all the way to her eyes. “Some, though.” She paused for a moment, tilting her head to hear something, maybe just the practicing mage he’d already detected.

“You’re uh… a lot quieter than me. Probably I’d just screw this up if we both tried to sneak in there.” This didn’t seem to dim her mood, however, and she cracked her neck to either side. “But. I’m a pretty damn good distraction, if you’re in the market for one of those.” The way she said it suggested that she very much hoped he was.

He smiled then, a morbid thing, as he pulled up his hood and secured his shield in place on his arm. "Get their attention, then. I'll be around. Try not to die too quickly."

“Don’t worry, I’m too stubborn for that. Like a damn rash, and twice as irritating.” She kept low, fanning to his left, and despite her words, she was at least quiet enough not to draw attention until she wanted it.

Then, well… there was nothing quiet about her then. “Hey apostate! My grandmother can sling a spell better than you! Were they teaching you magic in that Circle, or landscaping? Because this ice is pathetic!” Predictably, the next several shots of the ice in question were aimed for her, and she laughed, though it was closer to a gleeful cackle than anything, and charged forward, sword in tow, dodging each projectile with a rapid sort of mobility.

An unarmored mage wasn’t going to be able to stand up to her at close range, and one swing was all it took before his guts were spilling onto the ground. Her shouting had been loud enough to alert most of the other residents of the hideout, most likely, and roughly another six mages emerged together, dashing out of their relative protection in the cave, perhaps interested in the prospect of an easy kill.

Khari ducked under several more thrown spells, though one did catch her in the left shoulder, frost appearing on the piece of armor she had there. She narrowed her eyes. “That all you got, stickman?”

Well, they were certainly distracted.

Romulus observed, and heard, all of this as he flanked around the edges of the clearing, unnaturally blasted free of foliage by the work of these mages, spewing spells about likely just because they could. Romulus had little opinion on their rights to freely spellcast or not, he only cared that they had chosen to cast spells for the purposes of terrorizing the people. In truth, this concern didn't cross his mind in the moment. Only the prospect of blood did.

He clambered his way atop a rock formation jutting up along the edge, where the group of clustered mages had come forth from their hidey-hole to sling magic at Khari. Most were resorting to frost magic, hoping to chill her to the bone and make her stop moving so damnably quick. One of them managed to create a fairly powerful cone of frost that threw itself a good distance forward from his staff at her, wide and difficult to dodge.

The mage in question received a crossbow bolt to the forehead for his trouble, and instantly dropped dead. Quickly exchanging the weapon for his dagger, Romulus dropped down on the next in line before he could determine where the shot had come from. His blade punched through the top of his bald head, a solid crack ringing out with the puncturing of the skull.

The woman next to him shouted in alarm at the surprise attack, turning to aim a spell at Romulus, but she hesitated, perhaps due to the presence of her allies so nearby, even if they were already dead. It was a moment too long. Romulus wrenched the blade free and pushed the body over, lunging forward and swinging the rim of his shield into her jaw. His shield hand found the base of her neck after she'd spun around and pulled her back with significant force. He punched his blade right into her spine, and she stilled.

The leader was next closest, judging by his more regal look. Black feathers adorned his shoulders and legs, along with light, looted pieces of armor. He did not hesitate to attack once he'd switched targets from Khari to Romulus, and he opened up with a gout of flames, consuming both the still breathing but paralyzed mage, and Romulus. The mage shrieked briefly in the flames before she was silenced, while no sound came from Romulus. When the flames had dissipated into just thick black smoke, Romulus hurled himself forward out of it. Only his clothes and armor were singed.

The mage leader backed up in wide-eyed surprise, and managed to dodge the shield strike that had doomed the woman before him. Romulus landed a kick to his gut next, forcing him back into the mage behind him. Before he could press the attack, the mage leader's body burst into a number of shadowy tendrils, which twisted through the air across the clearing, settling on the far side of Khari, where he reformed into his human shape.

She reacted with alacrity, evidently not having exaggerated when she said she’d fought mages before, and she was on him almost as soon as he’d reconstituted, swinging downward in an inelegant, but admittedly quite fast, motion, blocked by the metal pole of the man’s staff. A short bark of laughter on her part followed, and she flowed with her momentum, transitioning into a body-check which she led with her hip, sending him reeling backwards from her superior leverage if nothing else.

The blunt side of her sword hooked around the back of his leg as he staggered, and that was enough to send him to the ground. Reflexively, it seemed, he blasted her point-blank with another ice spell, this one powerful enough to coat her chest and abdomen, nearly freezing her armor in place. Indeed, her next motion produced a loud cracking sound, followed by the telltale squelch of something sharp finding its way into someone’s soft parts.

“Maker’s ass, that’s cold!” Khari was visibly shivering, even as she took a few steps back, leaving her blade staked into the ground and the mage’s lungs while she broke icicles off herself, starting with her arms. She glanced up to where he was, still smiling despite her complaints. “Nice work.”

Romulus withdrew his blade from the throat of the deceased mage he still had in his grasp, and the body slumped to the ground on its back, leaving the pugio dripping red. He couldn't help but return Khari's smile, wiping the blade clean on one of those he'd felled, and loosening the shield strapped to his arm.

"These were like children," he commented, with some hint of disdain in his tone. "Consumed by the little tricks they could perform." Crossing the distance to Khari, he briefly inspected the frost spell's effect on her. He put a hand on her shoulder and turned her slightly, finding a large chunk of ice solidified on her right side, at rib height.

"Hold still." He flipped his knife backwards and carefully worked the point of it into the ice, taking hold of the back of her armor, and then breaking it away with a crunching sound. The armor behind it appeared undamaged, if chilled. Ice magic had a way of shattering even sturdy metal armor, he had learned, if it was strongly hit by a physical blow after being frozen.

Khari remained compliantly unmoving throughout the process, though she clearly felt it when the ice cracked away, because she breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks. Would’ve had some trouble with that one.”

"What are you, anyway?" He asked, finally taking the time to inspect her assortment of armor. "I mean no offense. Just never seen an elf like you before."

“I’d be surprised if there were any others.” She stood on one leg and kicked with the other one at the knee, breaking off a few bits of frost here and there, then repeated the process with the other, stepping away so as to have room to shake out her arms as well. Once apparently satisfied with this, she pulled her sword out of the ground, making a face at its condition, which at present was quite wet with blood.

She swung it a couple of times, flicking off the better part of the ichor, but it was clearly still in need of some maintenance. “But me? I’m a chevalier. Or rather, I will be, one day. For now, I’m just someone who likes to fight. And does a lot of stupid things for the challenge.” Her smile was different this time, a little softer.

“And you’re apparently an alchemist as well as a fighter. Not even scorched, are you? That’s really impressive.” She seemed to mean it.

"All from the teaching of my instructor," he said, turning his head away. "The ingredients are rare, and the constant fighting recently has used most of them up. Soon you'll have to pry ice from my back as well."

He didn't know much of the chevaliers, but he had the intuition to know that there weren't many elven ones. Or... well, any. But there were no slaves that could close rifts in the Veil with their hands either, not until recently. Maybe what she said was true. He didn't know if his mostly good mood was from the drugging effect of the tonics, or the rush of the fight, or the fact that he felt more comfortable out here than he did surrounded by people and unfamiliar attention. Likely, a little of all of it.

"Should I call you ser, then?" He looked back up, a hint of mirth in his eyes, and a small smile returning.

She laughed, an unabashed sound not dimmed by any sense of reserve or decorum. “One day. But not until I’ve earned it.” Her eyes crinkled at the corners, and she stuck out a hand.

“You know what I think, Rom? This right here might just be the very first day of a pretty excellent friendship.”

He clearly reacted to the shortened form of his name, opening his mouth halfway as if to speak, all while still holding the little smile, but in the end he just closed it, and clasped her forearm in his hand, nodding his approval.

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Since the bridge was broken, they forded the stream upriver of it. The water only rose roughly to Khari’s knees anyway, which meant it was even less of a pain for the people behind her, who were both considerably taller. The water was cold enough that she could feel it even through her boots, but they kept it from dampening her socks, at least, which was more of a mercy than a person might think. Wet socks were right up there with minor stab wounds in terms of annoyance, particularly when they still had quite a bit of walking to do.

Hopefully, there wouldn’t be quite so much of that after they talked to this horsemaster. Apparently, he’d used to breed them for Arl Eamon, which wasn’t quite as excellent as being Orlesian and doing it for the chevaliers, but Khari liked horses so much she didn’t even care that much. She’d never had one, though; but Ser Durand had taught her how to ride his, a big old cranky warhorse called Neige, presumably due to his coloration.

The first couple days had beat her up worse than Ser Durand usually did on the practice field, but by the end, she’d loved it. It was an experience she was eager to repeat, and that simple thing put an obvious spring in her step as they retread familiar territory before pushing further on than they’d yet had cause to explore. Even the scouts hadn’t been this far, but they’d told her to be on the lookout for potential new encampment locations, which was something she actually knew how to do, so she kept it in mind.

Seeing as how there was no special need for quiet, she hummed as she walked, some tune she couldn’t remember the words to, one she’d picked up a long time ago when spying on a trader’s caravan that had stopped close to her clan’s location at the time. Having never been much of a singer, she’d surprised herself as much as the next person when she learned she wasn’t totally tone-deaf. She thought the song had something to do with boats, or something. What were those called?

She stopped humming it. “Either of you know what those boat-songs are called? The ones sailors sing and stuff? I think it begins with an ‘s.’”

Asala glanced at Romulus first, and then back to Khari. "I..." she began, shaking her head. "No? I d-do not. I am s-sorry," she stuttered. It appeared Khari's little hired thug comment was still in Asala's mind.

Khari waved a hand carelessly. “Eh, it’s not important anyway.” She lapsed into silence for a while, focusing on navigating their path. They didn’t know exactly where Dennet was, so she was actually having to attempt a combination of tracking, navigation, and sort-of-educated guessing. It seemed to be going okay, but she couldn’t guarantee they were doing anything more effective than picking a direction and going in a roughly-straight line. At least they knew quite a few places he wasn’t, by this point.

After a bit more tricky negotiation of some significantly-hillier areas, the path she’d chosen spat them out near what seemed to be a very still lake, about waist-deep if she had her guess. As it happened, there was a flat, dry spot that wouldn’t do badly for a camp; she’d have to tell Lia about it later.

More importantly, the area also seemed to have a large occupied property on it, and—point for Khari, there were horses in a corral! “Looks like this must be the place.” Pointing that out was probably unnecessary, but she did it anyway, then picked out a series of bridges that would take them over the lake without any swimming. As they got closer, it became clear that there were both a barn and a house with a nearby workshop on the grounds, as well as several more fields, probably paddock, extending out behind that.

Well: nothing ventured, nothing gained. Khari approached the house and workshop. “Hello? Inquisition here; we’re looking for horsemaster Dennet?”

There was a woman in the garden, who glanced up at their approach. From her age and clothing, it was a fair guess that she was Dennet’s wife, probably. “My husband’s in the house; just go ahead and go in.” She didn’t seem to have any issue with them being present, which was probably a good sign, right? So Khari shrugged and did as she’d suggested, opening the door to the house and stepping in.

Dennet's home was spacious, with two stories and multiple cozy rooms. It was all constructed out of wood, but looked to be well-maintained, and judging from the outside, neither the templars or mages had really struck out at the place. Across the massive red rug in the center strode a dark-skinned man in a leather vest and a green scarf, to meet his three guests. His head was shaven clean, and a greyed goatee and stubble lined his jaw and mouth.

"I'm Dennet. You're Inquisition? I've heard your people have been looking for mounts."

"We have," Romulus answered, his hood removed. He checked his boots briefly, careful not to track any unnecessary mud into the man's house. "Can you supply them?"

"Not at the moment. I can't just send a hundred of the finest horses in Ferelden down the road like you'd send a letter. Every bandit, or rogue mage or templar, between here and Haven, would be on them like flies on crap." The way he delivered the words, it was as though he'd been expecting the Inquisition to come knocking for quite some time, and had prepared this. "You'll have mounts once I know they won't end up as a cold winter's breakfast."

"But... Winter is not for several more months," Asala said behind them. Confusion sat in her face before she turned to Romulus. "Is it not?"

“He means we need to kill the bandits and stuff,” Khari pointed out, speaking slowly, mostly because she was unsure if that was supposed to be a joke or not. She was guessing ‘no’, but she’d been wrong before. “Which, actually, we’ve done. Rom and I took out the mages a couple days back,” she ticked her list off on her fingers. “Cyrus and some other people killed all the Templars down the road, and we got the bandits within a couple days of getting here in the first place, I think. Plus, well, we can send people to escort them, right?” She wasn’t actually sure about the last one—and it wasn’t like she had the authority to just decide, so she shrugged.

Dennet appeared to give that some thought, then shook his head. “That’s fair enough, but there’s more mages and Templars and bandits in the world than you got rid of this week. If I’m to work with you on a long term basis, I need to know that my family and my herds will be safe while I’m gone.”

“Uh…” Khari frowned, thinking back over all that stuff they’d talked about over the pretty maps before they’d deployed here. She hadn’t been paying the most attention, because most of it didn’t really seem relevant to someone whose main purpose was ‘go here, kill this,’ but she had kept half an ear on all the stuff Leon was saying. And half of one of her ears was practically all of someone else’s.

“Watchtowers.” The word was said with a tone of aha, and she snapped her fingers. “Leon said we’re planning on building watchtowers and stuff, to reinforce the Inquisition’s control of the area. How about we go set markers down, make sure they put a couple up near your place?”

"Sounds agreeable enough to me," the horsemaster said, nodding. He crossed his arms. "Tell you what, I'll loan the three of you horses to speed you on your way, and see this done faster. You deserve something better than whatever knock-kneed nags you've got, or Maker forbid, going it on foot. Go find my daughter, Seanna, she's probably out near the stables. She'll pick out the horses for you and see them properly prepared."

Seanna wasn’t hard to find, and once they’d relayed everything, she gave them a warm smile and nodded, returning with three large horses, a bay, a grey roan, and a sorrel. Khari bounced a little on the balls of her feet, clearly excited if the huge smile plastered onto her face was anything to go by. They really were nice-looking horses, and she was tempted to do all the usual things Ser Durand had taught her: feet and teeth, mostly, but that would be rude, and she was sure someone called a horsemaster would know what he was doing anyway.

Since they were both redheads, she went ahead and approached the sorrel, reaching a hand out and letting him sniff her, rubbing his white-striped face with her palm. She glanced back at the other two, and a question struck her. “Er… you guys know how to ride, right?”

Romulus mounted the bay, a little uncomfortably, but by the way he moved, he wasn't riding for the first time. The third or fourth time, perhaps. He shrugged.

Asala had approached the roan and gently caressed the side of its muzzle with one hand, the other running through her mane. She whispered something to the horse, but what could be made out did not sound like Common. She then looked Khari, and then Romulus as if to see how they sat upon their horses. "Uh..." she began, before turning back to the roan. Surprisingly, she found the saddle without much difficulty. As if surprised herself, she beamed back at the other two...

Until the horse began to move forward. "Wh-what? Wait," she said to the horse, but it did not, continuing a lazy pace out of the stable. "Please stop?" she pleaded, but the horse continued to ignore her.

Khari was glad she hadn’t mounted yet. Leaving the sorrel where he was, she stepped to the side and took hold of the roan’s reins. “Okay. So these are how you steer.” She placed the reins in Asala’s hands. “Be sure to give her enough slack that she can move her head, okay? Then when you want her to slow down, pull back gently and gradually. She’ll be able to feel it. Move the reins in whichever direction you want her to turn, further for a sharper angle.”

She grinned up at Asala, remembering when someone had to teach her all of this stuff. “If you want her to move forward, just give her a squeeze with your legs, and a tap with your feet will speed her up. But maybe don’t do that until we’re outside and I can ride next to you. Keep your spine straight, but try to relax into her motions. She knows what she’s doing, even if you don’t.” She patted the horse’s neck. “Ready? I’ll be right next to you, so you don’t need to worry.” Asala nodded, but the worry remained in her face. It wasn't clear if she didn't believe Khari, or in herself.

Making good on her word, Khari padded back over to the sorrel and vaulted up into the saddle with the ease of long practice, steering the horse to sidle up next to Asala’s. “Mind leading us out, Rom?”

He looked to be concentrating quite heavily as he did so, slowly walking his horse out in front of them, and heading towards the nearby hill, where he could already spot a clearing that would excellently serve with a watchtower on it.

It took longer than it probably should have because of Asala. They did make progress however, despite the sudden starts and stops. Fortunately, the horse never broke off into a sprint, never going faster than a gentle trot. Eventually however, they made it to the clearing. "So, h-here?" Asala asked, clutching the reins with rigid arms, and a ninety degree bend in her elbows.

“Mm.” They’d crested a ridge, and the spot they’d found offered a pretty good view of the surrounding landscape, which meant it should work pretty well as the location of a watchtower. Plant an archer up here, even just one, and bandits would have a serious problem.

“Works for me.” Now they needed something to mark the spot with. There was a dead tree nearby, so Khari steered her horse towards it and leaned over sideways, holding on with her legs and cracking off a likely looking branch. It was pointy at one end and the ground was soft, so after a few blows with the side of her fist, it was staked in there decently enough, an obvious irregularity in the landscape. It’d do well enough for a marker, probably.

They turned their horses and headed back down the incline, looking for the next likely spot. There were a few minutes where no one said anything, and then Khari broke the silence. “So, Asala… I was joking when I said I was a thug. You know that, right?” Well, she was kind of like one, in the sense that she wasn’t much good for anything but hitting stuff, but she wasn’t actually a criminal or a thief or whatever.

"I sus-suspected," Asala said, staring at the back of her horse's head. "You are... Not so bad as you s-said," she added. There was a certain tilt to her head, as if something came to mind, but she straightened and kept it to herself.

Romulus laughed softly to himself, before veering slightly to the right, gesturing towards a clear spot along the side of the road, with clear sight lines in both directions.

Khari laughed considerably more obviously. “’Not so bad,’ she says. I can live with that.” She followed Rom off the road again, and repeated the process of marking the spot clearly, this time dismounting, gathering some loose stones, and arranging them in a large ‘x’ shape on the ground. As long as she told the others what they were looking for, it shouldn’t be too hard to find.

Swinging back up, she put them back on the road. They should probably form the watchtowers into a rough triangle that included Dennet’s property, but more than three seemed excessive, so they only really needed one more. “How do you reckon the others are doing in Val Royeaux? Never been there, but I hear it’s really fancy.” She also did hope to go someday, obviously, but it might be a little while yet before she did.

Probably not well," Romulus answered. "I've never known Chantry people to be reasonable. A few here and there, but those are drowned out by the rest that have never been outdoors."

Khari snorted. That seemed about right. They found a third likely spot and marked it as well, meaning that it looked like their work here was done. “Guess we should get back to Dennet,” she said, probably unnecessarily. “And then let the others know they have a pickup to do.” Getting that many horses to Haven probably wasn’t going to be fun, but it would be a big help. Cavalry never hurt anyone… er, well, now that she thought about it that was a terrible way to put it. But they’d done something important, anyway, and she was feeling pretty good about it.

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’re pretty good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, look at that, Ginger's right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Agreed?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Begin."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Suit yourself."

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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It felt better than it perhaps should have to be out of the damn office for a while.

Leon was grateful, actually, that his duties included supervising the training of the troops as often as possible. The Lions' lieutenants, and, if he were being honest, even their non-officer members, were exceptionally well-trained even for professionals, and so they could do a lot of the teaching and drilling in his absence, but he refused to shut himself away in a building all day out of the reach of most of his people and pretend like being here, where they could see him, wasn’t important. He much preferred dealing with soldiers to dealing with either diplomats or spies anyway, and that was in part exactly why he had the role within the organization that he did.

Currently, he was only observing drills; he suspected he might be coaxed into some kind of informal spar later, but for the moment, it was more important that he get a better sense of how they were doing. Down in the ranks, Hissrad and Donnelly were shouting drill commands, which the men and women under their supervision followed with varying degrees of competence and accuracy. They were already looking better than they had a month ago, and he told Cor, standing to his left, as much. To his right, Reed nodded an agreement.

“Well… they’ve been working hard,” the young elf replied, shifting his weight slightly from one leg to the other. Another thing that seemed to hold fairly universally of the Lions was that they were quick to give others as much of the credit as they could for anything, be that shifting praise between themselves or putting it at the feet of their trainees. It was an admirable sort of humility, but almost disconcerting to find so universally over what was otherwise a very diverse group of people. He wondered if they’d all picked it up from their own commander or if he’d simply selected them in the first place because they had it. Still, sans Estella, there was a quiet confidence to each of them, a sense that they knew that they were skilled and valuable, but refused to make any noise about it.

It made them incredibly easy to work with.

“They have,” Leon agreed with a smile. It was hard not to, perhaps, when the Breach was still there in the sky and no one else in the world seemed to have half an idea what to do about it. “But they’ve been instructed well, also, else their hard work would not have achieved so much.” Cor pursed his lips, but nodded with what appeared to be some reluctance.

“We’re working hard, too,” he admitted, glancing over and up at Leon. “She’s one of ours, after all; we can’t not help her. Plus, Lia’s with you guys now, and after that whole thing with the scouts...” He grimaced. It was obvious that Cor held a great deal of affection for both of his friends, and the sentiment was more than likely shared by the other two as well.

Leon hummed thoughtfully. “I know our supplies yet leave much to be desired, but is there anything in particular you think you need?”

Cor exhaled through his nose. “Help?” Thinning his mouth, he explained further. “Our squads can help a little, when they see a line-mate doing something wrong, but we don’t want to disrupt your command structure too much by having troops ordering each other around. And if you take our twenty out of the equation, there’s only three of us, some spare people with previous mercenary or military experience, and… well, that’s it. It’s fewer than ten people running drills for what’s eventually going to be an army.”

And that was indeed where the personnel problem was hitting them the hardest: mid-level officers. Leon himself was doing most of what he’d usually have captains and up do, but the burdens of lieutenants fell on the scarce volunteers they had with command experience, and it was bound to wear them as it wore him. Thinking of that brought to the forefront again the massive migraine he could feel building in the back of his head, and he sighed. “You’re right. Start picking out troops with a knack for the drills. I at least need to promote you some sergeants.” He couldn’t ask them to keep doing all this work for the pittance he was currently able to pay them.

Nearby, Leon could hear the telltale clacking of two wooden practice swords bouncing off of each other. Not too far away, but away from the main body of troops, a man was practicing with a boy. The man, Ser Michaël, a Chevalier and Lady Marceline's husband, was sparring with their son, Pierre. Michaël bore his full plate backed by a purple and black cloak that seemed to be the Benoît house colors. He easily held off his son with a single practice sword in one hand, while the boy struggled with two hands.

Michaël had been giving his son encouragement and guidance, but had quieted when Cor spoke. Though his attentions seemed to be held on the conversation they were having, the spar with Pierre continued, though he was still able to effortlessly hold the boy off. At least, until Leon finished his last sentence. A surprised yelp cut the air then, and Pierre's sword was in the snow, with Michaël's own pressed gently against the boy's shoulder. The man gave his son an apologetic look, before he laughed.

"I will make a Chevalier out of you yet. Come," he said, tusseling the boy's hair and shouldering his sword. His hand fell to the boy's shoulder and they finally made their way to Leon.

"Commander Leonhardt?" He asked, "If I may suggest something?"

Leon turned his attention to Michaël in full at that point, rather than half-observing the training as he had been before, and lifted a brow. “Of course, Ser Michaël. You have a recommendation?” While technically speaking, the chevalier was outside the Inquisition’s command structure, Leon had never seen the harm in a second opinion, especially one from someone well-trained in martial matters, as was all of present company, excluding, of course, the lad.

Michaël smiled and nodded before he began "Perhaps I may be able to allievate your problem somewhat. I am a Lieutenant for the Chevaliers, with knowledge of their tactics and training methods. Methods I sometime see the Lions utilize in their own regiments," he said with a warm smile for Cor. Michaël then placed a hand on his hip, and noticably puffed his chest out, though a playfulness remained in his green eyes. "I would offer my services, if you have need of them, Commander."

The boy next to him simply shook his head, and looked to Leon with a wry smile. "Please. Let him help. When father gets bored, he uses me as an excuse to train," Pierre explained. Michaël said nothing in turn, but his chest sagged in response to the comment. The sword on his shoulder then shifted however, and reached across to tap the boy lightly on top of the head, a smile on his lips the whole time.

Leon’s violet eyes picked up a glimmer of amusement at Pierre’s words, and he spoke partly to both of them. “It would seem I have little choice, in that case.” His gaze shifted up to Michaël. “In truth, I would be grateful for the assistance. As, I am sure, would the Lions.”

Cor’s smile was much more obvious evidence of the fact that he was entertained than anything on Leon’s face, and he crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t know about that. To hear the commander tell it, Ser Michaël, your methods haven’t improved much since your days of tripping in formation when there were pretty girls around.” It was clearly an inside joke of some sort, a reference that Leon didn’t have, but from the sounds of things, the Lions would work quite well with Lord Benoît’s help, which, while it would not alleviate the growing pains the Inquisition experienced, would at least go partway there.

Cor's joke however, took the rest of the air out of Michaël's chest. Instead of puffing himself out, he hid his face with his hand, and rubbed his eyes. He said nothing at first, only muttering, "Lucien," under his breath. Pierre also laughed at the joke, but turned away from his father so that he could not see, no doubt lest he risk another tap to the head.

Michaël waved his hand in the air, and said, "I deny everything."

"You can try, love, but that does not mean it is not true," a voice cooed from behind them. It was Lady Marceline's, who came from the road leading back to Haven proper, with Larissa close beside her. Larissa carried a clipboard in hand, but was currently not writing anything. She was, however, laughing gently. "I apologize," Marceline told Cor as she pulled up beside her husband. "I believe I am cause of that," she added, leaning up against him.

Michaël for his part, said nothing and continued to look out over the horizon, as if trying to pretend nothing was happening.

“No fault of yours, Lady Marceline,” Cor replied easily, with a modest bow. It was clear enough that he and she had met on a previous occasion, probably through the Lions’ commander. “And it does seem to have worked out for the better, no?”

Leon’s attention was temporarily drawn away from the byplay by the approach of another, however, and he found himself straightening a little bit unconsciously. He wondered if she was here to…?

Khari, who’d been marching not unlike a chevalier herself, slowed slightly upon spotting the group, or perhaps the size of it. At one point, she almost stopped, but then seemed to think better of that and soldiered on until she was standing in front of the lot of them. There was a moment where she looked like she was thinking, and then she dipped herself at the waist. “Uh… hey commander… everyone.” She grinned, nodded to Cor and Reed, glanced back and forth between Marceline, Michaël, and Pierre, and then settled her eyes on Leon himself.

“I had a question: does anyone around here have like… glassware and retorts and alembics and stuff? Like for potions? Fancier than the local alchemist, I mean?” She raised a hand to scratch at the back of her head, pulling her red braid over her shoulder on the way back. She was without most of her usual gear at the moment, which made her take up a lot less space than usual, and she seemed conscious of the fact that discounting Pierre, she was by far the shortest person in present company.

Leon wasn’t sure what the purpose behind the question was, but he wasn’t exactly sure he wanted to ask. The smile on Khari’s face always looked like trouble to him, and while he was mostly sure she wouldn’t do anything damaging, there were perhaps things he’d be better off knowing about only in the event he needed to do something about them. “Rilien would have equipment like that, if I’m not mistaken,” he replied. The Tranquil was an alchemist of surpassing talent, among his many other virtues and useful skills.

A thought struck him, then, and he angled himself slightly differently. “Khari, I don’t believe you’ve met the other Benoîts. Lady Marceline you know, but Ser Michaël is a lieutenant with the chevaliers, and Pierre here is their son. Michaël, Pierre, this is Khari. She’s one of our irregulars.” That was what he’d settled on calling the volunteers and recruits who didn’t work inside the usual armed force structure.

At precisely the moment Leon had enunciated the word ‘chevalier,’ Khari had stood ramrod straight, her full attention clearly fixed on the introduction, and if possible, the haphazard grin on her face widened, until she may have been showing a few too many teeth. “Chevalier, huh?” To her credit, she acknowledged Pierre to a greater extent than most would note the presence of a child, but it was clear where the majority of her attention had diverted. “Bear mauls the wolves or tower in a storm? Because if you’re a tower person, we’re gonna have a problem, you and I.” The way she said it gave the lie to the last sentence; she was clearly extremely excited to be talking to a chevalier, apparently to the exclusion of taking to the rest of them.

"Bear mauls the wolves, of course. Shields just get in the way," Michaël said chuckling with a grin of his own. Then he stopped and glanced over to Cor and Leon, his face settling into an awkward look. "Er... Not literally of course. I understand the value of a good shield wall," he explained.

Pierre simply rolled his eyes and huffed, which earned him another tap to the top of the head with the practice sword.

Leon sighed softly, shaking his head and leaving the two of them to their tactical discussions, as it were. He diverted his attention to Marceline, who probably wasn’t out here in the cold to watch the troops practice. “Is there something I can help you with, milady?”

"Yes, Ser Leonhardt," Lady Marceline replied. If she seemed at all perturbed by the tactical discussion being carried on by her husband, she did not show it. In fact, by the way she carried herself, it seemed as if she dealt with it often enough. Glancing first at Khari, and then the rest of the troops, she turned back to Leon. "I would ask for access to detailed personel reports on the individuals serving the Inquisition," she said.

Larissa then went to her clipboard and began to write something, though Leon could not see what. "In return, Larissa and I will pen letters to some of our contacts in order to obtain more experienced soldiers to fill your needs," She said, glancing to the woman beside her, already hard at work.

There were far too many individuals to assemble more than basic dossiers based on the standard forms each volunteer had dictated to Reed or Tanith upon his or her entrance into the Inquisition, with things like next-of-kin information and the like, but he supposed more than that might be in order for the officers and irregulars, at least, so with some reluctance, he inclined his head. It would probably mean even more hours in the office, but the idea had relevance, and they really could use any more people those letters might gain them.

“Very well. I will see what I can assemble in the next few days to that effect. Cor, if you would be so kind as to poll the others and get names for likely sergeants, I’ll try to run a round of minor promotions within a fortnight.” The pressure at the back of his head felt like it was ratcheting up to become a full-blown tension headache, but he ignored it for now. Rilien would have something for that, or else he’d just work through it. He had before.

There just usually wasn’t quite so much at stake.

Setting

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Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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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

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Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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It was a beautiful, cold, clear day, and the champion in his shining armor was enjoying himself, as always.

Vesryn was a self-proclaimed champion, of course; no city that still existed would claim him as their protector. He preferred to see himself as a champion of the lost, the forgotten, the ruined places that no one but him could find. This, he had discovered, was one of the few things Saraya liked about him, and not even in a grudgingly admitted sort of way.

The clash of the dulled training weapons rang out through the crisp air, as the rank-and-file soldiers performed their drills and bettered themselves. Vesryn had been engaging anyone who wished to challenge him all morning, and what had started as a few private duels had turned into a bit of a sideshow, distracting a fair bit from the main body of drills and probably giving the Lions running things a headache. It was proving good for morale, though, as a fair number of soldiers were gathered around in a circle and enjoying themselves. They placed bets, not on the winner of the fights, but on how long any soldier would be able to keep his feet against Vesryn, or if they'd land a single hit or not.

For a man who spent much of his time alone in the isolated corners of the world, Vesryn had a knack for showmanship, and played wonderfully for the crowd, like he'd been trained in arena fighting or some such. This sort of thing had been a near daily ritual for the Stormbreakers, but back in that period of his life Saraya had been very interested in teaching Vesryn some hard lessons. How to survive on his own chief among them.

Now, he could tell she was immensely enjoying this, putting human after human into the snow using a seemingly unwieldy blunted axe. Vesryn's motions were graceful, without hesitation or doubt, but with an undeniable strength behind them, applied in exactly the right way. The presence in his mind did not control his actions, but Vesryn could feel her instincts, and allow them to become his own. Sometimes, he felt a bit of sadness while fighting. How beautiful it would be, to watch her move in her own body, what he considered to be perfection in fluidity, grace, and controlled power. He was a poor imitation of what she could do, he knew this. No one in Haven would be remotely able to challenge her.

The crowd groaned when another was whacked across the upper back and flew face forward into the snow. The soldier in question rolled over, spitting and wiping his face, and Vesryn offered him a hand up. The man slapped his plated hand angrily away, and clambered back to his feet himself. "The elf's a bloody demon!" someone in the crowd shouted. Vesryn bowed, grinning.

"Would anyone else like to try their hand?"

“Couldn’t turn down a challenge to save my life.” The reply was actually almost a grumble, as though the thought had caused some grouchiness in the one who spoke it, and she looked around her for a minute until she spotted someone holding what looked like a heavy practice bastardsword. “Hey Wulf, can I borrow that?” The man in question shrugged and handed it over, and Khari tested the weight with a few swings before she stepped into the makeshift ring across from him.

“Put me down for…” She grimaced, her eyes flicking up and down Vesryn, or rather, his gear, most likely, and a short huff escaped her. “Ten minutes. If I can’t make it that long, I’ll eat my sword, because I won’t deserve it anymore.” Despite the dry tone of her words, there was a very steely glint in her jade-green eyes when they met his, and her mouth curled up at the corner. Whether she thought she could achieve it was not certain, but all the same, she’d entered the ring with the intention of winning. "Give him hell!" A voice called out, belonging to Michaël.

Saraya's judgemental nature immediately sprang into action, something which Vesryn tiredly endured. He could feel her analyzing every inch of the poor girl, and finding every last one wanting. Vesryn had heard about Khari, but they'd yet to have the chance to properly speak, or even introduce themselves. As was his custom, he refrained from making any assumptions long after Saraya had already made hers. What was obvious to Vesryn was that she did not intend on letting Khari stay standing for two minutes, let alone ten.

Vesryn, however, gave her a welcoming smile, his arms outstretched. "There's no one I'd rather dance with, lovely. Best give us some more room, everyone." The circle gathered around them wisely shuffled away from the center, offering the two of them a larger dance floor of snow, packed down from countless feet smashing it day in and day out. "Whenever you're ready," he said, briefly beckoning her to him, "you may throw your storm at my tower." He smiled, with a confidence that had already goaded more than one opponent this morning into recklessness.

Though she might have seemed the type to be exactly the same, she did not immediately spring into offense. Instead, she shifted her grip, using both hands to hold the bastardsword at an angle equally well suited for either attack or defense. She appeared to, at least initially, be waiting for something to happen, but then she shifted her stance, increasing the bend in her knees and rising onto the pads of her feet, bouncing on them a couple times as though to test something.

When she did move, she telegraphed it very little. It was sudden, and neither her eyes nor her feet had given away that she’d be going for the left, which she did, with enough force to kick up snow behind her. She swung in low, which made some sense, since her center of gravity was a great deal below his.

Vesryn, however, was a great deal stronger, and almost impossible to catch off guard. Perhaps he'd taken some of the rank and file soldiers lightly, but he knew Khari was in the same bracket he was, and he knew she had far too much raw talent to be treated the same way the others were. But she was horribly outmatched in terms of experience. His instincts were bolstered by those of a warrior who had lived in a time when elves far outlasted humans in years.

He blocked with the head of his axe low, stopping the blade cold only a short distance from his body, but it was all he needed. His face lost all of its humor as he forced their weapons upwards, turning over their weapons to the other side in front of him. The bottom of his axe head hooked around the blade enough for him to pull forward and manipulate her momentum, and suddenly he brought the haft of the two handed weapon to smack across her jaw.

He sidestepped immediately, extricating his weapon, which he whipped swiftly over his head, aiming a swift, strong blow once he was around her back, aimed for the left side of her ribs.

The blow to her face had stunned her, that much was quite clear, but her own instincts weren’t so bad, for someone so young, and she threw herself into the snow almost immediately afterwards, as far away as she could jump, so while the second blow hit, it didn’t do so with nearly all the force he’d put behind it, and she rolled back to her feet, shaking her head. To her credit, perhaps, she didn’t seem to fear a repeat of the painful experience, and she attacked a second time, this time aiming for his arm itself, before abruptly switching her stride at the last possible second and trying for a cross-slash. A feint, it seemed.

She came close again, but again Vesryn's axe handle was there to solidly block her slash, the clash of weapons ringing out loudly through the air. The crowd had mostly silenced for the fight, knowing the two participating were among the Inquisition's best. Perhaps it was simply because Vesryn appeared to be focusing for the first time all morning. He shoved upwards hard, to move Khari's sword away from her center, before he launched a swift straight kick for her abdomen.

"Faster!" he commanded. "A chevalier would at least make me sweat."

Khari actually outright snarled at him, her face twisting into a sneer. “If I were a chevalier, you’d bleed.” He appeared to have succeeded in drawing out a more aggressive version of her, however, because the next series of attacks she leveled at him were harder to block. She wasn’t especially strong, but Khari was quick, and she did seem to understand how to make momentum work on her favor, because though she didn’t get any hits in on him, she was striking hard enough to vibrate both their weapons for multiple seconds after the impacts themselves, and the clanging was loud.

She appeared to know better than trying to block him, however, because her own maneuvers were overwhelmingly of the dodging variety, and he wound up hitting a lot of nothing when he went to retaliate. It was beginning to look very much like a storm assailing a tower: she only seemed to pick up speed as the fight wore on, throwing herself wholeheartedly into her offense and relying on her own sense of the flow of motion to keep her out of the way of his axe.

"That's better," he growled, when another swing of his axe missed, causing a section of the onlookers to back away from the follow-through of the swing. Vesryn's own blocks were often placed excellently, to deflect the weight of Khari's sword as much as halt it, and indeed, it was a necessary skill, for he rarely dodged her attacks entirely. His footwork was precise, in the way it carefully positioned him on the defensive. He could quite literally do this almost all day, and had in the past. His brow did indeed work up a sheen, but if anything, he seemed to be enjoying the exertion.

Finally he parried one of her blows away and rapped her on the back with the axe handle, creating a brief moment of separation. He ran a hand through his white-blonde hair, eyeing her and walking sideways, circling. "What does a title give you? What do you lack, that being called chevalier would grant you?" He was actually curious as to what would drive her so powerfully just to join the ranks of an all-human group. Saraya didn't care. She just wanted to hit the girl more.

“What makes you think it’s just about me?” The reply was snapped back—Khari was clearly not as capable of separating her demeanor from the inherent aggression of the spar as he was, at least not at the moment. She eyed him warily, moving with him, mostly, and certainly not presenting him with her back, rolling out her shoulders and settling back into her initial stance. She clearly wasn’t going to give him any more than that, though, and she drove forward again. Her endurance was nothing to sneeze at, even if her patience perhaps left much to be desired, and she was just as aggressive on this pass as she’d been on the last.

Ten minutes was swiftly coming upon them, but for all that, she didn’t try to stretch it out, placing herself at just as much risk as she had before, and she paid for it, catching the haft of the axe full in the stomach, sliding backwards on the snow, though she yet retained her feet, closing one eye perhaps from the pain of impact but rebounding with uncanny quickness, swinging, of all things, her fist, in what looked very much like a wild lunge, but was pulled short as she drove the point of her blunted blade forward instead.

Vesryn couldn't make sense of her, and he wondered briefly if she weren't a little bit unhinged. Perhaps it was just the fight that was making her seem that way, as she wielded her aggression as much as she did her blade. Perhaps he should have simply chalked it up to the fact that he knew only one thing about her, and that one thing painted her as a foolishly optimistic, even naïve, person. Her feigned punch, flowing into a stab, was about as effective as it could have been, the point of her blade scraping across plate armor briefly before it was pushed aside by the haft of his axe. Not the wisest attack against someone with armor easily strong enough to withstand a sword point, but successful in its own way.

Saraya's instinct was to grapple with her, use his superior strength to stop her from getting away again, and Vesryn obeyed, snatching her wrist on the follow-through of the lunge. He pulled her into his reach, and then landed a solid, heavy punch to her cheekbone. Restraining the wrist that held her blade, he kicked hard to the back of her leg, to put her down on a knee. Rather than finish the fight, he let curiosity get the best of him. "Are you not already what you want to be? For yourself? For others?" His eyes were searching, confused. Saraya raged in his head, demanding a blow that would end the spar.

Her reply was extremely simple: “Is anyone?” It was a surprisingly lucid question, which perhaps made what she did next all the more bizarre in contrast. She seemed well aware of what would happen if they went into a grapple, and so she pushed herself off the ground, yanking downwards with what was possibly all the strength she had on the wrist he held, though her aim was evidently not to get free. Of all things, she headbutted him, the hard part of her skull hitting him right where his nose met his brow.

Saraya, as she had a tendency to do in these moments when she was displeased, abandoned him when he least expected it. Perhaps he should have begun expecting it, but he was still caught off guard when suddenly his reflexes weren't as sharp, his instincts not as lethal. His nose broke, blood immediately flowing down over his mouth, some of it ending up dripping on the responsible elf's already red hair. He recoiled, but then he felt Saraya return, with grim determination. Before Khari could follow up on the hit, he'd pulled her by the arm into him, kneed her strongly in the ribs, elbowed her in the jaw, yanked her to her feet, and swept her legs out from under her with a swift low swing of his axe. When she was horizontal in the air in front of him, Vesryn gave her a parting boot to the chest, snow crunching and spraying into the air. Yet more of it was kicked up when Khari was thrown across the makeshift arena, sliding and rolling through the snow until she came to a stop near the far side on her back.

Vesryn turned and spat a glob of blood into the snow, reaching a hand up to feel the shape of his nose. "Very funny," he murmured to himself, the words most likely unheard since the crowd had also livened up, excited by the exchange of blows. By the time he turned and walked back to Khari, a smile had once again worked itself into place, many of his pearly white teeth now red.

"What was that you said? A chevalier would make me bleed?" He extended a hand down, to help her up.

She sucked in a breath, one hand up at her jaw. “Should have worn the mask.” She muttered it more to herself than him, then narrowed her eyes up at him, contemplating the hand for a few seconds before she took it, pulling herself back up to her feet. “Hm. Apparently I get to keep my sword after all.” In a display of good sportsmanship, however, she inclined herself in a combatant’s bow, then gestured in his direction, to a swell of applause.

In the wake of the fight's completion, there was a fair amount of both cheering and grumbling among the soldiers, undoubtedly the result of bets won and lost, but in all, they seemed entertained by the fight, and perhaps a little relieved that it had ended peacefully enough, without the need to be broken up by the spectators.

Vesryn bowed back to Khari, his best opponent of the day by a long shot, and nodded his thanks to the crowd. "Perhaps we should visit the healer," he suggested to Khari. "Hopefully she can mend our lovely faces."

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Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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Romulus felt a constant burn in his arms and across his chest. Sweat dripped from his brow, down the side of his face, as he looked up at the bar above him, and the stone ceiling. Even in the Chantry cellar he could not escape the noise of activity. Haven had become an extremely busy place of late, even more so now that it was widely known that they would have forces departing for the Hinterlands again in a few days time. Romulus would be going with them, to meet the mage rebellion in Redcliffe, and... likely do nothing.

He grunted with each time he pulled his chin above the bar. The cellar, the very place he had first woken up following the explosion that had marked him, was naturally dark, only lit by a few torches set into sconces along the support pillars and the walls of the hallway that led inside. They were used for storage, since the Inquisition had no need to keep prisoners yet, and that meant that very few people came down here. Romulus was one of the few, making use of the privacy to have something of a personal place. It was known by anyone important that he sometimes ventured down here.

His thoughts drifted, until he was thinking about rats, and how similar he was being to one at the moment, and he growled, pulling his chin above the bar again. The sweat ran down his bare back and chest; he savored the warmth of working right next to a flaming torch. Thinking about the freezing cold outside only served to annoy him. Finally he dropped from the bar onto the ground, breathing heavily, and shaking out his arms.

Worst of all was that he couldn't figure out what bothered him more: that he wasn't finding the kind of experience in this Inquisition that he'd wanted, or the fact that he'd wanted it in the first place. He coiled his right hand into a tightly balled fist, and thought about striking the wooden pillar in front of him.

The sound of metal-girded boots clanking unceremoniously along the stone floor to his left was obvious, and heralded the approach of Khari, though she probably didn’t rank highly enough on the list of important people in the Inquisition to have known he’d be here without needing to ask someone. Even so, it was clearly him she was looking for, because as soon as she was far enough into the room to be seen in the warm glow of the torchlight, it was obvious that she was looking right at him, and she smiled. “Evenin’, Rom.” She seemed pleased to have found him, and stepped out of the doorway into the chamber proper. “I’d say I like what you’ve done with the place, but it’s actually making me feel a little… cagey.”

He turned to look at her out of the corner of his eye, still for a moment, before he uncoiled his fist, turned around, and laughed softly, stepping away from the wooden support.

She grimaced. “Gods, sorry. That sounded much more clever in my head.” She appeared to be carrying a large sack over her back, and a smaller satchel in her other hand. The big one, she set down with a soft clink, but the second one, she kept hold of, opening the drawstring mouth of it and fishing out what seemed to be a piece of jerky or something. She held the bag out to him, clearly in offering.

“Don’t mind if I say so, but you look like you could use some. It’s elk, but they brined it in apples. Might be my favorite food ever. I was saving it for a celebration, but… don’t foresee many of those in the future.”

He was hungry, the workout only making him more so. When the light hit him more clearly, especially from the ceiling above, it lit up the multitude of scars that lined his body, all across his chest and back, blade and magic scars in equal measure. There were old burns, puncture wounds, slashes, too many individual ones to count. He was able to see Khari a little better when she came close, and he noted the bruises on her jaw and cheekbone.

Romulus took a few pieces of jerky from the bag, trying out the first, and humming his approval as soon as he'd chewed a few times. "Thanks." He gestured up at her, frowning. "What happened to you?" The question was asked casually.

She was clearly making an inspection of his inventory of scars, though it was for once not plain on her face exactly what she thought. His question, though, brought her eyes back to his, and she huffed. “Got into a fight with the taller, stronger, prettier and more charismatic elf in the group. Got my ass handed to me.” She frowned; it was hard to say for sure, but there seemed to be something worse than a simple lost match underneath the expression, but she shook her head.

“I really hate feeling like a redundancy. The lesser of two, even.” She bit off another piece of jerky with more force than was perhaps strictly necessary, mumbling something around her food that sounded suspiciously like ‘stupid shiny bastard’, but it wasn’t completely clear whether that was the right interpretation.

Romulus wasn't too surprised. From what he'd figured out, Khari was more than willing to fight anyone, even if the odds were vastly in favor of her opponent. Hell, he figured she'd fight the commander if he ever had the time. She didn't seem to care about whatever was stacked against her, and simply tried anyway. He liked that about her, a great deal.

As for Vesryn... Romulus shrugged. "He seems like an ass. And there's something not right about him. He's... too well put together, or something. At least you're genuine." He didn't have the slightest clue what he felt was off about the elven man, other than he didn't know it was possible for an elf to have the kind of demeanor he had. That alone put him on guard. Romulus tore off another piece of jerky.

"You're not redundant, or lesser. Not to me." He might've said some other things, about her strength, her charisma, her prettiness, even. The tallness thing wasn't really up for debate. But he felt he'd said enough already.

That seemed to lift her spirits considerably, and she smiled again. “Thanks, Rom. That means a lot.” Her eyes wandered to the larger sack she’d brought with her, and lit up, almost as if she’d forgotten it was there. “Oh! That’s right. I got you something. Kind of. Don’t suppose your birthday’s anytime soon, is it?”

He half smiled at the mention of a gift, and his eyes wandered to the sack. In fact, he was a bit unsure how to feel at the prospect of being given something. Suddenly, he was quite intensely unsure if it was acceptable for him to take whatever she offered... since nothing he had was actually his. Not even, to an extent, his life.

At her question, he shrugged. "I have no idea when I was born."

Khari seemed stunned for about two seconds before she appeared to do a bit of mental calculation and most likely came to the correct conclusion. “Oh, right. I’m stupid sometimes, aren’t I?” she huffed, but then her face brightened again. “But the best part of not having a birthday is that you get to choose one, and on that day, everyone gives you free stuff and has to be nice to you. It’s great.” She shrugged.

“If I were you, I’d pick something like… a couple weeks out and tell everyone about it so they had some time to pull some good presents together, but in my case, I already thought about it, so.” She nudged the sack towards him with a foot, but she did it carefully.

“Happy birthday, or something. At least I’m not late, right?”

He understood the gesture, and he was appreciative of it, truly, but it would be plain to see that she'd made him uncomfortable with this. Whatever smile he formerly had faded while she described birthdays to him. He knew what a birthday was. Just because he didn't have one himself didn't mean he hadn't watched those more fortunate than himself celebrating theirs. Specifically, they were the people he had served his entire life.

Some of the slaves he had known knew their birthdays, but any celebration was kept to a minimum. Any gift had to be something terribly small, or otherwise consumable; most slaves would prefer a good bit of food to a worthless trinket that was only going to arouse suspicion in a master. The bag in front of him now was big, much too big. And Romulus had done little other than think of his status as a slave lately. He couldn't stop thinking about it.

He backed away a few steps, eyeing the sack warily. "I shouldn't. Whatever it is, I shouldn't take it."

She looked at him with some clear consternation, but then shook her head. “It’s not…” Khari sighed softly. “It’s not a big thing, really. I know I talked it up a lot, but I… can I lend it to you? I’m serious, you can give it back whenever you don’t want it anymore. It’s not a personal thing, I’m not…” For once, she seemed less-than-sure of her words, like she was struggling to frame the nature of the exchange.

He was overthinking it, he knew he was, but it seemed important to him, especially with how she had presented it. She was his friend, and he knew she considered him the same. He also believed that she wouldn't understand that anything he touched, anything he called his own, was immediately tainted, and automatically inherited by the one that owned him. A Dalish girl who had left her life behind to try and become a chevalier of all things? No, she wouldn't understand. She'd never seen any place like the place he came from.

Carefully, like he expected to find a poisonous snake inside, Romulus crouched down, and opened the sack.

Inside of it were several pieces of glassware, mostly: an alembic, a retort, several vials with stoppers, and a few flasks, as well as all the pieces of wood and metal necessary to set everything up properly on a desk or table, for the work of an alchemist. At the bottom lay a wooden case, well-made and fitted with a red iron lock. None of the pieces were obviously elaborate, but they were very well-made, and well-suited for the tasks they’d been designed for.

“It’s… it’s stuff for your tonics.” Khari sounded much more tentative than she previously had, and her mouth pulled to the side, as though she were unsure what expression she should be wearing. “I remember you telling me that they protected you from magic, and that you were running out, so I talked to Rilien about what you would need to make them, and he said this would be what you ought to have for it. The box has reagents.”

Romulus examined a few of the set's pieces with the utmost care, kneeling down and taking the alchemical equipment with steady hands. It was not as horrible a feeling as he'd thought, especially once he realized that these things were not hers to begin with. She'd worked with Rilien to acquire them. They were probably the Inquisition's more than hers. It was simply her own thoughtfulness that led them to his hands, since he was too unaccustomed to asking for anything of his own.

Satisfied with the examination, he put everything he'd removed back in the back, and closed it up. "I can't keep it," he said, with a little more certainty than he'd managed to muster before. "But I can use it. At least until the Breach is closed, and I have to go back." He picked up the bag, carried it over to the rest of his small pile of things, mostly consisting of his clothes, armor, and weapons, and set it down. He donned a light linen shirt on his way back to her.

"You know I'll have to go back, right? To Minrathous?" Things would be a great deal more simple, and also more complicated, if he didn't have to go back. But there was no sense thinking about that. While he was yet owned, he was still bound to Tevinter, and allowing himself to entertain other possibilities only led to pain. It was something he'd learned as a child, and didn't want to have to learn again.

Khari rubbed at the back of her head, inadvertently fluffing up a few more rambunctious curls from her plait, and sucked on her teeth for a second. “I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but… do you have to?” She seemed honestly curious, rather than upset or contrary or anything like that. “I guess I’m just… trying to imagine what would happen if you decided you didn’t want to, you know? You’re here, and there’s this big army between you and anything anyone in Minrathous could send your way, and I don’t really see anyone forcing you to leave on this end, exactly.” She sighed.

“But really, what the hell do I know? I’m just a fool with a sword and a side of crazy. I can’t pretend like I understand how any of this works.”

"An army is just an inconvenience to an assassin," Romulus said, somewhat sadly. If he were a different person, someone who had been placed much more by chance than by design at the Conclave, this would likely be much simpler for him. He probably could just escape from his past. But he was not a different person. "Chryseis Viridius, the woman that owns me, invested a great deal to make me into the weapon that I am. To make an enemy of her would be unwise, even if I wanted to." He sometimes felt he didn't use her name enough, and he wondered which way was better. Was it better to be reminded that a real person, someone made of the same stuff he was, owned his body and mind? Or was it better for her to simply remain as domina, a simple, controlling force, to be followed without hesitation?

"She has powerful allies, and a personal interest in my loyalty. To betray her would bring pain or death... but probably not to me." Killing him would be an abandonment of her investment. Killing his cause for betrayal would be the answer. At the very least, proving that it was in danger would give him reason to return to her service. In essence, any cause he had would be in immediate danger, until he no longer had it. There was no way out. He had accepted this.

"This... whatever this is, with the Inquisition. It's nothing more than a diversion for me. When it's done, I will leave with her, like nothing ever changed." The thought obviously weighed on him, but he seemed set in stone in the way he thought about it.

“Well… shit.” Khari apparently thought this was a sitting-down kind of problem, because she plonked herself rather gracelessly onto the floor after saying that, crossing her legs and propping her elbows on them. She rested her chin in a hand, rubbing at the bruises still on her jaw with her fingers, prodding them, almost. Her brows knit together over her eyes, darker than usual in the gloom of the cell block, and creases appeared at the corners of them. When she spoke again, it was slower and with more deliberateness than she generally had, and less certainty. Clearly, this kind of thinking wasn’t her usual element, but she was putting the effort into it.

“I mean… I guess it sounds like any way this gets sliced up, she’s your problem, then. So… without ruling anything out yet, seems like there’s three obvious options for that. One, you convince her somehow that she’s better off if she doesn’t… keep… you.” The last few words were awkward on her tongue; very clearly, she wasn’t used to using terms like that when talking about people, but she didn’t comment on it. “Seems unlikely, from what you’ve said. Two, you could make some kind of… exchange, I guess? I don’t know how much she thinks you’re, uh… worth, or how that works, but theoretically there’s something she’d be willing to accept in your stead, maybe?” Khari frowned, then shook her head. “And three, well… get her before she gets you.”

She made a face, then regarded him speculatively over her knuckles. “But that all assumes you’d want to stay. That you’d have a reason to want that. I mean, if it were me, I would, but it’s not. It’s you, and only you can decide what you want. Only you can possibly know, even, unless you tell someone.” Those words were perhaps the most uncertain of all, giving away the fact that his mental state was likely quite opaque to her, though she appeared to be trying to understand him as well as she could.

"What I want is rarely relevant. And Chryseis is only my problem if I make her into one.” It was obviously difficult for many to grasp, especially in the south of Thedas, why a slave would ever want to remain a slave. And that wasn’t necessarily something Romulus wanted, but he did think it was probably for the best. For him, and for everyone else. His status actually afforded him a fair bit more than the vast majority of enslaved in Tevinter, and undoubtedly a great many free people living in other lands. If he had to sacrifice several personal freedoms to maintain that… well, he’d proven already that it was a sacrifice he was willing and able to make.

He took a seat against one of the wooden supports, leaning his head back against it and momentarily glancing up at the torch hanging above him. "I may have painted her as an enemy to me, but I also owe her, and her father, everything. I am who I am because of them. This… excursion, whatever I should call it, has already been more than I expected. I should be satisfied with that.” Humbling his desires was something Romulus had worked many years to do, and since being roped into the Inquisition he’d allowed them to wander, inappropriately so.

He regarded the way she sat, how she looked so thoughtful, with a smile of his own. She was putting a lot of effort into this, and it hadn’t gone unnoticed. "I will miss you when I have to go, of course.”

Khari was quiet for a while, clearly digesting what he’d said, and though the look she fixed him with then was measured, she did smile a bit. “I’d miss you too, naturally. Haven’t had a friend in a while; managed to forget how nice it was.” A pause, and then: “This might sound weird, but… if you ever get the urge to tell someone something irrelevant, not for advice or to do anything about it, but… just to say it, then I’m here. Used to be that what I wanted was pretty irrelevant, too, not that I’m saying it was the same situation. Just… I still wanted stuff, and I remember sometimes being almost choked, feeling like I couldn’t talk about it with anyone else.”

He scratched the side of his head a bit awkwardly, but his smile didn't disappear. "I... thanks, Khari. I'll keep that in mind."

Setting

Characters Present

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

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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: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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Romulus could not calm the storm in his mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Don't see why not."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shook his head. "No, domina."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You have something in mind?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Out of curiosity. Of course."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An empty promise, if ever there were one.

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

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

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

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

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

But the three it had taken did not reappear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Listen here, you knife-eared bitch—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you tried to save her.”

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

His sister. His little star—they’d—

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

“Slowly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burning.

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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Romulus wondered what would happen if he attempted to close the entire Breach at this point. Likely, it wasn't possible, and it would simply kill him. From how things looked, nothing could stop the destruction of the sky, and the death of the land below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can watch while I change the world.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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Estella hit the ground hard, rolling several times before she came to a stop in just enough time to watch three people disappear into the rend in the air, both like and entirely unlike a rift, and though she was forced to cover her ears, she regained her feet as she did, such that by the time it stopped, she was standing again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Agreed?"

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Cyrus. We’re done now.”

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Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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The Inquisition’s leadership and much of the main body had departed in advance of the mages themselves, who’d doubtless take longer to make it all the way back to Haven, but a small rear guard had been left behind to guide and protect them on their way up into the mountains. Khari was not part of that team, which was probably for the best because it sounded tedious and annoying. She didn’t have anything against mages, but the majority of this lot had been in Circles most of their lives, and watching them bumble around in the real world was kind of like watching a baby halla try to gain its footing, only much less cute. Not something she wanted to be dealing with all the way back to the base camp, anyway.

Most everyone was still getting settled in or else off doing something they hadn’t bothered to inform her about, and so with the exception of the usual morning training with Estella in the wee hours, Khari had been alone for most of the day. For someone so exuberant in the company of others, she took solitude quite well, she thought—probably because she was used to it. But it was one thing to be alone and have something to do; it was another thing entirely to be alone and bored, which was the unfortunate condition she presently found herself in.

At the moment, she just sat on a retaining wall on the south side of Haven, kicking her feet idly and watching people go by. She’d volunteered to help move things, but most of that was basically done, and to be honest, she wasn’t great for the really heavy stuff anyhow. It was embarrassing, actually, but thankfully no one had said anything about it. Probably they hadn’t even really noticed; it wasn’t like she was particularly noteworthy unless she was expending conscious effort to be. She still wasn’t sure if that bothered her or not.

All such abstract musings were immediately chased from her thoughts when she saw the commander go by, head bowed over some documents or a book or something—she couldn’t say for sure from this distance. Even this far away, his silhouette was unmistakable as belonging to anyone else, both for the size and the carriage. Now there was someone who never had to worry about being invisible, for better or worse. Unfortunately, he was heading right for a staircase, and she wasn’t entirely sure he knew it. Raising a hand to her mouth, Khari curved it around the side to amplify her voice and shouted over the intervening distance. “Oi, Leon! Watch your step!”

His head snapped up as soon as she called his name, and fortunately, he also stopped walking forward. He seemed confused for a moment, looking around as though seeking for the source of the voice, but then he saw the stairs, and turned his head in her direction. He gave a wave and what might have been a smile, lowering his hand slowly and pausing for a moment before he diverted his course from its previous track and headed in her direction.

Leon was currently sans any of his armor, his hands just layered in those leather gloves, the rest of him clothed in plain brown robes, like a monk might wear, including the hood in the back that he wasn’t using. For all the utter unremarkability of his wardrobe, however, he still definitely stood out, cutting an imposing figure as he drew closer. It was an impression somewhat tempered by the slightly-sheepish look on his face, though, and while it could have just been the cold, he also looked a bit flush, as if from embarrassment.

“I really must thank you for your timely intervention, Miss Khari. I am afraid I’d have rather embarrassed myself if I’d managed to break my nose falling up the stairs.” He shifted the book he was carrying under one arm, marking his place with what looked like a scrap of fabric or something, and rubbed at the back of his neck with his now-free left hand.

“What did I tell you about that ‘Miss Khari’ business?” She groused the words, but it was clear enough from her expression that her irritation was only jesting. She thought it was pretty absurd for anyone to call her miss—that was the kind of title you gave to young ladies of genteel demeanor, and Khari didn’t qualify. Asala, sure, and probably Estella, too, if there was some reason not to call her ‘Lady Herald’ or whatever, but not her.

She leaned back further on her hands, which was necessary so she could actually meet his eyes, even at the polite distance he was standing. He really was damn tall—well, and she was short, but that part wasn’t anything extraordinary. She wondered how hard he’d had to work to get a musculature like that one. It was beyond the capability of most people of course, probably even beyond most tall men, but that didn’t mean he’d cultivated it by natural gifts alone. She wondered if he had any pointers for putting on mass, and if they’d even apply to her twiggy elf person.

Well, okay, ‘twiggy’ wasn’t true. Khari personally thought she had okayish leg mass and a killer set of abdominals, but then again, it was all relative. She pursed her lips and crossed one leg over the other, raising a hand to shade her eyes. He was standing with his back to the sun, and it was damn bright out. “How much do you reckon you can dead-lift, Leon? Because those are really fantastic arms you’ve got. Actually, your whole body is pretty incredible. Most people can’t get good proportions like that.” A large chunk of the bigger warrior-types she’d ever met wound up looking slightly unbalanced to her, but his ratios were really spot-on.

Leon’s face had done this weird contorting thing through most of her query and explanation, and at one point, he’d actually dropped the book, which he now bent over to retrieve, clearing his throat. “Ah… well, I can’t say exactly. Last time I checked, I deadlifted, um… thirty-five stone? That was several years ago now, though—I don’t often take occasion to actually measure.” Dusting a bit of snow off the book’s cover, he tucked it more securely under his arm and smiled mildly. “I’ve been training a very long time, though, Khari, and I need that strength a great deal more than anyone else would, considering my… tendencies.”

She was technically aware of the things he’d said after ‘thirty-five stone,’ but to say that she’d paid attention to them was perhaps a bit of an overstatement. Mostly she’d just stared right at him with obvious admiration. “Fight me, please.” Despite the fact that it was a challenge, it was delivered in a near-reverential tone. And why the hell not? His so-called 'tendencies' were to take down people fighting with weapons with his fucking bare hands: she thought a little awe was perfectly justified. More importantly even than the awe, though, was the fact that she wanted to test herself against that kind of mettle and see what happened.

Khari held no illusions whatsoever that she’d stand a chance. But it would be damn fun to try her luck anyway. “I mean, come on. It’ll be easy for you. Probably won’t even take that much time. But it’s not the office, and it’s not paperwork, and it might even be a little bit of a workout.”

Leon sighed slightly through his nose, taking a few steps forward and to the side, turning around so that he, also, could sit. Needless to say, there was no space for his legs to dangle off the ground—he actually propped his heels on the ground a ways in front of the wall. He turned his head to look down at her, though distinctly not in the uppity kind of way. “May I ask why you’re so enthused by the prospect of sparring with me?” he inquired, his tone kind. It would seem to be an honest question, so to speak.

For all the simplicity of it, though, Khari wondered if it weren’t some kind of trick. What kind of reason did she need? “Uh… because it would be fun? And help me improve? Isn’t that kind of the point of training?”

Leon tilted his head to the side, pushing a strand of fair hair behind one of his ears. “Setting the amusement aside for a moment… is this the way you trained in the past? Simply fighting anyone you could? Or were there other elements to it?” His tone never lost the patience and deliberateness that seemed to characterize a great many of the things he said and did.

Khari frowned a bit, then shrugged. Was there supposed to be something more to it than that? “I mean… sure, I run and do lifting and stuff, but… mostly when Ser Durand trained me, it was just hitting me with a practice sword until I got what he was trying to teach through my thick skull, yeah.” She chuckled a bit. She hadn’t been the easiest student, she was sure, but she’d picked it up with practice and work, just like everyone else. She learned something from every spar, even if it was just a new place she could be bruised.

For some reason, Leon’s expression changed then; his brows knit together, and he frowned slightly, compressing his lips into a thin line. It was clear something she’d said had struck him poorly, though what exactly the problem was, he didn’t say. Reaching up, he scratched at one side of his jaw, then shook his head. “I fear you would gain little from sparring with me, Khari. The way I fight, it’s not…” He exhaled heavily through his nose and grimaced. “You would obtain much more of use from what you do with Estella.” That seemed to be the answer he’d settled on, because he said nothing further on the subject, and from the way he ended, it was a fair guess that the topic was closed, at least for the moment.

He made no move to leave, however, and indeed a few moments later, he shifted the topic somewhat. “This chevalier that trained you—you said his name was Durand?”

She was definitely disappointed that he seemed unwilling to even consider it, but she suspected that something about her approach had gone awry, and so she left it be for the moment. Though she could be as tenacious as a hound when the mood took her, she liked to think she had a fairly good read on people, and she knew to let this go right now. At the question about her teacher, she let herself grin brightly. “Ser Jean-Robert Durand, of the Collines Vertes region of the Heartlands. Pretty sure it doesn’t get much more Orlesian than that, does it?” She shook her head, clear amusement showing through.

“He’s a mean old bastard, but he’s he only person I know crazy enough to teach a little stick-figure elf girl how to fight like a knight. Wouldn’t have made it half this far without him. Without him believing in me, you know? He said I had something special, something that none of those fancy nobles who come out of the Academie have.” She cut a glance at him from the corner of her eyes, humor glinting in them.

“Utter shamelessness?” Leon’s guess was dry, but his own expression conveyed some amusement as well.

She barked a laugh, deep from her belly, wrapping her arms around herself and for a moment rocking precariously close to falling off the retaining wall, not that it was that far down. Righting herself, she still wore a toothy smile, and nodded vigorously. “You can count on that. Though honestly, some of those nobles are pretty shameless, too. No, he said I want it more than anyone who just gets to have it for free because of who their family is.” Her expression sobered a little, and she tilted her head to the side. “And I do, you know? I want it so damn bad it hurts sometimes.”

Leon nodded a bit. “That, Khari, is a more admirable thing than any amount of skill. Or, indeed, any amount of muscle.” He arched his brows, calling back to the beginning of the conversation, and half-smiled. “It will carry you much further, as well, through things that people with skill and build alone would not be able to conquer. You need them all, to some extent, of course, but that desire, that passion—that will serve you, when the odds are slim and the time comes to do or die.” He said it not like a platitude, but like he had a real sense of what it was like to be in such a situation.

She was hardly accustomed to being praised much, and she found herself feeling a slightly awkward about it suddenly, coughing a bit. It was just that, coming from someone who was clearly so accomplished, the words really seemed to mean something. It sounded almost like he actually respected her, which was pretty novel to her, really. “Thanks, Leon.”

“You’re quite welcome.” He stood then, brushing his robes clean of any extra snow, and then turned to face her one last time. “And, just so I’m being clear: I didn’t mean I’d never spar you, only that now isn’t the time, I think. I’ll give you a little longer to train for it, shall I?” His eyes narrowed with his mirth, clearly readable.

She jerked her chin in a sharp upward motion. “You’ll regret it when I kick your ass.” That was definitely mostly bravado, but it was in good fun.

“I hope I do.”

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Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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Several days after their return to Haven, Khari still hadn’t seen much of Rom.

It wasn’t exactly unexpected; he didn’t tend to be the most active of social butterflies, to put it one way. But he wasn’t usually completely absent, either. Before she decided if this represented some kind of problem or not, she figured she’d just take the direct approach, and go see him. Even if he wasn’t around, it wasn’t difficult to guess where he’d be, and so that afternoon, she elected to head for the Chantry basement again. This time, she had bounty in tow, so to speak: a couple of cloth-wrapped sandwiches were tucked under her arm, and she gripped a three-quarters-full bottle of wine by the neck, because someone had left it laying around after a meal and she figured they probably wouldn’t miss it. He seemed to be okay with sharing her food, and Khari just liked to eat anyway, so it was in some sense the best of all arrangements: the kind where everybody won.

As ever, she made no secret of her presence, though in the absence of the need for armor, she wasn’t wearing any. Her plain grey shirt was loose enough that she was nearly swimming in it. It fell halfway down her legs, though she’d cut and hemmed slits in the sides to allow her free motion. She’d also bound down the loose fabric at her forearms, to keep it out of the way, and tied a sash at her waist, but it was still almost comically-proportioned. Which made sense, since it was made for a man, a human one at that. Her hood was gone, too, her thick braid pulled over one shoulder, and her boots were softer, well-crafted, but not armored. Her mother had made them for someone else, but they were the right size, at least.

Rom was slightly bent over a worktable, the complex setup of alchemy equipment a dead giveaway as to why. She smiled to herself at the sight of the various brightly-colored liquids. She didn’t know what any of them were, of course, but that wasn’t important. “Hey, stranger. D’you have time for a lunch break, or should I leave the mad alchemist to his concoctions?”

Romulus held up a vial to the torchlight, which was probably not adequate for such work, but by the way he'd been deftly maneuvering both the ingredients and the equipment, he hardly needed any light at all for this sort of thing. The liquid inside was turquoise, and seemed to radiate its own light. He frowned at it, shaking it in the vial gently and waiting a few seconds. Grunting to himself in displeasure, he took hold of the vial's bottom and discarded the liquid inside with a flick. It hissed quietly when it splashed against the hay strewn across some of the floor, but soon fell silent.

He set the vial back down on his worktable, stepping away from it a few paces and removing the thin leather gloves he wore. He tossed them onto the table, and then rubbed at his eyes, blinking obvious weariness. "Not here. Upstairs, at least. I... should probably take a break."

“Yeah, you look like it.” Her reply was blunt as ever, but then, she didn’t think he cared, which was nice. “Come on then, let’s get you some sunlight or something.” She turned neatly on her heel and led the way up the stairs, pausing for a moment to allow him to take up his cloak, which he might need. It was a comparatively warm day in Haven, which just meant that she didn’t feel like she was going to lose her fingers every time she braved the outdoors.

By lucky circumstance, the tent areas immediately in front of the Chantry weren’t currently occupied, though the campfire still burned, which Khari had to admit would help with the chill, so she headed over that way and parked herself on one of the roughly-hewn logs that served as a bench, and tossed one of the sandwiches in his general direction. He had good reflexes, so she couldn’t imagine him not catching it with such an easy lob. “I know you hate the cold, so. Fire, and wine.” She held up the bottle and swished it from side to side, before taking the cork out with her teeth and setting the thing down in between them. She didn’t have enough hands for glasses, too, but she wasn’t picky enough to be bothered by sharing, and she’d be surprised if he were, either.

Stretching her feet out in front of her towards the fire, she hummed her contentment at the sensation of it warming her toes first, then unwrapped her sandwich in her lap. “Didn’t know what you liked on yours, so I made it like mine: a bunch of everything. Hope that’s okay.”

"I've never been picky with food." Romulus sat down, a slight groan escaping him, evidence that he'd been standing too long, likely in one spot. Rather than sit on the log, he sat on the ground, and put his back against the log, which he propped an arm upon, while the other raised the sandwich to his mouth for a first bite. Once it was down, he switched the food for drink, and took a long swig from the wine bottle. After he'd put it back between them, he decided to pull up his hood, and sink a little lower against the log.

"Thank you," he said, a bit late, if it was the food he was thanking her for. "I don't think I remember to say it enough. You're thoughtful. I needed... I don't know. Dealing with Redcliffe has been..." Evidently tired of cutting off his own thoughts, Romulus silenced himself, and took another bite instead, staring into the fire.

He exhaled through his nose, taking several deep breaths. "I'd never seen a friend die until recently."

Khari finished chewing over her own bite of sandwich before replying, though she might not have done quite enough, because it hurt a little on the way to her guts, and she grimaced, reaching for the wine bottle and washing the food down with several deep swallows. She liked the little bite on her tongue that alcohol had, though since she’d been introduced to the concept of imbibing, she’d preferred her beverages a bit stronger than wine. Still, it was lunch, not a night at the bar, so this was fine. She set it down and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, which also gave her some time to think about what he said. Khari didn’t really believe she was all that thoughtful, exactly—that seemed like an adjective for more complicated people. But she didn’t try to deflect his thanks, either.

“You want to talk about it? Can’t say I’ve got a lot of experience with that, either. Never had a lot of friends.” It was a mere statement of fact, and she delivered it like one. Nobody had really told her much about the whole ‘future’ thing, which was fine by her because it had to be way above her pay grade, but it sounded like it had been a pretty nasty business, if someone had died. Good thing it wasn’t the real future. Or, well… whatever.

Romulus cocked his head to the side, watching the fire but seeing something else in his mind. "The magister's spell sent us a year and a half or so into the future. I don't claim to understand it, but... imagine the worst nightmare you could possibly place yourself in, and then make it entirely real." He paused, long enough to get some more of the wine. He wasn't draining the entire bottle or anything, but most of his bites were chased by it.

"The Venatori controlled the castle. Many were dead, some had been prisoners for months. You were one of them. We found you and Zahra in a torturer's chamber." Another pause. It was possible he was deliberating whether or not to continue, or perhaps he was just working up the strength to do it. "You'd lost one of your arms at the elbow. One of your eyes was useless. Every inch of you, carved into carelessly. I don't even know what they could have wanted from you. Perhaps they simply enjoyed inflicting pain." He spoke the last words with disgust, as he did for the next that followed.

"You distracted the torturer when we entered. I ambushed him from behind. Hacked his head off in four strikes. Inaccurate cuts, so he'd feel it before the end." He rolled his neck around until it popped, and he rubbed at his eyes again.

"Despite all of that, you were still you, for the most part."

“Huh.” If there were words made for this kind of situation, Khari sure as hell didn’t know what they were. Instead, she let it sink in for a while, making her way through her sandwich. For the most part, she stared into the fire while she ate, trying to get a sense for what he’d seen. It was probably impossible—maybe that would just be something only the three of them would ever really understand. Hopefully, she wouldn’t learn it because it came to pass, at any rate.

She was a bit happy to learn she’d still been mostly herself, though, even after all that. It might have even been reassuring. Khari had always been fierce in her independence, and in her desire to stay true to who she was, though figuring that out had been quite difficult at various points in her life, and she suspected it would be again, someday. “Good to know I was still an angry nuisance even after the world went to shit. Less good to know that it went there in the first place. Probably we oughta, I dunno, not let that happen this time, or something.”

She frowned for a moment. “Did I die, then? In that future?”

"None of you could come back with us. So while Cyrus prepared the spell, you held off the Venatori with Asala, Zahra, and Vesryn. Kept them out of the throne room." He brought his hand up, touching two fingers to a point on his stomach. "When the door burst open, you had a sword in your guts. Whoever put it there lost an arm for it. But you fell after that. All four of you died, so that we could leave." He swallowed another gulp of wine, grimacing as though the drink or maybe the words had left a bitter taste on his tongue.

"You asked me to remind you, that even if all of this goes wrong again, that you're still... awesome, I think was the word. Said you forget that occasionally."

Despite what was perhaps a grave situation, Khari laughed, completely unashamed of it. Who would care, anyway? And if someone did, well, they could fuck off. She took in a hard breath afterwards, trying to regain the air required to breathe normally, and slid off the log to plant her rear on the ground. “Sounds like me, all right.” Her eyes narrowed with evident mirth, and the grinned at him. “Really kind of weird when you’re the one saying it, though.” It was definitely the sort of word she’d throw around carelessly, where as he seemed so much more deliberate than she was.

She sobered herself as well as she could though, the second bit striking her only when the humor from the first had receded. Then her breath transmuted to a sigh, and she shook her head. “Must’ve been pretty dire, if I was bothering you with that crap, though.” She wasn’t in the practice of making her self-evaluations a public matter, to anyone, and frankly, she was slightly ticked that she, or some version of her, had done it. Though it wasn’t like that was his fault.

“But… thanks for reminding me.”

"You're welcome." Rom's reply was a bit subdued, but then again, he'd been growing steadily more subdued for some time. He'd reacted slightly to a few of her laughs, showing the tiniest signs of his own smile, but they were soon enough smothered away. He clambered to his feet, brushing the dirt and snow from his legs.

"And thanks for lunch. I should get back to it." What exactly it entailed was unclear, but probably had something to do with chemical experimentation by torchlight.

“No problem.” Her reply was easy, and she lifted a hand by way of parting gesture. “Good luck down there.”

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

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Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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Vesryn and Saraya both left the rift feeling a bit disturbed.

He'd definitely heard whispering, light and airy, but it was as though some foreign force was preventing him from comprehending the words, or even recognizing words at all, no matter how hard he strained. Like a voice that was perpetually just out of earshot. He was half-tempted to move himself closer to the rift, but at Saraya's apprehension, he kept his distance. She knew far more of magic than she did, and while there was uncertainty that accompanied her hesitance, he had no wish to take any chances.

Experienced and knowledgeable mage though she was, there were still things about their bond to each other that neither understood, mostly due to the fact that this sort of result for them was never supposed to happen. In fact, Vesryn had never managed to glean the exact purpose for Saraya's imprisonment, her stasis. For even if it had been meant as preservation, it had become a prison for her. Without consciousness it might have been akin to a long, deep sleep, but she'd been forced to endure every last moment of those years awake and aware, though at some point the senses likely just gave up with nothing to focus on. It was not something Vesryn could properly imagine.

The sound of clashing arms pulled him from his troubled thoughts, and Vesryn looked upon the training groups of Inquisition infantry, drilling and sparring as they constantly were. They were improving clearly, but new volunteers were often arriving, and these still needed to master the basics. This need would only increase as the Inquisition grew in size and attracted more members.

A still green-looking soldier approached Vesryn as he neared, an excited look upon his face. "Taking up challenges again today, er... Vesryn?" The abrupt hesitation in his speed was undoubtedly caused by an unsureness in what to call him, despite his repeated assertions that simply Vesryn was quite fine. He was no ser, no brother, certainly not a messere to them, despite all appearances. Besides, men calling an elf any of those would be positively scandalous.

He shook his head, patting the recruit on the shoulder. "Not today, I'm afraid. I'd rather not be a disturbance again." There was a time and place for matches with spectacle, when the soldiers needed to blow off steam. This was not one of those times, and distracting the men from their drills would do more harm than good.

The recruit looked clearly disappointed, and was perhaps about to plead, when Vesryn turned his attention further ahead of him. "Khari! A word, if you've a moment?" The elf woman was working vigorously, as she always did, up ahead. In fact, the only reason Vesryn knew she was there was from flashes of bright red hair between the helmets of other soldiers. "I'll spar you another time, if you're so inclined," Vesryn said, to the recruit. He nodded, looking a bit spurned, and jogged off to resume his drills.

“And if I don’t?” The question, half-growled, was followed by several more clashes of steel on steel, the heavy whistle of a practice blade through air accenting the exchange, which was then brought to an abrupt halt by a furious-sounding growl and the sound of someone being hit with something blunter, which sent one of the other soldiers sideways and several feet laterally into something else with another thud.

It turned out that the ring proper was currently occupied by Khari and what looked like her triad of opponents, one of which had just been shoved into the fence by her foot. One of the others was just picking himself off the ground, and the third, a lightly-armored woman with blue vallaslin, was apparently realizing that flanking was far more difficult when there was no one there to distract the target. Khari whirled to face her and charged at full speed, knocking aside her defenses with a hard stroke of the oversized practice sword and bodychecking her to the ground.

That seemed to be the signal for the match to end, though, because she lowered her blade immediately after, bending to offer the skirmisher a hand up. “Pretty cutthroat, aren’t you, Thalia?” The one so named smirked a little, nodding.

“Only sometimes literally.” Khari laughed, trudged over to make sure the other two were doing all right, handing off her practice arm to the one she’d nearly put through the fence, nodded to the dark-haired chevalier in the crowd, and then at last turned to seek Vesryn, the other drilling soldiers letting her through easily enough.

She didn’t look thrilled to be talking to him, and her lack of enthusiasm was clear from her expression. Cocking an eyebrow at him, she crossed her arms over her chest. Her posture wasn’t hostile, exactly, just wary, as though she were expecting him to say something she didn’t particularly like. “Well… I do now, I guess. But I’m supposing you have more than one word.”

Saraya still didn't like Khari, not in the slightest. Considering that they'd had no real interaction since their last, rather harsh spar, that was unsurprising. Vesryn knew her well enough to know which qualities of the woman rubbed her the wrong way. Khari was obstinate, even in the way she fought. She wasn't naturally built to be a warrior, but she'd forced herself into the shape of one anyway. She fought without an ounce of grace, but instead with pure ferocity and energy to make up for it.

Her life decisions and obvious abandonment of Dalish ways thrown in, and she was the epitome of the square peg trying to fit into a round hole. While Saraya found it a waste of her obvious talent and passion, Vesryn had always found it endearing when someone displayed such an unquenchable passion for something. Not that he yet understood the particular direction of her passion.

For the moment, however, he found the chilly disposition somewhat tiring. A small white cloud ascended from him with his sigh, and he turned to look for a relatively private spot, all while Saraya tried to bore through the smaller elf with eyes she did not have. "I do, yes, but not here. I'd rather get out of earshot. If you'll follow..." A spot along the base of the wall, past the stables, looked good enough.

He didn't want this to be unpleasant. If he'd disliked Khari, he wouldn't have approached at all, certainly not with his intended topic. In fact, he'd never intended to get off to a poor start with anyone. If it was merely a side effect of how good he was...

Vesryn reminded himself not to think that way. Not too often, at least.

She followed him easily enough, in any case, apparently deciding that whatever her reservations might have been, they weren’t worth the trouble of voicing any further than she already had. Since she didn’t seem like the kind of person who ever had a problem saying what she thought, that was probably because she didn’t actually have many. Her expression changed, actually, and she raised a hand to tug on one of her ears, something that must have been a thoughtful or unconscious habit. Perhaps even a nervous one, it was impossible to tell. She didn’t otherwise seem apprehensive, only puzzled.

“Uh… okay. So no people then. What’s so important we have to talk about it with no people?”

"Well..." Vesryn propped his spear against the wall, shrugging off his shield as well and doing the same. "We obviously didn't get off to the best start, you and I." It was possible that Vesryn actually looked a bit uncomfortable. He knew that the root of this was that this particular conversation was not one he had often, at all. The number of people that knew of Saraya was a small one indeed, and as far as predicting reactions to the information went... Khari was easily the most unknown to him. That Cyrus had been intrigued and Estella had been understanding and cooperative was entirely unsurprising. From Khari, he expected anything from laughter to a right hook, or a headbutt, as she was clearly capable of.

"Since Redcliffe, some information about me has come to light, something only a few of the others know as of yet. It's bound to get around the irregulars eventually, so I thought it best to tell you myself, since it might explain the result of the little spar we had." Vesryn had been bracing himself for the violent reaction from Saraya, but it did not come. She actually seemed accepting of his intention, maybe even a tad curious. Like someone expecting to be disappointed, and perhaps hoping to feel superior as a result. This was something Saraya had displayed before, he knew.

"Tell me, do you know what an Arcane Warrior is? The real variety, not that Knight-Enchanter imitation they practice now."

Khari grimaced, though her reasons for doing so were unclear. “Sure. I might be a shitty Dalish, but I’ve always liked stories.” She shrugged. “They were like… the knights of Elvhenan, basically. Mages like the rest, but more inclined to physical combat, or something like that.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You weren’t holding out on me, were you? Because if you can do magic too and didn’t sling a few fireballs at me, I’m gonna be really mad.” She placed her hands on her hips, and unless the light was playing a trick, there was a tiny little uptick to the corner of her mouth. It seemed the kind of anger she was referring to was a lighter kind than whatever reduced her to snarling inelegance in an actual fight.

Nevertheless, there was a distinct element of seriousness to her words. It would seem she would have preferred to be on the wrong end of the magic, too, if he’d had it.

"If only," Vesryn said with a laugh, loosening up. Perhaps this wouldn't go as poorly as he feared, if her bristle towards him was merely from being bested, and not anything personal. He'd said a few things as taunts in the fight, after all, but it was the Champion's way. Any opponent worth the effort would receive the same treatment. "No, the one moment I held back on you, you broke my nose with your forehead." A rather unpleasant memory; he'd be helmed the next time they fought.

"But yes, you have the right of it. I'm no Arcane Warrior myself, but..." he trailed off. This was more difficult to do when the person hadn't simply come before him, asking what lived inside his mind. "This may be a lot to take in, but the remnant of one such woman exists in my mind. The ancient elves had ways of prolonging life, or existence at least, of individuals, by placing them inside mundane objects. When I was a late teen, I stumbled into a ruin in eastern Ferelden, and... absorbed one such individual." His facial expression was halfway to a wince, and indeed he found it nearly impossible to describe the significance in so few words.

“You… what?” Khari’s mouth pulled to one side, red brows furrowing over the clear light green of her eyes. She shook herself slightly and seemed to ponder that for a second, tipping her head to squint up at him. “You’re actually serious.” She breathed out what might have been a sigh, as though trying to decide what to do with that. The ear-tugging resumed, at least until she encountered a stray curl, which she tucked behind it. “So… there’s someone else living in your head or something, and she’s an arcane warrior? Or was, I guess.”

She frowned. “That’s uh… sure, okay, fine. Weird, but whatever.” Khari nodded, more to herself than him, but she still looked quite perplexed. “But I mean… what does this have to do with you beating me in a fight?”

The confusion part was to be expected. Vesryn had taken several weeks to actually comprehend what had happened to him, and even then the full extent didn't actually settle in until he had learned a thing or two about the place he'd stumbled into. To ask anyone to get it in a mere instant was laughable. "Very weird. Quite possibly the weirdest thing here, and there are weird people all over this place." In fact, him having Saraya in his head made Romulus and Estella stumbling out of a rift at the site of an explosion that killed everyone else nearby much easier to swallow.

"It... wasn't exactly me that beat you. Saraya--that's what she goes by, mind you--I can feel her instincts, her reactions, in my mind, to the point where I can allow them to become my own. Saraya had centuries of experience in the craft of war before what happened to her. I can't access her magic, but with her... I could read your moves practically as you made them. Without her, I doubt I'd have lasted five minutes against you." Saraya was not fond of that assessment, but Vesryn firmly believed it. Her attack was vicious and unrelenting, and without the knowledge of how precisely to weather her, and when exactly to turn her attacks against her, he'd have simply been battered on until he broke.

Khari must have found that amusing in some way, because she laughed, the sound clear and ringing. “Ha, you’ve got your teacher hanging out in your skull? That’s got to be interesting. I’m not sure whether mine wishes he could have done something like that to force some sense into me, or if he would have been horrified by the very idea.” Her eyes were bright with amusement. “I’d say you were a dirty cheater, but if you’ve got a resource, I can’t blame you for using it. Or well, accepting her aid, or however you’d put it.” She waved a hand as if to brush aside the semantic question.

“So I pretty much lasted ten minutes against an ancient elven knight… and here my parents thought I’d never amount to anything worthwhile.” She snickered. “Makes me feel better about losing, I’ve gotta say. But not that much better.” Her expression morphed back into what was swiftly becoming recognizable as her trademark jagged grin. What exactly the thought was that had provoked it, she didn’t say.

Vesryn laughed, clearly relieved that she was taking this well, all things considered. "Ah, well, yes... I do believe that if Saraya could speak, she would declare that you would not have lasted half as long against her. Magic thrown into the mix, and all." As expected, Saraya agreed with him, though not entirely. She still believed he was being entirely too generous to Khari's chances. He'd grown rather fond of that feeling, the irritation. Saraya could be infinitely superior to everyone around her all she wanted, but by the Gods, Vesryn was at least going to make her pay for that attitude. Even if he agreed with it, underneath it all.

"Just between you and me," he said, lowering his voice and leaning forward slightly, as though that would prevent Saraya from hearing him, "she doesn't like you. Not in the slightest." He grinned as he said it, evidence that he felt quite the opposite, and garnered no small amount of amusement from the situation.

"She's not fond of many people at all, really. You can imagine what she thought of me when we met. I was a thin, awkward, lanky flat-ear from the slums of Denerim at the time. With arms like twigs." A bit of an embellishment, but not by much. Truly, he was not proud of the physical state he'd been in. But it wasn't something to hide from. He'd worked, at Saraya's urging, and forged himself into something else. Something surely Khari was capable of as well, even without the help of an ancient guide in her head.

“Yeah?” Khari replied, apparently indifferent to the declaration of Saraya’s feelings towards her. “Well she’d get along great with my clan then. They hate me too. As you can see, I’m completely devastated by their disdain.” The sarcasm was practically dripping from her tone. Really, she might as well have said ‘Saraya can shove it.’ She paused a moment, perhaps attempting to imagine him with twiggy arms.

“Huh. Well, whatever she made you do, it worked.” She shrugged with evident nonchalance. “Good for you. But if you don’t mind, some of us have to muddle our way forward as well as we can without… remnants in our head, and for me, that means more practice, as often as possible, so…” She used her thumb to jab the air over her shoulder, indicating her plans to go back the way she came.

"Of course, and I apologize for the interruption," Vesryn replied, with a short bow of thanks. He raised a finger, however. "One more thing, though. Very few people currently know what I just told you. Most don't need to... so if we could avoid spreading this among the troops, I would appreciate it." Perhaps they'd find out, sooner or later, but from an unreliable source, it would probably just turn into rumor, and become warped to the point of unbelievability. But who was he kidding? It was already there.

"And perhaps we can practice together some other time, on more even footing." He trusted she would know what he meant. "I suspect there is much I could learn from a superior opponent."

“Compliments are like molasses, Vesryn. They’re sweet if you go in for that kind of thing, but you’d better not lay ‘em on too thick or you’ll get stuck someday.” Khari snorted, seemingly taking the implied status of her abilities to be a bit disingenuous, but it didn’t appear to bother her overmuch. She mock-saluted with her first two fingers and turned on her heel, picking up into a swift jog back towards the practice ring.

Setting

Characters Present

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



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

Image

The air still smelled like burning flesh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Inquisition had succeeded.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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It was a good night. Despite the fact that it was marking a very specific occasion, Romulus had managed to forget most of it.

Not that everyone didn't constantly try to remind him. He was the hero, or rather one of them, and though it might’ve seemed strange to an outsider, the slave was actually a little more used to being looked up to in these settings than the Avenarius was. Nights like these were not an affair for masses of nobles, sipping wine while they plotted and schemed about what would happen tomorrow. These nights were for the common man, or elf, looking to celebrate something they’d achieved, without a single thought to what was going to happen tomorrow.

Indeed, Romulus did not want to think about tomorrow.

He accepted congratulations with silence and nods, little polite smiles without parting his lips. He shook hands firmly with soldiers, found respect in their eyes. He wasn’t known to them in the same capacity Estella was, not by a long shot. She was a mercenary, accustomed to their company, if not always their praise, and she often spent time with them. Romulus kept largely to himself, for the very reason he was not doing so tonight: he did not intend to know these people, since his time here was so short.

The mark remained on his palm. He never really expected it to leave, but was disappointed all the same when it remained. He didn’t know if other rifts still existed now that the Breach was gone. If they didn’t, then there truly was no good use for such a thing, was there? He would return to Tevinter, and Chryseis would study it, try to learn everything she could about it, and use it for her own ends. It would elevate his status, he supposed. If it didn’t kill him.

More immediately concerning was the impending death the Revered Mother Annika was about to deal him. It was their third game of Mills in a best of three, and both sides were growing thoroughly intoxicated, having agreed to take a strong drink every time one of their pieces was removed from the board. It was late at night, though how far past midnight Romulus could not say. The festivities still carried on strongly, though the more weak-willed of the masses had slipped away to sleep. Romulus was using the distraction and opportunity to drink to work up some courage. He normally became rather irritable when drinking, but this was because his mind was usually in a poor place. Tonight was blissfully different in that regard.

“Has it been as long as I think it has?” Annika prodded. “Your men are going to fall asleep, Romulus.” He studied the pieces on the grid before him, before shifting one across a gap, breaking up Annika’s three-in-a-row. A gaggle of Inquisition soldiers had them more or less surrounded in the tavern ever since they’d entered. Romulus had been convinced to start drinking more effectively once Vesryn had managed to dance with him in the throng by the bonfire for a few seconds. An embarrassing scene, to be sure.

The soldiers had wanted to play all kinds of games with him, from dice games to stabbing knives into the table between their fingers. Romulus was particularly good at that one, and left no few soldiers with new cuts and empty shot glasses. Now, those still interested watched the battle of wits between the Herald and the Revered Mother, while those less patient turned to their drinks and their conversation.

When at last the game ended, Romulus found his pieces reduced to two, and conceded defeat to the Revered Mother. He was surprised with how well she held her drink, but had to constantly remind himself that she was once a soldier, too. Still was, judging by some of the things he’d seen.

The door to the tavern swung open again, admitting a gust of chill air and a gale of laughter. Khari was still pretty steady on her feet, but not as much so as Reed, who entered with her. Apparently, he’d said something she found hilarious, or perhaps she simply found everything hilarious at the moment, it was hard to say. She smacked him in the bicep with the side of her fist, then shoved him towards the bar. “That’s a sovereign if I win—don’t forget!” She nodded with false sagacity, then turned her attention to the rest of the room, her lopsided grin growing when she spotted the game and its players.

Without much care for who was standing where, she shouldered her way through the cluster of soldiers gathered around, and they let her for the most part, a few of them steadying her when it looked like she might tip a smidge too far. “Oooh, Mills!” She was apparently familiar with the game as well, and her eyes were sharper than they ought to have been when she swept them over the board, if she was as intoxicated as she acted.

“You’ll have to play me one day, Annika.” She didn’t seem particularly inclined to play now, however. “You two gonna have a rematch?”

“No, I think she has me figured out at this point,” Romulus admitted, rising from the table. He’d actually been about to go search for Khari, but it seemed she’d found him instead. The Revered Mother offered him a smirk from the other side of the board.

“Well spotted. Finish that there, and I’ll accept your surrender.” She pointed to the last of the glass upon the table still with drink in it. Romulus snorted with a laugh, realizing that he had forgotten. He scooped up the glass and downed it, setting it roughly back down upon the table. Stopping beside Khari, he offered a squeeze of the shoulder in greeting, though they’d not been split up for all that long.

"Mind heading back outside? There’s something I want to show you.”

Khari blinked, but then shrugged. “Sure.” She looked a little curious as to what he was talking about, and for a moment, almost a bit wary, like she was expecting something she wasn’t sure she’d like. That faded quickly, though, and she made short work of her excuses to those among the larger group she knew, exiting the cluster with more ease than she’d entered it and pushing the door to the outside open with her shoulder, standing in front of it to keep it propped open until he’d exited as well.

After it had fallen shut behind them, she tilted her head to the side. “So, where’re we headed?”

"Just outside the walls,” he said, seeing no real reason to hide it. He wrapped his cloak tightly around him. It was of course quite cold, but the spot he’d found was actually quite sheltered from it, especially the damnable wind that cut so much more than the temperature itself.

The tavern behind them, they passed by the largest of the bonfires, those around it having settled down a fair amount, allowing the emanating heat from the fire to keep them warm. Many directed their eyes towards the scar across the sky above the temple, where the thin clouds still swirled around, not yet recovered. Even against the dark of the night sky it was possible to make out the sickly green color, which still hadn’t faded from the spot. He hoped it would return to normal, eventually. It was at least more peaceful than it had been.

They chanced upon the lead scout, Lia, at the main gate, which had just been left open for the time being, the two guards grudgingly performing their duty at the post, but poorly hiding the wineskins they carried. The young elf woman offered Romulus and Khari a smile and nod in greeting, before she jogged out down the road, her bow slung across her back. Another of the scouts met her outside, and the two departed together.

The spot Romulus led Khari to was situated upon a small hill, overlooking the frozen lake and the forested mountainside beyond. It wasn’t the most picturesque spot in the world, but it was outside of the walls and away from the people, and Romulus didn’t really want to do this around either, and certainly not in any of the dismal, underground hidey-holes he’d subjected himself to for the duration of his stay in Haven.

Up a short path through the snow, they could see a few trails of footprints, roughly matching the Herald’s size and shape, evidence that he’d been out this way several times throughout the day, since the occasional snowfall covered most older tracks quickly enough. Upon reaching the top, a small inlet in the rock face was revealed, not quite large enough to be considered a cave. Most importantly, it was both protected from the wind, and devoid of snow on the ground. A firepit had been meticulously pre-prepared, such that Romulus only had to stoop and briefly strike flint against steel, and soon a warm flame had sprung up, quickly heating the little space.

A substantial rug had been laid out beside it, the centerpiece atop it a large bowl, entirely covered by several warm blankets. Romulus hadn’t been uncomfortable before, but as he gestured out with his arm at what he’d assembled, he felt quite nervous, and it obviously showed, though he transformed the feeling into a sheepish grin.

"I, uh… I don’t know what I was thinking, but I thought I’d do something. A thing. For you.”

“A thing? For me? You shouldn’t have.” Khari seemed to be all easy humor, her smile firmly in place and her eyes carrying the glimmer of mirth that was often to be found there. She wasted little time situating herself on one side of the rug, lifting up the corner of the cover on the bowl with more care than she usually demonstrated with such things. When it came away to reveal an assortment of foods, she barked a laugh. “I should be alarmed by how well you know me after a few months, Rom.” The selection on offer was indeed from what he knew to be her favorites, and she popped a dried fig in her mouth with little ceremony and a short hum of satisfaction, chewing it over and patting the spot on the other side of the rug.

“C’mon then. No way I’m getting through all this by myself. But you knew that already.” She stretched her feet out towards the fire, sliding off her fine leather boots with her feet and wiggling her toes a little ways back from the flames. “And for the record, you were thinking ‘you know, that Khari is pretty great, and she really likes food. I should give her some food.’ You were completely correct, of course.” The words were playful, light, and intentionally exaggerated, from the way she said them. Somewhat more serious, however, were the next ones.

“So… thank you.”

"You’re welcome. I stole all of this, by the way,” he added, his grin not wavering as he moved to take a seat, more beside her than across from her. "While the others were all worried about the mages and the templars, and closing the Breach. Guess no one really minds when I slip away.” He hadn’t meant for the sentence to end that way, but the words were out of his mouth, and he regretted them, even if he didn’t mean anything by it, in a larger sense.

He was quite hungry, and helped himself to some of the jerky, before he suddenly realized he’d forgotten the wine. Of course, his line of thinking was that both of them would’ve had enough to drink by this point in the night, and wouldn’t really want any more, but who didn’t want to drink after eating? He grimaced at himself, and then put it behind him.

"I do want you to know that you’re great, though,” he said, unable to keep himself from it any longer. She would know, surely, that he had a point to this, more than just opening up a bit and putting a stop to the moping for a night. "I don’t really want to joke about it. I don’t think I’d have made this far with this whole marked business if you hadn’t been here. I’ll probably forget a lot of the others over time, but I won’t forget you.”

Khari’s smile dimmed a little, and she swallowed, chasing down the fig with a large bite from a hunk of jerky, chewing slowly. It was an effort to give herself some time to think, and not a terribly subtle one. In the end though, she ran out of jerky before she ran out of thoughts, and so when she spoke, they were half-formed still. “You…” She grimaced. “You’d have been fine. And I’m not joking about that.” She reached up and scrubbed her hands up and down over her cheeks, sighing gustily.

“I hate endings.” She muttered the words, almost, then looked over at him and shook her head. “I’m no good at them. I only ever seem to leave when I’m angry, and when I get left, I’m…” She paused, shifting restlessly in her spot and huffing softly. It seemed that she was uncertain about something, awkward, even, which was unusual.

“I’ll miss you. And no one’s going to forget you, because I’m not going to let them.” A thin smile curled her mouth then, and she shrugged. “You were here. You were part of this. An important one—no matter what happens now, and no matter what you were before. So… if that means anything to you, there it is, I guess.”

"It does mean something to me. Maybe I didn’t want it to, when I realized this would happen, and maybe I wasn’t supposed to let it. If it didn’t mean anything to me, this would be easy. Leaving.” He made sure he had her eyes. "It’s not easy.”

He didn’t plan to say so much as a goodbye to the others. It would be simplest if he were just gone come morning, and that was how he planned it. The rest would go to sleep with their warm bellies from the drink, warm thoughts from the victory, and when they woke, they wouldn’t need him anymore. He’d played his part. It was an important one, yes, but it was over now. He’d allowed himself to think for a few moments, much earlier, that he’d been chosen by something, that Andraste was somehow wrapped up in all of this, in him, but now he recognized that as simply something that he’d wanted to believe. And like many of the things he wanted, it was best if he never got them.

"This doesn’t have to be a bad ending.” The rock wall wasn’t far behind them. He snagged a warm blanket, scooted back against the rock until his back was up against it, then draped the blanket over himself, with room to spare. He held out an arm and half the blanket, hoping Khari would scoot under it. "We can… I don’t know, tell stupid stories about the weird places we came from, and the dumb things we did. For as long as we can stay awake.”

She seemed to consider that suggestion for a moment, but then situated herself in beside him, pulling her knees up so that her feet would fall under the folds of the blanket as well. “Okay, but you’d have to have been pretty fucking dumb to come anywhere near half the stupid things I did when I was a kid.” She eased back against the stone wall behind them with an exhale, letting her muscles slacken. “My entire clan called me Da’Enfanim, which means ‘little terror,’ basically. Nicest nickname I had. Still shorter than my actual name, too.”

Romulus let out an honest laugh at that. He believed it, too, and believed it would only have encouraged her, let her know that whatever she was doing was working. He found himself relaxing, too, the alcohol in him doing enough to drown out his thoughts about the next day, the sounds of the festivities dying down in the distance…

It wasn’t enough, however, to drown out the sudden sounds of a struggle, not far from them. It took Romulus a moment to comprehend that the clash of steel and the sudden cry weren’t simply in his mind, subconsciously springing up to haunt him of his memory or warn him of his future. He turned to Khari, frowning. "You hear that?” He waited another second. A definite cry of desperate effort cut through the air.

A breath hissed out from between her teeth, and she nodded sharply. “I heard that. Let’s go.”

He shoved the blanket off of them and stalked to the edge of the little hilltop. Turning back, he grabbed the metal bowl by the bottom and tipped out the food in it. He then slid down the face of the hill, bowl in hand, towards the lake of ice, Khari, back in her shoes, right behind him. At the bottom, he heard heavy, weary footfalls trudging as quickly as possible through the snow. He looked right, and saw Lia staggering towards him, a bloody knife in one hand, the other clutching a wound in her side. The blood leaked through her fingers and down her leg.

“Two behind me,” she managed, running past Romulus a short ways before she stopped, and fell to a knee. At the treeline, two archers in dark garb and armor appeared in pursuit, the first immediately firing an arrow that Romulus was forced to intercept with the bowl. It clattered off the metal to the ground. He scooped it up.

Though she hadn’t been anywhere near fully-armed during the party. Khari had been wearing a dagger at her hip, and she brandished that now, the blade about seven inches from the hilt. The way she held it suggested that she knew how to use it properly, and she was off across the ice, surefooted despite the slick terrain, making a beeline for the archers. Another arrow was loosed, whistling by her ear before striking the frozen surface of the lake behind her. She’d nearly reached the treeline by the time the first shooter had nocked a second, and that one struck her in the arm just as she reached him.

She shifted the knife to the other hand and jumped, tackling him to the ground in a tangle of limbs. He scrambled to get out from underneath her, throwing her off before she could stab him, but Khari worked with what she had, lashing out from where she landed and catching him in the calf. He yelled hoarsely, momentarily seized by pain, and she used the opportunity to stab him again, this time in the throat, which abruptly cut off the noise.

Romulus charged the other, and had to block a second arrow with the bowl on the way, before it could pierce his throat. By the time the archer had nocked the third, he was in range, and Romulus hurled the bowl away from him, striking his enemy in the upper body and forcing him to abandon his aim. Romulus reached him before he could draw a secondary weapon and smashed his shoulder into the man’s gut, driving him back until he struck a tree trunk. He groaned from the hit, but Romulus cut this short as well by plunging the arrowhead into his temple, and leaving it there. He sank slowly down the tree.

Immediately he turned back for Lia, checking and confirming that Khari had handled the other threat on the way. He stopped beside her to scoop up one of her arms and help her walk. Khari slung the other over her own shoulders and added a hand to the pressure on Lia's most obvious wound. "Who are they?” Romulus asked. "What happened?”

“Scouts, I think,” she mumbled, wincing with each step. “Venatori… they’re—” Her words were cut off by the sound of an ominous horn, not one Romulus had ever heard before, coming from the woods behind them. On the mountainside, firelight from torches was starting to dot the shadowy trees, moving ever closer to them. An army was on the way. Romulus swallowed, all thought of leaving before morning immediately set aside.

"We need to get back. Now.”

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He charged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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Panic set in immediately and clutched Asala's heart. The deafening roar of something terrible doubled her over and forced her hands to her ears to try and drown out the sound. It didn't help, of course, she could feel the ferocity of the cry in her bones, she could feel its hate. Eventually the roar subsided, but the dread she felt did not. Slowly Asala took a step back, but her foot caught something and she was thrown backward. She landed on top of something, and when she turned to see what to what it was, the dead eyes of a Venatori soldier stared back at her. She cried out in surprise and scrambled away from the charred corpse.

She reached the trebuchet and used it to pull herself to her feet. All around her, the scene was the same. Bloodied and charred Ventori, broken and shattered red templars, and even some of the Inquisition soldiers lay dead around them. But all of that only garnered her attention for a moment, as the sound of the massive wing beats drew her eyes upward. A great black dragon with leathery jet wings flew silhouetted against the night stars. Asala's eyes went wide in fear and terror, causing her to slip back down to the ground, her back pressed against the trebuchet and her gaze pinned upward.

She watched it descend and sink its talons into a another trebuchet, wrecking it like it was made of nothing but rotten wood. Panic seeped in again, this time with a shot of adrenaline, and she pushed herself up from the ground and quickly took a few cautionary steps away. Over the din of everything, she could still hear the cries of battle and the ringing of metal against metal. She turned and found Cyrus, her eyes wide and confused. She didn't know what to do any more, and she looked to him for direction.

His attention too was pinned on the dragon, but he wore no expression of fear. Rather, Cyrus seemed to be studying it, a sharp stare following its wheels and turns in the sky carefully. He was mouthing words, though it was impossible to tell what they were, or if they had any volume at all, over the din of battle. When the dragon passed temporarily out of sight, his eyes fell back down, and only then did he seem to observe the chaos around them for the first time, flicking his gaze back and forth between each component of their situation rapidly, absorbing the information and processing it.

A muscle in his jaw jumped, and his scrutiny fell on her briefly, before skittering to Estella and then the rest. He looked like he was about to say something, loud enough for everyone to hear this time, but it was at about that point that a small cluster of other soldiers stumbled upon the site, all in various states of woundedness. “Fall back to the Chantry!” The words were hasty and slurred, but nevertheless effective. “Commander’s orders!”

“You heard him, let’s go.” That seemed to be mostly directed at Estella and Vesryn, but then he glanced to Asala, gesturing up Haven’s hill with a sharp tilt of his head as he turned.

Vesryn withdrew away from the thickest fighting, his spear coated in blood, and much of his armor spattered as well, though he was moving quite efficiently, a sign that he hadn't suffered too much in return as of yet. His axe as well was dripping dark red, and even small bits of red lyrium crystals clung to the blade of the weapon, from where it sat upon his back. He moved back swiftly, always keeping his shield towards the enemy, his helmet darting left and right to watch his path as he moved.

"I'll watch the rear," he stated, leaving no room for argument. A reckless Venatori found himself skewered upon the spear, and Vesryn shoved him off onto his back with a kick from a metal boot. "No time to lose, we can't get cut off." He was clearly referring to the fact that elsewhere the Venatori and Red Templars were finding more success, and starting to break through into Haven, where they could run rampant. It would get very messy soon, unless they could fall back and find a better place to hold them off.

Estella was covered in cuts and scratches—they’d pulled her out of sleep and she hadn’t had time to don much more than a leather cuirass and boots before they were off again, and the lack of protection had hurt. All things considered though, the wounds were light, and it was obvious enough that she’d somehow avoided the worst of all of them. Looking between the others, she nodded, leading the way forward. Their path took them towards the gate first, after which they’d be able to go up the hill, past the tavern again, and then to the Chantry.

The scene that met them upon approaching the gate was not a pretty one. There were fewer corpses here, but the gate itself was clearly but a few blows from caving inward. Spotting Lia and Tanith in the crowd, Estella shouted out. “Fall back to the Chantry, everyone! The Commander’s called a retreat!” As if to punctuate the statement, the heavy wooden gate groaned in protest again as it was struck from the outside—presumably, they were using a battering ram.

Most of the soldiers looked quite glad to be going along with that plan, but Tanith looked at the gate for a long moment before turning back to Estella. “If we don’t hold them here, you won’t have enough time to get out before we’re overrun. Some of us must stay, and I will stay with them.” Quickly, she turned to the soldiers. “Men and women of the Inquisition! Who among you will remain, that your Herald, and your brothers and sisters in arms, might live to fight another day?”

There was a moment of heavy silence, but then a woman stepped forward, her shield to the fore, and saluted Estella with her sword. “For the Inquisition.” Several of those who’d been standing closest to her followed, with various affirmations of for the Inquisition, for the Herald, or even for Thedas. No few of these people had been wearing broad grins earlier in the evening, celebrating with joy and abandon, but there was no trace of that now. In the end, Tanith had two dozen footsoldiers with her, and they all rearranged hurriedly so as to be in front of the gate itself, forming a wall of shields and spears, those in the back line drawing bows and pointing them for the door. In front of the rest, Tanith lit a flame in one hand, a dagger held in a reverse grip in the other, and glanced over her shoulder.

“We’ll hold. The rest of you—get to the Chantry. And tell Rilien I’m sorry, would you?”

Estella’s face twisted into an expression of clear pain, and she looked almost as though she intended to protest, but in the end, something stayed her tongue, and she nodded solemnly to them. “I will. Thank you, all of you. Fight well.” Her voice nearly cracked, but she managed to hold it steady. The need for haste was still apparent, however, and she turned from them then, jogging up the hill with the rest of the group and the remainder of those who had been posted at the gate.

Asala quietly followed, her eyes wide in shock. It was all too difficult to process what was happening, and she didn't truly understand it all. There was smoke and blood in the air, and deeper into the town the crimson of fires burned. She felt empty and numb, her feet moving on their own behind Estella and Cyrus. As they drew closer to the Chantry, the clash of steel reached her ears, and she looked up to see a small cluster of Venatori. They must have found a breach somewhere within the wall. Their armor was covered in scarlet and around their feet lay multiple bodies-- not all of them soldiers of the Inquistion. Amongst the pile, Asala recognized the face of Adan, the alchemist who'd aided her.

Her hand covered her mouth and she choked back a sob. Her legs trembled and threatened to buckle under her own weight. So distraught was she, that she didn't see the Venatori archer draw his bow, his arrow aimed at them.

The arrow flew from the end of the bow, its trajectory straight and unerring, at least until there was another body in front of it, Cyrus leaving afterimages behind as he pulled through the Fade to the spot, the luminous sword in his hand swinging in a controlled arc that snapped the arrow in two, the halves of it flying off in different directions. The bolt of lightning that he shot from his free hand cooked the archer in his armor, and the cultist dropped heavily to the ground.

“Asala! Focus! We’re not done yet!”

She shook her head, hard, and her eyes focused. Closing her eyes she forced everything to the back of her mind and drew her hands up. A Venatori with a large sword rushed them, and in a moment, the fade lit up in her hands. A barrier formed feet in front of him and surged forward. He attempted to hew through the shield, but the sword bounced off and left hairline cracks in it, but it continued to bowl forward regardless. The barrier struck the man at full force, throwing him back first into the ground hard. The wheezing he let out caused Asala to wince, but otherwise she did not back away.

The fight was a short one, in total, and the last Venatori soldier fell before Estella, a saber-stroke opening a broad gash on his neck, gushing arterial blood onto the snow. Her expression was grim, but resolute. “It’s not far now; let’s go.” She took point again, leading them up the last staircase and onto the highest level of the town itself, where they could glimpse ahead of them several others standing by the Chantry doors.

There were a lot of maroon tunics in the mix—it would seem the Lions had made it this far as well, and from the prominent scorch marks on their clothes and the soot-covered civilians that they herded inside the building, their progress here had been no easier than anyone else’s. As the group approached, they drew the attention of the mercenaries, who looked quite relieved to see them.

“Thank the Maker,” Donnelly said as they approached, breathing a heavy exhale. “Commander Leon’s lot are inside already, and we’ve got most of the civilians and remaining troops as well. You should hurry—he’ll want to speak with you.” He gestured for the group to head inside ahead of himself and the other Lions.

The small Chantry was brimming with people, civilians and soldiers alike. There was a loud clamor of multiple voices all speaking at once, and in various states of panic. The unrest felt within the building was palpable, and Asala wanted nothing more than to close her ears and drown it all out. But she didn't. Instead, she threw herself into work. As they approached the leaders of the Inquisition, Asala stopped and began to heal all of those that needed it. The work helped take her mind off of the panic in her heart, and the focus helped drown out the dread.

As she helped a soldier with a large gash in his side, she watched as the others approached the Inquisition's leaders. Marceline stood with her arms crossed and a thin frown on her lips as she spoke to Leon and Rilien. It seemed she had just been roused from bed, as she still wore a black nightgown, though she also wore a thick coat that was far too big for her and a pair of thick leather boots. Nearby, her husband rested heavily against a pillar, a thin line of blood falling from his temple, and a pair of swords hanging limply from his hands. Larissa comforted Pierre with a firm grip on his shoulders and whispering something into his ears. Leon was fully armored now, his arms crossed over his broad chest, but when they entered, his eyes were immediately upon them, and a fraction of the tension left his frame.

Rilien looked the same as he ever did, still unerring in his calm, though not too far away, Khari seemed considerably more agitated, pacing restlessly. She too was fully armored now, and wearing her familiar cleaver-like sword. Her expression brightened for a moment upon seeing them, but then her eyes moved to the cluster of the Inquisition's leaders, as though she were waiting for something.

Leon said something to his fellow Inquisition leaders, too low to hear properly, and then nodded shortly, drawing in what seemed to be a very deep breath indeed, before he gestured to Asala and the rest of the irregulars, both those who’d just entered and the ones who were already there. Once everyone had assembled in a rough circle, he began to speak, his voice low enough not to carry much further than their ring of people.

“There isn’t much time until they reach us, as I’m sure you're aware.” He glanced up, towards the doors, where several Inquisition soldiers were at work fortifying the entrance to the Chantry with whatever was available, setting up an inverted ‘v’ of pews, a traffic control tactic that would likely do no one any good in the end. “I don’t know who this is or where they got a dragon, but we’ve no hope of holding Haven.” He shot a glance to Marceline.

She shook her head and drew the coat tighter over her shoulders. "We have our essential supplies packed into carts and the horses are ready..." She said before she hesitated. She threw a wary glance over her shoulder and toward her son and husband, before she returned it to the group. Marceline sighed heavily before she continued. "But, we have nowhere to escape to. We would not make it out the front gate before we were cut down." Though her face betrayed no emotion, her grip on the coat noticably tightened. "And I do not know of any other way out of Haven."

The group was interrupted at that point by an approaching Reed, who half-carried Chancellor Roderick, one of the clergyman’s arms slung over the corporal’s shoulders. Roderick’s white vestments bore a very obvious red stain, though it would seem he wasn’t currently bleeding. Rather, his face looked wan, bleached of all color, and a healer as experienced as Asala knew he was dying from blood loss.

“He said he had to talk to you, Commander,” Reed offered to Leon, whose brows drew together over his eyes.

Asala quickly moved to Roderick's other side and gestured for Reed to gently lower him into a sitting position on the ground. Once there, Asala's hand lit up in a healing spell and she moved it over the wound. She tilted her head toward Leon and gave him a curt shake of his head. It... did not look good, and she doubted that he was within her power to save, but it would not stop her from trying. She focused in on his wound and began to try and help as much as she could-- at the very least, she could dull the pain.

"Charming girl," he said, having apparently caught the look she gave Leon. Roderick patted her gently on the head before he weakly turned her head toward Leon. "Ser Albrecht," he began, before wincing in pain. "There is a way. You wouldn't know it unless you've taken the summer pilgrimage as I have. The people can escape. She must've shown me," he said weakly, but still tried to reach his feet. A steadying hand from Asala and a constant healing spell at his said, she helped guide him up.

"Andraste must have shown me so I can-can tell you."

“What do you mean, Chancellor?” Leon’s tone seemed to waver between gentle and stern, as though he could not quite resolve the tension between the urgency of their situation and his evident sympathy for the cleric. “Shown you what?”

“It was whim that I walked the path,” he replied, his mind clearly not at its usual alert capacity, which was probably the result of the wound he’d taken earlier. “Now, with so many in the Conclave dead, to be the only one that remembers…” He wheezed, a sound that might have been a rueful laugh, had he the lung capacity for it. “If this simple memory can save us… then this could be more than mere accident.” He turned his head, clearly making an effort to fix his eyes on Romulus and Estella. You could be more…”

“Will it work?” Estella asked urgently, training her gaze on Rilien and Leon. The commander turned to the Tranquil as well, perhaps trusting his instinct in clandestine retreat better than his own.

It did not take him long to consider. “Possibly. If you can show us the way.” His expression remained devoid of any readable traces, until he turned the scant bit needed to move his citrine eyes from Roderick to the others. “But it will take time, and the opposition must be occupied while it occurs.” The gravity of what he was saying was apparent in his pitch, somehow, though he didn’t modulate much at all. He was saying, clearly enough, that some group of people would need to remain behind and distract the encroaching force while the rest escaped. And the prospect of those people escaping was near to nothing.

"So we give them something they’ll be drawn to, as bait,” Romulus cut in, buckling on the second of his bracers. Estella looked as though she’d been about to speak, but yielded the floor when the now battle-geared assassin spoke up instead. His weapons were soon in his hands, making his next words perhaps less surprising. "I’ll go, with a few others maybe. I could try to reach one of the trebuchets, turn it towards the mountains behind us. Hit the right spot, and…” He pushed his hands down, a gesture symbolizing an avalanche as best he could make it.

"Bury them in the village they want to take?” Vesryn said, grinning slightly as he leaned on his spear, though he appeared largely uninjured. "Not a bad plan for our escape, but that doesn’t leave you with much of one.” Romulus had a look of steel in his eyes, and yet at the same time it had softened. Aggression towards the enemy, out of desire to help friends, perhaps.

"I was going to be gone in the morning anyway,” he admitted, glancing at Khari. "But this is a choice I can make. One choice of my own. I want it to be a good one.”

“I’m going with you.” That was Khari, and she said it with iron in her voice, a tone that left no room for protest. It didn’t take long, though, for that impression to almost dissipate, subsumed under her usual carefree demeanor, complete with reckless smile. “Can’t well run away while my friend goes off to fight a dragon and fire a trebuchet at a whole mountain, now can I?” She put one fist in her other palm in front of her chest, cracking her knuckles and shaking her hands out, shifting deliberately from one foot to another, as though to make sure everything was working the way she wanted it to.

Romulus simply nodded, offering no objection, and smiling slightly, as though unsurprised.

Estella glanced back and forth between them, still looking a bit like she’d swallowed something that didn’t agree with her, something tightening around her eyes, but she didn’t say anything. Leonhardt didn’t seem especially pleased, either, but clearly he believed that the suggestion made sense, and he nodded slowly. “Very well,” he said at last. “Give me a moment; I’ll see who among the others would join you—skilled as you are, the distraction needs to last, or it will be for naught.”

He left them there for several minutes, during which he made a short circuit of the room, returning with four Inquisition regulars, looking nervous but resolute, and, surprisingly enough, Grand Enchanter Fiona. She nodded to the group, smiling grimly. “I failed to protect my people once,” she explained, “I will not do so again.”

A pair of horns muscled their way toward the group and Meraad emerged with his arms crossed and his head tilted to the side. After a moment of him glancing between them, he nodded. "I will join you."

"No." The healing spell in Asala's hand cut off abruptedly and caused Roderick to wince as the pain rushed back. She shifted his weight so that Reed was left holding onto him again, and she moved toward Meraad. "No, you will not," she stated firmly as she stood in front of him. The frown she wore was deep and wide and she held his wrists as tight as she dared.

He simply smiled and shook his head. "I am, and I will." A muscle tightened in her jaw and she was about to refuse him again, but he silenced her by pressing his forehead gently against her. "For you, Kadan. I have to make sure you escape safely." With that said, he withdrew and threw a glance back at Romulus and Khari. "Someone has to make sure they come back," he said still smiling. "We will be fine. I promise," he said, kissing her forehead.

She was quiet after that, her mouth open but she didn't know what to say. She stared at him long and hard before she spoke again. "You... promise?" she asked, to which he nodded. Her gaze lingered for a moment longer before she went into the pack at her side. She retrieved a container and pulled the lid off to reveal a white, paint-like substance. She dipped a pair of fingers into it a scooped some out.

Without needing her to ask him, he leaned forward and she drew a pair of lines across his forehead with the vitaar, and another pair down his forehead, across his brow, and all the way to his jaw. He then offered her his arms, and she drew another pair of lines down each of them. When she was done, she replaced the lid, slipped the container back in her pack, and took a step backward. She was on the verge of tears, before she threw herself into his arms.

"Come back, Kadan," and with that, she returned to Roderick's side and resumed the healing spell, throwing herself back into her work.

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Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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It was chaos outside the Chantry.

Romulus was resolved to make the most of it. The Inquisition soldiers and other volunteers that had remained behind to delay the Venatori and Red Templars were making them pay dearly for each inch, but the army assaulting Haven appeared endless, at least from the vantage of the Chantry steps, the highest point in the village. There were screams everywhere, clashes of steel, the smell of ash and burning, and blood. The snowy ground was stained red with it, or rather a deep maroon in the moonlight. Romulus had no idea what time it was, but the darkness suggested there were still several hours to go before the dawn.

The Herald assumed the lead of the small group, consisting of himself, Khari, Fiona, Meraad, and several Inquisition regulars. The way the soldiers looked to him might have made him awkward and uncomfortable days before, but now it gave him purpose. If this was to be his last night, it would be as a free man, and a free man was allowed to feel some measure of pride in the respect he had earned. They were all willing to follow his lead.

His lead was to avoid the Venatori as best as he could, taking a somewhat longer side route left out of the Chantry and around the still standing buildings on the village's perimeter. They were a small enough group to avoid significant attention, and between Romulus's crossbow and an archer among the regulars, they were able to quickly put down the few enemies they came across. Most of the Venatori were drawn to the greatest point of conflict, the rear guard still holding near the gate.

Only one of the trebuchets was still a feasible target. The dragon had obliterated one like a child would to a poorly crafted toy, and the other was too close to the battle still raging. They had to go for the farthest one, closest to the palisade separating them from the Venatori army. It was turned, of course, to face the enemy. They would need to turn it towards the mountains behind the village, raise up the counterweight, and load it with some of their scarce ammunition. It would take a good deal of time, and it was bound to draw attention, especially once the Herald's presence was called out, vulnerable and separated from the bulk of his forces.

The few Venatori around the trebuchet were dispatched quickly, leaving them with a brief moment to prepare. Two of the regulars stepped to the task of turning the siege weapon, while the rest formed a perimeter around them, preparing to intercept the first of the enemy forces to see the engine shifting, and be drawn to investigate.

It didn’t take too long. Though their efforts at avoidance had bought them time, and the rear guard were still fighting furiously at the gate, the turning of the trebuchet was bound to be noticed, and first on the scene were a group of Venatori, perhaps a dozen, a small unit that must have been on its way up to the Chantry, or else to flank the soldiers at the gate. Whichever it was, they were here now, and upon spying the Herald among the other soldiers, diverted their course immediately, charging right for the line of defenders in the way.

But the line stepped forward to meet them, the clash sudden and vicious. The archer among the regulars immediately fired on the Venatori with ice in her hands, and she dropped, fletching blooming like flowers from her chest and abdomen. The others seemed to have a preference for direct confrontation, which suited just fine.

Khari moved forward with the rest, but it wasn’t long before she was a bit out of formation, as her first swings forced the cluster of three foes she went for backwards quite far comparatively, and her third stroke hewed one down when he wasn’t fast enough in his scrambling backwards. It was hard to tell under the mask and in the semidarkness, but a fair guess was that she was grinning like a madwoman, and she bounced easily into the next hit, her cleaver clanging off a shield with a grating rapport and then the scrape of metal along metal. The other swung at her with a broadaxe, but she twisted, turning her whole body aside and darting away like a howling gale, diverting only to crash against the next foe before her with all the ferocity of just such a wind.

The scent of ozone began to hang heavily in the air then, as electricity crackled and arced across Meraad's arms and fists. He held a shield of a Venatori warrior with one hand, while the other repeatedly struck him in the face and sent a jolt of electricity through his body with each strike. When he finally let go, the shield held a scorch mark and smoke rose from the body.

A pair then rushed to greet him. The first approached with a sword drawn, but caught a heavy foot to the chest for the effort. Meraad's strength was great enough to put him on his back, but left the other rushing forward with a battle-axe. Meraad stepped forward and caught the haft at as the Venatori drew it back to swing and delivered a hard right, wrenching it free. He returned it by driving it deep between the man's neck and shoulder, cutting all the way to the spine and then some.

The axeman, however, had seemed to distract him from the swordsman, who now came in from the side. He never reached Meraad, however, as a heavy fireball caught him in the facemask, cooking his head inside his helmet. Following its trajectory revealed Fiona at the other end, a smoking staff in hand.

Romulus remained near the edges of the fight, more than once saving the lives of the regulars that fought with them from Venatori that sought to flank. Whenever he drew attention he retreated back, deflecting blows and rolling away, swifter to change directions than any of them could hope to be in their plate armor. They were being torn to pieces by the small, elite group, and clearly it was affecting their morale.

The Red Templars among the attackers were drawn more slowly to the battle, but indeed they seemed to carry more weight literally upon their backs. Two creatures, once human, staggered forward along the path back towards the gate and the main fight, their backs swollen and protruding from their armor, punctured with glowing red spikes. They had not the size of the behemoth that had crashed through the wall originally, but their faces and bodies were twisted horrors, and they roared with a fury upon spotting the fight before them.

The first of them to come in range began to writhe in what appeared to be pain, hunching over and clutching at his head. He shook violently, and small shards of red lyrium shot with velocity from his back, whistling through the air in clusters at the massed combatants. Romulus crouched down and lowered his targe in front of him, catching several of the shards, though one found his lower leg, and he grimaced as he stumbled backwards. Wrenching it free, he retreated behind the more durable, including the Venatori, whom the horrors did not seem to care if they wounded or killed in the process of their attack.

"Almost there!" cried one of the regulars from the trebuchet, as she and her partner worked tirelessly to aim the weapon. In the fighting, the first of the Inquisition in the group was cut down by a lyrium shard punching clean through his throat, a wound beyond the skill of any healer to mend.

The barrage of red lyrium spikes appeared to have torn several holes in Khari’s cloak, which she’d taken refuge behind, but doing so had taken enough force out of the projectiles that they’d just clanged off her armor afterwards, and she bounded back to her feet, lunging for the red templar on the right, only for her trajectory to be intercepted by a shield, welded to his arm more than held as such, also spiked with crimson crystals. It was swung a great deal faster than an ordinary man would be cable of, and tossed her back several feet, where she landed in a crouch, springing up again and trying a different angle, this time meeting his sword with her own.

They clashed several times, the echoes from one ringing blow not even dying away before the next followed, and he managed to get a good hit in on one of the gaps in her piecemeal armor, punching a hole in her abdomen right around the left side of her waist. Khari didn’t even seem to notice, actually stepping farther forward and pushing the sword deeper to get the reach she needed to bury the cleaver at the juncture of the templar’s neck and shoulder. He fell, and only then did her glance move down to the blade partway in her guts. She scowled and yanked it out, tossing it with no particular finesse at another Venatori trying to drive past the line of regulars. It didn’t do much by way of damage, but it was a distraction, one that the Inquisition soldier took advantage of, hefting his axe into the cultist’s head with a loud crunch and splitting it like a log.

Meraad dropped the Venatori into a heap at his feet, his back littered with red lyrium spikes. Apparently, he'd grabbed the man moments before as an impromptu shield. While the red templar that had fired the spikes at him slowly waded toward him, Meraad apparently grew impatient and rushed to meet him instead. The electrical currents running through his arms faded away, and were replaced by a thin layer of stone. Once within distance, the templar swung a spike of red lyrium, more akin to a club than a sword, and struck Meraad in the side.

The force was enough to push Meraad out of his angle, but the Qunari proved stubborn and clung hard to the spike. With a great heave, Meraad drew the templar close enough to deliver a punishing headbutt, shattering some of the crystals from what used to be a man's head. He continued and pushed forward, taking the templar to the ground all the while summoning more stones to his arm. By the time Meraad sat atop the templar, his arm looked like a club, which he used to bash the rest of the red templar's head off.

Letting the stone peel from his arms, Meraad stood winded, a thin line of blood coming from his forehead, and quickly tried to make it back to their line. Another fireball flew past him from Fiona, and from behind him an explosion rang out.

"Herald!" one of the regulars called. "It's loaded, we just need to--" Her words were cut off by a powerful bolt of lightning from a Venatori spellcaster, throwing her away from the siege weapon, where she collapsed onto the ground in a smoking heap. Romulus put down the mage with his crossbow, loading another bolt swiftly as he ran towards the trebuchet. There was a question of time to deal with here: had they given the others long enough to get free? If this worked, they'd be buried under a literal mountain of snow.

It didn't matter in the end, however, as an ominous beating of wings upon the wind preceded a powerful explosion in the palisade, a ball of fire erupting and sending large chunks of wood and earth everywhere. A shockwave of force punched Romulus back, tossing him through the air, and leaving the rest of the combatants at the very least momentarily stunned. Romulus hit the ground painfully, tumbling to a stop, blinking the bleariness from his eyes. Through the intense haze of the flames, he could see figures beginning to emerge, striding confidently through.

From the look of them alone, these were the very cream of the crop when it came to the Venatori. With but a single exception, every last one of them was garbed in blindingly-white robes, accented with silverite armor pieces, and armed with a staff. They marched in lockstep, regimented like a highly-disciplined military force, quite unlike their lower ranks, or any known group of mages in Thedas. If they resembled anything, it was the way the Qunari beresaad moved—confident, assured, and utterly as one.

At the front of the march was one figure noticeably different from the rest. Tall enough to distinguish himself from the others, he was also clothed head-to-toe in sable, a hood drawn up around his head. His shoulders and chest were protected by a metal so dark a red it was nearly black itself, some kind of bloodstone, maybe, for it lacked the glow of tainted lyrium. Where his troops marched, he prowled, with the kind of feral grace that belonged almost exclusively to predatory cats. The entire left half of his face was covered with some kind of mask, so white it could have been made from porcelain, bone, or pearl, which reflected the scant light with noticeable brilliance.

The uncovered half of his face was quite well-structured, one dark brow set over a darker eye, his skin smooth and unlined, stretched taut over a patrician bone structure. The half of his mouth that could be seen wore a pensive scowl, one that deepened when Fiona and the remaining regulars stepped forward, the first to recover and pick themselves up from the shockwave.

Together, they loosed: two arrows and an impressively-sized fireball flew towards the formation. The Venatori reacted immediately, a couple near the front throwing up barriers to protect the ranks as they continued forward. The man in black, however, met the magical flames with a sneering indifference, raising one hand and summoning his own flames, which flew outwards and made contact with the Grand Enchanter’s, engulfing and consuming them before continuing forwards to smite Fiona herself, who fell to the snow with a strangled cry, her unmoving form smoking copiously as flames licked at her hair and clothes, blackening her flesh. There was simply no way she’d survived.

The regulars fell swiftly after, as the Venatori lowered the barriers and volleyed magical projectiles at the group.

In their wake strode a monster, a humanoid form easily outmatching even the likes of Leon in height. He regarded the flames as though they were nothing, even as they licked at his tattered robes and threatened to catch fire. He had not the commander's density, however. His arms and the fingers upon his hands were overly long, and somewhat spindly, each tipped with black pointed nails of several inches. His body was lined with small plates of red lyrium, as though it were fused into his very skin, but that same skin did not feature the same kind of corruption present in the other red templars. No, it was paler, more akin to a corpse or even...

Darkspawn. The thought occurred to Romulus just as the black, hideously twisted dragon screamed again and flew overhead, bending around to land with a cataclysmic shaking of the earth nearby. Its attention, and that of the tainted giant striding ahead, were focused solely on Romulus, on the Herald. He tried to move, but looked down to find a sizable piece of splintered wood from the palisade impaling his lower leg, another smaller one protruding from the right side of his abdomen. His shield was on the ground nearby. He rolled over and grasped for it, though he knew not what use it would be to him at this point.

Someone stepped into Romulus’s line of vision, between him and the oncoming forces. The hem of the red cloak and the pattern of metal banding over the person’s boots was enough to mark that person as Khari. She rose up onto the front pads of her feet, shifting her center of gravity lower, and he could hear her draw in a ragged breath, letting it hiss out again between her teeth. She lunged into a sprint, sword trailing out to the left of her, and several bright flashes of fire or lightning were hurled for her path, forcing her to dodge each time with bounding leaps and swift trajectory changes. Most struck the ground instead of Khari herself, throwing up clouds of snow and dirt that made it difficult to tell what was going on, but a few sounded like they hit something different.

An enraged yell preceded the heavy whistle of a cleaver swing, but it was cut off by the sound of a blunt impact, a great crash, and Khari was ejected from the swirl of snow and smoke, thrown like a rag doll into the trebuchet itself, where she bounced off one of the thicker wooden beams that comprised it and landed to the side of the siege weapon. She did not stir.

A fireball then flew the other direction, angled upward above most of the human combatants, but eye level with the great black dragon. The fireball struck the creature in the nose and blossomed, but if it was anything other than annoyed, it certainly didn't show it. "Ataashi basra!" Meraad cried in Qunlat, flinging another fireball at the dragon's face. It had the same effect as the last, only serving to irritate the dragon further.

The creature, obviously tired of the Qunari flinging spells at it, strode forward a step, the ground shaking under its weight. Its neck craned and it loosed a deafening roar directed at Meraad, the force of which took his feet from under him and drove him onto his back. The dragon reached forward with its mouth and took Meraad in between his teeth. Meraad cried out in pain, but still fought defiantly. Stone and fire formed around his fist, which he used to assault the dragon's snout repeatedly. "Vashedan ataashi! Nehraa Asala!" He yelled.

The dragon had had enough. He shook his head viciously, causing Meraad's body to ragdoll sickeningly and ceasing his yelling. It snapped its jaws once more before discarding the now lifeless body by flinging it into the distance.

Romulus had staggered to his feet, shield in hand, throughout the efforts of Khari and Meraad to delay the inevitable. He wasn't even thinking anymore, incapable of comprehending what appeared to be his impending demise. It would be a good end, if only he could set off that trebuchet, which still somehow stood intact. He took a pained step towards it, clutching his side.

"Enough!" came a voice, oddly familiar to Romulus. It came from the giant darkspawn abomination, accompanied by a push of his hands that send a wave of magic over him, weak but still able to knock Romulus back onto his rear in his pitiful state. He recognized the tone, from the ruins of the Temple of Sacred Ashes, when they made their initial attempt to seal the Breach. There could be no doubt about it: this man, this thing was responsible.

"Pretender," he uttered with contempt. "You and the other toy with forces beyond your ken. No more."

"What is the meaning of this?" Romulus found himself asking, perhaps desperate for some kind of closure to the mystery surrounding his final months, before he died. He rolled and clambered painfully onto his knees. "What are you?"

The darkspawn's face was blank, void of emotion. "Mortals beg for truth they cannot have. It is beyond what you are, what I was. Know me, know what you have pretended to be. Exalt the Elder One! The will that is Corypheus!"

Corypheus. The name meant nothing to Romulus. Was it supposed to? Everything in the way the creature presented himself demanded it to be so. Instinctively, Romulus believed him to be insane, the result of red lyrium or the fact that he looked like a darkspawn of all things, and yet he spoke. He spoke with clarity of mind, intellect, purpose. He commanded an army, and they had long since encountered men and women that whispered of him, the Elder One. Romulus placed one foot upon the ground, trying to force himself to stand. The other managed to follow.

The Elder One shook his head. "You will resist. You will always resist. It matters not. You will kneel." It was then that Romulus noticed the object that he carried in his left hand. A metallic orb, heavy in appearance and intricately engraved. Romulus did not recognize its design as anything like what he'd seen Chryseis use. Corypheus lifted the object and it began to glow red from within, as did his opposite hand as he drew power of some kind into himself. He thrust the hand forward.

Instantly the mark upon Romulus's hand lit up, crackling with green energy that rippled all the way up his arm, sending stabbing pains into his chest, and he was soon forced back down to his knees, as the Elder One had predicted. Romulus gritted his teeth, bracing himself with his unmarked arm upon the ground. "I am here for the Anchor," Corypheus declared. "The process of removing it begins now." The pain intensified, until Romulus let out a roar of combined anger and agony.

"It is your fault, Herald. You and the girl interrupted a ritual years in the planning, and instead of dying, you stole its purpose." He drew more energy from the orb, and Romulus could feel his hand, his whole body, being pulled in the darkspawn's direction. His red eyes stared down at him, unfeeling. "I do not know how you survived. But what marks you as touched, what you flail at rifts, I crafted to assault the very heavens."

Behind him, the dragon hissed hungrily, closing in, and eyeing him like so much meat to be consumed. Romulus knew not what force stayed it from devouring him. He did not think it possible for a creature like a dragon to be tamed and commanded by any being. "And you used the Anchor to undo my work. The gall!" He then strode forward, glaring down at Romulus, until he came within arm's reach, at which point he thrust his free hand down, seizing Romulus by the arm and wrenching him up, easily lifting him entirely off the ground. He held him by the arm there, so that the mark on his palm was at eye level.

"I once breached the Fade in the name of another, to serve the Old Gods of the empire in person. I found only chaos and corruption. Dead whispers. For a thousand years I was confused. No more." Truthfully, Romulus was in no state to comprehend anything he was saying, nor did he think he would understand it even were he in perfect health, but the words seemed to burn into his mind anyway, such was the force with which Corypheus spoke.

He leaned his face in closer, offering Romulus a brutally detailed look at the deformities of his skin, his face, his entire body. "I have gathered the will to return under no name but my own, to champion withered Tevinter and correct this blighted world." Tevinter? But... "Beg that I succeed, for I have seen the throne of the gods, and it was empty!"

After one last glance at the mark, Corypheus scowled, and proceeded to hurl Romulus away. He smashed against the stone side of a well, several pieces of the rock falling some distance below. Romulus gasped for breath, and was rewarded with a severe stabbing pain that informed him of broken ribs, damaged organs. He only blearily heard the words Corypheus continued to speak.

"The Anchor is permanent. You have spoiled it with your stumbling. Perhaps the girl's can be removed. If not, so be it. I will begin again, find another way to give this world the nation, and god, it requires."

From the angle he’d landed at, Romulus was able to see the spot Khari had fallen—specifically, that she was currently struggling to rise to her feet, and doing so rather quietly, considering. Her expression was twisted into a grimace of pain, and one of her hands held her side, but she lurched to her feet, outside the peripherals of Corypheus or any of his followers, whose attention was focused exclusively on him. The darkspawn advanced several more paces forward even as she stepped to the side, closing in on the trebuchet, ready to fire save that it was yet to be triggered, held in place by several ropes expertly tied.

“And you.” Corypheus sneered down at him even as Khari struggled to pull herself up onto the trebuchet’s platform, her sword held almost limply in the hand that wasn’t pressed to her abdomen. “I will not suffer even an unknowing rival. You must die.”

“Yeah, sure. Good luck with that, you ugly fuck.” Khari grinned savagely when the attention diverted to her, the expression looking rather macabre considering the fact that she was bleeding from the mouth, crimson smearing from the corner of her lips, visible even under the steel mask, and staining her teeth. With very little fanfare, she raised her sword and chopped through the ropes holding the trebuchet in place, triggering the mechanism and firing the munitions at the side of the mountain. They landed a few seconds later with an ominous boom, low like thunder, and she huffed a sound like laughter, only much more pained.

“The looks on your faces—completely worth it.”

Perhaps predictably, her words were answered with force: several of the Venatori flung spells at her, but she seemed to have been prepared for this, because she jumped off the platform, landing hard in the snow but keeping her feet, whereupon she bolted for Romulus, repeating something under her breath that sounded suspiciously like fuck, fuck, shit damn fuck! She zig-zagged frantically, narrowly avoiding most of the spells, at least until a lightning bolt went off too close to her feet and pitched her forward. She slid for several feet through the snow and scrambled up again, no longer using her hand to hug her abdomen, which now bled freely onto the ground, leaving a red trail in her wake.

“Sorry Rom!” She didn’t specify what the apology was for, but then, the rough way she grabbed his collar with her now-free hand might have had something to do with it. The projectiles had stopped as their enemies scrambled to get free of the impending avalanche, and Khari took the opportunity to drag him behind her, more or less, as she dove into the well he’d come to a stop beside.

For a moment, they were weightless, and then they plunged into the dark below.

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Khari woke first to the sensation of pain.

It was hardly unusual, in itself, but this pain was particularly bad, and she knew immediately that it was due to the fact that whatever was causing it was still a problem. Of course, narrowing that down any further was going to take a little more work: there was pain in her abdomen, pain in her ribcage, pain in her arm, and definitely pain in her left knee, too.

She tried to crack her eyes open, but only one responded—something was keeping the other one shut. She was met at first with only white, and realized then that she had to be laying, front side down but her head turned to the side, in snow. Why she’d decided to take a nap outside was slower in coming to her, but with a few moments of start-and-stop thought, she was able to piece together what the hell had happened, or enough of it to realize that she needed to get up, anyway.

But before she could do that, she needed to understand exactly what she was working with. With a groan, she got her not-in-pain arm underneath her and used it to roll herself over onto her back, dislodging quite a bit more snow in the process. Her eye met a natural cavernous ceiling, on the low side but definitely taller than she was standing up. More importantly, the effort of moving herself differentiated some of the pains: the one in her lower abdomen was on the left, and from the way it pulled, it was a stab or slash wound of some kind. Probably a stab—the pain radiated from a small area. The pain in her upper torso, however, was definitely a broken rib, snapped cleanly off and now sort of floating free of the rest of the ribcage. Not too far off, though; thankfully it had not punctured her lung, or she might be dead already.

Her arm felt heavily bruised, but not broken—she could still move her fingers, which was a good sign. Raising her head to glance down at her legs, she found that one of them was in perfectly good working order. The other didn’t respond to her attempts to move it, but she was pretty sure from the angle that it was dislocated rather than broken, and that was an easier fix. With a breath as deep as she dared risk, she gradually pushed herself up into a seated position, hissing past the needling of the stab wound when she leaned forward, drawing her injured leg up and taking hold of it.

Shit! The oath almost concealed the uncomfortable sound of her knee popping back into place, and she muffled the sound of another groan by leaning into her own shoulder, breathing through gritted teeth for several moments until the worst had passed. Testing it proved fruitful, but it would be tender for quite some time. Reaching beside her, she did the best she could for her other injuries, pressing a hunk of snow into the stab wound and molding more around it, both to delay the bleeding and numb it. Another handful helped her clean the dried blood off her second eye, which had run down from a cut in her brow she didn’t remember receiving.

Once she could see out of both, Khari scooted back so that the wall was behind her and used it to help herself get back to her feet, pulling herself upright and remaining there until she felt steady enough to try moving. She couldn’t see Rom, but she had a suspicion he hadn’t fallen far, and was probably half-buried under some of this snow. An avalanche would do that, and some of it had indeed cascaded into the well behind them.

Her painfully-slow trek to the heap of powder that had fallen in through the structure was made only slightly better by the fact that her boot struck something under the snow on her way. In hopes that it might be her friend, she crouched, digging furiously with her hands, but what she discovered was her sword. “Could be worse. Could be a Venatori.” She strapped it to her back and resumed her way forward.

Shoveling through the big pile was a rather gargantuan task, made only more laborious by her current state, but Khari was persistent, scooping snow behind her long past the point that her hands, gloved though they were, had gone completely numb. She wasn’t liking her chances, but then that was nothing new, and she kept digging anyway, picking up speed when she could make out a soft green glow some distance below where she’d reached. “Come on, come on.” She hurled aside larger heaps of the stuff, no longer bothering with breadth since she knew where she was headed, and focused on getting deeper into the drift.

With about twenty minutes of work, she finally reached him. Immediately, she yanked one of her gauntlets off with her teeth and pressed freezing fingers to Rom’s equally-chilled wrist. She wasn’t sure if she was just too numb to tell or if there was actually no pulse there, but she didn’t feel one, and so she panicked, adjusting her position and digging some more, until she’d basically excavated him.

He’d landed spread-eagled, and likely already unconscious, if he hadn’t made any move whatsoever to protect himself from the incoming snow. She had no way of knowing how long ago that was, because there wasn’t much, if any light filtering in from above—she’d basically dug sideways and then down, the snow being packed enough to maintain structural integrity despite her efforts. If it’d been too long and he’d suffocated… but now wasn’t the time to think about that.

Picking her way to his feet, she grasped his ankles and dragged as carefully as she could. She wasn’t in any shape to be carrying him, and moving him at all was a risk, but if the hole she’d dug caused the snow to collapse again, all her work would be undone, and that was probably worse for him than being moved a few yards. She hoped.

Easing herself onto the ground next to him, Khari leaned over, placing her ear just above his mouth, hoping to hear or feel some indication that he was breathing. She held her own still in her lungs, and for several long seconds, she feared the worst. But then something stirred the hair near her ear, and she sat bolt upright.

He was alive.

“Okay. Uhh… okay, good. Alive. What now?” If he’d hit his head, he shouldn’t be sleeping, she knew that much. But was it better to wake him up if she didn’t know whether he had a concussion or not? Whatever the case, they needed to get moving soon if they had much hope of surviving this in the long run, so she decided to risk it.

“Rom. Hey, Rom. Wake up.” With her bare hand, she tapped the side of his face a few times, not hard, but insistently. She didn’t want to shake him somewhere he might have a broken bone or something, so this seemed like the best idea.

Suddenly Rom coughed violently, hacking up a glob of blood that spattered over his own face. Several more wheezing coughs and groans followed, with his limbs beginning to move soon after. He was obviously just as disoriented as Khari had been after she had come to.

Rom's first reaction, however, was to aggressively lash out with an open hand, which immediately found Khari's throat and constricted, his face contorting with effort. He made an attempt to shove her to the side, before his eyes finally saw what was in front of him, and he seemed to register the rest of the pain in his body. An uncomfortably loud shout of pain followed, with his hand going straight to where the splinter of the palisade still impaled his side. A larger, more alarming piece was straight through his lower left leg. They couldn't have been down here all that long, or else he would have bled to death already.

For the moment, Rom could only grope blindly in the snow, trying to turn himself over for some reason, or perhaps get up to his feet, while a line of blood ran from his lips down his cheek.

“Hey, hey, hey, whoa, stop.” Khari frowned when the words came out more raspy than she’d meant them to, probably due to the fact that he’d been quite intent on crushing her windpipe there for a second. She should have expected something of the kind. Reaching behind her, she pulled her mask loose and hooked it quickly on her belt, setting her other arm firmly on Rom’s shoulder. “Rom, it’s just me. It’s Khari. You’ve got to stop struggling; you’re only gonna hurt yourself more.”

Worst case, all this motion would dislodge those splinters before they should come out, and he’d bleed all over the place. “You’ve injured your side, and your leg. Try not to move them yet. Does it hurt anywhere else?” She kept her voice level and as calm as possible, hoping to induce the same in him. She still wasn’t sure if he’d hit his head, and so knowing whether this disorientation was to be brief or more enduring wasn’t yet possible.

He ceased his motion, and judging by the way he was leaning on one arm underneath him, and trying to push off the ground with the other, those at least were in working order. Although, the mark on his left hand was crackling every few seconds, still glowing green, spitting out bits of lightning or energy or something. He shook it, as though trying to put out a fire, to no use.

"It hurts everywhere else..." he grumbled. "We need potions. I've got..." He reached behind him, into a pouch on his belt, before he hissed in pain and pulled his hand free, one of the fingers now cut and bleeding. He unbuckled the belt and tossed it away a few feet; shards of a broken vial or two fell into the snow, along with the remains of frozen health draughts, rendered useless by now. "Shit. Ugly bastard would've killed us quicker than this." He smiled at her, a bloody grin similar to what she'd given Corypheus. He appeared to be regaining most of his clarity, at least. "We never do anything the easy way, do we?”

“Wouldn’t be any fun if we did.” She sat back on her legs for a moment, scratching at the back of her head, then wincing when her nails scraped over a lesion she hadn’t known was there. Grimacing, she rolled her eyes and shrugged Intercessor off her back, staking it into the snow for a moment while she unfastened her cloak.

“We’re gonna want to get those bits of the wall out before they absorb too much blood and swell.” They could get stuck that way, and cause one hell of an infection. Wood was, after all, a porous material. Her cloak in her hands, Khari grasped it in a couple places near the bottom, holding tension in it, then looped her arms over the sword, pulling the fabric forward towards herself against the edge of the blade, which sliced through it fairly easily. Once she’d discarded the hem, which was dirty, and reached the part that was in better shape, she repeated the process a few times, laying out the resulting strips of scarlet fabric near him. She took her best guess about how many she’d need, and wound up using about a third of the cloak, but warmth wouldn’t be an issue if they bled out first. It had holes in it now anyway.

“Which one do you want me to do first?” She raised an eyebrow, glancing at him as she scrubbed the strips of fabric down with clean snow as well as she could. “’Cause they’re both gonna hurt like… well, a lot.”

Rom groaned, rolling carefully back over onto his back, and taking a few deep breaths, before he pointed to the piece lodged in his side. Judging by the way he prepared himself, this was not nearly his first time doing something of the sort.

Khari didn’t bother giving him a count. It was the kind of thing that would hurt a whole lot worse if he was tensed for it, so she tried not to give him time to do that even involuntarily, reaching forward and ripping the splinter free with a sharp, strong tug. Thankfully, she used enough force that only one was necessary, and she discarded it to the side, immediately pressing her other free hand, which held a considerable amount of snow, up against the wound. It occurred to her that if she were Asala, this would be a hell of a lot easier—she wasn’t sure she’d felt the lack of magic in her repertoire quite so keenly before now, when there was no such individual around.

When the snow was red, she tossed it away and proceeded to bandage him as well as she could, peeling back his leathers and linens to do it. First a strip folded several times into a square, to go right over the wound, and then a few more, wrapped around to hold it in place. She tried not to tie too tightly, but a bit of excess snugness was better than the opposite, so she erred on the side of caution. Rom, for his part, weathered the intense pain quite well, focusing intently on the cavernous ceiling above, pressing his lips tightly together and refusing to shout or scream when prompted by the agony.

“Okay, leg now.” She moved herself and her supplies down a little further, eyeing the large piece of wood in his muscle with some trepidation. She was going to have to break one side of that and then pull it back through, or she’d leave a dozen splinters behind, she was sure of it. “Please try not to kick me.” It was a joke, though that didn’t mean there wasn’t anything genuine to the sentiment.

Leaning forward slightly, Khari took a deep breath, holding his leg near the ankle with one hand before she changed her mind and used that one to hold the piece of wood steady, trying to cause minimal movement when her hand tightened on the bloody end and snapped it off, whereupon she yanked what was left back through his calf, hissing sympathetically. Rom writhed in response to that one, smashing the snowy ground with a closed fist several times. It was actually more straightforward to bandage, as his leg was a lot easier to move around, and she managed to get the cloth tied off quicker, breathing a heavy exhale.

“Right. So I don’t know about anything broken, but at least you probably won’t die of blood loss now. Hurrah for us, and so on.” She grinned, but it was a little shaky.

His eyes were watering from the ordeal, and he wiped them, steadily slowing his breathing. "Okay. Help me up." Once his arm was over her shoulders, they began their way up, and Rom struggled to get his feet under them. "We need to get away from--argh!" The wounded leg gave out, his weight taking him to a knee and her along with it. He braced it with a hand, shaking his head. "I can't walk."

Khari grunted against the pain in her ribcage, lowering herself as his leg gave out from under him, then shifted her positioning, pulling his arm further around so that he was braced on her back as much as her shoulder. She took a lot more of his weight that way, but at least he wouldn’t have to use the bad leg. “Yes you can. Just keep that one off the ground—we’ll be fine.”

Slowly, they rose from the ground a second time, and though they weren’t going to be getting anywhere fast, the solution was workable enough—Rom sort of hobbled along on his one leg, and Khari took heavy, short steps with both of hers, one arm around his back and the other holding tightly to the forearm she’d tugged down over her far shoulder. She made sure to breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth, preventing any nausea with the enforced deliberateness of it, and they managed to find their way forward.

The ground underfoot was not kind to them. The well had let out into what seemed to be a cave system, which was a bit of luck, considering how difficult it would have been to climb back up through the snow, which had been what she planned to do when she dragged them both down here. If they could find another way out, though, that would be better. A few places presented them with ledges, ones that would have been laughably easy to jump off were they in good condition, but now constituted obstacles that nearly drew them to a halt. She did carry him over those, shrugging his weight onto her back and hopping down.

The first one saw them landing facefirst in the snow—or, well, she did. He landed on top of her, which was probably for the best but definitely not that comfortable. The second one wasn’t as bad, and they managed to keep their feet. After what felt like hours, they finally started moving upwards, and lo and behold, the cavern system spit them out some distance from Haven, onto a blank, snow-driven landscape. She could see the sun, though, and that gave her a little bit of hope.

Less encouraging was the fact that she soon heard the crunching of snow from their left, and she worked the both of them backwards into the cavern’s mouth, planting them against a wall. Khari held her breath, straining to hear. It could just be a wild animal, but…

“—don’t understand why the general wants us out here. No one could have survived that.” The voice was punctuated by the sound of chattering teeth.

“Unless they were already gone, you idiot.” The second voice was sharper, more feminine, and Khari grimaced, bending at her knees to lower Rom to the ground, so he’d be sitting with his back to the wall. He wasn’t perfectly concealed back here, but they’d be caught in an even worse position if she didn’t act soon. The voices were getting closer.

“I’ll just be a minute.” She huffed softly, smiling with customary ease, but the expression didn’t reach her eyes. She wasn’t in good shape, and she knew it. She didn’t know how many of the Venatori there were, but if it was more than the two she’d heard, she was in serious trouble. Rom offered a mumbled resistance, but she was already off.

Khari crept forward to the edge of the cave’s mouth, loosening Intercessor and then drawing it free completely, crouching with the blade beside her and peering out past the wall of the cave. Fuck. There were half a dozen, coming right this way, and there wasn’t any way in hell they were going to miss a cave opening this obvious.

It occurred to her for the second time since the attack on Haven began that this really might be the end of the line for her. She could run, she knew. Hide. Survive. But in order to do that, she’d have to leave Rom behind—he couldn’t get out near fast enough.

So it wasn’t an option. Death before dishonor.

Glancing back down the way to where he sat, she raised all five fingers on one hand, and the thumb of her other, grinning jaggedly and shrugging before she closed her hand over her cleaver’s hilt, the bone charms on the end clinking almost imperceptibly softly. She could hear the Venatori’s footsteps coming closer. She had to go now, or risk exposing him. Using Intercessor for assistance, she pushed herself to her feet, taking a deep breath and reaching for that angry place in her heart, the little knot of pain that would help her ignore the rest.

The Haze descended, and Khari lunged from cover with a shout, slamming the blade of her sword into the first unsuspecting Venatori’s head. He dropped like a stone, and she gritted her teeth, pushing away her body’s reminders of how injured she was, ripping the cleaver free of the first and swinging it into the second, catching the pole of the woman’s spear with a clang. Another one, similarly armed, forced her backwards several steps, towards the cave opening, and she dug her feet in, feeling keenly how unsuited she was for defense and so leaping into the attack again.

She swatted aside one spear and drove the point of her sword through the woman’s guts, but the second caught her in the shoulder, the impact strong enough to send her to the ground, sliding backwards several feet. She landed right in front of the cave entrance from which she’d emerged, but she dared not let her attention betray them by shifting it inwards. An axe cleaved into the snow where her head had been a moment before, but Khari forced herself to roll, lashing out with her tired legs and catching the second spearman in the knee. There was little force behind the blow, though, her strength pushed to its limits already and rapidly depleting. She had the will to continue, just not the power, and it was showing.

There was a muffled cry of "No..." behind Khari, and suddenly, a bright green light exploded from thin air in the middle of the grouped Venatori, unmistakable for its similarity to the rifts they had been working to close for months. This one was spherical and tugged everything around it towards the bright center. Behind Khari, Rom had crawled forward into view, reaching out with his marked hand, which had erupted in that same light.

The Venatori barely had enough time to scream before they were pulled straight into the rift, disintegrated as they went, no trace of them left behind. Khari was right on the edge of the pull, enough that her legs started to slide across the snow, threatening to take the rest of her with them if she couldn't find something to hang on to. She scrabbled frantically for something to hold, finding nothing and choosing instead to drive her sword as deep into the ground as she could and grip both hands with the hilt.

Intercessor traced a deep gouge in the snow as she was slowly pulled towards the rift, feet-first, and she strained to dig it in further, hoping to catch it on a root or a stone or anything that would anchor her in place. Her arms trembled with the effort of keeping her hold, her injured shoulder screaming at her, and she felt her grip beginning to slip, several fingers sliding off the end of the hilt and closing over empty air.

Just when she was sure she could hold on no longer, the force stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and Khari fell heavily onto her stomach upon the ground. The impact whited out her vision for a moment, and for several seconds, she had to catch her breath, dropping her remaining hand from her blade.

“Oww…”

Romulus simply stared at the rift that had vanished, dumbfounded, before Khari's groan pulled his attention back, and he half-stumbled, half-crawled over to her, wincing every step of the way. He tried awkwardly to help her get up, though he was the one that could hardly hold any weight.

"We need to go... could be more."

“Yeah. Yeah, you got it, Rom. Just lemme…” Khari trailed off, closing her fist around a handful of snow and blotting her new stab wound with it, glad at least it was on the side she supported less of him with. It was the little things.

At great length, she managed to regain her feet, partly by use of his shoulder while he sat, and then they pulled him up behind her, Khari wedging herself into his side like before. She’d never been happy about the fact that she was short until it turned out she was a decent height for this particular task. Probably would have been better with another couple of inches, but it was workable, which was all it needed to be.

Of course, going was one thing. Having a direction to go was quite another. In the end, Khari just aimed them further away from Haven. Maybe they could find a copse of trees or something else that would do for shelter. If they were lucky, they might find some signs of the others. If they were unlucky, well… they’d cross that bridge when they got to it. She heaved a sigh as they started forwards.

“You know… I think dying might actually have hurt less than this. Not that I’m complaining.”

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Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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On the sixth night, in the most brutal of his fevered dreams, Romulus heard his mother.

"Hear the rain upon the leaves, above the sky lies grey.
A shred of blue would be denied. Alas, he could not stay."


Perhaps it was a memory, that of a child of not yet two years, a time so early in his life that all he remembered were images, washed over like a soggy painting, once clear but now distorted, elongated in the colors, and all the while still beautiful. The other senses pitched in as well. There was the smell, salt of the sea and the sweat on the brow and across the body of the woman that held him. There was the sound, that of the crashing waves, beating against a wooden hull, the terrible, terrifying crack of lightning somewhere overhead, leaves flashes of light that blinded his young eyes. His owns screams echoed in his skull, the pitiful mewling of a helpless child.

"See how the rain has washed away
The tears that you were crying?
Though the darkness calls me down
You know we all are dying."


She sang to him, and her voice cut through the chaos with ease. He buried his head against the base of her neck, clutching her with his little hands. When he focused hard enough, he could hear only that voice, that sweet, soothing voice, and there was nothing else to be afraid of.

"Hear the rain upon the leaves, above the sky lies grey.
A shred of blue would be denied. Alas, he could not stay."


The words, they meant nothing to him, neither then nor now, for his mind in either place was too scattered, too pained to comprehend. He just needed to focus on her voice, and the rain, the thunder, the storm and shouts of men and women outside would be washed away. That voice was sad, it was scared and perhaps even hopeless, but this was not something he knew how to recognize, or knew how to deal with. It was his mother's voice, and that was all that mattered. He would not let it go.

"Birds reel across the endless sky, above a house upon the plain.
In memory she sings to him of a time before the rain.

Sweet Andraste, hear our song
For his road will be ours too.
Before darkness claims our souls
Let us see that shred of blue."


A door was kicked open somewhere above, and suddenly the rain became too loud, the shouting, the screams, not his own. His mother whispered something directly into his ear, her voice becoming his entire existence, but Romulus could not hear, not over the echoing of the words of the song, repeating endlessly in his mind.

"Hear the rain upon the leaves, above the sky lies grey.
A shred of blue would be denied. Alas, he could not stay."


The dream faded, at the insistent shaking of a hand upon his shoulder. He felt a tear on his cheek. His mother's? No, his own. Or perhaps it was sweat. He was drenched, but freezing. Shivering, but burning alive. His eyes shot open, saw the night sky, a wall of jagged rock blocking half of the stars from view. It was a clear night, cold and crisp as always, but for once they found a place to stop without snow on the ground.

Khari and Romulus had descended as best they could from the mountains, heading for the Hinterlands, where they hoped to find refuge and some news of the state of things. For days the only people they'd come across were Venatori, hunting for them after one of their patrols vanished, leaving no trace other than a small amount of bloodshed from the brief conflict that had ensued before Romulus had forcibly pulled their bodies into a rift spawned from his own hand. Only delirious need to keep Khari alive had somehow triggered the ability of his mark. He had not been able to replicate the act.

Then the fever had set in, an unfortunate turn of events despite Khari's best efforts to keep his injuries cleaned. They had to move too often, their meager supplies were stretched too thin, and acquiring more meant conflicting with the Venatori patrols, and thus drawing more attention to themselves. Romulus had to believe the Venatori did not know who it was they hunted, else the entire army would be searching for them. He tried each time Khari left to make her stay, but he had not the power to stop her.

And he did not want to die.

“Hey.” Khari’s tone was quiet, bereft of the usual level of projection it normally had, something that had been true for the majority of their time out here. It only made sense—there was always a chance that more Venatori would find them, and most nights, they’d not even been able to risk a fire. From the pile of brush and small branches slowly growing into a conflagration behind her, however, she’d elected to build one this time.

Over the last near-week, she’d left him almost nightly, presumably to carry out one-person raids or scouting endeavors of some kind, and a few times, she’d returned with useful items: a small pot made of iron, actual bandages, a utility knife, some metal wiring, and a pair of blankets. The wiring had apparently gone into the improvisation of a snare, because they’d had a couple of rabbits over the course of their time, food at least being something that they weren’t immediately in danger of lacking.

It had taken two days, but after a few failed attempts, she’d also managed to carve a needle out of one of the decorations on the end of her sword, and had unraveled more of her cloak for thread. Too late to prevent his fever, but soon enough, it seemed, to stitch herself back together so she could range from camp in search of more supplies.

She knelt beside where he lay, pressing a chilly palm against his head, grimacing and drawing it away a moment after. “I got potions, but I don’t know which ones do what.” Reaching down to her waist, she untied a small satchel at her belt, laying out the vials inside within his range of vision. “I got one of everything—if you can tell me which one you need, I’ll know to look for it next time.”

Khari shifted, then winced. A new gash was clotting on her temple; it probably wasn’t the only one she’d acquired today.

Romulus regarded the gash with obvious concern. Khari wasn't suited for this sort of thing, and she was the first to admit it. Hiding, stealing, evading enemies rather than going through them. She'd obviously looted the potions rather than stealing them cleanly, judging by the injury. Whatever Venatori she'd taken them from were dead now, but not before they'd gotten some hits in on her, as they often seemed to. One of these times she'd come back so badly injured she wouldn't be able to save herself, let alone him.

But not if he could beat this first. He blinked, trying to focus, lolling his head to the side where Khari had set down the potions. He grabbed the first, his fingers almost constantly shaking, from weakness or cold or a combination of both. Holding it up in front of his eyes, he frowned, before setting it aside apart from the others. "Lyrium..." The world barely escaped his throat, and he cleared it.

The second was contained in a yellow glass, the color of the liquid inside unclear, but dark. Romulus carefully pulled the small cork from it, holding it somewhat close to his nose and sniffing. He replaced the stopper. "Strength tonic," he murmured, disapprovingly. "Temporary, and weak."

The third was more orange than yellow, and the potion inside had a more obvious red color to it, lighter than blood by several shades. "Healing. This will partly mend the injuries at least. Help me sit." There was a wall nearby he could put his back to, at least, and though it was made of rock and not soft at all, it would do.

She nodded, shifting herself around with a suppressed grunt and wedging a hand beneath his upper back. Her other went to his shoulder, steadying him as much as she could, and some combination of effort on their parts got him into a sitting positon with his back against the stone. She looked like she wanted to collapse next to him herself, but instead she pushed into a stand and threw a bigger log on the fire, which burned steadily by this point, and dragged the spare blanket over, though she didn’t do anything with it quite yet.

Romulus drank the potion slowly, hoping it would stay down. He'd eaten what he could, but it hadn't amounted to much, and he believed Khari was in far greater need of it, with how much more physical work she was doing. It was wasted on him anyway if it just came back up. He let his head fall back against the rock, scratching briefly at the stubble lining his neck and face. They were fairly filthy, both of them, surviving in the woods like this, like savages. Honestly, if the sickness and the injuries and the Venatori would just go away... it wouldn't be so bad at times. Ferelden was beautiful when it wasn't miserably wet, and he imagined that at some point, constant exposure to the cold would render him more resisting of it.

"Here," he said, holding out the half-drank potion. "Take the rest. You need it." They'd done a similar dance a few times already. Romulus was not willing to budge on it. If she didn't drink it, neither of them would.

"Trade for that tonic there, at least." He pointed to a clear vial with an orange potion inside. "It might help with the fever a bit. At the least, it'll help me survive if I get hit by a fireball."

She sighed, another familiar component of the exchange, and accepted what was left, knocking it back in a couple of swallows. Setting the empty vial down carefully, she picked up the one containing the orange liquid and took the cork out with her teeth, handing it over to him before setting about the process of cleaning the other one out. At this point, they wasted absolutely nothing. She contemplated the other two, clearly trying to decide whether they were more valuable to her empty or full, but in the end she just picked up the strength tonic and rolled it around between her fingers for a moment.

“Might be enough to get me through my next run-in with the Venatori, eh?” Khari huffed, apparently finding some humor in that, dark though it was, and the vial disappeared into a pocket. She picked her way the short distance to the fire and took up the pot, disappearing for a few moments, after which she returned, the object now filled with snow. This, too, was familiar. By now, he had two sets of makeshift bandages, and she rotated him between them, boiling the others clean before she changed them, and using the hot water to keep their wounds as clean as possible as well, though it was far too much effort to spend on the rest of them. Her face had enough dirt on it that her tattoos were hard to make out, most of the time, and her clothes were far worse off.

“If that fever doesn’t break soon, we’re gonna have to try sweating it out.” She fixed him with a measuring look from where she crouched next to the fire. “Might need more blankets…” Wrapping her arms around her legs, she tucked her chin between her knees and moved her eyes to the flames.

Romulus stared at the fire for a while as well, and for a bit, the shaking seemed to subside, just a bit. It seemed cruel to die now, of some sickness, after being cast aside by a creature that spoke of himself as a god, after somehow escaping being buried by an avalanche, and after evading bloodthirsty zealots for days. He'd accepted the fact that what had occurred to him might lead to his end, ever since the day in the temple, but with how remarkable all of it was, he thought that his end would have to be something more meaningful than dying in the wilderness.

Khari would have a much easier time of it if he died, it occurred to him. Physically, at least. But for whatever reason, despite his body's attempts to make him leave, one way or another, he found himself remaining. Trapped here, unable to go, even if he wanted to. And he no longer wanted to.

"I dreamed of my mother," he said, somewhat suddenly. "Might've just been the fever conjuring things in my mind, but it felt like her." He smiled to himself, an expression tinged with sadness.

That drew her attention back in his direction, and she paused in the task of adding red fabric strips to the now-boiling pot of water on the fire, her brows knitting over her eyes, the unfaded brightness of their color a stark contrast to what layers of dirt had done to the rest of her. “It probably was, then.” The words were slow, and something about her cadence was unsteady, lurching. “Nobody else in the world like your mother… no matter… well.” She shrugged, clearly having either lost the thread of thought she was following or consciously deciding not to say anything else.

“You, uh… you don’t know who they are, right? Your parents?” She moved the bandages around in the water with the knife, careful not to damage them.

"No," he stated, unable to keep the downtrodden note from his tone. "Tevinter marines found me on the deck of a Rivaini trading vessel. I was around two. There was damage to the ship, blood, but no bodies. Probably at the bottom of the strait." It certainly wasn't worthwhile for the soldiers to investigate, and by the time Romulus was old enough to care about it, he was sold into slavery, and any evidence or clues were undoubtedly long gone.

"I've thought a lot about it, why I was on the ship, why I didn't die. If my parents were traders, or worked on a ship, pirates could've attacked them, or Qunari maybe. A ship is no place for a young child, though. Makes me think I was there for some special reason, but... how am I supposed to know?" The question wasn't meant to be answered, for it didn't have one. He couldn't know why he was there, why he wasn't dead, why he still existed at all. But he had always believed there was some reason, something slightly more than chance. Being marked as he had only increased the strength of that belief. Even if he would never find out. Not until he passed on, anyway.

"What about yours? Seems like something I should know about you by now." She'd hinted at it every now and then. Her Dalish descent was obvious, as was her departure from it, so he had to assume her youth was anything but idyllic with the elves.

“Enania and Hawen Istimaethoriel, of clan Genardalia, of the Dales.” Her expression was caught somewhere between amused and annoyed, and she shook her head. “My father’s the Keeper, which is like… kind of the leader, I guess you’d say. They’re the ones that do the magic, and keep the memories of what the Dalish used to be.” She moved the pot off the fire by its handle, fishing the first of the bandages out with the flat of the knife and wringing it of the excess water before laying it carefully out on a nearby mostly-flat stone.

“My mother’s a craftsperson. She shapes ironbark and hide, mostly. I can’t do that, either, as it turns out.” Her tone was hard to read, but from the excessive intensity with which she was focusing on her task, it wasn’t the easiest thing for her to talk about. “She gave up on me pretty early in life. Dad stuck it out a while longer, but then he got a real apprentice and didn’t have the time to bother, so I pretty much just did whatever the hell I wanted.” She grinned, but it was comparatively lackluster.

Gathering up the bandages, she returned to where he sat, lowering herself to her knees and sitting back on her legs. “You know the drill. We get through this, then I can make food.” That, at least, she sounded somewhat enthusiastic about.

Romulus began the work of getting out of his shirt so the bandage around his torso could be changed. It was the more annoying of the two. "Listen," he said, somewhat softly. "If I survive, I wanted you to know I've changed my mind. About going back." He'd had his mind made up for a while, but for some reason couldn't get the words out until now. It was strangely difficult to admit, that he was willing to just take the chance, despite all the reasons he'd thrown at her why it was not a wise idea.

Shrugging off his shirt, he lowered the blanket over him and shuddered from the cold. The sweat covering his skin didn't help much, and indeed, the bandage was just as damp with that as it was blood over the still healing wound. "I figured I have enough enemies at this point that my time's probably short anyway. And if that's the case... I'd rather spend it here, with whatever we have left."

That seemed to surprise her, and for a moment, she only blinked at him, but then she smiled, just half of one, a quirk of the lip and a narrowing of the eyes. “Have you, now?” She ducked her head to get to work on cleaning and rebandaging the wound, but the smile remained as she loosened the ones already present and pulled them carefully away.

“Happy to hear it.” She met his eyes for just a second. “Really.”

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Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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Khari shifted her weight slightly, careful not to disturb the branch in which she was crouched. It was still cold out, but thankfully the cloak was no longer strictly necessary, which was fortunate since she’d discarded it a week ago—red was too bright a color in the daytime. She scratched at the drab wool scarf covering her head and resisted the urge to sigh.

This was the problem with ambushes, really. They were boring.

It was, incidentally, the same problem she’d always had with hunting. Traps and snares, fine, but stalking a deer through the woods for five hours? So tedious she’d almost rather actually be in pain, just for something to care about. Fortunately, this one probably wouldn’t last much longer.

From her position, she could see a fair way down the path. They’d left small signs of their presence intentionally, to lure the Venatori this way; better than knowing they were being followed but not exactly having the locations of their stalkers. It was basically set a trap or fall into one, and the choice had been obvious, in those terms.

The Hinterlands were easier to hide in, at least. Not as much gradation in the landscape, but a great deal more trees, which was comfortable for Khari, whether she wanted to admit it or not. Peering between a couple of the other branches on her arbor, she caught sight of the white uniform of the Venatori they were after. They blended much worse out here than they had in the snow, certainly, but unlike she and Rom, hadn’t bothered adjusting much for this fact. She squinted, counting heads, then nodded to herself, glancing down and across the trail to where Rom was hidden, lower to the ground but concealed in brush and scrub, at least from the angle of their pursuers’ approach.

She raised five fingers, waiting for confirmation that he’d received the sign before adjusting herself, sinking further backwards into the boughs of the tree. As long as she was still, she wouldn’t be seen—that much, she could judge from experience. Of course, the moment she moved, all bets were off, but that was why she was the distraction and he would do the flanking.

It took another two minutes for the bastards to get into the position she wanted. They were being cautious, perhaps understandably. A month of missing patrols and looted corpses was probably enough for them to figure out that the responsible party or parties were dangerous reckoning. Thankfully, she was still pretty sure they didn’t know Rom was involved—the place would have been damn near swarming if they did. She’d done most of the attacking, too, but thankfully they were both in better shape now than they had been after Haven.

After entirely too much waiting, the Venatori were finally where she wanted them, so Khari fixed the metal mask to her face and ran to the end of the branch, jumping off and landing directly in their midst, hacking one down as she fell. The first to react threw a fireball at her, just catching the end of the scarf, and she pulled it off and discarded it before it burned her, swinging Intercessor around to knock the knife out of the hand of the second to get his bearings. Snarling, she lunged for the mage after, impaling him clean through the chest and swinging him round, still on the blade, only to fling him off in the general direction of one of his compatriots.

“You can’t tease me like a fight’s coming and then not deliver!” She twisted out of the way of another hit, knocking a woman with an axe to the ground when she staggered from the missed blow.

The man disarmed of his knife turned to retrieve it, but his head only found the plated edge of a round shield; a sharp crack accompanied the shattering of his cheekbone as he was spun around, and Rom lunged in, the shield hand grabbing the top of the man's head and pulling back. His blade slid across the throat, spraying crimson forward as the dying Venatori stilled.

The woman knocked down by Khari rolled swiftly back to her feet and rushed forward for Rom this time, raising her two-handed weapon high over her head. Rom turned swiftly, taking the Venatori corpse with him, the blood spraying the axewoman straight in the face. She charged forward anyway, swinging the blade down, and Rom ducked away from his human shield, which was soon cleaved from the shoulder all the way through the ribcage.

Rom shoved the body to the side, and it pulled the axe with it before the woman could withdraw it. Thrown off balance, she was tugged to her left, while Rom leapt around the side of the falling body, making clean downwards plunge of his blade into the neck, piercing vitals and causing the two bodies to fall to the ground in near unison.

Behind them, the last was getting to his feet from under the body of the impaled mage, but no sooner had he reached his feet than a bolt from Rom's crossbow pierced through his breastplate and struck his heart. He stood still for a moment, before collapsing in a heap. Nodding to Khari, Rom immediately began loading another bolt.

From out of the trees some thirty yards away came a horse, unarmored and carrying a spear-wielding Venatori rider. He pulled a horn from his belt and blew, briefly but loudly, before kicking his heels into his horse and charging right at them, spear leveled towards Rom.

A horse! Now they were in business.

There was the annoying matter of its rider, but Khari firmly believed that where there was a will, there was a way. All she had to do was make the way.

She peeled off to the side a bit, trusting Rom to be able to deal with the incoming spear, and waited, bouncing anxiously on her toes, drawing the short knife she’d looted from a Venatori soldier weeks ago and replacing Intercessor at her back. The rider’s charge carried him past her, and that was when she moved in, bounding into a sprint that took her perpendicular, timing it so that she reached the horse and rider just past the effective angle of the spear. With a running jump, she hurled herself onto the animal’s back, grabbing the rear of the saddle to haul her front half over its haunches.

The ride was predictably bumpy, but she knew what she was doing, and rather than trying to fight the rider off or something like that, she reached down with the knife, slicing through the girth strap of the saddle itself. If this fool had been a chevalier, he’d have been able to keep his seat with no problems, of course, but he wasn’t, and one hard shove from her sent him, saddle and all, careening off the side of the horse, and enabling her to swing one leg over and pull herself up to proper riding position using the animal’s mane.

Once she was settled, she wheeled the creature back around and urged it into a canter. If that horn meant what she was pretty sure it did, they were going to need to get out of here—and fast.

Rom was rising from a roll after she turned around, returning his crossbow to his back, and stalking towards the downed Venatori rider, who'd broken his leg quite severely in the fall. He crawled on his back towards his spear, but his progress was slow, and he seemed preoccupied with Rom's visage. Even with the now filled-in beard, he recognized him.

"You..." Rom's face was set in stone, and he kicked the horseman in the chin viciously, snapping his head back and leaving him writhing on the ground for but a moment before the short sword plunged down into his chest.

A sheath of three light javelins had fallen from the man's back; Rom scooped them up on his way over to Khari, tossing them up to her as she neared, obviously expecting them to come in handy. That done, he grabbed her offered hand and pulled himself up onto the back of the horse, drawing another crossbow bolt and clamping down on it between his teeth.

Without a saddle to fasten the javelin sheath to, Khari had to do some improvising, and wound up just tying the thing to her belt. They’d be easy enough to reach there, anyway. “Whatever you do, don’t fall off.” She’d seen him ride before; while he’d obviously done so more than once, it hadn’t been much more than once, by her estimation, and this was going to be a lot trickier without the saddle for stability.

Urging the horse to faster motion, Khari wove them through the trees, trying to avoid taking a direct path, because that would be a lot easier to follow for horses not burdened with two riders instead of just one. The forest would serve them well, though, because it would whittle down any group of cavalry in pursuit, forcing them to break formation to navigate.

Khari chanced a look over her shoulder and swore under her breath. Four of them had already started chasing. They must have been nearby to begin with. Spurring the horse into full gallop, she veered left, into a more densely-wooded area. The animal beneath them almost didn’t want to go, but it didn’t balk in the end, and she steered as well as she knew how, sliding them through gaps in the trees with precision. The blunted thudding of the horse’s hooves was steady over the forest floor, and she angled them further into it, hoping to lose the tail before they closed to dangerous distance.

Rom hung on tightly with his left hand around Khari's midsection, sparing the right for his crossbow. Turning he held out the weapon and aimed, though riding so quickly made such a thing very difficult, especially from his position just trying to hang on in the back. Two of the Venatori behind them were archers, another wielding more javelins over his head, and the last carried a spear, charging the fastest of them, trying to get up on their flanks. Rom prioritized the archers, loosing the first bolt, but missing by a hair, the Venatori ducking just under it. Rom uttered a muffled curse under his breath.

He turned back, taking his hand away from Khari for a moment to pull the string back again, though he had no sooner done this than he almost fell, and he latched back on to Khari. Chancing a look back, he saw the two archers, much closer than they'd previously been, lining up their own shots. Rom turned back and braced; one arrow whistled over their heads, the other thudded right into the shield on his back. Swiftly he dropped the bolt from his mouth into his hand, and reloaded. He turned again and loosed, catching the closer of the archers in the chest. She went limp and fell from her horse, which careened off to the side without its rider to direct.

Next the javelin-thrower came in too close behind them, and Rom was left with no time to counter. "Down!" He pushed down hard on Khari's shoulder, both of them ducking as low as they could, and the javelin whooshed through the air just over them, splitting into the trunk of a tree on the far side. Meanwhile, the spear-rider was coming up on their left, gaining ground swiftly.

Moving the reins into one hand, Khari drew out one of the javelins with the other, shifting her grip until she was sure she had it the way it needed to go. She was better with swords, honestly, but she’d practiced this enough times that she knew when push came to shove she could do it. Nudging the horse sharply to the right, she got them just out of range of the spearman’s first attempt to stab, and while he overcompensated and then tried to recover, she half-turned herself and hurled the javelin.

It struck him in the shoulder, far from fatal on its own, but enough to knock him from the horse, considering his imbalance. Another horn sounded, this one from almost directly in front of them, and Khari grit her teeth. If they went further into the forest, they’d be intercepted for sure, and she had no idea how many friends these fools had. Probably a decent number, and there was no way they’d give up, now that at least some of them had seen, and presumably recognized, Rom.

“We have to leave the forest!” Fair warning, though he’d probably already figured out as much. This would be much, much harder out in the open on the plains, but if she could find a rock formation or a hill to lose them behind, there was still a possibility they got out of this unscathed. They’d been through far too much to die like this, by her reckoning.

Adjusting their course, Khari guided the horse out of the treeline and onto the plains, running perpendicular to the hills whenever possible—going up or down would make them easier targets, for different reasons. She drew the second javelin out as well, but for the moment simply held it in her free hand, leaning further over the horse’s neck in an attempt to urge every bit of speed out of it that she could.

Another javelin came in for them, skimming off the face of Rom's shield. He snapped another bolt into place, turning and firing without hesitation. The projectile cracked straight through the helm and skull of the rider, and in his death he tugged hard on the horse's reins, steering the beast sideways until it tangled right up into the horse of the second archer. Both animals went to the ground, the horses screaming as they kicked up mounds of dirt, and the riders were tossed to break among the rocks at high speeds.

They had only a moment of freedom, before more horses than before came charging into view, again with a wide assortment of weaponry, this time led by an obvious mage wielding a long black staff. He hurled a massive fireball in their direction, the spell sailing over their heads but exploding against a boulder in front of them, flaring outwards with an intense heat that Khari had to swerve to avoid. Rom sent a bolt in the mage's direction, but missed and hit a horse behind the robed man. The beast wasn't killed outright, but immediately had to slow, eliminating the rider from the chase.

"We can't take this many," he warned. There were at least twice the number of Venatori on their heels now as before, and with very little cover as well.

Much as she hated to admit it, he was obviously right. They were rapidly running out of options, and the horse beneath them was tiring of the frantic pace at which she was pushing it to run. She had to risk a slope, and she chose the downhill, giving them breakneck momentum but also making them a great deal easier to aim at. Another fireball careened by, close enough that Khari felt uncomfortable heat on her left side. It slammed into the ground some distance ahead, throwing up a spray of dirt and flaming debris that she charged them right through. If they could make it a bit farther, there were more rock formations and cover ahead.

Taking the shortest possible route there, Khari guided the horse into a jump over a fallen log, up another small slope, and right through a shallow river crossing, water splashing upwards and saturating their legs up to the knees. There was an outcropping just ahead that they might be able to get behind—

Without warning, the horse lurched violently beneath them, simultaneously with an unmistakable wet thud—someone had shot it. It stumbled on its next step, and Khari threw herself, and consequently Rom who was still holding onto her midsection, to the side, so they didn’t end up under the horse. She hit the ground hard enough to see stars, thrown from Rom’s hold and skidding several more feet until her back met a bare tree stump.

Her still-tender ribcage flared with pain, and Khari gasped, forcing herself to her feet as soon as she could, drawing Intercessor again, her eyes seeking her friend.

Rom was dragging himself out of the river bank when Khari located him, dripping wet from the chest down. A saber-wielding Venatori rider splashed through the river behind him, slashing down swiftly. Rom managed to get his shield in hand just in time to deflect the blow, but he stumbled and fell again as the horse went past. Several arrows came their way, near misses. The horse they'd been riding had fallen in the river, and it no longer moved. There was no hope of running anymore, the amount of cover was too small, and there were too many projectiles coming for them.

From behind Khari, however, projectiles began to return towards the Venatori in greater numbers, arrows fletched with white feathers whistling into man and horse alike. From the rocks emerged a number of archers on foot, their clothing bearing the sunburst brand of the Chantry on dark red fields, though they clearly weren't templars, judging from the utter lack of heavy armor.

The Venatori were caught by surprise and thrown into disarray, their attacks on Khari and Rom faltering as they tried to address the new foe. The mage among them tried to throw up a barrier, but he was struck in the chest by a bolt of lightning from the other side. The mage among the supposed Chantry forces was a woman with bright orange hair, with crossed swords on her back in addition to the spells she wielded from her fingertips. The lightning arced from cavalryman to cavalryman several times, throwing them from their horses in spasms and fits, into the river. The arrows launched against them were relentless, and eventually the Venatori were forced to scatter and flee, the surviving members vanishing behind cover as quickly as they could.

"It's him!" one of their saviors called. "The Herald of Andraste lives!"

The redheaded woman dropped down lightly from atop a large rock, jogging forward past Khari to Rom's side. "I knew he lived. I knew it!" There was an intense satisfaction in the delivery of her words. "Are you injured, Your Worship?"

She helped Rom to his feet, and though he looked a bit bewildered at the title thrown upon him, he shook his head. "I'm alright. How did..."

"We've been battling Venatori hunting parties for weeks now. They range across the Hinterlands, but they're separated from the main force. I suspected they were looking for something most valuable. I was right." Suddenly, she took a knee before him, unable to keep the smile from her face. "It has been my honor to serve you, blood of Andraste."

Rom seemed hardly to comprehend the end of that, instead watching several of the others take a reverent kneeling position as well. One young man, after bowing deeply to him, came to Khari's side, acknowledging her at last. "Do you require assistance, friend?"

“Uhh…” Khari scrunched her face slightly, pulling her brows down and wrinkling her nose. “I’m okay, thanks.” She replaced Intercessor, pulling out the broken javelin from the sheath still tied to her belt and discarding it in favor of the one she still held, which had somehow remained intact despite her fall. She had no idea what the hell everyone was on about, exactly, but they didn’t seem to be hostile—pretty much the opposite, really. At least where Rom was concerned.

“So, Rom.” She moved towards him, coming to a stop a somewhat awkward distance away, mostly because she wasn’t really sure what to do here. “Who are these people?” They certainly weren’t Inquisition, and they weren’t Templars or Seekers either, as far as she could tell.

Rom seemed to struggle to properly describe the group that had saved them, but the leader was quick to step in, rising from her kneeling position and smiling cordially at Khari. "We are friends of the Inquisition, and more specifically to the chosen Herald of Andraste. He sealed our loyalty with a demonstration of his command over the rifts some time ago. My name is Anais, and I speak for the Herald's Disciples." When Rom did not refute any of that, it seemed that all of it was indeed truth.

She turned to her troops, if they could be called that. "See to the bodies, quickly." They set about removing the arms and salvageable pieces of armor from the Venatori, as well as any other useful supplies. Anais smiled again, her gaze shifting between Rom and Khari. "This area is not safe. We should return to Winterwatch immediately. There is much to discuss." She could not contain the excitement from seeping into her words as she looked at Rom, with an obvious expression of what could only be adoration. "And there is someone who would very much like to speak with you."

Khari might have pointed out several things here, like that there were two Heralds or something, but it seemed like a detail currently not worth bothering with. These people were making her want to remain at least five feet from the nearest one at all times, but she couldn’t quite pin down why, except that they seemed far more reverent than one person should ever be towards another, in her estimation. Still, if Rom was like their hero or something, she figured it might be minor, as far as overreactions went, and she chose to ignore her lingering unease, for now.

She looked to Rom himself and shrugged. Food and shelter would be pretty damn welcome, honestly, and at this point she’d probably take it from anyone who wasn’t a Venatori or a darkspawn.

Rom seemed to be of a similar mind, and he nodded, clearly a bit unsure why the group was acting this way as well. Anais nodded in return. "Come. We will prepare a feast for your return to the world of the living."

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Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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Blood of Andraste.

The words hung in Romulus's mind for the entire walk back to Winterwatch, the fortress occupied by his Disciples. That they had named themselves such was immediately strange to him. As Herald, he'd won no followers for himself, having left that task to Estella, and neither of them seemed noteworthy enough for the idea. They taught nothing, did what they could, and tried not to die, which was more than enough challenge on its own.

Anais informed them of what she could regarding the state of the Inquisition and the territories on their way. The Venatori army, and the Red Templar forces accompanying them, had vanished as swiftly as they'd come, taking their Elder One with them, the one Romulus had heard identify himself as Corypheus. He informed Anais of that much, and while the information troubled her, as it was troubling to anyone, she did not seem to know what to do with it. There was more important information to exchange.

The Inquisition survived the attack and would recover from its losses thanks to the efforts Romulus, Khari, Fiona, Meraad, and many others had made. The remaining Herald had led them north, through the Frostbacks, to a place quite nearly lost to time, and word of this Skyhold was quickly spreading. More support was rallying for the remarkable turn of events, beginning the process of replenishing those that were lost at Haven. But Anais had refused to believe that Romulus had perished, despite all evidence. The presence of the Venatori arriving in the Hinterlands had only spurred her on.

It was excellent time for supper as the gates of Winterwatch closed behind them, and rather than press Anais further with more questions, Romulus allowed the ache in his belly to still his tongue, for Khari's sake as well. Scouts had evidently been sent ahead, and a great deal of food was prepared for them. A place of honor at the long table in their great hall was set aside for Romulus, with Khari presented a seat at his right hand, Anais taking up the left. He did not complain; the smell of cooked meat was overwhelming, and he dug in.

There was chicken and ham, fresh loaves of bread and an abundance of fruits, dried or otherwise. And there was wine, and ale. Romulus made some effort to remain polite, but indeed, it seemed nothing he could do would upset these people, and so he ate to his heart's content, and his stomach's. There was little time for talk when his mouth was so full, and the various disciples almost constantly offered him more, every time his plate was allowed an open spot.

When at last he could stomach no more, and waved off the next person that tried to bring him more potatoes, they politely cleared the plate of food, and Romulus groaned in satisfaction. Anais stood, her smile rarely faltering. "Baths are prepared for the both of you, should you wish. Your guest awaits, Your Worship, but he has requested that you be given the opportunity to eat and wash before he troubles you." She gestured to a pair of those she commanded, two young women, standing in the doorway behind them. "Your disciples will show you to your quarters. When you're ready, please, meet me by the main gate." Romulus nodded, prompting Anais to take her leave. He glanced back at the waiting servants, and then at Khari, shrugging.

“Haven’t been clean in a month.” Khari’s observation was dry, followed with half a grin, and she returned the shrug. “And you sure smell like it.” She lazily waved her hand in front of her nose, her good humor obvious, and apparently more comfortable than she’d been through the course of the dinner. She’d eaten with nearly as much gusto as he had, but occasionally would throw glances over her shoulder at the servant that lingered there, only one compared to the several attending him, which might have been for the best.

“Guess I’ll see you later?”

"Yeah..." Romulus was still getting around to understanding the idea. He was to be shown to a bath. He couldn't say that had happened to him before. Even Chryseis didn't pamper him in that manner. Sometimes others among her house slaves would begin preparations for one while he attended to a task in Minrathous, but judging by the clothes these servants of his wore, they intended to bathe him themselves. That was an entirely different idea to wrap his head around.

Finally Romulus pushed his chair back and stood, reaching to give Khari a squeeze on the shoulder. "Enjoy it." He half-smiled. He had to assume they would be on the road come morning, if the Inquisition was still going as strong as Anais made it sound. They believed him dead... the sooner they understood that it was not so, the better. Both Heralds still lived, alive and unbroken. If anything, his experience since Haven had only hardened his resolve, and given him the necessary push to fully commit, damning the consequences.

The servants led him from the main hall and across the central little path that ran through Winterwatch. Everywhere they went the other disciples bowed deeply to him, some even kneeling, murmuring "blood of Andraste." He said nothing to them in return, not knowing what sort of thing was proper to say, not knowing what they expected him to say. He settled on just nodding to them, and it seemed to be enough.

He was led up the stairs of a building that could only be the main quarters for the majority of the disciples living here. Winterwatch was set up to be more of a defensible outpost than an actual fortress or castle, and so it seemed to Romulus that they were living in tighter conditions than was preferable. Still, he supposed they weren't doing much but sleeping in these rooms, spending the rest of their time outside. He was led past an open, empty room in which he could see the bath prepared for Khari, down a hall, and into the significantly larger area prepared for him. It was remarkable what they were able to do on such short notice. Unless Anais had suspected so strongly that he was alive, which was certainly possible as well.

What followed was a strange sequence, though none of this was normal to him. He was attended to by four women; young, though none uncomfortably so, and judging by their appearances, probably hand-picked by Anais. A warm bath had been prepared in the center of the room, a touch of Romulus's fingers into it revealing that it was near perfectly heated. One of the servants offered to take his clothes from him, so that they might be washed. The others waited patiently, wordlessly, for him to enter the bath.

He found that he did not particularly desire to refuse, and undressed.

The one that departed with his clothes soon returned, but by then Romulus was clad only in skin and dirt and caked blood, which was scrubbed away after he entered the tub. He rarely shied from physical contact, especially when offered freely, and his attendants were thankfully not overly eager in their duties. They simply cleaned him thoroughly, more effectively than he could on his own, and most strangely, they seemed to take pride in the task. A haircut and shave were offered, he accepted, but only a trim. He'd actually grown somewhat fond of the beard, and slightly longer hair.

By the end of it all, the bathtub was filthy, and Romulus felt downright strange without the layer of grime and filth covering him. After he dried himself, he was given a choice of a number of fresh clothes for the night, and settled upon a white linen shirt with loose and soft breeches. The fresh socks were perhaps the best to put on, dry and warm inside his boots, which were the one item of clothing not replaced. His weapons remained with him, though most were looted save for his crossbow and supply of bolts. Still, he was not fond of being far from them.

One of the servants led him back outside and to the main gate, where Anais was already waiting for him.

Khari was there, too, looking substantially different than she had just a short time before. Her hair was loose, still dripping a bit from the ends, but clean and already beginning to curl as it dried. She’d apparently elected not to cut hers, if it had been offered, because it still stopped at the same point, just above the base of her spine. The clothes she wore were somewhat loose, but actually seemed to have been made for a woman of approximately her actual dimensions, and she picked uncomfortably at the soft blue shirt, shifting her weight from foot to foot. She still carried her sword.

When she heard his approach, though, she glanced up, then made an exaggerated show of squinting at him. “Have we met before? You remind me of this friend I have, only you look a lot less like someone put you through a cheese grater and then shoved you into a pit.”

Romulus couldn't help the smirk that appeared on his face, soon blooming into a full-blown grin back at her. "I'll take that as a compliment. You don't look half bad yourself." He'd thought that from the start, though he'd never mentioned it. She was obviously not overly concerned with attempting to impress with her appearance. Looks weren't even a shred as important as skill and tenacity, for someone in her position.

"If you'll follow me, Your Worship," Anais said, bowing her head slightly. She opened the door of the right tower next to the gate, leading them inside, and they spiraled up the staircase around the wide interior of the structure. Romulus glanced out of the arrow slit windows at the Hinterlands, seeing the last glimpse of the day's fading light in the sky, and the miles of quiet woods below them. It was a very well situated place for an outpost, defensible not only for its position against the mountain wall, but also for its height relative to the land around it, enabling their guards to see any movement for miles around.

Anais opened the door at the top of the winding staircase, leading them out onto the top of the watchtower, which was covered by an angled wooden roof that looked recently refurbished. There were four chairs situated around a low-burning firepit in the center, one of them already occupied.

Romulus didn't know who he was expecting to be waiting for him, but he found the pirate, Captain Adan Borja, the man that had been following him in Redcliffe, curious about something. He smoked a pipe and sat with lazy posture, still clad in his long overcoat. He'd set down his sword in its sheath beside the chair, and looked up upon seeing the three new arrivals. Anais swept out a hand. "Captain Adan Borja, of the Northern Sword and her fleet. He tells me you've already met, in Redcliffe."

Borja stood, slowly, using both of the armrests of his chair to push himself up. "Aye, we met. You look like you've been through a lot since then." He glanced at Khari next. "Don't think I got your name, though."

She shrugged. “Don’t blame you, since this one—” she hooked a thumb in Romulus’s direction—“was in your face and our pirate was practically growling at you.” Her face broke into a smile, then, and she offered the same hand towards him. “Khari. I’ll spare you the horror of trying to pronounce the rest.”

He clasped his hand firmly with Khari's, nodding in what was perhaps approval. "Many thanks. Never was much good with names. Come, why stand when we can sit?" He stepped around the firepit, the first to sink in a chair, and Romulus soon followed suit, taking a seat directly across from him. Anais took the one to his left, leaving the one on the right for Khari. Romulus watched Borja almost without blinking, trying to determine the man's intentions before any words were spoken. Words had a way of clouding things, when they fell from the right tongues.

"Would you like to begin, Captain, or shall I?" Anais asked, but Borja deferred with a grunt and a wave of his hand, taking another puff on his pipe, the contents within flaring slightly. "Very well..." Anais did not seem altogether pleased with the man's mannerisms, and adjusted her seat to face Romulus. "There are several important pieces of information you must know. First, and the less notable of the two, is that Captain Borja here is your father."

There was a moment of complete silence, which of course Khari broke. Less notable? Are you joking?” She looked back and forth between Romulus and the pirate, for once considerably serious herself. Perhaps it was something residual, from their conversation on the topic, but she hardly seemed happy that it had been mentioned in so offhand a manner.

"It bears importance in the way a hill does compared to all the mountains of Thedas," Anais stated matter-of-factly. Romulus spared her a glance, but his eyes then settled back down on Borja, who seemed disinclined to look at him anymore, focusing intently on the contents of his pipe. He didn't feel particularly surprised, was the oddest part. The physical relation was not obvious. They were not mirrors of each other, but he supposed, if he looked carefully, he could see bits of himself in the man. Or was he only seeing that now that the words had been spoken?

"You knew in Redcliffe," Rom stated, making the easy jump to the fact. "Why did you say nothing of it then?"

Borja finally looked up, wincing. "You ever have any kids?" Rom made no movement of his head or lips, believing his stare answer enough. "Kids you lost when they were too young to even remember you? Kids you thought were dead, until you found out they became slaves, and lived in misery because you couldn't protect them?" He allowed an uncomfortable silence to fall over them, his fingers anxiously rubbing over themselves. "A man lives with his shame as best he can. I wanted to see my son once. I found you, you were healthy and strong. You looked like a free man to me then. You look even more so like one to me now."

"And that was all? Why are you here now, then? Why not disappear again?"

"I found your father in Redcliffe," Anais declared softly, "sometime after you had earned the loyalty of those that now call themselves your disciples. He proved instrumental in providing support for a theory I developed about you."

Borja shook his head. "I wanted to leave the father bit out, but the lady thought there'd be no way of properly explaining without it being obvious."

"Explaining what?"

"You are the only known living descendant of the Maker's Bride, Andraste," Anais stated proudly. "That, or you are Andraste reborn in the body of a man. But I believe the former to be truth. You are the first son in the line of daughters, and the Maker and Andraste have chosen you to put this world to rights."

“Well. This isn’t awkward at all.” Khari cleared her throat, scratching the back of her head with a hand, bringing a large chunk of hair forward over her shoulder when she moved her arm back down. “I mean, I guess surviving Haven was pretty miraculous, but I thought that was our stubborn refusal to roll over and die more than anything. Woulda called in the miracle a bit sooner, if I were you.” Her tone suggested a healthy degree of skepticism, or at least some vague confusion.

Romulus appeared skeptical as well, though the words did not come as easily to him. Borja's obvious lack of reaction implied that he was on board with Anais and her theory of his divinity, if that was the right word. Was it right? Romulus had always imagined himself worthy of something greater, even if this fantasy was something he'd beaten down within his core day after day, year after year, convincing himself that he would never be anything more than a slave. Only recently had he declared that he would not return to Tevinter, that he would see the Inquisition to its conclusion, and only if he lived that long would he decide what to do afterwards. But... descended from Andraste? The first son in the line of daughters?

"The first son," he repeated, frowning, looking between them. "Then my mother, she..."

"She was born Rosamara Abeita, but died Rosamara Borja," the Captain stated, setting down the pipe finally. He folded his hands in front of his face, still resting elbows upon the arm rests of the chair. "You were born with the name Tavio, but the Vints branded you Romulus."

Tavio. It felt as foreign to him as anything else, and it was just a name. Did it matter what he was called? He did not feel compelled to abandon the name Romulus if it wasn't his. He wasn't particularly fond of it, but Rom had always come across to him well, even if only a few used it. He liked it that way. "Did she know, then? My mother. Did she know who, what she was?" He couldn't help but ask the question skeptically, still unable to swallow this.

"She never told me," Borja answered, lowering his eyes for a moment. "But I believe she knew. She was drawn to a life at sea, isolated and yet always in good company. Quiet, but filled with the best kind of noise. When you were born, she... she spoke often of how she knew you were meant for something greater. I thought every parent believed that, but... I wish I'd seen it then."

From beside him, Khari dropped her hand onto his forearm, giving it a squeeze over his sleeve, but she chose not to say anything, only remind him of her presence. Even after she relaxed her grip, she didn’t lift the limb away, but let it stay there, a silent bit of solidarity, perhaps.

He needed the touch, to help anchor him from the way his mind was spinning off in a hundred directions, overwhelmed with not only the family knowledge, the family he'd never known, that had been taken from him, but the nearly absurd revelation that he was somehow descended from a woman who had become the bride of the Maker himself.

"History is repeating itself," Anais said, unable to contain her excitement, her eyes darting to the hand on his sleeve before it shot back to his face. "A slave of Tevinter, able to escape and coming into a position of power while the world is still in the wake of a Blight. Tevinter forces hunt you, declare you their mortal enemy. Before I had not known, but you have even bonded with an elven ally, perhaps even as a lover?"

Romulus's eyes snapped to Anais, suddenly uncertain. "Ah, we're not..." He quite suddenly flushed red, and Borja raised an eyebrow in what was possibly amusement, appearing for once across his grouchy features. "We haven't... I mean, I... it's not that... well." He cut himself off, finally leveling wandering eyes at Anais. "No."

“What he said.” Khari’s words were jocular, but the expression on her face was strange, hard to identify exactly. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to be embarrassment, and he’d never seen her wear it before. It appeared to be caught somewhere between consternation and bewilderment, like she found the inquiry exceedingly bizarre for some reason.

“You’re pretty blunt, aren’t you, Speaker?”

Anais laughed nervously, clapping her hands together once. "Forgive me, I overstepped. I am excited is all, as many will be when they come to see the truth. And, given all the rumors that existed regarding Andraste and Shartan... but! Enough of that. Rumors they shall remain."

"In Redcliffe," Romulus said, in Borja's direction, eager to change the subject, "you asked if I knew what these meant." He touched one of the lines tattooed upon his face. He left unsaid that he didn't know, for why should he? These things were obscure, especially in Tevinter, especially for a slave, who had no resource to ask these questions, and no one that cared to answer.

"Family markings," Borja explained. "Most know the meanings behind their own. Rosamara, though, she said she didn't know, she'd long since left her own family behind when we met, but when we had you... she wanted them passed on."

"The markings are unfamiliar to me as well," Anais cut in, "but the Captain's words do not dispute the theory. There is much that is unknown of what became of Andraste's bloodline. I had the honor of studying under Sister Galenna of the Augustan Order after her departure. Few had learned so extensively of the details of Andraste's history, and what few, hard to find facts there were regarding those that followed in her bloodline. The widely known pair is of course Vivial and Regulan, going into exile, Andraste herself concealing them for their protection."

"How did my mother die?" Romulus asked, aware that the question had been burning within him not only for a few moments, but for every year of his life separated from her. "What happened?"

Borja swallowed, obviously uncomfortable with the retelling. "We were young. I had no ship yet, no crew, only aspirations. Rosamara comes to me one day, and says we must leave, we must smuggle ourselves from the country. I tried to pry, but she would not tell me. Said it was safer for me not to know. And... because I loved her, I agreed. Called in one of the few favors I was owed, and we were smuggled out of Llomerryn by a friend of mine, man named Conrado. Few days out, we were caught in a storm... and attacked." He gazed into the fire, biting his lower lip for a moment.

"I don't know who attacked us, or how they found us. Best guess is Conrado sold us out. I was caught unarmed, took a blade to the side, fell from the ship. I should've drowned, but the storm carried me back to shore. I thought everyone was dead." His eyes came up to meet with Romulus, and the firelight gleamed inside them. "You believe that, don't you? I thought you dead, until I heard of the Herald of Andraste, one of two, a man with a marked face. Marks I'd never forget."

Romulus likely didn't need to answer that either, but he nodded, shakily. The history lined up, it was hard to refute. His being descended from Andraste was still so hard to acknowledge, but... the idea that it might be true was far easier to grasp now than it had been at the start.

"What do you think?" he asked Khari. He honestly didn't know how closely she still held to her own people's gods, if at all. She seemed more likely to be skeptical than any of those present, but he felt that might be needed at the moment. Someone to keep him grounded in this. And she'd always been there to pull him up when he'd been sinking before. She could be there now to tug on his feet, and prevent him from flying away.

Khari rubbed at the bridge of her nose with an index finger. “I think this is all a little over my head.” She shrugged, and sighed gustily. “But you know, and maybe this isn’t the smartest thing to say in present company, but…” she flicked a glance to Anais, half-smiling almost sheepishly before returning her eyes to his. “This isn’t the thing that decides who you are, Rom. Whether you’re descended from Andraste or not, whether you believe it or accept it or don’t—that’s not what’s going to make the difference.” She pursed her lips and let her eyes fall half-closed, clearly parsing her words more carefully than usual.

“You decided yourself that you were going back to the Inquisition after Haven—the fact that you were once a slave didn’t dictate that for you. This shouldn’t dictate anything, either.” The smile returned, ruefully this time. “If you’re going do something, do it as yourself, because you want to. That seems like plenty of reason to me.”

Romulus found her words to be reasonable, just what they needed to be. Others may have criticized her, an elf aspiring to be a chevalier, for just the opposite, but he had always found that she rarely had her head in the clouds. And she was right about this. He was still the same person after this conversation, only with more experiences thrown on top to better inform him of who that person was. It did not erase anything he'd done in the past, even if he wanted it to. It did not change any of it. And for the moment, it did not change his plans.

"We'll set out to rejoin the Inquisition tomorrow at first light, then." He stated, confident that Anais would accept any wish of his as an order. "There's a lot of ground to cover. And a lot the Inquisition needs to know about, not only about me." He and Khari had knowledge of the enemy that could prove valuable, to start.

"It's not something to be taken in over one night," Borja agreed. Anais nodded as well.

"Very good, then," she said. "We make for Skyhold come the morning. Come, I will show you to your quarters. You are no doubt quite exhausted. It has been a long day."

She stood, and headed for the door. Before Romulus followed suit, he made sure to place a hand over Khari's, and nod. It would be all she needed to know he was thankful.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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It was a few days after Estella sat on Skyhold's throne for the first time. Marceline and the other advisors stood with their Inquisitor around a long table that held maps of both Orlais and Ferelden, as well as many other papers spread across them. A model figurine of the Inquisition's Heraldry stood in a specific place on the map, the location where they resided in Skyhold. Other, smaller figures were spread out across much of the map, each set belonging to a specific advisor. Currently, Marceline found herself in the middle of a strategy meeting with the others. They had established Skyhold as their base of operations and named Estella their Inquisitor. Now was the time to plan the next step.

Marceline stood a step away from the table, a glass of wine in her hand. Unconsciously she swirled the dark purple liquid in her hand as she looked down at the table. They knew very little of their enemy, only someone or something called the Elder One had gathered enough Venatori and Red Templars in order to fashion an army. Other than that, they were reduced to guessing. The location of the Elder One's base was unknown to them, along with the numbers in his army, and other rather necessary items. Marceline simple sighed and took a drink from glass, before going back and swirling the liquid again.

Estella’s eyes were fixed on the map, her expression pensive. “We know a few things they might try to do,” she mused, “surely our best chance is to catch them out in something underhanded. If we can get an agent or two, we might be able to start unraveling the skein.” She bit down on her lower lip and shook her head. She’d been holding up quite well since her official appointment, at least externally. She seemed to be quite against the finer armor and silk, but had consented at least to trade her maroon and silver Lions’ linens in for the russet and gold of the Inquisition. How she was beneath the face she wore was harder to say—she wasn’t entirely ineffective at hiding her feelings, it seemed.

“The common thread, the one that both Cassius’s future contained and Envy’s plans hinted at, was the assassination sequence. Either it’s something they really want to do, and will therefore probably attempt even despite our survival, or… it’s a trap.” He sighed, then glanced across the table to Rilien.

“What does Lord Drakon have to say?”

“We have his support.” The tranquil’s reply was brief, but he elaborated. “He will pay the Lions himself from this point, which allows us to appropriately salary several new officers. He has also officially contracted with us for their services, and given his permission for us to promote them within the hierarchy as we see fit. You have leave to make Corvin a captain, and Lia as well.” He paused a moment, blinking down at the representation of Val Royeaux on the map.

“Ser Lucien has taken our warning seriously, but there is little he can do about it without more concrete information. Nevertheless, he will be in contact with Lady Montblanc, and my agents in the capital, and coordinate a search for such. It will be difficult, with the war, but he reports that the fighting in some regions has begun to abate. The chevaliers are uneasy with how things are changing while they are asked to fight amongst themselves.”

"Correspondance with my father corroborates this. Though he cannot offer his official support due to his standing with the loyalist Chevaliers under Empress Celene, Marshall Lucas Lécuyer wishes us the best and will send us reports on the Orlesian civil war," she said, pausing a moment to take another drink from her glass. Though she didn't display anything outwardly, she was worried for her father, having been drawn out of retirement to fight against their countrymen. The regular correspondance set her heart at ease a little, but the fact remained that her father still fought in a war. They both did, she supposed.

She tilted her head back down to the maps, but shook her head once more. "Even if were were to discover this Elder One's identity, and were able to accurately pin down what it is that he or she plans to do, there lay other issues that will surface in our near future. Issues that are no less important," Marceline said, tapping the stem of her glass. She did not envision it necessary that the Inquisition expand so quickly. "Currently, we operate off of donations from our noble allies-- some of which you may have noticed touring the castle. However, if the Inquisition is to grow in order to combat all threats, then charitable donations will soon not be enough." A thin frown lined her painted cherry lips.

"I fear that we may have to begin taking loans in order to be able to pay for the expenses that arise. My mother, Comtesse Gabrielle, has agreed to one such loan with a very generous interest rate. However, we will need much more if the Inquisition is to survive," she said, solemnly. They can not fight against this Elder One if they did not have the resources necessary.

“When you put it like that… I should write my sister.” Leon had spoken very little of his family, but it was obvious enough that he was from some form of noble stock. He grimaced, though whether at the prospect of this communication or the news itself was hard to say.

Before anyone could contribute anything further, the door burst open, the usually-composed Reed barreling through like demons were chasing him. “Inquisitor, Commander. You’re—that is…” he paused long enough to gulp in a breath, then shook his head, an expression on his face far beyond his usual skeptical assessment of the strange happenings around him. “It’s Romulus. He’s alive, and at the gate.”

Marceline looked about as shocked as her even expression could manage. For a moment, the room was silent from what they had heard. Marceline's own eyes were wide and her head taken on a slight tilt. A beat passed before she looked to the others. "We should go," she understated. Like the others, she had thought Romulus and the others had died in the attack on Haven, having sacrificed himself for the rest of the Inquisition. To hear otherwise, well, it was a surprise to put it mildly. The others began to file out the door behind Reed, while Marceline took a moment to down the rest of her wine, before setting the glass on the table and following.

The news had already reached the rest of the castle, but the sound of the clamor echoing through the halls. Their steps quickened until their path brought them to the double doors that led outside to the front gate. A pair of Inquisition soldiers opened the door for them to pass through and deposited them onto the stairwell that led to the ground below. From their position, they could see a crowd had gathered around the gate, in hopes no doubt to catch a glimpse of the Herald they thought they had lost.

He did not make any attempts at hiding himself, standing unhooded among the center of armed individuals bearing the sunburst brand stitched upon their clothing. His cloak was new, only dusted from light travel it appeared, and Romulus himself looked quite different, in addition to his clothing. His hair was longer atop his head, and a filled-out beard covered the man's jawline and upper lip. There were a great many speaking, trying to get the Herald's attention, or just chattering excitedly to each other, but Romulus appeared to be waiting for the Inquisition's leaders to appear.

He stood alongside the immediately recognizeable visage of Khari, sans mask or hood and grinning broadly. She waved as they approached. Another redheaded woman, this one human, flanked him on the other side, bearing the group's suburst brand and wearing more polished pieces of armor than the rest. She stood proud and tall, hands folded before, though they soon sweeped out, when she noticed the obvious Inquisition leaders, coming down towards the gate.

"Good people of the Inquisition, I give to you your Herald, who survived the events of Haven, despite all the forces of darkness threw at him. He has fought through cold, sickness, and Tevinter pursuit to rejoin you now, and tell you, that he is the blood of Andraste, the first son in the line of endless daughters!" The crowd erupted in murmuring and talk, the utmost amount of mixed reactions, while Romulus turned and whispered something to the woman, obviously displeased with something. Very few knew what to make of the woman's introduction, but plenty just seemed happy to have the second of their Heralds back, especially considering all he reportedly went through just to stand there.

The pronouncement seemed to catch Leon off-guard for a moment, but he recovered swiftly, and as usually happened when he wanted to go somewhere, people got out of his way as he advanced forward. Estella moved in his wake, until they were both directly in front of their returned comrades and the newcomers. It was difficult to tell what the newly-minted Inquisitor was thinking, at least until she smiled.

“Welcome back, both of you. I’m so glad you made it.” And clearly, she was.

Khari didn’t let her get away with just the words, however, and took half a dozen steps forward, more at a run than a walk, to half-tackle her in a tight hug that drove them both backwards several more paces. “What a coincidence! I’m really glad we made it too!” She actually lifted Estella several inches off the ground, apparently having no reservations whatsoever about doing any of this in public with much of the Inquisition hanging around. Estella actually laughed, a bright sound that lacked most of her customary reserve, looking a bit surprised to be so enthusiastically greeted, but not at all unhappy about it. Even after she was put back on the ground, she wore a grin, her eyes a tad wet, though whether that was because she was overwhelmed by the good news or because Khari had hugged her tightly enough to squeeze a few tears out of her was rather unclear.

"It is so very good to see that you both are alive and well," Marceline said, a genuine smile even on her lips. The cheer that had developed over them was infectious and even drew her in. She stood beside Leon, taking the sight of Romulus and Khari backed by an armed escort in. "We had feared the worst," she explained, before her gaze shifted next to him, to the redheaded woman that had announced him. She beheld the woman for a moment, her smile wavering. What she had just announced was best left for a later discussion between all involved, but the mere fact that they had returned safely seemed to have flooded any negative impact such a proclamation could have.

"It seems that there is much to be discussed," she allowed a pause into her words while she returned her attention back to Romulus, "But, that will come in good time. Until then," she said, stepping forward and extending a hand for Romulus to take, "Welcome home, Lord Herald." There was an arch to her brow as she spoke the word, as if asking him if home was, indeed, the correct word to use.

"Thank you," he replied, taking the offered hand, though his eyes and his smile could not help but be directed at the sight of Khari attempting to swallow Estella with her limbs. "I plan to see this through with the Inquisition, to the end."

"That is exceptionally wonderful to hear," Marceline answered, inclining her head in a show of respect. No doubt his presence would help to take some of the weight off of Estella's shoulder, as well as do wonders for the Inquisition's morale. Her smile brightened as she laid a gentle hand on Romulus's shoulder, and gestured toward the castle proper. "Come, the sooner we speak, the better," she said, allowing Leon to lead the way back. Amongst all of the faces cheering for the return of their Herald, Marceline saw the back of only one person's head, a familiar mane of white hair framed by a pair of horns heading away from the crowd.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel
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Leon drew a deep breath into his lungs, holding it and counting to five before he let it out again. The large, semicircular chamber they’d chosen for the war room was nearly full to capacity, as he’d been rather liberal with his summonses, unsure what expertise would be necessary and what would not. Besides himself, Estella, Marceline, and Rilien, the room also held Romulus, Khari, Vesryn, and Cyrus. Reed and Larissa were present as well, situated in one corner of the room, both supplied to take notes on anything significant. He suspected they would not stop writing once they began.

The Inquisition’s commander cleared his throat softly, having prioritized the order in which he’d make his queries, doing his best to account for the fact that at least some of the others were bound to interject with queries of their own. He’d decided getting an accounting of events, and any consequent intelligence, was first priority.

He smiled mildly at both Romulus and Khari. It truly was good to see them well, but for the moment, there was too much else to be done to linger on that. He would leave the celebration to the troops outside, who were almost certainly doing so at this moment. “As I’m sure you’ve guessed, we’d thought you both lost after the events at Haven.” They had, essentially, volunteered to give up their lives for the rest. Fortunately, it would seem that at least the two of them had not needed to pay that steep a price after all. Leon folded his hands together behind his back.

“What happened?”

Romulus took a moment to get acclimated to the new meeting room, which was far grander than what they'd been afforded in Haven. It even had windows. And these offered a breathtaking view to the mountains that surrounded Skyhold's position in the Frostbacks. When he was ready, he leaned forward, placing his hands upon the edges of the table.

"We held our position at the trebuchet for as long as we could. Venatori and Red Templars were drawn to it. Eventually, that dragon made a pass, and obliterated a section of the wall. Everyone was thrown back. I was the closest to it, and was severely injured. The dragon circled around to land inside the wall, and the army's leaders came through the flames."

“A bunch of people, actually.” Khari picked up the thread of the explanation there. “The first lot were Venatori, probably the elites. Mages, but ones who moved like… like an army, a real one. Their leader was this man—he seemed to be human, but…” Her brows furrowed for a moment, but then she shook her head. “Anyway. He was tall, definitely a mage, and wore a mask over one side of his face.” She raised a hand to cover the left half of her own.

“He and the Venatori, uh… they seemed like a vanguard or something. The leader, he killed Fiona, like it wasn’t even an effort for him.” Considering who Fiona was, that news boded extremely poorly, to say the least. “Behind them came…” She struggled for the right words for a moment. “It looked like a darkspawn, I guess. But… there were also chunks of that glowy red lyrium on him, and he talked. A lot, actually.” She scratched her head, glancing briefly at Romulus.

“He was really tall, taller than you, Commander. But kinda weirdly spindly, like someone took all his parts and stretched them out. He had magic, too. By that point it was just me, Rom, and Meraad against this guy and his dragon and his army.” Her voice, usually at least slightly good-humored or light, was heavy, thick. “I, uh… charged them. Aimed for the big Darkspawn.” She didn’t make eye contact with anyone, instead fixing her eyes somewhere near Leon’s shoulder. “It—he, I guess… he just kinda gestured, and then this force picked me up and flung me into the trebuchet. Hurt like hell.” Her gaze came back into focus on the last part, at least, and she managed a little smile, more self-effacing than anything.

Romulus nodded somewhat gravely, not refuting anything Khari had said. His own voice had constricted somewhat since he'd last spoke. "They were only interested in me. The bait worked as well as we'd hoped. Meraad tried to stand up to the dragon on his own..." He left unsaid how well the attempt had gone. It was not difficult to imagine.

"The darkspawn Khari described is the Elder One we've been hearing about. His name is Corypheus, and he was responsible for the Breach and the deaths of everyone at the Temple of Sacred Ashes. In fact, he spoke a great deal, believing his victory complete." He shook his head at the thought, either from bewilderment or the darkness of the memory that the particular night in question carried with it.

"He spoke of championing Tevinter, assaulting the heavens. He said we interrupted a ritual," he looked to Estella, "the day we received our marks. He called them Anchors. 'Beg that I succeed, for I have seen the throne of the gods, and it was empty,' he said."

He delivered the line with no attempt at impersonating the Elder One, this Corypheus, though by his tone, he found a great deal of confusion in what the creature spoke of. "He tossed me away like I was nothing, and I hit the side of a well or something. He wanted to remove the mark from my hand with some sort of magical tool, but determined that it couldn't be done. I was to die, but Khari managed to set off the trebuchet, and dragged me into the well before the avalanche crushed the town." He half smiled at her briefly, as though he still couldn't quite believe they lived despite all of that.

"That's what we know of the enemy. The rest of the time was spent just trying not to die, and... discovering some interesting things." He did not actually look eager to enter that particular discussion.

Fortunately for him, he didn’t yet have to. “It called itself Corypheus?” Cyrus spoke with obvious surprise, and more appeared on his face when he glanced about the room only to find that no one else shared his shock. Blinking several times, he decided more explanation was prudent. “Corypheus was the name of the Conductor of the Choir of Silence. He was the Old God Dumat’s high priest at the time all of them entered the Fade physically. It was more than a thousand years ago.” From the sounds of it, he wasn’t sure whether he believed the implication of the darkspawn naming himself such, and he snorted softly.

Elder One, indeed.”

“The Grey Wardens had this creature sealed in the Free Marches, bound by blood magic ritual.” That contribution, perhaps more immediately relevant to their interests, came from Rilien. “Several of those I knew in Kirkwall broke the seal and killed it. Or believed they did. I will contact them immediately—there may be more they can tell us.”

It was almost too much information to process. But Leon knew from experience that when something seemed overwhelming, the best way to handle it was to break it down into its parts. The part about Corypheus’s possible origin, he left aside for the moment, focusing instead on Rilien’s contribution regarding a recent previous encounter. “Please do,” he replied, inclining his head in the Spymaster’s general direction. Anything else they wanted to talk about regarding that should probably wait until they could talk to one of these friends of his, anyway.

That left several other choices: the marks, their enemy’s goals, the other man who’d appeared with him, who was likely a general or right hand of some sort, and then the elephant in the room—what the woman who had appeared with Romulus had said about him. The marks, he thought, were probably a matter for Cyrus and Asala to do some work with, and that would be later than this meeting, anyway. Corypheus’s goals were unclear, beyond what Romulus had already said, and the while they might be able to get somewhere informationally if they knew who his prominent underlings were, the description Khari gave wasn’t enough to work with yet.

That left one more thing they could likely address in this meeting, and Leon turned violet eyes on Romulus. The Herald’s unease hadn’t gone unnoticed, but it was surely an important-enough matter that it bore explanation as soon as possible. “Romulus, the manner of your return did raise a number of questions. Would you please explain to us what it is that you have discovered?”

He grimaced slightly. "I'm sorry about that. It wasn't how I would've made my return, but... there are no subtle ways to enter this place." He half smiled, as much making fun of his own tendency to hide as he was complimenting the Inquisition on the new fortifications. He cleared his throat.

"The woman who spoke is named Anais. She leads a group that operates out of a place called Winterwatch in the Hinterlands. I traveled there with Asala and several of the Lions, and earned their loyalty by closing a rift. Her people rescued Khari and I from a mounted group of Venatori that nearly caught us." That seemed to be the easiest part of the explanation, and Romulus swallowed, taking a moment to formulate what came next in his mind. "Anais had studied under an order that devoted themselves to the history of Andraste, and her bloodline. She'd been researching a theory since Redcliffe."

He placed his palms back upon the table, as though to steady himself. "She believes I am a living descendant of Andraste herself. She introduced me to a man I met in Redcliffe, who turned out to be my father. I don't know if it can be proven, but she claims to be working on a way. From what we have, between Anais and my father... it seems right." He practically shook when he admitted that, effectively giving away that he believed it himself. The idea seemed to scare him more than anything, though there was a glimmer of something in his grey eyes. Hope, perhaps.

Well. That did, in fact, sound even stranger the second time.

Leon’s relationship to his faith had always been a great deal more nuanced and complicated than that of most people he knew. It didn’t bother him to acknowledge the mortality and the humanness of most of the figures involved in the Chant, and he’d never been one to, say, condemn outright the actions even of Maferath or the Archon Hessarian. Those were, naturally, unpopular positions, as was the common Tevinter belief that Andraste was not so much an exalted Bride of the Maker as she was foremost a human woman and a mage. He’d never seen the tension in saying she was both.

So it was perhaps easier to swallow for him than many faithful that her descendants were still very much alive. It wasn’t something everyone believed, nor something everyone liked to think about, but it was well within the realm of possibility, though as far as most knew, the line had disappeared a long time ago. Harder to believe than the fact that her descendants existed was that someone had managed to track them down. But he didn’t know this Anais or what she knew, and so on that, at least, he chose to suspend judgement.

“That, I think, is something best dealt with when she proves it or fails to do so,” he said at last. “In the meantime, I think it may be most prudent to prevent further declarations of the kind that accompanied your arrival.” His lips twitched into a rueful smile. “It’s not impossible that you are who she says you are, and if so, that will have implications. But those implications will go more than one way. Some will react as Anais and her group have. Others will deny it, and hate you for so much as suggesting that it could be true. Everything you’ve done, your entire life, will fall under the kind of scrutiny we have hitherto tried to divert from you. If you choose to make this information public, you will have to be prepared for that—to own your history and everything you do from now on as well. It will not be easy.” He didn’t mean to sound to dire about it, but he spoke the truth as he saw it. Being a public figure, especially one propelled to it with a claim like that, true or not, was very different from being anyone else.

"If I may, Ser Leonhardt?" Marceline interjected. Up to now, she quietly listened and kept her thoughts to herself. Her face was impassive, nearly impossible to glean any information on how she felt about all of this through her body language. Until now, she watched Romulus with a hawklike gaze, at least until her facade broke away with a smile. "Even if what this Anais says was true, and you must understand that by no means am I implying that it is not. There are far too many possibilities to discount it completely. But, the Inquisition cannot officially declare you Andraste's heir."

The smile on her lips remained, though, as she leaned forward, her arms crossed at her chest, "However, rumors have a strange way of propagating. Amongst the crowd that witnessed your speaker's declaration, a number of the nobility were present. Whom no doubt will spread news of what they have heard when they return home," Marceline's head tilted toward Leon, "The Inquisition will neither confirm nor deny these rumors," it was not as if they had many options. Either stance would anger someone. "With luck, those who wish to believe shall, and those who do not, simply will not."

Romulus nodded, taking a moment to absorb their reactions to the news. "Whatever you believe is best. I'm... still not sure what to do with the information myself." He then looked to Estella, and offered a reassuring smile. "But I do know that I'm here to stay, and serve the Inquisition in whatever manner it will have me. That's my choice now."

She looked a bit unsure in response, halfway raising a hand as though to stave off some part of what had been said. Likely the serve part, considering her nature. In the end though, she sighed a little, half-smiling back. “We’re happy to have you, in any case.”

That, really, seemed to be the bottom line here, and Leon nodded. “Exactly so. Thank you—both of you, for the information as well. By all means, get some rest. We’ll sort out what to do about all of this as soon as possible.”

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Khari was the kind of woman who took the stairs two at a time, despite the fact that her legs really weren’t long enough for that.

She figured someone more inclined to metaphor would probably make a big deal out of this fact, say it was representative of her whole life, how she’d spent most of it trying to push beyond boundaries that were just impossible to breach and suffering for it. Societal boundaries, racial ones, even the physical ones imposed on her by her generally small frame and short stature.

Khari was also the kind of woman who thought those people could go take a long walk off a short ledge.

She’d rarely ever met anyone who worked as hard as she did to get past limitations of that kind. Mostly because she’d rarely ever met people who had as many of them to contend with as she did. People just didn’t get it, usually, why she threw herself at absolutely every challenge she could, why she took every opportunity to make things harder for herself than they needed to be. Why she wanted the specific things she wanted in the first place.

But she thought that maybe, if anyone understood, it was Stel. They’d fallen so easily back into their routine of training together that it was almost like they’d never left off. She’d gotten up the morning after they arrived at Skyhold, not really sure where the new Inquisitor would be, or if she would even still be able to or interested in running around before dawn and doing pull-ups till their arms shook. But Stel had been right there, at the bottom of the castle stairs, dressed as usual, and apparently waiting for her to show up as well. It was exactly Khari’s favorite kind of coincidence, and she’d felt an unexpected happiness, like a little shot of adrenaline she hadn’t been expecting.

After this morning’s workout, Stel had mentioned that she should come by the library later, because there was apparently something there she might be interested in. Khari had never had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in libraries; she figured it would probably surprise most people that she knew how to read, but she did. It didn’t seem to surprise Stel, though. So, curious as to what this could all be about, she made her way up to the library at the appointed time, her boots falling more lightly than usual on the stone underfoot, the soft leather currently without the metal plating of her greaves.

“Hey Stel? You up here?”

There was a soft rustling sound, and a few moments later, Stel’s head and shoulders appeared around one of the corners of a shelving unit, a little smile turning her mouth up at the corners. “Hello Khari. I’m just over here, if you want to come join me.” The library was on a lower level of one of the circular towers, and so it wasn’t laid out in what might otherwise be the logical fashion, with rows of shelves and the like. Instead, periodically along the sides of the room, deep alcoves had been carved out and squared, so that all three walls of them could be lined with shelves, and there was enough room in each for cozy clusters of armchairs and thick, plush rugs.

Into the third one of these down, Stel had obviously quite comfortably settled. Several thick blankets were around, one of them currently in use, from the way it was rumpled on a squashy chair near the corner of the alcove. The low table in front of the chairs had a small stack of books on it, and a couple glasses of something golden were sitting on it as well, one of them partially consumed already.

“That one’s yours,” Stel said, pointing to the still-full one. “It’s apple cider, but with cinnamon in it. It’s not bad, if I can say that about something I made.” The smile inched wider for a fraction of a second. “Feel free to make yourself comfortable.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” The cider smelled delicious, but Khari had always been extremely fond of apples, so that was hardly a surprise. She stepped out of her boots, glad she was only wearing one of her old, very loose shirts, and soft breeches. Even she didn’t need the armor in a damn library, surely. Settling into one of the chairs, she pulled the glass into her lap, pleasantly surprised to find that it was still warm. The scent of cinnamon wafted up to her, and, admittedly curious, she took a sip.

The balance between the flavors was subtle and delicate, extremely well-done, if she was any judge. The extra little kick from the spice only enhanced the warming effect, and Khari wondered if it mightn’t end up making her sleepy. It’d be rude to nod off, right? Mentally shrugging, she glanced around her at the books on the shelves. Many of them had titles she couldn’t decipher, though she figured that was because they weren’t in the trade tongue. The few she could read seemed to be primarily historical, from the titles.

Somehow, it didn’t really surprise her that Stel’s idea of a pleasant afternoon was reading stuff like this, but Khari couldn’t help wondering if she’d miscalculated somehow and thought Khari would also prefer to spend her time in that kind of way. It’d be hard to think, probably, considering exactly how much reverence she ever showed to history, elven or otherwise. “So, uh… not that I don’t like spending time with you, Stel, but… why the library?”

A glimmer of amusement entered Stel’s eyes, and she reached forward from where she’d settled into her own chair, picking up the top book on the stack of them and handing it over to Khari. It was bound in simple red-dyed leather, the lettering done in some kind of gold-colored leaf, probably not actual gold. The book itself was slightly less than a foot tall and eight inches across, thick enough to fit her grip quite well, and heavy. Stamped across the front were the words: Tales and Songs of the Orlesian Chevalier: The Unabridged Collection.

“I found that yesterday when I was looking through what we have on folklore and such,” Stel explained. “I thought you might be interested.”

Khari cracked the book with a reverence usually reserved for sacred objects, picking a random page and grinning widely when it revealed an illustration on the left, of Ser Aveline locked in combat with Kaleva. Ser Durand had told her the story, and so she recognized the scene very well. Carefully, she ran a finger down the page, closing it over carefully and looking back up at Stel.

“Has anyone ever told you you’re basically the nicest person in the world? I’m serious.” She wasn’t joking, even though her tone was amused. Khari hadn’t met a lot of people who took the time to think of others the way Stel did. She didn’t have to. She certainly had enough things to deal with on her own—hell, she was leader of the whole bloody Inquisition, now; she could easily be forgiven for not taking the time to do something so simple as this. No one would have known. No one would have thought less of her. But then, she didn’t do things like this because she cared what people thought. She did them because she wanted to, because she genuinely gave a damn. And that was really, really rare as far as people went.

“Um.” Stel cleared her throat, breaking eye contact and reaching up to fiddle awkwardly with the end of her ponytail. “It’s not anything so great like that. I mean, it’s not even mine—I just.” Her complexion was turning a soft shade of red, and she pulled a face. “I mean, you’re welcome. But um.” Stel sighed, returning her eyes to Khari’s. “Sorry. I’m—you’re welcome.” She cut herself off there, likely tired of not quite being able to say what she wanted to, and took several swallows from her glass of cider.

“I really like folktales and epics, too, actually,” she continued, apparently interested in changing the topic. “I spent a lot of time in libraries, when I was growing up. Once I got through all the stories in the Trade Tongue and Tevene, I bothered Master Horatio until he taught me to read them in other languages.” Her smile was fond, and her nervous fidgeting eased considerably.

“Wait. Master?” Khari’s brows furrowed, and she regarded Stel with a slight frown. “You weren’t a slave too, were you?” She was really going to be pissed at Tevinter if both her new friends had been subjected to that. Not like she needed another reason, but still.

Stel’s eyes widened slightly, and she shook her head emphatically. “No, no. Nothing like that. Um. How to say this… the word ‘master’ means the same thing for people in the Imperium as it does elsewhere. It refers to the master of a trade, like an armsmaster or a master carpenter. It’s actually what the Tevene word ‘Magister’ means, though because of the implications that one has elsewhere, we only use it as the title for someone in the Magisterium, usually. We might call our teachers or craftsmen Master so-and-so whether or not they’re also Magisters, you see?” She paused, pursing her lips.

“Servants might also use it for those they serve, if they serve a merchant or something instead of a lord. It’s very general. Slaves, um… the most common practice is for them to use the Tevene word dominus for a man or domina for a woman. Those carry the implication that the person has, well, dominion over the speaker. I was never a slave.” Something about the way she said it suggested something more than was being said, like maybe the last fact was a near thing or a technicality rather than obvious, but she didn’t elaborate any further.

“Huh.” Khari thought she understood the difference now. Still, it wasn’t too hard to make the inference from the word 'master' to slavery, probably because it seemed to be one of the only two things people talked about whenever Tevinter was mentioned, the other, of course, being the mage-lords. She glanced down at the book in her hands, then back up at Stel. Clearly there was something else there that she wasn’t quite saying, but Khari figured Stel could decide for herself whether it was too uncomfortable, and so she chose not to push it.

So she changed the subject a bit. “What does Tevinter have folktales about, then? I don’t know much about the place, but it hardly seems like the kind of culture to tell stories about knights and stuff.” And of course, those were the best stories.

Stel’s smile reappeared on her face, then, brightly so. It would seem Khari had struck upon a topic she quite liked. “Every culture has folktales. And actually, I’ve found that they’re very revealing of the general contours of the country they come from. Especially, believe it or not, the romances.” Her expression morphed into something quite embarrassed, and she coughed. “I’ve, um… I’ve read a lot of those.”

Khari, rarely one to pass up an opportunity to tease somebody, ran with that. “Estella Avenarius. Are you telling me you read salacious, trashy serials? The Randy Dowager, even?” She’d heard of that one in a Val Chevin pub once. Someone had been drunk, and there was a dramatic reading involved. She hadn’t laughed that much in a while.

“Maker, no!” Stel’s usually-fair face was the shade of a ripe tomato, and she buried it in her hands. “Nothing like that, for goodness’ sake.” Her tone was utterly mortified, a sure sign that Khari’s teasing had been extremely successful in getting the expected reaction. Stel rubbed at her flaming cheeks, casting a baleful look in Khari’s direction. “I said folklore and epics; it’s not the same at all!”

Khari, of course, knew the difference. That didn’t stop her from cackling at Stel’s reaction—poking fun at her was quite entertaining, and she probably could have made it worse if she continued, but she decided to exercise a bit of mercy. “Okay, okay. If you say so.” She grinned to show that she did, in fact, believe her. Part of what was funny about the joke, after all, was that it seemed so extremely unlikely in the first place. “Don’t die of shame on me, Stel. Why don’t you have some more cider and tell me about this theory of yours, with cultures and stories and all that?” She was genuinely interested, after all. Khari had loved stories since she was a little girl, but had eventually tired of the ones the Hahren told.

Apparently deciding this was sound advice, Stel took a few deep swallows, and by the time she set the glass back down on the table and sighed, her color had almost returned to normal. “I swear, Khari, if I ever hear a rumor to that effect, I’ll never forgive you.” From the expression she wore, it was a joke, at least mostly. Her features softened, though, and she nodded to the book Khari still held.

“Orlesians love tragedy. They also have a penchant for both extremely noble heroes whose foibles come back to haunt them and very clever trickster characters with ambiguous morality. Not really that surprising for a culture that both has a knightly order preoccupied with honor and a nobility that plays a constant game of wit and manipulation, is it?”

She settled back into her chair, folding her hands neatly in her lap. “Fereldans have stories about more humble things. Their heroes are more pragmatic, usually, and the themes of the romances often involve family and duty and loyalty. Without ever having been there, I guessed that they were a much more practical culture, and in general, that’s not wrong. Everything has exceptions, of course, but there’s a sort of, I don’t know… spirit of the place that’s like that. They’re very fond of tales where people overcome trials together, and they like happy endings a lot more than Orlesians tend to. Draw your own conclusions about that, if you like.” She half smiled and shrugged.

Khari could see how that made sense. “I think the Dalish like tragedies even more than Orlesians do.” She frowned when she spoke. “That’s all any of the stories are ever about: how we were victims of this or that, or how humans have done terrible things to us. It’s never our fault. Everything we talk about, everything we do, is just one endless dirge.” No one where she was from ever talked about honorable heroes overcoming long odds or anything like that. It was always nostalgia for how great elven civilization used to be, or how a bunch of people had died. Even their knights just died, their skill and daring rendered utterly useless against the tide of humanity.

She hated the People’s stories.

“How about everywhere else? I can’t imagine people in the Anderfels tell really fluffy stories.” If they made people like Leon and the Grey Wardens, it was probably quite the opposite.

Stel was quiet for a moment, head tilted curiously, regarding her with steady eyes. In the end, though, she didn’t pursue what Khari had diverted her from, instead answering the question. “They don’t. Every folktale I’ve ever read from Anderfels has at the very least a dark twist to it. There’s always a struggle, and their heroes are more likely than anyone else’s to be common people, rather than nobility or others with status. Most of them are deeply flawed, too. Faith is also a big theme, of course, and sacrifice.”

She paused, then smiled slightly. “Some of the Antivan tales are maybe a little scandalous. Master Horatio didn’t let me near most of those until I was old enough by his reckoning.” She laughed softly. “Or so he thinks, anyway. They’re… colorful, certainly. Lots of them have to do with the Crows, and they favor guile over straightforwardness in their protagonists. They and the Rivainis also have a lot of stories about the ocean.”

Well, that made a lot of sense. It was hardly surprising, considering. “And Tevinter?”

Stel seemed to consider that one carefully. “Most people think that the Imperium is composed exclusively of evil Magisters and downtrodden slaves,” she said gently, her eyes somewhere else. “And I won’t pretend that there aren’t significant numbers of both of those kinds of people. But the thing to understand about Tevinter is that it is, first and foremost, a culture of rigid structure. Hierarchy is just as significant to them as it is to the Orlesians, sometimes moreso.” She exhaled, something melancholy in the sound.

“But… I think also that of all the places in Thedas, Tevinter is the one with the most volatile spirit. Rebellions are crushed swiftly and brutally, always. Sedition has a penalty of death. And yet… there are rebellions and sedition still. And there’s an extent to which moving across boundaries, shattering expectations, rejecting the idea that something is impossible… there’s a sense in which that is part of the ethos as well.” Stel shrugged slightly, as though she didn’t really expect to be believed. “The stories are often about just that. People transcending their established place in life. Forbidden romances, that kind of thing. There’s also a pattern of stories about people taking very big falls, if they start with a lot of status.”

“I’d never have guessed that.” Khari meant it, too. She supposed she fell into the category of people who thought only of slaves and wicked Magisters when someone mentioned Tevinter, but she believed what Stel was saying. She was from there, after all. If she really believed there was something redeeming in the culture, something beyond the two-dimensional representation everyone had, then, well, Khari believed it too. Maybe she'd even seen parts of it. Rom and Stel weren't anything like the sterotype.

Crossing boundaries, shattering expectations… that all sounded really appealing, actually. Maybe she’d have to read some Imperium folktales someday. After she was done with the ones about chevaliers. “Then… I hope that one day, when they tell the story about us, about the Inquisition… it’s more like a Tevinter story than an Orlesian one.” Khari grinned, her eyes glittering with mirth.

Stel smiled back, and nodded. “I certainly hope that, too.”

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Skyhold’s bridge had exactly three gates: there was the big main one that led into the fortress, the one at the very edge on the other side, and one in the middle. It was before this one that Khari now stood, weighed down with full armor and gear, rolling her shoulders and shaking out her arms. She tipped her head back to get a better sense of what she was working with; her last few attempts had been less than impressive in part because she’d simply failed to plan ahead. Which was ridiculous; she hadn’t learned all those strategies and tactical games for nothing. She needed to tackle this more like chess and less like an enemy—that would make the difference, she was sure of it.

Exhaling a controlled breath, she backed up about ten paces. A running start could get her up to that irregular stone there, and after that, the pattern of the arch might help. The gate was extremely tall, and the part that actually moved was quite sturdy, but that didn’t mean it was impossible to breach. Seemed like a good thing to know for sure.

Bouncing up and down on her toes, Khari lunged into a run, counting the steps out carefully. She didn’t jump, exactly—it was more like she started running up the wall, and at the moment she felt gravity begin to shift against her, she pushed against it with all the strength she had, reaching upwards. Her fingers just caught the jutting stone, and she pulled herself up mostly by the strength of her arms. She didn’t have a lot of that, compared to some people, but crucially, she did have enough to deadlift herself, even in the armor.

When she’d pulled herself up far enough, she swung one of her legs out, the toe of her boot catching on the fringe of the archway. Grinning, she shifted her weight gradually from her shaking arms to her leg, giving herself the leverage to push off the rest of the way and swing herself up to the next likely hand-hold. Just like everything, if she made it about momentum and motion, she could do things that would otherwise be impossible. It took her a while, but when her hands at last grasped the upper edge of the gate and she pulled herself up onto it, she let out a short bark of triumphant laughter and sat herself on the edge, letting her feet dangle over it. Heights had never been among Khari's fears.

She faced outwards, away from the castle, leaning back on her hands and allowing herself to relish in her sense of accomplishment. It wasn’t any big deal, really, but she’d set herself a task and figured out how to do it. Besides, climbing was a good skill to have, and she couldn’t let herself get left behind because she couldn’t hack it next to someone like Rom, who probably climbed castle walls and stuff pretty regularly back in Tevinter. After everything in the mountains and the Hinterlands, Khari wanted to make sure she’d be of some use in any situation that might come up—and Haven had expanded the list of possibilities by a lot.

A group of four approached from the far gate, clad in standard Inquisition scout gear. All four peered up at the elf perched atop the middle gate, exchanging a few muffled words and looks among themselves, the tone of which was beyond Khari's hearing. The head scout, Lia, was in the front of them, a warm-looking fur cloak wrapped around most of her upper body. A heavy pack full of gear hung from her back, and a few climbing axes and hooks dangled from her belt. By the looks of her, it had been a long day of work in the mountains. She looked up at Khari, shielding her eyes with a hand from the sun, which sank fairly low in the sky.

"You need any help getting down?" she called, smiling amicably.

Khari hadn’t really considered her descent as much as the ascent, but these gates were meant to be manned, which meant there was probably a way down. A quick glance behind her revealed a trapdoor, long-unused by the look of it, in the roof, and she shook her head. “Well, not yet. If this staircase has gone to shit, though, I’ll be asking to borrow your grappling hook.” She grinned, then pushed herself up, moving over to the trapdoor. It took several tugs to lift, and came away from its closed position only with a heavy creaking and groaning, but aside from the dust, the stairs looked useable, having been hewn from stone.

The trip down was pretty short, and put her out near the lower gate controls, unnecessarily since it was open for the scouts’ return anyway. She moved around to stand in the archway and waved a hand lackadaisically at Lia. “And now I can say I made a gate inspection. Functional, but really old.” She shrugged. “Where are you guys headed back from?”

"Today? From the west." She waved a hand in the general direction, vaguely indicating the mountains. "We don't know much about the specifics of the area, and considering the army that snuck up on us, Commander wants us to learn this area like our hometowns. So far, that means climbing mountains and checking out caves. Nothing so far that a force of much size could use. We're pretty isolated here, for better or worse." She tugged on the strap of her pouch before gesturing for Khari to walk with her, as she made her way through the gate.

"I never got a chance to thank you before," she said, as they passed under the shade that the arch offered. "The night we were attacked, you and the Herald saved my life. I guess I'm lucky you two decided to head outside of the walls."

Khari blinked; she recalled the event, of course, but she couldn’t say she’d ever particularly expected to be thanked for it. People generally didn’t thank her for things—maybe she’d have to get used to it. The Inquisition was pretty polite, on balance. “No problem. I mean, there was a problem, obviously, but it definitely wasn’t your fault. Thanks for warning us.” Unfortunate as it was, Lia’s arrival had tipped them off to the oncoming forces, and even the little warning they’d had ended up being pretty useful. Khari supposed that was the point of having a scout regiment.

This was the part where she usually would have asked something relatively benign, but interesting, like how it was that Lia had joined up with the Inquisition exactly. Unfortunately, she already knew that bit, specifically that she was a Lion. Which left one other conspicuously-obvious query, and it was one Khari really didn’t want to ask, mostly because she’d probably find the conversation that followed really uncomfortable, and that wouldn’t be Lia’s fault, either. So she was left in the unusual position of not really having anything to say, her brain-to-mouth filter kicking in for once. How did other people do this so often?

Lia, however, was quite perceptive to Khari's struggle, and after the silence became a bit uncomfortable, she broke into a fairly knowing grin. "I'm not actually Dalish, by the way. Probably worth mentioning." It wasn't obvious just by looking at her. Her clothes and armor weren't Dalish in appearance, but then, none of the official Inquisition forces were allowed to keep wearing what they had before, so she could easily have been. Her vallaslin was legitimate, something that was plain for Khari's eyes to see. They were for Andruil, Lady of the Hunt. Very Dalish choice. She was a good shot with a bow, and the Lead Scout for the Inquisition. In fact, everything pointed to her being Dalish other than her word.

"It's just..." she hesitated. "You're not with a clan, and you're... not at all like the Dalish I've met. Like, at all. It's cool, is what I'm trying to say. Everyone finds their own way, right?"

“It is?” That was something she’d never been told before. Khari blinked several times, regarding Lia with a very confused expression. “Uh… that’s new. Usually when I meet other Dalish, or well, people with the vallaslin, they either don’t ask or don’t approve, honestly. My clan weren’t, uh… they think I’m a fool, more or less.” Some of them had been a little kinder about it than others, but in the end, none of them had approved of her dreams or the direction she wanted her life to take. “The truth is, even if you don’t have a clan, you’re probably more Dalish than I am. I’m len’alas lath’din, by this point.”

She hadn’t intended to say quite so much, but she pushed down the burgeoning sense of shame, reminding herself that she had nothing to be ashamed of, really. Funny how that didn’t always work. Maybe because it wasn’t really shame she felt.

"Loads of groups seem to think that way, though," Lia countered. "Casting off people who disagree with them as incorrect or fools. The Chantry, the Dalish, the people who want freedom for mages, the people who don't, Fereldan people, Orlesian people, every other kind of people. Just because you were born in a clan doesn't mean that's what you have to be, right?" She shrugged, and they passed through the last gate together, entering Skyhold properly.

She stopped, ruffling the back of her hair, freeing some of it from a strap that had caught it. "I was raised in Kirkwall's Alienage, which is about as dirt elf as it gets. But I got lucky, and a clanless Dalish took me under his wing. Really Dalish, this guy, you two probably wouldn't get along real well. But he taught me a lot about how I could be better than a dirt elf, groveling at the feet of humans. I'd... been through some things, so that appealed to me." There was obviously a lot more to it than that, but it didn't seem to be the sort of thing she was willing to divulge in casual conversation.

"I'm guessing you had a pretty good teacher too, right? I mean, my teacher fought angry, but not like I've seen you, and very few elves fight with big weapons like that." She glanced over at the tavern. "Well, except that fancy elf. And he's... weird."

Khari snorted at that, but she also let it go, shrugging slightly. “Well, I’m biased, but yes. My teacher was great. The first day we trained, he handed me this exact sword. I could lift it, but definitely not hold it for long. He told me that by the time he was done with me I wouldn’t even feel it anymore. He was right.” She grinned, but her expression sobered quickly.

“I think I know what you mean though. About how good it was to feel like someone believed you could be more than everyone else thought. Me, though… I’d always felt that way. Not just about myself, but…” She shook her head. There was a persistent, uncomfortable feeling there that she didn't want to address quite yet. “Well, anyway. He kind of laughed at me, at first, when I told him I wanted to be a chevalier like him. But it didn’t take him long to figure out that I was serious. And when he did, he trained me just like he would have trained anyone else. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.” It took a pretty special person to give someone like her a real chance, she thought. Khari wasn’t stupid—she knew what most nobles, most chevaliers, even, thought of elves. She hadn’t set her sights on being one of them because she imagined she’d be welcome.

“But I guess the situation’s not quite as weird as I figured. The Lions have elves with two-handers, too. Or at least the one, right?” She’d fought him, in fact. It wasn’t quite so stinging a defeat as Vesryn had dealt her, but she’d still lost. Yet that one had been a reminder that she needed more practice at what she was doing, and so not discouraging at all. “Must be nice, that no one looks twice at you guys for being elves where you are, and how you are.” Or no one in the company, anyway.

"It is," Lia confirmed, obviously wanting to avoid looking like she was gloating or anything. "The cities try to make the elves there feel that way all the time. Like they don't belong if they set foot outside their hovels. The common people, that is, and sometimes they don't even mean to. Joining the Lions was one of the best choices I've ever made."

She titled her head towards the tavern. "Want a drink? I'll buy."

“Don’t think I’ve ever turned down a free drink before.” Khari rubbed her hands together with intentional exaggeration. “What’s the most expensive thing they serve?” She grinned to make the joke obvious, and ducked into the tavern after Lia.

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

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

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

Of course, it was fairly early.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn't get the chance to say,” she began to say, staring out into the open space cut into the Undercroft. Already, the sun was crawling up the sky and peeking between the mountain peaks, casting smears of blistering red. At this time of da