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Romulus

"We've come too far to stop now, or ever."

0 · 1,937 views · located in Thedas

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

Description

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Full Name: Romulus (ROM-you-luss), birth name Tavio Abeita (TAY-vio ah-BAY-ta).
Titles/Nicknames: Lord Inquisitor, Herald of Andraste. Rom.
Age: 31 (9:44)
Race: Human
Gender: Male
Sexual Orientation: Heterosexual
Class: Rogue
Specialization: Assassin

Hair Color: Dark Brown
Eye Color: Grey
Height: 5'11"
Build: Muscled and toned.

Appearance: Romulus is a child of multiple backgrounds, the evidence displayed in his appearance. It's quite obvious that at least one of his parents was strongly Rivaini, and that he inherited a majority of his features from that parent, including his darker skin tone, chocolate brown hair, and fairly steely grey eyes. The markings on his face are speculated to be Rivaini as well, where such tattoos are quite common. He has had them since very early childhood, and does not know what, if anything, they mean. The Imperium's mark, however, has also been clearly made on him, in his manner of speech, devoid of any Rivaini accent, in the often ineloquent tongue of the slaves of Tevinter.

In many ways, Romulus does not look the part of a lifelong slave. He's clearly been well fed for most of his life, judging by his impressive physique and musculature. His posture is rarely tense or fearful, almost always relaxed and at ease, implying a lack of fear of his mistress. It wasn't always so, but Romulus has come to feel secure in his position. He does, however, acknowledge what that position is, and this commonly comes through. He averts his eyes often from those he speaks with. His quiet manner of movement was born long before he was trained as an assassin, as slaves are encouraged to have as little a presence as possible unless called upon. He bears his fair share of scars, the most notable of these angling diagonally down his forehead just above his brow, and another sliced down the left cheek. He bears marks upon his back as well, though not nearly so many as some less fortunate slaves.

His hair is commonly cut extremely short, though it has grown somewhat in his recent journey from Minrathous to the Frostbacks of Ferelden. His clothing can vary greatly, given his somewhat unique position among slaves. As the favored slave of a powerful magister, Romulus can and sometimes does dress himself in more well crafted garments, though he is constantly wary of not appearing subordinate to his mistress, particularly when she entertains guests. When he has the choice, he dresses plainly, in threadbare garments of dull colors. He has no desire to alienate himself from the other slaves he has come to know by presenting himself as superior. They believe this enough already. For his journey south, however, he dressed warmly, in a hooded, fur-lined cloak of a dark grey color, warm trousers and solid traveling boots, as well as bringing light leather armor and several changes of warmer clothes.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
Romulus has gone through a drastic transformation since the events that brought him to Haven. Most recently, he obtained many new injuries and scars, and while most healed well, they left rather obvious marks on him. The constant struggle has actually left him a bit leaner than he was in Minrathous. No doubt the stress of the weight placed on him, not only as a Herald but apparently as an heir of Andraste herself, affects him as well. He's still in excellent condition, of course, but perhaps it is best to say that without the skill of the Inquisition's healers, he would be in much different shape now.

His most obvious adaptation is his beard, thick and full and well maintained, but never allowed to grow to the point of distraction. He bears the cold and his heavier clothes a bit more easily now. Overall, his style has remained unchanged. Andraste's heir or no, he's not seen traipsing about in Chantry robes or holy symbols. He's still the same man, just with a bit more weathered wear.


9:43:
Spoiler: show
The Blood of Andraste proved to be nothing at all, or at least no more than he was before any of it began. Those tumultuous events, along with the rest of what proved to be a bloody, difficult year hardened Romulus, a hammer on the blade. Gone is the beard, along with the hair on his head. He keeps the former clean shaven, and the latter to an extremely close cut. It more prominently displays a few scars he has on his head, but he doesn't seem to mind them, and prefers his current appearance.

Despite several serious injuries and the constant strain of being an Inquisitor on the front lines, Romulus keeps himself in top shape through his nearly unnatural physical drive, requiring no trainer or mentor to guide him in the upkeep of his body. He's as strong and fast as he's ever been, and more comfortable in his own skin than before, now that he knows some measure of truth regarding his past.


9:44:
Spoiler: show
The majority of Romulus's changes over the past year haven't been physical, as he has remained largely the same to look at. He keeps himself clean shaven with very close cut hair, the only new additions being a few scars dotting his body, the natural acquisitions of leading the fight against Corypheus and his forces. He has been paying more attention to his appearance at least, especially since deciding he wants to grow into his role as an Inquisitor more. Perhaps there are other reasons at work there, but whatever they are, they haven't changed all that much about his look.


"I never realized how much of a relief it would be,
to feel comfortable in my own skin."


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Apparent Demeanor: Romulus likes to think he knows himself fairly well, both his strengths and his weaknesses. He is a very quiet man, even around friends, but rarely does he ever seem unfriendly. Among his superiors he is cool, collected, and diligent, doing what is asked of him when it is asked, acting without hesitation, demonstrating confidence in his movements, in his control over his own body and actions. Among friendlier company, he is perpetually relaxed, though still very quiet, preferring most often to listen rather than to speak.

His expressions of emotion are subtle, but most assuredly there. He is fond of physical contact, though he rarely initiates this himself. He smiles more with his eyes than he does with his lips. His touch is gentle and delicate when it can be, and forceful and strong when it has to be. His laughter is a rare sight, and it will typically be contained within himself, rather than allowing it to echo around the room. He has a sense of humor, but will only employ it with someone he feels is roughly an equal, and someone he has grown comfortable with. He enjoys subtly toying with others, never intending a harmful effect, but finding genuine amusement in coy deceptiveness.

Most of all, Romulus lacks any form of pride. He is aware of the potential of his skills and abilities, but believes it was entirely good fortune and the guidance of others that allowed him to obtain these. He carved a place for himself among the slaves of Chryseis Viridius, and he feels secure in it, given her favoritism shown towards him, but he is convinced that without her good will and generosity, his life would crumble into nothing, like so many of the slaves he has seen. This is the reason he does anything and everything she asks of him, without so much as a second thought for the effects it will have on his own well-being.

If there is a sin Romulus is most vulnerable to, it is complacency. He acknowledges that his existence as an assassin is a far better life than he probably should have ended up with, and is somehow certain that he lacks the wisdom, the intelligence, and the general capability to amount to anything more. And he has allowed himself to become content with this.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
In many ways Romulus feels he's still emerging. Still finding parts of himself he didn't even know he'd buried away. It takes time, to open up one's personality, but certain parties in his new home have seen to it that the locks have come undone. He smiles a bit more easily now. He's allowed himself to have things, to call things his own, and not only material things. Friendships that he would like to become permanent. Perhaps something more than that. It feels dangerous to him, undeniably. By allowing himself to exist in the world, his wants are constantly expanding. Can deeds be attributed to his name? Now that he is the rumored heir of Andraste, they will be, whether he wishes it or not.


9:43:
Spoiler: show
The Inquisition has continued the transformation in Romulus, and at times his progress is remarkable. After recovering from the setback dealt to him by the man that posed as his father, Romulus has steadily come to find more peace in himself, grounded in the meager truth he found as a result of the whole Blood of Andraste ordeal. His origin is humble, but it exists where it never did before. And with steady exposure to people that have become inseparable friends, the person he is without the assassin training and the years of dark deeds comes out in full.

And he's something of a goof ball, a child at heart. Capable of humor and teasing and all kinds of fun. A compassionate man with a deep love of family, despite never having had a real one of his own. There are threads that pull back at him, and those will always remain, but he has steadily learned to fight them off, until he finally has some real freedom to express who he is, and what he wants to be.


9:44:
Spoiler: show
Romulus has discovered many parts of himself and his personality that he honestly didn't know existed. With the majority of the Inquisition he is now largely at ease, still among their quieter members, but no longer does he feel the need to remain silent unless spoken to, or to speak softly when he does get involved.

In many ways, he is truly free now. Free of the fear of his past and his origin, now that the threat of ever returning to that state has been eradicated. He finally feels free to love his cause, his work, his friends, and those closest to him. He's free to trust them, and expose sides of himself that could make him seem weak, or Maker forbid, more human. He is a man that loves where he is in life, and even if the future looms, he's excited about it now, not nervous.


Hangups/Quirks: In terms of relationships, Romulus has difficulty forming any meaningful ones. His life belonging utterly to a magister, he believes it unwise to drag anyone else into that, and risk conflicting his own interests. Apart from that, he is inexperienced in reaching out and connecting with people, used to them coming to him. Among the slaves of Minrathous he is something of an idol to some, a child born into nothing who rose to a position of comfort and relative security, and so they flock to him, eager to win his affections, as though they mean anything for them. While he is experienced in sexual acts, both with and away from Magister Chryseis, he lacks real knowledge of anything approaching true endearment, or love.

In an unusual turn for a lifelong slave, Romulus is strangely defensive of the Tevinter Imperium, or at least the potential of what it could be. This is largely the influence of Magister Chryseis, and his rapt attention to the sparse lectures she offers him. In the Magister's presence, he is quietly curious, trying to learn everything he can from someone he sees as wise and powerful.

He enjoys the sight and presence of young children, even if he might do little to interact with them. He also has a lovely, soothing singing voice, though it is rarely put to use.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
The obvious hangup that most of the Irregulars have picked up on by this point is the romantic one, made only worse by the fact that his target is seemingly still unaware of his efforts, pitiful and hindered though they are. His history of being used in a sexual manner by Chryseis was actually one of the greatest things she did to damage him, and overshadows every thought he might have of being involved with anyone in the future, regardless of how unrelated the relationship might be.


9:44:
Spoiler: show
The romantic hangup being resolved wasn't quite like a dam bursting, more like one that sputtered water and then was temporarily plugged. It has given way by now, however, and Romulus feels fully capable of being together with Khari, regardless of any complications her race or ambitions might bring to their relationship.


Strengths: Romulus is excellent at learning and navigating urban environments, spending the majority of his life in Minrathous, the largest city of the Tevinter Imperium. Combatively, he has excellent balance, speed, agility, and strength, all of which are put to use with a ruthless lack of hesitation. He also has solid control over his expressions, able to hide emotions well, which can be put to use in such things as lying, or in combat, hiding his movements until it is too late for the opponent.

Weaknesses: As good as he is in urban environments, he's fairly poor out of them. He can climb fairly well, but doesn't typically enjoy the outdoors or know more than the basics of survival. In combat, he has always fought alone, and never in anything resembling a battle. He's a brutally efficient killer, but has no experience taking orders on the fly, or even fighting alongside another person. The aforementioned inability to reach out to others is also a weakness, particularly outside of the Imperium, where he will be seen as a very low sort indeed, a slave and a murderer. It gives him a tendency to close off, and keep his issues to himself.

Fears: Romulus fears his chains being broken. His entire life, he has seen that among the poor, the presence of freedom does little to improve the lot of one's life. He is certain he would join their ranks, those of the weak and pitiful, the ones unable to do anything to force their lives to be better, if he was forced to live on his own, without the support of his mistress. He feels that he is adequate for the life he has been handed, and fears that he will be inadequate for anything else.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
He still meets every new step with hesitation, like he's constantly placed on an anvil, waiting for the hammer to drop if he makes the wrong move. He's tested it several times now, and found the hammer still above him, but he fears that one wrong step will bring it down, and crush everything he's cautiously allowed himself to seize.


9:43:
Spoiler: show
Becoming a monster, as Nightmare put it, is still something that lingers in the back of his mind. It becomes more of an issue when he's left to make decisions on his own, which hasn't happened all that often of late. Still, he fears the darker part of him put there by years under Chryseis in Minrathous, and has no wish for the Inquisition to be negatively impacted by him.


"I'm not concerned with looking back anymore.
All I want is around me, and ahead."





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Strength: XXXXXx▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

Dexterity:XXXXX▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [9/10]

Intelligence: XXX▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [5/10]

Wisdom: XXXXXX▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [4/10]

Cunning: XXXXXX▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [8/10]

Magic: XXXXXXXX▇▇▇ ⎭ [3/10]

Willpower: XXXX▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

Constitution: XXX▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [6/10]

Weapon of Choice: The pugio, a fairly wide thrusting dagger, is the weapon of choice for Romulus, sheathed at his right hip. In his left he commonly carries an unadorned steel targe shield, for parrying attacks and making stunning strikes if the situation calls for it. He also very commonly fights hand-to-hand in conjunction with his weaponry, and carries a smaller, handheld crossbow on his back, for when a swift ranged attack is required.

Fighting Style/Training: Romulus relies on closing to an intimate range with his enemies, through stealth if at all possible, and with pure speed and agility otherwise. His dagger is his primary offense, his primary targets being the throat, underarms, weak spots that vitals can be reached through. His targe shield is his main defense against physical weaponry, if dodging is not an option. He deflects blows aside rather than stopping them altogether, before closing in to a tighter range than his enemy is comfortable with. He is an experienced grappler, overpowering and entangling weaker opponents with his strength and flexibility.

In addition, because Romulus primarily targets mages, many of them quite powerful, he has become knowledgeable in the workings of alchemy, specifically in the creation of tonics that will vastly increase his resistances to fire, frost, lightning, and other spells. He takes these draughts before large assignments, to become heavily resistant to most common offensive spells.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
As a whole Romulus has changed little about the way he fights, still preferring the short blade and shield combination that has been effective for him for so long. That said, his mark has proven useful in battle against more difficult opponents on a number of occasions. He uses it in a far different manner than the other Inquisitor, attacking aggressively by placing his hand on something, and allowing the mark to tear a small rip in the Veil inside his target. In his experience, there is very little that can withstand this. Not the Nightmare demon, not iron locks, and not Adan Borja's head.


9:44:
Spoiler: show
Romulus forcibly rid himself of his alchemical advantages, something that leaves him a little more vulnerable in fights. It removed a debilitating addiction, however, something that was becoming more and more of a problem with the frequency of deadly work required as Inquisitor. His power with the mark has also increased, opening up new abilities, some capable of changing the tide of battle entirely.


"Our enemies have great power at their fingertips.
They still hide, because they know we have more."


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Place of Birth: Unknown. Probably somewhere in Rivain.
Social Status/Rank: Romulus is one of two of the Inquisition's Inquisitors, and a so-called Herald of Andraste. The validity of this title has been heavily called into question, but for the moment it still stands.

History: There is little to go on regarding the earliest history of the slave named Romulus. His Rivaini descent is clear enough, but if he belonged to anyone important in that land, they cared little for him, as no one ever came looking in the Imperium for their lost son. The tattooed boy was found, at two years old, bawling on the deck of a wrecked Rivaini trading vessel in the Ventosus Straits, apparently making the perilous voyage by sea near the isle of Seheron. The damage to the ship was not the work of a Qunari dreadnought, as such a thing would have left the wreck at the bottom of the straits. The ship looked to have been boarded, as evidenced by the bloodstains of a melee on the deck and in the hold below. No bodies were found, but the nameless boy was left behind for some reason.

Tevinter scout ships found the floating wreck, and rescued the boy before he could die of exposure. He was taken back to Minrathous with the Tevinter soldiers, and given to the Chantry as an orphan. With no means to identify him, one of the Chantry brothers named him Romulus, and it is this name he has gone by ever since. He grew up in the Chantry until the age of nine, an ill-behaved and devious child, showing little interest in service to the Chantry, or in productiveness in general. He was eventually "adopted" away from the Chantry when they desired to be rid of the nameless child, entering into the service of a powerful magical family. He had become a slave.

Cassius Viridius, a prominent member of the Magisterium, became his owner, and Romulus moved out of the Chantry and into their expansive manor on the outskirts of Minrathous. It was here that his attitude was broken and his demeanor altered forcefully into how it appears currently. His devious streak remained, but he learned to conceal it utterly, and he learned quickly who acceptable targets for such deviousness were. Slaves who stepped out of line were beaten, broken, and cast aside, and so Romulus had to adapt, or die. He managed to adapt fairly well, growing stronger from hard manual labor alongside the older slaves. Many of them were elven, and a few were even Qunari. It taught Romulus to think little of race as an evaluation of a person's worth.

When he was fourteen, Romulus proved himself to his master, through a timely intervention brought about by chance. The magister's daughter, Chryseis, who was seventeen at the time, had been targeted by a rival, a roundabout way of attacking the magister himself. The attack came during a private family dinner, an assailant appearing in the doorway behind the girl. The dinner party had been distracted by the performance of a minstrel at the time, leaving only Romulus, who had helped serve the food that night, to see the assassin approach. It was with a metal fork, snatched from the table, that he saved Chryseis, diving in front of the assassin and plunging the points of the utensil into his throat. He choked on his own blood on the floor while the magister's family watched. The minstrel, apparently in on the plan, attempted to flee. He was caught, his screaming echoing throughout the manor for the entire night.

This occasion served to help Romulus get noticed more clearly, for his strong growing body and lack of hesitation in the defence of his mistress. He was assigned to Chryseis personally, first as a bodyguard, and then later to be trained as a tool of her will. The young Altus mage was eventually given a manor of her own, closer to the heart of the city, and Romulus traveled there with her. She married in her early twenties, though her husband was killed in fighting with the Qunari a year after the wedding, and after that Chryseis remained a widow, advancing in the ranks of the Imperium's promising young mages on her own. Her politics were somewhat idealistic, envisioning a future for the Imperium with a restored focus on education, peace created with the Qunari and a willingness to rebuild diplomacy with other nations, among other things. She did a great deal to push for changes subtly, but still managed to win herself no small amount of enemies.

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Romulus became the first line of defense against these enemies. By his early twenties, he had become Chryseis's most trusted agent, carrying out her will in whatever form it took. In order to present her views, Chryseis needed to also prove she was strong, and capable of defending herself from rivals. She learned blood magic, and showed no hesitation in using aggressive means against those who threatened her. Romulus was the tool, the weapon that struck for her in the shadows. He earned himself luxuries other slaves had no access to through his loyalty to her. He need only kill men and women in her way, idiots driving Tevinter into the ground, she taught. He did a great many other things for her as well. In the absence of a husband, she occasionally required his services in matters of intimacy as well. As usual, Romulus did not hesitate. He became a man to aspire to among slaves, many of whom he came to know when not serving his mistress, who was appointed a magister at 29.

It was a life that Romulus grew comfortable with, for he recognized that it could have been much worse, if fortune hadn't been on his side, or if he hadn't trained himself to be the best servant he could be. Though he felt surpreme loyalty to Chryseis, he never managed to develop any kind of affection, for though she treated him with great generosity, she still owned his life, and was never willing to entertain the thought of setting him free, and expecting him to remain at her side. Truth be told, Romulus would likely have done so if she'd freed him.

In the end, he wouldn't need to make the choice, as fate would yet again see fit to set him on another course. Interested in the events of the mage-templar war to the south, Romulus was dispatched far from Minrathous for once, to travel to this Conclave that would occur near the town of Haven in Ferelden. There he was to watch and observe, hidden from all. Chryseis wished to see the peace restored, unlike many of her ilk, and determined that the presence of her agent was one way to help her understand the situation better.

She never intended for him to become as involved as he would be...

9:42:
Spoiler: show
It seems difficult to imagine a way for Romulus to be more involved. First caught in a blast that killed all other in its radius save for himself and Estella Avenarius, a face from his past he'd nearly forgotten. Then declared a Herald of Andraste alongside her, but kept away from the people due to his difficult status as a magister's tool for murder and torture. Then later revealed by his reclusive father to be none other than a living descendant of Andraste herself. It seems unlikely even Chryseis would know what to do with such a revelation.

Romulus certainly doesn't. For now, he'd like to simply know the truth of it, if that's even possible. Khari telling him he could be more, have more, was difficult enough. Now strangers he hardly knows tell him he can have everything, if he wants it. And he's worried. Worried that he does actually want it.


9:43:
Spoiler: show
The truth, as it turned out, was not what Romulus expected, nor what he wanted. Instead, it was exactly what he needed. Indeed, had he truly been the Blood of Andraste Romulus likely would've only been thrown into more doubt with relentless reminders of what he was supposed to be and act like and do with his life. Instead, as the lost son of a pair of smugglers and thieves, Romulus remains free to define his life as he sees fit, insofar as he is able while remaining Inquisitor. He did not feel himself worthy of taking the title after what had happened, but Estella was in no better a position really when she was given hers. As they have from the beginning, the Inquisitors learn how best to fit into their roles together.

9:42 was a year of truths being brought to light for Romulus. The truth of his past, and how he came to possess his mark, and the emerging truth of the kind of person he really is at his core. Some of these truths were more difficult to accept (or survive) than others, but he has found all of them to be agreeable, and all of them have contributed to the reconstruction of his self, even his soul. He cherishes even the little things every day, and thanks fate for the hardships that forced him to continue on this road. Looking to the hardships ahead, his thoughts dwell on the north, and the seeming inevitability of facing his more immediate past, the one he actually remembers, in Minrathous. He's not looking forward to it with any excitement, but he's confident now that he has the tools and the friends needed to face it.


9:44:
Spoiler: show
Romulus was very nervous about what the year would hold for him, but at the tail end of it he viewed as another year of the most important progress of his life. The Inquisition made great strides in stopping Corypheus's plots in Orlais, he was able to help a number of his friends, and he was able to face his past and his home and come away unscathed. Others weren't so fortunate at times, but he did everything he could, and is at peace with that. He chose not to follow darker turns with the help of his friends, and as a result he is happier than he has ever been.

All that remains now is to finish it, and live to see the other side, and all the good things that await him there



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Spoiler: show
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| Cyrus Avenarius |

9:43: Rom worries that he's not the best suited to really help Cyrus at all through what he's experienced. His attempts to help Khari when her world was shaken were rocky at best, and what happened to Cyrus was almost certainly a bigger blow. That said, Cyrus seems to have other friends he can lean on for that, people that are better at empathy and consolation than Rom is. He believes that they're friends of a sort now, even if neither wanders all the way to the other's domain very often at all. It's frankly quite a bit more than Rom ever expected to have with him, and he's glad for it.



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| Asala Kaaras |

9:43: Asala is a steady presence in the Inquisition, and a vital one to a lot of people, both for the work she does and the type of person that she is. He was happy to help her on her way to becoming a Spirit Healer, and a bit surprised when she came to him out of everyone to thank and apologize to for the (illusory) dangers they were in. He trusts her to follow her heart, and knows that in moral matters she is not as meek as she is socially. Rom is not the same, and he appreciates being able to use her as a balancing point, whenever she is around on important matters.



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| Marceline Benoît |

9:43: Rom is uneasy around Lady Marceline, to say the least. It's more the situations he finds himself in that are uncomfortable than Marceline herself, but the fact that the two have almost always been one and the same is something of a problem for him. He can do the work of being Inquisitor in the field well enough, closing rifts and killing demons and fighting cultists, but everything that comes with navigating nobility is foreign. His experience as a slave is what kicks in, because he has nothing else to go on. It naturally makes everything uncomfortable for him, and though he's certain she can see this, she's sort of left him to flounder instead of offering aid, leaving it to Estella to help him escape. As far as he knows Estella has been getting along better with Marceline recently, so he hopes the same can happen for him as well.



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| Leonhardt Albrecht |

9:43: Rom is very comfortable around the Commander, which was an unexpected development, but a pleasant one all the same. Apart from getting him to open up about his conundrum as a Reaver, he's very easy to be around in general, and Rom has found few enough of these people in general in Skyhold. Partly because he doesn't look hard enough, and partly because he isn't the easiest man to be around himself. But Leon has a relaxed manner that makes Rom glad to have him as their military leader, and encourages him to take more trips to that part of Skyhold than he would otherwise. He hopes he can come across some way to help him going forward.



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| Zahra Tavish |

9:43: Zee has become one of Rom's closest friends, largely at her insistence. She's a relentlessly intrusive woman, but thus far she has always been good-natured about it, even when the subjects prove to be difficult for him to discuss. Romantic matters, his history in Tevinter, his alchemy. Potion-making is something they've begun to work on together, currently covering the basics. He will not teach her all of the secrets that were passed down to him, as he worries she wants to push herself too far for the people she cares for. He won't be responsible for that, and has no wish to see her become any more like him. In general, however, she is incredibly fun to be around, someone capable of bringing out the better part of him in light moments. He values her friendship immensely, even if he's awful at showing it.



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| Vesryn Cormyth |

9:43: They're not friends, but they've come to work reasonably well together in the field, and this is really all Romulus hopes to achieve. He likes Vesryn far more than he did upon initially meeting him at Haven. He suspects that the elf has changed somewhat since then, through a few trials and connections he's built with the Inquisition. He seems more genuine more often now, less prone to that arrogant, overly enthused attitude he often carried before. They probably won't become friends, but Romulus at least doesn't mind it when he's around.



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Credit
| Kharisanna Istimaethoriel |

9:43: Zee seems convinced that Rom is in love with Khari. He supposes it must be true, though as far as he can tell different people have different ideas of what love is. He feels selfish for feeling the way he does, and the more he thinks on it, the more it feels like something wrong. Something he should keep to himself. Something he doesn't know if he's ready for. More than that, what they already have means everything to him. They've been together, leaning on each other, in everything. Stupid, simple things like games of capture the flag, all the way up to the heaviest matters. Reconnecting with her family, confronting the truth of his own. The strength of her morals, and his hope for the future.

Whatever his future, he hopes she's in it, and he hopes their bond is never threatened by anything again. Having her at his side gives him confidence that he can make being an Inquisitor work, that good can win, as she said. Against Corypheus, against the world that tries to keep her down, and in his soul.



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Credit
| Rilien Falavel |

9:43: Enough time in near-contact with Rilien has been more than enough to convince Rom of his depth, though he never really doubted that, given the position that the Tranquil has so successfully been able to hold. He envies Estella, in a way. That she should be so lucky to have a mentor such as him. He's started to see just how much Rilien means to a few people, and Rom wishes he could've had someone like that in his own past. In any case, he has him as a resource now, and wonders if there aren't any ways he should be taking advantage of his presence.



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Credit
| Estella Avenarius |

9:43: The year was troubling for both of them, but in another way it was solidifying. They practice with their marks together, carefully experimenting and improving both their control and strength over their foreign abilities. The knowledge of how they acquired the marks has a way of driving Rom, and he suspects it does the same for her. How they acquired them together, on even footing; two words that guide how Rom wants to feel about their relationship going forward. None of the madness in the past about one being a fraud, the other being a true Herald. He likes it much better this way. He's glad she was able to find success in Val Royeaux, as it seems to have boosted her confidence, and by extension the confidence of the Inquisition as a whole, Rom included.




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"There's still a lot to be done. Enemies that need killing.
That doesn't lessen the value of everything we've accomplished so far, though."

So begins...

Romulus's Story

Setting

Characters Present

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

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He woke as he had lived: on his knees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romulus remained silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What is your name?”

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

"Romulus."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Can you stand?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rift was gone.

She’d actually done it.

Setting

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

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

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

"S-sorry," she stuttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, here they come.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Breach is through here.”



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

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

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

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

Beneath his helm, he smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leonhardt exhaled, and took a step towards them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This way. We’re almost there.”

Setting

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

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

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

“NOW IS THE HOUR OF OUR VICTORY.”

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

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

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

"BRING FORTH THE SACRIFICE."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"KEEP THE SACRIFICE STILL."

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

“SOMEONE! HELP ME!”

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

“WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayed, but dared not hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht
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This time, Romulus woke on a soft bed, in a warm house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"They're awake!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I thought they were supposed to close it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Romulus
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It had taken her a while, but eventually, Estella had grown used to the cold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

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

Setting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

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Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel Character Portrait: Romulus
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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: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht
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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: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit
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Cyrus suspected that Redcliffe had seen much better days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Domina."

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He has always been that, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can watch while I change the world.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit
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Romulus found it difficult to just set foot back in Redcliffe, in the time that he remembered, after seeing what he had, and living in it. It felt not unlike a horrid dream, despite it having been entirely real, and only erased by the skill Cyrus had in magic. The thought that he could've been trapped there haunted him. As did the fact that a similar future could await them still.

His normal stony demeanor was replaced by a bit of a daze as they cleared out from Redcliffe castle, which stood empty awaiting the arrival of the Arl back into his domain. The Inquisition would be clearing out soon, but since they were now directly responsible for the mages taking shelter here, it would take a bit of time to organize. Time that was sorely needed for many of them to rest. And while none needed it more than Cyrus, Romulus was plenty exhausted himself.

He was only allowed a few hours, however, before Leon's man Reed arrived to summon him, letting him know that the commander required him for a debriefing. With Cyrus out of commission, and Chryseis still ultimately remaining a third party, it seemed the duty of relaying what had happened fell to the slave. Ignoring the soreness already setting into his limbs, he forced himself up from his cot.

He was allowed an opportunity to scarf down some food quickly, and fully planned to return for more when this was done. A few of the soldiers looked at him as though he were a ghost, and he wondered if he might actually be. He'd simply been erased from time for some of them, those that had been watching, before he reappeared. Romulus did not claim to understand how magic like that even began to work, but he could at least understand why the others might look at him differently. It was the second time he'd walked out of a place no man had a right to return from.

Reed opened the flap of the command tent for Romulus, and he proceeded inside, finding the Inquisition's military, diplomatic, and espionage leaders all assembled and awaiting him. Folding his hands together behind his back, he bowed his head in greeting, and left his eyes gazing down towards the table. Some things would not be changed, even by time-traveling.

The tent was quite a large one, with space for all three of its occupants to have clear working room of their own, plus a smaller version of Haven’s map table for each of them to use when necessary. Rilien was currently standing at that, quite intently focused on something or another there, while Lady Marceline was at a desk, shuffling through a stack of parchments, a quill and inkwell at the ready beside her. Leon, on the other hand, was sitting in a chair, on one side of low table, which was covered with what looked like some kind of food service for the three of them, it was hard to say exactly. Mostly it was all very mobile pickings, nuts and fruit, that sort of thing. There were a few other spartan chairs arranged around the space, and when Romulus entered, the commander stood, offering him one with a gesture.

“If you wouldn’t mind sitting, Romulus, I’m not sure how long we’re going to be here, and I expect you’re rather tired, if our resident magical expert’s condition is any indication of what you’ve been through. You’re also welcome to eat, if you like.” The Seeker himself resumed his own seat thereafter, ignoring the food in front of him and smiling mildly.

“I do apologize for how soon this is, but I’ve always found that memory is best committed to paper as soon as possible, lest some details get scrambled in the intervening time. If you’re up to it, I would like to hear from you what happened today.” Nothing he said was phrased as a command, nor even delivered with the tone of one.

Romulus sank into the offered chair, his posture perhaps not the best, and despite the rest, he still seemed, and felt, quite tired, the kind of tired that a simple night's sleep would not cure. As for Leon's prompting... he was almost tempted to laugh, as the commander couldn't possibly know what he was asking him to describe. Romulus shifted an elbow onto one of the chair's armrests, propping his head briefly upon his hand, before he seemed to think better of it. He still stared somewhere beneath the table they worked at.

"Cassius aimed a spell for Estella and I, meant to remove us from time. If Lord Cyrus and my domina had not confirmed it as such, I'd have thought I was under the effect of some nightmarish horror spell. We determined ourselves to be roughly one and a half years into the future, at which point the Inquisition had nearly been crushed, by the forces of something the Venatori called the 'Elder One.'" He narrowed his eyes at the thought, half-wishing they'd interrogated those they'd found in the future about the Elder One, to learn more of what exactly that was.

Finally, he looked up at the three before him. "Is there anything in particular you wish to know? We escaped from that future, and now a different one will come to pass instead."

There was a moment of silence at that; perhaps the three others simply needed time to digest the information. It wasn’t exactly the kind of thing one commonly encountered after all. In the end, Rilien spoke first, looking up from what he was doing to meet Romulus’s eyes. “If that is so… were you able to ascertain a narrative of what happened? It is possible that whatever this Elder One accomplished early on in that future is identical with what it plans for ours. Were we to know these things, we would be better prepared to face them.”

Romulus shrugged. "Perhaps." Sitting up a little higher in the chair, he exhaled heavily, raking through his mind for the information they'd picked up. The words were so much less memorable than the images, in all but a few cases. "The Inquisition suffered a crippling loss, with one Herald presumed dead, and the other captured. We acquired no allies, and lost our ability to close Fade rifts. The Venatori revealed their full strength, and allowed the Inquisition no victories. Cassius did not lead them, someone else did. We didn't get a name." It hadn't even occurred to them to care about most of these details that suddenly appeared important. None of it would have mattered if they couldn't get back at all.

His eyes shifted to Marceline, taking notes. "You escaped from the ambush, but were assassinated some time later, along with a great many others from Orlais. The Elder One apparently established a puppet, dethroning the most powerful nation in Thedas without being revealed." He looked to the spymaster next. "Many others were killed or captured in an attempt to rescue Estella from the Venatori. You were among them, Ser Rilien. You... were shot down trying to free Estella from... her pyre." His eyes could no longer remain on them, and fell to the ground again.

"The Inquisition still existed, when we arrived from the spell, but it was little more than a desperate resistance led by Commander Leon. The Breach had split across the sky. There... wasn't much of a world left to save."

Lady Marceline's quill quit its scratching for a moment as she looked up to Romulus. A coy smile then spread across her lips as she shook her head. "Assassinated, you say? I can not say I am terribly surprised. It is suitably... Orlesian, wouldn't you say, Ser Rilien?" She asked, glancing at Rilien.

"Fortunately, we still have you and Lady Estella, and with the mages, we have grown in strength as well," she said, returning to the notes she had been writing. "I shall send letters to prominent Orlesian nobility to warn them of such a possibility, and keep an ear open for any opportunistic occasion for assassins to strike." She then frowned again as she continued to stare at the notes laid out in front of her. "Did you discover which nobles were assassinated in particular? she asked.

"Those of greatest importance to stability," Romulus declared, somewhat simply. They were among the few names of dead people in the future that he had no connection with, but he remembered the titles. "The Lord-General, the Crown Prince, and the Empress herself." He swallowed. "I heard this from Khari, after we freed her. She'd been captured in the attempt to rescue Estella."

Leonhardt folded his hands together underneath his chin, his elbows propped on the armrests of his chair. He regarded Romulus less keenly than the other two did; it was clear they were thinking tactics in this very moment, but it would seem that, beyond the initial summons, he was not especially inclined that way himself. He looked vaguely troubled by what he was hearing, but had thus far been silent, apparently content to let the others do the questioning. Now, though, he did speak up.

“You met some of us, then, in this future. How was it that you were able to return? As I’ve heard it told, barely a minute passed as those in the throne room perceived it.”

How long had it been? An hour, perhaps two? Maybe less, Romulus supposed. Every moment in that hell had been agonizingly drawn out. Marceline seemed to find it amusing, though he could hardly read a woman like her, that she'd been murdered. She and the Tranquil were thinking tactically of this, or coldly, as it felt to Romulus. Leon was the one that Romulus at least felt slightly able to relate to. It was real, what had happened, as difficult as it was to imagine. In fact, what they were experiencing now was probably less real than the things he'd missed... but Romulus had no desire to think on any of that.

"We recovered Vesryn, Khari, Zahra, and Asala from the dungeons of the castle. The Venatori were using it as a base. The others were... tortured. I will not describe the details. They aren't important." Perhaps Vesryn had some secret he was hiding from the group, but Romulus would not be the one to force it out of him. If there was anything he'd demonstrated in that future, it was that he was willing to give his life for their cause. Cyrus could pry answers out of him later if he so chose to.

"Together we reached the throne room, and Cyrus killed Cassius there. He then prepared the spell that would transport us back. It was never certain if we would be able to return. The Elder One arrived with some kind of creature, though we never laid eyes on the threat. Venatori advanced ahead, and since the others could not be allowed to return with us, they held them off to give Cyrus enough time. I watched all of them die." He'd seen, and done, more than his share of terrible things, and many of them refused to leave him, but somehow he suspected visiting that future only briefly would outlast them all.

“I’m sorry,” Leon said quietly, though it didn’t seem to be as much an apology as an expression of honest sympathy. He sighed heavily, leaning back in his chair. “I’m sure the details of the magic involved will go over my head, but I’ll ask Cyrus about it at a later date anyway, to see if it’s anything we still need to be worried about. For now…” He paused, apparently searching for the words he wanted, pursing his lips and shaking his head faintly.

“For now I also wanted to ask something else. I admit I don’t really have a grasp of the details, but… Lady Chryseis is still present, and as I understand it, she was of help in… what happened. We have no cause or grounds to interfere with her if she wishes to leave and return to the Imperium. But from what you have said, it appears painfully obvious to me that the Inquisition needs its Heralds—"

"Both Heralds," Lady Marceline clarified.

“—and that the world needs the Inquisition. What do you want to do from here, Romulus? I want you to know that you have our support, should you be inclined to make use of it for any reason.”

Romulus was silent for a long period after that, threading his fingers together in front of him and placing his chin upon his knuckles. In the end, the immediate course of his life seemed obvious, and when he spoke, it was for once with confidence. "I want to close the Breach. Whatever that takes. I believe, after what we went through, my domina understands the importance of that as well. I believe she will keep our arrangement as is." Despite everything that had happened, nothing had really changed. Chryseis had even admitted she'd come to Redcliffe for her father, to protect the world from him, and perhaps to try to protect him from himself.

"After the Breach is closed... I still intend to do as she commands. If that means returning to Minrathous, and disappearing, so be it. I won't ask you to understand. If that puts the Inquisition at risk... then I'm sorry." His relationship with Chryseis was not something that was at all easy to comprehend. Despite the things he'd done for her, and as a result the things he'd done to himself, he did not, and could not resent her for any of it. For he knew that since her husband had been killed, no other person understood her quite the way he did.

Leon smiled a little wider. “I don’t understand, but it doesn’t matter, if it’s what you want. So long as we close the Breach, I’ll not complain.” He glanced to the other two briefly. “Unless Rilien or Lady Marceline has a further question, I believe we can conclude here. Please, enjoy some well-earned rest.” Rilien shook his head in the negative.

"None," Marceline agreed.

"Thank you," Romulus said, rising from the chair. After nodding briefly, he turned and exited the tent, forcing himself to think only of a large meal, and a long sleep to follow.

Setting

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Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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She'd been watching him for a while now. It was only a day after, from what she understood, Romulus and Cyrus entered and returned from a rift in time. In all honesty, Asala did not understand the mechanics behind time traveling, and fortunately she wasn't required to. Still, from what she heard and saw secondhand, it was a journey that left its mark on them both. To say she was worried about them was an understatement. So when it came up that there was a small castle nearby that contained a cult, and that Romulus and a few of the Lions were to investigate, Asala volunteered to accompany them.

It was no secret that she was worried for them, she knew she was terrible at keeping her emotions in check. Whenever he was to throw a glance her way, she always tried to avert her gaze and pretend she wasn't studying him. Asala was transparent however, and once he turned his gaze forward again, her eyes went right back to him. He was a hard man to read, as it turned out, and her survey of his back yielded nothing.

The journey they took through the Hinterlands was relatively quiet, due in no small part to the efforts of the Inquisition and the Lions from what she had heard. The castle they were heading to lay eastward from Redcliffe, built into the side of the mountain from the scouting reports. Apparently, they were seeking a sign or something or another. Truthfully, the reason of the journey didn't matter to her as much as the man leading it. Not for the first time, Asala tilted her head as she watched Romulus, trying to suss out anything she could from his body language.

When that didn't work, Asala finally decided to say something. Or rather, attempt to. "Uh..." she began, hopefully catching his attention. "Rom-Romulus? How... how are you... feeling?" she stammered out. She didn't know if that was the right thing to ask, but it was the only thing to come to mind.

Romulus was hooded as usual, but turned to look back at the Qunari woman when his name was called. Though he led the way for the group, he merely followed in the tracks of the Lead Scout, Lia, while Donnelly and a few others of the Lions followed closely behind. Romulus was as stone faced as ever, an expression that only softened for the briefest of moments, upon observing Asala's difficulty even addressing him.

"I'm fine, Asala," he answered, looking back ahead of him again. "I wasn't injured, and I've been assured the spell we passed through would have no ill effects on me. You don't have to worry." His answer was delivered somewaht brusquely, perhaps a bit more than he intended, as a quiet sigh soon followed, an exhale from his nostrils, and he reached up to rub his face.

"That is not..." Asala frowned and scratched the spot under her horns. She was unsure how to go about this without prying or infringing too far on his own privacy. "It is just..." she tried again, but once more the words didn't seem to come to her. She sighed and closed her eyes, trying to figure out a succint way to put what was on her mind. "I do worry," Asala revealed, "For you and Estella both."

A blush seeped into her features as her eyes fell to his heels. A memory of one of Tammy's lesson's then came to her. "Sometimes... The injuries are not on the outside, but inside... And those can be the hardest to heal." No sooner than she'd said it, her eyes widened and her face flushed. She held up her hands defensively and waved them back and forth. "I-I-I don-don't mean to pry. N-not at all," she stuttered, her eyes now on the ground behind Romulus's feet. "I-i-it's just that if you...ever want to talk... I'm always here." she added with a nervous chuckle.

Romulus slowly came to a stop upon Asala's mention of injuries on the inside; a brief nod to Donnelly and the other Lions allowed them to go on up ahead, ascending the hill in front of them. Waiting until they were out of earshot, which wasn't far considering how softly he spoke, Romulus pulled back his hood and rubbed his temples. After avoiding Asala's gaze momentarily, he finally met her eyes.

"Perhaps you shouldn't be." The words weren't spat or hissed aggressively. Instead they were quite gentle, and the look in his eyes was as haunted as ever; they lingered for a long moment upon her horns. "Our enemies have shown themselves to be the worst kind of people the world has to offer. I've seen the aftermath of what they can do." He shook his head slowly, uncertain of himself.

"It's the kind of thing that breaks a person like you."

"I..." Asala began, though not quite sure where to go from there. He had seen things in the rift, that much was clear, but she would not ask what. She doubted he'd tell her even if she did. Her eyes lingered on the ground for a moment more, before they lifted to reach Romulus's own. It would be clear to him that she was quite awkward holding his gaze as such, but she didn't let them fall away. His words were frighteningly serious, and indeed seem to come from a man who'd seen things best left unseen. Still, she did not allow it to sway her from her current course. What they did was important, yes, but the people who did it were more important.

"Per... haps," she began again, "But... Everyone has their breaking point, Romulus," she said sweetly, taking a step closer. "I... just want to make sure you do not reach yours," she said before sighing. She pulled a hand over her eyes and shook her head gently. "You must think me terribly foolish," she said, taking her hands off of her eyes.

"Do you know what a... beres-taar is?" Before he could answer, Asala answered for him. "It means shield in Qunlat. Instead of saarebas, a dangerous thing, Tammy called me beres-taar. You and Estella both face these... people, and I will not let you do it alone." Even though she did not know what else she could do but ease their injuries, she could only hope that would be enough. "I am sure that... together, we need not let these people break us... Any of us." She flushed again and she let her eyes fall back to the ground.

She clutched at the collar of her crimson cloak before she spoke again. "I apologize, I did not mean... Are we near the castle yet?" she asked, quickly trying to change the subject.

"It's just over the next rise," came a voice from beside them. Lia trotted down the hill towards them, her bow securely slung over her shoulder, a sure sign that there was no threat. The other Lions awaited them at the top of the rise, looking down. Lia suddenly seemed to realize she had stumbled across a potentially awkward conversation, and grew wide eyed for a moment. "Uh... did I interrupt something?"

Romulus shook his head, tiredly. "No." He began walking forward, prompting Lia to follow. "What's happening at this castle?"

"The cult that moved in seem to be Chantry cast-offs or exiles. They reacted pretty strongly to the Breach, thinking it a sign of the end times, a sign that the Maker would be taking the worthy up to the Golden City or something. I think they might be nuts, but they want to talk to you." Romulus looked down at her beside him.

"Me?"

"Well, a Herald of Andraste. We need to start making these people be specific if they want one of you in particular." She grinned a bit to herself, but it faded quickly enough when she realized that Romulus wasn't in much of a mood for humor. "Their leader, a woman named Anais, is waiting out front for you."

"Ah. Well. We should not keep her waiting then, yes?" Asala said, quite ready to put the recent conversation behind them. She'd said what she felt she needed to.

Lia hummed her agreement, and together the group crested the hill, bringing the dilapidated old castle into full view. Despite its age, the walls still stood proud and intact, if a bit weather-weary in places. The castle was indeed built into the rock wall of the mountain, and a channel had been cut into the earth around the entrance, creating a sort of waterless moat only passable with a drawbridge, or wings.

On their side of the drawbridge, which was currently lowered for them, was a small group, headed by a woman with bright red hair pouring out of the sides of her hood. She was lightly armored, and carried a pair of short swords across her back. Supposedly they'd been set up in there since before the bandits and rogue templars and apostates had even been cleared out, so it wasn't altogether surprising that a group of Chantry exiles would be at least partially armed. She stepped forward as the Inquisition group with Romulus at its head approached.

"It's good to meet you, Inquisition, and one of your Heralds of Andraste. My name is Anais, and my people have given me the title of Speaker."

Romulus darted with his gaze side to side, clearly uncomfortable with being in the primary speaking role of the party, but at last he managed an awkward, "Greetings."

"Truth be told," Anais carried on, without delay, "these people expected to have been whisked away to the Golden City by now, but the Breach has remained largely silent. We have heard stories of your ability to close the rifts. We would be very interested in seeing a demonstration."

"Ah," Romulus said, unsure what to do with his hands. "Well. Do you happen to know where one of these rifts is located?"

"Yes," Anais said, smiling. "We have one within the castle walls, actually."

“And you just go about your business, then?” Donnelly’s face was pulled into an expression of clear skepticism, but he shook his head and gestured his two other soldiers, a dwarven woman and an older human man, forward. “Don’t suppose it really matters…” The three of them led the group forward, guided by Anais, until they reached what looked to be some kind of walled-in courtyard, open only on one side. They’d passed a lot of castle architechture, repurposed for the needs of what was effectively a small village. A tavern, several housing blocks, a few stables, all fitted vertically more than horizontally. It was clearer then how they’d been able to live around the rift, because it was barred into its own area, one not near much else. For the moment, it looked passive, but doubtless it would spew demons like the rest of them as soon as they got close enough.

When the group actually reached the gate, however, the Lions’ lieutenant turned around and met Romulus’s eyes, his shield on one arm and sword in the other hand. “At your word, Herald.” He was likely using the title for the benefit of the cultists, because he didn’t usually bother as such.

A number of the cultists had indeed followed, though the word did not seem entirely appropriate. Most were still clearly within their Chantry ways, and had simply been removed from their former places of worship due to their overblown beliefs about the Breach. Anais remained at the head of them as they approached the gate, and Romulus glanced sideways at her. "You may want to have your people keep back."

Anais regarded him evenly. "We've been able to protect ourselves before, whenever the rift has seen fit to send demons at us. We are not as helpless as we might seem. Proceed." Exhaling somewhat uncomfortably, Romulus nodded at Donnelly, and the group moved forward.

The fight was over quickly, the shades disposed of with relatively no difficulty. One lesser terror had emerged with the second wave of demons, but Asala had left it stunned with a barrier, and Lia and Donnelly had finished it off with arrows and blade, respectively. When the fight was complete, Romulus lifted his hand towards the rift, allowing the impressive arc of light to connect the two. When he wrenched his hand away, the rift burst, remnants of it raining down to the ground.

A number of murmurs went through the crowd, while Anais watched with crossed arms. As Romulus returned towards the group, she stepped forward. "Very impressive, Herald. We were wrong to doubt you, it seems. I speak for these people, but you speak for Andraste. We are yours to command. How would you like us to serve?"

Romulus was clearly caught off guard by suddenly having a group full of people to command, and his mouth hung open for a moment. Anais clearly caught on, smiling knowingly beneath her hood, an expression only visible to the Inquisition members, as her own people all stood behind her.

"Perhaps we can encourage other doubters to come to believe as we have, at least in the area. Surely anything that will help solidify the Inquisition's authority and righteousness will be of use, no?" Romulus, still obviously unsure how to proceed, closed his mouth and nodded, forcing a small smile.

"Yes. That sounds agreeable. You have my thanks, Speaker Anais."

She bowed briefly. "None are required. I will report to you at Haven if there are any interesting developments." With that, many of the other cult members bowed, and took their leave, allowing the Inquisition group a clear path back out of the fortress. By the way Romulus walked, it was clear that he hoped to be gone from there swiftly.

Asala followed closely behind, scratching under her horns again. She was relieved that it was Romulus and not her that commanded the authority, though she could not say she didn't see how uncomfortable it made him. However, she chose to keep her silence. She did not know what she could say to make it better for him, nor that even if she did, if it would actually help. Instead, she settled for a sweet comforting smile.

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Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel Character Portrait: Romulus
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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.”

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

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit
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Then the Maker said:
To you, My second-born, I grant this gift:
In your heart shall burn
An unquenchable flame
All-consuming, and never satisfied.
From the Fade I crafted you,
And to the Fade you shall return
Each night in dreams
That you may always remember Me.
—Canticle of Threnodies 5:7

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The air still smelled like burning flesh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Inquisition had succeeded.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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