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Vesryn Cormyth

"It's all a bit much, some days. But I'm not alone in this. Never have been."

0 · 1,871 views · located in Thedas

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

Description

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Full Name: Vesryn Cormyth (VEZ-rin COR-mith)
Titles/Nicknames: Ves
Age: 36 (9:44)
Race: Elf
Gender: Male
Sexual Orientation: Unrestricted.
Class: Warrior
Specialization: Champion

Hair Color: A nearly white blond.
Eye Color: Emerald Green.
Height: 6'1"
Build: Very well built for an elf.

Appearance: The elves of Thedas most commonly come in two varieties: the sleek, leanly built and agile elves calling themselves the Dalish, and the poor, malnourished and oppressed variety, the city elves, or flat-ears as the Dalish sometimes like to refer to them as. Vesryn was formerly of the latter group, but now he is neither, in most conceivable ways. He is very tall for an elf, standing above six feet, and powerfully built, with a broad chest, rippling musculature, and a toned physique. He has come a long way from the tall, thin stick of an elf he used to be.

His hair is a very light blond, more of a white than a silver, and is commonly left to grow quite long, falling down to the middle of his back. While wearing a helmet he will tie it back behind him, but otherwise his mass of hair is left loose, and he does so very much love the way it dramatically flutters in the wind, and the way it feels to run a rough, calloused hand through it. Vesryn is quite impressed by his own appearance, his glittering emerald green eyes, his prominent cheekbones and well-shaped nose, the skin of his face smooth and for the most part unblemished.

He dresses like neither Dalish nor city elf, for the most part. He travels often, and typically wears his armor while doing so, a full set of ancient elven plate, silver steel with a gilded trim, a thick overskirt of scales and blue-stained leather. His tallhelm is particularly impressive, with a plume of white hair fluttering from the peak, gilded wings stretching up from either side. The lion pelt he often wears as a cloak is not part of the ancient ensemble, but rather a personal addition, befitting his personality and preferences. Out of armor, he often dresses similarly to how a human noble might, crisply cut shirts of fine linen, soft and supple boots with embroidered pants tucked into them. He carries himself like he isn't an elf at all, concerned with neither oppression nor the aggression of the Dalish. Indeed, he is a strange story, and will be the first to admit it.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
His style is rather firmly entrenched, and hasn't been changed much by a year with the Inquisition. After all, he supplies his own armor and cares for it obsessively. Same with his weapons, and same with his appearance. He's got a few new scars, but for the most part his armor has kept those from him, too. In all, he's just about the same physically.


9:43:
Spoiler: show
Vesryn has given extra care to his own physical state lately, given recent events. He was already in an excellent condition, but he's now taking more care in what he eats, limiting himself somewhat in how much he drinks, and pushing himself to his limit as often as he can. His current state of mind actually has an effect on his appearance as well. If it's possible, he carries himself even taller, prouder, more confidently than ever before. He looks like a man on top of the world, in as good a shape and still as gods-blessed with his looks as ever.


9:44:
Spoiler: show
The past year was a difficult one for Vesryn, both physically and emotionally, and on the physical side he still isn't quite back to the peak he was at the year before. An extended period of forced inactivity and physical decay wore him down to be thinner, leaner, almost returning to the sort of elf he used to be, the city-dweller, the oppressed. He has worked hard to return to form since the events of Arlathan Forest, for both practical and personal reasons. For the most part, he has.


"The body can tell a story of a man's life.
I could walk you through mine, if you like."


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Credit (Ignore the ears, please)
Apparent Demeanor: Vesryn can't be called a loud or boisterous person, exactly, but he seems comfortable and at home in almost any informal social situation, excluding truly weighty or oppressive matters. He makes no attempts at being obnoxious, but at the same time, he rarely if ever holds back his laughs, he utilizes a wide array of odd facial expressions, and rarely hesitates to speak what's on his mind. He's not a subtle elf, but this is fine with him. He prefers things lighthearted and straightforward.

A common reaction of his towards things that are not that way is to find humor in them. He throughly enjoys a good tease, and one of his ways of judging character is in fact to make fun of a person, typically gently and without prodding into painful subjects if he can avoid it, to see how they react. So as not to be a hypocrite, he employs self-deprecative humor as well. His occasional veil of arrogance and self-touting is clearly just that: a veil. It's clear that while he doesn't truly think all that highly of himself, his self-outlook is not destructive, either. All people have their flaws, and he finds them endearing, typically, both in others and in himself.

A self proclaimed lover of all beautiful things, Vesryn will not hesitate to flirt with anyone he chooses to, man or woman, human or elf, dwarf or Qunari. This applies to beauty in the world as well. He appreciates the impressive beauty of Thedas, and has traveled a great deal over much of it, though the majority of his time has been spent in Ferelden and Orlais. He is nowhere more at home than on the road, or in the wild, with his horse, and the quiet, pleasant company he keeps in his head.

For all the strangeness of his mental situation, Vesryn typically does an excellent job at concealing the extra presence of Saraya floating around in his mind. Fifteen years is a long time to learn how, and indeed it was necessary. Many people who found out would not differentiate between his circumstances and a mage's possession, though he's at least relatively sure he hasn't been possessed. He'd like to think he would know if that happened.

Of all the things he jokes about in the world, Saraya's well-being is one thing he is truly serious about. They have been literally inseperable for the past decade and a half, and in that time developed one of the strangest bonds Vesryn could imagine. They don't always (or often) agree on things, but Saraya's influence is directly responsible for Vesryn's transformation into the man he is today.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
There were ups and downs in the period when Saraya's existence was first becoming known to his companions, but at this point, Vesryn's honestly become quite a bit more open than he was before. It's been surprisingly easy, all things considered, and while he doesn't go shouting about Saraya from rooftops, anyone who has a reason to know about her in the Inquisition pretty much knows by now. He supposes it might be a problem, if word spreads to the wrong ears, and he has a few in mind, but such things will take time, and he has friends he can count on.

It's the first company he's felt he really belongs to. Even the mercenaries of his youth weren't the best companions. The Inquisition welcomes him, has a good use for him and his expertise, and watches his back. They're a lovely bunch of people, too. Actual friends, which have been hard for him to maintain in an on-the-road lifestyle. They have his loyalty and his trust, through and through.


9:43:
Spoiler: show
Though he's among the older members of the Irregulars, Vesryn feels that he's done some of the most maturing of any of them. Much of this has come as a result of forging strong bonds with other individuals again, not just fighting alongside them. The last time he really opened up and allowed other people in, either as friends, brothers or sisters in arms, or as lovers, the result was less than ideal, thus it took him a long time to come around to it here. Now that he's aware of being such an integral part of the lives he feels just as deeply towards, he endeavors to be well and truly worthy of their affection, and not just the elven knight errant he was in years past.

He still hangs on to his love for life and beauty, but in recent months his rowdiness, frivolousness, and occasional carelessness have all been somewhat restrained. He's still quite flirtatious, even if the target of that has become rather singular of late. In all, he is finally more at home in a specific place than he was on the road, alone save for Saraya's company. He is certain in his beliefs and in his goals, and that he has put his trust, loyalty, and compassion into the right relationships.


9:44:
Spoiler: show
Vesryn had to come to terms with a great many things over the year. Things about the history of his people, and the history carried around inside his head. The physical struggles he went through were difficult on him, forcing him to remove himself from fighting while others he cares about take on the load instead, but that particular trouble became insignificant next to the revelation of Saraya's past.

It's not something he'll be able to come to terms with quickly, and he knows that. Nothing about the situation sits well with him. Saraya betrayed her people in their darkest years, and was preserved not as her reward or responsibility, but as punishment. Part of Vesryn's refusal to judge comes from the fact that he can't imagine what it was she went through, even having seen it in her dreams now. He didn't have the connection to her family that she had. He does, however, love certain people more than he thought himself capable of, and he can't say for certain what he would do if placed in her position.

He's doing the only thing he can, which is to look at the way she has guided him recently, and to see her motives in that. He knows they aren't evil, and never were. The fact that she was just as flawed as any of them was something Vesryn had difficulty accepting, after all the years of building up the idea of her in his mind, and her unwillingness and fear of destroying that.

For the moment, Vesryn is content to keep fighting for the cause in front of him. There are many new uncertainties present in his life, but some things have remained constant, and with his remaining time uncertain, he intends to spend it in a way he knows will help.


Hangups/Quirks: He doesn't show it much, but Vesryn actually has a great deal of elven pride. One might not think this, however, as he shows little interest in the ways of either the Dalish or the city elves. He will, however, always favor assisting them when the opportunity arises. This stems largely from the elven knowledge he hoards, the things Saraya has shown him, and the inklings of what he has gathered ancient elves were once like.

While he's typically very good about hiding Saraya's presence from other people, there are certain tells that give away that he is interacting, shown either when he's alone, thinks he's alone, or is around those who know of Saraya and are willing to refrain from attacking him for being an abomination or some such horror. He laughs to himself more than one might expect, speaks to himself occasionally, and has a way of changing directions quickly when searching for something.

Strengths: Vesryn thanks Saraya for most of his strengths. She was a remarkably talented woman, a warrior and a tracker, a mountaineer and horseback rider. Many of the skills she had are now Vesryn's own from having practiced them so much, but he recognizes that he was fairly useless before meeting her. Now he's entirely self-sufficient if he needs to be, and holds an incredible depth of elven knowledge from his studies and travels. It pales in comparison to what the ancient elves knew, but it's remarkable, all the same. One strength Vesryn has always possessed is the ease with which he typically makes friends, with his easy manner and openness (on all subjects but the one, usually).

Weaknesses: If Ves was attempting to create a serious relationship with someone, it might be difficult for them to realize a genuine display of affection from him. He doesn't do serious all that well, which can inevitably lead to some stepping on toes if other people are trying to be that way. He was born a city elf, and so has some working knowledge of customs of the lower classes, but in the realms of nobility and politics, he's pretty helpless, and will probably get himself into trouble with his mouth. The level of tact required to adequately play an intricate game of the nobility is not something he can reasonably achieve.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
In addition to being a fear of his, firmly entrenched, blood magic and the powers of old demons have been repeatedly confirmed to affect he and Saraya to a more dangerous degree than others, perhaps due to the sheer amount of certain emotions to draw upon within Saraya. He doesn't think her weak for it; her existence has simply been so extraordinary and deep and troubled that she naturally has these things for certain enemies to draw upon. It's something he knows he needs to be extra wary of in the future.


Fears: Vesryn will dutifully avoid any sort of magic that messes with the mind if he can at all avoid it. Horror spells, blood magic, even simple alchemical draughts designed to cure a headache. He doesn't understand the magic that put Saraya in his head, so he has no real idea of what, if anything, can separate them. Given that she has no body to separate to, this would likely lead to her death. Neither of them has desired this for some time. And in addition to his care for her, Vesryn can't help but feel that there's a risk of somehow losing the knowledge and skills he has acquired if their minds are separated.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
As ever, Ves fears what demons and powerful blood magic have proven to be able to do: alter his bond with Saraya, or somehow use some facet of her to attack them both. He remembers with perfect clarity her scream, the only sound of hers he heard, if indeed it was real. The skull-splitting agony seemed real enough, and he fears still that such a thing will one day be his fate. The loss of his mind, if not his life altogether. So far the things that have been done to him appear to have left no terrible effects, but he worries that it won't always be this way, or that something else might happen to change the status quo.


"I'm a believer in second chances.
Gods know I've had a few myself."





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Strength: XXXXXx▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [8/10]

Dexterity:XXXXX▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

Intelligence: XXX▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

Wisdom: XXXXXX▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [4/10]

Cunning: XXXXXX▇▇▇ ⎭ [3/10]

Magic: XXXXXXXX⎧ ⎭ [0/10]

Willpower: XXXX▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [6/10]

Constitution: XXX▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

Weapon of Choice: Vesryn fights primarily with a bardiche, a weapon he originally referred to as "a big axe on a big stick," much to Saraya's annoyance. It's a fairly heavy, but versatile weapon, effective at longer ranges than hand axes, with more slashing punch than a spear could ever get. Other armament include a long spear and tower shield combination, employed where much greater defence is warranted. His sidearm is a short combat knife, used largely for emergencies, such as when he is disarmed, or an enemy encroaches within the minimum range of his primary weapons.

Fighting Style/Training: A tall, lanky elf was transformed into a highly skilled warrior over the course of a day. Well, not exactly, but the knowledge was put there, the instincts to be repeated and honed until they were his own. Vesryn and Saraya fight as one, two pairs of eyes watching over one body, in one suit of ancient elven plate. Fighting in heavy gear with grace is not easy to do, but Vesryn does the bloody dance well, utilizing his impressive strength (gained after years of work forced on him by his relentless drillmaster) along with heightened balance and footwork to outplay opponents in melee combat. With the bardiche, he tears down defenses and cleaves them in two. With the tower shield and spear, he is a bulwark, a nearly unbreakable wall that will impale enemies that attempt to break through. He also happens to be quite a skilled cavalry combatant, fighting with spear and shield from horseback when the situation calls for it.

9:43:
Spoiler: show
Events that prevented Saraya from assisting Vesryn in more than one important battle were more than enough to drive him into honing his skill further. His personal skill, not the skill at feeling his partner's instincts, and using her own abilities as his. Those he keeps in practice with as well, but Vesryn has a desire now to be entirely self-sufficient when he needs to be, if this ever occurs again. He's got a long way to go, as his natural skill is middling at best, and long hours of practice are required for him to make progress. But progress he is making, slowly and steadily. He'll never be Saraya's equal in combat in much of anything, but he doesn't need to be. He just needs to be enough to protect the people he cares for.


"If I die on the battlefield, I intend to do so well-dressed.
That said, I'd prefer... not to die. That's where the axe comes in."


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Place of Birth: Denerim, Ferelden
Social Status/Rank: He's... nothing, really. A wanderer, belonging to seemingly no organization or faction other than himself. He was part of a mercenary company for a short period of a few years, but has since moved on. An axe-armed explorer and historian is perhaps the best description for him.

History: Vesryn Cormyth joined the ranks of the flat-ears of Denerim in 9:08 Dragon, and was a problem for everyone from pretty much his first day on. The alienage had few enough ways to stay entertained, and very few paths that anyone could take to better themselves. To Vesryn, there was boredom, hunger, marriage, and the producing of children to partake in the same things he had just been through. With this outlook, it is no surprise that he began to turn to other options, ones that most elves were not brave (or foolish) enough to consider.

At the age of eighteen, faced with the prospect of a looming marriage arranged by his parents, Vesryn gathered the closest and most impressionable of his friends and planned an escape. Merely a show of defiance, they would flee the city and make for the Brecilian forest. After camping for a few days and enjoying the company of no one but each other, they'd return to their shitty lives and probably give in to the weight of necessity.

Obviously, it didn't pan out that way, as most elaborate plans of teenagers to go. The escape went just fine, but they clearly had done little to prepare for the dangers of the forest. The group was quickly separated by a combination of sylvans and extremely large spiders, with Vesryn somehow becoming separated from the group and driven deeper into the forest rather than out of it. Fleeing for his life, he stumbled into an old ruin of long forgotten elves from another age, hiding from the nearby beasts. When they passed him by, he allowed himself to explore. When he found himself thirsty, he drank from a pedestal of clean water in one of the deeper rooms of the ruins.

He probably should have realized that water sitting around in a room for years and years should not have been so clean, but he drank anyway, somewhat delirious from truly running for his life for the first time. The water did little to him at first, but eventually he began to hear things, like inanimate objects in the room were calling out to him. One of these was a phylactery, a small vial placed in a small cupboard, though Vesryn did not recognize it for what it was. It seemed to recognize his presence, and called out to be taken. Though he believed himself to be going mad, Vesryn did it anyway.

The moment he picked up the phylactery, the consciousness of the ancient elven woman trapped inside was forcefully injected into his mind. The following several hours were nothing but literally mind-splitting pain, amplified by the fact that this woman was feeling it, too, and Vesryn was immediately capable of feeling everything that she felt. Thus began an immensely complex relationship between a city elf and a warrior woman from a time when elves ruled all Thedas.

Vesryn steadily fought through the foreign feelings in his head to determine some of the rules of their entaglement. She could not speak to him, not in any tongue. For all intents and purposes, she became simply a passenger inside his head. But Vesryn could feel her reactions and feelings to everything he saw and did, distinctly separate from his own. How he determined that she was female, he could not say. He just knew.

At first, she was overcome with a wracking despair, the proximity to which was capable of bringing Vesryn to tears. She had sought release more than anything, and thought that maybe Vesryn could grant it to her, finally. Instead, he had simply transferred her to a new prison. For a time, he thought this the best solution as well, to remove her, to let her have her rest. But when he left the ruined temple... he felt such powerfully genuine emotions. The wonder of a woman who had been forced to see nothing for thousands of years, her amazement, shock, and occasionally sorrow at seeing how the world had changed. He could not help but find his situation, and this woman, utterly remarkable. It would soon become the first thing to truly matter to Vesryn.

He refused to return to the Alienage, instead allowing the woman to guide him, knowing clearly enough when he was going a way she did not desire. With him as her new cage, she was understandably invested in improving him, and so she pushed him to work harder, something that came naturally when living in the wilderness. Her instincts became second nature to Vesryn, who quickly picked up skills that would have taken him years otherwise. He never could figure out what her real name was, but after trying many of them, she seemed accepting of Saraya. And Saraya had at least temporarily put aside her desire for release, intent on guiding Vesryn to some goal while she was within him.

He explored places long untouched by humans or elves, learning and uncovering history all but forgotten by modern peoples. He acquired a set of armor to wear from one of these, and weapons that Saraya was familiar with. To pay his way, he joined a mercenary company in Orlais for a time, honing his skills and expanding his borders. He remained in Orlais for the duration of the Blight, avoiding the horrors that would have befallen him had he been in Denerim at the time. Now, however, he has returned to his homeland, having left the mercenaries behind, in order to continue his search for more of the legacy of the elves.

9:42:
Spoiler: show
Saraya's wariness of the Breach led Vesryn into his first contact with the Inquisition, and from there he really hasn't looked back. It's the second most interesting thing ever to happen to him. Trust took time to build, but it has now been largely established, especially after the harrowing events of Haven's fall. Saraya led him, and he led Estella, and she led the Inquisition, to Skyhold, where he feels he's found something of a home, something in the present worth really fighting for.


9:43:
Spoiler: show
9:42 was a year of disturbing lows and tremendous highs for Vesryn. It started quietly enough for him, but the battle at Adamant Fortress quite nearly turned his life upside down again. His trip into the Fade led him to truly become aware of his vulnerability to demons and the magic they can provide. Despite that, it proved a powerful bonding experience to bring him closer with Estella. It drove him towards self-improvement, throwing away his pride (behind closed doors, mind you) to practice against the relentless aggression of Khari. It some ways it humbled him, and pushed him to become the sort of self-sufficient man he didn't yet know he needed to be.

He reconnected with his friends of clan Thremael, Zethlasan, Astraia, and Shaethra. It brought its own ups and downs, tensions and happy reunions. Zeth proved more damaged than he could've predicted, and his trap ended up drawing in not just Vesryn and Saraya, but Estella and Khari as well. He was almost driven to kill his old friend, but instead let him return to his clan, a decision he truly believes to be right.

And lastly he was able to help Estella resolve a personal issue of her own, one that he hadn't felt remotely suited for. That it worked out in their favor proved to be an immense confidence boost, and enough for the two of them to at last embark on the beginning of their relationship in earnest. The year brought remarkable and significant changes to Vesryn's life, and though they were at times difficult enough to bring him near the breaking point, he looks back on the year fondly for the ways in which it enriched his life, and hopes the year to follow will be as lovely.


9:44:
Spoiler: show
9:43 saw Vesryn's world fracture, shatter, and then take on a new sort of solidarity, even if it's still in the process of being constructed. On his end of things, he fell in love and is more dedicated to the Inquisition than ever. But outside of the personal events, his future has been thrown into doubt.

Physically, he isn't certain if he'll be alive at the end of the next year, given the seemingly inevitable nature of his condition with Saraya. Emotionally... he isn't sure what he intends to do, after everything is done with. He hasn't allowed himself to think on it yet, given that he isn't certain he'll survive that long. It was always a strong possibility, given their work, but now he can't seem to see more than a year on the horizon. All he knows is that he intends to spend the year well, if he can, so that if the worst comes to pass, both he and Saraya will be able to meet the end with some kind of peace.



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Spoiler: show
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| Cyrus Avenarius |

9:43: Cyrus has become a good friend of Vesryn's over the year. He's seen him regularly for his help and advice regarding Saraya, he navigated the mess Zeth put him in (and put up with an incredibly awkward conversation), and shortly after Vesryn helped without question when his life was nearly taken, and his magic was. He felt he could relate to the fear of having what was most precious taken, if not the experience. And they've only continued to bond in recent months as Vesryn has helped Stel keep Cyrus from eating himself up in misery. Vesryn values his friendship, and still believes he is irreplaceable, despite having lost his magic.



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| Asala Kaaras |

9:43: Asala's sweet, perhaps the gentlest heart in the Inquisition. Without her and the entire team of healers at their disposal many of the injuries he and his friends have suffered would likely have more permanent effects. He likes Asala quite a bit, and enjoyed seeing her let her guard down on Firstday, even if she did overdo it by quite a bit with the brandy. Everyone has a first time doing that, and he's quite sure (or at least hopeful) it won't become a regular thing. They're not the closest of friends, but he never feels her presence is unwelcome in the slightest.



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| Marceline Benoît |

9:43: His interpretation of Lady Marceline comes almost entirely through Stel. He became aware of some disagreements they had prior to the year's end, some of which seemed pretty serious, and of course he was present when she requested to go to Val Royeaux. It was enough for him to question a few things, but after their successful return from Val Royeaux the two seem to be on slightly better footing together. He's happy about that, and expects to see more of their ambassador than he did before.



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| Leonhardt Albrecht |

9:43: Saraya actually worries for him, which makes Vesryn concerned as well, but as far as he knows there are already quite a few people coming and going from the Commander's office. He's easy enough to find if Leon wants his opinion on something, or just company. Leon makes for good company in most cases, even if he can be a little withdrawn at times when more is warranted. Vesryn doesn't mind that type at all, and appreciates the man's easy manner. It makes him a good commander, and well-liked by the soldiers he commands. Vesryn included.



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| Zahra Tavish |

9:43: He's very fond of Zee, and has also seen a significant amount of depth to her character after some of the year's events. Particularly after the ordeal that Cyrus went through she proved to be a very reliable, caring member of their group, capable of a great deal of empathy and understanding. She went above and beyond for Stel's birthday. Above and beyond seems to personify her in general, and the way she treats life with her friends and her crew. He fully approves.



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| Kharisanna Istimaethoriel |

9:43: He can't quite decide whether they're rivals or friends. Perhaps it's possible just to be both. They push one another, physically, and Vesryn suspects that in some respects he is a target she is chasing in terms of her own skills. He's fine with that; she's not his enemy, after all. The farthest thing from it. He's incredibly thankful for her help in the matter regarding Zeth and Astraia, which was given without hesitation. They've come to a sort of understanding about how they want to improve each other. As far as he's aware, she's reached a more stable position regarding the Dalish, and being one of them, in her own way. As far as he knows, anyway. He's interested in speaking with her about it sometime.



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| Romulus |

9:43: Not half as bad as he looks, is he? Their second Inquisitor is taking his sweet time becoming a real person like the rest of them, but Vesryn also suspects that he just doesn't open up around people he doesn't really trust. They trust each other well enough to fight side by side when necessary, and Vesryn thinks they might be able to become passable friends at some point. Romulus has shown hints of a lighter side that the more stress-free periods in Skyhold have brought out. He hopes the Lord Inquisitor continues on his rise.



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| Rilien Falavel |

9:43: Vesryn has had increased exposure to the spymaster lately, first from training in his tower, and then from simply spending as much time around Stel as possible. With that has come an increased understanding, though he still feels he's only scratched the surface from indirect contact, and increased respect. The bond between him and their Lady Inquisitor is subtle and might not even be noticed by a stranger, but upon closer inspection he can see its strength. Years of trust have been built there. Rilien was one of the ones to see the potential in Stel in Kirkwall, setting her on her path. He now hopes he might earn some of the Tranquil's respect in turn, if he doesn't have it already.



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| Estella Avenarius |

9:43: Captivating. Breathtaking. He meant those words in their entirety when he said them, even if he might've laid it on a little heavy. He suspected she might've needed it, as the walls she put around herself were sturdy, and needed to be kicked rather than prodded. Just the once, though. Her companionship means the world to him. Stel more than anyone gave him cause to believe in the Inquisition, gave him the courage to open up and share himself with others. To take that deeply personal risk again. She is worth that risk, for everything she is: kind, utterly selfless, driven, determined, unstoppable in her own way.

He believes he can and already has helped Stel with what he's done, by helping her to see that she has people beyond her family that care for her, believe in her, and know she's worth more than she sees in herself. He'll be at her side as long as she wants him there, the consequences be damned. They're nothing compared to her.




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"It's not easy, realizing that your head's been in the clouds your whole life.
But the world below has its charms, I'll give it that."

So begins...

Vesryn Cormyth's Story

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saraya approved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Incoming.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shall we?”

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

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

Now there was a lovely thought.

Setting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whenever you’re ready.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quickly, now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"She nearly died," another pointed out.

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

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

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Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht
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Saraya, as ever, was unimpressed.

Vesryn often felt he had to overcompensate for the cynicism, to combat the foreign opinions and often negative emotions that entered his head. He'd long since learned how to force them away from becoming his own. And he'd always been an upbeat, incessantly light-hearted elf. Saraya's grumblings, for lack of a better term, weren't going to change that. If anything, it just made him glad she was stuck with him. He could only imagine how dreary her experience would've been if she were forced into the head of some moody elf, full of dark emotions, or Gods forbid, a human.

Still, Vesryn had been elvhen'alas, a dirt elf, when they had first met, and in the eyes of many of the Dalish, that was halfway or more to shemlen. Thankfully, Saraya was not Dalish. Eventually Vesryn had even come to believe that it was better that he wasn't Dalish. Fewer false notions already ingrained into his mind, or some such. That he'd been so unconcerned with the legacy of his people perhaps made him the best, most open-minded candidate for learning about them.

The Inquisition did not know what to make of him. There was the other notable elf, that darling redheaded one, Khari he thought he'd heard, but her condition had an explanation. Sometimes Dalish just didn't like being Dalish. It wasn't impossible to believe. Not everyone wanted to live in a wagon on wheels. But Vesryn lacked the tattoo, something he was thankful for; he found his face quite pleasing just the way it was. What he did have was a very unique suit of armor, a powerful build not common at all among his people, and an air of confidence unheard of among the city elves, and different from that of the Dalish. He felt threatened by nothing, and furthermore, felt there was nothing he had to prove.

It was unsurprising to him, then, when he was called to meet with the army commander, Leon something-or-other. Clearly he was wasted on the front lines, not that he wouldn't absolutely excel there, but his talents and backgrounds were beyond the average recruit. He was special, and he walked like he knew it when he entered the Chantry at Haven's highest point. He was garbed in armor, lion's pelt cloak and all, as he planned to train on the ice following the meeting, and vastly preferred to train in the same gear that he would fight in.

Vesryn found a guard standing outside the commander's door, and offered him a charming smile, before pressing a fist to his chest and bowing shortly. "Vesryn Cormyth, here to see the commander."

The guard’s expression was best classed as skeptical, but in a weary sort of way, like he’d seen one too many things stranger than Vesryn by this point to be all that surprised by an elf in shining armor, so to speak. “Right. He said he was expecting you.” With very little ceremony, he turned, walked a couple paces, and knocked on the door. “Sir, it’s the new fellow.” There was a short pause, and a reply that was a little too low for Vesryn to make out through the door, but the guard seemed to have heard it, because he nodded and opened the door, gesturing in clear invitation.

The office itself was exceedingly spartan in nature, and likely not the largest such space the Chantry had to offer—it had about enough room for a bookshelf, a writing desk with a smaller table next to it for parchment overflow, and not much else. The one concession to comfort was a thick rug underfoot, but even that was comparatively plain. Several maps lined the walls, many with pushpins stuck in various places, a few having lines of variously-colored string between them.

It was almost comically small for the size of the man who occupied it, hunched over the desk in a slightly-ungainly way, which was only reinforced when he stood from his chair at Vesryn’s entrance and promptly knocked his head into the light fixture over the spot, which had clearly been put there with someone much shorter in mind. It might have been smarter to place the desk elsewhere, but from the size of the room, there wasn’t really any other option. A rueful sigh followed, and the commander stepped out from behind the furniture, extricating himself from potential hazards in so doing.

Vesryn, meanwhile, had burst into laughter, his grin spread across his face, and he threatened to bend over, almost needing to support himself with hands on knees. "I'm sorry," he managed, slowly composing himself. "Really though, that was... how many times have you done that to yourself?"

“Far too many to count.” The reply was immediate, dry, and slightly self-effacing. The commander rubbed at a spot near one of his temples, his own smile considerably milder, but still present. “Laugh now, but the moment someone needs something from the top shelf, I’m a bloody hero.” He dropped his hand, appeared to reconsider that slightly, and then shrugged. “Well, to shorter people than you, at least.”

He pushed back an errant piece of hair dislodged by his collision, resetting the damage without being fazed much by it, apparently. “Anyway, welcome. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suppose that you must be Vesryn. I’d tell you to make yourself comfortable, but alas, I really don’t think anything in here will be of any assistance with that.” The commander put forward a hand, currently gloved in some kind of thin leather, by the look of it, though whether that was for warmth or something else wasn’t clear.

“It’s good to meet you. I’m Leonhardt Albrecht, but Leon’s quite sufficient, if you don’t mind.”

Vesryn clapped his own leather and plate gloved hand with Leon's, his grin never fading, his eyes now wandering up to the commander's hair. "That really is magnificent, well done. A striking shade, as well, if I'm any judge. Truly, this must be the most dashing Inquisition in history." Of course, it had only recently become even more so.

Leon appeared to give that some thought, and an eyebrow arched upwards. “And I’m sure Lady Marceline is already planning to take advantage of that somehow,” he mused, releasing Vesryn’s and chuckling good-naturedly. “You ought to be careful, though, or you’ll find yourself being asked to give our Heralds outfitting advice.” He gestured vaguely to his shoulder, probably to indicate the lion pelt that rested over the elf’s own.

“I, however, am engaged in the rather more mundane task of trying to keep them alive, and I daresay I’d rather have your skills on that end of things. I hear tell that you’re quite something, on a battlefield.” He didn’t indicate who he’d heard from, but the options were fairly limited; most likely, it had been someone in the group that had initially met him in the Mire. The words seemed to be just as much an invitation for elaboration as they were a statement, however.

"My reputation precedes me," Vesryn replied, bowing slightly. He'd always wanted to say that. Straightening, he finally appeared to become at least a little more serious. "I'd have done more of the fighting in the swamp, but sadly your Herald insisting on doing the most dangerous job herself. She handled herself well enough, though." It was hardly all that he thought about that particular encounter, but those thoughts were for Estella, when he could find a moment with her. She was proving to be quite popular.

"I spent some years with a mercenary company in Orlais, a small outfit called the Stormbreakers. Fun bunch, even if they didn't have the prestige of a certain group of Lions. Beyond that... roughly a decade of constant training and experience on the road." He wasn't trying to hide the fact that he wasn't divulging everything, for Vesryn had learned by now that he wasn't a very good liar. It wasn't that he didn't want to let them in on his little secret. He just knew that there would be unavoidable dangers if certain types learned of his condition. The Inquisition was, to some degree, a Chantry based organization, and there was a chance some among them would simply see him as being possessed, without bothering to fully understand. Not that Vesryn could make them.

Saraya, meanwhile, regarded Leon with what Vesryn could recognize as an alert wariness, sizing him up for any potential threat, while affording him a high level of respect for his obvious physical prowess.

Leon seemed to accept this all with a great deal of sanguinity, however, and nodded with an air of contemplativeness. “Much of what we do is… surprisingly ordinary, in truth,” he confessed, folding his hands behind him. “At this point, the regulars are mostly responsible for holding regions we’ve already pressed into, and of course many more will be mobilized as their training periods end and if we should need a more traditional army at some point.” He didn’t seem to be a person of much excess movement, and where others might have fidgeted just from habit, he was quite still.

“Where the work really is at this point is on two fronts: the organizational one, which is mostly myself, Lady Marceline, and Rilien, our intelligence man, and then of course out on the frontiers, so to speak, with the Heralds themselves. Closing the rifts, establishing base camps in new areas, meeting with potential allies where it is necessary, that sort of thing. The occasional rescue mission, though with luck we won’t need many more of those.” He inclined his head in Vesryn’s direction. “There’s need for people everywhere, but I think it rather apparent what you’re most suited to. That said… you are a volunteer; it seems only appropriate to give you the majority say in what you do.”

There was a certain... anxiousness, was really the only way to describe it, when Vesryn had seen the Breach on his way in. Not from himself, either. It was Saraya, that made him feel it, and it was the same feeling that she'd given him when they first had heard about the events at the Conclave from a traveler. Having spent a decade and a half with her in the company of his mind, Vesryn had become attuned well enough to her reactions. This was not fear, for if they truly feared the Breach, they could simply go the other way. No, Saraya was made anxious by the Breach for some other reason, and Vesryn wanted to know what it was. She never objected to his investigation. He, admittedly, had felt some nerves upon seeing the thing, and how it seemed to exude the Fade, but there was no noticeable difference in his head.

"I will admit, I have some interest in elven and magical history. I know, I know, not a mage, not a Dalish, but the Inquisition seems poised to go quite far, if it gets some support, and this Breach is unlike anything we've seen. I'd love to accompany your advance teams, in the event they need a shield or just someone always in good spirits. It's a good cause too, what the Inquisition is doing. Makes my decision easy."

Leon smiled at that, a quick flash of teeth, then nodded. “No one here is really typical or what one might first suppose,” he pointed out simply, then shrugged. “Though most of them could benefit from a shield and even more from good spirits, I expect. Thanks for coming by—I’ll make sure to start sending you out with the Heralds.”

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

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Would anyone else like to try their hand?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

“All right. Just… tell me what direction she went, and I’ll go get her myself.” Ordinarily, he wouldn’t—he’d take his cue from Estella’s comrades and trust that she’d be fine, but she wasn’t just any member of the Inquisition, and he supposed he found it disconcerting that she seemed to be able to stumble upon trouble with such precision. Still, as long as she was fine, there wasn’t any need to make a major production of this, and he could simply retrieve the Herald and escort her back, with no need to inform Marceline or, Maker forbid, Cyrus that she’d left the village by herself.

Donnelly eased, his baleful expression shifting back into his usual good humor. “Sure. Fellow said his wife was buried in Hafter’s Woods, on the hill.” The Lions’ Lieutenant, long familiar with the area from his squad’s survey work, tapped the spot on the command tent’s map, and Leon made a mental note of it. “Stel’s seen the map, too; she’ll know which route to take, so it shouldn’t be hard to find her.”

Leon inclined his head a second time, and Donnelly snapped a brief salute before exiting the tent, leaving the Seeker to contemplate his armor. In the end, he chose to forgo it, layering his clothes with only a cloak, and applying leather gauntlets to his hands rather than the steel ones he used in heavier combat situations. Despite his disinclination to simply let the Herald wander about on her own, he wasn’t really too worried about fighting anything—he knew the troops were proud of the work they’d done clearing out the place, even the fort to the south. There would still be stragglers, though.

Pulling up the flap on the command tent, Leon ducked under it and headed out. Since Donnelly was technically second-in-command of the squads here, there wasn’t a particular need to inform anyone else specifically of where he was going, and he elected for discretion in this case and didn’t.

He was well on his way to the gate when he came upon a scene he wasn’t sure he would have expected: Vesryn was apparently in conversation with one of the locals, who had what looked like a very distraught expression for some reason. They were standing next to what appeared to be a fenced-in yard, as one would use to pen medium-sized animals. His brows furrowed, Leon diverted from his initial path and approached. Probably best to make sure there wasn’t a dispute or something, though he had a hard time imagining Vesryn causing something of the kind.

“Is everything all right here?” he inquired, using the mildest tone in his repertoire, which usually went some distance toward mitigating the fact that he looked the way he did.

The elf turned, smiling a bit awkwardly. "Ah, yes, young James here was just explaining a situation to me regarding his missing ram, what was the name?" He titled his head sideways. The man, with blonde hair halfway covering a rather clearly missing eye, jumped at the chance to enter the conversation.

"Lord Woolsly, sers. A most special ram. He wandered off, you see, as he sometimes does. If he were to be found I'd be most grateful." Vesryn crossed his arms, tracing the toe of his boot absently through the dirt and nodding.

"Of course. But... you do know the Inquisition might be a bit preoccupied to chase lost rams? What makes yours so special anyway?"

"Well, he's always brought the family luck," he said, without any hesitation, "and his advice has helped us make our fortune." Vesryn quirked an eyebrow at him, before glancing over at Leon.

Admittedly, it took Leon a second to make sense of that claim. Vesryn’s point about preoccupation was quite a good one, but at least partly moot, since he was headed out of Redcliffe at the moment anyway, and the commander sighed. “Well… I can’t promise anything, but since I’m leaving for a bit regardless, I’ll keep an eye out.” At least there wasn’t some kind of dispute here, which was what he’d been more worried about than anything. With a polite nod to both men, he turned to continue on his way out.

"Yes, we'll... keep an eye out." Vesryn left the one-eyed young man a bit awkwardly and with hurried steps caught up with Leon, falling into step beside him. "You know, the talking ram thing might not be entirely out of the question. If that poor kid isn't crazy, it probably means his ram is... well, quite possessed. By a demon." He waved his hands about a bit theatrically, looking back to make sure they were out of earshot, and also out of line of sight. "Stepping out of town for anything in particular?"

The Seeker contemplated that for a moment, then grimaced. “I was rather hoping he was one of those superstitious kinds. Sometimes, folk have their animals give portents by means of bones or special wooden tokens, that kind of thing.” It was more common in less well-populated areas, those where the Chant had not reached quite as deeply into hearts and minds, in part because it was drawn from an old Chasind practice. But then, arguably a possessed animal that actually spoke was quite possible as well. In any case, they would find out if they happened upon the creature, and probably not otherwise. While under ordinary circumstances, that was the kind of rumor he’d have to chase down, Leon had considerably larger matters to attend to at this point.

“As for why I’m out in the first place…” he paused a moment, then decided it probably wasn’t any harm to divulge, though he did lower his voice so that it would not carry any further than necessary. “Estella left Redcliffe sans escort. Apparently, she was not of the opinion that the Inquisition is too busy to be carrying flowers to someone’s grave by request.” His tone indicated that he was actually a bit unsure how he felt about that, because he was. Approaching the gate, he waved up at the woman posted there, who saluted back and began to turn the crank that would lift it to allow exit.

Vesryn laughed softly to himself, clearly using some effort to keep the sound from carrying. "Our Lady Herald isn't interested in delegating, clearly. It's, ah... admirable, if not exactly efficient."

Leon supposed that was as good a characterization as any. The two passed under the gate, which closed behind them with a clank, putting them out on the road back into the Hinterlands. Vesryn seemed to have decided he’d be going along as well, but Leon didn’t mind any. The truth of the matter was, until this evening, there wasn’t really much else to be doing, so there was no reason for him to refuse the company.

“Do you find that the Inquisition’s what you expected, Vesryn?” The commander was genuinely curious. He supposed someone who volunteered might have had some idea what they were in for, but he doubted a great deal that the organization—and more importantly, the people in it—were really what most would first think.

"It's rather inclusive, isn't it?" Vesryn had drawn out his spear, as was his habit, while walking. He poked the bottom end of it regularly into the soft grass and dirt ahead of him. "Considering what it's up against, it's not surprising that it takes all sorts, but still. It was founded on orders of the Chantry's head, its armies are led by a Seeker, and its two greatest weapons are supposedly blessed by Andraste herself. Of course, they wouldn't be alive if a Qunari girl hadn't saved them. And you take elves, too, folk like me who have never spared a second thought for the Maker."

He shrugged, the lion's head on his shoulder bobbing up and down. "I suppose we're all just too focused on doing the right thing to be thinking about who's doing the right thing. In that sense, the Inquisition's exactly what I expected. Too busy plugging skyholes to spend time pointing fingers at one another."

That was slightly more crudely than Leon might have put it, but aside from half a choked laugh, he didn’t give sign of it. His expression settled at a slight smile, actually, and he nodded. He supposed it was quite inclusive, in one sense. Certainly moreso than the Chantry itself generally was. Many of his compatriots would have seen that as a necessary evil, the reliance on Qunari and heathen elves. Leon had his reservations about it as well, but they didn’t have anything to do with different physiologies or religious beliefs so much as the wide variance in personalities. In life, such a broad spectrum of people surrounding oneself was a blessing, he thought, but in an organization with a specific purpose like this… there were risks.

“As long as the center holds, it will hopefully remain so,” he replied thoughtfully. He was not oblivious to the fact that much of the responsibility of ensuring that would be his, and it was daunting, but no moreso than he’d expected it to be. Flexing his hands under his gauntlets, Leon continued, broaching a subject he found himself curious about.

“So where exactly is it that you’re from, Vesryn? I’d think maybe here in Ferelden somewhere, from the accent, but I’ve been wrong before.”

"Denerim, born and bred," he said, with a hint of mock pride. "Until the late teens, at any rate. Arranged marriages have a way of driving rebellious children from their homes. I visit occasionally. I like to think my parents are proud, even if I never did a single thing they wished. I'm no Hero of Ferelden, swooping in save them from the Blight. She actually did that, by the way, my mother will tell you the story sometime. But, I've done some notable things here and there."

He turned his head, his lips quirked in that almost ever-present grin. "And you? Only the Chasind and the Avvar make men of your size around here, but none of them are half as handsome. You're an Anderfels man, aren't you?"

Leon snorted, and shook his head slightly. “You know, most people manage to guess, but I’m fairly certain that’s not the logic they use to do it.” Usually it was something like his coloration or the slight guttural rasp on the edges of his bass. “But yes, I was born not far outside Hossberg. As third children are really quite extraneous by any standard, I was given to the Chantry before arranged marriages became an issue, thankfully.” Which was good, because that thought was mildly terrifying, really.

“I went in expecting to be a lay brother in a monastery somewhere, leading a life of contemplation. I came out rather wishing I were, as it turns out.” He smiled good-naturedly, but the words were a little too true for the expression to be entirely free of discomfort. “Alas, being so tall made someone think I’d make an excellent Templar one day, and then someone else thought I’d be a good Seeker, and so here I am.” It was really remarkable how little of his fate had been of his own design, when he thought about it.

"I don't think I was supposed to be good at anything," Vesryn remarked, with no small amount of humor. "You should've seen me. I had far too much bone for a place with so little to eat. I ran away to the Brecilian Forest at eighteen, expecting to go back to Denerim in a few days. Turns out I didn't go back for several years."

He sighed lightly, as though enjoying the brief reflection. "Someone else clearly thought you'd make a good Commander. As far as I've seen, you've yet to prove them wrong."

“Well, it’s early days yet,” Leon replied with obvious humor of his own. “I’ve still got time.”

Their trek eventually took them into Hafter’s Woods, whereupon they climbed the hill Donnelly had pointed out. Clearly, Estella was not expecting company, because she was humming to herself as they arrived, intently at work with what looked like some kind of cloth scrap, damp and slowly gaining a coat of dirt. She’d evidently been using it to clean a stone marker, at the foot of which she’d laid half a dozen white lilies. The humming stopped as soon as Leonhardt intentionally stepped on a twig, which snapped under his weight and alerted her to their presence.

Looking up sharply from her work, Estella had moved her hand halfway to the hilt of her sword before recognition lit in her eyes, and she dropped her hand back down, using the other arm to swipe across her brow. Her eyes flickered back and forth between them, her face smoothing over into something impassive that imperfectly masked what might have been anxiety. “Commander? Vesryn? Um… I don’t suppose you just happened to be taking a walk, did you?”

"Of course not," Vesryn said, gently. "I thought I'd say a few words. Perhaps they'll amount to something." Almost reverently, he laid down his spear, stepped over to the grave, and knelt down beside Estella. He settled his hands on his knees, and closed his eyes. "Hahren na melana sahlin. Emma ir abelas. Souver'inan isala hamin. Vhenan him dor'felas. In uthenera na revas." The words spoken, he opened his eyes again, and carefully stood. He offered a hand down to Estella.

"We did come to walk back with you, however."

Leon maintained a respectful silence for the duration, bowing his head while Vesryn spoke, but upon the conclusion of what he supposed must be an elvish blessing of some sort, he nodded to confirm what the other man had said. “It isn’t wrong of you to want to do something like this,” he said, nodding to the stone marker, “but I confess I do feel some concern upon hearing that you’ve elected to do so by yourself.” He was careful in the way he said it, because his impression was that her confidence, little of it that there was, was quite delicate, and he worried he might shatter it if he spoke too carelessly.

Estella sighed, looking at the marker for a moment, and then nodded herself, accepting the hand up from Vesryn and using it to get back to her feet. “I know. I only…” Her lips thinned with what he guessed was the effort to find the right words. “It feels like if I’d said anything, there would have been a bit too much of a production about it, is all. This seemed better to do… quietly.”

Though perhaps another would have pressed the point, Leon felt that his had been made clearly enough, and so he didn’t push back on the matter, instead leading their trio back down the hill and towards the road. Seeking to change the topic somewhat, he said the first thing that came to him. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen a talking ram anywhere, have you?”

“A… what? Talking ram?” She didn’t seem to be sure if he were serious or not.

“It’s a… bit of a story, apparently. Just, well, if you happen to spot any rams in general as we’re walking, let us know.”

Estella smiled at that, still looking a bit perplexed, but taking the odd request in stride. “Sure, all right. The Inquisition: for all your delivery, exotic animal husbandry, and rift-closing needs, I suppose.”

“I’m sure it will look very good on all of our credentials, someday.”

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth
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Vesryn stepped away from the drilling Inquisition soldiers, removing his helmet and allowing his impressive mane of silvery hair to fall down his back. He'd worked a sheen of sweat up in the effort of drilling a few individuals among the group. His skills were well utilized in testing and improving the upper tier of soldiers, weeding out those that had hit their ceiling, skill-wise, and finding those that truly had some potential. As always, he trained as he fought, and wore his full plate.

The suit was not unlike a second skin at this point. He knew every facet of its weight and shape, how much it would restrain his movement, how much of an attack it would stop. He knew the effect it carried as well. A champion did not allow gear to become worn down, rusted, and shoddy. He presented the most splendorous image possible, to be deserving of awe, and inspiring of victory. Not everyone had the temperament for it, nor the resolve. A champion received just as much ire as they did affection, and it had to be endured. For the champion falling was as crushing to morale as it was uplifting to see him stand.

He came to a stop just outside the stone wall that encircled the lowest level of Haven's houses, beside the gate, and accepted a water skin from one of the serving boys, tipping his head back and savoring the icy coolness of it. It was a benefit of making a home base in such a cold location, he supposed. Swishing the water before swallowing, he handed the skin back to the boy, who ran off to attend to others.

Planting the haft of his large practice axe into the snow, Vesryn leaned upon it, and surveyed the drilling soldiers with a practiced eye, evaluating from afar. It was not long, however, before he noticed an approaching pair of familiar faces: the Avenarius twins.

Cyrus, as ever, walked with a distinct sense of purpose, his stride long and his carriage upright. Estella had to hasten to keep up, taking a stride and a half for every one of his. They appeared to be having an argument of some kind, from the looks on their faces, though it wasn’t a particularly vehement one. Whatever it was, it ended with Cyrus sighing deeply and shaking his head just as they came within range of Vesryn’s hearing. “As you wish, then, Stellulam. I shall simply inquire, for now.”

He turned his attention forward, and if it weren’t obvious before, it swiftly became evident that it was Vesryn they had come seeking, for they made a beeline directly for him, angling to avoid approaching the drills too closely, though Estella's step hitched slightly as she seemed to want to pause and observe. Cyrus wore the expression that seemed easiest to his face—something pleasant enough, but with touches of sharp slyness that prevented it from being entirely mild. His eyes narrowed in keen interest as they approached, head tilted slightly to the left in a piece of body language common to both of them.

He opened his mouth to speak, but paused slightly, furrowing his brows as if recalling something. “Good afternoon, Vesryn,” was what he settled on, but it was clear he wasn’t keen on lingering over the pleasantries. “If you’ve a moment, I’ve a question for you.”

Behind him, Estella grimaced slightly.

Vesryn regarded him evenly, eyes moving between he and his sister as they approached. Estella seemed a bit unsure, or perhaps apprehensive about something, but then, this was not a new expression for her. Cyrus was less so, though he was getting the sense that the man was restraining himself from something. Nevertheless, Vesryn smiled in an amiable manner, turning away from the drills to give them his full attention.

It was extremely tempting to offer a smart-ass response and answer a question of his choosing before Cyrus had even asked, but he got the sense there was some amount of business to this meeting. "I'm all ears. Ask away."

Cyrus smiled, edged like a shard of ice, and just as mirthless. “Your guest.” He tapped the side of his head. “Saraya. What is she, exactly?”

Any trace of Vesryn's previously friendly demeanor vanished in an instant, his features instead settling into hard lines, questioning. The way he immediately tensed was obvious. Not only did he know of her, but he knew her name? How could he know that?

His own alarm was only coupled with Saraya's, who was inclined to regard Cyrus as a direct, immediate threat, something Vesryn was close to agreeing with. It was the smile, the unshakable confidence, and the certainty in the way the question was asked. He didn't respond, instead finding Estella's eyes, and hoping for some kind of sign that he shouldn't be threatened by all of this. Saraya felt much the same. While Estella was still something of an unknown entity to her, she did not radiate threat in the same way she felt from Cyrus.

“It’s all right,” Estella said, almost as soon as his eyes landed on her. She stepped up beside her brother, throwing him a look best classed as cross, then shook her head and returned her attention to Vesryn. “We don’t mean her, or you, any harm. Apparently, the version of yourself that was in the future Cyrus and the others traveled to didn’t feel the need to hide her presence.” Something in her eyes softened slightly, and when she continued, her tone was less urgent.

“Perhaps, in time, you will feel the same. We’re certainly not demanding anything of you—I’m fairly sure my brother is only curious. If you don’t want to talk about her, you need not, and we will keep this to ourselves.” The last, at least, was firm, and she glanced at Cyrus from the corner of her eye, as if prompting him.

Cyrus didn’t exactly look chastised, but with some obvious reluctance, he nodded. “Yes, yes, you’ve no need to worry that I’ll go shouting it from the rooftops. The Chantry types would all misunderstand anyway, something about possession or the like. I’m not interested in having you both killed by some zealot, of that you can be reasonably sure.” He paused, then huffed. “And of course, even explaining is optional, though I don’t see what harm it could do. I’m a scholar, not a Templar.” He didn’t appear perturbed by the situation at all, though it was hard to imagine he’d missed Vesryn’s sudden wariness.

"I hope you told future me that he's a moron," Vesryn grumbled, scratching at the back of his head. He'd heard only bits and pieces about what had happened to Cyrus, Romulus, and the magister woman upon being spellcasted out of existence for a few moments, and most of that was hearsay. He hadn't even known he was in the future with them, let alone that he'd gone ahead and told them about Saraya. A magister, and a man who surely would have been one.

Saraya's disposition towards Cyrus after his comments was one that could've been described as "willing to spit on him." In that particular moment, Vesryn felt much the same way. "Tevinter mages needed no templars to drive my people to the brink of ruin. Considering what we just went up against in Redcliffe, I'd say that not so much is different in this Age." Cyrus might've opposed Cassius, but from where Vesryn stood, the two were merely a half-step apart from each other. Undoubtedly Estella occupied the space in between.

He sighed. If he was to remain with the Inquisition, this would now need to come out. He probably could tell them to simply turn around and forget this brief conversation ever happened, but would Cyrus stand to let him fight alongside his sister, if he were unwilling to explain what it was that gave him power? If he didn't trust them? He didn't trust Cyrus, not in the slightest, but from what he had seen, the man was at the mercy of Estella's will, a will that was almost always mercy. And he trusted that.

"When I was eighteen, I fled Denerim and my shoddy arranged marriage. I took some friends and bolted into the Brecilian Forest. We didn't prepare for the dangers of the forest, because we were idiots." Giant, walking, angry trees, and equally large spiders were the things that ultimately sent them running for their lives. "I was separated, and fled into an old ruin. When I felt a thirst, like a fool I drank from a pedestal, and the crystal clean water contained within."

He shrugged, palms up, as though the rest should simply be obvious. In truth, that was about all he understood completely. Ancient elven magic was not something he understood the inner workings of. He could recognize it, through Saraya's recognition of it, but he was no mage, and that was something his passenger could not teach him.

"The water caused me to begin hearing things, one of these being a vial. Only after I grabbed it did I realize that it contained the remnant of an elven woman, preserved magically through the ages from a time when my people were still great. She... travels with me, now."

Cyrus’s expression shifted; now he simply looked thoughtful, his brows furrowed and his mouth set into a slight frown, any trace of guile apparently replaced by contemplation. “Water? A most peculiar medium.” His fingers twitched, like he’d rather be doing something with them, but he remained where he was. “Definitely not a spirit, then, in the sense that the word is usually understood. Certainly not a demon…” He trailed off before seeming to return to himself sharply, his murmur strengthening to proper speaking volume.

“What is the extent of your ability to communicate with her? Is it a direct mind-link—that is, can you ‘hear’ her thoughts, or anything like that?”

He'd never really needed to describe it to many people before. The Stormbreakers had never known, nor had they any members with the insight needed to ask questions that he couldn't avoid. In fact, it seemed that it was only himself that could give away this secret, as he'd done in the future. His mouth hung open for a moment, while he searched out the correct words.

"I... feel, what she feels. She cannot speak to me, not in words, but emotions come through clearly enough. I expect it has something to do with the fact that I'm not a mage. Some ritual would've been required as well, to properly transfer her into a body." Saraya's assent was enough to confirm that, but over the years Vesryn had been able to deduce that her state of suspension had been performed upon her, not a choice she'd made herself. Likely a mage with far more power and knowledge than even she had done this to her, and Saraya had been left with little choice in the matter.

"Instincts, too, I feel those as well, reactionary impulses. I learned a long time ago how to separate my own thoughts from hers, but if we both allow it, her instincts can become my own. She taught me everything I know, through repeating the motions until they were more or less my own." Not entirely so, of course, as he was painfully reminded whenever Saraya saw fit to demonstrate how far he yet had to go. Vesryn grimaced.

"She doesn't like you, not in the slightest. She doesn't like many people, though. We're different in that respect."

Cyrus laughed at that, if only for a moment, then shook his head. “Most people don’t.” He shrugged, nonplussed by it, and hummed thoughtfully. “That does explain a great deal, yes. For a moment, I’d thought… but no, never mind.” Whatever thought he’d been about to express was discarded, apparently not judged worth the effort. “What is done can usually be undone, especially if the ritual wasn’t properly completed. Were I you… well, in any case I’m sure you’ve already figured out that it’s a good idea to avoid magic that affects the mind. I’ve no idea how stable her tether to you is, though with some time, I might be able to find out, if you cared to know.”

His continued interest was evident enough, but if he had more questions or further thoughts, he kept them to himself.

Mental afflictions of the magical variety, as Cyrus had mentioned, were already something Vesryn looked to avoid, though in his line of work, it was not always easy. Still, he didn't come up against those sorts of mages all that often.

"I'm curious, I'll admit... in the future that you visited, what caused me to be so careless with knowledge regarding Saraya?"

“That’s…” Estella broke in, interrupting whatever her brother’s answer may have been. She looked uncomfortable, and pursed her lips. “As I understand… in that future, you were captured by people working against us. They found out about Saraya somehow and tried to… get her out.” She grimaced. “I very much doubt it had anything to do with carelessness on your part. Some Magisters, and those that do their bidding…” She let the thought trail off, apparently deciding it did not need to be explicitly finished.

“I am certain you can infer the rest.” Any trace of amusement had abandoned Cyrus.

"Ah. Well then." Vesryn found himself regretting he'd asked, but also a bit... vindicated, perhaps. He'd always suspected there were many ways that could lead to separation between himself and Saraya, and had always assumed that most would ultimately lead to Saraya's death, if there was not a proper way prepared to contain her. It was something he could never wish upon her. When she was released from his mind, it would be of her choosing, and it would be followed by death, and peace. They had long since agreed it to be so.

"As long as you consider, as I do, anyone desiring Saraya's removal to be an enemy, then I believe we can continue to work together." The thought of leaving if they felt otherwise was not pleasant, but Vesryn would do it, if it meant Saraya's safety. That, above all, was his concern. "I don't know if you can understand, but at this point... losing her would be losing a part of me. The parts I consider most worthwhile, actually."

“Mm.” It was hard to interpret Cyrus’s reply as particularly committal, but he looked thoughtful again, rather than quite so glib as he had before. “Considering how few people would even know to seek her, that’s a rather minimal obligation in exchange for considerable assistance, but I’m not the one who can decide upon it.”

“But I can.” Estella said it with a solidity uncommon to her voice, meeting Vesryn’s eyes and nodding slightly. “And I do. As long as you want to be here, you’re welcome to stay. Both of you.” From the way her jaw was set, she really meant it, too.

"Well," Vesryn said, smiling, though still a bit uncomfortable, "that's that, then."

Setting

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Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth
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Estella rolled out her shoulders as she walked, relishing the burning feeling of muscles well-exercised. It was a sign that she was building strength and reflex, honing herself as well as she could, and so she’d never minded, even on the mornings she woke sore and stiff as a result. The best thing for that was just more deliberate exercise, anyway, provided she minded the need for lighter days of recovery. She wasn’t ever really short on opportunities for training, between Khari and whatever time her fellow Lions could manage to get to themselves. They were always willing to spend it on her, something she felt a bit guilty about, actually. But they didn’t often give her a choice in the matter, as Hissrad wasn’t now.

The Qunari man, nearly as tall as the Commander and about as broad, was not the most talkative of her friends, but nothing about his silence was ever awkward or even, to her, forbidding. He just didn’t say anything unless he felt the need, and so the both of them were often silent in one another’s company. Today, though, they were talking, at least at the moment.

“I was not certain I believed it, when the others told me about the kind of taskmaster Rilien is. Clearly, they were correct.” He’d agreed to assist with her instruction today, partly because Rilien was trying to teach her how to deal with opponents of far superior size, which Hissrad definitely was. Of course, it wasn’t a proper lesson unless Rilien also completely outclassed her in the ring himself, but considering she felt like she learned so much every time, she couldn’t be in the least upset about it. She took the lessons as a gift, because his time was valuable, especially of late. Honestly… it was probably as close as Rilien could really get to expressing fondness, in a roundabout way. She wore these particular bruises without shame, in any case.

“Remind you of the terrible old days?” she asked lightly, referencing the early years he’d spent being tutored in his role for the Qun. He hadn’t specified exactly what it was, but since he said he’d almost died on a battlefield, and was also very good with a javelin or a mace, she assumed it was something martial.

He chuckled, shaking his head. “No besrathari would work a soldier to that degree, lest there be more Tal-Vashoth than the Qun would know what to do with.” He smiled, and she mirrored the expression. Hissrad had never been hesitant to speak of his life before, nor indeed to tell jokes about it.

With several more minutes, they at last reached Estella’s destination, which was the tavern. She wasn’t the most frequent patron of such establishments, but tonight, she felt like a drink and perhaps a warm snack was in order. “Would you like to come in with me, Hissrad?”

“Thank you, but no. I told Cor I would help him set up the targets for tomorrow’s ranged drilling.” Estella nodded her understanding, touching his elbow in passing as she headed for the door. She glanced back as she entered, huffing when she observed his mock-salute, turning to face forward again and stepping into the comfortable warmth of the building. The tavern kept a very large fire going in its generous hearth, and most of the patrons tended to gravitate towards it.

The place looked to be mostly empty tonight, though she saw several faces she recognized and could put names to—thankfully, she’d always been pretty good with those, and was generally able to recall people if she’d met them before. Of course, some people just stood out a great deal, and Vesryn, who also occupied the room, was one of them. Though the setting was a tavern and the hour was evening, he was rather free of company this time, something that surprised her a bit, considering his gregarious nature.

Stepping up to the bar, Estella ordered herself a brandy and debated the food for a moment before deciding against it. She was actually quite surprised when the bar’s owner produced a snifter for the drink, sliding it across the bar with three fingers. Once she’d counted out the price and thanked the woman, she took the glass in hand and turned back around, hesitating a moment before she decided it probably wouldn’t hurt and picked her way over to Vesryn.

“Would you mind if I sat?” Technically, it wasn’t necessary—there were enough empty places in the room that she could well find her own, but there was something about that thought that was fairly depressing, even for her.

"Of course not. I rarely turn down good company when it's offered, after all." Vesryn's table was situated in a warm corner of the tavern, near the fireplace, and had enough seating for four, though currently only he occupied it, positioned as he was on a comfy-looking corner seat. There were chairs on all sides of the table, accomodating Estella if she preferred to sit across from him rather than adjacent. She generally did, as she preferred to make eye contact with people when speaking to them, if she could, and so that was the seat she took, pulling her legs up to cross them underneath her. The snifter, she set down in front of her, dropping her hands into her lap for the moment.

He worked, currently, on a plate of food, steaming chicken breast with sides of corn and mashed potatoes, the dinner appearing about half-complete. His last bite of chicken was washed down with a mug of what looked to be simple ale. His armor was not in sight, nor the garish lion's pelt cloak; instead he wore a long-sleeved blue tunic laced down the center, and comfortable looking trousers and boots, both of black leather.

"It might surprise you, but I've spent a great many nights in isolation. As close as I can get to it, at any rate." He did not seem overly concerned about referring to Saraya, beyond a small flick of his eyes towards the tavern's other patrons, none of which were paying much attention to the corner of the room. "I do love the company of others, but some nights there are things that must be dwelled on. Perhaps the Lady Herald can dwell on them with me for a while." The title, as usual, was delivered with gently teasing humor. "I imagine it must be strange to you, what we spoke of earlier.” He huffed a quiet laugh to himself. "It’s still strange to me, sometimes, a decade and a half later.”

“It’s certainly that,” Estella agreed without difficulty. She’d heard of possessions before, of course; over the course of her work with the Lions, she’d even fought a few abominations. It was… never a pleasant experience, unsurprisingly. But that was the thing—people who had been possessed always showed signs of it, signs that became much more obvious in tense situations or ones that might pose a danger. She knew he wasn’t possessed. If anything, her brother’s… antagonism had proven it for her.

For a moment, she looked down into her lap, trying to gather the words she wanted. Estella was not good at speaking extemporaneously or improvising; she liked to consider the things she said and did, perhaps as a guard against foolishness, which she suspected she might otherwise end up falling into quite a lot. She smoothed over the hem of her maroon Lions’ tunic, then glanced back up. “And it’s a very unique kind of strange, at that. But you know… I’ve seen a lot of strange things, and met a lot of strange people. Some of them have also been the very best people I’ve ever met.” Rilien came immediately to mind, of course—a Tranquil who could sense magic, and sometimes, almost feel. But there were plenty of others, with varying degrees of oddity. It said something that, even with this mark, she was the most boringly ordinary person in the room, most of the time.

"I don't doubt that. I've had much the same experience. Though, I doubt there were many places as strange as Kirkwall in the last ten years. I've heard the stories." He took a long drink of ale, just about finished with the meal before him, and leaned back with a breathy sigh.

"You know... Saraya actually doesn't mind you. That's pretty high praise, I should say. She despises most people we meet, for one reason or another."

Estella smiled, a bit ruefully. She supposed she should take it as a compliment, of sorts, but it was rather tepid as far as they tended to go. Still, it wasn’t like she was the kind of person on which warm praise was regularly heaped, so really it was quite nice. Especially considering just who Saraya was. “From someone who lived when humans were mere children, shaking swords at what they did not understand, that’s actually quite humbling,” she pointed out, raising her snifter to her lips and taking a swallow. As it always did, the flavor rolled thickly over her tongue, an even mix of honeyed sweetness and sharp burn. That was what she liked about brandy. “A great number of us are still like that, unfortunately.” Then again, so were a great number of everyone, these days. She wondered if Thedas had ever been peaceful; probably the only candidates for it were the times before anyone but elves lived here, and then again for a while after the founding of the Imperium, before the elves had recovered any strength.

She was disinclined to consider that a candidate though. All one’s enemies being dead or run out wasn’t the same thing as peace. Estella brushed those thoughts away as well as she could, like trying to clear out a cobweb from her mind, and continued. “I bet it wasn’t easy, though, for either of you, adjusting to this arrangement you have now.” She tried to imagine having a passenger inside her head, one whose emotions she could feel, and then trying to devise a method of communication, and even just coming to grips with the fact that someone else, or part of someone else, was there, for the foreseeable future. It seemed a daunting task, and she doubted she really had a grip on what was involved.

"I was an awkward, lanky, foolish boy when we found each other. I couldn't yet separate her feelings from my own, and all she felt in those first hours was a heart-splitting despair. Saraya wanted nothing more than a release from her suspension, and to her, I was simply a new prison. Her desire for death would've killed me, had I not been overcome by incredible pain, to the point where I could not move from a single spot on the floor." He seemed to enjoy telling the story, maybe just for the novelty of it to him, but clearly the memory was as painful as it was momentous.

Estella felt a sympathetic twinge of heartache, but aside from a slight tightening of her mouth, she didn’t react overmuch. It was obvious that he hadn’t said everything he wanted to, and she didn’t want to interrupt him.

"I don't honestly know how we got control over it. Possibly just the time from the joining lessened the intensity of it. But to cut a long story short, she convinced herself that there was something yet worth doing in the world, and for better or worse, I was to be her vehicle. I'd never experienced anything like it, and I have to admit I was a bit wrapped up in the idea of being important somehow. Thus, I followed her will, and she molded me into a better man. All I am is owed to her."

He played absently with the handle of the mug in front of him for a moment, before meeting her eyes again. "You can see why I'm so protective of her, I'm sure. She carries a wealth of knowledge in her, information that I cannot properly comprehend, being neither a mage nor a person capable of hearing her words. I hope the deception can be forgiven. In truth, it was partially Saraya's interest in the Breach that drew me here. She has concerns about it, though if they extend beyond what the rest of us have, I can't yet say."

She shook her head emphatically. “Even if she had no such knowledge, it seems abundantly clear that she’s your friend. You were doing what you felt like you had to do to protect her, and no one came to harm. I can’t fault you for that. On the contrary—it’s admirable.” Estella smiled slightly. She was tempted to ask more about what Vesryn had learned from Saraya, about ancient civilization. She had, after all, a great interest in such histories herself, and always had. But she also didn’t want to pry too much, or carelessly, even if he did seem to be all right with sharing some of the details at this point.

“I’d heard you were with the Stormbreakers at one point or another as well; what did you do between leaving them and finding us, if you don’t mind my asking?” He seemed like the kind of person who’d lived a most interesting life, and she’d never been averse to hearing a good story.

"I was off receiving my education, for lack of a better term." The innkeep came by, collecting his plate, noting that Vesryn and Estella were in conversation, and attempting not to intrude. Vesryn smiled politely and waited for her to depart. "Those were the periods I spent alone. The Stormbreakers finished my physical training, but Saraya took me to places that no man or elf has touched for many, many years. Places lost to the world. I took a few things, at Saraya's urging. Weapons, armor. Other than that, I studied. Learned lost tongues. Deciphered ancient mysteries with nothing but guesswork, and an answerbook in my head to confirm or reject my propositions."

He sighed, somewhat sadly, and folded his hands together on the surface of the table. "Unfortunately, much of it can't be shared. The Dalish... they wouldn't understand. Probably view me as an oddity, or a madman, and go on with their dirge. Humans aren't interested, and if they are, it's rarely for the right reasons. There are sadly few with your kind of heart, I'm afraid."

Cyrus would be extremely interested, but for the moment, Estella elected not to say that. She would also love to know anything he had discovered, and frankly didn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t. But she could understand why he wouldn’t simply go around telling people, and that stayed her questions for the moment. “I’d like to hear about it, someday,” she said, curious enough that at least that much couldn’t remain behind her wall of self-censorship.

A thought occurred to her, then, a considerably lighter one, and she tilted her head to the side at him, smiling a little more mirthfully. “Also… if she’s just been there in your mind, and she can’t talk to you, how is it that you knew Saraya was a woman, or what her name is?”

"It's..." He leaned back, fixating his eyes on the ceiling for a moment before they returned to her. "It feels different. Even before I asked her to make sure, which I did. The feeling of being a woman is different from that of being a man. I mean nothing by it, it's just..." He shrugged.

"As for the name, I actually don't know what her name is. There was a lot of time to guess, though. Saraya, when I guessed it, was one she liked enough for me to use. If for no other reason than to stop the guessing." A little grin formed over his features. "Our roads were rarely traveled, and very, very empty. As you might imagine, I'm fairly comfortable with one-sided conversations at this point."

Estella laughed, a soft chuckle more than anything, and nodded her head. She wasn’t offended; it wasn’t like he’d said there was something wrong with being female, and she had no doubt he didn’t think there was, either. A smile lingered even after the laugh died away. “Comfortable or no, they don’t all have to be that way, for the moment at least. I doubt you’ll ever be short on people willing to talk back to you around here, but I’m one of them, if you’re ever so inclined.” She raised her glass with one hand, tilting it fractionally towards him.

“To new roads forward?”

He raised his mug. "And to good company along the way."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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The rift was a stark contrast to the greyed-out blue of the lake, a vivid green that seemed almost too bright for the world around it. Of course, it would look brighter to him than to most, for various reasons, but he was still quite certain that it would stand out even to the most mundane of individuals. Cyrus watched the alien oscillation of its component crystal shards with an expression best classed as rapt curiosity, edged with something that might almost be called hunger.

This particular rift had opened over the frozen lake just outside of Haven about ten minutes ago. He’d felt it, like a ripple in the Fade, and had immediately sought Estella and hurried down to the spot. At some point or another, Vesryn and Asala had joined as well, which had proven most useful in expunging the demons that had issued from within, but for the moment, the rift was idle, though it looked to be working up to vomit another round of the useless things. Cyrus hated demons—more than most. Their very presence made him feel ill, twisted inside, like whatever little good there was in him was becoming warped. They also never shut up around him, which had been true since he was but a boy.

He ran his tongue along his bottom lip unconsciously. If he could feel it that way, it was magic like anything else, and all that he had to do, in theory, was defeat it with stronger magic. He did not believe anything could truly repair the rift save the marks on the hands of his sister and Romulus, but that did not eliminate the possibility that they could be rendered inert in the same way any other magic was rendered inert.

Rings of green fog began to billow from the rift, a sure sign that more demons were imminent, but with a rustle of heavy silk, Cyrus raised his hands first, forming them into a rough triangle shape, through which he focused the spell. He felt the magic swell underneath his skin and channeled it outwards, pushing a blunt wave of it against the rift. There was nothing especially momentous about the visual effect—this was not a spell of flashbangs and bright streaks of color. Rather, a wave of soft blue light, undulating like water, washed over the rift, and when it disappeared, it took all the green fog and the vibrancy of the color with it, leaving a dull, unmoving crystalline structure in its place.

A small smile turned the corner of his mouth upwards. “Rifts are subject to dispelling. Something to make our lives easier, I suspect. I think I should like to work with this one a bit longer before you close it, Stellulam. There might be information to be had that will help us understand the Breach.” It could well be the information he needed to figure out how to close it for good. Estella nodded slowly, lowering the hand that she had started to raise to take care of the problem and taking a half-step backwards.

Vesryn's tower shield was placed in front of him, the elf leaning on the top rim of it, staring at the rift with a perturbed frown. He'd accompanied the little study group for protectionary measures, mostly, but clearly had at least some curiosity regarding the rift. In one hand he held the top of his tower helm, the other his spear. He kept close to the others, but maintained a safe distance, not venturing too close to the open portal.

"I don't suppose anyone else hears that?" he asked. He was clearly focused for a moment, attempting to make out whatever sound he seemed to be hearing. "That whispering. I think it's a whispering, anyway. Never heard it before, with it usually being covered up by roaring demons and fiery explosions."

"Uh..." Asala mumbled before pausing. She seemed to concentrate on something for a moment before she shook her head in the negative. "N-no. Not-not anymore," she said, clutching her staff with both hands. The sound of a heavy hand clapped her shoulder as Meraad agreed. "No, the dispelling seemed to have shut the demons up. For the moment at least." he said with a chuckle. However, at the mention of the dispelling, Asala's eyes fell to Cyrus, and she seemed a moment away from asking something before apparently deciding against it.

Estella’s brows furrowed slightly, and she tilted her head just fractionally, also looking about a half-step away from saying something, but then her eyes moved to Asala and Meraad, and her expression eased. Probably, she’d been about to venture a question about Saraya, but had refrained from doing so due to the presence of two people who didn’t know of her. Cyrus thought it was a good hypothesis, if unvoiced. He had many fewer reservations about bringing up Vesryn’s passenger, but even he realized he was at least somewhat beholden to the promise made on his behalf not to, and so he quelled his curiosity for the moment.

She turned her eyes to him then. “It feels… sick,” she said, as though she weren’t sure of exactly what word she wanted. “Like… an affliction. But not as much now that you’ve dispelled it. If it wasn’t spilling forth demons and the like, I’d just think… ‘here’s a place where the Veil is thin.’” She paused, and grimaced, as though debating the next words, but evidently decided to use them. “Thin enough that even I feel like a real mage, almost.” She turned her right hand over so the palm faced up, little colored sparks gathering at the center before streaming down to the snow below like an overflowing liquid, where they left harmless little pockmarks in the surface. Blues, purples, greens, and pinks—it was not the destructive spell of a combat situation, that was to be sure, rather a little trifle they’d used for amusement as children.

Cyrus sighed, shaking his head. He genuinely didn’t understand why Estella couldn’t have a little more confidence in her abilities as a mage. Magic had never come as easily to her as it had to him, but that alone was no insurmountable obstacle. Her talents were not geared towards large explosions and powerful concussive blasts, it was true, but even just looking at the simple spell she performed to prove her point, he could say with certainty that he did not find it as easy as she did to produce so many colors. Magic was complex, and nuanced, and he really wished she hadn’t given up on it the way she had.

But those were not thoughts for the present discussion, and so he realigned his attention with her more straightforwardly observational remarks, noting that she wasn’t inaccurate about the feeling of illness—it had lessened considerably with the application of his dispel magic. And the Veil was thin here, for a very obvious reason.

“The rifts are actually very small tears in the Veil. I suspect that a dispelling has this effect because it nullifies the magic bleeding in. It would be like… applying a patch to a torn piece of fabric, if you will. But to actually mend the cloth requires your mark, I should think. I am, however, open to alternative hypotheses, if there are any.” He didn’t think any of them would be correct, but he was certainly not the only person here capable of giving the matter the thought required to advance one. After all, they were dealing with the novel and the strange—his stockpile of knowledge was of little use. Intuition, theory, calculation, and experimentation were the order of the day, and those were not capacities unique to him.

Asala meanwhile, continued to gaze into the inert rift while Meraad, on the other hand, stared at Estella after her little magical light show. Clearly he was rather surprised to find that she was a mage also. Though if had thoughts on the matter, he said nothing. Instead, his attention shifted back to Asala who'd taken a step toward the rift. "Kadan?" he asked as she raised a hand. The blue glow of her magic enveloped it, a corresponding barrier appearing around the rift. Then, she began to manipulate the bubble, shrinking it with her first two fingers and her thumb until it fit tightly over the rift. However, other than robbing the rift of its green glow, it seemed to do nothing.

Meraad opened his mouth to speak, but before the words could come, Asala slammed her fist shut. The barrier quickly shrank around the rift, deforming the shape for only a moment before the barrier shattered, returning its glow to the ground around it. Asala sighed and simply shook her head. "Were it still active, the magic of the rift that deposits the demons on this side of the veil would have interfered with my own. My barrier would have shattered far sooner," she said, turning to look at Meraad. It was clear that she had been mainly speaking to him, which might've explained her lack of stuttering. Meraad simply tilted his head. It seemed that he did not understand it as well as she did.

"So... You cannot crush them as they file in?" He asked, causing Asala to smile and shake her head in the negative. "Unfortunately, no." Though she did pause for a moment to look at her hand, and she seemed to slip into some deep thought.

Vesryn was looking consistently uneasy at this point; he'd taken up his shield again, adjusting his grip on the eight-footer in his hand. "I'm... getting the feeling that proximity to this thing might not be a great idea." It was obvious he was referring to Saraya with the feeling, though what exactly was going on in the elf's head was hard to say.

"Any chance we could close this thing up soon? Before it gives us a pride demon or two?"

“It won’t.” Cyrus made the declaration with absolute confidence, because it was what he felt in the answer. He knew the Fade, and even this novel manifestation of it was not exempt from what few rules could be said to govern the Veil generally. Still, he supposed he could see where it would cause unease, particularly if left to hang there in space for too long. Eventually, its continued existence would be questioned.

“But… it’s unlikely that we’ll learn much else by keeping it here. I believe I understand it now.” And, consequently, what must be done to close the large one, the so-called Breach. He nodded to Estella, taking a step backward so that she might move forward and approach it unimpeded.

Asala also took a step back, but turned to Vesryn. She made a small circle with her forefingers and thumbs and mouthed too small.

The sound of Estella taking in a deep breath was just audible over the ambient noise of the area before she moved past him, putting herself within five feet of the spot on the lake above which the rift hovered. Though the passage took her over ice, her balance didn’t falter. She raised her hand towards the faded green crystal, a thread of emerald light connecting her hand to the distortion. With the typical humming sound, the link established itself and the noise grew in pitch until the low bang signaled the end, and she jerked her arm back down, looking down at the glowing scar marring her palm.

“That was easier than it usually is, for me. I think maybe neutralizing it beforehand might have made it simpler to use the mark. It wasn’t even that painful.” She turned back around to look at him, both eyebrows arched. “Which I suppose means closing the Breach might not—well. It might be possible if all the mages focus on repelling the magic spilling out of it. That’s what you’re thinking, right?”

“Precisely. The phenomena are the same, or roughly the same. Which means any solution that can be applied to the little ones will work on the large one… provided that it is scaled up appropriately.” He wasn’t entirely sure they had enough spellpower for it. Cyrus had little confidence in southern mages, but even if he had, they were small in number. Of course, there was one other group capable of dispelling magic, though he had even less confidence in templars. Nevertheless, it was in principle possible.

Still, something she said had not sat quite right with him, and he gestured for her to approach. “I would like to make an examination of your mark, Stellulam. Asala, would you be so kind as to tell me exactly what methods you used to treat the Heralds when they came under your care?”

"Oh, uh..." Asala said, seemingly surprised by Cyrus's question. She hesitated a moment, at least until Meraad gently prodded her in the shoulder. With the provocation, Asala approached, her eyes glazed in remembering. "I, uh... Well," she scratching under her horn again. When she was successful in exorcising the itch, her hand returned to the staff. "Right, well. First, I administered a dose of a strong healing agent to both. They only recieved minor exterior injuries, but the marks..." Asala said, before shaking her head. She seemed to acknowledge she was getting ahead of herself.

"I followed up with, uh... direct applications of healing spells over time. I... did not know how to deal with the mark directly." After she spoke, her head tilted and it was as if the gears in her head began to churn. "However... The mark seemed to draw its energy from them, at least initially." She frowned and her brows furrowed as she slipped deeper into thought. "Do you believe the marks use the energy that they draw from the Heralds to close the rifts?" Asala asked, drawing up closer to Cyrus in order to inspect Estella's mark as well. Estella herself was compliant, and freely offered up her hand.

"I'll leave you magical types to your studies, then," Vesryn said, a subtle grin returning to his features now that the rift was gone. He slung his tower shield around onto his back and balanced the spear on one shoulder, turning and taking his leave from the lake.

“Thanks for your help, Vesryn!” Estella called after him, thereafter returning her attention to what the others were discussing.

Cyrus shook his head in reply to Asala’s query, taking Estella’s hand in both of his and inspecting the mark more closely than he previously had, running the pad of his index finger along its contour. He felt a light tingling where his bare skin made contact with it, the feeling almost familiar somehow. It was like…

“It would have drawn from them to stabilize itself, perhaps. But the energy it generates is its own, probably derived from whatever gave it to them. My guess would be some kind of artifact.” He looked at Estella quite seriously. “If you experience pain, it is likely because this energy is foreign to you. Your body was not meant to conduct it, nor, I should think, was Romulus’s.” He suspected Asala had aided them as well as she had simply by repairing the damage it was doing their bodies by being present, but that was not the same thing as stabilizing the mark itself.

“I will need to consult my notes, but there may be a way to steady the fluctuations, and prevent the mark from beginning to grow again.” He realized belatedly how that might sound, and flicked his eyes to Asala. “You did extremely well, especially dealing with an unknown magic like this—I mean only to discover its nature, not discredit your achievement. In fact, I am rather grateful you made it.” He actually offered her a smile, one that was in no part cynical or smug, only—as he’d indicated—caused by relief and gratitude.

“Stellulam is alive because of you, and whether she likes me to say so or not, that is to me the most valuable thing I can think of. If there is something I might provide for you in exchange, you need only name it.” He did despise leaving debts unpaid. His sister sighed, but did not choose to say anything herself.

That, of course, only served to fluster her. The blush across her cheeks was instant and she averted her gaze, instead focusing on an apparently very interesting rock nearby. "No, no..." she said, waving a hand back and forth, "It was, uh... It was nothing. I-I-I could not just... do nothing," she said, though a sweet smile did sneak in near the end of her words. Nearby, Meraad cackled, which robbed her of the smile, and instead replaced it with a glare in his direction. He threw his hands up in forfeit and also began to walk off.

"There is, uh... no need to repay me. The fact that she is okay is plenty," she said with a smile, though after a moment it wavered. There seemed to be something else on her mind, though she was struggled with herself over it. Finally she sighed and closed her eyes, having decided on something. "But maybe... if I... if someone were to... tutor me. Help me to learn how to... dispel magic, I could be of more aid to Estella and Romulus," she said, her eyes on the staff in her hand.

Cyrus grinned at that, a touch of slyness seeping back onto his face. “You know, I don’t teach… but I do believe I can make an exception, considering. If you are not otherwise occupied after dinner, meet me back here. There is much to learn.”

Setting

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Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth
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Vesryn and Saraya both left the rift feeling a bit disturbed.

He'd definitely heard whispering, light and airy, but it was as though some foreign force was preventing him from comprehending the words, or even recognizing words at all, no matter how hard he strained. Like a voice that was perpetually just out of earshot. He was half-tempted to move himself closer to the rift, but at Saraya's apprehension, he kept his distance. She knew far more of magic than she did, and while there was uncertainty that accompanied her hesitance, he had no wish to take any chances.

Experienced and knowledgeable mage though she was, there were still things about their bond to each other that neither understood, mostly due to the fact that this sort of result for them was never supposed to happen. In fact, Vesryn had never managed to glean the exact purpose for Saraya's imprisonment, her stasis. For even if it had been meant as preservation, it had become a prison for her. Without consciousness it might have been akin to a long, deep sleep, but she'd been forced to endure every last moment of those years awake and aware, though at some point the senses likely just gave up with nothing to focus on. It was not something Vesryn could properly imagine.

The sound of clashing arms pulled him from his troubled thoughts, and Vesryn looked upon the training groups of Inquisition infantry, drilling and sparring as they constantly were. They were improving clearly, but new volunteers were often arriving, and these still needed to master the basics. This need would only increase as the Inquisition grew in size and attracted more members.

A still green-looking soldier approached Vesryn as he neared, an excited look upon his face. "Taking up challenges again today, er... Vesryn?" The abrupt hesitation in his speed was undoubtedly caused by an unsureness in what to call him, despite his repeated assertions that simply Vesryn was quite fine. He was no ser, no brother, certainly not a messere to them, despite all appearances. Besides, men calling an elf any of those would be positively scandalous.

He shook his head, patting the recruit on the shoulder. "Not today, I'm afraid. I'd rather not be a disturbance again." There was a time and place for matches with spectacle, when the soldiers needed to blow off steam. This was not one of those times, and distracting the men from their drills would do more harm than good.

The recruit looked clearly disappointed, and was perhaps about to plead, when Vesryn turned his attention further ahead of him. "Khari! A word, if you've a moment?" The elf woman was working vigorously, as she always did, up ahead. In fact, the only reason Vesryn knew she was there was from flashes of bright red hair between the helmets of other soldiers. "I'll spar you another time, if you're so inclined," Vesryn said, to the recruit. He nodded, looking a bit spurned, and jogged off to resume his drills.

“And if I don’t?” The question, half-growled, was followed by several more clashes of steel on steel, the heavy whistle of a practice blade through air accenting the exchange, which was then brought to an abrupt halt by a furious-sounding growl and the sound of someone being hit with something blunter, which sent one of the other soldiers sideways and several feet laterally into something else with another thud.

It turned out that the ring proper was currently occupied by Khari and what looked like her triad of opponents, one of which had just been shoved into the fence by her foot. One of the others was just picking himself off the ground, and the third, a lightly-armored woman with blue vallaslin, was apparently realizing that flanking was far more difficult when there was no one there to distract the target. Khari whirled to face her and charged at full speed, knocking aside her defenses with a hard stroke of the oversized practice sword and bodychecking her to the ground.

That seemed to be the signal for the match to end, though, because she lowered her blade immediately after, bending to offer the skirmisher a hand up. “Pretty cutthroat, aren’t you, Thalia?” The one so named smirked a little, nodding.

“Only sometimes literally.” Khari laughed, trudged over to make sure the other two were doing all right, handing off her practice arm to the one she’d nearly put through the fence, nodded to the dark-haired chevalier in the crowd, and then at last turned to seek Vesryn, the other drilling soldiers letting her through easily enough.

She didn’t look thrilled to be talking to him, and her lack of enthusiasm was clear from her expression. Cocking an eyebrow at him, she crossed her arms over her chest. Her posture wasn’t hostile, exactly, just wary, as though she were expecting him to say something she didn’t particularly like. “Well… I do now, I guess. But I’m supposing you have more than one word.”

Saraya still didn't like Khari, not in the slightest. Considering that they'd had no real interaction since their last, rather harsh spar, that was unsurprising. Vesryn knew her well enough to know which qualities of the woman rubbed her the wrong way. Khari was obstinate, even in the way she fought. She wasn't naturally built to be a warrior, but she'd forced herself into the shape of one anyway. She fought without an ounce of grace, but instead with pure ferocity and energy to make up for it.

Her life decisions and obvious abandonment of Dalish ways thrown in, and she was the epitome of the square peg trying to fit into a round hole. While Saraya found it a waste of her obvious talent and passion, Vesryn had always found it endearing when someone displayed such an unquenchable passion for something. Not that he yet understood the particular direction of her passion.

For the moment, however, he found the chilly disposition somewhat tiring. A small white cloud ascended from him with his sigh, and he turned to look for a relatively private spot, all while Saraya tried to bore through the smaller elf with eyes she did not have. "I do, yes, but not here. I'd rather get out of earshot. If you'll follow..." A spot along the base of the wall, past the stables, looked good enough.

He didn't want this to be unpleasant. If he'd disliked Khari, he wouldn't have approached at all, certainly not with his intended topic. In fact, he'd never intended to get off to a poor start with anyone. If it was merely a side effect of how good he was...

Vesryn reminded himself not to think that way. Not too often, at least.

She followed him easily enough, in any case, apparently deciding that whatever her reservations might have been, they weren’t worth the trouble of voicing any further than she already had. Since she didn’t seem like the kind of person who ever had a problem saying what she thought, that was probably because she didn’t actually have many. Her expression changed, actually, and she raised a hand to tug on one of her ears, something that must have been a thoughtful or unconscious habit. Perhaps even a nervous one, it was impossible to tell. She didn’t otherwise seem apprehensive, only puzzled.

“Uh… okay. So no people then. What’s so important we have to talk about it with no people?”

"Well..." Vesryn propped his spear against the wall, shrugging off his shield as well and doing the same. "We obviously didn't get off to the best start, you and I." It was possible that Vesryn actually looked a bit uncomfortable. He knew that the root of this was that this particular conversation was not one he had often, at all. The number of people that knew of Saraya was a small one indeed, and as far as predicting reactions to the information went... Khari was easily the most unknown to him. That Cyrus had been intrigued and Estella had been understanding and cooperative was entirely unsurprising. From Khari, he expected anything from laughter to a right hook, or a headbutt, as she was clearly capable of.

"Since Redcliffe, some information about me has come to light, something only a few of the others know as of yet. It's bound to get around the irregulars eventually, so I thought it best to tell you myself, since it might explain the result of the little spar we had." Vesryn had been bracing himself for the violent reaction from Saraya, but it did not come. She actually seemed accepting of his intention, maybe even a tad curious. Like someone expecting to be disappointed, and perhaps hoping to feel superior as a result. This was something Saraya had displayed before, he knew.

"Tell me, do you know what an Arcane Warrior is? The real variety, not that Knight-Enchanter imitation they practice now."

Khari grimaced, though her reasons for doing so were unclear. “Sure. I might be a shitty Dalish, but I’ve always liked stories.” She shrugged. “They were like… the knights of Elvhenan, basically. Mages like the rest, but more inclined to physical combat, or something like that.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You weren’t holding out on me, were you? Because if you can do magic too and didn’t sling a few fireballs at me, I’m gonna be really mad.” She placed her hands on her hips, and unless the light was playing a trick, there was a tiny little uptick to the corner of her mouth. It seemed the kind of anger she was referring to was a lighter kind than whatever reduced her to snarling inelegance in an actual fight.

Nevertheless, there was a distinct element of seriousness to her words. It would seem she would have preferred to be on the wrong end of the magic, too, if he’d had it.

"If only," Vesryn said with a laugh, loosening up. Perhaps this wouldn't go as poorly as he feared, if her bristle towards him was merely from being bested, and not anything personal. He'd said a few things as taunts in the fight, after all, but it was the Champion's way. Any opponent worth the effort would receive the same treatment. "No, the one moment I held back on you, you broke my nose with your forehead." A rather unpleasant memory; he'd be helmed the next time they fought.

"But yes, you have the right of it. I'm no Arcane Warrior myself, but..." he trailed off. This was more difficult to do when the person hadn't simply come before him, asking what lived inside his mind. "This may be a lot to take in, but the remnant of one such woman exists in my mind. The ancient elves had ways of prolonging life, or existence at least, of individuals, by placing them inside mundane objects. When I was a late teen, I stumbled into a ruin in eastern Ferelden, and... absorbed one such individual." His facial expression was halfway to a wince, and indeed he found it nearly impossible to describe the significance in so few words.

“You… what?” Khari’s mouth pulled to one side, red brows furrowing over the clear light green of her eyes. She shook herself slightly and seemed to ponder that for a second, tipping her head to squint up at him. “You’re actually serious.” She breathed out what might have been a sigh, as though trying to decide what to do with that. The ear-tugging resumed, at least until she encountered a stray curl, which she tucked behind it. “So… there’s someone else living in your head or something, and she’s an arcane warrior? Or was, I guess.”

She frowned. “That’s uh… sure, okay, fine. Weird, but whatever.” Khari nodded, more to herself than him, but she still looked quite perplexed. “But I mean… what does this have to do with you beating me in a fight?”

The confusion part was to be expected. Vesryn had taken several weeks to actually comprehend what had happened to him, and even then the full extent didn't actually settle in until he had learned a thing or two about the place he'd stumbled into. To ask anyone to get it in a mere instant was laughable. "Very weird. Quite possibly the weirdest thing here, and there are weird people all over this place." In fact, him having Saraya in his head made Romulus and Estella stumbling out of a rift at the site of an explosion that killed everyone else nearby much easier to swallow.

"It... wasn't exactly me that beat you. Saraya--that's what she goes by, mind you--I can feel her instincts, her reactions, in my mind, to the point where I can allow them to become my own. Saraya had centuries of experience in the craft of war before what happened to her. I can't access her magic, but with her... I could read your moves practically as you made them. Without her, I doubt I'd have lasted five minutes against you." Saraya was not fond of that assessment, but Vesryn firmly believed it. Her attack was vicious and unrelenting, and without the knowledge of how precisely to weather her, and when exactly to turn her attacks against her, he'd have simply been battered on until he broke.

Khari must have found that amusing in some way, because she laughed, the sound clear and ringing. “Ha, you’ve got your teacher hanging out in your skull? That’s got to be interesting. I’m not sure whether mine wishes he could have done something like that to force some sense into me, or if he would have been horrified by the very idea.” Her eyes were bright with amusement. “I’d say you were a dirty cheater, but if you’ve got a resource, I can’t blame you for using it. Or well, accepting her aid, or however you’d put it.” She waved a hand as if to brush aside the semantic question.

“So I pretty much lasted ten minutes against an ancient elven knight… and here my parents thought I’d never amount to anything worthwhile.” She snickered. “Makes me feel better about losing, I’ve gotta say. But not that much better.” Her expression morphed back into what was swiftly becoming recognizable as her trademark jagged grin. What exactly the thought was that had provoked it, she didn’t say.

Vesryn laughed, clearly relieved that she was taking this well, all things considered. "Ah, well, yes... I do believe that if Saraya could speak, she would declare that you would not have lasted half as long against her. Magic thrown into the mix, and all." As expected, Saraya agreed with him, though not entirely. She still believed he was being entirely too generous to Khari's chances. He'd grown rather fond of that feeling, the irritation. Saraya could be infinitely superior to everyone around her all she wanted, but by the Gods, Vesryn was at least going to make her pay for that attitude. Even if he agreed with it, underneath it all.

"Just between you and me," he said, lowering his voice and leaning forward slightly, as though that would prevent Saraya from hearing him, "she doesn't like you. Not in the slightest." He grinned as he said it, evidence that he felt quite the opposite, and garnered no small amount of amusement from the situation.

"She's not fond of many people at all, really. You can imagine what she thought of me when we met. I was a thin, awkward, lanky flat-ear from the slums of Denerim at the time. With arms like twigs." A bit of an embellishment, but not by much. Truly, he was not proud of the physical state he'd been in. But it wasn't something to hide from. He'd worked, at Saraya's urging, and forged himself into something else. Something surely Khari was capable of as well, even without the help of an ancient guide in her head.

“Yeah?” Khari replied, apparently indifferent to the declaration of Saraya’s feelings towards her. “Well she’d get along great with my clan then. They hate me too. As you can see, I’m completely devastated by their disdain.” The sarcasm was practically dripping from her tone. Really, she might as well have said ‘Saraya can shove it.’ She paused a moment, perhaps attempting to imagine him with twiggy arms.

“Huh. Well, whatever she made you do, it worked.” She shrugged with evident nonchalance. “Good for you. But if you don’t mind, some of us have to muddle our way forward as well as we can without… remnants in our head, and for me, that means more practice, as often as possible, so…” She used her thumb to jab the air over her shoulder, indicating her plans to go back the way she came.

"Of course, and I apologize for the interruption," Vesryn replied, with a short bow of thanks. He raised a finger, however. "One more thing, though. Very few people currently know what I just told you. Most don't need to... so if we could avoid spreading this among the troops, I would appreciate it." Perhaps they'd find out, sooner or later, but from an unreliable source, it would probably just turn into rumor, and become warped to the point of unbelievability. But who was he kidding? It was already there.

"And perhaps we can practice together some other time, on more even footing." He trusted she would know what he meant. "I suspect there is much I could learn from a superior opponent."

“Compliments are like molasses, Vesryn. They’re sweet if you go in for that kind of thing, but you’d better not lay ‘em on too thick or you’ll get stuck someday.” Khari snorted, seemingly taking the implied status of her abilities to be a bit disingenuous, but it didn’t appear to bother her overmuch. She mock-saluted with her first two fingers and turned on her heel, picking up into a swift jog back towards the practice ring.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit
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The approach to Therinfal Redoubt was a rainy one, and a bit of a slog uphill, once they’d left the horses and the majority of the travel supplies they’d taken down at the bottom. If all went to plan, they’d be housed within the castle itself for the duration of the negotiations, and no doubt the nobility here were expecting that, considering how poorly they’d bothered to provision themselves despite what Leon would consider an overabundance of luggage. Still, the Inquisition’s one cart contained a number of tents, just in case. He wasn’t exactly expecting this to go to plan, after all—in fact, Leon was rather unsure what he was expecting.

Perhaps that was for the best. He’d found that most often a healthy dose of wariness served him well.

Presently, he was just cresting the hill up onto the approach to the fortress, alongside Estella, Lady Marceline, Larissa, Cyrus, and Vesryn. The deliberately-small number of other Inquisition personnel that he’d asked to accompany them had been purposefully left with the supplies; in keeping with his instinct to go with few, but mighty compatriots. The rain was undoubtedly a nuisance, though the hood of his cloak—the black one emblazoned with the emblem of the Seekers of Truth—kept most of it out of his way.

It wasn’t long after they’d set themselves on the road to approach that they were joined by a nobleman, dressed in the fashion that highborn Orlesian men favored lately, he believed. Leon had never really claimed to understand such things, nor their proclivity for hiding their faces, at that. “Ah, the Herald of Andraste!” His voice was elevated over the general volume of the procession, which gave him a sort of unfortunate bombastic aspect that he probably thought lent him some impression of authority. Leon simply wished he’d project instead of shouting.

“Lord Esmeral Abernache,” he introduced himself, the majority of his attention focused on Estella. A steward walked behind him, but said nothing. Abernache folded one hand behind his back at his waist, the other hovering around his sternum. “Honored to participate. It is not unlike the second dispersal of the reclaimed Dales.”

Estella, who’d looked more comfortable than Leon had expected up until that point, paused perhaps a moment too long. She recovered, though, smiling thinly. “If you’ll permit the nuance, milord, I rather hope it will be kinder than that.”

Leon struggled to contain his amusement. Whether because someone had actually understood the obscure historical event to which he was referring or because the Herald had the gumption to gently disagree with him, or perhaps some combination of the two, Abernache looked just a little bit floored, and unsure exactly what to say, which likely didn’t happen to him often. “Ah… yes well. Divinity puts you above such things, I suppose.” Clearing his throat, he returned to the matter at hand.

“The Lord Seeker is willing to hear our petition about closing the Breach. A credit to our alliance with the Inquisition. Care to mark the moment? Ten Orlesian houses walk with you.”

Estella shifted, moving her hands to secure her hood more firmly over her head. “The Inquisition is grateful, Lord Abernache. It is our hope that the templars come to see what the rest of us have already: that the Breach is a danger too great for dwelling on our differences.” Leon nodded, glancing towards the front gate. Honestly, the sooner they got there and took care of this, the more content he’d be. Something sat ill with him—many things, really, but some of them he couldn’t quite identify. He felt… uneasy.

Lord Abernache seemed more or less oblivious. “Oh yes. Ghastly-looking thing. The Lord Seeker can’t think we’re ignoring it.” With that, the procession finally got moving, and though it was still entirely too slow and processional, at least it was movement. “Speaking of which,” Abernache continued, falling into step beside the Herald, “I don’t suppose you’d divulge what finally got their attention? Rumor will, if you won’t.”

Estella’s brows drew together, but it was Leon who replied. “I don’t take your meaning, Lord Abernache.” He had a feeling he wasn’t going to like it much when he did.

“The Lord Seeker won’t meet with us until he greets the Inquisition in person. Quite a surprise after that spat in Val Royeaux.”

"The Inquisition only asks that the Lord Seeker lend his Templars to aid us in the closing the breach," Marceline answered. She wore her silverite mask with a hood drawn over her head to keep the rain away. Her mood had seemed to dip with the weather, and she could be found frowning more often than not. Even under the hood, there was evidence that her hair had been immaculately styled in anticipation of meeting with her countrymen.

She walked behind the Lord, Larissa keeping step beside her, her hands resting in her sleeves. When Marceline spoke the Lord tilted his head and regarded her before his expression broke into a warm smile. "Then it must have already been arranged by your ambassador," he said, turning back to Leon. "Let the diplomats work their magic, if you trust them," he said with wink in Lady Marceline's direction. She simply smiled in returned and inclined her head.

"Between you and I, the Chantry never took advantage of their templars. Wiser heads should steer them."

Leon wasn’t quite sure what he should make of that statement, and apparently Estella was still contemplating it as well, so for the moment, it went unanswered. Thankfully, they reached the bridge immediately in front of the iron gate in short order. Abernache leaned forward, peering to the other side of the structure, and clucked his tongue. “It appears they’ve sent someone to greet you.” As the group moved forward, he spoke—largely, Leon presumed, to everyone who wasn’t Marceline. “Present well. Everyone is a bit… tense, for my liking.”

“The Lord Seeker seems to have changed his mind about us rather quickly,” Estella pointed out, quietly enough that Abernache, walking ahead of them, was unlikely to hear. “I wasn’t under the impression he was known for that.”

“He isn’t,” Leon replied firmly. There was a great deal to be distrusted about all of this, but he had little in the way of concrete evidence to point to in order to back up his suspicions. “Please be careful, all of you. It is no paltry force that quarters here.”

The first iron gate was open to any who wished to proceed inside, allowing them to pass through what in time of war would serve as a gauntlet, that long, thin, empty space between the two outer gates, where the attackers would be showered upon by their enemies with far more than just light rain. Currently, only a few low-ranking templars observed from on high, the rest somewhere deeper in the old fortress. Those that watched looked down upon Therinfal's guests ominously from beneath their full-faced helmets.

At the second gate ahead was one of Abernache's serving men, his herald, currently standing beside a female templar, unhelmeted and looking disgruntled to still be standing beside such a man. Some in the group might potentially recognize her as one of the templars seen in Val Royeaux departing with the Lord Seeker. Her long, dark brown hair was elaborately tied up in braids, clearing away from her face, which was marred by several scars, the most noticeable ones across her lips and one of her eyebrows.

The herald stepped forward to greet his lord and the Inquisition's party. "I present Knight-Templar Ser Séverine Lacan, first daughter of Lord Cédric Lacan of Val Chevin." She seemed irritated by being introduced in so formal a manner, and took an aggressive step forward past the man, just as he was about to introduce his own lord to her.

"For all the good it's done me," she grumbled quietly, but soon stood at attention and offered the Herald of Andraste and her company a respectful, if brief, bow. "I'm glad you came, Inquisition, even if you did it in rather... irksome company. You received my message, then?" The question sought the eyes of Leon.

Leon blinked. He certainly recognized her, but he wasn’t sure exactly to what she referred. “I cannot say we did, Ser Séverine. If you attempted to send a message to the Inquisition, it never reached us.” Although… given just who had reached them, he had a fair guess as to what had happened to it in transit, and his expression set into something even grimmer. “Would you perhaps be so kind as to reiterate its contents now that we’re here anyway?”

"Wait..." Séverine said, struggling with Leon's words. "What? How are you here, then? Who told you where the Lord Seeker had taken us?"

“High Seeker Ophelia did, though with what motive, I cannot discern.” It was possible she was here now, but then, it was also possible that if she were, no one would know. He had no idea what his teacher was driving at with all of this.

"Ophelia? Shit." The curse was hissed quietly, and Séverine exhaled, shaking her head. "Well, you're here now." Abernache, apparently feeling left out of the conversation, crossed his arms and inspecting the Knight-Captain.

"Lacan, was it? Minor holdings, your father has. And you are the second child, are you not?" He scoffed, turning up the bronze, pointy nose of his mask. Séverine narrowed her eyes as though looking at an annoying child who knew not when to close his mouth. Ignoring the masked man, she looked back between Leon, Estella, and Lady Marceline.

"There's something very wrong here. The Lord Seeker has not been himself for some time. He's become obsessed with his status. His ego only grows, even as the Breach lingers. That, and..." she glanced up, to see if anyone was still watching. None were, the few recruits from before having filed off. "There's something going on with the other officers. They've been taking this new kind of lyrium. Even some of the lower ranks have been allowed to ingest it. I fear for the Order's future."

“This lyrium.” The new voice belonged to Cyrus, who continued after a moment. He looked vaguely perturbed by something, and shot a glance further inwards past where they stood before moving his eyes back to the others, Séverine specifically. “It wouldn’t happen to be red, would it?” It was a pertinent question, and if the answer was affirmative, would certainly provide a link between the templars and the events at the Conclave, however tenuous. There had been quite a bit of red lyrium there, too.

"It is, yes. I haven't seen it's like since... well, since Kirkwall." The city's name left her tongue as though the memory tasted somewhat foul.

Leon grimaced; this was shaping up to be worse than he’d thought, which was rather saying something. “The Lord Seeker now says he wishes to meet the Herald personally,” he said, shaking his head. “I suspect we will discover what all of this means in short order.” He was a breath from inviting Séverine to lead the way inside when Abernache spoke up again.

“Don’t keep your betters waiting, Lacan. There’s important work for those born to it.” Leon felt keenly the temptation to remind him just who was actually in charge here, but took a deep breath and refrained.

“We’re grateful for the warning,” he added, keeping his tone mild.

"Think nothing of it. The other officers already hate my guts. But I won't let the templars fall to ruin quietly." She gestured towards the inner gate. "Come. I'll lead you in."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit
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Red lyrium. It did not bode well for whatever was happening among the Templars. Marceline had read the reports from Kirkwall, of Meredith's madness and the presence of a red lyrium idol. Not only that, but the reports from the site of the Conclave likewise spoke of veins of it rising from the ground. Whatever it was, it seemed as if it followed disaster, and the news that it was now among the Templars sat ill with her. Marceline did not let it reveal on her face however, the only hint of her wariness a glance at Larissa. There was an imperceptible nod, and Larissa's eyes tilted upward behind her avian mask to the tops of the fort's walls, keeping an eye out for any unseen danger.

"Lady Herald," Marceline said, signalling that Estella be the first to follow behind Séverine. She nodded, breaking from the roughly even line they’d had before and stepping into place behind their guide.

The templar woman led them inside, the cramped and purposefully uncomfortable space of the path between gates opening up into a much wider courtyard. The rocky paths paved between the structures in the fortress were mostly overgrown by grass and weeds, though a clear training area had been carved out, with practice dummies for archers along the base of the walls, and sparring rings set aside. Currently they saw only light use, as most of the Order were clearly on edge, besieged as they were by an army of frills and fancy masks. As they drew further in, a small group of templar recruits and scribes began to gather, to observe the scene.

"The Lord Seeker has a request, I'm afraid, before you are to meet him," Séverine said, her tone already apologetic. She led the group to a row of three wooden cranks set into the ground, each one placed before large red flags affixed to the inner face of the stone wall. The left flag depicted a sunburst, symbol of the Maker, the center flag a lion, symbol of the people, and the right flag a flaming sword, symbol of the templars. "He would like for the Herald of Andraste to complete the Rite of the Standards. My Lady Herald is to raise the flags, each to a different level, so that the Lord Seeker might know in which order you honor them."

Estella looked immediately uncomfortable, eyeing the standards with apprehension. Her posture seemed to deflate slightly, which was saying something considering how modest it was to begin with. “I’m supposed to… rank them? Will he refuse to see us if the answer is wrong?” Her brows knit over her eyes, her mouth turning down into a pronounced frown.

Séverine shook her head immediately. "There's no wrong answer here. Obviously all three of these are of great importance. Among the templars our choices vary greatly. It simply offers insight into the mind, shows a bit of who you are. Supposedly." By her tone, Séverine did not take the greatest of stock in this Rite. Still, she did not seem disrespectful of it, simply not reverent.

"Do not worry, Lady Herald," Marceline began firmly. "Simply answer as you would ordinarily. The Lord Seeker would dare not turn us away," she said. Though she personally found the rite to be silly, they should not risk offending the Lord Seeker and his Templars by refusing to complete it.

Estella’s lips thinned, but she nodded, returning her attention to the standards themselves. Watching her gather herself was a visual process composed of obvious stages. With a breath inward, she straightened her spine and pulled her shoulders back. When she moved forwards, it was almost assured in appearance, though someone with eyes as practiced as Marcy’s knew false bravado when they saw it, and it was clear that the young woman drew it around herself like her cloak, even as she reached up and pushed the hood of her physical one down.

She paused in front of the cranks, apparently contemplative for all of a moment before she shook her head, dismissing whatever internal suggestion she must have posited to herself. Unerringly, she reached for the center crank, lofting the standard of the people to the highest position. It would seem that no two of them were allowed to remain on the same level, because the one belonging to the Maker slid to the bottom, while the flaming sword of the templars remained in the middle. After a moment, Estella turned back around.

“That’s it. That’s the order I choose.” Her voice was soft, but a thread of firmness kept it from qualifying as meek by any stretch.

Séverine nodded in return, not displaying any obvious judgement of the Herald's decision. "It's tradition for any participant in the Rite to explain their choice to the witnesses. It is, however, a choice and not a requirement."

Estella’s eyes dropped to the ground for a moment, but she forced them back up again. When she spoke, it was loud enough to be heard by those that were paying attention, though no louder than that. “I know only a little of honor,” she said, a faint smile playing at the corner of her mouth, as though she remembered something fondly. “But what I do know is that it is service by those who can do what needs to be done, freely given to those who cannot. It is, I think, the Inquisition’s duty and its honor, then, to act in service, first and foremost of those without our resources and our strength.”

The fleeting smile faded. “And the templars are people, too. Fewer, and perhaps more capable of defending themselves, but people nevertheless. If what we are meant to do is protect and serve those who must be protected, well… I hardly think the Maker should need our help, and whether we honor him or not is nothing I can decide.” The explanation, brief as it was, seemed to exhaust her present reserves of courage, because she ducked her head and returned to the group of the others immediately afterwards.

"The honesty's all well and good," Abernache put forth, his arms crossed, "but no thought given to impressing the Lord Seeker? Why bother at all? We're here to bring these templars to heel, are we not?" Séverine's glare at the man could've cut glass, but thankfully his mask cut off his peripherals enough for him not to notice. Her irritated sigh, however, was quite audible.

"I thank the Maker the Inquisition has a bit more heart than its noble support. I trust the Herald's intent here is more than just rounding up swords for an army." Abernache turned, stepping forward to be face to face with the woman.

"My intent is to deal with people who matter. You armored louts are wasting the Inquisition's time, and mine. Unacceptable!"

Séverine took a carefully controlled breath, obviously reminding herself not to bludgeon the man. "You need not worry about impressing the Lord Seeker, regardless." She stepped around Abernache, carefully, as though she did not desire to accidentally make contact with him, and drew closer to Estella and the others of her party. Though her focus was centered on the Herald alone.

"You should know that the Lord Seeker seems only to want to meet you. Not your Inquisition. You. By name. I know not why, but he's been utterly fixated on you since your lovely horde of nobles arrived."

A soft laugh echoed from under Vesryn's helm, from where he stood at Estella's side like a sentinel, shield and spear in hand. The elf had a proud visage when fully armed and armored, and indeed, it wasn't actually clear at all that he was an elf at the moment. "Seems you've got an admirer." There was an undertone of sarcasm to the words, evidence that he didn't find the development all that amusing, or pleasing to hear.

Estella scoffed softly at that, half-amused, before returning her attention to Séverine, whereupon she shifted awkwardly where she stood, shaking her head. “That… can’t be right. Maybe he’s just surprised we have so much support? I mean, I’m kind of…” she gestured vaguely to herself, then pulled her hood back up over her hair.

“The face of our present effort, yes.” Leon at least seemed to have little trouble deciphering what she meant, and she looked quite grateful for that, nodding. “As skilled as he’s always been at getting to the heart of things, the Lord Seeker would not have failed to notice as much.” He appeared to be thinking quite hard about something, but whatever was going on in his head, he did not share for the moment.

Cyrus had taken up a scowl at some point during this part of the conversation, and wore it openly beneath his own hood. It wasn’t terribly difficult to guess what part of this made him look so, but he kept his thoughts to himself as well, eyeing the path forward and inner parts of the castle with wary disdain. His hands disappeared beneath the folds of his cloak, removing another set of tells as to his intentions.

"Just thought I'd give you fair warning," Séverine said, nodding. "Come on, we've delayed long enough. I'll take you to him now."

Marceline said nothing and kept her own features guarded, though she did offer a smile to Abernache when they met eyes for a moment. He may have been brusque in his approach, but the message he sent was loud and clear. The Inquisition and its allies would not be turned away. However, Marceline still made a mental note to speak with him after all is said and done. She glanced behind her to Larissa who pulled her eyes down from the rampart to give a curt shake of her head.

Soon, Séverine led the small procession into a room with a table, no doubt where the negotiations were to take place. Lady Marceline chose to occupy a spot beside the Lord Abernache in order to better guide his furor. She took the moment to pull the hood away from her head and brush the few drops of rain that remained from her hair.

Estella also pulled her hood back down, though her hair was in nowhere near the neat state Marcy’s was. Clearly, the static and the weather had combined to thwart any attempts at looking especially put-together on her part, because several strands had slipped the grip of her plait, and stuck out in places, especially around her ears. She hesitated before stepping forward so as to be at a level with Lord Abernache and Marceline, appearing reluctant to stand too far in front of the other four and maintaining a distinct five feet from the nobleman. “I’m… not actually going to have to meet with the Lord Seeker by myself, am I?” She grimaced. “I really doubt I’d be able to convince him of anything.” The question seemed to be directed at Marceline.

Marceline shook her head in the negative, "No, we will be with you during the negotiations," she answered. Though how much use they would be remained to be seen. From all that she had heard, the Lord Seeker seemed to be focused solely on the Herald which appeared strange, considering how easily he dismissed them in Val Royeaux. Perhaps their recent alliance with the mages changed his mind on the matter, and their newfound power managed to catch his eyes... Though that did not explain the focus on Estella.

"But you must remain strong, the Lord Seeker will notice if you flag," Marceline gently reminded. A man such as him could smell weakness, and he would not be afraid to press his advantage.

Estella nodded, her face resuming a relatively impassive expression. Before anyone could speak any further, the clank of armored boots followed by the sound of a door opening drew their attention to the left, where a man in armor more ornate than Séverine's, including a prominently-winged helmet, had just entered the room, flanked by two other Templars. “You were expecting the Lord Seeker,” he said without preamble. “He sent me to die for you.” It was a strange turn of phrase, and Leon straightened perceptibly when it was uttered, his eyes narrowing.

"Knight Captain," Abernache said, attempting to approach the man. He only managed a step, however, before a gentle tug on his sleeve from Marceline bade him to keep his place. Like Leon, Marceline did not particularly enjoy how the situation was playing out, and she most definitely did not like the knight captain's body language. "Lord Esmeral Abernache. Honored," he continued with a bow, though at a much safer distance. "It is not unlike the second dispersal of the Reclaimed Dales." Marceline coughed, but said nothing.

"No doubt rank puts you above such things. A pity more people don't understand that," he said with a sharp glance at Séverine. Apparently the Knight Captain's more ornate armor suggested to him that he was of a higher rank than Séverine. Marceline made no move to correct him, and though her face was impassive as always, her hand rested on the hilt of her rapier.

The Knight-Captain chuckled, but the sound carried not even a faint hint of genuine mirth. This is the grand alliance the Inquisition offers?” He turned his eyes from Lord Abernache, clearly uninterested in dealing with him, and swept them over the rest of those assembled. Even behind the helmet, it was easy to tell that his gaze landed heavily on Estella.

There was a slight tic in her jaw, but she looked right into the eyeslit of the helmet. “With respect, Knight-Captain, we understood that we were to be meeting the Lord Seeker.”

“Yes, let me also extend my hand to the Lord Seeker, Knight-Captain.” Though now held back from approach by Marceline, Abernache seemed otherwise oblivious to the tension permeating the room.

Outside of the room, a dull roar started up, one that sounded like the din of an armed clash of some sort. Estella’s eyes went wide, and Leon took a half-step forward before the Knight-Captain raised his voice to be heard over the commotion. “The Lord Seeker had a plan, but the Herald ruined it by arriving with purpose. It sowed too much dissent.” Cyrus stepped in front of his sister, and the telltale flicker of a barrier forming appeared in front of the hand he raised to chest-level.

“What’s going on out there?” Leon completed the motion he’d begun, moving to the side of the table. Perhaps it was only the fact that he drew no weapon that prevented any from being drawn on him.

“They were all supposed to be changed. Now we must purge the questioning knights!” It took no more than that, and Leon surged forward, knocking the Knight-Captain to the ground by slamming an elbow into the space between his helmet and his breastplate. An arrow clanged off his armor, and the archer who had fired it took up the invective.

“The Elder One is coming! No one will leave Therinfal who is not stained red!”

A low ranking templar attempted to run Séverine through from behind, but she had her blade drawn and whirled about in time, blocking the sword aside and grabbing the young man's arm to twist. He shouted, at her mercy despite his flails. "Maker, you can't be serious," she said, looking under the recruit's hood. Red veins criss-crossed over his face, and his eyes were an even darker shade.

"The Elder One will--" His threat was cut off by Séverine's sword slashing across his throat, and he collapsed to the ground. The Knight-Captain readied herself for the next that would attempt to purge her.

"No. The Elder One will not."

The gentle grip on Abernache's sleeve turned firm, and Marceline threw the Lord back and out of the way of an incoming arrow. "Larissa," Marceline called out as she freed her rapier from its sheath. "See to Lord Abernache," and wih that, the woman took a grip on the Lord and backed away from the rapidly ensuing melee.

Marceline for her part slipped in behind Vesryn, and more importantly, his shield. "May I borrow you for a moment?" she asked as she placed a hand on his shoulder and hunkered down behind him as she watched his flanks.

"As long as you need, my lady," the elf answered easily. A templar rebounded off of his shield, the blow met with perfect timing, and Vesryn's spear found the red-lyrium tainted woman's gut in the ensuing opening, dropping her to the ground in a heap.

"My thanks," Marceline said, her rapier slipping under the helmet of a templar who'd tried to approach them from the side.

Leon was surprisingly quick over ground, and had left the dropped Knight-Captain in favor of breaking an archer’s nose over his knee within seconds of the initial attack. The man howled, at least until the Seeker gripped his head in both hands and twisted, silencing him. He was midway through a lunge for the next when Estella called out over the noise. “Commander, behind you!” Apparently following up the warning with action, she drew her sword as she ran, clearing the table with a flying leap and bringing the saber down with both hands.

A ringing sound issued from contact with what had once been the Knight-Captain’s arm, though it was scarcely recognizable as such anymore. The outer half of each forearm was coated in red crystals, faintly glowing, and more jutted out from each elbow, like blades almost. More of it had grown in over parts of his neck, and his breastplate had cracked from the inside, half-useless now but hinting at more of the lyrium underneath. His eyes were a luminous, menacing red, and he backhanded Estella with speed not commonly found in ordinary men, and clearly more strength still, because she went from having rather solid footing to rolling on the ground half a dozen feet away, regaining her feet in a recovery maneuver.

She’d kept him busy long enough for Leon to readjust, however, and he grabbed for one of the Knight-Captain’s hands, twisting him around into what must have been some kind of joint-lock, placing himself behind the man and kicking out his knees from behind, taking him to the floor.

A cluster of the remaining templars to the right lurched under the force of a chain lightning spell, given no time to recover before Cyrus was suddenly right next to them, hacking into weak spots in their armor with a humming blue sword. His first hit nearly took the head right off one of them, but he didn’t bother hacking twice, adjusting his feet fluidly and shoving the blade into the next one’s armpit, the arterial blood making a faint hissing sound as it came in contact with the weapon. The third, recovered perhaps too quickly for the obvious impact of the spell, took a gout of fire to the face before she could prepare her smite, and fell with her compatriots.

“At least we don’t have to wonder when they’re going to try and kill us anymore.” His tone was exceedingly dry.

The sound of a rapid barrage of blows followed, though the table blocked sight of everything in that direction save Leon’s head and shoulders, which moved vigorously enough to suggest that he was the cause. A great deal of cracking followed, and then the Seeker drew back further, his gauntlet speckled in bits of red stone, and slammed a fist down one last time, producing a deeper crunch, before he pushed himself back into a stand. It seemed to take him a moment to regain his bearings, and he shook his head a few times, blinking rapidly before refocusing on the rest of the group. Given that the rest of the templars that had been in the room were dead or close enough, he started picking little shards of red lyrium out of his armor without looking at them.

“We need to find the Lord Seeker. With apologies, Lady Marceline, Lord Abernache, it seems that the diplomatic portion of this venture is over.”

Marceline took a glance at the carnage around around with a distasteful look in her eyes before she shook her head and turned toward her assistant. "Larissa, if you would be so kind as to escort the good Lord Abernache safely away from this place?" With a nod, Larissa took a gentle hold onto Abernache, who still seemed to be in a state of shock, and began to slowly guide him out.

"It does indeed seem that way Ser Leonhardt," Marceline said, her rapier lightly resting against her shoulder. "The Lord Seeker has much to answer for."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit
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It was hardly the first fight in which Estella had been of almost no use at all, but she was keenly reminded of how far she still had to go in moments like this. Frankly, she would have dwelled on it, had it not been for the much more pressing need to continue forward, to find the Lord Seeker and stop all of this, somehow. She hadn’t seen a person afflicted with red lyrium since Kirkwall, and even then, it had only been one. Meredith was fearsome enough, though Estella had not had to confront her directly. She still had nightmares about the events of that day, sometimes—so much death, and such desperate conflict, all in service of something she couldn’t begin to understand, a madness that this substance had brought on.

It made her feel faintly nauseated, though that was more than likely at least partially due to the lyrium itself. She suspected a better mage, like Cyrus, felt it even more keenly than she did. She’d be surprised if the others were oblivious to it, either. Leon may be able to brush it off, but she knew that they really shouldn’t be touching it, if what she’d heard was true.

Not desiring to linger here, she followed the Commander out of the room. They headed deeper into the barracks first, Séverine giving directions whenever they came to a turn or door, since she knew the area by far better than any of the rest of them. The fighting didn’t seem to have made it this far out, and though they occasionally ran into a small pocket of the lyrium-infected templars, none of those groups were even as large as theirs, which meant short work, considering the prowess of the others.

After the first such bout, Estella could swear she heard something. It was perhaps no more than a whisper, but in something close to the Lord Seeker’s voice, as though he were standing right over her shoulder and speaking into her ear. “Come to me, Herald of Andraste.” She shuddered, reaching up with her free hand to touch the nape of her neck, and glanced over her shoulder, but of course all she saw was those of her allies who walked in the rear. Biting her lip, she faced forward again and kept going, reaching the outside—and another fight—with the rest of them.

She was just shaking some of the blood off her sword from her last opponent when the whisper sounded again. “You will be so much more than you are!” It was more emphatic this time, more sudden, and she jumped, dropping the blade in surprise.

“Can… can anyone else hear that?”

Cyrus approached, stooping to retrieve her blade and handing it to her hilt-first. His concern was evident in his eyes, which had always been his tell, if nothing else was. “Hear what, Stellulam?”

"Whispers," Vesryn said, from Estella's side, where he'd situated himself for much of the fighting. "You mean the whispers, right?" He glanced between Estella and Cyrus rapidly.

"I haven't gone mad, I swear."

"We should keep moving," Séverine urged from the front, where she kept watch. The rain continued with no sign of stopping, steadily washing the blood from the fighting into the softening earth.

It was almost a relief to know someone else had heard them. “I… yes. I think… with the Lord Seeker’s voice.” She pursed her lips, but started forward again. Séverine was right—they had to keep going. People’s lives were on the line here, and whatever strange thing might be happening wasn’t worth stopping and trying to figure out.

“Show me what you are.” Estella locked her jaw and increased her pace, though it seemed unlikely she could simply outrun it, whatever it was. She had a feeling they’d know in time, regardless.

“DO NOT IGNORE ME!” This time, it thundered, loud enough for all to hear and then some, a strange multi-tonal cadence to what was clearly still based on the Lord Seeker’s diction. “I WOULD KNOW YOU!”

“So much for whispering.” Cyrus wore a look of open displeasure, his lip faintly curled. “But you’re right; it does sound like the Lord Seeker. One more problem we solve by finding him.” His features shifted, clearly from some internal musings, but he didn’t choose to let the rest of them in on what he was thinking, for the moment.

At Séverine’s direction, they took a turn into what was apparently a guard building, because it contained stairs to the lower wall. There they came upon a few other templars, these ones clearly unaffected by red lyrium, striking down one who clearly was. They turned at the party’s approach, their postures easing when they recognized at least the Knight-Captain, and they both saluted her.

“Knight-Captain! The other officers—they’ve all gone mad.”

“We know,” Leon replied. “We need to reach the Lord Seeker. Any idea where he is?” All three shook their heads, leaving the party to continue in the direction of their best guess. Of course, the fact that the Lord Seeker continued to speak to them—or, well, her at least—was as good an indication as any that they were on the right track. Clearly, he wanted this confrontation just as much as they did.

The lower wall let them out onto a higher level of the castle, which was comparatively empty of occupants, though pitched battles had evidently been fought, with dozens of Templar corpses on the ground—both laced with red lyrium and without, though there were many more of the second. Estella tried not to hurry too much, aware of the need for a degree of caution, but her pace further increased until she was just short of breaking into a jog.

They reached a large staircase, one that led up to what must have been the main door to the redoubt's central building. She couldn't see anyone there; perhaps the man they were looking for had taken up residence within? “Come, Estella Avenarius. Show me what kind of woman you really are.” The voice echoed still, but not as loudly as before.

“All of this, for what?” she muttered, tightening her grip on her sword and mounting the stairs. The rain had grown much heavier, and though it did not yet approach what she’d experienced in the Mire, it was quite close, and very cold.

The whispers returned, this time unintelligible, echoing around the pillars that were lined along the top of the staircase, just before the main doors. Judging by the reactions of the others, all looking about, searching for the source, everyone could hear them. Eventually, a few words could be made out among the slithering noise. Herald. At last. Know you. At last. Learn. At last...

He appeared from behind one of the pillars and rushed at the group with inhuman speed. Lord Seeker Lucius never let his eyes leave Estella, even while Vesryn stood partially between them. He charged them from the right, hands outstretched with no weapons, only grasping fingers. Vesryn's shield hand reached around to grab Estella's shoulder and pull her behind him, but the Lord Seeker's speed was too quick.

He half charged through the elf, seizing Estella by the collar, at which point all three of them began to topple over backwards together. Before her back even hit the ground, Estella's vision filled with a bright light, quickly becoming all consuming, until only the Lord Seeker's piercing whisper could be heard.

"At last..."




She landed in a very different place than she had fallen, or so it seemed to her. Her back hit the ground with a hard thud, knocking the wind out of her, and as her eyes cleared, she could make out a ceiling above her head, a dome lofted high and arranged with gorgeous pieces of colored glass, which filtered the light from above in rich pigments, so that where it struck the dust motes floating through the air, it did so in scattered reds, blues, greens, and purples. There was no sound to be heard, and for a distended moment, she simply stared up at the stained glass dome, running her eyes over the familiar pattern.

There was a kind of loneliness that could only be felt when one was not only utterly devoid of company, but felt it, deep in one’s heart, the aching of an empty space. She wondered, for a moment, if everything had been a dream, after all. Her flight, Kirkwall, the Lions, the Inquisition, all of it. If that was what left her feeling so bereft now—that all of the things she’d built had been torn away, and she was returning to this moment. The thought intensified the ache, and she drew a hissing breath in between her teeth, raising an arm to place a fist over the center of her chest and push down, through the leathers and her light gauntlet.

Furrowing her brow, she drew her eyes down to the spot, realizing that it was a gauntlet, and she was wearing leathers. Moving the hand to her face, she pressed hard on her cheekbone, but felt no pain. In fact, she wasn’t in pain at all. It couldn’t have been a dream.

Sitting up, she looked around, a few discrepancies immediately becoming obvious. The chamber was circular as it should be, the light grey stone tinted in many colors by the filtered light, but it was otherwise empty. No furniture, no decoration, just dust in the air and herself on the floor. She wasn’t wrong about being alone, but she drew comfort from the fact that she might not have to be that way forever. A daring thought, really. Pursing her lips, Estella clambered to her feet, the task more difficult than she would have anticipated. All of her felt slow and sluggish, actually; awkward. She was like that all the time, though, so it was hardly surprising.

Slow. Weak. Graceless, yes. Show me more. The barest whisper of sound reached her in the still air, and she whirled around, seeking for its source, only to find that it seemingly had none.

As this particular room was at the end of a hallway, there was only one doorway out, an open stone arch, and she started towards it. Normally, it would put her into a passage of ordinary size, but when she stepped past the threshold, she found that it was about three times as big as she remembered it, its own ceiling vaulted high. The floor was bare stone, and her boots made too much noise as she walked along the center. Each side of the path was flanked with tall insets, each containing what appeared to be a sculpture or a statue. They were hard to see, but as she continued down the hall, the first one resolved into clarity.

“Cyrus?” Her voice was grating in the echoes, too rough and raspy and hissing, too loud, though she’d meant it to be quiet. There was no music in it.

But the statue, fifteen feet tall and exceptionally well-formed, did depict her brother, in white marble. Somehow, though, the eyes were the right color, as though someone had inlaid a dark sliver of lapis lazuli into the space each of the irises was supposed to be. Something was the faintest degree off about it, and when she leaned to the left, its features seemed to shift, rounding out from the well-defined lines of a man’s face to the soft, less sure ones belonging to a child, and then the emergent, nearly gaunt bone structure she’d known him to have as a teenager.

Yes, yes, excellent. First and last, you say. Always but never. So much to know, always knowing.

The return of the whisper made her jump, and she cursed herself for being so quick to startle, shaking her head. Whatever the meaning of the statue was, she could not decipher it. Her steps carried down the hall and rebounded back to her, emphasizing the inelegant shuffle of her gait by making it a dozen times louder. As though she could forget, and needed reminding.

To her right, something flickered in the corner of her eye, and she turned towards it, sucking in a harsh breath when another statue resolved into her vision. This was an elderly man, his features craggy and weathered and stern, his carriage unmistakably proud. Though the lines near his eyes were deep, they only seemed to lend authority to him, and he peered down at her from a height of no fewer than twenty feet, giving her the distinct impression that she had shrunk somehow. It was difficult to make out his face properly, given that he was carved from obsidian, but she knew its every line quite well, and swallowed thickly, her lower lip trembling.

Not wishing to linger, Estella turned and hurried onwards. More. More. I will know you.

The intervals between statues at first seemed random; it was much longer before she reached the next one, just as tall as the last, but of a younger man, with a clearer expression: one of soft frustration, tinged with affection. She closed her eyes and moved past.

The space between the third and fourth was much longer still, but the fourth and the fifth stood across from each other. One was a dignified man in armor, holding the hilt of a large sword, the tip of the blade resting at his feet. In contrast with the serious line of his mouth, his eyes carried a gentle humor about them. The one across from him wore almost no expression at all, his hands folded into his sleeves. Even the way he’d been carved was somehow enough to convey all the grace and finesse with which he moved in life, and these at least, she smiled to see.

Walking between giants. So much attention. Show me. Who is the you that they see?

Estella shook her head. Whatever this whisper belonged to didn’t understand anything at all, that much was clear. Her step was light and airy as she advanced, and she almost felt as if the hall was not so much longer after all, and wondered what might be behind the next door.

Whatever good mood had begun to lift her spirits was swiftly quashed when she reached the end of the hall and saw the last statue. For a long moment, she stared up at it, trying to quell the return of the bottomless solitude she felt. It reminded her of so many things, and her last treads towards it fell loud and ponderous on the stone.

So many faces. So many changes. What are you? I see what you see, not what you are!

“I’m no one,” she answered in the ugly murmur, and turned her eyes to the floor. The door was just ahead, and she wanted to be through it. Another few long strides did the trick, and she pushed the door open with her palm, stepping through the frame and into what seemed torn from another memory, another almost-death that had not come to pass.

The ground was scorched black, stone flooring ripped up and scattered everywhere, to say nothing of the debris from the rest of what had once been the Temple of Sacred Ashes. All around her, petrified corpses studded the landscape, their faces twisted and frozen in masks of fear, the barest remnants of almost-mummified flesh left to cling to their skeletons, just enough that if she squinted, she could almost imagine the people they had once been. Her squad… they were here somewhere, too, though she knew not where. Her recollection had not granted her even that much.

Her feet dragged as she tried to keep moving forward—it felt like they were weighted down, as if by shackles that made no noise and could not be seen, chained to she knew not what. Every step was a torment, but Estella drove forward all the same, tripping more times than she kept track of, often catching herself on her hands, but sometimes not, an unfortunate lack of reflex that rewarded her duly with several cuts and scrapes on her face, which stung terribly in the grainy wind that whipped the smallest pieces of stone dust and scree directly at her.

She became increasingly aware as well of the cold, seeping into her bones and setting her teeth to a permanent chatter, the clicking sound loud and grating and annoying in her own ears. Still, she staggered forward, though she wasn’t even sure why anymore, because if this place even had an end, she didn’t seem to be getting any closer to reaching it, and even the whispers seemed to have abandoned her for now. A hard stumble brought her to her knees, and for a moment, she remained there, arms wrapped around herself, bowed over, the rasp of her breath sawing in and out of her lungs and the clatter of her teeth the only sounds audible over the driving gale. When had it become a gale? She didn’t recall. It tugged at her cloak, ripping it free of her shoulders before she could hold it in place, and blowing it behind her on the wind.

With a groan, Estella pushed herself to her feet, and kept moving forward.

For all she walked, for all it felt like ages, she never reached what should have been the bounds of the Temple. Nothing seemed to repeat, but at the same time, several times she looked around her and was confronted with the vague sense that she’d made no progress at all. Still the faces of the dead begged her to help them, though they were long past saving. Still the ground wore away at her feet, and the wind and cold at her spirit. Still her chest ached with hollowness. Still she kept walking.

The next time she tripped, her arms gave out from under her when she tried to catch herself, and she felt a sharp stab of pain. Rolling over into her side, she reached down towards her abdomen, where she could see in the dim light that a shard of granite had buried itself in an unlucky joint in her leathers, punching a hole in the left side of her belly. Grimacing, she used trembling fingers to pull it out, trying to summon a rudimentary healing spell in the other hand to stop the bleeding, at least. But of course, she was no mage, not really, and so that was impossible. She almost laughed at herself for trying.

It left her with precious few options, however, and she tried to decide what she needed most. Loosening her jerkin, she tugged it off, rolling another quarter-turn onto her back and taking hold of the hem of her tunic with both hands. She had to tug several times before it tore, but from there she was able to remove enough to tie around the wound as tightly as her numb fingers would let her, and then fold herself back into her armor, which now sat uncomfortably directly against her skin from the end of her ribcage to her waist. But it was better than giving up her boots to take the bandages from her breeches.

It took several deep breaths before she could gather the strength to roll back onto her hands and knees, and quite a few more before she could ease to her feet. For the first time, she looked behind her, but the landscape that way looked just the same as the landscape in front, and she couldn’t see the door she’d come from in any case. Somehow she doubted going backwards would help anyway.

When she returned her attention to the front, she was surprised to see a dim light in the distance, glowing softly blue. It was the first change in scenery since she’d arrived here, and she struck out for it immediately, hoping against hope that what she found there might make a difference.

As she approached, the light took on the shape of a person. A woman, and by the point of her ears, an elf. Her back was turned; her body was entirely unclothed, but her shape was made up of the light, to the point where she was partially transparent. The sapphire glow kept her exact appearance indistinct, as though it deliberately unfocused whenever Estella attempted to see her clearly. It was not difficult to tell, though, that she had a powerful figure, both taller and significantly more muscled than Estella was.

She turned when Estella neared, and even blurred her features were noble, proud. The gale whipped at Estella, but the glowing woman seemed entirely unaffected by it. Her hair, which glowed like the rest of her did, fell neatly to rest upon her shoulders. The source of the light seemed to emanate from her chest. With the severity of the cold around her, it was obvious to Estella that the woman in front of her was radiating warmth into the air.

The figure raised her hand slowly, and a spark of blue light lifted into the air above them. It burst over their heads, and a translucent dome slowly fell around them, until it reached the ground. The wind stopped altogether, and within moments the warmth had filled the entire space.

The woman bowed gracefully in greeting, nodding her head forward.

Estella, battered, chilled, clumsy and no doubt looking like a wreck, blinked slowly. It took her several seconds to even properly comprehend what she was looking at, as though her mind, no longer in the simple state of forward, now again, had to lurch back to a start. The warmth helped, and though the feeling returning to her extremities was quite painful, she was glad it was pain she could feel, because that was much better than the alternative.

Despite that, she managed to dredge up a smile from somewhere, and bowed back as best she could. She wasn’t the kind of mage that frequently conversed with spirits, but she dreamed like anyone did, and occasionally, one of them had a reason to notice her, and so she did generally know what they were like. This one was strange, a little different somehow, like she might have been incomplete, the way her features appeared to shift, losing sharpness when directly focused upon. It was almost easier to see her from the periphery of her vision.

“Thank you,” she rasped, though it might have been more an effect of the dry wind than anything. “You’re… We’ve not met before, have we?” It would be very strange if they had, but stranger still if they had not, considering the location.

The figure smiled, not parting her lips, and then shook her head. A moment later, she waved her hand, and beams of light traveled along the glowing surface of her body, leaving armor in their wake. Were it not transparent, it would look quite heavy, and its design was ornate. In fact, as it completed its formation, it took on a very familiar shape, as did the tower shield that now leaned against her, and the spear she carried in her grasp. She tilted her head, and awaited recognition from Estella.

It was immediate. “Saraya?” Estella’s eyes went wide, and she took a half-step backwards, though it was more that she lost her balance again than anything. This was an alarming development, for more than one reason. Mostly, she was extremely concerned about this because she knew for a fact, or close enough, that she was inside her own consciousness right now—nothing else explained all the phenomena. Which meant that if Saraya was in here with her, then she wasn’t inside Vesryn’s head, and that was very, very bad.

“How did… ah. The Lord Seeker.” Whatever he’d done, she recalled Vesryn had attempted to stop, which might have interfered in part with the magic that had pulled her in here. Estella chewed her lip. “He’s in here somewhere, too. Do you think that if we found him, made him reverse… whatever this is, that you’d get back safely?”

Saraya nodded once, apparently all that she believed was necessary.

Suddenly, a crack of lightning blasted against the dome she had erected, and it split apart in several places, allowing icy wind to cut back through.

Begone, thing! I am learning. You cannot help her...

Saraya gazed up above them, her expression annoyed. Stepping forward, she set down her shield when she was within easy arm's reach of Estella. Slowly, she reached out a glowing hand, and gently placed it upon Estella's forehead. Instantly an intense feeling of envy filled her mind, envy directed at herself. The envy was stemmed by thoughts of freedom, a youthful, strong body, a position of authority, of opportunity. It was powerful in magnitude, but it ended before it could carry on too long, and Saraya took a step back.

She pointed up to the sky.

“Envy…” She knew the feeling, though she wasn’t sure she’d ever felt it so strongly as this. To feel it directed at herself was… uncanny, and very strange. It made no sense, and yet she could only interpret what Saraya imparted upon her as that. “The Lord Seeker is an envy demon?” Or, perhaps more accurately, an envy demon was assuming the form of the Lord Seeker, which meant that they weren’t dealing with the real one at all. Perhaps they never had been. Saraya nodded gravely, confirming her suspicion.

“This shape is significant.” The voice, at once more familiar than her own and somehow distorted, sounded from behind her, and Estella turned, met with the visage of her twin, though he looked ill in the light, wan. The demon didn’t hold the shape like Cyrus held himself, either—she supposed that made sense; envy wasn’t self-assured, rather the opposite. She knew from experience that attempting to falsify confidence could only work so well. “Will it help me know you?”

“You will not tell me about you. All you will think is of others. But I must know you!”

She understood, now, what it meant about learning. It wanted, for some reason, to assume her shape, to imitate her. And in order to do that, it needed to know enough to pass as her. So it had brought her here, to seek the answers it would need to wear her face. Even now, it was trying to understand. Estella’s hand went to the hilt of her sword, but then paused, her fingers still loose around the grip. Everything she did was now another piece of information for it, potentially. And if that was really what it wanted, then she had to avoid giving it that. Knowing how she moved, how she fought, however poorly, was information. She wasn’t even sure she could kill it, here.

No. What she needed to do was make it do all the talking and thinking aloud. She needed to understand it better than it understood her, and use that information to frustrate it to the point of making a mistake. And what she knew about it right now was that it wanted to learn about her. The way it looked at her made a mockery of her brother’s natural inquisitiveness, that fervent curiosity that so often lit his eyes. It looked sick, while the demon wore his face.

Taking a breath, something she tried not to make too obvious, she answered with a question. “Why do you want to know me?” She asked it as neutrally as possible, showing it her best imitation of Rilien’s face. It was almost ironic, that she planned to outdo the demon by being, in some sense, the superior imitator. If she could manage it.

As if in response, its features shifted, until it was wearing the face of her teacher, down to the sunburst on his forehead. “Being you will be so much more interesting than being the Lord Seeker.” In its left hand, the demon toyed with a knife, a replica of one of the Tranquil’s daggers, running a precise finger along the edge. It was also not an excellent likeness, considering the fact that she’d never once known Rilien to fidget or move idly. Hopefully that was a sign that it wasn’t being as careful.

“Do you know what the Inquisition can become? If only I were you…” It lunged at her, and she jumped backward, but no sooner had it completed its forward arc than it burst into smoke and disappeared.

"When I am done, the Elder One will kill you and ascend. Then I will be you.” It was Asala that time, and the voice from the left, where the Qunari woman appeared as well, though envy walked straighter in her skin, assuming a demeanor more like Asala when there was healing to be done than Asala at any other time. Still Estella kept herself mindful—the details were important.

“What is the Elder One?” Short questions, and only questions. It was already talking a great deal more than she was, even if it was deeply unsettling that it used the voices of her friends to do so.

The creature laughed, shifting again so that what began as a feminine sound ended as a masculine one, and it wore the same familiar face as the second statue, draped in dark blue robes and carrying a staff with a scythe-blade on one end, a thick hand with heavy knuckles gripping it with surety. “He is between things. Mortal once, but no longer. Glory is coming, and the Elder One wants you to serve him like everyone else: by dying in the right way.” The corners of his mouth turned up in a twisted caricature of a smile, probably the best envy could manage, and this time, it called lightning to itself, lifting the staff and throwing the spell in a broad arc from the scythe.

Estella stood no chance of getting out of the way in time, she knew, and indeed, her body was extremely slow to react, almost like she was moving through water.

Saraya was not so restrained, and she intervened before the lightning could reach Estella. Planting the glowing shield into the ground before her, the spell crackled and smashed against it, leaving the woman reeling and digging a foot into the ground. The envy demon hissed, infuriated.

"Insolence! This will be my place, not yours! Begone!" He threw a straight bolt of lightning from his hand, a spell which exploded directly against Saraya's shield, and the glowing body burst into a dozen wisps of flickering light. They scattered into the wind.

“Saraya!” Estella didn’t have time to think, only react, and her hand flew to the hilt of her sword, which rang free of the sheath with a hissing rasp. She lunged into the place her ally had been, bringing the saber down on the envy demon, which still wore the face of Tiberius. As soon as her blade made contact, it shrieked and dispersed.

“You cannot stop me! I will have what is yours!” Its voice trailed off with the motes of black dust that seemed to have constituted that particular form, but Estella hardly cared. She fell to the ground, plunging the end of the saber down into it and leaning heavily against the blade, which glimmered brightly in the dark. From her knees, she dragged a hand across the ground, as though hoping to recover some remnant of the remnant, something that would show her that Saraya was still alive, still present. What did it take to kill something in the mind? Cyrus would know. Of course he would. He’d be able to fix this.

But she couldn’t. She couldn’t fix anything. “Why me?” she muttered miserably, losing all will to keep herself upright and remaining so only because she saw no more point in removing her grip from the hilt of her saber than she did in keeping it there. “I don’t matter. I’m nobody.” If the demon had chosen anyone else, this wouldn’t have happened. But it had chosen her—miserable, wretched, worthless Estella—and so everything was going straight to shit, just as she’d always known it would. That she was surrounded by so many talented, impressive people, that Romulus had a mark, too; these things had allowed her to believe that they might succeed, that they might really close the Breach, and that she might be able to go back to being anonymous and unimportant without having ruined anything, save the lives of the families of her squadmates.

Her back bowed further under the pressure of her thoughts, and she fought the bile that rose in her throat. How could she have forgotten? How could she have let herself, for even a single moment, fail to recall her own incompetence, and how dangerous it was, for those around her? How had she let herself believe that she could ever be the kind of person others might be able to lean on? Where had she gained the pretension to suppose that one day, she might be strong, or worthy, or valuable in any way at all? She had no grace, no skill, lackluster intelligence, and a terrible, crippling inability to improve for all the first-class instruction and arduous practice in the world.

How dare she forget. How dare she let other people pay the price for that.

She was pathetic.

And she deserved to suffer for all the things she could not be.

Some combination of the brittle-bone cold, the weight settled over her body like a cloak of lead, and the furious churning of her own thoughts overcame her, and she retched, dry-heaving painfully, folded in on herself and at last relinquishing the grip she held on the sword. Another thing she wasn’t worthy of. Another grace extended to her that she could not hope to repay in kind. Estella fell onto her side, curling into a small ball and pulling her knees against her chest, willing the ordeal to simply end. She’d proven what she knew all along: she was incapable of meeting a challenge of this magnitude. She couldn’t do it alone, and she was toxic to anyone who would be her ally. She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them again—dry, because even she knew she was wallowing in self-pity and she wasn’t worth crying over—and they found immediately the bright edge of her saber. She stared at it for what seemed the longest time, fascinated by the way the enchantment made it glimmer with a light all its own. Like a little star, right there in the dark.

A bitter smile slashed her face, and she chuckled weakly. “Stellulam…” Cy’s nickname for her was ridiculous. Even he would surely be disappointed in her, if he could see her now. She was disappointed in herself. Then again, she was always that.

Distantly, she knew that she had to stand up. If she did nothing else, she had to make this right again. Her wound twinged—she’d hurt herself by falling over. Of course she had, because actual battle wounds were for people who had a fighting chance. She couldn’t…

“I can’t.” But slowly, she stood anyway, dragging herself to her feet, resting her hand on the saber, which was faintly warm to the touch, and pulling it from the ground. It felt heavy in her hands, unfamiliar, like the first time she’d ever tried to wield it. Listing to the side slightly, she took a step forward, and had to scramble not to fall backwards when the scenery around her abruptly changed, putting her back in Therinfal Redoubt.

It was eerily quiet, compared to what it had been like before, but she remembered the route, and followed it. This version seemed to be what Envy imagined the Inquisition would look like, if it replaced her. She thought it was foolish to believe she had so much power as it seemed to assume, particularly when she walked in on a meeting between herself and the Inquisition’s three advisors. They all stood around the table, though Romulus was a conspicuous absence. "We’re almost there,” Marceline was saying. "Orlais, Ferelden, then Antiva and the Anderfels. Rivain’s surrender is imminent. Fitting that you’ll end where you started, no?”

“Soon enough, my accomplishment will match my ambition,” she heard her own voice reply from the facsimile of her appearance. She couldn’t help but find the words ridiculous. Estella had aspired to little. Though her faults were many, arrogance was not usually one of them. Perhaps even believing she could help close the Breach counted as arrogance enough.

“Do you see? What the Inquisition could be without you? When you are dead, and the Elder One has allowed me to become you?”

Estella walked through the ghostly image, dispersing it, and continued on her way. When she reached the same staircase as before, she spotted herself standing at the bottom of it. Or, well, the envy demon’s version of her, anyway. She took some little bit of succor in the fact that it had clearly glamorized her considerably: she looked as put-together as Marceline, and wore clothes as nice as Rilien’s, her armor polished silverite, chain with a heavy silk sash holding her sword in place, and leathers in lighter places. It still wasn't near to accuracy, really.

“Unfair! You are still whole!” In what seemed an instant, the demon was in front of her, its version of her hand tight around her throat, lifting her from the ground with no more difficulty than the Avvar she’d dueled in the Mire. “Why can’t I have your shape?!”

“Why… would you want it?” She choked out, her hands grabbing pointlessly at the arm holding her. It was uncanny, looking into her own face like that.

“Why would… why would…?” It seemed thrown by the question, but then gritted its teeth, its free hand glowing with sickly green magic, and turned to shove her against the door. “We’ll start again! More pain this time! The Elder One still awakes!”

A rumbling suddenly surrounded the two of them, as a ball of impressively bright blue fire burned through the wall of clouds hanging over them, to Estella's left. The envy demon growled, hurling Estella back with force against the door and turning to face the arriving presence. It smashed into the ground, scattered bits of the stone ground through the air, and from the cloud of dirt re-emerged the glowing form of Saraya, now wielding a greataxe the likes of which Estella had already seen.

She whirled forward through the air, the first blow coming down hard on Envy's sword, as it still attempted to retain Estella's shape. Saraya's offense was swift, precise, and brutal, but the demon was able to parry or repel every blow, even when it appeared to have no chance, as though it wasn’t actually possible for Saraya to land a hit. Eventually they clashed weapons and locked together. Blue sparks flickered through the air from Saraya’s axe, and sickly arcs of familiar green lightning careened away from Envy’s feign of a marked hand. Envy’s face was contorted in a mixture of extreme effort, and overwhelming anger.

“What are you? How can you remain? Die and leave, forever!”

Estella thanked whatever deities were paying attention for Saraya’s intervention, and more importantly, for the fact that she yet lived. While she knew she’d be of little assistance, the elven woman’s spirit had the demon locked in battle, which was opportunity enough for anyone, and so she circled around behind the dark shadow of herself, sheathing the sword quietly and drawing the straight-bladed knife from the small of her back.

Her approach was awkward, and she wound up just running the last half-dozen steps, jumping onto the demon’s back and plunging the blade downwards and slightly diagonally, for her replica’s less well-protected neck. The knife struck, and the envy demon beneath her dissolved again, this time with an inchoate shriek. Her vision filled once more with white, and she fell back into reality.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit
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Though three bodies had begun to fall in tandem, only two finished the arcs they should have. While Estella and Vesryn collapsed to the ground, the Lord Seeker was seemingly thrown from them with great force, his shape twisting in midair, limbs elongating and visage twisting. What landed before the door was no man, but rather a demon, lanky and warped. Cyrus recognized it immediately—envy, a rather rare variety, and much subtler than its kin.

It rose into an arch, walking its hands through the gap between its six-foot legs, an eerie contortion of its warped form, and then it shrieked at the lot of them, prompting Cyrus to move in front of Stellulam and Vesryn, putting himself between it and them, but doing so turned out to be, for the moment at least, unnecessary. The demon exploded into a cloud of green mist, flying in through the doors and over the heads of the Templars inside, retreating to some area beyond, and leaving a barrier behind it.

The moment he was sure it was safe to do so, he was kneeling by Estella’s side, a hand at her forehead. “Stellulam, can you hear me?” His tone was low, but unmistakably urgent; worry gripped his heart and furrowed his brow. That the demon had retreated meant something—he only hoped that it wasn’t the worst.

A soft groan was his initial response, but fortunately, Estella’s eyes opened directly afterwards, unfocused and hazy. Her head lolled slightly towards the side Cyrus knelt at, and she blinked slowly a few times. “Cy?” She coughed, the force of it actually bringing her partway off the ground, and she planted one of her hands on the floor, pushing herself into a sitting position. “How long have I been out?”

That was a peculiar question. Cyrus shook his head slightly, using one of his arms to support her back, though she seemed to be sitting all right on her own, for the moment. “Not long. The Lord Seeker attacked you and you fell.” And yet, he could sense a disturbance in the Fade greater than he would have ordinarily considered warranted, as though something or someone had used a considerable amount of magic in that tiny window of time.

“Are you all right? What happened?”

The expression she showed in reaction to his answer was complicated, but confusion seemed to predominate, and her lips parted for a moment, before she hesitated, apparently unsure what to say. “I… the Lord Seeker’s an envy demon. Or well… the person the templars thought was the Lord Seeker is one. It… it wanted my shape, and…” Her eyes went wide suddenly, and she glanced around herself frantically, pausing when she found Vesryn, who was still unmoving.

Shit,” she hissed, half-dragging herself within arm’s reach of the elven warrior and reaching out, laying a hand on his chestplate and shaking him gently. “Vesryn. He—” She cut herself off and looked meaningfully at Cyrus, suggesting that there was something she could not say, before she returned her attention to their fallen ally.

“Oh Maker, please be all right.”

The elven warrior soon stirred, as though coming out of a deep sleep, but when he seemed to remember where he was, he blinked several times in confusion. "Erm... what?" He paused, an awkward, uncomfortable smile coming into place. "I've gone and embarrassed myself, haven't I?"

His eyes then darted between Estella and Cyrus, before settling longer on Estella and looking her over, perhaps to confirm that she was undamaged. Satisfied, he pushed himself up into a sitting position. He removed his helmet briefly, shaking his head. "You haven't been waiting for me to wake up for long, I hope?"

“Not really, no.” Cyrus shrugged, offering a hand to each for assistance in moving from sitting on the ground to standing on it. Estella took his left without hesitation. He frowned a bit, and threw a glance into the now-open doorway. They’d become a minor spectacle for the templars inside, by the looks of things. “But if you’re both quite all right, we’d best continue. I doubt this lot will be very enthused to learn that their illustrious leader was a demon all along.” Not that he planned on dealing with the mess. That could fall to the Knight-Captain or Leon, whichever felt more inclined.

After Vesryn was on his feet as well, the group moved inside, where the remaining uncorrupted templars had assembled in what appeared to be the main hall. The long tables had mostly been cleared off to the side to allow easier room to move about. Above, on the far end of the hall, stairs led up to a balcony or upper courtyard or some such, but the way was blocked by a barrier spell of some kind, shimmering thickly, clearly strong if the templars hadn't immediately been able to dispel it.

Of course, few of them were of any decent rank, and the one Knight-Captain present looked a bit floored by witnessing the transformation of the Lord Seeker into an envy demon. Séverine stood now in the center of the hall. "Never thought I'd have a leader that could outdo Meredith on the bad ideas front. Bloody demon, bloody red lyrium. How many lives, thrown away for this?" She turned, seeking out Leon with her gaze.

"The demon turned our leadership against us first with that red lyrium. I'm lucky I was never forced into taking any. I don't think anyone else of my rank or higher refused the stuff." She shook her head, eyes falling to the floor.

“An obstacle,” Leon agreed heavily, “but not an insurmountable one. By arriving when we did, we forced the demon’s hand. Not all of you have succumbed, and that means we yet have a chance.” He scanned the room, his eyes moving over all the templars present, and landed on what must have been another low-ranking officer. “Knight-Lieutenant,” the Seeker said crisply, drawing the man into a sharp salute. “There are others, still fighting outside?”

The templar nodded beneath his helm. “Yes, sir. Another three Knight-Lieutenants, there should be, and their squads. Or… whatever’s left of them.”

“And you have lyrium, as well? The uncorrupted kind?” Another nod. “Then I’ll need the last locations you knew the lyrium and the soldiers to be at. The Inquisition will bring you the people and the supplies, and then we’re going to take that barrier down, and the demon with it. Clear?” He spoke loud enough to be heard over the relative quiet of the room, and those in attendance drew themselves straighter, responding with a collective yes, sir!

One immediately moved to a table on the right side of the room, and gestured the group over. With a stick of charcoal, she drew three circles on an architectural rendering of the redoubt. “These are the supply rooms, sir. There’ll be a crate’s worth of lyrium in them, at least. Might be you run into some of the others on the way.”

Leon nodded. “Three supply crates should be enough.” He glanced up at the group. “Lady Marceline, Ser Séverine, go to the northern one, please. Take some of the more experienced templars here with you.” He pointed to the closest circle to the building they currently occupied, then moved his attention further down. “Vesryn, Estella, the one to the east, please. Cyrus, you and I will go west.” From the look he gave him, Leon knew well that he likely wouldn’t appreciate being separated from his sister, but was asking him to do so anyway.

“Very well.” Cyrus was indeed not terribly pleased with the suggestion, but he understood why it had been made. There was logic in ensuring that one didn’t send two mages against a lot of templars. He could even overlook the fact that the reasoning employed clearly underestimated him. Briefly, he turned his eyes to Estella and Vesryn. “If… possible, perhaps just once keep the heroics to a minimum?” That was the problem with decent people, really—they tended to take risks that the purely self-interested would avoid.

Estella smiled, but it was thin. “No promises.”

With the strategy set, all that remained was to execute it. One of the Knight-Lieutenants was left to manage the templars that would remain in this room, though the majority of those with much rank would be split up between the three parties. It might have been strictly safer to retrieve the lyrium crates one at a time, but time was important, and that would almost certainly have taken too long. Furthermore, three teams pushing out at once would relieve the burden on the defenders of the main hall itself, which was fortunate since it would also thin their numbers considerably.

Leon led their way out of the main hall, moving down a side passage way to the west, which was both damp and dark, lit only by a few guttering torches. With a few more turns, they came face to face with a door to the outside. “How are you against templars, Cyrus? I understand they don’t use lyrium in Tevinter.”

“Why don’t you open that door and find out, Seeker?” Cyrus let his amusement color his tone, and smiled sharply. It was true that he’d faced few southern templars, and their abilities were not to be dismissed, when properly enhanced by lyrium. But by the same token, no southern templar knew what a northern mage was like, and he did not doubt they would find the difference… perceptible. The very best education in Thedas could do that for a person.

“Fair enough.” Leonhardt didn’t push the door open just yet, though, instead reaching into a belt-pouch and withdrawing a small vial, about the size of one that would hold a lyrium dose, but the liquid inside this was a blackish red, lacking both the glow of red lyrium and the metallic smoothness of that fluid. “I don’t believe we’ve had cause to fight together before. I say this in all seriousness: please keep clear of me.” His voice lacked the usual mildness it carried, edged instead with a harshness that seemed foreign to it.

Tipping back the vial, Leon downed it in one swallow, tucking it back into his belt pouch and throwing the door in front of them open. He didn’t linger on the threshold, charging forward into the fray outside.

It would seem the fighting had drawn very close on this side, and the Red Templars had nearly reached the entrance to the main building. The defenders remaining were few, and consistently moving backwards. That was, until Leon crashed into the front line. His first swing snapped a red templar’s head back so far the crack was audible, and the edge of his helmet clanged against the edge of the armor protecting his back. Before his body could collapse, Leon picked it up in both hands and threw it into a line of advancing red templars, knocking one to the ground and another two off balance. The last dodged, but it didn’t matter, because the Seeker killed him next, taking his helmet in both hands and twisting sharply. His stride didn’t even break as a sword clanged off his armor; he simply turned and caught the blade between his armored palms on its way down the second time, turning his body and disarming the half-crystallized man that held it, tossing the sword away like refuse before pulling the man down by the arm and shoving a knee into his gut, sweeping his legs out from under him with a foot and stomping hard at a less-armored part of his back.

Whatever resulted was effective, because the templar did not stand again, and Leon showed no signs of stopping.

It was quite the brutal display, but its effectiveness could not be denied. Cyrus waded onto the field as well, giving Leon the berth he so desired. Considering that his last lightning spell hadn’t seemed to work too well against these people, he switched tactics, sending a fire rune to land strategically on the ground where a cluster of soldiers tried to flank what few uncorrupted templars were left. It took them all off their feet, and Cyrus pulled himself through the Fade, spatha in hand, and finished them while they were down, quick strokes to throats and any vital artery he could reach. Putting them down fast was the key here, and he was quite good at that when he set his mind to it.

Where Leon charged with pure force and raw speed, Cyrus walked the edges of the field, laying down strategic area spells to control the flow of templars, narrowing their avenues of motion with fire, barriers and harassment tactics. Though he’d have preferred to simply rain fire down from above and jump between them with his blade, as was his wont, it made more sense presently to keep the red ones away from the ordinary templars and funnel them towards Leon in small numbers at a time. It was clear that he could handle three at once without encountering significant issues, which was really quite something for someone who usually looked a bit uncomfortable around other people eating meat.

Between the two and their templar allies, what had once looked dire for the defenders turned around in relatively short order. Cyrus’s effective control of the battlefield essentially fed Leon a line of foes, which he tore through with brutal efficiency, which for all its violence was unerring in its precision. Ten minutes after they had reached the fight, it had ended, and the red templars lay slain.

A general cheer went up from the others, but for several long moments, Leon remained in the middle of the field. It was hard to tell where exactly his eyes were, with the helmet, but his fists remained clenched at his sides, trickles of blood dripping off his knuckles. With what seemed to be one very deep breath and a momentous effort, he relaxed his shoulders backwards and turned to face the templars. “You’ll want to go back inside, reinforce the others. We’ll go get the lyrium and meet you back there.”

The general consensus seemed to be that this was a good idea, and the soldiers turned, some of them supporting each other as they walked, and headed inside. Leon turned his head, clearly looking at Cyrus, and then gestured forward. “The supply storage is this way.”

Cyrus raised an eyebrow, nodding nonchalantly and falling into step beside the Seeker, glancing up at the other man through the corner of his eye, his hands folded casually behind his back even as they picked their way over what had effectively become a killing field, first for the red templars and then for them. “I can see why you prefer your space.” He kept his tone deliberately light. “That tincture you took, before we fought—that does something to you, doesn’t it?”

The color of it looked suspiciously like blood, but it was a bit too dark even for that, suggesting that something else might have been done to it alchemically. Cyrus had a guess about what that might be, but it was merely a guess, and didn’t quite account for all of his observations. He wondered if Leon would simply be willing to explain.

“It does.” It was fairly clear that Leon saw no point in trying to lie about that—probably he had decided Cyrus had only asked in an attempt to get more than a confirmation. That, however, he didn’t give, and after a few more seconds of silence, it became evident that he wasn’t planning on it. Disappointing, but hardly a surprise.

The supply cache was a bit of a ways out, but they ran into only one more red templar on the way, and she was already injured to the point of dying. Leon put her out of her misery, and the two proceeded onwards, until the sounds of more battle could be heard, at which point they picked up the pace, rounding a corner and finding themselves face-to-face with the tail end of a confrontation.

A woman in Seeker’s armor placed a heavy roundhouse kick to the face of a red templar, dropping him with a hard thud. Several more lay in a circle around her, all variously battered and broken to death. Like Leon, she carried no weapons. It was clearly the same woman from Val Royeaux, the one who had stood at the Lord Seeker’s side.

She spotted them from the corner of her eye, and moved to face them. “Good. You’re here.” She spoke rather evidently to Leon rather than Cyrus, and it was he who answered.

“Ophelia. What are you doing here? Did you know about this?” The earlier aggression clearly hadn’t left him, from the gravelly undertones to the words, and he looked about ready to step forward and be her next opponent. Cyrus wasn’t sure he was entirely misguided in his intent, and did not dismiss his conjured blade, though he remained a few paces out to Leon’s left, and watched him for cues as to how they would handle the situation.

That made her smile, just a little one, a turn at the corner of her mouth. “Know the Lord Seeker was an envy demon? No, not until recently. But I suspected. And so I remained at his side.” She crossed muscular arms over her chest, tossing back the thick ebony braid that rested over one shoulder.

“While he had all those templars take red lyrium? You know what it does. You know what happened in Kirkwall.”

She shook her head slowly. “The demon was suspicious of me, at first. Inherited that from Lucius, I expect. I didn’t know what it planned for these templars until it was already happening. After that, the best I could do was try and convince it to delay further action until I could discover whether it was really the Lord Seeker or not. As it happened, I wasn’t the only suspicious one. I intercepted a message, and replaced it with one I knew would reach you, and gain your attention.”

Leon sighed heavily. “How did you figure out that the Lord Seeker was an envy demon?”

She thinned her lips. “There’s something you should see.” Gesturing for them to follow, she led the way into an adjacent building and opened a door on the right side of a hallway. The chamber so demarcated was relatively large, perhaps once an office of some kind, but far enough from the main building that it was doubtful any of those near it were in use.

Of much greater interest, however, was the state of the room. In terms of furniture, it contained only a single desk, which rested right at the center of the rug, covered with papers, candles, and oddly enough, pieces of art. Front and center was what seemed to be a marble bust of Empress Celene, though its face was obscured by parchment. Leaning against that, a hand-sized portrait of the Lord General of Orlais had been slashed once, with a knife, from the look of it, but still remained intact enough to identify his visage. The last item was a humble charcoal sketch, rendered nevertheless in highly-accurate detail, of the crown prince. It lay in two halves atop the desk, and had at some point been further defaced with candle wax.

The dull brown stone of the walls was marred by several drawings of eyes, quite clearly in blood rather than paint, and several stacks of books were strewn carelessly about the room.

“Well this is a rather macabre little shrine, isn’t it?” Cyrus scanned quickly over the walls, and then the spines of the books in the nearest stack, before deciding that clearly, the items of greatest interest were those on the desk. The three most powerful people in Orlais, before the civil war, and possibly still, though it was hard to say. “Targets, perhaps?” It would fit with what he’d seen in the future he went to—he recalled that all three of these people had been assassinated. This could be a clue to how and when that was supposed to happen, if their mysterious perhaps-ally knew more than was obvious.

“This… Elder One. This thing the demon is working for. It wants them dead, as might be obvious.” Ophelia nodded to the ruined artworks on the table. “I don’t know exactly why, but I suspect it’s partly a tactical decision and partly something else. A hatred, perhaps. Orlais has the strongest army in Thedas, and it’s as unstable as it’s been since the reign of the Mad Emperor, with the civil war going on.” She paused, a crease appearing between her brows. “But there are no fewer than four people with enough popularity and sufficient nobility to satisfy the aristocrats and the populace and lead the country. It’s interesting that only three of them appear here, isn’t it?”

“Gaspard de Chalons is missing.” That was Leon, who’d removed his helmet and tucked it under an arm. His free hand held a sheaf of parchments, carefully arranged so as to be smeared minimally with the blood on his gauntlets. “But whether that is because the demon overlooked him or because he’s allied with this Elder One is difficult to say. He doesn’t have quite the same infamous personality as the other three.”

Ophelia nodded deliberately. “That, I have not been able to discover. Envy likely knew relatively little outside of what it was to do here.” There was, after all, a certain sense in playing secrets and strategies as close to the chest as possible, and it would have been careless for the Elder One, who or whatever it was, to simply tell its minion everything it had in mind. Cyrus could understand the limitation of information as an effective command strategy; fewer loose ends when all was said and done, and the more work rumor and speculation could do for you, the better. This Elder One might have done quite well in the Magisterium, had it the inclination.

“This note…” Leon frowned deeply, then handed it to Cyrus. “My Old Tevene isn’t very good, but I believe it says something about the Seekers. Any chance you could translate?”

“Certainly.” Cyrus was not quite the linguist Estella was, in the sense that he spoke fewer of them than she did, but his Old Tevene was rather impeccable, if he did say so himself. Which made sense, since it was a common language for scholars in the Imperium to know. He took the parchment between his thumb and forefinger, as it was relatively worn and probably ought to be handled carefully, then swept his eyes over the words.

“‘Remember, you will be watched constantly. A Seeker is always looked to, when he is seen at all. I had a replica of the armor made—it should serve your purpose in Therinfal.’ Addressed to Envy, no doubt. There’s a little more below it that might interest you.” He paused, possibly just for effect, and then continued. “There is no place for Seekers in the world the Elder One builds. The life of Lucius Corin ends with you. Leave the real one to me.’” He raised a dark brow, glancing at the other two over the edge of the paper.

“Someone was feeling rather dramatic. Though I must say I’ve always loved a good conspiracy. So many skeins to be unraveled…” Cyrus narrowed his eyes, his aspect amused rather than menacing. He didn’t think it was especially amusing for either of them, of course, but still he saw little purpose in being unnecessarily grave. It was what it was, regardless of the attitude anyone took towards it.

“Seems the thing to do would be to find the real Lord Seeker, no? After we’ve dealt with our little demon infestation, that is.”

Leon looked to Ophelia, who shrugged her powerful shoulders. “I do not know where the real Lucius is. I intend to find out, but your friend is right. Horse first, then cart, as they say. You’ll be wanting lyrium. It’s through here.” So saying, she turned and led them out of the room, opening another door at the end of the hallway, remaining outside while Leon went in after the crate, hefting it easily in a single arm, donning his helmet again with the other.

“Let’s get this back to the others.”

They were, as it turned out, the last to arrive back, perhaps due to the pit stop they’d taken. Ophelia’s reception among the templars was mixed; while none were openly hostile, they were wary almost to a one, and stood far aside when she passed. That seemed not to faze her in the slightest—perhaps, as a Seeker, she was accustomed to it.

Cyrus soon found himself caught up in a warm embrace from Estella, who, aside from a cut marring the line of her cheek, appeared intact. She squeezed once before releasing him, her expression clearly relieved. “I was worried when we got back and you weren’t already here,” she admitted softly.

“Worried? About me? What will you think of next?” Really, the idea that she worried about him, while familiar and welcome in a sense, was also a bit unnecessary. If she could stop worrying about him and worry about herself instead, he’d be much more assured. Still, neither that nor the twinge of hurt that remained between them stopped him from returning the hug, a muted exhale the only sign he gave of his own mollification.

He returned his attention to the pair of Seekers and the Knight-Captain afterwards, however. “Now… how about we bring down this barrier?”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit
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Vesryn's pristine armor was spattered with blood at this point, but every drop of it belonged to corrupted templars. Saraya had effectively guided him to dispatch any enemy that had crossed his path, and even many of those that only crossed the others, though of course he hadn't been quick enough to prevent all the injuries in his allies. Even his shield could only be in one place at one time.

Focused as he was on the fight, he'd been especially wary of any signs from Saraya since the ambush from the Lord Seeker, or rather the demon that had formerly worn his shape. He remembered nothing of it, only trying to get in the way of the charge, getting caught up with Estella as they fell, and then... black. Estella's face was the first thing he saw upon waking, the first thing he comprehended. There were far worse things to lay eyes on after being knocked out, of course.

As they'd worked together to bring back more of the low-ranking officers, he'd noted that Saraya looked upon Estella differently. How, he could not say, and there was no time to speculate on it. They had a task to complete here.

The Knight-Captain, Séverine, nodded at Cyrus, and smoothly stepped up on top of one of the tables shoved off to the side, allowing the assembled templars to see her more clearly. She pointed her blade out at the group. "Templars! I ask of you: what is Envy?"

"A wretched thing!" cried one.
"Weakness!"
"A pathetic demon!"
"A coward, Sister!"

"A coward," Séverine repeated, nodding. "In order to study, and worm into our hearts, it must hide. We will drag it into the light!" A first cheer went up among the templars, accompanied by a cacophony of swords bashed against the faces of shields.

Séverine stepped down and began approaching the barrier, while the templars cleared from her path. "Those who have been taken by this demon and its promises of power are corrupt. They have betrayed the Order and all they once stood for. We, the true templars, will show them no mercy." The grimmer nature of the task did not receive a cheer, but instead a hardened rumbling, an anger building to do what needed to be done.

"Join me, Brothers and Sisters, and tear down this barrier. Give Envy no place to hide. And give the Red Templars no reason not to run!" She accepted a chalice of lyrium from a scribe when offered, the draught steaming with a frost-like substance. Séverine drank deeply, and once the scribe retreated from her, she took her sword in both hands, and knelt, placing the point of it into the floor. The other templars followed her lead.

They began to glow with a golden light, some brighter than others, and the sickly green barrier above them began to tremble and waver. Vesryn adjusted his grip on his spear and shield, and moved forward in preparation to advance up the stairs. It was not long before the demon's barrier let out a wretched wail, and then shattered altogether.

From the top of the stairs came the Red Templars, storming in down in a disorganized formation to engage. Séverine looked back at the Inquisition members aiding them. "Cut through, find the demon, and destroy it! We'll deal with these traitors." Their blood worked up for the fight, the templars smashed into the first arriving group of enemies, engaging them with a fearsome fervor.

Vesryn glanced sideways at his allies. "Let's get moving."

“An excellent suggestion.” Cyrus softened up a likely trajectory for them by sending a massive fireball through it, forcing several red templars to throw themselves to the side, some of them landing poorly and falling down the staircase in the process. One didn’t get away in time and took a full blast of flame to the face, collapsing in a cacophony of shrill cries. “How about that way?”

“Good enough,” Leon growled, cracking his neck under his helmet and bursting forward. His momentum seemed little affected by the fact that he was essentially fighting uphill, and he took two stairs at a time as though that were the way they were meant to be used. Considering the objective was only to clear a path, he didn’t linger long on any one red templar—generally speaking, one hit was enough to get any given individual out of the way, and he struck out with elbows, fists, knees, and feet, almost too fluid for a person encased in that much armor. Several of them, he simply gripped by the neck of their armor and pulled, toppling them facefirst down the staircase. Cyrus had driven a wedge into the line, and he was making a full tunnel of it.

Vesryn cleared the way for easy passage behind Leon's destructive force, tossing away any red templars that were fortunate enough to survive the initial encounter. They pushed up the stairs with little difficulty; Vesryn was able to surmise that the Red Templar force engaging them here was not much more than a rear guard, judging by their numbers. Séverine and the templars she led would no doubt be able to handle them given some time.

All of their party through, they took off down the hall towards the outdoors, a sort of grassy overlook of the forested land far below. The sections of walls before them had steadily crumbled from weather much like they were currently experiencing. The rain came down as steady and cold as it had upon entering the hall originally, and the earth beneath Vesryn's boots felt soft, vulnerable to being torn up if too much weight was applied in the wrong way.

"I touched so much of you," the demon said, with a voice from no particular direction, as before, "but you are selfish with your glory. Now I'm no one." Vesryn kept his eyes glued to the sides of the group, not desiring to be taken by surprise again. There was nowhere for the demon to run now, but while it did not prefer to fight directly, he had no doubt that it could if pressed into a corner, as it was.

"Lovely creature, this," Vesryn commented dryly. His spear remained leveled before him, ready to strike.

“And this isn’t the half of it,” Estella replied from beside him, her hands flexing on the grip of her saber. Her eyes were in constant motion over the field, a wariness that turned out to be quite wise. “There!” It did not manifest with the same directness as another demon would have. Pride would have stood before them and demanded acknowledgement. Desire and Rage would have commanded attention just as certainly.

But Envy appeared at their flank, a hideous thing with pale pink flesh, like someone had taken a human body, stretched it impossibly long, torn up the head and sewn it back together again with crude stiches and forgotten anything but the mouth, a thin red slash filled with sharpened, bloodstained teeth. It had a second set of arms beneath the first, shorter, almost humanoid still, a reminder, perhaps, of something it had once been. In all, it had to be nearly ten feet tall, but it was thin, in places little more than skin stretched over bones, too tight to be comfortable. Hardly a wonder it wanted someone else’s form and face, really.

No sooner had it appeared than the sodden ground beneath them began to turn black, in a ring much like that caused by a terror, save that its radius was considerably greater. Estella dashed out of it quickly, but Leon seemed to pay it almost no mind, simply moving himself off the circle in his barreling charge towards the demon itself. It threw something at him, shimmering slightly in the air like heat off the desert—likely a concussion blast of some kind, and the two met at full speed. The Seeker dug his feet in, pushing through and tearing rents in the soft earth beneath him. The hit slowed him considerably, but it did not stop him, and faced with an incoming assault, the demon seemed to open another one of the dark spots on the ground and dove through, reappearing far to the other side of the field and hurling a massive chunk of what had once been masonry with telekinetic force for the group.

A blast of lightning hit the boulder in midair, the resulting explosion breaking apart the stone and raining it down upon them as harmless detritus. Cyrus switched his attention to the demon itself thereafter, hurling a tiny orb of magic from each of the fingers on his left hand at once. They flew swiftly, and when the first hit, it encased the demon’s left leg in ice. The next three seemed to target different joints of its body, one successfully locking up the larger right elbow. The others hit, and spread, but it was able to crack the ice crystals off with movement.

A few seconds later, the mage’s form blurred, then disappeared entirely, reappearing much closer to the demon, which abruptly found itself faced with an opponent quite close. It swung a clawed hand for Cyrus, who ducked under it and retaliated with a horizontal slash, but Envy twisted with inhuman strength and flexibility, and the sword he used met only air.

Limber and quick as it was, it could not dodge two well-placed strikes at once, or at least in extremely quick succession. Vesryn had flanked Envy after Cyrus moved in for his attack, and his spear found the creature's torso, spilling blood and earning an enraged shriek of pain. Vesryn anticipated the counterattack; Saraya was familiar with such an opponent, which did not surprise Vesryn in the slightest. No demon was an unknown entity to her.

He withdrew his spear and properly angled his shield above his upper body to deflect the first slash to the side, and the adjusted to deflect the second slash the opposite way. The third he took head on, jarring his shield arm but stopping the clawed arm of Envy cold and giving him an opening to put his spear right through the thing's elbow joint. Its horrid features, or lack thereof, still twisted in pain from the injury, and it sought to flee, diving into a black pit it opened in the ground beneath it. Vesryn wrenched his spear free and stepped away from the magic beneath him.

"Watch your feet!" he called to the others, certain it would pick a spot to come up again soon, and it never preferred to assault directly.

When it did reemerge, it wasn’t the fleet magician, the precise warrior, or the powerful Seeker it went for. The demon was a coward, and it chose the coward’s target: Estella. She didn’t look all that surprised when it sprang up behind her, and without looking over her shoulder, she rolled herself to the side, its claws digging deep furrows in the fragile earth she’d been standing on seconds before. When she came up out of the roll, she turned herself around to face it, her momentum channeling into a smooth, controlled lash with her saber. The maneuver opened up a bloody line on the arm closest to her, and she stepped in closer, taking on the role of aggressor.

Her feet were light over the ground, her strokes no longer or flashier than they needed to be, and her efficiency was rewarded when two new gashes appeared over the creature’s torso, its gangly limbs less effective when someone had closed to so close a distance. It tried to dive under again, but this time met some trouble when a strong grip closed over the arm Cyrus had previously frozen. Leon’s hand nearly made it all the way around the rangy bicep of the demon, and the blow he delivered to its elbow snapped the limb clean off, made possible by the magical cold that lingered still at the joint.

Envy shrieked, a sonic blast that forced both of them back far enough for it to make its escape. Estella landed hard on her side, sliding another few feet back when her impact tore up the grass and slicked her left half with mud. Leon kept his feet, but lost his grip on the demon, allowing it to retreat once more.

This time, it came up closest to Cyrus, who immediately flung a massive bolt at it, staggering the creature before it had a moment to react. Adjusting his feet, he sped forward again, the hum of his blade followed by a new, smoking furrow dug across the back of its knees. It looked to be about to try and dive again, but with a broad gesture, he cast another spell, and bars of crackling lightning appeared to close it in from all sides, even below. The gaps between were more than adequate for a spear or other weapon with reach, however, and the mage turned, nodding tersely to Vesryn.

The elf nodded back, allowing his shield to fall to the ground, before he flipped his grip around on his spear. "Hold still for me, love." He briefly took aim, before he stepped into a throw and hurled his spear like a javelin right between two of the bars of crackling energy. The weapon punched clean through Envy's chest, rendering it incapable of screaming any further. Instead, it gurgled miserably for a moment, before it slumped sideways to the ground, and stilled.

"Nice throw," Séverine commented, from the top of the short flight of stairs that led back into the main hall. A large number of the templars from inside had followed her out, those that had made it through the fighting without serious injury. The Knight-Captain herself was heavily bloodied, at least over her armor, but most of it appeared to belong to others. "It's over then. For now."

"I expect the other Red Templars won't simply give up," Vesryn speculated, walking to the corpse of Envy and pulling his spear free.

"No, they won't." Séverine looked back at the battered group of men and women she'd come into command of. "The fight won't be truly done with until the last of these traitors have been dealt with. Until the Order's direction has been restored."

“And that will not be a simple process.” Ophelia spoke up then, stepping forward to draw even with Séverine. “The Templars have numbers across Thedas, but their leadership is in ruins. Most either knew not of what was going on, or were complicit in it.” She crossed her arms over her chest, glancing over those assembled. “These are a good lot, though. It would be a waste for them to idle when their skills could be so useful.” Her eyes flickered between Leon, helmed and silent at present, and Estella, who stood straight, but unable to hide the fact that one of her arms was limp at her side, the one she’d landed on earlier.

“All the Inquisition came here to do was ask of them their help. The Breach threatens us all, and they could be instrumental in closing it.” She shook her head, then turned to the body of them as a whole. “If that is something you’d be willing to do, we’d welcome your blades and your stout hearts. We’ve need of both, and it would give you somewhere to be and something to fight for. You know by now that we have allies of all kinds, and you’d be equal among them.” She smiled slightly, though it was tinged a little by the pain she was clearly in, and glanced at Séverine.

"Not how I imagined this turning out," the Knight-Captain admitted, shaking her head with a little smile. "But I think my Commander will understand if I don't return home just yet. The Breach does indeed need closing, and I would be honored to lead these templars in helping you do it, Lady Herald." Her plated, closed fist thumped against her chestplate. "You have our blades."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth
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Haven was quite a way from Therinfal, and so even on horseback, with only a single wagon and relatively few people, it would take them quite some time to get back. As with the mages before, the templars would be following as soon as they set their affairs in order. Apparently the other High Seeker, Ophelia, would be helping with that, but then departing in search of the real Lord Seeker. Leon hadn’t seemed too sure about that, but in the end, there hadn’t been much dissuading her. She seemed like a very resolute woman—it was probably part of being in her line of work.

They were three days into the ride before Estella actually found an opportunity to approach Vesryn. The day was clear and relatively warm, down on the plains of the Bannorn as they were now. She hadn’t even bothered with her cloak this morning, leaving it tucked away with her other things, which were loaded on the cart with everyone else’s. She’d decided early on that she wanted to range a bit from the group today, for the opportunity to distract herself, and perhaps even enjoy herself—riding was one of the few things that she wasn’t spectacularly terrible at, perhaps symptomatic of how much she liked animals. The horse underneath her now was a powerful creature, with a coat of deep black. He’d been part of the bonus for her promotion to lieutenant, and as such chosen for his merits by the commander, who as a chevalier knew good horseflesh well. Like any proud Orlesian charger, he quite liked to run, and she loved to let him do so.

Having learned the last time not to simply choose to do something like ride off on her own, she’d this time at least informed Leon of her intentions, and he’d requested that she take someone else with her, probably anticipating that it would be Cyrus, which in all fairness it usually would be. But she wanted to talk to Vesryn anyway, and so this seemed a good opportunity to do so, out of earshot of people who weren’t aware of his secret.

Estella steered Nox up alongside him, then, offering a small half-smile. “Say, Vesryn. How good’s your horsemanship?” She arched one brow, then gestured with a tilt of her head at a slight angle away from the trajectory of the main group, her eyes hinting at just a little bit of mischief. There was a trail there, one that would make a great track for a race. She’d no doubt he was excellent—frankly, she was unsure there was anything he wasn’t exceptional at, but Estella wasn’t one of those people who felt the need to make a competition of everything. Probably for the best, honestly; she already struggled enough with her sense of self. Feeling as though she were perpetually losing to other people would only make things that much worse. So for her the question really being asked was more about his willingness to humor her than his actual skill at the activity in question.

Vesryn, unsurprisingly, lit up at her question, his eyes returning her gleam of mischief in kind. He rode a white charger of a similar build to Nox with an easy manner that indeed spoke to a great amount of comfort in the saddle. "If it's a race you're proposing, I fear I'm rather weighed down." He still wore all of his armor save for his helmet, all of it having been cleaned effectively by the rain and his own hand by now, and his weapons and shield as well were carried by his mount. "Of course, I've never been deterred by a challenge."

With little further ado, he tugged on his reins and kicked his heels into the horse, quickly ascending into a gallop onto the trail Estella had hinted at, grinning all the while.

Estella was off after him a heartbeat later, and Nox needed little urging to break his easy march in favor of full charge. She gave him his head, accustomed enough to him by now to know that she need do little but guide him. It wasn’t long before both were away down the trail, kicking up dust and loose grass behind them. The starting gap between them initially lengthened—as she’d guessed, Vesryn knew what he was doing, and his horse was practically flying over the ground.

She stood in her stirrups, bent at the knees to absorb the impact of Nox’s motion, and leaned forward, minimizing her wind resistance, and clicked her tongue, urging just a little more out of the creature beneath her. He gave it, and as the trail rounded its first curve, they were catching up. There weren’t many obstacles around, but the end of the curve, which had taken them around a gentle hill, presented them with a narrow creek bed. They hit it almost at the same time, and she felt Nox gather his limbs underneath him, then the exhilaration of weightlessness as he left the ground, launching them both over the creek and landing easily on the other side. The jump placed them behind just by a hair, and though the next flat range stretched invitingly before her, she figured they were probably due a bit of a breather.

In any case, she reined Nox in slowly, until he was trotting again, the grin that had appeared over her face slowly receding back into a subtler expression. “Whew. Been a while since I’ve done that. Definitely missed it.” It was the sort of silly thing she and the other Lions had done in lighter times, on those long rides between headquarters and whatever job they were heading to next. It went without saying that there was little room for anything so unnecessary in the last several months.

Vesryn relaxed into his saddle as well, patting his horse's neck twice with a gloved hand, before he ran the other through his hair. The wind and the swift ride seemed to have hardly disturbed it in the slightest. It was remarkable, really. The grin had yet to budge from his lips. "I'm glad I could help. Have to take the moments we're offered, right?" He fell silent for a moment, his thoughts seemingly within himself as he surveyed the wooded region they'd found themselves in.

It was an expression he'd worn often, easy to mistake for deliberation or perhaps a sort of meditation, but with the prerequisite knowledge in mind, it was not difficult to see him parsing through feelings, and analyzing those that were not his own. If anything, he seemed a bit puzzled by what he found.

"I've been meaning to ask," he said, more quietly, his tone devoid of the mischief it had held earlier, "about what happened when that demon attacked us. I remember none of it, but Envy targeted you, not me, so I'm not sure why I lost consciousness." Naturally, he seemed bothered by the fact that he had. A guardsman, after all, could not properly perform his duty with narcolepsy. Vesryn was not afflicted with such, but Estella knew well that his mental conditions were not normal, and largely unknown even to him.

She nodded, more to herself than him, because he hadn’t asked a question that had that kind of answer. But this was the topic she’d been meaning to come around to eventually anyway, so it was probably a good thing that he’d brought it up. She’d meant to check first that Saraya was safely back in his head, but the expression on his face seemed to indicate that well enough. She was relieved, to say the least.

“When it… grabbed me, it…” She struggled to find the words to describe exactly what had occurred. It wasn’t exactly the sort of thing ordinary language had been invented to explain. “Locked me inside my own head, I guess. It wanted to know enough about me to successfully imitate me, to take my place.” The last, she could not help but deliver a little skeptically. She supposed she could see how arriving at Therinfal with a bunch of important Orlesians in tow could give a certain impression of her significance that was misleading, but it wasn’t as though she actually led the Inquisition in any meaningful sense. Marceline and Leon and Rilien did that.

“The magic it did enabled it to… follow me in there, I guess you could put it. And somehow… Saraya followed too. The best guess I have is that your physical interference with its casting must have pulled her into the spell as well, so that she was transferred in the same way Envy was, or similarly, at least. It would also explain why you were unconscious.” She grimaced, regarding him with some concern. “She’s… she’s okay, right? Everything is back to the way it was before?”

"I hadn't noticed anything different about her," Vesryn replied, frowning. The expression had lingered on his face while Estella explained, as though he were trying to imagine the type of experience she had gone through with Envy. Clearly he was struggling to grasp it. "Only... with you. There's a difference now, in how she regards you. A better understanding? I suppose that's to be expected, if she was pulled into your head." He appeared quite disturbed by the thought of the proof that Saraya could indeed leave his head and enter another, even if only temporarily or through the work of a demon. Whether it was that thought alone, or that it was Estella's head in particular, was unclear.

Suddenly, his brow furrowed in confusion, his gaze falling to his horse's mane, to the ground below, darting back and forth as he searched his thoughts. "Wait... no, we don't have it right. Do you regard her the same?" The question was quietly asked to the air, to the obvious third party present in the conversation, not seen or heard, but hearing all. "No, not that. You... you weren't pulled into her head?" He finally made eye-contact with Estella again, quickly working through the reaction he felt.

"She wasn't pulled. She... chose to go?" His mouth hung open for a second, and clearly he felt a confirmation of the statement he'd posed as a question. He blinked. "Why would you do that?" Though he looked at Estella, the question was obviously not for her. Nor was it one that was simple for Saraya to answer, given the rules that Vesryn had already laid out.

Estella’s eyes rounded in surprise; she was just as perplexed as Vesryn was, she figured. Saraya had chosen to enter her mind along with the demon? She chewed her lip, supposing that the best chance they had of successfully learning why was to guess at it themselves, and have her confirm or dissent. Now that she thought about it, it made some degree of sense—Saraya had not seemed surprised or upset to be there, and she had known of Envy's true nature.

“Maybe because she knew she could help? She knew what the demon was—she helped me figure it out, and helped me fight it off. I’d never have made it out without her.” It seemed like a terribly risky thing to do, though, considering what little she knew of how Saraya was connected to Vesryn. But then, difficult as it was to believe that someone would be willing to take that risk for her sake, she supposed it was possible. It wasn’t just her, after all—the marks she and Romulus shared were important. Still…

"That's all correct, but... not all of it, I think." He fell silent, thinking as they rode, and only absently watching the twists of the trail ahead.

He shook his head. "I'm glad she did, of course. I... all of us, would've been crushed to have lost you to a demon. From what I can gather, though, it was at least in part a risk. She's unsure of some things. She knows of a few others that were imprisoned in the same manner as she was, but none that have ended up in her current state. She could've theorized that it was safe enough to try..." Vesryn was clearly going to struggle with this for a while. He was conflicted, plainly. On the one hand, Saraya seemed to have put their link at least partially in jeopardy, and perhaps even risked physical or mental harm coming to him as a result. But she'd also done something he obviously approved of: taking a chance in order to help someone who needed it.

A thought clearly occurred to him, and he turned to face her again. "Did you... did you see her? In whatever it was you were trapped in? Could you hear her? How did she help you?"

She couldn’t blame him for struggling with it—something like fifteen years, they had been linked as they were, and clearly it was wholly voluntary by this point, even if it hadn’t been that way initially. She hadn’t even the faintest idea what that would be like, but simple wasn’t a word that came to mind.

The question, though, reminded her of something, and she nodded, with a little more certainty. “I did,” she said, her mouth turning up at the corner. “She couldn’t say anything, but she was able to use magic and manifest weapons and armor—and… show me what the demon was, I suppose. She touched my forehead, and I felt jealousy, and knew what she meant.” Letting her reins drop, Estella searched through a few pockets before she found something, a small square of paper, which she unfolded and smoothed out against her leg.

“She was blue, like a spirit, and her face was a little indistinct, especially when I looked at it directly, but I’m okay at remembering those, so I picked a few things out, at least.” She leaned slightly over in the saddle to hand the parchment to him. “I’m not a very good artist, but I bothered Cyrus until he helped with the details. She’s taller than me, and very impressive-looking.” The image was a black-and-white sketch, of a woman wearing armor quite similar to Vesryn’s, a spear planted against the ground in one hand and her other arm draped over the upper edge of a tower shield, slightly tilted towards her side. Her hair came down to her shoulders, her posture proud and tall. Next to the full render were a few different attempts at faces from various angles, similar but not identical to one another—Estella had needed to fill in some details, and had made several educated guesses at them, trying to pick what made most sense for the pieces she’d properly seen. “Of course, I doubt I did her justice, but it’s better than I’d be able to do in words.”

In a rare display, Vesryn seemed to be speechless. He'd frowned at the mention of jealousy, but soon he was utterly absorbed by the parchment she had handed him. He examined each of the faces, an almost childlike wonder affixed to his features. It was anyone’s guess as to how Saraya was receiving the attempt at drawing her, as Vesryn was not reacting in such a manner as to give a clue. "I wish I could’ve been there,” he said quietly, before glancing up at her. "Not in your head, of course. I leave that to my better half. But… fifteen years, I’ve never seen her, nor heard her voice.” He actually looked to be fighting tears, but judging by the awe with which he looked at the simple sketch, and the upturned corners of his mouth, they were not sorrowful tears.

"Thank you, Estella. This means a lot to me.”

She shook her head slightly. “It’s…” She paused, considering his expression. It wasn’t nothing, clearly. Her eyes fell to Nox’s mane, and she leaned forward and down a bit to rub his neck, feeling a bit awkward. “You’re welcome.” Another pause. “And—I’m sure she knows, but I never got a chance to thank Saraya, either. I’m grateful, for what she did.” And staggeringly ashamed of how little assistance she’d been in the whole process, but she chose not to say that.

Vesryn cleared his throat and blinked several times, obviously not looking to become any more emotional than he already had. "As am I."

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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Image



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

Image

The air still smelled like burning flesh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Inquisition had succeeded.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: 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.

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit
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A week of travel had taken its toll.

The Inquisition was drastically undersupplied, even in terms of camp equipment, and on most nights, the vast majority of its people slept outside, under their cloaks with their bundled gear by way of pillows, if they had any. Leon had done his rotations outside with the soldiers, and he knew that Estella and the other officers had done the same. The lack of good rest made the days even more wearying, and the horses and carts necessarily went with priority to the injured, leaving most to trek the snowy miles by foot. A large number of the most gravely wounded had succumbed to their injuries or infection or the cold—there simply weren’t enough potions and healers to go around.

For all that, though, they’d kept going. Part of it was undoubtedly the fact that every time one of the regulars looked up and forward, they could see their Herald at the front of the column, breaking the ground over which they would eventually tread, the other leaders fanned out behind her. Periodically she would consult those nearest her, and she called breaks in trekking regularly, but at the conclusion of every one, she was walking forward again. Even that much was enough to make clear that the Inquisition, like its remaining leadership, yet had purpose, destination, and the will to reach it.

But after a long week slogging through the mountains, even the most faithful believer in the cause grew nearly unbearably weary, and that discontent was beginning to seed in the ranks, many of whom could be heard to wonder aloud why they had not simply turned east, for the Hinterlands they already held, or west, towards potential allies in Orlais. Either would have been far warmer than this, and safer. They’d nearly lost one cart to a narrow and unstable pass already—it would have been a loss they could not sustain.

Fortunately, he had the suspicion that they neared the end of their trek. It was something he read off the way Estella’s tread lightened, the way she’d smiled the last time she’d paused to update directions from Vesryn. Presently, they crested another rise, sundown almost upon them, and Leon halted at the sight below.

Farther down the path before them lay a castle.

Composed of grey granite, it wasn’t enormous by the standards of such constructions, but it wasn’t modest, either. Connected to their present course by a stone bridge over a deep chasm, the castle proper was perched firmly upon the top of another rise, one that stood apart from the mountains to two of its sides, the third side falling off sharply down into a canyon beneath. It was eminently defensible from the ground, the only way in through a system of gates on the bridge, protected by guard towers.

It had roughly eight towers, two in the back considerably larger than the rest, as well as the central building, which was twice as broad again, but perhaps fifty feet shorter, lending it a sense of symmetry. It was hard to make out from this far, but the grounds within looked expansive enough to contain all the things one would expect: bailey, stables, smaller buildings; enough space for a village’s worth of people, at least. Leon noted also that several of the towers looked to be on the verge of collapse, and would need immediate attention from a mason, or rather many of them. Then again… it was probably quite old.

"We certainly have a project ahead of ourselves, yes?" Lady Marceline stated as she pulled up beside him on her black Orlesian Courser. Behind her, Michaël led another, this one bearing a dozing Pierre. Though she spoke the words, she still seemed relieved to have finally reached their destination.

“So it seems,” he agreed pensively.

It was still a relief to see it at last, and as he trailed in the wake of the Herald, he couldn’t help but turn back periodically to assess the reactions of the others. They seemed, for the most part, both impressed and bolstered by the sight of their destination, and that eased his worry a bit. It wasn’t near the end of the work they had to do, but at least things like roofs, beds, and baths were in the foreseeable future, now. He knew from experience that these were the things that beckoned most to soldiers weary from long, hard marching.

They deserved this. To be able to sleep indoors, warm and comfortable. To not have to huddle close in hopes of conserving what warmth was to be had, or rotate with their fellows for the spots closest to the campfire. After what they’d been through, they deserved a fair bit more than that, as well, but Leon knew it was important to focus on one thing at a time for the moment.

The gates themselves proved old, but mostly still in working condition, and they were able to get all three of the ones across the bridge raised, and funnel their people, animals, and supplies through without difficulty. The bridge was missing a few chunks out of the side, which made for more careful going in places, but the underlying structure appeared quite sound.

After the final gate put them in a wide area of shriveled brown grass and weeds, Leon directed the carts be placed under a stone overhead seemingly designed with the purpose in mind, and then they were unloaded, quite quickly considering how little there was to unload. The scouts came back shortly after with an idea of which buildings were immediately accessible, which fortunately included what had to be the barracks, so the regulars had somewhere to set their things, anyway.

While they worked on settling in and getting off their feet for a while, Leon gathered some of the others to himself in hopes of making a more detailed survey of what they were working with. Cyrus and Asala should stay with the healers and continue tending the wounded for the moment, and he didn’t want to disturb Zahra, but himself, Rilien, Marceline, Estella and Vesryn might as well figure out what they now had.

“Might as well start with the main hall, I suppose.”

It was Rilien who tried the door first, and though it stuck initially, it opened when he put his shoulder into it, a cloud of dust billowing about at its motion for the first time in what might well have been centuries. The group stepped inside, to find that the situation with respect to the castle’s condition was even more dire than had been evident from the outside. The chamber they entered had vaulted ceilings as grand as any architecture in Orlais, but that was, for the moment, where the similarity ended.

This room, like the rest of the building, was built primarily from grey stone, likely pulled at some point from the mountain itself, and much, though not all of it, had remained intact. The room was longer away from them than it was wide, and clearly once served as a receiving hall. A dais at the end of it seemed poised to hold a throne, and the depressions along either side would serve well for long tables.

Of course, all of the wood in the space, and much of what must have once been its furnishings and decorations, were in utter ruins. Massive beams of wood lay over the floors, rotted and torn fabric dangling here and there from splinters or else lying strewn over the ground. It was impossible to tell so much as what color they’d once had, so advanced was their decay. The smell was not as bad as it could have been, considering, but the thick layer of choking dust over everything made breathing a labor nevertheless.

Rilien, at least, seemed unperturbed, scanning over the features of the chamber with no detectable feelings on the matter. “We ought not risk moving too much of the debris, but some of these doors are unblocked.” Several flanked each side of the hall, and he was correct that at least half of them looked to be useable without risk of further damage.

Marceline's eyes were turned upward, as though she was worried their intrusion would bring the roof down around their ears. However, a few more steps into the main hall seemed to have settled her as she instead looked toward a door on the left side of the hall. She pointed toward it and turned back to look at the others. "Shall we?" she asked. She then began to pick her way through the debris, careful to not to trip over anything, to reach the door in question. She took its latch in hand gingerly and gave a pull, but it fought against her and refused to swing wide. She huffed a little and pulled again, this time putting more weight into it until something snapped. Instead of swinging open, the door's rusted hinges snapped and tipped forward toward Marceline.

Vesryn found himself in the opportune place and swiftly reached armored hands out to catch the door, subsequently trapping Marceline in a rather small space between the flat surface of the door braced by his palms, and the chest of the elf himself. He laughed a bit uncomfortably, but did not seem displeased by the development. "Fear not, my lady. I will prevent such a low, dastardly foe as this door from marring your beauty." There was at least enough room for her to slip out, if she were willing to duck and squeeze. Which she did.

"That would be a such shame. My thanks, Ser Vesryn," she said with a smile. Grunting, he shifted the door to the side, and set it up against the wall.

With that dealt with, they entered through the now bare door frame and through another door that did not break into a side room. The room itself was of moderate size, with one half built three steps into the floor. The upper part of the floor made a pathway that led to another door at the far end of the room, while the lower part held a grand fireplace built into the wall. Like the main hall, the floor was littered with splinters of wood and torn pieces of fabric. Marceline descended the steps into the lower part of the room and placed a hand on the fireplace. As she ran her hand across the mantle, she looked around studying the room. Once she was done, she turned to face the others.

"If we are to stay here, then I will keep this room in mind for my office, if you all would allow it," she said, allowing her hand to fall from the mantle. The fireplace seemed to have found a way into her heart.

With the room thoroughly inspected, she took the steps onto the upper landing and continued to the doorway at the far end. Once through the portal they were met with a long hallway built onto the contours of the mount they were on, by the way the floor rose upward by a set of two stairs. To the right, windows were built into the wall, but the glass that once filled them were long gone. Near the end of the hall, the wall gave way to crumbling masonry, allowing them a good view of the mountain range to their side. Marceline frowned as she looked at it and shook her head, her displeasure clear.

Estella simply gave it a careful berth, skirting around the structural deficiency and towards the door at the end of the long hallway. She was careful with it, perhaps seeking to avoid a repeat of Marceline’s ill fortune, but she needn’t have worried, for the door opened easily, if with a grating squeak of hinges. She winced, glancing back over her shoulder at the rest of them. “Sorry.”

Leon suspected apologizing was a reflex for her at this point, so he simply shook his head, following her into the room on the other side.

It was quite spacious, semicircular at the far end, and contained a bank of vertical windows on that side, most of them at least partly broken out as well. Here too was the same evidence of former furniture and furnishing, now destroyed, as well as some clear weather-damage, where rain or snow had worn away at things over long decades of no maintenance. What might have once been a massive chandelier was the main piece of debris in the room, broken and scattered in all directions.

“You know, it’s almost like the place was attacked,” Estella mused, stepping carefully over various chunks of debris to the windows. It looked like they faced out to the mountain behind. “Or maybe just… ransacked, after it was left last.” It was hard to imagine bandits all the way out here, but Leon had to agree that it did look like that way. Furniture didn’t rot itself into smashed condition, after all.

“Well, let’s hope it suffers no such ill luck whilst we’re present, shall we?” he replied wryly. The room would do well as a meeting one, though—he’d been able to save most of his maps from Haven, and a new table for them would easily fit in here; there was standing room for as many people as he could imagine needing to address at once, in such a situation. It would seem that, however much work it required beforehand, the castle would at least be able to meet their needs.

“What’s this place called, anyway?” Leon asked, glancing between Estella and Vesryn.

"Tarasyl'an Te'las," Vesryn answered simply, though he seemed well aware that further explanation would be required. "I expect that wouldn't do for a name to spread far and wide, of course, and the fortress itself is Ferelden, not elvish. The words mean 'the place where the sky was held back.' For our purposes... Skyhold, I think will do."

“Skyhold it is, then.” Quite the grandiose name, really, but the that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Now… they just had to get it in the kind of shape that deserved the designation.

“…we’d better get to work.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit
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Leon drew a deep breath into his lungs, holding it and counting to five before he let it out again. The large, semicircular chamber they’d chosen for the war room was nearly full to capacity, as he’d been rather liberal with his summonses, unsure what expertise would be necessary and what would not. Besides himself, Estella, Marceline, and Rilien, the room also held Romulus, Khari, Vesryn, and Cyrus. Reed and Larissa were present as well, situated in one corner of the room, both supplied to take notes on anything significant. He suspected they would not stop writing once they began.

The Inquisition’s commander cleared his throat softly, having prioritized the order in which he’d make his queries, doing his best to account for the fact that at least some of the others were bound to interject with queries of their own. He’d decided getting an accounting of events, and any consequent intelligence, was first priority.

He smiled mildly at both Romulus and Khari. It truly was good to see them well, but for the moment, there was too much else to be done to linger on that. He would leave the celebration to the troops outside, who were almost certainly doing so at this moment. “As I’m sure you’ve guessed, we’d thought you both lost after the events at Haven.” They had, essentially, volunteered to give up their lives for the rest. Fortunately, it would seem that at least the two of them had not needed to pay that steep a price after all. Leon folded his hands together behind his back.

“What happened?”

Romulus took a moment to get acclimated to the new meeting room, which was far grander than what they'd been afforded in Haven. It even had windows. And these offered a breathtaking view to the mountains that surrounded Skyhold's position in the Frostbacks. When he was ready, he leaned forward, placing his hands upon the edges of the table.

"We held our position at the trebuchet for as long as we could. Venatori and Red Templars were drawn to it. Eventually, that dragon made a pass, and obliterated a section of the wall. Everyone was thrown back. I was the closest to it, and was severely injured. The dragon circled around to land inside the wall, and the army's leaders came through the flames."

“A bunch of people, actually.” Khari picked up the thread of the explanation there. “The first lot were Venatori, probably the elites. Mages, but ones who moved like… like an army, a real one. Their leader was this man—he seemed to be human, but…” Her brows furrowed for a moment, but then she shook her head. “Anyway. He was tall, definitely a mage, and wore a mask over one side of his face.” She raised a hand to cover the left half of her own.

“He and the Venatori, uh… they seemed like a vanguard or something. The leader, he killed Fiona, like it wasn’t even an effort for him.” Considering who Fiona was, that news boded extremely poorly, to say the least. “Behind them came…” She struggled for the right words for a moment. “It looked like a darkspawn, I guess. But… there were also chunks of that glowy red lyrium on him, and he talked. A lot, actually.” She scratched her head, glancing briefly at Romulus.

“He was really tall, taller than you, Commander. But kinda weirdly spindly, like someone took all his parts and stretched them out. He had magic, too. By that point it was just me, Rom, and Meraad against this guy and his dragon and his army.” Her voice, usually at least slightly good-humored or light, was heavy, thick. “I, uh… charged them. Aimed for the big Darkspawn.” She didn’t make eye contact with anyone, instead fixing her eyes somewhere near Leon’s shoulder. “It—he, I guess… he just kinda gestured, and then this force picked me up and flung me into the trebuchet. Hurt like hell.” Her gaze came back into focus on the last part, at least, and she managed a little smile, more self-effacing than anything.

Romulus nodded somewhat gravely, not refuting anything Khari had said. His own voice had constricted somewhat since he'd last spoke. "They were only interested in me. The bait worked as well as we'd hoped. Meraad tried to stand up to the dragon on his own..." He left unsaid how well the attempt had gone. It was not difficult to imagine.

"The darkspawn Khari described is the Elder One we've been hearing about. His name is Corypheus, and he was responsible for the Breach and the deaths of everyone at the Temple of Sacred Ashes. In fact, he spoke a great deal, believing his victory complete." He shook his head at the thought, either from bewilderment or the darkness of the memory that the particular night in question carried with it.

"He spoke of championing Tevinter, assaulting the heavens. He said we interrupted a ritual," he looked to Estella, "the day we received our marks. He called them Anchors. 'Beg that I succeed, for I have seen the throne of the gods, and it was empty,' he said."

He delivered the line with no attempt at impersonating the Elder One, this Corypheus, though by his tone, he found a great deal of confusion in what the creature spoke of. "He tossed me away like I was nothing, and I hit the side of a well or something. He wanted to remove the mark from my hand with some sort of magical tool, but determined that it couldn't be done. I was to die, but Khari managed to set off the trebuchet, and dragged me into the well before the avalanche crushed the town." He half smiled at her briefly, as though he still couldn't quite believe they lived despite all of that.

"That's what we know of the enemy. The rest of the time was spent just trying not to die, and... discovering some interesting things." He did not actually look eager to enter that particular discussion.

Fortunately for him, he didn’t yet have to. “It called itself Corypheus?” Cyrus spoke with obvious surprise, and more appeared on his face when he glanced about the room only to find that no one else shared his shock. Blinking several times, he decided more explanation was prudent. “Corypheus was the name of the Conductor of the Choir of Silence. He was the Old God Dumat’s high priest at the time all of them entered the Fade physically. It was more than a thousand years ago.” From the sounds of it, he wasn’t sure whether he believed the implication of the darkspawn naming himself such, and he snorted softly.

Elder One, indeed.”

“The Grey Wardens had this creature sealed in the Free Marches, bound by blood magic ritual.” That contribution, perhaps more immediately relevant to their interests, came from Rilien. “Several of those I knew in Kirkwall broke the seal and killed it. Or believed they did. I will contact them immediately—there may be more they can tell us.”

It was almost too much information to process. But Leon knew from experience that when something seemed overwhelming, the best way to handle it was to break it down into its parts. The part about Corypheus’s possible origin, he left aside for the moment, focusing instead on Rilien’s contribution regarding a recent previous encounter. “Please do,” he replied, inclining his head in the Spymaster’s general direction. Anything else they wanted to talk about regarding that should probably wait until they could talk to one of these friends of his, anyway.

That left several other choices: the marks, their enemy’s goals, the other man who’d appeared with him, who was likely a general or right hand of some sort, and then the elephant in the room—what the woman who had appeared with Romulus had said about him. The marks, he thought, were probably a matter for Cyrus and Asala to do some work with, and that would be later than this meeting, anyway. Corypheus’s goals were unclear, beyond what Romulus had already said, and the while they might be able to get somewhere informationally if they knew who his prominent underlings were, the description Khari gave wasn’t enough to work with yet.

That left one more thing they could likely address in this meeting, and Leon turned violet eyes on Romulus. The Herald’s unease hadn’t gone unnoticed, but it was surely an important-enough matter that it bore explanation as soon as possible. “Romulus, the manner of your return did raise a number of questions. Would you please explain to us what it is that you have discovered?”

He grimaced slightly. "I'm sorry about that. It wasn't how I would've made my return, but... there are no subtle ways to enter this place." He half smiled, as much making fun of his own tendency to hide as he was complimenting the Inquisition on the new fortifications. He cleared his throat.

"The woman who spoke is named Anais. She leads a group that operates out of a place called Winterwatch in the Hinterlands. I traveled there with Asala and several of the Lions, and earned their loyalty by closing a rift. Her people rescued Khari and I from a mounted group of Venatori that nearly caught us." That seemed to be the easiest part of the explanation, and Romulus swallowed, taking a moment to formulate what came next in his mind. "Anais had studied under an order that devoted themselves to the history of Andraste, and her bloodline. She'd been researching a theory since Redcliffe."

He placed his palms back upon the table, as though to steady himself. "She believes I am a living descendant of Andraste herself. She introduced me to a man I met in Redcliffe, who turned out to be my father. I don't know if it can be proven, but she claims to be working on a way. From what we have, between Anais and my father... it seems right." He practically shook when he admitted that, effectively giving away that he believed it himself. The idea seemed to scare him more than anything, though there was a glimmer of something in his grey eyes. Hope, perhaps.

Well. That did, in fact, sound even stranger the second time.

Leon’s relationship to his faith had always been a great deal more nuanced and complicated than that of most people he knew. It didn’t bother him to acknowledge the mortality and the humanness of most of the figures involved in the Chant, and he’d never been one to, say, condemn outright the actions even of Maferath or the Archon Hessarian. Those were, naturally, unpopular positions, as was the common Tevinter belief that Andraste was not so much an exalted Bride of the Maker as she was foremost a human woman and a mage. He’d never seen the tension in saying she was both.

So it was perhaps easier to swallow for him than many faithful that her descendants were still very much alive. It wasn’t something everyone believed, nor something everyone liked to think about, but it was well within the realm of possibility, though as far as most knew, the line had disappeared a long time ago. Harder to believe than the fact that her descendants existed was that someone had managed to track them down. But he didn’t know this Anais or what she knew, and so on that, at least, he chose to suspend judgement.

“That, I think, is something best dealt with when she proves it or fails to do so,” he said at last. “In the meantime, I think it may be most prudent to prevent further declarations of the kind that accompanied your arrival.” His lips twitched into a rueful smile. “It’s not impossible that you are who she says you are, and if so, that will have implications. But those implications will go more than one way. Some will react as Anais and her group have. Others will deny it, and hate you for so much as suggesting that it could be true. Everything you’ve done, your entire life, will fall under the kind of scrutiny we have hitherto tried to divert from you. If you choose to make this information public, you will have to be prepared for that—to own your history and everything you do from now on as well. It will not be easy.” He didn’t mean to sound to dire about it, but he spoke the truth as he saw it. Being a public figure, especially one propelled to it with a claim like that, true or not, was very different from being anyone else.

"If I may, Ser Leonhardt?" Marceline interjected. Up to now, she quietly listened and kept her thoughts to herself. Her face was impassive, nearly impossible to glean any information on how she felt about all of this through her body language. Until now, she watched Romulus with a hawklike gaze, at least until her facade broke away with a smile. "Even if what this Anais says was true, and you must understand that by no means am I implying that it is not. There are far too many possibilities to discount it completely. But, the Inquisition cannot officially declare you Andraste's heir."

The smile on her lips remained, though, as she leaned forward, her arms crossed at her chest, "However, rumors have a strange way of propagating. Amongst the crowd that witnessed your speaker's declaration, a number of the nobility were present. Whom no doubt will spread news of what they have heard when they return home," Marceline's head tilted toward Leon, "The Inquisition will neither confirm nor deny these rumors," it was not as if they had many options. Either stance would anger someone. "With luck, those who wish to believe shall, and those who do not, simply will not."

Romulus nodded, taking a moment to absorb their reactions to the news. "Whatever you believe is best. I'm... still not sure what to do with the information myself." He then looked to Estella, and offered a reassuring smile. "But I do know that I'm here to stay, and serve the Inquisition in whatever manner it will have me. That's my choice now."

She looked a bit unsure in response, halfway raising a hand as though to stave off some part of what had been said. Likely the serve part, considering her nature. In the end though, she sighed a little, half-smiling back. “We’re happy to have you, in any case.”

That, really, seemed to be the bottom line here, and Leon nodded. “Exactly so. Thank you—both of you, for the information as well. By all means, get some rest. We’ll sort out what to do about all of this as soon as possible.”

Setting

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Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth
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There were definitely worse places to live.

It was a lively night in the tavern, and Vesryn could observe nearly everything going on below from the other side of a railing on the second floor. He'd secured an indefinite room for himself just behind where he currently sat, with a lovely view overlooking the training yard, the courtyard down below, and the main hall of the castle itself, situated upon the tallest hill. There were stables down below, nestled into a corner of the walls, and birds rose every so often from the garden, otherwise obstructed from his view by the sturdy walls. The room itself wasn't all that large, but Vesryn didn't spend too much time in it. He was an elf accustomed to always being on the move.

There'd been fairly little moving of late, leading to a great deal of time for Vesryn to think. There was, of course, much to think about. The dead Herald and the dead little bear turned out to be not dead at all, and the Herald was claiming (or at least, not denying) that he was the blood, the descendant, of Andraste herself. Vesryn supposed it could be true; humans had children, after all, and Andraste had some that disappeared. Ultimately it was something neither he nor Saraya had much to say on. The appearance of Andraste was after their particular area of expertise.

Ancient Tevinter magisters, specifically the tools of their trade, however, were more their style. It was a subject Vesryn had ruminated on since the mention of the orb that this Corypheus had carried reached his ears in the war room, the day of Romulus's return. That it was elven he determined within hours. That it had most likely opened the Breach, within the day. Corypheus had been present somehow at the explosion, but how he had survived was not something he could determine, nor could Saraya. Of course, Estella and Romulus had survived somehow, so it was certainly possible for Corypheus to survive as well.

This was not the end of Saraya’s concerns, however, and Vesryn spent the next few days searching for answers as to what troubled her most. When he discovered the cause for her concern, he'd kicked himself for not coming to it sooner.

And thus, Vesryn sat at a small table for two by the railing, overlooking the activity below while he worked on his second goblet of wine. Rather than be too direct about it, he’d managed to snare one of the tavern’s young elven workers, a girl no more than twelve, and asked her to deliver a note to the Inquisitor. Her face paled at the mention of the word, at which point Vesryn assured her that their Inquisitor was probably the sweetest person she’d ever meet in her life. She obviously didn’t believe him, but the reassurance was enough to get her to take the note. There may have been a promise that the Inquisitor would no doubt find some way to thank her in there as well.

In any case, the girl made her journey up to the big refurbished castle, bearing a well-crafted note that might as well have been from a royal dignitary, for all the effort Vesryn put into it. When one was inviting the busy Inquisitor to dinner, one spared no expense, after all. He didn’t even have any assurance she’d show. Perhaps she was busy, being the Inquisitor somewhere more important. He supposed if he had to, he could hike to her new office himself, but Vesryn much preferred to hope this would work out. Business wasn’t all he wanted to discuss, after all.

It took a fair amount of time for his efforts to yield any results, but yield they did. The Inquisitor slipped into the tavern very much in the manner of someone who desired to do so unnoticed, but was doomed to fail in that respect. After the first couple of greetings, most of the attention in the room had temporarily diverted in her direction, and she stopped moving, shaking her head slightly at the first person who actually attempted to rise and greet her properly. Wearing a small smile, she waved a hand in dismissal, speaking too low to be heard, and he fell back into his seat easily enough, settling for a jaunty salute instead.

That seemed signal enough for the rest, and they went mostly back to what they were doing before, though the volume took a considerable span of time to rise to its previous levels. She glanced around the tavern, clearly seeking him, but when he wasn’t apparent to her, she leaned down to speak in the ear of one of the Lions, who tipped his head back towards Vesryn’s vantage point, and she followed the motion with her eyes to where he sat, a trace of bemusement flitting over her features for just a moment before she shrugged to herself and headed for the stairs.

“Hello Vesryn, Saraya.” She came to a stop beside the empty chair, resting a hand on the back of it, inadvertently casting a soft greenish sheen onto the pale wood. “It’s been a while.” Estella looked as though she felt a bit guilty about that, actually.

"Too long," Vesryn agreed. He'd already gotten to his feet by the time she reached the table, and made it over to the chair that awaited her. He eased it out away from the table, well aware that Estella probably didn't want such gestures. He wanted to give them. "But I didn't want to be a distraction until I had something solid to report. You're a busy woman, as I hear it."

It was a bit frustrating at times to be greeted as a pair by those who were aware of his condition, as it were, but Vesryn didn't let it show. He rarely needed to be reminded that he was almost never really alone. Even someone as social as he was sometimes craved a true bit of solitude, and really Saraya could only partially give that to him. He worked back around to his side of the table and sank into the chair, just as the waitress came around to greet them.

"What'll you be having tonight, love?" she asked, clearly acquainted with Vesryn already. He narrowed his eyes in thought.

"I seem to recall the night's special involving steak. Medium-rare, if you will. This place never seems to disappoint."

"Never," she agreed, before turning to Estella, a bit more formally. "And for you, Lady Inquisitor?" A carefully chosen bottle of wine had already been placed on the table, if she wished to share. Naturally, the tavern would do their best to procure anything that she asked for, even if it wasn't on the menu. Such were the benefits of being Inquisitor, even if she didn't want them.

“Oh, um.” Estella paused a moment. “I’ve heard you make a nice moussaka here. But it’s called… aubergine casserole? I’d love to try it, please.” She smiled warmly, then continued. “And if you’ve anything sweet at hand… well, I’m very bad at saying no to dessert. No need to worry if you don’t, though.” Estella seemed quite aware that anything she said might be interpreted as a demand, given her position, and was evidently at pains to reduce that impression.

With a nod of confirmation and a smile for the both of them, the waitress left, heading back down the stairs to the kitchens, and Estella shifted her attention to Vesryn. “Your messenger was a little shy of me, I think,” she noted, but a trace of humor appeared over her features. “But then she found me asleep over my paperwork with ink smudged on my face, which might have helped, embarrassing as it was.”

Vesryn broke into open laughter, leaning back in his chair. "You poor thing. They're trying to kill you up there, aren't they?" Or maybe she was just doing that to herself. She didn't seem to know how to stop, from what Vesryn had seen. "Well, at least the girl knows now it's not just the little people that go to bed at night exhausted… or don’t go to bed at all.” There was a bit of chastisement in there, but Vesryn could hardly judge. His sleeping habits were hardly regular, shifting instead with the events of the day, and the opportunities left to him at night.

"As good as it is to see you, I thought perhaps we could get a bit of business out of the way first. Before the food gets here, at any rate.” He took another small drink of the wine, wondering briefly if Lady Marceline was responsible for this. He’d have to thank her next time he saw her. "I noted some concerns Saraya had upon hearing of the tool this Corypheus creature carried at Haven. Given the description, and the demonstration of its capabilities, Saraya believes it is elven in nature.”

Estella contemplated that a moment, filling her silence with activity by taking the opportunity to pour herself half a glass of the wine. She didn’t drink immediately, however, instead reclining back in her chair, brows knit together. “Well then I doubt he came by it honestly,” she murmured, with a small shake of the head. “Or directly, for that matter. I should like to know how he did… but perhaps that’s not quite so important at the moment.” She sighed softly, for a moment looking very weary indeed, but it passed hurriedly, as if she’d noticed and corrected it.

“Do you know anything else about the object?”

"Not much," he admitted. "They channel magic, like a powerful focus, greatly amplifying power. They were not common, even in ancient times. Saraya only knows of them, she was never in a position to use one herself." He believed he had most of that right. There were many things about the orbs he didn't yet understand, but from her uncertainty, the same could be said of Saraya.

"How he came across it, and how he survived the creation of the Breach, are questions that I would like to know the answers to. But you're right, it isn't of great importance just yet." As the evening continued, the floor below was getting livelier, with dancing just beginning now that the music was picking up.

Vesryn watched it briefly, distracted by a short uproar from a newly arrived group of soldiers, greeting some of their friends. "Saraya's concern is that the orb is elven at all, and what may happen if humans at large learn their faith is being threatened by a being wielding elven magic. I know you aren't the kind to jump to conclusions, but sadly people such as you are uncommon. I will admit a bit of concern myself. Humans already need little reason to subjugate elves. I would rather they not have anything they believe truly legitimate." Specifically, he could not help but think of his parents, still dutifully participating in the community of elves in the Denerim Alienage.

Truth be told, Vesryn had never been fond of their choices for him, nor did he feel they influenced his life in much of a positive way, but they were his parents, and they'd at least secured the opportunity for him to have a life at all.

Estella circled the rim of her wineglass with a fingertip, her thoughts having, it seemed, carried her some distance away. She blinked, and her eyes refocused. “As much as I wish I could disagree, I can’t.” Lifting her hand, she moved it to her face, pinching the bridge of her nose between two fingers and her thumb. “There isn’t any need to circulate the knowledge widely anyway, I should think. If it’s all right by you, I want to at least tell Cyrus. He might be able to figure out the rest, or part of it. And then probably a few of the others… if we know even this much, there might be some way to turn our resources towards learning more. If it’s connected to the Breach even just through Corypheus, we should find out as much as we can.”

Dropping her hand from her face, she settled it into her lap with the other, a wan twist appearing at one corner of her mouth. “I suppose I should have expected everything to get much more complicated before it became any simpler. Thank you, though; this is good to know.”

"I'm sure Cyrus already has his suspicions, if he's given the matter any thought." It was admittedly a bit annoying to be rivaled in knowledge of his own people by a human that didn't have an ancient elf housed in his mind, but Vesryn supposed Cyrus had the advantage of being quite the powerful mage, with access to dreams and spirits and remnants of things beyond Vesryn's imagination. "But by all means, pass this along to him. And you're welcome. If it will put Saraya at ease, I suppose it will help me, as well."

With excellent timing, the food appeared to be on its way up, and moments later they'd been served, the grumbling in Vesryn's stomach at last about to be put to rest. "I do hope you brought your appetite," he said, slicing off the first bit of his steak and savoring the taste. For what was more or less a military encampment and a fortress, they sure served wonderful food.

“Oh, no need to worry about that,” Estella replied lightly. “I eat enough for a person twice my dimensions, or so my friends are fond of telling me.” She didn’t do so with particular haste, however, instead carefully cutting into what seemed to be eggplant layered with tomato, cheese, onion, potatoes and some kind of spiced meat, from the smell of it. She chewed the first bit over with a thoughtful expression that morphed quickly into a smile, something nostalgic.

Setting her fork down, she reached for her wine and took a sip, tilting her head to the side as she gently placed it back down. Estella parted her lips as though she meant to say something, but then clearly hesitated. “Um… if you don’t want to answer this, I’d understand, but… could you tell me a little bit of what you’ve learned? About Elvhenan? I know some things, but obviously not nearly so much as you do.” The delicacy of the question was clear indication that she understood the importance of what she inquired after, and the potential faux pas of asking in the first place. She was, after all, human herself.

He was indeed made a bit uncomfortable by the question, but not because of Estella asking it. Rather, he found his answers dissatisfying, in how sparing they really were. For an elf in his position, there was only so much he could actually know, and even then there were things he simply couldn't comprehend, living in this age and lacking the kind of magical expertise that was, quite simply, now gone from the world.

"Well, it wasn't as though I vacationed there," he said, but only barely managing a joking tone. "And sadly, Saraya's experience wasn't idyllic, either. She ended up with her consciousness stored in a vial to preserve her. While belonging to a people that were once immortal." It was something he found profoundly sad. It was also something Saraya refused to think about almost forcefully, and Vesryn rarely chose to press her for information. He couldn't imagine the horror of being trapped inside something for what must've seemed to be eternity. Every time he'd tried to glean the exact reasoning behind it, he was met with disappointment. Perhaps it was simply something he wouldn't understand, or not something she could convey.

"There are the simple things about my people in the days of Arlathan, though. All elves had magic to call upon. Saraya thought me some kind of deformed child when she learned I could cast no spells. I suppose in a certain light, we are, though I try not to see it that way." He rather liked certain aspects of himself, and his lack of magic was not something he felt was a great detriment to him, as a person. As a researcher of his people, it was indeed a stinging lack. "All elves lived slow lives, even after they began to weaken and finally die. They still do, to some extent. Slow to react, slow to decide, always considering."

He wondered for a moment how much was worth telling, how much he could even accurately tell. A rather heavy subject, but he didn't want to disappoint her. "As a society... unique, but not as perfect as some might want to believe. There has never been a society in history without its tensions."

“Of course not,” she agreed easily, working away slowly at her food. “But speaking as someone who comes from perhaps the most flawed of them all, I think… I think I can say that there never was one without its wonders, either.” She half-concealed a rueful smile behind her glass. “Though perhaps some are much more wondrous than others.” Tipping the glass back, she swallowed and exhaled deeply through her nose.

“Thank you, for indulging the question. I’ve…” She paused, hesitating again, and then letting herself continue. “I’ve always been quite fond of history.” It was hard to say for sure, but it seemed almost as though that had not been what she meant to say at first. “Truthfully, I’d probably have been some kind of scholar if I’d never left the Imperium. Rather dull by comparison, I suppose...”

"It's no problem." Vesryn subtly inclined his head in a nod. "I was never interested in history, to be honest, not until it fell right into my head. Not the cheeriest subject for a young elf. I always thought that just listening to it would make me older, shrivel me up like the hahren. No, I spent my days chasing beautiful things, beautiful ideas, and beautiful people." He smiled a little. "Some things don't change."

As they worked their way through dinner, the tavern became livelier still, as more and more filtered in, and the music grew louder, the dancing below picking up speed. Vesryn eyed it hungrily, his appetite apparently not beaten down by the dinner. His eyes flashed back to Estella, mischievously. "I suppose you still don't dance? I should very much like to remedy that, if you've the energy. And if you'd rather not attempt it in the crowd, I have an idea."

He'd always intended to be persistent in this. Despite his apparent successes with women, and men, he was not unused to rejection, and the one she'd dealt him the night of Haven's destruction had indeed only been temporary deterrence. If he was judging things correctly... she needed something like this. Something that had nothing to do with being Inquisitor (even if there was an obvious benefit he could think of in that regard), something that would only produce a few awkward laughs if she failed at it right now. Something that might just rejuvenate her emotionally, or at least combat all the other things in her life that were draining her.

Still, she was reticent for some reason, trepidation flickering over her face before disappearing again. She clearly tried not to express her feelings for too long, as though each one were a little accident, a brief flaw that she quashed as hastily as possible. Even the ones that did break through were only noticeable to those paying attention, something she was likely to be surprised anyone would bother to do. Estella’s glance to the tavern floor was enough to communicate clearly enough that she would not be attempting any such thing down there. “I really don’t,” she confirmed, but she sighed, returning her full attention to him, her eyes narrowing slightly.

She gave the impression that she was looking for something, but what it was or whether she found it was unclear. “But… what’s this idea of yours?”

"Well..." he said, clearly being careful with his words, "there are several floors to this tavern, and I've found that the music carries quite well throughout. What we seem to lack is some kind of privacy to learn in. My room isn't large enough, but the third floor has enough space, and is almost always devoid of visitors." There were more boxes up there than anything else. The lighting wasn't the best, but it was good enough. And the music did indeed carry clearly enough. All the sounds and noise of the celebration, and none of the eyes.

Well, just his, but it was impossible to dance with a partner without at least one pair upon you.

"This wouldn't be my first time doing this, you know. Teaching someone to dance." Certainly the first time he would teach anyone of any standing to dance, but that wasn't worth pointing out. He was well aware that she did not enjoy feeling special. That would take much longer to work on. "I can't promise I'll be the most effective teacher, but if we don't think about it too hard, we may end up having some fun with it. That wouldn't be so terrible, would it?"

There was another little glimmer of emotion—bewilderment, this time, from the look of it—and Estella shook her head subtly. “I’m not going to be a good student,” she said, quite matter-of-factly, and without the faintest trace of doubt. “Actually, I’ll most likely be terrible. I’m not… I can’t imagine it’ll be any fun for you.” Her smile was intentional, a half-curve laden with rueful self-effacement. For all that though, her language itself gave consent, and she set her fork down on her dessert plate with a soft clink. “If it really doesn’t bother you, though… I suppose we could try.”

"Don't worry about me having fun," he said, sliding his chair back. "I always seem to manage, and you've enough to worry about already." It was a bit tiring at times, he had to admit, the way she refused to place even the slightest bit of confidence in herself. And maybe there was some legitimate underlying evidence for that, but her belief in her own imminent failure was only going to contribute to it. It was disappointing. But that was one small part of why he was doing this. That she'd accepted at all was extremely promising.

Coming around to her side of the table, he offered her his hand, casually, devoid of any sweeping bow or intent to kiss her own or any such overt spectacle. Embarrassing her was painfully easy, and not something he felt he could afford to do right now.

"Shall we?"

Estella placed her hand in his, and stood. “We shall.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth
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“Cyrus?” The soft clinking of metal and wood accompanied the bid for his attention as Livia gathered together his dishes, mostly clean of the food they’d held earlier in the afternoon. He’d come out of his singleminded concentration upon her entrance at noon, to realize that he hadn’t eaten much any of the last four times she’d been by, and decided to rectify that. He suspected she reported to Stellulam, so it served him to occasionally do such things when she could observe.

He flicked his eyes up from the work they rested on, arching a brow, inviting elaboration, which followed presently. “When was the last time you left this room?”

Cyrus frowned. “Why does it matter?” 

Livia half-smiled, an expression familiar to him, because there was something indulgent about it. He’d seen it many times, on many people, and never been especially fond of it. “You don’t remember, do you?”

“Of course I do.” He didn’t, and refused to speculate, in case his guess should be provably incorrect.

She hummed a note in the back of her throat, and he could tell she didn’t believe him. This personal concern and audaciousness in expressing it was, he supposed, his comeuppance. He generally detested being feared by people like her, and so he’d been irritated when she called him milord, her tone still meek as those she had previously served likely preferred it. But that was ridiculous, and wrong for here, and so he’d more or less demanded that she use his actual name. And eventually that she cease stopping herself from asking when she had a question, and now she clearly had it in her head that she was permitted to worry about him, and make her own demands in turn. 

How troublesome.

“You ought to, you know. Go outside. Talk to people besides your sister and I.” Oh, she was definitely reporting to Estella. If she weren’t, she’d have called her the Inquisitor or something equally as straightjacketed and stuffy. He scoffed. 

“And which one of you insists?” The words emerged testily, but that seemed to faze her not at all, and her smile grew just a little, giving her eyes a glint. 

I would never presume to do something like that, of course.” And now she was giving him cheek. He sighed, admittedly with some exaggeration, and waved a hand as if to shoo a pest. 

“Fine, I’m going. You may report to her worship that I have indulged in fresh air and sunshine.” He was at least as good as his word, and though Livia left first, he followed shortly after, descending the winding staircase that put him out of his tower and onto Skyhold’s grounds. Electing to avoid the noisier and more active parts of the castle, he instead headed for the interior, where the gardens lay. 

They were not yet much improved from their initial condition, but all the dead things had been cleared away, and there was evidence of several efforts towards horticulture taking place. He supposed the commander might be responsible for at least some of them. Aesthetically, it could use some work—the practical necessities had taken precedence over the more visually pleasing plants, for now at least. No doubt Lady Marceline would eventually oversee some improvements, that it might be a better location for diplomatic guests to enjoy themselves. 

Standing out from the bland colors of the not-yet restored gardens was Vesryn, in a light blue tunic unbuttoned to halfway down his chest, as was usual for the elf while it was still warm enough. The sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, his arms crossed as he peered down at the remains of what was once a statue. The piece of stonework was situated along one of the garden pathways, the square base still solid, but the body of the statue had been hewn off just below the waist, leaving only a pair of legs behind. They were adorned with an intriguingly cut long skirt, one smooth leg and little foot emerging from a slit. 

Vesryn continued to study the leg as Cyrus came within a comfortable conversing range. "I wonder who she was," he mused, thoughtfully, "and where the rest of her is now." Indeed, the missing upper half of the statue was nowhere to be seen in the garden. 

Cyrus tilted his head, considering the stonework. The castle itself was ancient, and he knew more about it already than he’d originally intended to, though some of its deeper mysteries continued to elude him, even when he searched actively through its lingering memories. “Evidently a fair maiden, carried off by a dragon or some equally-unsavory creature to faraway places.” He wasn’t even a little bit serious, and chose to make it obvious. “Some people have all the luck.”

"Not a very strong dragon, though," Vesryn replied wryly. He smiled slightly to himself, before turning to face Cyrus in full. 

"So, looking for me, or just visiting the garden? I imagine that's something Tevinter mages do, right? Visit fancy gardens while they whisper and scheme with one another?" There was certainly a small degree of venom to the elf's tone, but in all likelihood it was directed at the idea of the stereotypical plotting magister, and not at Cyrus himself. 

“But of course. You forgot the trysting and backstabbing and finger-foods, though. All are vital additions to any Imperial party. They get incredibly dry if no one dies, really.” He waved a hand in an inarticulate gesture, then crossed it loosely with the other over his chest. 

“I admit I am here for the purpose of assuaging dear Stellulam’s ever-present concern for my health, but…” His brows descended over his eyes, creating a crease between them. “If you are not immediately pressed to be elsewhere, I could use a moment of your time.” 

Rather than simply taking the moment, Cyrus caught himself and stilled his tongue, properly waiting for the answer with a neutral expression.

Vesryn exhaled sharply, a poorly-contained laugh at the comment regarding Stellulam, but then nodded, uncrossing his arms. "Certainly. How can I help?" There was a glimmer of interest in his eyes, no doubt curiosity, and perhaps still a bit of wariness, as to what exactly Cyrus wanted with him. 

Yes, well… that was the difficult part. Cyrus, by some combination of position, cultural understanding, and choice—mostly the last—did not often find himself in such situations. Shifting his weight, he pulled in a breath and then sighed with it. “It has… come to my attention,” he hedged, though context would likely make it obvious enough just how that came about, “that I was not… at my best, when we first actually spoke.” An understatement, but it would do, he thought. 

“I was abrupt because I was interested. It’s a… trait, of mine, which may on occasion be a flaw. If I had stopped to think about the social ramifications in more detail, it might have occurred to me that my abruptness could easily be interpreted as threat.” He grimaced. Of course it would look that way—he was visibly and unashamedly an Imperial mage, and Vesryn was an elf with a secret he’d probably been protecting for a large portion of his life, one that suddenly the same Imperial mage knew about. 

“But I didn’t, and I… apologize, for that. It seems that I am at pains to distinguish myself from others of my ilk whilst simultaneously playing into every expectation of them. It is… more complicated than I expected, and I erred.” The words were halting rather than smooth, and tasted strange on his tongue, but that was a function of the admission, not the person he was making it to.

Vesryn took quite a while to respond, probably mulling over the words in his mind. He didn't look amused for once, clearly not wanting to muddy the waters with any hint or potential for sarcasm or false cheer. "Curiosity and interest are nothing to apologize for," he said finally. "My circumstances are quite unique. I probably would've been more alarmed had you restrained your interest for the social ramifications." He exhaled, hooking a thumb under his belt. 

"Truth be told, I think I cornered myself into my initial judgement of you. Couldn't quite come around to the idea that a mage from Tevinter would have anything other than sinister intentions. I interpreted it as threat, but you've done nothing threatening so far." He paused, his eyes wavering away from Cyrus in that way they sometimes did. Focusing or feeling inward, perhaps, to better read the thought of the one trapped inside. 

"We could undoubtedly be of use to each other. Maybe together we could come to understand how my situation is able to exist, and what the future of it may be." 

Ah, now here was a language Cyrus could speak. “I would not mind lending my expertise to that. There is a startling lack of interesting magical phenomena to examine now, considering that the Breach is dealt with.” There were, of course, still the marks on Estella’s and Romulus’s hands, and this business about a suspicious orb, but Cyrus had a feeling he knew where to go for answers about the latter. The trick would be getting there. 

In the meantime, consciousness transferal was still a rather tantalizing conundrum. 

“If at some point in the future you are so inclined, you’re welcome to visit my workshop. It would, after all, be rather prudent not to discuss such matters in the garden. Wouldn’t want to run afoul of any scheming, whispering sorts, would we?”

Vesryn smiled, more easily this time, most of the tension of his own explanation leaving him. "Yes, that would be for the best, I think. I'll be sure to visit sooner rather than later. I get the sense the Inquisition will not remain in such a resting state for much longer." 

“Indeed not.” Cyrus dipped his chin, then stepped sideways, moving himself back out onto the garden path to continue his walk. 

Perhaps he should get out a little more often.

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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The fresh snow crunched underneath their feet as Marceline traveled alongside Leon. Winter was upon them now, with new drifts of snow being supplied to Skyhold's grounds daily. Even then, snowflakes lazily drifted from the sky, and provided a stark contrast for the moment that they lingered in her well-kept mane of black hair. She was dressed for the weather with a thick black coat with silver fur lining the collar. The mountains would only make the winter chill all the more sharp, and they could probably look forward to snow for several more months.

“I do hope you have men keeping the roads clear,” Marceline said with her neck arched upward, studying the falling snowflakes. They would depend on those roads in the following months for supplies like food and clothing. A lot of diplomacy went into securing contracts and trade routes for goods. It would be a shame to see all of her work undone by snow blockages. Her words, however, were merely musings. She had faith that Leon had the soldiers doing whatever was required of them.

Her head fell back down and turned toward Leon, “Speaking of the soldiers, there are some things I wish to discuss.”

“I wished to see how you felt using the army in an attempt to bring in a source of income,” Thus far, the Inquisition had mainly relied on donations and loans from across Thedas, though primarily Orlais and Ferelden. However, donations would soon become scarce as the Inquisition established itself, and there were only so many loans they could take out before the debt crushed them. “If you feel they are ready, of course,” If not, then the whole thing was moot.

Leon, perhaps due to sheer size, didn’t seem much bothered by the cold. His own cloak was comparatively light, made of nothing more than roughspun wool with a deep red linen lining. He crossed his arms upon Marceline’s suggestion, causing the edges of the garment to fall forward. His brows furrowed.

“Bring in income?” he echoed, sounding dubious at best. “It’s not a matter of readiness, Lady Marceline, but a matter of ethics. If you’re suggesting that we hire ourselves out to the highest bidder or take sides in a civil war in hopes of getting paid…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “That’s not really the kind of thing an army like this one should be doing.”

“I did not mean for the suggestion to sound so mercenary, Ser Leon.” Taking a side in the civil war would not only be unethical, but would also lead to a conflict of interest and undeniable bias. Her father fought for the Empress however, and she would not condone placing the Inquisition's army in his way. “You understand as much as I that war brings all sorts out of the woodwork. Bandits, highwaymen, plus we now have the Venatori and the Red Templars to contend with. With the majority of the Chevaliers' attention turned toward the civil war, there are not as many trained soldiers patrolling the roads or keeping the holds safe.”

Marceline shrugged and glanced upward toward Leon's face. “I am simply suggesting we fill that need. Now, do not misunderstand me,” Marceline, her own brows furrowed, “I do not want to initiate a protection racket where safety comes at a price, but... The Inquisition will need income to feed and pay her soldiers.”

Leon seemed somewhat mollified by the clarification, but his frown didn’t disappear. “In principle, that’s not a bad idea, but… the kind of people who would benefit from our protection are not the kind who have much to give in terms of donations. We may end up spending more on transport and supplies than we get back for the effort. Much as I’d like to help, that might be better left to the Lord-General’s chevaliers. Not to mention Orlais is a sovereign nation even despite the civil war. We don’t really have a legal right to—look out!”

Before she could react, whatever it was struck her hard in the face. A freezing cold sensation was immediate as it spread through her face and seeped into her neckline. She halted midstep and gasped, swiping her face and bending over to free the snow stuck in her collar. Snow. It was then she realized that she'd been struck by a snowball. After removing as much of it as she could from her face and clothes, she shot a gaze upward, looking for the most likely culprit. Her brows were furrowed and her eyes narrow, though her face did not hold a look of outright rage instead sitting somewhere at accusing.

The first person she saw was her husband, having himself a hearty laugh. Michaël had returned to Skyhold from their estate on the West Banks a number of weeks back. Once he realized that she was staring at him however, his laughter stopped immediately. An alarmed expression entered his face as he quickly pointed toward the elven woman beside him. “Her,” he hastily accused.

Khari glared at him, but quickly threw up both hands in a placating gesture. One of them still grasped a second snowball. “Uh… sorry, Lady Marceline. I was aiming for Leon, I swear!” Apparently she expected this information to make things less bad.

A loud snort sounded above the pin-drop silence, followed by hoarse, uncontrolled laughter. It carried itself across Skyhold’s grounds and belonged to the resident pirate, Zahra, who appeared to be struggling to keep herself on her feet. She was crooked forward with one hand perched on her wobbly knees, and the other planted firmly on the closest building. A breathy intake of breath later and she was rubbing her hands and knuckles across her eyes. If any attempt was made to stifle her amusement, it was a feeble one. “You should see—I can’t believe,” she sputtered between giggles and snorts, “your faces.”

She appeared to have made some effort when it came to dressing for the weather. No amount of pride could keep the chattering of teeth at bay. She’d chosen simpler clothes, though they still appeared unusual. Dark leathers, bound with soft brown linens. A heavy black cloak rimmed with some sort of animal fur hung over her shaking shoulders. Her hair hung free, in a wild mess, woven with small braids and beads upon closer inspection.

“That’s not helpful, Zee!” Khari threw the other chunk of snow she was holding for the laughing woman. Certainly, her aim could use some work—it barely clipped Zahra before spinning off slightly to the right. Zahra’s laugh only grew louder when the snowball careened off her shoulder. She was already ducking down to gather snow in her own fingerless gloves, wolfish grin wild on her dusky face.

Coming up behind the elf and the chevalier was a bundled up Romulus, heavy cloak draped around him and a hood covering his head. He stepped lightly through the snow, but if he was trying to put his particular skillset to use, he wasn't doing it very well. The dusky-skinned Herald still looked far from home traipsing about through the snow, but he at least looked a little warmer than he had the previous winter.

He was rapidly forming a snowball in his own gloves, packing it into a throwable condition. As soon as he had he aimed it for Khari, and his aim was true; it exploded right against the back of her neck, and Romulus showed a toothy grin as he shrugged. "It's only fair, I think."

She pretended to look offended for all of two seconds before cracking a smile just as wide. “Oh yeah? We'll see what's fair." Apology already forgotten, Khari stooped and drew up a handful of snow.

Across the courtyard where the inn sat, a window on the second level popped open and swung outward. The white-blonde mane of Vesryn appeared, his eyes surveying the sudden snowy conflict. "Are you having fun, Herald?" he asked incredulously. "I didn't think you knew how."

"Why don't you come down, then? I'll show you." Romulus was already working on another snowball, eyes watching all those present, his grin unwavering. Vesryn took the bait, disappearing immediately from the window and closing it behind him.

Next to Marceline, Leon chuckled under his breath. “I do believe we’d best either take cover or arm ourselves,” he said, a smile lingering at the corner of his mouth. “That’s my official advice as commander, by the way.” Leaning forward slightly, he scraped some snow off a banister to his left, exposing the grey stone and compressing the flakes together between his palms. Taking his sound advice, Marceline quietly took a step backward and slipped into the rather large silhouette cast by Leon.

He eyed the entrance to the inn, apparently waiting for Vesryn to emerge before loosing the snowball. Given his strength, it wasn’t an outlandish possibility that he’d be able to hit someone all the way across the courtyard, either.

The elf swiftly moved out of the inn's doorway, like a child in a pretend game of warfare, which for all intents and purposes, this was. He had an actual implement of war, however. His tower shield led the way, and it was this alone that saved him from a snowy smack in the jaw. With snow sliding down the metallic front of the shield, Vesryn advanced, planting the shield into the ground just as another attack came from Romulus. He began working up a snowball of his own, though his efforts were a little hindered from holding up the shield.

"Is that all? My grandmother has a fiercer attack than this lot."

A soft thud accompanied a snowball striking him in the back; the culprit was soon revealed. Estella stepped out from behind a corner of the inn, one hand holding up part of her cloak, which was for the moment a makeshift basket for what looked like several more snowballs. “Surprise?” She half-smiled, darting away to take cover of her own behind a pile of chopped wood, stacked adjacent to the inn’s other side.

She adopted a steady rate of fire—her accuracy was at least better than Khari’s, though perhaps not by much.

She was certainly, however, not responsible for the volley of perhaps a dozen snowballs that arched onto the field from behind her, pelting anyone unfortunate enough to not duck behind cover in time. From her angle, Marceline could easily discern the cause—Cyrus strolled up behind his sister, wearing a broad grin. With a sharp hand gesture, he levitated another five or six chunks of snow into the air and hurled them as well.

“Asala?” The Qunari woman was indeed not far behind. “Have you ever attempted snow-fort architecture?”

“I have never had snow,” Asala answered cheerfully, the majority of her attention diverted instead toward a decently sized bubble levitating nearby. The bubble was completely opaque, having been filled with snow. “Though, Pierre and I did create a... snow man, back in Haven.” She stared at the snow-filled bubble for a moment before staring at Cyrus with a blank expression for another few moments.

She was quiet, before her eyes lit up in understanding. “Oh!” she exclaimed, and brought the bubble around to their front, morphing and shaping the snow in the air. By the time she sat it down, they had a nice, compressed snow wall between them and the rest of the combatants. With that, she beamed proudly. At least, until she was struck by a snowball.

“Cheating! That’s cheating—,” Zahra cried beneath the hail of levitating snowballs, raining down like arrows. A few had certainly struck their mark. Remnants of snow shook from her shoulders, and hair. If she was at all upset at having clumps of snow mussed in her wild mane, she certainly didn’t show it. Instead it appeared as if she was trudging through the snow and behind Asala’s makeshift wall, hidden from view. At least from the snow-ball churning demon grinning beside Estella. A lone snowball veered over their heads, and Zahra appeared a moment later, further to the right. Arms thrown back. Shuffling through the snow as if it were water. She dipped lower and attempted to tackle Cyrus into a nearby snowdrift, laugh already bubbling from her lips.

They went down in a heap; a pause in the constant barrage of snowballs from the south side allowed an opportunity for counterattack.

With a good deal of the attention turned toward the scuffle between Cyrus and Zahra, Marceline finally peeked out from Leon's shadow. She shot a glance around at the rapidly increasing number of individuals embroiled in their little snow battle. In a one fluid movement, she leaned out from behind Leon and loosed the snowball she'd been holding on to toward Khari. There was a little twist to her lips as she slid closer to her Seeker bulwark. Marceline always got her vengeance.

Above the frosty battle, and across the powdered walls, sat a lone figure. A woman perched across the brickwork like one of Rilien’s cackling ravens, though she hadn’t made a sound. She kicked her legs back and forth and absently fluffed snow from her knees, white-haired and dressed in clothes fit for Skyhold’s nippy weather. A soft brown hood was pulled over her head, but upon closer scrutiny, it appeared as if she was smiling. It pulled against the scar on her face.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit
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She should have been with them. That was all Asala thought about ever since Romulus and those who attended his ritual returned. They were in pretty bad shape when they arrived the day before. Asala and most of her staff had spent the entire previous day tending to their injuries, and currently they were all in stable condition. She still preferred it that they did not move for another day or two in fear of tearing or reopening their wounds. Asala was especially firm in Khari's case, fearing the woman would probably try to escape if the opportunity presented itself. Still, they were all alive, and if they took their recovery slow, and she and her assistants did their jobs properly, then there should be no lasting danger either.

She couldn't shake the guilt, and it remained with her even as she measured out a dose of potion into a vial. Donovan stood next to her, carefully folding clean bandages into a tin tray to change out the soiled ones. Asala couldn't help but feel things would've been different had she been there. No, she probably could not have changed the outcome, but she could have at the very least tended to them while their wounds were fresh, if not prevented a number of them to begin with. Asala had not asked for details, and in truth she did not want to hear them. It was clear that whatever they were supposed to prove failed, and she had seen Anais led to the dungeons in chains. She could infer enough from that alone.

With the potion measured, Asala set it on the tray with bandages and took it with her as she went to Romulus's bedside, and sat it down on a small stand beside her. Asala gave him a sweet, if a little sad smile when she handed him the vial before she began to undo the bandages on his thigh. The wound was mostly closed now and beginning to scab over. She was extremely careful as she worked; he had broken a number of bones and was no doubt very sore, if still not a little pain.

In the bed beside them, Bibi purred softly at the foot while Millian worked with Khari, cutting the bandages on her hand and inspecting the wound there. She was efficient, though she lacked Asala's... bedside manner.

Khari didn't seem to care much; she was surprisingly compliant with the tranquil's commands. The only resistance she'd put up so far was insisting that she was well enough to sit up with her back to the wall next to the bed she'd been assigned. Aside from the wound on her hand, most of her abdomen had been bandaged under her shirt due to multiple stab wounds there, and there were more around her head, covering a deep cut over one of her brows.

Indeed, she was uncharacteristically solemn in general, and didn't even keep up much of a running commentary, as she otherwise would surely have done. Instead, she stroked the cat with her free hand, rubbing at his ears.

Where Khari was solemn, Romulus was despondent, and had said almost nothing that wasn't absolutely necessary since his arrival back at Skyhold. His injuries had been extensive, the majority of them consisting of broken bones from being repeatedly struck with blunt force. His right arm was the worst break, requiring him to keep it tied up in a sling despite the best efforts of Asala's considerable healing magic. His jaw had been broken, his cheekbone fractured, even part of his skull had required healing. His ribcage was a mess, which had led to a number of internal injuries varying in severity, and there was the stab wound through his side and the deep slash through the muscles of his left leg to work through.

Despite it all, it was obviously not his physical injuries that troubled him, as he'd been clearly withdrawn inside his own head, where nothing good could be occurring. He slept often, but not well, either the pain of his injuries or his intense dreams waking him repeatedly. He ate only the bare minimum, and if Asala's comforting presence was having any effect on him, he was hiding it well. He did not sit as Khari did, but lay still and stared at the ceiling while she worked.

The door to the infirmary opened, and Vesryn entered, for once seemingly unsure what to do with himself. He closed the door quietly behind him, rubbing his hands together for the warmth. "How are we doing?" he asked, in a carefully casual tone. "On the mend, I hope." When Romulus didn't so much as acknowledge him, he nodded uncomfortably. "Well... is there anything I can get you, Asala? From the Keep, or the tavern maybe? Thought I'd see if I could be of service somehow."

The only one from the Riptide occupying another bed was its small-statured boastwain. Tucked neatly into the corner. Apparently she’d suffered the worst of the Northern Sword’s initial attack. She’d been in the Riptide’s belly when the cannonball crashed into its side, sending a spray of thick splinters through the upper portion of the ship. Her arm had taken the worst of the blows, and it’d needed to come off. Too much damage to salvage. They’d done a good job, though she hadn’t woken up for more than a handful of minutes before drifting off.

Zahra had visited several times throughout the night to check on Rom, Khari and Nuka. Most of the time, she’d just fill in the empty space between them with rambles, trying to cast light in the dark situations they’d tumbled through. Even if it didn’t have any effect… she was relentless. She’d had scrapes and cuts but hadn’t suffered nearly as much as the others had. Bruises would blossom and disappear, but she looked none worse for wear. The upper portion of her arm was neatly bound in fresh bandages where they’d extracted an arrow. Besides that, she’d been lucky.

She, too, filtered through only moments after Vesryn had. There was a bottle tucked under her arm, though it was difficult to tell what it was. She paused at the door before stepping through and shutting it behind her. Her eyes roved across the occupied beds, stopped short when they reached Rom and Khari before they slipped towards the farthest corner of her room. Her mouth formed a line, before it shifted into an easy smile. “How’re the patients, kitten?” Zahra closed the distance and idled beside Vesryn. She fished the bottle from beneath her armpit and prodded him in the shoulder with the corked end, “Just got back from there.”

Asala paused her work for a moment to turn and greet both Vesryn and Zahra. There was nothing really more to do except to keep their injuries clean and supply doses of healing medication until they were well enough to start moving again. It was not the external injuries Asala was most worried about however, but the ones that lingered in their heads. Broken bones and cuts could be mended, but maladies of the mind was something on an entirely different scale. In fact, their company were perhaps the most important thing right now than the things they could get.

She turned, but before she could even ask, Donovan was already to work fetching the chairs. "They are... healing," Asala answered Zahra. Her eyes did linger on the bottle disapprovingly for a moment before she shrugged. "I believe we have what we need but, if you would like, you are more than welcome to stay awhile," she said, though by the way Donovan was bringing chairs, it was more of a request than a suggestion. Their company would perhaps give them something to think about over whatever dark thoughts were swirling around their heads. She sighed again, but offered a smile to Vesryn and Zahra before returning to tend to Romulus. She should've been there, she told herself not for the first time, and certainly not for the last.

Khari roused herself a bit at the presence of company, still leaving her hand within Millian's custody but turning her head so she could smile wanly at the visitors. It was hardly a smile compared to the face-splitting grins she so often wore, but she seemed tired and concerned enough to warrant it. Her eyes frequently flicked across the room to where Romulus was.

“'Fraid we're not at our most entertaining right now, but thanks for dropping in. Don't worry too much though—you should see the other guys."

"Oh, I have," Vesryn assured her. "The ones able to make it into our dungeon here, at least. I suspect they didn't fully understand what they were getting into when they fired on the likes of you. Safe to say they do now." Seeing that Zahra was a step ahead of him on the gift from the tavern, he shuffled his feet a bit awkwardly in place, before smiling and bowing his head a little. "Well, I should be going. I hope your recovery is swift, all of you, and... Saraya expresses her concern as well." He took his leave, shutting the door quietly behind him.

Zahra appeared as if she wanted to call after him… but he’d walked through the door as quickly as he’d come, and she was left standing there, bottle held in both hands. She made a humming noise in her throat before plopping down on one of Donovan’s proffered chairs. She’d caught Asala’s opposing stare, and shrugged her shoulders, “It’s a gift. What can I say? I don’t go back on promises.” She bounced the bottle on her knee and tilted her head to the side, “Well. You’re alive, at least. Counts for something.”

Khari's smile grew, just a bit. “Well, we promised, too, after all. Can't break a promise on breakfast."

At that point, the door outside opened up again with a blast of cold air. It admitted Lady Marceline first, who held a cloth covered parcel close to her chest, and behind her Estella, who was laden with a heavy-looking tray bearing what looked like a couple of decently-sized pots and several empty bowls stacked upside down, along with the glint of tin spoons.

Steam gushed liberally from the top of both pots, and Estella moved with exaggerated care, careful to place each foot before adding weight to it. She made it over to an empty side table, where she gingerly lowered the whole tray, breathing what sounded like a sigh of relief. Turning towards Asala, she gave a small smile, brief enough to be little more than a twitch, and folded her hands in front of her.

“Um... I made soup. That's okay, right? I wasn't sure if anyone had any stomach injuries, so it's not very spicy or anything..."

"Larissa sends her regards," Marceline said after Estella, "Along with these." She then began to pull the cloth away to reveal a set of novels which she turned over to show them. "I find her choices to be... subject, but nonetheless she assured me that you would enjoy them," she said. From the glance Asala took, she read Hard in Hightown on one of the covers before she returned to her task, setting the old bandages back into the tray beside her.

Khari snorted. “I've heard of those. Some guy from Kirkwall wrote them, right?" Admittedly, she seemed more interested in the soup at the moment; as soon as Millian was finished wrapping her hand in fresh bandages, she was pushing herself out of the bed. Apparently the concept of bedrest was a little lost on her. Millian even put a hand on her shoulder to try and dissuade too much movement, though it seemed to be ineffective, and the tranquil did not try to fight her over it.

“Rom, you want to eat something?" She glanced back at him, turning an empty bowl over in her hands quite heedless of the injured one. If she was still in pain, she was remarkably resistant to it.

Romulus blinked, turning his head at the sound of his name and taking in the sight of the soup, Estella, and Marceline. "Uh... yeah." It wasn't the most enthusiastic response, but perhaps the smell of it was enough to convince him to acquiesce. Carefully he worked himself back into a sitting position with Asala's help, though he wasn't able to perform much movement with one of his arms and one of his legs. "Thank you," he said quietly in Estella's direction.

Asala picked the tray with the empty vial and dirty bandages up, handing it to Donovan as he came to retrieve it. She then reached into one of the pockets in her robes to produce a clean rag and wiped down the table she had been using with the intention of using it the hold the soup.

“You're welcome." While Khari was serving herself, Estella started serving bowls for the others in the room, handing the first one to Asala, indicating with a small nod that it was intended for Romulus. Others went to Donovan and Millian to distribute; Estella seemed inclined to stay clear of where the healers were working.

Khari sat back down on her bed, holding her soup steady in her lap with her injured hand and using the other to manipulate the spoon. It was a little awkward, since she'd been stabbed in her dominant hand, but this didn't seem to pose a significant problem. “It's pretty good, Stel. Thanks."

"Will you need help?" Asala asked Romulus softly. While she wanted to, she did not want to make him feel useless by stealing any independence that he could have. If he wished to feed himself, Asala would make sure that he would be able to do it.

"No." Romulus said, somewhat quickly. "Thank you."

With that, she smiled and nodded, pulling the table close enough for him to reach without straining himself and set the bowl down on to it, with another clean rag beside it. She stood and backed away to give him space. The rest of her staff went about distributing the soup, and helping those who needed it with their eating. For a moment, she felt lost for a moment before her eyes hungrily fell onto the bowls of soup and she realized she couldn't remember the last time she had eaten. Asala had spent so much time tending to everyone and making sure that they were comfortable that she had forgotten to eat. Even so, she did not immediately go for the soup, and instead hesitated, looking around in case there was someone else who needed her.

Estella must have noticed, or she looked more tired than she realized. In either case, the Inquisitor handed her the next one, pointing to a chair near the wall with a little half-smile. “I know enough about magic to know it's exhausting," she chided mildly. “You should eat, too."

Asala took the soup with a little surprise and was about to refuse before her stomach betrayed her and grumbled. She could feel the heat of the blush blossom across her face, so she meekly accepted both the bowl and the chair, slinking into it and leaning against the wall. As she began to eat, she couldn't help be begin to feel tired, and before long her eyelids began to droop. Soon after, she slipped off to sleep, with the warm bowl of soup in her lap and spoon still in her hand.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth
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The armchairs in the library were much better for sitting in sideways than the one in Cyrus's workshop. Perhaps he should consider nicking one of them—he doubted anyone would bother to confront him about it.

For now, though, he was perfectly content where he was, legs dangling over one arm of the chair, back pressed into the other. Pia purred steadily from her spot draped around his neck—she seemed to enjoy the vantage. He wasn't inclined to move her. Something about the continuous soft rumble helped him focus. White noise. He hated it when things were too quiet.

Flipping a page in the book settled in his lap, he reached up with his free hand to rub at the base of her ear, satisfied when her volume increased accordingly. If only people were so easy to please. Hooking his fingers in such a way that his knuckles cracked, he settled slightly deeper into the chair. Rivaini was not his favorite language. He'd have to keep a list of terms to double-check with Stellulam. Or perhaps Zahra, though he wasn't sure how many technical academic terms she would know. Cyrus was always willing to be surprised.

Vesryn did not make a habit of walking quietly, and so he was rather easy to notice when he entered the library. That, and his appearance in general tended to make him stand out, even when he wasn't wearing that white lion pelt over his armor. He wasn't in any armor at all currently, simply dressed for the warmth, or lack thereof. He paused behind the back of an armchair across from Cyrus, wearing a delighted little grin.

"Well, you two make a lovely couple." His eyes fell on the cat around his neck. "Will it hurt your reputation if too many people see you being this adorable?"

“Oh, without a doubt, unless perhaps I can get her to look more menacing, so that we might be the evil magister and his nasty minion. I'd hate to disappoint my loathful public." Cyrus lifted both eyebrows as if alarmed by the very idea, marking his place in the book and closing it over carefully. He lifted his shoulders, a bit more carefully than he usually would in deference to his passenger.

“May I ask what brings you by this afternoon?" The library was a bit of a trek from Vesryn's usual stomping grounds, after all. Cyrus had a feeling he knew the answer—he was only really sought out for one thing as a rule.

"Not books, I'm afraid." Vesryn removed and folded up his cloak, circled around the armchair, and sank into it. "I was hoping to ask you about something, perhaps not the easiest subject." He paused, having obviously not rehearsed the question in his head before arriving. "About Redcliffe, when you were... warped into the future or some such. You encountered me there."

That part obviously needed no confirmation. Cyrus had told Vesryn as much, in his initial poorly-handled series of questions about Saraya. So an elaboration was in order. He knew that immediately, and yet several seconds passed in silence. Pulling a breath in through his nose, Cyrus forced his thoughts into some semblance of order, doing his best not to linger on the memories themselves, but only the information they contained.

“Yes." He sighed a bit. “They'd performed more than one magic-assisted lobotomy on you, from the head scarring."

"Head scarring?" Vesryn repeated, making somewhat of a disgusted face. "How barbaric. I wonder how they learned of her..." He frowned, raising a hand to his face and gently tapping on his lips with a finger. "Did I make it clear what their aim was? If they succeeded?"

Cyrus dipped his chin in a subtle nod. “Extraction. I... wasn't in much condition to be asking for anything further, but your words were 'tried to take.' I surmise they failed, and also that they killed her. You'll forgive me for saying so, but your form was considerably less than it usually is, even accounting for a lack of practice." Cyrus hadn't been thinking about much at the time, his natural broadminded curiosity narrowed to a razor's edge of focus. Thinking about it now, there were many more questions he should have asked. Much more information he should have gleaned.

He could have learned a great deal about Corypheus's plans, if he'd been of the correct mindset. But his emotions had overruled him, and left them all blind as a result. It was not his proudest moment. And the sting seemed only to grow more bitter as time passed and he more fully understood the magnitude of the opportunity he had lost.

"Well, that's not surprising," Vesryn remarked grimly. "Months of torture and experimentation will do that to a man, and I expect I didn't have much left to stay in form for." He seemed to contemplate that for a moment, a thought which obviously brought him no small amount of discomfort, but he then shook his head, pushing it aside.

"Also not surprising that these Venatori would dabble with dangerous magic without a care for the consequences. That they tried to remove her suggests to me that it's possible, that they failed evidence that it's difficult to do. Do you believe there might be any way to do the opposite? To strengthen our ties?" He seemed to be very much hanging on the answer to the question. "I've been looking at the sketch Estella made of her a great deal lately. I've always wondered what her voice would sound like."

He smiled suddenly, as though a funny thought had occurred to him. "I suspect she thinks her undoubtedly sultry tones irrelevant, and that the words she could speak to me would be far more valuable. Here we'll have to agree to disagree."

Cyrus laughed at that, a smile temporarily remaining on his face even when it had passed. “I recall that project of hers, yes. She was quite troubled to get the rendition correct, but apparently Saraya's appearance blurred when apprehended directly." He'd helped with some of the finer facial details, but he didn't bother saying as much. It wasn't important.

“As to your question..." Cyrus passed his tongue over his teeth, scratching absently at his jaw. “I've spent some time thinking about this. Research is very limited on spirit-corporeal bonds, you understand, and there are other factors that make your case quite different from even those." With the disclaimer out of the way, he was free to get to the good part.

“But. I don't believe it's impossible. Well... strictly speaking, I think very few things are impossible, but strengthening your bond is something we should be able to achieve without much more than we already have at our disposal." His words took on a more rapid cadence as he warmed to his subject, and he sat up a little straighter, unconcerned with the slight nick as Pia used her claws to stabilize herself on his shoulder.

"Do you think my not being a mage will make this more difficult?" Vesryn asked, thoughtful. "Saraya and I have come to believe that it can't help matters any, my not being able to work with the Fade as she can, and... certain parties I've encountered agree." A thought seemed to occur to him, a rather dark one judging by the shift in his expression. "I wonder if the Venatori thought that wretched corrupted lyrium might help with something."

“It's quite likely." The red lyrium part was, at least. “All of you had been exposed to it, and your damage was among the most extensive. But in truth, without the right information, I don't think your being a mage would make all that much difference. She's not a conventional spirit, but the consciousness of a living person. She does not come from the Fade, and as such, an increased connection between yourself and the Fade may have made no difference at all." Cyrus shrugged. He would have preferred to know more than he did, of course; it was difficult to control for variables he could not identify. But the situation was what it was.

He was trying to remember that he was working with real people here, and while that made things messy in ways that laboratory experiments were not, the significance was also... more. This mattered, and not merely in the abstract.

“The process of extracting her mind from her body was quite likely magical, and strengthening the connection will probably involve magic. But that is no great obstacle. You'll have my help, after all." One side of his mouth tugged upwards; that had sounded rather self-important, hadn't it? Ah well.

“Now. Our Spymaster and the diminutive engineer have done a bit of work with red lyrium. It's essentially the opposite of the normal sort, in functional properties. So if it can have a negative effect on the bond, it stands to reason that strengthening may require ordinary lyrium. I can look into this, if you like, but it will take some time." Pulling his legs underneath him, he drummed his fingers on his knee.

“The other option, of course, is to let me walk in your dreams. Anything that is conscious can dream. Well, save dwarves. Saraya is conscious. It follows that she can dream. There is a chance I could find her via yours. However." He raised an index finger. “I do feel obligated to express that it would be a risk. She is not originally of the Fade; she may interact with it in ways I cannot predict."

"Actually," Vesryn interjected, "she does not dream." It looked to be something of a pained admission for him, as though he thought it were a rather terrible thing that she was unable to do. "I figured that much out a while back when I wondered why we never shared dreams. Why I never found her in mine. She... never sleeps, not even when I do. I don't know why. It's... something of a sensitive subject for her, I think. Trust me, she very much would have liked to sleep those many, many years before I came across her."

Cyrus blinked. Now that was queer. It was speculated that the reason dwarves did not dream had something to do with their ancestral proximity to lyrium. For Tranquil, it was certain—the brand was what really did the trick. Likewise, Templars were able to sever Fade-connection and reduce magical effectiveness due to their consumption of lyrium. That all suggested a reason for Saraya's lack of dreams, but not her lack of sleep.

“Interesting. I still might be able to get at something through yours, if her consciousness really is partially-fused with yours, but it is much less promising an option now. I would not recommend risking it."

"Makes it very hard to sneak up on me while sleeping, at least," Vesryn half joked. "In any case, I would appreciate it if you could take a look into the lyrium business. And thank you." Seemingly satisfied for the moment, the elf stood to his full height again and began to don his cloak.

"Now, to find an enchanter willing to take a look at an old elven tallhelm. If you ever require the services of a lowly but handsome elf such as myself, you need only ask."

Cyrus snorted. “Duly noted. You might wish to inquire of Rilien, for your enchanting needs."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras
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At its heart, the city of Jader was a fishing port. It borrowed from both the Fereldans and Orlesians, creating a chaotic miss-mash of architecture. There was a practical simplicity clearly reminiscent of Ferelden stonework, coupled with Orlesian whimsy of columns and vibrant colors. Bright and loud. Where one faltered in sophistication, Orlais offered its fancies. Ferelden tempered it with a genuineness it would have lacked otherwise. Besides, as impressive as its aesthetics were, it wasn’t what Zahra was looking for. Seeing as it was the closest shipyard in relation to Skyhold… it was the best they could do. She readjusted the bundle in her arms and swung her gaze skyward.

The Riptide was neatly anchored in Jader’s dry dock. Surrounding the ship were several neat piles of timber, binds, and pad parts. Thick rope, as well. Fortunately the main mast hadn’t been hit. Replacing it was far more trouble than it was worth—the holes, however, were just as much of a pain. The railings had been ravaged by one of the cannonballs, and its midsection had been pierced as well. They’d had to cut and remove some of the boards; bowed in as they were. The holds were a mess. The first cannonball Borja had fired hadn’t pierced through the entire vessel, and had rolled about inside. As soon as they’d returned, it was the first thing to be removed. Nixium had taken her station next to anyone who’d begun placing down boards. Smoothing her fingers across the gaps, until the wooden pieces molded and merged together.

Zahra had instructed the others to clean up the holds, carry boards and set about with hammers, nails, and ropes. There was much to do, and the weather had held enough not to feel uncomfortable. Hefting wood up and down the gangplank would’ve warmed them up anyhow. She, too, bustled around the shipyard. She’d also visited the local tavern in order to buy a few bottles of wine for anyone whose thirst couldn’t be quenched by the casket of water settled beside the nearest building. Damn Borja. Her collection of vintages had perished in the battle. Shattered and wasted on the lower decks. A damn waste.

“More work than it’s worth if you ask me,” Garland guffed from beside her, scratching at his beard. He seemed more irritated the usual, but it was probably because of the influx of work he’d been handed. Sweat beaded on his brow, and his hair was slicked back from his face.

“Good thing then—I wasn’t,” her grin cracked wider when she turned to face him, dumping the load of wood into his arms without waiting to see if he’d catch it. He did. Barely. They were empty, anyhow. He made a noise, clearly annoyed before clambering up the gangplank and onto the deck.

Among those who'd joined the crew in their repair efforts was Estella. It was clear enough that her knowledge of ships and the requirements of repair was minimal, but she'd made herself useful clearing away broken boards and glass and the like from the lower decks until that was done. Now, she mostly ran supplies to people who knew what they were doing, hauling boards and buckets of nails up and down the gangplank with diligent steadiness. She'd tied her hair up and away from her face and neck; she dressed like any of the others working on the Riptide, with no indications of rank or position.

On one trip down for more supplies, she passed Zahra by and smiled. “The fore hold is shaping up pretty nicely; the crew down there say they'll probably be done in half an hour." She shifted her grip on the laden buckets she was carrying and wiped her forehead with her sleeve near the shoulder.

“Appreciate you coming up here, we’re making good time,” Zahra said, offering a soft smile and a free hand for one of the buckets Estella carried. She didn’t mind helping out anyone who wasn’t Garland. His whining was a small victory, in a sense. If he wasn’t such a damn good shipwright, she would’ve thrown him off ages ago. Anyone who couldn’t understand the value of salvaging Riptide as long as possible, didn’t deserve to call themselves a raider. He’d never ran under different sails before, as she had. This was her first ship. Her first crew. Assembled by her and Aslan back before they’d scrounged up their motley crew.

It was the closest thing to a home she’d ever had.

Fortunately, she’d acquired extra hands on her way to Redcliffe: Estella, Vesryn and Asala. She was grateful they’d come along with her, even if they hadn’t needed to. It lessened the workload and would make Riptide seaworthy far quicker than if she’d had to rely solely on her crew. Asala’s magical prowess proved invaluable, shifting the larger boards with ease. Estella’s eye for detail had proven equally useful. The ship’s inner belly looked even more organized then it’d been before. And for an elf so pretty, Vesryn was stronger than he appeared. His humor, as well, seemed to brighten the sour mood as of late.

Once they stepped down the stairs, the smell of shallots and garlic met their noses. Brialle was busying herself in Riptide’s kitchen, preparing lunch for those who’d grown hungry after toiling for hours. A soft, melodic hum came from that direction. A sea-chanty she recognized. Her stomach lurched and gave an unseemly growl. Zahra grinned and gently bumped her shoulder into Estella’s, “Looks like it’s about time for a break anyhow.”

They encountered Vesryn underneath, the elf lugging a very heavy looking canvas sack over one shoulder. He'd been working tirelessly at collecting anything and everything that needed to be removed from the ship, which mostly consisted of things blasted apart by the cannonballs or damaged when the ships had crashed together in the storm. He'd set to the work cheerfully, and indeed gave them a smile in greeting as he passed. "Ladies. Lunch sounds fantastic."

He looked to be enjoying himself, honestly, despite the dull manual labor. He'd worked up a sheen of sweat and managed to get his shirt half-unbuttoned so his chest (and most of his torso) would have room to breathe. It remained to be seen if the shirt would end up in the trash pile, too. He paused at the base of the stairs. "Looks like she held up pretty well, all things considered. Under Qunari cannon fire, no less. No small feat." His expression seemed to grow a bit more serious and genuine. "I'm sorry I couldn't be there. The whole affair was a bit over my head."

Zahra settled the bucket down by a neat stack of crates and stretched out her arms above her head: cat-like. She cracked her neck from side to side, and set to work dragging extra chairs to the long table settled in the largest hold Riptide had to offer. They had all their meals down here, as a crew should. Stale biscuits and salted meat be damned when you had a decent enough cook aboard. When one could afford better ingredients, and expensive wines, it would’ve been a shame to punish themselves with poorer fare. While she’d never boast of all the things they’d had to do to accumulate their fortunes, it was obvious that they didn’t lack in that department.

She plopped herself into one of the chairs and kicked up her feet on the table, boots and all. The sound of food snapping in the foreground was all the more apparent the closer they ventured—just around the bend was Brialle’s kitchen. A place christened by the little lass herself. Off-limits to anyone else, she’d say. Unless they wanted to help with dishes. It smelt of butter and some sort of mild fish, mixed with the shallots and garlic she’d noted earlier. She looked over her shoulder and waved Estella over, hooking her arm over the back of the chair so she could swing her attention onto Vesryn’s face, “Can’t say she’s been through worse.” She shook her head and arched an eyebrow, “And risk that face?” Her wicked smile diminished a few inches, and softened around the edges, “Don’t worry about it. You’ve more than made up for that.”

"Hardly," Vesryn replied, dismissive, "And I do have a helmet, you know. Keeps this face of mine intact. Dare say I look rather dashing in it." With that, he made his way up to remove the refuse he'd collected from the ship. No doubt he would soon return for the food.

A dull thump drew their attention to the door. Asala stood slightly outside of it, rubbing her forehead while pouting at the top of the door frame. Judging by the bruise already blossoming, it'd not been the first time she'd ran into one of them. One of the crew, whom she'd been following apparently, turned and quickly hid his grin. "Wh-what?" she stammered, hiding the bruise, but the crewmate said nothing and continued on his way.

Asala had her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, revealing the base of her horns and giving door frames a clear shot to her forehead. She wore a thin sleeveless shirt with a wide neck and which cut off at the midriff, her crimson cloak tied into a knot at her waist. She, like the others, had worked up a sheen of sweat. "Th-they, uh, said it was cl-close to lunchtime?" Asala asked, apparently reverting back into her shell while around the rest of Zahra's crew, whom she had not had a chance to get to know as much as Zahra and Estella. The blush on her face said that she'd rather them not had seen her bash her head on the door frame either.

Estella smiled in a way likely intended to be reassuring, and patted the seat on the other side of her. “It is. Sit next to me?" She made no mention of the blunder against the doorframe, as though she hadn't noticed it in the first place.

Asala smiled and nodded, quietly taking the offered seat.

Zahra had a harder time ignoring the fact that Asala had bonked her head on the ship’s door frame. Her mouth stippled itself into a wavering smile, before crooking into a simpering smirk. Her laughter sputtered out like a leaky facet. How many times had she seen Aslan smack his horns into the wooden frames? Dangling ropes? Unfortunately, Riptide hadn’t been designed to cater to anyone whose stature was above average. While she hadn’t seen it firsthand, she assumed Leon had had the same troubles when he was aboard. A shame, really. She would’ve liked to see him as flustered as Asala seemed to be. She nodded her head and unhooked her arm from around the chair in order to face them properly.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said as she knuckled at her watering eyes, clearly thinking it was much more amusing than anyone else, “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen that happen.” As soon as she regained control of herself, she cleared her throat and smoothed her fingers across the wooden surface of the table, “Ah. Yes, it’s nearly ready,” she added with a conspiratorially wag of her eyebrows, “It might just be the most delicious thing you’ve tasted—”

“Don’t listen to her. It’s fine on an empty stomach. Nothin’ fancy,” a slight elf-woman with blond curls interrupted with a sheepish smile, hands occupied by a large pewter-platter. A peculiar item for a pirate ship, but given their prior affairs… perhaps not so surprising.

Brialle set the platter in the middle of the table, and brought out a few more platters. One had an arrangement of fragrant fish toppled on top of each other, garnished with shallots and wild mushrooms. Others had fresh bread and a round of old cheese. Diced fruits, as well. Afterward, she set smaller pewter plates in front of them and retreated back into the kitchen with a content hum. “Nothing fancy she says,” Zahra snorted.

"You know," Vesryn said after he'd come back down the stairs, free of any heavy load, "I don't think I've ever been served a meal by a pirate before." He slipped into an open seat at the table, surveying the array before him. "Seems I should make a habit of it, though."

Zahra’s clapped the table, making platters jump, before she laughed, “Well, you’re always welcome aboard this ship.”

Estella carefully served herself from the platters nearest her, occasionally diverting the spoons on their way to her plate to someone else's instead, if one got shoved in her general direction. Eating meals in a large group that wasn't too stuffy about their manners meant it happened more than a few times.

“Oh, nectarines. I haven't had one of those in years." She seemed quite excited by the prospect, and lifted half of one to her plate with something approaching reverence. “I suppose I should be questioning your supply lines, but I think I'm going to selfishly enjoy this instead of asking." She bit into the tender fruit with relish.

Asala was busy helping herself to fish, shallots, and mushrooms when Estella spoke. She leaned over and whispered, though quite loudly enough for Zahra to hear, though from her expression it wasn't meant to be some sort of secret. "Pirate," she answered with grin and a flutter of fingertips.

“Say it isn't so," Estella quipped back in the same stage whisper, apparently unable to help the slight smile she wore.

Zahra was busy stuffing her face, though she’d noticed the conversation going on to her side. She leaned towards them and grinned wide, arm hooked behind her chair. “I prefer the term… opportunist.”

“Then I guess this is an opportunity to remodel the ship. Should we put in anything new while we're at it? A bar, perhaps?" Estella nudged a tankard a little closer to Zahra, perhaps sensing that she was going to need to wash all that food down at some point. “Day spa? New cannon? We might actually be able to get you one of those, eventually."

“You’ve read my mind. Maybe, on all accounts,” Zahra tapped a fork to her lips, and dropped it in lieu of the tankard slipped in front of her face. Who was she ever to turn down a drink? Opportunities and all that. She settled her hands around it and arched an inquisitive eyebrow, “I’m thinking it’s time that Riptide had a little more kick.”

Sailing fast no longer suited her purpose. If she had more bite? It’d mean all the difference. A Qunari-crafted cannon with those damned cannon balls?

It’d suit her just fine.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth
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Estella glanced down at the parchment in front of her, sighing when she realized she'd probably just spent the better part of half an hour drawing useless doodles on it instead of making new requisitions for the Riptide, as she'd promised Zahra she would. She'd been having trouble focusing all day, perhaps understandably.

Though the Inquisition seemed to be doing its best to prove otherwise, it really wasn't every day that a friend had the metaphorical carpet ripped out from underneath her. Only yesterday had they judged Ser Durand; he would be leaving for Val Royeaux quite soon, she was sure. Their detention system was presided over by Rilien, after all; it would never be anything other than efficient.

Leaning her cheek into the arm propped on her desk, she made a few more idle scratches with her quill, turning a circle into a sunburst and chewing her lip. She wanted to do something for Khari, but she was at a loss. What did you do for someone in that situation? Was it best to distract her, or try to leave her alone to process things without pressure? It just didn't seem like the kind of problem she could solve with her special cider recipe or hot soup or saying she was sorry—it felt terrible t