Chapter 11-Oh that is so a trap
There are few things that two days solid sleep, half a sheep, and a bottle of nice red wine couldn’t solve. Indeed, for Miranda it was an excellent cure all for everything from a cold to a broken heart. Cassandra had checked on her periodically and, once she had woken up, had made Miranda get dressed before hauling her outside and presenting her with a freshly killed and skinned mountain sheep. Miranda had fallen on the offering with the hunger of a ravenous dragonling.
Eagerly dragging it to a nearby fire and setting herself to work, Elariel had been by with a promised bottle and the thick Antivan red had gone well with her meal. Half a sheep and a bottle of wine later her body had kicked the cold out of her system and she was on the prowl.
She had thanked Cassandra and Leliana for looking after her. “You are a part of my team and someone I consider a friend,” Cassandra informed her stoically. “I look after my friends.”
Miranda grinned and threw her arms around the slightly shorter woman, hugging the Seeker so hard they heard her armour give a slight groan of complaint. “It was still a wonderful gesture. You didn’t need to clean my hair,” Miranda told her, a smile curling on her lips.
Cassandra huffed and rubbed the back of her neck, a little embarrassed at the statement. “You would have done the same for me,” She answered and Miranda’s smiled grew.
“True. Thank you,” She replied before she left, wandering to where Leliana worked to thank her as well. She heard nothing but the sound of one person’s resting heart rate inside so she knew that Leliana was alone. She waited at the door way of the tent and knocked on the centre pole like she had the previous time.
Leliana looked up and saw her standing outside. With a small smile, she waved her in and Miranda took a seat on one of the crates. “I just wanted to thank you for helping take care of me when we got back. I know that you don’t really know me as well as Cassandra does so your help is appreciated,” She told the Spymistress. Leliana turned to look at her, a smile tugging at her lips and her cornflower blue eyes twinkling from the shadows of her cowl.
“It was the least I could do, after you helped me with my issues, and I promise not to tell people that you purr when your hair is being brushed,” She responded and Miranda gave a wide grin.
“Well I guess you could hold that against me, keep me on my toes,” She told the bard who grinned.
“Indeed, we can’t have the common soldiery knowing that the fierce Miranda Starsinger sounds like a cat on a window sill,” Leliana told her sounding mock serious.
Miranda let out a hearty multi voiced laugh that was joined by a clear bell like laughter from Leliana, the first she had truly let out since before Justinia died. Outside the tent people paused, hearing the sounds of laughter emanating from the tent of the scariest woman in the entire Inquisition. They looked at each other with wide eyes and ducked their heads low, hurrying past the tent in a hope that whoever had died to make the Nightingale happy wouldn’t lead to their own deaths.
Miranda grinned and hopped up from her position, wandering over to the table that served as Leliana’s desk. “Anything interesting?” She asked coming to a halt at the edge of the table. Leliana looked at her with narrowed eyes for a moment before picking up a message that she had already translated.
“I was hoping to ask Elariel to check out the rumors of a Grey warden in the Hinterlands,” She told Miranda handing her the paper. Miranda took it and looked it over. Her eyebrow raised as she went, a look of interest appearing in her eye.
“What do we know of this Warden Blackwall?” She asked curiously and Leliana shrugged.
“Not much. He is a wandering recruiter. He finds those willing to join the Wardens and sends them to the nearest outpost for their initiation,” Leliana answered and Miranda leaned over the desk, placing the note down and looking at the map of Ferelden and Orlais that was spread out over the rough surface and held down by a quartet of daggers driven into the wood.
“Where in the Hinterlands did they say he was?” Miranda asked running her finger over that section of Ferelden.
“Near the lake,” Leliana informed her pulling out a more detailed map of the area and putting a mark on the location with a charcoal pencil. Miranda frowned as she looked the map over, her mind swirling as she thought out possible courses of action.
“Do you know when Elariel has us heading out?” She asked looking up to see Leliana leaning over the table next to her, blue eyes watching her with sharp intensity.
“No, but I have no doubt that she will tell is soon and that she will be taking you and Cassandra,” Leliana replied and Miranda straightened.
“That’s good. See you at the meeting then Leliana?” She asked heading for the opening. Leliana nodded and Miranda wandered out into the snow.
From there she strolled down to the tavern. The voices and music emanating from there were a familiar balm. No matter where she was, inside a reality or outside of it, taverns felt the same. She took a step in and for a moment the pale pine walls and faded red carpets were replaced by deep mahogany paneling and stone flags of her personal favorite haunt the Blasted Captain in one of the communities that existed Between. The tired soldiers and people of Haven overlaid with the colorful and eclectic kinds that made up the members of the Bureau. She half expected to see the siren/fey/human hybrid Niaria in the corner idly plucking the glass strings of an ice harp and hear the multiple languages from the multiverse that mixed with the trade tongue that was uniquely theirs. She blinked and the scene resolved itself to the tired looking people of the Inquisition. The bard in the corner had just laid down her lute and Miranda wandered over.
“May I?” She asked gesturing to the instrument and the minstrel shrugged, sipping from a tankard of ale. “Sure, just don’t break it,” She allowed and Miranda picked the instrument up. It was obviously well loved and well used. The simple gut strings stretched over the travel stained dark wood that glowed with a deep red polish. She settled the instrument in her hands and began to pluck the strings. She was not a very good lutenist but she had practice during her travels.
Slowly the soft notes of the Dragonborn comes began to fill the air. She smiled and let the song fill her, the simple words began to pour from her mouth and she smiled as people began to look. “Our hero, our hero claims a warrior’s heart.” Sera and Elariel looked up from their conversation to see Miranda holding the bard’s lute and singing. Her voice was a clear soprano, warm and rich, obviously trained as she negotiated the simple tune. “I tell you, I tell you the Dragonborn comes,” She crooned and people were turning to look, whispers and nudges for silence as the Zerg woman crooned the song. “With a voice wielding power of the ancient Nord art. Believe, believe the Dragonborn comes,” she sang before easing into a wordless croon that she somehow managed to harmonize with her own voice before she sang words in a tongue they couldn’t understand. “Dovahkiin, Dovahkiin, nahl ok zin los vahriin,” The words were hopeful and powerful, like she was invoking some ancient power to heed her call.
She continued to sing some times in common and some more into the harsh tongue that she made sound gentle. When she finished, she smiled and handed the lute back to the minstrel. “Thanks. Its been a while and I wanted to see if I could still remember it,” She told the woman with a smile.
“Maybe you should sing some more, I’m about to take a break anyway,” The woman told her and there was a round of loud agreements.
Elariel looked over at Sera who had a slightly lost look on her face but was nodding all the same. “Ok then, I think I can pull a few more out,” She told them and took up the lute again. The listeners cheered and Miranda took a stand in the corner before playing a faster dance tune. “Feelin’ my way through the darkness, guided by a beating heart,” She began.
It was nearly dawn. The stars had retired and the faint grey of the approaching sun caressed the eastern mountains. Leliana wandered out of the Chantry, intending to make a round through the sleeping community. She approached the shut gates and climbed up to the top of the battlements. The snow clad field glowed a ghostly white in the dark and the dark shapes of the tents outlines by a perimeter of torches sat to the right of the gate.
To the left was the unlit practice field, dark and silent without the usual attendees that filled it with noise and movement. She frowned, the field was not as empty as she had assumed. A dark figure moved among the training manikins, their actions fluid and dancelike as they twirled and leapt. She cautiously slung her body over the edge of the gate and climbed down the stone. Feet firmly on the ground she carefully snuck through the shadows towards the training field, determined to see who was out there. As she drew closer she could hear the crunch of boots on hard packed snow, the harsh breaths and the swish of cloth that belonged to the unknown.
This close now she could see it was Miranda. She was in a set of hooded robes not unlike her own except they were black and had no chain mail stitched in. A sash of a dark coloured fabric wrapped around her waist and the tails fluttered as she moved. Her staff was in her hands but she was wielding it strangely, not moving her hands from the center grip and using the ends as if they were blades. In a flash, Miranda turned and brought one of the ends down towards Leliana. Acting on instinct Leliana’s long knives flashed out and caught the staff. Miranda grinned, her crystalline eyes glowed a little in the slowly growing light.
“Morning Leliana, didn’t think anyone would be up this early. Wanna spar?” She asked and Leliana pushed her blades up, throwing away the staff. “Sure, why not?” She replied and settled into a fighting crouch. Miranda leaned her staff against one of the manikins and drew two long serrated spines that had been given hilts from a pair of sheathes on her legs. The light grew and Miranda’s elegant robes became a little more visible. Her sash was royal purple silk and silver embroidery highlighted the edge of her hood. Her stalks were pulled to either side of her head and bound by several silver cuffs.
Her silver armour was strapped on top and a half cloak sat under the armour near her right arm. She spun her blades and mirrored Leliana’s stance and they began to circle each other. Leliana had seen Miranda fight but Miranda had no such advantage. They measured their opponent with fierce eyes. As if by some unseen signal, they leapt at each other, their blades clashing before they bounced away. They returned and exchanged a flurry of blows before returning to circling, new respect in each of their eyes.
“You’re very good,” Miranda acknowledged, her voice low. Her eyes were now well and truly glowing and her fangs were bared in a feral grin. Leliana felt her blood pumping and a smirk growing.
“As are you,” She replied as she dove forward again. A drop of purple liquid gathered on the points of Miranda’s fangs and as they spun to face each other she spat to the side. The spittle was laced with glowing purple and the snow fizzled when it struck as if a hot brand had been driven into the powder.
They both froze and Leliana’s eyes widened before narrowing again. “Poison?” She asked and Miranda shook her head.
“Acidic venom, meanest thing evolution ever cooked up,” She replied and Leliana frowned.
“When did you plan on telling us?” She demanded and Miranda shrugged. “When it came up. I promise after this there are no more weird and wild secrets hidden in my biology,” She answered and Leliana pursed her lips before nodding. “It had better be,” She replied.
They clashed again Miranda launched a flip over Leliana while the Bard rolled away. They danced with their blades, pulling out all the stops, jumps, kicks, punches, rolls and flips. They moved like cats, neither managing to score a hit on the other. Their fell into a lock, their blades held close to their chests as they bore down on each other. Miranda had the height advantage but Leliana was in a better position to hold of the Zerg’s weight. Miranda’s hood had fallen off in the confrontation and their breath formed clouds in the cool morning air.
Dawn had truly taken hold and they could see each other clearly in the light. A light breeze swept through the valley, cooling the sweat they had worked up as they strained against each other. In a flash Leliana, dropped to the ground, kicking at Miranda’s exposed knee and rolling away. She curled around the Zerg’s off balance body like a snake, blade aiming for Miranda’s throat. The Zerg’s blade intercepted hers somehow and they froze like that Miranda kneeling one blade behind her and the other hand griping Leliana’s right arm and holding it outstretched. “Draw?” she asked and Leliana nodded. “Draw,” She agreed.
They both relaxed, Leliana stepping off of Miranda’s back as they released their holds, allowing them to pull apart. “Good spar,” Miranda said holding out her hand. Leliana smiled and sheathed her knives. “It was. I have not had a fight like that in a long time,” She told Miranda who grinned at her.
“I live to serve milady,” She replied with a flourishing bow and grinned.
“Lucky no one saw us or there would have been a new round of bets going on,” She remarked and Leliana smiled. “True,” She acknowledged and walked off toward the tent city, no doubt to prowl through and remind the soldiery why they should fear the Nightingale.
In the tent city, Cassandra smiled at the sight of Leliana enjoying herself and quickly finished buckling on her armour to hide the fact that she had been watching. Leliana walked past her as she finished tying the flaps of her tent closed. “Morning Leliana, what brings you out here?” She asked and the Spymistress smiled and shrugged. “Thought I would check on out recruits myself” she answered and Cassandra smiled.
“Would you like to spar?” She asked and Leliana shook her head. “No I don’t feel in the mood for it right now,” She replied and Cassandra nodded before bidding farewell and heading to find some food and a training dummy. As the Bard’s back turned a small smile appeared on her face. It was nice to see Leliana look less serious.
Miranda was a good person to talk to, strangely wise when she needed to be and fun all the other times. The Zerg’s perky personality, bad jokes, puns and calmly listening ear had helped her on their journeys in the Hinterlands.
They stood in the war room. The sounds of the morning prayers filtered through the thick door from the sanctuary beyond and Miranda rubbed her temples with her forefingers. “Could they be any louder?” She complained and the others looked up from where they were staring at reports.
“They are a bit more zealous than usual,” Josephine observed and frowned looking at the hastily scribbled invitation that Miranda had wheedled from the Grand Enchanter. “I believe we should follow this up. At the very least we will have made the effort to mend ties with the mages,” she told them and Cullen scowled.
“We should approach the Templars first. The mages are dangerous now without the oversight,” he said belligerently.
Miranda let out a long, slow exhale and blinked up at Cullen but before she could say anything Leliana overrode his words. “The Templars are not even willing to talk with us. The mages extended the hand of friendship out to us whilst the Order all but declared war on us,” she informed him, steel in her voice. The commander squared his shoulders and his stance became confrontational but Elariel stepped in, stopping the fight before it could begin.
Honestly, she was right there with Miranda in terms of having a headache from the cyclical arguments. “We will be heading to Redcliffe to meet with them mages. If we like what they have to say, then we will go forward. Personally, I think that it would be best if we could get both orders on our sides but I realize that is extremely unlikely to happen,” She informed them, before rubbing her eyes. “Creators, you’re acting like a group of da’len,” She informed them wearily. Cullen glared at Leliana who had an air of feline indifference about her.
They settled a few more decisions about the various errands that needed to be accomplished for the Inquisition to grow before Elariel strode out. Cassandra and Miranda drifting in her wake as the Herald summoned Varric to accompany her to the Hinterlands. The day was still young so they were packed, saddled and moving before noon had even arrived. “So time crunch on us now huh?” Miranda remarked as they trotted along the road.
Elariel nodded a weary feeling permeated her. Honestly, she was tired of the pace they had set already. It was a constant feeling of movement. Run here to close this rift, run there to save a farmer’s cat. Jump to the left to avoid a Templars blow, roll right to dodge an incoming spell. Their time was rapidly running out. Winter was slowly closing its icy grip around them and the mountains would soon lock around Haven like the fist of a titan.
“Cheer up Elariel. The sun is shining and the wind is fresh, there is little wrong with the world,” Miranda told her, a smile decorating her face as she hummed to herself. She was a lot more vocal after her afternoon singing in the tavern, little snippets of song escaping her when she was doing other things.
“We need to find the Warden first and then we head to Redcliffe to meet with the Grand Enchanter,” Elariel told them all and they nodded, shifting so they would be a little more comfortable during their ride.
The hand of fall truly held the Hinterlands now. The trees were either clad in deep colours or clinging to their leaves as they slipped away on the wind. Drifts of the colorful flora lay on the road and throughout the forest. Aitheria played in the drifts as the trekked, kicking and pushing the leaves, watching them swirl away from her on the faintest of breezes. The sun shone but a chill now resided in the air, the wind bearing the sharp taste that accompanied the change of seasons.
They had ridden to the higher portions of the Hinterlands, making for the lake near one of their camps. “It’s picturesque I suppose,” Miranda remarked as she stood on the edge of the cliff that overlooked the valley below. “Almost makes you forget the whole war against evil and the rapidly fraying veil,” She added and Varric nodded.
“I learned to appreciate the little things like this with Hawke,” He told her as he joined her on the ledge.
“What was Hawke like?” She asked and Varric snorted.
“Selene Hawke is one of the best people I’ve ever met. You remind me of her sometimes,” He told her and Miranda raised her eyebrow. “In good ways I hope,” She teased and he chuckled. “Yup, she would laugh all the time and make jokes about everything. Said it was one of the ways she stayed sane.”
He shook his head and sighed. “Life dealt her a bad hand but she still managed to beat the odds. Father and sister killed in the blight, brother joined the order that she did everything to avoid and mother killed by a mad blood mage. I’m surprised she never went on a rampage herself.”
Miranda nodded in understanding. “I read your Tale of the Champion. She sounds like an amazing woman. I would like to meet her someday once all this is over,” She told him and Varric grinned. “I’ll see what I can do, but no promises. I don’t even have the first clue where she is,” He told her and Miranda nodded before giving the view one last glance before turning to rejoin the group.
Blackwall was a bear of a man. He was an even six foot like Miranda but built like a brick shed. His beard was thick and smooth, obviously well taken care of. He was dressed in a faded black gambeson with heavy leather and metal gauntlets and greaves.
Miranda hung back, watching him as he paced back and forth in front of the frightened farmers and villagers who clutched nervously at axes and shields. His instructions were clear and succinct, obviously he had experience in training raw recruits. Her stalks picked up the sounds of heavy feet and labored breathing. “Elariel! We have incoming, twelve men, three heavily armoured,” She called, interrupting Blackwall’s speech. Instantly, the others in the Inquisitor’s crew drew their weapons and positioned themselves around Miranda, focusing in the direction she was now facing.
The Bandits charged forward from the cover of the pines near the shore shouting out loud challenges that would have frightened the average man. The recruits behind them shifted and began to pray though to their credit they didn’t flee, mostly because Blackwall was next to them, urging them to hold. Cassandra and Miranda charged forward like they always did, they now had a system between the two of them. Constant fighting, whether it was sparring or in the field together, had made it so they had become familiar with the other’s habits and tricks.
Cassandra, for instance, knew that Miranda would rather deflect or dodge a blow rather than take it on her sword or staff. Miranda knew that Cassandra liked to charge forward with her shield, stunning her opponents before delivering devastating blows, but the Seeker was also incredibly nimble, turning on a dime and moving with the grace of a dancer when she had to. They often would catch foes between the two of them. Miranda distracting with her acrobatics and flashy moves while Cassandra smashed them from behind. Sometimes they would switch and a foe would wear himself out trying to beat his way through Cassandra’s impenetrable guard only to be heavily shoved onto Miranda’s waiting blade.
Blackwall joined them, taking blows and delivering them like a tank, heaving his massive shield around with heavy brutish movements that delivered devastating blows to his foes. Magic and arrows flashed past as Miranda and Cassandra struggled to keep the bandits off of the raw recruits who fought with clumsy and uncoordinated limbs.
“Miranda! Scare them or we’ll lose the recruits!” Elariel yelled from where she had just skewered a bandit who had come to close with the large blade that Miranda had installed on her shorter staff. Miranda nodded and threw her head, letting loose the shattering sound of a Zerg Queen in battle. This sound was different from when she had demonstrated it on the coast. Now her throat was healthy and responding as she commanded it.
The scream was terror inducing. It reached deep into a primal place in the minds of all who heard it and sent a single message. “Run!” The wail pierced through the sounds of battle, the discordant notes jangling against each other like the horns of hell. Cassandra grit her teeth and poured her instant fear into another violent sword swing. The recruits froze in terror and the bandits stumbled away, their instincts overriding their desire to fight into one to flee.
Miranda and Cassandra pounced after them, cutting the stragglers down from behind and Blackwall shuddered before joining them. When it was over they stood among the bodies and Blackwall stared at Miranda with wide eyes. If he had been a hound, the whites would have been visible but instead he prepared himself to confront the source of his terror. The sign of a true warrior.
“Thanks Miranda,” Elariel told her, jogging over to join them. Her voice broke the spell and Blackwall turned back to his recruits, trying to regain some control of himself in the comfortable routine of training and speaking with soldiers.
“Andraste’s knickers, that was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever heard,” Varric told her and Casandra nodded her eyes still sparkling with the light of battle. “A useful trick,” She told Miranda who grinned and nodded. “Nothing like the sound of a hunting Zerg queen to induce true bowel loosening terror,” She remarked cheerily.
Cassandra made a disgusted sound and Varric gave a weak chuckle. “Bowel loosening is right, If I hadn’t seen that you were making to sound I just might have run,” Miranda let out a full laugh and clapped Varric on the back. “Don’t worry you’ll get used to it. I can promise you that,” She told him jovially and he shook his head at her antics.
Elariel had walked over to Blackwall as his recruits left, heading away from the lake towards the farms. “Huh, I didn’t think the conscription worked like that,” Miranda mused as she watched them go.
“It doesn’t,” Cassandra replied, narrowing her eyes.
“Well at least he has a good sword arm, though I can’t say that the gambeson is doing it for me,” Miranda replied and Cassandra snorted in amusement.
“Indeed not,” She answered, her lips twitching.
“Though I feel like that beard of his might contain the souls of his victims… does it look a little possessed to you?” Miranda asked curiously and Cassandra cocked her head, eyeing the thick black beard with curiosity.
“I wouldn’t know, I am not well versed in detecting possession in beards,” She deadpanned and Miranda nodded sagely. “I just think its unnaturally luscious, maybe he conditions it,” She decided and Cassandra made a humming noise in agreement.
Behind them Varric made a choking sound as he tried to hold in his laughter. “Something in your throat Varric?” Miranda asked without turning as they walked over to join Elariel.
“His foot,” Cassandra informed her with a slight smile.
“Cruel. The both of you, cruel and heartless!” Varric told them and Miranda laughed. Elariel looked at them and turned back to Blackwall.
“This is Cassandra Pentaghast, Miranda Starsinger, and Varric Tethras. Miranda isn’t a demon, get that out of your system now or I will feed her your toes,” The elf told him and Miranda raised an eyebrow.
“Have you ever eaten toes Elariel? They are gross and way too bony, I don’t do bones,” She replied and Elariel sighed.
“I just wanted to get it over with, seriously the number of times I’ve had to explain your weirdness to people is starting to get to me,” She replied and Miranda shrugged.
“Very well, just don’t threaten to feed people to me. It kinda hurts the whole not demon thing.” She replied and held out her Hand. “Pleased to meet you Warden Blackwall. I’m Miranda the not demon.” Blackwall shook her hand with a slightly shocked expression.
“Good to meet you,” he said slightly automatically. “Good, gather your gear. Our camp is just to the south. We have a few things to tend to here but once they’re done we can meet up and head to Haven together,” Elariel told him and he nodded again. “Glad to help,” He told her before he turned and marched over to a small campsite.
“We need to make haste to Redcliffe. This is taking too long. We need to meet with the mages as soon as possible.” Elariel told them crisply before setting off towards where they had left their mounts.
“Is it just me or is she getting a little testy?” Varric asked and Miranda nodded, “I think she’s hit the anger stage of grief.” She told them and Varric looked at her in confusion. “Grief?” He asked and Miranda nodded. “She lost family at the Conclave. I won’t say anymore because it’s her story to tell and I’ll leave it at that,” She replied and followed after Elariel.
Cassandra looked after them and frowned. She knew the pain of losing a sibling. She resolved to have a talk with Elariel later before she followed her companions to the horses.
They rode through the now slightly quieter Hinterlands with haste, following the poorly maintained road through the hills. The charred remains of wagons were being cleared off by Inquisition soldiers and the corpses left to rot had been burned. “Charming,” Miranda noted as they rode past a mage’s head on a pike as they passed through an area that had yet to be cleaned.
“I do not know why the Templars think they can do this without repercussions.” Cassandra stated before waving at the head. “This is not necessary, it serves no purposes save violence for violence’s sake,” She growled and Miranda nodded.
“But they are not the only ones,” The Zerg told them pointing to the naked body strung by its ankles from a tree with the word Templar Butcher carved into his flesh. Elariel’s face was pale but expressionless while Varric looked grim. It was not the first time he had seen such senseless violence. Elariel was less accustomed to it though such sights had become common in the last few months.
The road was now bordered on either side by a dry stacked stone wall that had portions kicked out. Several scouts bolted towards them. “Turn back now! There’s a rift over there. We can’t open the gate till it’s gone, but it’s doing something to the people who go near it!” One of them cried as she grabbed Elariel’s stirrup.
“Get out of the area! We can close rifts!” She told the scout who nodded, her face ashy and stained with dirt. The party dismounted and Aitheria shepherded the horses away from the road and the rift. “Miranda, can you see or hear anything?” Elariel demanded as they drew their weapons.
Miranda closed her eyes and focused before opening her eyes with a curse. “What is it?” Cassandra demanded and Miranda looked at them. “If I’m hearing this right then the rifts just got a whole lot more dangerous. I think I’m hearing time dilations. Small for now and localized around the rift. We need to close this now. If you see light, then don’t go near it,” She told them and Elariel nodded. “I’ll ask about what those are later. We need to close this. Be ready,” She commanded.
The others formed up and dashed toward the rift. They hit the demons patrolling around the perimeter with their usual alacrity. Miranda and Cassandra forging ahead like an unstoppable juggernaut given form. They stumbled when Cassandra’s left foot was caught in a whirlpool of sickly yellow light that formed as her foot came down. The limb slowed down and Miranda managed to grab the back of the Seeker’s cuirass, yanking her leg from the time dilation before she could fall into it and be slowed down even more.
“That is a time dilation, it slows objects and people down,” She told the Seeker. Cassandra nodded and the dashed forward again, this time weaving through the dilations and striking the terror demon beyond. Miranda’s staff was thrust into its knee and the loud sound of cracking bone as well as its screech of pain filled the air. Cassandra’s shield interrupted the demon’s tail as it darted forward to strike Miranda who was shaking her head to clear the auditory overload.
“Thanks!” She called and Cassandra nodded, shaking her left arm to put some feeling back into the limb from the strike. They fell upon the spindly demon like what Miranda would have described as Zerglings over a Terran marine. They struck hard and fast, each blow devastating as it landed. The demon dissolved into chunks of green smoke as it fell apart from their strikes and the two women turned back to back as they took on the shades that had been held back by Elariel’s spells and Varric’s bolts.
The pitch of the rift rose in the sharp whistle that denoted that it was about to close before it did with a thud. “Oh thank the maker. Open the gates!” Called one of their soldiers who had been watching through the portcullis.
“You alright?” Cassandra asked Miranda who was massaging her scalp in an attempt to alleviate the ache in her stalks that the demon and the rift had caused.
“Yeah, just those things are nasty when they get loud,” She told the Seeker who nodded. They followed Elariel who was speaking with the scouts.
“Didn’t know we were coming,” The scout was reporting and Elariel frowned. “Not even the Grand Enchanter?” She asked and the scout shook his head.
“Agents of the Inquisition, my apologies. Magister Alexius is in charge now but he has not yet arrived. He’s expected here shortly,” A young elf in brown robes hurried up to them looking worn “You can speak with the former Grand Enchanter in the meantime,” He told them before hurrying away.
The group frowned after him. “Magister Alexius. Why do I have a bad feeling about this?” Varric asked, his voice low.
“Well now I’m really glad we got her to give us a written invitation,” Miranda told the group and Cassandra nodded.
“I agree but we should speak with the Grand Enchanter,” The Seeker told them and the others nodded in agreement before they took off at a jog towards the town. The road here was no better, weeds were poking through the cobbles and broken carts sat by the side of the road. Luckily there were no bodies.
As they went, Miranda became fidgety. Her stalks began to rattle and buzz in warning. She felt venom collect on her fangs and in her saliva. She swallowed thickly as the others looked at her in confusion. “There is and was a great evil here. The force is stained with darkness and corruption. We shouldn’t stay longer than we must,” She told them urgently her eyes now roving around, looking for threats whilst the force whimpered to her.
Her muscles coiled and Cassandra was forcibly reminded of their battle at the Temple. Miranda had the same tight, feral grace about her. Other times when they fought, Miranda was controlled but her body was loose, fluid like water flowing. Now she looked like a lion Cassandra had seen in a cage once, wary and ready for battle. Elariel and the others exchanged looks before nodding. “Agreed, let’s get this over with,” Varric told them. They passed through the people who were simply standing around and Miranda’s eyes narrowed.
“What do you hear?” Cassandra asked next to her. “Fear, anger and confusion. They keep talking about how uncertain that their actions are right. I don’t know what it is but whatever it is it’s bad,” She replied and Elariel looked at them in concern. “Advice?” She asked.
“Be wary, give nothing away. Powerful forces are at work here and they have an agenda. I’d advise we explore the village before we meet with the Grand Enchanter,” Miranda told Elariel, frowning.
“We’ll split up, move in pairs and speak to as many as we can. Meet up at the tavern before we go in together,” Elariel commanded and the others nodded in agreement.
They split, Miranda and Varric heading to the upper houses whilst Elariel and Cassandra made for the docks. They heard little in the way of interest until they came across two young men who were staring out at the lake. “How could King Alistair send us here. He knows…” The blond one began and Cassandra looked at Elariel in uncertainty. Elariel’s face had taken on a gentler expression and she walked forward to speak with the two mages.
The brunet man walked away leaving Elariel and the blond man there alone as the young man explained something to Elariel. Cassandra took a few discreet steps back, allowing for private conversation but still keeping herself within reach to defend Elariel if needed. Elariel put a hand on the young man’s shoulder saying something firmly to him. Before Cassandra could do more than blink the young man threw himself into the Herald’s arms sobbing as he clutched her tight.
For her part Elariel held him with a surprisingly maternal expression, rubbing soothing circles on his back. Cassandra eased closer in case she needed to shove the mage away. “Shh da’len, it was not your fault. You were young and improperly taught. Let it go da’len. I will not judge you,” She promised and Cassandra felt her throat close up a little in emotion.
Elariel had such moments of startling wisdom and leadership. Most of the time she hid it beneath a bubbly exterior that hid behind Miranda’s loud one. With a shock, she realized their relationship a little better. Miranda treated Elariel like a younger sister, one who had the strength and power to make changes but was uncertain of her place. Miranda was a smoke screen, happily dancing in the spotlight in glittering outfits to draw attention. Everyone watched the show and didn’t notice Elariel as she moved.
Subtle but most likely instinctive on Elariel’s part. That and Miranda’s obvious deference to the young she-elf made others turn towards the elf for guidance and leadership. Even Cassandra had done so when initially she had turned to Miranda for commands, naturally tuning into the woman’s natural aura of command. “Clever bitch,” She breathed to herself, stepping to the side, watching as the young man disentangled himself from Elariel’s arms and turning away, pausing when Elariel put a hand on his arm and speaking to him.
He nodded and turned away, leaving them at the end of the docks staring across the still water of Lake Calenhad. “What happened?” Cassandra asked joining Elariel at the edge.
“That was the son of the Arl here. A mage who nearly destroyed this entire holding in a childish attempt to save his father. His teacher was a poor one and he ended up possessed. Only the action of the Hero of Ferelden and several mages saved him,” Elariel replied, not taking her eyes off the view.
“I offered him a place in the Inquisition. He accepted,” She added and Cassandra looked at her in astonishment.
“You have taken to leading very well,” She remarked and saw Elariel shrug out of the corner of her eye.
“I am…was my Keeper’s First. I’ve been taught since I was four how to lead and comfort. Keeper Deshanna is old, and I do not believe she will last many more winters. I took over caring for many of the day to day working of the Clan while she focused on training me and Thea, our clan’s Second.” She answered and Cassandra looked over at Elariel in concern.
“Will you try to return?” She asked and Elariel remained still, tears beginning to trace their way down her tattooed cheek.
“Maybe someday. Thea is competent. She can protect the clan in my stead. She is wise despite her youth. Meanwhile the Creators have decided that my place is here, to fix the veil and maybe, just maybe, give elves a better place in the world,” She answered before giving a deep sniff and rubbing her blue grey woolen sleeve over her face, scrubbing the tears from existence. “Come let’s meet up with Miranda and Varric,” She said and Cassandra stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.
“You are not alone Elariel. You may not believe in the Maker but I will stand by your side in this fight. Miranda may be an irreverent heathen but she will support you too.” Cassandra’s amber eyes bore into Elariel’s emerald green with the same intensity that she lived her life with and the younger woman gave a slightly watery nod.
“Thank you Cassandra,” She replied and gave the Seeker a quick hug before slipping past her. Cassandra froze a little at the hug before she shook herself and followed Elariel toward the Tavern.
“Your sheep gives you advice,” Miranda deadpanned whilst Varric had gone very still beside her, no doubt to keep from laughing.
The one-eyed farmer in front of her nodded enthusiastically. “He’s a very special ram. Please miss if you see Lord Woolsey, tell him Jimmy misses him and I’m sure he’ll come back.” He answered and Miranda blinked a few times.
“Varric?” She asked, her voice giving a miniscule crack at the end of the dwarf’s name.
“We’ll try, just mark the location of where you think he is and we’ll look. No promises,” The dwarf told him, shoving his map and a stub of charcoal towards the man.
“Oh thank you. Maker bless you both,” The farmer told them marking the map and handing it back.
“Cheers,” Miranda told him in a tight voice before snatching up the map and almost running away, Varric hot on her heels. They made it to near the tavern and collapsed on each other howling with laughter.
“By the Gods!” Miranda squeaked between her gales of laughter. “It offers advice!” She howled and Varric nodded, tears streaming down his face.
“Special ram my arse,” He cried before the pair of them collapsed into laughter once more.
“I see that you’ve both visited the tavern already,” Cassandra’s dry voice observed and Miranda cracked open a streaming eye. “Oh Gods and Goddesses beyond… You will not believe what we just heard,” She told them and Cassandra tapped her foot, arms crossed in front of herself while Elariel observed the pair with twinkling eyes.
Between their cackles, Miranda and Varric told them of the farmer’s ‘special ram’ Cassandra’s lips twitched and she cleared her throat to prevent an undignified outburst while Elariel let out a free giggle.
Miranda hauled herself upright and shook her head setting her stalks rattling. Their buzz had subsided a little when she was laughing but now that she was returning to her previous levels of awareness they had begun to fluff and buzz more noticeably.
“Let’s meet with the Grand Enchanter then,” She offered and the others nodded. Varric wiped his eyes on his sleeve. They entered the dimly lit tavern and Miranda wrinkled her nose at the scent of fearful unwashed bodies packed tightly together.
“Over there,” Miranda pointed to a corner where the same elven woman they had met in Val Royeaux sat. They walked over to her and she stood. Closer now they could see that Grand Enchanter Fiona did not look well. Her face was gaunt, her cheek bones jutting out sharp enough to cut and dark bag circled her eyes. Her robes which had fit her well when they had met now hung loosely over her thin frame. There was a slight tremor in her hands and her eyes were filled with weariness.
“Welcome Agents of the Inquisition,” She greeted. Her voice was rough, indicating the onset of a cold, no doubt brought on by stress and lack of sleep. “What has brought you to Redcliffe?” She asked and Elariel frowned.
“You did. We were in Val Royeaux when you approached us and invited us to Redcliffe,” She answered before bringing out the written invitation and showing it to her. “You gave us this.” She told the enchanter who took the paper and read it, frowning.
“I haven’t been to Val Royeaux since before the Conclave. How is it that this was written?” She asked looking up.
Miranda shrugged. “We handed you some paper and a pencil and you wrote it. How you don’t remember is strange. I recognize your energy signature so it truly was you.” She told the enchanter whose shoulders slumped.
“It does not matter now.” She told them mournfully. “The free mages have already…. pledged themselves to Tevinter,” she finished hesitantly.
The party stared at her in shock. “An alliance with Tevinter? Do you not fear all of Thedas turning against you?” Cassandra demanded her hand clenching on her hilt.
“Andraste’s ass, I’m trying to think of a single worse thing you could have done… and I’ve got nothing,” Varric told them.
Miranda took several steps forward and peered into Fiona’s eyes, her own flaring as she probed with the Force. Fiona felt a wash of warmth pass over her, something she hadn’t felt since the Magister had arrived. “Great Akatosh, Athena and Amun. Whomever did that to you should not be permitted to live,” Miranda murmured, her eyes growing worried as she stepped back. Her right hand was clenching around the cylinder at her left hip reflexively.
“What is it?” Elariel asked worry clawing at her chest.
“Something with a great deal of darkness in them has impressed their will on her. She fought it but her natural defenses were overwhelmed. If they were force users or psionics, I would call it a mind domination. She is still in control, but he forced her to sign the indenture papers when she refused,” Miranda told them and Fiona slumped even further, her poor condition now making far more sense.
“Blood magic,” Cassandra hissed and Fiona bowed her head.
“I cannot speak against him nor renege on the deal. The other mages trust me enough to follow my lead and I am now leading them into slavery,” The enchanter told them wearily. Her hands were truly shaking now and she sat back down in her chair.
“Please, if you can, save my people. We have children and elderly, people who are vulnerable,” She pleaded with them. Before Elariel could say anything, the door opened and came in a red hooded man. Miranda’s stalks began to rattle in earnest now and her eyes had taken on a small glow.
Cassandra put herself next to the Zerg and placed a hand on Miranda’s arm. This close she could hear a low multi pitched growl that made her ribs shake slightly. Miranda was swallowing and a tiny trickle of glowing purple liquid appeared at the corner of her mouth before she caught it on her tongue.
“He is dark; a desperation sits in him that I know from several Darths. He has been near true evil,” Miranda hissed between clenched teeth. Cassandra pulled her back and away from the table, letting Varric take over guarding Elariel. Miranda was quivering under her hand, muscles clenched tight.
“I hate beings like him,” She hissed and elaborated at Cassandra’s look, distracting herself with talk. “People who force their wills on others are demons. The will and ability for choice is sacred. No one should have their very mind turned against themselves. Death is a better option,” She paused before she shook her head and regained control. “Go back, watch Elariel. I will be fine.” She reassured Cassandra through clenched teeth.
Cassandra looked at Miranda and saw the rage that the Zerg usually held under wraps and layers of humor was now on the surface. She hesitated before nodding and returning to the table. Miranda was fighting a war with herself. The desire to rip Alexius apart, and throw his bloody remains into the lava lakes on Char was strong. She closed her eyes and focused her breathing into meditation, chanting the Jedi mantra over and over again, blocking out everything.
There was a scraping of chairs and she looked up sharply. Alexius was hustling a yellow robed man out of the tavern calling for Fiona to follow him. The door slammed behind them and Cassandra looked at Miranda. “Are you alright?” She asked and Miranda nodded, hastily swallowing the extra venom her body had produced in preparation for a fight.
“Yeah. Just had a fight reflex, been a while since I was around someone who needs killing that badly,” She answered and the others nodded. “His son gave me this when he collapsed on me,” Elariel reported holding up a scrap of folded paper. “Come to the Chantry, you are in danger,” She read and frowned. “I don’t like the sound of that,” She said and the others nodded.
“I’m on a hair trigger already so let’s just get this over with,” Miranda told them and they nodded, moving out of the Tavern in a tight group. Miranda was in the lead, her stalks fluffed and eyes swiveling. Cassandra moved next to Elariel, shield already on her arm ready to protect the She-elf and Varric had a finger on Bianca’s trigger, safety off.
They jogged quickly through the streets towards the Chantry and Miranda flinched slightly. “Rift in the Chantry, one fighter, sounds male. My guess is a mage,” She reported tersely. They reached the doors and Miranda pulled them open, keeping her body out of the way so Varric and Elariel had a clear shot. Inside, a man in white and silver robes smashed the spiked club end of his staff down on a demon’s head, forcing it into the fade.
“Ah you’re finally here. Now help me close this would you,” He said conversationally. Miranda hauled the doors closed behind them and moved forward with Cassandra to engage. They approached a collection of shades and Miranda smashed through them in tandem with Cassandra. One hit her in the right flank as she battled with another and she turned, spitting a mouthful of venom at its face. It screamed in agony as the potent acid ate through its skull in a few seconds and it vanished in a swirl of green smoke.
She lunged forward with her sword and decapitated her current opponent and took off after Cassandra who was engaging the obligatory terror demon. It fell beneath their swords and she spun, blasting away the final shade that was sneaking up on the white robes man. It flew away from the mage and struck the pillars with a crunch, sliding down the stone until it dissolved. Elariel thrust her hand into the rift and bit her lip as she felt the searing heat of the closing rift.
It shut and she leaned back, tired from closing so many so soon. Miranda hurried over and began to examine the mark. “Damn, that broke down the quarantine faster than usual. I think these rifts are bad for the mark,” She told Elariel before closing her eyes and getting to work. The silver light wove around Elariel’s limb and the man looked on with interest. Once Miranda was done and had stepped back, breathing a little hard he looked her over.
“Fascinating, how does that work?” He asked Miranda rubbed her forehead. “We don’t know. All I can figure is that it is a key, a piece of the veil that has been charged in the opposite direction from the rest of the veil.”
The man hummed in thought. “That is actually rather brilliant so it reacts to the tears by drawing the edges together and sealing them with a burst of energy!” He guessed and Miranda weaved her head. “Maybe, it’s still pretty uncertain but that’s my best guess. Mind you I’m no mage so I am working with a different perspective than you are,” She told him and he squinted at her in the dim light of the chantry.
“Ahh you’re that tame demon that works with the Inquisition!” He cried making the connection.
The others froze and Miranda’s eyes started to glow. “Tame demon,” She said in a dangerously low voice and the man’s eyes widened.
“Is that what they are calling me?” She demanded and the man swallowed nervously before nodding. Miranda’s lips pursed. “I’m going to be having words with Josephine later,” She informed the others and the man breathed a sigh of relief.
“Anyway, allow me to introduce myself. Dorian of House Pavus, formerly of Minrathous,” He told them with a flourishing bow.
“Elariel of Clan Lavellan,” Elariel greeted him and the others followed.
Miranda incline her head to him, still a little sore about the tame comment “Jedi Master Miranda Starsinger of the Zerg, formerly of Char,” She told him and he blinked. “Ah so not a demon then,” he remarked and Miranda nodded. “So then, why are you here?” She asked and Dorian smirked “So suspicious my dear lady,” He pouted but shook his head. “To the point then. Magister Alexius was once my mentor so my assistance shall prove invaluable as I’m sure you can imagine,” He informed them and Elariel squinted at him.
“Miranda. Check him” she instructed and Miranda came forward. “This shouldn’t hurt,” She told him before folding her hands as if in prayer and bowing her head. Soft silver light blossomed of her and her stalks waved in the light. The light reached over and enveloped Dorian, cocooning him in a soft haze. “What in the Maker’s name is this?” He asked curiously reaching out his fingers in an attempt to touch the light. Miranda raised her head and the light faded.
“He is clean. There is no darkness clinging to him beyond the usual mundane stuff,” She told them.
Elariel exhaled and Cassandra raised an eyebrow. “The usual?” She asked and Miranda nodded absently. “Yeah, you know, a touch of greed, some envy. It’s more the potential for darkness than anything else. We all have it,” She told them and Dorian looked her over.
“Absolutely fascinating! That was no magic. Is it a native power of your people?” He asked and Miranda shook her head. “No, the Zerg are natural psionics, mind readers, but I had that blocked. There is nothing worse than being able to hear everyone’s thoughts,” She told them and the others stared before shaking their heads.
“You blocked it?” Varric asked and Miranda nodded. “Anyway shall we get back to why a magister asked to meet us,” She told them and Dorian put his head in his hand.
“Alright, I’m only going to say this once. I’m a mage from Tevinter but not a member of the Magisterium.” He told them testily. “You only sound like barbarians where you use the terms interchangeably,” He told them and Elariel eyed him.
“Will you stop talking like you’re waiting for applause?” She told him a note of frustration creeping into her voice.
Dorian put a hand to his chest in mock pain. “What? There’s no applause?” He asked sounding stricken. Elariel swallowed a smile as Cassandra gave a loud sigh. “Great, now there are two of them,” She groaned and Varric chuckled while Miranda smirked.
Dorian looked at them in a slightly bemused fashion before continuing. “Look, you are in danger, even without the note that should be obvious. Alexius swooped in and claimed the allegiances of the rebel mages from nowhere. As if by magic yes? He distorted time itself to reach Redcliffe before you,” He told them and Miranda groaned.
“Time travel. Why is it always time travel?” She lamented and the others ignored her save Dorian who gave her a strange look. “You’ve encountered it before?” He asked and Miranda gave him a baleful look. “Time travel is perhaps the messiest, most ham-fisted and brutish ways to accomplish something. Not to mention that its finicky as hell. One wrong move and boom! You come back to a world you don’t even recognize,” She told them all rubbing her forehead.
“Ahh, well I was helping Alexius develop this magic in Minrathous, but for me it was purely theoretical. Alexius somehow found a way to make it work,” Dorian told them and Miranda’s head snapped up. “Is that why the rifts around here are now messing with time?” She demanded and Dorian nodded. “Time is, let’s use the term loose around here, it’s being shredded when rifts open,” He told them and the others grew grim.
“We need to stop this before it destroys the world or, at the minimum, the space time continuum. Trust me, we need that shit. Baffling and mind warping in its complexity as it may be,” Miranda informed them tiredly.
“The magic is wildly unstable. It will unravel the world if it persists,” Dorian agreed.
Elariel sighed. “Well…shit,” She muttered and Cassandra nodded her lips set in a thin line.
“The big question is why?” Varric asked and Dorian shrugged. “That’s something I can’t figure out. It makes no sense, ripping time to shreds to gain a few hundred lackeys?” He fumed, gripping his staff tightly.
“He didn’t do it for them,” A voice told them from the shadows. “Took you long enough. Is he getting suspicious?” Dorian asked and the now revealed Felix walked forward shaking his head.
“No but I shouldn’t have played the illness card. I thought he would be fussing over me all day,” He groused. He sat himself down on the steps of the alter dais. “My fathers joined a cult of Tevinter supremacists. They call themselves the Venetori,” He told them as he dragged a weary hand over his face.
“Whatever he’s done he’s done it to get to you,” He told Elariel who cocked her head. “Why?” She asked confused and Felix sighed. “The cult is obsessed with you. Their leader is demanding you be brought to him or killed. I don’t know why except that it has something to do with your mark,” He answered.
“Well fuck,” Miranda groaned. “Why is it always the crazy ones?” She asked and Dorian smiled. “The crazy ones are more fun,” He told her and Miranda grinned at him. “True but they’re such high maintenance,” She replied and Dorian laughed.
“But to go through all this trouble for me… and here I didn’t get Alexius anything,” Elariel chipped in.
“Send him a fruit basket, everyone loves those,” Dorian replied with a smirk. Cassandra and Varric chuckled.
“Well now that we now let’s use that against him,” Miranda told them all rubbing her palms together.
Doran and Felix nodded. “Alexius doesn’t know I’m here and I’d like to keep it that way. I’ll be in touch but I would like to be there when you stop Alexius. Farewell and Felix, try not to get killed,” he told them before strutting off into the shadows. Felix gave him a half bow and left as well.
“Curious, very curious,” Miranda observed and Elariel snorted. “Story of my life. Let’s get back to Haven,” she told them and led them from the Chantry.
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