There were worse places to be at night than the Alam Coast. The sea breeze cut through the warm summer air, rustling lotuses in the dark. On the horizon, the moon hung white and low, broken reflection sparkling in the murky sea. Black dots of birds darted across it as they returned to the cliffs. It was pretty, but more to the point, ensured that no-one could use the shadows to ambush the small Ben-Hassrath group picking its way along the beach.
The sounds of waves lapping on the shore couldn't quite hide the murmur of voices.
"Think we can get the rebels to have their meetings at a decent time of day next time?" said one man, yawning, sand crunching beneath his boot as he stumbled.
The Bull grinned from where he was leading. "But then they'd realise how much easier it is to hide in plain sight," he said. "Let's not help them figure it out."
He didn't bother ordering the squad into silence. The sound wouldn't carry up the cliffs to their right, and anyway, their tracks were already visible where the moonlight caught the sand. It wasn't a problem. Any rebel group dumb enough to hold meetings under a full moon weren't likely to have a tail on the ambush. Besides, give it an hour and the sea would take care of the footprints. Wading would've been best, but there was no sense in risking the tides. One of the village children had once gone playing in the tidepools and been swept out to sea; it was the Bull who'd dived in and fought the waves for the boy. He'd laid him out on the sand and let the local Tamassran get to work, till finally the kid spluttered and retched and sobbed in the woman's arms. That story had gained Bull and his men more of a foothold in the area than all of their campaigns and battles put together.
Though not with everyone, apparently. Not in the tavern where a bunch of youths had apparently gone to drink and bitch and somehow wound up in an arms deal tonight, with a party of Ben-Hassrath on their asses. Not with whoever had mentioned that the old Vint house on the cliff tops would be a perfect spot for anything shady. But yes, with the barmaid who'd turned the group in while eyeing the Bull up. You won some, you lost some, because neither ever seemed to stick on Seheron.
A wave rushed in and spilled over his boots, sucking at the pits they'd made in the sand. The tide was coming in.
His second in command, an elf named Hessala, frowned at the water round her ankles. "By the way, one of our agents in Alam reported in," she said. "Apparently there's some sort of local festival going on in a few weeks. It's normally harmless, but with all the rebel sentiment around she's worried something might kick off. She wants you to come, maintain a low-key presence."
"Massath?" said the Bull. "That's just when they do the food store census. Seriously, it's a bunch of farmers coming to the city and trying to outdrink the city people. It's the roads you want to watch around then. You get a bunch of Tal-Vashoth trying to take on a druffalo tosser who's three days into drinking homemade wine, and it's anyone's guess who'll end up in most pieces."
"Well, I'm just repeating her information," said Hessala.
"Yeah," said the Bull. "Sure." He sighed. "Tell her I'll go scare the shit out of anyone getting out of hand."
His second looked at him. "Is something wrong?"
"No, it's just... night patrols. You know me, all about the beauty sleep."
A night off. That was what he needed. An evening in the tavern with the barmaid might be too much to ask for - hunting down the regulars never made for a good reception - but maybe he could root out some nondescript little shithole where people just tried to screw each other literally instead of figuratively. Maybe put in to see one of the good men and women back in Alam, get some proper stress relief.
Go through the motions, get the job done.
They passed under an overhang, a great spiky slab of rock that curved over them like a dragon's wing. The Bull held up a hand and led the squad up the beach to the cliffs, staying in its shadow. The sand gradually turned to pebbles beneath their feet, and the steady shuffle turned to crunching steps. In the dark, they found the base of the little track that wound up among the cliffs, hooking round the boulders. One of the scouts had passed it onto them, as if the Bull hadn't learned the layout of the coast weeks ago. In the dark he found the part where the trail flared onto the ground, and the others followed him, single file. The knees and calves burned on the climb up. Felt good.
The house at the top was a great posh Tevinter thing, a summerhouse built back when the Vints thought they'd actually last till summer. Every year, a new magister picked it for a base, and every year the Ben-Hassrath threw good people at the walls until one or two hit. They'd kicked the last magister out back in the spring when they'd retaken the beach. Somehow, between dealing with the mage's friends, repairing damage in the cities and dealing with the million other factions popping up, they'd never got around to tearing the house down. Soon it would be autumn, and the Vints would come rolling in with the tide again and cover the beach like crabs.
"The villagers say it's haunted," said one of his agents, a recent transfer from the capital.
"The informant said it wasn't. That's scarier," said Hessala, jumping onto a ledge over the path. "I'd take a ghost over an armed rebel, any day."
"Besides," said the Bull, "if it's the ghost of a magister, that'd just mean we beat his ass once already."
"And if he summons ghost demons?"
"Oh - seriously? For that, I'm ordering silence," said the Bull. "Alright, people, let's get them surrounded."
They snuck round the edge of the wall till they found where the stone was still crumbling from where they'd taken gaatlok to it last year. They went over, landing on the damp grass on the other side, the broad-leafed, spongy type that covered half the island.
As they spilled over his squad made beelines for the ground floor windows dotted around the exterior. The elves in the party launched themselves over a balcony, so they could seal off the upstairs. The Bull waited till they were all in position or halfway through their entry points before jogging up to his own window. Those Tevinter-style window locks probably kept magisters nice and safe back home, but take a Qunari with a greataxe and they folded like paper.
Just like their owners, really.
- - -
The place was a maze of corridors, each darker and dustier than the last. The Bull stepped lightly on the flagstones, landing heel first and rocking onto his toes. He wasn't built for sneaking around - he had three or four squadmates for that - but you didn't last long on Seheron without picking up some good ways of getting the first hit in. Move the right way, and even someone his size could hide his footsteps.
He took a corner and frowned. He could see the end of the corridor. He shouldn't have been able to. Something was casting light from the right. Dim. Shadows on the floor flickering. A candle, then.
He hefted the axe and ran to the end.
The light went out.
There was an open door to a library, bookshelves looming in the shadows. A window to the side, but not casting enough light to reach the corridor. There was a candle on the desk, but it was out. There was no sign of anyone.
Shit, maybe the place was haunted.
There was no time to waste on investigating, anyway. Any longer, and everyone would beat him to the rendezvous point. Not that his squad couldn't take care of a few rebels without him, but he'd been looking forward to a good clean scrap. They'd bumped into Fog Warriors a few too many times lately, and okay, it was pretty satisfying clashing swords with a dozen guys while blinded, but sometimes you just wanted to stand back and knock a couple of heads together.
He headed back out into the hallway. Was that someone mumbling he heard as he closed the door? No, just the hinges creaking. He shook his head and moved on.
- - -
The rebel meeting place was supposed to be the dining room. The Bull never found out what was going on there, because he opened the door to some fancy entertaining hall filled with cushions and found enough rebels to skewer an entire greatsword.
A quick count made seven including human rebels and Tal-Vashoth, most of them staring at him like they were about to get spanked, a couple looking like they were going to get spanked and enjoy it. Probably pressured into this mess and hoping for a way out. Those ones were looking at the Bull like he was Koslun risen again.
Weapons: one obvious dagger, one obviously hidden dagger, nothing else. Apart from, maybe, the pile of glowing spheres stacked on the table.
Crap. Glowing stuff was the worst.
"Ben-Hassrath," spat the Tal-Vashoth closest to the spheres.
One of the other rebels whispered, without moving, "That's the Bull."
Two exchanged glances. The Bull's mouth quirked into a one-sided smile.
"And you're all trading Vint weapons," he said. Behind the rebels, he spotted Hessala creeping up, daggers ready. "What, didn't have enough balls of your own?"
He didn't need to slip up and make eye contact with his agent to know she was groaning silently.
"Come on, you really want to take on the Bull? Drop your weapons, I'll go easy on you," he said, not out of any real hope they'd comply, but just to keep them distracted, keep them talking. He'd picked Hess as his second for a reason, and that was because while he was big and noisy, she could slip under the nose of a ravening wyvern.
One man's dagger shook, one of the ones looking for an escape route. Unfortunately, the big guy in the centre's fists were rock steady.
"We're not coming in," he said.
The man with the trembling dagger looked round.
"They've flanked us!" he yelled. His friend spun round, swore, grabbed one of the spheres and flung it at the Bull's agent. There was a bang and flames filled the end of the corridor. The hot air hit him like a crossbow bolt, scalding the skin and stinging his eyes. He barely saw Hessala's silhouette before she was completely swallowed up.
There was a creaking above him, and then a splintering, crunching sound as the ceiling beam gave way. He threw himself backwards, then through the smoke and the dust saw a figure carrying a sphere filled with light.
Instincts told him to barrel through the blaze and knock the guy down, but his head overruled in favour of getting the hell away to better ground. Lead them out, split them up, take them down. He stumbled to his feet and ran back the way he'd came. Hopefully he'd also draw them away from any of his people. He didn't want any more Hessalas, and oh, that was another image that'd be keeping him up at nights.
- - -
Sprinting back through the corridors meant he ended up back at the library. Not as good as an armoury, but better than nothing. He'd once seen a Tamassran brain a wolf with a textbook.
The Bull vaulted over the table and landed on a pile of someone.
Instinct told him to lash out, his head told him to rein it back in case it was one of his people, and he ended up shoving them to the floor in compromise. There was no shout of "Hissrad!", which meant it wasn't one of his squad. So who, then? The shadows were too thick to tell. It felt like a man, wrapped completely in robes of fuzzy cloth pulled up to his face. Not like the cotton shirts of the rebels, he noted. The figure thrashed with surprising strength, but eventually slumped back. No weapons drawn, which didn't mean there weren't any, but meant the Bull got a stab at asking questions first.
"So," growled the Bull, "I don't suppose you want to tell me what you're doing in a Vint mansion in the middle of a rebel deal?"
"Rebels?" said the figure. Definitely male, elf or human from the voice. "That's what you're looking for? Not - oh, of course." The man shifted in the Bull's grip. "I should have guessed I'd end up dying of hideous irony eventually."
"I have no idea what you're going on about," said the Bull, trying and failing to make out the man's features in the dark.
"Well, no, you wouldn't. Do Qunari appreciate that sort of thing?" He shifted a little where the Bull was holding him. "Never mind. I'm far more interested in knowing if you're planning on letting me go any time soon. You know, since I'm obviously not who you're looking for."
The Bull tightened his grasp. "I'm thinking no. See, I'm still curious about what the hell you're doing here." Rebel was the obvious answer, but weirdly, he thought the guy was telling the truth. He didn't sound like a Seheron native.
"I live here!" said the man. "I know, I know, you're struggling to imagine someone like me staying in a ruin like this. What can I say? It gains a certain antique charm after a while. And no rowdy neighbours."
There was a crash from nearby.
"Yeah, about that..." said the Bull.
The guy's head swivelled to look at the door, then back to the Bull. "I don't suppose you could just... pretend you didn't see me?"
"Tell you what," said the Bull, "you surrender, comply with the investigation afterwards, and I'll put in a good word for you."
"Ah, no, I'm afraid that... won't be possible."
"Well then, looks like we've got a problem," said the Bull.
The man straightened, and his hand sparked with fire. The Bull's grip jerked around his axe.
"I'm all for solving problems," said the mage.
There was a bang and a roar of flames from the door, where several splintered pieces of wood went whizzing past both their heads.
"For Seheron!" yelled a figure wrapped in smoke.
The Bull looked back at the mage, who said, "And I thought you were an unwelcome houseguest."
- - -
They jumped out from behind the table. A freezing blast of air whipped past the Bull's head, hitting the guy full-on and blowing out the flames in the middle of the doorway. The Bull used the gap to barrel straight into the frozen-rebel obstacle, knocking him back so he could bring the blade over and into his chest.
As the rebel dropped, there was the sound of another explosion, muffled by distance.
"Looks like they're all armed," said the Bull.
"Tevinter rune spheres," said the mage.
The Bull eyed him up. "Guess you'd know all about those."
"Runes aren't really my area, actually," said the mage. "Yes, alright, you got me, I'm from Tevinter. Dorian of House Pavus, formerly of Minrathous!" He performed a sarcastic little bow. "Those still aren't mine."
The Bull put a hand on his weapon. "I haven't seen any other Vints running around."
"No, you got rid of the last of my countrymen to live here. Didn't mean he disposed of all his things beforehand," said Dorian. "Look, if I was going to hand out incendiary devices like candy, I'd give them to people who understood how closed spaces work. "
There was another far-off bang.
"Or at least I'd give them out and then leave the building."
It was impossible to read his face in the dark with his hood pulled up, and the voice wasn't giving much away. Excuses? Or honest indignation?
It didn't matter much. There was only one thing Vints came to Seheron for, and only one way they ended up. But that freezing trick, that might be the difference between getting out alive and not.
Ben-Hassrath used any weapons available.
"My squad were supposed to surround their meeting room, but anyone who makes it there is going to find an inferno," said the Bull. "They'll either retreat, or they'll try to draw the rebels outside. You said you live here? Find us a way out."
"Which one of us just sliced that guy's ribcage like fruit?"
Dorian paused, then bent his head. "Point taken."
- - -
They headed back a bit, then down a turning the Bull hadn't taken before. Dorian stopped when they came to a door, claiming the fire had spread behind it, he could sense the magic. The Bull wasn't sure what the point of fancy magic senses was when the sweat was pouring down you like piss down a wall and you could hear the roof falling in chunks - and he was way too familiar with that sound - but maybe Vints forgot to take in the world like normal people after a while. The two of them doubled back, but even there the air was growing hotter.
"There's nothing for it," said Dorian. "I'll freeze the air, you keep moving, and we can try to make it through here."
The Bull flung open the door. It was some kind of gallery, filled with stone busts of identical-looking Vints, male and female, with their noses in the air and blank eyes that were probably less creepy than the real things. There were slits in the floor for ventilation, where the flames were flickering through.
Someone burst through the door at the other end. A rebel, wild-eyed and carrying a sphere. The Bull dived and brought Dorian down with him, more out of habit than a deliberate attempt to save the Vint. Dorian squawked and dug nails into the Bull's arms that... honestly felt like claws, but then the explosion hit overhead and he forgot to make a joke. They fell into combat, rolling to opposite sides of the corridor. Dorian was a bit clumsy but admittedly quick off the mark with the freezing spells, while the Bull went in with the greataxe, batting the next sphere into the wall of busts. It took out half the wall and showered bits of stone faces everywhere. An ear nearly got him in the eye.
The Bull was up again within seconds and barrelled into the rebel, scattering spheres. A well-aimed strike to the chest, and the rebel followed his weapons onto the floor.
The Bull looked back, where Dorian was yanking at the robes where they'd slipped down a bit from his face. He pulled the arms back down too, re-wrapping something round his forearm that had come loose. What was with the guy?
When he was done, Dorian leaned out and tilted a nearby stone head that had rolled across the floor, minus a nose. "I think that's Great-Uncle Hieronymus. We've got him in our gallery too," he said. "He did like to insert himself into all the...family trees."
"So you've got another home back in Tevinter," said the Bull. "What, one wasn't enough?"
He couldn't see Dorian's expression, but he could guess.
"Oh, I've always aimed high," said the Vint. "I'm thinking of coming back here for the winter. All the fire will make it so cosy." He turned his head to where the sphere had hit. "Alright, that hole in the wall actually makes things easier. Go down there, left at the end, you'll find a door leading outside."
The Bull raised an eyebrow. "And you are..."
"Not keen to stick around longer than necessary," said Dorian. "Not that I'm not grateful for all the hitting things with swords, but I think it's best if we never ever see each other again. Nothing personal, you understand, I just have this aversion to being slaughtered or having my mouth sewn up."
"So you're just going to sit around and burn?"
"There's more than one route out of here. I suggest you go your way, and I go mine."
"And what if I just dragged you out?"
Dorian pulled himself up. "In true Qunari fashion, you mean?" he said, in a cold tone. "How do your people normally go about incapacitating mages? Would you pull my hair? Pin my arms to my sides while I conjure?"
No matter that he couldn't see Dorian's face, that conjured up all sorts of images that were badly timed, even for him.
There was a huge crash somewhere to their sides. It went on for a while, thuds and bangs following the first explosion. Dorian turned, the Bull kept his eyes fixed.
"A collapse?" said Dorian. "Better make your mind up quick before the rest of this place falls in."
The Vint had a point.
"Okay," said the Bull, vowing to track this guy down once he and his squad were out, "down the corridor and to the left?"
"Yes," said Dorian, sounding relieved.
"I should warn you," said the Bull, in a deceptively light tone. "If this is some sort of trap, I'm pretty good at getting out of those. And tracking down the people who set them."
"Maker, just go, will you? I want you away as much as you want to be away. I have everything to gain from getting you as far away from me and the house as possible."
The Bull gave him one last, long look, but it was impossible to tell if he was telling the truth. So he went with his gut, and the sound of roaring flames and tumbling rubble, and headed down the corridor.
- - -
Whatever else the Vint was, he wasn't a liar. The Bull found the way out just as promised. If things had gone well, he'd have got out right then and there, and left the weird mage to keep squatting in whatever was left of the house till he came back later and took him in for questioning.
As it happened, the exit was blocked by one of the rebels, throwing spheres through the window to light up the grass outside. Some of his squad must have made it out already, then.
The Bull looked at the guy. It was the nervy one from before, only he seemed to have got over that with what looked like an arsenal of the rune spheres. Now he was shouting the traditional anti-Qun slogans - which, okay, were pretty catchy - and standing with his back to the door, oblivious. The Bull grinned. Hell, if his squad couldn't take out one itsy bitsy rebel armed with fireballs, what was he to do but wade in?
He roared, and enjoyed the rebel's wide, frightened eyes turning to look before he leapt right at the guy. Down came the greataxe, and the guy dodged to the left, readied a sphere - and then stopped to look down at the arrow poking through his chest. The Bull leaned round him.
"Seriously? I had him!" he yelled into the night.
The man, in a last effort, threw his sphere down, and the room exploded. The Bull managed to throw himself back in time to be left staring at a doorway filled with rubble.
"Could've at least let me get a decent hit in," he grumbled as he made his way back the way he came, running past where he'd left Dorian and up to the only possible route left.
- - -
At the end of the route he came across a door, which he burst through and flung into the opposite wall.
In the middle of the room, Dorian was pinned down by two guys. He'd left another crumpled on the floor nearby - dead or unconscious, it was impossible to tell - but his robes were ripped on one side, and he was throwing blasts at one rebel while scrambling on the floor to dodge the other's fire. The Bull took a moment to admire his technique, then grabbed the door and smashed one guy over the head with it, before using his momentum to swing it round into the one Dorian had just frozen solid. The man shattered into multiple brittle fleshy pieces, and his head skidded off across the floor.
"Well," said Dorian, "I'm not sure whether to congratulate you or throw up."
The Bull looked back, probably to tell him to do both, and stopped.
The robes that covered Dorian's face had been ripped down one side, and the firelight was flickering over his features from below. They were wrong. That was the only word for it - he looked like something based off a person, but his eyes were black and his skin hung grey and leathery from his face, not Qunari grey, but almost corpse-like. A curving, ragged row of fangs poked out over his bottom lip.
The image fitted itself over the memories from the last time he'd fought a magister, with all her conjured pets grasping for him, slippery fingers down his skin and his head.
Dorian saw his face and looked behind him to locate the threat. The movement made the rags around his face bob. He jumped as he noticed it. He raised a slightly shaky hand to his face, then faced the Bull's stare.
His eyes narrowed.
The Bull saw the fire glowing in Dorian's hand and reached for his weapon, shifting his weight into a fighting pose. He'd have had no problem if the ceiling hadn't chosen that moment to fall in on him. His shout was drowned out by the bang of stones all around, just before the flaming rafter hit him in the side and crushed him into the floor.
That, he thought as he lay dazed with embers scorching his face, was the sort of thing that could really put a guy off his stride.
He gave himself exactly three seconds to check in with his body parts - hurting like hell, but present - and make sure he wasn't dead, then he heaved the rafter off his body, rolled out and tackled Dorian, who'd been knocked down by the aftershock. It was less of a tackle and more of an angled flop, using his body weight as a vaguely aimed weapon in an effort to ignore the screaming pain in his side.
He ended up crouched over Dorian, pinning him down and looking him right in those creepy black eyes, which darted round for an exit in a way that said person rather than demon.
But he'd got used to drowning that voice out.
What snapped him out of it was when Dorian's expression set and he started mouthing something. The world burned around them, but he knew the sound of that language, murmured like a creeping poison fog. He was preparing to attack before his head could say spell.
He reached out. Dorian scrambled back, half-pulling the Bull with him, and then the Bull was stumbling too, right through floor that crumbled beneath him. He felt himself fall, and snatched out for something to grab onto, but the only thing around him was earth.
Cold air whistled past his ears, and he smacked onto the ground.