Aislinn willed herself in to the Fade as if she were stepping through a silken curtain and in to a grand ballroom, though instead of bowing attendants demons lined her path. Decadence hadn't joined their ranks, though Aislinn almost wished it were so. She would show the proud, smirking whore who ruled here, if not now then soon.
She walked between the damned with her head up, knowing that they couldn't touch her. She never made deals she couldn't manipulate in her favor. As she made her way down the winding path and through the snow, blood welled up in her footprints.
Soon enough she found the wolf tracks. Solas had been teasing her the past little while, taking elaborate forms and calling on his knowledge of the Fade's ins and outs to try and hide himself. She always discovered him, and preferred to think it had more to do with her skill than Solas desiring to be caught after all. With but a thought she burst apart in to a murder of crows, flying in ragged formation, harsh cries scraping the grey sky.
You may do anything your heart desires, provided your will is equal to your whim.
Solas had advised her such, when they had first begun this little game. There! With her borrowed bird's eyes she spotted him, a snake in the long grass. The setting changed as quickly as they changed forms, the snow bank becoming a forest as he became a flash of light and she a halla. She cantered through the undergrowth, clever, milk-white legs sending her bounding over fallen branches and through the rich loam. The fox's skin let her leap and burrow through obstacles and warrens, though Solas was quick and didn't shy away from becoming a rat or an insect. When they were finally satisfied by their little adventure, they made love as they would have in old Arlathan, their forms twisting, changing, laughter and bird calls and the musk of wolf fur.
They came back to their given flesh, she laying against him amid a field of flowers. He gave her a look of adoration and her heart nigh-stopped; so few had seen such openness from Solas, a man most felt free to dismiss as an apostate not worth speaking to.
"You are a skilled sorceress," Solas told her, his voice hushed so that it brushed against her skin as velvety and soft as an ermine pelt. "In old Arlathan, spells were of such intricacy and beauty that their construction could span the ages. When death holds no power, what is there but pushing the bounds of creation?"
"And I wouldn't be exiled for my blood magic?" Aislinn asked, though she had asked him before. She still loved to hear the answer.
"A Dalish superstition only, vhenan. Those with access to history know that some things require blood."
"I think I would have liked Arlathan, then," Aislinn told him, touching their foreheads together before pressing a kiss to his lips.
He would have said more, she thought, but a tremble in the Fade's pattern caught her attention. Aislinn stood, sorry to leave Solas and his warmth. She looked at the horizon as she would have in the real world, as if waiting to glimpse a ship or a dragon on the wing. The shell around her brother's potential for magic was easily divined, still intact. But then beside him, Gabriel's signature. She walked towards it, the words she managed to snatch from the void jerking her awake: I think I've found my clanmate.
This time, their task required a full compliment of skilled interceptors, warriors, and archers, such that Gabriel stood amidst a swirling eddy of preparations at the stable yard. No less a personage than the Lady Seeker herself had been chosen to accompany them, with Varric at her side. Now that he thought of it, Varric often installed himself thusly, though he couldn't say that Cassandra appreciated it, per se. Gabriel had noted her nod of acknowledgment when she passed by, a small thing but sorely appreciated nonetheless. If he wanted to impress Shandi, making a good impression on Cassandra couldn't hurt. He could hear Shandi even now, annoying Cassandra with puns.
Meeting Sera had been...a singular event. He couldn't understand half of what she had to say, and so just nodded dumbly until she seemed satisfied. When Amjad arrived, Sera headed over as if she and Amjad had some kind of magnetic properties; another odd friendship. He supposed without the ability to forge odd friendships, the Inquisition would have been much less impressive.
Dorian walked up, adjusting his resplendent cloak. Before he could open his mouth Aislinn came running up at speed, practically in to Gabriel's arms. If the Fade were a garment, she wore it bundled tight against her flesh; what lost hallways and eldritch swamps had she explored just mere hours ago?
"Is it so? You've found Calledan?" She clung to his forearms, and not for the first time he felt how slight of frame she was.
"It would seem that way, my lady," he told her, grappling with the urge to pull her in to an embrace. She made up his mind for him, hugging him tightly for a fleeting moment.
"You don't know what this means," she said, her voice thick with tears. "After so long..."
"Don't fret my dove," Dorian said to her in a quiet tone, "if it is even the slightest bit possible, we will free him."
"I know, I know," Aislinn said, turning to Dorian. Dorian drew her against his chest and smoothed her hair, as if he'd somehow charmed a wild swan and was even now stroking its feathers. For a man who blustered so, his expression could hardly have been easier to read if he'd provided a synopsis and a cartographer's compass; the fact that his countrymen would behave such deeply shamed him, and moreso thanks to knowing these scions of Clan Brangwen as personally as he did. Gabriel had the thought that his eyes were particularly lovely when he felt sorrow, though Creators knew he would never wish suffering on the man.
"Will you join us, my lady?" Gabriel wanted to know. Amjad came loping over then, a ground eating stride he'd certainly picked up swiftly in the woodland environment of his youth. Aislinn turned to face him and the both of them fell silent, a certain tension coming over the scene, the source of which Gabriel could not place.
"I would have you at my side, my shadow," Amjad told her.
"Then so it shall be, my mirror." Aislinn told him, though the pinched look hadn't left her face. "I will outfit myself for battle. Excuse me."
As she turned, Gabriel caught sight of the cord around her neck. Even though it was tucked beneath her shirt, he knew its origin.
Solas' jawbone necklace. Curious.
He half expected Solas to accompany her when she returned, but she returned alone, one more in her Elvhen raiment. Amjad, now seated atop Orala, lead their party out of Skyhold and down the mountains. He knew every twist and turn, every hidden shortcut and every switchback trail. Their mounts could keep up, too, truly the finest horses (and other) in all of Thedas. Gabriel found himself once again glad of Star and her sure feet, picking her way through brush and rock alike with equal grace.
Their journey lasted roughly five days, in which time they handily dealt with several rifts. With such an august company as they were, only the largest, most robust rifts could test them. One such had Shandi all smiles after it was finally closed, with even the Lady Seeker breaking in to a grin as she cut down the last terror. It died with Varric's quarrels describing a neat dinner plate shape in its face, one of Sera's arrows lodged fletching-deep in its chest. They all fought in a manner striking to behold, like a well-oiled mechanism.
I will never get used to so much mastery in one place.
Gabriel thought as he checked himself for injuries. Thankfully, there were none, and any cuts and scrapes the others had managed to receive were easily cleared up with a mere flicker of spirit magic. The group's high mood immediately dampened, however, when they crossed the border in to the Hissing Wastes. A smothering blanket of darkness pressed down on them, extinguishing the sun and leaving only bare starlight to navigate by. The first Inquisition camp was a blessing, and from his covert looks at his traveling companions, they were all happy to see lamps burning.
"Harding," Amjad said by way of greeting. Harding's sharp gaze took them all in, and she smiled. The expression was meant to buoy their spirits, Gabriel thought, but it held little mirth. "Give me your report."
"Twelve wagons," Harding said, and every member of their band leaned in, listening intently. All knew the value of a scout as skilled as she. "Couldn't tell you which hold slaves and which hold 'vints, though. Can't get close enough for that."
"Barriers?" Amjad hazarded.
"Like you wouldn't believe," Harding said, "and they've got blood magic on their side."
Aislinn made a little sound. Amjad glanced back at her, then looked at Harding once more.
"We have enough magical talent to deal with them, I'm sure." Amjad conferred with Harding a moment more, then turned to the party. "I'll go in and mark which caravans hold slaves, and which the masters. That said, there will certainly be some who prefer to keep their slaves close, so mind the unmarked wagons."
"Then what?" Sera asked, sighting down her knocked arrow as if she could hardly wait to let it fly.
"Kill the Venatori before they get desperate and murder their slaves for the extra power," Amjad said matter of factly. "Make it a slaughter worthy of the Inquisition."
"Oh one more thing," Harding said, as a scout handed her what was presumably a report. "They have a...rock...thing. Guarding the caravan."
"A rock thing?" Amjad said, incredulous. The planes of his face, highlighted by ambient light, made him appear otherworldly. It were as if Harding were trying to brief a basilisk or a sphinx.
"Yeah. Rocks, red lyrium, and a real nasty attitude. Hell if I know what it is."
"Thank you, Harding."
Gabriel tapped Shandi on the wrist; he couldn't reach her shoulder without standing on his tip toes. "That sounds like it has your name on it, mon sucre." The term of endearment was out before he could consider otherwise, but luckily she didn't seem to mind. She looked down at him, brimming over with life force and good cheer as she generally did when she'd been promised a big fight.
"Bet on it, my lord."
It took an eternity of creeping over the dunes before they found the caravan. The Venatori had hit a point in the path where they were forced in to single file, making their way through a dried up river bed just below the ridge they were all positioned on, bellies to the ground.
"Wankers," Sera whispered, a frown on her generous mouth. They had a fair compliment of sell swords protecting them, and her contempt furrowed her brows and hardened her gaze. No one here had any love for slavers, but mercenaries willing to work for them was insult to injury. Gabriel would have put money on everyone here feeling the same as Sera, on this at the very least.
"You have your arrows ready?" Amjad asked her, looking at Varric to encompass him in the question.
"Aye, you'll have a big mess of 'vints trying to put out their fancy robes as soon as you say. You got the bees, high n'mighty?" Sera said.
Amjad patted his belt pouch, which jumped and emitted a faint buzzing sound.
"I wouldn't dream of forgetting them. Not at a time like this."
"You have a means of getting past the barriers?" Gabriel wanted to know, curious what Amjad had up his sleeve this time.
"My daggers are enchanted. It should be enough."
"You'll have to move quickly," Gabriel said, fretting, "the second they feel the barrier come down..."
"I know. Wait for the red mark and then loose your arrows." And with that, Amjad disappeared. Gabriel could barely draw breath as it was, fretting as he did over Amjad without a bodyguard, but when the rock wraith came in to view the sight all but deflated his lungs. A massive beast from some abhorrent Deep Roads fissure, it moved in a cloud of red lyrium dust. It had a facsimile of a naked skull affixed to the front of its body as if its creator had tired of trying to make it appear humanoid, limbs of hewn stone sending vibrations through the ground with every step.
What horrors will the Venatori conjure next? Pet darkspawn?
There, the first flask shattered, a lurid red plume staining the white wagon covering. Then another, and another. Gabriel could already feel the faint stain of blood magic, and he could only hope that none of the slaves had met their end at the point of a Venatori's knife. Sera and Varric reared to their feet, arrows blazing to life in their deft hands. The scent of pitch and kindling flame clung to Gabriel as he ran for the path that would take him down to the caravan, Aislinn and Dorian on his heels. The air crackled as the fire found its target, the wagons going up with such sudden ferocity that he realized Amjad had brewed his dyes to not only indicate who was in which wagon, but to catch fire even more readily than plain canvas would have on its own.
Shandi and the Lady Seeker had chosen the opposite path, and even as Gabriel skidded to a stop in the dirt they were engaging the rock wraith in combat. People came boiling out of the wagons in a tangle; they had no choice, lest they burnt to death. The ragged threads of a rent barrier slapped Gabriel in the face; he'd have to ask Amjad about how he'd crafted those daggers. A man in smoldering Venatori robes came stumbling towards him, screaming and trying to put out the flames with his hands, but before Gabriel could act an arrow went straight through the man's head. Not content to merely cause chaos, Sera and Varric picked off the less powerful stragglers with incomparable accuracy.
The more skilled mages found themselves locked in to combat with Dorian, all three of them doing their level best to kill him. As much as Gabriel wanted to join in, the Magister had yet to make an appearance and someone would have to stand against him. This wasn't just about killing Venatori; if they didn't rescue Calledan, all their efforts were for naught.
Gabriel made his way through the chaos--noting at least one group fleeing from the cloud of angry bees gathered about their heads--snapping up a barrier to spare him from the spell runoff lighting up the night. The rock wraith was stretching the Lady Seeker and Shandi to their limits, difficult to get a handle on since it was half in and half out of the Fade as it willed. He saw Amjad in brief flashes, reveling in the madness he was causing thanks to his flasks and Sera's grenades. Several wagons stood torn open like the bellies of fresh caught fish, scattering drinking cups and grimoire pages and fine linens everywhere. Dead Venatori and their hired thugs littered the area, but several of them--too many of them--were still up and fighting.
Blood magic bit in to him, as surely as an enraged Mabari going for the jugular. It pooled at the base of his spine like an impending orgasm, but this brought no such simple pleasure; it made him think of--feel--all the things he could do, the greatness he could yet work, if he but gave in and drew upon it. It's bouquet filled his nostrils with a reek like funeral flowers left too long in their vases, the urge to use its pulsing power like the urge to reach out and touch a bloated corpse despite knowing the horror that waited there.
The Magister stepped in to view, not even glancing downward at the bodies of his fellows. Behind him, Gabriel could hear the pitched battle between Dorian and the three lesser mages, Dorian's necromancy a cold hand on his back; at least Dorian hadn't fallen. A cry, then a gurgle; Amjad's daggers ensured Dorian faced only two opponents now. He could hear it all, sense it all, the vital force from so much blood and combat giving him preternatural awareness he normally didn't enjoy. When he raised his hand, intent on ripping through the barrier obscuring the Magister's features, he felt as if he could see every micro gesture, each individual spell thread as he wove them painstakingly together.
It was the slave's scream that woke him from his reverie. Slight and starved, the boy was on his knees next to the Magister, a chain around his neck. The blood had come from his arm, flayed open and gushing. Now Gabriel could see the foul maleficar's features; a blur made up of red hair, deep set golden eyes, and a sickening, self-satisfied smirk behind a veil of reddish-green magic. Normally, Gabriel would have tried to draw his enemy out, maybe make the other mage underestimate him before striking. But the sight of that helpless child on the end of a lead like a common cur made him rush the Magister, bringing his sword up to carve through the barrier. The Magister stepped back in shock, and Gabriel froze the chain so that when the slave pitched forward in to the sand, it snapped.
Unfortunately that was all the headway his enemy was going to allow. They battled over the churned earth, staff meeting blade in a shower of sparks. Never had Gabriel cast so fiercely, or so quickly, the rage at the crimes this man had committed making his sword flare up like a beacon. He could see Dorian now, the pitched conflict having brought them around such that he could view the other side of the battlefield. He could hear the fight with the rock wraith, and feel it in the soles of his feet; each time it clashed with Shandi and the Lady Seeker, the whole area shook fit to knock him off balance. He knew then that as long as the Magister drew breath, the rock wraith would continue to fight.
He saw Dorian down and exhausted, having killed the last enemy mage. The razor sharp tip of the Magister's staff came at his eyes, forcing him to throw up his arm to block it. Mythal, but he saw the Tempest come out of the shadows, flask up, dagger poised, and Dorian helpless. He whipped his sword around out of desperation, felt the pommel connect with the Magister's temple--he still had time, he could still do something--but the truth was he had nothing, no time, no energy...
Amjad came out of the darkness like a lightning bolt, hatred distorting his features, bristling with daggers. He and the other Tempest met in a flurry of blades so fast it was a blur, flasks ripped from their holsters and shattered with such speed that it put Gabriel's battle with the Magister to shame. The Magister in question reeled back, not expecting such a crude, physical blow, and Gabriel cut his throat with one fluid motion. Dorian, desperate to do something, levered himself on to his hands and knees. Yet there he remained, utterly spent, his hair dripping sweat, chest heaving as he fought to breathe. The utter savagery of two Tempests trying to kill each other rooted Gabriel to the spot as they traded blows, visible one second, obscured the next. Amjad cried out--he's hurt, oh Falon'din pass him over--and then the death rattle, but not from him; his foe fell to the sand with a dagger buried through his eye and in to his brain.
Silence echoed; the rock wraith had dissipated with the Magister's death. Inquisition soldiers rushed to aid Amjad, down on the ground with his hands pressed to his belly.
"No! See to Calledan! If he dies I swear I'll make every one of you sorry!"
The shout, so full of fury and agony, jolted Gabriel back to action. He went to the boy, still face down in the sand. He was certain Calledan--if this was indeed him--was dead, but when he put his hand on Calledan's neck, the boy coughed. Before he could think further Gabriel knelt, drawing Calledan in to his arms. The boy mewled in terror and tried to pull away, but Gabriel could ill afford to let go; the gash that had so empowered the Magister was still pumping blood. He was too tired himself to do much spirit healing, but he sacrificed one of his most powerful potions to close the wound.
"Dammit, elfy-welfy! If you don't drink this friggin' potion I'll make yer arse look like a pincushion!" Sera said, her finger in Amjad's face. He bared his teeth at her, but he apparently--thankfully--didn't have the energy to fight her. He took the vial, pulled the cork with his teeth, and downed the contents. "That's right, just like sucking Andrastae's tit, all touched Lord Herald." He sputtered in response, apparently amused, but panic just as quickly took the mirth from him.
"Dorian..." He looked around frantically, and seeing Dorian once more laid out in the sand clearly didn't do much for his state of mind. He tried to get up and Sera pushed him over without a thought, as if he weren't the leader of the free world.
"Goddamn it, sparkles-out-of-his-arsehole is fine. Takes a little more than a fight like that to singe his tail feathers."
"All right, Sera," Amjad said, not bothering to pick himself up again. "All right."
"Amjad," Gabriel tried, "I've got Calledan and for the moment, he's alive. But he needs more help than I can give him here."
"Bring him," Amjad said, cajoling Sera in to helping him sit up, which she did with bad grace. Stiff with fear, Calledan was difficult to carry. He had a drawn, pale face, scrunched up in discomfort so that it was hard to know what he might look like under normal circumstances. He had long delicate ears and flaxen, straight hair, messily braided. He had no vallaslin and he wore mere scraps. His arms were crossed with raised, ugly scars from past bleedings. Gabriel laid him down gently, near enough to see Amjad if he decided to open his eyes.
"You're hurt..." Gabriel tried.
"I'm fine." Amjad snapped, though Gabriel knew it was a lie; he'd taken a knife to the guts and a couple of healing potions weren't enough to address it. Still, Calledan was Amjad's priority and Gabriel knew better than to push it. The potions would give him a couple of hours at least, before he needed more intense healing. "Calledan," Amjad asked, slipping in to Elvish, "it's me, your clanmate. Do you remember the names Aled and Aeron?"
Gabriel of course could understand the conversation. The names of Calledan's parents, perhaps? Whatever they referenced it had the intended effect; Calledan's eyes flew open and he sat up. Gabriel waved the other hangers on away, sensing this was about to become rather personal. He took over from Sera, helping Amjad stay seated. When Amjad spoke next, he wouldn't look at any of them. Not Gabriel, not Dorian, now being helped up by Inquisition forces. Out of the corner of his eye Gabriel could see the Lady Seeker, partially blocking his view of Shandi, but they were both clearly alive. The relief made him feel faint, but he pushed it aside. He couldn't fall flat on his face too.
"Aled?" Calledan said, leaf-green eyes huge and disbelieving. Amjad tensed, but didn't comment on the name.
"Oh Cal, I'm sorry I couldn't free you earlier." Amjad told him, choked up and faint from pain.
"This..." when the boy spoke his voice was rusty with disuse. Gabriel doubted the Venatori cared for the opinions of slaves. "This is a dream." The Elvish came slow and unsure, as well it might after hearing only Tevene for so long. "How did you...?"
"I am real and so are you," Amjad told him, dismay writ large on his features; it must be difficult to see the ravages the Venatori had visited on his friend. "Have you heard of the Inquisition?"
"You're with them?" Calledan asked, his gaze laser focused on Amjad's eyes; they were so distinctive that he must have thought either this was indeed real, or it was at the least a very accurate dream.
"I'm the Inquisitor."
"You're not." Cal protested, and by his expression he clearly still thought this was likely a product of wishful thinking. Aislinn came up on silent feet and Gabriel realized that he hadn't seen her throughout the entire battle. Suspicion plucked at his nerves, but now was clearly not the time.
"Cal? Oh, Cal," she said, dropping to her knees and bursting in to tears. Calledan flung himself in to her arms, clinging to her as hard as she clung to him.
"Aeron, oh Aeron. I thought...I thought..."
"Shh, it's all right now," Aislinn told him, and all Gabriel could do was sit back in silence, despite the fact that he had a thousand questions for all of them. "We'll explain everything. Let's take you back to camp, all right?"
"Take me away from here," Cal said, shaking. The horror could be easily heard when he spoke.
"We will," Amjad said, firm. "You will never again be bound and leashed. I swear it to you."
Calledan looked as if he might faint and Gabriel rushed to help. This time Calledan didn't protest when Gabriel took him in his arms, and only then did he see the rough impression of the collar against his skin. Horror and anger gave him the strength to carry the boy back to the camp.
I hope we can help you, poor little lostling.