Poppy glared down into the ravine, eyes narrowed as she scanned the area. Her ears twitched. "There's movement near the beach", she muttered.
A sheaf of moonlight struck the ground beside a gnarled shrub, then spread across the leaves to reveal a glimpse of Vyrantium samite. The heavy cloud cover shifted, and in an instant the moon was shrouded once more.
"Venatori", Dorian hissed.
"We must hold that location", urged Gatt. "If the mages reclaim it, the dreadnought won't survive."
Bull turned his head ever so slightly in Poppy's direction, just enough that she caught his burning eyes, pointedly averted. Her ears twitched again. It had taken all her determination in order to reach this point. To accept the olivr branch offered by the Qunari. But could she sacrifice the Chargers to strengthen the Inquisition?
The faces of the Valo-kas members flashed in her mind's eye, unbidden.
"They're going to die!" Sera's disgust cut through her like a dagger.
Dorian stared from Bull, who was gripping the horn at his belt so tightly it seemed about to crumble like a piece of parchment, to Poppy's blazing eyes and clenched jaw, to Gatt, who appeared solemn and almost calm. "We need to signal the retr-"
Poppy silenced him with a sharp hand gesture. Bull's nose wrinkled the tiniest bit.
"I understand the weight of this sacrifice", Gatt murmured softly, nodding. "But you're making the right decision, Lady Inquisitor."
"I haven't made a decision yet", she responded tonelessly, eyes still transfixed on the Chargers. The dreadnought was still busy firing on enemy ships in the bay, the sound of gaatlock ringing off the cliffs and surrounding mountains.
Another wave of Venatori emerged from the forest behind the Chargers, cutting off their retreat. Poppy's ears flattened against her skull. She reached for her greataxe, but Bull grabbed her wrist.
"If we sacrifice the dreadnought, we lose this alliance", his tone was heavy, almost pleading, but not quite.
"Fuck the alliance!" Sera interrupted. "Those are our people!"
Poppy ground her teeth, catching her bottom lip and making it bleed a little. She hissed a curse under her breath, and wheeled around. "Dorian, Sera - stay here. Hold this position as best you can. Gatt-" she turned to him urgently. "-if you can support them, you will have my appreciation."
"What are you doing?" he stared at her incredulously as she shuffled around them, kicking a Venatori tower shield to the edge of the escarpment.
"Everything I can."
She jumped onto the shield, bending her knees and leaning forward. Bull grabber for her, but his fist closed on thin air. The group darted forwards to stare as Poppy rode the shield down the rocky bank, dirt, gravel and a rain of sparks spraying from behind her.
"She's insane", Gatt's left eye twitched as he stared.
Bull huffed as he flipped a small timber table, scattering several inkwells as rolls of parchment. "That makes two of us", he declared, dragging it to the edge.
"Kaffas", muttered Dorian.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
As she reached the bottom, Poppy launched forward, lifting the back of the shield from behind her with one hand. A Venatori assassin popped up out of a bush, ready to strike, his face a mask of glee. She twisted in a single fluid motion, flinging the shield spinning in his direction. It bounced off the rogue's helmet with a resounding clang and he slumped back into the shrub without a sound.
She drew her broadaxe, surging through the sodden undergrowth and up the precarious cliff-side path. Her size and weight held a great advantage in knocking unsteady cultists over the edge as she slashed and bashed her way to the Charges. Every step was punctuated with the shrill scream of a falling enemy, or the boom of gaatlock.
As she neared the top of the cliff, a haughty mage and a dagger-wielding rogue moved to block the path. Poppy charged forwards, swinging her axe. The rogue spun into a blur of strikes and feints, blades flashing in the smattering of moonlight. She swayed, reflecting the enemy movements with timed dodges of her own, but her size made her a little too sluggish in comparison. One blade caught the side of her face, dragging along under her cheekbone and blood welling as it swished away.
She snarled, swinging her axe with a ring of finality, and embedded it into the rogue's torso. He gave a gurgling cry, and slumped. The mage made a strangled noise, unleashing his magical lightning on her. Poppy gripped the axe tightly, intending to use the corpse as a shield, but the electricity raced up the haft, shocking her.
She yelled something unintelligible - a bastard combination of a qunlat curse her mother would say, and something vaguely dalish. She shoved the axe away, relinquishing it, and the accompanying corpse, to topple over the edge.
The mage gave a feral grin, taking a step forward as she cast around for some sort of defence.
An enormous, heavy hand grabbed her shoulder and firmly pushed her against the cliff face. Bull was beside her, huffing, and puffing as he squeezed past her and for some reason carrying...a table?!
The mage paused, thoroughly taken aback, as Poppy gawked at the other Qunari.
"Keep up, boss", he rumbled, tightening up his form and charging forward with the table.
The mage scrambled back in alarm, but there was nowhere to go, and Bull rammed him hard, sending him flailing down to the rocks below.
A burst of flame from the far cliffs caught Poppy's attention and she turned to see Dorian, Sera and Gatt being assaulted by another wave of cultists. They seemed to be holding their own, for now.
She and Bull surged onto the top of the cliffs, and into the fray. Back to back, they carved a path of destruction through the remaining Venatori separating them from the Chargers. Bull was swinging his greatsword in enormous, sweeping arcs, and Poppy punched, kicked and deflected anything that came her way.
Bull locked weapons with a towering Venatori warrior, then heaved to pull the jagged maul from his grip, and passed to to Poppy with a nod. She took the weapon, baring her teeth at the bewildered warrior, and struck, feeling bone crunch. The enemy crumpled with a strangled cry and her boot ensured he wouldn't get up again.
They moved in close with those of the Chargers still standing. Dalish was sprawled in the mud, her 'bow' just out of reach, Stitches slumped over her with a roll of now spoiled bandaged clutched in one hand. Grim stood over their unconscious bodies, snarling like a feral dog. One arm was hanging limply and blood streamed from a gash in his forehead.
Rocky and Skinner stood back to back, both bruised and bloodied, but appearing to be mostly okay. Krem was several paces behind them, tangled in a duel with two assassins. Half a dozen enemies kept them all busy.
Poppy threw herself into the fray, taking on three warriors to herself, spinning and dodging like a whirlwind of death. Meanwhile, Bull had lobed his table directly at the nearest mage, knocking her unconscious and pinning her into the mud. He then turned his attention to a hulking warrior with a gleaming greatsword who had been skilfully keeping their allies from getting close enough to harm her.
Poppy made a final swing, embedding her axe into the throat of her last enemy. It stuck fast and wrenched from her grip as the force threw the body to the ground. A agonised cry had her spinning on the spot to see Krem on one knee, his face a mask of pain.
Bull turned too, swinging his weapon with such force that it launched the assassins into the ravine.
Poppy's eyes followed them, and focussed on the trio across the way. They were being overrun. She reached for the horn.
Bull's hand stayed her. "What are you doing?"
She jerked away. "What I should have done in the first place", she snarled, canines flashing in the moonlight. She blew the horn as hard as she could, its mournful sound permeating the coastline, before being swallowed by the roaring sea.
Gatt seemed to freeze for a moment. His face turned towards them, blurred by the distance, but his body language said everything. Then a blow came down and Dorian's staff defended him. The mage grabbed him be the arm and dragged him bodily out of the line of fire as Sera laid down cover for their retreat.
Another wail of pain drew Poppy's attention back to Krem. He was curled in the mud, blood everywhere, pouring from a deep gash on his leg.
Skinner fell upon Dalish and Stitches, trying to rouse them as Bull tried to stem the bleeding. Rocky stood a few metres away, hands clasped over his mouth in horror.
Poppy stared at the chaotic scene, rooted to the spot as a paralysing chill flooded her. The sky cracked open and rain began to pelt down, turning to bloody ground into slop.
"This needs fucking stitches! Or cauterising", Bull growled. He scrambled over to an extinguished campfire and began to dig through is in search of anything hot enough, then roared a curse when he found nothing.
"We have to keep pressure on it!" commanded Skinner, diving into the mud beside krem and tearing strips from her tunic to push against the wound. The soldier gave a pitiful moan, and nothing more.
Poppy's feet began to move, as though in a trance, and she was slowly propelled forwards. "Alcohol", she ordered, fixing Skinner with a glassy expression.
The elf gawked at her for a moment, then pulled a flask from within the folds of her clothes and offered it.
Poppy nodded, folding down onto her knees beside Krem, and took the flask from Skinner's shaking hands. Bull took a step towards them, but Rocky, who now had tears streaming down his face, stopped him. "Let her try", his voice cracked.
Bull was visibly taken aback, but moved slowly forward to take his place on the ground, cradling Krem's head as he began to mutter deliriously. He pointedly ignored the Venatori mages across the way as the began to shoot fireballs into the bay.
"Keep pressure, said Poppy, carefully unclamping the gauntlet that protected her left hand. The gleaming armour was dropped unceremoniously into the mud, before she carefully withdrew her hand from the heavy glove, revealing the silvery green mark.
Bull's face was expressionless, but his eyes seared into Poppy's flesh like a brand, scrutinising her equally blank face. She uncorked the flask and gave the spirit a careful sniff. Satisfied, she shuffled to take Skinner's position. "Move", she murmured and the elf complied without a word.
Finally, Poppy looked up at Bull.
"Hold him down."
"Do as I say!" she snapped, her voice cold and sharp.
He blinked at her, then set his jaw and obeyed. Krem didn't even respond to the pressure of Bull's weight.
Poppy felt ready to throw up, but she swallowed back the bile and swept away the rags. Blood welled fresh and she upended the alcohol straight into the wound. Krem struggled, but Bull locked him down into the ground firmly.
Then, she closed her eyes, breathing deeply, evenly, and pressed her marked hand against the wound, calling on something long buried.
Krem screamed a bloodcurdling scream and began to writhe. is limbs flailed, one hand finding her hair, fisting, wrenching hard. He pulled her head down and she forced back the instinct to pull away, even as he landed a steel-capped kick to her ribs.
Skinner dived on his left leg, and Rocky onto his right, using their bodies to immobilise him. Grim shuffled forwards and tried to detach the fist from Poppy's hair.
Bull's eyes burned into her - thanks, accusation, betrayal all tangling together in their depths.
Poppy growled, ears flicking back as she fought to keep the magic steady. It built slowly into a trembling, determined roar, sweat rolling off her forehead and mingling with the rain. Her hand sparked brilliantly, then the magic sputtered out, her energy spent.
She sat back on her feet, panting heavily, and removed her hand to reveal a roughly, but effectively, cauterised wound, where moments before there had been a gaping river of blood.
"You're a mage?!" Bull was incredulous, and offended.
Poppy ignored him, but he was already working up to accusations.
"Shut the fuck up!", Skinner's voice was like a dagger. "She saved Krem's life! Just shut your Maker-forsaken mouth!"
He faltered, and Poppy dragged herself to her feet, limbs trembling with exhaustion. She stared at the ground and said nothing. Then, clutching her side, slowly began to make her trek back to camp, ignoring Dorian and Sera as they burst out of the forest to render assistance.
Behind her, a deafening boom signalled the dreadnought exploding.