Hasmal reeked of humans. He could smell the sweat clinging to their thin skin, an odorous beacon growing stronger as his footsteps carried him towards the tavern. He could also smell the ale and piss and vomit that wafted from the doorway, layers of disgusting aromas bound into the grains of the miserable wood. The people that stumbled past him smelled of disease, sacks of rotted meat slumping along on bones made unsteady by booze and filth. Eyes filled with fright darted away as he passed, his height and horns making the insignificant imbeciles quiver with unease.
Saar Talan was a sight to behold. Standing an impressive six foot three even before adding the two foot horns spiraling out of the top of his skull, the Qunari towered over the smaller races that scurried across Thedas. He often used his height to his advantage, allowing those he encountered to fear him, a reaction more common here on the edge of the Free Marches than he normally achieved in Tevinter. Here the people recalled the rumors of the disasters in Kirkwall, and they looked upon him with a more practical hatred, a fear driven by the proof that his people were savages, rather than the obstinate belief that the Imperium held.
It was better that they fear him than try to talk to him, in any case, as speech tended to make him feel an unquenchable urge to rip the tongues out of those he conversed with. Rage was his most common emotion, followed by cold contempt in a close second. These facts did not serve to make him particularly loquacious, even to those whose presence he had occasionally tolerated.
The dusty tavern at the center of town welcomed him with as much enthusiasm as a funeral pyre. The building was old, and as he breathed in the tepid air he could taste the dregs of silt from the nearby river, clinging to his tongue through the moisture he inhaled. It was built out of wood of indeterminate quality, as time had warped and cracked each board, rendering it a mystery as to how long it had actually stood there, defiant in the face of the mortal refuse that flitted between its doors. He pressed a hand to the door, swinging it open with a creak like the death knell of a seagull. Within he could see a small room lit by dim, greasy lamps. Smoke filled the air and stung his eyes, but the promise of something to eat and drink was too enticing to pass up, and so he surveyed the area for a place to rest his feet. He had been traveling for longer than his mind could even comprehend at this point, and all he really wanted was to get quietly obliterated until he couldn’t remember the throbbing in the soles of his feet.
Someone directly behind him cleared her throat, the sound making him cringe with its self-righteous demand to be heard. He turned his head slowly to peer down at a surprisingly tall woman in dingy plate mail, her dark gaze full of hunger and impatience. She had wavy, chocolate brown hair, twisted into a haphazard ponytail, greasy and tangled as though she had been living beneath someone’s porch for several days. She tilted her head to the side, indicating the doorway, and he realized that he was blocking her path into the bar. The corner of his lips twitched, an unfamiliar smile trying to work its way through his disdain. He gave her a facetious bow as he stepped to the side, his horns just missing the tip of her nose, which was shaped with the fine elegance that could only be handed down by heritage. She had the bones of a noble, hidden under the layers of dirt that pronounced “poverty” in the broad strokes and smudges on her gaunt cheeks. She rolled her eyes before turning away, looking through the crowded establishment for a place to hang up the reigns to her high horse, no doubt. She was arrogant enough to make up for the starvation hiding beneath her grim gaze.
There was a clatter and a half formed yell from behind them before the woman was pushed forward several paces by a pair of dainty hands, braced against the metal clad back as the elven culprit ran headlong into the other woman. A slip of a rogue with pale skin and even paler short cropped hair entangled herself with the warrior. They stumbled for half a heartbeat before the elf promptly lost her balance, her face meeting the floor in an abrupt introduction. The warrior turned to glare at the petit creature at her feet, and the elf squeaked as she bounced back upright, her green eyes wide with emotion that was too strong for Saar Talan’s tastes.
The elf placed a hand on the beleaguered human’s shoulder. “Begging your pardon, m’lady! I didn’t see you there!”
An impeccably maintained eyebrow arched on the dark woman’s face. “I’m two feet taller than you and wearing plate. Are you blind, or trying to rob me?”
“Creators, no! I just, it smelled so good in here, and I couldn’t wait to get inside, and I was looking at the table over there and I wanted to make sure I got a seat and then you didn’t keep walking forward like I thought you would and I really meant to walk ‘round you but then my feet didn’t go the way I planned and you just kept standing there and I was totally not trying to rob you – ”
“Enough!” the warrior clamped a hand over the girl’s mouth, and Saar Talan almost offered her a word of thanks for the reprieve. Almost. “I believe you weren’t trying to rob me, so please just…stop whatever that was.”
He returned his attention to the task at hand, looking over the throngs of stinking peasants for a place that was not overcrowded by their chattering idiocy. There was only one table open at the back of the bar, and he nearly turned and immolated the two women standing in the doorway, as he knew they would come to the exact same conclusion that he had: they would have to share, or else find somewhere else for their meal.
He glanced over at them, and the elf was looking between them with an air of excitement. The warrior, hand still clamped over the elf’s mouth as she started to gesticulate towards the table, met his eyes. Her expression spoke volumes of their mutual desire to never actual get acquainted, as well as the futility of the sentiment. He shrugged, readjusting the staff on his back and walking to the table, determined that if he could not sit alone he could at least be the first to sit. The women followed, the warrior’s boots slamming into the ground with enough force to drown out the elf’s lighter cadence.
They each took places, the warrior taking the seat furthest away from Saar Talan, and the elf positioning herself directly between the two of them, overflowing with an excess of exuberance that made him reconsider his decision to stay.
“Hi, my name’s Murci.” Her smile was the sun itself, and Saar Talan had to resist the urge to hiss in response. They sat in astoundingly stony silence for a moment before the elf continued, her expression growing slightly too tight as she strained to hold her optimism. “And you are…?”
The warrior sighed, glaring at anything but the people she was speaking to. “Adina.”
He regarded Adina curiously for a moment, studying her iron resolve. He could smell the Templar magic clinging to her bones, although it was weak and malformed, abilities that had been learned but poorly honed. The idle thought that he should probably run passed through his head, but she didn’t seem any more intent on his destruction than anyone else in the tavern, and so his survival instinct to flee from all Templars was suppressed. For the moment. He realized, around two minutes too late for anyone to be comfortable, that Murci was staring at him, her smile frighteningly close to fracturing her face as her eyebrows crept upwards towards her hairline.
“Saar Talan.” He grunted, and busied himself with the business of flagging down a waitress.
“You know, Adina, Saar Talan,” Murci folded her hands in front of her, leaning in with an obnoxious sense of glee, “I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship.
The waitress arrived at that moment, just as Adina choked on her own breath, a grimace marring her noble features. Saar Talan quietly agreed with the reaction as they ordered drinks, the idea of starting a “beautiful friendship” with anyone, though especially these two, feeling unseemly and inadvisable. He watched as Adina handed over a copper for the drink with practiced calm, noting the way her fingers gripped the coin and her eyes followed it as it changed hands. She hid her dejection well, but it was still there even as she straightened her shoulders with more pride than she could afford. Murci, on the other hand, passed entirely too much coin along to the waitress, who smiled sweetly before pocketing the money, failing to mention how much she was just overpaid. He provided his own payment before folding his hands in his lap beneath the table. The waitress bounced off, swaying her hips so that her skirts flipped back and forth.
Murci giggled, and he wondered if he could murder her without anyone noticing. “So, what brings you two to Hasmal?”
Adina groaned, sinking back in her chair as she looked at the ceiling, beseeching the heavens for reprieve. “Can we not? Can I just drink and not make small talk with the world’s most chipper chatterbox?”
“I was just being friendly.” Murci crossed her arms over her chest, jutting out her lower lip in a pout that could have melted the Frostbacks.
“Well, it’s kind of annoy –” Adina snapped her mouth shut mid word as the cloaked figure approached their table, slinking across the tavern like a paragon of seedy endeavors, his footsteps lacking any sound or weight. He was adorned with thick velvet robes, a hood folded over his head and couching most of his features in shadows. He exuded a quiet grace as he placed his hand on top of the table, keen eyes looking over the three of them with cultivated appraisal. Saar Talan could see the light of the lamps dance in the reflections of his deep set eyes, and the shadows shifted around the smile cracked across his face.
"Excuse me! Pardon the interruption.” His voice was oil poured over a still pond, cutting over the din and coating Saar Talan’s ears with slick unease. “I couldn't help but notice what a fine group of mercenaries you were. I was wondering if you might be available for hire...I have an offer I don't think you will want to refuse."
“What does it pay?” Adina’s answer was immediate, though the distrust oozing from the set of her shoulders told him she would not play the fool willing to agree to anything.
The mysterious man seemed taken aback, his mouth dropping open before he could recover his façade. “Oh, you will be paid handsomely of course. I can promise a very large sum of gold upon completion of the job.”
Murci recoiled from his lanky fingers as the encroached her space across the table, his snakeskin demeanor off-putting even to her. “What do you want us to do?”
“More importantly, who are you to ask strangers for aid?” Saar Talan interjected himself into the conversation, more interested in the who than the what. The intention behind this alleged job would be far more telling than the actual task, and far more important in his decision on whether to undertake it or not.
“Ah, a discerning question! My name is Victor Erimus, and I am but a humble archeologist, seeking knowledge across our great and wonderful world.” He bowed, velvet robes whispering across the table as they hung low. “To answer your question, my dear rabbit, I seek a particular artifact, in an old ruin to the north. It would provide an astounding exhibit for the museum I work for, and we are desperate to find someone willing to retrieve it for us.” Murci scowled at the use of the racial epithet, and Saar Talan filed the information in the back of his mind.
“Desperate enough to pay up front?” Adina did not look as though she was believing his story, but the hunger in her eyes drove her to continue investigating.
Victor frowned. “Well, no, of course not. Our museum can ill afford to lose the money, should you disappear without bringing the artifact. I’m sure you understand.”
“What is the artifact? Where is it located?” Murci squinted as she tried to look closely at his face.
“So many questions!” Victor feigned surprise, and underneath the act Saar Talan could feel his mounting frustration. “Look, if you aren’t interested I can certainly find someone else willing to work for their gold.”
“Will you at least buy us dinner while we discuss the details?” Adina’s stomach growled beneath the table, though Saar Talan doubted anyone heard it other than him.
Victor sneered at her. “I’m afraid I hardly have time to make a meal of this. Look, I have a map here…are you interested in taking the job or not? It’s simple. You are at point A, and I merely need someone to get to point B and retrieve the item, then bring it back here so I can add it to our collection.”
The three at the table looked at one another, each one silently agreeing that this seemed like a terrible idea. Adina shook her head, and she opened her mouth to speak the refusal for them all, but Victor’s rage cut her to the chase.
“I knew any group that included a cow and a couple of women wouldn’t have the sense to know an opportunity when they saw it.” He turned on his heel and stalked back through the crowd, the insult ringing in their ears as his footsteps faded. Saar Talan let the anger wash over him like the soothing ripples of a warm bath, embracing the rage as he would a lover. He could chase the man and do unspeakable things to him in order to exact revenge, but in the end he decided that he was not worth the effort. Perhaps later he would locate him and take his life in exchange for the map that he carried, but for now Saar Talan would enjoy his drink, and save his anger for another time when he might need it.
“Asshole.” Adina muttered, hunching her shoulders as she glared at the table. She kept her gaze glued to the warped wood to avoid watching the promise of money walk away, each silent footstep the flip of a coin she had willingly thrown to the wind. She was desperate, but she swore that if she ever got that desperate she would just off herself and get the inevitable end over with. Better to be dead than used.
The waitress deposited a mug of cheap ale beneath her nose, and the rancid twang of over-brewed hops invaded her senses like a drunken army. She took a sip, wincing as the foam filled the back of her throat and burned the edges of her cheeks. It was deplorable, but it was what she could afford, and it was a damn sight better than nothing at all. She eyed Murci’s fruit infused concoction across the table, and wondered how an elf dressed in what she presumed to be tree bark could afford such a thing. As she watched the fizzy pink monstrosity slosh around in the cup, a flash of movement caught her attention out of the corner of her eye.
As though the evening had not already been full of enough strangeness, another set off footsteps carried yet another interloper towards them, to intrude on the world’s most awkward dinner once again. The figure was wearing heavy black armor, and a cowl that covered most of their face, though distinctly feminine features could be discerned if she looked closely. She walked up to them confidently, with no hint of worry or fear in her stride. When she stopped in front of the table, her presence was like an oncoming storm, holding their attention with the sheer force of will that emanated from each fine toned muscle. Adina looked up into the hood, and her eyes met a gaze of steel and authority, severe and intense, chilling her to her very core as though she looked into the endless void itself. The woman smiled, and although it was a subtle quirk to her lips, she could tell that it signified great approval. Whatever the consequences of refusing the uncharismatic Victor, it had impressed this formidable goddess, and that was worth all the nights of starvation until the end of time as far as Adina was concerned.
The lithe warrior canted her hips to the side, crossing her arms over her chest. Adina took note of the finely crafted sword and shield strapped to her back, their craftsmanship far surpassing that of anything she had seen since leaving Rivain. The stranger lifted extraordinarily toned arms and pulled the hood back from her face, revealing herself in the flickering firelight. Strong cheek bones rested beneath thundercloud eyes, and black hair cropped close to her head glimmered in the glow of the lamps. When she smiled, the scar on the side of her cheek traveled upward, and the sever expression on her face lessened just enough to make Adina’s heart flutter in her chest. She looked like a warrior that had seen all there was to see and kept fighting, the sort of person that exuded honor and exemplified duty. Adina could practically feel the fierce loyalty rolling off of her, and she knew that she was not someone that she would want as her enemy.
“You know a trap when you see it.” A Nevarran accent dripped from her lips like ginger tinted honey. “I may have use for talent such as that.”
“I have a lot of talents I’m sure you would find useful.” Adina leaned her arm on the table and rested her chin in her palm, batting long eyelashes in the direction of the woman she was worshipping as indiscreetly as possible.
The woman cleared her throat, pretending not to hear, which enticed Adina all the more.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Lord Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast, and I have a proposition for you, if you are willing to hear me out.”
Adina licked her lips, which suddenly felt too dry for comfort. The presence of someone as distinguished as a Lord Seeker was something she hadn't anticipated. Her mind whirled with a hundred possibilities, least of which was the thought of becoming a Seeker, most of which was Cassandra splayed out on a bed, arching her back as her eyes closed in pleasure. “Am…am I what you’ve been seeking, milady?” She gave the Seeker bedroom eyes, while inwardly she wondered if that ale she had imbibed was causing her to hallucinate. Did she really just hit on a Lord Seeker with a pun? This was not going how she had intended. Cassandra, perhaps out of pity, continued to ignore the advances.
“Well, you’re certainly prettier than the last guy. Care to have a seat?” Murci gestured to an empty space at the table, and with a curt nod Cassandra took the proffered space. Saar Talan watched them all with silent angst, his eyes cataloguing each movement without showing any outward opinion on any of it.
“Thank you. As I’m sure you are aware, the ‘artifact’ that Victor wanted you to retrieve was no mere trinket.” She dropped her voice, speaking in an imperious whisper. “In the wrong hands, it could prove disastrous for all of Thedas.”
Saar Talan laughed, and it was the most mirthless sound Adina had ever heard. “And I suppose we’re the ones who are going to be responsible for saving the world then? What if I told you I just came here for a drink?”
“It always starts in a tavern. Haven’t you ever heard a story before? The heroes meet in a tavern and are given a grand quest by a mysterious do-gooder.” Murci’s unbridled enthusiasm was infectious in the most unpleasant way. Like a plague that induced insurmountable levels of annoyance.
“I didn’t have stories growing up.” He returned to stony silence after the cryptic statement, watching them and waiting. Adina wasn’t sure what he was waiting for, but the mage’s body language constantly spoke of someone who was simply biding their time.
“I understand you are reluctant. A wise person would be.” Cassandra smiled, and it was disarmingly attractive. “I implore you to consider this, however. I cannot promise an extensive reward, but I can assure you that we will compensate you somehow. There are other groups racing to retrieve this artifact, and it is vital that we get there before them. The fate of the world could very well depend on it.” She stood, abruptly rising from her seat and returning the hood to its resting place on the crown of her head. “Do not make your decision now. Think on it. I would expect no less from those I deem to have potential. If you are interested, find me in the Inn of Vashan, in Perivantium. I can give you further details then.”
She walked out before Adina had time to formulate another question or proposition. She watched her go, falling into a pleasant lull to the sway of her hips. After she had disappeared through the crowd and out the door, Adina turned her attention to the two odd balls at the table that now served as her companions.
“So…you in?” Murci was bouncing in her seat, green eyes alight with mischief and adventure. As much as she wanted to slap her cheery face, Adina had to admit the prospect of having a bit of purpose in her life again didn’t sound half bad.
Adina shrugged. “Why not?”
Saar Talan grinned, a wolf running with sheep. “In.”
Adina looked at each of them, strangers until a moment ago, and she thought that perhaps this job was worth taking. They nodded to each other, knowing that, at least for this one thing, they were all on the same page. For better or worse, they were colleagues now.
Maker help her, but she did find herself in strange company.
The border into Tevinter was still miles off, and his feet felt like he was dragging all of Orzammar around his ankles. In a metaphorical sense that was probably true, but Faren didn’t dignify his emotional baggage by noticing it. He had his problems, but he kept them neatly bundled in the back of his mind, never to be shown the light of day.
The light of day that was currently beating down on him with ruthless efficiency. His red hair felt like fire atop his head, his beard an oven attached to his chiseled chin. Every layer of leather across his stocky chest was heated to a golden brown, and beneath that was the sand that had crept into every crevice, grinding away at his hapless skin. There was a reason Harding had warned him to never head into the desert, but as usual he was too stubborn to listen.
He dismissed the thought with practiced resolve, pushing the memories of the Inquisition out of his mind. Thinking of the family that he had made for himself left a hole in his chest that could never be filled, and so it was best to ignore that with the rest of the things he refused to pay attention to. He was determined to be driven by what was ahead of him, not what was behind him. The Inquisitor had bowed to the Orlesian council, giving up her power just as she had given up her hand. He had to trust that she had done what was right, just as she had the entire time she had led them through Corypheus’ horrible war. But if he had been asked his opinion, Faren would have opted not to dissolve the only force that seemed to be doing good in the world.
He had lost his purpose the day they had handed down the orders to go home. Without that he was left to wander, finding something else to distract him from himself. He had fallen to planning, and that plan weighed heavily on his shoulders, settling like a pall of seething rage that would not dissipate no matter how he tried. He wanted desperately to turn around, to head back south and return to the cool, wintry comfort of the Frostbacks. To plunge his feet into the snow and carve a path back to Orzammar. There, he could finally slake his thirst, finally whet his blade on the blood of the bitch that had used him like a pawn.
The thought of Jarvia made him clench his fists, muscles clamping until his knuckles turned white. He stopped his march forward, taking a deep breath as he tried to stabilize his racing thoughts. His gaze drifted to the sky, that vast expanse of nothing that threatened to swallow him every day. Nothing was so wonderful or so calming as the sky above, reminding him just how small he was, and how small his problems really were. His feet turned, pointing of their own accord back towards the south. It would be so easy, to go and take her life and take back a piece of his honor. She had taken so much from him the day she sold him out, and he wanted to run his dagger through her heart and extract all the blood in her veins as penance.
Spinning, he resolutely headed north again. He wasn’t sure what was keeping him, what was making him run from the best chance he had to set himself free. He could end it, end the grudge and the hatred, and the chip on his shoulder and her reign of crime in a city he didn’t give two shits about. He wanted her dead, didn’t he?
There would be time. He promised himself that there was still time to go find her, to tell her exactly what he thought of her before bringing that chapter of his life to a final close. For now, he wouldn’t think on it.
After all, he had always wanted to see the Imperium.
He awoke in a cold sweat, the dream still clinging to the backs of his eyelids, haunting his vision as he blinked reality into view. Harold sucked in air, trying to fill his lungs with something tangible and real, to fight the demons scrabbling on the other side of the veil and mocking his visions.
He tossed his feet over the edge of the bed, standing on the chilled stone for a moment before shuffling to the basin of water on the other side of the room. He splashed as much as could fit in his palms across his face, the bracing cold enough to dissolve the lingering fingers of the Fade still curling around the back of his consciousness. The water sloshed in the bowl as he rested his hands against the rim, letting his weight settle. The dark of the early dawn slipped through the window like a lost lover, not that Harold would know anything of such things. He grabbed a towel from the wall, scrubbing at his face as he ignored exactly how lonely that thought made him feel.
Three soft knocks disturbed the stillness of the morning, and he turned to see the furs at the front of his hut shift, one of the smaller magelings poking her head in.
He tossed the towel on the floor, smiling at her. “Yes?”
“Skywatcher says Dagna was looking for you. An hour ago.” Her eyes glittered in the dark.
“Does she ever sleep?” he shook his head, taking three long strides towards the door and grabbing his shoes. The thick hide and fur felt heavy at this time of day, his nightmares making him more exhausted than when he had fallen into bed a mere four hours ago. He was chased by fire and screaming in his dreams, and hunted by curiosity and the need for knowledge in his days. It was not a recipe that led to a well-rested mage.
“Thane Sun-Hair says Dagna will sleep when she’s discovered how to blow up all the world, because then there will be nothing left to figure out.” The girl moved the furs back further, her entire head coming into view, a pixie face full of freckles topped with a mess of blonde curls. She was probably only eight or nine, her magic coming like an early spring racing against the frost. “Do you think she can do that? Blow up all the world?”
Harold ruffled her hair, and she scrunched up her nose in agitation. “Not on purpose.”
She stuck her tongue out at him before disappearing around the curtains, her footsteps echoing down the wooden walkways as she made her retreat. He waited for several heartbeats, gathering his mental faculties, before he followed suit, walking into the frigid morning and turning to head towards Dagna’s makeshift laboratory.
When he arrived she was, as he had expected, waist deep in stacks of notes, books discarded in every direction after she had viewed them and tossed them away in irritation, usually because they contained less information than she wanted. A small pair of spectacles hung low on the tip of her nose, her eyes darting back and forth across a page whose contents were making her brows furrow. He cleared his throat to make his presence known, and she jumped half a foot in the air and toppled off of the stool she had been sitting on like a bird ready to take flight.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” he rushed to help her up, but she waved away his hands, laying on her back and giggling up at the pink tinged sky.
“Good morning, Harold. Sleep well?”
“Like a baby.” He couched on the floor next to her, searching her face for signs of fatigue. If there was one thing Dagna always managed to have too much of, it was energy. He was constantly afraid that she would just pass out in the middle of what she was doing, plunging into a vat of some explosive mixture as she finally succumbed to consequences of months of not sleeping.
“Which is to say not at all.” She frowned at his response, regarding him with concern. He looked away, wishing he hadn’t said anything. Happily, she opted to let his demons stay in the night, and she sat up, shaking dirt out of her auburn hair. “In any case, you have to get up now. I need you to pack your bags.”
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Am I going somewhere?” of all the things he expected her to need at the crack of dawn, that had not been one of them.
“We are going somewhere, yes. Ever been to Tevinter?” her eyes were brimming with the same look of mischief she got when Sera brought her a particularly volatile “present”, and Harold was filled with trepidation. He had been working with Dagna for months now, and he trusted her as much as he could bring himself to trust anyone…but the idea of leaving was terrifying. He had lived here since he was young, barely a scrap of a boy struggling to find a place to belong after his father had announced that he was no longer his son. The Avvar had taken him in and given him a home and community he never could have imagined before, and the memory of the sharp pain of his mother turning away from his tears was more bearable as he gained his place amongst the Hold. On the other hand, the things he did with Dagna were important. She had worked with some of the most legendary people in Thedas, and he was proud that he was allowed to help her with that, in whatever capacity he could.
He swallowed back his nerves, giving her a winning smile. “I guess I’ll get the chance to visit now, huh?”
Her smile was infectious, and soon the grin on his face didn’t seem so foreign. He couldn’t say no to her. Harold was a sucker for someone asking for help, even more so when that person happened to be an adorable dwarf with a penchant for groundbreaking scientific discoveries and explosions. He was a lost cause, so he might as well accept his fate right from the start.
“Go get your things, we leave in an hour.” She shifted to her feet, and took the opportunity to ruffle his hair before he stood and towered over her once more. “Oh, and Harold?”
“Don’t forget to pack your bedroll. Sera is not gonna let you use hers again after what happened last time.” Dagna winked, and he felt a blush creep over the sides of his face, practically steaming in the morning air. Her giggles followed him as he headed back to his hut, and he wondered if he should try to apologize to Sera again.
Maybe when she didn’t have her bow.
Besides, he apparently had loftier concerns to worry about. Tevinter. He had a feeling this was going to be more than a simple research expedition.