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Co-Author and Beta: Ethereal-23

Path of Stone

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Neria expected the Darkspawn to emerge in single lines from one tunnel or another. A nice, easy target for her to aim her spells and let them loose without much concern for collateral.

Having seen the enormity of Orzammar, she really should have expected the Deep Roads to be the same. The legendary pathways were massive, with large halls and archways stretching a quarter of a mile up in some instances, with dozens of smaller tunnels and broken sections creating a labyrinthian mess only the dwarves were equipped to navigate.

Which meant Darkspawn was emerging from all sides.

With a wave of her hand, she sent three of the Blighters flying before focusing her magic on the makeshift tunnel they came from and closing it quickly. She twirled her staff in her grasp, arcs of lightning sparkling off in multiple directions with the motion before slamming it down, causing a wave of electricity to jump from Darkspawn to Darkspawn, bringing them to their knees.

The dwarven soldiers picked them off, seizing the chance with emboldened hearts as both plate and magic shrouded them. The second one was courtesy of Oryrn, who blessed them with shimmering holy shields. Given the dwarves' natural resistance to magic, this task required more of his focus.

On the battlements behind them, Sarya and Morrigan stood on a higher position, aiming their spells at chokepoints where the Blighters met their end, shrouded in flames or stepping into arcane mines that blew them to smithereens. The dunmer mage spotted a large ogre stomping down further away in the pathway and quickly warped to a nearby ballista. She shouted at the operator and pointed at the ogre. The dwarven engineer nodded and by pulling levers that triggered a series of gears, the ballista switched position and took aim. Sarya muttered something under her breath as the tip of the large lance was ignited into purple flames. The dwarf pulled a larger lever and fired; the lance took flight, aiming true toward the ogre's chest. The beast roared in agony as the metal pierced flesh and bone while the purple flames seared skin and muscle, spreading a type of viral corruption that made its already dark veins glow a sickly purple.

The ogre exploded in gore, taking out nearby Blighters with the shrapnel made from both the lance and its body parts.

Sarya cheered, jumping with her arms high in the air before high-fiving the dwarven engineer.

Neria shifted her focus to some of the dwarves who took their wounded and tired further back behind the plated walls erected as a defense. She joined them and with a slam of her staff, she created an aura of pure healing energies. Once more, it was a slower task on dwarves than it should have been on any other beings, but the potions at hand helped a great deal.

Rows of crossbows rained down bolts upon the approaching Darkspawn from the left flank before suddenly splintering in mid-air. A tall, gangly, thin, sharp-eared emissary floated above the ground, screeching as foul magics shined like a glowing miasma out of its hands, shielding its kin from the crossbows.

A trail of glimmering magic shot out from the battlements, and flashes of silver slit the throats of genlocks and hurlocks alike on its path. Brianna manifested in the middle of the darkspawn before a fierce Mind Blast sent them flying in all directions. She glared at the tall emissary, flicking her mithril blade in her hand. She conjured silver flames before firing them in a slash of fiery energy that slammed against the darkspawn's barrier, shattering it like glass.

But no counter came from the Blighted abomination, with Amell's blade piercing through its upper jaw and skull in a swift strike. Excitement danced in the woman's eyes, feeling the rush of battle surging through her limbs. Her legs moved almost on their own, charging at a Genlock with her blade and arcane energy in each hand. She leaped over the diminutive beast as it swiped at her with a pair of axes. Her left hand glowed with red energy, shooting out six crimson orbs that struck the Spawn in the back with perfect accuracy. The force sent it flying forward and onto the stony ground before Bri's sword went through its skull.

Oh, was she happy Sarya taught her this spell, which she had learned from a friend in Waterdeep, wherever that was?

Stone fists came down like hammers upon a Hurlock that pounced at Shale. Its jagged lance splintered against the Golem's stone skin. Its armor folded like tin, piercing into the Blighter's flesh as it was thrashed effortlessly. The monster's carcass is now a pulverized bloody mess, "Hmm. Scarcely as pleasurable as crushing birds."

Close by, Sten's body moved with finesse and savagery with Asala in his hands. His soul almost seemed to hum through the air with each strike down upon the Darkspawn who drew close to the battlements. He was a warrior, not a politician. Standing idle back in the Dwarven city and doing nothing but talk only made him grumpy, as Sofie put it. Said nord woman was at his side, cutting down spawn with a predatory smile.

"Aren't you glad I said we go with the others to the outpost!?" she addressed, kicking a Hurlock to the ground that Sten cut down in moments. The Qunari grunted back, "You're welcome!"

Blue arcane light shot down from the battlements like shooting gemstone stars ripping through several blighters at once. Morrigan cocked a brow as she watched Sarya cast that spell, "What was that called again?"

"Star Shower!"

Sofie cut down the legs of a shriek with a swipe of her sword before pinning the screeching beast down to the floor by burying her blade through its torso, quickly ending its life. She spotted a hurlock alpha roaring behind the lines of Blighters, hefting an enormous mace with the bludgeon the size of a dwarven man; half of its face was covered with a jagged helmet, making Sofie wonder how the thing could even see. She rolled her neck, popping her joints and leaving her blade where it was.

She took out her axes from her belt, cutting through lines of Darkspawn as she charged at the alpha, who charged straight for her as well. Her eyes blazed with draconic power, making the veins in her arms shine as though they had magma for blood. Her already impressive muscles bulged as she crouched and leaped.

Fire blazed on her back, becoming wings as she jumped over multiple blighters before landing in front of the Alpha. Many of the lesser Darkspawn were flown back and succumbed to the swath of flame created by her descent as the floor cracked under her weight.

The Alpha stumbled, and Sofie took the chance to strike, first by burying one axe at an opening in the knee and then another under its armpit. The creature roared in pain, the grip on its great mace loosening, so Sofie left the axes on its body and snatched the weapon out from its hand.

"FUS!"

The pure force made the creature fall back onto the floor. The last thing it saw was its weapon descending upon him.

The Alpha's helmet, bones, and flesh all caved in, splattered under the great mace.

The Darkspawn, with their numbers dwindling and unable to push against the Dwarven defenses, found themselves routed with the loss of the Alpha. Yet even as they retreated, they still found themselves being cut down by spells and blades by the warriors and their mage allies. The Dwarven regiment cheered in celebration of their victory, raising their blades and praising their ancestors for this triumph.

The sole good eye of an elderly braided grey-bearded scarred dwarf glowed with relief despite the grim frown on his lips. Adorned in black plated steel with white accents and a skull-like emblem on the breastplate. Legion of the Dead Commander Trilen Aravo nodded with satisfaction, "A good day today." He commented with a baritone gravelly voice before pulling his battle axe out of a dead Genlock.

Brianna deadpanned, watching Sofie laughing while cleaving a retreating Blighter in half. "Leliana isn't here. Who are you showing off to?"

"Who is showing off!?" the Nord woman laughed merrily. "Killing these Blighters is getting fun," especially after some news from Sarya, who had thoroughly examined their blood with Darkspawn to see if they shared their elven mother's divine immunity.

The results proved rousing, as shown by Sofie's excitement during this battle.

As the battle simmered down and adrenaline waned among the victorious, the clean-up and burning of the Darkspawn corpses began to ensure their taint did not corrupt the surroundings. Fire erupted from the mages, joined by Dwarves with torches. Commander Trilen stood by the injured, being treated by Warden Neria and other healers. He recited words close to prayer to the fallen, who were covered by cloth. It was a blessing that the Stone casualties were barely a handful, but still, those losses would be felt nonetheless by their people.

"I'm sorry we could not save them," the elven mage offered some words.

"They died fighting for our home. They join our Ancestors with honor." Trilen commented evenly.

"This outpost has been under pressure for weeks now, and without your aid, it would have surely fallen," The commander said with gratitude at the Warden. "We thank you. Orzammar still has one more foothold against the damn Blighters."

"It was our duty," Neria smiled, and then it took considerable effort to remain smiling and swallow the bitter taste in her mouth that came from saying the next part. "And... remember, it was thanks to Bhelen we were able to lend our aid."

Trilen made a rumbling noise in thought, "Assembly has been too slow to direct the army where it needs to. Resources arrive late, and requisitions barely go through at all. They're too damn busy selecting the new king to see the danger at our doorstep" Plated arms crossed over his armored chest, "Bhelen seems to have some sense in him. We can't rely on the Legion throwing themselves at the Darkspawn; the army needs to be employed properly, or it all falls apart."

"Will you support him?"

"I'll talk with other commanders, see if I can get more of the warrior caste clans to see things his way. It won't be easy, but we owe you for all you're doing." He placed his hand to his chest in a dwarven salute, nodding to the Warden, who answered in kind, before leaving to oversee the post-battle activities.

Neria let out a deep sigh. She did not turn when the tall dunmeri Templar stood by her side with his arms crossed.

"How does your dignity taste like?" He asked with a dry tone.

"Awful," The mage replied without preamble. Neria turned around and walked towards the battlefield, Oryrn trailing after her to burn the bodies in holy flames. Aedric magic was devastatingly effective in destroying Tainted flesh and blood. "But there is nothing I can do about it,"

"It is for the best."

"Hmm," She made a non-commital sound before focusing on her task, setting a Blighter alight with golden flames before going over to another. The Templar joined her in the task. "Dwarves really could benefit from mage aid more often."

"I'm sure they agree," Oryrn commented as he rained sunfire on a bunch of Darkspawn corpses huddled together.

Neria surveyed their surroundings, "I read all about Orzammar and the Deep Roads back at the Circle. I could only imagine the sheer scope of this place."

"The reality of it differs vastly from a mental picture, I imagine?" The Thedosian elf nodded, "I was the same when first venturing into Dwemer ruins. Heard so many stories from my mothers and read several books. But delving into them is a far different experience."

A solemn expression bloomed on the former Circle mage's visage, "Even we Circle Mages knew that the Dwarves constantly deal with the Darkspawn all their lives." But it stood another grim actuality she had now witnessed with her own eyes. "They deal with the Darkspawn every day." While those like herself topside may deal with sparse groups of Blighters once in a while unless there was a Blight like now.

The children of Stone never ceased confronting the tainted monsters.

Amgeforn and Amgetoll, Sacrifice and Duty Trilen had called it in the hope of Amgarrak, Victory.

"How long could it take for the Dwarves to be truly free of this?" Neria wondered out loud.

Oryrn hummed in thought, "They have been fighting them since the beginning. An optimist would hope for something soon. A realist would know it would take well beyond their lifetime. Perhaps even longer."

"...I just wish we didn't have to go through Bhelen just to get things moving in the right direction..."

Understanding glowed in the Templar's eyes, "I'd rather not let a tyrant claim a throne either. It goes against nearly everything I believe in. But the other choice is stagnation through tradition."

Neither option made it easy for Neria to endure in her heart. Primarily, after seeing Sereda in so much despair, she is feeling because of all of this madness. But no alternative would come for these people who desperately need something to change.

Well, the thought of change via a power-hungry sycophant made everything Neria screamed about how wrong it was.

Still, Orzammar was one of the last two bastions of the dwarven people, and as Wardens, their duty was to help their lifelong allies. Even if the means did not sit well with Neria. Theirs was a proud and strong people who had endured much hardship, fighting the Blights constantly while the surface only paid attention during the devastating Blights.

There was dignity to life in the underground. The arcs of stone and caverns stood for millennia and were filled with all sorts of flora one wouldn't think would grow under the surface. The way the lava pooled under Orzammar and gave it a soft orange glow was mesmerizing, like a primal force that possessed its sense of untamed beauty.

"This is a proud place, with a proud people. They're worth defending."

"Worth helping," Oryrn agreed with a nod of his head.

"I would have liked to see more of Orzammar under better circumstances. Never seen lava before," She added with a bit of humor in her voice.

"I've been on my share of volcanos. They're nice at a distance," Oryrn quipped with a half-grin.

Neria chuckled before blushing softly and tucking a hair behind her ear. "I... think I spotted a place at a safe enough distance from the lava lakes. We could go there and go sightseeing. You know... the two of us."

Okay, this was Neria's first attempt at flirting. Though she lacked the experience, it was a successful attempt. And she combined it with asking someone on a date for the very first time! 100% progress increase!

The hesitant look on Oryrn's face, however, made her stomach drop. And then what came after...

"Neria, I..." He sighed, "I think we should talk."

XxX ~ xx ~ XxX

Arcane energies glowed from Wynne's palm, sending a wave of healing on an injured Dwarven warrior. While thankfully avoiding any tainted covered weapons, she did not escape the magic of an emissary who struck her with the Blighter's magics, sending her flying into some sharp rocks despite the strength of the steel. The force of the throw might as well have made the metal tin as it was shredded on the jagged rocks.

The injuries mainly had been on just the warrior woman's arms and legs. Had she just been treated with medicine, the healing process would have been weeks at least. "You should be fine with some rest, Lady Olelah."

The short-haired, fair-skinned redhead snorted, "I haven't been called lady since I was a wee nug."

A chuckle came from the Enchanter as she stood from kneeling; a slight groan escaped her lips. Her body liked to remind her she was not a young woman anymore. If it wasn't her knees, her hips delivered protests often enough. Turning her gaze, Wynne was a little taken aback at the sight of Neria standing near her.

Her former apprentice had her arms crossed under her bust. The glare in her eyes was heated.

"You're quite vexed about something..." The older woman uttered slowly.

Neria's frown only deepened, "You had no right to tell Oryrn what you said to him."

"Dear," The senior Enchanter spoke plainly, "As a Grey Warden, your duty comes first."

"In war, victory. In peace, vigilance. In death, sacrifice." Neria quipped back, "I know my duty as a Warden. Ostagar, and this whole year, has been a very fierce educator for me. But I also know I want more for my life than fighting Blighters, undead, demons, and Maker knows what else is coming for us. I have the right to have more than just the station forced upon me." Emotion was heavy with calm anger, "And no one. No. One. has the right to take that from me, Wynne."

Wynne looked from side to side. The dwarves were busy with their tasks, and Neria had not raised her voice (not that it did anything to keep her words from having such firmness in them), "I... let's talk privately."

Neria followed after her, and the elder mage could feel her eyes burning a hole in the back of her head. Eventually, they found a good spot nestled between two fallen arches, removed and secluded so they could continue their 'dialogue.'

"Perhaps I overstepped my bounds," Wynne tried to soothe her. "But Neria, you have to understand that a Warden's life is one of sacrifice. It is a higher calling, and you are bound to follow it through till the end. Can you really afford such distractions?"

"Distractions," Neria repeated. "You really think I'm so weak-willed that I'd waver in my duties because I fancy a man?"

"No! That-" Wynne holds up her hands, "That is not what I said."

"How else am I supposed to interpret it then, Wynne?"

"Neria," The human mage sighed. "You're a strong and very smart woman. But you need to understand that life, circumstances, fate, call it what you will, puts us in our paths just like it put you on the path to being a Gray Warden. It would be best if you saw what's truly important. Can you honestly tell me you'd have a life with Oryrn with the type of lives you two live?"

"...I haven't thought that far ahead," Her words first made Wynne think she'd start to see things clearly, but what followed dashed all hopes. "Because I don't have that sort of time, Wynne."

The older mage stared at her.

"You know I only have at least 30 years in my life before the Taint starts claiming me. You know I did not choose this life, and yet it's not enough that I carry on with dignity and honor. Every single choice I make has to be taken from me. Such as it has been from the moment I made sparks with my fingers when I was a child."

Wynne didn't know what to say.

"All I am hearing from you is that my choice is, as ever, irrelevant." Wynne had never seen Neria look at her with such... anger before. Exasperation, yes. Frustration, definitely. But never anger. The look in Neria's eyes was the same Brianna gave her most days.

And that made Wynne's heartbreak.

"Just because you gave up and succumbed to the whims of fate doesn't mean everyone has to."

"Neria, I'm-"

"I don't want to hear it," the woman closed her eyes, not even wanting to see her mentor right now. "I don't want to hear any more from you, from Oryrn, or anyone else who thinks they have the right to make such calls about my life." She did not give her another word as she sharply turned around and stormed off.

Wynne could only watch her go, feeling as if she had lost something very precious.

XxX ~ xx ~ XxX

Oryrn cast his eyes downcast from the white-hot glares of his mothers in front of him. On either side of him were his sisters, who shared their mothers' vexation at their brother, whose eyes carried nothing but remorse. Miara stood in the center with her arms crossed, tapping a finger on her bicep. "I... made a very woeful misstep..."

His Nordic mother's eyes only grew icier, "We raised you better than that."

Having done all they could at the battlements, the mages, alongside Sofie, Sten, Shale, and Oryrn, returned to tell the news. But the sight of an enraged Neria drew the attention of the remaining group who waited for them in Orzammar. The Thedoisan mage had explained everything to Miara, for which this scene was currently happening.

"Seriously," Sofie growled. "What compelled you to do that?"

"I thought I was helping Neria."

"You. Thought. Wrong," Miara seethed. "You and Wynne were making decisions for her instead of allowing her to make her own." Sharply turning her head, she glanced, seeing Neria and Wynne close by but far apart from each other. Leli and Brianna stood comfortingly with the elven mage, who looked in no general direction. Her crimson gaze returned to her son, "I am immensely disappointed in you, Oryrn Redoran." She raised a finger to her son, "Serana and I taught you better than that."

"I am... sorry..."

"Neria deserves that apology," Sarya spoke with remarkable irritation, replacing her usual eccentric self. "Not us. For Nana's sake."

"As far as Miara and I are concerned, we are proud of that young girl," Serana interjected next. "She has come far for herself in nearly a year from all this mess. And she deserved better from you."

With those words said, Miara turned her heels and strolled with fury in her steps toward Wynne. The dragonborn glared hard at the human coming to a stop, who, at the very least, displayed remorse in her eyes. Neither spoke, but the message was clear enough as Miara trekked over to Neria. Her rage was simmering now, replaced by empathy and understanding. The Thedosian elf looked back before being brought into a surprised hug. "You 're not mad at me?" Neria questioned in a muffled voice.

Miara sighed, detaching the young elven girl. "You did what was right. What, my son said, was foolish and wrong. I will not excuse him for his actions. Whatever comes next is your choice." She cupped her hands on Neria's cheeks. "Your fate is your path, made by your choices. And no one has the right to make them for you."

"...Thank you..."

"I'm not going to tell you to give him a chance or never to forgive him. What happens between the two of you stays between the two of you," The Dragonborn stated, letting go of the young woman's face and placing her hands akimbo. She let out a long, weary sigh, "You have no idea what Serana and I went through before we fell in love, so I cannot tell you what to do. What I will tell you is that whatever happens, it must be because you want it to, Neria."

"This is your life," Leliana said comfortingly to her friend. "Nobody should tell you what to do with it."

"Certainly not Wynne..." Brianna bitterly remarked. And Miara was glad to see that even if the Amell's and the elf's relationship was... strained right now, the two still cared enough for each other that she was at her side in her time of need.

Neria let out a long sigh, "I don't know. Right now, I'm just... angry. A bit sad but mostly angry. I am so tired of everyone and everything deciding things for me. I don't want to look back one day and regret every single thing that happened in my life when I wasn't even calling the shots."

At that, Miara could give her a look that conveyed complete and utter understanding: "I know how you feel, Neria. I know that very well." But unlike the girl, Miara had an eternity to look forward to. Neria did not. At least the girl was starting to take charge of her life; nobody could fault her for that. On the contrary, they were proud of her for standing up as she did.

"We got some time before we run into whatever errand Prince Asshole has for us next," Brianna bitterly remarked; Bhelen had not endeared himself to anyone in their party. "What do you want to do till then?"

"...I just want to get a drink."

"Come on," Leliana smiled softly and patted her arm, leading her along with Brianna. "Let's see if dwarves actually have something other than beer and ale."

Wynne did not make a move to speak; the shame of her actions gripped her tightly. Only remorse glowed in her gaze as the trio started to make their way to Tapster's Tavern. Oryrn, however, moved away from his family towards Neria. Leli and Bri gave harsh glances, but he ignored them to speak, "I'm-"

Neria raised a hand to silence him, "After all the hints you gave me, I honestly thought you liked me enough not to let me down like that. And I was starting to feel brave enough actually to go for something I wanted. But if you so easily let a meddlesome woman talk you out of something before you even talk about it with me... Then I didn't miss much."

That was all she said before she and her longtime friend, along with the former Bard, walked away without another word.

In the distance from all of that stood Marcus and the rest of their group. "No need to intervene for this one, eh?" Alistair lightly jested beside his friend.

"I tempted fate with a God at Edgehall. But only a fool dares to step in front of an enraged mother." The exiled noble addressed plainly.

Zevran nods, "Very wise words, my handsome friend."

"I had expected better from Oryrn, to be honest." Gin quipped, "didn't think he was that short-sighted."

Oryrn could not disagree with the general sentiment thrown his way. He had made a mistake and done wrong by Neria. He did not take her feelings into account. Or it could be said he had done so from a perspective only he could see.

After all, what kind of future would anyone ever have with him?

XxX ~ xx ~ XxX

Seeing Bhelen so satisfied and content put anyone who disliked him on principle in a bad mood. None more so than Sereda, the exiled princess merely sneered and rolled her eyes at how her brother was informed of their successes, as though the victories were his, to begin with...

"Already, I'm hearing how various merchant families are changing their stance and voicing their support for me," He leaned forward on the stone desk, joining his hands together while resting his elbows over its hard and cold surface. "Your help with the front lines should make the Warrior caste see I'm a man of my word, and I have what it takes."

"Whatever gets us closer to the army's pledge to stop the Blight," Marcus said with carefully maintained neutrality.

"Unfortunately, the commoners are still undecided. They will be fine with both business smarts and displays of martial strength. No, they want to feel safe. They'll want someone who will provide for them, someone who will protect them."

Sereda snorted, "What, are you gonna go out on the street and hand out bread?"

"Oh, better," His lips curled into a smile under his beard. "There's a certain... criminal element that plagues Orzammar and has to for a long, long time. I'm sure the population will be most thankful if we get rid of them."

THAT made Sereda do a double take and stare at her brother incredulously. "The Carta," She said. "You want to wipe the Carta?"

"They're an incredibly well-connected and influential Orzammar crime syndicate," Leliana whispered as she supplied the info to her Tamrielic friends. "Both under and on the surface"

"And they're dangerous, very much so," Zevran commented with a hushed tone, "They are one of the most powerful dwarven syndicates."

Leaning against one of the walls, Miara's eyes darted about while her mind processed what she had just learned, "If that Carta is as large as to span outside Orzammar's borders, "If the Carta is the most extensive illicit organization here. The power vacuum of their loss would be felt rather broadly to this kingdom and outside it."

A shrug came from Bhelen, "Wouldn't be the first time purging the Carta. And they always, predictably, come back eventually."

"They are like Deep Stalkers, vermin that just keep coming back," Vartag quipped with a smirk.

"You can't control Jarvia." Eyes turned to faren, who stood by Gin and Sarya, "She is nothing like Beraht, who was far more straightforward to manage."

Beraht was ruthless, cunning, and dangerous. There was no mistaking how much of a monster that man was. However, he could be maintained with sufficient coin.

The same could not be said about Jarvia. Her motivations and goals were never obvious, even when she was Beraht's lieutenant and lover. The woman was as much of a mystery then as she is now, which for those in power would be quite nervous to employ her services.

Bhelen gave Rica's brother an even glare, "And if I am not mistaken. You're the reason we now have a new head of the Carta."

"You will not get an apology from me for that." Faren scowled directly at the possible new Dwarven king. "Beraht's death had been long overdue. Especially how he used Rica."

It was a microsecond, but Miara saw Bhelen's expression falter before turning unreadable. A silence took the room with Bhelen leaning back against his stone chair. "Think you can kill Jarvia like you killed Beraht, Faren?"

"Last time, I got lucky by the skin of my teeth," The casteless dwarf rumbled, scratching his stubbled chin. "This time, I've got a full party of people who could kill in their sleep."

"I accept that challenge," Zevran quipped with a wry grin.

"So shouldn't be an issue."

Bhelen's smirk was positively devious. "Now that's what I like to hear."

"Should we do anything else why we're at it?" Sereda deadpanned, her eyes showing blatant impatience for her brother's attitude. "Pick up some nug milk, maybe perhaps some armor polish? You know, now that we're going out."

The prince raised a brow, his expression conveying a complete lack of amusement. "Please, Sereda, sarcasm is unbecoming of you."

"Oh, I'm holding myself from saying worse, so be thankful I only stoop to using dry wit."

Her companions were pretty sure it was only her ironclad force of will and certain other factors that were keeping Sereda from severing Bhelen's head from his body at the best of times. A fact they never failed to thank her for...

Trying to ease the tensions before they could escalate, Marcus cleared his throat. "Would eliminating the Carta be the last task you have for us? We've pretty much cleared most obstacles on your ascension to the throne."

"Hmm..." Bhelen leaned back on his chair, looking pensive as he stroked his beard. "I have... something in the words. I need a bit more information before I decide if it's viable or not. Until then, you have your orders."

"I will remind you, Bhelen," Alistair said with as much politeness as he could muster, even as he glared at the dwarf. "We're your 'partners.'" He said the word with venom, "Not your underlings."

"Duly noted," Bhelen replied uncaringly. "Vartag, give them a map of Dust Town, along with any info we have on the Carta's territories. I want our friends here to be ready for any surprises. They will be knocking right on Jarvia's door after all."

"No need for that," Faren cleared his throat, "a former resident of Dust Town and Carta member, remember. They might have new management, but they never change their movements."

"Well, are you confident or cocky duster?" Vartag quipped.

The smile the dwarven rogue offered back was very unlike the usual cheery smiles he had given before. It put more than a few in the room on edge, Bhelen included. "Trust me... Not even Jarvia will see me coming when she dies." How Faren's tone was subdued and cold made even Sereda stare at him with a degree of surprise.

Her younger brother slowly nodded back, "Very well. Please see to it."

XxX ~ xx ~ XxX

Once leaving the Aeducan estate, the group made their way to the modest stone fully furnished house in the Commons Bhelen had given them for their time in Orzammar. Standing around a large round stone table, Faren spoke over a map of Dust Town, detailing every place the Carta would be. "There are plenty of abandoned buildings, nine out of ten, all of them are in Carta use. But you won't find anyone there unless you know what route they are using for that day. They always interchange their schedule to keep the guards guessing."

"Thorough," Miara quipped.

"Considering their connections go all the way to the surface and nearly everywhere in Thedas. Yeah," Faren retorted, taking a sip of his alcohol from his mug.

Marcus leaned in beside Sereda and Alistair, "So, what is their timetable for today?"

While the dwarven rogue explained his former company's movements, Sarya listened idly beside Gin, sitting beside each other at the table. "Even the seats are stone..." the Dunmeri mage mumbled. "I thought Markarth had uncomfortable furniture."

"That stone city in Skyrim, right?" Gin questioned, remembering being told about the coldest land in Tamriel by Miara or Serana. "Made by your version of dwarves."

"Technically, they weren't dwarves. They were elves the same size as normal humans. Giants just called them that, and it stuck."

"Sounds dumb."

"It is!" Sarya cheerfully agreed, supporting her elbows on the table while settling her head between both hands. Her red eyes, filled with delight, glanced at him. "Hehe, can you imagine it? Big bushy bearded elves."

It occurred to Gin that he never really interacted much with Sarya beyond their quests together and some idle conversation sometimes. Perhaps there was a reason for it.

"Hmm," Gin hummed in reply. It was a fun mental image, if he was being honest.

"Well, aren't you the soul of the party?" she continued, this time turning her head to see him fully. "What are you thinking about?"

"Nothing in particular."

"Ohhh, I definitely can't do that. I'm always thinking; I always have a thousand thoughts running over my head and a hundred questions at once."

"And always talking," The city elf dryly commented.

"Can't ask questions without talking!" She happily replied.

Even his patience started to wear thin, "Is there a reason you're engaging in inane prattle with me right now?" Was this what Theron had to deal with all the time? Where was he anyway? Ugh, the bastard had chosen a spot far away from Sarya, of course, so he could focus on inspecting his weapons.

"Well, out of everyone in the group. You're one of the few I hardly ever talk to. I want to get to know my friends better!"

He wasn't sure they'd call each other 'friends.' "I don't see you are trying to talk to Sten," He pointed out.

"Yeah, well, every time I do, I just end up remembering what his culture does to mages. So I don't want to end up doing something I'd regret."

Gin looked at her for a long moment. Did that tone sound like she would cause physical or magical harm to Sten? Granted, Sarya was perhaps... Okay she is by far the single greatest mage of their party. Neria, Brianna, Wynne, and, hell, Morrigan are amazing in their own right, and no one can take that away from them.

But Sarya was in a whole different league. Only her mothers outclassed her, but in Tabris's honest opinion, those two were forces of nature.

Looking at Sarya over while she went back to listening to Faren's explanation of the Carta's whereabouts. Overall, she was the same height as Miara, a touch slimmer but equally a beauty in her own right. Her flawless grey skin and pure ruby crimson eyes gave her an exotic look only a daft fool would dismiss. And she did keep herself in shape, recalling her training alongside the girls in Redcliff and at camp.

Her body wasn't athletic, but very toned...

Gin turned his head quickly as Sarya glanced at him, "...I do know when someone is staring at me."

"Sorry."

"Oh, it's no bother," the Telvanni grinned, "Like what you see~?"

"Only a blind man would not see you are one the most attractive women I've ever met. But I'm... taken... Sort of."

Sarya's brow rose, "Sort of?"

Gin lightly groaned, "It's really complicated."

The Dunmeri mage was silent for a moment, "Do you love this person?"

"Very much so... It just..." Gin couldn't find the right word to say. Which was a given. How could one explain you are in love with your cousin? "Complicated."

"I see."

Not wanting to dwell on it, Gin switched things around. "What about you? Anybody special in your life?"

"Oh yes!" She brightened up so much (well, even more than before) when she said, "Lots!"

Gin frowned, then blinked a couple of times. "What do you mean 'lots'?"

"That there are lots of people in my life!"

"I meant romantically."

"So did I!"

She just kept smiling at him. He could not find even a hint of insincerity or teasing in her expression; it was just complete earnest joy.

"...Your brother really messed up, huh?" Gin very quickly changed the subject, not wanting to engage with... whatever Sarya had meant by that.

"Oooof!" Sarya huffed out a long, wary breath. "Boy, big time." She did not look the least baffled or confused by their sudden conversation, which worked better for the city elf, really.

"Think they'll be okay?"

"Hmm," Sarya's red eyes drifted from Neria, who was paying attention to the maps and the group's strategy, to her brother, who had chosen to sulk alone in the corner of the room. Yet his gaze lingered on Neria from time to time.

Sarya could say she had never seen him like this before.

"Gods, I hope so."

XxX ~ xx ~ XxX

A tobacco pipe plumed smoke from a rugged-looking dwarven man in hard leather sat next to a window of an abandoned building in a Dust Town. Being on monitoring duty was always so damn dull. Fighting those nug-shit guards or bedding a whore would be more entertaining than watching Nadezda limping about. Alimer droning another sales pitch even worse than the last one, or Rogek doing his now so secretive smuggling.

Smoke exhaled from his lips, oblivious of the shadowed figure silently closing in with a gleaming dagger in hand.

The Dwarven man groaned, leaning an elbow against the glassless window and chin on his palm. "Be nice for something to sodding happen." He grumbled.

"Que le Créateur vous garde." Those were the last words he ever heard before Leliana slashed his throat and hand over his mouth. His tobacco pipe was the only sound hitting the floor as the Bard laid her victim quietly down, cold and lifeless as the stone around them. Her flawless sapphire eyes turn to Sofie coming up beside her.

The Nord gives an impressive nod, "Not too shabby."

"Presque aussi bien que ta mère?" Leliana spoke playfully.

Having been learning the language of her lover, Sofie smirked, "Presque."

The plan had gone into motion. As Faren had explained, the best way to start taking down the Carta was to remove its eyes in Dust Town, which was left up to the rogue and assassins of their group. They went to every point where the Carta placed their members to keep an eye on everything going on. They started discreetly in the Commons. Slowly, they wiped out every Carta spy without any attention to anyone.

What happened next would be remembered by Orzammar with both joy and fear. The Severing, it'd be called. When a ragtag band of warriors under orders from Bhelen annihilated every member of the Carta, they could find.

Hideouts were broken in and bombarded with spells so strong their resistance to magic was not enough to save them. Not when lightning and fire burnt leather and boiled plated. Arrows fired from the shadows led to many a thug dropping dead before they even realized what had happened, blades laced with poison struck through chinks in their gear, burying in their guts and slashing throats, the criminals who would terrorize the people from the shadows found themselves prey in the darkness.

The ones that managed to fight back lasted longer, but even then, it was futile. If not by the masterful swings of swords and curved blades, then they fell by the heavy stone fists from a chipped golem.

A Carta thug ran through the alleyways and stuck to the shadows, desperate to inform Jarvia and the rest of the higher-ups they had to be warned. They were being hunted like deepstalkers, and they were being slaughtered.

A shade cloaked in smoke and mist swirled around him, and a curved dagger slit his throat. He choked, falling to the ground, blood pooling around him.

Shining red-orange eyes gleamed in the darkness as the woman's tongue licked the bloody edge of the dagger, sapling the blood. It had an earthly flavor.

XxX ~ xx ~ XxX

Once the last of the Carta's eyes fell, the group converged on a single vacant dwelling in Dust Town. "Will they be inside?" Marcus questioned Faren, who stood beside him.

"Nah, the place is supposed to look abandoned for a reason. Inside, we will find a false wall that leads into a network of caverns, as I explained. It can be a maze and will be traps. But know the path to lead us where Jarvia is... And Leske, too..."

Hints of concern crossed the eyes of his friends, who gazed at him. "Will he fight us?" Bri asked out loud.

"If Leske fights. It will be with me. I'll handle him," the dwarven rogue addressed with no room for any to counter-speak. "Remember to take Jarvia's head as proof for Bhelen."

Neria looked both disgusted and uncomfortable at that, and she wasn't alone by a few looks from the others. Miara was unfazed, giving the nod back, "I'll hold onto it."

"And that is why you're my favorite God," Faren quipped with humor, peering over to the divine woman.

"I'm the only one you know."

"Exactly!" The levity helped break the tension, garnering a few chuckles before turning serious again, and they made their way inside the building with Faren picking the lock of the door while also disarming the trap on the door.

The interior could have been better furnished to resemble the illusion of someone living there. But it also hid the traps no one would see unless they knew they were already there. With their dwarven rogue taking the lead for this, he was able to disarm every trap that would have either alerted Jarvia or caused some injuries to some.

Nearing a large stone shelf, faren ran his hand across the wall beside it before smirking, finding what he was looking for. A small section of the wall that would look completely invisible if someone did not know of it. Pushing it in, the sound of gears turning came to them as the shelf started to move to reveal a large entrance to the cave.

"The rest of them will be holed up here now," Faren warned, "Stealth is not an option anymore."

"Very well then," Marcus took out his blades as the rest readied their weapons and spells. "How many in this area?"

A flare of magic from Serana's hand and the faint sound of a heartbeat as her eyes were coated in a brief glare of purple magic. "Count at least twenty-five in this area; there are scores more through the tunnels. Over a hundred at least."

"Understood," The Cousland nodded before giving the order. "Morrigan, go in first. Shock and awe. No quarter"

The witch actually looked thrilled despite being issued a command, "My pleasure."

She was gone with a trail of magic blurring behind her as her body became almost intangible, and the group raced in after her.

The Carta were running around like maniacs, trying to prepare their defenses and ready themselves. Jarvia's orders came furious and desperate as she felt something was off. Her scouts and spies had gone eerily silent; she wanted someone's head, and she'd settle with whoever failed to finish their assignment before the enemy arrived.

And then the unknown enemy was upon them. Morrigan dropped out of her Fade Step with a grin, enjoying the shocked and frightened look of the thugs surrounding her. She twirled her staff over her head and slammed it upon the ground; shouts rang through the gathering of carta as furniture and bodies were flung away by pure telekinetic force.

"Dust and blood!" Sereda's voice let out a fierce warcry as the party charged in.

Despite being caught off guard by the sudden attack from the human mage, the Carta members quickly recovered and charged with blades, axes, fists, hammers, clubs, and bows. However, their aggression was not proficient. Wild strikes, swipes, and poorly aimed shots from bows and crossbows. No doubt they used their numbers for both intimidation and handling of foes.

These were thugs, grunts, and bandits with a fancy title, Carta.

Against hardened warriors and mages who have been in near-constant battles for close to a year. They were woefully outclassed despite their numbers. A Carta thug screamed his last before two stone fists came down on him like boulders. Close by Shale another Carta was sent flying from a hard punch from Sofie with such force her neck snapped. Leliana's daggers danced beside her lover, cleaving through approaching adversaries. Another screamed as Serana's fangs bit into his neck.

Preceding with her magics, Neria danced around Carta members with her Arcane sword ablaze, slicing through armor, leather, and flesh with ease. She kept her mind clear of thoughts and ignored the cries of screams that came from her opponents. As Faren had explained, these people were just Casteless, trying to survive. The majority of Them also took satisfaction in robbing, raping, and anything else they could do to people for gold and kicks.

They were not worthy of her sympathy or mercy.

Her danger sense kicked in, and she turned to the sight of a Carta rushing her but being impaled by a flying holy spear of light. Neria did not look back to Oryrn, who had helped her; she merely kept her sights on the enemy around her.

Zevran's sensitive ears picked up the sound of flasks breaking amidst the sounds of battle, and his nose picked up the familiar scent of alchemical concoctions rogues favored, the type that would render them invisible. It came from further up the tunnel, and Zevran caught sight of those chemical clouds dispersing just in time.

He plucked a grenade from his belt and threw it. The moment it hit the ground, it shattered violently, unleashing its contents. Bright blue paint coated the mostly invisible shapes of the Carta rogues, who looked at the blue splotches of paint in their figures, rendering their invisibility useless. He pulled three throwing knives from his armor, and they expertly met their marks in the foreheads of three rogues; their falls fell to the ground as their invisibility slowly wore off.

Zevran smirked but soon grimaced when a bolt pierced his shoulder. The leather armor kept the bolt from drawing blood, but the impact was still enough to stagger him. As the crossbow wielder reloaded, she found her hand pierced by an arrow. She shouted, and in that vulnerable moment, a dagger pierced her from the back.

Gin removed his dagger and walked up to Zevran. The former Crow watched as Theron approached, letting out three shots in quick succession from his bow. "You okay?"

Zevran grunted as he removed the bolt stuck to his armor. "So what's the tally now?"

"Three times you saved me," Gin muttered, twirling his daggers and looking for a new target. "Three, Theron saved you; four, I saved you, counting this one, so I'm winning."

The muscular Dalish grunted, "We should just tally kills like everyone."

"It's more fun this way," Zevran quipped.

At that moment, Brianna chose to conjure a hail of sharp ice that killed no less than four approaching Carta at the same time. The human mage merely grinned at them and carried on.

"Besides, mages win all the time..."

A primal scream ripped from the throat of a fully plated armor Carta member with a mace gripped in both hands, "Die, you grey elf cunt!" Miara deftly side-stepped, letting the dwarf only hit the ground with her boot stomping down the handle and the man's hands to hold him in place. He strained, attempting to free his hands and weapon, but was unable to budge the leather-bound armored foot. "Get the fuck off my-"

His rage perished in his throat as he shot a glare up at the elven woman and froze. His fury was superseded by dread upon solely glimpsing the woman's luminous crimson slit eyes that glared into what felt was his very soul. The man's body quivered as he swore he saw flames growing and coming off the elf's body.

As if she were fire incarnate.

The Carta's world soon became dark, with his body perfectly cut in half. Miara's starfang sliced through his hardened armor like it was parchment.

Faren grunted as a former Carta comrade charged him, and both collided over a table. Fists from both men strike into the other man's face. "Killing our boss wasn't enough, Faren?!"

"Oh, I'm just finishing the job, Betag!"

Both grabbed daggers from their belts and soon sparked from evading the other, getting back to their feet. Once again, the two men charged one another with their daggers, deftly moving against the other to find a kill point. Betag sneered with hate, "You never really were one of us!"

"Well, unlike the rest of you sodding fucks, I never hurt someone for kicks!" The pay might have been better than serving a noble who abused and barely paid you. But Faren chose the Carta only for the sake of his sister. Never once did he take any sick pleasure like the rest of them in bullying people or worse.

Though his hands were just as unclean as the rest, as he did not stop the worse from happening, perhaps this was as close to repentance as a worthless Castless could ever get.

Betag gasped, Faren's daggers breaking his own and plunging into his chest.

Faren kicked Betag's corpse off the table before jumping off and resuming the fight. The brawl was pure chaos; his friends assaulted the thugs relentlessly as they moved from area to area, clearing out the swarms of Carta who were fighting to the last. Though he could spot a few smart ones who turned tail and ran or hid just for their safety, it wasn't worth dying for someone like Jarvia. The ones who stood their ground did it for the survival of their guild and the foolish hope they'd be the ones to come out on top.

The casteless dwarf snorted, running his nose over a leather bracer. He did not move when he heard a Carta charge at him from behind; he did not have to worry because there was always someone having his back. In this instance, it was Sereda who hit him with her shield and knocked him to the ground, finishing him off with her sword to his chest.

"Hope we're not killing friends of yours," She grunted, taking out her bloodied blade.

"Don't worry, they're dicks"

Marcus raised his sword, pointing further down the tunnels. "Keep moving! Don't stop until we've cleared every area!"

The large company moved like an unrelenting force, unstoppable and destructive on its path. On the next area, the Carta had tried to block them with a row of shields and archers positioned above them. So the mages cast barriers in front of the group, letting the arrows and bolts bounce off harmlessly and allowing their walking battering ram to do its things.

Carta yelled as the two-ton golem barged through their line like it was made of wet paper.

Following Shale came Sofie and Sten with their overwhelming strength, tearing through armor, shields, and weapons with their blades with brutal efficiency. Between them, Gin switched between his dagger and Daveth's crossbow with superb speed and agility beside Zaveran, who flowed beside him, slicing several Carta throats with ease. The few who tried to lunge at the two elves met with the claws and fangs of Bran and Loke with their primal strength catching the dwarven thugs off guard before being mawled.

"You know," Miara mused to her vampiric lover, "I never thought our Oaken Maiden friend's advice would come in handy."

"Well, we didn't know dwarves existed on Arubis till nearly a year ago."

Sereda ignored the two, bashing her shield into a Carta and knocking him to the floor. Her anger was driving her movements, but she refused to succumb to them. Her movements were focused and brutal, plunging her sword into the fallen man's head with a roar. "Imagining that is Harrowmont or Bhelen?" Sarya quipped, earning a scowling glare. "Venting is good for the soul!"

A Carta trusted a dagger towards Faren, who dodged, grabbed the man's wrist, and plunged his blade into the man's armpit. Spun around and impaled his blade into his former comrade's throat, killing him. Brosca's eyes danced with purpose as they were making further progress into the Carta tunnels.

Oryrn's shield bash knocked down a fully armored Carta on his back, and the ragged breath came out with a metallic filter through the openings on the thug's helmet. An ebony boot stomped on his plated chest, keeping the heavily armored warrior down, and a long blade pierced through the metal and into flesh and bone. Brianna's hand shimmered with frosty mists as she cast cones of cold with all the power of the tundras, freezing multiple dwarves in their tracks. Once more, dwarven resistance to magic proved its mettle, for the dwarves still twitched and shivered even as their forms were layered with a dense coat of frost around them when she sought to freeze them completely, it made them easy targets all the same, for her her mithril blade.

Bomb throwers and sharpshooters attacked from afar, not caring they were throwing explosives in their hideout; they were growing *desperate* to drive these invaders out. Wynne conjured powerful barriers that blocked the brunt of the blasts. Shrapnel, fire, and toxins all harmlessly bounced off her shimmering shield, and with a wave of her staff, she redirected those same things back at their attackers.

Shale's face was locked in its perpetual stony frown; if the golem was bored with its task or found some sadistic glee at slaughtering its opponents, none could say. Shale's fighting style was direct and to the point, squishing its opponents in whichever way possible. Usually, it required no more than the fall of its enormous stone fists, shrouded in arcs of electricity thanks to the shining crystals embedded in its arms, to dent metal and pulverize flesh and bone. At times, all Shale had to do was grab a dwarf's head and squeeze resulting in a gory mess coating its palms.

When a dwarf wielding a giant warhammer came shouting behind it, Shale 'felt' as various of the crystals on its back shattered, along with some pieces from its mighty body cracking and chipping away. The jagged, stony features on the golem's face shifted from annoyance to actual anger, and the dwarf realized the terrible mistake he made. He yelped when a large stone fist grabbed and slammed him against the wall. The last thing he saw was the other giant fist coming straight for his head at high velocity.

The dwarve's head just ceased to exist.

A low grunt came from the animated stony figure shaking its hand to get the blood, parts of the skull, and brain matter off. "Disgusting," Shale complained. Its glowing eyes idly glowed with amusement at the Mabari hounds leaping and mauling two dwarves that attempted to attack the golem from behind. "Good dogs." Though Shale made a mental note to keep an eye on them less, they mistake it for a statue to urinate on.

Ice shards impaled several Carta with the wave of a hand from Serana, "How much further?!"

"A bit more till we reach Jarvia!" Faren yelled back, kicking a Carta member hard between the legs before jamming his dagger through his eye and head.

"Then we keep pressing!" Marcus declared, and the group followed. Their stamina against these gauntlet-like battles had grown significantly in the past year of the near-constant fighting against the Darkspawn, demons, bandits, and anything else that came for them. Only Sten, Miara, Shale, and Serana seemed more accustomed to this level of fighting without much if any, exhaustion.

The passage was getting narrower, with more Carta charging at them with fury and fear. If they failed, their new boss would give them a fate worse than death. Asala flowed in Sten's hands slicing in half a dwarf that rushed him, "Undisciplined, they fight more like animals."

"You are getting more chatty! I like it!" Sofie cheered, earning a grunt back from the qunari.

The tunnels eventually gave way to proper inner structures of properly carved stone and walls. Walls that soon were painted with Carta blood. The adventuring party was unrelenting, they just could not be stopped no matter what the thugs brought to bear. Shields and armor were sundered, spears splintered, and flesh was cut and torn. They were just no match for these warriors, who had already faced war worse horrors than what a criminal syndicate had to offer.

Eventually, in the middle of the waves of thugs sent to the slaughter, Faren spotted a figure that stood up from them. At least, to him, it did.

The same braided hair shaved in thin segments, the same castless mark Faren spotted on his cheek. His stubble became a fuller beard, and gone were the functional and light leathers he used to wear. Now, Leske dunned a full suit of armor with segmented scale mail and leather pads on the shoulders and chest. The handles of the dangers in his back were far too ornate, something Leske never could have possibly afforded before.

They were all a sign of his status as Jarvia's right hand.

In the middle of the chaos, the two just stood a few feet apart, staring at each other.

"You shouldn't have come," Leske stated, shaking his head as he quickly drew his blades. Faren tightened the grip on his daggers. "You should have stayed up there, with the sun, and the clouds, and whatever the fuck that sky has"

Faren said nothing. His expression remained very neutral.

"I did what I had to do!" Leske shouted, defending himself against a query that never came from Faren's lips. "You know how it is down here! I had to survive! We always did whatever it took!"

Once again, Leske's old friend did not respond, which only increased the man's anger before he charged and let out a roar. Faren raised his blades in defense, which made the sparks fly against their weapons. "Did you get soft topside," Leske growled, but Faren did not react to the insult.

His face remained impassive, no anger or fury shined in the former Carta's eyes. Faren soon parried his friend's daggers and evaded the next strikes that came. He dodged and weaved around Leske, whose mounting anger kept building. "Is this all you got, Faren!? Fight me, damn it!"

But his old friend would not make a single strike against him. Faren either parried or weaved around Leske like a speedy Nug. Leske's teeth gnashed once again, and his daggers were deflected with zero attempts to strike back in return. Even more infuriating was the lack of any emotion on Faren's face. Not outrage, no screaming, nothing.

Only quiet understanding.

Which only made Jarvia's right-hand man more incensed. "Fight!" He thrusts down his dagger only to hit the air, "Back!" Rotating the other blade in his left hand, he went to gut Faren, who easily sidestepped with a feint, "You!" Dropping one of his blades, he went to punch his friend, "Bastard!"

In the blink of an eye, Faren grabbed Leske's wrist. Sharp pain exploded from the Carta thug as his old friend stabbed him in the upper thigh. Pulling out his dagger, Leske tumbled to the floor, dropping his other dagger to hold his wounded leg.

"I didn't crimple you. I'm just making sure you can't get up for a while." At last, Brosca spoke in an even neutral tone.

Leske painfully seethed, "Why don't you kill me like everyone else!?"

"I won't kill my best friend. Not the man I grew up beside my sister in this hellhole we call home."

The fellow casteless groaned holding on to his leg to stop the bleeding, with the other hand desperately searching for a potion or poultice in his pouch. "What the fuck are you trying to accomplish here? You kill the Carta, and then nobody reigns in the other thugs in Dust Town. The only people who ever got food for us here!"

"Sure, out of the scraps on their table," Faren dryly quipped. He paid no attention to how his companions kept decimating the Carta around them; he kept his focus on Leske. "Eh, Dust Town is going to be under new management soon enough."

"From Bhelen?!" Leske screamed as he removed the piece of pierced gear, "You think that blueblood is going to do anything for us?! Just because he knocked up your sister?!" He hissed when the potion poured over his wound.

"Hell, if I know," Faren replied honestly with a shrug. "That guy is shiftier than a Dust Town merchant. Honestly, between him and the Carta, he's the one who scares me the most."

"Then why the hell are you helping him?!"

"Eh, look, Rica likes him for some reason I can't even begin to fathom. The guy's a complete monster, but he has ideas, and he doesn't care for the status quo. Maybe if he's stirred in the right direction, a bit, some good can come of it."

"You're insane if you believe that."

"Leske, we both know I'm not a long-time planer, but... well, you sometimes you gotta take your chances with the angry bronto. Cause I may not know what Bhelen's going to do in the end, but I sure as hell know what Harrowmont or somebody else like him will do. You had to do whatever it took to survive; I know that; that's the score. We're doing what we believe might be the best option between two shitty ones" He sighed, rolling his neck and dusting himself off. "It is what it is, pal. We make our bed, and we gotta lay in it."

His friend said nothing. He kept mending his wound while his gaze was lost in thought.

"Welp, think my friends are about wrapping up," He commented as a sharp gurgling death cry was heard; he looked mildly curious at the dwarf who fell with an arrow to his throat courtesy of Theron. "Might wanna look up other career opportunities, Leske. Carta's done today."

"...Just kill that crazy bitch."

"Plan to," Faren grinned before turning around and seeing the others nearing the final section of this damn cavern. "Should just be Jarvia left now." He called out, strolling over.

Marcus glanced at his dwarven comrade, "What should we expect?"

"Me killing her."

A groan came from Leske while briefly eyeing his old friend and the group he was with. He slowly snorted with a chuckling smirk, "Still the crazy son of a bitch I knew." Things might change around here.

XxX ~ xx ~ XxX

Auburn eyes glared with fire under the hood of a dwarven woman in stubbed leather. The mark of the Casteless on her pale cheeks and two axes in each hand. Jarvia scowled hotly at the sight of the man who murdered her lover. She stood in a large office-like carved room. "Well, look who crawled-" her words died in her throat as a dagger shot through the air and was lodged into her forehead. Her body crumpled like a puppet within an instant.

"Well..." Sarya muttered as Faren passed her in a casual walk, "That was anti-climatic."

A whistle came from Miara and Serana, "Nice shot," the Nordic vampire admired.

Faren himself said nothing as he stood over Jarvia's corpse. Idly grabbing his dagger from the woman's skull he soon glared at the axes that fell from her hands. He grabbed them both and set them on his belt, "Those were yours?" Alistair questioned.

"Jeral. Wasn't even Carta, and Jarvia killed him because she wanted his axes." The two Mabari hounds come around him to sniff the body.

Sereda walks over to a stone shelf full of scrolls and documents, "What is all these?"

"Every bride, deal, blackmail, and loan the Carta has in Orzammar," Faren explained, not even looking over, "From a Duster in Dust Town to a High born in Diamond Quarter, even from members of the Legion of the Dead. Carta has their fingers in everything."

"Bhelen will love this," Alistair muttered as he and a few others began storing the valuable papers in their bags.

Neria winced when Miara casually cut off Jarvia's head and put it in a bag; right, Bhelen did ask for her head. But part of her didn't think they'd 'literally' do that...

"I think we're about done here," Marcus said, sheathing his blades and crossing his arms. "We should get back to Bhelen now,"

"Think there's a quick way out," Faren commented as he began to look around the chamber's walls, pressing his hands over the carved architecture. "I know for a fact Carta have secret doors and passages to other quarters. Beraht definitely had some in case he needed to run, and we've gone around a few times already, so there should be one that'll get us at least a bit closer to Bhelen." He soon grinned the moment he felt a loose piece on the wall. Pressing it, an entire section seamlessly blended with the rest of the architecture pulled back to reveal a hidden passage.

"Always a hidden door," Miara sagely nodded.

The dwarven rogue grinned, "What's that Orlesian word? Violin?"

"Voilà," Leliana helpfully supplied as the group marched off.

It was cramped the longer they went, but still enough for most of the group to march in double line, with the exception of their larger and more robust companions. Eventually, the path ended with a series of stone steps leading to the tunnel's ceiling. Serana was the first to tap it, feeling it light and thin enough to be moved, which she did so easily with her vampiric strength.

On the other side, the ones in the front saw a typical dwarven chamber filled with mannequins in armor and rows of weapons on display. "Hey, I think we've been here before," Miara casually commented as the group began to step out of the tunnel.

"What in the Ancestors...?!" The bearded dwarven man behind a counter exclaimed in fright as he watched a very disparate group of people come out, "Y-You're not- Who are you people?! What are you doing here?!"

Marcus paid him no mind, "We're on business from Bhelen."

The color drained from the man's face. "T-Then you..."

"Oh hey, you're Dagna's dad!" Sarya cheerfully waved at him the moment she stepped out of the tunnel and came into view.

The man only stared at her.

"Sorry, I convinced your daughter to leave Orzammar. How about we keep quiet about your shop being a Carta front and call it even?"

Janar glared back before slumping his head in defeat, "Fine. Please get out of my shop."

XxX ~ xx ~ XxX

The smugness that came from Bhelen almost made Miara tempted to punch him as she dropped the bag of Jarvia's head onto his desk. "Well done. Heard you were thorough in wiping out Carta everywhere in Orzammar. Not too much trouble?"

"Ending with a throw," Faren spoke casually, leaning against the wall and cleaning his blades. "Who would have guessed I killed both the same way."

Alistair placed another bag onto Bhelen's desk, "Imagine you would want these too."

Reaching for the bag and opening it, genuine surprise bloomed in Sereda's brother's eyes, as well as recognition. "You grabbed all of them?"

"Ones that looked most important." Zevran quipped near Gin and Sarya.

"You might as well handed me the keys to nearly every noble house in Diamond Quarter."

"I doubt every noble house were in the Carta's pockets..." Sereda deadpanned.

"Not, but the Carta most certainly has at least a bit of dirt in everyone." He snapped his fingers, and one of his soldiers took Jarvia's head away. "I'm almost ready; the Assembly will convene soon, and finally, they'll hold the vote."

"Good," Marcus nodded, "Then the faster we can get the army."

"About that," Bhelen's tone already put them on edge. "There is one last task you must do for me, though this one will definitely be far longer and more dangerous than the rest."

Several of the group didn't bother hiding their exasperated sighs. They just wanted to get this mess over with; another job for Bhelen was the last thing they wanted after having done so much of his dirty work. "What is the point?" Sereda demanded, "Bhelen, you've won. You either convinced half of the houses to support you or scared the rest from supporting Harrowmont. You've got this in the bag already; the Assembly WILL vote for you. What else could you possibly need?"

He stood up, supporting his hands on his desk. "Something that'll keep those nug-humping traditionalists off my back! Even if I'm declared king, there'll still be those who will fight me and my reforms every step of the way. I need something that'll legitimize my right to rule in the eyes of the Ancestors and, most of all, those old bags of dirt we call deshyrs."

His ambitious smile already told them they would not like this.

"You... are going to get me a paragon."

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