Between a Rock and a Hard Place [Complete]

[13th Guardian, 9.35, in the Deep Roads beneath Amaranthine - with  ]

Despite Henri-Julien's very best intentions, he could not sustain the bad temper which had underscored his thoughts and behaviours these last two days, entirely due to his poorly-qualified counterpart. The man had galivanted off with the Left Hand of the Divine herself, leaving Henri-Julien to literally man the fort. A fort, may he point out, which was about one darkspawn attack away from crumbling entirely. Not physically, of course; Vigil's Keep was a testament to Alamarri Avvar construction, having withstood hundreds of years of assault. But the force which currently resided in it? Now that was something which would do well to withstand the next ten days, let alone weeks, months or even years.

Particularly when Henri-Julien, with his wealth of experience and shrewd eye for shirkers, was not present within it.

But right now, in this very moment, he found his ire had dissipated. How could it not? Here, scouting along the Deep Roads, he was reminded of his service to the Chantry, hunting down the misguided apostates who believed that they might find some dark shadow that the fervour of the Chantry could not illuminate. Short-sighted fools. The Chant of Light would, in time, be sung from every corner of the world.

More than that, he was, in fact, hunting an apostate. One far more dangerous than those he had been tasked to locate whilst a Templar. Commander Berlra had, quite rightly, selected the only Templar from amongst his Grey Warden ranks, and had relayed to Henri-Julien the persistent rumours of a magic-wielding force who walked the Deep. Of course, being dwarven and ignorant of the intricacies of magic, Berlra had been of the opinion that this individual would be of use to the Grey Wardens. Henri-Julien disagreed. And he was determined to prove his superior understanding of magic by returning with said apostate - perhaps even a maleficar! - and proving that the only suitable place for any creature cursed with magic was beneath the ever-watchful eyes of a Templar garrison.

So he had readily agreed to Commander's Berlra's instruction that this apostate be brought back to the Vigil. He presumed it was some desperate human who had either escaped from a Circle or sought refuge in the Deep from the righteous fear and loathing of those upon the surface. While the encounter of 9.29 had burned itself, literally, onto his psyche, reminding him of the folly of tunnel-vision in pursuit of prey, Henri-Julien still thrived on the hunt, believing himself as close to the Maker as any human could be on this side of the Fade. He was doing the Maker's work, wasn't he?

Suddenly, the earth beneath his feet trembled. He staggered to a halt, head turning back and forth as he tried to locate the cause. A roar of falling earth and rock sounded from a tunnel not too far ahead swiftly followed by yells of humans. But that was not what had hooked Henri-Julien's attention. No, it was the tell-tale flare of his lyrium responding to the pull of mana through the Fade. The apostate! 

His lips curled into a grim smile. Had he not predicated as much? No apostate could ever be trusted beyond the confines of a Circle. He would apprehend this dangerous creature and march them back to the Commander so that he may see for himself that they held no use to the Order of the Grey. Commander Berlra would learn the worth of a true Templar, mark his words.

Readying his focus, Henri-Julien sprinted in the direction of the ruckus, ready to send out a cleansing blast of his Templar talents to rid the area of insidious magic and render the apostate powerless to capture.
Months. Literal months, Velanna had endured the skull-searing headaches and stale air of the wretched Deep Roads, and only now, now, when she was at her wit’s end, desperate to see the sun, and nearly tapped of mana did these ridiculous shemlen Chantry menaces find her.

It was the sort of blessing the Dread Wolf would bestow upon her at the end of this self-appointed mission. After finding Seranni in a state that she would not speak of, causing Velanna to have to put an end to her own sister, what remained of her anyhow, before she could be forced to produce more of the darkspawn shrieks who chilled her to her bones. It was with her heart rent in two that she decided she might return to Vigil’s Keep, counting on the knowledge she’d collected to get Aedan to welcome her back without little question.

Aedan. Ha! She wondered if he even cared for a moment she was gone or if he, like the others, like her clan, had been glad to see a void where she’d been. Unlikely. Despite being a belligerent and arrogant fool, something she was barely able to abide during the peak of the way she felt at home for the brief time among the wardens, Aedan would not be able to deny she was useful. And end to a means, and this time with the location of a growing next of soon-to-be broodmothers. If not Aedan, then perhaps Justice would join her in avenging her sister’s defilement. Yes, she would return, and Elgar’nan guide her, she would see it done.

Or she would have if not for these canned fools who thought they would bring her down. If they wished to embark on this din’anshiral, this path of their own destruction, she would gladly lead them to it. They formed an arch between her and the way to the entrance she remembered, swords drawn as if they had a chance at even getting close enough to use them, and arrows aimed like she could not rip them apart by the limbs before they ever loosed one. Were she not as exhausted as she already was.

“Come with us quietly, mage.”

Quietly. She might have laughed, as would many others, that she would do no such thing. Velanna was not one to hold her tongue in the best of times, and this hardly qualified.

“Fen’Harel ma gilana,” she shouted. The Dread Wolf would lead them to her slaughter. If it was her or them, it would be her walking out of this tunnel.

Velanna crouched, feeling the connection between her and the earth all around her. The fools. She was no human mage with simple parlor tricks. No lost elven city-born mage locked in their towers. Vermin crawled within the walls and the ground, but above her she could feel the widespread roots of the forest. A tree’s roots ran deep enough, but it was the breadth of their reach, the way they could communicate with one another that came to her aid now. And she spoke their language. With a raging cry that reverberated around the contained space, she yanked her arms down from above her head: first one, then the other, drawing tendrils of roots with them. The shot out, first putting a boundary between herself and the others, then coiling up around them that they might be trapped with her. Their magic-canceling abilities might be able to tap her of her mana, but they would have to chop their way through the labyrinth she’d created.

“You insipid, shemlen,” she growled, the sounds ripping gutturally from the back of her throat. “I’m a Grey Warden and you will let me pass, or you will die. Make your choice.” With another grunt and desperate reach of power, she coiled the root cage tighter to them, hoping the threat of being crushed would make them change their minds before they realized she might not have the power left to act on it.
Gibberish assaulted Henri-Julien's ears. It was no language that any human spoke. His lip curled in disdain, realising that his quarry was Dalish. From what little he knew of the Dalish, and what he had gleaned during his time in the Templars, those among the knife-ears who possessed magic were highly revered by their clans. Almost every Templar had heard the whispered horror stories about Keepers and their magic, unchecked and ungoverned by any authority save their own. And what authority could elves claim? None at all.

He would be doing a kindness to this misguided and overwhelmed apostate by returning her to Vigil's Keep. Surely even Commander Berlra, with his stunted notions of magic, would agree that the likes of a Dalish caster could not be granted the dubious freedoms afforded the human mages? No mage could be trusted, but a Dalish one even less so. That was just common knowledge, surely.

Yet even as he thought this, a feral screech filled the vast caverns before there was a deafening rending of earth and rock, giving way to some unstoppable force. Henri-Julien arrived at one end of the cavern to witness his former brethren, all worthy servants of the Maker, entrapped by twisted and knotted roots.

"You insipid, shemlen," the deranged woman, for that was how she looked with her arms held aloft and her face contorted with rage, snarled at the Templars. "I’m a Grey Warden and you will let me pass, or you will die. Make your choice." She let loose a strained noise and Henri-Julien witnessed with his own eyes how the cage of roots squeezed inward, threatening to crush the Templars.

His own rage took hold. Turning his full focus back on the damned elf, Henri-Julien released the full force of his lyrium-created cleanse. Immediately, his head pounded at the temples with the effort, but he could sense that all magic had been successfully dissipated from the area. Alas, the distinctly unmagical roots remained, but at least they were not longer constricting around the brave and pious Templars. He summoned the very last reserves of the lyrium within his blood to blast another a Righteous Strike against the apostate, draining what little remained of her mana. 

He snatched up his daggers, advancing on the apostate. "Yield," he ordered through gritted teeth, forcing himself not to sway in the aftermath of the sudden and extensive drain on his lyrium. The all-encompassing nature of wielding that power had put him at a temporary disadvantage. Nevertheless, given how much mana would have been required to summon such powerful magics, coupled with the shock of having that interrupted by his cleanse and strike, he was confident that the apostate would not recover quicker than he. 

Grabbing a hold of the woman's willowy arm, he roughly hauled her onto her feet, angling his blade at her throat. "Cast so much as a wisp and your blood will stain the dirt," he growled, yanking her into position. Now with the urgency dispelled, in more ways than one, he recognised with a flare of disgust that her earlier claim was true. She was a Grey Warden; the thrum of their respective taint resonated together, setting his teeth on edge.

"You are bound by oath to serve the Order," he hissed in her ear. "The Warden-Commander of Ferelden has ordered your return to Vigil's Keep. Do not resist or I will leave you to the judgement of these Templars." Speaking of whom, he jerked his head towards the patrol, giving the elf a violent shake. "You will cast just enough to grant them release." He pressed the sharp edge of the blade more firmly against her throat, adding mockingly, "Or you will die. Make your choice."
Fen’lin. It had only been a matter of time before one of the templars had the forethought to use their abilities, and Velanna barely had time to see she’d missed corralling one like the livestock they were when something in the air snapped. Like fabric being ripped from her insides she felt the loss of something that had always been. She grasped for her magic, screaming as if it would replenish her mana faster.

The one who overtook her, however, was not dressed as a templar. A Warden then. Oh, Creators did have a sense of humor.

"Yield," he said. Though her heart thumped hard in her throat she did not miss the way his words strained ever so much. The ability to cut off her power did not come for free, and she reasoned that he was likely as weakened as she.

The instinct to fight fell away as soon as she noted his Warden’s uniform. Trappings she’d shed some years ago. Before she could answer him he grabbed her by the arm and hauled her to standing. His blade closed in on her throat, but Velanna lifted her chin imperiously, almost daring him to take her life here and now.

"Cast so much as a wisp and your blood will stain the dirt," he growled at her. He’d seen to it that she could not! Perhaps if she’d been in top condition upon her ascent she might have had a hex at her disposal.

Brows raised, Velanna let her staff clatter to the floor of the cave, holding all of her fingers extended in a show of compliance. She had no desire to end her life here, when she’d found new purpose, and a path forward to it. Still, the loss of her magic rankled, and her teeth set together at the back of her jaw.

"You are bound by oath to serve the Order." He lowered his words for her ear, his breath skating over the fine hairs there and making her want to strangle him. She wondered, idly, if she could get a root around his neck before he let her blood flow. "The Warden-Commander of Ferelden has ordered your return to Vigil's Keep. Do not resist or I will leave you to the judgement of these Templars." Her head rattled on her shoulders as he shook her, combining the sensation of losing mana with a dizziness from the motion. "You will cast just enough to grant them release." He pressed the dagger to her throat now, and mimicked her own words. "Or you will die. Make your choice."

“As you’ve seen to the depletion of my magic, they’ll have to cut their way out,” she hissed through her own teeth. If they waited a few minutes more, perhaps she could summon enough of a spell to do as he demanded, but that would be a waste of time. “I was on my way to report to the Warden-Commander when these idiots stopped me.” She delivered it like a mother might lecture a child to the templars caught in her cage. “I suppose their hearing isn’t as sharp as their wits.” Which was to say, not at all.

She swallowed, feeling the blade scrape her skin without cutting. Velanna pulled on her arm to free it from his grip, though she believed he had no intention of letting her go. “I have a few things I wish to say to the Warden-Commander. I’ll go without fight.” Posture as proud as the Keeper she was meant to be. “Unhand me. I have the location of a group of undeveloped broodmothers. I need reinforcements to put them down in case there’s more darkspawn. We’re wasting time with these cretins. I demand you take me to Aedan now.”

Holding her fingers where he could see them, she reached once more for her magic, dismissing the trees as quickly as they’d come to her aid. Perhaps her magic wasn’t so depleted after all. Was his gall?
The arrogant Dalish at first protested weakness - as though the cage of roots in front of them did not prove the dangerous extent of her abilities. Yes, his cleanse had, by the will of the Maker, rendered her depleted in mana for the moment, but they both knew that the regenerative aspect to magic would soon grant her enough to do as she was order. Fickle elf!  "As you’ve seen to the depletion of my magic, they’ll have to cut their way out," she pushed from between her teeth, the press of the blade against her throat more convincing than verbal threats. So be it.

Instead, she took a different root... route. "I was on my way to report to the Warden-Commander when these idiots stopped me." His grip around her arm tightened at her manner, disrespecting the Maker-fearing soldiers in her make-shift cage. "I suppose their hearing isn’t as sharp as their wits."

"Apostates lie," Henri-Julien snarled, his restraint fraying at the edges. "You should have submitted to them until your word could be verified." Only a fool would trust the word of a knife-ear caster. The physical demand of restraining her plus the aftermath of using his lyrium abilities was playing havoc with his body. His hand shook just a fraction, but it was enough to drag over her throat.

He was gratified to see how she swallowed, evidently not realising the mistake. Instead, she tugged her arm free from his grasp, and he allowed it simply because he did not have the strength to resist it.

"I have a few things I wish to say to the Warden-Commander. I’ll go without fight." Her back ram-rod straight, she spoke without so much as turning her head to address him. "Unhand me. I have the location of a group of undeveloped broodmothers. I need reinforcements to put them down in case there’s more darkspawn. We’re wasting time with these cretins. I demand you take me to Aedan now."

Aedan? It took Henri-Julien a moment to connect the name with the Hero of Ferelden. No one referred to him only as 'Aedan', and the absence of 'Cousland' confused him. But then it dawned that this must be the pet Dalish Keeper which the Hero had trained up to fight the 'spawn. How long had she been presumed dead? Yet he could sense the steady thrum of the taint which conveyed, alas, that she was hale and hearty - though in his weakened state, he could not guarantee that her life was not sustained by some demon. He would need to keep close watch over her and himself until it was possible to safely ascertain the truth. She would need confined within the Keep at the very least.

His delayed response had an unintended effect. Seemingly understanding that her mere word would not suffice, the Dalish held out her fingers before searching for that abominable curse that flowed through her very being, channelling just enough of her magic so that the roots withdrew back into the earth, freeing the imprisoned Templars. 

Immediately, they advanced, drawing their weapons. His jaw clenched at the very act of depriving these noble persons from their quarry, but the woman had, against all odds, spoke the truth. And though her precious Aedan would never hear her message, he knew that Commander Berlra would definitely want to know.

"She is a Grey Warden," he informed them gruffly. "If you wish, you may accompany us to Vigil's Keep, but I would advise against it. Darkspawn thrive here; not apostates."

The group eyed one another, clearly battered and exhausted from their pursuit of the elf. Between them, they reached a silent accord, and the leader signalled with a short nod that they would allow Henri-Julien to take the apostate away. Once they had departed, Henri-Julien reluctantly loosened his grip on the woman, stepping back but a pace as he eyed her, suspicious uppermost in his expression.

"You will walk ahead of me," he instructed, stooping to pick up her staff. "This will be returned to you only when we reach Vigil's Keep." An apostate did not need a staff to cast, but it limited their focus and ability not to have it. In the circumstances, when they both weary and he could not exert the same force as he might with a non-Warden apostate, it was sufficient.

In his other hand, he kept a ready hold of his dagger, primed to use it at the slightest provocation. With a jerk of his head, he signalled that she should depart in the direction he had entered, retracing his route from the entrance located beneath the Keep. It wasn't only Theirin who could order the battered doors open, though Henri-Julien opted to use only the bare minimum of Wardens required, and not an entire regiment as he had done when he went off on his jaunt with the Left Hand.

Still, the Keep was a disconcerting distance away, even by the direct route which Henri-Julien had used. It became apparent after a number of hours that neither of them would reach the Keep without resting and taking some nourishment.

Forutnately, Henri-Julien had possessed the foresight to hide some supplies not far from their current position. Once they neared, he called out coldly, "Halt." He counted on the strange attachment with which apostates regarded their staffs to ensure her compliance. She would stop for it, if not out of good sense. "We will stop here for an hour." He dropped to one knee, rummaging through the supplies which he had stashed when travelling in the opposite direction. "You will not move from that spot." He gestured to a rock which would, at a push, suffice as a resting place. Frankly though, he didn't give a damn.
Velanna had yet to meet a shemlen man, or any man for that matter, who was not insufferable and arrogant. This Chantry wolf in Warden’s clothing was no different, manhandling her and ordering her about with a snarl. Barely a pebble of moral high ground to stand on with his accusations. How many shemlen had lied to her? How many men? If he meant to rile her up, he’d already succeeded, but she had no intention of showing him just how much. Her current ire was directed at the others, and the fact that she had to free them.

No sooner had she magnanimously freed them than they bandied their weapons and advanced. She would never say as much but it was the grace of her captor, however forced his hand was by the taint in her blood, that they stood down. She hadn’t set out with intent to murder, but she would defend herself if need be. She could feel the magic returning to her fingers, and having noted the shake in the other Warden’s hand, she felt confident that she was at an advantage, should the need for one arise.

"She is a Grey Warden," he told them, with no small amount of disdain. He believed her, but he was not happy to be proven wrong. Typical. "If you wish, you may accompany us to Vigil's Keep, but I would advise against it. Darkspawn thrive here; not apostates."

So it was to be back through the Deep Roads. It was all she could do to keep the sag in her shoulders at being denied the outdoors from being noticed.

Once the templars had stood down and taken their leave—the most wise decision they’d made that day—the other Warden loosened his grip on her and stood back. Velanna also stepped back that she might regard him, her eyes lidded as she looked up, having to accept that he was taller.

"You will walk ahead of me," he ordered, putting his filthy shemlen hands on her staff. Her nostrils flared at the indignity. His life wasn’t worth the heart of the mighty tree from which she carefully carved the wood that made up its core. "This will be returned to you only when we reach Vigil's Keep."

“Fine. I know the way.” And she would not skulk along in his wake, either. Exiled she may be, Velanna was accustomed to following none without good reason. This man before her was no Ilshae; he didn’t even measure to Aedan.

So they proceeded for some time, the hours marching by and Velanna refusing to give any indication of her exhaustion. Just when she thought he meant to push on, despite there being some distance to go yet, he gave a command.

"Halt." While she could, and was half-tempted to continue without him, if for no other reason than to put distance between them, she did not trust him with her staff. "We will stop here for an hour." He located a cache which he’d clearly left behind. So he was a well-prepared simpleton of a mage chaser. He gestured to a rock, as if Velanna were some willowy elf unaccustomed to finding her comfort where she could and had not spent a considerable time in the Deep Roads. "You will not move from that spot."

She sat, tailor-style and prim as if she placed her rear on a tufted cushion and not a piece of rock which had sheared itself from the walls. As he offered nothing from the cache to her, she drank the dregs of her own waterskin. As a bug skittered out of the dirt and by, a quick curl of her finger captured it in a root which quickly crushed and pulled it back into the ground. Without lifting herself from the stone, she set a foot upon the ground and let the energy replenish her, however little it provided. While it brought her back from some of her fatigue, it did nothing to and could not sate the gnawing hunger in her stomach. Her time in the Deep Roads had caused a leanness she did not appreciate as the taint reminded her again and again that it would take from her as much as it provided.

Not daring to press her luck and repeat the trick, even with the worms tunneling in the walls and already in reach, she turned her glare upon her captor. Such as he was. “Did you hear a word I said?” The knowledge that Seranni was no longer one of those things was the only thing which kept her in a state of calm relative to her normal demeanor. “We’re wasting time. Do you have any idea how fast they develop once they hit the state in which I found them? They’ll be pouring forth fully formed darkspawn within a matter of weeks, perhaps days.” They would need that precious time to find their way back, and it was no short voyage. She rubbed at her temples, the headache of combined time in the Deep and being separated from her magic rubbing up against her temper. More importantly, as the slight softening of her face revealed, a frown pulling at her slightly ducked lips, “Do you know how those women are suffering? We owe it to them to release them to Falon’Din that he may guide them to peace.”
Seizing the Dalish's staff had been a prudent move, even though marching with the damned unwieldy thing was an annoyance. Regardless, the fact that his possession of it ensured her compliance was worth - just - Henri-Julien's growing irritation with it. He dropped it without care upon the ground as he knelt by his cache, a fleeting glance towards the elf revealing that she had sat upon the rock itself, legs folded in front of her.

He rolled his eyes. Of course a Dalish would strive to imply that she was comfortable in all of nature, even the parts that nature itself had forsaken. Since he believed that she would, on principal, refuse any of the meagre rations he had stored, Henri-Julien saved his breath and made no overture of solidarity. They may have both been Grey Wardens, but that was where any common purpose ended between them. As if he would sully himself by befriending an apostate, of all things.

Sitting on the rocky trail, Henri-Julien gritted his teeth against the small flare of mana which ignited his lyrium-infused senses. He had a small vial of lyrium stashed on his person, but he did not want to reveal his advantage unnecessarily. However, this particular casting was too limited to be a threat, and instead he watched through narrowed eyes as a root captured some creepy crawly, dragging back beneath the ground. In one fluid movement, the elf set down her foot, and he realised with a rush of repulsion that she had absorbed whatever energy the insect had possessed. Was this not evidence of the unnatural nature of those cursed with magic? He balled one hand into a fist, weighing up whether he should command her to stop.

The movement must have captured her attention because she refocused on him, heat in her eyes. "Did you hear a word I said?" Her voice was shrill to his ears, rebounding around the tunnel. "We’re wasting time. Do you have any idea how fast they develop once they hit the state in which I found them? They’ll be pouring forth fully formed darkspawn within a matter of weeks, perhaps days."

He scoffed, turning his head away pointedly. Rubbish! There would have been reports from other more legitimate parties if that were the case. Apostates lie, after all.

Her response was to massage her temples. She seemed to frown, the lines of her facial tattoo wrinkling, before adding, "Do you know how those women are suffering? We owe it to them to release them to Falon’Din that he may guide them to peace."

"And what will he do?" Henri-Julien sneered. He had no idea who she referenced but by the fervour in her voice, he guessed that it was one of those many false deities the Dalish insisted on revering. "If he can't guide them from their current situation, what use is he?"

Not that Henri-Julien would admit as much to this strage wild woman - or anyone, in truth - but he had no experience of broodmothers. He had some limited knowledge of the term, overheard between experienced Wardens when they were drunkenly exchanging tales of their exploits, but he had no further frame of reference in which to understand the significance of this elf's apparent discovery. If she was telling the truth.

Chewing on a dried piece of salted meat, Henri-Julien made to fix his gaze on the far wall, though he could not help but snatch glances towards the woman. This was the rumoured powerful apostate which Commander Berlra thought would be useful to the Order? Aside from the fact that no apostate was truly useful, something which Henri-Julien would endeavour to emphasise yet again upon his return, her appearance did not suggest some powerful caster. However, as Henri-Julien knew from first-hand experience, it did not matter what an apostate looked like. The truly dangerous ones were those who could did not draw a second glance. Moreover, the root cage which held the Templars had not been some convenient mistake. That had demonstrated a great reserve of mana and experience. No, she was definitely dangerous. She would need escorted for the entirety of time she served in Ferelden. He would see to it that Commander Berlra was educated to the fact.

Not that Henri-Julien was about to enlighten the elf to the significant changes which had occurred in Vigil's Keep. Let her find out for herself. "If you are so determined to speak with the Commander, why are you sitting down?" He pushed up onto his feet, his leathers aiding in the lightness of his movement, and threw her a dirty look. "Well?" He gestured to the route ahead with a sweep of his arm, reaching down to retrieve the awkward staff. No wonder mages thrived in a Circle; they did not have to heft these stupid things everywhere they went.

Since he was no longer scouting, Henri-Julien could take the most direct route to Vigil's Keep. It still took many more hours and drained even the considerable Grey Warden stamina, but finally, the broken gates partially sealing the Keep from the Deep came into view up ahead. Despite his exhaustion, some part of Henri-Julien revived at the fun which he was about to have at this Dalish's expense.

"If you still wish to make your report," he began, voice slick with derision that she actually knew the truth of what she claimed, "I'll take you directly to the Commander. Wouldn't want those broodmothers charging through the Deep."
Her captor, who’d yet to give his name, spat a most clever retort. "And what will he do? If he can't guide them from their current situation, what use is he?"

Velanna bit her tongue to stop from asking if his Maker would do better. How any Grey Warden could be so callous about the suffering of those forced to become broodmothers was beyond her, and it said more about this particular Warden than she liked. It did not sit well with her.

She held her thoughts for the time being. Either the other Warden was too arrogant to recognize that she was right to be in a hurry, or too stupid to recognize the emergency for what it was. Perhaps there was no horde waiting to breach the keep once more, but a swell in numbers meant nothing good for anyone, shemlen, durgen’len, or elf.

"If you are so determined to speak with the Commander, why are you sitting down?" The useless Warden scolded her as he got to his feet. "Well?"

Her mouth drew into a purse, eyes narrowing. “You are the most exquisite example of both Templar and Warden.” The cruelty of the templars lived well in him, and his head was bloated, possibly worse than Aedan’s own. He would order a mage to sit and stay like a beloved shemlen dog on threat of their life, and then mock them for their compliance. Let him enjoy his power over her now; it would not last.

She stood with fluid grace and brushed herself off. They were hours yet from Vigil’s Keep, and while hunger gnawed at the reserves of her stamina, she made due with snatches she could draw from the vermin she could snare with a root to keep her moving forward. She’d been hungry before, and plenty so. It would hardly kill her. She bided her time by imagining how she would hang this man upside down from the nearest tree, were she given the chance, and leave him there to choose his own fate. Several very satisfying imagined ways of restraining him later, they were to the gates she knew well. Especially since they were in little better condition than when she escaped through them, if at all.

"If you still wish to make your report," he mocked, still not taking her warning seriously, "I'll take you directly to the Commander. Wouldn't want those broodmothers charging through the Deep."

Charging through the Deep? Velanna kept the twist of her lips and the glare of her eyes fixed and unmoving. If this Grey Warden had ever seen a broodmother, or knew anything about them that she had not already revealed, well she was Fen’Harel himself. She let a grumble and dropped her hands to his sides. “I’m more than happy to let you report the danger they pose. I only care that the threat be dealt with and the women shown the mercy of a quick death. Let you take the credit for catching me and identifying the threat.” Since, as he pointed out, neither of their gods were capable of helping them until they met their end.

The doors were opened and Velanna marched through them as if she were nothing less than a queen being presented. She continued to show that she knew the way through the fortress just fine, and even allowed herself a flick of grin as a pair of guards muttered how ‘that shrill one is back’ and ‘I thought she was dead.’ Let that prove the truth of her claims.

So confident that she knew her destination, that she knew exactly who she would find when she got there, Velanna did not stop until she reached Aedan’s office and threw the doors open, letting the bounce of them announce her entrance.

And froze in place. The man in the office was no Aedan, or any man she recognized. She fluttered her eyes in a moment of confusion before regaining her composure. “Commander, I presume.”

She added one more interesting way to bind up her companion to the imaginary list.
Despite the admiration he held for the workmanship of Vigil's Keep, having a far more astute understanding of what it took to construct something which could survive not only darkspawn but time itself than humans, Orric nevertheless disliked to reside in said building for more than a few weeks at a time. His place was deep in the bowels of the earth, both as a dwarf and a Grey Warden.

However, with both of his so-called 'Senior' Wardens dealing with matters on his behalf, he was forced to remain top-side until at least one of them returned. Unfortunately for those who remained within the Keep, each day brought forth a more quarrelsome side to Orric's personality. Hence why he was sequestered in this room, seeing to some tiresome correspondence from that blighted Bann woman. He did not have enough fingers and toes for all the mentions she made to 'for the good of Amaranthine' in her many letters. What did she expect from him? He was Warden-Commander, first and foremost. From what he understood of human politics, it should have been a perfect partnership: he got on with the important task of killing darkspawn, and she undertook the wearisome matters of the arling in his stead. Why was this a problem?

He had just taken up a quill to state the fact, since this Bann appeared to have a head as thick as he wished the damn doors were below, when he was interrupted by a different set of doors being thrown open. He raised a bushy brow at the slender woman who entered his office, recognising the markings of a Dalish, wondering if this was to be a fresh headache.

If she was surprised to see him, the only clue was the briefest hesitation before she made her address. "Commander, I presume."

A moment later, the fanciful one of his Senior Wardens arrived, unable to keep the flicker of a smirk from his lips. At least his presence assured Orric that this elf, no matter her imperious attitude, was at least going to be less troublesome than Bann Terrell.

"Warden-Commander Orric Berlra," he grunted. He could feel the itch of her tainted blood in the back of his head so did not bother to enquire after her own identity. Grey Warden, Dalish... he was almost certain this individual was the cause of the rumours. That Barrows was skulking around only further upheld his idea. The human was annoying but dedicated. He would not have returned from his mission without either the source itself or information about it.

"She insisted on seeing you, Commander," Henri-Julien edged around her, causing a flash of amusement to crack through Orric's bad mood. The history between elves and dwarves was a complicated one, but he admired anyone who held their presence as this Dalish did. Also, it was refreshing to see somoene else have zero time for Henri-Julien's bluster. "She claims," there was a definite scathing edge to his voice, "there is undeveloped broodmoth--"

Hard eyes regarded the newcomer. "Take a small group of Wardens and destroy them." Very few knew of broodmothers; even fewer knew what undeveloped ones looked like. If this woman had reported the location of a developing clutch of broodmothers, Orric was not going to waste precious time by insisting upon specifics. 

He turned to Henri-Julien who regarded him slack-jawed, eyes comically rounded. "For this mission, you report to her." He jerked his head towards the Dalish in case the thick-headed human had a problem working out whom Orric meant. The man made to protest, puffing up to make some long-winded objection, but Orric cut it dead. "Don't give me your Chantry-prattle, Barrows. Do as I say."

Henri-Julien's face turned an interesting mottled colour and his jaw set so hard that Orric wondered if his teeth would disintegrate. Nevertheless, he stepped back and dropped his head in a silent affirmation of the orders.

Glancing back to the woman, Orric added, somewhat belatedly, "take some time to eat and rest. But you must leave within six hours; we cannot allow those broodmothers to mature." He shoved himself away from the desk and stood. "I will see to organising a further scouting party to ensure there are not other threats in that vicinity beyond the one you have found." He might even be able to lead it personally if both of his Senior Wardens had returned by the time the scouting party were ready to depart.
"Warden-Commander Orric Berlra.” A Dwarf. Velanna needed only a moment to accept this, her curiosity over Aedan’s whereabouts was overridden by the urgency of both the broodmother situation and her need to put the esteemed escort of hers down a run or two.

He was certainly not holding back on his end. "She insisted on seeing you, Commander." Velanna didn’t flinch. Why shouldn’t she insist? Hadn’t he told her that she was bound by oath and obligated to see him? "She claims," he started with that pristine dagger’s edge of contempt in his words, "there is undeveloped broodmoth--"

"Take a small group of Wardens and destroy them,” the Commander said, his eyes meeting Velanna’s own. Not how she would have worded it, but she could hardly argue that she was finally being taken seriously. She lifted a brow, the only question it posed being who would lead this mission. If she had to turn around and go right back, she would, and if she had to follow this overly-groomed shemlen into the Deep Roads again to do it, she would. Those women would not be left to suffer, not if she had any say in it at all, and she knew enough of broodmothers to make up for his obvious ignorance.

And the Commander intended to give her that say, which she was certain was going to pop the eyes right out of the head of the man beside her. "For this mission, you report to her." Sputters of protest gurgled in his throat and died out. "Don't give me your Chantry-prattle, Barrows. Do as I say."

Velanna had not expected that. She did, however, respect it.

"Take some time to eat and rest. But you must leave within six hours; we cannot allow those broodmothers to mature." He pushed from his desk and she shot her eyes at Warden Barrows, finally having a name to put to his sneer. "I will see to organising a further scouting party to ensure there are not other threats in that vicinity beyond the one you have found."

Velanna issued a brisk nod. “A sensible plan, thank you, Commander.” She frowned, her vallaslin creasing at her brow. “We will send word back if we run into anything of note.” Anything too big for their party they would have to circumvent, a challenge on its own, but another party behind them could go a long way. “My name is Velanna, if you care about such things.” It was fine if he did, fine if he did not. What mattered was he had listened.

Spinning about on a heel, she faced Barrows, who was now her charge. Any number of things could have been said in the name of gloating, but she simply held her arm out for her staff’s return. There would be time for such things when they were set upon their journey.

“It’s half a day’s walk, I estimate,” she said to Barrows. There was no telling time in the Deep Roads, but she was a fair judge of her own walking pace. They would need provisions for at least a night’s journey and stopping. Despite the distance, it was still disturbingly close to the surface and she did not like the implications of that one whit. “Given that you are familiar with our quarry, I assume you can requisition what and who we require and meet in the main hall in five hours.”

Satisfied that this would be carried out, Velanna set off to go about the eating and resting she’d been given leave to enjoy. Her former quarters were vacant, her potted plant from Sigrun still in the corner by the sunny window. She did not bother unpacking anything for now, instead relearning her way to the dining hall. Ravenous and tired, she tarried only long enough to put the fear of the Creators into the kitchen staff who recognized her before she set to a table with a plate stacked with bread and cheese and a hearty helping of butter along with a generous bowl of broth. Best not to test her stomach just yet. Eating too fast too soon after long bouts of hunger could be deadly, and she did not have time to die just now. Afterward, she slept, letting the safety of a room and a locked door free her mind from the threat of denizens of the filthy underground. She slept deep and hard, even spared the sometimes brutal dreams that accompanied the taint in her blood.

With an hour to spare, her things packed once more, she returned to the kitchen for extra food, both to eat now, and to get on the road.

“I thought you were dead,” one of the shemlen guards said as she passed with more bread and cheese as well as few boiled root vegetables.

“Tragedy that you are not hired for your skills as a great thinker,” she snapped before finding a seat once more.

Velanna felt bone weary. Even the sleep had not fully rested her, and the thought of returning to the Deep Roads already held no appeal. She missed the sun, the grass, the treetops as opposed to only the roots she’d held in sway when she needed them. She wrapped the rest of her food in a napkin and took the meal to the courtyard, settling in a spot of sun, dotted with shadows from a tall oak. She sat with crossed legs, one hand wielding the food she would eat, the other gripping a handful of still browned grass. Spring was soon to be underway, and the ground was cold, but it was worth it. She breathed deeply, finding a temporary peace deep inside her.
Tread heavy and posture straight, Henri-Julien stalked the hallways of Vigil's Keep, seething with resentment. He was to be subject to the orders of an elven apostate! Given the whispers which he snatched as he stormed by others, it seemed that she was already known by some of those who had served in the Vigil when the sole Hero of Ferelden had occupied it. That also revealed that she had abandoned the Vigil and her oaths to the Grey Wardens since she had not been sighted here since Henri-Julien had arrived. And he was to be subject to her!

Jaw clenched, Henri-Julien stormed into the armoury, snarling orders that a group of Wardens needed to be fully equipped within five hours. He would rather have walked the Fade for eternity, a hapless victim to countless demons, than admit to the damned Dalish that he did not fully know what requisitions would be required. So, after the knife-ear witch had strutted off, staff in hand - which he definitely should have broken when he had the chance - Henri-Julien had forced himself to address the Commander, barely able to turn his gaze towards the dwarf in his roiling rage, and enquired what was to be expected. The Commander, as always, had been blunt: as much weaponry and armour as each Warden could carry, plus as many of "Dworkin the Mad's Explosives" as were available... and pray that it would be enough.

So now, he was gathering the necessary equipment having already assigned a selection of battle-hardened (such as they were) Wardens. Where the Dalish had vanished, he had no idea. Likely, she expected everyone to do her bidding without any care as to how it would be achieved. At least his fury was beneficial on one respect: he would ensure that every task was performed to the highest standard, just to prove that her presence was neither needed nor required. And once he returned, he would petition the Commander in the strongest possible terms to ensure that the Dalish was kept under close and watchful guard at all times.

The remainder of the time passed swiftly. It was only when Henri-Julien was crossing the courtyard, already dressed in his leathers and with his weapons sheathed, that he caught sight of the apostate. She was sitting in a speckled patch of sunlight beneath one of the large trees, legs crossed beneath her, one hand gripping the scratchy brown grass and the other picking at the food lying in her lap. The sunlight picked out threads of gold in her hair while her expression had relaxed into one of serenity.

Disgust flared through him at realisation of what he was thinking. An elven apostate could only ever be an untamed dangerous animal. In fact, he immediately sought to reassure himself, the fact that she could summon so appealing an exterior only served to emphasise the very real threat she bore. That was the only reason why Henri-Julien spared one more fleeting glance in her direction before vanishing into the gloom of the Keep, continuing with his preparations.

An hour later and Henri-Julien waited by the ruined doors leading into the Deep, eyeing them with barely concealed exasperation. Wasn't it the other Senior Warden's responsibility to get these fixed? He could only presume that the Left Hand had uncovered something which required the assistance of a fool. That, or Alistair had gotten himself maimed in the routes which led barely below the surface. The thought was something of a balm to Henri-Julien's injured pride.

Shaking his head from the entertaining thought, he glanced over the small group he had assembled. Three warriors and another rogue. He had not chosen another apostate, judging that he did not have the lyrium to be able to control two of them. All his efforts would be on ensuring that the Dalish did not abuse the authority which Commander Berlra had so stupidly granted to her. Really, was he the only one with any sense in the entirety of Amaranthine?

Finally, the cause of all this commotion arrived. Not late, but Henri-Julien had purposely gathered the others half an hour early. No one appreciated tardiness.

"We follow your lead," he declared, very deliberately holding his arm over her chest in salute before bowing. Fortunate that he meant no sincerity at all, or he would likely have self-combusted. A Templar subject to an apostate! Insanity!
By the time Velanna felt replenished and ready thanks to the accelerated way her body recovered due to the Taint, Barrows had put together a small party. By the weapons accumulated, she noted that he’d not seen fit to bring another mage, not even a healer, further solidifying her suspicions that he had no idea what they were up against.

"We follow your lead," Barrows announced as if she’d forgotten the way the Commander had immediately deferred to her knowledge of what they were facing. His need to be correct in all things placed second only with his apparent love of the sound of his own voice which could only be rivaled by Anders were he still here.

Given the seriousness of what they were doing, Velanna could not in good conscience let their party go in unprepared. If Commander Berlra was going to put such trust in her immediately, she had to show she was worthy of it. That she’d not been immediately put under arrest was a blessing she thanked Mythal for, deeming it only due to the urgency of the situation.

“If you have yet to witness or face a broodmother, you need to know that even undeveloped as they are, they are dangerous. The women have been put through unspeakable torture,” she said, her face falling to think of how easily it could have been her had she gone after Seranni alone all that time ago. Her eyes cast to the floor, lidding momentarily in the memory before she straightened her back once more. “When I last laid eyes on them they were immobilized themselves.” That happened soon after the transformation had begun, the victims becoming so fattened by the forced feeding and other unspeakable horrors. “That does not mean they do not have a long reach. You’ll need to be alert for tentacles.” She paused before adding, “And while the tainted ichor they spew won’t kill a Warden, it could blind or immobilize one.”

She decided that was sufficient to prepare them, and when the doors were opened she led them into the Deep Roads once more, walking tall as if every Elven god had put her on this path personally. Her rest had done wonders for allowing her to set a brisk pace, though not quite as gruelling as the one that had led her back to the Keep under threat of being crushed by Barrows’ glaring insecurities. Who needed to assert their superiority and will at every turn? A self-righteous shemlen man imbued with the false authority of the terrorist mage hunters.

A light press of her hands to the smooth wood of her staff and the top glowed just enough to carve a lazy puddle of faint green light in the darkness that swallowed them. It was several hours of marching before they returned to the path she’d taken that had brought about her standoff with the templars, and the subsequent introduction to her reluctant party member. Here they paused for water. They turned down a narrow tunnel which closed enough that the more broad of the warriors were required to turn sideways in order to pass.

Past this the tunnel split into two paths, each one winding around and opening into the same chamber. The tunnel that wound behind was where she had discovered Seranni’s body and done her best to inter her remains. “Being that they are immature, they may not be birthing darkspawn. I will go around the front to draw their attention,” whatever that attention may be, as there was no telling how far gone the women were, “and you can set the explosives from behind.” She pointed to one of the large warriors, a rather hulking man who looked like his shield did the thinking. “You. Come with me.”
Naturally, possessing the innate (and mistaken) arrogance of the Dalish, coupled with the need to hear her own voice, Velanna did not take the invitation to set out on their mission immediately. Instead, she opted to deliver a pointless speech, clearly intended more as a platform to boast of her knowledge rather than to inform them of anything important. 

If you have yet to witness or face a broodmother--" Henri-Julien harrumphed beneath his breath, his pride still rankling about this gap in his knowledge. Yet from what the Commander had suggested, nothing this irritating apostate could say would fully articulate the horror ahead of them. He could not recall ever having seen the already sickly pallor of Commander Berlra pale further. "--you need to know that even undeveloped as they are, they are dangerous. The women have been put through unspeakable torture."

Even in the flickering gloom of the torches, there was an undeniable change in Velanna's expression. She seemed to shrink, just momentarily, before rediscovering her overly straight posture. Henri-Julien narrowed his eyes, filing away the strange fleeting crack in her demeanour for later consideration. Was this proof of regret over some action she had clearly brought about with her magic? There could be precious few other explanations.

"When I last laid eyes on them they were immobilized themselves." Whatever that meant. He had to resist the urge to roll his eyes. "That does not mean they do not have a long reach. You’ll need to be alert for tentacles." Fortunate that the shadows helped to obscure his small jolt of surprise. Tentacles? "And while the tainted ichor they spew won’t kill a Warden, it could blind or immobilize one." A solid motivation to avoid being hit. Henri-Julien refused to consider that perhaps this was a timely moment to request a short delay to fetch a healer. He had, after all, selected this group. Adjusting its members would suggest that he had made an error. Henri-Julien Barrows did not make errors.

Turning on heel, Velanna led the group into the Deep, the others pathetically falling into formation behind her without so much as an exchange of glances. Why did no one else question the ridiculous notion that an apostate lead any group? Apparently only him. Something which was only emphasised when Velanna summoned just enough mama to illuminate the top of her staff. Of course, she chose a green light, presumably to suggest some link to nature or such nonsense, rather than a far more helpful white light. Not that Henri-Julien would be impressed with any light save for that belonging to the Maker Himself.

After many hours retracing the route to where Henri-Julien had first located Velanna, the group stopped to revitalise themselves. Once a little water and food was consumed, they continued down a narrow tunnel, forcing the broad-shouldered warriors to grunt as they scraped their way along it, sometimes having to turn side-on. Clearly, it was too difficult to expect that the Dalish account for anyone else's comfort but her own. This could not be the only route to whatever she had found.

The narrow tunnel ended in a forking of paths. From the curve of each, it appeared that both led into one cavern.

"Being that they are immature, they may not be birthing darkspawn. I will go around the front to draw their attention,” Velanna decreed, and, because he had been ordered to do so, Henri-Julien had to capitulate to her decision, "and you can set the explosives from behind." She indicated one of the warriors with a thrust of her finger. Henri-Julien was surprised that there was not some hairy wart upon it, as in the children's stories. She was a witch, after all. "You. Come with me."

Snorting, Henri-Julien turned his back, indicating to the other rogue and remaining two warriors to follow him. What did he care that Velanna had not taken a sufficient grouping? The other rogue was an archer and would have provided additional long range defence against these young broodmothers who were so dangerous. Yet it mattered little to him if the Dalish was blinded first by her pride and secondly by the tainted ichor about which she had taken such pains to inform them. He had led her once from this place; he would do so again.

Yet in his derision, Henri-Julien had not heeded the key point of Velanna's plan: that she and her companion would draw their attention. So lost in his thoughts about her short-sightedness, the former Templar did not pay full attention to his surroundings, emerging from behind the wall of the path and into the cavern proper. 

Inhuman screams ricocheted around the stone walls. It was only his instinctive reactions which saved him from being lashed by a fetid pink tentacle, an inky black corruption smeared across the wall behind where Henri-Julien had initially stood. It was one of the warriors who raced forward, raising his large axe to hack at the tentacle before it could make another attack. A spray of rock and stone sent the other three of their group scurrying backward as a second tentacle erupted from beneath their feet, whipping wildly in the air for a moment before striking the warrior from behind, whipping his legs out from beneath him. The first tentacle curled tightly around his waist, dragging him back even as he fought against it, his yells mingling with the cacophony of noise from the creatures themselves. His fingers slipped from the edge of the path and he was gone, disappearing amongst the grotesque monsters, their maws wide and open, clamouring for flesh.

"Back!" Henri-Julien yelled, holding his arms wide to prevent anyone else from launching forward. It would be suicide. "Get back to the tunnel!"

Too late. Another three tentacles shot upward from the ground from behind them, trapping them where they stood. He had no explanation for the apparent sentience of the cursed things, but that was hardly the pertinent point in the immediate moment. While the archer bravely took aim on the tentacles ahead of them, securing a number of hits which temporarily drove back the questing limbs, the warriors adopted defensive stances, hacking and slashing at the ones behind without gaining or surrendering ground. It was an impasse.

Henri-Julien swore in Orlesian. A curse learned from his mother during the more tumultuous times with his father. Out the corner of his eye, he caught sight of one smaller tentacle, reaching for the bag in which the explosives were kept. Whether by accident or design, he had no idea. What mattered was that if they lost the explosives, it seemed clear there was no defeating these monstrous creatures. 

He gritted his teeth. "Forward!" He amended his order. They needed to at least gain some advantage if the entirety of the cavern was to be brought down. That, or directly into the midst of them. At this point, he was not fussy. "Push forward!"
If Henri-Julien had any opinions on her plan, and he seemed to have them on everything, he kept them to himself. Instead, he turned his back and led the remainder of the party around the back tunnel. Which was about the point where Velanna’s plan fell through.

Before she could conjure so much as a fireball to draw the attention of the broodmother nest she heard one of the abominations let out a noise she heard too often in her nightmares. First one tentacle, and then another erupted from the ground, and within a matter of moments she heard the cries of one of the other Wardens briefly before it was cut off.

The element of surprise was lost, and now another tentacle crashed out of the earth heading straight for Velanna. She blasted it with a bolt of arcane energy, but it wasn’t enough to stymie the progression. The warrior pushed her out of the way of the filth-covered thing only to be smacked across the cavern by another.

Rock rained around them, and the ground shook. Velanna called roots from above them to counter the tentacles, but they were ripped apart as fast as she could summon them. “Fall back,” she called to her companion, and they found cover behind a ridge of rock as debris shot overhead.

“I’ll try to draw attention. Those tentacles have to come down if they’re going to have any chance at getting the explosives in place."

As if cued to do so, she heard Barrows giving orders to push forward.

Fen’lin.

“We have to help them,” she growled. The warrior beside her, obviously believing it was better not to be left alone, agreed with a grunt. “I’ll cover you,” she told him, pointing to the path by which they’d first emerged. She pulled a fireball to her hand and leaned around the impromptu shelter. She let it loose with a guttural shriek, catching one of the monsters in the face. The other Warden waited one more moment as Velanna darted out from cover, throwing a series of flaming balls as she did before diving for another pile of rock. Her shoulder, arm, and elbow scraped against the ground, and she only barely managed to duck her head to avoid hitting it against the rocks. This time when she yanked roots from around them they caught one of the putrid limbs, giving her enough room to duck away from its reach. Another blast of flame and the tentacle withered, falling uselessly to the ground. This was her opening, and she flung herself back toward the tunnel entrance.

“Move, move!” she shouted to the warrior as they backtracked, first to the Y dividing the tunnels and the around the back to where the other Wardens were trapped between two walls of broodmother limbs.

“Where are the explosives?” she shouted. They were the only hope they had of ending this before it ended them all. Then she saw them, out of reach of not only her, but the rest of the party. While the warrior hacked away at one of the arms she tried to catch one of the ones behind the other party to give them room to escape. The broodmother screeched out, and a rain of acid blasted through the air, raining drops down. Velanna used two lines of brambled roots to grasp one of the tentacles, and with a sharp motion moved her arms apart, tearing the thing to pieces. With another terrifying wail, one of the other tentacles whacked the rogue of their party, and they crashed against the wall of the cavern and did not get up.

The tentacle she’d destroyed made an opening. “Go! Now!” she called, hoping that someone would have the wits about them to see what she’d done and get to the explosives before they were destroyed. If they could get them into place, even if they couldn’t get the fuse, she could ignite them. “I can light them if—” A tentacle smacked her in the chest, launching her back and likely only sparing her because of the mage’s armor she’d been reluctant to wear. She careened backward, and as the arm swung back again, it swept the warrior away and into the maw of the hideous aberration.
Despite their best efforts, the two remaining Wardens could not advance from their current position. Any other time, Henri-Julien would have been quick to criticise their poor efforts, but the monstrosity which confronted them had silenced even his caustic tongue. It was taking all of their combined abilities to remain alive, let alone move from their current position.

From the other path, a fire ball exploded towards the grotesque monster, causing an unearthly shriek as it sizzled the flesh. At least that did confirm the creatures could be significantly harmed and, Maker willing, killed. He now understood why the Commander had reacted as he had. Fire ball after fire ball flew from the position of Velanna and her sole warrior, helping to divide the attention between the two groups of Wardens.

There was a brief lull in spell-casting then the pair remerged behind Henri-Julien's group, separated by the weaving tentacles which lashed and whipped towards the trio.

"Where are the explosives?" Velanna screeched, only slightly less gratingly than the foul cursed creatures. Henri-Julien gritted his teeth, opting to save his life by hacking at a tentacle rather than respond to her. Clearly, the explosives were not in their possession. Why else would they be fighting for their lives right now?

From the blessed silence which followed, Henri-Julien assumed that Velanna had worked out the answer to her stupid question. His breathing came in laboured pants, his muscles burning from the sustained demand as his two daggers flashed through the air, always striking but never with the same damage as a warrior could wield. Behind them, the warrior who had the ill fortune to be picked by Velanna (though it was a better fate than the poor sod who had been claimed by the creature) launched his own attack on the rear tentacles, while Velanna herself sent roots towards another tentacle, distracting it and eventually ripping it apart. In retaliation, another tentacle whacked against the archer, sending them flying through the air and hard against the cavern wall. The ugly twist of their neck as they crumpled to the ground confirmed that they would not rise again.

"Go! Now!"

By the light of Andraste, where does-- Henri-Julien's blasphemy was interrupted by the realisation of what Velanna had achieved. An opening! The pack filled with explosives lay just ahead of him. Sheathing one of his daggers, Henri-Julien dived for the pack, snatching them up just before he curled into a roll, maintaining momentum as he regained his feet. The momentum helped him to evade another tentacle as it broke through the ground, slamming down where the pack had lain only mere moments before

"I can light them if—" The rest of the explanation died in her throat as Velanna was smacked across the chest, sending her skating across the ground. As the tentacle whipped back, it caught the warrior who had accompanied her, wrapping around him and yanking him back to the waiting maws of the abomination.

The remaining warrior stood their ground despite the overwhelming odds. Sparing only enough breath to mutter a prayer for their soul, Henri-Julien focused on his own task. He could not achieve the placing of the explosives and save the life of the warrior. Such sacrifices had to be made. Darting here and there, he wove his way to the back of the cavern as Velanna had initially intended. Now, however, it was in an effort to evade the strangely sentient tentacles from somehow preventing the explosives from being ignited. 

Assuming the stupid Dalish hadn't died. In which case, he was also dead. 

In the very back of the cavern, there was a crack running partly up the rock face. Perhaps a fault line caused by the unnatural weight of the disgusting mound of flesh behind him. Regardless, Henri-Julien did not care save for the fact that it was too narrow for the tentacles to reach. He just hoped that the smaller thinner ones could not be deployed far from the heaving mass of the creatures themselves. Hastily, he shoved the pack into the crevice, pushing it as far back as he could reach.

Then, he spun around, diving forward just in time to miss a spray of ichor. Glancing over his shoulder, he noticed how the black slime began to smoke against the rock face, just as Velanna had remarked with regards blinding a Warden. He still did not know whether she was alive or not. If there was no way to ignite the explosive with fire, perhaps the acid from the ichor would serve as a substitute? He looked back towards the entrance of the cavern, making hasty calculations. Could he make it? 

Such sacrifices had to be made, he reminded himself with a grim smile. What he expected from others was the least he expected from himself.

His fingers curled around a rock and with a yell, he threw it through the air, striking against a weaving tentacle with those ichor-spewing suckers. Immediately, it turned towards him, and launched an attack. Multiple sprays of ichor arced through the air. Henri-Julien did not wait to see if his plan worked. He took to his heels, ducking and diving through the tentacles towards the path which would lead out of this Void-forsaken place.

What happened next, he could not be sure. There was an explosion, intolerable heat, a sucking of all the air from his chest. He slammed against the ground, hitting his temple, then blacked out. It was only when he reopened his eyes, maybe a second or an hour later, that he realised the true horror of the situation.

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