One of Dorian's sources reveals a Venatori agent operating out of Val Royeaux. While Katari wants to avoid the capital of Orlais more than any other place at that moment, Dorian's constant pestering eventually aggravates her enough to convince her that if she doesn't want to end up short one very talented Tevinter mage, her own hands wringing his neck to silence his nagging, she'd better track down that Venatori agent pronto. Why he is so insistent about disposing of this one in particular, he will not say, only that it is extremely important that the agent be dealt with immediately. At dawn, they ride from Skyhold.

Their party happens upon yet another rift (the path is fraught with the damnable shimmers of green light) while journeying to the capital, and when they alight from their mounts, the demons pour forth. Cassandra catches the attention of as many of the demons as she can, while Sera's arrows rain down upon them and Dorian sets the field aflame. Katari leaps amongst the shades, cutting them down one by one so that her companions can focus their attacks on the pride demon flinging electricity through the air, the whips it wields singeing the grass and trees where they strike. A rage demon catches Katari unawares as she flanks a shade, its claws raking blistering burns across her back. The shock of the blow, rather than the pain, nearly sends her daggers skittering across the grass. It…touched her? Nothing ever touches her, nothing serious or by surprise.

For a moment, she forgets, and she whips her head around in search of that gleaming gryphon shield. Polished after each outing, no need letting her "token of appreciation" remain tarnished longer than necessary, he had said. She had laughed.

Then, she stops forgetting, she stops being foolish and sentimental, and she remembers. Gone before she woke, leaving only a penned goodbye to greet her.

The note tucked beneath her smallclothes – crumpled in a fist clenched so tightly that her nails created red crescents in her palm, and then quickly smoothed with a sudden horrified reverence and whispered apologies, its words read and reread until branded into her memory – presses so hard against her bosom that for a moment she cannot breathe.

She had rejected his aid at first, then begrudgingly accepted it as a thing that would happen no matter how much she objected, then expected it whenever she found herself outnumbered, and then relied upon it and the confidence it gave her to know that she was defended far better than any enemy she might face. The knowledge, the oath, that she would be protected allowed her to become reckless, careless.

He's made her weak.

She roars as she slices into the demon's body, embers scattering around her feet, aware of nothing but the flash of her blades and the want, the need, to utterly destroy something. She needs to hurt it the way that she's hurting, because the fact that she's hurting at all is laughable and pathetic. Her hands tighten around the grips of her daggers. Faster, her blades need to cut and slash faster. The demon lashes out in response, rending her scarf and dragging burns over her throat and face. She hasn't the armor to withstand this assault, the ability to brush off such blows, and she should have withdrawn by now, taken cover in the shadows instead of battling the demon head-on. Sensibility, however, has fled in the presence of rage, and she ignores the sensation of blood dripping down her face.

The tears that spring from her eyes, she swears, are only the result of staring so closely at the embodiment of fire itself, from the burns and cuts writhing in her skin. Katari does not cry. Under any circumstances. Even that one time when her fellow Valo-kas held her down as one pressed a red hot sword to a gash on her shoulder, and she screamed through the bit of leather crushed between her teeth in order to prevent her from swallowing her tongue. The tears that rolled down her bronze cheeks then were nothing more than her body's response to physical pain, and they stung her pride more than the sword did her skin.

This is the same thing, an involuntary reaction to physical pain. Tears are weakness, and she refuses to be weak. She is not crying. The ache within her, a heavy thing that fills her breast like water in her lungs, responds to the lie with a trilling moan that echoes in her ears and vibrates through every strike of metal against molten rock. She screams obscenities and hateful things that she doesn't mean in order to drown out the sound.

Her blows have no effect on the demon. It grows larger, feeding off her rage, lava spilling outward from its core to fill the wounds her daggers inflict. She is not crying. She is not

A bolt of frost whizzes by her head and strikes the demon square in the chest, consuming its body in crackling ice. Her blades send shards of ice soaring through the air, and she cleaves its outstretched arms from its body. Deeper and deeper she hacks, farther and farther the cracks extend, until one final thrust of her daggers shatters the creature, its fractured form tinkling against the ground. Suddenly, the throbbing rage in her breast subsides, the stifling heat vanishing as a breeze washes over her face. She inhales deeply, feeling as though she hasn't breathed in ages, and rubs her fists across her eyes and cheeks, driving lines through the ashes, blood, and war paint that cling to her face. She examines her knuckles. Streaks of white, crimson, and brown mar them, but nothing clear. No tears.

~8~

"My goodness, you're on fire," Dorian exclaims as he extinguishes the last of the fire spreading from one of his glyphs and the party takes status of themselves. Sera picks amongst the corpses for gold and valuables while Cassandra wipes her bloodied sword on the grass. The mage secures one staff in the brace on his back, another held in his hand, and is at Katari's side immediately. "And I mean that quite literally," he clarifies, surprising her when he begins to pat the small flames licking the tattered edges of her scarf. She nudges him away and smothers the remaining flames by herself. "The only one who should ever be flaming is me," he jokes, laughter ringing his words in a way that exudes, Oh, I'm so very impressed by my wit, but he sobers as his eyes rake over her wounds. "You really took a beating, didn't you?"

"Hold still," Cassandra says, reaching for one of the poultices dangling from Dorian's belt. "We need to treat those burns immediately." She removes the bottle's cork and brings its mouth to the worst of Katari's wounds.

"Don't touch me," she shouts, shoving the other woman away. Her voice is hoarse, her throat gone sore from screaming.

"But, Inquisitor —"

"No, I don't need your help," she insists, cutting through the air with a dagger. She winces at the audible sob in her voice. She has grown so weak, to display such passion in front of her companions. "I don't need anyone's help." To where has the old, stony-faced Katari fled, she wonders, the one who would rather lose an arm to a corpse's blade than show weakness? She's gone, killed by the man who's abandoned her just as thoroughly.

Sera joins the other two, stuffing creature bits used for research into her satchel, just as their leader moves to hurry away. Katari elbows past the elf, sending several coins flying from her fingers, and rounds an outcropping of rock to lick her wounds in private.

"What's with her?" Sera asks, swinging her bow over her shoulder. "Some earwig crawl up her arse and die?" She sticks out her tongue and shudders.

"Our little Inquisitor is…hurting," Dorian says, trying to convey the Inquisitor's grief as subtly as possible.

"Well, yeah, she got herself all burned. That was dumb."

"No, a different kind of hurt."

"Oh…you mean how Broody Beard went and made her all broody, too," she says far too loudly.

That's Sera. No tact whatsoever.

"If you're done gossiping," Katari shouts from around the rocks, "there's still a Venatori agent at large." She doesn't sound nearly as composed as she'd like. When she shows herself once more, her eyes are regrettably red-rimmed, and a green paste coats her wounds. He wonders if she can even feel her face, with that lovely, tingling effect it has. She mounts Thaddeus, her nuggalope, with enough force to shift the huge beast.

Poor dear, reduced to tears. Vulnerability is a garment that she never meant to wear, Dorian knows, but she learned to wear it all the same, and now she can't bear the wounds that come from the one who made her vulnerable in the first place. He wonders if, once she mends the cracks in her armor, she'll ever be able to take it off again. And she really had made such fine progress. Damn you, Blackwall, he thinks. After mounting his chestnut gelding (no strange beasts for him, please) in near sync with his companions, he ties his extra staff alongside the other anchored to his saddle. One for every element, Katari always insists. His affinity for fire is useless against several creatures, and the Inquisitor never enters the field unprepared. As they set off once more, he hopes that they don't encounter any despair demons along the way to Val Royeaux. There isn't enough chocolate and friendly flirtation in the world to cure their little Inquisitor should that happen.

She shot down his idea of pursuing their runaway Warden, on account of his being able to make his own choices, and if he doesn't want to stick around, then who is she to force him to do otherwise? She's not his nanny, Dorian. He's a grown man, and she's the Inquisitor, and she has more important things to worry about than chasing after someone who…she never finished that thought aloud, but he could hear the tightness in her throat, and he wisely dropped the subject.

Confronted, but undaunted, by the Inquisitor's stubborn refusal to pursue their only lead pointing to Val Royeaux, Dorian may have fed her some false information of a Venatori agent hiding out in the very same city. Should they happen to find Blackwall there, and Dorian shall lead Katari on this wild goose chase until such a meeting occurs, she can take whatever action she likes. If she deigns not to punish Blackwall, then he shall gladly do so in her stead. Whatever happens, the Warden shall be sorry that he dared hurt his friend so terribly.


I do hope that people are enjoying reading these as much as I enjoy writing them!