Eating Lionfish, part 3

by Hoorayforicecream

Athenril walked calmly past the hulking guards and into the dockside warehouse. It was an old building that looked like it had seen better days. Although it hadn't been touched during the Qunari attack, the structure had fallen into some disrepair. The scent of mold and mildew added a distinct aroma to the stale air. However, there were other things to interest her besides foul smells and abandoned cargo.

The building housed a large, iron cage, inside which two women were doing their best to kill each other. The two warriors each had their faces hidden behind elaborate ceramic masks, but wore torn rags that barely covered their breasts and private parts. Their oiled bodies glistened in the firelight of the warehouse. They circled each other, the blonde threatening with a two-handed sword, while the lanky brunette wielded two wicked-looking spiked metal gauntlets. Both women bled from small cuts, but they were alert and focused as they looked for openings in their opponent's defenses.

A large crowd of men and women surrounded the cage, cheering and clamoring at the top of their lungs. Barkers ran from group to group, taking wagers and shouting odds. Slender elven serving women dressed similarly to the cage fighters carried assorted food and drink on trays to the clamoring patrons. A number of courtesans, dressed like the combatants, hung on the arms of the wealthier-looking patrons.

Athenril pushed her way through the chattering groups toward a carpeted area. Two heavily armored dwarven guards with crossbows in hand and polearms on their backs stood guard beside a small velvet rope that blocked off the staircase to the second level. She nodded, and the guards exchanged a look from behind their helmet visors. The warrior on the left pulled the rope back, and waved her past.

She ascended the steps to the second level. The area had been cleared and cleaned; several lounge chairs and plush sofas had been brought up to the crude balcony illuminated by fire runes. The balcony allowed for a better view of the gladiators below. A handful of oaken tables and chairs had been set up by the railing for the benefit of those who wished to sit while watching the fights. Several armed men and women sat around a large table, casually observing the fights and chatting over jeweled wine goblets. One of the men waved at her, and she moved to join them.

"Well, well, well... I didn't think I'd see you here tonight, Athenril," greeted a thin-faced man with a scraggly beard. His sunken, pock-marked cheeks made him look ill, but his frame had a wiry strength to it that matched the ruthlessness in his eyes. He stroked his chin with one hand while fondling the bare breast of a plump brunette sitting on his lap with his other.

"You're looking flush, Vincente. Is your girl going to last longer than the first round this week?" asked Athenril with a grin.

"Oh, I'm sure of it," he replied. "Rafaela will be the last one standing tonight."

"Nay, the victor shall be my wench," thundered the hulking, bearded man in furs to Vincente's left. He tilted back his tankard and drank noisily from its contents. "I have trained my woman personally. None of your harlots will be a match for Tasha!"

"I beg to differ, Mathias," said an aged elf woman who sipped from her jeweled crystal goblet. Her graying hair was pulled back in a neat bun, and each of her fingers sported a different-colored jeweled ring. She wore a colorful silk coat with ruffles at her neck and sleeves, but her movements were unmistakably those of a seasoned veteran of combat. The two men at the table regarded her warily. "My Gretchen shall be tonight's victor," she said airily.

"It's nice you are all so confident," observed Athenril as she tossed a heavy sack into the pile of coin in the center of the massive table. It landed with an audible clink. She grinned wickedly. "You're wrong, though. My girl tonight is going to win it all for me."

A bloodcurdling scream burst from the arena and the crowd erupted in cheers. Athenril and her tablemates glanced down. The blonde was lying on her side, moaning and trying to staunch the blood flowing freely from several puncture wounds in her side with her hands. The blow had been a powerful one, leaving shredded skin in its wake. The brunette stood triumphant, roaring to the crowd and lifting both of her bloody fists over her head. Rivulets of her opponent's blood dribbled down the blades and forearms, leaving bright crimson streaks in their wake.

A pair of tanned elven women quickly entered the cage bearing healing poultices and a stretcher. They swiftly applied the herbal concoctions to the fallen combatant and hefted her onto the stretcher. The fallen gladiator groaned as the herbs took effect, but the elves ignored her complaints as they carried her away.

The aged elf woman grimaced, her thin lips drawn into a line.

"It seems Gretchen wasn't worth the coin you spent on her, my lovely Adriana," said Vincente with a sly grin. "Rafaela's fists are hungry tonight. I look forward to seeing them them fed."

"Your whore is savage indeed," replied Mathias. "But she too shall fall to Tasha."

"Who is your entrant tonight, Athenril?" asked Adriana. "Your record so far isn't very good."

"Oh, I've got a good one this time, Lady Adriana. She calls herself the Black Pearl, and she's certainly got some moves," answered the younger elf.

"Where is this Black Pearl of yours? She faces Tasha next," growled Mathias.

"Oh, she'll be there. Care to make a side wager? I'll put up another hundred crowns that my girl defeats Tasha," offered Athenril, grinning.

The bearded Mathias looked as if he had chewed on a lemon. Adriana raised an eyebrow and smiled.

"I'll cover all three of you if you wish to wager. That is... if you aren't afraid," said Athenril.

"Aye, wench. I'll see your coin. Tasha will crush your pearl beneath her heel," growled Mathias, slamming down a handful of small gold ingots.

"I've seen Tasha fight," agreed Vincente, throwing a jingling pouch onto the table next to the ingots. "I'm pretty sure I saw her chew through an iron bar once."

"You're entirely too clever for your own good, Athenril. I shall extend you the courtesy and save my coin for next time," replied Adriana, sipping her wine. The elder elf smirked.

The crowd below started to buzz fiercely again, as the next pair of combatants entered the cage. Athenril looked over at the gladiators entering the ring and nearly dropped the goblet she was lifting to her lips. Tasha was gigantic. She was easily seven feet tall of solid meat, her pale gray skin stretched taut over rippling muscles. Her mask looked like a demon's visage, all hair and fang and painted face. Her platinum blonde hair hung to her shoulders in coarse bunches, partially covering her face. From her vantage point, Athenril noticed the crown of Tasha's head... two stumps of bony material that looked broken.

"An oxman... no, an ox woman?!" exclaimed Athenril.

"Ah, that's right. It's the first time you've ever seen Tasha, isn't it?" laughed Vincente. "She's strong as a bronto and twice as ornery."

Mathias looked extraordinarily pleased with himself as Tasha roared at the crowd. The monstrous woman hefted a long-handled spiked club on her back. Heavy iron rivets lined the corners of the huge square-cut head of the war club. The weapon looked like it could break doors and crush armor as if it were parchment, and the warrior woman hefted the massive club like it was weightless.

Opposite the ogress of a woman, the Black Pearl entered the ring. As bronze as her opponent was pale, the Black Pearl didn't walk or stomp so much as saunter into the cage. Her large, heaving breasts were barely restrained by the rags wrapped about her body and the woman's oiled body glistened from head to toe in the firelight. Her rounded hips swayed as she strutted through the entryway. Her face was covered in a smiling harlequin mask highlighted by three peacock feathers from the top, and a black domino mask further obscured her face. Her bright amber eyes twinkled from behind the ornate ceramic mask, and she gave a mocking bow to her opponent, granting the crowd a view of her deep cleavage. The audience went wild with cheers.

"What's this? This is a bloody arena, not the Blooming Rose!" muttered Vincente, shoving the naked woman out of his lap as he rose. He leaned over the balcony, leering openly at the combatants. "She is quite charming, I'll give you that. It's a terrible shame that Tasha's going to pound her into jelly."

"I'm sure that I'll soothe my bruised ego with a bandage made of gold silk," Athenril said mockingly. She rubbed her thumb and fingers together.

The bell rang from the arena, and the battle was joined. The giant warrior lunged with surprising speed and swung her club back and forth in wide arc, advancing toward her foe like a battering ram.

The Black Pearl calmly took a step backward, just outside of the path of the club, and gave her shoulder-length hair a casual toss. The Tal-Vashoth continued to swing, trying to push her toward the edge of the cage. The bronze woman finally drew a pair of wicked-looking curved daggers from her thighs, and held them in a reverse grip, blades down. She took a wide, low stance and waited for the next swing.

It was not long in coming. Tasha swung hard, growling as she hoped to crush her enemy against the iron bars. The entire warehouse rang with the sound of iron on iron as the enormous war club smashed into the cage wall and dented the hard metal. The crowd gasped as they realized that the blow had not connected. The Black Pearl had ducked under the blow, holding herself close to the stained stone floor. As the enormous combatant readied her weapon for another swing, the Black Pearl launched herself toward the struggling ogress. The nimble fighter extended her blades and spun as she passed, drawing her daggers across the Tal-Vashoth's legs in a sweeping, circular cut. She slid to a stop, then snapped her daggers outward, flinging the blood from her blades to the stone floor before sheathing her weapons. She bowed deeply toward the crowd, who had fallen silent.

The enormous warrior shrieked as her legs buckled and she dropped to one knee. Bright red blood spurted from a deep cut in her right thigh. She tried to stand, but the leg gave out and she fell to the floor.

"Get up! Get up and kill that wench!" bellowed Mathias, his face turning purple in his fury.

The massive Tasha tried to rise again, bracing herself with her war club. She struggled to her feet, but she remained unsteady. Her injured leg was bleeding heavily, and her breath came in ragged gasps. She took one faltering step toward the Black Pearl, then another, leaving a trail of crimson in her wake.

The bronze-skinned woman stood her ground as her opponent slowly approached. The bemused expression in her eyes never faltered as the mammoth adversary tried to lift her massive weapon.

Tasha grunted as she lifted the heavy war club. Murder was in her glassy eyes, but her body began trembling as the handle fell from her nerveless fingers. She staggered forward and toppled to the cold stone floor.

The crowd erupted into thunderous cheers.

"Preposterous... that little bitch of a fighter must have cheated!" sputtered Mathias. The large man gripped his goblet with white knuckles as he shook with rage.

"There, there, Mathias. I'm sure Tasha will survive. Perhaps next time you'll reconsider these ridiculous outfits and allow us to properly armor our combatants," offered Athenril with a sly smirk.

"Your Black Pearl is remarkable," said Vincente with a smirk. "I think I want her. A pity that Rafaela is to be her next opponent."

"Are you suggesting something?" asked Athenril, raising an eyebrow.

"Take all of the gold in the kitty and let me keep her. There's a few hundred sovereigns in there, far more than she's worth," Vincente offered magnanimously, while he leaned over the balcony and watched the dusky woman bask in the cheers of the crowd.

"And why would I want to do that? I can just let her gut Rafaela and keep both her and all of my winnings," reasoned the younger elf.

"That Rafaela is monstrous," Adriana announced with a scowl. "She must be part demon... or have a death wish. The bitch fights like a wild animal."

Mathias spat before he spoke. "Yon she-beast is strong, yes. I had thought my Tasha's strength to be sufficient, but perhaps I have erred in my judgement. Still, if your Black Pearl can defeat Tasha so easily, perhaps she may fare better than Gretchen did."

Athenril shrugged. "Don't underestimate my Black Pearl," she said simply.

Vincente laughed. "A good sport, then. Where did you find this one? Your last girl could barely hold a sword."

The younger elf just placed her hands on her hips and smiled.

Vincente noted her silence and leaned over the balcony to watch as the fighters entered the cage again. "She's an Avvar, you know. Rafaela, I mean."

"An... Avvar?" asked Athenril, trying to remember what their people were known for. As she looked closer, realization dawned on her. She cursed softly to herself.

"That's right. She's a berserker."

Athenril could almost feel the palpable aura of smugness radiate from Vincente. She looked down from the railing to the arena.

The Black Pearl had already entered and was standing in an easy, relaxed stance. She turned toward the clamoring crowd and bowed again, the long feathers from her mask nearly brushing the stone floor. The audience burst into a frenzy of cheers and catcalls as her opponent entered the ring.

The brunette had pale skin, with her elbows and knees haphazardly wrapped in bloody bandages. She wore a mask shaped like a skull, her bright blue eyes peering out from behind the cold bone. Oily strands of her brown hair hung in tangled clumps. She raised her two gauntleted fists, tapping her knuckles together in preparation. She hunched over and tensed her shoulders and legs.

When the cage door closed, the bandaged woman let loose a guttural scream and launched herself at her opponent, leading with her right fist. The Black Pearl drew both of her daggers in one smooth motion, and held them in her reverse grip, blades down and facing out. She held her blade against her forearm as she blocked the punch. The sound of metal on metal rang in the cage as the pugilist's onslaught was halted.

If Rafaela was daunted, she did not show it. She immediately brought her left fist to bear, following her initial jab with a vicious hook. Her dusky opponent leaned back and brought her right hand upward, cutting a red gash into her arm, but she paid it no heed. She continued to viciously rain blow after blow on her target. Each blow was blocked, but the Pearl was being driven back from the force of each strike.

Rafaela saw her opportunity and brought down a vicious double-fisted overhead slam. The Black Pearl blocked the blow with crossed daggers, but dropped to one knee from the force of the strike. The she-beast shrieked and kicked upward with a bandaged knee, catching the Pearl in the chin and knocking her stumbling backward.

The Black Pearl shook her head to try to clear the spots of color blooming before her eyes. Her adversary charged again, the fresh blood from her forearms soaking into her bandages. It was like a blacksmith hammering molten metal. The steady ringing of metal on metal mixed with the roar of the crowd as neither gladiator would give. The bronze woman held on to her knives with a white knuckled grip, but her hands and arms were beginning to feel numb. The onslaught from her opponent did not end, even when she ducked under the extended fists and tripped her assailant, sending her sprawling to the floor. The swarthy woman spun toward her fallen foe and sank one blade deep into the thigh of the other.

The fallen woman's scream of pain became a shriek of anger as she twisted away from her enemy. The blade, still stuck in the berserker's flesh, was ripped out of the Black Pearl's hand and the Avvar warrior rolled to her feet. She stood and gingerly tested the leg, as if she was unsure why it wasn't functioning as well as it had been a moment ago, but she simply growled again and smashed her fists together in challenge.

The Black Pearl, down to a single weapon, held it in her right hand and steadied it with her left while assuming a defensive stance. She seemed a bit unsteady on her feet.

"This next attack will determine the battle," whispered Adriana. Mathias nodded at her grimly.

Athenril swallowed involuntarily. She glanced to her left, where Vincente stood with a large grin on his face.

"You should have taken my offer," he said.

"Five hundred sovereigns says my Pearl takes it," challenged Athenril.

"Done," scoffed her competitor.

The two women circled slowly, gauging each other for openings. The berserker twitched, and the Black Pearl made her move. The dusky woman hurled her dagger at her opponent's chest, and immediately launched herself after it. Rafaela brought up both iron gauntlets to protect her chest, deflecting the blade. A moment later, the Black Pearl barreled into her and knocked her onto her back.

The Pearl quickly scrambled for position, mounting her opponent's legs and raining blows on her body. The fallen Rafaela attempted to fight back, but she lacked the leverage for any power. Rafaela continued to try to rise, only to take strike after strike to her mask and jaw. Blow after blow came, until the Black Pearl finally grabbed her stunned opponent's face with both hands, tore the skull mask away, and slammed her own forehead into the berserker's nose. A crack the sound of thunder echoed throughout the arena as Rafaela fell back to the stone and went still.

The Black Pearl got to her feet unsteadily, and raised a weary hand in triumph.

The crowd exploded into cheers.

Athenril turned to look at her business associates. Adriana had a knowing smile on her face as she sipped her wine. Mathias stroked his chin, seemingly lost in thought. Vincente, however, had a sour expression on his face, as if he had just bitten into an unripe lemon.

The younger elf motioned and two burly guards came quickly, bearing a wooden lockbox. She nodded, and they began counting the coin on the table aloud in tandem as they put filled the box with the shining gold.

"T'would seem you made out like the bandit ye are, knife-ears," grumbled Mathias, looking woefully at the coin.

"I haven't collected it all yet, Mathias. Our esteemed comrade still owes me an additional five hundred sovereigns."

"I ah... I have a slight problem, Athenril," Vincente began nervously. "I don't have that much coin with me tonight."

Athenril didn't need to look to know that Mathias and Adriana had risen from their seats. She could hear the wooden chairs being pushed back and the careful steps toward her.

"You know that you have to cover your debts, especially here in the high roller's balcony," growled Mathias from behind the young elf.

"Reneging on a debt is unacceptable for a high roller, Vincente, and it is not without its consequences," added Adriana. Her tone brooked no argument, and her eyes were hard as steel.

"You do seem to have a problem, Vincente. How will you rectify this?" asked Athenril.

"Wait! Just wait a moment!" shouted the nervous-looking Vincente, as he raised both hands and took a step back. "I've got something... something valuable! It's worth more than what I owe, and I'll give it to you!"

"I'm listening," answered the elven smuggler.

"This, this little magic marvel," he offered, pulling a leather pouch from his belt. He reached into the small bag and drew forth what looked like a rock the size of Athenril's first thumb knuckle. It was polished to a sheen, and had tiny, barely-visible hairline cracks running all across its surface.

"A rock? What use is a rock?" asked Mathias, furrowing his eyebrows.

"It's not just any rock," Vincente answered quickly. He drew a small vial of luminescent blue fluid from another belt pouch.

Adriana took a quick breath and exclaimed, "Lyrium..."

Vincente nodded, and unstoppered the vial. He dabbed a single drop of the precious blue fluid onto the rock he held in his hand. The effect was immediate, the cracks that covered the surface of the rock burst forth in iridescent colors. The air felt electric, and Athenril could feel the hairs on her arms begin to stand on end as a result of the sudden feeling of raw energy radiating out from the stone like a wave.

"It's a wyvern's bezoar. I pinched it off of my employer, the fool never realized I had given him an ordinary rock. To the right people, this could be worth thousands," offered the oily man.

"That's very generous. You wouldn't be lying to me about any of this, would you?" asked Athenril.

"Of course not. How could a humble trader like myself fake something like that?" he replied, nervously wringing his hands. "You know a high roller is always good for his debts!"

The youthful smuggler snatched the stone and held it up to the light.

"Of course you are," she said. "A pleasure doing business with you."

The empty dockfront warehouse was quiet. The only sounds that filled the air were the sounds of dripping water, the small amount of foot traffic outside, and the periodic sound of the footsteps of the single person in the warehouse. The occupant wasn't walking so much as she was pacing. As she circled the large stone pillar, she'd glance at the entrance of the warehouse every few moments to check again if someone was entering. Each time a shadow had crossed the door frame, she'd briefly pause from her walking and hold her breath only to slowly let it out in a quiet sigh when the pedestrian would pass before resuming her pacing.

Something almost imperceptible shifted the woman's attention. She spun, immediately drawing her gleaming daggers and pointed her left toward the shadows.

A glinting object sailed through the air, end over end.

In one smooth motion, the woman sheathed her left blade and deftly plucked the shining stone out of the air.

"I believe this is what you're looking for," offered a woman's voice from the darkness.

Isabela inspected the stone, noting the spiderweb cracks covering its surface. She cut her left thumb with her blade, just enough to draw blood, and drew it across the stone. The tiny cracks glowed with cheery orange light with the application of the blood, and the pirate sighed in relief.

"Thanks," she said.

"Thank you," laughed Athenril. "Your efforts tonight have earned me a good amount of coin."

"I'm not getting any of the gold I loaned you for seed money back, am I?" asked the corsair.

"Think of it as your buy-in price. You needed me to get in with Vincente and to find this little marvel. And just think - that rock is worth thousands. You only had to pay a few hundred. Quite a bargain, all told."

The voice sounded smug.

"Besides, the stone is what's important thing, isn't it? What's a little coin when your precious sweetheart is in trouble?" mocked Athenril's voice.

The pirate grimaced but did not reply, for the voice was already gone. She carefully tucked the stone into her sash, and turned to leave.

The sun rose steadily into the sky as Hawke waited for Nicola. The young maid would normally wake the Fereldan woman much earlier, it wasn't like her to be late. She placed two fingers on the rain-streaked window, feeling the chill through the glass and watching the movement of the darkened sky. The low crack of thunder echoed in the room as the rain continued to fall in fat droplets that plastered themselves against the tall window.

The door creaked as it slowly opened. Hawke turned with a smile.

"It's about time you got here, Nicola. I've been starving all morning, and..."

The words died on her lips as an aged elven maid with her graying hair done up in a neat bun entered the room bearing a covered silver tray. The woman nodded at the Champion and said "Begging your pardon, milady. I am Judeth, and I will be your maidservant starting today. Please do not hesitate to ask for anything."

The Champion looked at the tray, disappointed.

"What happened to Nicola?" she asked.

"Nicola is no longer with us. The lord has given her a new assignment," she said with a deep bow after placing the tray on the table. "Will that be all, messere?"

"No... thank you, Judeth," Hawke replied.

The elf bowed once more and closed the door behind her.

Hawke lifted the tray cover and inhaled the fragrance of warm porridge, spiced and served with heavy cream and a freshly sliced peach. The sweet, earthy smell of the food finished waking her up, and she lifted the heavy silver spoon and took a bite. The flavor was slightly sweeter than she would have liked, but it was satisfying to her hunger all the same. She took a second bite, and then a third, before her spoon hit something hard in the bowl.

The Champion carefully lifted the lump with her spoon and touched it carefully with the tip of her index finger. It was hard, and didn't give at all. She pondered for a moment while sucking the bit of porridge from her finger, and then wiped the rest of the cereal from the object with her napkin.

Hawke held it between her index finger and thumb and lifted it to her eye. It was a shard of green crystal, no more than a chip the size of her thumbnail. It looked semi-transparent, and was clearly broken from something larger. She turned it over and over in her palm, thinking about what it could mean, while idly chewing a slice of peach.

The quiet was interrupted by the sound of metal creaking on metal. The heavy oaken door to her room slid open slightly.

The Champion looked up. She quickly tucked the crystal shard into her belt and peeked through the crack in the doorway. The heavily armored guards that she had passed each morning were nowhere to be found. She narrowed her eyes, silently weighing her options. The Fereldan woman dressed with as much speed as she could, passing over all of the elaborate gowns she had been given in favor of a common brown wool frock left in the back of the wardrobe. She quickly grabbed one of the white silk scarves from the armoire and looped it about her neck, then quietly pushed her door open.

"The first thing to know about sneaking around is to look like you belong there. Dressing in dark clothes only works at night, when the surroundings are equally dark. If there are ten merchants dressed similarly, who's to say which is the thief?"

Isabela's words echoed in Hawke's mind as she used the scarves and cloth napkins to approximate a bonnet and dress similar to what the serving women wore. She stepped out from her room, and began moving toward the great hall through the now-familiar corridor. She paused when she heard voices approaching from further ahead. Sidling in behind an empty suit of armor, Hawke listened carefully.

"Is she really the Champion of Kirkwall?"

"Aye, that she is."

"But isn't the Champion an eight foot tall man what killed the Arishok o' them oxmen with his bare hands?"

"What are you, daft? No, she's just a prissy noble like any other. Wears them fancy gowns, eats them fancy foods, smells like them fancy perfumes."

"But I've heard stories that he drinks wine from a cup made from the oxman's skull!"

"Aye, and she wipes her ass with jewels and pisses rainbows too. You sound like such a child."

"I do not. I heard from my friend, who heard from the baker who supplies the Champion with his favorite bread, I did."

The voices continued to approach. Isabela's words came once again unbidden.

"The second thing is that people are suspicious of things that stand out. It isn't enough to simply look like you belong there if you don't act like it. A still painting can fool you for a moment, but the second your perspective changes, you can tell it isn't real."

Hawke quickly dropped to her knees and took out her large cloth napkin. She kneeled before one of the suits of armor and began polishing its greaves with her makeshift rag as the guards entered her view. She kept her head bowed and stayed silent as the guards passed, still discussing her more salient attributes and what they would do with them.

"How many times must I tell you? She's a woman, with big beautiful tits and an ass like you wouldn't believe."

"Is that so?"

"I'd like nothing better than to give 'em a good squeeze, and show her what a real man is like."

"You'd best not let the lord hear you say that. The Champion's his guest, isn't he?"

"She, you bloody moron. And who's gonna tell him? You?"

"Well, no. Of course not."

"Damn right, if you know what's good for you."

The two guardsmen's voices grew softer as they passed Hawke without comment. The Champion continued to slowly and methodically polish the metal boot for a while longer, making sure that they had gone before rising. She continued down the corridor, and was about to descend the large, spiral staircase to the foyer and the main exit, when she spotted Nolan speaking with two additional armored guards at the foot of the stair.

The Fereldan woman quickly thought over her options. The stair was clearly out of the question. There was no way for her to sneak past the self-professed handyman without being seen, and he had spent too much time with her for her to fool him with her paltry disguise. She took a step away from the railing to avoid being spotted. She looked out through the iron-wrought window frames at the overcast skies outside, and she remembered a conversation she had in weather much like it.

"If you can't fool them and you can't fight them, you've got to avoid them. Don't be seen, gather more information, and think of other ways to get at your goal. There are often alternate ways to get what you want."

"Does this really work?"

"I convinced you to stay in and give me a massage, didn't I?"

"But you said it was because you hurt your foot and had a cramp!"

"Alternate ways, my lovely. Alternate ways."

Hawke sighed wistfully before snapping back to reality. She turned and continued down the hall, moving toward the mysterious east wing. She glanced about the unfamiliar area, taking in each of the large mural paintings that spanned the walls and various hunting trophies on display. The Champion passed by the claws of a massive bear, several mounted sets of antlers, and an enormous snarling wolf on display before she stopped in front of a particularly large painting that depicted the lord of the manor standing over a fallen dragon. Directly above the ornate frame hung an enormous skull, presumably of the beast on the canvas. To the left and right of the portrait, two intricately carved jade dragons stood on a pair of stone pedestals. The cloudy green figurines curled like serpents around respective iron spires.

Something was missing. The Champion inspected the carvings a bit more closely.

The left of the iron spires had a green crystal set at the top, but the right did not.

The Champion withdrew the small green stone she had found in her porridge earlier that day and examined it. The stone was scuffed near its flattened base, as if it had been pried out of a setting with a knife. Hawke turned it over in her palm before inserting it into the empty spire. It slid into place with an abrupt clicking sound. Hawke blinked at it, before inspecting them again. Something about the positions of the dragon figurines was off. The heights of the dragons were slightly different.

She reached down and examined the base of the carvings but fifound nothing out of the ordinary.

Hawke landed painfully on her rear as her training partner stood over her with hands on hips. The smirking Rivaini extended a hand to the fallen Fereldan.

"Just remember... When all else fails, just grab, pull, and twist," laughed the pirate.

"Well, here goes nothing," Hawke muttered to herself as she attempted to twist the higher of the two statues. The base of the carving swiveled and Hawke felt something inside give way. The figurine rotated slightly under the gentle pressure and the Champion heard a click from the painting. She silently padded to the huge mural, examining the frame closely.

One corner of the massive canvas was loose. The Champion pulled on it carefully and a subsection of the painting swung outward with a low creak. The ornate oak frame had cleverly disguised hinges built into it, and Hawke pulled it back to reveal a stone staircase descending into darkness. She took a breath and quickly moved downward.

"Tell me you've got the dragon nugget or whatever it is that Daisy and Blondie wanted, because that son of a nug wrangler's party is tomorrow night. We're running out of time," said Varric in greeting as Isabela approached the table.

"We've managed to locate two more of the poisoned canisters. In addition to the one at the Chantry, we found one in the great hall of the Merchant's Guild, and a second near the bazaar in Lowtown," added Aveline, who stared down at her still-full tankard.

"They're each positioned for maximum coverage," said Fenris, taking a sip from his goblet. "All it will take is a bit of wind and the gas could spread all over Lowtown."

"Well, I've got some good news. Here you go, kitten. One wyvern's bezoar, slightly used," replied the pirate cheerfully, placing the stone on the table.

"You actually found one?!" asked Anders, leaning forward suddenly. He looked over the small object and his eyes widened in shock.

"Oh, I knew you would find it! This is wonderful news," Merrill chirped happily. She picked up the little stone and examined it. "It's… amazing. So much power in such a little thing. Can you feel it? Just the air around it is making my skin tingle," breathed the mage as she held the bezoar in her hands.

"But is it enough, kitten? Can we stop the poison with this?"

"It should be… if Anders and I work together on this, I think we can do it," said Merrill, still staring intently at the little stone.

"Alright, kitten. I'm leaving it in your hands then."

"We've still got the fourth canister to find. This is where Hawke would normally save the day," said Sebastian. He smiled. "I bet she's already escaped, like she did back at Chateau Haine."

"We're not waiting around for Hawke to save herself. We didn't before, and we aren't going to start now. We aren't abandoning Hawke," replied Isabela grimly.

"Come on, Rivaini. You abandon people all the time. Hawke especially," joked Varric.

"Not this time, Varric. Not Hawke," Isabela said.

"And what happens if it comes down to hundreds of innocent people or Hawke? Can you make that decision? Can any of us?" asked Aveline with a sigh.

"I've done it before, and I'll do it again. Without Hawke, those people are as good as dead anyway," answered the pirate quietly. "I've had my share of blame for what others have done in the past. If these people die, it won't be because of what we did or didn't do. It'll be because some madman decided to poison them all."

"The ball is tomorrow night. We're running out of time," grunted Fenris with finality.

"With or without you, I'm going after her," answered Isabela in a tone that brooked no argument. The others at the table looked at her dubiously, but they saw the determination in her eyes.

Aveline cleared her throat.

"We're with you, whore," she said, and the rest of the assembled friends nodded.

"Good. Kitten, you and Anders will start disarming the poison that we know about. Start with the most populated areas first, then work your way down," the captain began.

"People will notice if Merrill and I are performing magic in broad daylight. It will take some time to disarm the mechanism. What if the templars get called? The last thing we need is to end up in a dungeon at the Gallows," pointed out Anders.

"That's why Varric will accompany you. He'll be able to smooth it over with any onlookers, and provide a good distraction while you two work," answered the dusky corsair.

"I'll give them some of my finest vintage of bullshit," promised Varric, nodding.

"Meanwhile, I need Fenris and Mistress Muscles to organize all of her guardsmen and find that last canister," the pirate continued.

"We've been searching for days already," protested Aveline.

"Then you should check the areas you missed. We don't have much time left. Start with the areas where the most people will be, and narrow it from there. The bilge rat has already shown us what he likes - places where the most victims will gather. Try to prioritize those."

"Aye, so I'll just go with Fenris and the others to help them search for the remaining canister then," began the archer as he began to rise from his chair.

"Oh no, I've got something else I need from you," said Isabela, placing a finger on his sternum and gently pushing him back into his seat.

"But..." Sebastian protested.

"I have a special task for you, prince of Starkhaven," growled Isabela, looming over him like a dragon staring down its supper. "One that only you can accomplish. And you will accomplish it."

Sebastian visibly wilted before her glare. He swallowed hard before raising his hands and saying "I am at your service, my... er... lady."

The stone staircase spiraled downward into the darkness. Hawke moved carefully and quietly as she could, keeping one hand against the wall for safety and feeling each step as she went. She counted the number of steps as she went down, trying to gauge how far she had come. The darkness didn't bother her too much; as long as she was able to keep an accurate count and the stairwell didn't branch, she knew she'd be able to return without any difficulty. The depth, however, had begun to worry her. By her calculation, she had already gone below the ground floor of the estate, and was about to go below what a normal cellar depth should be. Was there something buried even further beneath the manor house?

Hawke turned the thought over and over in her mind as she descended the stair. An escape tunnel? A dungeon? A treasury? A panic room? All of them, perhaps? Whatever it was, it was something du Gaudet had decided was worth protecting.

The Fereldan woman continued to wonder as she passed the depth for a second basement, and continued her path down. She counted her hundredth step as she reached the end of the staircase, which she estimated would put her at about three levels down from where she began. She swept around with her feet for anything on the ground, but apparently the stone floor had been kept clean.

She sniffed the air. She could smell the faint tang of iron and rust, which meant that there was metal nearby. She stood for a moment, trying to decide which way to go. The dark was still impenetrable, and the walls split from the stairwell entrance, meaning it was an actual room.

Hawke held her fingertips to one side and slowly tried to sidle sideways until she touched the other side. She counted off steps - one, two, three, four, before her fingertips brushed the opposite wall. It had to be some sort of hallway, no room would be this narrow. She made sure that the wall would lead back to the staircase, and moved further into the room.

The woman continued forward slowly, feeling along the walls with her fingers and continuing to count steps until she reached the other side of the room. She had counted forty three paces to that point, and then reached out with both hands, brushing her fingers along the stone wall. She felt a metal hinge on top of a heavy wooden door, and explored the entryway further with her fingers. A heavy metal ring was affixed to the right side of the massive door, and an empty metal support, probably for barring it. A moment later, her fingers brushed a heavy wooden bar, probably for the door.

Hawke wrapped her fingers around the heavy iron ring and pulled. The hinges groaned as the door swung outward, but the room remained dark. The foul smell of stale blood, sweat, and rust immediately assaulted her nostrils. She felt something else, a subtle prickle in the air that made things feel… wrong somehow.

Then she heard a woman's voice come from the darkness.

"Who's there?" it called.

Hawke froze, trying to keep silent. The sudden sound had vanished as soon as it came, leaving her to wonder whether she had just imagined it.

"I know you're out there! Answer me!" clamored the voice again.

"I was just looking for the privy," replied Hawke, flippant as always. The prickling feeling in the air intensified, causing the tiny hairs on her skin to tickle.

"You're not the caretaker," accused the voice. It seemed to be coming from the left side of the room. Hawke could hear soft slaps, the sound of flesh on stone. Walking barefoot, perhaps?

"Let me out of here," the voice asked, more subdued.

"Let you out of where?" asked Hawke.

"Out. Out of here. You aren't one of them, are you? He's never sent a woman down here, not yet. He only sends men to do the hurting," answered the voice, exasperated.

Hawke heard a shake, the sound of metal moving slightly. She felt a tiny pulse of energy wash over her, as if someone was fanning her from a distance. The tickle in the back of her head told her that magic was at work.

"Why don't you start by telling me who you are and why you're down here?" asked the Champion, as she tried to explore the room as silently as she could. She felt along the walls with her fingers, trying to find some sort of landmark, or defining characteristics. About five paces in, she recognized a pair of heavy iron manacles. A quick sniff told her that they were rusty, but had the distinct odor of old, dried blood on them. A dungeon, she thought. Definitely.

The voice laughed, but it was a humorless, joyless sound.

"I'm the Champion of Kirkwall," the voice said. "Those monsters are holding me captive, and I need your help to escape."

"W-what?" exclaimed Hawke, suddenly stopping her exploration.

"That's right. My friends call me Hawke, though most know me as Champion. I've been imprisoned, and I need you to help me get out of here," said the voice.

"How can you be the Champion of Kirkwall?" asked Hawke.

"I know it sounds hard to believe, but it's true. If you could see me, you could tell. The lord of the manor… he is an evil man. He kidnapped me, subjected me to cruel tortures, and keeps me down here as his pet. Please, you must help me escape!"

Hawke paused a moment, weighing her options. The tingling was getting stronger. She needed to know more.

"How did you end up here?" she asked.

The voice sighed, exasperated.

"I was doing my duty as Champion of Kirkwall. You know, parties, socializing, business arrangements, that sort of thing. I was at a dinner party, invited by lord du Gaudet. There was delicious food and wonderful entertainment. Someone must have drugged my wine that night. I was here when I woke. Please, you must let me out!" the voice pleaded.

The real Champion paused to consider as she felt the hairs on the back of her neck begin to stand on end.

"My family is rich, and I'm very generous to those who help me," the voice went on.

"Riches, you say?" asked Hawke.

"Just think of it! Gold, jewels, wealth beyond a commoner's dream!" promised the voice.

Hawke stood still for a moment in the silence.

"Or is it something else you want? Some leverage over the lord of the manor, perhaps? His darkest secrets, his weakest points?" the voice offered.

Hawke paused.

"Let's hear some more," she said cautiously.

The voice chuckled, a cruel and painful sound.

"Aye, you want to know the mighty du Gaudet's secrets, hmm? How he has dealings with maleficar, and how he traded me and my blood to the Void-cursed abomination for his own gains. Blood magic, you know," croaked the voice.

"Go on," urged Hawke.

"The horrors that man has visited upon me… they would turn your hair white and haunt your dreams for years. They did things to me, things that no Maker-fearing red-blooded woman should ever have to endure," the voice coldly replied.

"What things? What power does the man have?" asked Hawke.

"Think me a fool? Release me first, and I'll tell you all I know," answered the voice.

"How would I do that? I can't see a thing down here."

"Just come this way, in the direction of my voice. There's a weak spot in the hinge - a mechanism that just needs a bit of a push to open the door, but I can't get the leverage I need from this side of the bars. Find the pin that extrudes a bit at about waist level and push on it!"

Hawke hesitated for a moment, briefly considering the request. Could it be the work of a demon? She didn't feel the normal ripple in her connection to the fade that typically accompanied the presence of a demon, but she had enough experience with the more clever demons and abominations in the past that any sense could be fooled.

"Come on, you'll do neither of us any good dawdling. Once they know you've found this place, you're as good as dead. They can't afford to let you live," the voice added.

Hawke turned her options over in her mind, hoping she was not making a mistake. She sighed and fumbled forward in the darkness, momentarily losing her bearings as she let go of her spot on the wall. She stepped forward with her hands out, counting the steps as she moved. She heard scrabbling sounds from the other side, and the slap of bare feet on stone. She edged forward and her fingers touched cold iron bars.

"It's by me. Follow the sound of my voice," said the other in the darkness.

Hawke continued to move toward that direction, touching her fingers to the bars every now and again. Suddenly, her fingers touched warm skin. It had to be the other woman's fingers.

The woman immediately reached out to touch Hawke's hands. A spark of invisible energy erupted at the contact, washing over the real Champion's skin in waves. The woman didn't seem to notice. Hawke noted that the other woman lacked any sort of calluses on her hands and wondered who she really was. The voice's fingers lingered on the Champion's own calluses from handling weapons for most of her life.

"Good. It's just below here. Feel for my fingers again," ordered the voice, quavering slightly in anticipation.

Hawke knelt down, feeling along the edges of the bars until she came across what felt like a hinge with a protruding heavy iron nail. It had somehow come loose from the hinge it was supposed to be holding in place. A good kick from her side would probably be enough to dislodge it.

"This is it! Just a hard push and I should be able to get the door open!" urged the voice.

Silently hoping it was not a mistake, Hawke brought her foot down on the hinge as hard as she could. The sudden impact jarred the pin loose causing it to fall, and Hawke heard the sound of iron grating against rock, followed by the slapping of flesh on stone as her new companion scrambled through the newly opened hole in the bars.

"Free! Free at last! Oh, you won't regret this. Gold, jewels, all yours for freeing me," crowed the woman's voice. Thin hands reached out and grasped Hawke's arm. There was a brief explosion of magical energy at the contact, and a dark and oily sensation washed over the Champion.

The other woman apparently didn't notice. "Come, we must leave this place. Lead the way, my brave friend," she urged.

"There's nothing else down here?" asked the Fereldan woman. "Another way out, perhaps?"

The voice laughed bitterly, a joyless raspy sound.

"No, my friend. The only things down here are pain and suffering. You have to get me out of here," it urged.

"I'll do what I can," promised the Champion. "Now about that blood magic..."

The voice chuckled cruelly. "The monster had a partner, a pet maleficar named Umthondo. It was that son of a darkspawn that did this to me. He cut me, he carved me like I was a canvas! Me! The Champion of Kirkwall!"

The prisoner spat.

"Thank the Maker that the thrice-cursed bastard has since parted ways with that apostate. Without his dark adviser, he knows as much about blood magic as a turnip. Now let us away. You can ask your questions once we are free."

The pair moved carefully. The woman would occasionally stumble as they walked in the darkness, leaning on Hawke for support when she did so. She felt very slight, as if malnourished and underweight… the prisoner must have weighed around the same or possibly less than the willowy Merrill. Each time they touched, Hawke could feel a small jolt of magical energy released into the air. It was slow going as Hawke kept her hands out carefully in front to make sure they didn't run into anything, and the small, mincing steps that her companion took. The moments passed in silence and the duo reached the foot of the staircase.

Hawke's companion tensed in anticipation when her foot touched the first step. She trembled as she began taking more rapid steps up the spiraling stone staircase. Hawke followed closely behind. The only sounds that Hawke could hear were her her shoes and the prisoner's bare feet slapping the stone and the sound of her companion's labored breathing as they continued to ascend. The prisoner was tiring, but pushing herself further. Hawke could sense the desperation in the other woman as she climbed the steps.

It was the interruption to the rhythmic sounds of ascension that was her first warning. The steady slap-slap of feet on stone had settled into a periodic, comforting beat to the Champion's ears, but when a slight buzzing in her ears interrupted the beat, the Fereldan's ears pricked up.

"Something strange is going on," she hissed at her companion, pausing for a moment.

The prisoner continued without slowing.

"It doesn't matter," the voice growled. "None shall stand in my way."

Her companion redoubled her efforts, climbing even faster with an almost fevered urgency. Hawke kept up, but grew wary. They had nearly reached the top, when a soft, eerie blue glow gently illuminated the stairwell. For the first time, Hawke could see her companion.

Medium-length dark, stringy hair framed deathly pale skin. Tattered rags hung loosely on a body that was once beautiful, but had suffered from lack of adequate food and rest. A multitude of scars, both large and small, decorated the prisoner's arms and legs in patterns and shapes like writing in a language Hawke had never seen. The scars seemed reminiscent of raised tattoos, spiraling and swirling around the skin in an oddly specific shape. Her companion's breathing grew heavy as she climbed, clearly unused to the exertion. The approaching light brightened, causing Hawke's sense of caution to clamor as loudly as it could in the back of her mind.

Suddenly, bright, near-blinding white energy erupted from the walls and ceiling, hurling both women back. The prisoner snarled in rage and threw herself forward at the brightly glowing wards etched into the stone again, only to be thrown back a second time.

Hawke could smell the scent of burned flesh.

"They will not put me back in that hole," the prisoner growled. "The Champion of Kirkwall will not be chained!"

She leaped forward a third time, charging against the warded area, and was thrown back again just as easily. The scars on her skin began pulsing and glowing a dull red color. The smell of singed hair and skin grew thick in the air.

"Perhaps there's a way to turn it off?" asked Hawke.

Her companion turned around to answer. The woman's face had been badly disfigured. Glowing scars crossed her cheeks and lips, creating a macabre grin on her face. Her left cheek was covered in raised spiraling scar tissue, but her right was left pristine and smooth. The most unsettling part was her eyes, so utterly wild and full of fear.

"I don't…" she began before trailing off, eyes widening in shock and rage.

"YOU,"she hissed.

With the guttural scream of a frenzied animal, the prisoner leaped at Hawke, trying to close her bony fingers around the Fereldan's neck. Hawke struggled to stay upright, but the prisoner was heedless of her own safety.

"Give me back my face! Give it back!" the prisoner screamed as Hawke finally lost her balance and the pair tumbled backward down the stairs.

"All of this! It's all your fault! They wanted you! They did this to me because of you! Give it back!" she continued to shriek as they fell.

Sharp pains pierced Hawke's sides and back as they crashed into the steps. She gritted her teeth through the pain, but it was all she could do to keep her assailant from closing those bony fingers around her neck. Hawke idly wondered whether this would finally be her end - her neck snapped by a crazed prisoner in the dungeon stairwell of a villain.

A familiar pirate's voice suddenly spoke inside her mind.

If you're ever in a situation you can't control, remember my first and favorite rule.

Hawke twisted her body with the fall, forcing her crazed opponent's body to cushion her against each subsequent step. The seconds passed as they tumbled and fell down the stairs, grunting and growling at each other like wild animals. She focused on staying alive and blunting the impacts from the steps as the pair plunged down the steps until finally, with a loud crack, they landed at the base of the stairwell. Hawke heard an audible crack as they finally reached the bottom, her assailant's body below her, and the prisoner went limp.

"When all else fails, always be on top," recited Hawke, as she sat up against a wall to catch her breath. "Thank you, Isabela."

The magical energy in the air exploded. Blinding pain erupted from every inch of the Champion's body, twisting her in place and setting every nerve ending on fire. Patches of color burst behind her eyes, swirling and taking shape as she gritted her teeth. The colors coalesced into a blurry figure, reaching out to her. The features took shape and Hawke realized it was Isabela, reaching out to her. She extended her own hand toward the pirate's, but her fingers passed right through as if she were trying to grasp mist. A second figure, gaunt and skeletal, loomed behind the sea captain, and its presence was so dark that all of the bright lights and colors that were flashing dimmed as they were pulled into it. The deepest parts of the void began to burn with black flame, forming mystical symbols that her mind found familiar, yet didn't recognize. A split second later and Hawke felt her own consciousness being dragged into the blackness.

She screamed.

As soon as the sound broke the silence, Hawke was jolted back to consciousness. The magic dissipated as quickly as it had come, but the burning sigils she had seen were etched into her memory. They were like no magical symbols she had ever seen; they were like fitting an enormous wave into a thimble. She slapped her own cheeks twice, trying to focus and shake the image from her mind.

Hawke quickly checked the madwoman's body, and it was as she guessed - the scarred woman was dead from a broken neck. The hands that had been seeking her life had finally fallen limp. Hawke suddenly felt her insides turn to ice. The woman's body was covered in scar tissue, carved to match the various symbols Hawke had seen in her pain-induced vision.

Hawke sat in the silence for what seemed like hours, gingerly touching the bruises forming on her skin. Her ears pricked up when she heard the sounds of boots on stone descending the stairwell. She struggled to rise, but her battered body protested.

"Why can't it ever just go to plan? Why is it always pain?!" muttered the Fereldan to herself.

"Looks like you've been a mite busy this morning," drawled Nolan as he appeared from the stairs with a lantern. "Ah don't want to hurt ya, but ah'll do what's necessary," he warned.

"How did you find me?" asked Hawke as Nolan helped her up.

The thin man was silent as he put one of Hawke's arms over his shoulder.

"The jewel, the guards, the prisoner... someone set me up for this," Hawke reasoned. "Someone wanted me to find this."

"Ah reckon that if somebody did want you to find all this, it'd have to be for a good reason," Nolan said, breaking the silence as they began to ascend the stairs.

"What I can't figure out is why. It can't be to escape, there's nothing down here but the prisoner," mused Hawke aloud as he helped her up the steps.

"Ain't mah place to say, your ladyship," replied Nolan.

They moved in silence for the rest of the climb. The lanky man escorted the Champion all the way back to her room, where a tray with healing poultices and pain relieving herbs had been set out for her.

Hawke looked at him suspiciously when she was shown the door.

"Seems to me that a hired man has to fulfill his obligations, your ladyship," he said, inclining his head. "Might be that a man's word is his bond, and he's sworn to honor his word. Might also be a few unsavory things a man might witness while doing his duty weren't included in those obligations. Someone oughta know what those are, even if a man can't exactly say. Funny how things like that might work out."

Hawke looked at him with hard eyes, but he had already turned and begun walking away.

"Are you saying…" she began.

"Ah ain't sayin' nothin'. Just a little idle talk. You'd best prepare for the ball tonight, your ladyship. His lordship wants you all prettied up, nice and proper," he said without looking back.

The grand ballroom stretched on and upward far beyond what Hawke was used to seeing back at her home. Rich red carpets covered the floors, as guests wearing the finest in silks, leathers and velvets intermingled. Some were chatting among themselves, while others gathered near the long tables laden with freshly-prepared meats, cheeses and assorted delicacies. A steady stream of finely-dressed elves paraded from the kitchens bearing trays of hors d'oeuvres and champagne glasses to the guests, as well as heavier fare to the serving tables. A team of gaily-dressed musicians played lilting music with their vielles for the room, adding rhythm and harmony to the steady murmurs of polite conversation. Near the end of the hallway, a plethora of honored guests lined up to be announced by the booming voice of du Gaudet's valet.

"The Compte and Comptesse of Bourdain," announced the barrel-chested majordomo from the entrance, as a wispy-haired elderly man in dark blue velvets escorted an equally elderly woman that positively gleamed with gold and silver jewelry. Compte Bourdain handed his jewel-encrusted cane to one of the guards in gleaming plate armor for inspection, before hobbling to join his wife by the buffet tables.

Hawke stood off to one side from the gathered nobles, looking out the window at the setting sun. The elven servants had already begun lighting the braziers and activating the glowstones in the ballroom. She sighed as she looked down at her dress. It was a sleek number tailored to fit her frame. She wore an off-shoulder steel gray gown that hugged her hips, with a wide belt of silver chain links and a large sapphire belt buckle. The Champion's creamy skin was offset by a pair of elbow-length dark velvet gloves with silver bracelets set with sapphires, and her shoulders and neckline were covered by a white feather boa draped loosely about her neck. Soft velvet slippers encased her feet, hidden by the length of her gown. She lifted her glass and sipped the wine, noting the sweetness of the beverage. It was a fine vintage, a Tevinter wine by the taste of it, but she was in no mood to enjoy the flavor. She glanced about for a place to set her glass down, and a worried-looking lady-in-waiting quickly brought a tray to take it from her.

"Marques Adagio de la Cruz, Blade of the Queen, Lord of the Seleny River Valley, and his guest, Lady Sara Najafi of Ayesleigh," boomed the attendant. An elven man in green with a beautiful Rivaini woman in a backless white gown on his arm stood before the manservant, but two heavily armored guards locked their halberds before them, barring their way. The elf grimaced before unbuckling the rapier from his belt and handed the weapon to the manservant. The guards retracted their polearms and the couple sauntered past, smiles returning to their faces.

Hawke looked back out the window, beyond the gardens to the mountains on the horizon where the sun had begun to vanish behind the snow-covered peaks in the distance. The setting sun illuminated her face with a soft, orange glow for scant moments before vanishing completely behind the mountains.

"Why do you hide yourself out here, my dear?" came a deep voice from behind her. Its owner, Lord du Gaudet, strode to her confidently and placed one large hand on her gloved forearm.

"I don't feel very comfortable here," replied the Champion. She glanced at him. He was dressed in his customary green velvets with gold embroidery. His hair was pulled back in a small tail tied with a deep green silk ribbon, and his velvet coat sat snugly about his broad shoulders and barrel chest. He wore a white satin shirt trimmed with lace above deep green velvet slacks, and soft leather boots. He would have looked very handsome, had he not had a sinister gleam in his eye, and his upper lip not been curled into a semblance of a sneer. Her eyes lingered at the golden amulet around his throat.

"It is important that you mingle with our guests. I want to make sure that everyone here knows exactly who you're here for," he said, his voice deepening. He gestured toward the crowds.

"Ser Ghyslain of Tantervale and his escort, Lady Fara of House Calibrese," announced the valet. A balding man with streaks of grey in his brown beard marched forward with a military bearing. He was accompanied by a fresh-faced girl at least a decade his junior dressed in a pale pink silk gown with a bored expression on her face.

Hawke glanced back at du Gaudet. He looked at her with a bemused expression, tracing the outline of the silver sapphire pendant at her collar with a finger before raising her chin. He leaned toward her, seemingly intent on kissing her. She turned from him, a frosty look shining in her ice-blue eyes. He chuckled and kissed her turned cheek.

"Defiant till the end, my Champion. Best you remind yourself that you are mine," he smirked, tapping the golden medallion around his neck. Three out of four gemstones the size of Hawke's thumbnail glowed with unnatural light, though the fourth was dull and lifeless. "You'll do as I ask and you'll like it, or all of those precious, ordinary people you've fought so hard to keep safe will all die in agony."

She grimaced at him, her even, white teeth gritted and a murderous look in her eyes. He chuckled.

"You couldn't bear to have it on your conscience, could you? All those poor, defenseless, worthless people just biting and clawing and tearing each other to bloody pieces," he continued. She could practically see the smugness dripping from his voice. "You'd like nothing better than to tear me apart right now. But you can't, can you? You can't risk it, because the moment I die, so shall they."

She sighed as her shoulders slumped. She tightened her lips and turned from him, though the icy look never left her eyes.

"Get it out of your system while you can, my Champion. You are mine. Mentally... emotionally..." he began, placing both hands on her bare shoulders and gently squeezing. He leaned in and she could feel the heat from his body on her back. "... and physically," he concluded, whispering into her ear. She felt sick, a roiling wave of disgust grabbing her from deep within.

She recoiled from him, twisting her shoulder to throw his hand off. He sneered at her, taking a step forward.

"His royal highness, Sebastian Vael, Crown Prince of Starkhaven..." began the herald. Hawke's ears pricked up. Sebastian? Here? The valet coughed nervously before continuing. "And his escort, Captain Isabela di Falcore, Princess of Pearl-diving, Herald of the Honeyed Valley, and Keeper of the Champion's Box."

Lord du Gaudet coughed violently as he heard the valet's announcement while the crowds of nobles buzzed in curiosity over the odd introduction. Hawke ignored them all. She momentarily glanced at Sebastian in his ivory-colored doublet and trousers with brown trim before moving on to the woman at his side, and her breath caught in her throat.

Isabela stood next to Sebastian, scanning the crowd for someone or something. Her shoulder-length hair had been done up in a loose bun, and the normally wild locks fell instead in ringlets that softly framed her heart-shaped face. Small bands of gold with pearls had been woven into her hair, and they sparkled in the light of the cheerful glowstones. Her jewelry had been buffed to a mirror sheen, but what really drew Hawke's eye was the evening gown she wore. Isabela had forgone her usual gold choker and tunic, and instead wore a form-fitting silk dress, royal blue trimmed with gold. The gown was cut high on both sides, showing her bare legs and delicate feet clad with golden gladiator-style sandals with shining straps wrapping about her calves up to just below the knee. Unlike her usual attire, it had a high neck with a collar and yet the precise tailoring and tight-fitting silk left little of her luscious figure to the imagination. The outfit accentuated her gorgeous breasts, trim waist, and rounded hips with interesting plays of fabric, while leaving her arms exposed. Instead of her customary leather gloves and shoulder armor, her dusky skin was bare save for a number of jewel-encrusted gold bracelets at her wrists. A line of lilies embroidered on the front of the gown accentuated the contours of her body, starting at her shoulder and growing diagonally down across her chest. The pirate was stunning; Hawke couldn't tear her eyes away.

"You know, Lord du Gaudet, I think you're right. I should go and mingle with your esteemed guests," smirked Hawke, slipping past him and moving toward the guests. A nearby guard began to follow, but du Gaudet held up a hand.

"There will be time for that later. Let her test the limits of her leash for now. I will soon bring her to heel," he said, rubbing his chin.

Hawke wasted no time. She moved as quickly as she could, but her gown tightly hugged her hips and restricted her stride. She frowned as she forced herself to take small, mincing steps through the groups of nobles. As she approached, several attempted to strike up conversation with her.

"I say, is that the Champion of Kirkwall?"

"Oh Champion, you simply must meet Lord Cornelius."

"Champion, it is lovely to see you again."

She nodded and dismissed them as quickly as she could. She begged their pardons, and promised to speak with them soon, but there was someone she absolutely had to speak with. She smiled and waved politely and pushed past those who crowded around her, but her eyes never left her target.

The pirate's amber eyes lit up and the corners of her lips curled upward when she spotted the approaching Fereldan woman. She controlled herself, holding in the feeling of relief that washed over her like a hot bath on a cold day. Instead, she allowed herself to smirk, drinking in the sight of Hawke's swaying hips and shapely legs as she walked forward in her hip-hugging dress. Isabela allowed her smirk to grow, and inwardly grinned at the flush growing on Hawke's cheeks.

"Isabela, do ye see-" began Sebastian, looking the wrong way through the crowd. "Isabela?"

The prince looked to his side, finding an empty spot where he had expected a pirate captain to be standing. He looked up and saw her disappear into the crowd, slipping between a pair of silk-clad gentlemen that both looked on appraisingly as she passed. He thought for a moment, shrugged, and helped himself to a glass of wine.

The pirate had spotted her, and the two approached each other. Gently pushing her way through the gathering crowd, Hawke increased her pace. Finally, she reached her lover. Isabela smirked and clasped Hawke's right hand in hers.

"Hawke," she said.

"Isabela," acknowledged the Champion. "You look stunning."

"I told you that I'm perfectly capable of carrying on polite conversation without using the words 'shit' or 'ass', didn't I?" Isabela laughed. The sound brought a breath of relief over Hawke, like a cool breeze on a hot day. The Champion smiled her first genuine smile in what felt like years. Had it only been a few days since she had last seen the pirate? The affairs of the previous week felt like a blur after du Gaudet had issued his ultimatum. He had sent servants to fit her for the dress, prepare her for the party, and personally invite several of the guests as a showing of his power over her.

Those specific guests seemed to be edging closer. An old noblewoman with her hair done up so tightly that it actually stretched her wrinkled skin taut approached, pulling a fur stole closer about her bony shoulders with one hand, while waving with her other. She called out in a shrill, nasal voice.

"Champion! Oh, Champion, how lovely to see you here!"

"Well met, Lady Janice," greeted Hawke in a slightly strained voice.

Isabela winced as her palm felt a pinch. The Fereldan's grip on her hand had tightened painfully at the sound of Lady Janice's voice. She put on a smile and slid next to her lover.

"I had heard you came to this lovely gathering with the host, my Champion. Jenner was utterly distraught at the thought of having lost you," she shrilled.

"Lady Janice, you remember my partner Isabela, don't you?" smiled Hawke, holding up Isabela's hand in hers.

"Oh, your business partner, of course," nodded Lady Janice. The corner of one lip curled very slightly in distaste. "Came with the crown prince of Starkhaven, didn't you?"

The canny pirate smiled and nodded. "The prince is just a good friend, but lacks the resources to partner with me long term. The Champion and I have a very close relationship. Quite a slave driver, that one. She often makes me load and unload her special cargo from my hold all night long," she mused, seeing the color bloom on Hawke's cheeks. "And yet she's so demure about it. You should see her take command, she really gets hands on to ensure that her delicates are properly handled... it's utterly exhausting and enjoyable at the same time," the pirate continued, smirking.

Each word that Isabela spoke drove the noblewoman's left eyebrow up slightly higher than before. She idly wondered how high she could make it rise, before Hawke interrupted her.

"My apologies, Lady Janice, but I must speak privately with my partner. You understand, don't you?" smoothed Hawke, hooking her arm in Isabela's and pulling her away. The Champion glanced back and forth, noting that there were others moving to intercept them. A movement caught her eye, and she hit on an idea. She tugged the pirate gently, and the dusky corsair nodded and followed cautiously. Hawke swore under her breath at the small steps her dress continued to force her to take. She moved as quickly as she could, pulling Isabela onto the dance floor where several couples danced slowly to the melodic sounds of the musicians.

The Rivaini cocked an eyebrow.

"We need to talk," said Hawke, taking Isabela's left hand in hers and placing her right on the pirate's hip.

"I do like it when you lead," said the pirate with a smirk as they began a slow waltz across the dance floor. The duelist gently pulled her dance partner closer, reducing the extent of their movements.

"You can't be here," murmured Hawke quietly as they danced.

"And yet here I am. Funny how that works," replied the buxom buccaneer.

"I can't tell you why, but I'll figure something out. You mustn't stay, or you'll arouse suspicion," the Champion continued.

"Hawke, you know we'll always have your back. I'll always have your back," said Isabela, pressing herself against her lover's body and putting both arms around Hawke's neck. "Trust in me," she breathed, almost too softly to hear, as they danced on.

Hawke slid her hands down the pirate's waist as they moved more slowly. "I..." she began, looking into Isabela's full eyes.

"Excuse me, my dear. May I cut in?" asked a masculine voice from behind.

Isabela quickly turned to look at who it was, but she already recognized the voice. Reluctantly, she released her embrace, and took a step back, affixing a false smile on her face.

"Of course, Lord du Gaudet," she said graciously, giving a half-curtsy and stepping back. She gave Hawke one more emotion-filled look, and turned to leave without looking back.

The nobleman stepped in and took Hawke's hand and began to lead. She matched his movements, but her gaze lingered on Isabela's back. They danced in silence for a few moments, but the Fereldan continued to avoid eye contact.

"What did she want, my Champion?" he asked, finally.

"To know what was going on. She's concerned," replied the Champion.

"As she should be. And you told her nothing?" nodded du Gaudet.

"I told her nothing."

"Good. Now get rid of her. Send her away for good, my Champion. Do it now," he said. "I don't want to ever see that wharf rat ever again."

"But..." protested the Champion.

"If you don't convince her to leave, my guards will be happy to solve this problem permanently. And the Starkhaven boy along with her," he said, his tone completely detached. "I don't care how you do it. Just make it happen, my dear."

He suddenly grabbed and lifted her chin roughly, forcing her to look at him.

"You belong to me, my Champion. You'd best get used to that idea quickly," he said, smirking. Then he kissed her.

Her insides seized up, and she tried to pull back, but his strong hands held her in place. Even at her most ardent, Isabela hadn't pushed like this. He took his pleasure from the kiss, while feelings of utter disgust spilled onto Hawke like someone had upended garbage directly over her mouth. His facial hair bit into her cheek, and his breath smelled as foul to her as an open grave. She felt sick as she felt his warm breath on her skin. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he released her.

Some of the other nobles had stopped dancing, and were buzzing with the latest gossip they had witnessed.

"My Champion," he smiled, dark eyes glittering. "Don't you have a task to do?"

Hawke withdrew from the man, inwardly relieved at the increased distance. Her body responded automatically to the smiling sycophants that tried to press in and introduce themselves to her, but her mind raced for a solution to her problem. She examined the problem mentally for the umpteenth time… there had to be some way to separate du Gaudet from his amulet. Once she managed to do that, he was effectively powerless.

Another bann, or lord, or duke, or arl, or something was speaking to her. She repeated his name, smiled and nodded, and let him take her hand in his. His lips moved as he spoke, but she paid little attention to his words and barely even registered what he looked like. Instead, she scanned the room for the pirate who commanded her attention. The gathered nobility were clumped about in small circles, but the sea captain seemed to be hidden.

"If I were Isabela, where would I be?" she asked herself. She sighed with a smile. "Where's the liquor?"

The Champion turned toward the buffet table and bar. A group of young nobles were gathered around it, calling for drinks. Hawke's suspicions proved correct as she found Isabela in the center of them, sipping from a crystal wine goblet and gesturing dismissively with one hand.

"... Sure, you could take a frigate instead of a brig, but what you bring in power, you lose in speed. You might be have the capacity for a crew of a hundred, but you've got to feed and water them too. Give me some experienced hands and I'll have a brig to Rialto and back before you can even clear Hercinia."

"But wouldn't you be vulnerable to pirates? I've heard stories of the Raiders, all how bloodthirsty and unstoppable they are," scoffed a ruddy-cheeked young man in an orange velvet waistcoat.

"They'd have to catch me, first. That's the trick with pirates, you know. They tend to give up once their prey reaches safe harbor," she replied, taking a sip from her goblet.

"Couldn't they just lie in wait you along your course?" Hawke interjected. "The villains could set a trap for you and strike before your superior speed could be a factor."

The gathered onlookers listened carefully for the captain's answer.

"Ah, the Champion of Kirkwall, always the keen strategist," replied Isabela. She smiled.

"It's true that it could be troublesome. There are those who believe that keeping secrets is the best solution… the fewer that know your heading, the harder it is for your enemies to ambush you," the captain continued. Several members of the audience nodded.

"That particular strategy runs a special risk, especially if you've become as famous as the mighty Champion… if your enemy's learned your patterns and your favorite courses, they'll manage to get ahead of you anyway by study and planning. Then you'll be trapped like a tuna in a net, ready to become someone's supper. Better to mix things up a bit by calling on some trusted allies for a little protection in those situations."

Hawke sniffed. "Wouldn't that cut into the profits?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

"It might... in the short term. But you wouldn't put that much coin and effort into sailing a ship if you weren't in for the long haul, would you? For that you'd want mutually beneficial arrangements," replied the corsair.

"Sometimes we lack that option," murmured Hawke, turning away.

"You never lack that option," whispered Isabela, placing her hand on the Fereldan's shoulder before she could go. "Apologies, my friends. I must chat with the Champion on some urgent business matters."

Moments later, the pair found a modicum of privacy by the entrance to the kitchens. Isabela leaned back against the wall, looking on as Hawke grew more irritable.

"I thought I told you to leave!" the Champion hissed.

"And I thought I told you to trust in me," the captain replied.

"You don't understand. I… I need you to leave. It isn't safe for you here. I'll be back before you know it. Please," beseeched the Fereldan. "I… the lord of the manor would… I don't know what I would do if…"

Isabela immediately pulled Hawke into a tight embrace, holding her close. The pirate could feel her lover's body shaking slightly against hers while she whispered soothing noises to her paramour.

"I didn't come here to be safe, sweet thing. I came here because you need me here, even if you won't admit it," Isabela chided gently.

"Just… let me fix this," Hawke argued. "I can do it, I know I can."

"You don't have to, Hawke," whispered Isabela. "Let me help."

The pirate ran her hand along her lover's back gently, and the Fereldan woman shuddered in pain. The dusky corsair stopped immediately and peered carefully at Hawke's exposed skin.

"What the-" she began, before narrowing her eyes. She carefully rubbed one thumb against a slightly discolored patch of Hawke's normally creamy skin, revealing the concealing makeup that had been applied to hide the purpling bruises beneath.

"Wait just a moment! What are you doing, Isabela? Stop that!" demanded Hawke as the buccaneer roughly held her and examined her skin with a practiced eye.

"That broomstick-gargling ash-spewing rotworm did this, didn't he?!" the pirate growled. The crystal wine goblet shattered in her hands as she clenched them into fists. The dark wine mixed with the Rivaini's blood as it dripped onto the floor from her white-knuckled grip.

"Isabela, what are you doing? It's nothing," Hawke began, but the captain was having none of it.

"Jillian and dozens of others are dead. That bastard put your in life-threatening danger, and made you push your friends away. Made you push me away. All in the name of doing the right thing," she whispered as her face darkened in anger.

"He thinks he's so smart, pulling these strings and making us dance. Well, I've had all I can stand from this swaggering sack of shriveled up danglers. It's high time to cut those strings, and I'm just the girl to do the slicing," she finished.

"Come on, Isabela. Don't do something stupid, now is not the time for this!" hissed the Champion.

The pirate paused and took a deep breath.

Hawke took a moment and breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe she had finally gotten through to her. Maybe the bloody pirate would see the sense in it. Maybe-

The Champion's eyes flew open in surprise as Isabela suddenly bent her backward, kissing her deeply. The Rivaini woman's dexterous tongue gently pinned hers down, and Hawke could feel her toes curling and her eyes closing at the forcefulness of the kiss.

The Fereldan was barely coherent when the kiss finally broke. Her knees felt like jelly, and the only thing keeping her upright was the strong arm that the pirate had wrapped around her shoulders. She sputtered for a moment, struggling to find a coherent thought.

"Don't you worry, sweet thing. I've got a plan," Isabela replied with a mischievous smile, gently pressing her other fingertip to her lover's lips. The pirate gave Hawke a quick peck on the lips, a saucy wink, and then dropped the poor Champion ass-first onto the floor.

"Isabela! Isabela!" shouted the Champion from the floor, finally having found her tongue as the pirate stormed directly into the crowd of nobles. If the buccaneer heard, she gave no response as she strode forward, smoothly pulling a sword from a surprised guard's scabbard and punching the hapless victim in the throat with the handguard. The unfortunate man dropped like a sack of potatoes, followed shortly by gasps and screams from among the nobles gathered nearby.

"That woman is going to be the death of me," sighed Hawke as she tried to get up.

"No, you need to focus at the base. Look, that's where the enchantment is weakest," said Anders, pointing at the canister.

"I already tried that. It's the weakest, because that's where the excess mana drains off. We need to focus it there, where all of the channels directly connect," replied Merrill.

"But if you overload it, that will cause it to detonate prematurely!" said Anders, sighing.

"You two are making me really nervous just watching you," interjected Varric, pacing several strides away. "Are you sure it's safe to be here?"

"It's as safe as anywhere in the Chantry," replied the revolutionary. "If it goes off, we're all going to die clawing each others' throats out."

"My reassurance knows no bounds," groaned the dwarf. "Can I stand outside yet?"

"Hush, Varric. It will all be fine, I know it will," reassured Merrill.

"You're sure you're sure?" asked Anders again.

"I'm telling you, it's right here. Can't you feel it, Anders?" asked the willowy elf.

"It just makes me nervous," he replied.

"Stop saying that! You're scaring the piss out of me!" grumbled the dwarf.

"I can feel the blood and the bezoar calling to it. I'm going to do it," said Merrill, concentrating hard.

"You're really sure?"

The Dalish elf didn't reply. Instead, she released the mana through the wyvern bezoar, and the entire room was suddenly filled with light.

Somewhere, far away, unbeknownst to its wearer, the soft light within a red gemstone set in an elaborate golden amulet gently faded.

His name was Jervis. He had grown up on a large farmstead just outside of the Nevarran border, planting turnips and raising pigs. He had grown up bigger than the rest of the other children on the farmstead and had quickly learned from childhood that being bigger and stronger had its clear advantages. The other children would give him their desserts if he threatened them, and he could always get the easier chores and extra portions of supper if he wasn't caught. The girls always found him interesting, because he commanded the respect and fear of the other children. And even if they didn't, all he had to do was push them a little and they'd come around. He'd eventually bore of them, of course, but it was always nice to have the options available. The other boys would happily take his discards, though once or twice they had tried to fight back against him. This had happened after he had been apprenticed to the smithy, however, and a few heavy punches from muscles hardened by smelting iron and forging steel had quickly disabused them of any ideas that he would fold so easily.

The life of a blacksmith, however, wasn't enough for Jervis. One night he got into a bar fight while visiting the biggest town he had ever seen, and ended up in the local stocks after breaking the bones of four other men who had been members of the local guard. They had called him a turnip digger.

While sitting in those stocks and contemplating the size of the world beyond his turnip farmstead, Jervis was approached by an old woman in battered and dented green armor. She thought he had some potential, and offered him a place with her group of sellswords called the Green Lances. They would train him, clothe him, feed him, and even pay him. In return, he would serve them faithfully as a soldier. He happily accepted and never looked back.

Life as a soldier was different than life as a blacksmith. He wasn't the best at fighting, nor was he the best at shooting or swordplay, but he was good enough. He was sufficient to protect the flank of his fellow soldier, and the jobs they did earned enough to keep him comfortably fed and the occasional visit to the local brothel. He made a few friends in the company and lost a few friends in the battles they fought, but he knew his trade and did his best.

He had traveled and served with the Lances for a few years when tragedy struck. Work had been growing scarce, and the Green Lances were running low on funds. Desertion was becoming commonplace, and Jervis had considered it more than once himself. Jervis himself stayed with the Lances mostly due to a lack of other options. Out of desperation, the Lances had begun robbing small, isolated hamlets and farmsteads for coin and loot. It wasn't lucrative, but it was enough to get by. The Marcher authorities were too spread out and disorganized to put serious thought to hunting bandits, and the nearest city, the City of Chains, was too busy dealing with its own massive refugee problem to pay attention to brigands in the field.

One fateful day the Lances sacked a small farmstead, much like the one where Jervis had grown up. The farmers were quickly bloodied and bound, and the remaining Lancers had begun carrying away the valuables, when a pair of them discovered a pretty young boy no older than fifteen hiding in the barn loft. Jervis had wanted to take him prisoner with the rest, but his ally had been without a brothel visit for too long and demanded to take his pleasure from their discovery. Jervis wasn't the sort to play the hero - he was the bandit by then, after all, so he turned to leave his comrade to do what he wished. As he left the barn, he heard a blood-curdling scream from inside, followed by an awful growl and a terrible, wet tearing noise. He looked back, only to see the bloodied upper torso of his friend land at his feet in a bloody, twitching heap. The pretty boy had vanished, and in his place was a mottled, hideous creature with distended limbs, cruel-looking claws, and bloated grey skin. It looked like a thing of nightmare. Jervis ran for his life.

He had later discovered that the boy had been a young apostate hiding his magical abilities. The creature was an abomination, and that it had killed the entire contingent of Lances, as well as all of the farmers and livestock. Accounts varied, but they all agreed that a small army of templars was finally assembled to bring it down after a month-long countryside rampage. Jervis had been the only one to escape with his life, a fact he kept hidden to avoid being thought unlucky. He wandered from place to place, sometimes acting as a highwayman, others doing odd jobs for others. Fortune finally smiled upon him one day, and he was recruited as a manor guard for a local lord. It wasn't much, but it paid, plus it provided food and lodging. The worst he'd have to deal with were the lord's vassals and the occasional irate mistress.

Occasionally he'd have to strong-arm a servant or push around a lordling, but overall the job was easy and uninteresting. Tonight, Jervis had the enviable assignment of standing watch over some grand gala event that his employer had thrown. Nobles and rich people from all over had gathered to attend, each wearing their jewels and finery and eating delicacies and drinking wines from bottles that easily cost more than his monthly pay twice over. With any luck, he'd be able to get some of the food after the party had ended, and possibly liberate some jewelry off of a passed-out drunken lordling.

He sighed and scratched his nose, idly wondering whether drunken nobles ever got into fistfights. A feminine scream suddenly erupted from the crowd, followed by another, then another. Panicked people began pushing and shoving in a large group, all fleeing… something.

Jervis waited patiently. He had learned from past experience that being the first one into a fight would usually get you killed. A few of the other guards had drawn their blades and were doing battle with what appeared to be a crazed bronze-skinned woman in a fancy blue ball gown. He had been in enough battles to know when he was outmatched. Her movements alone were enough to tell him that she was clearly their superior with the blade, and his as well. She moved the sword like it was a part of her body, and she had clearly anticipated each attack, using the minimum amount of effort to deflect or dodge each attempt on her life. She hadn't killed anyone yet, however, which was a good sign. Perhaps she was purposely avoiding fatal wounds. Jervis put his hand on the pommel of his sword…

"Er… I'm not too sure ye want to be doin' that," said one of the noblemen nearby. It was a handsome-looking man, Jervis thought, with ruddy auburn hair and piercing blue eyes. He was holding a wine goblet and watching the melee from a distance.

"She's a bit of a handful, and ye may just want to find another place t'be fer a bit if ye don't fancy gettin' a hole cut in ye," he added.

"She does seem a bit dangerous," replied Jervis, nodding.

"Aye, why d'ye think I'm warnin' ye? The Maker would'nae be pleased if more people were injured t'night than need be," he said.

"You seem to know her. Couldn't you convince her to stop hurting people?" asked Jervis, frowning.

The man laughed.

"Believe me, I've tried. She's like a woman possessed, that one. And you can clearly see what she's capable of. D'ye really think that I'd say no to someone who can do that to a man?"

He pointed to the woman just as she kicked a guard between the legs, then kneed him in the chin. Jervis could have sworn he saw teeth knocked loose from the impact.

"I take your point," replied Jervis.

They observed in silence for a few moments. The woman continued to fight like a demon, dropping one hapless guard after another. Her remaining opponents formed a tight defensive group.

A heavy hand clapped Jervis on the shoulder. He turned to see his employer glowering at him, livid.

"What are you doing? Get in there and stop the bitch!" bellowed the lord.

The friendly nobleman gave a rueful shrug when Jervis glanced back.

He sighed and drew his sword, advancing to meet his fellow uniformed guards.

The woman showed little reaction to his presence, other than slightly turning her body to minimize any exposed weakness in his general direction. He tried a quick lunging cut aimed at her thigh, testing her defenses. She moved almost imperceptibly, shifting her weight and sliding her leg back just enough for the attack to miss. She hadn't even bothered to look in his direction.

Instead, the dusky swordswoman was looking through the crowd for someone or something. Suddenly, she stood up straighter and lowered her sword for a moment. Whoever it was she was looking for, she had found him. Jervis traced the line from her eyes to her probable target, and his heart sank. Leave it to his employer to be the one this monster was after.

"Protect the master!" shouted one of the other guards. The remaining six guards, Jervis included, fanned out and formed a protective line, interposing themselves between the demoness and her target. She held her position, turning slightly for a more defensive stance.

Jervis exchanged glances with Colin, another of the six guards. Jervis liked Colin. He had pretty eyes and a jolly laugh. Colin looked nervous. With all six guards ready to strike, the bronze-skinned hellion would be vulnerable if she took the offensive. None of the guards had any illusions that attacking in tandem would bring any better results, however. They were at an impasse, but time was clearly on their side.

Jervis froze.

That bloody nobleman from before had wandered nearby, and he had apparently gotten himself falling-down drunk in the meantime! Just what in the Maker's name was going on here?

"Ssshhcuse me, d'ye nuuu wr th'privy is?" the fool slurred, stumbling into Colin and grabbing onto him for support.

Colin staggered, off-balance, and angrily shoved the soused nobleman back. "Get off me, you bloody wanker!" he shouted.

It took only a moment for Jervis to realize that things were about to get extremely bad. He tried to bring up his sword, but it was too late. First Dace to his left fell to the ground clutching at his left thigh as blood erupted from a fresh cut. Then Rook, to his right, let out a gurgling cry as he collapsed after being kicked in the throat. Jervis lashed out wildly with his blade, knowing that it was his only chance. He felt soft resistance, and realized he had scored flesh. He could taste the familiar acidic tang of his own saliva as his heart beat faster from the excitement of combat. He pulled on his blade, sawing it across the wound and savoring his victim's grunt of pain as something heavy hit his ankle.

The entire world went topsy-turvy as Jervis landed heavily on his back. He felt all of his breath immediately rush out through his mouth and he coughed, trying and failing to breathe. Jervis blinked, looking up at the ceiling of the grand ballroom and trying to remember his training. Had the ceiling always been that pattern? It was actually quite lovely. The last thing Jervis remembered seeing was the heel of a brown leather sandal trimmed in a very pretty gold, yet streaked with blood, on a rather shapely woman's leg rushing towards his face.

"Stop it!" commanded the willowy elf.

"No, you stop it! You got to do the last one!" grumbled Anders.

"Which is all the more reason why you should let Daisy do this one, Blondie!" grumbled Varric.

"But this one is different from the last. Can't you feel the difference in the mana? Justice is pointing at it right now," asked the apostate.

"Just... ease up a bit. We don't need quite that much blood, the bezoar should be enough," sighed Merrill.

"Alright, alright. I think I've got it this time. Or at least Justice does," said Anders.

The dwarf shut his eyes tightly as the welcome darkness gave way to the brightest red.

At that same time, miles away, a small blue gemstone lost its unnaturally bright luster. If anyone had been paying attention, they would have seen it quickly fade from its vibrant color to a dull, lifeless grey.

Damn that woman! Everything was completely under control just a moment ago. Hawke finally had the opportunity to save the day through one brilliant master stroke. All that she had to do was get close enough to du Gaudet and steal his amulet. The man was in love with her… or at least wanted her, and that afforded her a unique opportunity to get close to him and get her hands on the jewels. All it would take was a little acting, a strong stomach, and the right distraction, and she could put all of this unpleasantness behind them.

But nooooo, that foolish pirate had to go and muddle everything by misconstruing some minor bruises and abrasions from a perfectly innocent accidental murder attempt by a mad prisoner in a secret dungeon. It was nothing, really!

Hawke hiked up her skirts with both hands and pressed her way through the panicked crowds as quickly as she could. Thankfully, most of the people were busy trying to either get away from the fight, or watch it. The wary Champion pressed through toward her main goal, trying to reach du Gaudet before he realized that Isabela was going to easily put down every guard he threw at her.

A terrified heavyset noblewoman bumped into her in an attempt to flee, nearly bowling the slender Fereldan woman over. Hawke cursed a bit, but continued on. She dodged fleeing servants and pressing aristocrats, finally arriving at du Gaudet's presence. He glared in the direction of the battle as his guards continued to fall one by one.

"What in the Maker's name is she? That gutter trash has got to be some sort of abomination, there's no other way to explain it!" he growled. He had apparently not yet noticed her presence yet, so Hawke took a moment to collect herself before trying to approach.

Eight paces away… six… four…

"There you are!" thundered du Gaudet.

Hawke froze, but a moment later she realized the lord wasn't looking at her. He spun and moved forward, pushing people out of his way.

"Nolan!" he shouted.

The lanky man leaned against a pillar, quietly smoking his pipe. He looked up as his employer approached, breathing out a small smoke ring.

"Somethin' ah can do for you, your lordship?" he asked.

"I want you to do what you're paid for. Fix this problem for me," he growled, pointing at the general melee.

The other fellow took another puff from his pipe, then locked eyes with his employer again. He raised an eyebrow.

"Permanently," du Gaudet barked.

Hawke bit her tongue to keep from breaking her silence.

Nolan nodded, unfastening the band that held his hand axe in his belt loop. The thin man exchanged a quick glance with Hawke, still behind du Gaudet, before striding purposefully toward his new opponent.

"Ah thought ah'd see you again," said Nolan as he raised both axes.

The bronze woman grunted in reply as she slammed the butt of her sword down on a hapless guard's neck. The poor man crumpled like a sack of potatoes.

"Ah can't say ah'm pleased that it's come to this, but ah wanted to let you know it ain't nothin' personal," the lanky man continued as he assumed a wide combat stance.

"The boss gave an order, and that means ah gotta stop you now."

Her eyes kept glancing from him to his employer and back.

In the split second when her eyes darted to the lord of the manor, he sprang into action. He rushed at her, predicting her high defensive cut and ducking beneath it. His right axe came up in a crescent motion, aiming for her leg. She must have seen it coming; she shifted her weight to her rear leg and the crippling strike missed by scant inches, but his follow up strike met flesh.

Spots of red blood decorated the floor. It didn't cripple, but it was a beginning. She reached a dusky hand down and gingerly touched the wound, gauging the damage and blood loss.

His opponent lashed out with her sword, but he could tell it wasn't her weapon of choice. There was an almost-imperceptible uncertainty to the way she wielded it. She was clearly stronger than any of the guards, and it would dance in her hands like the deadly weapon it was, but she was lacking a certain finesse that someone of her skill and talent should have. Her dress was darkening with blood from the small cuts she had sustained. Though the guards had been unable to stop her, they had done some small amount of good.

"Ah don't suppose you'd leave nice 'n quiet like?" he asked as he stepped forward.

She met his forward movement with a sword thrust, but he turned the blade aside and stepped into her guard. He lacked the range to fully utilize his axes, but it was a calculated risk - she wouldn't be able to use her sword either. Instead he balled his fist around the axe handle and punched her in the kidney. Her eyes widened in pain, but she smashed him in the cheek with the pommel of her sword in response. The two leaped back from each other, creating a bit of distance again.

He eyed her rear leg, which was clearly weakening. Rivulets of blood trailed down her bronzed skin, dripping onto the marble floor tiles.

"Ah don't doubt you're a fine warrior. You might even be able to beat me. But you and ah both know that'd take more time than you've got, especially since you've gone and started leakin' and all. Why don't you just give up?" he offered genially.

He got no audible response. Her eyes held only grim determination. He had seen that look before. He knew he had held it once or twice in his own lifetime. He idly wondered which would buckle first, her body or her spirit.

She charged at him, bringing her sword down in a chopping motion. He spun to avoid it, following up with a horizontal slash. She managed to avoid losing her balance, but the strike was far too close. He felt resistance in his left hand as his axe made brief contact.

The woman's dark hair became undone, falling loosely about her shoulders. He could hear the clatter of the little pearls that had been woven into her hair hit the floor and began to roll. He resumed his defensive stance, waiting for the inevitable to come.

"Lookie here, this is the real world. We're all just tryin' to get by. Ah promise that she won't come to no harm while ah'm here. She ain't no damsel in distress. You ain't no dashing hero, ah ain't no dastardly villain, just a man doin' his job," he said.

"And these aren't pearls," she growled, drawing one bloody finger against one of the remaining pearls in her hair. The crimson blood stained the white pearl, which suddenly began brightening and emitting light. She hurled it at the ground, where it immediately exploded into flame and thick, oily smoke. Another explosion came, followed by another and another as the pearls that had rolled onto the floor each ignited from the magic in the air and the ensuing cloud of smoke that sprang up obscured the grand hall.

Nolan was caught in the sudden smoke as the onlookers began to scream and flee. His eyes watered, and his throat screamed in irritation as the mad rush of confused and terrified people began. Someone slammed into him from the side, and then another from the back, throwing him to the floor. He struggled to rise, before he heard a whisper from his left.

"It isn't personal, you know. Just business."

A sharp blow came to the base of his skull and he knew no more.

Hawke put one foot in front of the other. He was in range. She ignored the sounds of combat as she heard metal clash with metal. She put the noises out of her mind. Hawke instead could hear Isabela's advice on thievery as if it were a whisper in her ear.

Remember, sweet thing - half of all thievery is waiting for the opportune moment...

He was still alert. She knew she would only get one chance at this. Suddenly, the whole situation changed.

Explosions. Billowing smoke clouds. Choking and panicking onlookers. A wave of burning, tearing eyes and a throat that felt so itchy that she wanted to scream. She held it in.

He was distracted. It was now or never. She reached a velvet-gloved hand out and wrapped her fingers around it. She tensed her legs in preparation to run. The Champion could feel the hard metal surface through the thin cloth as she yanked as hard as she could.

The other half is getting away.

White hot pain flooded Hawke's nerves as jagged bolts of lightning erupted from the amulet and raced down her arm to her chest. Her heart felt like it was about to burst as the electricity tore through her, causing her muscles to spasm uncontrollably, and straining and tearing under her skin. She gagged and gasped for breath as she finally released the amulet, falling to her knees and coughing.

"I am disappointed, Champion," came du Gaudet's voice from above her as she struggled to breathe.

"I thought that surely the esteemed Champion of Kirkwall would not be so stupid as to think I wouldn't guard against something as simple as petty thievery," he continued.

She tried to rise, but her legs felt like jelly. She looked up at him defiantly, anger and hatred in her eyes.

He coughed, trying to fan away the smoke.

"You'll be by my side, Champion, one way or another. I don't care if it's on your feet or on your knees, but you will know your place," he said.

"Oh, she already knows her place," growled a woman's voice from within the clouds of smoke. "But it's not by your side, you arrogant monster. It's by mine."

The dark corsair emerged from the smoke, a bloody blade in one hand and a silk handkerchief held to her face in the other. Her golden eyes promised pain.

"Guards! Nolan! Someone, anyone, stop her!" he cried, scrambling back. "A thousand sovereigns to anyone who stops this demon woman!"

There was no response. The wails and screams of the sick and frightened guests instead filled the air.

"Champion! You've got to stop her! You know what will happen if you don't! You don't want the blood of all those innocents on your hands, do you?!" he shouted, his voice cracking.

Hawke rose unsteadily to her feet. She still felt uneasy from inhaling the smoke, and her legs felt like jelly from the effects of the lightning, but she stood to interpose herself between the pirate and the lordling.

The buccaneer was on her in the blink of an eye. Hawke braced herself for impact, but it never came. Instead, gentle arms encircled her and pulled her close. She felt warmth through the haze, and soft lips touched hers. She felt her knees turn to water as they kissed in the cloud. When the kiss finally broke, it took a moment for Hawke to collect her wits.

"He's got an amulet that will kill hundreds if you don't stop him. It will shock the life out of you if you touch it, and the magic will go off if he dies! You must get it from him!" she hissed desperately into the pirate's ear.

"Trust in me, Hawke. This time I've got your back," came the familiar whisper in her ear, before she was released. The dazed Champion slowly dropped to her knees and the last thing she saw before passing out was the pirate's rear as she continued her inexorable march toward the lord of the manor.

He stared at her in muted fury. His hand rested calmly on the hilt of his rapier, but his eyes betrayed his inner rage. His upper lip was twisted into a sneer as she approached him. He took careful note of the blood oozing out of her exposed wounds, and the slight limp in her left leg.

"You filthy gutter trash. You've ruined everything!" he bellowed.

She didn't respond. Instead, she held her sword up in a loose guard stance and spat in his general direction.

The lord stepped forward, leading with a solid thrust. He quickly followed with a second, and a third, trying to pierce a vital organ with his rapier.

Isabela's blade leaped to and fro as the heavier sword parried each attack. She brought her sword in for a counterattack in a low arc aimed at du Gaudet's legs, but a twist of his rapier and he would change the path of her blade just enough to miss each time.

Metal rang on metal as the two dueled. His defensive skill with the rapier was an excellent counter to her broad, slashing strokes, but the implacable strength she brought with each blow was enough to drive him back despite his nearly impervious guard.

He could tell that she was slowing, however. She was faltering from the blood loss, and she knew it. He closed in for the kill.

"Oh no, you don't even deserve to face me. I warned her that this would happen," he taunted, reaching toward his amulet with his free hand.

The duelist tensed, watching carefully.

His steady gaze never left her as he pulled one of the gems from his amulet.

Her eyes narrowed as she saw him finger the first jewel. He lifted his hand to his mouth with a smirk.

"This is on your head," he growled, biting his thumb with even, white teeth. A single drop of blood oozed from the small wound.

She launched herself at him immediately, and their swords rang out as he parried her strike. She had hoped that her heavier blade would shatter his lighter, thinner weapon, but luck was not on her side. She could see the fine craftsmanship of du Gaudet's rapier, and she would have bet all the coin she had that her enemy's sword was enchanted.

"You want it? Catch!" he grunted as he smeared a bit of blood on the gem and tossed it at her.

She leaped to intercept it, but reeled back in pain as she felt metal pierce her already-injured leg. She managed to stay her tongue, but the agony was excruciating. She looked at the gemstone she had caught. It was a dull, lifeless blue, stained red with blood. She tossed it aside.

"I wonder how many of your precious wharf rats are killing each other right now?" taunted the nobleman. He reached to his amulet once again. "No better than they deserve."

She tried to rush him once more, leading with a fierce overhand slash into a low thrust aimed at his arm. The corsair put as much as she could into it, hoping to make him drop the jewel, but she could feel one leg buckling due to the wounds she had received. The nobleman danced to one side and easily rapped her blade out of the way with his rapier. His riposte caught her in the injured leg again and she dropped to one knee.

She screamed in pain as she felt the sword dig deep into her flesh.

He withdrew his weapon and painted a second gem with the fat droplets of her blood coating the blade. He dropped the gemstone onto the ground. It was a dull, red color.

The nobleman circled her, grinning to himself.

"Let's end this little charade. You never had a chance to defeat me. You're garbage. You came from garbage, you've always been garbage, and you'll always be garbage. Step aside and let your betters pass on," he said, raising his sword for a final strike.

"Come on then," she gasped. "That little corkscrew of yours doesn't look like it could satisfy a pigeon, let alone a real woman."

He gave a cry of rage and thrust his blade, starting low, upward through her abdomen. She screamed in pain as the tip punched through her flesh to emerge from her back. Her sword fell from her fingers with a clatter to the stone floor.

"As I thought," he said, twisting his rapier.

She gave a horrible-sounding laugh as blood dripped from her lips.

"Is that the best you've got?" she replied, grasping his sword-arm's wrist with one hand. She grinned, showing her bloody teeth. "I've had better."

His eyes widened in shock as he tried to pull away but couldn't. Her vise-like grip on his arm was too strong. His eyes filled with fear as her grin turned wicked. Her other hand reached up and firmly grasped his amulet, completing the circuit.

White-hot pain exploded in every inch of his body as bright white lightning erupted from the amulet and coursed through her body and into his. His eyes were blinded as every muscle spasmed uncontrollably, tearing themselves beneath his skin. His fingers clenched and unclenched, and he jerked his body back and forth, but it was no use. He couldn't break her iron grip.

She didn't seem to fare much better. Through flashes of sight, he could see her face contorted as badly as he felt. Her entire body was convulsing and twitching as she shrieked, the massive jolts of electricity ripping through both of them and leaving charred, torn muscle in their wake. He could smell a nasty, bitter smoke and it took an eternal moment of torture to realize it was the aroma of his own burnt flesh greeting his nostrils.

After a seeming eternity of torment he fell, still twitching, to the floor. Every inch of his body screamed in agony. He struggled to open his eyes.

The woman had fallen beside him, her gown tattered and soaked in blood and her muscles still twitching from the electrical onslaught. He struggled to rise, to find a weapon, to do something to finish her off while she was still vulnerable, but his body refused to cooperate. Every nerve protested and refused to respond as he lay on the cold stone tile. He could see the sword where it had fallen scant inches from his fingers. It would be easier than cutting a helpless deer's throat after his dogs had already run it down.

He managed to twitch a finger. He redoubled his efforts, willing his body to move. A second finger moved, then a third. His wrist trembled. He internally exulted, but continued to press his hand toward the hilt. He'd show the sow and the rest of the gutter trash that he was still the superior one. By right of his very blood, he would show them all!

He managed to get a finger on the hilt of the blade, but couldn't quite control his entire hand. His arm screamed in agony, but he pushed through the pain. He was superior. He would emerge victorious. He felt the velvet handle in his palm and nearly crowed with glee.

Fresh, lancing pain erupted from his wrist, and his fingers released the tenuous grip on the hilt of the sword. Impossible! The bitch had somehow gotten up before him, and had crushed his wrist with one of her knees.

The dusky pirate held a triumphant look on her face as he realized that her right hand was not empty. As soon as he saw, he noticed his throat was missing the now-familiar gentle pressure that he had come to expect from the jewelry he normally wore. His amulet dangled from her closed fist. One brightly-glowing jewel was still intact.

"H-how?!" he demanded, his own tongue feeling thick and foreign within his own mouth.

"You think you're the only one that's felt pain before? I've had cramps that hurt more than that," she growled, easily picking up the fallen sword he had worked so hard to grasp.

"You can't kill me! I am lord of this manor! I am Donovan du Gaudet! You wouldn't dare kill me!" he tried to shout from the floor. His voice wheezed, and he gasped for breath.

"Oh, I'm not going to kill you," she growled.

"You're not? O-of course you're not!" he coughed.

"But when I'm done with you, you might wish I had," she finished with a grin that promised pain as she reached down and retrieved her fallen blade.

His screams echoed throughout the hall.

Hawke woke with a cough, briefly wondering where she was. Her mind had a hard time focusing; she felt muddled, as if she had just been awoken in the middle of a nap. The floor was hard and cold beneath her back, and she wasn't wearing her usual clothing. She lifted one hand and noticed the long velvet glove. As if a dam had burst, her memories came flooding back all in a rush. She tried to stand and almost immediately fell unceremoniously onto her bottom as she took a misstep in her gown and tripped over her own skirts.

The smoke began to clear as the voluminous clouds finally began dissipating from the grand ballroom. The cavernous banquet hall had been all but abandoned; several groaning guardsmen and a handful of nobles who had been trampled in the terror lay about the floor. The massive doors had been flung open, and the panicked guests had fled through them. Hawke rose more carefully this time, waving away the remaining smoke nearby. The acrid odor stung her nose, but she found could breathe more easily than before. She struggled to her feet, still woozy from the aftereffects of the shock she had taken.

A shadow crossed her peripheral vision and she rapidly spun towards it. She tried to quell her dizziness, and her heartbeat quickened when she saw the shadowy figure emerging from the smoke. She tried to steady herself, hoping for a friendly face but ready for a fight.

Relief flooded her as she realized it was Sebastian.

"Hawke, are ye alright? We came to rescue ye, though admittedly, perhaps not with so much… panache," he said, offering her a steadying hand. She took it gratefully,.

"Never mind about me, I'm fine. What happened to du Gaudet?"

"I canna tell, not with the smoke and all. Isabela didnae' warn me about that part of her cunning plan," he replied.

She inhaled sharply.

"Wait, this was all Isabela's plan?"

"Aye. We were all worried, but ever since you vanished she's been on us as relentless as a Tevinter slavedriver," he answered with a smile.

"But… what about the poison? She didn't… I couldn't…" sputtered Hawke.

"Aye, she figured that part out too. Anders, Varric, and Merrill should have disarmed the poison canisters tonight. They ought to be finished by now," he said.

"She really did all that?" asked Hawke, incredulous.

She heard a wracking, gurgling cough from within the smoke. It sounded like it came from a woman. Hawke desperately looked for its source.

A trail of blood led from still-twitching body of the fallen nobleman a short distance to the pirate's sitting, barely-breathing form. Deep crimson stained her gown, and her breath came slowly, in ragged gasps. Hawke hobbled to the pirate and threw her arms around her lover's slumped form.

"Isabela, what have you done? Why?!" she demanded through wracked sobs.

The pirate chuckled, then hissed in pain.

"For you, sweet thing," she said. She pressed something small and hard into Hawke's hand.

It was a small, glowing green jewel about the size of her thumbnail.

"Hold still, you wonderful little fool," chided Hawke as she summoned her mana. The Fereldan's hands glowed briefly as she touched the worst of the dusky woman's wounds.

Isabela gasped as she felt the magic begin its work. She raised one hand and cupped Hawke's cheek.

"I knew I'd make you come," said the pirate.

"I could say the same for you," replied the Champion, putting her arms around the captain and embracing her gently. A moment passed in silence, both women finally relaxing and sharing each others' warmth.

"Erm… What happened du Gaudet?" asked Sebastian, breaking the silence.

"You didn't kill him, did you?" asked Hawke. She looked at the prone villain's unmoving body.

"Don't worry, sweet thing. He's only passed out from the shock. He'll live, I promise. He might wish that he hadn't, but he'll live," the captain replied.

"What did ye do to him?" asked Sebastian.

The pirate gave a grim chuckle.

"I cut a few things that won't be growing back," she said.

"You cut… but won't he come back for revenge?" asked her lover.

The pirate gave a wry smile.

"I didn't cut that, if that's what you're implying. I actually left his love baton alone. No, I just made sure he'll never be able to walk, use his hands, or even wipe his own ass without assistance from others ever again," she replied.

"If it weren't for the blood magic, I would have killed him," responded Hawke.

"After what he did to Jillian, to the other girls, to all of those people, and what he nearly succeeded at… I was tempted. The bottom-feeding filth spewer deserves every moment of the rest of his life," said Isabela with a nod.

"No less than he deserves," declared Sebastian.

"It seems you've neatly wrapped everything up, captain," said Hawke, putting one arm around the pirate's waist and helping her to her feet.

"Nearly," replied the pirate, leaning onto the Champion. "I think I'm about ready to relinquish the crown of leadership back to you, Hawke."

"Pity," Hawke said with a laugh. "I was hoping to see some of it in action."

"I might have an order or two left in me," replied the dusky pirate with a grin. "Let's go home and we'll explore that thought a bit more thoroughly..."

Hawke waited expectantly.

"Go on and say it. I know you want to," encouraged the Champion.

Isabela grinned.

"... in bed," finished the corsair.


Epilogue 1

The cavernous library was dark, barely illuminated by the flickering light from the crackling fire in the hearth. A barrel-chested man sat, unmoving, in a large velvet lounge chair near the fireplace. An aged maid lifted a goblet to his lips, but he sputtered and coughed.

He spat.

"Careful with that, you stupid oaf! What are you trying to do, drown me?!" he thundered. The woman shrank back visibly in fear from his outburst, but he paid her no heed.

"It seems your plan has run aground," a rasping, deep voice observed.

"Come to gloat?" asked the seated man.

The voice laughed a cruel, mirthless laugh.

"Perhaps a bit," it mused.

A moment passed in silence.

"You know the part I find the most amusing? You weren't even defeated by the mighty Champion, the legendary hero, the one you were so keen on dominating. You were defeated by her pet," the voice continued.

"Get out," growled the sitting man.

"Or what? You'll come over here and do something about it?" taunted the raspy voice.

"Out!" bellowed the reclining man, the desperation evident in his voice.

"Believe it or not, I didn't come to gloat," began the voice. "I came to offer you a new deal."

"Leave us!" commanded the sitting man.

The terrified maid fled the room.

"I'm listening."

"What would you give to take your revenge? On both the Champion and her little scavenger of a pet?" asked the voice.

Another moment passed in silence.

"I would give anything," whispered the seated man.

"I was hoping you'd say that," answered the raspy voice.

Epilogue 2

"And… done," declared Merrill with a smile. She lowered her hands and took a deep breath. The light from her fingers faded and the red gemstone settled into a dull, dark color. She stood and took a step back, clearing the way for two nervous-looking elven servants to lift the barrel.

"You're sure that thing's safe? The last thing Madam Lusine wants is for us to be biting and clawing the clients in here, not without good coin being paid for it first," replied Lianne.

A number of young men and women, each dressed in various forms of revealing lingerie, had gathered around the foul-mouthed courtesan and looked on in curiosity and no small amount of fear. Most of them watched the barrel containing the poison canister as if it were a live cobra as the pair of servants carried it out.

"That really is remarkable," exclaimed Varric, looking over the group of girls assembled around the bar.

"That they're made up to look like Hawke, you mean?" asked Fenris.

"Yeah. It's an utter travesty," replied the stout dwarf.

"It's in no small part thanks to you, you know," said Aveline with a sniff. "Your tall tales have a way of spreading in a way that are… uncomfortable."

"That's why I said it. They should be paying me commissions for drumming up business!" he grumbled.

"Isabela was right about the last hiding place. I never would have guessed that the villain would have hidden the last canister in the brothel," chirped Merrill, joining the group at their table as the prostitutes began to disperse.

"They store a lot of barrels of wine here, it makes a good hiding place," commented Fenris.

"But it would suffice at any number of taverns or inns," said Aveline, frowning. "I had my guardsmen check, but we couldn't examine every barrel in the entire city."

"Nobody's blaming ye, Aveline," soothed Sebastian. "I'm just glad we managed to solve the problem."

"Where is she, anyway? Didn't Hawke ask us all to be here to take care of the final canister?" asked Anders, looking uncomfortable. "I never like coming here, this place makes me nervous."

"Anders, when will you come visit me again? Your Champion needs her healing," purred one of the Hawke-like courtesans as she passed, running her hand lightly across his shoulders.

"Yeah, Blondie. I can see why," quipped Varric.

"I went by Hawke's home to water her plants earlier today, but I didn't see either of them," mused Merrill, tapping her tattooed cheek with one finger.

"That's odd. It's been three days since we returned, and I nae heard from either of them," remarked Sebastian.

"Didn't you say Isabela was injured? She hasn't come by the clinic for any treatment," said Anders.

The gathered friends exchanged glances.

"Where do you suppose they could be?" wondered Merrill.

"Knowing the whore, she's probably dragged poor Hawke off for three days of non-stop debauchery," said Aveline with a disdainful sniff.

"Well wherever they are, I hope they're doing well," replied Merrill.

Epilogue 3

"I've died and been cast into the Void," wailed the pirate. "What have I done to deserve this? This is torture! I'm going to die!"

Her companion sighed and sat down on the large feather bed that the dusky woman was occupying.

"Come off it, you big baby," said Hawke, clucking her tongue. "You were nearly killed! Now lay back and rest before you reopen your wounds again!"

The buxom corsair leveled a challenging stare at her captor, but amber eyes met piercing blue ones, and the captain finally broke eye contact. Instead, she crossed her arms beneath her breasts and pouted.

"It isn't fair!" she grumbled.

"I just said that you had to stop any strenuous activity, and that means sex too. You'll reopen your stitches again, and I can't have you bleeding all over my bed again," replied the Champion matter-of-factly.

"Do you ever get tired of making sense?" complained the pirate.

"It's why you're put up with me," answered the Fereldan woman with a smile.

"I thought it was because of that ass," quipped Isabela with a grin, squeezing said ass with one hand.

"This isn't a good idea," breathed Hawke as she reluctantly let herself be pulled closer.

"It isn't a good idea, sweet thing. It's a great idea," murmured the scoundrel, putting both arms around her lover's waist. She leaned in for a kiss, and Hawke did not resist. As the pirate's hands roamed southward, however, the Champion grabbed one of her wrists and forcefully extricated it from her rear.

"No sex," Hawke declared with finality.

Her lover groaned and lay back against the pillows. She looked away and reached under the covers.

"None of that either!" said Hawke.

Isabela nearly screamed in frustration.

"It's been nearly two weeks since you had to run off and do your Champion thing, and three days since I had to rescue you. I'm starting to get as rusty as Aveline down there! It isn't healthy to get this backed up, you're probably causing me some permanent damage or something!" complained the pirate.

"Just two more days," soothed Hawke, cupping her lover's cheek with her palm. "I'll need you at your best to find this maleficar."

"I've got your back, Hawke. You know you can count on me," replied Isabela with a grin. "Have you had any luck with those symbols?"

"They seem to be ancient Tevinter in nature… but they're so strange. Almost an impossibility, like storing an ogre in a shot glass."

"You'll figure it out, sweet thing. You always do," said the pirate with a smile. Her grin grew wicked. "But first things first… You know I'm going to bend you over and tenderize your meat until it's reduced to quivering jelly just as soon as I'm better, don't you?"

"I've already let Bodahn know that we'll be taking our meals in here for at least two days after you're better," murmured Hawke, rising from the bed and walking to the armoire.

"The way I'm feeling, you'll want to make it three," quipped Isabela.

"And you'll be glad to know that I've also made some preparations," continued Hawke, opening the armoire doors. Inside were all of the various outfits and devices that Isabela had always liked, cleaned, sorted, and ready to be used.

Isabela's face lit up.

"Are those the silk manacles I was looking at?" she asked. "And the drakeskin harness I wanted?"

"I went on a bit of a shopping spree," admitted Hawke.

"You know, I've never been good at waiting. We could use them now," suggested the pirate with a throaty voice. She squeezed her arms together, thrusting her chest out further.

"Not until you're better," answered Hawke, closing the armoire.

"Shit," cursed the pirate.

Finis… for real

Author's Note:

It's finally done! This story has gone on a lot longer than I originally intended. In the intervening time, I've actually changed jobs twice and had to move several thousand miles in the process. But I've got a job I like for an employer I like in a place I like, and I've finally managed to finish this tale. I hope that you all enjoy it as much as I did writing it. There were definitely parts that I had difficulty putting to page, and it took me a while to work my (and Isabela's) way through them. Strangely, this entire story began from two simple premises - to have Hawke and Isabela attend a fancy dress ball, and to have Isabela take the lead. I had an outline, I started writing, and it just sort of spiraled out of control. Some parts wrote themselves… several scenes at the gala, some of the scenes in the beginning, but the difficulty emerged in connecting them in a way that made sense. The characters wrested their destinies away from me, and forged off on their own, and this was the ultimate result. It's no small thing - Lionfish is around a hundred pages long in total, nearly ⅓ of the entire Snacking saga!

As usual, I would like to give a huge thank my prereaders for the editing process and helping me catch the parts that weren't working, didn't make sense, or even just the usual small errors here and there. In addition, I would like to thank you all for sticking with me all this time - it's been over a year since Lionfish part 2 after all, and I'm sure many people have lost interest or moved on. Dragon Age Inquisition is coming, after all, so I am sure many are preparing for that. I know I am. Somewhat.

You may have noticed that there are a few epilogues here… it's no mistake. The Snacking saga isn't over quite yet. There are more adventures to be had.

As usual, if you haven't gotten your Isabela fix, you can try reading her tumblr that she regularly maintains. You can find it at isabelaexplainsitall dot tumblr dot com. She always enjoys getting questions and tries to answer them in a (reasonably) timely fashion. As always, if you are interested in pre-reading for me in the future (once I actually have something to pre-read, of course) please contact me. If you have an idea or a suggestion for a tale, please send it along. I know I would love to see more of these two and their adventures.