“Remember, if you get caught-” The Keepers eyes were hard as they looked over the hunter who stood before him in the airlock. The blue vallaslin on the Keepers forehead pulsed in time with the man’s heartbeat, the luminescent tattoos giving his nerves away. No doubt the purple etched into Milliara’s own face was doing the same.
“But if you do,” The Keeper said sternly, reaching up and grabbing Milliara’s chin with her free hand. Even thick with arthritis, his fingers were strong enough to hold her there even as she reached up to knock the hand away.
“If I do,” Milliara said through clenched teeth, “you keep your end of the agreement and I’ll keep mine.”
“The spirits are malcontent about this,” Keeper Lavellan said, pushing her back by the chin. “This will not go well.” He shook his head, stepping out of the airlock and gesturing to the shadows where the clan’s first hunter waited. His own Vallaslin the colour of fresh blood, Thirdas crossed his arms, watching through narrowed eyes. Waiting for a misstep, as he had since Milliara had first set foot aboard the Aravel.
“I should be the one going,” the other hunter said to the keeper, though Milliara could feel his eyes on her as she pulled the helmet of her pressurized suit over her head, tucking her ears in carefully so they wouldn’t catch. Once the finest make that money could buy, it was scuffed and blackened, a pastiche of Orlesian and Dalish tech. But it worked, and none of the elves on the Lavellan Aravel were willing to part with more than broken parts.
“You, dear Thirdas,” the Keeper said to his grandson with a warm pat on the shoulder, “Are not expendable. She will not betray us, we have what she cherishes most.”
Thirdas nodded, and after a moment’s hesitation, he reached for the airlock controls. Milliara checked the suit’s pressure, hands practiced as they ran her last safety checks. The HUD blinked to life in the familiar lilac that was now etched deep into her skin.
“Depressurizing on your signal.” Thirdas’s voice was tinny through the speaker in her helmet.
“Clear.” She said, grabbing onto the pack of gear that had waited by her feet, and looped it over her head and shoulder.
She could hear the hiss as the vacuum of the Lavellan Aravel sucked the air of the airlock back into the main ship. She took a deep breath of cycled air, the familiar carbon taste already seeping onto her tongue. Get in, get what they wanted, get out.
“ Optimal tangent point approaching to intersect with the Temple. Opening hull doors in ten…nine…”
So why was she nervous?
The Elvhen had to find out if the skirmishes between the Templars and Magi was going to erupt into a war and risk the a mass exodus of the Fereldan and Orlesian refugees towards the outer systems where the Aravels lived safely. Milliara needed the Elvhen, and so here she was, heading back deep into human controlled space to spy on what was possibly the most heavily guarded meeting in hundreds of years.
“No pressure,” she murmured to herself.
The Hull door swung open. Distant stars swam as a familiar vertigo swept over her. It lasted only a moment. With a deep breath, Milliara grabbed the door, and yanked herself forward, launching forward into the void.
“May Fen’harel never hear your steps, shem” Thirdas’s voice crackled with static. In the background, she heard the Keeper order the Traveller’s exit of orbit. She was about to be on her own. The commlink snapped with static as the Aravel severed their connection.
Milliara bit back the snarky reply and glanced down at the icy moon’s surface below. Haven, it was called. Rock, snow, and a swarm of ships that orbited ahead of her. The brilliant and impressive hulks of the Templars, painted gold to reflect the light of any stars they passed were the closest. The ragtag collection that was the Magi fleet was too far for her to reach safely without being noticed.
Step one would be to get on board a shuttle. Then she’d worry about how she’d get to the Moon’s surface. Milliara twisted, using the small thrusters on her suit to change her vector towards a shuttle that was still docked to its ship.
Nose close to the glass of her datapad, Knight-Enchanter Haylan snuck a glance around it to check that the door to the barracks was still closed. The last thing she needed was Gavin walking in just as the story was getting to the good part. Huddled into her bunk, she squinted at the door before scrolling down to the next paragraph of Feral-dan Love, Volume 4. It was trash, but it was such good trash she couldn’t help it.
His bare chest heaved in the glow of the lake, golden luminescent algae lighting him in a godly glow. His eyes sparkled as he held out a hand to her, and his lips pulled into a smile that sent Riathlyn’s heart all aflutter.
“Come swim with me,” Alissar said. “You’ve never looked more beautiful than you have in this moment.”
Riathlyn sucked in a breath, and took a step forward, pulling down the zipper of her pressure suit-
The hiss of the barrack’s door gave Haylan just enough time to swipe the smut from her datapad, replacing it with the Herbalwiki entry she’d been editing earlier. Cheeks burning, Haylan started tapping at the screen, pretending that’s what she’d been doing all along as Fallon’s blonde head poked into the room.
The woman arched an eyebrow at Haylan’s red face and smirked as Haylan huffed in reply.
“Lake scene?” she asked.
“Wh- N-“ Haylan said, swinging her legs off the bunk and holding up the data pad to show the herb entry.
“Lake scene,” Fallon said with a nod. “C’mon, it’ll be there in a bit. Knight Captain wants us in the briefing room.”
“It wasn’t…” Haylan said with a frown, locking her datapad and hopping off the bunk to follow. “I was working.”
The snort from her squadmate was enough to tell Haylan that Fallon didn’t believe her. Glowering in silence, the enchanter shoved her hands into the pockets of her flightsuit and led the way up to the bridge where the Knight Captain and her Second were waiting.
A hard woman, Captain Faulkner stood by a holo table, arms crossed and staring down at a slowly spinning debris field shown by cyan light that flickered and glitched in the centre. Pixels, static and flashes of green light kept disrupting the holo, and Haylan frowned as she looked from Faulkner to Gavin who stood nearby, his face solemn.
“Good,” Faulkner said, looking up at the two women. “We received orders at 09h10 that there was an attack on the Peace Talks between the Magi and Night Templars. Current reports are difficult, there’s…” she paused, frowning at the glitch that hovered in front of her. “…there’s an anomaly that’s causing communications to be spotty. Reports are unreliable but Command believes that survivors are minimal.”
With a gesture, Faulker zoomed the view of the holotable out to show the remainder of the moon that once held the temple of Sacred ashes. Shattered, a few large pieces drifted close to each other over the surface of a gas giant below: Frostback. Ruined ships spun in nothing, torn to shreds.
Haylan blinked, feeling the heat seep out of her. They’d intentionally been kept out of the way during the peace talks. The Hounds weren’t supposed to exist, and if things went south, they needed to continue to be the Ace in the Templar’s hole.
“Who did it?” Fallon asked, hands clenching at her sides. Open, closed. Open… closed.
“We’re not sure, no one’s claimed responsibility yet.” Faulkner paused again, brow creasing. “What we do know is that the Temple of Sacred Ashes is destroyed, the Divine is missing and the anomaly is some sort of disruption in the Veil. That means it was one of the Magi. You have one hour to pack up, we ship out on the hour to Frostback’s nearest Station, Haven. Dismissed.”
Space was quiet. No sound travelled in the vacuum as the world flashed brilliant green and a wave of force expanded out from the moon ahead. Sitting next to her brother, Peanut grabbed onto the control panel and braced herself as the green wave raced towards them.
The Adaar’s ship bucked, steel and carbon fibre groaning under the force of the explosion. For breathless seconds, Pea was sure the hull would give way. Next to her, the other Qunari frantically tried to steady the ship.
Something fizzled and popped in the console, and Pea felt herself start to lift out of her seat as the artificial gravity slowly ebbed away.
“What was that?” she asked, brushing back white curls from her face. Without gravity to hold it down, her hair was lifting up tighter to her cheeks and horns. Wedging one foot against the floor and the other leg against the underside of her seat, Pea pulled her hair back, braiding it to keep it out of the way.
“I don’t know,” Tanim said, squinting at the controls and tapping at them before grunting in annoyance. “Fitzed us good though, Gravity’s off, so’s our engine control. I’ll go see if I can fix it, keep your eyes peeled for anything weird.”
“Weirder than that?” Pea asked, pulling herself back into her seat and buckling in to keep from floating away. The last thing she wanted to do was crack her horns on the ceiling of the ship. “Guess it’s a good thing we were late…” she said quietly. There was a green light shifting and flickering where the Temple had been.
“..or I’d have been split-pea soup!”
“How bad is it?”
Hands on the table, the Hero of Ferelden shook her head. Her hair was black, tied back into a braid that hung over her shoulder, brushing the surface of the holo table she leaned against. Ice blue eyes stared at the video of the explosion and she could feel a muscle start to twitch in her jaw. One of the many windows held a redheaded woman’s portrait with the ‘connected’ icon in the lower right.
“It’s very bad,” she told her husband, glancing away from the video to look at him with the smallest of smiles. It didn’t reach her eyes. “The Temple of Sacred ashes is gone. Just gone.”
“Hello Alistair,” Leliana’s voice said, crackling with static. “We’re still investigating, but unidentified life forms have been emerging from the tear, and causing us difficulty. I cannot talk for long, I am afraid.”
Alistair walked up to stand next to his wife, resting his hand over hers and giving it a gentle squeeze.
“What can we do to help?” He asked.
“Send support, military, healing supplies. I would ask for anything you can spare, but I’m aware how delicate the political situation is right now,” Leliana said. “Commander Rutherford and Seeker Pentaghast will do what they can to hold the hostiles at bay until we can stem the tide.”
“I should be there,” Rythlen said, frowning. “I could help.” Even as she said it, she knew Leliana was right. Until they found out who was responsible for the attack, anything more than token aid would imply that Fereldan supported the Templars or the Magi. It didn’t matter which, both sides would argue that the other was at fault.
“No,” Leliana said. “I-“ there was a crack of static, and Leliana cleared her throat. “I must go. I will relay more information when I have it.”
The comm window blinked closed, and Rythlen sighed, straightening.
“She said she’d never seen anything like it before,” she said, leaning her head onto Alistair’s shoulder. “I’ve never seen anything like it before. Considering what we’ve been through…”
“Yeah, that’s saying something,” Alistair agreed, wrapping his arms around her. “We’ll figure something out. We’ll find a way to help.”
Muscles tight after hours spent curled up into a small ball in the crawlspace of the Templar shuttle, Milliara pushed the panel out of the wall, and poked her head out to look around the small ship’s interior. The Templars were gone, having marched out shortly after landing on the surface. Milliara had waited, cramped but patient, for at least another half hour before she’d dared move.
Letting out a slow, small breath she unfolded from the tiny space. Her hands and feet were already protesting, flaring up with pins and needles as blood flowed back into them. Behind her helmet, Milliara winced, flexing her fingers and her feet to speed up the process.
Any time spent in the shuttle meant more chance of being discovered, but Milliara risked the minute it took to stretch out her muscles. If she was too sore to react quickly, it wouldn’t matter how long or how short of a time she’d spent in the shuttle.
She pulled out her lockpick tool from the forearm of her suit, swiping it through the card reader at the shuttle’s doors. She watched the small display on the tool as it unencrypted the lock, and smiled as the doors hissed open.
Tucking the tool back into its pocket, she slipped out of the shuttle and looked around to get her bearings. The shuttle had landed in a makeshift airfield alongside numerous other Templar-emblazoned craft. Some were troop transports, large and bulky, others like the one she had been in, were diplomatic shuttles, sleek and golden, glinting in the early morning sunshine.
Ahead waited the grey mountain that held the temple of ashes. Build to hold the dust people claimed used to be Andraste, the saint who saved everyone and the bride of the Maker herself. They were idiots, the whole moon was grey and dusty, yet the temple itself was rather impressive, even Milliara had to admit. It was carved out of the mountain itself, tall and imposing and at least a half hour’s walk away to just reach the base of the stairs. It was old, the dust storms of the moon softening its edges in however many hundreds of years had passed since its construction. Two streams of people were marching up the stairs, one in glinting gold, the other in… browns. The Templars and the Magi.
The shuttle doors hissed shut behind her as Milliara stepped out onto the moon’s surface. Time to get to work.
Someone was following her. Whoever it was didn’t ping the suit’s radar, but the assassin knew the familiar prickle on the back of her neck for what it was. There was someone behind her, even though when she’d turned the hallway had been empty.
The Magi and the Templars had gathered in the main sanctuary, and their arguing voices could be heard echoing through the temple’s hallways all the way up to where Maeve crouched, hidden in a dusty alcove.
The prickle was still there, and Maeve slowly reached for the knife stashed in her boot. The gear she wore was half scavenged, tattered and worn, but it felt like a second skin at this point. She knew it’s weaknesses, it’s strengths… and that was what was bothering her. The radar was fine. More than once it had saved her ass, and now it wasn’t showing anything. Behind her visor, Maeve frowned, checking the radar once again. Nothing. But from the corner of her eye, she caught a whorl of dust spin against the flagstones.
There. She knew there’d been someone. Launching up from her hiding spot, she activated the thrusters on her suit to launch her at where the person should be. Knife drawn, Maeve thrust down with both hands in what was surely a deathblow. Casualties were just a risk of the job she’d taken.
The air flickered under her. A small form in a blackened space suit now where empty air had been a heartbeat before. Smaller than Maeve had expected, a mistake. The stab went over the assassin’s head, skidding off the helmet and slashing through the shoulder of the person’s suit and into muscle.
They fell to the floor in a tangle, Maeve the heavier of the two quickly got the upper hand, but the knife had skidded away, coming to rest by a heavy wooden door. Maeve pressed her forearm against the smaller person’s neck, leaning her weight onto it to cut off the other’s air supply. Weakly, the other person batted at her arms, her helmet, anything to get Maeve off, to get air back into her lungs. But each strike was weaker, more desperate and less effective.
Then they went still.
Maeve waited for another breath, before pushing herself up to stand, listening carefully to hear if anyone had heard the scuffle. There were muffled voices from beyond the wooden door, but while they were heated, they didn’t seem to be about what had happened in the hallway.
Creeping forwards, Maeve carefully picked up her knife and pressed the door ever so gently to open it a crack and hear what was being said. A woman’s voice was begging, and a man’s laughed.
“Please, I beg of you, do not do this,” she was saying. Her accent thick and Orleasian. Was that the Divine? But then who was the man?
Maeve was yanked back and then slammed into the door, knocking it wide open and cracking the acrylic of her visor. Stumbling into the room, Maeve blinked as she was hit again from behind, and the world exploded into green.
Milliara waited as the human stood, walking over to pick up the knife that had been knocked away. She knew something was wrong when she’d rounded the corner of the hallway and the woman she’d been tailing was gone. Now she was sprawled on the floor of an old as shit temple with a throbbing shoulder and crushed windpipe.
Sucking in air and watching to be sure the human didn’t turn around to finish the job, Milliara slowly pushed herself to her feet, taking care to be as quiet as possible. Splatters of red on the flagstones told her that she’d need to repair the suit before she could re-enter the vacuum. Hopefully duct tape would last long enough to reach a relay point with the Dalish.
Lungs burning, Milliara, crept up behind the human as they seemed to try to eavesdrop through the door ahead of them. With both hands, the elf grabbed the other woman’s helmet, yanking back before slamming it into the door with a satisfying crunch. The door swung inwards, forcing Milliara to alter her plans. Instead of cracking the woman’s helmet into the door again, she tackled her, sending them both flying forward. Something flashed towards them, and then everything flashed green.
They didn’t land. Instead, they tumbled through weightlessness, or… the world tumbled around them. Milliara let go of the woman, clamping her hand over the tear in her suit to keep her air from escaping. Her injured hand held onto her attacker.
She hissed through the speakers on the side of her helmet. Her voice was raw, words too painful to say. Even the hiss had hurt near enough to bring water to her eyes.
“Who are you? Did you do this?!” the human asked, knocking Milliara’s hand free, and sending them drifting apart, spinning slowly in the air. Around them was spongey ground rising up in mounds, and Milliara reached out, stopping her rotation by resting her hand against one of the ‘mounds’.
Slowly they settled against the ground. Whatever it was, it seemed to have gravity, just not in a way that made sense.
Milliara shook her head, then made the sign of long ears against her helmet with her free hand, looking over the human’s suit a bit more closely. There was an insignia over her shoulder of… a crow. Fuck. The woman didn’t sound Antivian, but that meant nothing. All of a sudden she was very conscious of the wound in her shoulder. Was it burning more than normal? Was the blade poisoned?
Milliara nodded, and pointed to her throat. No words.
Something chittered and clicked from off to Milliara’s right. Glancing over, she saw a horde of…. Of somethings there. Boys, toddlers through to prepubescent, all wearing a very familiar face. Their eyes were empty, pale and glowing as their teeth snapped and chittered excitedly, as though they were talking amongst each other.
All at once, the heat was gone from her. The anger at her mission getting interrupted, the anger at the woman for maybe poisoning her… everything was gone in the face of this new horror. How could- there was no way this could be real. It was a projection, an illusion.
“Come on, before they get us,” the human yelled, grabbing Milliara’s wrist and yanking her along. The flare of pain in her shoulder urged the elf into action, her feet digging into the soft ground. She was lighter than the human, but faster. All the years in space had helped form her species for low grav environments just like this. Wrapping her hand around the human’s, Milliara used their hands to point to a slash of green that twisted in the air ahead of them. They just needed to get there, get through.
Someone in a golden suit was waiting there, holding the glowing light ‘open’ to show dark space beyond. Safety from the very wrong children that were scampering after them on hands and knees.
Scrabbling up the steep incline of slime and rock and spongey ground, Milliara and the human took turns dragging each other forward, tumbling into the slash of green and out…. Out into a debrisfield of slowly rotating rocks, bodies and detritus from the fleets that had been destroyed.
Hand still to her shoulder, Milliara blinked, her already aching lungs not able to draw enough air through her damaged throat to keep conscious. She felt arms wrap around her, one over her own hand on her shoulder…. And then nothing.
Chapter 2 >