The quarry in Sarnia has been cleared, and the hapless villagers let out of the cages where they huddled together, awaiting their turn for the crystalline red poison to be forced down their throats and planted, seed-like, into their flesh, which it would have eventually tainted and turned into a mangled mass of throbbing rot. Thank the Maker that fate will never befall them. They are free now, saved by the Inquisitor - not literally, though. Despite having made some progress in her training as a rogue, young Trevelyan is still atrocious at picking rocks, and each time when she confidently shoved Varric out of the way with a chirpy declaration that she 'will handle this', she would damage the cage lock beyond repair, and Bull would have to cleave it off with his brand-new massive claymore (dawnstone-pink, the sparkliest, prettiest weapon ever to cleave a Red Templar asshole in half... Asshole as in bad guy, although who knows).
But in any case. One way or the other, Trevelyan and her companions have broken the Red Templars' hold over Sarnia - but one important mission still remains. Important enough to see to without delay, before the corrupted Templars' Vint buddies finish what they have started here.
A few of the notes they have found on the quarry scaffolding have been hinting at something called 'Gladius' - Tevene for sword, according to Dorian (who gives his commentary in between violent tooth-chattering, not rescued even by the dainty pink hat and scarf that Krem knit for him upon Bull's request).
From the snatches of information at their disposal, they have surmised that Gladius is some sort of powerful weapon, brought over to the south by a rogue magister. Not the one from Redcliffe, obviously - he was killed by the Venatori after Trevelyan ignored his trap and went to seek out the Templars; but apparently, as Dorian has noted bitterly, shrinking his head deeper and deeper into the folds of his scarf, there is no shortage of rogue magisters in Thedas these days. The Elder One's cultists are planning to corrupt this weapon with red lyrium, which ought to give it some sort of unimaginable powers - the culmination of a long and tedious dark ritual, which, as the notes say, ought to fall on tonight. Which is why, immediately after freeing the last villager, the four team mates hurry off, Trevelyan slipping clumsily on the ice crust that seems to cover everything around here, and Bull snatching both Dorian and Varric under his arms to silence their complaints about their feet sinking into the snow. They have to make it in time to interrupt the ritual - because if Meredith's sword was any indication, this Gladius will surely sow mass destruction in its wake. And the notes did mention the weapon's wielder being able to rush across the battlefield at breakneck speed, occasionally growing immune to damage and 'stripping all flesh of the enemy bones' with a single snap of their fingers.
Following the clues on the haphazardly drawn map that Trevelyan picked off a dead cultist (she thought she had successfully pickpocketed a living target, and was very smug about it, until it turned out that Bull had already chopped off the poor wretch's head and it had just not rolled down from his shoulders yet), they arrive at the mouth of a dark, frozen cave, with thick icicles framing it like teeth. Bull sets the grousing dwarf and the sniffing, shivering Tevinter down - and, together with Trevelyan, they dive into the dark-blue murk that shrouds the interior of the cave, a faint red glow breaking through like the feverish pulse of a sick person's heart. The glow grows brighter and brighter as they move further and further away from the entrance, and reaches its most blinding, searing point when the four explorers find themselves inside some manner of underground laboratory, with lyrium-streaked walls being lined with shelves and tables that are heavily laden with very unsettling-looking barbed and hooked and spiky metal implements, and yet another cage in the furthest corner.
At first glance, there is no weapon on display anywhere - but perhaps it is simply hidden. Locked away until the right moment comes. In that case, they will have to look for it later - because right now, there are hooded figures blocking the path, claw-like fingers bleeding acidic white and green magic.
As always, the sight of such formidable foes makes Trevelyan let out a nervous whimper - but she swallows her discomfort, as she usually does, the instant Varric claps his hand encouragingly against her back and silently points at a jutting ledge not too far from them, the dark grey stone covered in silvery swirls of time. Trying very hard not to make too many loud noises, the two rogues climb up and, once they have higher ground, point their weapons, Bianca and Cullen (yes, Trevelyan was inspired by her friend to name her bow after her lover) at the cultists below. In the meanwhile, Bull prepares to lead the frontal assault, Dorian supporting him from the flank with his explosive charges of magical lightning. The big Qunari does not rush off to smite the bad guys, however, before giving the mage's hand a small squeeze - something that has turned into a custom between the two of them, and inevitably makes Dorian smile, while his cheeks and ears turn the same colour as his scarf.
One by one, after an arrow shot here, the soft click of a crossbow there, a hack and slash of the pretty claymore and a few shock blasts for good measure, the black-robed spell weavers fall before them, their blood squirting across the frosty ground like dashes of rich crimson paint on a white canvas.
The last one standing must be their leader, judging by the rich gold adornments that bring some variety to his hooded cultist garb. He puts up a barrier around himself - a humming purple globe that proves somewhat challenging to shatter, especially because Trevelyan's companions are of no particular help here. After hearing the man's voice, screaming some shrill incantation in Tevene, Varric faltered and lowered his crossbow for some reason; Dorian, too, is out of commission, having been drained by the effort of directing a stream of lightning at the barrier to weaken it - and as soon as he loosened his grip on his staff, sweating profusely and kneeling down in the snow, Bull gasped in alarm and rushed over him, also getting distracted from the battle.
So now, it's just Trevelyan, facing the stubborn globe and firing her Cullen at it. Archery is of little use - of course! - and her arrows just ricochet off the barrier and sink into the furniture or random snow drifts. But thankfully, archery is not all she has; if the opposite were true, she would never have become someone so special. She would never have been chosen to lead the faithful. The most powerful, the most valuable part of her is the drop of raw Fade magic burned into her hand, either by accident or through divine will. She may not like it, but her Mark is far more effective in combat than the clumsy little her will ever be on her own. No going around it - and in that case, she had better make use of it.
In a flash, the charge of primal energy from the Mark engulfs the purple globe whole, and dispels it, leaving the cultist staggering all by himself, open to attack, with not even the thinnest wisp of magic to shield him. His odd daze shaken off by the blinding clash of Mark against barrier, Varric squares his jaw and hoists Bianca up again, his gaze darkening. His shot, clean and cold, with none of the usual flair he accompanies his battle moves with, hits the robed man directly in the heart; and when the body falls backwards, limply, noiselessly, like a cloth puppet being discarded, the black hood slips off and reveals a swarthy, scowling face and the bracket of a grey beard.
'Shit,' Varric spits - and, leaping off the ledge, brandishes his arms urgently in the direction of Bull and Dorian, who are still supporting each other, both stunned by the dwarf's behaviour.
'Check the cage!' he cries, gasping for air at the end. 'Check the cage! Shit, shit, shit - I don't think Gladius is a weapon! Gladius is a person! Andraste's tits, I never thought... not after that damn woman...'
He is still saying something, something about deals and betrayals and 'Bloody Blondie approving, of all people', but the others are not quite listening. For Dorian has heeded Varric's pleas and Fade-Stepped towards the cage, conjuring a wisp of light to make out what's behind the bars.
Varric was right. There is a person in there - an elf, with hair as white as the icy dust powdering the floor, and intricate light-blue markings covering his quivering, emaciated body. Dorian's mage light stings the elf's eyes, tired and bloodshot and surrounded by dark circles... And most heartrendingly of all, completely devoid of expression, save for blank, bestial fear that twists his features when he snarls at the light and backs away into a corner.
That does not change even when Varric catches up, and calls out to him, his voice gratingly hoarse,
'Hey! Hey, it's me! The dwarf whose beard fell on his chest! Maker's balls, you must have been through shit since that bitch sold you back! I... I am not travelling with her any longer, by the way... Sunshine and me are helping the Inquisition now... and she... she is out there in the Western Approach, supposedly making herself useful... I will keep you away from her, though... I will keep you safe... Cuz that's what I do... Or... Or try to do... I keep my friends safe... You... You know that - don't you?'
The elf gapes back at him as if he is speaking some unknown ancient language. He does not know.
He does not remember.