Elissa Cousland hung up her sword and shield on the wall and walked into her chambers, tossing her helm onto a chair and pausing to hang her cuirass on the armor stand. It had been a good afternoon on the sparring grounds, but tiring; now she was looking forward to a bath and a nap. Or perhaps not a nap, precisely, she thought as she walked past the study and noticed her husband seated at his desk, sorting through papers and scowling. She changed direction to meet him, heading through the open doorway. "Welcome back," she said, pulling off her bracers. "How did it go in Kirkwall?"
Alistair looked up with a groan. "Badly. Maker save me from self-righteous templars. That would be all of them, by the way."
Elissa cocked her head to the side. "I take it the Champion wasn't able to help you?"
"Alas, no. Knight-Commander Meredith got wind of my visit before I was able to meet with her. So, there goes that idea." He drew his hand over his face, shaking his head. "Greagoir and I don't always see eye to eye, but at least he's not a zealot. I shudder to think who the Chantry is going to put in charge once he's gone."
"It could be much worse," Elissa agreed. Setting her bracers down on the desk, she stood behind Alistair and began to massage his temples with her thumbs.
He let out a grateful sigh and leaned back into her hands. "That's nice." She moved down to his neck and shoulders, working out the kinks and knots with her fingers as he made appreciative noises. "Mmm. Marrying a woman with strong hands was the smartest thing I ever did." Elissa chuckled, and Alistair bent his head backwards to look up at her. "So, you'll never guess who I met in Kirkwall: one of your old Wardens from Amaranthine. That apostate, the one you conscripted out from under Ser Rylock's nose. What was his name? Sander, something?"
"Anders?!" Elissa's eyebrows shot up, and her hands stilled on Alistair's shoulders. "Anders is in Kirkwall?"
Alistair snapped his fingers. "Yes! Anders. That was it. He was with the Champion. Made a smart remark about kicking all the templars out of Ferelden."
Elissa chuckled with fond memory. "Same old Anders."
"Not-- really." Alistair's expression turned thoughtful, and he sat up straight. "Not that I knew him very well, mostly just from your stories, and Oghren's, but he always struck me as a cheerful fellow, friendly, if a bit strong in his opinions. For the few minutes I saw him, he seemed... different. Darker, more intense. I can't really explain why, but something about him made the ex-templar in me itch."
Elissa stepped back, frowning, letting her hands fall. "I knew taking that damned cat away was a bad idea." Alistair shot her a puzzled look over his shoulder, and she shook her head. "Long story. Anders didn't get along with the new Warden-Commander, and he disappeared not too long after I left. Something about an argument with a former templar who wound up dead. Nathaniel wasn't there, so he was unclear on the details." She thought back on her old friend and comrade, the most powerful healer she had ever known. If something really was wrong with him... "Love, I hate to leave so soon after your return, but I must look into this. I was his commander; he's my responsibility."
Alistair stood up. "Of course. I'll send word to the docks to have my ship ready in the morning."
"A stop in Amaranthine before Kirkwall, I think." He nodded his acknowledgement, and she came up on her toes and kissed him. "Thank you."
He leaned down and kissed her back, a hand coming up to frame her cheek. "However I can help, my dear, you know I will. Now go draw your bath, and I'll join you in a few minutes."
Both as a Grey Warden and as queen, Elissa had traveled to some unpleasant places in her time. Nothing would ever beat the broodmothers' warrens in the Deep Roads, but this Darktown might be a close second. She wrinkled her nose at the miasma of sewage, dead things, and unwashed humanity that permeated the air. Surely Anders could have picked a more pleasant place to settle than this?
She mounted the stairs that her contacts in the local Grey Wardens had indicated led to the clinic where Anders treated the poor and needy of Kirkwall. Rumor had it that he was also keeping company with the Champion, perhaps even living at her estate; Elissa had considered going through the Champion to arrange an audience, but decided it would be better to pull a surprise visit. Anders had never done well with authority figures, even those who technically had no authority over him anymore. Best not to give him the opportunity to bolt. The Wardens had told her other stories, too, about mages and templars and whispers of rebellion with Anders in the thick of it, leaving her more concerned than ever. She only hoped she hadn't arrived too late.
The stairway opened onto a large landing, where perhaps half a dozen people lingered, presumably either waiting for or recovering from treatment. After a quick check to make sure that no one seemed to be in dire straits, Elissa walked past them to the open doorway.
There he was, in a single open room that was at least well-lit, if in rather poor repair. He looked well enough, dressed in a feathered coat not unlike the Tevinter robes he used to wear, except instead of the brighter colors he had once favored, he was now all in black, head to toe; gloomy as it was, she had to admit that the black contrasted nicely with his ruddy skin and blond hair. He bent over a patient, his hands skimming over the man's back, a faint blue glow between his fingers. "There," he said, the light fading as he stepped away. "That should take care of it. But no more heavy lifting for a few weeks, is that clear? I don't want to see you back in here for this same injury yet again."
"Yes." The man sat up with a sigh of relief. "Maker bless you."
"Happy to help," Anders replied. "Now go on. My best to Leesa and the kids." With another nod of thanks, the man stood up and left, and Anders lifted his head toward the door. "Next?"
Elissa stepped forward and closed the door behind her. "That would be me, if you have a few minutes."
The blood drained from Anders's cheeks; he closed his mouth and stared. "Commander?" he said, weakly. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm not planning to drag you back to the Grey Wardens, if that's what you're thinking." Elissa came a few steps closer to him. "I heard some things, and I was concerned about you."
His brow darkened. "Did the king turn me in? Or was it Nathaniel?"
Elissa shook her head with a heavy sigh. "Nobody 'turned you in', Anders. But yes, Alistair told me you were here. Is it so bad for a commander to worry about one of her teammates? To check in on an old friend?"
"I... I suppose not." Anders looked down at the dirt floor, scuffed at it with his toe. "It's just a surprise, after all these years."
"For me, too." She indicated their dingy surroundings with a sweep of her hand. "What happened, to bring you to this? Back on the run, hunted by the Chantry yet again, living in squalor? Why didn't you come to me when things went wrong? I may not be Commander of the Grey anymore, but I'm not exactly without influence. I could have gotten you assigned to a better post, a commander more sympathetic to mages."
Anders looked back up, jaw set in determined anger. "I do not expect you to understand."
"You might be surprised." Elissa set down the basket she had carried over her arm all the way from Amaranthine, the result of the errand she had gone there to complete. "But before we get into this, I have something for you." She flipped open the lid and checked on her precious cargo: a ginger tabby, curled into a ball, blinking up at her sleepily. Good; the draught she had given him for the journey from Amaranthine was wearing off. She reached into the basket and pulled the cat free. "You seem to have misplaced this."
His eyes went wide. "Maker's breath," he whispered. "Is that-- Pounce? Is it really you?"
Ser Pounce-a-lot let out a keening meow and stretched forward, whiskers twitching furiously. Elissa smiled and placed him into Anders's trembling arms. "It took a little legwork, but I found the friend you gave him to. She was happy to see him sent safely home."
Anders gathered Pounce close, running his hand down the cat's back with long, slow strokes. "Pounce," he murmured. He lifted Pounce up to his face, touched their noses together, brought the cat to his cheek, breathed in the scent of his fur. "I missed you, kitty." Pounce meowed again and started to purr, so loudly that Elissa was sure she could have heard him all the way back in Ferelden. Anders nuzzled the cat, then drew him back against his chest and looked at Elissa, eyes glittering. "I don't even know what to say, besides thank you. But why?"
"Call it a peace offering. Besides, he should never have been taken from you in the first place." Just the memory of the argument she'd had with the new Warden-Commander on the subject was enough to make her blood boil all over again. "We sacrifice enough to the order as it is. Making you give up Pounce was both cruel and unnecessary. I can't even imagine what I might have done if someone had tried to take Dog away when I joined the Wardens. It was wrong, and I wanted to make it right." She reached out to scratch the cat between the ears. "I'm glad he seems to remember you, after all this time."
"He'd never forget me." Anders snuggled him closer, nose to the top of his head. "Would you, Ser Pounce-a-lot?" His voice took on that same silly tone he'd always used to speak to his beloved pet, and for just a moment, Anders was his old self again, the sweet, snarky man she had been honored to count as a friend; Elissa couldn't help but smile.
"So," she said. He looked at her again, calmer now. "Can we talk, or do you need a few more minutes?"
Before he could answer, a pounding came on the door; Anders called for silence with a raised hand. "Anders?" The voice was female, and he relaxed visibly. "What's going on?"
"Come in," he called out. "And shut the door behind you." The door opened to admit a woman of about Elissa's age and height, with short dark hair and startling green eyes. She also bristled with weaponry -- two wicked-looking daggers on her back and another at her belt -- and was fully clad in armor. Stories, rumors, Alistair's description, and every instinct Elissa had could lead to only one conclusion: this was Marian Hawke, Champion of Kirkwall.
"Everything all right in here?" she asked, then stopped dead with apparent surprise. At Elissa, the cat in Anders's arms, the smile on his face? "Anders, what is going on?"
"Some old friends are here for a visit." Anders indicated Elissa with a nod. "Hawke, I'd like to introduce you to Elissa Cousland, who you may know better by one or more of her titles: Hero of Ferelden, Warden-Commander, Her Majesty the Queen. And this," he lifted up his arms, still tight around the purring cat, "is Ser Pounce-a-lot."
"Are you serious?" He nodded, and Hawke came closer, resting her hand on the cat's back in a tentative pat. "You weren't exaggerating: he is adorable. For a cat, anyway. But how--?"
"The commander brought him." Anders sighed. "And she also came to talk. But I'm not convinced there's much to say." He turned his attention to Elissa. "I left the Wardens because I had a greater purpose: freedom. Freedom for mages from their enslavement by the Chantry. Perhaps the Wardens offered a measure of freedom to me, and to a handful of other mages, but what of the apostates who live in fear of the templars and their lives? What of the thousands of mages trapped in the Circles? I could no longer sit idly by and do nothing while others struggled for their lives. Freedom is my cause. And I could not fight for it within the constraints of being a Warden."
"And you really think this is the way?" Elissa crossed her arms and stared back at him. "Leading mages out of the Circles without giving them somewhere to go? No wonder they end up in places like this, or on the run from templars, leaving them no choice but to turn to blood magic or demons when the templars back them into a corner."
"And whose fault is that?" Anders tightened his fingers in Pounce's fur; the cat made a soft noise of protest, and he relaxed his grip. "The mage, or the templar who pushes him to it?"
"I hardly think the innocents caught in the crossfire care who is to blame," Elissa retorted.
Anders shook his head, the stubborn set back to his jaw. "This is the way of justice. Sometimes, people have to die to make things right. If your cause is right, isn't it worth making sacrifices?"
"You're wasting your breath." Hawke caught Elissa's eye, then twitched her thumb toward Anders with an exasperated sigh. "I've tried to have this conversation with him, at least a hundred times. I worry, too, about where all this is leading. But whatever he's planning, his mind is made up."
Elissa took in Anders, his dour expression, his tight posture, the determination in his eyes. This was familiar, she realized, something about both Anders and the words he was saying, so similar to snippets of conversation about mages and injustice she had overheard on their travels through Amaranthine. Injustice... and suddenly it all snapped together: the changes in Anders, Alistair's vague disquiet in his presence, the disappearance of another Grey Warden from Vigil's Keep. "Justice? Justice! Is this his doing?"
A look of panic crossed Hawke's face, but Anders stilled her with a quick shake of his head. "It's all right. Elissa knew him as a Warden, too." He turned back to Elissa. "So you see the truth. Yes. I have merged with Justice, and we fight together for freedom. But I don't think talking with him directly is a good idea. I-- I'm not as able to control him as I would like. He is not the spirit you remember."
"Regardless, I'm still his commander, and I will have answers." Elissa smacked her hands together. "Justice? I need to speak with you. Now!"
Anders shivered; he set the cat down at his feet, and then shuddered again, harder this time, cracks of blue-white light breaking through his skin and coat as he closed his eyes. When he opened them, they glowed with that same blinding brightness, brown irises replaced by the otherworldly light of the Fade. "Warden-Commander?"
It was Justice's voice, all right, sounding just as he had when he'd animated the dead Warden Kristoff all those years ago. Strange to hear that voice coming from Anders now. "Yes," Elissa said. "What in Andraste's name do you think you're doing? Possessing a living being? Perverting him to your will? How does that make you any different from the demons you claim to abhor?"
"It is not the same," replied Anders-- no, Justice, Elissa reminded herself. Definitely not Anders, even if she could hear the faint echo of his voice, resonating above Justice's baritone. "Anders offered to be my host, in return for my aid in freeing mages from oppression. I do not control him. We work together in this. We are of one cause, one mind."
"Are you." Elissa narrowed her eyes. "Then why are you both so different from the men I remember? Why is Anders so single-minded? Why are you so reckless? What happened to your belief in order? This path you are on will lead only to chaos and destruction. I don't think you realize just how dire the current situation really is. If things go on as they have, the templars may invoke the Right of Annulment in Kirkwall. There are whispers that Chantry may even call an Exalted March! Is that what you really want?" She shook her head. "This doesn't sound like Justice to me. It sounds like revenge."
Justice vibrated with anger. "You do not understand, and you will not stand in our way!" The glow that surrounded him turned brighter, the lines widening as though Anders were cracking like a dropped vase. He -- they? -- clenched his -- their? -- hand into a fist, and then grasped Anders's staff from its resting place against the wall. Elissa jumped back, drawing her own sword in a single motion; Ser Pounce-a-lot hissed at her, arching his back and leaping sideways.
"No!" Hawke shouted, grabbing at his arm. "Anders, Justice, stop this, both of you! Now! Anders!" Anders-- Justice-- shook her off and turned his focus on Elissa, the blue-white flames gathering around him as he drew a hand in front of his face, clearly readying an attack. Elissa advanced, a careful step, taking in the situation. If she could disarm him, then knock him unconscious with the flat of her sword, or maybe the pommel... she thought longingly of her shield, left back on the ship because she feared the Grey Warden heraldry would attract the wrong kind of attention. She didn't want to bloody him, but if it came to that...
The train of thought was over in a second, and then interrupted by a ferocious yowl from near Elissa's feet. A blur of orange fur streaked past her face, and then Ser Pounce-a-lot was on Justice, leaping up from the floor onto his chest. Between the cat's weight and the surprise attack, he lost his footing and toppled backwards, his head hitting the ground with a sickening thump. The glow faded; Anders brought his arms up around the cat and held him, a hand curling around the back of his head. Pounce kneaded his paws into Anders's neck and mewed. "Good Pounce," Anders murmured. "Good kitty."
Elissa sheathed her sword, whispering a grateful prayer under her breath, then checked on Hawke, who put her own blades away with what looked like a shudder of relief before moving to Anders's side. "You all right?"
"I think so." Anders opened his eyes and looked up at her, mouth twisting in a sarcastic smile. "Just my head, and we all know there's nothing important in there." He sat up, rubbing the back of his head with one hand, holding his cat with the other, and, with help from Hawke got to his feet, then sat on the edge of a nearby cot, letting Pounce settle into his lap. He looked at Elissa. "You're right, you know. When Justice joined with me, my anger at the plight of mages, my rage, was so overwhelming that it twisted him into a spirit of Vengeance. And I'm not always strong enough to hold him back anymore. I appreciate your concern, Commander. But there's nothing to be done. All that remains is our thirst for freedom, for justice, for vengeance. Our plan is in motion, and it is too late to stop it. I'm sorry."
"Oh, Anders." Elissa shook her head. "If you truly were sorry, you'd find a way to stop it. Or to change course. But it's not too late for you. Not if you really want to be free. Do you? Do you want to be free of Justice?"
"Impossible." It was a flat statement, completely certain. "When a mage is joined with a spirit or a demon, the only way it can end is with the host's death. I may not look or seem like an abomination, but I'm near enough to one. When I die, Justice may be able to move on, but that's all."
"You're wrong," Elissa replied. "It is possible. I know it's possible, because I've done it." Anders lifted an eyebrow at her, and Hawke took an involuntary step forward, mouth opening slightly. "All right, I didn't do it myself. The mage Jowen did, with the help of six other mages who sent him into the Fade to face the demon there. But he vanquished the demon -- or maybe sent it on its way, he was vague on the details and I didn't feel the need to press further -- and the possessed mage was free with no ill effects."
Anders was still for a long moment, the only motion his fingers ruffling the cat's fur. "So it's true," he said, once he had regained his voice. "There were rumors about that, after the Blight, but no one could confirm them, and no one was sure which mage had been affected. So we didn't really believe."
"The mage was Arl Eamon's young son, who was being tutored in magic outside the confines of the Circle by a blood mage. A lot of powerful people had good reasons to keep that one covered up." Elissa shrugged. "Nevertheless, it's true. I know because I was there. If you want it, all you need to do is ask."
The silence was much shorter this time. "I-- I appreciate the offer. I do. But this is who I am now. Justice is a part of me. As much as he frightens me, I would no longer be myself without him." Then he smiled, first at Pounce, then Elissa. "Still, I can't thank you enough for returning Pounce. Although you should just hear what Justice has to say about it." He glanced up at Hawke. "If you thought he complained about you being a distraction..." Hawke snorted with exasperated amusement, and Anders favored her with a fond look before turning back to Elissa. "Thank you for coming all this way."
Elissa knew a dismissal when she heard one, and she responded with a brisk nod. "I'm glad I came. And think about my offer, will you? You know where to find me if you change your mind. Whatever the reason, you are always welcome in the palace. And the Wardens will give you sanctuary if you need it, even if I have to go all the way to the First to get it for you. This, I swear."
Anders glanced at Hawke again. "Now you see why I said you reminded me of her? Thank you, Commander. I know you take care of your own. And I owe you many debts I can never repay."
"Damn straight you do." Elissa smiled. "Just-- stay out of trouble, all right? I know that's a lot to ask, but at the very least you can try. Nice to meet you, Champion."
She didn't wait for a response but only turned to go, leaving the clinic door open behind her and hurrying down the stairs, through the twisty byways of Darktown. It was several minutes before she registered that the footsteps she kept hearing were actually following her, and not particularly trying to hide their passage; she stopped halfway up another stairway and turned, and there was Hawke, running to catch up.
"Is it true? Can you really separate them?" No preliminaries, no explanations; none were required. Elissa could see the hope, the longing, burning in Hawke's face: her dream that the man she loved might be free from the demons that drove him.
Honesty compelled Elissa to spread her hands with uncertainty. "I know that we can try. But it won't be easy. We had First Enchanter Irving helping us with Connor, a child who had only been possessed for a few weeks. Anders and Justice have been together for years, and one or both of them might be an unwilling subject. It would take some powerful mages to make it work. Fortunately, I know some powerful mages. If he wants it -- or if you do -- come to me, and we will do our best."
Hawke took a deep breath, then let it go. "Thank you. You don't know how much it means to hear there might even be a chance. I'm-- I'm grateful you came to see him, brought Pounce home to him. I can see how much he respects you. Even if nothing changes today, maybe something you said will get through, someday."
"You're welcome." Elissa held out her hand, and Hawke took it in a firm shake. "Good luck to you, Hawke."
"Good luck to all of us," she replied, and then she was gone, striding back down the stairs toward the clinic. Elissa watched until she was out of sight, and then resumed her trek through Darktown, back to the docks and the clarity of home.