The Gallows stank of blood and shit and sweat and fear and misery unlike anywhere else in the Imperium.
He had not wanted to come here. The days of deciding that, though, were long gone.
Fenris stood shackled and well-guarded at the very gates of the City of Chains, the only slave in Kirkwall’s legendary Gallows. He stared at the great bronze statue before him blankly. Everywhere, everywhere there were images of misery, and there was no possibility of freedom.
“Magister Danarius still recommends…”
“He may recommend whatever he wants. He lost. The life of his prized slave is in the hands of the Warmage, now.”
The elf lifted his head, just barely. A red-haired freedwoman, a southerner from her accent, was tramping down the great stairs. She was heavily armed in red and silver plate. A captain of a magister’s bodyguard, from the crest she bore.
She halted and eyed him like a piece of equipment, which he supposed he was once again. “This was the slave so terrible that you could not risk him coming in during the crowd?”
He must be quite a sight.
“Yes. The lyrium…”
“I know. Danarius’ only concern. Perhaps he shouldn’t have lost if it mattered so much.”
The man—one of Danarius’ sniveling stewards—drew himself up as best he could. “While the field of battle may be the domain of your mistress, Magister Danarius is a researcher who has the very ear of the Archon.”
“And the Warmage is a relative of the Archon,” the woman answered dismissively, “Did you feed him? Allow him to act like a man at all? Toth’s wings, he looks about ready to collapse.”
“Would you rather we let him tear us to pieces?”
“To be quite honest, yes.” She shook her head and addressed Fenris directly. “If you come quietly, I promise it will not get anymore painful.”
Pain? What was more pain? Three years of freedom were gone like dust upon the wind and he was to be a Magister’s slave once again.
But he had nothing left to fight with, not right now. “Yes.”
She nodded and called for another two individuals in red and silver. They took his lead from Danarius’ men.
He glanced at the huddled figure of a slave lying at the base of the stairs as they led him forward. His fate. Always, always his fate.
“She should have killed Danarius,” one of the guards stated. Fenris almost snarled at the pity, but he lacked the strength.
“There’s a much debated point,” the woman said, “Don’t stick your nose into the affairs of Magisters, Brennan. You will lose everything.”
They approached the edge of the gallows, and a small ship was waiting. A woman stood leaning against the ship’s mooring rope, conspicuously not dressed in red and silver and examining her nails. “Are you done with the blah blah blah with those idiots or shall I try to find something for dinner in this barren hellhole?”
The woman looked up and examined Fenris very thoroughly. She was dark-haired and dark-skinned, wearing too much gold for a slave or freedwoman, even. “Impressive—once someone feeds him.”
The red-head sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Isabela.”
“Aveline.” The other woman rolled her eyes. “You’d think you would be used to me by now.”
“You never will work off your debt, will you?”
“Perhaps I enjoy the thrills,” came the smooth answer, “All aboard. I have no idea how long this piece of shit will hold together. The idiot had the gall to call himself a shipwright…”
Fenris was steered aboard a small craft. He stared ahead at the looming city as the craft approached, with an argument going on between the two women behind him.
For a thousand years and more, Kirkwall had stood as the center of the Imperium’s slave trade. The rebellions to the south— the Andrastean Uprising, it was called—had threaten to engulf the city, once, but that age was long past. He didn’t know if he had ever been here before. He did not care to be here now.
And so yet another slave came to the City of Chains.
“Tell Archon Amell that Danarius is an incompetent, useless ass, will you?” Marian Hawke asked, “And that I could seize and hold Seheron for him, if he would simply send me.”
Her sister hid a chuckle. “It is no wonder you were sent here. You would have sent the Senate into a riot by now.”
The elder Hawke sister smirked. The whole situation was really rather ridiculous. “Oh, but think of the good it would do Minrathous. Also send uncle my affections,” Marian continued to her sister, “And be careful.”
Bethany smiled. “So you really think uncle would allow his apprentice to come to harm?”
“It isn’t a matter of allowing.”
“The only thing I have that anyone in Minrathous might want is blood relation to the Archon. You really should have been his apprentice. I’m lucky to be able to light a candle, some days.”
“He is fond of you, and that’s enough. Every magister wants to be Archon. Be careful.”
Bethany hugged her. “Of course. I’ll write.” She snorted. “I’ll get Carver to write, finally, too. Stupid idiot. Now he’s an Archon’s Guard, he thinks we’ll never miss him. Mother would never have let him get away with it.”
“Yes, yes,” her sister said with a smile, “Get going.”
Bethany and her personal slaves left with little fanfare. There was too much going on for a proper farewell feast, and Marian regretted it. She followed the group to the door, dodging slaves hastening to ready the mansion for the newest Prefex of Kirkwall.
The politics of her move had been rather dramatic, both in Miranthous and Kirkwall. She had defeated Danarius in a duel, but because of her uncle’s favor, left him alive and took large amounts of his property. The scandal of Danarius’ defeat by an upstart who did not even practice blood rituals made her a threat to most of the magisters. Rather than deal with placating the ever-ravening Senate’s latest fury, Archon Amell had opted instead to send his niece to a comfortable, arguably useful post in Kirkwall. One of the leading magisters of the city had been forced to vacate his luxurious manor and find residence elsewhere. It was causing quite a stir.
Kirkwall sat on the edge of nowhere. It was the last major settlement north of the Waking Sea or east of the Frostback mountains, the last true outpost of civilization before the world of wilderness and isolated fortresses to the south.
Hawke was not one for the noise and bustle of Miranthous, not really, but being so far removed for the war against the Qunari was extremely frustrating. She had been making progress in getting an expedition to Seheron underway. She could take the island and truly claim it for the Imperium, hold it. She could do it. She knew this. She’d more than earned the nickname Warmage.
Hawke sighed and found an errant chair to collapse in. The hour was late, but that never stopped the Imperium. Her papers and books were…somewhere, and she knew that messengers were already hurrying across the city to make their demands of the new Prefex.
She rubbed her temples. The Veil in Kirkwall was thin, and she knew there were secrets here that would have made even her father, the powerful Malcolm Hawke, shudder. The in-fighting among the magisters was the same as elsewhere, dangerous and difficult. The vast population of Kirkwall’s slaves was always at risk of rebellion. She would be busy providing oversight for the whole mess, aiding in person more often than she cared to.
She belonged in the north, raining fire down upon the Qunari.
Hawke eyed the mansion that lay beneath the hustle and bustle all round her. It was easily one of the largest in the city, standing at the very top of the hill. Nothing less than the best for a member of the Archon’s family. Images of the Imperium eagle festooned every wall, angry profiles leering forward from columns, great statues looming in the corners. Both the outer and inner gate bore tremendous sculptures of the great bird with its wings flared.
The image would have made her father laugh, and she knew that old joke was why her uncle had chosen it. The eagle could easily be mistaken for a hawk, the family’s namesake. The location of this posting, too, was her uncle’s joke— the Hawke clan hailed from southern barbarians who had become civilized some time after the Andrastean Uprising. Her life was swiftly becoming her uncle’s joke…
Living for the amusement of others was not living. She should have killed Danarius and dealt with the setback.
“Mistress, Captain Aveline has returned with…Danarius’ debt.”
Ah, yes, that. Another complication, and one she had no obligation to take on, but seeing Danarius’ face when she chose to seize his prized possession had been worth it.
“Please bring him in.”
The old elf bowed, hiding a smile. Kalias had been her father’s personal slave, and was evidence of the Hawke family’s notorious leniency for slaves. He had a terrible tendency to mock her.
The captain cambered up the stairs a few minute later. The freedwoman had a tendency to be protective to the point of paranoia, and her annoyed glances at the structure of the building allowed Hawke to know she disapproved of this place’s security immensely.
Hawke could only smile once Aveline got a good look at her and glared in harsh disapproval. “No, I don’t have any dignity,” Hawke answered. She was perfectly aware that she was slouched in a sitting room chair at the top of only one of the entrance hall’s stairs, in the middle of the night, surrounded by busy slaves moving various things and paying their esteemed mistress no attention whatsoever.
“The entirety of the Imperium is aware of that,” the southerner deadpanned, “It might serve to be a touch more intimidating at the moment. Danarius spent three years chasing this elf across the known world. He can tear hearts out with his bare hands.”
“One of the bastard’s pet projects, I know,” Hawke replied nonchalantly, “Bring me this slave. I’m curious to meet someone who made Danarius the laughing stock of Miranthous.”
Aveline rolled her eyes and signaled to her guards. They led forward a tall, white-haired elf. The slave kept his eyes down and shoulders hunched.
Hawke leaned forward and studied him carefully. According to Danarius’ published notes on his work, the elf had not always had white hair. He had been a gifted young warrior, one of many slaves and freedmen desperately competing for the boon the old bastard promised. Anything they wanted—so long as it did not pertain to themselves.
What the elf had asked for hadn’t been elaborated on, merely that he had been the most skilled competitor, killing dozens of others with a great two-handed blade. The slave didn’t remember, for certain. One of the side effects of what Danarius had done wiped his memory clean.
“Look at me,” she ordered.
The elf looked at her, and it caused her breath to catch. He was incredibly handsome, with leaf green eyes. There was a vicious strength in those eyes…and a chained hatred.
She shook her head and refocused. The lyrium markings trailed elegantly down his chin and throat. His tattered rags alternately hid and revealed the rest. It was those that gave him the ability to partially shift into the Fade, to reach into a body and tear vital organs apart with his hands. The elf’s flesh was worth this entire manor and more.
The creation of the markings had shocked many magisters, more for the expense than the cruelty. The ritual had been incredibly painful, the stress and sheer agony turning the elf’s hair white and likely being the cause of his amnesia.
“What is your name?”
She blinked. “’Little Wolf’?”
Aveline snorted. “Danarius clearly does not subscribe to the late Magister Hawke’s philosophy of the general dignity of the living, slave or free.”
“Such a shock.”
Kalias had been studying his new charge. “To quote many others, mistress, you should have killed the bastard.”
Fenris was looking between them in shock, especially at Kalias. The older elf lifted an eyebrow, clearly amused. “You were said bastard’s bodyguard?” he asked.
“While the mistress knows the dangers of a fugitive,” the old elf said, bowing at Hawke, “perhaps the best use for him is to have him resume his old duties for herself?”
“Bold as ever, Kalias,” Aveline commented, crossing her arms, “Until a month ago, this slave was ready to kill for his freedom. There is no guarantee that he will not try to do so again.”
Hawke listened to the argument range back and forth. Aveline had been freed years ago by Hawke’s father for her service against pirates on the Waking Sea. She had that special disdain freedmen had for slaves, especially high-ranking ones, and viewed Kalias as a thorn in her side. He enjoyed that.
Malcolm Hawke had been perhaps too much a southerner, she thought. Kalias was smart and useful and perhaps even a member of the family, but there might come a day when she would have to rein him in and it would be hard.
Too many problems. She focused on the new slave.
Oh, he could kill her, and she could almost feel the hatred burning in him. He kept his eyes down, but there was still fighting tension in his lean body. He would, indeed, kill for his freedom.
The part of her that was her father’s daughter, not a magister, felt pity for him. He was unknowingly part of the political struggle between her and Danarius. To take Danarius’ advice of a memory wipe or to cage the elf like a beast would be an admission of defeat. This one slave had turned a powerful Senator into a laughing stock for three years. To tame him, to flaunt him in public, would be a hard blow to Danarius. He would be perceived as weak, especially in comparison to her. It would give her leverage for the Seheron expedition.
“Enough,” she said, loud and flat and commanding. The slave and the servant fell silent. Hawke turned blue eyes on the slave. He felt her gaze and met it. Free for too long. “Tell me truly,” she said, “What do you want?”
There was a moment of fear and consideration. Too often this sort of question was a trick, she knew, but he had been free for too long to lie now. “To crush Danarius’ heart.”
Hawke smiled. “Interestingly enough, I want it crushed. If you agree not to run from me, not to try to kill me, I swear on my father’s grave that you will crush Danarius’ heart.”
She could feel disapproval from Aveline and Kalias and even the bloody walls. Magisters do not make deals with slaves, especially not with recaptured fugitive slaves.
This was very true. They didn’t. But Marian Hawke wanted to retake Seheron, and nothing would stand in her way, especially not other people’s propriety.
Fenris bowed his head after a moment. “I will not run from you…mistress.”
“And settled, then. Kalias, please show him to the bodyguard’s quarters, wherever they are. Have him fed, washed, and clothed. Armament we’ll work out once the household is settled.” The old elf bowed. He waited as the guards removed the other slave’s chains, then led him further into the manor.
“Are you sure that was wise?” Aveline asked.
“No, but it was cunning. I wasn’t lying to him. I will have Danarius dead sooner rather than later. Flaunting his former bodyguard and three year long headache will help with that goal, among others.”
“It also keeps you from getting bored.”
“That’s true.” She stood from the chair and yawned. “He can’t possibly be less trustworthy than Isabela, Captain.”
“Oh, I’ve no doubt of that. And, like her, like everyone, he’s in the palm of your hand…so long as you can give him what he wants.”
“That’s the trick of it.” She watched the slaves on the floor below begin to sort through the various crates and furniture. “Tomorrow, Aveline, we will start the slow road north.”
“My mistress is not Senator Danarius,” Kalias stated, leading Fenris through the dark halls.
The old elf halted for a moment and regarded Fenris with a small smile. “Good, you may be a worthwhile addition to this mess.”
“You speak very freely for a slave.”
“Malcolm Hawke had a great deal of Andrastean influence in his take on life. He needed a secretary, I was an illegally literate child, he bought me knowing this, and he found a silent incarnation of duty rather boring and unethical.”
Fenris and Kalias stepped aside as a group of human slaves hauled a large bed down the hall. “Is the current magister of the same mind?”
That got a weary sigh. “Some days. She will not beat you, and she does not bleed slaves ever. Like her father, she finds the traditional silent obedience boring. But she has spent much of her life in Minrathous, near the Archon’s court. She feels tradition more than the old master ever did, though she often thwarts it as he did. She has an itch for war, and that’s where her ambitions lie.”
“Yes,” Fenris muttered, “The Warmage.”
“I’ve no doubt you’ll understand the reason for that nickname soon enough. The mistress enjoys showing off.” Kalias cast a wry glance at a huge set of doors they passed. Gilt images of the Old God pantheon festooned the thing. “Always absent Dumat,” the elf muttered, “Ever since the Blight, they always leave out Dumat. Afraid to admit sacrilege and blame Tevinter? Ah, here we are.”
A small, plain door was tucked away beside the vast ones. Kalias opened it to reveal a very small, simple room. “We’ll bring in a cot and the other amenities. Personal belongings are allowed, though it would be best if they remain in your quarters at all times. This is the House of Parthalan; we will seem respectable at all times.”
“A southern magister, almost a legend. The magister is a direct descendent through her father.” The elf narrowed his eyes and assumed the strange pride of most high-ranking slaves. “The blood of Parthalan is a greater honor than even close relation to the Archon.”
Fenris had never understood the odd loyalty Kalias was displaying. It was one thing to be blindly obedient to your master, but to hold the pride of the magister’s bloodline as if it were your own? It was beyond him. “Ah.”
“I will have the kitchen send up food, clothing, and a washtub. Furnishings will be found shortly.”
Fenris bowed his head and Kalias left. The old elf was very busy, the head of the Hawke family’s slaves, and Fenris was merely another chore.
This was not the life he wanted. He did not want to be pouring wine for guests, or standing there to boost a magister’s image. This was not what he wanted!
Oh, but he wanted to kill Danarius. Hawke had plenty of reason to want him dead, and could give him a chance better than anyone in the Imperium. Looking at the household, he had little doubt of that.
Andoral’s claws, having met the woman, he had no doubt of that.
Magisters did not make deals with slaves, even if their philosophy on interactions with slaves were untraditional. But Hawke wanted Danarius dead…and humiliated, Fenris would guess. If she seemed to have tamed Danarius’ infamously wild pet, the other magister would look more the fool.
For now, he would play along. It would get him what he wanted.
“No.” It was a delight to be able to say that. In Miranthous, there was always obfuscating up the ass.
“The opportunity, Prefex…”
“Magister Orsino, I lived in Minrathous, but I do not conform to their practices. I must decline your invitation.”
The elf blinked, a touch shocked, but recovered smoothly. “I do not claim to understand, but I do respect your wishes. I hope you realize our research could be a tremendous breakthrough for Tevinter.”
Hawke held up a hand. “I don’t want the details. I have heard rumors…no. Thank you but no.”
The Magister bowed. “Then good health to you, Prefex.”
“The same to you, Magister.”
He left, his guards following him. Hawke sat down and rubbed her temples. Orsino was one of the premier researchers of the Tevinter Imperium and a very strong blood mage. She did not want to be a part of his work, did not even want to hear about it. The line of Parthalan did not practice blood magic nor deal with demons.
This was going to be a very long assignment. She really should have just killed the bastard, as everyone said. At least something good would have come out of all this instead of just a colossal headache.
Kalias entered without knocking. “Are you ready for more problems, mistress?”
“Only if you sing them to me.”
The slave was unimpressed, and did not sing. “The Bone Pit is reporting…issues.”
“If you thin the Veil enough with human sacrifice over the centuries, that tends to happen.”
That made Hawke sit up straight. Drakes—the wingless dragon males— only lived were grown female dragons nested. Which would mean that somewhere nearby, there was a High Dragon. “Any sightings?”
“Not yet, mistress.”
“Send out scouts. I want reports weekly of any dragon sign. What other delights abound?”
“Some talk of one of Magister Orsino’s pupils encouraging slave rebellion.” She waved a hand dismissively; that was Kirkwall for you. “A Qunari ship has been sighted on the Waking Sea nearby. The Tethras family—surface merchant dwarves, the leading members of the Dwarven Merchants Guild—has requested an audience. The argument is rather obscure, but threatens to turn to open violence. The Grey Wardens respectfully request the opportunity to search the city for recruits.” He shut his book of notes. “Oh, and Magister Danarius is on the rise after his recent disgrace in a duel against the Warmage.”
“What did he do?”
“Apparently found some primordial dwarven ruins. Or at least how to get to them.”
“It will come to nothing.” She looked at the papers scattered about her desk. “Send the Wardens a message granting their request, and tell the guard to cooperate, even if they choose escaped slaves. Have House Tethras send a representative. Keep an eye on the Qunari—one ship is just a scout but it's better to err on the side of caution.”
“Were I not wise, mistress, I would wonder who did all the work here.”
“It’s a good thing you’re wise, then.”
The slave gave a short laugh and left to get her messages and orders out. Hawke leaned back to survey the mess that was her desk. Requests, invitations, letters of welcome, records of various kinds, all sorts of documents lay scattered on its surface. Most of it was useless. Some were dangerous.
The Prefex was the Imperium’s enforcer, investigating and fixing problems. Usually these were magical. Sometimes they were far more worldly. Solving enough of Kirkwall’s issues would get her recalled back north, she knew that. Well, provided no one overthrew Archon Amell.
There was another nightmare. She needed to visit the temples, begin sending up offerings for his health. All her chances were gone if he died.
She felt eyes on her. “You have an opinion, Fenris,” she said, “Speak it.”
“It is not my place, mistress.”
She looked up to meet his green gaze. He had not spoken or moved since he’d entered the office with her as a bodyguard. “Consider it an order.”
That earned a moment’s bitter smile, quickly replaced by an expressionless mask. “You are not a normal magister.”
“Long have I strived for that.” She began sorting letters. “That southern blood, my uncle likes to joke. Just enough of a barbarian to make things interesting.”
“Why do you not practice blood magic?”
She eyed a lengthy letter requesting an inspection of the guard’s headquarters. “It starts with your own blood,” she said absently, “Then the blood of your enemies, drained out in the midst of battle. The rush is so great, the power so terrible. It becomes like an addiction, and soon you are bleeding your slaves for rituals in the middle of your own household.” She tossed the letter in the pile she would actually answer herself. “To get to that point, you must ask a demon for help, of course. They know all the good rituals.”
“That is an issue?”
“It never ends well for anyone involved, except maybe the demon.”
“You are not a normal magister.”
“And you are not a normal slave.” She leaned forward and rested her chin on a hand. “Beyond the obvious markings, few would escape like you did. Few would throw back the full might of a magister— all his magic, his soldiers, and his will.” The elf’s eyes remained locked on hers. “Two of a kind, aren’t we?”
He snarled at her. Oh, not a boring one, this. “I will be free of this someday.”
“First, hand me Danarius’ heart. Then we can negotiate.”
That got no answer, just a slight cocking of the head and narrowed eyes.
It was so much fun to defy the expectations of others, no matter who they were. In the end, what other kind of control did she have over her life, really?
Life settled into an all too familiar routine. Fenris was the magister’s shadow. He followed her to opulent receptions, to sacrifices at temples, and stood in her office as she labored as Prefex.
The last of these was the most common. He had often known such dull monotony as Danarius’ bodyguard, but he didn’t recall it annoying him so much.
Though at present, he was feeling something else very foreign to his former life: amusement.
“So you want me to help you scam your brother?”
The dwarf, leaning back in one of the gilded chairs as if he owned the manor, nodded. “Yes.”
“Two concerns,” Hawke said, “First, this is an odd request to make of a Prefex. I have High Dragon sighting to investigate outside the city, among many other things. Second, if I am hearing your proposal right, you want to use this little financial trick in order to help the brother you would be stealing from.”
“Well, to the first, it is of a concern to keeping peace in the city. Lyrium smuggling outside of Imperial regulations? Something that could cause trouble. Besides, if the Kirkwall Dwarven Merchants Guild finds out about this little bit of unregulated lyrium, then it will be something like war. They’ll find out. Betrand isn’t exactly subtle. It will be a bloodbath, and not just in the Guild. All the strings are connected around here.”
“You got that right. To the second, I would prefer to see my brother alive—pain in the ass as he is—and not responsible for a bloody shadow war. Bad for business and all.”
“Having the Prefex singe him a bit also makes sure he won’t do it again.”
The dwarf grinned. “And most people never understand the art of the younger son.”
Hawke gave a murderous grin. “Well, then, Varric Tethras, where do I find the headquarters of this lyrium smuggling operation?”
Following Hawke through Lowtown, Fenris reaffirmed that she was indeed not a normal magister.
The commoners parted as she moved through the marketplace, though she didn’t seem to care one way or the other. She was not wearing robes, but rather a strange and asymmetric armor. Her left hand was encased in a clawed gauntlet similar to his own, while the right was only covered with a fingerless leather glove. It was not inconspicuous, but it was hardly traditional.
Nor was the staff she carried, which closely resembled a polearm. A long, sharp blade was attached to a piece of wood that seemed almost alive. The wood curled around a glowing red stone at the other end like roots grown round a rock. It was the strangest mage tool Fenris had ever seen—the feel of the thing was ancient, brimming with history and power, yet lacking in that sick sensation of a demon’s influence.
Hawke was undeniably a mage, certainly a magister, but she did not move with the terrible arrogance of Danarius. Power and danger radiated off of her, but she did not throw it around.
He watched her toss a coin to a beggar and continue on her way. Somewhere near the forge district, Aveline was leading a raid to drive the smugglers to ground. They would push them deeper and deeper, until their only option was to flee the city through the sewers. Hawke, with Fenris shadowing, would catch them there before they vanished.
She halted at a hex, a rather major crossroads, frowning. “You know,” she said, “This labyrinth would be a great deal more tolerable if it hadn’t been designed on purpose.”
It took Fenris a moment to realize she was speaking to him. “Yes, mistress.”
She rolled her eyes. “You despise this place. It’s in every step you take.”
“I am a slave,” he snarled, against his better judgment. She encouraged this disobedience, and fool that he was, he embraced it! “This is the center of the slave trade.”
“Oh, that’s not all it is,” Hawke said. She decided on a direction and started out again. He kept on her heels. “It’s alive.” She tapped her staff against a corner. “Well, here, it’s alive. People living their lives, safe as any can hope, opportunity at every step. The magisters in Hightown, now, are dead. They are either in the midst of a decadent orgy starring a donkey from Par Vollen or bleeding their household dry in order to summon a demon who can solve their performance issues.”
That was all very familiar. “You spent a long time in Minrathous.”
“The court is a dead place. The people are just lies.” She banged the staff against another corner, and Fenris wondered if that was just a childish form of amusement. Hawke did appear to be rather easily bored. “But they are the best shield civilization has. The will of the Gods is an odd thing.”
Another turn, and the crowds thinned. They began descending several steep flights of stairs made of ill-kept and well-worn stone. This was one of the many paths into the sewers called Darktown.
There were few among Tevinter’s mage elite that would risk Kirkwall’s sewers. This undercity was the home of escaped slaves and enemies of the magisters for a thousand years and more. Even the most powerful magisters knew their vulnerabilities and did not take unnecessary risks. Yet here Hawke was, on the hunt.
She was enjoying it, he could tell, for all they were walking through the reeking refuse of Kirkwall. All was going according to her plan, and if it didn’t, she would just blow everything up.
That had been how she’d concluded her planning session.
The denizens of this dank, smelly world fled at the sight of them. A millennium of poor had created the vaguest trappings of civilization in the dark. Stairs had been carved out of stone, small shanty-towns had been erected and stood for generations. On rare occasion they passed a structure carved into the walls, scarcely more than manmade gaps. It was a far cry of the dwarven stonework of Hightown.
Hawke stopped abruptly near one of those gaping holes in the wall. “Here we are,” she said, gesturing outside. Fenris carefully leaned over to see a small ladder leading to a small ship. The ship had a flag with the symbol of a dwarven house on it. That would warn off raiders and authorities, for the most part.
The magister huffed and rested her staff on her shoulder. “Sanctioned by someone in the kingdom. Of course. A major noble house, from the looks of it.”
“The dwarves could not hope to stand against the Imperium.” He could see the battle in his mind’s eye, the magisters and their legions sweeping underground, summoning demons to clear out the tunnels, leaving them haunted for ages as they crushed dwarven civilization like they had crushed the elves. “This is a foolish choice.”
“Yes.” Hawke tipped the staff forward pensively. “There’s only one thing defending the dwarves from the Imperium, and it’s a terrible thing to rest your sovereignty on. Tentative, too.”
He shot her an inquisitive look.
“The darkspawn. The Senate wishes never, ever to think of the darkspawn.” There was a hurried clamor further into the sewers, angry shouting and cursing in several languages. “Finally.” Hawke twirled her staff and set herself into a fighting stance with a grin. Fenris readied himself by her side.
There were only a few dozen of the smugglers, all bloodied and most wounded. Hawke’s guard was very, very good. They were rushing towards the ledge with a large cart.
Hawke laughed, cruel and loud and joyous. The smugglers hesitated for an instant, then struck.
The magister lifted her staff, the red stone blazing, and then brought it down. Fireballs began to pour onto the main body of the smugglers.
Fenris met the ones closing in. His great blade swept out and cleaved through two. He twisted, impaled another. Something boomed just on the edge of his hearing and the air shook.
Six smugglers lay flat on their backs nearby, gasping for breath and unable to stand. Fenris looked to Hawke. Her staff was raised in one hand, but the other was slowly pressing down. Her blue eyes burned like lyrium over a blood-spattered grin.
One of the men, stronger than the rest, managed to crawl out of the spell she was casting. He reached towards Hawke as he stumbled to his feet.
Her staff flipped neatly and the blade took his head off.
Fenris looked back towards the cart. It was burning, as were most of the men. Some screamed still. Hawke jabbed at the air and lighting cracked between the living, silencing their cries.
It was done. Hawke made a gesture and the flames died. She walked over to investigate the cart. “Simple enough,” she commented, carefully looking under the ruined tarp. She pulled back quickly, shaking her head. “Lyrium.”
Was she saying all these things for his benefit? Odd. Danarius would generally just ignore him.
Hawke backed off from the cart, resting on the ledge. “If Aveline asks, tell her I did not need your services.”
That was true. He bowed his head.
“However,” the magister continued, “It was rather useful to have a blade between me and…other blades. Fewer scars.”
“My master…Danarius also found use in my markings.” Curse old habits, why was he telling her this? He remembered the blazing pain so well. Did he want to feel like that again?
“He wrote about that.” She traced a pattern in the grime on the floor with her staff. “Overreliance on outside sources of power is one of his many severe flaws. One of most magisters’ severe flaws.”
“Mistress, you are a very strange magister.”
“Hmm.” She finished her pattern and tapped her staff on it, hard, once. A pleasant sensation hummed over his bicep. He looked towards it and watched a cut heal. “Aveline is very slow. Tell me about your escape, Fenris.”
He stared at her for a long moment. “Danarius was at the last fall of Seheron.”
“It must have been more interesting than that.”
On a whim, he sat next to her on the ledge. “The Qunari were going through the city like wildfire. I barely managed to get him to a ship, but there was no room aboard for a mere slave.” Fenris smiled at the memory. “The look on his face as they cast off…”
He glanced over to Hawke and was surprised to find a smile on her face. There was nothing of mockery in it. “You didn’t convert, though. The Qunari should have killed you.”
“They tried. I fought. I was badly wounded, but…the Fog Warriors found me, nursed me back to health.” He did not go on. She could order it if she wanted to know. He would not willingly relive that aloud.
“Your escape has tormented Danarius for years, if it’s any comfort. It’s damn near ruined him.”
“I would rather I had killed him.”
“You will.” Some conspicuously ordered clanking rang through the sewers. “About time.”
Aveline and a heavily armed contingent of the guard stood glaring at their mistress. The captain surveyed the wreckage for a long moment. “I see you have been having fun, magister,” she said.
The dwarf was very grateful and became something people frequently stumbled across in the manor. He had a tendency to talk too much—to anyone, busy or idle, slave or free. Fenris found it annoying.
This soon made him Varric’s favorite target. “Do you play cards, elf?”
“No.” He would rather be sitting in on the magister’s meeting with the scouts than standing outside the door being talked at.
“Really? Because I’m thinking it would be damned difficult to read your tells, with that broody expression you wear on your face all the time. You’d be rich.”
“I couldn’t keep the coin,” he said, then added menacingly, “And I don’t brood.”
“Keep telling yourself that.”
The captain interrupted, glaring, as usual. “Are you two done?”
“Is there a reason to be?” Varric asked.
The door to the office burst open. Hawke strode out, formal red robes flaring with her angry steps. A half-dozen people hovered around her, all talking at once. Some were scouts just in from their mission, others were more finely dressed; spies and messengers.
Fenris took a step forward, but the magister’s lyrium blue eyes locked with his and he held back. This would be…entertaining.
Hawke threw her arms out and a wave of near-invisible energy knocked the group back. “I would appreciate it if Razikale would only hand me one of his mysteries at a time, but it’s clearly not going to happen.” She pointed to a scout, and then a messenger. “You, and you. Inform Magister Orsino of the Qunari landing. No,” she told the messenger, “I do not care about his rogue pupil. It is irrelevant in comparison, and let him know I said that.” The pair took off without further ado, and Hawke turned to a pack of sniveling creatures in mage’s robes: spies. “Keep me informed on Danarius’ goings on. And I want to know where Hadriana is.” The group took off, leaving a very battered looking squad of scouts. They seemed to be down a man.
Hawke sighed. “I want to congratulate you men on bringing me a problem greater than possible slave rebellion, magister maneuvering, and a large party of Qunari landing on the Wounded Coast.” She said it with a smile. “And, in some ways, more welcome than them, as well.” She looked at a nearby window. “I do not have time to deal with this right now, so you need to talk with the Captain.” She grinned at Aveline. “We have a High Dragon rampaging through the Kirkwall area.”
Whatever news Aveline had was clearly forgotten. “What?”
“You heard me. We’re going hunting, and I’m leaving it to you to organize the expedition. I’d do it myself, but I have a party to go to. It’s best to make an appearance or the magisters will think they can play games behind my back.”
“I…Isabela’s missing again,” Aveline said, blinking.
Hawke waved a hand dismissively. “I have her phylactery, I can find her when I need her. She’s got too many people who want her dead to be without my protection for long, anyways. Get that expedition underway. We leave as soon as possible.” She set her shoulders. “And bring men who are either very skilled or expendable.”
Hawke felt twitchy. She need more wine. Substantially more wine.
The High Dragon, at least, was a problem she could handle. In theory, at least. She could wipe out Qunari armies, she could kill a High Dragon. Even if local legend said it was the daughter of Urthmiel, a demi-goddess. They always said that about High Dragons. Rumor held it that there was one to the south they called Andraste for the defeated prophetess of the old rebellion, and she knew some old magister had slain one in the Arlathan Woods known as the elven goddess Mythal not too many years ago. The Warmage would soon display the thing’s head in her hall.
The rumors of one of Orsino’s pupils spurring rebellion wasn’t beyond her either. It was the sort of thing that happened from time to time. Every Prefex dealt with it.
Danarius was…a distant issue at present, though Hadriana’s disappearance from all known social circles was suspicious, but the Qunari…she was unsure how to feel about them. It was too far south, too deep into Tevinter territory for them. It was a large group on top of that, enough to crew their now wrecked galley. They would have the resources typical of a large Qunari group—including the formula for gaatlok.
And, if the scouts were to be believed, the Arishok was among their number.
She held out her glass to be refilled by a passing slave and continued to ponder the possibilities. So much of her viewed the Qunari as an opportunity more than a threat, but that could change. The horned men had held their own in the war for nearly a century, now. She would have to be careful.
Not a little because of the snakes she could call her peers.
Orsino made his way over. Hawke turned from him for a moment, wrinkling her nose. He reeked of blood and alchemical ingredients.
“Prefex,” the elven mage said, bowing slightly in greeting.
“Magister,” Hawke answered with a nod. She waved over the wine slave and watched her fill the empty glass. “I would have expected you here earlier.”
He shrugged. “Research can be quite consuming. Time has a tendency to slip away.”
Hawke nodded courteously, wanting to know nothing more of Orsino’s research. It involved a Minrathous-born Enchanter—never rich or gifted enough to reach magisterial rank—named Quentin, who had managed to be exiled from all decent society for his abuse of slaves. He had famously bled every single slave he owned dry in an experiment that may or may not have been combined with a remarkably perverted orgy. Blood magic (or the occasional remarkably perverted orgy) was hardly despicable to most mages, but you didn’t lightly kill skilled slaves. It was expensive and wasteful. Whatever Orsino was researching, it was gruesome.
“Have you looked into my troublesome student?”
She scowled. “I’ve been rather consumed by the thought of Qunari landing near the city. Rebelling apprentices are really a personal concern.”
“This one is…gifted in an unusual manner. Or cursed. It’s hard to say. Such cases are unheard of outside of legend…” An academic to the core, Magister Orsino.
“Well, then, you must surely want to find him yourself. For research purposes.” She was glad that this was very full-bodied wine. Lots of alcohol content.
“I have no desire to prowl the sewers, Prefex,” Orsino said, taking a goblet from a slave with a tray, “That is really more your area.”
Hawke paused to wonder of this was meant as an insult, then wondered who, exactly, the smugglers had been selling to. Blood could take a spell a long way, but lyrium and blood could take it farther. “Well, duty dictates my actions.”
Orsino chuckled. “We’re far removed from Minrathous. The only things monitored here are slave transactions and the output of the quarries. Duty, as defined by others, is hardly paramount.”
He was attempting to pull her into something. She would not stand for this. “You’re not so far removed as to miss the Archon’s edicts of the past few years, are you?” She swirled the wine around in her goblet. Such a fine purple color.
“There have been many.”
“Oh, these ones are special. My uncle created a legion of enforcers for them— Custodies, he calls them.” She had actually been witness to the whole thing as it unfolded before the Senate. “The Archon has decreed that the Veil must not be thinned any more than can be helped. The old intentional thinning is no loner allowed, and any action that unintentionally thins the Veil will be punished as if it were deliberate. Kirkwall is a place of concern, because the Veil’s naturally thin here and events haven’t helped.”
Orsino blinked, catching on to the threat. “Why is he so concerned over a relatively natural process?”
“Spirits of the Fade have their own agenda, and it often has to do with destruction. Archon Amell isn’t interested in handing the world over to them. So be careful.”
“Thank you, Prefex. If you’ll excuse me, I have others I need to speak with.” He brushed by her. Probably off to warn others that she was not in their pocket.
Hawke sighed and took another sip of wine. “That was probably a mistake,” she commented.
Fenris, standing at her back, gave a very quiet ‘hmph’. Hawke smiled.
“Magister Hawke,” a deep voice said. Hawke turned to see a man in blue and silver plate armor, a griffin emblazoned on his chest. A Grey Warden. “I would speak to you in private.”
“Of course.” Hawke sat her goblet down on a nearby table and followed the man into a small room, Fenris shadowing. The Warden did not deign to notice him.
“Something is wrong,” the man stated bluntly.
“With respect, you are a Grey Warden. Something is always wrong.”
The man nodded and did not smile. “You are one of the few magisters who has cooperated with our recruitment requests in full. It’s been decided that you deserve a warning, no matter how vague.”
The Wardens were repaying her respect with respect, with the full understanding that they might ask for her aid in the future. “Something is wrong,” she told him, “Something within the Warden…sphere of responsibility.”
"Well, then. Thank you for the warning.”
The Warden bowed his head and left without further comment. Hawke sighed and stared at a wall, hands on her hips.
The world would be on the brink of collapse. It was the perfect addition to her problems.
She lunged at small table and sent it crashing against the wall.
A thousand years ago, Dumat, greatest of the Gods, had risen out of his deep sleep as a corrupted mockery of himself. No more the Silent One, no more the Speaker in the Dream, the Teacher of Magic. He had been the raging, roaring force that drove the darkspawn to slaughter his worshippers. The Wardens had arisen out of the horror and killed him, and the order had since dedicated itself to everything darkspawn. There had been no Blight since.
But now something was wrong…
She sent a vase hurtling from another table to shatter against a wall.
And from the corner of her eye, she caught Fenris cringing.
It drained her of her frustration. It was the Warden’s problem, and beyond her. She slumped against a wall. “I won’t.”
No reply, just a sense of animal wariness that was really perfectly justified considering Danarius and his sniveling bitch of an apprentice.
Some of the magisters kept menageries where the cages were too small and the food too little for the beasts; Fenris looked like a denizen of such a place. “I won’t hurt you, Fenris.”
“Not that you have a reason to trust that.”
They remained frozen in silence for several minutes. Fenris’ battered pose hurt her so much; her father’s influence, perhaps. The elf was a strong man. He had to be in order to endure what he had and come through it reasonably sane. She respected people on their merits and not their status too much, and a strong man should not be reduced to this. Especially not by anything Marian Hawke did.
She did not move a muscle. Slowly, slowly, he unfroze, but retained that beaten animal look. “I won’t hurt you,” Hawke repeated.
“You are just a magister,” he snarled.
“No.” She wanted to draw herself up, but didn’t. She recalled that this elf could rip her heart out with his hands. “I am Marian Hawke, and I will always be more than those snakes you and I know so well.”
He closed the few feet between them, a wounded wolf. She held her ground. “But still a magister.”
She could feel his breath on her face. “Yes. You tell me a better way to be free in this world. Tell me if you’ve found a better way to control your life.”
After a long moment, he withdrew and resumed his role as her shadow.
“Not many cultists,” the hunter said, his burr difficult for Fenris to understand, “A legion passed through some years ago and scattered them.”
Hawke snorted. Her horse shifted as if to echo the sentiment. “And did not see fit to eliminate the dragon.”
An older man, some relative of the young hunters, shrugged. “It is a hard thing to get even an army to face a High Dragon, Prefex.”
Fenris watched Hawke survey the area. They had been on the move for a week. Somehow, despite shadowing her the entire time, he had managed to avoid personal moments. Their conversation at the party had been…odd. He still did not know what to make of it.
“We make camp here,” Hawke announced, dismounting, “Tomorrow, we’ll bait her. You’ve picked out a good location?” The local hunters nodded. “Then get ready for a fight.”
The young hunter gulped. “You want us to fight her?”
“I want you to be ready to. One way or the other, this dragon will be dead before the sun sets tomorrow.” She raised an eyebrow. “I assume you want to be free of it? How long have your stores been bare? If she lives, I promise it will only get worse.”
The locals nodded in glum, silent agreement. They had been close to starving for months. They had no other choice but to kill the dragon for the sake of their families.
Hawke signaled for Aveline. “Set up camp here,” she ordered the freedwoman, “An orderly camp; this is an official expedition, not a chance to go play in the woods. Be ready to uproot everything on a moment’s notice. I want weapons ready at all times, and smeared in poison. These mountains are full of dragonlings, their fathers, their big sisters, and most definitely their mother.” She scanned the sky as she said it, wary of temping fate. “Talk to the elders here and set up an offering to all the Gods. We’re going to need their help, I think.”
The young hunter heaved a shuddering breath. “And if it is Urzara, Urthemiel’s daughter, Prefex, we will need their permission as well.”
Hakwe nodded, eyes scanning the horizion. “I really prefer they’d called her Andraste or Mythal or some other blasphemy. Pulling a child of the Gods into it makes everyone uneasy.” She handed her reins to Aveline. “Get to it. I’ll start on some security measures, get to fireproofing once you’re set.”
Fenris followed her as she began to set some wards along the outside of the grove they had chosen for camp. They were magical traps more than anything, small spells that would slow and hurt oncoming attackers, make them cry out in pain and alert the camp to their presence. It took too much energy to kill with these tricks, at least without large blood or lyrium supplies. Many mages did that, especially up north. It was often their doom, because the Qunari had developed a gift for finding and disarming such deathtraps.
“Be sure to post a guard,” Fenris commented as Hawke finished laying a spell.
“Of course,” she answered dismissively, moving on another fifteen feet. She informed him earlier that she was overlapping the range of the traps for security, a horribly obvious technique she had thought of years ago. “When I was serving as a tribune years ago, the Qunari used a mage-slave to break the magical defenses of our camp and slaughter most of two legions, including my commander, while everyone was sleeping. No one knew until they forgot to gag one of the tribunes they were torturing. Magic is useful, but makes an unreliable guard dog.”
“Added to the fact that the Qunari mages are growing in skill.” Danarius had commented on that from time to time. One of his projects—a largely neglected attempt to cultivate political favor—had been figuring out how the Qunari practiced magic.
“Yes. Though still underutilized, thank Toth. Hidebound as we are, the magisterial love of tradition is nothing compared to the sheer restraining power of Qunari fear of change. Few of our praetors exploit that the way they should.” She finished another trap and looked pleased. “I was never one for ice spells, but these will hold well.”
No, she would not be inclined to use ice magic. It was too slow for her. He had seen her use fire and lightning and force with immense skill, but they were swift and hard. Ice tended to slow rather than damage a foe, not Hawke’s way. She wanted her enemy dead as soon as possible.
He understood that.
“They will not strike while we are in such numbers,” Fenris told her as they headed back into the now complete camp. Aveline was very efficient.
“Not by choice, though with the cultists dead they’re likely hunting on their own and game is getting scarce. Mama may send them, but if we’ve got her notice, she’s just as likely to come herself.” She eyed the sky. “Her attention is hopefully elsewhere.”
A circle of braziers were being lit in the hollow center of the camp. Some of the hunters had just finished setting down a relatively small altar, which was still large enough to fit a grown man’s torso comfortably. It bore archaic images of the Old Gods, with the largest and central draconian figure carved away.
Dumat. This giant stone block was old enough to bear an image of Dumat. Fenris shivered in spite of himself.
Aveline led most her guards to the circle of braziers and gave Hawke a nod. “All set, Mistress. The camp is in order and the guard rotation is prepared. Everyone is here except those who are on guard.”
An elderly man, dressed in very clean robes of purple edged with gold, bowed to Hawke. “We have brought our temple’s ancient altar to please the Gods so they may help you with your battle.”
“You are the local priest of the Gods?” Hawke asked, loudly enough so all could hear.
“I am,” said the man, matching her volume, “I am the High Priest of the Pantheon of the Overseer.”
For all its impressive name, the temple would be a minor one, centered on some grove or spring or cave the ancient barbarians had dedicated to their false gods long ago, named like a dozen others in the region. It would be the center of religion for the area. The presence of the priest and the altar were a sign of how very bad the situation was for these people.
“Is this creature we seek to face truly the daughter of Urthemiel Most Lovely?” Hawke asked.
“Long have my acolytes and myself prayed for knowledge of this,” the old man said, enjoying the chance for both theatrics and importance, “The Giver of Songs has shouted ‘No! This beast must be slain; this blasphemy cannot be left to stand!’”
Hawke nodded and bowed her head to the preist. “So you have all heard! This creature is no issue of Urthemiel Most Lovely. It is merely a High Dragon. Yes, a powerful creature, her kind favored of the Gods, but not blood of the Gods. To kill her will be no blasphemy…and very possible.”
No cheers, just quiet acceptance from both Hawke’s men and the locals. The doubt lingered in their minds. The magisters had their high and grand rituals, their profound beliefs and great calls to the Gods, but the common man’s idea of the Gods was mired in superstition and omens. That Urthemiel would tolerate Urzara for so long meant something to them.
Fenris gave credit to Hawke for trying. If she did slay the creature, she’d be a hero in this place for years.
“Is all ready?” Hawke asked the priest, who nodded and moved to the altar.
Fenris fell back to the circle of braziers with Hawke. The old man placed a remarkably simple gold crown on his head, six gems of different hues sparkling at the front of it. A red robed acolyte came out of the crowd and laid a cruelly-shaped dagger on the altar, and three others followed, each holding the ritual items of the Gods in both hands: a burning orange candle for Toth, a madly twisting piece of metal for Zazikel, a set of manacles for Andoral, a rose made of gold for Urthemiel, a large black pearl for Razikale, and a small drapery of dimly glittering dark cloth for Luscan.
The site of those blessed artifacts sent a shiver down Fenris’ spine. A force emanated strongly from them, making his brands flare. Their simplicity was astonishing; the same set of items was used across the Imperium, and all were the same in their lack of adornment.
Such was the mark of the truly ancient rituals of Tevinter, no matter how grand the temple was outside.
Hedonism and decadence pervaded almost every level of magisterial society. There were a few exceptions, of course, like the Hawke clan and the famously austere Surana family, but most magisters glutted themselves in wild orgies for every occasion, usually backed by the scent of blood.
But there are some things this madness did not touch on, never had, and never would.
Fenris watched as the items were laid carefully on the old altar. The acolytes backed away, bowing, and arranged themselves in a line some distance before the altar.
The priest donned a mask made of dragonscale. “Bear witness, oh Great Ones! Toth Burning Bright, Chaotic Zazikel, Andoral Chainmaker, Urthemiel Most Lovely, Mysterious Razikale, and Luscan of the Night! Our hearts call the names you gave us so long ago, and we ask your favor!”
Six more acolytes appeared. Each led a grown halla, and if not for the ritual silence, that would have caused a stir. Halla had been sacred for the ancient elves, and were largely avoided by hunters for superstitious reasons. In Tevinter religious rights, however, sacrificing halla was seen as giving high honor to the gods.
Another way to show the utter defeat of the elves, Fenris supposed.
The halla were lined up behind the altar. They had been drugged, and were still and silent.
“Toth and Zazikel, Lords of War, bring us victory over the blasphemous creature!” The priest shouted, “Andoral and Urthemiel, Forgers of Civilization, help us preserve what we have built with your grace! Razikale and Luscan, Keepers of Secrets, grant us the knowledge for victory!”
And then the sacrifices began.
The priest was a mage, had to be in order to serve in his position, and it showed. Silently, a halla would be led forward to the altar, made to kneel, then be lifted to the stone surface. Just a silently, the priest opened the animal’s throat with his dagger. The blood gushed, and gushed, and gushed. The tendrils of power could be dimly seen extending from the old man to the wound, drawing out blood, draining the body dry in minutes.
Six times, the halla died and bled. It was highly simplified— there was more speaking during a blessing in Minrathous, a pouring of libations, a long litany to each of the Gods—but it was a bloody affair. To make it the more disturbing, the stone altar soaked up the blood, the carved eyes of the draconian figures on the front glowing dimly as it drank. It was clean and dry as the last halla’s body was removed.
“These sacrifices shall be burned for you, Divine Teachers!” the priest said, “We pray that you show us your will and that these sacrifices show you our devotion! Please aid us in the coming battle and grant us fortune in every aspect of our lives!” And he was not done yet. He held up the golden rose from the altar—like the other items, it was untouched by blood. They were never touched by blood.
He stepped forward, around the altar, holding the rose before him. “Urthemiel Most Lovely, Giver of Songs, Inspiring Soul, we beseech you.” He was speaking to the rose now. “One last gift of blood we give. With it we ask your favor and your confirmation. For we fear this beast to be your daughter, blood of your blood, a scion of our Gods. Tell us the truth and we shall obey.”
Hawke seemed to pick up on some cue and took a step forward. “Tell us the truth and we shall obey,” she repeated. The rest followed her action.
Fenris, however, indulged himself in a rare privilege of slaves: he remained still. He feared the Gods plenty, but no amount of worship ever granted him mercy or favor. They were the Gods of the magisters, through and through. He was ill-favored by them.
A shrieking, raving sound broke through the silence, causing all to tense. The crowd parted quickly and loudly as seven different acolytes led a dragonling before the altar.
It was brutally chained, barely able to walk and certainly not able to bite. It bore no mark however, and would be healthy and lethal if freed. It was—contextually speaking—pure and unblemished.
A seventh and very potent sacrifice. Not to Dumat, as in old days. No, to Urthemiel, to assure them that Urzara was no child of his.
Silently, the priest lifted his blade as the acolytes used the chains to stretch the dragonling’s neck out. He slashed down swiftly, aided by magic because that blade could not cleave a dragon’s hide, no matter how young.
The blood gushed as the hallas’ had, gathering in a lake at the base of the altar. The stone consumed it, the carvings’ eyes blazing, burning, like red stars.
Something boomed below the level of hearing, enough to be felt just barely. It made Hawke rock backwards violently, though, and Fenris caught her as she stumbled. She shook herself and remained standing, breathing too heavily, leaning on her staff just enough for him to tell. The stone at the thing’s top glowed like the altar’s eyes.
“Urthemiel sends his favor!” someone shouted, “Tomorrow we will slay Urzara and it is no blasphemy!”
The priest quickly took control again. “Indeed! Urthemiel, you have shown us the truth and happily we will obey your will!”
The look son the faces of all those who had asked for the truth left Fenris very glad he had not stepped forward. Very glad.
She would survive this. They had the favor of the Gods, apparently, and she would survive this.
Hawke hoped she never received a message from the Gods again, though, because they were not…not comforting presences, as it turned out. Like shadows beneath a full moon. Very dismissive shadows, at that.
She forced herself to focus on the here and now, because the Gods could dismiss a High Dragon as they pleased, but she could not.
The young hunter in the lead signaled to her. She followed him through the brush to a large clearing. “We can’t give you a narrow canyon,” he explained, “But we can try to make sure she won’t set the forest on fire around you.”
Hawke nodded. A small stream ran through the clearing, and seemed to end in a pond. “It’ll do nicely. Tell the others we’re ready.”
The hunter whistled the signal, and received several similar replies. “We’re all set, Prefex. They’ll keep her bairns off of us…if we’re quick.”
“Well, then, best be quick.”
Hawke led the way out of the brush without trying to be subtle. They were about to fight—slay, in fact—a High Dragon. Subtlety was pointless. She would hit just as hard if they were quiet or if they were loud.
Fenris was by her side, greatsword ready. She exchanged a glance with him, smirking. He was not so insolent as to roll his eyes, but he did seem to scowl more and looked away.
She was far to free with her slaves.
The hunters stayed in the brush, arrows ready. Aveline and two of her guards were with Hawke. She really needed an apprentice and then it would be a proper magister-kills-dragon story.
“Let’s bring her in,” Hawke said. She gathered power and released it in a huge fireball up to the sky. In a very short time, there was sound of vast beating wings closing in. Hawke whirled her staff and grinned. “Predictable beast.”
“That breathes fire,” Fenris commented dryly.
“Seconded,” added Aveline, “Hold steady.”
The High Dragon landed in the clearing with the weight of a mountain and the grace of the cat. She swung her head from side to side, snarling. They were in her eye the entire time, of course, but she was too clever to trust them. She knew what she was, and she knew they had to trick her to defeat her.
“Played this game before, have you, Urzara?” Hawke shouted, making sure the dragon focused on her. Aveline and Fenris were in front of her, slowly closing with the dragon. Hawke snorted. “Not my way, I can tell.”
She slammed her staff forward, unleashing a bolt of lightning in Urzara’s face. Te dragon roared in anger, swiping once at her eyes and bounding forward, very fast for something very massive. Aveline’s enchanted blade slashed at a massive passing forelimb, gaining the freedwoman the dragon’s attention.
And so it began.
Fenris and Aveline danced like toys at the dragon’s feet, trying to get her to bring her head lower so they could drive into more sensitive and vital tissue. Hawke launched bolts of raw arcane energy from her staff that would have burned a man’s flesh from his bones, but just seemed to sting Urzara slightly. The horned head turned in Hawke’s direction, snarling. Giant wings flared, knocking the slave and the freedwoman from their feet, and the dragon took a deep breath.
Hawke shot a bolt of lightning at the half opened wings. Urzara screeched and flinched as electricity played along the sensitive skin.
Arrows flew in on the signal, piercing the now tenderized flesh. Urzara roared, twisting in all directions, trying to determine where the arrows came from. The hunters had hidden themselves well, and disguised their scent with old tricks. She couldn’t find them, even though she knew they were there.
Aveline took advantage of the dragon’s distraction and rushed forward to jam her sword through a claw, driving between the bones.
The dragon howled, flicking Aveline away. Hawke threw another series of arcane bolts at her head, her wings, and the blade sticking out of her claw—likely saving Aveline’s life.
Urzara turned to her. With one gliding bound, the dragon was towering right above Hawke.
The Gods would not let her die.
Fenris rushed in, markings glowing.
He held his sword in one hand, reaching out with the other. It phased through the dragon’s chest in a blaze of blue, all the way up to his shoulder.
Urzara howled and pulled away. Fenris stood still a moment, breathing heavily, coated in blood head to toe, and holding a huge chunk of flesh in his hand.
The dragon limped a few steps to the left, body coiled around the spot where Fenris had struck. He couldn’t reach to the dragon’s heart, but he had injured her severely.
Arrows flew again, and Urzara answered with an outraged shriek in their direction. She didn’t give chase, but instead turned to the two little annoyances right in front of her. Her wings were oddly folded and motionless, as if the muscles anchoring them weren’t working right.
Later rather than sooner, that would spell the death of Urzara. Which was not soon enough for Hawke.
She pulled her staff back as if she were throwing a spear. It began glowing red. Hawke lunged forward. A bolt of energy shot out from the staff, angling to the dragon’s head. It slammed into her eye, burrowing in like a spar of hot steel.
The dragon fell, her wound steaming.
Hawke stomped over to the corpse. It was more like a collapsed building than the cooling body of a living thing. “Well, that’s done.” Her shoulder blades twitched slightly with the pain of pulling so much power out of the Fade. There would be a lot of sleeping in the saddle on the way home.
“A strange spell,” Fenris commented, coming to her side.
“My own little trick.” She leaned on her staff. “Magic is better with brute force.”
The hunters poured out of the forest. One of them was attempting to support Aveline. Hawke gave him credit for being brave.
“Well done,” the captain commented, vaguely jealous.
“Next one’s yours.”
The young hunter nearly bounced over to the dragon’s body. “Gods, what a beast!” He turned to Hawke. “Prefex, you’ve done us a great service. She and her bairns would have been the end of us within a season.”
The twitching subsided into a burning. It would be a deep exhaustion soon. Why were pinpoint spells so much harder? And dragons, dragons always seem Fadetouched somehow. Hard to hit unless already wounded, bless Fenris. “It was my pleasure,” Hawke said. This was an impressive accomplishment, but it would be much more impressive after a few days in bed.
Aveline proceeded to talk to the locals about butchering Urzara, sacrifices, transportation, flushing out the nest, so on and so on. Something bumped up against Hawke’s shoulder, saving her from collapsing. Fenris gave a quiet world-weary sigh. Hawke laughed silently.
At some point, someone hauled her into a saddle. Not the best place to sleep, but at least it wasn’t raining.
“It’s raining, isn’t it?”
“Yes, mistress.” Fenris was behind her in the saddle. How strange. He was a few inches taller than her, and his torso was longer. His chin was nearly resting on her head. “That would be why your head is covered in a cloak.”
“And you have to keep me in the saddle?” This was more entertaining than it should be. Like that ancient holiday, when everything was backward, upside down, switched over for a day.
“According to the captain.”
“You take orders that repulse you too well.”
“It is not so repulsive as some, believe me.” There was a snarl behind his voice. “Besides, I do not think falling from your horse would be a proper death for a Prefex who just slew a dragon.”
“Think that was a joke,” Hawke mumbled, her thoughts already jumbled and drifting in nonsense ways.
“Your dwarf is rubbing off on me.”
“You have my permission to stop him from doing that.”
She fell back asleep as he chuckled.
1)I tried to write the Old Gods as something more like the Roman numen than what we regard as the traditional Roman gods. From what I understand, the numen were of much greater importance than the gods they stole from the Greeks and everyone else. The intricate rituals done for their worship were unchanged and rather secret for centuries. Also they were way, way creepier, something beyond real human understanding.
2) There's an awful lot of largely unrelated stuff going on in different levels here, which is hard to manage. I appreciate what the DA2 writers were doing more and more, because the story they wrote was not easy to make coherent at all.
“It is a bit much, Kalias,” Aveline said, eyeing the bleached dragon’s skull hanging in the entrance hall.
“It’s a dragon’s skull, Captain. By definition, it’s a bit much.”
Varric, who was drinking wine he’d pilfered out of the cellar, decided to throw in his opinion. “Still thinking you should have had the entire skeleton out here.”
Fenris eyed him from where he stood at the study door. “You’re going to describe it that way at the tavern, aren’t you?”
“I think you might be getting the hang of this game, elf. It is the only one you’ve gotten the hang of, mind, but you can’t win them all.” He took a sip of wine. “Or, well, any.”
Fenris resumed his role as silent bodyguard.
“Are you sure the magister is up for this?” Aveline asked, “She only left her bed two days ago, and hasn’t received any visitors.”
Kalias shrugged. “It’s not much of a choice. We let too many stories get around” The old elf glared at Varric, who raised his glass in acknowledgement— “and the magisters may start to question her fitness as a Prefex, let alone leading a northern campaign in the future.”
“You know too much of that world, Kalias.”
“Simply being a prudent slave, captain.”
Aveline shook her head. “Tread carefully.”
“I did say prudent.” Kalias lifted his head. In another household, the man would have been a terror. Smart, educated (illegally), a favorite of the old master and the new, and crafty as a fox, the old elf would have constantly maneuvered for his position like a magister in the Senate. He would have been a tyrant. But here, in the strange environment forged by Malcolm Hawke, he was a rather paternal figure.
Fenris was getting used to this place. That Kalias should behave in any other way— that anyone here should behave in any other way—was beginning to become an outlandish idea. He wasn’t sure what he thought about that. It went against caution, but the comfort could not be denied.
“—This is the first time the manor will be hosting a banquet since the Prefex moved in,” Kalias was saying, “I have no intention in making it at all forgettable, Captain.”
Fenris eyed the prepared hall below. It would not be a forgettable night. Hawke—well, Kalias with her blessing— had forgone the barbaric trappings of most Kirkwall banquets, and instead brought a taste of Minrathous. In the vast dining hall, rather than rows of long, heavy wooden tables with ornate chairs, a multitude of smaller low tables had been artfully arranged and surrounded by luxurious couches in a variety of silken colors. Every last inch of the gray and bronze manor had been polished mirror-bright, then decorated with banners and tapestries to add some color. It was coordinated and lavish, meant to put the magisters of Kirkwall in their place.
Hawke stuck her head out of her study. “Kalias, do you know we have a throne room?”
“Yes, mistress. The manor was designed by the dwarves and that factors into their designs quite prominently. It was used for receiving clients a century ago, but that is hardly practical in modern times.”
“Do something with it. I would prefer to be there after the feast proper has ended. Let those morons know who’s in charge of this city.” She withdrew back into her study.
“Because a dragon’s skull in the atrium lets them forget,” Varric commented.
“Oh, they’ll try to pretend they can anyway,” Kalias assured, “Clearly, the stuffed wyvern’s head in their bedroom is a match for this.” He chuckled. “You would find Minranthous amusing.”
“There is a magister across from the Hawke tower who has a row of gilded Qunari skulls all around his entrance.”
Varric snorted. “Mostly fake?”
“Most likely,” Aveline said, “Not many have horns that long.”
The door opened again, this time all the way, Hawke leaning heavily on it. She was still very tired, and her temper was short. She had ordered Fenris out of her study, announcing a general intolerance for other people until the banquet.
She sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Fenris, please come in. I need to talk to you.”
“Is something wrong, mistress?” Kalias asked.
“Presumptuous, Kalias,” Hawke snapped over her shoulder as she drifted back to her desk, “Shut the door behind you, Fenris.”
He didn’t turn to look at the others, but he knew they exchanged glances and frowns. He kept his own expression carefully blank. He knew Hawke’s character, he thought, and she would not punish him as an outlet for anger, but she had a temper and was still a magister. How he slipped, in the idle moments, how he forgot what she was and what he was…
“What do you desire, mistress?” he asked after he shut the door.
She was sitting on her desk, arms crossed, blue eyes grim. “Do the Qunari send embassies to anyone outside the Empire? Don’t give me that look. You’ve traveled outside magisterial rule. No one else here would know. Probably no one in the city would know. A setback to the size of the Empire.”
“Not that I’m aware of, mistress. The primary method of Qunari evangelism is the sword.”
Hawke was silent for a moment. “Well, then. That explains absolutely nothing.”
She waved a hand and stood slowly. “The Qunari who landed on the Wounded Coast two weeks ago have finally made their official presence known, and want a diplomatic audience with me. Not with the Tevinter Empire, but me.”
“Yes.” She rubbed her temples, then slammed her fist into the desk. Fenris jumped. “Damn that party tonight. I can’t let those idiots know. They’ll use it to frame me for treason. They’ll interfere. They’ll try to kill the Qunari before I want them dead. On top of that, there are going to be more problems tonight, because that’s how it works.” She shook her head and composed herself, looking at him and frowning. “Fenris, please don’t. We’re both better than that.”
Fenris hadn’t realized he had dropped back, readying for pain. Danarius—like most magisters—had a tendency to take out his frustration on his slaves. “As you desire, mistress.”
“Don’t,” Hawke ordered, “I will have enough groveling tonight. I wish you would make up your mind. Do you want to be like Kalias or like your average chamber slave? Be bold or cower. Don’t keep changing your mind on me. I need reliability. And excitement.”
He narrowed his eyes. Very well. “You only hold up slaves as examples.”
She held him in place with her eyes. “So you are a zealot, after all. If it comes to conflict with the Qunari, can I trust you? They free slaves, and kill magisters, and I know that’s what you want.”
“And make them slaves anew. I have seen it.” He remembered the distant, early days of his freedom, among the Fog Warriors. Remembered the Qunari capturing his friends and fighting against them weeks later, no recognition in their eyes. “I will never stand with Qunari. Mistress,” he added.
She nodded. “I promise you’ll get to kill Danarius. And I’m sorry the world is the way it is. Come, we need to get ready for tonight’s multicolored disaster.”
Her description, Fenris decided, was apt.
It was not luxury on par with Minrathous by any means. Minrathous was the center of the world, the place where trade routes from north, south, east, west, and underground converged. Kirkwall’s supplies were far more limited, and its fashions were well out of date. The magisters here seemed shabby even to Fenris, who had not been at the capital for years.
Their manners also lacked subtlety. There was a reason these men and women were here in the south.
Fenris watched it all from over Hawke’s silk-clad shoulder as she welcomed her guests in the narrow courtyard before the main doors. They groveled worse than any slave, as she had predicted, all pretty phrases and badly veiled begging. Hawke’s response was cold, a distant sort of disdain as if they were something she had scraped off her boot.
Was this how she saw his cringing? Was this what he had been like with Danarius?
There was a commotion in the crowd. Hawke looked to Aveline across the courtyard. The freedwoman rolled her eyes.
“Ah,” Hawke said.
Several mages of various ranks, one of them Orsino, were roughly pushed aside by a Rivani woman who reeked of alcohol. Hawke’s pirate vassal. “Magister Hawke!” she shouted, “Long time, no see!”
“I see you’ve been to the tavern, Isabela. Or all of them. Before reporting to me.”
“It’s a complicated city.”
Hawke sighed. “What do you want?”
“To serve, Magister.” Isabela executed a clumsy bow. “A loyal member of your household, as always.” She was smirking the whole time.
“To drink my wine and sleep under my roof, you mean, until whatever it is goes away.”
“Well, drinking your wine would be fun.” Isabella leered at Hawke. Fenris was annoyed. He followed the pirate’s gaze, and reminded himself that looking at your master’s bodice enhanced cleavage would be a mistake. “And the other vintages in the house, as well.” The leer transferred to Fenris.
Hawke banged her dragon-headed staff hard on the flagstones. “Who is it this time?” Hawke asked, unmoved.
“Oh, one of the mage-lords of the Waking Sea. You know how it is.”
“That’s a problem you’ve solved before on your own.”
“Just a run of bad luck. Happens. Need to wait for it to blow over. And you could always use a…trustworthy…agent.” The Rivani smiled, then glanced back over her shoulder. Her expression turned serious for the briefest moment, then she turned a charming smile back to Hawke. “A soft bed would be nice.”
“When you are sober, and I am less busy, you are going to explain this thoroughly.” Hawke gestured to the manor. “Go. Don’t waste Kalias’ time.”
“Thank you, says your grateful servant, magister.” With another sloppy bow, Isabela hurried inside.
Hawke sighed. “And that is the other end of the spectrum from groveling, Fenris.”
“Exactly.” Hawke nodded at the next mage in line and the system reestablished itself.
Orsino proceeded to give his oil-slick greetings, followed by a whole horde of his apprentices. A Tevinter apprentice could be any age, any race, and most magisters gathered herds of them. They tended to be petty tyrants, desperate to rise in status, flaunting their powers left and right, at least in Fenris’ experience. Hawke did not have even one, for which he was grateful.
Though any apprentice of Hawke’s would probably have to sweat harder than a quarry slave, which was an amusing image to place Hadri…
Fenris’ senses reengaged fully as Hawke spat out the name. He felt himself go cold at the sight of the ice-eyed bitch, then everything inside him exploded. He imagined reaching inside her chest and driving his armor’s claws through her heart.
“It is an honor, Warmage.”
Hawke nodded. “You are very far from your master’s side, apprentice.”
“Merely checking on his lost property.” Hadriana fixed Fenris with her dead eyes, gazing at him with a cruel passion. “It seems he is serving you well. My master will be happy to know his work is going to good use. He feared that such a long separation would ruin him.”
“He has been helpful,” Hawke said. She was eyeing Hadriana with disgust. She was out of her place, coming here uninvited, and a mere apprentice at that. Fenris desperately hoped she would let him kill the bitch. “I am greatly curious as to what you have been doing these past few months. Gossip has made much of your disappearance.”
Hadriana smiled at Hawke. “Well, I shall have to feed the rumor mill, then. If I may?” She made to move inside, but waited for word from Hawke.
Hawke let silence reign for a few moments before waving her inside. “Speak to the herald, he’ll find you a place.” Hadriana hurried towards the doors, but Hawke called, “Do not repeat this indiscretion again, Apprentice Hadriana.”
There was some sort of squeaked reply. Fenris did not dare look back towards the bitch. He could only stand, immobile, burning with fury and memory. Some of his earliest memories, lost in a world ruled alternately by Danarius and that cruel creature…
“Brennan, that’s all the important guests. Direct the rest inside,” Hawke ordered a nearby guard, “Fenris, come with me.”
He followed her into the shadowed edges of the courtyard without thought. “Calm down,” Hawke directed.
“I am calm, mistress,” he managed, eyes downcast, “Nothing will distract me from my duty.”
“You’re glowing, Fenris.”
He looked at his arms. They were, indeed, glowing. He shut his eyes and took a deep breath. Rarely did he lose control like this. “I want her dead.”
Hawke laid a hand gently on his arm, a braver act than she knew. “Do not waste your hate on her.”
“You don’t know what she did to me.”
“I can guess very well, and all the more reason she is not worth your hate. Worth your blade, yes, but not worth this.” The hand did not move. Fenris did not open his eyes. He could still feel the markings burning. “It hurts, doesn’t it?”
It did. “I am well used to it.”
“No reason you should be, not in my house.” She gripped his other arm. “Tomorrow will be that. Tonight, rest in the kitchens, away from this.”
He opened his eyes. “Mistress…”
She squeezed his arms gently. “Go, Fenris. I have stood against Qunari mages. I nearly slew that little rat’s master. She cannot hurt me. No one here can. Rest tonight.”
He could only stare for a moment. His life was utterly bizarre. “Yes, mistress.”
“I keep waiting for a duel,” Kalias commented, picking out a pastry from a platter before sending it off to the feast. Fenris declined the same offer—Danarius’ kitchens would have whipped a slave for such a thing, and habits were hard to break.
“I am surprised, as well,” Fenris told the old elf, “In Minrathous, at least three apprentices would have been dead by now.”
Varric absconded with three pastries as he came ambling in. “You expect that sort of fire in Kirkwall? They all know they’re out of the running as far as magister politics go. So why waste time?”
“Been enjoying yourself, Lord Varric?” Kalias asked as Varric took a seat next to Fenris.
“Please, no titles. I just got my fill for several years. Remind not to thank the Prefex for the invite.”
“I shall.” Kalias finished his pastry with absurd grace. “All is well here. Would you like to see the real fire in Kirkwall?”
Fenris realized that Kalias was speaking to him. The old elf was a gray thing, like the manor’s stone, but something about him seemed to have brightened. “What do you mean?”
“The magisters are dead and inactive here, but the slaves are not.”
Varric inhaled a pastry and started coughing. “You don’t mean to get involved with them, do you? That never works!” He groped for something to drink. Kalias placed a mug of ale in his hand.
“I am already involved in them. And it will work this time. We have help.”
“And what kind of help is it this time? I was born in this city. I know all the old stories, the old failed hopes of the slaves. Andoral in a more merciful mood, sick of his profaned city? Or dead gods? Mythal and Elgarnan? The Lady of the Skies? Or Andraste, her revolution finally reborn?”
“Andraste’s revolution is reborn. And beyond that, we have something new on our side.”
Varric snorted. “And what is that?”
“That will not serve you well when they begin throwing fireballs,” Fenris said, “No slave revolt ever succeeds, Kalias.”
“I’ll show you, Fenris, if you’ll follow me. There is a meeting tonight.”
“That is betraying Hawke.” He cared more than he should, but…damnnit, he cared.
“The mistress will not be harmed. It‘s the likes of her and her father who will make a new world possible.”
“Most zealots don’t see it that way,” Varric said, “Mages die, in their new world.”
“This is different,” Kalias told them, “Come see. It won’t take long.”
Fenris had heard ideas like this before. They were common. The Andrastean Revolt had an effect despite its failure. Every once in a while there was an attempt to renew the dead prophet’s dream of freedom, but the magisters would unite then, and put it down in blood and fire.
“This will be no different than before, Kalias,” Fenris said.
Fenris looked to the dwarf. Varric sighed and downed his ale. “It’s best to see. Win or lose, it always makes an impact.” He stood and glared at Kalias. “Just when I get out of a pack of savages, you ask me to go into another one. You owe me for this.”
Kalias smiled. “I have the keys to the cellar.”
“Sold. Let’s go, elf.”
Darktown often changed—new shacks, new tunnels, new people—but it never improved. Fenris had never come here without Hawke, and he missed her ability to clear the way. The denizens of this place were eyeing the three visitors hungrily.
Kalias had led them here through the cellars. There was an old passage to the sewers, though why a magister would bother with such a thing was beyond Fenris. Perhaps it had been dug by slaves making their escape, but it was very well constructed. A sculpture of Andoral’s head stared down from above the doorway. The ancient stone gaze filled Fenris with vague dread. There was a slave cult of Andoral where he was their patron and protector rather than their enslaver, but there was no mercy in this image.
They were going deeper into the undercity, towards older tunnels. At first the walls seemed carelessly and desperately constructed, but as they continued on, there was more precision. Torches were burning bizarrely in brackets on the walls.
“I do not think it wise to leave Hawke up there to deal with those vermin alone,” Fenris said, watching Kalias carefully step into a doorway that sat a foot off the ground.
“The mistress can handle herself with them. They are not in Minrathous and there’s a reason for that.”
Varric chuckled and clambered after the slave. “I’m going to regret not seeing the explosion that’s coming, though. It’ll be a sight to be…damn it, Kalias this is a tunnel.”
“You’re a dwarf.”
“A surface dwarf. Very different. We don’t do underground.”
Fenris sighed as he followed them through. He stopped as the air changed.
The Darktown stink vanished, but the air was now musty and stale. This place was very old. He didn’t like it.
“Not far now,” Kalias said.
He took a sharp right turn, and they found themselves in a cavern full of people.
Most were slaves, laborers, judging by the rags they wore. The faces and hands of many were stained with soot. They eyed Kalias and his party with suspicion when they entered, too clean and too well-dressed.
Kalias raised his hands up. “The peace of Andraste be with you.”
Some of the crowd answered, “And also with you.” They let the group take a spot in a cave, still separated from the rest.
Fenris shook his head. Foolish. Kalias may have verified newcomers, but what did that mean? These slaves had to have seen enough blood magic to know what it could do to a mind, let alone more mundane methods of manipulation. This little rebellion was doomed to failure like the rest.
“My fellows!” a voice boomed, magically enhanced. The crowd shifted, creating a hollow space in the center so all could see.
The man who stood there was dressed in archaic magister’s robes and a crystal-topped staff in his hand. A free mage, helping a slave rebellion?
“My fellows,” the mage continued, ending the voice enhancement, “I welcome you once gain to our grand struggle against the oppression of the magisters.” There was some stirring in the crowd. “I know not much has been seen to happen since we last met, but in fact much has. More and more weapons have been laid aside in the sewers. As you can see here, our numbers are swelling—and you are just the leaders of various groups. I have done more research to level the playing field, delving into ancient secrets no magister knows.
Something began to…glow about the mage. “On top of these vital tasks, I must tell you that a destabilizing element is entering the city that will at least sap the magisters’ strength.”
“Qunari!” someone shouted, “He means Qunari! Qunari have passed through the gates only hours ago!”
The crowd began to chatter, the volume steadily growing. Kalias looked to the two men—one human, one elf— he was standing near, eyes wide. “Qunari…”
The two mirrored his expression. “I know Anders may think a win for them would be a win for the uprising,” one said, “but they would be the end of us.”
Another few groups drifted to the trio and they all subsided into close, fearful chatter. Fenris watched others do the same—ideological factions. Some, however, were rejoicing.
Varric nudged his side. “I take it Hawke knows about this.”
Well, there was no point in hiding it. “Of their coming, yes. Their imminent arrival is another matter.”
“I knew that camp on the coast was going to be trouble. And now this bunch…let them loose and it will be a chaotic hell.” Varric eyed the crowd as if it were a poisonous snake.
“Enough!” the mage—Anders, probably—shouted, using magic on his voice again, “Please silence!”
He wasn’t quite obeyed. The crowd quieted, but that did not stop the bold. “Have you spoken with them yet, Anders? When will they free us?”
“Free us? Anders, remember your fellow mages! How could you bring the Qunari down us? Mage-slaves will remain slaves under them!”
“They will ruin Andoral’s city! They will slay his true followers!”
“How can you say that?” the first speaker said, a great rabble behind him, “They will make us free! Do you understand? The Qunari have no slaves!”
Kalias stepped forward and cleared his throat with a steward’s skill. Silence came over the crowd. “I speak for the Andrasteans. We will not help the Qunari. We will hold to our faith no matter what. They will force us from it if they win.” He turned to the freedom zealot. “You will find no freedom under the Qunari. There are no slaves because all are slaves. I have seen this myself in the north.”
There was a snarl somewhere. “You know nothing of the serenity of the Qun, knife-ear!”
Kalias ignored this. “The Maker will guide us to the right course, Anders. This is not it.”
The mage sighed and nodded. “Thank you, Kalias.” He looked to the others and opened his arms in a placating gesture. “I want you all to know I haven’t yet spoken to the Qunari. I simply know they are now in the city. The option is on the table. Regardless of what we decide, they will disrupt the magisters. The two will fight, and the Qunari are a formidable opponent. Whether we include them in these meetings or not, the Qunari will help us overthrow the Tevinter Imperium.”
All this talk was making Fenris twitchy. He grabbed Kalias’ arm. “If there are Qunari in the city, Hawke needs to know.” She was expecting an embassy, but there was no way to tell if that was what it was from here. He would rather not leave her to deal with the Qunari on her own.
Yes, she could handle them alone. Nonetheless, the idea of leaving her to handle them alone bothered him deeply.
Kalias gave a small smile. “And you would protect her. Yes, we should leave.”
This exchange, however, drew Anders’ intention. “You!” he shouted, walking forward, “Elf!”
Fenris knew it was him. It was always him. “We have other matters to attend to.” He herded Varric and Kalias towards the door.
“I know about you,” Andrs continued, “You’re Danarius’ lyrium experiment. You escaped.” Fenris forced himself to ignore the description.
Anders grabbed Fenris by the shoulder and found himself with a glowing fist driven into his belly. “Yes. That would be me. I am leaving.” The elf pulled back and left the mage undamaged.
“That…” The mage waved his hand around his abdomen. There was something wrong with his eyes. Fenris caught some new alien scent on the air. “You’re a slave again, aren’t you?” His voice was off. Fenris felt the hairs on the back of his neck rising.
“I belong to Magister Hawke.”
“The Prefex.” And the mage’s eyes lit up, glowing a bright blue. His voice changed, echoing and inhuman. “Kill her tonight, elf. Free yourself. Your abilities will help achieve justice.”
A demon. Everyone, even Fenris, stared, but most were in awe.
Varric jerked on Fenris’ tunic, getting him to turn, breaking the fascination. He’d done the same to Kalias. “This has all been fun. Educational, even. We’ll chat more later, but the party’s probably winding down and it can’t end well if these boys are found missing. Bodyguard, steward, couple of people the Prefex might like to see pretty soon. So, then, so long, and thanks for all the fish.”
And they bolted as nonthreatingly as possible.
“Thanks for all the fish?” Fenris managed as they returned to the sewer proper.
“I was nervous.”
“That,” Kalias interrupted, taking the lead, “is why this rebellion will succeed unlike all the rest. That was Justice.”
“That,” Fenris spat, “was an abomination.”
“I’m with the prickly elf,” Varric said, “That looked like demon possession to me.”
“Have you ever seen an abomination?” Kalias asked.
Varric shook his head, but Fenris would not be so easily quailed. “Yes. As have you, as a Minrathous steward. Apprentices make mistakes often enough.”
Kalias sighed. “Arguably, that’s what Anders did. But the Maker blessed him. Justice is a good spirit, not a demon.”
“Now, I’ve never seen an abomination,” Varric said, “but I know that spirits don’t possess people. That’s a demon thing.”
“It’s more of a…pact. Anders was one of Orsino’s apprentices. Sick of the oppression he saw around him, he ran away, to either a dragon cult, a free elf tribe, or the Wardens, no one’s sure, but he summoned Justice there and the two agreed to bring down the Imperium.”
Fenris shook his head and walked faster. He knew the route. This was all a problem for later. He could not let Kalias walk into this danger, at least not alone. Fenris had seen the most powerful mages in the world on a regular basis once, and he had never seen or heard of possession by a spirit. This was not a story that would end well.
“Come, Hawke needs to know about the Qunari,” he called back.
Entering the cellar was like entering a house in a thunderstorm. There were a series of bangs and crashes above them, muffled but clear enough.
“I’m thinking Hawke already knows about the Qunari,” Varric said.
Fenris drew his sword and charged up the stairs.
She knew this was going to be a disaster. She knew it.
It had started with the Qunari arriving much sooner than expected. Aveline had seen fit to stop them at the gate and send a runner to Hawke who sent a runner back letting her know what was going on with this. The Qunari, true to their diplomatic intentions, had remained where they were to wait for the Prefex.
None of this stopped a group of apprentices from seeing them. And attempting to kill them.
It went from there.
Aveline was forced back into the Keep (the apprentices had gotten friends, and a few had gotten their masters), which did not help as now everyone knew. The Qunari had bound their blades in their sheathes, but Aveline’s solid logic had gotten them to cut the ropes and fight for their lives.
Hawke, in the meantime, was mediating an unrelated violent argument between two of the higher ranking magisters, something to do with a courtesan whose gender she couldn’t figure out from the conversation. It was only when things were in full, fiery swing that she found out what was going on.
“Stay in there,” Hawke snapped for the fifth time as Orsino poked his head out the heavy doors of the throne room.
“This is not your concern, Magister.” She slammed her staff into the ground in time to disperse an oncoming fireball. Half these morons were drunk and mere rumors of Qunari presence were enough to either scare them or have them clamoring for glory or both.
Orsino obliged and withdrew behind the heavy door. Hawke sighed in relief. She threw a paralysis spell at the fool throwing fireballs and locked the door. Now to find Aveline and end this madness.
Hawke followed the sounds of violence. The Qunari would draw the young hotbloods towards them—and likely kill them, especially with Aveline and her guards helping. The south made mages like this, kept them comfortable and safe, useless in a fight, let alone a proper war, but boiling over with ambition.
She wasn’t sure if that bizarre combination of ambition and lack of skill was a good thing tonight or not.
She found a small group firing bolts of energy towards a corner, their backs to her. Stupid.
With a wave of her free hand, she brushed them off their feet. The dazed young mages blinked as she strode imperiously through their scattered…rank. Her glare froze them in place as they reached for their staffs.
Hawke frowned as she surveyed their target. No Qunari.
“You spoiled my fun, Prefex,” the pirate said, walking over to recover a thrown dagger from a dead apprentice. She was splattered with blood.
“Have you seen the Qunari?”
Isabela raised an eyebrow. “Some unexpected guests? Well, that explains this bit of fun.” She wiped the dagger off on her tunic as if that would help.
“Not now, Isabela.” Hawke tried to pinpoint the direction of the fighting she was still hearing. Probably near the entrance hall.
The pirate laughed. “Oh, calm down. Everyone has that one party that gets out of control when they’re in the other room.” She smirked at some fond memory.
Hawke shook her head. “Help or go away, Isabela.” She turned towards the fighting, and froze.
A half dozen of her slaves lay broken in pools of blood in the hallway.
Hawke whirled on heel towards one of the mages she had floored. She was gripping her staff so tightly it hurt.
Like all of this little gang, this mage was an apprentice, judging from his robes. He shuffled backwards as she approached. “Prefex…”
He shut his mouth with a snap.
She wished for her real staff, with its bladed end. These little blood mages, these thieves, would end in manner similar to her slaves. They would bleed out.
This silly ceremonial stick would have to do. The end was already a point.
Hawke clicked the staff’s end against her boot. A controlled burst of magic turned it into a very sharp stake.
She drove it into the apprentice’s chest cavity.
The others just stared, understanding their fate and their helplessness.
“Isabela,” Hawke said, looking back at the pirate. She was staring grimly at the dead slaves.
“I’ll choose help,” she said. She threw one dagger into an apprentice’s throat, the other through one’s belly.
It was quick work. Fear had paralyzed the young mages. They knew who the Warmage was. They knew what they had done. Hawke would have to answer for this, but it wouldn’t be hard. Finding an excuse for the Qunari presence was bigger legal concern.
Hawke left the gruesome scene and headed for the entrance hall. Isabela lingered for a bit, but dashed for the nearest servant’s entrance as soon as she could. Hawke rolled her eyes. She’d never understand the pirate’s principles.
As she moved towards the Qunari—she could pick out some of their battle cries—the manor grew more and more messy The battle had apparently never moved from the entrance, but the mages had toppled tables and knocked sculptures down in their rush to either escape or join the fight. There would be a major redecoration in the future. Kalias would enjoy it, once the blood was scrubbed off the floors.
The doors to the entrance hall had been torn off their hinges. Hawke grit her teeth as she heard the flurry of battle outside. And, yet again, a group of mages firing down from the balcony had their backs turned towards her.
Unfortunately, she had to be delicate about this.
She threw them off their feet and hit them all with paralysis, then strode to where they had been standing.
The battle before her was a mess. Aveline had organized her people and the Qunari into a defensive square, archers and the odd guards-mage in the center. Most of the warriors were wielding spears with their heads removed, or only striking with their shields. Trying to save the House of Parthalan from political shame. Hawke smiled bitterly and hoped their loyalty wouldn’t get them killed. Not that they had much to hit; these mages fought from strictly a distance.
The mages around them were mostly apprentices with no clear plan of attack. They were clumped together in groups of a half dozen or so. There were no more than fifty all told, the large majority being apprentices. She thanked all the gods. The hall was filled with rather weak fireballs and arcane bolts, with the occasional more advanced spell, often fueled by the caster’s blood, thrown in every once in a while. They were very bad shots.
It was held that Kirkwall was a stronghold of research and a bastion of magical power. Clearly this was not true for conventional war magic.
This was going to end now. Hawke lifted her staff towards the ceiling, carefully drawing power from the Fade. Moisture gathered, condensing into a great gray cloud. She flipped her staff horizontal.
Thunder rang out from the indoor storm and lightning struck down all around the defensive square. “Enough!” Hawke shouted, amplifying her voice, “Leave my house now!”
Like the tide beginning to pull out, the mages made to follow her orders.
One mage began cackling. A gathering of power made the hairs on Hawke’s arms stand up.
There was a blast of light. There was always a damned blast of light.
Standing in the midst of the mages was a twisted mockery of a human being, laughing, covered in pulsing tumors. An abomination.
The mages fled as they could, some firing as they hurried away from the horror. The abomination dropped all those around it with a blast of energy. Others lit on fire. Some dropped, convulsing.
Hawke gaped. The thing turned to look at her with a corpse’s eyes. It was still laughing. It thrust its hands upwards, as if pushing something. Dust rose from the ground, coalescing into bizarre sleek shapes; shades.
Some charged the defenders. Four came for Hawke.
She snarled at them and let loose a bolt of lighting. It took the first one out, but the other three were only knocked back.
Hawke charged them. She drove the sharpened end of her staff through one and used it to fill the demon with fire. She hit another with the dragon’s head on the other end, forcing it away.
There was one more but she couldn’t see or sense it. The whole room was full of magic. She could feel flares of energy as the abomination summed more demons.
The other shade hissed right at her back. Hawke turned, an arcane bolt burning in her free hand.
The shade flopped backward, following some other kind of physics, and dissolved.
She almost laughed at the sight of Fenris, standing about six feet away, staring at an arrow clattering on the ground. Varric, standing near the wall, shrugged when they both looked at him, reloading his crossbow.
Instead, she just snorted and flung her bolt at the other shade, following it up with a blow from her staff and another and another until the thing dispersed. Unfortunately, the hall was now crawling with them.
Fenris moved to guard her back. “I hope you have a plan.”
“Yes. We need to get to Aveline.”
They moved through the army of shades. Shades were the simplest and weakest of the demons, but they were easy to summon en masse and hardier than anything made of dust had a right to be.
Hawke flicked out lightning and massive slamming force over and over. This was too fine a crowd control for her tastes. To make it worse, she could see the glyphs the abomination was casting, strengthening its minions.
She appreciated the reach of Fenris’ sword behind her as it swept away multiple shades in a single blow. But they were learning, coming in more open groups, each bearing a glyph of strength.
Hawke used a force cage to trap the group coming at Fenris, then shot three successive bolts of lightning through the shades coming at her. One popped up next to her, but she drove her staff into it and ripped it open with a tug. That didn’t kill it, but her energy bolt to the wound did.
Several arrows pierced the next wave. They’d reached Aveline’s group. The guards quickly enfolded them.
Hawke shook herself, feeling the hum of adrenaline keenly. She nodded to what appeared to be the Qunari leader, a sten from his armor. “I apologize for the welcome,” she said, “You arrived sooner than anticipated.”
The Qunari simply nodded, eyes tracking the shades around them.
Hawke looked to Aveline. “You have everyone here?”
“Everyone not trying to prevent a riot at our gates.”
“Good.” She coughed and shouted, “Varric, get to cover!” She hoped he heard, because otherwise he would soon have a very bad day. “Mages,” she stated, turning to the five guard-mages of her household.
They were far from the best, all freedmen, usually healers with the occasional energy bolt. Still, she had taught them a few tricks herself, and they could pull off what she needed better than she could.
“I need your lyrium potions.” They pulled their lyrium flasks out frighteningly fast. “Drink some. I am going to throw up a shield and you need to maintain it while I fix this problem.”
They nodded and readied themselves, gulping down a mouthful of the shining blue liquid before handing her the flasks.
Hawke had long detested relying on lyrium for her power. She had practiced for years on extending her stamina and natural power reserves. But she had always been terrible at creating, let alone holding, a shield with her innate talent. A blind spot, of sorts.
She drank down the remainders of two flasks and half of the other three. Lyrium began to sing in her veins along with the adrenaline rush. Raising her staff, she started with a small bubble and steadily increased it to encompass the whole group. It was like lifting a great weight and then holding it high. The five mages helped take a fair portion off her, but it was still very heavy.
The guards quit firing arrows when the shield went up. Hawke took a deep breath, then flipped her staff around to her back. Power crackled all around her, gaping holes to the Fade.
She pulled the staff back very fast and jabbed it forward.
Fire rushed outside of the bubble, staring in wavering streams but growing quickly into torrents that roared through the air. The heat was incredible inside the bubble. Outside, the shades burned away.
Hawke held the spell for a few moments longer. It was impossible to feel anything right now; her sense for magic was overloaded.
She carefully lifted her staff to her side and the fire steadily died. The bubble vanished, leaving them in a badly scorched room. Hawke could smell charred flesh.
If it weren’t for the lyrium she might well be dead. It would have been the stupid shield that killed her, too.
There was a roar. The abomination staggered to its feet nearby, all clothing charred from its blackened body. It was badly burnt, but that did not stop it from summoning fire to its hands.
Aveline leapt forward, knocking aside the thing’s arms with her shield and driving her sword straight through it. It screamed, blazing and turning to ash around the blade.
Everyone looked towards Hawke. An uninjured Kalias and Varric peered out a doorway. “Well,” Hawke said, feeling a touch euphoric from battle and lyrium. There was much to do. “My dear, blessed guard-mages, attend to the wounded—yes, including Qunari. Aveline, work on dispersing the crowd at the gates. Kalias…you have much to tend to.” She turned to the Qunari leader. “Sten, please leave your injured to my healers and follow me. We have much to discuss.”
“Again, I offer my apologies,” Hawke said as the doors to the library shut.
“It is expected,” the sten stated. It was the first thing he’d said.
Hawke didn’t have a reply for that. “If I understand correctly, this embassy of yours is a first for the Qunari.”
“In this land, yes.”
This was going to be a meeting with appreciably little political nuance. Hawke enjoyed the idea, because the buzz of the night’s events was starting to wear off. Exhaustion from the fight with the dragon and the spells earlier that night were beginning to take their toll. “What do you want?”
“Permission to search your city.”
“Something has been…lost.”
Hawke narrowed her eyes. “A loss for the Qunari is generally a gain for my people.”
That almost generated a sneer. “It would be useless to you. Only gathering dust in your halls. To us, it is precious beyond price.”
“And?” Hawke shrugged. “What do a bunch of stranded Qunari have to offer me? What you propose will be viewed as treachery.”
“That is no concern of ours.” The sten glanced towards his men. Some were wounded. They’d refused healing and now stood in bandages. “Our ships sank in a storm. We cannot leave. In our camp, we have...a small army. The possibility of raiding has been considered. It would be quite difficult for you to explain, should we begin a campaign this far south.”
“It would fail, ultimately.”
“Nonetheless. Damage. A foothold for the Qun.”
Whatever they were after was very important to them, because normally they would have begun their campaign already and said nothing. “So you would not campaign here if I let you search my city?”
“Yes. This extends only to the lands you preside over. It is a pact between the Prefex Hawke and this group of Qunari. Not between us and the Tevinter Imperium.”
“Letting you loose in my city will cause problems, as you saw tonight.”
“We will send only the hornless ones among us. We have no reason to believe what we search for can be found in the better areas of your city.”
“I will give you no privileges. I can’t afford it.”
Hawke held out her hand. “You may search my city, then.”
The Qunari reached out and they grasped forearms. His huge gray hand dwarfed her entire arm. “We will not attack your lands.”
They released each other quickly. The sten nodded. “We will leave.”
Hawke nodded back, and they left, filing through the door like hulking ghosts.
“That was simple,” Fenris said at long last. He had been standing silent behind her shoulder the entire time.
“It probably isn’t, really.” She looked down at the hem of her robe. It was soaked in blood. “There are other problems to attend to. Come.”
She left the dragon-headed staff leaning against the wall and headed out into the hallway. It had been here that she had executed the apprentices. The bodies of her slaves had been taken away for various burial rituals, but the apprentices were stacked like cordwood near a wall and covered in a ruined tapestry. Several slaves were scrubbing the floor. Hawke stretched out a hand and cast a rejuvenation spell, then a warding circle around the bodies.
The human foreman—a slave, like the rest—looked up from the floor and bowed his head to her. She waved a hand. They had better things to do than pay respect to her.
The hall heading out towards the entrance was crawling with teams of slaves doing similar work, bundling up ruined decorations and scrubbing everything. What a wreck this had been. She cast her rejuvenation spell on all of those she passed. It had been a hard night for them, and she could manage such a simple spell even now.
They had to clamber over the dragon skull that now blocked the doors to the entrance hall. Its moorings had survived everything until her firestorm, and it had come crashing down. The burnt bodies of the mages she had paralyzed were trapped under it. The skull itself was undamaged, a testament to the strength of dragonbone.
The entrance hall was swarming, slowly being polished back to Kalias’ standards.
The old elf walked up from his place on the stairs. “Are you well, mistress?”
“I’ll be feeling it soon.” She cast rejuvenation on the busy hall. “It won’t leave me bedridden. How are we doing?”
“Ten died. The three women left five orphans between them, and there will be a good deal of mourning for all.”
“Give the mourners a week or two. Make sure the orphans are well cared for. Make sure you document everything.”
“As for the Qunari…get it out on the rumor mill that it was a group of Tal-Vashoth mercenaries who did not understand when they should show up.”
“A wise choice. Will it pass the magisters’ suspicion?”
“When I yell at them for their reaction, it will.” She eyed her hem again. “That reminds me. Have Aveline send some of the guard to escort Orsino and company out one of the side entrances with that explanation and my apologies.”
Kalias bowed and went to fulfill her requests. Hawke drummed her fingers against the landing’s railing. That pact with the Qunari meant that there would be no outright hostility between them, but it had been vague on both ends. And things could be changed in an instant. She knew how fiercely the war raged.
What were they at, searching for some kind of artifact? That couldn’t be the only thing they were doing, but they would not lie so baldly.
“I need to find what they’re searching for first,” she stated aloud.
Fenris, behind her, shrugged, armor clinking. “Use your pirate. It seems her sort of thing.”
“It does indeed.” So talking with Isabela was another thing on tomorrow’s to-do list. “Are you well, Fenris?” she asked, looking over to him.
“As well as can be expected. It has been a very busy night.”
He grit his teeth in a silent snarl. “Yes.”
“Something to ask the rumor mill. I am getting out of these robes. You should rest. We have much to do in the morning.” She turned towards the blocked doorway, looking over her scorched manor for a moment. “Damn idiots.”
Isabela and Hawke had a rather sleepy conversation through a guest room door that ended with Hawke writing a note for a large sum of gold to be brought from the bank so Isabela would have funds for her search. Fenris was sure most of that would be lost to one form of debauchery or another, but it was Hawke’s money.
A note was also drafted for the best lawyer in the city—one Varric Tethras, of all people— so he could defend her in court after the summons came. She had slaughtered a group of apprentices for using her slaves as fuel for blood magic. The rest of the night’s events could be kept out of court, but that one would surely be contested.
It was a sick and bizarre world she walked, but she dealt with it as if it made sense, meetings held, letters written, orders sent, one after the other. She seemed to enjoy thwarting the complexities of magisterial society.
“And now,” Hawke stated, throwing a drab cloak over her shoulders with a dramatic flourish, “We are going to go see an apothecary I know.”
After all the events of the previous night, that did not process quite right. “Apothecary?”
“Your markings cause you chronic pain.” Constant, really, but he just nodded. “While that may have amused Danarius, it does not sit well with me, so therefore I am going to do something about it.”
“There is no need, mistress. I’m…used to it. It’s a part of life.”
She frowned at him. “The world we made means such awful things don’t have to be a part of life, Fenris. Not for anyone, slave or free.” She grabbed her bladed staff from its place against the wall. “Come. If it makes you feel any better, it’s partly to get out of this house for a bit.”
He followed her out a side door. Getting out into the alley, bright and sunny and absurdly clean and quiet, was indeed a relief. The manor was all gray anyway, and last night’s losses did not help the atmosphere.
Hawke winded her way through what qualified as Hightown back alleys, Fenris following. While there was little danger here on a normal day, tensions were high. Kalias could only do so much damage control and it had all happened last night.
As had the meeting with the rebels and their abomination. Two of those monstrosities in one night; his life had taken an even stranger turn.
In all honesty, he didn’t care about the rebellion. He acknowledged it was a noble cause. It would, however, fail. Every slave in the province could rise up and it would still fail. The bickering Senate would unite and put their formidable powers to use. The hardened northern legions would enjoy a softer enemy than the Qunari. It was doomed. It was just a matter of how far it got.
If it got off the ground, Kirkwall would burn. If any place deserved it, this city did. Fenris had never seen the Gallows after he entered the city—Hawke had yet to go there—but he knew the place was still a living hell.
If he thought about it, Hawke was the agent of a brutal empire. He felt the old hate and anger flare in his heart again. If she was so different, why then did she not change anything? Why was she complacent in this madness? Did she truly make her world so small as to let the horrors of it live on when she had the power to kill them?
He almost ran into her when she stopped. “Here,” she said, seeming satisfied, gesturing to the building before heading in.
Fenris glanced at the sign over the door but it was all letters and meant nothing to him. Something about that made his anger flare. He followed her, gritting his teeth and trying not to show what he felt simmering beneath his skin. It was an animal thing, fierce but afraid, roaring and cowering all at once.
A boy peered over the counter, then darted into another room. An older woman came out, one hand on the child’s wild black hair. She ruffled the boy’s hair. “You know better than that,” she told him, “They’re your grandma’s customers. If you scare them off, I’ll have to close down.”
The whole warm scene was so utterly bizarre to Fenris in his present mood that he wanted to break something to make the world right again.
Hawke was smiling vaguely, which didn’t help. She was his mistress, his owner, why should it?
“I hear you’re the best in the city with healing salves,” Hawke told the older woman.
“Indeed I am. What do you need, magister? Something for last night’s upset?”
“No, as matter of fact.” Hawke looked back at Fenris. He must have been wearing his feelings on his face, because she frowned and her brow furrowed. She gestured and he came. “My bodyguard needs your skills.”
The healer looked him over and blinked in surprise. “That is…quite different.”
“And painful,” Hawke said, “He is a bodyguard, so normal painkillers will not work.”
The woman nodded. “Lyrium would cancel most things out, anyway.” She moved around the counter. “If I may?”
No, he wanted to say, but didn’t. He tensed, that animal thing thrashing around his mind, tail between its legs, snapping at empty air.
Hawke imposed herself between her him and the healer. “Very painful, I’m afraid, and…” She half-glanced at Fenris. “Traumatic.”
“And a bodyguard.” The healer moved back to her counter. “Well, I would need to analyze the markings in order to prepare a spell—it will require a spell.” She scowled. “One a bit beyond my means, I’m afraid. There’s a reason I don’t serve with the legions.”
Hawke stepped up to the counter and eyed the vast collection of greenery on the shelves behind it. “I can do that. You have something in mind?”
“A variation on a healing potion, combined with a spell to direct and sustain it. Lyrium badly damages living tissue, magister. To have it embedded in one’s skin…your bodyguard is lucky to be alive. The spells that are keeping it from poisoning his blood must be incredible.”
“I am a magister, remember,” Hawke said, amused, “What do we need for ingredients?”
“Oh, some elfroot, deep mushrooms, distilled…”
“You have these items? A lot of them?”
“I’ll buy them. All of them.”
The transaction was carried out hurriedly. Most would be delivered later, but Hawke took a small satchel of ingredients with her.
“What is it?” she asked as they headed back to the manor.
“Stop doing that.” She took a sudden right turn, breaking from the path to the manor.
He had no idea where they were headed now. She winded her way through various alleys, progressively getting as dirty as Hightown got. They ascended a staircase as suddenly as she had turned. Hawke opened a door, and Fenris found himself in a small, luxurious apartment, the type magisters usually kept for trysts, mistresses, or favored illegitimate children.
It was surprisingly green. There were plants everywhere, drawn from the northern jungles. A small waterfall flowed down a wall in the tiny parlor. This was Hawke’s?
“Kalias has a gift,” Hawke commented as she shut the door, “Once again, what is wrong?”
She threw the satchel on a desk casually. He refused to answer, partly because he was angry, partly because he could not explain how he felt.
Hawke stared at him for a moment, then pulled out a chair. “Sit.”
The magister lifted her hands above his head, a small thrumming blue glow coalescing around them. “Less tense would be good,” she said. Fenris forced himself to relax. He didn’t know why. Orders, habits, jagged edges of memory with vast gaps of nothingness in between.
Hawke ran her hands just above his spine. He could feel magic falling over the liens of lyrium in his skin and sinking into the areas around and beneath them. It stung dimly for the most part, with sharper pricks from time to time. “I hate to ask this,” Hawke—his mistress—said, “But what do you remember of the ritual that did this?”
He turned his head towards her. “Pain. The beginning of everything. Like…being born.”
“Then Danarius could remake you how he wanted,” Hawke snarled, moving her analysis spell down his arms. It went through his enchanted armor like nothing. “One of these days, this madness will bring an even greater hell down on our heads.”
Fenris turned all the way around to look at her. “You govern a city built upon such horrors.”
“Mhmm.” The spell moved to his chest and stuck something painfully. Fenris gasped, tears coming to his eyes. “Sorry. There are…flaws. Bundles of…linked…never mind. Danarius left that out of his writings.” The spell shifted smoothly downward towards his ribs. “The Gallows issue is a sensitive one. I’ve tried to keep it at a distance—that is Senate politics at its finest, and not a fight I can win no matter what side I take.”
“What do you mean?”
“Slavery is the most debated issue in the Senate.” The spell moved embarrassingly lower, and Fenris found himself forcibly concentrating on Hawk’s words. And successfully jolted out of his confused anger, for the moment. “It’s academic for everyone else. They’ve been bickering over it for a century. Abolish, loosen, tighten, justify, ideologues, on and on. It’s the best way to derail a debate.”
“These are real people,” Fenris stated. The analysis continued thankfully to his legs.
“Slaves make the Imperium run. Without the Imperium, what is the world left to?”
“Free, perhaps?” Anarchy. That abomination and even deeper, darker versions of what he had seen Magisters do, bound by their laws. Things that even they had sealed away, let loose.
He heard Hawke give a soft laugh. “My father wondered that, once. His great dream was a free Imperium. But he decided that creating it would cost his soul, so he tended to his own. I’ve tried to adopt the sentiment.”
“So you fight the Qunari.”
“Every thing my father built, everything I’ve tried to defend, would be destroyed by them.”
The spell slid away from his toes and Hawke withdrew. She dragged out another chair and draped herself across it in a manner more suited to armor than her velvet robes. “Precision work, that. The nerves around the lyrium are perpetually irritated. Somehow that old bastard managed to isolate the toxicity from the power—but it’s rough. He went through several others before you.” There was softness to her eyes when she looked at him.
“This is of use to your potion how?”
“Find a way to calm those nerves. It won’t be a cure. If I can get it to do what I want—and I know how to make a healing draught, damn it—it will be daily thing.”
“I can endure.”
She smiled. “Commendable. But you don’t have to.”
Every time Hawke closed her eyes, she swore the nightmares returned.
Why she was having nightmares now made no sense. She had seen war many times, and Minrathous was full of foul magic. She’d long since outgrown the terrors that haunted a young mage’s sleep, and there were enough runes carved in her bed to ward off every demon in the Fade, thin Veil or no.
So why nightmares now? Why images of a disappointed father and slaughtered household, rotting siblings, world in ruins…after all these years of peaceful sleep, why had the nightmares suddenly returned these past three nights?
She shook it off. Her poor sleep was a task for another time. Right now, she needed to make more of that poultice for Fenris.
She returned to chopping elfroot, and wished she could force this on an apprentice. Kirkwall didn’t have any prospects she wanted, however, so here she was.
Fenris watched from a spot in the corner. He was almost leaning nonchalantly on the wall. His irritability from two days ago had vanished or at least been buried, and he’d returned to his cold watchfulness. Well, she thought as she glanced at his relaxed posture, cool watchfulness. That might be the potion, though.
The elf scowled at the door suddenly. Better than a warhound, Fenris.
“Open the door and ruin a perfectly pleasant day, Kalias,” she ordered, managing to almost cut off her finger.
Aveline stuck her head in. “You’ve been hard to find.” She frowned at the room and did not enter. It was one of the manor’s several laboratories, less arcane than most but Aveline wasn’t about to step inside. The scent of strange herbs and potions probably didn’t help. If you lived in Minrathous long enough, you started to pick up on the cues of a mage at work.
“It’s you, so I assume it’s not some idiot whining about his dead apprentice.”
“No, but I’d like you to know we had to put an arrow through the leg of one of those earlier.”
Hawke carefully slid the chopped elfroot into a pot. “Fireballs?”
“Very poor ones.” The freedwoman fell silent and shifted uncomfortably. “The Qunari left a message.”
Hawke abandoned another elfroot and came around the table. “What did they say?”
“One of their elf converts stopped by and informed us that their leader would like to meet you at their compound on the Wounded Coast.”
Fenris shifted from the wall. “That’s not what they normally do.”
“No,” Hawke said, narrowing her eyes. Who were these oxmen, to summon her? She extinguished the fire beneath the pot with wave of a hand. “Well, I’m curious. Let’s go meet the new neighbors. I’m sure it’ll be a great dinner party.”
“This is not a good idea.”
“I agree with the Captain. They’re likely to kill us on sight.”
“I thank the professional bodyguards for their advice,” Hawke said, “Now please acquiesce to my rank and shut up.”
Aveline rolled her eyes so hard Hawke could feel it behind her back. “This is dangerous, Prefex.”
The title irked her, here, doing this. “I doubt the Qunari are going to appreciate a formal delegation. Besides being armed to the teeth, it would be official, and this whole thing is decidedly not official.”
“Mistress, two guards will not be able to fight off a compound full of Qunari,” Fenris told her.
Hawke looked back, grinning. “You underestimate yourself, Fenris. I’m sure the three of us could make a daring escape and this would become much more politically manageable.”
“As the dwarf would say, never count your money when you’re sitting at the table.”
“He would say it more smoothly, I believe.” She smirked back at him, making him pause for a beat before resuming his steady pace.
Being back in armor, her weapon on her back, made her feel so much more alive. She honestly didn’t know what kind of reception they would get at the Qunari compound. Rumors said all manner of things, and the Qunari delegation had confirmed that they had a small army. Scouts were swearing up and down that the Arishok was there, as well, but that was hard to believe. Why would one third of the governing body of the Qunari be this far south? And he the war leader, at that, with a vicious, century-old conflict going on at home.
She didn’t trust the Qunari to respect their pact, not all the way. They were more subtle than appearances made it seem, and they hated the Imperium down to their bones. If they saw an opportunity more valuable than whatever they were searching for, they would take it.
The rocky path soon gave way to a long stretch of beach. “Toth preserve us,” Aveline muttered.
The Qunari compound dominated the view. It was huge, a fortress built of whatever could be found on the beach. Let no one say that the Qunari were not industrious. The seaward side of the compound was largely composed of the sideways and shattered hull of a huge Qunari dreadnought, clearly dragged onto the beach and shored up with boulders and pieces of other wrecked ships. Other shipwrecks formed an integral part of the walls; the Wounded Coast provided no shortage of them, after all. Qunari lookouts stood on repurposed crow’s nests at intervals, and ragged banners featuring the House of Tides flapped above them grimly. Hawke could hear ringing of a forge at work and the foreign sounds of Qunari language being shouted.
“They’re drilling,” she said.
“Didn’t they say they wouldn’t conduct any raids?” Aveline asked.
“If I came through on my side, yes.” She shifted her staff to make sure the sling would both keep it on and allow her to pull it out quickly. “Let’s go.”
They moved forward under the eyes of the sentries, with no obvious reaction. That was new. Usually Qunari preferred to be proactive about newcomers.
Usually they were in their homeland, however.
Something went off loudly and Aveline staggered back with a yell. Hawke had her staff out in a heartbeat and turned towards her friend. “Frost trap,” the freedwoman said, shivering.
Hawke glanced at the beach around them more carefully. It was littered with the magical traps. No wonder the Qunari weren’t too bothered about them.
One thing, though. Hawke had led legions against the Qunari. She had met their magic often. They had never used traps, like Tevinter or even elven mages did. And they didn’t often use elemental magic, either, preferring lightning with the occasional burst of fire.
“Step carefully,” she warned, putting her staff away, “They’re not hidden, just hard to see.”
Fenris and Aveline nodded and the trio followed a zigzag path to the compound.
The solitary guard at the gate watched them approach in silence. They stood there several minutes before he said anything. “Bas are not welcome,” he stated at last, the words clearly an effort, “You are an exception. Go to the galleon. You are wanted there.”
He smacked the gate with a fist and it slowly opened. Hawke nodded and headed in, Fenris and Aveline alert at her side.
There were Qunari everywhere. Some were drilling, others were working at an elaborate forge, others were moving things to and fro. It reminded Hawke of an anthill. Her instincts were screaming. She forced them down.
A single, solitary animal bleat snatched her attention. It was the call of a distressed halla, which shouldn’t exist here.
“Hush,” a small voice said, “We’ll leave soon, I promise.”
Hawke followed the sound, eager for something familiar in the midst of something hostile. None of the Qunari noticed.
She found a young elf coaxing a saddled halla. Judging by the halla and his strange armor, he was a wild elf, the last remnants of long ago destroyed Arlathan.
He noticed her and jumped, putting a hand to his sword. “Stay away!” he said, “I am under the protection of the Qunari here, and you can’t beat them all!”
His Tevinter was very natural, unlike most of the elven clans. Escaped slave. “That is in question,” she told him, “Does your clan know you’re a convert, or are you just spying on them?”
“I’m trading for supplies!” he snapped, cringing behind his animal, “Since we can’t do it with anyone else!”
The wild elves were so damn dramatic. Villages and even military camps traded with them all the time. Technically they were fugitives, but no one really bothered unless they were stirring up trouble. There were so few clans, and they were so scattered, that the Imperium had simply found it had better things to do with its resources. Eventually they would die, either literally or culturally. Hawke had actually seen an entire clan sell itself into slavery to keep from starving. It was all a matter of time, not worthy of blood or gold. Not that the clans believed that.
“The Qunari will trade with you?” Hawke asked, surprised.
“Yes. And it’s working very well, thank you.”
Fenris snorted. “Sooner rather than later, they will try to convert you. Believe it.”
The wild elf glared at him. “Flat ears know nothing about the conviction of belief. Full bellies are all you want. You’ll even trade your freedom for that.”
“You assume there is a choice.”
The wild elf, much younger and smaller than Fenris, lost all his boldness. “I am beyond Tevinter rule, here. You can’t hurt me.”
They could but that would cause unneeded trouble. Hawke shrugged and turned away. “Go and be persecuted.”
She headed for the galleon. Fenris and Aveline came to flank her. “Qunari don’t trade,” Aveline said.
“They’re clearly shipwrecked,” Hawke told her.
“If the Qunari ever needed anyone’s help to come back from disaster, I’ve yet to see it. I saw them rebuild and restock a fortress in three weeks, completely surrounded by four legions.”
“And the clans do not have much to offer,” Fenris added. He nodded to a very busy cooking pit. “The Qunari, on the other hand, do not seem to be wanting for anything.”
True. The wild elves lived a nomadic and difficult existence, and the Qunari seemed to be doing quite well. Perhaps sympathizers gave them help—she’d have to put out an order for rooting them out—but that didn’t explain the presence of the elf. “Then what are the elves offering them?” She blinked as she realized the answer. “Magic. Those traps.”
“Fools. They think helping the Qunari will bring them anything but slavery.”
Said the slave. Hawke put that out of mind. “One thing at a time. Let’s go see why I’ve been summoned.”
They were met by more guards at a small gate. They opened it without saying anything and Hawke’s party entered.
A stone dais dominated the small area. Two helmeted and heavily armored guards flanked a U-shaped stone throne. Sitting on that throne was the biggest Qunari Hawke had ever seen, and she’d seen a few.
His horns were long and curving, decorated with bands of gold. Some strange form of golden earring highlighted his ears, and the traditional Qunari collar-like necklace glittered gold in the sun. His heavy red pauldrons bore a white House of Tides. His white hair was much longer than most Qunari, giving the appearance of age to contrast his huge, muscle-bound body. A gigantic axe and equally huge sword were strapped to his back.
Hawke nodded politely and strode forward towards the base of the dais. “I believe you requested my presence.”
“I did.” He did not shift. He barely seemed to breathe. “It is well you have allowed my men entrance into your city.”
“It seemed mutually beneficial.”
“It was. However, their search has been fruitless.”
Hawke shrugged. “That is no fault of mine.”
He was a fool if he believed that. Hopefully he had reason to disbelieve it, if Isabela was doing her job. She moved talking to the pirate higher on her list.
Surprisingly, the Arishok suddenly wore an expression. He narrowed his eyes. “Once I find what I am searching for, I will leave. I have no interest in your…disgusting city.”
She would have to kill him before he left. “A comfort.”
“I would…appreciate…your aid. It is difficult for my men to learn anything, even in the underbelly of that trash heap.” She loved his terms for Kirkwall. “You, however, could open doors for them.”
“Nothing is for free, Arishok.”
Silence, long and thoughtful and full of conflict. What could possibly mean that much to them? “A list of viddithari throughout the Imperium,” the Arishok stated at along last.
Fenris started. Aveline drew a shocked breath. Viddithari were converts to the Qun, often operating as spies. In some opinions, they were the Qunari’s best hope for defeating the Imperium. They were the cherished prizes of the Qunari, kept secret and utilized to devastating effect far too often. And here was the Arishok, giving that up to his enemies.
What could possibly mean that much to them?
Hawke shoved her shock away and thought it through. There was no guarantee that the list was accurate or remotely true, but there were ways of being sure. Whatever it was they were searching for had the Arishok away from the front, far south into enemy territory. It could be politics—she doubted the Qunari were beyond that—or it could just be that important to them.
She’d take this, because even a false concession would at least destabilize the Qunari. The converts would belong to the priesthood, led by the Ariqun, another third of the Qunari government. If it became known the Arishok stepped out of bounds, it might cause some fracturing of leadership.
“I will do what I can,” Hawke stated, “In good faith.”
The Arishok nodded his huge head, gold adornments flashing mercilessly. “In good faith.” He gestured to one of his guards, who left. “The list will be brought momentarily. You may wait here.” He stood from his throne, taller than anyone else ever born, and descended down the other side of dais with his sole guard.
“Well,” said Fenris.
“What could they be looking for?” Aveline asked, “That’s no small thing to offer.”
“If it’s real,” Hawke said. She didn’t care if the Qunari were listening; there was mutual distrust. “I have doors to open, I suppose.”
The Qunari guard returned with a fairly thick book. She took it without formality, noted the bloodstain on the cover, and paged through it. It was a long, long list of names, professions, and locations, written out in smudged Tevinter. Some of the names were familiar, people of some government or military rank, a number of them known spies strategically left alive.
Indeed, she had doors to open. Just a matter of which doors to open.
1)The Dales never existed in this universe, therefore the term 'Dalish' never existed. The Imperium isn't going to call them elvhen, and wild elves seemed the best name.
2) You know that the three leaders of the Qunari fight about the real purpose of the Qunari and who gets say over what and to what purpose. Because otherwise they are really, really boring, even more than the darkspawn.
I am a lore nerd.
“You have worked with every kind of filth out there, Isabela. I know that includes Tal-Vashoth. Why is working with Qunari so hard?”
Isabela didn’t turn away from the sea. Fenris found her casual take on danger impressive—and stupid. Not many would flaunt the will of a magister, much less do it with their back to the mage the whole time. “My will has been sapped by the loss of my ship,” the pirate answered lazily, “Why have you put off the inspection of the Gallows so long? Isn’t it some sort of traditional, formal hullabaloo for the Prefex?”
Hawke’s eyes narrowed. She rearranged her crimson robes, which were quite traditional and formal. “Blood magic orgies aren’t to my taste. It is also exacerbates the issue with the Veil, which was part of its purpose long ago. If you work with the Qunari, you can pool resources, and then perhaps you will finish the job I gave you. Or at least find out what it is they’re looking for.”
“If it’s an orgy, I’d be in.”
Hawke huffed. Fenris, standing right next to her, felt her stretch in preparation for the use of force. Something about the movement stirred something in him, something very stupid, and stupidity was not good.
Varric chuckled from where he leaned against the nearby railing. “Listen, if the Rivani won’t help, I can. And I’ll bet I beat her to it.”
Isabela did turn then. “Ooh, how much would you like to bet?”
The regular card games at the manor had grown to include the pirate, and she had only lost once, when she’d been completely sober. She liked to claim she never lost a bet. “The location of Arlathan and its treasures,” Varric said.
“Have I ever gone back on a bet?”
The pirate cocked her head. “And I’ll give back all you’ve lost to me.” Varric nodded. “Then you’re on.”
The pair shook hands and Hawke chuckled. “Don’t get her killed, Varric.”
“I won’t lose, Prefex, so don’t you worry about that. Besides, what’s a cadre of elite researchers to a pirate queen?”
Isabela looked back and forth between them. “You know where Arlathan is?” she asked Hawke.
“I know who’s there. Where it is a bit more of a secret.”
Varric watched Hawke adjust her robes again. “What? You’re nervous about inspecting the slave pens? Because you can’t be nervous about the trial. I’m your defending counsel. And I don’t lose bets.”
The reason Hawke had agreed to come to the Gallows that morning was because she was being put on trial for the death of several apprentices when the Qunari arrived. Fenris wondered why she was being tried. Minrathous magisters killed each other’s underlings all the time.
Politics, of course. It was always politics. It was politics that killed underlings. It was politics than won and lost wars.
It was not, however, politics that had killed these particular apprentices. It had been Hawke’s anger at the death of her slaves.
The stench of the Gallows hit them, all the stink of hundreds of bodies living in close quarters, with the smell of rotting flesh shot through like a sick afterthought.
Hawke, Fenris, and Isabela ignored it. Varric, however, dug a handkerchief out of his pocket and held it to his nose and mouth. “And there’s the first reason I avoid the magisterial court.”
Hawke stood and eyed him askance. “And here you said you are the best lawyer in Kirkwall.”
“I am, but most magisters kill each other before anything becomes a legal issue.”
Hawke shrugged and moved to the bow to watch the Gallows loom nearer.
Fenris had not seen the fortress so close in the day. At night, it had been eerily silent, the slaves overcome by sleeping spells, all ships halted. By day, it bustled with activity.
There were voices; shouts and chatter and high piercing screams. A million things were being moved about, gates opened and shut, bodies shifting en masse, all coming together in a faceless cacophony. On the shoreward docks, long lines of slaves, chained together by hands and feet, were being loaded onto barges, headed for the Lowtown markets. Their heads hung low, utterly defeated.
And standing silhouetted all this, Hawke, short hair blowing in the wind. She was such a contrast to the towering straight gray edges and voiceless noise; small and quite human, silent and purposeful.
Varric elbowed him in the ribs. Fenris scowled down at him. “Explain to me how exactly you are such a great lawyer, given your lack of tact.”
“Come on. I’m plenty tactful, just not around the crowd you hang out with, elf. As for the lawyer thing, I’m the best lawyer in Kirkwall. Minrathous or Nevarra? They’d tear me apart. It’s all about rules and laws in places like that.”
Fenris gave him a moment to see the flaw in that statement, but no such realization was forthcoming. “It’s a court of law.”
“Not as much as you think, especially not in Kirkwall. We’re so far south no one cares as long as nothing disruptive happens and everyone here wants a good story to tell. You see, that’s all being a lawyer is. It’s storytelling. You want people to see the story a certain way, so you embellish this, you downplay that, you throw a little lie in here and there. The high-minded northerners like to find the loopholes in their laws, like opening a puzzle box, but that’s just complicating things and damn boring besides.”
“You say lawyer, I say liar,” Isabela quipped, “Oh, look, that idiot at the helm is going to crash us into the docks.”
The boat hit the docks with a shuddering hollow crash, nearly sending Hawke flying off. She caught herself and glared back at the sailor who was steering. Red robes swirled as she flung her hand out, sending a small lighting bold flying at the man. He yelped and collapsed on the deck, twitching for a moment or two before shakily rolling to his knees.
She was still a magister, if one of a different kind.
“Isabela,” Hawke snapped.
The pirate grinned and touched her right hand to her heart, a soldier’s salute. “I will await your command, my Prefex.”
Hawke ignored her and vaulted onto the docks. Fenris followed, while Varric waited for the boat to be tied up. Hawke sorted out her robes impatiently as they waited.
She was being strangely anxious. “Mistress, if I might ask—”
“They were Tahrone’s students, and that bitch is Danarius’ contact in the south. She’s spying on Orsino for him.”
“So Danarius is involved.”
“If I look like I went berserk, I will not be headed north anytime soon. If I look like I went berserk on behalf of slaves, I will lose any hope of a post anywhere at all ever and may not be long for this world.”
"You did kill them for what they did to your slaves.”
“Out of sympathy or defense of my property, that is their question. If the former, it speaks to a very old fear of a magister leading a slave rebellion. Such a person is usually removed by any means necessary.”
That explained why the abomination was hiding in Darktown. Also why he thought he had any chance of succeeding. Fenris debated telling her about that for the thousandth time, and rejected it once again. Their cause was just in many respects, but they would fail. Slave revolt always failed. Even his personal rebellion had ended in chains again.
Varric strolled down the boat ramp. “Dignity,” he said, “is the key to being a great lawyer.”
“You’re wearing a shirt that exposes your chest hair for all the world to see,” Hawke told him.
“Dwarven dignity is different.”
Hawke sighed and headed towards the gates. The slave drivers moved their lines of captives well out of her way. If a magister arrived at the Gallows in formal robes, they were not in a good mood.
The woman who waited at the gates saluted and bowed respectively. “Prefex,” she said, “I am Tribune Stannard, commander of the Kirkwall garrison and the Gallows prison.” Despite the shadows, Fenris could see her heavy plate was parade gear. The Tevinter eagle framed her collar, and the chest plate was dominated by two bronze weeping slaves, icons of Andoral and Kirkwall, all polished to a mirror finish. Two images of the Dragon of Slaves decorated her shoulders, and gleaming lines of weeping slaves were displayed on her gauntlets.
Fenris did not want to see more of the Gallows.
Hawke nodded. “I apologize for both my delay and my hurry, Tribune. The traditional—”
The gate behind the tribune was not so much opened as nearly torn off its hinges. “Tribune!”
The Tribune’s hard, cold blue eyes narrowed. She didn’t even turn her body, just her head. “Magister Orsino.”
The elven magister stepped forward as if he hadn’t done anything unusual. “I need those slaves. Now. They’re vital to my research!”
“I don’t care if they were bred and born as fuel for your experiments. They must be numbered and evaluated like all others who come through my gates.”
“The dealer has already sold them to me.” Orsino’s face took on a strange look, something not quite right. “There is no need for your evaluation.”
The tribune performed an about face, moving very quickly for someone wearing heavy plate. “We have kept the records here for over a thousand years. I will not leave any gaps here for you, Magister, or anyone.”
Both the magister and the tribune looked at Hawke. “Tribune, carry on with protocol.” She eyed Orsino coolly. “Orsino will pay the dealer, but have the slaves transferred to my possession.”
Orsino gaped. “I paid for them!”
“And you interrupted protocol that exists for a reason. Several. Including the fact that some slaves have better uses than being bled.” While the magister continued gaping, Hawke turned back to the tribune. “Send them to my household. I will be investigating the matter.”
The other woman nodded, an ever-so-slight smile on her face. “There are fifty of them, Prefex.”
“What a nice round number. You may leave, Magister.”
“I...” He wasn’t going to win this one, and he knew it. The balance of power was weighted heavily against him. It was incredibly pleasant to see a blood mage denied his victims. “The dealer already has his money. Thank you for looking into this dispute, Prefex. Will you begin your inspection of the Gallows?” Something terrible flashed in his eyes again.
“Not the traditional way, I’m afraid. I have to go stand trial.” Orsino blinked. Tribune Stannard looked amused. “A bit of Minrathous politics, I’m afraid.”
“A pity,” Orsino said, “The previous Prefex enjoyed the Gallows quite a bit. It was quite an experience.”
“I’m sure, but I must be getting to court. If you’d lead the way, Tribune.” The other woman turned and headed inside. Hawke paused next to Orsino. “Please remember my uncle’s laws, Magister.”
Fenris spared Orsino a glance as he passed. The man’s knuckles were white as they clutched his staff.
From Gallows Humor: One Dwarf’s Life in the City of Kirkwall, by the renowned Orator Varric Tethras:
V. Tethras: “My dear members of the jury, you’ve heard the facts, bare and dry as old bones. They happened, no one denies it. But does that tell you what really went on?
I can tell you what went on, based on the evidence and the well-known character of the defendant.
Things went south that night. You all know that. A pack of Tal-Vashoth mercenaries showed up at the wrong time, in the wrong place, just like oxmen always do. And the guests at the party reacted the only way any decent citizen of Tevinter Imperium could: they attacked the intruders.
The apprentices in question were good kids, I don’t doubt it. Followed their training to the letter, star pupils, more valuable to Magister Tahrone than any slave, as she’s made clear. But they weren’t trained for battle. They had fled when the Qunari had shown up—as our witnesses have stated. Cowards…anyway, they feared the oxmen would come for them. They used the only fuel they could imagine that would give them the strength to beat the monsters. Blood.
Prefex Hawke’s slaves were right there. What could it hurt? They were all going to be killed by the Qunari anyway.
So that’s how Prefex Hawke found them bleeding her slaves dry. Trained slaves, not just fuel. Her father’s household. Desecrated and used by outsiders—by cowards.
Prefex Hawke is known as the Warmage. Her fury is violent because the northern front is violent, as you all saw first hand with the oxmen that night. You would lose your temper, too, if you found your household being violated that way. The fury that with you would beat with, she impales with. How else can anyone survive the northern war? You’ve seen the shattered ships, you’ve heard how legions have perished in thunder and smoke. You know how the Qunari slaughter without mercy.
So the Prefex killed them, but too late. They had finished draining her slaves in the fight, and the last flicker of life was too far gone to salvage.
Prefex Hawke acted out of a natural defense of one’s property and heritage. If you decide she did it out of misguided sympathy for slaves, out of some desire to overthrow the Imperium, you are wrong. She did not fight the Qunari so brutally for an Imperium she did not love, as I know you all love it...”
…And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you get a self-important jury of southern magisters to unanimously vote not guilty…
The silence of the nighttime Gallows was worse than the daytime noise, after all.
“I’m sorry the trial took so long,” Hawke was telling Tribune Stannard as they wandered through the fortress. Fenris followed like a ghost.
“It is no matter. Truthfully, we were not prepared for formalities.” The woman gave Hawke a careful, shrewd look. “And they would not have been to your taste, in any event.”
“True. Blood magic is a crutch that tends to grow out of hand. The easy path to power never ends well.”
The tribune stopped at a slave pen and peered inside. There was only dim torchlight to see by. The bodies within were piled up on each other, breathing deeply, together, a pulsating mass caught up in a sleeping spell; elf and human, male and female, placed together because of some common trait, stripped nearly naked, tagged and numbered with an iron collar. The great bronze slave statues on the pillars all around seemed to weep for them.
“Would you sympathize with a slave rebellion?” the tribune asked.
Hawke sighed. “What kind of answer do you expect to that? No, by the way.”
“You do not behave like any other magister.”
“So they tell me.” She spared an amused glance back at Fenris. Perhaps he was not such a ghost, after all.
“There are rumors. Of course, they are partly spread by the Magisters Orsino and Tahrone. Her purposes would have been legal, I suppose.”
“Political, as well. Orsino is just irritated I haven’t danced to his tune.” Hawke moved away from the pen. The tribune followed dutifully. Their footsteps echoed horribly in the enforced silence. “Why does this concern you?”
“My duty is to defend this city. To keep order. The magisters may bicker and kill each other as they please. But they may not lead a slave rebellion.” The tribune’s voice grew hard. “I know how to kill a mage.”
“You’re hunting Orsino’s boy, then.”
“When I have a lead.”
Fenris remembered the twisting ancient warrens beneath the sewers. He would bet she rarely had a lead.
He could betray the rebellion, he knew that. He could run again and join them, too. But he didn’t have the…courage to move from the fence he sat on. To go either way brought pain to many who deserved it, yes, but also to people he cared about.
Cared about. Like the Fog Warriors long ago.
It would not end like that, he decided, not for Hawke or Kalias or Varric or anyone else in the household he’d come to call…home?
“The hour is late, and I’ve been having a bad run of nightmares. I have paperwork and meetings tomorrow morning,” Hawke said, “I must take my leave in hopes of staying awake through them. I officially approve of your security measures. And your vigilance.”
"You haven’t toured the prison yet.” The tribune seemed shocked, in a bureaucratic way.
“I know it won’t be to my tastes, in a rather traditional sense. Perhaps consider that.” Hawke turned toward the gate. “Fenris.”
He moved to her side, happy to be leaving the heavy living silence. She slowed and slumped once they turned a corner.
“Are you tired?” Fenris asked. It was a stupid question; it had been a long day full of yammering magisters. Anyone would be tired.
She rubbed her eyes, then resumed her usual proud stride. “Not as badly as I have been. Just…not looking forward to going to sleep. Or dealing with Minrathous politics by letter.”
“Danarius is going to use this all somehow?”
“It was probably his plan, or at least Tahrone’s plan to get into his good graces. I should have killed the bastard.” She shook her head. “What I would do…well, I would have killed my rival. Except I didn’t. If I were another kind of mage, I would start sowing rumors of sympathy towards slave rebellion. It would make me look unfavorable to the Archon and his court. There’s nothing official that can be done now, thanks to Varric.” She rolled her eyes and grinned for a moment.
“Danarius hates you.”
“I almost killed him. It tends to have that effect.” The emerged from the Gallows onto the shoreward docks. The scent of the ocean hit Fenris hard, and he realized how prevalent the smell of rot and sewage had been inside. “Hadriana has vanished again.”
Fenris sneered. “It’s no surprise. She is a sniveling coward, though a clever one. She has some plan, but she will have to work herself up to going through with it.”
“You know, I miss slaying the dragon,” Hawke said, “It was relatively simple, and it was definitely honest.”
Fenris couldn’t help a slight smile. “Hadriana and Danarius will be the same, except easier to kill.”
She grinned at him, eyes seeming to glow in the moonlight. “I’m glad you’re here, Fenris. Come. Let’s go home. I bet Isabela’s drunk, but she can still steer us across, I’m sure.”
Hawke woke in a cold sweat.
This one had been worse than the others. They were camped much too close to Sundermount. The Veil was even thinner here than Kirkwall proper. Why on earth the wild elves would choose this place to stop she had no idea, but the scouts said this was where they were.
Three days of letters and reports had been enough for Hawke, so she had dug through garrison’s reports and found the most recent location of the nearest clan. The only clan, in fact, within a hundred miles of Kirkwall for several dozen years. They avoided the region. Something was wrong about the Vinmark Mountains, they said.
She looked up to the stars. It was a moonless night, and their group was too small. They’d added two of her guards to their little adventuring party, but the elves would have more warriors than that.
“Hawke.” Fenris’ voice sounded rough and half-asleep from nearby, the informality unthinking.
“You’ve had many of them, you said.”
“Reality is warped in Kirkwall. And worse, here.” A battle so terrible that almost nothing was recorded about it had occurred here, on the very ground where they slept. Her nightmare had been about that, this time, but all the dead and dying faces were familiar. Her belly had been torn open, guts hanging out, so much pain, yet she had kept walking through the battlefield. “It’s nothing I can’t handle. A child’s problem.”
“Most mage children I’ve met have been mad for a reason, then.” She heard him shift aside his blankets.
A twig snapped somewhere in the depths of the night.
Hawke heard the arrow rush by, heard it hit flesh with a wet thump. She seized her staff and flew to her feet, blankets tangling around her legs.
First, light. She threw a fireball at a tree and the deep dark night became a patchwork of black and dancing orange. Half-shadowed figures burst out of the brush, dropping bows and pulling out blades. She could still see archers leaning out of the trees, too bold in the night.
She flipped her staff around as she shook the blankets off and twisted aside, leaving an arrow to hit empty air. If she kept moving, they would have issues hitting her in the changing light with their night-adjusted eyes.
Fenris rushed past, glowing and unarmed. Aveline was cursing in some southern dialect behind her.
Second, now, archers. A ball of lighting grew on the red gem of her staff. She slammed the bladed end into the ground towards the archers.
The chain lightning ripped through them one after another. The smell of burning flesh filled the air. Most dropped from their perches. Others clung to the branches, their clothing smoking. One slumped still, hanging grotesquely like an abandoned doll.
She saw some of the melee warriors bolt from Fenris’ unarmed and bloody rampage, running back the way they came. Aveline had disentangled herself from her bedding and was giving chase.
Hawke advanced. Mages of the Tevinter legions did not rush, they did not hurry. There was only so many spells one could cast, no matter how powerful. Timing and target were key. Every step was a sure and steady calculation.
She whipped her blade across one warrior’s throat, nearly beheading him. A single fireball slammed into a trio standing too close together, leaving them screaming. Fenris bounded through, tearing their throats out casually before phasing through another’s belly and yanking out the slimy ropes of his intestines.
Something thrummed. A too hot and too dry wind filled the air.
A slender figure stood against the fire, one hand raised. Something glowed before it, growing and coalescing.
Hawke backed up, as did everyone else.
The shape solidified and darkened, standing and shaking as it surveyed the world around it. The figure shouted something. It looked down at the combatants and gave something that was maybe a grin.
This person—elf, they were all wild elves, she realized—had summoned a pride demon.
It roared and lunged forward, slow but powerful.
Something thrummed again, but it was a receding sort of noise, like the tide going out. The pride demon began to glow white, details lost, and began to collapse on itself, the reverse of how it had appeared.
A single figure, shorter than the summoner but just as slender, walked forward through the blood and smoke. The wild elves all froze.
As the person drew closer, Hawke saw an old, gray-haired elven woman, her face covered in delicate arching tattoos. She had forgotten the wild elves did that; the one they’d met at the Qunari fortress didn’t have any. This woman was another kind, though, her rustic clothes speaking to something old and foreign.
“Shemlen,” she said, “Why have you come to this place?”
Hawke maintained a fighting stance. The clans were led by mages, and not mere hedge-witches either. “You’ve been selling magic to the Qunari.”
The woman raised her eyebrows. She gestured backwards with one hand. The warriors began to fall back. One elf with wings around his eyes opened his mouth to protest, but a glance from her sent him on his way.
“I am Marethari, Keeper of this clan. You have killed some of my hunters.” She looked around. “Though not as many as you think. Merrill.”
The small summoner edged her way over. She was a slip of a thing, and young. Her facial tattoos resembled strange sets of antlers. She said nothing and kept her eyes downcast.
“Tend to the wounded,” Marethari ordered. She hadn’t even looked at the younger elf. “You are clearly a magister,” she continued to Hawke, “And you bear a strange curse. I do not know if I can be of aid.”
Hawke shook her head. “I am not here because of any supposed curse.”
“No.” She looked at the man Hawke had nearly beheaded and sighed. “We have dealings with the Qunari, this is true. It is a desperate act on our part. It is a…missionary act on theirs.”
“You’re selling them magic.”
“Healing potions.” The Keeper gave a bitter, tired smile. “Against the Imperium’s interests, but then, so are we.”
“Elemental magic, as well. Glyphs.”
“That is a gift from someone else.” Marethari eyed her for a moment, then looked to Fenris, then a hard-breathing Aveline. The freedwoman glared back in contempt as she made her way to her guards. One had been shot by the arrow, but seemed to be alive. “You are tired and one of your number is quite seriously wounded. Come to my camp and we shall speak.”
Hawke gave a short laugh. “Yes, you sent your hunters and a demon to kill us and now you’re going to offer us your glowing hospitality!”
The elf drew herself up to her full small height, indignant. “This ambush was no order of mine. There are too few of us to risk such a foolish venture. It was barely a dozen young men and women, too brash and hungry to think clearly.” She looked to Merrill. “As for the demon, that is another matter.”
The young elf cringed, but continued moving among the wounded. Several elves were materializing out of the darkness bearing litters to take them away.
Marethari moved past Hawke towards the wounded guard. Hawke watched her carefully as she knelt down slowly next to him and felt around the arrow. Aveline and her remaining guard looked over to the magister, who brushed her hand through the air at them to let the elf do as she will.
It wasn’t that she trusted the woman, exactly, it was that she saw how skinny and ragged her people looked. And a pride demon was too fine a weapon to sheath when you the advantage.
Marethari eased the arrow from the wound and placed her hands over it. The glow of a healing spell surrounded them, lasting several minutes. She drew back, standing shakily.
The Keeper was a very old woman in that moment, her grace and gravity gone. They returned before she came back to Hawke. “As you see, I am not interested in killing you or yours.”
Hawke nodded and relaxed, though she kept herself mentally on guard, ready to fight at a moment’s notice. “For the moment, yes.”
“A wise way to see it, shemlen, especially in these times. Come. We have much to speak of.” She extinguished the burning tree with a blast of ice that again left her shaking, and walked into the darkness.
Hawke looked back toward Aveline. She was helping her formerly injured guard to his feet. The man was amazed at the healed wound. “If you trust her,” Aveline said, clearly not trusting the Keeper, “I’ll clean up here.” She eyed the camp, such as it was. They hadn’t bothered with tents, so there blankets were all over, and it looked like the horses had run off. “If you’re not back by sunrise, Prefex, I’ll go ahead and slaughter the entire clan, if it’s fine by you.”
“Thank you, captain, more than fine. Fenris?”
He had moved to don his scattered armor. “I will come with you, mistress.”
He blinked slowly as he buckled on a gauntlet. “They’re starving to death. The clans train their hunters better than that from a very young age. They were too weak, too slow, and too stupid. And that demon terrified them even more than us. They didn’t plan on it. We can’t trust them very far, but at the moment…” He shrugged.
Hawke nodded and turned to follow Marethari. The elven mage was waiting for them, barely visible in the starlight. She led them silently towards Sundermount. The area quickly cleared of trees. Grass and spiky scrub brush were the only vegetation. This was the heart of the old battlefield. She could feel it. The Veil between the mortal world and the Fade was so ragged here as to be terrifyingly close to nonexistent.
The clan’s camp was right up against the base of Sundermount. Too close for comfort, by the way the sentries seemed to spook at any change in the wind. Marethari laid hands on their shoulders as they passed and spoke a few words in elvish. She checked briefly on the handful of wounded and then led Hawke and Fenris towards the smallest of the fires.
Fenris tugged on her elbow. She looked back and followed his gaze to the little summoner, Merrill, as she followed them.
Only fools summoned demons and tried to command them. Every apprentice knew stories of how a demon would turn you inside out on a whim, no matter how good a deal you think you’d cut with it.
Marethari kicked at the fire ring and the flames grew livelier. The wind whipped them back down like beaten dogs. She sighed. “As you can tell, we are having a difficult period.”
“So you trade with the Qunari.”
“I believe the Arishok finds it amusing. He knows we will turn to him when our need becomes great enough.”
“Why are you starving?” Fenris asked, “You could just leave.”
“Not in these circumstances.” She looked more closely at him. “Those are strange vallaslin, len.”
Fenris stiffened. “Do not mistake me for one of your own.”
Marethari frowned. “Indeed.” She turned out towards the darkness. “You may come over, Merrill.” The young elf stepped towards the fire. “This is my First, my apprentice, you would say.”
Hawke didn’t even look at her. “What do you wish to talk about, Marethari?”
“We need help. The Qunari will not give enough. It is a part of their plan, and I have no wish to follow it. My people must remember our traditions.”
“Because those traditions are turning out so well.”
Merrill opened her mouth, but Marethari quieted her with a look. “Think as you will. In return for your aid, I will give you information on the Qunari as I learn it.”
She was getting in the habit of making bargains with enemies of the Imperium. It did not sit well. “Nothing holds me to that. It’s within my power to order your clan slaughtered.”
“A waste of resources. It’s easier to let us starve. We will. The game does not like this area, and few edible plants grow here.”
“As my companion pointed out, then why stay? Why come at all? Everyone knows this place is cursed.”
The Keeper shut her eyes for a moment, and then opened them. “We came seeking knowledge of the past, as is the duty of every clan. A…mistake…has trapped us here. You have no right to know anything else.” She slumped, gazing into the fire. “We slaughtered our halla for food weeks ago. Please. I know who gave the Qunari their traps, and more besides. I will learn more. Please send us food.”
Merrill did not contain herself this time. “Nae, ma—”
The young elf screwed up her face in disgust but complied. “You can’t, Keeper! You know what happens when you work with them!”
“It is my choice to make, not yours. You have made enough choices for this clan already, Merrill.
“I…yes, but…I didn’t mean…”
“It doesn’t matter, da’len.” Marethari nodded to Hawke. “I give you what I know. There is a witch selling to the Qunari, one of your own kind.” Hawke cocked her head. If said witch was a viddithari, she would be dead as soon as the Arishok’s gift made it to the Archon. This had been pointless, and she was lucky one of her men wasn’t dead. She grit her teeth.
The Keeper continued. “She desecrated the images of our gods with the seal of Dumat.”
“What?” Hawke shouted.
“Well, at least that’s a normal sort of reaction,” Merrill said, “The one griffon rider just said ‘Of course she did’.”
“The Wardens were here?”
“Two,” said Marethari, “Investigating ancient places, as they do. They left quickly when they learned what happened to our gods.” Her eyes burned as she spoke of it.
This was all…disconcerting. The Wardens had warned her, but Dumat was long, long dead. Worship of him was illegal in the Imperium, as well as useless. What kind of madwoman would carve the seal of Dumat into statues of the elven gods, of all useless things?
Not viddithari, at any rate. The Qun was more pragmatic than that.
“My condolences,” Hawke muttered. She tapped her staff against her shoulder. “The Qunari are looking for something. If you can find out what it is…”
“They are tight-lipped. I can tell you of their training, supplies, and such things. And, please, send food.”
A forewarning of the Qunari’s plans would be welcome and worth a few wagons of supplies. “I will.”
“And I’ll make sure of it,” Merrill said.
“Do not ‘da’len’ me, Keeper,” Merrill said. She crossed her arms and looked Hawke in the eye. She had eyes as green and simple as a field of grass. “I’m going with you, magister, to make sure you give my clan food. And if you don’t, I’ll summon that spirit again right in your dining room.”
Marethari rubbed her temples. “Perhaps it’s for the best if you do take her, shemlen. She can act as translator for any messages I may send. Few here speak Tevinter. And her presence causes strife.”
The younger elf turned to speak, but shut her mouth.
“She summons demons.”
“She is also a capable healer.”
Hawke looked between the two elven women. She was going to end up with this girl, somehow, wasn’t she? Whatever trouble plagued the clan, she was the source of it. Her motives seemed straightforward enough, at least. “No demons.”
Merrill nodded. “If you come through on your promise.”
“I will.” She was grateful for her family’s very deep purse more than ever these days. “Now, I have to go find the horses your demon frightened off. If you’re coming, now would be the time.”
Marethari grabbed Merrill’s shoulder and kissed her on the forehead. “Dareth shiral, da’len.”
“Dareth shiral, hahren. Perhaps I will come back with whatever secrets they have kept hidden from us, and it will all get better.”
“Perhaps.” Marethari nodded a farewell to Hawke. “Should that curse grow too much to bear, I may be able to help.”
“There is no curse on me. Keep me informed on the Qunari.” Hawke led Fenris back towards Aveline and the guards, Merrill on their heels. The sky was just beginning to lighten.
They passed a battered statue of a woman, likely hundreds of years old. Someone had toppled it over and tried to roll it away. It had the dark, helmet-like symbol of Dumat carved deeply into it, over and over and over again.
Things just kept getting better.
1)I think Merrill is actually supposed to be the same age as Hawke in the game, but she seems so much younger in both Origins and DA2, so she is younger here.
2) Most wild elves don't speak anything but elvish; they have been exiles since the fall of Arlathan, even less integrated into society than the Dalish.
3) I always thought Marethari was a lot of a more survivalist bitch than it seemed at first. She would have killed Merrill or Mahariel for the clan without regret.
Suffering and killing and personhood were viewed very differently in classical/medieval societies than they are viewed now. I hope that comes across, otherwise this all seems quite heartless for no reason.
I wanted to thank everyone who is reading this. You keep me plugging away at it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Fenris,” Hawke said, “could you go get me Waters of the Fade from the library?”
“What?” he asked, stalling. He tapped the tips of his gauntlets against his empty potion decanter. Hawke had managed to make it less foul tasting. He still drank it like foul ale. Perhaps it had the same effect on his head.
She glared at him from her desk with impersonal irritation. “Waters of the Fade. Bethany needs a certain passage, and she can’t seem to find the silly book in the Archon’s humongous library. It should be a blue book, first level, ah, third shelf to the right of the door.”
He could not tell her that he was illiterate. He should, but he could not bring himself to do it. There might be a ban on slave literacy, but large households needed to get things done, and slaves who couldn’t read hindered that. So far as he could tell, he was the only illiterate in the manor. Legality was not one of Hawke’s main concerns in life. “Of course, mistress.”
Fenris headed down to the library, not quite sure what he was doing. Really, he should have stayed with Hawke. That was his duty, after all. He was her bodyguard.
A fire was burning in one of the hearths of the library, for some reason. A single chair had been pulled usually close to it. Unsafe and sloppy, not all like things usually were. That idiot wild elf at it again, probably. The amount of trouble she could cause in a week was baffling.
Kalias walked around a bookshelf, arms full of books. “Fenris,” he said by way of greeting.
A tall blond man leapt out from the chair. “Finally!” The abomination. No wonder the chair had been facing away from the door.
The rebel mage snatched the books from Kalias and began flipping through them, somehow managing not to put any of them down.
“Kalias,” Fenris growled, “What is it doing here?”
“’It’ has a name, you know. And a gender. And feelings.”
Fenris disregarded the comment. “This is a very bad idea.”
“Anders is safe enough here,” the old elf said.
“I disagree.” Fenris turned toward the man in question so he could tear his throat out. Anders narrowed his eyes and lifted a hand, ready to cast a spell.
“Fenris?” Hawke called from the hall.
The trio froze. Kalias shoved the abomination behind a bookshelf. Hawke entered the room, looking unusually soft in the firelight, dressed in breezy silk robes. “I realized something,” she said, walking over to a bookshelf not too far from the door. She ran her fingers over few spines and pulled out a blue book. “You don’t know how to read do you?”
He blinked. “I…no, mistress.”
She shot him an annoyed glance. “Not now with that.” She shifted the book from hand to hand. “Would you like to learn? Not with this stupid thing. Something more entertaining.”
He nodded. She smiled, not her killing grin or her wry smirk, but a smile like you might imagine on a woman not known for warfare. “Well, then. I have just the thing, and I need a break.” She gestured to the hall and headed back towards her study.
“That was the Prefex?” the abomination asked, poking his head out, “Teaching a slave to read?”
Something in his tone irritated Fenris to an irrational degree. “Get him out of here, Kalias. No good will come of it.” He headed after Hawke.
She was waiting for him in her study, smiling fondly at a worn green book. “This was my mother’s,” she said, “An old silly, story. Cincinnatus Corvus, the story of Cincinnatus Corvus, a ridiculous ancient hero from the days before the Imperium. A man an awful lot like my father.”
“You don’t need to do this.”
“What is it with you and need?” she asked, dropping into one of the luxuriant chairs. She gestured to the one beside her. “I’ve argued the practicality of my actions enough for several days; now I do something because I feel like it. No justifications.”
He sat, feeling awkward. He was not going to do well at this. Reading looked to require a patience he didn’t have. It was arcane as any mage’s art, and also highly illegal on Hawke’s part.
She opened the book and handed it to him. “You recognize some words, don’t you?”
What must have been the title of book stared at him, alone on a brittle yellowed page. “Very few,” he said, “Archon. Tevinter.” He gave a short bitter laugh at old memories and himself. “Words from monuments and banners in Minrathous. I recognize the way they look.”
“Not the best way to learn, but clever. Not a lot of slaves figure that out on their own.” She flipped the page delicately for him. “So, we begin at the beginning.”
The alphabet was not complex on its own; symbols and sounds made sense, like a certain stance meant your sword would hit a certain way. In theory, at any rate. Stringing the letters together was more complex, especially when they did not sound like they should.
Hawke snorted when he growled at this fact and almost tore the book in half out of frustration. She took it gently from his hands. “Language is about as logical as the people who speak it. Which is to say, not very. “
He flexed his gauntleted hands. “We did not get through the first page. Through the first…paragraph.” Or first three sentences.
“All things in time.” She set the book aside on her desk. “Thank you, Fenris.”
He stared, not understanding. “You are teaching me.”
“It’s good to do something not caught up in this city.” She smoothed her hair back. “The game is hard. There’s no compassion or stopping. Survival and ambition are the same thing; failure and death are identical.” The vibrant blue eyes stared at the study’s fire. “Thank you. We’ll finish this.”
Fenris watched her. She was something out of another life right then; not simply a different kind of magister, but a different kind of person entirely, as alien as anything out of the Fade. He thought…stupid.
“How was your father like Cincinnatus Corvus?” Not that Fenris knew anything about the ancient hero; they hadn’t even covered the man being born yet, mostly just his father’s name, profession, and renown. But it was something to say to her.
“That would be spoiling the story.”
Fenris shrugged. “Varric tells the end all the time.”
Hawke threw her head back and laughed. She shook her head and rubbed her temples. “I’m avoiding sleep. Very well. He dies, in the end, like all men do. Does that give enough of a hint for you?”
“No. Surrounded by his loving family and friends and slaves, on the sweet laurels of victory, under the springtime boughs and the evening star.” She grinned like a child. “It’s a rather dramatic old tale. Beats Varric at his worst.”
What else was there to say? He searched for something that would stretch this soft moment out longer. He was the bloodied blade and branded flesh, and so could find nothing.
Hawke was a magister, and so could not even try. She stood and stretched, back cracking. “And the years tell. Another dawn of paperwork and meetings tomorrow—Orsino has an audience, I think—so we should both rest. I’m half tempted to see you pull out his belly and find out if it’s nearly as yellow as I think. Or do it myself.”
Fenris stood and found himself bowing. It seemed appropriate. “Thank you again, mistress.”
“Please don’t do that right now.”
He followed her silently to her chambers and his nearby room. She nodded to Aveline’s guardsmen at her door and paused for a moment before opening it.
Fenris supposed there was no mercy in this life for anyone.
Hawke lay staring at the image of Lusacan on her bed’s canopy. Urthemiel danced on the headboard behind her. The gods were carved lovingly, always, even beautifully, but there was little of comfort in their powerful draconic shapes. None of her prayers had eased her nightmares.
They were worse, and growing ever more incoherent. She could feel the demons circling. If she couldn’t repel them, if she couldn’t conquer this child’s problem, the gods would indeed abandon her in all ways. They wanted strength. The weak were not worth their time. They brought no glory. There was no god of the defeated or downtrodden.
This was too much. She needed rest.
Fenris had been gift. He set her at ease, these days, though why was never clear. He had killed mages, slain those who had tried to imprison him.
He was outside it all. Kalias, Aveline, Varric, and even Isabela saw her as Prefex Hawke, their mistress or Prefex, or at least an entertaining time. Fenris didn’t live in that world.
Hawke rolled out of bed, unwilling to face the nightmares right now. She padded along the rich carpets and out the door, where the floor became cold stone. Her dutiful guards glanced at her, alert and awake, but did nothing else.
Impulse guided her four steps over to Fenris’…closet. She opened the door and leaned in the doorway. The dim light of the hallway caught his white hair and made it stand out. His markings glowed dimly in her sight and in her general awareness. He claimed the pain had lessened from them, but that might have been slave’s humility.
He had woken when she opened the door, she knew—she was a soldier, she knew how it worked—but he hid it. Slave’s humility.
She stood there, simply not being this thing that she was, and then returned to her bed to face the nightmares.
1)Cincinnatus Corvus is a blend of the old Roman heroes, um, Cincinnatus and Corvus.
2)Fluffiness. I feel silly.
Hawke was no stranger to waking early, but being jostled out of a fitful sleep is never a fun experience.
Green, elven eyes stared at her from the semi-darkness that came before dawn.
Unfortunately, it was the wrong shade of green and the wrong elf. She blinked the thought away. Perhaps she should add some…events…to her life…
“What,” she growled, “do you want, Merrill?”
“It’s your dwarf.” Her eyes were wider than usual, and her voice trembled. “There’s…it’s a lot of blood.”
Hawke almost jumped out of bed. “What happened?”
“I found him in the kitchen, all cut up and—”
Hawke was out the door before she could finish, wearing only her sleeping tunic.
Her guard had been tripled, and four of them broke off to follow her, smart enough to be silent. She marched through the dim, silent corridors, noting grim this old architecture could be.
The kitchen was humming with quiet activity, though not the usual kind. A good fourth of the guard seemed to be crowded around one corner. They created a path for Hawke as she approached.
One of the guard mages was crouched over a small, bloodied body. Varric. Hawke’s blood burned, only cooling a little as she heard the gasping breaths.
Aveline looked up from the scene. “Prefex,” she said, “One of the kitchen slaves just found him like this.”
The mage was sweating buckets. He held his hands steady above a deep cut across Varric’s back, the blue glow of a healing spell steady but dimmer than it should be. He glanced up at her. “Dwarves are harder to heal, Prefex. They resist all kinds of magic.”
She nodded. “Keep at it.” She grabbed the nearest guardsman. “Go get some lyrium potions. Lots of them.”
Hawke crouched down, close enough to look at her poor friend but out of the way of the guard mage’s work. Aveline followed suit.
“A lot of blood,” the freedwoman said, “But nothing that would have been instantly lethal. Or even lethal long term.”
The magister nodded in agreement. She would have helped the mage, but multiple healing spells going at once would have distracted him. Her steadily fraying temper wouldn’t have let her focus on it very well, either. She forced herself calm. “Just all together they left him bleeding out. He put up a fight.”
Kalias forged his way through the largely useless circle of guards. “One of the chests in the vault has been cleared out,” he said. Hawke looked up from Varric, blue eyes narrowing. The old elf glared around at the guards. “What are you all doing here? Go be useful and do your job!”
The guards just blinked at him. Kalias was largely respected, and for all intents and purposes outranked them, but he was a slave.
Aveline stood and reinforced the order. “You heard him. Go secure the manor! See if whoever did this is still here.”
There was a bustle of activity and most of the guardsmen vacated the kitchen. Hawke continued to watch the healer work, her hackles rising. Several slaves brought baskets full of lyrium potions for the mage. He downed one and continued.
“We found his crossbow along the wall,” one of the remaining guards told Aveline, “Some blood on it, like he’d used it to hit someone.”
Hawke stood and turned to the speaker, holding out her hands. He handed her the weapon, not as gently as he really should. Varric…Hawke cradled the thing carefully and examined the smears of blood. Familiar, somehow…she lifted a hand and cast an analysis spell.
She snarled and handed the crossbow back to the guard, the last peaceful thing she would be doing today. Or for a long time, probably. “Take care of that,” she ordered, “Aveline, call off the search. You won’t find her here.” She looked down at Varric. The wounds were largely closed. He wasn’t likely to bleed out and the mage was more or less just cleaning things up. “Make sure there’s nothing in his wounds. There was probably poison on the blades.” The mage nodded.
“Who is it? “Aveline asked.
Hawke turned on heel and headed for her room. “I need to go get Isabela’s phylactery.”
This was uncomfortably close to blood magic, but Hawke had put aside her reservations long ago. The art of phylacteries was ancient and useful. Blood was used but it wasn’t consumed. It was a tool, like a staff.
She stared at the map on her table, one finger touching the phylactery. The thin trail of light pointed south and west along the map, fading not too far outside of Kirkwall. This wasn’t really the best technique. She needed to find a horse and find the pirate bitch herself.
Fenris shifted audibly behind her. Hawke stood and rubbed her temples. “She’s probably headed for some pirate’s nest along the coast.” What a stupid move, Isabela. “She’ll be prepared when we find her.”
“You intend to track her, then.”
“I will, and when I find her, she will regret ever being born, that Rivani whore.”
Aveline stuck her head in. “Varric’s awake.”
“He probably shouldn’t stay that way for long.” Hawke turned and sharply gestured for Fenris to follow her to one of the guest rooms. Everything felt tight inside, ready to snap. Betrayal…Isabela would suffer.
Varric was sitting in the midst of piles of cushions, looking more like a king than an invalid. A handful of cooing female slaves, ages ranging all over the place, fled back to their duties as Hawke entered. She registered this ridiculousness somewhere but found it useless information.
The dwarf nodded to her, but most of his attention was on the mage near the fireplace, brewing something. “I hate this crap,” Varric told her. Exhaustion tinged his voice.
“Mutual. What happened?”
He sighed and looked away from mage. “I won my bet with Isabela.” He poked at his bared chest, where the skin was still raw despite the healing. “Not that she kept her end.”
Hawke started. “You found it?”
“Boy, did I ever. It’s a book. I don’t know why the Qunari would care so much about it, but whatever. They actually found it first—Darktown black market, some trash picker got lucky somewhere.” He looked smug for a moment. “But I got some friends of mine to snag it right as they paid. Random violence in the slums, who could imagine that?” He poked his chest again, grimacing. “I brought it back up here this morning, but ran into Isabela in the kitchens when I went to grab a snack. You know the rest from there.” He shook his head and made a noise of disgust. “Knew I should have stuck to business first, stomach later.”
“She fled the city.”
“But you’ve got her phylactery, so that’s a stupid move.”
Fenris spoke up. “Isabela’s not stupid. She knows you can hunt her down. She has some sort of plan.”
Varric’s eyelids drooped. “I’m with the elf.”
Hawke shrugged. “She can barricade herself behind every pirate armada ever to sail the Waking Sea. It won’t save her.”
“Trick your magic,” Varric said.
“You can’t do that,” Hawke and the nearby mage said together. Hawke shot the young man a glance and he made himself small. She continued. “If it could be done, it would have been widely known long ago. Phylacteries are ancient and common. Everyone from gang leaders to the Archon himself uses them to ensure people keep their debts. If there was a way to hide, it would have been found and it would have been used.”
Fenris shook his head. “She knows, mistress, and she will do something.”
“And what, exactly, do you think she can do to me?”
“You are not invincible.”
“Her resources are limited, and I doubt she can call a High Dragon down on my head.” Hawke snorted at the mental image. “I can handle whatever her shady little connections can throw at me.”
“If the Qunari want that book that badly, it may not be pirates alone we face.”
Hawke slashed a hand through the air, nearly smacking Fenris in the chest. Somewhere between one word and the next, they had come to stand face to face. “I have slaughtered armies. A defiler of my household who can’t even steal her own prize? Not a problem.”
“Kids,” Varric interrupted, yawning, “Go get a room. And by room, I mean another room.”
Hawke blinked and shook it off. Her temper was getting the better of her, she knew it, but Isabela. “Rest, Varric.” She left the room, Fenris following still. He didn’t say anything.
She should probably discipline him for the insubordination, but he wasn’t wro...but she had other things to do.
She found Kalias hovering in the hallway, which saved her the effort of finding him. “Horses,” she stated, glancing at Fenris, who bowed his head. Acquiescence or obedience? Gods, she didn’t actually care.
The old elf blinked in bewilderment. “You’re going to track her? Yourself?”
No use in bringing Aveline, or anyone else. They needed to leave now. “Isabela’s my vassal.”
“It could be weeks!”
Hawke doubted that. Isabela would find a way to go to ground as soon as she could, try to sell off the book. If the Qunari and Hawke wanted it, it made her a hunted woman, and was possibly more of a risk than a reward. “I’ll try to be quick.”
“Prefex, you have duties here. The Qunari are as good as camped outside our gate. Some are even in the city. And you are the one they have the pact with, not Kirkwall, not the Imperium.”
Hawke headed back to her rooms. Armor, staff, knife, cloak…she mentally rattled off a list of what she would need. “Horses and supplies, Kalias. You know how to cover in my absence. Razikale knows you do it in my presence.”
She heard Kalias stop, and then turn to do her bidding with a heavy tread.
A week out from Kirkwall, Hawke and Fenris had tracked Isabela’s phylactery to a pirate hideaway that did a very bad job at disguising itself as a fishing village.
It had been a quiet and hurried trip. Fenris kept waiting for the hammer to fall. His impudence must be punished. Even if it was the right thing to say. He had a sinking feeling about this.
But Hawke’s temper made her single-minded. Isabela would likely die for her treachery. Slowly.
Hawke would suffer for it, too. Some trap, some trickery, another act of bloody treachery…
The pirates paid little attention to Hawke as she made her way through their muddy streets. The place reeked of cheap alcohol and rotting heaps of trash. It wouldn’t last many more years before some Magister was tasked to burn it clean, but it would be rebuilt much the same as it was before. The world was repetitive place.
Hawke followed the phylactery towards the ramshackle docks, stiffening as they approached. If Isabela had taken to sea, this would become a very unpleasant trip.
The phylactery led them into a narrow alleyway. Fenris watched rats and other vermin scurry at their approach. Hawke seemed ready to snap, her eyes forward and locked on the glowing vial of blood.
They halted at a shattered door. “Not a ship,” Hawke grunted and moved cautiously in, her staff raised like a spear ahead of her.
She turned in a circle before deciding on a direction. Staff poised, blade out—Isabela would not be struck by magic first—she flung open a door.
To reveal a pool of blood, a small sharp knife in the midst of it.
The whole room was splattered in blood. There was nothing else, just blood. The smell of it was heavy in the air and fresh.
Hawke knelt down, a hand extended over the dagger. “Isabela. All of it.”
“With this much lost, she should be…” Hawke held up the phylactery, frowning. She tapped her staff against it and headed out of the room. The glow was still strong, but it intensified marginally when Hawke turned southeast, towards the sea. “Damn.” Hawke dropped her hand to her side. “Clever bitch.”
“She tricked it?” Fenris looked back at the bloodied room. “She should be dead. No one can lose that much blood and live.”
“If they have a healer with them, they might pull it off.” The magister slumped against her staff. “You were right. She had something up her sleeve.”
It was cold comfort. Isabela must be punished, he agreed, but chasing her out to sea was an unpleasant prospect. Not even pirates could truly claim the sea, and Fenris had always found ships unsettling.
Hawke dropped the phylactery and rubbed her hand across her face. “This is going to be difficult.”
“It already was.”
Feet pounded in the alley outside. They paused at the door, ran on, came back, paused again.
Fenris and Hawke looked to the doorway to see Merrill peering in, looking much worse for wear. She looked thinner, if possible, and dirty. Her chest heaved. Her arms were marred with fresh cuts. “Merrill,” Hawke said, “What are you doing here?”
“Something very bad has happened.”
Another elf walked to her side, looking equally dirty. One of her clan. “The Keeper sent one of her hunters,” Merrill said, nodding at the elf, “Just after you left he got back, and…and the Qunari are marching for Kirkwall. We killed a horse getting to you and so I got a demon to inhabit the body and I don’t know if we’ll back in time and the clan might be dead because some the Qunari headed after them too and it was seven days ago…”
Hawke stood frozen and wide-eyed for an instant. Her grip around her staff was white. “Kirkwall,” she ordered, voice tight, and ran out the doorway, the rest of them on her heels.
Not dead. Occasionally wished I was. In the end, however, I was substantially promoted.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Finally,” Aveline said as Hawke slipped off her horse. Well, not her horse. She’d had to bully five sets of horses out of people they’d run across, switching them for their half-dead steeds. They made a week's journey in four days, and these particular animals were not going to last long. Merrill’s reeking possessed corpse of a steed dropped like a rock nearby.
“I was out at the coast. Pointlessly.” She leaned on her staff, sore. Days and nights in the saddle left her legs and back hurting. “What happened?”
Aveline had always been good at a surprisingly passive aggressive form of hostility. She exuded that aura now, not quite facing Hawke as she spoke. “They came from outside. We could have held them, but the gates were opened from within. Swarmed by rebelling slaves.”
While the cat’s away…she should have known better. And everyone else knew it. “The magisters should have been able to handle it.”
“When the fires started in the forge district, they decided to hide themselves in their estates. Still there, as far as I know.” Aveline barred her teeth. “Not for long, though I’m sure of that. Cowards. Tribune Stannard is holding the Gallows with most of her men—we’ve been able to sneak a few letters in and out—but she refuses to make a move.”
“Wise. Losing the slave pens there would only make it worse.”
Aveline grunted. “The Qunari drew the chains across the harbor. Sooner or later, we’ll lose the Gallows.”
“Sooner.” She gripped her staff tighter. “Where is everyone?”
“Varric got most of the household out through some secret passages he knows. My men fought our way to the walls.” Her frown turned more sorrowful than stern, and she rubbed a hand across her face. “Kalias wasn’t with either group.” She sighed and shook her head. “You shouldn’t have left. We couldn’t handle it from the start. Everyone figured out you were gone soon enough. The magisters didn’t respect us, and began going to each other’s throats with no regard for common sense.”
Kalias…guilt…no, time to get her priorities in order. Hawke could see the smoke billowing over the horizon, but not the city. She moved past Aveline and clambered gracelessly up a small rock outcropping. The city was miles away, its most prominent features obvious to her familiar eye.
The sight was utterly surreal. Every great gate was hanging open on its hinges. The smoke was rising from several parts of the city, the fires consuming wood and scorching stone. Some were slowly going out.
Stretching obscenely high above Hightown—the part that wasn’t burning, anyway—was a blue-violet shield. She should see a section or two flash every few moments. Someone was testing it.
She couldn’t see the Gallows from here. Hopefully it had a shield as well, but Hawke doubted it. If the Tribune was smart, she’d have every slave under a sleep spell, which meant her mages would be stretched thin.
“Do you have any idea what exactly the Qunari are doing?” she asked.
Aveline shrugged with a clank of plate mail. “Convert or kill. I assume it’s the same as their usual methods in the north, but Kirkwall is larger than anything they’ve conquered in a hundred years.” The dim tone of accusation in her words hurt, but Hawke had priorities.
She was going to get her city back, reeking place that it was.
“Send scouts in. Alone. Give them a day to find out what they can.” They couldn’t afford more time. “Make sure people know I’ve returned. I want an evaluation of the forces we have available in two hours.” She down at what was essentially a refugee camp. “And get this place in order. We’re going to retake a city, not scurry off to Starkhaven with our tails between our legs. Not of this ragged misery.”
She turned away from the city and headed down the trail. “Someone set up a commander’s tent. That’s where I’ll be.”
Hawke was studying the force evaluation she requested when the sounds of a scuffle interrupted her. Aveline shoved her way into the tent, every step furious. Behind her, three of her guards pushed and dragged a dirty, struggling figure in. Hawke glared over the paper.
“We found something.” She reached and grabbed the struggling person from her men, yanking off the sack over their head.
Hawke’s eyes narrowed and she put down the evaluation. “Isabela.”
Aveline had the pirate by the hair. She slammed her face down into the desk, looking right at Hawke. “Long time, no see, Prefex,” Isabela managed. Aveline audibly stomped on her foot, causing her to wince in pain. Fenris, silent and still at Hawke's shoulder, laid a hand on his sword.
Hawke remained motionless. “Yes.”
“We found her sneaking away from the city,” Aveline said, “She was limping badly. Nasty cut on her leg, infected. I had one of my mages fix her up.” It hadn’t been out of kindness. Pain made one numb after time, and Hawke wanted Isabela to feel this in full.
Hawke nodded. “So you were in the city this whole time?” She was a fool. There had been no point to leaving, after all.
“No. I was out at the coast. You were on my tail, actually.” She shifted under Aveline's grip, but it just tightened. “Pulled that trick with bleeding myself. Nearly killed me. Used up a favor with a captain of one of the ships in port, but he stabbed me in the back. Sold me out to the Qunari on the coast. They dragged me here in chains—reeducation plans— but their locks are cheap.”
Hawke pulled out the knife at her belt and played with it, reflecting the afternoon sunlight all over the tent, often right in the pirate’s eyes. “Why did you betray me?”
“I stole what the book first, when it was being moved over the sea. Should have killed everyone on that ship. I had a few buyers on the line, but I had to run south as they tracked me. They destroyed my ship. Lost the damn book, but it got picked up by some scavengers.”
“And you tracked it down to my doorstep.”
“Yes. And I needed refuge. The Qunari wrecked nearby. If they found me…well, I told you about the chains.”
“Varric found the book first, so you felt the need to almost kill him to get it.”
“Nothing else was working.” Aveline yanked on her hair, prompting a hiss of pain. “You’re going to kill me now, then?”
“Eventually.” She jerked her head at the three guards and they left. “There is no honor among thieves.”
Aveline scoffed. “I thought you knew that.”
Hawke shrugged. “In theory, but the reality bit unexpectedly hard.” She put her knife away. “Hamstring her.”
Aveline threw Isabela down, hard and drew her sword. Fenris drew his own blade and moved around the desk. The pirate didn’t bother trying to get up and run. It was strange, to see the cocky bitch filthy and defeated. To her credit, she wasn’t shaking. Probably still trying to figure a way out of this.
“Don’t you want to know how I got out of the city? The Qunari have it locked down, but I got out. Which means you can get in.”
Aveline looked at Hawke, blade ready. “She can still talk if she can’t walk.”
“Yes, but then she won’t.”
“She’ll lie. She can do that.” Hawke knew that because she’d seen her do it when they met, the bitch. Hawke stood and pressed her foot against Isabela’s back. “You will suffer for what you did, make no mistake. No one betrays me and gets away with it. I used your freedom to my advantage, but that apparently is no longer useful. There are much shorter leashes than a phylactery.” She pressed down harder. “For now, you’ll be caged and unmolested and the most important thing to you, you selfish disgusting slut, you’ll live.” She kicked her onto her back. “Tell me, in detail, how you got out of the city. And it better be true, because I am going to make sure you die very slowly if it isn’t.”
Isabela looked at her, face as neutral as it ever was. “There is an entrance to the sewers…”
1) Culture informs a lot of what disturbs us-- Aveline in this universe has no issues with torture, though she might in the game world. Ancient Roman/Tevinter values are much more brutal than Judeo-Christian/Andrastean ones. It was a much harsher world.
Being at the head of column of troops in a narrow space was an unnerving experience. Hawke felt out of control, locked in place by the tramping of armored boots and adrenaline behind her, unable to stop or maneuver.
One of the scouts bounced out of the stinking shadows and was gutted. “Ahead. Not Qunari.”
Fenris pulled his sword from his back. Hawke nodded in agreement and readied her staff. “No horns, you mean.” Aveline signaled the column to slow and prepare for a fight, but not to stop. Haste would be better friend here than caution.
Torches came rushing towards them. It was only a handful. Hawke flicked her staff back, the red stone glowing dimly.
Hawke nearly stopped in her tracks. A quick halt signal was all that kept her from being trampled. “Kalias?” She killed her spell.
The old elf nearly dropped his torch as leapt over to her, bare feet splashing through some nameless sludge. “We thought it might be you outside the gates.” He stopped short of embracing her. “This…this all went terribly wrong. Please forgive me.”
Hawke shook her head. “It wasn’t your fault, Kalias. I asked you to take a responsibility that was mine, and mine alone, while I ran off because I lost my temper.”
Kalias shook his head so violently it seemed like he might snap his neck. He was trembling all over. His usual steward’s tunic was dirty and ragged. “You don’t understand. The slave rebellion…Maker have mercy, I was one of its leaders!”
Hawke stared in shock. There was no time for this, but… “Kalias. But…Kalias.”
“Not everyone is you or yours, mistress. We merely…” He looked so old. “It’s not important anymore. We have failed worse than we had ever thought. I had hoped…I tried to…make a move, more peaceful than we thought possible, but then the Qunari came and an alliance was made and they betrayed us and now…so many are dead, so many people who trusted me are dead. Andraste…”
“Kalias.” She reached her free hand to his temple. “Kalias.”
This was her father’s man. This was a member of her household, one of the people she trusted most. How could he have done this?
And knowing, knowing full damn well, that not every slaveholder was of her father’s house, how could she hate him for it? She needed to, duty demanded it.
She shut her eyes. Breathed. What a broken world.
She opened her eyes. Broken as it may be, she would forge her own path in it.
For now, they needed to remove the Qunari. The rest would follow.
“Sometimes, those who follow us die, Kalias,” she told him, “Those who remain need to help me get the Qunari out of this city.”
"There aren’t many of us,” a new voice interjected. Hawke looked up to where the pale blue light of an archaic staff lit a blond man’s face. “A lot gave into the Qunari. Some are definitely on their side. Most of the rest are dead.”
A mage on the side of a slave rebellion. Not some hedge mage, either, by the look of him, but a properly trained member of the Imperium. “Who are you?”
"Someone to avoid,” Fenris growled, eyeing the man with weary ferocity.
"Anders. Orsino’s former apprentice that you may have heard about.” She probably had, somewhere along the line. “There’s not much the slaves can do.”
“We only have ‘not much’.” Hawke looked upwards at the dark ceiling. “I need a distraction.” He cocked his head attentively, a surprisingly feline gesture, somehow. “Take who you can, rally those who will listen, and attack the main gates on my signal.”
Kalias answered this time, mostly normal but still so old. “The usual, Prefex?”
She half-smirked at old memories. “Yes. It’s dramatic enough to scare off the Qunari. The Gallows will be the focus, since that’s where we’re headed. Wait for my signal,” she told Anders, “This is not going to be easy, but if we can draw their forces off, it will be more possible.” There weren’t that many Qunari. That was probably the only reason she was trying this strategy.
Kalias nodded and grabbed Anders’ arm. “We’ll be ready, I swear it.” They fled back into the shadows, the handful of torches bobbing up and down.
“Varric,” Hawke said, looking down to the dwarf, “Are we on the right track?”
Varric obligingly tugged on the chain he was holding. Isabela, on the other end, let out a muffled sound of pain and pointed her bound hands straight ahead.
Hawke nodded and signaled for the troops to move forward. Hopefully Tribune Stannard wouldn’t try to kill them on sight when they popped up in the Gallows. Hopefully the slaves would attack at her signal. Hopefully, hopefully.
She steeled herself and forced certainty.
“It has been a strange morning,” the Tribune commented.
Hawke had nothing to add to that. She kept climbing the tower’s stairs.
“Do you really trust the slaves to follow through?”
Did she? She had trusted Kalias dearly, but what he’d been involved in made that far beyond difficult. “It’s a measure to make things that much easier.” It was a measure to save lives and probably grant them victory. “It will be more difficult if they don’t follow orders.” It might be the end of them.
The half-truths soothed the blonde woman, as much as was possible, at any rate. “Would that we could trust Orsino and his people as much,” she growled.
Hawke smiled without humor. “Yes, Orsino will not be popping up from the floor in the midst of your meeting. You won’t get to hold a blade to his throat, I’m afraid.” That had been disconcerting. Hawke had rarely found herself at that much of a disadvantage to a fully human opponent.
They reached the door at the end of the stairs. The Tribune quickly unlocked and let Hawke take the first steps outside.
The Gallows was large, but far from the tallest building the Imperium had ever built. Still, its commanding view of the city was impressive and perfect for her purposes. She could see the Qunari camped outside the bay facing gate, various captured ships in the water beyond. Hawke stretched her back and arms out, feeling for the edges of power. “Go back downstairs. Rally your men. Prepare to attack.”
“Prefex, this is not the safest pla…”
“Don’t mistake me for anything less than I am, Tribune.” She held her staff before her, its bladed end grounded in the mortar between stones. “And please tell Fenris the same.” His thinking had been a more personal version of the Tribune’s. She knew it, even though he hadn’t said a word, just impassively checked his armor and sword.
That started yet another line of thought for another day.
Hawke seized the edges she’d grasped earlier as the Tribune closed the door behind her. Power thrummed through her body. She shifted as much as she could to her ancient staff. The lyrium-etched runes in the metal began to glow, and then started to blaze. The red stone at the staff’s top emitted a steady glow that began to dance in its depths, older and unstructured magics burning inside.
In terms of power and skill, to call a lightning bolt forth from your staff or body is one thing. To summon a very low and localized storm of them is more similar than you might think. To pull lightning from the clear blue sky, on the other hand, is something else altogether.
Hawke breathed deeply. It was struggle; the weight of energy she was drawing from the Fade was terrible. She shoved it into the enchantments on her armor.
Demons slid around her, called up close to the Veil by her own power and Kirkwall’s own bizarre nature. They would have struck if they thought they had half a chance, but she knew her craft. Let them take some fool weakling apprentice. They could not take her.
She lifted her eyes. Her blood was on fire. Her eyes were glowing so much it interfered with her vision.
Wordless, she forced her will upon the sky.
Out of the clear morning blue, a single column of bright lightning came crashing down upon her.
It seared away her vision. The almighty crash was beyond sound, filling her ears. She could feel the energy crackling across her skin, desperately wanting to burn.
And then it was gone.
Hawke leaned against her staff for a moment. She’d figured that trick out a long time ago, during a pirate attack on her father’s vessel, and it had never gotten any easier. It left her shaky and too weak. She wouldn’t have tried it if she wasn’t sure there was lyrium nearby.
She heard the portcullis below lift. The Qunari outside, already calling the alarm, let loose their battle cries.
Qunari die too hard.
Fenris had wedged his blade through one truly massive brute's middle somehow, and his foe was still going. He had killed one of the mages already, crushed the woman's jugular, and was making for another.
Fenris gave chase, markings flaring. His head still ached from when the Qunari had thrown him away. All around him, a tight battle whirled, opponents locked together in close confines. He dodged around the foes, occasionally reaching out to throw an eyeball from a horned head or dislodge intestines when the Qunari got too close.
The impaled Qunari had cornered his mage quarry near the gates, pressing him close to the stone, pointed staff stuck stubbornly outward in defense. He was too worn out to mount a serious magical defense. Fenris slipped under a sweeping axe and reached forward.
He grabbed the edges of his sword still stuck within the Qunari. The horned warrior felt the intrusion and shouted in alarm, trying to turn.
Too late. Fenris tugged experimentally once, then half sprinted, half fell left, clutching the sword like a lifeline. It tore wetly loose.
Shaking blood from his eyes, Fenris flipped his sword neatly free of the gore. The mage was already gone.
He scanned the battlefield. They were winning, pushing the Qunari back towards the sea from the confined landing. The Qunari force had not been huge in the first place, and large numbers had diverted away to the gate, likely on the assumption that Hawke's distraction was the main assault.
Speaking of which, where was she? He couldn't see her anywhere. She should be here.
He knew that lightning bolt would be a mistake.
Something set the lyrium in his skin thrumming unpleasantly. He turned toward the apparent source, frowning. Not like her, to send bring a sensation like...that. He shifted his shoulders uncomfortably.
Sloshing from the dock, a hulking masked figure gave a pained roar and advanced, hands raised and glowing.
A Qunari mage. Had it swam here? It stomped forward awkwardly, gurgling incoherently behind the mask, a sea monster out of a nightmare.
Fenris raised his blade and backed out of its field of vision. Qunari mages had nothing on the likes of Hawke or other magisters, but their magic was different, mad and savage and blunt. The Qunari detested them, even as weapons of war. They were last ditch efforts with no stamina or finesse whatsoever, formidable if one was unprepared...or in close confines.
The mages, all dozen or so of them, scattered as best they could, throwing up wide shields over themselves and the soldiers. The monstrosity shot a bolt of light out of one hand that dissolved one shield as if it were made of mist.
The Tevinter military knew the power of magic on the battlefield. They held back, trying to stay under their mages' shields. Several dozen shot arrows at the Qunari, but it threw up its own shield, an opaque bubble. The arrows bounced off harmlessly. It roared and let loose a jet of flame, setting the mages' defenses flickering.
Fenris continued to move around it, close to the wall. He knew how to handle such as this. It would respond to any threat it could see, but the mask limited its sight severely. It had no peripheral vision. All he had to do was get around it.
When he placed to its rear right, he readied for a charge, blade held up for a swing, markings glowing. Snarling silently, Fenris lunged-
And was met with the featureless shield.
Damn, it had sensed him!
The shield dropped. The Qunari loomed over him, it's only face the mask, no evidence of eyes, just black pits. Up close, it had no need of magic. Its brute strength, unrestrained by any civilized instinct, would do the trick.
It slammed a forearm down. Fenris met the blow with his blade. It immediately struck with a fist with the side. He met that one, too, but the fists began to come down like a hammer strikes, relentless and mechanical. There was a lumbering savagery to it. He couldn't get a counterattack in. His sword was too big and too slow.
Fenris took a hand off his hilt and lashed out at an oncoming fist, phasing through armor and skin to touch bone. He clenched his hand around the delicate structures of a hand and heard a sickening crunch. The Qunari pulled back with a hoarse cry of pain, but that didn't stop it for long. Instead of throwing its other fist, it reared it's masked head back and slammed it forward.
Fenris ducked, barely dodging the blow. This needed to be over; soon enough, the Qunari would realize what the slaves were doing was not the true attack. By then, they needed to be long gone from here.
There was a way of ending this quickly. He shoved aside his own fear of pain as he dodged another blow, falling to a knee. The pulse would stun the Qunari, but it would hurt beyond measure...
The Qunari howled suddenly, whipping around from a half finished punch.
A lightning bolt seared through the air, catching the creature in the masked face. It screeched as sparks played across the metal and clawed at the mask with its good hand.
Fenris watched gratefully as Hawke flipped her staff and caught the Qunari in the throat with the bladed end. It collapsed, still alive but bleeding very heavily. It wouldn't live long. The elf watched it stop clawing, stop fighting and- bizarrely- relax, all savagery vanished without a trace.
"I apologize for the delay," Hawke said, reaching out to help him up, "That trick takes a lot out of me."
He had little doubt of that. It would probably have killed any other mage. "It worked."
"Yes." She looked him over almost too quickly to catch, then turned to the soldiers. Aveline and the Tribune were approaching. Behind them, the soldiers were moving into two groups. "You had best be ready."
Tribune Stannard gestured her group to the hodgepodge of ships still at the dock. "Already moving, Prefex."
Hawke nodded. "Take the harbor chains quickly and drop them, both of you. I know they're not far, but move fast. Have your mages signal me when it's done and hold position."
Both women nodded and took to their boats.
"Do I still have to hold the leash?" Varric whined from his place on the wall. Isabela sat next to him, still bound. Both of them were relatively spotless, though Fenris had spotted a few of Varric's arrows in the battle. "I'm not saying kill her, just lock her up with some of the labor slaves and call it a day."
Hawke turned to contemplate Isabela. The pirate was shaking her head furiously.
"Don't." Fenris blinked in surprise; he was the one who'd spoken, too hoarse and too loud at once. He cleared his throat. "We have little time."
"Eh, true," Varric said, "Wait, little time for what?"
Hawke gave him a killer's grim smile. "I know the Qunari, and this is ending only one way. The only way we can own this city again is to kill them all. I'd prefer to initiate that on my terms." She spun her staff in place before slamming it down. "With a great deal of violence and reward. So let's go kill the Arishok."
"I believe we're expected," Fenris said.
Hawke grit her teeth. "That horned bastard."
The Qunari guards did not move. They just waited, looking right at them. The gates behind them led to what had once been one of the marketplace squares. They had been shut and repainted with the House of Tides symbol and some sprawling phrase in their language. The Arishok had not bothered to hide his headquarters.
Hawke shook her head and turned her back on the gates, leading the group behind a corner. She wouldn't give the Arishok the satisfaction of playing by his rules- at least, not yet. Not until she rewrote them under his nose.
She looked at Isabela. "That book means a great deal to them," she mused, "It was their mission, even if things came to this. They don't have the men to hold this city against the legions. It would be a slaughter, and the Arishok knows it."
"So, what?" Varric asked, "He lost his mind?"
"More like his temper and his patience. He hates us, hates being stuck here. So he did what he does best: blunt military action. Kirkwall was an exposed target because I am an idiot." She shook off the self-loathing. "At any rate, Varric, I want that book."
The dwarf scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Been a while since I just stole something, not conned it out of someone."
"I have utmost confidence in you, mostly because you just shoot the guards in the back, no subtlety required. You just need to get it out."
Isabela made a muffled sound behind her gag. Hawke shrugged and Varric pulled it roughly away. " Gaatlok," she said desperately, "They have the formula for gaatlok in there."
They all eyed her carefully. "You're trying very hard to buy your life," Fenris told her.
"It's what I do, pretty eyes." She looked Hawke right in the eye. "I know it's there, I saw them making it, or trying. It seemed like they lacked ingredients."
Hawke considered. The explosive powder was extremely volatile, and even one mistake with the formula could be disastrous. There was a long list of dead alchemists who had tried guessing. The Qunari were known to look at the formula when preparing the powder for their cannons.
"Add that to your shopping list, Varric," Hawke ordered.
"Send me with him," Isabela said, "I know where everything is; they kept me in there. I watched them. I remember it all. I know where the book is. I saw where they kept the formula. Send me in. There are other ways in besides the front door. Send me."
Varric heaved a sigh and yanked her chain, causing her to fall over with a curse. "I hate to say it, it's probably a good idea. We don't know what's in there. And if you're going to do what I think you are, the Qunari are going to be...tense. Sneaking off won't be easy. Knowing the layout and getting in somehow else would be a lot better. Higher chance of survival. And she's probably a better thief than I am...in an unrefined, purse cutting sense." He plucked an arrow from his quiver and rolled it between his fingers. "Besides, I can always shoot her."
"Last time, you missed."
"She caught me off guard. Not something I let happen twice."
Hawke held his stare for a moment, then nodded. "Do this, Varric, and I swear you will be the king of surface dwarves."
"I prefer Merchant Prince, but it's all semantics, really." He reached down and undid Isabela's shackles. "Let's go, bitch. We won't have much time." He gave Hawke a quick salute. "Try not to lose, Prefex. No one buys drinks for stories about losers."
Hawke nodded. Suddenly, the world was painted a bright red. The four of them looked up, out towards the bay. A bright ball of red light hung lazily in the sky for a moment and then swiftly dissipated.
"That's the western chain," Fenris commented.
A blue flare went up immediately, as if summoned by his words. "And that's the eastern one," Hawke said. She turned back to Varric and Isabela. "Go."
The dwarf and the pirate vanished down an alleyway. Hawke glanced toward the bay. "Well, the city is ours. Just a few things to clean up."
"Do you really think this is necessary?" Fenris asked. They both turned back to the Qunari.
"If I'm to get out of this with anything intact, yes."
"Being cut in half by the Arishok does not qualify as intact, last time I checked."
She smirked. "Why, Fenris, you're starting to sound like Varric."
The elf scowled deeply. Nothing could make him see this as a good idea. "Just do to him what you did to Danarius, mistress."
That title...such a gap in their thinking. She tended to forget. Warriors had her heart too much. What did a slave know of the weight of honor carried by the magisterial class? To stumble once would be the end of her house. She took a deep breath. "That's the plan," she assured her slave.
The Qunari guards silently opened the gates. Another pair on the other guided them forward. The square within had been ruined, stalls broken and crates upended. She could smell burnt flesh and rotten fruit. The Qunari had a tendency to find the wild, cutthroat, and individualistic nature of southern trade violently distasteful.
The Arishok's stone throne had been set up on a platform made of the images of Zazikel that had dotted the square. Hawke cast the desecration a cool glance before turning her eyes on the Qunari leader. "I thought we had come to an agreement."
"The slaughter of my people and the ruin of my city was a part of that agreement?" Hawke shouted. Her staff's blade clanked hard against the cobblestone. "Or was that just a whim, you barbarian?"
"Barbarian," the Arishok stated. The word rumbled out of his chest in disdain. "You govern this unclean, chaotic, unholy place and you call me a barbarian. You are not blind, Prefex Hawke of the Tevinter Imperium. You know what transpires here. And you allow it to continue."
This was degrading into a philosophical debate older than the Imperium. "And the Qun fixes all ills? It cleans it all up, bleaches away our sins forever and keeps straight all our crooked little mortal lines? You tell me entropy cannot touch it?" Her eyes narrowed. "It purifies the powerful of all ambition?"
The Arishok grunted. He stood and spread his arms, like a stone carving moving. "This was not an act of ambition. This was of the Qun."
Enough of this. They'd talk each other in circles and nothing would ever change. "Words are useless." She brought her staff in front of her.
"Yes." The Arishok drew two great axes from his back.
Hawke smiled mirthlessly. "I, Prefex Hawke of Kirkwall, appointed by the Archon Daylen Amell, challenge you, Arishok of the Qunari."
The Arishok threw up a hand. “I accept on one condition, basalit-an. None of your vashedan magic.”
Hawke froze, trying to keep the shock from her face. “And what stops me?”
The Arishok nodded to the walls around them. “Them.” Qunari archers stood waiting among the broken images of Zazikel. “One single spark, and they will kill you and your companion.”
Damn this bastard. Hawke eyed the Qunari archers. She didn’t dare turn around, but they were probably standing to the rear, too. Damn him. He’d keep his word. There was no way out.
So...“Fine.” She’d been trained for direct combat. With a sword, long ago, not her staff, but she had used this blade often. It was a luxury most of the time. She held her staff in front of her like some commoner’s traveling stave. “Try me.”
The Arishok’s lips contorted in a smirk.
He rushed forward, axes slamming into the ground where Hawke was standing a moment before. She hurried to find her feet as she leapt backwards. He was fast, much faster than a warrior that large and heavily armed should be. Qunari tended to lumber, but the Arishok didn’t seem to have that problem.
She’d be relying on her speed and the reach of her weapon, then. The Arishok turned towards her, that odd expression still on his face. On any other creature, it would have been normal. On him, it seemed crazed.
The Arishok slashed again. She managed to block, the impact staggering her and ringing through her staff. Hawke broke away and backed up. This wasn’t going to be easy; she had no time to think.
The Qunari let her take a few more steps backward and charged. Hawke threw herself to the side. The twin axes crashed into a defaced image of Zazikel. The Arishok gave a quick tug, but they stayed lodged in the stone. He cursed and began pulling harder.
Hawke flipped her staff around and lunged forward with it, driving the blade into the Qunari’s side. He ripped his axes loose and turned them on her. She ducked and rolled away.
Hawke felt pain flare in her shoulder. He’d caught her, damn it.
No magic, but she was smarter than her spells.
Shoving the pain aside, she struck with her blade. The Arishok parried it with a disdainful grunt.
Hawke pulled her staff away and lashed out with the red stone on the other side. It connected—somehow—with the Arishok’s head with a loud crack, sending him stumbling backwards.
“Vashedan,” the Arishok growled, shaking his head. Blood leaked from his left temple and into his eye. His balance seemed off, somehow, unsteady.
Hawke couldn’t help herself. She grinned.
The Qunari charged. The world went black.
The sound tugged her out of her haze, too slowly. If she didn’t wake up soon, she would die.
There was stone at her back and the spike of an axe in her belly. Everything smelled like blood. Her breath seemed to reek with it as she exhaled.
The Arishok was staring up at her from somewhere near the blade, animal violence in his eyes. Her hands, and her staff with them, were free.
She lifted the blade and jammed it into the Qunari’s neck.
The darkness swallowed her again.
1)The Old Gods have the most ridiculous spheres; they're patrons of weird and usually abstract things, and even mages might care about the weather or commerce or crops a great deal. I've been making several leaps from what we know of them.
2)The Arishok wields weapons, one of which I think is an axe-like thing. I forget what they are, and no one seems to bother to put it on the internet. He seems like an axe sort of guy, so here we are.
3)If anyone knows a term for that spike you see on a battle axe, please let me know and I'll add that.
“Hawke should have woken up by now.”
The hum of debate and argument and complaint in the room cut off when Fenris spoke. Aveline, sorting a tremendous mass of paperwork into neat stacks, halted. “I know.” She sighed wearily and let the papers drop, unsorted. Her head dropped onto her hands. “I don’t know how much longer we can keep this charade up. She’s fully healed.”
Anders—who was still here, and Fenris couldn’t figure out why—coughed. “You could just stop the charade and set up the new government I outlined.”
The freedwoman slammed a hand on the Prefex’s borrowed desk. “I did not go through all this effort to put the city back together in order to take it apart again on your whim, you mad little bastard.” Fenris wondered, again, why Anders was still here. “I’m suprised Orsino will speak to me, even acting as Hawke’s intermediary. How much longer that will go on...” She slumped, a strange sight for the tall and proud warrior woman.
Fenris didn’t know how much longer the household could go on like this, either. He’d carried Hawke to Aveline’s position, Varric and Isabela in tow, and everything had rushed forward from there. A message forged by Varric with the Prefex’s signature had gotten the magisters to lower the barrier around Hightown. Aveline had told them that Hawke had been badly wounded during her duel with the Arishok and needed time to recover. It had been a week since the city had been retaken, and the Hawke household had been collectively playing Hawke’s part the entire time.
Hawke had been laying, fully healed, in a coma on her own bed. No mage or physcian could understand why she was still unconscious.
Fenris had been reluctant to leave her side, but he’d been among the leaders faking Hawke’s consciousness from the start and this meeting was supposedly important. It wasn’t, but he was merely a player of a part.
It wasn’t the best of conspiracies. Aveline spoke with elite for the allegedly reclusive Prefex, putting her bluntness on display. Varric forged paperwork, as well as doing his part to keep the common and criminal element working towards fixing Kirkwall. Fenris had found himself leading multiple missions to Darktown in order to root out bands of Qunari. Success was frequent but relevance was debateable; no one knew how many Qunari had fled down there. And Anders was there, perhaps as a reminder of potential chaos.
Merrill and Kalias were present, too, though no one could say why. Hawke had left Merrill with the refugees outside the gates during the battle, not wanting her dragging demons into the fray, entirely possible because the girl was flighty as a butterfly and stupider than a stick. As for Kalias, the old elf had seemed to age rapidly, all his former confidence gone, plagued by deep guilt for treachery and failure.
At least they’d made Isabela a cleaning slave in all but paperwork.
Varric coughed, breaking an uncomfortable silence. “I’d hate to be the bearer of more bad news—really, you’ve got a better face for it, elf—but a very fancy courier with very fancy clothes and a very fancy horse arrived in the city this morning bearing this.” He pulled a letter out of thin air. The Archon’s seal, an image of a laurel-crowned dragon under six stars, stared at them in purple wax accented with gilt.
“How pretty!” Merrill cooed.
Stupider than a stick.
“You do know you could have read it, Varric,” Aveline said, “But, of course, you want a dramatic moment.”
“No, I read it. But the Archon’s seal will sell for a lot.” Varric shook the letter slightly and it flipped open. “Anyway, it says here the First Among Equals will be comign for a visit in two months to recieve the Tome of Koslun and the formula for gaatlok from his beloved niece.”
There was a moment of silence. “The what?” Aveline asked, “And the what?”
Fenris smacked the palm of his hand into his forehead. “Oh,” Varric said, “Oops. We meant to keep that quiet until Hawke could decide, didn’t we?” He was unapologetic.
“Yes. You wrote the Archon about it.”
The dwarf shrugged. “It seemed appropriate.”
Aveline snaqtched the letter from him before he could secret it away. “Gods damn it all,” she muttered, reading it quickly, “We need to find out why Hawke is not waking up very, very soon.”
Fenris nodded. It took a letter from the Archon, but now they were finally getting around to it. “Now.”
Anders sighed. “Very well. It’s probably magical. I’ll give it a look.”
“No,” Fenris and Aveline said together. He was an abomination, and he wasn’t getting anywhere near an unconscious Hawke.
“I know someone who can help,” Merrill said, “Probably.” She looked down and shuffled her feet. “If we help them. Because they really need it. A lot.”
“Your clan?” Varric asked.
“What’s left of them, yes. The Keeper is a very skilled healer, with magical and normal wounds.”
Fenris scowled. The wild elves always wanted something. Nothing was ever free. “In exchange for what?”
“You know they are starving,” Merrill said, “Hawke sent some food, but it was only some, and then the Qunari sent a small band to attack when they marched on Kirkwall, and most of the aravel’in were destroyed. They have no home.” She swallowed. “They have no choice but to...to turn to the shemlen. To you.”
“They’re selling themselves into slavery,” Fenris said, “That’s what you mean.”
Merrill bowed her head. “Yes. I said...I said that you could just help them, maybe, but they won’t take it. Not if it’s from me. If Hawke just makes them slaves, they’ll take that. But they won’t just become part of the world. Not even to save their own lives, to hold onto at least a little piece of our people.” She ground her palms into her eyes. “They just...won’t!”
The rest of them exchanged looks. “I don’t trust wild elves,” Aveline stated, blunt as ever.
“I can help,” Anders said.
“I trust them more than him,” Fenris told her, “We need to wake Hawke up, for a great many reasons.”
Varric guided a still distraught Merrill to a chair. “I know how the clans tend not hold up their end of a bargain. But I don’t think they would lie about becoming slaves, and I don’t think it’d hurt Daisy here so much if it wasn’t true.”
“I wouldn’t...do you really think I’d lie about them becoming slaves?” Merrill asked, blinking up at Aveline, “It’s not what I’d want for them. I don’t want them to give up! ‘We are the last of the elvhenan, and never again shall we submit.’ But for any of the elvhenan to survive, sometimes, it seems like we must submit.” She slouched into her chair. “As slaves, though, I think we will eventually forget it all. I want something good to come out of this. Please ask Marethari to help Hawke.”
Aveline held out paper and a quill. “Write your clan. Get the Keeper here as soon as possible.”
Marethari pulled her hands away from Hawke’s forehead slowly. “As you’ve already been told, this is not from an injury or sickness. Physically, she is merely asleep.”
“Physcially?”Aveline asked. She, Fenris, Merrill, and Varric were gathered in Hawke’s room with the Keeper. Anders was peering inside from the doorway, having been exiled by the Keeper for being ‘innately disruptive’.
“She is cursed, as I told her before.” There was no annoyance in Marethari’s voice. Rather, she reminded Fenris of a starving old cat, a desperately calculating creature. “It’s an old, old magic, and rare, forgotten by Tevinter. Somniari, a dreamer.”
Fenris grit his teeth. “Danarius.”
Marethari shrugged. “If that is an enemy of hers, it would be a good guess. She has been drawn deep into the Beyond, deep into her own dreams. And there is another there with her. Trying to kill her.” She glanced back down at Hawke. “Slowly, or perhaps without skill.”
“Can we break this spell?” Aveline asked.
Marethari was very quiet. “Yes,” she said slowly, “But only from within her dream.”
Anders spoke up from the doorway. “Most of us can’t touch the Fade at all, let alone enter someone else’s dream. That’s insane.”
“Perhaps, but it can be done. It is not without danger; dreams never are.”
Fenris looked down at Hawke. He had watched over for two weeks now. Her face was expressionless, too deep into sleep to show anything. “I’ll go.”
“As will I,” Aveline said, “I owe her and her family. I should have fixed this already.”
Varric sighed. “If you can take me, I’ll go.”
“I can,” Marethari told him.
“I’ll help you, Keeper,” Merrill said, “Please.”
“Oh, dah’len.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “I want you to understand something: if you choose to do this, as with all other things, there will be consequences. And you will not enjoy them.”
“I’ll help you, Keeper. I promise. Just one last time, please. Only help. Not summon demons, or anything like that.”
“As you wish, then.” She gestured at the floor nearby. “I suggest you lay down before I start. Relax and open your minds. For you, the ceremony will not be taxing.” She seated herself cross-legged at the side of Hawke’s bed.
Fenris cast her a dubious glance and did as she directed, as did the others.
The carpet he lay on was plush enough to hide the cold and hardness of the stone floor beneath. It smelled like her, some pleasant flowery scent he couldn’t identify. He was reminded of her flourishing private apartment.
Marethari began to chant softly. It built in speed and compelxity, with no words he could understand. He began to drift, not drowsy but detachted. The air seemed odd, humming almost, like it would come tearing apart...
Between one moment and the next, Fenris found himself in a very strange place.
“So this is the Fade,” he said aloud, looking around. The shape of the land made little sense, contorting and twisting in unnatrual ways. He could see a simularity to the real world, but it was all bizarre; a pink pine tree grew sideways out of a nearby rock, and in the distance, half a castle tower lay upisde down. The colors were strange, too, muted and vaguely shimmering, as if they were struggling to remain the same.
In the strange, colorless sky, he saw a great black city of twisted towers floating in the distance. He shivered. The origin of the Blight. He really was in the Fade.
He heard a muffled cursing, and then the top half of Varric burst through the dirt, gasping. “I have never been here before,” the dwarf growled, “But I hate it. And I will never be here again, thank all the Gods and the Stone and Andraste and my mother’s good dinnerware.” Fenris reached down to help him out of his hole. “How do you people stand it?”
“We’re unconscious, usually.”
“Right. Where’s everyone else? We need to find Hawke.”
“Agreed.” They both turned in slow circles, scanning the strange landscape for a sign of their companions. Everything got hazy thrity feet out, and eventually dissolved into a smoky mist.
“Shit,” Varric said, “Where do we even start?”
Very good question. Magisters had been studying the Fade for thousands of years, and had come to surprisingly few conclusions. Fenris had accompanied Danarius to many a dinner party where the subject was debated, but that offered no help.
He just wanted to find Hawke. A dream assassin was at her throat at this very moment, and he needed to find her.
Something...tugged at him, then. It wasn’t quite a sensation, but more than an instinct, much more than an illusion.
“Hey, elf,” Varric said, staring wide eyed, hand on his crossbow, “You’re glowing.”
Fenris looked down at his hands. His markings were glowing incredibly bright. It tingled, just on the edge of pain if he thought about it. “Follow me.”
“What?” the dwarf said, hurrying to catch up as Fenris followed the tug, “Where?”
“I’m not sure. But I know the way. I think.”
They walked through bushes that dissolved as they stepped into them, and through what might have been a tunnel of glass or maybe just a strange, near-transparent gas cloud. The black city in the sky never grew closer or further, and there was no way to know how far they traveled. All points simply were, and had almost no relation with each other. It made little sense. Still, Fenris followed that sensation.
Varric was eyeing him so worriedly that Fenris could feel it, which might be the case, here. “Are you sure you’ll be okay? I know lyrium is connected to the Fade.”
“A little late for that now.” Fenris turned toward a dark something flickering on the edge of his vision. It vanished before he could really see it. “Are you seeing those?”
“Listen, I’m seeing a lot of weird things around here, so you better be specific.”
Fenris was tempted to attribute it to the weirdness of the Fade, but he couldn’t quite do it.
“Just keep an eye out.”
“What else am I going to do?”
They walked over a barren patch of rock and right into Anders. Whose eyes were glowing blue.
“Ah,” Varric said, “How’s it going, blondie?”
He answered in a voice that was warped and too deep. “I am Justice.”
“That is a great catchphrase.”
The demon didn’t respond, just turned back to what ot had been looking at, which seemed to be farther than Fenris and Varric could see. “We are lost.”
“No,” Fenris said, putting some distance between himself and the demon, “We’re going the right way.”
The thing that looked like Anders gave him a blank stare.
“Varric! Fenris!” Aveline came into the hazy distance, becoming clearer as she neared. “Marethari was supposed to guide us, but she’s...well.” She gestured towards the direction she’d come from.
Fenris took a few steps forward—which was indeed away from the tugging feeling. He squinted into the haze and saw two figures wandering around. The one in the green was undoubtedly Merrill, following around the other, which had to be Marethari.
They wandered into the circle of his clear sight. “Please, Keeper,” Merrill said, “If it’s too hard, teach me.”
The older elf shook her head and clutched at it, hunching over. Her feet seemed to move of their own volition, wandering haphazard. Merrill reached for her shoulders, but was violently shaken off.
Marethari stood straight up, her head thrown back. “Leave, Merrill. Run.”
Merrill reached forward again. “Why?”
The air shifted. Justice rumbled like thunder nearby. “She can’t contain it here.”
“Contain what?” Varric asked.
Fenris felt the air growing stale. Around them, the stony ground began to sprout jagged rocks. “The demon,” Justice said.
Marethari vanished. In her place, towering over them, was a huge pride demon.
Merrill froze at its feet. "No."
"Foolish little girl," the monster rumbled, "All your dabbling had a price."
"Not her," Merrill said, "It was mine to pay, not hers!"
The demon laughed. "If that's what you want...I'll just take it all!" It swung a fiery fist a Merrill, sending her flying backwards. Aveline rushed towards it, getting smacked away like a fly.
Varric swore as he placed his crossbow to his shoulder. "Kill it," he said, "I'll go save Daisy."
Fenris nodded and rushed forward, the abomination at his side.
The demon noticed and almost casually flicked a fireball their way. Fenris leapt aside, tucking himself behind one of the rock spurs.
How did you kill a demon in its native realm? It had the advantage, capable of manipulating this world at a whim. Fenris couldn't even see twenty feet out.
"It is fixated on the small elf," Justice said, somehow materializing at his side and almost losing Anders' head for it, "Now would be the time to strike the beast."
An idea occurred to Fenris. "Can you manipulate the Fade like it can?"
The abomination scowled deeply. "In a manner similar, yes, though not as I once could."
"Shackle it." He shifted, setting himself up to lunge around the rock at what would probably be...
The demon roared, cursing. Fireballs flew madly.
Fenris leapt forward, bounding around the jutting rocks at a breakneck pace, sword in hand. The demon raged in front of him, hauling on chains that looked far, far too brittle.
He counted steps as he closed....one, two, three...jump! Blade through its side to the hilt. Fenris clung onto the dark hide like a demented squirrel.
Justice shouted incoherently below, shooting off bolts of magic at the reeling demon's head.
There was distinctive thump. The demon fell silent and dissolved. Leaving Fenris to fall to the ground below, landing flat on his back. It didn't hurt as it should.
He sat up. "Good shot, Varric."
The dwarf nodded in acknowledgement. "Eh, anyone else feel...weirder?"
Merrill, stained with blood and tears, came up out of the murk- which was clearer than it had been. "The connection is fading," she said, "Marethari and the...she was the one holding it. Gods, what did I do?" She buried her face in her hands.
None of them had an answer for that. Fenris stood, sheathing his sword. "We need to find Hawke."
Merrill lifted her head and wiped her nose as she met Fenris' eyes. "I can hold us here a little longer," she said. Her eyes were still red, and the weeping was not likely over yet. "It was the last thing she ever did. I will see it through."
"Then let's go."
The wild elf shook her head. "I can't. I have to focus. It's complex and I've never been very good at that sort of thing."
Varric was watching the lightening murk around them. "I've got a feeling we're going to get more company once she starts. I'll guard her."
Aveline limped forward. “I should do the same. I’ll slow you down.” She slammed her shield into the ground, frustrated.
Fenris had a sinking feeling as they turned toward the abomination. It's face held no expression. "I cannot save the life of a magister, a slave-holder," it said simply, and walked away.
"Well, then," Varric said, "looks like you're on your own, elf. The usual way these things end is with a big dramatic kiss near a scenic vista, but I'm sure the location is flexible."
"Don't worry, I won't die." He squared his shoulders and turned toward the tugging feeling.
"You know the way?" Merrill asked, confused.
"I know the way."
I restored the beginning of chapter 15 that didn't make it in to the original, for some reason. If you've been reading this, you might want to go back there and check it out, because it will make a lot of things make a lot more sense.
It was when reality asserted itself properly that he truly knew he was close.
He recognized the towers of Minrathous, though the streets were empty and clean. He was the only one here, it would seem.
The sensation that had been guiding him grew stronger. He followed it through the winding streets until he saw a massive, vivid tower, something that didn’t exist in the real world.
That was where Hawke was. He could feel it. He rested a hand on his sword hilt and approached the tower.
Something began moving on the edges of his vision, strange even in the strangeness of this place. He kept turning his head as he moved, but all was still by the time he could make sense of the wavering lines of the Fade.
It mattered little, but he swore that alleyway had been a solid wall a moment ago. He grunted, turning back to...the tower loomed right in front of him. Fenris blinked up at it. The world crawled at the edges, changing again.
Fenris understood that the Fade changed all the time, but this felt different. Like lines being erased and redrawn with care and diligence and sanity.
It was worth a try. "Come out and face me," he called, "Make yourself known."
The tower door blurred and crawled, colors merging and splitting dizzyingly. Fenris drew his sword, standing in a guard position. He'd strike when he knew what he was dealing with.
A boy limped forward, eyes wide with fear. Fenris furrowed his brow, but didn't lower his blade. He was human, blond, perhaps thirteen years to judge from his size, though his face looked older and off, somehow. "I don't know...I don't know how to..." He blurred again, fading back into the door.
Fenris snarled and kicked down the door.
It smelled like blood. Candlelight flickered from nowhere, barely lighting the dark and open space. Fenris stood still, waiting for his eyes to adjust. They didn't.
"Where are you?" His voice echoed strangely in a way that didn't fit the size of the room.
Someone whispered weakly. He took a cautious step forward, listening. "Fenris," it said.
Against his better judgement, he sheathed his sword and rushed to the sound, nearly stumbling over her. He dropped to a knee. "Who did this?" he asked, surveying her. He held a hand out over her shoulder tentatively, not sure what he could do.
She was heavily bruised. One leg was bent at the wrong angle. There was a cut across one cheek and more signs of bleeding on the dirty rags she wore. Her hair fell across her face, visibly matted.
She reached for his hand, pulling it the final few inches to her shoulder. Her breathing was strained. She looked up at him, vivid eyes very much alive and strong. Fenris smiled slightly. No one could break the Warmage.
"I'll kill the one who did this," he promised.
A shrill laugh cut through the room, dramatically accompanied by an icy wind. "Really, little wolf? You'll kill me?"
Hawke glared silently over his shoulder. He didn't bother to turn around. Hadriana didn't deserve the satisfaction of an audience.
"Danarius would rather have you intact, but I'm sure he will forgive me." She made a frustrated noise. "The boy was taking much to long, having his little mind-shadows do the work. Couldn't face it himself. Pathetic little worm." A staff cracked against the floor.
Fenris grabbed Hawke and lunged to the side before the lightning bolt hit. His markings flared, audibly singing.
Hawke rested her head against his shoulder. "Tear her heart out."
Fenris drew his sword from his back. "Gladly." He turned on heel and ran for Hadriana.
Her staff hit the floor again. Fenris leapt from the path of a fireball, snarling as he swung for the mage.
She raised her staff to meet his blow. The staff creaked as he pressed forward. Hadriana attempted to back away, but tripped over her robe. She barely managed to roll away from Fenris' sword, hopping to her feet to throw a shield over herself.
Fenris roared. The world turned to white fire. He struck out, felt something part, felt bone break. He dropped his sword and reached forward, holding Hadriana's broken body up so he could see her terrified face.
All her arrogance and ambition abandoned her. "Please, Fenris...please, I beg you..."
He remembered the humiliation, the stolen meals, the feel of the whip, hands too free and too cruel. "No."
He phased his free hand into her chest and gripped all that he felt, yanking it out. He dropped the bloody, mangled mass with an echoing splatter.
He felt like he was watching himself act from afar, like this was some play, more unreal than the Fade.
The dead body didn't drop, but floated, pathetic and bloody. Fenris stared at it for a long moment. Hadriana. He'd killed Hadriana.
Hawke's coughing broke his thoughts. He moved back to her. (Hadriana was dead.)
Hawke nodded at him, a glimmer of her grin beneath the bruises. She glanced to her right. "Our host."
The boy from earlier appeared. "She's dead. You killed her. I still don't know how...I can't even...."
"Go home," Hawke managed. She coiled herself best as she could against Fenris. Surprised, he carefully closed his arms around her. "Just go home."
The boy stared. "Home..." He shut his eyes.
Fenris opened his.
"Well," Hawke said from the bed, "The damsel in distress thanks you all."
Fenris leapt to his feet, his body protesting the suddenness of the motion. Hawke smiled at him blearily from the bed, lifting herself to a sitting position.
Then Merrill woke up, weeping, crawling to Marethari's stiff body.
Hawke gently sat her feet on the floor. Fenris watched as she surveyed the scene. Varric had stumbled over to lay a comforting hand on the wild elf's shoulder. Aveline was staggering to her feet. The abomination, his eyes quite human, was sitting and blinking at the ceiling.
"Ah," Hawke said, her voice strained from disuse, "There’s a story, then, that I think I’d like to hear.”
Merrill had quit weeping enough to choke down some food. Hawke was tempted to slip a sleeping potion into her drink.
The Prefex stared across the dining room table at the young elf. She'd gorged herself on soup and bread earlier as her household explained events. She had sympathy for Merrill's guilt and pain, but it was far, far from her only problem.
It was the elf's own damn fault, anyway. The youngest of Tevinter children learned the folly of dealing with demons.
"I tried to...it knew things, I just wanted to ask..."
Hawke brushed the comment aside with a gentle wave of her hand. "Rest, Merrill."
Kalias stopped forward from the shadows and took her by the shoulders, carefully leading her out. The elf looked ancient, now, and moved like it. For all he had been a part of a slave uprising, Kalias still lived and thought like a slave. His instant of foolish boldness was a fluke. His loyalty was near absolute, and so his guilt was all-consuming. He couldn't shake his chains.
She wished, a little, that he could, that he would talk back to her again and stand by his choices and be the man she'd grown up thinking he was.
"Life is full of disappointments," she said aloud.
Fenris moved from the wall to her side. He didn't say anything, just looked down at her, concern in his green eyes. She was weak from her long sleep, as well as restless. It wasn't a pleasant combination.
"I am well, don't worry."
"You were locked in your nightmares by a mage who wanted to kill you for weeks. I'll worry about you."
She looked back down the table, tapping her fingers against the polished wood. "It hurts still, yes, but...it's like a memory of a wound. Not real. Which it wasn't."
"Pain is always real."
If Hawke shut her eyes too long, the images from her long nightmare devoured her inner vision. They weren't coherent, just a mishmash of horror and pain, physical and emotional. The experience would haunt her for a long time, but life had to go on. "There are other parts of reality, and they matter more. Where were the gifts for my esteemed uncle, again?"
"Sealed in a warded box in your study."
She nodded and stood with more effort than she liked. "I want a look at both of them. They're my way out of here." The Archon would be very grateful for these gifts, and realize she belonged at the northern front.
"Varric deigned to leave the Arishok's weapon there, too. He thought the Archon might enjoy that prize."
Someone might have told her that earlier. Hawke nodded as she led the way to her study. "A nice touch. I'm surprised he didn't include the horned bastard's head."
Fenris chuckled. "He told me he sent it out to be cleaned. It will be ready within a week."
The Qunari wouldn't particularly care that the Arishok's head was mounted in the Archon's dining room- the body was irrelevant to them, whereas the weapon was much more important- but the Imperium would like the idea greatly. It would be an Imperial heirloom, like the Jewels of Elvhenan. Hawke smiled at the image. "The Archon will be very pleased." She slipped on the staircase to her study. Fenris caught her and helped her up it. "Thank you."
"I don't entirely trust you when you say you're well."
"That's wise." She opened the door and collapsed into the chair at her desk. A large, crude wooden box, layered with ward runes, sat in the center of it. The Arishok's polished axes lay atop it. Hawke eyed the wards, sighed, and tapped the box firmly. The wards lifted.
Her stint in the Fade hadn't dimmed her abilities, thank Razikale.
She pulled the book and the formula-now written on clean parchment, with translation- out. The alchemical ingredients for gaatlok were surprisingly common: drakestone, charcoal, and the ever charming sela petrae. The proportions had to be exact, and the resulting substance was highly volatile. Alchemy wasn't her strong suit by any means, but she could see a multitude of ways to use and improve gaatlok, some of them magical.
She pulled out the book next, eyeing its surprisingly gaudy cover dubiously. She wouldn't be able to understand much of it, if any. Her Qunari was limited to insults and terms of war.
The door burst open. Hawke and Fenris both looked up to see Isabela stumble through, looking much cleaner than usual. The hygiene standards of the Hawke household were enforced without exception.
"I heard you were awake," Isabela said, sly as ever, though with more resemblance to a rat than the usual cat. Hawke glared over the box at her. "So I thought you might enjoy talking to the little guest I found. He says he knows you well."
Hawke didn't bother to look at the man who followed the former pirate, though she could feel Fenris tense at her side. "You're forgetting something, Isabela." She left no room for games in her tone.
The clever smile faltered. Isabela curtsied. "I hope you feel better, mistress. I have duties to attend to, if you'll allow."
"Go." Hawke looked over at the guest and froze.
She knew this boy's face, right down to the fear in his hazel eyes. He was blond, short for his age, his features slightly strange and inhuman. He was her nightmare tormenter, her captor. She let the book fall from her hand.
He bowed low. "I'm so sorry. I didn't want to, but it was what I had to do. She helped me, and the price was...was what I did."
Hawke sat back and stared at him. The somniari. She'd only ever seen him in snatches, but it was enough...she shut out the mental assault. "Who are you and where did you come from?"
"My name is Feynriel. I was under the city, with Mistress Hadriana, until she..." He looked at Fenris and gulped. "Until you killed her today."
"Why shouldn't we do the same to you?"
He blanched. "It wasn't my choice! Do you know what the nightmares are like? The whispers? I nearly killed mother!"
Hawke considered him. Somniari dream manipulation was a deep desire of demons. Possession would create a monster that preyed on the minds of mortals from within, inducing whatever madness fed the demon's particular hunger. His nightmares would have been horrific even compared to a normal mage's. As he grew older, and more powerful, they would have become worse. If he was untrained, rare as somniari were..."Who was your previous master?"
"I didn't have one."
She sighed. The boy’s life was close to a living hell, and someone like that should not fall into the wrong hands. The echo of a broken leg pulled at her to make that point clear. She should kill him (should have killed Isabela, Kalias, Merrill, those untrained wild elves...), but she found herself without the heart to do it. The look in his eyes marked him as a child, and she just couldn't do it. He'd been used by Danarius, much like Fenris had, and she couldn't do anything but pity that.
All the sickly little birds came fluttering to her doorstep, and she was too much her father's daughter to do the expedient thing and make them a course at dinner. She opened a drawer and pulled out a jeweled ring, an expensive and emotionless gift from some Kirkwall mage. "Go find your mother," she said, tossing the ring to the boy, almost missing. Selling that ring might keep the boy off the street of he chose to run. "Come back here with her. I'll see if I can help you."
He blinked in shock, as did Fenris. "You'll do that?"
"Yes. But not like Hadriana." She knew about somniari from legends and mentions in her childhood studies. Why was she doing this?
The boy looked much less scared, and something like hopeful. Her father would approve. That would be why she was doing it.
"You're a person, not a weapon," she told him, "It'd be to your advantage to get your mother before the nightly criminals come out."
Feynriel mumbled a hurried thanks and bolted.
Fenris frowned at her. "Don't," she told him, "Hadriana used him. Danarius would have done worse." A researcher like Danarius would undoubtedly have some creative ideas for a somniari, as he'd had for her elven warrior here.
"Nonetheless, he is dangerous. Hadriana already had her claws into him."
"Any magical power she held over him broke when she died. Danarius may have a phylactery she sent him, but I doubt he'd be able to resist a toy like a somniari. He certainly wouldn't have given the boy to Hadriana, an apprentice chosen because she couldn't do anything threatening."
Fenris' eyes flicked away. "She isn't...wasn't as ineffective as you think."
"Finding Feynriel made her the most dangerous she's ever been." She shut her eyes for too long and found herself overwhelmed by memories again. "She could never have faced a magister in a duel."
"Your perspective is very different."
Hawke could never see Hadriana as anything other than Danarius' pawn, but to one of Danarius' slaves, she would have been an unstoppable terror. Hawke had issues truly understanding the concept, though she knew it was real. "You killed her, Fenris."
He shut his eyes and slumped. "The master will kill me."
Hawke stood and reached out, gently cradling his jaw to bring his eyes to hers. "He's not your master."
Neither of them moved. His eyes were too tired, and there was no promise of a halt in the future. She wished...she was too soft. She wished many things, but they were impossible and foolish.
A knock sounded at the door. Hawke dropped her hand as Aveline stuck her head in. "The wild elves are all settled, Prefex, or as much as they can be." The freedwoman scowled. "You should sell them. They almost seem like they want someone to flog them."
Hawke shut her eyes for a moment, and was again almost assaulted by her long nightmare. Fenris had come, though. She had never been more relived in her life. She tried to focus on that part.
When she opened her eyes, Aveline and Fenris were looking concerned. "Right," she said, "Let them settle more. We have to plan for the Archon's impending visit." The concern did not vanish. "Don't do that. Time hasn't stopped, has it?"
It never did.
Fenris knew the boy was dangerous, but it was hard to believe at the moment. He could barely light a candle, let alone throw a fireball. Hawke had been attempting to teach him basic combat magic in the courtyard for days, but she'd found she had to teach basic spells first.
Fenris didn't think she was a very good teacher. He really should have been standing farther away.
"It's a matter of want and vision and above all balance," Hawke was explaining. She was trying to keep her tone even, but it was tinged by frustration. "If you call on too much power, it will roast you alive, or leave you open to a demon. Too little, and you're useless."
Feynriel, brow furrowed, nodded and turned back to the targets. He took a steady, open stance that was utterly useless for physical defense. Fenris took a step nearer to the last water bucket.
The boy jabbed his staff forward. Lighting shot off at a right angle, setting a nearby rose bush aflame. Fenris swept the bucket up and doused the fire before it could spread.
Hawke sighed and stepped forward to pat Feynriel's shoulder awkwardly. "You've gotten the power flow right. You just need to concentrate."
"It's easier in the Fade." The boy scrubbed his face with his free hand. "I just...move things into each other's way."
Hawke's eyes grew distant for a moment, but she quickly returned. "The concept is similar, just with one object."
"The rest of the world is an immobile background." Fenris turned to the new voice, his hackles rising. The abomination. He didn't spare Fenris or even Feynriel a glance, just gave Hawke a smile that belonged to a dockside whore. "Just a different rule to the same game."
Hawke titled her head, then nodded. "Yes, that's a good way of putting it."
Anders' smile grew. "I've taught before."
That garnered a short laugh. "Orsino would of course have other things to do."
"So he always said."
Fenris realized that his fist was clenched. He slowly relaxed it. Hawke was too dismissive of this monstrosity. She was ignorant of his true nature, largely because neither Fenris or Varric were not sure how to deal with it. Both Anders and the demon would not react well at being ejected from where they wanted to be.
And they most definitely wanted to be here. Hawke allowed him to quietly remain here to irritate Orsino, though supposedly it was a gesture of gratitude for his aid in healing her. She regarded him as minimally dangerous, even knowing he was involved in opening the gate for the Qunari. Kalias had volunteered to shoulder all the guilt for that one. Hawke saw Anders as one of dozens of young academics in the Imperium who ineffectually involved themselves in one strange philosophy or another.
Anders, however, was dangerous, and he was trying to make his way into Hawke's mind, if not her heart.
Hawke and Fenris had found a copy of his anti-Imperium manifesto in the ingredients for Fenris' potion, and other copies secreted into the books they used for reading lessons. Varric had carted a wheelbarrow full into the dining room and used them for kindling last night. The guards had let the household know that they'd found their shields with further copies nailed to them, which resulted in a violently angry Aveline. And that was just the paper effort.
"Feynriel's mother was looking for him," Anders continued. The boy looked to Hawke, who nodded, and ran off. His mother was an elf, as it turned out, and the stress of her son's powers had worn on her health. She was delicate, and preferred her son's aid over a slave's. Fenris would bet it was because she was once a slave herself, just as he'd bet that she didn't actually need Feynriel right then.
"Thank you for your aid," Hawke said, "There are many reasons I've never taken an apprentice before."
"I'd have thought you would use one, instead of a slave." He gestured to Fenris, who envisioned ripping his lungs out. "Your philosophy being what it is."
"Ah. This again." Hawke turned her back on the abomination and headed toward the entrance to the manor. Fenris followed as close as her shadow, watching warily as Anders moved to cut her off. She raised an eyebrow, her grip shifting ever so slightly on her bladed staff.
"You must see what I mean. Your household...it's not like Orsino's. I've never seen you take a lash to a slave, even for blood. He would do it all the time. Flayed the skin from one, once, for an experiment."
"There is no blood magic in this household," she said, "It's a crutch I'm unwilling to use, and I will not betray those in my protection by using them. Others may. It's wrong, but the world is a bitter place, Anders."
The abomination stared in confusion when she explained her unwillingness to use blood magic, but then returned to his original topic. "Don't you want to make it less bitter?"
"In your household. You are radically different than most magisters, Prefex. We could spread your attitude to the whole world."
Hawke gave him a pitying smile. Fenris relaxed slightly. "I admire the idealism. It reminds me a little of my father. But he restrained himself from your ambition for good reason, Anders. It will take a change of heart beyond imagining."
Anders sighed and shook his head. It was all such theater, every movement and gesture exaggerated. "If nothing else, Prefex, I'm glad you listen to my argument. Not many magisters would, and fewer pretty women."
The tension found its way back into Fenris' shoulders. Hawke chuckled. She opened her mouth to say something, but a strange flapping sound filled the air.
All three of them looked up to see a pair of gryphons steadily lower themselves to the ground.
Fenris stared wide-eyed in spite of himself. He'd never seen one this close before. They were huge grey creatures, larger than a warhorse. Their huge front talons glistened, clicking as they shifted uncomfortably in the walled courtyard, tasseled tails lashing. Proud heads turned from side to side cautiously, their bright yellow eyes fierce and alert.
The riders dismounted gracefully, allowing their mounts to fold their wings all the way. Both were clad in full Grey Warden plate, silver and blue and grim. Judging by the size, one was male and the other female. The woman touched the gryphon's flanks. The creatures calmed and sat, still alert, like statues poised outside a castle.
Both the Wardens turned towards Hawke, removing their helms. The woman, a auburn beauty of southern stock, bowed her head in acknowledgement. "I apologize for our hasty landing. I am Warden Elissa, and this is Warden Alistair." The tall red-blond man nodded.
"Apology accepted," Hawke answered courteously, "To what do I owe the visit?"
"Nothing pleasant, I'm sure,"Anders muttered.
The two Wardens glared at him. "I suppose we could truss him up and haul him to Weishaupt," Alistair told his companion, "There'd be cheese at his execution."
Elissa elbowed him with a clank. "While you do harbor a coward and fool our order will gladly behead, that's not our mission here. One of our brothers was here some months ago. He told you something was wrong."
Hawke frowned for a moment. "Yes, I think I recall that meeting. It was nebulous and terrifying."
Alistair rolled his eyes. "Well, it's less nebulous now. There have been reports of darkspawn above ground and..." He shut his mouth, thoughtful. "And one of our outposts has fallen just outside the city, in the Vinmarks."
"I didn't think you had any outposts anywhere near Kirkwall."
Anders kicked violently at the ground. "Just one of many things they want you to think."
Hawke didn't even acknowledge him. "Thank you for the information. I'm not sure I can dispatch a contingent to deal with it right now, but I will do what I can." Her knuckles were white on her staff.
Few had ever seen darkspawn, and knew them only from stories of ancient history. They were real, most acknowledged that, but they were a distant threat, a thing of children's nighttime fears. The thought of them raiding in the Kirkwall area...impossible and terrifying. Fenris knew the stories of the Taint, the corrupting and killing disease the monsters carried, how it was said to infect the very land and air. They were old, ancient, unreal, legend.
"No," Elissa said, "We're still investigating." She looked annoyed. "And waiting for some information from home. Until we know what's going on- if it's the worst, or merely a door to the deeps torn open- I won't request your direct physical aid. However, if you could keep any raids you hear of quiet. A panic would do us few favors, especially with impending local events. Things have been...difficult for us of late with that issue." She gave Hawke a meaningful look.
"You have my word. Please keep me updated."
Alistair gave a sloppy salute. "Certainly." Elissa elbowed him again, a slight smirk on her lips. The pair swung onto their gryphons. The beasts leapt into the air with a motion like a cat pouncing, and were gone from sight and sound within seconds.
Fenris watched them leave. "This is going to get worse," he said.
He felt a light, brief pressure on his wrist. "If it's the worst, it's going to be hell," Hawke said, "Anders, I take it you won't give me a straight explanation, so I won't ask, but if you decide to use me, I'll tear you apart. And you don't know anything that will merit you mercy."
Fenris gave Anders a slight, grim smile as he followed Hawke to the manor. It was good to know the Warmage was on his side, in all her glory, come what may.
1)Anders is a blood mage here, like most everyone else.
2)I always found Anders' flirting and conversation in the game to be so heavily tainted with crazy that even his virtues and good points tend to be drowned out. It makes it hard to be fair to him, so forgive me if he's your guy.
3)Men generally never use the term strawberry blond with regards to another man. I've attempted to get them to do it, but it comes back with a processing error.
"Is everything ready?" Hawke asked. She'd lost track of how many times she had asked, but it was the Archon. Her nerves had been less rattled when she was fighting a High Dragon, and she hadn't even seen the man yet.
Kalias bowed, melancholy as always these days. "Yes, mistress."
Maybe she should have thrown him to the wolves. Made him into a martyr instead of a guilt ridden ghost.
Isabela stepped around him. "Not quite," she declared, and swept in, did something to the delicate formal shawl, and backed away. Hawke blinked and looked down. The gauzy red fabric, a part of traditional ancient dress, had been dangerously near to tripping her. Now it fell just above the floor, hiding her feet without the risk of tripping.
She had to give the pirate credit for trying to get into her good graces. She wasn't going to allow her back into those good graces, but the effort was admirable.
Hawke took a deep breath and looked at the door. They'd claimed one of the storage closets as her dressing room, as it was near the throne room. The manor was insanely crowded, as anyone who was anyone was desperate to get a glimpse of the Archon. Every inch had been polished to a high gloss, and the purple and gold colors of the Archon were everywhere.
This welcome, and presentation, had to be perfect. It was a matter of politics. She had persevered thus far, but it had been a near thing. She needed to look strong.
"You'll be fine, mistress," Kalias said, smiling gently. He almost seemed like himself again.
Hawke shook her head and started towards the door. Might as well start going.
She wished she could have Fenris at her side.
"Did they have to kill the doves?" Merrill asked, "They were so pretty."
One of the other slaves slammed a hand over her mouth, sparing Fenris the effort of ripping out her vocal cords. They needed to stay quiet, or one of the Archon's guards would chase them back into the service corridor. As it were, they were surreptitiously peeking out of a half open door near the back of the room. Fenris had fought his way to the front of the crowd with minimal effort.
This ceremony was reserved for select citizens of the Imperium- not slaves. Fenris was forced to watch with the other slaves. The Archon's Guard could certainly handle any threats, but that didn't make him any more comfortable with the situation.
"What, Daisy doesn't understand the solemnity of the occasion?"
Fenris looked down to see Varric leaning against the wall. "Are you supposed to be here?"
"I’m on the citizen rolls. I didn't bother with the formal process, but my name's locked up in the senate house like Hawke's."
Fenris grunted at the unfairness of it. "They're due to start soon, with the sacrifices over."
Varric chuckled and settled into his spot. "And it promises to be very entertaining."
"What did you do?"
"Do? Not a damn thing. But I know that the Archon's consort turned the High King into a nug in Kal-Sharok. He's a pretentious prick, just like half the people in this room." He grinned. "This is going to be good."
From Gallows Humor: One Dwarf’s Life in the City of Kirkwall, by the renowned Orator Varric Tethras:
...If you ever get around to viewing these sorts of ceremonies, its ridiculousness wasn't that uncommon.
With much ceremony and practiced grace, Prefex Hawke walked across the exceedingly purple carpet to meet the Archon, her red outfit clashing. Strapped to her back, and probably ruining her shawl, were the Arishok's two great axes. She carried the stupid Qunari book in both hands, cover up and highly visible. She'd tripped very often during rehearsals walking like this.
The Archon smiled benevolently as she neared. He's a man with dark eyes, his hair sleek and black. Not someone you want to get on the wrong side of, believe me. His consort, the lovely, temperamental Chasind barbarian Morrigan, rolled her eyes and kicked him a few steps forward. The Archon opened his arms wide. "My beloved niece, Prefex Marian Hawke, it pleases me to see your face again. I've traveled far upon news your triumphs."
Hawke fell to one knee. "Most esteemed uncle, your coming has brought me great pleasure and honor."
The Archon looked back and forth across the room three times before saying, "Rise." (Seriously, if you get an invite, don't go. The people at the top of the government are really boring.)
Hawke obeyed, standing somehow without falling on her face. "Uncle, I present great gifts won from our foe, the Arishok of the Qunari."
He held out his hands. "Gladly I receive them."
Hawke lifted up the book. "This is the Tome of Koslun, a profane artifact of the Qunari. They came far to recapture it, and it was I who denied them." We all know this isn't quite an accurate summary, but this thing was going to go on long enough.
The Archon took the book as she handed it to him. He laid a hand forcefully on the cover. "I receive it with pleasure, my niece." He handed it one of his nearby guard. All of this had a weird gravity.
She gave a brief bow and then unslung the axes. "I also present you with the Arishok's weapons, a symbol of all he was, taken from his body after I felled him in combat." Again, not quite accurate. I suggest we all just get over that.
The Archon grinned, then, an honest one like a hungry wolf. He took the axes greedily, running a hand over them, grinning the whole while. I think he knew what this meant to the Qunari.
His wife coughed loudly. Morrigan is not a patient woman. He blinked and looked back at Hawke. "I take these weapons with great pleasure, my Prefex. I will see to it they are used in the most effective manner."
"I desire nothing more, my Archon."
He nodded and handed the weapons off to another of his guards. "We must speak later in private, Prefex." He gestured for Hawke to step to his side, which she did.
I got a sense of impending doom. Don't worry, the doomed person didn't.
"Now," said the ruler of the Imperium, "What did the magisters of Kirkwall win from their foes?"
Your friend and mine, Magister Orsino, blinked rapidly before he stepped forward. Let's all the give the man credit for the ability to take responsibility for his stupid decisions. "The survival of our city, First Among Equals."
Morrigan spoke up this time, which was how I knew it was about to get good. "That's all? We could have secured that."
"Indeed, my love."
"Begging is unbecoming a magister, Orsino."
Morrigan stepped to his side, smiling. "But you can try."
Orsino paled. "Your mercy is known far and wide-"
Too late. In a swirl of violet magic, Orsino vanished, replaced by a nug...
Hawke hoped this chat would go better than Orsino's had. At least it would be private. The other magister would never be able to live down being publicly castigated by the Archon's consort for cowardice and weakening the veil. She suspected the funding for his research would be pulled.
Varric was brooding by the study door. Hawke raised an eyebrow as she drew her cloak's hood up. "Stop that. It's more Fenris' thing."
The elf sighed quietly as he donned his own cloak.
"I'm just disappointed by this afternoon's events," Varric said, "It lacked drama."
"It was very dramatic. Orsino is probably ruined."
"I wish she'd turned him into a nug."
"Tell it like that, then," Fenris suggested, "You are an accomplished liar."
The dwarf gave an apathetic shrug. "Whatever. Just let me know if anyone bumps into her and she kills them by making their blood explode or something."
"Gods have mercy, I hope not," Hawke said, "The Archon wants this meeting a secret. Which is why we're leaving the manor in the middle of the night and you can't tell anyone."
Fenris snorted. "Our last card game says there is no such thing."
"Just go. I have to make this afternoon marketable."
"Make sure the Arishok's head gets to the Archon's baggage train, please." Hawke tugged on the edges of her cloak nervously. "He wants that to be a surprise for the Senate when he unveils it."
"Done. Don't be late. Your blood might become explosive."
Hawke took the warning to heart and led Fenris towards one of the side doors to the outside. One of the Archon's Guard passed them- Carver. He and Bethany had arrived as part of the Archon's entourage. She had nearly forgotten. She'd find them in the morning, she swore it.
Another cloaked figure drifted through the hall towards the door, the right height for the Archon. Hawke resisted the desire to bow when he lifted his head. The man had eyes so dark it was frightening. It would have been easier to handle if they were shockingly vivid. He smiled pleasantly at them. "Let us go. Morrigan and my guard are outside already."
Hawke nodded silently and opened the door. An owl swept down as soon as it had shut behind them, landing on the Archon's shoulder. Hawke stared in spite of herself. "Morrigan," her uncle explained, "One of many Chasind tricks." The owl nipped at his ear through his hood. "Ow. Chasind gifts, I mean." The owl fluffed itself proudly.
"Is my lord ready to egress?" a smooth voice asked. An elf, smaller then Fenris, stepped forward from the shadows suddenly, spooking Fenris into snatching at his sword. The new elf chuckled. "I do so enjoy that reaction."
"You've heard rumors of Zevran." Ah, the assassin unrequitedly in love with the Archon. Yes, she'd heard.
"I'm certain she has. Tales of my exploits are well known to the beautiful women of the Imperium."
Fenris made a very, very slight growling noise. "Mistress, we should go."
He was right. Formalities could wait. "Of course. If you would follow me, uncle?"
She led them through the back alleys and abandoned streets towards her private apartment. When she opened the door, a wall of tropical scents hit her like a tidal wave. It had been too long.
The owl swooped past her head. It landed in the middle of the room and changed back into Morrigan in a burst of light. "You have excellent tastes, Prefex."
Hawke bowed her head. "Thank you, my lady."
The Archon laughed as he entered. "The north really did work it's way into your mind, didn't it?" He found a chair at the table and took a seat, relaxing like a normal human being. Morrigan stood behind him. "Which is a pity."
She wanted to ask but didn't. "Would you like any refreshments?"
Morrigan waved off the offer. "I've found it's best to starve the day before a long banquet."
"And I've found it best to follow her direction." Morrigan glared but he didn't react. “I would much rather get down to business, anyway."
Zevran chuckled. "My lord, you throw all the fun out of your life."
"The adventures of my youth have given me enough for a lifetime, as evidenced by present company. Please, Prefex, sit. My world is idle formality."
She obeyed. "I take it this is not a simple matter."
"No." He slid a nail up and down the grain of the table. "You've had some Warden guests, recently."
"They dropped by, yes."
"Yes, they've made themselves a presence at my court as well, which has never happened before. They're maneuvering, but I can't tell what for, which is...annoying."
By which he meant threatening. The Archon held his throne by being the strongest of all magisters. He had to spot, manipulate, and eradicate threats from his court or be bloodily deposed. "I honestly don't know their angle either."
"Their focus seems to be in this area, though their movements are damn hard to track. Flying mounts...what did they want when they came here?"
To hesitate would be suspicious. "Asking around for anything unusual, which they didn't define." If the Archon knew they could be facing another Blight, he would move every legion to the Vinmarks, and the Qunari would make a true move on the south-- if he believed it. If he didn't, he would dismiss her as mad for the rest of her life.
"So the Wardens are concerned," Morrigan said, "Well, actively concerned, this time. Charming."
The Archon frowned. "The dwarves aren't reporting anything, though admittedly they wouldn't. The lyrium trade has been slowing, but that's been the case for hundreds of years."
"You think they might not be holding the lower tunnels?" Hawke asked.
"I believe it's possible." He rested his elbows on the table, steepling his fingers. His dark eyes took on a distant look. "We have many irons in the fire as it stands. The Qunari have not made any serious pushes in years, but I know they want to. While I appreciate the death of the Arishok, it may be the final straw. He was predictable, and his clashes with his counterparts hindered their efforts. Whoever is appointed next could be very different."
Morrigan shrugged. "The bickering over that- the monotone, passionless bickering- will keep them busy for awhile."
"Then there are the internal issues."
"The Chasind don't merit a place on this list?"
"Not presently, my dear." He gave her a saccherine grin and continued. "My own subjects are quite willing to depose me, and slave rebellion is a constant threat. Then there's men like Orsino, who muck with forces beyond all of us." He shook his head with a sigh. “Darkspawn...Gods forbid."
Hawke cleared her throat. "The Wardens don't want the world to end, either," she said, trying to be diplomatically bold. The Wardens didn't want the world to end, true, though they couldn't care less about the Imperium and everyone knew it. "They will let us know if something happens."
"Your father was the same way. He wasn't wrong, though he knew little of the ambitions of men's hearts." He stood. "I'm aware you want to go to the north, Warmage, but I'd rather you were here. The Wardens flitting around is easier if you're in charge of the province, rather than someone like Orsino, who they won't trust." Hawke refused to let her disappointment show. "If nothing manifests within a year, I'll reassign you to Par Vollen. If something does happen, it won't matter. Now, let us return to your home, and get on with this, so I can go back north and calm the storms there."
Hawke watched Morrigan take his arm and escort him to the door, sliding his hood up for him. "Come now, Daylen, you could always control them by their blood."
Morrigan chuckled and resumed owl form.
Both and their body guard looked at Hawke. She stood hastily and bowed before going to open the door, Fenris a comfort at her back.
The journey back was silent. Hawke found herself despising every stone of this city. She bore no affection for it in the first place, and now it was not only her responsibility, but her shackle. And she had best take good care of it if she wanted to be free.
Dedicated to my little brother. I miss seeing his grumpy face on a frequent basis.
Hawke was beginning to wonder if she would ever have a good night's sleep again. Between the nightmares and last night's disappointments news, she had found herself tossing and turning, unable to sleep long. A quiet walk to an equally quiet breakfast would hopefully help settle her nerves.
Hawke turned sleepily and found herself entrapped by a delicate pair of arms. She laughed and hugged her attacker back, exhaustion forgotten. "Bethany!"
The sisters broke away, grinning at each other. Bethany was dressed in fine, simple robes, the sort of thing rich magister's wives wore to their coastal villas. She'd allowed her hair to grow out, and the northern sun had given her skin a healthy glow. Life among the Archon's court seemed to suit her well.
"It's so wonderful to see you again," Bethany said, "I have so much to tell you! Do you know the Archon's menagerie has a wyvern that he rides?"
Not the most surprising news, really. Hawke laughed. "Over breakfast. Come. We’ll eat in the kitchens before the day gets going." She'd have to witness ceremony after ceremony, audience after audience today. Many people from this province and even neighboring ones were eager to speak with the Archon, and Hawke was his host.
"Oh, right." Bethany handed her a folded scrap of paper. "From Uncle."
Hawke unfolded the paper curiously. Scrawled there, barely legible, were the words Take the day off. -your wonderful uncle, Daylen Amell
"Uncle's penmanship is horrible," she commented, "Well, let’s make it a big breakfast, then. Where's Carver?"
"Trying not to get the day off, I'm sure."
Hawke chuckled. The sisters headed to the kitchens. She heard Fenris' door creak quietly open. He was doubtlessly padding behind them.
This 'day off' was possibly her uncle's apology, but was likely the Archon's manipulation, an attempt to smooth any ruffled feathers of a magically powerful magister. Oh, well. She had no choice but to take the opportunity, which wouldn't be unpleasant.
The kitchens barely paid them any attention, though the Prefex's request for a good, homey breakfast and a place to eat it was promptly filled. Bethany ate with much more zeal than was ladylike. "I miss meals like this," she said when she saw her older sister's smile, "It's either a light snack, or a full formal dinner, even when the Archon decides not to show up."
"Now you know why I never took up a place at court."
"Don't get me wrong, it's wonderful mostly. The food truly is grand, and the things we see! Delegations come to court from all over, and the entertainers are the best in the world. Magisters bring their greatest experiments and creations for the Archon to see, and some of it is just..." She sighed, eyes wide like a child at the memory.
Hawke popped a small potato into her mouth and proceeded to talk around it. "So have you had any prospective suitors?"
Bethany blushed and dipped her head. "Yes. None of them have made any serious overtures yet, but I am the Archon's blood. They're just being careful, I'm sure."
Bethany was much too cautious when it came to such things, which honestly wasn't bad, considering some of the excesses of their class. "No one has caught your eye?"
The younger woman, her mouth full of a fresh baked bun, shook her head furiously.
"Because of your blood, you get to pick, you know. Remember that and don't feel bad because they haven't made a move." Hawke caught sight of Fenris leaning against a nearby wall, watching them and eating some kind of roll. She stood to go get him, but found herself face to chest with her heavily armored brother.
He was frowning down at her, an expression that had remained constant since he was thirteen and was indicative of no particular emotional state. Hawke grinned mischievously and reached up to ruffle his hair. He squawked and shook her off, taking a step back. "Don't do that!"
"I'm your older sister. I get to do what I want."
He looked over at his twin. "You were right. She is worse than you."
"Of course I was right."
Carver rolled his eyes. Hawke patted his shoulder and guided him into her vacated seat. "Food," she said, placating him. He began stuffing his mouth. Bethany made faces at him.
She'd missed them.
"I take it the Archon gave you the day off," she said to Carver, who growled an affirmative back through a mouthful of eggs. Bethany rolled her eyes in a manner similar to her twin. "I'm thinking, perhaps, we should visit the Hightown market." Neither looked impressed with the idea, but nothing in Kirkwall would impress them. They lived in Minrathous, the center of the world, the city to which all roads led. Kirkwall was a backwater village in comparison, thatched roofs and all. "It's surprisingly cheap. Anything metal is especially cheap, since the forges are in the city." That perked Carver up, though it took a practiced eye to tell.
"I won't turn down a shopping trip," Bethany said.
Carver shrugged. "It can't be that awful. If it's safe." He leveled a serious look at his sisters, especially the Prefex. Her baby brother had grown up and was playing at overprotective. It was vaguely endearing.
Hawke looked over to Fenris. He pushed off the wall with a warrior's efficient grace. She admired the motion for a moment and turned to her siblings as he took his place at her side. "This is Fenris, my bodyguard. We'll be safe, I assure you." They wouldn't need to worry in the Hightown market, really, but Carver needed the reassurance. He gave an assenting shrug, frowning in an agreeable way.
The mid-morning sun was making Hawke pleasantly sleepy. She was watching her siblings shop from beneath a shade tree, leaning on her staff. Carver was discussing a helmet's merits with a blacksmith,while Bethany was looking through multicolored shawls at the stall next door. There was no hint of the nightmares on the edge of her drowsy thoughts.
"Prefex." The voice startled her awake. She turned to look at the speaker: Orsino, a small compliment of ragged slaves at his back.
"Good morning, magister. I'm surprised you're not at the Archon's court." Begging for mercy on his research funding.
Orsino didn't even blink. "I'm surprised you are not attending, Prefex."
"My siblings are among his usual entourage. He granted me permission to spend time with them." She wished he'd just go away.
"Oh. The Archon is a very gracious man." An awkward silence descended, but the other magister recovered gracefully. "Well, in that case, how would you and your family like to enjoy the midday meal at my residence?"
Hawke eyed him sleepily. She guessed that he was desperately trying to either find an ally, or trying to curry favor with her uncle by treating his relatives well. Either way, it would be ineffective. And it would be a good meal. "We would be happy to enjoy your hospitality."
She'd been right. It had been a fine meal.
Bethany gave a quiet, half-suppressed burp, belatedly covering it up with a napkin. Carver laughed and the pair fell to very practiced bickering.
Their host had excused himself a few minutes ago when a slave had arrived with some message or other. It was terrible manners, but that left them to their own devices in his dining room and gave her siblings a reprieve from formality. Seeing the tension leave their shoulders, she understood the Archon's frustration with his life.
Hawke leaned back in her chair, wishing Orsino had opted for couches instead. She'd probably fall asleep, but it was a mandated day off. She observed Orsino's ornate ceiling, an expensive mosaic of the Gods defending upon ancient Arlathan. It had been done a very long time ago, because there was a whitewashed section near the top of the scene where Dumat had once spread his wings. Odd. Most ornate scenes had been permanently redone, with a new image replacing the Dragon of Silence. The whitewashing seemed thin, too.
Though she supposed it fit the rest of the opulent room. Like most magisters' dining rooms, there were hints of bloodstains on the floors. Orsino's blue and black banners ringed the room and globes of magelight light filtered through the panels of silk in the same colors, leaving one with the impression of a bruise. It wasn't the most disturbing room she'd seen in a magister's home; shortly before she'd had to leave Minrathous, it had been a fad to decorate dining rooms entirely in red, especially red spiky things, often put to practical use.
Hawke scowled and sat up. She hoped she could skip on Minrathous when she returned to the north again. She tried not to think of what it was doing to the twins. Formality was not the only thing found at the enter of the world, though her uncle himself wasn't fond of the public displays of blood magic often found at most magisterial events.
The thought must have summoned the smell of fresh blood, because the room began to vaguely reek of it. Hawke looked around. Her brother and sister didn't notice, but Fenris had locked up tight, looking over towards a a banner on the far wall. It fluttered in a breeze that hadn't been there earlier. A servant's corridor, but not one they'd seen used.
"Mistress," the elf said.
"I see it." She grabbed her staff and came to his side.
"See what?" Carver asked, standing. He had his hand on the pommel of his longsword.
A figure emerged from behind the banner, coughing. "Me, I suppose," Anders said, holding his hands out, letting his simple wooden staff rest against his shoulder.
Hawke smacked the blade of her staff on the ground. "Damn it, Anders, if you're so eager to run back to Orsino, tell me like a normal person."
Fenris grunted. His sullen dislike of the blond mage was no secret, and Hawke was occasionally tempted to join him.
Anders dropped his hands. "I'm not...what are you doing here?"
"Eating lunch," Betahny supplied, "Who are you?"
"Anders," Hawke answered. She was being short, but the situation was getting strange. "He helped with my wounds after the Arishok. What are you doing here, Anders?"
"Orsino is scum, Hawke. I knew he was conducting experiments. I..." He shifted from foot to foot. "I had to try and stop them. I can't explain."
Lusacan curse idealistic fools. If Orsino learned that her guest, his former apprentice, was mucking up his experiments, there would be repercussions. Her stay in Kirkwall might be extended, and Orsino might actually become a power in the city. “It doesn't matter. We, all of us, are returning home before this gets out of hand. I'll find a slave and extend our apologies. Come along." She strode the way to the door, Fenris in her tracks, stopping only to glare the trio into following. They obeyed.
Hawke noted Bethany's wide-eyed stare at Anders and heaved an internal sigh. She would. All that work over the years ensuring her sister wouldn't get into trouble, and here she develops feeling for a troublesome academic with little to offer.
Hawke opened her mouth to curtail this oncoming drama, but the words never got a chance to come out.
A gurgling shriek filled the air. The scent of blood became more than a hint, it became a flood. All of them turned to the open servant's corridor.
Swaying awkwardly, gargling brokenly, a horde of patchwork corpses came bursting into the room. They seemed confused for a brief moment, then began closing on Hawke and her companions.
Hawke sent a fireball into their midst without a thought. Anders followed suit, while Carver grabbed a pale, frozen Bethany and drew his sword. Fenris crouched between the corpses and Hawke, his blade ready.
This made no sense. Hawke’s mind raced as she threw another fireball. Where these undead-comprised of different parts of different bodies, by the look of them- Orsino's experiment? Some old horror from the deep crypts of the city? Anders' attempt at sabotage?
Not thoughts she could sort through here. She struck her staff against the ground. A wall of fire sprung up between the corpses and the living. "Let's go!" she shouted, using magic to push the doors to the atrium open.
Bethany blasted the front doors wide open before they even entered the atrium, racing past Hawke. As soon as they were all outside, Carver and Fenris pushed the doors shut. Hawke caught up to her sister, who was bent over, breathing hard and still very pale.
"What was that?" she asked breathlessly.
Hawke looked to Anders as he came over. "Orsino's project," he answered grimly.
"Necromancy." Hawke stabbed at the ground. "Charming." Necromancy was the art of summoning demons into dead bodies. While not banned, its tendency to go horribly wrong made it very uncommon.
Bethany stood up. "Do you still smell blood magic?"
Hawke frowned. She did. "That shouldn't--"
Feynriel burst around a corner. He skidded to a halt. "Thank the Gods," he muttered, "Prefex..." He looked back, and slumped, pointing.
She stepped to his side, the others following. More corpses, even more rudely stitched together than the last, came shambling forward. They struggled to walk, thrashing their hips forward to move.
"What happened?" Hawke asked, raising her staff to strike.
"They just...attacked the Archon. Coming from the sewers, Aveline says." He shook his head. "Prefex, I swear to you they feel like dreamers. Mortal dreamers. Not like demons."
Hawke's brow furrowed. "How is that possible?"
Fenris swept in from the side, slicing through a corpse. "I advise we leave the debate for later.”
Hawke pivoted to decapitate another body. It bled slowly and very little, the flesh already rotting. Necromancy was disgusting. “Agreed.”
The manor was a reeking mess of blood and dead flesh by the time they arrived, having cleaved through a mob of undead horrors on the way. Some of the dead were members of her household, most of them Aveline's guards.
Hawke snarled to herself and cut one of the formerly reanimated bodies in half along its seams. She was sick of these violations. Demons and Qunari and now undead, bursting into her home, killing her people, trying to ruin all her family had created.
She expected mutilated flesh and brutal violence on the battlefield. But it had no place in her home.
"Gods preserve us," Bethany muttered.
"Hopefully." Hawke followed the trail of violence further inside. At least most of the dead were undead. "Feynriel, where was the Archon when you left?"
They'd either killed all the attackers or pulled back farther into the manor. Hawke didn't know enough about what they were dealing with to know which option they'd chosen. "Throne room it is."
The hallways were the same as the entrance hall- quiet, strewn with bodies, and heavy with the scent of rot and blood. Fewer of her dead, at least.
The sight of the shattered throne room doors stopped her in her tracks. "A lot of them," Feynriel said.
Hawke nodded and broke into a run. A burst of magic cleared away the debris, leaving her clear to burst into the hall and start slashing.
The horde of dead moaned, reaching clumsily. She set her staff's bladed end aflame, lashing out to injure but not kill. The creatures ran into their brethren, screaming and setting them on fire.
Fenris flashed in the corner of her eye in a blaze of white light, while Carver kept the things off her back. Fire and lighting flashed across the crowd randomly- Anders, Bethany, and Feynriel.
Hawke coiled lightning around herself, clearing a small space, and not for long. All she could see were the corpses, with no sign of the Archon or any of his entourage.
They'd fallen back, probably outnumbered. Most of the undead must have given chase, though, because this crowd was thinning...
Her lightning faded. She lashed out with the red stone on her staff, pushing one of the corpses back and sending chain lightning through it, which leapt to others.
A roar thundered through the room. Hawke looked up, trying to pinpoint the sound.
A pack of undead- most of them- had leapt on Fenris and were dragging him to the back of the room, step by step. He gave that inhuman roar again, straining in the opposite direction.
Hawke sprinted forward, setting anything in her way on fire. The corpses managed to get Fenris' feet off the ground and suddenly gained speed, moving more sanely now. They were headed towards a gaping hole in the back.
"Demons!" Feynriel shouted.
Ah, that was something she knew. She sent lightning chasing the horde, following it as best she could. Her robes kept tangling up in her legs, and a deep scratch from one of the undead was flaring.
Damn days off. "Fenris!" she shouted, leaping over bits of shattered wall into the courtyard. Undead, the clumsy kind, wandered towards her. She smacked an oncoming corpse aside, sliced another's leg off.
A lightning bolt from behind roasted another. Carver was shouting close by, but she didn't turn. The crowd that had Fenris was right ahead.
She slammed hard into something and stumbled back reeling. Invisible barrier, not an easy spell. The others made the same mistake shortly thereafter.
On the other side of the barrier, Fenris growled, pinned beneath multiple undead. His legs were shaking but he didn't seem to be able to move, much less throw them off. Paralyzingly spell. What for? Hawke slammed her staff against the barrier, looking for its inevitable flaw.
Anders gasped beside her. "He finally lost his mind..."
Hawke looked up. The Archon and his entourage stood enclosed in a red shield. Morrigan seemed to be maintaining it, augmented with a steady flow of blood from others under her shield. The Archon was glaring out at Orsino.
The elven magister turned to look back at Hawke. "You're supposed to be dead," he told her, frowning.
"Your experiment is not terribly adept at combat." She shoved against the barrier again. He was mad. A spell was only as strong as the mind creating it. It had to give.
Fenris could only look at Hawke. His eyes were the only thing that could move. He'd been paralyzed before, but this spell made his markings ache. The vague pain was starting to grow, too. He was surprised by how it got to him; Hawke's potion must have made him unused to it.
No one had ever tried to kidnap him from the midst of a battle before. He should have seen it coming. He could have fought them off.
"It doesn't matter," Orsino said, "Your slave is here, with his lyrium. That's the only purpose you ever served."
Hawke stabbed at the barrier yet again. It flashed dimly this time.
"I knew you would go mad," the Archon said, "I didn't think it would be violent, but I saw it coming."
"Saw it coming?" Orsino shouted. Fenris didn't look from Hawke, who was staring at the barrier, brows furrowed. "That's why you destroyed my future. That's why you insulted me, derided my life's work, exiled my partners."
"Sending you to Kirkwall was where I made my mistake." The tone was calculating, lacking any emotion. "It's not a place for unstable minds. At least I know who's been weakening the Veil."
Hawke slashed this time, sending out another flash and tearing open a gaping hole. She grinned like a wolf.
The rising pain spiked, and Fenris started screaming.
He could smell blood. Lightning seared through the air nearby, burning flesh, and then it was all lost in the white heat of pain-- his markings being drawn on for power.
It stopped suddenly and he collapsed. Someone caught him before he hit the ground. "Bastard," he heard Hawke hiss.
He blinked a few times and the world resolved around him. Hawke had caught him and was now helping him sit up on his side. The pain lingered, skittering across his nerves.
Orsino stood before the Archon, cloaked in corpses.
The mage's body lost definition in a blaze of light. It warped, grew. The reek in the air became even stronger.
When the light faded, the thing that stood there should never have had a place in the world. It was as tall as the walls of the courtyard. Its muscular bulk was formed entirely of dead flesh, bodies, magically stitched together. Their faces were vaguely distinguishable, mouths open in a pained scream.
"They're gone," Feynriel said from Hawke's side, "Dreamers and demons, both, just...him... left. What did he do?"
No one had an answer for that.
"Drop it, Morrigan," the Archon ordered. The red shield fell, and the Archon walked calmly towards the monstrosity, his ornate staff clicking as he moved. "I'm not impressed, Orsino."
It gave an awful cry in response, a sound echoing from a throat without vocal cords. It reached out to snatch at the Archon.
The Archon slashed his staff through the air. The thing cried out again and fell to its knees, struggling to stand but failing. "Not at all impressed."
Blood began flowing from every source. Hawke's breath caught as it moved from a scratch in her side in a thin stream, towards the Archon. A red, roiling ball formed in front of him.
It split, reformed into two hands that grabbed the monster's arms. It thrashed its misshapen head to no avail. The hands pulled.
Every stitch flew apart. Flesh and organs fell to the ground with a splat.
The head went flying. Two arms emerged from it and it began to crawl away...only to find itself pinned under Morrigan's delicate boot.
"An inelegant use of magic, Orsino,” theconsort said, “I thought you could at least use your resources for something actually formidable." She drove her foot through the scrabbling beast. "Daylen, can we be done with this city now? My patience for it, at least, is at an end."
The Archon knocked aside a chunk of flesh contemptuously with his staff. "As is mine."
"At least it's over," Varric said.
Hawke, watching the gates close from the manor's ramparts, gave a short laugh. "That is over. I'm sure something else is on the way." She leaned against a wall. "Fifty-three of my household are dead, at least half slain by the Archon and his consort. They repaid me handsomely for the slaves." She shook her head. "I'm stranded here for at least another year. My parting with the Archon was chillier than I'd like, so it could be longer, even if the world doesn't end."
"Wait, wait. What's this about the world ending?"
"I have no doubt you'll learn soon enough."
Isabela, dressed similarly to her old pirate attire, appeared at Hawke's side. "Your shiny elf is awake and restless now. I guess the healers are done. Kalias thought you should know."
Hawke stared at her. "Oh, right, the losses have made you important now. See, Varric, the first of our new problems."
"I promise, Prefex-- mistress," she corrected at Hawke's glare, "I'll be on my best behavior."
"That's still against the law in every province in the Imperium," Varric snapped, "I'm not playing cards with you ever again."
Isabella gave a half-smile. "I'll take that as you accepting my apology."
"You never apologized."
"It was implied."
Hawke didn't have the resources to do anything but let Isabela matter in this household. "Understand the consequences for misbehaving, Isabela."
"Then we'll make do." She turned and walked back down the stairs from the heights.
Kalias and Fenris were waiting at the bottom. The older elf was subtly holding the younger one up, a trace of his old humorous forbearance on his face. Fenris just looked annoyed. Kalias had probably stopped him from trying to come up the stairs. "Mistress," they both said.
"Good morning," she replied, "Feeling better, Fenris?"
"Back to normal, yes."
Kalias rolled his eyes but remained silent.
"Hopefully things will stay quiet for a few days. Kalias, did you get the manifest for our losses?"
His eyes fell to the floor. "Yes, mistress."
Hawke rubbed her temples. "Look at me, please." He did. "I want you to find replacements for the slaves and freedmen servants we lost." Normally, he would have done it without word, but these days, she wasn't so sure. "Bear in mind anyone you buy will have a better life here than anywhere else." She had no doubt Orsino had used slaves to fuel his experiments, stitching their mangled corpses together to create the undead who'd attacked yesterday. Many others did similar things.
"Of course, mistress. Aveline informed me that she was already looking to hire."
"Good." Maybe they could get the world back to a semblance of normal before the next crisis. "Where's Feynriel?"
That always seemed like a euphemism for something. "I have a lesson to teach him. Come along, Fenris. I’ll make some of your potion after I talk to him. It will help."
"Ah." Kalias let him go so he could take the few shaky steps towards Hawke. He stumbled and she caught his weight before he fell. He stiffened as she adjusted his arm over her shoulder. "You are tired. I can..."
"No, you can't. Kalias, report your progress at dinner." Hawke and Fenirs made slow progress to the library.
"You don't have to help me, mistress," the elf said.
"Is this your sense of place, your fear, or your sense of self-sufficiency talking?"
He turned his head away. "All."
"You've dragged me from a torture pit built out of my worst fears." Only her exhaustion had allowed her to sleep the night through, and the nightmares had still been there. "As far as I'm concerned, there is no room for such things."
"You do not owe me."
"I don't, that is true. I try to avoid debt, anyway." She paused, thinking of how to put it. "I care about you."
He shifted uncomfortably. "I...thank you."
They found Feynriel staring wide-eyed at Anders in the library, the book in his hands forgotten. Hawke grit her teeth. Anders hadn't played much of a part in what had gone wrong, but she still thought him a fool for breaking into Orsino's home.
Well, at least she wouldn't have to track him down later. "Apprentice," she said. Feynriel's attention snapped to her. "What can you explain about what happened in my home yesterday?" She sat in one of the other chairs after, Fenris leaning heavily on its back.
He fidgeted. "I don't know what it was, but I know what I...felt. Saw. It's hard to explain."
"Those things were dreamers, I think. They were in the Fade, as if they were asleep, but...it was all wrong. They were all wrong. I tried to touch their minds, but each one was like a mob, shouting to try and get their voice heard."
"Orsino was experimenting with bringing the dead back to life," Anders said, "I didn't realize he'd gone in the direction we saw. He had me working on...a form of blood magic only I could do. It wasn't going to go anywhere, but a warm bed is a warm bed." He sighed and then refocused. "I heard through some contacts that he was cutting slaves to pieces and sewing together a different corpse from the pieces, which was why I was investigating."
Hawke leaned back and shut her eyes, trying to remember her old lessons about necromancy. Like summoning demons, all mages learned about it, but it was all theory. "He shouldn't have been able to trap mortal souls in a body. Demons leap on the chance, and there are stories of spirits doing it, but a mortal soul is less...communicative. They go somewhere else when their bodies die, and there's been lots of research on that."
"Perhaps," Fenris said carefully, "They did not die when he was...doing that."
The three mages stared at him. Researchers could be cruel, yes, but cutting apart the living for a necromantic ritual was beyond any remotely sane person. Doing it repeatedly would attract things best left alone.
But Danarius had done something similar to Fenris, hadn't he? Experimenting on and mauling a living person. Hawke's eyes fell on his visible markings, so commonplace to her now. She really hated that bastard.
It was Anders who broke the horrified silence. "Did you notice some of the bodies were completely warped-- proportions all wrong, pieces not picked to match-- while others looked almost normal? For dead people, I mean."
Hawke embraced the change in subject. "I was busy not dying."
"They each seemed designed for a certain purpose, I think. That explains why we'd get batches of different corpses with the same characteristics...not a control measure..." He drifted off into a likely strange and disturbing place. Academics. Always the most twisted of people, deep down.
Hawke left him to it and turned to Feynriel. "Have you felt anymore of these things?" He shook his head. "Good. They probably collapsed when Orsino died." The memory threatened to make her gag. "The Archon already plundered Orsino's manor, so I imagine someone else will pull the same trick sooner or later. Perhaps even my uncle. You, apprentice, will be writing down your observations and the theories discussed here into a report. Also look add anything in necromantic or blood theory that might be helpful. I want a record of this for future emergencies."
Anders came out of his musing. "I'll help, if you don't mind, Prefex."
"Only help. Feynriel must do the work."
Anders gave her a small smile, which had probably melted the hearts of the more sentimentally inclined. "Mostly just proof-reading and finding some references, don't worry."
"Very well. Don't go into any more places where you don't belong while you sleep under my roof. It reflects poorly on me, and I want out of this mad city sooner rather than later."
She'd take it. After all, she was at the point of somewhat trusting Isabela. That was more likely to go wrong.
After the trial that was brewing thart potion for Fenris, the rest of the day was spent on further damage control. The attack had focused almost exclusively on the Archon, damaging only the manor. Most of the casulties had been within the walls, as well. While denizens of Hightown had definitely seen the corpses, they'd been ignored unless they got in the way. Since, this city lacking sense, several people had gotten in the way, there were a handful of injuries and one truly brutal mauling.
However, Hawke went out to comfort the magisters and other powerful figures in the city, as well as penning a general decree to prevent a fearful riot. She longed for the days when she would just order people to behave and they would.
A year. That was all she needed to deal with. Just one more year of this miserable city.
She and Fenris finished the evening in a reading lesson. Hawke drifted off on the desk, waking at a gentle touch on her wrist. She gave Fenris a small smile, not bothering to move from her honestly uncomfortable sprawl. No horrific thoughts troubled her mind. "There are probably better places to fall asleep," she commented.
"It is not that late." His hand did not move from her arm.
"There's a great many things on my mind." She watched as his bare, branded hand moved incrementally down her arm. His expression betrayed nothing but concentration.
They were both very tired. She did not choose to put anymore thought into the motion than that.
"We let too many magisters do what Orsino did," she said, "What Danarius did."
His brow furrowed, eyes not leaving her arm. His touch was so tentative. "I don't disagree, mistress."
"Don't call me that." She felt herself drifting off again, but continued her original train of thought. "I would have stopped them, if I'd known. I don't know, maybe Anders is right."
His fingers paused, then resumed back up her arm. "I...will speak freely, as you seem to desire."
"He isn't wrong." He brought his hand up, away from her arm, turning it in front of his eyes. "This...this is an expensive cruelty, but there are many millions of cheaper ones and they are not right." His hand came back down to rest on her arm. It occurred to her that he could hurt her quite easily, but his hand was a comforting warmth. "But Anders doesn't seem to see the forest for the trees. He..." He sighed. "He's consorted with terrible things in the process of his crusade. He is a danger in this house, and a danger to his own supposed purpose."
Hawks chuckled sleepily and twisted a bit to catch his hand in hers. Her eyes shut. "Thank you, Fenris. I think you might see some things a bot more clearly than I do. You are not so tangled in this."
Her breathing steadied in the quiet, and she found herself falling into a peaceful slumber.
Hawke awoke in her own bed to a terrible commotion. She lay there in confusion for a moment before getting up. She was still in the robes from yesterday, though her boots were now sitting nearby on the floor.
It was the kind of commotion that demanded the wearing of boots, so she put them on and hurried to the source.
It seemed like most of the household had gathered outdoors, with the main doors flung wide open, staring at the great entrance courtyard. Aveline and her guards were keeping them from venturing any further out.
The crowd didn't seem to notice when their lady and mistress approached, so she had to fight her way through. "Prefex," Aveline said when she saw her, causing the others to finally move.
Th scent of blood was heavy in the air, though with no tang of magic. "What's going on?" Hawke asked. The freedwoman stepped aside so she could see.
Hawke could only stare.
Every surface, floor, columns, walls, everything was covered in the emblem of Dumat, that old sigil of betrayal and slaughter, painted in deep, thick red.
Hawke paced through the scrubbing slaves. She'd barely spoken anything but orders since the discovery of the vandalism.
Vandalism. Fenris looked at once of the untouched runes grimly as he followed the Prefex. Too light a word for this. There was no evidence of any spell, and the red had only been paint, but any mark of Dumat was a curse in its own way.
Aveline had been dispatched to find evidence of who had dared paint the profane sigil. She'd been gone half the day, now, and it was doing no good for Hawke's nerves. Fenris longed to soothe her- strange desire- but he didn't know where to start. Besides, she would much rather have a target than calming words.
The guards at the front gates started yelling. Hawke stopped in her tracks, watching with narrowed eyes.
Aveline and three of the four guards she'd left with stumbled free of the cloning watch. They were bruised and cut up, and the scent rolling off of them wasn't sewer-stench. If possible, it wash worse, a cloying reek that kept growing stronger.
Aveline looked around wildly until she caught sight of Hawke. "Prefex," she called, pushing one of the guard mages towards her men. She stomped over to Hawke. "I...we found the cause of...this."
"What?" Hawke moved to close the distance and staggered back, raising a hand to her nose. "What is that stench?"
Aveline looked over her shoulder and drew closer. Fenris buried his nose in his shoulder. The freedwoman stood right next to Hawke, looking down at her, face grim. "Darkspawn. In the sewers."
Hawke started. Fenris dropped his shoulder, awful scent forgotten, and stared. "Are you sure?" Hawke asked.
"They were like every legend I've ever heard. They killed one of us, and there were only five of them. We slaughtered them all, but I don't know if there's more. They were...they were hideous, wrong. Like that wasting disease....this smell was all over. They were roasting meat, and it looked like elf."
Hawke stood stock still for a long time. Aveline visibly swallowed, unsteady on her feet. "Get yourself and your men healed. I'm going to take a trip, and you're going to have to hold things together."
Aveline shook her head. "Not this time. I want to stop those things from existing, and if you're going to fight them, I'm going with you."
With another magister, those words would have been death, but they just won a rueful smile from Hawke. "Very well. Get healed, get clean, get some horses and supplies ready." She fisted a hand in her hair. "I've got to...Fenris, is Anders still here? You know; you're paranoid enough about him."
He was, though it irked him she knew it. "Yes. He and Feynriel are researching in the library. Varric should have an eye on him."
"Come on. He's the nearest thing to an expert we have."
Fenris snarled to himself, but followed as she marched to the library.
Hawke burst into the library, surprising the two mages where they were pouring over bloodstained notes. She glared at them. "Feynriel, be careful with those. It looks like human skin. Anders, we need to find those Wardens."
Anders initial look of pleasure faded. He shrugged and returned to the notes. "Just follow the stories of gryphons. Here." He tapped a spot in the notes. "That's an intriguing idea. I never would have thought of dreaming in that way."
"The Grey Wardens?" Feynriel asked.
"Yes. Anders, this is serious. The vandalism of this morning was just the beginning."
"It's always the beginning with them. Always the imminent end of the world. Since we're all still here, they've always been wrong. There are more important real problems." He looked up and tapped the notes. "This, here, this is the key to doing something."
Fenris moved around Hawke, along the wall. He didn't like the tone of that statement. It held the hint of the demon echo.
Hawke crossed her arms, frowning. "There is nothing in Orsino's notes that should be done. Not for any cause. You're a delusional academic, Anders, but don't cross that line. You won't win."
The taller mage grit his teeth. "You're mistaken in that, Magister Hawke. Very mistaken." The echo wasn't a hint anymore. Anders eyes had begun to glow.
Hawke shifted into a fighting stance. Without a staff, her hands were held wide and open. It looked like she was prepared to grapple with him. "What is going on?"
Feynriel had backed to a bookshelf. "He's a demon."
The blue overwhelmed Anders's eyes now. "I am Justice! And I will fix this world!"
There was a crash and an acid scent in the air. Fenris' eyes began to water. Anders stumbled back, blinking, and fell.
Varric sighed from a chair at the end of the table. "Mages. They never think dwarves can take them down."
Hawke sneezed. "You killed him?"
"No. Just put him out. Waste of a good vial, really. I'd stay away from him for a few hours, or it will drop you too."
"What is he?" Feynriel asked, edging towards Hawke, carefully avoiding Anders.
"An abomination," Fenris said, "Varric and I have seen his...show...before."
"And you didn't tell me?" Hawke demanded.
"Listen, Prefex," Varric said, "I've seen what demons can do on their own. Give them a mage, with whatever Warden specialness he's got going on, and I don't think we want to piss him off. We weren't sure how to handle it."
Hawke glared at them and then cast a disdainful glance at Anders. "We'll discuss this later. He's not going to be of any help. Feynriel, I'm going to be gone for a few days. Time for you to take up your authority as my apprentice. Have the guards throw Anders in the dungeon with a constant watch on him. Trust Kalias. Fade take it, trust Isabela, though do not sleep with her."
"Of course... I'll do this, mistress."
Hawke ruffled his hair. "Take care of your mother, too." Feynriel bowed and bolted out the door.
Varric slid out of his chair. "So where are we going?" He raised an eye row at Hawke's look. "What, you thought you could leave me out of this one?"
"The more the merrier," Hawke said, "I bet Merrill is waiting at the stables."
"That's good, she's better at getting those animals to go than I am. Can't get them to move, but I'm good with the reins," Varric said, "Again, where are we going? To the Wardens, yeah, but where? Give me somewhere to start this story."
"Into the Vinmarks."
"That's adventurously vague."
"So that's three villages we've seen evacuating. Poisoned wells, diseased livestock, plants that just and die...reads like the old stories of the Blight," Varric said, audible over the echo of hooves in the narrow canyon.
"And that altar," Merrill said, "the one with that symbol all over it, like the entrance courtyard and the images of our gods."
"Dumat, Merrill. The rune of Dumat, and betrayal, and...a lot of bad stuff."
"I did pick up on that. Why is it that, though? A curse?"
Fenris was glad they were riding behind him. That made it easier not to kill the other elf.
It had been four days of slow riding, with too many depressing sights, and they were running short on supplies.
"The Blight, Merrill," Hawke called back from right in front of him, "Dumat was the leader of the Gods. The God of Silence. He...he fell. Some magisters were...it's not known. They were doing an experiment, pushing some boundary. They were corrupted, and the corruption spread to Dumat- some stories say he chose it, some say it was unwilling. He became the Archdemon. The corruption spread to all living things, and even tainted the land itself. The monsters marched on the entire world, spreading death and disease. The Wardens killed the Archdemon, and ended the Blight. The darkspawn were driven underground, where the Dwarves have fought a long and bitter war against them. Still fight it. The Wardens stand guard against another Blight."
"And now there are darkspawn on the surface again," Aveline said, "and we're trying to find a pair of Wardens no one told me dropped by."
"And Anders is an abomination, which no one told me about it. It's a long chain of deception we’re caught in, and I'm sure it will get worse."
Fenris winced. They should have told her, yes. To what avail, though? Another fight in their own halls? Anders was rotting in the manor's dungeon. It didn't matter anymore.
"Does this place seem...I don't know, more desolate than usual?" Varric asked. Fenirs turned to follow his gaze around the canyon. It would seem they were the only living things in the area. There wasn't even lichen growing on the rocks, and the dirt was bone dry. Every step of their horses' hooves kicked up clouds of dust.
Aveline's horse reared, suddenly. She struggled to calm the beast down and drew her sword.
Hawke spurred her mount forward, pulling her staff from its loop on her saddle. "Please tell me it was a shadow."
"I'm not sure."
The party's eyes scanned the barren stone, not moving, weapons drawn. No shadow flickered, no sound echoed. It was more disturbing than motion.
Varric fired a bolt into shadowed stone. Merrill, surprised, toppled sideways from their saddle. "Ah," Varric said, lowering Bianca, "Sorry. This place makes me jumpy."
Merrill coughed and leapt to her feet. "Well, I certainly jumped."
Hawke, annoyed and too tense, slapped her staff's blade against a wall of rock.
As if the resultant ringing was a signal, darkspawn leapt down from the cliffs above.
The horses reared and screamed. Fenris was thrown, hitting a wall of rock brutally hard. The darkspawn didn't give him time to clear his head. One of them, small and twisted, leapt on him, its drooling rictus grin filling his vision.
He lashed out, reaching into its chest and twisting. It froze and toppled backward.
The elf shook his head and found his way to his feet. His horse had run off with his sword; he hadn't been able to ride with it on his back. A ringing hum dominated his hearing and clouded his thoughts.
In front of him, the others fought the darkspawn. Varric, Hawke, and Aveline had managed to retain their mounts, though Varric was barely controlling his animal, shooting as he tried to steer. Merrill was lost in a haze of blood, her elvish chants warped with growing power.
There was a garbled cry above him. Fenris looked up to see a leaner monster jump down, aiming for him.
It never got that far. A lightning bolt shot out, so bright it blinded, and the creature was incinerated. Fenris turned in time to see Hawke impale another darkspawn before it took the elf’s head off.
Her steed was wild-eyed and twitching, but she held it steady. Fenris stared hazily up at her as she said something.
After a beat, frustrated, she grabbed him and half dragged him onto the saddle behind her. He scrambled too clumsily for a better perch as the horse lunged forward again.
Her staff's blade went down and black blood flew into the air and down and more blood. There was lightning and fire and great crushing force. The scent of Merrill's blood magic burst into the air, competing with the stink of the darkspawn. It was all so blurry. Fenris saw and understood but it was like a play on a stage. He could barely focus on staying in the saddle.
And then a terrible scream sounded from above and winged shadows fell over the canyon.
The gryphons hit the ground hard, eyes burning. Their riders had their weapons drawn, faceless and grim in their heavy helmets. The darkspawn howled, turning their attention away from the party and to the newly arrived Wardens.
The Wardens struck first, launching their gryphons into the mass. Blades flashed. The gryphons exploded into the air, dragging darkspawn high before they dropped them. They swooped down again, grabbing another few to smash against the canyon wall, then landed again to tear the stragglers to pieces with talon, beak, and sword.
When the dust settled, they turned toward Hawke and company. Fenris watched them remove their helmets. The two from before, then. They'd found them.
The woman, Elissa, gave them a grim smile. "Good. Maybe now we can fix this."
Hawke wasn't a good healer, even when she wasn't having a conversation about the end of the world at the same time. Fenris winced as her power attempted to mend whatever was wrong with his skull. He'd appreciated it when she'd first buried her hands in his hair, now not so much.
"So it's not another Archdemon."
"Not yet," Elissa said. There were a lot of meaningful pauses in this conversation. "It's a different problem. Maybe...maybe a worse one, if it could get darkspawn all the way to Kirkwall. We can't solve it. You have to."
"Yes." Something itched under Fenris scalp, then it burned very painfully. "Sorry, Fenris. Yes, you told me that you couldn't fix it. Why is that?"
"Oh, enough of this secrecy," Alistair said, "We can't go into the ruins because it will take control of our minds." Elissa kicked him loudly. Fenris would have looked up if Hawke wasn't holding his head firmly down. "What? I'm not going to explain it, I just said what was happening."
Hawke sighed. "What am I supposed to do about your problem?"
"What you do best. Kill it."
"Like that'll be easy," Varric said nearby. Fenris could see him and glared for lack of a better target as another spot on his head began to burn. The dwarf ignored him. "What's the catch?" He snapped his fingers as the idea hit. "Ruin's infested with darkspawn, isn't it?"
"Yes," Alistair said.
"None of this explains why the symbol of Dumat was all over our courtyard," Aveline said.
"There's possibly a reason for that," Elissa said, "It's not really important. I'm surprised they would be able to do it, and with paint, and in a place they haven't already claimed. But this is...unusual."
Aveline was silent for a long while, probably fixing the Warden with her killing stare. "I don't trust them as far as I can throw them, Prefex."
Hawke's fingers left Fenris' hair, taking the ache in his head with them. He finally looked up to the others. They were all tense, hands resting on weapons. Even Merrill, drawing in the dust where she sat, kept her staff in hand.
"If they were bothering to hide that they have secrets, I'd agree," Hawke said, "I ask honesty in this: will whatever you're hiding make my part in this more difficult?"
"No. There's not much we can't tell you. We don't know that much. The garrison here is dead, the records are obscure and most of them are restricted. We know...its name, its origin, its nature. None of this is useful to...well, one thing. It's a powerful and ancient magic user, and it has been here for a very long time."
"We're fairly certain that it hasn't moved outside of its cell," Alistair added, "Can't, really. Not yet."
Hawke looked at them all. "Let's eat first, and rest a few hours," she said, "Then we'll go fix the problem not even Wardens dare touch."
"This is insane," Varric said, "Seriously, who thought this crazy maze up?"
"Oh, I know!" Merrill said, "The same people who won't tell us what we're here to kill!"
"That's a fair point, Daisy."
"Quiet," Hawke said wearily. They'd been up and down this tower, or at least it felt like they had, fending off demons and darkspawn and the utterly bizarre puzzles concocted by ancient Warden mages. She had a slight burn on her leg from the most recent one. The foul scent of darkspawn was ubiquitous, now, which didn't make her any less irritable.
And suddenly, fresh air.
Hawke stopped, gaping. A walkway, watched over at regular intervals by huge gryphon statues, stretched out steeply before them, leading to the domed, column-bound top of a tower.
Lights stormed between the columns, rattling them. "That's our problem, I take it." She could taste the power of it in the air. It was a strange and terrible sensation, thick and sickening, like poison. Hawke had to lean heavily on her staff to stay upright.
Fenris growled. He was glowing, his markings pulsing steadily. "This is a very wrong place."
Merrill nodded from where she was cringing. "I can feel it, too. This thing...it's awful. Worse than Orsino's corpses. So much worse..."
Aveline and Varric, unaffected, were looking between the three of them. "We can handle it," the freedwoman said.
Hawke shook her head and started forward. "No. We've all gotten this far." She halted after a few steps, shutting her eyes as if it might help. It didn't. This thing was a blazing wrongness, ringing through the Veil and into her head. "We need to stop it," she muttered, shifting her grip on the staff and continuing forward. Fenris and Varric came to her side, helping her move. The elf, while feeling this thing, was clearly less affected.
Behind them, Hawke could hear Aveline coaxing Merrill forward.
Step by step, they made their way to the tower. Hawke was steadily able to take more of her own weight. It wasn't that the sick sensation abated. She just was adapting to it.
Two grim stone gryphons guarded the tower entrance and the raging lights beyond. They halted at their feet to stare at what lay within.
It was darkspawn, Hawke was fairly certain of that. Its skin had the same look, but its face...the face was very human. Except for the hideous growths coming out of the left side of its face, she could have sworn it was a magister, clad in very ancient and tattered regalia.
Its- his, really- his eyes were shut, his arms conducting the swirling lights as they slammed against the columns and some invisible barrier forcefully. The tower shook with each assault. The creature was trying to escape.
The eyes opened, pale blue, and the humanity of the thing grew more apparent, as did the sheer wrongness of him.
"How come ye here?" he rumbled, "Ye are not among those I have called to my aid."
None of them could find an answer.
"It does not matter," he declared. He stopped controlling the lights, instead throwing his arms out. A bright wave of corrupted power rolled outward in all directions, nearly forcing all of Hawke's company to their knees. "Bow before me, Corypheus, magister of the Imperium, servant of Dumat!"
No. No, it couldn't be. He was darkspawn, a mage, a follower of Dumat, but...no. Those magisters, those proud fools who unleashed the Blight, they were long dead. They had to be. The Wardens would have killed them.
If this was one of those magisters, if it was possible, then he had to die, and they were the ones here to do it.
Hawke struggled lose of the others' aid, moving to stand directly in front of Corypheus, but still beyond the edge of the barrier. She stood to her full height, striving to ignore the heavy wrongness in the air. "I am Magister Marian Hawke of the Tebinter Imperium, the Warmage, niece of Archon Daylen Amell, Prefex of Kirkwall."
Corypheus bared his teeth in a grisly victory grin. "Daughter of the Imperium, do thy duty and break this cage!"
She shook her head. "No."
"How dare ye!"
"I am your long overdue executioner, you profane thing."
Another wave went out. Merrill fell and began throwing up. "Ye may try, small one, but mind that I bear the blessing of Dumat!"
"Dumat is dead."
Corypheus roared, throwing a hand out and sending a chain of light lashing against the barrier before Hawke. The barrier glowed and vanished.
Hawke's eyes widened. She rolled as another blaze of light, a sickly yellow, came arcing down. It shattered the stones where she had been standing.
Corypheus sent streams of lightning coursing along the floor. Hawke jumped, twisting as he threw his strange lights at her. She had to dance quick and awkward across the floor. It seemed to go on forever, relentless.
But age did tell. Corypheus had to pause between spells, just the space of a breath.
Hawke lifted her arms high and brought them down swiftly. A wave of force crushed the ancient darkspawn to the ground. She held the spell, pushing down, trying to squeeze the life out of him.
"Stronger...than I thought," the ancient mage rumbled, "but not strong enough!" He rose, throwing off her spell in another rush of sick power.
Hawke had to pause to steady herself, nearly retching. Corypheus threw out a hand and lightning shot forward, racing across her skin. She screamed.
It ended as suddenly as it started. Hawke was shaking, on her knees. The scent of burnt hair filled the air. She'd dropped her staff. Her skin was raw all over. She lifted her head to see Corypheus swatting off Aveline and Fenris.
He brushed aside a few of Varric's shots and a weak blast of magic from Merrill before moving to Hawke. "Archon's blood, ye say. I have my doubts." He raised his hands above her, sickly but powerful lights gathering around them.
She picked up her staff, blade forward, and lunged like legionnaire, burying it in Corypheus' belly.
He blinked, hands dropping, powerless. Hawke withdrew the blade, using the bloodied staff as a crutch.
Corypheus staggered backwards, clutching at the gaping wound. "Dumat..." he wheezed, "Please, my mighty lord, please, at least this..."
His body collapsed into a puddle of slime and rotting robes.
Hawke stared for a long minute, then limped over to the puddle. It looked like darkspawn blood, and reeked even stronger than normal. She poked at it with her staff. Nothing worth salvaging. They were done.
The sound of steady clapping broke the silence. Hawke started to turn.
A bolt of magic caught her in the back, forcing her all the way to the ground.
I haven't played Legacy in a long time, and for various reasons can't replay it at the moment, so I've gotten creative. Besides, game boss fights generally don't translate into writing very well.
Fenris turned towards the newcomer with a snarl. From the over the edge of the narrow walkway, large dark shapes leapt up and pinned the entire company to the columns.
Fenris grasped and kicked at his captors- three, well within his ability to handle- but stopped as Hawke's attacker spoke.
"Well done, Warmage, well done. Your uncle put you in a position to be challenged, and you overcame it all. Of course, in tackling the local problems, you forgot about me."
Fenris shoved at the arms pinning him enough to see Danarius walk over to where Hawke lay unmoving. He kicked her. "I know you're not dead."
She must have said something, because Danarius cackled and kicked her again. "Impudence in the face of defeat will win you nothing."
Something inside Fenris overcame his instinctual terror. "Leave her alone, Danarius!" he snarled. The men holding him tried to muffle him, earning a few hard bites.
Danarius turned from Hawke and swaggered over to Fenris. He'd forgotten the way the man moved, the way he put the promise of pain and humiliation into every step. He stopped right in front of his thugs, grinning. "My dear little Fenris," he purred, "soon enough, you'll call me master again, like you should, and help me take the Imperium for the Dragon of Silence."
Fenris snarled, anger winning over shock. What had Danarius just said? Dragon of Silence...Dumat?
"You're insane!" Aveline shouted, earning her a few loud strikes.
Danarius didn't even look at her. He ruffled Fenris' hair, making the elf's skin crawl. "I want power- I want the Imperium- and the greatest of all givers of power is Dumat. I can make this world into what I want if I just have enough power. It's a pity Corypheus is dead, since I'm certain he did know how to contact Dumat, but I would have had to eliminate him eventually. Still, it gives me back what I want. And eradicates a threat. I was hoping my little message in Kirkwall would work."
"You," Fenris growled, "I'll die before I call you master again."
Danarius snorted. He lowered his staff, examining it and tapping at it with too long fingernails. The object made Fenris' markings thrum with a dim pain. The staff a red aura, and its sole decorating feature was a twisted, crowned feminine figure. "Let him go. I'll tame him. In fact, let them all go. I want to see what exactly this trinket can do."
Fenris' captors dropped away. He struck out, his arm phasing into one and tearing something loose before the man could get far enough away. Fenris threw the chunk of flesh away and drew his sword. He could see the other three were free and moving on Danarius, though Merrill put forth the effort to fling her captors off the walkway.
Danarius laughed. He raised his staff high. A red light flashed from it. The tower shook.
Varric started cursing. Fenris glanced at him and followed his gaze.
The stone gryphons guarding the entrance to the tower had come to life. They peered down with dull stone eyes and stomped towards Aveline, Varric, and Merrill.
Fenris turned to Danarius, who was grinning madly. The elf cried out and charged.
Danarius didn't seem to expect that. He used his staff to block Fenris' furious blows, as he pushed them backwards towards the center of the tower.
Danarius threw up a shield, buying himself time to breathe. Fenris struck at it and began pacing circles around the mage.
He could see, on the edges of his vision, the others fighting the statues. Varric seemed to have gotten onto one's back and was chipping away at weak spots in the aged stone as Aveline led it along. Merrill had tangled the other in tendrils of her own blood, working away at its cracks. Hawke had managed to roll to the side, and lay terribly still. She was still breathing, at least. He couldn't worry now.
Fenris turned his attention back to Danarius and hit his shield again. The magister was still breathing heavily. "You are mine, little wolf. Remember that."
Fenris just hit the shield again. It wavered, then fell. He launched himself at Danarius.
Red lightning danced along his staff as he blocked, searing along Fenris' blade and striking at his hands. He kept hold of his blade anyway, pushing at Danarius. He wouldn't give up, not to this man, not ever.
The wind picked, blowing so cold that Fenris' armor began to gather frost. He could feel the ground start burning, heating his bare soles. Something crashed behind him and the tower trembled.
The red aura began to gather around Danarius, making his eyes glow a dull hungry red. Fenris didn't dare break away, didn't dare leave him an opening.
Suddenly, the magister stumbled and violently fell, his strange staff flying from his hand, shattering as it hit the ground.
Hawke, clutching her staff- which she'd just tripped her enemy with- rolled away before he hit the ground, brilliant blue eyes locking with Fenris' for an instant.
Fenris lifted his blade high over Danarius. "You are not my master!"
The sword reflected the glow of Fenris' markings as it swept down. Danarius wasn't even looking at as it came down, rather glaring at Hawke, screaming something.
He silenced as Fenris' blade cleaved him in two.
Everything grew still. Fenris stood frozen over the gore, staring at it, breathing hard.
Danarius was dead. First, Hadriana, and now, Danarius. He'd killed them both.
"And here I asked you to tear his heart out," Hawke said. The comment shook him out of it. He looked at her. She'd managed to sit up, though it looked like an effort.
"Sorry to disappoint you." He let his sword fall, suddenly tired, and dropped next to her.
"Result's the same, really."
Varric trotted up to them through a field of rubble. The gryphons must have collapsed on themselves when the staff shattered. "I realize this is a big moment, but I rode one of those things into a supporting column and I'd like not to test this place's structural integrity."
"Right," Hawke said, "Help me move."
They lifted her from her feet, supporting her and rushing off the remains of Corypheus' prison. Aveline and Merrill were already on the walkway, looking relived when they saw them.
"Let's go home," the wild elf said.
"Yes." Aveline nodded vigorously. "A bath and a few days of quiet."
"Let's find a way off of here. Keep an eye out for Danarius' thugs."
"Oh, them?" said a cheerful, southern voice, "They're dead."
They looked to see the Warden Alistair sitting on a thankfully immobile gryphon statue, cleaning his sword. His very real gryphon sitting next to him, glaring at the statue.
"So we did it?" Hawke asked wearily.
"Well....yes. It could be complicated, but it won't be bad for...oh, centuries, my lovely Elissa says."
"I guess I'll take that."
"Hooray for our side," Varric growled, "Where are the stairs?"
Alistair stood up. "The way you came in is the way you would go. However, Elissa and I will quite happily fly you back to your horses and escort you some of the way to Kirkwall." As if on cue, Elissa came swooping down on her mount.
Varric scowled. "I'm going to be the first dwarf to get airsick."
"This is as far as we go," Elissa told them as they broke camp not a day's ride from Kirkwall, "We need to report to the regional commander."
"Of course," Hawke said. She still felt awful and horribly weak. She'd ridden most of the way with Fenris. They'd have to strap her into the saddle before they got near the city gates so she could feign dignity. The High Dragon hadn't worn her out this much. The nightmare trap hadn't worn her out this much. "Thank you for the assistance."
The other woman laughed. "We're the ones who set you on this, after all."
"Be careful," Alistair said as he mounted his gryphon, "There's smoke covering Kirkwall."
Elissa nodded as she mounted up. "We just scouted ahead yesterday, mind. Take care, Prefex Hawke. The Wardens will consider you a friend, from now on."
Probably the kind of friend you asked favors of whenever you saw them. "Thank you. Be well."
The Wardens put on their helmets and took off. Hawke watched them disappear over the mountains. She would be of no use in taking down the tents.
Fenris grunted painfully nearby. She turned to see him stand still and stiff, slowly unlocking his muscles to come over to her. "Are you alright?" she asked.
"We ran out of potion for my markings days ago. I'm...unused to the pain, now. I'll endure." He reached a hand out to help her up. She had to use him as a crutch to get to the horse.
"I'll make more when we get back." He helped her into the saddle, then settled behind her. She let him take the reins. She was too weak.
They moved along the road at a steady pace. There were no other travelers out, which was strange. There were usually tinkers and other wanderers going to and from the city at this hour.
As they crested the first hill with a view of Kirkwall, they saw why.
Kirkwall was burning.
Smoke hung over the city, as the Wardens had said. The flickering red glow of fire emanated from the lower city, the damage hidden by the walls, while the heights were visibly ruined.
Hawke sat up higher. "What?" she shouted, "What happened?"
No one had an answer. Her strength failed her suddenly and she slumped again.
"We can't go in,"Aveline said. Hawke glared at her. "It's been days and you still can't stay in the saddle on your own. You aren't in a condition to just charge in and stop it, whatever it is."
"She's right," Fenris rumbled at her back.
Hawke hated to concede the point, but she had to. That was her responsibility burning- again. Her household trapped in the midst of violence- again. And she'd been away on her own lark- again. She had failed miserably here, and she barely had the energy for anger, at herself or the unknown perpetrator.
"Let's find shelter. Varric, Aveline, see if you can do some scouting. Figure out what's going on." She buried her face in hands.
If only she'd been sent north, to do what she was actually good at.
Hawke blinked awake, wondering why she was staring at a rocky ceiling instead of her own cloth canopy.
Right. They'd found a bandit's hideout, a cavern tucked off the road. It looked well tended, but it was clear hat no one had been there in weeks. Varric and Aveline had gone off to scout, while Merrill had killed and roasted a deer. The belly full of fresh meat had been a welcome thing. Hawke had gone to sleep atop their rolled up tents and blankets. Daylight had been pouring through the entrance when she'd closed her eyes, but now the only light was their small fire.
She rolled to her feet. She was strong enough to walk on her own now, though slowly. Everything ached. At least it was a warm night.
Merrill looked up from her place beside the fire as Hawke neared. She was toying with the deer's bones. "Hello," she said, unusually grim, "They're still gone. Fenris is standing guard."
"Maybe it was just a normal fire."
"No. The Veil feels so thin. The spirits are calling like a chorus, hungry for our world. Marching on our world."
Hawke tried to feel the Veil out, but she was still magically very weak. She could just tell that it was there. "I should have been able to stop this. At least once."
Merrill said nothing, lost in the flicker of flames and the click of bones. Hawke looked to the entrance. The cavern was huge, and it seemed distant. The stars were out, glittering against the darkness- a darkness marred by a faint orange glow, the light of Kirkwall's burning.
There was flicker of white against the stone. Fenris, coming into the dim cavern off his watch.
Merrill leapt to her feet. "My watch," she called over loudly, "Sorry. Hard to see the stars."
Fenris stepped away from the wall and Merrill took his place outside. He angled towards Hawke when he saw her. "Hawke," he said, tired, "I see you're moving on your own."
She gave a short bitter laugh and sat. "Yes. Couldn't light a candle right now, but at least I can walk."
Fenris sat down next to her, his shoulder to hers. They both stared at the fire. It was steadily dying, but neither of them moved to feed it.
"They should be back soon," she said.
She shut her eyes and rested her forehead on his shoulder. Propriety be damned. He stiffened, but relaxed slowly when she did not move.
"It isn't your fault, whatever it is," he said.
"Fault doesn't matter. Responsibility does, and it is my responsibility."
She was tired, so tired. She had slept with nightmares that were really memories for months, now, and played in this sick world of magisterial politics and madness for so long. It had been fight after fight, and her household had been the biggest casualty. What this new horror was, after so many victories and so much loss...
"I think," Fenris said, caution in his voice, "that you would normally say Fade take your guilt, there is a problem to solve, and you are quite capable of solving it."
She laughed, meaning it this time, and leaned into him more. "It's all a bit too much, sometimes."
"You aren't alone, you know."
No. No, she wasn't. "Thank you, Fenris. Neither are you."
His head rested on hers ever so slightly. "And for that, I thank you." He pulled back with a slight jerk. "Mistress."
She sat up but didn't create any distance. "Don't, Fenris. You killed Danarius and saved my life too many times. You are no longer a slave, and when I fix this, I will see to it that the paperwork says the same."
He stared at her wide-eyed. "You don't need to do that."
The political risk was irrelevant with Kirkwall burning, and she had plenty of options for a bodyguard. If she-- once she fixed this, she would keep her word, and not even the full might of the Imperium would get in her way. "Need is relative."
He swallowed and slowly, carefully rested his forehead against hers. His hands rested tentatively on her shoulders. She gripped his forearms, steadying him.
"I..." Fenris began, starting to back away.
Hawke didn't let him, burying her hands in his hair and pulling him into a quiet kiss, caving in to...oh, something. Everything. This one man who asked nothing of her, helped her through pain and fire, and then would turn down even the least of what he deserved...what a strange, wonderful creature he was.
It shocked him still, for a moment. Then he responded, careful, and held her lightly.
They broke away after a few moments. Fenris didn't open his eyes. Hawke traced her fingers down his ears, to his throat, to his chest, not following the lyrium markings but rather the fine lines of his form. He shivered as she rested her hands on his chest. "Rest," she whispered.
One green eye cracked open. "You, as well."
"No," she said, "Too much to think on, too much to...do. I've got to...I don't know...have to..."
He moved to kiss her, this time. It was uncertain, but unhesitating. When they parted, he traced her face, this time. The motion was without demand, without requirement, just...a pleasant thing, like an indolent spring breeze.
She kissed him again, guiding- no demands, no force, in this, alone of all things in the world- away from the dying fire.
I played with that last part for a good long while, rewriting it, taking it out, putting it back in, rewriting it, taking it out...I gave up and decided that Hawke was a much bolder woman than I. I do not see this as the end all, be all of their relationship development.
Aveline and Varric limped into the cavern around dawn, guided in by Merrill. Varric's arm was in a makeshift sling, and Aveline had a black eye.
Hawke stood at the sight of them, abandoning her efforts to cook another deer.
"It's bad," Varric said grimly, accepting a piece of meat from Fenris, "Most of the city was burning, now it's just smoldering."
"A slave revolt. And undead," Aveline said as she slowly lowered herself to the ground. She began removing her breastplate. "Like with Orsino."
Hawke opened her mouth to talk, shocked, but Varric held up a hand. He swallowed his food and said, "It gets worse. It's Anders. He has well and truly lost it."
Fenris rubbed his face. "We should have told you, Hawke."
"From the few people who were willing to talk to us, it happened four days ago. Anders went to the Gallows and started preaching. Some of the garrison went to shut him up and he killed them. Slaves being moved between cages started in on it, though most died, some by his hand. He, by his possessed self, managed to destroy the garrison. We found one old veteran, said he saw him tear Tribune Stannard to shreds with magic. "
Aveline nodded as she carved off some version for herself. "He tore the cages open, sometimes killing their occupants, then he declared them free. Asked them to follow him, and a number did. Then he...well, most people descended into gibbering insanity when describing what he did next."
"He turned him into those things," Varric said, "Some kind of blood magic, from what we could make out. They're all over the city, along with everyone else who wants to kill. Looters. Bandits. A few abominations. Demons. All the fun people." He took a last vicious bite of his venison.
She really should have taken Anders seriously. "What about our own people?"
"I can answer that," said a voice from the cave's entrance. Isabela, much worse for wear, swaggered in as best she could. "Most of them are dead. Feynriel isn't, and he's trying to hold things together. Brave boy. He keeps saying he can fix the undead. Won't solve the riots, but he won't leave the manor. Kalias and those who remain are trying to guard him."
"You ran," Hawke snapped. Her household was dead, and Isabela had just abandoned them!
"No, I was sent to find you. I've been wandering around outside of the city with no word, then I spotted these two shambling out of the city."
Hawke shut her eyes, thinking, prioritizing. "How certain is my apprentice that he can fix this?"
"He is very frightened, but he refuses to leave." The pirate dropped into a crouch, putting her on eye level with Hawke. "What are you going to do to get them out?"
Isabela had grown to care about Hawke's household. Would wonders never cease?
No room for mourning or fear, not now. Most might be dead, but not all. She needed to get rid of these...things Anders had created. The city was likely unsalvageable, at least not by her. She had to get a legion to tame it, from Starkhaven, if possible.
The most politically feasible decision was to ride for Starkhaven now, but that would mean leaving what was left of the people she cared about trapped in the madhouse.
"We need to get into the city and to Feynriel, get all of them out."
Isabela nodded. "He'll listen to you, Kalias was certain. We have to hurry. Feynriel's doing something, and Anders has made sure everyone with a non-rotten brain knows that he wants to bring down the Imperium. He'll kill the boy if he can." She shook her head. "The bonds of friendship and vague maternal affection...I don't thank you for introducing me to them, Hawke."
Hawke snorted and stood. She held out a hand and concentrated. A flame grew there, rising higher and higher, crackling viciously, until it scorched the cavern ceiling.
She probably couldn't summon the mother of all lightning bolts, but she could hold her own, now.
She looked at the others, all tired. Fenris locked eyes with her, ready to go. Her heart soared like a dragon on the hint as her convictions locked down. "We're going to get our people out," she said, picking up her staff, "Stick together. If it attacks, kill it."
No being would chose to live in the ruin Kirkwall had become. Buildings had been flattened, the ruins still smoldering, while others were looted and hollow shells unsafe to enter. Hawke's anger- at Anders, at herself, even at the Archon for sticking her here- grew wild.
With it, however, her magic grew stronger, at least partly because collateral damage was no longer an issue.
A horde of corpses turned to ash in a wave of her fire as they continued up the steps to Hightown. Isabela whistled. "I'd forgotten you could do that."
Hawke merely grunted and continued onward. Fenris was right at her back, Varric watching over their shoulders. Aveline and Merrill had the rear. Isabela flitted to and fro, killing as she saw fit.
They emerged into the the remains of the market. A pack of very mortal bandits looked up from their perches in the shadows and started to close in.
Hawke twirled her staff once, slamming the blade into the shattered cobblestones.
The ground shook for the scum, pieces of the surrounding buildings coming loose, but remained steady around her company. She nodded once.
Fenris surged forward, glowing, carving a crimson swathe through the would-be attackers. Isabela moved in his wake, guarding his back from those quick enough to dodge the arc of his blade. Merrill and Varric took shots at the few with bows. Aveline defended them.
Hawke watched it all, lightning crackling around her body, unmolested.
Eventually, the bandits were either dead or fled. "Don't bother," she said as Fenris moved to give chase, "They're not why we came. Something will probably kill them within the hour, anyway."
He settled, just barely. He snarled at his fleeing quarry and stalked back to her shoulder. "True."
She gave him a small smile and then turned to look stoically ahead. "At the manor, you said, Isabela?"
"Last time I was there."
She never had good enough reconnaissance. "The manor it is, then."
They moved through the ruined streets. The buildings were less rickety here, so few had collapsed entirely. Of those that had, there wasn't even much rubble left. Magic had obliterated them directly. All the structures were defaced and burned, though, and looters scampered away as they pushed towards the manor. Varric took potshots at those that came too close.
"Save your bolts," Hawke ordered.
"If we let them gather, they'll overwhelm us. And these ones, these are the survivors. They're the strong ones."
She ignored the guilt that statement brought on. No time for it, nor any point to it. "If they gather, they all die together."
They turned the corner into the great square before the manor, and found only the shattered remains of the entryway, the manor beyond reduced to a few scattered bits of rubble beyond.
A strong and smoky wind picked up, howling through the broken arches. Hawke could only stare, frozen. Dead. All dead, now. Her household was gone. What her father had forged was gone.
"Mistress!" someone croaked from the shadows.
Hawke assumed a defensive stance and peered at the speaker. She moved forward, light glinting off the battered armor of Hawke's guard. Brennan, one of Aveline's people.
"Thank all the Gods!" she said, looking almost like she'd embrace the magister, "We knew you'd come!"
"You can thank me, as well," Isabela huffed.
"Who is still alive?" Hawke asked the guard.
"Not many of us." Her eyes darted over the ruins as she spoke. Hand hovering near the sword at her side. "Kalias managed to get the entire kitchen staff out, and the wild elves fought their way to us, though many of them died. Most of the guard...most of us are gone."
Hawke felt her anger rise even more. "Feynriel?"
"He got out with Kalias. He keeps saying he can free the...things." Her eyes landed firmly on Hawke. "Can he?"
It was an unusually assertive claim for the boy to make. "Perhaps. Take us to him."
Kalias nearly fainted with relief when Hawke and company entered the hideout behind Brennan. "Mistress!" He gripped a scorched wall to steady himself. "Thank the Maker. I was worried something had happened to you."
"I solved the Wardens' problem. Fenris killed Danarius."
"It was all very dramatic," Varric interjected, "Not as much as what happened here, though."
Hawke nodded. "Anders did all this?"
"His minions, mostly. He..." The old elf scrubbed at his face. "I have heard- truly, mistress, I forsook the rebellion after the Qunari, I swear upon Andraste's pyre- I heard that he went to the scattered remnants of the slave rebellion and offered them one last opportunity to undo the Imperium, if they would make a sacrifice."
Hawke gritted her teeth. "He did what Orsino did to those volunteers."
"That's what Feynriel says."
She shouldn't have underestimated Anders. She shouldn't have had him work with Feynriel on the report on Orsino's work."Where is he?"
"Apparently trying to fix what Anders did. Follow me."
The wandered deeper into the hideout. It was one of the older mansions in Hightown, in bad repair even before the city's latest descent into chaos. They passed several ragged survivors, who watched them pass with a vague trace of hope. Many bore red stained bandages.
This was what remained of her household. Hawke tightened her grip on her staff.
"How many volunteers did Anders have?" Fenris asked.
"Hundreds, though I doubt many after the first few were volunteers," Kalias said, "and then the demons just came and came."
"The Veil was torn," Merrill said, "It's already so thin here."
Kalias knocked on one of the few doors still on its hinges. There was no answer, but he opened it anyway.
Feynriel lay limply on an old bed, the only furniture in the room. His eyes opened as soon as Hawke crossed the threshold. "Magister Hawke!" he said, jumping up and rushing to hug her.
Hawke staggered back in surprise. After a moment, she returned the embrace with her free arm. "You did well," she said, "You did spectacularly well."
He pulled away, trying to look his age and station. "I got my mother out. I could have done more, but I had to get her out."
Hawke brushed the thought away with a hand. "Guilt is useless. I'm told you say you can fix what Anders did. How?"
"The dreamers are...locked in the Fade, but...it's like when you hear a noise or feel something when you're asleep, so you also hear or feel it in your dream. They're aware of this world in a warped way, and Anders is controlling their dream like..." He sighed. "Like the demon he is. I can manipulate the dream to wake them, if I can break through the mazes he has set up."
"With time. A lot of it. Or you could kill him, but I don't think his demon will let them go even then. It wants to keep them too much."
"So it can destroy the Imperium." Hawke tapped her staff on the ground for a few moments, then slammed it down. "Time. You're always so close to being overrun, too. How long do you need?"
"I don't know."
"We should just kill him," Aveline said, "If it's like what Orsino did, they should collapse, right?"
"Like I said," Feynriel said, "The demon changes things."
"If we're trying to kill him, he'll at least be distracted," Varric pointed out, "Which I'm thinking would help." Feynriel nodded. "See, now we have a plan. We kill Anders in a battle worthy of song, the half-elf kid cures the undead."
"Not a simple plan," Fenris said, "We have to find him, and it won't be an easy fight."
"Finding him won't be hard. I've no doubt he hates me," Hawke said, "Given his demon's motives, his attraction to me, and his general lack of discretion, I'm sure it will be like a moth to flame." Fenris snarled, which almost made Hawke smile. She touched his wrist briefly. "As for the fight..."
Varric chuckled darkly. "Worthy of song."
Hawke paced the ruins of the manor, waiting. She'd sent out a flare, identifiably hers to any educated mage or so she said, and now they just had to wait.
Fenris was sharpening his blade, watching her, trying to stifle his sense of dread. He was prepared and dwelling on it would only hurt.
She glanced his way, vibrant blue eyes losing just a hint of their iron battle-gaze. She'd keep her word on his freedom- with Danarius dead it was possible, the promise of his failed escape was becoming reality- and perhaps they would...he didn't know how to finish that thought.
His lyrium began howling a pained note beneath his skin. Fenris shook his wistful hopes off and stood, dropping his whetstone. Now for the battle.
No horde of demons or twisted abomination mounted the steps to the ruins of their home. It was just Anders, alone, his eyes burning an unearthly blue.
His robes were different, still an archaic style, but these were colored black and trimmed with gold. His staff was some relic, now, the top carved from crystal or ice.
Hawke assumed a defensive stance, but made no move. Fenris and the others followed her lead and remained still but ready. The Prefex's eyes narrowed as Anders stopped some distance away. "Plundering the mansions of the slaughtered, I see."
"A tool is a tool, as you were," Anders replied, his voice radically distorted, "They deserved death for their part in the injustice that is the Tevinter Imperium."
"And what you unleashed on the innocent of this city, free and slave, all that was justice, too?"
"Anders, you turned the people you knew, the people you were fighting for, into monsters."
He shrugged. "A tool is a tool."
Hawke shook her head. "So much for that." She flicked out her staff, and sent a fireball out.
Anders flicked it away with a bare hand, sending it back at her, burning even more furiously. She cursed and pivoted away.
Fenris sprinted forward, his blow blocked by the crystalline staff. Aveline bore down on Anders from the other side, was blocked just as easily by inhuman reflexes. Isabela wasn't merely blocked; he threw her across the room.
Varric's arrows, Merrill's blood spears, all were reflected back at them. It wasn't a shield, because Fenris and Aveline were being met blow for blow by Anders' staff.
Fenris' arms started to burn. He hoped desperately this was helping Feynriel.
He swung again. Anders moved to block, but Fenris twisted, locking his blade and arm around the staff, trapping the weapon. His opponent snarled, his disgust totally unconcealed. He tugged against Fenris' hold with terrible strength, but the elf refused to let go. A shield, crackling and chaotic blue, rose up around them, knocking Aveline back as she tried to press the advantage. It faded increasingly with very hit from outside.
"You," Anders rumbled. Pulling had become shaking. Fenris had reached out to clutch the other man's upper arm, trying to control the motion. "You willing little sycophant."
Fenris readied himself. "You know," he snapped, "Envy is a different demon!" He dropped his blade, reached to Anders other arm, and threw him off his feet. The shield fell as his staff went clattering across the ground. Fenris phased one hand through flesh and bone, reaching for the mage's heart.
The burst of pain shot through every bone, bowing him backwards. Another burst and he was thrown back, hitting Merrill hard. They both went sprawling.
Fenris rolled painfully to his feet, his eyes on Anders. He was currently locked in a deadly dance with Isabela, all the while throwing away Hawke's frenzied lightning and Varric's rain of bolts. They weren't rebounding anymore. He was wearing out.
The shield went up again, suddenly. Isabela stumbled back. Once she found her feet, she began circling like a hungry tigress, lashing out occasionally. Fenris rushed to join her, Aveline following. The mages and Varric prepared an onslaught.
"What is he doing?" Anders asked, "That miserable, fool child! I'll--"
"Listen to yourself!" Hawke shouted.
"You liked that kid, Blondie!" Varric added, "Whatever you believe about the damn government, remember the people you know!"
Behind the shield, the glow of Anders' eyes waned for a moment, then blazed with renewed fury. "He will die for this interference. No one stands in the way of my justice!"
In the distance, there was a terrible garbling screech. Anders' shield exploded out in a potent wave of energy. He screamed, a warcry torn from the throat of a man not a a warrior and rushed them with his bare hands outstretched.
Fenris caught his shoulder in a shower of blood, while one Varric's arrows burrowed into his belly. Isabela lashed out from behind, brining him to his knees. Aveline raised her blade to take his head, but Hawke's staff blocked it.
Hawke moved to stand before Anders. He was bleeding too much to live long. "I would pity you," she said, "but you went along with it from the start, and wrought this all deliberately. I should have seen before, and stopped you before it got this far. That is my duty by my household and the city. For that, I apologize."
The glow of his eyes was coming and going now. "I...would...have... appreciated it."
Hawke just nodded.
"Little left...of me...as it went on. I was a fool. Not wrong, though." His human eyes blazed with their own fire. "Remember, not wrong."
Hawke stood aside. Aveline raised her sword and brought it down in a swift shining arc. Anders head went flying. His body fell into a pool of its own blood.
Merrill turned, suddenly. "The spirits, they're all...Feynriel! The Clan!"
Hawke stepped over Anders' body. "I was hoping that worked. Let's go!"
Fenris paused a moment as the others rushed towards the survivors' hideout. He looked at Anders' ruined form.
In many ways, he supposed, the Imperium had created the dead mage, as it had created Orsino and Danarius. He was indeed not wrong; Fenris knew more than enough of bitter slavery to know that. But a world without slavery needed compassion as much as one with, to prevent such creatures from arising. From becoming all there was. Anders in his madness had missed that.
"Fenris!" Hawke called.
Fenris turned to rush to her side.
There were creatures like Hawke, so perhaps there was hope for the world after all, and Fenris would not forget it.
I apologize for doing this to Anders; I think he can be an interesting and entertaining character, though I can never sympathize with him.
They found the hideout a blasted ruin. The air reeked of rot and blood magic. Hawke inhaled sharply as she saw the piles of bodies. She'd been unable to halt the slaughter...
Then they saw several wild elves walk out, carrying several mauled corpses without any hint of morning. They nodded at her and dumped their cargo on the pile before turning to her.
None of the bodies were normal. All of them were Anders' horrors.
"Mistress," one said, "we won." He raised his head proudly, looking like one of the clansmen before Marethari had died, proud of his people.
The 'we', though, meant his people were now hers. "Feynriel?"
The elves looked at each other, then dropped their eyes. "Please, follow us."
Hawke exchanged worried glances with the others. They followed the elves into the hideout. Portions of it had collapsed, and the wounded crowded the atrium tending the more severely wounded. Hawke reached into her power and threw out healing spells on some of the worst. She had less left in her than she'd thought.
Feynriel, pale and shaky but quite alive, was looking down from a staircase. His eyes met hers as they neared, his expression full of the elation of victory and the pain of mourning.
"You did it?" Hawke called.
He made his way carefully toward them. "Yes. Anders...he helped me, just for a moment. Leveled the maze."
"Guess we got through to him, then," Varric said.
Feynriel nodded, then dropped his eyes. "When I freed them, they all died. I thought they'd live, but I guess not." Hawke gripped his shoulder comfortingly. The boy drove the heels of his palms into his eyes. "They broke through while I was in the Fade. Kalias...he defended me. One of them strangled him just before I ended it."
Hawke froze. She felt like her heart had stopped. Kalias, who had betrayed her, who had taught her, who had stood by her father's side, was dead. Gone.
A world without him...he'd helped teach her to read. Strangled by the undead...the image of him, waving some dagger against the rotting horde to defend his mistress' apprentice, fixed itself in her mind. She swallowed and said, "He died how he chose, Feynriel. He knew it was possible, even likely. You did well, and likely save the rest." She rested her hand on his head. "May all the fires of Toth take me if you or your own are ever unwelcome in my house."
"His body is upstairs, with the others."
Hawke nodded. "I think I saw your mother helping the wounded, which you should be doing as you can. Don't wear yourself out. We have to get out of here yet."
He nodded and went to obey. Hawke made her slow way up the stairs. The others followed solemnly.
Kalias lay in the center, surrounded by half a dozen other dead. None had died pleasantly.
Hawke knelt by the old elf's side. She could see the bruising around his neck. Someone had taken the trouble to clean up the other signs of strangulation, for which she was grateful. Violent death was one thing, but the violent death of those nearest to her was hard to bear.
"He was kind to me," Merrill said, "and to the clan. Hard on them, too, when they deserved it."
Hawke shut her eyes to force the tears away. They weren't in the clear yet. She had to keep it together for those who couldn't. She had to get them out. "He was a good man. If he'd been a citizen..." She gave a choking, wet laugh. "Oh, how he'd have made trouble. Made a difference."
She lifted her head before opening her eyes, making sure she didn't see the broken body when she did. "Merrill, stand by the door. We'll...burn them once we leave. I won't leave any of my own to be used by demons if I can help it."
The wild elf nodded and took her place. Hawke paused to gather her strength before rising. She kept her eyes from the dead as she said, "Most High of Dragons, Powers of Mystery, Fire, Night, Chains, Beauty, and Chaos, I beg you to send these ones, beloved of this servant's heart, safely to their rest. If they are worthy in your eyes, may they rest in your gloried fields. If not, please grant them kinder lives when fate brings them around to the world again." She flipped her staff around so the blade was poised before her empty hand. Ideally, there would be some beast, owl or black dog or some herald of death, to sacrifice, and an altar to do it on, but all she had was her own blood and the broken tile of the floor.
Just as well. It was her household and her failure, anyway.
She slashed across her hand deeply, turning her palm so the blood fell on the floor. After a few seconds, she fisted her injured hand at her side and bowed deeply, then turned to go.
She stopped at the edge of the landing, looking out at the activity below. She cleared her throat and forced her tearing eyes to dry. "Tend your wounded, mourn your dead, and maintain a guard. We leave for Starkhaven in two hours."
Within half an hour of her pronouncement, there were four attacks by demons. Hawke had driven them off herself, draining the last of her strength. She sat on a pile of rubble in the atrium, watching the hurried preparations of her ruined household.
Most could walk, thank Toth, but their supplies were few. Starkhaven was a few days ride away, and the only horses they could possible get were tied up at some bandit's hideout far from the city. It would be a long hard walk. They'd find friendly villages on the road...hopefully.
She'd never believed she would be a refugee.
Fenris came striding towards her through the too-thin crowd. He'd been helping with the guard. She blinked tiredly up at him as he stopped in front of her. "What do they need?"
He snorted and shook his head. "More than you have to give, right now." He knelt and gently took her injured hand. It had stopped bleeding some time ago, but it still hurt.
Fenris took his canteen and poured it over the wound, then pulled a strip of cloth from his belt and bandaged it gently. He wasn't very good at it.
She was grateful nonetheless. When he was done, she tried to rise, but he stopped her, throwing an arm carefully over her shoulders and moving to sit by her side.
The nearness and intimacy was strange and new. She could feel the tension in his muscles; he felt the same.
Strange and new, but far from bad. She relaxed against him, trying to get him to understand just how...how wonderful this was. His stiffness eased in reply, never demanding anything of her, unlike the rest of the world.
They'd have to sort this...newness...out, someplace less bloodied and broken and lost. In the meantime, she was content to be there, under his arm, a small refuge amidst the cruel fury of the world.
The Archon seemed to enjoy Hawke's sunny family gardens greatly, paying very little attention to her story as they wandered it. Fenris, formally manumitted, followed. They had been at the Hawke villa for a month, now, and he was still unsure of all its paths. And most unsure of this most honored of guests.
"We were due a slave rebellion," the Archon mused, "You did well. Kirkwall is destroyed- those four legions did an excellent job leveling the ruins, and my custodies are cleaning out the magical unpleasantness now- but the opportunity to rebuild is fortuitous. Already the Senate bickers, the magisters maneuver. Danarius' death removed a threat, so many were trying to fill the void and this will make it harder." He chuckled at Hawke's face. "Oh, believe me, Danarius was a threat. I kept him close in order to keep an eye on him. He wanted my position. I'm quite glad you killed him."
Fenris wasn't sure that was true. There was much maneuvering and manipulation going on here, and truth was a shifting target in the world of the Senate and the Archon.
"So I'm to...live, then?" Hawke asked, perplexed, "Without penalty?"
The Archon reached out and plucked a flower from its stem, beginning it to his nose. "Well, I am giving you command at Seheron. To get you out of the way. I don't have any other cities that need burnt to the ground, so I believe sending the Warmage to war is the best choice towards that end."
Hawke looked like she would hug him, but did not. "Thank you, Uncle."
"My pleasure. Please do well up there, for all our sakes. Your manumission of all your slaves did not go over well in many social circles. Make the family look good, since you didn't do us any favors with that little move, perhaps more so than the disgrace at Kirkwall."
Hawke laughed lightly. "I did it in memory of an old friend's dream. I don't regret it."
"Good. Regrets will be of little use on the north, as you recall, and concern for magisterial opinion will be even more useless. I would like to truly claim that island." He threw the flower to the ground and waved Hawke away. "I would like some time to think, if you don't mind. My own shadows are lurking to keep me safe, so don't worry. I won't die on your lands today."
Hawke and Fenris bowed and took a diverging path through the garden.
Fenris kept pace at her side as they walked back toward the main building. "This was what you wanted, then?"
She had a drowsy contented look on her face. "Yes. Took quite a bit more than I thought to get there. Lost some things on the way." She gave a toothy smile. "Gained others."
A thrill ran up his spine. Him. She meant him, and not in the way one would gain a slave.
"You, Fenris? You're free. Have you gotten what you want?"
He thought on it for a quiet moment. "Yes. And more. I was free, some years ago, for a small time, but it was...irrelevant without a place to call home. Now, I have a home, and freedom, and I am...well."
"Good." She reached out and squeezed his hand briefly. "If you choose not to follow me north, I will understand. If you desire to remain here, for a quieter life. You've had little of it, I think."
"I won't let you go into battle undefended."
"Legions can't do it?" she teased.
Fenris remained serious and halted, stopping her with him. He pulled her close. "Not good enough for me," he rumbled.
She kissed him quickly and hard. "Very well. We prepare for war, and all the cruel harsh winds of this world. And they will be cruel, I think."
To the north, in the war-ravaged jungles of Seheron, the Qunari forges rang with preparations for battle. The southern bas had killed the Arishok and seized the formula for gaatlok.
There was no more room for hesitation. The southerners would come, and they must be swallowed as the sea devours the drowning.
Thank you for reading! This began as an experiment in many things, and grew into the novella you've just complete. Without your support, it possibly never would have been completed. In the future, I hope to write a sequel focused on Hawke's northern campaign, Fenris memory/family issues, and their young, societally unequal relationship. Until then, God bless.