His heart crashed to the floor as he watched the Genlock impale her through the stomach. Blood splattered onto the stone wall she was now pinned against. Staring at her, he could see the clench in her jaw as she attempted to hide how much it hurt. But none of it stopped her from curling her lip, spinning her staff in her palm and impaling the darkspawn through the head with it. There was nothing they could do for her as they fought off the rest. Isabela’s eyes switched between Hawke and her targets. Fenris growled as he slashed through their foes with even more hatred than before. Their blades, with his magic, ripped apart the rest of the horde that had found their way into the caves. They did so as fast as they could but he was afraid that it wouldn’t be fast enough.
When it was over, Anders dropped his staff in his haste. Arcadia had already ripped herself off the wall, the bloodied sword forgotten beside her. Her breathing was labored but she was conscious, for now despite the growing stain on her armor. He could help; he could be fast enough.
Magic was already alive in his hands when he reached her. But what he saw caused the fear in his stomach to turn cold. The glow in her hands was not simple healing magic. Blood spilled out of her wound, but where her hands became stained with it, it congealed. Suddenly her wound stopped bleeding completely and the liquid bubbled up around it like a barrier.
The world felt like it shattered into a pieces in that moment. Anders found himself unable to breathe, as if the very sight knocked the air out of his lungs. He swallowed, took one deep breath, then another, desperately trying to control the rage that sprouted inside him.
Everything he had ever told her about Justice pointed to this being the worst thing she could ever have chosen. Everything he had ever said about blood magic, how dangerous it was, how easy it was to lose one’s mind. When she looked up at him, her face went from pain to that of terror and in the same moment his rage turned to absolute fury. Just how long had she been hiding this from him?
Words caught in his throat. It was Isabela that handed her a poultice. It was Isabela and Fenris who helped bind her wound; and it was they who wrapped their arms around her waist to support her as they fled. Anders watched as the bandages stayed pristine when they shouldn’t, felt the betrayal build up in his chest. In all the times they had fought together, all the times a demon had propositioned her, never once had she faltered.
He should have known. He should have seen the lack of hesitation as a sign of what it was. No mage had never thought of the power, had never not been close to reaching for it. Even he had thought of it, before Justice. It was a symptom of the broken system, like a plague that never died out.
When Isabela asked if Anders would look after her, he said yes, if only because it was his duty, blood mage or not. Only when they were alone could he process. She sat on her bed with healing magic back to its normal shade of blue balled up in her hands, but not once did she look at him. He stayed silent, fine with watching her to make sure she survived before leaving. It wasn’t what he would do for anyone else, but this was his wife. This was Hawke. She stayed with him through worse.
He was sure of his decision, but even so, he couldn’t stop his heart from leaping into his throat when she coughed up blood. It was a practiced motion, wiping the fluid away with the back of her hand, she didn’t even flinch. But, her bandage was still clean. It wasn’t any wound causing the problem he realized. Suddenly, he felt disease in her veins as magic knitted her flesh together. Disease he had never felt before, even when he had healed her on the battlefield, and he didn’t understand how he’d missed it.
Her magic faded, and finally she met his eyes.
“Please let me explain,” she said.
“Spit it out,” he hissed, unable to contain his disgust.
“You can feel it now, can’t you?” she asked. Her hands fell in her lap, he had never seen her so defeated. He couldn’t bring himself to care that he was the one doing it. “It’s mana sickness.”
“How have I never heard of this “sickness,”” he muttered.
“Because it is rare and entirely genetic from centuries of pure magic in a family,” Hawke replied. “Over time the body poisons itself from mana use. It gets worse with age.”
“What does this have to do with being a maleficar, Hawke?”
She sighed, her eyes falling closed. “Before Lothering was overrun. I was bedridden, dying. Nothing was helping. No chantry priest or mage could heal me any longer. It wasn’t supposed to happen so fast, but-” She shook her head and opened her eyes. “ The templars were more vigilant than usual. They knew something, all they needed was proof.”
It was unconscious he decided, her unwrapping the bandage she no longer needed. “Bethany was still trying to understand her magic, and nobody could tell if she was already sick. Carver was too angry to focus on his training. My father had only just died. My family needed me, Anders. They relied on me to protect them.” Even now, Hawke’s posture stayed as confident as ever, even though her face gave way to her growing distress. “In my dreams, a demon of sloth found me. He offered me a deal of health to protect my family-”
“You should have known better,” Anders interrupted. He couldn’t help it. It wasn’t even something like her being a child when it happened. She’d known the consequences.
“I know that!” she snapped. “My father was dead. The chantry looming over us like bloodhounds.” She shook her head and uncurled her fists. “ I had no desire for power, and I was not scared of death. I had grown up with it looming over my shoulder like an old friend. But I was afraid of what would happen to my family without me. Rightfully so, Carver is the only one of them left alive...” Her gaze fell back to the floor. Anders wondered if the look on her face was sorrow or simple emptiness.
“How many have died by your demon?”
“None!” she growled. Any sadness that was caught in her eyes disappeared as she turned to glare at him, and for the first time in years, there was no empathy hidden within it. “ Which is more than I can say for Justice.” Anders flinched, his heart ached and guilt poured into his stomach. But he shook it away and set his jaw, waiting for her explanation. “I have only ever used my own blood to replace mana use. The demon granted me time, not a cure. ”
“How is that any different from the rest of them!?” he cried.
“Because I’m not a simple apostate trying to start a war with the blighted chantry,” she yelled back at him. “You have lost control for far less than my blood magic has even thought of.”
Suddenly everything was still. Hawke stood, her furious gaze unwavering. Somewhere, he knew that she didn’t mean it. They both knew that Justice was not the same as the other possessions that so many mages submitted to. But they also knew that it was Justice that had pushed him to start this war so many years ago. And he knew, more than anything else, that his betrayal still hurt her. Still haunted her in the night when she woke up and pulled herself close to him as if her grip would stop him from hiding from her again.
Her sigh was slow, meticulous. “I have spent years refusing to be the monster that I am painted as, and I have done enough to prove myself. As long as this curse keeps me alive, it will stay that way. Think what you want Anders, but I wouldn’t take it back.”
His heart ached. Her resolve was the same as it always had been, just like his own. This had always been the Arcadia Hawke that he knew even if he had never understood what that meant. This was the woman he had fallen in love with, the one who was strong in the face of death, decay, and endless hatred. The one who stood up for their kind without fail even when it put what was most important to her in danger. The one who trusted him, even when she shouldn’t have, and the one that stayed, let him live, and still loved him when he didn’t deserve it. He understood this, but somehow, he still felt like he’d never really known her.
“This has always been who I am to you Anders. The one with white hair and golden eyes. That was never the Hawke that I knew. You will never meet the pure me that isn’t touched by this. She doesn’t exist anymore,” She whispered.
He should have seen it. When she looked so ethereal in front of him. He should have known that a normal person didn’t look like she did. When he looked at her now however, he saw nothing but pain.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he hissed, like he didn’t know the answer.
“How could I? I watched you time and time again throw nothing but ire at Merrill. I saw your frustration and rage when Fenris and Isabela didn’t agree with you about our kind. You started a bloody war without me and I-” Her voice caught in her throat. Arcadia Hawke did not stutter, she never faltered, she never cried. He knew that better than anything. Yet here she was, with tears glistening in her eyes. “How was I supposed to tell you that I was everything you despised when you didn’t trust me to begin with?”
“So your choice was to keep it a secret forever?” Anders said. “Like that was any better?”
“I hoped that it would kill me before I ever had to see you look at me the way I had to look at you that night.” Her eyes pierced through him, steady even though it hurt. “Then the Hawke you knew would always be the pure me I lost.”
He wanted to hold her, to tell her it was okay, that she could have always told him. But he didn’t want to lie to her. She deserved that much. Despite everything, she’d saved him, protected him, and fought for him. But he couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t throw away the anger that boiled in his chest. When he turned to leave it was because he couldn’t bear to look at her any longer, he couldn’t taint the memory of what he knew any further.
Arcadia remembered the fire that coursed through her veins all her life. How her veins screamed under her skin when she used what her parents said was a gift. She remembered knowing that the blood spilling out of her mouth wasn’t from any normal wound. She remembered what it felt like to be dying when her family needed her most, and knowing that she was powerless against it. And then she remembered what it felt like to be without pain. Suddenly able to be the mage she was suppose to be.
As much as she had wanted to, Arcadia had never been able to tell him during their travels. Especially not after Meredith’s death.
Not that she was sick, not that she was a maleficar, not any of it. Any attempt to try was met with her choking on her words. He had no idea, and yet, he loved her. Because she kept the most important part of her a secret.
He’d fallen in love with her because of their shared plight. Because she always stood up for what was right, because she fought back against the Maleficar but still kept kindness in her heart to protect the mages. Because he could trust her with his struggle to keep his own mind against Justice. Trust that she knew the pain that came with him. But he never knew how much she really understood, nor how hard it was to keep her own mind under control. To keep it hers. She tried not to think about the fact that he’d never really trusted her at all. The look in his eyes was all she needed to feel like a demon instead of a person. To wish that there had been another way to protect her family. But there wasn’t, and now the last family she had, the one she’d chosen for herself, turned to abandon her.
She watched him leave, watched as her heart shattered into a tiny pieces with the closing of the door. Shutting him off from her forever.
She’d never thought she could keep this from him for long, but she’d foolishly hoped that she’d proven herself already. So, she swallowed down the pain of knowing that he saw her as nothing more than a monster. She replaced it with numbness. She decided it was better to forget. Better she not commit this final moment to her memory of him.