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DARK VICTORY

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Still, I almost envy you - it must be nice to believe in what you’re doing. — Dark Victory

 

Billionaire playboy Garrett Hawke returned home early from the policeman’s charity ball smelling of expensive perfume and even more expensive wine. He undid his cufflinks, first the left, then the right, and set them on the table by the door, clinking softly in a porcelain ashtray.

‘Good evening, sir,’ Bodahn said, by the door. ‘No post today, I’m afraid.’

‘Thank you, Bodahn,’ Garrett murmured, and crossed the foyer to head upstairs, leaving his coat folded on the banister.

By the time he reached the second floor, Garrett Hawke was nearly half-undressed. He tugged his shirt-tails free of his trousers and left the starched white garment in a heap on the floor. Later in the night, Bodahn would follow his trail, gathering the garments and sorting them for the laundry. He understood implicitly the things Garrett did and did not have time for, because he was the only man—or rather, dwarf—in Thedas who knew Garrett’s secret: that Garrett was the Champion, defender of freedom and justice in Kirkwall.

As he passed the window, Garrett didn’t stop to look out over Hawke Manor’s view of Hightown. He already knew what he’d see: a clear, dark sky, bright lights glittering in the city below, and no clouds to obscure the moon. There was also something brighter than the moon in the sky that night: a white spotlight, with a black cut-out in the shape of a bird in flight.

That was the real reason Flora Harimann—of the Kirkwall Harimanns, with houses in Hightown and Starkhaven—hadn’t been able to steal Garrett away earlier for another dance. Garrett had obligations beyond playing the field, and he secretly enjoyed them far better than choking down a glass of champagne next to Sebastian Vael, once the most incorrigible playboy of them all, who’d only recently found the Maker.

‘Perhaps you’d like me to leave you with some literature,’ Sebastian had said, so much sincerity in his large, blue eyes.

‘I simply must piss,’ was Garrett’s surefire escape line. ‘All that bubbly—will you excuse me? Of course you will.’

The world he inhabited at night was far more real—and far more personal—than the flash and guile of Hightown at night. Garrett had lost his father to the templars, his mother to a blood mage. The Champion ensured that neither radical group claimed civilians in their separate paths of destruction.

Well—most of the time. But only when he was fast enough.

Some people said the Champion was a menace. Others, like police commissioner Aveline Vallen, said he was the only thing holding this city together.

‘Bit of an important one tonight, sir,’ Bodahn said, patching himself through on Garrett’s electronic wristwatch. ‘I’ll forward you to the Bard; I’m sure he can fill you in on the details.’

The Bard in question had already sent a file to Garrett’s computer in the Champion’s Cave. He opened it as he changed into his suit—multitasking was a talent that had always come easily to him—pulling on the protective chestpiece with its gold buttons, his black spiked pauldrons, dark cowl and the heavy Kevlar cape, which protected him from templar bullets and the occasional malevolent spell in equal measures. Last of all came the armored gauntlets—murder to type with, but they came in handy out in the field.

FEYNRIEL, the computer read. Age 16. Half-elvhen. Mage.

‘One of the People?’ Garrett mused. ‘Oh no. No, no, no…’ With some difficulty, he tapped a few keys, bringing up the secure link between the cave and Bard’s secret location. ‘You have got to be kidding me, Bard.’

Static fizzled; then, the connection went live. Bard was already chuckling. ‘Problems, Champion?’

‘You warned me the file was sparse,’ Garrett said. ‘But I see that you’ve conveniently forgotten to mention the boy’s Dalish roots. Is there anything else you’d like to throw in while you’ve got me here? Does he have a qunari godfather? Is he the mayor’s bastard son?’

‘Nothing so provocative,’ Bard promised. ‘And Saemus Dumar’s still an only child, as far as I know. I swear, Champion, it seemed like an open-and-shut case. Kid runs off because of his powers, mother calls in the templars. Doesn’t want the police involved; doesn’t realize the templars are way worse. One of my contacts says the kid’s already been spotted down by the docks, trying to hitch a ride on a ship to Amaranthine. He just wants to get out of here, and you know what? Some nights, I don’t blame him.’ There was a pause. ‘Anyway, the templar on the job is a man by the name of Thrask. He’s one of ours, so try not to get in his way.’

‘And your contact?’ Garrett asked.

‘It’s Dust,’ Bard admitted. ‘So you already know to take his information with a grain of salt.’

Wonderful,’ Garrett said. ‘I do so love leaving the lives of innocents in the hands of a lyrium-addled ex-templar.’

‘Yeah,’ Bard agreed. ‘And he’s one of the good guys.’

*

On the rooftops of Hightown, Garrett crossed paths with Lyrium Ghost. Delicate scales of slinky black armor, the faint blue glow pulsing in the darkness—they noticed each other at the same time, and Lyrium Ghost paused in a tense but nonetheless elegant crouch, like a tiger waiting to pounce on too small a prey.

‘Champion,’ Lyrium Ghost said, voice implacable and deep.

It had taken Garrett a full year on the circuit to even pretend he could ignore that broadsword strapped to Lyrium Ghost’s back—even longer to learn how to combat it. One powerful swing had once sent him flying onto the streets below, during their first and rather inglorious meeting, and Lyrium Ghost had made off with the contents of Mayor Dumar’s safe that evening.

Not exactly an auspicious beginning.

Kirkwallers would abandon a man the moment he let them down; no matter how many times he saved them, one mistake was all it took to turn the tides of favor against his name. But Garrett held himself to a different standard, one where mistakes weren’t ever on the table.

One mistake was also all it took for good people to die. Tonight, Garrett wasn’t in the business of preventing petty crime; there were far more pressing matters on his mind than sharing rooftop banter with Kirkwall’s foremost cat burglar.

Garrett blended back into the night, heading toward Lowtown—but not before he heard Lyrium Ghost’s snarl of frustration at being left behind.

*

He always knew Lowtown by its scent—the shift in the winds, the stink of dirt baked long days beneath relentless sunlight. Darktown was the Chokedamp, the festering, fetid sewers, and the docks were all rats, bilge and brine.

The Asylum up in the Gallows had a smell, too—a smell of nothing, of electric, arcane energy scoured unnaturally clean. And Hightown smelled of all these things hidden just below the surface, fighting to be free.

The docks were crowded at this time of night, but only if you knew where to look. Smugglers and Coterie enforcers were hidden in pockets all over, between warehouses and beneath staircases. Run into them unawares, and it was the end of the line—unless you’d come prepared.

The Champion always did. He was looking for warehouse five, property of the notorious Captain Reiner. He sold slaves to Tevinter on a fairly regular basis; Garrett didn’t like to think about how much coin he would’ve turned for a young, half-elvhen mage. It didn’t matter, because it was all about to become worthless.

Garrett concealed himself in the shadows and got to work picking the lock. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to replace the standard flimsy latch—it was a lot harder to keep people locked down than Antivan caviar and Orlesian silks. When his pick finally caught against the bolt, Garrett unlocked the door and threw it open in one swift motion. He slid his tools back up his sleeve, one hand already on the first of three miasmic flasks at his belt. Captain Reiner’s men were almost on him before he smashed it against the floor.

As thick smoke rose up from the point of impact, Garrett wasted no time in unsheathing his daggers.

‘It’s the Champion!’ someone shouted, and Garrett hit the floor.

Bullets scattered through the tight space as he whirled, covering himself with his cape. The flask left him with only a short window of opportunity to move without making himself into an obvious target—and so he moved quickly, daggers raking over slavers like a hawk’s talons across the flesh of its prey. His aim was to incapacitate, not kill. The efficiency of that was an argument he’d had with Lyrium Ghost countless times, and the real reason they couldn’t work together in any official capacity—more so than supposedly being on ‘different sides.’

After losing his family, Garrett couldn’t condone taking a life. Lyrium Ghost had no such convictions—especially when it came to slavers.

A gun’s muzzle flared bright in the smoke, going off a half-dozen times in quick succession. A frightened bodyguard, emptying his clip in a vain attempt at hitting something—anything would do, much less anyone. Garrett threw his dagger, nailing him in the wrist; the slaver dropped his gun and Garrett punched him hard in the stomach, then brought his arm down against the back of his neck. He crumpled with a groan.

Before the smoke could clear, Garrett ducked and rolled, kicking down the inner door with enough force to break its lock. Sometimes there just wasn’t time to bother with a lock-pick.

Inside was the quarry—his eyes were panicked over the dirty gag shoved in his mouth. Next to him on the floor was a broken, twisted corpse—inhuman—swollen, bloated flesh distorted beyond measure, hands clenched into clawed fists. The smell of seared flesh filled Garrett’s nose and he fought his stomach’s natural urge to heave.

Abominations.

There’d been two mages in this room before. Now, there was only one. That was why the slavers had been at the ready with their firearms; they’d been dealing with a problem already, a mage Garrett had been too late to save.

Sudden gunfire interrupted his thoughts, and he swiveled with a burst of speed, throwing up his cape to distract his attackers while he threw down his second flask.

‘Mmph!’ said the boy on the floor.

‘You make an excellent point,’ Garrett agreed. ‘We have definitely overstayed our welcome.’

He moved in one swift motion, dashing across the floor and grabbing the boy up in his arms. Garrett pulled his cape around them both, then leapt for the low window. They exploded out of the warehouse with a crash, broken glass crunching beneath Garrett’s feet. He tugged the rag out of the boy’s mouth, then pulled him into a standing position.

‘We have to get off the streets,’ Garrett said, shaking the shattered glass of what was once a windowpane out of his cape. ‘I hope you don’t have a problem with heights.’

*

Flying solo was one thing; flying with a passenger was another. Garrett didn’t know how to compensate for the extra load, wasn’t accustomed to altering his pace just to let someone else catch his breath. Teamwork wasn’t the name of the game; he tolerated Bard’s input because he was useful, and Commissioner Vallen’s input because she was a force for change, but a simple boy who couldn’t keep up offered nothing more than dead weight. Spells meant little this high above the city—speed and efficiency were the currency of the rooftops, and the boy had neither. Garrett was forced to take the long way back just to avoid Lyrium Ghost’s usual haunts, and keep out of range of the docks, where Siren was on the prowl by now, winding her way through the darkened hexes.

But he couldn’t just leave Feynriel where he was, either, no more than live fodder for the slavers.

When they saw the stark outline of the Gallows tower in the distance, Feynriel shivered.

Other than that, he was silent the whole, long way, breath quickening in uneven bursts, clever enough not to look down.

*

‘I’m not going in there,’ Feynriel insisted, a whisper loud enough to wake the entire Coterie.

Garrett paced in front of a manhole, unaffected by the plume of pale green smoke that rose from the center—smelling exactly the way one would assume pale green smoke might.

‘Yes, you are,’ he replied.

*

Some few hours and countless arguments later, Feynriel refused to go any further.

‘He wants to go to the Dalish,’ Garrett said, hushed against the microphone in his wristwatch. In the distance, sewage dripped, ticking away precious seconds.

‘Not a welcoming people, the Dalish,’ Bard’s voice returned. He was chewing something, thoughtful and slow. Good to know he was able to snack while Garrett risked his life in Lowtown and the Darktown sewers; it was impossible to entertain thoughts of eating when one spent most evenings amongst abominations, and Garrett was already regretting the hors d'oeuvres he’d indulged in earlier, fresh from Orlais. ‘You sure you can’t convince him otherwise?’

The night could have gone better—and Garrett knew from personal experience it could also always have gone worse. In Kirkwall it was usually the latter, but he found himself longing for the former despite its implausibility.

This time, it wasn’t the job so much as its focus; Feynriel was a singularly difficult boy.

‘Well there aren’t any Dalish down here, now are there?’ he demanded, just loud enough for Bard to catch it over the commlink.

Garrett could practically hear him wince.

‘I’ve tried,’ Garrett said. ‘I’m no babysitter. What’s so important about this one?’

‘Not rethinking your code of conduct so soon into the game, are you, Champion?’ Bard asked. ‘Why don’t you try reasoning with him—asking him if he’s heard of you? Just telling someone I know you’s usually all the authority I need.’

‘Liar,’ Garrett said, and switched off the device.

Feynriel was waiting for him, a stubborn set to his jaw, a pouty half-breed mouth. His ears were pointed against his fair hair, and he was wearing a t-shirt with a screen print of a group of Tal-Vashoth. DISOBEY THE QUN, it read.

‘Who were you talking to?’ he demanded.

‘My agent,’ Garrett lied.

‘I know who you are,’ Feynriel announced. He crossed his arms, examining something green and sticky on the far wall. ‘I’m not stupid. We’ve heard of the Champion in the alienage.’

‘Then clearly my agent’s doing his job,’ Garrett said. He affected a winning smile—the exact same expression that had won him considerable favor with Saemus Dumar, and none at all with Commissioner Vallen. It was less effective half-hidden in the shadows of his cowl. ‘And if you know who I am, then you’re doing an incredibly poor job of showing your gratitude.’

‘My own mother called the templars on me,’ Feynriel huffed. ‘And these were new shoes. I hardly think I have that much to be grateful for.’

‘You could be on a ship to Tevinter by now,’ Garrett pointed out. ‘Or you could be an abomination, and also dead. There are a lot of fates waiting to befall an untrained mage in Kirkwall. Would you like me to enumerate them for you as we sink lower and lower in shit?’

‘I’m not going home,’ Feynriel said. He fixed Garrett with a stubborn look, eyes glinting an eerie gold in the reflected glow from Garrett’s flashlight. In retrospect, escorting an untested mageling alone through the sewer passages wasn’t the Champion’s most well-strategized retreat. Feynriel started to continue, but his mouth stretched wider in an unexpected yawn, and he quickly covered his mouth, turning his face aside instead.

‘Well I’m not taking you up Sundermount in the middle of the night.’ Garrett shook out his cape. ‘Does this look like a tent to you? This is a rescue mission, not a camping excursion.’

Feynriel’s lower lip jutted out. Garrett lifted his left boot with an unpleasant squelching sound. The beeper in his wrist communicator went off, abruptly interrupting their unspoken standoff.

‘What is that?’ Feynriel asked, with grudging curiosity.

Garrett glanced at the picture on the video screen. Bodahn’s smiling face beamed up at him.

‘It’s my butler,’ he said shortly, swiftly muting the feed.

‘You don’t have to lie to me,’ Feynriel muttered.

Garrett wondered why it was that people were less inclined to believe him whenever he was telling them the truth. ‘Come on. I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan on spending the night in a river of feces.’

‘I won’t go back to my mother,’ Feynriel reminded him. ‘Or Ser Thrask.’

‘I remember,’ Garrett assured him. ‘Don’t worry. I might just have thought of a temporary solution.’

*

Seeing the look on Feynriel’s face change from sullen to overawed when they entered the Champion’s Cave almost made it all worthwhile. The kid’s jaw nearly hit the floor, and it was clear he’d almost forgotten—at least for a moment—that he was an apostate on the run, with no friends or family to speak of, no one left but the Champion to trust.

Bodahn appeared at the top of the stone-cut stairwell; he was bearing a tray of sandwiches, and a pot of something that smelled suspiciously of cocoa.

As if set on a timer, Feynriel’s stomach let out a monstrous growl.

‘I’m sorry,’ Garrett said. ‘What was that? Did you say something, Feynriel?’

Bodahn let out a hearty chuckle. ‘Don’t you mind the master, now. He gets awfully particular about his space sometimes. Would you believe there was a time when he wouldn’t even let the likes of me down here? Me—his own butler! Hired by his mother, Maker grant her rest.’

‘That’s enough, Bodahn,’ Garrett said.

‘I’ve said too much, haven’t I?’ Bodahn asked, setting the tray down. ‘Come, eat. Young lads like you need good solid meals to grow big and strong—like the Champion.’

‘Deal with him,’ Garrett said, stripping out of his gauntlets. Easier to text Bard his status that way. Bodahn lingered, hands clasped behind his back, clearing his throat gently. ‘…Please.

‘I hear a post-midnight snack can be excellent for a growing boy,’ Bodahn said obligingly, as Feynriel approached the plate like an alley cat sniffing for poison. ‘If only on the rare occasion. Don’t you agree?’

‘Mfh,’ Feynriel replied, mouth stuffed full of Bodahn’s famous chocolate chip cookies.

*

Feynriel fell asleep soon after consuming half his body weight in sugar—something Garrett hadn’t been able to achieve in a long, long time—and Bodahn watched as Garrett proceeded to pace the length of the Cave, burdened with the task of deciding what came next.

Far below Hightown, nestled in the dank caverns of Darktown proper, the Cave couldn’t easily be traced back to Hawke Manor—but Bodahn could. As much as Garrett enjoyed laughing at parties about how all dwarves ostensibly looked exactly the same, Feynriel had keen eyes. And it wasn’t as though Garrett could carry him through the tunnels while he slept, all the way to the no man’s land outside the city, and deposit him, nearly helpless, at the base of Sundermount, in hopes he’d be taken in by a kindhearted soul.

Kindhearted soul and Dalish were hardly synonymous.

‘Well, he’s your problem now, Champion,’ Bard said. ‘But as for me—you’ve tuckered me out enough for one night. Sources say this one’s a real firecracker. Careful he doesn’t twist your brain like putty in his sleep. Bard out.’

Infuriating static followed. Garrett continued pacing.

‘If I might, sir…?’ Bodahn began.

Garrett braced himself for an incoming lecture—Bodahn could be far more dangerous than templars and blood mages combined, and was surprisingly stealthy for a dwarf. ‘I said please, Bodahn. Did I neglect an apology in there, too?’

‘Oh, no, Master Garrett,’ Bodahn said, with a warm chuckle. Garrett glanced to Feynriel—still sleeping—but didn’t relax. ‘I merely meant to say—he does seem lonely there by himself, doesn’t he?’

‘He isn’t a pet,’ Garrett replied firmly. ‘It’s not as though we can keep him.’

*

Garrett slept very little that night—entering the Fade with a mage nearby was far too risky. He’d read Feynriel’s files, what little Bard had dug up on him; the mage was a dreamer. Not quite as demented as a blood mage, but no less dangerous. If he fell into the wrong hands, or if he was swayed by the wrong influence—one of Kirkwall’s many villains, looking for an edge up on the competition—he’d be less a boy and more of a weapon.

Garrett supposed he couldn’t let that happen.

Dropping him off at Sundermount was out of the question, then. Leading him back to the templars would see him locked up in the Gallows Asylum—and if he wasn’t half-mad and tempted to blood magic before a stay in the Gallows, he would be soon enough. The only person Garrett trusted with someone of Feynriel’s talents was himself.

That was the trouble with being a perfectionist.

But the reality of the situation was that Garrett wasn’t a mage. He’d perfected certain skills that made him seem magical—the ability to pass through locked doors, the ability to disappear without a trace—but he had no experience when it came to walking the Fade, or resisting demons.

He could teach Feynriel how to stick a dagger in his opponents, but that wouldn’t be enough to protect him. Garrett was going to have to seek outside assistance.

*

There was almost no delay when he brought up Bard’s line, which made Garrett think he’d been waiting for the call. It was still early—nearly the time when morning commuters would be waking up for daily travel to Starkhaven. Feynriel was sleeping deeply, breath catching on a faint snore every time he inhaled.

‘How did I know you’d come crawling back?’ Bard asked. Despite the hour, he had the sheer nerve to sound wide awake. ‘Oh, right—because they always do.’

‘Your confidence remains both a delight and a comfort to experience firsthand,’ Garrett said. He flexed his stiff shoulders, reaching beneath his hooded cowl to scratch his head. The costume was made for function and intimidation—that meant it wasn’t exactly the most comfortable thing to lounge around in all night. He’d have vastly preferred a silken robe and some slippers, but they wouldn’t have matched the Cave. ‘Self-satisfied as you already are, I have a dilemma for you.’

The sound of creaking leather filtered over the microphone. Bard was settling in, making himself comfortable. ‘All right, Champion—tell me what you’ve got. I’ll let you know how the story ends.’

‘It’s more of a riddle, actually,’ Garrett admitted. ‘How do you train a dreamer in Kirkwall?’

‘Oh, is that all?’ Bard asked. ‘Funny—I already figured you wouldn’t be able to turn the kid loose, so I pulled some relevant files for you. Believe it or not, there are actually a few possible solutions to that brainteaser of yours—I’ve flagged the ones that seem most likely to succeed.’ He paused, voice turning playful. ‘Do you want me to stay on the line and hold your hand while you read them?’

‘Now, Bard,’ Garrett said, cracking his knuckles before pulling up the files. ‘You know it drives me wild with desire when you flirt.’

*

Three of the files had special flags—Garrett dismissed two right from the start. Orsino protected the city from the residents of the Gallows Asylum, but it was also rumored that he’d allowed the defection of the blood mages, and was indirectly responsible for their continued presence by allowing the renegade group to flourish and thrive in the city. No go, there. The second option, Meredith, was the leader of the templars. Handing Feynriel over to her special forces would be a safe decision, but that security would almost certainly come at the cost of the young boy’s mind or, at the very least, his life.

The final choice—which Bard had tacked with a winking smiley face—was the mysterious Warden. Even though they’d never crossed paths by night, Garrett had heard of him; he’d heard of everyone in the City of Chains. It was impossible to travel through Darktown and not pick up on whispers of the Warden—tirelessly campaigning for the rights of mages and the poor alike. He was a champion for the Champion-less—a slogan Garrett disliked the more he heard it, or saw it scrawled on the walls in bright-red spray paint.

After all, there just wasn’t room in the city for both Meredith and Orsino. The balance of power was precarious, constantly on the verge of tipping. The more volatile elements there were added to the mix, the more the city felt like a stack of cards, trembling in the wind.

Two Champions didn’t seem to Garrett like the best of ideas. Eventually, they were going to be set against one another in the minds of the people, and all of Kirkwall would take sides.

‘He’s a good guy, Champion,’ Bard said in his earpiece. ‘Maybe even better than you. Who knows? Only time will tell how this one works out.’

‘Oh, Bard, now really,’ Garrett replied. ‘You do such wonders for a man’s self-esteem.’

The day was long; they had to wait for dusk to fall before the Warden’s lantern in Darktown would be lit again. Garrett didn’t relish the idea of looking after a sullen teenager anymore than anyone should, really, but he also couldn’t leave Feynriel up to his own devices in the Cave.

Bodahn brought them breakfast, Garrett’s favorite, oatmeal with elfroot syrup.

‘Good for the constitution,’ he said. The cowl was starting to itch; beneath it, he could feel his scalp sweating. The oatmeal was boiling hot, the steam rising and trapped against Garrett’s face. ‘Keeps your energy up for the rest of the day.’

‘It tastes like the alienage smells,’ Feynriel muttered.

Garrett moved on from breakfast to go through his routine, pushups and sit-ups and pull ups on the bar in the corner, then practiced a few of the movements he’d been studying while watching Siren fight. She was all shadow, all sudden disappearance and unexpected return, unpredictable and volatile as a shade. He could still hear her taunts, her deep-throated laugh, as she disappeared in a cloud of miasmic smoke; even he couldn’t pinpoint her exact location when she appeared, nothing more than sinew and a silhouette, behind her next enemy. She took care of most of the freeloaders down by the docks, petty criminals looking to smuggle lyrium goods out of the city and elsewhere through Thedas. Now and then, Garrett arrived moments too late—just as she was slitting a Tevinter slaver’s throat. Behind her black mask, her eyes glittered in the dark; on those nights, Garrett sometimes thought he heard the creaking of floorboards overhead, or saw a flash of pale blue light, the colors of Lyrium Ghost.

Duck, dodge, roll. Garrett had to work on the recipe for his current miasmic flasks; they were leaving residue on his cape, and the smoke itself wasn’t stunning enemies for long enough.

‘What are you doing?’ Feynriel asked.

‘Well, it’s certainly not Dalish, so you likely wouldn’t be interested,’ Garrett replied.

He could feel Feynriel’s eyes on him for the rest of the exercise. He needed to get the boy out of here, make him somebody else’s problem. Protecting someone from afar was an easier task—for some people—than actually living with them.

*

Garrett had missed three relatively important business meetings and one less important lunch date with Flora Harimann; it was good for his image to have Bodahn call off his appointments with the delicately phrased excuse that Garrett had engaged in a private party the night before, and was currently sleeping off the effects of the hangover. There were rumors currently on Page Six of the Kirkwall Crier that Garrett Hawke was blowing the great Amell family fortune on lyrium dust and escorts from the Blooming Rose, and rumors like that were the best disguise of all.

‘You see this man?’ Garrett asked, pointing to the article—his own face, caught in a moment of truly hideous laughter, head tilted back, mouth distorted. ‘Don’t grow up to be like him.’

‘You mean…rich and happy, without a care in the world?’ Feynriel asked.

Garrett stalked past him. Another round of pull-ups would certainly make him feel less annoyed. ‘No. A self-serving bastard with no sense of what’s going on in the real City of Chains.’

‘But still rich and happy,’ Feynriel pointed out.

Garrett shrugged, armored pauldrons heavy on his shoulders. This whole exercise could be considered strength-training. ‘That’s Kirkwall for you.’

Tell me about it,’ Feynriel said.

Garrett had a smart retort all ready for him, but it died on his lips. If anyone deserved to be a little blasé about Kirkwall’s dangers and its politics, it was a boy who was two-thirds objectionable material, at least according to the popular vote. Garrett didn’t envy him his position one bit.

That still didn’t mean he could start to sympathize with him. With any luck, Bard would be in contact with them by nightfall. It was just as well, since Garrett really wasn’t sure how many more hours he could take in the Champion’s Cave.

*

Just when Garrett was about to go insane—and Flora Harimann no doubt was about to raise the alarm and claim a kidnapping had taken place—Bard finally rang in with news about the Warden.

‘Word on the street is that he’ll be in Hightown tonight, meeting a few escapees from the Asylum,’ Bard said. Garrett could hear the faint clatter of keys over the speaker, the sound of Bard transcribing as he spoke. In addition to being the most connected man in all of Kirkwall, Bard also kept files that would’ve put the national archivists to shame. ‘No blood mages, just a few of the wrongfully accused. You know how Meredith likes to let those slip through the cracks. I’m willing to bet the Warden wouldn’t mind taking another apostate along with his group—if you can get the boy to the rendezvous point in time.’

‘Just tell me where and when, Bard,’ Garrett said. He was already moving, retrieving his gauntlets. He grabbed the keys to the bike this time—he wasn’t taking any more chances with Feynriel on rooftops—then beeped Bodahn over his wrist communicator to let him know they were going out.

‘You have a motorcycle?’ Feynriel asked, concealing the wonder in his voice as the bike rose up on its mechanized dais. ‘Why did you make me walk through the sewers?’

‘It was a learning experience,’ Garrett assured him. He tossed Feynriel the spare helmet, then pointedly refrained from laughing when he fumbled and nearly dropped it. ‘Evidently it didn’t take. Get on.’

‘Where are we going?’ Feynriel asked, his voice muffled under the helmet. ‘Are you taking me to the Dalish?’

‘No,’ Garrett said, revving the bike’s engine. ‘But I promise you it’s almost the next-best thing.’

*

As it turned out, Feynriel very nearly got his wish. Unbeknownst to everyone—including Bard, who was going to kick himself for the slip-up later—there was already a Dalish elf among the group of escaped apostates, one the People had taken it upon themselves to reclaim. Garrett could already see the battle raging from two blocks away—thick clouds of green nature magic shooting up into the sky, rippling flashes of raw electricity. That was going to bring the templars down on them fast and hard; not only would the Dalish renegades suffer, but the innocents that the Warden had fought to free would find themselves right back in the Asylum, too.

Didn’t anyone do any research before they started a job? Or was it all just unleash the unholy fury of the ancestors first, ask questions later?

It might have been easier to turn the bike around, but Garrett was Champion of Kirkwall. He hadn’t taken up that position just so he could do what was easy. He steered the bike directly into the chantry courtyard, skidding to one side of a thick, thorny vine that snaked toward them across the ground.

Halam sahlin!’ one of the Dalish called. From what Garrett could see of her through the brambles and green light, she was short, slim-built, dark-haired in a tangle of thick, green briar. ‘We have what we came for—but the Dalish shall return! Never again shall we submit!’

‘No one asked you to!’ someone shouted from across the courtyard. ‘In fact, I seem to recall asking to be left alone.

‘All right, you choose,’ Garrett said. ‘Go with them, or stay here and see what I have planned for you. It’s up to you, Feynriel.’

In the sidecar—it looked ridiculous, but it came in handy for transporting hostages and cargo safely—Feynriel was silent, tense, the weight of the world on his shoulders. The air was heavy with sweet, clean breezes and a whirlwind of foliage, the courtyard cobblestones littered with leaves. The Dalish were impressive—as was free, natural magic, the implication that a mage could be something more than a Gallows inmate, could do something more than be driven to self-destruction and blood magic. The Dalish reeked of self-satisfaction, certainly, but desperation wasn’t in their vocabulary. It was a welcome change to anyone who knew of nothing but.

‘Life choices aren’t that easy after all, are they?’ Garrett asked.

‘Quit antagonizing the kid,’ Bard said over the commlink. ‘Warden, three o’clock. Make nice or you’ve only got yourself to blame for this one turning sour.’

‘Again, Bard, I never quite know how to thank you,’ Garrett muttered. ‘Your words of wisdom are only as powerful as your unflagging kindness.’

Bard chuckled. ‘I should get that on a plaque or something. Quote the Champion. Over and out.’

The smoke cleared quickly enough, blown away by a brisk northerly wind. Garrett’s cape was caught up in the breeze, the edges curling across broken stone as he stepped off the bike.

‘Warden,’ he said.

It wasn’t a question.

With the Dalish gone, it was easier to see the group before him now—three mages, none of them older than Feynriel, and the man of the hour, the other ‘champion,’ the Warden himself. It was a clever name, drawing on old history and powerful lore, and it lent him legitimacy.

His costume didn’t.

Black feathers, gleaming in the moonlight, a ruffle at his shoulders, bandages wrapped around his arms. He held a staff in one hand—Bard had told Garrett to expect as much—and his other held the children back, a human, feathery shield placed between himself and his wards.

‘…Champion?’ the Warden said. And it was a question.

‘There’s one more for you tonight,’ Garrett said, voice deeper, the same gravel he always called upon for his nighttime transactions. It sounded serious; it lent him an air of legitimacy. Most of the time it was for intimidating enemies, but sometimes you had to intimidate your allies, too. ‘A dreamer. Sources say you’re the man to take him.’

Garrett could hear the clatter of Feynriel tripping out of the sidecar just behind him. He didn’t wince when he wondered if the chrome siding had been scratched in the commotion.

‘This is…unexpected,’ the Warden said.

‘The best things usually are,’ Garrett replied, using the winds to his advantage, manipulating the swirl of his cape. He could hear the mages gasp collectively—sometimes, over-awed adulation was the best part of a job for which success was usually its own reward. ‘We’ll be in touch.’

Will we,’ the Warden began, but Garrett revved his engine loudly, tires screeching as he shot off.

*

After the Feynriel job was over, Garrett made a brief appearance at Flora Harimann’s. Even though the hour was obscene, he managed to charm her all the way to forgiveness and perhaps a little beyond. Realizing he’d gotten himself in too deep—and seeing the pale, glowing shadow of Lyrium Ghost just outside the window—Garrett made his excuses and suited up for the last, dim hours of the early morning, meeting Lyrium Ghost on a chilly Hightown roof.

‘I took care of your slavers,’ he said, prowling closer. ‘They deserved their fate.’

‘You followed me to the docks, you mean,’ Garrett said. ‘That isn’t how I do things, Ghost. It isn’t right. You know that.’

Lyrium Ghost snarled. ‘You would let them live? Help them the same way you help those precious mages?’

‘That isn’t for me to decide,’ Garrett replied. In the distance, the dark peaks of Sundermount could be seen, silhouetted against the rising sun. The Dalish would be returning to their commune right about now, having fought for—and having won back—their lost companion. ‘I might change lives, but I don’t choose when to end them.’

‘A tired excuse,’ Lyrium Ghost said.

Garrett was almost inclined to agree. ‘For a tired argument,’ he answered, ‘from a tired man.’

Lyrium Ghost drew closer to him on the rooftop; he moved across a gap and wound around a pillar with tightly-coiled grace. He stopped just short of where Garrett was standing, lifting a hand to rest it against his shoulder. Garrett felt a light pressure—the sharp tips of Lyrium Ghost’s clawed gauntlets, dragging down his chest.

‘One of these days,’ he murmured, voice low and cold. Garrett could feel his breath against his neck; they were close enough that he could see Lyrium Ghost’s simple domino mask, the dark fabric obscuring his face, the veins of twisted lyrium, his skin glowing beneath it. ‘You’re going to leave the wrong man alive—and it could so easily be one of those mages you favor. They will come after you, and then you’ll be forced to make a choice. You’ll come around to my way of thinking, Champion. They always do.’

If that ever happens, I’d be glad to have you at my back,’ Garrett said. He allowed himself to lean closer. The scent of Flora Harimann’s perfume still clung to his skin, while Lyrium Ghost smelled purely of metal and oils—the jewelry he stole, and the tools he used to defend himself. Despite the late hour, and the fact that Garrett had experienced more than enough excitement for one night, his pulse was racing. Lyrium Ghost had that effect on people. Garrett never knew if he was about to make a breakthrough—or have Lyrium Ghost break through him, instead. ‘…But I won’t condone murder.’

Lyrium Ghost growled in frustration. He balled his fist against Garrett’s armored chestpiece and shoved hard, throwing him back against the chimney. He moved swiftly before Garrett could react, dashing to the left and climbing easily onto the next roof. Garrett caught sight of something glimmering in his side pouch as he sped away, but it was too late to catch him now.

The Champion had accomplished a fair amount in one night. If some smaller burglaries eluded him now and then, he couldn’t be held responsible. That was Commissioner Vallen’s job, anyway—peace itself was the Champion’s jurisdiction.

*

With Feynriel out of the Cave and in another mage’s hands, Garrett was able to enjoy a real night’s sleep—in a real bed, without his spiked armor or heavy boots. He rested until noon, then took a long shower, washing the night’s victories and losses off his skin. There were bruises there, faint red pinpricks from Lyrium Ghost’s clawed gauntlets, but they were soon covered up with his house robes, while Garrett read the Kirkwall Crier over a simple breakfast of bacon and eggs.

‘The commissioner wants a word with you, when you have a moment, Master Garrett,’ Bodahn said, bringing out a fresh pot of coffee. ‘Not you, I mean—rather, the Champion. And of course that lovely Flora girl from the Harimann’s reception left a message—she wants to know if you’d be willing to attend a luncheon for women in the arts later this afternoon…a late luncheon, it seems. I can’t say I agree with such a thing on principle, but here it all is, written down clear as day.’ He paused, re-arranging the bright camellia flowers on the table. ‘…It’s rather quiet around here without Master Feynriel about, don’t you think?’

‘Not before breakfast,’ Garrett warned him. ‘You’ll ruin my appetite.’

‘Not my place,’ Bodahn agreed. ‘I understand, Master Garrett; never you mind. It just seems to me that you’d want to know more about that Warden fellow than what it said in the file. Spend some time with him… Perhaps he could even be of some help. You work so hard, sir—and at this rate you’ll never have the time to settle down and start a family.’

The dog whuffed hungrily under the table. Garrett fed him a sly, crunchy piece of bacon, then felt him slobber around his fingertips for more. Bodahn watched, and knew exactly what was happening, and said nothing—but he didn’t have to, in order to make his disapproval known.

‘Now, Bodahn,’ Garrett murmured, ‘don’t you think you’re getting a little old to have children in the house again?’

‘One is never too old for children, sir,’ Bodahn replied. ‘I find they invigorate the elderly, in point of fact. Lend new life to them, as it were. We must always do our best to remain young at heart, mustn’t we?’

‘Then perhaps you should think about settling down and starting a family of your own,’ Garrett suggested. ‘You aren’t getting any younger either, you know.’

‘No, sir.’ Bodahn bowed crisply. ‘But I already have a family, thank you. Will that be all, sir?’

‘Yes,’ Garrett mumbled, feeling no older than a child, himself.

*

There was business to catch up on, a luncheon to attend, stocks to invest in seemingly at random, funds to transfer, and a tour of the qunari compound to suffer through in the thin, narrow sunlight of Kirkwall, mid-autumn. It was unseasonably warm despite the cloud cover, and Garrett undid his collar, then fanned himself with a pamphlet written up by the mayor’s son, Saemus Dumar himself.

‘Awfully hot, isn’t it?’ Garrett asked, just as Saemus was about to continue a very serious discussion on the current qunari tensions—listing, with terrible solemnity, the number of casualties the qunari had already suffered after immigrating to the City of Chains. ‘I mean, no wonder they’re so disenchanted with the place—it’s practically a heat sink down here, wouldn’t you say? Hard to think when you’re sweating so damn much.’

There was a tittering of mild-mannered, polite amusement—everyone laughing at Garrett, not with him—and Saemus Dumar attempting to reclaim the attention of the crowd, while Garrett wandered off to knock at a sandstone wall, a bronze placard, observing the qunari tenements with a squint and a pout. He could feel a few eyes still on him, waiting for signs of his irreverence and immaturity; high society was always placated by the distant suffering of others, and also, when people delivered on their expectations.

Terribly fascinating stuff,’ Garrett said, shaking hands all around, kissing the Comtesse de Launcet’s white, age-spotted fingers, ‘but you really have to tell me more about the perfume you’re wearing today, Comtesse.’

The Comtesse was practically preening. ‘Isn’t it the most delightful thing? All the way from Orlais, you know.’

Garrett took a deep breath. He could smell the water, sunlight on burnished metal, the stink of cheap living. Qunari. And something floral, wispy, cloying sweet. It wasn’t quite strong enough to cover up everything else, the truth of where they were, but it was all a man like Garrett Hawke was supposed to notice.

Enchanting,’ he agreed.

*

‘OK, Champion,’ Bard said on the other line. All Garrett saw on the screen was static—white and blue lines flickering over the darkness, the closest he’d ever come to seeing the face of his most trustworthy accomplice. ‘On tonight’s menu, we’ve got ourselves a little Tal-Vashoth problem, some blood mages infiltrating the Rose and carrying out hits on patron templars, and the damn Mayor keeps flashing the signal every time someone nips into his private safe. You’d think with how much action the thing sees, he’d find himself a new one.’

‘Commissioner first,’ Garrett said, because no matter what, he always knew which side his bread was buttered on.

Bard whistled. ‘A very wise choice. The mood she’s in? Any other job’s going to seem like a breeze in comparison. And I’m including the Tal-Vashoth in that estimate.’

‘Thanks, Bard,’ Garrett said. ‘You always know just how to fire me up.’

*

Garrett met Commissioner Vallen on the roof of the police station, next to the round metal frame of the Champion signal. It was blessedly unlit for now, which made it easier for Garrett to arrive under cover of darkness. He allowed his boots to fall heavily against the gravel, stones crunching beneath the soles. The commissioner shoved her hands deeper into the pockets of her heavy coat.

‘I don’t like this,’ she reminded him. ‘Clandestine meetings in the dark? It isn’t good for police image. We’ve already got enough trouble with the templars undermining our authority at every turn. We don’t need the public thinking we rely on you to solve all our crimes. Why can’t you just use the door like a normal person? Have a meeting with me in my office for once…’

‘No can do, commissioner,’ Garrett said, back in his growly lower register. During the day, Commissioner Vallen was Aveline, and Garrett flirted with her shamelessly, even though she was a married woman. By night, Garrett couldn’t afford to have such vices. They were all business together—and Garrett didn’t cherish any illusions about which dynamic Commissioner Vallen preferred. ‘I’m not a chat-around-the-water-cooler kind of man. You know that.’

‘I do.’ Commissioner Vallen breathed out a puff of vapor in the cold night air. She turned to face him, the full force of her annoyance written clearly over the broad, honest planes of her face. ‘You’re right. The only thing worse than a masked vigilante is a masked vigilante who doesn’t bother to hide his identity. I don’t even want to think about the ruckus that would cause in the undercity.’

Garrett drew closer, taking care to linger in the shadows of the hatch behind the spotlight. ‘You didn’t call me just to complain about my hours.’ Have you changed your mind about us at last? he narrowly missed adding. Commissioner Vallen was too smart not to figure things out—she’d pick up on it if the Champion started flirting with the exact same zeal and hopeless flair Garrett Hawke so shamelessly employed.

‘You’re right,’ Commissioner Vallen said again. ‘I didn’t.’ She shook her head, turning to stare out over the city. Next to the police station was the high hill that housed Mayor Dumar’s mansion; further in the distance was the chantry. There were numerous, glittering buildings between them, not to mention the sound of busy traffic. Car horns and tires screeching against the pavement filtered up to their shared perch on the roof. ‘I want to talk to you about mages.’

Garrett got a leaden feeling in his stomach, like he’d just eaten one of Flora Harimann’s home-baked scones. ‘You too, commissioner? Don’t tell me you’re getting sucked into the mess alongside everyone else.’

‘I’m not getting sucked into anything,’ Commissioner Vallen insisted. ‘But when a few mages burned down their prison in Starkhaven just to escape, they came here. Like it or not, Kirkwall’s starting to get a reputation for being a safe haven. I’m not so sure that’s a reputation I like, Champion. And I’m starting to think I have you to blame.’

‘Me?’ Garrett asked, all innocence.

‘A man named Thrask came to us for assistance on a kidnapping case—one that involved a young apostate. The subject in question vanished without a trace, and that same night, a group of mages went missing from the Gallows Asylum.’

That wasn’t me,’ Garrett said, remembering Warden and his black feathers, shoulders twitchy in the dark.

‘But you do know who caused it,’ Commissioner Vallen said, sharply perceptive as ever.

‘I’m working on it,’ Garrett promised.

‘Aren’t you always,’ the commissioner replied.

It was impossible to shrug with a Kevlar cape and spiked pauldrons—and there was no point in doing it in the dark, anyway, cloaked in shadows, barely more than the rustle of heavy cloth and the flash of teeth. Garrett let the silence linger, watching Commissioner Vallen fight the urge to pace.

‘You’re always hiding in the shadows,’ she said finally. ‘Someday, someone out there’s going to shed some light on you.’

‘Will that someone be you?’ Garrett asked.

Commissioner Vallen had an honest laugh, brusque and humorless, but ultimately truthful. ‘I certainly hope not, Champion. I’d rather be as far away from the scene of that crime as possible.’

‘Don’t tell me you aren’t curious.’

‘It’s not my place to be curious,’ the commissioner said. ‘But it’s my job to make sure you don’t overstep your bounds. And that no one else does, for that matter. Whoever they might be.’

‘I’m working on it,’ Garrett repeated.

The commissioner almost smiled. ‘You’d better be,’ she said.

*

‘Commissioner’s breathing down your neck again, huh, Champion?’ Bard asked. ‘Hoo boy. Don’t come running to me for help with that one. I know when a woman errs on the wrong side of too much to handle, and I know when to keep my distance.’

‘I’m not coming to you for help with anything.’ Garrett clutched the throttle, feeling the motorcycle purr to life beneath him, steel frame sleek and slim between his thighs. ‘But I am asking for anything you can dig up on the Warden.’

‘Paying the guy a social call? At this hour of the night?’ Bard whistled. ‘Good thing I don’t know you outside of work, Champion.’ Garrett heard the familiar rhythm of strong fingers against the keys. ‘Give me fifteen—no, ten minutes. I’ll have a location for you.’

‘Five minutes,’ Garrett suggested.

Bard grunted. ‘Patience is a virtue in the eyes of the Maker, Champion. Didn’t your mother ever teach you that?’

*

The Warden was operating out of Darktown, according to Bard’s intelligence, and Bard had never been wrong yet. Garrett ditched the bike for the time being in a back alley, cloaking device set in place, and a few traps around the perimeter for anyone who might stumble onto the area by accident. Then, he headed down into the sewers.

A dramatic entrance wasn’t necessary, but it was good for keeping up appearances.

Still, when Garrett appeared through the manhole in a puff of harmless chameleon smoke—just for show, nothing close to knockout gas—the Warden didn’t seem surprised.

‘I have made this place a sanctum of healing and salvation,’ the Warden said, like he’d been threatened this way before, holding up his staff between them. The air was bitter, laced with arcane energy. Garrett thought he could detect something off—not wrong, just changed—but he couldn’t place it.

Automatically, beneath the fall of his cowl, Garrett scowled. His voice was deeper than it usually was. The tension in the place reminded him of a bomb about to blow, of a night just before the whole city turned sour. There was something beneath that mask, something beneath those feathers—and because Garrett didn’t recognize it, he couldn’t trust it.

He also didn’t have to like it.

‘You don’t remember me from the other night?’

The Warden didn’t lower his staff. The blade at the top sparked, just once, a keen shimmer of electricity along the metal edge. That was all it needed.

‘The other night was different,’ the Warden said.

Garrett sheathed his blades, holding up two gloved hands, empty—save for the ridges on his gauntlets. He could do more damage with those than most templars could with firearms, but not against a well-trained mage. Especially when that mage was protecting something personal, his own territory.

‘You’re right,’ Garrett said. ‘The other night there were more Dalish. So—this is the clinic?’

‘This is my clinic,’ the Warden said. ‘It is a refuge for our kind—like that boy, Feynriel, the one you left me with last night. It is not a place for the Champion to show up unannounced, trailing whatever Coterie and templar attention he’s managed to attract along the way. I bring mages here to keep them safe—and I hear being in close proximity to you is the opposite of safety, these days.’

‘I only came for a visit,’ Garrett said.

The Warden’s eyes narrowed beneath his black mask; it only covered the upper half of his face. ‘…Is that the truth?’

‘Partly,’ Garrett admitted.

‘Partly?’ the Warden asked.

It was difficult to make long speeches in Champion voice, but sometimes long speeches were necessary. ‘I know he seems awful, but the little bastard grows on you after awhile. He didn’t grow on me, of course, but my…friend. A friend of mine became attached. He’s a very foolish man, really, and he said I’d better make sure you weren’t grinding up mages to feed to your pet ogre. Which I said was ridiculous, because there’s no way you could hide an ogre in a cramped space like this. It’s barely even suitable for humans.’

‘I see…’ the Warden said slowly. He seemed to hesitate, then allowed his staff to rest against the ground. It dimmed, the electricity pulsing through it fading to a distant spark. Always there, always at the ready—but not about to fry Garrett just yet. ‘Are you usually this talkative?’

‘Almost exclusively,’ Garrett said, lying cheerfully through his teeth. Perpetuating the deep voice required to disguise his natural cadence was a strain on his vocal chords. He liked to avoid speaking as the Champion unless it was absolutely necessary. ‘Is that a problem?’

‘It’s not what I expected,’ the Warden admitted. ‘Then again, in this line of work you learn to roll with the punches. Or bullets, as the case may be. …Bullets are more common. There’s no ogre, by the way.’

Garrett toed the manhole cover shut with his boot, twitching his cape to obscure more of his body. It wasn’t uncommon for him to have conversations with other heroes face-to-face—Siren and Lyrium Ghost were his chief contacts in the field, each of them a constant presence, though only the former could be considered talkative—but they always met under cover of darkness, on the rooftops where no one might catch an accidental glimpse of them conferring. The clinic was disturbingly bright by contrast, and Garrett was all too aware of the fact that they were on ground level now. Not his territory. Anyone could walk in, and while his disguise was a good one, there was a reason the Champion only operated at night. Half his hype came from the fact that no one ever really got a clear look at him.

It was best to make this quick.

‘About that,’ Garrett said. ‘You and your bullets. I think it’s time we had a talk.’

‘They’re not my bullets so much as they’re…looking to lodge themselves into my flesh,’ the Warden said.

‘Sounds like bullets,’ Garrett told him. ‘Word on the street is you’ve been making some powerful enemies.’

*

It didn’t take that long to fill the Warden in on the situation, if only because he was already living it. Garrett could be very succinct when he wanted to—and unlike Bard, his summation of events didn’t come with the added factor of being an insufferable know-it-all.

By the time he’d finished, he was close to losing his voice, and the Warden was sitting on one of his cots; outside the window a stray cat yowled, knocking over a metal trash can.

‘…I never imagined my work was reaching so many people,’ Warden said at last.

That’s how you’ve chosen to interpret things?’ Garrett asked. His deep voice cracked in sheer surprise. ‘In case you haven’t realized, there’s another way of looking at all this: you’ve managed to bother two of the most powerful groups in Kirkwall. Three, if you count the Dalish. I’m sure it’d be an even four if Orsino knew who it was who kept breaking his prisoners out. Those aren’t good odds, Warden.’

‘Prisoners, yes, but they aren’t criminals,’ Warden said sharply. ‘I would never help a blood mage. And not all mages turn to blood magic, Champion; that simple fact cannot be swept under the rug by Meredith and her thugs.’

He reached up to scratch his cheek beneath the line of his mask, and Garrett was reminded strongly of the brief period of time he’d spent with Feynriel in the Champion’s cave, sharing mundane conversation while remaining unable to change out of his costume. Eating Bodahn’s cookies in his cowl didn’t lend him the air of legitimacy he’d sought to cultivate during the difficult years since he’d donned it in the first place.

But Warden, thankfully, didn’t appear to have a dwarven butler to serve them both tea cakes.

Small favors.

They might just as well have chosen to waste time talking about the weather, politics in Kirkwall, what their plans were for Satinalia, ancient and irrelevant Blights. And all under the cover of their masks, never seeing the other’s true face.

Garrett hated an unnecessarily awkward silence, but in his line of work, the Champion was forced to cultivate them. He let the pause linger until, finally, he saw Warden lick his lips. Only then did he speak. ‘I don’t think I need to remind you that the mage issue in Kirkwall is…a complicated one,’ he pointed out.

‘And let me guess—you can’t lose popular support by picking any sides.’ When Garrett said nothing, Warden’s mouth twitched, turned down at one corner, jaw clenching, tight. ‘So many are like you—incapable of decision, refusing to be anything besides uninvolved. It’s too much of a risk otherwise.’

‘Well,’ Garrett reasoned, ‘not exactly like me. They don’t all put on the cape and drive the fancy motorcycle.’

‘The mages in this city suffer because those who would lead them would either treat them as monsters, or insist on looking the other way when they ask for aid,’ the Warden replied.

‘And what I did with Feynriel?’ Garrett asked. ‘You do recall I saved him?’

Warden pressed his thumb into a deep groove on his staff, rubbed smooth from years of use. Garrett would have to check with Bard later where he came from—someone like him couldn’t just appear in Darktown out of thin air. Garrett knew everyone in this city. He preferred to keep it that way. ‘Something to salve your conscience, I suspect. To allow yourself to think you’re better than you really are.’

‘Good to know we can work together without too much antagonism between us,’ Garrett said.

‘Feynriel’s fine,’ Warden told him. ‘Better than he would be anywhere else. And no blood mage, either. He’ll be difficult to train—not to mention dangerous, powerful. Are you sure you can let him go free?’

‘Are you sure you wouldn’t kill me here just to keep him safe?’

Warden bowed his head. ‘Touché.’

Garrett ran his fingers along the neck of the miasmic flask tucked against his hip, ready to steal the last word and make his well-timed escape. ‘I’d rather he was right here where I can look after him,’ he said. ‘You’re a better conversationalist than Meredith, anyway. And Warden—one word of advice? Try to stay on Commissioner Vallen’s good side.’

A plume of black smoke hid him from sight as he disappeared into the deep.

*

‘Tell me, Bard,’ Garrett said, halfway through the long drive back to the Cave. ‘Are all the good guys this insufferable?’

‘You think he’s bad, you should listen to yourself sometime,’ Bard replied.

*

No one ever listened to the Champion’s advice. Lyrium Ghost refused to stop killing slavers; Siren refused to stop relocating cargo to her boats; Warden was incapable of staying on Commissioner Vallen’s good side. But then, did Commissioner Vallen even have a good side?

Only her husband Donnic seemed to know.

‘Three more mages, taken from the Gallows themselves,’ the commissioner said, her breath curling on the chill night air. She flipped the switch on the floodlight; the Champion signal went dark. ‘And one of them a blood mage. Three policemen killed, four templars.. What do you have to say for that, Champion?’

Garrett had a few more important things on his mind—the twisted dreams invading his sleep of late, for example, as well as the new cape on the scene, an archer, who went by Guardian Angel.

‘Darkspawn have your tongue tonight?’ Commissioner Vallen asked.

‘That’s a rather personal question, don’t you think?’ Garrett said. ‘I didn’t know you were so concerned with my tongue.’

Commissioner Vallen gave him a scalding look. ‘Don’t make me question your commitment to Kirkwall, on top of everything else I’m already questioning.’

‘Never doubt it,’ Garrett said. ‘You know I’m always your man, Commissioner.’

‘Then prove it, Champion,’ the commissioner suggested.

With a sweep of his cape, Garrett dove off the edge of the roof—before the tongue in question could get him into any more trouble. The night was young, and the commissioner was already pissed.

If that wasn’t the recipe for a beautiful disaster, then Garrett didn’t know what was.

*

He started his investigation at the docks. There were patrol cars speeding back and forth across the bridge between the mainland and the Gallows, and bright-red emergency lights flashing in the distance, across the inner courtyard of the Asylum. Commissioner Vallen hadn’t been exaggerating—it was clear that even in the aftermath of the escape, the scene of the crime was still hot. That was why Garrett hadn’t started in the thick of things. He’d begin in the outskirts, and work his way inside. There had to be some clue hidden in the traffic and the bilge—some trick Warden was using to break into the Gallows. The docks held a few disused passages that ran down beneath Kirkwall; Garrett was planning on checking those first.

A faint breeze stirred the air behind him, and Garrett heard a throaty chuckle.

‘Siren,’ he said. He didn’t turn around. He didn’t have to. She moved toward him, buckled boots and bare brown thighs wreathed in smoke.

Of all the capes in town, Siren wore the least protective clothing. In fact, she wore the least clothing, period. The most substantial aspect to her costume was on her face, the royal blue imitation of the fancy masks the noblewomen wore for their Wintersend masquerades. It had thin blue feathers fanning out above her right eye like ridged blades, and golden detailing around the edges.

As for the rest—Siren didn’t need the armor. She moved too fast to be hit.

‘Hello, Champion,’ Siren said, her voice a low purr. ‘To what do I owe the pleasure of this little visit? I hope you aren’t getting any ideas about muscling in on my territory again. Don’t you remember what happened the last time you tried?’

‘I remember you were making deals with slavers,’ Garrett said.

‘I was making a profit.’ Siren rested a hand on her hip and pouted. ‘A girl’s got to eat, you silly goose. Where would you be if you didn’t get your daily dose of vitamins and…red meat?

An ambulance sped past in the distance, driving down the main road to the asylum with its alarms blaring. The sound warped and distorted, billowing like an accordion, then fading into silence.

‘I don’t suppose you feel like giving me your perspective on what happened here tonight?’ Garrett asked. A conversation with Siren was far preferable to traipsing through underground tunnels all by himself, chasing after a lead that might not exist. Even if Siren did have a startling tendency to go off-topic—especially when she knew more than she wanted to let on.

‘Oh, it’s all so boring,’ Siren said, waving her hand in the air. ‘Mages and templars—that’s all anyone can talk about in this stupid town these days. It’s no wonder I’m able to pull off half the jobs I do. Everyone’s so distracted; it’s hardly any fun this way.’

Siren,’ Garrett warned.

Siren pursed her lips; through the holes in her mask, her golden eyes were filled with rebuke. ‘You’re no fun tonight, either. You and Ghost. Neither one of you wants to play anymore.’ Siren put her hands on her hips, puffing out a sigh. ‘All right. But if I tell you, it won’t come cheap.’

‘I’ll pay,’ Garrett promised.

Siren giggled. ‘Will you? All right, then. But I’m holding you to it.’ She stepped closer, hair shifted by the breeze, smelling only of salt and pure sunlight—no fake perfumes like the socialites of Hightown. ‘I saw the whole thing just a few hexes closer to the docks, you know. A great bloody strike of lightning hit the aft tower; the lights and alarms went off, and everything went utterly mad for about twenty minutes. The wind picked up, the waves turned white-capped—it was glorious, Champion. Just like being at sea in a storm.’

‘What about the mages?’ Garrett asked. ‘Did you see who got them out?’

‘Not a thing,’ Siren said. ‘I did hear someone shouting, though. The usual madness about mages not submitting to their templar masters and all the rest of it. Don’t you think it’s odd that there are so many separate groups running around talking about earning their freedom? You’d think they’d want to work together.’

‘That’s the trouble,’ Garrett said. ‘No one in Kirkwall knows how to get along.’

‘You’re right about that much,’ Siren agreed. ‘I’ve been trying to make you ‘get along’ for years now. But you’re too busy looking after everyone else. How do you suppose a girl feels about something like that? It’s a blow to her confidence, that’s what it is. You bad, bad man.’

Garrett huffed, deep in his throat. He still didn’t turn to look her way, but he could feel Siren move, slinking toward him with the quiet, hungry purpose of an alley cat. Starved, dangerous, crafty. Too clever for her own good. She was at his back now, looking out at the city over his shoulder, at the distant plumes of smoke rising straight into the sky, the strobing lights in the Gallows courtyard, reflected over the still waters, the half-illuminated boats, the metal arch of the bridge itself.

‘What do you say to a little getting along tonight, poppet?’ Siren asked. ‘Remember—you promised me payment. And what can I say? I live in the moment. I’m cashing in now.’

‘If you can keep up with me, something tells me I wouldn’t be able to stop you anyway,’ Garrett replied. As an afterthought, he added, ‘The name’s Champion. Don’t forget it.’

Siren laughed this time, deep, with the whisper and jingle of her bangles as they brushed against each other, all along her graceful wrists. ‘Poppet suits you better—or so I’ve always thought.’

*

Siren could keep up—was there ever any doubt?—a fast streak in the darkness at Garrett’s side while they ran. He tried to lose her, then capitulated at the sixth hex, when she appeared once more, laughing, two paces in front of him.

‘Is that all you’ve got, poppet?’ she asked. ‘I like it. Makes me feel like I’m being chased.’

It was better not to let her realize he’d been studying her moves the past few months, picking up a thing or two from the way she ducked and wove—never obliterating obstacles, but never letting them get in her way.

So he didn’t fight it, kept his focus on his goals, the only way to achieve anything in this blighted place.

They lost no speed as they crossed the bridge, swinging from stanchion to stanchion, Siren crowing with delight along the way. Ambulances raced by below them, and armored vehicles with the templar insignia branded on the side, traveling back and forth between Kirkwall proper and the no-man’s land that was the Gallows.

‘I hate this place,’ Siren murmured as their feet finally touched solid ground. She was bent into a crouch, one palm flat against the cold stone. The wind picked up, carrying ash and burning things to them on heavy air, and beneath that, the threat of fears long buried but not yet forgotten, wills long broken and not yet avenged.

Metal, gunfire. Templar swat teams, panic rooms. The tranquil.

And above the rest, the all-abiding pretense of cleanliness, the whole tower bleached clean of life with each new day of Meredith’s unflinching vigilance.

Garrett hated it, too.

He also hated keeping up clever conversation while attempting to study the scene of a crime. Strong and silent worked for him, but only to a point—the moment he forgot himself and answered, the mystique would be utterly destroyed.

Especially in front of Siren, who was too quick not to notice these little inconsistencies.

‘Come in, Champion,’ Bard said in his ear. ‘Don’t tell me you were caught in that blast.’

‘Ooh!’ Siren straightened and clapped her hands in delight. ‘You’ve got a partner? And here I thought you weren’t the type.’

‘I’ve got company tonight,’ Garrett explained. ‘Company with sharp ears.’

And sharp blades,’ Siren added, unsheathing both. ‘Bigger than yours, I might add.’

‘Siren?’ Bard said, then, ‘You’re one lucky bastard, Champion.’

‘Am I?’ Garrett asked. ‘Am I really?’

‘Oh, forget it,’ Siren said, twirling her off-hand dagger effortlessly. ‘It’s no fun eavesdropping on only part of a conversation.’

*

They searched for an hour in the dark, ducking headlights and the police personnel on the scene. Garrett had to hold Siren back from slitting an innocent man’s throat when he veered too close to their hiding spot; it was a mistake she didn’t make twice. Together, they mapped out the expanse of the courtyard while hidden in the shadows.

Most of what they saw was straightforward—what Garrett had been expecting from the crime scene Commissioner Vallen already described. There were a few templar and policemen corpses littering the steps of the main building—Commissioner Vallen’s men had already formed a perimeter around them, making it impossible for Garrett to get any closer—and dark scorch-marks scoured the stone in all directions.

There had been a firefight here, and a particularly vicious one at that. Perhaps most jarring, however, was the smell. Thick and acrid, it crawled through Garrett’s nostrils and into the back of his throat. He tasted the tang of metal in the air. The skies above the asylum crackled with raw arcane energy; even Garrett’s hair and beard felt imbued with static electricity.

Siren touched his shoulder, and he felt the snap of the current between them.

Nice,’ she murmured. ‘All that from just one touch? Doesn’t it make you wonder, Champion? I’ve got a fine little place down by the docks…’

Garrett opened his mouth to ask whether Siren was actually inviting him below decks while they were still at the site of a grisly mass murder when the microphone in his ear crackled to life.

‘Champion,’ Bard said. ‘Come in—and no jokes about me checking up on you for once, ‘cause this time it’s serious.’

‘Now, Bard,’ Garrett said, ‘do you mean to tell me that you haven’t always been serious about me?’

‘All right, make fun,’ Bard said, no hint of a chuckle. ‘But you might want to quit flapping your gums and start moving in the direction of Darktown—like yesterday.’

‘Your mysterious partner again?’ Siren asked, dipping her head low, still trying to eavesdrop. ‘Be sure to tell him hello from me.’

‘What’s happening in Darktown?’ Garrett asked.

‘Beats me,’ Bard said. Once again, Garrett wasn’t able to tell if he wasn’t being just the slightest bit facetious. Bard was never at a loss as to what was really happening in the city—from the Mayor’s house all the way to the Gallows and everything in between—but it was all a matter of how much he wanted to tell Garrett beforehand, how much he thought Garrett should be thinking on his feet. ‘But I’ll let you in on this much: I can feel the city shaking all the way from Lowtown, which is never a good sign.’

‘Shit,’ Garrett said.

‘You’re leaving me, aren’t you?’ Siren ducked behind a pillar, then regarded Garrett with a shadowy sulk. ‘I know that look. Fine; rush off to be a hero. I’ll run cleanup. But you’d better believe I’m going to charge extra for this.’

‘You’re a jewel, Siren,’ Garrett said. He was already moving, drawing his cape around him and preparing to scale the wall.

‘The brightest in the ocean,’ Siren agreed. ‘Don’t you dare forget it, either.’

*

Garrett didn’t want to take the bike into Darktown again. There were too many stairs, too many tightly cramped passageways and sharp corners. Also, it was more than likely someone would try to steal it, and then he’d have to deal with them on top of everything else.

As he descended into the chokedamp, Garrett was more than a little curious about what he was rushing into. Bard had been frustratingly short on the details, no doubt part of his modus operandi to encourage the Champion to get where he was going faster. Curiosity did light a fire under his heels. He just hoped there wouldn’t be another, more literal fire this time.

Someone cried out in the dark, and a refugee tore past Garrett, heading in the opposite direction.

Fleeing civilians were always a good sign Garrett was heading the right way.

‘They cannot touch us!’ a voice in the near distance proclaimed, strong and half-familiar, but ultimately distorted. It echoed as though it came through an empty tunnel, along stretches of amplifying metal. ‘We will be free.’

Garrett stepped out from the shadows, then merged another group nearby, a brief moment devoted to the observation of chaos. And it was chaos—Garrett had far too much experience with the concept first-hand to mistake it, not when it was happening right before his very eyes.

If only the nights were a little less busy, the people of Kirkwall—and their Champion—might have been able to sleep more peacefully, at least from time to time. But each night was a new story and the same, relentless routine, danger from sundown until sunrise, no rest for the wicked—or for those who chased them.

Still, it was rare to see a scene as ambitious as this one.

Garrett recognized Warden at the center of it all—but it wasn’t Warden anymore, not as Garrett knew him. Black feathers blown back, deep blue tones gleaming in fresh arcane light, and a force of power so strong Garrett had to resist the urge to shield his eyes. The impression was almost, Garrett thought, like the raw lyrium traced across Ghost’s flesh—but older, somehow, and far more unforgiving. The air itself was chill, the same electric charge from the Gallows laced through every breath Garrett dared to take. His chest—beneath his Kevlar vest and buckles lined with lockpicks, miasmic flasks and hidden blades—was tight.

With Warden’s staff held high, bolts of lightning lancing outward from the tip, the denizens of Darktown—unlucky as they already were—were about to get even more unlucky.

The mages forgotten, the safety of this too-often buried part of the city compromised, Garrett threw down a flask for cover, and found himself—as always—running straight into the fray.

Up close, far too personal, Warden was a creature from a nightmare, something straight out of the Fade itself. Garrett had faced down slavers and blood mages, thralls, shades, abominations, Tal-Vashoth in droves, and countless petty criminals. Sometimes, he’d done it all in the same night, all in the same hour, or even all at the same time. He’d been outnumbered, outranked and outmaneuvered far too often, and none of that compared to this moment, now, Warden’s eyes without depth and without end, no pupils, just a blue the unbearable color of hottest flame. Staring deep, Garrett saw no recognition beyond the mask, no emotion beyond raw accusation and preternatural, unbearable blame.

This wasn’t the person Garrett had spoken to before—certainly not someone who wanted to help others, a man bitter but determined, resolved rather than resigned. This rage was, however difficult to believe, a form of resignation, though it remained a force for change. But it wasn’t the right force, wasn’t the right change, and Garrett brought his elbow without hesitation into the center of Warden’s chest, where both halves of his ribcage came together in a brittle arc, just hard enough to knock the breath from his lungs.

Anything to distract Warden from the others, to take the brunt of that blame onto his own shoulders. And deal with it, somehow; distract him—this, it, the Warden and whatever was inside him—from the others.

Maybe—just maybe—they’d be clever enough to use this time to run away.

But Garrett’s life was never that easy.

He felt the rush of wind, the pulse of defensive magic, and heard the air sing as the staff came down. He made no deal with the Maker for his timing to be right, and relied instead on his own skills and precision, waiting until the final second to disappear again, this time with stunning smoke.

Warden staggered. Garrett appeared behind him .

The move was pure Siren. He’d have to thank her later.

Garrett knew he should have brought his dagger to Warden’s neck, but further physical threats weren’t the way to get through to him. If there was any chance to stop this evening from turning to tragedy—with the Champion himself another casualty of Kirkwall’s robust nightlife—he had to make the first move toward peace.

Lyrium Ghost would laugh at him for fighting a mage with anything other than unforgiving steel. But someone had to make it clear this didn’t have to be about absolutes.

‘Warden!’ Garrett shouted. He was close enough to smell the energy rising off his skin like steam, to see the glowing blue lines streaking down his neck like veins. Warden’s head jerked in his direction. He was still in there somewhere—there was enough of him to respond to his name. ‘Warden, that’s enough. You did this for a group of mages, but you’ve lost them. These are only refugees, not the blighted templars. What happened to the mages?’

Warden’s grip on his staff faltered. Garrett pressed his advantage, reaching to clasp his shoulder. He held on tight, fingers snapping the black feathers’ hollow spines.

‘We aren’t your enemy,’ Garrett said, hushed. ‘These people look to you to protect them.’

The air between them shuddered, and Garrett heard Warden gasp. The arcane glow flickered, burned brighter than ever, then seemed to burn out—it vanished from his skin. The smoke cleared, Garrett’s vision clearing with it, and he could see now that there were a few templars’ bodies scattered on the ground at Warden’s feet. They were long since dead, their limbs twisted at unnatural angles, a mess of corpses and warped metal.

‘Breathe,’ Garrett advised, trying not to stare at all that wasted life. Warden stumbled forward, slumping into Garrett’s grip at his shoulder—he was heavier than he looked; the weight of all his responsibilities, not just his body, sagging in Garrett’s arms. His staff clattered to the dirt floor beneath them; Garrett nudged it between them with his boot, ensuring no one else would try and take it while Warden was otherwise occupied.

‘Champion?’ an all-too-familiar voice called from the shadows. ‘Is that you?’

‘Champion…?’ Warden repeated. His words were distant, lost but searching, a man only half-way roused from a waking dream.

‘That’s what they call me,’ Garrett assured him. Confidence—like a decoy—was simple to fake once you knew the trick.

Feynriel’s pointy face appeared from behind a pile of broken crates and barrels. He was white with nerves beneath a simple black mask—one Warden had obviously provided for him—but that didn’t stop him from stumbling toward them, into the alcove at the bottom of the stairs. There was a tear in his DISOBEY THE QUN t-shirt, and he had mud smeared across the knees of his jeans.

At least, Garrett hoped it was mud. In Darktown, one could never be certain.

‘I don’t understand,’ Feynriel said, that same comical whisper—less comical now. His cornsilk hair was bunching up beneath the elastic of his mask. He looked like a boy playing at being a cape—which, Garrett supposed, was exactly who he was. ‘The templars followed us—they tracked us down and Warden said they couldn’t find the clinic, that it would be all over if they did. I tried to calm him down, but he’s too powerful, and he— He changed—you saw it, what he was, how… The other mages ran.’

‘You didn’t run,’ Garrett said.

Feynriel shook his head. ‘I stayed. I knew you’d come.’

‘I’m touched,’ Garrett said.

‘I didn’t know what would happen to him,’ Feynriel confided. He drew closer, still keeping his distance, picking his way warily around corpses, seared flesh, sizzling metal debris. ‘But he didn’t seem human. Is he even—awake?’

What Feynriel was really asking was, is he even alive. But Garrett could feel his pulse, the warmth seeping back into his body, feel the tremulous pulse of uneven breath against him, fluttering the fabric of his cowl.

‘Yes,’ Warden said. With some considerable effort, he righted himself, pulling away from Garrett to support his own weight. There was a gray pallor to his skin, and his breathing was still shallow, but other than that, he seemed much like the man Garrett knew. Or thought he’d known, as the case might be—he was slightly more murderous than Garrett had previously understood. ‘I…suppose I owe you an explanation, Champion. Considering you might well have saved the lives of innocents here tonight.’

‘I wasn’t fast enough to save everyone,’ Garrett pointed out.

Warden’s eyes flashed, but in the usual way this time. Deep brown, pupils dilated in the dark, no pulse of unfathomable energy behind them. ‘They were templars. They deserved what they got.’

‘What about me?’ Feynriel demanded. ‘Do I get an explanation?’

‘Not until you’re older,’ Garrett said, while at the same time Warden answered, ‘No.’

‘The other mages ran,’ Feynriel observed. ‘I stayed.’

Commissioner Vallen’s words came back to Garrett—three apostates, and one of them a blood mage. Now they were loose in the city. His city.

Choices were his medium; choices were his craft. His choices represented the city, and though Bard could give him the information, though Siren and Lyirum Ghost and even Commissioner Vallen could offer him variant means of viewing that information, it was Garrett who stood apart from them, who made each choice alone. Did he stay to protect Feynriel? Could he waste time to press the issue with Warden? Or should he leave the scene of a crime already committed, uncertain who the criminal really was, to stop a future crime, not yet in progress, but no less inevitable?

There was still a chance to keep a blood mage off the streets. Even one could make a world of change—change for the better.

But Garrett had to move quickly.

‘This isn’t over,’ Garrett said.

‘I know,’ Warden replied. He sounded wearier than before. ‘It’s…never over. You’ll know where to find me—Champion.’

‘If you harm one hair on his head—’ Garrett warned.

Warden reached for his staff; Feynriel drew closer to him instinctively. Mages. Garrett would never truly be able to understand them, but he would save them. Whether or not they understood him in the end, either.

‘Feynriel’s safe with me,’ Warden promised. ‘I would never harm another mage.’

‘We’ll talk about that later, too,’ Garrett assured him, before disappearing into the night.

*

One by one, Bard located the three freed mages; one by one, Garrett tracked them down, finding them before Lyrium Ghost did. In the end, they’d be grateful for the courtesy, for Garrett’s speed and efficiency. He asked the first two where they would go, if they had plans, if they had family, and if they’d be careful enough not to be caught, dragged back to the Asylum kicking and screaming and bartering deals with demons. It was up to him to determine whether or not they’d fall prey to temptation, and Garrett gave them their freedom because he was in a rare mood that night.

The first two had passed the test. The third was the blood mage. He didn’t.

Huon. Bard’s intel pegged him as one of the people, and Garrett found him—unsurprisingly—in the alienage, terrorizing his own wife. Garrett saved her, and stunned him with a brand new recipe, and the templars arrived little more than ten minutes later, which would have been nine minutes too late for the woman, almost Huon’s first victim.

Handing him over to the templars was difficult, despite everything Garrett had seen. He knew what they’d do to him, what Garrett couldn’t—would not—do for himself.

The templars always operated with conviction, yes, but without distinction. Garrett told himself there was a difference between the hand that offered and the hand that took.

‘But is there a difference?’ Lyrium Ghost asked, high above the rest of the city, pacing between two chimneys, only one pumping smoke in a thick ribbon above them. ‘You will not do it yourself, but you know all too well what others will do for you.’

‘I had no idea you were such a philosopher, Ghost,’ Garrett said.

‘The mark of a man who has no answer to a question,’ Lyrium Ghost replied.

‘You let those dilemmas get to you, you won’t be any use to anyone,’ Bard warned him later. He really had to stop listening in on all of the Champion’s conversations. ‘Least of all yourself. You’ll tread the same path of all the other would-be heroes and champions of this city. Right down the gutter—or even all the way across town to the Asylum. You know that, don’t you?’

Garrett watched the searchlights in the Gallows from afar, as one by one they were all switched to black. Then, he dove off the rooftop, landing in a crouch on the street below. He had one more mage to see before the night was through.

‘Worried about me?’ he asked. ‘Don’t be. Like you, Bard, I happen to know everything.’

‘Which is exactly what I’m worried about,’ Bard said.

*

Warden was already there—alone in the clinic during the pale, haunting hour between time, between days, just before dawn. This time, the lights were all out. No signal for succor and mercy here. Garrett saw the shadow of the man stiffen as he sensed he was no longer alone, but he didn’t reach for his staff, and to confirm their détente, Garrett stayed by the far door.

Waiting.

‘I didn’t expect to see you so soon,’ Warden said. ‘You work fast, Champion.’

Garrett’s jaw tightened. ‘I have to.’

‘Yes,’ Warden said. He slumped down onto one of the cots littering the clinic. ‘I expect you do. …Did they—’

‘Two of them seem to have made it out of Kirkwall,’ Garrett said, leaning back against the wall. ‘While the third decided he wanted to make a quick stop in the alienage to murder his wife for her blood.’

Warden cringed. ‘It was Huon, wasn’t it? I had a feeling about him, but…’

‘But you were too busy breaking him and his fellows free that you didn’t have time to stop and ask, ‘pardon me, but are you a blood mage?’’ Garrett asked.

‘Don’t,’ Warden said. His voice was quiet, but firm. ‘You can’t possibly imagine what I’ve done to get this far.’

‘I don’t need to imagine,’ Garrett pointed out. ‘Not now that I’ve seen it first-hand. Of course, you could always try explaining to me exactly what it was I’ve seen first-hand, because I’m still not entirely sure of that, myself.’

The cot creaked beneath Warden as he shifted uncomfortably. In the distance, a siren blared to life. Garrett held his breath as he listened carefully to determine whether it was coming closer, or heading in the opposite direction. He allowed himself to relax only after the sound began to fade.

Across the clinic, he could see the outline of Warden’s feathered shoulders hunched in silhouette by the window. Dawn was coming faster and faster, these days. There wasn’t time enough to make a real difference in Kirkwall—the difference the city needed.

‘When I was in the Fade,’ Warden began, ‘I met a spirit of Justice.’

Already, Garrett knew he didn’t like where that was going. He found an upright barrel and sat on it, settling in for the long haul.

*

The more Warden spoke about his predicament, the less Garrett liked it. In theory, a union with Justice didn’t sound like the worst thing that could possibly happen, but there were other details—like how Warden’s anger had warped the spirit into something different altogether—that wouldn’t have sat right with anyone. Vengeance sounded less like an honorable wisp from the Fade, looking to do some good in Thedas, and more like a demon.

Garrett knew what he’d seen earlier that night. There was nothing just about senseless murder—about being rendered incapable of differentiating friend from foe. Justice shouldn’t be setting a blood mage on the loose because someone was more concerned with freeing mages than he was ensuring the safety of Kirkwall, and all of Kirkwall’s inhabitants.

By the time Warden finished speaking, he had his head in his hands. Garrett sat unmoving across the room, the barrel’s rim digging into his thighs.

‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Warden said, voice muffled against his palms. ‘But there’s no use arguing. I took a Fade spirit inside of me and changed myself forever to accomplish my goals. I will see mages freed.’

‘If you haven’t scared the piss out of the good ones, first,’ Garrett said. ‘Where’s Feynriel?’

‘He’s sleeping,’ Warden said. ‘I never meant for… You don’t really think he’s frightened of me?’

‘No,’ Garrett admitted. ‘But only because children can be foolish, and his foolishness appears especially resilient. Not everyone will bounce back the way he does. You can’t really imagine that what you’re doing now is the best method—for you or the mages you hope to protect.’

‘Someone has to protect them,’ Warden said. ‘Someone with their best interests at heart. No offense, Champion, but someone who’s attempting to do what’s best for everyone cannot possibly understand our plight. Do you think I don’t know how much easier it would be for you to cut mages out of the equation altogether? No more mages—no more blood magic, no more demons, no more abominations. Life’s simpler. Easier. Safer. And just because you haven’t come to that neat little solution yet doesn’t mean you won’t come to it eventually. You’re not one of us.’

‘And you’re out of control,’ Garrett said.

‘Easy, Champion,’ Bard said, the suddenness of his voice causing Garrett to startle. ‘Try not to antagonize the very powerful mage whose clinic is literally miles away from any available back-up, would you?’

‘Is that what you came here for?’ Warden asked. ‘To berate me? To lecture me? Or are you going to turn me in to Meredith at last?’

‘No,’ Garrett said, realizing what his plan was as he spoke. He couldn’t allow an uncontrolled element to go on operating in his city unsupervised. He couldn’t allow Meredith to stop a man with good intentions—even if he was carrying around his very own spirit. And, ultimately, he owed it to Feynriel, since it was Garrett’s fault the kid was here in the first place. ‘I think we should work together.’

‘Now that I wasn’t expecting,’ Warden replied.

*

Garrett didn’t pick up allies lightly. He respected Lyrium Ghost, but they’d never work together the way potential insisted that they should—their methods and morals were far too distinct, and far too separate. Besides, Lyrium Ghost was always so self-contained, so distant, just like the Champion. He was never quite predictable, but he was an element Garrett didn’t have to struggle to understand. If he found out Lyrium Ghost was murdering magisters again, they’d be on opposite sides once more, just like they had been in the beginning, when Ghost first made his mark on the city. But for now, they had a wary peace, a meeting of respectful minds.

Even if they’d never see eye to eye on anything.

Siren was a similar case. It just wasn’t the right fit. She could be selfish; Garrett always had to be selfless, the exact opposite of every quick and random impulse Siren operated on. And despite their similar fighting styles, how well they moved together, she provided too much of a distraction on the ground. Sometimes, she did good for the people of Kirkwall—freeing slaves, humiliating slavers—but sometimes wasn’t nearly enough for Garrett’s standards.

Also, he didn’t appreciate the whole poppet thing.

Commissioner Vallen was the closest he had to a real friend. But it wasn’t as though they met in darkened alleyways, choosing targets and taking them out in tandem. It wasn’t as though she even knew who he really was, or trusted him the way he trusted her. Instead, she directed him from above; it wasn’t her place to slip with him into the underworld and get her hands dirty the same way he did. Besides, Garrett didn’t want to be the reason the one person in this city he actually respected was unseated. Commissioner Vallen looked after herself. She didn’t have to know the Champion was looking after her, too.

Something told Garrett she wouldn’t appreciate it.

That left Bard—and it was near impossible to think of someone whose face you’d never seen as a partner in crime-fighting. Bard was a disembodied voice; he might as well have been a brain in a jar for all Garrett really knew about him. Not that a brain in a jar wouldn’t be the perfect accessory for the sidecar, but all Garrett needed was the voice and the mind. The sum total of Bard’s directions and suggestions and invaluable information was far less complicated than knowing the man behind it all.

Both he and Bard preferred to keep things at that level. If they got too close, who knew what kind of sparks would fly?

It’d be more than enough to set the City of Chains aflame.

Garrett didn’t consider Warden the Champion’s ally, either. Their joint venture began as a different strategy—with Garrett keeping close watch over a man who was just as much a threat to himself as he was to the Kirkwallers around him.

Warden’s goals were noble, but goals weren’t everything. When the motives were suspect, the individual became dangerous. And someone had to keep an eye on danger.

That someone was always the Champion.

Garrett had to help him in order to get close enough to keep the city safe from him. But it was that surveillance that showed him the good Warden did—all the freed mages who deserved better lives fleeing the city and the chains that bound them, setting out into a world beyond Garrett’s jurisdiction. A better world, too, or so he heard.

‘What did I tell you?’ Bard asked. ‘One of the good guys. More good in him than bad, anyway, and for a place like this, that’s saying something.’

Garrett cut off the feed at that, ready for a brief morning of deep rest, the haunted dreams that chased him—ghosts from the past, faces from the night, spirits from the Fade.

*

Everyone had something to say about Warden; Lyrium Ghost was the least impressed.

‘You thwart the templars but aid the apostate?’ he asked, talons sharp against the hilt of his blade. ‘I never marked you for a fool, Champion. At least not that manner of fool. It seems I was wrong about you.’

‘No one can be right all the time, Ghost,’ Garrett agreed.

Siren was skeptical, but approved, in her own way. ‘I like the feathers.’

‘I’ll be sure to tell him that,’ Garrett promised.

Commissioner Vallen wanted him out of her hair—‘But,’ she said, as Garrett turned to leave, ‘there is some purpose to his presence here. Casualties are down amongst my men, if you can believe it.’

Garrett had seen it for himself. It was something he could believe—even if he was still wary of choosing something to believe in.

Even Bodahn betrayed him by refusing to treat Garrett like the Hightown socialite he pretended to be by day.

‘More good news in the paper today, Master Garrett.’ He folded it so that the Crier’s headline would be unmissable. ‘It seems the number of blood magic related crimes is down by at least three percent in the past week alone.’

‘Really, Bodahn—what have I told you about mentioning blood magic while I’m trying to eat?’ Garrett asked.

‘Just thought you’d appreciate a bit of information that wasn’t gossip for once, Master Garrett,’ Bodahn said innocently. ‘It must feel strange when the papers have something other than you to focus on. Almost like you’re making real changes in this city of ours. …Although it’s not my place to say, of course.’

‘Of course,’ Garrett agreed. But he couldn’t deny that the compliment did help the bacon and orange juice go down easier.

*

He met Warden that very night on one of the rooftops near the chantry courtyard. They were far enough from the Hightown manor district that there was little chance of running across Lyrium Ghost, and Siren avoided the entire upper crust neighborhood like its posh limestones were no better than a plague of red sores. Not my scene, she’d already explained. Not now, and not ever.

Good. Garrett had been dealing with interruptions and opinions for more than a week now—he didn’t want to be forced to continue to entertain them while he was meeting with Warden.

It was just past the darkest hour of the night—a light rain was beginning to fall, pattering against the thick fabric of Garrett’s cowl—when Warden joined him on the rooftop, glancing down at the quiet streets below.

‘You’ve managed to impress the commissioner,’ Garrett said, drawing his cape around himself. ‘Even I never managed to do that, and I’ve been working at it for years.’

Warden’s shoulders twitched together, an uneven smile spreading across his face. He looked like a sparrow caught in a downpour, scraggly and small, wet feathers everywhere. ‘That’s…not the impression I make very often. Normally my greatest skill lies in effortlessly offending everyone I come across.’

‘I can’t imagine that,’ Garrett said. He reached out, pulling Warden into the shelter of the small building that housed the hatch-door for easy roof access. ‘Are you saying there are people who might not like you—whom you might in fact have rubbed the wrong way?

‘You’re in a good mood tonight,’ Warden observed. It was milder than the reaction Garrett had been expecting, and it interrupted the rhythm of their natural banter, almost like he’d mistimed a jump, reaching out for a handhold that simply wasn’t there. Undaunted, Warden drew closer to Garrett in the dark, wet pauldron and dripping feathers pressed against his Kevlar armored chest.

‘Am I?’ Garrett asked, attempting to make up for the misstep. Getting close had been his first mistake—maintaining distance made it easier to keep up the mystique of the Champion.

‘You are,’ Warden confirmed. This close, it was evident that he was rather badly in need of a shave. Garrett turned his face away, manipulating the shadows to keep his own features hidden. ‘And I know why. You should be in a good mood, Champion. We’re making a real difference out there.’

Garrett recalled the Crier’s headline that morning, the look of beatific approval on Bodahn’s face. It might have been a start, but they couldn’t get complacent. Of all the people who couldn’t understand that, Garrett had never expected Warden to be one of them. ‘Are we?’

Warden chuckled softly. If he was at all put off by Garrett’s stubbornness, it didn’t show. ‘I never thought this would happen, you know. I was alone for so long… People do desperate things when they face insurmountable odds, with no one to stand for them, with them, by their side in the fray. And when even those desperate things didn’t seem like enough to help this city, I didn’t know what I’d do next. Then…you came along.’ He shook his head in disbelief. ‘You aren’t even a mage. But what you’ve done for us—’

‘Believe it or not, there are a few mundanes in this city worth getting to know,’ Garrett said. Warden turned his face upward—too close—and Garrett cringed instinctively, hoping the cowl and the darkness would be enough to maintain adequate cover. ‘…I like to think I’m one of them.’

‘I wouldn’t have thought so,’ Warden admitted. ‘But then—you’re not at all what I expected.’

‘Kirkwall isn’t the City of Met Expectations,’ Garrett said.

Warden almost laughed. ‘It’s also not exactly a city of hopes and dreams.’

‘Chains just about covers it,’ Garrett agreed. ‘Or so I always thought.’

Warden lifted his eyes to Garrett’s face again—the shadows where his face should have been—searching for something. Garrett could see the precise moment when he realized he wouldn’t find it. Bard could have predicted that much for him. ‘But it doesn’t always have to be that way,’ Warden insisted. ‘Couldn’t it also be the City of Change?

‘Nice slogan,’ Garrett told him.

‘Thanks,’ Warden replied. He ran one finger over Garrett’s spiked, Kevlar shoulder, testing the fabric of the cape, a tactile curiosity that made Garrett bite his lip and hold his tongue. ‘I’ve been working on it for a while. Will it catch on, do you think?’

‘I’ll pass it over to Bard. If anyone can make it happen, he will.’

‘I still can’t understand why you’re helping me,’ Warden admitted, with a shake of his head—part wonder, part disappointment. ‘But I refuse not to be grateful for the help, all the same.’

It almost seemed like he might do more—like his hands might have rested on the curve of an unbroken miasmic flask, the chill, wet metal of a buckle or the sharp edge of a throwing knife, searching for the man beneath the camouflage, beneath the decoys and the weapons. Then, instead of taking a step closer, Warden took a step away. He was backlit by the distant city lights, hazy through the fine mist and steady rain. He rested one hand on the doorframe, while the other remained on his staff. He looked alone, as he’d described himself, but he wasn’t—not with Garrett behind him, the Champion in the shadows, supporting his efforts, bolstering his cause. It was almost too good to be true—but Garrett knew it was too good to be trusted completely.

‘What about Justice?’ he asked. It wasn’t a challenge, more like an honest question, except these fraught topics never articulated themselves the way they should. Somebody always took offense.

Warden tensed, glancing over his shoulder, expression unreadable. He knew how to manipulate the shadows to his advantage, too, but there was far more of him on display, only a half-mask and a coat of feathers between him and the truth of who he was. What he was. Half one thing, half another—they weren’t different at all, in so many ways.

‘Justice will be done,’ Warden assured him.

‘On whose terms?’ Garrett moved closer this time, while Warden reached his hand out to test the fall of rain. ‘Yours, or mine?’

The silence that followed was tense. Garrett watched as Warden struggled, felt the electric current in the rain-streaked air, saw the faintest flash of blue and white beneath black feathers. But it faded; only the rain was left, the distant, uneven rhythm of droplets hitting the rooftops.

‘Why not both?’ Warden asked.

It wasn’t an absolute. It was the opposite—it was compromise.

Warden had fought the spirit, and Warden had won, Garrett thought.

It was the first real hope he’d felt in a long time.

*

In typical Kirkwall fashion, he wasn’t given much time to dwell on it. Commissioner Vallen had more jobs than ever for the Champion to perform, and with autumn nearly half-over, the social scene was gaining momentum in its annual ramp-up that closed with the Wintersend parties. Flora Harimann had left messages on his machine every morning and night, reminding Garrett of the week’s engagements, where to pick up his dry-cleaning, and not to forget to attend his tuxedo fitting for the Feastday charity events.

It was a delicate balancing act, keeping up appearances for both sides of his private life. Bodahn did the best he could to field calls for Garrett Hawke, and he had Lyrium Ghost and Siren on the outside—making sure Kirkwall didn’t spin off its axis, if only because that would make it so much harder for them to turn a profit.

But trusting his erstwhile allies wasn’t the same as doing the work himself, and Garrett was considerably relieved the night Bard patched through to tell him he had a rendezvous request from Warden.

They met on a rooftop overlooking the chantry courtyard, Sundermount’s foreboding gray peaks obscured by clouds in the distance. There’d been a conspicuous chill in the air ever since the sun went down, and Garrett found Warden crouched by the very edge of the roof, his breath ghosting in white puffs, like spirits from the Fade rising up and out of existence.

‘Warden,’ Garrett said. Bard hadn’t filled him in on the job, or any of the pertinent details. He’d just passed along the request, leaving Garrett to assume the work would be clear when he arrived.

It wasn’t. Not just yet, anyway.

‘I lost a good friend on a night like this,’ Warden said. His shoulders were hunched like a pigeon’s in a rainstorm; he didn’t look up as Garrett approached, thick boots dull against the cement. ‘He was going to help me with the clinic—I came here to set him free from the Gallows. I guess you could say he’s the whole reason I’m here in this blighted city in the first place.’

Garrett held himself still, allowing the heavy folds of his cape to fall loose around his body. It didn’t seem as though Warden was searching for an answer, just someone to listen.

‘We were supposed to meet in the chantry,’ Warden continued. Garrett could see his fingers at the raised lip of the roof, tracing restless sigils. ‘I came to get him that night, but it was a trap. They’d found us out—made him Tranquil. Everything I’d fought for…my entire cause was lost in that moment.’

Garrett opened his mouth to speak—to say something comforting; Warden heard the catch in his breath and pressed on relentlessly.

‘I killed him.’ Garrett saw Warden’s throat bob as he swallowed, his unshaven skin tight with misery. ‘I wouldn’t condemn my worst enemy to Tranquility—you can’t believe what Meredith says. Death would be a kinder mercy than the rite. The only people it benefits are the templars.’ For the first time, Warden lifted his head to meet Garrett’s eyes. ‘I took my own friend’s life, and I fled. Maybe I should have left Kirkwall then and there, but I didn’t.’

‘Why are you telling me all this?’ Garrett asked. He knew now that there wasn’t any job—there never had been—but he still needed to know why.

Warden shook his head. He stood up, wincing when the joint in his knee cracked audibly.

‘Because I’ve never worked with a partner before,’ Warden said. Even in the dark, Garrett could see his eyes slide to the left, not quite willing to look the Champion in his face. ‘You aren’t a mage, so I don’t have that to fear, but there are still things I’d rather not see happen.’

Garrett twitched the edge of his cape, reaching up on a sudden impulse to pull Warden close. He didn’t fight it, which meant Garrett was telegraphing his moves again. Either that, or they’d both known what this would lead to. Warden sighed, and Garrett felt it against his own body, the miserable rise and fall of Warden’s chest, the small, quiet shudder as he wriggled closer beneath the heavy cape.

Below them, the courtyard was silent and still. People all over Kirkwall viewed the chantry as a place of solace—they visited in search of a balm for their troubled souls. For Warden, however, this was the site of his greatest failure.

It made sense, in some hidden, honest place. People like Warden—people like Garrett—didn’t get into the hero business because they were like everyone else.

‘The templars killed my father,’ Garrett murmured, allowing the words to get lost in the dark, drifting loose in the breeze. ‘A blood mage took my mother a year later. There’s only…’ Bodahn left, he nearly said, barely catching himself in time.

But maybe he didn’t need to hesitate. Warden had just told him something deeply personal. It was an expression of trust, no matter how unspoken that trust would always be, with two people like them. A little research, pulling a few strings with Bard, and Garrett would know who that friend was—he’d know Warden’s name.

It was important for Warden to know that it went both ways. Garrett wanted him to know that.

‘This bloody, city,’ Warden said, in a sudden outburst of disgust. He lifted his face, forehead brushing the bristles of Garrett’s beard. ‘Sometimes I wonder whether it’s even worth saving. The templars are practically on my doorstep, these days. There’s a cost to all this progress.’

Things would be so much easier, Garrett realized, if Warden stayed with him. The clinic was far too visible—and in Darktown, it was only a matter of time before someone ratted Warden out. He didn’t know who the man behind the mask was, but it wouldn’t be difficult for Garrett to craft an alibi. An old friend from Ferelden, perhaps—or a member of the Orlesian social scene who’d moved before he picked up that dreadful accent. They could live together, work together; Garrett would have someone besides his trusty dwarf to truly share his life with.

Static fizzled across his earpiece, startling Warden in his hold.

‘Everything’s all set for the interception, you two,’ Bard said, all business as usual. ‘I’d get a move on if you want to make it.’

Another time, Garrett told himself—he’d ask another time. Another day, another opportunity. There’d be plenty of them.

*

They relocated three children—hidden in an old storeroom by a foreign businesswoman named Lirene—escorting them all the way to the outskirts of the city, but unable to take them any further. Warden admitted how much he hated turning them loose, like fledglings out of the nest before they were ready.

‘But they have their whole lives ahead of them,’ he added, glancing to his side, where Garrett was already fading back into the city and out of view. ‘That means something. Remember that much, Champion.’

He had to understand by now that Garrett never forgot anything.

Back in the Cave, he stripped out of his wet suit, dripping a narrow path across the rocky floor. There was a light on somewhere far above, Bodahn fussing about in the dark, trying to keep an actual cavern spic and span. A thankless task, a never-ending one. Garrett watched his little shadow, then dropped onto the practice mat and fell asleep, where his dreams were peaceful for once, his heart as grateful for the rest as his body was.

*

For three days, Garrett’s life moved forward like well-oiled clockwork. He attended an afternoon party for state dignitaries and flirted shamelessly with Commissioner Vallen, calling her Aveline, even though she hated that, and also his red-headed vision from Orlais until Officer Donnic strong-armed him from the room. The ensuing scuffle resulted in the pair of them falling ass over teakettle into the mayor’s garden fountain—which was a magnificent end to the festivities by both Garrett and the paparazzi’s standards. He obliged them all by looking handsome and foolish, shirtsleeves dripping as the flashbulbs in their expensive cameras went off.

His nights were spent working tirelessly with the Warden’s underground movement. He slept from dawn until noon, then woke up and repeated the process all over again—charming buffoon by day, merciless rogue by night.

But he couldn’t maintain that pace forever. And his dreams were becoming increasingly restless.

On the fourth day, Garrett slept from afternoon to night in the Champion’s cave, even going so far as to cancel his dinner date with Flora Harimann to do so. Bodahn frowned on such eccentricities, but he couldn’t deny that Garrett needed the rest more than he needed the practice in being charming. Besides, the ergonomic chair he’d had installed in the cave was almost as comfortable as a bed, even if his keyboard didn’t make for a very supportive pillow.

He was roused from his rest by the sound of a shrill beeping. Tired and muzzy-headed, it took Garrett a moment to realize that the sound was coming from his computer. Bard’s signature static had come up on the monitor, and his signal was broadcasting loud and clear. Garrett shook out his shoulders, tapping the keys to answer the call.

‘Hello, Bard.’ He dug the heels of his hands into his eyes, trying desperately to wake up. Had he really slept the entire afternoon away? For whatever reason, a lingering sense of dread had settled over him while he’d been unconscious. Try as he might, he couldn’t seem to shake it, even now that he was awake.

‘Champion,’ Bard said. ‘Andraste’s big bouncing tits, I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for an hour.

‘I was sleeping,’ Garrett said. The urgency in Bard’s voice wasn’t helping him shake that feeling off. ‘What’s the word?’

‘Something big’s going down,’ Bard said. ‘I only just caught wind of it myself—the damn file was encrypted, almost slipped under my radar. Meredith’s getting smarter, Champion. And I’m not so sure I like it.’

Garrett was already up, moving to pull on his discarded pieces of armor. The peace he’d worked so hard at building, inch by unnatural inch, was already starting to dissipate—like the smoke in the recipe for his first miasmic flask, it was too insubstantial to have any lasting effect. ‘Just tell me where I need to be,’ he said, adjusting his cowl.

There was a hesitation on the other end of the line. The connection crackled with static.

‘Bard,’ Garrett warned.

‘I’m here,’ Bard said. ‘It’s just—there’s a bit of a problem with that, Champion. It was a two-pronged movement. You’re only one man; you can only be in one place at a time. So…you’re going to have to make a choice.’

*

The facts were straightforward—so clear that Garrett almost wished there was some margin for error on Bard’s end. Six mages had broken out of the Gallows Asylum; Warden’s involvement was suspected, but it hadn’t been a job they’d scheduled together; and, to top it all off, he wasn’t even with the escaped apostates. Rather, reports placed him at his clinic in Darktown, more than halfway across the city from all the action. Meredith wasn’t willing to wait around until the facts had been sorted out—and so she’d sent two templar hunter squads, one to the docks where the mages were trying to escape, and one to Warden’s clinic.

As always, the templars had strict orders to terminate any threat on sight. The chances of their targets being captured alive were minimal; Meredith had been embarrassed too many times recently to play by the old rules. She needed mage blood about as badly as blood mages did.

Sometimes, it was impossible to tell the difference; Garrett remembered Huon, and felt little sympathy for either side.

‘You won’t have time to go after them both,’ Bard repeated in Garrett’s ear, for at least the third time now, while Garrett crouched on a roof in Hightown, watching the cars below as they zipped through the streets.

‘Still no confirmation on whether there are blood mages in the escapees?’ Garrett asked—as though the answer might suddenly change; as though the choice would be more clear.

‘Still nothing,’ Bard said. ‘I’m afraid I can’t verify anything for sure. Except their numbers—and my own personal opinion that either way, this is going to get ugly.’

‘What would you do, Bard?’ Garrett asked. Every second that passed him by was a second wasted. He should have already been on the move.

‘Uh-uh, Champion. I don’t play things that way. There’s a reason why you’re where you are and I’m not.’

Garrett checked the time. Bard had briefed him in under two minutes. Quick, but meaningless if Garrett lingered here. ‘Helpful, as always.’

Bard’s voice was mirthless, stark as the night. ‘I do what I can.’

And so did Garrett.

*

The city moved beneath him as he ran, from rooftop to rooftop like a common burglar. Lyrium Ghost was hunting elsewhere tonight, and the signal of the Champion was bright in the sky, fluttering against a cloud cover passing over the moon.

Choices made in the heat of the moment were never the right ones—just the ones you had to live with, alongside all those questions without answer, questions without end. But Garrett had already made his, was already in flight, leaping from one building to the next, sliding down a drainpipe and into the gutter below with a splash. The hem of his cape was heavy; his feet, by contrast, barely touched the steps beneath him as he headed down, down, down.

The smell of Darktown rose up to embrace him.

Garrett knew the way to the clinic by heart, but the long staircase was even longer tonight. He was aware of his own ragged breath, the chill night air that sliced against his skin, beneath the protection of his cowl. When he arrived at the clinic it was surrounded already, a bloc of templars Garrett dispatched of quickly, enough stun-gas in his miasmic flask to take out an entire army of them if need be.

Maybe, he thought—maybe. If he moved quickly enough, if he did the job right, in record time, there’d be a chance—to save everyone, to do what he’d always believed in from the beginning. Not to make choices for others, but to help them find choice itself.

To compromise.

But Meredith wasn’t with Warden—what Garrett had been expecting.

Instead, Garrett found him within, encircled by templars, down on his knees, arms bound, mouth gagged. The faintest flicker of blue had begun to pulse along the surface of his skin, from deep below his flesh, from the farthest reaches of the Fade—a place whose mysteries and treachery Garrett could never bring himself to trust, not even while dreaming.

The templars were going to make him tranquil. Garrett had almost arrived too late.

He took them out three at a time, backstabs through their protective vests and well-placed kicks to the base of their spines. Smoke filled the room; when it cleared, Garrett was down at Warden’s side, shock-cuffs burning his fingers when he touched them.

It wasn’t the first time they’d been surrounded by the fallen bodies of templars, only this time, the templars were still breathing.

The only thing Warden had a chance to say as Garrett pulled the cloth from his mouth was ‘No—’

Then, the world itself shook beneath them.

Garrett reached down to grab Warden by the arm, but Warden pulled free from his touch, no longer capable of accepting his aid. His hands were still cuffed behind his back, but he moved with supernatural speed, leaving Garrett to play catch-up, dashing after him along narrow alleyways and over even narrower stairs.

Garrett recognized the direction they were headed in—vague, but purposeful. Up.

‘Champion,’ Bard kept repeating, over and over, right in Garrett’s ear. ‘Champion. Come in, Champion—can you hear me?’

But Garrett didn’t recognize the title as his. He certainly didn’t feel like anyone’s champion, much less an entire city’s. And he didn’t have time to answer anyway.

He was still there; he could still hear him. All the rest would be sorted out in some dim, unimaginable future, always some other time, always later.

*

Fresh air, too warm, broke across Garrett’s skin as he followed Warden up and out of Darktown. The streets of Lowtown were flooded, more crowded than usual, and far too bright. Warden stumbled for the first time, and Garrett followed his gaze, wind caught in his cape, pinning him in place.

One lone column of light rose up through the sky, brighter than all the searchlights in the Gallows combined. There was ash on the air, and smoke, and the distant sound of sirens wailing ever closer.

‘I swear to the Maker, Champion, if you don’t come in—’ Bard said.

‘Tell me what happened,’ Garrett replied. Simple, cold, efficient. And quiet, too, so quiet no one but Bard would hear him in the chaos.

‘Meredith,’ Bard replied. ‘She was there—with the mages. And now those mages aren’t there anymore, period. Don’t tell me you didn’t feel it. Some kind of mage-neutralizing bomb. That’s what they’re calling it. A different way to make a tranquil…tranquil; a different way everybody can see it. I wish I was making this up, but even I don’t have that crazy an imagination.’

Garrett would have said something—asked for clarification—but Warden was on the move again, pushing through the crowd, heading toward a better vantage point. Somewhere he could see for himself what he already knew.

Warden dropped his cuffs in an alleyway and kept moving, unshackled, unbound. They fell open on the ground, metal smoking faintly. Garrett followed close but never close enough, swinging himself up the fire escape ladder before he continued to climb. The desperate metal clatter of Warden’s boots on the stairs matched the rhythm of Garrett’s heart, jolting hard against his ribcage. Warden reached the roof only seconds before he did, breath coming quick in pained bursts.

‘Warden,’ Garrett began.

He might as well have said nothing at all.

Warden slumped to his knees in the gravel, staring ahead into the sky. The sharp staccato of a helicopter’s blades reached Garrett’s ears, and in the distance, the small black craft passed through the bright column of light.

‘People of Kirkwall!’ It was Meredith’s voice that broke the silence, coming to them live through electronic speakers built into the streetlamps of Hightown’s main thoroughfare. Below them, Garrett heard traffic slow to a crawl. ‘Do not fear for your safety—for I have once again ensured it. Any mage who sees fit to free himself from the Gallows Asylum will be presumed a user of blood magic. You cannot evade the law. You cannot hide from the templars.’

Silence followed, before the pedestrians began to shout, drivers honking their horns. The communication itself had ended. In the distance, the white spotlight was as brilliant as ever. It wasn’t going to fade, Garrett realized, because it wasn’t a spell. Meredith was making an example of the incident. She wanted to draw attention to it. Whatever she’d done, she’d done it to leave a permanent scar on Kirkwall—a symbol its people would never be able to forget.

If he’d been there, he might have stopped it. But he’d chosen Warden—for the symbol he was, for the changes he’d made.

‘You don’t want to get any closer,’ Garrett said, approaching him slowly, no sudden movements to light the tension between them ablaze. ‘The streets will be crawling with templars.’

‘This is your fault,’ Warden said, so softly Garrett almost didn’t hear him, so softly it could still be a mistake.

‘We have to go,’ Garrett told him.

‘No—you should have gone.’ Warden struggled to his feet. Above the scorched winds, closer than the heat, Garrett could smell the charge in the air, Warden’s other power smoldering through his skin as he no longer fought to control it. ‘You could have prevented this. It’s your duty to protect these people.’

‘I’m sworn to protect Kirkwall,’ Garrett reminded him. ‘I didn’t have any way of knowing whether or not there were blood mages involved, and the obvious choice—’

‘You left them to die.’ Warden’s voice distorted with the force of his accusation, a warped thing, bitter and cold. He was only half himself, half the man Garrett—the Champion—trusted. ‘You let Meredith invoke—whatever that was. Her own version of the Rite of Annulment, no doubt, without the pesky bureaucratic red tape one has to go through to get special dispensation for genocide.’

‘It was my choice,’ Garrett said. He already felt the weight of those deaths on his shoulders—just as he felt the weight of the templars Warden had killed. They were his responsibility because everyone in Kirkwall, not just the mages, fell under his jurisdiction. ‘You’ve rescued more than ten times the number that died here tonight, if the rumors are to be believed. I’ve seen you in action. And the underground won’t survive past you. You’ve done good in Kirkwall—you have the ability to do so much more.’ He eyed Warden’s changing posture, the tension in his limbs growing as he drew each breath. ‘…Don’t throw that away now, Warden.’

But Justice was in the forefront, the spirit searing through Warden’s body, blistering out compassion and the ability to reason.

Warden has no need of you.’ Justice’s voice—or was it Vengeance himself? All Garrett knew was that it wasn’t Warden. ‘You are nothing but a distraction to our cause—and now you have failed us, just as I always knew you would.

Red lights flashed through the streets below as patrol cars sped toward the scene with the Doppler-howl of sirens, the music of Kirkwall at night. Garrett already knew what they would find—murder, mass murder, something more than just another crime. He wondered whether Commissioner Vallen herself was accompanying her officers. He’d be seeing the Champion signal in the sky again for a long time—because someone would have to answer for this. Someone would have to be held accountable.

‘Don’t do this,’ Garrett said. His hands weren’t on his daggers, but he could reach them in less than a second. ‘Warden. Listen to me. You can still fight it.’

He has no reason to fight me,’ Justice replied, with Warden’s body, Warden’s mouth. When he moved, arcane light lingered in the space he left behind. Slowly, Garrett’s fingers slipped beneath his cape for a miasmic flask. ‘But we have every reason to fight you, Champion.

Garrett backed toward the lip of the roof. ‘I’m not your enemy.’

You are all our enemy,’ Justice said.

‘We worked together once,’ Garrett reminded him. ‘We’re on the same side.’

Justice blinked, and the light in his eyes went dark like a blown-out bulb. Garrett’s fingers hesitated against the fat glass curve of his flask—his ace-in-the-hole. He didn’t want to use it unless it was absolutely necessary. After seeing what Meredith could do when she was pushed to the limit, Garrett had soured on last resorts.

‘You’ve made it abundantly clear which side you’re on, Champion.’ Warden’s voice sounded like itself again, but bone-tired, his tone colder than the autumn air blown in over the docks. Garrett had never wasted time arguing with extremists. He knew what he had to do, what he would have done if the body before him belonged to anyone else.

Then, Warden’s fingers twitched, and tendrils of dark smoke wisped from underneath his black feathered coat, snaking around his arms, across his chest, rising against the outline of that horrible column of light.

Warden reached for his staff, eyes radiant once more.

Garrett loosed the flask. He dropped over the edge of the roof just as a swift bolt of lightning tore upward, heading toward the sky. A bright streak of white heat crackled through the very space he’d been occupying only seconds earlier. But he was already falling through the dark, the sound of his cape rippling loud in his ears. He landed on his back in the dumpster next to the fire escape, trash bags crinkling as he fought to sit up.

With his pulse pounding at his temples and the scent of garbage filling his lungs, Garrett waited for Justice to follow, to descend on him like a bird of prey. But there was no movement from the roof above him, no second blast of raw, arcane power, and nothing in the alley below. He listened hard, his pulse uneven at his temple, but heard no cars screeching to a halt, no lectures on mage rights and the coming war.

He had no place in Justice’s world, but Justice had taken his place in this one.

‘Shit,’ Bard said, over his earpiece. Garrett didn’t want to think about how long he’d been listening, what he’d heard, and—even worse—what he thought.

He hauled himself out of the garbage and onto solid ground, shaking out his cape. ‘You took the words right out of my mouth.’

‘He was one of the good guys, Champion,’ Bard said. If Garrett really focused, he could almost hear the faint veneer of regret in his voice. ‘…You just can’t save everyone.’

Garrett made a dark sound of agreement. It snagged in his throat on its way out. ‘Apparently I can’t save anyone these days.’

Even Bard didn’t have a soothing platitude for that statement. There was no clever balm that could ease the sting of truth.

*

Things went back to the way they were, like nothing had changed, even though everything had changed. Warden disappeared from the grid; the clinic was empty now, no light on outside no matter how many times Garrett built himself excuses to pass by. But Warden was still operating somewhere out of Darktown, buried so deep even Bard couldn’t find him.

Yet,’ Bard clarified. ‘I haven’t found him yet. But I will, because I know this city.’

Garrett reached up to turn off the receiver. ‘So do I.’

The templars had it worse these days, not better—and Garrett wondered sometimes if that wasn’t exactly what Meredith had wanted, to force the storm in the calm that came before it. She’d never wanted a solution; she’d only wanted outright war. Commissioner Vallen had her hands full with clean-up and the PR spins Mayor Dumar kept trying to put on the incident, and Siren confessed one night that the chaos was almost getting to be too much even for her.

‘And I thrive on chaos,’ she added. ‘But this much of it? It’s a wonder anything fun happens in this city.’

‘Nothing fun happens in this city, Siren,’ Garrett replied.

Siren pouted. ‘Spoilsport. You’re getting meaner by the second, aren’t you?’

Garrett waited for the inevitable speech from Lyrium Ghost, but it never came, even long past the point when he had to know all the sordid details.

‘I do not gossip,’ he said, his only allusion to what had happened. He also didn’t see fit to clarify—but Garrett didn’t need clarification. ‘I believe a man learns his lessons without confirmation or explication from others.’

‘You could start a new public school system with a philosophy like that one, Ghost,’ Garrett said, while Bard added, quiet in his ear, that it wasn’t wise to antagonize someone who could phase his fist right through your chest, up on a rooftop where there weren’t any witnesses.

The days passed. The City of Chains would always be the City of Chains. Commissioner Vallen tried to take him to task for what happened, then seemed to sour when he accepted the blame she’d already decided belonged to him.

‘No fight?’ she asked. ‘No protests? Don’t let the reporters catch wind. That kind of attitude’s no better than blood in the water for those sharks.’

‘Lucky for me I don’t do interviews,’ Garrett said.

As for the rest, there was more than enough to keep him busy: templars who didn’t deserve rescuing to be rescued, blood mages to stop in their tracks, looters to hunt down and apprehend, a city in turmoil to protect from those who sought to capitalize on further suffering. There were some protestors at Meredith’s hearing, but not enough of them, and when Flora Harimann asked Garrett at a dinner party what he thought of all the mage fuss lately, Garrett said, ‘It’s really just a tempest in a teapot, I think. Besides, these little squabbles always blow over, don’t they? Personally, I try not to think about them. Spoils the appetite during your lovely dinners.’

Saemus Dumar, the mayor’s son, cleared his throat somewhere down the length of the table, but everyone else approved, since after all it was exactly what they were already thinking.

‘Marvelous shrimp balls, Flora,’ Garrett added, picking rosemary from his teeth with one of the skewers.

*

He worked himself to the bone, and Bodahn disapproved, but eventually his body betrayed him, and demanded he sleep. At his desk in the Cave, nothing but silence and gray light from the end of Bard’s latest transmission, Garrett drifted off, drawn deep into the Fade.

‘Champion,’ someone said. A familiar voice, stubborn, but also afraid. ‘What about me, Champion?’

‘Go away,’ Garrett replied. ‘I’m trying to sleep.’

‘I know very well what you’re doing,’ the voice said—Fenyriel’s voice—as Feynriel strode toward him through the Fade mists. He was unmasked, and wearing a green hoodie with ARLATHAN AVENGERS scrawled across the chest. It was about two sizes too big for him—that seemed an odd detail for Garrett to dream up, but who was he to question these things? ‘I’m here, aren’t I?’

‘Are you?’ Garrett asked. ‘I’m not really sure that’s how dreams work.’

‘It’s how I work,’ Feynriel said—a patently baffling statement. He crossed his arms, sleeves riding up to reveal his pale, bony wrists. ‘And I want to work with you. Everything’s gone wrong, Champion. We have to put it right.’

‘I don’t take on partners.’ Even sleeping, Garrett still knew that much. He’d come close, and it hadn’t worked out, and now he had to be that much more careful in choosing his allies.

‘You’ll take me,’ Feynriel said. ‘Because I know who you are.’

Garrett didn’t have to take all this from a figment of his imagination. ‘You’re bluffing.’

‘Garrett Hawke,’ Feynriel replied.

‘Who?’ Garrett asked.

Feynriel rolled his eyes. ‘You’re embarrassing yourself. I know your name, your butler’s name, where the Cave is, where you live. I even know about that time you kissed Sebastian Vael in the Harimann’s wine cellar when you were fifteen—all I don’t know is who any of those people are.’

I see,’ Garrett said, with a sudden realization. ‘You’re a blood mage.’

‘That isn’t funny.’ Feynriel brushed off the accusation like a flake of dried shit from the sewers. ‘No. I’m not. I’d never. The Warden called me a dreamer. I suppose it’s fairly simple to figure out why, what with you being so clever.’ He fixed Garrett with a glare that would have leveled even a Dalish Keeper. Maybe Garrett should have brought him to Sundermount after all. ‘And if you don’t let me work with you, I’ll go straight to the Crier. Everyone will know who you are. You won’t be able to hide in the shadows anymore.’

Garrett raised his eyebrows. Or he thought about it, anyway. He didn’t understand the exact nature of a man’s presence in the Fade, or a man’s eyebrows’ presence there.

Normally his dreams didn’t speak to him. They weren’t so direct, anyway.

‘So you think blackmailing a hero is the best way to become a part of his team? That’s your plan?’

‘I won’t be thrown away again.’ Feynriel’s expression faltered, but only for a moment. The rest was pure Feynriel, pure stubbornness, uncompromising—and uninformed—determination. ‘We have to save him, Champion. We’re the only ones who can.’

Garrett should have been expecting it—he should have known this was about Warden—but the confession hit him like a blow from the shadows, a feint toward the heart followed by a punch straight into his gut. He wasn’t on-point here, and that was the problem; the only place the Champion let his guard down was in his sleep.

‘Kirkwall’s problems aren’t going to disappear overnight,’ Garrett reminded Feynriel. ‘I already have a commitment—to the city.’

‘Saving Warden and saving the city are the same thing,’ Feynriel said, with all the certainty of a teenager. ‘You’ll see. We can do it, together.’

Garrett had his doubts, but it was harder to make them take shape in a dream. Especially not one that Feynriel was already controlling, of clear mind and even clearer purpose.

‘You like to hit below the belt, don’t you, Feynriel?’ Garrett asked.

‘I learned from the Champion,’ Feynriel replied.

*

After they established some boundaries, and Garrett built Feynriel a Kevlar cape of his own, the Champion’s sidekick needed a code name. Feynriel favored things like Elf Wonder and Dreamstalker, while Garrett sensibly preferred neither.

‘I’m not choosing something I’ll be embarrassed to shout across the rooftops,’ Garrett explained, and that was that.

‘It’s not your choice to make,’ Feynriel protested.

‘Perhaps I can be of some service, Master Garrett,’ Bodahn offered. ‘After all, I have some experience dealing with the young and foolish.’

‘Don’t listen to him,’ Garrett warned. ‘Did you know, Feynriel—Bodahn adopted a son and named him after a shoe.’

‘And here I was going to suggest Somniari,’ Bodahn sniffed.

It was noisier in the Cave of late, which Bodahn likened to cozier, but Garrett knew better than that.

‘Sounds Tevinter,’ he said, as the screen before him flashed twice—a new transmission from Bard. Garrett patched him through, tugging the cowl up to cover his face. ‘Meredith will love that.’

Feynriel leaned over his shoulder, watching Garrett’s fingers fly over the keys, and they both heard Bard’s deep-throated chuckle from somewhere across the radio waves. ‘Got a job for you, Champion and Champion Junior,’ he said. ‘You lot ready?’

‘We’ve been ready all evening,’ Garrett replied.