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Tipping the Scales

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                Varric was not impressed.  He was not in the habit of being sent on fools’ errands, and he was going to give Anso a piece of his mind when they found the little nug-licker.  He glowered at the others standing around the empty chest.  Hawke was impassive as always.  Damn woman never reacted to anything.  Isabella seemed as annoyed as himself, but stayed quiet.  Carver had apparently decided this was all his sister’s fault, what a shock.  He was glaring daggers at her.

                “Well,” she said, coming back from where ever her mind had wandered to, “we had better go tell Anso.”  She turned on her heel and walked out of the stinking hovel, stepping over the bodies left behind from the fight.  Outside in the air of Kirkwall proper it was not exactly pleasant, but was an improvement over the smell of blood, filth and charred flesh from inside.  The relief was short lived.

                “Hey, that’s not the elf!”  The friends looked around at the rather large circle of armored people that blocked the way.

                “It doesn’t matter; we were told to kill anyone who entered the house.”  One of the other men replied, drawing his sword.

                “Oh you have got to be kidding me,” Varric groaned.  Hawke pulled the thin wooden staff capped at both ends with a small knob of iron off her back and twirled it, expertly deflecting the first sword that approached.

                “Feeling our age are we Varric?  Best keep in mind that Bianca prefers the young and spritely.  You keep complaining and I will sneak in and sweep her off her feet.”  There was a twang, and a thunk.

                “Very funny Hawke,” he groused as the closest soldier fell with a bolt in his throat.  “But you know as well as I that Bianca only lets one person near her trigger.”

                Isabella came out of stealth, stabbing both daggers down into the exposed back of a mage that accompanied their enemies.  “Less talk, more stab Duckies.  Besides it’s not nice to talk dirty about Bianca, you know how it makes me excited.”  They set to work, and the sounds of their fight were loud in the dark courtyard.

                “At least they weren’t very good,” Carver huffed when the last one fell.  His breathing was a little ragged.  It was the fourth, or maybe the fifth? Serious fight they had been in since agreeing to this fool mission.  Lowtown was crawling with Sharps Highwaymen lately, and they had to put down several groups of them before the bandits, and whoever these soldiers were.

                “Who do you think they are?”  Hawke asked, kicking one with her boot.

                “I recognize the armor style,” Isabella answered.  “They’re from Tevinter.  Strange to see them in the Free Marches in such numbers.”

                “Better question then, what are they doing here?” Varric mused.  He would start tapping contacts in the morning.  Someone would know what had brought them.  They stripped the coins from the corpses and started towards the stairs that would take them out of the Alienage.  There was unspoken agreement that it was far past time for a few drinks that would obliterate this particular night from their memories.  Armor clanked.  Hawke and her companions stopped just short of the bottom of the stairs.

                “I don’t know who you are friend, but you made a serious mistake coming here!”  Hawke imagined that this man intended his words to be intimidating.  She lifted a single brow in amusement, tilting her head to the side.  The newcomer puffed up with rage at her reaction and yelled, “Lieutenant, I was everyone in the clearing!  Now!”  The friends braced, grabbing at weapons.  Nothing happened for a couple of seconds.  Long enough that the man, who was obviously some sort of Captain, with, one assumed a battalion lurking about, started to lose the confident smirk on his face.  There was a shuffling noise and then a man, presumably the lieutenant in question, lurched a step or two toward them dripping copious amounts of blood before falling with a gurgle.

                A lithe, dark body appeared around the corner and walked down the stairs.  It was definitely an effective entrance, Varric thought.  As a writer he always gave points for style.  “Your men are dead, and your trap has failed.”  Hawke heard the trill of Isabella’s hungry appreciation and had to agree with the pirate.  The voice was delicious.  All gravel and smoky hard anger.  “I suggest running back to your Master while you can.”  The figure stepped into the light.  It was an elf.  A stunningly gorgeous male elf with green eyes and white hair and… tattoos?  There were silvery lines snaking across all the exposed skin on his body, even on his chin.  Hawke rubbed her temple, feeling her headache clench tighter.  Why did all the weird shit always happen to her?

                “You’re going nowhere slave,” hissed the Captain, reaching for a spiked shoulder guard on the elf’s right side.  Varric thought to himself that it was most unwise of the Captain to say that.  He felt that perhaps he should tell the Captain so before the man ended up on the wrong end of the huge sword the elf had strapped to his back.  Varric was ten feet away and could feel the lethality of this guy.

                The elf ignited in lines of blue-white fire all over his body.  It was blinding after the dimness of the Alienage night.  He spun, graceful, raising one hand while the other clamped on to the Captain’s arm.  His raised hand punched forward and into the Captain’s chest.  A split second later he pulled out his heart, slick and still beating weakly.  The Captain, divested of this important organ, slumped to the ground.  “I am not a slave.”  The elf said, with great precision.  He dropped the heart and turned back to look at Hawke, hand dripping.

                “I apologize.  When I asked Anso to provide a distraction for the hunters, I had no idea they would be so…. Numerous.”  Fenris tried to keep his tone light, it would help bring his anger back under control.  He inspected the little weary group in front of him.  A large human man with wide shoulders and bulky build holding a great sword much like his own.  A scantily clad, buxom woman with dual daggers and an inviting smirk.  A beardless dwarf with an oversized crossbow.  In front of these a woman of medium height watched him with her hands crossed over her chest.  She would be the leader then, he figured, so he addressed himself accordingly.  He was a little surprised to see no flicker of fear in her when she regarded him, no surprise, no wary calculation.  It was as if pulling the beating heart out of someone in front of her was a normal occurrence, unworthy of particular notice.

                “I take it these men were looking for you.”  The statement was flat, even, though a trace of amusement lifted her tone.

                “Correct.  My name is Fenris.”  He walked a few paces farther away without realizing it.  The aura the woman held around herself seemed to demand more space be surrendered to her.  Varric, with eyes that missed nothing, noted this.  He couldn’t decide if he should be comforted or not by the fact that Hawke seemed to intimidate the nut job who magically pulled hearts out of people through their armor.  “These men were Imperial bounty hunters, seeking to recover a Magister’s lost property, namely myself.”  Fenris’s mouth twisted with bitterness at his words.  “They were trying to lure me into the open.  Crude as their methods were, I could not face them alone.  Thankfully, Anso chose wisely.”

                “Everything Anso said was a lie then?”  Hawke looked back at Varric, and together they mourned the coin that would not be arriving for tonight’s effort.

                “Not everything.  Your employer was simply not who you believed.”  She returned her gaze to the elf, who paced back and forth in agitation.  Unconsciously she shifted, moving a pace or two herself, making sure she always stood between him and her companions.  It was something none of the other people in the clearing failed to notice.

                “Not that I’ve got a lot of experience with this sort of thing, but if you couldn’t fight them, why not just run?” she asked, genuinely curious.  It seemed a much more logical reaction to her.

                “There comes a time when you must stop running.  When you turn and face the tiger.”  He stopped pacing and glared at her with defiance.

                “All this,” she waved her arms to indicate the various piles of corpses around them, “seems like a lot of effort to find one slave.”

                “It is.”  There was a pause.  She looked at him, waiting for more.  He remained silent.  She sighed and gave in.

                “Does this have something to do with those markings?”

                “Mmm, yes.  I imagine I must look strange to you.”  He inspected his forearms, trying to see with their eyes.  “I did not receive these markings by choice.  Even so they have served me well.  Without them I would still be a slave.”

                “I don’t appreciate being lied to.  I would have helped if you just asked.”  There was a tiny frown line between her brows.  Varric and Carver shared a look.  They were familiar with Hawke’s proclivities toward anyone with a sob story.

                “Perhaps the deception was unnecessary, if so I’m sorry.  I’ve become too accustomed to hiding, and I have met few in my travels willing to act without a clear personal gain.”  Regret was sincere in his voice, and her frown line disappeared.  He seemed to remember something, “If I may ask, what was in the chest?  The one they kept in the house.” 

                “It was empty.”

                His chest collapsed inward with the strength of his disappointment.  “I suppose it was too much to hope for.  Even so, I had to know.”

                “You were expecting something else?”

                “I was, but I shouldn’t have.  It was bait, nothing more.”  They all stood quiet for a moment.  Varric was ready to get out of there but he would not move until Hawke gave the word. None of them would.

                Hawke straightened her shoulders and looked away from the elf.  “So, uh, nice…. meeting you.  We’ll just be leaving now if you’re all set.”  Varric was relieved.  He wanted to get away from the creepy glowing maniac and go get a pint.  They started up the stairs to Lowtown proper.

                “Wait, please, just a moment.”  Hawke halted.  Carver cursed and Varric had to catch himself from following suit.  The elf was kneeling by the Captain’s body, rifling through his belt pouches. “It’s as I thought, my former Master accompanied them to the city.  I know you have questions, but I must confront him before he flees.  I will… need your help.”  Hawke looked at him.  Fenris looked back without blinking.

                “It sounds like you intend to do more than just talk.”  Fenris couldn’t quite tell what she meant by that.  It seemed like a statement of disapproval, but her tone had said anything but.

                “Danarius wants to strip the flesh from my bones, and has sent so many hunters that I have lost count.  And before that, he kept me on a leash like a Qunari mage, a personal pet to mock Qunari custom.  So yes, I intend to do more than just talk.”  He was furious.  Furious with his former Master. Furious that he had to ask them for help.  Galled that his humiliations were on display for these strangers.   He wanted to smite this strange young woman who wasn’t scared of him in the least.

                Her smile was wicked and promised blood.  “Then let’s do this!”  There was a murderous sparkle in her eye and he felt an answering grin split his lips at the sight.  Isabella looked at the two of them, white teeth in moonlight, and shuddered.

                “I will find a way to repay you, I swear it.  The magister is staying at a mansion in Hightown.  Meet me there as soon as you can.  We must enter before morning.”  Then he was gone, bounding up the stairs with the fluid grace of a dancer.  Hawke was still smiling.  Varric swallowed his discomfort and rounded on her.

                “And what, pray tell, did you just sign us up for?”  He was a little angry.  It had been a long night with basically nothing to show for it and here she was signing them on for what seemed like a charity mission.  “You do remember the point of all this right?”

                Isabella chimed in, “I mean, I’m all for saving gorgeous men in distress darling, don’t get me wrong, but…”  Carver didn’t say anything.  She was his sister, and though they got along like cats and dogs he knew her far better than either of the others.

                “You needn’t come if you don’t want,” Hawke told them with what she felt was great patience.  Her mind was far away.  She began to hum softly to herself, bouncing on the balls of her feet.  “I’m going though, and I would rather you came with me than go alone.”  She looked at them, batted her eyelashes and sauntered off up the stairs.  Varric’s face took on a pink tinge and he opened his mouth to argue.

                “S’no good Dwarf,” Carver sighed.  “I know that look.  She’s going and no amount of reason will stop her.”

                “What is wrong with your bloody nug-humping sister?” Varric demanded.  Carver savored this unexpected moment of camaraderie with someone who usually always took her side over his.

                “Well, I’m pretty sure if I asked her she’d tell me that she ‘hears the wheel’.”  He looked uncomfortable.  Varric raised an eyebrow.

                “Excuse me?  The wheel?!

                “I wonder if it’s a family thing, this penchant for insanity,” Isabella mused.  She was becoming concerned that if they didn’t get moving Hawke was going to get away from them.

                “It’s something she says,” Carver rubbed his hand across his face.  “When she feels like something is important.  She said she could hear it when they called us to Ostagar.  It was how she justified choosing Athenriel over that mercenary captain when we were trying to get into the city.  And again when she met you Varric, and you Belle.”  They digested this information for a minute.

                “Huh,” Isabella finally offered.

                “Look,” Carver said, “I’m going after her, alright?  She’s crazy but she’s my sister.  I can’t just let her go traipsing about with weirdos like that elf.  I mean, did you see what he did to that guy?”  Carver waved a hand at the hollow-chested former captain.  Varric tilted his head back at the sky, as if he was praying for patience, or sanity, or both. 

                “Right then.  Shall we Rivaini?”  he asked, bowing and sweeping an arm to indicate the beautiful rogue should go first. 

The last words you could hear as they disappeared out of the Alienage was Isabella inquiring with a sweet tone, “Do you guys have some kind of complex about needing a woman in front?”

 

 

 

Hightown, three hours before it was day

 

 

                They caught up to her before she had reached the gate for Hightown, and together they trudged into the wide, clean streets where the rich and powerful had their homes.  For once there were no groups of random bandits slinking around.  They made good time, passing quickly through the market, passed the Viscount’s Way, and through some side streets.  None of the neighborhoods they passed showed any signs of a lunatic elf, so they kept going.  The Chantry fell away on their right as they climbed the stairs into one of the oldest areas in Hightown.  It was a large quadrangle enclosed on every side with expensive marble and granite facades.  A shadow moved, not far away, and the four of them walked towards it.

                “No one has left the mansion, but I’ve heard nothing within.” Fenris told them when they got close enough.  “Danarius may know we’re here.  I wouldn’t put it past him.”

                “I could stand to know a little more about this Danarius,”

                “He is a magister of the Tevinter Imperium.  There, he is a wealthy mage with great influence.  Here, he is but a man who sweats like any other when death comes for him.”  Varric once again made a note of style points.  The elf had a way with words.  He wished he had time to write that one down for use in a story later.

                Hawke tilted her head, considering, “he may have prepared some magical defenses.”

                Fenris was already turning to enter the house as he replied, “they will not keep me from him.”  They walked to the door, and Varric had the lock undone in a trice.  He flourished his hands at the door in invitation.  Hawke smiled at him and inclined her head with a lady-like nod before pushing the heavy door open.  They piled into the front hallway.  Everyone was looking around, trying to get a sense of the dark room when Fenris started yelling at the top of his lungs.

                “I am coming for you Danarius!”  Isabella jumped two feet in the air with a squeak of surprise.  Varric put a hand to his chest against his pounding heart.  Hawke rounded on the elf with fury.

                “Seriously?  Seriously??” she hissed before darting toward the next door.  There wasn’t time for recriminations, any hope of surprise had just been thrown out the window.

                “Trap!” Varric said, just in time.  Hawke froze with one-foot hovering above the ground.  The dwarf ran forward, defusing the pressure plate with a practiced flick of his fingers.  Her face spoke volumes of gratitude as she passed him, reaching the door.  She flung it open and they sped through into another empty room.  At least, it started out empty.  There was a horrible sucking noise and purple-black shades appeared in numbers.  It gave them very little room to move.

                Varric and Belle dropped back towards the open door behind them, trying to give the fighters room.  Carver and Fenris ripped their swords out and started to hack away with abandon.  Hawke’s staff twirled, striking sparks every time the metal tip connected with demon-flesh.  The fight was quick and dirty.  Fenris was screaming that Danarius couldn’t stop them with his “pets”.  Hawke wanted to smack him in the head with her staff but heroically resisted the urge.  They travelled through room after room in the great rambling manse, fighting shades and rage demons at every turn. 

                Eventually in a back room somewhere they located an ornate key made of iron.  She handed it to Fenris and they made their way back out into the main hall.  There was a double staircase that led up to the second floor rooms.  She and Fenris took the left, while the other three climbed the right.  Nothing assailed them just yet though.  They tried the side rooms first.  Hawke was nothing if not methodical and she had no intention of leaving an enemy at her back.  She was pretty sure that if Danarius was here he was holed up in the master bedroom, and she was going to clear the rest of the floor before they went in there.

                The door to the master bedroom was locked, but the key they had found twisted smoothly in the lock.  It was too easy, she knew.  No one was surprised when instead of a magister they were presented with a horde of demons crawling out of all the walls behind them in the main hall, as well as some kind of spell-casting darkspawn horror.  They were tired, and everyone’s reactions had begun to slow.  Varric took a hit to his shoulder.  Isabella was bleeding pretty bad from a gash on her thigh.  Hawke resisted the urge to resort to her ultimate weapon until Carver was cornered by three foul creatures.  She would not let anything happen to him.  Not ever.

                She dropped the staff that she used to channel the small bolts of lightning she used with normal attacks.  Grabbing a blue lyrium potion from a fur lined pouch at her waist she downed the contents of the little bottle, feeling the magic singing through her veins as she brought her power to bear.  Lightning flowed over her skin like water.  She pointed her hand at one of the demons, and it fell with a smoking hole in its chest.  Another, and another.  The magic sang through her, glorious, free.  She was an apostate, and to avoid Templar notice she had learned how to use the staff to disguise what she really was.  In moments like this though she gave herself over to the power that always itched under her skin, and the demons fell before her.  It wasn’t long before they were all down.  She let go of the lightning and stumbled with exhaustion.  Carver rushed over and held her up.  Fenris looked at them, face unreadable.

                “It is as I feared.  Danarius is not here.  I assume he left valuables, take them if you wish.  I…. I need some air.”  He walked back towards the front door.

                “Set me down Carver, I’m alright,” Hawke insisted.

                “You’re a stubborn nuisance, and you’re NOT alright,” he replied primly.  He could strangle her when she was like this, really he could.  Acting like some great invincible hero when she was ready to pass out.  Varric and Isabella wandered around the master bedroom and came up with some very nice shiny items.  It went a long way towards mitigating their irritation with Hawke.  They were going to make a profit tonight after all.  Not a huge one but definitely worth the effort.  By the time the others returned Carver had transferred most of a healing potion into a protesting Hawke.  She was feeling much better.

                “Well, I think that was quite enough excitement for one evening, don’t you?”  Hawke inquired of her friends, brushing dust off her coat.

                “Indeed,” Varric answered with equal mock-politeness.

                “To the Hanged Man!” cheered Isabella.

                “To the Hanged Man!” Varric agreed, as the two Hawke siblings yelled their assent as well.

 

 

                Outside the mansion, the merry band did not see the elf until they almost passed him by.  He was leaning against a pillar of the colonnade, standing on one foot with the other pressed flat against the stone that propped up his back.  He made a soft noise to get their attention, and they all spun around as one.  I think we’re a little jumpy tonight, Hawke mused, considering their synchronized reflexes.  The elf looked like some kind of Adonis statue, beloved of the moon.  His silvery markings traced the muscles of his olive flesh lovingly, his delicate pointed ears twitched with emotion while he stared at them.

                “It never ends.  I escaped a land of dark magic, only to have it hunt me at every turn.  It is a plague burned into my flesh and my soul.  And now I find myself in the company of yet another mage.  I saw you casting spells inside.  I should have realized sooner what you really were.  Tell me then, what manner of mage are you?  What is it that you seek?” 

Hawke blinked at him, owl eyed.  She was tired, beyond tired, and had no idea what he was talking about.  She ran his question through her processors once again but found they still made no sense.  Well, she certainly knew how to make no sense right back.  “I’ll let you figure that out for yourself,” she told him with satisfaction.

                “You are skilled; I know that much.”  He was scowling at her, and voice dripped venom.

                Carver had had just about enough; he took a threatening step forward.  “Look Elf, if you have a problem with my sister,” he spat, with special emphasis on her relationship to him, “you have a problem with me.”

                That appeared to jar Fenris out of whatever it was he had been thinking.  He took a step back, eyes flashing with confusion and perhaps a touch of guilt.  “I imagine I appear ungrateful.  If so, I apologize, for nothing could be further from the truth.”  He looked down for a moment, and rocked his weight back and forth on his heels.  “I did not find Danarius, but I still owe you a debt.  Here is all the coin I have, as Anso promised.  Should you find yourself in need of assistance, I will gladly render it.”

                “You didn’t seem all that thrilled with me a moment ago,” Hawke rubbed at her temple, she was feeling petulant.  The chains of the Great Wheel were grinding in the back of her head.  For once she did not feel like playing along with its’ directives on her life.

                “You are not Danarius.  Whether you are anything like him remains to be seen.”  The woman was looking at him through one squinted eye, while the other was covered by the hand she had pressed to her temple.  He was still holding out the little bag of coins.

                “Thanks, really, appreciate all the warm fuzzy feelings and rainbows but I think I am going to pass,” she said.  He was not entirely sure she was talking to him.  The words seemed like they fit the situation, but her eyes were a thousand miles away.  She started to walk away.  Her companions appeared to be at a loss for words.  They looked at him, looked at each other, shrugged and started to follow.

                “You didn’t take your coin!” Fenris yelled at her.  He was angry, embarrassed.  She was making a fool out of him even though he wasn’t quite sure how.  Hawke doubled over in pain, clutching her head.  She let out a stream of curses while struggling against the inevitable. 

                “Um, everything alright Hawke?”  Varric ventured.  Her friends stood around her in a loose semi-circle.

                “No, sod it all.”  She sighed, pulled herself upright and stomped her way back to the elf.  “I am planning an expedition I might need help with.”  She blurted out, staring at him with one gimlet eye.

                “Fair enough.  Should you ever have need of me, I will be here.  If Danarius wishes his mansion back, he is free to return and claim it.  Beyond that, I am at your disposal.”  His words were courteous, manner diffident.  She glared at him in silence for another minute or two.  He began to feel distinctly uncomfortable, and looked at the dwarf who had come to her side.

                “Now now Hawke,” Varric said taking her hand, “you know how cranky you get when you’re tired.  Let’s go have a drink now hmm?”  Reluctantly, Hawke allowed herself to be pulled around and they once again stated for Lowtown.  They walked fifteen feet or so before Varric turned around, looking back at him with a puzzled expression.  “Hey Broody, aren’t you coming?”

                Fenris’ surprise could not have been more complete.  “Me?” he asked, incredulous.

                “See any other angsty porcupines around here?  Yes, you.  Get a move on.”  Almost against his will he found himself drawn after them down the stairs and toward Lowtown, where the Hanged Man waited.