Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Thirteen

by artrald

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*

So this was how it happened, roughly. This was where it went wrong. You want to know why everything that happened later went the way that it did? You want to look right here, you want to listen carefully.

Because we got to the way out, the great temple hall where the gods of this place stood in judgement over those that dared to beseech their people for entry, that stood without guard or fortification for it needed none – and the great ancient onyx-sheathed door – it was shut. Firmly irrevocably immovably fixedly solidly shut.

And we walked into that room and there was a moment when we looked at one another and one of the porters dropped the box of gold bars he was carrying and the sound echoed and re-echoed around the hall, and we were all of us silent, even me, just looking at the door until that echo had gone away.

“That’s the way out,” said Tobias quietly, in perhaps a little bit more childish of a tone than he meant. “That’s actually the way we were supposed to get out of here.”

The spikes we’d propped the doors open with had been well hammered in, and there they were discarded on the floor. “No chance that this was an accident, I suppose? They just shut the door to keep out the draft?” I gave a nervous little laugh and it echoed nastily.

“Not like any of us did it, though.” Varric’s eyes narrowed like he didn’t know – like he –

I put my hand over my mouth and said to myself a very bad word indeed, the kind of word you save for when you’ve just realised that you’ve had the wool pulled over you so completely you never saw it happen. “Anders,” I said quietly, “where’s Bartrand?”

“Oh. Oh. You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said, and his voice dropped to that intimidating human growl that they hardly even know they’re doing. “Okay. Hands up, anyone who actually noted him going.” And that was me, Tobias and Anders. “And hands up, anybody who thought it was the slightest bit odd that the guy who’d been at the front of the whole pack from the moment he saw that first idol, gathered them all up and fucked right off the moment we’d got all of them?”

And it was about this point that the nonmages in the group decided it was their turn to use a little bit of choice language, except for Aveline, and all she said was “When?”

“Maybe half an hour ago,” Varric growled. “And we all saw him go, practically waved him off. Like it was perfectly natural, like it wasn’t important. You got a good idea of what actually happened, Anders?”

“Let’s say I can give it a bit of a guess.” The human glanced at the statues. “We couldn’t see anything amiss, because we’re standing too close to it. Inside it, even. Like tickling a tench up from a stream. They just set the trap, left it there, let us ignore it, and -”

I nodded. “The gods of this place, or whatever they really are. It’s like I said. They weren’t gone. And for whatever reason, they wanted their idols out of here.”

“And us inside,” he growled. I could feel the rage rolling off him. His willpower must have been pretty good or he wouldn’t be a mage proper, but I could feel it bending under the strain. Maybe he had a phobia, something like that. “That door. It’s got to open from the inside, right? You wouldn’t build a door you couldn’t open?”

Varric nodded to the keyhole.  “I studied that key. Seventeen wards, each of them finer than you’d believe you could make to last. Core of lodestone or something similar, as well. Any mechanical lock ever made is technically pickable, but we’re talking the pinnacle of craftsmanship of a people who put anything made these days to shame. How about using magic?”

Anders looked at the door as if it had called his mother a jill. “You know me and cages. I -” he bit his lip, visibly wrestled his emotions into line a moment – “Let’s call that the backup plan.”

The dwarf grunted. “Merrill?”

“I don’t much like the idea of setting up home here either.” I shrugged. “But those doors – I could seal them, no issue. I could hit them hard enough to break the lock – again, not too hard. But they’d do all that and never open – I suppose that I could probably have got us in – I could use the magic Anders doesn’t like, and they’d break, for sure, in theory, but I haven’t a spell to do just that, not the easy way, because breaking things isn’t my specialty, really, and the hard way wouldn’t be -”

“Merrill.” I stopped talking and looked at him, cocked my head. “That doesn’t sound like a yes.”

I shrugged again. “The simple answer is no, and the complicated answer is that it’s complicated and would probably bring the roof down or otherwise make everything worse, so let’s go with the simple one for now.”

“Okay.” He nodded, closed his fists and opened them, staring at nothing in particular and the door in general. “So. Locked door. Almost unpickable. Only way out. All our shit on the far side. Magic deprecated. We have what we have on us, and one fabulously wealthy ancient thaig. At this point, lords and ladies, I’m going to throw the matter open to the floor. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Does anybody present have a way in which we are not fucked?”

“Invective can wait until we have a way out of here.” Aveline’s tone was careful. “It’s surely not like a place this size has only one exit.”

“Trading a way out that we can see, touch and work on for a way out that we don’t even know exists, leading Stone knows where, that’s probably also locked.” Varric scowled. “Anyone got better than that?”

“I know,” said Anders, and the lightness in his tone was forced. “How about we stand here like rats in a cage, debating ourselves insane? That sounds like a laugh.” He got a variety of glares for that one. Continued merrily. “What I’d need to do to open this door wouldn’t be pleasant for me or any of us, but it’s got to be better than that. Merrill, I suppose you’re the same? You want to bid your unpleasantness and I’ll bid mine?”

I bit my lip, not so much as to draw blood or anything. “I’m only saying this because you ask, look you, I’m not suggesting we actually do this. But, but I could open that door. It’s not alive and it doesn’t think, so the price would be high. As in, blood sacrifice. Probably one. Maybe two.” I looked around at a half-circle of slightly sickened expressions. “I told you, it’s not something anybody should ever do. But you asked, and I could. And I’m not going to.”

Anders nodded. “Thought it would be that or its like. I can go cheaper, I think – I – look. It’s like this. I’ve got access to a power greater than myself that I can call on, and he’d try to help. But he doesn’t understand mercy or stopping to think, not really, and he really doesn’t handle frustration well – it’s calling up something I can’t put down. He’s my ally, he’s got a vested interest in getting out of here and in bringing all his boon-companions with. But he’s going to want me to find the one who did this and tear out their traitorous heart with my bare hands, and he’s going to try to implicate everyone in that. He understands the concept of complicity, right? It’s what you do to your friends to stop them betraying you.”

So while I was somewhat flapping my mouth like a fish and dealing with the implications of what Anders had just said, Varric was setting his mouth in a hard flat line. “You know,” he said, “one day they’re going to accuse me of having organised this deliberately. You do know that, right? They’re going to say that I came down here, acquired our fortune in gold and jewels, murdered my brother and made out like an actual bandit, inheriting Tethras and Sons in its entirety, with witnesses of unimpeachable character present to show how I was foully betrayed by the man. I’m quite, quite happy with the concept that we will not rest until my brother has been brought to justice, because my brother is going in the direction that we want to go. You get me? Lay on.”

*

Anders

When Justice opens his eyes, it’s not like I close mine: it’s more like one of those dreams when strange things happen and you’re the one doing them, and you’re doing them for perfectly good and logical reasons, everything is there for a reason, and it’s only in retrospect that you look back and wonder what the hell it was that was going on just there. And so it was right there. I relaxed my grip, let Justice take over like he’d been wanting to do ever since I saw that the door was closed, and I hoped like hell that the dream would be a good one.

And like there had ever been any chance of that.

Justice didn’t even look at the door. He turned around to the rest of them, cracked his knuckles and said that we had work to do, and the only one who didn’t leap immediately to it was the elf. You see, our work there wasn’t finished, so we couldn’t leave just then. After all, the things that had set themselves up as gods in that place were foul things – asking for sacrifice of blood and lyrium, paying in ever-decreasing ‘blessings’ that slowly drove all but the most ‘faithful’ from this place’s doors, and eventually asking their people for no less than their very lives – not something that one could just overlook, not when we were clearly here to dethrone them and cast them out into the depths of the Fade.

(She quietly convinced each person to put down the heavy burdens they were carrying and to get hold of their weapons.)

Justice strode at the head of the group; it wasn’t so much that he knew where he was going as that he didn’t need to. He was walking the correct path. It couldn’t be otherwise. It was downward, of course, downward and inward into the ancient fallen thaig, down ancient and nameless halls long since fallen to darkness, and he’d drawn my blade with his right hand so as to keep his left hand free for magic. It’s unfair, really – he has perfect use of the reflexes the bloody Wardens hammered into me and the strength their curse grants me, but when I’m in command I’ve got none of his natural fluid talent for spellcraft.

(She kept to the edges of the stair, close to the walls where the floor was safer, her eyes everywhere at once; her footsteps made little more noise than her shadow.)

And we reached the end of that great dilapidated stair. The thaig had fallen apart from the bottom, the mazy tunnels fallen in on themselves, the crumbling dilapidated remnants of the upper reaches of the thaig clinging desperately to the roof of a great deep pit, a sucking ancient emptiness that seemed to drink up the paltry light we brought, and Justice raised my voice. He spoke to the darkness, cast his harsh pronouncement of judgement out unto the lightless depths, spoke of the crimes of these ancient creatures and he bid them begone or face the consequences. And the darkness laughed, and sharp-edged light gathered around my left hand, and we formed up and marched grim-faced down the slope of scree and rubble with drawn blades.

(She gulped, then started to pick her way down a slope of rough and jagged rubble that would’ve been no joke for a mountain goat.)

And suddenly and with one of those leaps that makes no sense outside of a dream, we were fighting for our lives. They came at us out of nowhere. Not strictly alive, and nothing I’d ever seen before or since. Made for the most part out of rubble and pieces of statue, gathered together into tall slender things with the closest that they could reckon to long sharp claws, and they wore terror with them like some kind of halo, and Justice curled my lip and banished their pathetic attempt at intimidation with a flick of my fingers. Still they moved pretty quickly, and those claws were sharp as broken glass or flaked flint, but we were ready for them; it was incomprehensible that they should succeed, and indeed they fell. Savage they were and strong, but their talons found no purchase on our shields and our blades bit them deep, and no foe could face the fell-handed Justice.

(She hid.)

And on we went, and after their initial shock the attacks were sudden, violent, irregular but showed no sense of lessening. I’d call them least-demons, I think, animating lyrium ore and old broken enchanted things rather than dead mortals or animals like you’d find on the surface; there was just so much of it down here that kicking them out of their bodies just made them go and make new ones from this giant pile of the stuff. My hands moved by themselves, countering a wild leap with a thrust to the centre of the body, then releasing just the tiniest degree of power through my other hand to slap another foe off-balance for Aveline to hack down.

(That slope was too steep to fight on, the footing too loose. And the things weren’t after her.)

I couldn’t tell you how long it took for that slope to level, for us to get our footing properly and start making ground quickly. I couldn’t tell you how far we’d gone. It took forever and it took a few minutes. Exhaustion wasn’t a problem. We did not stop, we did not pause, we did not falter or stay our hands; we were quite as tireless as Justice itself. Our cause was not done, and thus neither would we be. Our blades might have grown chipped, our shields battered and gouged, but our arms did not tire. And we took on the inexhaustible horde of the demons of the Fade and we fought them down and we pushed right on through them.

(Footsore she was and her nerves were shredded but she kept up, keeping carefully to the background, neither a companion of these spirits nor their enemy. Never had she done this while awake, but she didn’t see a difference between risking her sanity in the Fade or her life right there.)

But at last we reached the edge of that great cavern, the source of it all, and we were going up rather than down, and I could feel the closeness of the Fade here like the Harrowing Chamber in the Circle Tower: the floor, the walls were no more real than an illusion, or alternatively an illusion was no less real here than the stone itself. It must once have been a mine-working, following a seam of lyrium ore along its twisting way into the rock; the air was full of the dust of ages, our very footsteps raising little puffs of it

(She’d wound a cloth over her mouth and nose and it was solid with the stuff. It was harder to keep to the background while resisting the influence of the spirits. Kept getting harder to remember why she was here. But her choices were poor all around. She followed.)

And the earth shook, and in it was a fell hateful voice, and the ceiling shook and rocks began to fall and

(Between one moment and the next she caught them, speaking softly to the stone, telling it softly that this was not the day for stones to fall.)

onward we followed the seam, followed its carven walls, the quiet ancient dark worshipful secrets the dwarves had carved there of old

(This was very much like walking down something’s throat. Carefully she set aside much of the abjuration of shielding she’d been using up until now, because a nervous glance at the ceiling here said it would surely not have held up on its own.)

we were walking into its den, into its lair, and it still didn’t understand what we were, didn’t understand that Justice wasn’t some mortal predator, but we knew its crimes and it had sentience enough to have committed them on purpose

(The far end of the seam was a widened chamber like an animal’s burrow or something, and the great dark presence within was curled around and atop a golden altar that was just like the ones we’d found earlier, complete with the idol. And while she maintained the spell to shield her mind from it, she could not make out its shape. Maybe it didn’t actually have one.)

and I caught Justice’s flash of recognition, like in a dream where someone is recognisable despite looking nothing like them at all. What he did next, it looked perhaps like grandstanding, like standing there and calling the creature out and demanding it answer for its crimes: it wasn’t. Justice’s will and my power together might have been a match for this thing – but in that moment I realised that that was not the plan. In fact, to be brutally honest, this was the first I’d ever seen of this plan. The idea was, of course, not to take the ancient bloated thing head-on at all. This wasn’t a knock-down drag-out fight, or at least not by Justice’s reckoning. This was a banishment. What Justice was doing with my power wasn’t to strike at the ancient demon – it was to compress it, contain it, draw it down, manifest it, frame this encounter as a clash of arms. And Justice had brought a baker’s dozen of well-armed dwarves, a pair of humans who were the deadliest blades I’d ever seen outside the Wardens, and don’t forget that even before you consider my magic I’m a Warden myself.

I don’t really remember the fight itself. Flashes. Justice’s spell hardening the reality around us, suddenly feeling the slippery hardness of the floor underfoot, feeling my blade striking sparks on the gravel and rubble that the thing had made its body out of. The sweet sound of Varric’s crossbow loosing a bolt and the quick precise swing of its enchantments pulling back the string for him to load another. Tobias baiting the thing into swinging for him and Aveline going for its ankles; Tobias taking advantage of its open back as it spun to face her, and the sound of its massive fist slamming into the floor as she sold it a dummy and followed up with another hacking blow.

(The justice-spirit’s strength, for all it looked inexhaustible, wasn’t: it was built on the Gift of one mortal mage, and sufficient injury to him would break it. Meanwhile if they were truly trying to best this thing in a physical fight, they would have to literally break rocks apart with no better tools than their swords and axes. Merrill whispered her spell very quietly, very gently, just a tiny tiny little weight on the scales. Not much at all, really. Just that, you know. Metal is harder than stone, so a sword can absolutely cut a rock. Right?)

Something changed. I felt the world shift under me like someone pulled a rug I was standing on; Justice adapted instantly, leaping forward, putting both hands to my blade with a great shining arc that if this weren’t a dream would’ve shattered it into a thousand pieces when it struck that rock. But in this dream my blade was perfectly naturally cutting that rock like hard cheese. The creature roared, went for me with both fists, and Aveline took one arm off at the wrist and my reflexes spun me away from the other blow.

(Merrill backed away from the little spirits that had turned their attention in her direction when she cast the spell, little hangers-on clustering around this great predator like ravens on a battlefield; she put the fight between her and them, trying to hide her spell behind all the rest of the magic.)

Tobias losing his footing and Aveline grabbing the beast’s attention while Varric pulled him to his feet. The porters behind us holding the line against the least-demons. Leaping over the demon’s arm like fighting an ogre, only ogres bleed and ogres have tendons and hamstrings to cut and this thing was just a roughly humanoid sack of rocks.  But nevertheless we were beating it. Its struggles becoming weaker, its blows less swift, going from trying to kill us to trying to defend itself, and just feeling Justice’s will bearing down on it like the jaws of a trap.

(She saw it gathering itself, pulling itself in, playing possum. It had identified the point of weakness. It thought there was only one mage. It was going to strike in the moment that it looked like it had lost.)

And Justice hit it in the chest and it fell, and he walked up to it slowly, laid the point of my sword across its throat (which somehow made sense) and offered it quarter. Said he’d taught it pain, taught it fear, bade it begone and never return or he’d take its punishment from justice into vengeance, and only I could see Justice’s thoughts that said that killing this thing would be as much work again, at least. And it cringed and cursed and said it would, and he started to relax his binding to have it flee

and in that moment it struck, a bright stabbing thunderflash and blinding spike of power, and Merrill made a sharp chopping gesture with her hand and the blow was just sufficiently turned that it missed me. Justice didn’t waste time as I would have, noting that that bolt would have turned me to stone at the least, but drove my blade home with such force that it shattered, and the dark ancient creature slipped back off into the depths of the Fade like a fish released from the hook.

And Justice caught the elf’s eye and nodded thanks, and she flinched away making a sign of warding.

*

Varric

Dwarves don’t really dream. It’s from Tobias that I talk about that whole thing as sort-of dreamlike; to me it was more like a haze and a fog over my senses, and I don’t actually remember a whole lot, as if I was drunk off my face. I remember giving Anders the go-ahead, and I remember the elf telling me to get Bianca ready to go, and I remember putting bolts in things that looked like scarecrows made out of rock, and then it was later and we were facing the door again and everyone was filthy. Like actually filthy, like we’d been literally swimming in rock dust, and soaked in sweat and covered in cuts and bruises, and some of them not so minor.

And I distinctly remember Anders walking up to the thaig’s great door and speaking quietly to it, and it just opening for him, and that somehow being vastly unfair, though I wouldn’t remember why until much later. And when he did that I think I had about a dozen stone of assorted loot on my back, so clearly something had happened, but I’ll be damned if I can remember exactly what. We’d won, though. Knew that much.

And then we were waking in our base camp almost as if the whole thing inside that ancient thaig had been a dream, and Merrill was coming round trying to wake us all up. I just remember her looking down at me, hair a complete and utter mess, still mostly caked in dust despite evident attempts to wash the worst off, and telling the humans that no, I was in fact still alive.

We all were. Anders had been as good as his word, brought us all out that door alive and with a damned fine haul of loot, at the cost of the ‘life’ of the one that spirit of his blamed for it all. Of course, everything else that he hadn’t mentioned had gone completely and utterly to shit.

We took stock. We were all of us caked head to toe in rock dust, and the tingling burn on the tongue told me there was lyrium in it: quite literally the mud on our boots was valuable, though not quite to the level that we wanted to pan for treasure in our bathing water. Everyone apart from the elf looked and felt like they’d been through a whole damn war’s worth of battles; most of us were injured, from minor cuts and scratches (filthy, of course) to broken bones that they seemed to have been entirely ignoring the whole time and had even slept on. And our kit – all the armour was damaged, chainmail rent open, plates dented, leather ripped, shields broken, blades chipped or shattered, axe-hafts splintered. But all the blood on us was our own.

Anders was worst. I mean, he’d broken the wrist of his sword-hand and he’d a dozen shallow cuts and he’d pulled half a dozen muscles, but his curse ought to have let him tough it out: instead he creaked like an old man. And he reached out to cast a spell to fix his wrist and stopped himself with a flinch: lyrium in the dust, as I’d already noted, until he washed that off there was no magic for anyone. And even when he’d got himself vaguely clean and into some less contaminated clothes he was still smarting and swearing every time he tried anything, so in the end it was only the worst injuries whe had him fix. The frown the elf gave when Tobias asked whether she could heal anybody other than herself was only a little one, but it was enough that when she said slowly that she could try, there was kind of a collective decision that a few ugly scars did nobody any real harm and let’s leave that for emergencies.

But we couldn’t move that day, anyway. Much as I really did want to track Bartrand down, and much as he and the Shaper had absolutely taken our only maps, the only one of us who said he was actually good to go was Tobias, and I could see written on his face that he didn’t want to have to mean that. At least the mages were both too exhausted to quarrel. It would seem too much to ask that they’d actually get on – the best that I could say is that they’d swapped around who was calling who a lunatic – but there was a respect there that there hadn’t been before. Apparently the elf had saved all our lives or something, and all I can say is that I never saw it. The rest of us spent our time in making what repairs we could; Tobias and Aveline fetched water and we cleaned and bandaged the injuries that the mages weren’t in any shape to heal, and we made sure everyone had a pair of shoes that at least had soles, a set of clothes that at least weren’t stiff with that bloody dust, and something to call a weapon.

And that next day, we started on the long walk back towards the light. Without a map we were stuck retracing our path; more than once I asked Anders how close we were to the darkspawn and he responded darkly that we really didn’t want to know. Bartrand and the Shaper had taken more than their share of the supplies, but feeding fourteen on twelve people’s rations isn’t more than a bit uncomfortable: the humans were apparently quite content on short rations, and the elf hardly seemed to need to eat at all.

So we survived. A couple of times on the way back up we were shadowed, something big out there in the dark deciding to investigate this group of things that smelled a little bit like blood, but there weren’t any stragglers from our group and it didn’t seem to reckon that it could take us on. The way down had been almost fun, a journey of discovery, for many of us the first time we’d ever been on the Roads proper: the way back was nothing more than an endless stumbling slog footsore in the dark and at every turn and corner there was the niggling doubt that one wrong memory, one wrong turn and we’d be sunk. One morning we very nearly set off in the wrong direction entirely, literally back the way we’d just came, and it was only Aveline who noticed; I think that shook all of us pretty deeply, just how close we all were to getting lost down here forever. I know it sounds funny to say it, but I was missing the sun and the sky.

And yes. If we got the handcarts out of there, if we got them back to Kirkwall and safe, then Tethras and Sons and our assorted partners would be rich as goldsmiths: but on that road they were nothing but a drag and a burden, and we loathed them. The only one who didn’t spend a turn hauling one of those recalcitrant bastards was Merrill, and that’s because she didn’t have the strength.

It was eventually the sound of the sea that called us home, but not the gentle sigh that I associate with that noise, not the cries of seagulls and the gentle wash of waves on the shore: the cavern shook to the vast irregular booming pounding slam of great hungry waves against solid rock, the savage music of the sea in full roar. We came up out of the darkness ready to take our last steps out and see the sun again, and we’d be walking into a storm hungry to snatch our treasures from our hands and scatter them across a mile of beach.

But it didn’t get them, no matter how it bloody tried, and it was damned fine to see the sky even if it was trying to drown us at the time. And covered head to toe in crap and soaked to the skin we bore back the haul that we’d pulled from the temple of the dark gods that my ancient ancestors had awoken in the dark, and when you think about it, it’s amazing how much history you can trace back to the fortunes and the friendships we sealed right there. And  as for my vanished brother, and as for the Champion, and as for the names that we all made for ourselves – well. Read on. Read on, and I hope you choke on it.

*

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