Hawke’s Flight Chapter Twenty-Two

by artrald

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*

Isabela

So you’re wondering if I asked Tobias to take me back, and if he did. It wasn’t about him forgiving me. It was about me forgiving me, and about how that didn’t happen, and about how sometimes it’s just too damn cold to sleep alone, and about how it’s none of anyone’s damn business.

And I don’t do well with just one port. I shipped out that autumn, first mate’s share on a fine old felucca, and I got on better with the figurehead and the sails than the crew, and the captain needed the slightest bit of sharp pointy help conjugating the word ‘no’. So I came back a different route on a bastard of a barque, not a bad little venture for the pocket, but she’d a scow of a hull and I was glad to pay off and see the back of her.

And – and that one port, the terraced City of Chains between the mountain and the sea, the one I’d gaily pushed off a precipice like it didn’t matter – coming back there was coming back home, and saying different was a lie. I had my own rooms, and if one of the suites in Tobias’ house went shrinelike undisturbed, well. He never spoke of that. And I quietly and tacitly took up the business with Tethras and Sons that he hadn’t the time for any longer, and not much more was said of the whole pirate thing. I’d go back to it when my ship was better. Maybe the spring after. Pirating in the depth of winter just isn’t much fun. And so on. Yes, all right. D’you want a ladder so you can get off my back? I’m afraid I’m just as much of a liar in my own head as anywhere else.

It was a changed city I came back to, though. I’m sure somewhere in there you’ve got Aveline’s ditchwater-drab account of how they made her guard-captain, and how it wasn’t what she wanted and it wasn’t how she wanted it, but the truth is it was a damn sight better with an honest woman at the helm. The Viscount, that juiceless old bastard, the arishok might as well have put his sword in the old man as in his son; in fact, half the histories say he did. Truth is a little sadder, really – the man tried to step down, and didn’t make it all the way home from that speech alive. And nine months later and the Assembly still hadn’t got a new man for the job. Folk had talked of Tobias for the title, no matter his youth, and other more sensible folk had had him honoured with an old title – Champion of the City – in a very firm ‘look, this is what he’s good for’ kind of a way.

Meanwhile, of course, the tale of mages coming out of the woodwork right under the templars’ noses was going from strength to strength like somebody wasn’t so much buying it as commissioning it – and, now, the story that got as far as me really was bollocks. Something about the city being built on an ancient elven burial mound and therefore being some kind of magnet for maleficars, and so the templars are perfectly justified in expanding, and nobody seemed to be asking just where half these templars were coming from – yeah, new recruits my arse, they were coming for the rich pickings afforded by moral panic.

Because by the time the Arishok was a year in the ground, the templars were the only ones who’d had any success defending Kirkwall – in these dangerous times a city needs more defence than the guard will provide, and having the templars do it means that you’re not either supporting a bunch of bored and useless soldiers or hiring mercenaries who’ll turn right around to brigandage the moment you no longer need ’em.

Upshot was, you know who half ran the new Hightown? Knight-Commander Meredith Stannard, yes, madam, the very same. Not a month went by without some new scandal, a blood-mage found, an abomination ended, some justification of the increasingly tight fist they had on the city. And of course, once the palace (sans viscount, but that seemed not to make a whit of difference) had its new shiny gate on it, the templars turned around and commissioned a brand new chapter-house, a carbuncle of a place in an Orlesian style that stood practically astride the site of the massacre they’d done nothing to prevent and sneered down at the world that it all never would’ve happened with the templars in charge. Because that’s the thing, too. Somewhere along the line it wasn’t the Chantry monolithic, it was the templars or the chanters or the Circle. I guess as you get closer to a thing, you can see more of it.

Of course, as Varric would say, seeing more of this particular slice of ugly is something we could all have done without. I mean, looking back at it, there were a dozen other places where it could’ve gone down if Kirkwall hadn’t happened – Ferelden Circle, Rivain, Orzammar, Val Royeaux, none of ’em were pretty right then – but that’s not what history’s going to relate. They’re going to say that history moved in the Dragon Age, the thirty-seventh year of the ninth White Divine, in Kirkwall in the Free Marches, and they’re going to say that I was watching. And they’re not – oh, you think I’m talking about the qunari?

No. No, the qunari were why it could happen, but they weren’t what happened. And this one, much as history would love to pin all the world’s ills on me, this one wasn’t my doing in the slightest.

*

 Anders

It’s a soul-destroying business, you know, doing good. I guess the alternative is worse. The worst part is helping good people who then don’t understand when you won’t recruit them. And then someone gets clever, or takes the initiative, and then a dozen people die, arguably it’s all your fault, and you wonder if it was all worth it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I should set the scene. We couldn’t have done it without Tobias, you know. Tethras and Sons were far too respectable to do business with criminals, so anyone they do business with can’t be a criminal – Varric prided himself on doing right by his and Tobias’ friends – and of course, the city’s actual underworld elements knew that the Champion underwrote the good name of his friends, so their word was quite literally as good as gold. Of course, he didn’t exactly know what it was that he was implicitly endorsing by going drinking with me – but we saw sufficiently eye-to-eye that I knew he’d’ve approved if he did know.

And, well, then someone took the initiative. I’d been arranging for people to slip the Circle’s net for years, by then – most of them poor kids the Chantry didn’t think good enough to let them finish their apprenticeship, people who we couldn’t just stand by and let them make Tranquil – but the biggest problem I really had was in stopping them trying to help one another, and it turned out that I’d missed someone pretty bloody fundamental.

So the first I knew of it was when the latest lass that I’d spirited out asked when she’d meet the others, and ‘what others’ got a matter-of-fact response, three names that she knew ‘had made it as far as the city’, and I recognised one and winced. I’d met Evangelina Cliffe before the Blight, a somewhat overly sentimental assistant of Enchanter Wynne’s who was also an abjurer of slightly worrying strength. Last I knew, she was one of Ferelden Circle’s battle mages – what was she doing busting out of Kirkwall Circle?

I said that the others had walked a different path, and I’d see about finding them in the morning – and I put my head down, expecting to find a false trail I could pick apart in minutes to reveal a ‘stealthy’ shield that glowed to high heaven. But what did I see? Flames, broken glass, carefully preserved blood samples up in smoke – a templar who raised an eyebrow and then calmly turned his back and walked away – a hand raised, destructive power focused through all-too-familiar words, a hole cut rather than blasted in a stone wall, with a precision I’d struggle to match – oh, hell. Somebody had torn a hole in my nice leaky net.

So I woke myself, middle of the night, and I arranged for the young lady to find her way aboard a vessel that left upon that morning’s tide, and I put out the word the moment she was safe, and I’d see if we could help some desperate fools before they blew us wide open.

And it was remarkable how fast this was the Champion’s problem, and it was remarkable how much that he did know about our activities – or, at least, he knew where to go and what to say to look like he did, which is much the same. Indeed, if I hadn’t been a step ahead already, he’d likely have got to the fugitives before I did – as it was, his investigation got him straight to me, and would he take ignorance for an excuse?

So in theory, right, I could’ve then taken him straight to them. He was being tailed, but it wasn’t anybody more than Isabela – who took a dim view of eaves being dropped on her man’s business, so we didn’t need to worry on that score – and I knew by my own continued freedom that the man himself wasn’t exactly the type to drop templars on anyone. And by the time he found me, the three escaped mages should’ve been in my safehouse. Theoretically.

Yeah. Never that simple.

The one who’d made it and stayed there was named Huon, and Tobias’ eyebrows went up at the pointed ears: the man was an elf. Do Tobias good to hear the story, I suspected – alienage boy, picked up aged seven when the Enemy were sweeping through the place looking for something else entirely; a sensitive little lad, soft-spoken and very much overly polite, one to fade into the background. Picked on by the other apprentices as much because he’d turned up literate as for the pointed ears. And somebody had taught him as a kid that you didn’t break under pressure, you stored it up and used it later. It’s not so much that he had a home to go to as that he didn’t have one in the Circle – so when he’d learned of a plan to get people out and away –

Learned of a…? Tobias’ eyes met mine. We were going to be up to our eyeballs. And Huon’s plan – the alienage – would get about the same reaction from Merrill as if he’d handed her a poisonous snake by the tail. We were going to be crawling – and I looked from him to Tobias and asked him straight what I should have asked to begin with, which was where he had actually found out what was going on.

And what d’you know, but our Champion of Kirkwall was on first-name terms with the Adversary herself those days. And what Tobias wasn’t saying but arguably should have been, was that if he couldn’t produce some kind of results, couldn’t point to some kind of explanation, then not only would the Adversary be going and getting the jackboots out, but our Champion wouldn’t be much use the next time we had a Templar problem – why me? – bah.

So Tobias was by now thoroughly on that little elf’s side. Couldn’t possibly sacrifice this guy on the altar of security, I mean, look at him. Packed him off to a slightly more secret location, set up a meet with Merrill, and the elves took care of their own. Aren’t any elf Templars – not just the whole discrimination thing, but unless your elf has enough of a Gift to disqualify them from the ranks, lyrium makes them violently unwell, seizures and the like – and it’s not like anybody else could find an elf that their kin were trying to hide. And yes, poisonous snake and all that, but as Tobias wryly remarked, if you handed our Merrill a live asp by the tail then like as not she’d pet it, call it a poor thing and find it a nice safe hole to lurk in.

Next stop, our two other escapees. And one of them – uh – well, all right, let’s say that our contacts put us on to him, let’s say that we tracked him down through patient and logical detective work, because it’s a hell of a lot better than saying that we stopped off at the Hanged Man for a bite to eat and spotted him across the taproom.

It would’ve been comical if it wasn’t so serious. It wasn’t actually me who saw him – it was Tobias, though I made the identification a positive one. I asked Tobias later why it was that he’d pointed out that particular podgy, poorly dressed young man, and his answer – it was the way he addressed his ale – was as mystifying as usual. I guess that the kind of fellow who sees a job at the Blooming Rose as an opportunity to be the best damn bouncer a bawdy-house ever had isn’t about to forget even the most irrelevant of skills.

So I supplied the young man’s name – Emile he was, one of the Tranquility candidates, one of my failures, the one I’d chosen not to save in favour of the lass I’d packed off that morning – and Tobias sat down upon one side of him and I sat down upon the other and we started in on a double act.

Yes, every mage has a tragic story, but usually I don’t mean this kind of tragic. Emile was a sheltered type with no discernible social skills – overly loud, foolish, indiscreet, overenthusiastic and quite thoroughly incompetent at everything to which he’d ever turned his hand. In short, two minutes’ conversation was enough to discover the one thing which had been bugging me about this fellow’s case, which was why the Enemy wanted rid of him – all that had been on the file was ‘weak-minded’ – the long and the short of it was that they wanted to plough under this young man’s mind, scour out his soul and condemn him to a living death because he was a bit of an arse.

So while I got that bit of directionless hatred under control – and I was lucky that Emile pretty much literally had his head in a bucket, because I’d have been able to sense me in that state from across the room – Tobias was slowly waking the idiot up to the fact that he’d done probably the most foolish thing that it’s possible to do on the Maker’s green earth.

At which point he commenced to whine and snivel, and it really didn’t take much in terms of words from the Champion before Emile was spilling the entire sorry story all over the back-room we’d practically dragged him into. His job had been the magical heavy lifting – he’d been assigned the job of creating a distraction during the escape – basically speaking it was his fingerprints all over it – he’d be the easiest and most obvious fall guy for this, if it weren’t for the fact that it still left us with missing persons unaccounted for. And was I really prepared to risk all and everything for the sake of one idiot?

I know what Justice’s answer would’ve been. But there are things Justice doesn’t understand. That’s why he isn’t in charge all the time. This boy didn’t have the skills to survive outside. Inexperienced, foolish, weak, and the first maleficar to come along and buy the lad a pint would have a willing disciple – and he’d already said that he’d rather die than be Tranquil. I could send him to Tevinter, but they’d have him for breakfast – I could send him to Ferelden Circle on forged papers, but he’d only fail his apprenticeship – I could send him to the Wardens, but better to kill him here and save the cost of passage, because Kallian would outright refuse this puling butterball rather than give him a Joining he’d fail. The only thing I could conceivably do to save him was to take him on myself – and then what of the next idiot, and the next, and the next? I couldn’t say I wasn’t a charity. I was a charity. But it’s the sad and unpleasant truth that in this world there are a dozen dumb hills to die on for every one that’s worth it.

I told Tobias where I was going next and left the room, and he met me there alone.

*

And so that, pretty much, left Evangelina. She’d parted ways with Huon and Emile the moment they’d hit Lowtown, given each of them a sum of silver – Huon had parted with half a silver penny to the man who’d led him to me and that was pretty much it, while Emile had been halfway down his and contemplating trying to find a more entertaining way to spend the rest when we found him, yet another reason that I was far happier leaving Huon alone – while Evangelina herself had split, and none of my contacts had a damned thing.

Huon’s tale, now, it ended there. She’d kissed them on the cheek and said that with the nicest will in the world she hoped she’d never see them again in her life, and she left. No particular direction. Didn’t use magic to conceal herself. It’s just that the elf was more concerned with being left alone in a public place full of humans than he was with where one particular human had gone.

And, well. It’s a dirty stereotype, but the knife-ear was a born liar. Emile’s tale said that she’d told them where she was going to be hiding out and given them the option to come with – and they’d both decided that if it was kipping in those sewers or hiding in the city, they’d take their damned chances. At which point she’d smiled a little sadly, split her purse in three and let them go.

And so, yeah. I knew where she was. And I wasn’t going down there dressed as I was.

There’s an old tale going around that Kirkwall’s built on an old elvish graveyard and Darktown’s haunted because of it, and that’s rubbish – the graveyard’s a way up Sundermount from here, and Darktown’s haunted by nothing more terrible than me. But when the Tevinters tore apart a mountainside to make their terraces, they weren’t just making a giant monument to their own arrogance; when they filled the city with slaves and incised spells on the very walls, they weren’t just doing it to keep their chattels in line. This city was built for magic – and frankly, look at the murals of subservience and pain and despondency, look at the gutters that could run with blood if the Tevinters chose, and your intuition isn’t wrong about the sort of magic they were after. The slave-overseers may have lived in what’s today the viscount’s palace, but the magisters that ruled ancient Kirkwall lived at the focus of the reflector, in the wizard’s tower that’s Gallows Circle today.

And as I said, the gutters could and did run with blood. And the sewers of Kirkwall? They are where that all ended up. And so it’s not the stink of mixed seawater and sewage that keeps people away; it’s not the difficulty of getting down here, or the disease, or the unpredictable flash floods in high tide or storms; it’s the waking dreams, or rather, the nightmares. Only a mage or perhaps one of the Enemy would rest there, and either of them would be taking special precautions or they’d be doing it at peril of their mind and their soul. You go far enough down in the sewers of Kirkwall, and you might as well be wandering right off into the Fade. (Go on. Ask me how I know.)

So clearly, Tobias and Isabela showed up quite prepared for the place, in leathers that I’d be willing to bet were made by one of Varric’s people to a pattern more familiar to sewerjacks. Just once, you know, it would’ve been nice to surprise that pair. Down we dropped, into that noisome dark, and I do believe this was the first time Isabela had ever seen me do overt magic as I impersonated a lightstone.

Ugh. The place reminded me of the bad bits of the Deep Roads. Not the nice clean places we’d been on Varric’s treasure hunt. The pits of the darkspawn, the stinking bloody holes Kallian had us delving in for her idea of a field trip, the shallows under Amaranthine that were close enough to the surface to be dripping water and crawling white worms and gloomy gardens turning blood-red leaves toward twisting blue glimmer of –

Did I mention waking dreams? –

I marshaled my thoughts and the ceiling returned to its proper height and the charming aroma of seawater and sewage returned.

From the directions she’d given it was downhill she’d gone, deeper in, hiding among all the other weirdness. She’d left no tracks, no traces at all, but that meant nothing: anybody half-competent would’ve erased them. Isabela asked sourly what good a wizard was if he couldn’t keep her feet dry, and I replied just as sourly that if she wanted to do all her own barking she shouldn’t have brought a dog with her, and she was too on-edge to needle me over my accent. That creepy dark stinking place was not good for camaraderie. And yes, my increasingly foul mood was making this place fouler than it had to be, but if they’d wanted a lovely downhill stroll through a grassy meadow with a babbling stream of clear water then they’d brought the wrong mage.

We walked straight into the thing she’d set up to let her know if someone was coming – for the sake of comic timing, let’s say that it was around the time Tobias made one of his laconic comments about whether I was sure I hadn’t made a wrong turn somewhere and taken us all to Hell instead. A symbol it was, one of Wynne’s designs, stamped into the floor, a symbol of will enforced. I guess that someone like Merrill could’ve silenced the thing, could’ve led us all around it – bollocks to it. I wanted her to know I was coming. Walked into it, marred the line with a deliberate toe and the other two had to throw a hand over their eyes against the flash.

So next would come a barrier, a defence, a disruption to the path onward – and – yup, there it was. The tunnel seemed to end in a blank wall, and Isabela made a little disgusted noise in her throat. The Enemy, no doubt, would counter this one with loud prayers and self-righteous faith, mistaking the words they were saying for the efficacious part, just like how they insist on proper standardised vetted words for Circle spells when the truth is it’s all about what they mean to the speaker. Me? I looked at the barrier and said ‘Karl’, and the memory of the freedom he’d never had hammered a spike of sheer force through it. Most people’s barriers shatter like glass. This one tore like waxed cloth – that’d be Wynne’s teaching, I recognised the spell, even. And the far side we had a nice clean dry place, just the sort of thing you’d actually find behind a wall like the one she’d pretended was here. A secret hideaway, stone walls, stone floor, bit of furniture, cheery fire in the grate – again, the painting on the wall gave it straight away. The place might as well have had “Made in Ferelden” written on the walls.

And of course, setting off the alarm had been just enough warning – we weren’t facing a surprised, scared and unpredictable fugitive, we were facing… Well. Apparently we were facing a prepared, scared and unpredictable fugitive. I gave a sigh as the woman in the grubby robe raised her glowing staff and cried “No further!”

Wait-wait. She stole a what? Spell-staves aren’t exactly two to the penny. I didn’t own a staff. All three of us spread open hands – it’s not like it’d slow me down appreciably, and the other two would be relying on me anyway in a head-on confrontation with a mage. I tried words. “Evangelina?”

She shook her head. Scared, she looked. Really quite unreasonably scared, for an abjurer in the middle of a prepared position and a place of power. “Turn right around. I’m not going back.”

“Not asking you to.” I tried the honest approach. “I’m Anders. We met in Ferelden? You were one of Wynne’s-”

“That’s supposed to reassure me?” The light from the ersatz fireplace was gathering and coiling around her as she drew in her will – something was wrong here, something more than the obvious – “Yes. I know you. Cloud-brained limpwristed half-addled card reader who couldn’t evoke flames out of dry kindling if your arse was on fire.” The tremor in her voice might’ve been genuine fear, and she was overstating her case a little, but she wasn’t wrong that on the best day I ever had I was no battle-mage. “Granted you found me easily enough. But I’m not going to be coming quietly.” She dropped the staff’s butt to the floor, and a ward etched itself around her feet in hard white lines. “Go home, Anders. Go home or your Maker-molesting masters will never find your corpse.”

Tobias had quietly, quietly drawn a blade while her eyes were on me. Isabela’s right hand had dropped out of sight. I didn’t bother gathering power to me – Justice wouldn’t need it, and I couldn’t get anything together quicker than she could see what I was doing. “Look, Lina, stand down. My only master is myself. What d’you-”

“Already trusted once too often.” She had her eyes fixed on me. “Come here from Ferelden. On a boat out from under the Blight like any other deserter. Genuinely trying to reach the Circle. Bastards. Arrested me at sword’s point, said I’d started a bloody riot. They had me in secure seclusion six months before they decided I wasn’t dangerously insane.” Abruptly her voice raised to a shriek. “You ever lived in a cell, you traitorous bastard? You ever think about those poor people you were -”

“Oh, give it a bloody rest!” Isabela’s voice cut in over hers. Funny note to it that I hadn’t really heard before. Like she was scared and all. “He’s been out of that line of work half a dozen years-”

“Yeah?” Lina whirled. “And I suppose you greet all your friends with a blade?”

“You’d be surprised,” said Tobias, and again I saw in him none of the usual confidence I expect from the man who faced down the arishok of the qunari. The smile was fake, waxy. Like he was actually scared, and all. He and Isabela had slowly spread apart from one another like they were genuinely getting ready for a fight. Tobias was usually the last one to draw, and he wasn’t the type to do it just to make himself feel more comfortable –

I gritted my teeth. “What’s your exit, Lina? What’s your way out? You’re surely not planning to live here. The magic it’d take to let you out of the harbour end without drowning in sewage, you’d be visible to every templar in the city. I can-”

“No. Oh, no.” There was light cascading up and down the shaft of the staff like water, coiling around its spiral carvings. “I’m not falling for that one. I need nothing from you, Anders. Turn around. Walk away. Get out.”

I ran a nervous hand through my hair. “I’m not worried about you, you self-centered idiot. I’m worried about the rest of us!” I nodded to her staff. “People like you, things like that, they don’t just go missing. Walls don’t just develop four-foot holes in them overnight. You think you’ve helped anybody with your blind headlong charge but number one? Even if they don’t find you. You think you’ve made it any better for the others in there? The Enemy will-”

She shook her head. “They’ll find me. I know they will find me.” Her eyes opened a little wider. (I realised with a jolt that I hadn’t seen her blink. At all.) “And I shall teach them fear.”

“Uh, look.” I swallowed hard. Beginning to realise the depth of my own mistake. “You need to get out of here.” Both of my companions had frozen entirely still, now, that terrible stillness of the warrior tensed for fight or flight. “Lina, I know these tunnels. Yes, your wards are good, but they’re not invulnerable – you’re in deeper trouble the longer you stay, you’re-”

“Rubbish.” Her voice quavered, terrified, defiant. “I’m welcome here.” And, you know, my mouth went dry at that one. “Tell me I’m wrong.”

“Listen to yourself! You’re getting irrational!” Tried to push through the fear. “Can’t you see the warning signs?”

She shook her head. “You’re delusional. I’m-”

A striking snake has nothing on Tobias. She never saw him move, and then the point of his blade came out through the front of her robe and the light around her staff came apart in shredded scads.

But that wasn’t an end of it.

The woman turned her head to look at him, right around on her neck, and Isabela swore under her breath in Antivan, and I echoed her – oh, shit

She spoke softly, and Tobias’ nerveless hand fell from the rapier’s hilt and his mouth dropped dumbly open. And Isabela threw her knife, and Lina – and what used to be Evangelina Cliffe – raised a hand and let the knife impact with a sound like a cleaver. She frowned slightly, tilted her head – bone cracked – “Oh, what fools these mortals do be. Two of you without a trace of interest to you – practically scenery – and one solitary man too terrified to light a candle. Tell me I’m not welcome, Anders. Tell me this isn’t my very front room. Tell me that this city isn’t encircled and underpinned and built on fear; tell me that they are not even now inviting it to be their ever-present companion -”

“Let them go.” I had a source for the fear now. Didn’t help that it kept slipping. Didn’t help that I had a very sensible mental impression of what I was facing, that a little fear was perfectly rational – “Let my friends go, demon. And depart. Or this will get unpleasant.”

She raised an eyebrow. Isabela had now backed up so far she’d met a wall. The corner of her mouth quirked, and swirling light and red-orange fire ran up and down the length of the spell-staff. Her voice sounded horrible, wet, rasping. “This doesn’t count as unpleasant already?”

The words were pushing themselves up out of my lungs. I trusted the impulse inside me. “Let. Them. Go.”

She smiled sweetly, slick front and back with blood, dripping blood from her hand, the blades still stuck through her. “Make me,” were the words she formed, barely intelligible as blood ran from her mouth.

Uh. Would be really helpful if Justice had given me a little bit more of an explanation, or an idea of what to do next – I gathered power to myself, focusing my mind, trying to focus my mind on something to break her spell –

She shattered my pathetic attempt at an abjuration with a dismissive wave of her hand. Draped a little more power around herself. She was deliberately trying to play on the fear that she could feel within me. And Justice had decided that he was keeping his damned head down. She raised the staff. And, well, sometimes you don’t have much option. The spell that I threw was all that I could pull together in an instant, a simple plane of force – again, she smashed it like matchwood while keeping her focus on the staff.

She – the abomination – was strong. Hellishly strong. Nightmarishly strong. Is this what fighting Justice felt like? Was that what my partner was trying to teach me? I threw another desperate shield together and again she unpicked it without losing her focus on that staff.

And almost immediately I felt myself putting together another one to replace it. The hell? Continuing to try something and expecting different results is called ‘insanity’, isn’t it? Had I truly, finally snapped? The shield went up. She smashed it down. Another one. Same thing. Just the tiniest little bit more force each time. I had to start walking physically backward as she approached me, calmly, smiling, streaming blood as she came. A little creativity and I raised (a bit of a pathetic) wall of stone before me; she released a fraction of her power through the staff and I suddenly found myself having to shield from flying shards of stone. And another shield, and she broke it again, and now she’d backed me into a corner –

She drew back her hand, and all the colour leached out of the world and nestled itself into her palm –

A moment’s hesitation –

And abruptly her eyes rolled up in her head and she simply collapsed. And Justice calmly caught her as she fell, pulled the blade that had killed her out of her back, recovered Isabela’s dagger, and as he returned my friends their weapons it was like something had punctured the world and let out all the terror. It wasn’t that Justice didn’t want to fight the abomination. It wasn’t that he couldn’t have taken it on. And it certainly wasn’t that he feared it. It was simply that it was already dying. And it hadn’t been necessary for him to act. All he’d needed to do was stall for long enough for the mortal blow Tobias had dealt to do its work.

I knelt by the side of the woman who I’d known, and I said goodbye. I dared not touch the staff. Tobias could truthfully say he’d killed her. Stabbed her in the back. And two out of three bodies, including the one who was clearly the ringleader and the one who’d done all the obvious magic in the escape, and the staff they’d nicked, would have to be good enough for the Adversary. And what did I get for my efforts? I got myself another favour owed to Merrill, and I got myself a little bit more trouble in terms of actually helping people who could be helped, and I got myself a couple more murders to my slate, and I got myself a powerful need for a new pair of pants, and perhaps just a little bit more hatred for the world in general and the sewers in particular and the Enemy for driving people into this.

And it was twice as far getting out of the sewers than it was getting in.

*

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