Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Twenty-Seven

by artrald

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*

Varric

A praying man might say I’ve led a charmed life, that I was beloved of the Maker, that my survival at every turn was meant. A man with a sense of humour might look at what actually happened and wonder, like Hawke’s sister used to say when outside of a few drinks, whether the Maker simply liked to watch me suffer. But yes. If you’re wondering? I was there. I was right there when it happened, and I saw it with my own eyes.

The templars’ Hightown chapterhouse was finally finished and fitted-out. They’d had templars camping out in the barrack block for a couple of months now, sure, but now the place was truly done – a monster of a thing, crouched over the Grand Stair like some kind of malevolent hunchback, statues and columns and all, and if we’d simply added a fifth onto all our prices to deal with the taxes they levied on our profits, well, they’d paid it. Circular ass-kicking contest, this city. And this was the grand and official opening. A chance to welcome our beneficent defenders, or something. Hawke was there, of course, plumed and powdered and powerful; Isabela playing the queen, silks and all; Aveline, Fereldan-style in suspiciously functional dress armour; they’d even got me to put a damn shirt on. The religious ceremony was carefully, exactingly observed, all dress armour and drawn blades and very carefully chosen Chant verses, and they did it all like there was a lawyer watching over their shoulder ready to take their toys away if they should put a word wrong.

And you know, it was the damndest thing. The official part was done and we’d got to the meat of the occasion, the social event. Tobias had got talking with Meredith, and from the words I could catch it was about the conspirators we’d found on the road; he was talking about difficulties in investigation, subtleties that would’ve been sensible, but didn’t pass the test of reality, describing as ‘wily’ a man with all the clandestine flair of half a house-brick – and from her tone, he’d over-egged it and Meredith was calling him on it. She’d had him step outside to talk quietly – Isabela had drifted after them – I’d found an excuse to prop up a doorway, getting some air – and Aveline had seen me move and come over to likewise keep an eye.

And Meredith raised her voice, and Tobias laughed, like he does to steady his nerves when he’s feeling threatened, and I saw Isabela suddenly there at his back as if from nowhere. Meredith drawing breath to rant, stopped dead in midstream, frowned. Turned suddenly toward the building as if she’d heard some loud noise inside, and inside the hall I could see every other templar doing the same thing, turning the same way, overturning benches in their haste to come to their feet, confusion written on every face –

Light. White light. Bright. From inside, from the base of the great lectern of the Chant. It was like looking right at the sun. There was one crystal instant of perfect silence. Somehow, it was the most beautiful thing that anybody in that room had ever seen.

I remember Aveline grabbing me by the shoulder, spinning us around so she was between me and it, getting our heads down. I remember hearing a sound that was just like that light – bright, clear, pure, perfect, and louder than thought. And I remember the Maker picking the world up, turning it on its side and giving us a good hard wallop.

Nothing.

Something.

Coming to a rest. Lying on my back. My ears were ringing. My whole damn head was ringing. The world was one big after-image.  Pain, a line of it down my cheek, brought me around. Tinkling sound against the cobbles all around. Glass. Falling from the sky. Like it was raining knives. Some point in proceedings I curled up into a ball.

Screams. Chaos. One voice. One voice making sense. “Templars! Anyone who can stand! Get up!” Clear and bold, like he had the right to give orders, like he was born with it. “People alive in here! Move them, get them out! That roof’s going to come down!” I blinked my smarting eyes. There he was, blood all down the side of his face, almost the only one on his feet. “MOVE!”

People getting to their feet. Aveline’s people and the Templars both, they were trained to take orders in a shitstorm. The wall. Tobias had been standing next to a wall. It wasn’t there right now. “Lying down on the job, sera?” He hauled someone to her feet. Big woman in armour. Meredith. “Get ’em moving. I’ll handle reinforcements.” And you know what, just in that moment the spell held. Suppose even the Knight-Commander was a footsoldier once. She nodded dumbly, dragged another templar to their feet, started off into –

the rubble. Broken stone. Building-stone and foundation-stone both. Half the building, just – missing. Hole in the ground like the bleeding socket where a tooth is supposed to be. Half of the roof gone, and the rest looked like it was coming down if anyone breathed too loud. Inside, bodies, some of them moving. Broken wood, splinters long as your arm. Fallen statues. Banners with the Chantry flame playing host to actual licking flames. Blood. I tried to sit up and the world spun around. My ears were bleeding.

“Aveline,” Tobias was saying. “You’re making for the alienage. Every uniform you pass, I want ’em here, but you know who I’m after.”

“You…?” Sounded bleary. “…Dangerous.”

“My problem. Go.” He bent down. “Isabela, you alive?”

Her somewhat slurred voice came from ankle’s height. “Never better.”

“Yeah? I need a runner. Darktown, if you please. Anders.”

“‘Sleep. He’ll be asleep.”

“If he can sleep through this bloody lot, I’ll have whatever he’s having.” He took her hand and she stood up without leaning on it. “Hurt?”

She shook her head, not clear whether she was saying she was fine or seeing whether she could do that and stay standing. “Not bad. Bell rung pretty harsh. Shipshape, seaworthy ‘n-” she wiped a trickle of blood from her nose – “simil’r.”

“You fall over and die, don’t come running to me.”

“Too pretty.” She flashed him a grin nobody meant, looked a moment too long into his eyes, and was off.

Meanwhile I’d got myself to my feet. The whole world was still ringing, echoing to that bell-like tone. He put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye. “Red on you, Varric. Can you move?”

“Never better.”

“Good. Casualties. Anyone breathing. Get ’em out. Go.” Spying a young man in templar’s robes cradling an injured hand, he spun to face him and raised his voice. “You! You’re no help here. Get down to Gallows, on the double! The Knight-Commander wants mages and she wants them now!”

The novice was shaking. Tears streaking his cheeks. “But, ser, I -”

“We’ve got people dying up here. Magic is meant to serve man and not to sit around with its thumb up its arse, brother, I’ll take the responsibility if it’s a bad call, now get me those healers.”

I can lift a two-hundred-pound human without overly much fuss; most humans can’t, not easily. I lose count of the people we carried out of there. Templars and laypeople, citizens and servants alike. The injuries, you just don’t look. I’ve little art with a bandage. I just fetched and carried. By the fourth trip or so, some people had stretchers. Started to be that I was working alongside people in guardsman’s saffron. Nobody who’d been within thirty feet of the front of the hall was still alive. The templars’ arts had indeed protected them – by and large, those bodies were still mostly recognisable. Some of them even still had their eyes. The roof was creaking like a ship in a gale, and the north wall looked like it wasn’t long for this world, so we focused on getting people out of there. Not thinking of our own danger. Put this guy down on his side so he wouldn’t choke. Went for another.

*

The reinforcements arrived pretty much all at once, and apart from one spiky moment when both Tobias and Meredith raised their voices to give what turned out to be identical orders, it was for a short while like everything was going to be under control. Aveline shoved a canteen into Tobias’ hand and outright ordered him to drain it. Isabela pitched right in with the healers, handling triage with a loud competent voice, and nobody noticed the elf bringing people water and occasionally correcting Isabela in a quiet voice. A terrible splintering crashing sound from the north wall was met by a clarion shout from one of the templars’ party, a man in a ratty brown robe, and the air around the falling masonry congealed in the shadow of an instant into solid blue ice.

But even with thirteen Circle healer mages working to the very edge of their abilities, there were still too many who weren’t going to walk away. Grand Cleric Elthina, all but one of the Knights-Captain and a terrifying number of the city’s aristocracy were carried out of there unmoving, to say nothing of those without a fancy hat to wear, slain just like the rest – and all the servants and elves in the kitchens where they’d been preparing refreshments – poor sods, wrong place at the wrong time.

Anders ended up assisting me, and Maker, did he look terrible. Grey-faced, dripping sweat, shaking like a leaf. Bloody useful to have someone else around who was as strong as I was, though. Couple of people we got out of there alive by lifting half a ton of rubble off them. Fuck subtle.

We ran out of bodies to carry out. Kept moving as much as I could. Sit down and we’d not be getting up again. My head was pounding like hammer and anvil. Joined Tobias and Meredith and their respective people in a circle around where the lectern had been. Anders and Merrill nowhere to be seen the moment the Templars were paying attention to their surroundings, of course.

“-And I’m saying that this couldn’t have been an apostate.” Meredith’s voice was the kind of growl you get from too much shouting. “Tethras, man, you make enough noise about it, you should know. Has anybody been buying black-market lyrium-” she scowled at the hole in the ground – “by the hogshead?”

“Apart from you, you mean?” I’m sorry, I think my tact must have gotten lost somewhere along the line. “Not unless there’s a new supplier, and between Orzammar and the Carta, anybody trying that one would have to be insane. And counting your enchanters and your sacraments and your stockpiles, sera, all of my customers boil down to Circle and Templar.”

She nodded shortly. “The conspirators I sent you after, then, Hawke. The Resolutionists. Could they have a second such device?”

“Forgive me, my lady, it wasn’t a device in the manner you mean.” The speaker was the Circle mages’ spokesman, an elf, sharp-featured, dark hair. “It was a practitioner’s working. Spontaneous, for-”

“In my presence and that of nigh a hundred Templars, Orsino? Preposterous. You’re wrong.”

He bowed his head. “As you say, my lady. Clearly it was a device unlike any I have ever seen, heard or read of, rather than the evocation it appears to my inexpert eye. Shall I petition my guards to summon representatives of the enchantment or evocation faculties?”

She ground her teeth. “Quiet, mage. Hawke, your answer?”

Hawke shook his head. “No conspiracy in the city that I don’t control has the resources to pull this off even once, if it was lyrium it involved. No apostate will work for the Carta, not with their record of selling people to Tevinter slavers. Tethras and Sons don’t keep stocks on hand – doesn’t make financial sense, let alone the risk of theft. Plenty of people with the money to buy it, but nobody else could amass lyrium without me or Varric becoming aware. Enchanter, ser, what kind of person are we talking about, to produce this ‘device’?”

The elf bobbed his head. “In my ‘unqualified’ opinion, my lord? If the Circle were missing one of the five people we have who could have done this, you’d be able to see the manhunt from half a thousand miles away.”

“And if there were an apostate from somewhere else in the city, I’d have tangled with them by now, and we’d know if there was a Tevinter magister around-”

Meredith butted in. “So, we come to the inescapable conclusion of an insurgency among-”

“Flatly impossible.” The mage’s voice rang with certainty. “The relevant people haven’t been permitted to touch so much as a drachm of lyrium since-”

“The enchantment faculty are the only ones of you who do handle lyrium, fool. Could they have made more than one?”

Sigh. “Unless the financial accounts I’ve read have been modified for my sanity and convenience, sera? The Circle’s lyrium stocks, while lower than one might like, are enough to have done this a dozen times over – but-”

“So we’ve no time to lose. Go outside immediately and send up a red star to be seen from the Circle.” She turned to the templar at her right hand. “Cullen, the order is given, witness my hand this twentieth day of Ferventis. Place those here under arrest and-”

Tobias managed to get his voice working. “I’m sorry, sera, you what?”

“Just the mages, Hawke.” Meredith fixed him with a level stare. “We are all in the gravest of danger, my friend. All this time I had been focused outward and the danger was within my own house. We will question the mages, find the ringleaders and solve this problem. Annul the whole Circle if we must. Cullen, go.”

The big, blond templar nodded, turned and stalked away from the circle. The enchanter hadn’t moved. None of us had, either. This just didn’t feel real.

Meredith turned to the enchanter. “I gave you an order.”

“Yes, and I acknowledge it.” The elf nodded, jerkily. “As, as a graduated mage I am within my rights under the Rule to refuse any order I deem deleterious to my personal sanity and control, my lady, and I -”

Meredith made a disgusted noise and turned for the plaza. Tobias at her shoulder after only the barest moment of stunned silence. “Sera, you’re wrong.”

“And you’re an expert in the ways of maleficars, now?”

“You’d be surprised, sera, the number of them you’ve had me hunting.” His attempt to keep pace with her saw her further lengthen her stride. “Your enchanter was convinced it wasn’t an enchantment, and you said yourself that nobody else in the Circle has lyrium.”

“Clearly the rot goes further, then. Suspected it for years, like an itch between the shoulder blades.” Outside of the ruin. “Keep order here, Hawke. Keep the citizens pacified, you’re good at that. Nobody to enter or leave Gallows Isle without a templar. Martial law if you have to. Show some leadership and I wouldn’t be surprised if-”

“Listen to yourself!” He physically grabbed her shoulder, turned her to look at him, ignorant of the fact they were in full view of the crowd.. “You’re giving them exactly what they want!”

She stopped. Looked pointedly at his hand until he removed it. “By placing them under arrest? By doing what I should have done many years ago and reminding them-”

“You’re after the wrong people!” It sounded bad, even as Tobias said it. I hate to say it, but he sounded like he didn’t believe it. Like he didn’t actually care about the truth. He was just trying to say anything that would make her behave differently. And if I could smell that, likely she could. “A Circle conspiracy couldn’t have got the damn thing here in the first place. You’re outright ignoring the man who knows what this was -”

“Tobias.” Her tone was the worst kind of patronising. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, boy. But people lie.” The man reduced to incoherent spitting, she continued – “This is my area of expertise. Let me do my job, and damned well do yours while you’re at it.”

He got a grip. “Sera, this is my job. Give me – give me two hours. One. I’ll get you a better lead, I swear. But it wasn’t the Circle.”

Her gaze was icy. “Are you telling me that you know who it was? For sworn truth?

Deep breath. “I have access to, to an apostate. Someone with knowledge of magics the Circle does not practice. You have never met this -”

“Is this a confession, Hawke? Have you been supplying this maleficar with lyrium?”

“What? No! But -”

“And the whole world knows what happened the last time you were given just a little time to handle a crisis quietly.” The level and steady gaze of the fanatic. “I shall continue about my business. Find your pet blasphemy. Get me that lead, in case the rot spread wider than the Circle. Then turn them in. Better late than never.” She turned to go, halted a moment. “And while you’re at it, you might want to consider whose side it is that you are on.”

And as she walked off, Hawke froze. We were waiting on his word. I’d actually got my hand on a hilt. Isabela would’ve blindsided Meredith entirely. Aveline’s people could cut the templars off with a word from her. But we were waiting on Tobias. And he froze.

“I won’t do it,” I heard him say. “I – won’t – Shit.” He turned away with a violent motion and Isabela was there at his side. “It’s happening again, ‘Bela. It’s – my sister’s in there, you know, I’ve dreamed of her, she’s still alive, I know she is – but what do we do? Set brother on brother? I give that order, I make the Invasion look like an afternoon fucking stroll.”

“If I’d answers, I’d be shouting them already.”

“I guess at least we’ve got a question.” Tobias gave a bitter little smile. “Apparently there are sides, now. And someone just invited us to-”

Commotion. The mages, the dozen mages who had come to heal the injured, every one of them a templar at their side, too close for comfort – Cullen, Meredith’s stooge, had evidently had enough of waiting and asking politely. He raised his voice and told them in a parade-ground bellow to cease all magic, no exceptions, immediately all of them. And to calls of ‘shame!’ from the crowd, roughly balanced by calls of ‘damn right’ from people who couldn’t see what the magic even was, they did stop – except for one of them, a woman concentrating hard on a many-angled pattern she was weaving around the head and neck of a mercifully unconscious patient, who distractedly repeated that she was busy and to bother someone else. So Cullen grabbed her by the shoulder.

And what turned absolutely everyone’s head was a white flash and a thunderclap that pushed the templar staggering back and stood his hair on end. The patient convulsed. Everybody ducked. Somebody screamed that it was happening again.

And Cullen recovered like a striking snake and backhanded the unarmed woman to the ground.

The mage scrambled quick onto her back. Breathing hard. White visible all round her eyes. Light still gathered flickering around her right hand as she raised it to protect her face. Cullen hadn’t made another move, just standing there looking down at her.

“I’ve done nothing wrong,” choked the mage. “Ser, please, he needs a-”

“I gave you an order.” But his eyes didn’t have the templar’s killing focus. In that instant he wasn’t a templar facing a potentially dangerous mage. He was a human being, just looking down at another person who he’d hurt on purpose. Wondering if he should have.

And the mage didn’t really hear his words. She pushed herself away from him on the ground. The light around her right hand pulsing with her heartbeat. A spark dripped from her hand to the cobbles with a sound like a dry twig snapping and everyone flinched, including her.

And Tobias was there at the templar’s side, facing away from the mage. Physically blocked the bigger man’s path. Didn’t need to say a thing. Didn’t need to draw. Message was clear enough.

“Is this what we are to you, Hawke?” Cullen took his eyes off the mage. His voice was quiet. “The protector of the innocent stands up against the big bad templar? This what we have become?”

“Didn’t you hear, Knight-Captain? That’s today’s question.” Hawke’s eyes were more than a little wild. “Whose side are you on?”

A moment. Hawke in his stained and ragged finery looked more than a little like a stripling next to the tall, powerful, fully armoured templar. The two men stared one another down.

“Fuck this.” Cullen snorted, a harsh bitter sound. “Fuck it all.” He turned and raised his voice. “Go on. Get up. Make yourselves useful. I hear some of you have work you’d like to be doing.”

*

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