Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Twenty-Eight

by artrald

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*

Merrill

So nobody cared about the People here as per bloody usual and once it was established unlikely that more was going to be on fire than already was it was my job to deal with ’em. I could’ve named all the dead, you know, every one of them someone I’d met and learned the name of. The kitchens hadn’t been as lucky as the great hall – out there there were shemlen moaning that they were weeping blood, that they’d been struck deaf, while in here the collapse had buried dead bodies so deep that you’d need a work gang with shovels. None of them still lived and I caught myself thinking that I was lucky for that and it stung, but at least I wasn’t having to decide if I really wanted to risk being seen to be Gifted in order to save a life or two.

A noise where there shouldn’t have been one and I found Anders sitting on the rubble and when I say that I could feel he was in a bad way, I mean that I ought to have sensed this from across the city. I guessed, and I guessed the wrong way, and I said “I know.”

And the eyes he turned on me said no, I didn’t, and I guessed the wrong way again and swallowed a retort that my ancestors had been scrying when his had been busy divining the difference between their rear end and a hole in the ground, and “We can stop it happening again,” I said.

“Can we?” He bit his lip. “Merrill, I know we haven’t seen eye to eye, like, ever. But, uh. Look. I – have a problem.”

More than one, I didn’t say. “Talk to me,” is what came out of my mouth, like he was one of mine.

“Right. Yes. Look. You, you’ve got knowledge I don’t. I – dammit, I’m not making sense.”

“Feel free to start, yes.”

“I need your help, Merrill.” He turned bloodshot red-rimmed eyes on me. “You’re – you’ve faced down things I’ve only ever – you’ve taken on spirits at their own – help me.”

I cocked my head. Not many types of help I’m qualified to give a human who’s a mage. “I don’t know what you think I can do for you, but tell me, and-”

He pulled a glove off. Held up his right hand in front of him. And the bottom dropped out of my stomach.

So before I made any conclusions and while he was just sitting there looking at me I bit my lip and drew a drop of blood, because it was faster than gathering the power I’d need to defend myself otherwise. And only in that next instant once I’d settled a simple spell in my mind and curled my left hand into a defensive gesture did I draw breath. “Tell me that isn’t what it looks like.”

“What does it look like to you?”

“Anders, you have lyrium under your fingernails.”

“I know.” His eyes were hollow. “And I woke up two minutes after the explosion today, wrung-out and exhausted and with my hands like this and I – I’d had the strangest dream.”

“Dread Wolf,” I breathed. “It’s him, isn’t it. This was him. You.”

He gave just the tiniest tremor of a nod. I could see the spirit there behind his eyes. It wasn’t asleep at all. Its attention was far wider than just me, but it had seen me, and it had my scent. “It wasn’t hard for him to get drafted in to help Varric’s people source that lectern. Mark it with a rune so distance wasn’t a factor.”

“And the templars weren’t a concern-”

“Because I wasn’t anywhere near them. It wasn’t a spell, Merrill, not a spell like I’d use. It was – Maker’s breath. Justice just picked the lyrium up in my hands and – it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever dreamed of-”

“Fire’s pretty,” I said sourly, and he nodded. “Let’s be kind and say that he’s killed -”

“Oh, Merrill.” He shook his head. “We’re not done yet.”

“No?” I wonder if the spirit knew my first move would be to strike him. Short fight if he didn’t. Short fight if he did, I’d wager.

“It started out with violence. People had a habit of turning up dead. Awkward people. People in the way. A nice old lady who was trying to turn me into a slaving operation. Half a dozen men who turned up for protection money this one time. I’d wake up in my room, full armour, filthy. He was, he was doing my job.” A snort of gallows humour. “Better than I was, come to that.”

“And it was in line with what you wanted, so you let him.”

“I told myself it was and I’m not so sure I was wrong, let’s leave it at that. And he was helping people get out of the Circle, too. I knew someone else was. Someone with precious little grasp of the way the world worked, someone with a lot of power – someone with access to all my people – someone I could never find -”

“And all that time you were working behind your own back.”

“Gets worse.” He swallowed. “He’s – I’m pretty sure he’s in the Templars’ heads, o-or maybe just everywhere but. You know they banned illusions because they were seeing them everywhere? What if they were? Whispers in shadows. Ludicrous things, that get truer and truer the closer you get to them. A shape the world looks like it ought to be, a way that’s easier to go.” He shook his head. “And I knew that Justice had been acquiring lyrium. For years. Handfuls, here and there. Knocked over a Carta dealer who was mistreating Fereldans on his staff, and his stock was mysteriously short. And of course I was keeping a small stash for emergencies myself. And all of it’s gone.”

“But you said we weren’t done.”

“I asked for this, you know. When we first met. You know that? He asked me for my cause and I said justice, justice for the mages, and I let him see how the templars treat us-”

I resisted the urge to pick the big idiot up by the scruff and shake him. “What else, Anders? Where’s the other half?”

“The qunari showed him how you change the world, you know.” He put his head in his hands.”They showed him what war was good for. They showed him the power that a disaster has. You know that we had an emissary of the White Divine here, right? That she’s this close to calling for an Exalted March already?” He looked up at me. “The world is watching Kirkwall, right now. And he’s shown them what the Templars will do when they get a chance. And now they’re going to burn down their own Circle for a crime it patently didn’t commit.”

I frowned. “That doesn’t add up, though. The Circle were the only other people who-”

“It’s simple.” And Justice smiled. “I’m going to turn myself in.”

I threw the spell out of pure instinctive shock. Spat a mist of blood that vaporised and smoked in the air into a snake of sharp ugly power that struck for his heart – and he threw up both his hands and caught it, not trying to deflect but simply changing its nature just enough to survive, the exact defence I’d have used, and blood ran from his nose and his eyes but he lived. And he smiled still and there was blood on his teeth too, and the barrier I raised in that instant went unassailed as he simply spoke. “There are twenty of the shemlen out there,” he said, “and they are your sworn foe as much as they are mine.”

There was no room for a reaction. No room for emotion – he’d played us, played us all – I kept my eyes right on him. “I could fight you even so,” I said. “I’ve seen you fight, spirit, with your back to the wall; you have never seen me do the same. Don’t you think I can do nothing to you. I am heir of Arlathan, and I’ve art to me that the waking world hasn’t seen since the sack of Val Royeaux. I could scourge Anders’ soul from out his living body, I could bind you where you stand and shackle you screaming to this world for an age of man, and you wouldn’t be the first of your kind I’ve faced down.”

“Oh, I do not underestimate you. Maybe you can end me, or hurt me; maybe you can try; maybe you’re a fool. But do you truly believe-” and he stood as he spoke- “that you can do it with them all unaware? If you were so certain of those half-remembered arts you’d have struck already; yes, I know the People of the Dales and their brittle pride. Solas se’vhai, da’len. Era’shaal vir atisha’an.” His elvish was accentless and perfect, his tone that of a kindly keeper correcting a precocious student. “Or d’you no longer believe that justice is only of use to the living, and vengeance no use to anyone at all?”

“Your name and nature are nothing to me, spirit.” Carefully I kept myself from drawing in power. My blood gave me all I needed, and if a Templar walked in I really didn’t want him to jump the wrong way.  “You’re a danger to me and mine, and that’s the beginning and the end of it – or d’you think the shemlen will carefully fight around the elvhen, leave us alone? I saved your life, under the earth, remember? This how you repay me?”

“As I do recall, I’ve paid you for that, and handsomely. Not my problem that you squandered your reward.”

And if I remember right, my response was to actually hiss at him, bared teeth. “I’ll do it, you know. Put me in a corner, give me no other choice and-”

“And I shall scream.” He spread his hands. “Would you fight twenty templars, maybe three times as many innocent guardsmen, thirteen terrified human mages who saw nothing but the blood mage? And I suppose we’d also be giving away that the alienage has been harbouring the worst kind of fugitive apostate for half a dozen years. D’you know what they will do? D’you know what will happen when they find the other mage you’ve hid there? D’you wish to append that to your legacy, da’len?” He shrugged. “But I suppose the half-elves aren’t really your kin after all, are they?”

I stood there unmoving for a good long moment. Narrowed eyes. “Go. Bastard. Just – Go on. And pray to whatever it is that you believe in, that when it comes time to punish you, they do not think to give you back to me.”

And he went, and I spat fruitless anger on the floor and damn near broke my toe on a wall.

*

Aveline

The atrocity of 20th Ferventis was, upon looking at it in the cold light of day, neither the first pebble to roll nor the largest stone to move; it was, however, the point at which the bouncing and rolling of little stones turned into the shaking of the ground and the roar of falling earth, and standing on the plaza before the ruins of the still unnamed Hightown chapter-house was very much like standing at the foot of the mountain and seeing the growing avalanche and knowing that the time to run was past.

The woman who still thought of herself as a jumped-up sergeant had her people marking the templars. Nothing so far as an arrest, mind, but the danger was unpredictability and the message clear: start something and we will finish it. Nobody really sure how to proceed, and the early leadership shown by Tobias and Meredith seemed to have shattered with the latter’s abandonment of even the tenuous rules she’d held to so far.

Then a man in grubby battered grey leathers walked out of the ruins at a slow deliberate pace, and every templar in the square dropped whatever it was that they were doing, turned pretty much as one, and drew – Aveline’s people, with an instant to react, drew in turn – and the cry of “Hold!” that she let out was not for the templars’ good, but rather to reassure the guard.

And Tobias turned and his expression was eloquent, although what he said under his breath was anything but. “Anders,” he said, as if they’d simply met in the street. “Can I-?”

And for answer, Anders unbuckled his sword-belt and let it fall to the ground, then very slowly spread open hands. “Tobias. You can stop looking. You can call Meredith back. They don’t need to sanction the Circle.” He turned honest, open, troubled eyes on the Champion. “I know who did it.”

Hawke’s mouth dropped open, just that instant. Everyone who knew Anders. Of course it  could have been – “Dare I ask?”

“Me.” He swallowed hard, the picture of someone whose conscience had got the better of them. “I did it, Tobias. I destroyed this place.”

Cullen spoke up. “Champion, I don’t know what you think you’re seeing, but that’s-”

“An abomination, I know. I’m familiar with this one.” Tobias carried on through Cullen’s response of shocked disgust. “Why, Justice? You must have known what would happen.”

“Does it matter?” Anders remained very still, and drew no halo of power about himself. “I did it for them. For the mages. If you kick a dog one too many times, you will be bitten. And they need to learn that. Everybody needs to learn that.”

“You’re insane.”

“Perhaps? It doesn’t matter any more.” He took a deep slow breath. “Justice didn’t account for your quick response. He didn’t – He expected for the Adversary to be here still, so he could expose her evil in front of – it doesn’t matter. It’s not worth all their lives. You can call her off now. You can call her back.” His eyes were wide and honest even as his words had little connection to reality. “I surrender. Bring me to justice.”

Tobias bit his lip. “Send a runner for the Knight-Commander. Now.”

Cullen nodded to a subordinate – who fled – and his blade’s point did not waver. “I can protect you from that thing’s magic, Hawke, but my only protection from illusions is that I’ve a sense for when all is not as it seems. And right now that sense is screaming. You can’t trust anything it says, man.”

A single tear crawled down Anders’ cheek. “Tobias, please. I don’t know how long I can control myself. Turn her back.”

The Champion swallowed hard and talked fast. “Just because he can’t be trusted doesn’t mean he didn’t also do it. I know he had motive – I’d say that three out of four who died here are people he’d slay out of hand if he met them in an alley. Varric, did he have opportunity? Could he have prepared the ground?”

The dwarf, looking at Anders over the flights of a crossbow bolt, nodded grimly. “A man of this description was moonlighting for us as a labourer, said that even tireless crusaders had to earn a crust. Strong as a dwarf and taller – excellent references – never seemed to tire – sure, I hired him on. So yeah.” He narrowed his eyes. “This man had opportunity.”

“And I know for certain that he could have got the lyrium.” It was unclear whether Tobias had ever cared about Cullen’s opinion of that admission. “All the other possibilities are implausible as hell, Cullen, and I know this man. He says he did it?” Tobias met Anders’ eyes. “He did it.” And he raised his voice. “On behalf of the Assembly and the City’s justice. Let any who wishes to defend this man, come forward. Let anyone who believes I’m making a terrible mistake, speak now before it is too late.” He leaned a little on those words. The little elf wasn’t visible, but he knew she had to be there: those words were entirely addressed at Merrill.

Silence.

“Then there’s no point drawing this out. Templars, take him.”

Cullen moved swiftly, crossed the distance between them and grabbed Anders’ shoulder with his free hand, and every mage present winced as if they’d heard a loud and objectionable noise. The other templars stepped forward, a wall of blessed and enchanted steel.

Confusion on Anders’ face. “But – but you said justice!” Suddenly he looked almost panicked. “You hate the templars!”

Tobias was talking to Cullen. “I want him taken to Gallows, and I want to watch. I want to see you and your commander demonstrate that-”

“No!” Anders’ eyes glowed a sudden blue, and Cullen’s breath hissed out like he’d been struck. Quick as a snake, Anders twisted out of the templar’s hold – Cullen’s blade flashed – Anders spun with impossible speed and the thrust caught only cloth – he danced back, white-hot flame gathering around his hands –

And lightning struck. Once, and again, and again, and again in terrifying succession all out of the clear sky, and the first strike stamped Anders down into the cobbles face-first and the second one set the crumpled body aflame and after the sixth successive concussive thunderclap all that was there was a charred and twisted skeleton.

Standing not twenty feet behind him, a last few scattered sparks walking the length of his spell-staff, the elf Orsino, Meredith’s advisor, mopped a few beads of sweat from his brow. Met Cullen’s eyes for a single challenging moment.

And Cullen sheathed his blade. “Enchanter.”

“You’re welcome.” The elf looked away, as his kind do. “Just lucky I caught him by surprise. I’d appreciate retrospective permission to save all our skins, by the way.”

“I had him.”

“With the respect you deserve, ser?” He touched his staff gently to the ground, and the sparks crawled away. “There was a lump of lyrium in the abomination’s pocket the size of a hen’s egg.” Cullen’s eyes went wide. “He was literally one drawn breath away from a second catastrophe with a human cost to rival the first.”

So several people swore, right then; the loudest and longest was Tobias, to whose swearing there was real depth of anger and savagery. Aveline looked at him and raised an eyebrow. “Creative. What-?”

“Meredith.” Tobias made of her name a swearword. “What in the name of fuck do we show her? A pile of things you can just about recognise as bones? Oh, I’m sorry, knight-captain, we had to kill our only evidence so hard we can only tell his arse from a hole in the ground because there’s another, larger hole to compare? But no, it’s all right, see? All you have to do is trust this mage here.”

Cullen scowled. “She will listen to me.”

“And you’ll say…?”

He threw a glance at the head enchanter. “That as very eloquently presented, it was him or us. I’ll not keep a dog and bark myself.”

Tobias barely broke stride. “Sane and reasonable. Let’s hope it works, because we just ensured that that’s our only plan. Enchanter, how long before your mages can move without making things worse here?”

The enchanter flicked his eyes over his people and their field hospital, and he decided to push his boundaries – “Twelve can move now. I’d leave one for unforseen consequences.”

Tobias nodded. “Cullen, two of your steadiest will remain. The rest of us move.”

“To the Gallows?”

“Indeed.” Tobias cast a troubled glance down towards the island and its Circle. “One way or the other.”

*

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