Justice in Surrender: Chapter 22

———————————
Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
———————————-

The Bone Pit wasn’t all that far out of town. Clearly, Tobias decided, the Imperium had foregone preserving any pretty vistas in favour of reducing cargo costs from the quarry, and the network of mines and caves that ran off from it. Besides, the smoke that Kirkwall’s Foundry District belched out easily masked any unsavoury smells of industry that might have wafted in. They could still see the smog laying over Lowtown’s terraces like a grey shroud as they left the city behind them: him, Fenris, and Isabela, plus a couple of bulky lads she’d shown up at The Hanged Man with.

He hadn’t been sure he’d wanted to cut her in on the job, but she’d pouted and dropped heavy references to a shipment coming in at the week’s end that, with the guard’s recent arrests of certain smuggling cartels—Tobias couldn’t imagine where the Coterie’s spy had found his information, naturally—was wide open for interested parties to take a share in.

He’d been tempted; he could admit it. He still had plenty of contacts, after all… still knew where to shift hot merchandise, and the right people to fence things further afield than grubby tavern back rooms.

It was a good offer. She knew it, and she knew that he knew she knew it. So, he’d sighed, and agreed to take her and her boys along.

Typical Isabela. She always did know how to strike a deal.

Nevertheless, it gave Tobias a feeling of old times, and he clung to that, just as tightly as he clung to the morning’s brightness, and the feel of the cold air on his skin. The smell of a fresh challenge seemed to hang over everything. It tasted like warm steel and a cold salt breeze, and he pulled it right down into his lungs, eager to savour it and hold it tight.

They were quiet as they walked, taking an old cut up past the cliff path towards Hubert’s mine, leaving the lower terraces of Kirkwall spread out below them, spilling from the city walls like the teeming of dusty beetles. Beyond the jagged shapes of towers and roofs, and the great hard line of the Keep, the ocean daubed a band of hazy greyish blue that met the sky, and a couple of ships coasted lazily against it. Tobias squinted as he looked out across the horizon, a little amazed at how warped and strange the perspective seemed from up here. The coastline cupped a natural harbour, and layer upon layer of the cliffs seemed eaten away, pitted and wounded in the truest sense… just as the name of the place suggested.

Sundermount rose at their backs, though he didn’t turn to look towards it. He had no wish to let his mind drift to the Dalish camp, or any of the other weird things hidden up on those slopes. Instead, he walked on, leading his little group along the rough, sandy path. It was cold, but not properly cold. Not a proper winter at all, in his opinion. He’d never thought it would be the case, but he missed Fereldan mud, and rain, and even snow. Satinalia was less than two weeks away, and it didn’t feel right without at least a proper thick frost on the ground.

“I’m surprised Anders isn’t with us,” Isabela said cheerfully, increasing her pace a little to saunter beside him. “Would have been useful, wouldn’t it? Bring the healer along when you’re poking through forgotten underground ruins?”

Tobias winced. The last time he’d been underground with her had been the Deep Roads, and he had no wish whatsoever to recall it.

“Well, we’re not intending to be down there long. We’d better not be, anyway,” he added, narrowing his eyes. “I didn’t bring a change of smallclothes.”

Isabela grinned happily, the weak sunlight spearing off her jewellery. “Oh, well. Maybe you won’t need them. You never know your luck, after all!”

One of the bulky lads she’d brought made an obligatory ‘hur hur’ noise, and Tobias rolled his eyes.

“Still,” he said, ostensibly to himself, “it might seem like a long trip….”

Fenris snorted. “Longer still if we had the abomination to lecture us throughout. I would rather take my chances with whatever is down there than listen to another diatribe on the woeful lot of mages.”

He still said the word with the same kind of disgust as most people might reserve for having dog shit all over the bottom of their sandals, but Tobias chose to ignore it, and to concentrate instead on the slow, rhythmic thud of feet on the sandy ground. Isabela peered back at the elf, her lips lightly pursed, then elbowed Tobias sharply in the ribs.

“Ow. What?”

The breeze licked around his shoulders, and it lifted her hair slightly where it cascaded from beneath the cloth bandanna she wore.

“No, really….” She lowered her voice as she looked sidelong at him. “Is he all right? Anders, I mean. Especially after that business at the Rose?”

Tobias frowned. “What business?”

The Rivaini’s expression flickered from surprise to salacious glee. “Oh! Oh? You didn’t—? I thought you were there last night.”

A deeply uncomfortable sensation, like the slow percolation of dread and nausea, filtered through his gut. “Who said I was? Why?”

Isabela waved a hand impatiently. “Oh, you go with Jethann. So do I. I was there for breakfast this morning, and you know how word gets around.”

“Hnnmm,” Tobias mumbled, looking away as he tried not to simultaneously recall the taste of the elf’s skin, and the feel of Isabela’s fingers digging into the back of his neck as he thrust grimly against her in the dark. His frown deepened. “What… what about—?”

“Lusine threw him out, apparently,” she confided, leaning a little closer as they walked. “Anders. He was supposed to be taking care of one of the girls, but something went wrong. He didn’t do it, or wouldn’t do it, I don’t know. Jethann didn’t know.” The conspiratorial tone faded a little from her voice, and she looked briefly concerned. “I just hoped he wasn’t having problems. You know… more than usual.”

Tobias glanced over his shoulder. He couldn’t tell if any of the others had overheard. Isabela’s big, stupid, brawny lugs were talking amongst themselves, and Fenris was glaring up at the cliffs as if he could scowl them into submission. He probably could, Tobias decided, if he was given long enough. The breeze still tasted of salt, but somehow everything was bitter.

Obviously, he knew what Anders did for the girls at the Rose, and at half a dozen of the cheaper, less pleasant brothels in the city… not to mention plenty of women from the slums who, married and unmarried alike, had found themselves on the receiving end of unwanted male attention or, sometimes, simply couldn’t bear the burden of another mouth to feed. It was just that actively thinking about it made him feel slightly sick. And the thought that Anders had argued with Lusine—over anything, much less that—was unsettling, because Madam liked to get her way, and people who didn’t cooperate tended to find the Coterie breathing down their necks.

“When… when was this? Last night?”

Isabela shrugged. “Yeah. Late. I don’t know when, exactly… but it was quite the gossip this morning. Madam was livid, apparently. When Jethann said he’d seen you last night, I just assumed—”

“No,” Tobias said distantly, staring at the gritty path, littered with small stones and the glimmer of mica among the rough sand.

“Oh. Because I thought you and Anders—”

He wished she’d shut up, but tact and restraint weren’t exactly Isabela’s strong points.

“—Or,” she corrected herself speculatively, “should I say, you, Anders, and Justice? I mean, I was curious about that. It must be exciting. You know what they say: two’s company, but three’s better, right?”

Tobias grimaced. “I don’t think whoever said that had a Fade spirit in mind.”

“No?” She shrugged. “Whatever you say. I just thought you were quite interested in his, uh, spear of righteousness. That’s all.”

High above them, the sharp black shape of a gull wheeled against the sky, like an embroidered motif picked out on watered silk. The quiet gnawing of waves against the ragged shoreline tugged at the air, and Tobias groaned through gritted teeth.

“‘Spear of—?’ Isabela, I swear, if you don’t stop it—”

“What?” She mugged at him, barely stifling her giggles. “You’ll spank me? Promise?”

He sighed wearily. “No. Anyway, we’re not…. It isn’t like that.”

“It isn’t?” Isabela echoed, that curl of mirthful mockery still on her lips. “Really? You could have fooled me. You’re practically panting every time you see him, and he looks at you like he’s never seen biceps before.”

“He doesn’t,” Tobias muttered automatically, then paused as he glanced out across the ocean. Small caps of white dotted the dark, grey-green waves, and low clouds chased across the hazy sky. They were nearing the mine now; the big, burly lads were getting skittish, the way horses start to shy at the scent of a strange dog on the breeze. He frowned, and peered suspiciously at Isabela. “Does he?”

She laughed, and the sound was like a clay mug shattering. Her mouth spread into a wide grin, the pale glint of a blade against her dark skin, and she shook her head slowly.

“Hopeless. Bloody hopeless…. Hey, maybe he thinks you’re too good a person, so he’s not willing to, uh, smite you.” Her grin widened even further as Tobias pulled another face. “Ooh, that would be a shame, wouldn’t it? Everyone deserves a good smiting now and then. Matter of fact, I could use one right this minute….”

~o~O~o~

Tobias could cheerfully have throttled her by the time they arrived at the Bone Pit… especially when he saw the welcome party waiting for them.

He’d arranged to meet Varric up there: it had seemed sensible to have a cart, maybe a couple of the Carta hired hands the dwarf was on such easy terms with, and other such things as came in useful when one was clearing out a suspicious—and potentially lucrative—area. After all, if Tobias’ suspicions were correct and it was slavers or lyrium smugglers hiding down there in the tunnels, scaring the workers off, then there was no sense whatsoever in just turning their merchandise over to the authorities. Not at the price that stuff sold for.

So, Tobias had expected to see Varric on the ridge above the mine face, and he’d expected the ox cart with the whining driver complaining about being kept waiting, and he’d expected the two heavily armed dwarves who sat nearby, idly throwing dice on a conveniently flat rock… but he hadn’t expected Anders.

“Hawke!” Varric called out as he strode to meet them, every inch the merchant prince in his cuffed leather boots, wide-lapelled coat, and heavy gloves, his gold chain and earrings glinting in the sunlight. Bianca sat across his back, her brass fittings just as highly polished as his jewellery, and he gave Tobias a disarmingly wide grin. “You’re late. And with so much company.”

“The more the merrier, that’s what I always say,” Isabela chimed in brightly, nodding her head at the lunks she’d brought with her. “Mostly. Anyway, I heard about this little trip, and I just couldn’t resist. You know, there was a brothel on the sunny side of Antiva City called The Bone Pit.” She craned her neck, peering past Varric to the worn duckboards, overturned carts and debris evidently abandoned by the fleeing workers, and the eerie crevasse of the mine’s opening itself. “Hmph. Wasn’t a bit like this, mind you….”

Tobias blinked hurriedly. He hadn’t been listening. He’d been looking past the dwarf, and the cart, and not even at the mine’s entrance, but at the lone figure standing away to the side and staring out towards the thin slip of the sea that was visible between the rocks and the rise of the quarry’s steep sides. The salt breeze ruffled the feathers on Anders’ appalling coat, and caught at his hair, teasing a few strands loose so that they whipped across his face. He looked pale, tired, and surly, his whole face crumpled into a blank kind of frown but—in the instant just before Varric called out, just as they were coming down the approach path—he’d turned and looked up, and a weak recognition that was maybe even something close to cheerfulness had seemed to wash through his expression. They’d looked at each other—felt each other, Tobias thought to himself, immediately chastising his own brain for coming up with such stupid, insipidly sentimental crap—and, just for a few seconds, it had been lovely.

And now… now Isabela was grinning at him again, and he just knew she hadn’t missed the look that had passed between them, and he sneered as he turned awkwardly away from Anders, even though the healer had already begun to walk towards them, crossing the distance in slow, loose strides, his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his coat.

“Didn’t think you’d mind if Blondie tagged along,” Varric said, with something serious in his meaningful nod that Tobias gathered alluded to whatever had happened last night at the Rose. “Always worth having a healer on hand, right?”

From somewhere behind Tobias, Fenris scoffed loudly. He ignored the elf, and nodded his agreement, forcing himself to concentrate on the task in hand, and to take a quick inventory of what they had, and how they were going to approach the job.

Varric had procured a map of the mine and its associated shafts from the foreman, who’d apparently last been seen in the Hanged Man, quivering behind a pint and muttering about ‘’orrible noises in the dark’.

The general consensus was—as one of Isabela’s boys put it—that this was merely what Hubert got for relying entirely on a workforce composed of ‘dog-lords bastards what was all superstitious and fick as pig shit’, but he shut up after his captain waved one of her daggers under his nose and pointed out that Hawke was a dog-lord bastard, and might just rip the arms off anyone who defamed his homeland.

Tobias decided that his reputation evidently preceded him, because the threat seemed to be taken relatively seriously; he wasn’t sure whether he was really that imposing, or whether Isabela’s lunks were just dumb enough to believe the stories Varric told about him.

Who knows? Maybe it’s both….

The little strategy huddle broke, and, as they began to get the hired thugs and the gear together, Tobias caught Anders’ eye for the first time. He’d been hanging back, deliberately absenting himself from the discussion and barely coming near the others. Now, he stepped slightly closer, deigning to dip his head in greeting. He seemed… ethereal, somehow. Apart from the rest of them, like he wasn’t fully concentrating on the world.

“Hawke.” His mouth twitched briefly before he spoke, the word falling from it as lightly as an afterthought.

“Morning,” Tobias said brightly, trying to make the word sound casual—too casual, he thought, cringing at his own clumsiness. “Um… afternoon?”

Anders smiled, but it was a weak, vacant expression. He looked terrible: unshaven, unwashed, and as if he hadn’t slept in a week.

“You all right?” Tobias asked quietly, not really meaning to, but not really able to avoid saying anything, either.

The healer shrugged. “Mm. Long night, that’s all.”

Tobias caught himself taking a deep breath, trying to find the familiar tang of boiled elfroot, soot, and wet dog beneath the salty air… trying to place it against that fleeting moment at the Rose, and embarrassed by it. He cleared his throat, wary of letting on that he knew anything about the problems Isabela had mentioned.

“Uh… I didn’t know Varric was bringing you. I mean, it’s no bad thing, obviously, but—” He lowered his voice, anxious of the wind snatching it away and leaking his words to the others. “It’s underground. I know how you feel about that.”

Anders glanced up and, very briefly, Tobias rejoiced in the warmth of gratitude in that lean, hard-worn face. It was, however, quickly subsumed by the realisation that Anders looked even worse than he’d thought: paler than usual, drawn, and with dark circles and heavy bags beneath red-rimmed eyes. His lips were dry and peeling, his skin dull, and his hair looked greasy and lank.

“Figured it was sensible to have a healer on hand,” he said, his voice quiet and burred with a dry kind of roughness. “Just in case. I stayed at Varric’s suite last night, so… he suggested I tag along, and it seemed like a good plan. You don’t mind?”

“Never.”

“Good.”

Tobias coughed gently. “You, uh…? Were you drunk? I thought you said Justice—”

“He doesn’t. It was a very, very bad idea.” Anders smiled mirthlessly, and squinted across the stony ground towards Isabela. “You know I, um… got myself in trouble last night?”

The big, brawny lads were unloading torches, ropes, sacks, and assorted other bits and pieces from the cart. Varric clearly had no intention of being caught unprepared for anything… certainly not after the Deep Roads, Tobias thought with a shudder.

He nodded tentatively, watching Anders’ face for any suggestion of the truth behind the tale. It was blank, mask-like; as if there wasn’t anything left in him. He looked at a point a few inches to the left of Tobias’ shoulder when he spoke, his eyes unfocused.

“She was only fifteen, at most. Nearly five months gone, though she was hardly showing at all. Skinny little thing. Hadn’t said anything to anyone, because she was afraid Lusine would throw her out. She… she wanted to keep it. I said it was too late, and anyway, I wouldn’t do it if she didn’t want me to, and… and the old cow was furious.”

Tobias winced, his head full of things he didn’t want to think about, and his fingers itching on the empty air as he fought the temptation to reach a comforting hand to Anders’ sleeve.

“Well, that was the right thing to do, wasn’t it? I mean—”

“Was it?” Anders exhaled sharply, a bitter breath puffing between his cracked lips. “I stormed out in the end. Said I didn’t care what she threatened me with. But she’ll only have someone else do it, won’t she? Elina, from the alienage, or old Mrs. Slope, who can’t even see the end of her own nose. And that girl… she’ll die, and it’ll be my fault. And… and it’s not right.”

He frowned slightly, his face tightening with that particular inward look that spoke of Justice moving beneath the surface. Tobias had learned to identify the marks of inner struggle, like the dark switches of a fish under murky water, and they usually preceded Anders making his excuses and going home; scurrying back to his bolthole like a rat running through the shadows.

Only, instead, he was going into an unpredictable and probably dangerous situation… and, for the first time since he’d known the man, Tobias found himself wondering if Anders could truly manage it. He seemed dislocated, unfixed, and that was frightening, when any lapse of his usually ironclad self-control could be so potentially destructive.

And there is no way to say anything at all about it without it sounding like I think he’s crazy. Great.

Tobias cleared his throat, awkwardly groping for something to say.

“Uh…. You did what you thought was right. No one can blame you for that, can they? And— well, I could talk to Lusine, maybe. I mean, once she’s calmed down—”

“Oh,” Anders said, looking up, his eyes beginning to clear a little as he met Tobias’ gaze. “Yes. Of course. You’re quite the regular there, aren’t you? I almost forgot.”

There was a dry edge to his words; something that, in someone who didn’t sound so tired, could easily have been mistaken for bitter malice, and his upper lip curled slightly as he resumed his snideness.

“Madam’s valued customer. Especially now you’re better off. Nothing but the best in aged Antivan brandy and well-trained tarts for you, eh?”

It stung. There was no denying that. And yet, Tobias swallowed the immediate flush of humiliation and shrugged, looking steadily into those dark-ringed eyes.

“Sometimes,” he said dully, not sure where this sudden, sullen impulse to be such a complete bastard came from. “I mean, I do like nice things. Not the girls, though. There’s this elf. A redhead. He’s got the most amazing—”

“I’m sure he has,” Anders said, his tone practically arid. He glanced over his shoulder, to where Varric and the others were inspecting the mine’s entrance. “Well… shall we?”

Tobias frowned. “Are you sure you’re—?”

Anders had already turned away. “Yes,” he said, the word tightly clipped.

But you’re not, are you? You’re not all right at all.

~o~O~o~

It wasn’t too bad to begin with. Tobias didn’t know much about mining—as far as he was concerned, men went down and stuff came out, and somehow a lot of people made a lot of gold in the process—and, at first, he thought the whole of the Bone Pit would be like the open pits and quarries that marked the front end of the site.

He wasn’t really expecting how small, dark, and tight the tunnels would get as they worked deeper into the labyrinthine passages, and he certainly hadn’t pictured the gloom, the dust, the dampness, and odd sounds that lurked in the shadows.

“They say,” Varric began conversationally, as one of Isabela’s boys ventured ahead a few paces with a torch, the oval of firelight illuminating great, scarred walls of rock and the pitted frames of timber supports, “that there are all manner of little demons and imps and whatnot that live in mines. They’ll steal your tools if you whistle, drop rocks on your head if they don’t like your face… that kind of thing. Very superstitious bunch, miners.”

“I thought dwarves had a different religion,” Fenris said, padding behind him with his shoulders even more hunched than usual, and casting wary looks at the packed dirt and stone above them. “Don’t you venerate the earth or something, instead of fearing demons? And isn’t there something about ancestors?”

Varric shrugged. “How in the hell would I know? Topsider my whole life, my friend.”

The Carta dwarves snickered, and one of them turned around to give Varric a gap-toothed grin before nodding at Fenris.

“Paragons never did shit for me,” she said, her voice the only marker of her gender, apparent for the first time beneath shapeless padded armour, a leather helmet, and the heavy black brand on her cheek. “What do I got to thank ’em for? The Stone ain’t looked after me, either. I’ve done all that myself.”

Tobias chewed the inside of his lip thoughtfully as a little desultory discussion between dwarves, elf, and humans filled up the dank passageway. As far as he could see, most gods served the same purpose, and he thought briefly of His Royal Shininess, clinging to his Chantry vows and the saintly odour of piety… hiding behind it for comfort and succour. Maybe he really even believed in it. But what good did that do him? Gods, religions… they were either there to keep people in check, or to keep people believing that they were valid, and safe, and that it was all right to ignore everything in the world that wasn’t safe. Even the dwarves, with the Stone at the centre of their culture… it wasn’t the same Stone for rich and poor. Tobias might never have been to Orzammar, but he knew that much. Their whole world was based on strict castes and classes, as immutable and immovable as the rocks around them. They didn’t need the Chantry, because being a dwarf was practically a religion in itself.

And these superstitions… who needed those? Why fear shadows and strange noises in the dark, when you didn’t even need to be a mage to know that demons were real?

He suppressed a shudder, and glanced towards Anders. He hadn’t spoken since they entered the mine. He walked stiffly, his eyes alert and his gaze darting to every shadow, every corner… like he was waiting for something horrible to happen.

Well, it usually does when he’s around me. Guess I really know how to show a man a good time.

The prickle of anticipation ran down Tobias’ spine, an unscratchable itch between his shoulder blades that grew worse with every crunch of footsteps on the gritty soil. He lengthened his stride, moving to the front of the group, listening to their movements behind him and yet feeling as if he was being drawn deeper into the mine, his face fanned by a warmth that seemed to come from deep within the darkness.

“Who wants to play I Spy?” Isabela said after a while, eliciting a chorus of groans. “I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with—”

“Rock,” Varric said shortly. “The answer is going to be ‘rock’, Rivaini.”

She pouted. “It might not have been.”

Tobias took a deep breath. The air was stale, foul… hot. The torch that Isabela’s lad was carrying guttered and went out, to a series of curses and complaints. He started fiddling to relight it, but hadn’t got halfway through the task before Anders had pulled a bright ball of magelight from the air. It cast an eerie, pale glow around the tunnel, highlighting the fading echo of panic on his face—a look that Tobias felt strangely comforted to see, because it matched his own lurch of terror so well.

Ever since the Deep Roads, darkness had felt so much heavier. He caught Anders’ eye briefly, and knew that he understood that feeling, and knowing that helped just a little bit.

He cleared his throat. “Let’s get those torches lit. We’ll want all the visibility we can get. It’s not smugglers… if it was smugglers, or slavers, or even those bloody qunari outcasts, we’d be seeing more mess down here. There’d be bottles, or noises… something to show where they’d been.”

“Hawke’s right,” Isabela agreed, though he wasn’t entirely sure why she felt she had to say so. “You two—get those lights up!”

The female Carta dwarf looked nervously up and down the tunnel, her face lent a greenish hue by Anders’ magelight, and her eyes were like dark saucers.

“If it ain’t that,” she said tentatively, “what is it?”

The smell of sulphur flared against the rocks as Isabela’s boys struggled with their dwarven matches, finally coaxing two fresh torches into flame.

Tobias tilted his head, peering into the blackness ahead of them.

“Dunno,” he said. “But let’s hope it bleeds.”

~o~O~o~

The first hints were the bodies. Some of Hubert’s workers, probably—and quite possibly a few other unfortunate souls—reduced to dismembered, charred pieces of flesh, with the whitish ends of bones poking out through piles of scorched meat, and other, older skeletal remnants crushed to powder beneath them.

“Something feeds here,” Fenris observed darkly, wrinkling his nose at the sour smell that hung in the air.

The torchlight glimmered on his pale hair, shadows shivering against the rocks that surrounded them. Varric said something dry about messy dining, but Tobias wasn’t listening again. He was aware of Isabela’s lads looking scared and sullen, and the Carta dwarves getting shifty, eyeing up the way they’d come—and any other possible exits to dash for in a hurry—and he was very aware of the pallid, sweaty cast to Anders’ face.

Dark. Dark and heavy and thick, like it’s choking you and you can’t get out… you’ll never get out. Never get out again. Maker… pull yourself together! Don’t need both of you curling up in the corner, gibbering….

“Darkspawn do that,” one of the brawny lunks said, his fingers whitening on the torch he held, and his eyes glittering like nervously flitting chips of quartz in his craggy face. “They pull people apart an’ eat ‘em. What if the miners broke froo into the Deep Roads, eh? Whole place could be swarming with the buggers….”

“Darkspawn don’t eat people,” Anders said quietly. “The taint sustains them. They do… horrible things… but not this. This was something else.”

The lunk narrowed his eyes. “How d’you know what darkspawn—”

“He spent a long time in Ferelden,” Tobias cut in. “That’s sort of what we do there. Dogs, cheese, and Blight lore. All right?”

The man looked slightly sulky, but he shut up, even if there were a few stifled mumbles. Tobias was fairly sure he caught the word ‘robe’. It wasn’t the time or place to do anything about it, however, and he motioned towards the fork at the end of the tunnel, where the stale billow of air spoke of another ventilation shaft, and possibly the junction of another cut back up towards the surface.

“This way. Whatever it is, it’s bigger than a deepstalker, so let’s keep our eyes open.”

They found it right down in the mine’s guts, well past the main shafts and chambers. The Bone Pit had grown and changed over time, a grossly attenuated tangle of tunnels and hollowed-out places, and there were all manner of shafts sunk down from the quarry levels, honeycombing the entire place. According to Varric’s map, they led out eventually to the other side of the cliff, where rumour had it that a series of ledges and cuts led down to the shore, making the mine—like so many others in the area—a prime site for smugglers and slavers.

Businessmen like Hubert spent a great deal of coin on paying people like Hawke to clear such places out, and, in many cases, it wasn’t worth the smugglers’ trouble to come back too often… but, in this instance, it looked like the last cartel to try their luck had met a very nasty end.

They unearthed another feeding site, or killing ground, or… something. It was hard to tell exactly what it was through the number of bits of limbs and splintered bone. Several bodies, quite well decomposed, littered a small cavern, and there were a number of weapons either broken or discarded and half-rusted, half-buried in the filth. Varric toed through the mess, and gave his opinion that—whoever the poor bastards had been—they’d died armed to the teeth. The discovery of a huge haul of lyrium, a little further back, packed into a hollow that had been cut from the rock, seemed to suggest that they hadn’t been killed for their stock.

“Huh.” Varric wrinkled his nose. “I owe you a beer, Hawke. Looks like there were lyrium smugglers down here after all. There’s crates of the stuff back here. Potions, dust… gotta be at least three hundred pieces’ worth, in market prices,” he added thoughtfully, with the kind of look on his face that spoke of brief but intense mental arithmetic.

“Much more than that, if you know who to sell it to,” Anders said, his tone bitter and hollow. “Half of the tunnels under the bloody city were built by smugglers. I’m not surprised to see nests this far out, too. I bet people like Hubert turn a blind eye.” He looked up, throwing a baleful glance around the group. “You know the Chantry finances it, don’t you? It’s the templars. They crave the stuff, and if they get cut off… well. Not much they wouldn’t do to get it. They get addicted. Drives them mad.”

The Carta dwarves fidgeted awkwardly, and Isabela’s boys didn’t look much happier. Fenris muttered something about it being ‘no great wonder, given that templars are tasked with keeping mages in line’, and Tobias fought the urge to start smashing heads together. The darkness down here felt thick and cloying, and the lyrium was probably the source of the mild prickling he felt beneath his skin. He wasn’t unfamiliar with its call: the hum that was just a little too disturbing to be called a song.

“Let’s just get on with this, shall we?” he said brusquely, pushing his way past the others, and pushing on towards the acrid sourness that, he fervently hoped, was the way out.

A little after that, they found ventilation shafts, and the site of an older part of the mine that had once extended even further down. Warm air belched up from it, up towards the rocks and ledges that arched away, leading towards the surface… and something else seemed to curl up from the depths, too. There were low, echoing sounds, like growls or deep, roiling breaths, and it caused some consternation amongst the party. Isabela’s boys started muttering about darkspawn again, and Varric had to get sharp with the Carta dwarves when the male started to panic.

Privately, Tobias thought the dwarf had good reason because, as soon became apparent, the thing making the noises turned out to be a dragon.

An actual, Maker-sworn bloody dragon.

A fucking big dragon, made entirely of talons and horns, and teeth almost as long as a man’s arm.

Tobias didn’t waste precious minutes on speculating how it had got down into the mine, although later—once the screaming and the fire and the whole potentially-imminent-death thing was over—it seemed logical that it had come in through the cuts from the rear side of the cliffs, probably from the higher reaches of the mountains, and been drawn to the warmth in the mine’s lowest pits. From there, it had risen to feed… and possibly to get annoyed when it couldn’t get out.

Either way, it wasn’t in the best of tempers when it confronted them. They fought it on a ledge of solid, flat ground at the neck of the cavern it seemed to have made its home, with torchlight glaring off the quartz in the walls, and gouts of flame lighting up the tunnels.

It was a hard fight, too. Hard enough to make the memories of killing an ogre seem like child’s play… not that Tobias made the comparison at the time. He was busy drawing the creature along the cavern, trying to make it stretch its neck out until he could get in one good force blast and slam its head against the rocks.

Unfortunately, a stunned dragon proved to be an angry dragon, and one not without the use of its wings. It tried to take off, and the sheer strength of the movement knocked most of them flying. A few good shots from Varric—and the nasty little explosive canisters Bianca was packing—tore a hole in one wing, but as the beast came down it got a hold of one of the Carta dwarves, and she ended up tossed across the floor in two pieces.

Isabela danced distraction while Fenris went for the dragon’s underbelly, his lithe, white-blue form a smoke of lyrium and danger that ghosted against the darkly burnished scales. Anders worked its head, bolt after bolt of magic popping at its eyes to keep it blind, while the rest of them followed the elf. Tobias could almost taste the power that flared from his brands, and he was grateful for the steel in his fist, relying on it more than his own magic as he rushed again at the dragon’s massive body.

It wasn’t impenetrable. It couldn’t be. If Nevarran dragon-hunters had brought the bastards to near-total extinction, logic said you could kill them. It was merely a matter of perseverance.

Of course, that wasn’t a comforting thought… particularly when Fenris went flying across the rocks, his sword flung from his grasp, and blood pouring from his nose. Tobias yelled for him, aware of one of Isabela’s boys going down too, and aware of the terrible scream the dragon gave—a roar of such condensed fury that he suddenly wondered whether it was the only one of its kind down here—but there was little he could do. His whole world had been reduced to the greyish-red scales and thrashing body ahead of him, with the rank heat of the creature’s breath and its occasional flames toasting the stone beneath him. The stale air burned his bare arms, and the smell of singed hair filled his nostrils. A flare of light behind him made him turn, and he could see Anders—a slim, fair figure lined with electric blue, wrapped in a haze of terrible power—as he worked on Fenris.

Tobias bared his teeth in a grim smile. If the elf lived, he’d be really pissed off about that.

If any of us live, mind you….

With that thought, Tobias gripped his dagger with renewed force, thrust it into the meat of the dragon’s inner thigh—aiming for its softer parts, unshielded by the tough scales on the outer side of its body—and dragged it as far as he could, opening up a long wound that gushed thick, bright blood. The creature’s roar made the rocks shake and, as the great horned head swung around to face him, he balled up every last fibre of his power, pulling the greatest force magic he’d ever known from the utmost pit of his ability.

It felt like he’d ripped his own body into pieces, and he heard Isabela swear as she was knocked on her back and winded, caught in the peripheral blast of the spell, but still… a full-grown dragon’s head could hit the ground much harder than he could hit it, and it bought them a few seconds. Varric howled with glee as one of his arrows took out the dragon’s left eye and, with the mutilated socket bleeding copiously, it struggled to fend them off.

Tobias had the killing blow, if such a thing could be delineated amidst the messy, torturous business of bringing the beast down. His dagger could barely tear deeper than the skin, but Fenris’ sword—a far bulkier weapon than he was used to although, he found as he picked it up from where it had fallen, much lighter than it looked—proved the perfect depth of blade. It was just a matter of avoiding the crippled beast’s last dying flames, and piercing through the back of its skull. Repeatedly. And messily.

Not quite the dramatic end the bards would have people believe, Tobias thought, as—weak-kneed and with a patter of unexplained little lights dancing at the edges of his vision—he half-climbed and half-fell off the back of the beast’s neck… only to find that everyone was watching him.

He swallowed heavily, aware of how thoroughly drenched he was in sweat, and glanced over his shoulder at the enormous corpse. The smell of blood hung over everything in the cavern; even the rocks looked wet with gore.

Panting, Tobias jerked his head towards the dragon. “Is that pissing thing actually dead now?”

“Pretty thoroughly, I’d say,” Isabela observed, wiping the back of her wrist across her forehead.

Like the rest of them, she was smoke-streaked, bloodstained, and knackered. And they were the lucky ones. Tobias looked to the rock behind which Anders had dragged Fenris, but neither was there. The elf had staggered to his feet, and was surveying the aftermath. Tobias held out a hand, offering him his sword back.

“S’lighter than I thought,” he said, noticing the unsteadiness with which Fenris came forward to take it, clutching at the blade like it was the only anchor in a bobbing world.

“It is well balanced,” he croaked, his face sheened with sweat, and those pale green eyes unfocused. “You… finished it.”

“Don’t sound surprised.” Tobias tried to smile, but it came out as a grimace, his lungs burning for air and his head still spinning. “S’what I do, isn’t it? Isn’t it, Varric?” He turned to the dwarf. “Kill unexpectedly aggressive things that are bigger than me? S’my… wotsit… thing. Thing I do.”

Varric gave a short, bitter chuckle. “Huh. Yep… this is going to outdo that ogre story, for sure.”

Tobias nodded hazily, trying hard to hold onto what was real. He suddenly seemed so incredibly thirsty, and he tried to wet his lips with a parched tongue.

“You all right?” he asked Fenris, squinting with concern at the elf’s blurry face. “You were—”

Fenris’ mouth tightened, his eyes growing cool and guarded in spite of his evidently lingering injuries. “Yes. I’ll be fine.”

“Anders,” Tobias murmured, half to himself as he turned, peering around the cavern.

The familiar flare of healing magic called to him through the puffy clouds of this swift and overwhelming fatigue, though he stumbled a little bit on his way across the blood-slick ground. Voices jumbled in Tobias’ ears, and he winced at the sight of the Carta dwarf’s corpse. Varric stood next to her surviving comrade, his hand on the dwarf’s shoulder.

“What d’you want to do, Leske? We could take her back.”

“Nah.” The Carta dwarf shook his head, his face a curious mix of sorrow and complete pragmatism. “What’s the use in that? Leave her here. With the Stone.”

Varric nodded. “All right. Is there… anything specific you need to do? I don’t know, a pile of rocks, or a prayer, or—”

“Huh? How the rut should I know?”

“Well, don’t ask me. You were born in Orzammar, weren’t you?”

“Yeah, but….”

Tobias left them to it, and moved unsteadily to where Anders was healing one of Isabela’s boys.

“’nything I can do?” he offered.

Anders glanced up, his expression oddly impersonal, and nodded curtly at the ground. “Sit down. Before you fall down. I’ll get to you in a minute, once I’ve set this leg.”

Tobias opened his mouth to protest, only to find that he was already obeying.

———————————
Chapter 23
———————————
Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
———————————
Home
———————————

Leave a Reply